Monday, August 21, 2017

Envelope, by David Rachels

A redhead with bandages on her wrists sits down across the table from me. I stop reading my newspaper. I smile. She doesn’t smile back. She doesn’t even look in my direction. I take a sip of my coffee.

Her age is hard to read. She was attractive once, but not anymore. Her red hair isn’t natural. She’s skinny like she doesn’t get enough to eat. Her face is burned and weathered, drawn down with deep wrinkles. She looks fifty, but she could be twenty-five. She doesn’t have to tell me that life is hard.

Good morning,” I say to her.

Morning,” she says, no adjective attached. We still haven’t made eye contact because she’s staring out the window at the parking lot.

I have no idea who this woman is or why she’s sitting in my booth at the diner. There are empty booths where she could have sat to look out the window. Why is she sitting with me? I start to ask if she’s waiting for someone, but she obviously has no interest in small talk, and I have a newspaper. I go back to reading and leave her to monitor the parking lot. A minute later, I’m surprised to hear her speak.

There,” she says.

I look out the window, but I don’t see anything new.

You can count it if you want,” she says.

I crumple the newspaper in my lap and look down at the table. A white business envelope has appeared in front of me. I look at the woman, but she is still turned toward the window. I smooth the newspaper, fold it, and put it on the table next to the envelope. I pick up the envelope and look inside. Money. Benjamin Franklin five times. Five hundred dollars. I put the envelope back on the table.

The woman is still looking at the parking lot, but she knows I have counted the money. She says, “Half now and half after, right?”

My waitress comes to the table. She says to my companion, “Did you need to see a menu?”

No,” she says without looking away from the parking lot.

You know what you’ll have, then?”

Nothing.”

I say to the waitress, “Can I get my check?”

The waitress looks relieved. She tears a page from her pad, puts it on the table, and retreats.

The woman across the table still hasn’t looked me in the eye. Does she know what I look like? Maybe not. I pick up the newspaper, unfold it, get behind it.

I say, “Change of plans. I need the full amount now.” It can’t hurt to ask, right?

I hear her shift on the vinyl seat. She might be looking toward me now, but she’s seeing the newspaper.

She says, “We had an agreement.”

But now I’ve done my homework,” I say. “You’re a flight risk. I might do it and find you gone.”

No!” she says, and then lowers her voice: “No. You know I can’t run. If I run, they’ll know I did it, and they’ll come after me. The only way I can get away with it is if I stay.”

Okay, then. Time to choose. Do I take the five hundred dollars and go, or do I push the bluff? Pushing the bluff will probably mean giving her a good look at me. It’s tempting, but a bird in the hand and all that.

Okay,” I say. I reach around the newspaper and take the envelope.

Good,” she says. “My alibi’s all set for Friday night.”

Good,” I say.

Now I just have to get out of here. I fold the newspaper again. You couldn’t pay this woman to look at me. She’s found the most interesting parking lot in the world. I stuff the envelope into my back pocket. I’ve just got to pay my check and go.


We’ll meet here the day after?” she says. “Same time on Saturday?”

Sure,” I say.

I’m reaching for the check when a customer sits in the booth behind the woman. He and I are facing each other, and we’re both wearing red baseball caps. He’s not paying me any attention, but I’m looking right at him. Trying to seem nonchalant about it, I take off my red cap and hold it under the table.

I glance at the clock hanging behind the counter. 2:05. So the man in the red cap must be five minutes late. Does he know what she looks like? How long will he sit there alone before he catches on to my accidental impersonation? If I get out of here fast enough, maybe the answers won’t matter.

I’m reaching for the check again when the woman jumps in her seat and looks away from the window. For the first time, she looks right at me. She shifts her body so the window is behind her.

He’s here,” she says.

My response is involuntary: “Who?”

Tony. He’s here. Walking across the parking lot. I thought he might be following me, and now he’s here.”

I glance at the man in the red cap, who is looking at his watch. If he heard the name Tony, if the name Tony means anything to him, he isn’t showing it. He probably didn’t hear. But will he know Tony if Tony walks inside? If so, how will he react? Am I supposed to know Tony? Have I just accepted half payment for killing Tony? Now it’s really time for me to get out of here.

Go,” she says. “He can’t see us together.”

She doesn’t have to tell me twice. The envelope is in my back pocket. My newspaper and cap are in my hand. I grab the check and go to pay.

But as I’m leaving the table, the man in the other booth finally catches on. He sees the red cap in my hand. He glances at the back of the woman’s head. He looks at me. He knows.

But how much can he know at this point? Will he go to the woman, or will he come straight for me? I try to pay him no mind, but my heart pounds so hard that it vibrates my tongue. I go to the counter, and I hand over the check along with $100 from the envelope. I had meant to take cash from my wallet, but I’m a little bit distracted.

I hear the man in the red cap say to the woman, “Helen?”

For a moment, she freezes. Then she says, “Leo?”

The woman behind the counter says, “I can’t change this. Do you have anything smaller?”

Keep it,” I say, and I head for the door.

I reach the door the same time as Tony. I let him enter the diner, and then I go outside. Holding the door open between us, I say his name. Tony stops and turns.

His look is part surprise, part challenge. “Yeah?” he says. His face shows thoughts processing. I was in there with Helen, and I know his name. Those are strikes against me. But would I talk to him if I were up to no good?

