"Hold it, Ramirez," he said quietly. "Stop right there. One more step and you're a dead man."
Manny Ramirez paused, frowning. His eyes flicked up again at the trees behind Valenti, combing the slope for some kind of sign. He saw nothing.
A moment pa.s.sed.
Then something changed, ever so slowly, in Ramirez' face. The doubt seeped away, and was replaced by a leering, confident smile. The vein still pulsed steadily in his forehead.
"A bad mistake, Valenti," he said softly. "You held up your hand just now, remember? You held up your hand like you were stopping traffic, with all five fingers extended -- the signal for Shorty to kill me, I believe you said. Isn't that right?" His smile widened into a fierce, murderous grin. "And nothing happened, did it, Valenti? Nothing happened because n.o.body's up there." He paused once more, and the smile fell away. His eyes blazed like those of a starving tiger.
Slowly Ramirez took his hand from his pocket. The folded switchblade opened with a snap; the thin blade flashed silver in the sun.
"You made a mistake," he repeated, "and now you're going to die."
He stepped forward.
Mike Valenti said nothing; he just dropped the phone to the ground and raised his fist toward the sky. Only his forefinger was extended, as if showing this misguided drug-pushing child of G.o.d the direction to Salvation.
At that instant, so sudden it seemed magical, Ramirez' right kneecap exploded. A split-second later they heard the sound of the gunshot; it came from somewhere in the thick woods above and behind Valenti.
Manny Ramirez fell like a tree, both hands clasped around his ruined knee. Blood was everywhere. He rolled back and forth, moaning and cursing with every breath.
Slowly the tall man walked over and stood beside him. As an afterthought he picked the switchblade up off the ground and tossed it over the railing. Then he squatted comfortably three feet away and watched with calm interest as Ramirez writhed like a snake in the dirt.
Finally Ramirez quieted down a bit, and lay with his eyes closed and his breath whistling through his clenched teeth. Both hands were still gripping his b.l.o.o.d.y kneecap.
"Look at me, Manny," Valenti said quietly.
Slowly Ramirez opened one eye and stared at him. It was wild with pain and hate.
"You made a mistake too," Valenti said. He held out his arm and flexed his fingers so Ramirez could see them. "I'm left- handed."
They stared into each other's eyes for a long moment, then the older man rose and stared down at the Mexican. "I'll call some of your goons and tell 'em where to find you," Valenti said. "It's anybody's guess whether they'll actually want to come or not."
Ramirez swallowed hard, his face drawn tight with pain.
"I'll . . . kill . . . you . . . Mike . . . Valenti," he whispered, very clearly.
Valenti regarded him thoughtfully for a second or two, then glanced down at his watch. "Afraid I can't stay and chat, Manny. Duty calls. Say h.e.l.lo to Pedro and Luis for me." He turned and walked away.
"I'll have you killed, Valenti!" Ramirez shouted after him. "You'll be dead by tomorrow night, I promise you that!"
The tall man walked slowly across the clearing and into the trees. Behind him, Manny Ramirez moaned and cursed and screamed his name. The shouts followed him almost all the way to his car.
Six hours later the tall man sat at his desk in the study of his home in a quiet suburb north of the city. On the right half of his desk were his stockinged feet; on the left was a stack of paperwork he had shoved over to make room for them. On his mind were the events of the afternoon. All in all, he thought, it had been a productive day.
Just after leaving his noisy meeting with Manny Ramirez he had driven for ten minutes along the winding forest road before stopping near a thicket of spruce and pine near the very top of the mountain. Shorty was there, packing up his rifle and scope and grinning like a kid who's just been down the longest slide at the Water Park. They had talked a bit, the bald marksman had accepted a thick envelope for his services, and they had parted. The tall man had then driven downtown to his office to make a few vitally important phone calls, and now -- at just past seven o'clock in the evening -- he was leaning back in his swivel chair, looking out between the V of his propped-up feet at the gathering twilight outside the window of his study.
The tap of footsteps in the hallway roused him from his thoughts. He turned toward the sound as his wife peeked in through the study door, then pushed it open and walked over to lean against his desk. He looked up at her and smiled. Her hair glowed like spun gold in the light from the desk lamp.
"You must've had a good day," she said. "You look . . . satisfied, somehow."
He regarded her in silence for a moment. "They picked up Eddie Del Vecchio this afternoon. He's going to prison."
She stood there looking at him, stunned. "That's fantastic," she said finally.
"It's a start," he agreed.
She came around the desk and sat down on the arm of his chair, her blue eyes studying his face. He reached up and draped an arm around her waist.
"Jack Warrington," she said with a smile, "you are going to be the best police commissioner this town has ever had. Only a month on the job, and . . . How many now? First Charlie Zizack, and now Del Vecchio . . ." She paused, then said jokingly: "At this rate maybe somebody'll shoot Mike Valenti, and people could actually feel safe on the streets again."
Commissioner Warrington looked up into her face, his eyes twinkling in the lamplight.
"Who knows?" he said. "Anything's possible . . ."
John M. Floyd is a former Air Force captain, recently retired from IBM Corporation. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in more than eighty publications, including The Strand, Writer's Digest, Woman's World, Alfred Hitchc.o.c.k's Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. One of his stories was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. John M. Floyd's novel-length fiction is being represented by the Sternig & Byrne Literary Agency.
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