Dino Maddalone was a high school friend of Mason’s. An old-school record producer, he carried with him a class and charm that would have made him more at home in the Rat Pack days of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra than the classless mess the industry had become today. Remaining an icon in the industry even though the years were wearing on, Dino was drumming for R&B groups in Vegas and doing appearances in films hopeful the exposure would bring greater celebrity status and good fortune. Back in California he ran a small music studio, but these were new times, tough times, and money didn’t flow into the studio the way it had decades before. Even good people find themselves struggling sometimes, and when money was tight in the studio, Dino had found himself seeking the help of another friend, Nicky Romano.
Nicky had a business too, one that thrived in tough times, known by most as loan sharking. His shithole of a shop had a big ‘Pawn’ sign over the door, but his real money was made through illegal loans and fatal interest rates. Dino, Mason and Nicky had all been friends back in the day, but those days were long gone, and Nicky was all about business now, not friends.
Mason’s phone had gone off at 2am. There was the usual chatter that goes on between friends who haven’t spoken in several years, fifteen minutes of talking about the real issue, ten more minutes of explaining things to Sue, and by 6:45am Mason was on a flight from Detroit to LA.
Nicky had turned on Dino pretty hard. Threatened his family, torched a car. Now the offer was to sign over the studio property or they would take Dino’s soul next. Old friendships die hard, but Dino might die first. Dino was a tough man, cut from the same cloth as the Clint Eastwood and John Wayne sort; but he was also smart, and taking on a mafia thug by himself wasn’t.
* * * *
Mason was staring out the window, the sound of Pink Floyd trickling through his ear buds. Stretched out before him, an ocean of clouds went on for as far as he could see, gently rolling by under the wing. It was mesmerizing. Up here things were clean, pure, the filth of mankind hidden far below under the canopy of white fog.
Mason hated flying. In a car, mechanical failure meant pulling over and calling Triple AAA. Up here, it meant dying. Every now and then a gap in the clouds would go by, revealing the deadly drop to the world far below, shattering the illusion of heavenly tranquility. Fifty tons of steel just wasn’t meant to float, and Mason knew it took great forward momentum to keep it in the air. Every time he felt the pilot back off the throttle a little, his stomach leaped into his throat. It didn’t help either that these were the days that airplanes had become the favorite target of terrorism. More than once Mason had found himself scanning the passengers, profiling. Despite what the foolish public would try to insist, profiling wasn’t un-politically correct, it was survival and realistic.
Mason’s favorite part of flying came when all the wheels were down on the tarmac. With a bumpy screech the 747 landed, bringing Mason into the city of angels. Fitting and ironic for those that truly knew him.
He always travelled light, and had only brought a very small bag with just a few things in it. He had to stand in line regardless behind the people who seemingly travelled with half of their worldly possessions in tow. There was a slow crawl through the plane aisle, a slightly faster walk up the ramp, and Mason stepped into LAX. There was the usual crowd of people looking through the arriving passengers, waiting for that first glimpse of a loved one. Mason knew Dino wouldn’t be standing there amongst them, but knew where to find him.
The airport bar was packed. Lots of business men talking to women who were also waiting on flights, taking advantage of the moment to fraternize with a stranger over a drink for a while. One particular man sitting at the bar was flanked on either side by two extremely attractive women, much younger than himself, who seemed quite interested in whatever he was telling them. Dino always was a smooth talker. Pre-occupied with his audience, he didn’t notice Mason walking up behind him.
“Still a ladies man, eh Dino?”
Dino whirled in his seat, unable to hold back the smile at the sight of an old friend. “Mason! Come ’mere you son of a bitch!”
A strong hug ensued. Mason wasn’t a fan of bro-hugs, but let it go. It was Dino. They exchanged a few of the usual words, and then walked away, leaving Dino’s new friends behind at the bar. Mason spoke with a smile. “You told them you’d make them stars, didn’t you.”
“Sorta,” Dino laughed.
“Did you tell these ones you discovered the Beatles too?”
“I tried. Would you believe they don’t know who the Beatles are?”
“Yeah. We’re getting old Dino. We’re getting old.”
