Fate Wears A Blindfold

I’m six foot four. I have a glass eye. I look like Steve Buscemi’s taller brother. By day I write film screenplays. By night I collect money for the mob. I am Manbag Bagman.
+++++And right now I’m going to be killed.
+++++All because of a dame.
+++++Marja.
+++++Polish for Maria. I call her Mire. As in quagmire. As in the Battle of the Somme. I wish she’d been a no – man’s land.
+++++I first met her a week ago. My boss, Ivor the Terrible sends me to Mountville Crescent, over on the Southside, to pick up a debt from Smalltime Limey. Smalltime Limey is a smalltime limey. Nicknames ain’t what they used to be.
+++++I blame the internet and social media myself.
+++++When I get there, there’s no sign of Smalltime- but she’s there. A goddess behind a plume of smoke. Well not that much smoke. Those e-cigarettes don’t cut it as far as I’m concerned. She tells me Smalltime has taken a powder. Blown town. But something about it doesn’t ring true. Like Smalltime’s hairpiece sticking out from that half-closed wardrobe door.
+++++“I don’t care what’s going on sister, Smalltime owes Terrible. Now hand over the dough.”
+++++Suddenly she lunges forward. E-cigarettes on human flesh? Child’s play. I push her back but with her left hand she’s already navigating towards my genital quarter. Major Tom is aroused. Before I know it we’re lost in a vortex of animal passion. I hoist her on my cement bag thighs, up against that half-closed wardrobe door. I thrust. She shrieks. Major Tom to Ground Control. Commencing countdown engines on.
+++++I withdraw after climax. She offers me an e-cigarette and Small time’s hairpiece falls on my still erect member.
+++++I start thinking. A man could do a lot with that dough. Like give him the time and space to develop as an artist. I’m tired of being an ‘emerging’ screenwriter. I want to exist in a post-emerged landscape.

***

We divvy up the 20G and go on the run. Not very far. Neither of us can drive. What are the chances?
+++++We decide to hitch.
+++++An hour later we are dropped off outside Tyrelldale. We find a small place where we hole up for a day or two. This is what happiness is. I’m writing. She’s smoking. And there is non-stop commencement of countdown engines.

***

One night in bed she thinks she hears something.
+++++“Maybe we should get out of here.”
+++++“No need.”
+++++“But what about Ivor the Terrible? Surely his men will be after us.”
+++++“No. He’s called Ivor the Terrible, because he is a terrible crime boss. He can’t organize anything. He probably doesn’t even know the money’s gone. You let me do all the worrying, baby.”
+++++I’m in love. And love does strange things to guys. Sometimes it hits you like a tornado. Other times it sneaks up on you like a tarantula. Marja is like a cross between a tornado and a tarantula. She is a force of nature with a rather small chest size.
+++++She looks over at me one evening.
+++++“What are you writing?”
+++++“A screenplay.”
+++++“What’s it called?”
+++++“Fate Wears a Blindfold.”
+++++“Oh. Let me guess. About some guy’s inability to control his destiny. That whole determinism versus free will stuff. Like some film noir. Sounds like old hat to me.”
+++++This doll surprises me. A philosopher, huh? And she knows about film noir. Not many people do anymore. A guy I know, once told me his favourite film noir was ‘Shaft’. There is so much idiocy in the world, nowadays.
+++++I blame the internet and social media myself.
+++++“So what’s the film about?” she wonders.
+++++I don’t answer. I suddenly feel inferior in her company. I don’t want her to think I lack depth as a writer. The screenplay is actually about a young girl called Fate who works in a circus and wears a blindfold during the knife-throwing act of her legendary father. The Great Daggero! Gee, maybe I’m wasting my time with this writing lark.
+++++I re-examine my approach to my work. Maybe I should take something from my real life. Write what you know they say. Maybe about looking like Steve Buscemi’s taller brother. With a glass eye.
+++++Next morning I’m on a roll. In my cocoon of creativity. That happens when you write. Don’t notice anything going on around you. Like when someone has a mauser 7.65 in your face. I look up. It’s Ivor the Terrible.
+++++“Your vaping vamp was in touch. She got bored with you. Did a runner. Took the dough with her. We’re going to have to kill you.”
+++++I look over at Ivor’s brother. Terry. The Terrible.
+++++“Wait a minute!” I say.
+++++But it’s too late. A shot rings out.
+++++I still think of Marja. She’s the reason I quit writing. Dumped my manbag the day after I left hospital. Ivor didn’t really shoot me in the face. More like the corner of the ear. Like I said, terrible at everything. I lead a normal life now. Well, sort of normal. I’m working for some lookalike agency.
+++++Why would anybody be interested in hiring somebody who looks like a tall Steve Buscemi with a glass eye?
+++++The world’s gone nuts.
+++++I blame the internet and social media myself.

Coyote

She crossed northwest of Sonoyta, just south of Ajo, in the Organ Pipe National Monument. Carli Echeverria was on the first leg of what would be a two-leg journey. After she made this drop, she’d make another run further north. To Tucson or Phoenix or Gila Bend.
+++++She looked over her shoulder, the rear window of the Nissan pickup pressed right up against her seat. The truck’s bed was just long enough for three small dog kennels. The first kennel, nearest the tailgate, held two dogs. The two kennels behind it were stuffed with blankets.
+++++Behind those blankets were people.
+++++Carli tried to fit five or six people in the two kennels with each load. Today, she had seven thanks to a couple of children making the run.
+++++After she picked the group up at a gas station in Sonoyta, they walked west toward the crossing point. The Nissan was tucked behind a collection of organ pipe that rose ten feet into the blue, desert sky. In her experience, getting to America was the easy part. Once there, she needed help. She relied on an old C.B. radio in the Nissan’s cab. If a lookout spotted Border Patrol, Carli would know. And she would adjust.
+++++They were on Highway 86 heading toward Three Points when Carli passed the spotter tower. Two weeks ago, the radio crackled just before she came across that same spotter tower. The lookout told her to hook a left and head further north down the dirt roads. A temporary checkpoint had been set up that day, and if not for the lookout, Carli would have been sent to secondary inspection. She would have been forced to sit while a dog sniffs up and down her truck, and they would have found her load.
+++++Not today. The highway was empty, quiet.
+++++Carli flipped down the Nissan’s visor and let a pair of aviator-style sunglasses fall into her hand. She put them on and pulled her white cowboy hat lower across her forehead. She watched the heat dance in waves across the recently paved highway.
+++++She wasn’t supposed to be there. Not in that moment. Not in that life. She was supposed to be better than her mother. And maybe she was. She was out here doing something while her mother was locked up. Or in the back bedroom of a one-room trailer with her legs in the air.
+++++She shouldn’t complain. The money was more than she’d ever make anywhere else. Even if she had gone to school—and goddamn, it seemed they gave scholarships away to Mexican girls just for checking the box that said “Latino”— she would never make the kind of money she was making now. Over time, she’d learned to convince herself what she did was just an adventure in the desert as she helped people to freedom.
+++++But it was hard to maintain that fantasy anytime she came across the charred body of a crosser who had succumbed to the heat.
+++++Most coyotes didn’t last more than a year. They needed quick money and got out when they had it. Or they stuck around too long and got caught. Carli, though, had made more runs in her time than every other runner in the crew combined. Yet, she could feel the weight of it lately. The ghost of the person she didn’t want to be was riding shotgun, and it was begging for the steering wheel.
+++++She watched the saguaros and barrel cactus slip past her on either side. She thought about the people she helped cross. They didn’t all make it, but everyone paid. Getting to America was never free.
+++++Carli kicked her boots together, letting her left heel run just above her right ankle. A reminder of the .22 tucked just inside her boot.
+++++She’d only had to use it once. Couple months back, a group tried to run on her as soon as they crossed into Arizona. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. Carli rounded up this particular group, but one of the men tried to run again. She didn’t have a choice.
+++++After she put a round in his left triceps, the rest of the group fell in line. She caught hell when she dropped him at the stash house with a piece of his own shirt tied around the wound. She didn’t get paid at all on that run, which was bullshit. She’d delivered every one of them. Even if that big dumb fuck had a hole in his arm, he was alive.
+++++It was shit like that. Made Carli wonder if she could keep this up. You see so many things before your brain decides it can’t see them anymore. The real world was out there, waiting if she wanted it.
+++++She tapped the steering wheel and laughed, imagining what her responses might be now to job interview questions in the real world.
+++++“Tell us about a time you overcame a challenge.”
+++++“Well, I had to shoot a man just to make sure I got a job done.”
+++++“So you’re committed to your work then?”
+++++The smile faded as the thought slipped away. It was only going to get worse. There was a time when she thought she could control her life. Now, with every new job, every fight she had to have just to get paid, every horny old man trying to fuck little girls, it became clearer that the life controlled her.
+++++She tilted the rearview mirror toward her face. A few strands of black hair escaped the hat and dangled near her eyebrow. She was surprised by the wrinkles around her brown eyes.
+++++Carli shoved the mirror away and watched hints of a town spring up along the highway. A gas station. A small shopping plaza. Oases in the desert. The town barely existed.
+++++She turned down a dirt road and watched the dog kennels bounce as the truck fought the dips and divots. Eroded sand, baked under triple-digit heat, was hardly an excuse for a road. She passed a house every mile or so. Mobile homes parked on acres of land. Custom homes built decades ago. Constant reminders that Three Points was somewhere people chose to live.
+++++She parked the Nissan in a cleared lot south of what was meant to be a guest house. The main house was thirty yards to the north with an attached garage and a paved driveway—despite the nearest paved road being five or six miles back.
+++++She got everyone out of the dog kennels and led them to the guest house. She knew it’d be empty. A conveyor belt of order governed her life. One group cycled from the main house to a car or truck for the final run north. The group in the guest house moved to the main house to make room for the newbies.
+++++Carli unlocked the back door and led them in. The windows were barred. The front and back doors had multiple deadbolts. In the living room, she waited.
+++++In the beginning, she laughed at the reactions. She didn’t understand what they had expected when they agreed to let someone smuggle them into a foreign country. She used to feel powerful as these people saw their new home. Trash in every corner. Piss stains on the floors and walls. Shit swept into a single corner of the house. Now, she looked away.
+++++After leaving the group in the guest house, locking them in as she left, Carli backed the Nissan up the driveway toward the main house. The conveyor belt never stopped.
+++++The main house wasn’t much better than the guest house. The drywall had holes throughout—either from immigrants trying to punch their way out or an enforcer who just didn’t have the patience to watch another woman or child cry. As best Carli could tell, the benefit of being moved into the main house was the bucket. Like the guest house, there wasn’t any running water, but there was a five-gallon bucket in the living room.
+++++Leopoldo Ruiz ran the house. He was also second-in-command of the crew that worked with the cartel to smuggle people across the border. Carli considered herself more of an independent contractor, but she guessed Leo was technically her boss.
+++++She walked past the empty living room. Leo didn’t keep anyone in there anymore. Too much shit to clean up. Too big a space. He stuffed them all in the back two spare bedrooms. Carli made her way down the hall past the kitchen, toward the bedrooms.
+++++When she found him in one of the rooms, Leo was running his fingers through a teenage girl’s hair. The girl, like the rest of those in the room, was clad in just her underwear. A sweat-stained pair of panties and a tattered bra.
+++++The girl closed her eyes and turned her head as Leo whispered in her ear. Everyone else in the room pretended not to notice.
+++++“Having fun?” Carli asked, standing in the doorway.
+++++Leo jerked his head away from the girl and looked at Carli. “Si, siempre.”
+++++“Esa es tu novia?” Carli said.
+++++Leo pushed the girl away, and she huddled near the rest of the group. “Why you got to fuck up my mojo, Carli?” He stood and patted Carli on the shoulder as he passed by into the hallway.
+++++Carli followed him into the living room. “They ready?”
+++++“Ready as they will be,” Leo said. “As if my hospitality wasn’t good enough for them.” He spit on the floor, a mixture of tobacco and saliva that joined the other stains on the bare concrete.
+++++“Send them out then.”

***

Carli locked the two dog kennels in the bed of the Nissan. She slid the third one—the one with the dogs—back toward the tailgate, concealing her load as much as possible. The dogs barked until Carli slammed her fist down on top of the kennel. She looked into the two kennels full of people and did a quick count.
+++++Missing one.
+++++“Fucking Leo,” she muttered, looking back at the main house.
+++++Her boots clicked against the cracked cement driveway on her way back into the house. She scanned the property one more time before entering. No tracks nearby. No movement. Just empty, brown, dusty desert. The neighbors weren’t much of a problem because of the distance, but she didn’t want some kids on four-wheelers romping through here and catching a glimpse of something they shouldn’t see.
+++++Inside the house, Carli yelled for Leo. He didn’t respond. She shook her head as she went down the hallway. He wasn’t in either of the two spare bedrooms, so she stepped into the master. Leo was straddling the teenage girl. Her bra was flipped up near her throat, and Leo was staring at her breasts. He touched her stomach. Then her cheek. The girl squirmed, but she didn’t scream.
+++++“Jesus Christ, Leo,” Carli said. “I need a full load.”
+++++Leo laughed. “You don’t need shit.”
+++++“She paid, right?”
+++++“Sure. Her family wired the money a couple days ago.” Leo squeezed the girl’s cheeks until she cried out, kissed her on the lips. “But fucking look at her. Qué bonita.”
+++++Carli’s face felt hot. Her hand began to shake. “I need her. I’ve got to make the final drop.”
+++++Leo shook his head. “You’re not getting it. This one’s worth more. More than what her family already paid. The way I see it, I’ve got two options that’ll make us some extra cash. We rent her out—you know these old white fucks around here will pay for her. Or, we ransom her. Tell her family she’s going to be fucked six ways from Sunday if they don’t pay extra. A beauty tax. What d’ya think?”
+++++She watched Leo licking the girl’s ear and wondered how she’d been able to put up with this shit for so long. It wasn’t just Leo, and it wasn’t just the girl. Carli was a professional. She wanted things done right and on time. Leo fucking this girl was not part of the plan.
+++++Leo winked and told Carli to get the fuck out, but Carli stood in the doorway. She should leave. She should make her run north, but her face was getting hotter. If Leo made more money off the girl, it didn’t mean more in Carli’s pocket. Just Leo’s. In fact, her cut at the final drop would be less. She’d let shit like that slide too often.
+++++She felt the sweat on her forehead. Her hand trembled noticeably now. Turn around, she thought. Go. But she didn’t.
+++++“Leo, I’m serious. I need the girl for this run.”
+++++Leo stood and squared himself in front of Carli. “You don’t fucking tell me what you need, bitch. I tell you what I need. I need you to get the fuck out of here unless you want this to turn into a three-way.”
+++++Carli thought about hitting him, but she stepped toward the girl instead. Leo shoved her in the chest, and Carli stumbled then tripped and fell to the floor. She was up in a second. The heat from her face moved to her eyes, and everything went white for a second. She backed up a step, bent over, pulled the .22 from her ankle holster, and pointed it at Leo. He took a step back, but Carli was already firing.
+++++The first bullet hit Leo in the shoulder and he fell near the girl. The second sailed high. Leo tried to slide backward away from Carli. He held both hands in front of his face. Carli stepped across the room, but she felt like she wasn’t doing it. She felt like she was watching herself. Like she was hovering outside her body, unable to stop what was about to happen.
+++++Carli pointed the .22 at Leo’s forehead and pulled the trigger one more time.
+++++She blinked away the white heat as the gunshots echoed in her ears. When the ringing subsided, she holstered her gun and turned. The girl had folded herself into a ball in the corner. Carli looked back at Leo.
+++++“Fuck,” she said then punched the floor.
+++++She could run, but the girl was there. Terrified. “Esta bien,” Carli said. “Estás seguro.”
+++++She helped the girl to her feet and asked her name.
+++++“Mitra,” the girl replied.
+++++Carli pointed at the girl’s upturned bra. “Pon eso de nuevo.”
+++++They left the room together. The girl didn’t say anything, but she stood close to Carli. The run was over. Carli couldn’t take them all to the final drop. Word would get out. Someone would be waiting for her if she went north.
+++++“Dónde está la ropa?” Carli asked.
+++++Mitra pointed toward a bathroom set off from the living room. Carli followed her and found the group’s clothes thrown in a bathtub that was black with mold. She helped Mitra get dressed and gather the clothes then pointed her out the front door.
+++++In the driveway, Carli hesitated when she got to the dog kennels. She could leave them there. Maybe that’d soften the blow. No, she thought. No amount of goodwill now would change the end game.
+++++She unlatched the dog kennels with people inside. Five immigrants climbed out, confused. Two women and three men. Carli helped them down from the truck. Mitra passed out the clothing, and they all dressed.
+++++“No puedo tomar,” Carli said.
+++++Carli remembered the group in the guest house. She ran to the guest house and threw open each lock. She led the group she had just dropped off back out of the house.
+++++“Todos ustedes tienen que ir por su cuenta.”
+++++No one moved.
+++++Sal de aquí,” she yelled.
+++++After another moment of silent looks between each other, the group started to move. They began a trek toward the open desert, away from the main road. Carli grabbed Mitra by the elbow and held her back.
+++++“Quédate conmig,” Carli said.
+++++There was money in the stash house but not enough. Carli didn’t think there would ever be enough money to keep her alive after what she did. She lifted her hat, pushed her hair back, and closed her eyes. Behind closed lids, she saw Leo bleeding on the floor. She opened her eyes and pushed Mitra toward the main house again. Money bought a lot of things. If it couldn’t buy her life, it could extend it.
+++++Back inside the house, Carli led Mitra to the middle of the living room and told her to stay put. She went to the refrigerator and pulled open the door. The light inside had probably been out for years. There was a box of baking soda on the top shelf. Other than that, the entire thing was seemingly empty. Except the bottom drawer. It was covered with black electrical tape. As if keeping someone from seeing into the drawer was enough to keep the person from opening it. Nice, Leo, Carli thought.
+++++Carli pulled the drawer open and found three large envelopes. She ripped them open one at a time and lined her pockets. She stuffed as much cash into her pants as she could, but there was still a lot left over.
+++++She called over her shoulder for Mitra. She told the girl she wouldn’t hurt her if she helped. When Mitra came over, Carli began handing over stacks of cash. She pointed to the pockets of Mitra’s jeans, and the girl began stuffing. When all the money had been emptied from the envelopes, Carli walked Mitra back out front.
+++++When they returned to the driveway outside the house, the rest of the group had vanished. If they were nearby, they had become invisible. Silent. Carli smiled. She could disappear, too. For a while, at least.
+++++She couldn’t run, so she thought about the next best thing. A safe place to hide.
+++++She looked at the Nissan. She’d have to leave it here. Too many people in her crew and in the cartel knew it. She might have to steal a car. Or maybe she’d let her hair fall down her back, let her hips sway a little more, and walk along the highway with her thumb out. Whatever she did, she’d make it, and Mitra was coming with. Leo’s beauty tax plan wasn’t half-bad, after all.
+++++Carli pulled her hat low, watching the sun sink behind Kitt Peak. She took Mitra by the arm, and they walked. She was going home.

