Mr. Skerritt called him “Lucky Lenny,” because everything worked out right when he was around. When Lenny was on the job, no matter how dicey shit got, it all had a way of coming together. But tonight, Skerritt was taking the ultimate nap in Lenny’s trunk.
As he sped down the deserted blacktop of the Garden State Parkway, Lenny’s luck tank had just about run dry. Skerritt, no mater his opinion about Lenny’s Karmic ability, was a son of a bitch from way back; a racketeer, a thug, a gangster. Lenny’s Pop used to be in Skerritt’s employ until his battle with cancer of the bladder made him week in the bowels. Lenny was just old enough to fill his shoes. His father’s son. The day after his Pops was buried, Skerritt asked Lenny for his pledge.
Lenny thought he’d made it. He’d finally done something with his life. Couldn’t finish high-school, couldn’t make his pecker get hard. But Mr. Skerritt validated his humongous frame with a pat on the back and a brown paper bag filled with Andrew Jackson’s mug.
Pop. He’d raise the dead if he knew what drove Lenny down this dark road tonight. It was over a year ago. Lenny was taking Mr. Skerritt home from Newark. Skerritt was drunk on Brandy. What started as a rant ended with: “Your Pop, God bless ‘im, was laid up in that hospital, shitting in a bag, when State Police fingered him for bunch of crap he didn’t do. So, I paid him a visit the night he... It’s what your Old Man would have wanted, don’t you think?” Lenny remained silent for a long while, tempted by violence (he could have driven right through a telephone pole), and nodded “yes,” obeying the speed limit. He had dreams for months after. Dreams where Skerritt was standing over Pops in the hospital with a pillow, about to do him in because the cancer wasn't quick enough. And Lenny had to watch every time, his pistol gone from its usual place under his coat.
It wasn’t until Kincaid, that enemy bastard from Hoboken, approached Lenny with a deal. One million dollars if he offed Mr. Skerritt, his boss, and protection from the heat for doing so. Lenny didn’t have to chew it over for long. It’s what Pa woulda wanted.
- - -
Kincaid’s stipulations were this: he didn’t care how Lenny did it (bullet, rope, hell, a baseball bat); he didn’t care what he did with the body (Lenny’d sink it in the pine barrens). He only demanded Lenny cut Skerritt’s right hand from his wrist. The one he wore that clunker of a ring on. Not so much for proof that the deed was done, but instead so Kincaid could stick the thing in the freezer and look at it from time to time as a trophy of his takeover of the South Jersey families. Kincaid would have control of the ports, the shore, the very pine barrens where Skerritt’s body would rot. But it was his hand he wanted.
It was closing time at the Black Horse Pub. Lenny brought the car around back, like usual, and helped Skerritt into his wool trench coat (he was stumbling-drunk.) As he helped the man into the back seat, Skerritt asked Lenny for a smoke. Lenny fished in his pockets for his cigarettes. He lit Skerritt’s butt. “Boy, you are a people pleaser. You’re supposed to tell me to quit smoking, you know? Hell, you saved my life from everything else in this fucking world. You’re just gonna let my lungs rot?” Skerritt puffed like a pro. Lenny smiled. He shot Mr. Skerritt through the mouth while the car idled. Guy talked too much anyway.
Severing a human hand at the wrist was not a problem for Lenny. He had done it many times before. A circular saw and a pair of workmen’s goggles were all he needed to get the job done. Lenny wrapped Skerritt’s hand in a pink pastry box, sitting beside him now in the passenger’s seat. He drove on with Skerritt’s body in the trunk of his LeSable, and a shiny Parkway token to pay the coming toll in his palm.
- - -
Exit twenty-nine, toward Ocean City, was coming up on the right. There hadn’t been another car on the road for miles, something Lenny had anticipated this dreary February night.
The toll plaza lit up the night like a landing strip. Lenny slowed to a crawl. He rolled down his window and tossed the token, inhaled sharply as he waited for the light overhead to turn from red to green, signaling his deliverance... Only, the red light held strong and steady like an all-seeing eye. Pops had taught Lenny that even the smallest slip-up could lead to a big headache. He wasn’t going down for something as stupid as an unpaid toll. So Lenny did what all Jersey-ites were trained to do in such a situation: He honked. And honked. And waited. Then honked some more--
A figure jogged across his windshield. A wiry man with a faded Yankees cap on. His face was in shadow as he stalked toward the toll booth and reached his arm elbow-deep into the gaping receptacle, like a grubby dentist fishing for a rotten tooth. Lenny could read the word “COLLECTOR” across the shoulders of his jumpsuit. The man came back with Lenny’s token. He rapped his knuckles against the glass.
Lenny rolled down the window and the man held out the token. “Don’t take this currency anymore. It's obsolete.” His voice reminded Lenny of John F Kennedy's, except dressed down, casually soothing. “Exact change only, sir,” he cooed.
Lenny didn’t have exact change. He had a fifty in his back pocket, but not a penny, nickle or dime in the car.
“You kidding me? I used these tokens last summer.”
The man smiled at Lenny. “Plenty of summer folks are used to the tokens, but Trenton’s going for the upgrade.” The toll collector pointed to the purple letters that read “E-Z Pass” above the toll plaza. Sure. Upgrade.
