Captain Bleaker stood on the dock in the cold, wet predawn air, in front of his fishing vessel. He popped a menthol cigarette between his teeth and said, “I do it for one guy. Private. Nobody bothers me, long as I’m not chumming near shore.”
“Chumming,” George said under his breath.
“Don’t like sharks, George?” The captain smiled and popped a few aspirin without removing the cigarette. Sea lions barked from behind the fog. Captain Bleaker took a drag from his cigarette and looked west toward the dark horizon.
George showed him a duffel bag of cash.
“I take this, what’s to say I’m not dead next?” The captain flicked his smoke into the water.
“Men die, Captain. This guy, likes to go in the water with sharks, bad people want him. Me and my partner might be the best of the bad guys coming, and believe me, they’re coming.”
“I count it, what am I looking at?”
“Enough to help with a new boat or a new life,” Julien said. He blew warmth into his hands, the injured one already numb from the cold.
Captain Bleaker took the bag of cash and let the men board. “Ecclesiastes,” Captain Bleaker said. “She’s sound. Tough as she is old and she’s old as hell.” He lit another cigarette and walked into the cabin to count the money. He came out a few minutes later and said, “Off to the races.”
George looked over the railing. The cold, dark water swirled when Captain Bleaker started the engine — the smell of diesel churned his stomach.
“Don’t look at the water, George. Make you sick.” Captain bleaker stuck another menthol between his teeth, hardly finished with the last one. “No fun being sea sick.” He lit his smoke and looked toward the sky.
“Sea sick is bad times. Worse than anything I caught down in the Congo.” Julien pulled out a can of chewing tobacco, he offered some to George, who gave him the finger.
“You’ll be alright, Georgie.” Julien patted him on the back.
The old fishing vessel lumbered through the Nehalem Bay toward Fat Frank Biancollo’s second home. Light from the rising sun danced on the calm water. George trained his eyes on the thick grass along the shoreline. Now and then, a fish jumped.
“His place is two more houses up, starboard. That’s your left, George,” Captain Bleaker said.
George wanted a joint to help with the nausea, but a clear head was necessary. The engine rumbled to an idle and momentum carried them to the private dock of Fat Frank’s home — an expansive mid-century ranch with a croquet lawn that touched the shoreline. Three dogs came charging at them but stopped and ran back to the house at the sound of a high whistle.
“Malinois,” Julien said. “Mean fucking dogs.” He spit tobacco juice over the side and sheathed the long blade he’d taken out for the potential fight.
Fat Frank Biancollo walked toward them with purpose and confidence. In his youth, he was left tackle for Texas A&M. Snapped his femur in a bowl game. TV kept showing the footage over and over, his face screaming behind the facemask of the A&M helmet. That was twenty years ago, but now he barely had a limp.
“Captain,” he said. His mass swayed the floating dock.
“Frank,” Captain Bleaker said.
Frank looked at the two men on the boat then made eye contact with the captain.
“They got interest in killing the sharks not swimming with them,” Captain Bleaker said.
“Killing them?” Frank ticked his head sideways.
“Not today, Frank. Just showing them where to look.”
“I don’t really like that idea, Captain.” Frank moved closer to the vessel, again the dock moved under his mass.
“My ship,” the Captain said.
“Your ship.” Frank walked off to grab his gear. George wondered about the tanks, what they would look like, how to rig them.
Back at the motel the night before, Julien said that he had it figured out. “Up the C02, lower the 02, he’s dead.”
“How’s that kill him?” George asked. The fluorescent light from the motel kitchen gave off the hue of a white trash wedding on a midnight in July.
“Passes out under water, he’s still breathing.” Julien heaved his chest in and out then drank from a glass of red wine. “Fucks his blood up. He passes out. Drowns. He’s dead. It’s an accident.”
The boat rocked when Frank climbed aboard, his size even more apparent. George couldn’t help but consider sinking. He latched on to the railing and gave a weak smile. Frank glanced at him for a beat then moved on to the task of loading his gear.
Julien whistled and followed Captain Bleaker’s orders like a seasoned first mate. They pulled from the dock and headed to open sea.
Frank placed his gear in an aft corner near the cabin and started his inspection of the shark cage. The pulleys, the weight supporting bar. He moved on to the oxygen tanks.
George watched him like a predator stalking its prey. Julien stole glances — both wanted to get it over with.
George motioned for Julien to come in the cabin with him. Frank gave a sidelong glance at Julien’s injured hand. The open sea rocked the boat more than George thought it would. His stomach flipped. Julien sat across from him at the small table in the galley cabin.
“I say we kill this fucker now, dump him in the water,” George said.
“The accident angle? That’s out?”
“I don’t like being on the water,” George said.
“No accident, no pay.” Julien looked off toward the disappearing landscape. “We kill him now, do it our way — we piss off Mr. Sands, his crew comes for us, nobody wins.” Julien put in a fresh chew of tobacco. “Suck it up, George. We need the cash and don’t need the headache.”
“You can get to the tanks with that big fucker mad-dogging us?” George asked.
Julien spit into an empty beer can. He smiled, knowing it would give George a little more nausea. “Hand is killing me,” he said.
The cabin door slammed open. The two men looked up to see Fat Frank Biancollo holding a Smith and Wesson Governor.
“You mind telling me why there’s a scatter pistol pointed in our direction, big fella?” George rested a Beretta .45 on the table.
Frank motioned to the Beretta. “Put that on the ground, slide it over to me.”
“You shoot us, then what?” George shifted in the small bench seat.
“Slide that pistol over.” Frank’s massive frame took up most of the doorway.
“That pistol you got there, is it loaded with .410 shells or .45 long?” Julien asked.
“You here because of Mr. Sands?” Frank asked.
“That scatter pistol, you loaded it with .410’s, turn us into ground meat, turn this table into kindling. You got nerve for that?” Julien smiled just enough to show his gold tooth.
Julien pounced. He buried a serrated blade into Frank’s Vena Cava and twisted. Frank made the sound of a man unprepared for death — fear, pain and realization in one breath. Julien cut down and to the left, splitting Franks Diaphragm, opening the Vena Cava even more. As the big man spasmed for breath, Julien and George pushed him backward through the doorway. He dropped the pistol, fell onto the deck of the boat and bled out. The grey Oregon sky over the North Pacific faded to black for Fat Frank Biancollo. No accident.
George kept missing the shoulder joint, hitting the thick Humerus bone instead. He went for another swing with the small hatchet and cracked the clavicle.
“Have to get them at the joint,” Captain Bleaker said from somewhere.
“Just get us to the sharks,” George said.
“Why can’t we just slide him off into the water when we get there?” Julien pushed back from the body, blood up to the elbows. “This guy is a lot of meat to deal with.”
George stopped and sat back against the railing of the old fishing boat. “We can’t lift this big bastard, especially with your hand like that.”
Julien looked down at his bandaged hand, his index finger missing thanks to the henchmen of Mr. Sands. With his good hand, he thwacked a leg and it popped off below the knee. George went for the other arm. Two good whacks and it popped off. Julien had each leg cut into four pieces by the time they reached the sharks, and Frank was nothing more than a butchered hunk of meat on the deck of the boat. His eyes were open and Julien closed them with the gentle touch of a friend, then he started in on Frank’s teeth with a ballpein hammer.
Captain Bleaker put the boat in idle position. The swell was growing and the stagnant ship rocked hard.
George heard the first bump of a shark before he felt it.
“That a shark bumping the boat?” George clutched the railing. He wanted to move to the cabin.
“Dump him and let’s get.” Captain Bleaker marveled at the clear sky while he lit a cigarette.
“You heard the man,” Julien said. He started chucking limbs overboard.
“Sharks don’t do that, right?” George said. He threw an arm from where he stood, too far away, it hit the railing and bounced back onto the deck.
“Strange,” Captain Bleaker said through the menthol between his teeth. “Strange indeed.”
“Fuck.” George braced for another bump, held the railing and tried to lift the bloody torso with one hand. “Christ, he’s heavy.”
“Dead weight is always heavier.” Julien lifted the torso onto the railing.
George looked down at the water. Julien slipped in the blood. The massive fish, dorsal fin circling, turned toward the boat, blood dripped into the water.
George slipped. Frank’s torso fell on top of him.
Julien laughed. It was too much, him and George laying on a bloody deck, surrounded by sharks. George squirmed out from under the mass of flesh. Another bump, harder this time.
“Getting more aggressive,” Captain Bleaker said. “Blood in the water.” He stole a nip from his flask. “Get the rest of that body in the water. Great White feeding frenzy isn’t something I want to be a part of.” Captain Bleaker lit another smoke.
Julien heaved. George heaved. The rest of Fat Frank went over in a splash of red churning ocean. Teeth and slapping fins finished him off.
George couldn’t keep from watching the sharks. The size of them, the teeth. Two, maybe three of them now. He threw up on the deck, too afraid to let it go overboard, afraid he’d be taken in the water among the frenzy.
George and Julien unhooked the cage. It sank with slow determination to the bottom of the cold North Pacific.
“Guess it’s no accident.” Julien chucked the tanks over the side. He used sea water to clean the blood from the deck — it could have easily been fish blood — a big fish.
Captain Bleaker stood on the dock in the cold, wet predawn air, in front of his fishing vessel. He popped a menthol cigarette between his teeth and said, “I do it for one guy. Private. Nobody bothers me, long as I’m not chumming near shore.”
Suffocation. Invasion. Intoxication. Addiction. Hope. Pain. Misery. Abrasion. Deceit. Deception. Disappointment. Disaster.
Noise. From the moment he wakes until he is finally able to fall asleep at night, there is noise.
Whiny advertisements and complaints as proclamations, answers with solutions lacking validity or support, and someone broadcasts something far too personal in an insincere attempt at imaginary friendship, yet another disinterested participant.
Everyone shouts over each other to like or sell or hate or ask or recommend or plead or bitch or buy.
Submit to the sound of their voice, swoon over their command of the written word, everything appeals to an indifferent audience. Everyone waits for the quiet, finally, to corrupt with their own bullshit. They can voice an opinion, and distracted strangers might listen, but only long enough to remember something else to grumble about.
The alarm sounds at five in the morning, a smartphone set to vibrate, the buzz from the nightstand the closest to quiet he will experience today. Without waking his wife or children, he pads to the bathroom where he shits as he checks his email and bank account, then hops into the shower to shave, shampoo, and rub one out. His only preparation for the painful day ahead. Because it is Tuesday. Afterward, he grabs a mix of clothes from the dryer and the floor, a pair of boxers from the hamper – and with a quick sniff – they pass the test. It is only work anyway.
The assault begins as soon as the car starts, the day comes in bursts.
“…accident not your fault…”
“…problems with erectile dysfunction…”
“…get rich selling real estate…”
“…struggling with addiction…”
“…God hates you…”
Then work as usual.
“…hate this place…”
“…can’t do my job…”
“…call the union…”
“…employment has been terminated…”
And back home.
Stuck in traffic tomorrow, the noise swells to fill his ears and spill out; the overflow swallows him and muffles a cry for help as he drowns. He cannot think. He cannot breathe. Everything questions and contradicts and complains to interfere with the quiet.
The light burns red, the gearshift clunks to park before the brake is activated, and he steps from the vehicle.
The trunk opens with a small click, and everything is muted. The noise moves to the background, bubbling violently just beneath the surface, as he looks to the pain relief stored there. A working prototype for the new cure, resting comfortably in the cool silence.
After a few beautiful moments, even his mind doesn’t respect the quiet. Another victim of corporate brainwashing and globalization, it vomits disposable claims into the brain of a perfect consumer.
“…fast and effective…”
“…as seen on TV…”
“…same day shipping…”
“…safe and simple…”
“…buy online or in-store today…”
“…money back guarantee…”
“…your friends will respect you…”
“…your family will appreciate you…”
Definitely not new, but redesigned for a better overall experience. Pain Blast! With a fucking exclamation point. That means serious business.
The cure is beautiful. Breath-taking.
Black plastic and steel run from the ported barrel to the tactical handgrip, light, for the twelve gauge shells it uses. The eight-round magazine tube has been replaced with an inexpensive, yet extremely effective modification. Greater capacity, and straight out of a fucking comic book. A twelve round drum and a vertical foregrip, rapid reload simplified, the opportunity for more mushrooming slugs to be carried and fired quickly. When you really need to blow a motherfucker in half with one shot.
But he only needs one. People talk too fucking much. Four F-bombs and the fucking ellipses. Five. He is a hypocrite.
The cool steel muzzle sits silently under his chin, and he closes his eyes against the noise.
I killed my husband by pushing him out the haymow door. He didn’t have no idea I was gonna do it. He was up there straightening the hay bales left over from winter. It was a fine spring morning the day I done it. I was downstairs in the barn sweeping out the feedway and the idea just come over me. I climbed up the ladder to the loft and pushed him right out. He landed on a pile of rocks we was saving to fix the foundation with. The fall broke his neck and crinkled his head pretty good. I climbed back down and finished my sweeping. Then I fed the chickens, gathered my eggs, and started dinner for the chil’ren. They only had half a day of school that day and when they come home I sent them out to fetch their pa to eat. George is the one who found him. George is the oldest, after Henry. George come running into the house screaming that his pa was dead. I sent Jenny around the road to use the neighbor’s telephone to call the doctor. The doctor said their pa broke his neck and crinkled his head pretty good. No one ever suspected I was the one who done it. We buried him with a fine Christian service and that was that. I’d have liked it better if he’d had some insurance, though.
Agnes Hazlowe is seventy-four years old. She dips snuff and is bald from a childhood bout with typhus. She wears a nightcap, even on Sundays when she dresses for church. She does not sleep well and__when looked in on at night__is often found awake and staring up at the ceiling. Her eyes are the size, shape, and color of ripe blueberries.
Jenny! You stay away from that springhouse before you fall in and drown. That’s what I used to yell at her. If I yelled it at her once that summer I yelled it at her a hunderd times. Stay away from that spring, I’d holler. But Jenny didn’t listen. She was out there looking at herself in the water. She thought I didn’t know what she was doing, but I did. Mothers have a way of knowing things. I knew she was looking to see what that new boy from around the road saw. I knew she snuck off to see him on the sly, too. Letting him put his hands on her and her liking it. I knew. I could see it in her eyes. The girl had no modesty. No sense of shame. Between times with that boy she’d sit in the springhouse looking at herself in the water. Making herself pretty. She’d fall in and drown one day, I told her. But Jenny never listened. She did fall in, too. One Saturday. And I held her under with a mop handle until there weren’t no more bubbles. Henry and George had gone to the store for me. When they come back I sent them out to look for their sister. George is the one who found her. George is the oldest, after Henry. George come running into the house screaming Jenny was dead. I sent Henry around the road to that new boy’s house to use the telephone and call the doctor. The doctor said she must have hit her head on something and drowned. They never once thought I helped. We had a very nice funeral. That new boy from around the road cried and cried and cried. But I knew it was only because he missed touching Jenny.
Agnes Hazlowe drools from one corner of her mouth. Cataracts have formed in her left eye, giving it a milky look and causing her to squint. She sits most days with a Bible clutched in her lap. When left unattended she fingers a tattered, velvet-ribbon bookmark imprinted with the words Jesus Loves Me.
Henry was too much like his pa. That was the problem. He begun to bossing George and me around like things had become his responsibility of a sudden. He prob’ly did it because he was the oldest. He started to cussing sometimes, too, and he was all the time after me about frittering away my egg money. That’s what he called it whenever I walked down to the store. Frittering away my egg money, he’d say. I told Henry he was getting to be just like his pa. He thought I meant it as a compliment. That’s why I burned him up. I told him and I told him he was getting more like his pa every day. But Henry didn’t listen. So I finally burned him up. He was out to the barn currying his horse. We was in the middle of a hot, dry summer that year. It was the driest summer anybody could remember. Fires was very common. I went out to the barn and hit him over the head with a chunk of firewood. Then I closed up all the doors and piled loose straw against one wall. I thew a lit match in the straw and the barn went up like you’d soaked it with kerosene. Woof, and just like that it was all flames. The fire roared so loud it hurt my ears. I never even once heard Henry scream. I went back to the house and laid down for my nap. George is the one saw the barn burning. George was the oldest, after Henry. He come running into my bedroom yelling that the barn was on fire. I sent him around the road to telephone for help. Volunteer firemen come and used water from the well to wet down everything in sight, but they was too late to save the barn. They didn’t know Henry was in there till they poked around in the ashes. Everybody knew how Henry smoked cigarettes. They never once thought the fire was set. I used some of my egg money to buy him a nice headstone.
Agnes Hazlowe has all the infirmities of her age and sex. Her medication is measured and constant, dosed with and between her meals. Her speech is monotonous, but not slurred, and she speaks as if from a prepared text. While she talks she unconsciously plucks at the bodice of her dress with arthritic, grapevine-knotted fingers.
George is a good son. He’s the oldest, after Henry. He always minded me and still does. He pays all my bills so I don’t have to fret over them. I have a little money of my own, but George won’t take it. He makes me spend it on myself. He’s not a bit like his pa. George is a good child. Not like Jenny and Henry. He’s got a daughter, though, and she’s been a trial to him. Her name is Susan. She’s real snotty and has a smart mouth. George makes her come visit me sometimes, but I can tell she hates it. Susan doesn’t like to visit her granny. She doesn’t wear any underclothes, either. She says she does, but I know better. She wears tight pants and puts her hair in pigtails. She wears makeup, too, and her only thirteen. She always has a lollipop stuck in her mouth. Slurping on it and talking around it in that snotty voice of hers. When George makes her come visit she sits in that chair and stares at me like I’m a fly on the wall. Just sits and stares with that lollipop sticking out her mouth. Susan, I tell her, Susan, you’re indecent. Put some underclothes on. Don’t look so trashy. She just laughs at me. Susan, I tell her, one of these days you’re gonna fall down with that sucker in your mouth. Fall and choke to death. That thing’ll get shoved down your throat and you’ll strangle, girl. It’ll be the best thing for your parents, too. Save them a lot of trouble when you get older. You’re gonna cause your pa heartache, Susan, and don’t I know it. That’s what you’ll do, cause him heartache. Unless you choke to death first. When I tell her that she just laughs at me. She won’t get it shoved down her throat, she says. She says she knows better. I know better, too, but she won’t listen to me. She don’t believe her granny.
Agnes Hazlowe picks at her food. She talks to whoever is nearby, seeming not to care whether they listen. She fantasizes, the doctors say, and is unable to differentiate reality. She is often recalcitrant, almost childish. She suffers from progressive senility, the doctors say. Recalcitrance and senility, though, are standard diagnoses for the aged. Although difficult to manage at times Agnes is__the doctors assure us__otherwise well mannered and harmless.
Do me a favor, won’t you please? On your way out tell that cleaning lady I need my floor waxed again. Tell her she’s got to wax it every single day like I told her. The slick wears off so quick when she don’t wax it every day. Tell her I want it waxed every single day between now and Friday. Friday’s the last day Susan is coming to visit her granny. And thank you for stopping by. You be real careful on your way out, hear? That floor gets slippery as sin when it’s been waxed and I wouldn’t want you to fall and hurt yourself.
‘I met him on a Monday and although my heart didn’t stand still, per say, it certainly skipped a beat or two, I can tell you,’ said Martyna. She giggled. ‘But then that was Philly Bailey. He was a charmer, alright. Not to everyone’s taste I know, a bit rough around the edges and that. But he always had something about him. A twinkle, you know?’
Martyna finished her gin and tonic. She sucked on an ice cube.
‘He was certainly a hell of a ladies man,’ said Ryan. ‘I’ll give him that.’
Ryan was feeling uncomfortable. He couldn’t relax. Astros Wine Bar was filling up with after-work office drones and although it wouldn’t have bothered him back in his boozing days now that he was on the wagon he found that he had less and less tolerance for pissheads. He’d successfully survived Philly Bailey’s wake without the urge to break his three year dry run but now he wasn’t so sure of the strength of his resolve.
For one thing, Martyna was looking well-fit in her little black dress and he wondered whether maybe he should try to comfort the grieving widow. Maybe a drop of Dutch courage would help oil the wheels of opportunity.
‘Can I get you another drink?’ he said.
‘Don’t mind if I do,’ said Martyna.
Ryan went over to the bar and pushed through the crowd. He was a big man and had no problems getting to the front of the queue. He moved directly in front of one of the barmaids.
‘What can I get you, love?’ she said.
‘Gin and Tonic, please pet,’ he said.
‘Ice and a slice?’ she said.
‘Yes, please,’ said.
His heart beat quicker.
‘Er, a pint of John Smiths will do nicely,’ he said, feeling as if he were falling into a void.
Cokey hadn’t thought the kid would shoot. Hadn’t thought that a kid barely out of his teens would even know how to use a gun. But there he was lying on the kitchen floor while a snotty nosed kid stood over him with what looked like a Glock. The kid was holding the gun like a cop, too. Gripping it with two hands, legs spread. Giggling.
