“If I’m going to kill somebody for you,” I said calmly. “I should at least know your name.”
“Don’t like to kill for strangers, huh?” he smiled.
“Don...,” I began to guess.
“A capo, actually. You think a Don would come all the way out here? Name’s Paragon Giovanni and I don’t give a fuck what your name is.”
“How do I know you won’t kill my friends as soon as I walk away?”
“You don’t. Hell, you know and I know, we’ll probably end up killin’ you all. This way, at least you get to live a little longer. Take the bullets out of Joe’s gun, Gino.”
Gino did as he was told. Joe continued to hold onto his hand and scowl at me, as if this last indignity was adding insult to injury.
“Give him the gun and one bullet,” instructed Paragon.
The Barretta landed with a thud at my feet. The bullet’s brass casing bounced off the barrel and into the sand.
“You put the bullet in your pocket. When you get a hundred yards away, load the gun. If we see you walk back this way, we kill you and your friends.”
“You won’t see me,” I assured.
“That’s very funny,” he smiled. “The man your hunting is Salvatore Zeezi. He’s about 6 feet, 40 years old, receding hair line, dark hair. Another gumba down on his luck.”
“He doesn’t even know us!” objected Taylor.
Giovanni leered at him and Taylor shrank away like a wilting flower, mumbling, “He’s just going to leave us.”
“He’s just a piney,” begged Paula. “Why are you doing this?”
Before he could answer, Joey moaned in pain. Tears began streaming down his face. The pain must’ve been excruciating.
“Christ, get him bandaged, will ya?”
“Yes, Mr. Giovanni,” obeyed Gino.
“You remind me of my daughter. Always with the questions, never with the answers,” he smiled. “I’m just an average business man. Average in business, average wife, average salary...”
“Average killer,” I added.
Al backhanded the back of my head with his gun. I feel on my face, tasting dirt.
“But what I’m good at,” continued Giovanni. “Better than anyone else on this planet, maybe---- is sizing up people the second I meet ‘em.”
He put his hand on Taylor’s shoulder.
“This guy here, white bread, pure and simple. He’s one of those people that suffer silently. Probably still a virgin. Buries his head in a book for no other reason than that its easier than communication’ with real people. Probably been carryin’ a torch for ya, since the day ya met. Am I right?”
Taylor looked away in embarrassment. Whether it was true or whether he was just scared, I couldn’t tell.
“Now this guy,” he said gesturing to me. “He is wacked. A cold stone killer, when he wants to be. It’s all in them angry eyes. Probably woulda done us all if I hadn’t sneaked up on ‘em. And it’s not a matter of who or why, right or wrong--- He’s just efficient and mean--- Like a shark, mebbee. And he ain’t no piney, look at ‘em. Pineys at least got houses. He’s some kind of hermit. Like he said, he lives out here. You some kind of fucked-up hermit, mebbee?”
“Mebbee,” I mocked.
Al raised his gun to hit me again, but Giovanni gestured for him to stop.
“If I’m all you say I am, how do you know I won’t just leave you here?”
“Cause you ain’t livin’ out here by choice, wackjob. You got some kind of trauma or what not---- Screwed ya up. Makes you feel good to be out here and away from the guilt of that. But if you don’t come back,” he said grimly, aiming his finger at Paula. “You gonna feel guilt like you won’t believe. Now, get goin’.”
Moving slowly, I picked up the gun and the bullet, feeling their metallic caress. I looked back at Paula, her beautiful eyes swelling up in desperation.
“Get goin’, tough guy,” ordered Al, giving me an additional shove.
“Oh, and one more thing, wackjob,” added Giovanni.
I stopped and glared back at him.
Leaving the light of the campfire and the snickering of gangsters, I followed Taylor’s trail backward toward the limo. I suspected that I didn’t have time to hot wire it, so I did the next best thing and slashed the tires. Now we were all stuck here and one of us, at least, was as good as dead. As I turned, shining a flashlight in the direction of a noise, I noted a trail of blood. I found Mike about 50 yards away, stalled in a last desperate crawl for help.
“Mike,” I whispered. “Paula sent me.”
His eyes flickered open. The light from my flashlight illuminated the tiny drops of blood that seemed to be on everything. Mike was bleeding from an open chest wound about the size of a fist. Tearing off the remains of my shirt, I attempted to stop the bleeding.
“Paula?” he gasped. “Is she all right?”
“She’s fine, but we need to get you to a hospital. The road is only a few miles. Can you move?”
“I-I can’t feel my legs...so cold...”
Snaking my arms underneath him, I attempted to dead lift him from the ground. He had to be 250-280 or so. I set him back down a few feet away and leaned him up against a tree.
