Category Archives: James Shaffer

Family First

I held her hand as we walked up the aisle of the church. We stopped at the front some distance from the coffin. The organ’s dirge reverberated in the vaulted sanctuary. I looked back over my shoulder. It was a sunny day. The muted colours from the stained glass windows shimmered across the heads of the congregation like a bed of hot coals. Most of the heads were bowed. Sobbing came from the front pew. There’s no consolation. I know. In the grand scheme of things, parents should outlive their children. It should be some kind of rule. I reached down and lifted my daughter Jessica onto my shoulder. For a moment, I stood in place, then I turned.

+++++Maureen worked at the local QuikMart. She stocked shelves, did the ordering, and supervised the check-outs. She’d been there three years. They told her that if she proved herself over the coming year, she’d be manager. She believed their promises. We both believed them so, to prove herself, she worked longer hours per day and took little time off. She loved her job. Now, all we had to do was wait for the company to come through.

+++++I couldn’t find work. I’d been looking for months but less and less as the weeks progressed, as we got closer to the end of Maureen’s trial year. If the job came through, I wouldn’t have to work again. That meant I got to stay home with Jessica. It was good for me and for Jessica and for Maureen, too. We both loved our jobs. The situation suited us both.

+++++Maureen was always looking outward, looking for the next challenge, hopping up on the next rung of the ladder, broadening her horizons. She had the personality and the smarts to go with it, not to mention her beauty. Men stopped and stared and turned, following her with their eyes. She strolled down the street with the sure-footed confidence of a seasoned runway model. She wasn’t aware of it and she wasn’t self conscious. It was just her way, who she was. She was a self-made entrepreneur. I was proud of her. If anyone deserved her own store, it was Maureen.

+++++I was the guy who liked closed doors, preferably locked. When home, the picket fence was my outer border, the grass I cut and flowers I watered, my territory, the area I policed. That’s not to say I didn’t venture out. Jessica was my charge, my responsibility in my territory, and my responsibility wherever we went together. Going to the park was a daily routine, and on the way back, an ice cream cone, a slice of pizza, a burger at the local fast-food joint. Sometimes we’d stop by the auto repair shop where Carl, one of my buddies from the Marines worked. I tried to make the most of our time together.

+++++I’d been trained as a high-level mechanic in the Marines. My speciality was damage control. I’d been away for three long years serving my country, fighting a war we’d never stop fighting and one it seemed we’d never win. Maureen and I agreed when I returned that I’d done my part. Now, it was her turn. It suited us, doing the jobs we both loved. It was all working out just fine.

+++++Until it wasn’t.

+++++It was mid-afternoon on a weekday. Jessica and I were watching a movie together, her favourite, Charlotte’s Web, when I heard a car pull into the driveway. I got up from the sofa, took two steps to the window, and parted the curtains. It was Maureen’s company car. Just then the door burst open.

+++++“Donnie! Donnie!” She was shouting my name.

+++++“Jessica. Put on your headphones.” I watched her slip on the headphones. I stepped out into the hallway. Maureen was shouting up the stairs.

+++++“Maureen,” I said. At the sound of her name she turned and stomped over to me till she was standing close, in my face like a Parris Island drill instructor. Her eyes were red and wide.

+++++“They’re…” Tense and trembling, she started over.

+++++“They’re. Giving. The job. To the owner’s son.” A tear escaped the corner of her left eye and slid down the side of her cheek.

+++++“What?” I asked. I stepped away from her.

+++++She seemed to rally and brushed the tear from her cheek. “I have to go back for a meeting.

+++++They’re going to tell me how I fit into the scheme of things now. I just had to come home and tell you.”

+++++“After all the hours you’ve put in, all the hard work. What the fuck is going on?”

+++++“Shhh…Jessica will hear you.”

+++++“She’s watching a movie. Got her headphones on.”

+++++“It’s a family run business. Why I liked it. No corporate bullshit. But…family first, they told me.”

