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Once upon a time, O’Grady’s had been a nice, Irish style pub. The neighborhood, no more than three blocks from Little Italy and not much further from the heart of Baltimore’s tourist district, had once been safe. For decades the surrounding row houses had belonged to working class families.

It changed in the nineties.

The whole city changed. Working class people moved away and the dealers moved in. Organized crime, which had kept things under tight control for so long, lost its toehold and the gangs fought to fill the vacuum. Houses that were once home to playing children now played host to crack heads and ten-dollar hookers.

O’Grady’s was now what they used to call a den of iniquity. A dark room full of violent drunks and career criminals, drowning their urges with cheap whiskey. It was the kind of place that I had spent too much time in over the course of my careers and I often felt ashamed of how comfortable I was in such an environment. It wouldn’t stay that way much longer. The gray in my hair and the lines on my face were getting more noticeable. I had lost a step or two, but I could still do the work better than most.

Nobody gave me a second look when I stepped inside. I paused in the doorway to light a cigarette and get my bearings. It was a Tuesday, so the crowd was light. I spotted the guy I was looking for at a table in the back. Paul Gallo. He looked out of place. The rest of the crowd was dressed casually, but he wore a charcoal gray suit and it looked right on him.

There was another man at his table, a short, squirrel-faced guy, so I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. The smart thing to do would be to wait. The squirrel-faced guy would go away and I’d have my moment. I took a sip of my beer. It was nice and cold.

Of course the squirrel-faced guy might not go away. He could be there all night. I didn’t feel like sitting at the bar all night. I didn’t feel like sitting at the bar at all. I took another sip. Fuck it.

I stood up and walked to their table. They stopped talking and looked at me. I looked at the squirrel-faced guy. “Take a walk,” I said.

He glanced over at Gallo. Gallo nodded and the guy got up and left the table. I could feel the tension starting to spread through the bar. Like everything else about the situation, it felt familiar.

“You got balls,” Gallo said. “No fuckin’ brains, but you got balls. Who are you?”

I sat down in the vacated seat and smiled at him across the table. “Jon Bale.” I took the gun from the small of my back and laid it on the table in front of me. Gallo pretended not to notice.

“The bounty hunter? Sandy told me about you.” He picked up his glass and swirled his drink a bit with his left hand. It was a simple bit of misdirection. His right hand was inching back, soon it would slip off and under the table.

“She told me about you, too, Paul. I’d appreciate it if you kept your hands on the table. I’m feeling a bit nervous today.”

“What’s to be nervous about?”

”Just leave them on the table.” I took two envelopes from my jacket pocket and put them in front of me, next to the gun.

“And that is?”

I pushed one envelope across the table. “Three thousand dollars. That clears Sandy’s debt.”

Gallo smiled. It was the kind of smile that made me want to punch him in the face. “Well, it’ll cover the vig. For awhile.”

“No. It clears the account. You’re done with Sandy Valentine.” I talked soft and deliberate. This was where it got tricky. It could go south very fast and turn into a bloodbath.

“I sense an ‘or else’ in there, somewhere.” His voice was raspy. He could feel it, too.

I opened the second envelope and pulled out three photographs. I tossed them over to him, one at a time, as I spoke. “Your mother, outside the bank where she works. Your wife, at the gym. Your daughter, at that fancy little private school you fought so hard to get her into.”

Gallo’s face turned dark. The gears were turning in his head and they were taking him places he didn’t want to go.

“You’re done with Sandy Valentine.” I repeated. “Understand?”

“What makes you think you’re walking out of here alive?”

It was my turn to smile. I didn’t feel like it, I found nothing amusing in the situation, but it was necessary to sell the bluff. And the bluff was the only way Sandy was getting out of this mess short of my putting a bullet in Gallo. “Call your wife.”

He scowled, but pulled out his cell phone and dialed. She must have answered right away. “Julia? Are you okay?”

“Tell her to look out her front window, across the street.”

He did.

“She should see a late model Ford sedan. Dark. With a man in the front.” The man in the car was harmless, just an actor playing his part, but Gallo had no way to know that.

Again he spoke into the phone. When she answered, I could see the resignation in his face.

I waited for him to hang up the phone, then smiled again. “Tell me we have an understanding, Gallo, and I’ll be on my way. You’ll never see me again.”

“Oh, I’ll see you again, sport.”

“Do we have an understanding?”

He stared at me for a long, hard minute, before answering. “Yes. Tell her that her debt is clear. But you’ve made an enemy, Mr. Bale. And I have a very long memory.”

“It’s a long line, Gallo. And you’re at the back of it. Have a nice life.” I stood up and walked away, gun in my hand. I could feel every eye on my back as I left and I kept telling myself it was fine.

The tremor in my hand told another story.

Iamge by Jonathan Leach, used with permission. Rights reserved.

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