DEAD MEN DON'T TAN
by Riff Dixon

"...he looks better than some people I know who are alive."

Frankie Depasio wasn't making it easy. He was leading me places I ordinarily avoided. It felt like he was reading my mind backwards.

We were currently covering Gowanus Valley, a wasteland on the wrong side of the industrial evolution cycle thanks to a century and a half of underconscious overgrowth. The canal became used in unnatural ways and there were places where the prudent didn't throw in lit cigarettes. I always try to be prudent.

Frankie Depasio wasn't making it easy. Most of Gowanus Valley was unpopulated most of the time and after six there wasn't a right reason to be there at all. It was 9:30. There wasn't any question of a residential section. The only businesses left were the ones where the boss didn't have to show up more than once a month. The people who worked here were people who couldn't say no to much. This group currently included me.

I picked up Frankie in Vieques, though it was more like the other way around. He looked good. That was the first impression I had watching him get off the ferry, the only Anglo arriving with a tan. Whatever unspeakable thing he did for a living, he didn't let it interfere with his appearance. A guy who looked like he knew how long to stay in the sun without baking himself into something surreal...the look of a guy a guy could like, though it had exactly the opposite effect on me.

I think there are circumstances where displays of conspicuous health are vulgar. They don't put me on people unless they're a key player in some fatal activity on the edge of barely civilized behavior. In other words, whatever the details, there had to be something very wrong with Frankie Depasio, and he appeared to be thriving on it.

Once I verified his arrival my job got easy. Vieques is a small island. You leave it, you make a little wave. My job was establishing unacknowledged contact under a friendly surveillance protocol. In other words, he knew and he knew I knew he knew. I was evidence - evidence that somebody was earnest about whatever venal deal had been arrived at to keep Frankie out there enjoying the weather, no doubt at the heavy expense of some old friend who had once been stupid enough to trust him. I didn't want to know the details because the contempt I instinctively held him in was already threatening to compromise my objectivity.

The professional detachment it was giving me so much pain to maintain was a bedrock of my personal ethos. Lucky for Frankie. I did my job. Actual shadowing wasn't necessary. Just knowing which way he turned at the hotel driveway narrowed the possibilities down to a checkable few. I made it a point to always drive by once during his meals at invariably outdoor restaurants. It was an efficient way to touch base, whatever it did to Frankie's digestion.

The transition to Brooklyn was textbook. Once I verified Frankie's behavior was consistent with prearrangements, I got on my parallel flight and was sitting in a bar across the street when the cab let him out in his old neighborhood. I like a neighborhood with bars.

I greeted his arrival with mixed feelings and another vodka tonic. Sure, it meant continuing per diems, expenses and overtime. But I couldn't help feeling a little twinge that Frankie was playing it so straight. See, my presence is evidence to both sides of the negotiations. I'm the marker, like a buoy you float over something you want to keep track of. With me in the middle, both sides can honestly deny they're in contact. But if Frankie got cute, or if I even thought so, all I had to do was make the signal, an act that would appear casual to the outside world, and the arrangement would be terminated immediately and permanently. So far Frankie hadn't given me the reason I needed.

That's why, despite my feelings about being in Gowanus Valley, my hopes were beginning to rise. This was Frankie's first deviation. Following him here, I kept thinking of those photo ads they used to shoot with models standing around simulated car wrecks. This was going on more than long enough, but I didn't want to seem eager.

Then he stopped. It took me another ten feet to see what he was stopping to do.

The son of a bitch was combing his hair.

I reached in my pocket. I brought the cigarette up with my left hand, the lighter with my right. I hadn't smoked for quite a while, and the first drag tasted good. Frankie dropped like a sack of dirt. There wasn't any sound to the shot, and nobody there to not hear it.

Somebody emerged from an abandoned car at the other end of the block, brushing off his jacket. By the time we both reached Frankie, his clothes looked fine and even I couldn't tell where he carried his gun.

"Got another one of those? I'm trying to give it up."

"Sure," I said, handing him one. "You better light it yourself."

We both looked down at Frankie.

"You know," he said, "he looks better than some people I know who are alive."

"Well," I said, as I started off down the dark street, "you know what they say."

"Yeah," he said, going the other way, the trace of a smile not quite visible, "I know what they say."

(End)


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