Magda: Mystery Short Story

Jul 6, 2019 | 2019 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Cathi Stoler

This story was previously published a few years ago in Criminal Element’s Girl Trouble.

“You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” Marti always said, “but sometimes you get more than you wanted.” It was good advice from a mother who didn’t have much else to give, and I carried it with me as I moved through life. Although, right now, I wish I had understood it better.

I shifted slightly, to ease the cramping in my arm from holding the gun out in front of me for so many hours, and rested it on my lap. I saw my eyes reflected in the wavy pane of glass was looking through, and a stranger’s eyes stared back from the blackness beyond. Dark and wary and filled with fierceness I didn’t know I possessed.gun

It won’t be long now. I’m not exactly a wilderness kind of girl, and coming up here to Devlin’s cabin in the Catskills was a mistake. He’ll find me soon enough. He’s probably out there already, waiting and watching. I bring the gun back up and aim it at the window. And I wait.

My story may sound familiar, like the creak of a floorboard you know to avoid when sneaking in late at night, or a tune running around in your head that you just can’t get rid of. Familiar? Maybe. But it’d be better to think of it as a cautionary tale.woods

We lived in The City, as Manhattan is known in the rest of the boroughs. Not the fancy, high-rent part, but in a tenement apartment on 65th and First Avenue. Marti had grown up there and kept it after my grandparents died. Most of the time, it was just the two of us making our way day to day. If we’d lived in the Hamptons, we would have been the townies. But Manhattan is different. All kinds of people live side-by-side and the class lines tend to blur a bit, especially if you work at fitting in.

Marti waitressed in the Blue Bird Bar ‘N Grill downstairs and I went to school at St. Vincent’s across the street, where the nuns still used rulers on your knuckles when you misbehaved.

Marti had gone there, too, but it didn’t stick. Her problem was men. First my dad, whom I never knew. Next it was Frank, then Tony, taking over and running things. She flowed into each one like butter melting into warm toast, hoping for the best and getting chewed up instead, until the cancer ate away at her for good.

Me? I tried every way I knew not to be like her. Went to school and did well enough to earn a scholarship to college and a degree in restaurant management. Then I came home to the old neighborhood and opened my own bar and grill, Magda’s, in the space where Marti had worked and in the building where I’d always lived. It wasn’t big, but it was mine. No Frank or Tony to tell me what do and how to do it.

I worked the stick behind the bar and made friends with the locals. Generous drinks and a sympathetic ear kept them coming back. Little Alain from down the block who stopped by for a Cabernet or two after a day at the Consulate. The two Bobs, best friends who always wanted to cut me in on one of their get-rich-quick schemes, for a healthy infusion of capital, of course. Marlene, 35, single and husband-hunting. You get the idea. Leroy, my southern cook by way of Harlem, helped put the place on the map. He whipped up Cajun specialties that attracted the attention of a few well-placed critics. Foodies from around the city followed and filled the dining room most

Life was good. But that in itself should have put me on warning; I wasn’t Marti’s daughter for nothing. Experience taught me that good doesn’t usually last.

If you can believe the irony, me sitting here smiling with a gun in my hand: the devil made me do it. Not the devil with horns and a pitchfork whose fiery hell the nuns at St. Vincent’s were always warning us about, but a real devil nonetheless.

He came into my place and sat at my bar, all flashy white teeth, slicked back hair and eyes so blue the ocean would have roiled in envy to see them.

“I’ll have a double Bourbon,” he said and slipped a fifty onto the bar. “Keep the change.” I should have known then, as my heart hitched up into my throat and my voice escaped me. Keep Away. Stay Back. Trouble. The signs were flashing in front of me like brightest neon on Broadway.

It was already too late. ‘You don’t get what you don’t ask for.’ Marti’s words tickled the back of my mind. It didn’t matter that I pretended to myself I wasn’t going down that road, every cell in my body was asking for him.

We started talking and it didn’t take long for it to move on from there. He was fast, my Devlin. It was his way. Got right to it, no matter what. I was flattered he fancied me. Sure, I was pretty and I thought I was smart. But he was much prettier and much smarter.

Although I didn’t see it then.

He came from the Bronx, near Parkchester, and his family still lived there—his parents and a kid sister. When we met, he was in a studio on the west side, a place he referred to as The Pit.

