The Blue Blazes - By Chuck Wendig Page 0,1

Hayden’s bourbon. Bluecoat gin. Macallen 18, a Balvenie Madeira cask, a Laphroaig 18-year. Somewhere in the back, a bottle of Pappy van Winkle. None of that tonight. He won the day, but it feels hollow. No celebration here.

Mookie sits. Spins the cap off the bottle. Pries the plastic wrap off the plate with a delicateness one would not suspect of his thick, callus-upon-callus fingers. But it’s surgical the way he pulls it off, folds it once over, then twice, before revealing the whole of the plate.

Before him, a variety of meats. A soft square of rabbit galantine. An oily circle of salumi. A couple cold blood sausages, each as black as the Devil in the night. Far end of the plate is his favorite: lardo. Chilled, cured fatback.

There exists a moment when he stares down at the array of charcuterie – meats he prepared himself in an act that brings him peace and satisfaction in this violent life – when the pain almost overwhelms him. It’s not the physical pain, though that’s most certainly there, what with the scabbed knuckles and the fat lip and all the other bumps and cuts and pummeled flesh.

This pain runs deeper. His heart a puddle of slushy water that hides an endless well of regret. His heart hurts. It hurts into his stomach and his lungs, makes it hard to breathe, makes it hard to eat. He breathes deep through his nose, then pops the lardo in his mouth–

The hurt fades. The fat melts on his tongue. Salty and sweet. Faintly herby. A true cold comfort, melting over teeth and gums. Eyes closed. Boulder head rolling back on mountain shoulders. He moans. He can’t help it. One of the few things he truly enjoys: the preparation and the consumption. He’s lost to it. He can feel it in his toes.

Until–

His phone rings.

And like that, the moment is ruined. A kite that comes crashing down to earth. Caught in briar. Dashed on rocks.

Mookie palms the phone in his pocket, brings the tiny digital brick to his ear. “Yeah?”

It’s Werth. The old goat.

“How’d it go?” Werth asks, stepping across all the pleasantries, which is what Mookie prefers anyway. “It get done?”

“It always gets done.” Mookie looks down at the knuckles on his left hand. As he flexes, scabs split. Red runs fresh. He rolls those knuckles on a bar napkin. “I ran into problems.”

“There’s always problems. What kind?”

“The gobbos. They’re all riled up. Like wasps that know winter’s coming.”

Werth is silent for a moment. “Was bound to happen.”

“Yeah. But this is different. They’re agitated.”

“But the shipment’s good?”

“Shipment’s good.”

“Good. Good. Real fuckin’ good. Hey. The Boss wants to see everybody.”

The Boss. The big man at the top. Konrad Zoladski. He’s been out-of-sight for the better part of a year, now.

A spike of worry lances through Mook’s chest. “Why?”

“Not sure.”

“Unh. When?”

“Tomorrow morning. You want me to pick you up? I’ll bring the car.”

“No. I’ll take the train.”

“Call me when you’re in the city. I’ll text you the address when you get here. I need you to dress like a…”

Werth keeps talking, but Mookie stops listening.

Because he smells something.

He smells flowers.

The bundled flesh at the back of his neck prickles and turns to chicken-skin. That scent crawls into his nose. All-too-familiar.

“Did you hear me?” Werth says on the other end. “I said, don’t dress like a thug tomorrow. I need you to dress like a professional. Put on a fuckin’ shirt. Something with buttons. Definitely nothing with bloodstains on it. Hey. Mook?”

“I gotta go.”

“Hey, goddamnit, I’m talking to you–”

“I’m tired,” is all Mookie says.

Then Mookie ends the call with a punch of his thumb.

He slides off the barstool. Big boots make the floorboards whine.

That smell again. Like snippets of a melody in the air, a song you know but thought you’d forgotten, a song whose sound conjures memories of long ago.

“Nora,” he says. Voice a croak. “I know you’re here.”

From the back booth, a shuffle of a heel scuffing the floor.

But nobody’s there.

Until she is. One minute: nothing. The next, Nora stands there like she was never not there. That smile, curled up at one corner like it’s tugged by a fish-hook. Those eyes, mean and bright like match-tips at the moment of striking. Chestnut hair down over her shoulders, longer than Mookie remembers it.

She appears, plucking something out from under her tongue. He doesn’t see what.

She still looks like a schoolgirl. Tartan skirt. Blue cardigan. It’s her look these days.

“Nora.” He feels like a tree hollowed out by

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