+++++Maureen went back to the store. I sat down next to Jessica on the sofa and worked out a plan. I called my buddy, Carl.

+++++Maureen called me an hour later and asked me to pick her up. She had to leave the company car at the store. They were giving it to the son. I got Jessica ready and we drove to the store. They were “giving” Maureen the assistant manager position.

+++++I dropped them off back at the house. I told Maureen I was going for a drink. Instead, I drove to the auto repair shop. Carl had left me the key.

+++++I could hear the priest swinging the chain censer as I turned into our pew behind the family. Maureen scooted over to give us a place to sit. The store owner’s son had been killed in a gruesome car accident, burned beyond recognition. The fire had burned hot and fast due to the several cases of paint thinner he’d had in the boot. The casket was closed.

+++++Maureen got the managerial job, her very own store.

+++++I got Jessica.

+++++Family first.

It’s Not The Pale Moon

It was early November, evening, cold, but no snow predicted. Ellie sat in her chair by the window and watched a full moon rise in an already darkening sky, its mottled surface scarred by a web of black branches at the top of a tree that grew in the garden. A draft of air nudged the edge of the window, rattling the pane and puffing out the curtain. She pulled her blanket tighter across her legs and closed the top button of her sweater, never taking her eyes off the rising moon.

+++++“Earl,” she called. “Earl, come on over here. Look at this moon. Ain’t it a sight? Come on. Put your arms around me like you used to.”

+++++She could almost feel his arms around her. Almost.

+++++“Remember how you used to hold me? How we watched the moon together. Coming up full and bright like now. Oh, we used to love it. didn’t we?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer. But she thought she could hear him.

+++++“Yes. It’s lovely. Just like we were. Remember? Holding each other, loving each other.”

+++++She smiled at the memory. She stared at the moon.

+++++“Loving our Cathy.”

+++++Then it slipped. Fell from her face. From her eyes.

+++++“You always thought she was a beauty. She was, wasn’t she?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer.

+++++“She was, wasn’t she?”

+++++Earl didn’t answer.

+++++The moon retreated behind a cloud.

+++++Ellie backed away from the window.

+++++“I saw you, Earl. I saw you leaning over Cathy’s bed. You didn’t hear me, did you?”

+++++Earl was silent.

+++++“I watched you, Earl. The full moon outlined your dark, huddled shape. A crouched monster. You have nothing to say for yourself?”

+++++Earl remained silent.

+++++“I slammed that phone book so hard up the side of your head. Surprised you, didn’t I? Knocked you clean off that bed. Cathy screamed. You remember?”

+++++He couldn’t answer.

+++++“You hit your head on the corner of the night stand. Right in the temple. I didn’t plan it. But I couldn’t have planned it better. Trust me, Earl. You’re better off. I would have killed you.”

+++++She looked up. Moonlight painted a window shape on the carpet. She moved closer to the light. Looked up at the moon just escaping the tips of the garden tree’s dark branches. No longer a prisoner behind bars. Free now to forge its path through a clear, star-filled sky.

+++++Ellie backed away from the window. She turned. She wheeled her chair through the doorway and down the hall to their room.

+++++She pushed open the door and entered.

+++++Their room offered no view of the moon. She wheeled her chair up next to her bed, locked the wheels, and shifted herself onto the bed’s firm mattress. She lay back on the pillow and lifted her legs up and over so her body was aligned on the bed. Her bathrobe covered her like a thin blanket. She glanced over at the bed beside her.

+++++The constant sucking rhythm of the respirator was like a lullaby. Tubes and needles, a comfort. The monitor displayed a reassuring normal pulse and blood pressure.

+++++The comatose Earl was still holding on, alive and as well as could be expected.

+++++Ellie listened to the breathing machine, watched the green peaks and valleys on the monitor. They made her feel good. Earl couldn’t hurt anyone any more. But just in case.

+++++“I’m watchin’ you, Earl. You bastard. As long as you’re alive, I’m keepin’ you near me, real close.”

Eyes Closed

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

***

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

***

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

 ***

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

***

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

***

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

The Brass Redemption

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

 

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

So Into You

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

Entry 11 – The Red Pencil

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

I first saw him at Feldman Publishing where I worked as a reader. Liam Starkey stood a head above the gaggle of editors surrounding him. It seemed tall men always succeeded. They looked down on everyone else, and everyone else—out of necessity or admiration—looked up to them. I was five foot seven. Even at that height, I’d have to bend over to kiss his ring or any other part in that general vicinity the rank of a new author dictated. I sound jealous. No, I wasn’t jealous. I had no reason to be jealous. I’d read the first draft of his novel.
+++++At first reading, I realised the ideas were there. I just had to dig them out of the pages with my red pencil. My editor, Karen, let me do that. She liked me, and she liked my red pencil. It had taken me a while to bring her round to my way of working, but when I did, she realised in the end it made her job easier. I was good with my pencil, and I liked to think she loved me for it; but maybe it was just a reader’s wishful thinking.
+++++I went at the second reading of Liam’s draft feverishly like a man locked in a fitful dream. I was a pirate with a peg leg, a sharpened, red pencil and the promise of gold where X marked the spot on ye olde treasure map. When the parrot on my shoulder squawked, “Aye, there’s a nugget”, I circled it with my red pencil. When he chirped, “Scuttle the rest, matey,” pages fell to the floor. The parrot and I worked long into the night on that draft, prying loose the nuggets, making a bonfire of the dregs. Feeding the flames kept us warm till morning when I handed the “still-smouldering”, marked-up copy to Karen. She flipped through the pages. She couldn’t help herself. She chortled when she saw the red slash marks across some of the pages. Knowing she held something akin to a weapon she’d use in the afternoon editors meeting, she softly touched my arm and looked me in the eye.
+++++“Thank you, Nathan,” she said. “Really. Thank you.” I knew a kiss was out of the question in the public arena. “What are you doing tonight?”
+++++“Sticking pins in my Liam Starkey doll for starters. Then, I’m free.”
+++++“Good. I think we’ll have something to celebrate later.” A certain curl shaped her lips. She had one lazy eye, but the good eye held a certain twinkle. Maybe it was the flickering fluorescents. She turned on her heel, holding the draft down by her leg like a concealed weapon and strode across the floor like a determined slasher-movie heroine bent on justice. The best part, she was my slasher-movie heroine.
+++++It was Liam’s book launch party organised by Feldman Publishing. Everyone thought his book was incisive, poignant, a masterpiece without equal. They’d read the blurbs. Some had memorized them; some had even written them. The gaggle of editors laughed and smiled, shook the freshly printed first editions at Liam with one hand and handed him a glass of champagne with the other. The giant smiled down at them, self-absorbed, taking the kudos he felt he surely deserved. If he could have patted himself on the back, he would have, but with one arm was around Karen’s waist and the other holding a flute of champagne, patting himself on the back would have been messy.
+++++I watched Liam survey the room. It seemed everyone was enjoying themselves, everyone but him. He downed his fourth glass of champagne. I watched him work the room and caught up with him as he extricated himself from the clutches of a group of enthusiastic hangers-on.
+++++“Liam?” He turned to me but stumbled back a step.
+++++“Whoa. The reader approach-eth.” His mouth still worked, but his legs wobbled.
+++++“Enjoying your party, Liam?” He back-stepped toward the terrace. He spoke to me over his shoulder.
+++++“Great party. I never imagined it would feel this way.” We arrived together in the semi-darkness at the terrace railing. Warm air crept up the side of the building thirty stories from the street below and crawled weakly over the railing. It offered little comfort on a warm night. He turned to me. “Listen, reader, I never intended to write a masterpiece.” He attempted to light a cigarette. At first the lighter wouldn’t flame; then when it did, his unsteady hand missed the end of the cigarette.
+++++“Liam, you didn’t write a masterpiece.” I snapped my lighter at him and successfully followed the bouncing cigarette. He sucked and held it in like it was a joint. Smoke drifted out of his nose and curled away in the warm air. I caught the scent. It was a joint.
+++++“You a critic or a comedian?” he asked, then tossed back the rest of his champagne. He took a final, long drag on the joint then tossed it over the terrace railing. He didn’t care where it fell, on a street bum, an ingénue or a matron of the arts. I didn’t care either. For both of us, life at ground zero was much different than life at Liam’s launch party. Geography was relative.
+++++“You have ideas, Liam, jumbled, incomplete thoughts, but you’re no writer. I’m the writer. If it weren’t for me, you’d be down there.” I pointed to the street.
+++++He stepped close and squinted down at me like I was a bug under a microscope. In spite of his size, I didn’t back off. He grabbed the front of my shirt and pushed me hard against the terrace railing.
+++++“Fuck you, reader.” He spit in my face.
+++++I plunged the sharp tip of my red pencil into the side of his neck and spun him around against the terrace railing. The bulk of his height tipped him easily over the edge. I could always depend on my red pencil.

