Brian Cameron was riding high, having just successfully negotiated a deal with a competitor to share the prostitution business in a lucrative market. The opposing representative had accepted Brian’s offer without complaint, no hard feelings, simply an acknowledgement of his no-nonsense negotiating style, encouraged no-doubt by Manny standing behind him. The same commitment to efficiency had made him the most successful manager in the organization, with a minimum of violence. The boss didn’t like headlines. Brian was doing okay at forty-five, in a position to move up within the organization, maybe even become the boss one day. He glanced in the mirror and adjusted it to look at his face, covered by a three-days growth of graying beard, before turning to Manny. “Do I look old enough to be the boss?”
Manny was Brian’s muscle, his six-foot-five frame built like a wrestler, but he wasn’t very good at disguising his feelings. “Sure, maybe, there’s some gray in your beard and a few streaks in your hair, but you don’t got no worry wrinkles around your eyes. You’ve got young eyes, not mean but…well, you don’t look like a killer and that’s what fools some of the guys, but they learn better soon enough, but don’t get me wrong, I know you and I’d never cross you, but you don’t look like an old man who’s seen it all and knows what has to be done no matter what.”
Nonplussed, Brian turned the mirror back and grumbled, “Well, Manny, that was quite a speech from a guy who usually gives monosyllabic responses, but I’m going to be the boss before I’m sixty. Mark my words.”
Manny shrugged and said, “Not if you keep driving this piece of shit, it reminds me of my dad’s old Chrysler, he loved that car but the rest of us hated it.” They were at a traffic light and the engine sounded as if it were about to stop running.
Frustrated, Brian noticed a repair shop announced by a weathered signboard over two garage bays. “Black Forest Enterprises.” Without thinking, he did a U-turn and pulled into the drive fronting one of the two stalls. The name had gotten his attention, and the Audi R8 Spyder Quattro waiting to be stolen. He’d keep that in mind. Any shop that worked on such a fine piece of German engineering would be able to fix whatever was ailing his car. He tapped the horn before checking the street for threats and opening the door slowly. By the time he was standing next to his steel-blue sedan, he was met by a man wearing green overalls who looked eerily familiar.
“You didn’t need to hit the horn. I heard you drive up. You need spark plugs. These older models burn them out in a hundred-thousand miles. Your 2016 Audi S6 is one of the worst offenders.”
Brian closed the door gently and examined the speaker, a man his age with a clean-shaven face, a contemptuous smile tickling the corners of his mouth. Brian turned to Manny and said, “See what I’ve been telling you? You gotta keep your eyes open, like when I spotted this shop and knew this was the place to get my car repaired.” He faced the mechanic and continued, “So, I know you can get my car running sweet, but what’s it gonna cost me, and can you do it right now? Drop everything and I’ll make it worth your while. We can negotiate the price later.”
The mechanic lit a cigarette and replied, “I can fit you in because I was about to start a big job on that R8, but it can wait until morning. My labor rate is a hundred-dollars per hour. I have the parts in stock and, if nothing’s been fucked with and required maintenance has been followed, I can get you fixed up in an hour-and-a-half.” He shrugged and added, “The parts are about two-hundred-fifty dollars…but again, I won’t know until I open the hood, which costs a minimum of a hundred dollars.”
Brian whistled and pretended to be shocked. “You’re gonna charge me four-hundred bucks to change my spark plugs?”
“Probably more, because I don’t think this vehicle has been properly maintained.”
Brian didn’t answer immediately because he finally placed the face of the mechanic. It was his own countenance, without the beard. Intrigued, he introduced himself and learned that the mechanic owned Black Forest Enterprises and had no employees. He agreed to the basic fee and the hood was opened by Stanley Lewis, who explained that he’d been trained by Audi in Germany and spoke German, besides spending a couple of years working the Formula One circuit with Audi. The under-hood inspection was quick, timed by a single cigarette, before the verdict was declared.
“You need a new ignition chip. Someone tried to make this a street racer and totally screwed up the ignition system. That’s why the plugs failed. I can get you set up and on the road in two-and-a-half hours, but the cost will be close to a thousand dollars, only an estimate, but I have the parts in stock.”
