“What, no tip?” the cook asked while sliding the medium-size pizza across the chipped Formica counter to Arnold.
See, that’s the problem. Do a person one favor and they expect another. Never ends.
But Arnold didn’t mind. In fact, he liked the guy. Besides, what’s not to like? Always good natured, smiling, always put a few extra anchovies on the pizzas even though he didn’t have to.
Arnold glanced over his shoulder to check out who might be nearby. The overheated humid room air was spiced with yeast, grease, and tomato sauce. The only other customers tonight were a couple, eyes glued to the high-def big-screen on the far wall, watching the Mariners, a large pepperoni and pitcher of beer in front of them, half-eaten slices in route to their mouths. Last thing they’d be looking at was Arnold doing business with the cook.
Arnold slipped a folded paper from his billfold, passed it to the guy, pressing it firmly into his palm with the words, “Danny Boy to win in the third. Thunderbolt to place in the fifth. Saratoga.”
The cook nodded acknowledgment, casually stuffing the note into his breast pocket.
“Thanks. You the man!”
Arnold began to pull a twenty from his billfold but the guy waved it off.
“Naw, naw, no way. This one’s on me, dude. After all,” patting his breast pocket, “this more than takes care of it.”
Arnold smiled, stuffed his wallet back in his jeans.
“So, we’re good?”
The cook laughed with a quick nod.
“Yeah, we good, that is, of course, unless you want to tell me your system.”
Arnold cringed. He’d messed up having ever mentioned it. In retrospect, he probably shouldn’t have given the guy the first tip and just let it be. But he hadn’t been able to keep his big mouth shut—hadn’t been able to muzzle his jubilant pride at being able to match Nate Silver’s uncanny predictive accuracy—so now here they were.
“Then it wouldn’t be my system anymore, would it,” making it a statement instead of a question.
Wiping his fingers on the greasy apron, the cook nodded.
“Point made,” and shot a glance at the oven where a large meat-lovers pizza was beginning to bubble. “Anything else? Something to drink? Otherwise…”
Arnold thought about that a moment, a whisper in the back of his mind warned of forgetting something.
It came to him.
“Tell you what. Throw in a couple packs of those hot peppers, will you?”
Arnold was hurrying to get home before the pizza cooled, the smell of melted cheese and greasy pepperoni whetting his appetite. He cut down an alley, crossed a side street, then hung a left into another alley. Greenlake, a Seattle residential neighborhood, had been established before World War II in a bygone era of narrow roads, when alleys were unpaved afterthoughts for accessing impossibly small single-car garages.
Years ago, this alley had morphed into a contiguous series of opposing garage doors and privacy fences so high he could see nothing of the enclosed properties other than peaked roofs and brick chimneys. The light on the utility pole halfway down the alley had burned out weeks ago, leaving the chuck-holed asphalt in India ink shadows. But from having spent his life in the house he knew each crack and puddle well enough to navigate the narrow alley blindfolded.
His garage—set back from the alley by two feet—anchored the northeast corner of his property. A 7-foot-high cedar fence enclosed a back yard long gone to seed since his parents’ death. A blue recycle and a green garbage bin abutted the fence, providing barely enough room for the garbage truck to navigate its weekly route. He carefully set the box of pizza on the green dumpster to type the six-digit code into the security pad, and the lock emitted a metallic slap. Propping the gate open with one foot, he picked up the pizza and entered the back yard, stopping to make sure the gate had locked securely behind him.
Satisfied, he hurried along the short cement path to the back steps, on up to the porch, through the kitchen door, yelling, “Yo, dude, I’m back.”
Heard Howie yell, “Run! Get out!”
Arnold stopped in the middle of the kitchen.
This some sort of joke?
BAM. The unmistakable sound of a handgun made him jump. Then Karim was filling the doorway from kitchen to dining room, gun in hand.
Dropping the pizza, Arnold spun 180 degrees and bolted through the back door, arms out, palms hitting the porch rail, his momentum carrying him into a Western roll out into space, into an arching fall ending with both feet hitting the ground. Hard. Jolting, searing pain shot from ankle to knee, almost buckling his right leg.
Then Karim was up on the back porch, yelling, “Stop!”
But now Arnold was limping as fast as possible straight for the gate, hand out to open the latch. Halfway through the gate he recognized Karim’s heavy shoes clamoring down the stairs, coming after him unexpectedly quickly for such a big man.
Damn ankle! Sprained. Badly, too.
