Read Chapter 1 from Bigger Than Jesus
Water drips from the soot-black gargoyle’s tongue like thin saliva, as if the grotesque statue is mocking you and eager for blood. Panama Bob Lima clings to the gargoyle, using it as a shield. You are on a thin ledge on the side of a very high building and for once you wish you wore your Nikes instead of twelve-hundred dollar Tanino Crisci shoes. So far, this job is not going at all as planned.
“You know this doesn’t end well for you, either,” Panama Bob says. “Oswald gets Kennedy and Ruby gets Oswald. The first rule of a conspiracy is to kill the assassin.”
“They didn’t give Ruby a choice. I don’t have choices, either.”
It’s a long way down, so far that Tribeca’s streetlights and cars swirl together in one red and white and yellow blur. Is your vision going wacky as a defence mechanism? Is your mind letting go so you can let go, black out and be blissful as you plunge into the concrete’s existential abyss? What is it about telling yourself not to look down that makes you look down?
You should have told Big Denny to chase Panama Bob, but Denny’s too fat to do much chasing. Instead, Denny De Molina guards the parking garage exit forty-something floors down and you’re out here listening to Bob plead his case. The wind picks up and you feel light, like a sudden gust might pull you out into space. Denny’s first clue that Bob is not escaping in his white Caddy could be you, bursting like a sack of meat on the sidewalk. Tonight could be your private 9/11.
It’s not like you could refuse this job, but you should have stayed home, eaten a pot cookie with SpongeBob for company and given the mission a little more thought. The rain has made every surface slick. Panama Bob is talking fast and all those lights are starting to spin faster and it’s hard to concentrate on what he’s saying. You watch his mouth, as if you can read his thick lips. The vertigo recedes, though the sick feeling in your stomach remains. It would be very bad form, not to mention dangerous, to puke out here. This will be a crime scene in a few minutes. You swallow hard, choke back your gorge and focus on Panama Bob.
“C’mon, man. You know me. I’m as honest as can be.”
True. Panama Bob is as straight a shooter as a high-stakes gambler and drug lord can be.
“Jimmy sent me, Bob. It’s business. This is not personal.”
“Excuse me, but killing me? I take that personal. Besides, I didn’t steal from the company. I skimmed a bit, sure. We all do that, but I didn’t steal.”
“I understand what you’re saying, Bob, but Jimmy Lima doesn’t make those fine distinctions.”
“C’mon, Jesus! I made you. Jimmy didn’t want to let a Cuban in and I said to give you a shot. Now you’re coming after me?”
“It was Big Denny who brought me into The Machine. I do feel bad about this, Bob, but Jimmy gave me a job to do. You know how it is.”
How it is. It sucks is how it is. You’re dizzy and the ledge is slippery and you wonder how long it will take you to plunge to your death? You think of the World Trade Center jumpers again. Technically, if it weren’t for the attacks on September 11, 2001, you wouldn’t be here at all. If not for those crazy terrorists, you wouldn’t have watched the smoke from the twin towers rise up into the Tuesday morning sunlight from your apartment roof in Queens. You wouldn’t have joined up in a vengeful fury. The plan was to earn your US citizenship — not just have it given to you — through military service. You planned to kill Osama bin Laden personally and collect the $10 million reward. You fully expected to get shipped straight to Afghanistan to go hunting.
Instead, you guarded a checkpoint outside the Green Zone in Iraq. Then things went from bad to worse. You got your US citizenship, a broken ankle in boot camp, nearly blown up on several occasions and trained in a bunch of skills that did not translate well to civilian life. Then there was the incident with the Afghan civilians on your second tour, the sergeant who deserved his broken jaw and the dishonorable discharge you didn’t deserve for breaking that jaw.
When you got back, you couldn’t find a job. Then Big Denny got you a no-show job at a construction site and things got easier and worse at the same time. It’s like you’re on that wide, easy road to Hell your Army chaplain always talked about. And now you’re on a high ledge trying to kill your boss’s lying, stealing, murdering douchebag brother. Worse? You have to listen to him whine about it.
