“Goddamnit, not again.” I looked up from the kitchen table over at the YouTube video playing on my laptop. Reaching out, I hit pause, then backed it up a little.
The blonde stretched out on the table started to move, so I shoved the chloroform rag up against her face one more time. Blondie just wouldn’t quit.
After a few seconds of the ol’ chloroform she stopped moving, and I turned back to the video. “Goddamned motherfucker,” I moved the little slider back, and picked up my knife, trying to follow along.
Piece of shit movie was going too fast, I backed it up again.
And now blondie was giving me a hard time. Fercrissakes, can’t a guy get a break around here.
She just wouldn’t stay still; wriggling like a freaking worm on a hook when I’m busy and trying to do my job. I gave up with the chloroform and just kept going. The tape was holding her still enough anyway. The video showed a scalpel cutting through skin, and it peeling open nice an’ easy, like a banana.
I got that part.
Stretched out on the table, blondie twisted and tried to roll when the knife cut through her belly, blade dragging across her skin and opening her up. Duct tape held her pretty tight though, and her eyes stayed shut, so it was all good.
I kept going.
On the video hands in latex gloves lifted out the uterus, so I did the same, cutting as I went with the kitchen knife. I didn’t have any fancy clamps, so I used some pliers, and they did a decent enough job. I followed along with the video, using my knife just like the scalpel blade.
I was getting pretty good; but you know what they say, practice makes perfect.
Dropping the uterus in the Tupperware dish beside me, I reached for my needle and thread, ready to sew her up. Here’s hoping blondie’d last a bit longer than the others.
As I wrapped my thread around those funny tube things, she started to buck, her face turning blue under the duct tape.
Goddamnit to hell, not another one.
She bucked a little more, but the tape on her hands and legs held her tight, and when she finally up and died on me, I tried to lift her into the garbage bag, and couldn’t. I had to cut her off the table first.
Guess I used a bit too much tape.
I tipped her legs into a garbage bag and lifted her off the table; letting her body hit the ground, and then tied up the bag with those twist ties that come with it. They’re actually pretty good garbage bags; I buy them at the Home Depot; industrial strength, the kind the contractors use, really good ones. Heavy duty.
Nobody ever asks why I need so many.
Bumping her body down the basement stairs, I dropped her beside the others; a few more black bags sat waiting. Guess I’d need to take out the trash pretty soon.
Back up in the kitchen, I wiped up the mess blondie left behind and shoved the paper towels and Windex into another garbage bag, then popped the Tupperware in the fridge. I might get some use outta that later.
Wiping off my hands with a fresh paper towel, I closed the YouTube video and opened up the order screen on my laptop; something about overseas romances or some such nonsense. I was planning on getting an extra one anyway, they don’t seem to last too long around here.
Under quantity selected, I hit two.
“Goddamnit, not again.” I looked up from the kitchen table over at the YouTube video playing on my laptop. Reaching out, I hit pause, then backed it up a little.
Friday nights were always the best. Not because it was the end of the work week, but because it was the day my girl and me would go out. She was five feet, ten inches of fiery redhead and I knew every inch of her like the back of my hand. From her ginger bangs down to those little piggies sticking out of her feet, I loved her the way a junkie loves smack. I could never get enough of my Marie.
We’d see each other during the week: long stares, awkward waves, maybe even the occasional text or note.
But nothing beat Fridays.
We’d catch a flick, grab a bite to eat, and go back home for a little fun. It was routine, but whoever said that routine had to be joyless?
The big hand struck five and I was outta the office before anyone could even say TGIF. Traffic wasn’t horrible for weekend rush-hour, which was a plus. It would give me more time to prepare. The trip home ended up taking thirty minutes instead of the usual forty-five, a near miracle. I bounded up the stairs and went straight to the bedroom. The closet was full of different options, most either business casual or smart casual. After careful deliberation, I decided to go for the Steve Jobs look. One black turtle-neck and a pair of jeans later, I was all ready for the big night.
The timer went off, reminding me that it was exactly five minutes before date time. I put on a pair of thin-rimmed glasses, sans prescription lenses, and headed down to the garage. I backed the Volvo out and parked it on the curb. Just then Marie walked out of her house. She was stunning as always, wearing a tight, little, blue number held up by spaghetti straps and those big tits of hers.
God, how I wanted her.
Just as the blood started to head down my body, a Cadillac pulled up.
“Brad.” The word came out more as a curse then the statement of someone’s name, but it was true. Brad was a blight, a parasite on the world that couldn’t die soon enough. As usual, Marie greeted the bastard with a kiss and stepped into the passenger seat of his Caddy. I took a deep breath. Brad was the un-bleachable skid-mark of my Fridays, always lingering. But just like underpants, no one said that a little skid-mark could ruin the whole thing. Skid-mark peeled out and I followed him at a safe distance.
Dinner was a real delight. Marie loved this little Italian joint off of I-80 and always insisted on a cozy table for two under the crystal chandelier. A few minutes after the hostess got them seated, I acquired a little booth near the bar. A server approached my booth and asked me what I wanted to drink.
“Michelob Ultra.” Like Marie, I preferred light beers.
“You want that in a glass?” the server asked me.
“No. Just the bottle”
She scribbled something down in her notepad and waddled off.
Marie sat at the table with a hand under her chin. I stole a look at her and then buried my nose in the menu. When you were in the kind of situation that I was in, you couldn’t just stare with your tongue out like a dog on a hot day. Sooner or later she would sense my look and that would be it.
The server returned with a bottle of Ultra and placed it down on the table. “What do you want?” she asked.
Marie threw back her head and laughed, revealing a great shot of her cleavage. I grabbed the bottle by the neck and took a drink. I wiped my mouth and noticed that the server was still there, looking at me like I had three heads. “Veal.” I put the bottle down. “The veal parmesan.”
Next was the movie. Some Jennifer Anniston, rom-com piece of shit. But, Marie liked it and that was all that mattered. She was laughing so much, I was afraid she might choke on her Reese’s Pieces, which I would’ve gotten too had it not been for my damn peanut allergy. But like Marie, I made sure to get a medium diet coke. I was sitting a few rows back from her in-between a couple of bored, old forty-somethings. Yet even in the back of a darkened theater, I could still see those gorgeous red locks and that was all I needed.
The movie got out about quarter after ten. I followed Marie and douche-nozzle at a reasonable distance until they got into the car. I head straight for the Volvo and followed them home. After they parked and went inside, I bolted into the house. Marie, like a great performer, always saved the best for last and not even ole skid-mark could ruin the fun. I got up to my room and peered into the high-powered binoculars near my window. Marie and ass-face went straight up to the bedroom and started getting frisky. Fuck-stain ripped off his blazer and Marie popped right out of her tight, little, blue dress.
The blood started rushing to my crotch and my grip on the binoculars tightened.
Just as I was about to unzip my jeans and join in the fun, there was a ringing.
I lowered the binoculars and turned around.
The landline on the nightstand next to my bed was blinking.
It rang again.
I put down the binoculars and hobbled over to the phone. Just as I approached, it rang again.
I picked up the handset and jammed it back into the cradle.
I turned around and rushed to get back into the fun.
The phone rang again.
I went to the landline and picked up the handset. “Who the fuck is this?”
My blood was practically boiling. “Alright, buddy you’re interrupting me at something very important.”
“I know. You look like you got a real handful.” The voice sounded refined, yet taunting, like a prep-school bully whose dad owned half the town.
I snorted. “Okay, pal. I’m hanging up now.”
“Tell me, did you get the circumcision after you saw that Brad was cut?” the voice giggled. “You must really want to impress Marie. Few men would trim their tip for a girl who doesn’t even know they exist.”
My heart dropped into my stomach. He knew. He knew everything. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh but I’m sure that you do. You got circumcised after you saw how much Kathy just loved Brad’s piece.”
“I’m just getting started.” There was a deep breath. “It’s been quite fun watching you, you know. You’re so deliciously pathetic. It’s a real turn-on. But now, I’ve grown bored and I think it’s time we wrapped this up.”
The phone went dead and the lights went off. Before I could even gasp, I felt a rag go over my mouth.
I regained full consciousness slowly, but surely. My hands were bound and I felt like I had the worst case of hemorrhoids ever. The realization of what had just transpired hit me like a bucket of water.
“God, that was every bit as good as I thought it was going to be.”
It was the voice from the phone. He slapped the back of my head and ran a hand through my hair. “Now that I have that out my system, there’s only one thing left to do.”
He pushed me on my back and got on top of me. His face was boyish; accented with green eyes and crowned with coal-black hair. The jade-daggers stared deep into my eyes.
“I can think of no better way to do this.” He grabbed a black shopping bag and stuck his hand inside. “Nothing like a little personal touch.” He grabbed a hold of the contents and threw away the bag.
“Oh God, no.”
“Oh God, yes.” His fingers were wrapped around a jar of Skippy’s Extra Crunchy and a spoon.
He screwed off the top and dropped it on the floor.
“Please, no. Just fucking shoot me or something.”
“Where’d be the fun in that?” He ripped the paper top off and stuffed his nose in the jar. “MMMM, smells like PB and J, the way mom used to make it.”
The smell filled my nostrils and I could feel every particle. It was in the air, like a poison gas. I closed my mouth and stopped breathing.
“C’mon. Don’t act like that.” He grabbed my cheeks and pinched my nose. “Open wide and say aahhhh.”
I held out for as long as I could. My lungs burned. Every second felt like a century and the smile on his face grew larger.
I couldn’t take it.
I sucked in some air and he jammed the Skippy-laced spoon in my mouth. The deathly ooze spread into the gaps between my teeth and immersed my gums. The infected saliva trickled down my throat, turning it into an inferno. He let go of my nose, grabbed my cheeks and closed them in around the handle.
My tongue swelled and my airways began to constrict. Every breath was shorter and shorter, despite the fast flaring of my nostrils.
“That’s it,” he said through clenched teeth. “Take it. Love it.”
My flesh turned to crimson blotches and the skin around my eyes swelled. Millimeter by millimeter, my sight eroded. The room disappeared and all I could see was that boyish face and seconds later, even that faded. All I could see were the eyes. Those green eyes.
It is an ugly Friday, mid-morning. I am drinking in the softcore lounge at the Black Regent.
At least it used to be called the Black Regent… the hotel was taken over by a national hotel chain two years ago, and the new name escapes me.
Two men I don’t recognise walk into the TV lounge. The fat one is wearing a luminous-coloured t-shirt with the phrase ‘Amateur Gynaecologist’ emblazoned across it. I assume it is a joke, but in this town you never really know. After all, everyone needs a hobby…
He is soaked in sweat and wheezing slightly, and although he doesn’t worry me, his companion does. The second man has a creased, savage-looking face, and his shirt is deeply stained with blood. He is holding a sawn-off shotgun. The barrel has been polished to a dark gleam, and I can almost see my bloodshot eyes in the reflection. Last year I saw a man shot at close range with a gun that looked a lot like this. Not in a suburban sex hotel, but in a derelict betting shop that had been preemptively decorated with industrial plastic sheeting. It made a real fucking mess.
Come with us, says the Gynaecologist. I look around, to make sure that he is talking to me. I’ve been hustled out of plenty of bars in my time, but never a hotel TV lounge. I consider throwing a punch, but I really don’t want to spill my drink – not this early in the day, at least. I drain my beer and stand up – palms up, unthreateningly.
The savage clubs me behind the ear with the shotgun butt, and my world goes black.
“Good morning, Mr Rey. I appreciate you making the effort not to get blood on my furniture.”
I shrug. It wasn’t intentional. I’ve ruined my fair share of couches over the years.
I recognise the man in the swivel chair. His name is Ted Columbus, and he is a disgraced televangelist. He has leathery skin and synthetic hair. I dislike him instantly, but not for those reasons.
He offers me his hand, and I reluctantly shake the warm, pulpy flesh.
“Can I get you a drink, Mr Rey?”
“Two fingers of bourbon over one cube of ice.”
“A sophisticate… I’m impressed.”
“I’m no sophisticate. I’m just a small town drunk with a nasty hangover. This will help.”
His loose mouth twitches.
I down the drink and feel my liver quiver.
“Can I be straight with you, Mr Rey?”
I shrug, fingering the bloody lump on the edge of my skull.
“Straight, gay… I’m not fussy.”
He shudders slightly.
“Your reputation precedes you, my friend. You seem to have a knack for finding those who don’t want to be found.”
I don’t disagree.
“I would like you to track down my step-son, Burke Pangbourne. It is a matter of some importance.”
“Most people who want to hire me, they come to my fucking office and knock on the door. They don’t send their cronies to cosh me in a TV lounge.”
“I’m a busy man, Mr Rey. It isn’t always feasible to play by the rules.”
I shrug again.
“My fee is £100 per day. If I haven’t found your boy within seven days he is probably dead.”
He looks visibly shaken, but nods.
“Mr Rey, would you please follow me?”
I make a beeline towards the spirits cabinet and splash another measure of scotch into my glass. I don’t bother with the ice cube this time.
“Are you married, Mr Rey?”
“Some things are worth fighting for, my friend.”
Now it’s my turn to grunt.
“Believe me, Columbus, if I had fought for Alouette some bastard or other would have ended up in the trauma unit. Probably me.”
“Married men need to make difficult decisions, Mr Rey.”
He opens a door that leads onto an adjacent room.
“This is my wife, Audrey.”
The woman on the bed looks like she is rotting to death.
“My physician tells me she has the malady.”
Physician? I hope he isn’t referring to the fucking Gynaecologist.
“Her condition is deteriorating rapidly, and my physician has urged me to track down Burke as a matter of some importance. He is her only living blood relative. As you can see, the rot has already destroyed her gut and groin. A transfusion may be her only hope.”
I walk over to the bed and take a sip of my drink. In all of my years as a private investigator I have never seen anything quite like this.
The woman is clearly unconscious, but Columbus leads me into the corner to discuss terms. He withdraws a money-clip from the breast pocket of his navy blue blazer.
“£1,000, Mr Rey. I will pay you a further £1,000 if the transfusion is successful, and my wife survives the procedure.”
I nod, and pocket the wedge.
“Burke Pangbourne is an ungodly man, Mr Rey, and as such I advise you to proceed with extreme caution.”
“I’ve tracked down plenty of dangerous men in the past, Columbus. I’m not worried.”
“With all due respect, you haven’t met my step-son.”
He clears his throat.
“I trust you will use your utmost discretion when tracking him down. I do not want the world to know that Ted Columbus has paid money for the procurement of a rent boy – even in these trying circumstances.”
Now it’s my turn to look shocked.
“Unfortunately, Burke never appreciated my attempts at career advice. Much to my chagrin, he chose his own path.”
He dabs at his sweaty brow with a handkerchief.
Abruptly, Columbus opens his jacket, revealing a shoulder holster.
“If our little venture fails, Mr Rey, I will put a bullet in Audrey’s skull myself. Any good husband would… Leon will show you out.”
The Gynaecologist melts out of the shadows and grips my elbow. He grins unpleasantly through small brown teeth, and I feel slightly sick.
In Thighs & Fries the plastic chairs are reserved for customers. I take one anyway.
Good looking boys with bloodshot eyes employed to serve the chicken, but I have heard that most of them are on the books because of their other talents.
The local chicken franchise is run by a man named Michael Millicent. He has served time in Channings Wood for procurement, molestation and other similarly unpleasant offences. Word has it that, back when he still used to trick out girls, he worked them so hard a couple of them developed gastrointestinal disorders and musculoskeletal problems. He sent them out to work anyway. One of them was his fucking niece.
His business model changed after his jolt in the big house, and if I wanted to find a missing rent boy in this town I would roust him first, and roust him hardest.
Millicent emerges from the kitchen and glares at me across the counter. He has a face like a character actor and hair like sweat-matted pubes. Even from across the room I can tell that his breath is rancid with brandy.
“What the fuck do you want, Rey?”
“It’s nice to see you too, Michael… Burke Pangbourne – is he one of your boys?”
The low level of chicken-chatter behind the counter dissipates.
“Sorry – never heard of him.”
I know he is lying because his lips are moving.
I grab a handful of his greasy chest hair and slam my forehead into his nose. He crumples like a takeaway carton – blood spraying across the grease-specked chrome counter.
I look down at him. His eyes gleam like pools of raw sewage.
I drag him to his feet by his hair. It feels disgusting.
In the plate glass window I see reflected movement behind me. I yank Millicent round sharply and come face to face with one of his chickenheads, trembling and clutching a battered-looking pearl-handled revolver.
“Put the piece down, kid – before you hurt someone.”
He looks at Millicent, pleadingly, and I feel the pimp shrug slightly. I slam his face towards the gun and it clatters to the floor. Millicent lurches towards it – tearing a sweaty clump of hair out of his scalp in the process.
He scrambles across the floor and fumbles for the gun. I stamp on his hands twice and leave him howling like a sick dog.
I crouch down and retrieve the piece myself, dropping it into my jacket pocket.
“Ready to try again, motherfucker?”
“Alright, alright… He’s in the fucking Excelsior Hotel. He’s with a client. A high-roller called Dominguez. Knowing that rich bastard, they will be in the honeymoon suite.”
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
He wipes his sleeve across his nose, smearing blood all over his face. Then he coughs up a streak of crimson phlegm on the floor.
“If you cost me money, Rey, I will find you and I will hurt you.”
“Not if I hurt you first.”
I put my hand on the gun and back away from him slowly, keeping my eyes on Millicent’s boys. Now the adrenaline is fading, I feel as nervous as they look.
I edge outside. The midday sun feels hot against my neck. I glance up at the swollen glare: it is the colour of a fake £1 coin.
I have fond memories of the Excelsior Hotel. My ex-wife and I spent our wedding night there. Not in the honeymoon suite, mind – in one of the cheaper, less appealing rooms. One of the ones overlooking the railway line and the litter-strewn hedge-rows.
I take a seat in the lobby and pretend to flick through a week-old Herald Express I find on the coffee table. The hotel detective is an elderly man in an electric blue sports jacket and too-short slacks. He stands out like a wart on a freshly shaved pussy. From across the room I can see the bulge of his ankle holster. I can think of a number of hotels in this town that would be improved by a tooled-up hotel dick, but this place never struck me as one of them.
Millicent’s pearl-handled revolver feels uncomfortable in my jacket pocket. I hope I don’t need it. Nobody needs to get shot today. If I fuck this up, the next hotel I set foot inside will almost certainly have bars on the fucking windows.
I drift across the lobby, lurking behind the fake palm trees every time the rent-a-cop casts his rheumy eyes over the room. I take the service staircase rather than the lift.
I knock on the door.
The door opens a crack. It’s Burke Pangbourne. He has a blonde buzzcut. He is naked apart from his heart-shaped sunglasses. He looks happy.
I slam my shoulder into the wood, sending him sprawling across the carpet.
Dominguez is morbidly obese. He takes up most of the king-size bed. His has a doughy body and a pockmarked face. He is a wholly unappealing physical specimen. He doesn’t move an inch, and it crosses my mind that he is genuinely incapacitated.
Burke slowly climbs to his feet, making no effort to cover his big dick.
“Get dressed, kid. It’s time to go home. The old man has summoned you.”
“Fuck him – and fuck you.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see Dominguez pull a piece. It’s a tiny gun – the kind a hooker keeps in her handbag. He wedges his fat finger inside the trigger guard and squeezes. The bullet cracks the plaster above the door frame.
Burke bolts past me – still stark naked – and heads towards the service exit at the end of the corridor. I fucking hate running.
I glare at the fat man one more time and then take off after Burke.
I take the service steps two at a time, and feel my lungs burn as I try to catch up with him.
The beach looks faded from the hotel rooftop. The town centre looks ugly and complicated.
Burke is standing next to one of the industrial air vents, trembling.
I take a step towards him. He doesn’t move an inch. I shuffle forward again.
“Burke – it’s your mother – she’s dying. She needs your help. She needs your… blood.”
He laughs bitterly.
“She sure needs someone’s fucking help.”
He steps towards the edge of the roof.
“Listen, Burke. Let’s go back inside. Talk this through.”
“Ted has had my mouth, he has had my arse. Now he wants my fucking blood? Fuck him.”
Burke says something else, but his words are carried away by the summer breeze. He starts to chuckle as he steps forward – off the edge of the hotel roof.
His laughter is the last thing I hear.
Until the screaming starts.
I take the ear out of my pocket and slide it across the desk. Markus has been crying, on account of his dog, but he perks up at the sight of the ear.
He smiles. His teeth are fucking shocking, his mouth a black hole of nicotined stumps and bleeding gums. I look away, towards the dog, a scrawny little mongrel called Lucky. Lucky’s ancient and flatulent, but he still has better teeth than Markus.
Markus examines the ear, turning it over in his hands. He squeezes it and stretches it. Bangs it against the desk a couple of times.
“I thought it’d be bigger,” he says, his eyes red from the crying. “You sure this is his?” He sniffs it, as if that might help.
“I hacked it off with a box cutter,” I say. “Off the side of his head. I’m pretty sure it’s his.”
Markus holds the ear up to the light, at arm’s length. You can almost see right through it.
“You know what Vince was like,” he says. “Massive fucking ears. Taxi doors.”
I’d never noticed Vince’s ears before. We’d worked a few jobs together, doing Markus’ dirty work, and I liked the guy. We talked, but not much. He said he had an ex-wife who was a nurse at St Mary’s and a kid he wasn’t allowed to see, but that was it. Vince didn’t say much, and that was fine by me.
“Did he suffer?” Markus asks.
Markus nods. “Guys like Vince, they think they’re clever.” He smiles and tosses the ear into the corner. Lucky sniffs it and licks it, but half-heartedly. “But they’re not so clever.”
Markus likes them to suffer. Pays extra if they suffer, and extra again if I bring him a little keepsake for Lucky. An ear, a nose, a thumb.
I don’t tell Markus I shot Vince the second he walked into the basement. Back of the head. Didn’t need a box cutter because the ear came clean off. Ended up on the other side of the basement, in a puddle next to a leaking hot-water pipe. Wet, but intact.
It didn’t take long to find the money, the hundred here and hundred there he’d been keeping for himself. I didn’t think he’d be that fucking dumb, to be honest. Not with Markus. Didn’t think he’d be stupid enough to stash it under his bed either. Nearly five grand.