Windows

When us kids got wild, my mother would say, “tear the house down and throw it out the window.”  To calm us down we were sometimes put in front of the TV.  I would watch a cartoon where the Tasmanian Devil would unzip his skin and step out of it.  He was really Bugs Bunny on the inside all along.
+++++As I set fire to an anthill, I would pray that I was Bugs Bunny inside all along too.  The clock ticked no slower or quicker because of any of it.  I committed many such deeds.  Some of those around me said my behavior would have made the painting of Dorian Gray wither with a blush.
+++++Burning up small animals was all the rage with a few of my mates.  Personally I couldn’t see it.  Animals in the open required no fire to free them.  But I did use a high pressure hose to shoot diesel fuel into a rattlesnake den, and then apply the match.  I found out that snakes have a voice after all; they do not simply hiss.  They can howl if they need to.
+++++I did not care for things that hid inside where I could not get to them.  Fire was my solution for this problem.  As the fire burns, it learns singleness of purpose, economy of thought.  A rampaging grizzly bear in the forest did not bother me.  A rabbit cowering in a hole made my blood erupt.
+++++I had dreams that I was on an airplane when the cabin pressure was lost and the doors opened above the seats to drop the oxygen masks.  Only no oxygen masks fell.  The doors opened and hissing snakes dropped into the laps of the passengers.  Following protocol, people would fasten the snake to the throat of their small child first, before applying their own.   As this was happening I would gaze out the window of the plane, upon a seemingly tranquil sea that floated below us.  Just beneath the peaceful surface I could see the hidden animals; they roiled in a blood red stew of hatred and rage.
+++++I spent many nights standing naked before a mirror, examining myself.  The room was dark but the light from a neon sign blinked through the window, creating a strobe effect.  I could not find the zipper that would allow Bugs Bunny to step out.  I looked and I looked.  When a little dung beetle crawled up from a crack in the floorboards I crushed his tiny shell between my thumb and forefinger.  I felt like I was squeezing a handful of tinsel into a tight, hard ball so that I could throw it at the Christmas tree.  But the insect didn’t have Bugs Bunny either.
+++++One night when no one was home except my little sister, I tied her into a kitchen chair and sat her with her face just inches from the burner on the stove.  First I let the burner get red hot. Placing a cast iron skillet on the glowing stovetop, I poured in a half cup of vegetable oil and as it heated up I threw in a handful of popping corn.  The oil began to boil and pop and spit, and that was before the corn even made it to temperature.  When the corn started to pop and fly from the skillet, leaving tiny trails of scorching oil in the air, I clapped my hands.  Most nights my sister would lock herself in her room and stay where I couldn’t get to her.  Tonight she was howling like a snake.  When the howling stopped, I turned off the stove.  It was time to leave.
+++++Now I work my way along the interstate.  Truckers will give me rides – a young boy with a baby face, a little cowlick  in his brown mop of hair, why not give the kid a lift?  After all he only has Bugs Bunny inside of him.  I look out the window of the truck as we move along the road, and I pass the time thinking about the huge petroleum tanks on the truck rupturing in the ditch during a crash, right next to the herd of terrified cattle trapped against the fence.
+++++I never travel without a clean white handkerchief (like my mother always said), and clean underwear, and a new box of dry wooden matches.  Sometimes as I walk the highways in between rides there will be a little farmhouse just off the road.  I might sneak over and peek in a window to see the people inside.  They are inside where I can’t really get to them.  When I see this it makes me lose myself in a dream.
+++++In the dream I am inside the house with the people; I am not locked outside in the cold.  The people are like my family.  I will stand in the middle of the living room with the parents and the children and even the dog as they all huddle around me, as if for warmth.
+++++I will find the zipper finally, the zipper that keeps me closed up.  And I unzip it right there, in the room, with the family watching.  I’m sure the children are fond of cartoons and are waiting for Bugs Bunny to step out.
+++++But Bugs Bunny still isn’t coming out.  Instead it is a man of flame and he explodes into the room with such a flourish that before anyone can shout or even breathe, the house is engulfed and there is heat and howling and ashes and then absolution.
+++++When it is all done and the fire is out I step back into my skin and zipper up.  The house is mostly gone but there is a charred wall still standing with a window in it.  So I begin to throw the house out through the window.  The rain has begun and ashes and fragments slip across the soil, crawling like a narrow serpent – a serpent finally escaping the den.
+++++I find that it is a nice dream, when I can have it.

Poolside

Someone knocked on the door. Shane looked at it. He looked at it for a long time, until there was another knock. He got up, answered it.
+++++Shane had moved to the apartment block a month before, hadn’t spoken to anyone else in the building save for one guy that lived a few doors down. They’d say hello when they passed each other in the hallway. He was at the door now, and he’d brought a friend.
+++++“Hey,” he said. He wore a wide smile that showed off crooked and yellowed teeth. The friend said nothing. He didn’t smile. Looked like the strong silent type, with hooded eyes, severe features, a shaved head and hunched shoulders.
+++++Shane nodded. “Hey.”
+++++“How you doin today?”
+++++“I’m fine.”
+++++“You busy?” The guy looked beyond Shane, into his apartment. The television was on, it played an old black and white, but it was turned down low.
+++++“No.”
+++++The guy leaned into the doorframe, made himself comfortable. “Name’s Wilson, by the way.” He offered a hand and Shane took it, gave his own name. They shook. The other guy, the big guy, his hands were balled into fists. He didn’t offer a handshake and Shane wasn’t sure he’d blinked since the door had opened. “Hot out there.”
+++++“That so?”
+++++“That’s so. Hot in there?”
+++++“It’s all right.”
+++++“This side of the building, it’s west-facing. Give it a couple more hours, you’ll start burning up. How long you lived here now?”
+++++“Month. Give or take.”
+++++“Keep to yourself, don’t you?”
+++++“Guess so.”
+++++“You gonna invite us in?” Wilson brushed a greasy lock of hair back out of his face, slicked it to his scalp.
+++++Shane stepped aside. “Sure.” He led them to the sitting area, turned the television off. The movie was ending. He hadn’t really been watching it. He sat on the chair and Wilson relaxed into the sofa. The big guy stayed standing, looked the room over with a curled lip like he disapproved of the décor.
+++++“In case you was curious,” Wilson said, “my buddy here, the quiet guy, you may not have noticed him, his name’s Joe.”
+++++Joe grunted acknowledgment.
+++++“So tell me, Shane – young guy like yourself, on your own, what brought you here?”
+++++“What d’you mean?”
+++++“C’mon, man, this place is a dump. This building, it’s the kind of dump that fills its walls with lonely losers – present company excluded of course. But you don’t strike me as a lonely loser, you’ve still got some vitality about you. Let me guess, let me guess – you just had a break-up, right?”
+++++“It that obvious?”
+++++“It’s an educated guess. Cos the other kind of people that live here, they love drugs. And you don’t strike me as a user, either.”
+++++“I don’t make a habit of it.”
+++++“No, sir. Only fools do. So, the rent’s cheap and there’re always rooms available, I reckoned you had to get out of somewhere in a hurry – boom, it’s lady troubles. It’s always lady troubles.”
+++++“That why you live here?”
+++++“No, sir. Lady troubles have never been trouble for me. How long since you split?”
+++++“Been a month. Right before I came here.”
+++++“Why’d you split? She cheat?”
+++++“No, nothing like that. Just guess when something’s over, it’s over, right?”
+++++“Sure, that’s the way, just move on and don’t look back. But let me warn you, you stay here too long, you’re gonna end up like the losers. You hear me? You don’t want that, man. Don’t lose that spark you got, we all got it, but they, those guys, they just sit round with nothing but the walls for company and it just ebbs out of them. Get yourself back on that wagon, that pussy wagon, quick as you can, because nothing gets you over old pussy like new pussy. You got a car, right?”
+++++Shane blinked. “Yeah.”
+++++“Red Ford, right?”
+++++“Yeah.”
+++++“It’s a sweet-lookin car, man.”
+++++“Paint’s fading.”
+++++“Paint don’t drive the car. Speakin of, Joe and I, we need a ride.”
+++++“Well, like we said, I’m new here. I don’t have no bus timetable.”
+++++Wilson laughed. “It’s barely gonna eat into your day, man. We just need a ride out to the motel by the interstate.”
+++++“Why?”
+++++“We gotta see a friend.”
+++++“How much he owe you?”
+++++“He owes us. Let’s leave it at that. Look, we’ll pay your fuel and give you fifty bucks for your time.”
+++++Shane whistled through his teeth. “Jesus. He must owe a lot.”
+++++“It ain’t always about money. You gonna drive?”
+++++“Just to be clear, you ain’t offering me a job?”
+++++“No, I ain’t offering you a job.”
+++++“Cos I’d be flattered, but, it’s, I mean that kinda job, it ain’t for me.”
+++++“We just need a ride, man.”
+++++Shane looked at Joe. Joe was looking out the window. The sun shone there. Shane couldn’t remember when last he’d left the block for anything over than a trip to the grocery store. Then Joe turned, looked straight at him. Waited for him to answer the question. “Sure,” he said.

 

***

 

The air was hot. They drove with the windows down. Joe sat in the back, never spoke a word. Wilson rode up front. “Appreciate this, man.”
+++++Shane felt the sun shining down on his arm where it hung over the side of the door, prickling the skin. Wilson gave directions. They drove for twenty minutes then, in the distance at the end of the road, Shane could see the motel sign.
+++++“Pull in there,” Wilson said.
+++++Shane parked the car. To their left there was a pool enclosed by a rusted chain fence. There was much detritus caught in its links. The pool itself wasn’t particularly big. It hadn’t been built to swim lengths, or even widths. Judging by the scummy surface, by the dead leaves, the used condoms and the swimming frog, the residents weren’t using it for much of anything.
+++++Someone was next to the pool. A blonde in a one-piece bathing costume decorated with horizontal red and white stripes. A wide straw hat shaded her face and shoulders, and red-rimmed sunglasses covered her eyes so Shane couldn’t tell if she was looking back at him. She started to smile, and he guessed she was.
+++++Wilson and Joe hadn’t noticed her. “Just wait here,” Wilson said, getting out the car. Joe followed him. “We won’t be long. Ten minutes, tops.”
+++++“Sure,” Shane said. He watched them go up the steps to the walkway. They went halfway along then knocked on a door. A moment later it opened, and they went inside. Shane didn’t see the room’s occupant.
+++++“Hey.”
+++++He looked. It was the girl by the pool.
+++++“Looks hot in there,” she said.
+++++“Looks hotter out there,” he said.
+++++Her legs were long, the left bent at the knee, her pink-painted toenails pointed in his direction. “I’m cool.”
+++++“You’re half-naked.”
+++++“Maybe that’s where you’re going wrong.”
+++++Shane looked her over. She looked good. She looked out of place amongst all the trash, the dead bushes, and the filthy pool. She looked like she’d taken a wrong turn on her way to a photo-shoot.
+++++Shane got out the car, went to the space in the fence where its gate should have been. “You planning on taking a dip in that thing?”
+++++“God, no,” she said. “But this here’s the best place to catch the sun, and it’s such a beautiful day, ain’t it?”
+++++“It’s certainly looking up.”
+++++“And this is the only lounger in the place that ain’t been trashed or cut up.” She lay back, stretched her arms above her head then laced her fingers behind her neck. A smirk played at the corners of her mouth.
+++++“You live here?”
+++++“Yeah.”
+++++“Which one?”
+++++“Your buddies there went up to see my boyfriend.”
+++++“Oh. They friends of his?”
+++++“Not really.”
+++++“You know why they’re here to see him?”
+++++“You don’t?”
+++++“I barely know them. They just asked for a ride.”
+++++“What d’you think they came out here for?”
+++++“Money.”
+++++She took one hand from behind her head, made her fingers into a gun and cocked them at him. “It’s money,” she said. “It’s always about money.”
+++++Shane nodded, looked round, back to the room they had gone into. The door was closed. The curtains were drawn. He watched, like he expected them to step back out any moment. They didn’t. He turned back to the girl. “How long you think they’re gonna be?”
+++++She shrugged. “Long as it takes them to finish measuring each other’s dicks. You know how it is. Y’all have gotta have a pissing contest first before you can just get down to business, right?”
+++++“I wouldn’t know.”
+++++“Sure you do. And that Wilson, he’s a big talker especially, ain’t he?”
+++++“He sure talked more than Joe did.”
+++++“He the big guy?”
+++++“Yeah.”
+++++“Never met him before. I’m guessing he’s supposed to be the muscle, supposed to scare my man.”
+++++“Will he?”
+++++“Hell no.”
+++++“You see Wilson much?”
+++++“Coupla times. He’s an asshole.”
+++++“Seemed all right to me.”
+++++“Then you really don’t know him.”
+++++He looked the girl up and down, tried not to make it obvious but couldn’t help himself. He wished he was wearing shades. Her legs were long and toned, her arms likewise, and her blonde hair hung down over her shoulders. He framed her in his mind, Venus on a lounger next to a dirty motel pool.
+++++She smiled. “What you thinking?”
+++++“I think you got an idea.”
+++++“I think maybe I do.”
+++++She was flirting. He looked back up to the motel room, the door still closed and the curtains still drawn. He bit his lip. She seemed bored, and grateful for his company. Figured if he invited her to go for a ride, she was gonna say yes.
+++++“Hey, you wanna –”
+++++There was an explosion behind him like a crash of thunder, and the sound of glass breaking, the shards falling like rain. Shane flinched, ducked and turned, saw Joe thrown through the window. He stared as the door was flung open and Wilson leapt out, stumbled, fell out of view. He raised his head, tried to run, but a man had appeared in the doorway behind him, a big man with long hair round the side of his bald head, a handlebar moustache around his sneering mouth. He wore a wifebeater with sweat stains at the armpits, and he carried something in his hand.
+++++Wilson tried to flee, but the man grabbed him by his hair, threw him into the railing. He wrenched his head back, pressed a knife to his neck. Wilson screamed. The man slit his throat and the scream got cut off, turned into a choking noise. Blood sprayed. Wilson slumped, hung over the railing.
+++++Shane shook. His feet wouldn’t move. Behind him, the girl laughed. Her boyfriend, up on the railing, looked down, saw Shane. Shane’s legs came to life. He ran for his car, jumped behind the wheel. He gunned the engine, spun the wheels reversing and burned rubbed out of the parking lot. Behind him, through the open windows, he heard the girl’s laughter still.

