El Fantasma

Willem was the shit and he knew it. Gliding past the waiters and busboys flitting across The Bistro’s polished wooden floors he was in the zone – his sixth waiter sense whispering when his orders would be up, whose drinks were running low and separating the good tippers from the bad. It was eight o’clock on Saturday night, H-hour at The Bistro and he already had racked up a grand in sales. If he kept hustling he’d clear five hundred in tips. He’d still end up a few bucks behind Andrea, the hot brunette who flirted shamelessly with the male patrons but hell; if he had her set of tits he’d be numero uno too. But since he always generated the most in sales Willem was the king, the big swinging dick. No one could touch him. And as he walked away from a table with a five hundred dollar order in his pocket he made sure all the other servers punching orders into the POS system knew it. That drove them crazy.

After keying in his order he felt a hand grip his arm. “Come with me,” Manny, the fat toad of a manager, said to him. “You messed up.”

“What are you talking about?” Willem said, as he let Manny drag him into the kitchen.

“What is wrong with you?” yelled Manny. “Why didn’t you get the fucking order right?”

“What?”

“The lady on seven wanted a chicken Caesar. You gave her Fettuccini Alfredo.”

“That’s what she ordered,” Willem, said. “It’s right here on my dupe pad.”

“Bullshit,” Manny said. “You fucked up. So now you’re paying for that fettuccini and her salad.

“That’s thirty-five bucks,” Willem said.

“Tough shit,” Manny said, exiting the kitchen.

Willem felt a flush of anger heat his face. The stupid bitch, he thought to himself. Her desire to keep her trophy wife ass firm made her think she wanted a chicken Caesar salad, but her id mouthed her secret desire for noodles smothered in heart attack inducing cheese sauce. In his five years as a server Willem had seen this dynamic before. Diners would think one thing, only to have their stomachs betray them.

Adjusting his crisp black apron, Willem exited the sweltering kitchen and walked back on floor. Twenty-seven years old with lean and handsome features, Willem was a smooth talking world-class seducer. He could make the stupid foodies order whatever he wanted them to order, make men feel like big shots and women wet their panties as he hypnotized them into ordering dessert. When he was eighteen years old and turning tricks on San Francisco’s lust filled streets, he knew how to separate people from their money and make them feel grateful to do it. He preferred banging women, but he hadn’t been above sucking a cock or two for a hundred bucks. Selling his body had taught him how to read people, how to make them putty in his hands. It was perfect training to be a waiter.

After dropping the entrees on table four he wryly noted the queue of angry Yuppies haranguing the hostess about how long they’d been waiting for a table.

“My reservation was for seven,” a fat man in a red Ralph Lauren shirt said, tapping the Rolex on his fleshy wrist. “I want my table now!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Marnie, the twenty year old hostess said. “A table should be opening up soon.”

“Then how about some free drinks?” the man said. “That’s the least you can do.”

Marnie looked pleadingly at Willem but he ignored her. Soothing angry customers was the manager’s job. But Manny was nowhere to be found. That didn’t surprise Willem. Manny indulged in two addictions, cocaine and sex. If he wasn’t cutting lines line in his basement office he was trying to extort one of the waitress to blow him in exchange for better shifts. Andrea once caught him spanking it to Internet porn on the office computer. Andrea’s description of Manny’s penis was less than kind. “If the Travelocity gnome had a cock, Manny’s would be it.”

With his best fake smile affixed to his face, Willem glided over to his newest table and asked if they’d like to start with a cocktail. Everybody wanted water with lemon but he conned them into buying four alcoholic chemistry experiments. Then he ran though the specials in a way that looked like he gave a shit about his customers’ gustatory desires. Then he hit them up for two bottles of overpriced bottled water. Putty in his hands.

Turning on his heel he signaled his busboy Reynaldo to bring the water to the table and popped back into the kitchen to grab the appetizers for table six. After depositing them he took a dessert order on four, delivered his drinks from the bar and then unceremoniously dropped the check on the two hags who had been drinking endless cups of tea and prattling about “their lives as women.” Put out that they were being hustled to the exit, the biddies left him fifty cents on a twenty-dollar check. Fuck ‘em, Willem thought. Let them gibber somewhere else.

As Willem walked past the hostess stand he could hear the fat man’s voice overheating. “I know the owner,” he said. “When I call him and tell him how you’re treating us, he’ll fire you.” Marnie looked like she was about to cry. Located in a tony town on the Hudson River just outside of New York, The Bistro was the most successful restaurant in town. Somehow the owner had managed to poach Armando Fraturro from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café in Manhattan and his culinary magic had the foodies busting down the door. On a Saturday night Willem usually cleared a boatload in tips, but the money came with a price – putting up with customers so entitled they made Paris Hilton seem like a nun. Marnie was the third hostess they had in four weeks. They had all been nice, pretty girls, but their youth and beauty didn’t insulate them from the gamma ray bursts of negative energy the customers blasted into their souls. The Bistro chewed hostesses up and spat them out. That Manny hit on them unmercifully didn’t help. Willem had to help Marnie, not because he had any particular affection for her, she was kind of on the dumb side, but he didn’t want the hassle of training another front stand drone.

“What’s the problem, sir?” Willem asked the fat man.

“We’ve been waiting twenty minutes for a table,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”

“Sorry, sir. As you can see we’re very busy. Something will open up soon.”

“I don’t care. I want a table now.”

“It’s problem of physics, sir,” Willem said.

“Huh?’ the man said.

“Matter cannot occupy two places at one time. If your mass interacts with the molecules of diner already in that space the resultant explosion would make the immediate area uninhabitable for years.”

The man looked at him in shock. He was the kind of guy who was used to always getting what he wanted. “Very funny pal,” he said. “The owner’s a friend of mine. He’ll can your ass.”