Markus leans forward, bony elbows on the desk. Something creaks: his elbows or the desk, I can’t tell.
“What about the money?” he says, clicking his tongue and turning to Lucky.
“Nothing,” I say. “Took a couple of the lads back to his place, little shithole he was renting near the station. Turned the place upside down. Nothing.”
Markus shakes his head. He takes a filthy handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his eyes.
“Look at him,” he says.
I look at the dog. He’s sleeping, his eyes twitching.
“Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?” Markus says. “Seeing him like that.”
I nod. I want to leave, just so I don’t have to look at Lucky any more, or Markus.
I’d like to say I did the right thing and dropped the money off at St Mary’s for Vince’s ex-wife and the kid he wasn’t allowed to see, but I didn’t. It’ll come in handy, when the time is right.
Markus pokes his tongue into his gums, roots around in the rancid corners of that mouth. He winces and spits blood, before reaching into his jacket pocket again.
He slides my money across the desk. Three grand. It’s a little light, but I take it. He looks away, deflated, and stares at the wall. His signal. Time for me to leave.
He waits till I’m at the door.
“Remember what I said,” he says.
I turn back. Watch him dabbing his eyes with the handkerchief.
“About what?” I say.
“Guys like Vince. They’re not half as clever as they think they are.”
I just wish she’d told me and I hadn’t found out about it in the pub. But that’s how it goes, something has to happen first before someone opens their mouth. I could’ve protected her if I’d known.
I come over for the funeral. I can hardly remember the last time I was here. For an old girl she was quite handy with a computer, talked hours on Skype, and I watched her slowly grow old. She’d asked me a few times to come back home, but I was working, and avoiding the people I love.
I got the phone call ten days ago from one of her neighbours. They’d called the police after nobody’d seen her for a week, and they found her lifeless body in bed. She’d passed away in her sleep.
I’m staying in one of the holiday cottages. I’ve got two weeks to sort out her affairs. My boss wasn’t happy, but he knew he couldn’t stop me. She was the only family I had left.
The first day I hire a skip, work my way through her possessions. Box the things I want to give to charity and throw the rest out. It’s raining and I’m soaked through to the skin, but it has to be done. I keep a few photographs, a watch that belonged to my father, nothing else. That night I fall asleep within seconds. The next night I go to the pub.
It’s a Friday night. All the heavy drinkers are out, downing pint after pint. I take my beer and find an empty table in the corner. There’s only one chair left. The others have been taken by another table. There’s a group of about fifteen people. The guys are on pints of lager, the girls gin and tonic or something like that, playing some drinking game.
“Next door up for sale yet?” somebody says.
I prick up my ears.
“No, but there’s a guy emptying the place. Boxes all over the house,” another one says. “Got myself a computer. Don’t think he noticed.”
What the fuck? I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
“Anything I might like?”
“Dunno. Come over and have a look.”
Both men are skinny. They have the same hair, same face. Fingers yellow from years of smoking. Brothers.
“Remember Halloween?” the first one says. “The old bag nearly had a heart attack.”
I want to go over and bury my fist in his face, but I stay where I am, drink my pint and listen, force myself to stay calm. They keep going like this, making fun of her, retelling stories of how they terrorised her. When I finish my drink, I’ve heard enough. I know what I have to do now.
I get up and they look over. I don’t think the guy who lives beside her recognises me. I’d been wearing a rain jacket and baseball cap when I loaded the skip. I push past them and go straight to her house, wonder how the fuck they could’ve gotten in. I check the doors and windows. All are securely locked, nothing has been opened by force. I climb the stairs and open the hatch to the loft, pull down the ladder.
The roof in the loft is high. There’s enough room to store the Christmas decorations and boxes of stuff she couldn’t bring herself to throw out. It’s behind there where I find the hole in the wall, leading directly into next door. I want to go through, have a look, but I don’t. I think about all the DNA I might leave behind, the fibres. I’m not stupid. I need to fix the hole, sell the house and go back home. I’d seen piles of bricks in the back garden from when her second husband was still alive. Bags of cement in the garage. I’d get right to it in the morning.
I switch off all the lights. I know it’s just a matter of time before they come. I sit and wait, think about how they treated her, how she died on her own.
It’s half past three when I hear them. They don’t make any attempt to be quiet. I’m ready. I can see the flashlight getting brighter, then the first one is through. Then the second — I hit him with a hammer, to the back of the head, and he goes down. Doesn’t move.
The first one turns around.
“You,” he says.
I don’t let him say anything else, just do what I came for. With each blow I think of her. How frightened she must’ve been. The times she’d asked me to come back home, and I didn’t. I make it last, but at the end I just feel empty, and I’m ready to leave. In the morning I get the bricks and the cement.
The cavity wall no longer has a cavity, but is beautifully finished off. There’s a new wooden floor. The old boards disposed of in the wood burner.
The house sells in less than three weeks.
I’m six foot four. I have a glass eye. I look like Steve Buscemi’s taller brother. By day I write film screenplays. By night I collect money for the mob. I am Manbag Bagman.
And right now I’m going to be killed.
All because of a dame.
Polish for Maria. I call her Mire. As in quagmire. As in the Battle of the Somme. I wish she’d been a no – man’s land.
I first met her a week ago. My boss, Ivor the Terrible sends me to Mountville Crescent, over on the Southside, to pick up a debt from Smalltime Limey. Smalltime Limey is a smalltime limey. Nicknames ain’t what they used to be.
I blame the internet and social media myself.
When I get there, there’s no sign of Smalltime- but she’s there. A goddess behind a plume of smoke. Well not that much smoke. Those e-cigarettes don’t cut it as far as I’m concerned. She tells me Smalltime has taken a powder. Blown town. But something about it doesn’t ring true. Like Smalltime’s hairpiece sticking out from that half-closed wardrobe door.
“I don’t care what’s going on sister, Smalltime owes Terrible. Now hand over the dough.”
Suddenly she lunges forward. E-cigarettes on human flesh? Child’s play. I push her back but with her left hand she’s already navigating towards my genital quarter. Major Tom is aroused. Before I know it we’re lost in a vortex of animal passion. I hoist her on my cement bag thighs, up against that half-closed wardrobe door. I thrust. She shrieks. Major Tom to Ground Control. Commencing countdown engines on.
I withdraw after climax. She offers me an e-cigarette and Small time’s hairpiece falls on my still erect member.
I start thinking. A man could do a lot with that dough. Like give him the time and space to develop as an artist. I’m tired of being an ‘emerging’ screenwriter. I want to exist in a post-emerged landscape.
We divvy up the 20G and go on the run. Not very far. Neither of us can drive. What are the chances?
We decide to hitch.
An hour later we are dropped off outside Tyrelldale. We find a small place where we hole up for a day or two. This is what happiness is. I’m writing. She’s smoking. And there is non-stop commencement of countdown engines.
One night in bed she thinks she hears something.
“Maybe we should get out of here.”
“But what about Ivor the Terrible? Surely his men will be after us.”
“No. He’s called Ivor the Terrible, because he is a terrible crime boss. He can’t organize anything. He probably doesn’t even know the money’s gone. You let me do all the worrying, baby.”
I’m in love. And love does strange things to guys. Sometimes it hits you like a tornado. Other times it sneaks up on you like a tarantula. Marja is like a cross between a tornado and a tarantula. She is a force of nature with a rather small chest size.
She looks over at me one evening.
“What are you writing?”
“What’s it called?”
“Fate Wears a Blindfold.”
“Oh. Let me guess. About some guy’s inability to control his destiny. That whole determinism versus free will stuff. Like some film noir. Sounds like old hat to me.”
This doll surprises me. A philosopher, huh? And she knows about film noir. Not many people do anymore. A guy I know, once told me his favourite film noir was ‘Shaft’. There is so much idiocy in the world, nowadays.
I blame the internet and social media myself.
“So what’s the film about?” she wonders.
I don’t answer. I suddenly feel inferior in her company. I don’t want her to think I lack depth as a writer. The screenplay is actually about a young girl called Fate who works in a circus and wears a blindfold during the knife-throwing act of her legendary father. The Great Daggero! Gee, maybe I’m wasting my time with this writing lark.
I re-examine my approach to my work. Maybe I should take something from my real life. Write what you know they say. Maybe about looking like Steve Buscemi’s taller brother. With a glass eye.
Next morning I’m on a roll. In my cocoon of creativity. That happens when you write. Don’t notice anything going on around you. Like when someone has a mauser 7.65 in your face. I look up. It’s Ivor the Terrible.
“Your vaping vamp was in touch. She got bored with you. Did a runner. Took the dough with her. We’re going to have to kill you.”
I look over at Ivor’s brother. Terry. The Terrible.
“Wait a minute!” I say.
But it’s too late. A shot rings out.
I still think of Marja. She’s the reason I quit writing. Dumped my manbag the day after I left hospital. Ivor didn’t really shoot me in the face. More like the corner of the ear. Like I said, terrible at everything. I lead a normal life now. Well, sort of normal. I’m working for some lookalike agency.
Why would anybody be interested in hiring somebody who looks like a tall Steve Buscemi with a glass eye?
The world’s gone nuts.
I blame the internet and social media myself.
She crossed northwest of Sonoyta, just south of Ajo, in the Organ Pipe National Monument. Carli Echeverria was on the first leg of what would be a two-leg journey. After she made this drop, she’d make another run further north. To Tucson or Phoenix or Gila Bend.
She looked over her shoulder, the rear window of the Nissan pickup pressed right up against her seat. The truck’s bed was just long enough for three small dog kennels. The first kennel, nearest the tailgate, held two dogs. The two kennels behind it were stuffed with blankets.
Behind those blankets were people.
Carli tried to fit five or six people in the two kennels with each load. Today, she had seven thanks to a couple of children making the run.
After she picked the group up at a gas station in Sonoyta, they walked west toward the crossing point. The Nissan was tucked behind a collection of organ pipe that rose ten feet into the blue, desert sky. In her experience, getting to America was the easy part. Once there, she needed help. She relied on an old C.B. radio in the Nissan’s cab. If a lookout spotted Border Patrol, Carli would know. And she would adjust.
They were on Highway 86 heading toward Three Points when Carli passed the spotter tower. Two weeks ago, the radio crackled just before she came across that same spotter tower. The lookout told her to hook a left and head further north down the dirt roads. A temporary checkpoint had been set up that day, and if not for the lookout, Carli would have been sent to secondary inspection. She would have been forced to sit while a dog sniffs up and down her truck, and they would have found her load.
Not today. The highway was empty, quiet.
Carli flipped down the Nissan’s visor and let a pair of aviator-style sunglasses fall into her hand. She put them on and pulled her white cowboy hat lower across her forehead. She watched the heat dance in waves across the recently paved highway.
She wasn’t supposed to be there. Not in that moment. Not in that life. She was supposed to be better than her mother. And maybe she was. She was out here doing something while her mother was locked up. Or in the back bedroom of a one-room trailer with her legs in the air.
She shouldn’t complain. The money was more than she’d ever make anywhere else. Even if she had gone to school—and goddamn, it seemed they gave scholarships away to Mexican girls just for checking the box that said “Latino”— she would never make the kind of money she was making now. Over time, she’d learned to convince herself what she did was just an adventure in the desert as she helped people to freedom.
But it was hard to maintain that fantasy anytime she came across the charred body of a crosser who had succumbed to the heat.
Most coyotes didn’t last more than a year. They needed quick money and got out when they had it. Or they stuck around too long and got caught. Carli, though, had made more runs in her time than every other runner in the crew combined. Yet, she could feel the weight of it lately. The ghost of the person she didn’t want to be was riding shotgun, and it was begging for the steering wheel.
She watched the saguaros and barrel cactus slip past her on either side. She thought about the people she helped cross. They didn’t all make it, but everyone paid. Getting to America was never free.
Carli kicked her boots together, letting her left heel run just above her right ankle. A reminder of the .22 tucked just inside her boot.
She’d only had to use it once. Couple months back, a group tried to run on her as soon as they crossed into Arizona. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. Carli rounded up this particular group, but one of the men tried to run again. She didn’t have a choice.
After she put a round in his left triceps, the rest of the group fell in line. She caught hell when she dropped him at the stash house with a piece of his own shirt tied around the wound. She didn’t get paid at all on that run, which was bullshit. She’d delivered every one of them. Even if that big dumb fuck had a hole in his arm, he was alive.
It was shit like that. Made Carli wonder if she could keep this up. You see so many things before your brain decides it can’t see them anymore. The real world was out there, waiting if she wanted it.
She tapped the steering wheel and laughed, imagining what her responses might be now to job interview questions in the real world.
“Tell us about a time you overcame a challenge.”
“Well, I had to shoot a man just to make sure I got a job done.”
“So you’re committed to your work then?”
The smile faded as the thought slipped away. It was only going to get worse. There was a time when she thought she could control her life. Now, with every new job, every fight she had to have just to get paid, every horny old man trying to fuck little girls, it became clearer that the life controlled her.
She tilted the rearview mirror toward her face. A few strands of black hair escaped the hat and dangled near her eyebrow. She was surprised by the wrinkles around her brown eyes.
Carli shoved the mirror away and watched hints of a town spring up along the highway. A gas station. A small shopping plaza. Oases in the desert. The town barely existed.
She turned down a dirt road and watched the dog kennels bounce as the truck fought the dips and divots. Eroded sand, baked under triple-digit heat, was hardly an excuse for a road. She passed a house every mile or so. Mobile homes parked on acres of land. Custom homes built decades ago. Constant reminders that Three Points was somewhere people chose to live.
She parked the Nissan in a cleared lot south of what was meant to be a guest house. The main house was thirty yards to the north with an attached garage and a paved driveway—despite the nearest paved road being five or six miles back.
She got everyone out of the dog kennels and led them to the guest house. She knew it’d be empty. A conveyor belt of order governed her life. One group cycled from the main house to a car or truck for the final run north. The group in the guest house moved to the main house to make room for the newbies.
Carli unlocked the back door and led them in. The windows were barred. The front and back doors had multiple deadbolts. In the living room, she waited.
In the beginning, she laughed at the reactions. She didn’t understand what they had expected when they agreed to let someone smuggle them into a foreign country. She used to feel powerful as these people saw their new home. Trash in every corner. Piss stains on the floors and walls. Shit swept into a single corner of the house. Now, she looked away.
After leaving the group in the guest house, locking them in as she left, Carli backed the Nissan up the driveway toward the main house. The conveyor belt never stopped.
The main house wasn’t much better than the guest house. The drywall had holes throughout—either from immigrants trying to punch their way out or an enforcer who just didn’t have the patience to watch another woman or child cry. As best Carli could tell, the benefit of being moved into the main house was the bucket. Like the guest house, there wasn’t any running water, but there was a five-gallon bucket in the living room.
Leopoldo Ruiz ran the house. He was also second-in-command of the crew that worked with the cartel to smuggle people across the border. Carli considered herself more of an independent contractor, but she guessed Leo was technically her boss.
She walked past the empty living room. Leo didn’t keep anyone in there anymore. Too much shit to clean up. Too big a space. He stuffed them all in the back two spare bedrooms. Carli made her way down the hall past the kitchen, toward the bedrooms.
When she found him in one of the rooms, Leo was running his fingers through a teenage girl’s hair. The girl, like the rest of those in the room, was clad in just her underwear. A sweat-stained pair of panties and a tattered bra.
The girl closed her eyes and turned her head as Leo whispered in her ear. Everyone else in the room pretended not to notice.
“Having fun?” Carli asked, standing in the doorway.
Leo jerked his head away from the girl and looked at Carli. “Si, siempre.”
“Esa es tu novia?” Carli said.
Leo pushed the girl away, and she huddled near the rest of the group. “Why you got to fuck up my mojo, Carli?” He stood and patted Carli on the shoulder as he passed by into the hallway.
Carli followed him into the living room. “They ready?”
“Ready as they will be,” Leo said. “As if my hospitality wasn’t good enough for them.” He spit on the floor, a mixture of tobacco and saliva that joined the other stains on the bare concrete.
“Send them out then.”
Carli locked the two dog kennels in the bed of the Nissan. She slid the third one—the one with the dogs—back toward the tailgate, concealing her load as much as possible. The dogs barked until Carli slammed her fist down on top of the kennel. She looked into the two kennels full of people and did a quick count.
“Fucking Leo,” she muttered, looking back at the main house.
Her boots clicked against the cracked cement driveway on her way back into the house. She scanned the property one more time before entering. No tracks nearby. No movement. Just empty, brown, dusty desert. The neighbors weren’t much of a problem because of the distance, but she didn’t want some kids on four-wheelers romping through here and catching a glimpse of something they shouldn’t see.
Inside the house, Carli yelled for Leo. He didn’t respond. She shook her head as she went down the hallway. He wasn’t in either of the two spare bedrooms, so she stepped into the master. Leo was straddling the teenage girl. Her bra was flipped up near her throat, and Leo was staring at her breasts. He touched her stomach. Then her cheek. The girl squirmed, but she didn’t scream.
“Jesus Christ, Leo,” Carli said. “I need a full load.”
Leo laughed. “You don’t need shit.”
“She paid, right?”
“Sure. Her family wired the money a couple days ago.” Leo squeezed the girl’s cheeks until she cried out, kissed her on the lips. “But fucking look at her. Qué bonita.”
Carli’s face felt hot. Her hand began to shake. “I need her. I’ve got to make the final drop.”
Leo shook his head. “You’re not getting it. This one’s worth more. More than what her family already paid. The way I see it, I’ve got two options that’ll make us some extra cash. We rent her out—you know these old white fucks around here will pay for her. Or, we ransom her. Tell her family she’s going to be fucked six ways from Sunday if they don’t pay extra. A beauty tax. What d’ya think?”
She watched Leo licking the girl’s ear and wondered how she’d been able to put up with this shit for so long. It wasn’t just Leo, and it wasn’t just the girl. Carli was a professional. She wanted things done right and on time. Leo fucking this girl was not part of the plan.
Leo winked and told Carli to get the fuck out, but Carli stood in the doorway. She should leave. She should make her run north, but her face was getting hotter. If Leo made more money off the girl, it didn’t mean more in Carli’s pocket. Just Leo’s. In fact, her cut at the final drop would be less. She’d let shit like that slide too often.
She felt the sweat on her forehead. Her hand trembled noticeably now. Turn around, she thought. Go. But she didn’t.
“Leo, I’m serious. I need the girl for this run.”
Leo stood and squared himself in front of Carli. “You don’t fucking tell me what you need, bitch. I tell you what I need. I need you to get the fuck out of here unless you want this to turn into a three-way.”
Carli thought about hitting him, but she stepped toward the girl instead. Leo shoved her in the chest, and Carli stumbled then tripped and fell to the floor. She was up in a second. The heat from her face moved to her eyes, and everything went white for a second. She backed up a step, bent over, pulled the .22 from her ankle holster, and pointed it at Leo. He took a step back, but Carli was already firing.
The first bullet hit Leo in the shoulder and he fell near the girl. The second sailed high. Leo tried to slide backward away from Carli. He held both hands in front of his face. Carli stepped across the room, but she felt like she wasn’t doing it. She felt like she was watching herself. Like she was hovering outside her body, unable to stop what was about to happen.
Carli pointed the .22 at Leo’s forehead and pulled the trigger one more time.
She blinked away the white heat as the gunshots echoed in her ears. When the ringing subsided, she holstered her gun and turned. The girl had folded herself into a ball in the corner. Carli looked back at Leo.
“Fuck,” she said then punched the floor.
She could run, but the girl was there. Terrified. “Esta bien,” Carli said. “Estás seguro.”
She helped the girl to her feet and asked her name.
“Mitra,” the girl replied.
Carli pointed at the girl’s upturned bra. “Pon eso de nuevo.”
They left the room together. The girl didn’t say anything, but she stood close to Carli. The run was over. Carli couldn’t take them all to the final drop. Word would get out. Someone would be waiting for her if she went north.
“Dónde está la ropa?” Carli asked.
Mitra pointed toward a bathroom set off from the living room. Carli followed her and found the group’s clothes thrown in a bathtub that was black with mold. She helped Mitra get dressed and gather the clothes then pointed her out the front door.
In the driveway, Carli hesitated when she got to the dog kennels. She could leave them there. Maybe that’d soften the blow. No, she thought. No amount of goodwill now would change the end game.
She unlatched the dog kennels with people inside. Five immigrants climbed out, confused. Two women and three men. Carli helped them down from the truck. Mitra passed out the clothing, and they all dressed.
“No puedo tomar,” Carli said.
Carli remembered the group in the guest house. She ran to the guest house and threw open each lock. She led the group she had just dropped off back out of the house.
“Todos ustedes tienen que ir por su cuenta.”
No one moved.
Sal de aquí,” she yelled.
After another moment of silent looks between each other, the group started to move. They began a trek toward the open desert, away from the main road. Carli grabbed Mitra by the elbow and held her back.
“Quédate conmig,” Carli said.
There was money in the stash house but not enough. Carli didn’t think there would ever be enough money to keep her alive after what she did. She lifted her hat, pushed her hair back, and closed her eyes. Behind closed lids, she saw Leo bleeding on the floor. She opened her eyes and pushed Mitra toward the main house again. Money bought a lot of things. If it couldn’t buy her life, it could extend it.
Back inside the house, Carli led Mitra to the middle of the living room and told her to stay put. She went to the refrigerator and pulled open the door. The light inside had probably been out for years. There was a box of baking soda on the top shelf. Other than that, the entire thing was seemingly empty. Except the bottom drawer. It was covered with black electrical tape. As if keeping someone from seeing into the drawer was enough to keep the person from opening it. Nice, Leo, Carli thought.
Carli pulled the drawer open and found three large envelopes. She ripped them open one at a time and lined her pockets. She stuffed as much cash into her pants as she could, but there was still a lot left over.
She called over her shoulder for Mitra. She told the girl she wouldn’t hurt her if she helped. When Mitra came over, Carli began handing over stacks of cash. She pointed to the pockets of Mitra’s jeans, and the girl began stuffing. When all the money had been emptied from the envelopes, Carli walked Mitra back out front.
When they returned to the driveway outside the house, the rest of the group had vanished. If they were nearby, they had become invisible. Silent. Carli smiled. She could disappear, too. For a while, at least.
She couldn’t run, so she thought about the next best thing. A safe place to hide.
She looked at the Nissan. She’d have to leave it here. Too many people in her crew and in the cartel knew it. She might have to steal a car. Or maybe she’d let her hair fall down her back, let her hips sway a little more, and walk along the highway with her thumb out. Whatever she did, she’d make it, and Mitra was coming with. Leo’s beauty tax plan wasn’t half-bad, after all.
Carli pulled her hat low, watching the sun sink behind Kitt Peak. She took Mitra by the arm, and they walked. She was going home.
When us kids got wild, my mother would say, “tear the house down and throw it out the window.” To calm us down we were sometimes put in front of the TV. I would watch a cartoon where the Tasmanian Devil would unzip his skin and step out of it. He was really Bugs Bunny on the inside all along.
As I set fire to an anthill, I would pray that I was Bugs Bunny inside all along too. The clock ticked no slower or quicker because of any of it. I committed many such deeds. Some of those around me said my behavior would have made the painting of Dorian Gray wither with a blush.
Burning up small animals was all the rage with a few of my mates. Personally I couldn’t see it. Animals in the open required no fire to free them. But I did use a high pressure hose to shoot diesel fuel into a rattlesnake den, and then apply the match. I found out that snakes have a voice after all; they do not simply hiss. They can howl if they need to.
I did not care for things that hid inside where I could not get to them. Fire was my solution for this problem. As the fire burns, it learns singleness of purpose, economy of thought. A rampaging grizzly bear in the forest did not bother me. A rabbit cowering in a hole made my blood erupt.
I had dreams that I was on an airplane when the cabin pressure was lost and the doors opened above the seats to drop the oxygen masks. Only no oxygen masks fell. The doors opened and hissing snakes dropped into the laps of the passengers. Following protocol, people would fasten the snake to the throat of their small child first, before applying their own. As this was happening I would gaze out the window of the plane, upon a seemingly tranquil sea that floated below us. Just beneath the peaceful surface I could see the hidden animals; they roiled in a blood red stew of hatred and rage.
I spent many nights standing naked before a mirror, examining myself. The room was dark but the light from a neon sign blinked through the window, creating a strobe effect. I could not find the zipper that would allow Bugs Bunny to step out. I looked and I looked. When a little dung beetle crawled up from a crack in the floorboards I crushed his tiny shell between my thumb and forefinger. I felt like I was squeezing a handful of tinsel into a tight, hard ball so that I could throw it at the Christmas tree. But the insect didn’t have Bugs Bunny either.
One night when no one was home except my little sister, I tied her into a kitchen chair and sat her with her face just inches from the burner on the stove. First I let the burner get red hot. Placing a cast iron skillet on the glowing stovetop, I poured in a half cup of vegetable oil and as it heated up I threw in a handful of popping corn. The oil began to boil and pop and spit, and that was before the corn even made it to temperature. When the corn started to pop and fly from the skillet, leaving tiny trails of scorching oil in the air, I clapped my hands. Most nights my sister would lock herself in her room and stay where I couldn’t get to her. Tonight she was howling like a snake. When the howling stopped, I turned off the stove. It was time to leave.
Now I work my way along the interstate. Truckers will give me rides – a young boy with a baby face, a little cowlick in his brown mop of hair, why not give the kid a lift? After all he only has Bugs Bunny inside of him. I look out the window of the truck as we move along the road, and I pass the time thinking about the huge petroleum tanks on the truck rupturing in the ditch during a crash, right next to the herd of terrified cattle trapped against the fence.
I never travel without a clean white handkerchief (like my mother always said), and clean underwear, and a new box of dry wooden matches. Sometimes as I walk the highways in between rides there will be a little farmhouse just off the road. I might sneak over and peek in a window to see the people inside. They are inside where I can’t really get to them. When I see this it makes me lose myself in a dream.
In the dream I am inside the house with the people; I am not locked outside in the cold. The people are like my family. I will stand in the middle of the living room with the parents and the children and even the dog as they all huddle around me, as if for warmth.
I will find the zipper finally, the zipper that keeps me closed up. And I unzip it right there, in the room, with the family watching. I’m sure the children are fond of cartoons and are waiting for Bugs Bunny to step out.
But Bugs Bunny still isn’t coming out. Instead it is a man of flame and he explodes into the room with such a flourish that before anyone can shout or even breathe, the house is engulfed and there is heat and howling and ashes and then absolution.
When it is all done and the fire is out I step back into my skin and zipper up. The house is mostly gone but there is a charred wall still standing with a window in it. So I begin to throw the house out through the window. The rain has begun and ashes and fragments slip across the soil, crawling like a narrow serpent – a serpent finally escaping the den.
I find that it is a nice dream, when I can have it.
Someone knocked on the door. Shane looked at it. He looked at it for a long time, until there was another knock. He got up, answered it.
Shane had moved to the apartment block a month before, hadn’t spoken to anyone else in the building save for one guy that lived a few doors down. They’d say hello when they passed each other in the hallway. He was at the door now, and he’d brought a friend.
“Hey,” he said. He wore a wide smile that showed off crooked and yellowed teeth. The friend said nothing. He didn’t smile. Looked like the strong silent type, with hooded eyes, severe features, a shaved head and hunched shoulders.
Shane nodded. “Hey.”
“How you doin today?”
“You busy?” The guy looked beyond Shane, into his apartment. The television was on, it played an old black and white, but it was turned down low.
The guy leaned into the doorframe, made himself comfortable. “Name’s Wilson, by the way.” He offered a hand and Shane took it, gave his own name. They shook. The other guy, the big guy, his hands were balled into fists. He didn’t offer a handshake and Shane wasn’t sure he’d blinked since the door had opened. “Hot out there.”
“That’s so. Hot in there?”
“It’s all right.”
“This side of the building, it’s west-facing. Give it a couple more hours, you’ll start burning up. How long you lived here now?”
“Month. Give or take.”
“Keep to yourself, don’t you?”
“You gonna invite us in?” Wilson brushed a greasy lock of hair back out of his face, slicked it to his scalp.
Shane stepped aside. “Sure.” He led them to the sitting area, turned the television off. The movie was ending. He hadn’t really been watching it. He sat on the chair and Wilson relaxed into the sofa. The big guy stayed standing, looked the room over with a curled lip like he disapproved of the décor.
“In case you was curious,” Wilson said, “my buddy here, the quiet guy, you may not have noticed him, his name’s Joe.”
Joe grunted acknowledgment.
“So tell me, Shane – young guy like yourself, on your own, what brought you here?”
“What d’you mean?”
“C’mon, man, this place is a dump. This building, it’s the kind of dump that fills its walls with lonely losers – present company excluded of course. But you don’t strike me as a lonely loser, you’ve still got some vitality about you. Let me guess, let me guess – you just had a break-up, right?”
“It that obvious?”
“It’s an educated guess. Cos the other kind of people that live here, they love drugs. And you don’t strike me as a user, either.”
“I don’t make a habit of it.”
“No, sir. Only fools do. So, the rent’s cheap and there’re always rooms available, I reckoned you had to get out of somewhere in a hurry – boom, it’s lady troubles. It’s always lady troubles.”
“That why you live here?”
“No, sir. Lady troubles have never been trouble for me. How long since you split?”
“Been a month. Right before I came here.”
“Why’d you split? She cheat?”
“No, nothing like that. Just guess when something’s over, it’s over, right?”
“Sure, that’s the way, just move on and don’t look back. But let me warn you, you stay here too long, you’re gonna end up like the losers. You hear me? You don’t want that, man. Don’t lose that spark you got, we all got it, but they, those guys, they just sit round with nothing but the walls for company and it just ebbs out of them. Get yourself back on that wagon, that pussy wagon, quick as you can, because nothing gets you over old pussy like new pussy. You got a car, right?”
Shane blinked. “Yeah.”
“Red Ford, right?”
“It’s a sweet-lookin car, man.”
“Paint don’t drive the car. Speakin of, Joe and I, we need a ride.”
“Well, like we said, I’m new here. I don’t have no bus timetable.”
Wilson laughed. “It’s barely gonna eat into your day, man. We just need a ride out to the motel by the interstate.”
“We gotta see a friend.”
“How much he owe you?”
“He owes us. Let’s leave it at that. Look, we’ll pay your fuel and give you fifty bucks for your time.”
Shane whistled through his teeth. “Jesus. He must owe a lot.”
“It ain’t always about money. You gonna drive?”
“Just to be clear, you ain’t offering me a job?”
“No, I ain’t offering you a job.”
“Cos I’d be flattered, but, it’s, I mean that kinda job, it ain’t for me.”
“We just need a ride, man.”
Shane looked at Joe. Joe was looking out the window. The sun shone there. Shane couldn’t remember when last he’d left the block for anything over than a trip to the grocery store. Then Joe turned, looked straight at him. Waited for him to answer the question. “Sure,” he said.
The air was hot. They drove with the windows down. Joe sat in the back, never spoke a word. Wilson rode up front. “Appreciate this, man.”
Shane felt the sun shining down on his arm where it hung over the side of the door, prickling the skin. Wilson gave directions. They drove for twenty minutes then, in the distance at the end of the road, Shane could see the motel sign.
“Pull in there,” Wilson said.
Shane parked the car. To their left there was a pool enclosed by a rusted chain fence. There was much detritus caught in its links. The pool itself wasn’t particularly big. It hadn’t been built to swim lengths, or even widths. Judging by the scummy surface, by the dead leaves, the used condoms and the swimming frog, the residents weren’t using it for much of anything.
Someone was next to the pool. A blonde in a one-piece bathing costume decorated with horizontal red and white stripes. A wide straw hat shaded her face and shoulders, and red-rimmed sunglasses covered her eyes so Shane couldn’t tell if she was looking back at him. She started to smile, and he guessed she was.
Wilson and Joe hadn’t noticed her. “Just wait here,” Wilson said, getting out the car. Joe followed him. “We won’t be long. Ten minutes, tops.”
“Sure,” Shane said. He watched them go up the steps to the walkway. They went halfway along then knocked on a door. A moment later it opened, and they went inside. Shane didn’t see the room’s occupant.
He looked. It was the girl by the pool.
“Looks hot in there,” she said.
“Looks hotter out there,” he said.
Her legs were long, the left bent at the knee, her pink-painted toenails pointed in his direction. “I’m cool.”
“Maybe that’s where you’re going wrong.”
Shane looked her over. She looked good. She looked out of place amongst all the trash, the dead bushes, and the filthy pool. She looked like she’d taken a wrong turn on her way to a photo-shoot.
Shane got out the car, went to the space in the fence where its gate should have been. “You planning on taking a dip in that thing?”
“God, no,” she said. “But this here’s the best place to catch the sun, and it’s such a beautiful day, ain’t it?”
“It’s certainly looking up.”
“And this is the only lounger in the place that ain’t been trashed or cut up.” She lay back, stretched her arms above her head then laced her fingers behind her neck. A smirk played at the corners of her mouth.
“You live here?”
“Your buddies there went up to see my boyfriend.”
“Oh. They friends of his?”
“You know why they’re here to see him?”
“I barely know them. They just asked for a ride.”
“What d’you think they came out here for?”
She took one hand from behind her head, made her fingers into a gun and cocked them at him. “It’s money,” she said. “It’s always about money.”
Shane nodded, looked round, back to the room they had gone into. The door was closed. The curtains were drawn. He watched, like he expected them to step back out any moment. They didn’t. He turned back to the girl. “How long you think they’re gonna be?”
She shrugged. “Long as it takes them to finish measuring each other’s dicks. You know how it is. Y’all have gotta have a pissing contest first before you can just get down to business, right?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Sure you do. And that Wilson, he’s a big talker especially, ain’t he?”
“He sure talked more than Joe did.”
“He the big guy?”
“Never met him before. I’m guessing he’s supposed to be the muscle, supposed to scare my man.”
“You see Wilson much?”
“Coupla times. He’s an asshole.”
“Seemed all right to me.”
“Then you really don’t know him.”
He looked the girl up and down, tried not to make it obvious but couldn’t help himself. He wished he was wearing shades. Her legs were long and toned, her arms likewise, and her blonde hair hung down over her shoulders. He framed her in his mind, Venus on a lounger next to a dirty motel pool.
She smiled. “What you thinking?”
“I think you got an idea.”
“I think maybe I do.”
She was flirting. He looked back up to the motel room, the door still closed and the curtains still drawn. He bit his lip. She seemed bored, and grateful for his company. Figured if he invited her to go for a ride, she was gonna say yes.
“Hey, you wanna –”
There was an explosion behind him like a crash of thunder, and the sound of glass breaking, the shards falling like rain. Shane flinched, ducked and turned, saw Joe thrown through the window. He stared as the door was flung open and Wilson leapt out, stumbled, fell out of view. He raised his head, tried to run, but a man had appeared in the doorway behind him, a big man with long hair round the side of his bald head, a handlebar moustache around his sneering mouth. He wore a wifebeater with sweat stains at the armpits, and he carried something in his hand.
Wilson tried to flee, but the man grabbed him by his hair, threw him into the railing. He wrenched his head back, pressed a knife to his neck. Wilson screamed. The man slit his throat and the scream got cut off, turned into a choking noise. Blood sprayed. Wilson slumped, hung over the railing.
Shane shook. His feet wouldn’t move. Behind him, the girl laughed. Her boyfriend, up on the railing, looked down, saw Shane. Shane’s legs came to life. He ran for his car, jumped behind the wheel. He gunned the engine, spun the wheels reversing and burned rubbed out of the parking lot. Behind him, through the open windows, he heard the girl’s laughter still.
July 12th, 1979
JoeyButchie Bucciogrosso had listened to the ignorant and incessant whining of his fat partner since their tour began at 0800 hours. Since roll-call, Ernie theWhale Whelan had been ranting about the neighborhood, the people in it, and the inferiority of the largely Italian Bushwick community. It was now 1430 hours, and Butchie had heard enough. He was about to tell the obnoxious jerk where to stick his opinions when the radio diverted his attention. Central was assigning them a shots fired job. Butchie would have to wait a while to straighten out the Whale.
Bushwick in the summer of 1979 was the epitome of urban decay. The once working class Irish, German and Italian enclave had descended into a teeming, heroin-infested slum. The Irish and the Germans had long since fled, moving to parts east. Except for the very poor, the Italians were gone too. What was left were the newly arrived Puerto Ricans and those Italians not affluent enough to move. The neighborhood had become a crime-ridden drug supermarket. People were killing each other over little ten dollar bags of white powder.
Joey Bucciogrosso had grown up here. He was raised in a railroad apartment on Troutman Street. He graduated from high school in 1966. Not having the money for college, Butchie knew there would be no student deferral for him. He knew he would be drafted. In an effort to exercise some control over his destiny, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
When Butchie left for Parris Island, Bushwick was already in decline. It was no secret why. Everyone knew that Joe Bonanno, the self-proclaimed man of respect, was peddling heroin in his own neighborhood. The ensuing decay was profound and immediate.
By January of 1968, Butchie found himself with the 5th Marines at Hue City. Shot in the stomach and seriously wounded, he wasn’t expected to survive. But, Butchie was Marine Corps hard. While convalescing in a Navy hospital in Japan, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for his gallantry and bravery in the battle, and a hideous scar on his belly to remind him to duck.
A year later Butchie returned to a Bushwick significantly changed from when he left. The change was not for the better. Honorably discharged from the Marines, and now fully healed, he entered the Police Academy. The family managed to escape to Madison Street in Ridgewood, but Butchie’s heart was still with the old neighborhood.
His father and his uncle owned Bucciogrosso’s Italian Bakery. In the time that Butchie was gone, a new landlord had muscled his way in to take over the building. Santino Indelicato not only jacked up the rent, he charged the Bucciogrossos a weekly “protection fee.” If this fee was not paid promptly, windows were broken, equipment was stolen or mysteriously burst into flame. Once, their delivery truck got hijacked and held for ransom until the fee was paid. Of course, by that time the bread had gone stale and had to be thrown out. So in addition, the brothers lost a day’s proceeds.
Though the brothers Bucciogrosso didn’t want to pay, they really had no choice. Indelicato, or Fat Sam as everybody called him, was connected. So if they wanted to do business in Brooklyn, Fat Sam was going to have to be paid.
When Butchie heard about the new arrangement, his impulse was to go over to the clubhouse on Suydam Street to beat the fat gangster to death with his own espresso machine. He was only dissuaded by his mother’s pleading.
Butchie had long regarded the neighborhood Mafiosi with contempt. He saw them as a parasites, preying upon the innocent and working poor of Bushwick, who were mostly Italians. Butchie didn’t buy into the Sicilian bullshit that the bent-noses were somehow protectors of the neighborhood. The evidence to the contrary was all around him, from the junkies nodding out on the corners, or dying in filthy hallways, to the stripped cars seeming to multiply on the curbsides. Buildings had been abandoned. Now used as shooting galleries by the junkies, who ventured out only to get fixed, or steal something they could sell. Butchie understood that, rather than protectors, they were more like locusts, stripping the land, sparing nothing.
If that weren’t enough motivation to hate them, there was the matter of Butchie’s would-be father-in-law. While he was over-seas, Salvatore Badlamenti, who owned a Latacini on the corner of Suydam Street was one of those hard headed Sicilians that wouldn’t pay. He was adamant. He declared that he had left Castellamare del Golfo to rid himself of these swine. He wasn’t about to pay them for the right to do business in Brooklyn. The threat of force only bought a savage beating from the burly cheese maker. A week later, while walking home from work, Salvatore Badlamenti was surrounded by three men in Knickerbocker Park. When they were done shooting, what was left was hardly recognizable as a man. Badlamenti died ventilated on the crushed clam shells of the bocce ball courts. Even though the murderers had made no attempt to obscure their identities, and the bocce courts were filled with the friends and former customers of the victim, his murder went un-solved.
While no one would talk to the police about what had happened, the story was well-circulated in the neighborhood. This was as intended. A clear message was sent. Payment to the Mob was not negotiable, and the penalty was severe.
Sal’s widow was forced to sell the building at a deep discount to Fat Sam. She and her daughter, Monica moved into an apartment on Hart Street. That was where Butchie found them when he returned from Vietnam.
The young couple rekindled what they understood was inevitable. They had been drawn to each other since the sixth grade at St. Brigid’s. Butchie told Monica that he survived his wounds only because he needed to see her again. She took him at his word, and the two became inseparable. Monica made Butchie promise to let things lie with Indelicato, but he would only go so far as to promise he would let them lie—for now.
If Butchie didn’t have enough motivation to despise La Cosa Nostra, he didn’t need to look far for more. The wreckage that Bushwick had been left in by the Bonannos sickened him. He was determined to do something about it.
When Butchie graduated from the police academy, he was assigned to the 83rd Precinct. He quickly became an enormous pain in the ass to the Mafiosi. The mobsters first tried to buy him off, but he wouldn’t be bought. When they tried to appeal to their common Italian background, they discovered that this only achieved further acrimony from the already angry cop. When they finally resorted to their favored tactic, intimidation, it went very badly for the goons that tried it. The three of them ended up with arrests after Butchie took their gun away and rearranged their faces with it.
Butchie became known as the Italian cop that hated Italians. It became clear that there was no percentage in trying to mess with him. Irrespective of the mobsters’ belief about Butchie’s feelings with regard to his heritage, the opposite was true. Butchie loved and respected the poor Italians, who were toiling at the brink of poverty, trying to eke out an honest living. He hated the mobsters that made their living sucking the blood from them. They would find no quarter with him.
Butchie saw things in Bushwick go from bad to worse, in spite of his efforts. Joe Bonanno had already been forced into exile. The new boss, Phillip Rusty Rastelli was no better, focusing even more of the Bonannos’ interests in narcotics. In 1974, Rastelli was sent to prison. Carmine Lilo Galante became the acting boss. Under him, the bottom fell out.
Galante concerned himself almost exclusively on the importation and sale of heroin. In order to secure loyalty and a greater share of the proceeds from the drug business, Galante created his own Pretorian guard within the Bonanno crime family. Lilo imported Sicilians that were already well versed in narcotics smuggling and distribution to join him in New York. Galante set up a vast narcotics empire that excluded the bosses of the other four crime families. The traditional Italian-American members of his own family were also excluded. Galante only trusted his Sicilians, who were referred to derisively as Zips by the other mobsters. The fact that they were vicious psychopathic killers only further insulated their boss.
Because they had been cut out of the lucrative narcotics operation, the non-Sicilian Bonannos were forced to become even more predatory toward the businesses and residents of Bushwick. The honest working people in the neighborhood found themselves getting picked clean.
It was during this time that Fat Sam started to put an even heavier hand on the Bucciogrosso Bakery. Butchie became aware of the problem accidentally. He overheard his uncle complaining bitterly in Italian to a neighbor about the deteriorating situation. Evidently, Uncle Guido forgot that his nephew was fluent in Italian. The rest of the information Butchie dragged out of his father. His mother again begged him to leave well enough alone.
“I love you, Mama,” Butchie told her. “But I’ve taken all the shit I intend to from these bloodsuckers. It ends today. The Bucciogrossos have paid their last dollar to the Bonannos.”
“But they’re killers,” Butchie’s mother reminded him.
“So am I, Mama, and I’m better at it than they are.”
“Please don’t do this,” she pleaded.
“I’m sorry,” Butchie said. “But this has to happen. I will kill every lastMustache Pete in Brooklyn if I have to. Our servitude to these vultures is over. This is gonna get done.”
When Butchie got to Fat Sam’s clubhouse, in the former storefront of Sal Badlamenti’s latacini, he was prevented from entering by two of Sam’s goons.
“This is private property, Copper. You don’t get to come in here,” Butchie was told by Donato Trinchera, the larger of Fat Sam’s bodyguards.
“I need a word with your boss,” Butchie told him.
“He’s not seeing visitors, least of all an Italian cop that hates his own,” Butchie was informed by Vito Meloro, the other body guard.
Meloro hit the ground with a thud after Butchie shattered his jaw with the lead sap he hit him with. Trinchera took two shots to knock out, but his jaw was every bit as broken. Butchie leaned over the two goons to admire his work and ensure that they didn’t require any more of his tender administration. Satisfied, Butchie stepped over the fallen thugs and entered the clubhouse. He spied Fat Sam at the card table in front of the espresso bar. He was playing pinochle with a group of the older Italian men from the neighborhood. Also in the group was Father Alphonso Spinatro, one of the parish priests from St. Brigid’s. He said the Italian mass on Sunday mornings that Butchie’s parents usually attended.
“Hi, Father,” Butchie greeted the priest as he advanced on the card table. Fat Sam looked up, confused.
“How the fuck did you get in here?” the fat gangster demanded.
“I let myself in,” Butchie informed him as he overturned the card table.
He grabbed Fat Sam by the throat and lifted him out of his chair.Then he drove him to the floor. Standing over him, Butchie took out his five shot off-duty revolver and shoved it into the mouth of the struggling gangster. Fat Sam looked into Butchie’s impassive eyes and instantly appreciated the very great peril he was in. Indelicato’s face became a mask of terror.
“Listen carefully,” Butchie cautioned him. “Because you only get to hear this once. The Bucciogrossos are now exempt from paying you for protection. If you set one foot in the bakery, or come near any member of my family, I will end you. If anything should happen to the bakery, a broken window for instance, or an electrical fire, even an act of God, I’m coming to talk to you about it. But if I have to come back here, my face will be the last thing you ever see in this life. Capisce?”
Butchie took the gun out of Sam’s mouth to let him answer.
“I’m not going to fuck with you, Butchie. But when Lilo hears what you did today, he’s not going to like it. He’ll have something to say about it.”
“That’s why he’s next on my list of phony-baloney tough guys that get a visit today. I’ll discuss it with him when I see him.”
Butchie put his gun away and got off the frightened gangster. He made a point of not helpingFat Sam off the floor.
“One other thing,” Butchie told him before he left. “You will not come to the bakery for the rent. You want it, you get it from me. But you’re going to have to come to the precinct for it.”
As Butchie stepped over Trinchera and Meloro lying in the doorway, he knew that Fat Sam would never come within a block of the decrepit precinct house on DeKalb Avenue. The Bucciogrossos’ bakery ostensibly was now rent free, as well as unencumbered by the fictitious protection fee. Now Butchie just had to make Carmine Galante understand the new rules.
Before heading down to the Magic Lantern Bar on Bath Avenue in Bensonhurst, from where Lilo Galante was known to hold court and run the Bonanno business, Butchie called his partner to let him know where he was headed and why, just in case he didn’t come back.
Eamon Fast Eddie Curran had been a boxer in his native Belfast. He got the nickname because of his lightening quick hands and propensity for quick knockouts. Butchie had volunteered to work with Curran for the very reason every other cop in the command refused to. Curran was assiduously honest, and would have nothing to do with the payoffs from mobsters that were a common practice in the NYPD at the time. This rectitude cast suspicion on him from the other cops that routinely took money to look the other way. Butchie heard about it, and asked Curran directly why he wouldn’t take the money.
“I come tree tousandmiles to enforce the law in Brooklyn. Dat’s exactly what I intend to do,” Fast Eddie told him, in his thick brogue.
“It’s just a little gambling and whores. What’s the harm?” Butchie challenged.
“There’s a plague over dis land, Boyo, and it’s called La Cosa Nostra. If you don’t tink every dollar of bribe money isn’t geared to further dat very ting, then you’re a shite and an ijit. They are enslaving and killing the people of this neighborhood as surely as if they were to put them in shackles and hang them. And every cop that takes their money is complicit. It’s no different than Judas and his thirty pieces of silver. But you already know that, Giuseppe. So, what do you say you stop pulling me wire and get to the fookin point?”
“I wanna work with you, Eddie,” Butchie said. “You do the right thing for all the right reasons. I won’t take their money either. I want to hurt them. I want to drive them out, if I can.”
“I don’t tink we are enough to be rid of dem. Sure, we’ll get no other help. We can definitely make their lives difficult, though. So if you’re willing, Boyo, then I’m in.”
Much to the chagrin of the mobsters, starting from that day, miserable and more is exactly what the two cops made them. Together they became an ever-present nuisance to the gamblers, pimps and drug peddlers. Early on, several of their more entrenched and corrupt fellow officers tried to talk to the two cops and intervene on the gangsters’ behalf. After the first few were beaten bloody in the locker room, they stopped asking. Everyone finally realized that these two cops would never relent. They would just have to be avoided. The most obvious solution was no solution at all. The mob knew that to kill two uniform police officers would bring down such swift and absolute retribution, La Cosa Nostra would cease to exist.
When Butchie told Eddie what he intended to do, Curran had only one question.
“Are we taking my car, or yours’?”
When Butchie and Eddie got to the Magic Lantern in Eddie’s beat up Dodge Dart, they parked around the corner. At the trunk they armed themselves with cut-down pump action shotguns on slings. Over them, they wore knee-length trench-coats with the pockets cut out. They entered the bar with their fingers already on the triggers of the shotguns beneath their coats.
Butchie spotted Lilo in the back of the bar reading a racing form. He walked directly toward him. Eddie spied the two Sicilian henchmen ensconced at the front of the bar. He brought the shotgun up and cautioned them.
“Right about now would be a good time to stay perfectly still, unless you want me to make it a permanent fookin condition,” Eddie said. The two zips held their hands up in compliance.
Butchie walked right up to Lilo’s booth and slid into the bench across from him. Galante looked up and registered recognition. But Lilo was confused. He knew who Butchie was. He just didn’t know why he was here. He was particularly curious as to why the angry cop had a shotgun pointed at his stomach from across the table.
“Do you know who I am?” Butchie asked.
“Of course. You’re the Italian cop in the 83rd that hates Italians. You work with that Irish lunatic that has my bodyguards playing Simon says right now at the front of the bar.”
“Close, but not exactly,” Butchie corrected him. “What I hate are you Mafia scumbags preying on the honest, hardworking Italians. You’re like carrion picking at the flesh of a dying animal. But I’m not here on behalf of them. You’ve got them so scared shitless, they wouldn’t let me help them anyway. I can’t save everybody. I’m here for one family only, my own.”
“How does this concern me?” Lilo asked.
“This morning I straightened out one of your Capos. I had to put his bodyguards in the hospital to get in to see him. I explained some new rules to him. I also treated him somewhat less cordially than he is accustomed to. I wanted you to hear about that from me. I’m not apologizing. I just want you aware of the new rules. Your life depends on you and your people adhering to them.”
“So, what’s this new arrangement?”
“The Bucciogrossos are no longer to be touched. We are not paying anyone of you vermin for anything. The rent for the bakery can be collected on the first of every month from me, at the precinct, if Fat Sam has the balls to show up there, which I doubt. If any of his goons or yours show up at the bakery, if a window gets broken, or a truck gets vandalized, I will wipe you out from the bottom to the top. I want you to understand that this is your problem now. You need to pass the word. Make it an edict. Because if it is not upheld, you will be the one to pay for it.”
“What’s my end in all of this?”
“You get to live.”
“Nothing else for my trouble?”
“Not one other fucking thing,” Butchie said. “Eddie and I are going to enforce the law, no special dispensations. If your goons want to avoid our attention, they need to stop doing stupid shit when we’re working.”
“I gotta hand it to you, Bucciogrosso. You got some set of balls on you.”
“It’s not balls, Lilo. I’m mad dog, batshit crazy, and I don’t give a fuck anymore. I’m not afraid of jail, and I don’t care if I live or die. That’s bad news for you. Because if you cross me on this, your survivability drops to zero. Now, you need to sound off that we have an agreement, or should I just make a modern-art masterpiece out of your guts on the wall behind you?”
Lilo considered his options briefly. In the end, his business acumen and instincts reasoned that giving a pass to a bake shop was an indignity that was not so hard to swallow. In addition, Lilo understood that his bread and butter was the narcotics trade. In reality, he knew that as committed as Butchie and Eddie were, they were still just uniform cops. The damage they could do with respect to the heroin racket was minimal. But Galante needed the last word.
“We have a deal,” he said. “But you and that lunatic donkey better behave. If either of you gets jammed-up, the minute you’re not cops anymore, I’ll make grease spots in the street out of you both.”
“Thanks for the heads up, Lilo. But I have faith in you. I know all about your ability to step on your own dick. I got a funny feeling that when you go down for the dirt-nap, I’m gonna be there to tuck you in. It will be my very great pleasure to send you straight to hell.”
Butchie and Eddie left the Magic Lantern. Having the agreement they came for,they went back to Bushwick to continue to treat the Bonannos with the same contempt they always had. None of the forewarned gangsters had the temerity to defy Carmine Galante. So the Bucciogrossos were left alone. Just as Butchie had predicted, Fat Sam wanted no part of the rent, if he had to go to the precinct to get it. So the bakery had one less operating expense. An uneasy peace existed between the partners and the crime family destroying Bushwick. They would have liked to do more, but as uniform cops they weren’t in a position to cut off the head of the snake that was the narcotics trade.
The urban decay that came with the drugs also brought a surfeit of violent crime. So Butchie and Eddie had plenty of work. They racked up an impressive record of arrests, for things like burglaries, robberies and guns. They were still regarded with suspicion by their colleagues for their refusal to take money. But when it became clear that they were not on a crusade to turn over the apple cart of the dirty cops, they were given a wide berth, and left alone.
In early July of 1979, Eddie Curran broke his hand on the head of a robbery suspect that tried to fight his way out of an arrest. While it went very badly for the suspect, the broken hand ensured that for the next six weeks, Curran would be home healing. Butchie’s squad sergeant temporarily assigned him to work with Ernie Whelan, whose partner was on his terminal leave, preparing to retire. Butchie wasn’t happy about it. Whelan was a rude, ignorant slob with few friends. His integrity was also in question. Butchie laid down some ground rules before the two set out on their first tour together.
“Whelan, I don’t care what you used to do with your old partner. It’s none of my goddamned business. But if you try and take money that isn’t yours while you’re working with me, I’ll rip your arm off and beat you to death with it.”
Ernie Whelan didn’t care for being spoken to like that, but he was still smarting from the beating Butchie gave him in the locker room the year before. He would not be accepting any pay-offs while working with him. While Butchie could prevent the slovenly cop from thieving in his presence, he had no control over the ignorance that kept spilling out of his mouth.
The other issue with Whelan was the smelly anisette cheroot that was perpetually clamped between his teeth. The smell of the smoke from that cheap cigar was nauseating. Butchie was about to tell him to lose it, when he made the mistake of getting close enough to Whelan to smell his rancid body odor. Butchie quickly decided the cigar was the less disgusting option.
“These dagos never heard the expression that you shouldn’t shit where you eat. Look what they’ve done to their own neighborhood,” the Whale observed. “It’s disgraceful. They are dirty, dirty people. I don’t know how they can live like this. They’re your paisanos, Butchie. Can you explain it?”
Butchie just glared at him. He was debating whether or not to punch him in the face when the radio squawked.
“Shots fired inside 205 Knickerbocker Avenue, Joe and Mary’s Italian Restaurant. One call, no call-back,” central reported.
“83 George,” Butchie acknowledged. “Responding, we will advise.”
The reduced manning in the department left the sector with no available back-up. This was getting to be an all too common occurrence. Butchie was less concerned about handling dangerous jobs without back-up than Ernie Whelan was. Butchie had absolute confidence in his own ability to fight or shoot his way out of any situation, so he wasn’t backing down from anyone. It would just be the two of them. If the shit hit the fan, Whelan would just have to suck it up and carry his own considerable weight.
A moment later, the cops arrived in front of the restaurant. Butchie knew this place well. The owner, Joseph Turano was a connected guy with the Bonannos. He had once been a customer of the Bucciogrosso Bakery, but Butchie had forbidden his father and uncle from doing business with the Mob after brokering the un-easy truce he made with Galante. Many of the cops in the 83rd precinct still ate there. Butchie and Eddie Curran wouldn’t set foot in the place, unless it was to lock someone up. They weren’t taking free meals from mobsters any more than they would take their money.
Butchie entered the restaurant and recognized the hysterical young woman pointing toward the courtyard in the rear. She was Joe Turano’s daughter, Cecile. Butchie drew his revolver and came out into the courtyard dining area. It was eerily quiet. In the rear of the courtyard, Butchie saw three men laying in puddles of their own blood and gore, around a banquet table with a flowered vinyl table cloth. There was a plate of pastries still on the table. On the right, Butchie recognized Carmine Lilo Galante. His chest and face were peppered with wounds from a shotgun blast. His right eye had been shot out completely. Butchie thought that he looked as dead as Julius Caesar.
He felt a momentary wave of elation at the sight of the dead gangster, until he was overtaken with a sense of regret for not having been the engineer of it. Whelan came lumbering up behind him.
“What have you guineas done now?” Whelan asked Butchie.
Butchie was considering whether to kick the Whale in the groin, when he remembered he didn’t respect the imbecile enough to make his opinion worthy of a response.
“Is that Galante?” Whelan asked as he came around the table.“He don’t look right without his cigar.”
“You’re right. He seems unnatural without it,” Butchie agreed.
With that, Butchie snatched the cheroot right out of Whelan’s mouth. He knelt over the prone body of Galante and roughly jammed the smelly cigar between his teeth. Butchie knew this was a far cry from the Cuban cigars Lilo had been famous for smoking, but it would have to do.
As Butchie was admiring the indignity, Galante’s good eye opened. He looked with recognition and fear into Butchie’s face. Rather than reacting with surprise, Butchie quickly pivoted and tossed the police radio to his partner.
“The radio is dead in here, Whale. I can’t get a signal. Why don’t you go out front and put over a no further. There’s nobody left alive. We don’t need any of our people getting hurt trying to race here.”
“Ah, okay,” Whelan said as he turned around and left the courtyard.
When he was sure that Whelan had gone, Butchie knelt down again and looked into Lilo’s one dying eye. The terror that was conveyed in that face washed over Butchie like a warm bath. He found the sensation exquisite. He would have liked to bask in it for a while longer if he could have, but time wouldn’t allow it. So Butchie got down to his intended business.
“Do you remember when I told you, Lilo, I would be the one to usher you into hell. Well, here we are, at Satan’s very gate,” he said, smiling serenely.
When Butchie closed his hand around the dying gangster’s throat, cutting off his air supply, it didn’t take long for the wounded Galante to kick his feet helplessly before shuddering one last time. Then he died. By the time Whelan came back into the courtyard, Butchie was standing away from the carnage, speaking to Cecile. She had calmed down enough to tell Butchie that her brother was wounded and hiding in the closet next to the kitchen. When the first ambulance arrived, Butchie directed them to Joey Turano. His father, Lilo, and Lilo’s cousin Nardo Coppolla were already dead. An army of cops and supervisors showed up to the scene. They were in turn followed by an army of detectives.
Being the first officers on the scene, Butchie and Whelan had to stick around. Butchie regretted taking the Whale’s cigar. Now he had nothing to camouflage Whelan’s native awfulness. But he would have to endure it for this day only. Butchie had already decided that he was never working with Ernie Whelan again. He would tell the ignorant, bigoted and filthy cop all about it. But that was a conversation for later.
People are divided in two types: smart and others.
My parents belonged to the category of others. They worked hard during more than thirty years and finished dismissed with a ridiculous compensation. Now, old and sick, they survived with low pensions that are not enough to buy medicines and keep the house warm. They had been honest, workers and everything else that society expected from them, and see the result: ended in misery. My parents had all the qualities of the world, less one, the most important of all: being smart. They had never been smart because they had never understood the world in which they were living: a jungle where one day they would be devoured.
That’s why I took another way to not end up like them. The way of those who create their own rules and know how to use the opportunities that life offers. And the smart way of earning money and of guaranteeing the future is the drug business. This same society that abandoned my parents says that drugs are illegal while it allows people to kill themselves with tobacco and alcohol. You cannot by drugs, but you can buy a gun. I cannot sell drugs, but they could invade the Iraq.
However, one must be very smart to not end up in jail.
I’ve known Julia since high school and always seemed to me that she would also follow a different way than their parents had planned. But Julia was not smart and never knew how the world works. She therefore chose the way that all women with few brains and big breasts choose when they want to earn money: she became a whore. Not a street whore, of course, but one of those operating in bars and nightclubs or waiting customers to call them. As we knew each other, it was easy to establish a relationship: she needed my pills to forget what she was doing, I needed his body to remind me that I was a man. Drugs for sex. We meet at my house and everything was going well: little talk, lots of action and, in the end, three pills of her choice.
The problem was officer Biggs.
He had been watching me for months, but was never able to catch me in the act. I was smarter than him. But one night, one of my clients set me up: I went to see him at the agreed place and Biggs was there. The black uniform buttons glowed in the light of lamps. On his face was a cynical smile. Suddenly he puts me a handcuff on my wrist. In that moment I was like a fox with his paw trapped. But the hunter did not fire; it was not my skin that he wanted. Instead of taking me to the police station, he stopped the car by the river and showed that he was also smart.
“Listen my scoundrel, I am going to give you a possibility to not go stuck: you convince that whore friend of yours to give me for free and I leave you alone. Otherwise, I arrest you booth. I give to you two days.”
Then, he released me and put me out of the car.
The proposal made sense for any man, but, from the feminine point of view, perhaps it was considered an abuse. However, as Julia was stupid, it would not be difficult to persuade her to accept it. After all, who knows if she would not like to be skinned by Biggs?
The next day I called her and asked her to meet me in a coffee. It was a rainy day and she left home upset. When she arrived, with her trousers and shoes wet, she showed a face darker than a gray cloud. Her blue eyes sparkled. I tried to give her a kiss, but she turned the face and threw the bag into the table. The look the coffee’s owner thrown at us made me think that she might be a Biggs’s relative.
Then, smiling, I began to prepare Julia to accept the proposal.
“We have a problem: yesterday I was caught by the police.”
“We have a problem? And what do I have to do with it?”
“The cop made me an offer…”
“An offer? What offer?”
“It’s a funny thing, you’re going to laugh, but I think there is no alternative …”
“Would you tell me at once why you made me go out on a day like this?”
“Well, it’s like this: he leaves us alone if I convince you to go with him…”
“To go with him?”
“Yes, to go to bed with him…”
“What? Do you think that I am some kind of whore?”
For a few seconds we remain both silent. I scratch my chin and she put her hand in her forehead.
The coffee’s owner was still watching us – she was, at least, a Biggs’ cousin. Finally, Julia straightened her hair and turned out to speak.
“Okay, I know what my profession is, but I do not sell the body anyway. I have my principles. I have my pride. I choose my clients.”
“So, the answer is no! Get it? No!”
I stayed silent for a bit, drumming my fingers on the table.
“Look, we have to be smart. He has the power to put us in jail, you have the power to prevent him to put us in jail and I have the power to make us three happy. It’s good business for everyone.”
She began to stir in her hair again with the glance lost in the rain.
“So?” – I ask.
“I want the double of the pills.”
“Hey, you are getting to smart.”
“Take it or leave it.”
“All right, the double.”
“And one more thing: tell that perverted cop that there will be no games with handcuffs and batons. Got that?”
My relationship with Julia was never the same after she started to have sex with Biggs. The intimate contact with the police produced a change in her way of seeing the world. She did not become, however, more honest or hardworking. She realized that she could use her body to create her own rules.
One day she called me to mark a meeting at the same coffee. It was raining and I got there all wet. As soon as I opened the door, the coffee’s owner mumbled something – would she be a Biggs’s sister?
Julia was waiting for me smiling, her blue eyes were gentle.
“We have a problem.” – she said.
“A problem? What problem?”
“I made an offer to the cop”
“An offer? What offer?”
“Since I noticed that he had begun to like me, I asked him to protect me.”
“To protect you? From whom?”
“From you, who else would be?”
“Would you explain to me what is happening?”
“It’s a funny thing, you’re going to laugh.”
“Are you going to tell or not?” – I punch the table.
“From now on I will not have sex with you anymore, but you will continue to give me the pills, otherwise Biggs arrests you.”
“What the hell is that?”
“You said we could get a cat, this poor guy was left at the shelter.” Mel cradled the grey cat in her arms; shiny skin covered half his head, and one ear appeared to be chewed off.
“No wonder, he looks half-dead,” Ryan wasn’t really surprised to see the cat; it was just uglier than he’d ever thought possible; the patchy coat reminded him of a worn shag carpet.
“The shelter staff said his time was up, he’d been there too long. They’re gonna put him down soon.” Mel’s lower lip trembled.
Ryan sighed. He didn’t want a cat, never mind a half-dead one. It was all Mel’s idea. He sniffed. The townhouse hallway reeked of rotting sardines, the oily odour of decay. “Whoa, what’s that smell? Is that the cat?”
She stroked his matted fur. “He just needs some TLC, that’s all.”
“You know, I don’t think cats are supposed to smell like that.” Ryan stretched a finger toward the cat, still cradled in Mel’s arms.
The cat’s ears flattened against his skull. Yellow eyes glared at him. Sizing him up.
Ryan pulled his hand back. Better safe than –
A small dog came bouncing down the hallway, yapping. “Down, Skipper! Down.” Mel struggled to hold the cat out of the dog’s reach. The tawny mutt jumped up on her for a better view.
The cat hissed.
“You leave poor Pluto alone.”
“Pluto?” Ryan smirked, “Like the planet? Or the Mickey Mouse dog?”
Mel shrugged, “That’s the name he came with.”
“OK Pluto, let’s see what you got.” Ryan shuffled backward, bent over and dragging Skipper away by the collar. The cat growled, low throaty rumble following them down the hallway.
“You know, there’s something up with that cat.” Ryan eyed it warily. The cat hunched over its food dish, crunching and purring. “It’s not normal.”
Skipper bounded past the kitchen. The cat arched its back, growled in low tones that rose to a high-pitched howl. Spat.
“It takes time to settle in, to get used to new things,” Mel opened a tin of cat food. The cat stopped growling, and wrapped itself around Mel’s legs, purring. “See, I just think the poor guy’s starved and neglected. Needs some extra care, that’s all.”
“I dunno about that.” Ryan reached toward the cat. Yellow eyes glared, and ears flattened against its skull. The cat hissed softly.
Ryan pulled his hand away. Yeah, that was some poor cat alright.
Mel glanced out the back window, “Hey, the birdfeeders need a top-up. Wanna take care of it for me?”
“Naw, I gotta get some work done first,” Ryan turned on his laptop, and sat at the dinner table. Papers were strewn across it. So much for a home office.
He watched as Mel stepped into the tiny yard, just big enough for a few patio stones and a patch of grass, privacy guaranteed by a wooden fence. Mel’s garden – a few brave potted plants added a splash of colour. She reached up to fill the feeders with sunflower seeds. Mel took care of everything, whether it needed it or not.
Ryan looked down. The cat stared out the sliding door, watching Mel at the birdfeeders, stock still, with only a slight flick of his tail.
He didn’t trust that cat.
“Oh, Ryan, that’s so sad. Look.” Mel pointed to the patio outside. “What do you think happened to them?”
“Probably hit the glass.” Ryan tapped the sliding door. “We should have put something on it, so the birds don’t hit it.”
“But they’ve seen it before, right? Why so many?”
“I dunno, maybe you got some new birds in when you filled the feeders.”
Mel’s lower lip trembled, and her eyes watered.
Ryan put his arms around her, “Hey, it’s OK. You meant well. And those were some well-fed birds, let me tell you.”
He smoothed her hair, “And you’re such a special person, you know that. Always taking care of everything.”
She snuffled against his chest.
Tipping her head up, he kissed her forehead. “Now, why don’t you run upstairs and grab a shower; we’re still going out today, right?”
Mel padded away, with Skipper following.
Ryan opened a kitchen drawer and pulled out a garbage bag. Time to dispose of the bodies while she was in the shower.
Stepping onto the patio, he’d never seen anything like it, there must be a dozen dead songbirds out there. Twisted necks and blood spatter dotted the patio stones.
Turning around, Ryan was startled to see the cat staring at him. Yellow eyes looking through him. As if somehow –
But that’s impossible, Ryan thought.
“I thought he’d settle in by now.” Ryan sprawled on the sofa, flipping through TV channels.
Hissing and low growls erupted from beneath the sofa. Skipper’s head was shoved under, back-end still visible, tail wagging furiously. Spitting, and a blood curdling yowl, Skipper leaped back, and three red stripes appeared on his nose.
“Poor puppy.” Ryan cradled the dog’s head, baby-talking, “Did the mean kitty get you?”
“These things take time,” Mel stood up and walked into the kitchen. “C’mon Pluto, dinner.”
A shot of grey flew out from under the sofa. The cat meowed from the kitchen.
“He doesn’t miss a meal, that’s for sure,” Ryan muttered. He patted the sofa beside him, “C’mon up buddy, I’ll save you from the mean kitty.”
“Skipper, Skipper! Come here, boy,” Mel called from the patio door. The yard was empty, except for the birdfeeders and flowers.
“Ryan, have you seen Skipper?”
“What?” Ryan looked up from his laptop. “No, you let him out.”
“I know, he’s not in the yard. Do you think he got under the fence?” Mel stepped outside, calling, “Skipper, come here pup!” Loud kissy noises followed.
She ducked her head back inside, “What if something happened?”
“He’ll be fine.” Ryan turned back to his laptop and shuffled papers across the table.
A knock from the front door echoed down the hallway. Ryan stood up, “See, I’ll bet he got into the neighbour’s yard again.” The knocking got louder. More urgent.
“Hold on, I’m coming,” he called.
Ryan opened the door, then sagged against the frame. There stood their neighbour, white shirt wildly patterned with maroon streaks. Blood.
He held out a bundle wrapped in a suit jacket. “Oh my god, I hit ‘em. Just pulling into the driveway and he darted out.” Crimson splotches slowly appeared in the grey wool jacket; bleeding through.
Ryan wrapped his arms around the dog; Skipper was panting, tongue hanging out, whites of his eyes showing. “Hey buddy, we’re gonna take you to the vet, OK? Doctor gonna fix you up.”
He called behind him, “Mel, we gotta go. Now. It’s an emergency.”
Mel walked down the hallway, and stood frozen. “Oh my God.”
Ryan raced out the front door, the neighbour still following, talking about paying the vet bill, and apologising.
He looked over his shoulder. Mel still stood in the doorway, grey cat beside her.
“Mel, let’s go. Now.”
Standing beside the car, Ryan fumbled for his keys while cradling his dog. Skipper’s breathing got heavier; a wet rattling sound shook his chest; tongue lolling, he licked Ryan’s hand.
Then he stopped. Light faded from his eyes.
Ryan stared at his dog, now suddenly lighter; eyes fixed in an unseeing glaze.
From the front step, the cat meowed.
Fluted wine glasses clinked. Mel raised her glass, tilting it as bubbles floated in amber, “To you honey, happy anniversary.”
Ryan sniffed the glass. Sparkling grape juice. He raised his glass, “To you sweetie.” Sipped and grimaced. “Interesting beverage choice.” Non-alcoholic. He’d kill for a real drink.
“I thought it was a good choice, considering the circumstances.” Mel waved her glass.
He sipped the drink again, ignoring the fruity bubbles; and tried block out drunken arguments, stupid fights that were about nothing and left her crying alone. “Yeah, well, I couldn’t do it without you honey,” awkwardly holding the glass in the air, he leaned in to kiss her.
“Aw, thanks, you’re so sweet.” Mel set her glass on the table, and walked to the stove. The cat circled around her ankles. “Dinner’s ready, let’s eat while it’s still hot.” She slid sizzling steaks onto a platter, a fresh salad stood on standby.
Mel handed him a plate with steak and a potato.
He sliced off a piece of steak. Blood oozed across the dinner plate. “Uh, honey, do you have anything a little more done?”
She looked at him, puzzled. “I thought you liked rare.”
“Um, I don’t really feel like it.” Ryan pushed the plate away and helped himself to salad. Tried not to think about maroon streaks on his neighbour’s shirt, red blossoms growing on the suit jacket; his dog bleeding to death in his arms.
The cat looked up at him, yellow eyes narrowed.
“Uh, you know what, I’m not so hungry right now. Maybe I’m coming down with something.”
“No worries,” Mel swept up the plate, and dropped the steak into the cat dish. The cat leaped at it, growling while tearing off chunks. Throaty purr as it swallowed.
Ryan looked away. “Um, and do you think we could do something about the cat?”
“What?” Mel asked, fork halfway to her mouth.
“I dunno. He’s around a lot. Always under your feet.” Ryan glanced at the cat. It stopped eating, and seemed to be listening. He caught himself – cats don’t listen to conversations. They’re cats. The meow and eat kibble and use the litter box. But this one was different.
He continued slowly, “I mean, he’s eating right beside us while we’re eating dinner.”
Mel pointed her fork at him, “You used to feed Skipper at the table. Off your plate.” She grinned.
“I know, but that’s different.” He couldn’t say how. Or that the cat gave him the creeps.
“Look, it’s like he’s finally bonded to us. We’re part of his pack.” Mel smiled at the cat, who had resumed chewing noisily. “He likes us. It’s a good thing.”
Ryan didn’t say that cats don’t have packs. And the cat liked Mel. Not him.
Ryan unlocked the front door, trying to be quiet. Stepping inside, he tripped over something soft. Hissing. Stupid cat.
The cat glared at him, then raced to the living room. The TV flickered. Great, she was still up.
“Ryan, is that you?”
“Yeah,” he leaned against the wall to take off his shoes. Shoes were giving him a hard time. He couldn’t have had that much to drink.
“You said you’d be home hours ago. Just one beer.” TV’s off, Mel stood in the hallway, and tightened her bathrobe around her body.
Ryan reeled, “I jush ad one.” He didn’t just slur, did he?
“More than one.” Mel’s arms were folded across her chest. “You promised.”
Mel launched into a familiar tirade, “We’ve worked hard on this. Together. And you said you’d just have one drink. And now –”
“I’m fiiiine. Leaf me alone.” He was slurring. Shit.
“No, it’s a problem. We can solve it.”
“I’m fiiine. Just a drink, s’all.”
The cat circled, meowing.
Hit by sudden clarity, Ryan pointed at it. “It’s that stupid cat. He’s not normal – he’s doing stuff. To the birds. To the dog – he killed my dog. He killed him.” Ryan waved at the cat, thought about grabbing it. Put it in a box and take it away.
“Ryan, be reasonable. Skipper got hit by a car, it was an accident. The cat didn’t –”
Ryan kicked the cat. Hard. Grey form bounced against the wall, and lay limp on the floor.
Mel screamed, “You killed him. What’s wrong with you?”
“He’s – I’m sorry.” Ryan shook his head, “But –”
The cat got up, shook himself, and darted behind Mel. Glared at him.
Mel was crying now, how dare you. Bastard. After all we’ve been through. She scooped up cat, and ran upstairs, locking the bedroom door behind her.
Ryan stumbled into the living room and stretched out on the sofa; turned on the TV, and fell asleep instantly.
It was dark when he woke up. TV was still on. The sofa was uncomfortable, he tried stretching. Couldn’t move his arms. An ache grew in his chest, spreading throughout his limbs; dissolving into burning pain.
He tried twisting his body. No. Must be a dream. That sleep thing, when you can’t move.
Heavy weight on his chest. Can’t breathe.
The stench of rotting fish blasted his face. Low rumble. He opened his eyes. The cat was on top of him. Purring. Whiskers tickled his face.
Yellow eyes stared right through him.
Morning sunlight streaked across the carpet. Mel walked into the living room, “Honey, about last night –”
TV on, Ryan was still lying on the sofa. She shook his shoulder.
He fell back limp.
Mel’s eyes widened. She shook him harder.
Stared at him. No rhythmic fall of his chest – not breathing. Panicking, she pulled him toward her.
His head rolled sideways, his mouth sagging open. Covering her face, she choked over the stench, rotting fish.
Hand shaking, she fumbled for her phone and dialled 911. “I think I have an emergency –”
The paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. Mel sobbed as they loaded him on the stretcher. They offered weak condolences. I’m sorry miss, Freak accident, Looks like he choked on vomit, at least he didn’t feel any pain.
From behind the sofa the cat watched as they wheeled his body away. Yellow eyes looked up at Mel, staring. Meowed softly.
The neighborhood was alive back then. Different. Not like it is today. Full of punks and people who don’t mow their lawns. They just don’t care. The lawns, though small and very much like postage stamps, are now unkempt. Me and the others are the only ones left of the old block.
Then there was the business with Ms. Carey. But I won’t tell you about that. But the Oaklands were a stable, solid family. One became a fireman, the other a cop. The girls married respectable men. Then there was that Ritchie kid. The youngest Oakland. He was a nice boy. He would ride his skateboard on the sidewalk by my house when he was young. A nice boy. Bright too. He was like a little angelic figure with a cherubic face when he was a child. Polite. Generous. Friendly. He helped this one boy when he skinned his knee real bad. He had character. At that age at least, which is rare.
Then he got older. He grew his hair long. Those heavy metal band patches on his jacket. The earring. The whole bit. Some say he turned to drugs. His cherubic face was now gaunt and sunken and his skin pale, almost yellow. He dropped out of school. I could hear the shouting in that old Oakland house with the sycamore in front of it. And then there was that business with Ms. Carey…
I wasn’t going to tell you about that, but I guess I will. Ms. Carey was a sweet old lady that sat on her stoop in a housecoat watching the kids go by. Yelling an occasional “Watch Out!” or “Take it Easy!” She was the last of her bloodline. She had no relatives or children or a spouse. She never married. When her sister died, Ms. Carey was the last one left of her family. She retired from the phone company years earlier and lived off a meager city pension. Alone in this world, she bought cat food for her eight cats and lived off of liverwurst and crackers. She always had candy on Halloween and she always had a fresh wreath at Christmas. And she always had a graham cracker for the lucky little soul who sat with her on a balmy summer night. Ritchie would sit and talk to her for hours about animals and insects and far away lands when he was that cherub. And she always gave him a graham cracker and a glass of milk.
This went on until Ritchie started being “cool.” When he stopped getting haircuts. He would walk by Ms. Carey’s house and she would offer him a graham cracker and he pretended he didn’t notice her. Many people stopped noticing Ms. Carey. She began telling stories over and over again. The same ones. It was repetitive and boring and annoying to many a passerby. I felt bad for the lady. Alone in that house, which was small, but great and big for a woman of her small stature.
Ms. Carey was slipping with old age and Ritchie and not very many others had much use for her. As the neighborhood changed, indifference swept over this town. Callous, cold hands had this town in its grip. People began to lock doors. Mistrust and paranoia crept in. And when the autumn wind swept through the neighborhood one year, Ritchie was walking down the street. He had his Ipod on and he was bopping to some old 80’s heavy metal song or whatever you call it. It just so happened at that moment old Ms. Carey fell in her front yard while sweeping some leaves. Ritchie didn’t hesitate. He went in the gate. Picked her up. Set her on the steps. Jim Hanlon called 911. I saw the whole thing from my window.
But other than that, Ritchie didn’t pay much mind to old Ms. Carey. He walked down the same street bopping to the heavy metal or the punk rock or one of those types of music. He passed me and Jim Hanlon and nodded his head. He didn’t smile. He didn’t laugh. Rumor has it, that he was behind the St. Martin’s School yard biting the heads off chickens. But gee it certainly was a nice thing he done for Ms. Carey.
One day Ritchie was in the school yard with his friends. They were taking snorts of Old Granddad whiskey. And then Ritchie comes up with the idea.
“Hey Rad Man,” says Ritchie. The Rad Man was pulling off the bottle and he coughed a little, “Yeah,” he says.
“Hey member that ole lady I helped in the front yard.”
“Yeah, you was like a town hero or something,” says The Rad Man.
“Well I seen this box. Like a strong box. Only it’s like tin or something. Easy to knock over. I bet that old broad has got a stash in there.”
“Really. Sounds interesting. Finally, you get a good idea.”
“What are you talkin bout. I am the genius of this bunch.”
“Okay genius, you live on the same block. What if someone recognizes you or you get caught?”
“That’s whats so genius. No one will think twice. Dey see me on the block. Dey think nuttin.”
“Kid, you aren’t as dumb as you look. And with the fuckin Aerosmith hat your damn ears stick out. When do we move?”
“This ole broad falls asleep early. I know her since I am a kid. She won’t give us no trouble.”
“Nice. I like the way you think,” said The Rad Man, “Sides we’re getting low on the real stuff.”
Little Brown was quiet through the whole conversation. He was shaking with the sickness. They needed to shoot dope soon or he was gonna have a fit.
“Hey guys, let’s go hit the spoon. I am dying.”
“Me too,” said Ritchie.
The three sat under the train trestle and shot dope. The rains fell all around. The cleansing waters mixed with the filth in downtown Buckston that night. They would be searching for an angry fix soon enough. But they had enough dope in them to get the job done.
When the rains let up the three went to the Treehouse. It was Rad Man’s pad, a real dump of a house in a real dump of a neighborhood. The kind you wouldn’t wanna walk around in after dark. Far away from the street and the house with the sycamore where Ritchie grew up and Ritchie chose this life to be different. He thought he was independent and cool. He thought he was some sort of rugged thug bohemian. People always end up suffering when a boy makes choices like the ones Ritchie does. Oh how me and Mr. Hanlon and I am sure Ritchie’s parents longed for the old days. Days when we would drink gin and tonic and smoke cigarettes under umbrellas in neat yards with bbqs glowing and meat smoking on a grill and the sun beaming down. Goodwill to the neighbors on the street and people everywhere.
Ritchie, Rad Man, and Little Brown had some ski masks with holes cut in them. And a piece, which Rad Man’s Dad had given him once, which he wasn’t sure worked. They toked some reefer and drank bad wine and headed out for ole Ms. Carey’s place. Ritchie was sure she was sleeping. The neighborhood was asleep. The street was asleep. The rains glowed under the illumination of the street light’s beams. They went around the back. The slid the back window open. Jeesus, she didn’t even lock it. The three scurried in the window. Their junkie frames were narrow enough to enter without a ruckus. In the next room, there was ole Ms. Carey. But something was wrong. As soon as the three entered the kitchen, there was the stagnant smell of death lingering with the cinnamon and cloves in the pantry. Ritchie noticed Ms. Carey wasn’t breathing when he stepped into her sleeping area. He couldn’t see the rise and fall of her chest to signal breathing.
“The old broad’s dead I tell you,” said Ritchie. For once in his teenaged life he felt a bit of remorse, a little glimmer of something.
“Oh man, let’s get out of here,” said Little Brown.
“Not without the shit,” said The Rad Man. “Besides, it ain’t like we killed her.”
Ritchie stared in the closed eyes of Ms. Carey. He had a flickering in his head. A flickering of images harking back to his youth. His youth of Graham Crackers and milk on this very porch. But something cold and dark swelled up in his chest and blotted out all memory. He suddenly felt the sickness in his stomach. A sickness that could only be taken away by more dope.
The three hustled to the back of the house and Ritchie reached on top of the refrigerator. Sure enough the old broad had laid it there. A strong box made of some flimsy metal. Ritchie busted open the tiny little lock. There with in the box was 100 dollars cash and some papers.
“Well,” said The Rad Man, his whispery voice reaching a crescendo, “What is it?”
“Just looks like 100 bucks, man,” said Ritchie.
“100 bucks! You stupid bastard, we committed a felony for a 100 bucks,” said Rad Man. He snatched the box out of Ritchie’s hands and immediately began rifling through some additional documents that were there.
“Uh, Rich, Bud…..it seems you got something here.”
“What the hell are you talking about,” said Richie.
“Yeah, what is you yelling about,” said Little Brown.
Ritchie snatched the tattered frayed document from the Rad Man. He glared at in the dark, with a chilling feeling coming over him. He danced the light of the mini flash light over it. It was clearly a deed of some sort. Of some sort. It was the deed of this house. This house preserved with a pension from the city. Molded and shaped by a diet of liverwurst and crackers. And cats. Where were all the damn cats any way? They were gone, gone away.
Anyhow, Ritchie read what he did not or could not believe. It was signed over to none other than himself. An entire house and the old broad gave it to him. Was it the graham crackers as a child? Or was it that singular act of kindness where he picked off the front lawn and sat her on the stoop. Was it serendipitous? Gods, saints, sinners, angels. All the junk in him made run into the sink and puke. He was regurgitating his lifeless soul, which he sold for a bag of dope. He intruded on upon this humble hovel with the intent of a brigand. He left the recipient of good will. What did this mean to the balance of his existence? What was wasn’t. And what is, is no more. One thing was for sure. He couldn’t go on the way he was going. It meant death or worse. He folded the deed and the three walked out into the autumn air. There was silence and the deafening wail of the angels of his psyche bringing him back to the time when he was a cherub.
The leaves fluttered to the pavement. The streetlight hummed and danced illumination of the deeds dark and unseen, new and redeemed, on this street in this town in the USA in this world in this universe. It could happen anywhere, but it happened here.
It was a grey, damp morning near the middle of summer. The rain had stopped just before dawn, leaving the grass prickled with golden dewdrops and smelling fresh. Hiram was fifteen years old then. Maybe it was a Saturday. Looking back on it, Hiram couldn’t remember all the details, but some he just couldn’t forget, like the frantic pounding that morning on the front door.
He jerked awake and sat up in bed. The pounding was like an alarm. Slamming his feet on the cold floor, he stood, grabbed his jeans from a pile on the chair next to his nightstand and danced in place, wriggling his feet through the stiff legs until they gave way. While he pulled the jeans up over his hips and did the top button, he cocked his head and listened to the muffled voices coming from below. His mama had answered the door. He snatched a shirt from the chair and threw it over his shoulders, working his arms through the sleeves as he hurried through his bedroom door. Like a small sail, the shirt tail billowed behind him and snagged on the doorknob. Turning to free his shirt, he jerked the door closed over his bare toes. The bottom edge of the door ripped the big toe nail on his left foot half off.
He swore and jumped around on one foot, holding the injured one in both hands, pinching the nail back into place. Blood oozed around its edges. Angry and hitting the door with the flat of his hand, he hobbled back into his room, sat on the edge of the bed and gingerly pulled two socks over his injured foot. When he pressed down on the injured toe again, blood stained the end of the socks. Grabbing a mismatched sock from off the floor, he put it on the other foot then eased both feet into his work boots and tightly laced them up.
“Hiram! You alright up there?” His mother, Bertha, called up to him. “Come on down. Alice is here. She needs you.”
“I’m comin’!” Still feeling the anger, he’d yelled back, but he immediately felt sorry. He hadn’t meant to yell at his mama. The injured toe wasn’t her fault. Sometimes his mouth got a little too far ahead of him for his own good. He hated when that happened.
He hopped down the stairs on his good foot, pretending to walk normally when he hit the bottom step. Pretending was a major part of living when you were fifteen. He saw they were seated on the sofa in the living room. His mother had her arm around Alice, holding her close. She looked up at him when he entered.
“Alice ain’t feelin’ too good. Zach’s been at it again.”
Hiram walked around the coffee table and sat down next to Alice. Her left eye was almost swollen shut, and her lip below the eye was split and bleeding, revealing the latest handiwork of her drunken father, Zach Biddle. Hiram reached over and took her hand and squeezed it gently. She squeezed back. Her head lay on his mama’s shoulder, and her good eye stared off across the room at nothing. It was as still and empty as a glass marble.
Hiram and Alice were next door neighbours and best friends. They rode the bus to school together, played in the woods behind his property and swam in the Juniata River after the summer rains filled its deeper pools. They were inseparable and bore the brunt of teasing from the other kids when they held hands on the bus or when Hiram carried her books home from school. Being a lot alike, they were oblivious to the taunts, not caring what others said or thought.
“They’re just jealous, Hiram. Hell, I don’t care. Do you?”
“Hell no. Just wish they’d find somethin’ else to do.” He kicked at a pebble in the path. It skittered away into the long grass at its edge.
“You know, we’re like two big sunflowers in your mama’s garden, Hiram, always turning to catch the light.” Holding her face skyward, she turned in a complete circle. “The rest are just pansies, wishin’ they were like us,” confirming her comment with a nod and a giggle.
Alice loved flowers. Hiram looked down at her. She was always talking like that, in big pictures he could understand. He was convinced that one day he’d marry Alice. He’d told her so, but she wasn’t so certain.
It was a warm summer day after a swim in the river when they stretched out on their towels, drying off in the sun, that Hiram noticed Alice had breasts. She lay on her back. Goose bumps puckered her arms, and her taut nipples pressed hard against the thin fabric of her swimsuit. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed them before. Holding her hand or carrying her books was as far as he’d got in his head. He hadn’t considered the rest.
Alice turned her head toward him. “What you starin’ at, Hiram?”
“Nothin’.” After being caught staring at her breasts, he turned, closed his eyes and lay face down to hide his unexpected reaction to what he’s seen.
“Bull. You’re lookin’ at me different.”
He turned his head round to face her. Her blue eyes met his. She was more goddamned beautiful now than he’d ever thought possible before. He couldn’t lie. He could never lie.
“Alice, we been friends since we been little. We’re not little anymore. I love you. When it’s right, I want you to marry me.” There, he’d finally said it.
She turned her face away from him and gazed up through the canopy of leaves to a patch of pale, blue sky. A tear dropped from the corner of her eye, slipped down the side of her face and disappeared into a lock of hair covering her ear. She turned back to Hiram.
“You can’t marry me. Hiram. As much as I love you, as much as you love me, I’m not for you.” With that she turned away and stared at nothing, not even the sky.
Hiram was hurt. Looking for some comfort, he slid his hand over next to hers and felt her warm slender fingers slip between his. They held tight to one another for awhile until she lifted his hand and placed it on the soft mound between her legs. The fabric of the swimsuit was warm and wet. Hiram thought it was from the swim they’d had. Opening her legs slightly, she pressed one of Hiram’s fingers into the softness. Her breathing changed.
“You feel that, Hiram?”
His throat was dry from breathing through his mouth.
“It’s soft,” he answered, “and hard at the same time.”
Alice kept her eyes open. She wanted to close them, but bad things always happened in the dark. She couldn’t let those things happen.
“That’s the bud.” She pressed harder as she spoke. “I’m afraid that’s as much and as far as you’re gonna get, Hiram.”
After a moment, she pulled his hand away and sat up. He pushed up on his elbow wanting to say something, but the right words wouldn’t come. Instead he followed her gaze to the river. They both watched the current ripple and sparkle in the sunlight as it flowed around a dead tree trunk that had fallen into the river, its roots still clinging to the pebbled shoreline. Water gurgled and foamed as it disappeared around the end of the log. Sheltered from the eternal flow of the river, a tangle of small branches and dead leaves scattered along the windward side of the log. A light breeze from up river rattled the leaves overhead, clattering them like rain on a hard, flat road, sprinkling more leaves at the edge of the water.
The air smelled of honeysuckle, and Hiram, searching for the source, spied a vine clinging to the tree that partially shaded them. He stood, traipsed over to the vine and picked some of the succulent blossoms; then he walked back to join Alice and crouched in front of her. Pinching the small, green calyx at the base of the flower, he pulled the style down through the neck of the blossom. At the tip of the style was a bud and suspended from the bud was a glistening drop of honey-flavoured nectar. Hiram lifted the bud to Alice’s lips. Opening her mouth, she took the drop on her tongue. He did the same with the second flower and savoured the sweetness for himself. He stared at the blossoms in his hand and smiled at the simple, sweet, hidden mystery. Alice reached over and picked up one of the blossoms. Holding it up to the light, she twirled the pale yellow flower between her thumb and finger.
“You see that, Hiram? That’s me.”
She gazed a moment at the spinning blossom in the bright sunlight; then she brought it to her nose and breathed in its sweet aroma.
“Looks good, smells good. But the sweetness is gone.”
“I’ll get you another one. Hold on.”
Hiram moved to get up, to go fetch another flower, but Alice grabbed his arm.
“Sometimes you’re a dumb ass, Hiram. You don’t listen!”
Hiram settled and listened, but he didn’t want to. Something told him he didn’t want to listen or hear or care. He loved Alice, plain and simple. She held the honeysuckle blossom up in front of his face. Her eyes glistened, filled with the truth of something Hiram didn’t recognize or maybe didn’t even want to know.
“The sweetness is gone, Hiram.” She shook the blossom in his face. “You understand? Taken from me. I’m a broken flower. I love you, but you’ll never marry me. I can’t let you.” She raised up on her knees, leaning in close to Hiram. She almost whispered it. “My daddy took it.” Her eyes were wide and wild. He held her gaze. It was a truth he hadn’t recognized, he hadn’t seen, he hadn’t known.
With that said, she sat back on the blanket, throwing the honeysuckle blossom up in the air till the breeze caught it. Landing in the water at river’s edge, it washed up against the dead log. For her, it was settled, but not for Hiram. For Hiram, it would never be – could never be – settled.
You get to know people from their habits, the way they move their hands when they talk or scratch the same spot on their face like a nervous tic or when they spit on the ground after making a point. Since the day Alice told him about the flower down by the river, Hiram had been observing the habits of Zach Biddle. For Hiram, this latest blackened eye and cut lip was just one more thing, one more reason. He expected no less from the likes of Zach Biddle. In Hiram’s estimation, a man like him didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Alice or even the same air as the rest of the world, for that matter. While watching and learning Zach’s habits, Hiram’s plan slowly took shape.
Some week nights, but mostly on Friday nights, Zach came home drunk. He’d barely ease the car in the driveway before he blacked out. Occasionally, he’d make it all the way into the garage and sleep it off, leaving the engine idling and the garage door open. Hiram’s plan counted on Zach making it all the way into the garage, so he waited. Patience was an integral part of his plan. It had to be. Killing a man and not getting caught, couldn’t be rushed.
That night, he counted the hours until he saw Zach’s car approaching. He watched from his bedroom window like he had many a night. The car jerked forward then stopped and stalled some fifty feet short of the driveway. Hiram started to doubt; then it started up again and shot forward hitting the curb at the edge of the drive before it straightened. Another spurt of gas carried it all the way into the garage. Brake lights illuminated the driveway. Hiram judged Zach was definitely drunk. From his astute observations, it wasn’t a difficult judgment to make. He tiptoed down to the first floor and slipped out the back door. Standing on the back porch stoop, he listened, hearing the thrum of the car’s engine and the low, steady rumble from its exhaust.
A canopy of stars blanketed the sky, but there was no moon and no shadow as he crept along the garage wall. Reaching the end, he peered into the garage. The car’s headlights lit the debris scattered against the back wall and backlit Zach’s dark outline inside the car. Hiram could see his head was tilted back over the top of the seat, his mouth gaping open. He crouched beside the car, scooted up along the passenger side and raised himself enough to get a good look at Zach and the dashboard lights. He feared the car might run out of gas before the job was done. The window was down, and he could see the gas gauge needle hovered at the half-full mark. Zach’s snore caught then continued. He was out cold. Crouching, he shuffled around the back of the car coming up on the driver’s side. That’s when he saw her.
Alice sat in the shadows just out of the headlight’s halo on the back wall, on the one step that led through the door behind her into the house. She had her arms wrapped around her knees, holding them tightly to her chest, rocking and humming along with the sound of the engine. Hiram thought her humming sounded like bees in a swarm. He crouched down beside the car and whispered as loudly as he dared.
“Alice! Alice! It’s me, Hiram.”
At the sound of her name, she turned her head toward him.
“Alice! Come on!” He motioned toward her.
She released her knees, unfolded her body and stood. Moving toward him, putting one foot carefully in front of the other, she walked like she was in a trance. He could still hear her humming. Just as Hiram stood and moved to help her, she glanced at her daddy sleeping in the car. At that moment, his head lulled to one side and faced them. Drool ran in a stream from the corner of his mouth. They both saw it at once and jumped back. Hiram heard Alice suck in a breath, preparing a scream, and he gently clamped his hand over her mouth, leading her out of the garage to the top of the drive. He had his arm over her shoulders and held her close. They stood that way for a while lit only by the reflection of the car’s headlights off the garage’s back wall.
“Why were you making that humming sound, Alice?”
She looked up at him.
“It’s the sound my daddy makes in my ear in the dark.” As she stared at the dark, shiny car and the darker hulk that slept behind the wheel, she started humming again. Hiram dropped his arm off her shoulders and took her hand. He wasn’t sure what was right; he just felt it.
“I want you to help me with something.”
He led her back to the garage but didn’t enter. Instead, he reached up for the garage door handle. The door was the kind that pivoted on a track and folded downward. It would close quietly, he knew. On another day, in preparation for this one, he’d oiled all the hinges and riveted joints. When he’d pulled the door part way down so she could reach it, he took Alice’s hand and placed it on the handle with his.
“I love you, Alice. I won’t let anyone hurt you again. But you got to help save yourself.”
With that, they pulled the garage door down together until it quietly latched.
He removed a rag from his back pocket and wiped the door handle clean. The darkness enveloped them, wrapping them for the moment in a soft silence. In that quiet moment, in the silence, Hiram realised Alice had stopped humming. It is finished, thought Hiram. Putting his arms around Alice, he drew her close. Her arms encircled his waist as her head rested gently on his chest. Her hair smelled like honeysuckle, or maybe he imagined it, like one always remembers the taste of a forbidden fruit. They stood for a moment in the dark, still silence, holding on together to the possibility that God would have to do the judging. Hiram stepped back and took her hand, leading her across the grass to his front porch.
They mounted the steps together, and Hiram held open the screen door for her.
“Evening you two.”
The voice startled them and stopped them dead in their tracks.
“Come on in.”
Hiram’s father, Henry, sat alone in the darkness on a wicker chair next to their front door. He lit a match that brightened the porch’s interior for an instant until he put it to the top of his pipe bowl and gently sucked the flame through the aromatic tobacco, filling the porch with the scent of apples and burnt sugar, a smell that always soothed Hiram.
“What you two been up to?”
In the momentary flash of the match flame, Hiram had seen the baseball bat lying across his father’s knees. His father had a sense of justice that wasn’t too far off from Hiram’s. The apple never falls far from the tree, his daddy had often said. Hiram knew then, had things gone wrong for him and Alice, his somehow omniscient father would have stepped in and meted out his own brand of final judgment on Zach Biddle.
“Just went for a stroll,” Hiram answered.
“You ok, Alice? Bertha told me about your troubles.”
“I’m fine, Mr. Beffer. I think my troubles are behind me now.”
“Let’s hope so. It’s a good place for ‘em.”
Hiram heard the hollow sound of the wooden bat as his father leaned it against the wall behind his chair.
“Let’s go inside. I think Bertha’s got something cookin’ in the kitchen.”
The three of them went through the door, Alice first, followed by Hiram then Henry. As they stepped through the door, Henry placed a hand on Hiram’s shoulder and squeezed. Hiram understood. God works in mysterious ways. His father didn’t have to say a word.
After a hot chocolate and a biscuit, hot from the oven, it was time to retire for the night. Alice chose the sofa. Bertha made it up for her with a sheet, a heavy blanket and a pillow and said good night.
“You sure you’re gonna be ok?” Hiram asked.
She looked up at him. “I’ll be fine, Hiram, when the sun comes up.”
“Won’t be too long now.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Night, Alice.”
Hiram wasn’t sure if he’d dreamed it or if Alice really did come to his bed during the night. It could have been wishful thinking, he thought, as his sleepy head mulled it over. The night had been filled enough with dreams and awakenings and heavy slumber in between. He rubbed the sand from his eyes, pulled on his jeans and tiptoed down the steps, not wanting to wake Alice. But the sofa was empty. He stared at the folded sheet and blanket resting on top of the pillow along with a note. He sat down on the sofa, pulled his feet up off the cold floor and read it:
Thank you, Hiram. You’re a good man. I’m free now. You saw to that. But I got to go. I got to go, Hiram. I got to go. Love Alice
He folded the note and pushed it in his jean’s pocket. Lifting the blanket and sheet off the pillow, he stretched out on the sofa and buried his face in her pillow, trying to remember everything–the blue sky, a light breeze and the scent of honeysuckle in full bloom.
Later that morning, Hiram sat on the porch with his daddy snapping green beans when a police cruiser pulled into the Biddle’s driveway. The officers got out of the car and put on their hats. One walked to the door and knocked while the other inspected the garage door. The officer at the front door disappeared inside the house when the door opened. The officer outside looked around a bit, walked down the side of the garage and back again. He gave up his investigation of the exterior and entered the house through the front door that had been left open.
Hiram and Henry had filled one pan with the snapped beans and started on another when the Biddle’s garage door opened. Both officers along with Alma Biddle, Alice’s mother, hurried out of the garage. They stood around, fanning their hands in front of their faces, letting the fumes clear out. They talked together a while, then Alma pointed toward the Beffer place. Hiram saw her point.
“Here they come, daddy.”
An officer strolled across the grass toward their house. He mounted the steps to the porch and knocked on the screen door, peering through the screen at Hiram and Henry as he did.
“Mind if I come in?”
“Not at all if you don’t mind us snapping some beans,” Henry said, “What’s the problem?”
The officer, his name tag said Phil Parish, stepped through the open screen door.
“Seems Mr. Biddle had a terrible accident. Left his car running in a closed garage. Apparently he’d been drinkin’, according to his wife, and well sir, he blacked out and didn’t wake up.”
“He’s dead?” Henry asked.
“Seems so. A body don’t last long without oxygen.”
“I heard that somewhere.” Henry added to an already obvious statement.
“Seems Mrs. Biddle’s daughter, Alice, is missing.”
“Well Alice was here with us last night. She and my son, Hiram, here are a little sweet on one another, if you know what I mean.”
“What time was this?” The officer pulled out a pad to make notes.
“Hiram, when did you and Alice go out?”
“It was just after sundown. It was still bright. We went through the woods and walked along the river, talkin’, skippin’ stones, then circled back through town and came back home.”
“Anyone see you? You stop off anywhere?”
“Not that I recollect. Neither of us had any money. We just walked and talked like we always do. We’re good company for one another.”
“My wife, Bertha made them hot chocolate and some of her homemade biscuits when they got back.”
“What time was that?”
Hiram answered. “’Bout nine or ten. Not real sure. Don’t have a watch.”
“My wife, Bertha, offered for Alice to stay the night if she wanted to and made up the sofa for her. Alice has stayed with us before.”
“What about this morning?”
“She was gone when I got up. It was early,” Hiram answered. “I figured she’d gone into town. Has a mind of her own sometimes and just takes off. She’ll show up. She’ll be broken up about her daddy, though,” Hiram added almost as an afterthought.
Phil folded up his notebook. “Ok. If you hear anything from Alice, let us know. We’d appreciate it.”
“We’ll be sure to do that, officer. Give our condolences to Alma,” Henry answered.
With a wave, the officer was gone. When he’d crossed the property line, Henry spoke.
“Where is Alice, Hiram.”
“I don’t know, daddy.” He pulled the crumpled note from his pocket. “She left me this.”
Henry read the note then got up and went into the house. After a few minutes, he returned empty-handed.
“Where’s the note?”
“I burned it,” Henry answered.
Later in the morning the coroner’s hearse arrived and backed up to the garage. The attendants wheeled out Zach’s corpse in a body bag, loaded it into the back of the hearse and drove away without fanfare like a simple grocery delivery van. Next, a tow truck arrived and pulled Zach’s car from the garage. Apparently Alma had no more need for it or couldn’t stand the idea that it was where Zach had taken his final, drunken breath. The driver hopped from the cab of the truck and closed the garage door. The well-oiled door clicked into place without a sound.
Hiram hadn’t heard from Alice for two days now. He wasn’t worried yet, but it was working on his mind, and if he thought about it, he could get worried. Trying not to think about it, he weeded the garden for his mama and split some logs for the stove, keeping himself busy. He was just driving the wedge through a stubborn log when he saw Alma Biddle hurrying across the grass toward him. She stopped in front of him and waited till he put down the sledge hammer. Bertha had been standing at the kitchen window watching Hiram split the logs. When she saw Alma, she called out.
“Henry, come quick!”
She stepped out on the back porch stoop and a few seconds later, Henry joined her.
“I’ll have you know, Hiram Beffer, that I just got a call from the po-lice. They found Alice’s body in the Juniata River, all crushed and broken like. What do you have to say to that?”
“I’m sorry.” Hiram was truly sorry.
“Sorry? That all you got to say!”
Henry stepped down off the porch. “Alma, leave the boy alone. He had nothin’ to do with it. He loved that girl.”
Hiram stood in silent shock at the news.
“So you say, Henry Beffer. She was his girl, warn’t she? You’d think he’d take care o’ her. Po-lice say the way they found her, the place they found her, she jumped off the route 220 bridge. You don’t do that for love, Henry.”
Hiram looked up at Mrs. Biddle. “I did love her, Mrs. Biddle.” It was all he could say.
She turned to Hiram. “Yeah. But not enough.”
She turned to Henry and Bertha. “I gotta lose a husband and a daughter in one week!” She raised her hands to the top of her head, lost and crazed, pulling at tufts of her thinning hair. “Oh God, what did I do?”
Bertha came down off the porch and marched over to Alma. Standing in front of her, she waited until Alma’s eyes met hers. Bertha stared at her like she was a curious specimen in a glass case, tilting her head to one side, speaking like you would to a child.
“You know what you did, Alma? Do you really know? You know what killed your daughter?”
Alma stumbled back away from the questions.
In pursuit, Bertha took a step forward. “You closed your eyes.”
I damn near didn’t recognize Dee without her hooker’s uniform: flimsy miniskirt, crimson lipstick, black fishnet hoes. Now draped in Victorian frills and the modest half-grin of a virgin bride, she stepped up to me, gestured for a smoke and took a seat. Like we’d just spoken days ago, not years. Like I was just some guy she knew, nothing more.
The ugly truth: I was her pimp back in the day. But once we’d caught up, I’d become nothing. Just another ex-player from the joint, looking for a legit gig to keep the PO off my ass. The ride – all eleven years of it – was no joke. But Dee still looked like Dee. Eyes that shone like a matching set of nightlights, ass as tight as a snare drum. Still my top girl, my baby, my Dee.
But damned if she didn’t look strange all prettied up for the brand new gig. She was supposed to be Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, she explained. I’d done just enough reading in the joint to know the concept. But she had to break it down to me anyway:
“She’s a girl even though she’s called Hero and not Heroine and she fakes like she’s dead ’cause her fiancé or something thought she was with another guy even though she wasn’t. And then we find out she’s not dead at the end.”
But my mind raced to other places, sought answers to questions she seemed to be hiding from. I wanted to know what happened to that quiet fire that danced behind those ocean blue eyes. She seemed dragged down into a surrender.
Not that my time up in Stillwater was a backyard barbecue. And the seven weeks since my release had been rougher still. Like her, I wound up pulling in minimum wage at WillyWorld, boasting roughly nine bucks to my name and limping through the only role a brother boasting my shade could qualify for at a Shakespeare theme park. If you think it’s hard out there for a pimp, try being an Othello with a potbelly and a teardrop tattoo.
“I’m ready to make a move,” she wheezed through her third cigarette. “You with me?”
Ready to make a move. I showered in those words for a second, remembering how, back in the days before my stumble, they always meant something crazy and dangerous and rewarding.
I remembered how we made a move on that Indonesian opium supplier who made the mistake of carrying around half a million dollars in a brief case and wound up naked and broke in a Motel Six just past the Wisconsin border.
I remembered how we made a move on that napping mall security guard when we figured out where his keys were kept.
I remembered how we made a move on Fat Robbie, a rival pimp who picked the wrong hooker to muscle up to and the wrong weapon (a switchblade) to protect himself with against my Glock 17.
Mostly I remembered who I was back then – the biggest player in the biggest game. King of that sleazy, beautiful, fucked-up world.
But I wasn’t him anymore. And all I wanted now was to retire into a nice, quiet life, away from the dangerous game that made me a star among stars.
“Dee, those days are behind us, baby,” I said. “I want out. Don’t you?”
“Out? Tommy, who are you kidding? There is no out? Not for me anyway. What else am I going to do?”
“You’re doing this.”
“Yeah, and barely paying my bills.”
I had no reply.
“Tommy, if I don’t make some kind of a big score, something that gets me the hell out of here, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Her chin got shaky and a trickle of a tear dropped from her eye. It was a performance. But a damn good one.
It was a role she could play to perfection. The fragile hooker in need of a rescue, not like the other stone-hearted whores. She was different. Somebody who could crumble like a fortune cookie.Somebody who meant it when she moaned and groaned. Somebody you could feel something for. Something real. That’s what made her the most skilled hooker in town. It’s also what made me break my one and only rule. The pimp’s version of not getting high on your own supply. Yeah, that’s right. I fell in love with Dee. A bad move, but there was no back peddling from it now. There was only surrender.
“Yeah, baby. I’m with you,” I sighed.
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” she said, easing back into the shadows. Next day I was right where she wanted me. And why not? She was my Dee.
We met at the food court on my lunch break and without delay, dove into a gripe session regarding the peculiarities of our workplace. We agreed that we’d seen enough ruffles for eleven lifetimes and that ‘iambic pentameter’ crap they made us speak to customers policy was too stupid for words. But the small talk died when Wes strolled up to us.
He had that apprentice inmate look I’d recognized from the joint, the look of a young buck searching for a face to bury his fist in. At Willy World he played Iago to my Othello; in the joint we would have called him a cutter.
“You talk to him about… the thing?” He asked Dee.
“I’m getting to it,” Dee sighed.
Lead-heavy glances all around. The glances of three people not sure who they should trust.
“They’re having this thing next week, the fat fucks who run Willy World,” she started. “A little informal after hours gathering in the basement under the food court.”
Wes jumped in. “Same story every year: they have these big investors over for a drink and a little strip show. Usually a poker game too,”
“Everybody knows about it, but nobody talks. It’s kind of illegal and shit,” Dee added.
Then Wes said, “Thing is, these guys come with cash just pouring out of them, begging to get robbed.”
“And that’s where I come in?” I asked.
“That’s where we come in,” Wes Corrected.
Dee said, “I’ve been checking out their routine for years now – even worked security for them one year. My supervisor Mike is the guy who puts it together. It’s not hard to get him to spill some secrets after a few cocktails,”
Wes said, “This should be an easy score. In, out, gone in three, maybe four minutes. We get somebody who wants to be a hero, we put him down. You cool with that?” Wes asked.
Dee answered for me: “He’s cool with that,”
Wes then broke down the blueprint. Me and him were supposed to rush in, guns drawn, and empty the place then get out in time for Dee to roll to the exit in the getaway ride. I had no qualms with the plan. The math added up. But something still shook me to the core – and kept on shaking even as Dee strolled away.
Wes studied his shoes for a moment, like somebody scraping up the courage to deliver bad news. “Look, about Dee…”
“It’s just… I don’t know about this Mike thing. I mean, can we trust her if she’s so friendly with this guy?”
This Mike thing?The man hadn’t even entered the picture. Then all of a sudden, he pushed everybody else to into the backdrop.
“You may want to watch her,” Wes said. “That’s all I’m saying.”
I nodded and shrugged as he left me alone with my uncomfortable thoughts. I shot my gaze into the distance, checking out Dee’s pasted-on smile for a few customers. It had never before occurred to me to wonder what was happening behind that friendly grin. The tricks were tricks. It was her job to jive them. But not me. I was her man, her big daddy, her meal ticket. But things had changed. And maybe she had changed with them.
I decided that if I was going to move ahead with the plans, I’d do it with both eyes wide open, trusting nobody. Not even Dee.
It started on a clunky note, a stumble. Wes bumped into a wall in the hallway as we edged toward the room. Stealing a glance through a side window we saw them all freeze into statues. But by then we’d seen all we needed to see:
Three empty suits – all drunk – awaiting lap dances.
A chubby stripper, too coked up to qualify as a worry.
A security guard, giddy and stupid.
Mike, less drunk than his buddies, but not a dude you’d worry about having to fight. Too skinny and nerdy to do any damage.
“The hell was that?” one of the suits asked. Heads swiveled. Eyes nearly popped from their sockets.
But no panic from us. So long as the choreography’s tight, the dance can survive a little clumsiness. We lost the element of surprise but regained it soon enough when we stormed inside with a couple of toys: my Lugar, wes’ sawed-off forty-five.
“We want everything you got and we want it now!” Wes announced.
We had them jolted them into instant sobriety. Obedience quickly followed. The stripper surrendered her tip money. The suits emptied their wallets. But something was moving the wrong way. The room seemed to tilt towards an uncool quiet.
Everything blurred into chaos when the security guard found the right open moment to fire a shot – it missed us, but kicked us off balance. The stripper’s scream didn’t help. Mike dashed behind a desk, drew a gun.
Wes took the security guard out; I shot the stripper in the knee cap, but that only made her scream louder. Only one way to take care of that. Wes put a bullet into her chest and swung to greet the suits.
“So we’re gonna’ have to do this the hard way, huh?” he barked.
Three more shots, three dead suits. Wes turned back to me. A lifted eyebrow seemed to ask if he did good. But my gaze was locked on Mike.
“What the hell is going on?” Dee called from outside. She arched her head in the doorway to spy the unfolding horror show unfolding inside.
The distraction slapped us off balance again and Mike – too cocky, too clumsy – lurched ahead, gun half-assed drawn, right into my line of fire, took one to the belly, one to the crotch.
“Michael!” Dee Screeched, her voice laced with enough regret to tell me something I didn’t want to know.
I wish I could say that my next shot – the one that split Dee’s face into a slow motion gusher of dark red – came from a slipped finger, an ugly accident that snuck into the fog of echoing gunfire. But I’ve been alive too long to believe that. I’ve seen too Goddamned much.
I’m not sure how I lasted so long in the flesh-peddling trade without being haunted by those faces: The businessmen, the lonely boys, the Michaels. I guess I just pretended not to notice their scent all over Dee’s body. It was probably just a matter of time before the demon dog snapped free from its chain. I could only ignore those faces for so long.
With the room now shattered into silence, Wes and I turned inward, shoving our guns in each other’s faces.
“Why the fuck did you do that?” he demanded, veins in his neck bulging into garden hoses. “She’s on our side!”
“I know who she is!” I answered. And when he shoved the gun’s barrel up my nostril, I could only repeat, “I know who she is!”
Wes’ eyes widened, searching for an answer. All he knew is that I had killed a member of our team. So his gun stayed put.
And mine didn’t move either, because I felt like I’d just been set up like a bowling pin.
We stayed locked in a standoff for hours, him sweating like the rookie he really was; me wordlessly begging him to shoot first, begging for a way home. A way out of seeing those faces ever again.
The heat from the bonfire was intense. But the burning along his face, neck and arms was nothing compared to the pain in his heart.
He flicked another simmering glance toward the couple hidden amongst the shadowed rocks that linked the islet La Roca to the mainland. Jaw clenched, he rose from his crouched position beside the fire and stalked away from the group of rowdy teenagers gathered around the flames. His footsteps took him to where the waves crashed against the darkened shingle beach. With an instinct born of betrayal, he picked up a stone and hurled it into the fire’s rippling reflection, each successive stone landing further than the last.
The sound of footsteps crunching the stones behind him stayed his arm in mid throw. He tensed as a pair of warm hands snaked around his waist and slender arms encircled his torso.
“Miguel,” a voice whispered against his neck, “where’ve you been all summer? I’ve missed you. We could slip away; head back to the house while everyone is here on the beach.”
He tore himself from the embrace, careful to keep his back to her.
“Not now, Anna,” he replied between gritted teeth, his anger now directed at himself. Anna was a loose thread he should’ve taken care of weeks ago but he’d been too damned distracted.
Hands jammed into his pockets, Miguel strode off into the darkness. He needed to put as much distance as he could between himself and the whole lot of them: Anna, the rowdy drinkers now dancing around the bonfire and most especially, the couple hidden in the shadows.
So, Carlos – the player who gloated every Monday morning about his conquests from up and down the coast – had finally moved in on Daniella.
Daniella, the new girl from Barcelona, whose urban chic and quiet shyness had caught his attention from the first day she arrived at the only high school in Salobreña. He’d watched her, day after day, sitting on her own in the school grounds, the small-town locals too tight-knit to let the attractive stranger into their midst, with rumours of her snobby city ways passing from one pair of lips to another.
The snide remarks had brought back memories of his own cool reception when he first arrived in the seaside town two years ago to live in exile with an elderly relative. It was the prank he’d played on Javier Batista that had landed him in the Principal’s office for the last time, forcing his parents to carry through with their threats. It was still a mystery how they’d managed to link him to the posters plastered all over the school of the super jock’s face photo-shopped on to the body of a drag queen. He’d been so sure he’d covered his tracks carefully that time.
The first few months in Salobreña had been lonely, Miguel finding little in common with the residents of the backwater town. That is, until the day he watched a group of boys swim out to the tip of La Roca, scale the limestone cliffs to the top and leap from a height of fifteen metres into the warm Mediterranean waters below. They’d caught him looking and after a few nudges and whispers, Carlos yelled out to him.
“Hey, city boy, come and take a jump if you dare.”
Goaded by the challenge, he swam out to La Roca, scrambled to the top and heart pumping, took his first terrifying jump into the swirling waters below. It’d been his ticket into the herd, a rite of passage that had given him instantaneous acceptance.
It was the lingering sting of those memories that had prompted him to approach Daniella, captivated by the warmth in her caramel eyes, intrigued by the heart-shaped birthmark on the side of her neck. The easy flow of conversation had led to an offer to take her to see the town’s only attraction, the Salobreña Alcazar. One look at her slender figure silhouetted against the castle’s ramparts, her long chestnut hair blowing in the wind, precipitated another impulsive invitation.
“Any interest in going for a swim sometime?” he asked in what he hoped was an even and offhanded tone.
After the slightest of hesitations, she smiled and replied “Sure”.
Anna was quickly forgotten, relegated to the status of a spring fling, all his free time now spent with Daniella, swimming in isolated bays, walking the beaches, commiserating with each other about their forced exiles to the small town. In response to her explanation of her father’s transfer to the local branch of a national bank, he said that his parents had been transferred overseas, choosing to abandon him to the care of an unknown spinster Aunt, a story which had successfully garnered the appropriate sympathy.
He’d lain awake many a night into the early hours, basking in the knowledge that for the first time in his life, he knew what it was like to be the Javier’s and Carlos’ of the world; that this time, he’d been the one to land the girl.
Before long, spending his spare time with her was not enough.
The fact that there were no job openings at the restaurant where he worked had not stopped him from securing her a position there. It was child’s play really. A few whispered words, a nod or two at the appropriate moment, a purposely mixed up order and the boss dismissed José, already under repeated warnings. Then a casual mention of his friend, Daniella, and they were working together. The two of them … and Carlos.
Hands balled in his pockets, Miguel approached the stretch of beach that had been theirs. He stood at the water’s edge, his hand thrumming with the memory of the day he brushed his finger down Daniella’s neck and around her birthmark.
“An unusual shape,” he commented.
She pulled away. “You’d better beware,” she said with a teasing smile. “People with a heart-shaped birthmark can sense other people’s feelings, see their auras.” She narrowed her eyes. “Some even dream events before they happen.”
He’d laughed then, as casually as possible, asked if she was able to read him. She hesitated, then looked away and changed the subject. He shrugged off his unease, not wanting to believe that she could see into the emptiness that filled his soul.
The summer progressed, with passion mounting in his heart, but little more than friendship offered in return. His frustration grew but he waited, calculating that his efforts would pay off in the end. He had failed however, to factor in Carlos, failed to see the signs of something brewing between him and Daniella.
He kicked at the stones on the beach, jarring his foot in the process.
“Miguel, come on,” his friend Pablo shouted from the direction of the bonfire. “We’re swimming out to La Roca.”
He turned to the sounds of squeals and shouts. Shadowy figures race toward the shoreline, tearing off t-shirts, hopping out of shorts. The blood raced through his veins and he savoured the familiar rush that had hooked him from his first jump.
Then two shadows detached from the rocks and a shudder snaked its way up his spine. The bubbling surge of adrenalin was quickly replaced by something heavier, colder. Miguel watched as Carlos pulled Daniella toward the water, eager to join the others already swimming out to the rock. But Daniella hesitated, peering around, searching the darkness, searching for … him?
Miguel walked back toward the now deserted bonfire, his steps measured. He slowly unbuttoned his shirt, then dove into the waves. His strokes were purposeful, the water’s cool caress doing little to douse the fire that raged within. At the cliff face, he grasped a rock and hauled himself out of the sea. He climbed upwards, the jagged edges of the limestone biting into the soft skin of his palms and soles. He made it to the top in time to see Juan make a sign of the cross before taking the short run and hurling himself off the edge of the cliff. Four seconds passed before he heard the splash in the water below.
“Olé,” Juan shouted from down below. The group cheered.
Another of the daredevils stepped forward. Hand on his waist, he took a deep breath, blessed himself, then ran the few feet and plunged over the edge.
“Hey, Miguel, where you been?” Pablo asked. “You gonna jump tonight?”
Several heads turned in his direction.
He felt the force of Anna’s resentment rolling off her in waves. Carlos looked him in the eye, a slight mocking curve to his lips, a challenge in his crossed arms. And in Daniella’s shadowed features he saw not only guilt and embarrassment but something else, a hint of unease, before she dropped her gaze.
A muscle twitched in his jaw at the thought of the empty days to come, knowing with certainty that he’d lost her. He took a step forward and looked over the edge into the dark pool of water partially enclosed by the surrounding cliff face. The jump, intimidating enough in the light of day, was reckless at night. He suspected their bravado was spurred on knowing it was the last weekend of the summer break. That, and the large amount of alcohol consumed, as few would attempt the jump stone-cold sober. He stepped away from the edge.
“Not tonight, man,” he replied. Carlos sniggered. Hands clenched, he stepped to the side, a calculated move to clear the way for anyone else with enough machismo to take the leap.
No one else seemed in a hurry to jump, the guys teasing each other, trying to incite themselves to the challenge. Goose bumps rippled across his arms as a light breeze caressed the top of the La Roca. He watched, waiting, knowing it was only a matter of time.
“Come on,” Juan shouts from the waves below, “I’m getting cold. Anyone with enough cojones to join us?”
Carlos made his move, as Miguel knew he would.
“Make way,” Carlos shouted, before taking a few steps back.
Miguel watched as Carlos crossed himself. Then one step, two steps and he was running the short distance to the plummet over the edge.
Miguel’s eyes narrowed. It’d be easy, so easy, to extend his foot, to nudge Carlos off-balance, just enough to scare him, to inject an extra frission of fear that he might actually hit the side of the cliff on his way down. What he wouldn’t give to wipe that self-satisfied grin from Carlos’ face, to knock him off his pedestal, if only for a few minutes; to have him know what it was like to face his own mortality.
Miguel stood there, suspended in the moment, split seconds remaining to make his decision. Then his gaze suddenly jerked upward and he met Daniella’s eyes. Eyes widened in shock, her head moving side to side on her slender neck, the heart-shaped birthmark a dark stain on her pale skin. Her eyes held his as Carlos ran past, sailing over the edge. He remained captured by the horror reflected in her wide-eyed gaze, wondering how she could possibly have guessed at the darkness within him. It was only as she turned away, a trembling hand raised to her neck, that he recalled their conversation about her birthmark that day on the beach.
Miguel clambered back down the cliff face on shaky legs. What, if anything, had Daniella foreseen? Was it possible that there could have been a different ending to the jump?
He dove into the water and struck out towards shore, pummeling the waves in an effort to ease the growing frustration that he would now never know whether he’d had it in him to exact the vengeance that only minutes before had burned a hole in his heart.
Greed’s a high octane fuel no matter the age of the engine. I’m certain these two clueless kids hadn’t thought much about the consequences. Things hadn’t gone as they’d planned. After I arrived they went plumb off the rails.
They reek of bubble gum, acne-wash and fear. I’m certain the latter, not the cold, causes them to rattle their hand-cuffs. With Suzie bent over the hood like this, I get to enjoy the full scenic view of her backyard. This promise of spring makes me feel itchy all over. I cuff her too and wheel her around, only to have her eyes cut my lawn. I grip her shoulder, “Ain’t you a little old to be partying this late with teenagers?”
Suzie grinds her teeth at me. I laugh nervously and make her join the others on their knees. I step back. My flashlight bounces across each face. They’re quite a sight, like a Golden Chocolate Oreo. A white boy about seventeen or eighteen, Divine Johnson, the chocolate filling, is about the same age, and Suzie, well past her mid-twenties, completes the sandwich.
The white boy’s the first to crack, “You can’t detain us without reading us our rights.”
“Well,” I say, “you got the right to shut up, but I’d start squawking.”
He says, “We didn’t do—”
“Shut up Michael!” Divine snaps at him, “Don’t say nothing. He ain’t read us our Miranda Rights yet. He’ll have to let us go and he knows it.”
“It’s awful cold out here,” I drawl and squat even with her dark face, shining my light into her eyeballs. She winces but remains defiant. The smoke from her dual frontal exhaust pumps in rhythm. I’m certain if I linger too long at her crossing, she’ll crush my penny. “I hear the temp’s only gonna drop more. Now I’d rather be some place warm wouldn’t you? But we can’t until I figure out why two teenagers and a…” I pause on Suzie, “…a MILF are out here in the middle of nowhere—”
The boy grunts at me, “What does it look like Pig?”
I blind him with my light and say, “It looks bad whatever it is ya’ll were doing over—” I shine the light where the two girls once stood. It takes two scans to find the bulky sealed envelope on the pavement. Before I disrupted negotiations there had been a disagreement about the price. I heard Suzie saying, “Five grand’s too much.”
Divine wasn’t having any of it.
I collect the envelope and say, “What do we have here?”
A silence answers me.
I immediately took Divine for the brains between the teenagers. Especially when I tapped my flashlight against the driver side glass. I thought the boy was gonna leap out of his pale skin. He jammed his foot on the accelerator. The motor screamed as it revved. If the fool hadn’t left the car in park, he would’ve driven straight over the girls, probably killing them both. Part of me wishes he had, it would have made things easier. But…hindsight’s for assholes.
I break the seal and thumb inside, “This looks like three or four thousand dollars.”
“What?” the boy asks in mock surprise, “I don’t know nothing about none of that—”
“Uh-huh,” I sigh, “I’m going to search your vehicle. Don’t suppose you’d like to give me a head’s up on what I’m gonna find do you?”
The boy spits, “Fuck you pig.”
I sigh. Kids, right? No respect. “Can it Chief!” I snap, “I wasn’t born yesterday. Nobody carries around a bankroll without a reason. You don’t look like no master thief so I doubt you’re selling stolen art. Gimme s’more of your bullshit.”
Susie speaks, “The money’s mine.” I shine my light at her, watching those white teeth click against the cold.
“Go on,” I say and rummage through their car, “I’m listening.” It reeks of stale pot smoke and B.O. Fast food wrappers litter the floor and backseat. His phone sits between the radio and stick. I grab it and sigh. Kids, right?
Susie says, “I guess it don’t matter now—” she hesitates, “It’s hush money.”
I pan around one last time, lingering on the backseat. I notice two bags in the clutter. They’re stuffed with God knows what. I turn off the engine and pocket his keys, turning back to the penitents. I shine my light at Divine, “You do know extortion’s a crime don’t you?”
Divine sneers, “I don’t know what this white bitch is talking about.”
“The hell you don’t!” Susie half-shouts, “I don’t know how, but she’s got a recording of me and—“ Suzie directs this at Divine who eats a sour lemon and looks away. “—And…well…I’m in a compromising position.”
I look at them in disbelief, “You don’t say?”
Susie continues, “Go through our phones officer. You’ll see all the messages. She’s threatened to spread it around—“
“Okay, okay,” I say not wanting to reheat old hash. “I get the picture. This compromising…um…position? Must’ve been pretty bad to go through this trouble.” I ask, zeroing the beam on her. “You commit a crime or something?”
“No! I just don’t want it getting out, that’s all. It would jeopardize my job.”
“Well,” I sigh. The truth always stings, “Sorry to say this but it’s gonna get out now. All of it.”
Suzie’s eyes flare open, “It is?”
“Yes ma’am,” I say, “gonna be part of my report.”
“But I didn’t do any—“ Suzie gives it all she’s got, “she’s the one black mailing me!”
Divine turns slow and faces her, “You’re not innocent so stopping trying to suck this cop’s dick to get out of it.”
“It—” Suzie says, “I’m not! I mean—I didn’t do anything. I wouldn’t—”
“Go on and tell him Coach,” Divine says. “He’s right. If you didn’t do nothing why agree to pay up?”
“The young lady has a point,” I say. “This recording, is it audio or video?”
Suzie murmurs, “Audio.”
“So how does she know it’s you?” I ask.
Suzie regards me with disgust, tilts her head to the side and growls, “She just does okay.”
I nod, “This recording? I assume it’s here now?”
“I don’t know,” Suzie says. “It’s on her phone. That’s what the money’s—”
My beam lands on Divine, “Well?”
“You got it on you?”
Divine hesitates, “I ain’t saying nothing without a lawyer.”
Suzie quickly interjects, “If it wasn’t in the car she has it in one of her pockets.”
Divine stiffens against my hands as I search her. It’s in her back left pocket. I feel guilty touching the kid’s ass, but she brought all of this on herself.
“Well,” I mope, “looks like a case of she said, she said. I’ll have to take everyone downtown.”
“Is there some other way?” Susie pleads, “Maybe we can work out some kinda deal?”
In faux amazement, “Ma’am, you’re not trying to bribe an officer of the law are you?”
“Of course not,” she protests, “I’m only asking if there’s an alternative to arresting us.”
“Alternative?” I ask.
Suzie grovels, “I really, really, really don’t want this— I’m a good person—I really am—I just made a mistake! Nobody got hurt!”
“Nobody?” Divine snarls. “What about Big Rodney? Huh? What about him?”
“I don’t know any—”
“Don’t let her fool you,” Divine says. “She’s more dangerous than she looks.”
“Listen,” Suzie pleads, “I could split the money between you three. I don’t care about it—honest. This will ruin me—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say and wave my hands, “you’ll lose your job. I get it. What kinda gig is so important you’d pay a ransom to keep it?”
Suzie demurs, “I’d rather not say.”
I snort, “You expect me to cut a deal with someone who won’t even tell me her job?” I shake my head at her, “I think she’s right about you. You are dangerous.”
Suzie pouts, “It’s complicated I don’t—”
Divine blurts out, “She coaches high school basketball.”
Suzie winces and I counter, “High school? Here I was thinking you were someone important.”
“It is important!” She cries, “It’s a tough job.”
I smirk, “Yeah, keep telling yourself that. School huh? Well…I think I can pretty much guess what’s happened. Was it drugs?”
“No,” Divine says glaring at Suzie.
I ask, “Was it alcohol?”
“Wrong again,” Divine says flat.
“Well then,” I smile to keep from laughing, “it must’ve been sex.”
Divine grunts, “You’re damn right.”
“Oh my!” I say, “Ma’am you do know having sex with a student is highly illegal.”
“It wasn’t a student,” the boy giggles. “It was with another teacher.”
“Wait?” I ask, “It’s a recording of two consenting adults?”
He’s uncertain and says, “Well, yeah.”
I say, “That ain’t a crime.”
Divine smirks, “They were fucking in the boys bathroom at school.”
I wrinkle my nose. Something about the way she says it is unsettling.
Divine continues, “My cousin caught ‘em doing it. He made the recording. They must’ve found out somehow, because twenty minutes later he got hauled off in an ambulance.”
“What the hell?” I chastise Suzie, “What’s wrong with you?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Divine’s desire for revenge consumes her good judgement, “I told her if she paid me off I wouldn’t share the file with anyone else.”
“Well did you?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “I should’ve though. This dirty bitch sucks at coaching and doesn’t deserve to—”
“Shut up!” Suzie shouts at Divine.
“I won’t either,” Divine hardens and then gives herself away. “Look for yourself, it’s all on my phone. This bitch’s gonna pay for what happened to my cousin.”
I nod slowly at Divine then at Suzie who smiles back, shuddering in the cold.
I swipe across the phone and I’m in. I press play. In the wind, Suzie’s moans are barely audible. I switch it off, “That’s awful,” I say, “a damn shame too.”
“What is?” Divine asks.
“About your cousin,” I say, “you really think this woman did all that?”
“She had help,” the boy says, “whoever’s sticking it to her put Rodney in the hospital. They say he may not make it through the night.”
My flashlight points at the pavement, “There’s one thing that bothers me about this story.”
Divine says, “Every word’s the truth.”
“I don’t doubt that,” I say. “My problem’s with motive. If you knew all this, why didn’t you go to the police yourself?”
The boy sneers, “Fuck the police.”
I flash him again, “Watch your language son.”
Divine shrugs, “We needed the money.”
“What for?” I ask.
The boy pipes up, “We’re moving—to California.”
“Hmm,” I picture the bags in their car. “Running away?”
“You could call it that,” Divine says.
“The cops around here got problems with us,” the boy says, “the cops and our parents.”
Divine agrees. She smiles and for the first time tonight I see she’s truly a beautiful young woman. She speaks with relief, “Officer, until tonight, you’re the only cop in this shitty town that’s ever been fair to me and Michael.”
I squint at her. My heart goes bump, bump, bump. “You don’t say? Why would anyone bother a couple of crazy kids like you?”
The wind unsheathes again, slashing us with misty knives.
The boy beams, “Weeeeeellll, I got caught doing something—”
“You weren’t supposed to be doing?” I ask.
“Yeah,” the boy says and nods a shoulder at Divine. “Apparently one of them things was having a black girlfriend.”
Divine’s mouth wrinkles with empathy or pity, I can’t tell.
“Well,” I say, “running away ain’t the answer. No matter how far away you get, you’re still gonna be you.”
“I’m gonna change my name,” the boy says and nods, as if that solves everything. Moron.
I extract the keys for the handcuffs, “I guess I’d better take ya’ll downtown so we can get an official report.”
“Are we under arrest?” The boy asks. “I can’t have another one or my probation officer will send me to county.”
I don’t answer him. I’m already unlocking Suzie’s cuffs.
I should’ve seen it coming. Once she gets a hand free she lunges at Divine. There’s a loud crack as Suzie belts her in the mouth. Divine, completely defenseless, crashes backwards into the car. But Suzie keeps swinging. It takes everything I got to pull her off the girl. I have to drag Suzie several feet away and drop her like a bad habit.
“That little bitch! I could kill her!” Suzie screams.
I whisper and hold her tight, “Chill out it’s almost over. We got what we came for—”
“Yeah? That’s easy for you to say! Didn’t you hear her? She’s going try to pin her cousin on me.”
“No she won’t,” I say. “I won’t let it happen.”
“What are we gonna do with them huh?”
“They’re kids,” I say, “we’re the adults here and we’re gonna do what adults do.”
She snarls, “What’s that?”
I smile, “We’re gonna teach ‘em a lesson they’ll never forget. Now you stay put and act like the cuffs are back on.”
I leave her and return to the boy, kneeling over Divine. His voice cracks, “Is she dead man?”
I squat and check her pulse. There’s a bump, bump, bump; I wish I could say I felt relief, “No she’s still alive.”
“We need an ambulance man!”
I turn and face him, “Calm down, everything’s gonna be okay. I’ll radio it in—”
The expression that seizes his pale mug says it all, “You…you…what happened to your mustache?”
I’d never been a very convincing actor. A review of my turn as a tree in a school play was less than wooden. I’m just no good at being anybody but myself. I knew the boy was dumb but damn, I can’t believe it took them this long to figure it out. Hell the silver badge on my shirt reads booty inspector. The mustache I’d taped above my lips, hangs by a hair and when I touch my face it falls off. Damn it Suzie! She must’ve jarred it loose. I don’t got time to point fingers because the boy’s already on his feet, “You’re not a cop—I know you—you’re Mr. Sax from the high school!“
There’s a brief moment when what he says registers in his thick skull. The light goes off and immediately he bolts away from me.
“Goddamn it!” I clamor, but wouldn’t you know it—the fool trips on his untied shoelaces, slamming face first into the car’s bumper.
He’s out cold. A stark reminder of how I dispatched Divine’s cousin earlier in the bathroom. “Shit,” I mutter, “just what I needed—more trouble.”
Suzie gives me the silent treatment all the way to her place. She’s probably thinking our tickets just got punched for the prison train to Siberia. I can’t say it bothers me too bad. My mind’s chugging along with the ins-and-outs of our next stop. Every mile I make forward somehow switches my track sideways. I know this is no way to run a railroad. The switchman’s gotta break in our favor. I pull into Suzie’s driveway and hit the button for the automatic garage door.
She finally thaws, “What the hell are you doing? We can’t bring ‘em here.”
“You know another place with a garage and no questions?”
“I don’t want them here,” she bristles, “I don’t care where, it just can’t be here!”
I shake my head, “We’re running out of time and options.”
“You were just gonna teach ‘em a lesson…we agreed to it.”
I tighten my grip, “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
“I never agreed to bring ‘em here. Never ever!”
Despite her protest, I pull into the garage and kill the headlights. “Look baby,” I say, “the way I see it, we got no other choice. Maybe we did before you went all Wonder Woman on Divine’s face, but now—”
“I…I…I…” She stammers, “I don’t care, I’d do it again if given the chance. She had it coming—I was All-State in basketball.”
I lean back in my seat, admiring her profile in the soft dash light, “What would you have me do with them? It’s too risky to leave ‘em back there, they might involve the real police.”
“No they wouldn’t,” she says, “didn’t you hear how much they hate cops?”
“That’s just tough talk,” I say. “Besides after you double-crossed them. They might consider it an option. Or worse, they inform the school-board. Then where would we be? Tough to land a teaching gig after the world knows you’ve assaulted a student.”
“Me? I…” she stops and shakes her head. “You! What about you? There’s two boys knocked senseless because of you.”
“Both were accidents,” I say. “Big Rodney slipped on a wet floor and this other kid tripped on his—“
“You honestly expect me or anyone else to believe that horse shit?”
“It ain’t horse—Look I—”
“You’re the one that handed me an envelope of newspaper headlines instead of real money. We could’ve paid them off and had this settled. But no. You had to play fast and loose with everything and now we got two kids unconscious in my backseat!“
She’s furious and wants to cry, but something’s damming up her water works. I think I know why too.
“Suzie,” I say gently, “remember, we’re on the same team. If we stick together, there’s still a way out of this. For both of us.”
Her eyes glow like swimming pools at me, “How so?”
I glance back at the sprawled students. We’ve opened a box that’ll never shut again. No matter how hard we jam down on the lid. We’ve got nothing to lose, “I say we rough ‘em up.”
Suzie groans, “What good will that do?”
“Well,” I smile, “it’ll let ‘em know we mean business. Then we’ll ship ‘em off to California. If we give ‘em a few bucks, they won’t look back either. You’re probably right, they’re not going to the police. What foot could they stand on if they did? Do two wrongs make a right? I don’t think so baby. Besides,” I lower my voice, “you’ll feel better if you can get a few more punches in—”
“No I won’t,” she says, “I already feel awful about it—”
“You could’ve fooled me baby. You throw a mean jab.”
Suzie’s cracks a smile my way, “Yeah? I did hit her pretty good huh?”
“You knocked a tooth out at least. Maybe more.”
“Yeah?” She pictures it, “yeah I probably did. I’ve never done anything like—It’s—” I know it before she says it, “—a rush. You know what I mean?”
I grin, “It’s limitless you—”
She finishes my thought, “—Can do anything.”
The tip of her tongue parts her teeth. She holds it there as she leans in.
I start feeling itchy again. Her hand brushes mine. It’s no longer cold, but warm. She’s—warm all over. We’re kissing before I know it. Her hands cradle my face. She bites my lip. Our train ride through Siberia melts. All it took to fire her furnace was a blast to a student’s face. She wants me to board her caboose, and straddles me, but what made Suzie Palmer famous bumps against the car’s horn.
She yelps at the surprise. Then she’s giggling and kissing and unbuttoning my shirt. Our breath fogs the windows.
I pull away, “You sure you wanna do this out here? Now?”
I say, “this is how we got into trouble in the first place.”
Suzie pulls away sensibly, “Okay. Let’s go.” She grabs my lapels out of the driver side. It’s hard to ignore the cold of her garage as we kiss. Our smokey breath steams off us in clouds. A two-spined freak breathing fire. I get a hand free and press the button beside the door. There’s a mechanical sputter as an overhead chain clangs. She’s pulling me into her warm threshold, before our last exit automatically rattles shut.
We don’t get far, making sparks in the kitchen. Then more of the same down the hall. We’re all hammer and tongs. Finally, we collapse, leaving behind strewn clothes and debris. We lay there glowing, I don’t know how long, a pile on the floor, breathless and dreaming dreams in our solitary dusk. No one really knows the one’s they love. My mood feels tempered, as if we’ve reached the end of the line. Our last stop.
The sex was okay. She snores satisfied. It stops once I roll her over. We lay there, two forged spoons and sleep…
“Wake up! Goddamn you wake up!” Susie screams as the world blurs into focus.
“What?” I ask. My head still between dimensions.
“The car!” She screams, “We forgot about the car!”
My first thought? The kids awoke and stole away in Suzie’s Ford Taurus. I’m on my feet taking awkward steps down the hall, with one leg safe in my pants and the other desperate to join it. I finally get trousered but the smell hits me before I round the corner.
The burning monoxide stench of bottled exhaust. Suzie’s standing between the kitchen and the garage, still nude, shrieking and shivering against the chill. The air’s toxic, I cover my nose and mouth, “What’s going on?”
Her only answer, a wailing shout, “We forgot about—”
She doesn’t need to explain. I already know the truth before I see the idling car. The smoke is thick and I cough, cough, cough. How considerate of us, we’d left the motor running so they wouldn’t get cold. If the kids had moved at all, I couldn’t tell. The purple bruises the only color on their grey faces.
“How long were they out here?” I ask Suzie but she’s no longer there. I hear a clanging of chains. To my horror she’s returned and she’s pressed the button.
I shout, “What the hell are you doing?”
She’s a wreck when I stop the garage door half-way.
“I…I…” She stammers, “We have to let it air out.”
“Like hell we do,” I say, forcing her into the kitchen.
“But what about the kids?” She asks and I think, good Ol’ Suzie’s compassionate to the end. When I don’t affirm her concern her face falls. She stutter steps back a few feet. Luckily the wall keeps her from spilling to the floor and falling to pieces.
“C’mon,” I say, “get dressed we’ve got work to do.”
She doesn’t budge. I repeat myself but she only angles an arm, covering her goods and whimpers, “We killed them. We killed them. We—”
I give her milkshake a stir, “Get a hold of yourself!”
She congeals in my hands and leaves the room. I don’t press the issue. I finish dressing and make hasty arrangements for the departed. I gather supplies. A delicate situation like this deserves attention to detail.
I check on Suzie. She’s a monument on the edge of her bed. Completely still and naked.
“Suzie I…” She ignores my overtures. Her stare is a thousand yards away. “…I’ll come back and check on you when I’m done.”
I leave her there and experience a queer notion, like this is how I’ll always remember her.
Somedays, you just can’t get rid of a body.
I drive my two wards to the rail yard. I don’t know the train schedule, but at this point it doesn’t matter. One will be through here soon enough.
I position the corpses on the rails. I sit and wait. I don’t know how long. Part of me wants to make sure, you know, see it to the end. However another part of me knows I’ll never sleep again if I witness this.
Still, I wait.
I keep expecting their bodies to rise and stumble towards me, pointing fingers, moaning accusations, “You did this to us! You did this—”
But of course that doesn’t happen. Once you’re dead, you’re meat for worms or exhibit A or B or C. Nothing can change this either. Nothing—
Susie’s right. Juries don’t believe in accidental murder. The snot freezes in icicles at the end of my nose. I figure if I wait any longer, someone might catch me waiting or worse, I freeze to death myself. I get back in the car and drive home.
My wife’s asleep when I crawl into bed. She rolls over groggy. Her breath slaps me like sewer gas, “What time is it?”
“Dunno…didn’t mean to wake you Margaret I’ve…” I whisper and before I know it, I’ve wrapped my arms around her, “…couldn’t sleep so I went for a drive.”
She pats my chest and mumbles, “It’s okay honey. Go to sleep, it’ll be alright in the morning. You’ll see.”
The sun will rise in a few hours. I lay there waiting for the sound of a distant train. If it doesn’t come, I expect there’ll be a tragic discovery, an investigation, a deposition, a grand jury, a trial, a verdict, an appeal, a last meal, and finally I’ll be strapped down and given the darkness. I wonder if I’ll see a light. I weigh the odds and don’t think they’re in my favor.
Suddenly, there’s a soft hooting whistle in the distance. I must be imagining it. I hold my breath to hear it again. I don’t know how long I wait to exhale. The room’s a stuffy box. All I hear is my heart go bump, bump, bump. It’s a lonesome sound.
I guess I’m just jealous, those kids crossed big river together. Maybe they were even holding hands. I don’t know.
When I imagine the whistle blowing again — I weep.
To tell you how far I’d fallen, I was ordered by drug dealers to whack a neighborhood watchdog. In between the parole filter and the job search, I had this sit-down with a bad-ass named Benny Eggs.
Despite the handle, Benny wasn’t all that sunny side up with the mooch program. The bookies around here might like the ‘rope-a-dope’, where they tie a guy to the bumper of a car and drag him down the street, but not Benny. He preferred zapping deadbeats in the basement vats of a chemical plant over in New Jersey. Thanks, but no thanks.
I didn’t show up expecting an amnesty deal much less a payment plan. I owed the money, and planned to pay unless Benny forgot about it. Problem was, he didn’t.
The debt I owed Benny hatched before the big dive. I went up river owing the state three years, and Benny Eggs five grand. Behind my back, Benny cranked the interest dial. When the numbers settled, he fed me an eight large bill. At this moment, I couldn’t swing eight bucks.
Benny had a problem he needed taken care of. I was the chump to work the wheel, and tow him out. That’s when I learned I’d have to shoot and kill a German Shepherd dog. I told you Benny was the badass of this bunch.
One of Benny’s dealers was in diapers and bubble wrap gauzing stitches on his ass. You guessed right, the strike from a land shark. Benny skipped the police report, downloading the bad guy’s handbook for this one instead.
Drugs might be a dirty business, but it’s profitable. Most guys crushing it won’t enroll in night school or find another corner. Most can’t. They’re already called, and once you get your piece, it’s your pig farm along with the problems. You start moving around, you’re only looking for a fight.
In this town, that means hand to hand, house to house. It starts with the daylight shootings before the Ricochet Rabbits show up. Now you’re scraping kids and mail carriers off the street. The mayor cracks down, the riot gear marches in, and the place is a pedal to the metal Fort Apache.
The real bitch was in order to plug the dog, I’d have to hump dope. My luck, I’d bump into a narc. A real gas since I’m clean and done, not to mention the hot gun and Three Strikes program.
Anyway, the order of business was to meet Benny and hash our situation. The job was the job, and I was in. The money was a non-issue. No use in coming up with it now. If I did, I’d be up eight grand, keep my mouth shut, and split town after the deed.
I took a ride around the hood with Benny and his driver named Noodles. The company car was a street chopping, sidewalk shaking, black on black Hummer. From the inside, the rig floated like a magic carpet. On the outside, it screamed staff car, warning the soup halls and shelters the ghetto never filed for bankruptcy, enjoying a bull market, no less.
We watched a guy in a military-issued jacket, camo pants, black boots, and one of those bush hats strolling with a German Shepherd. If it were a search for Charlie mission in Vietnam, he wouldn’t have stuck out so much.
“That’s the cracker, right there. I oughta get out and cap that dog here and now,” Benny said. Sounded good to me. We could find another means to settle up.
The Shepherd walked down the sidewalk wearing a leather muzzle and a custom-made kevlar vest. The only thing I knew about German Shepherds were from prison. The dogs the deputies used to snap the jocks back in line, and chase down the ones cutting class. During orientation, I learned all about their bite. Schooled in pressure and pounds per square inch, I remembered thinking teeth aren’t so square.
The young ones in the playground swore the devil just walked by. You know all about kids and pups. Not this gig. The kiddies stayed glued to the see-saws and swings while the baby mamas blocked any incoming.
Before Noodles nodded the Hummer through a cross section, the dog noticed the covert sting, and stopped to stare at us grumbling past. Even through the jet-black tinted windows, I could see the eyes of the dog. It looked right at us.
Pissed to hell over the drought of his cash flow, Benny wanted the payback posted tonight. He ordered me to go character shopping while he bundled my care package.
I showed up later that evening in my best drug dealer outfit. I became whitey in the hood, acting all wannabe. Baggy sweat pants, work boots, camo jacket that fit like a tent. If it were leather, I’d look like the sidekick to Superfly. Oversized ball cap with the silver dollar gummed on the roof of the bill.
I found the parked Hummer without my Map To The Stars, pulled the rear door, climbed up and in. Benny handed me a Glock. Glad he had the brains to put a muffler on it. Some big piece of snuffy, custom made for a Lee Marvin comeback.
Benny also had pouches of heroin, crank, and coke he gladly forked over. Noodles navigated while Benny and I worked the back seat. In minutes we reached the area, and Noodles pulled over. By now the moon was full of juice, smearing up the night.
A few blocks later I was in Benny’s territory. I walked up and down the street, nice and slow. I had the pitching all right, just waiting on the bats to come around. They sure as shit popped in once I lapped the corners.
When the eyeballs in the shadows watched me rebound, they knew my ass was in the game and open for business. By my second turn, I smacked high cred, unloading a few bags. Still no dog or mountain boys.
All warmed up, I hit that kiddie park down the block. Once I touched the apron of the pathway, a voice called out from the bushes.
“Hey you,” he said. I turned, and didn’t see anybody. I doubted I was hearing things. I gave you my word, I no longer touch the stuff.
“Yeah you. The cat with the jacket,” the same voice called out again. I turned to gaze back at the speaking bush. No flames, only pitch dark.
“You got anything good?” He asked.
“What are you looking for?”
“Whatever you got. As long as it’s primo, I want it,” he said.
“Meet me by one of the benches,” I said.
As I turned up the walk, it was the Shepherd owner. He scooted from the hedges and darkness to cut my path further into the park. Bugshit weird, even for a drug deal.
“Could we do it at my house instead? I live down the street, and there’s too many cops around,” he said. Now he had me. What could I do? It made perfect sense, and be the best transaction one could hope for, if you’re a real gangsta. I followed him back to his bunk.
Now I’m really thinking of my end. Tossed into some kinky machine that will churn my ass into a month of Alpo. I started jonesing for Benny’s cannibal pots and pesticide baths over in New Jersey.
We entered a house that flunked the bait and switch test. Furniture from the Archie Bunker line fanned the parlor. The Colonial collection with armrests made of wooden paddles, nautical wheels etched in the fabric. Go figure. I stepped into a time warp on steroids.
On the way through, my heart stopped when I spotted the dog curled by a fireplace. Lazy blinks for the company, sedated to hell.
“Don’t worry about the dog. He won’t bite,” he said. Yeah right, I thought. I only wished for those foamy demo suits like the Michelin Man wears to stem the attack.
The dude lead me into the Kitchen of Tomorrow from the 1964 World’s Fair. It was kinda cool and funky if you kept the cheese radar locked up. The chairs had those muffin cushions with the metallic finish. We each broke wind once our asses splashed down.
Anyway, we had some dealing to do. Before the guy sampled, he wanted to spill some garbage on his mind.
“You like my dog?” he asked.
“Yeah, I guess. Why?”
“I trained him to hunt down niggers since he was a pup,” he said.
“I don’t get it?” I was getting warm, but needed to play him a little more.
“You know, Hitler was right. Damn was he a genius, and misunderstood…,” he started in.
Now I really got it. The muzzle was good eye candy, but the dog might bite black kids out in the wild. He was gaming the system. The dog provided the element of danger, while he toed the high road of superhero.
A mild tweaker at best, this was a recruit call. He pitched the movement, the local chapter, and cowboys they like to flag. He also invited me to next week’s up with the people.
I knew these guys from prison. Twerking for utopia by the white bread soundtrack. I won’t bore you with it, already detesting the bird. Time to bang out a better solution.
I never killed much, outside the lost and errant cockroach. But this guy, not the dog, had to go. Kill the dog, he trains another, and so on. Kill the man, the street is down to one devil dog. Canine services show up, defang it, reeducate, and ship it to some love sick kid up in Buffalo. By then the dog will have forgotten all about the brotherhood and be real again. Either way, I was on the clock. Only one of us could leave the building.
I pushed myself from the table, and dug a mitt into my pocket. I pulled the cannon, pointing it right at him. He lit up, stunned to shitsville. Most Nazis are moogs. Despite the ‘ideal’ make and model, they’ll never sport the horsepower to break from the pack. Except for the wizards and bikers, the leftovers are loud in the crowd dipshits.
His heart fluttered for Hitler, but his ass belonged to me. He started to hiss, cursing himself for letting his guard down. He didn’t even have a butter knife handy.
What they call the ‘yips’ on the golf course came over me. My damn hand wouldn’t stop vibrating. My skull gremlin pumped the gas, filling my head with helium. All dizzy, the moron across the table sprang three heads. Great. I tried to focus on the monkey in the middle. Before this gig made the bloopers show, I squeezed one off.
I delivered a minor league shank. Even at point blank range, my shaky grip nearly fucked things up. The bullet grazed his cheek and left through the window over his shoulder. The glass shattered, and the slug slammed the aluminum siding of the bastard’s tool shed.
Far from a love tap. It took enough skin to send him in shock and glued to the seat. I heard him cut a fart, just before the blood escaped his face.
The sequel made more sense, pelting his larynx. By now his blood washed the table top as if spilled from a gallon jug of Hawaiian Punch.
He grabbed his throat, gargled, and stared at me just like the police captain from the Godfather. I better make like Michael and finish this show. Despite my first rodeo, the guy was further out than in. The blood from his throat ran down his neck, soaking his shirt.
This is when I decided to go pro. Time to channel my inner grasshopper, settle down, and finish him off. I straightened out, stiffened up, and by my third take, I jacked it out of the park. I slugged the maniac between the eyes. I was Dirty Harry and the second coming of Shane, all wrapped up into one hot stuff homey.
The force of the strike sent him back as if gliding in a rocker. The front legs lifted off the floor, but not enough to topple him. The chair returned, and so did he. Only for a second before he spilled from the seat. His body dunked the tiles, and you could hear his dead bones rolling around from the impact.
By now there was a lagoon of blood on the floor. Whatever couldn’t level out began to pool. I scooped the shell casings, and buried them in a front pocket with my keys and subway fare.
I passed the dog on the way out. It got up, and scampered into the kitchen to figure things out. By then I was off the cursed property.
When I left the subway, my phone blinked back to life, and I called Benny Eggs. I told him all about the detour and where it went. Benny liked what he heard, and offered me a job. He said he’s short, and needs guys that could sell and think on their feet.
I told him thanks, but no thanks. I was all done with movements and brotherhood.
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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“Yes sir, number seven.”
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”