It

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Sandhogs

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

Jailbait

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Piggies

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

***

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

***

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

The Legend Of Ballsack Billy

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

 

Sons Of The Confederacy

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Summer is for Lovers

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

An Unscheduled Appointment

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

Something Borrowed

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Bak Mei Dragon

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Rattlesnake Gospel

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

***

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

Marriage Counseling

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

The Brass Redemption

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

 

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

The Cornice

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Slammin’ It

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

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

Aint No Grave Gonna Hold Me Down

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

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

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

Fall Me Twice

Saliva, a wet mouth. It catches him every time; like that line from Montague Terrace or the smell of faeces and newspaper print.
+++++Ike Russell jumps from bed a full hour before his alarm sounds and walks to the mirror.
+++++He sees himself and recognises the man again. The man he used to be, before he became no kind of man at all.
+++++He throws a few punches at his reflection, hears his wife calling to him and heads downstairs.
+++++He finds her in the kitchen frying eggs and singing. She turns and smiles, draws him close, her eyes clear as spring water.
+++++Things hadn’t always been this way.
+++++He remembers: waking to guilt as palpable as pan smoke and petrol fumes; face down in the kitchen or slumped in the front seat as the engine idled away.
+++++She’d eventually kicked him out and he’d moved into a room, empty except for a bible, a bed and his single, solitary urge to drink.
+++++Months passed, until one night she’d rung and thrown him a lifeline. He’d reached up and grabbed it hard.
+++++She’d forgive the broken furniture, the pitiless nights and their pitiful host, under one condition, the only condition: he stay clean, attend meetings and never, ever touch another drop of alcohol for the rest of his life.
+++++So yes, things hadn’t always been this way, and as he sings and spins his wife, he can’t believe how simple they were to change.
+++++Ike finishes his breakfast and says goodbye. They stretch a kiss in the doorway and with a flourish, he turns and trips to his car.
+++++As he drives away, his jaw tightens. The job is at four, at a cardboard farmyard stocked with stolen cars and the kind of animals more likely to do the milking. He knows it won’t be easy, and to make matters worse, today he will work alone.
+++++As he moves deeper into countryside, the road narrows and his GPS loses signal. Above him, the clouds sag like wet plaster and the rain falls hard and black as asphalt.
+++++Turning a corner, he finds his way blocked by a delivery van. He stops and waits. He reads its livery through the rain: Sunny foods and beverages. He can’t see the driver, but guesses he’s on his phone. The giant suns emblazoned across its panels do nothing to brighten mood and he smashes his fist down on the horn
+++++The van stays put.
+++++Ike judges he can just squeeze past and eases slowly forward.
+++++He makes it by inches and pulls away. As he does, he hears the driver shout something behind.
+++++He slams on the breaks, turns off the engine and waits.
+++++In the mirror, he sees the driver gesticulating. Then hears the horn.
+++++He jumps out, dips low and runs toward the van’s door. He bangs hard, pressing his face against the glass. Inside, the driver recoils, then, with one almighty effort, pushes his way out.
+++++The driver is taller and heavier than he’d anticipated. Ike flies backwards, skidding away on his arse.
+++++“Are you some kind of fucking lunatic,” screams the driver, charging forward.
+++++“Shouldn’t have been sitting there, eating all the fucking food,” snarls Ike, hoping to spike a nerve.
+++++“Implying I’m fat. Wow. Never heard that before. Clever, very clever.
+++++“Look, you started this. All I was trying to do was get past.”
+++++“There was an injured bird in the road. I was trying to tell you. You ran straight over it you fucking idiot.”
+++++Ike stands and looks over. He sees the remains on the road, sees the line of blood leading to his rear tire.
+++++He suddenly feels very small and the lower he seesaws beneath the nebulous fulcrum he’s built, from self-help manuals and motivational memes, the more his fury mounts.
+++++“What’s your name? I’m fucking reporting you”
+++++“It’s Dave.” says the driver, unfazed.
+++++“Dave?”
+++++“Gunel, Dave Gunel,”
+++++He folds his arms; his smile steady as a noose.
+++++“Take it down then.”
+++++Ike pretends to tap at his phone.
+++++“Right, as soon as I get to work I’m ringing your company.”
+++++“Go on then prick, I hope you fucking do.”
+++++The driver turns and heads back to his cab. Ike climbs into his car and sits staring ahead, shaking like a hand drill.
+++++He feels stupid and Ike hates feeling stupid. He tries to suppress them, but the Memories return. He closes his eyes and watches them trudge by like some facetious parade set to slide whistles.
+++++He pops the glove box and jams in his hand like it’s stuffed with fire. He finds the vodka behind toffees and tissues, spins the lid and in one, wet gulp, empties the lot.
+++++He grabs the empty by its stubby throat, gets out and runs. He catches the driver climbing and swipes sideways. The big man lands face up. He straddles him and drives his fists down.
+++++With each blow he sees the face change, sees how he can mold it with his fists. I’m a fucking artist, he thinks and plants a kiss on the driver’s shattered forehead.
+++++“Perhaps I won’t report you after all,” he says, standing and pulling out his cock. He pisses down and the driver hisses like he’s made of coal.
+++++Ike finishes and zips up. He returns to his car, opens the boot and retrieves another bottle from beneath the spare tire.
+++++He empties it, throws it to the curb and staggers back to the front seat.
+++++He watches the driver dragging himself toward his cab and smiles.
+++++He feels weightless and turns the radio up loud. He will stop on the way, he thinks; buy flowers and champagne and steak. He will tell her how much he loves her, he’s never wanted to kiss her so bad. He sets the GPS for home, slams down the accelerator and roars away.

