This is the story of Geddy and Higgs, two penny-ante hoods from Brooklyn. That’d be Brooklyn, Maryland, you better believe – South Baltimore all the way. A couple of guys who stood just as far to the wrong side of the line as you and I stand to the right side of it most days. Penny-ante, a pair of deuces. Little fish, amateurs. Workin’ guys.
Act 1 – In The China Room
Higgs stood in the tired semi darkness of the bar at the China Room. Any kind of darkness was a wise place to stand for a man as physically repulsive as Higgs. 5 foot 7, with lank greasy hair and an oversized moustache to match his undersized chin, he rolled his beady yellow eyes through his thick curtain of Camel smoke to watch Jamie dance. Jamie was a stone fuckin’ fox. He watched her flat ass shimmy back and forth. He watched those fine, fine titties jiggle as she waved the green fluorescent tube over her head. The phrase drifted through his head – “stone fox”. But Jamie was also a complication, an overhead, being as she was Geddy’s ex – not that that was anything terribly significant because Jamie was a lot of people’s ex – but it always made for an unpredictable mix when you were screwin’ yer partner’s one-time ole lady.
Apart from Jamie, Higgs had a another problem. The greater arc of that problem was big dreams, a longing for respect and the need for a new start. The smaller nub of it was that he was seven grand in the hole to Mr Pepper, today was payday and he was short.
Jamie, spinning and twisting, smiling and flirting with the open shirted Cuban boys.
Higgs tearing at a matchbook, rubbing lightly on the large cyst on his right cheek and swirling the ice in his Jack and Dry hoping for some instant oblivion, some great cosmic change with every sharp sip – his eye moving from Jamie and hovering on the door, one third expecting Geddy to come through, two thirds expecting Georgie and Stavros, Mr Pepper’s fearsome collectors, to come thundering through.
Jamie, the flower of Pikesville, bumping hips with the Cuban boy, the palm of her hand stroking his luxuriant chest. Time, it seems, was running out for Higgs on many, many levels.
Higgs burped loudly as his eyes drifted back to the door. He jumped as a heavy hand slapped on his shoulder and a sour breath spilled into his ear “Time to Pony, Higgs, slip to it me now”. Georgie. Fuck! How does a 6 feet 4 gorilla slip through a crowded club without Higgs seeing him. This, of course, was one of the fundamental reasons Higgs was such a shitty criminal. Failure to consider the alternatives, allied to an inflated belief in the power of his own faculties.
“So, ya got it. It’s just I got plans for this evening…..”
“I need to talk to Mr Pepper.” Stavros loomed up beside Georgie and gave his partner a pained look
“You don’t got it, do you?” Georgie was already checking out the ways to escort Higgs’ sorry ass out into the back alley, where no doubt parts of Higgs would be stomped on and broken. Stavros was shaking his head and clucking his tongue.
“I need to talk….” Georgie cut him short. “What you need to do, Higgs, is shut the fucking fuck up”.
Stavros moved to stand behind Higgs. This was, in Higgs’ experience, the least pleasant part of the criminal life, and the part he felt he understood least – the violence. Not that Higgs was averse to violence per se, but violence as he understood was best practiced against those less powerful than oneself – and in the Baltimore underworld, Higgs was pretty much bottom of the food chain.
He could not believe they would do him right there at the bar in the China Room. He seemed detached from himself, as if, yes, this would hurt – probably a lot, but it was a chance to see how professionals did things. He shot a furtive glance out towards the dance floor, but Jamie would have given him up for dead. He felt Stavros pressing against his back, pushing him towards Georgie’s enormous bulk.
“Thing of it is”, whispered Georgie, “Mr Pepper doesn’t want you money. Fortunately for you, he doesn’t want you dead either”. That struck Higgs as a little melodramatic – even he knew 7G was a lowball figure to off someone. “What he wants is some maggot who isn’t smart enough to start thinking for himself and he wants a favor from that maggot. You just struck him as one motherfucking dumb maggot. You’re just a dumb maggot, aren’t you Higgs?”
Higgs stood silent, staring furiously at Georgie, until Stavros short punched him in the kidney. Higgs reeled and clutched at the bar. He wanted to vomit to ease the pain. Georgie grabbed him by the hair and yanked him up. The bartender leant across and began to speak, before the sight of something heavy and silver in a shoulder holster, as revealed to him by Stavros, quelled his curiosity.
Somehow, Georgie’s voice came through the blackness, the pain and the now incessant throb of blood in Higgs’ ears “Meemee at the Aquarium, 2 o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Be there or be runnin’. And if you run, you run far and you run fast. Got that, friend?” Georgie took a sharp nip at the top of Higgs’ ear for effect and dropped him in a heap, scattering barstools.
Higgs lay on the cool dark floor for what seemed like an eternity, until he was sure those dark malevolent mountains were gone. When he did stand up, sweating and in pronounced pain from what felt like a soup bowl sized bruise above his right hip, he looked back out onto the dancefloor for Jamie, but she and the Cuban guy were gone. He turned back to the bartender and twirled his fingers for Jack and Dry. He was shaking with pain, rage and the sense that whatever he was going to have to do to pay back the 7 grand was probably going to be no less painful than Stavros, say, crushing his fingers.
He was lost in his thoughts and his third or fourth Jack and dry when Geddy ghosted up to his shoulder. Geddy was bouncing on the pads of his feet, trying no doubt to spy Jamie. For a full minute he neither looked at nor said a word to Higgs, who studious likewise disregarded him. Then, when he finally did look at him, he said in a quiet, unsurprised voice “you look like shit tonight”.
“You were born looking like shit”. Even for the ugly man he was, Higgs had a point. Geddy, 6 feet 9, othodontically atypical and as white as a non-albino can be was only considered to be the face of the partnership due to the fact that his claim to be the brains was demonstrably untenable. Geddy, being stupid as he was, ignored the insult. “Do you got a job for us?”
“Oh yeah, Geddy” said Higgs, pulling on his drink and grimacing. “I got the mother of all fucking jobs for us”.
Next: “Geddy, he sleeps with the fishes!”
Act 2: Geddy, he sleeps with the fishes
“Are you a Christian, son?”
The question, couched as it was in a quiet, southern voice with a slightly impatient edge, threw Higgs a little. He stammered nonsensically.
“I said – Are you a Christian? A believer?”
