Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cutting Room Floor: Ravens Roast

When editing "The Permit," I cut about 15,000 words, including entire chapters, that didn't satisfy a fiction writer's ruthless criterion: Does it move the story forward?

Several faithful readers, who had tracked the online, serialized version, noted that the final, published book was missing a chapter they particularly liked—"Ravens Roast." Consequently, like a DVD movie that provides "Extras," here's that chapter, rescued from the writer's "cutting room floor." It didn't make the final manuscript, but was resurrected to satisfy fans of the savvy old Las Vegas mobster, Dino Alberti.

Ravens Roast


It was a crazy idea, one birthed in outrage and anger, but what the hell. The boys hadn’t been this charged up and excited, since being sidelined, after the feds supposedly cleaned up Vegas decades ago. Of course, nothing had really been cleaned up. The “family” had simply changed tactics, shifting to more-sophisticated ways that employed Metro cops as enforcers, rather than private, in-house muscle. But tonight, the old ways, the tried-and-true family means of guaranteeing a mark got the message, were being reborn.

Dino Alberti shut the lights off and eased his two-tone, 1988 Buick Riviera to the curb. “The third house up there, on da right, ya see?” His white-haired passenger shoved oversized bifocal glasses higher on his nose.

“Yeah, I got it,” Joey growled. “You gonna call ‘im first?”

“Hold yer horses,” Dino said, twisting a key to silence the Buick’s engine. He retrieved a pay-as-you-go, disposable cell phone and note pad from his jacket pocket. “Get dat flashlight over here, so I can see these damn chiclets.” Joey held a penlight over the center console, while Dino painstakingly punched tiny keys, then held the phone to his ear.

On the fifth ring, a groggy voice answered, “Krupa residence.”

“Yeah, is dis Officer Olek Krupa of the Metropolitan Poh-leese?” Dino asked, effecting a cheesy Hollywood-mobster accent.

A pause. “Speaking.”

“You da dude who shot dat Steele kid, right?”

A longer pause, before Krupa clipped, “Yeah. Who’s asking?”

“Then we got da correct guy. Me and da boys just thought you oughta know that youse is a dead man. Ya still walkin’ ‘round, but da black hand is on yo’ shoulder. Let me put it dis way: You gonna die, mutha!”

Dino dropped the tiny cell phone. It bounced on the seat, then the floorboard, between his feet. “Sonofabitch!” he grunted, flailing a hand in the dark, until he found the device. He clutched it, squinted hard at the keypad, and punched a red END key.

Harsh laughter from the rear seat joined that of Dino’s shotgun passenger. “Ooooh, you scared dat pig, boss-man! Kickin’ dat phone round musta put da fright in dat boy! Krupa’s bee-linin’ for da crapper, ‘bout to ruin his jammies!” Joey hooted.

“Shut ya trap,” Dino growled. “Pissant baby-pink phones ain’t big enough for a man’s fist!”

The three elderly, long-retired “enforcers” razzed each other for another few minutes. Having worked together since the sixties, when they were young Mob toughs, their crude, exaggerated New Yawk insults were back-handed endearments reserved for the closest of compadres. They all had blood on their hands, a tough bond that ensured common experiences and black secrets were shared only with each other. Those confidences would never be divulged, even to wives and children.

Dino slapped Joey on the shoulder. “That fat-butt cop oughta be in the sack by now. You deliver da package, then haul your old ass down to the next cross-street. I’ll pick ya up there.”

“Gladly, boss. This damn thing’s startin’ to stink.” Joey grabbed a black trash bag and unlatched the car door, eliciting a string of curses.

“Close dat frappin’ door, ya stupid goombah!” Dino stage-whispered. A dome light had illuminated the interior. He fumbled for the overhead switch, then cleared Joey to ease the door open again. No light. The seventy-five-year-old pulled himself erect with some effort, muttering obscenities about Buicks. He tossed the trash bag over his shoulder, letting its ball of cargo slap his butt-cheek.

