the daemon casket

by dm gillis

Vancouver 1995

Metro Moe’s was a bar that tried to be hip once, but failed. Now the abandoned trappings of hipness hung from wire on the walls, and the bar had returned to its former self, a joint for flunked out tough guys, who had once believed that life was a Scorsese film.

Now they sat at the bar and at tables hunched over three hour old glasses of warm beer, remembering the scant highlights of their attempts to achieve the tailored suit and cheap cologne cachet of wise guys.

There were no guns in the room. They’d all been hocked years ago. There was a hole in every shoe, and a belt pulled tight round every empty belly. Metro Moe’s was a dead planet, without an orbit. It didn’t spin, and it was oblivious to the universe that had rejected it and its clientele.

Ricco Costantini and Victor Gatti sat together in a corner, each wearing an untidy black suit and yellowing white shirt without a tie, not talking except for the occasional word or phrase that would come out like a hiccup. When this happened to one, the other would nod in absolute agreement.

“1989,” one might say, for example, out of nowhere.

“Fuckin’ right,” would say the other. Without looking up. Then, perhaps, add something like, “Fuckin’ ’72 Chevrolet.”

“Fuckin’ ’72 Chevrolet.”

“Fuckin’ goddam ’72 Chevrolet.”

After that they’d move their beer glasses round in little circles for a moment, looking down at them. And then become perfectly still. Not a peep, maybe for hours.

It was about a year ago that Victor Gatti hiccupped a name. This in itself was no big deal. Names were a big part of the stagnant narrative. But there was a silent rule that forbade the saying of certain names, even the mention of particular events. That’s why that when Gatti said – “Felicia” – Costantini said nothing, only sipped his flat beer.

“Felicia,” Gatti said again, monotone.

There was a blunt pause.

“You know not to say it,” said Costantini.

“She just came to mind.”

“That don’t mean you gotta say it.”

“Alright,” Gatti grunted. He lit a cigarette, and then he said, “She shouldn’t had done it.”

“It happened twenty years ago,” Costantini said. “For fuck sake. You don’t know what really happened, anyways. Only I do. Don’t make me relive it ‘cause you ran outta shit to say.”

“Alright, alright.”

Another silence, then –

“She was okay,” said Costantini.

“She left you cold, Ricco.” Gatti said. “Just before the biggest job you was ever gonna pull.”

“That job was a fuck up from the start,” said Costantini. “It was meant to fail. Then she would’ve left anyway or be hooked to a jailbird.”

“Meant to fail?”

“Wrong people, bad planning and a target too big,” Costantini said. “They wanted to go before it was all worked out.”

“And you with a busted heart.”

Costantini sipped his beer.

“And why was the target too big?” said Gatti.

“It just was,” Costantini said. “We were kids. You saw what happened to Paulo and Little Leo. Shot dead. I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“They fucked it up ‘cause you wasn’t there,” Gatti said.

“Drop it.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

After about twenty minutes, Gatti said – “Richie Mueller,” – getting back into the old routine.

“Dye pack,” said Costantini.

“Red dye all over him and the inside of his fucking car,” said Gatti.

“Chump deserved to do time.”

Then after another thirty minutes and a couple of glasses of fresh beer were delivered –

“Where’d she ever go?” Gatti said. “Felicia, I mean.”

“Windsor somewheres. Said she was from there.”

“That job could’ve made you,” said Gatti. “You could’ve made Soldato. Then, who knows?”

“Have I gotta take you round back, Vick?” Costantini said.

“Golly no, Ricco. Don’t say shit like that.”

“Then shut the fuck up.”

The day’s exchange ended there. Ricco Costantini stood up, dropped a couple of bills onto the table and walked away from Victor Gatti.

It was raining and cold on Commercial Drive. Costantini put up his collar and walked into the wind. In five minutes, he was in his room over the Quality Butcher Shop, with the pig carcasses and the aged salamis in the window. It was 7pm. He turned on the radio, opened a fresh bottle of rye and a deck of cigarettes, and sat down at a wooden table next to the window that looked out onto the street.

