Father Malcolm pulled into the parking lot of the cheap motel just in time to see Rafe enter one of the rooms, carrying the unconscious body of the little girl. He offered up a prayer as the motel door closed. He reached over for his rosary, raised it to his lips for a brief kiss, then put it back down on the passenger seat. He opened up the glove compartment and pulled out his Glock 23 and the suppressor he had borrowed from his brother. He drew on his gloves and tucked the gun and the suppressor into an inner pocket of his jacket, then he got out of the car and quietly closed the door, leaving his rosary behind.
He knocked on the motel room door. “Rafe, this is Father Malcolm. Open up.”
The door opened and Rafe stood there, staring at him dumbly. “Father Malcolm? What the hell are you doing here?”
“I saw you abduct that girl and I followed you here. Let me in.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Listen, this is not a good time–”
Father Malcolm raised the Glock and pointed it directly in Rafe’s face. “Let me in. Now.”
Stunned, Rafe stepped back, an expression of fear and alarm in his eyes. The priest entered the room and saw the girl, who was tied to the bed and slowly regaining consciousness. She looked to be about nine years old. The buttons of her blouse had been ripped off. “Untie the girl,” he ordered.
“I think we have a big misunderstanding,” Rafe began, but Father Malcolm swung the gun around, pushing the muzzle into Rafe’s left eye. “Untie the girl.”
Rafe staggered back and started untying the knots he had just tied. “Listen, Father Malcolm, all that stuff I told you, that was confidential. The seal of the confessional.”
“You’re right. And I’m not telling anyone. But I’m also not letting you rape any more children.”
Rafe laughed coarsely. “What are you gonna do? Shoot me?”
“If need be, yes.” Father Malcolm reached into his pocket, drew out the suppressor and quickly attached it to the Glock in a smooth, practiced motion. Rafe’s face blanched white as the priest raised the pistol, aimed once again at Rafe’s face. The little girl was free now and snapped out of her Roofie-induced grogginess quickly. She bolted for the door and ran off into the night.
Rafe stared at the barrel of the gun. “What about my soul, Father Malcolm? Don’t you care about my soul?”
“I care about the little girls. I care about making sure there are no more victims. At this point I’m not even sure you have a soul. But if you do…” the priest paused. “No. I don’t care at all.”
The alarmed expression in Rafe’s eyes disappeared, replaced by something cold and distant. He lunged forward and grabbed the gun as he wrenched Father Malcolm’s hand backwards, almost breaking his wrist. He pointed the Glock at the priest and said, in a steadier voice, “OK, Father. Here’s my last confession. I’ve molested 32 women. Twelve were adults, the rest were girls under 10 years old. Three of those girls died in the process.”
Father Malcolm’s voice was steady and authoritative. “I can’t tell the police because of the seal of the confessional. But I can’t let you continue down this path. Only one of us is leaving this filthy motel room alive.”
Rafe nodded slowly in agreement. “You’re right,” he said. “This has to end.” He turned the gun around and put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Father Malcolm jerked backwards, shocked. He saw Rafe’s brains splattered against the grimy motel room wall. The suppressor had done its job so there was no loud noise.
He opened the door and surveyed the parking lot. Empty. No other customers tonight, and the motel office was on the other side of the building. Father Malcolm staggered back to his car, put the Glock and suppressor back in the glove box. He picked up his rosary and held it close to his heart for a long minute before he was able to drive away.
Father Malcolm pulled into the parking lot of the cheap motel just in time to see Rafe enter one of the rooms, carrying the unconscious body of the little girl. He offered up a prayer as the motel door closed. He reached over for his rosary, raised it to his lips for a brief kiss, then put it back down on the passenger seat. He opened up the glove compartment and pulled out his Glock 23 and the suppressor he had borrowed from his brother. He drew on his gloves and tucked the gun and the suppressor into an inner pocket of his jacket, then he got out of the car and quietly closed the door, leaving his rosary behind.
So . . . in a nutshell . . . this is what went down. See if you can figure it out.
The body was found sitting upright on a toilet bowl, slumped over onto one of the metal walls of the toilet booth, very much dead . . . obviously . . . due to the blade of a very large knife sticking out of the man’s chest. The guy was in his mid-thirties, an account at a large bank, unmarried, said by friends and relatives both to be a very nice man without an enemy in the world.
Well, you know. There seemed to be something wrong with that picture.
Sitting on the tile floor to the right of the toilet bowl was a large leather briefcase. Unmolested and very heavy. On the small coat rack on the back of the toilet stall’s door was a heavy, but expensive looking trench coat still partially wet from the downpour still raging outside like biblical prophecy. When the body was discovered, about an hour ago, the building’s security officer swore there was a set of wet tracks leading into the men’s room door and straight to the stall the dead man now occupied. Just one set of tracks.
A quick scan of the building’s security cameras clearly showed the deceased stepping out of the elevator and into the building’s lobby. Three different cameras in the lobby show the victim walking across the wide lobby floor, briefcase in one hand, a wet trench coat in the other, and head for the Men’s Room. The guy goes into the restroom. And never comes out. No one else comes and goes into the restroom until, about thirty minutes after the deceased enters, when the security officer making his nightly rounds walks down the hall leading to the restrooms and enters to find the dead man.
Now here’s the interesting twist. No blood. No suspects. No way for a killer to enter and/or exit the scene of the crime without being recorded on the cameras. Maybe this comes as a shock to you, bubba, but stick the blade of a long knife into a man’s chest and there’s blood everywhere. But not this time. Not one drop of blood anywhere . . . including in the dead man.
When our gum chewing little forensics specialist, Joe Wieser, told us about no blood in the body and no blood to be found in the entire men’s room, I had to grin, shove hands into my trousers’ pockets, and turn to one side and stare at my partner. Frank Morales, for you who are uninformed, is a Neanderthal. Well . . . not really a Neanderthal. But the guy looks like what one thinks a modern Neanderthal might look like. A jaw made of bone so thick he could chew reinforced concrete for a snack, no neck to speak up, with the brightest looking carrot colored red hair which absolutely refuses to be combed. His overall body shape is that of a cement block, albeit one that stands about six feet four. Big, tough, and strong. One’s natural inclination is to think someone that good looking had to be as dumb as a rock. But, oh brother, would they ever be wrong.
He eyed me with his dark browns, made a sour looking face, and rumbled like a badly tuned Russian reactor.
“I hate shit like this. Hurts my head. I think I’ll go to car and eat some tacos. Call me if you need me.”
He turned and began walking away. Not toward our car parked out by the curb in the driving rain. But somewhere else. Inside the office building. Grinning, I knew he was heading back to the security office to review the tapes again, I turned and walked back to the men’s room for a second peek.
Now ask yourself this. How the hell does a guy step out of an elevator, walk across an empty lobby of a very large office building at two in the morning of a rainy Sunday, enter a men’s room, and get a heavy looking butcher’s knife rammed into the middle of his chest? By himself. No one is in the men’s room waiting for him. No one enters the men’s room, other than the victim. No one leaves the men’s room after the deed is done. Is this a murder? Or a fairly gruesome suicide? Glancing into the stall I had to hand it to the guy. If this was a suicide, the bastard was committed in ending it if he shoved the knife into his heart all by his lonesome.
But I didn’t think it was suicide. People usually don’t kill themselves like that. Especially a successful, happy go lucky guy like this.
I went over the men’s room again diligently. Looking for something . . . anything . . . maybe Frank and I missed the first time around. Forensics had come and gone, finding nothing out of the ordinary. I had this nagging little voice in the back of my head telling me we were overlooking something. Something small. Something obvious. But something important. But that was the problem. I hadn’t a clue what it could be. Frustrated, I walked out of the men’s room, strolled across the empty lobby with polished black tile floors, and came to a halt in front of the bank of elevators sitting in silence all in a row. Specifically, I stood in front of the one the dead man used just before he checked out. Permanently.
Pushing the ‘up’ button the black doors of the elevator opened with a vague hissing sound and I stepped in. The doors slid closed behind me and everything went silent. Forensics had been all over the elevator. There were about a million different prints lifted off the controls, the hand rail circling the interior of the car, and off the doors themselves. It would take weeks to sort through them all. Turning, I punched in ‘10’ and felt the elevator car lurch into motion and begin its ascent. Why ’10,’ you ask? The tenth floor was where our dead guy worked. Big accounting office. Lots of number crunchers working there. Everybody gone, of course, over the weekend. So why was our man here in the building at two in the morning on a Sunday?
But I began walking the empty hallway of the tenth floor, curiously eyeing all the empty, and locked, offices. The hall lights were turned low. Lots of shadows playing across the walls. Quiet as a monk’s cubby hole. Don’t know what I was looking for. Didn’t expect to find anything. Actually, I was kinda shuffling around like a lost deer, that nagging voice in the back of my head getting louder and louder, and not figuring out what it was that was bothering me. I combed the tenth floor, then descended to the ninth and did the same ambling shuffle, before dropping down to the eighth.
On the eighth I found a couple of items that caught my eye.
The first thing was the shine on the highly polished tile floor. Even in the dim light of the empty floor the shine was instantly visible and just as impressive. This was the Markle Building on Hesston and Seventh Street. Ten floors of solid black and chrome from sidewalk to roofline. Black glass everywhere with long columns of chrome steel in vertical slashes for contrast. A stunning architectural feast to the eyes. The interior floors were black tile. Kept to a glistening polished sheen.
The moment I stepped out of the elevator I noticed the floor. Maintenance had just finished polishing the tile. It was plain as day. There wasn’t a scuffle, or footprint, or even a particle of dust anywhere on the floor from the elevator doors out for maybe twenty or thirty feet. But past the first to set of offices was a door which led into the building’s stairwell. That’s where I observed curiosity number one. The unmistakable wobbly tracks of someone pushing a heavy four wheeled cart over the floor and stopping in front of the stairwell door. You know the kind of cart I’m talking about. The kind where you load up boxes and crates and push it one from place to another. The kind used mostly in office buildings to cart around bags of mail and other things.
In the dim light, I noticed the tracks hugging close to the wall and disappearing off into the dim light. Curious, I followed the tracks and that’s when I saw it. The bright and colorful neon lights of building from across the street flushed through the glass walls of the Markle Building, continued on through the clear glass interior wall of a set of law offices and played across the black tile of the floor in a long, narrow band of multicolored light. And there it was. About the size of a new pencil eraser. A bump of congealed blood.
Kneeling, balancing myself on the balls of my feet in the darkness of the hall, I stared at the lump of blood for a second or two. And then I looked up and at the doorway from where the cart tracks originated from. It a set of double glass doors with large gold lettering splashed across the glass announcing who was inside.
Schumer& Schumer Investments.
And it hit me. That nagging voice. I knew what it was trying to tell me. The dead man’s rain coat. The tapes showed our dead man stepping out of the elevator holding his damp raincoat draped over one arm. A damp raincoat. Not a soaked to the bone, “Yes, I have been swimming in a frackin’ monsoon,” kind of wet coat. Just damp. As if he had already been here for a while before riding the elevator down to this death. Schumer & Schumer’s assigned parking stalls were on the top, and open, floor of the parking garage next door. The investment firm also had its own private entrance which connected their offices directly to the parking building.
Standing up I stepped around the lump of blood and approached the glass doors of the investment firm. Locked. Stepping back, frowning, I jumped slightly when the cellphone inside my sport coat suddenly went off.
“Get down to the security office, flatfoot. I’ve got something to show you.”
I stretched a half-grin across my lips. Frank calling me a flatfoot was funny. Especially if you ever saw his feet. Flatfoot is also a rub for uniformed police officers. Which we both had been earlier in our careers.
“Got something to tell you as well, dear.” I said, smiling wider. “But do me a favor. Find the building supe and tell him to come up to the eighth floor and unlock the offices of Schumer & Schumer. We need to look inside.”
A couple of minutes later I stepped into the crowded clutter of a small office in the basement used by the building’s security staff. One wall was filled with computer monitors. One wall filled with shelves full of various video tapes, boxes of digital equipment, and training tapes. A third wall was lined with metal storage cabinets with the names of various security employees on sticky labels on them. There was a desk, an office chair, and more computer screens in the middle of the room. Frank was standing by the wall of computer screens with a remote clicker in one hand, studying a monitor closely.
“Whatta got?” I asked, closing the office door behind me.
“Whatta you got?” he grunted.
I told him about the eighth floor, the cart tracks, the blood sample, and my theory about our dead guy and his rain coat. The big lug for a partner grunted and nodded his head.
“That explains why I haven’t found a tape of our guy returning. I’ve got an image of him leaving Friday night around a quarter to seven. But haven’t a clue as to when he came back to the office. But I did find something else. You’ll want to see it.”
He lifted the clicker in his hand up, aimed it at one monitor, and clicked it. Instantly the images of the lobby from some earlier time began rapidly rewinding.
Frank clicked the clicker in his hand again the rewinding stopped. Images began flowing normally. An empty lobby in the early morning. And then traffic. Lots of traffic. Men and women in work clothes of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians coming in and filling the lobby and going in and out of both the lady’s and men’s restrooms.
“The supe said both restrooms have been extensively remodeled. Workers came in around noon yesterday and didn’t leave until seven p.m last night. Now watch. We’re coming up to when they finished.”
Eyes went back to the monitor. The images begin to move. Everyone was cleaning up and preparing to leave. They did in ones and twos, with everyone gone around 7:23 p.m. At 7:28 p.m. a worker, pushing a heavy looking four wheeled cart in front of him, rolls into the frame and disappears into the men’s room. On the cart was a large cardboard box. Very large. Ten minutes later the figure, still pushing the cart, still with the large box riding along, rolls out of the men’s room and disappears off screen.
“Did you catch it? Both of’em?”
I threw a questioning glance at Frank and then looked back at the screen as he rewound the images again.
“I saw the guy moving the cart a hell of a lot easier. Like whatever he was rolling into the pisser seemed to a lot lighter when he was leaving.”
Frank, twitching the corner of his lips visibly, told me he was silently amusing himself on my near sightedness. So I stepped closer to the monitors and too a second look. The worker goes into the men’s room with box and heavy cart. He’s maybe around five-foot eight. Thin. He’s wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his face. No way to make an identification. But . . . eyes narrowing . . . I see it. I turn and looking at the lip-twitching sonofabitch.
Frank nods and then lifts the clicker up and begins fast forwarding through a number of other images.
“Security tapes get replaced every twelve hours. Noon and midnight. Watch this.”
Eyes went back to the monitor. It’s our dead man stepping out of the elevator and walking to his death. He walks into the rest room and, maybe twenty five seconds later, the door to the restroom moves just a hair. Just barely. Hardly noticeable. Unless, of course, you’re looking for it. Which apparently, Frank had been.
He raises the clicker and freezes the image on the monitor and looks at me. I look at him, shrug, and improvise.
“Only thing I got is this is our killer dressed up as our victim. She makes the image for us to find hoping it’ll throw us off the scent long enough for her to get away.”
The red headed giant grunted, nodded, and folded massive arms across his chest.
“So how did she stop the camera?”
“With the same clicker you have in your hands. She cracks the door open just enough to aim it toward the security office. Apparently it has a long enough range to turn off the recorder. She walks out of the restroom and clicks the recorder back once she’s in the clear.”
“Good. We know how the murder was done. We have a vague idea of a possible suspect. We know why, in a vague sense, the murder went down. But we really know nothing. What did she steal? And why was our account murdered?”
I grinned savagely at the big guy. He frowned, turned toward me, and tilted his head to one side curiously. I’m told Frank has an IQ about two gazillion. But he hates it when someone else comes up with something he missed. Like now.
“Spit it out, Sherlock. I’m all ears.”
“Two things,” I said, still grinning like a malicious elf. “One, did you talk to the security officer on duty tonight? I didn’t. Did you?”
“No,” Frank growled, shaking his head. “The uniforms did. They relayed to me the information he gave them.”
“Not him, my overgrown little Watson. Her. She told the uniforms everything she knew and then left the building. Said she had to get to apartment at a certain time so her baby sitter could go home.”
“So our killer worked the building in the capacity of a hired security guard. Meaning she had keys to get herself into practically ever office in the building. Hey, I like that. Smart. Now, tell me what else that little peanut brain of yours has cooked up. I’m dying to hear it.”
“Schumer & Schumer. What are they known far?” I asked.
“High end investments. Specifically stocks and bonds.” Frank answered, a light bulb suddenly going off in his eyes. “Oh . . . .okay. I see it. The chick comes in and steals a shitload of untraceable bonds. Old bearer’s bonds from way back when. God only knows how much she took. Probably millions.”
Confession time. I’m rich. No, not bragging. Just telling the truth. I’m a rich homicide detective. A few years back a grandfather I didn’t know was still alive walked into my life and handed me an inheritance. Millions of dollars in cash, stocks, bonds and real estate. I’ve been trying to play it smart and invest it ever since. So yeah, I knew Schumer & Schumer quite well.
“We got a killer running around town lugging around with her a sizeable amount of very valuable paper. She can’t fly commercial and go through the security checks with all that paper on her. TSA would ask too many questions. The bonds have coupons which must be personally exchanged at a bank to get the money. They’re stolen. We’ll have every bank and investment firm in turn alerted to be on the lookout for them by tomorrow night. She’s killed someone to get the bonds, so she’s not eager to stick around town any longer than she has to. What’s her only option?”
“She has to bite the bullet and sell them off at a steep discount rate,” Frank said, his lips twitching suddenly in laughter. “If she’s lucky she might get a quarter on a dollar. But the fence has to be a big one. Someone who can handle that amount of money in a few hours. That means her options are equally limited.”
“Not just limited,” I said, smiling as well. “There’s only one guy in town who can come up with that much cash on such a short notice. And that’s where we’re going right now.”
It was a little past midnight when we blasted across town in my white ’65 Shelby Mustang. Where we were going the traffic was light so we drove fast. And the Shelby, being a Shelby, with that small block Ford V8 in it, just purred.
The house was a mansion. A mansion back in deep foliage with a long driveway that curled around in front of the house and disappeared back in the direction we just traveled. There were no lights on in the house. Except for one, to one side, in a wing of the house we knew to be the library. Yes . . . Frank and I have been at the house before on official business. We knew the place quite well. The owner of the house was a fat guy by the name of Lewis Hayden. A procurer of anything stolen which promised a very high pay off. Like, for instance, stolen bearer’s bonds.