* * * *
Dino and Mason spent most of the afternoon hanging out in Dino’s studio, talking about old times. They drank shots of Fireball and talked about old girlfriends and fights they had gotten into and all the crazy things they had done together. The good old days that sometimes don’t seem good until they’re gone. There was a bond between them, much like the bond Mason had with the men he had gone to war with; a bond that never seemed to waver no matter how much time went by without contact.
As the evening came, the topic changed to Dino’s problem with Nicky Romano and how they would deal with it. Dino just wanted him scared off; Mason said they would have to play it by ear. Nicky had called Dino earlier in the afternoon and said he wanted to talk tonight, telling Dino he’d send a car to pick him up. They both knew what that meant.
They had decided that Dino should go, and Mason would follow. It would be the best way to get to Nicky and catch him off guard. When the car pulled up outside and the horn blew, Dino and Mason did a shot together before Dino headed out the front door and Mason out the back.
* * * *
Dino was seated in an old wooden chair, his wrists tied down to the arms. Two feet in front of him was a large table with miscellaneous tools on it, and on the other side stood Nicky Romano. “How many fucking times did I tell you I wanted my money Dino? Huh? How many chances did I give you?”
“Nicky, knock it off. I’ll get the money.”
“There’s no more time Dino. You make me look weak. You make me lose respect. Next thing you know everybody thinks I’m just some fucking Amscot or something. We had a deal Dino. You disrespected it.”
Nicky was searching through the tools. He picked up a large pair of wire cutters, handing them to one of the other two men in the room. “Here Paul, let’s start with the pinky.”
Dino’s mind reeled. ‘Where the hell are you Mason?’
The old wire cutters looked rusty. “What’s the matter Nicky, can’t afford new tools?” Dino was trying to appear defiant, brave, and he was to an extent. Other, lesser men might already be sobbing. The nervous sweat was building on his brow regardless.
“You’re a funny guy Dino. A real smartass. I’ll miss that about you.” Nicky nodded to his thug, and the cutting began. Dino pulled against the restraint until the rope began to cut into his wrist. While a large man behind him pressed down on Dino’s shoulders to keep him in the chair, Paul clamped the cutter around his pinky and squeezed. An intense jolt of pain surged up Dino’s spine as the pressure and blade began to move through the flesh and then the bone, until ultimately the finger separated from his hand and fell to the floor.
Dino could have screamed. Other, lesser men would have. Dino’s sound was more of a defiant growl. His mind screamed out something else. ‘Mason, dammit where are you!’
Nicky picked up the severed finger and placed it on the table in front of Dino. “I’m giving you the finger Dino. Get it? I’m giving you the finger.” Nicky’s boys laughed as he gleamed in delight at his own humor.
“Screw you, Nicky. I’m going to kill you.”
“Yeah. I’m sure you will, Dino, unless you bleed to death from ten little nubs first.” Nicky glanced at Paul. “Take the next one.”
Behind Dino the large man pressed down on him again as Paul grabbed his wrist, and the old rusty pair of wire cutters came in for another feeding. A ring finger is a bit thicker than a pinky, and it took longer and brought more pain to snip through. Dino’s defiant growl was changing slightly despite his best efforts, the stress of his current predicament beginning to take its toll. The ring finger, a golden wedding band still on it, hit the floor with a metallic thud.
Nicky picked it up, removed the ring, and tossed the finger into the corner. “That finger’s in time-out until you can learn to behave, Dino.” Paul and his larger partner laughed again, their voices echoing strangely through the warehouse.
Dino was breathing heavily, sweat pouring from his brow, the first hint of emotion pooling in his eyes. He would break soon, as all men have their limits. Nicky was holding the ring up to the light. “14-Karat? I figured you for a 24-karat man.”
“Give me the ring,” Dino demanded, some of his growing emotion escaping from his nose to run down onto his lip.
“You won’t need it Dino. Where the hell would you wear it now?” Nicky wiped the blood off of the ring and shoved it into his pocket. “Don’t worry. I’ll bring it to your wife when we get to her too.”
