One of the projects I’m working on is a re-edit and cleanup of every Ben Miles story. He was the first character I ever created who felt fleshed-out and complete, someone who so naturally flowed from my brain to my hands to the keyboard, and I feel myself always going back to him. Here’s one of them, one of the first ones I ever did, “Old Dogs.” It’s super-reflective of where I was living at the time, what I was reading and thinking about and enjoying, but I think it also stands as one of the first complete pieces of fiction I ddi that felt “done,” not just “finished” if that makes sense.
Anyway, enjoy it, and keep an eye out for even more short fiction here as I’ve been doing and for something Ben Miles-related coming soon.
“Old Dogs” by Costa Koutsoutis
“Look, just ask him.”
“I am not going to ask him anything.”
“Come on, ask him! It’ll take you ten minutes, and then you can leave and not have to deal with me…”
“For another six months until you need something again, and refuse to stop leaving me messages demanding that I help you out of some hole you’ve gotten yourself into!”
“So, you’ll ask him?”
“Ben, I am telling you that you’re wrong, it’s not him!”
Ben stared at her as they sat in the tiny, dimly-lit café. Outside the trains rattled overhead on the elevated tracks, and the foot traffic and cars was a constant din. Despite the loud hum of the industrial air conditioner and the large-scale Venetian blinds lowered over the front windows and glass door, the hot hair and bright sun was fighting to filter into the small tile-lined front room. Faded and peeling old maps of Greece and photos of men in moustaches lined the walls, some in frames of stained old silver, some in battered cheap wood. Fake Greco-Romanesque columns were in the corners, with fake ivy twined around them. Mismatched chairs sat around metal tables scattered around the café, which was empty save for one grouping around the table furthest back from the door and front windows.
Three old men, consumed in their card game and keeping score on a battered old legal pad, were yelling at each other periodically in Greek, peppered occasionally with heavily-accented English that was probably just their own takes on English slurs. They seemed to be ignoring Ben and Kalli, who were at the table next to them. No one else seemed to be in the coffee shop in the middle of Astoria.
Ben Miles, a PI and sometimes-bondsman, rubbed his face with his hands, elbows on the cheap peeling linoleum of the table. Mid-twenties, scruffy, and looking every bit the constant mess. “Look, I’m telling you, he’s the guy.”
“How do you know?” Kalli, mid-thirties, put together, a more successful PI and bondswoman, the kind with a real office and employees, looked at him suspiciously, drinking from her glass of water that a reluctant waiter had brought them when the two had walked in and sat down. They hadn’t seen him since. “I know you think you’re this great ‘finder’ or whatever, but I am telling you that you’re wrong. That’s Grigories Kafilas, the owner of the DVD Emporium. Every Greek kid in the borough knows who he is, we always went to him for movies, even back when it was all VHS. He’s the bootleg movie king of Queens.”
Ben pulled a battered and much-folded piece of paper, a computer printout of a photo, from his pants pocket, smoothing the crinkled image out on the table. “Look,” he said in a stage whisper, “He’s got the scar on the back of his hand, where the tattoo would have been. He’s the same age, the same height, same eye color…”
Kalli put her hand on his arm. “Ben, do you know how many old Greek men are in this neighborhood? With dark brown eyes and scarred hands? This guy?” She frowned, reading the scrawled marker writing on the paper, “Frank Kroger? He’s not even Greek!”
Ben leaned back in his chair, frowning. “I know I’m right,” he said, re-folding the picture and putting it back in his pocket. “Fred Kroger’s a German-Italian kid from Ohio who works as a clean-up guy for what ends up becoming the Cleveland Mafia in the seventies. He disappears with his boss’s ledgers one day, mails the ledgers to the FBI in Washington, DC, from what the Feds eventually discover was a post office in Iowa.
“Then, Kafilas shows up in New York the same time Kroger disappears, looks the same, has a scarred hand where a tattoo’s been? The same place that Kroger was known to have a tattoo? Ends up owning a video rental store and then a DVD place? Everyone I’ve talked to has told me Kroger was obsessed with movies, always wanted to own a theater or something, spent every spare minute he had going to the movies.
“I’ve been following this guy around Astoria for almost a week, and he’s slipped up almost a few times, when he thinks that no one is watching, in the way he carries himself, the way he walks. Kalli, it’s him. I can feel it, it’s a gut thing.”
“That’s your proof?” Kalli shook her head, clearly confused. “That’s the silliest story I’ve ever heard from you. Look, I’ve always been willing to help you, you know that. And I’ve almost always believed you when you came to these ridiculous conclusions because they usually turn out to be true, but this is too much. This is my old neighborhood, these are my people. I’m pretty sure I’ve even been in this place before with my dad!” Kalli pulled an iPhone out of her inner coat pocket, thumbing through the screen. “Look, you can’t just ask me to go around, talking to these old men like that. I have connections here I need to maintain, unlike you.”
Ben stood up from the table. “Okay, fine. You don’t believe me, you don’t wanna do me this one little favor. Then I’ll ask him.” He moved around the small table to walk over to the group of old men, and paused.
The group of three were gone, their game apparently long-over. The old man Kalli had called Kafilas was standing there, leaning slightly on one of the chairs, watching the two argue. Ben could see the remains of the sheet of paper and pencil used to keep score tucked into his shirt pocket, next to what looked like a pair of folded glasses, big old-man glasses.