It was time to negotiate, so Brian acted as if he were thinking before making a counter offer. “Maybe you’d take something in trade, like a new TV or some furniture…maybe something more personal, if you know what I mean…”
“I accept major credit cards, PayPal, and Google Pay. No cash. And no deals of any kind. Do you want me to fix your car?”
Brian felt like one of his clients. He was being squeezed, but he wasn’t in a position to threaten a legitimate businessman who could repair his car. “Sure.”
Stanley nodded. “I’ll need a deposit of one-hundred-dollars, using a major credit card, PayPal or Google Pay.” He smiled and added, “I opened your hood.”
That was a problem because Brian avoided using any payment method that could be traced by the IRS or the FBI or whoever else would be interested in his financial transactions. Everything he did was in cash. He had a checking account but seldom used it. He started to protest but Stanley shook his head and said, “Payment terms aren’t negotiable. I’m not trying to give you a hard time, but with electronic payment or a credit card, state law guarantees I get paid. It’s a mechanic’s lien sort of. And I don’t have any cash around to attract unwelcome attention. I’ve been stiffed and robbed before so, like I said, I only accept a credit card or electronic payments. No bitcoin.”
Brian figured that it probably wouldn’t attract any attention if he were to deposit enough cash in his account to pay for the repair. There was nothing suspicious about spending a grand on a car repair, so he accepted Stanley’s terms—for the moment. “Sure, I’ll transfer some money to my PayPal account while you get started.”
Stanley thought about that a minute before answering. “Don’t take too long because I won’t put anything back together until I have the deposit. Got it?”
Brian understood that he was being squeezed and that bothered him. Manny knew it too. He was grinning as if he’d heard a good joke. Brian swallowed his annoyance and tossed the keys to Stanley before heading down the street to a nearby bank branch to make a cash deposit, so he could open a PayPal account and pay this prick. Part of his mind wanted to beat the shit out of Stanley but another, calmer, voice reminded him of what his mother had often said. “Don’t piss in your water bowl, Brian, or you may find yourself thirsty one day.”
“Shit, Brian, I can’t believe you let that fuck-head talk to you that way, laying down the law and all. Want me to go back and straighten him out?”
Brian stopped walking and faced Manny before explaining. “It doesn’t work that way with legit businesses, man, you gotta play by the rules. What would the boss think if he heard about me leaning on a mechanic in Queens? Not to mention, we got no treaties with the local boys. They’d freak out and, next thing you know, we got big trouble. Just let me do the thinking.”
Brian ignored the sarcasm and entered the bank first, waiting in line to see a teller, before depositing a couple grand in his account. He couldn’t help nervously looking at the security cameras, watching the armed guard, worrying about Manny’s sarcasm and what that meant. Dealing with banks made him thirsty, so he led Manny to a bar for a beer. They settled in a quiet corner and Brian focused on creating a PayPal account and transferring the deposit to Black Forest Enterprises. Manny kept making sarcastic comments about Brian becoming a regular citizen, following the rules, offering to break Stanley’s legs.
On a trip to the toilet, Brian looked in the mirror, imagining himself without the beard, and realized he was looking at Stanley Lewis, maybe a couple of years older. Same hazel eyes and hair, same light skin tone, build, nose, chin. He returned to the table slightly shaken.
Manny kept up the pressure, suggesting they take the car and give the grease monkey a lesson in how the real world operated. On the importance of cash in any age. Fuck the politicians and their laws. Brian agreed with Manny’s analysis after a couple of pitchers. He wasn’t going to take any more shit from a grease monkey.
“Throw the cash down and take your car,” Manny proclaimed on the walk back to the garage.
Brian was surprised at such a declaration from his backup man, as if he were giving the orders. There was a lot of give-and-take in their relationship, but Manny had never, even in jest, given Brian advice. They both knew who was in charge.
“I’ll let you know when I need your advice, Manny. Be cool and don’t do anything stupid.”
Manny scoffed, a knowing smile on his face.
They arrived at the red-brick façade of Black Forest Enterprises just as Stanley was closing the hood of Brian’s car. It was running smoother than ever and Brian was impressed, but his resolve not to be squeezed was undiminished after the ten-minute walk from the bar. Manny hung back as he approached Stanley.
“What’s the damages? I’ll bet you found a way to jack up the cost, right? Maybe a couple grand?”