The Cigar

July 12th, 1979
Bushwick
JoeyButchie Bucciogrosso had listened to the ignorant and incessant whining of his fat partner since their tour began at 0800 hours. Since roll-call, Ernie theWhale Whelan had been ranting about the neighborhood, the people in it, and the inferiority of the largely Italian Bushwick community. It was now 1430 hours, and Butchie had heard enough. He was about to tell the obnoxious jerk where to stick his opinions when the radio diverted his attention. Central was assigning them a shots fired job. Butchie would have to wait a while to straighten out the Whale.
+++++Bushwick in the summer of 1979 was the epitome of urban decay. The once working class Irish, German and Italian enclave had descended into a teeming, heroin-infested slum. The Irish and the Germans had long since fled, moving to parts east. Except for the very poor, the Italians were gone too. What was left were the newly arrived Puerto Ricans and those Italians not affluent enough to move. The neighborhood had become a crime-ridden drug supermarket. People were killing each other over little ten dollar bags of white powder.
+++++Joey Bucciogrosso had grown up here. He was raised in a railroad apartment on Troutman Street. He graduated from high school in 1966. Not having the money for college, Butchie knew there would be no student deferral for him. He knew he would be drafted. In an effort to exercise some control over his destiny, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
+++++When Butchie left for Parris Island, Bushwick was already in decline. It was no secret why. Everyone knew that Joe Bonanno, the self-proclaimed man of respect, was peddling heroin in his own neighborhood. The ensuing decay was profound and immediate.
+++++By January of 1968, Butchie found himself with the 5th Marines at Hue City. Shot in the stomach and seriously wounded, he wasn’t expected to survive. But, Butchie was Marine Corps hard. While convalescing in a Navy hospital in Japan, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for his gallantry and bravery in the battle, and a hideous scar on his belly to remind him to duck.
+++++A year later Butchie returned to a Bushwick significantly changed from when he left. The change was not for the better. Honorably discharged from the Marines, and now fully healed, he entered the Police Academy. The family managed to escape to Madison Street in Ridgewood, but Butchie’s heart was still with the old neighborhood.
+++++His father and his uncle owned Bucciogrosso’s Italian Bakery. In the time that Butchie was gone, a new landlord had muscled his way in to take over the building.   Santino Indelicato not only jacked up the rent, he charged the Bucciogrossos a weekly “protection fee.” If this fee was not paid promptly, windows were broken, equipment was stolen or mysteriously burst into flame. Once, their delivery truck got hijacked and held for ransom until the fee was paid. Of course, by that time the bread had gone stale and had to be thrown out. So in addition, the brothers lost a day’s proceeds.
+++++Though the brothers Bucciogrosso didn’t want to pay, they really had no choice. Indelicato, or Fat Sam as everybody called him, was connected. So if they wanted to do business in Brooklyn, Fat Sam was going to have to be paid.
+++++When Butchie heard about the new arrangement, his impulse was to go over to the clubhouse on Suydam Street to beat the fat gangster to death with his own espresso machine. He was only dissuaded by his mother’s pleading.
+++++Butchie had long regarded the neighborhood Mafiosi with contempt. He saw them as a parasites, preying upon the innocent and working poor of Bushwick, who were mostly Italians. Butchie didn’t buy into the Sicilian bullshit that the bent-noses were somehow protectors of the neighborhood. The evidence to the contrary was all around him, from the junkies nodding out on the corners, or dying in filthy hallways, to the stripped cars seeming to multiply on the curbsides. Buildings had been abandoned. Now used as shooting galleries by the junkies, who ventured out only to get fixed, or steal something they could sell. Butchie understood that, rather than protectors, they were more like locusts, stripping the land, sparing nothing.
+++++If that weren’t enough motivation to hate them, there was the matter of Butchie’s would-be father-in-law. While he was over-seas, Salvatore Badlamenti, who owned a Latacini on the corner of Suydam Street was one of those hard headed Sicilians that wouldn’t pay. He was adamant. He declared that he had left Castellamare del Golfo to rid himself of these swine. He wasn’t about to pay them for the right to do business in Brooklyn. The threat of force only bought a savage beating from the burly cheese maker. A week later, while walking home from work, Salvatore Badlamenti was surrounded by three men in Knickerbocker Park. When they were done shooting, what was left was hardly recognizable as a man. Badlamenti died ventilated on the crushed clam shells of the bocce ball courts. Even though the murderers had made no attempt to obscure their identities, and the bocce courts were filled with the friends and former customers of the victim, his murder went un-solved.
+++++While no one would talk to the police about what had happened, the story was well-circulated in the neighborhood. This was as intended. A clear message was sent. Payment to the Mob was not negotiable, and the penalty was severe.
+++++Sal’s widow was forced to sell the building at a deep discount to Fat Sam. She and her daughter, Monica moved into an apartment on Hart Street. That was where Butchie found them when he returned from Vietnam.
+++++The young couple rekindled what they understood was inevitable. They had been drawn to each other since the sixth grade at St. Brigid’s. Butchie told Monica that he survived his wounds only because he needed to see her again. She took him at his word, and the two became inseparable. Monica made Butchie promise to let things lie with Indelicato, but he would only go so far as to promise he would let them lie—for now.
+++++If Butchie didn’t have enough motivation to despise La Cosa Nostra, he didn’t need to look far for more. The wreckage that Bushwick had been left in by the Bonannos sickened him. He was determined to do something about it.
+++++When Butchie graduated from the police academy, he was assigned to the 83rd Precinct. He quickly became an enormous pain in the ass to the Mafiosi. The mobsters first tried to buy him off, but he wouldn’t be bought. When they tried to appeal to their common Italian background, they discovered that this only achieved further acrimony from the already angry cop. When they finally resorted to their favored tactic, intimidation, it went very badly for the goons that tried it. The three of them ended up with arrests after Butchie took their gun away and rearranged their faces with it.
+++++Butchie became known as the Italian cop that hated Italians. It became clear that there was no percentage in trying to mess with him. Irrespective of the mobsters’ belief about Butchie’s feelings with regard to his heritage, the opposite was true. Butchie loved and respected the poor Italians, who were toiling at the brink of poverty, trying to eke out an honest living. He hated the mobsters that made their living sucking the blood from them. They would find no quarter with him.
+++++Butchie saw things in Bushwick go from bad to worse, in spite of his efforts. Joe Bonanno had already been forced into exile. The new boss, Phillip Rusty Rastelli was no better, focusing even more of the Bonannos’ interests in narcotics. In 1974, Rastelli was sent to prison. Carmine Lilo Galante became the acting boss. Under him, the bottom fell out.
+++++Galante concerned himself almost exclusively on the importation and sale of heroin. In order to secure loyalty and a greater share of the proceeds from the drug business, Galante created his own Pretorian guard within the Bonanno crime family. Lilo imported Sicilians that were already well versed in narcotics smuggling and distribution to join him in New York. Galante set up a vast narcotics empire that excluded the bosses of the other four crime families. The traditional Italian-American members of his own family were also excluded. Galante only trusted his Sicilians, who were referred to derisively as Zips by the other mobsters. The fact that they were vicious psychopathic killers only further insulated their boss.
+++++Because they had been cut out of the lucrative narcotics operation, the non-Sicilian Bonannos were forced to become even more predatory toward the businesses and residents of Bushwick. The honest working people in the neighborhood found themselves getting picked clean.
+++++It was during this time that Fat Sam started to put an even heavier hand on the Bucciogrosso Bakery. Butchie became aware of the problem accidentally. He overheard his uncle complaining bitterly in Italian to a neighbor about the deteriorating situation. Evidently, Uncle Guido forgot that his nephew was fluent in Italian. The rest of the information Butchie dragged out of his father. His mother again begged him to leave well enough alone.
+++++“I love you, Mama,” Butchie told her. “But I’ve taken all the shit I intend to from these bloodsuckers. It ends today. The Bucciogrossos have paid their last dollar to the Bonannos.”
+++++“But they’re killers,” Butchie’s mother reminded him.
+++++“So am I, Mama, and I’m better at it than they are.”
+++++“Please don’t do this,” she pleaded.
+++++“I’m sorry,” Butchie said. “But this has to happen. I will kill every lastMustache Pete in Brooklyn if I have to. Our servitude to these vultures is over. This is gonna get done.”
+++++When Butchie got to Fat Sam’s clubhouse, in the former storefront of Sal Badlamenti’s latacini, he was prevented from entering by two of Sam’s goons.
+++++“This is private property, Copper. You don’t get to come in here,” Butchie was told by Donato Trinchera, the larger of Fat Sam’s bodyguards.
+++++“I need a word with your boss,” Butchie told him.
+++++“He’s not seeing visitors, least of all an Italian cop that hates his own,” Butchie was informed by Vito Meloro, the other body guard.
+++++Meloro hit the ground with a thud after Butchie shattered his jaw with the lead sap he hit him with. Trinchera took two shots to knock out, but his jaw was every bit as broken. Butchie leaned over the two goons to admire his work and ensure that they didn’t require any more of his tender administration. Satisfied, Butchie stepped over the fallen thugs and entered the clubhouse. He spied Fat Sam at the card table in front of the espresso bar. He was playing pinochle with a group of the older Italian men from the neighborhood. Also in the group was Father Alphonso Spinatro, one of the parish priests from St. Brigid’s. He said the Italian mass on Sunday mornings that Butchie’s parents usually attended.
+++++“Hi, Father,” Butchie greeted the priest as he advanced on the card table. Fat Sam looked up, confused.
+++++“How the fuck did you get in here?” the fat gangster demanded.
+++++“I let myself in,” Butchie informed him as he overturned the card table.
+++++He grabbed Fat Sam by the throat and lifted him out of his chair.Then he drove him to the floor. Standing over him, Butchie took out his five shot off-duty revolver and shoved it into the mouth of the struggling gangster. Fat Sam looked into Butchie’s impassive eyes and instantly appreciated the very great peril he was in. Indelicato’s face became a mask of terror.
+++++“Listen carefully,” Butchie cautioned him. “Because you only get to hear this once. The Bucciogrossos are now exempt from paying you for protection. If you set one foot in the bakery, or come near any member of my family, I will end you. If anything should happen to the bakery, a broken window for instance, or an electrical fire, even an act of God, I’m coming to talk to you about it. But if I have to come back here, my face will be the last thing you ever see in this life. Capisce?”
+++++Butchie took the gun out of Sam’s mouth to let him answer.
+++++“I’m not going to fuck with you, Butchie. But when Lilo hears what you did today, he’s not going to like it. He’ll have something to say about it.”
+++++“That’s why he’s next on my list of phony-baloney tough guys that get a visit today. I’ll discuss it with him when I see him.”
+++++Butchie put his gun away and got off the frightened gangster. He made a point of not helpingFat Sam off the floor.
+++++“One other thing,” Butchie told him before he left. “You will not come to the bakery for the rent. You want it, you get it from me. But you’re going to have to come to the precinct for it.”
+++++As Butchie stepped over Trinchera and Meloro lying in the doorway, he knew that Fat Sam would never come within a block of the decrepit precinct house on DeKalb Avenue. The Bucciogrossos’ bakery ostensibly was now rent free, as well as unencumbered by the fictitious protection fee. Now Butchie just had to make Carmine Galante understand the new rules.
+++++Before heading down to the Magic Lantern Bar on Bath Avenue in Bensonhurst, from where Lilo Galante was known to hold court and run the Bonanno business, Butchie called his partner to let him know where he was headed and why, just in case he didn’t come back.
+++++Eamon Fast Eddie Curran had been a boxer in his native Belfast. He got the nickname because of his lightening quick hands and propensity for quick knockouts. Butchie had volunteered to work with Curran for the very reason every other cop in the command refused to. Curran was assiduously honest, and would have nothing to do with the payoffs from mobsters that were a common practice in the NYPD at the time. This rectitude cast suspicion on him from the other cops that routinely took money to look the other way. Butchie heard about it, and asked Curran directly why he wouldn’t take the money.
+++++“I come tree tousandmiles to enforce the law in Brooklyn. Dat’s exactly what I intend to do,” Fast Eddie told him, in his thick brogue.
+++++“It’s just a little gambling and whores. What’s the harm?” Butchie challenged.
+++++“There’s a plague over dis land, Boyo, and it’s called La Cosa Nostra. If you don’t tink every dollar of bribe money isn’t geared to further dat very ting, then you’re a shite and an ijit. They are enslaving and killing the people of this neighborhood as surely as if they were to put them in shackles and hang them. And every cop that takes their money is complicit. It’s no different than Judas and his thirty pieces of silver. But you already know that, Giuseppe. So, what do you say you stop pulling me wire and get to the fookin point?”
+++++“I wanna work with you, Eddie,” Butchie said. “You do the right thing for all the right reasons. I won’t take their money either. I want to hurt them. I want to drive them out, if I can.”
+++++“I don’t tink we are enough to be rid of dem. Sure, we’ll get no other help. We can definitely make their lives difficult, though. So if you’re willing, Boyo, then I’m in.”
+++++Much to the chagrin of the mobsters, starting from that day, miserable and more is exactly what the two cops made them. Together they became an ever-present nuisance to the gamblers, pimps and drug peddlers. Early on, several of their more entrenched and corrupt fellow officers tried to talk to the two cops and intervene on the gangsters’ behalf. After the first few were beaten bloody in the locker room, they stopped asking. Everyone finally realized that these two cops would never relent. They would just have to be avoided. The most obvious solution was no solution at all. The mob knew that to kill two uniform police officers would bring down such swift and absolute retribution, La Cosa Nostra would cease to exist.
+++++When Butchie told Eddie what he intended to do, Curran had only one question.
+++++“Are we taking my car, or yours’?”
+++++When Butchie and Eddie got to the Magic Lantern in Eddie’s beat up Dodge Dart, they parked around the corner. At the trunk they armed themselves with cut-down pump action shotguns on slings. Over them, they wore knee-length trench-coats with the pockets cut out. They entered the bar with their fingers already on the triggers of the shotguns beneath their coats.
+++++Butchie spotted Lilo in the back of the bar reading a racing form. He walked directly toward him. Eddie spied the two Sicilian henchmen ensconced at the front of the bar. He brought the shotgun up and cautioned them.
+++++“Right about now would be a good time to stay perfectly still, unless you want me to make it a permanent fookin condition,” Eddie said. The two zips held their hands up in compliance.
+++++Butchie walked right up to Lilo’s booth and slid into the bench across from him. Galante looked up and registered recognition. But Lilo was confused. He knew who Butchie was. He just didn’t know why he was here. He was particularly curious as to why the angry cop had a shotgun pointed at his stomach from across the table.
+++++“Do you know who I am?” Butchie asked.
+++++“Of course. You’re the Italian cop in the 83rd that hates Italians. You work with that Irish lunatic that has my bodyguards playing Simon says right now at the front of the bar.”
+++++“Close, but not exactly,” Butchie corrected him. “What I hate are you Mafia scumbags preying on the honest, hardworking Italians. You’re like carrion picking at the flesh of a dying animal. But I’m not here on behalf of them. You’ve got them so scared shitless, they wouldn’t let me help them anyway. I can’t save everybody. I’m here for one family only, my own.”
+++++“How does this concern me?” Lilo asked.
+++++“This morning I straightened out one of your Capos. I had to put his bodyguards in the hospital to get in to see him. I explained some new rules to him. I also treated him somewhat less cordially than he is accustomed to. I wanted you to hear about that from me. I’m not apologizing. I just want you aware of the new rules. Your life depends on you and your people adhering to them.”
+++++“So, what’s this new arrangement?”
+++++“The Bucciogrossos are no longer to be touched. We are not paying anyone of you vermin for anything. The rent for the bakery can be collected on the first of every month from me, at the precinct, if Fat Sam has the balls to show up there, which I doubt. If any of his goons or yours show up at the bakery, if a window gets broken, or a truck gets vandalized, I will wipe you out from the bottom to the top. I want you to understand that this is your problem now. You need to pass the word. Make it an edict. Because if it is not upheld, you will be the one to pay for it.”
+++++“What’s my end in all of this?”
+++++“You get to live.”
+++++“Nothing else for my trouble?”
+++++“Not one other fucking thing,” Butchie said. “Eddie and I are going to enforce the law, no special dispensations. If your goons want to avoid our attention, they need to stop doing stupid shit when we’re working.”
+++++“I gotta hand it to you, Bucciogrosso. You got some set of balls on you.”
+++++“It’s not balls, Lilo. I’m mad dog, batshit crazy, and I don’t give a fuck anymore. I’m not afraid of jail, and I don’t care if I live or die. That’s bad news for you. Because if you cross me on this, your survivability drops to zero. Now, you need to sound off that we have an agreement, or should I just make a modern-art masterpiece out of your guts on the wall behind you?”
+++++Lilo considered his options briefly. In the end, his business acumen and instincts reasoned that giving a pass to a bake shop was an indignity that was not so hard to swallow. In addition, Lilo understood that his bread and butter was the narcotics trade. In reality, he knew that as committed as Butchie and Eddie were, they were still just uniform cops. The damage they could do with respect to the heroin racket was minimal. But Galante needed the last word.
+++++“We have a deal,” he said. “But you and that lunatic donkey better behave. If either of you gets jammed-up, the minute you’re not cops anymore, I’ll make grease spots in the street out of you both.”
+++++“Thanks for the heads up, Lilo. But I have faith in you. I know all about your ability to step on your own dick. I got a funny feeling that when you go down for the dirt-nap, I’m gonna be there to tuck you in. It will be my very great pleasure to send you straight to hell.”
+++++Butchie and Eddie left the Magic Lantern. Having the agreement they came for,they went back to Bushwick to continue to treat the Bonannos with the same contempt they always had. None of the forewarned gangsters had the temerity to defy Carmine Galante. So the Bucciogrossos were left alone. Just as Butchie had predicted, Fat Sam wanted no part of the rent, if he had to go to the precinct to get it. So the bakery had one less operating expense. An uneasy peace existed between the partners and the crime family destroying Bushwick. They would have liked to do more, but as uniform cops they weren’t in a position to cut off the head of the snake that was the narcotics trade.
+++++The urban decay that came with the drugs also brought a surfeit of violent crime. So Butchie and Eddie had plenty of work. They racked up an impressive record of arrests, for things like burglaries, robberies and guns. They were still regarded with suspicion by their colleagues for their refusal to take money. But when it became clear that they were not on a crusade to turn over the apple cart of the dirty cops, they were given a wide berth, and left alone.
+++++In early July of 1979, Eddie Curran broke his hand on the head of a robbery suspect that tried to fight his way out of an arrest. While it went very badly for the suspect, the broken hand ensured that for the next six weeks, Curran would be home healing. Butchie’s squad sergeant temporarily assigned him to work with Ernie Whelan, whose partner was on his terminal leave, preparing to retire. Butchie wasn’t happy about it. Whelan was a rude, ignorant slob with few friends. His integrity was also in question. Butchie laid down some ground rules before the two set out on their first tour together.
+++++“Whelan, I don’t care what you used to do with your old partner. It’s none of my goddamned business. But if you try and take money that isn’t yours while you’re working with me, I’ll rip your arm off and beat you to death with it.”
+++++Ernie Whelan didn’t care for being spoken to like that, but he was still smarting from the beating Butchie gave him in the locker room the year before. He would not be accepting any pay-offs while working with him. While Butchie could prevent the slovenly cop from thieving in his presence, he had no control over the ignorance that kept spilling out of his mouth.
+++++The other issue with Whelan was the smelly anisette cheroot that was perpetually clamped between his teeth. The smell of the smoke from that cheap cigar was nauseating. Butchie was about to tell him to lose it, when he made the mistake of getting close enough to Whelan to smell his rancid body odor. Butchie quickly decided the cigar was the less disgusting option.
+++++“These dagos never heard the expression that you shouldn’t shit where you eat. Look what they’ve done to their own neighborhood,” the Whale observed. “It’s disgraceful. They are dirty, dirty people. I don’t know how they can live like this. They’re your paisanos, Butchie. Can you explain it?”
+++++Butchie just glared at him. He was debating whether or not to punch him in the face when the radio squawked.
+++++“Shots fired inside 205 Knickerbocker Avenue, Joe and Mary’s Italian Restaurant. One call, no call-back,” central reported.
+++++“83 George,” Butchie acknowledged. “Responding, we will advise.”
+++++The reduced manning in the department left the sector with no available back-up. This was getting to be an all too common occurrence. Butchie was less concerned about handling dangerous jobs without back-up than Ernie Whelan was. Butchie had absolute confidence in his own ability to fight or shoot his way out of any situation, so he wasn’t backing down from anyone. It would just be the two of them. If the shit hit the fan, Whelan would just have to suck it up and carry his own considerable weight.
+++++A moment later, the cops arrived in front of the restaurant. Butchie knew this place well. The owner, Joseph Turano was a connected guy with the Bonannos. He had once been a customer of the Bucciogrosso Bakery, but Butchie had forbidden his father and uncle from doing business with the Mob after brokering the un-easy truce he made with Galante. Many of the cops in the 83rd precinct still ate there. Butchie and Eddie Curran wouldn’t set foot in the place, unless it was to lock someone up. They weren’t taking free meals from mobsters any more than they would take their money.
+++++Butchie entered the restaurant and recognized the hysterical young woman pointing toward the courtyard in the rear. She was Joe Turano’s daughter, Cecile. Butchie drew his revolver and came out into the courtyard dining area. It was eerily quiet. In the rear of the courtyard, Butchie saw three men laying in puddles of their own blood and gore, around a banquet table with a flowered vinyl table cloth. There was a plate of pastries still on the table. On the right, Butchie recognized Carmine Lilo Galante. His chest and face were peppered with wounds from a shotgun blast. His right eye had been shot out completely. Butchie thought that he looked as dead as Julius Caesar.
+++++He felt a momentary wave of elation at the sight of the dead gangster, until he was overtaken with a sense of regret for not having been the engineer of it. Whelan came lumbering up behind him.
+++++“What have you guineas done now?” Whelan asked Butchie.
+++++Butchie was considering whether to kick the Whale in the groin, when he remembered he didn’t respect the imbecile enough to make his opinion worthy of a response.
+++++“Is that Galante?” Whelan asked as he came around the table.“He don’t look right without his cigar.”
+++++“You’re right. He seems unnatural without it,” Butchie agreed.
+++++With that, Butchie snatched the cheroot right out of Whelan’s mouth. He knelt over the prone body of Galante and roughly jammed the smelly cigar between his teeth. Butchie knew this was a far cry from the Cuban cigars Lilo had been famous for smoking, but it would have to do.
+++++As Butchie was admiring the indignity, Galante’s good eye opened. He looked with recognition and fear into Butchie’s face. Rather than reacting with surprise, Butchie quickly pivoted and tossed the police radio to his partner.
+++++“The radio is dead in here, Whale. I can’t get a signal. Why don’t you go out front and put over a no further. There’s nobody left alive. We don’t need any of our people getting hurt trying to race here.”
+++++“Ah, okay,” Whelan said as he turned around and left the courtyard.
+++++When he was sure that Whelan had gone, Butchie knelt down again and looked into Lilo’s one dying eye. The terror that was conveyed in that face washed over Butchie like a warm bath. He found the sensation exquisite. He would have liked to bask in it for a while longer if he could have, but time wouldn’t allow it. So Butchie got down to his intended business.
+++++“Do you remember when I told you, Lilo, I would be the one to usher you into hell. Well, here we are, at Satan’s very gate,” he said, smiling serenely.
+++++When Butchie closed his hand around the dying gangster’s throat, cutting off his air supply, it didn’t take long for the wounded Galante to kick his feet helplessly before shuddering one last time. Then he died. By the time Whelan came back into the courtyard, Butchie was standing away from the carnage, speaking to Cecile. She had calmed down enough to tell Butchie that her brother was wounded and hiding in the closet next to the kitchen. When the first ambulance arrived, Butchie directed them to Joey Turano. His father, Lilo, and Lilo’s cousin Nardo Coppolla were already dead. An army of cops and supervisors showed up to the scene. They were in turn followed by an army of detectives.
+++++Being the first officers on the scene, Butchie and Whelan had to stick around. Butchie regretted taking the Whale’s cigar. Now he had nothing to camouflage Whelan’s native awfulness. But he would have to endure it for this day only. Butchie had already decided that he was never working with Ernie Whelan again. He would tell the ignorant, bigoted and filthy cop all about it. But that was a conversation for later.

The World Is For The Smart Ones

People are divided in two types: smart and others.
+++++My parents belonged to the category of others. They worked hard during more than thirty years and finished dismissed with a ridiculous compensation. Now, old and sick, they survived with low pensions that are not enough to buy medicines and keep the house warm. They had been honest, workers and everything else that society expected from them, and see the result: ended in misery. My parents had all the qualities of the world, less one, the most important of all: being smart. They had never been smart because they had never understood the world in which they were living: a jungle where one day they would be devoured.
+++++That’s why I took another way to not end up like them. The way of those who create their own rules and know how to use the opportunities that life offers. And the smart way of earning money and of guaranteeing the future is the drug business. This same society that abandoned my parents says that drugs are illegal while it allows people to kill themselves with tobacco and alcohol. You cannot by drugs, but you can buy a gun. I cannot sell drugs, but they could invade the Iraq.
+++++Hypocrites.
+++++However, one must be very smart to not end up in jail.