We walked around to the library, guns drawn, and peered in through the windows. Sitting in a big chair about the size of something a Nero Wolfe would set in, a maid was sitting three glasses of freshly drawn beer onto a coffee table in front of Lewis. The fat man nodded, mouthed the words, ‘Thank you,’ and the petite little thing walked out and closed the double doors of the library behind her. But there was no one else in the room. Only Lewis . . . and three glasses of beer.
This looked ominous.
But, using the barrel of my weapon to tap on the double French doors, we watched the big man rise out of his comfy chair and lumber over to the doors to open them.
“Ah! Detectives Hahn and Morales. What a lovely surprise. I was told I would be visited soon by the city’s finest. Come in, come in. I took the liberty of having refreshments at the ready in anticipation of your arrival.”
We stepped into the library and followed the round frame of Lewis Hayden back to his behemoth of a chair. Ponderously, he lowered himself into it and reached for one of the large glasses of cold beer.
“Please, gentlemen. Partake. I know you, Sergeant Hahn, to be a devoted aficionado of the hops. This is a rare brew direct from Germany. Not sold here in the States. I’m sure you’ll find it most delicious.”
“Who told you we were coming?” Frank growled, eyeing the dark colored beer before forcing himself to turn his attention back to our host.
“A most delightful young lady for whom I have a most profound admiration for.”
“What’s her name,” I said, turning my head and eyeing the interior doors of the library. The same doors the maid had just exited from.
“Oh, a most delicious irony there, detective. Most delicious indeed.”
“She came here and sold you some old bearer’s bonds. Obtained through a theft, and I might add, committing murder in the process.”
“Really?” Hayden exploded, astonishment on his face. “I was not aware of any such crime, or set of crimes, my dear detective.”
“If you have the bonds in this house, that makes you an accessory to murder. You know that, don’t you.”
“I am completely at a loss for words, Detective Morales.”
“We could search the house,” I said.
“You would need a search warrant, my dear boy. I would insist. And obtaining one at this time of night? I daresay it would be an arduous process.”
“How long ago was she here?”
“Why Detective Turner, I think you just saw her leave moments ago. Good luck finding her now. She is a most resourceful person.”
I started to say something. But the house rocked with a big hammy fist pounding on the front door insistently. Frank glanced at me and nodded, before walking out of the library and into the main hall. Moments later the big red headed Neanderthal re-entered the library, followed by two uniformed offices bracketing the small frame of a dark haired young girl. In the hand of one of the officers was a zip drive, which he tossed to me.
“Found her trying to hail a taxi at this time of night a quarter mile away. We thought that strange. So we picked her up and brought her over here. Knew you and Frank were working a homicide. Thought maybe there was a connection here.”
Officers Flattery and O’Connor. Sons of Irish immigrants who became cops. From father to son. Both the best of the best when it came to police work.
I caught the drive, eyed it for a moment or two, and then smiled.
“Betcha this is the password for a freshly created bank account in some off shore bank. Money transferred from your account into this one. With this little lady as being the main recipient. If I’m right, both of you are going to jail for a long, long time.”
Lewis Hayden looked almost sick. But give him credit. He was a showman who could not pass up wowing a crowd.
“Detectives, may I introduce you to a most charming young lady who calls herself Irene Adler.”
“You’re kidding,” Frank, my oversized Watson, said turning to look at the tom boyish, yet exotic looking young woman standing between the uniforms, before turning to look at me again. “Well, Sherlock. You did it again. Congratulations.”
Indeed, Watson. Indeed.
Go to Slovenia, the man said. It’s a green wonderland with cheap beer, Razzo had promised when he sold him on the trip to the away game. Euro games! You’ll have fun, see the footie, drink your fill. It’ll be aces.
He had to admit it was postcard pretty, all mountains and vineyards like Switzerland was supposed to be (he’d never been there) and if they had just stuck to the match and the pub full of other supporters from both teams it might have stayed grand.
Fuck Tommy, it was all his fault. ‘Go on then, let’s do it,’ he’d said, jabbering in his always too hopped way. ‘You could get ‘em cheap here. If the beer is this cheap, just think of the drugs!’
He didn’t even do drugs any more. That was kid stuff. Far better to kill yourself the nice and slow way with booze. Cheaper, easier and far less palaver. He had kids, for chrissakes. How embarrassing it would be to have their dad in the nick? And Edie? She’d skelp him alive for sure.
Goddamn Tommy. They should have never left the pub. Never should have left the others. That lot were probably still singing club songs with the locals, feeling up the barmaids and hoping to get lucky, making new Slovenian pals they were inviting back to their homes, if they were ever fool enough to travel across the Brexit lines to visit the fast-sinking island.
The one thing they weren’t was slumped in an alley somewhere in Slovenia while a tough-looking skinhead straight out of a Britain First recruitment video beat you senseless. That’s where Tommy was right now. Two other thugs held Danny and made him watch. Of course the guy wasn’t actually a UKipper. He was Slovenian.
Presumably: he could be Croatian for all they knew. Or what was that other place? Montenegro. The other match going on tonight, wasn’t it? Didn’t matter, did it? Maybe the bald guy got mad because they called him Slovenian but he was from somewhere else all together, some place that hated Slovenia like everyone hated Chelsea. Danny found he had to laugh. Was this what hysterical meant?
The guy was shouting something as he aimed a few more kicks around the body, though Tommy wasn’t even crying at him anymore, just kind of lying there. What the hell? You don’t have drugs, fine. You don’t want to sell to us, fine. Why the hell you got to beat us up?
The skinhead wiped his sweaty face and turned. Danny cringed. The two pals that held him by the arms took a tighter grip. The guy walked up scowling. He was a wee bit shorter but every bit of his body seemed to have been moulded from iron. There were a few flecks of blood sprayed across his cheek. Was it Tommy’s blood?
The guy let loose a torrent of abuse. Meaningless words that whooshed past his face with the guy’s spittle and venom. Danny closed his eyes. What was the point anyway? It wasn’t like he knew any language but English. If only they’d stayed in the pub. If only Tommy hadn’t got the bright idea to look for drugs down some dark alley. They should call the police.
Maybe they were the police. Was this how they treated druggies? Some countries did, he’d heard. He hadn’t even wanted drugs. If only he hadn’t been so loaded. They were awash with that funny named beer. Maybe it was stronger than their usual lager. What idiots they were. They wouldn’t have been this stupid at home. He’d never have followed Tommy on such a fool’s errand.
He should have at least got a guidebook, some useful phrases. Like ‘help!’ for instance.
He doubled over when the first blow hit his stomach. It was all he could do not to spew up on the guy but he fought back the sickness at least until another blow landed and then another and up it all came: the beer, the bile, the fear, the crisps and the kebab thing they’d all eaten at the grounds. Like a tsunami it washed out of him and onto the pavement, splashing their feet as well as his own, until the howls of disgust encircled him and he fell.
Like slow motion it was. Danny could almost see it happening and thought he was completely numb until he hit the concrete and every bit of it hurt. Every bit. But the darkness rose up to meet him and he was free.
Robert Dibble marched past a bored llama and a disinterested gibbon and a weary water buffalo. The zoo was out of season and virtually deserted. A few visitors congregated around the big-ticket animals, but only a lone litter picking employee was in this corner of the facility. Just as Robert Dibble had hoped.
He was a slight man and one that was easily overlooked. Robert was wearing dark glasses, despite it not being particularly sunny. And he had his collar turned up, despite it not being particularly cold.
Robert entered the reptile house without breaking stride.
At the far end of the building was a large man staring at the contents of a glass enclosure. The man was wearing shorts and a brightly colored t-shirt, making him look a little like a giant-sized boy. Robert removed his sunglasses and approached the man with caution. He checked no one had entered after him — no, they were alone.
“I think this one’s dead,” said the man without once looking at Robert. The man tapped on the glass, but the lizard inside remained motionless. “Hasn’t moved once.”
“It’s ectothermic,” said Robert.
“Cold blooded,” said Robert, checking the door again. “It’s warming under the heat lamp.”
The big man tapped the glass a second time. “Or dead.”
“I have this for you. It’s your cover. You know, in case anyone asks questions.” Robert handed him a piece of folded notepaper.
“What is this?”
“Your cover. Facts about lizards and amphibians.”
“I don’t understand,” said the man, his brow creased as he read the list.
“To prove you were here out of intellectual curiosity. Instead of being here to meet me to, you know, discus this matter.”
“So like homework? You’re giving me homework?”
“It’s… Forget it,” said Robert, holding out his hand for the list which the man had no intention of handing back.
The man read on, amused. “The green anole lizard can shed its tail if caught by a predator.”
“It doesn’t matter. Look, my daughter is waiting outside by the Zebra–”
The man looked startled. “You brought your daughter?”
“I… She’s my cover. That’s why I’m here. In case anyone asks. Look, the reason I called you–”
“Weren’t supposed to call me,” said the man, no longer amused, turning his back on the probably-not-dead lizard and locking eyes with Robert.
“No, that’s right. I’m sorry. But things have changed,”
“Not supposed to change.”
Aware that his hands were now shaking, Robert shoved them into his pockets. “That’s right. I mean, I understand your frustration. And I really am sorry for calling you. But this is good. This is good news.”
“I break the guy’s left arm, you give me the rest of the money. That’s the deal.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Robert, checking the door again.
“You prefer the right arm?”
“No, no. I don’t–”
“Joke,” said the man, turning his attention back to the lizard.
“Oh, I see. No, that’s very funny. That’s good. But look, I’ll give you the money. Here.” Robert pulled a fat envelope out of his jacket. “See, the full amount. Right now. You don’t need to do anything.”
The man took the money and put it away without counting.
“It doesn’t need to happen now. Derek…” Robert looked around: still alone. “The gentleman we spoke of has pulled out of the race. He doesn’t want the promotion now. He and his wife decided their family–”
“No,” said the man, his breath clouding up the glass.
“No? No? I don’t– No?”
“We have a deal. It goes ahead.”
“That makes no sense.” Robert was aware of just how whiney his voice had become.
“I cancelled engagements.”
“You cancelled… You’re missing out on what, a monster truck show? So what if you cancelled–”
The man spun, grabbed Robert by the arm, and slammed him against the glass. Robert felt like the water buffalo was pushing against him, compressing his chest. He struggled to breathe as the man held him in place.
“We have a deal. We will both honor that deal.” He let Robert go.
“Okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re right.”
There was a pause. Robert would have called it an uncomfortable silence if the rest of the encounter hadn’t been equally uncomfortable. He turned to leave.
“Or you pay double,” said the man.
“I’m… double? To do nothing, double?”
“Cancellation fee,” said the man. “We can always keep the original deal.”
“This is not acceptable. Gary told me you could be trusted,” said Robert. He made his way to the door. “Fine, we keep the original deal. Have it your way.”
Robert threw open the exit door. But then he paused. He couldn’t make his way out of the building, no matter how hard he tried. Robert turned back and spoke softly, “I’ll get you the money.”
“Hey, you were right!” said the man in response. He tapped at the enclosure glass again. “It just moved.”
Robert left the reptile house.
The man continued to stare at the lizard. “Ecto… thermic…” he said, trying the word out. He then took out the notepaper and began to read.
1. Blood, Honey
The third time I went to bed with Lacey, she whispered to me about killing Damon Schizo and taking eighteen hundred dollars from the glove box in his shiny red Cadillac. Didn’t seem worth it to steal that much, not given Damon’s big pistol. But the next time I saw the red cadillac cruising down dusty Lillard Street, I thought about Lacey and her long slim legs—my God, I thought, I could take her to dinner in town.
More than once, too.
When Damon’s driver—Big Bizzy Simmons—pulled to the curb out front of the pool hall, I put my fist through the passenger side window. You want blood? I’ll give you some of my own blood. Like I thought he would, Damon went for his pistol, but I had it with both hands before he could grunt. It gave a monsoon boom when I shot Bizzy (oops, more blood).
I didn’t hear anything when I shot Damon.
My ears were all gone to hell.
I did find something in the Cadillac’s glove box, but it wasn’t money—it was picture of Damon Schizo and a tall blonde lady with a plump round belly. Damon’s wife, and she was pregnant.
I guessed Lacey was smarter (and meaner) than I thought.
2. Live, and Let Love
“Dixon,” Lacey said, “You’re the man who killed Damon Schizo, and everybody will know it—don’t that make you proud?”
I popped a piece of chewing gum into my mouth (cherry cough syrup flavor), and scrubbed my hands in the motel’s bathroom sink. Damon’s blood ran like oil across the white porcelain. You ever want a tough job, go and get yourself a maid position at a crappy motel down on Fourth Street. Don’t worry, I’m not staying there no more. “You know, Lacey…We should leave a tip for the maid, the way I made a mess in here will drive the lady crazy.” I came out of the bathroom and put my hands on my hips.
Lacey was on the bed, belly down, reading the phone book. “You know there’s a lawyer here in town who calls himself Snap Jennings?”
“I see Snap down at the pool hall on Thursdays. He’s a decent stick when he doesn’t have too much whiskey in him.”
“What a name,” she said.
It was time for me to get down to business with her. “Lacey,” I said, “there’s something I got to tell you. It’s about Damon and—”
“I bet that money is over in his house.” She flipped the phone book’s yellow pages, licked her index finger each time. “I bet he keeps it under his mattress, like some kind of half-wit crook.”
I came out with it fast, tried to get it out before Lacey talked over me. “Damon’s got—well, he had—a baby on the way.”
Lacey tossed the phone book onto the threadbare carpet, turned onto her back and sighed. “What’s that got to do with eighteen hundred dollars, Dixon? I know you didn’t finish school, but you know how much money eighteen hundred dollars is?”
I shrugged and rubbed my belly.
Lacey sat up and glared at me. “Enough for some plane tickets to Rio de Janeiro. That’s how much. I looked it up myself at those computers in the library. That’s in Brazil. It’s by the ocean.”
“What the hell do I want in Brazil?”
Lacey fell back on the bed, scrunched a pillow beneath her head. I swear, that woman lounged around more than a dog in the highest heat of summer. She was lazy, now that I look back on it.
Lacey said, “You can want whatever you want in Brazil.”
“What am I going to do there?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
I said, “You brought up the tickets and the money.”
Lacey closed her eyes. “Damn you, Dixon,” she said. “Sometimes I think you’re stupid. Are you stupid, Dixon?”
Some questions, I thought, a man don’t have to answer.
3. Baby, I’m on The Way
Damon and his wife lived down a dirt road outside town; they had themselves a mobile home with a covered porch and a whole army of these rusted motorcycles parked out front of it—skeletal, that’s the word to describe the bikes. Weeds grew ankle-deep around the place and it looked to me like Damon spent all his money on that shiny red Cadillac. Too bad he wouldn’t be riding shotgun in the thing anymore. I parked it where I saw weeds pushed down by the wheels. I figured it for Damon’s regular spot. When I got out of the car, the mobile home’s front door swung open; Damon’s wife stepped onto the porch. Just like in the picture, her belly was big and round, like an egg turned onto its side. She ran her hands over the mound beneath her sundress and looked at me funny. For some reason—I still don’t know why—I saluted her. She came down the porch steps and walked toward the Cadillac. That puzzled look stayed there on her face—her lips were pressed off to one side and her eyebrows came together. I thought more than once: That’s one nice looking lady.
When she reached the Cadillac’s passenger side, she squinted.
“My name’s Dixon, Mrs. Schizo. I just came to hand over your Cadillac.”
“What’s all that red and black in there?”
I liked how she kept her two hands on that plump belly. It was sweet. “How much longer until—”
“It’s a boy,” she said. “In a month, I’ll have my boy. What’s all that red and black in there?”
“A boy!” I yelled it louder than I meant to; imagine that, bringing a little boy into this dusty town. Hell, I did imagine it. More quiet, I said, “A little boy.”
“What’s all that—”
“That’s the life we got in us, Mrs. Schizo. That there is blood and guts.” I sniffed hard. All the dust sifting around the mobile home bothered me. The wind was picking up and—despite the dust—I liked how the lady’s sundress flapped around her legs.
She said, “Holy hell, and let Jesus see me now.”
I looked up at the sky; it was getting dark by then, a slow-moving desert dark that fell across the sky like an eyelid. “I think he can see whatever he wants, Mrs. Schizo. I think—”
“Call me Diane, please.”
“Diane,” I said, “If it’s Jesus you want—”
“Did you kill my husband? Did you kill…Damon?” Her eyes lifted from the Cadillac and ran over me like hot water.
I shifted my feet, tried to find a place for my hands. “Now, look, all I wanted was some money. And Lacey—my girl—told me that Damon had some eighteen hundred dollars in that glove box. Now, if you can understand, imagine how stupid I felt when all I found in there was, well, a picture of the two of you.”
“The three of us,” she said.
She said it again, her eyes searching mine. “The three of us.”
I watched as she rubbed her hands along that nice round belly. In that little time, the darkness came on full around us. She cleared her throat and walked around the red Cadillac; she came face to face with me.
“If you’ve got that money—”
“I love you,” she said.
She put her hands around my neck, plowed that stomach into mine. Her fingernails were like cactus spikes in my skin. I felt her heart beating hard against my chest and, after a minute of her being there in my arms, I felt the boy inside her kick against my lower ribs. “What in the hell is—”
“He likes you,” she said.
4. Tones of Home
Lacey’s voice came over the line, but I could barely hear it through the static: “…The hell are you? I’ve been…don’t come back and…my money.”
“I can’t hear too good over here, Lacey. Look,” I said, “I won’t be back, not anytime soon. I’ll just say it: You were right about all that money. Hell, you were right about Rio and—“
“Fuck you…Believe you did this to…loved me…-damned liar.”
“I can’t hear you down here, Lacey. It must be the connection.”
“…it all to hell. You—”
“I’m just calling to check in is all. Me and Diane—that’s Damon’s wife—got ourselves a little motel down here. And the boy, he’s got his own bed with—”
“…Gonna kill you with my bare…You no-good…hellbent prick of a—”
The line buzzed and died. Nothing but cold dial tone. They got a whole big city down here in Brazil; you’d be surprised. It costs a small fortune to call my people back home though. Long distance, you know. That’s why I stopped doing it. I figure, shit, if Lacey wants me bad enough, she can come on down and ask for me at the front desk. Me and Diane and the boy, we’re right here—they gave us room 219. It’s a family suite. For the three of us.
The heron stalked through the flooded marsh, eyes intent on movement below the muddy surface. Beak aimed like a javelin. It stopped, poised to strike. Patient.
The heron flinched before it burst out of the water, thrust from its huge wings leaving a mist like a jet’s contrail as it soared to a safe height over the maze of marsh islands.