Willem shook his head. Pietro, the owner, was visiting his family in Milan. And even if this clown dropped a dime on him nothing would happen. Willem knew about Pietro’s penchant for hookers and Pietro knew he knew it. And since Pietro’s wealthy wife had bankrolled The Bistro, Willem’s position was secure.

“I’m sorry we can’t accommodate you, sir.” Willem said to the fat guy. “There’s an excellent steakhouse down the street. Why don’t you try them?”

“Fuck you,” the man said. After a small staring contest the fat man corralled his party and made a beeline for the door. Just before he walked outside Willem overheard him saying, “What an arrogant asshole.” Willem smiled. He was an arrogant asshole.

“Thanks,” Marnie said. “That guy scared me.”

“No problem, kid,” Willem said, eying her breasts. Maybe she’d be his post shift screw. Willem liked the young naïve ones. Customer service problem defeated, he headed back to the kitchen to grab his desserts and delivered them to the tables with a flourish. Then he saw her.

Normally Willem would have been annoyed seeing a single woman being plopped into his section. They tended to be bad customers; women with chips on their shoulders because they couldn’t get a date, were divorced or halfway though a middle age conversion to lesbianism. But his new customer’s hotness quotient squeezed those non-PC thoughts out of his head like water from a sponge.

The woman gracefully strolling to the table was Alicia Betancourt, quite possibly the richest and sexiest woman in town. A lithe woman with firm breasts pressing against a revealing white blouse with a plunging neckline, her short leather skirt showcased a set of world-class legs tapering to a duo of muscular calves and ending in a pair of black five-inch heels. Willem noted that the ass encased in leather was round and muscular and admired the mane of long red hair sinuously cascading down her back. Her face was breathtakingly symmetrical and her make up was understated and elegant. But it was her eyes that electrified Willem’s spine. They were living green emeralds flaming with a barely constrained heat, a carnality that was palpable and insisting. And Willem wasn’t the only one who noticed. All the husbands in the place were stressing their neck vertebras to snatch a covert peek past their wives’ jabbering heads.

In addition to her physical charms Ms. Betancourt also had a reputation. According to the waiter grapevine she had slept with most of the handsome bartenders and waiters in town. So far Willem had not been the beneficiary of her outsized libido but something told him tonight would be his night.

“Good evening Ms. Betancourt,” Willem said, giving her his most charming smile.

“Hello,” she said in a husky voice with a trace of a British accent. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around her before.”

“It’s the first time I’ve had the pleasure to serve you.”

“Well, I’m in the mood for some pleasure,” she said coyly. “What do you recommend?”

Willem told her the specials, rolling his tongue around the Italian words as if he were licking a clitoris. When he was finished Ms. Betancourt asked, “Are you one of the specials too?’

“I might be,” he said.

“Good,” she said. “I’m in the mood for something special.”

After perusing the menu Ms. Betancourt ordered a three hundred dollar bottle of wine and the veal osso buco. For the rest of the night Willem acted like she was his only customer. Whenever he walked past her table her eyes twinkled with a lust as she ran her pink tongue across her lips. Tonight’s the night, Willem thought. I’m in like Flynn.

Suddenly Willem’s reverie was busted by the sound of glass shattering. Turning around, he saw the Reynaldo had dropped an entire rack of wine glasses on the hardwood floor.

“You idiot,” Willem said. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I’m sorry, boss,” Reynaldo said smiling, displaying his gold tooth. “I trip.”

“You know Manny’s gonna make you pay for those.”

“What?” Reynaldo said, incomprehensively. “No comprendo.”

“Jesus,” Willem said. “Haven’t you learned any English since you’ve been here?” Reynaldo just grinned at him.

Willem looked the busboy with barely contained fury. A short Mexican with a wiry frame and thick black hair, Reynaldo had been working at The Bistro for two months. He was an okay enough worker, but his poor language skills drove Willem crazy.

“You’re in the USA, motherfucker,” Willem said. “We speak English here. You had better learn some before I call La Migra.”

Reynaldo’s eyes widened. Like the most of the busboys and cooks, Reynaldo was in the country illegally. Both Manny and Willem routinely exploited that fear to keep them in line.

“Chop, chop,” Willem said, “Clean this shit up pronto.”

“Yes, boss,” Reynaldo said. “I sorry.”

“You had better be,” Willem said. “Fuck up like that again and there’ll be no money for you to send home.” Then Willem watched with satisfaction as Reynaldo went down on his hands and knees to pick the shards of glass off the floor. That’s where those stupid Mexicans should be, Willem thought. On their knees. Unlike his co-workers, Willem didn’t buy into the loving the illegal Latino thing.

————————————————————————————————–

As the night wound down and the staff started breaking down the tables, Ms. Betancourt was the last customer in the place. She had tipped Willem two hundred dollars on a four hundred dollar check and was finishing her cappuccino when Willem went up to thank her.

“Thank you very much, Ms. Betancourt,” Willem said. “I appreciate your generosity.”

“Let me show you some more,” she said mischievously. “Want to meet for a drink?”

“That would be great.”

“How long till you get off?”

“I’d say about half an hour.”

“Meet you at the American Bar then?”

“I wouldn’t miss it.’

After Willem watched Betancourt’s twitching hips walk out the door he hustled to finish his side work and then sat with the other waiters as Manny did the count. They couldn’t leave until every dime was accounted for and Manny had a nasty habit of turning it into an hour ordeal.

“Let’s go, Manny,” Willem said after thirty minutes. “Quit jerking us around.”

“You have a hot date or something?” Manny said. “You gonna fuck that Betancourt chick?’

“I just want to get home, Manny. It’s been a long night.”

“Yeah right,” Manny said, handing Willem his tips. “I took out the salad and pasta you screwed up. You also had a customer walk out with the merchant copy of the credit card slip. So you I’m taking that out of your tips until the credit card people send the money. Too bad. That was a hundred bucks.”

