A Glass of Chablis in Des Moines: Crime Short Fiction By Michael Royce
Michael Royce, author of A Glass of Chablis in Des Moines, has published fiction and creative non-fiction in Bartleby Snopes, Fringe, The MacGuffin, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, and Prime Number among others.
In A Glass of Chablis in Des Moines, a weak man drifts into crime. Eventually he betrays a mistress to save his own skin, but a new life in a safe house does not work out well for him.
Ryan wondered why Goldberg, Democratic ward boss of his part of Brooklyn, had asked him to drop by his office above Big Belly’s Bar.
“Mancini’s droppin’ out. His ticker ain’t good.” Goldberg’s black eyebrow lifted as he studied Ryan’s face. “We wanya to run fur Assembly in duh place of him.”
“Yeah, a ‘honor’.” Goldberg’s voice scraped like dry leather on concrete. “Ready to play wit duh big boys, are yous?”
“You can count on me.”
“Dats why yer duh man.”
Ryan had worked for a prestigious marketing firm since 1978. After four years of wriggling upward into a senior associate position, he decided he needed a more important playing field. He became active in Brooklyn politics and dreamed of elective office. Now, two years later, he was getting the call.
Through the rest of their conversation, Ryan imagined himself delivering campaign speeches to packed halls: a tall, good looking man with thick, sandy hair pulled to the right side in the style he had adopted in prep school, speaking to adoring followers. He paid little attention to what Goldberg said about being a “team player”.
That evening after he and his wife Cassie put their two boys to bed, he passed a quiet moment with her, sipping a glass of wine and talking. “I’ve been asked to stand for Assembly, District 55, Mancini’s seat.”
“Tremendous.” She beamed.
Ryan basked in her pride in him, but added, “Politics can get dirty.”
“You don’t have to roll in the mud with the others.”
Part of him thought her morality was so innocent, although other times he relied on her to help him work out what was right and wrong.
At the end of the second month of the campaign, Goldberg ordered Ryan to show for another meeting at the Big Belly. “Yer knockin’ it outta duh park. Dat last press conference was a doozy.”
Ryan flushed at the praise.
“We got sumthin’ else fur ya.” Goldberg was not asking.
“Sure, anything.” He spoke before discovering what task he was being assigned.
“A confab wit Leonard Sticher.”
“State head of the Carpenters?” Ryan was delighted. Union ties were vital to advancement in New York politics. “What do I see him for?”
“He’ll hep yous blow up, big time,” Harry said.
“I’m grateful for the introduction.”
“We look afta our guys.”
“I won’t let you down.”
“Also, we wanya to schlep a briefcase ta him.”
Ryan hesitated before asking, “What’s in it?”
“Papers….” He faltered. “Okay… Sure, I’ll do it.”
“Delivery gotta happen later dis week.”
Ryan digested his new task as the taxi drove him back to work. After arranging the paper clips on his desk in neat rows, he phoned Cassie. “I’m leaving early. Can we talk before the kids get home?”
“Of course,” she said. “Something good?”
He settled on the couch beside her when he arrived. “Goldberg asked me to meet the President of the Carpenters on Thursday.”
“Wonderful. That union gets out the vote.” Ryan saw that she understood the significance of such an introduction.
He focused on her bright and hopeful eyes. “They want me to carry a briefcase.”
“What’s in it?”
“He said ‘papers’.” While she digested this answer, he studied her. Blonde and petite, she was still pretty at thirty, but thickened a little in the waist and rear after two children.
After a long time, Cassie said, “Doesn’t make sense to use an Assembly candidate as messenger to deliver papers.”
“No, not to me, either.”
She slid closer to Ryan. “Of course, you’ll refuse.”
He nodded his agreement but failed to tell her he had already agreed to this mission. How clear everything is to her, he thought.
Tomorrow, he would review the situation with his mistress Sylvie. He had noticed her at the neighborhood Democratic Club but, at first, only to say hello to or listen when she gave a report as Treasurer. Her reports were always well organized, and he was impressed by her understanding of Brooklyn’s realpolitik.
After the event announcing his candidacy two months ago, Sylvie approached him and was so enthusiastic that Ryan invited her out for a drink. He could not recall how they had ended in her bed, but he remembered with clarity her curves and the length of her legs. Lovemaking with her was good, and they were still in that hungry stage of a love affair where each time seemed like the first.