Arnold only had time to round the recycle bin and wedge into a crouch between it and the garbage bin, back against the fence, knees tucked against his chest before he heard the gate click open and the hinges squeak. He went dead still one second before sensing Karim slip silently into the blackened alley, breathing hard, like a guy out of shape. Arnold hugged his knees, scrunching into an impossibly tight ball, shoulders wedged between bins, his back flat against the chilly cedar fencing. He strained to listen, heard one heavy step hit alley asphalt, then nothing as the big man waited, listening for footsteps or movement, for any sign of him.
A car engine grew more distant, blocks away. A dog barked somewhere on the next block. Graveyard stillness settled over the alley.
Silently Arnold began massaging his ankle, at first pressing gingerly over the spot hurting worse, the pressure producing excruciating pain, tolerable only because he needed to know if it were fractured or not—not that it made much difference if he had to bolt. He covered his mouth with his free hand to muffle his breathing.
Could Karim hear him? Sense him?
He caught a whiff of Karim’s nauseating body odor and decided he had to be off to the left, probably just inside the alley at the gate. He gingerly probed the ankle further, deciding the bone wasn’t broken, but shit, the damn thing hurt. He continued the massage, hoping it might alleviate some pain, because first chance he got, he’d make a break for it and run. But unless that opportunity was damn obvious, he’d stay still.
He recognized Firouz’s voice, quiet and urgent, and figured Karim’s brother must be on the porch leaning over the rail.
A direct order. Shit!
Arnold tensed, ready to spring. If Karim discovered him, he’d bolt before the bastard could react, hoping for the element of surprise…
Yeah, then what? Guy has a gun.
Sheer stupidity to try to overpower him. Certainly, couldn’t deck him. Didn’t have the moves. Or the fist, for that matter. Running would be his only option. He certainly had the advantage of knowing every path and shortcut around here. Yeah, maybe…
A shadow denser than others slipped silently past from left to right, the tangy stench of BO stronger, overpowering the rank, rotting garbage. Karim silently radiating a presence of mass. Arnold sensed him stop, probably no more than five feet away, almost close enough to feel his body heat. He held his breath, praying Karim wouldn’t look between the bins, or if he did, couldn’t see him in the inky shadow. Did the bastard carry a flashlight?
A light suddenly flashed on, casting high-contrast trapezoids across the alley. A door clicked, followed by the rapid scraping of claws on wood. Arnold pictured the neighbor’s big male German shepherd shooting out across their back porch and down the steps into the enclosed grass yard. Then, a deep guttural growl from behind the fence.
The dog began rapidly sniffing as his nose scraped the fence corner where the properties met, about where he sensed Karim standing. The shepherd barked again, deep, threatening barks.
The alley remained deathly still. No movement, no sounds. More barks.
Arnold breathed and probed his ankle once more, this time applying more pressure, palpating the bone. No, not broken. Good enough to run on.
Get ready. Any second now…
“Fritz, no bark.”
He recognized the neighbor’s voice. The shepherd obediently ceased barking but continued to pant and sniff, his nose glued to the fence corner where Karim’s scent had to be strongest.
“Anybody there?” his neighbor called.
Yell to him?
Yeah, and say what? Call 911?
Fat chance. Not with Karim five feet away with a gun. His heart was beating so hard he was certain Fritz could hear it. Surely the pooch recognized his scent. But Karim’s strong, foreign smell would be threatening, causing more threatening barks.
A moment later the neighbor said, “Come!”
Fritz’s tags jangled, followed by the scrape of paws on the wood steps. Seconds later the door latch clicked and the floodlight went dark, once again filling the alley in heavy black shadows. Arnold stopped breathing.
The mass moved again, stopped, moved a bit further. Probing, searching, intent.
Water splashed, followed by a muttered curse in a foreign tongue.
Bastard stepped in a puddle.
Wet footsteps squished in his direction as the mass slowly and silently passed, now moving in the opposite direction, to Arnold’s left.
Suddenly, the alley lit up, shadows streaking from left to right with the crunch of tires on loose dirt. A car was turned in from the far end, headlight straight into Karim’s eyes.
Instinctively, Arnold realized his chance. He bolted, took two steps, cut sharp right, away from Karim, thinking, distance is good, every inch of is one less degree of accuracy.
The odds of survival increasing in his brain with each step he ran, legs pumping harder and faster than ever before in his young life, an adrenaline surge igniting afterburners he never knew were there, fear overriding the searing pain from his ankle.
He was flying through Mahoney’s yard, onto the side street, cut another right, shot down a short block as one final surge sent him bursting through the pizza shop front door, breathlessly yelling, “Call