Willem groaned. He knew he’d never get his money back. Manny would take the tip and put it in his pocket. It was an old scam. Willem had suffered through corrupt managers in the past and had been able to destroy them all. Willem know he’d have to extort the owner a little to take Manny out. Maybe invite one of his Pietro’s hookers to the restaurant for a free meal as he sat there with his wife and kids. Then Manny would be out on the streets. Just wait, you fat fuck, Willem thought. You’re going down. But as Willem’s anger inflated his head with savage pressure, he knew he had to vent his rage sooner than later.

Once he was cut loose, Willem went to the parking lot, whipped out his ivory handled pocketknife and slashed the tires on Manny’s car. “Take that, motherfucker,” Willem whispered ferociously. Lost in his anger, Willem didn’t see the Claude, the homeless guy who usually hung out behind The Bistro, staring at him wide-eyed.

“What are you looking at?” Willem said.

“Nothing,” Claude said.

Willem grabbed Claude by the lapel of his dirty jacket and slammed him up against the wall. “You didn’t see shit, did you?”

Claude didn’t struggle. He had been on the receiving end of Willem’s anger before. When the other waiters tried giving him something to eat, Willem would snatch it out of his hands and throw it in the trash. He knew Willem thought homeless guys hanging around was bad for business.

Willem’s nose wrinkled as the sour unwashed smell of Claude’s clothes invaded his nostrils. “Jesus, Claude. You smell like shit.”

“Sorry.”

“If you tell anyone what you saw, I’ll find you and give you a beat down. Got it?”
“Just let me go.”

Willem enjoyed feeling Claude squirm under his grasp. When he was in San Francisco he’d rough up bums for drugs when he was low on cash. Homeless people were always good for meth and weed. Sometimes he even shook them down for money. Willem didn’t care. Like the Mexicans, he thought people like Claude were parasites.

When he was finished with Claude, Willem walked the four blocks to the American Bar. Betancourt was sitting on a bar stool with her elegant legs crossed as she rebuffed a Master of the Universe type trying to impress her with his Armani suit and gold jewelry. What this clown didn’t know was Betancourt could buy and sell him ten times over. The president of a major pharmaceutical giant with a net worth in the millions, Betancourt drove a Bentley coupe and lived in a large postmodern mansion alongside the river. This guy didn’t stand a chance.

“I think we should be on a first name basis now,” Willem said, plopping into the stool she had been saving.

“Who the fuck are you?” the Master of the Universe said.

“He’s the young man I’ll be leaving with tonight,” Betancourt said. “Now piss off.”

A sullen, jealous look flooded the man’s eyes. For a minute Willem thought he’d make something of it. But Willem was young and strong and his rival was old and weak. Sensing this wasn’t an encounter he’d win, the man walked away, feeling his universe get a little smaller.

Betancourt smiled. “He was scared of you,” she said.

“He has better be.”

“I like tough guys,” she said, slipping a hand inside Willem’s thigh.

As Betancourt’s fingers worked their way towards crotch his erection was instant and urgent.

“Mmm…” Betancourt purred. “Is that for me?” For the first time in a long time, Willem was speechless. This time he was putty in someone else’s hands.

An hour later Willem was standing in Betancourt’s richly appointed kitchen while she mixed a pitcher of martinis. Looking out the patio doors Willem could see that the house was shielded from prying eyes by a thick line of trees that flowed down from the road down to the edge of a perfectly manicured lawn. The moonlight gently touching the waters of the large swimming pool in the backyard made cerulean shimmers dance across Willem’s face. Suddenly he felt a pang of jealousy. He wanted to live like this too.

Betancourt handed Willem a martini in a frosted glass. “You know what happens if you don’t look into woman’s eyes when you make a toast?” she said.

“No, what?”

“You’ll have seven years of bad sex.”

As they clinked glasses, Willem grinned. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”

“Good,” said Betancourt, as she slipped her arms around Willem. “Very good.”

When they got to the bedroom there was no foreplay, no gentleness. Thrashing on the bed with abandon, Betancourt used her strong legs to pull Willem in deeper as he thrusted into her body with animal ferocity. When her pleasure hit its peak Betancourt raked her nails down Willem’s back and came with a back arching slam that made Willem join her in release. There were two repeat performances. When they were finally finished, Willem drowsily gazed at Betancourt’s sweat slicked body.

“That was great,” he said, taking her into his arms. “Absolutely fucking great.”

Betancourt stiffened. “You have to go now,” she said.

“What? I thought we’d stay in and have breakfast tomorrow. Maybe do it again.” Betancourt’s answer was to slip out of Willem’s embrace and stand by the bed.

“You have to leave now,” she said. “I can’t have you here.”

Willem sat up and noticed a strange off-kilter look Betancourt’s eyes.

“What’s wrong with you?” he said. “We had a nice time didn’t we? Did I do something wrong?”

“I’ve slept with so many guys,” Betancourt said, her voice strained. “So many…”

“I’m not a virgin either,” Willem said. “So what?”

Betancourt sighed. “Every time I fuck a guy a little bit of me dies.”

Willem had met some freaky tricks in his time, but no one had ever kicked him out of bed. He was the one who always left them. “Listen,” he said. “I know we’re not going to get married or anything. I know the deal.”

“Do you?” Betancourt said. “What do you think that tip was for? You were bought and paid for. Now get out.” Disgusted, Willem got dressed.

“How am I supposed to get home?”

“Call a taxi,” she said. “Do whatever. Just leave.” So Willem left, called a cab on his cell phone and waited at the front door until it arrived.

“Where to?” the cabbie asked. Willem gave the address.

“Got kicked out, huh?” the cabbie said. .

“How’d you know that?”

“Pal,” the cabbie said. “I’ve picked up a lot of guys at this lady’s house. She’s a strange piece of tail.”