1975

She had entered his life through an acquaintance, Billy Wicks. Wicks had a reputation as a disciplined and efficient killer. He was expensive, but most of the people who hired him considered him an excellent value, like shopping for a hitman was like shopping for a pound of coffee. Wicks travelled a lot for business, and one day he came back from a job in Windsor with Felicia.

He went round town for a week with her on his arm. Until the cops came after him.

It was his fault they finally found him. Billy Wicks had a thing about colouring his fingernails with black shoe polish, and then buffing them up with a shoe brush. It made them look shiny and sort of grey. He figured it set him apart, made him look cold and a little crazy. And it did. But it was something a hood shouldn’t do, get a tattoo or piercings or colour your fingernails. It was something the cops could look for when they were rounding up the usual fishy characters. And witnesses close to that Windsor job remembered a guy with shiny grey fingernails.

The cops cornered Billy in his apartment down on Terminal Avenue, and shot him dead after a three hour stand-off. That left Felicia by herself in a strange city with no friends. She was just a kid. Nineteen, she claimed. And Billy had been footing the bill. Now Billy was dead. His apartment was shot up and off limits, and Felicia didn’t have a friend. So, that’s when she started tricking down on south Seymour Street. Ricco Costantini found her one night after he left the Penthouse Night Club.

He’d been cruising the Seymour strip looking for something new. There was a booze can called Heidy’s in an old two story garage under the Granville Street Bridge, where he and a girl could get a room and drink until dawn.

He found her down past Drake, close to Pacific Street where the new girls had to work, under the scarce street lights.

“I know you,” he said, pulling up in his second hand Coupe de Ville.

Felicia bent over all smiles, and leaned into the car through the open window.

“Sure you do,” she said. “We’re old friends. You wanna make it?”

“No no, really,” Ricco said. “You was with Billy Wicks, for a while, ‘til he got wasted. What are you doin’ down here?”

“Working,” Felicia said, backing off. “Fuck off. You gumbas ain’t my scene no more.”

“Wicks weren’t no gumba, honey.”

“He hung out with you,” she said. “And you all want it for free, stinkin’ like day old Aqua Velva.”

“I’m no Aqua Velva man, baby. And I don’t want nothing for free. Get in.”

He leaned across and opened the passenger side door. She stood back for a minute, doing the arithmetic, and then got in.

The booze at Heidy’s was high priced rotgut, and their room was a dimly lit closet with pictures of Hindu gods hanging from the walls.

“This is bizarre,” said Felicia, looking around her from the tatty bed.

“Heidy thinks it’s exotic,” Ricco said. “And the smack addicts like it.”

“How do you like it?” she said, unbuttoning his shirt.

“Let me show you, doll,” he said bravely, as though on a dare.

His kiss was a childish thing, and his hands weighty and inept. Other working girls had pushed him away, had laughed and lit a cigarette, then proceeded with a roll of the eyes and an apparent sense of profession duty. He often wondered why he bothered, and what terrible inventory of secrets his bungling efforts in bed revealed.

He was unhappily awake at dawn, laying on his side and gazing at her sleep. She was beautiful. She wouldn’t be for long, though, if she stayed in her current line of work. She’d be back out there now if he hadn’t paid her for the whole night, knowing that most of it would go to a sick pimp named Johnny.

When she woke, he immediately asked her –

“Would you go home, if you could?”

“Well good morning to you too, big boy,” she yawned. “That’s quite the question, this early. Are you gonna play the hero and pay my way back. What do I have to do for that?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It was just a question.”

“Most guys talk big and don’t deliver,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “So, don’t get any ideas about saving me from myself. You’ll just embarrass the both of us.”

Later she didn’t let him take her home, just leave her at Hastings and Main. She’d spent her time on the ride silently writing in a small black book.

