These were the last fourteen minutes of his life.
"Wojo, you’re up," a valet with watery eyes announced as a midnight-blue BMW turned the corner and crept up the driveway.
Anthony Wojowicz was older—thirty-two, which made him prac- tically geriatric in the valet scene. But with parents who worked in the mine—truly in the mine; his stepdad worked days, his mom used to work the hoot-owl shift overnight—Wojo wasn’t afraid of hard work.
Ever since he was little, Wojo had considered himself a lucky guy. When he was a kid, a pickup truck hit his friend as they stepped off the curb, missing Wojo by inches. It was the same when his older cousin stole Wojo’s Halloween candy one year, then got sick from a pot brownie that was accidentally distributed. As Wojo got older, his overstyled messy black hair starting to recede, everything didn’t go his way—his ex-wife was proof of that. But he was lucky to have his new girlfriend (he’d met her in an elevator, of all places), lucky that they found that mole on his back early, and especially lucky that when he got fired from LensCrafters, he found this job, parking cars at Barron’s Steakhouse.
During his time at LensCrafters, Wojo’s child support was de- ducted directly from his paycheck. Here, as a valet, he got tips in cash, which not only gave him some breathing room, but also gave him a way to save up for that birthday party at the indoor skydiving place in Philly that Gabriella, his ten-year-old daughter, was begging for. His ex said no to the party. But with what Wojo was going to clear this weekend? He’d have enough to say yes.
With a quick rub of his crooked nose, Wojo jogged toward the BMW, forcing a smile at the driver. Years ago, his stepdad had told him that anyone who drives a BMW has a small penis. Wojo always liked his stepdad. And the fact that the car here was a 2013 128i coupe? C’mon. There were Camrys more expensive than that.
Small fry, Wojo decided. Not nearly big enough for what he had planned.
"Good evening," Wojo announced as the door to the BMW swung open. "Welcome to Barron’s Steakhou—"
"Don’t readjust my seat," a commanding baritone insisted. The fortysomething driver was big—built like a bulldozer—and the car seemed to tip as he got out. Stubborn lips. Military posture. The buzzed blond hair made Wojo think of Captain America. But it wasn’t until the man stood up straight that Wojo spotted his seven- thousand-dollar Panerai watch.
Before Wojo could say a word, the driver slapped his keys against Wojo’s chest.
That was the moment—as the keys smacked him in the chest, as Captain America brushed past him without any eye contact—that Wojo made a fatal decision.
"After this, I’m on break, yes?" Wojo called out to his watery-eyed boss.
Watery Eyes nodded. That would give Wojo twenty minutes.
Sliding into the BMW, Wojo readjusted the front seat and put the car into drive. The interior was pristine, but Wojo’s eyes were on the rearview as he waited for Captain America to disappear into the restaurant.
With a tap of the gas, the car inched forward, toward the valet lot. But as soon as Wojo arrived in the lot, he headed for the lot’s back exit, made a quick left, and hit the gas, out onto Route 1.
On the steering wheel, he pressed the small button that showed the cartoon headshot of a little man with three tiny parentheses com- ing out of his mouth. There was a loud beep. Voice command.
"Go home!" Wojo announced.
The center screen lit up and an address appeared. 2678 Ocean Avenue. Wojo grinned. Like anyone else in middle age, Captain America was too old to realize nothing good comes from putting your home address into your car’s GPS.
"Start Guidance," Wojo said, hitting the button again.
"Plotting a route to......... home," the female computer voice replied.
Nine minutes away. Not bad at all. Lucky, lucky.
Wojo thought again of the seven-thousand-dollar watch. Good sign. So was the address on Ocean Avenue.
Even now, as he turned off Route 1 and passed the golf course that marked the edge of Elmswood’s oldest suburb, Wojo told him- self he was a good person. He didn’t think of himself as a thief. But he was. His rationalization was his daughter, of course, and that he was always a gentleman about it. When it came to picking marks, he only chose the snobs, the ones so caught up in their own self-importance, they couldn’t muster a simple hello or, God forbid, a thank you.
Manners. Decency. What the hell was wrong with the world these days?
More important, Wojo was smart about it. He wouldn’t run in and rob people blind. If he did, it wouldn’t take long for the police to figure out that all the victims had eaten dinner at the same restaurant. He had rules and he stuck to them. Trips like this were only once a month (twice during that month when his sister was going through her divorce). And instead of grabbing everything in sight, he only took one item: A ring. A bracelet. On his best night, a sapphire necklace.
When a single piece of jewelry goes missing, people don’t call the cops. They blame themselves and assume it’s lost.
Seven months in, with eight jobs done, Wojo still hadn’t been proven wrong.
"In one thousand feet........... make a right," the computerized female voice announced as he blew past the white painted-brick colonial where he’d grabbed that four-carat heirloom ring a few months back.
Four minutes left to live.
Pausing at a stop sign, Wojo glanced around at the black leather interior of the BMW. His stepdad was wrong. This car was nice. So was the neighborhood, though that wasn’t a surprise. With a menu that had a $145 tomahawk ribeye chop, Barron’s Steakhouse attracted the best around.
"Destination ahead . . . on the left," the female voice added.
Cul-de-sac. Naturally. The mainstay of every suburban eco- system.
Wojo shifted in his seat, feeling that tingle in his crotch. This wasn’t better than sex. And certainly wasn’t better than sex with Darla, the energy drink sales rep who he’d met in the elevator and did that thing with her tongue. But it was close.
Pulling into the driveway and squinting through the dark, Wojo took a good long look at the tasteful yellow ranch-style house—four bedrooms at least, maybe five. Nothing breathtaking, but that inlaid brick front path and the freshly planted flowers out front? Captain America was doing just fine.
As Wojo shut off the car, he waited a few seconds, double- checking that all the house lights were out. No one home.
Clipped to the sun visor was a small gray remote. Garage door opener. He pressed it with his thumb. If Wojo was really lucky . . .
The garage door yawned open, revealing storage boxes, bicycles, a spare freezer, and a workbench that looked like it hadn’t been touched in years. If Wojo had looked closer, he would’ve spotted the empty gun safe along the back wall.
Ducking into the garage, Wojo pounded the Door Close button on the right-hand wall, and suddenly, he couldn’t get the song "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler out of his head. Turn around, bright eyes!, he mentally sang as the garage door lowered, swallowing him whole.
Even in the dark, Wojo could see the keypad for the alarm. As always, he reached for his phone, which held an app that would help him unlock it. For years now, every alarm company had had to file their particular transmitter frequencies with the FCC, which made them publicly available. For real. Publicly available. Most door and window sensors operate at 315.0 MHz, so all you have to do is copy that frequency to jam it. But as Wojo got closer to the keypad (still singing in his head how forever was gonna start tonight), he saw that a bright green light was on. Alarm wasn’t even armed.
Lucky night for sure, Wojo thought, picturing his daughter Gabriella in skydiving pose, arms outstretched, the wind widening her smile so much, she was nothing but teeth. All that was left was . . .
Wojo gave the doorknob a twist. Locked. But not for long. From his pocket, he pulled out a key ring filled with bump keys, the same ones locksmiths used. It took two tries to find the right one, then . . .
The door swung open, and Wojo was hit with the whiff of a stale mop and bleach. Laundry room on his left. In his pocket, Wojo slid his hand around the small black stun gun he always carried on these trips, just in case someone jumped out of the dark.
Inside the house, everything was silent. No barking. No obvious pets. A good sign.
In two and a half minutes, the blood would be everywhere.
Right now, he was slow-walking through the family room, eyeing the cherry floors and the built-in bookcases that were filled with kids’ DVDs and far too many Tom Hanks movies. Captain America had a wife and teenage kids, by the looks of the photos on an end table.
When it came to décor, the family had spent money on the couch—a modern chocolate-brown leather sectional—but every- thing else—rugs, coffee table, shabby-chic slipcovered chairs—was like a Pottery Barn, West Elm, and Crate & Barrel bomb went off. All of it in its prime a decade ago, just like the BMW. Every life has a peak. Ten years ago was when Cap was really making money.
Along the far wall was a framed revolver—an antique buccaneer- style flintlock pistol from the 1700s, complete with a wide brass barrel like something from Pirates of the Caribbean. Worth at least three grand, Wojo knew, though he walked right past it. Something that big goes missing, the cops get called. Besides, he knew where the real rewards were.
Following the house’s main artery, Wojo made a left toward the master bedroom. He wasn’t walking gingerly anymore. Too excited. Down the hallway, he saw the way the bedroom opened to the right. Toward suburbia’s real prize. His and hers closets.
