The wrought iron marquee, with the bleached words “Buy-Sell and Trade,” stuck out of the worn bricks above Stan Stanislaw. He felt as if he stuck out too. During after-dinner strolls through the revamped Cuban district, he could spot the sign a long way off. Like a beacon it guided him, reminding him of his true identity––one that his parents had forged a half century ago, without his permission, into a destiny that had just this moment become a reality. His reality.
In mid-stride, Stan froze as soon as he saw it. He leaned closer to the pane of glass, fixated on the blue steel behind it, and without thinking, closed his mouth. The street noise, like the yellow tag that hung from the trigger guard, faded. Since his transfer to Ybor City he had looked at the price each day, but it was the last thing he expected to see today.
Ybor City, named for the man who had established the Havana tobacco industry in Tampa over a century ago, was his latest assignment and now home. Had it been up to Stan, he would have chosen some place closer to the base, but the historic setting had something more compelling than his proximity to MacDill––it had Geppetto’s, and Geppetto’s had the gun.
Propped in the storefront window, the sleek weapon dared him to come inside. Stan knew that the sooner he did, the sooner it would all end. Things had gotten way too complicated. Now the moment of simplicity had arrived. He only needed to walk through that doorway.
The shotgun’s ridiculous price tag of $12,144 dangled in front of him, announcing Stan’s duplicity. He drew a short, unconscious breath and exhaled out of the side of his mouth. Many times he’d imagined this day; thought about how it would go. Now the shock of actually seeing those numbers had stopped him cold. He studied the symmetry of the shotgun’s lines, stepped up to the glass, and blocked out the passing Sunday crowd that weaved around him.
The gun itself, however, meant little to him. It leaned against a wooden ammo crate in the traditional, open position that he usually saw on the cover of his favorite outdoor magazines; the ones adorned with dead ducks and a wet Lab grinning at his owner’s camera. The Browning Citori was nothing special; a Gold Classic 20 gauge with dogs and fowl etched into the action plate. Although ordinary to anyone who might notice its ornate Belgian checkering, instantly Stan knew that it meant much more. Not the weapon; it was the tag and the new price that wasn’t on it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. He continued to stare at the familiar digits––12144.
But this was the first time he’d stopped––the first time those numbers were ever displayed in the right order. The only time the price had matched that special sequence that he knew so well, as only he could, as the day of his birth.
The new series of numbers shook Stan from a slumber that began before he was born––back when Stalin’s troops burned Berlin and his parents smuggled explosives inside loaves of bread in Poland. Now, far from the mania of swastikas and sickles, the digits slapped him like a jilted lover. This day had stalked him most of his life, and although anticipated, had taken him completely off guard. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but somehow it was just that. A hollow feeling, like the morning of a funeral, began to form deep inside his belly. It was a familiar gut ache. The last time it happened he had been bobbing in icy North Korean waters at daybreak, blurred eyes straining for a periscope on the horizon. Now he stared with the same intensity at a fork in the road, disguised as a pawnshop, and stepped away from the glass. He knew he wasn’t prepared, but had little choice now.
Stan felt his body move toward the doorway and down the uneven steps. The rusty knob wobbled in his hand and a bell jingled somewhere above him. Hot musty air, like an old sea chest, filled his nostrils. His eyes adjusted quickly to the murky light. He was inside. It had finally begun.
Stan removed his empty hand from the jacket pocket, wiped the sweat from his palm, and slipped it back inside. He slid the tiny lever on the .45 pistol upward and his instincts took over. A quick survey of the narrow room, checking doors and windows, noting his options and liabilities, was pure reflex. The crowded shelves along both sidewalls told him there could only be a rear entrance and he focused his full attention in that direction.
The evening air, warm for February, made him feel even hotter with the jacket. The shop should have been much cooler, but only an ancient electric fan clacked away, stuttering rhythmically in half circles. It failed to cool off the abandoned junk and jewelry that desperate lives had left behind for cash. He hit the bell on the counter and waited for the old Cuban shopkeeper, whom he’d seen almost every day, limp out to greet him. Stan’s mouth felt like the stale air around him. He licked the sweat from his lips and tasted the salt. Without thinking, he spoke the words he’d rehearsed for years.
“The Citori in the window. That price . . ..” Stan caught himself, stopped, and struck the bell again.