Cokey cursed himself for not casing the house properly before he decided to rob it. He’d let greed get the better of him. That and his desperate need for a fix.
What was weird, though, was why the bullet hadn’t really hurt. In fact, it had been like a sharp stab now he thought about it. And now he couldn’t feel a thing. The kitchen door opened and a tall man with a silver beard came in. He was dressed like some sort of doctor.
‘How many darts did you use, son?’ said the man.
‘Just the one, dad. And then he fell over,’ said the kid. He started giggling and the man laughed.
‘He’s not the sharpest tool in the box this one, eh?’ said the man.
Cokey opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t for some reason.
The man crouched in front of Cokey.
‘It’s a drug,’ said the man. ‘Experimental. My own creation actually though my smart son here helped a fair bit.’
The kid giggled.
‘You’re paralysed now. And it’ll spread so that all of your organs give up and then, well, you’ll die.’
Cokey tried to scream.
‘But I’d like to thank you for coming here. For giving us to opportunity to test our new toy on a real person. I’m fishing to sell it off to the highest bidder over the dark web and you’ve just made pitching that sale a lot easier.’
The boy crouched next to his father and used his phone to film Cokey. To watch him die.
‘We’re all on a road to nowhere, though,’ said Ryan. ‘That’s the funny friggin thing. That’s what’s so friggin hysterical about the song. That’s what it’s really about.’
He spat as he spoke and Martyna leant back, away from his projectile spittle. Earlier, she’d though that Ryan might be worth a shag. Funerals always made her horny and he wasn’t in bad shape for his age. But then he’d started on the beer. Then the strong lager. And now he was knocking back cheap whisky – the Weatherspoon’s pub they were in had a two-for-one deal on.
He was becoming an embarrassment. She could see the bearded bloke who was having lunch with his son watching them. The boy couldn’t stop giggling.
‘Oh shit,’ said Ryan.
He looked pale. He jerked to his feet and ran. He burst through the toilet door but he didn’t make it to a toilet cubicle before he puked and then he slipped in the stuff as he struggled to get to the toilet bowl. A group of guttersnipes were stood outside the cubicle filming him with their iPhones. Laughing and taunting.
He wished he hadn’t given in to temptation. He wished a lot of things. He tried to stand but slipped and cracked his head on the toilet bowl.
Ryan trudged through the dark fog into consciousness. His head hurt. His mouth felt arid. He peeled open his eyes and saw that he must have been in hospital because there was a doctor stood over him. A tall man with a silver beard. He wondered who the giggling kid next to him was. It was a strange scene, to be sure.
Still, at least he was in safe hands.
The day after he comes home from the hospital, Davis gets busy building. It’s the perfect time to do it, really: nobody’s expecting him to do much of anything these days anyway, and he’s got the whole house to himself from now on. It works out nicely. He has to take taxis going to and from the Home Depot, though, since the car was declared a total loss by the insurance company months ago. No surprises there. Still, the payout’s basically funding the entire project, so Davis can’t really be too upset about that.
A whole lot of other things, sure. He’s raw about plenty.
But the car? Eh, not so much. It’s just a car, and where he’s going, he’s not going to need it anyway. It’s better this way.
He spends the first week going all around town, still wrapped in bandages, hunting for supplies and moving them into the house and turning the girls’ room into a sort of storage locker for everything he buys. He stacks it all against the wall, organized in order of what he thinks he’ll need most and first. There’s a process here. Davis has a system and a schedule that he means to cleave as close to as he reasonably can. He has a plan.
The next week, he has the shed delivered, except shed is sort of a misnomer, maybe undersells the thing by a hair. Truth is, it’s more like a silo than anything, which is actually perfect for Davis’s means.
It’s huge, standing at least as tall as the house itself, all gleaming metal and proud as hell. He has them set it up in the backyard, right in the middle, pays them and sends them on their way. Some of the neighbors keep their distance (well, to be fair, all the neighbors do that) but can see over the fence Davis installing a series of heavy industrial locks on the shed-silo’s only door. Standing away from their windows, they call each other to gossip and speculate.
“Have you seen?”
“What do you think his plan is?”
“What’s he hiding from us?”
“Do you think…?”
Nobody knows what the hell to make of it, but nobody in the neighborhood is rude enough to go and ask. Especially considering everything else. At this point, Davis can grieve and hopefully heal however he damn well pleases, poor man. But that’s not going to stop them from talking.
Especially not after hearing the noises that come out of the giant steel monstrosity at all hours of the day and night. Hammering, clapping, crunching, the squelching whine of power saws, the crackle and hiss of welding torches, the blare of smoke alarms. People hear it all so often that they start to doubt that Davis is sleeping at all, and to be fair, he probably isn’t. They see him around every few days, always looking worse than the last time they saw him: eyes bloodshot to glowing, skin like wet newspaper, cheeks all socked out and hollow. The new thatch of scars that covers the hairless side of his head looks heavier, darker, deeper. Almost like it’s spreading, like a tangle of slow pink vines. Once, a few months in, Mr Lairden approached him on the sidewalk, tried to strike up a conversation like a normal person might. That didn’t go so well for Mr Lairden. They had to hose the blood off the cement, and the day after, one of the neighborhood kids found three broken teeth in the gutter. After that, everybody decided it was probably best to leave Davis be. After all, except for Mr Lairden, it’s not like he hurt anybody, and Mr Lairden’s sort of an asshole anyway.
Davis doesn’t talk to anybody, doesn’t look at anybody, doesn’t give any outward indication he’s aware that he shares the planet with any other people at all.
But he knows. When they’re not looking, Davis watches them back, and he knows.
Whatever. Fuck them. They’re not going to have to deal with it for very much longer.
He disappears inside his silo for whole days at a time, and when he emerges back into the outside world, they can’t help but notice how diminished he looks, worse and worse, like there’s less of him left inside his skin. It’s ghoulish. Davis has packages delivered to his house all the time now, heavy and wrapped in brown paper and stamped in languages nobody around speaks or even recognizes. They appear on his doorstep in the deep of the night by no apparent delivery service, and by the morning, they’re always gone. Some people sneak over before dawn a few times, just to try and see, but it’s no good and they’re too scared, jumping and running at the slightest of suspect noises. They never learn anything, so they turn back inward, going over and over what they think they already know. He’s broken. He’s strange. He’s alone, now. They liked him a lot better before he was alone. He used to go places and do things. He used to work. Some of them think he used to be an engineer. The sounds coming from his property give them nightmares, sometimes. Every once in a while, someone will think they can hear Davis somewhere in the mess of noise, crying or laughing or worse, maybe both.
This goes on for a full year, nearly twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until one Friday it all just stops, and for the first time since he came home, the Davis house goes still and silent.
Nobody knows what to make of it. They’ve been living with the clatter and clang for this long, it’s weird—almost painful—to not have it around anymore. The silence is brutish and overwhelming, a physical presence pressing against all of them, ballooning out to suffocate the entire neighborhood in its absoluteness.
It only gets worse when they notice the house’s windows are all newspapered over and the doors are hanging open, black portals into nothing. None of the neighbors go on their own to look, none of them are brave enough to. Is he even in there?
Saturday morning, they gather on his front lawn, under the long shadow of the silo, all together now to go inside and look around. They tell themselves it’s because they’re concerned, they just want to make sure he’s okay; maybe some of them even really believe that. Except it doesn’t change the end results. The excuses are just that. Excuses. They swarm through his crumbling home, gawping at the piled-high fast food wrappers and empty pharmaceutical bubblepacks and broken-down cardboard boxes, the black trash bags filling up the kitchen, the tools scattered across every available surface. They inhale it all, consume it, these tragedy tourists. Rubberneckers. Bastards.
Some of them stand in the hallways and try to parse out the meaning of the finger-trails cut through the dust caking the photos on the walls. One of them is missing from its frame, but nobody there is astute enough to notice that. They pore through the archeology of what his life used to be, trying to decipher whatever the hell it turned into. Some of them are almost sentimental about it. A few men break off and move rapidly from room to room with practiced efficiency, playing detective and quietly hoping to find Davis long-dead on the floor, calling out Clear! to one another every time they don’t. He’s not anywhere in here. They don’t even bother hiding the disappointment in their voices when they reconvene to agree. By the look of things, Davis hasn’t been in here in a long time.
Then they hear it.
With dread synchronicity, they all turn toward the back of the house and the strange, enormous silo that looms over them all. As one, a coiled-tense, many-legged animal shot through with nervous eyes, they scutter to the back door to look out.
One by one, panels of the silo are falling away from each other and tumbling to the grass below, a steel house of cards coming entirely undone, the bolts and bonds snapping apart with such sudden singularity, it can’t be unintentional.
The pieces break off, and in the bright yellow morning light, underneath the self-shattering silo, they can see
something. They all lean in to try and get a better view, waiting for another
to show them a little bit more. They realize too late what they’re looking at, understand the shape of the thing inside the silo only in terms of old Looney Tunes and Twilight Zone episodes. They’re the only frame of reference for something like
It takes them all a second to register that the last panel’s finally fallen away, and another for one of their own—none of them are exactly sure who—to say the only thing that’s on their minds.
“Holy Christ, it’s a rocket ship.”
Laying there in the hospital, his body and his life shattered in all the time it took for one drunk motherfucker to run a red light, Davis made up his mind.
If the world insisted on taking away the only parts of his life that made staying even remotely worthwhile, it was time for him to go. Maybe there were places elsewhere that would hurt less than this one. Out beyond the cosmos. Maybe he would even find somewhere he could see them again.
So the day after he came home from the hospital, Davis got busy building.
He stands above them all. Dressed in his homemade flight suit and helmet, he watches them mill out of his house and onto the back lawn, faces turned toward the sky and the sun and God. He tries to imagine missing them but can’t manage it. In time, he’ll forget they ever existed.
Behind the glass faceplate, he gives them a smile he doesn’t mean, and when they don’t react to that, he gives them all the middle finger. That gets a reaction. Good. Davis opens the cockpit hatch and swings in, sealing the pressure locks after him and buckling himself tight to the single seat. There’s an intercom system he installed in the side of the rocket, and for half a moment he considers saying something to them by way of farewell. Anything. Even just, Ha-ha, bon voyage mother fucks, but decides not to waste the energy. They wouldn’t understand anyway.
He runs through the pre-flight checklist, checking all the systems he built himself, making sure the little blinky lights blink just right. Good. That’s real good. For a moment, his hand lingers on the photograph plucked from its frame and stuck to the dashboard with a wad of Bubblicious. One of those posed shopping mall studio jobs, cheeseball and plastic. He admires the smiling faces he sees there, the idle, idiot happiness they wear like bulls-eyes because they don’t know how fast everything can go so wrong. Sitting there in his DIY rocket ship, Davis is ashamed to realize how much he resents them, even hates them. For their naivete, for how much he loved them, for making him believe and then abandoning him here. He tries to shove the feeling away, but it’s already there, stuck in his head and his heart like a burr. Fuck. Fucking… fuck.
Tears play at the corners of his eyes, and he blinks them away as hard as he can. None of that. Not today, of all days. Today, he’s got bigger plans than this horrible little blue marble.
Today, he’s leaving for infinity.
He goes through the list one last time, just to make double god damn sure. Pay attention to this. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is real. Not anymore. Thrusters, fuel tanks, onboard navigation, environmental controls. They’re all just ghosts now. Okay.
Let’s do this.
He floats his hand over the big red GO button, takes a deep breath, looks outside at the shambles that his life used to be. The ruined house and the brown-blotched yard and the shitty neighbors and all the empty spaces where people used to fit. He tells himself he doesn’t need any of it anymore. There’s a whole universe out there waiting for him. A billion-billion worlds, just waiting to be found and explored, by someone with gumption enough. What does one ruined world matter, compared to all that?
Davis presses the button.
And it’s beautiful, and it’s perfect, and people can see it from miles away: a black and orange lily of flame and annihilation blooming out of the earth, ringed in a halo of smoke. The sound of it is great and terrible, the sky tearing itself apart, the Book of Revelations. For one shining moment, it’s really happening—just like all the NASA launches people used to see on TV. Oh, my god, he did it. The crazy, broken son of a bitch really did it.
But Davis isn’t an engineer. He never even passed high school physics.
He’s a 40 year-old claims adjustor from Burlingame.
So he burns.
The explosion tears up the length of the rocket and strips skin from flesh and flesh from bone. Davis claws at the straps with blackening, skeletal hands, bellowing for his life, breathing fire, struggling wildly to get free, too stubborn and scared to realize he’s already dead. His hair turns to ash, his eyes burst, his lungs carbonize and crumble inside his chest. It all happens within the span of a second and a half, while just past the edges of the launchpad, the blast shreds the gathered onlookers and, beyond them, the house.
Shrapnel from the flightless rocket chews the neighbors to rags an instant before the heat burns what’s left of them into Hiroshima shadows on the earth. Further out, the shockwave shatters windows, triggers car alarms, deafens the unwary, sets children crying. It claims it all, this wave of destruction.
Then it’s over just a smoldering black crater the only sign that they were ever there. Smoke rises from the earth in a drifting column, staining the sky above to murky gray. Sirens converge on the neighborhood in a narrowing gyre, and while it will take them months to piece together what happened there, almost none of them will ever fully understand exactly why Davis did what he did. None of them will want to. Maybe the unfortunate ones that do, they’ll pretend at ignorance, play blind man.
Maybe it’s better that way.
But one amongst their number—maybe more, but at the very least one—will see, and they’ll know. It’ll take seed, deep in the fabric of their mind, and after a few days, or a week or a month, or a year, it’ll break them. And then, one day, perhaps without even knowing why exactly, they’ll wake up, and they won’t want to be a part of this world anymore.
Then they’ll start building.
It was one of those really beautiful sunny summer days on State Street. Shoppers, many of them just window shoppers, ambled up and down the street enjoying the day and sometimes going into one of the many little retail stores to browse.
“Hi, I wonder if you could help me find some yarn,” said Meredith Simpson to the clerk in THAT’S QUITE A YARN.
“I’m sure I can. Is there something special that you’re looking for?” asked Beth Miller, whose name tag proclaimed her a “CUSTOMER SERVICE SPEICALIST.”
“Well, I’m planning to knit a suit of long johns for my boyfriend for next winter; he’s always cold…”
“Hey, who does a guy have to kill to get a beer in this joint?” came a call from the checkout desk up in the front.
“Excuse me just a minute, please” said Beth. “I’ll be right back.”
“Oh, do you serve beer here?” asked Meredith. “I could sure use a beer.”
“No, we don’t serve beer,” said Beth. “I’ll just go and see what the misunderstanding is.”
Beth walked up to the front where a tall good-looking thirty-something was leaning on the checkout counter. Even though the question he had yelled out had sounded fairly aggressive, he had a smile on his face and Beth didn’t feel afraid of him. Not afraid, but still cautious. She’d had some experience in her personal life with guys who seemed harmless at first and then later had turned out to be real jerks. She thought she would play the “customer service specialist” role and see if she could get him out the door without too much disruption.
“Hi, I’m Beth Miller. May I help you?”
“Well, maybe ya can,” he said. “Ya see, I’m a character and I’ve hit a bit of a rough patch recently.”
Beth didn’t doubt that for a minute; he sure seemed like a character, all right. “This is a yarn shop, Mr. …?”
“Smith. Spencer Smith. My folks named me Spencer rather than something like John or Robert so that I wouldn’t have trouble with other people having my same name. Besides, John Smith kinda sounds like an alias, don’t it?”
“Geez Louise,” thought Beth to herself. “Whacko City right here in the ol’ yarn shop.”
“Well, Mr. Smith, this is a yarn shop. We sell yarn and knitting supplies. This is not a bar; no beer here,” said Beth in a patient professional manner. “Now, there are a couple of nice bars in the next block if you just walk out our front door and take a right….”
Just then, Meredith Simpson walked up from where she had been waiting. She eyed Spencer and gave him small smile.
“Buy a girl a drink?” she said.
“Well, hello,” replied Spencer. “If I told you that you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”
“Now wait a minute,” said Beth. “What’s going on here? No cheesy pick-up lines, please.”
“I told you I was a character, didn’t I?” said Spencer. “I’m a character in a lot of bar stories. A lot of writers are having trouble lately finding literary sites that accept bar stories. Says right in their submission guidelines: ‘No bar stories.’ Bar stories are fun. They’re loud, rough and tumble slices of Americana….”
“I’m sorry,” said Beth. “We are not going to have a conversation about submission guidelines. This is not a bar and this is not going to turn into a bar story. This is a yarn shop and this is a yarn shop story. At least it was before you came in. I don’t know if yarn shop stories sell or don’t sell, but you’re an out of work barfly and you have to leave. This story has already had more bar references than knitting references as it is. Somebody’s going to have to do a major rewrite before it gets accepted anywhere.”
Beth looked at Spencer and Meredith with her hands on her hips as if daring one of them to disagree.
“Come on, Spencer,” said Meredith. “Let’s blow this pop stand and go have a couple of beers.”
“Sounds good,” said Spencer. “And Beth, ya didn’t really think a story about a yarn shop was gonna go anywhere, did ya? Why, there’d have to be somethin’ like an armed robbery to save a story with a setting that lame….”
“All right, you three, down on the floor. This is a stick up,” yelled a tough looking character holding a large caliber handgun. “Just don’t try anything funny and nobody gets hurt.”
“You’re holding up a yarn shop?” asked Spencer, as he, Beth, and Meredith lowered themselves to the floor. The robber, Max Smith, no relation to Spencer, ignored Spencer’s sarcasm and put his efforts into opening the cash register.
While he was working on it, a clown came in the front door. “Do you have a restroom I can use?” he asked. The gag flower on his lapel then squirted a stream of water into Max’s face. Max coolly leveled his pistol at the clown and shot him once in the forehead. The clown crumpled to the floor next to Beth who quickly scooted over a bit to make room for him.
“God, I hate clowns,” grumbled Max as he started stuffing wads of bills from the now open cash register into the pockets of his trench coat.
Beth turned her head to face Spencer and Meredith. She had taken a .22 from a holster in her boot and had it pointed at the back of Max’s head. “Noir, anyone?” she stage whispered out of the side of her mouth.
Spencer and Meredith both smiled broadly and gave her the thumbs up.
When Clayce Talcott and Luther Twoshoes entered the ramshackle shack at the edge of town they found Dickey Bub McClung on the kitchen floor and Jocko Fayette at the table. Dickey Bub had a butcher knife in his cold, dead hand while Jocko had a jelly glass of corn likker in his live one. The table was littered with dirty dishes, the floor with empty beer bottles. The air smelled of cordite.
“What happened here?” Clayce asked from the doorway.
“I kilt the sonuvabitch is what happened,” Jocko said. “He come at me with a knife so I shot him.” He nodded toward the revolver on the table next to the Mason jar of moonshine.
“Why did he come at you?”
“It was that damned ol’ hog again is why.”
“Uh huh. Two year ago his hogs got loose and I found one rooting in my garden. I kilt it and cured it for bacon. Dickey Bub didn’t much like that. Ever’time we got to drinking he’d bring it up again.”
Clayce moved into the room and took the revolver from the table. Opening the cylinder he checked the loads then put the gun in his jacket pocket. Luther followed Clayce into the kitchen, his dark eyes taking in the details.
“Look around while I talk to Mr. Fay-ette,” Clayce said, then waited to take a chair until Luther slipped thru the doorway into the rest of the shack.
Jocko slapped the table top with the flat of his hand and raised his voice. “Twoshoes, my woman’s back there somewheres, and she’s nekkid. You don’t be taking no free looks, y’hear?”
“Free looks?” Clayce arched an eyebrow.
Jocko leered and reached for the Mason jar. “Ain’t nothing free in this world, mister Chief of Po-lice.” He took a drink of moonshine before adding, “If the price is right I’ll rent her to you for a bit.” Then, after belching loudly, “I don’t like yer pet injun snooping around my place.”
“Too bad,” Clayce said mildly. “I didn’t know you had a woman.”
“Neither did I ’til a couple of weeks ago.”
“Where did she come from?”
“She got tired of being married to Dickey Bub.”
“That’s Dickey Bub’s gun in yer pocket, too. She brought it along with a cardboard suitcase and two quarts of likker.”
“A makeshift dowry as it were,” Clayce said without humor.
“Forget it. How did Dickey Bub feel about her moving in here?”
“About like you’d expect, I reckon, but he had to know she wadn’t gonna stay with him.”
“She was on the prowl is why not. Sometimes us boys played cards over to their place on Friday nights. She was all the time running around half-dressed and Dickey Bub mad if he caught you looking. I never once saw her in a full set of clothes. Now that she’s living here, I just keep her naked. It’s easier that way. She’s one of them, uh, what’a’ya call it when a woman wants is all the time?”
“Yeah, what you said—nymphomaniac.”
“So, tell me what happened tonight.”