Stanley shook his head. “Your engine CPU wasn’t damaged by the half-assed work done in the name of performance, so the only extra work was a new ignition chip and replacing some loose connectors. The total is $620.93. And you saved yourself a major engine job down the road.” He pointed at the high-performance sports car parked in front of the other stall and added, “I have to replace the rings in this car because the owner thought he was smarter than the engineers at Audi. He’s going to pay the price for his arrogance, on the order of thirty-grand. But you’re good for another hundred-thousand miles.”
Manny interrupted before Brian could respond, laughing loudly and saying, “Goddamn, Brian, now that I think about it, this grease monkey looks like your identical twin. But he owns a razor!”
Momentarily distracted, Brian grinned at Stanley. “You notice the resemblance, Stan? Cause I sure as hell did. What’s your birthday? Maybe we’re twins separated at birth…”
“I don’t think so, Brian. I’m forty-three and I’m sure you’ve got a couple of years on me, more gray hair and all.” He wasn’t smiling, which made Brian nervous. Stanley was so uptight.
Brian’s head rolled around for dramatic effect as he responded. “Yeah, you got me there. I’m forty-five, so I guess the twin theory is out, but maybe we’re brothers. Were you adopted?”
Stanley’s head shook emphatically. “My parents live in Brooklyn. I have a brother who looks a lot like me, and my dad. I guess some physical characteristics are strong, even in different families.”
A thought crossed Brian’s mind, something so humorous he laughed and shared it. “I don’t have a clue who my father is…maybe we have the same dad.” He winked at Stanley and added, “You know, a wolf in sheep’s clothing…”
Stanley finally smiled a little. “Given what I know of my dad’s younger days, that’s possible. What year were you born?”
Stanley’s head wagged thoughtfully. “Dad was in Germany in seventy-five, but—what did your mother do for a living, where’d she work?”
Brian laughed. “She was in the personal entertainment business, know what I mean?”
“You got it. Doing tricks here in Queens, by the docks, downtown, all over. She was a looker back then, before getting hooked on heroin, I’ve seen pictures, not one of those ten-dollar hookers, classy. You think she might have met good old dad?”
Before Stanley could respond, Manny interjected, “You guys should get a DNA test, not that it matters, not to you anyway, Boss.”
His tone was more sarcastic than before, which irritated Brian and made him think it might be time to get a new assistant. He retorted, “Maybe we will Manny, not that it’s any of your business.” He faced Stanley, snapped his fingers in disappointment, and produced a roll of twenties from his pocket, counting them as he said, “I was hoping to get the family discount, but I’ll settle for paying you with cash which, according to the writing on this twenty-dollar bill, is ‘legal tender for all debts public and private,’ so here you go.” He held out the roll of bills in anticipation of having won the legal and fiscal argument.
Stanley’s head shook emphatically. “New York doesn’t require me to accept cash, even though it is legal tender for all debts. I’ve had this conversation before, Brian. I’ve even had lawsuits brought against me, and they were all dismissed because the state of New York has chosen not to tell me what form of payment I have to accept. I know you can just transfer the money through PayPal and you’re trying to make a point, about having the right to pay me in cash. I get it, but I don’t have to risk my life or my business by accepting cash. I can’t make any exceptions. Criminals like cash, so I don’t. It’s that simple.”
The subtle message lurking within Stanley’s statement wasn’t lost on Brian. He hadn’t known about the law just quoted and that bothered him, but he was committed to not being put down in front of Manny.
Manny offered a solution. “Just put the money on that greasy desk and let’s get out of here. If the grease monkey is worried about getting robbed, he can go to the bank on his way home. I’m sure he isn’t going to tear that motor apart tonight.” He pointed towards the black sports car lurking in the afternoon shadow.
Annoyed more by Manny’s tone than Stanley’s intransigence, Brian strode to the steel desk set in a corner of the brightly lit garage and spread out the twenties before turning to Stanley, his hand outstretched. “I’d like the keys now. You’ve been paid in full including a tip for your prompt attention.”
“I don’t get why you’re making a big deal about my payment policy, which you accepted when you paid the deposit.” He threw his hands up defensively and added, “I’m not challenging you, just running my shop, fixing cars and trying to get paid without being robbed, that’s all.”
