The Pizzaman’s Tip
Mark drove to Charing Cross for the fifth time today. Or maybe the fourth, some of these deliveries blurred together after a while. He patted the thermal bag on the passenger seat, feeling the warmth of the three pizzas through the nylon fabric, and used his other hand to steer.
His little Toyota compact stood out in this neighborhood, where the cars and houses were huge. SUVs with extended cabs and gas-hungry Humvees took up space in the massive gravel driveways fronting the McMansions. The houses had gargantuan cathedral ceilings with lunette windows over their entryways through which he could see bauble-filled chandeliers.
He steered and glanced at the bronze house numbers pegged to the dressed stone mailboxes fronting the McMansions.
His phone rang, the cell rumbling from beneath the thermal bag where he’d accidentally left it. He reached with his right hand, and spotting the delivery address, steered into the driveway with his left.
He parked behind a gunmetal grey Mercedes Jeep and hit the “Talk” button on the phone. “Pizza Man, extraordinaire.”
Breni. Breni with the brown hair and black eyes, Breni who he’d known since high-school. Who, for some reason, was his girlfriend. It was a common complaint that girls who deserved better sometimes got stuck with losers, or even sought them out. Thankfully he was her loser.
“What can I do for you, madame?”
“Can you stop at Quik Stop on the way home?”
“Diet Pepsi and a National Enquirer?” He kept the phone cupped between ear and shoulder to free his hands to get the pizza bag.
“Don’t say it,” she said.
“It was in your voice.”
He sighed. Everyone had their thing, their escape. He liked edible weed and computer games; she followed the trials of men who killed their wives. They came together for sex, having that much in common, which was enough. On top of which there was some overlap in the music they liked, but that was icing on the cake.
“I’ll pick it up,” he said, and slid the thermal bag’s silk-lined sling over his shoulder.
“You’re welcome.” He demonstrated skill in finding an unorthodox, hands-free way to turn his cellphone off by scrunching his ear against his shoulder, then slowly leaned down and dropped it onto his car seat.
After that he grabbed the two liter of Pepsi with his right hand, closed the car door with his hip, and walked up the flagstone path to the housefront.
Glazed leaded panes of bullseye glass were sashed in rectangular windows to the left and right of the oaken door. The windows were red and cast off a deep ruby light that reminded him of stained glass in a church. Not that he’d been in a while.
He grabbed the brass knocker sitting in the snarling maw of the bronze lion, knocked twice. Then he stood back and waited, listening to the serene sounds of an afternoon in the leafy suburbs. Crickets chirped from their hiding in the rosebushes while an air-conditioner steadily droned, dueling with the whine of an automatic pool cleaner making underwater circuits from deep end to shallow.
The front door of the house opened inward, waking him from the dream. A woman stood there. “Oh, the pizza!” She beamed, her catlike eyes not so much widening as stretching so that the porcelain-white skin of her cheekbones drew taut as a drumhead. She was pretty, with an elongated neck and a grace to her motions that made him think of a ballet dancer. “Come in!”
He stopped on the door’s threshold, the traction treads of his nonstick shoe caught in limbo, half on the rattan Welcome mat of the porch, half on the parqueted hardwood in the entryway.
She looked back at him, half-turned, arching an eyebrow. “Can you put it on the table in the dining room?” She pointed to an unseen table, her voice echoing through the cavernous foyer.
We can’t come in. He wanted to say it but couldn’t. Something about being a stickler for policy, here and now, embarrassed the hell out of him. It’s not like she was going to rob him. Her house cost more than he’d earn in a lifetime at Pizza Shack, and he was a foot taller than her and a good fifty pounds heavier. If anything, she should have been reticent to let a sweaty-shaggy nerd like him into her house.
“I don’t bite,” she said, stifling the vicarious embarrassment she felt for him.
He stifled the stupid, cliched porno plot every pizzaman spun in his mind (or for the other employees, if he could convincingly lie), and stepped into the house.
