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Runner-up 3

U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesLes PaulNapster Inc.

"Dodger Stadium?" the gray-haired cabbie said. "The freeways are gonna be packed."

"Use Sunset," Palmieri said. "It'll take us straight down."

Palmieri had never heard of a cabbie complain about taking the scenic route on the Strip.

It was time to dial his friends near Frogtown.

"Remember Plan D-1?" Palmieri cooed.

"Adee-doo," the voice at the other end replied. "It will be done."

Even Palmieri didn't remember all the details, but these guys did. It had something to do with supplanting some of the security detail at Dodger Stadium.

Palmieri looked up just in time to see the Rainbow. He'd go there to see the hair-metal bands, walk out with an assortment of wallets, and then wait for drunken patrons he could mug. A few blocks later, he pounded the door. Damn! What had happened to Tower Records? Long before Napster, Tower had the greatest selection of free music in the world (free for him, at any rate).

Now he was passing Guitar Row. He'd gone into one of those places with a purloined Les Paul goldtop. They took it -- filed-off serial number and all. And there was the place where Famous Amos used to sell his cookies. Palmieri had liked them so much, he actually paid for them.

Hollywood High? Ugh. Despite his father's firm entreaties, the HHS drama teacher had refused to cast him in "Cabaret." The guy who got the part was now some big Hollywood director. Palmieri made a mental note to have him kneecapped.

As he passed the Cinerama Dome, Palmieri thought about the time he'd gone to the premiere of Charlie's first movie, back when it was a single-screen, tickets were cheap and empty seats were plentiful.

"And what's this?" the cabbie scoffed. "Amoeba Records? What kinda name is that?"

"Tell me about it," Palmieri said. "My dad used to go over to Wallich's Music City right over there on Vine, grab a record, go into a listening room and make out with a cheerleader."

"Yeah, and what do you get today?" the driver said. "Thirty seconds on iTunes? That sucks."

"Tell me about it."

The cellphone rang. Palmieri looked at the display and smiled as he realized how much his world had changed.

The person at the other end was speaking in cryptic sotto voce. Palmieri was hardly surprised.

"I hear you're meeting at Dodger Stadium with Carmen. . . . "

Palmieri gave a master-of-the-universe chuckle.

"Word gets around, doesn't it?" he said.

"I'll be there," the voice said.

"That's too perfect for words," Palmieri replied as the cab approached the 101 overpass. "She ain't gonna know what hit her."

"Yeah," the voice sighed.

"Don't worry," Palmieri said, sweeping his hand across the back seat in a magnanimous gesture. "You're making the right decision. You were always my favorite little project. Falco and Bonner, they never knew about you. You're like my secret weapon. Never had to use you, of course, but you're sure gonna come in handy now."

Palmieri tilted back his head and cackled.

"You bastard," the voice hissed.

"It'll just be our own little secret, OK?" Palmieri said. "It will always be our own little secret. This is the best thing for you, and your family, Steve. Do you still call yourself S-Lo? I like that name. When this is all over, S-Lo, I'll write a big fat check for your kid's school."

He roared with laughter again.

"Be seein' ya!" He punched the red button.

"Wasn't it a Dodger who said nice guys finish last?" Palmieri said, slapping the cabbie on the shoulder. "You gotta love it!"

Thair Peterson "is a third-generation writer who writes 'reliable' prose for a reliable paycheck but dreams of fiction bookstore displays and readings before an adoring audience."

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