From the back of the store, a faint shuffling sound came closer. The voice, however, had no trace of the Spanish dialect that he had expected to hear.
“May I help you, sir?”
The words were Polish; words he’d heard every day as a kid in Pennsylvania and growing up in Hamtramck. The husky voice, slow and condescending, came from behind the cartons on the counter. Its owner emerged slowly from the shadows, but he wasn’t the Cuban.
A slender man, with dark thin hair that stuck up from a bad haircut, stepped into the dim light and smirked. His face, tight and bony, had a false smile stretched across the bottom, but it was his pale skin that stood out. It had that sickly Siberian look, like an overpaid hockey player who never saw the sun. Shiny dark eyeballs, divided by a long nose that seemed crooked or maybe slightly off center and stuck out just enough to be wrong, greeted Stan with the same emotion as a trophy wall mount. Both pupils were deep-set and seemed one size too big for such a small face.
Stan swallowed and with perfect accent, responded in the Polish he knew so well. “The Citori in the window.” He motioned with his hand, like a hitchhiker, but kept his eyes on the stranger. “That price firm?”
“A fine weapon indeed.” He stepped a little closer to Stan. Only the glass counter separated the two men. “Are you a collector or a sportsman?” The half smile disappeared. His eyes flared with the question. The way they searched his face made Stan feel uneasy.
“Both,” he lied, and wiped his palm on his pant leg, then slipped it back inside his crowded pocket again.
“Yes. Of course,” the thin man said smoothly. “As a collector, I’m partial to Merkels and Krieghoffs, or if I can find one that’s affordable, a Perazzi. But if you’re going to kill something, then that Citori is the ideal choice.”
“It seems kind of high. Is it negotiable?”
“No, I’m afraid not.” The shopkeeper broke the stare, looked down, and shook his head. “The seller is firm.” He swiped the counter with a rag. “Quite firm, really. The previous owner was well known when the Sicilians ran the Bolita games here. Supposedly some connections with Chicago. It holds great, uh––.” He cleared his throat, and looked up. The smile slithered back over his face and Stan followed his cue.
“Sentimental value,” Stan offered, completing the sentence for him. He knew he only had one more line to deliver. He decided to hurry through it. “I’d like to meet him, to discuss the price anyway.” Stan exhaled, took what seemed like his first breath since he had walked into the shop, and braced himself. It was done. He had executed his part perfectly. Both men could now speak freely.
“And so you shall, Stanley,” he said with a wink. “So you shall.”
Stan showed no reaction to his name. He figured they knew everything about Stan Stanislaw by now, everything except what he had just decided before he had walked inside.
The stranger broke into perfect English now. “Good. We’ve not much time. I believe I am being watched by the CIA. This is no longer a safe place. I had some difficulty. The owner was somewhat uncooperative.” A brief smile crawled out again. “Read this, but do not repeat.” He handed Stan a business card and nodded.
On the back were scrawled just four words, “Tampa Tribune. Parking Garage.” Stan shoved it in his other jacket pocket, the empty one, and sensed the meeting was over.
“Saturday night 11:30. Until then, Stanley––”
Suddenly, Stan blurted it out, reverting back to English. “I can’t.” He paused to let it sink in. He knew he needed to sound more definite. “I mean I won’t be there.”
The thin face tensed. His bulging eyes narrowed. “What did you say?” he asked, the frost coating each word.
“You heard me.”
“But you made no sense.”
“Yeah, I know.” Stan shrugged. “I’ve been told that all my life. A lot I do doesn’t make much sense, but this does. I won’t be coming.”
“There is a conflict?”
“You could say that.”
“You will be there,” he said deliberately, ignoring his refusal. “There is no longer any choice. You must be there. Sharp. Now go.”
Stan didn’t move. He knew he was committed now. He really had no idea how this would go. Inside his pocket, the gun no longer felt cold. It was warm and sweaty, just like him.
The man’s voice, deeper now, boomed with authority. “Go, I said! And be certain you are not followed.” He glared at Stan, and then turned away.
“You’ll be a little lonely, pal,” Stan said, “cuz’ I ain’t gonna’ be there. I’ve changed my mind. I’m through.”
“This is not a game. If you do not leave now, Stanley . . . ”
“Your Polish is good, but you don’t understand English too well. I want out.” Stan could feel the ridges on the cocked hammer under his thumbnail. “I’ve changed my mind. Savvy, tavarish? Comrade? I’m done.”
