Special Delivery – With Postage Due
Louis Dumkowski was on the run again. This was something he always did when faced with a problem. When he owed Vinnie the Enforcer money that he couldn’t pay, he’d abandoned his apartment, changed his name, and moved to a different part of town. That hadn’t worked; Vinnie had found him and shot at him through the door of the flea bag apartment he’d rented, peppering his chest with splinters and scaring the bejeezus out of him. He’d then gone to Southside Detroit to hide with his high school classmate and friend, Cleatus. Cleatus, unfortunately, had himself run away from home; mainly to get away from his two domineering sisters, who immediately began to put what Louis thought were unreasonable demands upon him. He was a disaster at housework and couldn’t cook, and besides, he’d previously had a crush on Cleatus’s older sister, while the younger one had had a crush on him when they were in school, so once again, Louis hit the road.
He’d thought his next destination was a master stroke. He hitched rides from Michigan south to the small east Texas farm where his mother’s sister Pearl and her family lived. After nearly doing something unfortunate, politically incorrect, and just plain damned stupid to a bull and getting attacked by barbed wire, he decided that the rural life was best left to rural people, and hit the road in the general direction of Detroit.
Louis had no particular plan in mind, nor did he in fact have a specific destination. North toward home just seemed like a good idea, or it would have seemed a good idea had Louis been into thinking – which he actually wasn’t. He just did things, and then ran away from the consequences.
There hadn’t been as many friendly motorists driving northward as he’d encountered on his journey south, so it took him three days to reach the outskirts of the Motor City. He hadn’t decided what he would do until the talkative couple who’d picked him up just outside Springfield, Illinois pulled over and let him out near Tiger Stadium.
He was standing on the sidewalk looking up at a poster advertising tickets for the next game, when he felt a hand clamp his shoulder. “Hey, dawg, where the hell you been?”
Louis jumped a foot in the air, and his heart started pounding, until he recognized Cleatus Washington’s voice. He grasped his chest as he turned around. “Dammit, Cleatus,” he wheezed. “Don’t sneak up behind me like that. You most made me have a heart attack. Hey! I thought you’d run away from home.”
Cleatus ran a hand through his afro, and shuffled from one foot to another. “I did for a while, bro,” he said. “Had to git away from them two sisters of mine. They was driving me crazy.”
“Yeah, I can dig that.”
“They told me you crashed there for a night,” Cleatus said. “Somethin’ ‘bout owing Vinnie Williams some money?”
Now it was Louis’s turn to scratch his head and shuffle. “Yeah, I borrowed some money from him, but with the vig and all, I couldn’t make the payments. That mother shot me.”
“You don’t look shot to me.”
“Oh,” Louis said. “He shot through the door, and I got a chest fulla splinters. Hurt like hell. I’m okay now, though.”
“What you gon’ do? You got the money to pay him?”
“Well, not really.” Louis snapped his fingers. “I just had an idea, though. Maybe he’d let me work it off. You know, collect for him. Stuff like that.”
“He might,” Cleatus said. “But most likely, he see you, he shoot you before you get a chance to make the offer.”
“True,” Louis said. “If I was the one to make the offer.”
“Hey, dawg, you ain’t thinking ‘bout me doing it for you I hope? ‘Sides, you know Vinnie don’t like brothers too much. Ain’t likely he be wanting to talk to me in the first place.”
“Aw come on, Cleatus. If you called him first, he’d talk to you,” Louis pleaded. “I done lots of favors for you. Couldn’t you do just this one for me? Remember that time in high school when you wanted to go out with that Roxanne chick? Who was the one who asked her for you?”
“Louis, you one mean bastard, you know that? But, you asking me to go to East Detroit. That ain’t exactly my territory, you know. Hell, Vinnie ain’t the only one over there don’t like me.”
It went back and forth this way for several minutes, but as he usually did when they were in school, Cleatus came up with a compromise. He’d go with Louis to see Vinnie, figuring the loan shark wouldn’t shoot him with a witness present. Of course, neither of them thought about the possibility that Vinnie might just shoot them both.
Having made up their minds, they got on the first bus heading toward East Detroit. During the ride, Louis argued that they should have called first, but Cleatus convinced him that it would be best to just show up; that way he wouldn’t have a chance to plan anything.
“You don’t think he’ll just shoot me soon’s he see me?” Louis asked.
“Naw,” Cleatus said. “He probably yell at you a lot ‘fo he shoot you.”
For some reason, that satisfied Louis. They got off the bus about a block from the pool hall that Vinnie used as the headquarters for his loan shark operation. It was early in the day when they pushed through the door into the dimly lit room which contained twelve pool tables, none of which were in use. Vinnie ran his operation in a tiny room in the back corner, which at one time might have been a broom closet, but since his uncle owned the place, he was able to convert it into a makeshift office. Word on the street was that his uncle charged him ten percent of his collections as rent. Given the amount of money Vinnie gouged out of the needy of Detroit, that was a high rent.
They stood in front of the door, debating for a few minutes whether or not to knock, and then decided to just go in without knocking, Cleatus crowding close behind Louis in hopes that the loan shark might not see him.
Vinnie was flipping the pages of an account book, his lips moving as he read, so he didn’t see them when they came in.
“Hey, Vinnie,” Louis said. “I come to talk to you about the money I owe you.”