————————————————————————————————–

The next day Willem walked into The Bistro at three o’clock to work Sunday dinner. Willem hated working Sundays and a hangover headache was pulsing behind his left eye. But he didn’t really care about how his night had turned out. It was worth it to fuck that chick, he thought.

As Willem walked to the back of the restaurant he noticed the waiters and busboys eyeing him quietly. From the tension in their faces he could tell something was up. Maybe Manny had been screaming at them about his slashed tires; who knew with him. But when Willem saw the two men in off the rack suits sitting at one of tables, a jolt of fear rippled across his stomach. He knew cops when he saw them.

“That’s him,” Manny said to the men. “That’s him.”

“Are you Willem Kander?” one of the men said, standing up.

“Yeah,” Willem said. “Who are you?’

The man was tall with a ruddy face and salt and pepper hair. He was fat but his shoulders were broad and he didn’t look soft. “I’m Detective Harriman from the Orangeburg police,” he said. “This here is Detective Quinones.”

“What’s this about?’ Willem said.

“Were you with Alicia Betancourt last night?” Quinones asked, rising from his chair. Unlike his partner, Quinones was slim and dark. As he walked towards Willem a quiet menace coiled inside him like a spring being compressed.

“Maybe,” Willem said. “So what?”

“Don’t bullshit us, kid,” Harriman said. “All your co-workers said you were flirting with her. You were seen together by ten people with her at the American Bar and a cabbie picked you up at her house at four in the morning.”

“So I went home with her,” Willem said. “What of it?’

Quinones looked at him hard. “Alicia Betancourt was found dead this morning. She was beaten to death.”

Willem throat dried out. “What?” he managed to croak.

“You need to come with us,” Harriman said, holding out a pair of handcuffs. “You have a lot of explaining to do.”

The cops frisked him, relived him off his pocketknife and cuffed him. As the steel bracelets bit into Willem’s wrists he saw Manny’s fat face grinning in triumph, Reynaldo sucking on his gold tooth and his fellow waiters looking at him with a combination of shock and disgust. When Harriman bundled him into the police issue Crown Victoria, Willem saw Claude on the street corner shaking his head sadly.

When they got to the station they dumped him in an interrogation room and left him to sweat there for an hour. Then Harriman walked in carrying a manila folder with Quinones trialing behind him. Harriman slapped the folder on the steel desk and sat down. Quinones pulled up a chair, turned it around and leaned his elbows on its back. The weight of Quinones’ stare made Willem shift in his chair.

“You’ve got a bit of a record here, Kander,” Harriman said, his voice devoid of emotion as he flipped though the folder’s contents. “Solicitation, prostitution, two counts of assault and a drug charge in San Francisco. A DUI and suspended license in this county – you’re quite the fuckup.”

“You slashed your manager’s tires last night,” Quinones said.

“No. I didn’t,” Willem said.

“C’mon,” Harriman said. “The homeless guy saw you. He said you popped them with a pocketknife with an ivory handle. And guess what? You had that kind of knife on you.”

“Claude’s drunk half the time,” Willem said. “You can’t trust what he says.”

“He also says you assaulted him last night.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“When did you leave Betancourt’s house last night?” Quinones asked.

“I don’t remember,” Willem said.

Harriman took some photographs and laid them on the desk. Willem looked. They were pictures of Betancourt naked on a slab. Her once lovely face was purple and cracked in half. Her throat was swollen, bruises covered most of her body and the jagged edges of three ribs jutted out of her side.

“Jesus Christ,” Willem said. “You think I did that?’

“The medical examiner puts her time of death between three and five in the morning,” Quinones said. “The cab driver says he picked you up at four. The time’s in his log sheet. So what happened?”

“I didn’t kill her.”

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Harriman said. “Betancourt was a nympho. We know that. So she took you home and you fucked her. But then she wanted to toss you out. The cabbie told us she had done it to other guys before. But you got angry. Narcissistic guys like you don’t take rejection well so you hit her. You probably just wanted to scare her, right, Willem? But it didn’t stop there, did it? You got caught up in the frenzy. Maybe you don’t even remember beating her. We found a empty pitcher of martinis in the room.”

“She was a bit freaky, yeah, “Willem said. “But she was fine when I left.”

“So what’s this?’’ Quinones said, producing a clear plastic evidence bag. Inside it was a bloody shirt. “We found this in the dumpster in the back of the restaurant. It’s yours.”

“That’s not mine,” Willem said.

“It’s yours,” Quinones said. “Your restaurant’s name is sewn into the shirt pocket and you’re the only waiter there who wears this size.”

“I leave some extra shirts there,” Willem said. “Anybody could have taken one.”

“Yeah,” Quinones said. “But you were in Betancourt’s house. Nobody else. The only prints we found were yours and hers. There was no break in. Her security alarm wasn’t tripped. She let her killer into the house. And that, my friend, was you.”

“This is all a mistake,” Willem said, tears suddenly stinging his eyes. “This is all a horrible mistake.

“No mistake,” Quinones said. “You’re a violent one, aren’t you? Slashing those tires and beating up on a homeless guy. And then there’s that stuff from Frisco. You’re done, Kander. The jury will serve you up on a plate.”

“You’re under arrest for the murder of Alicia Betancourt,” Harriman said. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything that you say can and will be used against you…”

But Willem didn’t hear the detective as he collapsed in on himself. He had no one to turn to. His father had disowned him long ago. He had no money. He was on his own. And when Quinones tossed him into a cell Willem ceased to be Willem. He had become a number lost in the implacable machinations of the state.

————————————————————————————————–

As Aeromexico flight 1756 began its descent into Mexico City International Airport the man sitting in seat 1A looked out his window and smiled as the pinpoints of light glowing upwards from the city of fourteen million souls slid past his reflection in the glass like fireflies. The man was happy. He was coming home.