“Dude! Let’s go back inside and talk about this. We’ll go climb back in my office window, have a drink to settle our nerves and then we’ll call Jimmy together. I promise we can get through this little tiff and solve this thing. Vincent is not going to like this one bit! It’s Jimmy’s idea, but it’s you starting the power play. Vincent wanted us both as underbosses but Jimmy wants to be the only one. That’s what this is really about. Divisions are not good for business.”
You edge a little closer along the ledge. “This is me following orders. I don’t know what Vincent will say about your high-dive suicide. I just know that if I don’t follow orders, Jimmy shoots me in the head.”
“See, that’s the difference between Jimmy and me. I’d never do that to you.”
“And you won’t have my car blown up tomorrow morning if I let you go? Yeah, right.”
There’s a thought. You should have blown up Bob’s car. If you’d done that, you wouldn’t be where you are now, rediscovering your fear of heights. At least when you rappelled from a helicopter in training it was over quickly and, when you threw up , all you had to do was endure the jeers of your platoon as your sergeant screamed at you for defiling his precious dirt.
Panama Bob is talking fast again, but you both know it doesn’t matter. Jimmy sent you for Bob. That court takes no appeals, especially since Jimmy suspects Bob killed his personal bodyguard and best buddy, Cat Fornes. Martial arts fans remember Cat as a crazy, toothless cage fighter on TV. Big guy, big muscles, big yellow tiger tattoo that stretched from his neck to his feet and some mean jiu jitsu. His signature move was the spinning backfist. Cat might have been a champion except he got caught up in trying to use the backfist in every match so he’d have a brand. The other fighters caught on quick.
Jimmy loved Panama Bob like a brother, but he was a fan of Cat Fornes. You don’t get to choose your family, but hooking up with a minor celebrity who had been on TV was more important to Jimmy Lima than any drug he ever sold. When Cat dropped out of the cage match game and came back to Queens, Jimmy made Cat a friend. Sometimes you wonder if he might have been more than that. The point is, Panama Bob may be a brother, but that’s an accident of genetics and hormones and the back seat of a car. Jimmy loved Cat like the brother he chose.
When Cat went missing, Jimmy knew who to blame. Before Jimmy sent you for Panama Bob, he sent Cat to persuade the stolen money out of him. You stood in Jimmy’s office when the underboss told Cat, “Bob’s been skimming. Go have a talk with him. Show him that awesome spinning backfist and come back with the skim.”
Bob might have weaselled out of this if their father was in the game. However, Vincent Daddy-O Junior, head of the family (father to Jimmy, step-father to Bob) doesn’t know anything about all this. He’s still laid out in a hospital bed recovering from getting his prostate cut out. This could blow up into a war and there’s no good end in this for anyone.
Except maybe there is.
Bob holds up a key hanging from the fat gold chain on his neck. “Howzabout if I bought my way out of this? You could be out of this mess, Jesus. Don’t you want to go back to Miami and be a wheel in warmer climes? Don’t you want to be free of all this New York, New Jersey, rat race bullshit? ”
You blink. “Tell me more.”
“What I skimmed? It’s in a storage locker.”
“The money you said you didn’t steal is in a storage locker.”
“This is the key to that storage locker.”
“Suppose I give you the location of this storage locker.”
“And the key.”
“Of course, imbecil. It don’t work without the key.”
“And you get to come in from the ledge.”
“No. Big picture? You get to come in off the ledge, too. Everybody lives.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure. And how long before you think Jimmy finds us? A day? A week? What good is a sack full of money if I don’t live long enough to spend it?”
Panama Bob is quiet for a minute. He looks down, gets a better grip on the gargoyle and when he looks at you again, he talks in a stage whisper, as if only you and God can hear. “There’s enough, Jesus. There’s enough there to run and hide for a long time. I was smart. I skimmed a long time and just took a little, but I was consistent. I wasn’t greedy all at once. That’s how they get you.”
“Jimmy found you out.”
“Not for years, Jesus. Years!”
“How much money are we talking about?”
“You’ll never have to work again if you play it right.”
“And you’ll be living well. That sweet little señorita I seen you with in the club sometimes? Pete Vasquez’s daughter?”