“You should take more risks and listen to him, young miss,” he said, with no trace of any Greek, his Midwestern accent barely noticeable, “Whose are you?”
“Y-Yianni…Yianni Kiliaris’ granddaughter,” Kalli said, in shock. “I’m his daughter’s daughter.”
“Good family,” the old man said. “So,” he moved to sit at their table, with Kalli scrambling to pull a chair back for him almost deferentially as Ben grinned ear-to-ear, stood there. The old man sat down and reached into his shirt pocket, pulling out a pair of thick-lensed glasses, perching them on his face before looking back up. “You are, young man?”
“Your brother’s grandsons hired me to find you, Mr. Kroger,” Ben said, “they’d heard about you and the story of how you crossed the Novelli family back in Ohio. Wanted to know what happened to you, so they called someone who called someone who called me. I, ah…I find stuff.”
“Stuff?” Kroger said, looking at him over his glasses.
“Well, people too,” Ben said, shuffling through his pockets. “I swear, it’s a real job, I’m not a weirdo.”
“Ben is a private investigator,” Kalli said, “and despite the stupid look on his face, not a bad one.”
“An investigator, really?” Kroger said, “What, like a PI? A gumshoe, a detective?” He turned to look at Kalli, “and you? Are you his girl Friday?” He laughed to himself. “Well, at least you don’t work for the Novelli family. Wouldn’t be the first to get close, but I haven’t seen any of them in a long time. One time, one of them came here, asking about me, asking if any old Italian men lived in the neighborhood. I near about pissed my pants, sitting right over there.” He pointed to the corner table he’d been at earlier, playing cards. “I know that not everyone has been fooled in the neighborhood, and a few know something about me is off…”
“The Novelli family’s long-gone, Mr. Kroger,” Ben said, before the old man cut him off. “Please, call me Grigories. I’ve answered to that name longer than Frank Kroger.”
“Mr. Kafilas, sorry. The Novelli family’s long gone, the FBI took them apart like a fat kid eating a chicken wing years ago. Salvadore Novelli died in prison, I talked to Frankie Rolo’s son, Ronnie? He ended up in the ATF funny enough, but he said that his dad’s friends all died off before anyone could really pass on anything about you to the newer generation of guys, so you’ve pretty much been forgotten as far as they’re concerned. At least, that’s what it looks like to me.”
The old man didn’t say anything, his hands on the tabletop. Ben could see the tops of his hands, gnarled and worn, the scar on the back of his left hand still obvious. “I took a strip of sandpaper to it when I got on the train to New York. Took me an hour and I bled all over, I had to rip up a shirt to cover it up. I was so stupid, I probably could have just waited and it’d have faded away. I ended up working at the docks, was in the sun all day, messed up my hands a bunch of times, would’ve hid it.
“Everyone you talked to is right, you know. I loved the movies, always took girls there, even went alone. There is something about being in the dark and seeing another world and a story that is not your own, it felt freeing. I guess I should have opened up a restaurant, maybe then you would’ve never found me. But I have always loved the movies. Maybe if I’d been born now, and was young like you, I’d have made my own movies, become famous, made other people feel the way that I felt when I watched them. But back then?”
He sighed. “I was never going to get made by the family, because my father was a German. What else could I do? It was impossible to do anything for a son of an Italian widow in Cleveland to do except work for the Novelli family, you know. But in the end, it was too much, seeing what they did and what I did. So I did what I did. You would be surprised at how easily I got the books, back then security was something none of us thought about. Even now, my stores, just locking the doors and putting the alarm on, no one thought of that. Who would dare cross the Novellis?”
The old ex-gangster-turned-DVD-mogul stood up suddenly, ambling over to the counter of the empty café, his hands in his pockets. “My brother had already left for the army and was in Europe at the time, on his way to becoming an officer. He died in a training accident a few months later. My mother was dead, lung cancer from working in the factories all those years. I didn’t have anything holding me back.
“I stopped and changed trains at one point on my way to New York, and mailed the books to the F.B.I from an address I found in the yellow pages. Did you know that? The Federal Bureau of Investigation used to be listed in the phone book!” He laughed. “I thought I was so clever, pretending to be a Greek. It wasn’t easy, but I knew enough of the language, we’d had a few work for us in Cleveland. The Italians, they treated them like shit…” he trailed off suddenly, and turned around. “So, what now? You and me, we road trip like a movie back to Ohio? Are we happily reunited?”
Kalli stood up from the table, and walked towards the door, pausing before she stepped out into the busy and bright-hot street. Ben walked over to the table the old men had been playing cards at, ripping a piece of paper from the legal pad and grabbing the pencil. He sat back down with the old former gangster, and scrawled something down. “This is my number. You call me if you need anything at all.”
“Alright,” Kafilas said. “And this other number?”
Ben stood up. “His name is Michael, he’s your oldest grand-nephew. He and his wife would love to meet you. They live in Cincinnati. He married a Greek woman, actually.”
He walked towards the door, following after Kalli. “Give him a call sometime, he’s a nice guy. They really would like to meet you.” He opened the door to the café, the sounds of the crowds and the street spilling in along with a burst of hot air, and slipped out.