Watching the man shuffle up the sidewalk, Dino griped, “Mother of Jesus, Joey! Can ya speed it up?”

“It’ll be daybreak, before that old fart gets to the door!” Franco, the lone rear-seat occupant, groused.

Joey eyed the Krupa home’s darkened windows, thinking through his next moves.

No lights, no dogs. Good. Hope to hell dat pig don’t have no motion-sensor on da front porch.

He crept to the door, glad he’d worn soft-soled SAS-brand shoes. Stretching the sack’s yellow drawstring open, a stench almost decked him, forcing a retreat to arm’s length. Joey dumped the contents a few feet from the front door and wadded up the trash bag. Pinching his nose to avoid inhaling that gawdawful odor, he jammed a sheet of white typing paper under the critter’s scrawny legs. Lying on its side, mouth agape, the bloated creature was a disgusting sight.

Joey half-trotted down the front walkway, turned right at the street and hustled to the T-intersection. Dino’s Buick was there, engine idling. The old man slid into the passenger seat, breathing heavily. 

“Jeez! Deliveries were a helluva lot easier thirty years ago!”

“Ya ain’t havin’ a heart attack, are ya?” Franco chuckled, patting Joey’s sweat-matted hair. “If you’re dependin’ on this old geezer to give mouth-to-mouth to that ugly puss, you’re gonna die!”

Joey wheezed and pretended to spasm, triggering hearty yuks from his companions. Dino eased into the street and executed two turns, before switching on the headlights. Once on Sahara, he handed the throw-away cell phone to Joey.

“Give Birdy a yell. Tell him we’ll be there in ten,” he directed.

Joey punched a pre-programmed key and waited. “Hey, Birdy! We’re on our way. You got a bead on dat other pigeon?” Long pause. “Well, shizza! Just a minute... Yo, Dino,” Joey called. “Birdy says dat other cop...Caca whatever... He’s not home. Right now, his rig is parked on Apache, and da pig ain’t in it. He took off with some other cat.”

Dino swore under his breath and whipped a U-turn at the next light.

Soon, the lights-out Buick was parked a hundred feet from Officer Kale Akaka’s spanking-new Ford F250 pickup truck in a strip-mall lot. Burt, whose given name had morphed into “Birdy” at an early age, appeared and rapped on the passenger window.

“Hey ya, boys. The big cop left with a Metro detective awhile ago. We better get this shit done, ‘cause he could be back any minute.”

Dino double-checked the dome light switch, then cleared his co-conspirators to exit. He popped the Buick’s trunk and extracted another cinched-tight trash bag. “Okay, Franco, do your stuff. Everybody else, back inside. If Franco gets busted, we’re outa here. Got it?”

Murmurs of agreement were trumped by Franco’s harsh objection.

“Like hell, Dino! You better not leave an old buddy out here by hisself! On Mother Mary’s soul, I swear I’ll kick yo flabby ol’ butt....”

“Fuggedaboutit!” Dino declared, invoking the Brooklyn salute and patting Franco’s cheek. “Just don’t get your ass busted, if ya know what’s good for ya! Now, get goin’ already! When you’re done, flick dat flashlight on and off, and we’ll pick you up, okay?”

Franco grumbled, but twisted the trash bag into a fist and took off. The others slipped back into the darkened Buick. At Akaka’s giant rig, Franco flattened himself against the passenger door, forced a long “Slim Jim” through the window seal and started probing. By feel, he found the critical mechanism, wiggled the tool’s hook into position, and yanked. Inside, the door-lock button snapped upward. Franco glanced around, ensuring all was clear, and opened the truck’s door.

Fortunately, Akaka had snuffed the cab’s interior light, and no alarm had been activated. Franco struggled to climb into the waist-high passenger seat and eased the door closed. He opened the trash bag and carefully dumped a black, blood-soaked corpse onto the pristine-leather driver’s seat. He, too, slipped a hand-scrawled message under a scrawny leg.

Before closing the truck’s door, he noticed a dark smear appearing around the carcass. Akaka’s fine leather seat was already blood-stained.