Out of the haze of fog drifting over the water emerged a man. Behind him, as if he had bore a tunnel through the thick gloom, were woods with ancient oak trees twisting out into the bayou. Long tendrils of dull gray moss snaking down to the mud seemed to vibrate with a dissonant buzz; hundreds of thousands of insects clung to the trees and brush along the bank, belting out a chorus that was randomly broken up by disturbances in the water.
Hunched over, dull gray beard hanging like moss from a sun-weathered face, the man blazed a trail of silence, stepping through the muck with a heron’s patience. His eyes, black and stretched wide, had an unnatural gleam in the twilight.
An alligator hide rifle case was slung across his back, one hand holding the butt close to his flank, silencing its movement and that of his rubber waders. With his other hand he pushed aside sharp blades of grass that would have sliced into most people’s skin.
He came to the edge of the marsh island and stilled himself. Standing tall, a scarecrow overlooking a huge field of dead corn stalks, his eyes shifted to the left as theme park music began playing in the far distance. A ferris wheel stood above the fog bank, lights from several small rides glaring up at it, giving the entire fairgrounds a faint glow. The high pitched, tinny notes penetrated the thick gloom, floating along with it.
The man bared his black gums in that direction for a moment. Deep wrinkles spread from his eyes and mouth. Absently, he rubbed his ear; a twisted, misshapen scar ran right through it.
A dog barked. The man’s head turned forward in a blink, wrinkles deepening with a smile. Across the narrow channel was a large dog standing on a low wooden pier. A golden retriever. Behind the dog, on top of a hill, a dark gray mist shrouded a small mobile home. A breeze pushed out of the woods, momentarily showing a porch, a yellow light struggling to illuminate steps. A swing set, barbeque grill and trampoline were haphazardly placed in a large overgrown yard that sloped down to disappear into the high tide.
Claws ticked and scrambled over broken, failing planks. The dog barked at the water. A wave of silence spread rapidly throughout the marsh. The insects started up again. The dog’s panting could be heard clearly across the channel.
The object of the dog’s interest was three feet below the end of the pier. Sticking up like an old stump was the head of a bull alligator. The dog, unafraid, seemed to play a game familiar between the two. The barking, clawing and loud panting continued. Around the man frogs had joined the bugs, quieting after barks, as if considering how to reply and join in their game.
“Mario! Mario! Dummy. Get away from there.” A small boy materialized in the mist at the top of the yard. A screen door creaked and slammed on the trailer. He ran down to the pier, stopped and whistled, clapped his hands. “Come here, boy. Mario!”
The retriever glanced at the boy, tongue lolling. Started wagging his tail. His head swiveled back to the alligator, mouth opening, closing, tip of his tongue wiggling with each pant. He barked again, pawed the pier. Bounced up and down, darted from side to side.
The man hadn’t moved. He observed the alligator, peripherally tracking the boy and dog.
“Stupid dog! Come on. We’re not supposed to play on the pier. Mom’s gonna yell at us.” He wrung his hands, chewing on his lip.
Mario kept barking and wagging at the alligator. The boy stepped carefully onto the pier, looked over his shoulder at the trailer, then ran to the end of the pier, leaping a jagged hole. His sneakers thumped to a stop, arms encircling Mario’s neck. “Come on… What are you do-ing?” He looked down into the water. Wide-set emotionless eyes looked back at him. “Whoa! Crud! The alligator – !”
The dog turned to lick the boy, rear end wagging, and threw him from his feet. He shouted as his hands and chin banged hard on the planks. His shoes splashed in the water, legs sliding in. The alligator’s head disappeared in a swirl of black.
The man moved quickly. Grabbing the top of the rifle case he unsnapped it, slid out a crossbow and unfolded the arms, locking them. Loaded a bolt. Brought it to his shoulder, aiming through a high-powered scope at the boy’s legs.
“Mario!” All the boy’s breath burst from him in a single scream. Around the man the marsh creatures scattered into the grass or water. The boy tore at the planks with his tiny fingers, shoes thudding into the water behind him.
The dog wore a puzzled expression. He chuffed, pawed the pier in front of the boy. Then he stretched and bit the collar of the boy’s shirt, jerked and snatched him back onto the pier. The boy’s shoes cleared right as the alligator popped up under them.
“Whoa! Shoot! Whoa! WHOA!” The boy staggered, gripping his shirt, pushing at Mario until he let go.
The big dog abruptly spun and ran off the pier.
The screen door slapped shut from the trailer and a tall sandy haired woman in jeans and flip-flops walked down to the water gesturing with a hair brush. “God-damnit, Sam! Really? I told you to not play by the water, and specifically not on the pier. And your freaking clothes are wet? Get your ass in the house and get changed! You’re going to be late for the bus.” She stuck the brush in a back pocket. Whistled loudly, clapped her hands. “Mario! Let’s go, boy. Get your ass in the house! You better not be wet, too.”
Mario barked and waggled, looking at the woman. Then he bound up the yard and raced past her.
The woman turned to follow her chastened son and the man aimed the scope at her ass. His lips peeled back, blackened gums catching light that darkened them further, lines branching from the corners of his eyes blending into single deep furrows. Jeans stretched over hips, dug into buttocks at 70x.
The man’s finger caressed the weapon’s trigger.
The stump appeared in the water again. This time where the yard met the water. The dog zoomed past the woman and boy, barking up a storm.
The man tracked the alligator as it moved slowly towards the yard, crosshairs centered just behind its eyes. Mario, bounding downhill, tongue lolling in a toothy smile, barked his I’m-a-Good-Dog-Let’s-Play bark. As he came to a sudden stop, the man brought the crossbow up slightly and shot the dog in the front leg.
Gravity and momentum were against the big dog. He pitched over into the bayou.
The stump vanished. The dog never surfaced.
The splash made Sam and the woman stop and turn around. They didn’t see Mario. The woman frowned severely. The boy looked alarmed. When Mario didn’t respond to his name being called Sam ran back to the pier. The woman followed, flip-flops slapping hard against her feet.
The man took aim at her chest, shirt straining against her swaying breasts. His finger moved faster, though still gently, over the trigger.
“Well, where the hell is he?” The woman planted her feet, fists on hips. “Mario!” She demanded for Sam to find his dog and get his ass to the bus stop, wet clothes and all.
Sam, completely bewildered, looked from the pier to the water. Looked at his mom and shrugged. He squinted at the woods. Leaned over and peered intently through the fog, at the marsh across the channel.
He gasped and jerked upright. A sob caught in his throat as his eyes moved back to the pier. To the water.
He turned toward his mom. “The alligator, Mom. The alligator!”
“The alligator? What about the alligator?” The woman muttered “Shit” and walked down next to Sam. Frowned at the water. Her eyebrows lifted. She put a hand to her mouth. She almost said, But that old ‘gator and Mario are friends… But Sam knew better, and so did she.
Sam took a deep, sharp breath and let out a wail that pierced deep into the bayou.
The heavy fog began lifting. A fresh breeze billowed Sam’s wet pants as he clung to his mother’s leg, sobbing.
The man’s smile broadened to a full grin, tiny pinpoints of light refracting from his jet eyes and gums. One eye closed and he looked through the scope once more. A dry suction emitted from his throat, tongue pressing into his top gum, unsticking.
Carnival music, louder now that the fog was lifting, tinkled on the breeze as the man studied the woman’s backside again. She bent over to pick up her crying son and carried him up to the porch.
Well you get down the fiddle and you get down the bow
Kick off your shoes and you throw them on the floor
Dance in the kitchen ’till the morning light…
I wake, angels or demons flashing on my lids. I know not which… The dead float off on dark waters like sullen guests after a Saturday night dance at Bubba Tidoman’s back yard parley with the bow and fiddle played by the Devil himself. My mind is swimming out of that moonshine veil of paradise into the real world, where I smell burnt toast and rotten eggs being stir fried, along with ham and grits on an open griddle that must be Jezebel Montieth’s, my shack up partner’s, morning wakeup call; and I realize I’m in hell not heaven, rubbing the sandbars out of my shanked eyes.
“Oh, Jeze, dearest,” I say, slightly mocking me Old Man’s style. “What you fixing that’s so deliciously scrummy, dear.” She’s looking askance at me, a cigarette dangling down out of the corner of her split lip, her snotty-nosed kid wrapped around her legs in my Red & Blue & Gray Confederate towel with her thumb stuck in her mouth like something I want even mention. I say nothing more. I know better.
She continues looking at me not saying a blasted thing till the toast is scorched black as my Truck. She seems oblivious to such issues as burnt toast, and rotten eggs at this point, her eyes blank as spades, and her cheeks puffing away at that cigarette like she was the last train from hell and I was her next victim.
I get up, shake my sorry ass legs out the wrong side of the bed, step on either a box of crunching cereal; or even worse, bird shit for her fucking parrot, below my skinny feet. I roll over and slide back to the other side, reaching for my smokes and lighter, and take a swig of what’s left on the nightstand; some rotgut piss juice I was drinking last night instead of my usual moon shine and whiskey combo, then I fire up that sulfurous delight in nicotine that warms my lungs with black death. I smile at the bitch with a big grin like it was the last one she’d ever see from me, which hopefully it will be.
“Hun, would you mind handing me the morning paper,” I say so sweetly. She continues looking at me, blankly. Not saying a fucking word. I think she’s either pissed, or stoned cold drugged out of her gourd; or both… at this point all I can figure is I better get the hell out of dodge.
I move to the edge of the bed, pull on my jeans, grab my dirty shirt hanging on the wooden chair, snare my boots and dirty socks from down below, and then slide on past the accident of her morning effete as I wink and smile into her pitch black eyes. She doesn’t move her body one iota, but turns her neck rotating it like that wind-up doll on the old exorcist movie; but luckily not backwards, but forwards, following me around I pass her toward the front of the trailer.
Finally, she speaks: “Where you going?”
Ah, the sweetness of that voice… “I got to meet Clay down at the Garage, Sweety,” I say with that sugary bullshit I hate, and she loves: “We have a job to do on that ole Caddy of John Sitwell’s.” Except this time she’s not buying my crap.
“You’re not going fucking nowhere till you fix that commode, moron,” She says, parenthetically.
Emphasizing my goal to leave the trailer, I give her that big hands up, the ones that say, “Oh, sure, baby, you know me, I’m own it like yesterday.”
I can see she’s not buying that ticket either, shouting at me: “If you don’t get your ass in gear, boy, and do something around this crummy joint, then don’t expect me to be here when you get back.”
I think to myself, “Finally, I’m going to get rid of the bag lady, for good… never wanted her or kids anyway. She can’t even fry bacon, for crying out loud.” All the time I’m smiling, placating, looking at her like I’m hurt that she’s laid a low blow on me, trying to charm her and disarm her with the ole “but baby” routine: “But sugar plum, you know you don’t mean that,” I feint, but she cuts me off at the pass…
“Don’t you fucking say it,” She’s frowning now, holding that pan of rotten food up like she’s about to use it on me like a gun.
So instead of saying another word I look from her to the door, where the kid has just gone out and left wide open. “Now’s my chance,” I think… I dash out the door, and hear the squelch and pop of grease froth surging behind me, following me out as I tumble forward end over end, holding onto my britches, boots, and hat, sprawling and tumbling, till I sit up in the dust, turn back and she’s at the door with a big pot of coffee in her right hand, about ready to chase me down and pour that boiling acid all over me. I get up and make a dive into my old Chevy truck, slam that sucker into neutral, pop the clutch, pitch back the driver’s door and run it till I can let that clutch go, and zing —we’re off to the races… the engine fire’s up, I hop in, and like a sling shot I’m on my way.
I look in the rear-view mirror and realize the dust devils I see in the fumes behind me, like shadows floating there in the sun’s mote, remind me of that portal nightmare world I woke from this morning into this daytime world… driving onward I wonder to myself, which one is which…
On slow days Lester shot things. It was good practice for busy days when he shot things.
He didn’t want violence today, he just wanted to make a sale. When he was done he’d go home wanting Alana, but she wouldn’t be there tonight. He didn’t think much had changed between them but she’d sure stormed out. Like it was permanent, not like when she’d left him before.
He circled the area where he was willing to park until at last he found a large enough space. The Buick was stolen, his license plates provided by people he almost trusted. The name on the registration matched the name on the driver’s license in his wallet. A wallet he’d throw in the sewer once this deal was done.
Lester stepped out of the car and his coat slid open enough to reveal the Glock .40 on his hip. In case the Glock didn’t keep trouble away, Lester carried a Colt .45 in a shoulder holster and a Beretta Tomcat on his ankle. Crime prevention.
He didn’t know who he was meeting on the sidewalk, only that it would be someone Dorst sent. Dorst. That motherfucker was all over his life, not in a good way. But he was paying for a lot of product, at least he said he’d pay. Lester had a lot on his mind. Not so much that he’d trust Dorst.
The street was busy and cars moved slow. Lester didn’t like waiting. He could fake patience, he was a practical man, but the longer he waited the more he expected to shoot whoever showed up.
It was supposed to be a simple exchange. Lester would walk away with a suitcase of money, the buyer would take the suitcase in the trunk. The car had served its purpose.
“It’s not about Dorst.” Alana faced Lester from the open front door of their house, her back to the outside world. Lester stood five feet away, empty glass in hand. “I went to him,” she said, “when you were fucking around with I don’t know who, but I’m not leaving you for him. I’m just leaving.”
“Where?” He wanted to shout but she’d already left, his voice weak as he clung to the glass in his hand.
Lester blinked, got back in the Buick. Had to stop thinking about her, was stupid to wait outside where he was an easy target. He felt like shooting himself for leaving the car in the first place. He sat in the car and waited.
A couple more minutes and a car across the street left its parking space. A few cars drove past the empty space, then a Nissan stopped next to it, waited until the cars behind it went around, then pulled forward and paralleled back into the space. Lester tensed and his hand moved to the grip of his Glock. The lane the Nissan had been in once again filled. Its driver paused for traffic to pass. Lester’s eyes slid side to side in case someone else approached.
When the car had parked a thick-armed man in a snug black t-shirt got out, a suitcase in his left hand. The man with the suitcase looked both ways but the cars weren’t stopping. A slight break and he stepped into the street. The first car stopped. The car in the next lane braked hard. Its horn blared. The man with the suitcase stopped in front of it, turned and glared at the driver. The horn stopped and the man resumed crossing.
He made it to Lester’s side of the street. From halfway down the block he took steady strides in Lester’s direction. Lester got out of the Buick, watched the man with the suitcase and stepped onto the sidewalk, faced him.
The man’s skin was dark, his features Saudi or African, Lester didn’t care. Except about the contents of the suitcase and the gun the man probably carried. The man ten feet away, Lester spoke. “You from Dorst?”
The man nodded.
“Put the suitcase down,” Lester said. “Open it.”
The man laid the suitcase on the sidewalk. No one else walked here, the usual for this block. Drivers on the crowded street, their views of the sidewalk blocked by parked cars, drove on. The man popped the suitcase open, lifted the lid so Lester could see inside.
“Step back,” Lester said.
The man took two steps back.
Lester slid his coat open wide enough to show the Glock. “Way the fuck back.”
The man stepped back farther. Lester pulled the Glock, aimed it at him, and he backed up more. Lester flipped through the rubber banded stacks of money with his left hand, picked one from the middle of the suitcase. He looked at the thick-armed man standing still, arms at his sides.
The money looked right. Lester counted the stack, multiplied it by the number of stacks. The count was right. He shut the case, watched the thick-armed man blink. Behind Lester, a car door shut. Lester shot the thick-armed man in the chest and he fell on his back.
Lester turned. A car had stopped on this side of the street but the man who got out was street side. No angle to shoot him, Lester turned back, shot at the thick-armed man’s head. The shot missed, but the man didn’t even twitch. Lester returned his attention to the street.
He crawled forward on the sidewalk, reached his right front tire and crawled under the Buick’s hood.
Someone stood in the street to Lester’s left. In range, but he could only shoot a leg. There was a Honda parked in front of the Buick. The man ran in front of it and ducked down.
Lester crawled in the street next to the Buick. Cars honked at him. The hiding man stayed low. All Lester could see was his shoes and the bottoms of his black slacks.
Lester knelt around the front fender and fired in the man’s general direction. The man stood and shot back. He was short and wide. Lester fired again, caught him in one shoulder. The man fell.
Lester opened his door fast and got behind the Buick’s wheel. The key was in the ignition. He turned it, hoped the man he’d just shot stayed down. Hoped the car that dropped him off didn’t come back. His head low, Lester stuck his pistol out the door and fired. No response. He got out, dropped to the ground, fired again and made his way to the trunk.
He opened it and removed the suitcase of smack. There were sirens now. The cars in the street sat still, no one visible inside them, windows rolled up. Lester holstered his Glock, grabbed the suitcase of money from the sidewalk and ran, a suitcase in each hand. He rounded the first corner then slowed to a fast walk.
The sidewalk was empty, good for making time. And thinking about what he’d do next, but that wasn’t where his thoughts ran.
“I don’t care if there’s other women any more.” Alana in the living room then, shortly before walking out. “It’s the way you live, what you do. The shape you got in. Not just your body, all of you.” She didn’t yell, just stepped away, like she dared him to do something.
Lester approached the Camry he’d parked an hour earlier. He dropped the wallet into the gutter and kicked it through an open sewer grate.
Inside the Camry he dropped both suitcases on the passenger seat floor, started the engine and pulled away from the curb. Left hand on the wheel, Glock in his right, on his lap. He had one bit of business left with Dorst. There wouldn’t be a deal this time. Dorst was a dead man, but if Alana was with him? Lester didn’t know how busy this day might get.
The stale stench of weed should have been enough of a warning when Gail had first looked around the flat. She’d always hated that smell, it reminded her of the dried in urine on her drunken father’s trousers when he’d occasionally return from the pub to get money or sleep before heading back out. She hadn’t liked living with that smell then and she wouldn’t like living with this one either. She should have listened to her gut, and not rented the place. But it was so cheap and she wasn’t exactly flush with cash – so she took it.
What she’d saved in rent, she probably spent in scented candles, joss sticks and plug in air fresheners. She’d got the landlord’s permission to paint the place. It wasn’t just the smell she couldn’t live with – she couldn’t bare the nicotine yellow ceilings and skirting boards either. She’d made what she could of a very basic studio apartment, kept fresh flowers and put up curtains with a floral pattern and tie backs. Throw cushions printed with affirmations made her hand-me-down sofa look a little more girly.
She was happy here – or she had been until now.
