He was just waiting, standing in the park, staring up at the window he knew so well and waiting–for what? A light, her face, a sign from the heavens? Everybody’s waiting for something: chips and pie, pie in the sky, a windfall from their uncle dying, a lottery win, fame and fortune and oh, honey, if you just put your head out the window and saw me standing here, he thought, you would know I’m the one.
But she never looked even though he stood here too many nights and someone was bound to report him as a perv or potential kiddie fiddler, but her presence drew him here like a junkie to his fix. He just needed a sign.
“Well, what have we got here?”
He spun around. Of all the people you’d not want to meet in the dark in the park or with a fox or in your socks at the top of the list had to be Graham and Dave Crewe. Only nobody called them that, just called them “those motherfuckers” because there wasn’t much more you could say about them that didn’t capture it all. There was bad and there was mad and then there was the Crewes.
“Looks like we caught a peeping Tom,” Dave said, as Graham nodded sagely.
“We don’t like peeping, Tom.” Dave clapped a large hand down on his shoulder and he felt his body shake from the weight of it.
He considered what he might say that wouldn’t arouse a fit of random violence, but found himself tongue-tied. Before he could make a decision, Dave threw his head back and laughed like a hyena.
“Only jokin’!” He thrust his big face right up close. “Or am I?” Then leaned back for a further explosion of mirth. “Truth is, we’re lucky we ran into you, lad. Isn’t that right Graham?”
Graham grunted, staring off into space.
“We need a third man, Tom,” Dave said confidentially. “Your lucky night.”
The-man-who-would-be-Tom did not feel especially lucky. He attempted to conceal his alarm at the turn of events. “What for?”
“We have a little work to do and a third pair of eyes would come in handy just now.” Dave grinned like a crocodile. “Do I speak the truth, Graham?”
Graham snorted and then spat onto the pavement. It probably meant he agreed.
“Come along then, Thomas. We’ve got work to do.” And he found himself hustled along between the two giant brothers. Dave kept up a steady stream of random opinions on the papers, the state of the country, the many failings of Wayne Rooney and the price of lager these days. Graham spat occasionally.
Before long they arrived at a small grocers, shuttered for the night, snug as a bug in a rug. An old-style chalkboard still bore the prices of yesterday’s produce neatly written in rounded letters. “Keep an eye on the street,” Dave warned, his huge paw gripping Tom’s shoulder again. “We don’t want no surprises, right?” A warning pinch threatened to dislocate his arm from its socket.
“Right,” he said, feeling his heart leap into his throat.
He stood on the pavement and watched as the brothers went to work. Graham pulled out a bolt cutter from inside his jacket and it bit through the puny lock. They rolled up the gate and Dave elbowed the glass pane above the handle and reached in to unlock the door. “Old school,” he chortled with obvious pleasure. “Not many of these left anymore.”
The brothers went in and at once sounds of mayhem ensued. Panic made him twitch on the quiet street, too afraid to run off, but nervous about sticking around. He winced at the sound of metal smashing glass. Were they just busting up the joint or did they have looting in mind also? Odd, attacking a grocer’s.
A light drew his eye up. A face appeared at a window and for a moment he almost wanted to imagine it was his girl, but of course it wasn’t. An old woman looked down at him in the dark. He put a finger to his lips, cautioning her to silence.
She threw up the sash. “What’s going on?”
He threw up his hands and tried to signal quiet, alternatively pointing to the interior of the store, feeling like an idiot. She stared at him a moment, then lowered the window without another word.
An even greater panic seized him. Should he tell the Crewes? Likely she called emergency services and the polis were on their way. Maybe he could wait until he heard the sirens, then warn them and run off with good excuse.
The door next to the grocer’s opened and out came the old woman with a shotgun in her arms. He gasped. “Don’t go in there!” he hissed. “It’s the Crewes.”
The woman stared at him a moment. Her deeply lined face looked grim but her grip on the gun held steady. She walked to the door where the sounds of anarchy continued. He held his breath.
Unsurprisingly, Dave spoke first. “Out of the way, gran. We were hired to do a job and we’re–”
The explosion of the shotgun echoed loudly in the quiet streets. If the cops weren’t on their way already they would be now.
“You shot my brother!” Graham shrieked. His voice seemed awfully high for his huge body and Tom found himself distracted by the thought, so that’s why he don’t speak much. A second explosion and there was no more from the Crewes. He wondered if he should look inside but found himself frozen on the pavement.
She stepped out of the door. For a moment he wondered if she would gun him down. In the distance a siren began to wail. He goggled at her, but the woman seemed suddenly tired.
“The boys in blue on their way now?” she asked him.
“I think so,” he stuttered. He saw an overturned crate in the doorway and ducked in to get it. Setting it down on the pavement he gestured for her to take a seat, which she did with a satisfied grunt.
She looked at him with frank curiosity. “You need a bigger pair, son.”
He could feel his face flush and felt grateful for the night’s veil.
She pulled the blue housecoat closer around her and balanced the shotgun across her lap. He stood awkwardly at her side. “I should have never left the farm,” she said almost to herself. “People just don’t have any manners here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said meekly. The sound of the siren grew louder.
The first bullet went through, but the second one is still in there. I can feel it up under my ribs, like a petulant five year old slamming a door and screaming, “I won’t come out!”
I don’t know if they thought I was already dead or if they knew I would be soon enough, but the Russell brothers took off and those tail lights have faded away. It’s just me now. Help is not on the way.
I could drive somewhere, but that fireball over there? That’s my car painting the two a.m. night sky a burnt orange. Shoot me, fine, but what the hell did my car ever do to you?
I would have thought there would be people on the street, even this late. In the city, it seems like there’s always someone around. This neighborhood, though, those gunshots would have sent everyone ducking for cover and pulling the curtains tight, maybe throwing that extra deadbolt. Somehow I’ve got to make it from flat on my back, twin leaks in my gut and no way to stop the bleeding, and get my ass to a hospital. Closest one is, shit, at least twenty blocks away.
Best get moving.
This might have to be an on-all-fours kind of journey. One hand on my stomach, less to staunch the blood flow than to keep my guts in, and one hand on the dirty sidewalk. Fucking place is a minefield. Chewed gum, bits of green glass, smears of old dog shit. Fuck m– hey, a quarter.
I try to stand, end up walking a half dozen paces like an extra in Dawn Of The Dead. Not a featured extra neither. One of the really messed up background players, like with one leg missing or a length of pipe still sticking out of their spine.
I drop down to all fours again, grateful for the cold stability of the city sidewalk. Both hands down now, one planting deep red handprints in a trail up 34th.
A car drives by. Didn’t hear it until too late. I doubt anyone would have seen me down here with the piss and McDonalds wrappers anyhow.
Cold out. Maybe it’s just the slab of pavement draining my body heat through my knees and palms. Somehow I’ve made it to the end of the block. I can still see the fireball behind me. I think for a second of crawling back there if only for the warmth. Eventually a fire truck would show up, right? Eventually can be a long time.
I pull myself up on a lamp post. My bloody hand slips on a flyer for a lost cat, only one of the phone number tabs torn off. I look up at the street signs, try to get my bearings. I spot a cab a block away moving my way. Score.
I lean out, keeping my blood hand on the lamp post otherwise I’d be face down in the gutter. I lift my hand to wave down the taxi. My palm is nearly black from only a half block of crawling. This city is fucking disgusting.
The cab slows and I think I’ve found Jesus. I lean out from the lamp post, an insane asylum grin plastered my face. The cab driver sees me.
“No drunks,” he says and hits the gas.
“Wait! I’m not fucking dr–” I tip forward into the street. I can still smell his exhaust as my face hits the cement. For a split second, the two holes in my gut take a backseat to the pain in my mouth.
I flip myself over and spit two teeth out. They teeter near a storm drain and I wonder if I should go fetch them and try to plug the holes in my abdomen. Nah, they’re front teeth, not molars. Too small for the caliber of gun Ricky Russell used on me.
If I make it to a hospital they’re gonna want to know why I got shot. That’s a long damn story and I’m not keen to tell it. Let them figure it out. I’ll fake being too out of it to speak, which isn’t really faking at this point.
I manage to get myself back to the sanctuary of the sidewalk before a delivery truck runs my ass over or something. Time to cross the street.
I stand up again, latched onto the lamp post. When the little red hand turns to a green walking man I let go. What I do across the intersection can’t be called walking. More like tripping for twenty yards. Or falling down a flight of stairs, when there’s no stairs there.
I hit the curb on the far side and pitch forward again. A tooth on the top row that felt a little wobbly after I kissed the gutter, pops loose now and I nearly swallow it. I spit the tooth out and a gob of bloody saliva comes with it. Wish I could lose this bullet in my gut as easily as I lose teeth.
I’m flat on my belly. My feet have gone ice cold and a little numb, so have my hands. The only part of me that’s warm is my belly pressed flat on the sidewalk and soaking in a warm bath of my own blood.
I do a pushup with my hands and notice a rubber stamp imprint of my midsection rendered in O positive.
How many more blocks to go? Fuck me.
I hear a door open. Oh, thank Christ.
Off to my right, coming up the steps from a basement apartment, is an older Chinese lady with a toy poodle at the end of leash. She’s wearing a housecoat and holding an as-yet empty plastic bag in her hand. Gotta love dog owners – any time, day or night.
I reach out my bloody hand to her and mutter something like, “Please, help me.” I doubt it came out that clear.
She jumps back and puts a hand up to her collar, tightening up the housecoat as if I might want to jump up to two feet, ignore the two bullets that paid me a visit tonight, and get my rape on. The nerve on that old bitch.
After she says something appropriately shocked in her native tongue, she takes a closer look. I’m obviously a victim here. The details of how I got shot aren’t relevant to her, only that I need help. And fucking soon.
I try to explain through the stone barrier of our uncommon language. I use words I think everyone should know like hospital, ambulance, and don’t let me die in the street. She creeps ever closer to me, the dog tugging at the end of the leash wanting like hell to get to me and see what the fuck is going on. I wish she had half the urgency of that ugly fucking mutt.
She takes a cell phone out of her housecoat pocket. That’s gotta be a good sign. She raises someone and starts speaking rapid-fire and angry sounding Chinese to whoever is on the other end of the line. While she speaks I can do nothing but lay crumpled on the sidewalk and continue to lose blood. She scans her street up and down, I assume looking for my shooter. She’s shit out of luck on that score.
Lucky for her. The Russell brothers wouldn’t blink at putting a bullet between the eyes of a nosy Chinese lady and her scrawny-ass dog.
Speaking of the dog, the little fucker is licking my wound. I’m trying to alert her to the fact that her mutt is tasting me like I’m what’s for dinner, but she is fully engrossed in her conversation. I wish I could understand a goddamn word she was saying so I would know if she was trying to help me or just discussing the latest episode of Housewives of Fuckville or whatever.
The damn dog is lapping it up. I have the strength to push him away a few times, but not the will to compete against a wiry hound with a recently discovered taste for human blood. Every time I push, he keeps coming back at me, his muzzle growing darker red each time I give him a shove and see his face come away from my abdomen.
Finally she hangs up, looks down and sees the dog, gives the leash a tug, and then talks to me in Chinese. She seems like she’s giving instructions of some sort. I hope she gave directions to the ambulance in fucking English, and I tell her as much.
As soon as I swear at her, I regret it. She didn’t do this to me. The Russell brothers did, and really, didn’t I do it to myself?
She bends down and starts to try to drag me off the sidewalk toward her place. Hopefully to wait until the ambulance arrives.
It’s an awkward affair. I’m too weak to be much help at all. She’s got my feet, dragging me along at a snail’s pace, while the dog is bouncing around, covered in my blood, and looking to get another taste.
She keeps chastising the dog in Chinese, but the dog seems to understand her about as well as I do. Or he just doesn’t give a fuck.
I don’t know why, but I start talking. I tell her everything. The fact she can’t understand me helps a bit. It feels good to get it off my chest at least. I tell her about the doomed-from-the-start business venture I entered into with the Russell brothers. How I should have known it would all go south. How I tried to hide the facts when it did. And how I came to be under a bridge with both brothers and me without a gun.
In the distance I hear a siren.
We’ve reached the top of her steps and she’s barking at me in Chinese again. I’m sure she wants my help to get down the steps. “Just leave me here,” I say. “Why make the ambulance guys bring me out of your basement apartment when they can just grab me off the sidewalk?” The words all come out in a slur. Even if she spoke English she might not have gotten any of that.
Then she’s falling. I guess I didn’t do enough to help. The lady has pitched over backward and is heading down the steps head first. Her dog is lifted off the ground by the leash and it goes sailing over me, the bloody muzzle looking down at me with a very confused expression.
I hear a sickening slap and then I’m sliding. I was close enough to the edge, I guess, and I slip down the stone steps like it’s winter time in New England and I’m trying out my trusty sled.
I slide in next to the old lady, my head tapping her door. She’s got a shocked look on her face, but it’s frozen there. The smell of the blood leaking from her is different than mine. Hers is more fresh.
I’m almost nose to nose with her and it takes me a second to notice her shoulders are pointed the other way. Why is it someone like her, who was just trying to help, gets killed in an instant while I have to suffer in agony for god knows how long?
I hear whimpering. The little dog crawls out from behind the lady. It looks dazed, but catches sight of me and is energized.
The sirens are almost on us now and the dog scrambles over his owner and noses into my gut wound again. I try to move my arms to shoo the damn thing away, but I’m either pinned at a funny angle or my arms don’t work any more. Hard to tell.
I try to give it a, “Hey! Go away!” but nothing more than a squeak comes out. A leaky bike tire hiss and nothing you could call actual words.
The siren comes and goes, zipping past and never slowing down. Great.
I hear voices above. Residents poking around. Someone says something about a fire. So it was a fire truck. I have no idea if the old woman even called an ambulance or not.
I try to yell for help, but the air is almost all the way out of this tire.