The door closed behind him without his so much as brushing it with his hip. He tried to turn, felt the cold barrels pressed flush against his occipital lobe. “She might not bite.” A man’s voice, deep but quavering, tough but cornered. “But I shoot.”
Mark stood there, holding the two liter of pop in one hand, the beads of cold condensation making the skin of his palm throb, the strap of the thermal bag slung over his shoulder beginning to ache. So far he had managed not to piss his pants, but he wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold out.
“Forget the dining room. Let’s go into the living room,” the voice with the gun to his head said.
Mark obeyed. The steel of the over-under barrels chilled his scalp where they pushed, probing so that the skin on the back of his skull started to burn and his hairs bristled, stinging as if pulled in a tussle.
The dude wore a tanktop that showed off arms rippling with wiry muscle that visibly writhed beneath the tattoos of dragons and Vikings shagreening him like scaled armor. The faded India ink of the tats against the pale skin on his arms contrasted with his complexion, a pissy yellow tinge that infected even the sclera of his eyes. He guided Mark into the living room and told him to get on the couch, then passed off guard duties to his girlfriend (if that’s what she was) while he went to do something else.
She stood across from Mark, a revolver with a checked grip in her right hand. She held the gun casually, the crosshairs and barrel vaguely trained in his direction. On the floor in front of the leather couch where Mark sat, a middle aged woman with blond hair streaked with grey strands lay with her arms bound behind her and her mouth duct taped.
The woman moaned gently, struggled on the Persian rug until she had wedged herself beneath the glass coffee table piled high with hardcover books filled with famous artworks.
A razor-thin plasma screen TV hung lodged in the far wall above a fireplace made of dressed river stones. On the mantlepiece were family photos, a girl and her mother (the woman on the ground) in matching straw hats and sun dresses at some fair, their cheeks painted with bright sunflowers. In another picture both woman and child were on the deck of a sailboat where a man in a white Polo shirt and wraparound Oakley sunglasses held them close to his paunch. The fat cushioning his body only half-hid the hard contours of a former athlete’s body, his biceps those of a sculler, his calves like grapefruits.
“Alright,” the dude in the tanktop said, coming back into the living room. He apparently trusted his girl to cover Mark with the revolver, for his shotgun was nowhere to be seen. Instead of the shottie, he held a device in his hands that looked like a Walkman cocooned in duct tape, with threads of shoestring dangling that gave it the look of a toy meant to keep a housecat busy.
Maybe it was a tattoo gun?
Mark didn’t have any more time to study it, as the guy was sliding the threaded loop of shoestring around his neck, settling the makeshift necklace as carefully as if it were a diamond pendant given to a lover.
The man stood back to study his handiwork, then stared at Mark. “You recognize me?” His eyes were ariot with fear and violence, the wings of his nostrils red from a recent sniffing. He cocked his head to the side. He expected an answer, and soon.
The woman moaned from the ground again. The guy broke eye contact with Mark to shoot her a dirty look, as if she could see it with her face down.
Mark looked up, confused, not sure how to stare the guy in the eyes without it coming off as insolent, even though he’d been told to do it.
“No,” Mark said, lying. He’d seen the dude on one of those Most Wanted programs they played before the block of Court TV that sustained Breni’s psychosexual bloodlust. This guy was no clean-cut ladies’ man with the deceptive pedigree of a Ted Bundy, nor the smug cocksure swagger of wife-killer Scott Peterson. He was Ro Bosman, aka Robot. A meth dealer whose twenty year sentence became a date with Old Sparky after he’d killed two guards with a homemade bomb while being transferred from fed pen to a secure hospital to undergo emergency dialysis.
Robot nodded, seeming to accept Mark’s answer. He scratched his scalp, showing a tweaker’s diligence in using his fingernails to abrade a spot on his bullet-shaped head. Then he pointed at Mark’s little necklace. “Don’t touch that thing. You try to take it off, you’re going to get a drywall nail shot through your throat with more PSI’s behind it than an industrial pressure washer. It’ll probably bust through your chin and skewer your tongue to the roof of your mouth.”