According to home security experts, during a break-in, the very first place that criminals go is the top drawer of a woman’s dresser. As a result, women are never supposed to hide their jewelry there. But most women did it anyway, not wanting to deal with the headache of moving their favorite items in and out of a safe.
A flush of adrenaline lifted Wojo’s chest. Yet as he stepped over the threshold and made a right toward the closets, he was surprised to hear . . .
A light in the room popped on. Wojo squinted, blinded.
"You really think we wouldn’t find out?" asked a man wearing a latex Oscar the Grouch mask. He was on the opposite side of the bed, which was drowning in throw pillows. In the man’s hand was a gun—an M1911 military pistol—aimed straight at Wojo’s face.
"This isn’t—" Wojo said. "I wasn’t—"
"You should know better! I know you know better!" Oscar the Grouch exploded, his voice muffled by the mask, which was deflated and misshapen, wobbly on his head. Even with his navy sweatshirt and baggy jeans, it was clear he was well built, though he had a natural impatience in his stance, ready to spring. His hands were bony and pale white.
Wojo backed up into the wall, his face burning with fear. A single thought filled his brain. He didn’t know the why or the how—Did they follow him?—but one thing was clear: This was no longer a robbery. It was a trap.
Two minutes to go.
"I-I’m a good person," Wojo insisted. "This wasn’t— My daughter—"
"Down! Now!" the Grouch shouted, his finger on the trigger.
Wojo dropped to his knees, keeping his head toward the floor. "I didn’t take anything. Just let me—"
Wojo lowered his head farther, practically curling into himself.
When bombs go off and horrors happen in the real world, people say that time seems to slow down. That’s not true. It actually seems to go faster, but it’s happening at such an accelerated rate, the human brain can barely register everything it’s experiencing. At this moment, that’s where Wojo was.
The Grouch was shouting now—"You know what you did!"— but Wojo didn’t hear it. As the Grouch came closer, Wojo noticed a noise, a deep . . .
The hammer on the pistol. The Grouch had pulled it back, and now, all Wojo could see was his daughter, crying, sobbing........................................................... her
birthday...... she’d forever link his death with her birthday.
Ninety seconds to go.
"Look at me!" the Grouch shouted.
Wojo refused, his brain catapulting back to his ex-wife, to their first apartment, to Gabriella being born, to standing outside the steak house and the burst of ego and anger that brought him to this r— Wait. In his pocket . . . the stun gun. He still had the . . .
The Grouch was close now, so close that Wojo could smell the latex of the mask could smell the way the man’s jeans reeked of
"Pick your head up!"
Wojo still didn’t pick his head up. He was curled tight, his hand snaking down to his own pocket. Seventy-two seconds.
"You do realize this is your doing?" the Grouch added, pressing the barrel into the crown of Wojo’s head. A plump vein swelled on the Grouch’s hand as his finger tightened on the trigger. "You understand that?" he asked, like he was waiting for an answer.
In one minute, Wojo would be dead. But he still had a minute.
"I asked you a ques—"
Wojo pulled the Taser from his pocket, squeezing the trigger so fast, he felt an electric snakebite in his own leg as he whipped out the weapon. The stun gun had two metal fangs at the end of it, which Wojo stabbed straight into the Grouch’s left thigh.
The Taser’s blue light crackled like a mini lightning storm.
"Guuh . . ." the Grouch shouted, his leg going limp, his whole body falling sideways, like a cleaved tree.
Forty seconds to—
Go, go, go, Wojo thought, scrambling to his feet. The stun gun would buy him a moment.
Wojo ran from the room and darted through the house, back toward the front door. As he ran, he was still squeezing the trigger, the blue electricity crackling as it lit his way.
In seconds, Wojo was outside, the summer air licking his face. Until that moment, he didn’t realize how hard he was sweating. His heart punched in his chest. Up the block, he spotted the red rear lights of a car leaving, though he barely registered it.
He looked around, panicked, lost, like he’d awoken in a strange hotel and couldn’t quite figure out where he was. There. The car he came in. The BMW!
Sprinting for the car, Wojo ripped open the door and slid inside. He pulled the keys from his pocket and threw the stun gun aside. But just as he went to start the car, from the back seat . . .
A thick forearm wrapped around Wojo’s neck. Behind him . . . in the back seat . . . someone was already in the car, waiting for him. Wojo caught a glimpse in the rearview. That buzzed blond hair . . .
"You think I’m blind!" Captain America roared, tightening his choke hold. "I forgot my jacket in the car, and when I came out— You think I wouldn’t see you leave!?"
