This is a story that's been percolating for awhile.
THE BLACK CARD
Peter Loftus prided himself on his street smarts.
He wasn’t too worried when he saw the roving gang of teens ghosting toward him.
Gangs of percenters were always roaming the area, looking for stray onesies they could prey upon, and Peter had taken pains to disguise himself as one of the 99.
Clocking their movements was just a matter of situational awareness, not paranoia and Peter didn’t even break his stride.
Peter was sure the wildlings would pass him by. There was nothing about his demeanor or dress that broadcast his wealth or status.
Still, Peter was glad he was wearing the money belt with the slotted buckle that was large enough to hide his American Express Centurion card. He normally didn’t carry it, but he’d been unable to complete his business online and had had to take the risk of going out on the street with the black card in his possession.
He’d learned from experience that taking the armor-plated Mercedes into the city only invited unwelcome attention. After two attempted carjackings, one that had resulted in the death of his driver, Peter began doing things the old-fashioned way, keeping his head down and going undercover as one of the rabble.
His disguise was flawless, a filthy raincoat over a faded t-shirt worn with jeans that were faded white at the seams and worn thin in the knees. His shoes were unpolished, their heels worn down, the toes scuffed and the leather sides thin and discolored. He’d bought the shoes online from a local Goodwill store and then had them specially sanitized.
The outfit screamed “loser” but was clean enough that he wouldn’t be denied entrance to a bank or business office he needed to access.
The clothes were easy. It was a lot harder to get the physical parts right.
A lot of Peter’s friends were a little too dainty to carry off a successful percenter impersonation.
They had soft, manicured hands that gave them away.
Or they had expensive haircuts that fell just so and never really looked unkempt no matter how they tousled it.
Peter had no vanity and relished the opportunity to literally get his hands dirty.
He planned his excursions—what his virtual assistant called his “street time”—with the precision of a military operation.
The first thing he did was mess up his own expensive manicure by dragging his fingers across the raw concrete walls of the secure parking garage where the Mercedes was housed. Once the nails were broken and cracked, he poured a little motor oil over them as if rubbing in hand sanitizer. Within minutes, his hands were authentically grimy with ground-in dirt in the creases that ordinary hand-washing couldn’t dislodge.
Peter normally paid $300 for his haircuts but before he went out onto the street, he “trimmed” the hair himself with a blunt pair of scissors—deliberately cutting some hanks way too close.
His wife hated it when he returned from what she called his “walkabouts” because his hair always looked, she said, like he’d combed it with an egg-beater.
Not that she’d ever actually seen or touched an egg beater. She didn’t have to. Their cook, an immigrant from Florida made homeless by a hurricane, was a genius in the kitchen, well worth the $250 a week they paid her.
The finishing touch was the grizzled beard Peter adopted and shaved in patches with a blunt safety razor that often left little bloody nicks behind.
Paying attention to details had always been one of Peter’s core competencies. With the beard and the hair and the hands and the dirt, Peter was invisible.
The trick was getting in and out of his building without being seen. There were tunnels constructed beneath the building that led to all sorts of innocuous outlets. The entrance to the tunnels was guarded by doormen who were paid well for their discretion and loyalty. Peter always made sure to slip the guys bottles of single-malt at Christmas.
The trick was not to use the same tunnel outlet too often.
You just couldn’t be too careful.
Peter had been a block from the alley where he emerged from the tunnel when he spotted the teens.
He’d identified the group’s alpha almost immediately—like knows like—and had given him a mad dog stare he’d perfected in the board room, the look that said, You really do not want to fuck with me.
Much to his surprise, the gang leader hadn’t dropped his eyes but instead ramped up the unspoken confrontation by returning the glare. I’ll fuck you up old man, you see if I don’t.
Peter didn’t slow his pace.
“Hey,” the guy said. “You just come from Delancey?”
“No,” Peter said and kept walking.
“You sure?” the leader persisted.
“I saw him come out of the alley at Delancey Hugo,” a rat-faced punk who couldn’t be older than 12 said.
“There you go,” Hugo said. “You calling my boy a liar?”
Oh for God’s sake, Peter thought and kept walking.
But suddenly two of the teens were in front of him, walking backwards. One of them flashed his iPhone and grabbed a picture, which he immediately sent to someone else.
Who did he send that picture to? Peter wondered.
Hugo asked again. “What were you doing on Delancey Street?”
Peter took another look at the alpha; saw the feral gleam in his eyes and something else, something that might have been … intelligence.
“I was taking a piss in the alley. That all right with you?”
Hugo smiled, revealing the diseased gums and broken teeth of meth-mouth.