The girl laughed. Mark’s heart did things in his chest.
“Relax,” Robot said, as if it were that easy. “Jostle it a little and you’re fine. I’m just saying don’t try to take it off.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I’m getting to that.” Robot winced, as if ignoring an order broadcast to him by one of the many voices in his head. “You’re in a network of one now.” He pointed to the wings of the house beyond the living room. “I got the webcam working on the computer over there. You got a little spy cam on your necklace that links up to my computer remotely.” He grinned, showing a mouthful of teeth uneven and jagged as rock candy. “I got two years’ experience working in the fed pen’s call center, and I’m hella PC-literate for a con who ain’t even got his GED.” He cheesed ear-to-ear. “So make sure to smile for me when you’re out there, because you’ll be on camera the whole time.”
Maybe he saw doubt in Mark’s eyes (though there was nothing but fear), for he cocked his head again and the point of his hawklike nose seemingly became even sharper as he stared. “I know what you’re thinking. I’m just bullshitting to make sure you stay on your p’s and q’s out there.”
“Test me,” Robot said, and tapped his temple with a finger. “Test me like those two pigs did.”
Mark didn’t move, make a noise.
“Are we clear thus far?” Robot leaned down, lowering his head patiently, almost politely, inclining his ear to Mark as if trying to accommodate a shy kid who didn’t want to speak out loud in class.
“Yes,” Mark said.
Robot walked around the couch where Mark sat, past the woman still moaning face-down on the floor. He returned shortly with the pizzas, held out the nylon sling of the thermal bag as if dispatching Mark on a delivery. “Do you know where Alliance Bank is?”
Mark thought, but Robot spoke, breaking Mark’s concentration. “You should know this. It’s on Cheswick, near the Publix.”
“Kroger,” Mark said, not so much correcting him as adjusting directions under breath.
“Right,” Robot said. “You’re going to go in there, say you have an order for Ty Banks.”
“Ty Banks,” Mark said, nodding.
“Mmm!” A moan pressed against the duct tape secured to the mouth of the woman on the ground, and the girl who’d answered the door walked over to her prone form. “Shut up, you fat cow of a cunt!” Mark had barely understood the words, the string of insults latticed together so tightly as it came out of the girl’s mouth. She wiped her saliva-flecked lips with the back of her wrist. “You knew what we were doing!” The girl leaned down to the woman, lifted the revolver above her head and then brought it down with a meaty clonk that made Mark wince.
“Alright, Katie,” Robot said.
“Some of this is your fault!” Katie shouted. Her words must have been directed not at Robot, but at the woman on the ground, for there was another thud (along with a stomach churning crunch). What had been a moan tapered into a soft unintelligible whimper, carried on whatever air escaped the woman’s nose.
Katie stood back up, exhaling as if a great burden had lifted from her shoulders. Robot watched Mark with those mesmeric blue eyes, eyes that had held Mark as rapt as the shotgun had, if not moreso. “Mr. Banks is going to take you into his office. He’s going to take the pizzas from you and fill your bag with something. You are to bring that bag back to me.”
“Bring it right back here.” Katie pointed the snub nose of her revolver at the blood-soaked living room floor.
“If you do that,” Robot said, “I’ll take the nail bomb from around your neck. And you’ll live.” He pointed toward the Persian carpet where the woman whimpered and bled, no longer shimmying or struggling with her duct tape bonds. “She’ll live, too. Probably,” he added, and shot Katie the stink eye. He tried to take a deep breath but got interrupted by a shuddering that convulsed him. “You understand?”
Mark nodded, thought of Breni, the warmth of their bed, the glow of the TV, of his computer, those raspberry gummi edibles waiting for him on the end table, his space rock playlist.