Blood Trail

Listen instead
Listen instead

When Sheila reached Bernalillo, she shot close past the end of the eastern Sandia Range, tinted a bright, burnt orange in the setting sun’s rays. Leaving Albuquerque behind, she drove hard and fast, the only way she knew when she hit the I-25’s open road. As she headed toward Santa Fe, the northerly route drifted lazily eastward. It was a long, easy curve for a car doing 95mph through a featureless, sagebrush desert. Further to the east, the desert hardpan rose to meet the Ortiz Range caught in twilight’s distant purple haze.
+++++But Sheila didn’t see any of it. Her wrap-around Ray-Bans focused her perspective and killed the glare from the open road. In fact, they killed most everything: the light, the color, the glare and any thought beyond her destination. She’d seen it all before. She wasn’t impressed then. The I-25 was her hard-wire connection–her life line–between two points: what her life was, and what it would become when she landed on a bar stool at La Chatte Rose.
+++++Ten miles to go. In the waning light, Sheila tossed her sunglasses on the passenger seat. She punched the accelerator, keeping the needle just below the red line. That kick waited for her in Santa Fe. This was her night. She felt it.

***

It was almost dark when she parked up under a flickering streetlight. She watched its cadence, a tempo pulsing between light and dark, perched on the edge of indecision as daylight colors faded to gray.
+++++The street’s black surface held the sun’s August heat. First it warmed the soles of her sandals; then as she crossed the street, the heat climbed higher and higher. She entered the bar when it was the hottest point-at flash point.
+++++Her success rate in this bar had been good. She’d picked up a couple of women over the past months. They hadn’t seemed to mind her choice of local hotel rooms-especially when she was paying. None of them had kicked her need into overdrive, though one, a blonde, Sheila remembered fondly. She’d been just a bit shy when Sheila discovered she actually wasn’t—a blonde.
+++++She took a seat at the circular bar and ordered a margarita. The bartender brought her drink and set it on a hot-pink napkin, the trademark color of La Chatte Rose.
+++++“Thanks,” Sheila said.
+++++“I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I? I’m Janine.” The bartender was friendly, doing her job.
+++++“Sheila.” They touched hands. “Yeah, been here a few times. I like it. Nice and… friendly?” Sheila suggested.
+++++“We aim to please. You local?”
+++++“Albuquerque. I come up here for the culture.”
+++++“Well, we got that, and more.” She smiled back and winked.
+++++“I’m counting on the more, Janine.”
+++++“Hope you get lucky, Sheila.” She blew Sheila a kiss.
+++++“Me too. Thanks.” She watched as the friendly Janine left to serve another drink.
+++++The disco on the floor below was just gearing up when a tall, well-coiffed brunette stepped into the bar. Statuesque, some would have called her. Sheila called her perfect. She casually circled the bar. Sheila watched her prowl. A head above the rest, leggy, full-lipped, she was maxied and minied in all the right places. As she passed behind, she dragged the tips of her fingernails so lightly across Sheila’s shoulders she thought maybe she imagined it. Even imagining it made her shiver. The brunette squeezed into the seat next to her and in greeting, placed a hand on Sheila’s thigh inside the slit of her skirt.
+++++“I bet you’re looking for something special tonight?” Her voice was smooth and soft like the ripple of her fingertips on Sheila’s thigh. Sheila was ready for something special. “I know I am. My name’s Karen, by the way.”
+++++“Sheila.” She placed a warm hand over Karen’s on her thigh. “I’d love something special, Karen,” Sheila said.
+++++Karen reached over with her free hand, lifted the glass and took a sip of Sheila’s margarita. Sheila didn’t mind. She was in the sharing mood.
+++++“I don’t mind sharing, but can I get you a drink?” Sheila asked.
+++++“I love margaritas.”
+++++“Me too. Janine?” As Janine turned, Sheila raised her hand and pointed to the margarita and held up one finger. “What do you do, Karen?”
+++++“I’m a stewardess.”
+++++“You’ve been to a lot of exotic places, I bet,” Sheila said, imagining exotic places, maybe imagining later. Karen’s drink arrived. She took a sip before answering.
+++++“Lot’s of hotel rooms in exotic places. Not much time to explore. I like exploring.” She smiled at Sheila. The back of her hand brushed the inside of Sheila’s thigh, exploring the possibilities. Her eyes posed the question.
+++++Sheila understood. She was a quick learner. The roving hand on her thigh helped. Karen leaned over and whispered in her ear.
+++++“Lets get out of here.”

***

Karen undressed her in the darkened hotel room. Standing behind, she eased the spaghetti straps of La Perla easily down Sheila’s arms. The silky fabric hesitated, caught for a moment on her erect nipples; then it fell with a metallic zing around her ankles to join her panties. Sheila stepped outside everything and turned to Karen.
+++++She held the blade close to her leg. She’d let it fall into the palm of her hand when she removed her blouse. She liked them naked. They were vulnerable when they were naked. Only skin–soft, warm, penetrable.
+++++She moved up close, reached up and touched her hair. It was soft and pliable, natural, genuine, just like her. She pushed it behind her ear then slid her hand down behind her neck and pulled her face and lips close. The tip of her tongue pushed through her moist lips. The invite was eagerly returned.
+++++The scent of her perfume was something she’d always remember. After she did the cutting, she always remembered. She was a perfume expert. She’d made a list: Chanel No. 5, Charlie, CK Be, Azarro Pour Elle, Agent Provocateur Fatale (her favorite). She’d just added a new one, Paradiso by Alberto Cavalli. Those scents brought back such memories. They say the olfactory sense is one of the strongest, but for her, the coppery scent of fresh blood was only the second to it, like putting a penny on your tongue. Taste and smell were connected sensual pleasures.

***

She found her cold car on the street where she’d left it. Her return to earth was a curved line down I-25 toward Albuquerque. She slowly descended like a parachutist feeling the sure pull of gravity. The sky brightened. The sun rose in the east and colored the edge of the Santa Ana Mesa a burnt orange. The ancient lava flow of the mesa had hardened at the edge of the Rio Grande and left a formidable wall of rock and sand that ascended from the river valley to the mesa’s top high above. It was an impressive tableau, still and silent in its inherent beauty.
+++++Karen could almost smell the beauty. For some, life was beautiful.