Higgs was always uncomfortable with matters of faith. Perhaps to reassure him, but probably not (as it had the opposite effect anyway), Stavros slipped his ham-sized hand around Higgs’ as a protective mother would. Higgs looked up at Stavros, who smiled briefly and beatifically back. The bruise on Higgs’ kidney started to throb unmercifully.
Geddy, by the Ray pool with Georgie, noticed Stavros’ gesture. He found it hard to reconcile the slim, elegant gentleman in the beige linen suit with the two enormous goons who accompanied him, nor the vulgar Hawaiian shirt that Georgie was wearing with Georgie’s particular line of work. Geddy decide to see of the general climate of hand holding and holiday shirts could be worked to his advantage. “let’s go get ice cream!” he blurted out. Georgie glowered down at him
“You are fuckin’ unhinged”
“C’mon – be nice…”
Georgie leant into Geddy. Enormous as Georgie was, Geddy was still almost a full head taller than him. “Shut – your – mouth” he hissed at him in low, sibilant, breathy voice, “or I will fuck you up, grand style”. Geddy felt a strange, uncomfortable feeling inside him, a rage mixed with some sense that a great injustice had been done him. He correctly recognized this as a futile and counter-productive feeling.
“Tu turi grazias akis” spat Geddy under his breath
Georgie did a double take. Unfortunately for Geddy, Georgie spoke fluent Lithuanian. “Do you have any idea what you just said”? he asked, his bewilderment at this non-sequitur momentarily minimising the menace in his voice. Geddy was taken aback.
“I have a M.A. in Balto-Slavic languages from the University of Chicago”. This impressed Geddy no small amount, both the fact it was rare for him to meet a man was educated beyond the 9th grade, but had also been to Chicago. Geddy was a keen geography buff but had never met anyone who had actually travelled to Canada.
“Son” said Mr Pepper, his patience with Higgs running short, “let me put this in simple terms. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal saviour? Have you handed the calling of your life over to a higher power?” Higgs’ hand was starting to sweat inside Stavros’.
He said in a small voice “No, sir”. Mr Pepper straightened almost imperceptibly and then stood very still. After what seemed like a very long time, he let out a soft sigh. Higgs felt Stavros’ hand tightening around his.
“There is none so blind as he that will not see. Son, the fact that you have turned your back on the light which has saved this world, as well as my personal hero, Jesus Christ, saddens me immensely. But that’s a mistake, which if you leave uncorrected, you will have more than long enough to think over in the fiery bowels of hell.” Higgs was wincing from the pressure of Stavros’ hand, but he thought that allowing it to distract him from Mr Pepper would only make the consequences worse.
“What bothers me is that you don’t recognize that now, your life is in the hands of a higher power – me. I own you from this day on. And until you meet the Devil himself on that terrible judgement day, I am the highest power you are likely to encounter.” Higgs whimpered in pain as he felt tendons stretching to breaking point in his wrist. “Have I made my self clear?
“Look at this” Mr Pepper nodded towards the huge fish tank in front of them. “Do you know what that is?” Higgs’ did not.
“No” he grunted, feeling the bones in his hand rub together
“No?” said Mr Pepper distractedly. Stavros gave a mighty wrench to Higgs’s hand. Higgs buckled at the knee
“No Sir” he gasped, his voice riding higher in panic
“It’s a Tarpon…..”
Geddy was oblivious to all of this, entranced as he was by the star fish and the gliding rays in the pool, watching the bright lights flick back and forth on the surface of the water. He wondered about what was going on up on the balcony, and was a little disappointed that once again Higgs had left him out of the discussion and planning – but then again Higgs was the brains, he had the smarts, he had the rep and he had Jamie. It paid not to argue with Higgs. He killed that guy on Wilkens Avenue. Higgs was the man. Besides, every time he tried to look over his shoulder, Georgie growled at him.
“and I’d say about an 8 footer, wouldn’t you?” As if by magic, Stavros dropped Higgs’ hand. Higgs took his wounded mitt and rubbed it. He was in agony up as far as his left elbow.
“I’d say so” he said distractedly
“It’s a magnificent fish. I like to liken myself to a tarpon, you understand?”
“I guess so”
Mr Pepper, it seemed, was somewhat of a philosopher. Higgs eyed him up and down. He was a tall, slim gentleman in perhaps his late 50 who spoke in a soft voice with a slight trace of Virginia drawl. There was a delicateness, a sort of effeminate terror, too him which confused Higgs. While it never occurred to Higgs that he did not know Mr Pepper’s first name, it was good that he didn’t, because that removed any temptation for him to use it. For one of the interesting things about Mr Pepper was that anyone who called him by his given name (Cecil) was pretty much inviting his own death. Perhaps the last person to call Mr Pepper by his hated name and live was “Gipmy” Clyde Tombaugh (not the celebrated astronomer but a local Richmond identity who specialised in “accommodations” of the girlfriend and gambling variety for the good and the great of Virginia). Who knows – perhaps Tombaugh’s incessant calling of “Ceeee-cil” to his 21 year old protégée did prompt the young Pepper to take matters into his own hands on that fateful August night in 1970, making off with some $30,000 from Tombaugh and, via a small tomahawk and a pair of needle nosed pliers, changing forever Clyde’s nickname from “Smilin’ Clyde” to “Gimpy Clyde”. Nonetheless. There were some things about his future employer it was best Higgs did not know.
“I like to think of us, we band of brothers, we outlaws, all as fish. There are the sharks, they eat what ever they like – the sweet little fish, the big fish, even the odd tarpon. But it only takes one angry shark who smells blood to turn the ocean into a slaughterhouse. And that’s not good. Then there are the tarpons, like me, we usually swim where we please and eat what we like, as long as the sharks stay away, it’s a comfortable life, usually. And then there is you. See that?” He pointed to paralycthys dentatus, an ugly fat, bottom dwelling fish.
“You’re that fish’s shit. But maybe, if you help me with a problem I have with a shark, maybe you can rise a little from those depths, maybe you can actually become a sardine, or suchlike.” Mr Pepper gave a little gasp of amusement at this. “Let me summarize the situation – you have a debt to me, of some $8000….”
“$7000” interrupted Higgs. He felt Stavros shift towards him
“It was $7000 last night, then you didn’t pay. Call it interest and penalties and more than a little courtesy on my part. Don’t speak out of turn – it’s disrespectful. Have I made my self clear?” Higgs nodded mute and helpless understanding. “Now, you have debt to me and I have a debt to someone else. I’m going to pay him off by doing him a favor and you are going to do that favor for me.”