Make it home, his brain said, survive.
“Okay,” Robot said, and smiled. “Go deliver those pizzas.”
Mark stood up from the couch, slowly, holding out his arm for the thermal bag. Katie turned from her sneering sentry over the whimpering lady at her feet, trained her revolver on him, less casually now than when she covered him before.
Robot handed Mark the bag, reached into his pocket, and came up with a flip phone. “Take this, too.”
Mark accepted the prepaid Flintstone phone in hand.
“I call and you don’t answer it…” Robot dug in the pocket of his khaki cargo shorts, rummaged around and emerged holding a lint-covered RC monster truck controller. “Your medulla oblongata’s a shish kebob, and it’s closed curtains for that silly bitch crying on the floor.” He licked his lips, his tongue coming out deftly like a lizard’s trying to suck up a fly. “Best believe that’s gospel.”
Mark swallowed, didn’t speak. Then he turned toward the door with the pizzas held in his arms. He felt the old dread familiar warmth blooming in his pants, the wetness radiating out from his crotch and spilling down the front of his blue Dockers. Just like when he’d been a kid and woke up in the night during sleepovers, mortified, to discover a warm puddle shaped like a lost continent soaking through the nonrubber mattress. He shuffled forward, hot nettles prickling his skin as the pee finally trickled along his leg, getting caught in the hairs of his shin where it stung and its grot scent became obvious.
He felt like crying, but held back, bit his lip, refusing to add tears to the shame he already felt.
“Don’t worry,” the voice at his back said. “It happens to a lot of people when they get a gun pointed at them.”
Katie giggled, her birdlike titter almost cheerful, except that it tapered to a dumb, stoner-ish guffaw, and then died in a sere cackle. The hair rose on the back of Mark’s neck, and the thought flashed through his brain, blinking unbidden and quickly as a camera’s flashbulb: Drop the bag, go rushing for them. Charge them both. Make them shoot you.…
But he didn’t turn around and charge them. Instead he sucked it up, drawing in a deep breath that ended in a long sigh before he opened the door and headed out into the hot day once again. Time to deliver the three double pepperoni, parmesan-dusted flatbread crusts with extra cheese to Alliance Bank on Cheswick.
He closed the door behind him as he left.
Only as he reached his car did he realized he’d forgotten the two liter.
The bank anchored the corner of an office park disguised as an English village. Mark never had reason to come here before, but always looked over whenever his deliveries took him past it. The half-Tudor buildings with their pitched brown roofs and faux wattle and daub fronts always made him feel like a knight in a fantasy riding his steed past a quaint hamlet where peaceful elves dwelled.
He pulled into a parking space out front, beneath a linden tree, its heart-shaped leaves dappled with sunlight. Why the hell did today have to be a beautiful day?
His cellphone rang from the passenger seat but he didn’t even glance down. The only cellphone that mattered now was the flip phone in his pocket.
He got out of the car, happy at least to discover the stain had dried on his pants, though it gave off an ammoniac reek and his thighs stung from the acidity. If he didn’t hop in the shower soon, he’d get a rash.
Mark slipped the pizza bag’s sling over his collarbone, got out of the car, closed the door.
He tried whistling, pursed his lips to force a couple bars of random music out just to work off the nerves. But his mouth lacked the spit, and his teeth were chattering. He bit down, walked forward, taking the rustic wooden footbridge over a lilypad-crowded pond that carried him into Alliance.
The lobby was cool, the floor a honey-colored stone that made it feel more like a grotto than a bank. A burgundy crush velvet rope linked between golden stanchions, describing a path for customers to take on their way up to one of three windows. It was a hell of a lot different than his bank, which had grey loop carpet floors and was awash in harsh fluorescent light coming from fixtures in the popcorn ceiling.
Only one person stood in line, a slim middle-aged woman in a checked pencil skirt and sleeveless pebble grey blouse that showed off tanned, athletic shoulders. The line at his bank was usually a wending snake, consisting mostly of day laborers in Carhart jackets and muddy boots, people on SSI who wore sweatpants and flipflops to cash their checks.
“May I help you?” The voice belonged to a frosty teller with cat-eyed tortoise shell glasses and a snubby nose, eyes fixed in a contemptuous squint as if she could smell him all the way from behind the counter.
“Order for Ty Banks.” He smiled and lifted the bag.
“Pizza?” The nose scrunched and the eyes squinted harder, her face, quizzical at rest, now somewhere between confused and offended. “One moment.”
He watched her walk around the counter, lift a heavy hinged blonde wood divider that let her come out into the lobby. Her box heels clicked hard on the stone floor, producing a snappy echo that traveled loud and hard through the otherwise-silent chamber. She veered off to the right, to a room with a door made of black lacquered wood and walls made of glass and steel supports, like a display case for a postmodern art piece.
Mark could see the man through the glass curtain, seated behind a walnut desk. The man hunched forward so that the sunlight streaming through the slits of the Venetian blinds over the window behind him hit his bald spot and gave it the look of a golden halo.
The woman stood before the man’s desk, looking apologetic as she spoke and gestured toward Mark out in the lobby. Ty Banks nodded, pointed a Monte Blanc pen toward his door. She nodded once, turned, opened the door to the office, searched out Mark’s eyes and stared at him.
“Mr. Banks will see you.”
“Thank you.” Mark lowered his head, a deferent little bow, but in doing so his chin almost touched the little box dangling from the necklace. His heart started as if he’d awakened from a summer idyl on a picnic blanket to find a deadly spider crawling on his sternum. It took everything in him not to freak out and slap the thing away.
Mark walked forward, carrying the pizza into the man’s office.
Mr. Banks looked up from the desk where he sat twirling his expensive pen. He was a little doughier than the already pampered athlete gone to seed who’d stood on the sailboat with his wife and daughter, but it was the guy from the mantlepiece photo.
The little girl in the photo… Mark hadn’t seen her at the house. Maybe she was out of town. Or still at school, and would be home soon. He had to hurry.
“Close the door,” Mr. Banks said.
“Sit down.” Mr. Banks pointed to the seat opposite him.
Mark sat, a head taller than when usually seated in a chair due to this one being overstuffed with horsehair that groaned beneath the chocolate-toned leather. The pizzas remained in the bag, on his lap, warm now instead of hot.
“I’m sorry you got mixed up in this.” Mr. Banks shook his head, less as if expressing regret than as if he had Parkinson’s and was in the middle of a fit. Maybe he was cracking. Mark would have sympathized with him, except he was the one with the bomb around his throat.
“S’ okay,” Mark said, barely able to force himself to mutter that much.
“I’m taking what’s left of the two million for myself, though. You can go back and tell that little meth-cooking skinhead I said that.”
Mark shook his head. The details of this deal, or double-cross, or whatever the hell it was, were still foggy to him.
Mr. Banks lifted an alligator-skinned suitcase from beneath his desk. He undid the bronze hasps, flipped open the top and displayed the contents to Mark. “I’m the one who put it through a hard wash already. If they’d spent the money, it would have gotten traced.”
Mark stared inside at the creamy stacked hundred dollar bills, still bound in their Federal Reserve wrappers, a compact and condensed green and white dream in a box. “Besides,” Mr. Banks said, flipping the lid closed and securing the hasps with a loud snap. “A skinhead covered in tattoos is not going to be able to get through customs with more than ten g’s undeclared. What’s he going to tell them?” He smirked. “That his investments panned out?”
He stood, said, “It was my fault for getting involved with that little white trash slut in the first place.” He finally stopped shaking his head nervously, adjusted the Windsor knot of his blue worsted tie. “It was just bad luck and bad timing that her boy Houdinied his way out of the cuffs again when he did, came home and found out we were together. We were getting ready to celebrate with daquiris on the lido deck.”
