This post is sponsored by Shovel Ready and Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh. This is an exclusive short story by Adam Sternbergh, set in the Spademan universe, using a character name picked by a Book Riot reader- the winner of this giveaway!
Nothing but a name.
That’s how this works.
Maybe a handful of details if there’s concern about confusion. William Wilson the banker, not William Wilson the plumber, that sort of thing. But if I’m at all worried I might not have the right person, I’ll get back in touch with you.
Not really a concern when the person’s name is Tolmar Stavlo.
Voice on the phone said it softly. No anger. No joy. No edge of regret or tinge of vengeance.
Just the name.
Hard to judge why the person wanted me to get involved. But then, I’m not here to judge.
Believe it or not, some people want to send photos. Snapshots. I never open them. I don’t want your photos because I don’t want your backstory. And you’d be surprised how many people out there will hire you to kill someone, then send you happy keepsakes of themselves with their target, arms dangling over each other’s shoulders, goofing around at last summer’s barbecue. Or yukking it up on the deck of a yacht somewhere, the kind of carefree folk who use vacation as a verb. They want to send me photos because they want me to understand: Sure, I hired you to kill him, but we were best buds once. Thick as thieves. Would have taken a bullet for each other.
Like I said. I don’t judge.
Frankly, I don’t even care.
It really doesn’t matter to me who you’d take a bullet for.
Just who you want to send one to right now.
Not much risk of confusion.
Address is easy too.
Not a lot of Stavlos in Directory Assistance anymore.
Typical three-storey walk-up in the West Village. Greenwich Street, not Greenwich Avenue. A barren block that gives new meaning to wind-swept. Late fall. Leaves long since left. Trees stripped bare and left to shiver.
Me, on a doorstep, holding a slip of paper.
Fresh blade in the box-cutter.
From the window-boxes dotting the façade overhead, the building looks fully occupied, which is a rare thing these days. Given the fact New York’s half-emptied-out, the people who’ve stayed tend to isolate. Spread out a bit. Squatters claim entire floors. Enjoy the luxury that was never available before. This building, though, has different curtains in every window. Different patterns. Different tastes.
No names on the intercom list.
No lock on the front door either.
Opens with a nudge.
Not much of a lobby. More like—what’s the word?
Polished mailboxes. Crystal light fixture, recently dusted. Spits prisms across freshly painted walls. Whole place smells floral, like air-freshener. Not the usual movie-set bare bulb and stink of urine.
In other words: well-kept.
In the stairwell’s shadow, an old man appears in the doorway of the first-floor apartment. Custodial type. Wears coveralls.
May I help you?
Sure. What’s your name?
They call me Old Anderson. And you are?
I’m looking for Tolmar Stavlo.
You a friend?
His face sours.
A debt collector?
Just a visitor. With a delivery.
May I see it?
I have to deliver it to Mr Stavlo personally.
Custodial man’s eyes widen. Brighten. Swear I see a twinkle of something. Mischief, maybe. Or something else.
He says to me.
Well, then. You’ve found me.
I thought you said your name was Old Anderson.
That’s just what they call me. Because I’m a Swede. And I’m old.
So you’re telling me you’re Tolmar Stavlo?
His answer seems fishy, but I figure we can continue the discussion in his apartment. Either he is Tolmar Stavlo, or he’ll lead me one step closer to the person who is. But before I can invite myself inside, we’re both distracted by footfalls on the stairs.
Dapper man, descending. Hair slick. Camel coat. Spats and everything. Fancy umbrella tucked under his arm. To be honest, the dapper man looks so much like the custodial man that he might be the same person, but in his younger days. Except they’re both right here, right now, in front of me, in the vestibule.
Dapper man’s whistling.
Says to me.
May I help you?
I nod to the old-timer.
I’m just visiting Mr Stavlo.
Dapper man grins. Bows deeply.
Well, then. That would be me.
What’s the plural of Stavlo? Stavlii?
Maybe one’s senior and one’s junior. Or one’s lying and one’s crazy. Or both are both.
In any case, I’m a man with a box-cutter, standing at a crossroads. And both roads are marked with the same street sign. Tolmar Street and Tolmar Avenue.
While I puzzle this out, the metal door groans open behind me. A stout woman stands suddenly silhouetted against the glare of the outside world. She calls into the vestibule in a honey-I’m-home kind of holler.
Both heads swivel.
I turn to her too. Then sigh.
Let me guess.
She grins brightly.
That’s right! Tolmar Stavlo, at your service. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr—?
I let that question hang in the air-freshened air.
Just my luck. A whole building full of Tolmars.
I just may have to kill them all.
Instead, I turn back to the dapper man.
So you’re Tolmar Stavlo?
He nods crisply.
I gesture to the other two.
And you’re both Tolmar too?
Smiles and shrugs all around.
Funny coincidence. You all living here together—
Dapper man interjects. Smirk slithers out from under a pencil mustache. I’d like to shave off one and smack off the other.
Dapper man babbles:
If it was so, it might be, and if it were so, it would be, but as it isn’t, it ain’t.
In other words: gobbledygook.
Good word. Gobbledygook. Comes in handy. A little too often.
I shoulder past the dapper man and make my way up the stairs.
The silhouetted women calls after me in a come-hither trill.
Where you headed, stranger? Come give Tolmar Stavlo some sugar.
I call back, over my shoulder.
This building’s got three floors, right? My guess? There’s a few more Tolmar Stavlos still left for me to flush out.
Like I said. Typical walk-up.
Two apartments per floor. One front. One back.
Narrows the options.
Tiny man answers. Unshaven. Wary. Wearing what used to be called a wifebeater.
Bark at him, to make sure I’ve got his attention.
He shrinks back, confused. Uncomprehending. Shakes his head. Sputters something. Not English.
First non-Tolmar I’ve met today.
Umbrella stand loitering next to the welcome mat. Lone umbrella leaning in the stand is a matched set to the one last seen tucked under the dapper man’s arm.
That would make this the dapper man’s domicile.
So I scratch this apartment off the list too.
Tap tap tap.
Depress the doorbell.
White tip of an envelope peeks out from under the door. Slide it out with my boot, feeling heartened that some people still get mail. Address reads Miss Alice Something. Could be my stout Tolmar impersonator downstairs. Either way, scratch Alice.
Which leaves just one door.
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.
Skip the doorbell. Just call the name.
Then the sound of five locks unlocking.
Door trembles. Then yawns open.
Tolmar Stavlo, in a suit and tie.
I’ve been expecting you.
Tolmar Stavlo, the last one, the real one, I’m guessing, stands in the doorway in his Sunday finery. Best suit. Hand-stitched. Best shoes. Hand-buffed. Fresh shave. Just one nick.
Cracks a smile.
How may I help you, Mr—?
Your neighbors must like you a lot.
They all tried to convince me they’re you.
Would you care to come inside?
The apartment is empty. Not just of people. Of anything. Just raw floorboards and peeling plaster. One hotplate. One kettle. Two tea cups. One chair. One bulb. One ceiling beam.
Tolmar offers me tea. While he pours, he tells a story.
My neighbors and I barely knew each other when we first met, some years ago. But we found we had mutual interests. We came together and collectively claimed this building in the months after Times Square. While others were scrambling to leave the city, or to claim as big a chunk of it as they could, we decided, together, to scramble for something else.
There’s a lone brass hook in the bare wall. On the hook: a hat. Felt fedora. Looks brand new.
I point toward it.
He corrects me.
It’s a homburg. But thank you.
I was saving it for a special occasion. I presume someone sent you here to meet with me today, Mr Spademan. Do you know who?
Actually, I don’t.
That’s all right. I think I do.
There’s nowhere to sit, save the lonely chair, but that seems reserved for another purpose. So we both stand in the bare room, sipping. He continues his story. I let him. I’ve got nowhere to be, and I’m curious. He tells his tale in a tone that sounds like he’s only now remembering it himself.
I lived in something similar to this place once, Mr Spademan, when I was a young man. A kind of collective community. Not a building, though—a farm. In the country. Longhaired kids in denim with bushy beards and visions of utopia. All manner of foolishness. We had big dreams, but small crops. And petty feuds. Plenty of them. But we were still young enough and idealistic enough to believe that co-operative could function as a noun.
Blows across the top of his tea. Surface ripples. Steam scatters. Tolmar says.
These days I barely believe in it as an adjective.
Gestures toward the door.
So by the time I arrived in New York, I’d all but given up on the concept. But then we merry band all found this place together. Decided to start something new. Out of the ruins of Times Square. The deal here was: No histories. No backstories. No baggage.
Seems sensible. I can relate.
All of us saw Times Square as a fresh start. A clean slate. Leave the past behind. We’d work together. Each take responsibility for the other. And if we could achieve that, on this small plot of toxic ground, it wouldn’t matter if every block around us crumbled, as long as this one building still stood. Propped up by that dream. That would mean something. Yes?
You tell me.
I guess it’s too early for me to say. Or too late.
He sips his tea again. I ask.
So what happened?
Here? Something good. My fellow tenants proved that today, yes? We always said we’d fall on a grenade for each other.
Another sip. Peers at me over the edge of the cup.
Though you don’t look like the type to use grenades, if I may say.
I nod toward the noose.
So why the exit strategy, Tolmar?
Once I realized my fellow residents were willing to die for my sins, I also realized I could no longer allow myself to live here.
Drains the last of his tea.
Can’t have that on my conscience, can I?
Speaking of conscience, Tolmar, what happened at the first place? At the farm?
His smile dissipates.
I paid a man—an unkindness. Nothing worse, I’d wager, than what we all inflict on someone eventually, either by malice or simple carelessness. But it was an unkindness nonetheless. I can’t deny it. The farm fell apart. We all went our separate ways. I thought he might forget or, at least, forgive. Apparently, he’s done neither. I can’t say I blame him.
Tolmar bends elegantly to place the empty china cup on the hardwood floor. Stands straight again.
Actually, it’s wrong to say I paid an unkindness to him. It’s more like a kind of debt I incurred. And now here you are, Mr Spademan. To collect.
With a sharp strike, Tolmar smashes the china cup under his well-polished heel. Clatter echoes in the empty room. He kicks the shards away. Adjusts his suit. Walks to the hook. Retrieves the hat. Holds it for a moment, regarding it, held carefully in well-worn hands. Hands that tried to build a paradise once. Failed. Tried again.
Looks up at me.
Do you believe in that sort of thing, Mr Spademan?
What sort of thing?
Utopia. Paradise. Heaven. What have you. Here or elsewhere.
I meet his eyes. I don’t lie. I have a rule. Never lie to a man with a noose in the room.
No. I don’t.
He nods. I ask the obvious.
After a lifetime of looking, I guess I’m still not sure.
You have a nice set-up here, Tolmar. Nice neighbors. Nice window-box. Well-tended.
I do. I figure we are all given our plot of earth to tend to. It just gets smaller and smaller as we age, until it’s the size of a grave.
He hefts the homburg. Rests it on his brow.
Either way, I know it’s no revelation to say you can only stay ahead of the past for so long, Mr Spademan. Then again, I guess if I really wanted to outrun it, I wouldn’t have waited around for you.
You knew I was coming?
I knew someone was coming.
Tilts the homburg. Finds the right fit. Just so.
It’s lucky you caught me when you did—
Taps the brim. A kind of salute.
—given I was just on my way out.
I close the door quietly behind me.
Pass the dapper man on the stairs as I descend.
Dapper man says nothing, just watches, wordless, but he knows. So does the stout silhouette, and so-called Old Anderson. All the fake Tolmars eye me. Each were willing to take a bullet for the real one. Or a box-cutter.
Read it once in a barroom bathroom. Scratched in the stall.
Hell is other people.
Sounded about right. Still does.
And as to that other place, I still haven’t met anyone with a convincing story of just how exactly that place works.
Still, looking at all these self-proclaimed Tolmars assembled in the vestibule, I guess for a moment I could see what the real Tolmar saw. Or, at least, what he kept looking for.
Co-operatives. Community living.
Has its perks, I guess.
Dangers, too, of course.
Spite that lingers. Leads to phone calls.
I don’t think it will matter to the voice on the phone that I let Tolmar choose the method of his exit. Either way, on my end, the money’s cleared. Job’s closed. Another satisfied client.
As for Tolmar Stavlo, I’d say I left him his dignity but it wasn’t mine to leave.
Tolmar and his homburg.
Still searching for the perfect place to hang it.