Dino screamed out at the mention of his wife, and forcefully stood from the chair as best he could against the wrist restraints. “I’ll fucking kill you first!”
The large man behind him shoved him back down into the chair.
“Give me the ring, Nicky. Enough already. I’ll get you your goddamn money.” Dino was entering the negotiating stage, the pain and shock of losing fingers causing the defiance to be replaced with salesmanship. “I’ll sign over the studio property. Whatever you want.”
Nicky stared at him for a few moments contemplating his options, pacing back and forth across the room several times. “Nah. You know what? I’ll have your wife sign it over to me. Cause see, you’ll be fuckin’ dead, and there’s marital assets and all that.”
Dino’s bound hand clenched into a three-fingered fist as he stared down at the blood dripping from his hand onto the floor. “Fuck you Nicky. Fuck you.”
Nicky made some type of gesture that Dino didn’t quite see, but he saw Paul coming again with the cutter in his peripheral vision. ‘Mason…Jesus Christ, where the hell are….’
Dino’s thought became derailed by the piece of skull hitting him in the back of the head along with the loud bang of a .45 caliber M1911. God bless American ingenuity and the mother of all respectable hand guns. The large man behind Dino collapsed to the floor in a heap of blood and brain tissue. Paul flinched immediately, releasing Dino’s wrist and backing away at the sudden sight and sound of his partner’s head exploding all over the table. As he reached for his own holstered weapon, Mason quickly moved up on him and pressed the barrel of the .45 strongly against his nose.
“Nope. I wouldn’t.”
The tip of the .45 and the tip of Paul’s nose were getting real friendly. He froze and slowly began to raise his hand, moving it away from his own gun. “Yeah, that’s a good boy.” The .45 pressed harder into Paul’s face as his hands rose higher and Mason reached for and removed Paul’s weapon and set it on the table. Mason tapped him on the forehead a couple times with the barrel of the .45. “Sit down now. Go ahead…just sit down. Right there.”
Paul dropped to his knees as Mason turned his attention to Nicky, who had simply frozen in place, his own gun sitting far away on the desk in the next room. “You know Nicky, if you wanna play gangster you should keep yourself armed at all times.”
Nicky sneered. “Been a long time, Mason.”
“Never long enough. Sit down.”
“I don’t think so.”
Before another word could be spoken Mason lunged forward and hit Nicky square in the face with the .45 using all his strength. Nicky’s nose exploded in blood and cartilage as the back of his head hit the wall. “I said sit the fuck down.”
Nicky, both hands now clutching his broken face, slid down the wall until his ass touched the floor.
Mason turned to Dino. “You good?”
Dino had wiggled his good hand loose. He wiped his face with the free hand, and spoke through a teary smile that almost became laughter. “Oh, just swell. You’re a little late.”
Mason pulled up a chair next to the table and sat beside Dino as he worked the rest of the knots loose with his free hand. Once free, he quickly pulled his wounded hand into his midsection, wrapping it in his shirt. “Goddamn this friggin’ hurts.” His pained but sarcastic grimace turned towards Mason. “Nice of you to stop by.”
“I was in the neighborhood.”
Nicky wiped blood and snot away from his broken nose. “Hey, screw you both. I still want my money, Dino.”
Dino rose from the chair in anger, Mason reaching over to stop him. “Not yet, Dino. Not yet. Is this is how you treat your friends Nicky? Over-zealous manicures?”
“He owes me, Mason. Dino owes me forty large.”
“He was your friend, you asshole. What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s business, Mason. Just business.”
“Business? Business is a dry cleaner. Business is Chinese food. Business is a fucking Starbucks. Cutting your friend’s fingers off in a warehouse is not business, you moron.”
Mason’s sarcastic posture was fading, being replaced by something much darker. Dino had called him for help. He had come to do a job. It was time to let the demons loose to do it. Mason stood and picked up the rusty wire cutters, a smear of Dino’s blood and a splinter of bone still clinging to the blades. Walking over to where Paul nervously knelt on the floor, Mason handed the tool to him, then picked up Dino’s two severed fingers and held them up to Paul’s face.
“I’m going to trade you Paul, these two fingers for two of yours.”