I say, “Sorry to bother you. I know it’s none of my business, but Helen is in there meeting a man in a red baseball cap. His name is Leo, and I overhead her hire him to kill you.”


Before Tony can think what to say, I release the door and let it close between us. Without looking back, I walk to my car and climb inside. I am putting my key into the ignition when I hear the gunfire start.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Brothers Brujo, by Matthew Lyons

The funeral is a Day of the Dead fever dream, all crowns and skeletons and robes and icons burning in the shimmering, dying light of the west. Women in face paint urge the icon down the street as mourners come and pin slips of green paper to his bedazzled robes, their faces slashed with tears. Men beat their chests and howl like apes, women offer up quiet prayers. Children dressed like mutilated angels kiss foreheads and pass out cardboard blessings. The air is thick and cloying with the cheap sugar of dollar-store candles and cigar smoke. This will last all day and deep into the denial of night, carried by songs of redemption and resurrection.

The mayor is dead, and the town, a part of it at least, dies with him and screams to be reborn.

#


Skeet's down by the rivermark, cutting symbols into the spackly mud with a stick when his brother crests the hill past the fence and calls down to him.

"Dad's looking for you."

Skeet keeps cutting in the dirt. He decides that one of the symbols means ribbon. He draws it again, just to make sure he's got it. Above him, Leonel skids down the crumbly hill, knocking sheets of dirt loose and tumbling down ahead of him.

"You have to come home."

"Who says?"

"I told you. Dad."

"He can come and get me himself then."

"Don't be a dick. He says the mayor's dead."

"I know he is."

"How? You've been out here all morning."

"Listen."

The two of them go silent. At first, Leonel can't hear anything, but then, a moment later, it's there. A shaking, dissonant clanging, like three bands playing different dirges against each other. A three-way car crash of notes and melody, metallic and reedy and ugly.

"They've been going for hours now. They only play like that when somebody important dies." Skeet keeps carving in the mud. He doesn't turn around to face the other boy. Not yet. He knows his bigger brother doesn't like to see the marks unless he has to, and right now, he doesn't.

A silence passes between the two boys, brittle and porous, like dry bones. Skeet threads one long-nailed hand through his scrubby short hair, Leonel kicks at the mud.

"He's waiting, Skeet."

"Let him wait. I don't want to go just yet and neither of you can make me."

"He's just gonna get madder."

"He's always mad."

"He's not."

Fine, fuck it.

Skeet turns to look at his brother, gets in real close, so Leonel has to look at the thick black X tattoos carved on the thin skin under his eyes. His earliest memory, his father buzzing the needle-gun into his face with cold, meth-head determination. The pain, the way it lit his brain on fire. The way he sobbed, like he was never going to breathe again. Red tears cutting down and pooling along the line of his jaw, dribbling on his bare chest and collarbone.

"He is, Leo."

Skeet studies his brother's face, somehow left unscarred by the old man's cruelties, shaped more by neglect and self-reliance than anything else. Agaju's damages are clever, left in places hard to find. Scars webbed under the hair, bruises punched in under his arms, belt lashes striped along his back and thighs. Skeet's suffered too at Dad's hands, but they both know Skeet's's the favorite, a fact that neither of them will ever give voice to. To Leonel, Agaju's an empty temple housing a withered, sadistic god. To Agaju, Leonel's a first draft, a failed attempt. Something to send out for beer and cigarettes and to fetch his brother. Groceries. Bets at the horse track. A warm, crying body to smack the shit out of when he gets in the depths of his booze-rages. School, if there's time, and if Leo's not too marked up to go.

Skeet hasn't ever been to school.

Agaju hasn't left the house in seven years.

"You know he is."

Leonel's eyes are already wetting up from staring at the tattoos. He finally draws a breath, sharp and sudden, and tears himself away from his little brother. When he speaks again, it's with a voice that shouldn't be his yet, weary and haggard and worn threadbare.

"It's just going to be worse for everyone if you don't come with."

Skeet turns and cuts another few symbols into the ground—still, time, death—then throws the stick into the dried-up crick. Smiles at his brother.

"Okay. Let's go."

"Okay."

"Okay. You first."

"Okay."

They climb the hill single file, hop the fence, and disappear from the little wild for the edge of town. They don't talk as they go. They don't talk at all, unless they have to.

#


Down the VA they call Agaju Threefer, or at least they used to, back when he went. Shorthand for Three-For-Four on account of his no legs and one arm. Blame Vietnam. Still enough life left in his ruined mutilation to fuck two sons into two different beer hall cheaps, though. Even married one of them for almost a year. Long enough to saddle him with one of the boys. Nobody remembers which one, though. Doesn't exactly matter. Bastards. All fucking bastards.

Around town, most people butcher his name, pronounce it Aggie-you or Aggie-jew, else they just call him the priest. They don't come out to the house 'less they have to. They don't know what he does the rest of the time inside the shitty clapboard trailer-and-a-half just outside the city limits, they're content to clank and drink and fuck their lives away, whispering rumors to each other and living in fear of his boys, the marked one and the one with the serial killer stare. Something wrong with the whole genetic line, half-buried out there in the dust.

Still, they need them. Don't mean they have to like it.

The boys pretend not to notice.

Agaju's hunched at the altar when they walk in, folded over in his chair and grunting and cranking on himself among the candles and incense. Skeet and Leonel wait quietly in the kitchen until he's finished. The hot smell of it, sour and musky, stains the air and he yells for fucko to bring him the rag.

Always fucko. Never Leonel.

Fucko forever.

The older boy stalks through the house, looking for the embroidered handkerchief that his dad calls the rag, stained and blackened from dozens of rituals past. When he brings it, his father snatches it out of his hand, then waves him off. He can do the cleaning himself. Soaks up the filth with the silk, then folds it and sets it on the altar. Pulls on his stitched-shut pants with his one arm, hard as oiled ship rope from years of solo work, then glowers at his older son from behind his patchy scrub of beard.

"You bring him?"

Leonel nods. Knows better than to actually try and speak to the old man.

"Then go get him. Bring him in here. Fuck you waiting for?"

Leonel shuffles off. Whispers from the kitchen. Skeet wanders in, hands deep in his pockets.

"Fuck you been, huh?"

Skeet stares at his shoes, still caked in muck. "Down the crick."

"Doing what?"

"Just, I don't know. Drawing. Stuff."

"Drawing and stuff? What the fuck is drawing and stuff?"

"Like drawing in the mud and stuff. Throwing rocks. Just stuff."

"Drawing what?"

"Just pictures."

"Pictures like what?"

"Just pictures."

"Pictures like the old language?"

"No. No. Promise."

"You sure?"

"Yes, Dad."

"You wouldn't lie to me, would you, boy?"

"No, Dad."

"Shit's not to be fucked with. S'bad old magic, you hear?"

"I hear."

"What?"

"I said I hear."

"Good. You know what happened?"

"The mayor?"

"Good. Yeah. Look at me, boy. Said look at me."

Skeet looks. The sight of his gnarled stumps and raw, home-done tattoos makes his stomach twist and crawl in living tangles, a basket of pregnant snakes. Agaju sticks a Marlboro between his bloody, chapped lips and lights it, the Bic so buried in his knotty paw that it almost looks as if he's summoning the fire from nothing. Skeet's pretty sure that his dad can't actually do that, but he's not a hundred percent. Agaju blows a grubby cloud in his son's face. It stings his lungs with a familiar buzzing that he's almost learned to enjoy.

"You know this one's important."

"I know, Dad."

"Can't have anybody fuckin' it up for us."

"I know, Dad."

"Not you, not anybody out there, and 'specially not that fucktard brother of yours."

"Yes, Dad."

"We pull this one off, we get to eat for the next few years. This isn't parlor trick shit, a few bucks here and there from strangers. This is real work, and real work means we eat. You wanna eat, right?"

"Right."

"So don't fuck up. And keep that retard far out of it. Got it?"

"Got it."

"Good. Go wash up and get ready. Imma prep the altar. Gonna give these hicks a hell of a show. That's what they're expecting, right?"

"Right."

"You're motherfuckin' right, right. Go."

Skeet goes. Agaju stays. Sits still until he hears the rickety shower start up. Starts pulling together the rest of the ingredients he needs--fresh blood, mezcal, sage. A few bullets, a couple small amethyst daggers of scante. Teeth. Hair. A little glass phial of gasoline, another one of holy water. A straight razor, a box of matches. And the soppy rag.

American magic is brutal, and ugly, and messy, but goddamn it fuckin' works.

Happy with the collected mojo, the old man slowly creaks to the garage, and his homebaked tattoo gun. Strips his pants off and picks out a bare spot on top of his left stump. Dips the sharp end of the rig in the ink and starts drawing. Rides the needle deep, 'til red seeps out around the wet black. He relishes the hurt, drinks it in. The ritual demands sacrifice. When it gets too much, he starts to groan and growl and then he's coming again.

#


Leonel's out in the back lot breaking bottles against the rocks and fence when everything goes quiet. It's not one of those strange moments when synchronicity descends on the world for a perfect breath of shared silence, nothing like that. More like all the noise gets sucked out of reality. He can't even hear the ringing in his ears that sings him to sleep every night, a memento from one of Agaju's cerveza-and-meth-fueled hurricanes. The scar on the far side of his head tells the same story in a different language.

The silence is perfect, absolute. Crushing. It presses the air out of him, throbs the inside of his head in hot swells of blood. He tries to battle back the nothing, but he can't even scream. He tries and tries, feeling his face turning red, sweat breaking out in thick lines across his forehead. Futility. Gives him the spins. Not long before he hits the dirt, but it doesn't help. Just feels like he's being pestled into the side of the planet. He throws up a little in his mouth.

Then he rolls over and sees.

There, behind the bathroom glass door. Skeet, staring at him from over those fucked-up, ratty X's like drunk crosses. He doesn't blink. Doesn't move. He's the one doing this. It's him, it's always him. Except when it's not.

Leonel grabs for one of the beer bottles and whips it at his brother. It cartwheels through the air and bursts against the glass, exploding the window inwards in a razor spray. The sound is catastrophic, a gale sucked through a pinhole. There's a terrible wet ripping just beyond the inside of his eardrums and the first thing he hears when it stops is his own useless shrieking. Agaju's impotent yawling from inside, mush-mouthed rage like fuckenshit's wrong with you fucko. An insistent low-frequency hissing that he thinks is snakes until he remembers that Agaju made him kill all the snakes.

What is that?

He gets to his feet and follows the sound, shaky and a little bit painful still. There's a raggy hole in the side of the house where the sliding glass door used to be. Beyond it, Agaju bellows, the sound carried on the back of the hissing. Blades of glass blanket the bathroom floor tile, some rimmed with thin red. Steam rolls across the tops of them and out into the sunlight and Leonel understands. His brother's showering.