“You can play house forever and only stop for steak, lobster and oysters.”
Hm. Lily would like that lifestyle very much. “And what are you going to do?” you ask.
“While you disappear, I’ll be going to war. I was already making preparations when you showed up. I thought I had more time. I thought you’d come after me at home or something more discreet than hitting me at my own office. You kill Marv and Harvey? I didn’t hear you throwing any shots, but when I heard your voice in the outer office I figured you’d come heavy and I climbed out here.”
“I didn’t have to throw shots,” you say. “I just told your boys that Jimmy wanted to see them and that I’d do the babysitting. They went away.”
“Sonofabitch! Fuckin’ idiots!”
Panama Bob looks up and blinks. The rain falls harder so you don’t know if Bob is blinking away tears or water. The rain gurgles through the drains above you and the thin saliva from the big gargoyle’s mouth builds to a little stream.
Readers Digest explained that the word gargoyle and gurgle come from the same language root. Somebody came up with the word gurgle from the sound the gargoyle made with the water going through it. That and movie trivia is the sort of crucial information that fills your head and kept you from learning anything useful so you could get an honest job. You’re so stupid, you’re wearing your shiny shoes with the too-smooth soles meant for office work and for show, edging along a tiny ledge, all the purchase in your toes. This is not what a smart ninja would do.
“Don’t look down, Jesus,” Panama Bob says. “Maybe you can walk on water, but you sure can’t fly.”
You think about Bob’s skim for a full minute as the storm builds. The thunder rolls much louder out here, so close to the sky. You feel the boom in your chest and its force rivals your pounding heart. The first lightning flash strobes over Panama Bob and the gargoyle so, for a crazy second, they look like one grotesque, two-headed creature. Bob’s got both hands wrapped around the gargoyle’s neck, so his fancy nickel-plated .32 must be tucked into the waistband at the small of his back. He’s no doubt still got a switchblade in his sock. You do, so why wouldn’t he? Bob’s got fast hands, too. That complicates things.
You inch back toward his office window. “Come inside before you get struck by lightning. You aren’t any good to me if you’re fried chicken.”
Panama Bob’s smile spreads ear to ear. “I knew you’d be a reasonable man. I know you!”
“I’m not reasonable, Bob. I just want out. With your skimmed milk, I can get away where Jimmy will never find me. At least for a while.”
You almost slip. Almost. The smooth sole of your right shoe gives way and your heels dip. You throw yourself so hard at the wall you overcorrect and almost bounce off. You claw at the smooth wall and try to become part of it. You take another moment before you risk turning your head. Surprisingly, Bob is already around the gargoyle and coming up on you fast. When you glance down, you understand why he’s so confident. His feet are bare. Bob moves along the ledge like he’s climbing a shaky ladder: Cautious but in no real doubt he’ll make it.
“I love these old buildings,” Bob says. “Gargoyles! Can you believe it? Not only does it give the place character, so useful!”
“Yeah,” you say as your left hand closes around the window frame to Bob’s office. Bob’s almost on top of you as you bend your knees and lean back, trusting the frame with your weight. Your right hand closes on Bob’s calf, just below the knee. You miss the meat of the calf but you’ve got his pants leg and that’s just enough. You drive with your legs so fast that you almost jump and Bob cries out as he twirls backward into the chasm.
If this were a Hollywood movie, he’d pull his piece from the small of his back and shoot in slow motion as he falls to his grisly death, the thick gold necklace and glittering locker key catching the city lights. In real life, he just has time for a short scream that cuts off with a bang as he careens into the concrete.
When you pull yourself through the office window, your legs and arms shake so badly you have to struggle to fish out your cell. “Denny! Get your fat ass up the ramp quick to the front of the building! Bob had a fall. Whatever’s left of him is wearing a necklace with a key. Get that key off the body before the cops come!”
You don’t wait for Denny’s reply. Instead, you ransack Panama Bob’s big desk. You don’t have much time. Somewhere in this room there must be a receipt for a storage locker. When you find which storage facility is the right one, you and Lily are going to get away to fulfill some lovely dreams together.
That is, if the cops and Jimmy Lima and The Machine don’t get you first.