Friday the Thirteenth

He turned around and glanced at his partner.  The monstrous goon was standing directly in front of the burning headlights of the Ford Mustang, big mitts for hands stuffed into the pockets of his slacks, and fully outlined like some black silhouette of a nightmare.
+++++He smiled at that thought.
+++++It was Friday the 13th.  And let’s face it.  Frank did look like some biological experiment gone horribly wrong.  The guy was six feet four and weighed three hundred fifty pounds.  Solid, baby.  Solid.  There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the guy.  He had arms like the metal cables holding up the Golden Gate bridge.  His head was perfectly shaped like a cement block, topped off with a crop of carrot colored red hair which kept blowing around uncontrollably in the stiff cold breeze coming in off the river.
+++++It was a cold night.  Cold enough for Frank to wear a heavy overcoat.  The last time he looked at his phone the ambient temp was around a -9 degrees.  The wind chill was around -21 degrees and dropping.
+++++The Mustang sat in the middle of Cutler’s Road.  At this time of the night, in this weather, the paved road which ran parallel to the Little Brown was empty of any traffic.  Except for the Mustang.  The red Ford looked like an abandoned derelict.  Except when he and Frank came upon the car the headlights were still on and the engine was still running.  They found the car with the driver’s side door wide open.  Facing the river and wide open, with no one sitting behind the wheel, while in the passenger seat, slumped forward in her safety belt, the unconscious form of a young teenage girl.
+++++Cutler’s Road was used by lovers of all ages as a secluded place in the beginning of a romance to get to know each other better.  This part of the Little Brown was a wide expanse of moving water just south of the city.  Big tugboats dragging barges filled with all kinds of cargo slowly made their way up river all day and all night long. At night the lights of city, and the southern edge of the runway for Harrison International Airport, was visually impressive to observe.  Add in the occasional 747 or Airbus dropping in, literately, from above and it became even more impressive.
+++++The drive of the Mustang was missing.  The girl strapped into the car, now conscious and sitting in the back of an ambulance, swore her boyfriend had been in the car with her.  In fact he had been driving the car when, in her words, everything ‘started getting all weird and freaky.’  The next thing she remember was waking up with Frank standing beside the car with a flashlight in his hands, gazing at her in a concerned fashion.  Her boyfriend, a kid by the name of Mervin Tobias, had just bought the car.  He had come and picked her up and they were just driving around.  Honest, just driving around.
+++++That was it.  That’s all she remembered.  Had no idea where her boyfriend was.  Had no idea what had knocked her out.  Had no idea what made her feel so strange and weird just before dropping off into unconsciousness.
+++++Frank turned and glanced behind him.  The dark image of his partner came out of the inky night and stepped into the column of bright lights of the Mustang.  His partner was as tall as he was. But around a hundred pounds lighter.  Better dressed and far better looking.  In fact, so good looking he told Turner he should be in the movies ’cause he sure as hell looked like a dead movie star. Wavy black hair, a wiry smear of a black mustache, a perpetual smartass smirk permanently painted on his partner’s lips.  If Turner didn’t look like a Thirties matinee idol come back to life no one did.
+++++Frank jerked his head toward the Mustang.
+++++“What the hell is going on here, Turn?  Why the hell would a seventeen year old kid, after just buying a car with his own hard earned cash, go out and pick up his girlfriend, drive down here, and then apparently commit suicide?”
+++++“Suicide?” Turner echoed, lifting an eyebrow in surprise and half turning to glance at the river.  “You think that’s what happened?’
+++++“I haven’t got a friggin’ clue what happened.  And say, while we’re on the subject, why the hell am I the lead investigator on this case?”
+++++“You agreed to our new formula, you big lumox.  The agreement is three to one.  My three cases as lead investigator to your one.  Tonight this one is your case.  Impress me with your genius, you walking encyclopedia.”
+++++The smirking grin permanently on Turner’s lips widened as he turned back to his friend and looked him directly in the eye.  Frank Morales was about as good a detective as they made them.  And he was indeed a genius.  Others who knew said the guy had an IQ that’d make a Descartes or a Feynman blush in embarrassment.  He had an eidetic memory, a photography memory for those who didn’t what eidetic meant, that could recall every piece of data he had ever read anytime in his life.