Which means the ritual isn't far off, now.

I won't watch this time. You can't make me.

He turns and runs deeper into the back lot, a maze of junked cars and corrugated metal, wire and bone and oil. He runs until he can't breathe and his legs quake and threaten collapse from beating against the earth. His face boils hot under his skin and his eyes well and blink.

Over ruined rusty sedans and towers of broken old TVs, he winds a path to his safe room, a gutted-out station wagon filled with books and a camp light and a sleeping bag and a couple porno magazines he swiped from Agaju's collection. He tells himself that he likes the pictures, but the truth is they make him feel funny and uncomfortable inside. The women are all hairy and misshapen and stare at him from the glossy paper with something dead and gross in their eyes. Some of the girls have dicks.

This is his real home, where he keeps his things, precious and obscene. His sanctuary from the strange hell that is his father's home. Out here, he can be alone. Out here, he can be himself. With all of his stolen things.

Under the hood of the station wagon, though. That's where he keeps his real treasure.

He vaults over the top of the station wagon and looks around, making sure no one's spying. Satisfied, he pops the catch and lifts the hood. Inside, where there should be an engine is a half-rotted, splintery wooden box. Inside that, the treasure, wrapped in a towel. Leonel pulls it out, slams the hood, then climbs into the wagon. Nestles down on the bunched-up sleeping bag and lays the bundle across his knees. Unwraps it carefully, as if he were handling a sick infant. Feels his guts curl up with something almost like arousal once it's in his hands.

Sleek and heavy and cold, black-blued and cut with walnut. The Henry .45-70 Government. Lever action. Pretty much the most perfect weapon ever devised by man or god.

One of Agaju's, but he's not good with rifles anymore. Obvious reasons. Still buys them, though. The old man buys all sorts of guns. Hides them around the house like he's expecting a revolution or a siege. He didn't even notice when this one went away. Leonel snuck it out of the house one night with a few boxes of bullets, kept it out here ever since.

He practices shooting when Skeet's away and the old man's drunk himself entirely under. The gun barks like a dog trying to rupture its own throat, spits bullets bigger than his fingers. It kicks purple blotches into his shoulder, grinds the second knuckle of his first finger into callused sausage. He's gotten a lot better at hitting all the targets.

In the secret places deep away in his heart, he likes to call the gun Ochosi.

He loads the weapon --four in-- and snaps the lever shut. Slides the barrel out of one of the wagon's windows, towards the house. Imagines putting holes in the walls until metal hits meat. Either of them, both. Let their holy wounds fill the house with blood and drown their attendants. He and Ochosi alchemizing living things into empty objects.

Skeet and Agaju and their bullshit magic.

This is real magic right here, motherfuckers.

He sets the rifle down next to the bag and turns toward the other side of the car, face to the sun. The warmth is radiant and sets his insides glowing. He stares until the burned-out afterimage of the sun eclipses the real thing. He doesn't think he's blind, but still clenches his eyes and basks in the liquid, fluttering nothing dark until the pain dismounts.

When he opens his eyes again, he sees the note.

Hermano, written across the top in his brother's clumsy script.

He unfolds it, holds it up to read. Goes through it twice. He even signed with his real name. Not that bullshit nickname Agaju makes them use because he's scared of the real one. Skeet. Agaju's own personal joke, his sons little more than wasted cum-shots to him, outside the utility of the rituals.

Leonel reads the note again, and again.

He likes what he reads.

#


Steam climbs the mirror and blurs out the blood, leaks out the hole in the wall. Through the churning fog, the marks under his eyes look different now. Like ampersands, or pound signs. Skeet can still hear his brother wailing when he climbs in the shower and starts rinsing off the blood. The water darkens as it licks along his new cuts. The heat stings. Makes it feel like his whole body's on fire.

Soap's only gonna make it worse.

Still, he reaches for the bar of dollar-store Kleenscrub and tries to get the thin, gritty pulp to lather. The hurt gets worse and worse. Alcohol in the soap. Makes him want to scream, but he doesn't, saves it for later. Gonna need all that air, all that power for the ritual. So he soaks the pain and swipes a finger through the cheap suds. Starts writing on the Plexiglas with one finger.

C

H

A

N

Two more letters and he's done. Admires his name, clear against the steam, then wipes it away. Gonna need that for later, too. A quarter of a mile away, in the rusted depths of the lot, his brother should be finding the letter. No way to tell if it worked until later. But he believes. And that might be enough.

The warmth in the water starts to gutter. Skeet turns it up as high as it will go and burns the chemical sting away. Lost in the steam.

#


Agaju rolls the bottom of his lighter over another piece of glass. Relishes the brittle crunch of it, no other sound like that in the world. Empties the crumbles into the bulb of the pipe, fires up the lighter, the flame a steady blue dagger of heat. Rolls the pipe over the fire until little lizard tongues of smoke appear inside and tangle around themselves. Puts the other end to his raw, chappy lips and hits it.

Chemical biters cut with sweet decay fill his mouth and lungs and spark hectic at his nerves and fillings. Like smoking wet garbage on fire. The rush is a demon whistling through his veins on a supersonic jet. For a moment, he forgets just how much of himself he's missing. For a moment, he's whole again. Restored masterfully by a loving god, the shine back on the apple here at the bottom of the world.

Then it fades and the old familiar wells around the emptiness like blood from a wound. Useless, alone. A heart filled with rotting pink vapor.

He's still got time. He's got plenty of time.

He takes a heavy slug from the bottle of mezcal and fires up the pipe again.

Come back. Please.

For the love of god, please just come back.

#


All around the house, there's nothing.

A grand empty washed in sand and mottled with vegetal scrub under the unchanging, unforgiving dome of the desert sky. Their house, a lone outpost built up against the edge of a wasteland, fortified with rust and steel and magic and blood and hate. Night falls in a heap and Leonel can see for miles. Lights stud the horizon, the town in the distance, a cluster of lives burning electric.

Soon they'll come, bearing the light as they wade through the darkness, draped in their strangest finery and all their desperate cruelties. Pressed under the cold livestock weight of the mayor on slab. Come to pay witness to the sermon, Agaju's ritual. Come to see real magic.

Leonel clutches Ochosi in both hands and nestles down in his tower of scrap and broken glass. Closes his eyes. Waits for the sounds of them to rusk and clatter up the empty miles between the house and the town. There'll be no mistaking it-- Leonel is the only one who walks the dirt road, and he's already here. They only come for the ritual, and discourage the curious. Agaju shoots at the curious from behind broken-out windows. You only have to kill someone once before they learn. Only a few townies bear the marks of Agaju's education, treated as heretic plague. Examples of the priest's wrath, for all to see. Hasn't been a new one in years.

Sleep tugs at him from beyond the walls of perception and he begins to sink. His eyes are still already closed. It's so easy. He disappears, and he waits, and he listens, and in his dreams, he is not himself.

Then, the parade. Leonel grinds the fuzz from his eyes and rises, watching them cross the glass eye of Ochosi's scope. One by one by one by one. Men in tailcoats, women in ballgowns. They all wear masks, brutally rendered in exacting detail that turns his stomach. Wolves and coyotes with slavering jaws, birds with glassy, bloody eyes, insects with mandibles that click-click-clack in time with their steps. Some wear masks not of animals but of vile caricatures of human beings, faces Leonel knows from town, their features all mutant and obscene, artificial deformity.

They wear these clothes to make the ritual auspicious. They wear the masks to hid their faces from the old man and each other. As if their supposed anonymity absolved them from colluding with the local necromancer. They hide in their masks, believing that they're safe from Agaju and God and each other and themselves. Formality coupled with idiot superstition. As if they could keep him from seeing anything he wanted to. The listen to their fear and their confusion. They play futile coward. Agaju always laughs about it after they leave.

There, in the middle, on a stretcher bedecked in fake jewels and sugar skulls and roses and cakes, lies the mayor. Carried by the four strongest men in the town. Fishbelly white and sloppy red, dressed in a while baptismal gown with his hands laced together over his prodigious gut. Eyes closed and held seal with two heavy silver coins. Washed and trimmed and shaved leather-smooth. Brought unto the edges of the known world to be made whole again, their very own Hillbilly Christ.

Leonel's sure he died like he always does -- too much crank and booze and pussy and donuts for his overworked heart to handle. Wonder who found him this time. Suppose it doesn't really matter. Agaju will do what he always does, and behind their masks, they'll all quietly thank their dead god that it worked. And everything will go back to running the way it always does. No cops. No law. No government eye. No consequences. A tiny kingdom with none but one rule.

Until the next time he dies. And the next. Again and again into the depths of vulgar infinity.

Leonel lowers Ochosi and lays it across his lap. Shuts his eyes and listens to the sound of the crowd's hushed jabbering as it carries over his wreck of a home.

"―freaks―"

"―think it really works―"

"―must be some kind of sin―"

"―Threefer's mad, always been that way―"

"―those boys getting to be a problem, I don't give a fuck what they can―"

"―You haven't seen him do what I have―"

"―public nuisance―"

"―freaks―"

He hears them all. They say his name. They mangle it with hate and fear and too many teeth. Maybe they've never heard it said right. Something wrong with their hearing, something wrong with their brains. Leonel thinks about him and Ochosi cleaning the wax out of their heads.

Electric candles light their way from behind, but he doesn't see them. He just lies in his self-made cage and lets the blood bubble out of his brain.

#


The limbs are cracked and splintery and uneven and don't fit over his mangled stumps the way they used to. Had them made years back, when he was thinner, less gruesome. He hasn't worn them in almost two years, and in the time between they've started to grit and rot. They grind wooden needles into his scars and his bones and he cinches the leather belts tighter to distract from the hurt. The skin underneath goes pallid and squeezed-stiff and he punches his misbehaving flesh in toward the bone until it learns to do what it's told. He secures the buckles and, swallowing back tears and yelps, heaves himself up.

Agaju totters over to the dresser on driftwood legs and uncaps a pint of Yukon Jack, presses the mouth to his lips and drains it. Honey and spice and battery acid snarl into flame in his belly like a torch held to a ball of crude oil. It aggravates his ulcers and for a moment, he feels as if he's going to belch blood, but it passes and settles into a manageable, coiled pain.

Then there's a knock at the front door and it's time.

He creaks and clicks into the living room and shows them all to the altar. The four biggest ones set the mayor down on the marble slab and step back. All the masks turn slowly to leer at him with plastic imitations. Nobody makes a sound. They know how this works. After seeing it so many times, they'd better. He basks in the silence. Owns it.