After a few weeks, he moved in with me and we fell into a routine.
I’d go down to the bar about four in the afternoon. He’d get home about six and join me after work. Devlin was a foreman with one of the big construction companies in Brooklyn. He went from site to site, supervising the guys, checking that the equipment was working, that kind of thing. He didn’t have to get his hands dirty, just make sure the job got done.

Devlin would sit at the end of my long brass bar rail, and I’d pour Bourbon and slide it down to him. One of the wait-staff would let Leroy know “the man was in the house,” and five minutes later, a bowl of gumbo or a plate of Louisiana short ribs or fried oysters with pepper jelly sauce would appear in front of

He’d watch me work the bar, pulling beers from the tap and mixing cocktails for the customers, and wink as I slipped the tips they left into the cup on the back bar. On a good night, if the foodies hung around for drinks after dinner, my take could be four hundred or more. Like I said, life was good.

After I closed, if I wasn’t too tired, we’d go to an after-hours club for a nightcap and conversation with other people in the business. A few of the clubs had illegal gambling in a back room or an upstairs apartment. New York is filled with people who love to gamble, and these clubs were closer than the casinos in AC or Foxwoods, and were more than willing to extend credit for a hefty

As often as Devlin asked if I wanted to give it a try, I’d say no. I’d seen the results first hand with some of my customers. Most of the players were too drunk or too desperate to realize the games were rigged. The guys running the clubs made a fortune, the people playing lost their shirts and sometimes more. I worked too hard for my money to throw it away and, in fact, was saving it for an expansion scheme I’d started thinking about when I heard the commercial space next to mine might become available.

Devlin was all for expanding, but not into a bigger restaurant. He wanted to open his own after-hours bar and casino in a nearly vacant apartment building across the street.

“Mag, we’ll make a bundle, and I’ll keep it on the up and up. I swear.” He took me in his arms and aimed his baby blues at me. “We can retire to the country. Fix up my cabin.” He kissed me. “Maybe have a few kids.”

“Where would we get the money?” I asked, pulling myself up from the depths of those deep blue pools and ignoring his promises of future bliss. “You need capital. More than I have. You think we can go to a bank for a loan for an after-hours joint? What about the cops?”

I had a million reasons why this was a bad idea. He had an answer for every one, and it was always the same, “Let me worry about that.”

He wore me down, Devlin did, and for a moment Marti’s shrugging submission to the men in her life crossed my mind. Not me, I told myself. It’s not the same.

Dev took me to look at the building. It was older than mine and pretty rundown. I knew the landlord from when I was a kid. There’d been a fire a few years ago, and most of the tenants were gone. He was warehousing the empty apartments in hopes that some big developer would come along, tear down the whole block, and buy him out. Only two senior citizens remained, occupying apartments on the first floor. We lied to the landlord and said we wanted it for storage for the restaurant and agreed to his very-inflated monthly rent. I was sure he knew what we were planning and would come sniffing around once the club got going, wanting a cut of the action.

Devlin was happier than I’d ever seen him. He poured his energy into making it happen, hiring a contractor and painter to fix the place up, installing a bar and lighting, buying couches and chairs. His energy and my money.

“I’m tapped out.” I waved my bankcard in front of his face. I’d used my personal savings, but had refused to dip into the restaurant’s account. I was sticking by my decision on that at least. “What are we going to do now?”

“Let me worry about that,” he said. A few days later he came home with a brown paper bag filled with cash, something I’d only seen in the

My eyes probably looked as big as saucers when I peeked into the bag. “Jesus, Dev,” I began, “where did you get…”

He put up his hand to stop me. “Don’t ask questions, Mag. I’ve got it covered.”

So he spent some more. On blackjack, craps, and poker tables. On playing cards, dice, and chips. On booze for the customers and people to run the games and watch the

Devlin spread the word, and opening night the place was packed when I dropped in after my shift. “We’re off to a good start,” he whispered in my ear, then turned back to greet a new arrival.

Life as I knew it was over. I slept when he worked and vice versa. I kept away from the club and concentrated on the restaurant. When my customers asked about the club, I smiled and said they’d have to talk to Dev.

Any time I questioned how things were going, I got the same answer. “Good. Really great. No worries.”