Love Will Find A Way

A heavy downpour left the empty street slick and shot with light. Joe sheltered out of sight in a dark corner of the hotel’s entranceway waiting for the last shower to pass. He checked the street and then his watch. The taxi was late. He removed his wide-brimmed hat and thudded it against his thigh, shaking the last drops from its grey, felt surface, then fit it back on his head. A taxi appeared in the intersection at the far end of his street. It turned toward him. He pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears but stayed in his hiding place.
+++++He’d met her months before. They’d hit it off right away. They both wanted the same things. They both wanted to score big then run away and hide–together. It was their dream. So when the offer came along–fifty percent up front–Joe put the dream together like a puzzle where all the pieces fit perfectly. They’d rehearsed. She’d played the part. She was good. She was the key to the dream. Their tickets to Paris were stashed in his inside coat pocket. They were leaving tonight.
+++++The taxi pulled up in front of the hotel and stopped. He waited for the signal they’d worked out. When a lighter flickered inside the cab, he stepped out of his hiding place, strode directly to the back door and yanked it open. The light from the hotel lobby fell on a woman’s crossed legs. They were the only things visible but worth the view. She stretched out the top leg and adjusted her stocking, straightening the seam that ran up the back of her long leg all the way to the strap on her garter belt. She adjusted that too. Joe watched her. She did it for him. A plume of smoke drifted out of the cab’s back door as she leaned forward and jettisoned her cigarette in the gutter. As she stepped out, Joe grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the way as he slammed closed the taxi door. He hurried her brusquely across the sidewalk toward the hotel entrance.
+++++“Easy buddy, don’t spoil the merchandise,” she said smartly in case anyone was listening. They’d rehearsed that part.
+++++“You’re late!” he whispered intently in her ear. His breath tickled her ear and made her shiver. He could make her do a lot of things. Shiver was just one of them.
+++++“Oh sugar, don’t be that way. A girl’s got to make herself presentable. It’s our big night, n’est pas?” Her voice was low and soft and soothing. She knew it always touched some special place inside him. She liked practicing her French on him. He liked it too. It caressed more than just his ear.
+++++They pushed through the hotel doors and headed for the bank of elevators on the right side of the lobby. He still held her arm as they approached the elevator doors and kept hold till the doors opened; then he hustled her inside. He pushed the number 10 button. The doors closed. Then he released her. It was all show. She moved one step away from him in feigned disgust for the benefit of the camera mounted in the far corner above the door.
+++++Joe felt the heat rise inside his coat. He removed his hat and pinched the crease on top as he watched the floor numbers click by on the lighted panel above the door. He waited for the lines they’d practiced.
+++++“What are you supposed to be? Some kind of delivery boy?” she asked as they passed floor number four.
+++++“More like a social secretary,” Joe answered.
+++++“Must be an exciting job.” Her level of sarcasm was perfect. She was perfect.
+++++They left five.
+++++“It has its moments,” he answered.
+++++They passed by the sixth floor in silence.
+++++“You do this often?” she asked.
+++++“As little as possible. I hate the disappointment,” he said as they passed the eighth floor. She tipped her head down and smiled. She always smiled on that line. He kept his eyes on the glowing numbers above the door. His deadpan expression held nothing for the camera.
+++++At nine she asked, “What’s your name?”
+++++“Joe.”
+++++She looked up at the lighted numbers above the door.
+++++“Well, Joe, we’re here.”
+++++A bell pinged, and the elevator shuddered to a stop.
+++++“I’m Sally by the way.”
+++++He grabbed her arm and shoved her out the open door of the elevator. Keeping up appearances was important. He’d told her that.
+++++“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.”
+++++They turned right out of the elevator. The hallway on floor ten looked empty, but Joe knew it wasn’t. Someone was always watching.  Joe pulled her down to the end of the hallway and stopped in front of a closed door. He knocked hard three times never releasing her arm; then he knocked again. She looked up at him.
+++++“Wow. What’s next? A secret handshake?” she asked smartly.
+++++He looked down at her. “A thorough strip search. No secrets at all after that.”
+++++The door opened. He escorted her into the suite.
+++++“Georgie.” He spoke to the guy who’d opened the door.
+++++“Hi Joe. Long time no see.” He gave Sally the once over. He was pleased. Joe could see that.
+++++“Yeah. I’m short this month. Lucky me. Playing delivery boy again. I drew the short straw.”
+++++Except for Georgie, there was no one in the room. Joe took her to the sofa and pushed her down.
+++++“Sit,” he told her.
+++++“What is this?” She acted bothered.
+++++“What do you care? You’re being paid.” He looked down at her.
+++++“Smartass.” She looked up at him under heavy-lidded eyes as she lit another cigarette. “What about a drink?” she asked.
+++++Joe stepped over to the window and looked down. One reality ran down there with the ants and toy cars. Ten stories up, behind closed doors, this was the other one. He turned away from the window.
+++++“You act like you’re on holiday, Sally.”
+++++“It’s a hotel. Call room service. You’re the delivery boy.” She took a long draw on her cigarette and made an exaggerated flick of the ash off its end on to the carpet, never taking her eyes off him. She was convincing, Joe thought.
+++++Georgie walked over and looked at Joe.
+++++“We’d better get started. The man’s waiting,” George said.
+++++She looked up at Georgie; then she turned to Joe. Georgie moved around behind the sofa. Curious, she turned to watch Georgie.
+++++“Hey, what is this?!”
+++++She lunged from the sofa, but Georgie landed two large hands on her shoulders and yanked her back. Fierce and determined, she threw her cigarette at Joe. He dodged to one side. It sailed by his head. Georgie’s large hands encircled her neck. She stopped and sat perfectly still. Joe smiled.
+++++“I’d think in your line of work sister, cooperation would be second nature.”