“You really one of them?” she said, before she got out of the car in front of the Carnegie Library.

“Them?”

“Them swaggering mobster fucks Billy used to hang out with. Always grabbing their dicks and giving them a hoist in front of everyone in the room.”

“No,” Ricco said, a little ashamed, and a little amused. “I haven’t done nothing to earn it.”

“But you’re gonna, right? I can tell. You got some big plan up your sleeve.”

He had been working a certain job out, but what was it to her? It’d be a sweet little heist. The plan was a blueprint plotted out on the surface of his brain, scratched into the backs of his eyes where the light was supposed to collect. It was like a movie playing over and over, with a single flawless outcome. But a lot of guys with flawless plans were doing time, looking stupid for not knowing what they didn’t know, their names passed round by guys on the outside whenever they needed a laugh. He didn’t care about prison. He just couldn’t stand anyone laughing.

“I get by okay on my own,” he said. “I know who to stand by, who to avoid, who to pay respects.”

“But that’s just it,” she said. “You’re alone. Guys like you ain’t no good on their own. They get itchy.”

“Itchy? Hey, what the hell makes you know so much? You’re just a fucking teenager.”

“And what are you?” she said. “Twenty?”

“Twenty-two.”

“And how’d you pay for last night, you rob a gas station?”

“Maybe I ran an errand,” he said.

She smiled at that, and put her Moleskine in her bag. She got out of the car and walked away, without looking back. Ricco headed to the Drive and drank espresso. He had a meeting at Little Leo Panelli’s apartment at noon.

“When the armoured truck gets to Broadway and Renfrew,” Leo Panelli said, “it parks down the alley behind the bank, because the whole area round that intersection’s a no parking zone on account of the traffic. Then they take the cash from the front round to the back. It’s a perfect spot for the hit.”

There was a map on the table, with arrows, squares and circles drawn in blue and red crayon Little Leo had stolen from his niece. Ricco was troubled. Paulo Zaro and Leo were both wearing revolvers in shoulder holsters. That was new.

“And then the twenty grand or so is all ours,” said Paulo Zaro. “We’ll be big time, then. People’ll be calling us Sir.”

“Fucking, eh,” Panelli said.

The two men high-fived.

“You two just concentrate,” said Ricco. “What’s important is the job, timing and escape, not getting busted later. We’ll count the money after it’s done.”

“Those dumb fucks get there the same time every day,” Panelli said. “10:45 a.m.”

“And the driver and guards are old timers,” said Zaro. “They’re ready to retire, and don’t wanna pull a gun. Even the armour truck company don’t want ‘em pulling their weapons. They don’t want no dead passersby. Those guy’s guns probably cobwebs.”

“There’s always something, though,” Ricco Costantini said.

“Like what?”

“Like, I don’t know what,” said Costantini. “The unknown, the unpredictable. Like there’s no passersby in a back alley. None of us has done this before. We should ask some of the guys who know about this shit.”

“Then they’ll want in,” said Panelli.

“You got the balls for this, Ricco?” Zaro said, sounding concerned. “You having second thoughts? You happy being small time? Because if you are, we can get someone else.”

“Now’s the wrong time for that,” Panelli said. “There ain’t no one else. We’re neighbourhood guys. Ricco’s good. He’s got brains, that’s all. He’s considering all the angles.”

“Well,” said Zaro. “Maybe his brain is thinking too much.”

Ricco looked at the hand drawn map, and thought about Paulo and Little Leo with their newly acquired guns.

“I’m in,” he said. “Don’t get tough, Paulo, just ‘cause you suddenly got a gun. I wanna work this out in my head. We’ll meet on Sunday and set a time and work out the cars and the escape route.”

“Jeez, Ricco,” Panelli said. “That’s four days away. This is taking longer than I thought.”

“It might take a lot longer, too,” Ricco said. “You in a hurry to do this thing wrong, Leo? This ain’t no convenience store robbery.”