Goddamn dog won’t let up. There’s no where for me to look. I’ve got this dead woman inches from my face or the view of my guts being eaten out by a crazed poodle. Which is worse?
When I first slid down here, the lady was freshly dead, or maybe not even yet. Now she’s settling into the idea. The skin on her face is starting to slacken, her tongue swells out of her mouth and hangs there.
Ow, fuck! The dog has taken to biting and little nips, not satisfied with only licking anymore. Damn, will he ever be the same? How to you adopt out a dog with a taste for human flesh?
Oh well, not gonna be my problem. I have a feeling all my problems are over really fucking soon.
It was two in the morning.
The streets were empty. Reflecting pools of light from the street lamps after a short summer rain. We–my partner and I–were in the Rousch 427 Mustang, the windows down, the 435 horses rumbling in a barely restrained symphony under the hood. Coming out of the stereo speakers were the strange, hypnotic vibes of a song called Handel on your Face by a two-singer male group called Bodyrockers.
I got a handle on your face./It’s in a stone-cold place./Why don’t you move it over here-ah/and let me burn away your fear.
The perfect theme song for murder.
It starts out with the classic notes of Handel’s Sarabanda and then turns into a melodic guilt-trip of lust, desire, and psychotic nightmares. Frank and me were in route to pick up our prime suspect. A crazy sonofabitch with a rap sheet about as long as I-70 from Denver to Kansas City. Assault. Robbery. Extortion. Attempted murder–just about everything a career criminal needed to make himself know to homicide detectives like us.
Now it was murder. Nothing attempted. Murder finalized. The body lay on the concrete pavement of his driveway with two 9 mm holes in his back and blood inching its way down the pavement toward the gutters. Inside the million dollar home the man’s wife was in hysterics. When we left the paramedics were giving her an injection to calm her nerves and make her sleep. She was sixty-eight years old with a heart condition. As we were leaving one of the paramedics looked at us, frowned, and shook his head.
In her condition it would be a miracle if she lived through the night. So our prime suspect wasn’t going to be charged with one murder. Two counts would be slapped on him if the woman died during the night.
Our suspect was named Raymond Russell. He’d just been released from a Federal prison a month earlier and was making himself at home down in the wharf district in a bar called Slim’s. His brother owned the place and Raymond was working there as a bartender/ bouncer. But rumor was he was doing other things on the side. Like fencing stolen goods. Muscling into the local drug business. Stealing cars.
Turning on Vincent street, I worked the gearshift up through third to fourth and drove. Raymond was our suspect because the dead man’s daughter, a lovely little dark-eyed beauty about twenty-two or twenty-three by the name of Nancy told us her father and Raymond had had a series of bitter confrontations. Confrontations down in the wharf district not too far from where Raymond worked. Apparently Raymond wanted a piece of the old man’s business. Threatened the old man several times if he didn’t give in. Said his daughter might find herself in a terrible accident.
Like I said—Raymond was a nice guy.
I pulled the growling Mustang up to the curb about a half block away from the bar and cut the engine. In the darkness, Vine street is always black since no one in the street department feel’s safe enough to come down here and repair the busted street lights, the two of us sat back in the bucket seats and waited. Waited for the bar to close up and for Raymond to step out. In the darkness the black forms of warehouses and forgotten businesses lined both sides of the street like forgotten sentries. Only the soft colored neon lights of Slim’s broke the darkness.
An hour went by before the lights to the bar went out. As soon as they did Frank and I slid out of the Mustang and started walking silently down the street toward Raymond’s car. Frank–about as wide as a Mountain Gorilla on steroids and, with his stringy carrot top hair, about as ugly–reached inside his sport jacket and pulled out his 9 mm Glock. I pulled out the Kimber .45 caliber I preferred, cocked the hammer back with a thumb, and then reached for my leather case which held the gold detective badge inside.
He didn’t see us until we were about ten feet from him. But when he did, he dropped the money bag he had in one hand as he turned and stepped back.
“Who the hell are you guys?”
“Cops, Russell. Want to ask you some questions,” I said.
“Questions? About what? I haven’t done anything.”
“About a murder, Russell. A guy by the name Charles Connery,” Frank’s growl rumbled in the night.
“Charles Con . . . . why that crazy bitch! Listen, I’m not taking the fall for this. Whatever went down I wasn’t involved. There’s no way I’m going back to prison. No way!”
“Russell . . . Russell! Don’t do anything stupid,” I yelled.
Russell did something stupid. In the darkness we say the con reach with his left hand behind his back and pull out something dark and bulky looking. He lifted the left hand the bulky object up toward us in one swift motion. And that’s when we fired. My .45 and Frank’s 9 mm lit up the night at the same time. The blasts of the two pieces ripping the night apart with bright flames and a thundering roar.
Raymond Russell lay in the middle of the street in a pool of blood. Both of his shoulders were ripped to pieces from the slugs smacking into them. He was alive. He would live. Barely. But as we stood over him, and has Frank kicked the Colt .45 away from Raymond’s left hand, we stared down at the bleeding con and neither one of us were happy.
“Did you see that? See how he reached for his gun?”
“Yes,” I nodded, gripping the Kimber in my hand firmly. “His left hand. Drew with his left hand.”
“He’s right handed,” Frank said, nodding and using the Glock to point to Russell’s right hand. “Look at that.”
Raymond Russell’s right arm, from his elbow down to the tip of his fingers, was encased in a hard plaster cast. A fresh one. Pulling out a small flashlight I waved it around over the cast and noted how white it was.
“What did he mean about a crazy bitch?” I asked, frowning, eyeing the groaning man.
“Yeah,” Frank nodded, flipping open his cell phone and lifting it to his ear and speed dialing dispatch. “Sounds to me like he knows the Connerys. But maybe not the old man.”
“Knows Nancy Connery,” I said. “Sounds to me he knows her quite well.”
Frank spoke rapidly and calmly in the phone. Almost instantly we heard off in the distance sirens heading in our direction. Flipping the phone closed he dropped it back in his coat pocket and looked at me.
“Guess we should see just how crazy a bitch Nancy Connery is. If she is.”
Four hours later we knew exactly how crazy the daughter was. Driving over to the mansion just as the sun was beginning to light up the eastern sky we didn’t say a word. During the night Mrs. Connery died from a massive heart attack. The only Connery living now was the daughter. And she just inherited fifty million dollars. But last month–last month–Nancy Connery was thrown out of the family residence when word got back to her parents she had been seeing a slime ball by the name of Raymond Russell. Partying all night long. Getting drunk. Cavorting down at Slim’s like some cheap harlot. Words Charles Connery used to describe his daughter. He told her he was going to throw her, not only out of his house , but out of his will as well. If she wanted to run around with a lowlife like that, then run around with him without any money and see how long he stays with you.
Nancy Connery had a history of being in and out of mental institutions all her life. Self destructive the lass was. Hurt herself . . . and when she was in the mood, hurt others as well. Mostly her parents.
The night she was thrown out of her house she moved in with Raymond Russell. That lasted all of one week. Suddenly, the night before Charles Connery gets two slugs in the middle of his back, Nancy Connery moves back into the family mansion. The slugs came, interestingly enough, from the gun Raymond drew on us earlier in the night.
We climbed out of the Mustang and walked up to the front door of the house, the two of us noticing a light on in the living room as we stepped up to the double front doors. Reaching up I pressed the button for the doorbell and stepped back. Nancy Connors opened the door almost immediately.
“Detectives is . . . is he dead?”
“Whose dead, Miss Connors?” Frank asked.
“Why . . . .Raymond Russell. He is dead, isn’t he? He said he’d never go back to prison again. Said he’d kill himself first. So . . . so he must be dead. Right?”
“He’s alive, Miss Connors. Very much alive and telling his side of the story,” I said. “We need to take you downtown.”
She looked up us, her face a portrait of childish innocence, but her eyes . . . her large brown eyes . . . burning funeral pyres of insanity.
“I want a lawyer,” she whispered softly.
We nodded, each of us taking an arm and escorting her out of the house. As we walked to the patrol car that had followed us back to the house I could hear the lyrics from the song rattling along in my head.
I got a handle on your face./Its in a stone-cold place./ Why don’t you come over here-ah/and let me burn away your fear.
Willie handed Carl a wet movie ticket as they walked into the theater lobby. Both men were drenched from head to foot.
“Fuck! I can’t believe this weather,” Carl said.
“I know. We’re gonna freeze our asses off if in the a.c. You want popcorn?”
“Does it go well with vodka?” Carl patted the bottle that was tucked in his coat pocket.
“It ain’t even noon yet, you fucking lush,” said Willie.
“You know you’ll have some.”
“Not until after the show. It ruins my concentration. I’m getting popcorn.”
Carl followed Willie to the concession stand.
“I don’t think you’ll have to concentrate real hard on a Larry the Cable Guy flick. Could you get me an orange soda for the mixer?”
“I look like a bank today?”
“Come on Willie…I’ll pay you back.”
“I’m just bustin’ your balls. You can pay for the next movie.”
Willie bought a giant tub of popcorn and two drinks. He handed one of the cups to his friend and they walked past the unmanned ticket box to find their movie in the multi-plex.
The lights were already down when they found it.
“Shit, I can’t see a thing,” Carl said.
“We’re sitting in the back,” said Willie.
Carl usually made a b-line to the front row like a little kid, which bugged the hell out of Willie. He hated having to practically lay flat in the hard, broke down seats and crane his neck back to take in the picture.
“Come on,” Carl whined. “At least go to the middle.”
“Nah, we’re in the back today. I paid…my choice.”
Carl conceded. Their eyes had adjusted enough to find a seat without tripping in the aisle, so the two men sat down.
On the screen a preview was playing for a horror movie featuring an axe wielding lunatic in an Easter bunny costume.
“Cool,” Carl said. “Hey, I don’t think there’s anyone else in here.” He took the bottle out of his pocket and was getting ready to twist the lid off when Willie stopped him by covering his hand.
“Wait till you’re sure. There’s a time and a place, ya know?”
“Aw come on! Are you still pissed off about that last job? I told you I’d never get that lit again. How many times I gotta say I’m sorry?”
A vision flashed in Willie’s head. He was in the back room of the closed jewelry store, filling a sack with as many trinkets as he could get his hands on. The back door had pried open without a problem and Carl was sitting watch in the car out front.
They had a tip that the alarm system of the ancient building had stopped functioning long ago and was only there for show. But if Carl spotted any trouble outside he was supposed to call Willie’s cell.
When the old man with the shotgun stuck his key in the front door, Carl didn’t see because he was passed out drunk behind the wheel.
As soon as Willie heard the lock being worked he went to the back door. He was surprised when the old man’s son came in swinging a Louisville slugger.
By sheer luck he just missed having his skull split open and ran to the front of the store in time to look down the barrel of the old man’s shotgun.
Willie flung the sack of jewelry as hard as he could and knocked the shotgun out of the old man’s hands. The gun went off when it hit the floor and the old man and his son both hit the deck.
Willie jumped over the fallen store owner and went out the door. He saw Carl slumped over the wheel and cursed. By the time he pushed his partner over and got behind the wheel, Babe Ruth was hitting homers through the windshield.
Carl stirred out of his stupor when glass rained in on them and Willie burned an inch of rubber off the wheels tearing away from the curb…
“Until I forget how much money we lost and how close we came to getting killed because you passed out behind the wheel of the lookout car,” Willie said.
“Jesus! I thought that shit was in the past. What did you ask me to go to the show for…you’re still so pissed?”
Carl sighed and dropped his head.
“All right…I’m sorry I brought it up again. I’m just having a little trouble lining something else up for us right now, and Jimmy is pissed as hell that he didn’t get a piece of that jewelry store.”
The previews were over and a commercial reminded movie patrons to silence their cell phones.
“It’s getting ready to start. Why don’t you go ahead and find us a seat in the middle? I gotta go take a piss,” said Willie.
Carl popped up in his seat with a big grin.
“Oh…okay. You’d better hurry though, it’s gonna start.”
“Sit in the middle. Not the middle of the front. It hurts my head.”
“In the middle…I promise,” Carl said.
“Here, take my cup and the popcorn with you. I’ll be back in a minute.”
The two men got up and Carl quickly moved to the third row from the front like Willie knew he would. As soon as he sat down he took the bottle out and spun the top off. His head tipped back and he emptied half of the vodka down his throat, also like Willie knew he would. His once reliable sidekick was on a steady downward spiral.
Willie shook his head as he quietly pushed open the door and stepped out of the theater. There was still nobody attending the ticket box in the hallway where they tore your ticket and directed you to the film you paid for.
He passed the ticket box unnoticed and went into the men’s room, which was empty, and left him alone with his own thoughts as he entered a stall.
Willie was called to a sit down after the jewelry store blunder. Carl wasn’t invited to attend.
Jimmy was there, of course, since he was the head of the crew. And all of the other low level wiseguys from the neighborhood that worked under Jimmy. Willie was decidedly in the hot seat, but it was better than not being invited to the meeting at all. If that were the case, he would have been in the same position as his partner.
“That kid’s a friggin’ nitwit,” Jimmy said. “He gets worse every day with the booze or drugs or whatever the hell he’s doing.”
“I know that he drinks too much. I’ve tried to talk to him,” Willie said.
“The time for talk is over. He’s cost us too much already. Christ Willie, he almost cost you your life,” Teddy the Shark said.
“Carl’s had a lot of problems. His wife left him right after his pop died. Then his brother got pinched for that coke thing. He just needs some help and…” Willie was working it up…trying to plead his old friend’s case as if he were his lawyer and the room full of wiseguys were a jury. But in that room the judge made all of the final decisions, and Jimmy was the judge.
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy said, “but the kid’s got to go.”
“I ain’t asking you, Will. It’s already decided. I just thought that since you known him so long…I’d give you the opportunity to take care of this yourself. Otherwise…it’ll be taken care of for you.”
Willie looked around the room. He was surrounded by the somber stares of killers. Sure, in one sense they were all friends…even called each other family. But if any one of them became a problem, or came in the way of the other earning a buck, none of them would hesitate sticking a knife in the other’s back.
“Don’t worry Jimmy. I’ll take care of it,” Willie said without having any idea how he could kill someone that he loved like a brother.
He waited for what seemed like an eternity before he heard the sound of the bathroom door open. Footsteps clicked across the tiled floor and a zipper unzipped.
Willie flushed the toilet behind him and opened the stall door. He walked to the sink and looked in the mirror, not at his own reflection, but of that of the old man who stood in front of the urinal trying to coax his prostate into cooperating with him.
Willie turned the water on and kept his eyes on the old man. He thought about something that his dad had taught him when he was just a kid.
Men are easy targets in public bathrooms. They avoid making eye contact with each other because they don’t want the other guy to think that they’re looking at their goods.
The old man at the urinal kept his head down, concentrating on the job at hand.
Willie left the water running and quietly crept up behind him. When he was close enough, he slammed the palm of his hand into the back of the old man’s head.
There was a loud wet thud as the old man’s skull connected with the hard tile wall. He crumpled to the floor with blood streaming down his face. A low moan came out of the victim and his head rolled from side to side.
Willie stooped over his prey and grabbed hold of him by the lapels of his coat. He jerked him upwards and slammed his head back down on the tile floor again and again until the old man was dead and his prostate finally fulfilled his last wish on earth.
Willie purposely stepped into the pool of blood that was forming under the old man’s head and bent over again to search his pockets. The reward was a wallet and a nice pocket knife.
He tucked the goods in his own pockets and shut the water off at the sink before exiting the bathroom and trotting back down the empty hall to the theater that Carl was in.
He opened the door just enough to slip in and stood in the back until his eyes re-adjusted.
Carl was still alone in the theater and was passed out in his seat. The tub of popcorn was tipped over on the floor next to the empty vodka bottle.
Carl didn’t stir when Willie squatted down and removed his shoes. Willie took off his own blood stained shoes and put them on Carl’s feet. He carefully maneuvered around his unconscious friend to avoid stepping in the bloody footprints he had left on the floor. There he sat down and put Carl’s shoes on his own feet.
His friend would go away for a while on a murder charge and Willie would be free of his burden. He didn’t mind killing really; the old guy in the bathroom was a testament to that. But Carl was his friend. They grew up together.
Carl would be safe in the can, and Jimmy couldn’t really blame Willie for not getting the chance to whack the guy before he went into a drunken rage and killed some citizen. It would work out for everyone all around.
When he finished tying the laces, Willie took the old man’s wallet out of his pocket, took most of the cash out of it, and stuffed the wallet into a pocket in Carl’s coat.
But just as he pulled his hand out, Carl snapped to and grabbed his hand.
“Hey! Willie…was the hell you doing?” He slurred.
“Let go, Carl!”
But Carl didn’t let go. He grabbed Willie’s other arm and jerked him forward.
Willie struggled to break away, but his friend held on tight.
“I’m sorry, Willie…so sorry. I betrayed everyone in my life…My wife…my brother…even you…I’m…so sorry.”
“Damnit Carl, let go!” Willie jerked backwards and Carl finally let go. But he stumbled out of his seat and his shirt came undone.
Willie saw something glisten in the flickering light of the projected movie. It was something that didn’t look right.
He stepped over Carl and ripped his shirt open more. The thing that glistened was a wire that had been taped under Carl’s shirt.
“They made me do it, Willie. That’s why I haven’t been able to stay sober. They been listening to everything. Oh God, what’d I do?” Drunken Carl started weeping like a baby.
Willie ran for the nearest fire exit. An alarm went off when he pushed the door open. It didn’t matter though; the cops were already waiting outside for him.
The room looked sterile, smelled sterile. It had that piney sent of disinfectant. The light strained through the window, stale and yellow as the old man’s skin. John looked at his grandfather and felt nothing; he barely knew the man—what was left of the man.
John’s grandfather lay with his head back and his mouth open, feeding tubes snaked up each nostril. There were wires and more tubes fitted to an obsolete looking piece of medical machinery that beeped softly every few seconds. There was an awful wheeze coming from his mouth, an awful dry oval that housed his stained teeth and a swollen tongue thickly coated with white. It was the sound of, what John knew to be, a dying man.
John hadn’t seen his grandfather face to face in three years. He’d been off biding his time at some boarding school his mother had stuck him in. Out of sight, out of mind. John didn’t even recognize him when he first entered the hospital room. He thought the frail, withered shell in front of him bore no resemblance to the man that he’d known to be the strong patriarch of his family, the hero of his mother’s stories.
John spied an uncomfortable looking chair in the corner near the window and decided that, if he could sit quietly, the hour his mother had designated for him to bond with the old man would tick by painlessly. He sat down. The chair creaked loudly and the old man stirred.
At first there was just a raspy groan and John hoped he was still asleep, lost in some lusty memory from yesteryear. But then he heard the old man’s voice.
“Who’s there?” the old man said, barely audible.
“It’s me grandpa, Johnny.”
“Giovanni? Is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Come here, boy. Let me see you.”
As Johnny got up the chair squeaked again. He stood between the window and the bed, casting a shadow over the old man like death itself.
“Christ, Giovanni, I can’t see you. Come closer.”
He leaned over the old man and let his grandfather’s eyes adjust to the light.
“Sit down, boy,” he said, patting a brown-spotted hand on the hospital blanket beside him. “Sit down and let me talk with you.”
John sat down and got a closer look at the old man. A Sunday dinner never went by without some kind of talk about Grampa Joe. No matter what his family was doing, how well, how poorly, no subject was ever passed without some comment on what grandpa Joe might think. A new job, a move from the city, a marriage or divorce, the first thought in all their minds was, What was Grampa Joe going to say?
“Gio, you look good. What are you now, twenty-four, twenty-five?”
“Nineteen,” said John.
“Nineteen? What an age. What I wouldn’t give to be nineteen again.”
“It’s overrated,” said John.
“Bullshit. I didn’t know shit when I was nineteen. Thought I knew everything, but I didn’t know shit.”
“Mom would agree with you,” said John.
“Your mother? You kiddin’? She still doesn’t know shit.”
John smiled but the old man just stared straight ahead, his eyes watery and opaque.
“Kid, lemme ask you something.”
John waited a moment; when nothing came he said, “What, Grampa?”
“You got any money?”
John didn’t know how to answer. Money in his pocket? In life, savings? Was the old man asking for a loan?
“No, Grampa, not really.”
“Never use your own money kid. Investment-wise, doesn’t matter if it’s legit or not, don’t use your own dough.”
John didn’t really know where this was going.
“I made myself a lot of scratch, kid. You know how? Using other people’s dough. I still got buckets, too. Buckets. You know what else? Those vultures in the waiting room out there? They ain’t gonna get it. None of it. You’ll see. Fuck ‘em. That’s a promise.”
This made John smile too. He’d never heard his grandfather talk this way. He thought of his mother out there with her cousins, two Aunts, and other assorted fringe family members, all hunkered down in a somber vigil. Each and every one of them with dollar signs in their eyes.
“Okay, Grampa.” John smiled, but the old man didn’t. He’d looked angry, mean. John wondered if maybe some of the rumors he’d heard were true.
“And another thing, Gio …” The old man paused to catch his breath, there was a quiet gurgling sound in the feeder tubes. “Don’t ever let nothin’ walk past.”
John was confused. He looked at his grandfather and their eyes met.
“I’m talking about broads, kid. If you can lay it, then lay it down. No point in looking back on lost opportunities with just your dick in your hand. I passed on too many. Forget what kinda trouble it coulda caused, I shoulda tasted them all.”
The door to the room opened and a young Asian nurse walked into the room. She smiled.
“How are we doing, Mr. Carbone? It’s time for your medicine.”
The old man ignored the nurse and reached out and grabbed John’s wrist. “See, Gio, this is what I’m talking about.”
The nurse produced a syringe and stuck it into the I.V. leading to the old man’s right arm. She was smiling, beautiful, and very professional. Her gleaming white grin practiced and well used. It’d probably extended more lives than the chemotherapy she administered.
“This may make you a little drowsy, Mr. Carbone. Is your visitor staying much longer?”
“As long as he goddamn wants, sweetheart. This is my grandson, Giovanni. He’s gonna be a welterweight champ someday. Say hello, Gio.”
John nodded to the young nurse, sure he was blushing. He’d never been inside of a boxing ring in his life.
The nurse ignored John and playfully shook her head at the old man. Instead of checking the data on the machine in the corner, she took Grampa Joe by the wrist to check his heart rate and then pressed her fingers lightly on his forehead. Grampa Joe seemed to like the personal touch.
“Okay, Mr. Carbone, you need to get some rest. You two should wrap it up. Twenty more minutes, then I’ll come back to check on you.” Without another word she left the room, taking all that sexual energy with her.
“What I wouldn’t give to be nineteen again,” said the old man while he stared at the pale green door she’d exited through. A silence filled the void.
“How are you feeling, Grampa?”
“Fuck how I’m feeling. You kiddin’ me? I’m dying, kid. I feel like shit.”
John didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t his fault the old man was sick.
“I’m sorry, kid. I’m just pissed that it’s gonna end.” There was more gurgling through the tubes. The old man’s head fell back onto the pillow. Whatever the nurse had given him was taking effect. “Ooh, that tingles,” he said and shut his eyes for a moment.
“Gio,” he said with his eyes still closed, “promise me. Don’t ever be ashamed. No regrets. That’s the key, no regrets.”
“Okay, Grampa,” said John. He looked at the old man for a minute, then said, “You ever have regrets, Grampa?”
The old man’s eyes opened just a crack. “Like the song says, kid. Regrets, I’ve had a few.”
John played along. “Too few too mention?”
“A few, kid, a few.” He seemed to drift off again. John thought it was a good time to sneak out of the room. Just as he began to get up off the bed the old man reached out and once again grabbed his wrist.
“The Mexicans, I don’t feel too good about that. You know we used to run this town, kid. You couldn’t snort a line of blow without me gettin’ a nickel. Those were the days.”
“But the shit fucked up our boys, couldn’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar. Turned them into women.”
John didn’t say anything.
The old man was still talking with his eyes closed.
“So we switched to smack. Nobody was fucking with smack. Easier to keep the guys in line. But then, it too, got so heavy. A lotta heat, believe me. So we let those fucking Mexicans in. Dumb, dumb. Now look where we are. They’re the ones earning.”
John couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Most of his life he was afraid of his family finding out that he smoked a joint, and, now, here was Grampa Joe confessing to being a drug dealer. His mother never told him any of this shit. No one did. His aunts and cousins had to have known. Restaurateur, my ass.
“Maybe you should get some rest, Grampa.”
The old man ignored the boy.
“Fucking Joey Tang, fuck him. He deserved everything he got. Bobby Ciro, too. Fuck them. I’ll see ‘em in hell.”
John was getting more and more uncomfortable. The beeping from the machine picked up its tempo. The old man opened his eyes.
“Did you know I used to be a mortician? Had a parlor on 7th Ave. Yeah, didn’t know that, did you? Cremated motherfuckers, put their ashes out with the trash. Nobody ever knew. Beautiful. We’d charge friends. Disposal service. Made a lot of dough that way.”
John was starting to flash on all those TV shows he’d watched where knowledge alone could make you an accessory to the crime. Why was Grampa Joe telling him all this?
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking, kid, but it was another time. No DNA, no big brother. There was a lot more room to wiggle, you know what I mean?”
John definitely did not know what he meant.
“After Blakey’s RICO thing, I got wise, started stacking my cash, thinking I could get out. But you gotta keep a hand in, understand, otherwise the sharks keep circling.”
The old man stopped to cough.
“But, you know, it’s a temperament. You can’t hide from what you are. You know what I mean, right, kid?”
John shook his head.
“Fuck the good-times. Those were the good-times, damn it.”
The old man started to laugh. It quickly degenerated into another coughing fit.
John grabbed a glass of water from the stand beside the bed and offered it to the old man. The old man shook his head.
“Sometimes you can’t let go,” he said to the boy. “You are what you are.”
“Why are you telling me this, Grampa?”
The old man started to sing with a voice that sounded like a car that wouldn’t start.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few …”
John felt like he was being teased.
“Grampa, really, why are you telling me this?”
“Your father, Gio. I thought he was no good. I thought he wasn’t good enough for your mom. Honestly, I thought he was a piece of shit from the get-go, but I was wrong. It was your mother that wasn’t worth a damn. I never should have done what I done.”
“What, Grampa? What did you do?”
“I did the poor bastard. I had him taken out at the parking lot outside that furniture joint where he worked. Two friends of mine grabbed him and beat him till he wasn’t never coming back. Then we took him to 7th Ave and sent him on his way.”
“Grampa,” John repeated, his eyes starting to tear up. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I was wrong about him. He was only trying to do right by your mother and you. I just couldn’t let go of my own … my own shit. I thought she deserved better—she didn’t deserve shit.”
John sat silent, stupefied. He was hurt. It felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. Everything he knew about his life had been turned upside down. The old man let go of John’s wrist and the young man stood up to face his grandfather.
“Why? How? How could you do something like that?”
His grandfather had drifted off again, swept away in the arms of Morpheus.
“Grampa? Grampa?” said John.
The old man opened his eyes, looking irritated that the boy was still there.
“Smarten up, boy, don’t ask questions that you don’t wanna hear the answer to.”
Grampa Joe’s head fell backward onto his pillow and he was out like a light.
Take a long, deep breath. You’ll be all right. You’re not dying. Aren’t you the one who got his eyesight back at the age of 68 by drinking reconstituted lemon juice? If you were really dying wouldn’t your whole life be passing before your eyes? You know where you are- California.
Your niece, Jean, the one who took you away from your home in Syracuse and brought you out to this smoggy, crowded, shaky earthquake-of-a-place, is shouting at you from the phone receiver which is dangling, hanging and banging, on the floor boards.