For a moment―just a moment―he thinks of his boys. Skeet, out in the hallway in his ritual raiments, the X's under his eyes pulsing with power. He doesn't know where the other one is. Wherever fucko got to, he'd best stay there, not fuck this up.

Agaju takes a deep breath, and begins. The sound is like a clap of thunder.

#


Skeet slips into the altar room as his dad shows the townies to their places. He's small, so it's not hard to hide behind adult legs and skirts, staying out of sight. They're all wearing masks anyway, so of course they can't see. Agaju's too concerned with staying upright to see anything else, but Skeet sees him. All that pride cut across his face like carved from wood. Severe and ugly darks and lights burned into his flesh.

Power gathers around the altar, makes the air feel puffy electric. Skeet's lower eyelids hurt and the crowd goes silent. Blood pools heavy in his fingertips as if drawn there by some alien gravity. It's close, now. He wonders if Agaju can really feel it or if he's just faking it.

In the middle of the room, a crease opens in the altar and none of them see it. Not even the old man has eyes to understand. Beyond the crease, Skeet can see shapes, impossibly massive and drowned in shadow, writhing in the light. His mind recoils at first, but he makes himself look into this strange bright dark beyond, to call to them, these dark things. Teeth the size of houses, tongues like highways. He leers into the strange void and when a colossal yellow and black eye rolls toward him, he has to force himself to not scream. It's coming. The ritual is already underway--just not the one Agaju thought.

The crease splits wider and light begins to spill out, laying heavy on the crowd, a blinding, tangible thing. It renders the expensive horrors pulled over their faces cheap and artificial, exposed for mummery. Skeet wonders if, underneath their costumes, they're squinting without knowing why. He hopes so, likes to think so.

He leans into the power and the light and the presence of that terrible, lake-sized eye, makes himself a conduit.

He whispers his true name against the crushing silence and that's when the quiet's blown apart.

#


Something fucked up happens to a normal person's brain the first time they see real magic. It's like a disconnect. Because real magic isn't like people imagine in the movies.

Real magic is so much better, and so much worse.

Most people can't comprehend it, really. It's too much, too sudden, too vulgar. So the brain only lets in little pieces, flashes of light and color and salvos of sound from far off and not much more. It edits the rest out, cuts lacunae in itself, leaving little more than pitty cigarette burns behind. Metaphysical self-mutilation at its finest, the limited human mind hurting itself in little ways in order to distract from the bigger, uglier damage. To make the truth a little more manageable, because undiluted, it isn't.

The truth is that magic's a beast, enormous and lumbering and starving. It's powerful, and it's violent, and it makes a fuck-awful mess that people don't want to see, or if they see, they don't want to remember. So their minds compartmentalize and let them remember the lights and the pretty colors and the temporary suspension of the laws of physics. They hear thunder instead of screaming. They forget the blood and the shock and the stink and the explosions of teeth and hair that seem to come out of nowhere.

They forget that magic's like watching someone get shot in the head.

Even when they're watching someone get shot in the head.

#


The finger-thick bullet rips through brain and bone and Agaju's face bursts in a bright red poppy.

He hits the floor in slow motion and everyone starts screaming.

In the corner, his marked eyes glowing in the shadows, Skeet forces the crease the rest of the way open and lets the magic do the rest.

#


Say fucko now, you stumpy shit.

Ochosi barks again and mule-kicks the soft of Leonel's shoulder. A cloud of smoke rises from the muzzle, and through the blown-out window, he sees a sheet of blood skate off a lady's head before atomizing into thin nothing. Behind the smell of burned powder, there's the ozone electricity of his brother's ritual seeping out of the house in vaporous waves. Almost at its saturation point. Seconds away.

Skeet'll handle his part, Leonel just has to handle his own. Crowd control, that's what his little brother called it in the letter. He had the whole thing planned out. Freedom from the gimp and his abuses and his bullshit in a few easy steps. All it would take was a whole lot of dead people, and that wasn't going to be a problem.

Leonel knocks another empty brass from the rifle and looks down the scope at another scared masked someone, crouching and hiding from the madness they've found themselves in.

Breathes, in, then out, slow.

Pop.

Another spray of hand-tooled foam rubber and chunks like rose petals floats into the dark.

#


The air inside catches fire and resolves itself into a spiderweb of characters from a language that doesn't exist. They swirl and lick and flood into each other, a wave of orange and red and black descending on the gathered heads as they're trying to escape. It's no good. The doors are lodged shut, or locked, or blocked. The result's the same. The manimals start clawing at each other, kicking and punching to try and find another escape that doesn't exist. The smell of burning pork mingles with the rank fog filling up the room.

Then, finally, thankfully, they start to die.

They breathe and swallow scalding oxygen, they catch flame and fall to the ground next to what's left of the old man. They roll around. They scream. They beg. In the middle of the room, the mayor's anointed carcass swells and blackens and erupts, spilling over with a phalanx of rotten meat and insects and unidentifiable effluvium that immediately catches fire. The burning spillage runs over everything, seeps into eyes and noses and throats. Living napalm burns the life from them.

Then they go quiet, all at once. The magic drains all out of the room, and then Skeet's alone in an abattoir. He's exhausted and sweaty and sort, but he's smiling wider than he has in maybe his whole life. It splits his face in half, a while calcium zipper spotted with red and black. Something moves under his skin, something gargantuan and heinous and ancient. His tattoos knit themselves into another shape, and beneath his feet, the house is collapsing. He unlocks the doors and leaves to wait for his brother.

#


Wood bows and cracks, siding warps and gets stripped away. Glass bubbles out for the briefest of moments before shattering entire. The house crumples in on itself as if pressed by a compactor, or crushed by the invisible hands of some pissed off elder god. Leonel watches it happen from atop his tower of ruin, Ochosi still warm in his white-knuckled fists. It doesn't make any sense.

When the house is good and flattened and gone and the smoke's cleared, he looks down the scope again, just in time to see Skeet's small form walking off, away from the crash and massacre.

Down to the rivermark.

#


"Are they all dead?"

"Yes."

"All of them?"

"Yes. All of them."

"What happened to the house?"

"Gone."

"I saw."

"Then why'd you ask?"

Skeet's floating in the river, arms out like a drowned Christ. Black water that wasn't here before laps at him and drags the edges of his clothes out in white streamers. Leonel can see that his little brother's tattoos aren't X's anymore, they're stars, infinitely black. He has the sudden vertiginous sensation that he's not just talking to his brother. The twin stars look up at the empty night, seeing more than Skeet's other eyes ever could. Ochosi is heavy in Leonel's hands, but he holds it close all the same.

"Did you do that to the house?"

"Maybe."

"How?"

"I can do anything."

As if to illustrate his point, Skeet raises one hand from the water and all around him, slithering red and white coils surface and dive and surface again. Leonel sees long blades of fin, and pocks of bright black eyes. Eels. Dozens of streaky, albino eels. He shudders, suppresses his gag reflex, but doesn't look away. There's a pattern to it, some horrible symmetry in their thralled ballet. He doesn't want to see how it's beautiful, but he can't help it. The eels froth around Skeet for another moment, then vanish underneath the sputile waves.

"How did it feel?"

He almost lies, then he doesn't.

"Good."

"Good."

Thunder trundles overhead, uneven percussion beyond the clouds. Leonel's shoes sink in to the wet loam of the rivermark. Grubby dirtwater splashes his laces. It takes him a minute to realize, the river is rising. Slow at first, but now steadily. He steps back onto the dead grass to stay dry. It crisps under his feet, a whisper against the chatter of the water. He turns away and doesn't see the thing that became his brother sinking in.

Over the ridge, the lights are flickering and going out. The wakes rumbling to rest, the townies passing out drunk and stoned for the night or maybe just dying. Maybe the fog of his brother's magic reached that far, snuffing lives out as it rolled along the wastes, chilly and indifferent. By morning, whoever was left would come looking for their friends and mothers and brothers, and when they came, they would come with teeth and knives and bullets and heads brimming with weird, spoiled hate. They'd cut the boys apart and eat the pieces. Screaming and jacking off to their own delusional self-righteousness as they did. They would have their revenge.

Or at least they'd try.

Better that they never get the chance. Leonel turns back to tell the brother-thing that he understands, but it's gone. Only the waves remain as the black, oily river rises nearer the ridge that blocks it from the rest of the valley. Not long before it spills over, blackens and drowns everything in its path. Heedless.

Leonel watches the opaque water rushing over everything for a moment more, then returns to the remains of the compound and fetches his boxes of bullets before turning his attention back to the distant town. He sets off on foot. He takes his time, no need to rush. The walk is cold and dusty and he pays it no mind. They get closer and closer and Ochosi grows warmer against his palms, as if excited. He purrs to the gun as he reloads it and walks the path. He tells it secrets and the gun whispers back.

At the edge of the town, next to the first house, they stop and listen to the nothing of locked doors and drunk sleep. The stillness of playhouses and rust-blackened barbecues and empty, distant highways. Not long for this world.

There are lights left to extinguish and he still has a little magic of his own left to dispense.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Live Together, Die Together, by James Valvis


The music in the car was loud but they were silent. Mark liked the noise and he liked the silence. He was pumped but focused. He was ready to rage. Mark pulled over and looked at his best friend.

“You ready?” Kevin said.

“Let’s kill those fuckers dead.”

They fist bumped.

Mark wasn’t nervous, just excited. If he was alone he might be nervous. If he was alone he might not be doing this at all. But he wasn’t alone and he wasn’t nervous doing it with Kevin.

“Live together, die together,” Mark said.

“Live together, die together,” Kevin repeated.

It was their motto. Mark even had it inked on his shoulder. Kevin, only seventeen, had to wait for the ink. Not that it would happen now. They were doing something that would bind them together far more closely than any arm calligraphy.

“Kill together too,” Mark said.

“Fucking A,” Kevin said. “You know it. You damn well know it.”

They were parked in the driveway where no one lived since the Great Recession spit a lot of people out of their homes. Mark and Kevin stepped out of the car and then to the trunk. Mark opened it. So weird to be driving his mother’s car to do this. He tried not to think about his mother. It was difficult when he thought about her. Mark and Kevin withdrew their trench coats and put them on. Mark’s was a little tight. He’d bought it at Goodwill. Only one they had left. $18 and stained on the lapel, but it did the trick. As Kevin said at the time: they weren’t making a fashion statement.

Inside the house was music. Nice, polite music. Rich people music. Prince. Madonna. Old shit that pretended to be bad ass. Or maybe it was once, but now it was so lame. 1985 lame.

“You hear that shit?” Kevin said.

“I hear it,” Mark said. “We’ll give them some real noise.”