+++++Turner was almost his equal.  As good as a detective as his partner.  As experienced as a cop.  Just as good with a gun or in a fight.  And had a pretty damn good memory himself.  Maybe a hundred pounds light.  Certainly far more good looking.  Separately the two had conviction records that were stellar.  Combined as a team, the two were unequaled on the force for their ability to crack the uncrackable.
+++++“What do we know about the boyfriend?” the smiling Turner asked.
+++++“Not much,” shrugged Frank, turning to look back at the car.  “Merv’s seventeen years old.  The only child to a single parent.  His mother works as a junior vice president at a big bank downtown.  He’s been working at a sand pit company after school every day for the last three years saving up money to buy the car.  Apparently good in school.  Kinda popular.  Average level jock on the football field and basketball court.  Nothing out of the ordinary in any way.”
+++++“You learned all that in the ten minutes or so we’ve been standing out here in the cold?”
+++++“I know how to use a cell phone, asshat,” the red haired giant grunted, the corners of his lips twitching . . . Frank’s version of laughter . . . as he turned and started walking toward the ambulance.  “Let’s see what the girlfriend has to say.”
+++++Turner’s grin remained on his lips as he followed his partner over to the ambulance and stood behind and slightly to one side of Frank as Frank questioned the girl.  She still looked groggy.  But her wits were about her between her sucking in some oxygen through a clear plastic mask before answering any questions.  Behind her the two medics watched her closely as they sat on the gurney and listened in quietly.
+++++But there was nothing suspicious said.
+++++Just a couple of teenagers our driving around in a car Merv absolutely adored the moment he picked it up.  The girl was just a seventeen year old girl.  Merv’s high school sweetie.  Two parents, living in the suburbs, both parents working.  Average.  Just . . . average.
+++++So what was going on here?
+++++The girl acted like she’d been drugged.  Her boyfriend was missing.  Some local fisherman had phoned in the report about a car driving erratically on the road before coming to a halt in the middle of the road.  And that was it.  That’s all they knew.
+++++“Who was the fisherman who called it in?” Turner asked.
+++++“Dunno,” Frank said, shrugging. “Dispatch never got a name.  The caller just said he was out by the Little Brown doing some ice fishing and saw the car driving around erratically.”
+++++Turner, hands in his pocket and beginning to feel the cold seep in through the heavy overcoat he was wearing, turned and walked back to the edge of the river bank.  Frank tagged along behind him.  Silently the two began scanning the bank just below them and then the far side of the river.  It didn’t take long.
+++++“There,” Turner grunted, pulling a gloved hand out of his coat pocket and pointing across the river.  “That small light.”
+++++“Got it,” Frank nodded, reaching for his cell phone.  “Let’s get a ride from the River Patrol and go see if that’s our man.”
+++++It was their man.  Unfortunately.
+++++Someone had put a 9mm bullet through his forehead.  Did it up close and personal.  The fisherman was still sitting on the rough wooden bench in his hut, his back bracing him upright, his head thrown back and dead eyes staring at the hut’s rough plywood and tarp paper roof.
+++++“Someone . . . somehow . . . drugs two teenagers in a car the boy just bought today,”  Frank began, not sounding happy. “They pull the boy out of the car, go across the river and kill this guy because . . . because . . ?”
+++++“Had to have seen’em,” Turner put in, his eyes looking at the dead man. “He saw someone coming down river in a boat.  Saw’em nab the boy outta the car.  He had just enough time to call us before they put a bullet in his head. Had to be that way.”
+++++“Yeah, it makes sense,” Frank nodded.  “But why?  Who?”
+++++“We’ve got two leads.  We check out the mother and her work at the bank.  A vice president of a big bank might be involved in . . . something.  Right?”
+++++“Or,” Frank said, turning to look at his partner.  “Something happened at the sand pit the boy worked at.  Something the boy saw that made him a liability.  Who owns the sand pit?”
+++++It didn’t take long to find out.  A holding company called Payne Investments.  Just so happened Payne Investments was owned by Thomas James.  Gambler, thief, and member in good standing in several different organized crime families.
+++++Two leads.  Which one to go on first?
+++++Frank’s case.  Frank called the shots.  He chose the sand pit.
+++++The two blasted across town in Turner’s just restored black SS 396 Chevelle.  The rich kid enjoyed collecting his own brand of toys.  Hot vintage muscle cars.  Pulling up silently to a street curb just down the street from the sand pit’s gated fence, both Frank and Turner saw a car sitting across the front of the close gate, the car’s engine idling, with a lone person sitting inside it and looking at his cell phone.  The bright light of the phone’s software illuminated the man’s face.  They recognized the man immediately.  It was one of Thomas James’ goons.  A thug suspected in half a dozen murders over the years in the city.