Paul stared at him blankly, like a deer in the headlights. He turned to look at Nicky, as if his broken-nosed boss would help him somehow. Nicky just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
“Hey,” growled Mason, “over here, dumbass. This is called ‘let’s make a deal’, and you’re our next contestant. Dino’s fingers, for two of yours.”
Paul stuttered as he answered. “No it’s okay, I don’t need those. Put them in ice. Take Dino to the hospital. They can re-attach them.”
Mason was done playing. The demons were loose, ready to go to work. He cocked the .45 and pointed it at Paul. “Cut…your…damn…fingers off. Start with the pinky.”
Paul started to get up. “No.”
Mason lowers the .45 and shoost him in the knee without hesitation. The loud bang echoes through the warehouse, blending with Paul’s scream of pain. He falls back to the floor in agony as Mason loudly taunts him. “I’m not going to tell you again. Cut your damn finger off.”
Mason is a vision of contradictions. His actions are barbaric and extreme, yet he is calm and undaunted as if nothing is happening at all. To everyone else, the insane combination is terrifying. Mason’s demons are leaping over his wall, the mental barrier between reason and rage, and taking complete control.
Paul’s hands cling to his knee, blood seeping out between the fingers. “I’m not doing it. It’s over. Just take Dino and leave.”
Dino and Nicky just watch; Dino surprised by Mason’s over-the-top actions, Nicky afraid at what his own fate might become. Mason throws the wire cutter at Paul once again, pointing the .45 at his head. “Pick it up!”
Reluctantly, Paul slowly picks up the tool. “Jesus Christ man.”
“Do it, or I’ll take the other knee. You ever want to walk again?”
Paul looks up at Mason one last time, and sees the monster behind the eyes of a man. Slowly he places his smallest finger into the cutter, and after several moments of hesitation while staring into the barrel of the .45, he shifts his weight and leans hard onto the handle. The blade begins to bite. Nicky cringes and looks away. Paul yells out as the blade cuts halfway through his finger and stops. He begins to sweat profusely and begins to cry. Just as Paul starts to abort the effort and pull his finger out, Mason takes two steps forward and stomps his boot down onto the handle, pushing the blade the rest of the way through. Paul screams out and retracts his hand, holding it tightly to his chest as blood flows from where a finger used to be. Mason reaches down and picks up the bloody pinky, and leaning in, places one of Dino’s fingers into Paul’s shirt pocket. “That’s one. Now the other.”
“Please. I can’t.”
Mason’s demons laugh and mock him as they shoot Paul in the other knee like it’s nothing but a game. The heavy .45 caliber gunshot reverberates throughout the warehouse, everyone except Mason flinching at the sound. “I warned you. Take the other finger off.”
Paul screams out in agony, both knees now shattered. “Okay, okay…” he cries out as he reaches over and picks up the cutter again, blood dripping from his hand. Slowly he places his ring finger into the tool, and crying like a child, leans onto the handle. It cuts into the finger easily at first, but at a certain point it becomes stuck, requiring more effort than a man can apply to himself. Paul stops, but pretends to keep trying.
“Cut it,” the demons yell.
Paul is sobbing heavily. “I can’t. Please.”
Mason looks at Nicky, his demons roaring with defiance and domination. “These are your gangsters? Your tough guys? You’ve got nothing Nicky. You’re just a punk.”
Suddenly Mason kicks Paul in the face with his heavy boot, knocking him backwards onto the floor. “You should have figured all this out better before you cut my friend’s fingers off.” The .45 sings out again, Mason’s demons pulling hard on the trigger with reckless abandon. One shot, two shots, three and then one more. Paul’s head splatters all across the room. Two in the head, two in the chest. Bullet casings ping off the floor.
Mason’s mental monsters are in high gear. “Fucking wannabee.”
Dino isn’t prepared for Mason’s level of psychotic aggression. It scares him, but inspires him at the same time. He knows now that when this is over he’ll be free of Nicky forever. With Mason clearly in control, Dino’s fears subsid as his own anger grows. Mason walks over to the shelves of pawned items, and returning with a well-used Louisville Slugger, hands the bat to Dino. “Get your wedding ring.”