“Ain’t much to tell. We been drinking since supper and Dickey Bub got onto that damned ol’ hog again. That and Arvetta moving in here after cleaning out the bank account and stealing his gun to boot. He bitched about me not shutting the windows at night. Said he could hear the two of us going at it, what with Arvetta being kinda loud when she gets wound up. Then he allowed as how his life had basically gone to crap the last couple of years, which took him right back to that damned ol’ hog. Next thing I know, he grabbed a butcher knife off the drainboard and come at me with murder in his eye. It was self-defense, plain to see.”
“So you grabbed his gun and shot him?”
“No, I grabbed my gun and shot him.”
“You just said the gun is his.”
“Truth is, I misspoke. It maybe was his ’til Arvetta brought it with her. What’s that they say about having something being nine-tenths of the law?”
“Possession?” Clayce provided.
“Yeah, what you said—possession.”
Luther reappeared in the kitchen doorway and leaned a shoulder against the jamb. Both Jocko and Clayce looked to him, but Luther looked only to Clayce.
“Arvetta McClung’s in the bedroom naked as a jaybird, hoss. She’s got a black eye and bruised ribs and swears she fell down the stairs.”
“That’s what I asked, but she didn’t have an answer.”
“Does she want to press charges?”
“I asked that, too, but she said how do you arrest a flight of steps?”
“Anything else back there?”
“Nothing illegal if that’s what you’re asking?
“So, what do you think, Luther?
“About what, Arvetta? I think Jocko smacks her around for whatever reason or maybe no reason at all.”
“And Dickey Bub?”
“Oh, Jocko murdered him alright, hoss. No doubt about that.”
“What?!” Jocko barked as he sat up straight. “You’re fucking crazy. I tole you it was self-defense, didn’t I?”
Ignoring Fayette, Luther said to Clayce, “You remember a year or so back when Dickey Bub and Ross Fugate went at each other in that juke joint parking lot out on Route 60?”
“I do,” Clayce said. “Cut each other up pretty good as I recall.”
“They did,” Luther nodded. “Had what we call a two-quart-of-blood fight. By the time we broke it up it looked like they’d been butchering beef. Anyway, hoss, Dickey Bub was a blade man.” Nodding at the corpse on the floor, he added, “Look at the way he’s holding that butcher knife.”
Both Clayce and Jocko looked down at the dead Dickey Bub.
“No knife man worth his salt holds it that way, with the cutting edge down like you’re gonna slice meat or chop carrots. A knife man comes at you with the cutting edge up so he can gut you like a carp. I figure Jocko put that knife in Dickey Bub’s hand after he shot him.”
“That’s a lie!” Jocko spat. Then with a sly look, “And even if it ain’t, you can’t prove different.”
Clayce pulled out a pair of handcuffs and tossed them to Luther who snatched them in mid-air like a camp dog catching a biscuit.
“I don’t have to prove it, Jocko,” Clayce said mildly, “that’s the prosecutor’s job. You’re under arrest.”
“Well, I’ll be go to hell,” Jocko snarled as his right hand dropped into his lap under the table.
“Don’t,” Clayce warned. Dickey Bub’s revolver had somehow appeared in his hand, the muzzle leveled at Jocko’s belly. “Maybe you have a gun under there, maybe not, but we already know this one works, don’t we? Put your hands up.”
Jocko’s empty hand reappeared. He grabbed the Mason jar and guzzled the last half-inch of moonshine before offering his bony wrists to Luther. Looking through the open doorway, he yelled, “Arvetta! Put some clothes on and get your ass out here. Call my daddy, tell ‘im I’m gonna need a lawyer and bail money.”
There was the padding sound of bare feet on hardwood floor somewhere back in the shack.
Rattling his shackles like Marley’s chains, Jocko hawked up a wad of phlegm and spat it between Luther’s boots. “Fucking injun,” he said as if commenting on the weather. Giving Clayce a look that would freeze water he said, “If I’d knowed you was gonna arrest me, I’d’ve shot you crossing the yard.”
“Not likely.” Clayce waggled the gun barrel. “Get on your feet.”
“I still say it was self defense,” Jocko grunted as he rose. “Hell, me and Dickey Bub’d still be swapping ends with Arvetta if it hadn’t been for that damned ol’hog.”
I should have known better. But dammit, it was the end of a long day and I was propping up the bar at O’ Malley’s with my elbows. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
The bar was crowded; it usually was on Wednesdays. Hump day and all. The three guys on my left were squeezed in a little too close. The air around them was rank with Aqua Velva and the smell of wool suits gone too long between dry-cleanings.
Paulie saw my empty glass, turned and reached for the Drambuie on the glass shelf next to the mirror. I heard the guy next to me say, “Two fingers of Jack.” He walked away from the bar before Paulie acknowledged the order.
Before the words could cross my smooth liquor haze, the other two guys turned on me. Paulie paused as he poured my drink and I saw his eyes go wide just before a massive fist eclipsed my view.
A shoulder hit me low, right in the breadbasket, bouncing me off a couple stools and their occupants. My breath hammered out as I landed on my back with one goon on top of me.
I pulled my gun, but a swift kick from the other guy sent it skittering under tables and chairs. People scrambled for the exit. The guy kneeling on my chest pinned my arms. Goddamn he had one ugly mug. A pink puckered scar scrawled an angry line from his left eye to his chin. The other guy pulled a goddamn cigar trimmer out of his pocket.
Ah shit, two fingers of Jack.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Paulie round the bar with a baseball bat. The guy with the cigar trimmer reached into his coat and pulled out a gun. Pointed it at Paulie. “Uh uh,” was all cigar-man said and Paulie dove back behind the bar.
Stepping on my wrist, the guy bent down, clicking the trimmer. I felt my finger slide into the plastic hole and knew the razorblade was next.
Ugly leaned over, his knee digging a divot in my chest. A wicked grin bunched the scar tissue on his cheek.
He leaned just enough. I rolled my hips, toppling him from my chest, and yanked my hand as the razor blade snicked shut. There was no pain, but I saw the blood as I rolled up and swept an armbar across the back of the standing guy’s knees. Blood arced. There was a meaty smack as Paulie’s baseball bat came down on his head. The cigar trimmer bounced away and the guy crumpled like a paper bag.
Ugly stood and lunged toward me but it was a feint as he spun a roundhouse kick across Paulie’s jaw. He snatched the bat before it even hit the ground, while poor Paulie spun a beautiful pirouette and smashed into a jumble of chairs and tables. The old wood furniture splintered.
Paulie pulled himself up and with the tip of his boot, kicked the splintered remains of a table leg to me. I ducked under a whistling bat-swing, feeling the breeze on the back of my neck. I grabbed for the table leg. Half my goddamn finger was missing, blood was dripping like a washerless faucet and the leg skittered from my grip.
I dodged another swing and this time used both hands to scoop up the three-foot length of wood. It was splintered on the end I held, but from other end four inches of oxidized nail stuck out like a bent finger.
We circled once, then he swung hard. I turned with it. The bat glanced off my shoulder. As I spun back, I swung the table leg out with my left hand, backhand. Best damn tennis swing ever. There was a pop, like the sound of biting a firm grape. The makeshift club was yanked from my hand. I watched the guy drop to his knees, the nail holding the wood tight to his temple. The rusted metal pushed his left eye slightly out of its socket making him look surprised. Shit, he probably was surprised.
The guy fell face down and Paulie limped over to me. Pulling a bar towel from his apron, he wrapped my bleeding hand in it. As the adrenalyn left my system, it was beginning to throb with sharp heat. Paulie went behind the bar to get some ice and I pulled one of the fallen stools upright and sat down.
Yeah, shoulda known better. I rested my towel-wrapped hand on the ziplock bag of crushed ice. I smiled when I realized my drink of choice still sat right where Paulie left it. I slid the glass over to me. The overhead lights cast golden hues of Scotch and Drambuie on to the dark wood. The ice clinked as I raised a toast to Paulie and downed my Rusty Nail.
The sax player had come on at 9:00 and bar owner, Eddie Monroe, was pleased the guy was actually better than he had expected.
At 8:45, a cab driver had opened the door for Charlie Vincent and had led him up to the bar. Charlie wore sunglasses, wielded a white cane with his right hand and carried his instrument case in his left. Eddie had paid the cabbie and had led Charlie up to the little stage. He told him about the surroundings and introduced him to Benny Erskine, the house drummer, who sat in as accompanist for anybody who needed back-up. Eddie had then gone back to the bar and had left Charlie and Benny to talk about the first set.
Now Eddie was wiping the bar and he once again checked the front door as if he might be able to will people to come through it. It was 9:30 on a Tuesday night and he had exactly eight customers. There were three couples at tables and a man and a woman sitting at the bar. The two at the bar weren’t together; there were three stools separating them.
“Inez,” called Eddie to his waitress who sat reading a book at the end of the bar. “Get orders from the couples at the tables and tell ‘em this one’s on the house. Maybe if we keep ‘em here the next folks through the door will think the place has somethin’ goin’ on.”
Eddie went over and stood between the two sitting at bar. “Drink up folks; I’m buyin’ the next round. Whadda ya think about the sax player? Pretty good, huh?”
The man, Johnny Briskie, raised his glass to Eddie as if to toast him, and then raised it to the woman sitting a few seats down. She nodded, smiled, and toasted him back. They both finished their drinks and Eddie went about getting fresh ones for them.
“I’m Bonnie Martino,” she said.
“Johnny Briskie. Nice to meetcha.”
The sax player was playing a pretty good cover of Coltrane’s “Blue Train.”
“Actually, he is pretty good,” said Bonnie. “I like jazz. You?”
“Yeah, I do. I like jazz when I’m in a mood for reflectin’. I like blues when I feel like actin’ up.”
“So you’re reflecting tonight?”
“Yeah, I’m thinkin’ about whether I should follow up on a job opportunity.”
Johnny reached inside his sport coat and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Bonnie caught a glimpse of a shoulder holster and wondered what that job opportunity entailed. She pulled her purse a little closer to her. She opened it and made sure her .32 was within easy reach. Bonnie was thinking that maybe there was a chance she was the job opportunity.
Eddie put an ashtray on the bar in front of Johnny. “If anybody complains, you’ll have to take that outside.”
“Sure thing,” said Johnny as he lit up.
Eddie had also seen the holster under Johnny’s coat. He had seen Bonnie move her purse closer and open it. Eddie had been around the block a few times and didn’t miss much. He took his .38 out of the drawer and put it on the ledge under the bar in front of him. He nodded to the drummer and pointedly looked at Bonnie and then Johnny.
The drummer acknowledged him and said something to the sax player, who moved from Coltrane’s “Blue Train” to Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”
Bonnie noticed the smooth transition, recognized the tune, and raised an eyebrow at Eddie. Eddie cut his eyes at Johnny and patted his chest as he did so. Bonnie smiled and said, “Hey, Johnny, could I have a cigarette?”
“Sure,” said Johnny. When Johnny reached for his pack of cigarettes, Bonnie pulled her gun from her purse and aimed it at his face.
“Give your gun to the bartender, Johnny,” said Bonnie. “He’s going to hold it for you for fifteen minutes while I take my leave.”
Johnny took out his revolver and made like he was going to hand it to Eddie. Instead, he backed off his barstool and pointed the snub-nosed Smith & Wesson at Eddie.
“Put your piece on the bar or he’s dead,” he said to Bonnie.
Johnny hadn’t noticed that the sax player was now playing solo. Benny Erskine had stopped drumming and had picked up a sawed-off shotgun from behind his drum set. He walked up to the bar with the shotgun close to his leg, shielded from the audience, and leveled it at Johnny.
“Hey, you,” he said. As Johnny turned to face him, Benny pulled the trigger and sent Johnny into the stools and onto the floor. He put the shotgun on the bar and walked back to his drumset.
The six people at the tables gathered their stuff in a hurry and made for the front door.
“Hey, hey,” yelled Eddie. “Ya don’t have to leave; everything’s under control. The house is buying another round.”
Two of the couples decided to stay and took a table together. The other couple left without looking back.
“I heard him say somethin’ about a job. Whadda ya suppose that was all about?” said Eddie to Bonnie after he had called 911.
“Yeah, he said he was mulling over a job opportunity. I’m in town because I was recently offered a job opportunity too. I think we may have been competing for the same job. Thanks to you and your drummer, I think I did pretty well on the initial interview.”
“I best put your piece and mine in the drawer back here. In a few minutes some of New York City’s finest will be in askin’ lotsa questions. You okay with that?”
“The guy pulled a gun and threatened to kill you if you didn’t give him all the cash. The drummer saw what was happening and shot him. The drummer okay with that?”
“Sure. Benny knows the cops and they know him. Should be no problem.”
There were sirens in the distance and Charlie Vincent was now into the Billie Holiday classic, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
James Arlen Roth took something from me, something important. Her name was April. We were going to be married in the Spring. She’d said that was the best time to get married, and who was I to argue. We set the date and made all the arrangements. Then along came James.
He walked into the store where April worked at 9:47 PM and walked out at 9:53, he left with $142.36. In six minutes this man changed my life and ended hers. She didn’t die right away. It took some time. Slowly she bled out on the dirty floor behind the counter. A customer walked into the store at 10:17 and found her still alive. April was a fighter, but she’d lost too much blood and died before the ambulance got there.
James Arlen Roth put us on a collision course. He set in motion something that neither of us can stop.
The only evidence the prosecution had was video evidence from several different cameras. One from inside the store showed someone wearing a ski mask. He entered the store and pulled a gun, revealing a rose tattoo on his right hand. April gave him all the money in the register. She cooperated and he shot her anyway, and then calmly walked out. Videos from outside, at an ATM machine and a pawn shop entrance, showed a man the same build and height wearing the exact same clothes. These videos also showed a face, the face of James Arlen Roth and they showed a rose tattoo on his right hand.
His lawyer argued that while his client, who was gainfully employed and had no reason to commit such a heinous crime, was in the area at the time of the robbery. He didn’t commit the crime. Anyone could have been wearing clothes that were similar.
The tattoo that sold me on his guilt also helped get him off.
James had gotten the tattoo when he was nineteen, just a kid. He was in a street gang and the tattoo was part of the gang’s colors. His lawyer then showed the jury mug shots of other members and pictures of their tattoos. Each one had the same rose on their right hand. He argued that anyone of them could have committed the crime.
The most valuable part of his defense was that Jimmy appeared to be walking casually and in no hurry. Wouldn’t a man who just robbed a convenience store and shot a clerk be in a hurry or perhaps even running away from the scene? All the evidence was circumstantial. The jury found him not guilty. I don’t care what the jury says, he’s guilty and we both know it.
For James life went on. For me life fell apart and became all about James. The countdown had started.
After his acquittal I followed him for three months getting to know his routine, his timing. I studied every facet of his life. I could tell you where he is going to be and what he is going to be doing at almost any given minute. From poker games on Wednesdays and his once a month haircut, to the two women he’s seeing. I know more about him than he knows about himself.He’s regular, like clockwork. This is all information I need to know to do what I have to do.
I’m ready. Tonight’s the night.I’ve decided to wait outside of the Highlight Club and do it when he gets into his car. It sounds easy but there is always a chance of something going wrong. Timing is the most important thing. Today is Wednesday, he’ll leave alone. He left alone last Wednesday and the previous three.
The Highlight Club is a seedy strip joint. It’s located off of the downtown express way and across from Smitty’s convenience store. Set back along the property line all parking for the club is up front and along the roadside, well lit.
I drove downtown, obeying the speed limit. I’ve always been a law abiding person. Pulling into the Smitty’s I glanced across the street over to The Highlight’s parking lot. His car was there, a 67 Mustang Fastback. I knew it would be. I grabbed a cup of coffee and a donut and waited until two thirty, last call.
People started to exit the club. Knowing James would be one of the last to leave I crossed the street and lingered outside in the parking lot. I shook, a little from the cold but more from the chore before me. The lot slowly emptied.
At 3:05 he walked out, like clockwork. Wearing his customary leather jacket and gold chain around his neck he looked like the thug I knew he was.
Walking to his car I fell in step a few paces behind him. He looked bigger this close up. It must be his gym routine-three nights a week- he never misses a workout.
“Hey Asshole,” I called out.
“What’d you call me?” he said and swung around fast, taking a defensive stance.
I’m not a big man by any stretch of the imagination, weak some might call me, non threatening. A smile crept on his face. He didn’t even recognize the man who sat behind him in a courtroom every day for three weeks.
“Listen buddy you’re gonna be in a world of hurt if you don’t turn around and walk away right now. I have things to do,” he said and turned his back on me.
“I know. You’re going to play poker, uptown at Sid’s Café, or is that on Fridays?”
It knew it wasn’t on Fridays, it was tonight.Slowly he turned, surveying the situation as he did.
“What did you say?”
I stood my ground and smiled. “No, you’re going to see Angela. Does Marie know about Angela? Does Marie’s husband know about you?”
“What the fuck?”
“What about April, do you remember her?”
My smile disappeared. This was the moment I’d been heading toward since he walked out of the court room three months ago.He looked in my eyes and suddenly knew who I was.
“Why’d you do it? She gave you what you wanted. Why did you kill her?”
He smiled but said nothing. Seeing the smug look on his face I could feel the rage building inside of me. I touched the outside of my jacket pocket. His eyes darted from my eyes to my hand and back. Fifteen feet separated us, too far for him lunge. I reached into my jacket pocket. At the same moment he reached for the bulge under his coat. I’d seen the bulge before, a shoulder holster. He always wore it.
I’d practiced this a thousand times standing in front of a mirror, like De Niro in Taxi Driver or an old time western.I knew how fast I could draw. I didn’t know how fast he would be.
Time slowed. I could see his jaw clench and brow furrow as his hand slipped into his coat. I imagined his thumb flicking the snap off his holster as my hand slid into my pocket a second faster than his. Fluidly his gun slipped out and arm extended as my hand was just exiting my pocket. He was too fast. I knew he would be, but when you have nothing left, you have nothing to lose.
His hand seemed to explode as his gun went off. The slug hit me squarely in the chest, shattering my sternum and tearing through a lung. The impact threw me back and my body slammed to the ground. When I opened my eyes James stood over me, his gun pointed at my face. My hand, finally free of my pocket, went to my chest, still clutching the only thing that had been inside of it, a picture of April.
I coughed through a bloody smile. As life drained out of me I and turned my head to Smitty’s. A police car had just pulled into the lot, same as last night and the night before.
Rainbow Street is one hundred yards of concrete by twenty-five yards of nothing. Every other house is rewarded with a dead tree. There are eight, cookie cutter triple-deckers, on each side of the street.
Back in the day we called it the projects but now it’s just low-income housing. Working people or people in “transition” trying to get by or catch a break of some kind. Just like me.
I’d been here for about three months and one thing that I’d learned, as I walked my dog up and down the street, is that you don’t see too many people. This isn’t a block party kind of place. There are no backyards for one thing. My second floor apartment looks right up the ass of the house over on the next block.
You do hear gossip though. Rainbow was a place ripe with stories. I got into the habit of looking up the police fire beat on the Internet to see who got busted for cooking meth in their kitchen or BBQ-ing pig in their bathtub.
Tuesday is always a good day to catch up on the latest dirt because it’s trash day. I dragged my barrels from the back of the building and I always stopped by the first floor to see if Edna Washington had anything going out and that’s when I ran into the neighbor in the house to my right. Known to me only as Hank. “Hey, he said. You hear about that wife-beating bastard up the street, Bill Wilson?” “No.” I said. “You got any proof to back that up? Otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking out of hand like that.” “Oh, it’s true.” Hank said. “It’s most definitely, true.” He dropped his bag on the street and headed back to the rear of his house.
Later that evening I checked the Internet for news on Bill Wilson and sure enough there was a complaint of a couple arguing loudly at his address.
Next Tuesday, I woke to the sound of the garbage truck. I pulled on a pair of sweats and leashed my dog for a walk. It looked like the barrels had lost another war as they lay haphazardly across the field of battle. My neighbor, Hank was standing there straight as a rigid dick with his hand lightly touching the top of one of those giant industrial trash bags, his fingers nervously dancing across the top.
My beagle, Rocky, went straight for the bag like it was filled with raw meat. “Whoa, boy.” I said and gave him a yank. “Get that fucking dog away from me.” Hank screamed. I was shocked at his reaction and pulled Rocky in the other direction, deciding to take the back stairs up to avoid Hank, who was obviously off his fucking nut this morning. I’ll get the freaking barrels later.
Upstairs, I pored myself a cup of coffee and watched as two brutes got out of the truck and heaved his bag of whatever the fuck, into the back and take off after lowering the boom on the thing.
It was business as usual until one morning I came out and saw one of Hanks’ giant industrial bags of shit sitting unattended on the curb. I had Rocky with me and he started to grrr at the bag and I looked around for any signs of Hank. I got closer to the big grey monster and kind of toed it a bit. My balls almost hit the ground as I heard what sounded like a muffled harrumph come from inside the bag.