Lenny didn’t sound pleading, instead he sounded stern: “Spare a guy passing through?”
“Sorry. No can do.” The red stop light glared at Lenny. For a moment he seemed entranced by the glowing red orb. What if it never turned to green? What if this was the end of the line for him?
The man leaned his head closer to the car. Lenny could make out the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin, the silver sheen of his shaded eyes. A cat’s eyes.
“You got anything else in here?” He spoke close, precise. The only thing Lenny’s mind’s eye saw, the only other thing in the car, was Mr. Skerritt’s face, frozen in surprise with splinters of teeth glued to his cheek in blood. The turgid smell of the toll collector’s breath drew him back to the here and now. “Hmm? Anything else might be worth my time?”
Lenny fished the fifty from his pocket and rubbed two ends between his thumb and forefinger. The toll collector threw his head back and let out a hearty laugh into the night. Lenny would only remember later that he couldn’t make out the man’s breath even in the freezing temperature.
“Ah, come on. You must have... something.”
The man moved suddenly; a leopard. He snapped his hand through the window and grabbed Lenny’s arm. His fingers were a vice as Lenny felt something -- a bolt, an arrow, quicksilver -- rush through him like someone dumped a hot pot of Wawa coffee down his collar. In this instant Lenny confessed to all his sins; every man he’d maimed, killed, buried, and forgotten came rushing out of him like decades-old undigested slop. It wasn’t pretty, out there for the world to see, Skerritt’s rigor-mortised limbs like twisted cherries on top of it all. As the man released and withdrew his hand from the car, Lenny slumped forward and pissed himself in the driver’s seat, mumbling something unintelligible.
“Ahha. There it is.” The man’s molesting hand let off steam where the rest of his being remained cold as ice. Lenny looked down at the flesh of his arm where a red hand print seemed to be burned there, already crisp at the edges.
“What the... fuh... fuck...” It was as if Lenny were waking from a deep, nightmare-riddled sleep. He needed to get his bearings. His eyes rolled in his head.
“It’s not an accident, you and I meeting here tonight, Leonard. Your friend in the trunk liked to call you ‘Lucky,’ but... well, he’s in the trunk then, isn’t he?” That voice, smooth as silk.
Lenny had regained enough motor function by now to go for his pistol. He drew back the hammer before it was out of his coat and shakily aimed the thing at the toll collector. He pulled the trigger but the gun just fell apart in his hand, the weighted stock clanking to pieces on the asphalt.
The man leaned in again, wafting his rotting breath. “You pissed someone off, Lenny. Someone you want to steer waaaaay clear of at all times, let me tell you first hand.”
“I did everything Kincaid asked me, I swear.” Lenny’s lap was cooling now. He felt like a fucking toddler.
The toll collector with the cat eyes chuckled again.
“Kincaid? Let me explain something, Lenny. This guy you pissed off... my boss, you could say, he makes the calls around here regarding when people come and when they go. You do know what I mean? You're proficient in such things, correct? You got a kill list longer than my pecker, and that’s a hell of a pecker. We have a system, see. And Mr. Skerritt -- your boss -- he was a part of that system. He was one of my best reapers, and if you want to kill a reaper you need special permission from you know who. You’d understand if you were in that position, yes?”
“You’re loyal.” Lenny’s vision steadied.
“Oh, to a fault.”
“What do I gotta do?”
“You’ll have to pay the toll.” The man winked at Lenny.
“Say I don’t. Say I take off. What then?”
There came a scratching sound from Lenny’s right. The pastry box was wobbling. Back and forth, back and forth. Something inside was moving around. Lenny’s mind cracked slightly, a moment that probably would have had him piss his pants, had there been any piss left in him. The box leapt off the seat, landed upside down on the floor of the passenger’s side, and was still for a moment.
If that was Skerritt’s severed hand scraping around in there (and Lenny was certain that it was) then this man standing outside his car made it move. Lenny looked up at those feline eyes again, knowing that it was something in them that had caused the flesh and bone inside the box to move. There was great power in those eyes, and it made Lenny tremble with fear. This man with no breath, no heat inside him, no soul. An emissary, courier, a summoner. What else could those eyes command?
He smiled at Lenny. “I think you know what needs to be done.”
Lenny glared at the red light, holding fast ahead of him above the toll booth. He slowly reached down into the well of the seat next to him and lifted the pastry box to his lap. The hand within lied still, but he could feel the weight of it nonetheless. He quickly pushed it through the threshold toward the man, who took it and tucked it beneath the crook of his arm.
“The trunk, too, my good man.”
Lenny popped the LeSable’s trunk and stared straight ahead at the unblinking red light. He listened as the man walked around to the back of the car. He felt the chasis lift as Skerritt’s body was removed from the dark space. Or did it climb out on its own? The toll man appeared in Lenny’s window again.
“You’re nervous.” He said.
“You bet your ass. I’m gonna show up at Kincaid’s with nothing. I’m done for.”
“Forget Kincaid. I’ve got a new job for you. You think you’re up for it?”
He gripped the wheel and felt the blistered hand print on his arm searing through to his bone. He finally exhaled, his mind made up. The red light ahead of him silently switched over to green.