He left work early that next evening, announcing to the receptionist he had some campaign business. His firm had made it clear they fully supported his run for an Assembly seat. “Never hurts to have a friend in office,” the managing partner had told him.
Well, it is about the election, he thought as he drove to Sylvie’s condo.
When she opened the door, he spoke in a rush before settling into her dark leather couch. Ryan described his meeting with Goldberg in a torrent of word. With effort, he remained quiet after this monologue, waiting for her response. She weighed her words carefully before speaking.
His firm had made it clear they fully supported his run for an Assembly seat.
“Pretty clear it’s a payoff,” Sylvie responded, seeming unfazed by this assessment.
Ryan thought this was ambiguous without any answer to his implied question as to what he should do. Some people found her cold and calculating, he knew. Something about endlessly appraising eyes. He paced the floor but maintained his silence.
“Stay one move ahead of the pack,” she said.
“If caught, I face not only the end of my career, but jail time.” Ryan listened to the whine in his voice.
Sylvie did not answer right away. “Sticher is an important ally.” Her tone was reflective.
“I’m not sure.”
“That’s how the game is played,” she said. “Everybody does it.”
His eyelids lowered. When he opened his eyes, he discovered her stare measuring him. “I want to succeed, but I don’t know….” Ryan wanted to eat cake but he did not want to be caught with crumbs on his shirt. The silence between them lengthened.
“You pick up the briefcase from Goldberg; I’ll deliver it.” She paused. “There’ll be no connection to you.”
“Could work.” He stifled the tremor in his voice. Sylvie was smart, and he tried to assure himself that she was right: this was how politics worked in Brooklyn. Anyway, he was seduced by dreams of a glittering political career, and he did not want to think about what he might be required to do to achieve it. He did not stay at Sylvie’s after their conversation, not even for a quick romp, but drove straight home.
He tossed and sweated, unable to sleep that night, contemplating the delivery to Sticher in two more days. At breakfast, he again assured Cassie that he had refused to participate in Goldberg’s scheme.
But in a telephone conversation from his office, he conspired with Sylvie on how to deliver the briefcase. With Sylvie’s help, he had decided that he could pull this off without Cassie knowing. He experienced a thrill like the time in high school when he and a gang of boys set fire to a trash bin in the small park near their home. That time, they had run off before the police and firemen came, and they were never caught.
…in a telephone conversation from his office, he conspired with Sylvie on how to deliver the briefcase.
During his second night of sleeplessness, a movie where he was led out of his office in handcuffs before the incredulous gaze of the staff and partners played in an endless loop in his dreams. By morning, his nerve had failed completely.
He tiptoed downstairs and closed the door to his study because he did not want Cassie to overhear him call the FBI. He phoned them, not the NYPD, because Goldberg had too many friends in local government.
“I…uh…need to talk to someone.” The Eastern District of New York FBI office had been following Goldberg over the last year, and when they discovered what he had to offer, the reception was warm.
At FBI headquarters, he was directed to the agent in charge of the Public Corruption Task Force. In a room with stains on the walls and no other decoration, he coughed up what Goldberg had asked of him, and how Sylvie was going to help with the actual hand-off.
“We’re on to Goldberg.” The agent smiled, insincerely Ryan thought, and continued. “And you’re one of his bought and paid for stooges.”
“No, no.” Ryan talked fast. “We’re political acquaintances, nothing more.”
“Look, we’re running a tap on Goldberg. We know you’re his hand-picked boy.” The agent turned on the machine in front of him. “Maybe you’d like me to play your last conversation with him?”
“We wanya to schlep a briefcase ta him.” Ryan heard Goldberg’s instructions…for the second time.
“Papers….Okay, sure, I’ll do it.” He recognized his voice. After the recorder flipped off, he asked to go to the bathroom.
“You’re in deep,” the agent said. “We’re about to seek indictments.”
Ryan tried to muster indignation. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Doesn’t sound like it. But there’s still a way you come out all right.”
“What’s that mean?”
The agent shifted in his seat, and a haze of stale tobacco and sweat floated toward Ryan. “Cut a deal and testify against Goldberg.” As he left the room, he said over his shoulder, “Think about your future…and your family’s.”