“Uncle Red. Uncle Red, can you hear me? I can hear you. What’s wrong?” Jean’s voice is usually soft and gentle- probably what got you out here in the first place. Her words call out to you, but you don’t answer. No words come out of your mouth, just the short, gasping, gurgling sounds made by air, sputum, and bits of chewed-up, left-over broiled chicken thigh you inhaled while sneezing a moment ago.
This niece- you can’t stop thinking about her- your brother’s daughter, Jean. Named after Jean Harlow, the movie star, she was, but, even though she bleaches her hair blonde, she sure didn’t end up looking like her, did she? Hey, who knows what Jean Harlow would have ended up looking like if she hadn’t died so young. They all die young, those blondies.
But now, this shouting woman, this present Jean, the woman who took you from your home in Syracuse where you’d lived for over 30 years and brought you out to California, this Jean should just leave you alone. Always pestering, always calling on her lunch hour to make sure you’re all right. Trying to save your soul, the whole crazy family. That’s what she’s doing. Thinks she has all the answers. Women’s stuff. Even Ollie, who never uttered a word of faith the whole time you were married, had asked someone to pray with her when she was dying.
“I’ve forgotten how,” Ollie was wailing. Remember? By golly, when you decide to die you aren’t going to need anybody’s help. The niece should have figured out you don’t want your soul saved. And you don’t want to be around her and her husband and their orderly lives. You told her you were baptized as a baby in Milwaukee in the German Lutheran church, just like her very own father, but that wasn’t enough for her. Oh, no. Oh, no.
Jean and her husband want you to come along with them to Hawaii when they retire. They’re even urging you to go along with them on their little jaunts every weekend to here and there. You have your own places you want to go. You were doing just fine after Ollie died and then one day Jean ups and comes to Syracuse.
* * *
“We found him in the snowbank, right over there, under that streetlight, by the corner there.” Mrs. Steele, the lady you rented the downstairs to was saying this to Jean. She’s the one who prayed with Ollie. The old bag had her beak stuck up to your dining room window and was pointing her finger through your curtains down to the edge of your property as if she owned it. Jean, who you had not seen since she was five years old, had flown in from Los Angeles the night before and stood right behind the old windbag- you could see them right there, right through the open bedroom door.
What’s the fuss? What’s the fuss? There was nothing wrong with you. A healthy man of 70, no damage done. All the doctor said was to drink lots of liquids and stay in bed for a few days. Lying there in Ollie’s old room, the closest to the bathroom, listening to their gabfest- did they think you were deaf?- you realized it was the busybody renter, Mrs. Steele, who had called Jean and made her come all that way.
“After Ollie died,” Mrs. Steele was saying, “he musta decided to go back to his old ways from before he was married.” Her voice came at you out of her tree of a nose like a buzz saw, straight at you. “It started in the summer. Ollie, she died in the spring, right before Easter, but, of course, you know all that.” She didn’t take a breath. “By summer, he was getting all spruced up. After-shave lotion. I could smell it in the hallway long after he was gone. Up the street he’d go, head down, pumpin’ those arms, just as the street lights was comin’ on. You know, he believes in exercise. He’s in good shape for an old man. ‘Get a sweat-on every day,’ he’s always tellin’ people. ‘Work. Work. Work.’ That’s the man’s salvation. He’d head straight to the bar, stay until the middle of the night, come home weavin’ drunk, smashin’ against the walls. It’s just too cold, too much snow here some winters for a man to be actin’ like that.” Finally, she interrupted herself. “How old is he anyway?”
“Seventy,” you heard Jean say. “He’ll be seventy-one in October. You know, I never met Ollie. We just corresponded.” That was true. Jean and Ollie had exchanged Christmas cards with letters folded in them for years, and, if you remember correctly, Jean had seemed a mite too excited when she first located you.
“Looky here,” Ollie had said, shaking Jean’s letter in his face, “this niece of yours says she’s never going to lose you again.” Whoopee. Lost and found.
After her conversation with the biddy from downstairs, Jean had come into the bedroom. She sat down on the chenille bedspread you were lying under with just your skivvies on, for Pete’s sake.
“You ought to sell this big, old house and everything in it,” Jean said, rubbing her hand over the nubbies. “Come on out to California and live with us.”
You thought about it for the two days you stayed in bed. California. You were there once, in 1935, during the Great Depression, when Jean was a cunning little five-year old. And there in Syracuse, in the middle of winter, the memory of those sunny skies and warm breezes made her suggestion seem like the right thing to do. Wouldn’t you know, the renter bought the house, furnishings and all, including the big Mr. Peanut cookie jar Ollie loved so much. Hell, with Ollie gone, it was only half a house anyway.
* * *
“Are you having difficulty breathing, Uncle Red?” It’s Jean again on that blasted telephone. Why does she have to talk so loud? “Lift up your arms.” She’s barking. “It will help you breathe.” The sound is coming out of that black circle with all the little holes in it. Again, “Lift up your arms.”
Boy, oh, boy, you can remember when there weren’t any phones in any houses you lived in. Your father had that job once stringing telephone lines all over the country. He was gone a lot. Wrote home about all the different foods he was eating. “Grease,” your mother said when he died.
What’s this Jean is telling you to do? Lift up your arms? Ha! You know what she’s really up to. Soon as she gets you to California, you’re barely off the plane and she’s taking you to church with her. Oh, they lift up their arms there, all right. Shouting. Waving their arms around. You can see right through this woman, this old Jean Harlot with her gray roots growing in at the temples every four weeks. She’s transparent all right, clear as a bell. Trying to force you to buy what she’s selling, she is. You were crazy to come out here. Go ahead. Chuckle to yourself. You sound like a balloon caught in a vacuum cleaner.
* * *
You would have sold vacuum cleaners, but you couldn’t find work and got tired of standing on street corners handing out broadsides urging voters to elect Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for President. Your big brother, Jean’s father, who had given up on the movement, wrote that he found steady work building sets for the movies, even sent you the money to get to California, wanted you to move out there, could get you work, he said.
You enjoyed the visit, saw things you’d never seen- tall palm trees, trees with real lemons and oranges growing on them. But you came east again. Anyway, your brother died the next year, hit by a flat on a Charlie Chaplin movie set. Twenty-nine years old. Wife. Little Jean. And the one in the oven who got himself killed in the Korean War.
You finally found work as a ship’s cook on the St. Lawrence River. Years, years, years you spent on the water. Years of steady work. Good, hard labor. Real heart-pumping, pore-opening, sweet, sweat-pouring work.
You and Ollie met at the German Social Club, the year the Seaway Project started, 1954. You were forty-five, she was thirty. Told you she’d been married before, said she’d had two little boys, but you never saw them, only in some faded, old bent-up photograph she took out of a box every so often. And cried. Always told people she started working at eight years of age, hired by a wealthy family in Chicago to be a playmate for their children because of her refined looks.
And she was a good-looking gal- for an old buck like you. She was kind of loony but she made you laugh. She had it good with you, too, never had to work another day in her life after she married you. You’d come home and she’d lift up her apron and skirt for you. Pronto. “You sure can wiggle it around,” she’d say. You were married for twenty-three years, and for twenty-three years she’d pat her belly after you finished and call the tumor growing inside her your baby. Then it finally killed her. Pronto.
* * *
“Uncle Red, you’ve got to do something.” Jean again, Jean again, Jean again. Her voice is so shrill now, isn’t it? Urgent. Demanding. “You’ve got to do something.”
Do something? Do something? You’ve done and done and done. You’re the one who believes in doing. You’re Mr. Do. Doesn’t she care how hard you worked? It was hard standing up all those years. It’s hard work now. Sitting. Breathing. Can’t do it anymore. Who does she think she is? All that furniture, a whole household full in Syracuse. Just sold it. Gave it away. Patsy, the pastor’s wife, came over from Vermont and took a little rocker, a rabbit’s ears rocker Ollie called it, said it was worth some money. So, they took what they thought would look good in their houses. And you watched. Fool. Damned renter. Have a good time looking after Mr. Peanut now.
* * *
On that train trip in ’35, all the way out to California, your full head of red hair drew comments. When you got off the Santa Fe at the train station in Pasadena your big brother was there to meet you. You hadn’t seen each other in over five years and before you even started slapping each other on the back, you both laughed out loud because your hair, which was the identical flaming color, was cut alike too, short on the sides, kinky locks, long and combed back slick on the top. You could have been twins that day on the platform, only you were taller. Isn’t that the way it always is? The younger brother is the taller one.
It was springtime when you arrived, the Saturday before Easter. While you and your brother were waiting for the Red Car, you noticed a fat woman and a skinny little boy selling pastel-died baby ducklings from a big wooden box on the street corner. You bought a little turquoise one for your niece. Then, before you knew it, the three of you- you, your brother and little Jean, were standing on the sidewalk in front on your brother’s little stucco house in Sierra Madre. Your brother handed Jean a salt shaker. You bent over the child.
“Baby girl,” you whispered to her, “go catch that pretty duck I gave you. Sprinkle some salt on his tail and he’ll let you catch him. Then he’ll curl up in your arms and go to sleep.”
The sun was almost directly overhead. The little girl’s shadow was short and angled. The air, so dry and clean in your nostrils, made you feel hope for the first time in a long time. You watched Jean’s chubby little legs encased in white leggings, feet in polished high tops, her body covered by a starched white smock- cuter than Shirley Temple could ever be- run down the street and chase that duck every which-a-way. How that turquoise duck did run! How you and your brother did laugh. Your mouths were positively filled with laughter that day. Didn’t little Jean look like your baby sister, the one who died in the flu epidemic of 1917? Boy, oh, boy, did you tease her, too.
But, little Jean, at the corner by then, must have heard your laughter because she stopped and turned around. She looked straight at you. Her eyes, clean and as blue as the California sky overhead, shot you through and through. She knows, you thought, she knows. She knows you lied to her, that it is all a big joke on her. Now she is just like you- she doesn’t believe in anything. A breeze kicked up behind the two of you, you and your big brother. Your matching hair corkscrewed into the air. Flashing halos. The little girl in the distance started running back down the concrete path, right for both of you. She lifted her arm and pointed her finger.
“Fire, fire…” she called, “Two daddies’ heads on fire.”
* * *
“Uncle Red, can you hear me? Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.” It’s grown-up Jean’s voice again. Still trying to save you from the flames. “If you can hear me, just hang on. I’m calling for help now. Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus. Lord Jesus.”
But you are a duck now. A red duck. A platinum-haired woman- no roots growing in- is in a form-fitting white satin gown. How strange- she’s the same shape as Mr. Peanut. She’s chasing you. She has a salt shaker in her hand.
Come on. Slow down. Let her catch you.
Curl up in her arms.
Go to sleep.
Jimmy Kiley held the blade of the knife between his thumb and index finger. He raised the handle slowly to his forehead lining it up with the target, then dropped the knife down, pulled it back past his ear and launched it forward. It span several times then clattered into the board and bounced back, falling harmlessly to the floor.
‘For fuck’s sake!’ It looked a hell of a lot easier to do on the television than it was proving in practice.
The side door to the warehouse was pushed open and a man shoved through. The left knee of his jeans was ripped, his face bloody and bruised.
‘Macca,’ Kiley exclaimed loudly. ‘Glad you could join us.’
‘What’s this about, Jimmy?’ Macca said, shuffling forward, cautiously eyeing the circular structure off to one side.
A second man entered the cold, dimly lit space. He placed a gun at Macca’s back and prodded him forward.
‘You know what it’s about, Macca,’ Kiley said, closing the gap between them. ‘You’ve been a naughty boy.’
‘I swear, Jimmy, I haven’t done anything.’
‘Now you know that’s not true. What did we agree about showing people my movies?’
‘I haven’t shown anyone your movies.’
‘Reggie!’ Kiley shouted, his voice echoing round the large, empty space.
A man pushed himself off the warehouse wall and staggered forwards. In his right hand he held a video camera.
‘Oh fuck,’ Macca muttered.
‘Oh fuck, is right.’
Kiley grabbed Macca’s elbow and guided him to the circular board, the rogue knife lying on the floor at its base. ‘Don’t even think about it, Macca. Just step up into the stirrups and put your hands through the loops.’
‘What the fuck is this?’
‘A spinning knife board. I’m going to have a little knife throwing practice. You’re my assistant for the afternoon.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I’m not giving you a choice. Now step up into the stirrups.’
The second man clattered Macca on the side of the head with the handgun.
‘Step up, Macca,’ Kiley ordered.
Once in place and tied securely, Kiley ordered Reggie over to them and took the video camera from his shaking hand.
‘You never got to see the last movie we shot did you, Macca? Big Johnny Croft running for his life. You probably could have charged an entrance fee if you’d decided to share that one around.’
‘It was only Reggie.’ Macca said. ‘He’s part of the gang for fuck’s sake.’
‘But not the inner circle. Well, not until now.’
Kiley turned the small in-built screen so that Macca could see it.
A massive, muscular man in a tight-fitting t-shirt and jeans was running across a field towards the camera. Behind him, at the far end of the field, the doors to a white van opened and four large dogs bounded out. They quickly spotted the man and set off in pursuit, barking excitedly.
Croft ran for ten more metres, then turned to face the dogs. A former professional boxer he was going to try fight over flight. He caught the first dog to arrive with a hard right as it leapt towards him, sending it sprawling off to one side. The second dog landed before he had time to adjust to its attack. It was quickly joined by the two others.
Croft fell to his knees under their weight, his arms swinging savage punches to thick skulls, sharp teeth and muscle-packed bodies.
‘The burger fat smeared round his neck was an inspired idea,’ Kiley said.
Macca didn’t reply, his eyes glued to the screen.
‘You have to give him his dues, the fucker fought to the bitter end. Two of those dogs had to be put down afterwards.’
They watched the screen for a couple more minutes.
‘One of my better ones,’ Kiley said. ‘I hope you’re going to be as big a star as he was.’
He passed the camera back to Reggie. ‘You’d better go and get that set up.’