But before I could explore any further the trash men came by and the same two brutes jumped out like they just saw me tongue their mother. “Something we can do for you Mr. Dog Walker?” “No.” I said. Good comeback, asshole, I thought. “Well, if you don’t want to see the inside of one of these bags I’d clean up after your pooch and take off.” Brute One pointed to the ground where Rocky had dropped a steamy bomb. I bent down and picked it up in a plastic bag tied it off and tossed it into the back of their truck. “Kind of territorial, aren’t you?” I gave them my best, fuck you sneer, and walked on. They tossed in Hank’s bag and the rest of the trash and crushed it. I listened for any sound that might be human but couldn’t hear anything over the metal on metal screech of the blades.
I started to obsess about crime in the area and particularly on Rainbow Street and even started to buy the local newspaper in fear of missing something on the Internet. I also dug up a pair of binoculars so that I could keep an eye on Hank, who after some research in the public records I find out is, Henry William Curtis divorced father of one, 51 years old, unemployed city worker drawing a pension, fired for “excessive drinking” on the job. I never knew there were tiers of drinking on the job. I thought you were either caught drinking on the job and got fired. But, apparently you could work until you hit the, “excessive drinking” at work, level. Then you got fired. Live and Learn. I also started to map out the street. Names and addresses, moved in and out dates and crimes and misdemeanors.
If Hank was into some kind of kill club, then I had to get close to him. But, putting on a friendly face was difficult for me. I am not the most engaging guy and I had to do this without the help of man’s best friend and magnet, with whom Hank had taken a disliking to.
I saw Hank out my window one day with a plastic white shopping bag picking up scraps of paper. His lips were moving faster than a chicken’s ass.
I stepped out on the stoop and he perked up and said, “Look at me, cleaning up the neighborhood.” “Yeah, how bout that.” I said. “Here, let me give you a hand.” I started to pick up soda cans, cigarette packs and vodka nips. He offered the bag to me and I dropped the trash in.
“This was never a nice neighborhood.” He said, apropos to nothing. “You know the saying, money goes to money and shit goes to the dump.” “No, can’t say I’ve ever heard that one.” “The people that rent these dumps?” He went on. “They just keep renting to the same maggots, whores and niggers.” “Whoa boy.” I said. “Do not let me hear you talk like that again, you hear me?”
Shit, I thought if I blow my cover now I’ll get nothing from him. But I’ll be damned if I’ll become Jimmy the friendly neighborhood racist. “Whatever.” He said. “I do think the local PD could come down harder on local crime.” I offered up feebly. He bit. “Yeah, that’s right. Hey, I’m going to a local town meeting next week. You should attend with me.” “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that.”
He was tying up the little trash bag when he asked if I’d like to come up for a coffee. He looked me in the eyes and kind of titled his head like he was thinking about something else or maybe just checking me out. I got a chill up my spine and a lump in my throat, which I cleared and said, “Sure.” No turning back now.
We walked up to his third floor abode. All of the apartments were the same in these tenements. Some were singles, like mine, his was a three bedroom. One bedroom he used for storage, another as an office. The kitchen was adjacent to the small living room separated by a wall with a tiny bathroom off to the right.
What hit me as soon as we entered was a metallic smell like he had been painting. I caught a splotch of red as we passed the bathroom and thought he must be doing the walls over. We walked into the kitchen. He had coffee already brewed and it smelled good. He asked me to sit and I took a spot at a teak table under a seascape he had hung on the wall. The table had a place setting for one, some paper napkins in a wire basket and a set of knives in a teak block with matching cleaver. I nervously grabbed the cleaver by the handle and realized that Hank had been carrying on a one-way conversation. I came to when I heard him say, “Your black neighbor, Edna Washington is a nosey bitch. I don’t know if you knew that.” “What?” I asked. “What about Edna?” I said. “That black woman is nosey. “Always butting into everyone’s business, especially mine. I see her looking out her window at me and I think she’s making notes of some kind.” “My NEIGHBOR is just an old broad who doesn’t bother anyone and you’re a paranoid fuck if you don’t mind me saying.”
That said, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and started planning my exit. Whatever I had thought might be happening here didn’t amount to shit and I needed to spend my time at a gym or trying to get laid or trying to get laid at the gym.
I headed to the bathroom before he could stop me. That’s when I discovered the corpse of Edna Washington in his bathtub. I turned and Hank was standing there still holding the glass pot of coffee like he was about to offer me a refill. My own hand still held the meat cleaver. I swung it and nearly split Hank’s head down the middle. Hank dropped the pot of coffee, which miraculously didn’t break, spun around a couple of times like he was doing some kind of zombie twerk, before falling on his face. Dead.
The apartment was so quiet you could hear the piss dripping down my leg.
My brain went into overdrive: Edna Washington will be reported missing. Cops will go from house to house asking everyone what they knew. They’ll get to Hank’s apartment. He won’t answer. They’ll go away or they’ll open up. If the open up they’ll see the mess and put two and two together and figure he killed her and took off. The only way I’ll get caught is if someone sees me coming and going. I have to be stealth and I have to get moving. I have two bodies to dispose of.
Edna was a twig. I could circle her wrist with my finger and thumb. So hacking her up wasn’t a problem. I kept my brain busy by reminding myself to wipe everything down and to keep the blood in the bathroom, so I planned to clean up there and not the kitchen. I put the remains of Edna Washington in one of Hank’s giant bags and put it near the back door. Hank was more of a project. I worked him over diligently and when I looked up, three hours had gone by. It was dark out. I cleaned up and pinched some sweats and a tee shirt from Hank’s wardrobe. Tossed my clothes in a separate bag that I’ll bring back to my place and dispose of later. Mr. Curtis went out the back door with Edna.
I wiped everything down. It was Monday night. Tomorrow was trash day.
Look at me, I laughed. Cleaning up the neighborhood.
He was at his desk with his headphones on, watching something loud and hard, so he didn’t hear her come up the stairs. Didn’t hear the click of the safety disengage. Didn’t hear the wrap of knuckles on wood, or turn to see the shadow under the door. So when the blast filled the room and the door behind him shattered, he believed—for an instant—that there’d been an explosion outside, out on the street, and he looked up from the screen, down through the window, expecting to see smoke.
Instead he smelled it. And gunpowder.
He looked left, and he saw the hole high in the wall, the plaster crumbling down to the floor. Turned right, saw the splintered maw chest-height through the door, the hallway light bleeding through. A haze of smoke riding ceiling-ward, as though a dragon sat the other side.
She had one shot left, he knew, and he knew she would use it. The first had just been a warning. She would make herself heard, she’d said. If he chose not to listen she would find a way to make him listen. She was reasonable, the things she had to say were reasonable things to say to a person, but if he refused reason then she would find a language he understood.
He dropped to the floor, pressed his belly to it, tried to make himself flatter than he was. Listened for movement past the door as he executed several log rolls across the carpet, like a man on fire. He thought he had told her about the piece he had stowed in a drawer in the study. If she remembered it she would be expecting him to use it, and she was perhaps waiting to see if he would make for it and return fire.
He was, and he would. Though perhaps she had not remembered. He had mentioned it only in passing, when she’d said the shotgun was terribly big, perhaps more than she could handle. He’d allowed that he kept something a bit smaller upstairs, but told her not to fear size but come to love it. Which is when she’d smiled and pressed the barrel into his belly and cocked an eyebrow and through pouted lips said, Boom. Which had made her irresistible, so that for a moment he forgot about the others, taking the gun from her hands and her into his own and felt himself stiffen to her body.
Why he kept it in the top drawer rather than the bottom he couldn’t say now, and he cursed himself for it as he lay hunkered against the floor beside the dresser. Whatever scenario had played out in his head when he’d done so, it had not been this.
She had made no sound yet and he pictured her on the other side of the door, thinking perhaps she had hit him, but choosing cat-like to wait and listen in case he was still viable.
He had not shown her where he kept the box of shells behind a false panel under the gun and she was being conservative now and cautious. She was reasonable and rational and she was finally making herself heard. Meanwhile he needed to make himself silent as he reached for the drawer and eased it open and thanked himself for buying a new dresser with smooth, well-oiled runners.
The important thing was to not tip your hand. But people wanted to know things, and you wanted to believe it good for them to know, so you allowed yourself to tell them. Just as you shared other things with them—investment tips, thoughts on politics, all the shit you’d done in your past of which you were no longer proud. Stories of the many lovers you had had in the years before you met. When asked, what you really thought of the girl passing on the street. The pass code to your lockbox and the combination to the cabinet where, months ago—because she expressed interest, and because you thought it was good that she know how to defend herself in the event you were not around—you showed her where you kept the twelve-gauge. Which you removed and demonstrated how to load and how the safety worked and to hold it like this, with your feet planted so, not like that—the kickback would bruise your shoulder and knock you to the ground. Things that then seemed like good, sensible, useful things to share with her, but which in retrospect may not have been.
As in cards, so in life. Wise to always keep something under the table in the event that things did not go as planned and turned against you.
Don’t ever turn your back on a man with a gun, his father had told him.
They’d stood around the table in the Number 10 Saloon where Wild Bill Hickok had sat playing poker when someone put a bullet in him. Wild Bill’s chair sat in a recessed cubby hole over the bar, like a shrine, and his hand of cards—the Dead Man’s Hand—lay fanned on the table. He’d stood looking at the cards. His father had said to always keep your back to the wall in the event of things unforeseen, and then they’d grabbed stools at the bar and put their backs to the door and drank sarsaparillas. When he’d asked what about what you just said, his father nodded at their inverse selves in the mirror and said, What do you think that’s for?
So if you couldn’t see straight-ahead, second best was being able to see behind you without turning. Yet hindsight, like mirrors, distorted things, and it was best to be ready to face them head-on.
Some version of which he’d repeated for her as she’d fumbled a shell into each chamber and locked the barrel and clicked the safety off, then on, and repeated this, practicing her stance, seeming to pleasure in the gun’s surprising heft, the cold blue of the barrels, the firm handshake of the stock.
He dipped his hand into the drawer and felt around for his father’s old single-action. He kept it wrapped in a hand towel under a slim stack of worn magazines he kept facedown though he’d torn the covers from them. Some things you could not see coming. The revolver lay just to the right of where his hand anticipated it, and as he lifted it from the drawer and unwrapped it, and his fingers touched cold steel, he thought he could sense her breathing through the wall. Her ear pressed to it, listening. His own breathing he knew must fill the room, though he could not hear it past his heart and the wash of blood past his eardrums.
He tried to still himself the better to hear, lowered himself again onto his gut, felt the floor punch him in the chest. Except it was his heart throwing itself against the floor, trying to break out. A remarkable muscle, like a coiled bicep excised and installed just under of his throat. Soon it would switch course and turn south and search out another route.
A floorboard the other side of the wall groaned and he pressed the gun’s stock to the place between his eyes, felt it there like an icepack. He shaped his mouth into an O, emptied his lungs. He had six rounds to her one—good odds by any measure. But in her state what would take her one might take him three, four—perhaps a full six to bring her down.
Then there was the berth. He looked at the ruined door, the splintered wood like a hand thrust through it pointing out the slug buried in the wall. A person could survive multiple gunshots, they could dig the slugs from your flesh and tie off your frayed arteries and patch you up. You could go on with a normal life. You heard of such things. You never heard of walking off a shotgun blast. A severed spine if you were lucky. You might wheel away from it. Take your food through a straw.
Still, the odds might favor him. Even if he had to squeeze off three, that didn’t bode well for her, and she knew it. That’s why she was waiting. Well, let her wait. She would come down from wherever she was soon enough, and then he might reason with her on his terms.
He looked at the chair. Imagined its back caved in, shards of it embedded in him. Saw the Dead Man’s chair in its little cave in the wall. Here was not a case where a mirror could help you much nor even to face the door. Here was something you couldn’t see coming no matter where you put yourself. That was not a thing his father had ever talked about, possibly hadn’t considered. This was a new thing.
Not that he’d spent much time on it himself, but at least he’d been wise enough not to show her the extra shells. Never tip your hand.
Was there an answer here that didn’t involve him shooting his way out of it? They’d talked plenty and what more was there to say? It would just be her yelling as always, him trying to defend himself with what little he had. All of which she’d anticipate before it was out and which she’d already have disarmed. She was too smart for anyone’s good, least of all her own. She’d done one year at the Academy, had a detective’s mind, a way of rooting things out and knowing your next move. She was a natural gambler and if she were not so disgusted by his own habits she’d make a brilliant card player.
No, a shootout was what she wanted, what she’d been after for some time, hounding and threatening and trying to bait him. It was what she’d come up for, why she’d aimed high, why his head was still on his shoulders while the bullet had almost pierced the ceiling.
Well, fine, a shootout is what she would get.
He drew his thumb down over the hammer. Its sound in that still moment was like a deck of cards poorly shuffled. Something off. You played long enough, you knew what it should sound like. Knew when something was missing.
He heard her now, at last. Heard her feet come quick down the hall. Saw her pale fist slide through the ragged hole in the door. Watched the shells spill from it in quick succession, counted them out—one, two, three, four, five, six. Heard them ring off the floor like an alarm. Watched them bounce and roll and hum in slow revolutions.
He lowered the hammer and drew his thumb back and flipped out the cylinder. Stared down at the floor spinning through the chambers. Like peering through a kaleidoscope.
He looked up. Saw the fist gone. Heard her footsteps—hard and fast over the floor—coming for him. He’d given her all the ammunition she needed.
“So what happens with all this lot then? Guv?”
Jonathan peered into the skip’s laden depths. There must be the equivalent of half a bus in there. Knives, machetes, blades. Made his blood run cold. He was glad it was locked away in the squad’s secure store and not out there on the streets. Just think what the local thugs could do with this lot. “I mean, I assume it’s going to be melted down?”
“Not this time.”
“Yeah?” Jonathan watched as the Sarge slicked down his newly-gelled hair. For like the three thousandth time that afternoon. If you asked him the bloke was too old for that sort of rubbish – barely had enough hair left to stick the gel on and it looked a bit ridiculous. Sort of wet and smooth, like one of those seals you saw on the telly, poking their heads out of the sea. Just before they got ate by a whale.
“Yeah. Chief Constable’s got some bonkers idea about Raising the Profile of Knife Crime in the Community. Not to mention Giving Something Back.”
“Seriously?” Jonathan could hear the capital letters in the Sarge’s voice. Not to mention the sarcasm. “How’s he going to do that with a skip full of blades?”
“Turn them into art. Or something.”
“What? Glue them to a canvas and hang it on the Town Hall wall?”
“Maybe. Beats me and all. Still, you’re supposed to give this guy a call. He’ll arrange the rest.”
Jonathan took the Post It note and tried to decipher whatever was squiggled on it. Looked like someone’s name. Ralph something. Sounded posh. And a phone number he could just about make out. “This the artist, then?”
“So, er, who’s responsible for security? Guv? Once it’s gone? And how the hell’s he going to take it away? Sodding thing must weigh a ton.”
The Sarge smoothed his hair again. “One, it’s his responsibility the minute it leaves police property. And two, how the hell should I know? Maybe he’ll hire a trained elephant to come and drag it away. Now get on and phone him, there’s a good lad. I’ve got custody reports to see to.”
Ralph stepped back, wiped his face on one sleeve and grinned. Not bad if he did say so himself. The Chief Constable would love this. All the right symbolism. Turning swords into ploughshares, whatever a ploughshare was. Sounded agricultural anyway. Something practical and as un-war-like as you could get.
His artwork wasn’t practical but it ticked every other box. Something symbolic, the Chief Constable had said. Something that drums home the message that we’re getting on top of knife crime. Winning the war against the thugs. Something that says peaceful streets. Well, you couldn’t get much more peaceful than this. Three months work and three thousand blades, and there she was. His angel. He’d call the piece Art Attack. Yeah. That was appropriate.
Now to celebrate. Make the most of the post-creative glow. Wash all this glue and stuff off his hands, then break open a beer. Or maybe a bottle of wine. Or even bubbly, if he still had one at the back of the fridge. This was going to make his name. He could feel it. Nothing up to now had quite made the mark, but this piece was huge. In all senses of the word. And the publicity the Chief Constable had promised… well, he could see it now. Big money clients, his own gallery, name in all the right art magazines. It was his ticket to success.
He patted the angel’s arm, then winced. Bit sharp, that. Maybe he should have ground the blades down first. He could always run a sanding disc over the edges tomorrow. First thing, before he made the call. Before he got the Chief Constable and the reporters in. Wouldn’t want any of them injuring themselves. He couldn’t stand the sight of blood.
“Hey, Pete, get a load of this shit!” Brad wiped his hands on his jeans then shoved the local paper at his mate.
“What’s that? Jeez, it’s all over chip fat.”
“Can’t help that, it’s what Chip Off the Block uses to wrap their nosh. Anyway, take a look. If you can stand to get your hands dirty that is.”
Pete took the wilting paper gingerly. “What am I looking at? Apart from the remains of your lunch?”
“That.” Brad pointed with an equally greasy thumb. “That picture there.”
“What, the artist tosser? What’s so good about him?”
“Not him you moron, what’s standing behind him?”
Pete squinted. “Can’t really see for the stains. Looks like some kind of bleeding angel.”
“That’s exactly what it is. Made out of knives.”
“Knives. You know, pointy things with blades.”
“Okay, okay, I know what a fucking knife is. Just can’t see how making a nice pretty angel out of them is any good to us.”
“Because they’re still knives, you muppet. All the hardware handed in at local nicks during all them an-amnes- thingies last year. Normally they’d be stored in the police lock-up – lasers, key pads, armed police dogs, you name it – and we’d never get near enough to get our hands on them. But this is in some poxy artist’s shed. All we have to do is take the pick-up round, load it up and all those lovely blades are ours. Either we take it apart and flog ’em off to the local lads one by one. Or we chop it up and sell it off for scrap. Either way we’re quids in. Might go some way towards paying off that gambling debt you’re always whingeing about.”
“Was not whingeing, you’re not the one that’s got to pay ten grand back.” Pete took another squint. “See what you mean, though. It’s printed his full name and everything. Bet we could look him up in the phone directory.”
“My thoughts exactly except I was going to check online. Then pay this artist, what’s his name, Ralph something, a visit, before they ship the statue out.”
Pete sucked newspaper print and chip fat off his thumb. “Better be tonight, then. I’ll bring the pick-up round.”
“Goodnight my sweet.” Ralph took a last look at the angel. Funny how attached to her he’d got. Then again, he had spent nearly every waking hour with her for the last three months. You could get close to any woman after that much time. Especially when she was as beautiful as this. But he had another commission to start next week, so he needed to clear some space. On his workshop floor and in his head. Needed to focus on something else. Needed to let his angel go. He’d miss her. For the first few days, until the new project sucked him in. Then she’d be something he thought about now and then. A warm place in his heart, a memory of good times spent in each other’s company. But nothing more.
He glanced around. Windows shut, door would soon be locked. Everything secure. The firm hired by the police would be here in the morning to pack his angel and transport her away. Not quite on wings of gauze; more in the back of a hefty truck. But still. She’d be gone. She’d have taken flight.
A worthwhile piece of work. Satisfying. He hoped the next one would be as good. He flicked the light switch off.
“Bigger than it looked in that picture.”
“Yeah.” Brad stood in the workshop and scratched his balls, his stomach and his head. It was bigger. In fact it was sodding enormous. Taller than him. About as tall as Pete. And Pete stood six foot four in his stockinged feet. Or socked, if you preferred. Tall, anyway. And looked like it weighed a fucking ton.
“How we going to get that into the pick-up then?” Pete was on the same wavelength for once. Too much so. He needed time and space to think.
“We, er, could try lifting it.”
“What, just the two of us? Get real.”
He supposed Pete had a point. That much metal came with a serious warning to their health. Danger to limb and possibly even life. He scratched his balls again. “Get a few more of the boys in?”
“It’d take half the gang and if you think I’m sharing the loot with them you’ve got another–”
“Okay, how about a winch?”
There was a moment’s silence, then, “That might work. Got some rope in the pick-up. If we wrap that round just under her arms we could use the truck as a counter-weight.”
“Exactly what I was thinking.” Brad had no idea what a counter-weight was but it sounded good. “Go for it, mate.”
Pete was back in minutes with a decent length of rope.
“Right, how d’you want to do this? Under her arms, you said?”
“Yeah. Toss it over her head first then wiggle it down. Hope she isn’t ticklish har har.”
Brad winced at the joke and tossed. The first time the rope bounced off. He tried again. Same result. It was worse than those bloody hoopla stalls at the local fair. He’d never won a single thing at those. Not even the giant teddy his girlfriend had asked him for. Had to cheat in the end and threaten the guy on the stall with a blade. And then she’d got bored with the bear after a couple of weeks and thrown it away. He should have thrown her away first.
He’d lost track of that blade soon afterwards; shame as it had a good sharp point. Be funny if it had got handed in to the cops. Be even funnier if it had turned up here, welded into this bloody angel thing.
“Third time’s the charm.” He tossed again, and this time the rope slid home. Slid and slithered and… caught, on the angel’s left tit. He stifled a snigger and reached to hook it free. Forgot about the other end of the rope. Caught his foot and tripped. Not much but just too much. He lurched forward. Straight towards the angel’s outstretched right hand. Tipped with pure cold steel. Oh shit.
“Everything okay? Guv?” Jonathan thought the Sarge was looking bad. Smoothing down his hair like he was going to tug it out. His face a nasty shade of puce. Didn’t look healthy, that. Ought to cut back on the beer or the fags, or both.
“There’s been a mishap. With the angel.”
“You what?” Now he knew something was badly wrong. The Sarge was an atheist through and through – had no truck with what he called ‘all that religious guff’. The department had heard enough about it over the years. For him to be banging on about angels was well out of character. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“The Chief Constable’s artwork, you idiot. The one made from all those knives.”
“Oh. Yes. That.” Jonathan had never understood. He’d seen a picture of it in the paper the other day, when he’d bought a bag of chips. Huge great thing, all sprouting wings and barbs. Looked quite ugly, he thought. Not to mention deadly, with all those blades pointing out. Someone should have taken an angle grinder to them. If anyone fell it’d take your eye out. Or slit your throat. “So what’s happened then?”
“Some of Mick Geraghty’s gang broke in to the artist’s shed.”
“What, and they’ve run off with it?” Good luck to them, he thought. Thing must have weighed as much as an elephant.
The Sarge had his head in his hands. “It was all arranged. Haulage company, security detail, everything in place. They were taking it to Victoria Square. They’d even erected a plinth. And now this. The Chief Constable will have my balls.”
If Jonathan hadn’t got to them first. The suspense was killing him. Just get on with it. Tell me the worst. “So what’s happened?” he said again.
“One of the burglars tripped and fell. Landed on the angel. Slit his throat.”
“Well if half what they say about Mick Geraghty’s mob is true then that’s no loss to the world.”
“Yes but it gets worse. The artist heard the screams and came rushing out. Fainted at the sight of all the blood. Landed on the angel and took his right eye out. The haulage guys took one look this morning and downed their tools. The security guard threw up in the nearest bush. And the Chief Constable’s told me he wants the whole thing to go ahead. I feel like I’m having a heart attack. What am I supposed to do?”
Jonathan was unimpressed. “Buggered if I know. Funny thing, though.”
The Sarge smoothed his hair again. “What’s that?”
“Saw a piece in the Evening Mail about that angel. The reporter described it as cutting edge art.”
The storm came in around 3 p.m., earlier than when the weatherman had said it would, and so Joe’s Tiki Bar cleared out early. The sea was a grey, rolling menace, and the sky seemed to meld with it in a grey sheet, like a veil – the other side of which no one could see. To several of the worried island goers that day, it felt like they had been closed in, trapped in a sealed-off room.
But Joe’s Tiki Shack just stayed where it was, shuttering its windows and turning on the overhead light, giving the wooden shack of a bar a strange, intimate hue that it did not usually have on normal days when passersby could converse with those sitting on its patio and island music and reggae and blues blared out like nothing had changed since the balmy 1970s that the older patrons now remembered so fondly.
The bartender and now-owner, Chris Lawton, lived above the bar in the tiny studio apartment that had come with the bar’s ownership since the inception in 1956, when Joe Waters opened the place that had become a local institution. Chris had divorced his wife two years previous, just no chemistry between them, no spark anymore, and moved to the coast on a whim without a job.
He’d just felt the itch to change it all. His office job had gotten cloying and he felt if he kept on in the same way, he would have blown his brains out eventually. It sounded hyperbolic, he knew – but he couldn’t divorce himself from the feeling in the pit of his gut.
His parents, living in their roomy California condos, and his sister, married with two children in New York City where they all hailed from, had thought he was joking when he told them. But he felt that one’s life couldn’t always stay on the same course. He felt an immovable hot firestone in his gut compelling him to move and go somewhere else. Ignoring it was futile – he could not ignore it.
The tall, skinny man with the baseball cap and the skin dry as sandpaper and the cold green eyes came in right as Chris was closing up the windows. He told Chris his name was Bobby and that he needed a drink.
Chris said, “You been following the news, man?”
“I’ve been busy driving,” the man said. His voice was like music – smooth and rich and deep. Chris wondered if he was a singer of some kind, someone famous, His face didn’t look familiar, but these days there were so many more famous people, and who could keep track of them all?
Chris put on a smile and said, “Well, there’s a big storm coming in. Everything’s on lockdown here. The city’s imposed a curfew.”
“Shit,” the man said – the profanity coming out unnatural from his beautiful voice. “My gas tank’s in the red, and I’ve been driving all damn day. I was hoping to grab a drink and then head down to find a hotel somewhere.”
Chris shrugged. “You’ve maybe got a chance of finding a hotel, you leave now.”
Bobby looked out the door he’d come in from, saw the sheet of grey clouds and mist, rolling towards them like a tank in a war zone. He said, “Not sure I want to chance it anymore. I want to survive, you know what I mean?”
Chris nodded and sensed that he was about to do what his parents had always warned against, and help a stranger in a situation that didn’t benefit him. He had never been good with charity and doing for others what he’d want done to himself. Chris was a product of the American conservative lifestyle, with a skeptical eye towards the Outsider, a lack of trust in what lay beyond his American front door. But he was in a new place, here in Florida on the coast, and how could one live that sort of life anymore in this kind of climate. Immigrants were all over the place here.
So he said to Bobby, sure, come on in. Stay a while.
Bobby hung his coat on one of the bar chairs, and put his hat on the bar. Inside, with the door closed, his eyes and face seemed that much brighter and more energized.
Chris told Bobby he could have a few drinks while he finished up closing down the bar – what was a few beers? Bobby drank Guinness and became more talkative, the more he drank. Outside, the storm was steadily approaching, in an unchanging march, a sentinel with an eye on their small island town that didn’t know what it had done to deserve this.
Bobby spoke about his job and where he was going. He was a salesman, selling electronics to various markets, iPods and iPads and the like, and he was on his way to Miami for a conference where he’d peddle his company’s wares in the biggest forum yet.
“You ever think you’re just made for something, man?” Bobby asked.
“Made for it?” Chris said. “I don’t know about that. I thought I was made to do somethin’ similar, sellin’ things back up north. But that isn’t how life turned out.”
“It’s so weird, though,” Bobby said. “It’s such a trivial, mathematic thing. Just selling these big companies our brand of the product. I think it’s the sheer adventure of it. I just love being able to drive. See that big open road. That’s the life I want. I never wanted to be chained to some desk. I think that’s why I’ve been having so much fun.”
“I can relate to you more than you know,” Chris said, washing a plate in the sink, the smooth buzz of the water drowned out by the winds outside, crashing against the tiny bar.
“How can you relate? Tell me something about yourself.”
Chris felt a twinge of oddity, of wrongness – just in the way Bobby postured himself, in the peculiarly open nature of his conversation, but he wrote it off yet again as the relic of his past. So he told Bobby a general, sanitized version of his coming there – of his wife and the boring, mundane decay of their marriage, of his increasing discontentment.
“Why’d you leave her? Your wife, that is,” Bobby said.
“I don’t know exactly,” Chris said after a pause, and it was close to the truth. He didn’t intend to get too deep into this, but it began to spill out anyway: “You ever just sort of reach a point where you can’t go on anymore? Like when everything in you, from blood to bones, is telling you it’s all wrong? We were like that, you see. It wasn’t working. We’d married right out of school, real early, you know, and we had the fucking stars in our eyes. Whole world was ahead of us. Thought it’d last forever… or, well, to be less cliché, we thought it would last longer than it did.”
Bobby was silent and patient, listening and attentive, while the wind outside battered the building and the thunder groaned and rumbled on the horizon. Chris supposed he liked Bobby’s willingness to listen. His sister had told him to go to therapy, but he had always assumed himself stronger than that. And plus, in their hometown? If anyone had found out he would’ve been mortified.
But now, here, in the dark bar in the storm coming, he found it oddly comforting. He made a mental note to tell his sister she had been right.
Bobby said he’d never felt anything like what Chris had described, that take-on-the-world kind of love.
Chris said, “That’s too bad.”
“I’ve often felt like a stranger, in a way,” Bobby said. “Like I’m always standing on the outside of a window watching the rest of the world.”
“That cause of your job?” Chris asked. “Like, are you just moving around too much?”
“What’s that?” Bobby asked, and there was such a blank, earnest confusion on his face that Chris was surprised. Chris’s warning bells started to go off – the idea that this man was not who he seemed – but he told himself he was being paranoid and jumpy, especially in the storm that was currently all around them.
“Your job,” Chris said, speaking slow as if to a person who was hard of hearing. “You told me you worked as a… a salesman, if I recall?”
Then the light came back in his eyes, that knowing spark, and he said, “Yeah. That’s right. I mean, it doesn’t help. But I think it’s just me that’s the problem. I’ve never exactly been sociable.”
Chris nodded. “Fair enough.”
The storm came in a torrential display, a cyclone of dark clouds the color of obsidian sand altars in the east and winds with the strength to topple semitrucks. The sounds of the cracking lightning followed by the low, guttural bellyache of the thunder became routine, every few minutes, and the hissing of the wind, like a firecracker’s wick newly lit, and the rain slapping on the pavement and the wood and concrete, became like a symphony. Chris found it oddly soothing.
The power went out after about thirty minutes of it, and so he and the man who called himself Bobby sat alone in the dark; Chris on the stool behind the bar and Bobby at one of the circular wooden tables that sat around the floor. He got up and pulled back the cloth curtain over the window facing out toward the beach, peering out the window.
“Jesus,” Bobby said, “it’s really coming down out there. It always like this here on the coast?”
“When it rains, it pours,” Chris said.
Bobby nodded. “See, yeah. I’m a Midwestern boy. Grew up in Kansas. We had tornados to worry about, but that didn’t happen all that often.”
“Guess you got lucky,” Chris said.
“Yeah, until now,” Bobby said.
They had lapsed into silence again when Bobby spoke up: “It’s refreshing, in a way. To be able to just sit here without all the fucking noise of the cell phones and the technology and the always-moving. It’s nice to be able to just exist.”
Chris looked at him and chuckled. “Odd way to see it.”
“How’s it odd, you mean?”
“Yeah. I don’t see it as odd at all. I think people would be very happy if they just quit using the technology. If they’d just free themselves, you know? People weren’t meant to spend all their time staring at screens.”
“Yeah, but you’re saying all this in the middle of a goddamn storm,” Chris said. “Not exactly encouraging people to do it. They just have to. They’ll turn them back on right after the power comes on.”
Bobby shrugged. “Then I’m glad they have the chance to experience a freer life right now. I think sometimes people need a bit of a push.”
“A push towards what?”
“Towards something they may not have been willing to do otherwise,” Bobby said, and the way he said it, quiet and reverent like a missionary of some kind, sent an odd chill down Chris’s arms, put his arm hairs up like there was some electricity about the room. “Something good for them,” Bobby was saying.
Chris decided that there was something he fundamentally just didn’t like about Bobby – something off-kilter and strange. It was a fundamental something that was broken in him. Chris resigned himself, mentally, from the conversation, and told Bobby he was retiring to his upstairs apartment to read a book and rest from the day, and all its perils. He told Bobby he could stay downstairs and relax until the storm passed if he wished.
Bobby gave him a toothy grin and a wave. “I’ll hold down the fort,” he said. “Protect it from any intruders.”
Chris nodded. “That’d be great, yeah.”
The book Chris got from the library was a Stephen King novel, Misery, and he read it for a half-hour in bed, clothes and shoes still on, with the storm browbeating the world outside, the wind and the rain forming an almost relaxing symphony. Then he was falling asleep, eyes heavy, and he woke up with his book on his chest and the light through the window slightly different. It was 5 p.m. by that time, and the storm was still going. So far as he could tell, it had not ceased.
Chris put the bookmark back in his book and went downstairs, his joints aching and tired, his head a bit fuzzy from the nap. He’d never liked taking naps in the middle of the day, not when he had other plans later at any rate.
Bobby was downstairs leafing through a tourist manual of the area, which Chris kept in a stack by the front door for people who had somehow come to Joe’s Tiki Bar with tunnel-vision, not seeing anything else.
Bobby looked up and smiled. “Hope you’re rested up. Looks like the storm’s not leaving us yet.”
Chris said, “I suppose not.”
He poured himself a glass of whiskey and leaned back against the bar.
“Drinking with me now, huh?” Bobby said.
“Why not? Not like I’ll be needin’ to drive anywhere.”
Bobby said something, but it was drowned out by the sound of the storm surge. Bobby went to look out the window and said, “Holy shit. You’ve gotta see this.”
Chris went to the window and looked out. The storm had met the land, had encroached and devoured the beach. The water was flooding the streets. Cars left parked there were now half-submerged in water. It was seeping through the doors of businesses there. Joe’s Tiki Shack was only two blocks up the road and Chris felt a kind of tug in his soul, a terror – it was the inevitable, really; was what it was. It was the sense that everything he knew was about to end. He was being dramatic. But he wasn’t. The fear of nature was the most innate thing in a man – the primal thing, the original fear, really, aside from death itself. Man had been conquering nature forever and nature bit back.
The water was coming closer to the door.
Chris’s brain kicked into action at last. He remembered the materials in the closet, stored there for the worst-case thing. He ran and fetched two sandbags from the closet and handed one to Bobby, told him to put it under the door. And so they did. They sat back at one of the tables together when they were done, both with drinks poured before them, and Chris didn’t feel much better about their chances. They were quiet and listened to the storm battering everything.
“I’ve got to tell you, man,” Chris said. “You’re a weird guy, and I’m not sure we’d get along under normal circumstances. But I’m damn glad you’re here now.”
“What makes you say that?” Bobby said. “What kind of manners is that?”
“Man, you just rub me wrong,” Chris said. “I’m sorry I offended you. But that’s the truth.”
They sat in silence and Chris felt something rotten in what he’d said. He hadn’t been raised that way.
It was Bobby who spoke first: “Let’s start clean, then. I can tell you’re stressed the hell out right now. Let’s go back and start from zero.”
“Look. If we’re going to be stuck together, in this damned storm? May as well try to be friends. Clearly, I’ve offended you. That wasn’t my intent. So I’d like to go back to the beginning and start fresh. Act like we’re just meetin’ now.”
Chris sighed and said sure, why not. He didn’t know why Bobby was so insistent. People came in all types, he reminded himself. And maybe he had been wrong. And what did he really have to lose, here in the storm? If anything it would be a good way to pass the time.
So he offered his hand.
And Bobby shook. Bobby’s hand was cold and smooth and his grip was firm.
They kept drinking. Chris would get up and refill their glasses with rum and they sat there while the storm pounded and pounded against the door and the walls and the roof, like a desperate stranger, pleading to be let in. They talked about their love lives, Bobby spinning tales about his crazy exes spread across the country; girls he’d met and spent a few days with at a time and then they drifted apart, girls whom he sometimes called when he got lonely and who sometimes called him for any variety of reasons. He spoke of the colorful personalities they had, their wild hippie opinions and their odd hours painting and playing music and all other manner of things. They had enriched his life, all of them, he said.
Chris said his wife had been the primary relationship in his life. The bedrock, really. She had been the girl who stuck by him and in his experience that was the most important thing. He said over the years they had grown stale in a way, less excited, the fire died.
“So you were wrong,” Bobby said.
“You were wrong. It turned out that it was less important than you thought, to have that stability. Me personally, I’ve never found that to be true, that it’s more important to have someone there than have someone good for you. I’ve always found it better to just be honest. You don’t compromise. You don’t settle for less.”
Chris nodded and couldn’t meet Bobby’s eyes. These were the thoughts that had consumed him in the night even when he was married. They had gnawed and eaten at him, and eventually driven him to leave, just up and go, on impulse. He hadn’t even said goodbye to his wife, had just taken his stuff and gone and called her when he was two states away. She had been so furious that she hung up on him then. They hadn’t talked since. Fitting end to the whole mess, he thought.
By that point he and Bobby were both drunk. Bobby was standing up and swaying in the room, coming dangerously close to hitting the tables or the chairs and knocking them over, but he didn’t. He said, “With the storm out there, this place feels like an old pirate’s ship. I’ve always enjoyed old bars like this. Can’t ever get enough of them, you know.”
Chris was seeing doubles by that point, his head swimming and his limbs feeling soft and pleasantly lit, the whole room feeling very light and swirling in spite of his dread from the storm still resting in his gut like hot coals. Chris laughed at Bobby swaying about. He said, “Man, I’ve never met a soul like you before.”
“That a compliment, or are we going at it again?”
“It’s just a statement,” Chris said. “Of fact. You’re an interesting guy. That’s all. I’m just drunk.”
“So you’re telling me that with no clear reason to say it?” he asked. “Words, just floating in the aether, no point or rhyme or reason? Seems rather pointless to me. Rather lackadaisical. I expected more from you.”
Bobby was clearly drunk – he’d just taken another gulp of his rum. He was swaying now like a madman.
Chris said, “So I’ve been opening my soul to you. What about you, though? What’s your deal? You said you just never felt like you fit in, something like that?”
Bobby cast his eye at Chris and said, “That’s better. You got a point to it now. Real conversation. It’s a lost art.”
Swaying on his feet almost like dancing, he took another swig of the rum – the glass almost empty now. He said, “I have walked through life like a drifter, a tourist. I never felt like I belonged. Hell, most of the time, I barely feel anything at all. Like my insides are goddamned frozen, you feel me? It’s infuriating. It’s like I’m living in some glass case, but I can walk around, but no one can get in and I can’t reach out.”
“Jesus,” Chris said – he hadn’t expected this.
“I did find a solace,” Bobby said, eyes cast to the floor, slurring his words, but Chris knew he wasn’t bullshitting – his tone was too somber, and Bobby didn’t seem the joking type anyway.
“What’s that?” Chris said.
“I can really only feel a damned thing when I put a knife in someone,” he said. “It’s fucked up, but… that’s what it is. I can feel alive when I’m feeling someone else die. It’s like a compulsion and I can’t be rid of it.”
Chris sat there and felt a chill go through him colder than any stormwinds. He felt like he had to choose his next words very carefully. But the alcohol in him was surging and raging back and forth like its own miniature storm, microcosm of the chaos outside, volcanic hot bile. There was nowhere to go. He couldn’t go outside, lest he be swept up in the floods, cast out to sea.
He wondered which was more preferable then – dying by the storm or by the hand of the man sitting across from him, obviously mentally unstable.
Bobby was still talking, drunk honesty spewing forth: “I’ve actually just killed another, this past week. It was in northern Florida and I used a knife. A man probably on his way to some business conference. I left him in the bushes in a small town off the highway. His car’s probably impounded by now. I wonder if anyone’s found him. But it was good for now. Saturated me for now.”
Chris realized he couldn’t think straight. Bobby looked him dead in the eye, blank naive concern, like he’d just confessed to something much more innocuous, an embarrassing hobby perhaps. “I understand if you’re troubled,” he said.
Chris heard himself saying he needed to excuse himself. Needed to think.
He found himself next in the upstairs bathroom in his private apartment. It was a small place with faded yellow tiles, no longer so chipper as they had once been, instead now retirement-home-shade, placating and dull. The mirror was smudged from the years. He told himself to clean it but hadn’t gotten around to that. There was a small rectangular window high up on the wall he could usually see the coastline from. Now it was all covered in rain, coming down like bullets. The whole world was rain. Nothing but the grey smog and the water rushing and the destruction of all things man had made.
And below, downstairs, the man who had, apparently, killed other men for no reason beyond his own gratification, the need to “feel.”
He was trapped, as it went, between a rock and a hard place.
Trembling hands, he took out his phone and looked up the murder Bobby had been talking about, browsed through the northern Floridian news.
And there it was.
A man, Peter Shaw, had been found stabbed in the gut five times in the bushes off the highway I-10 between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. He’d been on his way to a business conference on the coast. His family was quoted, tearfully, as saying they didn’t know who did it or why it happened.
The whole thing had an air about it of years ago, when things were murkier and the war had ended and all the drifters were out. This just didn’t “happen” anymore. Not like that. It was alien territory. Chris felt like he should stay in the bathroom until the storm passed. Just wait it out.
But he couldn’t.
If Bobby came up here, perhaps with some weapon he’d kept hidden this whole time… well, he wouldn’t have any defense. And why would Bobby tell him any of the things he’d just said if he planned to let Chris live? That made no sense.
So, Chris deduced, he was now in a fight for his life.
Shaking, he got to his feet. He looked in the mirror. His hair was matted to his forehead with sweat. His whole body was weak and shaky and he felt like he had lost a lot of weight, like he hadn’t eaten in days. The power was out now, and the storm raged outside and seemed like it had grown closer somehow…
When Chris came back downstairs, every footstep on the stairs creaking like an old pirate ship and feeling like it was going to give out and he’d plunge downwards, Bobby was not facing him. Instead, Bobby was looking out the window at the storm. In the dark, he seemed smaller and thinner. The window provided some light through the dark bar and Chris could see Bobby’s bare neck, thought about how easy it’d be to take a knife from behind the bar and just end it all now, just put a punctuation mark on this whole odd, surreal affair…
But he was too slow.
