By Kimberlee Akimoto and Mark Cunningham
Although this story really begins with his funeral, sometimes it’s best to start just before where things really begin, that often being the place where the seeds of the beginning are planted and future first takes root; that being the case, just before the beginning really began happening on the morning that Woody Woodbine died.
It was typically good to be Woody Woodbine and that morning just before the beginning was no exception. He walked across his lawn purposefully, a man of habit who wore routine like a favorite jacket. It was fall and the air was what he liked to call crisp, producing a smile that was even more purposeful than the one that was more or less always plastered across his face. The lawns were freshly mowed and he inhaled deeply, whistling crisp air on the way out to Saeta; “Sketches of Spain” had always eluded him, but it had been on his mind of late, so he was giving it his slightly winded best.
The metallic hum of a lawnmower played just below the surface of his thoughts, and he looked back across the lawn toward the main house. Tangled Elms, the hereditary home of the Woodbines had been snugly nestled on the same spot, eventually grown into almost five hundred acres of some of the best Vermont real estate to be found anywhere in the world, since Enoch Woodbine, the first patriarch of the family, had made his first fortune, selling whiskey and muskets to the local Indians before they were driven into Lake Meliposokee during the American Revolution. The main house was vaguely Colonial in style; vaguely, as its original construction had followed the design of actual colonial builders, rather than modern architects who had studied actual colonial period architecture. It was a house like many others in New England, the quaint stateliness of its front, a façade that hid a sprawling warren of additions constructed over three centuries. It was everything that Woody Woodbine, its current master demanded of it.
Cresting a small hill that rolled immaculately out of the carpet of green behind, Woody stopped to take in the view, as he always did on Wednesday mornings. Leaves melted into swirling patterns; a surreal blanket of sensual serenity that caused Saeta to trail off in the breeze. The twin lakes, Big Mesupatoonick to his right, Little Mesupatoonick behind and further right, glittering blue diamonds, set in a molten lava of autumn colors. The mountains carved a path out of the sky to his left, a granite gray wall, stretching wide from the ground to break against swirling white of snow and clouds. The Woodbines had been quietly accumulating their fortune over three hundred years. They could afford a view with poetry in it.
He allowed himself his customary few minutes to take it all in, ritual being the foundation of Wednesdays, then began walking down the path towards a small cottage that sat just by the eaves of woods that bordered the estate to the east. His steps lightened as he grew closer and the smile split, Cheshire with teeth. He began to whistle again, “Take Five” this time; confident and with all the flourishes. Woody Woodbine was a whistler; he could blow in or out.
As he came up to a small, but cunningly made wrap-around porch, Woody looked back once more and could just make out the figure of the new gardener, riding the mower in odd, non concentric patterns, that left the lawn impossibly perfect. The boy showed a talent for gardening, having made topiaries out of some dull hedges of his own initiative. Woody had seen him watering flowers the morning before and taken the time to mention it.
“You have an eye for pruning young man. The rabbits in particular are most cunning.”
The fellow just looked up at him, a quizzical expression clouding easy, blonde and Teutonic features. A few moments passed, without a word exchanged between them. Where many a country gentleman would have allowed the situation to simply grow more awkward, Woody felt strongly that his role as master of Tangled Elms required him to act as a father figure of sorts to the help.
“Most cunning indeed.” Woody could think of nothing else to say.
“Well, I set der traps ‘cause I didn’t want der rabbits to schiess all over der place, that’s for damn sure.”
“No. I mean the hedges.”
“Jah, they schiess every which where.” The boy was beaming now. “Der porch, der hedges. But they are Hasenpfeffer for damn sure now, jah?”
“I see.” Actually, he did not, but Woody was determined. He had detected that the accent was acutely Germanic. Smiling, he had launched into what he considered to be most suitable German. “Was ist dein name?”
“My name is Frankie Bowmer, Herr Woodbine.”
‘Well Frankie Bowmer, I have travelled extensively in your homeland. From which part of Germany do you hail?” Woody abandoned German, feeling he had proven his point.
Again, the boy looked at him, his expression a curious mixture of good natured happiness and utter confusion.
“Where do you come from boy? Where were you born? Germany if I’m any judge of accents.”
“Jah, I am from Liebmunschspeake mit Hundervare which is in Bavaria, over there across the pond in Germany.”
“Liebmun-whatspeake? I must say I’m not familiar…Bavaria you say?”
