His name is Croker. No one knows much about him, not even with the internet at our fingertips. I heard Mr. Chang who owns the dry cleaners down the block even sicced a halfway decent private investigator on his ass, but the guy turned up with the check in hand a few days later, claiming that he’d changed his mind. It was said he had a pretty good shiner and a busted lip but nobody could corroborate that besides Mr. Chang, and no one was asking him any more questions since his accident. Well, they were asking…he just wasn’t capable of answering back.
Croker, with that fancy ass suit and that Cheshire grin, the kind of smile that never quite touches the eyes. He certainly ingratiated himself into the neighborhood, throwing around money like it was nickel candies, his silken smooth voice cooing in their ears, slipping the bills into their pockets with the assurance that he was there to help, soothing their worries and promising better things to come.
It had been a tough year, what with the lockdowns and the deaths and the fear that seemed to lurk in every dark corner, behind every closed door, beneath each muted cough. You could see it in their eyes, no matter how hard they tried to hide it.
And then the vaccines started rolling out and hope began to bloom again…that is, until the loans came due. No one had the money to cover, except maybe the liquor stores. If I had known what I know now, I would have sold off the bodega and taken my ass down to Mexico.
But I have a kid in college, and even though she does pretty damn well with the scholarships and grants, I can’t let her graduate with a hundred thousand dollar overhead. The world is damn hard enough without putting that on her shoulders.
So I stuck it out, and even though I had to sell the car and start taking the bus, as well as cutting out a few non-essentials in my life, it was okay. I only had to dip into the coffers here and there, not a big enough dent I couldn’t recover from, but others weren’t so lucky.
Across the street, Diondre the barber had to cut loose all his staff, and even then I know there were days he sat and read every magazine in his shop without a single jingle of the bell over his door. Next to him was the Greek eatery ran by Taavi, a good friend whose food was the norm but far better tasting than the majority. He was doing quite well before the first lockdown, but couldn’t afford the delivery fares that all the companies were charging. His nephew Paavo had done the driving for a bit, then got in a pile up on I-84 on his way to his girlfriend’s one night, and that was that as the saying goes.
It was a long block on a big street. Every door had its story, a sad tale of financial and personal woes, all praying to their own god for deliverance in these trying times, except the savior that arrived wasn’t walking on water or healing the sick. He came with a mouthful of pearly whites and fat pockets stuffed with cash.
Croker didn’t act or look like a shark, at least not from what I’ve been told. What he had was a story for every occasion, for every person, no matter their background. He was empathetic and brimming with sympathy. His glassy eyes could switch to big ole puppy ones in a blink, and when he pressed a fat wad of cash into a person’s hand it was like he was passing on a blessing rather than the promise of debts coming due in the future.
No one had turned him down yet.
I watched him from my window on most days, sliding from door to door as if the sidewalk were greased, always with that flashy smile and those dark glasses, chin turned up slightly as if to feel the sun on his face at all times, and I felt real hate.
I knew that he had already put the kibosh on Knick Knacks at the end of the block, sending poor old Widow Harvey packing with nothing but a grocery tote full of…well, knick-knacks, to her name. And I also saw him escort Jahi from the electronic repair shop in tears with his head bowed so low he could have scraped the ground with his nose. That guy had four kids at home and another on the way. What the hell would he do now?
Croker was a parasite, a devil, the kind we hadn’t seen in this neighborhood since the old days. Every moment I watched him from the window only fueled the fury and anger that seethed inside of me. Each time I saw a ‘going out of business’ sign, I clenched my fists and imagined them pummeling his face.
When I learned that Taavi bit the bullet on his own, I knew he did so for the insurance policy. He had a big family at home, as well as a daughter who was a single mom. He wasn’t worth anything alive, but he’d often talked about the big payout for his family when he was gone. They couldn’t even hold a proper funeral for him, not with the restrictions still in place.
Some of us gathered together in my shop and had a few solemn words, and then a few drinks. His daughter, Karisa, even put in an appearance. I wanted to hug her, but these days hugs could kill, so I settled for a few words muttered behind a mask that I hope provided a bit of solace.
Before she left, Karisa had paused at the door.
“He loved you, Miguel.”
I know, I wanted to tell her, but the words wouldn’t come out, and she was gone before I could say anything else.
This was our neighborhood, our block, and Croker had bled it from my friends like a fat leech.
I still had the 45 from my old uniform days, but I knew that wouldn’t do. It might get traced back to me. Luckily I knew a couple guys from the neighborhood that could get me something clean but brand new.