Bobby turned around, his eyes gleaming, and Chris could see the storm in his eyes, all the rage and turmoil and the force-of-nature, and Chris felt like he was going to fall down, from all the fear of that moment.
But he stayed standing, though his hands gripped the stairwell enough for his knuckles to turn white.
“It’s really coming down out there,” Bobby said. “Sheets of rain. The streets are all flooded. You’re lucky this place is so well-fortified. Otherwise we could be talking knee-deep in water right now.”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “Lucky.”
He came down to the floor and faced Bobby, feeling like he was now in some old Western. Good guy faces bad guy. A standoff. He wished he’d had a gun, had given into the impulse to buy one after opening the store. He saw now in retrospect that it may have been a good idea after all. But then, who could have predicted this?
Bobby said, “I don’t like the way you’re looking at me, man.”
“You know what you said,” Chris said. “It’s just because, you know, I’m not sure I can trust you anymore.”
“I haven’t done a thing to you so far,” Bobby said, and it struck Chris how sober he seemed now, how little the alcohol seemed to be influencing his movements now. “If I was going to hurt you, I’d have done it by now.”
“I didn’t know your secrets before,” Chris said. “No way you’re letting me live after this storm passes. Not now that you’ve told me what you do. What you are.”
Bobby smirked; a toothy, almost sharklike grin, wide and predatory, and said, “My name’s not really Bobby. And I’ll change the way I look after I leave here. They won’t find me no matter what. I know it might be hard to believe, my compadre, but I don’t care about you. I’ve got no beef with you. I just wanted to have a conversation. I’m an honest type of guy. And you enjoyed it – don’t deny that. Don’t deny that you got something from this.”
Chris said, “You’re a murderer. You kill men.”
“Labels,” Bobby said, shrugging. “I can’t defend what I do. I don’t pretend to be able to fit into normal society.”
“Even then,” Chris said. “You should be locked up. You can’t be allowed in normal society.”
Bobby looked hurt, genuinely hurt. “It’s such a shortcut though. To condemn me that way. I think you’re being reductive. I don’t think you’re thinking this through properly. We were having a good conversation earlier, when it was about you.”
Chris’s hand was on the knife in the drawer by the sink. He kept a firm grip but his hand was shaking; whole body was shaking… he wasn’t used to this at all, this kind of conflict. He wanted to just sleep and sit back, watch the whole thing through someone else’s eyes, a movie and not his own life.
Bobby was approaching. Hands up and his face deceptively innocent, soft like a teenager’s. He looked like anyone. Like a guy you’d see in the park with a girlfriend minding his business. But there had been blood on those hands he was holding up as a sign of innocence.
Chris could feel the next moments for the rest of his life. He thrust the knife out in front of him and felt it enter flesh, piercing both it and the clothes that surrounded – he had stabbed Bobby in the gut. It was such an odd feeling, the knife entering flesh; he’d never felt anything like it before. For a split second, as he turned his head up and his eyes met Bobby’s shocked, pained eyes, Chris knew what Bobby felt to some degree. And he was afraid of it, afraid of that part of himself…
Bobby howled in pain, his scream piercing the air, timed right as another thundercrack sounded and seemed to shake the Earth. Bobby looked at him with revulsion and surprise and maybe a bit of hurt, and for a split second Chris felt he should apologize.
But as Bobby turned and ran for the door, the impulse faded.
Chris watched Bobby run.
Into the storm.
The door flapped open like a broken jaw and the rain flooded in. The storm howled outside. Nothing but a gray miasma, all rage and wind and Mother Nature taking her revenge on the earth. And Bobby was gone, lost somewhere in all of it.
The storm would pass and things got back to relative normalcy. There were repairs to be done. The road had been washed away in parts by the beach and they’d have construction crews out repairing it for two days straight. They would find out that two people had died because they refused to leave their trailers, tenuously rooted to the ground, and one old woman had a heart attack when a particularly nasty lightning bolt struck.
Chris cleaned the knife of Bobby’s blood in the sink, watched it flow down the drain and pondered how easy it was to cause harm, draw blood and wash it away, pondered the fleeting nature of human life compared to the things they made, the things they constructed, the things nature did of its own chaotic whims. Humans were so fragile, he thought.
He would check the paper and the internet for a day or two to see if any stabbing victims had been admitted to a hospital the day of the storm. Nothing. Of course Bobby wouldn’t do that – he wouldn’t draw attention to himself. He would be off somewhere on his own. Licking his wounds.
So Chris, warily, got back to normal life. He drank with friends of his, other local workers around town and unemployed barflies and all other manner of people who came into the bar. He went out on a date or two in the fall, women who were attractive and nice and fun, but who he couldn’t see a feasible future with. Everything seemed faded and in a fog. Life was muted.
The day of the storm faded from everyone’s mind as time rolled on. Chris would think of Bobby in dreams, and when he’d wake up he would forget most of them, but have the vague sensation that he had a nightmare. When he passed people in the street he sometimes got the vague sensation that eyes were on him, that somewhere in the crowd, he was there, moving slow and sure, the glacial-paced death coming for him.
Still handcuffed, Butler Simmons lay on the steel bench, his back against the riveted iron latticework of the town’s musty jail cell. He was nauseous, his head pounded. He drifted in and out of consciousness. During a lucid moment he blinked and tried to clear his blurred vision by focusing on the old stumblebum who lay curled up on the floor in the adjacent corner. And then he closed his eyes as a dream began to filter through.
He was a teenager in his room at home, his jaw and ribs aching from a fistfight. His normally well-groomed father, Bill, wearing a wrinkled, dirty yellow shirt, hovered over him. Unshaven, mouth taut and twisted, he poked at Butler with his finger. “I’m not home but a few days a month to visit with your mother. I’m not here to deal with any malarkey from you.” His father glared; saliva gathered at the corners of his mouth. “What’s wrong with you, boy? Rest of the time I’m home I don’t even want to know you’re in this house. You got that?”
Then a grizzled face hovered again, and the yellow shirt partially blocked the view of the hallway outside his bedroom door where his father and his mother, Ruth, stood talking. “I’ll say one thing for him,” Bill said. “The kid’s a scrapper. Two punks on him and he was still taking care of business.”
The words were an unexpected balm that momentarily washed away all Butler’s aches and pains. Then Bill pulled Ruth roughly against him and kissed her. She giggled as they stumbled through their bedroom door.
“You been fight’n, have ya?” Butler came to for a moment and looked up through the blur as the bum in the yellow shirt stared down at him. Butler’s head began to throb; he winced and closed his eyes.
Butler Simmons stood five-eight, thick and muscular, with a ruddy complexion and a buzz-cut that now showed an egg-sized lump covered in dried blood on the crown of his head. His large hands were permanently gloved in calluses from years working as a brick layer. He was thirty-one, but looked fifty.
Since he was seventeen, Butler had been in and out of jail, always for fighting and often for resisting arrest. It confused his friends who knew him to be generally happy and easy going. Butler didn’t fully understand why he fought either. All he knew was that whenever he was hurting inside, it was his drug of choice, and an easy drug to find. There were always loudmouths in the bars and clubs, or gangs of foul-mouthed toughs walking through the mall. The numbers didn’t matter. The bigger the brawl the better, because all Butler cared about was the banging, dizzying, breathtaking fury of the fight that, in the moment, he wished could go on forever.
Footsteps sounded on the jailhouse stairs and a door opened. Butler tried to focus but could see nothing but the blurred image of a man. “You ready to calm down now?”
Butler struggled to sit up but had to stop and lean against the bars to quiet the pounding in his head.
“I’m talking to you, Simmons.”
It was the smarmy desk sergeant with the Errol Flynn moustache. Through the pain Butler nodded his head and then slurred, “I’m good. How bout taking these cuffs off.”
The sergeant fingered a key and motioned him to the cell door. Butler stood up, then wobbled and collapsed onto the floor.
Butler awoke in a hospital room. His mother sat in a nearby chair reading a magazine. He scanned the room for his father.
“He’s not here, honey.” Ruth closed the magazine and pulled her chair closer to the bed.
Butler’s father was a high-altitude iron-worker, and proud of it. Hard and wiry, and several inches taller than Butler, Bill worked on bridges and skyscrapers all over the country and was only home a few days each month. When Butler was growing up, he would listen in awe as his dad bragged about places he had been and things he had done. Bill spent most of his visits in the bedroom with Ruth, having noisy sex, or in neighborhood taverns drinking with friends. Throughout his childhood Butler yearned for his father’s attention but Bill had no interest in his son. Still didn’t.
Ruth smiled at him. “How do you feel?”
Butler carefully felt the bandage on his head. “I’ve been better. At least the headache’s not as bad and I can see okay. I think someone got me with a cue.”
Ruth leaned back in her chair her expression tight as if she were trying to hold something inside.
“What’s the matter?” Butler said.
“You’ve got to stop fighting, Bubby.”
“I know, Mom. I’ll work on it.”
“It’s different this time.” She startled him when she grabbed his hand. “They had to operate. You almost died.”
He stared at her for several long seconds then looked at the ceiling and swallowed. “What day is it?”
“It’s Thursday. You’ve been here four days.”
“Anyone checked on Smoothie?”
“He’s okay. I was over there this morning. Cats shouldn’t be so fat, you know. It’s not good for him.”
“What about the cops?”
“They dropped the charges. I think they’re worried you’re gonna sue them.”
“Maybe I should.” He tried to sit up.
“No, no. You’ve gotta be on your back for a while.” Butler settled into his pillow. He had never seen his mother so concerned.
“Your dad was here to see you.”
Butler’s mood instantly brightened. “Yeah?”
“It was Tuesday, I think. The doctors were still real worried about you then.”
“That was nice of him. I didn’t know. Did he stay a while?”
Ruth motioned toward a chair next to the door. “He sat right over there.”
Butler stared at the chair and the room grew awkwardly silent. Since he was a teenager, Butler kept a picture of his father standing on an iron beam thirty stories over the Chicago waterfront. It still took his breath away every time he looked at it. There was Bill, strong and confident, surrounded by a vast and luxurious openness, with the world of streets and buildings far below. Butler had tried to become an iron-worker but was dizzy and immobile at significant heights. Bill never missed a chance to humiliate him over it. Even at thirty-one, Butler was devastated by Bill’s criticism and, equally, savored even the smallest and often insincere bits of acceptance and praise.
“What about Silvia?”
Ruth hesitated. “I called her, Bubby.” She forced a smile and shook her head no.
Butler was twenty-eight when he married Silvia. She was an old high-school friend who fell in love with him during one of his longer periods of stability. She was intrigued by his easy nature and his bizarre need to fight, and was convinced she could help him put an end to it. In fact, Butler kept things under control for two years and was very happy. Then the economy went bad and he was laid off. They were about to lose the house until his father finally stepped in and loaned them some money. But then Bill started to needle him and Butler finally lost it. In the aftermath of seven separate fights and subsequent trouble with the police, Silvia’s tolerance and understanding wore out. She moved into her own apartment. Their divorce was finalized three months ago.
“You’ve had a skull fracture, Mr. Simmons.” The young doctor put on his glasses and slipped the x-ray film into the clip over the lighted board by Butler’s bed. “It looks like it wasn’t the first.”
“I’ve had a few lumps along the way. Lucky I’ve got a hard head.” Butler grinned.
The doctor didn’t smile back. “When you first got hit did you black out?”
“No, I went down for a minute but I got right back up. It hurt like hell.”
“You could see and function okay? Your speech wasn’t slurred?”
“I was fine. I was going strong until the cops came and threw me in jail. That’s when I started feeling sick, couldn’t get my eyes to work.”
The doctor nodded. “Right. It’s because, along with the fracture, you developed a swelling between the brain and the skull, what we call a subdural hematoma.”
“Untreated, the swelling might have caused permanent damage to the brain, or even death. We had to drill several burr holes to relieve the pressure. Fortunately the procedure was successful.”
“Well, I’m glad of that. Thanks.”
The doctor sat down in the chair next to the bed. “Here’s the problem, Mr. Simmons. Patients who have experienced subdural hematomas become more and more prone to them. With any additional head trauma they’re likely to appear again, and it can happen days or even weeks after an event.”
Butler tried to think of something clever to say, but couldn’t.
“So we need you to stay on your back for the next week or so, make sure this one is behind us. After that you’ll have to take it easy, re-assess your lifestyle. We can get into more details at our follow-up examination but in the future you’ll have to avoid certain types of activities. No rugby, hockey, boxing, wrestling, football, no contact sports of any kind. If it takes a helmet, you’ll have to avoid it.”
Butler felt as if he had just been given a life sentence.
The doctor smiled. He stood up, took off his glasses and slipped them into his breast-pocket. “I wouldn’t worry, Mr. Simmons. Most people make out just fine. Take it easy and I’ll see you in two weeks.”
Silvia had liked a clean, orderly house. That had been a big change for Butler, who as a bachelor had been happy living amongst piles of laundry and counters filled with dirty dishes. As he lay on the couch Butler thought about a day early in their marriage. Silvia had been working on the house and had finished the kitchen with new white lace curtains and placed a large bouquet of cut zinnias on the table. She had just returned the broom to the closet as he came through the door. The afternoon sun was streaming in the window. And there was beautiful Silvia wearing white shorts and a dark tank-top, smiling at him as she wiped her hands on a towel. It was a small moment, but his heart was so full. Seeing her there in the center of the sparkling kitchen, he realized how much better his life was going to be now that they were together.
She had given him a puzzled look and said, “What?”
They had hugged and he had been unable to speak, but she had him in her arms and everything was okay.
Now, as he lay on his couch with Smoothie curled at his feet, his heart full at the remembering, that speechless feeling came back to him again. But he was alone and empty and the feeling stuck in his throat and pulled at him and he felt as if he were descending into a great darkness. He needed to fight, but his head throbbed and he knew he couldn’t.
He scanned the room. Since Silvia had gone he had drifted back to his old ways. He hadn’t vacuumed or dusted. The coffee table was filled with glasses, coke cans and dishes. Papers and magazines littered the floor around the couch and lounge-chair. An overflowing laundry basket sat on the floor by the front entrance where his jacket hung over the newel-post. When he had gotten up and gone to the kitchen to refresh his coffee he had to hold the cup when he poured because there was no place to set it. At least now he had an excuse for the clutter, he thought. The doctor had insisted he remain on his back for another week.
Someone knocked at the door and it immediately opened. “It’s just me, Bubby.” Ruth came into the house with a grocery bag in one arm and a handful of mail in the other. She was wearing a scarf and a rain-coat with dripping-wet shoulders. “It’s nasty out there. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing fine.”
Smoothie stood and stretched. Ruth handed Butler the mail and went into the kitchen, the cat following close behind. Butler shuffled through the letters and tossed them on the coffee table. In the kitchen dry cat food clattered into the bowl.
“Smoothie’s almost out of food,” Ruth said. “I’ll pick some more up for you.”
“There’s a big bag in the closet.”
“Oh, good. I can’t stay now, honey, but I’ll come back later and do some of these dishes.”
“Maybe you could bring Dad with you.”
Ruth stepped into the doorway. “He left today, Bubby. I thought he called you.”
Butler shook his head and said, “No.”
“Sorry. You know how he is.”
“Yeah. If you talk to him, tell him the union hall called. They’re putting me on a big commercial job next month. It’s supposed to last a year.”
“Don’t you need to wait and see what the doctor says?”
“It’s four weeks from now, Mom. Besides, I’ve gotta work.”
“Well… I guess. Dad will be happy to hear that. I know he worries about you.”
Butler put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling.
His hand shook when he picked up the phone and dialed Silvia’s number. It rang three times.
He closed his eyes at the sound of her voice.
“Hello?” she said again.
“Hey… It’s me.” He heard her take a short breath. “Don’t hang up. Please.”
Rustling sounded through the phone and then a moment of silence. “What do you want?”
“I just wanted… I just wanted to talk to you. I’m going nuts here in the house.” Butler shifted the phone to his other ear and settled into the couch. “I have to lie flat on my back for a week. I’ve got another three days and then I go back to the doc.”
“Your mom said it was bad.”
Smoothie jumped onto the cushion and lay down next to him. “I’m over the hump now.”
“Until the next time.”
“No. I can’t do that anymore. It’s over.”
“I hope it is, Butler. For your sake, I hope it is.”
“Come see me.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Why not? A quick visit with a sick friend. Besides, Smoothie’s been asking about you. Come see him. I’ll stay in the bedroom.”
She laughed. “How is Smoothie anyway?”
“He’s fat. And he wants to see you.” There was a long pause. “Just come to the front door and wave. It would mean a lot to both of us.”
“Butler… It’s over. You know that.”
“I know. I’m just so bored lying here.” His voice cracked as he said, “I was hoping to have something to look forward to.”
She sighed. “Maybe I could stop by after work tomorrow.”
He sat up. “Oh, that would be great.”
“It’ll just be for a few minutes, Butler. It doesn’t mean anything. Visiting a sick friend, that’s all.”
He worked until after midnight cleaning up the clutter. His head was pounding when he went to bed but he was fine when he woke up. He called the florist first thing and ordered a bouquet of cut-flowers for the table, then he washed the rest of the dishes, cleaned out Smoothie’s litter-box, and mopped the kitchen floor. He organized the mail and dusted and vacuumed the living-room. He did a load of wash and put fresh towels in the bathroom and kitchen.
At three o’clock he shaved and took a shower then put on a fresh pair of jeans and a rust-colored polo-shirt. In the living-room he slipped in a CD and lay down on the couch, closed his eyes. He was tense and maybe it was his imagination, but his head felt a little tingly. He made himself a promise that from now on he would strictly follow the doctor’s orders. He had begun to doze when someone knocked at the door. He leapt from the couch and grabbed his head with both hands as a sharp pain hit him like a shot, then just as quickly subsided. He opened the door. It was the delivery from the florist.
On his way into the kitchen with the flowers the phone rang. He picked it up.
“It’s me.” There was a sense of stony strength and immediacy in Silvia’s voice. He braced himself.
“I just wanted to let you know I won’t be coming by.”
Butler set the flowers on the table, pulled out a chair and sat down. Smoothie rubbed against his leg and meowed. “How come?”
“It’s just not going to work. I should never have agreed to do it.”
“You’re just visiting a sick friend.”
“Butler, I hope it all works out for you. I really do, but I have to go now.”
“But…” She hung up.
Smoothie rubbed against his leg again. Butler set the phone on the table next to the flowers and went to the closet. He pulled out the bag of cat-food, returned to the chair and picked at the braided-string closure. He pulled a loose end but the braid just tightened into a hard knot. He always had trouble with these. He tried the other end and the cat meowed again. Butler finally went to the counter, took a knife from the block and slashed the bag twice across the middle. He ripped it open and left it on the floor. Smoothie looked at him, then hunched down and started eating.
It took four of them; a cop, the bouncer from the Blue Duck and two civilians, to get Butler Simmons handcuffed. They jammed him, still struggling and kicking, into the back of the police-car. His body was wedged between the rear seat and the steel mesh partition, his head on the floor behind the driver’s seat. The cop, breathing heavily, the side of his face smeared with blood and the sleeve of his leather jacket ripped at the shoulder, pulled open the rear passenger door and stomped on Butler’s head several times. He slammed the door and scanned the crowd of onlookers, his angry glare daring anyone to speak. The crowd, sporadically lit in red and blue by the rotating police-car bubbles, headed back into the bar.
Butler gasped for breath through the acrid smell of the heavy rubber floor-mats. He thought of the picture, his father on the steel beam, the endless sky, the buildings far below.
CHAPTER 1 – STILL NOT DEAD
So, I wake up and I’m still not dead. What’s worse is there’s bright lights and white walls everywhere. I feel like I’ve been reincarnated into some strange Keanu Reeves film, only I obviously took the wrong pill. There’s someone coughin’ like they’re trying to retch up a lung at the other side of the room and all the time I hear this beep of a nearby monitor. I try to move my arm and feel it held by something. I look to my left side and see a drip connect to my arm via this clear plastic tube. A clear but obviously viscous fluid is sliding slowly into my arm and I hope with all my heart that it’s fucking poison slowly killing me. I wouldn’t be so lucky. There’s this background pain somewhere around my spine but I feel like I’m warm and floating up near the ceiling, I can see a small cobweb in sharp relief. I drift off.
I’m in the white room again. I see a woman in a uniform scowling down at me as she ticks off some things on a clipboard as she glances at the monitor by my bed. I guess she sees my eyelids flutter coz she smiles at me but it doesn’t reach her eyes. I see her shaking her head as she walks away. I drift off.
My Mum is sittin’ by the bed. I can see her lips movin’ and tears tricklin’ down her prematurely lined face. I briefly feel her touch my hand. It’s weird coz although she’s there I can’t hear no words. It’s like there’s a film playin and I’m viewin it with the sound off. I drift off.
There’s a guy in a white coat at the end of the bed havin a whispered conversation with a blonde nurse over a clipboard. They must be arguin coz they are in each other’s faces with and seein nothin but each other, especially not me eyeballin em. She grabs the clipboard from him wiv an angry gesture and puts it on the end of my bed. The nurse turns to leave and the guy in the white coat give her arse a little squeeze. She glares at him and storms off. I feel sick but my eyelids are heavy. I drift off.
I’m runnin through a forest and I can hear it behind me. I crash through the trees feeling every one of em scratch at my skin as if they’re reaching out for me. I stumble into a clearing and stop to catch my breath and look up at the moon. It’s full and fat, it looks so bright I feel like I could reach out and touch it. I hear a howl. It’s close, after me. I plunge once more into the trees my breathing getting faster but my legs keep moving. I feel the pain of a multitude of cuts all over my arms and my face. I hear it now, catching up to me closer. My heart hammers in my chest as if it wants to escape. I finally escape the trees, I’m standing at a cliff edge, and I can’t even see the bottom. Nowhere to go. The beast is seconds away. I jump and feel a scream building in my lungs.
I awake sat up in bed sweat pouring on my brow. A nurse has rushed over. I blink at her stupidly.
“Are you ok pet?” she asks with a faint Durham accent.
I blink and look around; I must have been thrashing in my sleep as I’ve pulled the drip from my arm. The nurse spots it and sorts it out.
“You were making a right racket and that scream, I nearly jumped out of my skin!”
She leans close to me and I smell her perfume. It’s a musky pleasant aroma but I suddenly feel sick. Without warning, I vomit down my front in one quick convulsion. The usual carrots mixed in the mainly fluid. I retch but nothing more comes out. I gasp for breath for a moment.
The nurse touches my arm for a moment in a strangely tender gesture.
“Never mind pet, it’s the painkillers. We’ll get you cleaned up in a moment.”
This act of gentleness has my eyes watering and I fight back the tears that try to come. I have to lie back and suffer the indignity of my Durham angel cleaning and changing me. I drift off.
CHAPTER 2 – LECTURES AND PIES
So, I’m sat in this tiny little office. It’s too bright and I’m finding myself squinting against the harshness of the fluorescent lighting. I’m sweating from the heat as like every other room in this damn hospital it’s too hot and the radiator seems huge in this cramped space.
So this Doc ain’t smiling and he’s lecturing me about my actions. All I can focus on is the forest of nose hairs peeking out from his left nostril and he thinks I’m actually payin attention. He starts to wag his finger, goin into overdrive now. I hear the words liver and kidney and all I can think about is food; a steak and kidney pie. I imagine it in my mind with crumbly flaky pastry and steam risin of it. He stops talkin and pushes some paperwork across to me and a couple of leaflets. A quick signature and that’s it, I can go.
I’m dressed in some jeans that are hanging off me and a t-shirt my Mam had brought in for me and carrying a bag with a few toiletries in it. I walk in a daze, tired from all the drugs and the lying around for days doing nothing. On the way out of the hospital, I drop the discharge form and leaflets in the bin. I hesitate a moment and chuck the toiletries in there for good measure. I only keep a prescription slip, which I slide into my jeans pocket I step outside and the biting wind takes me breathe away. After days stuck indoors, I’ll need to get used to this. I trudge down the hill and towards town. The skies are grey and I’m not surprised when it starts to rain. Within ten minutes, I’m soaked to the skin and shivering. At the bottom of the long hill into town, I see a little cafe. I rummage around in my pocket and fish out some coins, a grand total of £4.80. I look into the cafe and it looks grubby but warm and inviting. A little sign says I can get a large breakfast with tea and toast for £4.50. I head inside.
I find a little table, slip my coat over the back of the chair and take a seat. It’s one them plastic chair like you see in schools. It’s cold for a moment but that’s a pleasure after the constant stiflin’ heat of the hospital. I put my forearms on the table and immediately regret as I feel them stick to the surface, which doesn’t look like it’s been wiped down this morning.
A short tubby little woman wearin an apron shuffles over to me. She doesn’t look as if a smile has graced her features in a long time.
“What can I get you darlin?” She asks.
I mutter, “Big breakfast.” Hopin this makes her go sort it, but she stands there lookin vacant. Pen poised over this little pad like she’s waitin for divine inspiration or something.
Finally, she says, “Tea or coffee?”
“White or brown?”
Fuck me. All I wants is a meal, not a bloody quiz. I sigh.
“Coming right up.”
She wanders off, her broad hips swingin from side to side. I’m sweatin now, even that small exchange has taken so much out of me. I feel all nervous and anxious and I want to bolt but the hunger is winnin. I just sit still and try to control my breathing as they taught me.
She comes with tea. I try to smile but she just looks unsettled by it. I slurp on the tea and soon the breakfast is here and I’m demolishin it, chewin on cheap sausages and salty bacon. I leave the toms, can’t fuckin abide tinned toms.
When I’m done I leave all my coins on the table and hurry out without thanking her. Outside its still bloody rainin.
CHAPTER 3 – I WANDERED LONELY
So I find myself once more in the driving rain. I briefly wonder if Mum has discovered I’ve discharged myself yet. I stare into the brightly lit shop windows and think how many kilowatts of power shop lighting wastes. How many homes would all of the light that’s doing nothing useful illuminate? How many poor folks that can’t afford to pay their energy bills would benefit from this fucking waste.
I realise that as I sink into my dark train of thought that I’m stood staring at a lingerie display but not seein it. An old guy walkin a wiry jack russell shakes his head at me as he passes me. For his part, the dog doesn’t even acknowledge me, aloof little twat. I shrug and wink at the old geezer to wind him up even more. Why do people judge you? Are they so perfect? I picture him at home wanking to Lorraine Kelly with the little dog looking up at him bemused.
I trudge on further into town. I swear my trainers are squelching now. A statue in the square depicts a learned looking bloke strokin his chin and holding an open book, which he’s starin down at. There’s a plaque but I have no motivation to wander or and read. With a flutter of wings, a pigeon flies past and shits on his face. Everyone is a fucking art critic these days.
I’ve been wandering now for a couple of hours and my feet are aching. I head to the library which narrowly escaped closure in the last round of council cut backs.
I stand in the hallway a moment looking at posters for community events that I have no part of or interest in. Writers groups, amateur dramatics, line dancing, politics. I suddenly feel more lonely and alienated than ever. The walls start closing in on me and have to lean against the wall and catch my breath. I close my eyes and take deep breaths, letting them out slowly as I’ve been taught, oxygenating the brain, calming me.
I finally open my eyes and across the hall, there’s a frail looking old lady starin at me like I have two heads. She has a romance book under her arm. She must be seventy if she’s a day and I think it’s the saddest thing in the world that she’s reading about something she can’t ever have again. Suddenly, a door opens from the gents and an old geezer appears. He smiles at her and takes her hand and they leave. I’m sure I hear her mutter, “freak.” But I know this is probably my imagination.
I pop into the gents and look at mesen in the mirror. A young face stares back at me, green eyes jaded and ancient stare accusingly right at me. I feel tired my body still recovering from the overdose. I lean over, splash water on my face, and clumsily attempt to dry it on the hand dryer.
I exit the gents and turn right heading into the library hall itself. A bored looking young librarian looks up from tapping away at a PC and glances at me. Her casual smile lessens in wattage as if she’s disappointed I came. I know how she feels. I’m disappointed to still be alive. I ignore her because it’s so much easier than acknowledging her.
I come to a rack of compact discs and start idly leafing through them. Marvin Gaye, The Shadows, ELO, James Last, The Smiths. Covers in every colour but none of them excite me. All I see are plastic guitars and fake smiles. I’m not buying what they’re selling.
I walk over to the books and pick up a random book on World War 2. I find a comfy seat and sit, as I sit the aged leather makes a sort of squeaky farty noise that seems deafening in the quiet library. I steal a quick glance around but no one is looking.
I open the book at a random page. An air raid warden is talking about the regular air raids. He says everyone tried to live day-to-day coz you never knew when it was your turn to be bombed. People were happier, more tolerant even coz they had bigger things to worry about than someone pushing in front of you in a queue or beating you to the last loaf on the shelves. The old blitz spirit I think they call it
Suddenly, I’m a mess, big fat tears rolling down my face and onto the page. I feel like I’m collapsing in on myself and I want with every fibre of my being to be transported to that time, to have that positive feeling. I don’t want this emptiness I have inside me where real feelings used to be.
I drop the book with a clatter and bolt for the door with tears still streaming down my cheeks. The librarian is looking at me with utter disgust as I flee.
CHAPTER 4 – MEDICATED ME
I’m looking around eyes wild and unfocused from the tears still flooding them. I make a decision and run to the left, I don’t know why I’m running I just feel the need to flee this feeling and it is good to feel that adrenaline pumping through my veins. I dodge around an old lady, knocking her wheeled shopping bag flying. I dodge around open-mouthed shoppers. Finally, I crash straight into a guy in a business suit who was looking down at his mobile phone rather than looking where he is going. I stand, brush the dust from my knees and continue running. I hear abuse being yelled at me from some people but I’m passed caring now, just an emotionless blur of motion.
Eventually, having run through the one green space in the middle of the city I stop. My lungs are bursting and my legs are throbbing. I feel so alive in this moment. I wish that it could last forever but my traitorous brain tells me that no, it will be short lived like all moments of joy. I sit on a wall to let me breath reach something like normal. I’m getting odd looks from passers by. I feel their internal laughter and almost hear their thoughts. Look at that skinny freak trying to be normal. I get up and wander once more amid the maze of shops; all seem the same – altars of glass, chrome and neon, shrines to nothing of importance, Churches of money where the feckless trade yet another bit of their soul for shiny, worthless baubles.
I find the place I didn’t realise I was searching for, the chemist. I hand over the one piece of paper I’d kept from the hospital. The woman behind the counter gives me a patronising smile.
“Take a seat. It’ll be ten minutes okay?”
Fifteen go by and she finally calls my name and checks my address with me.
Then I’m out of there and opening the white plastic bag which contains my medication.
I open the packet and stare at the little green and white pills like Neo contemplating how his life might change forever. I shake my head and dry swallow two of the pills, stow the others very carefully in my pocket and walk down the high street towards my next goal.
CHAPTER 5 – BRANDED
I slide past the shambling undead of weekday shoppers like a ghost. I’m not one of them and if they notice that I’m doomed. I try to be as invisible as I can but still I feel the eyes on my back, hear their whispers and occasional sniggering insults. I cringe inside and pray for my tablets to race around my bloodstream quicker – deadening nerve endings and quietening my overactive mind. I’m in the unfashionable end of town now, the places where the nerds and Goths hang out, where people WANT to be different. I give a bitter laugh at that thought. I just want to the same, to be boring, to be normal, whatever that means.
I wander inside where there’s a small market of arty shops, comic stalls, student clothes stalls and the one shop I am looking for. Even here, where hipsters fear to tread, there is division. I see a group of Goths pouring over a rail of dark clothing. The nerds are pouring over comics; one or two have skateboards under their arm. I see a couple of girls wearing vintage clothing. Here, with all of this variety, I feel just a little more relaxed, more able to be me without fear of judgement and yet I conform to none of these groups either.
I shrug and step forward towards the tattoo shop. Fortunately, it’s currently empty except for a bored looking guy flicking a screen on a smartphone. I enter and smile at him; he looks up and nods back at me. He has a long bushy beard and one of those earlobes that a huge white plastic earring has stretched. I mooch around the shop for five minutes looking at and admiring the fantastic artwork. There are dragons, spiders, Celtic bands all manner of tattoos. I get quite lost in them. I suddenly hear a polite cough behind me.
“Can I help you at all?”
He smiles and opens his arms in a friendly gesture.
“I promise you won’t shock me. Whatever it is, I’ve heard it or seen it before.”
I point to a tiny sample on the wall. The picture is of a semi-colon.
He looks at me and his smile grows even wider. It’s a friendly and encouraging smile.
“It’s your lucky day. We do those free. Come in the back and we’ll sort you out, okay?”
I follow him obediently. For now, at least, I choose life.
“I don’t like it here and I don’t want to be here right now.”
It was always this way. My sister would call, something would be wrong. I would drop everything and run to her side. She would be broken down, collapsed in a puddle of tears or drugs or else her wallet would be lost. Different things. But it was always bad, always something that couldn’t be fixed. Until I got there, at least.
I frowned at her. “By ‘here’, I assume you mean the Planet Earth?”
“Stop that. Don’t be mean.” She was curled in the corner of the couch wearing a little sleeveless dress. It was a dingy old couch and it needed to be cleaned — or else hauled to the dump.
“Tell me what the problem is, Lucy,” I said.
She sniffed. “It – it’s hard to explain. You should just go look in the bathroom.”
“Damn it, Joey! Look in the bathtub!”
“Tub backed up?” She didn’t answer, just huffed and puffed. After a while I decided to just indulge her and go take a look.
There was what appeared to be a dead guy in the tub.
I went back to the living room. “Okay,” I said. “Who is the guy in the tub? I mean, who was he?”
“I don’t know his name. He knocked and said he was here to read the water meter. I opened the door and he stormed in.” Lucy seemed kind of calm now, given the circumstances. I don’t know what I was feeling. The fact was, I had seen worse.
“Okay, then what?”
“He was trying to grab me. He was hollering something about dragons. He was crazy, Joey! He must have been on something! I don’t think he even knew where he was.” She sniffed and then wiped her nose with her wrist. “I ran for the bathroom and he was right behind. I got the door shut but I couldn’t get it locked. He busted it open.”
I waited but she didn’t continue. “Okay, and then what?”
“I hit him. With the baseball bat, I hit him and he fell into the tub and banged his head against the faucet. He hasn’t moved. He’s dead, isn’t he?” She already knew the answer but I nodded anyway.
“The baseball bat? You had a baseball bat in the bathroom?”
“I have one in every room,” she said. I had no response to that.
“Well, I guess we have to deal with it just like before,” I sighed. “Do you have the bleach and the lye; rubber gloves? The case of Drano? At least he is already in the tub.”
She smiled a little smile and got up off the sofa. “T-thanks, Bro,” she said. Now she was getting emotional.
I gave her a hug. “I mean, what’s the big deal?” I said. “It’s not like you haven’t killed anybody before.”
“I know,” she said. “But I didn’t even mean to do it this time. Those hoboes, that guy from the IRS, you know what I mean. Those things were just kind of meant to happen. This poor guy . . .” She looked sideways at the hallway which led down to the bathroom.
I snapped the collar on my coat and started back towards the door. “I have the bag in the trunk of my car; you know, with the bone saw, the plastic sheets and the rest of it. If you have any pliers you could start pulling his teeth I guess.”
She caught up to me and tugged at the sleeve of my coat. “No really,” she said. “Thank you so much. Who else . . . you know, who else could I call?” Her voice was taking on a husky tone.
“Why, no one else of course. We’re family. We help each other out with little problems like this.”
I took another step but there was something more she wanted to say. “I have to tell you,” she said with a wicked little smile.
“Yes?” I waited for it. I didn’t have to wait long.
“He didn’t exactly just, well . . . he didn’t exactly just bust in. He wasn’t really talking about dragons, either; I kind of made that up.”
“I see. Go on.”
“Well, when he was at the door and talking about the water meter; well, you know . . . he kind of looked at me.”
I shook my head. “Looked at you? Lucy, then what did you do? Come on, tell me.”
She giggled. “Well, I kind of — like this, I kind of flashed my tit at him. Just a little bit. Just real quick. But that’s when he came in.”
I sighed. “Of course. Of course he came in then.”
“Just a little, you know. Just a little of the nipple for him. Like this,” she said again, and she pulled the sleeveless dress to one side, showing me her small, shapely breast, the nipple hard and brown.
I took a deep breath. “Lucy,” I said, “we have to get rid of this mess, okay? Don’t start anything right now.” She pouted a bit and rubbed her hand slowly over her crotch just one time. Down, then up. And then the same, to mine. It was really close; I mean it was almost too much.
“Okay,” she whispered. “Go get your tools and let’s dissolve this problem. And then . . . and then I will bake you a dragon, a juicy dragon, all just for you.”
Moving quickly, I unlocked the door as I went out. That way, I would be able to just walk right back in without knocking.
How does it feel to sink a blade into a person, like a chef might plunge a knife into freshly roasted meat? What is it like to tighten your grip and slowly, but firmly, shove it inside until the blade disappears into flesh? You’re not just pushing it, right now, though. You’re twisting it. You’re wondering if the blade, stuck in the middle of his back, is slicing through a lung, or if it has punctured the liver, and you’re strangely giddy off of the thought that somewhere, blood is flowing into the body cavity of the man, drowning his organs. You decide this isn’t enough, and you yank out the blade and sink it again, only this time you don’t take your time, and instead of twisting it, you quickly yank it out, pick another spot, and stab away. You’re playing “Whack an Organ,” and the prize is the game itself. You never imagined you would enjoy this.
You hate the man, and I don’t blame you. Who could fault you? You were the one, standing in a dark alley, a month ago, soft drops of rain soaking into your jacket, watching as he slithered inside your wife. His arms were bigger than yours, and more defined, and that made you jealous as he grabbed her by her platinum blonde hair and rocked his hips into hers. The man closed his eyes and smiled, a wide, clean, triumphant smile, as if his pleasure derived not from her, but from the thought of you, sitting somewhere, all alone, waiting for her to come home. And the audacity of it. The blinds were up, and the curtains were pushed to the side.
You gritted your teeth as you watched your wife, naked and beautiful and loathsome, get off the bed and casually walk to the bathroom. The man slid his jeans up, put a grey t-shirt over his chest, and stood still as she, that bitch, that cheating, filthy bitch, returned and slid his forest green rain coat over his shoulders. You placed a couple of recreational pain pills on your tongue, chewed them, and frowned. You were low on pain pills that day.
That’s when you began to have fantasies. They took different forms. You thought about what it would be like to shove both of them out of the window, to hear the glass shatter and see bits of it stuck in their faces, his body still inside hers, and to see them go splat, doggy style, on the pavement. One time, when you were watching their routine, you closed your eyes and imagined that fall, and how their blood would slowly ooze from their bodies. You thought about putting on rain boots and dancing through the blood and leaving footprints on the sidewalk.
Another time, you imagined yourself as a gunslinger who kicked open the door of their cheap hotel, unveiled a sawed off shotgun from a long, torn trench coat, and, while taking just a moment to revel in the horror in their eyes, turned everything from their necks up into smashed watermelon. You thought about it in slow motion: splotches of blood, detached eyeballs, chunks of brain and scalp and hair, bits of teeth, all in one, ugly splatter of gooey, human shrapnel.
But you’re a good person, and you decided against killing her, and you decided against theatrics. That wouldn’t be classy, and you’re classy. You came up with a simple idea: Wait for the man to pass by in his forest green rain coat. It would be better to do it in the dark, and preferably, on a cloudy, rainy evening. Wait in the alley, step up from behind, stick the knife into his back, and retreat.
Good job. Now you’re here, dragging his corpse out of the dimly lit sidewalk and into the alley. Why didn’t you retreat? You keep pulling at the body, and the man’s blood soaks through your gloves. It feels warm and sticky, and you don’t feel victorious anymore. You feel weak and afraid. You smile anyway.
You kneel over the corpse, panting. The sound of the rain masks your breathing. What about the knife? Best to put it back in the sheath, you think, so you reach inside your pocket, but there’s something else. A crumpled wad of paper. You went to the doctor’s today to get a pain pill prescription. Lower back pain is an easy thing to lie about.
Is your prescription in your pocket? You had better not lose it. You need it. Stay calm. Open up the crumpled medical report, take out your phone, and use the screen as a light. Blood pressure, ok. Slightly overweight. Typical. Stop smoking. Pain pills. Check. The usual notes, but then something else. Decreased depth perception and a probability of color blindness. Color blindness? Were you day dreaming when the doctor mentioned this? Probably. All you cared about were your pills.
Color blindness. That’s the last thing that you think about before, from a nearby window, you hear her voice. Her moaning. Her pleasure. You know it’s her, right? Her moans are so loud, you can almost feel her pelvis throb against you.
Don’t be an idiot. It’s your pelvis, which you have let rest upon the corpse. Frantically, your hands trembling, you shine your phone on the man’s coat, trying to get a better look, but in the darkness, with the soft glow of the screen lighting the body, and with the blood that’s gushed onto it, you still can’t tell if the coat is actually green. You try to flip the body over. Your strength, however, is gone. Of course it’s gone. That’s what happens when you knife someone to death. Didn’t you know that? Maybe you’d recognize his face, but maybe not. Faces don’t look the same when they’re dead.
You look at the coat again under the light of your phone, but the battery dies, and there’s that sound again. You can still hear the bitch moaning. At least, you think that’s what it is.
Run, you idiot. Run.