Geddy was hypnotized by the rays. “You know, one of these fuckers killed the Crocodile Hunter?” he blurted out to Georgie. His language and hideous face earned a wordless rebuke from a mother who shepherded her child away.
“Be careful one doesn’t kill you” chuckled Georgie
“Oh no – there’s no way I’d get in there with ’em. I’d have to be pretty stupid to do that”
“Ya think?” said Georgie…..
…..”So” said Higgs “what’s the job?”
“I need you to light a fire”
“A fire? I ain’t never set no fires before”
“I’m sorry, did I hear you correctly? You don’t know how to set a fire? My Lord, I am talking to a heathen and a moron here. I’ll give you a clue- it involves gasoline and a match…. Wait, no – I don’t care if you set it with tissue paper and a magnifying glass or if you rub two sticks together like a good boy scout – you set the fire, the building burns down, you take $15000 for your trouble – 10 for me, 5 for you plus whatever you can steal while you are there and you keep your mouth shut. You do this well, maybe you’ll work for me again and maybe, maybe little fish gets to swim a little higher. If you fuck this up or if you say one word to any living soul, I will e-viscerate you. Am I clear on this”
Despite not knowing what “eviscerate” meant, Higgs was feeling a little better when he heard this. 5 grand in his pocket and the chance of more respectable work for a man of Mr Pepper’s means…
“Sure” he said, calmly. “Where and when….”
“Tsk.” clucked Mr Pepper. “Georgie will give you details. In the parking lot. Turn around”
Higgs heard the screams before turned around. Geddy was in the ray pool, flailing wildly in his panic to find his feet. Children were running from everywhere to the side of the pool, outpacing the security. Georgie, his vivid orange Hawaiian short lurid and conspicuous, was making his way calmly to the door.
“Is that your partner?”
“Come here son”
“Hold my hand – we’re going to pray. You do know how to pray, don’t you?” Higgs resignedly offered his rough and damaged hand to Mr Pepper. The contrast between Higgs greasy nail-bitten paw and Mr Peppers soft, manicured and impeccable hands was marked. “Lord Jesus” whispered Mr Pepper “please bestow your most gracious blessing on our humble criminal enterprise and give this wretched sinner beside my the wisdom and the fortitude to not fuck everything up and get himself killed. Please take hold of his hand and guide him in the things he must do. This, in your name I ask, for I am just the vessel for your love, amen”
Mr Pepper dropped Higgs’ hand. “Son, if you want to get anywhere in this world, you gotta get your business right with God.”
Next: “Atta Canny”
Act 3 – Atta Canny
History repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.
Geddy and Higgs had only ever heard of this Karl Marx feller in very vague and somewhat misguided terms, and, frankly, attempts to explain the mysteries and nature of the Hegelian Dialectic and the Historical-Evolutionary processes were wasted on them. But these powerful forces, and the conspiracy of history, were baited and dangling before our two little fish, and mighty circumstances waited to reel them in.
6th February, 1964
Due to freak atmospheric conditions over the Northeastern seaboard, the captain of Pam-Am 101 made the reluctant decision to redirect his flight to the marginally less dangerous airport at Friendship International. He hated Baltimore – the hotels were damp, the food was inedible and all the hookers were ugly. He read out the new course for the 707 to his co-pilot Al. Still, he thought, if this whole deal went well, even with the long journey by Pan-Am staff car, he could be home in Inwood with Marcy and the kids by supper. Even allowing for an ugly hooker or two.
All this, of course, meant his hopefully-soon-to-be-famous passengers, hotshot singing sensations The Beatles, had their carefully orchestrated plans for a triumphal arrival in the US somewhat dented and distracted. Thanks to the frantic efforts of local station WFBR, who were playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ’round the clock anyway, 300 screaming teenyboppers made the dash, in sleeting drizzle, to greet the Hit Makers. The boys were genuinely humbled and buoyed by the warmth of the reception (possibly thanks to not knowing 10 times as many would have been in New York despite the storm) and made their way by taxi to the second floor of the Emerson Bromo-Selzer Tower for the press conference.
Finding 300 sexually repressed teenage girls in Baltimore on 90 minutes notice, impressive as the feat may have seemed, wasn’t as difficult as rounding up a press corps that gave a shit. The local hacks, jaded as they were on grimy tales of waterfront crime and wild rumors of post-assassination conspiracies emanating out of nearby Washington, could have cared less for the adenoidal warbling of the Top 40 – rock and roll was a Philly thing and they were welcome to go there anytime, but they’d been convinced, some by the liberal application of whiskey, to accept hastily scribbled excerpts from the New York Press Kit and the scene was set, it would seem, for America to be conquered by the British Invasion.
So it would seem, but for the intervention of Burt Dollerey. Burt, a 280 pound, generally good natured good ole boy from the night desk on the Sun who should have, rightfully, been sleeping off a hangover, had been roped into this darn fool assignment against his gruff protests. Burt had no idea who the Beatles were, where they were from (he assumed California) or what they sang. Had it been Merle Kilgoure, Johnny Cash or Buck Owens, hell, no problem, they were folks, but these new singing groups were beyond Burt’s ken. As long as they didn’t cuss on stage and groomed themselves presentably, Burt cared not a whit either way. There were, however, two things in life Burt hated with a passion and that got his dander up– young men with long hair and the English in general. Burt, as a proud Baltimorean, had not forgotten Fort McHenry and the treatment of the city in 1812.
The four loveable moptops were making the best of a bad situation, and with wit and their polished charm were winning over the pathetic gaggle of journalists and soon had them jumping through the obligatory PR hoops. Brian Epstein, sitting on a folding chair to Ringo’s left , smiled like a cat who had found the cream.
In the rear of the room, sitting by himself, Burt Dollerey was not smiling. Why was no-one taking these goddam beatnik sumbitches to task over their long, shaggy hair? What was America coming to? Somewhere, deep within in, the bright flame of actual journalism flickered to life and he raised his hand for a question. All this long haired preversion would not stand unchallenged.
Phil Hennessey, the drive time guy at Rock and roll WFBR, who was emceeing the press conference, noticed Burt’s hand and smiled – “yes, sir, all up at the back…”
Burt gave a little cough “So, boys. What’s with that long hair? Are all y’all homersexshals or summit?”