+++++“Probable cause?”  Turner said in the SS’s dark interior. “A probable crime being committed inside the pit’s premises?”
+++++“That’s what I’m going on,”  Frank grunted, opening his car door and sliding out.
+++++Frank led.  Turner followed.
+++++The two pulled their respective weapons from their shoulder holsters as the slid through the darkness toward the running car.  Shadow to shadow, in and out, completely unseen.  The poor slob sitting inside his car and looking at porno on his phone didn’t see a thing until Frank tapped the driver’s side door window with the talking end of his .45 caliber Glock.
+++++Interestingly, the tough guy sitting in his car . . . the hardened criminal who was suspected in at least a half dozen murders . . . was so surprised to turn and stare into the open end of a Glock that he dropped his phone onto his lap and fainted.  Just rolled his eyes up into his head and fainted dead away.
+++++They slapped some heavy bracelets on his wrists and then attached them to the steering wheel in such a way he wouldn’t be able to move a finger until someone uncuffed him.  They took the keys out of the ignition and then they turned their attention to the pit itself.
+++++There were only two buildings on the large fenced enclosed lot.  There were lots of heavy equipment of all kinds sitting around in the darkness.  There were several deep sand pits half filled with water scattered about.  But only two buildings.  One was a large shed used for equipment maintenance.  The other was a small shack used for the foreman’s office.  In that building they saw a window filled with the yellow glow of burning lights from within.
+++++Peeking through that window they saw the kid roped like a prized calf into a rough wooden chair with gray Duct Tape wrapped around his mouth and head.  The kid was sitting in the middle of the small room and two very large men were standing on either side of him looking at him with wide grins on their lips.  In each of the men’s hands were big automatics they held down the length of their legs.
+++++Through the window Turner and Frank heard them talking.
+++++“Ya shoulda kept your mouth shut, Merv.  We told you to keep your mouth shut.  Now we gotta go out and put a bullet in your mother’s brain and then go over and take care of that pretty girlfriend of yours.”
+++++“Too bad,” the second thug grunted, shaking his head sadly.  “She’s cute, that one.  A shame.  A real shame.”
+++++“Go outside, Art.  Start up the front loader.  We’ll dig a deep hole and throw his body in it and cover him up.  Like the others.  Merv here might as well join the company. On a permanent basis.”
+++++Both men laughed as the one called Art holstered his weapon, turned, and walked over to the shack’s only entrance.  He was still laughing when he opened the door and Frank’s wrecking ball for a fist caught him full in the face with a powerful right jab.  Art flew back into the room, his legs barely working, and straight into the setting figure roped into the chair.  Both he and the kid went over sideways and crashed to the floor.  Art was out.  He wasn’t moving.  Wouldn’t be moving for another couple of hours.
+++++Art’s buddy stepped back from the train wreck which flew by him and made a mistake.  Instinctively he lifted his gun up and started to take a shot at the two entering the shack like thundering elephants.  But Turner was faster.  A 45.caliber slug caught the guy in his left shoulder.  The blow from the powerful slug twisted the big man around savagely as it tore through bone and muscle.  He dropped to the floor bleeding profusely.  But he would live.
+++++They pulled the strapped in Merv off the floor and sat him back upright in the chair.  Frank pulled from his slacks a swing blade knife out, rolled his wrist around, and snapped the blade open like a pro.  It took seconds to cut the kid free from his ropes.
+++++“Oh my god!  How did you . . . who are you . . . is Connie safe?  Is she safe?” the kid began speaking a thousand miles an hour, eyes as wide as dinner plates.  “You saved my life, man!  You saved my life!”
+++++Frank grunted, almost laughed, then walked over to the unconscious form he’d punched out and disarmed the sleeping beauty from his weapons.  Turner, bending down beside the guy he’d plugged, did the same before standing up and walking back to the kid.
+++++“Save your breath, son.  You’re gonna be up all night telling us everything you know about this place.  And by the way, I like your choice for a car.  Nice one.”
+++++The kid broke out into the biggest grin ever recorded by mankind.  The grin of a teenage boy who was the proud owner of his very first car.