Father Malcolm pulled into the parking lot of the cheap motel just in time to see Rafe enter one of the rooms, carrying the unconscious body of the little girl. He offered up a prayer as the motel door closed. He reached over for his rosary, raised it to his lips for a brief kiss, then put it back down on the passenger seat. He opened up the glove compartment and pulled out his Glock 23 and the suppressor he had borrowed from his brother. He drew on his gloves and tucked the gun and the suppressor into an inner pocket of his jacket, then he got out of the car and quietly closed the door, leaving his rosary behind.
He knocked on the motel room door. “Rafe, this is Father Malcolm. Open up.”
The door opened and Rafe stood there, staring at him dumbly. “Father Malcolm? What the hell are you doing here?”
“I saw you abduct that girl and I followed you here. Let me in.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Listen, this is not a good time–”
Father Malcolm raised the Glock and pointed it directly in Rafe’s face. “Let me in. Now.”
Stunned, Rafe stepped back, an expression of fear and alarm in his eyes. The priest entered the room and saw the girl, who was tied to the bed and slowly regaining consciousness. She looked to be about nine years old. The buttons of her blouse had been ripped off. “Untie the girl,” he ordered.
“I think we have a big misunderstanding,” Rafe began, but Father Malcolm swung the gun around, pushing the muzzle into Rafe’s left eye. “Untie the girl.”
Rafe staggered back and started untying the knots he had just tied. “Listen, Father Malcolm, all that stuff I told you, that was confidential. The seal of the confessional.”
“You’re right. And I’m not telling anyone. But I’m also not letting you rape any more children.”
Rafe laughed coarsely. “What are you gonna do? Shoot me?”
“If need be, yes.” Father Malcolm reached into his pocket, drew out the suppressor and quickly attached it to the Glock in a smooth, practiced motion. Rafe’s face blanched white as the priest raised the pistol, aimed once again at Rafe’s face. The little girl was free now and snapped out of her Roofie-induced grogginess quickly. She bolted for the door and ran off into the night.
Rafe stared at the barrel of the gun. “What about my soul, Father Malcolm? Don’t you care about my soul?”
“I care about the little girls. I care about making sure there are no more victims. At this point I’m not even sure you have a soul. But if you do…” the priest paused. “No. I don’t care at all.”
The alarmed expression in Rafe’s eyes disappeared, replaced by something cold and distant. He lunged forward and grabbed the gun as he wrenched Father Malcolm’s hand backwards, almost breaking his wrist. He pointed the Glock at the priest and said, in a steadier voice, “OK, Father. Here’s my last confession. I’ve molested 32 women. Twelve were adults, the rest were girls under 10 years old. Three of those girls died in the process.”
Father Malcolm’s voice was steady and authoritative. “I can’t tell the police because of the seal of the confessional. But I can’t let you continue down this path. Only one of us is leaving this filthy motel room alive.”
Rafe nodded slowly in agreement. “You’re right,” he said. “This has to end.” He turned the gun around and put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Father Malcolm jerked backwards, shocked. He saw Rafe’s brains splattered against the grimy motel room wall. The suppressor had done its job so there was no loud noise.
He opened the door and surveyed the parking lot. Empty. No other customers tonight, and the motel office was on the other side of the building. Father Malcolm staggered back to his car, put the Glock and suppressor back in the glove box. He picked up his rosary and held it close to his heart for a long minute before he was able to drive away.
So . . . in a nutshell . . . this is what went down. See if you can figure it out.
The body was found sitting upright on a toilet bowl, slumped over onto one of the metal walls of the toilet booth, very much dead . . . obviously . . . due to the blade of a very large knife sticking out of the man’s chest. The guy was in his mid-thirties, an account at a large bank, unmarried, said by friends and relatives both to be a very nice man without an enemy in the world.
Well, you know. There seemed to be something wrong with that picture.
Sitting on the tile floor to the right of the toilet bowl was a large leather briefcase. Unmolested and very heavy. On the small coat rack on the back of the toilet stall’s door was a heavy, but expensive looking trench coat still partially wet from the downpour still raging outside like biblical prophecy. When the body was discovered, about an hour ago, the building’s security officer swore there was a set of wet tracks leading into the men’s room door and straight to the stall the dead man now occupied. Just one set of tracks.
A quick scan of the building’s security cameras clearly showed the deceased stepping out of the elevator and into the building’s lobby. Three different cameras in the lobby show the victim walking across the wide lobby floor, briefcase in one hand, a wet trench coat in the other, and head for the Men’s Room. The guy goes into the restroom. And never comes out. No one else comes and goes into the restroom until, about thirty minutes after the deceased enters, when the security officer making his nightly rounds walks down the hall leading to the restrooms and enters to find the dead man.
Now here’s the interesting twist. No blood. No suspects. No way for a killer to enter and/or exit the scene of the crime without being recorded on the cameras. Maybe this comes as a shock to you, bubba, but stick the blade of a long knife into a man’s chest and there’s blood everywhere. But not this time. Not one drop of blood anywhere . . . including in the dead man.
When our gum chewing little forensics specialist, Joe Wieser, told us about no blood in the body and no blood to be found in the entire men’s room, I had to grin, shove hands into my trousers’ pockets, and turn to one side and stare at my partner. Frank Morales, for you who are uninformed, is a Neanderthal. Well . . . not really a Neanderthal. But the guy looks like what one thinks a modern Neanderthal might look like. A jaw made of bone so thick he could chew reinforced concrete for a snack, no neck to speak up, with the brightest looking carrot colored red hair which absolutely refuses to be combed. His overall body shape is that of a cement block, albeit one that stands about six feet four. Big, tough, and strong. One’s natural inclination is to think someone that good looking had to be as dumb as a rock. But, oh brother, would they ever be wrong.
He eyed me with his dark browns, made a sour looking face, and rumbled like a badly tuned Russian reactor.
“I hate shit like this. Hurts my head. I think I’ll go to car and eat some tacos. Call me if you need me.”
He turned and began walking away. Not toward our car parked out by the curb in the driving rain. But somewhere else. Inside the office building. Grinning, I knew he was heading back to the security office to review the tapes again, I turned and walked back to the men’s room for a second peek.
Now ask yourself this. How the hell does a guy step out of an elevator, walk across an empty lobby of a very large office building at two in the morning of a rainy Sunday, enter a men’s room, and get a heavy looking butcher’s knife rammed into the middle of his chest? By himself. No one is in the men’s room waiting for him. No one enters the men’s room, other than the victim. No one leaves the men’s room after the deed is done. Is this a murder? Or a fairly gruesome suicide? Glancing into the stall I had to hand it to the guy. If this was a suicide, the bastard was committed in ending it if he shoved the knife into his heart all by his lonesome.
But I didn’t think it was suicide. People usually don’t kill themselves like that. Especially a successful, happy go lucky guy like this.
I went over the men’s room again diligently. Looking for something . . . anything . . . maybe Frank and I missed the first time around. Forensics had come and gone, finding nothing out of the ordinary. I had this nagging little voice in the back of my head telling me we were overlooking something. Something small. Something obvious. But something important. But that was the problem. I hadn’t a clue what it could be. Frustrated, I walked out of the men’s room, strolled across the empty lobby with polished black tile floors, and came to a halt in front of the bank of elevators sitting in silence all in a row. Specifically, I stood in front of the one the dead man used just before he checked out. Permanently.
Pushing the ‘up’ button the black doors of the elevator opened with a vague hissing sound and I stepped in. The doors slid closed behind me and everything went silent. Forensics had been all over the elevator. There were about a million different prints lifted off the controls, the hand rail circling the interior of the car, and off the doors themselves. It would take weeks to sort through them all. Turning, I punched in ‘10’ and felt the elevator car lurch into motion and begin its ascent. Why ’10,’ you ask? The tenth floor was where our dead guy worked. Big accounting office. Lots of number crunchers working there. Everybody gone, of course, over the weekend. So why was our man here in the building at two in the morning on a Sunday?
But I began walking the empty hallway of the tenth floor, curiously eyeing all the empty, and locked, offices. The hall lights were turned low. Lots of shadows playing across the walls. Quiet as a monk’s cubby hole. Don’t know what I was looking for. Didn’t expect to find anything. Actually, I was kinda shuffling around like a lost deer, that nagging voice in the back of my head getting louder and louder, and not figuring out what it was that was bothering me. I combed the tenth floor, then descended to the ninth and did the same ambling shuffle, before dropping down to the eighth.
On the eighth I found a couple of items that caught my eye.
The first thing was the shine on the highly polished tile floor. Even in the dim light of the empty floor the shine was instantly visible and just as impressive. This was the Markle Building on Hesston and Seventh Street. Ten floors of solid black and chrome from sidewalk to roofline. Black glass everywhere with long columns of chrome steel in vertical slashes for contrast. A stunning architectural feast to the eyes. The interior floors were black tile. Kept to a glistening polished sheen.
The moment I stepped out of the elevator I noticed the floor. Maintenance had just finished polishing the tile. It was plain as day. There wasn’t a scuffle, or footprint, or even a particle of dust anywhere on the floor from the elevator doors out for maybe twenty or thirty feet. But past the first to set of offices was a door which led into the building’s stairwell. That’s where I observed curiosity number one. The unmistakable wobbly tracks of someone pushing a heavy four wheeled cart over the floor and stopping in front of the stairwell door. You know the kind of cart I’m talking about. The kind where you load up boxes and crates and push it one from place to another. The kind used mostly in office buildings to cart around bags of mail and other things.
In the dim light, I noticed the tracks hugging close to the wall and disappearing off into the dim light. Curious, I followed the tracks and that’s when I saw it. The bright and colorful neon lights of building from across the street flushed through the glass walls of the Markle Building, continued on through the clear glass interior wall of a set of law offices and played across the black tile of the floor in a long, narrow band of multicolored light. And there it was. About the size of a new pencil eraser. A bump of congealed blood.
Kneeling, balancing myself on the balls of my feet in the darkness of the hall, I stared at the lump of blood for a second or two. And then I looked up and at the doorway from where the cart tracks originated from. It a set of double glass doors with large gold lettering splashed across the glass announcing who was inside.
Schumer& Schumer Investments.
And it hit me. That nagging voice. I knew what it was trying to tell me. The dead man’s rain coat. The tapes showed our dead man stepping out of the elevator holding his damp raincoat draped over one arm. A damp raincoat. Not a soaked to the bone, “Yes, I have been swimming in a frackin’ monsoon,” kind of wet coat. Just damp. As if he had already been here for a while before riding the elevator down to this death. Schumer & Schumer’s assigned parking stalls were on the top, and open, floor of the parking garage next door. The investment firm also had its own private entrance which connected their offices directly to the parking building.
Standing up I stepped around the lump of blood and approached the glass doors of the investment firm. Locked. Stepping back, frowning, I jumped slightly when the cellphone inside my sport coat suddenly went off.
“Get down to the security office, flatfoot. I’ve got something to show you.”
I stretched a half-grin across my lips. Frank calling me a flatfoot was funny. Especially if you ever saw his feet. Flatfoot is also a rub for uniformed police officers. Which we both had been earlier in our careers.
“Got something to tell you as well, dear.” I said, smiling wider. “But do me a favor. Find the building supe and tell him to come up to the eighth floor and unlock the offices of Schumer & Schumer. We need to look inside.”
A couple of minutes later I stepped into the crowded clutter of a small office in the basement used by the building’s security staff. One wall was filled with computer monitors. One wall filled with shelves full of various video tapes, boxes of digital equipment, and training tapes. A third wall was lined with metal storage cabinets with the names of various security employees on sticky labels on them. There was a desk, an office chair, and more computer screens in the middle of the room. Frank was standing by the wall of computer screens with a remote clicker in one hand, studying a monitor closely.
“Whatta got?” I asked, closing the office door behind me.
“Whatta you got?” he grunted.
I told him about the eighth floor, the cart tracks, the blood sample, and my theory about our dead guy and his rain coat. The big lug for a partner grunted and nodded his head.
“That explains why I haven’t found a tape of our guy returning. I’ve got an image of him leaving Friday night around a quarter to seven. But haven’t a clue as to when he came back to the office. But I did find something else. You’ll want to see it.”
He lifted the clicker in his hand up, aimed it at one monitor, and clicked it. Instantly the images of the lobby from some earlier time began rapidly rewinding.
Frank clicked the clicker in his hand again the rewinding stopped. Images began flowing normally. An empty lobby in the early morning. And then traffic. Lots of traffic. Men and women in work clothes of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians coming in and filling the lobby and going in and out of both the lady’s and men’s restrooms.
“The supe said both restrooms have been extensively remodeled. Workers came in around noon yesterday and didn’t leave until seven p.m last night. Now watch. We’re coming up to when they finished.”
Eyes went back to the monitor. The images begin to move. Everyone was cleaning up and preparing to leave. They did in ones and twos, with everyone gone around 7:23 p.m. At 7:28 p.m. a worker, pushing a heavy looking four wheeled cart in front of him, rolls into the frame and disappears into the men’s room. On the cart was a large cardboard box. Very large. Ten minutes later the figure, still pushing the cart, still with the large box riding along, rolls out of the men’s room and disappears off screen.
“Did you catch it? Both of’em?”
I threw a questioning glance at Frank and then looked back at the screen as he rewound the images again.
“I saw the guy moving the cart a hell of a lot easier. Like whatever he was rolling into the pisser seemed to a lot lighter when he was leaving.”
Frank, twitching the corner of his lips visibly, told me he was silently amusing himself on my near sightedness. So I stepped closer to the monitors and too a second look. The worker goes into the men’s room with box and heavy cart. He’s maybe around five-foot eight. Thin. He’s wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his face. No way to make an identification. But . . . eyes narrowing . . . I see it. I turn and looking at the lip-twitching sonofabitch.
Frank nods and then lifts the clicker up and begins fast forwarding through a number of other images.
“Security tapes get replaced every twelve hours. Noon and midnight. Watch this.”
Eyes went back to the monitor. It’s our dead man stepping out of the elevator and walking to his death. He walks into the rest room and, maybe twenty five seconds later, the door to the restroom moves just a hair. Just barely. Hardly noticeable. Unless, of course, you’re looking for it. Which apparently, Frank had been.
He raises the clicker and freezes the image on the monitor and looks at me. I look at him, shrug, and improvise.
“Only thing I got is this is our killer dressed up as our victim. She makes the image for us to find hoping it’ll throw us off the scent long enough for her to get away.”
The red headed giant grunted, nodded, and folded massive arms across his chest.
“So how did she stop the camera?”
“With the same clicker you have in your hands. She cracks the door open just enough to aim it toward the security office. Apparently it has a long enough range to turn off the recorder. She walks out of the restroom and clicks the recorder back once she’s in the clear.”
“Good. We know how the murder was done. We have a vague idea of a possible suspect. We know why, in a vague sense, the murder went down. But we really know nothing. What did she steal? And why was our account murdered?”
I grinned savagely at the big guy. He frowned, turned toward me, and tilted his head to one side curiously. I’m told Frank has an IQ about two gazillion. But he hates it when someone else comes up with something he missed. Like now.
“Spit it out, Sherlock. I’m all ears.”
“Two things,” I said, still grinning like a malicious elf. “One, did you talk to the security officer on duty tonight? I didn’t. Did you?”
“No,” Frank growled, shaking his head. “The uniforms did. They relayed to me the information he gave them.”
“Not him, my overgrown little Watson. Her. She told the uniforms everything she knew and then left the building. Said she had to get to apartment at a certain time so her baby sitter could go home.”
“So our killer worked the building in the capacity of a hired security guard. Meaning she had keys to get herself into practically ever office in the building. Hey, I like that. Smart. Now, tell me what else that little peanut brain of yours has cooked up. I’m dying to hear it.”
“Schumer & Schumer. What are they known far?” I asked.
“High end investments. Specifically stocks and bonds.” Frank answered, a light bulb suddenly going off in his eyes. “Oh . . . .okay. I see it. The chick comes in and steals a shitload of untraceable bonds. Old bearer’s bonds from way back when. God only knows how much she took. Probably millions.”
Confession time. I’m rich. No, not bragging. Just telling the truth. I’m a rich homicide detective. A few years back a grandfather I didn’t know was still alive walked into my life and handed me an inheritance. Millions of dollars in cash, stocks, bonds and real estate. I’ve been trying to play it smart and invest it ever since. So yeah, I knew Schumer & Schumer quite well.
“We got a killer running around town lugging around with her a sizeable amount of very valuable paper. She can’t fly commercial and go through the security checks with all that paper on her. TSA would ask too many questions. The bonds have coupons which must be personally exchanged at a bank to get the money. They’re stolen. We’ll have every bank and investment firm in turn alerted to be on the lookout for them by tomorrow night. She’s killed someone to get the bonds, so she’s not eager to stick around town any longer than she has to. What’s her only option?”
“She has to bite the bullet and sell them off at a steep discount rate,” Frank said, his lips twitching suddenly in laughter. “If she’s lucky she might get a quarter on a dollar. But the fence has to be a big one. Someone who can handle that amount of money in a few hours. That means her options are equally limited.”
“Not just limited,” I said, smiling as well. “There’s only one guy in town who can come up with that much cash on such a short notice. And that’s where we’re going right now.”
It was a little past midnight when we blasted across town in my white ’65 Shelby Mustang. Where we were going the traffic was light so we drove fast. And the Shelby, being a Shelby, with that small block Ford V8 in it, just purred.
The house was a mansion. A mansion back in deep foliage with a long driveway that curled around in front of the house and disappeared back in the direction we just traveled. There were no lights on in the house. Except for one, to one side, in a wing of the house we knew to be the library. Yes . . . Frank and I have been at the house before on official business. We knew the place quite well. The owner of the house was a fat guy by the name of Lewis Hayden. A procurer of anything stolen which promised a very high pay off. Like, for instance, stolen bearer’s bonds.
We walked around to the library, guns drawn, and peered in through the windows. Sitting in a big chair about the size of something a Nero Wolfe would set in, a maid was sitting three glasses of freshly drawn beer onto a coffee table in front of Lewis. The fat man nodded, mouthed the words, ‘Thank you,’ and the petite little thing walked out and closed the double doors of the library behind her. But there was no one else in the room. Only Lewis . . . and three glasses of beer.
This looked ominous.
But, using the barrel of my weapon to tap on the double French doors, we watched the big man rise out of his comfy chair and lumber over to the doors to open them.
“Ah! Detectives Hahn and Morales. What a lovely surprise. I was told I would be visited soon by the city’s finest. Come in, come in. I took the liberty of having refreshments at the ready in anticipation of your arrival.”
We stepped into the library and followed the round frame of Lewis Hayden back to his behemoth of a chair. Ponderously, he lowered himself into it and reached for one of the large glasses of cold beer.
“Please, gentlemen. Partake. I know you, Sergeant Hahn, to be a devoted aficionado of the hops. This is a rare brew direct from Germany. Not sold here in the States. I’m sure you’ll find it most delicious.”
“Who told you we were coming?” Frank growled, eyeing the dark colored beer before forcing himself to turn his attention back to our host.
“A most delightful young lady for whom I have a most profound admiration for.”
“What’s her name,” I said, turning my head and eyeing the interior doors of the library. The same doors the maid had just exited from.
“Oh, a most delicious irony there, detective. Most delicious indeed.”
“She came here and sold you some old bearer’s bonds. Obtained through a theft, and I might add, committing murder in the process.”
“Really?” Hayden exploded, astonishment on his face. “I was not aware of any such crime, or set of crimes, my dear detective.”
“If you have the bonds in this house, that makes you an accessory to murder. You know that, don’t you.”
“I am completely at a loss for words, Detective Morales.”
“We could search the house,” I said.
“You would need a search warrant, my dear boy. I would insist. And obtaining one at this time of night? I daresay it would be an arduous process.”
“How long ago was she here?”
“Why Detective Turner, I think you just saw her leave moments ago. Good luck finding her now. She is a most resourceful person.”
I started to say something. But the house rocked with a big hammy fist pounding on the front door insistently. Frank glanced at me and nodded, before walking out of the library and into the main hall. Moments later the big red headed Neanderthal re-entered the library, followed by two uniformed offices bracketing the small frame of a dark haired young girl. In the hand of one of the officers was a zip drive, which he tossed to me.
“Found her trying to hail a taxi at this time of night a quarter mile away. We thought that strange. So we picked her up and brought her over here. Knew you and Frank were working a homicide. Thought maybe there was a connection here.”
Officers Flattery and O’Connor. Sons of Irish immigrants who became cops. From father to son. Both the best of the best when it came to police work.
I caught the drive, eyed it for a moment or two, and then smiled.
“Betcha this is the password for a freshly created bank account in some off shore bank. Money transferred from your account into this one. With this little lady as being the main recipient. If I’m right, both of you are going to jail for a long, long time.”
Lewis Hayden looked almost sick. But give him credit. He was a showman who could not pass up wowing a crowd.
“Detectives, may I introduce you to a most charming young lady who calls herself Irene Adler.”
“You’re kidding,” Frank, my oversized Watson, said turning to look at the tom boyish, yet exotic looking young woman standing between the uniforms, before turning to look at me again. “Well, Sherlock. You did it again. Congratulations.”
Indeed, Watson. Indeed.