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85_ym_apprenticethug_hlyon.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon 2021

The Apprentice Thug

Albert Kanach

 

“There are two types of people you have to recognize if you want to survive and do good; those that you always say no to and those that you never say no to. Getting the answer wrong either way can totally fuck you up.”

Ed Bonanno just grunted. He didn’t want to disrespect old Charlie, but Ed really thought he was full of shit.

Charlie wasn’t finished. “Smart guys aren’t the ones with the big brains or fancy degrees. In life, the smart guys are the ones who can tell when lady luck is throwing them a softball in the middle of the plate and have the guts to swing for the fences.”

Ed didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Sounds like you got it figured out.”

“I’m one of the lucky ones. I like my job. Good pay, low risk. But one thing I have figured out for sure is that Buddy is one of the guys you don’t say no to.”

 Buddy was the boss. He invested in a lot of legitimate businesses, so Charlie’s job was to collect the cash being skimmed, run it through the counting machine, and deliver it to the guys who launder it. Ed’s job was to drive Charlie around while looking intimidating enough to discourage anybody stupid enough to think about going after that cash. Charlie was an easygoing guy, but in this duo, he called the shots.

Ed closed the sports app and put his phone away. “I got it already. I’m gonna do what Buddy says and show him I can handle whatever jobs he needs done. I’m moving up, Charlie. I won’t be doing this shit too much longer.”

Charlie gave Ed that sad look reserved for anyone too stupid to realize how stupid they were. “Okay, Ed. Good luck.”

For the Philadelphia mob, South Philly and Atlantic City were the hot spots, the money machines. Northeast Philly was the boondocks, so the big guys let Buddy run things his way—as long as they got a piece of the action. Buddy was the anointed boss and this was his territory. If it was illegal, he either owned it or had a piece of it. He kept the nonviolent stuff for himself. Numbers, cards, whores, hijacking and smuggling all brought in a good income. Drugs he farmed out, too violent to risk but too lucrative to ignore. He controlled the supply and left the distribution to others. He could always find someone willing to work the streets. They rarely lasted long enough to become a problem, but that didn't mean there weren't ten more ready to take the job. The main lesson Ed learned from Buddy is that it’s good to be the boss.

***

          “You wanted to see me, boss?” Ed waited at the bar until he got the okay to approach Buddy at his favorite table.

          “Yeah, Ed, sit down.” Buddy smiled but didn’t offer Ed a drink. “I have a job for you.”

          “Great, I’m ready.” Ed was never really good at walking the line between being respectful and coming off like a lapdog.

          “There’s a couple of guys coming in tonight. I want you to pick them up at the airport and drive them wherever they want to go.”

“You got it, boss, whatever you want.” Ed tried to sound enthusiastic, but he wasn’t a good actor.

“Good. You go see Lenny at the garage on Fifth Street. He’ll fix you up with a car. Something nice but discreet.”

That stung. Ed was proud of his Cadillac, but it had over two hundred grand on the clock and the muffler was rusting out.

“Boss?” Ed paused a beat to see if Buddy would shut him down. When Buddy didn’t say anything, he pushed on. “You know, I haven’t been doing much lately. I’m ready for some bigger jobs, if you need someone.”

 Ed waited while Buddy took a slow sip of his drink. He could feel the heat under his armpits. He didn’t want Buddy to see him sweat, but he couldn’t control it.

Buddy put down his drink. “I’ll think about it. You do good on this job and I’ll see if there’s something there for you.”

“Thanks, boss.” Ed didn’t have to be dismissed. He wanted to get away before the flop sweat could start running down his shiny bald dome.

          Even in high school Ed was touchy about his reputation as a tough guy. He liked being able to intimidate people. His genes gave him size, and spending his teens working in construction and on loading docks bulked him up. But Ed was always looking for an out, an easier way to make money, and he had no concerns about whether it was honest or not. He tried boxing, but he was better dishing it out than taking it. In his twenties he tried being the muscle for a small-time loan shark but found that street fighting was different from the ring. The first time he broke his hand, he quit. Eventually he hooked up with some local hoods, trying to work his way up but not getting very far. They would take him on jobs where they needed brawn but no brains. He never got to plan jobs, he never got to run things. He was a follower. He wanted to be the boss. He wanted to tell people what to do instead of being told. He got to know Charlie so, when Charlie needed a new driver, Ed jumped at it. It was steady work, but well into his thirties, Ed was still an apprentice thug, stuck on one of the lowest rungs of the ladder and not moving up. Buddy giving him this job was like a tryout. He was determined not to blow it.

***

          “Buddy said I was to pick up a nice car to drive some guys around tonight. Something impressive.” Ed figured that throwing Buddy’s name around would carry some weight. Lenny was just a mechanic.

          Lenny lifted his head from under the hood of a beautifully restored early seventies vintage, four-fifty-four Malibu. He appraised Ed with a skeptical look. “So you’re the guy who’s filling in for Rocco?”

          Ed felt his face flush but tried to control it. “Buddy gave me this job.”

          Lenny wiped his hands on a tattered rag, “Yeah, I heard Rocco had the flu. Congratulations.”

          Until that moment, it didn’t dawn on Ed that he was a fill-in. He told Charlie that Buddy handpicked him for the job. Charlie probably knew better but didn’t say anything. Ed struggled to sound confident. “I’m supposed to get a car.”

          Lenny pushed his glasses up with the back of his wrist. “Yeah, I got the car for you.” He went through a key box on the wall. “Over here.” Lenny walked out the back door of the shop and over to a slightly dented Buick. “Here you go.” He held out the key. “Wait in short-term parking. There’s an activated burner phone on the seat. They’ll text you when they land. You tell them where you’re parked and then wait. They’ll tell you what to do.”

          Ed took the key and looked at the car. “This is what Buddy said to use?”

          “He said something invisible. This fits the bill.”

          Ed wasn’t usually philosophical but it occurred to him that Lenny was describing more than just the car. They wanted an invisible car with an invisible driver, so they picked him.

***

          Ed was tired of the criminal life. He didn't make a lot of money, he didn't get a lot of respect, he didn't feel important. He’d seen Goodfellas and he wanted what those guys had but could never figure out how to get there. He was lucky that he never got caught, but he wanted the credibility that came with doing time. He kept looking to move up or move out, but options were hard to come by. This was his big chance.

          As he waited at the airport, Ed started getting psyched for the job. He figured he was getting a free night out on the town, maybe they’d even score some hookers and there would be one for him. Then his passengers got there.

          As soon as they were in the car, he knew they weren’t there to party. He tried talking them up to see what was going on. They told him to shut up and drive. They were both hard-looking men, the kind that seem like they’re always mad at something. They barely talked. They gave him an address and he drove. Ed was scared of his passengers and he was scared of what he might be getting into.

          “This is it, coming up on the left.” Ed knew the neighborhood. Old row houses sat between empty factories decorated with graffiti. Few of the cars at the curb were less than ten years old. A bunch of bad-ass bikers hung out in a bar around the corner. Normally, Ed wouldn’t even drive down this block let alone walk around. But that didn’t seem like something he should mention to these guys.

          “Okay, park here.”

          “That’s a no parking zone.” Ed regretted saying it as soon as it was out of his mouth. Their silence made it worse. He parked where he was told and shut up.

          “Keep the motor running.” The two men got out and looked around the deserted street. They left their overnight bags in the car and walked to the address they’d given Ed, one to the front, the other down the alley to the rear. As soon as they were out of hearing range, Ed locked the doors.

          The next couple of minutes were the longest of Ed’s life. Acid was burning a hole in his stomach, sweat dripped, his hands shook, and he wanted to run but he was too scared to move. Then he heard the yelling. Then he heard the first shot.

          A shadowy figure jumped over a fence and into the next yard. The guy in the rear took a shot. He missed his target but not the roof of Ed’s car. Ed panicked and dove down across the seat.