“You’re too big, Mike,” I gasped a little out of breath. “Maybe I can throw together a stretcher. Drag you out of the way.”
Mike seized and coughed up some blood. Then that look came across his face that I know so well.
“Don’t bother...” he wheezed. “You just gotta get Paula out of here... Okay? By the way, sorry about the tackle.”
“That’s all right. It was a really good one.”
“Yeah?” he smiled for the last time. “Figures my coach isn’t here to see it... You promise me... Get Paula home safe?”
“Mike, I’m just one guy...”
“I saw your staff lying in the leaves... I read about you in the papers... You’re the Jersey Devil, right? I was gonna turn you in for a reward...”
“You would’ve been the first.”
“Just promise me, okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure, Mike.”
“I know...you can get these...guys....They say...” he mumbled, fading away. “You aren’t...human....”
And just like that, I was staring into the eyes of another dead man, cold and lifeless as a slab of meat. There in those eyes was the Enemy. There in the cold stare of nothingness laughed my Nemesis.
And a new pain, filled me with grief.
I hid Mike’s body as best I could, hoping the gangsters would think he somehow survived. His pack had some spare clothes and I donned an old hockey jersey that caught my eye. Also in the pack were some breakfast bars, a canteen of water, a store bought survival knife, a pocket fisherman, some fishing string, hooks and a bottle of sunblock.
Tracking Salavatore Zeezi in the day would’ve been easy. He left an obvious trail of broken branches and trampled plant life in the wake of his panicked flight. Unfortunately, by flashlight, my progress was slow. I prayed the gangsters had the patience to wait out my hunt until morning.
Several hours later, I found myself on a deserted stretch of highway. Deep in the pines, there are no street lamps or signs, only an endless expanse of asphalt interrupting the forest here and there. As near as I could tell, Zeezi had made it this far. If he hitched a ride, he was as good as lost. But it was late and with his hands tied, he was unlikely to attract a sympathetic motorist. And which way did he follow the road?
If he was smart, he’d head west, towards the moon and away from coast and Atlantic City’s neon lies. If he was still panicking, he’d head down the other way, towards the campgrounds and more forest. Well, I didn’t put much faith in the smarts of a man who’d let himself be tied up and driven into the woods.
Some distance away, Zeezi had already found the camp grounds. His arms had been held together with a plastic restraint and he was rubbing himself raw against rocks and trees trying to break it off. Now, with the light of other campfires in his site, he had been working up and down against a birch for the better part of an hour. Finally, the strap gave way and he was free.
Salvatore Zeezi was a swarthy, aging lothario with a slight beer belly and hairplugs that never quite took. This was ironic, since the rest of his body was covered with an almost furlike, dense body hair. He always smelled of garlic and bad cigars and was the kind of arrogant, Italian braggart the Mafia bred so well. Zeezi was a fast talker, both metaphorically and literally and could smooth talk a victim, while at the same time bore him and fill his head with the sort of nonsense only seen in Martin Scorcesse movies about the Mob. And like all mobsters, he was your friend. He was everybody’s friend. Until your friendship could be traded up for something better.
“Excuse me! Hey, yo!” Zeezi called, hoping to alert the campers to his presence slightly ahead of time.
He was still wearing the dress pants and tuxedo shirt from the hotel. Giovanni’s boys had burst into the suite a few minutes after he talked a showgirl into it. When Al and Gino entered, she got this relieved look on her face and Zeezi knew she’d set him up.
“When I get a hold of that bitch....” he thought to himself, even as the campers approached.
“What happened? Are you all right?” asked Belinda.
“Oh, my God, thank God!” he said, suddenly more exasperated. “You gotta help me. I’ve been robbed, I’ve been mugged.”
“Jesus,” gasped her husband, Will. “Are you hurt? Did they---”
“No--- Well, yeah, I’m really shaken, I---” Zeezi stammered convincingly.
More campers approached. Belinda and Will were part of a group of yuppies, out for a weekend of stress-relieving camping and mild, almost pre-planned catastrophes that they could exaggerate and tell their friends back in Manynunk all about. Will was a systems analysts, while Belinda worked in fiance. Two other couples, with work-related couplings, crowded around Zeezi, not wanting to miss out on the biggest event in the camping trip. Already Jackson, was retelling the story.
“My God, you just came out of the woods!” he said, scooping the others. “If I had had a gun, I would’ve shot you.”
“Yeah, you and everybody else,” Zeezi muttered to himself. “Look, I-I-I need a drink or something. Any of you cops?”