The knock at the door had been heavy. Urgent. She’d ignored it at first. But they’d knocked again, for longer and heavier still. Gail didn’t know anyone in town and didn’t want to answer the door, but then what if one of the neighbours was in trouble? She didn’t know them but Gail held a kind heart. She’d passed a young girl with a baby in the corridors a few times on her way home from work – what if the baby was ill and they needed to get to the hospital? And there was an old man who she was sure lived alone on the ground floor, maybe he had some emergency that needed attention.
Before Gail had the door fully open it was pushed from outside and two men burst in. Their clothes were made of cheap materials and bore the labels of designer brands in large print. She caught sight of gold watches and chains as they rushed at her and started yelling.
“Where is he? Where the fuck is he?” Yelled one of the intruders.
The other grabbed Gail by the hair and dragged her back into the flat before she’d had a chance to respond.
The first man continued to yell his accent an affected cockney learnt from low budget movies. He kept repeating his initial question.
“Where’s who?” Gail managed to sob through pained tears. Her head throbbed from being dragged across the floor.
“You’re boyfriend. He’s had a grand’s worth of gear off of us and we haven’t seen him in over a month. So were the fuck is the prick hiding.”
“I… I live alone,” Gail sobbed, “I only moved in two weeks ago.”
The man that had pulled Gail by the hair slapped her across the face. She felt her cheek welt from the blow.
“Don’t give us that shit, you know where he is.” He yelled.
Gail sobbed. She had no idea who it was they were looking for, but whoever had rented this place before her had clearly screwed over some very nasty people – and now she was going to pay for it.
She flinched as she saw him raise his hand again. Braced for the blow she looked away. But it never came. She looked back to see the first man holding the other’s hand back.
“Hang on a minute mate, she might be telling the truth. Have a look around, there’s no way that scrote lives here, it’s too nice now. Looks like the fucker’s done a bunk.”
As they looked around and the realisation sunk in to both men Gail sobbed, it wasn’t quite relief, more shock at the world she’d stumbled into.
“Sorry about that, love.” The man that had struck Gail said. He leaned down to try to help her up. She lashed his hand away wildly.
“Just get out!” she screamed.
“Alright love, chill out, it was an honest mistake.” The first man said, as if he’d taken the wrong trolley in the supermarket. He reached into his pocket and dropped a bunch of crumpled fifty-pound notes on the floor next to her. “For your trouble.”
The next day Gail didn’t go to work. She got straight onto the estate agent, she didn’t care how much more she’d have to pay, she wasn’t staying here.
Hoyt looked out the passenger side window of Culley’s Dodge Neon and did not recognize the world passing by. This profound disconnect existed between the world as he imagined it should be and the reality as it presented itself. He could have blamed this detachment on the dirty dime he served behind the razor blade wire of the bloody Bilt, a sentence he earned for being Cullman County’s greatest meth manufacturer and also for shooting a kid’s ear off with a .22, but, truthfully, he believed he’d been on the outside of everything since his rotten birth.
Lately, his malaise had come to be personified by a certain neighborhood hipster pedaling the backroads on a fixed gear bicycle. This fella cultivated a ridiculous mustache and wore a funny hat that wasn’t quite a fedora. Hoyt had seen these hats for sale at many a Hindu-operated gas station, these dusty oddities usually hanging above and to the right of the cash register. Every time he bought a pack of smokes, he’d glance at the hats and feel those tendrils of hipster aggression uncoiling in the deepest, darkest section of his brain.
At least now he knew there existed a target to hone in on, a jackass with a comically large mustache jutting off his face and little stick legs propelling a clownish yellow bicycle. Hoyt didn’t know the fella’s name, but he believed if he could just stomp the guy’s head into the concrete one real good time, he could somehow make peace with his shitty life.
Hoyt shared his idea with his colleague in criminality, and, of course, Culley had something negative to say. “Whatcha gonna do? Beat this kid to death because he looks like an asshole? Jesus Christ, Hoyt, where would it end? Mass Murder? Stay outta Wal-Mart, that’s my best advice to you. There’d be no end to the asses you’d feel compelled to kick.”
“I’m not saying I gotta beat down everybody, Culley. Pay attention. I’m saying one dude. One goofy fucking mustache. One pair horned-rimmed glasses. One stupid ass hat. See how I feel once I beat him half-dead; go from there.”
“That’s just silly.”
“It’s not for you. It’s for me. I don’t give a shit what’s silly to you.”
Then why’d you bring it up to me? Culley thought that oughta be the next logical thing to say, but he decided to just keep his mouth shut. Hoyt was clearly working through some anger issues and despite a tenuous friendship which managed to last half their lives, Culley knew that Hoyt could become plum unpredictable when the overwhelming urge to hand out ass-whuppings told hold of him.
“You want to put in my David Allen Coe cassette? That usually gets me feeling better about things,” Culley offered.
“Yeah, it wouldn’t hurt none to hear some ‘Long-haired Redneck’, I guess. You know the ladies use to say I looked like Merle Haggard.”
“I don’t see it.”
“Back in the day. Before Biltmore Prison.”
“Still don’t see it. Sure they weren’t saying ‘pure haggard’.”
“Why the fuck they say that? You even know what Merle Haggard looked like?”
“More or less. You do look country, though. I give you that.”
If Hoyt resembled anyone, it was Culley. Culley was a bit taller, Hoyt a tad broader across the shoulders. Culley’s teeth outnumbered the gray, rock bottom remainders in Hoyt’s yap. Hoyt’s hair was thicker, his eyes somewhat more crazed. The tattoos bunched heavily along Hoyt’s arms, whereas Culley kept his tattoos placed more strategically, a howling wolf on his shoulder, a grim reaper on his forearm. Their dirty jeans could have been purchased from the same thrift store rack, their work boots from the same Wal-Mart shelf. Hoyt’s Somewhere in Time T-shirt and Culley’s Can I Play With Madness T-shirt were both give to them by the Reverend Eddie Vacuum who bought his Iron Maiden shirts in bulk from some sketchy fella out of Scottsboro who thrived on copyright infringement.
“Leave them hipsters alone. I think a shot of leg would go a long way toward setting you right,” Culley said.
“What the hell you know?” Hoyt said, hoping to just kill the conversation so he could get back to staring out the window, listen to some David Allen Coe, and think of all the women who never called him by his name, either.
“We got an invite to see Eddie Vacuum’s band play the Hair Metal Symposium this Saturday night at the Hog Palace. Bound to be some trashy women there who don’t care about their lives enough to say no to coming home with us. Big hair. Painted on jeans. Knee high boots. If that don’t put a smile on that fucked-up face, there’s no hope for you.”
Hoyt’s jaw muscles trembled like tumblers falling into place.
Culley watched him out of the corner of his eye, but a smile never did appear on Hoyt’s fucked-up face.
Culley went back to concentrating on his driving just as a newer model Mustang shot past his Neon. Though he had the gas pedal mashed to the floorboard doing a respectable sixty miles per hour, the douche bag piloted Mustang made him look as though he were driving in reverse.
“You know who I hate?” Culley said. “Dipshit douchebags wearing backward flat brim ball caps with fashion symbols on them. And jackassy beards that look like they’ve been smeared with shit because the dumbass is past forty and trying to hide the gray.”
“And then they drive Mustangs.”
“Yep. And then they drive Mustangs.”
“We need to make some money if we’re gonna make any headway at the Hog Palace Hair Metal Symposium,” Hoyt said. “Some real money. Not confederate flag selling money.”
“They’re hiring at the Wal-Mart,” Culley offered, lips twisted in a grim smile. “Third shift, janitoring.”
“I’m not White Lion when I say I wouldn’t mind putting the White Snake to some of these Twisted Sisters,” Culley said, grinning like a jackal at the way he incorporated old hair metal band names into his verbal repertoire.
Hoyt, who’d been hearing this bullshit since Culley picked him up an hour ago was less than amused. The Hog Palace was living up to its name tonight. Most of the women present for tonight’s battle of the hair metal cover bands were shamefully obese or woefully old or both or they just weren’t interested in engaging Hoyt in conversation.
The Reverend Eddie Vacuum, friend of the family and owner/proprietor of the local fringe church/thrift store/professional wrestling megaplex, found Culley’s wit exceptionally hilarious. “These Cycle Sluts From Hell are Treat-ing us like a bunch of Ugly Kid Joes,” The Reverend added. “I’m like Enuff Z’Nuff already. Give my Great White a chance to Kingdom Come in your Faster Pussycat. Know what I’m saying?” Eddie glanced quickly over both shoulders, making sure his wife Charlotte was out of ear shot.
Culley’s hair metal knowledge was a bit more limited than the Reverend who actually fronted a band performing tonight. He thought he caught some of the references based on the hard emphasis Eddie put on certain words. “I hear you. I ain’t Def Leppard.”
“Both of you, shut the fuck up, before I Saigon Kick you both in the Blind Melons,” Hoyt said.
“Blind Melon’s not hair metal,” Eddie said. “They’re not metal at all, actually. Kinda mellow. Folksy. Like them, though. Very underrated band, especially the second album. Shannon Hoon is still missed.”
“You need to pay more attention to the shut the fuck up part of what I said,” Hoyt warned.
He glanced around the venue with eyes that would vaporize ninety percent of the people in attendance if he could. This was life for Hoyt. Every trip outside his house trailer upped his anger quotient. But he felt the desperate urge to fuck, and every moment the ladies refused to flock to his genitals, the greater the desire to punch faces became.
Culley monitored his friend’s fading humor through a series of sidelong glances. Hoyt had been getting edgy lately. He knew Hoyt was hurting for money. None of their criminal activities had panned out lately, and Hoyt’s talk of shaking down some area meth manufacturers made him nervous. Culley didn’t relish a career collecting Wal-Mart shopping carts; he really didn’t like the prospect of catching a shotgun blast to the face compliments of some crank crazed dixie mafia motherfucker.
Hoyt tended to disregard consequences. Culley just wanted to make it through the evening with some telephone numbers and at least one Vixen he could get his Hanoi Rocks off with.
While Hoyt sulked, Culley circulated. The Hog Palace usually catered to a more shitkickery clientele. Its dance floor was large enough to sustain an army of two-stepping jackasses who found profundity in the lyrics of Luke Bryant anthems. Strangely enough, the area had undergone a transition of sorts. There developed a sudden proliferation of hair metal cover bands celebrating the glam rock of the mid to late eighties, and the Hog Palace began focusing on an entirely different style of mullet.
The lady patrons who ultimately approved or disapproved of these night club aesthetics with this presence showed up in Aqua Net drenched droves. Their nightclub wardrobes switched from tight denim and boots to tight denim and boots. A little extra fishnet here and there. Tim McGraw concert tees discarded in favor of Ozzy Osbourne.
Culley moved among them, smiling, struggling for meaningful eye contact. The witty conversational skills he impressed Eddie and Hoyt with earlier abandoned him now. He couldn’t even recall the name of one god damn glam rock band’s name at one point when he tried explaining to one half ass decent-looking brunette the fun game he hand his friends played, working band’s names into casual conversation and how he excelled at it.
Hoyt wasn’t at the bar five seconds before he found someone to focus his rage upon. The man bun and scraggly beard were all reason enough to despise the man. What really put Hoyt’s teeth on edge were the Dream Theatre T-shirt he wore and the incredibly intricate vaping instrument the dude sucked on intermittently, commenting to no one in particular how mellow the Fresh Island Infusion tasted. “Pineapple and coconut with champagne infused blueberries with just a subtle hint of lime garnish.”
Hoyt enabled the jackass to make the mistake of commenting on the vape’s flavor by standing near him at the bar when he ordered his Coors. He reacted to the fella’s conversational gambit by knocking over his microbrew with his elbow. The comic skeleton on the beer’s label made quarter turns in either direction like a gut-shot victim as beer gurgled from the neck. The Dream Theatre fan made a show of securing his vaping instrument in a sophisticated fanny pack before addressing the fallen beer. By then, Hoyt was on his way back to Culley and Eddie who greeted him with lopsided grins and diminishing hopes.
“What did that Ratt do to Warrant such an Extreme reaction?” Culley asked, getting his mojo back.
“I didn’t like him,” Hoyt said.
“The band that just played all those Slaughter covers was Carnage,” Eddie Vacuum said, hoping to mollify Hoyt with some shop talk.
“They gave me a fucking headache with all that screeching,” Hoyt said.
“The lead singer, Wyatt, is a friend of mine. He’s stopped by the church a time or two. Took communion. Sung a few Iron Maiden hymns. The girls love him.”
“I think he sucks.”
“Hoyt, do you even listen to any glam rock? Hair metal?”
“Sure. Sure. Metallica. Some Megadeth. Dio, back in the day. Foreigner.”
“Hmmm… Well, you might like this next band, Gentle Ruckus. They do some pretty awesome Quiet Riot covers. So good, you’ll see. The actual drummer of the real Quiet Riot wanted to join their band, but, you know, the singer’s brother plays the drums, and you don’t cross family, even if it means having an in on the carnival circuit.”
Credit due, the singer did possess a very pretty head of hair. Very Farrah Fawcettian. He thanked the crowd for coming, announced their name a highly detailed back story of how Quiet Riot’s drummer really wanted to join his band and how he had to gently let down one of his childhood idols. The singer introduced himself yet again, Zeke Zydeco, a name which sounded suspect to Hoyt, and Gentle Ruckus launched into “The Wild and the Young”.
The audience who were far from youthful and no longer particularly feral, screamed to drown out the shoddy sound system.
Hoyt caught Culley’s eye. Culley immediately telepathed Hoyt’s thoughts, an experience akin to walking through toxic mist. My head hurts and I want to beat somebody to death.
Culley shrugged. The band sounded pretty good and the ladies looked like they were loosening up a little bit. Maybe he could integrate himself among them, mention how he use to play a little bass. Sure, he’d never played an instrument in his life, but Eddie Vacuum would back his play. He’d use the excuse of chronic tendonitis in his wrists if any of the ladies called for a demonstration… and had a bass guitar handy. Unlikely as that scenario might be, Culley’s luck dictated a high probability of this bullshit occurring.
Hoyt turned his back, walked toward the door as he shook out a cigarette. Since his prison stint, Hoyt found himself increasingly anxious among crowds. Too many moving pieces, here, too many banging heads. Even the Reverend Eddie Vacuum was getting his skullet swaying in time with the music.
Outside, Hoyt lit a cigarette. He exhaled a plume of smoke into the crisp night air and felt himself begin to relax, the muscles in his chest loosen. His headache began to dissipate, the constricted blood vessels in his scalp he could imagine opening up, a feeling akin to cutting the blue wire two seconds before the nuclear bomb detonates.
He walked toward the side courtyard of the Hog Palace. The area was dark and isolated since most of the smokers congregated in the rear with the tokers. He set his beer down on a picnic table and finished his smoke and lit another. The music, muffled as it was, sounded all right. They were playing “Love’s a Bitch.” Hoyt knew this because Zeke Zydeco was one of those jackasses who the need to introduce every fucking song as if it were new to earth.
Hoyt was just beginning to feel human again, or at least backing away from the cusp of mass murder, when he heard someone say “there’s the man of the hour” and just knew it was directed at him.
Hoyt didn’t recognize the voice, but knew the figure stepping out of the shadow by size. 6’6, three hundred pounds. Lank, greasy hair, protruding forehead, jaw like an anchor, the same Live After Death T-shirt he wore the first and only time he met the massive bastard.
“Moon Slice or Moon Dog or whatever the fuck you call yourself.”
“Moon Pie. Cause when people ask me how I got so big, I tell ‘em I eat a lot of Moon Pies.”
“Good thing they don’t ask you how you got to be so goddam ugly,” Hoyt said, flicking away his cigarette distastefully. “Folks be calling you Dick Suck.”
“You a funny motherfucker,” Moon Pie wasn’t smiling. “The Reverend said you a funny motherfucker. What you think, Bubala? He a funny motherfucker?”
Bubala stood half a foot shorter than his friend. In the dim illumination put forth by the Christmas lights strung across the courtyard, Bubala looked instantly familiar though until now they’d never been introduced by name.
“Oh, he’s a motherfucker. I don’t’ know so much about funny.”
The red bandana Bubala wore didn’t come close to obscuring the medical bandages swathed around his head. His left eye was still so red you’d think he could squirt blood if he winked real hard. He wore a Scorpions T-shirt under the black leather vest festooned with Invaders insignia.
“All them bandages of your head, I imagine it takes some time for my jokes to sink in.” Hoyt tried keeping it funny, scanning the darkness for the silhouettes of any more Invaders, specifically a certain little red-headed sausage-fingered dwarf who trucked with these motorcycle gang wannabes.
“You’re referring to the knock I took upside the head. I’m guessing you wouldn’t know anything about some bushwhacking son of a bitch who’d club a man half to death and steal every last goddam Confederate flag within a half mile radius of his fallen body, would you?”
Funny he should ask that. Little less than two weeks ago, Hoyt and Culley knocked out a couple Invaders with lead pipes before stealing enough Dixie flags to overflow a Dodge Neon. When they hocked the flags at Reverend Eddie’s thrift store, the entire score netted the duo a cool twenty dollars.
“Sounds like something them Southside niggers would do,” Hoyt said.
Culley had spray painted BLACK POWER on the cinderblock wall of the Invaders’ hang out. It was a subterfuge Hoyt doubted had the desired effect on the gang’s psyche considering Moon Pie, newly baptized into Reverend Eddie’s fucked up faith, had been hanging around the store recently.
“That was my first thought, honestly. But them ghetto clowns know better than to fuck with us.” Bubala slapped the large AB emblem tattooed on his forearm.
“So what’s that got to do with anything?”
“So what?” Hoyt showed his SB tattoo amidst the swirls of ink coloring his arm. “Southern Brotherhood. For folks who truly hate niggers, rather than just tolerate them.”
“Tolerate? Who tolerates jigs?”
“You do, jackass. Aryan Brotherhood, friends of niggers for long as I can remember.” Hoyt had to laugh.
This Bubala joker was throwing off some serious bitch vibes. He stood there, exaggerating his butt hurt sentiments to a homosexual degree, flexing his steroid swollen muscles, narrowing his eyes, grinding his teeth, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as if he were going to do anything other than stand there and take the insults.
Moon Pie stood stock still as a totem pole. Only his eyes moved between Hoyt and Bubala.
“You do not know what the fuck you are talking about.” In his building rage, Bubala took the time to enunciate his words perfectly.
“Sure I do. Those AB boys, they’re pretty all inclusive these days. Doing my dirty dime at the bloody Bilt, I seen Aryan Brotherhood playing checkers with niggers, lifting weights with niggers, sharing sissies with niggers. In fact, you can always tell when the Aryan Brotherhood’s getting anxious, they got black dicks hanging out their mouths.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Bubala spat. “Where’d you do your bit?”
Hoyt looked at him with a mixture of pity and disdain he normally reserved for Jeff Gordon fans. “Ten years at the Biltmore Federal Penitentiary.”
“I guess that makes you think you’re a tought motherfucker, doesn’t it? ‘A dirty dime at the bloody Bilt’ he says, like that means something to me. I did two months at Huntsville Correctional. I’ll tell you what I hated more than anything is trying to make grilled cheeses in the cell. I hate how that prison cheese don’t melt; it just blackens and burns.”
“Cheese?” Hoyt blurted. “I got stabbed fourteen fucking times.” He pulled up his shirt revealing the scarred, mottled mess of flesh stretched along his left side from the top of his ribcage down to his waist. “This was from the second race riot while I was there. The one the Aryan Brotherhood decided to sit out of. The one that was so bad it got every prison system in the entire fucking state locked down. I was going toe-to-toe with this fire plug-looking nigger and he was blasting me in the side. I’m wearing out his head, but every time he hits me in the ribs it feels like bombs are going out cause he’s shivving the shit outta me.”
“I’m gonna stop you right there,” Bubala said. “Cause I don’t give a shit what happened to you in prison, you ain’t smart enough not to get your ass shanked nightly, whatever. It doesn’t give you the right to steal our Confederate flags the day before our first annual Invaders Ride for the Freedom to Celebrate our Southern Heritage. We had to ride our bikes passing around a couple of goddam Dixie hankies Goat Fucker Udee had stuffed in the bottom of his sock drawer.”
“What’s going on out here?”
Culley and Eddie came around the corner, their cigarettes glowing like two red Marlboro eyes.
They caught Bubala’s attention just long enough for Hoyt to step forward and punch him right in the bandaged head. Bubala made a strange “gurk” sound and dropped to the ground unconscious.
Hoyt balled his fists and stared up into Moon Pie’s jack o’lantern-looking mug. “You got a problem with what I just done?”
Moon Pie glanced at the Reverend Eddie Vacuum. Eddie shook his head, no. Moon Pie repeated the gesture. “Not unless you killed him,” Moon Pie added as if to prove some level of autonomy remained to him.
Hoyt wasn’t exactly sure. He toed the Invader and got a slight groan out of him.
“Christ,” Culley said. “You have to hit him so hard?”
“Didn’t have time to wrap my fist in padding to make you happy,” Hoyt said.
“Yeah, but couldn’t you just hold back a little. Never mind, there any more of these fuckers running around here?”
Hoyt shrugged. Culley stared at Moon Pie.”
“Don’t look at me,” Moon Pie growled. “He’s just an acquaintance. I ain’t responsible for what he does, who he runs with.”
“You two looked pretty chummy when it was just the three of us out here.”
“You were shooting your mouth off at him. Any man’s gonna defend himself. I didn’t side with either one of you dummies.”
“All right. All right. He’s just an acquaintance,” Culley said. “Then you won’t mind if I do this.” Culley grabbed the Invaders vest and peeled it from Bubala.
“Then you won’t mind if I do this,” Hoyt added, reaching into Bubala’s back pocket and withdrawing the man’s wallet.
“That’s pretty sorry,” Moon Pie said.
“He ought not to have fucked with me. Now he ain’t got no wallet.”
“As much as I want you guys to see me own the band with my band, The Reverend Eddie Vacuum and the Powerslaves,” Eddie said. “It’d probably be best you guys get the fuck out before this poor bastard wakes up, or dies, or someone finds him.”
“The Invaders are gonna find out this Motley Crue is Every Mother’s Nightmare after we Stryper’d a few more asses,” Culley grinned.
“Seriously,” Eddie grimaced. “Up the irons. And get the fuck outta here.”
On the way home, Hoyt sitting in the Neon’s passenger seat, he took out the driver’s license from the stolen wallet. “Joe Bubala. I know where you live, now. Maybe I oughta send you a thank you note for the eighty bucks you donated to the Southern Brotherhood cause.”
“Eighty bucks, huh?”
“And he gets to go back to his boyfriends and explain why he don’t have a sassy leather vest no more. How’d you do?”
“I got a phone number. Girl named Natalie gave me her number. And it’s her real number, too. I dialed it right there standing in front of her.”
“Yeah. Only problem is I got two days learn how to play the bass guitar.”
It’s been about a year since Dave the Marketing Director told me I was out of a job, that I wasn’t going to make it out of my probationary period at Northeast Health Care. I can still see that smug piece of shit with his frat-boy haircut, sitting behind his desk toying nervously with a pen, his little piggy eyes darting between my open HR file, his computer monitor and the clock on the wall. That cocksucker didn’t even have the guts to look me in the eye when he told me.
“I’m just not convinced that you’re keeping our brand values top of mind,” he said.
I didn’t bother to argue. It had been abundantly clear for some time now that the prick had made up his mind weeks ago. I never had a chance. I handed over my ID, packed up my shit while a security guard watched, and got escorted out of the building.
That night I killed a bottle of rye. In the morning I slept in while the wife went to work. That afternoon I filed for unemployment and started looking for another gig.
They say unemployment’s down, that the economy’s recovered, but it sure as fuck hasn’t recovered for me. Dozens of applications sent out, all my connections around town tapped and retapped, and nothing to show for it but a handful of interviews that went exactly nowhere once the jerkoff behind the desk figured out I was on the wrong side of 50.
Over the next few months, the booze never seemed to run out but the health insurance did and the unemployment checks stopped coming a month or so after that. The wife kicked me out a few weeks later. I don’t blame her. Truth be told, she could do a lot better than me. I’m just surprised it took her so long to realize it for herself.
I got a room in some fleabag up on Munjoy Hill and that’s where I’ve been ever since, drinking hard and trying to stay relevant.
The idea had been growing in my mind for a while.
I think it had always been there, in some form or another, since the day I got canned but I can’t say for sure when it first took hold and blossomed into something more – sometime after the soft pillow of despair gave way to crystalline shards of anger, I guess.
Eventually, things got to the point where I spent more time thinking about it than I did not thinking about it. I dreamed about it at night and my mind continually drifted toward it during the day, an oasis of calm in a growing hurricane of rage – wiping that smug fucking look off Dave’s face once and for all. Bringing as much fear and anguish to him as he’d brought to me.
But ever so slowly, so I could enjoy every minute of it and he would know deep in whatever pile of shit he had for a soul that he had fucked with the wrong guy.
The only question was, how?
They say that when God closes a door, he opens a window and I guess that must be the case because a few nights ago, I ran into Eddie down at Sangillo’s. We had a few and got to talking. He opened his leather and showed me a piece. Said it was clean. Untraceable. And that I could have it for $100.
On Thursdays, like clockwork, Dave worked late to, “get his ducks in a row,” for a standing breakfast meeting with the executive team the next morning. So that night I filled my hip flask with some shitty bourbon and packed my old Converse bag with a flash light, a roll of duct tape, some zip ties and the piece I got off of Eddie, fully loaded. I took the bus over to Northeast and in the growing darkness, I drank whisky and watched as my former colleagues went home, one by one, until only Dave’s Volvo SUV was left in the lot.
Soon enough, out he came, cell phone pressed to his ear and talking loudly.
“Absolutely, Larry. That’s definitely top-of-mind messaging, but you can’t make a chicken salad out of chicken shit, am I right? I mean, is this the hill we want to die on? My thought is, let’s not go there now. Let’s buy a ticket and go there later … right. Okay. Fair enough. See you in the morning.”
Dave ended the call and got behind the wheel, still staring at the screen in his hand. He never even knew I was there until I slid into the passenger seat next to him.
He jumped in his seat when I slammed the door. He started to say something but I cuffed him hard on the back of the head and told him to shut the fuck up. He started to flap his gums again, so I showed him the gun. That shut him up.
I told him to take a left out of the lot and make a right on Washington. When we passed the Cumby’s I had him head out Presumpscott.
After a few minutes, he asked where we were going. He was trying to play it cool, but I could hear the fear in his voice. I smiled and told him to shut the fuck up or we’d pull over and I’d put a bullet in his head right here on the side of the road.
I took a pull off the flask and flicked on the radio just in time to hear ol’ Zach Martin roll into a double shot of REO Speed wagon on ‘BLM.
“You a classic rock guy, Dave? Of course you are. That’s fucking perfect. Who’s your favorite band? You know what? Never mind. I really don’t fucking care. Take a left.”
We pulled into Quarry Run – ten acres of forest and field with a few miles of trails winding through what used to be Portland’s dump. This time of night it was deserted.
We got out of the car and it began to rain.
I clicked on the flashlight, making sure Dave got a good long look at the gun. I told him that if he tried anything, anything at all, I’d drop him right here like a rabid dog. I made him kneel and zip-tied his wrists together, making sure I tightened that shit up as hard as I could. Then I duct-taped his mouth.
I think that up until that point, Dave had been able to successfully tell himself that I was just trying to put the fear of God into him, but when the duct tape closed over his mouth and wrapped tight around his head, he must’ve realized that shit was getting real. He started begging and pleading, his eyes wild with fear, trying to talk his way out of what he surely knew was coming – at least, that’s what it sounded like. It’s hard to tell what someone’s saying when his mouth is taped shut.
I motioned with the gun.
“Get up. Let’s go. You first, shit stain.”
We crested the hill and I pushed him off the path into the woods. He stumbled but kept his feet. In front of a large rock, I told him to stop.
“Take a good look around, asshole. This is where the magic happens.”
I put a round into his knee and the left leg of his khakis exploded in a mist of blood and bone. He fell to the ground hard, his screams muted by the duct tape over his mouth. He tried to press his hands to the wound to stop the bleeding, but the zip ties made that difficult, I guess.
“How’s that feel, Dave? Does that exceed expectations, you fucking cocksucker?”
He whimpered and I kicked him in the face, hard. His head snapped back and bounced off the rock.
“I dunno, Dave. I think we need a deeper dive on this.”
I squeezed off another round and a little puff of feathers shot into the air as the slug passed through his down vest and bit into his shoulder. He screamed again, but not as loud this time.
“How’s that working for you, Dave? I’m giving you a chance to be pro-active here, but I’m thinking we just need to go ahead and pull the trigger on this.”
I shot him again, in the other shoulder this time, and took another drink from the flask.
“I don’t hear a single, Dave. We really need to pick a lane here and just bowl on it.”
I fired again.
I put the gun in my pocket and pulled him off the ground, leaning him up against a tree. He’d lost a lot of blood and he was most definitely in shock.
“Stay with me, Dave. Stay with me, you prick. I need you to own this project.”
I poured the last of my bourbon over his head and slapped his face a couple of times.
“Jesus, Dave. You’re a fucking mess. Well, we’re almost done here. I know it’s a shit sandwich, but we all gotta take a bite, right?
I pulled the gun from my pocket and held it up in front of his face.
“There’s just one more thing I want you to keep top of mind, Dave.”
I stepped back and pulled the trigger. The top of his head erupted in spray of blood and brain, and Dave’s lifeless body slumped to the ground.
Now, I may not be the smartest man in the room but I sure as fuck know my ass from my elbow and by my count, I’d put five slugs into him. That left one round for me.
Because at the end of the day, it is what it is.
“Go back to sleep” he says to her. He is sitting on the end of the bed, the stoplight down the road flashing yellow caution through the broken blinds. His head is in his hands. The snub nose perched between his knees.
“I can’t,” she says from behind him. She’s tried turning over a couple times It does nothing. It is dark in here. The heat is stifling and sweat crawls on her skin like fingers. She doesn’t want to look at him. Never again. She stares at the ceiling and chases shadows.
“Just try,” he says.
He sighs. Shoots a glance back at her. Her bright silver eyes glare back at him like a tiger in the jungle brush. He says nothing. She says nothing. He looks down at the gun tucked in his knees. She scoffs She shakes her head and tries closing her eyes knowing damn well it won’t help for shit.
She opens them again and sighs. He thinks she’s being overdramatic. He’s smart and says nothing. He blames her mood on the heat. It can do crazy things to you sometimes. Happens to everybody. It’s understandable. Just be patient and drink your water and wait. They can keep moving tomorrow.
“They’re coming for us aren’t they,” she asks in that scared-little-girl voice that makes the hair on the back of his neck flare up. He doesn’t breathe less the stutter in his heart show. Doesn’t look back less he have to look her in the eyes again.
“We’ve been runnin for a long time, baby,” he says. “Runnin fast and not lookin back.”
She scoffs again. He doesn’t believe a word he says either.
“You were fucktard enough to check in under your real name.”
“They asked for my ID,” he begs her, “what’d you expect me to do?”
“Maybe check in under mine since I’m not the one they’re after?”
“What good would that do,” he snaps. “They know you’re with me.”
She makes that irritated noise again and throws the sheet off her legs and her feet bang on the floor and she runs over to the lamp in the corner of the room.
He stands up. He gets between her and the lamp like a bouncer.
“Are you fucking crazy?” he hisses. “What if they’re trying to find our room? We gotta be quiet.”
The shadow slashes her as she steps out. The sweat dotting her pale face and the brown hair pulled back and the thin lips and the wild fiery eyes make him take a step back.
“I don’t give a shit anymore,” she says and lunges at him. He sidesteps her and she slams into the wall and keeps banging her fists into it as he runs over to try calming her.
“I want out,” she starts screaming. “I want outta here. Now.”
“We’re bailin in the morning.”
Her nostrils flair and a hair pulled back in the ponytail pops off one by one like a string breaking.
“We can’t leave tonight,” he reminds the woman again and steps up to her like the fool she is. “They’ll be lookin for us on the roads.”
“What the fuck’s the point in hidin out when all we’re doing is wastin time and blowin all the money we got. They ain’t lookin fo’ me, anyway,” she says with the sarcasm dripping through her teeth, “it’s you they’re after.”
“We can’t drive in twelve hour shifts anymore. We’ll wreck out. You know that.”
She spits at him. Nothing comes out. The fire comes over him. She looks away with that fucking grin on her face and he tries to control himself. Better cool it before he snaps again. That quick trigger wasn’t never good for him.
Gravel outside the window crunches and a motor gets closer. He stops in his tracks and she does too as the headlights creep towards them and the brakes squeak as it stops in the parking an inch from the window. He holds up a hand to shut her up and she is already sitting up with the sheet between her teeth. No sound between them save chopped breathing.
The lights never turn off. They shine right through the blinds that cut across him in piss yellow light and bleak shadow. His shadow fills half the room. He moves an inch at a time and it crawls on the walls like a spider. He shuffles across the carpet and lunges down and grabs the gun and cocks it back. Pull the hammer forward, open the chamber. Six bullets?
No. Five. They’re running because one bullet went into the wrong man.
The gun’s at his side and his pointer slips in and out of the guard. No time to psych himself up. He has to pretend he’s ready to kill a man again in order to protect himself. And what little he has fucking left.
The headlights have been on too long. The motor doesn’t hide the footsteps crunching on sand from the office down on the left to the passenger side of the truck. She gasps again and he wants to put a pillow on her face to shut her up for good.
He doesn’t. No time. The steps have stopped. They’re listening. They start again. They’re coming for the two of them.
“Let’s go,” she whispers and he shushes her with the steel in his eyes.
“Let’s go I said,” she repeats louder.
He ignores her and steps closer to the door. The feet are on the other side. Those aren’t cop boots. No radio chatter. Only a spit to the side that rustles the bush leaves.
“Is that them?” she asks without restraint. She stands up and he shoots her another look telling the woman to shut the fuck up. His heart pounds in his ears. There’s a snear crawli ng on her lips.
The thug on the other side of the door says nothing.
Key in the lock. Slow turn left. He runs forward to put the chain up. The gun drops to the floor. The key stops turning. The door starts to open and he slams into it hoping something gets caught between the door and the frame. They kept fighting. Push in, push out. Chain rattles between the track ends and he manages to jam it in and run back and he dives to the floor for the gun.
He lands on floor cold and empty. Her foot slashes his head and his nose shatters and blood patters on the carpet and another one hits his jaw and he’s taken worse beatings than this so he tries to fight and get up and scream at her that he knew she was in on this but the gun explodes in her hands and the round hits his shoulder and it burns and he rolls in agony.
The world is going silent and he fades. He doesn’t try to stop the bleeding. He doesn’t ask why. He knows she’d been planning this for a while. Just let me die, he thinks. Just let it all go away. I’ve done all I can. Just let me go in peace.
It’s been a hell of a two weeks. He killed a man because he deserved it and he thought justice was still a thing in this world.
He rolls over to face them, his blood soaking in a pool beneath him and mixing with the sweat stuck on his skin making him feel cold. He cranes his neck up to see the thug’s face but gets nothing but tennis shoes, blue jeans and a khaki jacket with white gloved hands in the pockets.
“I’m sorry it took so long,” she says in a way the girl hadn’t talked to him in so long, “I thought he’d snap by now.”
The voice is deep. Drawls.
“He got a chance?” it asks.
“I got him good.”
“Good. Wannme to finish?”
“No,” she says, and he feels her staring down at him. “Leave him. Let’s git.”
He laughs from the floor. He can’t stop. She borrows the thug’s gun and pops another round, aiming for his head, hitting the collar bone on the other side. The blood coats his teeth and he keeps going. He tries to say something to her; a goodbye, a thank you, an I-Loved-You, but he gives up and just keeps laughing.
She spits on the floor and the two walk out and the door slams on him. He tries to sit up and collapses back on the pool. Tries crawling to just to see if he can and he’s too weak.
He is laughing when his end comes. Bitch couldn’t shoot for shit.
He made his money during the early 2000s when Fishtown was making a turn. Gerald Rivers was there to scoop up what he could. Young professionals, hipsters and later on millennials were appearing on the narrow streets and along Frankford and Girard Avenue. Rivers bought up all he could and sat on most, rented out what he could. By 2010 Rivers had flipped all his residential real estate at almost triple the price he paid for it. He began buying on the commercial strip where coffee shops, bakeries, vegetarian restaurants and hipster pubs opened up. He flew under the radar as other big buyers made splashes about their talents developing old city neighborhoods. Rivers preferred to be in the background although he was known in certain circles as realtor, speculator. In others he was known as a skirt chasing cocaine sniffing egotist. The one thing Gerald Rivers didn’t realize during his money making days was his age. He was now 16 years older than when he began his business dealings. 52 in Fishtown was a lot different than being 36. His other problem was he would hit on any woman in a skirt no matter the age and was horrified when a twenty something asked him bluntly how many grandchildren he had. The change came to him one night at Johnny Brenda’s when he bought drinks for a group of ladies, he waved at them when in unison they all said “thank you Pappy”.
Caroline Peterson had her eye on Gerald Rivers for some time. She had come out of a bad marriage, obtained her real estate license and worked for a small broker. Some of her girlfriends told her stories of Rivers, his condo on the river, his cocaine habit, how wealthy he was. Caroline considered herself different from the others. She came out of her marriage hardened not needy. In her early forties she knew she had a brief period of time to make some money and land a man she could take advantage of. She knew how to dress, spent her free time at the gym, hardened her body as she had her mind, wore her hair in a bun although when set free it hung down to her waist. Caroline was at Johnny Brenda’s the night Rivers was called “Pappy” and made sure he noticed her laughing at his stunned look. The following morning she made sure to bump into him at his favorite coffee shop and did so for the next two weeks until Rivers made his approach. She smiled at him the first time he attempted to speak to her and left the shop. Caroline made a habit out of wearing short skirts and low cut tops with just the right pair of heels. She would sit at the first high top table and cross her legs. Rivers would come in and order his coffee and without fail come over to speak with her. After his fourth attempt she engaged him. He was charming asking what she did for a living and what her hobbies were. Rivers was impressed she was in real estate telling her he dabbled a bit here and there. He asked her out on a date and she politely declined. That evening she arranged to be at Rivers favorite restaurant, arrived at five and took a table in the corner. Like clockwork he arrived at five-thirty and immediately noticed Caroline. He walked to her table and asked if he could join her as he sat down. Caroline smiled at him. They each spoke of their lives and ambitions and Caroline of course told him she was newly single and desired to get involved with a decent man. Rivers told her he just might be that guy. Caroline was spinning her web and Rivers didn’t notice, he was enthralled with her. Over the next two months they dated, went to theater, five star restaurants and not once did Rivers even get to third base. Caroline noticed Rivers wasn’t snorting cocaine although he drank a bit too much.
The moon was full in the summer sky; there was just enough humidity in the air to cause Sean Forks to break out in a sweat. It took him over four years to admit to himself that he had been a bad husband. He often thought back to telling his ex she was too fat, her hair was shabby and her clothes disgustingly tight on her. There was nothing she could do that was good enough and when he got drunk he slapped her around. Sean stood along the river at Penn’s Landing breathing in the warm air thinking of what an idiot he was and still is. The last time he slapped her around she broke out a baseball bat and cracked his ribs. Within an hour she had moved out all of her stuff and he hadn’t talked to her since. Their divorce was uncontested, she didn’t ask for anything. Over the last month Sean Forks had been stalking his ex-wife who was in fact stalking a rich realtor. Unlike Sean, Caroline has transitioned to a full dating relationship and now the guy was chasing after her. Sean had noticed a woman everywhere he went while on his stalking detail, she was always lurking in the background. Every so often she would enter a restaurant and sit in the back watching the couple.
It was a Tuesday evening at seven o’clock and like the clock Caroline and her realtor arrived at El Rey on Chestnut Street. He noticed the woman standing at the Dunkin Donuts. Sean decided to walk over and talk to her.
“I’m Sean, I’ve seen you around a bit.”
“I noticed you around.”
“So what brings you here?”
“I’m hunting a pig!”
Sean looked her over. She had long blond hair, green eyes, and an excellent figure. He took her for a rich girl by the designer pocket book she had slung over her shoulder.
“So who’s the pig?”
“A creepy old guy like you! All I want is to get him alone but he’s always with that glamour chick!”
“Hey I’m not a creep!”
“What else do you call a guy who walks up and talks to someone he doesn’t know?”
“I think we have something in common.”
“What the fuck would that be?”
“Your pig is dating my ex-wife.”
“Isn’t that something? We’re both loser stalkers!”
“So why do you want to get him alone?”
“He dated me for a month, he degraded me, had his way and when he was done told me to get lost, treated me like a fucking whore!”
“So what do you want to do to him?”
“I wanna blow his brains out! What do you think of that?”
“A little drastic I think.”
“Drastic? That fucker gave me the clap!”
“So what did the princess do to you?”
“She broke my ribs and left me.”
“That’s pretty cool.”
“No one deserves that!”
“You look like an abuser, she probably waited too long to kick your ass!”
“I wasn’t a good husband. I’ve changed.”
“So you think she’ll take you back?”
“No. I just want to say I’m sorry.”
“She doesn’t care.”
“Good advice from you. Your stalking a guy, call me names and you want to blow his brains out!”
“At least I’m not a whinny bitch like you.”
“You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Well Monica, I thought about you being in all the places I was and figured you were doing the same thing I was. I have an idea.”
“And how aren’t you a creep? You have a plan for me?”
“I was thinking instead of you lurking out here or hiding in the back of the joint we could go in together.”
“So let me get this right. You are asking me on a date so that we can stalk our exes together?”
“I just thought we could both get this over with and I don’t think you need to shoot him.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Let’s go in like a couple, grab a booth across from them. They always sit in a booth. We can act like a couple and I’ll pretend to notice Caroline and take you over to introduce you. After I apologize to her you can have your say with him.”
Monica and Sean entered El Rey and were seated at a booth directly across from Caroline and Rivers. Monica leaned to the middle of the table and called Sean to her, he leaned across and she kissed him full on the lips. When they leaned back Sean noticed Caroline was staring at him. He stood up and walked over to the table.
“Hi Caroline. I just wanted to tell you I was sorry.”
He waved at Monica to come over.
“Leave me alone. I don’t care. I wish I never met you scumbag.”
Monica walked over as Caroline told her to run as far away as she could from Sean. He was a wife beater and a drunk.
“Really? Did you know your rich boyfriend has VD! He gave me the clap!”
Gerald Rivers looked at Monica.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the girl you fucked for a month, gave the clap and dumped me like I was nothing! You don’t remember me?”
“Well there were so many back in the day. Now that I think of it, you’re that crazy chick!”
“You’re a fucker you are! I ought to blow your brains out!”
Sean and Monica were tossed out of El Rey. They went to Dunkin Donuts and had coffee.
Caroline and Gerald left the restaurant. Caroline told him she was getting a cab, not to call her until he could prove he didn’t have any VD and was not HIV positive. If he didn’t do that he shouldn’t call her ever again.
“So if I do that you’ll sleep with me?
“Go get a test asshole!”
With that Caroline grabbed a cab and went home. Sean and Monica went their separate ways after they chatted and finished their coffee. Neither of them asked for the others phone number. Gerald Rivers went home to his condo on the river. He felt he wasted over a month and half on a chick who would never sleep with him. He drank a few beers and went to bed.
A few months passed as Sean made his way through the twelve steps of life. After his apology he moved on with his life. It was autumn and the city streets came alive with vibrant colors of trees. He had been dating a woman in the Northeast section of the city and the two of them enjoyed the great park areas of the Northeast. On Sundays they would go to the Quaker Diner for breakfast. On this October Sunday they sat by the large screen television. KYW news was on and it quickly caught Sean’s attention.
“Early this morning a Fishtown realtor was stabbed to death in front of Johnny Brenda’s. Police believe it to be a domestic violence case and they have one male in custody.”
Sean looked at the crowd shot. Leaning against a light pole with a huge smile on her face was Monica.
“The latest information from police is that a jealous boyfriend attacked the realtor. More to follow later in the report.”
Sean and his girlfriend finished their breakfast and headed off to Burholme Park for a walk in the West Woodlands.
The American sailor lay on his back. Naked from the waist down on the bed. The Japanese couple entered the hotel room. The woman was dressed neatly in robes. The man was dressed shabbily with unkempt hair on his face. It was hard to tell his age, probably considerably older than the woman. She gently placed her satchel on a chair, then pulled off her robe and undergarment.
No words were spoken as she crawled up on the sailor and sat on his erection. She lifted her hips, up and down, waiting for signs that her work was done. Tears began to stream down the cheeks of the Japanese man who turned away slightly but was watching out of the corner of his eye.
The sailor moaned and closed his eyes.
The woman climbed off him and dressed herself. Her male companion continued to face away but he was wiping his eyes with a cloth.
The sailor spoke in Japanese to tell the woman that the money was under the book on the dresser. He added in English, “Tell your man he can’t come back if he cries.”
She lifted the book and counted the bills carefully before folding them in her hand. The crying man opened the door and the two visitors padded into the hallway.
No pimp would cry in front of his trick. The sailor figured he was her husband or her father. He didn’t care. He hated the Japanese. Seven years ago, he had spent the last months of The War as a prisoner on an island far south of this one. His crew had been tortured for meaningless information. Guards killed most of his buddies to keep the burden of prisoners down to a manageable number. Killed in morbid extended rituals for the amusement of the warriors of Nippon.
There was some daylight left and the sailor needed to go out to the restaurant. He hoped to walk back to the hotel before dark. The slums between the hotel and the restaurant made him nervous. This was Japan and he was playing against tricky people on their own court.
He had jumped ship, a freighter going on further west, and couldn’t afford to get caught without papers. He was already at some risk by staying at a hotel that advertised to Americans. A thorough search of his hotel room would turn up his reason for coming to Nippon. That would mean years in a prison. He needed passage on board a ship headed back across the Pacific. But first he had to hand over the reason for his trip to Japan.
Someone would contact him at a certain restaurant during his evening meal and take the treasured relic off his hands.
The sailor sat at the same table at the restaurant for three nights in a row, against the wall in a back corner where the ceiling hung low. He ordered the same meal. He washed it down with one cup of sake. The place was dimly lit.
On the fourth evening in the restaurant, a well dressed older Japanese man and teen-age boy seated themselves next to his table under the low ceiling. Japanese diners usually gave him wide berth when selecting a table. He understood that foreigners were considered dirty by the Japanese.
The man and the boy were served a small bowl of lumpy sauce inadequate for the large bowl of rice that arrived shortly after they sat down.
The sailor heard something hit the worn bamboo floor. Something small. The boy bent over and retrieved a figurine and placed it on the sailor’s table. He said something. The sailor knew enough Japanese to understand that the boy was asking him if the figurine belonged to him.
The sailor picked up the item and looked at it with calculated nonchalance.
He could see that it was a replica of the treasure hidden back in his hotel room. It was a netsuke of the same size and shape as the reason for his journey, but the color was different. The carved turtle that the boy placed on his table had less fine features than the sailor’s smuggled netsuke which was white with a light brown coloring at the edges, stained dark in the intricate parts. A high priced artefact.
His instructions were to handoff the netsuke to the person in Japan who showed him a matching turtle. The smuggled netsuke was carved from a wooly mammoth tusk and more than a couple of hundred years old, part of an original collection of five netsuke created to secure the sash of a long dead Japanese prince. It was the last missing netsuke of a royal set. This piece would recomplete a collection which had been smuggled out of Japan during the occupation at the end of the War. Now, one by one, all five pieces had returned to Japan.
The sailor handed the signal facsimile back to the boy. He told the pair that he would return for dinner tomorrow evening and show them a netsuke much like the one that the boy had found on the floor. The sailor paused and waited to be sure that the two understood the meaning of his Japanese.
“Yes, okay,” the young man said handing the imitation netsuke back to the old man.
The next afternoon, the sailor walked to the wharf a few blocks away. He found a ship that looked like it was leaving soon. The crew of a Mitsui freighter, the Daigen Maru, was busy bringing sacks of rice aboard from a truck. The sailor chatted with the crewmen and found that the ship was leaving for Seattle in three days with a load of raw silk and rubber picked up in Hong Kong. The sailor found the mate in charge and booked on as a passenger. He got a chit for his deposit and departed the docks for the restaurant.
Back in Seattle, the sailor was to collect the back end of his payment for this job. The amount was much larger than Migaki had ever paid him but well deserved. The sailor had to jump a ship’s crew and hide out in Japan without proper papers in order to deliver a national treasure. Migaki told him the Japanese authorities suspected the netsuke was coming to the homeland soon.
The payday would buy the sailor his dream, an old seiner docked in Seattle. He intended to fish up and down on the west coast of Alaska. The boat’s owner had fallen to cancer. His widow was selling cheap. The sailor had made the down payment using all his savings. Migaki’s payment was nearly sufficient to finish purchasing the boat. The sailor would need a little luck to dig up the remainder. He thought he might have figured out a way to be lucky.
He arrived early at the restaurant.
The old Japanese man and the lad came in and sat at the table next to him.
The sailor pushed his food aside and extended his arms out on the table with palms up. The valuable ivory netsuke was in his left hand.
The boy rose and stepped to the sailor’s table. The kid pulled out his imitation netsuke and set it on the table. Then he reached for the original but the sailor closed his hand before the boy could pick up the valuable piece of ivory.
The young man swiveled his head to look at the older man then back at the sailor.
The sailor advised that he wanted a specific amount of yen in exchange for the netsuke in his closed hand.
The boy spoke in a crisp tone, “Mr. Migaki has received our payment.”
The sailor was free-lancing for an out-of-contract bonus that didn’t involve Migaki. The sailor repeatedly curled his fingertips of his unlocked hand to make his point clear.
In a quick motion, the boy raised a thin bladed dagger above his head then drove the blade down penetrating the open palm of the sailor’s hand. The point stuck into the wood table top beneath. The blade anchored the sailor’s hand in its place on the table top. Blood squirted from around the puncture.
The sailor froze a moment before he opened his other hand to grip the dagger handle that had been abandoned by the teen-age boy. The old ivory netsuke dropped out onto the table top. The boy snatched it up and followed the older man who was already making his way to a back door.
The sailor shut his eyes and tugged on the knife grip with his free hand. After wiggling the handle back and forth, he was able to pull the blade from the wood table top and his hand. The pain made him gurgle but he did not scream out.
No one in the restaurant had seen the incident. The sailor wrapped his bleeding hand with a cloth napkin. An American with a bloody hand would be of interest to the locals. He was feeling weak but placed his wounded hand in the pocket of his wool coat and made an effort to walk normally out of the restaurant. He leaned against a wall outside in the street. He forced himself to continue the walk. The sailor crossed back and forth on the street in order to stay in the shadows as he stumbled back to the hotel. He rested a moment outside the door before entering.
The sailor stopped at the front desk and asked the clerk to send someone to help him at his room.
Back in the room, he flopped on the hotel bed and breathed long and deep.
After some time there was a knock at the door.
The sailor rose and slowly pulled the door ajar. It was the hooker and her old man.
“You need help, please?”
The sailor realized that the desk clerk had misunderstood his request, “help” did not mean sex. He waived off the woman, then reconsidered. He called out for her to return. She shuffled inside leaving her man in the hall. The sailor unwrapped his hand to show her the wound. She furrowed her eyebrows but did not react otherwise.
The sailor conveyed his need for antiseptic and some wrap. She opened the door and spoke some orders to the old man who stepped quickly down the hall.
She shut the door and took the sailor over to a table. The hooker pulled a cloth and bottle of water from her satchel. She washed the puncture and applied a dark red ointment to the wound holes. Her fingers pushed the stuff into the holes with sufficient pressure to make the sailor cry out.
A knock at the door. The old man came in carrying a bundle of gauze. The hooker wrapped the damaged hand. The sailor pulled out a pint of whiskey from his back pocket and drank the bottle to half empty.
The sailor asked the hooker to return the following night, with more bandage. She agreed. He held out a handful of yen. She took it, bowed and left the room.
The hand festered and swelled up over the next several hours. When the hooker came again, the hand was mottled with dark spots.
She gasped at the sight of the hand without the bandage. She was silent for a moment before telling the sailor what he already suspected. The infection in his hand would kill him.
The mariner wasn’t sure if he could walk the six blocks to where the Daigen Maru was docked. He hoped for a medic on board the ship. He was afraid to go to a clinic. Papers might be required.
The hooker spoke a couple of very fast sentences to the old man. He nodded.
She pointed to her man and said, “Jinriksha”.
“Him?” the sailor nodded at the old man.
The Japanese man raised his hand as if to volunteer.
The hooker quoted a price. It was more than a fat tourist and his wife would be bilked for a rickshaw ride, but the sailor took the deal. He didn’t dare to bring any more attention to himself outside on the street.
“Half now, half at the ship,” he told the hooker who received his down payment and led the old man into the hallway. She told the sailor to go to wait in front of the hotel. The door shut behind her.
The sailor packed his duffel. His clothes were packed around the collection of gears he had purchased from a shop on the dock here in Japan. His new boat needed these parts.
He gripped is duffel with his good hand and walked past the front desk into the narrow street. After a few moments, the hooker’s old man pulled up with well used rickshaw. The sailor stepped up and sat on the hard seat with his duffle bag on his lap. The whiskey bottle was empty and his hand was exploding with pain. Six blocks was a long bumpy ride on cobblestones.
The old man took a route that stayed on dark unpopulated streets. When they got to the freighter, the sailor stepped down from the rickshaw and handed some yen to the Japanese man. The old man didn’t say anything. He turned and trotted off into the night. The sailor swung his duffel over his shoulder and inserted his damaged hand into his coat pocket. He bit his lip to distract from the pain and walked on board the freighter.
The sailor noted that the ship was older than he had first deemed but seemed to be tight and tidy. He made his way to the bunk room and found the man to whom he had paid the money for passage. He asked if the ship had a medic. The crewman shook his head from side to side. The sailor pulled out his wrapped hand. A dark fluid was soaking through the bandage. The crewman opened his eyes wide and nodded affirmatively. He trotted off. The sailor rolled onto a bunk. He held his wounded hand by the wrist and waited. It would not be his hand much longer.
After an hour, a new man came in the room and asked the sailor for a look at his wound. After some observation, he told the sailor that the hand required amputation. The sailor pointed at the hand then at the man. The new man refused the task until the sailor pulled out a bundle of yen and waived it under his nose. A deal was struck.
The new man had served in a Japanese field hospital during the war. He was experienced at amputation. That lucky fact might save the patient’s life.
The American sailor’s disdain for the Japanese didn’t suspend for this medic. The Asian was filthy and smelled of old sweat mixed with the stench of whatever it was these people ate. The dark signs of gangrene were plainly showing in his swollen hand. It hurt like hell. He was sure that the hooker had poisoned the wound or the young man in the restaurant had contaminated his dagger blade. But it didn’t matter now.
The medic had only a small scalpel in his bag of tricks, nothing that would cut through a wrist bone. He left the room for the ship’s work bench and took down a hack saw. He removed the blade and ran it up and down in a bottle of iodine. After washing his hands with the same iodine, he reinstalled the blade and returned to his patient with the hack saw hidden in a paper sleeve.
The sailor was laid out on the crew’s dining table. The medic began a drip of chloroform falling into a cloth placed on the sailor’s face. After the sailor passed out, the medic signaled his mate to take over the chloroform drip. When his hands were free, the medic placed a rope noose around the wrist of the gangrenous hand. He jerked it tight. A third crew member pinned the sailor’s arm down on the table. The medic used the scalpel to cut away tissue down to the bones. Then he began sawing. He paused his stroking back and forth in order to check the patient’s pulse. The strokes resumed at the same steady pace but quickened just before the hand detached.
The medic cauterized the end of the stump with the red hot blade of a knife heated with a torch. He moved quickly with efficiency that comes from experience. The stench of burnt flesh was heavy in the room. The medic was soaked in perspiration and dotted with blood and bits of human bone on his face and clothing.
After the amputation, the medic fed the patient some stupefying drug. The sailor was dazed for the next 24 hours. He came out of his stupor on the morning the Daigen Maru was about to pull away from the dock.
The rain had ceased and the sun shone through the window hatch. The sailor sat up on the side of his bunk. The bleeding had stopped but the bandage was yellow with draining fluids.
He thought about his one-handed future. He was a proud man. The sailor meant to be the feared captain of his own fishing boat. But he would also be the bosun, a stacker and at times, the only deck hand when the skiff man was out tending the nets. He’d be a deck hand with one hand. A joke. The sailor’s dream suddenly seemed far-fetched. He had been a fool. A fool was not worthy to captain a ship, even a fishing boat.
He stood up and gently eased into his coat. The sailor buttoned the coat all the way up to his neck using the fingers of his remaining hand. He pushed his feet into his boots and grabbed the duffel before kicking the door open and walking out onto the ship’s deck. He stood against the railing and looked back through the mist at the mountains of Honshu, dark and shadowy in clinging fog.
Then the sailor who hated the people of this land, immersed himself in Japanese tradition for just a moment. He raised the duffel to his chest and closed his good arm tightly around the heavy bag before plunging feet first overboard. He did not cry out during the fall nor resist his entry into water. The splash was shaded by the adjacent freighter. There was underway noise and crew was too busy minding the departure of the ship to have noticed. It would not have mattered anyway. He couldn’t be saved. The sailor sunk quickly, propelled downward by his missing hand.
“Why was Father Christmas upset when he got a sweater for Christmas?”
“Because he was hoping for a screamer or a moaner.”
Clive Clayhill laughs gutturally, then offers me a nasty grin – his rotten teeth are the same colour as Elaine’s gravy. I push my empty plate away and scuff my chair back on the faded linoleum, feeling strangely nauseated.
That’s what happens when you buy your Christmas crackers in the fucking Sex Shop…
It is Christmas day, and Clive is the only other guest staying at The Swanson. He is a spectacularly ugly man, even by local standards. His skull looks like a used roll-on deodorant – stray hairs plastered across the pale skin.
I spent last Christmas in prison, so this place is a genuine step up for me. No one got me a present this year, but when I checked in, I found two pairs of mouldy crotch-less panties stuffed behind the radiator and a tube of genital wart cream in the bathroom cabinet.
The Swanson used to be a hot-sheets hotel, and briefly functioned as a bail hostel for paroled sex offenders. Now it is supposedly under new management. Out of season, it is just a hotel with no guests.
Elaine, the landlady, has strung up a few threadbare strands of tinsel in the TV lounge, and there is an artificial sprig of mistletoe in the lobby. I’m not sure whether the mistletoe is intended as a challenge or a threat: Elaine is half my height and twice my weight.
I often hear Clive grunting like a hog through the paper-thin walls late at night. Sometimes he cries afterwards. I guess his willpower isn’t as strong as mine.
Clive smokes in silence as I finish my beer. There is no ashtray, so he drops his high-tar cigarette in an empty Skol can on the table. He lights a second, and passes me a black and white photograph. I vaguely recognise the suits and hairstyles from my childhood, but little else seems familiar.
He gestures towards the two men – a pair of cops called Benson and Hedges– with the glowing end of his cigarette. Then he tells me that they abducted his younger sister back in 1984.
I swallow his story and it sits heavier in my gut than Elaine’s roast dinner.
Clive tells me that they are planning to snatch another girl.
I start to feel sweaty. The gauzy dining room curtains twist lightly in the winter breeze.
I ask Clive how he knows.
He tells me he has been hired as their driver.
Clive told me that Benson and Hedges like to unwind at a place they call the Clubhouse. It’s an old portakabin that has been dumped in a field adjacent to the Ocean Spray Caravan Park.
I manage to find a taxi idling next to the public toilets. The driver adds on a £10 surcharge, but doesn’t question the well-worn pick-axe handle across my lap.
I trudge across the winter mud towards the ramshackle structure. The phrase ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ has been painted across an old floorboard and nailed to the wall. I hope it is an idle deterrent: I have already been shot once this year, and it wasn’t pretty.
Despite the icy temperature, the door is wide open. A portable heater pumps out stale heat. Benson and Hedges are sitting on a faded leatherette couch, ties loosened, their shirts yellowed with sweat. Hedges is the larger of the two – handsome in a big-boned way, with a thick swathe of white hair spilling over his collar. Benson is thin and corpse-coloured, with stringy hair.
The portakabin smells of burnt food and stale urine. A skeletal Christmas tree leans against the back wall, like an afterthought. The two men seem to be playing snap with a deck of pornographic playing cards.
I shake the slush off my boots and tap on the doorframe with my pickaxe handle.
“Planning a Christmas party, gentlemen?”
“Who the fuck are you?”
Hedges has a gap-toothed smile and a boil the size of a billiard ball on the side of his neck.
“I’m a friend of Clive Clayhill.”
“I wouldn’t admit that in public, pal. Clive Clayhill is a junkie cat burglar with a penchant for eight-year-olds.”
I relax my sweaty grip on the pickaxe handle.
A rotten chuckle bubbles up from Benson’s withered chest.
“Out is he?”
I’m not sure how to respond, so I grunt.
“We have long memories, son. We knew Clive when he was wanking off other junkies for spare change. He has spent the last decade in Channing’s Wood. We were the ones who banged him up.”
I grunt again.
“Clayhill is a conniving little fucker – if he wants you out of the way it is for a reason.”
I suddenly feel embarrassed and shuffle out of the portakabin.
Hedges claps Benson on the shoulder.
“Well, old friend, the plot fucking thickens…”
Their diseased-sounding laughter follows me across the dead field.
I head back to The Swanson. The street is empty except for two burned-out cars, and a 12-year-old, breathing glue out of a plastic bag. The B&B sits between two weed-choked vacant lots. Last year, the body of a missing psychiatric patient was found in the condemned hotel that used to sit next door. The case made the national press. The killer was known as the Ladyscraper. You can still see scraps of faded yellow crime scene tape in the weeds, but only if you look hard enough.
The TV lounge is empty, but the boxy television set crackles with canned laughter. Men who have been dead longer than I have been alive mug for the camera. The volume has been turned up loud enough to fucking wake the cadaverous bastards up again. I yank the power cord out the wall and the screen fades to black.
I take the stairs two at a time, and bang on Elaine’s door with my clenched fist. As she opens it, her leopard-print robe falls open. She is wearing low-heeled shoes and no underwear.
Behind her, the room is empty. The only sound I can hear is that of her vibrator, throbbing idly on the bedside table.
“Changed your mind about that Christmas kiss, darlin’?”
“Where’s Clive, Elaine?”
She knots the robe and pouts. She has a thick white scar down the side of her chubby, heart-shaped face. It clashes with the freshly applied cherry-red lipstick.
“How the fuck should I know? I’m his landlady, not his fucking parole officer.”
I stomp down the corridor. The lock on my door has been popped with a screwdriver. I don’t bother checking inside. I only have one item of value.
Further down the hallway, Clive’s own door is ajar.
He is laying on his bed, smoking. Naked. The ashtray is balanced on his sickly looking chest. In the wintry half-light his face looks raw and uneven, like a badly rendered wall.
On the threadbare carpet, at the end of the bed, lies a half-deflated rubber sex doll.
On top of Clive’s chest of drawers is my £5,000 retirement fund, still wrapped in the pillow case from my old rooming house.
I drag him off the bed by his wisps of greasy hair, and he lands on his bony knees with a crack.
He holds up his hands pleadingly. He tries to say something, but my pick-axe handle caves his teeth in before he has a chance.
I want to say something smart, something threatening, but I don’t have the energy.
I retrieve the pillowcase full of cash from the sideboard, and leave Clive drooling blood on the carpet. He tries to crawl after me, so I kick him in the gut – hard enough to rupture something.
Elaine is standing in the corridor, robe open once again. The vibrator buzzes helplessly in her hand.
She tries to peer round me, but I slam the flimsy door.
I dip into the pillowcase and retrieve a £50 note. I hand it to Elaine.
“Sorry about the mess…”
I hand her another banknote and keep on walking.Fuck it.
She shouts down the hallway at me: “Merry fucking Christmas to you too…”
We did not celebrate Christmas in the house I lived in as a kid unless my old man was locked up. He was a mean drunk and he was drunk most of the time. If he was around and you were lucky enough to make it through the day without getting your ass kicked that was a gift.
One year he was doing ninety days for some drunken shit he had pulled. On Christmas morning, my mom made pancakes but she got high and burned them. Kenny and I each got two, with no butter and a splash of syrup. Some judge got in the holiday spirit and gave a bunch of prisoners from the county slam early release. My dad walked in later that day, already drunk, and found mom in the sack with his friend Billy Flynn. He carved them up like Christmas turkeys.
Kenny was two years older than me. We went into the foster system. I got lucky, Kenny didn’t. He bounced from one home to another .He went to juvie when he was 13. He spent most of the next twenty years incarcerated.
An amazing couple adopted me. Frank Carson was a doctor and his wife Maureen a stay at home mom to me and two other kids they had taken in. My first Christmas in their home was like something out of a movie. I had a stocking with my name on it above the fireplace. On Christmas morning, much to my delight, I found it stuffed with candy and little toys. Under the tree were new bikes for all of us and a baseball glove for me.
And that’s how my life went. These wonderful people taught me respect, humility and unconditional love. They told me everyone has opportunities in this life. It fell on the individual to take advantage of them. I counted my blessings and thanked God for my good fortune.
They put me through college and like my adopted dad I became a doctor. I married an incredible, beautiful woman who graced me with two wonderful kids. Our lives were close to perfect. We had a circle of friends; we were involved in our children’s lives and found time to volunteer in the community.
Then Kenny came back into my life. I was on my way home from rounds at the hospital when my wife called, asking me to pick something up. Instead of stopping at the super market, I pulled into a convenience store a few miles from home.
It was dusk. In front of the store, a small group of unkempt men all with long, greasy looking hair drank cans of beer concealed in paper bags. When I exited the store, one of them approached me as I reached my Lexus and asked for money. I reached for my wallet and he slugged me, knocking me to the pavement. He grabbed my wallet and ran.
As I unsteadily got to my feet, I saw him returning. This time there was something familiar about him.
He held my wallet, opened to my driver’s license.
“Michael, man is that you? Damn, I’m sorry, I didn’t know”
“Kenny?” I said.
“Yeah, it’s me. Been a long time. Looks like you’ve done okay little brother.”
He hugged me. He reeked of body odor, beer and cigarette smoke.
“What can I do for you Kenny? Are you using?”
He nodded his head.
“Let me get you in rehab,” I offered.
“Nah, I’m good. Guess I got the old man’s genes huh?”
Those words would haunt me.
“You could slip me a twenty if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. I could use a fix.”
I gave him two twenty’s and a ten and went home to my comfortable life.
A week later, just after dinner there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, I found Kenny. He looked worse than he had before.
“Swell place you got,” he said as he glanced around. “I’m in a bad way. Can you give me fifty?”
I did and sent him on his way.
Two days later my wife returned from a charity lunch and found our home had been broken into. Jewelry, cash and some other small items were missing. When I got home the police were there. They explained there was a heroin epidemic in the area and burglaries like this were becoming common place. When they left, I drove to the convenience store where I had first encountered Kenny. Sure enough, he was lurking in the shadows with two other men.
I motioned him over.
“Let me get you some help.”
“No man, I don’t think so. I like my fucked up life. Rather live it than that masquerade you take part in every day. You ever think maybe you forgot where you came from?”
“Look, here’s how it’s going to be you won’t get help, don’t come around my house again. Understand?”
He stared at me with a menacing glare that caused me to shiver as I drove away.
Two days before Christmas, I arrived home just after dark. No lights were on, nor was the Christmas tree. The front door was open. The house had been ransacked. Wrapping from gifts were strewn about the tree, a bottle of Scotch tipped over on the carpet.
I went from room to room calling my wife and my children. I didn’t get a response.
I found them in our bedroom, swimming in a sea of blood. My wife’s lifeless body covered my kids. She died trying to protect them.
Shock turned to rage. In the garage I had a shotgun I used for duck hunting. I sped to the store.
Kenny grinned at me. I got out of the car and by the time the gun was empty there wasn’t much left of him. Guess I inherited something from my birth father as well.
Christmas in prison isn’t that bad. Just this morning we had bacon. And pancakes- they weren’t burned and they even came with butter and as much syrup as I wanted.
The first step went unheard by all except its maker. Little more than a soft crunch as the midnight snow compressed against the roof tiles. The second, however, caused Jimmy Gibbons to stir beneath the comfort and warmth of his spaceman duvet.
Excitement raced through him. A flurry of thoughts about new toys, and treats, and games.
He sat upright in bed and listened beyond his eager heart. He didn’t have to wait long before his ears confirmed his hopes through the dark. A footstep. Loud and defined and unmistakable. Then another, followed by several more leading to where Jimmy knew they would lead.
Jimmy knew there was nothing to fear. This moment was a dream come true, and he deserved it.
He swung his legs from under his sheets and plopped them down on the soft carpet. On the tips of his toes, he crept across his room and out into the hall, taking care not to tread on the discarded toys from the previous Christmas.
He considered the door to his parents’ room but chose to let them sleep. He didn’t want to share this moment with anyone, but especially not with his younger brother who often slept in their room.
Jimmy moved toward the stairs where the warm lights from the Christmas tree cast playful shadows on the wall below. Delicate clusters of green, red, and gold beckoned Jimmy down to the living room.
As he reached the top step, a distinct rustling drifted up to him, like a racoon fumbling for vital leftovers. Jimmy froze at the sound, letting the thrill wash over him, his hand on the wooden bannister, a single foot hanging out mid-step.
Below, the festive glow dimmed as a large shape moved past the lights. Jimmy crept down, his bare toes feeling for the wood and gripping each edge until he reached the bottom.
He turned toward the living room, and his breath caught in his throat.
The creature stood on six armoured legs, each one a foul combination of joint and muscle beneath the layers of its interlocking carapace. Jimmy had seen a crab before, and he tried his best to make sense of this horror, but this was no crab. It had the torso of a four-armed man, with an oversized wolf’s head. Four menacing red ovals set deep inside its skull gleamed with bright intent as it turned toward Jimmy, repositioning its legs with grim precision over the toppled Christmas tree.
The creature snarled, exposing razor-sharp teeth.
Jimmy shook as his bladder released in a warm trickle that ran down his pyjama bottoms and pooled at his feet. The creature pulled a hessian sack from its shoulder and let it fall open. Jimmy saw blood and gore inside, and an infant’s red shoe that he thought he recognised, but before he could scream, before he could call for his father, the creature lifted him by his delicate throat and drew the sack beneath his trembling feet.
In The Kringles’ grip, Jimmy’s body folded like dry kindling. Its powerful arms made light work of snapping his bones and crushing his organs before stuffing him in the bag with the other naughty children.
Bobby Lindstrom was napping on his ratty old couch when he got the call. Whenever he talked about it later, which was often, that was how he always referred to it: “The Call.”
“Hello, who’s this?”
“It’s Bobby, Charlie. What’s up?”
“So, you know me, right? Is that who I am? ‘Charlie’?”
“Just a sec,” said Bobby. “I just woke up and either you’re talkin’ nutso or I’m still comin’ around. Now let’s start again. What’s up, Charlie?”
“How did you know it was me before I said who I was?” asked the person on the other end.
“Well, my ringtone started playing its really cheesy rendition of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” the little Caller ID box said ‘Charlie,’ and ‘Bango’, I said to myself, ‘that’s Charlie.’ Have you been smokin’ somethin’ that you should have shared, ol’ buddy?”
“I just picked the first number on ‘Recent Calls’ and it said ‘Bobby.’ I’m in some kind of trouble; I don’t know who I am. I woke up and don’t know who I am or where I am.”
Bobby let that sink in for a bit before he answered. “You’re puttin’ me on, right? I think that I was right the first time: You’re at your place with Eddie smokin’ somethin’ and you guys decided it’d be fun to mess with me. How’m I doin’? Pretty close, right?”
“If this is my phone and you’re Bobby, then you must know me. But I don’t know me and I don’t know you. And another thing; sittin’ on the couch next to me is a guy who looks like me.”
“Ya mean like your brother, Tommy; he kinda looks like you.”
“No, not kinda; I mean exactly like me. Before I called I took a piss. When I looked in the mirror over the sink, I didn’t recognize my own face. But this guy next to me on the couch has that same fuckin’ face. He looks just like me.”
“Put him on,” said Bobby. “Let me talk to him.
“I don’t think he can talk. He’s just sitting there with his eyes closed.”
“Ya mean like he’s unconscious? Or like he’s dead? He ain’t dead, is he, Charlie?”
“Not dead; more like he’s not powered-up.”
“Not powered-up? Now that’s an odd thing to say….”
“What? What did you say, Bobby?”
“Nothin’, nothin’. Sit tight; I’m comin’ over there.”
“Over where?” said Charlie, his voice rising a little at the end. “I don’t even know where I am.”
“Look at the coffee table in front of the TV. Are there a lot of beer bottles and empty pizza boxes on it?”
“There’s beer bottles, but no pizza boxes. There’s some empty Chinese take-out boxes, though.”
“You’re at your place; I’ll be right there.”
It took Bobby about ten minutes to drive over to Charlie’s. When he knocked on the door, somebody answered. Bobby always says “somebody answered” when he’s telling the story.
“Hi…, um, Bobby. How are you?” the somebody asked.