“Fuck around!” said Zaro.

“Alright,” Panelli said. “Sunday. Same time.”

In fact, it took another month and a half to work it out. Ricco talked to some of the quiet old pisans, who’d been around. The hand drawn map of the heist had changed three times. Paulo and Leo could see the logic every time, but were growing impatient.

Meanwhile, Ricco had gotten Felicia a job at a coffee shop and was helping her out with rent. He knew he had to pay off Johnny, but when Johnny said it wasn’t enough, Leo and Paulo held him down while Ricco used a pair of pruning shears to remove the pimp’s left pinky finger. They promised that the rest of his fingers would go the same way if he didn’t back off. It raised Ricco’s profile on the darker side of the city, but it had given him bad dreams.

Their lovemaking had changed. Ricco stopped trying so hard and Felicia was tender and patient. They were being seen with one another, and it was understood they were together.

One night they sat together in the coffee shop, after she’d gotten off shift. And Felicia wrote quietly in her notebook while Ricco watched and sipped his coffee.

“What do you write in that book?” he said.

“Just things that come to me,” Felicia said. “It’s a journal. It’s just short lines about stuff I see.”

“Read me a couple, then,” Ricco said.

“Nah, they’re personal, kinda weird. It’s not stuff anybody wants to hear.”

“C’mon.”

“No.”

“Tell you what,” Ricco said. “You read me something, and I’ll buy you a rose.”

She looked at him for a moment, and said, “Yellow?”

“Yellow? Sure. A big fat yellow rose.”

“Where you gonna find a yellow rose in this dumpy neighbourhood?”

“Sandroni’s Florists, down the Drive.”

“That funeral place?”

“Sure. I know them there. They got the yellow roses.”

“They’d better.”

“They do.”

“This better not be bullshit, Ricco.”

“It ain’t.”

“Alright,” she said. “But I warned you it’s weird.”

“Whatever….”

Felicia leafed through the pages, making faces as she did.

“Okay okay,” she finally said. “You listen, and don’t laugh. Here it goes. This one’s called the cat. Goes like this: In the moon, he is a monster. He leaps from a shadow onto the back of night, and rips it into shreds of dawn.

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, I told you it was weird.”

“Well read me another. Now I know what to expect.”

“Hmm, okay. This one is called the daemon casket.”

“Really? Holly shit!”

“Just listen, the daemon casket: He laid a trail of wax and lit it on fire. It led her into his angel domed room of candles, where he dreamed in the casket, and planned what would make him like men.”

“Oh,” Ricco said, needing words and finding none. He flashed back to Johnny’s finger, bloody and inert on the floor.

“It’s just some crazy fiction, baby,” said Felicia. “It’s like poetry. Don’t you read books?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not so good with books.”

“I don’t want to read this anymore,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I won’t ask again.”

At last Paulo Zaro said, “We go next Wednesday. The weather should be good. We can’t work this out any better.”

Ricco knew he was right. The plan couldn’t be improved on. But that didn’t make it achievable. They’d arrive and leave in three separate cars, and meet up later. But it was a busy intersection, bottle necks everywhere. The city was full of pinch points. They could go south or east, but any escape route was tricky. It proved they were amateurs. If Ricco had learned anything from the planning, it was that Vancouver was probably the worst city in the world to rob an armoured truck.

“Yeah, Wednesday,” Ricco said. He looked at yet another map on the table.

“You better be up for this,” Paulo said.

“Don’t worry about me,” said Ricco. “Just worry about what you gotta do. No cowboy shit. Try to behave like a professional.”

When he met Felicia that night, he had an envelope of cash. He slid it to her across the table. They were in a booth at a café on the Drive.

“What’s this?” she said.

“I sold the Coupe de Ville, hocked a few other things. I had a few bucks under the mattress.”

“But why give it to me?”

“Get outta town,” he said. “There’s enough there to get a plane ticket, and hold you over wherever you end up, until you get a job. I wish it was more.”