He watched the new cameraman scurry away, then reached down and picked up the knife, turning it in it hands. ‘Don’t worry, Macca, these are nice and sharp.’
‘Please, Jimmy. It won’t happen again.’
‘I know it won’t, Macca. I know.’
‘I thought you’d like this set-up, my friend; appreciate its creativity. It has a certain … I don’t know, theatrical quality to it.’
Macca tipped his head back, seemingly gathering his thoughts. After ten seconds or so he dropped his chin and spat in Kiley’s face.
‘Some friend,’ he said, his eyes blazing defiantly.
Kiley wiped the saliva away calmly, holding Macca’s gaze.
‘We had our moments, Macca, but you betrayed my trust. You knew what that would mean. And you know me, I always like to mix business and pleasure.’ He tapped the blade of the knife against the hardboard. ‘Time for the grand finale, don’t you think?’
Kiley pulled a wry grin, placed the blade in his back pocket, grabbed hold of the board and gave it a hard tug. As the wheel gently started to spin he gave it another hefty heave, then turned on his heels, walking back to his mark, where a row of nine knives were lined up on a small table.
‘Try and smile for the camera like the assistants on the TV do, will you,’ he ordered. ‘You look like a right sour bastard.’
‘You’ll feature in one of your own movies someday, Jimmy.’
‘I doubt that Macca. I’ll always be the director, never the star.’
Kiley reached the white chalk line and turned. Macca was rotating at a steady pace.
He glanced over at his new cameraman. ‘You breathe a word of this to anyone and this will seem positively humane in comparison to what I’ll do to you, do you understand?’
Reggie nodded his pale face, unable to find his voice. His stomach was writhing, his guts threatening to fill his underpants. He’d never expected to be part of Kiley’s inner circle and he’d be quite happy to return to minion status.
‘Zoom in on him,’ Kiley directed. ‘I want to be able to see his face when I watch this back. And when I manage to hit the bastard, I want you to imagine that it’s you who’s tied to that board.’
Tony sat at a corner table, his fingers laced around a glass of water and watched the man traverse the room. He wore a grey suit, blue tie and brown shoes; and except for the limp, the man looked like a basketball player. He sat in the chair to Tony’s right, the one facing the door.
“How long you been sober?” the man asked.
“What makes you think I’m an alcoholic?”
“Who else would sit in a bar with a glass of water?”
Tony spun the glass in his hand. Stared at the water. “Three months, twenty-six days.”
The man saw Molly crossing the room and waved her off.
Tony raised his glass and smiled. “I’ll have another.”
“You like her,” the man said.
“She’s my daughter.” Tony spun the glass some more.
The two men sat in silence while Molly deposited a full glass on the table and took the empty. She smiled at Tony. She didn’t smile at the man.
“I got stuff to do,” the man said. “You want to hire me, or what?”
“My wife is cheating on me.” Tony’s tone was as flat as a club soda that’d sat out all day.
“And you want me to find the guy. I charge one fifty a day, plus expenses.”
Tony lowered his hands into his lap while the man watched Molly slide a quarter in the jukebox. After a few groans from the relic, Hank Williams’ voice filled the dusty air.
“Not exactly,” Tony said. “I know who it is. A friend saw them coming out of the Super 8 in Smythville.”
“How long has she been cheating on you?”
“Four months and thirteen days that I know of.”
“So why am I here?” the man asked.
“You ain’t figured it out yet?” Tony shook his head. “Man, you’re stupider than concrete.”
“She’s your wife.” The man looked toward the door. “I didn’t know.”
“Now you do,” Tony said.
Before the man could make a move, a gun burped under the table and a bullet enter the man’s gut. He raised a bloodied hand as a second bullet joined the first. His hand dropped like it was weighed down. His shoulders slumped, and his torso bent to one side.
Tony walked to the front of the room and placed the gun and a Benjamin on the bar. The bartender put the bill in his shirt pocket and the gun under the counter.
“I’ll see everything gets taken care of, kid.”
“Thanks, Uncle Frank. See you around.”
Tony nodded three times to Molly and left the bar to go home to his wife.
Once a month, he’d go through the motions: “Convict,” his parole officer would call him, to which “hard knocks,” he’d reply, and then, later, he’d curse my double Ds for knocking over his beer. If I had a ladder, I might climb it and hang myself by the nipples from the electrical wires adjacent to my fourth floor patio, hoping they and all the flabby skin attached to them would just rip right off. He said my tits were to blame for the fights and the bruises. Said I was just a tramp with a park side view and a short commute when all he had was a brick wall and an alley. All I know about views is that the paint’s chipping on the ceiling, and the palm trees behind the couch are fake, like those boxed potatoes he loves so much that would crust up in his beard for a week. It made his face rough, but he’d just yell over my chest and tell me to “shut up, hang on, and ride it out.”
In the evenings, after he was through with me, I’d take a bath, but could never reach my legs to shave them, so I’d lie there, watching my breasts flap and swish around in the steamy water and wonder how much it would hurt if I just sliced them off.
Last night Marlene walked into the cantina. Of course it wasn’t her, couldn’t of been, but looked a lot like her: blonde ponytail, crooked half smile.
Hard for Jack, seeing her at Pedro’s. A dive on the beach, sitting on stilts, thatched roof, colored bead curtains, a shorted-out neon sign that only managed the P and o’.
Jack sat in a wobbly chair near the front door; hollow cheeked, veined complexion, slack blue eyes, hit-and-run blonde beard. He and Enrique had been crowding the table with beer bottles and butts. What they did most nights, if they weren’t out fishing.
When Jack arrived in Cabo, he planned to stay no more than a month. He hung on and eventually cobbled together a shack at the edge of the barrio with rusted sheet metal, some tarred planks from the pier and plastic sheeting. Enrique showed him where to find the stuff and helped lug it up the hill. The shack kept the rain out. Good. And the heat in. Bad. That was two years ago. He could go back if he wanted. Hard to get started though. He got up at noon. Down to the cantina for a drink and a bite, another drink. Well, certainly couldn’t leave at three. Heat. But then you didn’t want to start after six, especially since the next town was a couple of hundred miles away and only desert in between.
Her image never changed. Marlene. It was because of her son they’d met, a bright towhead, short and wiry. Jack taught fifth grade at Highland Elementary in Visalia. Thomas didn’t mix much with the other kids, picked on a lot. He watched over the boy in the school yard. Didn’t stop every tussle, just the ones where Thomas faced off with more than one kid. Got to learn how to get tough, but you don’t need to be maimed in the process.
Thomas lived with his mother, but hadn’t met her; no father around. She didn’t have time for the parent-teacher conferences: classes during the day, work at night. They’d handled it on the phone. Few formalities; only: How’s Thomas doing? What does he need to do to bring up his English grades? Okay, I’ll see it gets done.
Last day of school Thomas brought in a note from his mother. She wanted to show appreciation for taking care of her son. Didn’t want to do it sooner, while her son was his student, but now. Could he come over for dinner Sunday? There’d be the three of them.
He put on slacks and a sports coat and drove out to a housing development just north of town. Sort of raw feel to it, sawn ends of lumber everywhere, newly set concrete and roof nails still shiny. Lawns coming in.
Thomas and his mother were at the door waiting for him. He’d met her before, at the Spice 1 Club, the kittenish one called Nikki. He’d gone there for a bachelor party for one of his ski buddies. This evening she wore a buttoned-up print blouse, tan chino skirt, ballet slippers, blonde hair pulled back and a shy smile.
“Pleased to meet you Ms Brown. I’ve enjoyed having Thomas as a student.”
“Call me Marlene. He says without you he’d probably be three inches shorter.”
“Reckon everybody needs a bit of taking care of some time in their life.”
They went through the house which had been furnished by the same people Jack used, Ikea, but his was raw and jangly, too-bright reds and blues; hers was matched browns and comfortable. In the back, a small patio, a postage stamp lawn and beds of multi color pansies closed in by a pine pole fence. Heat waves rising from the grill. Jack tossed a Frisbee with Thomas while she cooked. Steaks, baked potatoes and salad, strawberries and ice cream for desert.
She kept the conversation on him. Where he’d grown up: Santa Rosa, where he went to college: University of Nevada, Reno, how he ended up in Visalia: best job offer he’d gotten. He’d majored in math in college. Teaching paid off his student loans until he figured out something else.
“I like the people here, low key, friendly,” he said. “And there’s Bear Mountain and Tahoe for skiing.”
“Skiing! I love to ski,” Thomas cut in.
“You’ve been once,” his mother reminded him, “and fell down ten times.”
“Yeah, but I still like it. Maybe next year I can get lessons.”
Jack thought about offering to take him. He liked the kid, Marlene was easy to be with and he wished he’d had some chances as a kid. He was four when his folks broke up, resented the hell out of both of them for leaving him, raised by an aunt, in and out of trouble. Timing didn’t seem right to say anything to Thomas.
He asked Marlene about herself but all he got was that she’d moved from the L.A. area a couple of years ago. Visalia was a good place for kids and gave her the chance to study nursing at College of the Sequoias.
Thomas started yawning and his mother sent him off to bed. She wrapped him in her arms and embarrassed him with a big sloppy kiss. When he came over to Jack, he didn’t know what to do and they ended up in a hug that was more angles than curves.
Next day he went for a hike in nearby Sequoia Park. Morning was foggy, no one around. He passed through the oak stands, trudging uphill along Ladybug Trail, mist hanging in the upper branches, Spanish moss grazing his face, Marlene’s lips on his cheek as they’d said good-by.
He got lost in his thoughts and what he knew about her. Until a week later. Ran into her at the hardware store. In cut-offs, dirty sneakers and grease smudges on her face.
“Damn sink backed up and the landlord is out of town.”
“Can I help?”
Back at her place Jack crawled under the sink to check the drain.
“Hey, move over. I want to see what you’re doing. You might not be around the next time something goes.”
A whiff of perfume invaded the small space as she wedged herself in beside him. He showed her the coupling nuts to loosen, then scooted out.
Two minutes later. “Okay, new one’s on; come back in for a check.”
Jack squeezed in beside her, closer maybe than necessary, “Hey fellow, you’re in my space.”
He made the pretext of a thorough inspection, tightening up the nuts, testing the pipe.
They squirmed back out, stood up, looked at one another. He reached for her, but she turned, went to the refrigerator, pulled out a couple of beers and led him out to the patio.
“Thomas is going to be sorry he missed you. He’s off with the scout troop camping in the Sierras.”
They sat sipping their beer listening to the whirr of lawnmowers and the buzz of hedge clippers from the neighbors’ yards.
“Nice being here.”
Jack stared at the fence, thinking about her. His last relationship had ended a year ago; it took all of two months to go from inferno to ash.
“Good to have the company.”
Marlene lay back on the chaise, legs stretched out, eyes closed, but he noticed every now and again she glanced over and her face wrinkled up.
“Hey, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” She turned away.
“You usually frown while you’re drinking beer?”
She faced him, tears on her cheeks.
“I’d hoped to tell you before you found out.”
“Tell me what?”
“You were in the front row in a yellow Hawaiian shirt about a year ago.”
Jack tried to appear clueless. Her eyes wouldn’t let him.
“Yeah, I saw you dance.”
“That’s not the kind of person I am.” She straightened up in the chair. “But the money lets us live here. Thomas thinks I work night shift at the hospital.”
He moved over and put his arm around her.
She’d been sixteen. Classic tale of the cheerleader and captain of the football team who split with his scholarship to Ohio State when she was three months pregnant.
“The easiest thing would have been an abortion. But I could feel him growing inside me. When his heart beat the first time I knew he was mine, mine to take care of.”
“I wasn’t assuming anything, okay? The person I know is a good mom with some dirt on her face.”
Her parents threw her out of the house. Stayed with a friend who’d just had a baby. Waitresses, lookers, good tips, surviving. Then her friend found a topless place in Orange, Marlene followed, real money.
“My friend got into drugs, Thomas was about to go into kindergarten, so I moved up here to raise him.”
Jack’s miracle started that afternoon. That’s how he thought about time with Marlene. A rough start though. A couple of weeks after they fixed the sink, a party at one of his buddies’ houses. People spread all over the small ranch house and into the yard, beer floating in ice tubs, ribs in the Weber, guacamole dip and taco chips on every table. End of the night, one of the guys who’d been at the Spice 1 Club with Jack recognized Marlene. Beer-fueled Pete shouted out, “Folks, this here is Nikki, star of the Spice 1 up in Fresno. Lady knows how to get a party going. Why don’t you do that dance for us and show us those fine titties of yours.”
Marlene blushed and turned away. Pete’s date clapped her hand over his mouth, only to have it ripped away.
“Shut up Pete,” Jack said.
“Why? I want some action.”
Jack stepped into his face and cold cocked him. Pete’s head bounced off the floor.
Jack pulled Marlene outside. “Sorry, that won’t happen again. Not as long as you’re with me.”
“Honey, thank you for defending my honor, but this isn’t going to work, you and me, if you beat up on every guy who makes a smart remark. I can handle it. Promise.”
“Take me home; I bet Pete calls in the morning.”
They married at the end of August and he moved into her place. She quit the Club and went to school full time. Two years later, a degree and ER nurse at Tulare. Jack decided fifth grade was the sweet spot in education. “The kids do what you tell them and want to learn something besides.” Went on to get a masters in curriculum and instruction at UofP.
Ski trips, hiking and horseback riding punctuated the next seven years; the three of them. The only fights were about Thomas: He needs to be studying more. Give the kid a break, it’s Lakers/Celtics tonight.
The night Thomas graduated from high school, honors and a scholarship to Claremont, they picked him up from his graduation party and drove down to Vegas for their own celebration. Next night Jack won big. They packed up and headed north. Talked about what they’d do with the cash: forty-five thou. Jack and Thomas ran through a list of boats, ski gear and electronics they would buy. Marlene let them spin.
“Enough of that you guys. What about a trip to Africa, climb Kilimanjaro. You claim the Sierras are too tame. Nineteen thousand feet satisfy you?
“After Kilimanjaro we’ll chase gazelle across the Serengeti on horseback.”
Jack leaned over and kissed her left cheek. Thomas popped up from the back seat and kissed her right one.
Highway 99, ten miles south of Visalia, Marlene and Thomas dozed; Jack hummed Over the Rainbow and chewed gum to stay awake. A broadening glow of light lined the crest of the mountains to the east. The road was in the dark. Other side of the road, coming toward him, he saw a truck swerve. Shards of divider-concrete crashed against his windshield, the wide eyes and toothless gasp of the driver, the chrome grille, the flood lights inside the car and Marlene’s scream.
Jack sputtered awake, toppled on his chair and rubbed his eyes. Enrique was there next to him. “You still want this beer?”
Jesus. From such happiness, deep bone, deep gut happiness to nothing. God, please let me forget, goddamnit let me forget. Bring on the OxyContin, bring on every beer Enrique can find. I can’t go back. I had a miracle. I’ve wrung Visalia dry.
Richard awoke in darkness. He panicked as one does in the middle of the night. Who was he? Where was he?
He pieced together the facts of his existence. First off, he was in bed. That he was sure of. Janet and his son were at her parents’ house for the weekend.
He breathed again. All this was good.
A sound – downstairs or outside.
This was unusual. They lived on a cul-de-sac quieter than a cemetery. But no cause for fear. Probably just a raccoon digging through the trash or a car door slamming.
More sounds, quieter sounds. Could be any number of things. Maybe mice scratching the walls. Or his overactive imagination.
Maybe he left the door unlocked. He wanted to remember the satisfying moment when the deadbolt thunked into place and sealed his world off from the one outside. But that moment eluded him.
He wouldn’t have thought twice about it if they had just installed the home alarm system he wanted. But Janet had to interrogate every expense.
Richard removed the warm comforter. Picked up his glasses off the nightstand and opened a drawer. The gun felt cold and strange in his hands. He put on a pair of slippers. Crept across the hardwood floor and down the carpeted hallway. Stopped at the top of the stairs. Listened.
Yes! There it was. The noises of another human. A nocturnal creature moving objects around in the dark. He exhaled for a long time. Filled his lungs with air.
He moved down the stairs slower than anything he had done before, breath trapped in his lungs. He made no sound at all. Just needed to make it to the light switch at the bottom.
Slivers of moonlight illuminated the family room. A shadow bounced back and forth. Maybe the thief was looking for jewelry or credit cards.
Richard couldn’t help but think how proud Janet would be of him. Of course, she would be furious when she found out he bought a gun without her knowledge. But if he stopped a burglar, how could she argue with –
Light filled the room. Richard’s eyes adjusted and he realized the burglar had turned on a lamp.
He didn’t look at all like he was supposed to. This burglar would be as comfortable hopping on the train to Midtown as robbing a house.
“Thought I heard you coming down the stairs,” the intruder said. “Nice pajamas.”
Richard suddenly remembered to lift the gun. “Hold it right there!”
“Now why’d you have to bring that thing?”
Richard’s stupid glasses had slid down his nose. He pushed them back up. “Or – or I’ll shoot!”
The burglar leaned against the back of the sofa. “You want to get blood all over this nice couch and these lovely hardwood floors?” He picked up a framed photo of the family in front of the Grand Canyon. “I don’t think she’d be too happy about that.”
“Well then, I’ll call the police.”
“With what? Do you even know where your phone is?”
“No, you’re not going to do that either. Here’s what’s going to happen. What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m not telling you that!”
“Just your first name. Why does it matter?”
He sighed. “It’s Richard.”
“Ok, Richard. I’m going to approach you, take the gun, and unload it. Then I’m going to give it back to you. All right?”
Richard tried to control his shaking his hands. “No, no! Not all right. Listen –”
The burglar slid over and extracted the gun from Richard’s grip. Racked the slide and a bullet popped out. The magazine clattered to the floor. He handed the weapon back to Richard as he said he would.
“There we go. Much better.” He put a hand on Richard’s shoulder and gestured to a rolling chair in front of a desk. “Now, you take a seat right over here. Would you like some ice water? Maybe a cup of tea to calm your nerves?”
Richard noticed his underarms were damp. His blood pressure kept ticking up. Still, he couldn’t admit anymore weakness than he already had. “No, no.”
“You’re ok then?”
The burglar crouched and looked him in the eye. “Good. Now I’m trying to avoid some very dangerous people. I need a car. I see that your keys are on this desk, so I’m going to take yours. You have two options. You can call the police right after I leave, and maybe they’ll track me down. If they do, I’ll make sure to trash your car. But if you wait to call the police until noon tomorrow, I’ll leave it at a rest stop, good as new with a full tank of gas. The police will probably find it soon thereafter. So, what’s your choice?”
Richard didn’t want to make this decision. He stared at a moisture stain in the ceiling. Wondered where that came from and how he could solve it.
“Either way, I’m taking it.” He grabbed the keys off the table and smiled. “I hope you make the smart decision.”
The burglar left. Richard took off his glasses, put his head in his hands. He went to the kitchen, picked up the cordless phone.
He listened to the dial tone for a while. Eventually he pressed the off button and made himself a cup of tea. Added cream and sugar and watched cable news for a half hour before going back to bed.
He could still get five hours of sleep before he had to go to work. But how was he going to get there without his car?
They crept noiselessly across the tarmac as they approached the van from its nearside blind spot. The father led the way issuing pre arranged hand signals to his son. They’d rehearsed the line they would have to take to remain unseen until both knew exactly where to tread.
Cigarette smoke drifted from an open window until a slight breeze dispersed the cancerous effluent. Conversation about yesterdays match escaped the confines of the van as the two men inside championed their respective favourites.
‘Fuck off, will ya. He was offside.’
‘Then why didn’t the linesman flag him?’
‘It’s always the same with your lot. They get all the breaks. Wouldn’t have been given if we’d been playing anyone else. But Man-Fucking-Ure always get the big decisions, especially at Old Trafford.’
‘We got the three points though.’
The two men were close friends who argued about football with good humour despite their divided loyalties. It was the only way they could keep their sanity when cooped up for hours at a time.
‘Did you hear something then?’
‘No. What was it?’
‘Probably nothing. I think I’ll check it out though.’
‘What’s to check out? It’s broad daylight and we’re not exactly hidden. Sit down and don’t open the door, it’s cold enough with the bloody window open.’
Outside, the father had reached the back of the van and was frantically signalling his son to hurry up.
When the teen reached the security of the back of the van he quietly laid down the canvas bag he was carrying and quietly unzipped it.
The father reached into the bag and removed two plastic five litre petrol cans. One he screwed the filler nozzle onto while he simply unscrewed the top on the other. Petrol fumes filled the air.
Working quickly, the son removed the remaining petrol can and after unscrewing the top, laid it on it’s side underneath the van.
The father used his fingers to count to three and when he reached three the son laid a trail of petrol away from the van using the nozzled can. As the son was doing this the father whipped open the vans back door and launched the open petrol can inside taking just enough time to make sure the two men were splashed with the flammable liquid.
Slamming the door shut he raced across to his son and grabbed the proffered matchbox. A quick strike ignited a match which in turn lit the entire box.
Dropping the flaming matchbox onto the sons petrol trail caused a river of flames to run to the van just as the back door opened.
As the first man stumbled out swearing the flames reached the van and ignited the petrol cans underneath the van causing a fireball to erupt which in turn detonated the one inside via the still open rear door.
Both of the men who were in the van suffered horrific burns and died before reaching hospital.
At a press conference held later that day, the Chief Constable vowed to apprehend the person or persons responsible for setting alight the Police Camera Van, and causing the deaths of two good, honest family men with every means available to him.
She was a beautiful woman.
In the crosshairs of the 10-40×50 rifle scope her jet black hair waved like some erotic siren in the morning breeze. She stood, facing two men, in a black dress that revealed long, sculptured legs. And white heels. The heels lifted her and sculptured the legs even more.
Lips, even from this distance and through the scope, glistened with a kind of sensual invitation. Around a shockingly narrow waist she wore a white leather belt. White on black—with just a touch of bright red—completed the picture. In the scope she looked like fantasy. Something unattainable. A vision any man would lust for.
Lifting a hand up he adjusted the scope to compensate for the slight cross wind blowing from his right to left. A little over 900 yards. So far away the bullet would arrive before the crack of the gunshot. Removing his hand from the scope he gently clasped the plastic grip of the .408 caliber sniper’s rifle and settled himself in comfortably. Gently, like a lover caressing his latest conquest, the right index finger extended and barely touched the wide trigger.
Too bad someone had to die today. Too bad she got herself involved with the wrong people. Too bad there was no other way to bring this dirty little mess to any other conclusion. Too bad.
Through the scope he watched her. Saw her laughing at someone’s joke. Saw the casual, relaxed way she moved among the two men. Saw the heavy briefcase she gripped casually in her right hand.
He had to compensate for the slow roll of the large fishing boat he was using as a shooting platform 900 yards out in the bay. But the waves gently rocking the expensive craft were constant and could be anticipated. This far out on the blue waters of the bay he was far removed from the normal boaters coming into or exiting the cove where the wharf she stood, jutted out into the water.
Softly the tip of his index finger on the trigger began to apply a little pressure. The ugly machine in his hands . . . custom designed and built by a friend . . . was accurate out to 1,300 yards. Just the blue steel of a bull barrel, a finely machined firing bolt, a built-in shooting bipod, the plastic shoulder pad with its built-in shock absorbing system. And the big scope.
When the gun in his arms belched fire and thunder he hardly felt a thing. Not waiting to see if his bullet hit the target he slipped off the top of the fishing boat’s cabin and stepped into the cabin and started the boat’s powerful Chrysler engines. Slowly turning the wheel to one side he got the boat moving. Not too fast to draw attention. Not too slow.
Behind him, far away, he thought he heard the wail of sirens.
Too bad. Just too bad . . .
” . . . it has to be done, Smitty. She has to be the leak. She’s the only one who knows where all the skeletons are hidden. No one else does. Take her out and we seal the leak. We seal the leak and we stay out of prison. Simple as that.”
Simple as that.
Standing at the desk, in an office large enough to be some abdicated dictator’s throne room, he stood holding the color 8×10 photo of a beautiful raven haired woman dressed in a very skimpy bikini at the prow of a very expensive yacht. Hair blowing in the wind. A hand up to a cheek in an effort to move a sliver of raven hair from his eyes. Beautiful. Long limbed. Stunningly attractive legs. A figure that would make a eunuch grown in regret.
Dropping the picture onto the desk, eyes as black as the soul of the living dead looked up at the man sitting in the high backed leather chair on the other side. He was holding a very expensive cigar to his lips. Lips that were molded into an irritating little smirk. Dressed in a three piece Egyptian cotton suit, he looked like a very successful corporate lawyer. Which in fact the was. The lawyer part. But one who worked for a crime boss by the name of Jesus Galanti.
“Galanti wants this done?”
The man with the black eyes spoke in a soft whisper. But a whisper that could send chills down a spine. Or even make a criminal confess to the cops voluntarily the moment he heard the dark eyed man’s name was interested in him.
“He wants the leak plugged, Smitty. A grand jury is breathing down his neck and the Feds have two task forces assigned to try and bring him down. Someone is leaking information to the Feds. Information only two or three people in the organization would know. She’s Galanti’s accountant. She’s got her finger in every money stream our employer is involved in. It has to be her.”
Howard Hensley was not a corporate lawyer. He was a well known criminal lawyer who had a reputation of taking on the more photogenic, therefore the most newsworthy, cases. Everyone knew he liked defending the really big mob bosses in cases that might involve a six o’clock news sound bite.
“When?” Smitty asked quietly, looking down at the photo of the woman again.
“As soon as you can,” Hensley grinned, pushing himself forward and reaching for an envelope on his well manicured desk. “Here’s some money for expenses. But don’t take too long. The grand jury convenes bright and early this coming Monday. If she’s their star witness and she isn’t around to testify the Feds will have nothing on Galanti. So it’s imperative she’s removed from the scene no later than Sunday night.”
Smitty took the heavy envelope and slid it into an inside pocket of his dark gray sport coat. Eyeing the lawyer for a moment he nodded then slipped the photo off the desk and pocketed it as well.
“The problem will be resolved by Sunday night. Tell Galanti he can sleep soundly tonight.”
Hensley painted that irritating smirk on his gray lips and nodded before reaching for the fat Cuban cigar. For his part the dark eyed hit man said nothing but turned and walked out of the large office. Taking the elevator down to the ground floor he slipped the photo of the woman out and gazed at her intently.
Two hours later he was knocking on the door of a large condo. Dressed in the coveralls of an electrician and gripping a large metal took box in one hand he waited for the woman’s maid to open it. But when the door opened it wasn’t the Hispanic maid. Eyes dropping down Smitty looked into the smiling face of a seven year old, raven haired little boy.
“Hi!” the boy said, smiling wide, green eyes bright as he looked up at the dark eyed man. “You’ve come to fix the lights?”
“Madre de dios! Robbie, Robbie! You shouldn’t do that! Open the door to strangers like that!” the short, squat woman of indeterminate age cackled like an angry hen as she hurried to the boy, stepped in front of him and bodily moved him to stand directly behind her. “Pardon, senor. But the boy has no fear of strangers whatsoever. None! He drives his mother to tears and gives me high blood pressure every time he does this! But, how can I help you?”
Smitty, with blue contact lenses hiding his eyes and a body suit on underneath the overalls to give the appearance of a man fifty pounds heavier and definitely out of shape, smiled and shrugged.
“Got two boys of my own, lady. They drive me crazy as well. But I hope they never change. The super called and said you were having trouble with the electricity?”
“Trouble?” the maid said, her face melting into a simple puzzle. “The only trouble we’re having is the switch in the kitchen. Sometimes it doesn’t work.”
“That might be the problem,” the disguised man said, nodding firmly. “The super said you were having a problem with something and asked me to stop by and check it out. Doing this on my lunch hour, lady. Helping a friend out. Can I come in and check it out?”
“Sure!” the boy chirped, head sticking from and grinning as he looked up at Smitty. “Can I watch you fix it? Please?”
“Well,” the maid hesitated, looking indecisive, but then shrugging and shaking her head in confusion. “I should call the senorita first. But if you can fix the kitchen light she will be very pleased. So come in, come in! Let us close the door before someone else comes!”
Smitty, disguised, smiled and half turned to briefly glance at the condo’s security camera high on the wall of the hallway. He wanted to make sure whoever was watching. . . if anyone was watching . . . got a clear look at his altered face and physique.
If the Feds were tapping into the security cameras he wanted them to chase ghosts. If someone else was watching . . .
He didn’t know about the faulty kitchen light switch. But he believed in serendipity. Walking straight to the kitchen, the dark haired boy following on his heels, he sat the took box down on a kitchen counter top and opened it.
Forty-five minutes. That’s all it took. Forty-five minutes to electronically sweep the apartment. Forty-five minutes to discover the place was heavily bugged. Electronic bugs in the kitchen, the living room, the master bedroom. High tech wireless bugs the Feds favored. Smiling, the boy at his side talking his head off and watching everything he did, Smitty didn’t touch the bugs. But he did plant a couple of his own. Sent the boy back to the kitchen to get him a glass of water each time he sat one. One in the woman’s bedroom. One in the little office just off her bedroom.
He even found the problem with the kitchen light switch. One of the wires was hanging by a strand or two of bare copper wire. With the quick efficiency of a man who knew what he was doing he cut the damaged piece off, peeled the plastic covering off another section of the wiring, and rewired the switch.
Both the boy and the maid cheered and clapped when he flipped the switch on and the light came on bright and clear. Saying his goodbyes he walked to the door and left. The boy with the green eyes and raven black hair following him out of the condo and all the way down the carpeted hall to the elevator. Constantly talking.
When the elevator doors closed and the boy said goodbye, Smitty stared at himself in the polished chrome steel of the elevator walls. On the face he couldn’t recognize himself was a quiet, almost forlorn mask. There had once been a time he had a wife. Once, a long time ago, they talked about having kids. But the wife was gone. And there was no thought about kids. Until now.
Three blocks away from the woman’s condo he handed the uniform and electric repairman’s truck back to an acquaintance he knew and climbed into his black Caddy CTS-V. Driving away, watching in the rear view mirror the real electrician staring down at the five brand new one hundred dollar bills in his right hand in surprise, he smiled and turned at a corner and disappeared from view. Glancing at the Rolex on his wrist, he thought he’d make the next stop in time. But he had to hurry.
There too he found the office heavily bugged with the Feds wireless technology. This time he momentarily forced the security cameras of Smith & Dane’s Accounting office to experience a momentary glitch. Enough of a glitch for him to slip through a ground floor window and enter the woman’s private office unobserved. It took just three minutes to find the bugs and to install his own.
One other place he had to go before his surveillance routine was completed. It took even less time than it took installing the bugs in the woman’s office. Driving away from the wharf he reached to his right and inserted the ear plug into his left ear and then on the little black box setting in the passenger’s seat he selected a number on a small dial.
And began listening.
It didn’t take him long. Thanks to the pleasant but lengthy conversation with the woman’s son he had an idea where to look. All it took was forty eight hours. And then he took the shot . . .
. . . three hours after his target went down.
Standing in front of the door of the woman’s condo with a large bouquet of red roses cradled in one arm. The moment his finger removed from the doorbell she opened the door and looked straight into his eyes.
Raven black hair. Green olive colored eyes. Now red rimmed from her two hours of grieving.
“Yes?” she said, tissue in one hand and her voice shaky.
“Mommy, who is it?”
The boy’s voice. Still bright and fearless. Still so constantly curious. A smile played across his thin lips. To be that way again. Constantly curious. Bright. Fearless. Instead he was . . .. What?
“Mrs. Dane, a friend of ours asked me to drop by and bring you these.”
For a moment the woman’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch in a sharp pang of fear. Glancing at the roses and then up into the plain, ordinary face of the man standing in the doorway dressed in a sport coat and slacks, she made herself relax and stepped out into the hall.
Smitty handed the roses to her and glanced past her at the boy. His hand reached inside the left pocket of his sport coat. Fingers wrapped around a small black box as his thumb pushed in a small button in the middle of the device.
No one noticed it except those who were eavesdropping. Suddenly their microphones erupted in a screeching noise so loud people wearing ear phones and listening in had to throw them off violently in an effort to save their eardrums. The condo building’s security cameras became a sea of white fuzz so thick nothing could be discerned clearly.
The electronic counter-measures would last only a couple of minutes. Enough time for him to get his message across to the beautiful woman.
“Mrs. Dane, my name is Smitty. I am a professional hitman. Two days ago Howard Hensley paid me a lot of money to kill you. He wanted to convince his boss and your employer, Jesus Galanti, that you were the one who was leaking information to the FBI. By killing you he thought all suspicions would be thrown off of him.”
Color drained from her face. Tears filled beautiful olive green eyes and began streaking down her cheeks. But she turned silently, pushed her son back into living room of the condo, and closed the door firmly before turning to look at the man standing in the hall with her.
“You killed Howard?”
“We do not have time for questions and answers, Mrs. Dane. Not if you and your son want to live. As I see, right now you have two very serious problems. The FBI has your condo and your office bugged. They’re trying to wrap you up into their little web of deceit just like they did with Hensley. Problem number two is Galanti. He’s furious his number two man was gunned down. He thinks another mob boss ordered the hit. I think I can eventually convince Galanti it was your boyfriend who was the leak. But it will take time. Right now it is imperative you and your son leave town.”
One of Smitty’s hands came up. Between index finger and thumb was a plain white 3×5 lined card. On it was a name followed by the number five. Reflexively the beautiful woman took the card from his hand and glanced down at it.
“That’s the name of a wharf across town. The slip number is on it. Be there in one hour, Mrs. Dane. The two of you. I can get you out of town to a place that is safe for you and your son. You can stay there until all this blows over. But you must decide now. I can do no more.”
Glancing up to the security camera Smitty turned and walked away. Leaving the beautiful woman standing in the silence of the condo’s hall . . .
. . . Howard Hensley shouldn’t have given him the photo of the woman in the skimpy bikini standing on the prow of a beautiful yacht. His yacht. He shouldn’t have dismissed his lieutenant’s pleas not to use a cell phone . . . even if it was a cheap over the counter throwaway . . . and talk to the Feds while on the boat. For all his flash and show time photogenic showmanship he wasn’t a very smart man. It didn’t take long for the dark eyed man to figure it out. The Feds had come calling on Howard Hensley. They had a noose around his neck but didn’t want to corral him just yet. They wanted to play him and hope they could eventually hang Jesus Galanti.
The bullet hit Hensley in the back of the head. Mrs. Dane and the other man she was with were twenty yards away when Hensley went down. And as he had predicted, the bullet hit the target before the faint crack of a rifle going off somewhere came to their ears.
No one thought about looking out into the bay at the large fishing boat slowly trawling the waters a mile away, half a dozen big ocean-going fishing poles rising up expectantly hoping for a big catch.
My eyes hurt; it feels like they’re boiling in their sockets. All around me the rattle of coins is incessant and overwhelming. Reels that spin and clunk hammer their own brand of pain into my head. Everything washes out in a swirling fog of noise and neon. Somewhere from a million miles away – or maybe right beside me – a claxon blares followed by a crash of quarters and a wild shout.
“Oh yeah baby, that’s what I’m talking about!” People move towards the sounds.
I have to fight my way upstream, drowning in a tide of bat-faced housewives clutching blue plastic cups and a convention of salesmen with sweat stained collars. They’re all craning to see which of their number has slain the beast and sated a need less desperate than mine.
I burst through the back of the crowd and gulp in the refrigerated air, it tastes like I imagine pine needles might after a rainstorm, both sweet and sharp. The cool air passes in and through me; I drink it down and manage to hold some inside. That feels a little better, things become solid again.
I start towards the cashier’s cage, choosing the one closest to the unmarked door hiding stairs to the parking garage. I join the shortest line, there’s only one woman in front of me. She’s arguing over the value of a giveaway Keno credit. Okay I can wait. I stare at my feet and watch the fog churning and climbing my legs, blue neon is flickering down amongst it like a static charge. I glance up and the woman is gone, the girl in the booth looks at me, pleasant and inquisitive from behind the grill.
“Good evening Sir how can I help you?”
I can’t speak; the words I have rehearsed in my mind for days won’t come to my lips.
“Sir, are you ok? You don’t look so good.”
I try to smile but know it appears on my face as a grimace. The girl looks anxious now, fingering the button on her intercom.
“Sorry, I ate some bad shrimp.” I manage to blurt.
She relaxes, the pleasant expression rests comfortably on her face again.
I reach into my jacket, my hand lingers for a moment on my wallet, a voice tells me that there is still time, nothing is in play yet. I ignore it, my fingers move past the wallet and close around the grip of a nickel plated nine. I look to the floor again, this time seeing only the dust on my shoes and the dubious patterned depths of the carpet.
“Excuse me, sir?”
The gun slides free; it seems impossibly bright in the refracted light of gaudy chandeliers and pulsing video poker.
“I want everything in the draw. No alarms and no heroics.”
For a moment palpable fear dances naked between us, then vanishes as she screams.
The nickel plate sparkles in my hand and I feel the trigger under my finger. I tighten my grip and it moves just a fraction, barely noticeable but I notice and so does the girl. How much more before the pistol bucks, cordite fills the air and dull metal punches a hole through life.
“Drop the fuckin’ gun, asshole.”
Security arrives breathless to stand behind me with arms braced and a Pernach clasped tightly between sweaty palms.
“I said put it down, now!”
One life or two, maybe even three, just another game of chance in a room full of them. The biggest gamble made not on the turn of a card, or the spin of a wheel but the pressure of a finger. There’s no time to study the pain only to make the play, to hit or hold, the odds are stacked but they always were.
I feel the pressure and hear the sharp crack. The fog clouds back in on me, this time it’s chased through with a spray of red. I’m out of breath and tasting copper. My legs leave and the carpet rushes up to meet me. No cards left to play I’m down to the felt. The house wins.
Chief O’Malley and Detective Sorelli stood in the dark, stale booth behind the one-way mirror. The booth still smelled like cigarettes from back in the days when you could smoke in it. The interrogation room was wired, the tape recorder on ‘pause.’ Jimmy sat back and took his earphone off, letting out a breath of Taco Bell.
“We only got a day with him to talk,” the Chief grunted through the hoarse voice of the guy that put ALL of that smell in the air. “He’s been here long enough. He won’t lawyer up, but if we start asking the wrong questions, he might. We gotta’ get him to talk. He could bring down Richie Rich.”
Richie Rich was engaged in everything, his fingers in many pies – hell, the whole damn bakery, from jacking freighters to fake IDs to the global sex trade. He got the nickname for the way he flaunted his ill-gotten gains; mansions, yachts, sports-cars; he even had diamond collars on his five Rottweilers.
“What’s he lookin’ at now?” Sorelli said.
“Just on what we have him on, at most, a year.” The Chief said.
“OK, I can do it off that.”
“Where the hell were you yesterday?” asked the Chief.
“You could say I was sealin’ the deal…”
“Is that why you got a shiner?” Sorelli touched his sore eye.
“Nah, I was fucking the cleaning lady and I slipped on the floor wax.”
“Smart-ass.” Chief chuckled. “Go in there. Seal the deal…”
Sorelli hopped out of the booth and walked into the interrogation room, his game face on, cold as a rock in Antarctica. Joey Sips’ sat in the hard steel chair, his cuffed hands covered in tattoos, long goatee and bald-head rolling back and forth on his head. Sorelli’d uncuff him, but Joey’d lunge. Sorelli’d shoot, and no one would get Richie Rich.
“Joe…” He said, just standing there with his hands in his pockets. “You know what we really want…”
“Ya’ ain’t gettin nothin’ from me, pig” Joey leaned back, as best he could, and smiled.
“We have enough to put you away for a year…”
“Shit, and that’s all you got to threaten me with, bitch!?” Joey said laughing. “I did three years in Attica, motherfucker… I’ll do a year in the county standin’ on my head!”
“If you want to…” Sorelli said, still calm. “You were a real bully in Attica, weren’t you…”
“I got by…”
Sorelli laughed. “You tortured the fuck outta that kid, Ian… what’s his name… Ian Braun?”
Joey took a deep breath. “Little punk. Hell yeah I did!” He was proud of himself.
“I just went down to Attica yesterday, know a couple guards there, ya’ know?” Sorelli said, “And I was reading your prison file. All the times you put that kid in the infirmary. Word was that you fucked him… and fucked his woman when you got out… that true?”
“I ain’t fuck[ed] him… and that other thing wasn’t on my file!”
“Oh, no… Ian told me that.” Sorelli commented, never losing his calm.
“Fuck that punk.”
“On that thought, hold on…” Sorelli left the room, back into the booth. He could see Joey twitchin’ with his fingers like an audience member waiting for the punch-line. The Chief leaned over as Sorelli pulled an 8 x 10 from his laptop case.
“You better be going somewhere with this…” Chief said.
“That’s where I was yesterday.” Sorelli replied. “And I am.” He walked out of the booth and back into the interrogation room. He flapped the photo before tossing it on the table.
“Five years can change a man…” Sorelli said. “After you did that to him… and his old lady, Ian felt like he needed protection. So he joined up with the Aryan Brotherhood. That was five years ago. They made him hit the weights, push-ups, sit-ups, taught him how to fight…”
“He didn’t even want to be seen talking to me on the field. I had to get him in administration after he ordered a riot… In Sing Sing.”
“Thought he was in Attica…” Joey said.
