People called them the Smokers, and Keith had heard a variety of explanations for this.

Certainly they were no slouch when it came to ganging up on others to steal anything up to and including lunch money–quite capable of “smoking” someone in a pitched battle.

And there was no doubt that cigarettes were their stock and trade, sold or bartered to others, inhaled furtively when adults were looking and openly when they weren’t.

But the real reason–Keith suspected–could be seen when they drove up. And smelled. And heard.

The Smokers tooled around in a beat-up Detroit aircraft carrier from the 70’s, driven by the only one of them old enough for a learner’s permit; as it pulled up to the curb, it belched forth an oily and odoriferous cloud the likes of which was seldom encountered outside of wartime.

“Hey Anders!” one of them called. “Ain’t it a little late to be going to school?” Nevermind that Deerton High was in the opposite direction; the remark elicted raspy chuckles from the rattletrap’s interior.

Mack was the kind of person who always walked around in a cloud of cigar smoke–as if the other business he was involved in wasn’t enough, he loved to clench death-sticks between those fat lips of his and give people cancer. I sometimes wondered if he even really smoked at all, or if he just pulled out a cigar, as big around as his fingers and just as brown and weathered, to impress people. A cigar says power, money, influence. A cigar says ‘I’m the kind of guy you don’t screw with–you default on one of my loans, I break your kneecaps and shove this stogie in your crotch.’

None of that would bother me, of course, if I hadn’t been trying to kick the habit myself. Cigars and cigarettes aren’t the same, as any smoke snob will tell you, but that aroma was enough to make me reach for my empty breast pocket, where the cowboy-killers used to be. I rolled a stick of gum up and stuck it where a cig should have gone.

Mack laughed, dredging up a gallon of phlegm from deep inside his stout frame. “Ain’t you gonna light up?” he said. “Them Bubble Yum brand cigs, they sure pack a wallop.”

I laughed too–with Mack, you laughed when he did, whether what he said was funny or not.

“So, anyway, the old prick drops dead. Literally. Right there in his goddamn workshop. His kid found him there the next morning, at the bench, lookin’ like he was asleep.”

“Heart attack?” I asked, trying to sound interested, even though I didn’t know Karol Kazdemu from Joan of Arc. It’s always a tragedy when somebody dies–in the abstract. But if you don’t know ‘em, the most people can muster is a vague sorry feeling before they forget all about it. It doesn’t pay to dwell too much on death anyway.

“Stroke.” Mack gestured at Sunday’s Times, crumpled on his coffee table. “The obituary was very specific–I bet that was his doing.”

“Terrible tragedy,” I replied. “What’s it got to do with us?”

Mack took a fresh drag from his cigar and exhaled, filling the room anew with that sweet, dusky smell. My mouth tightened; God, I wanted a cigarette.

“For most people, yeah, stroke’s a terrible tragedy all right. But not Karol. For him, a stroke means he weaseled his way out of payin’ me back.”