The room went very quiet. The lads looked shocked. Ringo was the first to recover his wits. “No, we’re not, but he is” he said playfully, pointing to Brian Epstein. Epstein’s jaw dropped and he began to visibly quiver. Lennon cackled manically.
Burt did not miss a beat “So, when y’all is homersexing, which of you are the women? I’m thinking you two…” He pointed out Harrison & McCartney with his chewed-on yellow 2B. Epstein fled the room in tears.
Harrison turned a deep shade of aubergine, a state not aided by Lennon’s now paralytic laughter. McCartney, however, bit down hard on his rage. Apart the laughter, the room was silent…
“And are you boys here to apologise for the outrages of 1812?” A disembodied “hell yeah” rang up from the sparse crowd.
“We’re just here to play Rock and Roll” offered Ringo weakly. Lennon fell silent.
“Rock and Roll? That’s for Nigrahs or faggots from Phildelfya…..”
No one knows who threw the first chair. It was all over in a flash. When the dust settled, some local pride had been restored, Paul McCartney lay handcuffed in the backseat of a Baltimore PD squad car, nasty bruise on his temple courtesy of a Baltimore PD Billy club, and the rest of the Beatles were beating it up highway 95 desperately trying to rethink their strategy to conquer America. And Burt Dollerey was a local legend.
So, that day in February, 1964, and the day that followed, wrote history on three different pages – the page that 30 or so people in that room on Eutaw St witnessed, the “official” page written by the staged arrival in New York City the next day and the footnote written by one Eddie Kornkroow, who used the distraction generated by 300 screaming teenagers to heist $185,000 from a Brinks car and announce his arrival on the Baltimore crime scene. And it is at that singular event, that small shard of circumstance against the backdrop of a world-changing day, which started a chain of events which, 43 years later, would come back to swallow up Geddy and Higgs.
Six years later….
It had been a shitty day. Maybe there’d be a Mets game on the radio, which would cheer him up. Eddie and the Mets had a checkered history. When his beloved Dodgers quit Brooklyn, he detested the new upstarts and the misadventures of ’62 side were a delectable Schadenfreude. But as a few years passed, Eddie came to realise that it wasn’t so much about what the Mets were, but about what they weren’t – specifically, they weren’t the New York Yankees. So, little by little, Eddie came over to the Mets – so much so that by the miracle of ’69, Eddie rejoiced, not just for the Mets victory but for the fact that they upset the Orioles.
But before he could listen in, he had one last item of business. After Eddie and his crew arrived in town in late ’63, fresh out of Camden New Jersey, he made it abundantly clear that anyone who needed some recklessly applied muscle just had to pay the price and their problems would shortly disappear and that anyone who didn’t pay the price suddenly had a new problem. People vanished off the street. Bodies started turning up in car trunks and crab traps and other unlikely places. The gentleman in the anteroom, waiting to see Eddie was a man called Pepper, who had arrived in town recently with something of a reputation. Eddie knew who he was, knew what he’d done and knew what he wanted. He buzzed the anteroom
“Vincent, send Mr Pepper in”. Kornkroow rose to greet his guest and eyed him up and down as he came quietly through the door. He was neither short nor tall, slight and very economical in his movement, dressed immaculately in a white linen suit and four-in-hand tie. Kornkroow motioned Pepper sit and made his way to his own chair. There was a moment of silence before Kornkroow leant forward
“Have a cigar. They’re Cubans…”
“Thank you for your hospitality, but no”
“So, Mr Pepper, what is it I can do for you?”
“There are some men in town these days, from Richmond. They are…”
“Cramping your style”
“And you want to be free of them”
“And I’d like it if no one got the idea of following them”
The fee was $1000. The next week, the incinerated bodies of three persons of interest to various Southern law enforcement authorities were found in a burned out Dodge Charger just outside Bel Air community by Maryland State Troopers.
Mr Pepper and Eddie Kornkroow went way back.
If Eddie Kornkroow had of possessed a business card, it would have listed his business as “son of a bitch”. Because, as he impressed upon every one he knew at every opportunity, that’s what he was. And, to see him , you would believe it. Built like the good middleweight boxer he once was, with a shock of unruly pitch black hair, his asphalt eyes offset a mocking set smile and the kind of broken nose that serves to make a man more handsome. His raspy voice, the result of a stab wound to the neck he habitually kept hidden with a silk cravat, spat out profanities and lewd jokes at machine gun pace and his temper, and the consequences of incurring it, were known all over Baltimore. Eddie had an energy, a danger to him which belied his 76 years. And in Eddie’s world, if you were going to be top dog, you had to have teeth that bit often and bit hard.
He’d been born in Utrecht, Holland and, having watched his parents being gunned down by the retreating Germans in 1945, set his sights on America. He arrived at Ellis Island in late 1946 and worked his way on the Brooklyn docks and as a Golden Gloves boxer until he discovered that stealing was a far easier, more exciting and profitable way to earn a living and provide for a growing family. Initially boosting trucks out of Camden was easy money, until the cops and the Teamsters Local decided that even the hefty payments Eddie made to them weren’t enough to turn a blind eye to the increasing numbers of truckers turning up either dead or with their heads broken by Louisville Sluggers. So Eddie headed South.
He kicked off his career in Baltimore with the February 1964 Brinks heist, which bankrolled a fearsome crew of goons which, under Kornkroow and his older son Peter, controlled at first what was left of Baltimore’s waterfront, then gradually the airport, the trucking, money laundering, loans, hijacking and shifting anything anyone could steal. He owned two radio stations, a myriad network of other legit businesses and was a minority owner of the Colts. He cleaned up when they went to Indianapolis. He had a finger in every pie, not only in Baltimore, but all over Maryland. He had people up country.
Eddie was big time. He was the big fish. He also had a problem. A problem only a fire could fix.
Higgs made double time down to the entrance. He stopped in his tracks when he heard the high, whining cry
“Higgs, you gotta….” The cry ended with a strangled, almost inaudible grunt. Geddy was being manhandled by three burly security guards. Higgs decided his priorities lay with Georgie – Geddy’s stupidity and his unerring ability to demonstrate it would soon convince the guards whatever he had done was the inevitable consequence of allowing idiots into the Baltimore aquarium.