A half hour later, the four aging ex-enforcers were hunkered over pie and coffee at a Denny’s restaurant. They were still excited, Dino noted, reliving the night’s adventure. He hadn’t seen Franco this animated, since his wife died.

Dino tapped his coffee cup on the table, drawing the others’ attention. “Boys, ya done good tonight. Those shitbirds will be ruinin' their drawers, ‘round daylight, and they won’t have a dad-gummed clue who to blame." Serious now, Dino had dropped the back-East accent and slang of his youth. "Might take those dim bulbs awhile, but they’ll connect the dots and figure out that Erik’s friends have ‘em in the crosshairs." 

“What about the other shooter? We’re not lettin’ him skate, are we?” Birdy asked.

“Naw. I just couldn’t find out where he lived!” Dino said, eliciting chuckles. “Once we pin down his coordinates, we’ll pay him a visit, as well. Every one of those killers is gonna pay for shootin’ Erik!”

LAS VEGAS/4:23 a.m.

“Another very profitable night, Kale! Keep this up and we’ll retire in a year!” the Metro lieutenant declared.

Kale Akaka shook hands with his “pharmaceutical business” partner, gripped the shoulder straps of a nylon day pack stuffed with American green, and unfolded from the lieutenant’s low-slung car. He waved at the departing vehicle and dug a set of keys from his pocket. Even in the faint pre-dawn light, his new, bright-red F250 was gorgeous.

Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, the powerfully built officer could have been a student, commuter or shift-worker. He pressed the “Open” button on a key fob, pulled the truck door wide and started to slide under the steering wheel. With one leg elevated, he froze. A lifeless desert raven lay on the contoured leather driver’s seat. The stinking dead bird’s blood had oozed into a thick stain—a foot-diameter blotch.

Furious, Akaka yanked a sheet of bloody paper that had been wedged under the bird’s claw-like talons:


A chill washed over Officer Kale Akaka. Somehow, the message reaffirmed a nagging conviction that had plagued him day and night, since he’d pumped four 9-mm slugs into Erik Steele’s body: Time was running out. His ticket-of-life had already been punched, then stamped:  Expired.

LAS VEGAS/7:10 a.m.

Olek Krupa was shaving, when his wife screamed. He grabbed a towel and ran from the bathroom, sliding to a halt long enough to sweep his Glock off the nightstand. Amy screamed again.

“Oly! What is that?” Amy babbled, terrorized. She backed away from the open front door, one hand over her mouth, the other flapping at a black, feathered mass.

Krupa crossed the threshold and squatted. A dead, bloody raven lay on its side, wings bent at unnatural angles. It was rank, radiating a sickening, putrid odor intensified by rising air temperatures. He tugged a note from a curved talon:


Slowly, Olek Krupa straightened. He crumpled the offensive sheet and glared at the bird’s matted, blood-glued feathers. He, too, felt cold terror rising within his being.

“Oly! Talk to me!” Amy was pouting, gripping the man’s bicep. “Who did this? It’s! What does...?”

“It’s an old mobster trick,” Krupa growled, irritated. “Somebody’s playing a sick joke.”

“But what does the sign...?” Amy cried.

“Hell, I don’t know!” he shouted, jerking his arm free. “Some sicko kid trying to freak us out!”

He stomped to the garage, returned with a shovel, and scooped up the large bird’s corpse. He dumped it into a trashcan, slammed the lid, then slipped into the back yard. The skinny cop knelt at the swimming pool’s edge and rinsed his hands, even though he’d not touched the rotting, jet-black raven.

From the kitchen, Amy watched her husband scrubbing his hands and arms. Narrow, sloped shoulders were shaking, and his eyes kept flitting around the yard, as if searching for the creep, who had left an ugly, dead raven. Either the man was crying—which she doubted—or he was trembling, filled with stark fear.

That frightened her. Something had snapped in Oly, when he was staring at the dead bird on his doorstep, reading that ominous message: