Tag Archives: fiction

Art Attack

“So what happens with all this lot then? Guv?”
+++++Jonathan peered into the skip’s laden depths. There must be the equivalent of half a bus in there. Knives, machetes, blades. Made his blood run cold. He was glad it was locked away in the squad’s secure store and not out there on the streets. Just think what the local thugs could do with this lot. “I mean, I assume it’s going to be melted down?”
+++++“Not this time.”
+++++“Yeah?” Jonathan watched as the Sarge slicked down his newly-gelled hair. For like the three thousandth time that afternoon. If you asked him the bloke was too old for that sort of rubbish – barely had enough hair left to stick the gel on and it looked a bit ridiculous. Sort of wet and smooth, like one of those seals you saw on the telly, poking their heads out of the sea. Just before they got ate by a whale.
+++++“Yeah. Chief Constable’s got some bonkers idea about Raising the Profile of Knife Crime in the Community. Not to mention Giving Something Back.”
+++++“Seriously?” Jonathan could hear the capital letters in the Sarge’s voice. Not to mention the sarcasm. “How’s he going to do that with a skip full of blades?”
+++++“Artwork.”
+++++“Huh?”
+++++“Turn them into art. Or something.”
+++++“What? Glue them to a canvas and hang it on the Town Hall wall?”
+++++“Maybe. Beats me and all. Still, you’re supposed to give this guy a call. He’ll arrange the rest.”
+++++Jonathan took the Post It note and tried to decipher whatever was squiggled on it. Looked like someone’s name. Ralph something. Sounded posh. And a phone number he could just about make out. “This the artist, then?”
+++++“Yup.”
+++++“So, er, who’s responsible for security? Guv? Once it’s gone? And how the hell’s he going to take it away? Sodding thing must weigh a ton.”
+++++The Sarge smoothed his hair again. “One, it’s his responsibility the minute it leaves police property. And two, how the hell should I know? Maybe he’ll hire a trained elephant to come and drag it away. Now get on and phone him, there’s a good lad. I’ve got custody reports to see to.”

***

Ralph stepped back, wiped his face on one sleeve and grinned. Not bad if he did say so himself. The Chief Constable would love this. All the right symbolism. Turning swords into ploughshares, whatever a ploughshare was. Sounded agricultural anyway. Something practical and as un-war-like as you could get.
+++++His artwork wasn’t practical but it ticked every other box. Something symbolic, the Chief Constable had said. Something that drums home the message that we’re getting on top of knife crime. Winning the war against the thugs. Something that says peaceful streets. Well, you couldn’t get much more peaceful than this. Three months work and three thousand blades, and there she was. His angel. He’d call the piece Art Attack. Yeah. That was appropriate.
+++++Now to celebrate. Make the most of the post-creative glow. Wash all this glue and stuff off his hands, then break open a beer. Or maybe a bottle of wine. Or even bubbly, if he still had one at the back of the fridge. This was going to make his name. He could feel it. Nothing up to now had quite made the mark, but this piece was huge. In all senses of the word. And the publicity the Chief Constable had promised… well, he could see it now. Big money clients, his own gallery, name in all the right art magazines. It was his ticket to success.
+++++He patted the angel’s arm, then winced. Bit sharp, that. Maybe he should have ground the blades down first. He could always run a sanding disc over the edges tomorrow. First thing, before he made the call. Before he got the Chief Constable and the reporters in. Wouldn’t want any of them injuring themselves. He couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

***

“Hey, Pete, get a load of this shit!” Brad wiped his hands on his jeans then shoved the local paper at his mate.
+++++“What’s that? Jeez, it’s all over chip fat.”
+++++“Can’t help that, it’s what Chip Off the Block uses to wrap their nosh. Anyway, take a look. If you can stand to get your hands dirty that is.”
+++++Pete took the wilting paper gingerly. “What am I looking at? Apart from the remains of your lunch?”
+++++“That.” Brad pointed with an equally greasy thumb. “That picture there.”
+++++“What, the artist tosser? What’s so good about him?”
+++++“Not him you moron, what’s standing behind him?”
+++++Pete squinted. “Can’t really see for the stains. Looks like some kind of bleeding angel.”
+++++“That’s exactly what it is. Made out of knives.”
+++++“You what?”
+++++“Knives. You know, pointy things with blades.”
+++++“Okay, okay, I know what a fucking knife is. Just can’t see how making a nice pretty angel out of them is any good to us.”
+++++“Because they’re still knives, you muppet. All the hardware handed in at local nicks during all them an-amnes- thingies last year. Normally they’d be stored in the police lock-up – lasers, key pads, armed police dogs, you name it – and we’d never get near enough to get our hands on them. But this is in some poxy artist’s shed. All we have to do is take the pick-up round, load it up and all those lovely blades are ours. Either we take it apart and flog ’em off to the local lads one by one. Or we chop it up and sell it off for scrap. Either way we’re quids in. Might go some way towards paying off that gambling debt you’re always whingeing about.”
+++++“Was not whingeing, you’re not the one that’s got to pay ten grand back.” Pete took another squint. “See what you mean, though. It’s printed his full name and everything. Bet we could look him up in the phone directory.”
+++++“My thoughts exactly except I was going to check online. Then pay this artist, what’s his name, Ralph something, a visit, before they ship the statue out.”
+++++Pete sucked newspaper print and chip fat off his thumb. “Better be tonight, then. I’ll bring the pick-up round.”

***

“Goodnight my sweet.” Ralph took a last look at the angel. Funny how attached to her he’d got. Then again, he had spent nearly every waking hour with her for the last three months. You could get close to any woman after that much time. Especially when she was as beautiful as this. But he had another commission to start next week, so he needed to clear some space. On his workshop floor and in his head. Needed to focus on something else. Needed to let his angel go. He’d miss her. For the first few days, until the new project sucked him in. Then she’d be something he thought about now and then. A warm place in his heart, a memory of good times spent in each other’s company. But nothing more.
+++++He glanced around. Windows shut, door would soon be locked. Everything secure. The firm hired by the police would be here in the morning to pack his angel and transport her away. Not quite on wings of gauze; more in the back of a hefty truck. But still. She’d be gone. She’d have taken flight.
+++++A worthwhile piece of work. Satisfying. He hoped the next one would be as good. He flicked the light switch off.

***

“Bigger than it looked in that picture.”
+++++“Yeah.” Brad stood in the workshop and scratched his balls, his stomach and his head. It was bigger. In fact it was sodding enormous. Taller than him. About as tall as Pete. And Pete stood six foot four in his stockinged feet. Or socked, if you preferred. Tall, anyway. And looked like it weighed a fucking ton.
+++++“How we going to get that into the pick-up then?” Pete was on the same wavelength for once. Too much so. He needed time and space to think.
+++++“We, er, could try lifting it.”
+++++“What, just the two of us? Get real.”
+++++He supposed Pete had a point. That much metal came with a serious warning to their health. Danger to limb and possibly even life. He scratched his balls again. “Get a few more of the boys in?”
+++++“It’d take half the gang and if you think I’m sharing the loot with them you’ve got another–”
+++++“Okay, how about a winch?”
+++++There was a moment’s silence, then, “That might work. Got some rope in the pick-up. If we wrap that round just under her arms we could use the truck as a counter-weight.”
+++++“Exactly what I was thinking.” Brad had no idea what a counter-weight was but it sounded good. “Go for it, mate.”
+++++Pete was back in minutes with a decent length of rope.
+++++“Right, how d’you want to do this? Under her arms, you said?”
+++++“Yeah. Toss it over her head first then wiggle it down. Hope she isn’t ticklish har har.”
+++++Brad winced at the joke and tossed. The first time the rope bounced off. He tried again. Same result. It was worse than those bloody hoopla stalls at the local fair. He’d never won a single thing at those. Not even the giant teddy his girlfriend had asked him for. Had to cheat in the end and threaten the guy on the stall with a blade. And then she’d got bored with the bear after a couple of weeks and thrown it away. He should have thrown her away first.
+++++He’d lost track of that blade soon afterwards; shame as it had a good sharp point. Be funny if it had got handed in to the cops. Be even funnier if it had turned up here, welded into this bloody angel thing.
+++++“Third time’s the charm.” He tossed again, and this time the rope slid home. Slid and slithered and… caught, on the angel’s left tit. He stifled a snigger and reached to hook it free. Forgot about the other end of the rope. Caught his foot and tripped. Not much but just too much. He lurched forward. Straight towards the angel’s outstretched right hand. Tipped with pure cold steel. Oh shit.

***

“Everything okay? Guv?” Jonathan thought the Sarge was looking bad. Smoothing down his hair like he was going to tug it out. His face a nasty shade of puce. Didn’t look healthy, that. Ought to cut back on the beer or the fags, or both.
+++++“There’s been a mishap. With the angel.”
+++++“You what?” Now he knew something was badly wrong. The Sarge was an atheist through and through – had no truck with what he called ‘all that religious guff’. The department had heard enough about it over the years. For him to be banging on about angels was well out of character. “I’m not sure I understand.”
+++++“The Chief Constable’s artwork, you idiot. The one made from all those knives.”
+++++“Oh. Yes. That.” Jonathan had never understood. He’d seen a picture of it in the paper the other day, when he’d bought a bag of chips. Huge great thing, all sprouting wings and barbs. Looked quite ugly, he thought. Not to mention deadly, with all those blades pointing out. Someone should have taken an angle grinder to them. If anyone fell it’d take your eye out. Or slit your throat. “So what’s happened then?”
+++++“Some of Mick Geraghty’s gang broke in to the artist’s shed.”
+++++“What, and they’ve run off with it?” Good luck to them, he thought. Thing must have weighed as much as an elephant.
+++++“Not quite.”
+++++“Oh?”
+++++The Sarge had his head in his hands. “It was all arranged. Haulage company, security detail, everything in place. They were taking it to Victoria Square. They’d even erected a plinth. And now this. The Chief Constable will have my balls.”
+++++If Jonathan hadn’t got to them first. The suspense was killing him. Just get on with it. Tell me the worst. “So what’s happened?” he said again.
+++++“One of the burglars tripped and fell. Landed on the angel. Slit his throat.”
+++++“Well if half what they say about Mick Geraghty’s mob is true then that’s no loss to the world.”
+++++“Yes but it gets worse. The artist heard the screams and came rushing out. Fainted at the sight of all the blood. Landed on the angel and took his right eye out. The haulage guys took one look this morning and downed their tools. The security guard threw up in the nearest bush. And the Chief Constable’s told me he wants the whole thing to go ahead. I feel like I’m having a heart attack. What am I supposed to do?”
+++++Jonathan was unimpressed. “Buggered if I know. Funny thing, though.”
+++++The Sarge smoothed his hair again. “What’s that?”
+++++“Saw a piece in the Evening Mail about that angel. The reporter described it as cutting edge art.”

The Guest In The Storm

The storm came in around 3 p.m., earlier than when the weatherman had said it would, and so Joe’s Tiki Bar cleared out early. The sea was a grey, rolling menace, and the sky seemed to meld with it in a grey sheet, like a veil – the other side of which no one could see. To several of the worried island goers that day, it felt like they had been closed in, trapped in a sealed-off room.
+++++But Joe’s Tiki Shack just stayed where it was, shuttering its windows and turning on the overhead light, giving the wooden shack of a bar a strange, intimate hue that it did not usually have on normal days when passersby could converse with those sitting on its patio and island music and reggae and blues blared out like nothing had changed since the balmy 1970s that the older patrons now remembered so fondly.
+++++The bartender and now-owner, Chris Lawton, lived above the bar in the tiny studio apartment that had come with the bar’s ownership since the inception in 1956, when Joe Waters opened the place that had become a local institution. Chris had divorced his wife two years previous, just no chemistry between them, no spark anymore, and moved to the coast on a whim without a job.
+++++He’d just felt the itch to change it all. His office job had gotten cloying and he felt if he kept on in the same way, he would have blown his brains out eventually. It sounded hyperbolic, he knew – but he couldn’t divorce himself from the feeling in the pit of his gut.
+++++His parents, living in their roomy California condos, and his sister, married with two children in New York City where they all hailed from, had thought he was joking when he told them. But he felt that one’s life couldn’t always stay on the same course. He felt an immovable hot firestone in his gut compelling him to move and go somewhere else. Ignoring it was futile – he could not ignore it.
+++++The tall, skinny man with the baseball cap and the skin dry as sandpaper and the cold green eyes came in right as Chris was closing up the windows. He told Chris his name was Bobby and that he needed a drink.
+++++Chris said, “You been following the news, man?”
+++++“I’ve been busy driving,” the man said. His voice was like music – smooth and rich and deep. Chris wondered if he was a singer of some kind, someone famous, His face didn’t look familiar, but these days there were so many more famous people, and who could keep track of them all?
+++++Chris put on a smile and said, “Well, there’s a big storm coming in. Everything’s on lockdown here. The city’s imposed a curfew.”
+++++“Shit,” the man said – the profanity coming out unnatural from his beautiful voice. “My gas tank’s in the red, and I’ve been driving all damn day. I was hoping to grab a drink and then head down to find a hotel somewhere.”
+++++Chris shrugged. “You’ve maybe got a chance of finding a hotel, you leave now.”
+++++Bobby looked out the door he’d come in from, saw the sheet of grey clouds and mist, rolling towards them like a tank in a war zone. He said, “Not sure I want to chance it anymore. I want to survive, you know what I mean?”
+++++Chris nodded and sensed that he was about to do what his parents had always warned against, and help a stranger in a situation that didn’t benefit him. He had never been good with charity and doing for others what he’d want done to himself. Chris was a product of the American conservative lifestyle, with a skeptical eye towards the Outsider, a lack of trust in what lay beyond his American front door. But he was in a new place, here in Florida on the coast, and how could one live that sort of life anymore in this kind of climate. Immigrants were all over the place here.
+++++So he said to Bobby, sure, come on in. Stay a while.
+++++Bobby hung his coat on one of the bar chairs, and put his hat on the bar. Inside, with the door closed, his eyes and face seemed that much brighter and more energized.
+++++Chris told Bobby he could have a few drinks while he finished up closing down the bar – what was a few beers? Bobby drank Guinness and became more talkative, the more he drank. Outside, the storm was steadily approaching, in an unchanging march, a sentinel with an eye on their small island town that didn’t know what it had done to deserve this.
+++++Bobby spoke about his job and where he was going. He was a salesman, selling electronics to various markets, iPods and iPads and the like, and he was on his way to Miami for a conference where he’d peddle his company’s wares in the biggest forum yet.
+++++“You ever think you’re just made for something, man?” Bobby asked.
+++++“Made for it?” Chris said. “I don’t know about that. I thought I was made to do somethin’ similar, sellin’ things back up north. But that isn’t how life turned out.”
+++++“It’s so weird, though,” Bobby said. “It’s such a trivial, mathematic thing. Just selling these big companies our brand of the product. I think it’s the sheer adventure of it. I just love being able to drive. See that big open road. That’s the life I want. I never wanted to be chained to some desk. I think that’s why I’ve been having so much fun.”
+++++“I can relate to you more than you know,” Chris said, washing a plate in the sink, the smooth buzz of the water drowned out by the winds outside, crashing against the tiny bar.
+++++“How’s that?”
+++++“Huh?”
+++++“How can you relate? Tell me something about yourself.”
+++++Chris felt a twinge of oddity, of wrongness – just in the way Bobby postured himself, in the peculiarly open nature of his conversation, but he wrote it off yet again as the relic of his past. So he told Bobby a general, sanitized version of his coming there – of his wife and the boring, mundane decay of their marriage, of his increasing discontentment.
+++++“Why’d you leave her? Your wife, that is,” Bobby said.
+++++“I don’t know exactly,” Chris said after a pause, and it was close to the truth. He didn’t intend to get too deep into this, but it began to spill out anyway: “You ever just sort of reach a point where you can’t go on anymore? Like when everything in you, from blood to bones, is telling you it’s all wrong? We were like that, you see. It wasn’t working. We’d married right out of school, real early, you know, and we had the fucking stars in our eyes. Whole world was ahead of us. Thought it’d last forever… or, well, to be less cliché, we thought it would last longer than it did.”
+++++Bobby was silent and patient, listening and attentive, while the wind outside battered the building and the thunder groaned and rumbled on the horizon. Chris supposed he liked Bobby’s willingness to listen. His sister had told him to go to therapy, but he had always assumed himself stronger than that. And plus, in their hometown? If anyone had found out he would’ve been mortified.
+++++But now, here, in the dark bar in the storm coming, he found it oddly comforting. He made a mental note to tell his sister she had been right.
+++++Bobby said he’d never felt anything like what Chris had described, that take-on-the-world kind of love.
+++++Chris said, “That’s too bad.”
+++++“I’ve often felt like a stranger, in a way,” Bobby said. “Like I’m always standing on the outside of a window watching the rest of the world.”
+++++“That cause of your job?” Chris asked. “Like, are you just moving around too much?”
+++++“What’s that?” Bobby asked, and there was such a blank, earnest confusion on his face that Chris was surprised. Chris’s warning bells started to go off – the idea that this man was not who he seemed – but he told himself he was being paranoid and jumpy, especially in the storm that was currently all around them.
+++++“Your job,” Chris said, speaking slow as if to a person who was hard of hearing. “You told me you worked as a… a salesman, if I recall?”
+++++Then the light came back in his eyes, that knowing spark, and he said, “Yeah. That’s right. I mean, it doesn’t help. But I think it’s just me that’s the problem. I’ve never exactly been sociable.”
+++++Chris nodded. “Fair enough.”
+++++The storm came in a torrential display, a cyclone of dark clouds the color of obsidian sand altars in the east and winds with the strength to topple semitrucks. The sounds of the cracking lightning followed by the low, guttural bellyache of the thunder became routine, every few minutes, and the hissing of the wind, like a firecracker’s wick newly lit, and the rain slapping on the pavement and the wood and concrete, became like a symphony. Chris found it oddly soothing.
+++++The power went out after about thirty minutes of it, and so he and the man who called himself Bobby sat alone in the dark; Chris on the stool behind the bar and Bobby at one of the circular wooden tables that sat around the floor. He got up and pulled back the cloth curtain over the window facing out toward the beach, peering out the window.
+++++“Jesus,” Bobby said, “it’s really coming down out there. It always like this here on the coast?”
+++++“When it rains, it pours,” Chris said.
+++++Bobby nodded. “See, yeah. I’m a Midwestern boy. Grew up in Kansas. We had tornados to worry about, but that didn’t happen all that often.”
+++++“Guess you got lucky,” Chris said.
+++++“Yeah, until now,” Bobby said.
+++++They had lapsed into silence again when Bobby spoke up: “It’s refreshing, in a way. To be able to just sit here without all the fucking noise of the cell phones and the technology and the always-moving. It’s nice to be able to just exist.
+++++Chris looked at him and chuckled. “Odd way to see it.”
+++++“How so?”
+++++“How’s it odd, you mean?”
+++++“Yeah. I don’t see it as odd at all. I think people would be very happy if they just quit using the technology. If they’d just free themselves, you know? People weren’t meant to spend all their time staring at screens.”
+++++“Yeah, but you’re saying all this in the middle of a goddamn storm,” Chris said. “Not exactly encouraging people to do it. They just have to. They’ll turn them back on right after the power comes on.”
+++++Bobby shrugged. “Then I’m glad they have the chance to experience a freer life right now. I think sometimes people need a bit of a push.”
+++++“A push towards what?”
+++++“Towards something they may not have been willing to do otherwise,” Bobby said, and the way he said it, quiet and reverent like a missionary of some kind, sent an odd chill down Chris’s arms, put his arm hairs up like there was some electricity about the room. “Something good for them,” Bobby was saying.
+++++Chris decided that there was something he fundamentally just didn’t like about Bobby – something off-kilter and strange. It was a fundamental something that was broken in him. Chris resigned himself, mentally, from the conversation, and told Bobby he was retiring to his upstairs apartment to read a book and rest from the day, and all its perils. He told Bobby he could stay downstairs and relax until the storm passed if he wished.
+++++Bobby gave him a toothy grin and a wave. “I’ll hold down the fort,” he said. “Protect it from any intruders.”
+++++Chris nodded. “That’d be great, yeah.”
+++++The book Chris got from the library was a Stephen King novel, Misery, and he read it for a half-hour in bed, clothes and shoes still on, with the storm browbeating the world outside, the wind and the rain forming an almost relaxing symphony. Then he was falling asleep, eyes heavy, and he woke up with his book on his chest and the light through the window slightly different. It was 5 p.m. by that time, and the storm was still going. So far as he could tell, it had not ceased.
+++++Chris put the bookmark back in his book and went downstairs, his joints aching and tired, his head a bit fuzzy from the nap. He’d never liked taking naps in the middle of the day, not when he had other plans later at any rate.
+++++Bobby was downstairs leafing through a tourist manual of the area, which Chris kept in a stack by the front door for people who had somehow come to Joe’s Tiki Bar with tunnel-vision, not seeing anything else.
+++++Bobby looked up and smiled. “Hope you’re rested up. Looks like the storm’s not leaving us yet.”
+++++Chris said, “I suppose not.”
+++++He poured himself a glass of whiskey and leaned back against the bar.
+++++“Drinking with me now, huh?” Bobby said.
+++++“Why not? Not like I’ll be needin’ to drive anywhere.”
+++++Bobby said something, but it was drowned out by the sound of the storm surge. Bobby went to look out the window and said, “Holy shit. You’ve gotta see this.”
+++++Chris went to the window and looked out. The storm had met the land, had encroached and devoured the beach. The water was flooding the streets. Cars left parked there were now half-submerged in water. It was seeping through the doors of businesses there. Joe’s Tiki Shack was only two blocks up the road and Chris felt a kind of tug in his soul, a terror – it was the inevitable, really; was what it was. It was the sense that everything he knew was about to end. He was being dramatic. But he wasn’t. The fear of nature was the most innate thing in a man – the primal thing, the original fear, really, aside from death itself. Man had been conquering nature forever and nature bit back.
+++++The water was coming closer to the door.
+++++Chris’s brain kicked into action at last. He remembered the materials in the closet, stored there for the worst-case thing. He ran and fetched two sandbags from the closet and handed one to Bobby, told him to put it under the door. And so they did. They sat back at one of the tables together when they were done, both with drinks poured before them, and Chris didn’t feel much better about their chances. They were quiet and listened to the storm battering everything.
+++++“I’ve got to tell you, man,” Chris said. “You’re a weird guy, and I’m not sure we’d get along under normal circumstances. But I’m damn glad you’re here now.”
+++++“What makes you say that?” Bobby said. “What kind of manners is that?”
+++++“Man, you just rub me wrong,” Chris said. “I’m sorry I offended you. But that’s the truth.”
+++++They sat in silence and Chris felt something rotten in what he’d said. He hadn’t been raised that way.
+++++It was Bobby who spoke first: “Let’s start clean, then. I can tell you’re stressed the hell out right now. Let’s go back and start from zero.”
+++++“How’s that?”
+++++“Look. If we’re going to be stuck together, in this damned storm? May as well try to be friends. Clearly, I’ve offended you. That wasn’t my intent. So I’d like to go back to the beginning and start fresh. Act like we’re just meetin’ now.”
+++++Chris sighed and said sure, why not. He didn’t know why Bobby was so insistent. People came in all types, he reminded himself. And maybe he had been wrong. And what did he really have to lose, here in the storm? If anything it would be a good way to pass the time.
+++++So he offered his hand.
+++++And Bobby shook. Bobby’s hand was cold and smooth and his grip was firm.
+++++They kept drinking. Chris would get up and refill their glasses with rum and they sat there while the storm pounded and pounded against the door and the walls and the roof, like a desperate stranger, pleading to be let in. They talked about their love lives, Bobby spinning tales about his crazy exes spread across the country; girls he’d met and spent a few days with at a time and then they drifted apart, girls whom he sometimes called when he got lonely and who sometimes called him for any variety of reasons. He spoke of the colorful personalities they had, their wild hippie opinions and their odd hours painting and playing music and all other manner of things. They had enriched his life, all of them, he said.
+++++Chris said his wife had been the primary relationship in his life. The bedrock, really. She had been the girl who stuck by him and in his experience that was the most important thing. He said over the years they had grown stale in a way, less excited, the fire died.
+++++“So you were wrong,” Bobby said.
+++++“How’s that?”
+++++“You were wrong. It turned out that it was less important than you thought, to have that stability. Me personally, I’ve never found that to be true, that it’s more important to have someone there than have someone good for you. I’ve always found it better to just be honest. You don’t compromise. You don’t settle for less.”
+++++Chris nodded and couldn’t meet Bobby’s eyes. These were the thoughts that had consumed him in the night even when he was married. They had gnawed and eaten at him, and eventually driven him to leave, just up and go, on impulse. He hadn’t even said goodbye to his wife, had just taken his stuff and gone and called her when he was two states away. She had been so furious that she hung up on him then. They hadn’t talked since. Fitting end to the whole mess, he thought.
+++++By that point he and Bobby were both drunk. Bobby was standing up and swaying in the room, coming dangerously close to hitting the tables or the chairs and knocking them over, but he didn’t. He said, “With the storm out there, this place feels like an old pirate’s ship. I’ve always enjoyed old bars like this. Can’t ever get enough of them, you know.”
+++++Chris was seeing doubles by that point, his head swimming and his limbs feeling soft and pleasantly lit, the whole room feeling very light and swirling in spite of his dread from the storm still resting in his gut like hot coals. Chris laughed at Bobby swaying about. He said, “Man, I’ve never met a soul like you before.”
+++++“That a compliment, or are we going at it again?”
+++++“It’s just a statement,” Chris said. “Of fact. You’re an interesting guy. That’s all. I’m just drunk.”
+++++“So you’re telling me that with no clear reason to say it?” he asked. “Words, just floating in the aether, no point or rhyme or reason? Seems rather pointless to me. Rather lackadaisical. I expected more from you.”
+++++Bobby was clearly drunk – he’d just taken another gulp of his rum. He was swaying now like a madman.
+++++Chris said, “So I’ve been opening my soul to you. What about you, though? What’s your deal? You said you just never felt like you fit in, something like that?”
+++++Bobby cast his eye at Chris and said, “That’s better. You got a point to it now. Real conversation. It’s a lost art.”
+++++Swaying on his feet almost like dancing, he took another swig of the rum – the glass almost empty now. He said, “I have walked through life like a drifter, a tourist. I never felt like I belonged. Hell, most of the time, I barely feel anything at all. Like my insides are goddamned frozen, you feel me? It’s infuriating. It’s like I’m living in some glass case, but I can walk around, but no one can get in and I can’t reach out.”
+++++“Jesus,” Chris said – he hadn’t expected this.
+++++“I did find a solace,” Bobby said, eyes cast to the floor, slurring his words, but Chris knew he wasn’t bullshitting – his tone was too somber, and Bobby didn’t seem the joking type anyway.
+++++“What’s that?” Chris said.
+++++“I can really only feel a damned thing when I put a knife in someone,” he said. “It’s fucked up, but… that’s what it is. I can feel alive when I’m feeling someone else die. It’s like a compulsion and I can’t be rid of it.”
+++++Chris sat there and felt a chill go through him colder than any stormwinds. He felt like he had to choose his next words very carefully. But the alcohol in him was surging and raging back and forth like its own miniature storm, microcosm of the chaos outside, volcanic hot bile. There was nowhere to go. He couldn’t go outside, lest he be swept up in the floods, cast out to sea.
+++++He wondered which was more preferable then – dying by the storm or by the hand of the man sitting across from him, obviously mentally unstable.
+++++Bobby was still talking, drunk honesty spewing forth: “I’ve actually just killed another, this past week. It was in northern Florida and I used a knife. A man probably on his way to some business conference. I left him in the bushes in a small town off the highway. His car’s probably impounded by now. I wonder if anyone’s found him. But it was good for now. Saturated me for now.”
+++++Chris realized he couldn’t think straight. Bobby looked him dead in the eye, blank naive concern, like he’d just confessed to something much more innocuous, an embarrassing hobby perhaps. “I understand if you’re troubled,” he said.
+++++Chris heard himself saying he needed to excuse himself. Needed to think.
+++++He found himself next in the upstairs bathroom in his private apartment. It was a small place with faded yellow tiles, no longer so chipper as they had once been, instead now retirement-home-shade, placating and dull. The mirror was smudged from the years. He told himself to clean it but hadn’t gotten around to that. There was a small rectangular window high up on the wall he could usually see the coastline from. Now it was all covered in rain, coming down like bullets. The whole world was rain. Nothing but the grey smog and the water rushing and the destruction of all things man had made.
+++++And below, downstairs, the man who had, apparently, killed other men for no reason beyond his own gratification, the need to “feel.”
+++++He was trapped, as it went, between a rock and a hard place.
+++++Trembling hands, he took out his phone and looked up the murder Bobby had been talking about, browsed through the northern Floridian news.
+++++And there it was.
+++++A man, Peter Shaw, had been found stabbed in the gut five times in the bushes off the highway I-10 between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. He’d been on his way to a business conference on the coast. His family was quoted, tearfully, as saying they didn’t know who did it or why it happened.
+++++The whole thing had an air about it of years ago, when things were murkier and the war had ended and all the drifters were out. This just didn’t “happen” anymore. Not like that. It was alien territory. Chris felt like he should stay in the bathroom until the storm passed. Just wait it out.
+++++But he couldn’t.
+++++If Bobby came up here, perhaps with some weapon he’d kept hidden this whole time… well, he wouldn’t have any defense. And why would Bobby tell him any of the things he’d just said if he planned to let Chris live? That made no sense.
+++++So, Chris deduced, he was now in a fight for his life.
+++++Shaking, he got to his feet. He looked in the mirror. His hair was matted to his forehead with sweat. His whole body was weak and shaky and he felt like he had lost a lot of weight, like he hadn’t eaten in days. The power was out now, and the storm raged outside and seemed like it had grown closer somehow…
+++++When Chris came back downstairs, every footstep on the stairs creaking like an old pirate ship and feeling like it was going to give out and he’d plunge downwards, Bobby was not facing him. Instead, Bobby was looking out the window at the storm. In the dark, he seemed smaller and thinner. The window provided some light through the dark bar and Chris could see Bobby’s bare neck, thought about how easy it’d be to take a knife from behind the bar and just end it all now, just put a punctuation mark on this whole odd, surreal affair…
+++++But he was too slow.
+++++Bobby turned around, his eyes gleaming, and Chris could see the storm in his eyes, all the rage and turmoil and the force-of-nature, and Chris felt like he was going to fall down, from all the fear of that moment.
+++++But he stayed standing, though his hands gripped the stairwell enough for his knuckles to turn white.
+++++“It’s really coming down out there,” Bobby said. “Sheets of rain. The streets are all flooded. You’re lucky this place is so well-fortified. Otherwise we could be talking knee-deep in water right now.”
+++++“Yeah,” Chris said. “Lucky.”
+++++He came down to the floor and faced Bobby, feeling like he was now in some old Western. Good guy faces bad guy. A standoff. He wished he’d had a gun, had given into the impulse to buy one after opening the store. He saw now in retrospect that it may have been a good idea after all. But then, who could have predicted this?
+++++Bobby said, “I don’t like the way you’re looking at me, man.”
+++++“You know what you said,” Chris said. “It’s just because, you know, I’m not sure I can trust you anymore.”
+++++“I haven’t done a thing to you so far,” Bobby said, and it struck Chris how sober he seemed now, how little the alcohol seemed to be influencing his movements now. “If I was going to hurt you, I’d have done it by now.”
+++++“I didn’t know your secrets before,” Chris said. “No way you’re letting me live after this storm passes. Not now that you’ve told me what you do. What you are.
+++++Bobby smirked; a toothy, almost sharklike grin, wide and predatory, and said, “My name’s not really Bobby. And I’ll change the way I look after I leave here. They won’t find me no matter what. I know it might be hard to believe, my compadre, but I don’t care about you. I’ve got no beef with you. I just wanted to have a conversation. I’m an honest type of guy. And you enjoyed it – don’t deny that. Don’t deny that you got something from this.”
+++++Chris said, “You’re a murderer. You kill men.”
+++++“Labels,” Bobby said, shrugging. “I can’t defend what I do. I don’t pretend to be able to fit into normal society.”
+++++“Even then,” Chris said. “You should be locked up. You can’t be allowed in normal society.”
+++++Bobby looked hurt, genuinely hurt. “It’s such a shortcut though. To condemn me that way. I think you’re being reductive. I don’t think you’re thinking this through properly. We were having a good conversation earlier, when it was about you.”
+++++Chris’s hand was on the knife in the drawer by the sink. He kept a firm grip but his hand was shaking; whole body was shaking… he wasn’t used to this at all, this kind of conflict. He wanted to just sleep and sit back, watch the whole thing through someone else’s eyes, a movie and not his own life.
+++++Bobby was approaching. Hands up and his face deceptively innocent, soft like a teenager’s. He looked like anyone. Like a guy you’d see in the park with a girlfriend minding his business. But there had been blood on those hands he was holding up as a sign of innocence.
+++++Chris could feel the next moments for the rest of his life. He thrust the knife out in front of him and felt it enter flesh, piercing both it and the clothes that surrounded – he had stabbed Bobby in the gut. It was such an odd feeling, the knife entering flesh; he’d never felt anything like it before. For a split second, as he turned his head up and his eyes met Bobby’s shocked, pained eyes, Chris knew what Bobby felt to some degree. And he was afraid of it, afraid of that part of himself…
+++++Bobby howled in pain, his scream piercing the air, timed right as another thundercrack sounded and seemed to shake the Earth. Bobby looked at him with revulsion and surprise and maybe a bit of hurt, and for a split second Chris felt he should apologize.
+++++But as Bobby turned and ran for the door, the impulse faded.
+++++Chris watched Bobby run.
+++++Into the storm.
+++++The door flapped open like a broken jaw and the rain flooded in. The storm howled outside. Nothing but a gray miasma, all rage and wind and Mother Nature taking her revenge on the earth. And Bobby was gone, lost somewhere in all of it.
+++++The storm would pass and things got back to relative normalcy. There were repairs to be done. The road had been washed away in parts by the beach and they’d have construction crews out repairing it for two days straight. They would find out that two people had died because they refused to leave their trailers, tenuously rooted to the ground, and one old woman had a heart attack when a particularly nasty lightning bolt struck.
+++++Chris cleaned the knife of Bobby’s blood in the sink, watched it flow down the drain and pondered how easy it was to cause harm, draw blood and wash it away, pondered the fleeting nature of human life compared to the things they made, the things they constructed, the things nature did of its own chaotic whims. Humans were so fragile, he thought.
+++++He would check the paper and the internet for a day or two to see if any stabbing victims had been admitted to a hospital the day of the storm. Nothing. Of course Bobby wouldn’t do that – he wouldn’t draw attention to himself. He would be off somewhere on his own. Licking his wounds.
+++++So Chris, warily, got back to normal life. He drank with friends of his, other local workers around town and unemployed barflies and all other manner of people who came into the bar. He went out on a date or two in the fall, women who were attractive and nice and fun, but who he couldn’t see a feasible future with. Everything seemed faded and in a fog. Life was muted.
+++++The day of the storm faded from everyone’s mind as time rolled on. Chris would think of Bobby in dreams, and when he’d wake up he would forget most of them, but have the vague sensation that he had a nightmare. When he passed people in the street he sometimes got the vague sensation that eyes were on him, that somewhere in the crowd, he was there, moving slow and sure, the glacial-paced death coming for him.

Scrapper

Still handcuffed, Butler Simmons lay on the steel bench, his back against the riveted iron latticework of the town’s musty jail cell. He was nauseous, his head pounded. He drifted in and out of consciousness. During a lucid moment he blinked and tried to clear his blurred vision by focusing on the old stumblebum who lay curled up on the floor in the adjacent corner. And then he closed his eyes as a dream began to filter through.
+++++He was a teenager in his room at home, his jaw and ribs aching from a fistfight. His normally well-groomed father, Bill, wearing a wrinkled, dirty yellow shirt, hovered over him. Unshaven, mouth taut and twisted, he poked at Butler with his finger. “I’m not home but a few days a month to visit with your mother. I’m not here to deal with any malarkey from you.” His father glared; saliva gathered at the corners of his mouth. “What’s wrong with you, boy? Rest of the time I’m home I don’t even want to know you’re in this house. You got that?”
+++++Then a grizzled face hovered again, and the yellow shirt partially blocked the view of the hallway outside his bedroom door where his father and his mother, Ruth, stood talking. “I’ll say one thing for him,” Bill said. “The kid’s a scrapper. Two punks on him and he was still taking care of business.”
+++++The words were an unexpected balm that momentarily washed away all Butler’s aches and pains. Then Bill pulled Ruth roughly against him and kissed her. She giggled as they stumbled through their bedroom door.
+++++“You been fight’n, have ya?” Butler came to for a moment and looked up through the blur as the bum in the yellow shirt stared down at him. Butler’s head began to throb; he winced and closed his eyes.
+++++Butler Simmons stood five-eight, thick and muscular, with a ruddy complexion and a buzz-cut that now showed an egg-sized lump covered in dried blood on the crown of his head. His large hands were permanently gloved in calluses from years working as a brick layer. He was thirty-one, but looked fifty.
+++++Since he was seventeen, Butler had been in and out of jail, always for fighting and often for resisting arrest. It confused his friends who knew him to be generally happy and easy going. Butler didn’t fully understand why he fought either. All he knew was that whenever he was hurting inside, it was his drug of choice, and an easy drug to find. There were always loudmouths in the bars and clubs, or gangs of foul-mouthed toughs walking through the mall. The numbers didn’t matter. The bigger the brawl the better, because all Butler cared about was the banging, dizzying, breathtaking fury of the fight that, in the moment, he wished could go on forever.
+++++Footsteps sounded on the jailhouse stairs and a door opened. Butler tried to focus but could see nothing but the blurred image of a man. “You ready to calm down now?”
+++++Butler struggled to sit up but had to stop and lean against the bars to quiet the pounding in his head.
+++++“I’m talking to you, Simmons.”
+++++It was the smarmy desk sergeant with the Errol Flynn moustache. Through the pain Butler nodded his head and then slurred, “I’m good. How bout taking these cuffs off.”
+++++The sergeant fingered a key and motioned him to the cell door. Butler stood up, then wobbled and collapsed onto the floor.

***

Butler awoke in a hospital room. His mother sat in a nearby chair reading a magazine. He scanned the room for his father.
+++++“He’s not here, honey.” Ruth closed the magazine and pulled her chair closer to the bed.
+++++Butler’s father was a high-altitude iron-worker, and proud of it. Hard and wiry, and several inches taller than Butler, Bill worked on bridges and skyscrapers all over the country and was only home a few days each month. When Butler was growing up, he would listen in awe as his dad bragged about places he had been and things he had done. Bill spent most of his visits in the bedroom with Ruth, having noisy sex, or in neighborhood taverns drinking with friends. Throughout his childhood Butler yearned for his father’s attention but Bill had no interest in his son. Still didn’t.
+++++Ruth smiled at him. “How do you feel?”
+++++Butler carefully felt the bandage on his head. “I’ve been better. At least the headache’s not as bad and I can see okay. I think someone got me with a cue.”
+++++Ruth leaned back in her chair her expression tight as if she were trying to hold something inside.
+++++“What’s the matter?” Butler said.
+++++“You’ve got to stop fighting, Bubby.”
+++++“I know, Mom. I’ll work on it.”
+++++“It’s different this time.” She startled him when she grabbed his hand. “They had to operate. You almost died.”
+++++He stared at her for several long seconds then looked at the ceiling and swallowed. “What day is it?”
+++++“It’s Thursday. You’ve been here four days.”
+++++“Anyone checked on Smoothie?”
+++++“He’s okay. I was over there this morning. Cats shouldn’t be so fat, you know. It’s not good for him.”
+++++“What about the cops?”
+++++“They dropped the charges. I think they’re worried you’re gonna sue them.”
+++++“Maybe I should.” He tried to sit up.
+++++“No, no. You’ve gotta be on your back for a while.” Butler settled into his pillow. He had never seen his mother so concerned.
+++++“Your dad was here to see you.”
+++++Butler’s mood instantly brightened. “Yeah?”
+++++“It was Tuesday, I think. The doctors were still real worried about you then.”
+++++“That was nice of him. I didn’t know. Did he stay a while?”
+++++Ruth motioned toward a chair next to the door. “He sat right over there.”
+++++Butler stared at the chair and the room grew awkwardly silent. Since he was a teenager, Butler kept a picture of his father standing on an iron beam thirty stories over the Chicago waterfront. It still took his breath away every time he looked at it. There was Bill, strong and confident, surrounded by a vast and luxurious openness, with the world of streets and buildings far below. Butler had tried to become an iron-worker but was dizzy and immobile at significant heights. Bill never missed a chance to humiliate him over it. Even at thirty-one, Butler was devastated by Bill’s criticism and, equally, savored even the smallest and often insincere bits of acceptance and praise.
+++++“What about Silvia?”
+++++Ruth hesitated. “I called her, Bubby.” She forced a smile and shook her head no.

***

Butler was twenty-eight when he married Silvia. She was an old high-school friend who fell in love with him during one of his longer periods of stability. She was intrigued by his easy nature and his bizarre need to fight, and was convinced she could help him put an end to it. In fact, Butler kept things under control for two years and was very happy. Then the economy went bad and he was laid off. They were about to lose the house until his father finally stepped in and loaned them some money. But then Bill started to needle him and Butler finally lost it. In the aftermath of seven separate fights and subsequent trouble with the police, Silvia’s tolerance and understanding wore out. She moved into her own apartment. Their divorce was finalized three months ago.

***

“You’ve had a skull fracture, Mr. Simmons.” The young doctor put on his glasses and slipped the x-ray film into the clip over the lighted board by Butler’s bed. “It looks like it wasn’t the first.”
+++++“I’ve had a few lumps along the way. Lucky I’ve got a hard head.” Butler grinned.
+++++The doctor didn’t smile back. “When you first got hit did you black out?”
+++++“No, I went down for a minute but I got right back up. It hurt like hell.”
+++++“You could see and function okay? Your speech wasn’t slurred?”
+++++“I was fine. I was going strong until the cops came and threw me in jail. That’s when I started feeling sick, couldn’t get my eyes to work.”
+++++The doctor nodded. “Right. It’s because, along with the fracture, you developed a swelling between the brain and the skull, what we call a subdural hematoma.”
+++++“Huh.”
+++++“Untreated, the swelling might have caused permanent damage to the brain, or even death. We had to drill several burr holes to relieve the pressure. Fortunately the procedure was successful.”
+++++“Well, I’m glad of that. Thanks.”
+++++The doctor sat down in the chair next to the bed. “Here’s the problem, Mr. Simmons. Patients who have experienced subdural hematomas become more and more prone to them. With any additional head trauma they’re likely to appear again, and it can happen days or even weeks after an event.”
+++++Butler tried to think of something clever to say, but couldn’t.
+++++“So we need you to stay on your back for the next week or so, make sure this one is behind us. After that you’ll have to take it easy, re-assess your lifestyle. We can get into more details at our follow-up examination but in the future you’ll have to avoid certain types of activities. No rugby, hockey, boxing, wrestling, football, no contact sports of any kind. If it takes a helmet, you’ll have to avoid it.”
+++++Butler felt as if he had just been given a life sentence.
+++++The doctor smiled. He stood up, took off his glasses and slipped them into his breast-pocket. “I wouldn’t worry, Mr. Simmons. Most people make out just fine. Take it easy and I’ll see you in two weeks.”

***

Silvia had liked a clean, orderly house. That had been a big change for Butler, who as a bachelor had been happy living amongst piles of laundry and counters filled with dirty dishes. As he lay on the couch Butler thought about a day early in their marriage. Silvia had been working on the house and had finished the kitchen with new white lace curtains and placed a large bouquet of cut zinnias on the table. She had just returned the broom to the closet as he came through the door. The afternoon sun was streaming in the window. And there was beautiful Silvia wearing white shorts and a dark tank-top, smiling at him as she wiped her hands on a towel. It was a small moment, but his heart was so full. Seeing her there in the center of the sparkling kitchen, he realized how much better his life was going to be now that they were together.
+++++She had given him a puzzled look and said, “What?”
+++++They had hugged and he had been unable to speak, but she had him in her arms and everything was okay.
+++++Now, as he lay on his couch with Smoothie curled at his feet, his heart full at the remembering, that speechless feeling came back to him again. But he was alone and empty and the feeling stuck in his throat and pulled at him and he felt as if he were descending into a great darkness. He needed to fight, but his head throbbed and he knew he couldn’t.
+++++He scanned the room. Since Silvia had gone he had drifted back to his old ways. He hadn’t vacuumed or dusted. The coffee table was filled with glasses, coke cans and dishes. Papers and magazines littered the floor around the couch and lounge-chair. An overflowing laundry basket sat on the floor by the front entrance where his jacket hung over the newel-post. When he had gotten up and gone to the kitchen to refresh his coffee he had to hold the cup when he poured because there was no place to set it. At least now he had an excuse for the clutter, he thought. The doctor had insisted he remain on his back for another week.
+++++Someone knocked at the door and it immediately opened. “It’s just me, Bubby.” Ruth came into the house with a grocery bag in one arm and a handful of mail in the other. She was wearing a scarf and a rain-coat with dripping-wet shoulders. “It’s nasty out there. How are you doing?”
+++++“I’m doing fine.”
+++++Smoothie stood and stretched. Ruth handed Butler the mail and went into the kitchen, the cat following close behind. Butler shuffled through the letters and tossed them on the coffee table. In the kitchen dry cat food clattered into the bowl.
+++++“Smoothie’s almost out of food,” Ruth said. “I’ll pick some more up for you.”
+++++“There’s a big bag in the closet.”
+++++“Oh, good. I can’t stay now, honey, but I’ll come back later and do some of these dishes.”
+++++“Maybe you could bring Dad with you.”
+++++Ruth stepped into the doorway. “He left today, Bubby. I thought he called you.”
+++++Butler shook his head and said, “No.”
+++++“Sorry. You know how he is.”
+++++“Yeah. If you talk to him, tell him the union hall called. They’re putting me on a big commercial job next month. It’s supposed to last a year.”
+++++“Don’t you need to wait and see what the doctor says?”
+++++“It’s four weeks from now, Mom. Besides, I’ve gotta work.”
+++++“Well… I guess. Dad will be happy to hear that. I know he worries about you.”
+++++Butler put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling.

***

His hand shook when he picked up the phone and dialed Silvia’s number. It rang three times.
+++++“Hello.”
+++++He closed his eyes at the sound of her voice.
+++++“Hello?” she said again.
+++++“Hey… It’s me.” He heard her take a short breath. “Don’t hang up. Please.”
+++++Rustling sounded through the phone and then a moment of silence. “What do you want?”
+++++“I just wanted… I just wanted to talk to you. I’m going nuts here in the house.” Butler shifted the phone to his other ear and settled into the couch. “I have to lie flat on my back for a week. I’ve got another three days and then I go back to the doc.”
+++++“Your mom said it was bad.”
+++++Smoothie jumped onto the cushion and lay down next to him. “I’m over the hump now.”
+++++“Until the next time.”
+++++“No. I can’t do that anymore. It’s over.”
+++++“I hope it is, Butler. For your sake, I hope it is.”
+++++“Come see me.”
+++++“You know I can’t do that.”
+++++“Why not? A quick visit with a sick friend. Besides, Smoothie’s been asking about you. Come see him. I’ll stay in the bedroom.”
+++++She laughed. “How is Smoothie anyway?”
+++++“He’s fat. And he wants to see you.” There was a long pause. “Just come to the front door and wave. It would mean a lot to both of us.”
+++++“Butler… It’s over. You know that.”
+++++“I know. I’m just so bored lying here.” His voice cracked as he said, “I was hoping to have something to look forward to.”
+++++She sighed. “Maybe I could stop by after work tomorrow.”
+++++He sat up. “Oh, that would be great.”
+++++“It’ll just be for a few minutes, Butler. It doesn’t mean anything. Visiting a sick friend, that’s all.”
+++++He worked until after midnight cleaning up the clutter. His head was pounding when he went to bed but he was fine when he woke up. He called the florist first thing and ordered a bouquet of cut-flowers for the table, then he washed the rest of the dishes, cleaned out Smoothie’s litter-box, and mopped the kitchen floor. He organized the mail and dusted and vacuumed the living-room. He did a load of wash and put fresh towels in the bathroom and kitchen.
+++++At three o’clock he shaved and took a shower then put on a fresh pair of jeans and a rust-colored polo-shirt. In the living-room he slipped in a CD and lay down on the couch, closed his eyes. He was tense and maybe it was his imagination, but his head felt a little tingly. He made himself a promise that from now on he would strictly follow the doctor’s orders. He had begun to doze when someone knocked at the door. He leapt from the couch and grabbed his head with both hands as a sharp pain hit him like a shot, then just as quickly subsided. He opened the door. It was the delivery from the florist.
+++++On his way into the kitchen with the flowers the phone rang. He picked it up.
+++++“Hello.”
+++++“It’s me.” There was a sense of stony strength and immediacy in Silvia’s voice. He braced himself.
+++++“Hey.”
+++++“I just wanted to let you know I won’t be coming by.”
+++++Butler set the flowers on the table, pulled out a chair and sat down. Smoothie rubbed against his leg and meowed. “How come?”
+++++“It’s just not going to work. I should never have agreed to do it.”
+++++“You’re just visiting a sick friend.”
+++++“Butler, I hope it all works out for you. I really do, but I have to go now.”
+++++“But…” She hung up.
+++++Smoothie rubbed against his leg again. Butler set the phone on the table next to the flowers and went to the closet. He pulled out the bag of cat-food, returned to the chair and picked at the braided-string closure. He pulled a loose end but the braid just tightened into a hard knot. He always had trouble with these. He tried the other end and the cat meowed again. Butler finally went to the counter, took a knife from the block and slashed the bag twice across the middle. He ripped it open and left it on the floor. Smoothie looked at him, then hunched down and started eating.

***

It took four of them; a cop, the bouncer from the Blue Duck and two civilians, to get Butler Simmons handcuffed. They jammed him, still struggling and kicking, into the back of the police-car. His body was wedged between the rear seat and the steel mesh partition, his head on the floor behind the driver’s seat. The cop, breathing heavily, the side of his face smeared with blood and the sleeve of his leather jacket ripped at the shoulder, pulled open the rear passenger door and stomped on Butler’s head several times. He slammed the door and scanned the crowd of onlookers, his angry glare daring anyone to speak. The crowd, sporadically lit in red and blue by the rotating police-car bubbles, headed back into the bar.
+++++Butler gasped for breath through the acrid smell of the heavy rubber floor-mats. He thought of the picture, his father on the steel beam, the endless sky, the buildings far below.

Still Not Dead

CHAPTER 1 – STILL NOT DEAD

So, I wake up and I’m still not dead. What’s worse is there’s bright lights and white walls everywhere. I feel like I’ve been reincarnated into some strange Keanu Reeves film, only I obviously took the wrong pill. There’s someone coughin’ like they’re trying to retch up a lung at the other side of the room and all the time I hear this beep of a nearby monitor. I try to move my arm and feel it held by something. I look to my left side and see a drip connect to my arm via this clear plastic tube. A clear but obviously viscous fluid is sliding slowly into my arm and I hope with all my heart that it’s fucking poison slowly killing me. I wouldn’t be so lucky. There’s this background pain somewhere around my spine but I feel like I’m warm and floating up near the ceiling, I can see a small cobweb in sharp relief. I drift off.

I’m in the white room again. I see a woman in a uniform scowling down at me as she ticks off some things on a clipboard as she glances at the monitor by my bed. I guess she sees my eyelids flutter coz she smiles at me but it doesn’t reach her eyes. I see her shaking her head as she walks away. I drift off.

My Mum is sittin’ by the bed. I can see her lips movin’ and tears tricklin’ down her prematurely lined face. I briefly feel her touch my hand. It’s weird coz although she’s there I can’t hear no words. It’s like there’s a film playin and I’m viewin it with the sound off. I drift off.

There’s a guy in a white coat at the end of the bed havin a whispered conversation with a blonde nurse over a clipboard. They must be arguin coz they are in each other’s faces with and seein nothin but each other, especially not me eyeballin em. She grabs the clipboard from him wiv an angry gesture and puts it on the end of my bed. The nurse turns to leave and the guy in the white coat give her arse a little squeeze. She glares at him and storms off. I feel sick but my eyelids are heavy. I drift off.

I’m runnin through a forest and I can hear it behind me. I crash through the trees feeling every one of em scratch at my skin as if they’re reaching out for me. I stumble into a clearing and stop to catch my breath and look up at the moon. It’s full and fat, it looks so bright I feel like I could reach out and touch it. I hear a howl. It’s close, after me. I plunge once more into the trees my breathing getting faster but my legs keep moving. I feel the pain of a multitude of cuts all over my arms and my face. I hear it now, catching up to me closer. My heart hammers in my chest as if it wants to escape. I finally escape the trees, I’m standing at a cliff edge, and I can’t even see the bottom. Nowhere to go. The beast is seconds away. I jump and feel a scream building in my lungs.
+++++I awake sat up in bed sweat pouring on my brow. A nurse has rushed over. I blink at her stupidly.
+++++“Are you ok pet?” she asks with a faint Durham accent.
+++++I blink and look around; I must have been thrashing in my sleep as I’ve pulled the drip from my arm. The nurse spots it and sorts it out.
+++++“You were making a right racket and that scream, I nearly jumped out of my skin!”
+++++She leans close to me and I smell her perfume. It’s a musky pleasant aroma but I suddenly feel sick. Without warning, I vomit down my front in one quick convulsion. The usual carrots mixed in the mainly fluid. I retch but nothing more comes out. I gasp for breath for a moment.
+++++The nurse touches my arm for a moment in a strangely tender gesture.
+++++“Never mind pet, it’s the painkillers. We’ll get you cleaned up in a moment.”
+++++This act of gentleness has my eyes watering and I fight back the tears that try to come. I have to lie back and suffer the indignity of my Durham angel cleaning and changing me. I drift off.

CHAPTER 2 – LECTURES AND PIES

So, I’m sat in this tiny little office. It’s too bright and I’m finding myself squinting against the harshness of the fluorescent lighting. I’m sweating from the heat as like every other room in this damn hospital it’s too hot and the radiator seems huge in this cramped space.
+++++So this Doc ain’t smiling and he’s lecturing me about my actions. All I can focus on is the forest of nose hairs peeking out from his left nostril and he thinks I’m actually payin attention. He starts to wag his finger, goin into overdrive now. I hear the words liver and kidney and all I can think about is food; a steak and kidney pie. I imagine it in my mind with crumbly flaky pastry and steam risin of it. He stops talkin and pushes some paperwork across to me and a couple of leaflets. A quick signature and that’s it, I can go.
+++++I’m dressed in some jeans that are hanging off me and a t-shirt my Mam had brought in for me and carrying a bag with a few toiletries in it. I walk in a daze, tired from all the drugs and the lying around for days doing nothing. On the way out of the hospital, I drop the discharge form and leaflets in the bin. I hesitate a moment and chuck the toiletries in there for good measure. I only keep a prescription slip, which I slide into my jeans pocket I step outside and the biting wind takes me breathe away. After days stuck indoors, I’ll need to get used to this. I trudge down the hill and towards town. The skies are grey and I’m not surprised when it starts to rain. Within ten minutes, I’m soaked to the skin and shivering. At the bottom of the long hill into town, I see a little cafe. I rummage around in my pocket and fish out some coins, a grand total of £4.80. I look into the cafe and it looks grubby but warm and inviting. A little sign says I can get a large breakfast with tea and toast for £4.50. I head inside.
+++++I find a little table, slip my coat over the back of the chair and take a seat. It’s one them plastic chair like you see in schools. It’s cold for a moment but that’s a pleasure after the constant stiflin’ heat of the hospital. I put my forearms on the table and immediately regret as I feel them stick to the surface, which doesn’t look like it’s been wiped down this morning.
+++++A short tubby little woman wearin an apron shuffles over to me. She doesn’t look as if a smile has graced her features in a long time.
+++++“What can I get you darlin?” She asks.
+++++I mutter, “Big breakfast.” Hopin this makes her go sort it, but she stands there lookin vacant. Pen poised over this little pad like she’s waitin for divine inspiration or something.
+++++Finally, she says, “Tea or coffee?”
+++++“Tea.”
+++++“White or brown?”
+++++Fuck me. All I wants is a meal, not a bloody quiz. I sigh.
+++++“White.”
+++++“Coming right up.”
+++++She wanders off, her broad hips swingin from side to side. I’m sweatin now, even that small exchange has taken so much out of me. I feel all nervous and anxious and I want to bolt but the hunger is winnin. I just sit still and try to control my breathing as they taught me.
+++++She comes with tea. I try to smile but she just looks unsettled by it. I slurp on the tea and soon the breakfast is here and I’m demolishin it, chewin on cheap sausages and salty bacon. I leave the toms, can’t fuckin abide tinned toms.
+++++When I’m done I leave all my coins on the table and hurry out without thanking her. Outside its still bloody rainin.

CHAPTER 3 – I WANDERED LONELY

So I find myself once more in the driving rain. I briefly wonder if Mum has discovered I’ve discharged myself yet. I stare into the brightly lit shop windows and think how many kilowatts of power shop lighting wastes. How many homes would all of the light that’s doing nothing useful illuminate? How many poor folks that can’t afford to pay their energy bills would benefit from this fucking waste.
+++++I realise that as I sink into my dark train of thought that I’m stood staring at a lingerie display but not seein it. An old guy walkin a wiry jack russell shakes his head at me as he passes me. For his part, the dog doesn’t even acknowledge me, aloof little twat. I shrug and wink at the old geezer to wind him up even more. Why do people judge you? Are they so perfect? I picture him at home wanking to Lorraine Kelly with the little dog looking up at him bemused.
+++++I trudge on further into town. I swear my trainers are squelching now. A statue in the square depicts a learned looking bloke strokin his chin and holding an open book, which he’s starin down at. There’s a plaque but I have no motivation to wander or and read. With a flutter of wings, a pigeon flies past and shits on his face. Everyone is a fucking art critic these days.
+++++I’ve been wandering now for a couple of hours and my feet are aching. I head to the library which narrowly escaped closure in the last round of council cut backs.
+++++I stand in the hallway a moment looking at posters for community events that I have no part of or interest in. Writers groups, amateur dramatics, line dancing, politics. I suddenly feel more lonely and alienated than ever. The walls start closing in on me and have to lean against the wall and catch my breath. I close my eyes and take deep breaths, letting them out slowly as I’ve been taught, oxygenating the brain, calming me.
+++++I finally open my eyes and across the hall, there’s a frail looking old lady starin at me like I have two heads. She has a romance book under her arm. She must be seventy if she’s a day and I think it’s the saddest thing in the world that she’s reading about something she can’t ever have again. Suddenly, a door opens from the gents and an old geezer appears. He smiles at her and takes her hand and they leave. I’m sure I hear her mutter, “freak.” But I know this is probably my imagination.
+++++I pop into the gents and look at mesen in the mirror. A young face stares back at me, green eyes jaded and ancient stare accusingly right at me. I feel tired my body still recovering from the overdose. I lean over, splash water on my face, and clumsily attempt to dry it on the hand dryer.
+++++I exit the gents and turn right heading into the library hall itself. A bored looking young librarian looks up from tapping away at a PC and glances at me. Her casual smile lessens in wattage as if she’s disappointed I came. I know how she feels. I’m disappointed to still be alive. I ignore her because it’s so much easier than acknowledging her.
+++++I come to a rack of compact discs and start idly leafing through them. Marvin Gaye, The Shadows, ELO, James Last, The Smiths. Covers in every colour but none of them excite me. All I see are plastic guitars and fake smiles. I’m not buying what they’re selling.
+++++I walk over to the books and pick up a random book on World War 2. I find a comfy seat and sit, as I sit the aged leather makes a sort of squeaky farty noise that seems deafening in the quiet library. I steal a quick glance around but no one is looking.
+++++I open the book at a random page. An air raid warden is talking about the regular air raids. He says everyone tried to live day-to-day coz you never knew when it was your turn to be bombed. People were happier, more tolerant even coz they had bigger things to worry about than someone pushing in front of you in a queue or beating you to the last loaf on the shelves. The old blitz spirit I think they call it
+++++Suddenly, I’m a mess, big fat tears rolling down my face and onto the page. I feel like I’m collapsing in on myself and I want with every fibre of my being to be transported to that time, to have that positive feeling. I don’t want this emptiness I have inside me where real feelings used to be.
+++++I drop the book with a clatter and bolt for the door with tears still streaming down my cheeks. The librarian is looking at me with utter disgust as I flee.

CHAPTER 4 – MEDICATED ME

I’m looking around eyes wild and unfocused from the tears still flooding them. I make a decision and run to the left, I don’t know why I’m running I just feel the need to flee this feeling and it is good to feel that adrenaline pumping through my veins. I dodge around an old lady, knocking her wheeled shopping bag flying. I dodge around open-mouthed shoppers. Finally, I crash straight into a guy in a business suit who was looking down at his mobile phone rather than looking where he is going. I stand, brush the dust from my knees and continue running. I hear abuse being yelled at me from some people but I’m passed caring now, just an emotionless blur of motion.
+++++Eventually, having run through the one green space in the middle of the city I stop. My lungs are bursting and my legs are throbbing. I feel so alive in this moment. I wish that it could last forever but my traitorous brain tells me that no, it will be short lived like all moments of joy. I sit on a wall to let me breath reach something like normal. I’m getting odd looks from passers by. I feel their internal laughter and almost hear their thoughts. Look at that skinny freak trying to be normal. I get up and wander once more amid the maze of shops; all seem the same – altars of glass, chrome and neon, shrines to nothing of importance, Churches of money where the feckless trade yet another bit of their soul for shiny, worthless baubles.
+++++I find the place I didn’t realise I was searching for, the chemist. I hand over the one piece of paper I’d kept from the hospital. The woman behind the counter gives me a patronising smile.
+++++“Take a seat. It’ll be ten minutes okay?”
+++++I nod.
+++++Fifteen go by and she finally calls my name and checks my address with me.
+++++Then I’m out of there and opening the white plastic bag which contains my medication.
+++++I open the packet and stare at the little green and white pills like Neo contemplating how his life might change forever. I shake my head and dry swallow two of the pills, stow the others very carefully in my pocket and walk down the high street towards my next goal.

CHAPTER 5 – BRANDED

I slide past the shambling undead of weekday shoppers like a ghost. I’m not one of them and if they notice that I’m doomed. I try to be as invisible as I can but still I feel the eyes on my back, hear their whispers and occasional sniggering insults. I cringe inside and pray for my tablets to race around my bloodstream quicker – deadening nerve endings and quietening my overactive mind. I’m in the unfashionable end of town now, the places where the nerds and Goths hang out, where people WANT to be different. I give a bitter laugh at that thought. I just want to the same, to be boring, to be normal, whatever that means.
+++++I wander inside where there’s a small market of arty shops, comic stalls, student clothes stalls and the one shop I am looking for. Even here, where hipsters fear to tread, there is division. I see a group of Goths pouring over a rail of dark clothing. The nerds are pouring over comics; one or two have skateboards under their arm. I see a couple of girls wearing vintage clothing. Here, with all of this variety, I feel just a little more relaxed, more able to be me without fear of judgement and yet I conform to none of these groups either.
+++++I shrug and step forward towards the tattoo shop. Fortunately, it’s currently empty except for a bored looking guy flicking a screen on a smartphone. I enter and smile at him; he looks up and nods back at me. He has a long bushy beard and one of those earlobes that a huge white plastic earring has stretched. I mooch around the shop for five minutes looking at and admiring the fantastic artwork. There are dragons, spiders, Celtic bands all manner of tattoos. I get quite lost in them. I suddenly hear a polite cough behind me.
+++++“Can I help you at all?”
+++++“I erm…”
+++++He smiles and opens his arms in a friendly gesture.
+++++“I promise you won’t shock me. Whatever it is, I’ve heard it or seen it before.”
+++++I point to a tiny sample on the wall. The picture is of a semi-colon.
+++++He looks at me and his smile grows even wider. It’s a friendly and encouraging smile.
+++++“It’s your lucky day. We do those free. Come in the back and we’ll sort you out, okay?”
+++++I follow him obediently. For now, at least, I choose life.

Sister Lucy Won’t You Bake Me A Dragon?

“I don’t like it here and I don’t want to be here right now.”
+++++It was always this way.  My sister would call, something would be wrong.  I would drop everything and run to her side.  She would be broken down, collapsed in a puddle of tears or drugs or else her wallet would be lost.  Different things.  But it was always bad, always something that couldn’t be fixed.  Until I got there, at least.
+++++I frowned at her.  “By ‘here’, I assume you mean the Planet Earth?”
+++++“Stop that.  Don’t be mean.”  She was curled in the corner of the couch wearing a little sleeveless dress.  It was a dingy old couch and it needed to be cleaned — or else hauled to the dump.
+++++“Tell me what the problem is, Lucy,” I said.
+++++She sniffed.  “It – it’s hard to explain.  You should just go look in the bathroom.”
+++++“Toilet plugged?”
+++++“Damn it, Joey! Look in the bathtub!”
+++++“Tub backed up?”  She didn’t answer, just huffed and puffed.  After a while I decided to just indulge her and go take a look.
+++++There was what appeared to be a dead guy in the tub.
+++++I went back to the living room.  “Okay,” I said.  “Who is the guy in the tub?  I mean, who was he?”
+++++“I don’t know his name.  He knocked and said he was here to read the water meter.  I opened the door and he stormed in.”  Lucy seemed kind of calm now, given the circumstances.  I don’t know what I was feeling.  The fact was, I had seen worse.
+++++“Okay, then what?”
+++++“He was trying to grab me.  He was hollering something about dragons.  He was crazy, Joey!  He must have been on something!  I don’t think he even knew where he was.”  She sniffed and then wiped her nose with her wrist.  “I ran for the bathroom and he was right behind.  I got the door shut but I couldn’t get it locked.  He busted it open.”
+++++I waited but she didn’t continue.  “Okay, and then what?”
+++++“I hit him.  With the baseball bat, I hit him and he fell into the tub and banged his head against the faucet.  He hasn’t moved.  He’s dead, isn’t he?”  She already knew the answer but I nodded anyway.
+++++“The baseball bat?   You had a baseball bat in the bathroom?”
+++++“I have one in every room,” she said.  I had no response to that.
+++++“Well, I guess we have to deal with it just like before,” I sighed.  “Do you have the bleach and the lye; rubber gloves?  The case of Drano?  At least he is already in the tub.”
+++++She smiled a little smile and got up off the sofa.  “T-thanks, Bro,” she said.  Now she was getting emotional.
+++++I gave her a hug.  “I mean, what’s the big deal?” I said.  “It’s not like you haven’t killed anybody before.”
+++++“I know,” she said.  “But I didn’t even mean to do it this time.  Those hoboes, that guy from the IRS, you know what I mean.  Those things were just kind of meant to happen.  This poor guy . . .” She looked sideways at the hallway which led down to the bathroom.
+++++I snapped the collar on my coat and started back towards the door.  “I have the bag in the trunk of my car; you know, with the bone saw, the plastic sheets and the rest of it.  If you have any pliers you could start pulling his teeth I guess.”
+++++She caught up to me and tugged at the sleeve of my coat.  “No really,” she said.  “Thank you so much.  Who else . . . you know, who else could I call?”  Her voice was taking on a husky tone.
+++++“Why, no one else of course.  We’re family.  We help each other out with little problems like this.”
+++++I took another step but there was something more she wanted to say.  “I have to tell you,” she said with a wicked little smile.
+++++“Yes?”  I waited for it.  I didn’t have to wait long.
+++++“He didn’t exactly just, well . . . he didn’t exactly just bust in.  He wasn’t really talking about dragons, either; I kind of made that up.”
+++++“I see.  Go on.”
+++++“Well, when he was at the door and talking about the water meter; well, you know . . . he kind of looked at me.”
+++++I shook my head.  “Looked at you?  Lucy, then what did you do?  Come on, tell me.”
+++++She giggled.  “Well, I kind of — like this, I kind of flashed my tit at him.  Just a little bit.  Just real quick.  But that’s when he came in.”
+++++I sighed.  “Of course.  Of course he came in then.”
+++++“Just a little, you know.  Just a little of the nipple for him.  Like this,” she said again, and she pulled the sleeveless dress to one side, showing me her small, shapely breast, the nipple hard and brown.
+++++I took a deep breath.  “Lucy,” I said, “we have to get rid of this mess, okay?  Don’t start anything right now.”   She pouted a bit and rubbed her hand slowly over her crotch just one time.  Down, then up.  And then the same, to mine.  It was really close;  I mean it was almost too much.
+++++“Okay,” she whispered.  “Go get your tools and let’s dissolve this problem.  And then . . . and then I will bake you a dragon, a juicy dragon, all just for you.”
+++++Moving quickly, I unlocked the door as I went out.   That way, I would be able to just walk right back in without knocking.

Surety

How does it feel to sink a blade into a person, like a chef might plunge a knife into freshly roasted meat? What is it like to tighten your grip and slowly, but firmly, shove it inside until the blade disappears into flesh? You’re not just pushing it, right now, though. You’re twisting it. You’re wondering if the blade, stuck in the middle of his back, is slicing through a lung, or if it has punctured the liver, and you’re strangely giddy off of the thought that somewhere, blood is flowing into the body cavity of the man, drowning his organs. You decide this isn’t enough, and you yank out the blade and sink it again, only this time you don’t take your time, and instead of twisting it, you quickly yank it out, pick another spot, and stab away. You’re playing “Whack an Organ,” and the prize is the game itself. You never imagined you would enjoy this.
+++++You hate the man, and I don’t blame you. Who could fault you? You were the one, standing in a dark alley, a month ago, soft drops of rain soaking into your jacket, watching as he slithered inside your wife. His arms were bigger than yours, and more defined, and that made you jealous as he grabbed her by her platinum blonde hair and rocked his hips into hers. The man closed his eyes and smiled, a wide, clean, triumphant smile, as if his pleasure derived not from her, but from the thought of you, sitting somewhere, all alone, waiting for her to come home. And the audacity of it. The blinds were up, and the curtains were pushed to the side.
+++++You gritted your teeth as you watched your wife, naked and beautiful and loathsome, get off the bed and casually walk to the bathroom. The man slid his jeans up, put a grey t-shirt over his chest, and stood still as she, that bitch, that cheating, filthy bitch, returned and slid his forest green rain coat over his shoulders. You placed a couple of recreational pain pills on your tongue, chewed them, and frowned. You were low on pain pills that day.
+++++That’s when you began to have fantasies. They took different forms. You thought about what it would be like to shove both of them out of the window, to hear the glass shatter and see bits of it stuck in their faces, his body still inside hers, and to see them go splat, doggy style, on the pavement. One time, when you were watching their routine, you closed your eyes and imagined that fall, and how their blood would slowly ooze from their bodies. You thought about putting on rain boots and dancing through the blood and leaving footprints on the sidewalk.
+++++Another time, you imagined yourself as a gunslinger who kicked open the door of their cheap hotel, unveiled a sawed off shotgun from a long, torn trench coat, and, while taking just a moment to revel in the horror in their eyes, turned everything from their necks up into smashed watermelon. You thought about it in slow motion: splotches of blood, detached eyeballs, chunks of brain and scalp and hair, bits of teeth, all in one, ugly splatter of gooey, human shrapnel.
+++++But you’re a good person, and you decided against killing her, and you decided against theatrics. That wouldn’t be classy, and you’re classy. You came up with a simple idea: Wait for the man to pass by in his forest green rain coat. It would be better to do it in the dark, and preferably, on a cloudy, rainy evening. Wait in the alley, step up from behind, stick the knife into his back, and retreat.
+++++Good job. Now you’re here, dragging his corpse out of the dimly lit sidewalk and into the alley. Why didn’t you retreat? You keep pulling at the body, and the man’s blood soaks through your gloves. It feels warm and sticky, and you don’t feel victorious anymore. You feel weak and afraid. You smile anyway.
+++++You kneel over the corpse, panting. The sound of the rain masks your breathing. What about the knife? Best to put it back in the sheath, you think, so you reach inside your pocket, but there’s something else. A crumpled wad of paper. You went to the doctor’s today to get a pain pill prescription. Lower back pain is an easy thing to lie about.
+++++Is your prescription in your pocket? You had better not lose it. You need it. Stay calm. Open up the crumpled medical report, take out your phone, and use the screen as a light. Blood pressure, ok. Slightly overweight. Typical. Stop smoking. Pain pills. Check. The usual notes, but then something else. Decreased depth perception and a probability of color blindness. Color blindness? Were you day dreaming when the doctor mentioned this? Probably. All you cared about were your pills.
+++++Color blindness. That’s the last thing that you think about before, from a nearby window, you hear her voice. Her moaning. Her pleasure. You know it’s her, right? Her moans are so loud, you can almost feel her pelvis throb against you.
+++++Don’t be an idiot. It’s your pelvis, which you have let rest upon the corpse. Frantically, your hands trembling, you shine your phone on the man’s coat, trying to get a better look, but in the darkness, with the soft glow of the screen lighting the body, and with the blood that’s gushed onto it, you still can’t tell if the coat is actually green. You try to flip the body over. Your strength, however, is gone. Of course it’s gone. That’s what happens when you knife someone to death. Didn’t you know that? Maybe you’d recognize his face, but maybe not. Faces don’t look the same when they’re dead.
+++++You look at the coat again under the light of your phone, but the battery dies, and there’s that sound again. You can still hear the bitch moaning. At least, you think that’s what it is.
+++++Run, you idiot. Run.

The Last Confession

Father Malcolm pulled into the parking lot of the cheap motel just in time to see Rafe enter one of the rooms, carrying the unconscious body of the little girl. He offered up a prayer as the motel door closed. He reached over for his rosary, raised it to his lips for a brief kiss, then put it back down on the passenger seat. He opened up the glove compartment and pulled out his Glock 23 and the suppressor he had borrowed from his brother. He drew on his gloves and tucked the gun and the suppressor into an inner pocket of his jacket, then he got out of the car and quietly closed the door, leaving his rosary behind.
+++++He knocked on the motel room door. “Rafe, this is Father Malcolm. Open up.”
+++++The door opened and Rafe stood there, staring at him dumbly. “Father Malcolm? What the hell are you doing here?”
+++++“I saw you abduct that girl and I followed you here. Let me in.”
+++++“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Listen, this is not a good time–”
+++++Father Malcolm raised the Glock and pointed it directly in Rafe’s face. “Let me in. Now.”
+++++Stunned, Rafe stepped back, an expression of fear and alarm in his eyes. The priest entered the room and saw the girl, who was tied to the bed and slowly regaining consciousness. She looked to be about nine years old. The buttons of her blouse had been ripped off. “Untie the girl,” he ordered.
+++++“I think we have a big misunderstanding,” Rafe began, but Father Malcolm swung the gun around, pushing the muzzle into Rafe’s left eye. “Untie the girl.”
+++++Rafe staggered back and started untying the knots he had just tied. “Listen, Father Malcolm, all that stuff I told you, that was confidential. The seal of the confessional.”
+++++“You’re right. And I’m not telling anyone. But I’m also not letting you rape any more children.”
+++++Rafe laughed coarsely. “What are you gonna do? Shoot me?”
+++++“If need be, yes.” Father Malcolm reached into his pocket, drew out the suppressor and quickly attached it to the Glock in a smooth, practiced motion. Rafe’s face blanched white as the priest raised the pistol, aimed once again at Rafe’s face. The little girl was free now and snapped out of her Roofie-induced grogginess quickly. She bolted for the door and ran off into the night.
+++++Rafe stared at the barrel of the gun. “What about my soul, Father Malcolm? Don’t you care about my soul?”
+++++“I care about the little girls. I care about making sure there are no more victims. At this point I’m not even sure you have a soul. But if you do…” the priest paused. “No. I don’t care at all.”
+++++The alarmed expression in Rafe’s eyes disappeared, replaced by something cold and distant. He lunged forward and grabbed the gun as he wrenched Father Malcolm’s hand backwards, almost breaking his wrist. He pointed the Glock at the priest and said, in a steadier voice, “OK, Father. Here’s my last confession. I’ve molested 32 women. Twelve were adults, the rest were girls under 10 years old. Three of those girls died in the process.”
+++++Father Malcolm’s voice was steady and authoritative. “I can’t tell the police because of the seal of the confessional. But I can’t let you continue down this path. Only one of us is leaving this filthy motel room alive.”
+++++Rafe nodded slowly in agreement. “You’re right,” he said. “This has to end.” He turned the gun around and put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
+++++Father Malcolm jerked backwards, shocked. He saw Rafe’s brains splattered against the grimy motel room wall. The suppressor had done its job so there was no loud noise.
+++++He opened the door and surveyed the parking lot. Empty. No other customers tonight, and the motel office was on the other side of the building. Father Malcolm staggered back to his car, put the Glock and suppressor back in the glove box. He picked up his rosary and held it close to his heart for a long minute before he was able to drive away.

The Lovely Irene

So . . . in a nutshell . . . this is what went down. See if you can figure it out.
+++++The body was found sitting upright on a toilet bowl, slumped over onto one of the metal walls of the toilet booth, very much dead . . . obviously . . . due to the blade of a very large knife sticking out of the man’s chest. The guy was in his mid-thirties, an account at a large bank, unmarried, said by friends and relatives both to be a very nice man without an enemy in the world.
+++++Well, you know. There seemed to be something wrong with that picture.
+++++Sitting on the tile floor to the right of the toilet bowl was a large leather briefcase. Unmolested and very heavy. On the small coat rack on the back of the toilet stall’s door was a heavy, but expensive looking trench coat still partially wet from the downpour still raging outside like biblical prophecy. When the body was discovered, about an hour ago, the building’s security officer swore there was a set of wet tracks leading into the men’s room door and straight to the stall the dead man now occupied. Just one set of tracks.
+++++A quick scan of the building’s security cameras clearly showed the deceased stepping out of the elevator and into the building’s lobby. Three different cameras in the lobby show the victim walking across the wide lobby floor, briefcase in one hand, a wet trench coat in the other, and head for the Men’s Room. The guy goes into the restroom. And never comes out. No one else comes and goes into the restroom until, about thirty minutes after the deceased enters, when the security officer making his nightly rounds walks down the hall leading to the restrooms and enters to find the dead man.
+++++Now here’s the interesting twist. No blood. No suspects. No way for a killer to enter and/or exit the scene of the crime without being recorded on the cameras. Maybe this comes as a shock to you, bubba, but stick the blade of a long knife into a man’s chest and there’s blood everywhere. But not this time. Not one drop of blood anywhere . . . including in the dead man.
+++++When our gum chewing little forensics specialist, Joe Wieser, told us about no blood in the body and no blood to be found in the entire men’s room, I had to grin, shove hands into my trousers’ pockets, and turn to one side and stare at my partner. Frank Morales, for you who are uninformed, is a Neanderthal. Well . . . not really a Neanderthal. But the guy looks like what one thinks a modern Neanderthal might look like. A jaw made of bone so thick he could chew reinforced concrete for a snack, no neck to speak up, with the brightest looking carrot colored red hair which absolutely refuses to be combed. His overall body shape is that of a cement block, albeit one that stands about six feet four. Big, tough, and strong. One’s natural inclination is to think someone that good looking had to be as dumb as a rock. But, oh brother, would they ever be wrong.
+++++He eyed me with his dark browns, made a sour looking face, and rumbled like a badly tuned Russian reactor.
+++++“I hate shit like this. Hurts my head. I think I’ll go to car and eat some tacos. Call me if you need me.”
+++++He turned and began walking away. Not toward our car parked out by the curb in the driving rain. But somewhere else. Inside the office building. Grinning, I knew he was heading back to the security office to review the tapes again, I turned and walked back to the men’s room for a second peek.
+++++Now ask yourself this. How the hell does a guy step out of an elevator, walk across an empty lobby of a very large office building at two in the morning of a rainy Sunday, enter a men’s room, and get a heavy looking butcher’s knife rammed into the middle of his chest? By himself. No one is in the men’s room waiting for him. No one enters the men’s room, other than the victim. No one leaves the men’s room after the deed is done. Is this a murder? Or a fairly gruesome suicide? Glancing into the stall I had to hand it to the guy. If this was a suicide, the bastard was committed in ending it if he shoved the knife into his heart all by his lonesome.
+++++But I didn’t think it was suicide. People usually don’t kill themselves like that. Especially a successful, happy go lucky guy like this.
+++++I went over the men’s room again diligently. Looking for something . . . anything . . . maybe Frank and I missed the first time around. Forensics had come and gone, finding nothing out of the ordinary. I had this nagging little voice in the back of my head telling me we were overlooking something. Something small. Something obvious. But something important. But that was the problem. I hadn’t a clue what it could be. Frustrated, I walked out of the men’s room, strolled across the empty lobby with polished black tile floors, and came to a halt in front of the bank of elevators sitting in silence all in a row. Specifically, I stood in front of the one the dead man used just before he checked out. Permanently.
+++++Pushing the ‘up’ button the black doors of the elevator opened with a vague hissing sound and I stepped in. The doors slid closed behind me and everything went silent. Forensics had been all over the elevator. There were about a million different prints lifted off the controls, the hand rail circling the interior of the car, and off the doors themselves. It would take weeks to sort through them all. Turning, I punched in ‘10’ and felt the elevator car lurch into motion and begin its ascent. Why ’10,’ you ask? The tenth floor was where our dead guy worked. Big accounting office. Lots of number crunchers working there. Everybody gone, of course, over the weekend. So why was our man here in the building at two in the morning on a Sunday?
+++++Dunno.
+++++But I began walking the empty hallway of the tenth floor, curiously eyeing all the empty, and locked, offices. The hall lights were turned low. Lots of shadows playing across the walls. Quiet as a monk’s cubby hole. Don’t know what I was looking for. Didn’t expect to find anything. Actually, I was kinda shuffling around like a lost deer, that nagging voice in the back of my head getting louder and louder, and not figuring out what it was that was bothering me. I combed the tenth floor, then descended to the ninth and did the same ambling shuffle, before dropping down to the eighth.
+++++On the eighth I found a couple of items that caught my eye.
+++++The first thing was the shine on the highly polished tile floor. Even in the dim light of the empty floor the shine was instantly visible and just as impressive. This was the Markle Building on Hesston and Seventh Street. Ten floors of solid black and chrome from sidewalk to roofline. Black glass everywhere with long columns of chrome steel in vertical slashes for contrast. A stunning architectural feast to the eyes. The interior floors were black tile. Kept to a glistening polished sheen.
+++++The moment I stepped out of the elevator I noticed the floor. Maintenance had just finished polishing the tile. It was plain as day. There wasn’t a scuffle, or footprint, or even a particle of dust anywhere on the floor from the elevator doors out for maybe twenty or thirty feet. But past the first to set of offices was a door which led into the building’s stairwell. That’s where I observed curiosity number one. The unmistakable wobbly tracks of someone pushing a heavy four wheeled cart over the floor and stopping in front of the stairwell door. You know the kind of cart I’m talking about. The kind where you load up boxes and crates and push it one from place to another. The kind used mostly in office buildings to cart around bags of mail and other things.
+++++In the dim light, I noticed the tracks hugging close to the wall and disappearing off into the dim light. Curious, I followed the tracks and that’s when I saw it. The bright and colorful neon lights of building from across the street flushed through the glass walls of the Markle Building, continued on through the clear glass interior wall of a set of law offices and played across the black tile of the floor in a long, narrow band of multicolored light. And there it was. About the size of a new pencil eraser. A bump of congealed blood.
+++++Kneeling, balancing myself on the balls of my feet in the darkness of the hall, I stared at the lump of blood for a second or two. And then I looked up and at the doorway from where the cart tracks originated from. It a set of double glass doors with large gold lettering splashed across the glass announcing who was inside.

Schumer& Schumer Investments.

+++++And it hit me. That nagging voice. I knew what it was trying to tell me. The dead man’s rain coat. The tapes showed our dead man stepping out of the elevator holding his damp raincoat draped over one arm. A damp raincoat. Not a soaked to the bone, “Yes, I have been swimming in a frackin’ monsoon,” kind of wet coat. Just damp. As if he had already been here for a while before riding the elevator down to this death. Schumer & Schumer’s assigned parking stalls were on the top, and open, floor of the parking garage next door. The investment firm also had its own private entrance which connected their offices directly to the parking building.
+++++Standing up I stepped around the lump of blood and approached the glass doors of the investment firm. Locked. Stepping back, frowning, I jumped slightly when the cellphone inside my sport coat suddenly went off.
+++++“Yes?”
+++++“Get down to the security office, flatfoot. I’ve got something to show you.”
+++++I stretched a half-grin across my lips. Frank calling me a flatfoot was funny. Especially if you ever saw his feet. Flatfoot is also a rub for uniformed police officers. Which we both had been earlier in our careers.
+++++“Got something to tell you as well, dear.” I said, smiling wider. “But do me a favor. Find the building supe and tell him to come up to the eighth floor and unlock the offices of Schumer & Schumer. We need to look inside.”
+++++A couple of minutes later I stepped into the crowded clutter of a small office in the basement used by the building’s security staff.   One wall was filled with computer monitors. One wall filled with shelves full of various video tapes, boxes of digital equipment, and training tapes. A third wall was lined with metal storage cabinets with the names of various security employees on sticky labels on them. There was a desk, an office chair, and more computer screens in the middle of the room. Frank was standing by the wall of computer screens with a remote clicker in one hand, studying a monitor closely.
+++++“Whatta got?” I asked, closing the office door behind me.
+++++“Whatta you got?” he grunted.
+++++I told him about the eighth floor, the cart tracks, the blood sample, and my theory about our dead guy and his rain coat. The big lug for a partner grunted and nodded his head.
+++++“That explains why I haven’t found a tape of our guy returning. I’ve got an image of him leaving Friday night around a quarter to seven. But haven’t a clue as to when he came back to the office. But I did find something else. You’ll want to see it.”
+++++He lifted the clicker in his hand up, aimed it at one monitor, and clicked it. Instantly the images of the lobby from some earlier time began rapidly rewinding.
+++++“Watch.”
+++++I watched.
+++++Frank clicked the clicker in his hand again the rewinding stopped. Images began flowing normally. An empty lobby in the early morning. And then traffic. Lots of traffic. Men and women in work clothes of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians coming in and filling the lobby and going in and out of both the lady’s and men’s restrooms.
+++++“The supe said both restrooms have been extensively remodeled. Workers came in around noon yesterday and didn’t leave until seven p.m last night. Now watch. We’re coming up to when they finished.”
+++++Eyes went back to the monitor. The images begin to move. Everyone was cleaning up and preparing to leave. They did in ones and twos, with everyone gone around 7:23 p.m. At 7:28 p.m. a worker, pushing a heavy looking four wheeled cart in front of him, rolls into the frame and disappears into the men’s room. On the cart was a large cardboard box. Very large. Ten minutes later the figure, still pushing the cart, still with the large box riding along, rolls out of the men’s room and disappears off screen.
+++++“Did you catch it? Both of’em?”
+++++I threw a questioning glance at Frank and then looked back at the screen as he rewound the images again.
+++++“I saw the guy moving the cart a hell of a lot easier. Like whatever he was rolling into the pisser seemed to a lot lighter when he was leaving.”
+++++Frank, twitching the corner of his lips visibly, told me he was silently amusing himself on my near sightedness. So I stepped closer to the monitors and too a second look. The worker goes into the men’s room with box and heavy cart. He’s maybe around five-foot eight. Thin. He’s wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his face. No way to make an identification.   But . . . eyes narrowing . . . I see it. I turn and looking at the lip-twitching sonofabitch.
+++++“A woman?”
+++++Frank nods and then lifts the clicker up and begins fast forwarding through a number of other images.
+++++“Security tapes get replaced every twelve hours. Noon and midnight. Watch this.”
+++++Eyes went back to the monitor. It’s our dead man stepping out of the elevator and walking to his death.   He walks into the rest room and, maybe twenty five seconds later, the door to the restroom moves just a hair. Just barely. Hardly noticeable. Unless, of course, you’re looking for it. Which apparently, Frank had been.
+++++He raises the clicker and freezes the image on the monitor and looks at me. I look at him, shrug, and improvise.
+++++“Only thing I got is this is our killer dressed up as our victim. She makes the image for us to find hoping it’ll throw us off the scent long enough for her to get away.”
+++++The red headed giant grunted, nodded, and folded massive arms across his chest.
+++++“So how did she stop the camera?”
+++++“With the same clicker you have in your hands. She cracks the door open just enough to aim it toward the security office. Apparently it has a long enough range to turn off the recorder. She walks out of the restroom and clicks the recorder back once she’s in the clear.”
+++++“Good. We know how the murder was done. We have a vague idea of a possible suspect. We know why, in a vague sense, the murder went down. But we really know nothing. What did she steal? And why was our account murdered?”
+++++I grinned savagely at the big guy. He frowned, turned toward me, and tilted his head to one side curiously. I’m told Frank has an IQ about two gazillion. But he hates it when someone else comes up with something he missed. Like now.
+++++“Spit it out, Sherlock. I’m all ears.”
+++++“Two things,” I said, still grinning like a malicious elf. “One, did you talk to the security officer on duty tonight? I didn’t. Did you?”
+++++“No,” Frank growled, shaking his head. “The uniforms did. They relayed to me the information he gave them.”
+++++“Not him, my overgrown little Watson. Her. She told the uniforms everything she knew and then left the building. Said she had to get to apartment at a certain time so her baby sitter could go home.”
+++++“So our killer worked the building in the capacity of a hired security guard. Meaning she had keys to get herself into practically ever office in the building. Hey, I like that. Smart. Now, tell me what else that little peanut brain of yours has cooked up. I’m dying to hear it.”
+++++“Schumer & Schumer. What are they known far?” I asked.
+++++“High end investments. Specifically stocks and bonds.” Frank answered, a light bulb suddenly going off in his eyes. “Oh . . . .okay. I see it. The chick comes in and steals a shitload of untraceable bonds. Old bearer’s bonds from way back when. God only knows how much she took. Probably millions.”
+++++Confession time. I’m rich. No, not bragging. Just telling the truth. I’m a rich homicide detective. A few years back a grandfather I didn’t know was still alive walked into my life and handed me an inheritance. Millions of dollars in cash, stocks, bonds and real estate. I’ve been trying to play it smart and invest it ever since. So yeah, I knew Schumer & Schumer quite well.
+++++“We got a killer running around town lugging around with her a sizeable amount of very valuable paper. She can’t fly commercial and go through the security checks with all that paper on her. TSA would ask too many questions. The bonds have coupons which must be personally exchanged at a bank to get the money. They’re stolen. We’ll have every bank and investment firm in turn alerted to be on the lookout for them by tomorrow night. She’s killed someone to get the bonds, so she’s not eager to stick around town any longer than she has to. What’s her only option?”
+++++“She has to bite the bullet and sell them off at a steep discount rate,” Frank said, his lips twitching suddenly in laughter. “If she’s lucky she might get a quarter on a dollar. But the fence has to be a big one. Someone who can handle that amount of money in a few hours. That means her options are equally limited.”
+++++“Not just limited,” I said, smiling as well. “There’s only one guy in town who can come up with that much cash on such a short notice. And that’s where we’re going right now.”
+++++It was a little past midnight when we blasted across town in my white ’65 Shelby Mustang. Where we were going the traffic was light so we drove fast. And the Shelby, being a Shelby, with that small block Ford V8 in it, just purred.
+++++The house was a mansion. A mansion back in deep foliage with a long driveway that curled around in front of the house and disappeared back in the direction we just traveled. There were no lights on in the house. Except for one, to one side, in a wing of the house we knew to be the library. Yes . . . Frank and I have been at the house before on official business. We knew the place quite well. The owner of the house was a fat guy by the name of Lewis Hayden. A procurer of anything stolen which promised a very high pay off. Like, for instance, stolen bearer’s bonds.
+++++We walked around to the library, guns drawn, and peered in through the windows. Sitting in a big chair about the size of something a Nero Wolfe would set in, a maid was sitting three glasses of freshly drawn beer onto a coffee table in front of Lewis. The fat man nodded, mouthed the words, ‘Thank you,’ and the petite little thing walked out and closed the double doors of the library behind her. But there was no one else in the room. Only Lewis . . . and three glasses of beer.
+++++This looked ominous.
+++++But, using the barrel of my weapon to tap on the double French doors, we watched the big man rise out of his comfy chair and lumber over to the doors to open them.
+++++“Ah! Detectives Hahn and Morales. What a lovely surprise. I was told I would be visited soon by the city’s finest. Come in, come in. I took the liberty of having refreshments at the ready in anticipation of your arrival.”
+++++We stepped into the library and followed the round frame of Lewis Hayden back to his behemoth of a chair. Ponderously, he lowered himself into it and reached for one of the large glasses of cold beer.
+++++“Please, gentlemen. Partake. I know you, Sergeant Hahn, to be a devoted aficionado of the hops. This is a rare brew direct from Germany. Not sold here in the States. I’m sure you’ll find it most delicious.”
+++++“Who told you we were coming?” Frank growled, eyeing the dark colored beer before forcing himself to turn his attention back to our host.
+++++“A most delightful young lady for whom I have a most profound admiration for.”
+++++“What’s her name,” I said, turning my head and eyeing the interior doors of the library. The same doors the maid had just exited from.
+++++“Oh, a most delicious irony there, detective. Most delicious indeed.”
+++++“She came here and sold you some old bearer’s bonds. Obtained through a theft, and I might add, committing murder in the process.”
+++++“Really?” Hayden exploded, astonishment on his face. “I was not aware of any such crime, or set of crimes, my dear detective.”
+++++“If you have the bonds in this house, that makes you an accessory to murder. You know that, don’t you.”
+++++“I am completely at a loss for words, Detective Morales.”
+++++“We could search the house,” I said.
+++++“You would need a search warrant, my dear boy. I would insist. And obtaining one at this time of night? I daresay it would be an arduous process.”
+++++“How long ago was she here?”
+++++“Why Detective Turner, I think you just saw her leave moments ago. Good luck finding her now. She is a most resourceful person.”
+++++I started to say something. But the house rocked with a big hammy fist pounding on the front door insistently. Frank glanced at me and nodded, before walking out of the library and into the main hall. Moments later the big red headed Neanderthal re-entered the library, followed by two uniformed offices bracketing the small frame of a dark haired young girl. In the hand of one of the officers was a zip drive, which he tossed to me.
+++++“Found her trying to hail a taxi at this time of night a quarter mile away. We thought that strange. So we picked her up and brought her over here. Knew you and Frank were working a homicide. Thought maybe there was a connection here.”
+++++Officers Flattery and O’Connor. Sons of Irish immigrants who became cops. From father to son. Both the best of the best when it came to police work.
+++++I caught the drive, eyed it for a moment or two, and then smiled.
+++++“Betcha this is the password for a freshly created bank account in some off shore bank. Money transferred from your account into this one. With this little lady as being the main recipient. If I’m right, both of you are going to jail for a long, long time.”
+++++Lewis Hayden looked almost sick. But give him credit. He was a showman who could not pass up wowing a crowd.
+++++“Detectives, may I introduce you to a most charming young lady who calls herself Irene Adler.”
+++++“You’re kidding,” Frank, my oversized Watson, said turning to look at the tom boyish, yet exotic looking young woman standing between the uniforms, before turning to look at me again. “Well, Sherlock. You did it again. Congratulations.”
+++++Indeed, Watson. Indeed.

Somewhere in Slovenia

Go to Slovenia, the man said. It’s a green wonderland with cheap beer, Razzo had promised when he sold him on the trip to the away game. Euro games! You’ll have fun, see the footie, drink your fill. It’ll be aces.
+++++He had to admit it was postcard pretty, all mountains and vineyards like Switzerland was supposed to be (he’d never been there) and if they had just stuck to the match and the pub full of other supporters from both teams it might have stayed grand.
+++++Fuck Tommy, it was all his fault. ‘Go on then, let’s do it,’ he’d said, jabbering in his always too hopped way. ‘You could get ‘em cheap here. If the beer is this cheap, just think of the drugs!’
+++++He didn’t even do drugs any more. That was kid stuff. Far better to kill yourself the nice and slow way with booze. Cheaper, easier and far less palaver. He had kids, for chrissakes. How embarrassing it would be to have their dad in the nick? And Edie? She’d skelp him alive for sure.
+++++Goddamn Tommy. They should have never left the pub. Never should have left the others. That lot were probably still singing club songs with the locals, feeling up the barmaids and hoping to get lucky, making new Slovenian pals they were inviting back to their homes, if they were ever fool enough to travel across the Brexit lines to visit the fast-sinking island.
+++++The one thing they weren’t was slumped in an alley somewhere in Slovenia while a tough-looking skinhead straight out of a Britain First recruitment video beat you senseless. That’s where Tommy was right now. Two other thugs held Danny and made him watch. Of course the guy wasn’t actually a UKipper. He was Slovenian.
+++++Presumably: he could be Croatian for all they knew. Or what was that other place? Montenegro. The other match going on tonight, wasn’t it? Didn’t matter, did it? Maybe the bald guy got mad because they called him Slovenian but he was from somewhere else all together, some place that hated Slovenia like everyone hated Chelsea. Danny found he had to laugh. Was this what hysterical meant?
+++++The guy was shouting something as he aimed a few more kicks around the body, though Tommy wasn’t even crying at him anymore, just kind of lying there. What the hell? You don’t have drugs, fine. You don’t want to sell to us, fine. Why the hell you got to beat us up?
+++++The skinhead wiped his sweaty face and turned. Danny cringed. The two pals that held him by the arms took a tighter grip. The guy walked up scowling. He was a wee bit shorter but every bit of his body seemed to have been moulded from iron. There were a few flecks of blood sprayed across his cheek. Was it Tommy’s blood?
+++++The guy let loose a torrent of abuse. Meaningless words that whooshed past his face with the guy’s spittle and venom. Danny closed his eyes. What was the point anyway? It wasn’t like he knew any language but English. If only they’d stayed in the pub. If only Tommy hadn’t got the bright idea to look for drugs down some dark alley. They should call the police.
+++++Maybe they were the police. Was this how they treated druggies? Some countries did, he’d heard. He hadn’t even wanted drugs. If only he hadn’t been so loaded. They were awash with that funny named beer. Maybe it was stronger than their usual lager. What idiots they were. They wouldn’t have been this stupid at home. He’d never have followed Tommy on such a fool’s errand.
+++++He should have at least got a guidebook, some useful phrases. Like ‘help!’ for instance.
+++++He doubled over when the first blow hit his stomach. It was all he could do not to spew up on the guy but he fought back the sickness at least until another blow landed and then another and up it all came: the beer, the bile, the fear, the crisps and the kebab thing they’d all eaten at the grounds. Like a tsunami it washed out of him and onto the pavement, splashing their feet as well as his own, until the howls of disgust encircled him and he fell.
+++++Like slow motion it was. Danny could almost see it happening and thought he was completely numb until he hit the concrete and every bit of it hurt. Every bit. But the darkness rose up to meet him and he was free.

In Cold Blood

Robert Dibble marched past a bored llama and a disinterested gibbon and a weary water buffalo. The zoo was out of season and virtually deserted. A few visitors congregated around the big-ticket animals, but only a lone litter picking employee was in this corner of the facility. Just as Robert Dibble had hoped.
+++++He was a slight man and one that was easily overlooked. Robert was wearing dark glasses, despite it not being particularly sunny. And he had his collar turned up, despite it not being particularly cold.
+++++Robert entered the reptile house without breaking stride.

***

At the far end of the building was a large man staring at the contents of a glass enclosure. The man was wearing shorts and a brightly colored t-shirt, making him look a little like a giant-sized boy. Robert removed his sunglasses and approached the man with caution. He checked no one had entered after him — no, they were alone.
+++++“I think this one’s dead,” said the man without once looking at Robert. The man tapped on the glass, but the lizard inside remained motionless. “Hasn’t moved once.”
+++++“It’s ectothermic,” said Robert.
+++++“It’s what?”
+++++“Cold blooded,” said Robert, checking the door again. “It’s warming under the heat lamp.”
+++++The big man tapped the glass a second time. “Or dead.”
+++++“I have this for you. It’s your cover. You know, in case anyone asks questions.” Robert handed him a piece of folded notepaper.
+++++“What is this?”
+++++“Your cover. Facts about lizards and amphibians.”
+++++“I don’t understand,” said the man, his brow creased as he read the list.
+++++“To prove you were here out of intellectual curiosity. Instead of being here to meet me to, you know, discus this matter.”
+++++“So like homework? You’re giving me homework?”
+++++“It’s… Forget it,” said Robert, holding out his hand for the list which the man had no intention of handing back.
+++++The man read on, amused. “The green anole lizard can shed its tail if caught by a predator.”
+++++“It doesn’t matter. Look, my daughter is waiting outside by the Zebra–”
+++++The man looked startled. “You brought your daughter?”
+++++“I… She’s my cover. That’s why I’m here. In case anyone asks. Look, the reason I called you–”
+++++“Weren’t supposed to call me,” said the man, no longer amused, turning his back on the probably-not-dead lizard and locking eyes with Robert.
+++++“No, that’s right. I’m sorry. But things have changed,”
+++++“Not supposed to change.”
+++++Aware that his hands were now shaking, Robert shoved them into his pockets. “That’s right. I mean, I understand your frustration. And I really am sorry for calling you. But this is good. This is good news.”
+++++“I break the guy’s left arm, you give me the rest of the money. That’s the deal.”
+++++“I’ve changed my mind,” said Robert, checking the door again.
+++++“You prefer the right arm?”
+++++“No, no. I don’t–”
+++++“Joke,” said the man, turning his attention back to the lizard.
+++++“Oh, I see. No, that’s very funny. That’s good. But look, I’ll give you the money. Here.” Robert pulled a fat envelope out of his jacket. “See, the full amount. Right now. You don’t need to do anything.”
+++++The man took the money and put it away without counting.
+++++“It doesn’t need to happen now. Derek…” Robert looked around: still alone. “The gentleman we spoke of has pulled out of the race. He doesn’t want the promotion now. He and his wife decided their family–”
+++++“No,” said the man, his breath clouding up the glass.
+++++“No? No? I don’t– No?”
+++++“We have a deal. It goes ahead.”
+++++“That makes no sense.” Robert was aware of just how whiney his voice had become.
+++++“I cancelled engagements.”
+++++“You cancelled… You’re missing out on what, a monster truck show? So what if you cancelled–”
+++++The man spun, grabbed Robert by the arm, and slammed him against the glass. Robert felt like the water buffalo was pushing against him, compressing his chest. He struggled to breathe as the man held him in place.
+++++“We have a deal. We will both honor that deal.” He let Robert go.
+++++“Okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re right.”
+++++There was a pause. Robert would have called it an uncomfortable silence if the rest of the encounter hadn’t been equally uncomfortable. He turned to leave.
+++++“Or you pay double,” said the man.
+++++“I’m… double? To do nothing, double?”
+++++“Cancellation fee,” said the man. “We can always keep the original deal.”
+++++“This is not acceptable. Gary told me you could be trusted,” said Robert. He made his way to the door. “Fine, we keep the original deal. Have it your way.”
+++++Robert threw open the exit door. But then he paused. He couldn’t make his way out of the building, no matter how hard he tried. Robert turned back and spoke softly, “I’ll get you the money.”
+++++“Hey, you were right!” said the man in response. He tapped at the enclosure glass again. “It just moved.”
+++++Robert left the reptile house.
+++++The man continued to stare at the lizard. “Ecto… thermic…” he said, trying the word out. He then took out the notepaper and began to read.

Destiny for Dixon

1. Blood, Honey

The third time I went to bed with Lacey, she whispered to me about killing Damon Schizo and taking eighteen hundred dollars from the glove box in his shiny red Cadillac. Didn’t seem worth it to steal that much, not given Damon’s big pistol. But the next time I saw the red cadillac cruising down dusty Lillard Street, I thought about Lacey and her long slim legs—my God, I thought, I could take her to dinner in town.
+++++More than once, too.
+++++When Damon’s driver—Big Bizzy Simmons—pulled to the curb out front of the pool hall, I put my fist through the passenger side window. You want blood? I’ll give you some of my own blood. Like I thought he would, Damon went for his pistol, but I had it with both hands before he could grunt. It gave a monsoon boom when I shot Bizzy (oops, more blood).
+++++I didn’t hear anything when I shot Damon.
+++++My ears were all gone to hell.
+++++I did find something in the Cadillac’s glove box, but it wasn’t money—it was picture of Damon Schizo and a tall blonde lady with a plump round belly. Damon’s wife, and she was pregnant.
+++++I guessed Lacey was smarter (and meaner) than I thought.

2. Live, and Let Love

“Dixon,” Lacey said, “You’re the man who killed Damon Schizo, and everybody will know it—don’t that make you proud?”
+++++I popped a piece of chewing gum into my mouth (cherry cough syrup flavor), and scrubbed my hands in the motel’s bathroom sink. Damon’s blood ran like oil across the white porcelain. You ever want a tough job, go and get yourself a maid position at a crappy motel down on Fourth Street. Don’t worry, I’m not staying there no more. “You know, Lacey…We should leave a tip for the maid, the way I made a mess in here will drive the lady crazy.” I came out of the bathroom and put my hands on my hips.
+++++Lacey was on the bed, belly down, reading the phone book. “You know there’s a lawyer here in town who calls himself Snap Jennings?”
+++++“I see Snap down at the pool hall on Thursdays. He’s a decent stick when he doesn’t have too much whiskey in him.”
+++++“What a name,” she said.
+++++It was time for me to get down to business with her. “Lacey,” I said, “there’s something I got to tell you. It’s about Damon and—”
+++++“I bet that money is over in his house.” She flipped the phone book’s yellow pages, licked her index finger each time. “I bet he keeps it under his mattress, like some kind of half-wit crook.”
+++++I came out with it fast, tried to get it out before Lacey talked over me. “Damon’s got—well, he had—a baby on the way.”
+++++Lacey tossed the phone book onto the threadbare carpet, turned onto her back and sighed. “What’s that got to do with eighteen hundred dollars, Dixon? I know you didn’t finish school, but you know how much money eighteen hundred dollars is?”
+++++I shrugged and rubbed my belly.
+++++Lacey sat up and glared at me. “Enough for some plane tickets to Rio de Janeiro. That’s how much. I looked it up myself at those computers in the library. That’s in Brazil. It’s by the ocean.”
+++++“What the hell do I want in Brazil?”
+++++Lacey fell back on the bed, scrunched a pillow beneath her head. I swear, that woman lounged around more than a dog in the highest heat of summer. She was lazy, now that I look back on it.
+++++Lacey said, “You can want whatever you want in Brazil.”
+++++“What am I going to do there?”
+++++“How am I supposed to know?”
+++++I said, “You brought up the tickets and the money.”
+++++Lacey closed her eyes. “Damn you, Dixon,” she said. “Sometimes I think you’re stupid. Are you stupid, Dixon?”
+++++Some questions, I thought, a man don’t have to answer.

3. Baby, I’m on The Way

Damon and his wife lived down a dirt road outside town; they had themselves a mobile home with a covered porch and a whole army of these rusted motorcycles parked out front of it—skeletal, that’s the word to describe the bikes. Weeds grew ankle-deep around the place and it looked to me like Damon spent all his money on that shiny red Cadillac. Too bad he wouldn’t be riding shotgun in the thing anymore. I parked it where I saw weeds pushed down by the wheels. I figured it for Damon’s regular spot. When I got out of the car, the mobile home’s front door swung open; Damon’s wife stepped onto the porch. Just like in the picture, her belly was big and round, like an egg turned onto its side. She ran her hands over the mound beneath her sundress and looked at me funny. For some reason—I still don’t know why—I saluted her. She came down the porch steps and walked toward the Cadillac. That puzzled look stayed there on her face—her lips were pressed off to one side and her eyebrows came together. I thought more than once: That’s one nice looking lady.
+++++When she reached the Cadillac’s passenger side, she squinted.
+++++“My name’s Dixon, Mrs. Schizo. I just came to hand over your Cadillac.”
+++++“What’s all that red and black in there?”
+++++I liked how she kept her two hands on that plump belly. It was sweet. “How much longer until—”
+++++“It’s a boy,” she said. “In a month, I’ll have my boy. What’s all that red and black in there?”
+++++“A boy!” I yelled it louder than I meant to; imagine that, bringing a little boy into this dusty town. Hell, I did imagine it. More quiet, I said, “A little boy.”
+++++“What’s all that—”
+++++“That’s the life we got in us, Mrs. Schizo. That there is blood and guts.” I sniffed hard. All the dust sifting around the mobile home bothered me. The wind was picking up and—despite the dust—I liked how the lady’s sundress flapped around her legs.
+++++She said, “Holy hell, and let Jesus see me now.”
+++++I looked up at the sky; it was getting dark by then, a slow-moving desert dark that fell across the sky like an eyelid. “I think he can see whatever he wants, Mrs. Schizo. I think—”
+++++“Call me Diane, please.”
+++++“Diane,” I said, “If it’s Jesus you want—”
+++++“Did you kill my husband? Did you kill…Damon?” Her eyes lifted from the Cadillac and ran over me like hot water.
+++++I shifted my feet, tried to find a place for my hands. “Now, look, all I wanted was some money. And Lacey—my girl—told me that Damon had some eighteen hundred dollars in that glove box. Now, if you can understand, imagine how stupid I felt when all I found in there was, well, a picture of the two of you.”
+++++“The three of us,” she said.
+++++I nodded.
+++++She said it again, her eyes searching mine. “The three of us.”
+++++I watched as she rubbed her hands along that nice round belly. In that little time, the darkness came on full around us. She cleared her throat and walked around the red Cadillac; she came face to face with me.
+++++“If you’ve got that money—”
+++++“I love you,” she said.
+++++She put her hands around my neck, plowed that stomach into mine. Her fingernails were like cactus spikes in my skin. I felt her heart beating hard against my chest and, after a minute of her being there in my arms, I felt the boy inside her kick against my lower ribs. “What in the hell is—”
+++++“He likes you,” she said.

4. Tones of Home

Lacey’s voice came over the line, but I could barely hear it through the static: “…The hell are you? I’ve been…don’t come back and…my money.”
+++++“I can’t hear too good over here, Lacey. Look,” I said, “I won’t be back, not anytime soon. I’ll just say it: You were right about all that money. Hell, you were right about Rio and—“
+++++“Fuck you…Believe you did this to…loved me…-damned liar.”
+++++“I can’t hear you down here, Lacey. It must be the connection.”
+++++“…it all to hell. You—”
+++++“I’m just calling to check in is all. Me and Diane—that’s Damon’s wife—got ourselves a little motel down here. And the boy, he’s got his own bed with—”
+++++“…Gonna kill you with my bare…You no-good…hellbent prick of a—”
+++++The line buzzed and died. Nothing but cold dial tone. They got a whole big city down here in Brazil; you’d be surprised. It costs a small fortune to call my people back home though. Long distance, you know. That’s why I stopped doing it. I figure, shit, if Lacey wants me bad enough, she can come on down and ask for me at the front desk. Me and Diane and the boy, we’re right here—they gave us room 219. It’s a family suite. For the three of us.

Marsh Madness

The heron stalked through the flooded marsh, eyes intent on movement below the muddy surface. Beak aimed like a javelin. It stopped, poised to strike. Patient.
+++++The heron flinched before it burst out of the water, thrust from its huge wings leaving a mist like a jet’s contrail as it soared to a safe height over the maze of marsh islands.
+++++Out of the haze of fog drifting over the water emerged a man. Behind him, as if he had bore a tunnel through the thick gloom, were woods with ancient oak trees twisting out into the bayou. Long tendrils of dull gray moss snaking down to the mud seemed to vibrate with a dissonant buzz; hundreds of thousands of insects clung to the trees and brush along the bank, belting out a chorus that was randomly broken up by disturbances in the water.
+++++Hunched over, dull gray beard hanging like moss from a sun-weathered face, the man blazed a trail of silence, stepping through the muck with a heron’s patience. His eyes, black and stretched wide, had an unnatural gleam in the twilight.
+++++An alligator hide rifle case was slung across his back, one hand holding the butt close to his flank, silencing its movement and that of his rubber waders. With his other hand he pushed aside sharp blades of grass that would have sliced into most people’s skin.
+++++He came to the edge of the marsh island and stilled himself. Standing tall, a scarecrow overlooking a huge field of dead corn stalks, his eyes shifted to the left as theme park music began playing in the far distance. A ferris wheel stood above the fog bank, lights from several small rides glaring up at it, giving the entire fairgrounds a faint glow. The high pitched, tinny notes penetrated the thick gloom, floating along with it.
+++++The man bared his black gums in that direction for a moment. Deep wrinkles spread from his eyes and mouth. Absently, he rubbed his ear; a twisted, misshapen scar ran right through it.
+++++A dog barked. The man’s head turned forward in a blink, wrinkles deepening with a smile. Across the narrow channel was a large dog standing on a low wooden pier. A golden retriever. Behind the dog, on top of a hill, a dark gray mist shrouded a small mobile home. A breeze pushed out of the woods, momentarily showing a porch, a yellow light struggling to illuminate steps. A swing set, barbeque grill and trampoline were haphazardly placed in a large overgrown yard that sloped down to disappear into the high tide.
+++++Claws ticked and scrambled over broken, failing planks. The dog barked at the water. A wave of silence spread rapidly throughout the marsh. The insects started up again. The dog’s panting could be heard clearly across the channel.
+++++The object of the dog’s interest was three feet below the end of the pier. Sticking up like an old stump was the head of a bull alligator. The dog, unafraid, seemed to play a game familiar between the two. The barking, clawing and loud panting continued. Around the man frogs had joined the bugs, quieting after barks, as if considering how to reply and join in their game.
+++++“Mario! Mario! Dummy. Get away from there.” A small boy materialized in the mist at the top of the yard. A screen door creaked and slammed on the trailer. He ran down to the pier, stopped and whistled, clapped his hands. “Come here, boy. Mario!”
+++++The retriever glanced at the boy, tongue lolling. Started wagging his tail. His head swiveled back to the alligator, mouth opening, closing, tip of his tongue wiggling with each pant. He barked again, pawed the pier. Bounced up and down, darted from side to side.
+++++The man hadn’t moved. He observed the alligator, peripherally tracking the boy and dog.
+++++“Stupid dog! Come on. We’re not supposed to play on the pier. Mom’s gonna yell at us.” He wrung his hands, chewing on his lip.
+++++Mario kept barking and wagging at the alligator. The boy stepped carefully onto the pier, looked over his shoulder at the trailer, then ran to the end of the pier, leaping a jagged hole. His sneakers thumped to a stop, arms encircling Mario’s neck. “Come on… What are you do-ing?” He looked down into the water. Wide-set emotionless eyes looked back at him. “Whoa! Crud! The alligator – !”
+++++The dog turned to lick the boy, rear end wagging, and threw him from his feet. He shouted as his hands and chin banged hard on the planks. His shoes splashed in the water, legs sliding in. The alligator’s head disappeared in a swirl of black.
+++++The man moved quickly. Grabbing the top of the rifle case he unsnapped it, slid out a crossbow and unfolded the arms, locking them. Loaded a bolt. Brought it to his shoulder, aiming through a high-powered scope at the boy’s legs.
+++++“Mario!” All the boy’s breath burst from him in a single scream. Around the man the marsh creatures scattered into the grass or water. The boy tore at the planks with his tiny fingers, shoes thudding into the water behind him.
+++++The dog wore a puzzled expression. He chuffed, pawed the pier in front of the boy. Then he stretched and bit the collar of the boy’s shirt, jerked and snatched him back onto the pier. The boy’s shoes cleared right as the alligator popped up under them.
+++++“Whoa! Shoot! Whoa! WHOA!” The boy staggered, gripping his shirt, pushing at Mario until he let go.
+++++The big dog abruptly spun and ran off the pier.
+++++The screen door slapped shut from the trailer and a tall sandy haired woman in jeans and flip-flops walked down to the water gesturing with a hair brush. “God-damnit, Sam! Really? I told you to not play by the water, and specifically not on the pier. And your freaking clothes are wet? Get your ass in the house and get changed! You’re going to be late for the bus.” She stuck the brush in a back pocket. Whistled loudly, clapped her hands. “Mario! Let’s go, boy. Get your ass in the house! You better not be wet, too.”
+++++Mario barked and waggled, looking at the woman. Then he bound up the yard and raced past her.
+++++The woman turned to follow her chastened son and the man aimed the scope at her ass. His lips peeled back, blackened gums catching light that darkened them further, lines branching from the corners of his eyes blending into single deep furrows. Jeans stretched over hips, dug into buttocks at 70x.
+++++The man’s finger caressed the weapon’s trigger.
+++++The stump appeared in the water again. This time where the yard met the water. The dog zoomed past the woman and boy, barking up a storm.
+++++The man tracked the alligator as it moved slowly towards the yard, crosshairs centered just behind its eyes. Mario, bounding downhill, tongue lolling in a toothy smile, barked his I’m-a-Good-Dog-Let’s-Play bark. As he came to a sudden stop, the man brought the crossbow up slightly and shot the dog in the front leg.
+++++Gravity and momentum were against the big dog. He pitched over into the bayou.
+++++The stump vanished. The dog never surfaced.
+++++The splash made Sam and the woman stop and turn around. They didn’t see Mario. The woman frowned severely. The boy looked alarmed. When Mario didn’t respond to his name being called Sam ran back to the pier. The woman followed, flip-flops slapping hard against her feet.
+++++The man took aim at her chest, shirt straining against her swaying breasts. His finger moved faster, though still gently, over the trigger.
+++++“Well, where the hell is he?” The woman planted her feet, fists on hips. “Mario!” She demanded for Sam to find his dog and get his ass to the bus stop, wet clothes and all.
+++++Sam, completely bewildered, looked from the pier to the water. Looked at his mom and shrugged. He squinted at the woods. Leaned over and peered intently through the fog, at the marsh across the channel.
+++++He gasped and jerked upright. A sob caught in his throat as his eyes moved back to the pier. To the water.
+++++He turned toward his mom. “The alligator, Mom. The alligator!”
+++++“The alligator? What about the alligator?” The woman muttered “Shit” and walked down next to Sam. Frowned at the water. Her eyebrows lifted. She put a hand to her mouth. She almost said, But that old ‘gator and Mario are friends… But Sam knew better, and so did she.
+++++Sam took a deep, sharp breath and let out a wail that pierced deep into the bayou.
+++++The heavy fog began lifting. A fresh breeze billowed Sam’s wet pants as he clung to his mother’s leg, sobbing.
+++++The man’s smile broadened to a full grin, tiny pinpoints of light refracting from his jet eyes and gums. One eye closed and he looked through the scope once more. A dry suction emitted from his throat, tongue pressing into his top gum, unsticking.
+++++Carnival music, louder now that the fog was lifting, tinkled on the breeze as the man studied the woman’s backside again. She bent over to pick up her crying son and carried him up to the porch.

I Wake To Angels On My Lids

Well you get down the fiddle and you get down the bow
Kick off your shoes and you throw them on the floor
Dance in the kitchen ’till the morning light…
—Alabama, Lyrics

I wake, angels or demons flashing on my lids. I know not which… The dead float off on dark waters like sullen guests after a Saturday night dance at Bubba Tidoman’s back yard parley with the bow and fiddle played by the Devil himself. My mind is swimming out of that moonshine veil of paradise into the real world, where I smell burnt toast and rotten eggs being stir fried, along with ham and grits on an open griddle that must be Jezebel Montieth’s, my shack up partner’s, morning wakeup call; and I realize I’m in hell not heaven, rubbing the sandbars out of my shanked eyes.
+++++“Oh, Jeze, dearest,” I say, slightly mocking me Old Man’s style. “What you fixing that’s so deliciously scrummy, dear.” She’s looking askance at me, a cigarette dangling down out of the corner of her split lip, her snotty-nosed kid wrapped around her legs in my Red & Blue & Gray Confederate towel with her thumb stuck in her mouth like something I want even mention. I say nothing more. I know better.
+++++She continues looking at me not saying a blasted thing till the toast is scorched black as my Truck. She seems oblivious to such issues as burnt toast, and rotten eggs at this point, her eyes blank as spades, and her cheeks puffing away at that cigarette like she was the last train from hell and I was her next victim.
+++++I get up, shake my sorry ass legs out the wrong side of the bed, step on either a box of crunching cereal; or even worse, bird shit for her fucking parrot, below my skinny feet. I roll over and slide back to the other side, reaching for my smokes and lighter, and take a swig of what’s left on the nightstand; some rotgut piss juice I was drinking last night instead of my usual moon shine and whiskey combo, then I fire up that sulfurous delight in nicotine that warms my lungs with black death. I smile at the bitch with a big grin like it was the last one she’d ever see from me, which hopefully it will be.
+++++“Hun, would you mind handing me the morning paper,” I say so sweetly. She continues looking at me, blankly. Not saying a fucking word. I think she’s either pissed, or stoned cold drugged out of her gourd; or both… at this point all I can figure is I better get the hell out of dodge.
+++++I move to the edge of the bed, pull on my jeans, grab my dirty shirt hanging on the wooden chair, snare my boots and dirty socks from down below, and then slide on past the accident of her morning effete as I wink and smile into her pitch black eyes. She doesn’t move her body one iota, but turns her neck rotating it like that wind-up doll on the old exorcist movie; but luckily not backwards, but forwards, following me around I pass her toward the front of the trailer.
+++++Finally, she speaks: “Where you going?”
+++++Ah, the sweetness of that voice… “I got to meet Clay down at the Garage,  Sweety,” I say with that sugary bullshit I hate, and she loves: “We have a job to do on that ole Caddy of John Sitwell’s.” Except this time she’s not buying my crap.
+++++“You’re not going fucking nowhere till you fix that commode, moron,” She says, parenthetically.
+++++Emphasizing my goal to leave the trailer, I give her that big hands up, the ones that say, “Oh, sure, baby, you know me, I’m own it like yesterday.”
+++++I can see she’s not buying that ticket either, shouting at me: “If you don’t get your ass in gear, boy, and do something around this crummy joint, then don’t expect me to be here when you get back.”
+++++I think to myself, “Finally, I’m going to get rid of the bag lady, for good… never wanted her or kids anyway. She can’t even fry bacon, for crying out loud.” All the time I’m smiling, placating, looking at her like I’m hurt that she’s laid a low blow on me, trying to charm her and disarm her with the ole “but baby” routine: “But sugar plum, you know you don’t mean that,” I feint, but she cuts me off at the pass…
+++++“Don’t you fucking say it,” She’s frowning now, holding that pan of rotten food up like she’s about to use it on me like a gun.
+++++So instead of saying another word I look from her to the door, where the kid has just gone out and left wide open. “Now’s my chance,” I think… I dash out the door, and hear the squelch and pop of grease froth surging behind me, following me out as I tumble forward end over end, holding onto my britches, boots, and hat, sprawling and tumbling, till I sit up in the dust, turn back and she’s at the door with a big pot of coffee in her right hand, about ready to chase me down and pour that boiling acid all over me. I get up and make a dive into my old Chevy truck, slam that sucker into neutral, pop the clutch, pitch back the driver’s door and run it till I can let that clutch go, and zing —we’re off to the races… the engine fire’s up, I hop in, and like a sling shot I’m on my way.
+++++I look in the rear-view mirror and realize the dust devils I see in the fumes behind me, like shadows floating there in the sun’s mote, remind me of that portal nightmare world I woke from this morning into this daytime world… driving onward I wonder to myself, which one is which…

Busy Day

On slow days Lester shot things. It was good practice for busy days when he shot things.
+++++He didn’t want violence today, he just wanted to make a sale. When he was done he’d go home wanting Alana, but she wouldn’t be there tonight. He didn’t think much had changed between them but she’d sure stormed out. Like it was permanent, not like when she’d left him before.
+++++He circled the area where he was willing to park until at last he found a large enough space. The Buick was stolen, his license plates provided by people he almost trusted. The name on the registration matched the name on the driver’s license in his wallet. A wallet he’d throw in the sewer once this deal was done.
+++++Lester stepped out of the car and his coat slid open enough to reveal the Glock .40 on his hip. In case the Glock didn’t keep trouble away, Lester carried a Colt .45 in a shoulder holster and a Beretta Tomcat on his ankle. Crime prevention.
+++++He didn’t know who he was meeting on the sidewalk, only that it would be someone Dorst sent. Dorst. That motherfucker was all over his life, not in a good way. But he was paying for a lot of product, at least he said he’d pay. Lester had a lot on his mind. Not so much that he’d trust Dorst.
+++++The street was busy and cars moved slow. Lester didn’t like waiting. He could fake patience, he was a practical man, but the longer he waited the more he expected to shoot whoever showed up.
+++++It was supposed to be a simple exchange. Lester would walk away with a suitcase of money, the buyer would take the suitcase in the trunk. The car had served its purpose.

“It’s not about Dorst.” Alana faced Lester from the open front door of their house, her back to the outside world. Lester stood five feet away, empty glass in hand. “I went to him,” she said, “when you were fucking around with I don’t know who, but I’m not leaving you for him. I’m just leaving.”
+++++“Where?” He wanted to shout but she’d already left, his voice weak as he clung to the glass in his hand.

Lester blinked, got back in the Buick. Had to stop thinking about her, was stupid to wait outside where he was an easy target. He felt like shooting himself for leaving the car in the first place. He sat in the car and waited.
+++++A couple more minutes and a car across the street left its parking space. A few cars drove past the empty space, then a Nissan stopped next to it, waited until the cars behind it went around, then pulled forward and paralleled back into the space. Lester tensed and his hand moved to the grip of his Glock. The lane the Nissan had been in once again filled. Its driver paused for traffic to pass. Lester’s eyes slid side to side in case someone else approached.
+++++When the car had parked a thick-armed man in a snug black t-shirt got out, a suitcase in his left hand. The man with the suitcase looked both ways but the cars weren’t stopping. A slight break and he stepped into the street. The first car stopped. The car in the next lane braked hard. Its horn blared. The man with the suitcase stopped in front of it, turned and glared at the driver. The horn stopped and the man resumed crossing.
+++++He made it to Lester’s side of the street. From halfway down the block he took steady strides in Lester’s direction. Lester got out of the Buick, watched the man with the suitcase and stepped onto the sidewalk, faced him.
+++++The man’s skin was dark, his features Saudi or African, Lester didn’t care. Except about the contents of the suitcase and the gun the man probably carried. The man ten feet away, Lester spoke. “You from Dorst?”
+++++The man nodded.
+++++“Put the suitcase down,” Lester said. “Open it.”
+++++The man laid the suitcase on the sidewalk. No one else walked here, the usual for this block. Drivers on the crowded street, their views of the sidewalk blocked by parked cars, drove on. The man popped the suitcase open, lifted the lid so Lester could see inside.
+++++“Step back,” Lester said.
+++++The man took two steps back.
+++++Lester slid his coat open wide enough to show the Glock. “Way the fuck back.”
+++++The man stepped back farther. Lester pulled the Glock, aimed it at him, and he backed up more. Lester flipped through the rubber banded stacks of money with his left hand, picked one from the middle of the suitcase. He looked at the thick-armed man standing still, arms at his sides.
+++++The money looked right. Lester counted the stack, multiplied it by the number of stacks. The count was right. He shut the case, watched the thick-armed man blink. Behind Lester, a car door shut. Lester shot the thick-armed man in the chest and he fell on his back.
+++++Lester turned. A car had stopped on this side of the street but the man who got out was street side. No angle to shoot him, Lester turned back, shot at the thick-armed man’s head. The shot missed, but the man didn’t even twitch. Lester returned his attention to the street.
+++++He crawled forward on the sidewalk, reached his right front tire and crawled under the Buick’s hood.
+++++Someone stood in the street to Lester’s left. In range, but he could only shoot a leg. There was a Honda parked in front of the Buick. The man ran in front of it and ducked down.
+++++Lester crawled in the street next to the Buick. Cars honked at him. The hiding man stayed low. All Lester could see was his shoes and the bottoms of his black slacks.
+++++Lester knelt around the front fender and fired in the man’s general direction. The man stood and shot back. He was short and wide. Lester fired again, caught him in one shoulder. The man fell.
+++++Lester opened his door fast and got behind the Buick’s wheel. The key was in the ignition. He turned it, hoped the man he’d just shot stayed down. Hoped the car that dropped him off didn’t come back. His head low, Lester stuck his pistol out the door and fired. No response. He got out, dropped to the ground, fired again and made his way to the trunk.
+++++He opened it and removed the suitcase of smack. There were sirens now. The cars in the street sat still, no one visible inside them, windows rolled up. Lester holstered his Glock, grabbed the suitcase of money from the sidewalk and ran, a suitcase in each hand. He rounded the first corner then slowed to a fast walk.
+++++The sidewalk was empty, good for making time. And thinking about what he’d do next, but that wasn’t where his thoughts ran.

“I don’t care if there’s other women any more.” Alana in the living room then, shortly before walking out. “It’s the way you live, what you do. The shape you got in. Not just your body, all of you.” She didn’t yell, just stepped away, like she dared him to do something.

Lester approached the Camry he’d parked an hour earlier. He dropped the wallet into the gutter and kicked it through an open sewer grate.
+++++Inside the Camry he dropped both suitcases on the passenger seat floor, started the engine and pulled away from the curb. Left hand on the wheel, Glock in his right, on his lap. He had one bit of business left with Dorst. There wouldn’t be a deal this time. Dorst was a dead man, but if Alana was with him? Lester didn’t know how busy this day might get.

Domestic Disturbance

The stale stench of weed should have been enough of a warning when Gail had first looked around the flat. She’d always hated that smell, it reminded her of the dried in urine on her drunken father’s trousers when he’d occasionally return from the pub to get money or sleep before heading back out. She hadn’t liked living with that smell then and she wouldn’t like living with this one either. She should have listened to her gut, and not rented the place. But it was so cheap and she wasn’t exactly flush with cash – so she took it.
+++++What she’d saved in rent, she probably spent in scented candles, joss sticks and plug in air fresheners. She’d got the landlord’s permission to paint the place. It wasn’t just the smell she couldn’t live with – she couldn’t bare the nicotine yellow ceilings and skirting boards either. She’d made what she could of a very basic studio apartment, kept fresh flowers and put up curtains with a floral pattern and tie backs. Throw cushions printed with affirmations made her hand-me-down sofa look a little more girly.
+++++She was happy here – or she had been until now.
+++++The knock at the door had been heavy. Urgent. She’d ignored it at first. But they’d knocked again, for longer and heavier still. Gail didn’t know anyone in town and didn’t want to answer the door, but then what if one of the neighbours was in trouble? She didn’t know them but Gail held a kind heart. She’d passed a young girl with a baby in the corridors a few times on her way home from work – what if the baby was ill and they needed to get to the hospital? And there was an old man who she was sure lived alone on the ground floor, maybe he had some emergency that needed attention.
+++++Before Gail had the door fully open it was pushed from outside and two men burst in. Their clothes were made of cheap materials and bore the labels of designer brands in large print. She caught sight of gold watches and chains as they rushed at her and started yelling.
+++++“Where is he? Where the fuck is he?” Yelled one of the intruders.
+++++The other grabbed Gail by the hair and dragged her back into the flat before she’d had a chance to respond.
+++++The first man continued to yell his accent an affected cockney learnt from low budget movies. He kept repeating his initial question.
+++++“Where’s who?” Gail managed to sob through pained tears. Her head throbbed from being dragged across the floor.
+++++“You’re boyfriend. He’s had a grand’s worth of gear off of us and we haven’t seen him in over a month. So were the fuck is the prick hiding.”
+++++“I… I live alone,” Gail sobbed, “I only moved in two weeks ago.”
+++++The man that had pulled Gail by the hair slapped her across the face. She felt her cheek welt from the blow.
+++++“Don’t give us that shit, you know where he is.” He yelled.
+++++Gail sobbed. She had no idea who it was they were looking for, but whoever had rented this place before her had clearly screwed over some very nasty people – and now she was going to pay for it.
+++++She flinched as she saw him raise his hand again. Braced for the blow she looked away. But it never came. She looked back to see the first man holding the other’s hand back.
+++++“Hang on a minute mate, she might be telling the truth. Have a look around, there’s no way that scrote lives here, it’s too nice now. Looks like the fucker’s done a bunk.”
+++++As they looked around and the realisation sunk in to both men Gail sobbed, it wasn’t quite relief, more shock at the world she’d stumbled into.
+++++“Sorry about that, love.” The man that had struck Gail said. He leaned down to try to help her up. She lashed his hand away wildly.
+++++“Just get out!” she screamed.
+++++“Alright love, chill out, it was an honest mistake.” The first man said, as if he’d taken the wrong trolley in the supermarket. He reached into his pocket and dropped a bunch of crumpled fifty-pound notes on the floor next to her. “For your trouble.”
+++++The next day Gail didn’t go to work. She got straight onto the estate agent, she didn’t care how much more she’d have to pay, she wasn’t staying here.

Banging Heads at the Hog Palace Hair Metal Symposium

1

Hoyt looked out the passenger side window of Culley’s Dodge Neon and did not recognize the world passing by.  This profound disconnect existed between the world as he imagined it should be and the reality as it presented itself.  He could have blamed this detachment on the dirty dime he served behind the razor blade wire of the bloody Bilt, a sentence he earned for being Cullman County’s greatest meth manufacturer and also for shooting a kid’s ear off with a .22, but, truthfully, he believed he’d been on the outside of everything since his rotten birth.
+++++Lately, his malaise had come to be personified by a certain neighborhood hipster pedaling the backroads on a fixed gear bicycle.  This fella cultivated a ridiculous mustache and wore a funny hat that wasn’t quite a fedora.  Hoyt had seen these hats for sale at many a Hindu-operated gas station, these dusty oddities usually hanging above and to the right of the cash register.  Every time he bought a pack of smokes, he’d glance at the hats and feel those tendrils of hipster aggression uncoiling in the deepest, darkest section of his brain.
+++++At least now he knew there existed a target to hone in on, a jackass with a comically large mustache jutting off his face and little stick legs propelling a clownish yellow bicycle.  Hoyt didn’t know the fella’s name, but he believed if he could just stomp the guy’s head into the concrete one real good time, he could somehow make peace with his shitty life.
+++++Hoyt shared his idea with his colleague in criminality, and, of course, Culley had something negative to say.  “Whatcha gonna do?  Beat this kid to death because he looks like an asshole?  Jesus Christ, Hoyt, where would it end?  Mass Murder?  Stay outta Wal-Mart, that’s my best advice to you.  There’d be no end to the asses you’d feel compelled to kick.”
+++++“I’m not saying I gotta beat down everybody, Culley.  Pay attention.  I’m saying one dude.  One goofy fucking mustache.  One pair horned-rimmed glasses.  One stupid ass hat.  See how I feel once I beat him half-dead; go from there.”
+++++“That’s just silly.”
+++++“It’s not for you.  It’s for me.  I don’t give a shit what’s silly to you.”
+++++Then why’d you bring it up to me? Culley thought that oughta be the next logical thing to say, but he decided to just keep his mouth shut.  Hoyt was clearly working through some anger issues and despite a tenuous friendship which managed to last half their lives, Culley knew that Hoyt could become plum unpredictable when the overwhelming urge to hand out ass-whuppings told hold of him.
+++++“You want to put in my David Allen Coe cassette?  That usually gets me feeling better about things,” Culley offered.
+++++“Yeah, it wouldn’t hurt none to hear some ‘Long-haired Redneck’, I guess.  You know the ladies use to say I looked like Merle Haggard.”
+++++“I don’t see it.”
+++++“Back in the day.  Before Biltmore Prison.”
+++++“Still don’t see it.  Sure they weren’t saying ‘pure haggard’.”
+++++“Why the fuck they say that?  You even know what Merle Haggard looked like?”
+++++“More or less.  You do look country, though.  I give you that.”
+++++If Hoyt resembled anyone, it was Culley.  Culley was a bit taller, Hoyt a tad broader across the shoulders.  Culley’s teeth outnumbered the gray, rock bottom remainders in Hoyt’s yap.  Hoyt’s hair was thicker, his eyes somewhat more crazed.  The tattoos bunched heavily along Hoyt’s arms, whereas Culley kept his tattoos placed more strategically, a howling wolf on his shoulder, a grim reaper on his forearm.  Their dirty jeans could have been purchased from the same thrift store rack, their work boots from the same Wal-Mart shelf.  Hoyt’s Somewhere in Time T-shirt and Culley’s Can I Play With Madness T-shirt were both give to them by the Reverend Eddie Vacuum who bought his Iron Maiden shirts in bulk from some sketchy fella out of Scottsboro who thrived on copyright infringement.
+++++“Leave them hipsters alone.  I think a shot of leg would go a long way toward setting you right,” Culley said.
+++++“What the hell you know?”  Hoyt said, hoping to just kill the conversation so he could get back to staring out the window, listen to some David Allen Coe, and think of all the women who never called him by his name, either.
+++++“We got an invite to see Eddie Vacuum’s band play the Hair Metal Symposium this Saturday night at the Hog Palace.  Bound to be some trashy women there who don’t care about their lives enough to say no to coming home with us.  Big hair.  Painted on jeans.  Knee high boots.  If that don’t put a smile on that fucked-up face, there’s no hope for you.”
+++++Hoyt’s jaw muscles trembled like tumblers falling into place.
+++++Culley watched him out of the corner of his eye, but a smile never did appear on Hoyt’s fucked-up face.
+++++Culley went back to concentrating on his driving just as a newer model Mustang shot past his Neon.  Though he had the gas pedal mashed to the floorboard doing a respectable sixty miles per hour, the douche bag piloted Mustang made him look as though he were driving in reverse.
+++++“You know who I hate?” Culley said.  “Dipshit douchebags wearing backward flat brim ball caps with fashion symbols on them.  And jackassy beards that look like they’ve been smeared with shit because the dumbass is past forty and trying to hide the gray.”
+++++“And then they drive Mustangs.”
+++++“Yep.  And then they drive Mustangs.”
+++++“We need to make some money if we’re gonna make any headway at the Hog Palace Hair Metal Symposium,” Hoyt said.  “Some real money.  Not confederate flag selling money.”
+++++“They’re hiring at the Wal-Mart,” Culley offered, lips twisted in a grim smile.  “Third shift, janitoring.”

2

“I’m not White Lion when I say I wouldn’t mind putting the White Snake to some of these Twisted Sisters,” Culley said, grinning like a jackal at the way he incorporated old hair metal band names into his verbal repertoire.
+++++Hoyt, who’d been hearing this bullshit since Culley picked him up an hour ago was less than amused.  The Hog Palace was living up to its name tonight.  Most of the women present for tonight’s battle of the hair metal cover bands were shamefully obese or woefully old or both or they just weren’t interested in engaging Hoyt in conversation.
+++++The Reverend Eddie Vacuum, friend of the family and owner/proprietor of the local fringe church/thrift store/professional wrestling megaplex, found Culley’s wit exceptionally hilarious.  “These Cycle Sluts From Hell are Treat-ing us like a bunch of Ugly Kid Joes,” The Reverend added.  “I’m like Enuff Z’Nuff already.  Give my Great White a chance to Kingdom Come in your Faster Pussycat.  Know what I’m saying?”  Eddie glanced quickly over both shoulders, making sure his wife Charlotte was out of ear shot.
+++++Culley’s hair metal knowledge was a bit more limited than the Reverend who actually fronted a band performing tonight.  He thought he caught some of the references based on the hard emphasis Eddie put on certain words.  “I hear you.  I ain’t Def Leppard.”
+++++“Both of you, shut the fuck up, before I Saigon Kick you both in the Blind Melons,” Hoyt said.
+++++“Blind Melon’s not hair metal,” Eddie said.  “They’re not metal at all, actually.  Kinda mellow.  Folksy.  Like them, though.  Very underrated band, especially the second album.  Shannon Hoon is still missed.”
+++++“You need to pay more attention to the shut the fuck up part of what I said,” Hoyt warned.
+++++He glanced around the venue with eyes that would vaporize ninety percent of the people in attendance if he could.  This was life for Hoyt.  Every trip outside his house trailer upped his anger quotient.  But he felt the desperate urge to fuck, and every moment the ladies refused to flock to his genitals, the greater the desire to punch faces became.
+++++Culley monitored his friend’s fading humor through a series of sidelong glances.  Hoyt had been getting edgy lately.  He knew Hoyt was hurting for money.  None of their criminal activities had panned out lately, and Hoyt’s talk of shaking down some area meth manufacturers made him nervous.  Culley didn’t relish a career collecting Wal-Mart shopping carts; he really didn’t like the prospect of catching a shotgun blast to the face compliments of some crank crazed dixie mafia motherfucker.
+++++Hoyt tended to disregard consequences.  Culley just wanted to make it through the evening with some telephone numbers and at least one Vixen he could get his Hanoi Rocks off with.
+++++While Hoyt sulked, Culley circulated.  The Hog Palace usually catered to a more shitkickery clientele.  Its dance floor was large enough to sustain an army of two-stepping jackasses who found profundity in the lyrics of Luke Bryant anthems.  Strangely enough, the area had undergone a transition of sorts.  There developed a sudden proliferation of hair metal cover bands celebrating the glam rock of the mid to late eighties, and the Hog Palace began focusing on an entirely different style of mullet.
+++++The lady patrons who ultimately approved or disapproved of these night club aesthetics with this presence showed up in Aqua Net drenched droves.  Their nightclub wardrobes switched from tight denim and boots to tight denim and boots.  A little extra fishnet here and there.  Tim McGraw concert tees discarded in favor of Ozzy Osbourne.
+++++Culley moved among them, smiling, struggling for meaningful eye contact.  The witty conversational skills he impressed Eddie and Hoyt with earlier abandoned him now.  He couldn’t even recall the name of one god damn glam rock band’s name at one point when he tried explaining to one half ass decent-looking brunette the fun game he hand his friends played, working band’s names into casual conversation and how he excelled at it.
+++++Hoyt wasn’t at the bar five seconds before he found someone to focus his rage upon.  The man bun and scraggly beard were all reason enough to despise the man.  What really put Hoyt’s teeth on edge were the Dream Theatre T-shirt he wore and the incredibly intricate vaping instrument the dude sucked on intermittently, commenting to no one in particular how mellow the Fresh Island Infusion tasted.  “Pineapple and coconut with champagne infused blueberries with just a subtle hint of lime garnish.”
+++++Hoyt enabled the jackass to make the mistake of commenting on the vape’s flavor by standing near him at the bar when he ordered his Coors.  He reacted to the fella’s conversational gambit by knocking over his microbrew with his elbow.  The comic skeleton on the beer’s label made quarter turns in either direction like a gut-shot victim as beer gurgled from the neck.  The Dream Theatre fan made a show of securing his vaping instrument in a sophisticated fanny pack before addressing the fallen beer.  By then, Hoyt was on his way back to Culley and Eddie who greeted him with lopsided grins and diminishing hopes.
+++++“What did that Ratt do to Warrant such an Extreme reaction?” Culley asked, getting his mojo back.
+++++“I didn’t like him,” Hoyt said.
+++++“The band that just played all those Slaughter covers was Carnage,” Eddie Vacuum said, hoping to mollify Hoyt with some shop talk.
+++++“They gave me a fucking headache with all that screeching,” Hoyt said.
+++++“The lead singer, Wyatt, is a friend of mine.  He’s stopped by the church a time or two.  Took communion.  Sung a few Iron Maiden hymns.  The girls love him.”
+++++“I think he sucks.”
+++++“Hoyt, do you even listen to any glam rock?  Hair metal?”
+++++“Sure.  Sure.  Metallica.  Some Megadeth.  Dio, back in the day.  Foreigner.”
+++++“Hmmm…  Well, you might like this next band, Gentle Ruckus.  They do some pretty awesome Quiet Riot covers.  So good, you’ll see.  The actual drummer of the real Quiet Riot wanted to join their band, but, you know, the singer’s brother plays the drums, and you don’t cross family, even if it means having an in on the carnival circuit.”
+++++Credit due, the singer did possess a very pretty head of hair.  Very Farrah Fawcettian.  He thanked the crowd for coming, announced their name a highly detailed back story of how Quiet Riot’s drummer really wanted to join his band and how he had to gently let down one of his childhood idols.  The singer introduced himself yet again, Zeke Zydeco, a name which sounded suspect to Hoyt, and Gentle Ruckus launched into “The Wild and the Young”.
+++++The audience who were far from youthful and no longer particularly feral, screamed to drown out the shoddy sound system.
+++++Hoyt caught Culley’s eye.  Culley immediately telepathed Hoyt’s thoughts, an experience akin to walking through toxic mist.  My head hurts and I want to beat somebody to death.
+++++Culley shrugged.  The band sounded pretty good and the ladies looked like they were loosening up a little bit.  Maybe he could integrate himself among them, mention how he use to play a little bass.  Sure, he’d never played an instrument in his life, but Eddie Vacuum would back his play.  He’d use the excuse of chronic tendonitis in his wrists if any of the ladies called for a demonstration… and had a bass guitar handy.  Unlikely as that scenario might be, Culley’s luck dictated a high probability of this bullshit occurring.
+++++Hoyt turned his back, walked toward the door as he shook out a cigarette.  Since his prison stint, Hoyt found himself increasingly anxious among crowds.  Too many moving pieces, here, too many banging heads.  Even the Reverend Eddie Vacuum was getting his skullet swaying in time with the music.
+++++Outside, Hoyt lit a cigarette.  He exhaled a plume of smoke into the crisp night air and felt himself begin to relax, the muscles in his chest loosen.  His headache began to dissipate, the constricted blood vessels in his scalp he could imagine opening up, a feeling akin to cutting the blue wire two seconds before the nuclear bomb detonates.
+++++He walked toward the side courtyard of the Hog Palace.  The area was dark and isolated since most of the smokers congregated in the rear with the tokers.  He set his beer down on a picnic table and finished his smoke and lit another.  The music, muffled as it was, sounded all right.  They were playing “Love’s a Bitch.”  Hoyt knew this because Zeke Zydeco was one of those jackasses who the need to introduce every fucking song as if it were new to earth.
+++++Hoyt was just beginning to feel human again, or at least backing away from the cusp of mass murder, when he heard someone say “there’s the man of the hour” and just knew it was directed at him.
+++++Hoyt didn’t recognize the voice, but knew the figure stepping out of the shadow by size.  6’6, three hundred pounds.  Lank, greasy hair, protruding forehead, jaw like an anchor, the same Live After Death T-shirt he wore the first and only time he met the massive bastard.
+++++“Moon Slice or Moon Dog or whatever the fuck you call yourself.”
+++++“Moon Pie.  Cause when people ask me how I got so big, I tell ‘em I eat a lot of Moon Pies.”
+++++“Good thing they don’t ask you how you got to be so goddam ugly,” Hoyt said, flicking away his cigarette distastefully.  “Folks be calling you Dick Suck.”
+++++“You a funny motherfucker,” Moon Pie wasn’t smiling.  “The Reverend said you a funny motherfucker.  What you think, Bubala?  He a funny motherfucker?”
+++++Bubala stood half a foot shorter than his friend.  In the dim illumination put forth by the Christmas lights strung across the courtyard, Bubala looked instantly familiar though until now they’d never been introduced by name.
+++++“Oh, he’s a motherfucker.  I don’t’ know so much about funny.”
+++++The red bandana Bubala wore didn’t come close to obscuring the medical bandages swathed around his head.  His left eye was still so red you’d think he could squirt blood if he winked real hard.  He wore a Scorpions T-shirt under the black leather vest festooned with Invaders insignia.
+++++“All them bandages of your head, I imagine it takes some time for my jokes to sink in.”  Hoyt tried keeping it funny, scanning the darkness for the silhouettes of any more Invaders, specifically a certain little red-headed sausage-fingered dwarf who trucked with these motorcycle gang wannabes.
+++++“You’re referring to the knock I took upside the head.  I’m guessing you wouldn’t know anything about some bushwhacking son of a bitch who’d club a man half to death and steal every last goddam Confederate flag within a half mile radius of his fallen body, would you?”
+++++Funny he should ask that.  Little less than two weeks ago, Hoyt and Culley knocked out a couple Invaders with lead pipes before stealing enough Dixie flags to overflow a Dodge Neon.  When they hocked the flags at Reverend Eddie’s thrift store, the entire score netted the duo a cool twenty dollars.
+++++“Sounds like something them Southside niggers would do,” Hoyt said.
+++++Culley had spray painted BLACK POWER on the cinderblock wall of the Invaders’ hang out.  It was a subterfuge Hoyt doubted had the desired effect on the gang’s psyche considering Moon Pie, newly baptized into Reverend Eddie’s fucked up faith, had been hanging around the store recently.
+++++“That was my first thought, honestly.  But them ghetto clowns know better than to fuck with us.”  Bubala slapped the large AB emblem tattooed on his forearm.
+++++“So what’s that got to do with anything?”
+++++“Aryan Brotherhood.”
+++++“So what?”  Hoyt showed his SB tattoo amidst the swirls of ink coloring his arm.  “Southern Brotherhood.  For folks who truly hate niggers, rather than just tolerate them.”
+++++“Tolerate?  Who tolerates jigs?”
+++++“You do, jackass.  Aryan Brotherhood, friends of niggers for long as I can remember.”  Hoyt had to laugh.
+++++This Bubala joker was throwing off some serious bitch vibes.  He stood there, exaggerating his butt hurt sentiments to a homosexual degree, flexing his steroid swollen muscles, narrowing his eyes, grinding his teeth, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as if he were going to do anything other than stand there and take the insults.
+++++Moon Pie stood stock still as a totem pole.  Only his eyes moved between Hoyt and Bubala.
+++++“You do not know what the fuck you are talking about.”  In his building rage, Bubala took the time to enunciate his words perfectly.
+++++“Sure I do.  Those AB boys, they’re pretty all inclusive these days.  Doing my dirty dime at the bloody Bilt, I seen Aryan Brotherhood playing checkers with niggers, lifting weights with niggers, sharing sissies with niggers.  In fact, you can always tell when the Aryan Brotherhood’s getting anxious, they got black dicks hanging out their mouths.”
+++++“You’re so full of shit,” Bubala spat.  “Where’d you do your bit?”
+++++Hoyt looked at him with a mixture of pity and disdain he normally reserved for Jeff Gordon fans.  “Ten years at the Biltmore Federal Penitentiary.”
+++++“I guess that makes you think you’re a tought motherfucker, doesn’t it?  ‘A dirty dime at the bloody Bilt’ he says, like that means something to me.  I did two months at Huntsville Correctional.  I’ll tell you what I hated more than anything is trying to make grilled cheeses in the cell.  I hate how that prison cheese don’t melt; it just blackens and burns.”
+++++“Cheese?” Hoyt blurted.  “I got stabbed fourteen fucking times.”  He pulled up his shirt revealing the scarred, mottled mess of flesh stretched along his left side from the top of his ribcage down to his waist.  “This was from the second race riot while I was there.  The one the Aryan Brotherhood decided to sit out of.  The one that was so bad it got every prison system in the entire fucking state locked down.  I was going toe-to-toe with this fire plug-looking nigger and he was blasting me in the side.  I’m wearing out his head, but every time he hits me in the ribs it feels like bombs are going out cause he’s shivving the shit outta me.”
+++++“I’m gonna stop you right there,” Bubala said.  “Cause I don’t give a shit what happened to you in prison, you ain’t smart enough not to get your ass shanked nightly, whatever.  It doesn’t give you the right to steal our Confederate flags the day before our first annual Invaders Ride for the Freedom to Celebrate our Southern Heritage.  We had to ride our bikes passing around a couple of goddam Dixie hankies Goat Fucker Udee had stuffed in the bottom of his sock drawer.”
+++++“What’s going on out here?”
+++++Culley and Eddie came around the corner, their cigarettes glowing like two red Marlboro eyes.
+++++They caught Bubala’s attention just long enough for Hoyt to step forward and punch him right in the bandaged head.  Bubala made a strange “gurk” sound and dropped to the ground unconscious.
+++++Hoyt balled his fists and stared up into Moon Pie’s jack o’lantern-looking mug.  “You got a problem with what I just done?”
+++++Moon Pie glanced at the Reverend Eddie Vacuum.  Eddie shook his head, no.  Moon Pie repeated the gesture.  “Not unless you killed him,” Moon Pie added as if to prove some level of autonomy remained to him.
+++++Hoyt wasn’t exactly sure.  He toed the Invader and got a slight groan out of him.
+++++“Christ,” Culley said.  “You have to hit him so hard?”
+++++“Didn’t have time to wrap my fist in padding to make you happy,” Hoyt said.
+++++“Yeah, but couldn’t you just hold back a little.  Never mind, there any more of these fuckers running around here?”
+++++Hoyt shrugged.  Culley stared at Moon Pie.”
+++++“Don’t look at me,” Moon Pie growled.  “He’s just an acquaintance.  I ain’t responsible for what he does, who he runs with.”
+++++“You two looked pretty chummy when it was just the three of us out here.”
+++++“You were shooting your mouth off at him.   Any man’s gonna defend himself.  I didn’t side with either one of you dummies.”
+++++“All right.  All right.  He’s just an acquaintance,” Culley said.  “Then you won’t mind if I do this.”  Culley grabbed the Invaders vest and peeled it from Bubala.
+++++“Nope.”
+++++“Then you won’t mind if I do this,” Hoyt added, reaching into Bubala’s back pocket and withdrawing the man’s wallet.
+++++“That’s pretty sorry,” Moon Pie said.
+++++“He ought not to have fucked with me.  Now he ain’t got no wallet.”
+++++“As much as I want you guys to see me own the band with my band, The Reverend Eddie Vacuum and the Powerslaves,” Eddie said.  “It’d probably be best you guys get the fuck out before this poor bastard wakes up, or dies, or someone finds him.”
+++++“The Invaders are gonna find out this Motley Crue is Every Mother’s Nightmare after we Stryper’d a few more asses,” Culley grinned.
+++++“Seriously,” Eddie grimaced.  “Up the irons.  And get the fuck outta here.”
+++++On the way home, Hoyt sitting in the Neon’s passenger seat, he took out the driver’s license from the stolen wallet.  “Joe Bubala.  I know where you live, now.  Maybe I oughta send you a thank you note for the eighty bucks you donated to the Southern Brotherhood cause.”
+++++“Eighty bucks, huh?”
+++++“And he gets to go back to his boyfriends and explain why he don’t have a sassy leather vest no more.  How’d you do?”
+++++“I got a phone number.  Girl named Natalie gave me her number.  And it’s her real number, too.  I dialed it right there standing in front of her.”
+++++“That’s good.”
+++++“Yeah.  Only problem is I got two days learn how to play the bass guitar.”

Aim to Please, Shoot to Kill

It’s been about a year since Dave the Marketing Director told me I was out of a job, that I wasn’t going to make it out of my probationary period at Northeast Health Care. I can still see that smug piece of shit with his frat-boy haircut, sitting behind his desk toying nervously with a pen, his little piggy eyes darting between my open HR file, his computer monitor and the clock on the wall. That cocksucker didn’t even have the guts to look me in the eye when he told me.
+++++“I’m just not convinced that you’re keeping our brand values top of mind,” he said.
+++++I didn’t bother to argue. It had been abundantly clear for some time now that the prick had made up his mind weeks ago. I never had a chance. I handed over my ID, packed up my shit while a security guard watched, and got escorted out of the building.
+++++That night I killed a bottle of rye. In the morning I slept in while the wife went to work. That afternoon I filed for unemployment and started looking for another gig.
+++++They say unemployment’s down, that the economy’s recovered, but it sure as fuck hasn’t recovered for me. Dozens of applications sent out, all my connections around town tapped and retapped, and nothing to show for it but a handful of interviews that went exactly nowhere once the jerkoff behind the desk figured out I was on the wrong side of 50.
+++++Over the next few months, the booze never seemed to run out but the health insurance did and the unemployment checks stopped coming a month or so after that. The wife kicked me out a few weeks later. I don’t blame her. Truth be told, she could do a lot better than me. I’m just surprised it took her so long to realize it for herself.
+++++I got a room in some fleabag up on Munjoy Hill and that’s where I’ve been ever since, drinking hard and trying to stay relevant.
+++++The idea had been growing in my mind for a while.
+++++I think it had always been there, in some form or another, since the day I got canned but I can’t say for sure when it first took hold and blossomed into something more – sometime after the soft pillow of despair gave way to crystalline shards of anger, I guess.
+++++Eventually, things got to the point where I spent more time thinking about it than I did not thinking about it. I dreamed about it at night and my mind continually drifted toward it during the day, an oasis of calm in a growing hurricane of rage – wiping that smug fucking look off Dave’s face once and for all. Bringing as much fear and anguish to him as he’d brought to me.
+++++Violently.
+++++Painfully.
+++++But ever so slowly, so I could enjoy every minute of it and he would know deep in whatever pile of shit he had for a soul that he had fucked with the wrong guy.
+++++The only question was, how?
+++++They say that when God closes a door, he opens a window and I guess that must be the case because a few nights ago, I ran into Eddie down at Sangillo’s. We had a few and got to talking. He opened his leather and showed me a piece. Said it was clean. Untraceable. And that I could have it for $100.
+++++Problem solved.
+++++On Thursdays, like clockwork, Dave worked late to, “get his ducks in a row,” for a standing breakfast meeting with the executive team the next morning. So that night I filled my hip flask with some shitty bourbon and packed my old Converse bag with a flash light, a roll of duct tape, some zip ties and the piece I got off of Eddie, fully loaded. I took the bus over to Northeast and in the growing darkness, I drank whisky and watched as my former colleagues went home, one by one, until only Dave’s Volvo SUV was left in the lot.
+++++Soon enough, out he came, cell phone pressed to his ear and talking loudly.
+++++“Absolutely, Larry. That’s definitely top-of-mind messaging, but you can’t make a chicken salad out of chicken shit, am I right? I mean, is this the hill we want to die on? My thought is, let’s not go there now. Let’s buy a ticket and go there later … right. Okay. Fair enough. See you in the morning.”
+++++Dave ended the call and got behind the wheel, still staring at the screen in his hand. He never even knew I was there until I slid into the passenger seat next to him.
+++++He jumped in his seat when I slammed the door. He started to say something but I cuffed him hard on the back of the head and told him to shut the fuck up. He started to flap his gums again, so I showed him the gun. That shut him up.
+++++I told him to take a left out of the lot and make a right on Washington. When we passed the Cumby’s I had him head out Presumpscott.
+++++After a few minutes, he asked where we were going. He was trying to play it cool, but I could hear the fear in his voice. I smiled and told him to shut the fuck up or we’d pull over and I’d put a bullet in his head right here on the side of the road.
+++++I took a pull off the flask and flicked on the radio just in time to hear ol’ Zach Martin roll into a double shot of REO Speed wagon on ‘BLM.
+++++“You a classic rock guy, Dave? Of course you are. That’s fucking perfect. Who’s your favorite band? You know what? Never mind. I really don’t fucking care. Take a left.”
+++++We pulled into Quarry Run – ten acres of forest and field with a few miles of trails winding through what used to be Portland’s dump. This time of night it was deserted.
+++++We got out of the car and it began to rain.
+++++I clicked on the flashlight, making sure Dave got a good long look at the gun. I told him that if he tried anything, anything at all, I’d drop him right here like a rabid dog. I made him kneel and zip-tied his wrists together, making sure I tightened that shit up as hard as I could. Then I duct-taped his mouth.
+++++I think that up until that point, Dave had been able to successfully tell himself that I was just trying to put the fear of God into him, but when the duct tape closed over his mouth and wrapped tight around his head, he must’ve realized that shit was getting real. He started begging and pleading, his eyes wild with fear, trying to talk his way out of what he surely knew was coming – at least, that’s what it sounded like. It’s hard to tell what someone’s saying when his mouth is taped shut.
+++++I motioned with the gun.
+++++“Get up. Let’s go. You first, shit stain.”
+++++We crested the hill and I pushed him off the path into the woods. He stumbled but kept his feet. In front of a large rock, I told him to stop.
+++++“Take a good look around, asshole. This is where the magic happens.”
+++++I put a round into his knee and the left leg of his khakis exploded in a mist of blood and bone. He fell to the ground hard, his screams muted by the duct tape over his mouth. He tried to press his hands to the wound to stop the bleeding, but the zip ties made that difficult, I guess.
+++++“How’s that feel, Dave? Does that exceed expectations, you fucking cocksucker?”
+++++He whimpered and I kicked him in the face, hard. His head snapped back and bounced off the rock.
+++++“I dunno, Dave. I think we need a deeper dive on this.”
+++++I squeezed off another round and a little puff of feathers shot into the air as the slug passed through his down vest and bit into his shoulder. He screamed again, but not as loud this time.
+++++“How’s that working for you, Dave? I’m giving you a chance to be pro-active here, but I’m thinking we just need to go ahead and pull the trigger on this.”
+++++I shot him again, in the other shoulder this time, and took another drink from the flask.
+++++“I don’t hear a single, Dave. We really need to pick a lane here and just bowl on it.”
+++++I fired again.
+++++I put the gun in my pocket and pulled him off the ground, leaning him up against a tree. He’d lost a lot of blood and he was most definitely in shock.
+++++“Stay with me, Dave. Stay with me, you prick. I need you to own this project.”
+++++I poured the last of my bourbon over his head and slapped his face a couple of times.
+++++He groaned.
+++++“Jesus, Dave. You’re a fucking mess. Well, we’re almost done here. I know it’s a shit sandwich, but we all gotta take a bite, right?
+++++I pulled the gun from my pocket and held it up in front of his face.
+++++“There’s just one more thing I want you to keep top of mind, Dave.”
+++++I stepped back and pulled the trigger. The top of his head erupted in spray of blood and brain, and Dave’s lifeless body slumped to the ground.
+++++Now, I may not be the smartest man in the room but I sure as fuck know my ass from my elbow and by my count, I’d put five slugs into him. That left one round for me.
+++++Because at the end of the day, it is what it is.

All That You Can

“Go back to sleep” he says to her. He is sitting on the end of the bed, the stoplight down the road flashing yellow caution through the broken blinds. His head is in his hands. The snub nose perched between his knees.
+++++“I can’t,” she says from behind him. She’s tried turning over a couple times It does nothing. It is dark in here. The heat is stifling and sweat crawls on her skin like fingers. She doesn’t want to look at him. Never again. She stares at the ceiling and chases shadows.
+++++“Just try,” he says.
+++++“No point.”
+++++He sighs. Shoots a glance back at her. Her bright silver eyes glare back at him like a tiger in the jungle brush. He says nothing. She says nothing. He looks down at the gun tucked in his knees. She scoffs She shakes her head and tries closing her eyes knowing damn well it won’t help for shit.
+++++She opens them again and sighs. He thinks she’s being overdramatic. He’s smart and says nothing. He blames her mood on the heat. It can do crazy things to you sometimes. Happens to everybody. It’s understandable. Just be patient and drink your water and wait. They can keep moving tomorrow.
+++++“They’re coming for us aren’t they,” she asks in that scared-little-girl voice that makes the hair on the back of his neck flare up. He doesn’t breathe less the stutter in his heart show. Doesn’t look back less he have to look her in the eyes again.
+++++“We’ve been runnin for a long time, baby,” he says. “Runnin fast and not lookin back.”
+++++She scoffs again. He doesn’t believe a word he says either.
+++++“You were fucktard enough to check in under your real name.”
+++++“They asked for my ID,” he begs her, “what’d you expect me to do?”
+++++“Maybe check in under mine since I’m not the one they’re after?”
+++++“What good would that do,” he snaps. “They know you’re with me.”
+++++She makes that irritated noise again and throws the sheet off her legs and her feet bang on the floor and she runs over to the lamp in the corner of the room.
+++++He stands up. He gets between her and the lamp like a bouncer.
+++++“Are you fucking crazy?” he hisses. “What if they’re trying to find our room? We gotta be quiet.”
+++++The shadow slashes her as she steps out. The sweat dotting her pale face and the brown hair pulled back and the thin lips and the wild fiery eyes make him take a step back.
+++++“I don’t give a shit anymore,” she says and lunges at him. He sidesteps her and she slams into the wall and keeps banging her fists into it as he runs over to try calming her.
+++++“I want out,” she starts screaming. “I want outta here. Now.”
+++++“We’re bailin in the morning.”
+++++Now.
+++++Her nostrils flair and a hair pulled back in the ponytail pops off one by one like a string breaking.
+++++We can’t leave tonight,” he reminds the woman again and steps up to her like the fool she is. “They’ll be lookin for us on the roads.”
+++++“What the fuck’s the point in hidin out when all we’re doing is wastin time and blowin all the money we got. They ain’t lookin fo’ me, anyway,” she says with the sarcasm dripping through her teeth, “it’s you they’re after.”
+++++“We can’t drive in twelve hour shifts anymore. We’ll wreck out. You know that.”
+++++“You’re useless.”
+++++She spits at him. Nothing comes out. The fire comes over him. She looks away with that fucking grin on her face and he tries to control himself. Better cool it before he snaps again. That quick trigger wasn’t never good for him.
+++++Gravel outside the window crunches and a motor gets closer. He stops in his tracks and she does too as the headlights creep towards them and the brakes squeak as it stops in the parking an inch from the window. He holds up a hand to shut her up and she is already sitting up with the sheet between her teeth. No sound between them save chopped breathing.
+++++The lights never turn off. They shine right through the blinds that cut across him in piss yellow light and bleak shadow. His shadow fills half the room. He moves an inch at a time and it crawls on the walls like a spider. He shuffles across the carpet and lunges down and grabs the gun and cocks it back. Pull the hammer forward, open the chamber. Six bullets?
+++++No. Five. They’re running because one bullet went into the wrong man.
+++++The gun’s at his side and his pointer slips in and out of the guard. No time to psych himself up. He has to pretend he’s ready to kill a man again in order to protect himself. And what little he has fucking left.
+++++The headlights have been on too long. The motor doesn’t hide the footsteps crunching on sand from the office down on the left to the passenger side of the truck. She gasps again and he wants to put a pillow on her face to shut her up for good.
+++++He doesn’t. No time. The steps have stopped. They’re listening. They start again. They’re coming for the two of them.
+++++“Let’s go,” she whispers and he shushes her with the steel in his eyes.
+++++“Let’s go I said,” she repeats louder.
+++++He ignores her and steps closer to the door. The feet are on the other side. Those aren’t cop boots. No radio chatter. Only a spit to the side that rustles the bush leaves.
+++++“Is that them?” she asks without restraint. She stands up and he shoots her another look telling the woman to shut the fuck up. His heart pounds in his ears. There’s a snear crawli  ng on her lips.
+++++The thug on the other side of the door says nothing.
+++++Three knocks.
+++++Key in the lock. Slow turn left. He runs forward to put the chain up. The gun drops to the floor. The key stops turning. The door starts to open and he slams into it hoping something gets caught between the door and the frame. They kept fighting. Push in, push out. Chain rattles between the track ends and he manages to jam it in and run back and he dives to the floor for the gun.
+++++He lands on floor cold and empty. Her foot slashes his head and his nose shatters and blood patters on the carpet and another one hits his jaw and he’s taken worse beatings than this so he tries to fight and get up and scream at her that he knew she was in on this but the gun explodes in her hands and the round hits his shoulder and it burns and he rolls in agony.
+++++The world is going silent and he fades. He doesn’t try to stop the bleeding. He doesn’t ask why. He knows she’d been planning this for a while. Just let me die, he thinks. Just let it all go away. I’ve done all I can. Just let me go in peace.
+++++It’s been a hell of a two weeks. He killed a man because he deserved it and he thought justice was still a thing in this world.
+++++He rolls over to face them, his blood soaking in a pool beneath him and mixing with the sweat stuck on his skin making him feel cold. He cranes his neck up to see the thug’s face but gets nothing but tennis shoes, blue jeans and a khaki jacket with white gloved hands in the pockets.
+++++“I’m sorry it took so long,” she says in a way the girl hadn’t talked to him in so long, “I thought he’d snap by now.”
+++++The voice is deep. Drawls.
+++++“He got a chance?” it asks.
+++++“I got him good.”
+++++“Good. Wannme to finish?”
+++++“No,” she says, and he feels her staring down at him. “Leave him. Let’s git.”
+++++He laughs from the floor. He can’t stop. She borrows the thug’s gun and pops another round, aiming for his head, hitting the collar bone on the other side. The blood coats his teeth and he keeps going. He tries to say something to her; a goodbye, a thank you, an I-Loved-You, but he gives up and just keeps laughing.
+++++She spits on the floor and the two walk out and the door slams on him. He tries to sit up and collapses back on the pool. Tries crawling to just to see if he can and he’s too weak.
+++++He is laughing when his end comes. Bitch couldn’t shoot for shit.

