Harps On The Willows

The purple sweep of dusk melted slowly down the windshield until the universe beyond his headlights was three hundred sixty degrees of inky nothingness. Tired factory towns bubbled up and disappeared between mile markers, some of which he’d been to before. Others he’d never heard of, but in the dark they didn’t look much different. He didn’t figure they were.
+++++The names changed, but they were all the same. A post office, a speed trap, and a drug problem. Maybe a Dairy Queen. The one he finally stopped in this time had a population of just over eight thousand, which made it a little bigger than most of the places he’d done this. But you could tell Olsen he’d made a wrong turn and rolled into Pekin or Milan or New Salisbury, and he’d probably believe you.
+++++Even the house looked identical to a dozen he’d worked in before. A hulking old Victorian turned into a sagging flophouse, rotting from the inside out. There was something about nineteenth century regal architecture that made poor people want to murder each other. Maybe it felt classier than doing a guy in a trailer park.
+++++The kid was a lot different than what he was expecting, though. He was younger than most of these guys, with long blond hair and a pared beard. He also smiled when they shook hands, which was strange. Olsen couldn’t remember the last time somebody’d been happy to see him.
+++++“Stillabower,” the kid said. “And you’re Olsen?”
+++++“Unfortunately.”
+++++“Thanks for coming down. Are you ready?”
+++++“If you are,” Olsen said. He kicked a leg out to pop his knee. His sixty year old joints didn’t suffer these bullshit car rides as willingly as they used to.
+++++The kid walked him back behind the house, then about ten feet in from the mouth of the alley. They ducked under the tape and paced over to where the body’d been, the whole thing lit up by a streetlamp overhead like somebody was shining a spotlight on the crime scene.
+++++The alley was unpaved, a grassy little path tracked by the occasional traffic of whatever pygmy kind of car you could squeeze through such a tiny channel. It was heavily decorated with rotting cigarette butts and broken glass, with the occasional gas station wine bottle and ripped up garbage bag tossed in for variety’s sake. Olsen figured maybe two or three hundred people had their DNA swimming around within a dozen feet of his scene. Nothing they found back here would do them much good.
+++++Stillabower clicked on a flashlight and fixed the beam on a small, chocolatey colored spot on the ground. “That’s where she was,” he said.
+++++“That all the blood?”
+++++“Yeah,” the kid said. “Some of it soaked into the ground. Wasn’t much to begin with, though. That’s probably cause she was moved, right? I mean, her clothes were soaked, and the M.E. said she got stabbed a bunch of times. I figure she got killed somewhere else, and then they just dumped her here afterward.”
+++++Olsen nodded. “You’re probably right,” he said. “Let me see that flashlight for a second.” Stillabower handed him the light, and he ran the beam over the entirety of the taped off area. His eyes followed the light shaft, looking for anything that might be something other than garbage. “You all find anything else out here? A weapon or a wallet? Something else with blood on it?”
+++++“No, sir.”
+++++“I didn’t figure,” Olsen said. He sighed. “Well, let’s have a look at her, then.”

***

Olsen had seen a lot of dead people. He did his twenty in Indianapolis, the last eight years in homicide during the back end of the crack epidemic. Were he a smart man, he would’ve taken his pension at that point, fucked off down to Florida, and never smelled formaldehyde again for the rest of his life.
+++++But he tried to game the system. He ran the numbers and realized if he wore a badge for another couple decades, he’d have a lot more cash to spend and still enough ticks left on the clock to spend it. And he didn’t have to be a murder cop to do it. Financially speaking, he could do almost as well over the next twenty years papering double-parked pickup trucks at 1A high school football games down in Greene County or some such quaint little no-name sliver of Americana. So that’s what he did.
+++++And then some dickhead came up with methamphetamine.
+++++When crystal hit southern Indiana, it wasn’t fucking around. Some of these places were populated entirely by people who hadn’t been able to summon the energy to commit so much as a simple assault since the mid-eighties. But now they were seeing multiple homicides a year, and nobody south of I70 and north of Louisville had much of any experience investigating murders. Nobody, of course, except for Olsen.
+++++So his boss applied for some grant, and before he knew enough to lodge a complaint, the state was paying the department to lend Olsen out to any underserved speedbump of a municipality between French Lick and Vanderburgh County that could come up with a dead body. The state, then, didn’t have to waste its time running the investigations for these towns full of huddled masses who didn’t vote or pay taxes. And the towns themselves didn’t have to spend what little government funding they got paying a full time detective. It was a nice situation that worked out well for everybody who mattered. And as for Olsen, well, he couldn’t tell as anybody really gave much of a shit what he thought about it.
+++++So here we was. Ten o’clock at night, and he was in the basement of some hundred bed hospital, looking at a girl who, at first glance, appeared to have gotten her card pulled before she’d been on the planet a full quarter century. And Olsen figured it was almost certainly for some bullshit reason, too. She probably walked up on a ten dollar drug deal by accident or told some suckmouthtweaker where he could stick his brown-toothed offer to make her the queen of his smurf dope empire.
+++++The medical examiner lowered the paper shroud slowly, like he was trying to pull the covers off a sleeping child without waking her. Olsen could see now that she’d been stabbed at least a dozen times. He flicked his eyes up at Stillabower, whose own eyes were wide with something like shock or horror.
+++++“If you’re gonna puke,” Olsen said, “do it outside. And don’t ask me to hold your pretty hair back for you while you do it, you Allman Brother-looking mother fucker.” It came out harsher than he meant it to, so he smiled to show the kid he was just trying to keep it as light as possible. But Stillabower’s gaze was locked on the girl.
+++++“Alright, Gentlemen,” the M.E. said. “It’s getting late. What say we get to it?” He looked at Olsen, who nodded, then back down at his work. “Okay. Best I can tell, she’s right about twenty, twenty-one. Cause of death, as you might’ve guessed, was exsanguination, probably about eight hours or so before anyone noticed.
+++++“She was moved not too long after death, though, right?” Olsen said, remembering the bloodstain in the alley.
+++++“The lividity would suggest that, yes. Now, if you look right at each major wound, here, you can see most of them are pretty abraded. And there are irregularities at the margins.”
+++++“So it was a dull instrument,” Olsen said.
+++++“Correct.” The M.E. flexed an eyebrow and cocked his chin without looking up. He was surprised at Olsen’s knowledge. “It was long, though. She has a couple scored vertebrae. Poor kid just about got run completely through with something.”
+++++Olsen looked up to measure Stillabower’s reaction to the details. The kid winced then recomposed himself when he noticed Olsen studying him. He tucked some hair behind his ear and stared blankly at the body.
+++++“And what’s going on down here?” Olsen said, gesturing toward the girl’s hands. The tops of her wrists were patterned with couplets of small dents every half inch or so, the bruising like green and purple bracelets. “She tied up with something?”
+++++“Interestingly enough, she was bound, hands and feet, with roller chain.”
+++++“Like from a chainsaw?” Stillabower said.
+++++“Kind of. It looked like it was maybe meant for a bicycle. Something like that.”
+++++“Interesting choice,” Olsen said. He frowned, sweeping his gaze over the grievous amount of harm done to this girl. He stopped when a small marking caught his eye. The number 137 was printed neatly on the inside of her left forearm. “That a tattoo?” he said, nodding toward the inscription.
+++++“Magic marker,” the M.E. said.
+++++“One thirty-seven,” Olsen said out loud, then he turned to Stillabower. “One three seven. That mean anything to you, kid?”
+++++Stillabower shrugged. “Can’t say as it does,” he said. “Not right off the top of my head, anyway. Maybe Psalm 137. It’s a popular one.”
+++++Olsen jacked an eyebrow toward the ceiling. “Which one’s that?”
+++++“It’s where the Jews put their harps on the willow trees and cried cause of what happened to Jerusalem.”
+++++Olsen snorted at the relevance. Crying seemed like an appropriate response to this scene. “And what happened to Jerusalem?” he said.
+++++“I guess it got all kinds of fucked up by the Babalonians.”
+++++Olsen had to hand it to these southern Indiana cops he’d been hanging out with for the past few years. They sure knew the shit out of the Good Book. Especially the first half of it, which was appropriate, because a lot of the crime they were dealing with down here was some real Old Testament kind of shit. But the kid had missed the obvious answer, here.
“How about the old house you had me meet you at,” he said, “the one twenty feet in front of where we found this girl?”
+++++“Yeah?” Stillabower said, not yet following.
+++++“The address. It’s 13 East Thompson Street, right?”
+++++The kid nodded.
+++++“And I’m assuming it’s a multi-unit rental at this point, right? Split up into apartments or something?”
+++++“Believe so. Not sure, though.”
+++++“I’m willing to venture a guess that if we walk into that house, we’ll see that it’s been divided into a bunch of little efficiencies or sleeping rooms. And I’d sure as shit bet one of those is number seven.”
+++++The revelation hit, and Stillabower chucked his chin toward the ceiling. “13 East Thompson, Unit 7,” he said. “One three seven.”

***

Up on the porch, there were two aluminium surface-mount mailboxes, with four vertical doors apiece. Olsen tapped two fingers on one of them and looked at Stillabower. “Eight units,” he said.
+++++A few feet away, he could see through the storm door past a large foyer and wide staircase into a kitchen area against the back wall, where a woman was standing at the sink, putting water in a teakettle. Olsen looked at his watch. It was almost midnight, but there was somebody awake, so what the hell. He rapped a knuckle on the glass, and held up his shield. The woman frowned, waving him in.
+++++The litter box smell took Olsen’s breath as soon as he opened the door. “Christ,” he said, trying to waft it away with an open palm. “The fuck is that?”
+++++“Guy upstairs has cats, I think.”
+++++“You think,” Olsen said. “What, you never seen them?”
+++++“Not as I can remember,” she said. “You can sure smell the pee in the floorboards, though, huh.”
+++++“How do you stand it?” Stillabower said, wiping at his face like he could rub the smell out.
+++++“Don’t got much of a choice,” she said. “I can’t afford to move. It’s not always this bad, though. And it doesn’t smell in my room, long as I keep the door shut.”
+++++“But you’ve never actually seen any cats before?” Olsen said. He cut his eyes to Stillabower to see if the bulb had lit up for him yet. But the kid was looking aimlessly around the room. He didn’t seem to be thinking about how, depending on what you’re using, meth can smell just like cat piss while it cooks.
+++++“No sir, officer,” she said.
+++++Olsen nodded. “So which one of these rooms is yours?”
+++++“Number one,” she said. She dipped her chin to point her head across the room from the staircase to a door with a brass 1 tacked to it. There were three other doors, two of which were numbered. Olsen figured the other one must be the bathroom.
+++++“So there’s three of you down here,” Olsen said, “and you share the bathroom and kitchen. That right?”
+++++She nodded.
+++++“I count eight mailboxes out there,” he said. “Where’s the other five rooms?”
+++++“There’s three over there,” she said, chucking her head back toward the kitchen area. “There’s another kitchenette on the other side of that wall. The whole place looks pretty much just like it does over here, without the stairs.”
+++++“That’s six,” Olsen said. “So there’s two rooms up top? Seven and eight?”
+++++“I think so,” she said, “and I think they got their own little kitchen area and bathroom, too. Never been up there, though. Smells bad enough down here.”
+++++“The guy you think has the cats. Which room is he in?”
+++++“I don’t know,” she said. “I’d assume seven.”
+++++Olsen looked at Stillabower, a smile cutting across the kid’s face. He knew they were getting close. “Why you say that?”
+++++“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, I’ve never seen anybody else up there. I don’t know if eight is even rented out. Seven is right above me, though, so I can hear him banging around at weird times and people knocking on his door at like four in the morning.”
+++++“What’s he like? Friendly?”
+++++“No, he doesn’t say much or smile or anything. He actually seems a little off. He’ll be wearing the same clothes for like four or five days, and you can never tell when he’s gonna be up or when he’ll have people coming over.”
+++++Olsen screwed his mouth into a pucker, thinking, This is the guy. “He home right now?”
+++++“I don’t think so,” she said. “I haven’t heard him for awhile. You see a shitty yellow Neon out there on the street? Like one of the ones everybody was driving in like the late nineties?”
+++++Olsen couldn’t remember one. He looked at Stillabower, who was shaking his head. “I don’t think so.”
+++++“Pretty sure that’s what he drives,” she said. “Wish I could tell you when he’d be back, but it’s hard to tell.”
+++++“No problem,” Olsen said, forcing his face to smile for the first time since he’d gotten into town. “You’ve been a big help. Although, can I ask you one more favor?”
+++++“Shoot,” she said.
+++++“Could I get your landlord’s phone number?”
+++++“I got it in here.” She pulled out an old flip phone, opened it, and started scrolling through her contact list. “You just wanna call him from my phone?”
+++++“That’d be great,” Olsen said, his smile a little more genuine now.
+++++She handed him the phone. The screen had seven digits and the name Larry on it. “Just press Send,” she said.
+++++“Alright,” he said, then turned to Stillabower. “You wanna go upstairs and knock? You know, just in case he’s actually here.” Stillabower nodded and headed upstairs, as Olsen started the phone to ringing and put it to his ear. He held up a finger to let the woman know he wouldn’t be long with her phone.
+++++“Yeah,” a gruff voice said on the other end before clearing his throat. The call had pulled the man from sleep.
+++++“Hello, Larry. This is Detective Olsen. I’m helping the local police with the case, you know, about the girl behind your building on Thompson.”
+++++“Yeah?”
+++++“We need to swear out a warrant on your tenant in unit seven. I’ll need his name, and I’ll also need you to come down here with a key.”
+++++“Seven?”
+++++“Yes sir, number seven.”
+++++“Hold on.”
+++++Olsen heard Larry mumbling with someone on the other end of the line, and then there was silence. He took the phone from his ear and looked at the screen to make sure he was still connected. The screen was dark, but he thought he heard some rustling and static.
+++++“Seven is Kevin Gunther,” Larry said, back on the line.
+++++“Gunther,” Olsen said, “Can you spell that? I have to get it right for the warrant, or his lawyer’ll shit all over it.”
+++++“You’re not gonna need a warrant,” Larry said. “Kid’s on parole.”
+++++“Parole? What was he inside for?”
+++++“Possession of methamphetamine.”

***

“That gonna stain my hardwood?” Larry said. He was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed. With his long neck and his big ears and sharp nose jutting out sharply from his pink, bald head, he looked like some kind of field rodent Olsen couldn’t place. A ferret, maybe, or a stoat.
+++++Olsen quit spraying his luminol and snarled at Larry just long enough to make sure the slumlord knew he could blow his questions right out his ass. Larry smiled and held his hands up in surrender. “Kidding,” he said.
+++++Olsenshook his head, frustrated. He wasn’t in the mood. He waved the blacklight slowly over the floor and walls in the last corner of the room. Nothing.
+++++There wasn’t a speck of blood in the entire room. The girl couldn’t have been killed here. Hell, it didn’t look like anybody’d had so much as a paper cut in the place. The only signs of any criminal activity whatsoever were a couple of warped and grimey old soda bottles that looked like they’d been used to shake and bake some crank in. At least they knew what the smell was.
+++++Olsen stood up and kicked out his legs to pop his knees. “Did our boy have access to any common spaces besides the kitchens and bathrooms?”
+++++“Just the yard and the laundry room,” Larry said. He pursed his lips, thinking. “That should be it.”
+++++“Let’s have a look at that laundry room,” Olsen said.
+++++Larry nodded. He was actually pretty pleasant for a guy who’d just been pulled out of bed to help the police figure out if a speed freak had killed a girl on his property.
+++++“You know,” Larry said, looking back at Olsen and Stillabower as he made his way down the stairs, “I really hope the kid didn’t do it. I know we just found out he cooks meth, but I kinda liked him up to this point. I mean, he at least paid his rent on time.”
+++++“Well,” Stillabower said, “he was paying you with dirty money.”
+++++“Sure spent like the regular kind,” Larry said, grinning at himself for being so playfully flippant with the police. He opened the door for the two cops then flicked his wrist and crooked a finger to direct them around to the side of the building.
+++++The laundry room was concrete, an obvious twentieth-century addition to the house to provide some utility at the expense of aesthetics. It was tiny, almost completely filled by a coin-op washer and dryer. Stepping inside, Olsen realized it’d be hard to even stand with another person in the room, much less murder them.
+++++There was a door outfitted with a padlocked hasp in the corner that only could’ve led downstairs, as there wasn’t enough of the building’s structure behind it on the ground level to house even a small storage room. Olsen pressed on the door, testing the integrity of the lock. “This go down to a cellar?” he said.
+++++“Fallout shelter,” Larry said. “First thing grandpa had done when he got the place.”
+++++“So the house has been in the family for a few generations,” Olsen said, making small talk while he started with the luminol. He didn’t expect to find anything in here, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to be thorough.
+++++“Yep. My grandfather paid the down payment with his GI Bill.”
+++++Olsen did the math in his head, trying to figure out how old Larry looked and what war that would’ve put his grandfather in. “Korea?”
+++++Larry shook his head. “First wave at Omaha Beach.”
+++++“Wow,” Olsen said. He figured Larry had a decent story or two about that, but he wanted to stay on task. “Has the place always been rentals?”
+++++“Just since I was a kid. Grandpa raised my daddy and his brothers here. Then me and my mom and dad lived here after grandpa died. Daddy was working over at Crider when it closed down, so he got laid off and couldn’t find anything else. He moved us to a smaller place and started renting this one out.”
+++++“Crider,” Olsen said. “That a factory?”
+++++“Yeah, just outside of town.”
+++++Olsen nodded before realizing he was drifting into meaningless banter again. “So you got anything in your fallout shelter?” he said. He was blacklighting behind the machines, just in case.
+++++“Not much since the Cold War ended. It’s more of a storage unit at this point.”
+++++“You keep it locked?”
+++++“Yeah, none of the tenants can get down there.”
+++++Olsen switched off the blacklight. He looked up at Stillabower, shaking his head.
+++++“Shit,” Stillabower said. “Where do we go from here?”
+++++“Back to square one.”

***

Stillabower had one hand on the roof of Olsen’s car and one on the top of his hip, arm akimbo. He was bent at the waist, talking through the driver’s side window. Every few seconds he would detach his tired gaze from Olsen and look down the street, as if the answers were out there somewhere, driving toward them.
+++++Olsen could see the frustration swimming behind the kid’s eyes. “Hey,” he said, “we got a lot done tonight. More than you ever get done on day one.”
+++++“I just thought we had it.”
+++++“I know,” Olsen said. “We’re close, though. You just gotta let it go for the night. You got somebody at home?”
+++++“Girlfriend.”
+++++“You’d be surprised how much a few hours with one of them’ll improve your eye for detail.”
+++++Stillabower forced a smile and stood up straight, slapping the car roof. He wasn’t buying what Olsen was saying. Patience was clearly a virtue he, like most people Olsen knew, didn’t come by honestly. He’d have to pick it up somewhere along the line, though, if he wanted to last in the cop game.
+++++“Shame about the house,” the kid said, looking across the street at the old Victorian, “having to rent it out and everything. I bet it was pretty nice way back when.”
+++++“You ain’t kidding,” Olsen said, happy the kid was finally on another train of thought. “Place is a fucking mansion.”
+++++“That’s just kinda how things went went Crider closed down. They shipped like six hundred jobs overseas or down to Mexico or whatever. Whole town went to shit.”
+++++“Yeah,” Olsen said, remembering Larry’s mention of this Crider thing. “What’d the place do?”
+++++“It was an automotive plant just outside of town. Half the county worked there. Both my dad’s brothers, and just about everybody they grew up with.”
+++++“Automotive. What kinda stuff they make?”
+++++“I think mostly motorcycle parts, actually. Least that’s what Uncle Jack did.”
+++++“Motorcycle parts,” Olsen said. He closed his eyes and snorted out a laugh. He must be slipping if it was taking him this long to catch on to the obvious. “Like roller chains?”

***

The fallout shelter seemed to function, just as Larry had said, as a sort of underground storage unit. The shelves were stocked with paint cans, some hose and shovels, and various newish-looking tools Larry probably used to do maintenance work on the place.
+++++There were still some signs of Cold War fear scattered around, though. The odd can of beans, a few sleeping bags, and some old first aid supplies. And, of course, there was the bayonet from Larry’s grandfather’s M1. Once he knew he was caught, Larry didn’t even try to deny using the sixteen inch blade to kill the girl.
+++++“Why the chain?” Stillabower said. “Seems like an awkward thing to try to tie somebody up with.”
+++++Larry shrugged. “Didn’t have much of a choice. She figured out pretty quick what was going on and tried to get out. I just saw it on the shelf, there, and got her tied up so she’d quit kicking around so much. I don’t even know what it was doing down there. Just something Daddy brought home from work for some reason, I guess.”
+++++Stillabower had a palm flat against the wall. He was hovering intimidatingly over Larry, who was cuffed and seated on the bottom step of the stairs that fed into the shelter. Olsen could tell the kid was mad, like he’d taken Larry’s crimes personally.
+++++“Let’s take it from the top,” Olsen said. He was trying to keep things ordered and methodical, showing Stillabower the job required a shutting off of the emotions the kid was letting seep out. “One more time, so we know we got everything straight.”
+++++Larry went back through how he picked the girl up at a truck stop out on the highway, how he’d been heading inside to pay for his gas and saw her sitting on the curb, crying. She couldn’t do the lot lizard thing anymore, but she couldn’t go back home, either. That’s what she told Larry, anyway.
+++++So he offered her a bed, temporarily of course, in his old Victorian. She seemed grateful enough, but when they were in the car on the way to 13 East Thompson Street, she didn’t want to thank him. She flat out refused, and Larry couldn’t believe it. There she was, riding in his car, back to his place, where she was gonna stay for free, and she couldn’t show her appreciation by doing something she’d evidently been doing professionally for months. He figured if she wouldn’t even do that, she sure as shit wouldn’t be into the plans he had for when they got up to Unit 8. Probably not even if he promised to be gentle.
+++++“So instead of heading upstairs, you came down here,” Stillabower said, looking at the freshly mopped and bleached concrete around him. “Then one thing led to another, and next thing you know, you’re carrying the girl out to the alley at three in the morning”
+++++Larry nodded, matter of factly. He didn’t seem to be proud of what he’d done, but he didn’t act ashamed, either. He just did what he did, and that was that.
+++++“You know,” Stillabower said, “nobody found her until almost noon. Couple kids cutting school were riding their bikes past the alley and saw her.”
+++++“Okay,” Larry said. He looked up at Stillabower, unsure of why the kid was telling him this.
+++++“She was just laying out there. You just left her there.” Stillabower was looking for something in Larry’s eyes that just wasn’t there. The man was blank, empty, and the kid couldn’t understand it.
+++++Olsen remembered that confusion from his early years in this line of work. He remembered hating the people that did these things and wanting them to understand what they’d done, wanting them to be capable of doing the spiritual math and understand what they’d cost their victims and the world at large. It was a hopeless yearning that did you no good, but you couldn’t explain that to a kid like Stillabower. It’d be something he’d have to learn own his own, and it’d take him a long time to learn it. Until then, he’d spend a lot of time angry and confused and hating these people he dealt with every day. Then he’d go home, and he’d hang up his gun like a harp on a willow tree. And he’d cry.

Fire In The Hole

No part of the killer Billy Joe Cantrell’s real name was ever on the mail box on the county road up the hill from his family’s shack. After the box rotted off its post and dropped into the ditch, the family left it where it fell, perhaps to finish off some lingering lie about who might be where. Mail was to ignore for a clan that had no truck with government, and did all its business in cash.
+++++Back in those days that meant selling dope they raised a mile south of their house in sunny gaps in the forest surrounded by ten-foot thick sprawls of jumbo-thorn blackberry vines. They were not above stealing anything they could get away with, and none frowned on whoring to make ends meet.
+++++Out behind their shack, beside the single seat in the outhouse, a pile of booklets of real estate ads and giveaway newspapers teetered in the corner. The sisters swiped replacement wiping paper from racks on the sidewalk in town.
+++++The drone of flies grew so loud in the summer that near the outhouse the gurgling creek further back transformed into a silent movie. Such was the stench that most folks wouldn’t pass through the door but the family paid that no mind. If it wasn’t freezing cold and raining too and sometimes when it was, a few of the Cantrell men were prone to use the surrounding woods or go behind the woodshed, but not because of the stink.
+++++None would admit it but those men were every one so claustrophobic that the guards over at County marveled that they could tolerate their jail time. Every one of them except Billy, that is. Something inside that man was broken or missing, like the part God stuck in so you can tell a man with human feelings from a low-down starving mongrel.
+++++Close to sunset, as was their custom, the menfolk of the Cantrell clan collected on the drooping front porch, where it was cooler, taking no notice of the weeds poking through the broken and missing planks. Little brother picked and sang old blues songs about cheating women and murder and religion, but he got the words wrong. Grandpa and Pa and the sons drank whiskey and shine and smoked pot. A river rat nibbled crumbs near the door, pausing to eye folks when they moved. A haggard scar-faced cat the boys named Hal, in honor of Hal Capone, lazed on the window sill, eyelids drooping. When the river rat strayed too far into the light, Hal rose and dropped smoothly to the floor and slipped into the shadows below the window toward the rat.
+++++This particular evening the sisters came to hang out on the porch because Billy was back after hiding out someplace secret for a while–no one knew exactly why–and the sisters hoped to find out what was going on and maybe partake of a bit of liquor or dope. They waited on the porch while Billy fooled around with his guns inside.
+++++Soft light flickered in the rusted kerosene lantern hung on an iron hook at the edge of the porch, laying yellow over the evening. When the night breeze pushed the lantern, dark images of the family swung gently to and fro on the wall like a shadow theater.
+++++From the road, two rowdies were approaching, with such alike slack-jawed grins they could have been one fool and his mirror.
+++++Pa figured they were after dope. They were strangers and the family was running low on supply, so Pa hollered to them to go away. They kept coming, but now with a trace of fear in their moves.
+++++“We’re looking for Billy,” one said.
+++++“He ain’t here.”
+++++“When’s he coming back?”
+++++“He run off to Hazard. Y’all git now. I’m done telling you with words.” He waved them away but they spat and stood ground for a few seconds to show they weren’t afraid then swiftly turned and scurried back toward the way they came.
+++++A little further up the hill one turned and shouted, “What about a girl?” He craned his head and peered hard at the porch. Hearing no answer, he said, “We got money.”
+++++Pa made a vague motion at the stranger and spoke to someone through the screen door. Ma took Slow Sally’s hand and led her up the hill. She haggled some then left Sally with the men. After Ma handed the money to Pa, he felt around in the pockets of her dress for quite some time to make sure he got it all.
+++++Billy stepped out the front door a few minutes later.
+++++“Two boys looking for you,” Pa said.
+++++“Do I care?”
+++++“Buyers, I reckon.”
+++++Billy shrugged and lit a cigarette and sat on the edge of the porch. He smoked for a while then turned toward the family. “Anybody seen Zeke?” The family all knew Billy was letting on like he’d kill Zeke Carter for shooting brother Will, but they also all knew Zeke was too dangerous to mess with.
+++++“Me, I’m glad to get shed of that damned Will,” said little brother, whose poverty of judgment was an object of wonder even on that slanted porch. The girls went mannequin.
+++++Pa swatted little brother hard on the back of his head. “I ought to whup your ass, you.”
+++++Grandma and Ma showed ugly faces at the boy.
+++++The sisters to the last one were terrified of Pa’s temper and Billy’s too, but one, who hadn’t liked what Will forced her to do under the cover of night, gave little brother a small smile of support. Then, for fear Billy might have caught it, she said, “He’s at his momma’s a lot, Zeke is.”
+++++Billy shook his head. “It’s got to be alone.”
+++++Truth was, even if none of the brothers had good sense, they knew better than to tangle with Zeke. Still, none told Billy he was on his own–they made excuses. One brother said, “I heard he moved to Knoxville,” but they all knew it for a lie.
+++++Billy stood and spat. “I’m fed up with the lot of you.” Not a soul among them imagined he meant to include Pa or Grandpa in that remark. “I’m wanting a drink.”
+++++No one spoke up, so Billy fetched his everyday guns and walked off with his snub-nosed .38 under his belt and his twelve-gauge shotgun in one hand. Grandpa yelled after him, “Boy, don’t you be forgetting the shooting match in the morning.” He raised his voice, “I know you hear me.”