Christ, Peter thought, a tweaker.
A memory clicked and surfaced…a briefing his assistant had given him on the gangs controlling the area. He’d mentioned a teenage crew that called itself the Dead Rabbits in tribute to one of the 19th century gangs. Something about the guy who led them.
“Delancey’s my street,” the tweaker said. “But you’re new around here, right? You didn’t know that .”
“That’s right,” Peter said agreeably, wondering if he could activate his panic button without tipping Hugo off.
Whenever he went into the tunnels, he wore a special button on his raincoat that sent a signal the doorman could track. If he got in trouble, the doorman could signal the police and they’d come in rolling like they were crossing the Rhine.
Nothing cops liked better than busting percenters.
Except maybe the tip Peter would hand them for their service.
He casually rubbed his thumb over the special button, as if massaging away a sudden chest pain.
“You all right bro?” one of the teens asked, with insincere solicitude.
“I think he needs a drink,” Hugo said. “Give him a drink Joey.”
The little rat-faced fucker pulled a dirty, unlabeled bottle out of his backpack.
“Here you go guy,” he said.
Peter took the bottle and looked at the cloudy liquid swishing around inside.
I’m going to have to drink this, he thought. Fuck.
The cheap liquor burned. Peter hadn’t had hooch this raw since his undergraduate days and even then it had been cut with the cooler burn of pharmaceutical grade coke.
Hugo grinned as Peter choked it down and offered the bottle back to Joey.
“Nah, I’m good,” the kid said, his eyes glittering. “You finish the bottle.”
Hugo was watching.
He knows Peter thought and it was not a comforting thought.
“Eat the rich,” Peter toasted as he tossed back another gulp of the nasty stuff. He remembered reading stories about bums drinking Sterno filtered through slices of bread. He wondered if he that’s what he was drinking now.
He finished the liquor without gagging and then tossed the bottle over his shoulder, just for the satisfaction of hearing it break. “Gotta go,” he said, slurring his words, which alarmed him.
He pressed the button on his raincoat again.
The cops should have been here by now he thought, trying not to panic.
Where are the fucking cops?
“Gotta go,” he repeated but the two teens blocking his path didn’t move.
The one who’d taken his picture got a text.
He looked at it and nodded at his leader.
“You got a squat?” Hugo asked. “Can you put us up?”
This is going pear-shaped fast, Peter thought. And then without thinking he pivoted and charged right at the little rat-fucker, sending both Joey and Hugo to the sidewalk as he hauled ass for the tunnel entrance.
They were younger but Peter was in better shape and they soon fell behind.
By the time he reached the tunnel entrance, they were nowhere to be seen.
Peter secured the door behind him and then vomited as the backwash of adrenaline overpowered his system. What seemed like a gallon of toxic liquid poured out of his system.
I’d hate to be the one who has to clean that up, he thought.
By the time he got back up to the lobby, Peter’s fear had morphed into frustration overlaid with anger. He hadn’t accomplished his errand and it looked like his GPS transmitter was broken. He wouldn’t be able to go out again until it was fixed.
“Welcome back Mr. Loftus,” the doorman said as Peter emerged from the door in back of the lobby’s concierge desk.
“Thanks Travis,” Peter said.
“I’m Conor, Mr. Loftus,” the doorman said. “Travis is the night man.”
Peter just nodded. “Sorry,” he said.
Peter was passing the desk when he saw a flickering light on the console. He took another step and the light flickered again. It was his GPS signal.
He looked at Conor.
Conor looked at him.
“I don’t drink Mr. Loftus,” he said. “I’d much rather you’d given me money than a bottle of scotch at Christmas.”
Peter was trying to think of a suitably scathing reply when he heard the street door open.
He turned as the wildings sauntered in as if they owned the place.
Hugo nodded at Conor.
“Thanks bro,” he said.
“Any time, Hugo,” the doorman said.
Hugo, rhymes with Yugo—that figures, Peter thought, in one of those brain farts people sometimes get when they’re under extreme stress.
His amusement was short-lived as Hugo and his wildings fell on him.
When Peter was dead the teens searched his body and found the black card hidden in the money belt. The card would be good for a few days with no one to report it stolen.
Peter’s wife was upstate at a spa getting pampered. She wouldn’t know Peter was dead until she got back and found his body dumped on their Italian leather sofa.
By then, Hugo and the others would have done some serious damage with the purloined plastic.
He’d booted up Peter’s computer to do a little online shopping while his boys looted the Sub-Zero fridge in the luxury condo’s kitchen.
It was crammed with packages from Lobel’s.
Hugo called dibs on the steaks.
Hugo hadn’t had meat since Christmas.