We tried to keep the time we had together, mostly Sundays, our day off, separate from business. Movies, a concert, or dinner somewhere nice where they didn’t know us. Or, we’d hop in my beat-up old Ford and ride up to his cabin and stay overnight. It worked for a while until it didn’t.

That’s when Joe dropped by the bar, although I didn’t know his name then. Dapper is how Marti would have described him and she would have been right. Tall and good-looking with dark brown eyes and dark wavy hair. Navy blue pin-stripe suit, white shirt, and grey tie. Conservative yet fashionable. He could have been a lawyer or a broker, but somehow, I didn’t think so. Not the way he carried himself.

A nod and a terse, “Macallan 18, straight up, water back.” was the sum of my conversation with him. Not many of my customers ordered Scotch, let alone the most expensive one on the shelf. They were more the Pomegranate Caipirinha and Bellini crowd. I served him and walked away to wait on a couple at the other end of the bar. Busy as I was, I could feel him watching me, although every time I looked his way, he was staring into his drink. The next time I glanced over, he was gone, a hundred on the bar to pay for his drink. Relief flooded over me, and I worked until closing time then went home to wait for Devlin.drinks

The next night Mr. Suave was back in the same seat with the same drink. “I’ll have to order another bottle,” I joked as I poured out the smoky liquid.

“Might be a good idea, Magda,” he said and took a long sip. “I like it here.”

I raised my eyebrow at his use of my name. “We know each other?”

“Not yet.” He smiled one of those smiles that didn’t reach his eyes, and a chill ran down my spine. “But we will.”

He came in every night for a week before I asked him his name. “Call me Joe.”

As opposed to Phil or Al, I thought but didn’t say. Just nodded. “Sure.”

The next week was a repeat of the first. Joe stopped in, had his Scotch, watched me work and left. It was creeping me out, but not for the reason you think. I knew in my bones it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with Devlin.

“So Joe, what do you do?” I asked polishing the bar in front of him as he slid onto the stool.

“I fix things.” His eyes locked onto mine, and what I saw in them made me stop breathing.

“Like cars or air conditioners?” I finally squeaked out after what seemed like an eternity.

The corner of his lip curled up at that. “Things of a more personal nature. Like when one party has a problem with another and can’t seem to work it out. I step in.” He nodded. “You understand?”

I did. I got his message loud and clear, and though it should have been a surprise to me, it wasn’t. He was talking about Devlin and using me to get to him.

Well, it worked. That night I waited up until Dev got home. I told him about Joe and my gut feeling his presence had to do with the club. Dev’s face went white when I described him but he toughed it out.

“It’s nothing. I can handle it, Mag.” He moved closer, arms open to take me in.

I put up a hand to stop him. “You know this guy? Who the hell is he?” My instincts had been right all along.

“Nobody important. He works for the guys I borrowed the money from.” Devlin stared down at the floor. “I’m a little behind on my payments and…”

“What?” I shouted. “I thought the club was doing great. Making a boat-load of money.” I could feel my face turning red from anger. “Instead, the people you owe sent this guy to harass me. How could you let this happen?” My hands were balled into fists, ready to punch him.

“The club is…fine…just a lot of people seem to be winning right now and it’s affecting the cash flow. The expenses are more than I expected.” His voice grew defiant. “I’ll take care of it.”money

He looked at me with those beautiful eyes of his, but this time it didn’t work. I grabbed my stuff and left the apartment. I’d sleep on the couch in my office at the restaurant and think about what to do.

At first, I thought it was Devlin who was getting scammed. I wondered how many other paper bags filled with cash he brought home and hid from me. He’d taken money from the wrong people, maybe the real owners of the construction company he’d worked for. The kind of people who only cared about their profits. The club was a perfect front for laundering their dirty money. They probably told Dev who to hire to work the tables and sent in players who would win and move the cash. Only something had gone wrong—I didn’t know what—and now they were after Dev.

I was right about some of it. The next night, Joe came in and told me where my thinking had gone astray.

“Who are you?” I asked as I slid a coaster in front of him and poured his Scotch.

“I think you already know,” he replied evenly. “Where’s Devlin? I need to find him.”

“I don’t know.” It was true. He was gone when I went back to the apartment in the morning, his drawers and closet
empty except for a few hangers swaying in the breeze. “We had a fight. He left.”

“He stole a lot of money from my employers,” he said, “and you’re his collateral.”

