Two roads diverge in a yellow wood.
|Two men were walking in the woods. One was tall and spare of frame. The other, though shorter, had the shoulders of a bull. They were wrapped in dark overcoats, buttoned to the chin, with soft gray hats pulled down to their brows. A thin carpet of red and gold leaves squelched wetly under their boots.
"It's not an unusual thing," the tall one was saying. "This sort of situation. It happens. The job being what it is."
"I know the job," the other replied. His name was Big Dan. He had a last name too, but no one ever used it.
His friend Tommy said, "It's like surgery. There's nothing personal in it. There's a piece of meat needs cutting out, you cut it out, cut it out of another piece of meat. To the doctor it isn't even a person on the table. It's just a piece of meat."
"You don't gotta explain."
"Or like numbers. Erasing a number that didn't add up right, you know? It's just math."
"More like subtraction, isn't it?"
"Dan." Tommy grimaced reproachfully at his friend. "You don't gotta put it that way. I'm sorry I mentioned surgery. And I only mentioned numbers because— Well, that was your business. Numbers. And it was never personal between you and the marks was it? Maybe to guys like you and Weasel—God rest him—you thought they was just numbers. You know. Bank accounts?"
"I don't know what I was thinking."
Their footsteps as they pressed deeper into the forest were like ellipses in the conversation. When Tommy said, "I looked in on your dad yesterday," it was though he was resuming the earlier topic.
"And how's my dad?"
"He misses you."
"He would. It doesn't matter."
"Don't say that."
"It's been a long time since it mattered, Tom. It's been a year since he knew me. He spends most of his time now with his army buddies. Mostly the ones he left back in France."
"I dunno. Maybe bringing them back is his way of telling them he's sorry, making it up to them for coming back when they didn't. Maybe he's just sick."
"Well, I'll start looking in on him."
"You don't have to do that."
"It'll be my pleasure, Dan. I always liked your dad. We had a real nice talk yesterday. I told him I'd bring him chocolate next time I came by."
"Chocolate's bad for him."
"Why are you arguing?"
"You're right, it doesn't matter."
They crossed a gully at a shallow place, and struck a wide path. Neither suggested that they follow it, but they did. "A day like this," Tommy said, "out with a buddy, a fella could walk forever, you know? Walk right on until you came to the edge of the world."
"We been walkin' awhile," Big Dan agreed.
"Days like this, you wanna nail the sun to the sky, stop it from coming down again."
Big Dan glanced up. A gray sky veiled the sun, so that the light seemed to come from every direction at once. It could have been any hour of the day. Dusk could have been ten hours off, or ten minutes.
"When I was talking earlier, you know, about how there's nothing personal in it," Tommy said, "I was talking about Johnny Rubio. It's nothing personal with him, you know."
"It's just subtraction."
"Well, it was just subtraction for me, too. I subtracted some money from him."
"You didn't mean to." But there was a question in Tommy's voice.
"No. That's just the way it worked out."
"Jesus, Dan." Tommy kicked at a sodden heap of leaves. "If I could pick up a phone now and put in a call to three months ago—"
"I still would've needed a bankroll. And Johnny needed a place to invest his money, after the Feds busted Weasel and his crew."
"You should have taken out insurance, in case the mark got wise."
"I thought I did."
Tommy's mouth tightened. "Friends aren't insurance."
"You were my insurance, when we were back in school. No one touched me there."
Now Tommy looked like he was fighting back a wave of nausea. "Was that what I was?"
"No. That was a case of addition."
"I hope you're not trying to goad me, Dan. I want us to part as friends."
"Alright, Tommy. You want us to part as friends? Then there's something you gotta know. I put in a call to the Feds. Right before they busted Weasel."
He heard Tommy stop in his tracks. He stopped too, and turned.
"You swore to me you didn't," Tommy said.
They held each other's eye.
Big Dan broke away first. "Well, it's too late for that now." He squinted about. The trees were thinner here; the forest was starting to fail. "Not that it has anything to do with the other business, with Johnny's business. Only it makes it easier if we square the numbers at the end. So we know what's what and who our friends are and were. Who should be getting what, you know?"
He hunched up inside his topcoat, then glanced down. "Well, would'ja lookit that. My shoe's untied."
He knelt, and as he knelt he twisted around to present Tommy with the back of his head.
With one shot, Tommy parted Big Dan's hair and the skull underneath.
"You took long enough getting back," Johnny Rubio observed when Tommy returned. "I guess you went for a drink after."
"Nah, I didn't need to." Tommy slouched into a chair across from Johnny's desk. "Dan was a big boy, he squared it at the end."
"Yeah." Tommy shifted in his seat to get the gun—which still felt "hot"—off his hip. "It put me in a spot, you know. The job. But we tied things off okay between us. Dan made sure of that."
"Sure. He pretended— Well, the words were nothing. It was the thought that counted."