By the time they had finished talking a few minutes later, Woody had encouraged the young man to take a stab at more hedges and to enroll in an English language course at the local community college.
Woody watched Bowmer drive the mower over the rise, disappearing into the haze of the morning sun. Smiling, he strode up the steps and knocked smartly on the door three times precisely as he always did on Wednesday mornings.
As he waited for the door to open, Woody sighed contentedly. Of all the rituals that Woody had established over his soon to be eighty four years, Wednesday mornings were one of the best, because Wednesday mornings were when Woody Woodbine got laid.
Vito “the Monk” Pasaquinoto had also established a lot of rituals over the years, most of them painful for someone else. He had developed a reputation for plodding inventiveness that had proven most effective in his chosen profession, that of button man for the Brigatori crime family. In fact, it happened more than once, that when bogged down in a particularly tense negotiation, Don Paulo “Boxes” Brigatori himself, would utter stoically:
“I think maybe it’s time we sent the Monk over to see this prick.”
The Don would wheeze with fat oily laughter, and within a day, two on the outside, there was one less prick at the negotiating table.
The Monk received his nickname for his appearance as opposed to his virtue. Specifically, he had a jutting forehead and longish arms that framed a facial expression of perpetual curiosity, more simian than sapient, let alone sanguine, but his prowess as an assassin had been legendary. If he had to have the details of the jobs explained more than once, his results spoke for themselves. He also had a fair enough sense of irony that he would chuckle along with the rest of the boys at the name he had been saddled with. On the other hand, most of the extended members of the Brigatori family still remembered the policy guy from the city who had called him “the Chimp” that time for a laugh; nobody ever saw him again, but parts that looked familiar kept turning up for years.
The Monk would have followed the inevitable path of most Brigatori button men, twitching on the pavement while his brains poured out of the hole in his simian head, had he not gotten lucky and developed a fairly nasty ulcer. The long and short of it was, the stress of the job got to be too much, so Don Brigatori, in a moment of nostalgia, decided to give the Monk a break. He went from being a button man, to the guy they sent to pick up the pizzas or drop off the laundry, and the Monk, grateful for a second chance, set about his duties with subdued efficiency.
On that morning just before the beginning, the Monk had met with Don Brigatori’s son Reggie in the Pinochle room of the Sons of Sicily Social Club. The Monk really never had taken to Reggie; most of the elder Don’s associates found the son to be a poor man’s version of his father. Regggie shared the Don’s double chin and pasty complexion, but none of the wily ruthlessness that had allowed the old man to stay out of prison and off bloody barbershop floors. Reggie also dressed like a Banker and used words that nobody understood.
“Go see this guy Monk. He has already put us on to some phishing scams that actually turned out to gain traction and he sold us a malware program that we sold to the Russians for a five factor return. He says he has something new that will increase margins in our gaming operations. Gaming is our core competency Monk, but there are a lot of variables introducing friction in the market. We have to seriously look at anything that will improve our bottom line and sustain viability. Listen to what he has to say, but don’t promise him anything.”
The Monk had a habit of repeating what he thought were the key words in a conversation, believing it made himself look intelligent, while at the same time allowing his brain to catch up.
He left Reggie eating a manicotti at the social club and got into his Cadillac. The Monk liked to drive, and he was good at it. He played Tony Bennett along the way; the Monk liked all the old grease ball music. He knew that the young guys all laughed at him for playing it all the time, but they would have laughed at him anyway, considering the jobs he was given these days. He sometimes thought about killing them, but he suffered afterwards; sometimes for days.
On that morning though, he was in good spirits. He was supposed to meet the guy with the casino scam in his basement, or at least that was the way he had understood it. Following the directions, the Monk drove his Caddy up the hills, heading out of town. It was a pleasant drive, so the time passed quickly. Less than two hours later, he reached the woods that went eastwards down to the Mesupatoonick lakes, and turned off onto an old logging trail, driving carefully to avoid scratches. It wasn’t much longer than that, when he came upon a doorway in the side of a hill just off the road. He wasn’t surprised. That part had been in the direction. It was the basement that turned out to be more than the Monk had expected.
First of all, it was big; that was the first thing that struck him. The second thing that struck him was that it was bright and white like a hospital and was filled with computers humming in every direction. Papers spilled onto the floor from printers and there was a constant sound of phones ringing, though nobody seemed to be around to answer them.
“This is more than I expected.” The Monk could think of nothing else to say.