Dino studies the bat, then looks over to Nicky whose expression is turning less defiant by the second. Dino grips the bat with his good hand, and steps over Paul’s bloody corpse to get to Nicky. The two old friends make eye contact for several seconds as Dino wraps all seven fingers around the handle of the bat. “Give me my ring, Nicky.”
“Go to Hell, Dino.”
All of Dino’s anger peaks. He hits Nicky in the face with the bat, not by swinging it, but jabbing it straight in. Nicky’s lip splits wide open, blood running down his chin as he spits out a broken tooth. “Give me the ring Nicky!”
Dino instantly rears back to take a full swing with the bat. “Whoa whoa, hold on! Alright.” Suddenly Nicky is ready to negotiate. He reaches a bloody hand into his pocket and pulls out the ring, tossing it onto the floor near Dino’s feet. “Here you go, prick.”
Mason had walks past them into Nicky’s office, finding an unlocked safe at the back of the room. His shouted taunts sting Nicky’s ears out in the warehouse. “Geez Nicky, you really are stupid, aren’t you?” He speaks lower as he walks back into the warehouse, passing behind Dino to throw a large pile of cash onto the table. “You leave your gun on your desk, you hire amateurs for your crew, and you leave your safe wide open. You’re dumber than you were in high school.”
Nicky just stares at the floor, spitting out a little more blood from his busted mouth. “Fuck the both of you.”
“No Nicky,” growls Mason, a menacing tone returning to his voice, “You’ll never fuck anyone again.” He looks at Dino, and Dino sees something behind Mason’s eyes that scare him. “Finish it,” the demons tell him, gesturing towards Nicky. Dino looks down at the broken mobster, raising the bat high over his head. His arms begin to shake and he hesitates. He wants Nicky out of his life, but Dino is no a killer.
Mason knows it, and is ready. Dino jumps when the .45 booms again from across the room and Nicky’s head explodes on the wall. Dino takes a few steps back, turning to face Mason. The two men stare silently at each other for several moments, an unspoken understanding passing between them. Mason nods, and they know the job is done. Mason gestures towards the cash on the table, “Count it.” Dino gets to $87,000 before Mason stops him. “Good enough.” He takes $30K and lets Dino have the rest.
Fifteen minutes later the two friends are inside Mason’s rental car, the radio playing the old AC/DC song ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.’ From half a block away they watch Nicky’s pawn shop and all the evidence inside it burn to the ground. Mason rolls down the window for some fresh air as Dino lights a cigarette while staring at his injured hand. “Think I’ll still be able to play the drums?”
“Yeah. Just be glad you don’t play guitar.”
Dino smiles as he stares down the street watching random people gather to watch the fire. Off in the distance the sirens of fire trucks are getting closer. They talk a bit while Mason drives back to the studio. “Thank you, Mason.”
“No big deal, Dino. That’s what friends do.”
“Not everyone has a friend like you though, Mason. This is real deep shit man.” Dino takes a long drag off another cigarette, the red glowing tip casting an eerie light inside the car. “This new girl of yours really sounds like something special. I’m happy for you. Maybe she’s finally the one that can change you, let you find some peace.”
Mason just listens, thinking about it all.
* * * *
A canopy of clouds drifts by under the wing as Mason stares out the window of a mostly empty red-eye flight back to Detroit. Mason hates flying, but he likes it up here. Random breaks in the clouds give glimpses of the twinkling lights of civilization thousands of feet below. Down there are all the ugly realities of humanity, the evils of human society. Up here though, was at least the illusion of peace and solitude. Maybe Heaven is really just a 747 that circles the airport forever.
He thinks about Sue, and Dino’s words. “….change you.”
He ponders that thought for a while. It’s what he wants, but he knows it will never happen. He knows he can never change, because the world around him will never change. He loves having Sue in his life, he needs her. But it also gives him one more enormous thing to worry and stress over. The world has already taught him that being in love is like owning the world’s most valuable hand grenade, knowing the pin has already been pulled out.
He loves being with Sue, but his demons know he is just in line waiting for the pain and sorrow.