Neither of them was prepared for Vinnie’s reaction. They wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d started yelling; not too much surprised if he’d come around the desk and started hitting, cutting, or even shooting at them. What he did was look up, look down; then look up again, his eyes going wide. He pushed his chair back against the wall and made the sign of the cross. His face went pale. “Jesus,” he said. “It’s a ghost. Oh, God, help me.”
Now, everyone knew that Vinnie was a lapsed Catholic, but no one had seen him in church. But, apparently his childhood teaching had stuck. When confronted with the unknown, or the threatening, he prayed.
“Naw, Vinnie,” Louis said. “I ain’t no ghost. It’s me in the flesh.”
“You g-gotta be a g-ghost,” Vinnie said. “I shot you.”
“Yeah, and it hurt like hell too,” Louis said. “But, I ain’t holding no grudge. I understand why you done it. It didn’t kill me though.”
Vinnie look unconvinced. Louis moved toward him, and he shrank back in the chair, making the sign of the cross again. “Get away from me!”
“Naw, come on. Look, you can touch me, and see I ain’t no ghost.” Louis held out his hand.
Tentatively, Vinnie reached out and touched the back of Louis’s hand with one finger. “Shit, you are real! How come you ain’t dead? I put a load of buckshot through that damn door.”
“I don’t know,” Louis said. “Guess it just ain’t my time. Look, Vinnie, I know I been slow ‘bout paying you back, but I been a little down on my luck.”
“Everybody got a sob story,” Vinnie retorted. “Ain’t good for business to let some dude stiff you.”
“I know, but there’s a better way. If you kill me, you still don’t got your money. What if I went to work for you, though? You know, work it off a little every day? You know, I could do your collecting, and that’d free you up to do other things.”
Vincent “Vinnie the Enforcer” Williams didn’t like thinking any more than Louis did, but when it came to money; especially making money; he made an exception. His beetle brow furrowed as he considered the offer Louis was making. “Okay,” he said after a few agonizing moments of using his brain for something more taxing than deciding whether to kneecap a delinquent payer, or just to shoot him. “Let me see if I got this. You come to work for me to pay off what you owe. And, I don’t gotta pay you nothing?”
“That’s right,” Louis said. He began to breathe easier once he saw Vinnie was interested in his offer. “You reduce the amount I owe you by the amount I collect. If I do something else for you, we negotiate the amount. That’s fair, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, I reckon I could get down with that. But, if I catch you skimming or short changing me, I ain’t gonna use a shotgun. I’m gonna gut you. You got that?”
Louis put his hand over his heart. “I swear, Vinnie,” he said. “I’d be straight up with you. Heck, I got Cleatus here who’ll vouch for me. Won’t you Cleatus?” He stepped aside and motioned to his discomfited friend who would rather just have gone unnoticed.
“That true? You vouch for him?” Vinnie asked.
“Uh, well, yeah, I guess so,” Cleatus said.
“Okay, I’ll accept that,” Vinnie said. “But, if he cheats me, I’m gonna come after you too.”
That wasn’t something Cleatus wanted to hear. “Don’t you worry; I’ll make sure he stays honest.”
Vinnie laughed as if he’d just heard the funniest joke in the world. “That I want to see.” He closed the ledger that had lain open on the desk, rubbed his stubble, and then snapped his fingers. “I just had an idea,” he said. “What if you two jamokes went to work for me? The two of you could collect more than just one, and you could run errands.”
Cleatus shook his head and nudged Louis, who shrugged him off. “What kinda deal you offering?” Louis asked.
“I write off what you owe me, and you get ten percent of everything you collect. Plus, if I get you to do something ‘sides collecting, I’ll pay you a C note for each special job. Now, don’t that sound like a good deal?”
“Yeah,” Louis said. “I could get down with that.”
“I don’t know,” Cleatus said. “We wouldn’t have to be roughing anybody up would we?”
“Not ‘less you want to,” Vinnie said, and laughed. “I hear you guys like that kinda stuff. Hell, most of my customers would be scared shitless if a black dude came around to collect anyway. All you’d hafta do is frown at ‘em.”
“Shoot, Cleatus,” Louis said. “It sounds like a righteous deal. I think we oughta take it.”
“Well, I did get laid off down at the auto plant, and I’m kinda between jobs right now,” Cleatus said. “Aw hell, why not. Okay, I’ll do it.”
“You boys made the right decision,” Vinnie said. “Ain’t too many benefits, and there ain’t no retirement plan, but the hours is good, and the pay ain’t bad. I got nearly a million bucks in outstanding loans. Hell, the vig alone is about a hundred grand a week. You jamokes git to split ten percent of that, and I treat my people right ‘longs they don’t try to screw me.”
“Okay, Vinnie,” Louis said. “You just hired yourself two assistants.”
Vinnie didn’t offer to shake hands and the two now-relieved new apprentice loan sharks decided against taking the initiative.
“I already got a job for you,” Vinnie said. “I got a hankering for a jack and coke.” He fished three twenties out of his pocket. “Run down to the corner and get me a bottle of Jack Daniels and a six-pack of coke, and you can keep the change.”
Louis snatched the three bills and pocketed them. “We’ll be right back,” he said over his shoulder as he and Cleatus rushed out of the tiny office.
And, for Louis Dumkowski, a new adventure was about to begin.