“I’m not surprised.” The guy was young, maybe in his mid-twenties, the Monk could tell from his voice.
“You’re not surprised?” The Monk was surprised, there was no doubt on that score, and he began to feel a weird sensation in his lower gut.
“At your reaction.”
The guy stood there silent for a time. It would have been creepy under most circumstances. It was creepier when the circumstances included a big, bright, white basement that looked like a hospital. And then there was the costume the guy was wearing. It was blue. The Monk felt his stomach begin to churn. He thought about Don Brigatori’s girlfriend Tiffany. That was his next job. Don Brigatori’s girlfriend Tiffany’s dog needed to be taken in for her weekly shampoo. Tiffany was maybe twenty five and had a way of walking that had always captivated the Monk. He often thought about it when life threatened to annoy him.
“At your reaction to my lair.” The guy added after the silence became awkward. Creepier.
The fact that the Monk still looked like he enjoyed eating people and picking his teeth with their bones was one of the reasons that the Brigatoni’s had kept him on the payroll, but even though an extremely ugly look was starting to form across the Monk’s face as the acid in his stomach began a slow burn towards boil, the guy was having none of it.
“Distraction seems the obvious answer. The problem of course, is that people look for it.” The guy sounded convinced. The Monk had to trust his ears as the face was covered by a blue Zorro looking mask. There was also the bathing cap. It was blue too.
“Well yes, that’s the point of it isn’t it? Distraction?” He rubbed his right hand against his latex covered forehead.
“What’s with get up?” The Monk finally had enough. He was actually surprised he had waited as long as he did. The acids in his stomach were just at pre-boil and he was starting to get impatient, which made his stomach feel worse, which made him start to get pissed off, a condition that he really tried to avoid at all costs.
“Get up?” The guy frowned.
“The get up; the mask and the outfit.” The Monk said, then looked closer. “Is that a cape? Like Batman?”
“That really isn’t important. I would rather talk about the Quakabraker.” The guy said.
“Quakabraker?” The word didn’t make him feel any better.
“Yes.” The guy started laughing and shifting in his chair. “It’s why you are here. It’s my invention; a device that will allow you to obtain millions more in illicit profits from your casinos.”
The Monk began mouthing the word illicit, but the guy interrupted him.
“Punnus Man calls it the Quakabraker.” The guy paused, as if waiting for the Monk to say something. The Monk grunted unintelligibly. He tried thinking about Tiffany again, but it was no use.
“Right. Punnus Man has already decided to come up with a better name.” The guy smiled.
“Your message indicated that you had something that my…company…would be very interested in obtaining.” The Monk decided it best to get down to the item at hand. The quicker they did, the quicker he could decide whether to bring the offer back to the family or just shoot the prick where he stood. The thought of doing it reminded him that he didn’t carry a gun anymore; hadn’t in years, and it made his heart race with excitement even as his guts steamed. It didn’t matter he decided. The day he needed a gun for a scrawny prick in a blue get up with a mask and a bathing cap who wore a cape was the day he chucked it all and just retired to Miami. He would just snap the blue little freak’s neck. He imagined Tiffany watching as she walked towards him smiling.
“The Quakabraker…the invention formerly known as the Quakabraker…is the most ingeniously diabolical invention ever to be…invented.” The guy paused again, as if waiting for a reaction.”
“I’m listening.” The Monk finally nodded.
“Mr. Monk, your…company…runs one of the largest networks of Casinos in the world. What if I could show you a way to ensure that your customers will make mistakes?”
“Mistakes?” The Monk was trying to pay attention, but one hand was clutching his stomach and the other was trying not to reach up and snap. It was getting worse, and he began shifting uncomfortably.
“Mistakes.” The guy nodded. “What if you could make them overbid, fold prematurely, etc. In short, what would you pay for a way to annoy your customers into gambling even more stupidly than they already do?”
“I think we would pay a lot…I guess. Did you say annoy our customers?” It felt like his whole stomach was on fire. He leaned forward and burped. It tasted like sour fire.
The masked man began to chuckle.
It had been lust at first sight. Woody Woodbine had taken one look at “Nanny” Hodges, his children’s new governess, and decided that he would have her at all costs. He couldn’t put his finger on what exactly it was. Later, he realized that was because it was everything.