“We’ll he runs the AB for the whole New York prison system now.” Sorelli said. “He turned out to be a good leader, good recruiter. And he wanted you to know why he flipped you the finger in this picture…”
Joey was rattled now. “Why?”
“‘Cause that’s what he’s gonna’ have someone do to you every day you wind up in his prisons.”
Sorelli let it sink in. Joey stared at the photo. Ian was a muscle-bound, tattoo’d ball of rage and hatred, and he had Joey to thank for it. He’d killed three people in Attica, and Lord knows how many deaths led a line of blood back to his kites and code words on the yard.
“But I’m going to the county…” Joey said blankly.
“Well… maybe.” Sorelli said.
“One year is a county bid,” Sorelli said, “But if we tell the ADA we want him to recommend one year and one day, well, you know where you do that time…”
“Excuse me… I’ll be right back.” Once again Sorelli went into the booth. The Chief’s jaw was as slack as Joey’s. Joey was gonna’ spill as soon as Sorelli walked back in there; they all knew it, even Jimmy.
“Sonofabitch!” He said, slapping Sorelli on the shoulder.
“Chief, can you call ADA Rockwell?” Sorelli asked. “He’ll be prosecuting. Ask him for some help with a sentencing recommendation before I go in… We can let Joey stew for an hour…”
“What do I ask him to add?”
“All I need is a day.”
The red sky that morning should have been my warning, but I chose to ignore it. I had a job to do and I had to get there before the snow came.
I drove from my house and onto the country lane, my speed picking up as I changed through the gears. Then it came, like a blanket falling from the sky. Huge white flakes hit the windscreen, the wipers doing nothing to shift them.
I tried to slow the car but the brakes wouldn’t work. Surely the snow couldn’t stop them working. I pressed them again and they kicked in, sending the car into a skid. There was a loud bang and the car shuddered. Don’t panic, I thought, it was just a small deer or something.
It was then that the weird thing happened. The car was motionless. Suddenly the roof started creaking; the noise of metal being crushed filled the cars interior. The side windows exploded outwards and within seconds I was being covered in freezing cold snow. The snow filled the car. I tried to push it away from my face but it was getting into my mouth, up my nose. With each panicked breath I took the snow entered my throat. Is it actually possible to drown in snow? I asked myself.
I began to panic as the snow kept packing into the car. I was freezing, literally. I couldn’t move my arms anymore and the snow was freezing my throat. It happened quickly. I suddenly couldn’t breath and blacked out.
* * *
I woke up in a brightly lit room. I wasn’t in a bed, as you would expect, but sat upright in a chair. I looked around the room, looking for a door or a window, but there was nothing. It was only when I concentrated that I noticed that the whole room was moving, even the floor, almost cloudlike.
“Where am I?” I asked out loud.
“Where do you want to be?” asked a deep, booming voice.
“Who’s that?” I asked looking round.
“My maker? What are you talking about? Where are you and where is this?”
“I’m everywhere and you are in the decision room. This is where you meet your fate. You are to go through the door. There you will live for eternity.”
The cloudy movement in front of me slowly parted to reveal a door. I got up and walked over to it, grabbing the handle. I hesitated a moment, looking back to see if there was anyone else in the room. I slowly turned the handle and in a flash the door was ripped from its hinges. The room was filled with flames. Hideous looking creatures flew through the flames, screaming and laughing. I tried to take a step back but couldn’t.
“There’s no going back. This is your destination. This is your payback,” the voice boomed.
I was suddenly grabbed by the throat and dragged into the flames. Pain seared through every nerve in my body as my clothing, and then my skin was scorched from my body. I screamed out in sheer agony but it was cut short as the flames burnt my throat. I was meant to see this happening to me as my eyes were somehow protected from the flames. I looked down at my hands and watched as the skin bubbled and burst, the same on my arms and stomach and legs. I could feel my face melting away and lifted my skeletal hands to touch it. I was looking like a monster, the monster I actually was.
* * *
3 Days Later.
“Holy shit! Boss, boss, you’d better come and look at this.”
Detective Derek Morris walked to the back of the wreckage and looked into the boot. Four black bin bags were all open for him to look into. The body parts were frozen. The head of a young blonde woman stared up from one bag. In another there was an arm and a leg, the same in another and then her torso in another. The little toe and little finger were missing from both hands and feet. The same as the other nine bodies that had been found over the past fourteen months
Morris walked back to the driver’s side and looked in at the smashed remains of the driver. He was frozen. The car had been under heavy snow from the worst snowfall the country had ever seen. It had been noticed by a snowplough driver and reported to the police. A rescue vehicle had towed the car from where it had hit a huge oak tree.
“Maybe there is a God after all,” Morris said, “We couldn’t catch you but nature done our job for us. You met your maker.”
At the ice cream store, a kid is staring at me with chocolate melt running down his lips and chin, mouth hanging open like a grotesque trapdoor. His eyes are huge, bark-brown olives. Worst of all, he hasn’t blinked once.
I study my napkin for a solid two minutes. Looking up, I see the kid’s expression hasn’t changed a bit.
His head is over-sized, a boulder atop his spindly neck and arms. I imagine taking a baseball bat and swinging, hearing his cranium crack.
I read the sign that lists flavors and prices. I look at my fingers and notice there’s gray gunk under most of the nails.
When I turn back around, I see that ice cream’s pooled around the kid’s neck, but he’s still ogling me the same way.
I think; Okay, let’s do this.
I stare back. I do it until my pupils dry out and sting.
He still hasn’t blinked.
I wiggle my eyes.
I go cross-eyed till I’m dizzy.
I stick out my tongue
I flip him off.
He just stares.
It’s starting to get monumentally creepy.
His mom must be constipated, because she’s been in the can a while.
The Asian guy behind the counter helps in the sherbet section.
I need someone to see this – the bizarre kid who won’t stop staring.
Oh, wait. What?
I’ve been so distracted by the gawking going on that I haven’t realized until now that he resembles a guy from high school named Oliver Pratt.
Oliver and I were in the same Hater’s Club: he hated me and I loathed him. That wouldn’t have mattered, but one day while I was in the restroom, Oliver and his buddies jumped me, then stole my pants and underwear.
After that, I bought a voodoo doll that resembled him, with its twiggy cloth limbs and a puffy, hacky sack pouch for a head. I stuck a hundred needles through that ragdoll, concentrating, imagining I possessed supernatural intuition, a sixth sense that could make the pins real, puncturing Oliver’s pupils, neck, testicles.
Two days later, Oliver was horsing around on a department store escalator, fell off, and plunged through a cosmetic counter made of glass. He bled to death before they’d even removed all of the shards.
Looking hard at the kid now, avoiding his goggle eyes but taking in the other features, I see how he’s an identical version of Oliver Pratt.
This guy is Oliver.
I know it.
I’ve got good intuition. It’s what caused all this in the first place.
When the boy’s mom finally comes out, she says, “Oh, Ollie! Look at the mess you’ve made.”
Each night and every morning, I wake with pinprick sensations against my skin. I know they’re needles ready to be turned into broken blades of glass.
I stop sleeping. I hardly eat. I see Oliver’s likeness everywhere.
Something tells me he’s going to get his revenge, and soon.
I know these things.
I hear the guy next door snoring through my wall every night. Tonight it drives me out of my apartment. His wife, leaning on the flimsy metal railing of their balcony unit, a cigarette tucked between her slender fingers, tells me he has apnea and she can’t get her husband to wear the continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, mask at night. She’s out because her husband won’t wear a rubber cup over his nose. I’m out for the same reason, having a beer.
She blows a pillow of smoke the wind pushes back over her pretty face. I think about how thirty years of smoking is going to soften those beautiful features into a mask of crags and wrinkles. Right now, she is nothing but cute in an extra long tee-shirt and bed hair she has to keep pulling back from her face.
“He says it ruins our love life,” she says. She laughs. “Believe me, it was ruined before that.”
I smile, pull a drink off the bottle. “How long you been married?”
“Year. You got another one of those?”
I pull one out of the cooler next to me, stand up to hand it over. Her fingers brush my hand. It isn’t an accident.
“Thanks,” she says. “Maybe if I drink enough I’ll pass out and won’t hear him.”
“Doesn’t work,” I say. She laughs. We clink the necks of our bottles against one another. When she drinks, she turns her head and shows me how her lips fit over the opening. She watches me watch her.
“I’m Shelly,” she says. She holds her hand out over her balcony. I shake it.
We drink a bit more in the cool evening. The stars are out. A fat opossum from the field behind our units waddles down to the manmade pond and drinks from it. Shelly grimaces.
“I wouldn’t drink that water,” she says.
“I see guys catching and releasing from it all the time.”
“All those chemicals.” She shudders.
From inside her apartment I hear a panicked gulping, cry. It’s followed by a sudden storm of gagging coughs. It ends with a whistle. Shelly turns and slides the door to her patio closed.
“Your husband okay?” I ask.
“He does it all the time. He’s been told he stops breathing something like a hundred or so times a night. It’s why he has the mask. It pushes air into his nose to remind him to breath. But he won’t use it.”
“Could he die without it?”
She finishes her beer. “That was good. You think I could bum another?”
“You caught my last one.”
Shelly studies me. She smiles. “Hold on.” She slides open her door. “We’ve got some. I’m coming around.”
“No, that’s okay,” I say.
“I insist. Tom isn’t supposed to drink anymore. Alcohol and apnea apparently don’t mix.” She shoos her hand at me. I finish my beer and go inside. I don’t really want to go inside. The walls of the apartment are too antiseptic for me. I feel like I’m in a vacuum when I’m inside.
I unlock my door and it opens. Shelly stands there with a six of Sam. Summer Wheat. I’m good with that. She holds it up and removes one. I take the six, putting it in my fridge, and take one for myself. We once again clink the necks of our bottles.
“You single?” she asks looking around my place.
“Can’t you tell?”
I have NASCAR posters in plastic frames. There’s a cushy plaid couch heavy in red. I’ve got a couple of uncomfortable green chairs that I always feel like I’m slouching in when I sit in them. Everything faces the flat screen on the wall I don’t share with Shelly’s place.
Shelly smiles around the bottle as she drinks. She walks past me and sits down on the couch. In the center of the couch. It leaves me four options: one of the two chairs, or either side of her. I sit next to her. We make very small talk. It’s difficult to keep a conversation going because I can clearly see she’s not wearing anything under the long tee-shirt.
“So is Tom really that loud?” she asks.
“You should know.”
“I mean when you try to sleep. Our bedrooms share a wall, too. Like this one.” She raps her knuckles on the plaster. I put my hand on hers. “Relax, we won’t wake him. Nothing wakes him. I mean, sometimes I’m laying in bed wide awake because he’s snoring or your over here screwing someone and I’m caught in between.”
I spit up a little beer. She laughs. “Here.” She lifts up on the hem of her tee-shirt and now I know how naked she is she is under it. She wipes the beer dribble from my chin. Our eyes meet and then we’re embracing. We fall back onto the couch and start kissing, exploring with hands.
“I hear you,” she says. “I hear you over his snoring. I hear how happy those women feel and it makes me realize how miserable I am. It makes me think how I want to feel like them again, feel wild and out of control. It makes me want to be in that bed with you.”
We can hear her husband snoring even as we make love in my bedroom.
Shelly is a screamer. Straddling me, she seems to direct her ecstasy at the bedroom wall. She shudders and explodes and falls down on top of me. We lie there, breathing heavily. It slows. The room grows quiet. The world grows quiet.
Even from the other side of the bedroom wall it is quiet.
Shelly rolls her eyes up at the wall behind us.
“Shouldn’t you go check on him?” I ask.
Shelly rolls onto her stomach. She reaches out to the wall and gently touches it. The blankets slide down off her naked back.
“Sleep tight,” she whispers.
I heard the rich tone of your voice before I noticed you. Nothing had changed, you looked the same. I watched you for five minutes before you turned and saw me. A smile lighting up your face as you strolled over to where I sat. Six months earlier I walked in on you fucking my best friend. You won everyone over with your smile.
I arranged to meet you later by the fountain in the Gardens. You said it would be freezing and I asked where your sense of adventure was and that I would find a way to keep you warm. You were like a fish on a hook.
I climbed over the wall and walked towards the fountain, thankful for the full moon. I sat listening to the ping, ping of the water as it hit the iron base. I had watched a gardener one day cleaning the fountain out, surprised at how deep it was. He had placed a collection of toys feared lost forever around the edge.
I heard you shout as you came towards me, a feeble attempt to make me jump. I kissed you and handed you the brandy. I pushed you down and we sat on the wall around the fountains edge, me on your lap. Your hands were cold on my skin.
You become less and less lucid as the Brandy hit its mark, helped on by the sleeping pills crushed into it. Your head falls heavy onto my chest. The bottle is empty as it drops to the floor.
All it took was one gently push and you fall in. It was easy to hold your head under the water. Your body tried to fight but it was no good. The drugs were too strong. I thought of the lucky coins thrown in for a wish and the lost toys on the bottom. Then your body went limp and I let go.
I went out the way I came, taking the empty bottle with me and throwing it in a litter bin.
It’s always hard, the winter.
The wind stiffens my
fingers and I can’t
reach the three keys above
octave that I need
to make the chord.
It’s winter all
the time now.
Seems like it’s
always night too.
But that’s not
the important thing.
The important thing is
I can’t make the chord.
Can’t make that chord.
I’ve been trying for a long time.
Damn house has fallen down.
Doors hanging open.
Cold wind rips through
the living room.
I’d really like to play that chord
before the piano falls all down too.
It’s mostly gone now anyhow.
It sits slaunchwise left because
termites ate through the legs.
Mice got to the strings
a few years back.
And there’s snow on the keys.
Just as well, I guess,
just as well that
I couldn’t hear the
chord if I played it.
Maybe you would.
Maybe you would.
Maybe you’d smile.
Wherever you are.
Wherever you go
when you’re dead.
Maybe you’d smile.
I’ll keep trying for that.
For that smile.
But it’s winter and spring
is a long way from here.