The man was wearing a custom fitted ten thousand dollar Kiton suit, his feet were shod in Ferregamos and the gold Patek Philippe watch glinting on his wrist matched his cufflinks and hand painted Hermes tie. To the casual observer he looked like just another wealthy first class passenger flying back to La Ciudad de los Palacios after a successful business trip.

The man listened as the French passengers behind him complained about the wine choices the airline offered. French was only one of the languages the man spoke. Fluent in English, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Russian and a host of aboriginal South American dialects, he could talk his way from Canada to Tierra del Fuego with ease. He was also fearsomely expert with firearms, edged weapons, hand-to-hand combat, explosives, chemicals and poisons. He was a master of intelligence tradecraft, defeating electronic defenses, escape and evasion, an expert seaman and qualified to fly several kinds of aircraft. He had killed, bishops, politicians, cartel bosses, policemen, soldiers, men, women and children. He did not care why. He only cared about getting paid.

It had gone very well in America; the man thought. The waiter, knowing he was facing life in prison, copped a plea for second-degree murder. If he were lucky, he’d get of jail in twenty years. The man smiled again. He had stolen what was left of the boy’s youth. That was just as well, he thought. His youth hadn’t been very promising.

When the waiter left the Betancourt’s house, the man slipped inside without leaving a trace. After bypassing the alarm system in a way that no one would ever suspect it had been tampered with, he opened the door with the key and crept up to the woman’s bedroom. He knew the layout of the house because he had been in there many times to clean the pool. The gringa had let him in to use the bathroom. It was child’s play to steal a key.

When he walked into the bedroom the woman was startled. “What are you doing here?” she asked before he smashed her windpipe. He didn’t want her to die instantly. The people who hired him wanted her to suffer. As the woman’s screams got lost in her crushed throat, he methodically beat her with leather-gloved hands until her lovely body had been reduced to pulp. Then, as she looked at him with eyes filled with the fear of death, he drove his fist into her perfect face. He kept hitting her until her features distorted and then, when he was sure his client would be satisfied, delivered a killing blow to her temple. After waiting a few minutes he checked her pulse. It was gone. Job finished he took the waiter’s uniform shirt off his body and carefully placed it into a plastic bag. Then he let himself out as stealthily as he came in.

Moving to the thick trees where he had hidden for three hours, he took off his clothes and shoes and placed them in a burlap sack. Then he put on fresh clothes, got into his stolen car and drove to a place where he incinerated the bloody evidence. After taking a long shower, he wiped the car down and drove it back to the lot he stole it from. The owner would never know. Then he dropped the waiter’s gore-stained shirt in the dumpster in the back of the restaurant and went back to the apartment he shared with five other people. To avoid suspicion, he stayed in town for a month until the waiter was sent to prison. Then he told his boss he had to go home to care for his sick mother. They wouldn’t miss him. He was replaced by one of his countrymen the next day.

When the plane’s wheels touched down, the man let out a deep sigh. He had been in America for three months and was glad to get home. He had earned two million dollars for his work. Not bad for a mestizo who had fought his way out of the slums, he thought. The man never got paid until the job was done, but he always got paid. The only person who ever reneged on a contract ended up headless with the rest of his family in a garbage dump. His clients hired him though a set of highly secretive and compartmentalized contacts. No one had ever seen his face. To law enforcement he was only known “El Fantasma.” The Ghost. His assignments were sent to him via highly encrypted email with information about his client, target and how the client wished them to die. Sometimes it was blowing a man’s head off with a 1500-yard rifle shot, an arranged car accident, inducing a heart attack or something more brutal. He never asked the reasons for killing anyone. He just did it. Of course he entertained theories. Perhaps the Betancourt woman was a corporate assassination, a jealous lover or a combination of both. The email only told him to make it look like a vicious and painful murder. The customer didn’t want anything traced back to him and the waiter was a convenient patsy. The man could have picked any number of the men the woman consorted with, but framing the waiter was good karma. He was an arrogant one, the man thought to himself.

The plane landed and the man walked to the main entrance where Gustavo, his driver, was waiting to pick him up in an armored Mercedes Benz. When he got home to his large house in Bosques de las Lomas, he would kiss his children, drink a real margarita, smoke a Cuban cigar and then make love to his beautiful wife. As he walked to his car he took the fake gold cap off his perfectly good tooth and threw it in the trash. He was Javier Ramirez Sanchez, the most lethal man in the Western Hemisphere. To his people he was El Fantasma. But to the Norte Americanos, he was just another Mexican.


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El Fantasma — 79 Comments

  1. I like the first half a lot and thought the character Willem was quite interesting as well as enjoying the enviorment you created . I was looking forward to seeing where you would go with him and how he would find redemption. I found the second half to be unrealistic and consisted of only backstory. I was not able to connect with Javier or view him has a hero let alone wanted to learn more about him. Making Betancourt a victim of assassination just did not ring true — nothing in your portrayal of her seemed to justify it.

    But I will give you this; you have a knack for words and you pull me into the scene. I ask you rethink this story and continue the saga of Willem.

  2. Not sure why the woman was assassinated, not enough info on that. Willem was surely a dick, but, as you said, he made a fair amount of cash from making the guests “putty in his hands”. Where is the segue?

  3. Having different characters named Marnie and Mannie doesn’t really work. Otherwise, agree that the first bit was good – but not convinced at the change in direction.

  4. Love your descriptions. Sets your blog above all others. Been reading you for years and will continue to do so because of your skills

  5. You do have the ability to paint a picture. That being said I think if you were to venture into the world of story-telling, it would be better received by your existing readers by writing something that differs from your life experience.

    The first portion of it read very much like some of your previous posts which made it challenging for the reader to “switch gears” to the antagonist/second story line. It’s like reading a real life experience, and then having to connect with something that is obviously fictional.

    Admirable try, but I do think you’ll struggle in having some of your current fans follow you in this direction when it so closely parallels your previous writings.

  6. This story has great use of language. You writing, as always, comes alive through vivid descriptions and astute word choices.