Georgie had disappeared into the gift shop. This confused Higgs somewhat. He decided to give Georgie a few minutes to get to the parking garage , rationalising it in the vain hope that perhaps Geddy may reappear (in fact, Geddy was being dumped on his face in a pile of garbage bags just about then). When neither Geddy nor the lack of a better plan arrived, Higgs made his way out into the thick, greasy afternoon air.
Higgs caught sight of Georgie immediately, his lurid Hawaiian shirt and what appeared to be a Chicago Cubs cap standing out in the grey and sterile lot. Even more incongruously, he was leaning into a Burgundy PT Cruiser, tossing something onto the front seat. He shut the door gently and leant against it, giving a distant nod to Higgs to let him know he could approach. Georgie was clutching an oversized bag from the gift shop.
Higgs felt the bruise on his kidney throbbing unbearably. He was finding it hard to breathe. As he arrived at the car, he nodded a nervous “hey” and shuffled his feet. For the first time, he started to realise just how out of his depth he was.
“You understand the job?”
“We set a fire. Dunno to what, dunno where”
“It’s all in here.” Georgie handed him the bag from the gift shop. It was unnaturally heavy. Higgs understood why. He wasn’t immediately sure that he liked it. “Here’s some advice”
“Sure” Higgs said distractedly as he looked into the bag. His worst fears were confirmed.
“Make sure it all burns. Everything.”
“Everything. Right.” Higgs was staring into the bag.
“And Higgs. I know you’re an idiot but listen, listen very carefully to me.” Higgs grunted in reply, transfixed by the bag.
“Nothing gets in the way. Nothing. No One. Do you know what you have to do if there are any complications, any impediments”. Higgs looked into the bag. He knew. A lousy few grand, if he split the cash with Geddy, suddenly seemed puny for the riks he was about to take.
“This is some heavy, heavy shit”
“You know what happens if you do fuck this up?”
“I can guess”
“They may find some pieces of you but I guarantee there’ll be a plenty of pieces they don’t. Did Mr Pepper give you any….. spiritual advice?”
“Hell yes.” A sudden wave of conviction welled in Higgs.
“Then think about it”
“Can I ask you a question?”
Georgie was skeptical. “Shoot…”
“How much does he pay you? Is it a living, doing this?”
The left-field question disarmed the gigantic Greek. “Well, I’m doing okay. Putting two kids through Penn State….”
That was what Higgs needed to know. That was the pot of gold at the end of arson’s rainbow.
Georgie slid into the car, and with a hiss and a blur of movement, he was gone. Higgs pushed the gun aside in the bottom of the bag and drew out a Texaco roadmap. He felt disheartened – a job that required a map, not an address.
On it was drawn, in red sharpie, the route towards his destiny. As Higgs followed it along, and did the math of distance in his head, he formed increasingly foul oaths in his head. This was less than optimal.
He made his way back to Jamie’s battered Yellow Dodge Dart. Geddy sat shivering in the back seat, Jamie behind the wheel sporting an ugly black eye. Higgs sat down heavily beside Jamie, trying not to look at her. He smelt the most awful stench of rancid fish. It was some time before anyone spoke. Geddy piped up
“So, did you get the job?”
“Oh yeah. What the fuck happened to you?”
“Fucking psycho Georgie threw me in the Ray pool!”
“Pity he didn’t throw you in the shark tank”
“So” spat Jamie “what’s the job?”
“We light a fire”
“A fire?” She couched in it such a tone which indicated she had little faith a good outcome “for how much”
“Five grand”. Higgs decided not to elaborate on the accounting behind that particular figure.
“Five Grand!” shouted Geddy excitedly. We could go to Flawdah on that, couldn’t we?
“Fuck Florida – too many bugs and too many bushes. You could go to California on Fy-G.”
“So where’s the job? When do we do it?”
“We got to pack first”
“Pack – we going Atta Canny?”
“Ooooh yeah. We are going way Atta Canny”
Act 4 – Accident, Maryland
Higgs was feeling claustrophobic. His fingers beat a nervous 3-2-3-2 tattoo on the passenger door armrest. He felt pinned by the feeling that he had low-balled with Mr Pepper. He felt pinned by unexpected silence. He felt pinned by not having a lie to tell in case someone did speak and ask him something. He felt pinned by the fact that no-one had asked anything. He felt pinned by Jamie’s sulking. He felt pinned by the rank, evil stench coming from the back seat. 3-2-3-2. Pinned , weighed down, glassed in like one of those great fishes in the Baltimore Aquarium, cutting back and forth inside it’s tiny tank.
Geddy’s room on West Pratt St. was possibly the only thing on earth which smelled worse than him.
The only furnishings in it’s meagre 10 x 8 was a rusted cot bed that squeaked and it’s threadbare mattress, a clapboard dresser missing it’s bottom drawer and an empty (and somewhat incongruous) hat rack. The snot green walls were adorned solely by a torn poster of Bob Marley and small, grimy mirror. The floor was covered in the tragic, shitty detritus of Geddy’s tragic, shitty life. Higgs and Jamie sat on the bed while Geddy showered in the bathroom down the hall. Higgs kick with some contempt at one of two books that were never far from Geddy’s hand or his mind – a Gideon’s Bible (taken from the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia). The other, a Rand McNally World Atlas, lay open on the dresser, a hopelessly out of date map of the USSR exposed. While they were the only two books Geddy had ever read, Higgs had always told Geddy that the bible and the atlas were the only two books he had never read. The truth, as was the way with Higgs, was somewhat less spectacular.
The bible cartwheeled through the air and landed with a flap and a thud, as did Mr King’s advice on a relationship with The Almighty. Higgs mind was full of the spidery webs of schemes.
Geddy was born Gediminas Mamontovas, in Vilnius, Lithuania to poor but dishonest parents. With the fall of the iron curtain, his father – a minor party apparatchik, fled the country, first to Canada and then slipped across the border, first to Duluth, then St Paul, Detroit and finally Philadelphia. Mamontovas senior brought his family Stateside by claiming his 18 year old son, Gedi, was a chess prodigy and carried a ELO rating of 2453 and required meaningful competition as a professional to reach his goal of a Grand Master’s rating. After his family arrived, Mamontovas senior set about earning a living for him by setting himself up as a self-styled Russian Don (despite the disadvantage of being a Lithuanian, not a Russian, but he figured the hick Americanoes wouldn’t know the difference). There were many setbacks and obstacles on his crime career, not least his having his head blown off by a shotgun trying to jack the wrong car on Lombard St one muggy August night.