 

 ***

 

She refused to show it, but he knew she was scared. Georgie could make someone feel that way. For an instant, he felt sorry for her, but they had to play it out to the end. He got back on track.
+++++“Joe, I think we need to get a move on. Can’t keep the man waiting,” said Georgie. He was anxious to get to the next part. Joe and Georgie had played this part before. That’s how the plan had started in his head. Georgie’s vice was his weak spot. Joe knew that. Georgie didn’t, and if he did, he didn’t care—he didn’t care enough.
+++++“You’re right.” He leaned in close. “Sally.” Her eyes were big and glassy. “Sally.” Joe repeated her name. “Listen.” She stopped struggling. “I have good news and bad news. You want to hear it? The good news is that we’re almost through here, and you can get on with your business. The bad news is, now Georgie is going to frisk you.” He paused for effect. “And Georgie loves his work.”
+++++Georgie had one big hand under her chin now holding her mouth closed so she couldn’t scream. She clawed at his hand. It did no good. He clamped both her wrists in his other hand. She kicked out. Joe pulled the coffee table out of range. She kicked out at nothing. Her head was bent back along the top of the sofa. He’d told her about Georgie, but telling was just one thing. She looked up at Georgie’s inverted face. Upside down, his big toothy grin looked fake, pasted on his face like a cheap Halloween mask. Georgie leaned down closer. She kept her eyes open, watching him. He kissed her on the forehead.
+++++“That’s better,” Georgie whispered.
+++++Joe got up and came around the end of the sofa as Georgie dragged her over its back and stood her up. He still had hold of her. Georgie was strong, a real brute. Joe crossed to a chair behind Georgie and sat. Georgie held her close, one hand still under her chin and his other across her chest, cupping a breast. It looked that way from Joe’s angle. Georgie turned part way toward him.
+++++“You going to help?” he asked.
+++++Joe looked at Sally’s wide, frantic eyes. She was a good actress. He believed her. It was important that Georgie believed her. He smiled at Georgie.
+++++“No. I like to watch,” Joe answered. He played his role.
+++++Georgie grinned. “Suit yourself.” He turned toward Sally.
+++++“You do exactly what I tell you. You understand?” He spoke low in Sally’s ear. When she didn’t answer, Georgie shook her. Her glistening eyes widened. She nodded then. “OK. That’s better. Not a peep.” Georgie believed her. He turned her toward the back of the sofa and let go of her chin. Joe watched as promised.
+++++“Lean down and put your hands on the back of the sofa.”  She did as she was told. “That’s it. Back up a bit. You know the drill sister. Spread your legs.”
+++++He placed a hand on the top of her back in the middle and slowly traced a path down her spine. Joe watched as her breathing changed. When Georgie reached the waistband of her skirt, his hand didn’t stop but moved down the side of her leg. He bent further over as he reached the edge of her skirt and felt her warm, stocking-clad leg take shape under his hand. He placed his free hand on the outside of her other leg and deliberately pushed her skirt upward. Joe knew it was his one pleasure, his one vice. Georgie watched the thighs of her pale, open legs slowly appear. He was doing his magic act. Joe watched Georgie until the time was right. Georgie fell to one knee. He was about to pull the rabbit out of the hat. It was the moment. Joe took his cue.