So Into You

Jerry was on the corner of 115th and Broadway sitting in his favorite bar, Barney’s, drinking shots of ice-box Stollie and listening to Tina Turner ask what’s love got to do with it.
+++++The décor in Barney’s exclusively followed a two-color scheme: yellow and brown. Brown was the color of the clientele that filled the bar most nights. That night, for some reason, the place was almost empty. The last two couples had hurried out just after he’d taken his seat at the long, oak bar. He wasn’t offended. He’d watched them go. The way they shot him those furtive, over-the-shoulder glances hadn’t bothered him a bit. He liked his reputation in that part of town. He liked that it went before him like a big shovel and could clean out a bar just because he walked in. He smiled as he sipped the ice-cold Stollie in the quiet bar. If Barney’s patrons had found somewhere else to slack their collective thirsts, so much the better because those thirsts often went beyond the standard bar fare and extended to loose women, hard drugs and the ensuing fights when the two were mixed in generous portions. So much the better the bar was empty. He wanted a quiet night.
+++++Barney ran a tight ship, not that he was above offering a bit extra on the side. Every barman did. He just didn’t make a habit of it and somehow instinctively knew who could be trusted, who’d had enough and when enough was enough. Barney was a solid, stand-up guy with a ready smile and skin the color of an old acorn polished to a high shine by dry, crackled leaves swept along an ancient forest floor.
+++++The bar’s yellow came from the lighting. Nicotine-stained light covers over incandescent lamps suggested the tinted color of a fading sunset, in this case shining through a polluted, milky atmosphere of cigarette and cigar smoke. It added an almost pastoral, dream-like quality to the one-room drinking establishment. Jerry liked it, and he liked being there.
+++++Barney’s sister, Chantal, his girl from time to time, when desire took him on a little mind trip far from the fractured city he’d sworn to defend and protect, had just sneaked up behind him and kissed him on the side of his neck just below his ear. He’d recognized her perfume and smiled. Definitely Escape.
+++++Jerry and his partner, Frank, argued about that perfume. Frank insisted it was Obsession. Jerry said it was Escape. Chantal refused to solve the problem for them. She’d just hoot a laugh if they asked followed up with a big smile, shaking her index finger and her head at the same time. Chantal’s secret was she wore one perfume for Jerry and another when she was with Frank.
+++++She loved them both in her way. They were partners, but they weren’t the same men. Jerry was a big man, forceful but mindful. He wasn’t mean, but he was a taker, a man in full control. He satisfied her like no man ever had. Frank eased into it. No matter how often, no matter where, Frank imagined the first time, and it felt that way to her too. He was inventful in bed, a careful lover—maybe too careful. But the places he took her in her head were uninhabited, strange, wild places. It scared her and excited her at the same time.
+++++Definitely Escape, Jerry thought. Chantal draped her long brown arms over his shoulders and let her hands roam over his chest, and then too briefly to his liking, down under his belt. When her hands found gold, reflex sucked in his gut. He knew her eyes were closed and she was smiling too, maybe dreaming of gold. He’d turned his face to hers, resting languidly on his shoulder like a sleeping child’s, and kissed her full and deep on the lips. She’d tasted like cherries. He’d been thinking how much he liked cherries when shots were fired.
+++++A bullet smashed through the small barred window to the right of the door and travelled through five liquor bottles on the shelf behind the bar before it stopped in a 5lb bag of sugar. Jerry jumped up from his stool and stood facing the door. Chantal disappeared behind him. He was a big man, six feet, 210lbs, ropey and muscular, as solid as a linebacker. The bullet-proof vest he always wore wasn’t even noticeable on him. It fit with his size and came as a surprise to the ill-fated who came in direct contact with him. He was unstoppable and swatted away bullets like stray flies and just kept on coming.
+++++Jerry pulled out his .45. “Barney, take Chantal in the back.” He spoke to the bartender without looking at him. He heard a scuffling behind him knowing his command had been obeyed. He never took his eyes off the door. Only when he knew she was safe did he move.
+++++He stepped over to the door and cracked it so he could see a part of the street. Two shots hit the door, one broke out a small glass panel about head height, the other hit the door’s center. He slammed the door closed and pulled out his cell. His partner answered.
+++++“Frank? Head up to Barney’s. I’m holed up inside. Somebody’s shooting at me.”
+++++“How do you know they’re shooting at you?” Frank asked casually with amusement.
+++++“It’s the bullets, Frank, they missed. That’s how I know.”
+++++“Oh. OK. On my way, partner.”
+++++Frank lived at 92nd and Amsterdam, not far as the crow flies, but Frank was no crow. Halfway there, he’d probably remember he needed a quart of milk, but that was Frank, late, yet always reliable. He wouldn’t use his lights or siren. He’d sneak up on them.
+++++Frank was a crafty bastard, often cocky, sure of himself. He wasn’t as big as Jerry, but he was impressive, handsome to a fault, an impeccable dresser. Jerry thought he was a bit fussy, but Frank thought things through while Jerry barged in, guns blazing. On the street, in a brawl or in a bar, Frank and Jerry loved the moment, loved the fight, played off each other’s strengths and weaknesses and were just as much in synch as an old married couple destined to be united throughout eternity. Facing Frank and Jerry head on was like trying to break a rock with a marshmallow. Frank and Jerry were the bus boys. They cleaned up.
+++++Waiting for his partner to arrive, Jerry stepped away from the door. He turned toward the bar. Barney stood at the far end holding a sawed-off shotgun at port arms.