Jackson was Vice President of a Security Firm, so he was the closest thing. His wife, Laquita, acknowledged the commotion, but was too committed to cleaning the grill, on which they had roasted smores hours earlier. Finally, Michael, who owned a chain of gun shops, submitted his two cents, while Li, his shy, Vietnamese bride, looked on.
“You got mugged, out in the woods, in those clothes?” Michael said accusingly. “Who are you? What are you doing out here?”
“Give him a break, Mike,” said Belinda.
“Sal Zeezi. Just let me sit down here,” said Zeezi, finally making himself at home on a beach chair. “Anyone got a cigarette?”
All eyes turned to Mike, who reluctantly banged out a Marlboro, gave it to Zeezi, then lit it with his camouflaged Zippo. Zeezi look a long, relieved drag, formulated the last few pieces of his story and then began. He knew Mike was already suspicious, so the lie had to be even more outrageous.
“You guys listen to Sinatra?” he began.
“Sinatra!” laughed Jackson.
“Your Frank Sinatra?” Mike said sarcastically as possible.
“No, but I’ve met him. I work for his son, he’s singing at Caesar’s, in about two weeks. I was driving down there, through the woods---- My job is to make sure everything is prepared, you know, like his suite, accommodations---- Shit like that right? I’m kinda like his agent’s assistant, you know Ben?”,br>
Belinda gave a bewildered look. Will, almost hypnotized by his voice, shook his head no.
“Doesn’t matter. Ben gave me directions to avoid the Expressway--- Cause that’s murder going to Atlantic City on a Friday, right? So I’m cutting through the woods and there’s fuckin’ trees and nothin’ but trees, right? And I see these guys broke down---”
Laquita gasped, anticipating the rest of the story. Zeezi acknowledged the noise in an attempt to legitimize the story more.
“There’s this group of five guys standing around this limo, broke down. So I’m not gonna stop, what am I, stupid? I just slow down to offer to call for a truck. Well, this big motherfucker, points a gun in my face and says where’s Sinatra?”
Mike looked at him in disbelief.
“I swear to you, I swear to you,” insisted Zeezi.
“They wanted to kidnap Frank Sinatra?” Mike said in disbelief.
“No, his son, his son,” corrected Zeezi. “He’s got all the millions, Frank, Jr. is his pride and joy. He’d pay anything! Well, I don’t take off, cause he can shoot me in the face! So I get out and they start workin’ me over. Then these hikers come out of the woods and one of the kidnappers starts shooting at them!”
“Oh, my God,” gasped Laquita.
“So I just ran,” continued Zeezi. “I don’t know how I got away, but they could come after me. I gotta get out of here.”
“We’d better start loading the van,” added Jackson, caught up in the moment.
“Hold on,” Mike said, more annoyed than anything. “I’ll get my phone.”
“What about the kidnappers?” asked Belinda.
“I don’t know what this guy’s story is,” Mike scoffed. “But the police will sort it out. I only got three more days of vacation, I’m not chauffeuring this guy around.”
“No, no, you can’t call the police,” insisted Zeezi. “This whole incident could-could, be very bad publicity to the Sinatra family. I know, I worked for them for 5 and a half years. You let me call them, I’ll pay you back, I swear, I swear.”
Mike looked around disapprovingly. Whether the story was real or not, the phone calls on his cell phone were expensive.
“C’mon, Mike, just let him use it,” prodded Will.
“Bullshit, let him use yours, Will.”
“I didn’t bring mine. Jesus, the kidnappers could still be out there.”
“Let ‘em come!”
“Tch, oh my God,” said Laquita, embarrassed about the bickering.
“I’m sorry about this,” Belinda apologized to Zeezi.
“It’s my fault,” he assured her. “I know this all sounds crazy. Look, uh, if you could just drive me to a phone, I’ll be out of your life, I swear.”
“That’s just it,” Will explained. “The nearest phone is about 20 minutes away and its probably locked up in the campgrounds office anyway.”
“What if the kidnappers are still out there?” Li added, worried.
“Don’t worry, hon’,” assured Mike. “See what you’ve done?” he shot back at Zeezi.
“Look, those guys are probably long gone, by now,” suggested Jackson. “Besides, they’re not gonna come here looking for him. There’s dozens of campsites around here. Just stay until morning and then we’ll drive to the police station.”
Zeezi agreed. He knew that Giovanni’s men would see this place as too public and abandon the area to look for him later. If he could lay low in one of the camper’s tents, they’d probably think he just hitched a ride out. Unfortunately for him, I had been standing in the shadows for the better part of the debate, biding my time for an opportunity to strike.