Mark’s grandparents were cruise-happy Sunbelt types, so he knew what a lido deck was.
“But now I’m riding off into the sunset on my own.” Mr. Banks walked around the desk, the suitcase dangling in his right hand, trailing a whiff of something that smelled of expensive aftershave, maybe saddle leather.
“Wait.” Mark spun around in the chair, watched the man move toward the door.
Mr. Banks had said it as if he were just done with work for the day, rather than leaving his office with a briefcase filled with money, as if he weren’t leaving his wife, throwing her to the proverbial wolves. Leaving Mark at the mercy of the nail pointed straight for his throat, ready to pop from the little charm around his neck with enough force to pierce a two-by-four.
“Your wife,” Mark tried.
Mr. Banks paused, hand on the doorknob. He shrugged. “She’s got to make the bed she slept in.” He pulled the door open. “You want to see the photos? I could give them to you. You could upload them online. ‘Revenge porn,’ I think the kids call it. Not that I’m racist, but that he’s black means I’ve been suffering the cuckold jokes now here for a while.”
Mark got no more out. The cellphone rang in his pocket, a tinny, tacky song that sounded like an eight-bit videogame. He wanted to stand up, follow the man and the money out, but if he didn’t answer the phone—the nail.
“Does he have the money?” Robot’s breath came in shallow, ragged gulps. He sounded as if he’d just gone for a run, or maybe gotten into a fight with Katie.
“He’s got it,” Mark said. He didn’t add that Mr. Banks was walking out of here with the dough, striding across the lobby, greeting his tellers with a charismatic smile and a small wave that worked on them like a spell.
“Good. Bring it back here. Now. Then—”
A gun clapped from within the phone, an echoless crack that made Mark flinch, caused the pendant dangling around his neck to wave back and forth, wiggle. The box holding the nail groaned, releasing a slow, hissing sound, like the sizzle of a firecracker’s wick before it reached the gunpowder-packed part. “Shit.” He didn’t recognize the voice as his own, nor had he planned to say anything. The words just spilled out. His hands grew clammy and his heart thrummed.
A blast roared from the phone, this one louder, much easier to hear than the last one even though Mark no longer had the phone next to his ear.
“We needed a hostage, you dumb bitch!”
Katie said something indistinct, her protest punctuated with another three claps, short and staccato, ending whatever argument there was, leaving only silence.
Then a last pop, somewhat anticlimactic, rang out from the phone.
It shamed him, but relief passed through Mark in waves.
He looked down at his necklace.
He stood, slowly, holding the pizza in his hands, and walked out into the lobby.
The woman with the cat eye glasses seemed to have forgotten he was in Mr. Banks’ office even though she’d led him there. She broke off her conversation with another teller, a thin-featured woman with honey-colored hair in a tight bun and an explosion of sandy freckles on her face.
“I need you to call the police,” he said, as calmly as he could. “There’s a bomb around my neck.”
Her look of slight annoyance morphed into something else, not quite surprise, more like the snarl of a lioness cornered in a den where she slept with her cubs and the hunter had intruded. “You’ll never get away with it, you little loser.”
The loser part hurt so much that he missed the implication of the whole sentence in which the insult had been embedded. But it was sinking in. And then it sank, all the way.
“Oh shit,” he said. Then, “No, it’s not mine.”
“He’s got a bomb!” Her voice rang out through the lobby.
Instinctively, Mark lifted the pizzas out of the thermal bag, gripping the cardboard already greasy from where the cheese had soaked through in spots. “I’m just a pizzaman.” And a damn good one, too. For he could feel the residual warmth coming from the pepperoni, parmesan-dusted flatbreads with extra cheese.
Still warm. His only screwup was leaving the two liter at the Banks’ Residence. He deserved a tip.
Then the sibilant hiss coming from the locket around his neck whined, replaced finally with a groan that ended in a plosive pop.