THE CASTLE - Chapter 1

 

Had Remy Stanton known his life would change that night, that the next time he woke up there would be a bullet hole in his chest and the world at his fingertips, he would have chosen a better beer than Miller Lite to drink before it all went down.

A fine, aged scotch. Or perhaps a craft beer, the kind brewed by men in thick flannel shirts and rumpled overalls, suds dripping from their frizzled beards as they stood approvingly over massive stainless steel vats.

But nope. Brand new bullet hole, the world within his grasp. And he chose Miller Lite, a.k.a. the Styrofoam of beers.

He’d been stuck in the office until 9 p.m. Kevin McCarty, his direct supervisor at Pulaski & Associates, informed Remy on his way out—at 5:30, the lazy prick—that he was needed in the office at 7:30 the next morning, a Saturday, for a briefing on a new client, some app developer flush with thirty million in VC funding who would likely burn through it within two years.

There was no reason the meeting needed to be held on a Saturday. Yet Remy had realized early on at Pulaski that most of the senior male consultants enjoyed being at home with their families about as much as they enjoyed getting a heat rash. And younger consultants like Remy, most of whom didn’t yet have families to avoid, had no excuse.

Pulaski & Associates was an international strategic planning firm. Travel was constant. Remy logged more miles than most sports teams. Seattle one week. London the next. Dallas. Amsterdam. St. Louis. Munich. Phoenix. Vancouver. His blood type was airport coffee and mini pretzels, and he racked up miles like George Clooney in that movie where he was paid to fire people and ended up fifty and single with nothing but an empty backpack and nobody to talk to but Sam Elliott’s mustache. There were months where Remy spent more time in hotel beds than his own. And the worst part: most hotel bars closed at eleven.

He consulted with wealthy CEOs and CFOs, clients a generation or two older than him. Businessmen and women who gawked at this twenty-eight-year-old and wondered whether they’d just lit tens of thousands of dollars on fire.

Yet once the job was complete, they knew Remy was worth it. He could size up companies, situations, and employees like a scout evaluating athletes. Ninety seconds with an executive and Remy would know that he was a pathological narcissist who drove company morale off a cliff. Or a half hour with a company’s books, where Remy could add three percent right to their bottom line by cutting off employees who charged champagne room visits to their corporate AMEX.

And, of course, there were the layoffs. “Bloodletting,” Pulaski called it. A company had to lance a wound to let the bacteria out. Pulaski was not what Remy would call a people person.

Remy had spent years traveling the globe making money for men like Pulaski. Driving himself towards exhaustion and madness.

So, after leaving the Pulaski offices on Madison Avenue and 53rd Street at nine, Remy decided he needed, no, deserved a drink. Maybe several. His tolerance wasn’t what it used to be, so he had to be careful not to overdo it. Back in college, he could down a case of PBR and still wake up the next day with the dexterity to tie his shoelaces. Sleeping off a hangover until noon was no longer an option. Hence, the choice of the barely-alcoholic Miller Lite.

Remy wasn’t really in the mood to have to wait for a barstool, and on Friday nights, most bars around Madison Avenue were packed with oily finance bros. He simply wanted a stool to sit on and a cold pint and maybe a ballgame to watch in peace. Thankfully, he had just the place in mind.

Remy hailed a cab and told the driver to take him to 85th and York. He tipped the cabbie well and entered Bailey’s, a no-nonsense Irish pub with a glossy dark wood bar top, a well-worn dartboard, and a clientele that thankfully preferred to mind their own business. His kind of place.

Remy pulled out a stool and ordered a Miller Lite. The bartender, a ruddy-faced gent named Ian, with deep acne scars and wearing an Arsenal soccer jersey, poured the draft and sat it on the bar without once taking his eye off the television. The Yankees were losing. Ian made a sucking noise through his teeth as the Twins pitcher struck out the side to end the fourth. Then he poured himself a Jameson and slammed it.

“Haven’t seen you in a spell,” the bartender said. “Thought you might be cheating on us with another bar.”

“Never. You’re the only place in the city where the drafts are cold enough.”

“Keep the beer colder than your heart,” Ian said. “That’s the key to a successful pub.”

Remy took a healthy gulp of his beer, put his elbows on the bar, and relaxed. He’d been introduced to Bailey’s a few years ago while dating a pretty redhead named Nicole. It was the perfect spot to make out in a cozy, dimly lit booth without being interrupted. After they broke up, she got a hedge fund manager and a house in the suburbs, and Remy got the bar.

Remy finished his beer and Ian brought him a new pint without asking. A dingy mirror ran along the back wall behind the liquor bottles. Remy checked himself out. He was still young, having turned twenty-eight in February, but felt like he’d been aging faster than an open milk carton.

A few months back, Remy had found his first gray hair. Since then, they’d invited friends. His light brown hair hid the grays for the most part, but the ten pounds he gained since college was evident every time he loosened the belt buckle on his size thirty-fours or found himself breathing a little too hard after a 5k. He was on the slender side, still made time to go to the gym four times a week, and forced himself to get in fifty push-ups and sit-ups on days when he couldn’t make time. Most importantly, he occasionally mustered up the willpower to pass on nachos.

After graduating summa cum laude from Yale with a degree in political science, Pulaski had offered Remy eighty-five grand a year, which would help pay off his rather massive student loan debt. Pulaski wasn’t McKinsey, but it was a steppingstone. Six years in and he was making a hundred and ten grand. He could pay his rent, barely, pay his bills, barely, and was chipping away at his loans. Vacations were out of the question. And dating in Manhattan was hell on his credit card statement.

Lottery tickets were cheap. Lychee martinis were not.

All in all, Remy knew he was just starting his life. His career was on the upswing, if not quite yet at the apex, but it was heading that way. Despite it all, something was missing. Remy couldn’t quite put a finger on it. McKinsey hadn’t come calling. He could go to the grave accumulating five percent annual raises.

At some point, Remy wanted the world to open up to him.

“You believe this?” Ian said, pointing at the television and speaking to nobody in particular. “Bum gets paid sixteen million a year and can’t hit a curveball. Hell, I can’t hit a curveball either and I’d play for half that.”

“I’m pretty sure we could field a team of everyone in this bar,” Remy said, “play for a whole lot less money, and score just as many runs.”

Ian surveyed the drinkers. Two women in their late fifties were bonding over pints of Guinness. One man, fortyish and sweaty, nursed a glass of something amber in a highball glass while tapping out something on his phone with the concentration of a nuclear engineer. Two girls and two guys in their early twenties held court in a booth, taking selfies and downing shots of chilled vodka. An older black man stroked the leg of a purring woman wearing too much eye shadow on the next stool.

Remy eyed a cute brunette sitting at the end of the bar wearing a green spaghetti strap tank top that showed off tanned shoulders and glistening curves. She was sipping a glass of white wine and looked bored. Remy smiled at her. She smiled back. He was about to get up and introduce himself when another man walked past Remy, went up to the girl, and kissed her on the lips.

Well, shit.

“Tell me this isn’t the sorriest lot you’ve ever seen,” Ian said. “No offense. I love whoever pays my bills.”

“None taken. Proud to be a member of that sorry lot.”

He looked Remy over.

“You’re a young kid. Still got your hair. Remind me of my son a bit. Except for the suit. He’s some sort of graphic designer, which I think is just an excuse for him to wear a t-shirt to the office. So why ya drinking alone? Where’s your lady tonight?”

“Don’t have a lady,” Remy said, sipping his beer.

“Man friend?”

“Nope. Appreciate your political correctness though.”

“Have to be these days. Say the wrong thing and you get a nasty review on that Yelp thing and three months later you’re out of business. I liked it better when if people didn’t like your bar, they just threw eggs. Eggs you could clean off. Now if someone doesn’t like you, they think it’s their duty to let the entire godforsaken world know. Heaven forbid people just suffer in silence.”

“To suffering in silence,” Remy said, holding up his beer. Ian poured out two shots of Jameson. He placed one in front of Remy and held the other one out.

“To suffering in silence,” he said.

“I really shouldn’t,” Remy said.

“Making a man drink alone is the eighth deadly sin.”

Remy picked up the shot. “I never really paid attention in Sunday school anyway. To suffering in silence.”

They clinked glasses and Remy downed the liquor. He felt pleasant warmth spread through his body. Ian went back to the game.

After he finished his beer, Remy asked for the tab.

“Leaving us already?” Ian asked.

“Sadly, this member of the sorry lot has work tomorrow.”

“That’ll be eighteen for the beers. The Jame-O is on me.”

Remy pulled out a twenty and a five, laid them on the bar, and told Ian to keep it.

He left the bar and walked to the corner with every intention of heading home. He lived in a studio on West 12th Street, just north of Abingdon Square Park. Remy breathed in the early summer air, the cool, fresh air welcome after a day in the cubicle farm.

He stepped to the corner, raised his hand, and a cab pulled up. Remy hesitated. The driver lowered his window and said, “Hey, man, you getting in or what?”

Remy felt the June air against his skin and looked east.

“Nah, sorry. I changed my mind.”

The cabbie cursed in two different languages before driving off.

Remy hadn’t walked the East River Promenade since Nicole. They used to make out on every park bench like they were checking off a list. Fond memories. It felt like a lifetime ago.

He missed that electricity and companionship, the way a woman sighed as their lips met, as they touched for the first time, then grew to know every patch of skin. Remy wasn’t surprised when Nicole broke up with him. He returned calls and texts sporadically, at dinner he would check his email like the Pope could drop him a line at any moment, and when he stayed the night, he would more often than not leave before breakfast. Finally, after a pint at Bailey’s one night, Nicole kissed him on the cheek and said, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

So far, he hadn’t.

Remy checked his watch. It was ten thirty. Still enough time for a solid seven hours of sleep. But Remy didn’t feel like sleeping. He felt like walking.

He headed east, felt a cool breeze skimming off the East River. Sodium lights from the Queensboro Bridge made the dark water shimmer like liquid glass. He walked north past Gracie Mansion, curled back around under the FDR Drive, and began to head back west on 89th Street towards York Avenue. The crisp air invigorated him.

He noticed a couple walking about twenty steps ahead of him, heading west on 89th Street as well. They were young, dressed smartly, and walking at a leisurely pace. The woman was blonde and trim. Her right arm was looped through the man’s elbow, and her head rested gently against his shoulder. Remy could see the diamond on her left ring finger. And if the ring was visible from that far away, it must have cost a fortune. The husband was probably some hedge fund big shot, the kind of guy who bought a house in the Hamptons at thirty-five and was retired by fifty.

Remy watched them, not sure if he was contemptuous or envious. Maybe a bit of both. They seemed happy.

 Two men walked swiftly past Remy, passing him on either side. One tall, one short. They seemed to be in a hurry. Both wore dark pants and black jackets. Remy didn’t think too much of it until he noticed they were both wearing gloves. There was a slight chill from the wind coming off the river, but it wasn’t near cold enough to be wearing gloves. Two men, wearing gloves and matching outfits, following an unsuspecting couple.

Remy immediately knew they had bad intentions.

He walked faster, trying to keep pace with the men. Remy could tell something very bad was about to happen. Based on their clothes, Remy could tell the couple had money. They were easy targets.

He took out his cell phone and opened the phone app. Just in case his instincts were correct. He wondered, for a moment, if he was jumping to conclusions. A few drinks and a wandering mind leading him to assume the worst.

He felt silly. Slipped the phone back into his pocket.

And that was when the light fixture atop an awning illuminated the taller man’s hand, and Remy saw that he was holding a gun.

It was palm sized. Barely noticeable.

Remy’s eyes went wide. His breath shortened. Heart hammered. He sped up.

The next few seconds felt like hours.

Remy heard a click and knew the tall man had taken the safety off. Then he raised the gun.

This wasn’t a mugging.

The couple was completely oblivious to what was happening behind them. The woman’s head was still nestled on her husband’s shoulder. Their arms were intertwined. Just moments from absolute horror. And Remy was the only one who could stop it.

Without thinking, Remy charged forward and shouted, “Gun!” The couple turned around. The husband’s eyes widened and his mouth opened but no noise came out. The woman screamed and pulled her husband down to the ground.

The taller man brought the gun to point directly at the husband’s head, and that was when Remy launched himself forward and drove his shoulder into the gunman’s back.

He heard a whump sound, breath leaving the gunman’s lungs. There was a deafening crack, and Remy knew the gun had gone off. They toppled to the ground in a heap, the man’s head bouncing off the pavement with a crunch.

Remy could hear the woman screaming, but it was a far-off noise, like he was wearing headphones. Remy leapt on top of the downed gunman. He still held the gun, brought it up, trying to aim it at Remy’s head.

Remy grabbed the man’s wrist with both hands and slammed it against the pavement. Two more times and the man dropped the gun. Remy then brought his right fist crashing down into the man’s face. Then his left. When the second punch connected, he heard two cracks. The first was the man’s nose. The second was Remy’s hand. A sharp bolt of pain shot up his arm, and Remy knew his left hand was broken.

The man under him had gone limp. His gun was on the sidewalk. Remy went for it, but saw another hand reach down and grab it. Remy looked up. It was the husband. He was shaking, his face pale, eyes large and terrified. The husband held the gun, fingers pinching the grip like it was a poisonous snake. The barrel hung downward towards the sidewalk.

The man underneath him stirred. Remy raised his fist to deliver one more blow, hopefully knock him out cold.

Then something occurred to Remy. The other gunman. Where was he?

The question was answered as another crack of thunder broke the air. Remy felt a burning sensation tear through his upper body near his left shoulder. He looked up at the terrified husband and saw flecks of red spattered against his face.

Remy thought, So that’s what it looks like when someone else is covered in your blood.

The husband whipped around, gun held out with a wobbly arm, and Remy could see the other man running away. He could not see the man’s face. A glint of light from a streetlamp illuminated him for a moment. Before he disappeared, Remy saw that he had an earlobe gouge with a large silver ring embedded in the hole.

Remy heard another loud noise, a car horn, somewhere close. Then a man’s voice yelled a word that sounded like stani! Then the street went silent.

A moment passed. No more gunshots. Nobody moved.

Remy tried to stand up, but a wave of dizziness and nausea suddenly overwhelmed him. He fell back on the ground. His breathing was labored. He splayed out next to the first gunman. The man’s nose was crooked, his face covered in blood. Remy wondered whose blood made up the bulk of the mess. He couldn’t be sure.

Remy managed to prop himself up on his elbow, but saw something that caused panic and terror to surge through him.

Blood was pooling on the pavement. Not a drop here and there. A steady stream that was quickly spreading into a small puddle.

Remy felt his chest. His hand came away wet.

He felt his arm begin to tremble. His elbow could no longer hold his weight. Remy fell to the ground. The sounds around him seemed to fade out. The husband stood above him, petrified. His mouth was moving. Remy could barely hear the words he spoke: “What should I do?”

Remy turned his head. Saw the wife on her phone, talking animatedly. She was staring at Remy. He heard her say, “Oh god, please send an ambulance quick, he’s been shot and there’s blood everywhere. Please just come!”

She dropped the phone into her purse and ran towards Remy, the best she could in her heels, and knelt down next to him. She took his hand and stared at him. The fear in her eyes terrified Remy more than the blood.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, softly, her voice quivering. “It’ll be just fine.”

Her eyes told Remy that she was probably lying. She put her hands against Remy’s chest and pressed down, hard. He felt a distant pain, but the numbness spreading through his body drowned it out.

Remy felt like he recognized the woman. A strange sense of familiarity. Probably just his brain beginning to short circuit. Remy began to shiver.

“Stay with me,” the woman said. “Stay with me. Just stay with me.”

He thought Why do I know you from somewhere? Then the shivering stopped and darkness consumed him.

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