Zeezi was offered more suitable camping gear and changed clothes in Mike’s tent, much to his objection. He then spent the next two hours lying to the group about how he met Frank Sinatra and his various celebrity friends. Mike, although wary of the story, stood guard near the fire, cradling and polishing an antique breech loader.
An hour passed, and finally even Mike got bored and went to sleep in his tent. Jackson moved his supplies out of a small tent he brought just to keep his packages of Roman noodles dry. Zeezi slept in there, using his tuxedo shirt and pants as a pillow. I quietly cut the tent on the end where his head lay and his snoring reverberated. Even at a distance of 3 feet, his breath was foul, like carrion in the sun. I placed my hand on his mouth and the knife to his throat.
“Don’t make a sound,” I hissed. “You’re coming with me, because if you don’t, my friends will be dead. We’re going to see Mr. Giovanni and if you do what I tell you, you might just live through this. Now, slide out of the tent towards me as quietly as you can.”
Zeezi exited almost as silently as I would have, but I had underestimated one of the campers. He cocked the hammer of his pistol and aimed it at my back.
“Don’t move,” ordered Jackson, taking a policeman’s stance with the .45. “Hey guys! Yo! Wake up!”
Jackson pulled the knife out of my hand and stuck the blade in his back pocket. Zeezi immediately moved away from me. He turned around and looked at me as if he was surprised. Then an angry look came over his face and he kicked me in the gut.
“Motherfucker! How you like that?!” he yelled, kicking me as I doubled over.
Mike scrambled out of his tent, trying to load his shotgun and move the tent flap out of his way. Belinda and Will clung to each other, looking helpless.
“Stop it, stop it!” insisted Jackson. “Just leave him for the police.”
“We’re all gonna be dead, if we don’t get the fuck outta here!” insisted Zeezi. “Who the fuck are you? You work for Paragon?!”
“You see?! You see?!” Mike said triumphantly to Li.
“What?” said Jackson, not missing the slip. “Who’s Paragon?”
“I don’t know what he told you,” I gasped. “But he’s not---”
“Oh, my God!” squealed Belinda. “Blood!”
Although I had changed my shirt, Mike’s blood was all over my pants. In the darkness, I didn’t even notice.
Zeezi kicked me again, then turned to Jackson. “Look, give me a gun.”
“Get the fuck outta here!”
“He just tried to kill me!” insisted Zeezi.
Looking across the sand, towards the dying embers of the fire, I noticed a long, flat board, half burned, sticking out of it. Mike was close by, so I pounded on the end with my fist, causing hot coals to fly up and burn him. He dropped the shotgun and I whirled and kicked Jackson’s gun into the darkness, before he realized what was happening.
Zeezi made a B-line for the van, but before I could pursue, Jackson returned my kick with another and several well-placed karate punches. He was good. I really underestimated him. The burning embers sparked a small blaze in Mike’s tent, which momentarily distracted everyone else.
Jackson and I went toe to toe, while standing on the sandy floor of the pines. He smacked me a few more times, then kicked me backwards into a beach chair, which I tripped over and broke as I fell down. Fighting back, I used pieces of the beach chair to block his blows, then caught his hand in the material which made the chair’s seat. Using my feet and his momentum, I flipped him over onto a flimsy table, which contained their portable stove and a few other items. It immediately collapsed under Jackson’s weight and I scrambled to my feet.
Just then, I spotted Zeezi in the driver’s seat of the van. I felt the barrel of Mike’s shotgun pressed against my side. He got the other look on his face I know so well. Just as he pulled the trigger, I stuck my thumb between the hammer and the pin and it slapped together like a vice. Surprised, I ripped the shotgun from his hands, and backhand him with it. Just as I pulled my thumb free, Belinda smashed me over the head with an iron frying pan. I elbowed her in the face and ran towards the van.
Zeezi sped away when I reached within a few feet. He was afraid to drive very fast on the winding dirt pathway, lest he hit a tree. A few feet more and he’d be on the road to freedom. Just before the road, there was a low hill and a small turn. I cut the distance on the hill and leaped onto the roof of the van.
The gangster drove onto the highway and immediately tried to shake me off. The shotgun skittered across the roof of the vehicle, then bounced off the asphalt into the darkness. I was back to my one bullet again. Zeezi gunned the engine and I braced myself on the luggage racks on the roof of the van. He slammed on the brakes as hard as he could, the rack gave way and I tumbled off the roof, landing about 30 feet in front of him.
The fall momentarily dazed me. Zeezi slammed the gas pedal to the floor, hurling 2 tons of angry metal and plastic towards my beaten form. Headlights flooded my eyesight as the van zoomed toward me.