“How many times I gotta tell you to knock it off?” Ronnie said. “One’a these days you’re gonna pull something with the wrong guy.”

“C’mon, Chickie,” Joey said. “You worry too much. Guy wanted to act tough, so I reminded him he needed to show a little respect, is all.”

Ronnie DiCicco didn’t think of himself as a wiseguy—in his mind he was just a sheetmetal worker moonlighting as a debt collector. When they first took this collections gig, they were told the job would be like working for one of those companies who called or sent letters when you fell behind on your credit card bill, except they’d be communicating face-to-face since it was bad form to create a paper trail when you’re collecting gambling debts and street taxes from low-level deadbeats. Their job was to simply let them know they had a week to pay; next time it would be someone from the Family stopping by to collect.

Ronnie opened the driver’s side door and started to duck into the seat before he paused to look over the car’s roof at Joey. He said, “I don’t care if you act like you’re a made man when you’re out tryn’a get laid, but you gotta tone things down when we go on these runs. Stop throwing your weight around like we’re connected—cause we’re not. If someone wants to lash out at us, who cares? We’re delivering a message they don’t wanna hear. It’s just business.”

“I’m not just gonna let some scumbag talk back to me,” Joey said. “They don’t like our message—fine—but they needa keep their mouths shut.”

“You know the rules. Our job is to remind ’em they got an outstanding debt. That’s it. We don’t collect the money, we don’t make threats, we don’t put our hands on anyone. That’s not our role. I don’t see why you always need to push things.”

Joey shrugged and said, “Rules? I always looked at them more like guidelines.”

Ronnie glared at Joey, letting him know he didn’t see anything funny about this.

Joey sighed. As he got in the car he said, “I’ll try to behave myself. Okay? But I’m not gonna let no one treat me like a punk.”

The following night, their first stop was a corner bar hidden in the shadows of the elevated span of I-95. They parked in the lot between the highway’s pillars and walked across Front Street. As they approached the bar, Joey tapped Ronnie’s arm. “No wonder the guy’s behind on his payments—it’s Friday night and the place looks dead.”

“You’d think they’d at least turn the lights up a bit,” Ronnie said. He saw the glow from the electric sign hanging over the door and the neon beer signs propped up in the windows, the only signs of life. “It better be open.”

They walked past a window and looked into the dimly lit barroom and saw the bartender leaning against the linoleum surface of the bar talking to a man in a black leather coat, the only customer.

Ronnie opened the door and Joey followed him inside. As the door shut, Ronnie sensed movement coming from the shadows to his left. Before he could turn his head, he felt the barrel of the wooden baseball bat slam into his shoulder. Hunched over, he felt the knob of the bat handle as it was thrust down on his back. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Joey on all fours getting kicked in the ribs.

The man wearing the leather coat walked over from his barstool. He stood over them and said, “Next time either of you’se does anything other than what we pay you to do, you’re done. Understand?”

Ronnie and Joey lay crumpled on the floor gasping for air, unable to respond.

The men stepped over them and walked out the front door, while the bartender stood behind the bar polishing a beer glass. Joey began to laugh but it sounded more like a hacking cough. When he finally caught his breath, he said, “You know what Ronnie…maybe I should start listening to you.”

~ fin ~

Fred Lachat is a writer who makes his living as an attorney working in city government. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and is currently putting the finishes touches on his first novel.