          His passengers were running after the jumper, but the man had a good lead on them and he knew the neighborhood. Two more shots rang out in the dark, and Ed had all he could take. He got up, slammed the car in gear, and hit the gas. Nothing happened; he’d forgotten the parking brake. As he released the brake, the car shot forward. Suddenly, there was a figure in front of him. He slammed the brakes but not fast enough. Ed heard the sickening crunch of a human body being slammed by two tons of steel and felt the front wheels bounce and then stop.

          Ed stabbed wildly at the window and lock buttons, bile surging to his throat, wanting to see what he’d hit, afraid he might vomit but leaning out anyway. Then his passengers were there.

          “Good shit, you got him. Move the car.”

          Ed fought back the vomit and did as he was told, feeling the rear wheels bounce over their target. He stopped a few feet away but didn’t wait long. Several shots rang out. They tossed their guns in a storm drain and got back in.

          “Go.”

          Ed hit the gas, screeching around a corner and flooring it through two stoplights.

          “Slow down. And head for the airport.”

          Ed obeyed. Whatever they told him to do, he did. No argument.

          After a few minutes, one of them spoke. “What did you say your name was?”

          “Ed, Ed Bonanno.”

          “You did good back there, Ed. That guy was some kind of fucking gazelle. We wouldn’t have caught him.”

          “Bullshit.” His buddy registered his disagreement and dropped it.

          “We’ll tell your boss what you did, put in a good word for you.”

          “Thanks.” Ed said it, but he didn’t feel it. He might have killed somebody, but he wasn’t sure. They pumped at least six bullets into the guy he ran over, the cops would probably have to guess what actually killed him. “Who was he?” Ed didn’t really want to know, but he had to ask.

          “President of some motorcycle gang.”

          Ed stopped breathing. He continued to drive. He appeared to be functioning to the men in the backseat, but he couldn’t catch his breath. They lit cigarettes, but Ed didn't notice. They began to joke, but Ed didn’t respond. He drove, but he was on autopilot. He dropped them at the airport without saying another word. At some point he must have started breathing again because he was still alive, but he knew it was a temporary condition. The gang would find out. The gang would find him. They would kill him. He was a dead man walking.

          Ed wanted to run, but he didn’t have an escape plan and he didn’t have a place to hide. Up to now he never needed one. So he sat in his apartment, hoping they wouldn’t burn down the building to get to him. After three days, Buddy showed up at his door.

“Where have you been?” Buddy sat down and made himself at home. He didn’t seem to be worried about the possibility of fire bombs coming through the windows.

“I thought it might be smart to lay low for a few days. In case the cops come around asking questions.” Ed surprised himself; he was able to keep his voice steady.

Buddy snorted. “The cops don’t give a shit. They’ve been trying to tie the bastard to two murders, but he had a smart lawyer. They think he got what he deserved.”

“What about the bikers?” Ed was really more worried about them then the cops. A good lawyer’s useless when you play by their rules.

“The new top guy is the one who paid for the hit. He’s not as greedy so he’s giving out more of the profits from their meth lab to the rank and file. Everybody’s happy.”

Ed’s world shifted. The confidence that left him came rushing back. He felt confident enough to kid around with Buddy.

“Sounds like they pulled off a hostile takeover.”

Buddy laughed. “Yeah, it’s great to be the boss, but you always have to watch your back.”

Ed relaxed and joined Buddy in an easy laugh. After three sleepless nights followed by days of despair and tension, laughing had him feeling a natural high. Bonding with the boss was a new sensation, he didn’t want it to end, he didn’t want it to be a one and done.

Then, just as Ed was ready to offer him a drink, Buddy reached inside of his jacket. Ed tensed and went pale. He’d been expecting it but not from Buddy, not from his boss. He didn’t have a weapon so he grabbed a glass sitting on the table.

“Here you go.” Buddy pulled out a thick envelope and tossed it to Ed. “And there’s a bonus in there. They said you were the one who nailed the guy before he could get away. Good work.”