+++++“Lookin’ good, Barney.” Jerry walked along the edge of the bar. “You got this? I’ll check the back door.” Barney nodded.
+++++Jerry walked toward the back. The door was an exit only with a push bar. He held his ear to the door but heard nothing. It might be a way out, but it could also be a trap. He walked back into the bar when another shot was fired outside. He crouched behind the end of the bar. Barney stood back in the office doorway. Jerry’s arms were outstretched on the bar surface. Both hands gripped the .45. The door blew open. A large man stood in the doorway. One bloody hand held the side of his neck. His other hand held a gun. Jerry fired two quick rounds. The man stumbled back like he’d been punched, but a man his size didn’t fall. He was used to taking punches. He never took his hand away from his neck. He smiled and charged the doorway. The guy’s wearing a vest, said a voice inside Jerry’s head. He planted a bead on the guy’s nose and fired another shot. The guy’s dead body fell through the doorway. He didn’t care when his head hit the edge of the bar and split open like a ripe melon. He cared even less when his falling body sprayed the parts of two bar stools across the barroom floor. Jerry didn’t care either. To him, the guy was dead when he’d decided to take his first shot. He shouldn’t have interrupted a cherry kiss with Chantal. That was his first mistake. His last spent cartridge rolled across a table top, fell off the edge and bounced twice with a ping on the hard bar floor. Then all was silent. Barney hadn’t moved.
+++++“Barney, go check on Chantal.” Barney moved back through the office doorway.
+++++Smoke and the smell of cordite drifted toward the open doorway.
+++++“You done in there?” A voice yelled from outside the bar.
+++++“Frank?” Jerry recognized his partner’s voice.
+++++“Who do you think it is, Avon calling? You’re not gonna shoot me if I step inside?”
+++++“Me? No. Barney might.”
+++++Frank stepped quickly through the doorway and off to one side. He looked down at the bloody body.
+++++“Now that’s a mess.”
+++++“Frank. Close the door,” Jerry commanded.
+++++As quickly as he could, Frank dragged the body out of the doorway and slammed the bar door closed. Jerry shouldered his gun and came out from behind the bar.
+++++“’Bout time you got here.”
+++++“You know me. Took my time sneaking up on this guy. Was crouched behind the parked cars opposite the bar. I cut him in the neck, told him he’d bleed out. Gave him the option. Go for it or don’t go for it. Die either way. The man was a gem when he stormed the bar. Not sure I could’ve done it myself.”
+++++“Want a drink?”
+++++“I could use one.”
+++++Jerry went behind the bar and grabbed a Glenlivet bottle from the shelf.
+++++“I know the guy.” Frank had walked over to the body. Jerry poured two shots.
+++++“Yeah?”
+++++“Ol’ dead eye. You remember Hooter Wallace?” Jerry carried the two shots over to the end of the bar where Frank was standing.
+++++“Local hit man?”
+++++“That’s him. Don’t look so bad now, does he?”
+++++Frank lifted his shot and tossed back the peat-infused, smoky liquid. Jerry did the same. They both slammed their empty shot glasses on the top of the bar at the same time. Jerry refilled the glasses.
+++++“You can’t have just one,” Jerry said.
+++++Frank stared hard at Jerry. “No, you can’t, but you can try.” They both tossed back their shots.
+++++Frank stepped over to Hooter’s body. He stared down at the corpse. The man’s blood had spread out in a wide pool like a peninsula in the dirty ocean of the bar floor. He skirted the pool then bent down and pried the gun free from Hooter’s hand.
+++++“Would you look at this? He carried a .457.” Frank opened the cylinder. There were two bullets left. “I can’t believe a guy with his reputation missed with this artillery.”
+++++Jerry came out from behind the bar and rounded its end. He wanted to see the gun. Behind him Barney and Chantal stepped out of the office. Jerry turned at the sound of their steps.
+++++“You ok?” His voice was soft and low when he spoke to her.
+++++“Been better.”
+++++“Me too.”
+++++He turned to Frank and took a step.
+++++Frank raised the gun. “Not so fast, partner.” Jerry stopped. “I figure we owe Hooter there one last bow. What do you think?” Jerry stared at him.
+++++“What are you talking about?”
+++++“I mean, Hooter came here to do a job. Now he’s dead. Got to let the man go out in style. It’s the only right thing to do. Reputation and all. You know something ‘bout that. Right? Breakin’ up is hard to do, partner. Real painful.”
+++++Jerry thought about it for a moment. Everyone he cared about was in that room. That doesn’t happen very often. Maybe at your funeral. He accepted that fact. He turned and looked at Chantal. Barney had the shotgun pointed at him.
+++++“So, was it Escape or Obsession?”
+++++Frank fired the last two shots into side the Jerry’s head. At that range, they knocked him back and off his feet. When he landed, he didn’t move. Barney lowered the shotgun, walked behind the bar and placed it on a shelf under the bar next to the cash register. He grabbed three shot glasses, placed them in a row on the bar and filled them with cheap whiskey. It was no celebration. He’d liked Jerry, but blood was thicker. Chantal had her own mind, her own desires and dreams. He had the bar. He tossed back his shot of cheap whiskey.
+++++Frank wiped down the gun and forced it back into Hooter’s bloody hand. Then he walked over and took his shot. Jerry had been his partner for many years. He couldn’t deny he’d miss him. They’d had some good times together. The bus boys had cleaned up for the last time. Now he had Chantal.
+++++Chantal walked over to Jerry’s body. The blood seeped from his wounds and crept silently across the floor. Jerry was gone. She’d chosen the bullfighter over the bull. She’d picked the obsessed escape artist, the man who scared her and excited her, the man who sought blood and the hope of victory. She crouched beside Jerry’s body, leaned over and whispered in his ear.
+++++“A little of both,” she said in answer to Jerry’s very last question. Then she stood, strolled over to the bar, and looking for some magic, kissed Frank full on the mouth. Then she drank her shot of cheap whiskey.