    However, on an emotional level, it completely failed to engage me. I spent a while thinking about why, and I think I figured it out:

    Willem is a complete asshole; he thinks little of women, foreigners, and pretty much everyone except himself, and bullies his busboy, destroys other people’s property and mistreats a homeless guy for no reason.

    Willem has a one-night stand with a very hot, very eccentric, woman who throws him out afterwards.

    The next day, Willem is arrested. The woman was found dead in her apartment, the time of death roughly matches when Willem was picked up there by a taxi, one of his work shirts was found smeared with her blood, he has a history of violence and being an asshole–there’s no way anyone will believe he didn’t do it.

    Cut to mysterious Mexican man. He thinks about how he is a successful serial assassin, how he killed the woman in question, how that asshole waiter took the fall for it, how life is good.

    Big reveal: it’s the busboy! (Which I saw coming, because he’s the *only* Mexican character in the story, he had access to the shirt, and it’d make no sense for the assassin to be some random dude we hadn’t seen before.)

    Now, why am I supposed to care?

    I feel sorry for the woman, of course, but mostly on principle: being violently murdered is terrible, obviously, but we hadn’t been shown enough of her to care about her on a personal level.

    Willem is an ass. Going to prison for a murder you didn’t commit is bad, and I’m against it, but again – on principle. I don’t really care what happens to Willem.

    Ramirez seems the nicest of the bunch, except – HE’S A PROFESSIONAL HITMAN. He kills people for money. He never asks why. He feels nothing when he does it, and he makes it as quick or as painful as his client wants him to.

    Am I supposed to feel satisfaction that he got away with it again? Sorry, I’m not a psychopath.

    So, in a nutshell, this is a story about people I don’t care about doing things I find horrible. It fails to emotionally engage me because I can’t identify, or even sympathize, with anyone in it.

    Sorry to be so negative. Your writing is great, I just don’t think this is the best way to use it.

  7. Was this the best short story ever? No. I don’t think Waiter thinks so either. I think he’s using his blog to do a bit of experimentation and that’s cool. And hey, it’s not like you plunked down real money to read it. (Though I’d buy it waiter!) And while most of the critiques given were constructive a few were unkind and snarky. But since Waiter has been reviewed by real newspaper critics I think he can roll with it.

    I think what many people have failed to consider is the limits inherent in the short story format. People who are used to richly developed plots and characters in the books they read are often disappointed by this category. Characters have to be drawn with swift brush strokes, plots need to be short and to the point and a clear message need to be sent. In a short story a reader is also called to fill in the blanks. Why was the woman killed? How did the busboy sneak out of America undetected? Why is Willem such a jerk. (Maybe it is because his father disowned him?) If the author has to fill in every detail he or she might as well write a novel. And something tells me Waiter won’t write one for free on his blog.

    So you can take the story of leave it. I think it was a fine effort. I look forward to Waiter’s future stories and wish him luck as her develops his fiction writing style. I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait.

    Yet Another Critic

  8. You had me at “Willem told her the specials, rolling his tongue around the Italian words as if he were licking a clitoris.” Wow.

  9. Hum… always a good read Steve and this was decent pulp crime writing. I wondered why – not why the death, not why the frame, but why would you put up this short story? I guess I’m glad you tried something different while drawing on your experiences, but I’m still not sure why.
    Some of your shortcuts were just too short, eg “After bypassing the alarm system in a way that no one would ever suspect it had been tampered with”, and a fair bit was pretty cliched but it was entertaining.

  10. This puts me in mind of Robert Ludlum or Dan Brown, highly successful authors who manage tell a good story despite awful prose. This story reeks of that style – one dimensional “I’m the best at everything” characters in fantasy situations laid out in overwrought on-the-nose description and excessive exposition. Though similar in these aspects, “El Fantasma” lacks the narrative drive and structural finesse usually found in successful popular fiction. It’s awful.

    You are a far better writer than this. I’ve followed your blog for a couple years. What keeps me coming back is the perspective and insight you offer in observing to the people you encounter and interactions you share. You’ve written several posts that have moved me deeply. It was disappointing to find none of that in this story. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading more of your fiction and experiencing those qualities that make your writing so compelling.

  11. VERY amusing. Definitely not what I was expecting when i first read it today. I got into it. I agree, I know your writing is quite good – I’ve seen better in this blog with your writing about yourself, but honestly, I really REALLY enjoyed this :) Maybe short stories will be added to your repitoire? thanks for the excitment this morning :)

  12. I’d love to see some of the people commenting here to link to examples of their writing. If Steve is screwing up so bad, why don’t you all show us how it’s done? Any takers?

  13. Not bad, but these people are totally unsympathetic, and when you get out of the restaurant, you lose steam and it becomes caricature.

    Wilhem’s arrest and conviction aren’t believable, and Alicia reads as something right out of Penthouse Forum (FYI, rich women don’t wear leather skirts anymore, even if it IS Jersey).

    Basically, this has been done before and done better.

    However, keep at it. If you want a great book of short stories, read Laura Lippmann’s “Hardly Knew Her” collection. Read Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain. You’ll get there.

  14. Anyways – I just watched a movie last night that made me think of you Steve – The Slammin’ Salmon. Have you seen it and have you any comments from a waiter’s perspective?

  15. At first I thought this was a post like the ones you used to have,about working in a restaurant, but later I realized this was fiction. It kept me reading anticipating the next turn of the story. Good job Waiter. Keep up the good work and dont keep us waiting for so long.

  16. So THATS where you’ve been! This is the next book, I take it? Has potential, the writing needs polishing, and some of the stuff is a bit cliche, but I enjoyed! Good luck!!!

  17. Steve, I liked the story. I think the character of the “illegal” Mexican busboy, mistreated and not noticed by Americans but really an internation assasin, is really cool. his feels like an early draft of something you’re playing with, far from final anything. Keep it up, hope you get a great series character out of it!