Feeling pretty loose after several pitchers of beer, Brian didn’t see it that way. In fact, Stanley’s intractable position was exactly what he was paid to deal with, and he wasn’t going to lose face in front of Manny, not to a grease monkey with a sense of empowerment because he had his own business. No way. Apparently, Stanley didn’t know who he was dealing with, so Brian straightened him out.
He left the money on the desk and strolled over to Stanley, smiling self-assuredly, before saying, “What’s to keep me from taking my car?”
Stanley’s frown revealed that he knew who he was dealing with as he replied through tight lips, “You’re a gangster and a criminal, collecting ‘protection’ money from businessmen like me to leave them alone. Guys like you have sucked the life out of the neighborhood and ruined what was once a decent place to live. Now it’s like living in a post-apocalypse nightmare.”
“This guy’s got a big mouth, Brian, why don’t I shut it for him?” Manny offered, taking a step towards Stanley, fists clenched in anticipation.
Brian held his arm up to stop Manny and said, “We don’t have to resort to violence with Stanley, he might be my brother, so take it easy Manny. I’ll deal with this misunderstanding.”
Manny didn’t back up but his fists unclenched, his jaw relaxing. “Sure, Boss.”
Before Brian could respond to Manny’s insubordination, Stanley continued, “You’ve lost it, man. You’ve become addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes from pushing people around. You’ve turned something as simple as getting your car repaired into a threat to your position in the fantasy world you live in.”
Brian swooned as if stricken by Stanley’s words. “Wow! I should run to a church and seek forgiveness, what do you think, Manny?”
Manny laughed. “Sure. Get confession or maybe last rites—something like that.”
Brian focused his attention on Stanley. He shook his head as if dealing with a delinquent debtor and said, “Well, Stan…that was quite a speech, but this isn’t the PTA, a fact you apparently failed to notice, so I suggest that you take the cash and avoid any unpleasantness…” He let his words trail off, hoping his message had been understood, not knowing why he was pushing Stanley so hard, unaware that Stanley wasn’t listening. Something was wrong but, before he could put it together, Manny interrupted his train of thought.
“I’m ready to get the hell out of this shithole.”
The pieces fell into place, but not fast enough. Manny’s insubordination had been beyond anything he’d ever expressed, which could only mean that he wasn’t concerned about professional repercussions because he was acting on orders by a higher authority—the Boss. Brian reached for the nine-millimeter pistol in his shoulder harness, but his actions were futile because Stanley’s body suddenly slammed into him, just as two gunshots rang out. He was knocked to the hard cement floor by the force of the impact but didn’t lose his gun, firing a volley in return, aiming as well as he could around Stanley.
His gun at the ready, Brian pushed Stanley to the side and prepared to continue shooting, but Manny lay lifeless on the concrete. Staggering to his feet, he scanned the area for another shooter, a backup, before turning his attention to Stanley.
“What the hell’s going on,” Stanley mumbled, lying on his back in a pool of blood.
Brian called 911 for the first time in his life, knowing this would place him on the FBI’s radar, but he couldn’t sit by and let Stanley die. And he couldn’t take his car without paying for the repairs. He shook Stanley to keep him conscious and said, “Hey, Stan, I accept your terms and I’m paying you right now.” He made a point of showing his phone’s screen to a semi-conscious Stanley as he sent his payment via PayPal.
Stanley scoffed painfully and replied, “You are a stubborn man, Brian. Is this how you conduct all of your business, with a gunfight?”
Brian looked at Manny’s body, lying in front of the garage, then at Stanley, and realized that he was in over his head. He’d never suspected that Manny, his backup, had been sent to kill him. Maybe by the boss of maybe he’d cut a deal with the Mosconi’s. Now, Stanley, a total stranger who was connected to him through their shared appearance, maybe blood, was bleeding at his feet. An innocent bystander. He kept shaking Stanley gently, keeping him awake, until the ambulance arrived. When the paramedics had left with Stanley, Brian had to deal with the police. He wasn’t arrested because he had a concealed-carry permit and his story fit with the evidence, Stanley being carried off in a stretcher, the receipt for the repair work, Manny not being licensed to carry a weapon in the city. When the police were distracted, Brian surreptitiously collected some of Stanley’s blood from the cement floor with his handkerchief, certain that a DNA test would reveal that his half-brother had saved his life. Not that it mattered.