Redemption

He made his money during the early 2000s when Fishtown was making a turn. Gerald Rivers was there to scoop up what he could. Young professionals, hipsters and later on millennials were appearing on the narrow streets and along Frankford and Girard Avenue. Rivers bought up all he could and sat on most, rented out what he could. By 2010 Rivers had flipped all his residential real estate at almost triple the price he paid for it. He began buying on the commercial strip where coffee shops, bakeries, vegetarian restaurants and hipster pubs opened up. He flew under the radar as other big buyers made splashes about their talents developing old city neighborhoods. Rivers preferred to be in the background although he was known in certain circles as realtor, speculator. In others he was known as a skirt chasing cocaine sniffing egotist. The one thing Gerald Rivers didn’t realize during his money making days was his age. He was now 16 years older than when he began his business dealings. 52 in Fishtown was a lot different than being 36. His other problem was he would hit on any woman in a skirt no matter the age and was horrified when a twenty something asked him bluntly how many grandchildren he had. The change came to him one night at Johnny Brenda’s when he bought drinks for a group of ladies, he waved at them when in unison they all said “thank you Pappy”.
+++++Caroline Peterson had her eye on Gerald Rivers for some time. She had come out of a bad marriage, obtained her real estate license and worked for a small broker. Some of her girlfriends told her stories of Rivers, his condo on the river, his cocaine habit, how wealthy he was. Caroline considered herself different from the others. She came out of her marriage hardened not needy. In her early forties she knew she had a brief period of time to make some money and land a man she could take advantage of. She knew how to dress, spent her free time at the gym, hardened her body as she had her mind, wore her hair in a bun although when set free it hung down to her waist. Caroline was at Johnny Brenda’s the night Rivers was called “Pappy” and made sure he noticed her laughing at his stunned look. The following morning she made sure to bump into him at his favorite coffee shop and did so for the next two weeks until Rivers made his approach. She smiled at him the first time he attempted to speak to her and left the shop. Caroline made a habit out of wearing short skirts and low cut tops with just the right pair of heels. She would sit at the first high top table and cross her legs. Rivers would come in and order his coffee and without fail come over to speak with her. After his fourth attempt she engaged him. He was charming asking what she did for a living and what her hobbies were. Rivers was impressed she was in real estate telling her he dabbled a bit here and there. He asked her out on a date and she politely declined. That evening she arranged to be at Rivers favorite restaurant, arrived at five and took a table in the corner. Like clockwork he arrived at five-thirty and immediately noticed Caroline. He walked to her table and asked if he could join her as he sat down. Caroline smiled at him. They each spoke of their lives and ambitions and Caroline of course told him she was newly single and desired to get involved with a decent man. Rivers told her he just might be that guy. Caroline was spinning her web and Rivers didn’t notice, he was enthralled with her. Over the next two months they dated, went to theater, five star restaurants and not once did Rivers even get to third base. Caroline noticed Rivers wasn’t snorting cocaine although he drank a bit too much.
+++++The moon was full in the summer sky; there was just enough humidity in the air to cause Sean Forks to break out in a sweat. It took him over four years to admit to himself that he had been a bad husband. He often thought back to telling his ex she was too fat, her hair was shabby and her clothes disgustingly tight on her. There was nothing she could do that was good enough and when he got drunk he slapped her around. Sean stood along the river at Penn’s Landing breathing in the warm air thinking of what an idiot he was and still is. The last time he slapped her around she broke out a baseball bat and cracked his ribs. Within an hour she had moved out all of her stuff and he hadn’t talked to her since. Their divorce was uncontested, she didn’t ask for anything. Over the last month Sean Forks had been stalking his ex-wife who was in fact stalking a rich realtor. Unlike Sean, Caroline has transitioned to a full dating relationship and now the guy was chasing after her. Sean had noticed a woman everywhere he went while on his stalking detail, she was always lurking in the background. Every so often she would enter a restaurant and sit in the back watching the couple.
+++++It was a Tuesday evening at seven o’clock and like the clock Caroline and her realtor arrived at El Rey on Chestnut Street. He noticed the woman standing at the Dunkin Donuts. Sean decided to walk over and talk to her.
+++++“I’m Sean, I’ve seen you around a bit.”
+++++“I noticed you around.”
+++++“So what brings you here?”
+++++“I’m hunting a pig!”
+++++Sean looked her over. She had long blond hair, green eyes, and an excellent figure. He took her for a rich girl by the designer pocket book she had slung over her shoulder.
+++++“So who’s the pig?”
+++++“A creepy old guy like you! All I want is to get him alone but he’s always with that glamour chick!”
+++++“Hey I’m not a creep!”
+++++“What else do you call a guy who walks up and talks to someone he doesn’t know?”
+++++“I think we have something in common.”
+++++“What the fuck would that be?”
+++++“Your pig is dating my ex-wife.”
+++++“Isn’t that something? We’re both loser stalkers!”
+++++“So why do you want to get him alone?”
+++++“He dated me for a month, he degraded me, had his way and when he was done told me to get lost, treated me like a fucking whore!”
+++++“So what do you want to do to him?”
+++++“I wanna blow his brains out! What do you think of that?”
+++++“A little drastic I think.”
+++++“Drastic? That fucker gave me the clap!”
+++++“That sucks!”
+++++“So what did the princess do to you?”
+++++“She broke my ribs and left me.”
+++++“That’s pretty cool.”
+++++“No one deserves that!”
+++++“You look like an abuser, she probably waited too long to kick your ass!”
+++++“I wasn’t a good husband. I’ve changed.”
+++++“So you think she’ll take you back?”
+++++“No. I just want to say I’m sorry.”
+++++“She doesn’t care.”
+++++“Good advice from you. Your stalking a guy, call me names and you want to blow his brains out!”
+++++“At least I’m not a whinny bitch like you.”
+++++“You didn’t tell me your name.”
+++++“Monica.”
+++++“Well Monica, I thought about you being in all the places I was and figured you were doing the same thing I was. I have an idea.”
+++++“And how aren’t you a creep? You have a plan for me?”
+++++“I was thinking instead of you lurking out here or hiding in the back of the joint we could go in together.”
+++++“So let me get this right. You are asking me on a date so that we can stalk our exes together?”
+++++“I just thought we could both get this over with and I don’t think you need to shoot him.”
+++++“What’s your plan?”
+++++“Let’s go in like a couple, grab a booth across from them. They always sit in a booth. We can act like a couple and I’ll pretend to notice Caroline and take you over to introduce you. After I apologize to her you can have your say with him.”

***

Monica and Sean entered El Rey and were seated at a booth directly across from Caroline and Rivers. Monica leaned to the middle of the table and called Sean to her, he leaned across and she kissed him full on the lips. When they leaned back Sean noticed Caroline was staring at him. He stood up and walked over to the table.
+++++“Hi Caroline. I just wanted to tell you I was sorry.”
+++++He waved at Monica to come over.
+++++“Leave me alone. I don’t care. I wish I never met you scumbag.”
+++++Monica walked over as Caroline told her to run as far away as she could from Sean. He was a wife beater and a drunk.
+++++“Really? Did you know your rich boyfriend has VD! He gave me the clap!”
+++++Gerald Rivers looked at Monica.
+++++“Who are you?”
+++++“I’m the girl you fucked for a month, gave the clap and dumped me like I was nothing! You don’t remember me?”
+++++“Well there were so many back in the day. Now that I think of it, you’re that crazy chick!”
+++++“You’re a fucker you are! I ought to blow your brains out!”
+++++Sean and Monica were tossed out of El Rey. They went to Dunkin Donuts and had coffee.
+++++Caroline and Gerald left the restaurant. Caroline told him she was getting a cab, not to call her until he could prove he didn’t have any VD and was not HIV positive. If he didn’t do that he shouldn’t call her ever again.
+++++“So if I do that you’ll sleep with me?
+++++“Go get a test asshole!”
+++++With that Caroline grabbed a cab and went home. Sean and Monica went their separate ways after they chatted and finished their coffee. Neither of them asked for the others phone number. Gerald Rivers went home to his condo on the river. He felt he wasted over a month and half on a chick who would never sleep with him. He drank a few beers and went to bed.
+++++A few months passed as Sean made his way through the twelve steps of life. After his apology he moved on with his life. It was autumn and the city streets came alive with vibrant colors of trees. He had been dating a woman in the Northeast section of the city and the two of them enjoyed the great park areas of the Northeast. On Sundays they would go to the Quaker Diner for breakfast. On this October Sunday they sat by the large screen television. KYW news was on and it quickly caught Sean’s attention.
+++++“Early this morning a Fishtown realtor was stabbed to death in front of Johnny Brenda’s. Police believe it to be a domestic violence case and they have one male in custody.”
+++++Sean looked at the crowd shot. Leaning against a light pole with a huge smile on her face was Monica.
+++++“The latest information from police is that a jealous boyfriend attacked the realtor. More to follow later in the report.”
+++++Sean and his girlfriend finished their breakfast and headed off to Burholme Park for a walk in the West Woodlands.

An Overplayed Hand

The American sailor lay on his back. Naked from the waist down on the bed. The Japanese couple entered the hotel room. The woman was dressed neatly in robes. The man was dressed shabbily with unkempt hair on his face.  It was hard to tell his age, probably considerably older than the woman. She gently placed her satchel on a chair, then pulled off her robe and undergarment.
+++++No words were spoken as she crawled up on the sailor and sat on his erection. She lifted her hips, up and down, waiting for signs that her work was done.  Tears began to stream down the cheeks of the Japanese man who turned away slightly but was watching out of the corner of his eye.
+++++The sailor moaned and closed his eyes.
+++++The woman climbed off him and dressed herself. Her male companion continued to face away but he was wiping his eyes with a cloth.
+++++The sailor spoke in Japanese to tell the woman that the money was under the book on the dresser.  He added in English, “Tell your man he can’t come back if he cries.”
+++++She lifted the book and counted the bills carefully before folding them in her hand.  The crying man opened the door and the two visitors padded into the hallway.
+++++No pimp would cry in front of his trick. The sailor figured he was her husband or her father. He didn’t care. He hated the Japanese.  Seven years ago, he had spent the last months of The War as a prisoner on an island far south of this one. His crew had been tortured for meaningless information. Guards killed most of his buddies to keep the burden of prisoners down to a manageable number.  Killed in morbid extended rituals for the amusement of the warriors of Nippon.
+++++There was some daylight left and the sailor needed to go out to the restaurant. He hoped to walk back to the hotel before dark. The slums between the hotel and the restaurant made him nervous. This was Japan and he was playing against tricky people on their own court.
+++++He had jumped ship, a freighter going on further west, and couldn’t afford to get caught without papers. He was already at some risk by staying at a hotel that advertised to Americans.  A thorough search of his hotel room would turn up his reason for coming to Nippon. That would mean years in a prison. He needed passage on board a ship headed back across the Pacific. But first he had to hand over the reason for his trip to Japan.
+++++Someone would contact him at a certain restaurant during his evening meal and take the treasured relic off his hands.
+++++The sailor sat at the same table at the restaurant for three nights in a row, against the wall in a back corner where the ceiling hung low. He ordered the same meal. He washed it down with one cup of sake. The place was dimly lit.
+++++On the fourth evening in the restaurant, a well dressed older Japanese man and teen-age boy seated themselves next to his table under the low ceiling. Japanese diners usually gave him wide berth when selecting a table. He understood that foreigners were considered dirty by the Japanese.
+++++The man and the boy were served a small bowl of lumpy sauce inadequate for the large bowl of rice that arrived shortly after they sat down.
+++++The sailor heard something hit the worn bamboo floor. Something small.  The boy bent over and retrieved a figurine and placed it on the sailor’s table. He said something. The sailor knew enough Japanese to understand that the boy was asking him if the figurine belonged to him.
+++++The sailor picked up the item and looked at it with calculated nonchalance.
+++++He could see that it was a replica of the treasure hidden back in his hotel room. It was a netsuke of the same size and shape as the reason for his journey, but the color was different.  The carved turtle that the boy placed on his table had less fine features than the sailor’s smuggled netsuke which was white with a light brown coloring at the edges, stained dark in the intricate parts. A high priced artefact.
+++++His instructions were to handoff the netsuke to the person in Japan who showed him a matching turtle. The smuggled netsuke was carved from a wooly mammoth tusk and more than a couple of hundred years old, part of an original collection of five netsuke created to secure the sash of a long dead Japanese prince.  It was the last missing netsuke of a royal set. This piece would recomplete a collection which had been smuggled out of Japan during the occupation at the end of the War. Now, one by one, all five pieces had returned to Japan.
+++++The sailor handed the signal facsimile back to the boy. He told the pair that he would return for dinner tomorrow evening and show them a netsuke much like the one that the boy had found on the floor. The sailor paused and waited to be sure that the two understood the meaning of his Japanese.
+++++“Yes, okay,” the young man said handing the imitation netsuke back to the old man.
+++++The next afternoon, the sailor walked to the wharf a few blocks away. He found a ship that looked like it was leaving soon. The crew of a Mitsui freighter, the Daigen Maru, was busy bringing sacks of rice aboard from a truck. The sailor chatted with the crewmen and found that the ship was leaving for Seattle in three days with a load of raw silk and rubber picked up in Hong Kong. The sailor found the mate in charge and booked on as a passenger. He got a chit for his deposit and departed the docks for the restaurant.
+++++Back in Seattle, the sailor was to collect the back end of his payment for this job. The amount was much larger than Migaki had ever paid him but well deserved. The sailor had to jump a ship’s crew and hide out in Japan without proper papers in order to deliver a national treasure. Migaki told him the Japanese authorities suspected the netsuke was coming to the homeland soon.
+++++The payday would buy the sailor his dream, an old seiner docked in Seattle.  He intended to fish up and down on the west coast of Alaska. The boat’s owner had fallen to cancer. His widow was selling cheap. The sailor had made the down payment using all his savings. Migaki’s payment was nearly sufficient to finish purchasing the boat. The sailor would need a little luck to dig up the remainder. He thought he might have figured out a way to be lucky.
+++++He arrived early at the restaurant.
+++++The old Japanese man and the lad came in and sat at the table next to him.
+++++The sailor pushed his food aside and extended his arms out on the table with palms up. The valuable ivory netsuke was in his left hand.
+++++The boy rose and stepped to the sailor’s table. The kid pulled out his imitation netsuke and set it on the table.  Then he reached for the original but the sailor closed his hand before the boy could pick up the valuable piece of ivory.
+++++The young man swiveled his head to look at the older man then back at the sailor.
+++++The sailor advised that he wanted a specific amount of yen in exchange for the netsuke in his closed hand.
+++++The boy spoke in a crisp tone, “Mr. Migaki has received our payment.”
+++++The sailor was free-lancing for an out-of-contract bonus that didn’t involve Migaki. The sailor repeatedly curled his fingertips of his unlocked hand to make his point clear.
+++++In a quick motion, the boy raised a thin bladed dagger above his head then drove the blade down penetrating the open palm of the sailor’s hand. The point stuck into the wood table top beneath. The blade anchored the sailor’s hand in its place on the table top. Blood squirted from around the puncture.
+++++The sailor froze a moment before he opened his other hand to grip the dagger handle that had been abandoned by the teen-age boy. The old ivory netsuke dropped out onto the table top. The boy snatched it up and followed the older man who was already making his way to a back door.
+++++The sailor shut his eyes and tugged on the knife grip with his free hand.  After wiggling the handle back and forth, he was able to pull the blade from the wood table top and his hand.  The pain made him gurgle but he did not scream out.
+++++No one in the restaurant had seen the incident. The sailor wrapped his bleeding hand with a cloth napkin.  An American with a bloody hand would be of interest to the locals. He was feeling weak but placed his wounded hand in the pocket of his wool coat and made an effort to walk normally out of the restaurant. He leaned against a wall outside in the street. He forced himself to continue the walk. The sailor crossed back and forth on the street in order to stay in the shadows as he stumbled back to the hotel. He rested a moment outside the door before entering.
+++++The sailor stopped at the front desk and asked the clerk to send someone to help him at his room.
+++++Back in the room, he flopped on the hotel bed and breathed long and deep.
+++++After some time there was a knock at the door.
+++++The sailor rose and slowly pulled the door ajar. It was the hooker and her old man.
+++++“You need help, please?”
+++++The sailor realized that the desk clerk had misunderstood his request, “help” did not mean sex. He waived off the woman, then reconsidered. He called out for her to return. She shuffled inside leaving her man in the hall.  The sailor unwrapped his hand to show her the wound. She furrowed her eyebrows but did not react otherwise.
+++++The sailor conveyed his need for antiseptic and some wrap. She opened the door and spoke some orders to the old man who stepped quickly down the hall.
+++++She shut the door and took the sailor over to a table. The hooker pulled a cloth and bottle of water from her satchel.  She washed the puncture and applied a dark red ointment to the wound holes. Her fingers pushed the stuff into the holes with sufficient pressure to make the sailor cry out.
+++++A knock at the door. The old man came in carrying a bundle of gauze. The hooker wrapped the damaged hand.  The sailor pulled out a pint of whiskey from his back pocket and drank the bottle to half empty.
+++++The sailor asked the hooker to return the following night, with more bandage. She agreed. He held out a handful of yen. She took it, bowed and left the room.
+++++The hand festered and swelled up over the next several hours. When the hooker came again, the hand was mottled with dark spots.
+++++She gasped at the sight of the hand without the bandage. She was silent for a moment before telling the sailor what he already suspected. The infection in his hand would kill him.
+++++The mariner wasn’t sure if he could walk the six blocks to where the Daigen Maru was docked. He hoped for a medic on board the ship. He was afraid to go to a clinic. Papers might be required.
+++++The hooker spoke a couple of very fast sentences to the old man. He nodded.
+++++She pointed to her man and said, “Jinriksha”.
+++++“Him?” the sailor nodded at the old man.
+++++The Japanese man raised his hand as if to volunteer.
+++++The hooker quoted a price. It was more than a fat tourist and his wife would be bilked for a rickshaw ride, but the sailor took the deal. He didn’t dare to bring any more attention to himself outside on the street.
+++++“Half now, half at the ship,” he told the hooker who received his down payment and led the old man into the hallway. She told the sailor to go to wait in front of the hotel. The door shut behind her.
+++++The sailor packed his duffel. His clothes were packed around the collection of gears he had purchased from a shop on the dock here in Japan. His new boat needed these parts.
+++++He gripped is duffel with his good hand and walked past the front desk into the narrow street. After a few moments, the hooker’s old man pulled up with well used rickshaw.  The sailor stepped up and sat on the hard seat with his duffle bag on his lap. The whiskey bottle was empty and his hand was exploding with pain. Six blocks was a long bumpy ride on cobblestones.
+++++The old man took a route that stayed on dark unpopulated streets. When they got to the freighter, the sailor stepped down from the rickshaw and handed some yen to the Japanese man.  The old man didn’t say anything. He turned and trotted off into the night. The sailor swung his duffel over his shoulder and inserted his damaged hand into his coat pocket. He bit his lip to distract from the pain and walked on board the freighter.
+++++The sailor noted that the ship was older than he had first deemed but seemed to be tight and tidy. He made his way to the bunk room and found the man to whom he had paid the money for passage. He asked if the ship had a medic. The crewman shook his head from side to side. The sailor pulled out his wrapped hand. A dark fluid was soaking through the bandage. The crewman opened his eyes wide and nodded affirmatively. He trotted off. The sailor rolled onto a bunk.  He held his wounded hand by the wrist and waited. It would not be his hand much longer.
+++++After an hour, a new man came in the room and asked the sailor for a look at his wound. After some observation, he told the sailor that the hand required amputation. The sailor pointed at the hand then at the man. The new man refused the task until the sailor pulled out a bundle of yen and waived it under his nose. A deal was struck.
+++++The new man had served in a Japanese field hospital during the war. He was experienced at amputation. That lucky fact might save the patient’s life.
+++++The American sailor’s disdain for the Japanese didn’t suspend for this medic. The Asian was filthy and smelled of old sweat mixed with the stench of whatever it was these people ate. The dark signs of gangrene were plainly showing in his swollen hand. It hurt like hell. He was sure that the hooker had poisoned the wound or the young man in the restaurant had contaminated his dagger blade. But it didn’t matter now.
+++++The medic had only a small scalpel in his bag of tricks, nothing that would cut through a wrist bone. He left the room for the ship’s work bench and took down a hack saw.  He removed the blade and ran it up and down in a bottle of iodine. After washing his hands with the same iodine, he reinstalled the blade and returned to his patient with the hack saw hidden in a paper sleeve.
+++++The sailor was laid out on the crew’s dining table. The medic began a drip of chloroform falling into a cloth placed on the sailor’s face.  After the sailor passed out, the medic signaled his mate to take over the chloroform drip. When his hands were free, the medic placed a rope noose around the wrist of the gangrenous hand.  He jerked it tight.  A third crew member pinned the sailor’s arm down on the table. The medic used the scalpel to cut away tissue down to the bones. Then he began sawing. He paused his stroking back and forth in order to check the patient’s pulse. The strokes resumed at the same steady pace but quickened just before the hand detached.
+++++The medic cauterized the end of the stump with the red hot blade of a knife heated with a torch. He moved quickly with efficiency that comes from experience. The stench of burnt flesh was heavy in the room. The medic was soaked in perspiration and dotted with blood and bits of human bone on his face and clothing.
+++++After the amputation, the medic fed the patient some stupefying drug. The sailor was dazed for the next 24 hours.  He came out of his stupor on the morning the Daigen Maru was about to pull away from the dock.
+++++The rain had ceased and the sun shone through the window hatch. The sailor sat up on the side of his bunk.  The bleeding had stopped but the bandage was yellow with draining fluids.
+++++He thought about his one-handed future. He was a proud man. The sailor meant to be the feared captain of his own fishing boat. But he would also be the bosun, a stacker and at times, the only deck hand when the skiff man was out tending the nets.  He’d be a deck hand with one hand. A joke. The sailor’s dream suddenly seemed far-fetched. He had been a fool. A fool was not worthy to captain a ship, even a fishing boat.
+++++He stood up and gently eased into his coat. The sailor buttoned the coat all the way up to his neck using the fingers of his remaining hand. He pushed his feet into his boots and grabbed the duffel before kicking the door open and walking out onto the ship’s deck. He stood against the railing and looked back through the mist at the mountains of Honshu, dark and shadowy in clinging fog.
+++++Then the sailor who hated the people of this land, immersed himself in Japanese tradition for just a moment.  He raised the duffel to his chest and closed his good arm tightly around the heavy bag before plunging feet first overboard. He did not cry out during the fall nor resist his entry into water. The splash was shaded by the adjacent freighter. There was underway noise and crew was too busy minding the departure of the ship to have noticed. It would not have mattered anyway. He couldn’t be saved. The sailor sunk quickly, propelled downward by his missing hand.