"P-Please . . . you don’t understand . . ." Wojo pleaded, realizing that the car he saw leaving was a taxi. Cap was a man of action. He’d jumped in a cab to race back home.
"Please . . . Inside . . ." Wojo added, twisting wildly, fighting to get loose, clawing at his own neck. Cap’s grip was too strong. Wojo was thrashing now, his face a pale purple, tears squeezing out behind his eyes. He could picture Oscar the Grouch and his misshapen mask. By now, the Taser would be wearing off. He’d be here soon.
"You steal my car . . ." Cap roared. Ten seconds.
". . . and break into my house!?"
"If we don’t— Please......... He’s—" Wojo begged. "Ifwedon’tgo,he’ll
kill us...... !"
"He?" Captain America asked. "Who’s he?" Tink. Tink.
Outside the driver’s window, a knuckle tapped against the glass. In perfect sync, both Wojo and Captain America turned left, looking up at a saggy, askew Oscar the Grouch mask. The man in the mask raised his gun.
Two quick shots. Then a third when he saw who else was in the back seat.
Anthony Wojowicz wilted sideways. A small burn mark from the bullet appeared in his temple and sent a spray of blood across the passenger seat. Dead at thirty-two years old.
Behind him, Captain America—an Army veteran named Archie Mint—slumped forward, a matching burn mark on his cheek.
Wojo’s luck had finally run out. But when it came to Archie Mint, well even in death, Mint still had a bit of luck coming.
WONDERLY SQUARE, PENNSYLVANIA
Four hours. He spent four hours working on her body. "Ziggy, let her be. She looks good."
"Good?" Jim Zigarowski asked, standing over the coffin, makeup brush in his hand. "Not great?"
"Let me rephrase. Great. Beautiful. Michelangelo would say you’re Michelangelo," said Puerto Rican Andy. Zig never liked the name, but Andy had been calling himself that since fourth grade, when there were three Andys in his class. Today, at three hundred pounds, Puerto Rican Andy lumbered through the viewing room at Calta’s Funeral Home, carrying a metal easel with a bushel of bright daisies that he placed at the foot of the coffin. "She hasn’t looked this good since Reagan was President."
"Don’t listen to him, ma’am," Zig whispered, leaning down to- ward the dead elderly woman with high cheekbones and pale pink lipstick. Fallen #2,546. Mrs. Leslie Paoli, ninety-three years old. Dead from stomach cancer and whatever else you catch when you spend your last decade in a nursing home. "You look even more beautiful now, Mrs. Paoli."
Zig meant it. For four hours, he’d polished her nails, cleaned her dentures, used putty and makeup to cover the bruises on her neck and arms from all the machines at the hospital, and washed and re- styled her hair, which probably hadn’t been shampooed in months. He even put her in the same dress—gold sequins with a crystal butterfly pin at the shoulder—that she was wearing in the photo next to her b—
"Bossman, they’re here!" Puerto Rican Andy called out, sweat running down his shaved head, skating toward his neck tattoo—a phoenix—that poked out from the collar of his white dress shirt. Andy was big and looked like a convict, but as his parole officer had told Zig, the phoenix referred to Dumbledore, Puerto Rican Andy being the biggest Harry Potter fan in rural Pennsylvania. Ravenclaw, Andy would say to anyone who asked.
"Bossman, y’hear what I—?"
"One more sec," Zig said, adding some final blush to Mrs. Paoli’s cheeks.
As always, the hardest part was getting the coloring just right. People think corpses are gray, but by the time they arrive at a funeral home, they’re white. "Like geishas," Zig’s mentor used to say. Once your heart stops and your body is on its back for a few hours, gravity sets in, blanching your face, chest, and legs—that is, unless an artful mortician gives you back your color.
"I told you, ma’am, we’ll take care of you," Zig whispered, moving a stray silver hair from her forehead and flashing that charming smile that had gotten every mah-jongg group gossiping back when he first moved to the small town of Wonderly Square. Zig’s silver- and-black hair was shorter now, for summer. Across his jaw was the hairline scar that he’d used to his advantage during those wild years after his divorce.
For most of his adult life, Zig had been a mortician at Dover Air Force Base, home of the mortuary for the U.S. government’s most high-profile and top secret cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were sent to Dover. So were the hostages who were killed in Beirut, the victims who were shot at Fort Hood, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who’d fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware, of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, was America’s most secretive funeral home.