He had begun to plan an elaborate seduction, but before he had a chance to act on it, Nanny had taken matters into her own hands, slipping into his study the next morning after his infant daughter, Eliza had been laid down for her morning nap and his wife had left for another tennis lesson with that new pro from the Algarve. Nanny had started out under the desk, but it hadn’t taken long for them to wind up on the antique sideboard that Woody’s great, great grandmother had brought over on the Mayflower. It had survived a transatlantic crossing and four hundred years, but they had it in splinters in less than five minutes. By the time they were finished, lying breathless in the rubble, Woody knew he had found the one. For the next fifty-four years, Woody and Nanny had done things that would have made a one-eyed madam in an East Texas cat house blush, though in recent years, especially after Woody had fallen off the banister and nearly broke his hip on his seventy-fifth birthday, they had settled into Wednesdays at Nanny’s house, the cottage a retirement benefit that Woody had graciously provided.
Although seventy-two on her last birthday, Nanny had taken the time and made the effort to stay in shape, and when she answered the door, dressed in a black, lace, merry widow, she didn’t look a day over sixty. Woody immediately began pawing at her and she ran backwards laughing. The chase was on.
“I knew that the only way to convince you would be a demonstration.” The masked man was still chuckling lowly as he began turning a series of dials that were attached to a black metal box on the desk in front of him. The boiling in the Monk’s stomach became a whirlpool. He took a few steps back and sat in a chair that was in front of the desk, leaned forward, then began to groan.
“I do it with sound waves, although honestly, that’s like saying that Sinatra does it with singing.” The masked man smiled even wider. “My test subjects all began registering off the Mohel-Gaarnsdale Chart almost immediately. The MGC was developed at Cornell in the nineties, and is accepted as the bible in the science of annoyance. It’s been on at about a quarter setting since you arrived. I just jacked it a bit. What do you think?”
“Just what the hell are you talking about?” The Monk looked up and realized he was drooling. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Punnus Man.” The masked man nodded, beaming. ‘You may call him Punnus Man.”
“Him?” Sweat was forming on his overslung brow, the beads running out of his pores in time to the knives slashing his belly.
“Him.” The masked man pointed at himself. “He is Punnus Man.”
“OK, me.” The blue man sighed in apparent resignation. “I am Punnus Man.”
For some reason, the sound of that name made the Monk remove his hands from his stomach and clench and unclench his mighty fists.
When Woody caught up with Nanny, it was because she let him. She knew by now exactly how far to let him go, which was no farther than her bedroom. The noises that followed lasted approximately three minutes and seventeen seconds and would have forever haunted the dreams of anyone within earshot.
“Even now, you find yourself growing more annoyed.” Punnus Man said. “Isn’t it amazing? Feel the way it makes your blood pressure rise; and your stomach? Just churning with it, am I right? Of course I am. Just look how white you are.” Punnus Man held up a mirror. The Monk looked at his reflection and gasped, before clutching his stomach and grunting. His other hand involuntarily went again for the gun that wasn’t there.
“Imagine your customers trying to bet right now. Picture their expressions of distraction. Watch the dealers rake in the money.” Punnus Man appeared quite pleased with himself.
The Monk felt bile begin to rise.
“And the best part of all, is that it’s yours for free.”
“Free?” He choked it out.
‘Yes, free. I could never charge you anything for it. Oh, no, that would be…sacrilegious. My motives after all are pure. Oh, yes. Pure.”
“Free?” The Monk said the word again, this time with apparent fascination, then leaned forward and threw up all over Punnus Man’s desk. When he was done, he leaned forward further and noticed that what he had thrown up was red, although by the time he realized it was blood, he had already fallen face down in it and died.
“Oh Shit.” Punnus Man managed to say it dramatically. He said it again when he realized that the whole room was vibrating. He began turning dials and pushing buttons in earnest, but it only got worse.
“This is fucking bad.” There was no need for drama. By now the entire basement was groaning. He looked up at the ceiling, wondering who was home. That was when he remembered it was Wednesday morning.
“This is really fucking bad.”
Woody and Nanny laid in bed, the sunlight streaming gold and lazy through the window as the afternoon waited patiently outside. A passerby might have noticed that there was a strange humming coming from below, but the two lovers were lost in a fog of post-coital bliss and unaware.
“You burn me down woman.” Woody said contentedly, just like he always did. The walls began vibrating.
“You burn me down man.” She said it back, giggling like a young girl. A crack appeared in the wall and began running up towards the ceiling.
“You make the Goddamm earth move.” By now, the entire room was shaking. He laughed and reached up to kiss her. The ceiling fell on them before he had a chance.