+++++He pulled a knife from his pocket, jumped from the chair and plunged it twice into the side of Georgie’s neck directly into the jugular. He then rapped him hard in the temple with the butt of the knife handle. Released, Sally ran to the far side of the room to avoid the blood spray. She had to stay clean. It wasn’t over for her yet.
+++++Joe watched–they both watched—as George shuddered and tried to claw his way back to consciousness, but he was too far gone, bleeding and then dead in only a few minutes. His blood soaked the carpet.
+++++Sally strode over to Joe and slapped him. He put a hand to his cheek and stepped back surprised.
+++++“What was that for!”
+++++“I can’t believe you let this animal paw me like that!” She was in a huff. She wasn’t acting now.
+++++“What do you mean?  He’s dead!  What more could I do to him? Besides, I told you about Georgie.”
+++++She walked over and nudged Georgie with the toe of her shoe; then she kicked him hard. Georgie didn’t mind. Joe didn’t mind either.
+++++“Yeah, you told me. You did good, Joe.” Sally was still staring down at Georgie.
+++++“OK. Let’s finish the job. We can talk about this later. What do you say?” asked Joe trying to make amends. Joe wasn’t looking forward to that conversation. She’d been humiliated.
+++++Joe pulled her own switchblade from his coat pocket and handed it to her. He cleaned off his own knife with a linen napkin from the room service cart. No guns. He told her. He didn’t like guns. He had his principles.
+++++“Ready?” he asked.
+++++They walked together over to an adjoining room door and stopped. The man who summoned her, the man she was about to kill, waited on the other side.
+++++“It might take me a while. Some things can’t be rushed,” she said matter-of-factly. It was just one of the things he liked about her. She took her time. He understood.
+++++“Take all the time you need, sweetheart. We’ll be on a plane to Paris tonight, and tomorrow morning we’ll have croissants at a café on Place St. Michel. What do you say?” He was such a romantic, all work and all play. She liked that about him. He knew what she liked.
+++++“You sure know how to show a girl a good time, monsieur.” Her lips formed a slight smile; then she kissed him. Maybe all was forgiven. He could hope.
+++++He opened the door on their side, knocked on the adjoining door and called out.
+++++“She’s ready for you, Mr. Carlson.”
+++++“About time too!” he answered in a thin, impatient voice. Some people just can’t wait to die, Joe thought.
+++++Sally pushed open the door and stepped past Joe into the room. The door was left open enough so Joe could watch. She stopped part way into the room, looked to her left and smiled warmly at her unsuspecting prey; then she reached behind and unbuttoned her skirt. It skimmed over her hips and slipped silently to the floor. She stepped out of the puddle of skirt and turned toward the window, her back to the old man who waited in the shadows. As she did, she unhooked her bra. The straps slipped off her shoulders. She turned to Joe and winked. He winked back, and as he pulled the door quietly closed, he imagined he heard the far-off strains of a Paris melody.