He was sitting forward at the table, and she saw something under his open jacket.

“That’s a gun,” she said.

He straightened and zipped up his jacket.

“Why do you have a gun?”

“Because. Just forget it.”

“Ricco, this makes no sense. Talk to me.”

“Something’s gonna happen,” Ricco said. “If I pull it off, I’ll track you down, after a while. If I don’t pull it off, I’m going to jail, or something else. Either way, you don’t want to be in town after Wednesday.”

“If you’re in trouble,” she said. “I’m the one who should be here.”

“Just get outta town,” Ricco said. “Tonight. Call me tomorrow form wherever you land.”

“I won’t,” she said. “I love you. I can’t leave like this, with you talking like this way.”

Ricco sat back for a moment. There was a peculiar weight to her words, he couldn’t comprehend. They were massive in his small world. They knocked to wind out of him. Love was the unknown, the unpredictable. There was nothing in his plan for this.

He reached across the table and grabbed her by her collar, and pulled her forward so they were face to face. Buttons from her blouse popped, and fell onto the floor. For the first time since they met, she was scared.

“You’ll fucking go,” he said.

“No.”

He grabbed her bag with his free hand, and pulled out the Moleskine.

“You see this?” he said. “You see it?”

She didn’t answer.

“It’s a piece of shit, and I don’t like you writing about me in it.”

“I never,” Felicia said, but she heard her lie before he did and was ashamed.

He let her go, and began tearing pages from the book.

“There,” he said, in his rage. “Now it looks as shitty as it sounds. Get the fuck outta town, tonight.”

The neighbourhood knew something was up. For the moment, Ricco and his behaviour were considered too dangerous to question. The patrons looked away as he exited the café. It was Monday night.

In her own rage, Felicia returned home and took what she needed. She boarded a Greyhound that night and headed east. Riding the dog would save money, and she had no idea where to go anyway.

Ricco went home and drank. On Tuesday afternoon, he met with Paulo and Little Leo for what should have been the last run-through of the plan.

“I’m pulling out,” Ricco told the two men.

“Fuck,” said Paulo. “I knew it, Leo. The guy’s a pussy. It’s that bitch you’ve been hangin’ onto, ain’t it?”

“Don’t say that, Paulo,” Leo said. “You saw how he took care of that pimp Johnny.”

“You guys should reconsider, too,” Ricco said. “Get in on a couple smaller jobs, and get some experience first.”

“Fuck you, Ricco. Leo and me are a go for tomorrow. And when it’s done, when we’re making it and you’re still scratching round for your lunch, don’t come to us.”

“It’s only twenty grand, Paulo,” Ricco said.

“It’s what it fucking means,” said Paulo. “You know it. It means we got the balls, we’re moving up, we’re going somewheres. It means no one’s gonna spit on us no more.”

“Okay,” said Ricco, and walked away.

The next day, the plan failed. Paulo and Little Leo went in cocky, and were shot dead in the alley by the two retirement aged guards before they even got their hands on the bag of cash. By noon, no one on Commercial Drive even knew their names.

Ricco Costantini pleaded not guilty to the charge of conspiracy, and got off. Afterwards, he ran errands and played the horses, but he was never trusted to plan or pull off another job, and ended up sitting his life out in Metro Moe’s, before and after its attempt to go hip, but not during.

1995

“She ever call?” Victor Gatti asked, a couple of days later, after Ricco had cooled down. They were sitting in their usual corner of the bar.

“Never,” said Ricco.

“Nothin’?”

“She mailed me a cashier’s cheque for the money I gave her.”

“Did you cash it?”

“Nah.”

They were quiet for an hour after that. Then Gatti hiccupped the name –

“Johnny the pimp.”

“Got his pinky cut off.”

“Fuckin’ pimp.”

“Waddaya gonna do?”

“Fuckin’ Johnny the pimp.”

“Without his goddam pinky.”

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