***

I’ve known Julia since high school and always seemed to me that she would also follow a different way than their parents had planned. But Julia was not smart and never knew how the world works. She therefore chose the way that all women with few brains and big breasts choose when they want to earn money: she became a whore. Not a street whore, of course, but one of those operating in bars and nightclubs or waiting customers to call them. As we knew each other, it was easy to establish a relationship: she needed my pills to forget what she was doing, I needed his body to remind me that I was a man. Drugs for sex. We meet at my house and everything was going well: little talk, lots of action and, in the end, three pills of her choice.
+++++The problem was officer Biggs.
+++++He had been watching me for months, but was never able to catch me in the act. I was smarter than him. But one night, one of my clients set me up: I went to see him at the agreed place and Biggs was there. The black uniform buttons glowed in the light of lamps. On his face was a cynical smile. Suddenly he puts me a handcuff on my wrist. In that moment I was like a fox with his paw trapped. But the hunter did not fire; it was not my skin that he wanted. Instead of taking me to the police station, he stopped the car by the river and showed that he was also smart.
+++++“Listen my scoundrel, I am going to give you a possibility to not go stuck: you convince that whore friend of yours to give me for free and I leave you alone. Otherwise, I arrest you booth. I give to you two days.”
+++++Then, he released me and put me out of the car.
+++++The proposal made sense for any man, but, from the feminine point of view, perhaps it was considered an abuse. However, as Julia was stupid, it would not be difficult to persuade her to accept it. After all, who knows if she would not like to be skinned by Biggs?
+++++The next day I called her and asked her to meet me in a coffee. It was a rainy day and she left home upset. When she arrived, with her trousers and shoes wet, she showed a face darker than a gray cloud. Her blue eyes sparkled. I tried to give her a kiss, but she turned the face and threw the bag into the table. The look the coffee’s owner thrown at us made me think that she might be a Biggs’s relative.
+++++Then, smiling, I began to prepare Julia to accept the proposal.
+++++“We have a problem: yesterday I was caught by the police.”
+++++“We have a problem? And what do I have to do with it?”
+++++“The cop made me an offer…”
+++++“An offer? What offer?”
+++++“It’s a funny thing, you’re going to laugh, but I think there is no alternative …”
+++++“Would you tell me at once why you made me go out on a day like this?”
+++++“Well, it’s like this: he leaves us alone if I convince you to go with him…”
+++++“To go with him?”
+++++“Yes, to go to bed with him…”
+++++“What? Do you think that I am some kind of whore?”
+++++“Well…”
+++++For a few seconds we remain both silent. I scratch my chin and she put her hand in her forehead.
+++++The coffee’s owner was still watching us – she was, at least, a Biggs’ cousin. Finally, Julia straightened her hair and turned out to speak.
+++++“Okay, I know what my profession is, but I do not sell the body anyway. I have my principles. I have my pride. I choose my clients.”
+++++“Of course…”
+++++“So, the answer is no! Get it? No!”
+++++I stayed silent for a bit, drumming my fingers on the table.
+++++“Look, we have to be smart. He has the power to put us in jail, you have the power to prevent him to put us in jail and I have the power to make us three happy. It’s good business for everyone.”
+++++She began to stir in her hair again with the glance lost in the rain.
+++++“So?” – I ask.
+++++“I want the double of the pills.”
+++++“Hey, you are getting to smart.”
+++++“Take it or leave it.”
+++++“All right, the double.”
+++++“And one more thing: tell that perverted cop that there will be no games with handcuffs and batons. Got that?”

***

My relationship with Julia was never the same after she started to have sex with Biggs. The intimate contact with the police produced a change in her way of seeing the world. She did not become, however, more honest or hardworking. She realized that she could use her body to create her own rules.
+++++One day she called me to mark a meeting at the same coffee. It was raining and I got there all wet. As soon as I opened the door, the coffee’s owner mumbled something – would she be a Biggs’s sister?
+++++Julia was waiting for me smiling, her blue eyes were gentle.
+++++“We have a problem.” – she said.
+++++“A problem? What problem?”
+++++“I made an offer to the cop”
+++++“An offer? What offer?”
+++++“Since I noticed that he had begun to like me, I asked him to protect me.”
+++++“To protect you? From whom?”
+++++“From you, who else would be?”
+++++“Would you explain to me what is happening?”
+++++“It’s a funny thing, you’re going to laugh.”
+++++“Are you going to tell or not?” – I punch the table.
+++++“From now on I will not have sex with you anymore, but you will continue to give me the pills, otherwise Biggs arrests you.”

TLC

“What the hell is that?”
+++++“You said we could get a cat, this poor guy was left at the shelter.” Mel cradled the grey cat in her arms; shiny skin covered half his head, and one ear appeared to be chewed off.
+++++“No wonder, he looks half-dead,” Ryan wasn’t really surprised to see the cat; it was just uglier than he’d ever thought possible; the patchy coat reminded him of a worn shag carpet.
+++++“The shelter staff said his time was up, he’d been there too long. They’re gonna put him down soon.” Mel’s lower lip trembled.
+++++Ryan sighed. He didn’t want a cat, never mind a half-dead one. It was all Mel’s idea. He sniffed. The townhouse hallway reeked of rotting sardines, the oily odour of decay. “Whoa, what’s that smell? Is that the cat?”
+++++She stroked his matted fur. “He just needs some TLC, that’s all.”
+++++“You know, I don’t think cats are supposed to smell like that.” Ryan stretched a finger toward the cat, still cradled in Mel’s arms.
+++++The cat’s ears flattened against his skull. Yellow eyes glared at him. Sizing him up.
+++++Ryan pulled his hand back. Better safe than –
+++++A small dog came bouncing down the hallway, yapping. “Down, Skipper! Down.” Mel struggled to hold the cat out of the dog’s reach. The tawny mutt jumped up on her for a better view.
+++++The cat hissed.
+++++“You leave poor Pluto alone.”
+++++“Pluto?” Ryan smirked, “Like the planet? Or the Mickey Mouse dog?”
+++++Mel shrugged, “That’s the name he came with.”
+++++“OK Pluto, let’s see what you got.” Ryan shuffled backward, bent over and dragging Skipper away by the collar. The cat growled, low throaty rumble following them down the hallway.

***

“You know, there’s something up with that cat.” Ryan eyed it warily. The cat hunched over its food dish, crunching and purring. “It’s not normal.”
+++++Skipper bounded past the kitchen. The cat arched its back, growled in low tones that rose to a high-pitched howl. Spat.
+++++“It takes time to settle in, to get used to new things,” Mel opened a tin of cat food. The cat stopped growling, and wrapped itself around Mel’s legs, purring. “See, I just think the poor guy’s starved and neglected. Needs some extra care, that’s all.”
+++++“I dunno about that.” Ryan reached toward the cat. Yellow eyes glared, and ears flattened against its skull. The cat hissed softly.
+++++Ryan pulled his hand away. Yeah, that was some poor cat alright.
+++++Mel glanced out the back window, “Hey, the birdfeeders need a top-up. Wanna take care of it for me?”
+++++“Naw, I gotta get some work done first,” Ryan turned on his laptop, and sat at the dinner table. Papers were strewn across it. So much for a home office.
+++++He watched as Mel stepped into the tiny yard, just big enough for a few patio stones and a patch of grass, privacy guaranteed by a wooden fence. Mel’s garden – a few brave potted plants added a splash of colour. She reached up to fill the feeders with sunflower seeds. Mel took care of everything, whether it needed it or not.
+++++Ryan looked down. The cat stared out the sliding door, watching Mel at the birdfeeders, stock still, with only a slight flick of his tail.
+++++He didn’t trust that cat.

***

“Oh, Ryan, that’s so sad. Look.” Mel pointed to the patio outside. “What do you think happened to them?”
+++++“Probably hit the glass.” Ryan tapped the sliding door. “We should have put something on it, so the birds don’t hit it.”
+++++“But they’ve seen it before, right? Why so many?”
+++++“I dunno, maybe you got some new birds in when you filled the feeders.”
+++++Mel’s lower lip trembled, and her eyes watered.
+++++Ryan put his arms around her, “Hey, it’s OK. You meant well. And those were some well-fed birds, let me tell you.”
+++++He smoothed her hair, “And you’re such a special person, you know that. Always taking care of everything.”
+++++She snuffled against his chest.
+++++Tipping her head up, he kissed her forehead. “Now, why don’t you run upstairs and grab a shower; we’re still going out today, right?”
+++++Mel padded away, with Skipper following.
+++++Ryan opened a kitchen drawer and pulled out a garbage bag. Time to dispose of the bodies while she was in the shower.
+++++Stepping onto the patio, he’d never seen anything like it, there must be a dozen dead songbirds out there. Twisted necks and blood spatter dotted the patio stones.
+++++Turning around, Ryan was startled to see the cat staring at him. Yellow eyes looking through him. As if somehow –
+++++But that’s impossible, Ryan thought.

***

“I thought he’d settle in by now.” Ryan sprawled on the sofa, flipping through TV channels.
+++++Hissing and low growls erupted from beneath the sofa. Skipper’s head was shoved under, back-end still visible, tail wagging furiously. Spitting, and a blood curdling yowl, Skipper leaped back, and three red stripes appeared on his nose.
+++++“Poor puppy.” Ryan cradled the dog’s head, baby-talking, “Did the mean kitty get you?”
+++++“These things take time,” Mel stood up and walked into the kitchen. “C’mon Pluto, dinner.”
+++++A shot of grey flew out from under the sofa. The cat meowed from the kitchen.
+++++“He doesn’t miss a meal, that’s for sure,” Ryan muttered. He patted the sofa beside him, “C’mon up buddy, I’ll save you from the mean kitty.”

***

“Skipper, Skipper! Come here, boy,” Mel called from the patio door. The yard was empty, except for the birdfeeders and flowers.
+++++“Ryan, have you seen Skipper?”
+++++“What?” Ryan looked up from his laptop. “No, you let him out.”
+++++“I know, he’s not in the yard. Do you think he got under the fence?” Mel stepped outside, calling, “Skipper, come here pup!” Loud kissy noises followed.
+++++She ducked her head back inside, “What if something happened?”
+++++“He’ll be fine.” Ryan turned back to his laptop and shuffled papers across the table.
+++++A knock from the front door echoed down the hallway. Ryan stood up, “See, I’ll bet he got into the neighbour’s yard again.” The knocking got louder. More urgent.
+++++“Hold on, I’m coming,” he called.
+++++Ryan opened the door, then sagged against the frame. There stood their neighbour, white shirt wildly patterned with maroon streaks. Blood.
+++++He held out a bundle wrapped in a suit jacket. “Oh my god, I hit ‘em. Just pulling into the driveway and he darted out.” Crimson splotches slowly appeared in the grey wool jacket; bleeding through.
+++++Ryan wrapped his arms around the dog; Skipper was panting, tongue hanging out, whites of his eyes showing. “Hey buddy, we’re gonna take you to the vet, OK? Doctor gonna fix you up.”
+++++He called behind him, “Mel, we gotta go. Now. It’s an emergency.”
+++++Mel walked down the hallway, and stood frozen. “Oh my God.”
+++++Ryan raced out the front door, the neighbour still following, talking about paying the vet bill, and apologising.
+++++He looked over his shoulder. Mel still stood in the doorway, grey cat beside her.
+++++“Mel, let’s go. Now.”
+++++Standing beside the car, Ryan fumbled for his keys while cradling his dog. Skipper’s breathing got heavier; a wet rattling sound shook his chest; tongue lolling, he licked Ryan’s hand.
+++++Then he stopped. Light faded from his eyes.
+++++Ryan stared at his dog, now suddenly lighter; eyes fixed in an unseeing glaze.
+++++From the front step, the cat meowed.

***

Fluted wine glasses clinked. Mel raised her glass, tilting it as bubbles floated in amber, “To you honey, happy anniversary.”
+++++Ryan sniffed the glass. Sparkling grape juice. He raised his glass, “To you sweetie.” Sipped and grimaced. “Interesting beverage choice.” Non-alcoholic. He’d kill for a real drink.
+++++“I thought it was a good choice, considering the circumstances.” Mel waved her glass.
+++++He sipped the drink again, ignoring the fruity bubbles; and tried block out drunken arguments, stupid fights that were about nothing and left her crying alone. “Yeah, well, I couldn’t do it without you honey,” awkwardly holding the glass in the air, he leaned in to kiss her.
+++++“Aw, thanks, you’re so sweet.” Mel set her glass on the table, and walked to the stove. The cat circled around her ankles. “Dinner’s ready, let’s eat while it’s still hot.” She slid sizzling steaks onto a platter, a fresh salad stood on standby.
+++++Mel handed him a plate with steak and a potato.
+++++He sliced off a piece of steak. Blood oozed across the dinner plate. “Uh, honey, do you have anything a little more done?”
+++++She looked at him, puzzled. “I thought you liked rare.”
+++++“Um, I don’t really feel like it.” Ryan pushed the plate away and helped himself to salad. Tried not to think about maroon streaks on his neighbour’s shirt, red blossoms growing on the suit jacket; his dog bleeding to death in his arms.
+++++The cat looked up at him, yellow eyes narrowed.
+++++“Uh, you know what, I’m not so hungry right now. Maybe I’m coming down with something.”
+++++“No worries,” Mel swept up the plate, and dropped the steak into the cat dish. The cat leaped at it, growling while tearing off chunks. Throaty purr as it swallowed.
+++++Ryan looked away. “Um, and do you think we could do something about the cat?”
+++++“What?” Mel asked, fork halfway to her mouth.
+++++“I dunno. He’s around a lot. Always under your feet.” Ryan glanced at the cat. It stopped eating, and seemed to be listening. He caught himself – cats don’t listen to conversations. They’re cats. The meow and eat kibble and use the litter box. But this one was different.
+++++He continued slowly, “I mean, he’s eating right beside us while we’re eating dinner.”
+++++Mel pointed her fork at him, “You used to feed Skipper at the table. Off your plate.” She grinned.
+++++“I know, but that’s different.” He couldn’t say how. Or that the cat gave him the creeps.
+++++“Look, it’s like he’s finally bonded to us. We’re part of his pack.” Mel smiled at the cat, who had resumed chewing noisily. “He likes us. It’s a good thing.”
+++++Ryan didn’t say that cats don’t have packs. And the cat liked Mel. Not him.

***

Ryan unlocked the front door, trying to be quiet. Stepping inside, he tripped over something soft. Hissing. Stupid cat.
+++++The cat glared at him, then raced to the living room. The TV flickered. Great, she was still up.
+++++“Ryan, is that you?”
+++++“Yeah,” he leaned against the wall to take off his shoes. Shoes were giving him a hard time. He couldn’t have had that much to drink.
+++++“You said you’d be home hours ago. Just one beer.” TV’s off, Mel stood in the hallway, and tightened her bathrobe around her body.
+++++Ryan reeled, “I jush ad one.” He didn’t just slur, did he?
+++++“More than one.” Mel’s arms were folded across her chest. “You promised.”
+++++“Yeah, well…”
+++++Mel launched into a familiar tirade, “We’ve worked hard on this. Together. And you said you’d just have one drink. And now –”
+++++“I’m fiiiine. Leaf me alone.” He was slurring. Shit.
+++++“No, it’s a problem. We can solve it.”
+++++“I’m fiiine. Just a drink, s’all.”
+++++The cat circled, meowing.
+++++Hit by sudden clarity, Ryan pointed at it. “It’s that stupid cat. He’s not normal – he’s doing stuff. To the birds. To the dog – he killed my dog. He killed him.” Ryan waved at the cat, thought about grabbing it. Put it in a box and take it away.
+++++“Ryan, be reasonable. Skipper got hit by a car, it was an accident. The cat didn’t –”
+++++Ryan kicked the cat. Hard. Grey form bounced against the wall, and lay limp on the floor.
+++++Mel screamed, “You killed him. What’s wrong with you?”
+++++“He’s – I’m sorry.” Ryan shook his head, “But –”
+++++The cat got up, shook himself, and darted behind Mel. Glared at him.
+++++Mel was crying now, how dare you. Bastard. After all we’ve been through. She scooped up cat, and ran upstairs, locking the bedroom door behind her.
+++++Good night.

***

Ryan stumbled into the living room and stretched out on the sofa; turned on the TV, and fell asleep instantly.
+++++It was dark when he woke up. TV was still on. The sofa was uncomfortable, he tried stretching. Couldn’t move his arms. An ache grew in his chest, spreading throughout his limbs; dissolving into burning pain.
+++++He tried twisting his body. No. Must be a dream. That sleep thing, when you can’t move.
+++++Heavy weight on his chest. Can’t breathe.
+++++The stench of rotting fish blasted his face. Low rumble. He opened his eyes. The cat was on top of him. Purring. Whiskers tickled his face.
+++++Yellow eyes stared right through him.

***

Morning sunlight streaked across the carpet. Mel walked into the living room, “Honey, about last night –”
+++++TV on, Ryan was still lying on the sofa. She shook his shoulder.
+++++He fell back limp.
+++++Mel’s eyes widened. She shook him harder.
+++++Stared at him. No rhythmic fall of his chest – not breathing. Panicking, she pulled him toward her.
+++++His head rolled sideways, his mouth sagging open. Covering her face, she choked over the stench, rotting fish.
+++++Hand shaking, she fumbled for her phone and dialled 911. “I think I have an emergency –”
+++++The paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. Mel sobbed as they loaded him on the stretcher. They offered weak condolences. I’m sorry miss, Freak accident, Looks like he choked on vomit, at least he didn’t feel any pain.
+++++From behind the sofa the cat watched as they wheeled his body away. Yellow eyes looked up at Mel, staring. Meowed softly.

The Old Neighborhood

The neighborhood was alive back then. Different. Not like it is today. Full of punks and people who don’t mow their lawns. They just don’t care. The lawns, though small and very much like postage stamps, are now unkempt. Me and the others are the only ones left of the old block.
+++++Then there was the business with Ms. Carey. But I won’t tell you about that. But the Oaklands were a stable, solid family. One became a fireman, the other a cop. The girls married respectable men. Then there was that Ritchie kid. The youngest Oakland. He was a nice boy. He would ride his skateboard on the sidewalk by my house when he was young. A nice boy. Bright too. He was like a little angelic figure with a cherubic face when he was a child. Polite. Generous. Friendly. He helped this one boy when he skinned his knee real bad. He had character. At that age at least, which is rare.
+++++Then he got older. He grew his hair long. Those heavy metal band patches on his jacket. The earring. The whole bit. Some say he turned to drugs. His cherubic face was now gaunt and sunken and his skin pale, almost yellow. He dropped out of school. I could hear the shouting in that old Oakland house with the sycamore in front of it. And then there was that business with Ms. Carey…
+++++I wasn’t going to tell you about that, but I guess I will. Ms. Carey was a sweet old lady that sat on her stoop in a housecoat watching the kids go by. Yelling an occasional “Watch Out!” or “Take it Easy!” She was the last of her bloodline. She had no relatives or children or a spouse. She never married. When her sister died, Ms. Carey was the last one left of her family. She retired from the phone company years earlier and lived off a meager city pension. Alone in this world, she bought cat food for her eight cats and lived off of liverwurst and crackers. She always had candy on Halloween and she always had a fresh wreath at Christmas. And she always had a graham cracker for the lucky little soul who sat with her on a balmy summer night. Ritchie would sit and talk to her for hours about animals and insects and far away lands when he was that cherub. And she always gave him a graham cracker and a glass of milk.
+++++This went on until Ritchie started being “cool.” When he stopped getting haircuts. He would walk by Ms. Carey’s house and she would offer him a graham cracker and he pretended he didn’t notice her. Many people stopped noticing Ms. Carey. She began telling stories over and over again. The same ones. It was repetitive and boring and annoying to many a passerby. I felt bad for the lady. Alone in that house, which was small, but great and big for a woman of her small stature.
+++++Ms. Carey was slipping with old age and Ritchie and not very many others had much use for her. As the neighborhood changed, indifference swept over this town. Callous, cold hands had this town in its grip. People began to lock doors. Mistrust and paranoia crept in. And when the autumn wind swept through the neighborhood one year, Ritchie was walking down the street. He had his Ipod on and he was bopping to some old 80’s heavy metal song or whatever you call it. It just so happened at that moment old Ms. Carey fell in her front yard while sweeping some leaves. Ritchie didn’t hesitate. He went in the gate. Picked her up. Set her on the steps. Jim Hanlon called 911. I saw the whole thing from my window.
+++++But other than that, Ritchie didn’t pay much mind to old Ms. Carey. He walked down the same street bopping to the heavy metal or the punk rock or one of those types of music. He passed me and Jim Hanlon and nodded his head. He didn’t smile. He didn’t laugh. Rumor has it, that he was behind the St. Martin’s School yard biting the heads off chickens. But gee it certainly was a nice thing he done for Ms. Carey.
+++++One day Ritchie was in the school yard with his friends. They were taking snorts of Old Granddad whiskey. And then Ritchie comes up with the idea.
+++++“Hey Rad Man,” says Ritchie. The Rad Man was pulling off the bottle and he coughed a little, “Yeah,” he says.
+++++“Hey member that ole lady I helped in the front yard.”
+++++“Yeah, you was like a town hero or something,” says The Rad Man.
+++++“Well I seen this box. Like a strong box. Only it’s like tin or something. Easy to knock over. I bet that old broad has got a stash in there.”
+++++“Really. Sounds interesting. Finally, you get a good idea.”
+++++“What are you talkin bout. I am the genius of this bunch.”
+++++“Okay genius, you live on the same block. What if someone recognizes you or you get caught?”
+++++“That’s whats so genius. No one will think twice. Dey see me on the block. Dey think nuttin.”
+++++“Kid, you aren’t as dumb as you look. And with the fuckin Aerosmith hat your damn ears stick out. When do we move?”
+++++“This ole broad falls asleep early. I know her since I am a kid. She won’t give us no trouble.”
+++++“Nice. I like the way you think,” said The Rad Man, “Sides we’re getting low on the real stuff.”
+++++Little Brown was quiet through the whole conversation. He was shaking with the sickness. They needed to shoot dope soon or he was gonna have a fit.
+++++“Hey guys, let’s go hit the spoon. I am dying.”
+++++“Me too,” said Ritchie.
+++++The three sat under the train trestle and shot dope. The rains fell all around. The cleansing waters mixed with the filth in downtown Buckston that night. They would be searching for an angry fix soon enough. But they had enough dope in them to get the job done.
+++++When the rains let up the three went to the Treehouse. It was Rad Man’s pad, a real dump of a house in a real dump of a neighborhood. The kind you wouldn’t wanna walk around in after dark. Far away from the street and the house with the sycamore where Ritchie grew up and Ritchie chose this life to be different. He thought he was independent and cool. He thought he was some sort of rugged thug bohemian. People always end up suffering when a boy makes choices like the ones Ritchie does. Oh how me and Mr. Hanlon and I am sure Ritchie’s parents longed for the old days. Days when we would drink gin and tonic and smoke cigarettes under umbrellas in neat yards with bbqs glowing and meat smoking on a grill and the sun beaming down. Goodwill to the neighbors on the street and people everywhere.
+++++Ritchie, Rad Man, and Little Brown had some ski masks with holes cut in them. And a piece, which Rad Man’s Dad had given him once, which he wasn’t sure worked. They toked some reefer and drank bad wine and headed out for ole Ms. Carey’s place. Ritchie was sure she was sleeping. The neighborhood was asleep. The street was asleep. The rains glowed under the illumination of the street light’s beams. They went around the back. The slid the back window open. Jeesus, she didn’t even lock it. The three scurried in the window. Their junkie frames were narrow enough to enter without a ruckus. In the next room, there was ole Ms. Carey. But something was wrong. As soon as the three entered the kitchen, there was the stagnant smell of death lingering with the cinnamon and cloves in the pantry. Ritchie noticed Ms. Carey wasn’t breathing when he stepped into her sleeping area. He couldn’t see the rise and fall of her chest to signal breathing.
+++++“The old broad’s dead I tell you,” said Ritchie. For once in his teenaged life he felt a bit of remorse, a little glimmer of something.
+++++“Oh man, let’s get out of here,” said Little Brown.
+++++“Not without the shit,” said The Rad Man. “Besides, it ain’t like we killed her.”
+++++Ritchie stared in the closed eyes of Ms. Carey. He had a flickering in his head. A flickering of images harking back to his youth. His youth of Graham Crackers and milk on this very porch. But something cold and dark swelled up in his chest and blotted out all memory. He suddenly felt the sickness in his stomach. A sickness that could only be taken away by more dope.
+++++The three hustled to the back of the house and Ritchie reached on top of the refrigerator. Sure enough the old broad had laid it there. A strong box made of some flimsy metal. Ritchie busted open the tiny little lock. There with in the box was 100 dollars cash and some papers.
+++++“Well,” said The Rad Man, his whispery voice reaching a crescendo, “What is it?”
+++++“Just looks like 100 bucks, man,” said Ritchie.
+++++“100 bucks! You stupid bastard, we committed a felony for a 100 bucks,” said Rad Man. He snatched the box out of Ritchie’s hands and immediately began rifling through some additional documents that were there.
+++++“Uh, Rich, Bud…..it seems you got something here.”
+++++“What the hell are you talking about,” said Richie.
+++++“Yeah, what is you yelling about,” said Little Brown.
+++++Ritchie snatched the tattered frayed document from the Rad Man. He glared at in the dark, with a chilling feeling coming over him. He danced the light of the mini flash light over it. It was clearly a deed of some sort. Of some sort. It was the deed of this house. This house preserved with a pension from the city. Molded and shaped by a diet of liverwurst and crackers. And cats. Where were all the damn cats any way? They were gone, gone away.
+++++Anyhow, Ritchie read what he did not or could not believe. It was signed over to none other than himself. An entire house and the old broad gave it to him. Was it the graham crackers as a child? Or was it that singular act of kindness where he picked off the front lawn and sat her on the stoop. Was it serendipitous? Gods, saints, sinners, angels. All the junk in him made run into the sink and puke. He was regurgitating his lifeless soul, which he sold for a bag of dope. He intruded on upon this humble hovel with the intent of a brigand. He left the recipient of good will. What did this mean to the balance of his existence? What was wasn’t. And what is, is no more. One thing was for sure. He couldn’t go on the way he was going. It meant death or worse. He folded the deed and the three walked out into the autumn air. There was silence and the deafening wail of the angels of his psyche bringing him back to the time when he was a cherub.
+++++The leaves fluttered to the pavement. The streetlight hummed and danced illumination of the deeds dark and unseen, new and redeemed, on this street in this town in the USA in this world in this universe. It could happen anywhere, but it happened here.

Eyes Closed

It was a grey, damp morning near the middle of summer. The rain had stopped just before dawn, leaving the grass prickled with golden dewdrops and smelling fresh. Hiram was fifteen years old then. Maybe it was a Saturday. Looking back on it, Hiram couldn’t remember all the details, but some he just couldn’t forget, like the frantic pounding that morning on the front door.
+++++He jerked awake and sat up in bed. The pounding was like an alarm. Slamming his feet on the cold floor, he stood, grabbed his jeans from a pile on the chair next to his nightstand and danced in place, wriggling his feet through the stiff legs until they gave way. While he pulled the jeans up over his hips and did the top button, he cocked his head and listened to the muffled voices coming from below. His mama had answered the door. He snatched a shirt from the chair and threw it over his shoulders, working his arms through the sleeves as he hurried through his bedroom door. Like a small sail, the shirt tail billowed behind him and snagged on the doorknob. Turning to free his shirt, he jerked the door closed over his bare toes. The bottom edge of the door ripped the big toe nail on his left foot half off.
+++++“Goddamn!”
+++++He swore and jumped around on one foot, holding the injured one in both hands, pinching the nail back into place. Blood oozed around its edges. Angry and hitting the door with the flat of his hand, he hobbled back into his room, sat on the edge of the bed and gingerly pulled two socks over his injured foot. When he pressed down on the injured toe again, blood stained the end of the socks. Grabbing a mismatched sock from off the floor, he put it on the other foot then eased both feet into his work boots and tightly laced them up.
+++++“Hiram! You alright up there?” His mother, Bertha, called up to him. “Come on down. Alice is here. She needs you.”
+++++“I’m comin’!” Still feeling the anger, he’d yelled back, but he immediately felt sorry. He hadn’t meant to yell at his mama. The injured toe wasn’t her fault. Sometimes his mouth got a little too far ahead of him for his own good. He hated when that happened.
+++++He hopped down the stairs on his good foot, pretending to walk normally when he hit the bottom step. Pretending was a major part of living when you were fifteen. He saw they were seated on the sofa in the living room. His mother had her arm around Alice, holding her close. She looked up at him when he entered.
+++++“Alice ain’t feelin’ too good. Zach’s been at it again.”
+++++Hiram walked around the coffee table and sat down next to Alice. Her left eye was almost swollen shut, and her lip below the eye was split and bleeding, revealing the latest handiwork of her drunken father, Zach Biddle. Hiram reached over and took her hand and squeezed it gently. She squeezed back. Her head lay on his mama’s shoulder, and her good eye stared off across the room at nothing. It was as still and empty as a glass marble.

***

Hiram and Alice were next door neighbours and best friends. They rode the bus to school together, played in the woods behind his property and swam in the Juniata River after the summer rains filled its deeper pools. They were inseparable and bore the brunt of teasing from the other kids when they held hands on the bus or when Hiram carried her books home from school. Being a lot alike, they were oblivious to the taunts, not caring what others said or thought.
+++++“They’re just jealous, Hiram. Hell, I don’t care. Do you?”
+++++“Hell no. Just wish they’d find somethin’ else to do.” He kicked at a pebble in the path. It skittered away into the long grass at its edge.
+++++“You know, we’re like two big sunflowers in your mama’s garden, Hiram, always turning to catch the light.” Holding her face skyward, she turned in a complete circle. “The rest are just pansies, wishin’ they were like us,” confirming her comment with a nod and a giggle.
+++++Alice loved flowers. Hiram looked down at her. She was always talking like that, in big pictures he could understand. He was convinced that one day he’d marry Alice. He’d told her so, but she wasn’t so certain.
+++++It was a warm summer day after a swim in the river when they stretched out on their towels, drying off in the sun, that Hiram noticed Alice had breasts. She lay on her back. Goose bumps puckered her arms, and her taut nipples pressed hard against the thin fabric of her swimsuit. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed them before. Holding her hand or carrying her books was as far as he’d got in his head. He hadn’t considered the rest.
+++++Alice turned her head toward him. “What you starin’ at, Hiram?”
+++++“Nothin’.” After being caught staring at her breasts, he turned, closed his eyes and lay face down to hide his unexpected reaction to what he’s seen.
+++++“Bull. You’re lookin’ at me different.”
+++++He turned his head round to face her. Her blue eyes met his. She was more goddamned beautiful now than he’d ever thought possible before. He couldn’t lie. He could never lie.
+++++“Alice, we been friends since we been little. We’re not little anymore. I love you. When it’s right, I want you to marry me.” There, he’d finally said it.
+++++She turned her face away from him and gazed up through the canopy of leaves to a patch of pale, blue sky. A tear dropped from the corner of her eye, slipped down the side of her face and disappeared into a lock of hair covering her ear. She turned back to Hiram.
+++++“You can’t marry me. Hiram. As much as I love you, as much as you love me, I’m not for you.” With that she turned away and stared at nothing, not even the sky.
+++++Hiram was hurt. Looking for some comfort, he slid his hand over next to hers and felt her warm slender fingers slip between his. They held tight to one another for awhile until she lifted his hand and placed it on the soft mound between her legs. The fabric of the swimsuit was warm and wet. Hiram thought it was from the swim they’d had. Opening her legs slightly, she pressed one of Hiram’s fingers into the softness. Her breathing changed.
+++++“You feel that, Hiram?”
+++++His throat was dry from breathing through his mouth.
+++++“It’s soft,” he answered, “and hard at the same time.”
+++++Alice kept her eyes open. She wanted to close them, but bad things always happened in the dark. She couldn’t let those things happen.
+++++“That’s the bud.” She pressed harder as she spoke. “I’m afraid that’s as much and as far as you’re gonna get, Hiram.”
+++++After a moment, she pulled his hand away and sat up. He pushed up on his elbow wanting to say something, but the right words wouldn’t come. Instead he followed her gaze to the river. They both watched the current ripple and sparkle in the sunlight as it flowed around a dead tree trunk that had fallen into the river, its roots still clinging to the pebbled shoreline. Water gurgled and foamed as it disappeared around the end of the log. Sheltered from the eternal flow of the river, a tangle of small branches and dead leaves scattered along the windward side of the log. A light breeze from up river rattled the leaves overhead, clattering them like rain on a hard, flat road, sprinkling more leaves at the edge of the water.
+++++The air smelled of honeysuckle, and Hiram, searching for the source, spied a vine clinging to the tree that partially shaded them. He stood, traipsed over to the vine and picked some of the succulent blossoms; then he walked back to join Alice and crouched in front of her. Pinching the small, green calyx at the base of the flower, he pulled the style down through the neck of the blossom. At the tip of the style was a bud and suspended from the bud was a glistening drop of honey-flavoured nectar. Hiram lifted the bud to Alice’s lips. Opening her mouth, she took the drop on her tongue. He did the same with the second flower and savoured the sweetness for himself. He stared at the blossoms in his hand and smiled at the simple, sweet, hidden mystery. Alice reached over and picked up one of the blossoms. Holding it up to the light, she twirled the pale yellow flower between her thumb and finger.
+++++“You see that, Hiram? That’s me.”
+++++She gazed a moment at the spinning blossom in the bright sunlight; then she brought it to her nose and breathed in its sweet aroma.
+++++“Looks good, smells good. But the sweetness is gone.”
+++++“I’ll get you another one. Hold on.”
+++++Hiram moved to get up, to go fetch another flower, but Alice grabbed his arm.
+++++“Sometimes you’re a dumb ass, Hiram. You don’t listen!”
+++++Hiram settled and listened, but he didn’t want to. Something told him he didn’t want to listen or hear or care. He loved Alice, plain and simple. She held the honeysuckle blossom up in front of his face. Her eyes glistened, filled with the truth of something Hiram didn’t recognize or maybe didn’t even want to know.
+++++“The sweetness is gone, Hiram.” She shook the blossom in his face. “You understand? Taken from me. I’m a broken flower. I love you, but you’ll never marry me. I can’t let you.” She raised up on her knees, leaning in close to Hiram. She almost whispered it. “My daddy took it.” Her eyes were wide and wild. He held her gaze. It was a truth he hadn’t recognized, he hadn’t seen, he hadn’t known.
+++++With that said, she sat back on the blanket, throwing the honeysuckle blossom up in the air till the breeze caught it. Landing in the water at river’s edge, it washed up against the dead log. For her, it was settled, but not for Hiram. For Hiram, it would never be – could never be – settled.

***

You get to know people from their habits, the way they move their hands when they talk or scratch the same spot on their face like a nervous tic or when they spit on the ground after making a point. Since the day Alice told him about the flower down by the river, Hiram had been observing the habits of Zach Biddle. For Hiram, this latest blackened eye and cut lip was just one more thing, one more reason. He expected no less from the likes of Zach Biddle. In Hiram’s estimation, a man like him didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Alice or even the same air as the rest of the world, for that matter. While watching and learning Zach’s habits, Hiram’s plan slowly took shape.
+++++Some week nights, but mostly on Friday nights, Zach came home drunk. He’d barely ease the car in the driveway before he blacked out. Occasionally, he’d make it all the way into the garage and sleep it off, leaving the engine idling and the garage door open. Hiram’s plan counted on Zach making it all the way into the garage, so he waited. Patience was an integral part of his plan. It had to be. Killing a man and not getting caught, couldn’t be rushed.
+++++That night, he counted the hours until he saw Zach’s car approaching. He watched from his bedroom window like he had many a night. The car jerked forward then stopped and stalled some fifty feet short of the driveway. Hiram started to doubt; then it started up again and shot forward hitting the curb at the edge of the drive before it straightened. Another spurt of gas carried it all the way into the garage. Brake lights illuminated the driveway. Hiram judged Zach was definitely drunk. From his astute observations, it wasn’t a difficult judgment to make. He tiptoed down to the first floor and slipped out the back door. Standing on the back porch stoop, he listened, hearing the thrum of the car’s engine and the low, steady rumble from its exhaust.
+++++A canopy of stars blanketed the sky, but there was no moon and no shadow as he crept along the garage wall. Reaching the end, he peered into the garage. The car’s headlights lit the debris scattered against the back wall and backlit Zach’s dark outline inside the car. Hiram could see his head was tilted back over the top of the seat, his mouth gaping open. He crouched beside the car, scooted up along the passenger side and raised himself enough to get a good look at Zach and the dashboard lights. He feared the car might run out of gas before the job was done. The window was down, and he could see the gas gauge needle hovered at the half-full mark. Zach’s snore caught then continued. He was out cold. Crouching, he shuffled around the back of the car coming up on the driver’s side. That’s when he saw her.
+++++Alice sat in the shadows just out of the headlight’s halo on the back wall, on the one step that led through the door behind her into the house. She had her arms wrapped around her knees, holding them tightly to her chest, rocking and humming along with the sound of the engine. Hiram thought her humming sounded like bees in a swarm. He crouched down beside the car and whispered as loudly as he dared.
+++++“Alice! Alice! It’s me, Hiram.”
+++++At the sound of her name, she turned her head toward him.
+++++“Alice! Come on!” He motioned toward her.
+++++She released her knees, unfolded her body and stood. Moving toward him, putting one foot carefully in front of the other, she walked like she was in a trance. He could still hear her humming. Just as Hiram stood and moved to help her, she glanced at her daddy sleeping in the car. At that moment, his head lulled to one side and faced them. Drool ran in a stream from the corner of his mouth. They both saw it at once and jumped back. Hiram heard Alice suck in a breath, preparing a scream, and he gently clamped his hand over her mouth, leading her out of the garage to the top of the drive. He had his arm over her shoulders and held her close. They stood that way for a while lit only by the reflection of the car’s headlights off the garage’s back wall.
+++++“Why were you making that humming sound, Alice?”
+++++She looked up at him.
+++++“It’s the sound my daddy makes in my ear in the dark.” As she stared at the dark, shiny car and the darker hulk that slept behind the wheel, she started humming again. Hiram dropped his arm off her shoulders and took her hand. He wasn’t sure what was right; he just felt it.
+++++“I want you to help me with something.”
+++++He led her back to the garage but didn’t enter. Instead, he reached up for the garage door handle. The door was the kind that pivoted on a track and folded downward. It would close quietly, he knew. On another day, in preparation for this one, he’d oiled all the hinges and riveted joints. When he’d pulled the door part way down so she could reach it, he took Alice’s hand and placed it on the handle with his.
+++++“I love you, Alice. I won’t let anyone hurt you again. But you got to help save yourself.”
+++++With that, they pulled the garage door down together until it quietly latched.
+++++He removed a rag from his back pocket and wiped the door handle clean. The darkness enveloped them, wrapping them for the moment in a soft silence. In that quiet moment, in the silence, Hiram realised Alice had stopped humming. It is finished, thought Hiram. Putting his arms around Alice, he drew her close. Her arms encircled his waist as her head rested gently on his chest. Her hair smelled like honeysuckle, or maybe he imagined it, like one always remembers the taste of a forbidden fruit. They stood for a moment in the dark, still silence, holding on together to the possibility that God would have to do the judging. Hiram stepped back and took her hand, leading her across the grass to his front porch.
+++++They mounted the steps together, and Hiram held open the screen door for her.
+++++“Evening you two.”
+++++The voice startled them and stopped them dead in their tracks.
+++++“Come on in.”
+++++Hiram’s father, Henry, sat alone in the darkness on a wicker chair next to their front door. He lit a match that brightened the porch’s interior for an instant until he put it to the top of his pipe bowl and gently sucked the flame through the aromatic tobacco, filling the porch with the scent of apples and burnt sugar, a smell that always soothed Hiram.
+++++“What you two been up to?”
+++++In the momentary flash of the match flame, Hiram had seen the baseball bat lying across his father’s knees. His father had a sense of justice that wasn’t too far off from Hiram’s. The apple never falls far from the tree, his daddy had often said. Hiram knew then, had things gone wrong for him and Alice, his somehow omniscient father would have stepped in and meted out his own brand of final judgment on Zach Biddle.
+++++“Just went for a stroll,” Hiram answered.
+++++“You ok, Alice? Bertha told me about your troubles.”
+++++“I’m fine, Mr. Beffer. I think my troubles are behind me now.”
+++++“Let’s hope so. It’s a good place for ‘em.”
+++++Hiram heard the hollow sound of the wooden bat as his father leaned it against the wall behind his chair.
+++++“Let’s go inside. I think Bertha’s got something cookin’ in the kitchen.”
+++++The three of them went through the door, Alice first, followed by Hiram then Henry. As they stepped through the door, Henry placed a hand on Hiram’s shoulder and squeezed. Hiram understood. God works in mysterious ways. His father didn’t have to say a word.
+++++After a hot chocolate and a biscuit, hot from the oven, it was time to retire for the night. Alice chose the sofa. Bertha made it up for her with a sheet, a heavy blanket and a pillow and said good night.
+++++“You sure you’re gonna be ok?” Hiram asked.
+++++She looked up at him. “I’ll be fine, Hiram, when the sun comes up.”
+++++“Won’t be too long now.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Night, Alice.”
+++++Hiram wasn’t sure if he’d dreamed it or if Alice really did come to his bed during the night. It could have been wishful thinking, he thought, as his sleepy head mulled it over. The night had been filled enough with dreams and awakenings and heavy slumber in between. He rubbed the sand from his eyes, pulled on his jeans and tiptoed down the steps, not wanting to wake Alice. But the sofa was empty. He stared at the folded sheet and blanket resting on top of the pillow along with a note. He sat down on the sofa, pulled his feet up off the cold floor and read it:
+++++Thank you, Hiram. You’re a good man. I’m free now. You saw to that. But I got to go. I got to go, Hiram. I got to go. Love Alice
+++++He folded the note and pushed it in his jean’s pocket. Lifting the blanket and sheet off the pillow, he stretched out on the sofa and buried his face in her pillow, trying to remember everything–the blue sky, a light breeze and the scent of honeysuckle in full bloom.

 ***

Later that morning, Hiram sat on the porch with his daddy snapping green beans when a police cruiser pulled into the Biddle’s driveway. The officers got out of the car and put on their hats. One walked to the door and knocked while the other inspected the garage door. The officer at the front door disappeared inside the house when the door opened. The officer outside looked around a bit, walked down the side of the garage and back again. He gave up his investigation of the exterior and entered the house through the front door that had been left open.
+++++Hiram and Henry had filled one pan with the snapped beans and started on another when the Biddle’s garage door opened. Both officers along with Alma Biddle, Alice’s mother, hurried out of the garage. They stood around, fanning their hands in front of their faces, letting the fumes clear out. They talked together a while, then Alma pointed toward the Beffer place. Hiram saw her point.
+++++“Here they come, daddy.”
+++++An officer strolled across the grass toward their house. He mounted the steps to the porch and knocked on the screen door, peering through the screen at Hiram and Henry as he did.
+++++“Mind if I come in?”
+++++“Not at all if you don’t mind us snapping some beans,” Henry said, “What’s the problem?”
+++++The officer, his name tag said Phil Parish, stepped through the open screen door.
+++++“Seems Mr. Biddle had a terrible accident. Left his car running in a closed garage. Apparently he’d been drinkin’, according to his wife, and well sir, he blacked out and didn’t wake up.”
+++++“He’s dead?” Henry asked.
+++++“Seems so. A body don’t last long without oxygen.”
+++++“I heard that somewhere.” Henry added to an already obvious statement.
+++++“Seems Mrs. Biddle’s daughter, Alice, is missing.”
+++++“Well Alice was here with us last night. She and my son, Hiram, here are a little sweet on one another, if you know what I mean.”
+++++“What time was this?” The officer pulled out a pad to make notes.
+++++“Hiram, when did you and Alice go out?”
+++++“It was just after sundown. It was still bright. We went through the woods and walked along the river, talkin’, skippin’ stones, then circled back through town and came back home.”
+++++“Anyone see you? You stop off anywhere?”
+++++“Not that I recollect. Neither of us had any money. We just walked and talked like we always do. We’re good company for one another.”
+++++“My wife, Bertha made them hot chocolate and some of her homemade biscuits when they got back.”
+++++“What time was that?”
+++++Hiram answered. “’Bout nine or ten. Not real sure. Don’t have a watch.”
+++++“My wife, Bertha, offered for Alice to stay the night if she wanted to and made up the sofa for her. Alice has stayed with us before.”
+++++“What about this morning?”
+++++“She was gone when I got up. It was early,” Hiram answered. “I figured she’d gone into town. Has a mind of her own sometimes and just takes off. She’ll show up. She’ll be broken up about her daddy, though,” Hiram added almost as an afterthought.
+++++Phil folded up his notebook. “Ok. If you hear anything from Alice, let us know. We’d appreciate it.”
+++++“We’ll be sure to do that, officer. Give our condolences to Alma,” Henry answered.
+++++With a wave, the officer was gone. When he’d crossed the property line, Henry spoke.
+++++“Where is Alice, Hiram.”
+++++“I don’t know, daddy.” He pulled the crumpled note from his pocket. “She left me this.”
+++++Henry read the note then got up and went into the house. After a few minutes, he returned empty-handed.
+++++“Where’s the note?”
+++++“I burned it,” Henry answered.

***

Later in the morning the coroner’s hearse arrived and backed up to the garage. The attendants wheeled out Zach’s corpse in a body bag, loaded it into the back of the hearse and drove away without fanfare like a simple grocery delivery van. Next, a tow truck arrived and pulled Zach’s car from the garage. Apparently Alma had no more need for it or couldn’t stand the idea that it was where Zach had taken his final, drunken breath. The driver hopped from the cab of the truck and closed the garage door. The well-oiled door clicked into place without a sound.

***

Hiram hadn’t heard from Alice for two days now. He wasn’t worried yet, but it was working on his mind, and if he thought about it, he could get worried. Trying not to think about it, he weeded the garden for his mama and split some logs for the stove, keeping himself busy. He was just driving the wedge through a stubborn log when he saw Alma Biddle hurrying across the grass toward him. She stopped in front of him and waited till he put down the sledge hammer. Bertha had been standing at the kitchen window watching Hiram split the logs. When she saw Alma, she called out.
+++++“Henry, come quick!”
+++++She stepped out on the back porch stoop and a few seconds later, Henry joined her.
+++++“I’ll have you know, Hiram Beffer, that I just got a call from the po-lice. They found Alice’s body in the Juniata River, all crushed and broken like. What do you have to say to that?”
+++++“I’m sorry.” Hiram was truly sorry.
+++++“Sorry? That all you got to say!”
+++++Henry stepped down off the porch. “Alma, leave the boy alone. He had nothin’ to do with it. He loved that girl.”
+++++Hiram stood in silent shock at the news.
+++++“So you say, Henry Beffer. She was his girl, warn’t she? You’d think he’d take care o’ her. Po-lice say the way they found her, the place they found her, she jumped off the route 220 bridge. You don’t do that for love, Henry.”
+++++Hiram looked up at Mrs. Biddle. “I did love her, Mrs. Biddle.” It was all he could say.
+++++She turned to Hiram. “Yeah. But not enough.”
+++++She turned to Henry and Bertha. “I gotta lose a husband and a daughter in one week!” She raised her hands to the top of her head, lost and crazed, pulling at tufts of her thinning hair. “Oh God, what did I do?”
+++++Bertha came down off the porch and marched over to Alma. Standing in front of her, she waited until Alma’s eyes met hers. Bertha stared at her like she was a curious specimen in a glass case, tilting her head to one side, speaking like you would to a child.
+++++“You know what you did, Alma? Do you really know? You know what killed your daughter?”
+++++Alma stumbled back away from the questions.
+++++In pursuit, Bertha took a step forward. “You closed your eyes.”

The Meat it Feeds on

I damn near didn’t recognize Dee without her hooker’s uniform: flimsy miniskirt, crimson lipstick, black fishnet hoes. Now draped in Victorian frills and the modest half-grin of a virgin bride, she stepped up to me, gestured for a smoke and took a seat. Like we’d just spoken days ago, not years. Like I was just some guy she knew, nothing more.
+++++The ugly truth: I was her pimp back in the day. But once we’d caught up, I’d become nothing. Just another ex-player from the joint, looking for a legit gig to keep the PO off my ass. The ride – all eleven years of it – was no joke. But Dee still looked like Dee. Eyes that shone like a matching set of nightlights, ass as tight as a snare drum. Still my top girl, my baby, my Dee.
+++++But damned if she didn’t look strange all prettied up for the brand new gig. She was supposed to be Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, she explained. I’d done just enough reading in the joint to know the concept. But she had to break it down to me anyway:
+++++“She’s a girl even though she’s called Hero and not Heroine and she fakes like she’s dead ’cause her fiancé or something thought she was with another guy even though she wasn’t. And then we find out she’s not dead at the end.”
+++++“Sounds deep.”
+++++But my mind raced to other places, sought answers to questions she seemed to be hiding from. I wanted to know what happened to that quiet fire that danced behind those ocean blue eyes. She seemed dragged down into a surrender.
+++++Not that my time up in Stillwater was a backyard barbecue. And the seven weeks since my release had been rougher still. Like her, I wound up pulling in minimum wage at WillyWorld, boasting roughly nine bucks to my name and limping through the only role a brother boasting my shade could qualify for at a Shakespeare theme park. If you think it’s hard out there for a pimp, try being an Othello with a potbelly and a teardrop tattoo.
+++++“I’m ready to make a move,” she wheezed through her third cigarette. “You with me?”
+++++Ready to make a move. I showered in those words for a second, remembering how, back in the days before my stumble, they always meant something crazy and dangerous and rewarding.
+++++I remembered how we made a move on that Indonesian opium supplier who made the mistake of carrying around half a million dollars in a brief case and wound up naked and broke in a Motel Six just past the Wisconsin border.
+++++I remembered how we made a move on that napping mall security guard when we figured out where his keys were kept.
+++++I remembered how we made a move on Fat Robbie, a rival pimp who picked the wrong hooker to muscle up to and the wrong weapon (a switchblade) to protect himself with against my Glock 17.
+++++Mostly I remembered who I was back then – the biggest player in the biggest game. King of that sleazy, beautiful, fucked-up world.
+++++But I wasn’t him anymore. And all I wanted now was to retire into a nice, quiet life, away from the dangerous game that made me a star among stars.
+++++“Dee, those days are behind us, baby,” I said. “I want out. Don’t you?”
+++++“Out? Tommy, who are you kidding? There is no out? Not for me anyway. What else am I going to do?”
+++++“You’re doing this.”
+++++“Yeah, and barely paying my bills.”
+++++I had no reply.
+++++“Tommy, if I don’t make some kind of a big score, something that gets me the hell out of here, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
+++++Her chin got shaky and a trickle of a tear dropped from her eye. It was a performance. But a damn good one.
+++++It was a role she could play to perfection. The fragile hooker in need of a rescue, not like the other stone-hearted whores. She was different. Somebody who could crumble like a fortune cookie.Somebody who meant it when she moaned and groaned. Somebody you could feel something for. Something real. That’s what made her the most skilled hooker in town. It’s also what made me break my one and only rule. The pimp’s version of not getting high on your own supply. Yeah, that’s right. I fell in love with Dee. A bad move, but there was no back peddling from it now. There was only surrender.
+++++“Yeah, baby. I’m with you,” I sighed.
+++++“We’ll talk tomorrow,” she said, easing back into the shadows. Next day I was right where she wanted me. And why not? She was my Dee.

***

We met at the food court on my lunch break and without delay, dove into a gripe session regarding the peculiarities of our workplace. We agreed that we’d seen enough ruffles for eleven lifetimes and that ‘iambic pentameter’ crap they made us speak to customers policy was too stupid for words. But the small talk died when Wes strolled up to us.
+++++He had that apprentice inmate look I’d recognized from the joint, the look of a young buck searching for a face to bury his fist in. At Willy World he played Iago to my Othello; in the joint we would have called him a cutter.
+++++“You talk to him about… the thing?” He asked Dee.
+++++“I’m getting to it,” Dee sighed.
+++++Lead-heavy glances all around. The glances of three people not sure who they should trust.
+++++“They’re having this thing next week, the fat fucks who run Willy World,” she started. “A little informal after hours gathering in the basement under the food court.”
+++++Wes jumped in. “Same story every year: they have these big investors over for a drink and a little strip show. Usually a poker game too,”
+++++“Everybody knows about it, but nobody talks. It’s kind of illegal and shit,” Dee added.
+++++Then Wes said, “Thing is, these guys come with cash just pouring out of them, begging to get robbed.”
+++++“And that’s where I come in?” I asked.
+++++“That’s where we come in,” Wes Corrected.
+++++Dee said, “I’ve been checking out their routine for years now – even worked security for them one year. My supervisor Mike is the guy who puts it together. It’s not hard to get him to spill some secrets after a few cocktails,”
+++++Wes said, “This should be an easy score. In, out, gone in three, maybe four minutes. We get somebody who wants to be a hero, we put him down. You cool with that?” Wes asked.
+++++Dee answered for me: “He’s cool with that,”
+++++Wes then broke down the blueprint. Me and him were supposed to rush in, guns drawn, and empty the place then get out in time for Dee to roll to the exit in the getaway ride. I had no qualms with the plan. The math added up. But something still shook me to the core – and kept on shaking even as Dee strolled away.
+++++Wes studied his shoes for a moment, like somebody scraping up the courage to deliver bad news. “Look, about Dee…”
+++++“Yeah?”
+++++“It’s just… I don’t know about this Mike thing. I mean, can we trust her if she’s so friendly with this guy?”
+++++This Mike thing?The man hadn’t even entered the picture. Then all of a sudden, he pushed everybody else to into the backdrop.
+++++“You may want to watch her,” Wes said. “That’s all I’m saying.”
+++++I nodded and shrugged as he left me alone with my uncomfortable thoughts. I shot my gaze into the distance, checking out Dee’s pasted-on smile for a few customers. It had never before occurred to me to wonder what was happening behind that friendly grin. The tricks were tricks. It was her job to jive them. But not me. I was her man, her big daddy, her meal ticket. But things had changed. And maybe she had changed with them.
+++++I decided that if I was going to move ahead with the plans, I’d do it with both eyes wide open, trusting nobody. Not even Dee.

***

It started on a clunky note, a stumble. Wes bumped into a wall in the hallway as we edged toward the room. Stealing a glance through a side window we saw them all freeze into statues. But by then we’d seen all we needed to see:
+++++Three empty suits – all drunk – awaiting lap dances.
+++++A chubby stripper, too coked up to qualify as a worry.
+++++A security guard, giddy and stupid.
+++++Mike, less drunk than his buddies, but not a dude you’d worry about having to fight. Too skinny and nerdy to do any damage.
+++++“The hell was that?” one of the suits asked. Heads swiveled. Eyes nearly popped from their sockets.
+++++But no panic from us. So long as the choreography’s tight, the dance can survive a little clumsiness. We lost the element of surprise but regained it soon enough when we stormed inside with a couple of toys: my Lugar, wes’ sawed-off forty-five.
+++++“We want everything you got and we want it now!” Wes announced.
+++++We had them jolted them into instant sobriety. Obedience quickly followed. The stripper surrendered her tip money. The suits emptied their wallets. But something was moving the wrong way. The room seemed to tilt towards an uncool quiet.
+++++Everything blurred into chaos when the security guard found the right open moment to fire a shot – it missed us, but kicked us off balance. The stripper’s scream didn’t help. Mike dashed behind a desk, drew a gun.
+++++Wes took the security guard out; I shot the stripper in the knee cap, but that only made her scream louder. Only one way to take care of that. Wes put a bullet into her chest and swung to greet the suits.
+++++“So we’re gonna’ have to do this the hard way, huh?” he barked.
+++++Three more shots, three dead suits. Wes turned back to me. A lifted eyebrow seemed to ask if he did good. But my gaze was locked on Mike.
+++++“What the hell is going on?” Dee called from outside. She arched her head in the doorway to spy the unfolding horror show unfolding inside.
+++++The distraction slapped us off balance again and Mike – too cocky, too clumsy – lurched ahead, gun half-assed drawn, right into my line of fire, took one to the belly, one to the crotch.
+++++“Michael!” Dee Screeched, her voice laced with enough regret to tell me something I didn’t want to know.
+++++I wish I could say that my next shot – the one that split Dee’s face into a slow motion gusher of dark red – came from a slipped finger, an ugly accident that snuck into the fog of echoing gunfire. But I’ve been alive too long to believe that. I’ve seen too Goddamned much.
+++++I’m not sure how I lasted so long in the flesh-peddling trade without being haunted by those faces: The businessmen, the lonely boys, the Michaels. I guess I just pretended not to notice their scent all over Dee’s body. It was probably just a matter of time before the demon dog snapped free from its chain. I could only ignore those faces for so long.
+++++With the room now shattered into silence, Wes and I turned inward, shoving our guns in each other’s faces.
+++++“Why the fuck did you do that?” he demanded, veins in his neck bulging into garden hoses. “She’s on our side!”
+++++“I know who she is!” I answered. And when he shoved the gun’s barrel up my nostril, I could only repeat, “I know who she is!”
+++++Wes’ eyes widened, searching for an answer. All he knew is that I had killed a member of our team. So his gun stayed put.
+++++And mine didn’t move either, because I felt like I’d just been set up like a bowling pin.
+++++We stayed locked in a standoff for hours, him sweating like the rookie he really was; me wordlessly begging him to shoot first, begging for a way home. A way out of seeing those faces ever again.

Edge Of Reason

The heat from the bonfire was intense. But the burning along his face, neck and arms was nothing compared to the pain in his heart.
+++++He flicked another simmering glance toward the couple hidden amongst the shadowed rocks that linked the islet La Roca to the mainland. Jaw clenched, he rose from his crouched position beside the fire and stalked away from the group of rowdy teenagers gathered around the flames. His footsteps took him to where the waves crashed against the darkened shingle beach. With an instinct born of betrayal, he picked up a stone and hurled it into the fire’s rippling reflection, each successive stone landing further than the last.
+++++The sound of footsteps crunching the stones behind him stayed his arm in mid throw. He tensed as a pair of warm hands snaked around his waist and slender arms encircled his torso.
+++++“Miguel,” a voice whispered against his neck, “where’ve you been all summer? I’ve missed you. We could slip away; head back to the house while everyone is here on the beach.”
+++++He tore himself from the embrace, careful to keep his back to her.
+++++“Not now, Anna,” he replied between gritted teeth, his anger now directed at himself. Anna was a loose thread he should’ve taken care of weeks ago but he’d been too damned distracted.
+++++Hands jammed into his pockets, Miguel strode off into the darkness. He needed to put as much distance as he could between himself and the whole lot of them: Anna, the rowdy drinkers now dancing around the bonfire and most especially, the couple hidden in the shadows.
+++++So, Carlos – the player who gloated every Monday morning about his conquests from up and down the coast – had finally moved in on Daniella.
+++++His Daniella.
+++++Daniella, the new girl from Barcelona, whose urban chic and quiet shyness had caught his attention from the first day she arrived at the only high school in Salobreña. He’d watched her, day after day, sitting on her own in the school grounds, the small-town locals too tight-knit to let the attractive stranger into their midst, with rumours of her snobby city ways passing from one pair of lips to another.
+++++The snide remarks had brought back memories of his own cool reception when he first arrived in the seaside town two years ago to live in exile with an elderly relative. It was the prank he’d played on Javier Batista that had landed him in the Principal’s office for the last time, forcing his parents to carry through with their threats. It was still a mystery how they’d managed to link him to the posters plastered all over the school of the super jock’s face photo-shopped on to the body of a drag queen. He’d been so sure he’d covered his tracks carefully that time.
+++++The first few months in Salobreña had been lonely, Miguel finding little in common with the residents of the backwater town. That is, until the day he watched a group of boys swim out to the tip of La Roca, scale the limestone cliffs to the top and leap from a height of fifteen metres into the warm Mediterranean waters below. They’d caught him looking and after a few nudges and whispers, Carlos yelled out to him.
+++++“Hey, city boy, come and take a jump if you dare.”
+++++Goaded by the challenge, he swam out to La Roca, scrambled to the top and heart pumping, took his first terrifying jump into the swirling waters below. It’d been his ticket into the herd, a rite of passage that had given him instantaneous acceptance.
+++++It was the lingering sting of those memories that had prompted him to approach Daniella, captivated by the warmth in her caramel eyes, intrigued by the heart-shaped birthmark on the side of her neck. The easy flow of conversation had led to an offer to take her to see the town’s only attraction, the Salobreña Alcazar. One look at her slender figure silhouetted against the castle’s ramparts, her long chestnut hair blowing in the wind, precipitated another impulsive invitation.
+++++“Any interest in going for a swim sometime?” he asked in what he hoped was an even and offhanded tone.
+++++After the slightest of hesitations, she smiled and replied “Sure”.
+++++Anna was quickly forgotten, relegated to the status of a spring fling, all his free time now spent with Daniella, swimming in isolated bays, walking the beaches, commiserating with each other about their forced exiles to the small town. In response to her explanation of her father’s transfer to the local branch of a national bank, he said that his parents had been transferred overseas, choosing to abandon him to the care of an unknown spinster Aunt, a story which had successfully garnered the appropriate sympathy.
+++++He’d lain awake many a night into the early hours, basking in the knowledge that for the first time in his life, he knew what it was like to be the Javier’s and Carlos’ of the world; that this time, he’d been the one to land the girl.
+++++Before long, spending his spare time with her was not enough.
+++++The fact that there were no job openings at the restaurant where he worked had not stopped him from securing her a position there. It was child’s play really. A few whispered words, a nod or two at the appropriate moment, a purposely mixed up order and the boss dismissed José, already under repeated warnings. Then a casual mention of his friend, Daniella, and they were working together. The two of them … and Carlos.
+++++Hands balled in his pockets, Miguel approached the stretch of beach that had been theirs. He stood at the water’s edge, his hand thrumming with the memory of the day he brushed his finger down Daniella’s neck and around her birthmark.
+++++“An unusual shape,” he commented.
+++++She pulled away. “You’d better beware,” she said with a teasing smile. “People with a heart-shaped birthmark can sense other people’s feelings, see their auras.” She narrowed her eyes. “Some even dream events before they happen.”
+++++He’d laughed then, as casually as possible, asked if she was able to read him. She hesitated, then looked away and changed the subject. He shrugged off his unease, not wanting to believe that she could see into the emptiness that filled his soul.
+++++The summer progressed, with passion mounting in his heart, but little more than friendship offered in return. His frustration grew but he waited, calculating that his efforts would pay off in the end. He had failed however, to factor in Carlos, failed to see the signs of something brewing between him and Daniella.
+++++He kicked at the stones on the beach, jarring his foot in the process.
+++++“Miguel, come on,” his friend Pablo shouted from the direction of the bonfire. “We’re swimming out to La Roca.”
+++++He turned to the sounds of squeals and shouts. Shadowy figures race toward the shoreline, tearing off t-shirts, hopping out of shorts. The blood raced through his veins and he savoured the familiar rush that had hooked him from his first jump.
+++++Then two shadows detached from the rocks and a shudder snaked its way up his spine. The bubbling surge of adrenalin was quickly replaced by something heavier, colder. Miguel watched as Carlos pulled Daniella toward the water, eager to join the others already swimming out to the rock. But Daniella hesitated, peering around, searching the darkness, searching for … him?
+++++Miguel walked back toward the now deserted bonfire, his steps measured. He slowly unbuttoned his shirt, then dove into the waves. His strokes were purposeful, the water’s cool caress doing little to douse the fire that raged within. At the cliff face, he grasped a rock and hauled himself out of the sea. He climbed upwards, the jagged edges of the limestone biting into the soft skin of his palms and soles. He made it to the top in time to see Juan make a sign of the cross before taking the short run and hurling himself off the edge of the cliff. Four seconds passed before he heard the splash in the water below.
+++++“Olé,” Juan shouted from down below. The group cheered.
+++++Another of the daredevils stepped forward. Hand on his waist, he took a deep breath, blessed himself, then ran the few feet and plunged over the edge.
+++++“Hey, Miguel, where you been?” Pablo asked. “You gonna jump tonight?”
+++++Several heads turned in his direction.
+++++He felt the force of Anna’s resentment rolling off her in waves. Carlos looked him in the eye, a slight mocking curve to his lips, a challenge in his crossed arms. And in Daniella’s shadowed features he saw not only guilt and embarrassment but something else, a hint of unease, before she dropped her gaze.
+++++A muscle twitched in his jaw at the thought of the empty days to come, knowing with certainty that he’d lost her. He took a step forward and looked over the edge into the dark pool of water partially enclosed by the surrounding cliff face. The jump, intimidating enough in the light of day, was reckless at night. He suspected their bravado was spurred on knowing it was the last weekend of the summer break. That, and the large amount of alcohol consumed, as few would attempt the jump stone-cold sober. He stepped away from the edge.
+++++“Not tonight, man,” he replied. Carlos sniggered. Hands clenched, he stepped to the side, a calculated move to clear the way for anyone else with enough machismo to take the leap.
+++++No one else seemed in a hurry to jump, the guys teasing each other, trying to incite themselves to the challenge. Goose bumps rippled across his arms as a light breeze caressed the top of the La Roca. He watched, waiting, knowing it was only a matter of time.
+++++“Come on,” Juan shouts from the waves below, “I’m getting cold. Anyone with enough cojones to join us?”
+++++Carlos made his move, as Miguel knew he would.
+++++“Make way,” Carlos shouted, before taking a few steps back.
+++++Miguel watched as Carlos crossed himself. Then one step, two steps and he was running the short distance to the plummet over the edge.
+++++Miguel’s eyes narrowed. It’d be easy, so easy, to extend his foot, to nudge Carlos off-balance, just enough to scare him, to inject an extra frission of fear that he might actually hit the side of the cliff on his way down. What he wouldn’t give to wipe that self-satisfied grin from Carlos’ face, to knock him off his pedestal, if only for a few minutes; to have him know what it was like to face his own mortality.
+++++Miguel stood there, suspended in the moment, split seconds remaining to make his decision. Then his gaze suddenly jerked upward and he met Daniella’s eyes. Eyes widened in shock, her head moving side to side on her slender neck, the heart-shaped birthmark a dark stain on her pale skin. Her eyes held his as Carlos ran past, sailing over the edge. He remained captured by the horror reflected in her wide-eyed gaze, wondering how she could possibly have guessed at the darkness within him. It was only as she turned away, a trembling hand raised to her neck, that he recalled their conversation about her birthmark that day on the beach.
+++++Miguel clambered back down the cliff face on shaky legs. What, if anything, had Daniella foreseen? Was it possible that there could have been a different ending to the jump?
+++++He dove into the water and struck out towards shore, pummeling the waves in an effort to ease the growing frustration that he would now never know whether he’d had it in him to exact the vengeance that only minutes before had burned a hole in his heart.

The Sweetheart Sour

Greed’s a high octane fuel no matter the age of the engine. I’m certain these two clueless kids hadn’t thought much about the consequences. Things hadn’t gone as they’d planned. After I arrived they went plumb off the rails.
+++++They reek of bubble gum, acne-wash and fear. I’m certain the latter, not the cold, causes them to rattle their hand-cuffs. With Suzie bent over the hood like this, I get to enjoy the full scenic view of her backyard. This promise of spring makes me feel itchy all over. I cuff her too and wheel her around, only to have her eyes cut my lawn. I grip her shoulder, “Ain’t you a little old to be partying this late with teenagers?”
+++++Suzie grinds her teeth at me. I laugh nervously and make her join the others on their knees. I step back. My flashlight bounces across each face. They’re quite a sight, like a Golden Chocolate Oreo. A white boy about seventeen or eighteen, Divine Johnson, the chocolate filling, is about the same age, and Suzie, well past her mid-twenties, completes the sandwich.
+++++The white boy’s the first to crack, “You can’t detain us without reading us our rights.”
+++++“Well,” I say, “you got the right to shut up, but I’d start squawking.”
+++++He says, “We didn’t do—”
+++++“Shut up Michael!” Divine snaps at him, “Don’t say nothing. He ain’t read us our Miranda Rights yet. He’ll have to let us go and he knows it.”
+++++“It’s awful cold out here,” I drawl and squat even with her dark face, shining my light into her eyeballs. She winces but remains defiant. The smoke from her dual frontal exhaust pumps in rhythm. I’m certain if I linger too long at her crossing, she’ll crush my penny. “I hear the temp’s only gonna drop more. Now I’d rather be some place warm wouldn’t you? But we can’t until I figure out why two teenagers and a…” I pause on Suzie, “…a MILF are out here in the middle of nowhere—”
+++++The boy grunts at me, “What does it look like Pig?”
+++++I blind him with my light and say, “It looks bad whatever it is ya’ll were doing over—” I shine the light where the two girls once stood. It takes two scans to find the bulky sealed envelope on the pavement. Before I disrupted negotiations there had been a disagreement about the price. I heard Suzie saying, “Five grand’s too much.”
+++++Divine wasn’t having any of it.
+++++I collect the envelope and say, “What do we have here?”
+++++A silence answers me.
+++++I immediately took Divine for the brains between the teenagers. Especially when I tapped my flashlight against the driver side glass. I thought the boy was gonna leap out of his pale skin. He jammed his foot on the accelerator. The motor screamed as it revved. If the fool hadn’t left the car in park, he would’ve driven straight over the girls, probably killing them both. Part of me wishes he had, it would have made things easier. But…hindsight’s for assholes.
+++++I break the seal and thumb inside, “This looks like three or four thousand dollars.”
+++++“What?” the boy asks in mock surprise, “I don’t know nothing about none of that—”
+++++“Uh-huh,” I sigh, “I’m going to search your vehicle. Don’t suppose you’d like to give me a head’s up on what I’m gonna find do you?”
+++++The boy spits, “Fuck you pig.”
+++++I sigh. Kids, right? No respect. “Can it Chief!” I snap, “I wasn’t born yesterday. Nobody carries around a bankroll without a reason. You don’t look like no master thief so I doubt you’re selling stolen art. Gimme s’more of your bullshit.”
+++++Susie speaks, “The money’s mine.” I shine my light at her, watching those white teeth click against the cold.
+++++“Go on,” I say and rummage through their car, “I’m listening.” It reeks of stale pot smoke and B.O. Fast food wrappers litter the floor and backseat. His phone sits between the radio and stick. I grab it and sigh. Kids, right?
+++++Susie says, “I guess it don’t matter now—” she hesitates, “It’s hush money.”
+++++I pan around one last time, lingering on the backseat. I notice two bags in the clutter. They’re stuffed with God knows what. I turn off the engine and pocket his keys, turning back to the penitents. I shine my light at Divine, “You do know extortion’s a crime don’t you?”
+++++Divine sneers, “I don’t know what this white bitch is talking about.”
+++++“The hell you don’t!” Susie half-shouts, “I don’t know how, but she’s got a recording of me and—“ Suzie directs this at Divine who eats a sour lemon and looks away. “—And…well…I’m in a compromising position.”
+++++I look at them in disbelief, “You don’t say?”
+++++Susie continues, “Go through our phones officer. You’ll see all the messages. She’s threatened to spread it around—“
+++++“Okay, okay,” I say not wanting to reheat old hash. “I get the picture. This compromising…um…position? Must’ve been pretty bad to go through this trouble.” I ask, zeroing the beam on her. “You commit a crime or something?”
+++++“No! I just don’t want it getting out, that’s all. It would jeopardize my job.”
+++++“Well,” I sigh. The truth always stings, “Sorry to say this but it’s gonna get out now. All of it.”
+++++Suzie’s eyes flare open, “It is?”
+++++“Yes ma’am,” I say, “gonna be part of my report.”
+++++“But I didn’t do any—“ Suzie gives it all she’s got, “she’s the one black mailing me!”
+++++Divine turns slow and faces her, “You’re not innocent so stopping trying to suck this cop’s dick to get out of it.”
+++++“It—” Suzie says, “I’m not! I mean—I didn’t do anything. I wouldn’t—”
+++++“Go on and tell him Coach,” Divine says. “He’s right. If you didn’t do nothing why agree to pay up?”
+++++“The young lady has a point,” I say. “This recording, is it audio or video?”
+++++Suzie murmurs, “Audio.”
+++++“So how does she know it’s you?” I ask.
+++++Suzie regards me with disgust, tilts her head to the side and growls, “She just does okay.”
+++++I nod, “This recording? I assume it’s here now?”
+++++“I don’t know,” Suzie says. “It’s on her phone. That’s what the money’s—”
+++++My beam lands on Divine, “Well?”
+++++“Well what?”
+++++“You got it on you?”
+++++Divine hesitates, “I ain’t saying nothing without a lawyer.”
+++++Suzie quickly interjects, “If it wasn’t in the car she has it in one of her pockets.”
+++++I nod.
+++++Divine stiffens against my hands as I search her. It’s in her back left pocket. I feel guilty touching the kid’s ass, but she brought all of this on herself.
+++++“Well,” I mope, “looks like a case of she said, she said. I’ll have to take everyone downtown.”
+++++“Is there some other way?” Susie pleads, “Maybe we can work out some kinda deal?”
+++++In faux amazement, “Ma’am, you’re not trying to bribe an officer of the law are you?”
+++++“Of course not,” she protests, “I’m only asking if there’s an alternative to arresting us.”
+++++“Alternative?” I ask.
+++++Suzie grovels, “I really, really, really don’t want this— I’m a good person—I really am—I just made a mistake! Nobody got hurt!”
+++++“Nobody?” Divine snarls. “What about Big Rodney? Huh? What about him?”
+++++“I don’t know any—”
+++++“Don’t let her fool you,” Divine says. “She’s more dangerous than she looks.”
+++++“Listen,” Suzie pleads, “I could split the money between you three. I don’t care about it—honest. This will ruin me—”
+++++“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say and wave my hands, “you’ll lose your job. I get it. What kinda gig is so important you’d pay a ransom to keep it?”
+++++Suzie demurs, “I’d rather not say.”
+++++I snort, “You expect me to cut a deal with someone who won’t even tell me her job?” I shake my head at her, “I think she’s right about you. You are dangerous.”
+++++Suzie pouts, “It’s complicated I don’t—”
+++++Divine blurts out, “She coaches high school basketball.”
+++++Suzie winces and I counter, “High school? Here I was thinking you were someone important.”
+++++“It is important!” She cries, “It’s a tough job.”
+++++I smirk, “Yeah, keep telling yourself that. School huh? Well…I think I can pretty much guess what’s happened. Was it drugs?”
+++++“No,” Divine says glaring at Suzie.
+++++I ask, “Was it alcohol?”
+++++“Wrong again,” Divine says flat.
+++++“Well then,” I smile to keep from laughing, “it must’ve been sex.”
+++++Divine grunts, “You’re damn right.”
+++++“Oh my!” I say, “Ma’am you do know having sex with a student is highly illegal.”
+++++“It wasn’t a student,” the boy giggles. “It was with another teacher.”
+++++“Wait?” I ask, “It’s a recording of two consenting adults?”
+++++He’s uncertain and says, “Well, yeah.”
+++++I say, “That ain’t a crime.”
+++++Divine smirks, “They were fucking in the boys bathroom at school.”
+++++I wrinkle my nose. Something about the way she says it is unsettling.
+++++Divine continues, “My cousin caught ‘em doing it. He made the recording. They must’ve found out somehow, because twenty minutes later he got hauled off in an ambulance.”
+++++“What the hell?” I chastise Suzie, “What’s wrong with you?”
+++++“That’s what I’m saying,” Divine’s desire for revenge consumes her good judgement, “I told her if she paid me off I wouldn’t share the file with anyone else.”
+++++“Well did you?” I ask.
+++++“No,” she says, “I should’ve though. This dirty bitch sucks at coaching and doesn’t deserve to—”
+++++“Shut up!” Suzie shouts at Divine.
+++++“I won’t either,” Divine hardens and then gives herself away. “Look for yourself, it’s all on my phone. This bitch’s gonna pay for what happened to my cousin.”
+++++I nod slowly at Divine then at Suzie who smiles back, shuddering in the cold.
+++++I swipe across the phone and I’m in. I press play. In the wind, Suzie’s moans are barely audible. I switch it off, “That’s awful,” I say, “a damn shame too.”
+++++“What is?” Divine asks.
+++++“About your cousin,” I say, “you really think this woman did all that?”
+++++“She had help,” the boy says, “whoever’s sticking it to her put Rodney in the hospital. They say he may not make it through the night.”
+++++My flashlight points at the pavement, “There’s one thing that bothers me about this story.”
+++++Divine says, “Every word’s the truth.”
+++++“I don’t doubt that,” I say. “My problem’s with motive. If you knew all this, why didn’t you go to the police yourself?”
+++++The boy sneers, “Fuck the police.”
+++++I flash him again, “Watch your language son.”
+++++Divine shrugs, “We needed the money.”
+++++“What for?” I ask.
+++++The boy pipes up, “We’re moving—to California.”
+++++“Hmm,” I picture the bags in their car. “Running away?”
+++++“You could call it that,” Divine says.
+++++“Why’s that?”
+++++“The cops around here got problems with us,” the boy says, “the cops and our parents.”
+++++Divine agrees. She smiles and for the first time tonight I see she’s truly a beautiful young woman. She speaks with relief, “Officer, until tonight, you’re the only cop in this shitty town that’s ever been fair to me and Michael.”
+++++I squint at her. My heart goes bump, bump, bump. “You don’t say? Why would anyone bother a couple of crazy kids like you?”
+++++The wind unsheathes again, slashing us with misty knives.
+++++The boy beams, “Weeeeeellll, I got caught doing something—”
+++++“You weren’t supposed to be doing?” I ask.
+++++“Yeah,” the boy says and nods a shoulder at Divine. “Apparently one of them things was having a black girlfriend.”
+++++Divine’s mouth wrinkles with empathy or pity, I can’t tell.
+++++“Well,” I say, “running away ain’t the answer. No matter how far away you get, you’re still gonna be you.”
+++++“I’m gonna change my name,” the boy says and nods, as if that solves everything. Moron.
+++++I extract the keys for the handcuffs, “I guess I’d better take ya’ll downtown so we can get an official report.”
+++++“Are we under arrest?” The boy asks. “I can’t have another one or my probation officer will send me to county.”
+++++I don’t answer him. I’m already unlocking Suzie’s cuffs.
+++++I should’ve seen it coming. Once she gets a hand free she lunges at Divine. There’s a loud crack as Suzie belts her in the mouth. Divine, completely defenseless, crashes backwards into the car. But Suzie keeps swinging. It takes everything I got to pull her off the girl. I have to drag Suzie several feet away and drop her like a bad habit.
+++++“That little bitch! I could kill her!” Suzie screams.
+++++I whisper and hold her tight, “Chill out it’s almost over. We got what we came for—”
+++++“Yeah? That’s easy for you to say! Didn’t you hear her? She’s going try to pin her cousin on me.”
+++++“No she won’t,” I say. “I won’t let it happen.”
+++++“What are we gonna do with them huh?”
+++++“They’re kids,” I say, “we’re the adults here and we’re gonna do what adults do.”
+++++She snarls, “What’s that?”
+++++I smile, “We’re gonna teach ‘em a lesson they’ll never forget. Now you stay put and act like the cuffs are back on.”
+++++I leave her and return to the boy, kneeling over Divine. His voice cracks, “Is she dead man?”
+++++I squat and check her pulse. There’s a bump, bump, bump; I wish I could say I felt relief, “No she’s still alive.”
+++++“We need an ambulance man!”
+++++I turn and face him, “Calm down, everything’s gonna be okay. I’ll radio it in—”
+++++The expression that seizes his pale mug says it all, “You…you…what happened to your mustache?”
+++++“My mus—”
+++++I’d never been a very convincing actor. A review of my turn as a tree in a school play was less than wooden. I’m just no good at being anybody but myself. I knew the boy was dumb but damn, I can’t believe it took them this long to figure it out. Hell the silver badge on my shirt reads booty inspector. The mustache I’d taped above my lips, hangs by a hair and when I touch my face it falls off. Damn it Suzie! She must’ve jarred it loose. I don’t got time to point fingers because the boy’s already on his feet, “You’re not a cop—I know you—you’re Mr. Sax from the high school!“
+++++There’s a brief moment when what he says registers in his thick skull. The light goes off and immediately he bolts away from me.
+++++“Goddamn it!” I clamor, but wouldn’t you know it—the fool trips on his untied shoelaces, slamming face first into the car’s bumper.
+++++He’s out cold. A stark reminder of how I dispatched Divine’s cousin earlier in the bathroom. “Shit,” I mutter, “just what I needed—more trouble.”
+++++Suzie gives me the silent treatment all the way to her place. She’s probably thinking our tickets just got punched for the prison train to Siberia. I can’t say it bothers me too bad. My mind’s chugging along with the ins-and-outs of our next stop. Every mile I make forward somehow switches my track sideways. I know this is no way to run a railroad. The switchman’s gotta break in our favor. I pull into Suzie’s driveway and hit the button for the automatic garage door.
+++++She finally thaws, “What the hell are you doing? We can’t bring ‘em here.”
+++++“You know another place with a garage and no questions?”
+++++“I don’t want them here,” she bristles, “I don’t care where, it just can’t be here!”
+++++I shake my head, “We’re running out of time and options.”
+++++“You were just gonna teach ‘em a lesson…we agreed to it.”
+++++I tighten my grip, “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
+++++“I never agreed to bring ‘em here. Never ever!”
+++++Despite her protest, I pull into the garage and kill the headlights. “Look baby,” I say, “the way I see it, we got no other choice. Maybe we did before you went all Wonder Woman on Divine’s face, but now—”
+++++“I…I…I…” She stammers, “I don’t care, I’d do it again if given the chance. She had it coming—I was All-State in basketball.”
+++++I lean back in my seat, admiring her profile in the soft dash light, “What would you have me do with them? It’s too risky to leave ‘em back there, they might involve the real police.”
+++++“No they wouldn’t,” she says, “didn’t you hear how much they hate cops?”
+++++“That’s just tough talk,” I say. “Besides after you double-crossed them. They might consider it an option. Or worse, they inform the school-board. Then where would we be? Tough to land a teaching gig after the world knows you’ve assaulted a student.”
+++++“Me? I…” she stops and shakes her head. “You! What about you? There’s two boys knocked senseless because of you.”
+++++“Both were accidents,” I say. “Big Rodney slipped on a wet floor and this other kid tripped on his—“
+++++“You honestly expect me or anyone else to believe that horse shit?”
+++++“It ain’t horse—Look I—”
+++++“You’re the one that handed me an envelope of newspaper headlines instead of real money. We could’ve paid them off and had this settled. But no. You had to play fast and loose with everything and now we got two kids unconscious in my backseat!“
+++++She’s furious and wants to cry, but something’s damming up her water works. I think I know why too.
+++++“Suzie,” I say gently, “remember, we’re on the same team. If we stick together, there’s still a way out of this. For both of us.”
+++++Her eyes glow like swimming pools at me, “How so?”
+++++I glance back at the sprawled students. We’ve opened a box that’ll never shut again. No matter how hard we jam down on the lid. We’ve got nothing to lose, “I say we rough ‘em up.”
+++++Suzie groans, “What good will that do?”
+++++“Well,” I smile, “it’ll let ‘em know we mean business. Then we’ll ship ‘em off to California. If we give ‘em a few bucks, they won’t look back either. You’re probably right, they’re not going to the police. What foot could they stand on if they did? Do two wrongs make a right? I don’t think so baby. Besides,” I lower my voice, “you’ll feel better if you can get a few more punches in—”
+++++“No I won’t,” she says, “I already feel awful about it—”
+++++“You could’ve fooled me baby. You throw a mean jab.”
+++++Suzie’s cracks a smile my way, “Yeah? I did hit her pretty good huh?”
+++++“You knocked a tooth out at least. Maybe more.”
+++++“Yeah?” She pictures it, “yeah I probably did. I’ve never done anything like—It’s—” I know it before she says it, “—a rush. You know what I mean?”
+++++I grin, “It’s limitless you—”
+++++She finishes my thought, “—Can do anything.”
+++++The tip of her tongue parts her teeth. She holds it there as she leans in.
+++++I start feeling itchy again. Her hand brushes mine. It’s no longer cold, but warm. She’s—warm all over. We’re kissing before I know it. Her hands cradle my face. She bites my lip. Our train ride through Siberia melts. All it took to fire her furnace was a blast to a student’s face. She wants me to board her caboose, and straddles me, but what made Suzie Palmer famous bumps against the car’s horn.
+++++HONNNNNNNK!
+++++She yelps at the surprise. Then she’s giggling and kissing and unbuttoning my shirt. Our breath fogs the windows.
+++++I pull away, “You sure you wanna do this out here? Now?”
+++++I say, “this is how we got into trouble in the first place.”
+++++Suzie pulls away sensibly, “Okay. Let’s go.” She grabs my lapels out of the driver side. It’s hard to ignore the cold of her garage as we kiss. Our smokey breath steams off us in clouds. A two-spined freak breathing fire. I get a hand free and press the button beside the door. There’s a mechanical sputter as an overhead chain clangs. She’s pulling me into her warm threshold, before our last exit automatically rattles shut.
+++++We don’t get far, making sparks in the kitchen. Then more of the same down the hall. We’re all hammer and tongs. Finally, we collapse, leaving behind strewn clothes and debris. We lay there glowing, I don’t know how long, a pile on the floor, breathless and dreaming dreams in our solitary dusk. No one really knows the one’s they love. My mood feels tempered, as if we’ve reached the end of the line. Our last stop.
+++++The sex was okay. She snores satisfied. It stops once I roll her over. We lay there, two forged spoons and sleep…
+++++“Wake up! Goddamn you wake up!” Susie screams as the world blurs into focus.
+++++“What?” I ask. My head still between dimensions.
+++++“The car!” She screams, “We forgot about the car!”
+++++My first thought? The kids awoke and stole away in Suzie’s Ford Taurus. I’m on my feet taking awkward steps down the hall, with one leg safe in my pants and the other desperate to join it. I finally get trousered but the smell hits me before I round the corner.
+++++The burning monoxide stench of bottled exhaust. Suzie’s standing between the kitchen and the garage, still nude, shrieking and shivering against the chill. The air’s toxic, I cover my nose and mouth, “What’s going on?”
+++++Her only answer, a wailing shout, “We forgot about—”
+++++She doesn’t need to explain. I already know the truth before I see the idling car. The smoke is thick and I cough, cough, cough. How considerate of us, we’d left the motor running so they wouldn’t get cold. If the kids had moved at all, I couldn’t tell. The purple bruises the only color on their grey faces.
+++++They’re dead.
+++++“How long were they out here?” I ask Suzie but she’s no longer there. I hear a clanging of chains. To my horror she’s returned and she’s pressed the button.
+++++I shout, “What the hell are you doing?”
+++++She’s a wreck when I stop the garage door half-way.
+++++“I…I…” She stammers, “We have to let it air out.”
+++++“Like hell we do,” I say, forcing her into the kitchen.
+++++“But what about the kids?” She asks and I think, good Ol’ Suzie’s compassionate to the end. When I don’t affirm her concern her face falls. She stutter steps back a few feet. Luckily the wall keeps her from spilling to the floor and falling to pieces.
+++++“C’mon,” I say, “get dressed we’ve got work to do.”
+++++She doesn’t budge. I repeat myself but she only angles an arm, covering her goods and whimpers, “We killed them. We killed them. We—”
+++++I give her milkshake a stir, “Get a hold of yourself!”
+++++She congeals in my hands and leaves the room. I don’t press the issue. I finish dressing and make hasty arrangements for the departed. I gather supplies. A delicate situation like this deserves attention to detail.
+++++I check on Suzie. She’s a monument on the edge of her bed. Completely still and naked.
+++++“Suzie I…” She ignores my overtures. Her stare is a thousand yards away. “…I’ll come back and check on you when I’m done.”
+++++I leave her there and experience a queer notion, like this is how I’ll always remember her.
+++++Somedays, you just can’t get rid of a body.
+++++I drive my two wards to the rail yard. I don’t know the train schedule, but at this point it doesn’t matter. One will be through here soon enough.
+++++I position the corpses on the rails. I sit and wait. I don’t know how long. Part of me wants to make sure, you know, see it to the end. However another part of me knows I’ll never sleep again if I witness this.
+++++Still, I wait.
+++++I keep expecting their bodies to rise and stumble towards me, pointing fingers, moaning accusations, “You did this to us! You did this—”
+++++But of course that doesn’t happen. Once you’re dead, you’re meat for worms or exhibit A or B or C. Nothing can change this either. Nothing—
+++++Susie’s right. Juries don’t believe in accidental murder. The snot freezes in icicles at the end of my nose. I figure if I wait any longer, someone might catch me waiting or worse, I freeze to death myself. I get back in the car and drive home.
+++++My wife’s asleep when I crawl into bed. She rolls over groggy. Her breath slaps me like sewer gas, “What time is it?”
+++++“Dunno…didn’t mean to wake you Margaret I’ve…” I whisper and before I know it, I’ve wrapped my arms around her, “…couldn’t sleep so I went for a drive.”
+++++She pats my chest and mumbles, “It’s okay honey. Go to sleep, it’ll be alright in the morning. You’ll see.”
+++++The sun will rise in a few hours. I lay there waiting for the sound of a distant train. If it doesn’t come, I expect there’ll be a tragic discovery, an investigation, a deposition, a grand jury, a trial, a verdict, an appeal, a last meal, and finally I’ll be strapped down and given the darkness. I wonder if I’ll see a light. I weigh the odds and don’t think they’re in my favor.
+++++Suddenly, there’s a soft hooting whistle in the distance. I must be imagining it. I hold my breath to hear it again. I don’t know how long I wait to exhale. The room’s a stuffy box. All I hear is my heart go bump, bump, bump. It’s a lonesome sound.
+++++I guess I’m just jealous, those kids crossed big river together. Maybe they were even holding hands. I don’t know.
+++++When I imagine the whistle blowing again — I weep.