Two years earlier, Zig had left it all behind. There was too much pain—too many old scars torn open from spending every day with dead young soldiers. Within a month, he’d found the job here at Calta’s Funeral Home, in a building that, back in the seventies, had been a Dairy Queen, complete with a red mansard roof that was now painted beige. Zig took it as a sign, hoping things could be a bit more nice and easy. But really, when was anything in life nice and easy?
"I’m looking for Jim Zigarowski," a man in his late thirties called out, stepping into the viewing room, then taking a half step back once he spotted the coffin. He wore a shiny blue suit, no tie, like he was going to a beachfront wedding.
"You must be Mr. DeSanctis," Zig said as the man took off his Mercedes baseball cap, which he’d clearly gotten from the dealership. "Is he actually wearing a Mercedes hat?" Puerto Rican Andy whispered. "Ten points from Slytherin."
"Is that—? Is she—?" DeSanctis motioned to the coffin. "Your mother is—"
"Mother-in-law. She’s— Mother-in-law," DeSanctis insisted.
"My apologies," Zig said, putting on his funeral home voice, which made him sound like an NPR host. "As you’ll see, we got her all cleaned up, so if you want to take a look—"
"Y’mean at the body? No. No no no." DeSanctis laughed nervously. "We’d rather remember her how she lived, not how she died," he explained, glancing around at the chairs, the flowers, even at the framed vintage metal sign from the funeral home’s original 1908 location. Offering Understanding, it read in antique lettering. He glanced around at everything, really, except Mrs. Paoli. "Anyway, if you wouldn’t mind . . . y’know . . . closing it ?" he said, pointing with his fancy baseball cap toward the coffin. "Of course," Zig replied with a polite grin.
DeSanctis stood there an extra few seconds. "Gotta be a horrible way to go, right? Like I told my own kids, don’t ever put me in a nursing home. Last thing I want is to spend my final years collecting dust."
Zig nodded, still faking a grin. But as he looked around the ancient funeral home, Zig was surprised by how much the words stung. Collecting dust. Was that all he was doing these days?
DeSanctis headed out to his family, as Zig felt a buzz in his pocket. His phone vibrating. To his surprise, caller ID showed a familiar number.
302-677 prefix: Dover Air Force Base. The life he’d left behind.
"Ziggy, it’s Wil! What’s cooking, good looking?" Wil-with-one-L announced.
Enthusiasm was always Wil’s major. But Zig and Wil weren’t buddies. Or even acquaintances. In the two years since Zig left Dover, Wil had called him a grand total of zero times. Still, Zig was so surprised by the call, he didn’t give it much thought. That was his first mistake.
"How’s private practice?" Wil asked.
"Wonderful. Couldn’t be better," Zig said, eyeing Mrs. Paoli, frozen in her coffin.
"Listen, sorry to bother you, but we got a case that just came through—a lieutenant colonel, one of our own," Wil explained, meaning it was someone who worked at Dover. "The point being, the funeral’s near you—just a few towns over—and we want the body treated perfectly, so . . ." He put on his best Godfather voice. "You up for letting us pull you back in?"
"Wow. Al Pacino impression. Topical. Wanna hear my Mr. T?" "I’m serious, Ziggy. We could use the help. It’s a good case. Funeral’s tomorrow. You up for this or not?"
Zig stared at the coffin, at Mrs. Paoli and the crystal butterfly on her dress. Outside, down the hallway, DeSanctis was grabbing a handful of mints from the welcome bowl and stuffing them in his pocket.
"Yeah. I’m in," Zig said, thinking maybe this was just what he needed.
The following morning, Zig left his house at 5:00 a.m., his camouflage backpack stocked with his mortician kit: baggies, modeling clay, makeup, and all his tools, including scalpels, forceps, draining tubes, and even a sternal saw, just in case.
Running down the front steps, he felt good to be in the mix . . . to be helping a family that truly needed his expertise. Zig was a sculptor. With bullet wounds to the face, you need to be prepared for the worst. And he was.
But the one thing Zig wasn’t prepared for and didn’t see was the man with the buzzed hair and pointy face who was parked diagonally across the street.
From his own car, the man watched Zig leave his house and head down the front steps, a travel mug of coffee in his hands.
If Zig was smart or even a bit suspicious, he would’ve checked over his own shoulder. But the only ones who do that, the man thought to himself, are those who know they’re in trouble.