When I was a boy, my father ran a collectibles shop in New Orleans. Not like you think of these days; this’s back in the 40’s. Back then that meant stamps, pocket watches, high end men’s accessories – cufflinks, diamond tie pins, mother of pearl clad shaving sets – and coins. Mostly coins. I remember the sound of the currency clinking together as he sorted it into stacks.
The shop wasn’t big, tucked into a crevasse between a burlesque club and a by-reservation-only restaurant in the French Quarter. Tall display shelves stood along the walls, sentinels glaring down at the lone horizontal counter. I’d do my homework in the back room, kept company by a radio and the sound of Father counting coins at the front desk behind the counter. I remember how I used to stare at the massive safe in that cramped room, where Father kept gold coins, silver bars, and loose diamonds. The cash box went in there every night, next to the Colt .45 Peacemaker that’d been my grandfather’s. It was probably the only thing in the shop that was plain – unadorned steel, unvarnished rosewood handles, and unmistakable intent.
That day, that horrendous day, I’d huddled under the back room desk to reenact D-Day with my tin soldiers. The bell on the front door jingled, an event that’d been less common in the weeks before. Thing that perked my attention was my Father’s voice as he addressed the entrant. Father had a strong voice, deep and mighty. Yet that day his voice quavered when he spoke.
“Mr. Malucci, I’m honored by your-”
“Stow it,” the other man growled. “I’m here for my money.”
There was a pause. “I don’t have it.”
“What?” Menace lurked behind the question.
“Business – it’s been slow the last few months.”
I could hear the sound of Malucci’s shoes as they came around the counter. “Now, how am I supposed to protect you if you don’ pay? This’s three months inna row.”
“P-p-please, I’ll get it for you somehow. Or I could pay in merchandise?”
“You’re makin’ me look bad,” Malucci said. “Maybe my other clients’ll get the same idea, thinkin’ they don’ need to pay neither. Bad for business, that.”
I’d moved far back under the desk, pressing my back against the wall that divided the store. When the shots came, I squeezed my eyes closed but didn’t make a peep. I heard the dull thump as Father hit the desk. The coins he’d been stacking hit the floor, mixing with the noise of spent cartridges doing the same.
I forget how many times that 1911 barked. Malucci’d brought it back with him after his tour of duty. It’d killed untold numbers of the Germans, only to be turned against Americans stateside.
Tears streaked down my cheeks. I imagined Father on the other side of the wall. I imagined what I’d have to tell Mother. I imagined the Peacemaker not five feet away.
My hands slipped around the handle of my grandfather’s iron. It took both hands to hold it. As I came around the door frame, a singular sob escaped. Malucci looked down at me, at the Colt in my grasp. He didn’t try to take it; he didn’t lift his weapon. Instead, the mob enforcer pulled out a Lucky Strike pack, popped a cigarette between his lips, and fired it with the silver lighter Father kept on the counter.
Smoked ringed his head. “Well? You gonna shoot, or just stand there?”
I reached up with a thumb for the hammer. I envisioned using the Peacemaker to send Malucci into the afterlife with Father, though headed in the other direction from him. But my seven year old hands betrayed me. I couldn’t cock the hammer. I’d failed my father – they’d find my body next to his, I was sure.
Malucci harrumphed, a note of derision. “Listen, kid. You tell anyone I was here, I’ll have to rub ya out. But I can appreciate if ya want to try your hand at revenge later in life. Someday, when you’re big enough, you come find me and we’ll settle things.” And with that, he left.
Forty years passed before I saw him again. He’d risen in power, becoming head of the New Orleans mob before the Feds busted him. He spent fifteen years in prison.
When I caught up to him, he was a wasted man. Old, withered, hunkered down in a battered recliner with his oxygen tank. I’d brought the Peacemaker, a heavy weight in its holster at the small of my back. I’d also brought my father’s favorite pearl handled straight razor. But in the end, I decided to go my own route.
“Who’re you?” Malucci rasped.
“Does it matter?”
“No,” he admitted, sucking on a cigarette. “I always thought the old ways would catch me.”
I tell him about my father, remind him of the little boy with the revolver, and his parting words to me decades before.
He shakes a bald head. “Doesn’t ring a bell. But whatever. You’re here to collect a debt. Stop yammerin’ and get done with it.”
Opening the case at my feet, I pull out my favorite. The smooth wood of the Tommy gun’s stock and foregrip caress my hands. I thumb the safety, pull the trigger, and don’t stop until the drum magazine’s empty. The cartridges eject to ring against the tiles, the coin of vengeance spilling across the den’s floor.
When it’s done, I hear a snuffling behind me. I whirl, the Peacemaker jumping into my hand with practiced ease. A girl huddles in the corner, no more than ten or eleven. Letting the hammer down on the revolver, I can see the fire in her eyes.
I nod at her. “Someday, when you’re big enough, you come find me and we’ll settle things,” I say, repeating the words I’d heard in my head for four decades. Vanishing into the cool New Orleans night, I go to wait for my own coin to come due.