A few days later the piece was delivered by a runner who wasn’t even old enough to shave. Thankfully, he wore a hoodie pulled down low so I didn’t have to look in his eyes for long. Somehow, that would only make it worse.
I took the piece into the back room. It was a snub-nosed .38, heavy and loud and capable of putting down just about any animal at close range. It was already loaded, but I took my time in taking the whole thing apart, wiping it down while wearing gloves, even the rounds.
I had just put it back together when I heard the jingle over the front door.
The sound made me freeze in place.
I could have sworn I’d locked the shop and flipped the sign to ‘closed’ before coming into the back room.
Looking down at the piece, I realized how heavy it felt, and yet, almost molded to my hand…a perfect fit. A strange feeling of inevitability began to creep over me, as if this same scenario had played out in a dream or even a movie I had recently seen.
Standing up, I put the .38 in my front pants pocket, keeping one hand on it, and headed to the front of the shop.
I knew before I parted the curtain between the back and front.
Croker was there, standing by the counter, his hands in his pockets, that stupid ass grin on his face, those dark shades covering his eyes. He looked like one of those jaunty Wall Street guys, full of flash and fancy, but there was something different about him this time. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it made me grip the pistol in my pocket tighter.
“Mr. Gonzalez,” he said pleasantly, smoothly, as if he were addressing me with a bar countertop between the two of us.
We’d never met, but I wasn’t surprised he knew my name.
“Croker,” I replied.
He waved it off with a flourish from his left hand, which just as quickly found the pocket it had previously inhabited.
“Please…call me Luke.”
“I’d rather not.”
For a moment that grin of his faltered, and I almost smiled myself.
“Fair enough,” he said.
Time stretched out without either of us offering anything. I felt as if he were testing me, perhaps sizing me up. All I could think of was the warm grip of the piece in my pocket and the sound it would make when it spoke.
“You’ve been a naughty boy,” Croker finally chided.
It threw me off.
“Nah, I don’t think I will,” he said, nodding with his head.
I got the feeling he was gesturing towards my pants pocket, but that was…well, ludicrous.
“Everyone else gets it,” he continued. “Except for you, of course. Why is that?”
I started to feel uncomfortable, sweaty.
The anger I felt had been replaced with uncertainty.
What was he doing here?
“I wonder,” Croker mused.
He reached up and took his sunglasses off, depositing them in the inner pocket of his suit. The smile was gone now, but the light seemed to dance in his eyes.
“Tell me, Miguel…what makes you so different?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
I tried to sound angry, but my voice came out wheezy and out of breath.
Croker took a step forward.
“Yeah,” he said, his eyes squinted as if against a glare. “It’s something…something almost tragic.”
“Y-you should get the hell out of here,” I whispered, my hand gripping the pistol tighter.
He took another few steps towards me, close enough that I could see that it wasn’t light reflecting in his eyes so much as his eyes seemed to have a light of their own, little embers of fire chasing each other in the darkness of those orbs like frolicking fairies.
“There it is,” he said with a growl, a satisfied rumble deep in his throat. “Yes…I see it now.”
“Go to hell,” I squeaked, hating myself for the weakness in my voice.
“Quite a while ago, but not long enough to erase the memory, right?”
I started to shiver uncontrollably.
Croker closed the gap. He was near enough now that I could smell him, a combination of stale bourbon and struck matches. The fire in his eyes seemed to dance even faster, swirling around and around like a dragon chasing its tail.
“Poor Zeke, so young, so impressionable.”
I flinched and almost cried out at the mention of my dead brother’s name.
“Yep,” Croker said, nodding.
And just like that, he snapped upright, fishing his sunglasses out of his suit pocket.
I blinked a few times as if I was awakening from a trance. Looking down at my hand, I realized that I had taken the pistol out of my pocket. It didn’t feel like a perfect fit anymore. In fact, it almost seemed to writhe in my palm like a freshly dug up earthworm.
In disgust, I threw it down to the floor, wiping my hand against my shirt. When I looked up, Croker was smiling, but it was a different kind of smile than I’d seen before. It wasn’t the flashy stock broker grin, or the empathetic ‘we’ve all had hard times’ somber upturn of the lips.
No, it was more of an expression of kinship, one man understanding another, a brother in grief.
“Miguel,” he said, engulfing my right hand in both of his. “I hope that you can call on me if you are in need. I’m here to help…in any way that I can.”
Croker moved away, but when he was almost out the door, he paused and half turned, the bell still jingling like the herald of events yet to come.
“He loved you, Miguel,” he said. “We all do.”
And just like that, the devil walked out of my shop.