For the next hour, Ryan studied the angles. A lot of evidence pointed to him being Goldberg’s protégé. And he knew how the tape of them talking sounded.
Finally, the agent returned. “Come to Jesus time. Sign now or no deal.”
Ryan’s stomach twisted. “I’ll cooperate, but you have to give me immunity and relocate my family.” Goldberg’s associates might not appreciate his cooperation.
“Doable. We got a nice little place for you in Iowa.” Ryan sensed the agent was amused.
“Um,” Ryan said. “And immunity for Sylvie, she’s only a delivery person.”
The Fed slapped the table. “Very funny. Immunity for you…and your mistress. Sorry, I don’t think so.”
“Why not arrest Goldberg now?” Perspiration puddled on his forehead.
To tie up their case, the agent told him, the actual illegal transfer of the bribe had to be made. Ryan wriggled some more, but he could see the agent was not moved by his contortions.
“Immunity for you and a new life someplace else for your family, that’s all you get, and only if you do what we say.” The agent informed him they needed to fit the briefcase with a wire because they had no tap on Sticher. He also insisted Sylvie continue to be the one to make the actual transfer.
“Why involve her?” Ryan asked.
“Plays better in your testimony if you’re not the bad boy that makes the drop.”
Ryan worried about what might happen to Sylvie but saw no option. The agent prepared papers and Ryan signed.
For the next hour, the agent delivered detailed instructions on how to steer the conversation with Goldberg when he picked up the bribe.
At Goldberg’s office before receiving the briefcase, Ryan asked, “Will Sticher understand someone’s coming?”
“Sure. We wan’ him to unnerstan’ dis is quid fur his pro.” Goldberg pushed the case across his desk. “Heah.”
“How much money’s in there?”
“Whatya mean?” Goldberg jerked.
“I’m no rube. And I want to be a member of the team.”
A broad grin splashed across Goldberg’s face. “I told duh boys you ain’t no knucklehead.”
“What’s his price?”
“Wanta be in duh inner circle?”
“I want to show I deserve your confidence.”
“We need more yoose guys got some balls.”
“So how much?”
“He was duh Weisenheimer fightin’ fur high density housin’ in duh east side. But we got idears for a shoppin’ and cultural center and didna want him ta queer duh deal. We agreed on $100,000 fur him ta shutup already.”
Ryan believed that sum was reasonable, given that less construction meant loss of jobs for Sticher’s union members.
He picked the briefcase up from the desk. “Consider it done.” He marched out of the office straight to the FBI headquarters.
When he arrived, the FBI agents had overheard his discussion with Goldberg through their bug and rewarded him with a thumbs-up sign. They installed the wire in the briefcase and propelled him out of their office to make the pass-off to Sylvie.
She would decide to go through with this deal or not, Ryan reasoned to himself as the taxi drove to her condo. On his arrival, she was wearing a low cut blouse, showcasing her considerable assets.
“Want to make sure I get his attention.” Sylvie bowed in a curtsy. She did not seem to have developed any reservations about her mission.
Later, the Fed-in-charge described her visit to Ryan:
“Here’s your gift.” The hidden mike broadcast Sylvie’s voice clearly.
Sticher told her he saw the present he really wanted, staring intently at her chest.
“No, that’s only for someone who earns it. This is for you.” She nudged the briefcase toward him.
“Well, thank you, honey. If all couriers were so gorgeous, I’d be easier to deal with.”
He opened the case to peer inside. “Not exactly chump change.” He was radiant. “Interested in lunch?”
“Dumber than a rock,” the agent described Sticher and snorted at how his face had collapsed as three FBI agents burst through the door, announcing the arrest warrants for the two of them.
When Sticher recovered, he glared at Sylvie and shouted, “You bitch.”
One of the agents picked up the briefcase and laughed. “This recording will entertain the jury.”
Sylvie sputtered, unable to form a coherent sentence.
Later, Sylvie pled guilty to attempt to commit fraud but received a reduced sentence of six months community service when she agreed to testify against Sticher and Goldberg. After a little jail time and on advice of counsel, Sticher also turned on Goldberg in exchange for leniency.
Ryan told Cassie that when he went to report Goldberg’s offer to the FBI, they asked him to go through with the delivery because they needed an actual transfer to consolidate their case. The immunity and relocation deal, he explained, was protection against retaliation by Goldberg or his associates.
Cassie learned of Sylvie’s involvement during the final FBI debriefing that she attended with Ryan. In respect for the male’s code of silence, the agents only described her role as courier but did not reveal the affair. She never asked him how Sylvie became involved, and he did not refer to her participation either, but he imagined Cassie must be suspicious.
Two days later, Ryan and Cassie finished packing. “Living in Des Moines won’t be so bad,” she said. “Anyway, you did the right thing.”
He was not so sure.
“Higher?” Ryan positioned a framed print of Nighthawks by Hopper on the wall of their new home and glanced down at Cassie. He imagined he was the figure in the painting with his back to the viewer, alone and almost fading into the shadows. They had arrived in Iowa three weeks ago, but the process of settling in still felt interminable to him.
Cassie held an index finger close to her thumb. “Little bit.” She radiated her usual enthusiasm for resolving daily tasks. Yesterday, she picked out new window blinds, and that morning, she tormented him over which drawer handles were best suited for their bedroom closet.
He raised the painting a quarter-inch. “This okay?”
He would have been as happy with bare walls and wished he was at work, but it was Sunday.
Walking into the kitchen, she called over her shoulder, “Beginning to look like a home.”
He stepped down from the ladder and wondered where to wait and what to do with his hands, slowly slipping into a blue funk.
Cassie returned with sandwiches, interrupting Ryan’s reverie. “What about painting the walls sunshine yellow?”
“Sure, why not.” He struggled to sound interested.
The next morning, Ryan backed out of the two-car garage attached to a one-level ranch house in a cul de sac of Windsor Heights, a suburb of Des Moines, to begin the fourth week at his new job. He listened to news but could not concentrate during the thirty-minute commute. The radio noise dissolved into the background as he recalled how Sylvie’s eyes caressed his face as they walked out of the restaurant after their first date at La Coupole.
As he pulled into the underground parking lot, he broke free from his daydream. Ascending to the ninth floor of the American Life Building, he steeled himself to walk through the secretaries to a small office in back with a window looking out on the heating system of the next tower. At his desk, he reviewed applications for term life insurance, looming in a pile in front of him like hurdles on the track when he was in high school.
After lunch later that day, the department head ducked into Ryan’s office. “Can you finish the Jones file before leaving tonight?”
As he pulled into the underground parking lot, he broke free from his daydream.
“Next one on my stack.” He hoped his boss would not linger. Fortunately, he was able to review an application with only half his mind engaged. He had not foreseen this future, stuck in Des Moines working as a mid-level employee for an insurance company.
The end of the day came sooner than Ryan expected, and he had not made much progress on the mound of papers to review, but at least he had completed the Jones application. After cleaning his desk, he drove home, drifting back to recollections of last year.
An image of Sylvie standing naked at the phone ordering take-out after they made love for one of the last times flashed through his mind. Sex with her was fire compared to his missionary coupling with Cassie.
After wheeling into his driveway, he did not want to go inside and listened to the ending of an Iowa Public Radio food program discussing how to correctly pit and freeze freshly-picked cherries.
Cassie shouted from upstairs reminding him of their dinner date to celebrate their new home and the beginning of his fourth week as an insurance agent when Ryan entered the house.
At the Spaghetti Factory, he suggested wine before the meal but without high hopes for enological excellence. Pretending to listen to Cassie, he poured her a glass while attempting to sublimate the memory of his final sighting of Sylvie.
She had spotted him through a partially open door at the FBI office in the first of her many interrogations. With his presence conclusively affirming his betrayal, she yelled “Pathetic.” While the waiter took their dinner order, he concluded she was right. Pathetic.
Cassie reached across the table to hold his hand. “I’m proud of you. You’re an example for the boys.”
Ryan gazed at her over fake flowers in the center of the table. The manner in which she pursed her lips and an energized glow in her face usually revealed what she was thinking, but this time a shade seemed to have dropped, hiding her feelings.
Across from him, Cassie raised her glass in a little salute. “This Chablis isn’t bad at all.” He could not interpret the small smile that accompanied this toast.
With life stretching before him like a gangplank, Ryan wished she’d shut up but knew she was better than he deserved.
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