Blood, Bullets and Burgers

The scent of grilled beef and melted cheese clung to the air. Lining the walls were desert paintings and movie props. My seat looked like a barrel and felt like a Spanish Donkey. I doubt the designer had comfort in mind.
+++++The Burger Barrel, it opened back in the 50s. A kitschy little place with a western theme. I took my son there after his First Communion. I told him he could get anything he wanted. He chose a chocolate milkshake and french fries. We didn’t make a second visit, until two decades had past.
+++++“Dad, did you hear her?” His voice shook me from my thoughts.
+++++“Hear who?”
+++++“The waitress. She wants to know your order.”
+++++I looked up and saw her. She was young, black, pretty, and dressed in a red and white cowgirl uniform which was probably as old as the restaurant we sat in. “I’m sorry, dear. I guess I zoned off.”
+++++“Don’t worry about it! Gives me a chance to breathe. Everyone else in this place seems to be in a hurry to nowhere.” She nodded towards the middle of the restaurant. The place was packed. Men, women, and children all talking louder by the second.
+++++“Do you carry any fish?”
+++++“We have a salmon sandwich, but that’s it I’m afraid. Not really our specialty.”
+++++“It sounds wonderful. Could I get that and a glass of ice water?”
+++++“Of course. So we’ve got one salmon sandwich, one double cheeseburger, an order of fries, one ice water, one Coke, and a chocolate milkshake. Is that right?”
+++++“That’s right,” said my son. He was past 30 now. The blonde hair he had as a child went brown by 20, now it was beginning to gray. He wore a boring blue suit with no tie and had the demeanor of a used car salesman.
+++++The girl smiled then walked away.
+++++“Why’d you get caught up with those bastards, huh? They’d string that girl up if they got half a chance. I didn’t raise you like that.” I didn’t know a lot about my son’s life, but I knew he had surpassed me in the fuck-up department.
+++++“You didn’t raise me. And I don’t share their ideology. They had money and I had debt. You could have paid it off. I know you kept something from your old life.” His brown eyes held nothing but contempt.
+++++“I wanted you to be a man. A man doesn’t need his daddy to get him out of trouble.”
+++++“You’re right, and I don’t need you. So enough with the lecture.”
+++++“Then what’s this about? You brought me down to this hell-hole just to tell me what a lousy father I am?”
+++++“Hell-hole? The Burger Barrel? Jesus-fucking-Christ.” He laughed.
+++++“Don’t you blasphemize just because you’re angry with me, that ain’t right. This place smells like death and looks even worse. You know I’m right about that.”
+++++“It smells like burgers.”
+++++“You think those grow on trees?”
+++++“Okay, Dad. Let’s cut the shit. I’m not interested in how eating fish makes you closer to Jesus, and I’m definitely not interested in your fucked up view of morality. I’m here to say goodbye. I can’t pay them off, so I’m skipping town. I just wanted to have one nice meal with my father before I left my old life behind.”
+++++“You should’ve started with that.”
+++++“Well too fucking bad.”
+++++The waitress walked back. “Sorry about the wait. Here’s your drinks.” She handed me my water and my son his Coke, along with the same ridiculous milkshake he got so long ago.
+++++“Thank you,” I said. The girl left and then we went back to talking. “So, do you know where you’re heading?”
+++++“Yeah, I’ve got a train ticket to San Diego and then a boat ride to-”
+++++“Don’t get specific. I’m glad you’ve got things figured out.”
+++++“So what about you, Dad? Now that you’re too old to extort money from whores, what have you been doing with your life?” I half wanted to slap him upside the head. What kind of shit is that to ask a person?
+++++“Keeping busy.” Wake up, swim, eat, gun range, eat, go to sleep. That was every day of my life for the past three years.
+++++“Well that’s good to hear. You ever visit Mom?”
+++++“She’s dead, son.”
+++++He gave me a look like I was dumbest man in the world. “Yeah, Dad, I know. I meant her grave.”
+++++“Well, then you should have said that.”
+++++The girl came back with our food and put it in front of us. We thanked her, smiled, and waited for her to walk away.
+++++“Can we just be civil for one meal, Dad?”
+++++“Alright.” I bit into my sandwich and took a sip of water. While we ate I looked around at the other people. Strangely enough they all seemed happy. Whether they were looking at their phones or each other. “You sure you haven’t left a trail behind?”
+++++“100 percent? Nah, I’m not sure of that.”
+++++“Well that’s real comforting, son.” I rolled my eyes and felt at the Glock under my jacket. I glanced over at the window, the parking lot was full but it seemed to just be the customer’s vehicles. Aside from my truck, it was just a whole load of family soccer vans and midget cars, nothing you’d wanna look twice at.
+++++“They’re idiots. They won’t realize I’m gone until it’s way too late.”
+++++“You should know better than to underestimate folks.”
+++++“They’re skinheads. I think I’m alright.”
+++++“You think because someone’s an asshole that makes them dumb?” I chuckled. “If only that were the case.”
+++++After my sandwich was gone I watched my son for a moment. He had already finished his burger and was now dipping his french fries in the milkshake. My thirty-year old son, Charlie, was dipping his food in a chocolate milkshake. I couldn’t help but laugh.
+++++“What?” He asked.
+++++“You know.”
+++++“Don’t judge, it’s good. You wanna try one?” He held out a fry dripping chocolate goop.
+++++“I’d rather die.”
+++++Charlie smiled and kept on eating. Then his phone rang. He looked at the screen then at me, he wasn’t smiling anymore. “Hello?” He answered it. I don’t know why he did that.
+++++As he talked and tried to act normal, the waitress came back over with the check. Before I even thought to shush her, she said, “So how has The Burger Barrel treated you two today? Happy with your meals? Want me to rustle up some desert for you two outlaws?”
+++++“Can we get a minute?”
+++++“Sure thing,” she said smiling and walked away.
+++++Charlie put the phone down on the table and stared out the window. “They’re two blocks away. They know we’re here.”
+++++“How!?”
+++++“They heard the waitress.”
+++++“Jesus Christ.”
+++++“You said it.”
+++++“Okay, Charlie. You need to get up.”
+++++“And do what? They know my car, they’ll see it drive away.”