***

Billy may have said he had a hankering for a drink or two but the drinks went on pouring themselves until he had tied one on something awful, staying up all night doing it, and the next morning had the worst hangover – even while he was still so drunk he could hardly walk.
+++++He expected no one to be at home because that was the day Grandpa insisted they all go to the shooting contest over by Pine Town. Billy still had his shotgun and pistol with him but not his rifle, so with that excuse, he said the hell with it and elected to sleep off the booze. As he crossed the yard his mother opened the screen door and spat, eyeing disapproval at his staggering.
+++++“Ma, why ain’t you at the match?”
+++++She spat again. “You damn fool. Where you been?”
+++++“I ain’t right, Ma. The whiskey . . .”
+++++“You know the rules.”
+++++“You okay?” he tried, a poor imitation like he cared.
+++++Billy stumbled on the steps to the porch and lost hold of his shotgun. As he grasped and slapped at it, frantically trying for a catch, it went off square center into the chest of his mother, tossing her backward, arms flung straight up as she hit the rough wood stretched full length and moved not at all.
+++++“Holy shit.”
+++++Her blood puddled outward like angel wings unfolding broken and purple.
+++++“No, Ma.” Billy reached out a hand as if to touch something then stood unmoving.
+++++Softly, “Ma?”
+++++A shiver rattled his body like a standing man in seizure and a swelling wave of recognition of his wretched nature twisted through him. But that selfsame nature could not identify guilt or responsibility and leaped to block out all feeling. Near motionless, he stared at his mother’s body for all of two minutes. Finally, he shrugged the way he did when the law accused him, and to his mother’s corpse said, “It were a accident.”
+++++He looked around out front and ducked inside to make sure the place was deserted. Pa’s gonna kill me, he thought. Following that, a notion more natural to Billy slid in: If the old man made a play for him, he’d lay Pa in his grave for sure.
+++++Returning to the porch, he eyed the body and rubbed his chin as the black, smothering ghost that lived inside him enfolded his mind. He was hardly aware of his own presence when he took hold of his mother’s ankles and dragged her with a thump to the dirt and around back to the outhouse.
+++++It took some squeezing and pushing and strain but he stuffed her through the hole and heard the slop splash of her hitting bottom. Her body twisted as it fell, so her face looked up out of the dark hole right at him, and her eyes stared straight through his brain all the way to hell.
+++++His hand moving of its own volition, he crossed himself, and it spooked him. I ain’t no Catholic. He laughed at himself and tossed aside the feeling as easily as he spit.
+++++He stood over her breathing heavily then tore open newspapers and ads, spread wide the pages, and dropped them carefully to block out the sight, layer upon layer, loosely to take up the most space, until nothing but paper could be seen, and that not well, it being dim down in there.
+++++“It weren’t my fault, Ma.”
+++++Back on the front porch he saw that most of her blood had drained through the cracks between the boards and down to the dirt below, but enough remained that he thought, They’ll damn quick see that.
+++++Fetching an old shirt and a bottle of liquor, he poured and rubbed until the blood on the porch looked like it might be some other kind of stain but told himself, Pa ain’t no fool and Grandpa will sure as shit know what that is.
+++++He found a bent bucket of decayed brown paint under the shack and smeared it over the stain and wiped up most of it so he could tell his Pa and Grandpa, “Somebody must have spilled something but it weren’t me.” Then he stumbled off into the woods to bury the painted, bloodied shirt then made his way home so he could pass out and sleep it off.
+++++He slept until the family came back from the shooting match arguing and barking over who done what.
+++++Now, Billy’s sister Stella smoked cigarettes and pot right in front of the whole family, but something got into her about cigars. Maybe it was something Ma said. Stella hid out in the woods to smoke them or, if the weather was bad or a bunch of people were around, she might sneak one in the outhouse. That’s what she did that afternoon while the menfolk collected out front to drink and get high and pontificate about the shooting match. She had it half smoked when she heard somebody. Someone who came so quick they rattled the door latch near as fast as she knew anyone was out there.
+++++“Hang on. I ain’t done.” She spread her legs and flicked embers off the end, took a last deep drag, and threw the lit cigar into the waste pit. She flapped both arms all around in big arcs to spread the smoke.
+++++“Hurry up, Stella; I got to go something awful.”
+++++“You always got to go right now.”
+++++“I ain’t fooling, I really got to go.”
+++++“I’m coming, dammit.”
+++++As she stepped out the door she fiddled with the top button on her jeans to make it look like she’d been in there doing it for real.
+++++Stella was in the kitchen arguing with two boys about Chevrolet suspension when the yelling started.
+++++“Fire! It’s on fire!”
+++++Everybody rushed out back and saw smoke pouring from the outhouse door. The boy doing all the yelling slapped at the butt of his pants and hopped around like a man on fire but anyone could see he weren’t more than singed a bit at the edges. Nothing worth such a ruckus.
+++++The old outhouse wood was dry anyway, and there being no rain for so long, the fire took hold of it almost quick as if someone threw gasoline on it, way ahead of what anyone could do with their two pails hauling water from the creek.
+++++After heaving a few useless arcs of water they all stood around and watched, some holding their noses. The blaze hurled up whorls of sparks that snapped and startled. Greasy curls of scalding smoke swept out to sting those too close. A few speculated on how it started, and argued and cussed for their theories. Others fired up fat joints in preparation for commencing their lies and stories.
+++++A boy from a farm in the next valley over rode up on his bicycle and said, “I seen smoke all the way at the road. What’s going on?”
+++++“What’s a matter with you, boy?” Billy said. “It’s a damn fire right there.”
+++++The boy lowered the kickstand on his bike and stood next to Grandpa to enjoy the blaze. After a couple of minutes he laughed and said, “I heard of shitting fire but this sure beats all.” Grandpa knocked the boy down on the ground for that one.
+++++“Good for you,” Grandma said. “That kid aggravates me to no end.”
+++++Anyone up on the road could see it, the smoke rose so high. Plus all the commotion echoed sounds through the trees like there was a celebration back in there. There must have been twenty folks came of curiosity from somewhere. At first they could feel the heat of it from some distance but the outhouse burned fast as kindling so before long there was nothing but a ring of ashes with red coals winking through them circling the hole.
+++++Most soon tired of standing around mouthing over a fire and returned to the front of the house or left. A few curious young’uns drifted closer to kick at live coals or pick up a burning sliver of wood by the cool end or peek into the hole.
+++++Of a sudden, one of the teenage girls screamed and with her hands on her cheeks proceeded to stamp her feet real fast like a football player running in place. She screamed and screamed so all thought for a second she was burnt, but there was nothing on her. She looked fine but for the screaming and stomping.
+++++Finally, Pa went over next to her to see if she’d gone crazy and she pointed at the hole. So he leaned over and looked into the pit then jumped back with a shout like a big snake struck at him. At that most of the boys and the rougher girls all had to see, so they crowded in too.
+++++The fire had drawn tight her facial muscles, so there at the bottom of the pit, Ma, all black and crispy with no eyes, grinned up at them with the widest span of teeth she’d ever showed, her elbows strutting out wide, and knees too, like a devil dancing a jig.

***

After a while, all but kin wandered off and the Cantrells retired to the front porch to get out of the sun.
+++++“What do we do with her now?” Stella said.
+++++“We’ll bury her out yonder,” Grandpa said, pointing toward the thicker woods to the west. “I’ll say a few words and be done with it.”
+++++Pa frowned. “There’s so many damned roots in there it’ll tear up my shovel digging a hole.”
+++++“Anybody ever find that damn Bible?” Grandpa said.
+++++“I know the dust unto dust part,” Grandma said. “I’ll help put together some words.”
+++++“Might be easier to fill in the hole where she be,” Slow Sally said. “Somebody’s got to put up a new privy anyhow.”
+++++“God dammit, girl,” Grandma said.
+++++Two sisters giggled but they didn’t mean anything by it, they just never did like Ma.
+++++“It sure enough was murder, that’s for damn sure,” the oldest sister said. “I’m calling the law.”
+++++“Sheriff couldn’t solve a crime if it bit him on the pecker,” Grandma said but shut up when Grandpa gave her that look she saw before a whipping.
+++++Grandpa smacked the arm of his rocking chair with his palm. “We ain’t having no law around here so you forget that fool notion once and for all.” He leaned harder in his rocking chair to emphasize his point.
+++++Pa nodded sagely. “I have inclination to agree.” He took a swig of whiskey from his bottle. “Maybe she just upped and fell in and drowned.”
+++++That notion took Stella by such surprise that she almost took out a cigar right there in front of everybody. Wide-eyed, she covered her mouth. “Drowned in shit?”
+++++“She’s your wife so this one’s decided. But I say again, ain’t no need for the law meddling.” Grandpa made the rounds of faces with his eyes squinted to check for rebellion but nobody there was up to crossing him. “And I’m sick and damned tired of all this hollering and crying and arguing.”
+++++“Could it be suicide?” Slow Sally said. “They say some folks do that, honest, they do.”
+++++Stella patted Slow Sally’s hand. “Honey, don’t you be worrying yourself that way, you hear?”
+++++Still, heads were shaking at the mystery of it.
+++++Billy squirmed like he couldn’t find a way to sit right.
+++++“What’s a matter with you, boy?” Pa said.
+++++Billy shook his head.
+++++Pa narrowed an eye at him. “Spit it out, boy.”
+++++Billy leaped to his feet, trembling. “Nothing.” He shuddered then raised his voice near to a holler. “Ain’t nothing a matter.”
+++++The whole crew gaped at him.
+++++His face got that strained look he gave off when doing number two or a thought worked its way into his head. He shifty-eyed them like they were turning jury on him and spoke up right clear. “Not a damn thing.” He shuffled his feet. “Except for Ma, I mean.”
+++++“Hell, boy, ain’t nobody blaming you for nothing.” Pa gestured. “Sit down.”
+++++Billy got half way sat but turned stiff and stood again. “I know who done it.”
+++++All eyes and a lot of open mouths were offered up to that one.
+++++“Zeke. He’s figured out I’m coming for him so he come for me and done her.”
+++++Stella furrowed her brow. “That don’t entirely make sense.” She scratched under her dress while she thought. “Ain’t nobody told Zeke he’s found guilty.”
+++++“It were a warning to me,” Billy said. “And to all of us. If we don’t get him first, he’ll kill us all.”
+++++“All right, then,” Pa said. “The facts is clear.”
+++++Pa took another swig of whiskey from his bottle. With no thought of the fire out back or the dry grass in front of his family, Pa flicked the butt of his smoke far into the yard. “Zeke’s got to pay.”
+++++And with that, all heads nodded agreement that someone ought to kill Zeke for what he done. He had it coming.

***

Billy said it plain and clear, “I ain’t scared of no man.” And no one ever said he was shiftless or no account.
+++++Not to be making excuses, but it was first one thing and then another.
+++++Billy went away for a month at county. Nothing serious–just fighting, public drunkenness, disturbing the peace–normal stuff.
+++++Then Pa took sick for a couple of months from some bad moonshine, or something he ate. Naturally Billy wouldn’t go off and leave his Pa in that condition, so he hung around on the porch and in the yard. For a while after that Billy didn’t feel his usual self, so he couldn’t really do anything then either.
+++++And somewhere in there Slow Sally got snakebit. A water moccasin, Stella claimed, but a rattler was more likely in the woods where it happened.
+++++Of course the pot had to be planted and tended, and even if the girls did do all the work, Billy had to be the man and be around to keep a look out and all.
+++++Time is most likely the party responsible for anything that didn’t get done. It just kept rolling along and smoothing off edges and wearing folks down until it once again made things like they always are, and life went on the way it does. Smoking some dope. Drinking. Cash business, a little stealing, a little whoring. Resting on the porch to get out of the heat.
+++++“Pass that shine down here, Grandma.”

Crankcase

I grew up back in the low hills. There was more hills than people there, but the people figured themselves smarter than the hills and they reasoned that this was on their side. Some of the times it was.
+++++For example; the people could count the hills (mostly). The hills couldn’t count the people. It took awhile for us to figure out how in fact this really was to the hills’ advantage after all; not ours. The number of hills was always the same. The number of people was in decline.
+++++All the hills had to do was wait.
+++++On hot summer afternoons you could see the wrinkles of heat in the air as they come up from that black rope of pavement that cut through between the hills. Out there, heat was like some kinda live animal; it squirmed in the air in front of you when you come down the road. By the time you get to it, it’d be gone.
+++++When you looked through the wiggling waves of heat coming up, your view was sorta twisted. You would see things on the other side but different. Some folks said this is what you’d call a mirage. I don’t know about that. I know on some hot days, when you drove towards town but the town was still miles and miles away, you could look through the heat wrinkles and you could see the town just a-wigglin’; it was moved up way closer than it really was but otherwise just the same as the real one. Only different.
+++++The road towards town was flat and straight. In a countryside covered with low hills this was so odd that it never even occurred to anybody to mention it. Everybody knew the road was there and so were the hills. There was no point in starting up talk about it. People would look at you like you was off-center.
+++++I drove that road in the evenings during the summer when the hot daytime air was cooled, or else had just gone away to dance someplace else. The heat lines (they looked like snakes standing up on end) weren’t squirming in the air no longer. That air was clear. But instead now the road was sometimes littered with long rattlesnakes, stretched across the pavement.   It was as if the hot air snakes standing up during the day had laid down on the road in the evening, and become solid things.
+++++These rattlesnakes wasn’t coiled. They were just lying there stretched out straight. I think the blacktop was still hot from the daytime and as the night air started to cool, it made the snakes feel good to stretch their bellies along the road. Can you imagine how that would feel if you were a cold-blooded old snake? It would feel good.
+++++Two or three nights a week in the summer I would drive into town around twilight to deliver a blackberry pound cake to my Uncle Laz. My mother would ask me to do this. I always knew when she was going to ask.   But she always brought it up as if the thought had just come to her. Did I have plans or could I quick run into town to drop off a cake for her brother? I played along. Supper had been good and I liked the night air and if I stuck around somebody would make me clean the cream separator. So I just played along. I was thirteen years old at this time.
+++++Ma could drive a truck but she wouldn’t do it, and would claim that she didn’t know how. When we was real little she drove us all around but later she pretended that it never happened. My little brother Rizz would start to argue her on it sometimes but I would shush him.
+++++Our Pa had run off with a girl from the Norden family. I figured my Ma could have “real” be whatever she wanted it to be at that point. My Pa had gone off and disappeared with that girl Dandy Norden and she was nothing but a school girl. She was three or four years older than me maybe, if that. Her real name was Candace but everybody called her Dandy. Some folks said it must have been a kidnapping but those of us what knew something about Dandy knew she went of her own choice.
+++++That was comin’ up on two years earlier. My bet was that she had run off on my Pa about as soon as she got away to some place civilized. She was just a girl but she was real pretty in a different kind of way – she looked older and she had a fire in her; you could tell. It even burned up through the top of her head into a big bunch of bright red hair. And the look in her eye would make you want to do things, people said. I figured my Pa had wanted to do things and after awhile he couldn’t stop himself.
+++++My Pa was probably too scared or ashamed to come back around later on. I had to figure he likely got what was coming to him, sooner or later. Seems like we all do.
+++++So I would drive to town in the pickup to deliver the pound cake to Uncle Lazarus. Them snakes was stretched out on the road the whole way, and for the hell of it I would run right over them. Just run straight over their long drawn out middles.
+++++And never once did it hurt a single one of them. They noticed it maybe; they might crawl off after it happened or just move to a different spot on the road.   But their long flat cool middle must have been filled with nothing but sort of soft spine bones and some food tubes or whatever. They stretched themselves so flat on that flat road that they was pretty much invincible, you’d say.
+++++I liked them a lot when they did this.
+++++That place was different from the city in other ways too. It was the kind of place where names either didn’t tell you nothing at all, or else they told you everything you wanted to know and then some. In town the streets didn’t even have names; well probably they did, but there wasn’t no signs and nobody knew those names if they even existed. At least they never used them. The stores had signs that spelled out names but every last soul knew what each business was and usually it got called by the name of the fella who ran it, or else just something real plain like “the shop” – which meant Orville Orwell’s machine shop, where things got repaired or sometimes invented or destroyed. Or maybe all three in the same afternoon.
+++++People had names but weren’t always called by them neither. Lots of times they come to be known by what they did, or what they looked like or what interested them on their own time. My older cousin Donny was all about picking rock. He always had been like that. Even in the grade school days he was always on about rocks. Look at this rock; there’s a rock over there that is bright blue and sparkles; you never saw a rock this shape before, and so on. He had an old Fordson tractor with a loader bucket attached and he used it to pick rock. He hired himself and his rig out on the farms and pastures to pick for the dirt farmers and the sheep ranchers.  Nobody bothered him and damn sure nobody touched his tractor or his beat-up dump truck. When something broke down he wouldn’t even take it around to the Shop. He’d just fix it himself. More or less.
+++++Some folks called him “Donny” but most of them called him “Rock Picker” or “Picker” or just “Rock”. Meet him on the street coming out of the post office or the old bowling alley and folks would say, “Hi Picker, how’s it goin’ today?”. His mom called him Donny I guess, and so did some of us other family members. My Uncle Lazarus was his dad, and come to think of it I never heard him call him Donny or “Picker” or nothing like that. Mostly what he called him was “jackass stupid” or “worthless son of a bitch.”
+++++On a usual night after I ran over some stretched out rattlers and swerved to miss some ring-necked pheasants along the tall brown crested wheat grass by the highway, I would end up parked in the big dirt lot in front of Uncle Laz and Aunt Judy’s place.  They had but the one child, Donny – at least he was the only one that they had now. His sister Ruby had grown to be about fifteen and then she went into the well.
+++++She just disappeared one night and everybody in town looked and looked and finally they found her in the well, must have been a week later. I was still little then and don’t really remember much of it. She was all beat up from falling and so they decided she must have got out of whack in the dark and just stumbled in and dropped clear to the bottom – probably bounced off the sides on the way, making her get all the more banged up.
+++++In fact it was Donny that finally found her, while he was trying to bring up a bucket of water so his Ma could water her tomatoes. Uncle Lazarus had mostly sat in the house after she disappeared and when Donny found her, from that day forward, my uncle was just so mad at his son and always cussing him out and so forth. Never had a problem with Donny until he turned up Ruby’s dead body. I figured he should have been just the opposite about Donny; what with Donny finding his sister and Uncle Lazarus not even out there looking with the rest of the town. Folks figured it all as peculiar but hoped at least it could all be put to rest now that the mystery had been solved so well.
+++++I carried the pound cake into the kitchen through the back door. I didn’t bother to knock because: one, I knew if Aunt Judy was in the kitchen the knocking would just scare the giblets out of her (folks just walked in all the time); and two, Uncle Lazarus wouldn’t have heard me anyway. He was hard of hearing and was usually by this time in the living room. There was no TV in the house but he played the radio loud and drank his whiskey.
+++++When I was thirteen I just mostly went along with everything. Folks said I was an easy going kid. But even then I knew all the whiskey drinking by my uncle wasn’t so good. It made the air in that house feel bad and it bothered me.  In the last year or two I had never seen my uncle and aunt in the same room at the same time; or heard them say a word to one another. That house was an uneasy place. But there was a pound cake to be delivered so I went right in.
+++++Aunt Judy wasn’t in the kitchen. So I walked right through and went into the living room; sure enough I heard that radio playing. Uncle Laz had it on a country station and there was a song playing about the Carroll County accident; I knew that Porter Wagoner was the singer. I also knew that he had used to be a religious singer with some big time Southern Christian group of brothers, but now he had been on his own for some time. He had a real tall stack of bright yellow hair on his head as I recall from some picture that I saw. It was kind of spooky.
+++++Anyhow, I heard the radio and so I went on ahead into the living room.
+++++I saw my uncle sitting in his easy chair. He called it an easy chair but it didn’t seem to be easing him much. He was downright rattled, and he was muttering and cussing like crazy. I couldn’t understand all of it – mostly because that Porter Wagoner fella was singing awful loud about a box that had a wedding ring in it and was under the dash on a wrecked car. I had no idea where in the hell Carroll County was supposed to be.
+++++Uncle Laz was pretty strong into his whiskey and he looked up at me but his eyes never changed; they never cleared and I wasn’t sure if he registered me. And he was pretty much busy hollering.
+++++“God damned worthless slab of sheep meat! Don’t have no brain in his head! Ain’t no damned way he is my flesh and blood – not a chance in hell. Musta been somebody else – somebody else what fathered that sumbitch!” He took a swig from his bottle and it looked like it was about finished off. I gathered he was mad about Donny again.
+++++I still had the pound cake in my hand but my arms were just hanging by my sides now; I was thrown all out of whack by this fuss bein’ made by my uncle. I had seen him get going in the past but just walking in on the middle of it like this added to the bad feeling I had when I was in that house.
+++++He had ahold of the arms on the chair with both hands. Then of a sudden he turned his head towards me – I was surprised to find he even knew I was there.
+++++“You got a cake, boy?” he said with a voice that scratched on the air as it came out. “Did you get sent here on some fool’s errand or do you got a cake for me?”
+++++I didn’t know what to say but I held up the cake. “Bring it here,” he growled.
+++++I walked over and handed him that cake. He unwrapped the tin foil with his hands and just broke off a piece. I noticed that his hands were real dirty; it looked like grease or oil or something. Not just regular farm dirt.
+++++Now he stuck a big piece of cake in his mouth and again commenced to trying to talk. I couldn’t make it out between the radio and the mouth full of cake but it sounded like just more cussin’ and carryin’ on. I wondered where Aunt Judy was keeping herself.
+++++Finally I got up the courage to say something. “Uncle Laz”, I said, “are you feelin’ okay?”
+++++Lazarus was busy jamming the cake into his cake hole but he somehow found his voice enough to say, “Young Caleb, go out to my truck and get me the bottle from under the seat. I’m runnin’ dry here.”
+++++Around that low hill country, people pretty much drove everywhere – but almost nobody owned a regular car. Everybody had pickup trucks. We had a truck, Uncle Lazarus had a truck, the whole town was full of pickups of all ages. Most was either Chevys or Fords. You had one or the other, not both. Whole families had a loyalty to one company or the other, and there was considerable discussion about what was wrong with the other folks that insisted on buying the other make. It was sort of a vehicle feud along the lines of the Hatfields and McCoys and it had probably been going for about as long.
+++++So one kind or another, everybody drove a pickup truck, and every pickup had two things under the front seat: a pistol and a bottle of Seagram’s Seven. Depending on the situation you would reach down and pull up one or the other. Once in awhile the use of one would lead to the need for the other. This just made sense; and when something makes plain and honest sense, there is no concerns over the right or the wrong of it all. It just is.
+++++I got the whiskey and started back for the house. It wasn’t far but it was black as Coalie’s ass outside now and I didn’t wanna step in no gopher hole, so I was moving kind of slow and careful.
+++++Next thing I knew I heard some glass breaking and somebody was yellin’ real loud and sharp.   It was a woman’s voice first and then a man; and then the woman again. Somehow it didn’t register with me that this was coming from the house and that it must be Uncle Lazarus and Aunt Judy that were doing the yelling and carrying on.
+++++Then I stepped up and into the kitchen and there they were, both in the same room at the same time, and all hell was pretty much busting loose. There was a bunch of dishes smashed on the floor. The table was pushed over and slammed into the wall by the fridge. The door on the fridge was open and the insides of it were all dark. There was no light on in there. No light at all.
+++++“He’s a damn fool and he’s all yours, God Damn it!” Uncle Lazarus was yelling. He was up and kind of stomping around in a circle, like one of his boots was nailed to the linoleum. I didn’t know why he was doing this, and I still don’t know to this day. But it’s one of them things that might mean nothing but it just sticks in your memory.
+++++My Uncle Lazarus threw his empty whiskey bottle into the wall. It’s kind of hard to break a whiskey bottle but he fired it so hard it must have shattered into a hundred pieces. I jumped at the noise when the bottle hit the wall. I couldn’t help it. I looked at Aunt Judy and she didn’t flinch; she was standing stone still and glaring at her husband.
+++++“He’s always diggin’ shit up and makin’ a hole anyway! Let him climb back into his own damned hole!”
+++++“Yes, if it was up to you, that’s where he would be! You ought to be ashamed! He’s your son!” My aunt’s voice was a ball of fire and she didn’t sound like someone who was about to back down on anything at any time in the near future.
+++++Uncle Lazarus reversed his field and started marching his circle in the other direction. “Like hell he is! You got yourself knocked up somewhere but it weren’t nothin’ to do with me! A town like this, a town this small, and you with all the whorin’ around!”
+++++Everybody in the room knew that none of that was true and then I realized that my uncle was crying. He was sobbing like a drunk cries, bawling like a sick baby. “She was my real daughter,” he said, a lot more quiet like. “She was mine. She was all mine.”
+++++“NOT TO DO WHATEVER YOU WANTED WITH!” screamed Aunt Judy. “Damn you Lazarus! Damn you dead and gone to hell and back!” She started to move and turned her back on her husband and then just stood there, with her head kind of bowed. She started to speak – it was quiet and at first I couldn’t be sure I got the words right. But I heard it well enough I guess.
+++++“You’re as good as dust,” she said. Her words were quiet and in her throat there was a hissing sound. I remember thinking it was like the snakes out on the highway with the heat under their bellies and the cold sky up above. “You’re dust to me now.”
+++++Uncle Lazarus stumbled and then he moved forward and he stumbled again. He was shaky on his feet to say the least of it. He turned and backed up and he lurched past me and out the door into the night time air. He stomped on the porch like he was wanting to bust through the boards. Then he staggered down into the dusty yard and was wandering into the darkness. I couldn’t see hardly nothing but I could just barely make out that old well off by the edge of the cornfield.
+++++I looked at my aunt, and she was looking straight at me. I thought there was tears in her eyes but the light in that kitchen wasn’t too good so I wasn’t sure.
+++++It’s funny how when somebody’s life changes, often as not the whole thing happens in but a second.
+++++“Men are all the same; sooner or later they all act like men,” she said to me. “Don’t you ever become one like them, Cal. Men end up dead a long time before they hit the ground or they ever get around to stopping to breathe. There’s still a movement there when all of what matters is already dead and long, long gone.”
+++++She turned and went back into the back part of the house. I stood for a minute and then I stepped out into the cool night air towards our pickup. I was going back home. There was no sign of Uncle Lazarus in the coal black night. And I still had the bottle of Seagram’s in my hand. I had forgot all about it.
+++++The next day I somehow got to go into town again on an errand, and of course I had to go by Uncle Lazarus’ place. I wasn’t sure what had happened the night before but I wanted to see the place for some reason.
+++++I didn’t see no sign of either Aunt Judy or Uncle Lazarus. The day was already startin’ to get hot. It was going to really be a hot one.
+++++I noticed that Donny’s tractor was over on the edge of the yard. It looked to be half pulled out into the cornfield. Donny was there too. He was standing by the tractor and slowly rubbing his hand over his oily hair. He looked either confused or mad or maybe both.
+++++“Rock,” I said as I walked up. He nodded to me but didn’t speak. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s your Ma and Pa?”
+++++He seemed like his brain was somewhere else but spoke an answer without looking at me – his eyes seemed to be glued to the ground under the little Fordson tractor. “Ma’s around here somewhere,” he said. “She made me some hotcakes. Now I don’t know where she is. I asked her about my dad and she didn’t say a word.”
+++++“Are you goin’ out and do some pickin’ today? Do you have a job lined up?”
+++++“Well I was going to go out to Henderson’s and pick a couple fields for them; one of ’em’s new sod and a hell of a mess. But now it looks like I ain’t going nowhere.” He got down on a knee and looked under the tractor, then stood back up. It seemed to me like he had probably already gone through this a couple times but was trying to puzzle something out and it just didn’t want to take.
+++++“I left this tractor here yesterday,” he said, still looking at the tractor and not at me. “I run it up here and shut it off and left it. Now I come this morning and try to start it and it won’t crank over. I try and try and it almost took but there was a hell of a racket once it did and I think the motor done froze up. Just that quick.” He sounded like a man who had lost something that he never before figured might ever be taken off him.
+++++He reached down and rubbed his hand in the grass under the tractor’s engine. He picked up his hand and showed it to me. It was black with oil. Dirty, thick oil.
+++++“Plug’s gone from the crankcase,” he said. “Somebody took it out and drained all the oil out. All over the God Damned ground. And I don’t know this of course; I don’t know this when I get here and I try to start her up and them cylinder walls are just bone dry, and she starts and then she seizes up. Now everything is done gone to shit.” He sounded like he might cry.
+++++“I don’t know where the hell my damned dad is, or I’d ask him what the hell. I don’t know what went on around here last night. Do you? Ma’s not herself and the old man’s disappeared.”
+++++I looked at my cousin but I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything at all. I remember I wished there were all sort of snakes stretched out on the highway right then so I could get back in the pickup right that minute and go out and drive over them. Drive right over them again and again and not hurt them at all but just keep going back and forth on top of them. That’s what I remember thinking about.
+++++Donny looked at his black, greasy palms again and then wiped them on his pants. His face looked like he was a lost soul who just found the blood of an innocent lamb all awash on his hands.
+++++“First thing I gotta do is scrub up somewhat,” he said. He headed off towards the well intending to pull up a bucket of clean, clear water from under the earth.
+++++So I went back to the pickup. I got in and pulled the door closed after me. For a tick I just sat there. I knew it would be but a minute before Donny started to crank up that bucket. I reached down under the seat and I felt my hand wrap around somethin’ cool and hard and smooth. I closed my eyes, and tried again to think about the waves of heat and the highway.
+++++Some folks get to feel young and happy-go-lucky their whole lives. But the rest of us . . . I heard Donny let out a yell, and I kicked open that pickup door and stepped back out into the world.

