[This was part of a creative writing class I took years ago. We were supposed to come up with a short story to fit the (in)Famous New York Post 1982 headline]
When I open Kaplan’s office door, his chair is facing the window. He’s scratching the back of his neck which is already scratched up enough, staring at the front page of the fucking New York Post. Can’t see the headline, but I know what it says. My stomach sinks to my shoes. I shut the door real quiet, hoping maybe he won’t notice I’m here.
“Miller” he says without turning around. I freeze. “News is out, douchebag. You want to tell me how badly you screwed up last night?”
Does he expect an answer? I try, but the minute sound comes out of my mouth he interrupts…
“Don’t tell me what happened…” Kaplan says “don’t tell me about the stripper. Girl’s not important, her tooth is. Tell me you found the microfilm.”
I go cold, my hands clench up in a fist. “She didn’t have it.” I say.
Kaplan turns his chair around, gives me a look. “She was supposed to have it in a filling. Wisdom tooth, back right.”
He rubs his bald head. “You know where the…her..” he swallows “… head went?”
“Fuck it…without the head, without the microfilm, we can’t connect Dom the Fish to the KGB. We got nothing on Sinatra.”
“Yup. Frankie’s free and clear…”
“Fuck me senseless and call me Sally.” Kaplan sighs. He opens a bottle of pink pill stomach stuff and chews a handful. “All this work and nothing to show for it.” Another sigh, then he says. “Miller.”
That’s my name, but I don’t answer. I’ve been undercover as Joey Z for months. Sometimes I forget my real name.
“Miller!” Kaplan shouts.
“Know what you are, Miller?” Kaplan says, spitting pink crumbs. “A putz. Know what that is?”
“I can guess.” I say, gritting my teeth, stuffing my hands into silky pockets full of titty-bar singles, tic tacs, empty coke wrappers and receipts. I’m still in The Z’s skinny tie and shiny jacket. Z’s got a punk/wiseguy look, Johnny Rotten meets Michael Corleone.
“You look like a pimp.” Kaplan says, getting a sour face from swallowing stomach acid.
He opens up the Post, presses it flat. “See this headline? “Headless Body in Topless Bar” Who writes this shit? A three-week undercover operation and this is our payoff. No microfilm, no contact, just our whole operation on the front page of the New York Post.” He pokes the paper. “When the press is through with this, the Soviets’ll know everything – their agent is dead, she was working for us, we didn’t recover the microfilm. This headline, it’s…”
“Sick?” I say.
He shakes his head.
“Uh..twisted?” I try again.
“Tacky. I thought we had a class operation here. Fucking free press. They’re the reason the Soviets are gonna win the Cold war.” He points the finger at me. “..the press and fuck-ups like you -”
Ok, he went to far. I lose it. “Yeah, I fucked up! Tell me something I don’t know. Undercover is tough, things get complicated. I was trying to keep things cool. Dom was having a rough night – the champagne was flat, Two Ton Tony had no room for us at his table, and Father Mike was putting the moves on Anya. I was keeping a lid on things until Fast Eddie walked in with the parrot – ”
Kaplan burps and waves a hand at me. “…don’t wanna hear it. Write your report, I’ll read it later.”
“It wasn’t a parrot, it was one of those white birds with the big feathers on its head – whassat – a cockatiel! Like on that cop show, Baretta, remember? Anyway, this cockatiel, it could talk. You wouldn’t believe the things that came outta that beak.. Pissed Dom off..”
“Stop!” Kaplan shouts. His face goes red and he coughs like he’s gonna hurl. “Out!”
I shrug my shoulders and head for the door, try to get out before things head further south, when Kaplan asks in a sad little voice. “You sure you don’t know where the head went?”
“Shit.” He whispers.
I was afraid something like this would happen. When you stay too long undercover, you forget what’s real. All the time you’re lying to people, lying to yourself. You’ve got to fool yourself before you can fool anyone else.
For two months I was Joey Z. Dom the Fish thought I was his long-lost cousin. I thought I was his long-lost cousin. His friend.
Walking out of the building, I stop by the newspaper stand for my copy of the Post and hand the guy a C-note, Joey Z style. Joey carries a roll of hundreds in his wallet, no small bills.
“Wha’the fuck?” The guy whines, holding the bill like it’s got cooties. It’s first thing in the morning, he doesn’t have change. I remember I’m not the Z, I’m Miller, soon-to-be-unemployed fed, take the hundred back and give him a titty-bar single. An ambulance passes by. The noise gives me jitters – still shaky after last night.
Last night Dom and I enjoyed a four-course meal, champagne and two bottles of Chianti at one of Hoboken’s best surf-and-turf spots, The Clam Broth House. After Dom paid the check, he leans over, gave me a whiff of calamari breath and said “Joey, you think she’ll like these?” and opened up a jewelry box – the pearl earrings he was going to give to his Russian girl, Anya.
“They look fine. Real fine.” I said, then looked at my Rolex and said it was late. Yeah, I was in a hurry to meet her, the topless double agent with the microfilm in her tooth – you don’t want to miss a girl like that.
Dom gulped down his wine and, never one to leave anything behind, chugged the champagne. When he stood up, his huge shoulders tilted back. Drunk as a skunk. I kept him from falling.
As we were leaving I saw he’d the jewelry box on the table. Good buddy that I was, I let him know. Bad move.
Underneath the box, wedged between the remains of the linguine portofino and the scungilli was the pearl-handled knife Dom’s wife had given him for their anniversary. He’d taken that off when his belt got too tight, sometime around the calamari. He hooked the knife back on his belt, grabbed the jewelry box and we left. He drove, his black boat of an Eldorado tacking side to side through the Holland Tunnel, then up Broadway to 42nd street, to the club where Anya worked.
When Kaplan first told me about this assignment, I couldn’t believe my good luck. Beautiful Soviet double agent, working a topless bar – something out of James Bond. If Fast Eddie hadn’t brought that bird, if Dom hadn’t been drunk, if that fight had never happened, if Dom had left his knife behind, then Anya would still have her head and I’d still be playing 007. I wouldn’t be a putz with his worst nightmare broadcast on the front page of the New York Post.
Since the operation was officially over, I figured I’d better clean out the Z’s apartment. It’s uptown, on the 44th floor, so smooth and top-of-the-line it out-Trumps Trump: Nagel prints, Berber rugs, anything that’s not gold-plated is covered in white leather. I turn on the stereo but all I can hear is Kaplan’s voice in my head, saying “the girl isn’t important”.
He was wrong. The girl was everything.
The phone rings, Dom the Fish, mumbling and sniffing. Can’t tell if he’s crying or overdoing the coke, but I know he feels like shit. When I hear his voice I’m the Z.
“I was going for Fast Eddie..not for her..” he wheezes “..Eddie and that fucking bird. How’d he dodge me?”
“That’s why they call him Fast Eddie.” I say.
“I didn’t see Anya behind him.” he says. “…didn’t mean for it to happen..any of it.. I just got caught up in the heat of the moment. You know?”
“You and Tony’s guys cleaned up good. The police have no clue. What happened to her..uh..her..you know… ” he stops talking and makes a gurgling sound.
“Her head? Tony’s guys took care of that. Dom, you gotta pull yourself together. I’ll come over later with some food.”
“What would I do without you, Joey? You’re like a brother to me. A brother.”
“That I am..” I say, leaning back on my soft leather couch.
“Hey Z…” Dom says “don’t bring anything spicy, I’ve got gas.”
“No problemo…” I say reaching into my pocket. There’s something smooth and small wedged into the corner. Not a tic tac, a tooth. I hold it up to the light. Microfilm’s still wedged in the filling.
Anya’s tooth – the key to the fate of the free world, Miller’s job and Kaplan’s respect. If I had given it to Kaplan, Dom and all his pals would have been been toast. Dom’s dad, the old coot who’d sit in the corner saying “pull my finger” would get ten to fifteen years, even with good behavior. The Z is many things, but a gavone snitch he’s not.
Sometimes, you’ve got to choose sides. When Kaplan said “The girl doesn’t matter”, I chose. So, I think as I stare out the window at the empty street below, what would The Z do now?
“Dom” I say “I think this Post headline is generating some heat from the feds. A couple of guys are staked out across the street, watching my apartment…”
“Fuck.” Fish wheezes “Joey, you need a vacation. Forget this shit, go down to my condo in the Caymans – it’s got palm trees, a tiki bar, the whole nine yards.”
“Sounds good.” I say. I drop the tooth on the floor and crush it with my shoes. Italian leather, very fine.
Dom hangs up with a quick “later”. I pour myself a scotch and walk to the fridge for some ice.
Dom talked all the time about Anya, but he never mentioned her eyes. When he introduced her, all I could do was stare. Her eyes were blue, deep as the sea. Bond-girl eyes, flashing fire, guns and ice, shadowed by a web of smoky lashes. I was in a topless bar and all I saw was her eyes. Dom thought it was funny. Anya too. But I couldn’t get enough.
I open up the freezer and there they are. Anya’s eyes, icy blue. I touch her frozen hair. It crackles.
Yeah, I can still see those eyes. But it’s not the same.