+++++“They don’t know my truck. Here, take my keys and keep your head down. I’ll keep them busy until you’re safe.”
+++++“Dad, I don’t-”
+++++“Shut your mouth and do what your father tells you to do.”
+++++He took the key and started walking out. Last thing he said was, “There will be two of them, they’ll have guns.”
+++++Since Charlie had my Chevy, I was in no hurry to leave. I took a sip of water and stared out the window.
+++++It didn’t take long for them to arrive. They drove a black Volkswagen sedan and burst through the front door like they owned the place. If it wasn’t for the difference in their height, they would’ve looked like twins. They scanned the room and then the taller of the two yelled, “Have any of you shits seen this man?” He held out his phone with a picture of Charlie on it.
+++++The customers looked uncomfortable and those with children tried to cover them. One family left through the back door.
+++++“That guy just left. You missed him by a minute,” said a young looking cashier.
+++++“Bullshit, pizzaface. His Toyota is in the parking lot.”
+++++“No, I’m telling yo-”
+++++“Covering for strangers ain’t a habit you wanna get into, boy. Now shut your mouth,” said the shorter guy. Sometimes the truth smells the same as bullshit. I was glad this was one of those times.
+++++“You two need to either order something or get out,” said the waitress while blocking them from moving towards the customers.
+++++“Yeah, I’ll order something,” started the taller of the two. He was wearing ACUs without any patches and a Black Flag T-shirt “I’d like this motherfucker on the phone here, a diet coke, and maybe…Hmm, yeah. And a side of your ass, little lady.”
+++++“Okay, get out. Get the hell out right this goddamn minute.” The waitress tried to keep calm, but she wasn’t backing down and I knew what was coming next.
+++++“I saw him,” I said. I didn’t need to stick my neck out. Charlie was already safe. But I wanted to play the hero, I’d never done that before.
+++++The girl looked at me and shook her head as if I should’ve known better. She was right, I should’ve.
+++++“Say what, grampa?”
+++++“I said, I saw him. Now why don’t you come talk to me instead of her?”
+++++They pushed past the waitress and stood over my table. “Where’d he go?” asked the shorter one. He was dressed in a zipped up leather jacket, dark blue jeans, and wore Doc Martens on his feet.
+++++“Into the restroom there. He seemed real worried.” I needed to get them as far away from the customers as possible.
+++++“Stay with the old man, Thomas. I’m gonna go see if this fucker’s leading us on. Also make sure none of these fine individuals here leave. Wouldn’t wanna upset anyone’s meal now,” said the shorter one as he went into the restroom.
+++++“You got it, Hal.” Thomas licked his lips and winked at the waitress.
+++++She walked over to the table, and looked like she was going to spill the truth about Charlie. Thankfully, something else had Thomas’ attention.
+++++“You can’t keep us here,” said a customer with a family. He started to stand up from his seat. Then Thomas pulled out a Beretta and in two quick motions, gut punched the man and drove the hilt of his pistol into the guy’s nose. The man crumpled into his seat and his family shrieked.
+++++“We can do whatever the fuck we want. For the next 10 minutes we own this joint.” Thomas surveyed the room while giving his commands. “Now hands up, all of you. If I see anyone touch their phone they’re gonna get a bullet. You read?”
+++++“Maybe you ought to go help your friend, a desperate man is known to lash out if it’s his only choice.” At that point I was winging it, maybe I was winging it from the start.
+++++“Well then I guess that desperate man will have to contend with Hal’s Colt. Tell me, grampa, can desperation stop a bullet?”
+++++“You think you’re going to get away with this? You think you own the world?” My fingers were itching to grab my gun, but I needed something to draw his eyes. If I tried to pull it, he’d blow me away.
+++++“I think, if that man we’re looking for ain’t in the toilets over there, I’m gonna get to waste your sorry ass. What are you, 100 or something? Your face looks like a scrotum, old man.”
+++++Right then I knew there was no way out of this situation for me. I was never a good negotiator and these bastards were crazy. That’s when Hal returned from the restrooms, he pushed open the door with his gun already pointed at me.
+++++I crouched behind the waitress and drew my Glock.
+++++Hal started shooting and the girl took most of it.
+++++I fired back, hitting Hal in the shoulder. He dropped his pistol and screamed. It was a good shot, a lucky shot, but the only one I got.
+++++Thomas unloaded his entire clip in my direction. One bullet hit me and the rest hit nearly everything else. My left ear was giving me nothing but ringing from the gunfire, but even half-deaf I could hear the screams and cries of those hurt and those trying to escape.
+++++Thomas grabbed a knife off one of the tables and started walking towards me, only to be stopped by Hal. “Forget him, we need to go. I ain’t taking the heat for this shit.”
+++++Thomas howled and grabbed a soda cup off an abandoned table. “Don’t forget your piece, Hal.” Thomas pointed to the revolver which lay on the floor.
+++++“You take it.” Hal’s hand was preoccupied with applying pressure to his wound.
+++++“Shit, alright.” Thomas tossed the soda and grabbed the gun.
+++++I lay in a pool of blood. Some of it mine, most of it belonging to the waitress and the innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had taken a shot to the chest and it was getting harder to breathe by the second. I wasn’t going to die a hero, that was a fact. I was too far from anything that would even be in the same sentence as hero. If I just kept my mouth shut they would have left, maybe slapped someone around, but no one had to die. That said, I sure as hell wasn’t going to go laying down, either.
+++++I used my left elbow to prop myself up against that barrel of a chair, then grabbed my Glock. My hand shaking I aimed for the back of their heads as they went out the door. I pulled that trigger three times before the gun flew out of my hand. The first two shots missed, the third hit Hal in the back of the head.
+++++It wasn’t justice and it didn’t have to be. I’d done my bit and was ready to face judgment, the rest was in the Lord’s hands. As Thomas snarled and took aim, I closed my eyes.

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