Jake’s On A Plane

Jake’s on a plane and he’s heading into Palatka. He’s excited. Not about Palatka. Palatka is a humid and dusty spot not far from Florida’s armpit. Call it a mole on Florida’s chest. Call it whatever you wish. Jake’s on a plane and he’s headed for his college roommate’s wedding in Palatka. Florida.
+++++It’s been four years since Jake’s seen Dave. Four years since they tore it up in Mt. Pleasant. Four years since they graduated from Central Michigan University. Four years since that senior trip to Daytona where Dave met Maggie and he was gone, baby, gone. How could he not be? She wore the skimpiest of bikinis. Her skin was the color of a Thanksgiving Day turkey breast. And her tots were as big. Long black hair, deep brown eyes, and an ass he could curl up on like a cat on a pillow.
+++++Jake would know.
+++++Jake’s on a plane and he’s flying back into trouble.
+++++He doubted Maggie told Dave anything. Why would she tell Dave anything? It was just that one time. Two years ago. Hell, Dave and Maggie were barely an item. She lived in Ohio still finishing her studies towards a Master’s degree in reading. On her way to being a Highly Qualified Master Teacher with a national endorsement. Whatever the hell that was. Jake drove down with another buddy to go to the Michigan State game, the one where the Spartans beat the Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. A hundred thousand people in scarlet and grey jerseys and who does he run into?
+++++Maggie Upton.
+++++He saw her three rows in front of him in the alumni section. He cupped his hands around his mouth, yelled her name, and finger-whistled. She turned around, recognized him, and drove a line right through the crowd to hug him. Jake can still feel that hug. Feel her tots dressed and undressed. Jake remembers all of it.
+++++Jake’s on a plane and he’s heading to Palatka, Florida to stand up in his college roommates wedding. A wedding he is actually surprised is happening. That day in Columbus, when he bumped into Maggie he was sure, so very sure, well, maybe not completely certain Maggie and Dave were all but kaput. She never actually came out and said it. They were on a break, maybe. Or maybe she didn’t say that as much as the Tequila Sunrise bangers convinced him she’d said that. Whatever. There they were. She gave him the tour of Columbus and later her apartment and later her bed. It concluded with a tour of her erogenous zones.
+++++And why not? He’d seen her first in his version of the story. Dave sabotaged him. Dave went behind Jake’s back that night at Big Daddy’s in Daytona Beach and—
+++++What had it mattered?
+++++He had Maggie on her back, his shaft between her hot tots. She let him finish on her face.
+++++Jake’s on a plane and he is flying into Jacksonville to drive two hours west to Palatka. Tomorrow is the rehearsal dinner. When Dave first told him he was getting married—to Maggie—Jake anticipated being the Best Man. A Groom’s Man was still cool. He almost asked Dave why he wasn’t the best man. He had anticipated Dave telling him, ‘Fuck off, twat. I know about you and Maggie. You still think I sabotaged you.’
+++++‘You did.’
+++++‘I waited for you to make your move. You never made it.’
+++++‘You went behind my back.’
+++++‘Bullshit.’
+++++It was bullshit. Jake opened the door with women all the time. Maybe he got tired of being the wingman. Maybe he figured he was making up for missed opportunity in Daytona. Maggie was into it that night. Not so much the next morning but what the hell it happened.
+++++Jake’s on a plane about to land in Jacksonville. He’ll rent a car and drive two hours west to Palatka where he’ll be Groom’s Man Number Two at his college buddy’s wedding with a woman they both slept with. He’s really not feeling it any more. He contemplates telling Dave about the events surrounding the Michigan State-Ohio State game.
+++++A hot blonde flight attendant named Katie tells everyone to put on their seatbelts, place their trays in the locked and upright position, and prepare for landing. Jake hates this part of the flight. The screech of rubber, the bounce, the vibration. He’d take any other form of death other than dying in a plane crash. All that fuel. All that fire.
+++++The landing could be smoother. The exit could be faster. The overheads could be emptier.
+++++Jake wheels his own luggage down the aisle. He passes a smiling Katie the Flight Attendant.
+++++“Have a good visit,” she says.
+++++“I’m going to a wedding. Want to be my Plus One?”
+++++“Sorry. I have to fly back to Detroit in an hour.”
+++++“Yeah, well, I might be on the same flight.”
+++++Jake walks down the exit ramp. Airports used to be a hotbed of hello hugs and goodbye tears. Now the gates are mostly empty once everyone boards. Those who are there have gathered around monitors watching local reports of a wild fire near Gainsville.
+++++Jake heads for the car rentals. Ignores the news.
+++++Up ahead there’s a balding man, dark tinted glasses, navy blue jacket and khaki pants holding a sign with Jake’s last name on it. The sign flaps in the holder’s left hand. He switches it to his right.
+++++“You waiting for a Jake Robinson?”
+++++The man with the sign nods. “I have a car right outside those doors. Would you care to use the men’s room before we leave?”
+++++“No, I’m good.”
+++++“It’s a long ride to Palatka.”
+++++“Then let’s go.”
+++++“I’m going to use the restroom.”
+++++“You do that, buddy.”
+++++“It’s Charlie. Hock. Charlie Hock is my name.”
+++++“I’ll be right here, Charlie.”
+++++“You sure you don’t have to go?”
+++++“Fine. I’ll go.”
+++++The two men go into the restroom. Ten minutes later they walk out together. Charlie Hock’s car is a silver and grey Traverse.
+++++“You work for Uber or something?” Jake asks.
+++++“Or something.”
+++++“Do I ride in the back?”
+++++“If you don’t mind. It’s just under two hours from here to Palatka on a normal day.”
+++++“Isn’t this a normal day?”
+++++“Wild fires. Parts of Interstate Ten are closed from smoke or the fire is too close to the road.”
+++++“How long now?”
+++++“Three. Four hours. You want to pee again?”
+++++“Let’s just get on the road.”
+++++Jake’s on his way to Palatka in the backseat of a Chevy Traverse when he falls asleep. It’s a good sleep. He’s never been able to sleep on a plane. Riding in the back of the Traverse he feels safe. He relaxes. He dreams about making love to Maggie and Katie the Flight Attendant aboard the plane. It’s a really, really good dream until Katie pulls away. She has a puzzled expression.
+++++“Do you smell smoke?”
+++++Jake wakes up. The car has stopped. He does smell smoke. Burning trees. It makes him jump.
+++++Charlie Hock is not in the driver’s seat. Charlie Hock sits on the hood of the car. Eating a meatball sub. Watching the fire.
+++++Jake gets out of the car. “Are you fucking nuts? There’s a wild fire coming at us. You’re eating a meatball sub.”
+++++“It’s called a hoagie down here.”
+++++“I don’t give a shit. Get back in the car and get us out of here.”
+++++“You want some?” Charlie Hock holds out the meatball hoagie to Jake. His hand jerks.
+++++“No I don’t want some. I want to get out of here before that fire flashes us into charcoal.”
+++++Charlie Hock puts the uneaten portion of the sub back in the bag. He rolls the opening down then crimps the seam. After a moment he stands and cracks his back and walks the sandwich to the cooler in his hatch. He presses the Lock button on his key fob.
+++++“Hey. You locked me out.”
+++++“Step away from the car, Mr. Robinson.”
+++++“Excuse me?”
+++++“I said step away from the car.”
+++++A pine tree crackles. It breaks in half. The burning portion falls to the ground in an explosion of orange sparks zigzagging away before they cool and die.
+++++“All right, motherfucker. Give me the keys.”
+++++“You want the keys? Here you go.”
+++++Charlie Hock winds up like he’s playing centerfield for the Marlins and pitches the keys into the fire.
+++++“You fuckin’ dipshit. What the fuck are you—”
+++++Jake stops. He’s looking down the barrel of a nine millimeter. It jerks left. Charlie Hock shifts it to his right hand.
+++++“What’s wrong with your hand?”
+++++“Nothing’s wrong with my hand.”
+++++“Are you scared or something?”
+++++“I’m not scared.”
+++++“I am. We’re in the middle of a fire and you’ve got a gun on me and I have no idea what the fuck is going on.” Jake stops. “Dave found out.”
+++++Charlie Hock looks surprised. “Who the hell is Dave?”
+++++“The guy who hired you to kill me.”
+++++Charlie Hock shakes his head. “You got it wrong.”
+++++“Yeah? I slept with Dave’s fiancé.”
+++++“Oh yeah. Maggie sends her love.”
+++++“Maggie? Why would Maggie hire you?”
+++++“I don’t do a lot of talking with my clients. And actually, motive only counts in cop dramas. My guess is she doesn’t want your friend Dave ever finding out about the two of you.”
+++++“I’d never tell anyone.”
+++++“Well, you told me.”
+++++“So you’re going to kill me?”
+++++“I’m going to give you a chance. You can run into the fire and see if you can find the keys and I’ll let you drive out of here or I’ll shoot you.”
+++++“And you’ll just walk out of here?”
+++++“Oh yeah. Hadn’t thought about that.”
+++++Charlie Hock raises the gun again. Jake Robinson runs into the fire. His frightened mind shows him paths through the fire. Flames don’t touch him. Heat envelopes him. He breathes it in scorching his mouth, esophagus, lungs. At one point he stumbles over a burning branch.
+++++Jake’s on a plain that is burning like hell’s backyard. It’s getting harder to breathe. If he doesn’t find the keys soon, he’ll die in a fire which is why he never wanted to die in a plane crash.
+++++All that fuel.
+++++All that fire.
+++++He runs on then doubles back. Charlie Hock didn’t throw them that far. Did he throw them at all?
+++++Something sparkles in the fire. It’s the keys. Jake scoops them up. The keys are warm. Hot. They burn his hand but he holds on to them. He carries them to the clearing but the car is gone. How can the car be gone if Jake holds the keys?
+++++A second set of keys.
+++++Diabolical.
+++++Jake’s mind snaps. He looks to the smoke filled sky and laughs.
+++++A plane flies overhead. It ascends and follows an unseen point. The smoke blocks his vision. It’ll clear in a moment but it won’t matter because Jake will be dead. Smoke inhalation will knock him out and then the fire will consume him.
+++++Something hard and hot hits Jake in the head. He dies before hearing the rapport of a gun. Dies before he sees Charlie Hock aim a rifle over the roof of the Traverse. Dies before the fire consumes him. Dies before he tells Dave all about Maggie.
+++++Just as well.
+++++Tomorrow is supposed to be the happiest day of their lives.

It

My wife’s face is always bruised now, even when it’s not.
+++++At breakfast, my eyes skim the flap of newspaper dangling in front of me as I steal a glance, seeing the swollen eggplant bruise around my wife’s right eye socket, her lip pulpy and blue-black, split in three places, her lower jaw stitched and covered with sheer gauze strips like achildishyet macabre railroad track. It’s all imagination, a latent memory triggered by today’s date, yet I hate myself nonetheless because her actual face is as beautiful now as ever.
+++++I try not to stutter or cough or choke or cry. I reach inside of me, into my chest cavity, an invisible hand stretching fingers, tightening, forming a claw, reaching for something to tether me, to make both of us normal again, the thing we once were.
+++++My wife forces a smile. She’s still not good at faking. She’s stiff and too erect in her chair, either a puppet master or a puppet, I’ll never know which, yet she tries hard as ever, saying, “More juice, please,” while jiggling a glass in front of her across the table.
+++++I stand and fetch a jug and pour. I lean down and kiss the potato-white scar where her hair is parted. She sighs but does not reach for me, her hand on the glass, fingers firm, gripping it like a grenade.
+++++“You think Jess is up,” I say, “or should I wake her?” Jess is our six year old. We’ve woken earlier than usual for a Saturday, but neither my wife nor I mentions why, even though we both know why.
+++++“Give her another five minutes,” my wife says, a trite enough answer.
+++++I return to my seat and sit down. I think about time, how it’s absurdly consistent, always marching, marching, marching, a dutiful soldier, unavoidable, unimpeachable, the one sure thing in life that cannot be swayed. I think: A year is three-hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. I think: It’s three hundred sixty-five days. I think: A year can be torture or bliss, and for us it’s been mostly the former, a kite tail of half-truths and voids, distrust and raw reveals. I think: A year and a day ago my wife had not been raped.
+++++It’s our wedding anniversary today, as well as the anniversary of the nightIt happened.It is how we used to refer to the rape in the weeks and months afterward, in bed at night, tense and unable to sleep, or else us at counseling sessions with the therapist who had a harsh German-sounding name and intense, wolf-blue eyes that always seemed to be glaring at us. Now we never speak of It, though It permeates everything, all these days later, especially this one.

***

The night of It and our anniversary we’d been happy, married five years, still very much lovers as well as spouses. My wife’s mother had Jess for the night. We were eating at La Coupole, my wife’s favorite French restaurant. We’d feasted and had drunk nearly an entire bottle of wine. Giddy and loose, we loitered once our meal was finished, fictionalizing the various couples and dinner guests around us, assigning them clever and absurd identities—
+++++“He’s an Iranian spy, but his girlfriend doesn’t know it.”
+++++“Yes, but she’s in love with his best friend…who has is also a spy, which she does know.”
+++++Eventually the waiter needed our table and, rather rudely,he verbally shooed us away. When the check came, I felt fuzzy-headed but signed the bill and threw the waiter a look he ignored. Climbing up the parking garage steps, we paused in the stairwell for some sloppy kissing, our hands moving as feverishly over each other’s bodies as they had when we’d first started dating. When someone passed by us, we both smoothed our hair and straightened our clothes.
+++++My wife asked, “You remembered your card, right?” because I was always forgetting my credit card.
+++++“Of course,” I said.
+++++“Check to be sure.”
+++++When I pulled out my wallet and looked, I realized I’d done it again. “Damn it.”
+++++“You goof ball.”
+++++“Idiot, is more like it. And the worst part is I want you so bad right now. You have no idea. I’m dying.”
+++++“You horn dog. Go get your card and I’ll wait in the car. We could do it there if you want.”
+++++“It?”
+++++“Make love.”
+++++When I kissed her hard, she bit my lower lip and gave me an alluring grin.
+++++“Be back in a jiff,” I said, tossing her the keys while I plunged up the steps.
+++++Since that night I’ve bounded up those stairs thousands of times, sometimes in my dreams where my legs are cement-laden and the steps hover air-born and unreachable. Sometimes I’ll be at work on my computer and the smallest thing will trigger a memory and I’ll be racing up the steps only to find they are just sets of stairs leading from one formation to another, like an Escher drawing, no door anywhere, nothing to do but keep climbing.
+++++I’d been gone for a little over fifteen minutes. The restaurant was more crowded than when we’d first arrived, a clot of people jamming the entrance. I had to muscle my way through, warding off aspersions from patiently waiting couples. When I found my waiter, he pointed me back to the host who seemed flummoxed and handed me off to a busboy. No one could locate my credit card, until finally fifteen minutes later when a black-haired, acne-faced boy held it above his head like some rare medal he’d won.
+++++Fifteen minutes for It to happen, for my wife to be brutally attacked, for Us to be ripped asunder.

***

During therapy my wife was persistently apologetic, as if It was somehow her fault. She was sorry for everything—
+++++“I’m sorry I can’t talk about it more openly.”
+++++“I’m sorry I get angry a lot, but when I’m not angry I feel dead and wasted, like a dry sponge, and then feeling that way makes me angry all over again.”
+++++“I’m don’t ever want to celebrate our anniversary, no reminder. Promise me we won’t. I don’t want a card or a present or anything. I know how horrible that makes me. I’m sorry.”
+++++I did get a card, however. It was one of those with an illustration—just a simple sketch of a cord of rope knotted together in the center—where the two inside pages are left blank. On them, I’ve written down how much I love my wife, how I will always love her, how she’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. When I read the words over last night they sounded juvenile, something a kid in middle school would say, but they were my words, honest ones, all of them. I didn’t write about It. I ended with—I know our future is going to be great—thinking that too was an adolescent thing to say, but meaning it nonetheless.
+++++I’ve hidden the card in the kitchen cupboard above the sink, under the stack of plates we got all those years ago as a wedding present when we’d registered at Bed, Bath and Beyond. As I sit at the table staring at my wife’s pile of scrambled eggs that resemble orange entrails, I can almost hear the card in the cupboard, ticking like a detonated time bomb.
+++++“I should wake Jess,” I say.
+++++My wife glances over the top of my head, perhaps staring out the window over the kitchen sink. She never looks me in the eye anymore. When she nods in the slow, uncertain way of an aged person, a blade cuts through my chest and the air smells flat and dead again.

***

Jess is already awake as I enter her room. She’s reading Goosebumps and seems bored by my presence.
+++++I want to say something funny or light, like, “What are you doing up here so late, we thought you were dead,” but that and everything else that comes to mind is anything but light or funny.
+++++“You coming down any time soon?” I ask.
+++++“Uh huh.”
+++++“Like today?”
+++++“Maybe.”
+++++“It’s Saturday. We can do something.”
+++++“Uh huh.”
+++++“I love you, you know.” I don’t know where this comes from, or perhaps I do, and I wish I hadn’t said it but it’s out there now, the words floating and gluey, when Jess pauses for a second and looks up and wrinkles her face and then sticks her tongue out at me, as a dam breaks, tears welling in eyes at once, so that I have to leave her room and rush to the bathroom down the hall.

***

Though my wife says she’d like to stay in, I convince her to go to the zoo. It’s Jess’s favorite place. She loves the giraffes – their necks and stripes and snouts, their dopey-looking ears. The majority of our visit is spent where they’re corralled.
+++++“Daddy, can we get a pet giraffe? Maybe for my birthday?”
+++++“I don’t think that’s legal.”
+++++“Why not?”
+++++“Giraffes are supposed to be out in the wild.”
+++++“But this isn’t the wild.”
+++++As with her mother, I’m often at a loss with Jess. It doesn’t make me feel less intelligent or insignificant so much as it makes me feel cowardly, not knowing how to tell the truth in a convincing yet lenient enough way.
+++++My wife says her stomach has started to give her fits. She’d like to go. Jess pouts.
+++++“We can stop at Dairy Queen on the way home,” I say, seeing the look my wife gives me, laced with equal amounts of scorn and weariness.
+++++“Did you not hear me?” my wife asks.
+++++“Can I get a hot fudge sundae?” Jess asks.
+++++We skip Dairy Queen and drive straight home. Jess heads up to her room, presumably to continue pouting and reading Goosebumps.
+++++My wife doesn’t even bother removing her coat, just slumps onto the couch.
+++++“Could you draw the blinds for me?”
+++++When I try pulling the drapes shut, they catch on the left-hand corner, the way they always do, and I’m again transported back to forgetting my credit card that night, the way I had forgotten it at other restaurants so many times, and then I’m in the parking lot stairwell again, climbing steps that shrink and jilt out of the way each time I try to take one, and I have to physically shake my head in order to get the image to disappear.
+++++“What’re you doing?” my wife says.
+++++“Huh?”
+++++“You look like you’ve got wasps caught in your skull.”
+++++I think about all the things I might say, all the lies I could spew, but I don’t say any of it. Instead I say, “Maybe I do.”
+++++“What’s that mean?”
+++++I want to tell her I’m sorry, that I’m the one who should be sorry. Fifteen minutes or sixteen minutes or however many minutes was too many. It was me. As much as anything or anyone, I was It.
+++++Still, I know she doesn’t want to talk about it. We quit therapy six months back. Since then the days have all been dull thunderclouds where we dance around each other and what’s brought us to this place.
+++++It’s suddenly hard to breathe, like I’m being held underwater with a hand gripped against the bones of my throat. I suck down a full swallow of air and hold it several seconds before exhaling, before mustering, “Hey honey, what do you think about us going out for a bit?”
+++++My wife’s head lolls as if she has no neck muscles. “We were just out.”
+++++“No, I mean just us, you and me.”
+++++“What about Jess? You’re not planning on leaving her, are you?”
+++++The way she’s said that, spitting out words in a speed I’ve not heard in over a year, makes me wonder if she intentionally left out…like you left me. You’re not planning on leaving her, are you, like you left me?
+++++But I know she didn’t mean that, didn’t think that, it’s just my discombobulated imagination taking over again.
+++++“We can call my mother.”
+++++“Why?”
+++++“I told you. So we can have a night out for our own.”
+++++My wife’s hands are slunk halfway down the sleeves of her black coat so that it looks as if she has no hands at all, just fingers. She brings her hands up to her face and cups her fingers across her eyes as her chest starts to buck and heave, crying softly, trying to mute the noises.
+++++When I say, “Hey,” she flails one of her hands in the air at me.
+++++“Just let me have a moment.”
+++++A moment alone, is what she means. She wants to be alone, perhaps forever.
+++++I don’t know the right thing to do. Part of me wants to force myself on the sofa beside my wife, pry her hands away from her face and make her look me in the eye for once. Another part of me wants to walk out the door and get into the car and drive, just drive for miles, heading anywhere or nowhere.
+++++One of the last things the therapist said was a kind of warning. He said we have to fight the desire to isolate. He told us that isolation quells fear, but it also strips away courage and any hope for resiliency. “If you put your head in the sand too many times, and for long enough, you might as well expect to choke to death on that sand.”
+++++I walk past my wife and go into the kitchen and reach into the cupboard. As I maneuver the stack, the plate on top jostles loose and flies free, exploding loudly in the sink. I stand motionless for a moment, me leaning over the counter with my left hand holding the stack of plates and my right hand clutching the card I’d placed beneath. I expect my wife to come into the kitchen or to yell, asking what’s happened, but neither of those two things happen.
+++++And so I take the card and carefully set the plates down. I walk back out to the living room. I tap the card against my ass as I walk, swatting wasps that aren’t there.
+++++I notice that my wife’s in the middle of the couch and that there’s really not room for me to sit on either side of her, yet I do just that, cramming in on her left.
+++++I say the words quick, like a dire confession I’ve been holding back for some time. “Happy Anniversary. I know what you said, and I get it, I do, but it’s our anniversary and I got you this card and wrote some dumb things in it and I want you to have it.”
+++++I peel my wife’s fingers away from where they’re still clinging to her cheeks and brow. I force her to grip the card, molding her hands over it. When she does nothing else, I take the card myself and open the envelope and hold up the cover of the card and openit to the center page and read aloud what I’ve written.
+++++When I’m finished, I say, “It might seem crazy, but I really believe it.”
+++++She’s just been staring the whole time, without blinking, like a blind person, and I’m not sure if she’s heard anything, if she’s even coherent, or if she’s reliving It as I’ve done so many times, but then it’s like a frond breaking through ice, her cheeks pinking, her eyes flicking alert. She leans across and buries her face against my neck, her mouth just below my ear. I hear her breathing, feel a warm broom of air sifting through my hair.
+++++Finally she speaks. “Do you really think so?”
+++++I take her hand. I touch her face. I say, “I can be the man you need me to be, if you’ll let me.”
+++++“But you are. You already are.”
+++++“I can be better. We can be. We’re just going to have to work at it together.”
+++++She lifts her face to me, her beautiful unblemished face. He lashes flicker. Her eyes are on mine. Then she smiles, a familiar expression I recognize.
+++++“Okay,” she says. “Let’s start.”
+++++“That sounds perfect,” I say.

