Curveball Issue Seven: Heroes and Villains

Part Two: Scrapper Jack

Jack hoists the crate off the truck and carries it into the back of the warehouse. The other guys are straining to carry theirs, but it’s nothing to him. The only real inconvenience is that it’s awkward—the crate blocks his view of the ground right in front of his feet—and he has to try to at least pretend it’s heavy. That’s the tricky part: until he sees other people trying to lift something, he has no way of knowing exactly how heavy it is for the average tough guy… to him, it’s not much different from raising his arms. His trick is to make a show of not showing it. It’s a pretty simple expression: he squints a little, presses his lips together, tightens his jaw, and that’s it. It’s the “I’m too macho to complain about how heavy it is” look, and it always works.

“So that’s why I think it’s the Mob.”

Jack sighs inwardly and tries to remember that he mostly likes hanging out with these guys. They’ve been talking about the attack on the Forrest house in Brooklyn all day, and they haven’t said anything new since 9:30 this morning.

Eddie does most of the talking. Eddie always does most of the talking. He’s a short, wiry redhead who doesn’t look like he could lift a beer can, let alone haul cargo. Turns out he’s one of the strongest guys in the group—next to Jack, of course, but that doesn’t count—and not only is he strong, he doesn’t shut up. Jack likes him, but he gets tired of hearing him talk sometimes. Like today, for example.

“I mean, think about it.” Eddie cheerfully drags a crate out from the truck, and somehow manages to carry it off despite his arms being barely long enough to grab the sides. “The mob, if they want you dead, they don’t just kill you. They kill your family. They go after everyone you’ve ever loved! Am I right? I mean, of course they’d try to do Liberty’s family. Ain’t that right, Blackie?”

Jack grunts noncommittally.

“That’s what I thought. You don’t fuck with the mob.”

Thirty seconds later Eddie declares that he’s changed his mind, and that it was definitely the “commies who did it.” And so it goes for hours. Eddie blames the mob, the commies, Iran, the Reichstaadt, the D.E.A., aliens, Mexican drug lords, and the Russian Mafia before he comes back to the Cosa Nostra. By the time lunch finally rolls around Eddie has started to mix and match groups, imagining an intricately coordinated joint operation of co-conspirators. And at the end of each tortured train of logic, Eddie beams proudly, shouts “Ain’t that right, Blackie?” and Jack grunts noncommittally. Then a few minutes later Eddie does it again.

Lunch is half an hour of blissful silence—Eddie is too busy stuffing his face to enlighten them further. The only interruption comes when Theo, one of the new guys, asks him why everyone calls him “Blackie.”

“Black Irish,” Jack says.

Theo is a college kid who’s working the summer to save up for his next semester. Jack admires the dedication—he works hard and seems to be legitimately saving his money—but he’s a little worried about how little Theo actually seems to know. The phrase flies right over his head, and all Jack gets is a vacant stare.

Jack points to Eddie. “Red hair. Regular Irish.” Then he points to himself. “Black hair. Black Irish.”

“Oh, right.” Theo looks embarrassed. “Sorry, man.”

Jack shrugs.

“How did you get your scar?” The question comes out in a jumbled rush, and Theo flushes scarlet as he asks it.

Jack scratches at the long scar running down the length of his left cheek. “Prison.”

“Oh…” Theo licks his lips nervously. “Uh. Cool, man. Hey, I gotta go make a call…”

Everyone laughs. It’s no secret that Jack did time, but nobody really talks about it. Getting the new guy to “ask Blackie about his scar” is a game they never get tired of playing.

After lunch Eddie launches into his crazy conspiracy theories again. By the time they punch out Eddie is convinced that Liberty was killed by North Korean agents using the Mafia as a front, and they attacked the Forrest house in order to convince the Freemasons that the Illuminati were behind everything. At this point Jack’s pretty sure Eddie’s bullshitting just to see how far he can take it. For some reason that doesn’t bother him as much.

Some of them stop off at Rick’s Bar and Grill after quitting time. There’s a game on the TV, so their usual boisterous conversation is set aside as the avid sportsmen wander up to the bar to shout at the screen. Jack orders a burger and fries and wanders off to a booth to eat in peace.

At least, that was the plan. Eddie slides into the opposite bench and stares at him, a funny kind of gleam in his eye.

“Got a second, Blackie?” Eddie leans forward conspiratorially, his voice low, the hint of a grin on his face.

Jack puts down his burger and takes a swig of his beer. He shrugs.

“Look, I might get my ass kicked for this, but I can’t help it. I gotta know, and it’s killing me. So if I’m gonna die, I figure go down swinging for the fences, right?”

Jack looks at Eddie questioningly.

Eddie shakes his head. “Man of few words, you are. Are you sure you’re Irish? Never mind, I get it, but I gotta stick my neck out anyway. Do you know? About Liberty, I mean. And the Forrest house. Do you know who did it?”

Jack tenses, just a little bit. Eddie notices and for an instant Jack sees panic in his eyes. But the panic is pushed aside, and Eddie leans in closer. All Jack sees now is curiosity. A burning curiosity.

Jack likes Eddie OK, but Eddie’s problem is he’s smart. His other problem is that he’s almost fearless.

“Why would I know?” Jack asks.

“The man speaks!” Eddie grins wide. The fear is still there, but now it’s a rush, and Eddie is riding it to the end. “Look, Blackie, your life is your business, but just because the other guys haven’t figured out who you are doesn’t mean nobody can. You never take a sick day, you have that pretty scar on your face, and you lift those crates like they’re nothing at all. I figured out who you were your first day on the job. The sun rises in the east, it sets in the west, two plus two is four, and you’re ‘Scrapper Jack’ Barrow, the man who crippled Mach for life.”

Eddie is keeping his voice low—he clearly isn’t trying to tell the world. But the fact that he knows bothers Jack. He doesn’t know why: he never bothered keeping his identity secret, exactly. He certainly never wore a mask, and it’s not like that scar is ever going away.

Jack takes a bite of his burger and chews slowly, watching Eddie the entire time. Eddie starts to sweat—he probably thinks Jack is trying to decide whether or not to kill him. But he doesn’t break eye contact, and he doesn’t say anything else. He just waits.

Ballsy. Jack’s gotta give him credit for that.

“Since day one, huh?”

Eddie relaxes a little. “All right, it took me the whole week to be sure. But I was almost convinced day one, yes.”

Jack takes another drink. “And you haven’t told anyone.” He doesn’t bother hiding the skepticism in his voice.

Eddie raises his right hand. “On my mother, Blackie. I don’t know why a guy like you wants to work a shitty job like this—and I’m dyin’ to know why—but I figure you have your reasons. I promised myself never even to bring it up… and I kept that promise till now, and I gotta say, Blackie, it was not an easy thing to do.”

Jack smiles slightly at that. He can imagine Eddie going crazy sitting on something like that. “If I ever find out you told anyone I’m going to do a lot more than break your legs.”

Eddie’s bravado falters slightly. “Yeah, well, I imagine you could do quite a bit more than that. But I got be clear on this, Blackie, because I don’t want you thinking I’m more than I am. I won’t volunteer it, but I’m not made of stone. If the police were to lean on me hard enough, I imagine I’d crack, just like anyone else. And there are other groups who lean harder. And I’d crack faster. And there’s some out there, well, I wouldn’t even wait for them to push.”

It’s a frank, honest assessment, and Jack’s not going to kill a man for admitting he has a breaking point. “As long as you don’t go volunteering it, or trying to turn me in for a reward. Because I promise you that will blow up in your face. Big time.”

Eddie laughs. “Fuck, Blackie, you don’t go turning in the neighborhood hero for money.”

Jack raises an eyebrow.

“Oh yeah, all us kids wanted to be you. Tragic story, screwed over by the man, sent up the river because a hero was a royal prick… you were the stuff of legends! Local boy fighting against the odds, and all that. And here you are now, sitting right in front of me. And fuck me if you don’t look a day older than I do.”

Jack snorts, takes a bite of his burger, then shrugs. “Also, don’t ever call me Jack.”

“I’ve been calling you Blackie since the first day haven’t I? Why stop now? It’d be like calling my mother by her first name.” Eddie frowns. “Well, no, not really. That’s a bad example. But you know what I mean. Now will you answer my question? It’s all I can think about, so it’s all I can talk about. And I get the feeling it’s wearing a little thin.”

Jack actually laughs at that. “That’s an understatement.”

“Well?” Eddie leans in even closer. “Come on, throw me a bone. You ran with a lot of the guys who’d want to take him out, right? Hell, you fought him before, right? You might be lying low, but you gotta know something about how things work on that side.”

It’s not like Jack hasn’t been thinking about it, and he’s actually kind of relieved there’s someone he can talk it over with. He washes down his burger with his beer, then reaches for the ketchup to drown his fries.

“It depends on how much things have changed,” Jack says. “Back in my day, nobody would dare to touch Liberty unless he was on the job. That goes double for his family.”

“Really?” Eddie looks perplexed. “Why? I mean, seems like the best time to take him out would be during his down time.”

“It would,” Jack agrees. “But Liberty was a special case. He won World War II, you know? Germany had an army of blonde-haired, blue-eyed monsters ready to roll over the world and Liberty took ’em all on. Some of the old-timers on our side were veterans. Some of ’em actually fought alongside him. So there was that initial professional respect.”

“Yeah, but most of them are gone, right? I mean, is it some kind of mafia code of honor thing that just kept going?”

Jack nods. “Sort of. The original guys were strictly nine to five. They didn’t go after a guy in his downtime. The thinking was you go toe to toe, you slug it out, and let the better man win. They weren’t friends or anything, but there was professional respect. Some of the newer guys felt the same way, and some were big-name enough to make sure everyone fell in line.”

Eddie looks confused. “How’d they do that?”

“They made an example out of anyone who didn’t.”

Eddie nods slowly. “Oh. Yeah, OK. Right.”

“Anyway, the guys I ran with? They were old school. When it came to Liberty, at any rate. They wouldn’t go after him like that, and they wouldn’t go after his family. But there were some groups who would have, maybe. Political groups. That half-assed theory you were spouting off about the North Koreans makes more sense than anything else.”

“I was just bullshitting.”

“I know, but it makes more sense. Most of the guys who do stuff for politics don’t exactly have what you’d call a code of honor.” Jack stares off into space, frowning thoughtfully. “The Forrest house doesn’t make sense, though. I mean, Martin Forrest was a cop. He put a lot of guys in jail, and I could see someone wanting to get revenge for that, but nobody he collared would hire soldiers to do him.”

“Curveball and Regiment were there,” Eddie offers.

Jack shakes his head. “That doesn’t make any sense either. If I knew either one of them were going to be there, I’d be going in with more than just soldiers. I don’t care how well trained they were.”

“So… that’s it?” Eddie looks disappointed. “That’s all you know?”

“Sorry Eddie. I’ve been out of the game for a while. And I want to keep it that way,” he adds pointedly.

Eddie throws up his hands. “Sure, Blackie. No problem. I just wanted to know.”

“What are you ladies doing over there?” Jack turns toward the voice. One of the other guys at the warehouse is staring at them with a drunken smirk plastered over his face. “Are you holding hands?”

“Naw, Rick,” Eddie calls back. “We were just wondering when the Sallys on your team were gonna put their purses away and start playing ball!”

The bar laughs raucously. Eddie grins, winks at Jack, then heads up to the bar. Jack finishes his fries, pays his bill, and heads home.

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