For a spectacularly unsuccessful criminal, Geddy’s dad was surprisingly prudent in matters fiduciary. A $250,000 life insurance policy set Geddy’s mom up in the manner in which she would have liked to become accustomed, and life for a short time was good hotels and a better class of drugs for Geddy and mom. That, like so many things in Geddy’s life, ended abruptly when he found his mother, dead from a heroin overdose in her bathtub. The money was gone. What Geddy needed was to find a direction in life.
Direction came in the form of a job, working as a hitter for the girls of Gigi’s Entertainments, one of Philadelphia’s less salubrious escort agencies, and a growing fascination with maps and destinations, particularly his native Lithuania, which presented itself to him as some sort of mystical paradise.
This direction took an unexpected but not unwelcome turn when one night a routine job went haywire as these things do, and Geddy ended up cracking a maple Brett Bros. bat over some elderly john’s skull. Charged with attempted murder, Geddy was defended by the great Philadelphia Lawyer Martin N. Lewis, who earned his own immortality by securing an acquittal for Geddy based on the innovative and controversial “self-hating Jew” defence – viz, that Geddy was culturally a Jew but inherently, as all men are, spiritually a Christian. The conflict between man’s innate knowledge of Christ and his cultural denial, as well as being denied the fundamental and unique Christian knowledge of right and wrong, led Geddy into a hopeless cycle of self loathing and rage, and without any compass to guide him, made the beating an almost unavoidable outcome. And 12 yeoman Christians of Pennsylvania sent Geddy from the courtroom a free man.
The problem was, he was not just a free man. So convincing was Lewis’ argument, he not only convinced the jury, he convinced Geddy. By the time trial was over, Geddy was a genuine self-hating Jew. But the angst didn’t last long soon a deep understanding and gratitude came over Geddy – he was a self-hating Jew and that was the key to all his failings, all his actions all of those fucked up fuck ups in his fucked up life had a reason. Lazy? Self-hating Jew! Friendless? Self-hating Jew. Ugly? Self-hating Jew! Functional Illiteracy? Self-hating Jew! Only girlfriend he has ever had left him for best friend? Self-hating Jew!
While Geddy’s faith in matter spiritual was in the balance, his faith in Higgs was absolute and unshakeable. Higgs was the mastermind. He had the plans –this five grand flame job was just the start of a flood of easy money that was going to wash over him. He was going to travel the world, live the life – and yes, he would get Jamie back. Yes, he would….
As Jamie and Higgs sat on Geddy’s bed, an uncomfortable silence between them. Higgs almost had his plan straight in his mind. He decided to break the silence.
“How’d ya get the, uh, eye, there…”
“Dunno, got kinda… wassssssted last night”
“You’re a fuckin’ liar. I saw you with that Cuban boy….” Jamie groaned a little inside, but bit her lip.
She learned a painful lesson last night. A Cuban, matters of hot-headed Latino stereotyping out of the way, should not have his manhood mocked and a Cuban who had problems with premature ejaculation, even less so. The single punch he rained down on Jamie left her insensible on South Street.
“He hit me…. punched me out right there on South St”
“and what did yer big fucking mouth buy you this time?”
“He said he was gonna kill me, Higgs. He said he and his hermanos were coming back and they were gonna blow my brains out. I believe him, too.”
“Hermanos, you say” Jamie’s pig Spanish was one of her many pretensions.
“How was I to know he was a pre-mar-toor ejaculater….”
“A fuckin’ what!”
“One of them guys that shoots it soon as you touch it….” Higgs rolled his eyes. Jamie, however, had other things on her mind.
“How far out of town is the job” she asked, quietly.
“Way on up Garret County. A town called Accident. Three hours ‘long the two-toothed highway.”
“sorta figures, really”.
“So whatta we gotta burn?”
Higgs didn’t like the sound of “we”. “You would’n believe me if I tole you”
“how’re you gonna get all the way up there?” There was an archness to Jamie’s tone which suggested this was going to end badly
“Got us a car right out front”.
“I gotta car right out front. You got shit” said Jamie, measuredly. “I want in”
“You don’t want in. This is some heavy shit going down”
“For five grand – that doesn’t sound so heavy for me”
“You ain’t in. You ain’t getting in.”
“Then you walk, motherfucker” Jamie let out a sharp, nasal laugh.
“Oh like we just can’t boost any car” Higgs snorted. Stealing a car was, however, strictly plan B.
He snuck a glance at Jamie. She was fuming.
* * * * * * * *
Geddy came into his room, clad only in a pair of yellowing jockey shorts, and started kicking away the crap from his floor looking for a pair of jeans. Finding a pair he deemed satisfactory, and giving them a hearty sniff to confirm his opinion, he turned around to face Higgs while he wiggled into them. “So, Higgs”, as he had said so many times before, “what’s the plan?”
Higgs had no intention of telling Geddy the plan. Geddy, as a simpleton, was best served by keeping things simple.
“Y’ever been to Garret County, Geddy. It’s up on the West Virginya line”
Geddy’s head swirled. West Virginia seemed positively exotic. “So how we gonna get there?” Geddy desperately wanted Jamie to come along.
“Jamie’s in – for five hundred…” Jamie started to speak – but thought better of it. “It’s three hours there – we’ll leave here at 8, roll into town before midnight, do the do and be home by sunrise.”
“Sounds like the plan” said Geddy, dizzy with the moment.
“Life is so fuckin’ sweet” affirmed Higgs.
* * * * * * * *
The journey to Accident was generally uneventful, as driving the back highways of Maryland is wont to be. It seemed that, for the three people in the car, driving to the ends of the earth in the dead of night to burn down a building as a favor to a man they had never met was a mere chore, some mundane task, busy work. Jamie drove and the two men slumped and farted and bickered and smoked. Higgs had Jamie tell the full story of the Cuban premature ejaculator, ostensibly for Geddy’s benefit. The stopped for coffee at a Trucker’s diner just west of Cumberland.
“Hey Higgs – you know what would really suck?”
“What” sneered Higgs
“If this Pepper guy, right, if this old fuck Pepper, paid us in nickels” Jamie started to giggle. Higgs groaned.
“C’mon, Higgs, we do this job, we roll back in to B and there’s this big ole motherfuckin’ bag o’ nickels”
Higgs gave a grunt that may have passed for amusement. “Nickels….”
“Hey Higgs – if you were in a rest room, the filthiest fucking truck stop rest room you have ever seen in your life and there was a nickel on the floor, would you pick it up and out it in your pocket?” Jamie laughed harder.
“Man, I would not bend down and pick up just a nickel, any nickel even if it were wedged between Sheryl Crow’s tits” Jamie and Geddy screamed with laughter
“For a quarter, though…”
The lightened mood continued back in the car for some few miles, until Jamie noticed something odd on the side of the road.
“Looka that” she piped up
“Wha?” asked Higgs.
“The sign”. And there it was, in a brilliant fluorescent green.
“Pre-verted Arts? What the hell are the pre-verted arts?” snarled Higgs. Higgs had issues with preversions and he sure as hell didn’t like art.
FESTIVAL OF THE PERVERTED ARTS
4/13/07 – 4/15/07
“Are we driving into a town fulla pre-verts?” Geddy sounded uncertain. Higgs stayed quiet.
And there they were, every couple of miles along the highway, Andre K inviting the three out of towners to a festival of perversion.
And they didn’t know what perversions, nor did they know where this highway would end, but what was worst of all, the most important thing they did not know was that the “K” in Andre K, stood for Kornkroow.
Next – “Satan Takes A Holiday”
Act 5 – Satan takes a Holiday
Slap! It was a slow night at Deke’s Fishin’ Hole.
“Seems they get around lil’ earlier ev’ry year”
“That’d be on account a’that….” Something in the dark and distant hills caught Deke’s eye
“thu what?” asked his brother, Zeke
“Glo-bal warmin'” said Deke, distractedly.
“Yup” drawled Zeke. He took a long pull on a Pabst and fingered the macadamia nuts in the round bowl on the small table. He slapped at his shaven pate, splattering a huge, grey mosquito. He felt a twinge of guilt, but it didn’t linger. As an on-again-off-again Hare Krishna, he was currently mostly “off” and he could rationalize that any soul so miserably reincarnated as a mosquito on Deep Creek Lake, Maryland must still have a shitload of bad karma to pay off and he wasn’t really likely to do it by buzzing and biting – so he was really just giving the poor bastard another spin on the old wheel of life.
“Y’ain’t s’posed to squish ’em, jess shoo ’em away!” chided Deke.
Before Zeke could explain what he felt was his perfectly noble rationale, Deke raised a finger to the pitch black horizon. “We’s got company…”
The headlights bobbing and weaving through the hills and bends were obvious.
“City Folk” said Zeke
“Got the welcome wagon ready?” asked Deke
Zeke lifted the oversized copy of the Bhagavad-Gita from next to the nuts in the table. A .38 Saturday Night Special lay underneath. Zeke smoothly cocked the hammer and laid the book back on top of it.
“They’re coming for our women, Deke”
“They’re gonna do those things with them, ain’t they?”
“Maybe”. There was a clingy silence.
“I hates City Folk, Deke”
Deke chewed on a macadamia. From the corner of his mouth, he muttered softly “well, Zeke, they’re a long way from their city tonight….”
The mood in the car, considerably more convivial after the break at Cumberland, soured as they drove through Accident. Far from the sleepy, half abandoned town they expected to slip through in silence before midnight, they found a town very much alive, very much lit up and very much in party mode. Lights blazed along Main Street, which was in fact the Garrett County Highway, as knots of revellers wandered the streets and loud music played from almost every shop or office along the strip. All of the diners and restaurants were alive with laughter and the sounds of good times rolling.
Higgs, Geddy and Jamie had rolled into an Accident which was no longer waiting to happen, it was happening. And it was all due to the unlikely tonic that was the Accident Festival of the Perverted Arts, which was being held in conjunction with the first annual convention of the American Society for Self-Diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome Sufferers (ASSASS).
At first, it had to be said that the relationship between the town and the two outcast organisations was frosty, to say the least. The people of Accident were simple up-country folks, God fearing and strongly streaked in ancient American ethics, who mistrusted and saw no good in the decadent and dissolute art troupe and a bizarre, ill mannered group of pencil necked geeks who claimed to suffer from some made up disease simply to justify their uncouth manners, appalling language and inattentiveness to matters of personal hygiene.
But gradually, due at first to the generous injections of cash into the local economy by Andre and later through perhaps recognizing that the eccentricities of the gradually swelling artists community mirrored and ameliorated those of their own, the people of Accident developed a genuine affection for and trust of their little enclave of weirdos – even to the point of loudly defending them when hotdoggers from Friendsville came down to mock them. In return, the artists gave the town a sense of joie de vivre which had long been missing from the depressed rural community. And now, as the Festival was about to be officially opened with speeches by it’s patron and founder, Andre K and the President-elect of ASSASS, celebrity lawyer Matin N. Lewis, hundreds of artists had flooded into Accident, the party was reaching it’s ebullient pitch.
Which was not good news for the firesetters from Baltimore.
As they cruised down the main strip, all three swung their heads about, agog at what they had got themselves into. Cars lined the side of the highway (in most of which would sleep some combination of artists), being that there were no hotels or motel beds to be had in town, lights blazed merrily, art installations, draped in tarpaulin, calico or sheets, studded the sidewalks and inebriated partiers swayed uncertainly in conga lines or ducked furtively down alleyways in twos and three and throes of passion.
“Hillbilly goddam Central” said Geddy, trying to make it sound contemptuous. Geddy in fact quite liked Hillbillies, or at least the idea of them. He’d been planning all night long to say that phrase when they entered Accident, and despite the fact that the observation didn’t particularly jibe with evidence on display (the Artists were dressed somewhat more sophisticatedly than the average up-country ‘billy and the pounding techno music being played was neither country nor western), Geddy figured it was just too cool a thing not to say. So he said it.
“This looks pretty fucked up, Higgs” added Jamie
Higgs was inclined to agree but he knew better – the only way to control the car was not to admit any compromise or liability. There was no way this was going to go down the way he had planned. Even just driving through town, it was possible that too many people had seen them already. As the bright lights of the town started to dim, he racked his brain, desperate to think of some trick, some new angle that would help him keep control. He could feel Jamie’s eyes boring into him in quick, stabbing glances.
“What’re we doing here, Higgs” she asked, with a clear impatience. Just as Higgs was about to snap back at her, am SVU towing a bass boat crested the ridge, its’ lights blazing on high. As the brilliant, blinding white light filled the small car, forcing Jamie to curse and raise her forearm to her eyes to shield her from the glare, and Geddy to dive to the floorboards in the back, a revelation came over Higgs. The light filling the car felt to him like the aura of an Angel, sent by Mr Pepper’s prayers. He remembered, just then, the one decent thing that his father had ever done for him as a child – weekends fishing on Deep Creek Lake. Suddenly, in the warm glow of white light, all things were clear to Higgs.
And with that, Jamie yanked the wheel viciously, the light cut out, the car swerved, Geddy squealed, Higgs head crashed against the door frame, Jamie spat a cuss word and they continued, shaken, on into the Maryland night.
* * * * *
Andre K had had a big day and he had a bigger one coming tomorrow. Just after 10, he slipped away from the party at Luby’s diner and made his way out to his office, which was once a tire depository on Industrial Park Drive. Next door to it was a large industrial shed,, which was serving as the warehouse and soon, the gallery, for the treasures of Perverted Art – treasures Andre believed were the greatest collection of challenging, socially unacceptable and downright freaky artefacts in all the USA. He felt his personal contribution, busts of the Bush cabinet formed from bat guano, were certainties for the grand prize at the “Pervies”, the award ceremony which would culminate the Festival, and that pleased him immensely.
Andre Kornkroow was the much loved youngest son of Baltimore crime boss Eddie Kornkroow. Frail, bookish and curious, he was constantly in the shadow of his dynamic and charismatic elder brother Peter, who rose to become his dad’s feared and undisputed number two, and try as he may, Andre never seemed cut out to enter the family business.
While his father was disappointed that Andre would not be assuming a leading role in the furtherance of his empire, he nonetheless loved him dearly and wanted to keep him close – just not too close. After finishing his college at Franklin & Marshall (his father being highly influential in his admission) Andre moved into the more legitimate realms of Kornkroow’s empire, managing various businesses upstate, with progressively unspectacular results. Meanwhile, Andre was developing his proficiency in the perverted arts. Matters came to a head when a junkyard in Fredericksville, dealing in metal scrap, run by Andre (which had gone from being a solid profit maker 2 years back to not generating a single cent of income) was raided by Maryland State Troopers. The reason for the raid – Andre had decided to announce himself to the art world by erecting and unveiling his masterpiece – a 60 foot tall statue depicting Gene Hackman engaging in anal sex with Rodney Dangerfield.
The statue was the reason the junkyard could not turn a profit – every ounce of spare metal for the last two years had been out into the sculpture. Andre was charged with gross public indecency – the case made papers (and Andre’s reputation) nationwide. Kornkroow Snr was mortified and enraged, but, out of love for his son, retained the famed Philadelphia lawyer Martin N Lewis to defend him, which Lewis did with skill and finesse. Andre escaped with a hefty fine and his statue torn down (at his father’s insistence) and a national reputation as a leading light in the Perverted Arts.
He sat down at his small desk in the rear of the warehouse and started to check the budget figures for the festival. He paused and glanced down at the picture on his desk of his slim, willowy wife Aidrienne and his twin sons. He smiled to himself, and went back to his ledgers.
* * * * *
“Here’s the deal” said Higgs when the scare in the car had settled down. “Up ahead, coupla miles, there are some fishing cabins – so what we do is wake up the caretaker, take a cabin – then, when everyone’s back to sleep, coupla hours, Geddy and me slip back into town, Ka-fuckin’-boom, torchy torchy and we are back here before anyone knows we are gone. Half hour, tops. The caretaker alibis us and tomorrow morning we slip back to the State Highway on this Grantville Road.” Higgs stabbed distractedly at the map.
He was, of course, totally bullshitting – but he wasn’t counting on an excess of critical thinking in the car.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, Martin N. Lewis finished his drink and stepped out into the warm April evening. He, too, had a big day tomorrow organizing the convention A man of mercurial passions, both in love and in the choice of causes he supported, he paused a moment to reflect. The next few days would be the culmination of years of patient, often disregarded, occasionally ridiculed work for Martin, as ASSASS became a reality. His thoughts drifted to “Michelle” and “Edie”, two ladies with whom he had spent a pleasurable but expensive few hours the day before yesterday, and how, perhaps, their peculiar charms mightbe the fitting conclusion to what had been a fine night – but, whatever, Lewis was confident tomorrow, and all it’s promise, would mark the first day of the rest of his life.
* * * * *
Andre Kornkroow sipped at his coffee and rechecked his figures. He felt a deep well of satisfaction with things – not just with the festival and with his own success, but with the reaction of the people in Accident, the love that he felt from them and the sense that he had planted a seed there for future Arts festivals. Tomorrow, he thought, would be the first day of the rest of his life.
* * * * *
Eddie Kornkroow sat by the phone in his office on the top floor of his house just off Goucher Ave. He was waiting for a call from Mr. Pepper. Tomorrow, he thought, he could reclaim his prodigal son.
* * * * *
Cecil Pepper was enjoying the late evening by the river ay his home in Havre De Grace, listening to Mahalia Jackson and sipping a rum and lime. He was waiting on a phone call from Georgie and had no particular plans for tomorrow.
* * * * *
Goerige was asleep in his Fell’s Point apartment, having dozed off while watching Dutch pornography.
* * * * *
Zeke and Deke were watching the headlights growing larger up the road. Zeke was staring intently ahead, the palm of his right hand brushing in a nervous flurry against the inside of his thigh, his left balled tight in a fist. He always hated it when the city men came for the women, and twice in two days was too much for him. He began, softly, to chant.
Deke was more sanguine. “Deke’s Fishin’ Hole” was a specialty, high maintenance, four girl operation which catered for a more exotically inclined clientele. Business had been good the last few years, but competition – particularly from their former employer Mr Pepper’s premier Baltimore establishment “Danny’s Lion’s Den” and Mme Danielle’s “House of the French Arts” in Bel Air had all but dried up business. The uptight guy with the Philly accent had dropped three grand there earlier that week, but Deke had back taxes and orthodontic bills for the girls to pay. A carload of high rollers was just what he needed right now.
What he saw when the car rolled up, however, made him abandon all thoughts of hospitality. Slowly, ever so slowly, he slipped his hand under his Bhagavad-Gita and felt the reassuring steel of the thirty-eight….