Sandhogs

Knox said, “That’s an Italian fortune cookie. You don’t get off so easy. Hope you liked your veal, ’cause there’s machine gunners waiting at the tollbooth. Someone’s slapping your sis, like that.”
+++++It drew smirks from the other three at the table. Shayla at his right elbow said, “Highly comical.” Her lank hair was tinted eggplant purple. Her labret was a bead of blood.
+++++“Yeah. And it never came in a cookie. They deliver it like a subpoena.”
+++++Big boy Cruiser laughed across the table. His neck and head rose from a black sweatshirt like an ICBM with ear-shaped fins. “Oh fuck you, man.” They all tittered. Knox nodded at no one, showing his horse teeth, goofing. He wore a skullcap, dark blue to match his eyes. Cruiser gave Shayla a scoffing look that she didn’t notice. Cruiser’s lady Carol was studying her plate, twining spaghetti around a spoon. She wore a midnight denim jumper over a black pullover. With Carol there was a scary mix of innocence and experience.
+++++Knox said, “You like some more balls, Carol?” A waiter moved past them. “More hot balls for her, please?” he called.
+++++“Hey,” Cruiser said.
+++++The waiter stopped. He’d served them spaghetti platters, garlic bread and Cokes. He didn’t seem amused. “We’re closed,” he said. “Here.” He ripped a check from his pad and pushed it near the red-and-yellow mound on Knox’s plate. “We only take cash.”
+++++We didn’t get to eat yet,” Shayla told him.
+++++The room had ten checker-clothed tables and three stools at the bar. They were the only ones still there. A while ago the waiter had locked the entrance door, going over to turn the key and let the last parties out. Murmuring “’Night, now” after each one. Curtains were pulled on the lower half of the dark front window.
+++++The four at the table shoved their chairs back and stood.
+++++“There’s problems with the service,” Knox said.
+++++“Worse service than fuh-ken county,” said Cruiser.
+++++Shayla grabbed her bag by the strap hanging over the back of her chair. She reached in and came up with a palm-sized Seecamp. She waved it next to her cheek. “Uh-oh,” she said, smiling gap-toothed at the waiter. “It’s a little gun!”
+++++Knox and Cruiser pivoted like sentries and stomped through the entryway to the kitchen. Carol selected a piece of bread from the basket on the table. She and Shayla stood watching the waiter. He was sloppy in an apron and white shirt, both flecked with fresh sauce. His sleeves were rolled on fat arms. His Buddy Hollys framed the eyes of an alarmed burro.
+++++“Plenty people on Yelp love this place,” Shayla said. “But Yelp, you know, who says you and your friends don’t write those. I thought the food was decent. What I had of it.” She looked at Carol. “You?”
+++++“Rita’s makes better,” Carol said, chewing. “The marinara’s whangier.”
+++++The waiter rose to it, but his voice cracked. “No way.”
+++++“Way,” Carol said.
+++++A thin old cook came in from the kitchen, his brow ridged in waves above furious eyes. A pillowy woman trailed with her hands clasped at her apron front. Then came Knox and Cruiser. Knox carried a beaten, bile-colored zipper pouch. “Mamma anna Pappa Clammasauce-a,” he sang.
+++++“Mamma Pappa Scumbaggi,” Cruiser said grandly.
+++++Knox frowned. “Be nice.”
+++++Shayla moved aside and pointed the Seecamp toward the empty table. “Everyone seat yourselves.”
+++++The old couple and the waiter sat down in front of the spaghetti and red plastic tumblers of Coke. Carol moved to the door, unlocked it and went out. After a few seconds there was a hard rap on its etched glass. Knox and Cruiser crossed the room. Knox opened the door for Cruiser, waved him out, then followed. Shayla waited a full minute, trading stares with the cook. Then she retrieved her bag and slipped the gun in, saying “Don’t tell, okay?” She shouldered the bag on her way to the door. As she reached for the knob she caught a twinkle in the night-blackened glass. She swiveled around to see the waiter with a hand under his apron. “Did you?” she cried, and crossed back to the table. She pulled the Seecamp out and leveled it at the waiter’s forehead. “My pic?” Staring up dumbly, the waiter lifted an aqua iPhone from under the apron. “Bad and bad,” she said, taking the phone, then shouted, “Pow!”The waiter sniffled. The air turned sharp as rotten gorgonzola. There was a tense moment. “You’re very rude as well,” Shayla said. No one replied as she stepped back to the door. This time she slipped out.
+++++Night and Jersey City, the devil’s dirty backyard. She moved in the shadows past duplex row houses wrapped in vinyl siding. The streetlights were filtered out by low trees. Hefty sacks were piled like soft skulls at the curb. No one came the other way. She made two blocks before she heard a siren. Another two and she was on a cobbled road of abandoned warehouses, their insides exposed through ripped-out walls. Bumble bee traffic drums guarded a boom lift and a Cat resting on light treads. She walked toward the new Trump towers on the next block. One had bands of warm windows and a penthouse lit with a lavender glow. But the unfinished building was a stack of dead-eyed floors, with a fiery signal spitting at the very top. At street level its scaffold lights blazed. Shayla darted around the corner and back into the night.
+++++On the next block she stopped beside a high chain-link fence screening a cluster of generators. Through the fence yellow lamplight showed their segmented coils like insect parts plugged at Y-angles into gray vats. Everything buzzed like a cage of dragonflies. Beyond this was the old powerhouse, a city block of redbrick ruin covered with scummy patches of black and brown. The massive cathedral windows had been torn out and boarded. Shayla tilted her head perpendicular. The Gothic cornice jutted against racing silver clouds. Cold wind tore at her face and hair. The buzzing filled the street.
+++++Beside the fence was a bare section of the outer wall. The brick was tagged with maggoty script: eek and mezzy and kers. An iron delivery shutter bore cartoon mushroom clouds and three-eyed horned beasts. Shayla went over to a weed-cracked ledge. Just above it a wide steel vent was set into the wall. She pulled on one of its downturned slats with both hands and the whole vent came free. She set it on the ledge. She stepped up, legged through the opening and dropped to the powerhouse floor. Then she reached for the vent and worked it back in place. For a minute she stood still in the full dark. It was ten degrees colder. Across the invisible space came a low electric whirring. Somewhere metal clinked and echoed. Emptiness rose above her. The blackness was starting to change when a nickel-sized spot appeared and flashed in her eyes. “Die, slut,” came in a loud whisper. She turned her face and the light dropped to one side. “Don’t talk like that,” she called.
+++++The flash flipped backwards and there was Knox’s head, floating in a pocket of light a couple dozen feet away. “Who was talking?” he said.
+++++“No games, alright? Let’s see the way.”
+++++“This is Frankenstein’s Castle.” Knox vanished. His voice came through the black. “Exit light.”
+++++The flash hit her again, then slid to the cement floor. She followed as it crept back toward Knox, saying as she walked, “What’s the count?” The light showed her boots kicking up lunar-grade dust. “Something believable, alright?” She stopped when the flash’s spot hit his black Reeboks. The light stayed between them on the floor.
+++++“We golden?” he said softly.
+++++“Yeah,” she said.
+++++“Around four each.” He could have been a cardboard cut out standing there, with that Irish Riviera accent coming from the beyond: “Foa each.” She shook her head. They’d burn through it.
+++++“Floor’s all broken up,” he said. “We’re over this side.” The oval of light beamed over smashed brick and tile, lengths of pipe and dunes of dusty rubble. Shoulder to shoulder they began to cross the powerhouse floor. From high in the fathoms of darkness overhead came a squeal of metal. Shayla stopped and looked up, seeing nothing. She heard Knox shuffle ahead a few steps. There was a thud like a cannonball hitting a hay bale and the light was wiped away. The flash clattered on the floor. Shayla froze where she stood. She heard only the electric whir, steady in the background. The cold murk opened up all around her. Blind but exposed, she screamed, “KNOX!!” Nothing. She crumpled down and yelled, “CRUISER!WHERE ARE YOU?”
+++++Nearby was a new sound. A dribble hitting the cement. At last Cruiser’s voice came from a distance. “What?”
+++++“GET HERE! FUCK!”
+++++Far into the darkness there was a prick of light. She heard crunching bootfalls. The light grew into a beam, bobbing across the floor and splintering whenever it swung her way. Before the beam reached her its shine hit Knox, then shifted over him. Shayla let out a Linda Blair hissing noise. A thick crane hook had entered Knox’s gut and ripped through his back. His Reeboks were a few feet in the air, quivering. The light played upward to a cable that disappeared plumb into the black. It played down to Knox’s face. Glossy blood drooled from his mouth. The light went to the floor. A dark red slop was scattered below the hook’s still-dripping curve. The beam flashed from the wet onto Shayla. From her cat crouch she stared up at Cruiser’s gray form. Finally he said, “Carol’s back there.”
+++++She stood. “We—” Her voice went dry. With effort, she swallowed. “—get her. Okay? Then we go.”
+++++Cruiser only sighed. “What a fuh-ken night.”
+++++They followed his light as it crossed over steel scraps and crud hills, stepping around gaps where the cement floor was driven in. Cruiser called to Carol and a white streak split through the gloom. They traced it to where Carol was waiting between girders that supported some kind of overhead gallery. The beam from her flash slid over them. “Problems?” she said.
+++++“A crane tore Knox up,” Shayla told her. “I don’t know how.”
+++++Carol replied slowly. “That’s . . . oh, that’s . . .”
+++++“It’s bad, yeah. This is a bad place to be.”
+++++They could hear the charged hum from somewhere across the dead-black floor.
+++++“Shayla?” Carol said. “Can we show you? Come.”
+++++Carol and Cruiser stepped deeper beneath the gallery’s overhang, playing their flashes in crossbeams. The light caught an old iron swivel chair tilted in the debris between two corroded girders. The cash pouch was on its seat. The beams shifted to the back wall. They held on a fresh-looking tag, in lead-white donut letters: nox now nex ?
+++++Shayla said, “Knox now– what? What is that?”
+++++Carol said, “We didn’t do it.”
+++++“So it was there,” Shayla said.
+++++“Yes,” Carol said. “There’s something going on,”
+++++“You know, Carol, that’s very good. I say you’re right. Something’s going on.”
+++++“The message appeared,” Carol said. “It means there are presences here.”
+++++Shayla’s voice turned kindly. “Should you maybe ask your cards, then? To find out?” Like she was offering a first grader Drano-laced Pixy Stix.
+++++Carol replied simply. “Whatever’s here is real.”
+++++In the same sweet tone, Shayla said, “And such presences already know Knox, so they could write his name?”
+++++“I think they got it from you. Then they —”
+++++“So you’re saying —”
+++++“Not saying. I know it.” Carol paused. “I’ve felt chakras lots of times. Even coming out of my dog.”
+++++There was a pause until Cruiser said, “We’re not going back that way.”
+++++Shayla looked at him, seeing a gray ogre behind his flash. A shadowed hand at his side held the pouch. “I don’t. I don’t get where we need to go,” she said.
+++++“Follow her,” he said.
+++++Carol swept her flash over the labyrinth of girders that surrounded them. She led the way over to a corrugated steel path running out onto the powerhouse floor. To either side square pits opened, some webbed with rubble-filled nets, some dropping out empty. Carol walked point. Shayla strung along behind her, with Cruiser’s flash shining steady at her back. They crossed the main floor. The whirring grew as they moved across the cold, empty space. After a minute Carol’s flash hit the far wall. She ran the beam up from the debris pile at its foot and along a snarl of decayed piping. Cruiser called, “Hold up.” They clustered to watch as Cruiser’s light brushed across the bricks. It stopped on a neon-green board that sealed a low, arched window. The whir, now scream-singing, filled the darkness. Over it he said, “There. We’re good.” He spoke to Carol. “Go kick it out.”
+++++Carol went toward the block of spectral green. After three steps she stiffened and shouted, “No . . . DON’T YOU TOUCH ME!” She threw her arms out and did a half-spin. Ragged blue light flared through the gloom and encased her, jolting her upward. For a few seconds she danced free of the ground inside a blazing cocoon. It lit up the powerhouse’s depths, across the bombed-out floor and into the grid of rafters far overhead. At the center of the blaze Carol’s face stretched like a rubber mask. Her hair was on fire. Then the airburst and everything blacked out. Shayla and Cruiser heard something crackle and pop. There was a reek of burnt hair, with an iron edge as if liver was frying.
+++++The vast space went still. Shayla spoke first. “Listen to me.” Sounding like an android on Darvon. “We don’t move from here. I’m calling out.” She groped into her bag and came up with a phone. The size was wrong, and she realized it was the waiter’s. When she pressed the screen it didn’t glow on.
+++++Cruiser’s voice was so near it jolted her. “My phone’s dead. Flashlight’s dead, too.”
+++++The whirring was gone. They heard something softly shift in the blackness where Carol had been. Shayla shoved the phone back in her bag and found a Bic lighter. She hit Cruiser on the arm and gave it to him, saying “Here. Use the money.”
+++++“Ah fuck.” She heard the pouch zip. Saw the Bic’s puny flame jump. It hovered for a moment, then caught the edge of some loose bills. Cruiser’s hard face was lit orange, frowning down at the fire as it steadied. He held the burning tuft at chest height and looked at her. She could just make out the lump of dark denim on the ground behind him.
+++++“It’s broke up all through the middle there,” Cruiser said.
+++++“We’re still going back.”
+++++Cruiser handed her the pouch and led the way with the flame. Twenty steps through the debris he said, “I need more.” His voice was rough, like he’d just been blubbering. She pulled out another sheaf of bills and gave it to him. A new flame came up with a rustle. They walked a paved strip with drops opening into shadowy ironwork on either side. From the emptiness far above came a crack like ice breaking. The air stirred as something heavy sheared past Shayla’s head and smashed on the iron. She heard Cruiser’s shout as a slo-mo growl, saw white-hot sparks on black velvet as she stumbled sideways. Then freefall. A sudden full-body shudder wrenched her straight, like she’d been grabbed in an energy field. Her feet fumbled for balance. She staggered back and steadied herself, then stood with wrapped arms, clutching the pouch. Cruiser was open-mouthed in the flame’s orange cone. “You went out over the hole and jerked around . . . . Like a movie going backward . . .” He trailed off. She stared at him. After a moment she moved ahead, her hand in the pouch for another sheaf of bills to torch.
+++++They kept going, past the open shafts and through the floor’s wreckage. “This used to be all giant turbines,” Cruiser said.
+++++“So you’ve been in here. Other times.”
+++++“Yeah. I been in here.”
+++++A dangling shape up ahead became Knox. She said no, but Cruiser led them nearer. The flickering fire showed the body jackknifed above a mess that shone on the rubble like palm oil. A wet clump fell from the hook and splatted into the rest. Shayla let out a short moan. Cruiser snorted. “He timed that one pretty good.”
+++++They moved around Knox and came to the wall. Cruiser went slowly along, checking it in the firelight.
+++++“There aren’t any vents,” she said.
+++++Cruiser stopped. The flame showed blank brick, nothing else. “It’s not here,” he said.
+++++“But it was.”
+++++“Yeah it fuh-ken was,” he said.
+++++“We’re at the right place?”
+++++He didn’t answer. Absently, he said, “Wish day would come.”
+++++“Fah real? You wish day . . .?”
+++++Cruiser kicked out and a pipe rattled across the floor. “Everything’s made of fuh-ken metal. We can’t keep burning all the cash.” He lowered his head, giving it thought. “But . . .”
+++++“I’m not sitting here the whole night with no way out.”
+++++“Just wait, Shay. We’re good. There’s coal.”
+++++“There’s coal.”
+++++“Yeah.”
+++++Shayla glared at him. “So where’s the fuh-ken coal?”
+++++“Underground. Wait, I need some more.” She gave him bills. Cruiser walked away. She watched him recede into the deep shadow under the hanging gallery till there was only a fist carrying fire. He stopped and stayed still while she picked her way over. When she got to him he was standing over a three-cornered shaft. It had stairs leading beneath the floor. They could see the first steps set in a curve that followed the shaft downward. Its center fell away into nothing.
+++++Looking into the hole, fire playing on his Easter Island face, Cruiser said, “We’re good once we get down there.” He raised his head and hollered, “RIGHT, KNOX?!”
+++++She stared at him. “What the fuck was that?”
+++++He stared back through the shadows. “I saw what I saw. He’s helping you.”
+++++She didn’t say anything.
+++++“Fighting off the others of them. I don’t know. However it works.”
+++++He stared a little longer, then said “More. Make this a fattie.” She dug in the pouch for bills and gave them over. He lit them from the flame he was holding. As the light grew he took the first stairs down until he was clutching the rail. She started the descent behind him. Slowly they moved around the curves, fire glowing on the shaft’s walls. “Big step,” Cruiser called where a stair was missing. At times his weight made the iron groan. She kept on warily, step by step, until he said, “Touchdown.” A few seconds later she hit firm ground. She looked back up. The shaftway was lost in blackness.
+++++Cruiser played the flame around the enclosure where they’d landed, then led her through an opening in the wall. She watched him walk a short way off. The firelight shivered on a low overhead arch. There were squat columns running past and an antique bench with curved arms. She realized they were on an abandoned subway platform. Where Cruiser stood, the flame showed an enormous heap of coal bricks that blocked the way and spilled off onto the track. He squatted to push the burning cash under the edge of the pile. He watched the flame. “Come the fuck on.”
+++++The fire licked up under the broken bricks, reddening a little hollow. Neither of them spoke as it burned lower. Finally Cruiser said, “Shay. I have to feed it some more.”
+++++He turned and looked up at her. She was watching the red recede. “There is no more,” she said. The flame flickered. Then it snuffed out. His voice rang through the dark: “Can you fuh-ken believe . . .”
+++++This was stone blindness. “When day comes there’ll be light to climb back up,” she said.
+++++“What we’ll find out.”
+++++She moved till she hit the tunnel wall and slid down with her back against it. She heard Cruiser shuffle over and stop a few feet away. He smacked the wall and sat with a grunt.“Lighter’s done with.” His voice was scratchy again.
+++++“Maybe a train’ll come.”
+++++Neither of them spoke for a minute. At last Cruiser said, “You know something?”
+++++“What.”
+++++“Guys building this place ate it down here.”
+++++“So?”
+++++“Sandhogs they used to call them.”
+++++“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t expect a cave-in.”
+++++“But maybe that’s them up there.”
+++++The tunnel was silent. Nothing to cut the blackness. Finally she said, “Yeah. Them and Knox. And Carol.”
+++++“Well, yeah. Maybe.”
+++++“And I ask, how do you have all this information?”
+++++“I told you I been all over the fucker.”
+++++She waited before saying, “That makes me think.”
+++++“Think what?”
+++++“Skip it.”
+++++She could hear him breathing. There was a rustle as he edged closer.
+++++“Shayla? Shay?”
+++++When she didn’t answer he said, “I need something right now.”
+++++Thick fingers blindly slid across her cheek and neck, then trailed down the front of her shirt. She threw a cross-body punch. Then panic shot up as his huge weight came around like some dungeon’s trap door. She squirmed and skidded away along the wall, panting, “Are . . . you. . . kidding me?”
+++++For a moment she heard nothing. Then his near-whisper came out of the dark: “I didn’t . . . Please, Shay?”
+++++God. Are you that much of a fuckwit?” She choked out a laugh.
+++++There was a pause. “I don’t get you, Shay.”
+++++She could hear his quick exhales. “You think I don’t see,” she said.
+++++More silence.
+++++“This is just what you wanted.”
+++++“This?”
+++++“This. Meaning me.”
+++++“You.”
+++++Half-laughing she said, “You’re thinking the situ now is for me . . . Because I have to.”
+++++“So you’re the Cracker Jack prize,” he said, a little proudly.
+++++“You’re an idiot enough to try. Easy girl, easy money, like that.”
+++++“And Carol and your boy?”
+++++“You know the building from before. So you knew about that hook? You knew about the electricity? The graffiti. All of it. You.”
+++++“I don’t think so.” She imagined him scoffing in the dark. “I set it up? What Carol said was right . . . about them. They went for the decap on you.”
+++++“One accident.”
+++++“Wrong. You saw —”
+++++Quiet as a creeping pool of blood she’d moved back over to him. Now she felt for his shoulder, then his face. Everything hard as marble. “Hey,” he said. The Seecamp fired an inch from his temple. She jumped up and edged down the platform, still seeing the flash and his head snapping away. She stopped and stood against the wall, staring blind and stuttering, “Whu-well, Knox, is this whu-what it’s about?”
+++++In the darkness in front of her, above the track line, Carol appeared. Carol with her eyes sagged out, her curls matted, her face lashed with gore. The apparition hovered then faded out. The next instant it was there again. Now it was Carol in her denim jumper, face clean and shining, smiling as she silently mouthed, “Way.” Then everything went black.
+++++Okay, the hallucination channel was on. What else? Shayla was wiped, wired, tripped out, couldn’t trust herself. And don’t forget guilty. Ghosts always came for the guilty. But then why wasn’t it Cruiser? She knew he couldn’t set a plan that had parts to sync up. He never booby trapped anybody. She did him for being way the fuck out of line in a time of stress. That and raw anger over Knox. She needed Knox around for relief of pain. Finding him was the only thing that’d saved her in Covenant House. What if he still had her back, out there doing whatever it takes? She could go to him. Or was that the guilt talking again? She sank her shoulder to the floor and folded herself against the wall. Her cheek rested on the wrist of the hand holding the gun.
+++++Or could Carol be a messenger? A messenger inviting Shayla to go over to them. She and Knox, they’d have each other’s backs. Would Cruiser still be a problem when she got there? She hadn’t had such a brilliant life. Fah real. One slaphead stunt after the other. Just take for example the present situ. The worst ever, so far. Would anything not be an improvement?
+++++A velvety blue radiance flooded down the tracks. Seeing it, Shayla didn’t even move. She lay thinking she’d be able to feel its light against her skin in some unknown way. Beyond the platform’s crumbling lip a silent man swayed by, then a file of men. Some wore coarse overalls and work caps, a few were nude. They had walrus moustaches that looked like grafts holding together their blue-lit faces, if bloated-out shapes swimming free of the skull were still faces. Maybe a dozen of them came, slowly passing where she lay in darkness. Last came Knox, marching straight and whole. He went by with the rest. At the last second he threw her a sudden glance, goofing, his eyes like sapphires.
+++++She quickly sat up. “KNOX!!” She pushed the gun’s nose up under her left ribcage, till the pain cut off her breath. Then it all vanished. She was alone in the tunnel. Down the platform a blotch of light was shining through the opening to the stairwell. Cruiser’s body was visible as a grainy mound, so near it startled her. The coal slide was a black ramp beyond the light. A shout came down the shaft: “Police!” There was a pause. “Who’s down dare?”
+++++Fucking great.

Jailbait

I twist the screwdriver out of his neck, and it makes a sound like a sloppy kiss. To his credit, he doesn’t even flinch.
+++++The tang of hot blood fills my nostrils. The windows of the brothel have been nailed shut, and there is nowhere for the blood-stink to escape. I look for the tell-tale arterial spurt, but it never materialises.
+++++I jab the hot metal into his gut instead, and he smiles queasily – before dropping to his knees.
+++++Jesus. What a fucking mess.

***

When I first met my ex-wife Alouette, she was turning tricks to support her crippled brother. Her drugged eyes looked like clumsy smudges, and she had track marks on the backs of her legs. At that point in time, she was the prettiest hooker I had ever seen.
+++++It was love at first sight.

***

When Alouette walked into the Dirty Lemon yesterday morning it was the first time I had set eyes on her in over a year. By this point, we had been divorced far longer than we were ever married. I took comfort in that fact – it made me feel like I had outrun my past. I haven’t outrun anything since I was ten, so it was especially satisfying. Fuck, last month I got outrun by a fat cop. He beat me so hard I shat blood in the holding cell.
+++++It was a hot day, and the pub’s fire exit had been propped open with a traffic cone. The wheelchair ramp had been freshly painted, and the fumes drifted into the bar.
+++++Alouette craned her neck as she glanced around the pub. She didn’t have to look too hard admittedly – the bar was quieter than the county morgue on a bank holiday.
+++++I was happy to see her – in spite of myself. She was wearing sprayed-on jeans, an inside-out T-shirt and grubby tennis shoes. She looked clean and healthy.
+++++She slipped into the chair opposite me.
+++++“I need a favour.”
+++++No small-talk. I appreciated that. There had been a lot of water under the bridge. A lot of other stuff too.
+++++She smiled at me.
+++++As a general rule, I don’t even do favours for my few remaining blood relatives, let alone my ex-spouses.
+++++Her eyes creased as she struggled to maintain the smile. I remembered it well – small crooked teeth and a vague hint of desperation.
+++++“Sure.”
+++++I didn’t return her smile. Lately I have had very little to smile about.

***

Alouette told me that her step-sister, Aileen, was part of a teen-hooker ring, operating out of a semi-detached house in Foxhole. I had heard worse stories coming out of Foxhole over the years, but this one seemed pretty fucking raw. The pimp – a guy named Nelson Felton – was keeping the girls strung out on ketamine, and selling them like animals to the highest bidder. Some of the prices I had heard mentioned were distressingly low.
+++++Nelson and I go way back. I remember him as a teenager – he was skinnier than a junkie’s dog. He used to do razor attacks for Remy Cornish, back when that was still a viable career option. Remy always paid by the stitch, and it ended up being one of the best part-time jobs in town.
+++++Nelson recently served 19 months in Channings Wood for breaking a man’s ribs with a claw hammer. The experience had a profound impact on him, by all accounts. I have never spent enough time in prison to succumb to the unique delights of ‘penitentiary pussy’, but I’ve met a few surprising converts over the years. None more so than Nelson. Rumour has it that he is now shacked-up with his ex-cellmate. I have heard that they make a lovely couple.

***

Alouette’s life story is long and depressing – like Foxhole Road. The brief chapter involving me always seemed like something of a high-point, but maybe I’m biased?
+++++For what it’s worth, Foxhole Road also has its own unique charms. You just have to look really fucking hard to find them.
+++++I pop the lock of Nelson’s semi-detached house with my screwdriver and sneak into the hallway. Inside, it resembles any other small town brothel. I can hear sex noises emanating from the lounge. Someone sounds like they are having fun – the other person, not so much. I slide the screwdriver into my back pocket and kick open the door.
+++++“What the fuck?”
+++++I recognise the boyfriend. His name is David Cummings. He is bony and rat-faced, and has a high-tar cigarette tucked behind his left ear. He lunges at me across the bed, dick still rock-hard. I slam an open palm into his chin and his head judders backwards with a queasy crack.
+++++Nelson disentangles himself from the sweaty bedsheets. He has waxy yellow skin and a badly inked neck tattoo. He looks positively withered. Prison food was evidently bad for his health.
+++++“Aw man, was that really necessary?”
+++++I remove the crumpled photo of Aileen from my jacket pocket.
+++++“I don’t want any trouble – I just want this girl.”
+++++He laughs uproariously.
+++++“Take my word for it – girls are overrated.”
+++++I glare at him, dead-eyed, and he matches me with a well-honed prison yard stare.
+++++A beat passes, and then I feel a tiny prick as the photo slips from my hand. I try to turn around, and realise there is a fucking needle stuck in my neck.
+++++It’s Aileen, jailbait smirk stitched across her face.
+++++I jerk away from her, trying to swat the needle away, but my arm flails helplessly.
+++++Aileen stands over me, grinning. She is wearing a soiled-looking school uniform.
+++++Nelson puts a sickly arm around her.
+++++“Just what the fucking doctor ordered.”

***

Later.
+++++It could have been minutes, it could have been hours.
+++++I’m slumped on a worn recliner, sifting through the ulcerated visions inside my skull. The radiator next to me oozes a warm, reeking heat, and I’m sweating like a fat man at a gang-bang – mouth dry like sandpaper.
+++++Nelson is wearing a cheap-looking kimono. I’ve seen similar items being sold from wire hangers on Torbay Road. They usually cost less than a rock of crack, but more than a Harbourside handjob. He offers me a feint, sardonic smile. When he smiles the sores around his mouth crack and ooze.
+++++“David, our friend looks a little bit woozy. Would you escort him to the bedroom?”
+++++David Cummings grins at me through yellow teeth and my guts tighten.
+++++Then I remember my fucking screwdriver…

Piggies

You’ve seen it in the movies a hundred times. A guy gets his toe cut off by some serious gangster types, they ask about some missing money, the guy doesn’t squeal, so they take another toe. He screams and screams until finally he gives up the location of the money, the girl or what the fuck ever.
+++++Well, that’s where we’re at with Teddy. The little piggy that stayed home. Unfortunately, he still won’t give up the info of where my property is located.
+++++Mitch has the grass clippers pressed against his toe. Blood everywhere, pooling on the plastic underneath him on the floor from the ones we’ve already lopped off. Teddy’s crying and screaming.
+++++“Where is the bag, Teddy?” I ask.
+++++“I don’t know.” He’s sobbing and moaning. Music to my ears.
+++++“Where is it? It’s a black gym bag with a swoosh on the side. I know you know where it’s at.”
+++++“I swear, please. I have a wife and kids, man, please.”
+++++I wipe my hair out of my face and nod toward Mitch. He squeezes the clippers and Teddy’s toe pops off like a champagne cork.
+++++Teddy screams. Obviously.
+++++“Come on, Teddy,” I yell into his red, tear-stained face. “You don’t want to end up like Nikolai No-Toes, do ya?”
+++++“Okay, okay.”
+++++“Where?” I say into his ear.
+++++“I don’t know where it’s at, I swear. But I know where it’ll be dropped off. I’m supposed to pick it up.”
+++++I point to the kitchen and tell Mitch, “Get something to stop the bleeding.”
+++++Teddy sobs. “Fuck… oh fuck.”
+++++Mitch comes back with some towels and duct tape to stop the bleeding.
+++++I bend over and lean on my knees, looking Teddy in the eyes. “Last time, Ted.”
+++++“It’s going to be dropped off… fuck… at the Motel 6 at seven thirty… fuck… get me to a hospital, please.”
+++++“Good, man. As a thank you I’ll even put your toes on ice for you.” I lean in close and grab a handful of his curly hair. “But, if you’re lying to me, so help me god, I will find you and your family and cut off every one of their feet.”
+++++“It’ll be there I swear.”

***

So, I’ve been staring at this motel door like I’m in love, and want to stick my dick in the keyhole and make it yell my name, for the past hour without anybody coming or going. Sitting in Mitch’s car listening to him eat hasn’t been the most fun experience I’ve had lately. See, me and my partner have been together since high school. And when I say together I don’t mean it the way you’re thinking. It’s not like we snuggle up together at night and whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ears. I mean we eat pussy for fuck’s sake. How do I know if he eats pussy you might ask? Because we’ve double teamed chicks on more than one occasion, that’s why.Anyway, we’ve been friends for a long fucking time and I like the guy, but he ain’t the most talkative person I’ve ever met. The boredom is killing me
+++++Finally, a guy pulls up in a nice brand new Cadillac, gets out with my black gym bag and walks over to my new girlfriend the door. He raps his knuckles on the door and somebody lets him in.
+++++I open my car door and turn to Mitch. “Stay here. If I ain’t out in twenty minutes come and get me.”
+++++Mitch swallows a chunk of the cheeseburger he’s devouring like a starving African kid and says, “Sure.”
+++++I walk straight up to the motel door. The blinds in the window next to the door split a little. I give the peeper my best tough guy open-the-fucking-door face and point at the knob. It cracks open and I let myself in.
+++++Inside, there’s a guy leaning on a wooden cane, the guy I saw with my bag, plus two big fuckers sitting at a table playing cards. The one with the cane says, “Well, well, Brad the Butcher. Privetstvuyumoyegodruga. Come, come, have a seat.”
+++++“Nikolai.” The door closes behind me and the two gorillas eclipse the light from the window behind me. I look back at the man leaning on the cane that just spoke to me in Russian.I notice my bag lying next to his feet. Pointing to it I say, “That’s mine.”
+++++“Oh, this?” Nikolai says tapping the bag with his cane.“No, no, I don’t think so.”
+++++“Nikolai, that’s my bag. I want it back.”
+++++Nikolai examines his fingernails like they’re too long and dirty. “You may not have it. It is mine now. As…payment, for what you have done to me.” He taps his foot with his cane.
+++++I jab my finger at his stony, wrinkled face. “I want my bag you Russian piece of shit and I ain’t fucking leaving here without it.”
+++++“Brad the Butcher,” he says emphasizing the vowels like he just learned English.“You do not scare me. Skhvatityego.”
+++++The two monsters behind me grab an arm each and lift me off my feet. They slam me face first onto the bed.My first thought is Teddy fucking set me up. He knew the bag was coming here and he knew Nikolai No-Toes would be receiving it. I’ll get that little bastard for this. I should have cut off his whole damn legs.
+++++One of the big galoots has his elbow jammed into the back of my neck. I can barely get my words out to say, “What the hell, Nikolai.”
+++++“Have you heard the saying, an eye for an eye?” His bodyguards strip my shoes and pants. I can’t move an inch under their bulk. The guy that brought my bag to this room steps away from the corner he’s been standing in and opens my bag. He pulls out the small hacksaw I use on people that especially piss me off.
+++++Nickolai says, “How about toes for toes?”
+++++The guy comes over to me as I struggle under these damn apes. He can’t be more than five-five and one fifty. But, it doesn’t matter because he’s pulling on latex gloves and has a dead stare like he’s done this sort of thing before. He goes to work on me, no anesthesia, just a leather belt shoved in my mouth by one of the gorillas. The pain is un-fucking-believable, let me tell you. He gets through one whole foot before Mitch comes bursting through the door, guns blazing. He takes out the surgeon and gorillas without retaliation.
+++++He sees my foot spitting blood and quickly takes the belt from my mouth and tightens it around my leg to stop the bleeding. I roll to my back moaning and groaning- I swear to god I’m not crying- as Mitch reloads his weapon and points it at Nikolai. He says, “What the fuck is going on here?”
+++++“Nothing. Your friend wanted something that belonged to me. I would not let him have it.”
+++++I reach out across the bed and point at Nikolai, sweat (not tears) pouring from my face. “Kill that fucker. It’s Nikolai… Nikolai No-Toes.”
+++++“Let’s not be hasty, moy drug.” He raises his hands as if in surrender, the pussy. “We can talk-”
+++++Mitch put two in his chest and one in his forehead. He grabbed my bag of goodies, got me up and out of there in a flash, rushing me back to the car, hopping on one leg.
+++++In the car Mitch asked, “What hospital?”
+++++“No hospital.”
+++++“Are you fucking serious?”
+++++I groan and ask him a question right back, “Do you want to go to jail dumbass?”
+++++“What then, asshole?”
+++++“Remember the guy,” I was starting to fade out. “Remember the guy that stitched you up after that heist a few years ago?”
+++++“Yeah.”
+++++“Yeah, go there.”
+++++Mitch pushes the gas pedal into the floorboard as I black out from the pain.

***

Now, Mitch is pushing me in this god forsaken wheelchair like he’s fucking Dale Jr. We’re walking down the sidewalk, hitting every damn crack in the pavement.
+++++“Will you slow the fuck down? Jesus.”
+++++“Sorry, boss.”
+++++“My fucking feelings are getting jarred right out of my teeth for fucks sake.”
+++++I mean, I appreciate him showing up before I lost more than my toes and making bloody swiss cheese out of those damn Russians, but still. We find the apartment I’m searching for so Mitch wheels me up to the door and I knock. After another knock, a woman, mid-thirty’s maybe, opens the door.
+++++“Can I help you?” she asks.
+++++“Mrs. Hobbs. Is Teddy home?”
+++++“Um, no. He’s out at the moment.” A little girl, maybe four, peeks out from behind her mother’s legs. “But, he’ll be back soon,” the lady says.
+++++I adjust the black gym bag on my blanket covered legs and Mitch lights a smoke.
+++++“That’s okay, Mrs. Hobbs. You’re the one I wanted to talk to anyway.”
+++++“Me? Why me?”
+++++“I just want to ask you a few questions.”
+++++Mitch walks around me and shoves Teddy’s wife into her apartment. I look around the complex and wheel myself inside, shutting the door behind me.

The Legend Of Ballsack Billy

Ballsack Billy Sullivan was a legend in this town. As notorious for his nickname as he was for the crime that he had committed. A crime, that lit this shithole of a town on fire, for a month or so, securing his place and mine, in local lore for years to come.
+++++The story of the nickname goes like this. One day Billy Sullivan emerged from the funk of the high school locker-room shower, gym class, 1994, displaying for the first time publicly, at age 14, the largest scrotum anyone had ever scene.
+++++We’re talking mutant big. We’re talking, how does he not walk bow legged big, extra large jock strap big, looking like a water balloon… big. You get it.
+++++Why someone hadn’t dubbed him “Super Scrotum” or some other alliterative is not known. My guess is that if you had polled anyone in that locker-room, they would have said that a scrotum was, a plant or some new kind of exotic food. Used in context it would go like this; “The place is littered with Scrotum.” Or, “If you go to that new place, try the Scrotum.” So, it ended up being a case of “go with what you know.”
+++++Of course, it could all be bullshit. I wasn’t there to witness it. I know I didn’t believe it. I mean a kid with a world record set of balls would be in the Guinness Book of World Records, right? Of course, this was all pre- Internet. If it had happened today Billy would have his own reality TV show, a movie contract, maybe a shot on Dancing with the Stars. To me Billy was a punk with a head shaped like a pie plate and a pimpled face you just wanted to smack. I didn’t give a crap about his balls, except wanting to give him a swift kick in them given the chance.
+++++Well, the moniker must have bugged Billy, because after that, he pretty much kept to himself. He did manage to graduate with us, in 1998. Over the next ten years, you might hear the occasional barroom tale of Billy drowning some gal in his juices or floating out to sea to save someone from drowning. But for all intents, Billy was disappeared.
+++++I grew up to be Officer Leon Savage and I patrolled this sleepy seaside jerk water town by the name of Chapman. A community that always carried the down wind stink of the algae from the ocean. Chapman had been immune, for a while, to any type of crime except for the occasional drunken argument or break in. I used to spend a lot of time napping behind the donut shop, directing traffic and keeping an eye on the stores on Main Street until Billy showed up. From then on we had to triple our staff and budget because of scumbags trying to do what Ballsack Billy failed to do.
+++++I’ll never forget the day I saw the legend himself return in a crappy Ford Windstar mini van.
+++++For lack of anything else to do I put the car in gear and, keeping within a safe distance, followed Billy down Main Street to the Fish House, where he pulled the car into the parking lot, next to the boats that were up on trailers for the season. He sat and lit a cigarette as I watched him from the curb across the street. If he noticed me he didn’t acknowledge it. I watched him, finally realizing that he was watching the bank on the opposite corner.
+++++We each sat there for better part of an hour. Me watching him, watch the bank. Him throwing butt after butt out of the window, the interior of the car a haze of grey smoke.
+++++He finally put the car in gear and I let him drive off, thinking that it may be best to keep an eye on the bank for the next few days. If he made a move I was going to be there to take him down.
+++++Sure enough, it happened a week before Thanksgiving. Timed before the locals emptied their accounts for the holidays. Billy drove from the Fish House parking lot to the front of the Essex Bank, got out of the car with something clearly stuck in the back of his dirty blue jeans.
+++++He wasted no time, going up to the teller wearing one of those clear plastic masks over his face and fake rubber dick attached to the outside of his pants looking like a character from A Clockwork Orange. It appeared he had embraced his moniker after all.
+++++I followed him in, dropped to my knees and shouted, “Billy!” He turned, showing what was clear to me to be a toy gun, his toy dick flapping in all directions. I took aim and put one in his head, chest and one right in that famous ballsack of his.
+++++He fell on his knees and then flat on what was left of his face, bleeding, to the screams of the teller, the bank manager and Old Man Tyler the security cop.
+++++For show, I kicked away Billy’s toy pistol, pulled his wallet, rolled him over on his back and took down his mask.
+++++“Do you know him, Leon?” Old Man Tyler asked me as I handed him the wallet.
+++++“You mean you don’t?”
+++++To each his own legend, I supposed. Ballsack Billy Sullivan was dead.

 

Sons Of The Confederacy

“What the fuck is this?”
+++++Hoyt leaned forward in his Salvation Army Laz-E-Boy and set his Natural Lite down on the carpet between his feet where it was immediately knocked over, gurgling the last four ounces which easily reached the perimeters of the perpetual beer stain.
+++++He glared at the television.  His eyes shifted to the wall clock, back to the television, to the glowing numbers on his cell phone, back to the 45” Vizio.  Hoyt could not understand what was happening.  Here it was 7:02 in the pm on a Wednesday.  He checked the channel as many times as he checked the clock.
+++++“Where the hell are my Duke boys?”
+++++Rather than his Dukes of Hazzard in the 7pm time slot on the TV Land channel, there was some bullshit show about four really old women gibbering about sex and shit he didn’t even want to imagine they were capable of.  It was a goddam outrage.
+++++All he knew to do was phone his cohort in crime.  Culley was a smart ass who thought he knew everything about everything.  This was not the case.  However, Hoyt had to begrudgingly admit, Culley did know a little bit about a little bit.  Maybe the sumbitch knew what happened to his Duke Boys.
+++++Culley didn’t answer his phone the first time around.  This did not surprise Hoyt.  Once his unemployment checks ran out, Culley had lucked into a lucrative career collecting up shopping carts at the Super Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Cullman County.  He was shitting in high cotton, a guaranteed twenty-four hours a week and ten percent off all Wal-Mart purchases.  Hoyt liked him better unemployed and immediately available for shenagins.
+++++Hoyt texted 911 CALL ME FUCKER, waited three minutes, then keyed Culley’s number again.  Culley answered on the fifth ring, sounding like he was in the sort of mood to say something Hoyt would hold him accountable for in the near future.
+++++So Hoyt got right down to it.  “I’m sitting here.  Same Duke Boys time, same Duke Boys channel.  It’s ten minutes after seven in the pm.  And there’s no fucking Duke Boys on the Vizio.  What time is it by you?”
+++++“Oh, you poor, clueless bastard.  You ain’t heard the news have you?”
+++++Hoyt felt his sphincter draw up.  “Heard what?  I don’t watch the news, you know that shit.”
+++++“Dukes of Hazzard ain’t coming on, brother.  Not any time soon.”
+++++“What’s going on, Culley?  What’s really going on?”
+++++“You’re gonna wanna be shit-faced when you hear this.  I get outta here in twenty.  Meet me up at the Horse.”

***

Culley knew the woman saw him, looked him straight in the eye.  Hell, his fluorescent vest was bright enough to guide ships to harbor.  Yet this woman wearing a fancy, sequined Alabama University sweatshirt that screamed disposable income walked her empty shopping cart right past him and his caravan of carts and parked her cart in the far corral he had cleared only moments before.
+++++He’d swear before god and his host of cocksucking angels the woman smiled at him, and not the fetching sort of how about hopping in the back of my hubby-financed Escalade for a five minute fuck romp kind of smile either.  This was more of a fuck you and your fluorescent Wal-Mart vest smile Culley had become increasing familiar with these last few months.
+++++Culley wanted to grab her by the throat and choke the hell out of her, screaming “don’t you know who I am, bitch?  Don’t you know I’ve killed people?  Who you think you’re fucking with?”  Fortunately, fear of prison restrained this impulse.  Punching her in the face wasn’t an option, either, not with all the cameras Wal-Mart had pointing all over the place.
+++++Besides, that would be misogynistic.  And that just wasn’t Culley’s style, no matter how badly he wanted it to be.
+++++“You have a great day,” Culley smiled as she rebounded past him from the cart corral.
+++++“Hmmm,” she replied.
+++++Hmmm?  What the fuck does that even mean?  That he isn’t important enough to warrant a ‘fuck you’?  Christ, the back of his hand begged for the bitch’s mouth.
+++++It saddened Culley to think the only thing holding him back from salvaging a little pride was the fear of losing a guaranteed twenty four hour work week and ten percent off all his Wal-Mart purchases.  He watched her climb into her white Escalade and pull away, not even pausing at the crosswalk where an elderly couple had to give up their right-of-way to let her pass.
+++++With the chirping of his cellphone, Culley forgot all about his Wal-Mart angst.  His partner in situational criminality, Hoyt, came up on the screen.  “Just fucking perfect,” Culley muttered.  “This is what I need right now.”

***

The Plush Horse was about an hour away from becoming an interesting place.  The smattering of customers drinking at the bar, presently, didn’t intend to stay any longer than forty-five minutes.
+++++“Now I watched just about every episode of the Duke Boys twice, not once I ever see a nigger get lynched on that show.  Fact is, I don’t recollect even seeing a nigger nowhere near Hazzard County.  Now how they gonna label the show as racist?” Hoyt was livid.
+++++Culley was not.  “It ain’t got nothing to do with the show.  What they’s fired up about is the Confederate flag.”
+++++“On the General Lee?”
+++++“Well, everywhere, but, yeah, on the General Lee, too.”
+++++“Well, fuck them.  I can’t believe this shit.  You telling me some white boy goes and shoots up a church full of jigs and now I don’t get to watch the Duke boys jumping their General Lee through barns and giving Boss Hogg the fits?”
+++++“That’s one way of putting it, I guess.  He did have a Confederate flag selfie.”
+++++“So fucking what?  Ted Bundy had his picture took with Bob Hope.  Did all the brunettes in Florida get together and ban Christmas specials?”
+++++“That’s society for you.  Wouldn’t be surprised, government comes for our guns.”
+++++“That’s next.  I’m telling you, Culley.  This is open war against good, honest, white folk.”
+++++“By discontinuing Dukes of Hazzard?”
+++++“By everything.  They start with the psychological warfare.  Letting the gays marry like normal people.  Giving that Olympic runner tits and a Woman of the Year award.  How bad is it?  Three billion women in the world, and you wanna tell me not one of them is better than some goofy-looking jackass with fake titties?  We’re through the looking glass, and it’s so goddam muddled, I don’t know we’re looking in or looking out.  It’s no wonder you got these white boys getting crazy-eyed, shooting motherfuckers.  I ain’t judging them, I’m just saying.  Why they gotta take my Duke Boys, but them Kardashians are still running around, unharmed?”
+++++“I don’t know, Hoyt.  I just think it’s a damn shame, we gotta yank every Confederate flag off the Wal-Mart shelves so no one gets their delicate sensibilities offended.”
+++++“Where I gonna get my Confederate flag needs met, should I want one?”
+++++“You ain’t.”
+++++“Well, that’s some bullshit.  I run with the Cullman Klavern for almost twenty years, until they priced me out with all their horseshit upgrades, saying I gotta get new vestments every year.  I wanna tell them, it’s fucking white robes!  You know?  What’s wrong with the robes my daddy pass down to me?  Yet every year they expect me to pony up another three hundred dollars on top of what I’m already paying in dues just to have a 2015 edition with the red iron crosses cross-stitched along the hem.  How’s that gonna help me hate the niggers any more, or solve the miscegenation problem?”
+++++“What’s your point?”
+++++“Point is we don’t salute the Confederate flag so much.  Even in the Cullman Klavern, we carry the American flags.  Cause for one thing, we’re good, honest Americans.  Another thing, we don’t want to marginalize our Yankee brethren.”
+++++“Hopefully, the blacks don’t catch hold of that little tidbit, we’ll have to discontinue all the Evel Kineval products.”
+++++“That’s got me to thinking…” Hoyt threatened.  “That fuckin’ Monkey Muslim in office, he the one outlawed selling Confederate flags?”
+++++“No.  No one outlawed anything, man.  It’s just frowned on, you know.  Political pressure and colored folks threatening to boycott stores.  That sort of thing.”
+++++“So, whatcha saying is, it’s just more difficult to buy one, now, right?  But you can’t go to jail for selling them?  For a mark-up if we wanted.”
+++++“It’s not illegal,” Culley agreed, “but who we gonna sell them to?  Anyone flies the rebel flag’s already got one.  And we don’t have any, no how.”
+++++“Exactly.  We can steal them, wherever we see them.  And when the demand gets high, we sell them.  I drove past The Yellow Ribbon on the way over here.  Every last beat-to-hell Harley and welfare Goldwing had a Confederate flag hanging off the back.  That goddam pick-up that cocksucking little midget drives looked like a Southern Brotherhood float for the shitkicker pride parade, there’s so many Dixie flags hanging off it.”
+++++“Hoyt, you already got your bell rung by them assholes, once.”
+++++“Now, it’s round motherfucking two, Culley.  And my eyes are wide open, now.  Them Michael Jackson impersonators thought they had the drop on us, too, and we straightened them pedophiles out but good.”
+++++“Those guys… weren’t really… just because they dressed like MJ didn’t make them kiddie fuckers, you know?”
+++++“No.  Cause now they dead.  They ain’t fucking nothing.”
+++++“Shit, Hoyt.  I don’t wanna go there.  I can’t go there, right now.”
+++++“Don’t worry about a thing, brother.  I got it all planned out.  This is gonna be my silver lining to losing the Duke Boys.  Even know who’s gonna sell’em for us.”
+++++“Eddie Vacuum?”
+++++“Reverend Eddie Vacuum.”

***

When Culley and Hoyt pulled up to Eddie Vacuum’s establishment with a backseat piled high with rebel flags early the next afternoon, the Reverend Eddie was already showing signs of industry.
+++++“What the hell he dragging behind him?” Hoyt asked.
+++++“What’s it look like?  You telling me you never played in a little princess castle before?”
+++++The plastic castle playset Eddie dragged along behind him looked as if it had served a long line of reckless royalty before succumbing to a Bolshevik revolution or two.  And Eddie was still asking fifty bucks for the ruins.
+++++The Reverend Eddie Vacuum had inherited the low, white brick building from his father who for thirty years prior had unimaginatively utilized the real estate for an auto repair shop.  Upon his father’s death, Eddie realized there were more lucrative endeavors outside the sphere of vehicular repair and transformed the space into a church/thrift shop/professional wrestling association.
+++++Despite not being the Lord’s day, Eddie wore his church vestments, tight Wrangler jeans, an Iron Maiden “The Trooper” T-shirt and professionally tailored, patent leather wrestling boots, air-brushed with Iron Maiden’s skeletal mascot also named Eddie swathed in mummy bandages, crackling lightning striking the metal latch holding his skull cap in place.  Reverend Eddie’s religion of his own devising was a strange amalgam of Christianity, Egyptology, Iron Maiden lyrics and homilies culled from Wrestlemania storylines.
+++++Culley visited a Reverend Eddie Vacuum Sunday service once.  He was not converted.  He just could not accept Ric Flair into his heart as his Lord and savior.  One good thing about the church, Culley didn’t feel as though he were being judged and found lacking by the five other members of the congregation.
+++++Hoyt had a similar experience dropping in on the Powerslave Wrestling Association’s Friday night slobber knocker event.  Twenty jackasses standing inside a garage watching a handful of jokers slap the shit out of each other inside a homemade ring.  Every wrestler spending more time talking shit into the microphone than applying wrasslin moves.
+++++Neither Culley nor Hoyt had ever stepped foot inside the thrift shop.
+++++Eddie Vacuum confused though hopeful expression melted into a look of amused dissatisfaction once he recognized the two men.  A gap-toothed smile lifted the sides of his handle bar mustache.
+++++“Culley and Hoyt!  Holy Christ, it’s the Smash-and-Grab Brothers.  I didn’t recognize your new wheels.  You traded in the ole Chrysler Lebaron for a 2002 Dodge Neon, huh?”  He wiped his hands on his denim and reached in for a double handshake.
+++++“Nah, the Chrysler finally give up the ghost, man,” Culley said.  “Had to sign my life away for this Neon from that car lot in town; what use to be a Food World parking lot before the Wal-Mart Supercenter come to town, shut everything down.  I got a pretty good deal on it.  Sixty-five dollars a week until the Red Chinese come in and take over everything.”
+++++“You should have brought the Chrysler up here, brother.  I would have moved the ring out of the garage and maybe tried to fix what’s wrong with it.”
+++++“You ever notice, Eddie, how you never see anyone showboating a fully restored Chrysler Lebaron at the Big Star Diner the last Saturday every month.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s because the cars truly ain’t worth a fuck.”
+++++“Fair enough,” Eddie bobbed his head.  The long hair hanging off the back and sides swayed with the motion.  The few stray strands jutting off the top of his scalp just sort of danced languidly in the breeze.  “Just thought I’d offer.  From one stranger in a strange land to another.”
+++++“There is something you can do,” Hoyt said.  “You can help us sell these Confederate flags we got back here.  Strike a blow against Obama and any folk wanna take an aggressive stance against our Southern heritage.”
+++++“I’m from Jersey,” Eddie said.  “But I get what you’re saying.  How’d you come by a backseat full of rebel flags, anyway?”

***

When the first heavily-bearded jackass wearing the hundred dollar pair of blue jeans entered the Plush Horse, Culley and Hoyt knew it was time to leave.
+++++Hoyt drummed his fingers on the bar.  “Let’s run by the Yellow Ribbon and see if we can’t confiscate some of those flags,” Hoyt suggested.  “Maybe strangle a smart mouth midget if the opportunity presents itself.”
+++++“Don’t see why not,” Culley said.  “I ain’t in favor of trying to fight a barload of bikers if it comes down to it, though.”
+++++“Me, neither.  I’m just saying, though.  Somehow, we catch ahold of that midget, we shouldn’t let the chance pass to choke him out.”
+++++“Ok, then.”  Culley motioned for the bartender and requested two shots of Southern Comfort.  “Here’s to our next business enterprise.”  They clinked shot glasses and downed the liquor.  “Maybe this’ll get me outta Wal-Mart before I end up beating a soccer mom to death up there.”
+++++“That’s the spirit,” Hoyt said.  “I was starting to think that whole Michael Jackson episode had gentled you down but good.  Shriveled your balls up.”
+++++“Nope, my balls are just fine.  I just like to temper the testicles with some common sense every once in a fucking while.”
+++++They exited the Plush Horse, crossed the parking lot into the shadows behind the neighboring car wash where Culley hid his Dodge Neon.  He unlocked the trunk and lighted the interior with his phone’s flashlight app.  There was an entire Law and Order season’s worth of crime paraphernalia packed into the small confines.  From the Nazi method of meth manufacturing to kidnaping, from home invasion to auto theft, Culley was prepared for any illegality.  For this job, the fellas decided on a couple eight inch lengths of lead pipe and a can of spray paint.
+++++Hoyt watched in disgust as Culley wrapped the end of his pipe with an Alabama Crimson Tide T-shirt he kept in the trunk for wiping off his dipstick when he checked the oil like a motherfucking thug.
+++++“What the fuck you doing with your pipe?” Hoyt asked.  “Padding it?  What’s the point of knocking someone on the head if you’re just gonna deaden the blow with… what’s that?  A commemorative annual beating of the Auburn Tigers shirt?”
+++++“I don’t want to fracture any skulls.  Don’t worry, Hoyt.  It’s still stout enough to scramble some brains.”
+++++“Who says I’m worried?  All I’m saying is I prefer my pipes naked.  Course, I know how to handle them.”
+++++“I guess that’s where we differ, then.”
+++++It took every bit of the ten minute drive for Hoyt to process the previous conversation.  As the signage for the Yellow Ribbon appeared at the corner of the next block, Hoyt suddenly felt the need to clarify his remarks.  “When I say naked pipe, I’m talking about this here lead pipe; I ain’t talking ‘bout dicks, you know.”
+++++“Oh, I know.”
+++++“Ok, I’m just saying… because you had that look on your face.”
+++++“What look?”
+++++“The look like I’m talking ‘bout dicks look.”
+++++“Hoyt, that could be any look.”
+++++“All right, slow down some,” Hoyt hissed.  “Let me get my reconnaissance on.”
+++++Culley crept past the Yellow Ribbon, the gray Neon practically invisible in its anonymity.  He turned left on the side street and eased through the gauntlet of rebel flag draped motorcycles and the midget-owned Dodge Ram.
+++++“I don’t see that sausage-fingered son of a bitch anywhere.” Hoyt said.
+++++“I see two Invaders standing outside, sharing a joint,” Culley observed.  “The double doors out front are closed, that’s good for us.”
+++++“Looks like there’s a good couple hundred dollar’s worth of dixie fabric hanging off about ten dollar’s worth of rice burning motorcycle,” Hoyt added.
+++++Culley parked the Neon behind the midget’s truck.  He left the car running and the back door wide open.  They secured their pipes in their waistbands and immediately set to work stripping the flags off the truck.  As Hoyt stripped the flags off the makeshift poles attached to the back of each motorcycle, Culley shook a can of spray paint and defaced the sides of the truck with the words BLACK POWER.
+++++“The hell you doing?” Hoyt whispered.
+++++“Misdirection.”
+++++“Save that for last, goddammit.  We gotta get these flags before one of these jackasses gets wise.”
+++++The odor of marijuana permeated the air signaling the arrival of two sentries wearing the Invader colors.  Aside from the denim vests, the Invader bikers didn’t look much different from the hipsters invading the Plush Horse earlier in the evening.  Same outlaw beards cultivated to be acceptable both in duck blinds and office cubicles.  Denim perhaps a bit too tight for alcoholics.  Hair slicked back for the ladies.
+++++Hoyt busted the one on the right upside the head.  Culley had to hit the one on the left twice before he dropped unconscious; Hoyt knocked his out first blow.
+++++“Ha!”  Hoyt crowed.  “You see that!  One shot.  Your’s looks like he wants to get back up again here in a second.”
+++++“Well, look, you crazy motherfucker.  You cracked his skull like an egg; he’s bleeding all over the place.  His brain starts swelling up and he dies, you’ll be back in Biltmore for the rest of your life.”
+++++“He’ll be all right.  What the hell you doing, now?”
+++++Culley brought his spray paint back out and sprayed the fallen Invaders faces and hands black.
+++++“Misdirection.”
+++++The retrieved the rest of the flags from the motorcycles.  Culley piled up his flags in Hoyt’s arms and sent him back to the Neon.  Culley wiped down his pipe and stuck it between the door handles to keep anyone else inside the Yellow Ribbon from coming out through the front door.  He shook the can one more time and spray painted FUCK YOU WHITEYS across the door before running back to his car.
+++++On the drive back to the Plush Horse, Hoyt connected the dots.
+++++“Oh, you want the Invaders to think the niggers done it.  Took their dixie flags and what not.”
+++++Culley nodded affirmative.
+++++“That’s some mighty fine thinking,” Hoyt allowed.

***

A week passed before the Reverend Eddie Vacuum called the Smash-and-Grab brothers back to his house of worship, pawning, and wrestling.  Church had just let out and Eddie stood in the vestibule of his garage shaking hands with the exiting handful of parishioners as Culley and Hoyt entered the parking lot.
+++++As the faithful dispersed, one fella stayed behind and accompanied the reverend to the open driver side window of the Neon.  The dude was a big metal head, not because of the long greasy mullet or Iron Maiden Live After Death T-shirt, or steel studded belt around his waist or the leather wrist guard clamped to his left forearm.  The guy was just gigantic.  Six foot, six inches, three hundred pounds of hellion.  He looked like he could flip a Dodge Neon end over end if he took a notion to.
+++++“Hello, Reverend,” Culley smiled.  “Is this your altar boy you brought with you?”
+++++Eddie laughed, good-naturedly.  “Oh, hell no.  I don’t think Moon Pie has ever been a boy, have you?”
+++++Moon Pie grinned green teeth.  “Maybe once back in the late summer of ’92,” he said.
+++++“You two oughta congratulate him.  He just got baptized into the faith today.”
+++++He crossed his forearms across his chest.  “Up the Irons,” he intoned.
+++++“And also with you, buddy.” Hoyt said.
+++++“What you baptize him with?  Lava?” Culley asked.
+++++“No.  When Moon Pie decided to accept Ric Flair into his life and vowed to acknowledge Iron Maiden as the greatest metal band in the universe and Bruce Dickenson as the voice of the heavens, he removes the ceremonial Judas Priest concert Tee and puts on the Iron Maiden shirt to symbolize his devotion to the faith.”
+++++“Sounds reasonable,” Culley hedged.  “Now, you said you were able to sell every last one of those Confederate flags we brought you in last week.”
+++++“Every one of them.  Once word got out we had them, they flew off the shelves.  We must’ve had every shitkicker from Scottsboro to Cullman County come through here.  It’s how Moon Pie here got introduced to the fold.  He might even do a little wrestling come Saturday night.”
+++++“Fantastic.”  Culley couldn’t help but notice the holes Moon Pie was boring through his forehead with those newly zealous eyes.  “How much our cut come to?”
+++++The Reverend Eddie Vacuum flipped a crisp twenty dollar bill from the front pocket of his Sunday denims.  “Here you go, boys.  You find any more flags, you let me know, we’ll do business again.  Up the irons.”
+++++Culley stared dully at the green portrait of Andrew Jackson smiling back at him.
+++++“Twenty fucking dollars,” Hoyt mumbled in amazement.
+++++“Twenty fucking dollars,” Moon Pie echoed.  He placed his ham hock sized hand on the door frame.  “Is there a problem with that?”
+++++“No problem at all,” Culley said.  “Up the irons, Moon Pie.”
+++++“Up the irons.” Moon Pie and Eddie Vacuum spoke, simultaneously.
+++++“Up your ass,” Hoyt sputtered.  “You thieving, scum-sucking bastards.  Goddammit.”
+++++Moon Pie and Eddie Vacuum exchanged raised eyebrows.
+++++“Don’t mind him,” Culley said.  “We’ll pass this along to the brothers we bought these from, since,” Culley looked at Moon Pie, “we didn’t actually steal these, we’re just acting as go-betweens for a whole gang of black panthers operating out of the Cameron Projects on the south side of Huntsville.  We’ll take our five dollar cut and deliver the rest to their headquarters.”
+++++Moon Pie looked at him as though he were crazy.  Eddie Vacuum nodded his head as if this were the most sensible thing he’d heard all day.
+++++“Let me ask you one thing before we take our twenty bucks and run,” Hoyt said.  “What the hell does the Nature Boy Ric Flair have to do with Iron fucking Maiden.”
+++++Eddie Vacuum shrugged.  “Absolutely nothing.  Why should it?”
+++++“Good enough for me.  Culley?”
+++++Culley shifted the Neon into drive and slowly rolled out of the parking lot onto the boulevard.  In the rearview, he watched Moon Pie take note of his license plate.

Summer is for Lovers

Sweat loitered between her breasts. Pop music played softly from a radio in the corner. Using the back of awrist, she brushed the hair from her face and asked –
+++++“Just the two chocolate? Anything else?”
+++++“Just those.” His eyes flickered up. “You’re Josh Sampson’s kid.” She remembered why the couple looked familiar. The man leaned in towards her. “The boss’s daughter.” Slowly, a smile broke his face apart. The wife, overweight with messy hair,kept her eyes on the floor.
+++++Candace let her tongue run along her lips, looked him in the eyes.Her shirt clung to her like candy in the heat. The curve of her ice cream scoop rolled the chocolate into a perfect ball. Shehanded him the first cone and let her fingers linger on his. She meant to hand the second cone to the wife but he grabbed that one too, pretended to drop it. She giggled. He tipped her a five, too much.
+++++“See you around.” The wife never looked up, not even as the bells jingled on their way out of the shop. A seagull squawked outside and Candace paused for a minute, watching them walk to their car.
+++++Why is your wife so fat, she wanted to ask him when he showed up again three days later. He slipped her his card. Sampson’s Marina, it read. JohnMarles, Dock 4.
+++++She met him late one night a week after that, after she closed the ice cream shop. He brought her to an abandoned building downtown.Huge metal letters were bracketed to the bricks lining the rumbled old building, K-W-R-X.
+++++“What is this place?” she asked. A glass wall behind them showcased hulking equipment no longer in use. The carpet, rough under her naked body, smelled like urine.He had kissed her, taken her clothes off slowly, screwed her there on the rug. They lay together now, but Candace wanted more.
+++++“It’s mine. I had a life before the marina.” He shifted his body to gaze down at her. “I ran this station, bought this building.”
+++++“What happened?” she didn’t really care.
+++++“Ran out of money.”
+++++“And now you’re a dock hand?” Candace grabbed his flaccid penis, put it in her mouth. He swatted her away, agitated. (Agitated? Who doesn’t want their dick sucked?)
+++++“Only job around.”
+++++“Why do you still have this building?” She was getting bored.
+++++“I used everything I had to buy it outright. Been trying to sell it.”
+++++“It smells like urine.” She reached again for his penis; gave up. Rolling her eyes, she got up and started to dress. “It smells like piss!”
+++++“This station was my home.”
+++++“Your home is with a whale.” Obviously he didn’t want more sex. John Marles was pathetic.
+++++He glared. “Say that again?”
+++++“Your wife is a whale.”
+++++“Why are you doing this?” He stood up. She stared at him.
+++++“Doing what?” She slipped her feet into flip-flops and examined her hands. There was a callus on her index finger from the ice cream scoop.
+++++“You’re an asshole.”
+++++“So are you.”
+++++He spit on her.
+++++“What the fuck?” Candace wiped his saliva off her shoulder, smearing it in more than rubbing it off.
+++++“You little slut.” He shoved her and she fell on the floor, stunned. For a moment they locked eyes.
+++++She screamed. “You’re pathetic!”
+++++He shoved his legs into his jeans, kicked at her and stumbled a bit. She wasn’t laughing anymore. “Spoiled little bitch.”
+++++“Chubby chaser.” She hurled each word and wasn’t sure how they had got to this point, wasn’t sure if she was safe. “Pedophile.”
+++++“You’re nothing but a tease.” He was too close, right in her face. Candace was afraid to move. He started across the lobby, the skeletal remains of the station’s waiting room highlighting his silhouette. The heavy metal door slammed behind him. She remembered they hadn’t used a condom.
+++++His white socks lay alone in the corner. She considered, briefly, bringing them with her.

An Unscheduled Appointment

A late Friday afternoon acupuncture appointment has Robert Jamison lying face down on a comfortable massage table with a half dozen needles positioned expertly in his lower back. Somehow seeming both close and yet also very far away, soft Asian New-Age music is competing with rambling, disjointed thoughts for the possession of his consciousness.
+++++Neither is the victor…, he dozes.
+++++Robert is snapped back to full wide awake by a woman’s scream that is cut off somewhere in the middle by a “pffft” sound he has heard only in the movies or on TV. This is followed by the voice of his acupuncturist pleading for someone to “please don’t do this.” And this is then followed by two more “pfffts.”
+++++Still lying there, Robert has now turned to face the closed door of the eight by ten appointment room. He feels he should do something; at least get up and see what’s going on.
+++++Somebody’s killin’ people out there, Robert, that’s what’s goin’ on. Killin’ the people who are bein’ loud or who are in the way.
+++++Robert thinks maybe he could go out and see about calling 911.
+++++And probably get yourself shot.
+++++He wonders why someone would rob an acupuncture clinic. There certainly wouldn’t be all that much cash around.
+++++Maybe it isn’t a robbery; maybe somebody got caught messin’ around.
+++++Only a few seconds have passed. Robert decides to stay put at least for a few minutes; maybe the guy will leave. His thoughts drift to Catherine. Maybe he should break it off with her; she’s been kind of clingy lately. Jenny isn’t dumb; sooner or later she will find out and then there will be a real mess…
+++++Catherine? Jenny? You need to focus here if you want to get out of this alive.
+++++Robert hears the doorknob mechanism click as it’s turned and pretends to be sleeping. Seconds crawl by and he struggles not to open his eyes to see if somebody is standing in the doorway. Except for the soft music from the room’s CD player, it’s completely quiet. He starts to count to sixty…
+++++Better make that a hundred and twenty, Robert. At least a hundred and twenty.
+++++…hoping by the time he gets to sixty the killer will have decided to leave the building before …
+++++Are you listening to me?
+++++… he gets caught.
+++++At sixty, Robert opens one eye and sees that the door is open about six inches and the barrel of a gun with a very large silencer is leveled at him.
+++++“Pffft!” “Pffft!” Pffft!”
+++++Robert knows he’s probably dying. He’s then startled as he feels a breath and what must be his assailant’s lips touch his right ear.
+++++“Oh yeah,” comes a whisper after a second. “Jenny and Catherine said to say ‘Hi’.
+++++Somebody was messin’ around; I was right about that, wasn’t I, Robert?
+++++“Fuck off,” whispered Robert through a mouthful of blood. “Just fuck off.”

Something Borrowed

She woke at 5 AM, her mind racing, full of the possibilities of the day. How could she sleep with so much to prepare?
+++++Cassie got out of bed and put on her dressing gown. Her single room apartment was small, but practical. Kitchenette, a small living area and a dressing table next to the bed.
+++++She went over to the wardrobe, paused for a moment, took a deep breath and opened the doors. One item hung from the rail: an elegant, understated white dress. No grand, fairy-tale flourishes of lace or silk. Just the beautifully simple lines she’d always favoured.
+++++Cassie knew it was unusual, bad luck even, for the engaged couple to choose the wedding dress together, but Jeremy had insisted. Now, she was glad he’d been involved. Most brides worried themselves stupid about the impression thedress. Not her, not today. Jeremy would get exactly what he wanted.
+++++Leaving the wardrobe open, she retreated to her dressing table and regarded herself in the mirror. Cassie turned her head one way, then the other. Long, thick, deep red hair framed her porcelain white face.
+++++She was still beautiful; she had no doubts about that. Seven years ago, Jeremy would have seen only the obvious: The slim waist, the perfectly proportioned curves, the brightness in her eyes. If the years had diminished some aspects of her beauty, there had been compensating factors. The gentle lines around her eyes gave her the air of artful intelligence. The new pallor of her skin. Most appealingly of all, a quiet, considered smile betrayed a woman contemplating the most exciting day of her life.

***

“Does it hurt?” They were the first words he ever said to her.
+++++It was 2am in Covent Garden and she’d been hurrying to catch her bus. Too much booze and ridiculous heels had conspired to send her tumbling to the ground, badly grazing her elbow on the way. Jeremy was there almost before she’d come to rest. He helped her to her feet, inspecting her elbow intently.
+++++“I’m fine, but thank you.” She managed.
+++++He was a large man. Not fat, just heavy set, broad shouldered. “You’ll need that looked at. Could turn nasty.”
+++++“Yes. Maybe. I think I just need to get home.” She smiled at him, gently took back her arm, then started to walk away.
+++++“Hey, look.” He said. She turned back to face him. “I know this is a bit forward, but could I give you my number? I’d like to take you out for dinner.”He was proffering a card. “Not now, obviously. Another day. I mean, I thought that might be nice.”
+++++There was something so earnest about his proposition, so respectful in the way he gazed at her. It was completely disarming. He wasn’t classically attractive, that was true, but there was a certain gallantry to him. She smiled again and took the card.
+++++“Yes, I think that might be nice.”

***

There were no bridesmaids to pamper her, no stylist to work on her hair. The wedding was to be a stripped-down affair. Just Cassie and Jeremy, with his old friend Teddy as the witness.
+++++She ate a small breakfast, yogurt with muesli and then began the real business of preparing herself. Jeremy wanted to be married that morning so they could, in his words, “Bask in the glow of matrimony” for the rest of the day. She had just two hours before he arrived.
+++++The apartment had a small side room for the shower and the toilet, no bigger than a large cupboard. She washed and plucked her eyebrows, then began on her hair and makeup. When she was satisfied she stepped out of her gown dressing gown and put on the dress.
+++++She admired herself in the full length mirror. It fitted perfectly.
+++++Cassie turned as she heard the outer door unlocking, then opening. He’d arrived early, by a good half an hour. All the air left her lungs making her lightheaded. Breathless, a moment of panic washed over her. Eventually, she regained some composure.
+++++“Don’t you dare come in through that door Mr. Hennessey!” Her tone was light, playful.
+++++She heard him laughing. A hearty, happy guffaw. “Okay, okay! I’m waiting.”
+++++She collected the bouquet resting on the chaise lounge, quickly slipped on her shoes and took the small box containing Jeremy’s wedding ring from the drawer of her dressing table. Finally, she paused for a moment, checking herself in the mirror, then called out.
+++++“Come in.”

***

She called him the next day and they set up a date for the Friday night. He insisted on San Padres in Knightsbridge. A Spanish restaurant Cassie knew to be ruinously expensive, if only because a friend had once worked there.
+++++In their short conversation at the bus stop Jeremy had made an impression. There was something old fashioned in his reaction to her. So attentive, so engrossed. It had been a long time since she’d felt so flattered. On the Thursday before their dinner she went shopping and bought a new outfit she couldn’t really afford. Then, deciding she might as well commit, she spent even more on a radical but, in her opinion, gorgeous new hair style. A razor sharp Bob taking her hair all the way up to her ear-lobes.
+++++When they met in the restaurant bar she expected the same nervous,charming young man she’d met only a few nights before. Perhaps flowers, or a gift, or some other grand gesture? Instead she was greeted by a perfunctory peck on the cheek and a surly frown. Instead of offering to buy her a drink he bought himself one, leaving Cassie to get her own.
+++++After they’d sat for their meal, he snapped at the waitress for being slow, and hardly said a word during the starter and main course. Cassie filled the gaps with strained monologues about her life, her job, her flat, anything. Eventually, after yet another awkward pause, she decided she’d had enough.
+++++“Is there something the matter?”
+++++He stopped eating and put down his knife and fork. “The matter? With me?”
+++++“Yes. You seem so . . . Well, so unhappy. Aren’t we here to have a good time? Didn’t you ask me to come out with you?”
+++++He picked up his napkin and tossed it on the table. “Isn’t it obvious?” His voice rose over the general chatter of the restaurant. Several nearby diners turned and looked.
+++++“No. It’s not obvious at all.” She responded.
+++++“You’ve ruined it haven’t you.”
+++++“Ruined what?”
+++++He gestured with both hands towards her head. “Your hair. You cut your hair. You weren’t supposed to cut it.”
+++++Cassie looked for some sign that he was joking, as if a knowing smile might suddenly appear, excusing the bizarre outburst. Fury was etched all over his face and, disconcertingly, his hands were shaking. He took a large amount of cash from his wallet, placed it on the table and got up to leave.
+++++“Enjoy the rest of your evening.” He said.

***

Jeremy came into the apartment wearing full morning suit, grinning from ear to ear. Just as she’d hoped, he stopped in his tracks when he saw her.
+++++“Perfect. Just perfect, my love.” He said.
+++++“Today’s the day!” Then a moment of concern, “You did bring the fountain pen, for the register, didn’t you?”
+++++“Of course. Don’t worry.”
+++++He walked up to her, pulled her towards him and stroked his hand over her long red hair. Under his breath she could hear him whispering,”Beautiful, beautiful.”
+++++He kissed her passionately and she felt his tongue probing to enter her mouth. She relented. After a short time, Cassie pushed him away.
+++++“Jeremy . . . later.” Her smile was coy, mischievous. “We’ll have all the time in the world for that, after.”
+++++“You’re right. I couldn’t help myself. It’s just, you. The way you look. My perfect Cassie.”
+++++“Now,” she said, “We have ten minutes. I need to pay one more visit to the ladies room, to freshen up. You need to straighten that tie Mister, and where’s Teddy?”
+++++“Don’t you worry,” he said “Teddy has been looking forward to this for ages.”

***

The scene in the restaurant had left her mortified. After he’d stormed out, she played with her food, all the time aware of them gossiping about her, the jilted date. The only reason she stayed at all was to make sure Jeremy was long gone. Why would a man throw a tantrum on his first date over a haircut? Cassie and her friends would regularly share stories of dating disasters, but she’d never heard of anything so strange as this.
+++++When she eventually did get home, her friend Alison called to see how the date had gone. Cassie described her dinner with Jeremy in fine and excruciating detail. Alison’s reaction was as predictable as it was reassuring.
+++++“Whooooa! Serious control issues. You’re well out of it.”
+++++“You think?”
+++++“Psycho behaviour Cass. Total psycho.”
+++++They chatted for a while longer and arranged to go to a local pub the following night.
+++++It was exactly what she needed. Alison was great company and never failed to make Cassie laugh. They had a wonderful evening, just talking things over whilst a band played in the corner of the pub. At closing time, they hugged, laughed at how drunk both of they were, then went their separate ways.
+++++Cassie took the short route home, past the shops on Barry Road and over the long path which stretched across the common. As she was approaching the halfway point, street-lights and buses already in sight, she saw something move out of the corner of her eye. She stopped and turned towards it, but saw nothing, only the darkness of the common. Assuming it must have been a fox or stray dog she started up again, her pace quickened.
+++++Then she saw it again, clearer this time, the outline of man. A big man, broad shouldered. Just as she began to run, he appeared in front of her, blocking her path.
+++++Dressed all in black, breathing heavily, he spoke. “Cassie.”
+++++“What in Christ’s name do you think you’re doing?”
+++++“Okay, okay.” Jeremy’s palms gestured downwards; the expression on his face was identical to when she’d first met him. A man desperate to placate her, please her. “Look, I just came to apologise.”
+++++For a moment she was on the verge of screaming, but she regained her control. They were stood in the middle of the common, covered in darkness but surrounded, no more than fifty yards in either direction by the lights of the city. He had scared her, no doubt about that, but what could he do to her here? They were out in the open. If he tried anything she would shout out. Besides, part of her was interested in what he had to say.
+++++“You want to apologise?”
+++++“I’m sorry. I’m so deeply sorry. You see, when we met the other night, at the bus stop, that wasn’t entirely by chance.”
+++++This wasn’t what she’d expected. “It wasn’t?”
+++++“I’d seen you before. Your office, it’s across the road from where I work. I saw you in the street and I wanted to meet you. I wanted to get to know you.”
+++++She started to back away, “You were following me? That’s not good.”
+++++“Your beautiful hair,” He said. “It was just like Mother’s.”
+++++She saw it then. The way he was looking at her: obsequious, deferential. The way a little boy looks at his mother. She turned to run, but he was already on her, landing with his full weight. As Cassie hit the ground all the air was crushed out of her lungs. She tried to scream but managed only a pathetic wheeze. Something was on her nose and mouth, covering them. A white handkerchief sodden with chemicals.
+++++As the world faded, she heard a whisper in her ear. “I’ll make you perfect again.”

***

The wedding began with music. A playlist Jeremy had compiled made up mainly of classical and jazz recordings he claimed reminded him of Cassie. She knew better. However long it lasted, there would be three people in this marriage.
+++++All the time he was draped on the chaise lounge, eyes half closed, lost in the music.
+++++Bouquet in hand she waited in the corner of the kitchenette precisely in the spot Jeremy had specified. After an hour of this, at last, the music she had been waiting for started up. Blaring out of the speakers, a grand, bombastic ‘Here Comes The Bride’.
+++++Immediately, Jeremy stood and took his position next to the mirror. Cassie began walking towards him, slowly, methodically, in just the way he’d shown her. When she was half way there she saw him bend and take something out of the bag which rested at his feet. As she got closer he raised the object to head height and pressed it against his face. A large, worn out old teddy bear, literally falling apart at the seams. Its face was contorted into an expression of anguish, with a drooping mouth and mournful eyes. One ear hung by a thread and its right leg twisted outwards, giving it a bow-legged appearance.
+++++Teddy. Jeremy’s oldest and dearest friend. The only one who stuck by him whilst his mother was parading one man after another through the house. Over the years of her confinement, Jeremy had told Cassie everything. For hours he would sit with her, sobbing hysterically then laughing out loud as he recounted his childhood.
+++++In the beginning she had tried everything to escape. Attacking him with a hardback book (the only weapon she could find in the apartment) as he came through the door, sequestering notes in her laundry, begging him to free her. Nothing had worked. For seven years, he had kept her rotting in the basement apartment.
+++++As she reached Jeremy, he held Teddy out to her so that she could kiss his mangy face. She did so obediently. Then Jeremy rested Teddy down on the chaise lounge, taking care to have him facing upwards towards them. The music stopped and the recording of the priest began.
+++++“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to observe the joining together in matrimony of JEREMY and CASSANDRA.” Jeremy had digitally edited their names into the soundtrack.
+++++For the last two years she had simply submitted to him, slowly gaining his trust, convincing him she was ready to do anything he wanted. Eventually he’d brought up the possibility of marriage, a final and complete expression of their togetherness.
+++++They exchanged vows and then rings, perfectly synchronised with the recording. All the time Cassie watched him in the mirror, trying to gauge how lost in the moment he really was. Everything was going to plan. Jeremy was in a daze of happiness, enjoying every moment of his ultimate victory.
+++++They moved over to the bed, on which rested a huge leather-bound book, all the pages blank except for the first. On the front page, in elaborate calligraphy was a statement of marriage. This was a stage of proceedings Cassie had insisted upon from the very beginning. Every married couple must sign a register, she told him, even if this one would only ever be seen by them.
+++++Jeremy fetched Teddy over, sitting him on a pillow to oversee the signing. He took a large antique fountain pen out of his jacket pocket and unscrewed the lid. He smiled at her, knowing she approved.   Like the dress, Cassie had chosen the pen herself online, closely supervised by her captor, of course.
+++++He signed his name in the allotted place, stood and presented her with the pen. She gave a nod of acknowledgement, appreciation even, and took it from his hand. Cassie had rehearsed this moment in her mind a thousand times. She gripped the pen tightly.
+++++As if to sign the “register”, she made a move to her right, then swung around with all her strength, slamming the pen at his windpipe. She caught it perfectly, the sharp point sinking into his flesh, dark blood spewing from the puncture. He stumbled back, hands reaching up to the wound, trying to stem the blood. Now she was on him, toppling him to the floor, then astride him, hammering the pen down at his neck and face.
+++++There was no control to her movements, just a frenzied stabbing. He tried to stop her each time the pen was thrust downwards but it did no good. The shock and the blood loss soon left him powerless. After a while, his flailing hand dropped, his body went limp, but Cassie did not stop. By the time fatigue finally forced her to relent, his neck and face were a bloody mush.
+++++Still panting, she stood, distracted for a moment by the realisation that her beautiful white dress had been turned claret red. She ran over to his bag and felt for the set of keys. Just as she was about to panic, she found them. Cassie opened the inner door and saw, for the first time the heavy, metal outer door she had heard him unlock so many times. She found the key she needed, inserted it into the lock and felt the satisfying ‘ click’.
+++++The door opened, and the bride was free.

Bak Mei Dragon

The taxi’s air conditioning systems growls a rumbling counter-point to its purring engine. Hot air spews from slitted vents, washing over the old man’s face and hands. Sweat prickles on his skin. A single rivulet dribbles down his liver-spotted temple, over the creased flesh of his neck and beneath the collar of his pristinely laundered white shirt. Wilbur Fong’s cheeks are flushed from the heat. Subconsciously, he runs his tongue across dry lips. Tapping on the perspex screen separating him from the driver, asking for him to adjust the temperature, does not cross Mr. Fong’s mind. Instead, he thinks of deep brown eyes and sunshine smiles.
+++++“I’ll drop you just up there,” the driver says, his words the sing-song lilt of Hong Kong Cantonese.
+++++“You’ll have to walk the rest of the way,” the younger man continues, pulling his vehicle to the curb.
+++++Wilbur Fong looks to the rear-view mirror. When he meets the driver’s gaze, he nods in understanding. Despite his years and the cool control he’s exhibited over the past decades, he feels his eyes narrow as sharp as the bitter tang in his throat.
+++++“One more thing,” the driver says, breaking eye-contact to reach into the cab’s glove box.
+++++“Take this. Use it when you’re done. Mrs Wu will have someone waiting on speed dial 1.”
+++++Fong takes the cheap burner, slides into his breast pocket as he reaches for the handle. In silence, he swings open the door and steps out into the quiet, rural street. He does not watch the taxi pull away.

***

A cool breeze cuts through the night. Rain drops, freezing in comparison to the vehicle’s roasting interior, drive needle-like into Fong’s bare skin. He tucks his hands into his jacket pockets, balling knuckles into fists as he bows his head and walks into the deluge. Old aches and pains niggle his joints, pulled from slumber by the cold and wet. He ignores them, clearing his thoughts of the trifles of the body. His mind is consumed by the matter at hand.
+++++Fong traces a path memorised from maps and conversations in a back room that stank of cheap cigarette smoke and expensive alcohol. Cracked paving slabs and orange street lamps recede beneath his feet. He treads tarmac, avoiding the mud-puddle verge and the tell-tale soil it will leave gripping to the soles of his cheap, brown shoes.
+++++He moves with a younger man’s speed and a lighter man’s grace, navigating the unlit rural pathways until a shadow looms large amid the dark smear of night. Tree tops peek in silhouette above a stone wall that’s stood firm for centuries. A large gate, black cast iron, breaks the barrier with a mocking grin. Pin-prick lights, Cyclopean red eyes, glimmer sarcastically in the darkness.
+++++Wilbur Fong walks hunched toward the property. He crouches in the darkness. Thick plumes of air trace clouds from his nostrils with each steady breath. Intelligent brown eyes scan the fortress, identify security camera brands and models. His agile brain calculates angles, distances and motion ranges. His ears scan the night, disregarding the wind’s growing whisper and the steady beat of falling rain.
+++++Calculations complete, he doubles-back, cutting his trail in a wide half-circle. Necessity takes him across darkened fields. With every step, his inexpensive shoes sink deeper into frozen puddles. Mud and cow shit suck at his soles, his ankle. Trouser cuffs cling to his legs, draining the heat from his body. Fong’s fat mouth twists into a frown. The cold gnaws at his toes, biting with arthritic teeth. The old man focusses his mind, drives away the pain. It is the inconvenience that troubles him most.
+++++He reaches the wall; heavy stone blocks mortared in place. He can see from the materials, construction and weathering it has stood for centuries, protecting those within. The old man runs a hand across its rough-hewn surface, feeling the pits and fissure within the material. A smile almost touches his flabby lips. It is devoured by his heavy heart before it can form.
+++++Fong balances on one leg, unties his right shoe. He slips the article from his foot, places it in the deep pocket of his rain coat. He repeats the process with his left before wringing swampy water from his socks. These he also puts into his pocket, a couple inches of each end trailing onto his coat.
+++++Gnarled fingers brush the stonework again. Nails scrape and dance over rough mortar and blocks. His right arm stretches high, finds purchase on millimetres of the hard surface. His left foot brushes the wall. Toes first strengthened on the decks and rigging of a Kow Loon junk find an equal hold. With a silent exhalation, Fong mirrors the process, left and right. With spider-like dexterity, he scales the wall. Despite his advanced years and the added bulk of easy living, the old man rests high on capstones.
+++++Body tight against the coping, he takes a moment to survey the area. A broad, gravel-shrouded drive snakes through the property. Trees and shrubs stand sentinel in even lines. Their leaves and branches whisper in the darkness, air and wood in conversation with the tinkling of water. A flood-lit fountain stands before stone steps and pillars. Dimmed light reflects off marble, a seahorse rising proud from the basin. Fong allows himself to smile at the omen.

***

Fong descends, a spider in the shadows. A metre from the earth, he pushes off. Despite his silent landing, lightning pain bites his knees and hips. He sucks in breath, a harsh rasp swallowed by the wind. His brain races with chastisements for sloppiness, for bravado, for getting old.
+++++He moves through the grounds, clinging to deep shadows surrounding tree trunks. Before each run, he stares hard into the night, peering into the black. His ears twitch for the hint of company, his nostrils flare, tasting for the scent of trained dogs. Satisfied neither prowl with him, he follows arboreal cover along the rear wall.
+++++Every eight step, he moves closer to the Georgian red-brick. He ignores the tremble in his hands and the beat of wings in his chest. He scans windows and doors, his thief’s brain searching for signs of easy ingress. uPVC gleams slick in light spilling from dimmed fountain spots. Door and window frames secured tight against the filthy weather. His eyes turn upward, searching with foolish hope for an old sash missed in the renovations or the dark line of a forgotten bathroom window. Rain trickles through his silver hair, spatters across his olive skinned cheeks, but it is the creak of hinges that freezes him in place.
+++++Fong presses himself against sturdy bricks, almost feels his flesh meld into baked clay. He steadies his breathing, each intake a subtle and inaudible rasp. Dead still, stone silent, he shifts his gaze to the opening doorway.
+++++A young man exits. His dark hair is gelled back, the rakish style quickly succumbing to the downpour. He curses a stream of Mandarin-accented English. His eyes turn to the heavens above then to the covered porch way. He steps back between marbled columns, reaches past the Glock 17 strapped to his hip, pulls a cigarette from a silver case and slides it between his lips. A lighter’s flare illuminates his face before he bows his head and runs to the sanctuary of a nearby tree.
+++++Fong watches the boy move, feels the displaced air against his face and puddle-splash strike his naked feet. He counts four lethal pressure-points within easy reach as the gunman passes, considers ending the man’s criminal reign with an easy strike. His fingers flex then retract. His argument is not with some young recruit.

***

Black oak doors give way to a wide foyer. Warm lighting beams down from crystal lamps, the glow a match for the ambient temperature. A vast staircase, red-and-gold threaded runner positioned perfectly in its centre, takes centre stage, muting the marble and bronze statues and object d’art filling the space. The air is neutral, unlived-in. A single chair sits to one side of the hallway, an iPhone discarded on its velvet cushion.
+++++The device reminds Fong of the boy blackening his lungs outside. He runs through the maps and plans stretched out on that distant table, rolls cuffs of his trousers halfway up his shin, hoping the effort will minimize the spill of mud and water. He bounds up the fine staircase, ignoring finery and opulence until he reaches the door identified by a traitor now secreted away in Ha Noi city.
+++++Fong twists on a pearl-inlaid knob of gold. The device does not budge, but he knows the spared second pays off more often than not. Changing tact, he drops to his knees, reaches into his inside pocket. He retrieves a slender leather case. His fingers leave whorls and loops on the cover as he slides out pry-and-tension bars. His hands move in quick, juddering snaps. He catches first one pin, then a second. His wrinkled brow furrows deeper as he loses the hold. A curse ripples across his mind, admonishing himself for the lack of practice over the last few years.
+++++“I’d finished,” he whispers in his native Hakka dialect.
+++++A lock clicks below and footsteps clatter across parquet flooring.
+++++Fong’s instinct is to freeze, allow the threat to pass. He knows time is short, knows the job must be done by daybreak. Removing his tools from the lock, he rolls his wrists and flexes his fingers, aiming to improve his flexibility before reinserting the picks. The fourth pin lifts. The pry turns. A shadow falls across his work.
+++++“Uh, What the fuck?”
+++++Fong again buries the urge to freeze. He turns his head, a wide smile exposing teeth stained by red wine and nicotine. He offers a bow, short and sharp. When the kid doesn’t respond, he rises to his feet, rakes fingers through silver hair and slides picks into his coat pocket.
+++++“Ah, good,” he says, forming the words in perfect Mandarin.
+++++“Perhaps you can help me? I’m looking for someone.”
+++++He ignores the shaking Glock pointed at his chest, pretends not to notice the fear-stretched widening of the boy’s eyes. He simply wraps the fingers already in his pocket around the saturated shoe.
+++++“Freeze,” the kid barks, dropping into stance, gun braced in a double-handed grip like he’s a cop on some TV show.
+++++“What the hell are you doing here?”
+++++Fong smiles, lets it grow from his chest into a condescending chuckle. He holds out a hand, waggles a finger at the boy.
+++++“I told you, I’m looking for my granddaughter.”
+++++Fong grins, pulls the shoe from his pocket, tosses over his right shoulder. When the kid jumps at the clatter of leather-on-tile, Wilbur Fong shifts his weight, adjusts his position.
+++++“Listen,” the young Triad says.
+++++“Listen to me, grandpa, you put your fucking hands on your head and drop to your knees.”
+++++The Tong switches his pistol into his right hand, slips the left into his pocket. His fingers tremble around the black rubber case of his iPhone. His eyes flicker between Fong and the gadget.
+++++“I have one of those,” Fong says, reaching into his pocket.
+++++“Here, you’re not looking!”
+++++The younger man pauses, phone-hand at waist height. His brow furrows. The Glock wavers in his grip. A bead of sweat glitters at the lad’s temple, tracing a glittering path to his jaw. He lets the gun hand slide.
+++++Fong moves, left hand enveloping the boy’s right. A finger twist and the gun is his. A jab with his right sends the phone crashing into the Triad’s nose. Blood sprays and bone splinters. The gangster drops.
+++++Fong spares a glance to the motionless body before retrieving his shoe. He slips it into his pocket, turns his gaze to the younger man’s lifeless body then to the door. He raises the pistol, knows the time for stealth is done. The 9mm lock pick does the job faster than he ever could.

***

Nicotine and alcohol still stain the back room’s air. Thick clouds of cigarette smoke curl from an ashtray resting on a large mahogany desk. A single lamp illuminates the broad space, enhancing the twist and curl of blue-grey fumes and the waltzing step of dust motes.
+++++Fong takes the object from his pocket, turns it over in his hands. The nephrite dragon is perfectly formed, the stone majestic in its purity except for the right eyebrow. Even in the dim light he can make out the white, crystalline traces in the green stone.
+++++“You have the Bak Mei Dragon.” Her Hakka is perfect.
+++++Fong looks to the speaker. He can barely see her through the smoke and shadows but her silhouette was part of his life for thirty years. Through shadows and fog, he sees the salon curls of her dark hair, can pick out the high, slanting cheekbones and the narrowed stare.
+++++“Here,” he says, tossing the artefact over, unsurprised as she snatches it effortlessly from the air.
+++++He holds his tongue as the woman takes a second to examine the piece before handing it to another form, this one unknown to the old man.
+++++“So?”
+++++The word sticks in his throat. The overt display of emotion, of weakness bring the sting of shame to his eye.
+++++“Can I see her?”
+++++The woman’s laugh is the tinkle of breaking glass. The dark shroud of her hair writhes as she tips back her head.
+++++“Of course,” she says, leaning into lamplight, revealing eyes as sharp and clear as Fong’s own.
+++++“The job is done. I’m not the kind of monster who would stop my own father spending time with my daughter?”

Rattlesnake Gospel

The chill of the north Georgia mountains frosted the windshield of Peanut’s Bronco. The heater was broken so he sat in the cold and drank a thermos of stale coffee. Caudell sat in the passenger’s seat and sipped a bottle of Mountain Dew. They waited for Randy Jessup to exit the office door of his church.
+++++“Think he’s ever comin’ out?” Peanut asked
+++++“Don’t look like it,” Caudell answered.
+++++“I’m getting tired a sittin’ here in the goddamn cold.”
+++++“Pentecostal services go long on Sundays.”
+++++“Shit, if I’d a known that we’d a just met him here ‘fore anybody showed up.”
+++++“They have Sunday school before service.”
+++++“So?”
+++++“People get here early.”
+++++Peanut gulped the coffee and let the hot liquid burn the back of his throat. “You think he’ll stop by his office ‘fore he leaves?”
+++++“Probably so.”
+++++“We could just go inside and wait for him.”
+++++“That ain’t a good idea.”
+++++“Why not?”
+++++Caudell unscrewed the cap from his bottle, drank the last of the Mountain Dew, and screwed the cap back on. He watched the office door and drummed his fingers on his thighs.
+++++“I asked you a question.”
+++++“I heard you.”
+++++“You gone answer me then?”
+++++“You want anybody to hear that man scream, Peanut?”
+++++“Naw.”
+++++“Then we don’t need to wait for him in his office.”
+++++“Guess you right.” Peanut adjusted the rearview mirror so he could watch people leave by the front door of the church. “They finally lettin’ out.”
+++++Caudell turned in his seat to have a look for himself. “Good.”
+++++“How much longer you think he’s gone take?”
+++++“Probably not long.”
+++++“Bet he’s shakin’ everbody’s hand.”
+++++“They ain’t that many hands to shake.”
+++++“There he comes.”
+++++The office door opened and Randy Jessup stepped into the cold. A charcoal pea coat was pulled tight around his shoulders and he fumbled with a ring of keys. Peanut rolled down his window and waited for the preacher to turn. Randy tested the knob to make sure it was locked, spun on his heel, but didn’t notice the men waiting for him.
+++++“Hey, preacher,” Peanut called, “What you know good?”
+++++Randy Jessup turned to the voice that called him, noticed who it was, and ran for his car. Peanut shifted the Bronco into drive and the engine died. He turned the key in the ignition but the engine wouldn’t start. He punched the steering wheel, said, “Goddamn truck.”
+++++“I got this,” Caudell said.
+++++Randy Jessup was on his knees. He’d fallen in his run for the car. The onion skins of his Bible whipped in the wind, papers scattered from his brief case, and he’d lost his keys. Caudell walked up behind the preacher, grabbed him by the neck of his coat, and pulled him to his feet. Randy threw a wild punch that missed, and was picking himself off the ground when Caudell slammed him into his car. From there he let Caudell lead him to the truck.
+++++The Bronco cranked on the third try and Caudell let the passenger’s seat forward so Randy could climb in the back. Peanut adjusted the mirror so he could see the preacher, but he looked out the window to keep from making eye contact. Randy Jessup asked, “Where yall boys gone take me?”
+++++“You’ll see.” Peanut answered.

***

Peanut parked the Bronco in the driveway of a run down single wide trailer. It sat far enough off the road so you couldn’t hear the sound of traffic as it rushed by. Pecan trees grew around the mobile home and provided it shade. Peanut stepped out of the Bronco into overgrown grass. Caudell and the preacher followed him up the steps of the front porch and inside the trailer.
+++++“Where you brought me to?” Randy asked.
+++++“Ain’t nobody told you bout this place?” Peanut asked.
+++++“He ain’t lived here long enough for anybody to fill him in on town gossip.” Caudell grinned.
+++++“But he’s lived here long enough to steal my business.”
+++++“What?” Randy asked. “I don’t know what you’re talkin’‘bout.”
+++++“Preacher.” Peanut stood in the middle of a seedy living room next to a pinewood box, “This’s my daddy’s home. I been watchin’ over the place while he’s locked up in Angola.”
+++++“Why’d you bring me here?”
+++++“Because I’m gone hurt you.”
+++++Randy Jessup couldn’t argue, fear choked the words from him. Instead he tried to run but he didn’t make it halfway across the room before Caudell knocked him from his feet. The preacher stumbled into an entertainment center and caught himself on an old box TV. He knocked rabbit ears off the set and almost tipped the television over.
+++++“Goddamn, don’t break my daddy’s TV. He’ll be pissed.”
+++++Randy picked up the antenna from the floor and put it back in its place. He ran a hand through his hair, messed it up, and when he tried to speak his voice cracked. He drew up like a turtle in its shell, too afraid to face what was going on around him.
+++++“Now, preacher, if you’s just here to preach the gospel, and do the work of the Lord, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. You might convert a handful of junkies, but I’d always be able to get them back. What I got a problem with is you comin’ into Confederate County thinkin’ you could stick your hand in my cookie jar.”
+++++Randy Jessup recovered his ability to speak, said, “I got no idea what you’re talkin’‘bout.”
+++++“Don’t play dumb with me. That’s just insultin’.”
+++++“I swear to God.”
+++++“Men of God ain’t supposed to swear.”
+++++“I’m just tryin’ to tell you whatever you’re accusin’ me of ain’t true.”
+++++“Don’t bullshit me, preacher.”
+++++“I ain’t bullshittin’ nobody.”
+++++Peanut charged across the living room like an angry pit bull. Before the minister could resist he was forced to his hands and knees and drug to the lid of the pinewood box. Caudell opened a chicken wire door and Peanut shoved Randy Jessup’s head next to the opening. He didn’t need to be told what to do. He listened for what was inside and could hear the rattle of a snake.
+++++“God, please don’t.”
+++++“God ain’t the one you oughta be prayin’ to, preacher.”
+++++“No. NO.”
+++++Peanut forced Randy Jessup’s head inside and he screamed. “Don’t scream. You gone scare that snake if you keep carryin’ on like that.”
+++++Randy bucked against the box and tried to force himself free of Peanut’s grip, but the fight did him no good. Peanut had all the leverage and he forced the preacher’s head in up to his shoulders. The snake was coiled tight in a corner and its tongue darted from its mouth. The eyes of the serpent considered Randy Jessup and hissed when it assumed he was a threat.
+++++“Stay calm, preacher.” Peanut said. “If you try’n fight me you gone scare that rattler. He’ll bite you sure as the world.”
+++++Randy Jessup didn’t speak. He wet himself instead. The smell of his piss filled the mobile home. That’s when he began to cry.
+++++“Preacher, I’ll let you out this box if you agree to do two things for me.”
+++++Randy shook his head that he would.
+++++“I need to hear you say that you will.”
+++++“I will. I’ll do whatever you ask.”
+++++“All right.” Peanut let Randy Jessup go and he pulled himself out of the box.
+++++“What you want from me?” He asked.
+++++Peanut hunched down to eye level with the preacher and Caudell stood over his shoulder. “Well, since you asked,” Peanut said, “The first thing you gone do is stop sellin’ meth to my people. Don’t speak.” Peanut held up a hand to quiet the preacher. “Just listen. Keep Murdoch’s shit outta Confederate County. This is my territory and ain’t nobody sellin’ here but me. Understood?”
+++++“Yeah.”
+++++“What?”
+++++“I said, yes.”
+++++“All right.”
+++++“What’s the second thing?”
+++++“I need you to go back to Greenville and take a message to Murdoch with you.”
+++++Before Randy Jessup could ask what the message was Peanut grabbed the minister by the arm and forced him back inside the box. The snake’s rattle thrummed against the wall and the preacher screamed as his hand was pushed near the mouth of the serpent.
+++++“You tell Murdoch the next motherfucker he sends round here I’m gone send back dead. You hear me?”
+++++“I hear you.”
+++++“Do you?”
+++++“Yes!”
+++++“Good.” Peanut shoved Randy deeper into the box and before he could pull away the rattlesnake struck. Its fangs pierced the fat of his hand and he jerked and banged against the box trying to get free.
+++++Peanut stepped away from the preacher and let him pull his arm from the box. He held his hand close to his chest like it’d been burned. He rocked on the floor and called the name of the Lord. “Jesus good Jesus please Jesus.”
+++++“You think he got the message?” Peanut asked Caudell.
+++++“I’d say so.” Caudell answered.
+++++“Then lets go.”
+++++“What?” Randy Jessup asked. “Hey, don’t go. You can’t.”
+++++“Preacher, I’m hungry and I wont to get over to Generals’ ‘fore the Baptists take over.”
+++++“What? No. You leave’n I’ll die.”
+++++Peanut turned his back on the minister and made his way for the door of the single wide.
+++++“You killed me.” Randy screamed. “You killed me, you sonuva bitch.”
+++++“Hey, preacher,” Peanut stood in the doorway of the mobile home, asked, “Ain’t you supposed to be a man of faith?”
+++++“What? What’re you askin’?”
+++++“Don’t the Bible say you’ll be able to take up serpents and scorpions and no harm’ll come to you or some shit like that?”
+++++“I don’t know what you’re tryin’ to say.” Randy Jessup cried.
+++++“I’m sayin’ to use your faith. Save yourself.”
+++++Randy rocked onto his side and said between sobs, “You killed me. You killed me.”
+++++“Preacher, whenever I kill you you’ll know you’re dead.”
+++++Randy pushed onto an elbow, asked, “What? What’re you sayin’?”
+++++“That rattlesnake you’s just bit by ain’t even venomous. Its glands was removed.” Peanut stepped out of the mobile home and said, “But if you don’t do what I say it ain’t gone be no snake bite you’ll have to worry about next time.”

Marriage Counseling

I didn’t love my wife Karen anymore. I liked her though. I loved my girlfriend Julie. If lady justice (who has a great rack I might add) weighed the feeling of like against the feeling of love, love weighed more every time.
+++++Julie had been nagging me to leave Karen for a while now, so we could start our own life together. I kept telling her I would, but I needed to get my ducks lined up in a row first, and ducks sure as shit don’t fall into line so goddamn easy.
+++++I didn’t want a divorce. I liked the equity I’d put into the house, and the money Karen and I managed to save, and the two cars in the garage, and all the modern amenities we had acquired throughout a successful twenty years of marriage. Divorce would destroy everything we hadworked so hard to obtain.
+++++I liked the hundred grand in life insurance I’d get if something unfortunate happened to Karen. That’d be some quality chicken scratch for Julie and I to start a new life with.
+++++I was out to dinner with Julie, and she was carping me about calling it off with Karen, and I was telling her soon, and that was the truth because I’d finally hit on the perfect ‘accident’ that would befall poor Karin. After dinner, I’d go home and draw a bath for my wife. Unfortunately she’d fall asleep in the tub, and cha-ching, I’m in the bread with a new pie.
+++++Julie had just finished her hors d’oeuvres when Donald walked into the restaurant, and sat at a table near us. Donald was an old friend of Karen’s and mine, and a huge gossip. If he saw me out to eat with another woman, it would be divorce city. I had to think fast, but it was too late. Before I could slip out unseen, Donald saw me, and came over.
+++++“Paul,” he said. “Good to see you.”
+++++“Donald.”
+++++“How’s Karen?”
+++++“Tired,” I said. “Under the water … I mean weather.”
+++++“Sorry to hear that,” Donald said. “And who’s this?”
+++++“Oh, um, this is my sister Julie,” I said, and Julie’s eyes turned to machineguns, mowing me down.
+++++“Really? It’s nice to meet you Julie. I thought Paul was an only child.”
+++++“It’s complicated,” I said.
+++++“I’m eating alone. Mind if I join you?” Donald asked.
+++++That son-of-a-bitch had me raked over the coals with a red-hot poker jammed up my ass. I had to endure the most awkwardly uncomfortable meal of all time. Donald wasn’t buying the horseshit I fed him about Julie, and the further I went down the rabbit hole of lies, the more I unearthed a simple truth: in order to avoid the turnoff to divorce town, Donald would also need to meet with an untimely accidental death.
+++++About halfway through our meal, Julie got an ‘emergency phone call.’
+++++“I have to run,” she said. “It was nice meeting you Donald. Paul, I’m staying over at mom’s place. Give me a call over there later. I want to have a word with you.”
+++++“Will do sis.”
+++++“It was nice to meet you too Julie,” Donald said. “Paul, I thought your mother was dead?”
+++++“It’s complicated,” I said. “What are your plans for the rest of the evening?”
+++++“Nothing,” Donald said. “I was thinking about heading home, and watching a movie. Perhaps some Hitchcock shorts. You want to join me?”
+++++“Yes,” I said.
+++++After dinner, I followed Donald to his dumpy rundown apartment. His flat was on the second floor, and it looked like a fucking shit bomb exploded in the living room. His belongings were strewn about everywhere. He offered me a beer. I popped the top, and chugged.
+++++The liquid courage should have helped me do the deed, but instead it had the opposite effect. I looked around, feeling sorry for Donald. He was a pathetic, lonely and dirty bachelor, but then I thought about divorce, and losing my ass. I grabbed the toaster, snuck up behind Donald as he put a copied VHS tape into the VCR, and strangled him with the chord. Thiswas by no means an easy feat. It took a lot of time and energy to throttle Donald. He thrashed around quite a bit, and even managed to scratch my face.
+++++The noise must have ticked off Donald’s downstairs’ neighbor. No sooner had I choked deadthat gossipy no good bastard, then the door burst open, and a woman in a bathrobe and curlers stood before me screaming bloody murder at the top of her lungs. It took her a few moments to stop bawling me out, and comprehend the scene before her.
+++++“This isn’t what it looks like,” I said, but she wasn’t having any of it, and ran screaming back to her apartment.
+++++I gave chase, and was able to force my way into her abode before she locked the door. She was hysterical, and I needed to shut her up quick before she drew more unwanted and unnecessary attention to my surreptitious activities.
+++++On a counter next to the door, a marble vase held a plastic flower of some sort. I couldn’t tell you what kind of flower it was because I don’t really know much about those sorts of things, but the vase was heavy and durable, so I picked it up, and conked her on the head with it. She went down like a sack of bricks, but gave a little moan, so I gave her a few more solid whacks with the urn until she fell silent, and her face became blood pudding.
+++++Unfortunately her gore had splatter all over me. I went into the bathroom to wash up before making my exit, and that’s when I saw a young boy of about ten hiding in the shower stall. He was on the phone with the police. Needless to say, I was furious with the little tyke. I snatched the phone from him, told the police I was his parent, and that he was making a prank call, and then I hung up.
+++++I just needed there to be no more witnesses, and I wouldn’t have to keep killing. Why was that such a hard thing to have happen? I didn’t want to finish off the kid, but goddamn it, I didn’t want a divorce either, so I lifted up the toilet seat, dunked the boy’s head in the pot, and sent him to his watery grave. Again, I was surprised at how hard it was to drown somebody. It took way too long, and I ended up soaked in toilet water, which was disgusting.
+++++I grabbed a towel, and wiped away the blood and water as best I could.
+++++As I was about to leave, a cop entered the apartment.
+++++“Freeze,” he yelled with his gun drawn. “Get your hands up.”
+++++“Thank god you’re here,” I said, and walked toward him. “I just got home, and found my wife, my beautiful wife, bleeding on the ground.”
+++++I tried to think about what it would be like if I had come home, and found my wife dead, and it made me really sad, and I even shed a few tears. I got down on my knees, and hugged the cop’s leg, and started sobbing.
+++++“Did you check for a pulse,” the cop said, buying my boloney, and holstering his firearm.
+++++As soon as he put his gun away, I grabbed it, and shot him in the head. Again, and I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I was amazed at how disturbingly gruesome a gunshot wound to the head is. The cop made spasm and twitched something awful, and I think he shit his pants.
+++++“Finally,” I thought as I made a hasty exit. “No more witnesses.”
+++++On the drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Julie had behaved at dinner. She was sort of being a bitch. Was that what it was going to be like with her? If that was the case, forget it.
+++++I arrived home. Karen was already asleep. I took off all of my clothes, and burned them in the fireplace. I crawled into bed, and cuddled up against Karen. What a fool I had been. I didn’t like my wife. I loved her.

The Brass Redemption

I was walking down the street one evening just as it was getting dark when up ahead of me, I spied a shiny, black Cadillac parked by the curb. The windows were tinted, almost black. I loved shiny cars. I walked up behind the car and dragged my finger along the enamelled surface from the rear tail fin, along the back door until I got to the passenger door. She was smooth and hot and shiny. My finger was big and distorted in the mirrored, convex surface and my arm looked five feet long. The detached, distant speck at the end of my arm was my head. Beyond this distorted reality, I noticed the passenger window was down and on the seat just inside was a closed briefcase. I pulled my finger back and retreated one step, jamming my hands in my pockets. It was my casual look. Relaxed. The moment just before the moment of decision. I surveyed the street. There was no one around and no one heading for the car. The two of us were alone, just me and the Caddy. It was a come-on, an open invite. I stepped forward, reached in and grabbed the case.
+++++I felt the fingers of my left hand curl around its handle when a hairy paw shot forward between the seatback and the door. It seized my upper arm in a gorilla vice grip and yanked me hard against the doorframe. My head bounced off its edge. Above the ringing in my ears, a distant, muffled voice on the other end of the hairy paw asked me a question.
+++++“Wha’ d’ya think your doin’, pal?”
+++++Tinted windows, I thought, never liked them. I pulled my right hand from my pocket, flicked open the switchblade and plunged it into his wrist just at the back of his hand. It took about two seconds. His hand opened in a spasm and I jerked my arm and the briefcase through the window. The gorilla hadn’t made a sound. Not a good sign. He was a tough guy. I back-pedaled away from the car then stopped. The briefcase dangled from my left hand. I’d pocketed the knife in case I had to run. I waited. The back door of the Caddy blew open. I took two steps further back. A guy who looked like Joe Pesci stepped out.
+++++Dark, narrow sunglasses wrapped around his skull and hid his eyes. His hair was slicked back on the top of his head and his right hand was wrapped in a bloody, white handkerchief. The open car door blocked my view of his left. He watched me. I watched him.
+++++“Wha’ cha doin’ kid?”
+++++I was relieved. I thought he’d be mad about his hand.
+++++“Nice suit.” It was all I could think of saying. He tugged at his suit jacket.
+++++“Armani.” He looked off to his left like he was deciding something. When he decided, he swung his head back and faced me.
+++++“You know wha’ chure doin’ kid?”
+++++“Stealing your briefcase?” He smiled and shook his head. He looked at the ground, gathering his thoughts like they were lodged down there somewhere in the gutter. I took two more small steps further back giving him some space to recover from the levity of the moment. He raised his head.
+++++“I don’ tink so,” he said. The smile had gone. He stepped out away from the car. He held a gun in his left hand down next to his Armani-clad leg. With the slicked back hair, the sunglasses and the Armani suit, the gun was more than a fashion statement. I recognized the look. I took off.
+++++I didn’t run up the sidewalk. Instead, I cut between the next two cars in front of the Caddy hoping to block his shot. It didn’t stop him from popping a cap into the rear window of a late model Olds I’d just passed. All I could think of was Alan Arkin. Serpentine! Serpentine! I ran along the street on the outside of several parked cars before I cut in between two and looked back to see if he was following me. He was still in the same place. You can’t run well in Italian loafers. The gun was up and pointing in my direction. He shot again, but it was wild. The bullet smashed into a car I’d already passed. Maybe the pain in his bloodied hand distracted him. I cut back between the next set of cars and ran full tilt up the street. There was an alley on my right. I cut over suddenly and sprinted into its open end. This was my turf. I knew every smell, every sign, every shop and the dark twist of every alley. With briefcase in hand, I looked like a guy running home to the hot wife at the end of a long day. Honey, I’m home!
+++++Fifty feet from the end of the alley that emptied out onto a busy street, I reduced my speed. I stopped at the corner and peered up and down the street searching for the black Cadillac. He’d been hidden behind the tinted windows in the back seat. He was a passenger. The driver had been somewhere else. He had to wait for the driver. I figured I was safe from Mr Armani for the time being. I stepped out on the street and turned right toward my flat. I had to get rid of the briefcase. It was like a beacon. Mr Mohammed’s shop was just down the block. I turned into the shop. He was seated behind the counter.
+++++“Mr Brass, so nice to see you.” He spoke English with the cadence and accent of a displaced resident of Mumbai.
+++++“Nice to see you too, Mr Mohammed.” I was a polite thief. “I’m looking of a knapsack.”
+++++“We have some,” he said and led me to the back of the store where knapsacks of various sizes and colours hung from a rack. I chose one in dark blue.
+++++“Good choice.” He smiled through the whole transaction and handed me the knapsack.
+++++“Mr Mohammed, do you have a toilet here?”
+++++“For you. Of course. Come.” I’d never stolen anything from his store. He always treated everyone with respect. I liked that. We arrived at a door marked ‘Toilet’.
+++++“Take some time. No problem,” he said.
+++++I went into the toilet, closed the door and locked it behind me. There was a small sink on one wall with a mirror above it. I laid the briefcase flat on top of the sink and flipped up the two latches on the case. I lifted the lid. Inside were banded banknotes. They were $100 bills, triple stacked, five across and three rows deep. I calculated quickly. It was almost half a million dollars. It was what we called ‘dead money’. If you kept it, you were dead.
+++++In a situation like this, there are two viable options. One, you take the money and disappear forever, and that means forever. You never show your face again. Two, you give it back and hope for the best. Viable has two meanings: workable and capable of living. I wanted to live. I wanted to work something out. Disappearing forever meant always looking over your shoulder. That option was not workable—and it was not living. I dumped the money in the knapsack and zipped it closed. I exited the toilet and handed Mr Mohammed the empty briefcase. It was a gift. He gave me a Yankees baseball cap in return. It said Gucci on the briefcase nameplate. When he saw the nameplate, he turned and pulled a Yankees sweatshirt from a rack behind him.
+++++“Maybe this help you, Mr Brass.” He was still smiling when he handed it to me.
+++++Disguised as Mickey Mantle, I exited the shop. I’d broken my own rule: never steal something just because it’s there. You break the rules, you pay the price.
+++++I was a notorious thief. The trouble with notoriety is it’s indiscriminate. You’re well known to your friends–your fellow travellers–as well as your enemies. I didn’t think it would take long for Mr Armani to find me. I was sure he was on my side of the notorious line and had his connections. I had mine too. I made a few calls.
+++++I discovered Mr Armani’s real name. It was DiPietro. I’d heard the name connected to loan sharking and numbers. Organized crime wasn’t my racket and I’d managed to steer clear of it in my line of work. I never liked working for anyone, let alone someone organized. I was disorganized, but I was my own boss and that suited me.
+++++I got the address of a social club where Mr DiPietro ‘socialised’. It was in a part of town I didn’t frequent. I wasn’t the social type, at least not that social type. At first I thought maybe some backup would be a good idea. I knew some guys I could depend on, but the more I thought about it, the more it lost its appeal. This had been my doing and now it had to be my undoing–alone. I’d broken my own rule and now it was my own responsibility to make it right. There was no room for compromise, and anyway, at no time during our brief introduction did Mr DiPietro seem to be the compromising type. He’d been calm and even reflective, as calm as a guy could be with a bloodied hand, a gun and a half a million dollars to lose. Maybe he was a guy who weighed the options and only acted when and if necessary. I was counting on appealing to that side of his nature, if that side existed. I wanted to make it right as soon as possible so I headed for Mr. DiPietro’s social club.
+++++During my cab ride across town, a light shower passed over the city. At one point the cabby had to put on the wipers, but it was over by the time we arrived at the address I’d memorized. I had the cab drop me off at the opposite corner. I strode up a wet sidewalk, slick with refracted neon light. I stopped. A small green and red neon sign was suspended over the adjacent sidewalk. It just said, Social Club in white letters. There were two plate glass windows on either side of door. Slatted blinds covered the windows. Two young guys dressed in suits were standing outside the door smoking. I crossed the street with the knapsack over my shoulder. A passing car ripped rainwater from the pavement like tape from a fresh wound. I watched the spray drift away in its wake. I knew with the Yankee cap and sweatshirt, I looked like a geek college kid. No threat. I approached the two guys in front of the door.
+++++“Hi. Is Mr DiPietro in?” They looked me up and down like I was from another planet, maybe the idiot planet. The taller of the two spoke, the alpha male.
+++++“Don’t know a Mr DiPietro.” I expected him to say that. He was young, but he was the protection, the first line of defense.
+++++“I was told this is his club.” He took a long drag on his cigarette.
+++++“Maybe you was told wrong.” In a somewhat reflective mood, I looked down and scuffed the toe of my sneaker on the sidewalk. Just like a geek.
+++++“Yeah. Maybe you’re right. Reliable information is hard to come by.” I figured I’d put the ball in their court. “I have something for Mr DiPietro, but if this isn’t his club, then I guess I was wrong. Tell him I was here with the package.” I started to walk off. I took two steps away.
+++++“Hey!” I stopped. “State your business.” I turned back toward the two junior executives. They weren’t sure, so they had to make sure. I counted on that.
+++++“Just tell him I really like his black Cadillac.” The tall guy stared at me for about half a minute while he casually lit another cigarette, then he spoke to his partner.
+++++“Joe, go give Frank the message. I’ll watch this guy.” Joe went inside. The tall guy finished his cigarette and without taking his eyes of me, flicked the butt into the street. I thought of doing a few Gene Kelly steps on the wet pavement but decided against it. It would have been wasted on him. Joe returned.
+++++“Frank says let him in.” I stepped past the tall guy into the bar. Joe politely held the door for me.
+++++“Hold it right there,” the tall guy said from behind me. “Drop the bag and lift your arms.” I did what he asked. He frisked me thoroughly. Then he opened the bag. Half a million dollars in banded $100 bills looks impressive, even in a geek knapsack. I have to give him credit. He didn’t flinch when he saw the money. He scooped it aside and checked for a weapon like he was supposed to. He had cool potential. “OK. Joe, take him back.”
+++++“Wait. You didn’t check under the hat.” I can be a smartass when I’m nervous. He smacked the back of my head and knocked off the cap. “OK. You’re not a Yankee fan,” I concluded, “Not everyone is.” I shrugged.
+++++“Get going.” He was losing patience with me. I left the cap and picked up the knapsack and followed Joe toward the back. The guys at the bar and the guys playing cards at the tables planted small targets on my back. I felt like a babe in the woods or a deer in the headlights. Whichever, I hoped they weren’t armed. We reached the back. Joe knocked three times on an unmarked door.
+++++“Yeah,” said a voice I recognized.
+++++Joe opened the door and I stepped into Mr DiPietro’s office. A smile lit his face when he saw me. Maybe this would work out. The trouble with these guys is that it’s either business or personal. The problem is who determines that.
+++++“You can go Joe,” said Mr DiPietro.
+++++“I’ll be right outside,” said Joe.
+++++“Joe, go outside with Carmen. That’s where yur s’posed ta be. OK? Go.” He waved with the back of his hand.
+++++“Yes sir,” replied Joe. He closed the door.
+++++I stood just inside the door. I hadn’t moved. Mr DiPietro sat hard in his cushioned chair behind a solid, blond oak desk. He leaned back in his chair, stared at the ceiling and steepled his fingers. His right hand had been properly bandaged.
+++++“Ya know, Mr Brass, I wasn’t sure I’d see ya so soon. I mean, I hoped I didn’t haf to send someone to your house.” He knew my name, who I was and where I lived just like I thought he would.
+++++“I thought it was better to clear the air and set things straight right away. Brass is my street name. I’m a thief. That’s what I do. I can steal anything, thus my nickname.” I didn’t intend to blow my own horn or wax eloquent, but I felt the situation called for a small explanation.
+++++“Yur reputation proceeds you,” he answered, trying vainly for a bit of eloquence himself.
+++++I picked up the knapsack and set it in front of him. I zipped it open and dumped the half million dollars on the top of his desk. It was a bravado move, dramatic but indisputable proof.
+++++“It’s all there. You can count it if you want.”
+++++“I don’t need ta coun’ it,” he answered. I felt better right away.
+++++“I have a rule, Mr DiPietro. Don’t steal something just because it’s there. A real thief plans. I broke that rule today. With great respect, I apologize.” I’d watched all three Godfather movies. Respect was a big deal then. I hoped it was still a big deal.
+++++“I know yur showing respect. That’s good. Making things right is important.” He leaned forward and pushed a button on his phone. “Frank. Get in here,” he said. The door opened a few seconds later and in walked Luca Brasi’s double. These guys always have an enforcer. He’s always big. When his dead eyes fall on you, they have a numbing effect like a shot of novocain to the jaw. “Frank, take all dis cash, pu’ it back ‘n the bag and give it to Carlo behine’ the bar. He’ll know wha’ to do wid it. Then come back.”
+++++“Sure, boss.” No questions. He scooped up the cash in his big hands, put it back in the bag and exited the office just like Mr DiPietro asked. That was one scary soldier. Mr DiPietro turned to me.
+++++“Sid down.” I sat. “I have a proposition. You come work fer me. Wha’ d’ya say?” I looked him in the eye. I wanted to please this guy, but I knew I couldn’t.
+++++“I never worked for anyone, Mr DiPietro. I appreciate your offer but I’m my own man.” He stared hard at me. He didn’t speak again until Frank came back into the office, then he smiled.
+++++“I understand Mr Brass. I really do. You’ve made restitution. You’ve said enough Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s to last a long time. A half a million of them!” He laughed heartily at his own joke. I smiled. Then he got serious. “And, like the priest, I forgive you.” He pointed at me and made the sign of the cross with his bandaged hand. “But with every sin comes a punishment. Maybe penance is a better word?” This guy had suddenly become eloquent. He’d lost the street accent. I wasn’t certain what it meant, and I wasn’t sure I liked the new Father DiPietro. “You said you broke your own rule? Well, you also broke my rule: no one steals from me. It’s a hard and fast rule, Mr Brass, and no one—not even those that work for me—escape the consequences.” He pushed a button on his phone again. “Tell Carmen and Joe to get in here.” A few seconds later they arrived. The office was getting crowded. He continued his soliloquy. “I like you, Mr Brass. You got balls. You’re not dumb. You sized up the situation and you knew what you had to do. It takes balls to do what’s right. It took balls to come here. I don’t want you to think I don’t appreciate it.”
+++++“Thank you, Mr DiPietro.” I had to say something before all the saliva in my mouth turned to dust.
+++++“Don’t thank me yet, kid.” The smile dropped from his face. He was watching me. I held his gaze. “Frank is going to break all the fingers in your left hand. I know you’re right handed ‘cause the knife hit its mark clean,” he said, holding up his bandaged right hand, “So consider this a merciful gesture. I’ll have Carmen drive you to the hospital after. It’s the least I can do for the return of the money. It’s my show of respect.”
+++++His soldiers stood off to one side in shadow. In their dark suits and ties, with their hands folded in front of them, they looked like pallbearers at a funeral waiting for the signal to pick up the coffin. It wasn’t my coffin. I was grateful.
+++++I’d been tense sitting in the chair not knowing. Now I knew. I relaxed and sat back. The whole of life teeters on the edge of the need to know and the fear of knowing. Once that puzzle is solved, the rest is nothing. I accepted my fate. My eyes had never left his.
+++++“Can I have a shot of that whiskey?” He had a wet bar in the corner of the room. I nodded my head in that direction.
+++++“Joe. Pour Mr Brass a double.” He kept his eyes locked on mine. Joe went to the bar and poured my drink. “Give me a shot, too,” he added. Joe poured him a shot, brought Mr DiPietro his drink, then rounded the desk and handed me mine. It was a generous double.
+++++“Can I propose a toast?” I asked. Mr DiPietro lifted his glass in consent. I lifted mine. “To the understanding of mercy without which there can be no true repentance.”
+++++“Damn. I like you kid.” He smiled.
+++++We both tossed back our drinks. The smoky aroma of the whiskey filled my head. The liquid hit the bottom of my empty stomach and like a flaming arrow, the alcohol shot straight to my head. I counted on that shot.
+++++Joe and Carmen grabbed my shoulders and held me back in the chair. The empty glass dropped harmlessly from my right hand and fell silently onto the thickly carpeted floor. Frank stretched my left hand onto a white handkerchief on top of the oak desk. The surface was as solid as a rock. That was good. The hammer looked small in Frank’s hand, but Frank’s hand was big. Frank raised the hammer. At the last moment, Carmen covered my eyes. Mercy often comes from unexpected quarters.
+++++He only hit my fingers. Frank was not only a good soldier, but he had good aim. He didn’t break the small bones in the back of my hand like a sloppy apprentice. Frank was a professional. I was thankful for that. I wasn’t out for revenge. I wasn’t the toughest man I knew. I was out for repentance, and mercy stood at the edge of a darkness I embraced. I passed out.
+++++Just like Mr DiPietro promised, Carmen drove me to the hospital. They set the fingers, then mounted a cast on my hand. Painkillers were prescribed. I took three at the hospital and pocketed the rest for later. I told them the jack had slipped when I was changing a tire. The less elaborate my explanation, the more credible it was. They felt sorry for me. Hell, I felt sorry for me so that made at least two of us.
+++++The taxi ride to my flat took twenty minutes. By the time I arrived, I’d reviewed the day’s events. I’d broken more than one rule. I’d made restitution. I’d been punished, but I’d been shown mercy. How often does that happen? I’d been a thief and had stood outside any moral conviction. But when you stand on the brink, when you see beyond, who’s to say what you see? It took no special, spiritual vision to determine my choice of a future path.
+++++That was the day I gave up my bad boy image. I’d paid a small, merciful price for who I was. Father DiPietro had shown me the way, a priest among men. At that moment, the irredeemable gangster became my saviour, and I, his prodigal son returned home.

 

My left hand still aches when the weather turns cold and damp, a constant reminder of the gift of mercy and the ultimate price of redemption.

The Cornice

Rob felt light and prickly. He’d slept a total of eight hours in the last five days, while he and Atul had simulated what would happen if they had to handle the data of five million distinct users spread across three continents. At five AM that morning, they’d stepped away from their computers—it was as good as it was going to get. They shook hands and Atul went home to sleep. It was all up to Rob now. He probably looked and smelled like a troll, but he wasn’t selling his charisma. He felt competent and in control, but every so often he’d catch himself missing something obvious—writing ton instead of some, putting his shirt on inside out. When Victor pulled up on a woman’s bicycle, Rob considered the possibility that he was hallucinating his cousin—a big, greasy mass of hair and menace.
+++++It wasn’t a good time. Rob had to leave in fifteen minutes. Maybe come back later? Maybe next week? Victor wasn’t having any of it.
+++++“Where’s the other guy, the Indian guy?” he asked.
+++++“He went home.”
+++++“He’s not coming with you? To the big million dollar meeting?” Victor asked.
+++++“No, he doesn’t like to talk to people.”
+++++“Wow, so out of the two of you, you’re the charming one?” Victor laughed—the old mean-spirited laugh. “So how does it work: you show up and beg them for money?”
+++++“I ask them to invest. It’s very important to me, so if you wouldn’t mind—”
+++++“Can I come along?”
+++++“No.”
+++++“Jesus, it was a joke. You don’t have to treat me like I’m some kind of disease.”
+++++But Victor had always been a disease. As a kid he was this looming, terrifying cancer. As an adult he’d turned into this maddening parasitic infection. It had been a year since Rob had seen him. Victor had, no doubt, wasted every second—those 31 million precious pulses that Rob had used to build something meaningful.
+++++“I have to go,” Rob said. “Sorry, we didn’t really get a chance to hang out.”
+++++Victor picked up a trophy off the dresser: a golden man with a fountain of clubs in front of him.
+++++“Combat juggling? What the hell, man? That’s like getting a trophy for how no girl will ever come close to your cock,” Victor said, tossing the trophy onto the couch and then picking up Rob’s laptop case. “How much would it cost you if you couldn’t make it?”
+++++“This isn’t funny. All right?”
+++++“You show up late, they’ll probably just cross you off the list, right? Give your million dollars to someone else.”
+++++“That’s why I’d really appreciate it if you’d hand that back to me and let me go on my way.”
+++++“How about you give me a few bucks for it?”
+++++Rob rooted around in his pockets.
+++++“Here. Here’s—almost 30 dollars.”
+++++“You think I want your money?”
+++++“You—you just asked for money. Take it and give me my computer.”
+++++Victor took the money. Then he offered the bag. When Rob reached for it, Victor pulled it back and swung it by its strap around his body. Rob tried to grab it, but Victor fended him off with his left hand.
+++++“Jesus, I’m going to let you have it. Don’t worry. You don’t trust me?” Victor asked.
+++++“I trust you. I’m just under a lot of pressure right now. This is a big meeting.”
+++++“It’ll be great. Rob, you’re a genius. I tell that to everyone.”
+++++“That means a lot. Your opinion means a lot to me, Vic.”
+++++Rob thought he could slip dry irony past his cousin, but he was wrong.
+++++“See, that—that right there—is not really a friendly way to talk. You forget all the things I did for you?”
+++++“Like what? Kick my ass and tell me not to cry about it?”
+++++“Boys wrestle. That’s part of growing up.”
+++++“And now I’ve grown up, and I’m an actual adult who does real things, and I have to go to a meeting.”
+++++“You talk to me like I’m some kind of—I don’t know—some kind of animal. You think that’s right?”
+++++Victor seemed genuinely hurt. It was strangely thrilling. There was a part of Rob that wanted to stay and try to burn his cousin as badly as he could. Because he’d barely even scratched the surface. Victor was a lazy, rotting failure, a cheap sponge, a man who stole lawn furniture and cheated his ex out of child support, a man who read like a second grader and catcalled junior high school girls. But Rob had to go. He reached for the laptop case again, but Victor slapped his hand away. Rob felt a cold bolt of panic. Wait a second: he didn’t need the laptop. If he could get to his car, he could drive to Atul’s place, get his laptop, and still make it to the meeting on time. Rob walked to the door, but Victor cut in front of him.
+++++“You don’t need your computer?”
+++++“No. Stay here and look at porn. I don’t care.”
+++++“Okay, let me tell you something, Rob. I get women, okay? In the real world. I’ll go out tonight and come home with an elegant lady. My guess is you’ll be the one slapping it to cartoon fat chicks tonight.”
+++++“You’re right. Please get out of my way. Now.”
+++++“Jesus, I’m just messing with you. You could never take a joke. I’d draw one penis on your forehead, and you act like it’s the end of the world. Go. Go ahead. Who’s stopping you?”
+++++Victor handed over the laptop case formally—his best impression of a Victorian valet. Rob took it and walked to the door, but just before he made it, Victor bumped him out of the way again.
+++++“One more thing. Thirty bucks is not much. I’m going to need—”
+++++“Get out of my way,” Rob yelled.
+++++“Yeah, in a minute.”
+++++Victor shoved Rob back casually, and then Rob charged, pushing his cousin up against the front door. But Victor was stronger and wrestled him down to the ground.
+++++“Rob. All I was going to tell you—”
+++++Rob crashed his forehead up into Victors face, but he didn’t make solid contact.
+++++“Who are you, Liam Neesen? Lead with the head?” Victor laughed. “That’s some funny shit.”
+++++Rob spit up at Victor, hitting him in the eye.
+++++“Oh, no. That’s not right.”
+++++Now Victor hit him hard in the face—one left, one right, another left. Rob grabbed the trophy off the couch and bludgeoned Victor with it, hitting him with the sharp corner again and again. Five times? Six times? Ten times?
+++++Victor was out. Dead? Rob didn’t think so. There was no time to call an ambulance. He walked outside and opened the trunk of his car. When he came back in the house, Victor was still down. It was a massive effort, but Rob lifted the body and dropped it into the trunk. Then he slammed the trunk shut, looking around at the house next door. Nothing? It looked like he was clear. If Victor was still alive when the meeting was over, Rob would take him to a hospital. He’d tell them something. Maybe the truth. Rob was about to get into the driver’s seat, when he realized how much blood was on his shirt—the only nice button down he had.
+++++He took if off and cleaned his hands and face. Then he put on the only other clean shirt he had—a bright orange tee that said Hot Dog. He threw his blazer on over it and got in the car.
+++++It wasn’t until he was halfway to the meeting that he questioned this decision. Rob liked to think of himself as a person who used logic at all times. Maybe he was bad under pressure? This worried him, because a lot of the work he and Atul had done in the last few days had been rushed—calculations made quickly and approved at a glance, code written in a single caffeinated swoop. If he really had to demonstrate the process to Yu and Riley, would it hold up?

***

The campus wasn’t big, but it was pleasant—cut grass, friendly palms, and rows of low well-tended bushes. There was plenty of room to park, and he found a spot in the corner, far away from any other car. He listened to the trunk—nothing—so he walked into the building where everything was high tech yet cozy. It smelled like cinnamon, a little like a candle shop during Christmas—an everything’s-going-to-be-fine smell.
+++++They photographed him and made him a temporary ID at the front desk, and then he rode up to the eighth floor with two young interns—a boy and a girl. They ignored him and talked about loopholes in the vegan lifestyle—smart, flirty, and more attractive than Rob had ever been. He felt himself at the extreme edge of relevance. If this didn’t go well, he might as well buy a floppy hat and yell at soup in diners like his grandfather had done.
+++++The young man at the eighth floor reception desk gave Rob a suspicious look, but Rob put his ID on the counter.
+++++“I’ve got an 11:30 with Mr. Riley and Mr. Yu.”
+++++“Rob Hollis? That’s you?”
+++++“That’s right.”
+++++It was 11:28.
+++++“Please follow me to the Lovelace Room.”
+++++Savarino Riley was probably only a few years older than Rob, but he looked like a substantial adult with a huge, shaved head.
+++++“Thank you so much for coming in,” Riley said, turning away from his computer and shaking Rob’s hand. “I won’t waste your time. We’re not investing in your idea.”
+++++“May I ask what’s wrong with it, because if I could explain some of the—”
+++++“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s an intriguing idea. Sid and I really appreciate you coming to us with it. We hope you do very well with it down the line. But it just doesn’t make sense to put our capital into it.”
+++++Why have him come in at all if they’d already made up their minds? Stupid rich, finance bastards? Feeling dangerous, Rob had a sudden urge to attack. With the right tool he could split this big, naked head wide open like some kind of futuristic melon.
+++++“Is Mr. Yu going to be here?” Rob asked.
+++++“It’s not going to be necessary.”
+++++“I—may I just ask why—I mean, why not—”
+++++“I’m sorry if this is disappointing.”
+++++And then Sid Yu poked his head in the room.
+++++“Riley. Let’s move. We got the UIC call in five.”
+++++“All right,” Riley stood up and extended a hand to Rob who hesitated a moment before taking it.
+++++“Who’s this guy?” Yu asked.
+++++“This is Rob Willis.”
+++++“What the hell happened to his face? You didn’t even ask, did you?”
+++++“Remember? We looked at his prop last night, and—”
+++++“Yeah, I know who he is—data storage with the twisty straw idea—but what happened to his face?”
+++++“I didn’t ask.”
+++++“I fell down the stairs this morning,” Rob said. “Does it matter?”
+++++“You live in a one-story home, a rental. No stairs. Not even out front.”
+++++“How do you know where I live?”
+++++“We’ve got your address, right? Not hard to find a picture of the house.”
+++++“I was at my girlfriend’s apartment last night. I was still mostly asleep when I left. I tripped on the stairs and landed on a cornice.”
+++++“A cornice? You went face first into a cornice?”
+++++“Yes.”
+++++“You’ve got a girlfriend? In an apartment with cornices?”
+++++“Yes.”
+++++“Man. I was a millionaire before I had the courage to ask out a girl with a cornice.”
+++++“Sid?” Riley said. “The meeting?”
+++++“They’ll hold. I’m interested,” Yu looked back to Rob. “I was told that you and Atul were monks. Two guys just holed up in a garage, working 18 hours a day on data storage. Now all of a sudden, the night before your big presentation, you’re out with some girl—crashing into cornices?”
+++++“Why did you do so much research into our personal lives?”
+++++“We didn’t do that much research, but remember we were trying to figure out whether or not to give you a few million dollars. Of course, we looked into things.” Yu turned to Riley. “So take me through it: he’s got the biggest sale of his life the next morning. He goes over to Audrey’s place? A little Fetty Wap and some loving on the couch. Next thing you know it’s morning. He grabs an orange hot dog t shirt and goes flying down her fancy staircase?”
+++++“Accidents happen,” Riley said.
+++++“Yeah, but he’s lying to us. I just wonder why. I don’t believe in this girlfriend.”
+++++“That’s enough—we got a meeting.”
+++++“Let me understand something, Riley—a guy walks in looking like he just got in a street fight, and you don’t even notice?”
+++++“I noticed, but it wasn’t relevant.”
+++++“If the rest of this meeting is going to be about my face, then maybe I should go,” Rob said.
+++++I never said I wouldn’t invest with you and I’m 53 percent of the company. Tell me what happened to your face. That’s relevant.”
+++++“You want to know the truth?”
+++++“Yup.”
+++++“Atul and I got in a big fight this morning about the presentation. He didn’t agree that I should highlight the immediate applicability that our product would have on mobile devices. I tried to point out that it wasn’t just a better short term avenue for—”
+++++“Yeah, I read the pitch. So he disagreed and then you two just went at it—fisticuffs? No sexy girls with exotic cornices?”
+++++“I said things to him I shouldn’t. He hit me. I hit him back. But we both apologized. Lack of sleep, high pressure. We’re fine to work together—better than ever.”
+++++“Does he look as bad as you?”
+++++“No. I got the worst of it.”
+++++“. . . Nope. Not buying that one, either.”
+++++“Why not?”
+++++Again Yu turned to Riley, talking about Rob like he wasn’t in the room.
+++++“In this story he’s willing to be the guy who gets beat up, but not the one who’s wrong about the technology.”
+++++He turned back to Rob.
+++++“Here’s the deal: if you tell me the truth, I’ll give you 760,000 dollars for 48 percent of the action. That’s a promise. But it has to be the truth. I’ll know if it isn’t.”
+++++“Come on, Sid,” Riley said.
+++++“What? That’s exactly what I saved us this morning by pushing back Allie’s opening. You’re saying I don’t get to spend that?”
+++++“We’re going to pay for trash?”
+++++“Hey, it’s not trash.” Yu mocked outrage. “It’s a middling idea for a Harvey Mudd grad, but sometimes those pan out. GrapeTech was a lot dumber than this idea, and investors got rich off Grape, didn’t they?”
+++++“500,000,” Riley said. “We can’t give him more than that.”
+++++“650.”
+++++“600.”
+++++“Done,” Yu turned back to Rob. “Okay. Last chance. Tell the truth, and I’ll cut the check.”
+++++“My cousin tried to shake me down for money, so I hit him over the head with a combat juggling trophy. Then I stuffed him in the trunk and drove out here.”
+++++“Combat juggling?”
+++++“It’s this thing where a lot of guys juggle clubs in a room and the last one to—”
+++++“I know what it is. I can’t see you being any good at it.”
+++++“I’m not. Atul got it for me as a joke.”
+++++Rob didn’t even know how to juggle. But it turned out he wasn’t the kind of guy who could pull off owning something geeky in an ironic way.
+++++“This is your cousin on which side?” Yu asked.
+++++“Mother’s.”
+++++“He’s done this kind of thing before?”
+++++“I’ve lent him money before. He used to pick on me when we were kids: pin me down and put things in my nose.”
+++++“Like what?”
+++++“Pretzel sticks. That’s why I really don’t like—when things get in my nose.”
+++++“Sure. Is he alive?”
+++++“I don’t know. Can you write me a check?”
+++++“But he’s out in the parking lot? In your car?”
+++++“Yes.”
+++++“And what are you going to do after you leave this interview?”
+++++“Deposit your check.”
+++++“. . . He’s telling the truth,” Yu said.
+++++“Then we can’t give him the money.”
+++++“What do you mean? We have to.”
+++++Riley turned to Rob.
+++++“Can you give us a minute, please? Wait outside.”
+++++Rob sat out in reception. Maybe he should run down to the lot and drive off. But where to? Emergency room? Police station? Nevada, where he could find a quiet stretch of highway?
+++++“Uh, yeah. You can go now,” the kid at the desk called to him. “You don’t need to wait for anything else.”
+++++“Mr. Riley told me to wait out here for him and Mr. Yu.”
+++++“. . . Are you serious?”

***

When they got to the parking lot and found Rob’s car, the trunk was open. Victor was gone, but there were traces of blood in the upholstery and down the side of the exterior. Riley followed a trail that led into the grass and then disappeared. Yu took out his checkbook and a freshly printed contract and put them on the hood of the car.
+++++“Are you crazy? We can’t give him money,” Riley said.
+++++“We have to: I promised.”
+++++“We have to call the police.”
+++++“You can do that if you like. What are you going to tell them?” Yu turned to Rob. “You got your cousin’s cell number? Call him.”
+++++Rob dialed Victor’s number and Yu took the phone.
+++++“What?” Victor answered.
+++++“Hey, this is Sid Yu with Yu/Riley Ventures. How’s it going?”
+++++“Who are you?”
+++++“You need anything? Need a ride to the hospital, anything like that?”
+++++“No. I don’t.”
+++++“Where are you?”
+++++“. . . I’m sitting near this little lake.”

***

Victor sat on an artificial log by the coy pond, still bleeding from his head. He looked bad.
+++++“Okay. What’s the story here, Victor?” Yu asked.
+++++“The story? This fucker hit me with a folk dancing trophy.”
+++++“No. What happened is you were across the street at the half pipe. Some skater kids jumped you. Your cousin is going to drive you to the hospital. When you get out, you’re going to deposit this check for 8,000 dollars.”
+++++Yu wrote a check and gave it to Victor. Then he wrote a second check for 592,000 dollars and handed Rob the contract. When he signed it, Yu gave him the check.
+++++“And you don’t have to ride in the trunk this time,” Yu said to Victor.
+++++“I don’t need a doctor. I’ve gotten worse than this. Give me an even ten grand, and I’ll go home and sleep it off.”
+++++“That’s up to you guys,” Yu said. “Work it out in the car. But honestly, I’d advise seeing a doctor. Head trauma can be tricky. Brains are weird. You know?”
+++++Victor nodded sagely and got in the passenger seat. Rob took a moment, tucked the check in his breast pocket, then got in the car and started the engine.
+++++The partners watched the car leave the lot.
+++++“You think the cousin is going to be trouble?” Yu asked.
+++++“I really hope not, because this is a billion dollar idea.”

Slammin’ It

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

The rat peeked out from his hole and surveyed the farrowing pen that comprised part of his territory. His ears strained for any sound out of the norm as his whiskers bristled. When he felt it was safe he half danced half scampered along the concrete pen floor to a secure hiding spot directly along side of the feeding trough. The sow lay on her side behind a restraining contraption that looked similar to an iron maiden from medieval times. This prevented the sow from rolling over and suffocating her nursing piglets.
+++++The rat enjoyed a quiet morning meal not realizing that he was being watched.
+++++“You see that Jimbo? Fuckers are becoming brazen. They have nothing to fear but we’re about to change all that.” Said prisoner Robert Jarzynski, AKA Cowboy Bob as he used the back of his hand to wipe his nose.
+++++“Right Cowboy, what exactly have you got in mind?” I asked.
+++++“That rodent came out of exit hole seven and after dinner he used the number three entrance hole to return to his bunker.”
+++++“Bunker?”
+++++‘Jesus Jimbo you’re one dumb motherfucker. Don’t see what is going on here? It’s all around us.”
+++++“Last I checked we’re doing time in a military prison. We worked our way out to the parolee honors farm. Am I right?”
+++++“You’re only half right dip stick. We’re standing on top of a tunnel system that stretches for miles and somewhere close by is the control and command center for the entire rat army.” Said a knowledgeable Cowboy Bob. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days and the stubble was evident on his chin and he wore the hint of a mustache on his upper lip.
+++++“You been smoking some of that ditch weed we found out near the end of the cow pasture?”
+++++“Fucking hippy peaceniks are all the godamned same. If they had let us go I mean just given the green light Vietnam would be a fucking parking lot today. We had to fight with one hand tied behind our backs, wasn’t fair.”
+++++“Oh I don’t know last I heard they’ve killed over a million Vietnamese give or take a few hundred thousand and still counting.
+++++“Jimbo I know you’re some kind of peacenik commie who refused to go the Nam but what I’m talking about here is redemption. That’s right a chance to be a real man, a chance to help take down the rodent tunnel system that’s plaguing the livestock here.”
+++++“Is that what those little blue and red flags tied to the sticks by the rat holes are all about?”
+++++“Guess you’re not so stupid after all Jimbo. I’ve been working on this offensive for almost a month now. Here take a look at the map I’ve put together.”
+++++Cowboy Bob unfolded a large map and spread it across the rough sawn wooden workbench. He stepped back and ran his index finger back and forth under his nose as he gazed at his cartographic handiwork.
+++++“Guess you’ve been really busy, I had no idea.” I said in amazement.
+++++The diagram that he had unfolded showed a detailed drawing of the entire farm with special attention given to the pig farrowing barns and it denoted over eighteen rat entrance and exit holes. He had the tunnel system analyzed in great detail. Red flags were entrance holes and blue flags were exit holes. He had even figured out which ones were the dummy holes the blind entrances going nowhere. I was really impressed.
+++++“So Bob you picked up this special ability to sniff out enemy tunnels over there in the Nam?” I asked.
+++++“1st BN 5th Infantry of the 25th Division, Tropic Fucking Lighting.  Tunnel rats. We were outside of Saigon some 25 miles or so at Cu Chi. I’m a little under 5’4” so I was a natural to squeeze in those nasty assed hell holes and ferret out the VC rats.”
+++++“Doesn’t sound like any fun to me.”
+++++“Not our problem here today peacenik. What we’re dealing with here is a massive enemy presence right under our very noses and you and I are going to smoke the fuckers out. Now are you with me on this or are you going to pussy out?”
+++++No sir I mean yes sir let’s ice some fucking rats!” I said not wanting to upset the Cowboy.
+++++“You know what Phil Sheridan said, ‘Only good rat is a dead rat.’
+++++“Uhh I think Phil said Indian not rat.”
+++++“Indian, rat, dink, VC, gook, what’s the fucking difference they’re all the same and come tomorrow they’re all going to be KIA. Now listen you up while I lay out the assault plan and I’ll tell you where you fit in.”
+++++I remembered when the Cowboy first came out to the farm. He had that look, not the thousand yard stare although I’ve seen plenty of inmates walking around with that spaced out vacant look, no Bob had an in your face presence that possessed a power all it’s own. Like he could melt shit with a concentrated glance if he really wanted to. Messianic would have been an accurate description. What he lacked in size he more than made for in intensity.
+++++I knew that something with him wasn’t quite right but had no idea that he was on the brink.
+++++Being a trustee and working on the farm was good duty. Nobody fucked with you as long as you worked hard. Everything considered this being Leavenworth and all it was a good a place to be. Only inmates with a three-year sentence or longer were candidates to be farmer trustees.
+++++The dinner table at the farm was long and narrow it had a checkered tablecloth and could sit all 25 inmates who worked out at the farm. It was casual dinning and the chow line was open from 5:00 to 6:45 AM you could sit down any time and eat. Food at the farm was outstanding it was a real functioning farm and we got up at 4:30 and worked hard so the rations were plentiful and tasted like real food.
+++++“Jimbo I hear tomorrow is D-Day at the rat complex.” Said Bro Fuss. He was tall and skinny with delicate facial features but had a frame of sinewy muscle built from hard work at the farm.
+++++“You been talking to Cowboy?” I asked.
+++++“He’s been giving impromptu lectures to anyone who’ll listen about the assault. Says the underground complex could stretch as far out as to the Castle itself.”
+++++“Needless to say I’m worried. It took me a long time to get out here to the farm. It wasn’t working for me back inside the walls at the Castle. Don’t want to lose any good time or get my ass shipped back there.”
+++++“You gotta admit though folks here are excited about it. More buzz these days at the farm about the Cowboy than when they walked on the moon.”
+++++“His original plan he was going to dump a gallon of gasoline down into the holes of the complex. Yesterday I saw him drain fuel out of a tractor. He had a 5-gallon Jerry can. I feel bad for the rats.”
+++++Next morning I woke up at 4 AM I wanted to be ready for the big day. I went through the chow line and ordered 3 eggs over easy, a couple sausages, 3 strips of bacon, OJ, a muffin, hash browns and a cup of steaming hot coffee. Cookie had on the country music station and someone was wailing softly about his lost love or lost dog or something along that line.
+++++I looked around for the Cowboy but he was nowhere to be seen. Bro Fuss came and sat down next to me.
+++++“All geared up for the assault?” Said Fuss with an eager edge to his voice. ‘Take it easy Fuss. Staff has to know something’s going down and I don’t want to have my shit in the ringer.”
+++++“I’m going to take a walk over to the pig barns around 11 just to see what the haps are. Don’t want to miss anything if I can help it.” Smiled the Fuss with a mouth full of hash browns.
+++++“Right. Well I’m going over as soon as wash my chow down with another cup of Joe.”
+++++It was April in Kansas and the sun burned off the early morning dew as it rose in the clear blue eastern sky. When I arrived at the pig farm Cowboy Bob was already there. He wore cut-off black leather gloves so his fingers were free of any restrictions. He had a camouflaged bandana tied Geronimo style around his head and was all business as he plotted off distances between entry and exit holes.
+++++“Bout time you got here peacenik. I mixed up a bucket of cement and I want you to drop a big gob into exit hole 4, 6, and 9 as they’re marked on the map. You can read a map can’t you.”
+++++“Yep I can read it all right.”
+++++“Well don’t just stand there soldier snap ass!”
+++++I picked up the 5-gallon bucket and scooper and went over to the first exit hole. I dropped a big blob of heavy wet cement that effectively sealed the burrow and then went on to do the same for the rest.
+++++“See this here?” Bob held up a short stout cudgel with a large knot at the end that he had carved out of a thick maple tree branch. “This here is the equalizer. If any of those VC vermin manage to escape the flames they’ll have to deal with me and my stick.” His eyes burned brighter than the early morning sun.
+++++“You sure about all this Cowboy?”
+++++“No time for cold feet now shit bird. Stand by your post and be ready.” He placed a small concrete slab over one of the few remaining unobstructed burrows. “Here we go.”
+++++Cowboy Bob poured half of the 5-gallon Jerry can into one of the exit holes then ran over and did the same to another. He took out some stick matches and lit a torch that he had fashioned from a sawed off broom handle topped with a hand wrapped cloth crown.
+++++“Fire in the hole!” Screamed Bob as he touched off the gas trail that lead into the complex. There was a second of silence before flames belched out of the three open holes. The flames lashed out like crepe paper streamers blown from a fan and were followed by dense oily smoke. The first dazed rat came out of the main exit hole only to be crushed by a blow from Bob’s cudgel. Then another flew out aflame and Bob hit it like a hockey puck. Now some inmates started to head over toward the barn as a cloud of smoke curled up into the powder blue sky.
+++++Cowboy had miscalculated. One of his exit holes it was directly next the base of the wood frame barn. It wasn’t long before that was on fire too. He didn’t seem to notice as the pile of smoldering rat carcasses piled up next to him.
+++++Trustee farm hands and the prison admin staff had a tractor hitched up to the water bladder used for irrigation and now were poring water onto the half burnt barn. Pigs were squealing as they ran for the safety of the open part of their pens and trustee inmates dropped whatever they were doing as they all converged on the junior holocaust at the farrowing barn.
+++++The Cowboy never stooped swinging his club until the MPs from the Castle wrestled him to the ground and finally got a pair of cuffs on him. There were over 27 confirmed kills to Bob’s credit before he was trussed up like a holiday bird and secured in the back seat of an MP squad car.
+++++Bro Fuss and I watched the Cowboy as he was driven back toward the Castle with the single red light atop of the MP sedan flashing through the smoky mist. We both wore ear-to-ear grins.
+++++We were stuck here doing time, forgotten as life went on all around us.  Anything that broke up the monotony of repetitive day-to-day prison life was welcome and improved the outlook of the general population.
+++++The rat massacre here at the farm today made for a very good day for everyone except Cowboy and the rats.

Aint No Grave Gonna Hold Me Down

I hold this baby high in the air because it don’t deserve to live. It don’t. I am a good God-fearin’ woman but I believe what I need to believe.

Leviticus says:  “If even then you remain hostile toward me and refuse to obey, I will inflict you with seven more disasters for your sins. I will release wild animals that will kill your children and destroy your cattle, so your numbers will dwindle and your roads will be deserted.”

That’s what Mary Virginia chose to do. She chose to remain hostile to the Lord and me with what she did. I know where this baby come from.
+++++She come in this night to the Emergency Room all swollen up like some roadside kill and she once being my best friend and all but I haven’t seen her in over a year. Her Mam said she had gone to Redlands to visit her cousins, and we all thought that was a lie, we did, because there were still lights on in her room when we drove by their house on State Route 36/37 late at night and we could see the curtains slightly peeled and a face in it that we said to each other is that Mary Virginia?
+++++But I’m workin’ my shift as Night Nurse when she come in all bleedin’ and screamin’. Her Mam and Pap with her as well as her older brother Dixon. I know Dixon but he ghosts me as they rush past.
+++++And that baby start to come like it was at the startin’ gate and somebody shot off the pistol. Doc Godwin said, “Jesus Christ” ’cause that baby is ginormous like the devil. It was like a giant tryin’ to push its way out of her womb, which ain’t surprisin’ seein’ how damn big her entire family is. Hell, Dixon is almost 6’8″ as big as Pap and even Mary Virginia is 6’2″. But that baby is climbin’ out of there like a worker crawlin’ through a sewer pipe.
+++++Then I know what’s goin’ on ’cause that baby looks just like its Pap, who is standin’ right next to it, tryin’ to help, Dixon, my old beau, Dixon who left me a year ago without even a word like “goodbye.”
+++++This is evil comin’ out of this womb because I know whose baby this is and like Leviticus says we will inflict disasters for your sins and that bloody baby squirts out right into my hands and Doc cleans it and cuts the cord and I can’t stop staring into its eyes, its evil eyes, and Dixon looks at me and gets his camera ready for the happy moment, but I raise that baby over my head to dash out its brains because it is the brains born of sin, and he snaps a picture of me, even though I don’t want my picture taken, he won’t have my soul anymore, and I hurl that baby because I know now, deep down, that I love Dixon more than I ever will love the Lord and that really is the wild animal deep inside me.

%d bloggers like this: