(R) Rating - one scene of violence
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Century Park lay under a late November snow, thread through by the trails and dotted with park benches. Sean Ryan knew it well. This was the place he had spent countless days as a child hiding among the trees and shrubs and pursuing his friends in daylong games of tag and baseball. He recalled the rich colors of autumn, when the city groundskeepers swept leaves from the walking paths into great, soft piles. How daring and dangerous it had been to climb the trees and jump down, then to run and collapse on the grass and lay staring up at the passing clouds.
Those were the days when nothing mattered but friends and good times. Ryan knew beyond a shadow of a doubt those days had gone. At the time he had not been saddened to see them go. Warm summer days had been traded for newer, better things. Back then he’d been certain he was trading up, getting something more for something less. Taking a cigarette in his teeth, Ryan gazed past the Model A’s windshield. The park was to his left, pristine and white under the first heavy snow of the year. Across the street was a decaying tenement. Smoke curled lazily from the roof and small faces lined the grimy windows.
He sympathized. Youth being a near memory, he knew the disappointment of winter spent cooped up in a cramped, cold apartment. The park became a whole other world in the wintertime, a magical and mysterious place with a hint of foreboding carried on the air. The illusion was greater still at night when the park lights cast their golden glow into the darkness. Early on Ryan had discovered that girls found this atmosphere almost intoxicating.
Having smoked most of the cigarette Ryan killed the Ford’s engine and got out. The cold air bit at his face as he pitched the butt and started down the path, his shined leather shoes the only sounds in this still and quiet environment. Burying his hands in his overcoat pockets and turning up the collar helped ward off numbness. There was another cold he could do nothing to shake.
This morning he had received a call from John Short, an old friend. The message had been curt and to the point. He needed to go to the park as soon as he could. Ryan suspected he knew the reason. A couple of days ago Short had done the unthinkable—he’d turned against the mob; he’d quit. It didn’t make much sense from Ryan’s perspective. Short lived well. He had a family. He was safe when he went to sleep at night. He had a hell of a lot more than a lot of people could claim and yet he’d decided to throw everything away. Since falling off the face of the earth his first and only call had come to Ryan. Probably not a wise idea, as Ryan worked for Daley—the same crime boss that Short had so infuriated.
In doing so he’d put Ryan in a tight spot. On one side was somebody he’d known since he a kid in the park, on the other the man who’d made him something better than a two-bit street thug, who’d made him respected. He hoped to God Short didn’t intend to ask for his help. Personally, he’d crossed a lot of lines in his time, and he’d do just about anything for a friend, but there were some things he wasn’t willing to even consider.
He found Short sitting on a park bench with his hands in his lap and wearing a black woolen overcoat and fedora. The look about him spoke less of a man and more of a hunted animal.
“How’s Lindy taking all this?” Ryan asked when he was within speaking distance. Linda was Short’s wife, a nondescript, uncomplaining woman who had given him three children and managed to cope with his occasional shady dealings.
“Dead. Yesterday. Kids too.” Even the voice was unfamiliar. The specimen on the park bench was something altogether different than the man he used to know.
“Yeah,” Short swiveled his head around. “Yeah.”
“Why, John? Why quit? You had the whole damn world”—
“I’m a businessman, not a killer.”
There followed a moment of uneasy silence. Yeah, this was a rough business, but that was how it was sometimes. For all the good it did him, Ryan thought offing a man’s family was a lousy thing to do. But then again, knifing your friends and business partners in the back wasn’t much better.
“They almost had me,” Short said in a dull voice. “It’s only a matter of time now.”
“Get out of Herot, John. That’s your best bet. Daley might get you one day, but at least you’ll have a fighting chance. You got no reason to stay here anymore.”
“I tried. Daley has too many men between me and the interstate. I couldn’t get out if I had an armored car.”
Ryan said nothing. In his nervousness he’d begun to pace, and from pacing had gone to walking in circles around the bench. He was distantly aware of the cold and the park now. Moreover, he was growing increasingly more concerned that Short had dragged him into this. If word got out that the two had met he’d most likely turn up floating facedown in the lake. No easy way out; he lost his friend or his head. The choice was his to make. He could help Short get out of town and sign his own death warrant, or he could turn and walk away.
He could do neither.
Something within himself forced him to stop. He couldn’t justify leaving Short to the mob. Once they caught him he’d be dead. He’d just get dead real slow, maybe a finger or two at a time. Daley was an unforgiving man and betrayal meant death. Short was gone no matter how you saw things. Himself, he might get out if he played his cards right. Leaving a man to torture, though…that was something else.
“John,” Ryan stopped behind the bench, “you’d do me a favor, right?”
“What do you need?”
Short smiled a weak smile and turned his head ever so slightly. “Yeah.”
Three shots rang in the trees, scattering a handful of doves that had roosted nearby. Ryan turned to go, tucking the snub-nosed .38 under his coat. Behind him John Short lay in a slowly expanding crimson stain, the back of his head caved in from the impact of the slugs. As for Century Park...this was one memory Ryan wanted behind him.
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