  18. The writing was alright. I’m not going to rehash the many constructive criticisms that people have mentioned here, except to say that most of them are valid critiques, particularly about feeling rushed through the last part of the story and the unrepeatable characters.

    I do want to say that the way that the women are written in this story is disgusting. Yes, I know that I’ve just opened myself up to a lot of “feminazi” flames, but hear me out. There’s a lot of very valid criticism around Hollywood movies and television and the weakness of most female characters. When criticisms are made it isn’t usually, “well, the story called for the main character to hate women” but instead a question of how the writers or directors view women. If an author consistently churns out books where the only good character is a man and every woman is written as a sidekick, sex object, enemy, or plot device, he doesn’t receive a pass because that’s just the way his characters think. Characters are what writers conceive them to be and there is an overwhelming lack of strong female characters out there. I’m not saying that characters can’t be misogynist, but the problem is when there isn’t a single character that disproves his theory. Half the time there aren’t any female characters at all.

    We get one line about how Ms. Betancourt is a pharmacy exec, but the rest of the information we have about her is that she sleeps with men and throws them away, is a nympho, dead sexy, a bit of a cougar, etc. The only other women mentioned are prostitutes, annoying old ladies, and a hot, young, vapid hostess.

    The main character’s feelings towards Mexicans was also cringe inducing, but in the end it is the Mexican who he insulted that ultimately “wins”. The women regain no power in this short story, but are simply plot devices and throw away objects.

    I’m reasonably sure you’re a nice person, most people are, and you’ve never struck me as being sexist before, so this is mostly just me pointing it out to you. Far too many writers do this to female characters without ever realizing that it’s happening, but it’s a huge turn off. I could barely bring myself to read all the way through just based on how demeaned the women were. And to be honest, it didn’t just make me hate Wilhem, but to rethink whether I want to follow you on this blog.

    • Giri, If I had to censor everything I wrote to avoid offending everyone’s sensibilities, nothing would ever get done. Am I sexist? Other than some typical guy stuff, the women in my life don’t think so. And only their opinion counts with me. And if my descriptions made you cringe, elicited an emotional reaction, then maybe I did my job.

  19. Loved the short story. I’ve followed your blog for a few years now so the only complaint is just that you recycled Betancourt from previous works. But then again your long term followers are already aware of your preference for the green eyed red-head as your leading lady.

    The twist let me down a little bit. I would have liked to know the sordid details of why she was off’d rather than supplying my own ideas. But other than that exceptional work Waiter, you’ve upped your game since last time.

  20. I was hooked straight away. I clicked a link o a tweet thinking it was a random waiter’s rant and was instantly hooked on your story. This has been a treat, thank you.

    p.s. Everyone should serve in a bar/restaurant to learn how to treat people with respect.

  21. Liked it a lot! However, did see some spelling errors (it’s part of my job to remove those) made it less nice to read.

  22. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t get how I am supposed to know that Reynaldo is Javier Ramirez Sanchez.

    Your writng is captivating as always, though.

  23. Your love of Chandler pops up again. Not bad, a bit by the numbers, but all good noir is. Good to see you again.

  24. Response to “Girl”:
    Yes the characters are all sad, disgusting and pathetic, but I think that’s the idea. the world is chock full of foul individuals. In the spirit of classic noir/pulp stories, all of the characters are reprehensable in one way or another.

    BTW-
    I’m not calling you out as a “Feminazi”, but like many others, you seem blind to the fact that more than one of the characters are stereotypes of one kind or another. The fat, pervert manager, the naiive hostess etc.
    You say :”the rest of the information we have about her is that she sleeps with men and throws them away”. Quite true, but as far as Willem goes, not much else matters, therefore any other character development would be superflorus.

    Anyway, just my $.02 on the subject.

  25. To Joel S.

    Well you didn’t like the story. But remember. Dan Brown is laughing all the way to the bank.

  26. Good job. Took awhile to appear, but good as anything. Keep it up, yo (ps, I am white, and i do say yo. chill.)

  27. I really enjoyed this! The style reminds me a bit of some of Andrew Vachss’ short stories- and that is a huge compliment. I would love to see more in this vein; can we hope that your next book might be a novel?

  28. I agree with many that it is a fine, yet unsculpted piece of fiction..

    Very reminiscent of a Nelson deMille story.. Or Mario Puzo..

    I can dig it and hope to read more. NIce work.

  29. Sheesh, I really liked it a lot. Would have liked to know the “why” she was to be killed, but loved the story.

  30. nice writing. really enjoyed it.

    just a note, for the sake of accuracy, Hermès ties are not hand painted. They are screen printed. And, of course, the second “e” in hermes should have a grave accent on it.

    But, aside from that, would love to read more like this. Have read your entire blog, and want to read your book now.

  31. Damn. I hadn’t read your site in about a year, but I read this post and really enjoyed it. Is there more? It seems like a teaser for a novel… I would read that.

  32. Come on Mr. Dublanica, you can do better than that! The story has recycled Bistro memories and characteristics written all over it: Pearl-handled knife? I believe you mentioned your expensive Laguiole waiter’s key in previous blog entries. Your repetitive taste for red-headed women? Mentioned many times in many past entries. Claude the Bistro’s local homeless man? You CAN be more original than that. Extorting managers? Reads just like your early days at Amnici’s when you were in your early 30s. And the manager himself nearly seemed like a carbon copy of Fluvio. Your portrayal of illegal Mexican workers? Repetitive at best. And the noir aspect of it? Reads like a poor composition of recycled bits and pieces of Ramond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett pulp stories. From a man that has published two good books, you can do far better than this. And you know that.

  33. Wow. My name is Sara, I have been a waitress since I’ve been, well, working. I will definitely continue to be nice to the bushelp, as I usually am, because I started out that way. But this story just goes to show, Be Careful who your looking down on.