Ed was holding the glass so tight he was afraid it would shatter. Slowly, he released his grip and picked up the envelope. His hand had only the slightest tremor. He hoped Buddy wouldn’t notice. “Thanks, boss, but I was just doing the job you gave me.”

“Well, you did good.” Buddy leaned back, relaxing. “You ready for some more work?”

Ed went on high alert. “Yeah, I’m ready for whatever you have for me.”

“Good, because Rocco is going to be out of it for at least two weeks. His wife says he’s barfing his guts out. I don’t want to be near him until the smell dies down.”

Ed smiled. His big chance was here. “You can count on me, boss.”

          Suddenly, Ed’s life changed. He was a killer, not just a thug. People showed respect. People showed fear. He played it up and loved it. For a few weeks, he was a Goodfella. But then Rocco got better.

          Buddy owned a couple of bars that the crews called his waiting rooms. They would hang out waiting for assignments. Ed and a few of the boys were chilling with some basketball and beer when Rocco walked in. The trash talk died as Rocco sat next to Ed. Everybody shut up and stared at the game.

“Hi, Ed. How’s it hanging?” Rocco was a big guy, not as big as Ed but with a reputation as an enforcer. Rumor had it that he specialized in kneecaps.

Ed turned slowly. “Hey, Rocco. How you feeling?”

“Good. I’m back to a hundred percent.” Rocco signaled for a drink and a glass appeared. The bartender didn’t have to ask what he wanted.

“You coming back?” Ed didn’t think he would like the answer, but he needed to know where things stood.

“Tomorrow. I already talked to Buddy and he said he’s got something for me. Thanks for covering for me, but it sounds like Charlie needs you back. The guy that took your place just got fired.”

Ed played it cool, but as soon as Rocco left, he tried to call Buddy. Buddy’s bodyguard/driver took the call.

“Yeah. Buddy okayed it. You’re back driving Charlie tomorrow. Charlie will fill you in when you see him.”

Ed stared at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He didn’t talk to anybody and nobody tried to talk to him. He’d gotten used to being feared and respected. He was like an addict who needed a fix and was told his supply was cut off. He got depressed and started thinking stupid thoughts, like how to get rid of Rocco—despite knowing he didn’t have the guts to do it.

The next morning Ed saw Charlie smiling at him, adding to his humiliation.

“Hi, Ed. I hear you got lucky.”

Ed stopped. “You too, Charlie? You gonna piss on me too?”

“I’m not pissing on you, I’m congratulating you. I’m retiring. I’m old and tired. I already have a place in Florida and I plan to be there before the first snowfall hits.”

Ed was still lost. “And?”

“I’m supposed to train you to be my replacement.”

“You shitting me?” Ed couldn’t believe his luck.

“Rocco came back so Buddy needed something for you. My retiring made it an easy choice.”

Ed stood there digesting this for a while. “So I’m moving up because I got lucky?”

“Right time and right place. Buddy thought you did a good job. You convinced him you could handle it. He decided to give you a shot.”

“So I’m moving up.”

“Yeah, but you know that old saying that tells you to be careful what you wish for?”

“Yeah, I remember it.”

“Well, be careful what you wish for.”

Ed smiled. He learned from Buddy that it’s good to be the boss, but he learned from Charlie that it’s even better to be lucky.


After a long career in construction project management, A. Kanach has retired to pursue writing as a second act.

“The Apprentice Thug” is based on an excerpt from his first (so far, unpublished) novel.


Hillary Lyon is an illustrator for horror/sci-fi and pulp fiction websites and magazines. She is also founder and senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. An SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet, her poems have appeared in journals such as Eternal Haunted Summer, Jellyfish Whispers, Scfifaikuest, Illya’s Honey, and Red River Review, as well as numerous anthologies. Her short stories have appeared recently in Night to Dawn, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Sirens Call, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big EasyThuggish Itch: Viva Las Vegas, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She appeared, briefly, as the uncredited "all-American Mom with baby" in Purple Cactus Media’s 2007 Arizona indie-film, "Vote for Zombie." Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.  https://hillarylyon.wordpress.com/





In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2021