Bobby nodded, and after stepping into the apartment’s small living room, he pulled up short when he saw the coffee table. The usual mess was gone and the table looked like it had been polished. There were two magazines on it that were positioned like they’d be if the table was on the cover of “House Beautiful.” The magazines, however, were cheap sex magazines; not “Good Housekeeping” or “Reader’s Digest.”
“I’m really busy right now; you can’t stay.”
“I’ll just make sure that you’re all right; you didn’t sound so good over the phone,” said Bobby.
The Somebody Charlie grabbed one of Bobby’s biceps and started to lead him to the door. When Bobby tells this story, usually at a bar with somebody else buying the drinks, he swears that this Somebody Charlie had an iron grip; there was no resisting him.
“I don’t know,” said Bobby. “You don’t seem like your old self.”
“Why, Bobby, what an odd thing to say.”
Having been ushered out into the hallway, Bobby stopped and looked back at the closed door. He tried the knob and found that the door was now locked. He knocked for a bit but nobody answered. Then from inside the apartment, he heard Charlie scream, “Bobb-eeee!”
Bobby lifted his right leg and was just about to kick in the door when he heard something hit it on the other side so hard that it loosened the woodwork. Plaster dust drifted down from the ceiling like snow. Bobby lifted his leg again but stopped when he saw blood start to seep out from under the door into the hallway. Then, as Bobby stared transfixed, leg still in the air, the blood no longer seeped, but actually flowed for a few seconds. Two teeth that were mixed into the blood sailed out from underneath the door like two tiny ships on a placid crimson ocean. Bobby slowly lowered his leg and quietly started down the hall toward the stairs.
When he got down to the street Bobby used his cell phone to call 911. “Send some cops to 1452 Elm Street right away; I think somebody’s gettin’ murdered.” The 911 operator asked him to stay on the line trying to get more details, but it wasn’t very long before Bobby could hear the wail of the sirens so he hung up. Three black and whites pulled up in the street and six officers ran up to Bobby.
“Upstairs, fourth floor, apartment 3; my friend Charlie’s in trouble. He’s either hurt real bad or maybe even dead.”
Four of the officers ran into the building with their guns drawn. The other two stayed with Bobby and started asking questions. While they were talking to him, something happened that Bobby never mentions when he’s telling the story. The cops had their backs to the building and Bobby saw himself walk out the front door, down the front walk, and then turn to go down the street. As this Somebody Bobby walked past Bobby and the two cops, he nodded and smiled at Bobby giving him an exaggerated wink. Blood was spattered all over his face and all over the white T-shirt and jeans that that Bobby had last seen Charlie wearing. The cops never missed a beat; they just kept talking to Bobby like they never even saw the Somebody Bobby.
“There’s a helluva lot of blood up there by the door, but there’s nobody in that apartment,” said one of the returning officers. “The other guys are starting with the apartments on the first floor and moving up. They should come up with something.”
“Is there a back door to this place?” asked one of the officers who had stayed with Bobby.
Bobby wanted to yell at him, “He walked right past ya, asshole!”, but instead just mumbled, “I don’t know; I don’t live here.”
The cops took Bobby downtown, listened skeptically to his story two or three times for an hour or more and finally told him not to leave town. Right then, there was nothing Bobby wanted to do more than to leave town. Something very strange had happened at Charlie’s place and he didn’t want that “something” to happen to him. Just by the action of grabbing his biceps the Somebody Charlie had been able to morph himself into Somebody Bobby.
He kept the story to himself for a couple of weeks, but gradually came to see that it could be good for a few beers and now he tells it every chance he gets. But when Bobby gets to the end of the story, he has his own reasons he doesn’t tell the part about the Somebody Bobby passing him and the two cops on the street. To him, that would be like tempting fate; jinxing himself. He ends it with the cop saying that there was nobody in Charlie’s apartment. Bobby then throws in some dialog that could have come right out of The Brothers Grimm.
“…..and I never saw my buddy, Charlie, again.”
The storm knocked out the neighborhood’s power. It was still raining the next day as Eddie and I drove through the old folk’s trailer park. Tree branches littered front yards, and the gutters overflowed with runoff and debris. The elderly residence sat under eaves on their front porches, waiting for the restoration of electricity. At the last trailer on the block an old lady sat alone in a rocking chair, knitting a quilt.
“Her,” Eddie said.
I turned the corner, and parked the van.
I first met Eddie in Juvenile Hall. He was my cellmate. Like me, his youth was spent in abusive foster homes. Eddie landed in Juvie as a result of his violent tendencies. I gained residency in the Hall for borrowing other kid’s video game consoles. I didn’t think it was a problem, but apparently appropriating something from a locked house with nobody home was a no-no.
Eddie was a massive hulking giant with an exceptionally small head, a limp and a harelip. The other kids in the Hall mocked him obsessively about his large stature, tiny head and goofy walk until he started cracking skulls. After that, nobody messed with him.
I was an average kid of normal height and build with one exception: A shock of white hair blazed across the left side of my black locks. Everybody called me Skunk and ostracized me, but it wasn’t until puberty that I really attained freak status.
Most kids have acne in adolescence, but one morning I woke up, and oozing red boils had colonized the entire surface of my face. Real estate was especially desirable on my nose. My carbuncular appearance made me the ridicule of every schoolyard I hallowed. In Juvie, Eddie stuck up for me. If my bubbly face offended some kid, Eddie offended the kid’s face with his fists. After Juvenile Hall, the plundering wens disappeared as mysteriously as they had arrived, leaving my head a pockmarked moon.
Our socially unacceptable physical appearances, and our similar experiences growing up in shitty foster homes initially bonded us while doing time together, but it was grifting that solidified our camaraderie. Released from incarceration around the same time, we split the rent on a dumpy apartment. Stealing video game cartages from Wal-Mart, and hocking them at the used video game stores was our initial source of income. We made rent with this line of work for several months until the venture ceased being lucrative. Our next endeavor entailed rolling drunks after the bars let out, and again our enterprise kept a roof overhead until Eddie got a little too rough with a drunkard one night, shattering the poor bastard’s teeth with a ball-peen hammer.
It was a rotten thing to do, but I figured nobody cared enough about an alky’s dental work to cause a stink. I was wrong. The incident made the evening news. They even broadcast sketches of the suspects. The profiles looked nothing like us. I don’t know how you screw that up because a haggard skunk and a giant with a baby’s head are sights you don’t soon forget. I attribute the misidentification to luck, but regardless of our good fortune, the gig was up, and we were forced to seek other means of gainful employment.
We sat in the van, eating a cold pizza. I didn’t like the look in Eddie’s eye, and I certainly didn’t like what he’d done to the last old lady we’d marked. I meant to have a chat with him, but I never got around to it. I finished my half of the ductile pie, and pulled a dark work cap low over my brow, obscuring my hair and face. I exited the van into the rain, wearing a denim shirt and khaki pants with a flashlight in my pocket. Eddie stayed put, washing his pizza down with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. When I reached the old lady’s porch, the rocking chair was empty.
“Who’s there?” an old woman’s voice asked from within after I knocked on the front door.
“Electric company,” I said.
“Power’s been out all day,” the voice replied, and the door cracked as much as the chain allowed. “There was a loud crash last night, and the lights went out.”
“Lines down all over town,” I said. “I’m here to restore your juice. Can I come in?”
“You’re with the electric company?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re going door to door.”
“I don’t know,” the voice hesitated.
“It’ll be several days to a week before we can get you back on the grid if you miss this appointment.”
“Okay,” the warbling voice said, and the door opened.
I switched on my flashlight, and entered the darkened living room. A couch and a table stacked with quilts occupied the space. There was also a recliner, and an old television set. Embroidered kitsch hung on the walls, and a framed certificate of sobriety. A musty smell lingered in the air.
“Where’s the breaker panel?” I asked, and the old woman led me down the hall to a closet.
The tiny walk-in was filled with quilts. Various intricate patterns and colors adorned the folded blankets. She removed a stack, revealing a metal box in the wall. I pointed my light at the breaker switches, and rubbed my stubbly chin.
“I’ll have your lights on in no time.”
“Oh good,” she said.
“It’s an easy fix, but it requires a fifty-dollar down payment.”
“Fifty dollars,” she said, wrinkling her brow and wringing her hands.
“Hold on,” she said, and disappeared into the bedroom. I stood still, listening to a drawer open and close. She returned with a fifty-dollar bill. I stuffed Grant into my pocket, and flipped the breakers on and off.
“Where’s your husband?” I asked.
“Passed away,” she said.
“Sorry to hear that. I left my voltmeter in the truck. I need it to check your current. Be right back.”
Normally, I’d just take the money, and move on to the next sucker, but old people don’t trust banks. They tend to keep their savings squirreled away in their homes. Not to mention, I didn’t even know what a voltmeter was, or how to use one, but I sounded like I did.
“How’d it go?” Eddie asked as I climbed into the van.
“As expected,” I said, and flashed the fifty-dollar bill. “She’s alone, and keeps her money hidden in her bedroom.”
“Dentures?” Eddie asked.
“Let’s go,” I said, ignoring the question. “She thinks I went to get a tool.”
I grabbed my loaded snub-nosed .38 from the glove compartment, and put it in my pocket. I wasn’t expecting trouble, but I wasn’t taking chances either. We exited the van, and made our way through the rain. I wished Eddie would at least try not to limp. If somebody saw us, and had to give our descriptions to the authorities, a giant with a hitch substantially drained the pool of suspects.
The door was still unlocked, so we switched on our flashlights, and entered the living room. I tried to tell the old lady I brought along a co-worker, but before I could say anything, Eddie knocked her to the floor.
Eddie was never really in it for the money. He enjoyed making people suffer. I came to this realization back when we rolled drunks. My interest was strictly financial, but Eddie delighted in blackening an eye, breaking a bone, or powdering some poor bastard’s teeth. Fortunately most old ladies we conned were toothless, but regardless, I needed to rein Eddie in before we lost another form of employment.
“Lighten up,” I said. “She’s frangible.”
“Grab the dough,” Eddie barked.
I went into the old lady’s bedroom, and pointed my flashlight at an oak dresser, removing drawers, and turning them upside down. The top ones contained clothes, and the bottom ones were filled with more colorful quilts. I rifled through everything, but found no money. I was about to check under the bed when I heard Eddie swearing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, running back into the living room.
“She’s got an emergency alert device around her neck,” he said. “I saw her push the button. We better dip before the cops show.”
“We’re safe,” I said. “The power’s out. She can’t notify anybody.”
“I don’t like it,” Eddie said, and removed the electronic pendant from her neck. “You get the money?”
“I’m still looking,” I said, and returned to the bedroom.
I tore apart the bed, and searched under the frame, finding more quilts. I pointed the flashlight at a nightstand, and removed the drawer. I discovered a leather satchel, opened it, and hit the jackpot, locating several thick bundles of cash. I snatched the money, stashing it in my pockets as something else inside the bag caught my eye.
I trained my flashlight on an old yellowing photograph. The image was of a young boy. He looked about three years old. He had a toy ball in one hand and a water pistol in the other, and Band-Aids taped to both knees. A small streak of white hair marked the left side of his head.
I paid special attention to the boy’s facial features. His smiling eyes were completely ignorant of the horrors that lay ahead. I ran my fingers over my scarred visage, gazing at the child’s smooth complexion until a mournful sound drew my attention away from the picture.
I returned to the living room, and pointed my flashlight at Eddie. He stood over the old lady with his pants around his ankles.
“Give me a minute,” he said, looking back with a sneer.
The old lady was on the floor, crying. I drew my .38, and shot Eddie in the back of his tiny head. His massive body crumpled, and blood gushed from the wound.
I pointed the flashlight at the old lady.
“Don’t hurt me,” she said.
I pocketed the gun, and turned the flashlight onto my face, removing my ball cap, and revealing the shock of white hair against my blackened coiffure.
“Skunky-Poo?” She asked in bewilderment.
I helped her to her feet as the front door opened, and a police officer with a drawn service revolver ordered me to put up my hands, and get down on the ground. I lay on the floor, realizing the crucial mistake I’d made: the emergency alert device ran on batteries.
I had hoped to beat the rap on those home invasions, but fingerprints don’t lie. Fortunately I wasn’t charged with Eddie’s murder, or I’d be facing twenty-five to life. The judge at my trial deemed it self-defense. My return to incarceration has been hard, especially without Eddie there to protect me, but I can’t complain. It could be worse. At least I have one of mom’s hand stitched quilts to keep me warm at night in my prison cell.
In the early 1980s, in the USSR, the monstrosity that was the Soviet state had already begun to die, but it hadn’t yet started its death rattle. Among the millions of dissidents, the KGB had imprisoned an angry, slightly talented poet of little note. Ivan Ratchikakhov became an enemy of the Soviet state merely because he voiced his dislike for it.
This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Ivan liked nothing, ever, and Ratchikakhov was a bad poet. His poetry failed to resonate with anyone, other than the very angry, and inconsolably frustrated. Among his problems was that he lacked empathy. He was unfamiliar, and thus inarticulate when trying to express human emotion of any description, except anger. He had the anger thing down pat, and in spades.
When the Soviet Union crumbled, ending the Cold War, the gulags jettisoned their dissidents, setting them loose to pursue their happiness in a new, free Russia. That presented a dual problem for Ratchikakhov. His angry poetry was now quite pointless, and he had absolutely no idea what happiness was. With no income, Ratchikakhov emigrated to Brooklyn, where he found work as a porter in his building. There he married and had a son, Gustav.
Given his unlikability, and utter lack of potential for anything other than menial labor, it wasn’t long before Ivan’s anger morphed into blazing resentment. He resented how his life turned out. He resented the fact that he had to live it in a land he would not have chosen. Rather than being grateful for having a roof over his head, and steady employment to keep it there, Ratchikakhov resented everyone he perceived as being responsible for the fact. In his bitter and limited imagination, that would be everybody. The two people nearest at hand to bear this resentment were of course his wife and son. He expressed his disappointment most frequently to his wife and son with a cruelty and brutality unmatched by anything other than its consistency.
Ratchikakhov’s wife, Mariyah, bore it until Gustav was six. Then she fled back to Saint Petersburg, leaving her son to fend for himself. The boy was tough. Years of cruelty will do that to anyone. But, all young Gustav knew was pain. So much so, that it lost its significance. Nothing he did had any effect on the amount, frequency or severity of the torment. It was constant, and yet somehow random. Savagery absorbed without limit or reason, soon became understood by Gustav as a normal condition of life. His only ambition was to one day be the inflictor; as opposed to the target.
Gustav’s own capacity for cruelty began to develop when he was young, first torturing neighbors’ pets. When that failed to satisfy him, he started killing them, in more and more elaborate ways. He experimented with fire. Gustav found the screams enjoyable, but it lacked the satisfaction of cutting or bludgeoning. He was after a motif to satisfy his blood-lust. He was looking for something to make the act of the destruction of another living being, all his own.
While in elementary school, Gustav naturally graduated to bullying. Bigger than the other children his age, what distinguished him from his peers was his willingness to inflict all manner of pain on others. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. He was only limited by his imagination. The bullying had the effect of helping Gustav expand upon that. He liked the fear he inspired in his classmates. High School became a laboratory for his developing viciousness. He hurt a lot of people. He also picked up a nickname. Because of his penchant for violence, and his Russian heritage, he became known as Red Gus. He embraced the name, and the concept.
This burgeoning talent for violence, coupled with Gustav’s utter void of human compassion, soon drew the notice of a local loan shark. Gustav was hired as a Mob collector. This was an over-reach. Because of his legendary lack of compunction, Gustav seldom left his clients with the ability to work. He could not understand that the goal was to scare the victim. If you crippled them, they couldn’t pay anything. His failure facilitated his ascension to the vocation he was meant for.
Sabato Melchiore was the Capo of the Genovese family in Bushwick. He had a use for Gustav. He offered him a job.
“I notice you like to hurt people. Ever think about killing them?”
“All the time. Bill collecting sucked. What’s the point?”
“I think the point is to leave them well enough to go to work, so they can pay their debts. I have something less frustrating, and not nearly as nuanced. Sometimes, I need to make someone dead. I need it public, and messy. I’m sending a message as much as anything else. Interested?”
“Sure,” Gustav didn’t hesitate.
“Don’t you want to know what it pays?”
“You’re going to pay me?” Gustav asked with wonder.
So began Gustav’s career as a hit man. He was good at it, and he loved the work. So well, that he began free-lancing. He started selling himself for short money to anyone that wanted someone dead. He was doing so much wet-work, that he was on the verge of killing more people than cancer. His blood-lust was insatiable, but there was a point to all of this mayhem. Gustav was in search of that one method of murder that he could call his own. He thought he found it when he took that contract from Jimmy Gutless Ciocio. Gustav became more concerned with perfecting his craft, than with his due-diligence. The opportunity to kill blinded him to the huge gaps in the background information the client provided him. Other than the fact that the girl was Ciocio’s ex-girlfriend, he knew nothing about her.
In his quest for the perfect method of murder, Gustav discovered there is nothing as satisfying as the sound of a hatchet being buried in a living skull. It feels good too, he admitted. Like making perfect contact on the sweet spot of the baseball bat. You don’t even feel it. It’s the same with a hatchet and a head.
He was glad he learned to look at his victims’ faces, because it was worth it. They would get that Oh shit look, accompanied by the sound of their bowels giving way in a liquid splat. The uncontrollable twitching, Gustav found amusing as fuck. I really like this method, he thought.
Every hitter had a signature; that one method that was their own. This one was Gustav’s. He used it until he thought he had elevated it to an art form. But his growing fascination led to over-use. Over-use leads to mistakes. The rising blood-lust prevented Gustav from appreciating as much. Other than the exhilaration of snatching the life right out of his many victims, Gustav had trouble appreciating anything.
So he definitely didn’t appreciate the irony of the position he was in at the moment. He had made a canoe of the head of his boss’s niece. He hadn’t known she was Sabato Melchiore’s god-daughter. When the naked and broken body of Celine Abandondo showed up on Decatur Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue, with her head caved in, Melchiore was briefly distraught. When he composed himself, he knew instantly who he had to speak with. Jimmy Ciocio was called Gutless for a reason. Even though his own death was already a certainty, he rolled over on Gustav within seconds.
That is how Gustav Ratchikakhov found himself tied to a chair in a filthy Bushwick basement. The feel of his own urine, warm and spreading down from his lap, pooling at his feet, brought Gustav into intimate contact with the fear had had inflicted upon so many others. When Melchiore picked up the dull hatchet, swinging the tool to get the feel of it, Gustav was forced to concede; I really don’t like this method of murder at all. It was the very last thing he ever thought.