“Me?” It was so absurd, I laughed out loud. “You mean my restaurant? Dev has nothing to do with it. It isn’t his to promise.”

He shook his head. “My employers are not interested in owning a restaurant, Magda. When I said you, I meant you.” He leaned in close over the bar and his warm breath tickling my cheek as he spoke. “I need the money Devlin took, or I’ll have to kill you. We explained to him it would be this way if he didn’t pay up.” He pulled away and stared at me. “I’d hate for that to happen. You should find him. It would be to your advantage. I’ll be in touch.”

I stood there stunned as Joe left, my mouth open, unable to move or utter a sound. I felt like I might throw up all over the bar. Devlin had betrayed me, probably right from the start, using my restaurant as his fallback. But, as Joe told me, a restaurant wasn’t on the mob’s menu. All they had a taste for was money. Devlin knew these people wouldn’t blink an eye at having me killed if he didn’t return their money, and instead of giving it back, he disappeared. All he cared about was the money. He’d have that, and I would be dead. How could I have been so stupid?money

One of the waiters called my name and brought me back to reality. I signaled to my manager that I needed her behind the bar and told her I was ill. I had to get away from there as fast as I could.

I ran up to the apartment and finally broke down, sliding to the floor crying and thinking about the last six months with Devlin. He was gone now and my soul with him.

Probably holed up somewhere until he could leave the city, or even the country with the cash.

I dried my eyes and thought long and hard about where he would go. Not to his parents in the Bronx. They weren’t that close and they were sure to ask too many questions.

Then it hit me, there was one place Dev would feel safe. He and the money were at his cabin in the mountains. I grabbed a few things and headed for my car. I’d find him and make him do the right thing.woods

I drove like a crazy woman, speeding up the Thruway with one thing on my mind: finding Devlin before it was too late. If he was gone, I was screwed. Joe was counting on my survival instincts to do his job, but I had no illusions. He’d kill me if I didn’t come through. If only as an example to the next schmuck who wanted to do business with his employers.

It was very late by the time I got to the cabin. I shut the car’s lights and cut the engine as I made the last turn into the driveway. I wanted surprise on my side. The shades were down, but I could see a light behind the bedroom window. I got out of the car as quietly as possible and walked up the porch steps, then eased open the front door. Dev must have felt safe enough to leave it unlocked. Music was coming from the bedroom in back and I walked that way.

He was sitting on the bed, surrounded by stacks of cash, a hunting rifle at his side. His eyes gave away his surprise before he could mask it, but he recovered quickly.

“Mag, thank God you knew to come up here.” An easy smile played across his mouth. “I was going to call you and tell what happened. It’s crazy.” His words came fast and smooth like an old-time snake oil salesman. He lifted himself off the bed, taking the rifle with him, talking all the time. “I’m so glad you’re here. I love you so much. I was just trying to figure out where we could go and be safe. You know that, don’t you?” He moved closer to me, watching me to see how I’d react. “Look,” he said and turned toward the bed, “I’ve got tickets for Brazil.” Instead of tickets he shifted his grip on the rifle and spun back around, bringing it up and pointing it my way.

“I don’t think so,” I said as I fired my gun through my jacket pocket and into his heart.gun

Those beautiful blue eyes stared up at me one last time. Only now they were lifeless and dull.

Dev never knew I had a gun. I’d bought it when I opened the restaurant to stash behind the bar in case of trouble. But it made me too nervous to have around, so I brought it to the apartment and hid it on the top shelf of my closet behind some old boxes of photos.

I took it with me to the cabin thinking of Joe, but I never imagined I’d use it on Dev.

I packed the money back in the bag Devlin had used to carry it. Then I took my gun and went to wait by the window.
Marti was right after all. I had gotten more than I wanted and I couldn’t give it back. Not the pain or the emptiness in the space where my heart should be.

Chances are Joe followed me. He might have even heard the shot that killed Dev. Am I going to let him take the money? I’m not sure. I’ll just have to wait and see how things play out when he gets here.

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Cathi Stoler is an award winning author. Her most recent novel is Bar None, A Murder on the Rocks Mystery which features Jude Dillane owner of The Corner Lounge on 10th Street and Avenue B. She is also the author of the “The Kaluki Kings Of Queens,” which won the Derringer for best short story in 2015.

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