Bad Dog

To tell you how far I’d fallen, I was ordered by drug dealers to whack a neighborhood watchdog. In between the parole filter and the job search, I had this sit-down with a bad-ass named Benny Eggs.
+++++Despite the handle, Benny wasn’t all that sunny side up with the mooch program. The bookies around here might like the ‘rope-a-dope’, where they tie a guy to the bumper of a car and drag him down the street, but not Benny. He preferred zapping deadbeats in the basement vats of a chemical plant over in New Jersey. Thanks, but no thanks.
+++++I didn’t show up expecting an amnesty deal much less a payment plan. I owed the money, and planned to pay unless Benny forgot about it. Problem was, he didn’t.
+++++The debt I owed Benny hatched before the big dive. I went up river owing the state three years, and Benny Eggs five grand. Behind my back, Benny cranked the interest dial. When the numbers settled, he fed me an eight large bill. At this moment, I couldn’t swing eight bucks.
+++++Benny had a problem he needed taken care of. I was the chump to work the wheel, and tow him out. That’s when I learned I’d have to shoot and kill a German Shepherd dog. I told you Benny was the badass of this bunch.
+++++One of Benny’s dealers was in diapers and bubble wrap gauzing stitches on his ass. You guessed right, the strike from a land shark. Benny skipped the police report, downloading the bad guy’s handbook for this one instead.
+++++Drugs might be a dirty business, but it’s profitable. Most guys crushing it won’t enroll in night school or find another corner. Most can’t. They’re already called, and once you get your piece, it’s your pig farm along with the problems. You start moving around, you’re only looking for a fight.
+++++In this town, that means hand to hand, house to house. It starts with the daylight shootings before the Ricochet Rabbits show up. Now you’re scraping kids and mail carriers off the street. The mayor cracks down, the riot gear marches in, and the place is a pedal to the metal Fort Apache.
+++++The real bitch was in order to plug the dog, I’d have to hump dope. My luck, I’d bump into a narc. A real gas since I’m clean and done, not to mention the hot gun and Three Strikes program.
+++++Anyway, the order of business was to meet Benny and hash our situation. The job was the job, and I was in. The money was a non-issue. No use in coming up with it now. If I did, I’d be up eight grand, keep my mouth shut, and split town after the deed.
+++++I took a ride around the hood with Benny and his driver named Noodles. The company car was a street chopping, sidewalk shaking, black on black Hummer. From the inside, the rig floated like a magic carpet. On the outside, it screamed staff car, warning the soup halls and shelters the ghetto never filed for bankruptcy, enjoying a bull market, no less.
+++++We watched a guy in a military-issued jacket, camo pants, black boots, and one of those bush hats strolling with a German Shepherd. If it were a search for Charlie mission in Vietnam, he wouldn’t have stuck out so much.
+++++“That’s the cracker, right there. I oughta get out and cap that dog here and now,” Benny said. Sounded good to me. We could find another means to settle up.
+++++The Shepherd walked down the sidewalk wearing a leather muzzle and a custom-made kevlar vest. The only thing I knew about German Shepherds were from prison. The dogs the deputies used to snap the jocks back in line, and chase down the ones cutting class. During orientation, I learned all about their bite. Schooled in pressure and pounds per square inch, I remembered thinking teeth aren’t so square.
+++++The young ones in the playground swore the devil just walked by. You know all about kids and pups. Not this gig. The kiddies stayed glued to the see-saws and swings while the baby mamas blocked any incoming.
+++++Before Noodles nodded the Hummer through a cross section, the dog noticed the covert sting, and stopped to stare at us grumbling past. Even through the jet-black tinted windows, I could see the eyes of the dog. It looked right at us.
+++++Pissed to hell over the drought of his cash flow, Benny wanted the payback posted tonight. He ordered me to go character shopping while he bundled my care package.
+++++I showed up later that evening in my best drug dealer outfit. I became whitey in the hood, acting all wannabe. Baggy sweat pants, work boots, camo jacket that fit like a tent. If it were leather, I’d look like the sidekick to Superfly. Oversized ball cap with the silver dollar gummed on the roof of the bill.
+++++I found the parked Hummer without my Map To The Stars, pulled the rear door, climbed up and in. Benny handed me a Glock. Glad he had the brains to put a muffler on it. Some big piece of snuffy, custom made for a Lee Marvin comeback.
+++++Benny also had pouches of heroin, crank, and coke he gladly forked over. Noodles navigated while Benny and I worked the back seat. In minutes we reached the area, and Noodles pulled over. By now the moon was full of juice, smearing up the night.
+++++A few blocks later I was in Benny’s territory. I walked up and down the street, nice and slow. I had the pitching all right, just waiting on the bats to come around. They sure as shit popped in once I lapped the corners.
+++++When the eyeballs in the shadows watched me rebound, they knew my ass was in the game and open for business. By my second turn, I smacked high cred, unloading a few bags. Still no dog or mountain boys.
+++++All warmed up, I hit that kiddie park down the block. Once I touched the apron of the pathway, a voice called out from the bushes.
+++++“Hey you,” he said. I turned, and didn’t see anybody. I doubted I was hearing things. I gave you my word, I no longer touch the stuff.
+++++“Yeah you. The cat with the jacket,” the same voice called out again. I turned to gaze back at the speaking bush. No flames, only pitch dark.
+++++“You got anything good?” He asked.
+++++“What are you looking for?”
+++++“Whatever you got. As long as it’s primo, I want it,” he said.
+++++“Meet me by one of the benches,” I said.
+++++As I turned up the walk, it was the Shepherd owner. He scooted from the hedges and darkness to cut my path further into the park. Bugshit weird, even for a drug deal.
+++++“Could we do it at my house instead? I live down the street, and there’s too many cops around,” he said. Now he had me. What could I do? It made perfect sense, and be the best transaction one could hope for, if you’re a real gangsta. I followed him back to his bunk.
+++++Now I’m really thinking of my end. Tossed into some kinky machine that will churn my ass into a month of Alpo. I started jonesing for Benny’s cannibal pots and pesticide baths over in New Jersey.
+++++We entered a house that flunked the bait and switch test. Furniture from the Archie Bunker line fanned the parlor. The Colonial collection with armrests made of wooden paddles, nautical wheels etched in the fabric. Go figure. I stepped into a time warp on steroids.
+++++On the way through, my heart stopped when I spotted the dog curled by a fireplace. Lazy blinks for the company, sedated to hell.
+++++“Don’t worry about the dog. He won’t bite,” he said. Yeah right, I thought. I only wished for those foamy demo suits like the Michelin Man wears to stem the attack.
+++++The dude lead me into the Kitchen of Tomorrow from the 1964 World’s Fair. It was kinda cool and funky if you kept the cheese radar locked up. The chairs had those muffin cushions with the metallic finish. We each broke wind once our asses splashed down.
+++++Anyway, we had some dealing to do. Before the guy sampled, he wanted to spill some garbage on his mind.
+++++“You like my dog?” he asked.
+++++“Yeah, I guess. Why?”
+++++“I trained him to hunt down niggers since he was a pup,” he said.
+++++“I don’t get it?” I was getting warm, but needed to play him a little more.
+++++“You know, Hitler was right. Damn was he a genius, and misunderstood…,” he started in.
+++++Now I really got it. The muzzle was good eye candy, but the dog might bite black kids out in the wild. He was gaming the system. The dog provided the element of danger, while he toed the high road of superhero.
+++++A mild tweaker at best, this was a recruit call. He pitched the movement, the local chapter, and cowboys they like to flag. He also invited me to next week’s up with the people.
+++++I knew these guys from prison. Twerking for utopia by the white bread soundtrack. I won’t bore you with it, already detesting the bird. Time to bang out a better solution.
+++++I never killed much, outside the lost and errant cockroach. But this guy, not the dog, had to go. Kill the dog, he trains another, and so on. Kill the man, the street is down to one devil dog. Canine services show up, defang it, reeducate, and ship it to some love sick kid up in Buffalo. By then the dog will have forgotten all about the brotherhood and be real again. Either way, I was on the clock. Only one of us could leave the building.
+++++I pushed myself from the table, and dug a mitt into my pocket. I pulled the cannon, pointing it right at him. He lit up, stunned to shitsville. Most Nazis are moogs. Despite the ‘ideal’ make and model, they’ll never sport the horsepower to break from the pack. Except for the wizards and bikers, the leftovers are loud in the crowd dipshits.
+++++His heart fluttered for Hitler, but his ass belonged to me. He started to hiss, cursing himself for letting his guard down. He didn’t even have a butter knife handy.
+++++What they call the ‘yips’ on the golf course came over me. My damn hand wouldn’t stop vibrating. My skull gremlin pumped the gas, filling my head with helium. All dizzy, the moron across the table sprang three heads. Great. I tried to focus on the monkey in the middle. Before this gig made the bloopers show, I squeezed one off.
+++++I delivered a minor league shank. Even at point blank range, my shaky grip nearly fucked things up. The bullet grazed his cheek and left through the window over his shoulder. The glass shattered, and the slug slammed the aluminum siding of the bastard’s tool shed.
+++++Far from a love tap. It took enough skin to send him in shock and glued to the seat. I heard him cut a fart, just before the blood escaped his face.
+++++The sequel made more sense, pelting his larynx. By now his blood washed the table top as if spilled from a gallon jug of Hawaiian Punch.
+++++He grabbed his throat, gargled, and stared at me just like the police captain from the Godfather. I better make like Michael and finish this show. Despite my first rodeo, the guy was further out than in. The blood from his throat ran down his neck, soaking his shirt.
+++++This is when I decided to go pro. Time to channel my inner grasshopper, settle down, and finish him off. I straightened out, stiffened up, and by my third take, I jacked it out of the park. I slugged the maniac between the eyes. I was Dirty Harry and the second coming of Shane, all wrapped up into one hot stuff homey.
+++++The force of the strike sent him back as if gliding in a rocker. The front legs lifted off the floor, but not enough to topple him. The chair returned, and so did he. Only for a second before he spilled from the seat. His body dunked the tiles, and you could hear his dead bones rolling around from the impact.
+++++By now there was a lagoon of blood on the floor. Whatever couldn’t level out began to pool. I scooped the shell casings, and buried them in a front pocket with my keys and subway fare.
+++++I passed the dog on the way out. It got up, and scampered into the kitchen to figure things out. By then I was off the cursed property.
+++++When I left the subway, my phone blinked back to life, and I called Benny Eggs. I told him all about the detour and where it went. Benny liked what he heard, and offered me a job. He said he’s short, and needs guys that could sell and think on their feet.
+++++I told him thanks, but no thanks. I was all done with movements and brotherhood.

Harps On The Willows

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Fire In The Hole

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Crankcase

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

Jake’s On A Plane

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

It

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Sandhogs

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

Jailbait

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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