  34. BTW I read your book, awesome! I work for a place just like the Bistro with a touch of Amici’s. Yet it’s in Montana so the tips aren’t as good. I thought about doing a project like yours and then my mother gave me your book. I thought “Fuck! It’s already been done!” yet then I thought, “About time someone did it.” Nice work- I’m a huge fan and your writings are therapeutic for waitstaff like us.

  35. Owch. Bad form, my good man.

    Waiter, your reply to Girl was… dismissive and rude. I remember when you were a lot more humble, less judging, and willing to accept critiques in the spirit in which they were given. She wasn’t trying to rain on your pretty parade — she was giving her two cents. That’s why you have a comment section, isn’t it? Unless I’m mistaken, and it’s purely for stroking your ego?

    Your piece was pulp. Written in a particular, provocative style. It was a first draft, I’m assuming, considering missed words, some missing punctuation, and an overuse of adverbs that would choke a horse. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t polished. It was entertaining, but it also merited people saying something about your subject matter, and yes, the way you talked about the women in the piece. Willem and Javier’s “viewpoints as characters” aside, there’s no reason not to take Girl’s response in stride, and see what you can learn from it.

    Isn’t that something you’ve often said you were trying to remember? That you can learn something from everyone, and you could stand to take a deep breath, and be a little less snappish, when it came to being critiqued, thwarted, or otherwise put down?

    I mean, come on, man — it was a piece of writing. Maybe it was your baby, and maybe you were seriously effing proud of it, and maybe you didn’t want anyone coming along and giving you an honest opinion, but you got one — the least you could do is accept it with the grace and humility we all know you have.

    You may have a 1,000 yard stare as a waiter, and you have every right to decide what guff you do, and do not take… but really, I for one, thought you had better manners.

    Why alienate fans with a chip on your shoulder from a throwaway piece of flash fiction?

  36. Well, I do have to start with saying I wasn’t impressed by the amount of obscene language, but that’s just my own preference. Aside from that I found it engaging and enjoyed it. I did wonder about one thing – how could the hitman KNOW that his target would come in that bistro, and how could he KNOW that she would take Willem home? It just seems somewhat implausible that he would just happen to be the one Mexican who would end up being her pool boy, and he would also be the one Mexican who would get a busboy job in that restaurant. It’s too convenient.

    Also you may want to check up on law. The detectives did not Mirandize Willem before talking to him about the murder. Anything he may have said at that point would be inadmissible at trial.

    Do they say “Norte Americanos” in Mexico? In Peru they say, “Americanos del Norte”.

    lol I believe you have described Manny before – in your first book, right?

    I also did not miss the point. You have written many personal experiences like a story before, and always made a point with them. Even with this one being fictional, I picked up on the point, or moral of the story, at the end.

  37. Not bad Steve,
    But just like waiting tables the front of the house was great but I think you missed a bit of the side work in the back of the house.
    Cheers Good Effort
    Ron

  38. It’s been awhile since I’ve been here and this pleasantly surprised me. I liked it and I hope it’s a sign of more fiction writing from you!

  39. i really don’t care that you recycled characters or people you’ve encountered. i thought it was entertaining to say the least but definitely needs polishing. i look forward to your next post…

  40. Am I the only one who thinks this is not a short story, but rather the beginning of a novel?

    Anyway, I think there is some constructive criticism in a few of the posts.

    Looking forward to seeing revision 2 and or another chapter.

  41. To be honest I didn’t read more than the first paragraph – guess it sounds a bit over-entitled to say, but after months of inactivity I just found it a bit rich to just use your loyal readership as a test audience. Understand you wanting to experiment, but a word on how you’re doing along with it would be great – we got to know you Steve, Buster, flatmate, sofa, mysterious other half etc and we’d like to know how you all are…?

  42. I have been reading your food blog and have really enjoyed it. As a fellow foodie, I have a blog about my quest for the ultimate hamburger, I wanted to share this link and project that I have been following as I think they have an very interesting idea for a short film that will appeal to foodies.

    A team of documentary short film makers is making a film about the regional foods which are disappearing from our grocery store shelves. Once, the grocery store reflected the foods and culinary heritage of each region of our country. There was a time that Coors beer was not sold east of the Mississippi River, and Moon Pies only existed in the South. Small regional food companies are being bumped from the store shelves, and we are losing these food traditions.

    These are those foods that maybe your grandparents had in their pantry and you refused to eat. Things (and these are real) like mudfish in a jar, sauerkraut juice, and canned snake. They are looking for input on regional foods in your area, like those strange food items on the top shelf that you have no idea how they are used or what to cook with them.

    The film will include calling the makers of these unique foods and learning the history and reason behind why mudfish is available in a jar. Then they will have a big food tasting offering volunteers the chance to taste these items and give their feedback.
    I hope you can suggest possible regional foods or ask your readers. You can learn more about the project on their website http://www.indiegogo.com/10MinuteFilms

  43. You lost me a at cerulean. The story seemed to flounder a bit after that. The characters were very interesting and vibrant. I’ve enjoyed your writing for a few years now and I love the humor you inject into the stories you pass along which is hard to do in Mystery.

    Thank you for taking the time to pass your stories along.

  44. Well, I bought your book on a whim and liked it so much that i’m now reading everthing on your site! That should explain the bit of a necropost here.

    This story surprised me a bit. It was so different from the usual stuff. That said, I thought it was great! Reading so many negative comments just baffled me. I’m know you’ve dealt with far worse, but everyone deserves to be told when they do something good, not just when it’s something bad! Keep up the wonderful writing…. it’s given me hours of good entertainment.

  45. Not bad… The one thing you should fix is the cops would have read him his rights before they put him in interrogation.

  46. Shades of early Jim Thompson. Very engaging. Stick with it. You have a flair for language and evoke a long-ago gumshoe patina. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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