The stranger turned, leaned over the counter, and stared at Stan’s lumpy pocket. “Do you know what you are saying? What you will risk? What you are asking from me?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You are asking to be killed.”
“Then kill me.”
“I can do this, Mister Stanislaw, if I choose. I have some experience.”
“Yeah, well, life’s full of choices, isn’t it? I think it’s about time I start making some of my own.”
“Bravely spoken, especially when it may be such a short life,” he said wryly. “Tell me, Mister Stanislaw. In the night, alone in your apartment, are you this courageous? Eh, Mister Navy SEAL? You think of me, in the shadows of your home, while you sleep tonight.” He stepped closer and shook an unlit cigarette like a pointer.
Stan leaned farther away from him. His breath smelled like an ashtray. “I doubt my roommates would appreciate you stumbling around while we’re trying to sleep.”
“That makes even less sense. You live alone. You have only a brother, in Pittsburgh, I believe? Yes, a Bible boy. Let me see.” He touched his cheek and his eyes lit up. “Ah, Nicholas, is it not?”
“Nick isn’t the point. He doesn’t matter. We’re talking about me.”
“Ah, but he does, he does. He matters quite a lot.”
“Nah, you’re wrong. Only my roomies matter right now, pal.” He nudged his pocket. “Meet Smith and Wesson––they’re sort of particular about uninvited guests.”
“You do not frighten me—”
“Oh, I’m not trying to frighten you. Just making it clear. I’m finished. Simple as that. I’m out.”
“Out? How stupid you sound.” He leaned forward. “It is not up to you. You have never had choices. Be there. Saturday. Eleven-thirty. Now go, before I make choices you will regret.” He stepped back between the cartons and disappeared down the aisle toward the back of the store. “And give Nicky my regards,” he called over his shoulder.
Stan thought about another salvo, but decided against it. He’d made his point. He watched the wiry man disappear into the darkness. A heavy metal door creaked from the back of the store and then slammed shut.
He knew that his life had taken a turn. But not the way he’d envisioned it. Stan backed up, still watching the counter area, and moved toward the front door. He took his thumb off the hammer and ran his hand through his hair. It was done.
The bell jingled again and the glass pane shook as the door shuddered over the uneven cement. Cool, noisy street air rushed into Stan’s face. He headed for his truck two blocks away. Ybor City had been known for a lot of things over the years, but parking was never one of them. The brick streets were too narrow. In the fading light, he stole a glance at each face on the busy street, but avoided any eye contact. He replayed the conversation again in his head. At least it was done, but despite his bravado, Nicholas did bother him. He bothered him plenty. Nick was the loose end.
His adopted brother, enrolled in a Bible College outside Pittsburgh for almost a year, had been left out of the family secret for over twenty years. If things got ugly, Nicholas could be in for the shock of his life. He was a risk and Stan hadn’t been able to get his mind around how to solve it yet. The price tag had forced his hand before he had all the answers. For better or worse, he’d made his move.
He just wouldn’t be there Saturday.
He approached his new Grand Cherokee, circled it once, and ran his hand along the seam between the hood and the driver’s door. The meter had expired, but there was no ticket. He looked up and down the street. Nothing out of the ordinary. He unlocked it, tossed his jacket onto the passenger seat, leaving his .45 in the pocket, and got inside. Stan closed one eye, and carefully turned the key. The engine turned right over, as usual. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until he released the sigh. He turned the AC fan to high and lowered the windows.
The card fell out of his pocket onto the seat. He picked it up.
“The Trib, huh?” The business side of the card read: Jack Charles––Photographer. It had an 800 number below the name, but nothing else. He thought about the streets that led to the paper and tried to recall how to get there. Was it Parker and JFK, or on this side of the river? He wasn’t sure, but he didn’t really care. He had no intention of trying to find it tonight, or maybe ever. He needed some time before work in the morning to sort it out. Nick still troubled him.
He turned on the lights, checked his mirrors, and pulled away from the curb. As was his custom, he noticed every car. It all seemed normal. With no place particular in mind, he got onto the Tampa Expressway, put up the windows, and merged north onto 275.
For the first time in his life, Stan felt a new sensation. He felt clean, and he liked it. He liked it a lot.