He picked up his rifle, looked down the sights.

“You still want first shot?”

Mark smiled. “I’ll put one right in her head.”

Mark meant Kelly Swindel, richest and prettiest girl at Jefferson. Cheerleader, band, tennis star, Valedictorian. She’d be prom queen too. Except she wasn’t going to live. Neither would her stuck-up friends or family. Mark and Kevin would take them out, then split for the mall and shoot everyone in sight, all those losers who thought they were so high and mighty. That was the plan and it was good. None of that Columbine crap, with only 13 dead and a few wounded. Mark and Kevin were ready to do hundreds. They’d stockpiled weapons and ammo, Mark working double-time all summer to purchase the swag. They’d plotted the schedule and escape routes. It was all written down by Mark. It was all explained in the manifesto that Kevin typed and Mark signed.

Eventually, sure, the police would corner them, and then they’d go down shooting. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If you wanted to go old school, you needed to go something like that. Bad ass.

“How many times have I got to tell you?” Kevin said. “Don’t shoot Kelly first.”

“Why not?”

“We want her to see her family slaughtered.”

“Yeah,” Mark said, thinking it over. He was a little annoyed. Mark was older, but Kevin ran everything. It got to him sometimes. Still, he figured Kevin was right. “Let her see her family bleed.”

That’s what I’m saying. Remember: you don’t shoot Kelly at all. Don’t even point the rifle her way. Leave her to me. That’s my prize. Understand?”

Yeah, I guess.”

“You ready?”

“I just feel bad for my mom.”

Kevin’s shoulders slumped. “You want to chicken out? You want to go full limp dick?”

“I ain’t chickening nothing,” Mark said. “I’m just saying. Too bad about Mom. I mean, fuck Dad, you know. But my mom is cool.”

“Maybe I should take the first shot. If you’re not up to it.”

Mark felt hurt. “I got it.”

“You sure? We can’t go in there half-assed. I need to know if you’re sure.”

“Yeah. I said I got it, and I got it. I’m good. I’ve always been good, right? Well, right?

Yeah, I guess,” Kevin said.

Live together, die together,” Mark said, hoping it would lighten the mood. They’d be dead in a few hours. No point in going out grumpy. “By the way, what’s with the pea shooter?”

Kevin looked down at his holstered pistol. He shrugged. No pistol was ever mentioned in the plans. “In case we need an early exit.”

Mark thought it over. “Makes sense. Live together, die together. Right?”

“Let’s keep quiet until we get inside.”

They walked across the lawn as cool as can be. Mark felt like this was what he was made for. To be here with his best and only friend. Gone the fact he was left back twice. Gone the fact he was a twenty-year-old senior with no future except maybe a fast food job. He was about to show the world that you couldn’t screw with Mark Mallory. Tonight their names would be on the news. They were going to set records, and set the record straight. Mark and Kevin. Live together, die together.

It was early but not too early. The door was open and people were still arriving. The party raged on inside the house and in the backyard. Mark moved into the room. He was responsible for the outside, Kevin would handle the inside. A few stared, but nobody said anything. They were people who never had anything bad happen to them, and Mark was looking forward to ruining their evening.

No, their lives.

He walked right by Kelly Swindel, talking to friends. Bitches. They never gave him a second 
look at Jefferson, but they were going to look twice now. Once when he pointed, once when he shot. At least they’d look until he splattered their brains. He really wanted to do Kelly first, but Kevin was right. Better she stick around to see the carnage.

He knew the drill. They’d rehearsed it forever. They’d drawn up diagrams on his computer. When he found his designated spot, he took a deep breath. Then he turned and said the words he’d been practicing weeks.

“Time to die!”

Mark flipped open his trench coat and let them see his steel. A few screams, but mostly people were confused. Someone took a step toward him, but when he saw the rifle he stepped back. Another guy bolted for the door. Mark aimed right for Belinda Harmon, one of Kelly’s friends, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

The gun had jammed or something.

He tried pulling the trigger again. Nothing.

Something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t jammed, just not firing. Like the rifle had been sabotaged.

Silence overtook the screams. People who’d been diving for cover a moment ago were now staring at him.

He scanned the crowd.

Why wasn’t Kevin blowing people away?

He looked for him through the bodies and finally got an angle. He was there. But instead of his rifle he was holding the pistol. It was pointed in Mark‘s direction. There was a strange look on Kevin’s face.

Almost apologetic.

What?

And then it made sense. It came to him in a flash of understanding, as if somewhere—who knew where?—he had known all along, known and didn’t want to believe.

Mark saw it so clearly. He’d been set up. Kevin, his best friend. He’d coaxed him into this. He said they’d take out the scumbags. He had Mark score all the weapons, write down those maps, those designs, the plot to kill scores of people. There were the diagrams on his computers, the note to his mother on his cell. Kevin had him sign—a manifesto from the both of them— that note that was typed, not handwritten. Had Mark read it? No. Why would he bother? They were best friends.

Then Kevin sabotaged his rifle.

He’d tell the police he’d tried to stop Mark. Begged him. He was hoping his friend would change his mind, and then—only at the last moment—when all hope was lost, when Kevin pulled his rifle on those innocent people, he knew he had to act. He had to kill Mark to stop him.

It was so clear now. How could he be so blind? How many years had Kevin been in love with Kelly? Since third grade, at least-- well before Mark moved into the neighborhood. And yet he never stood a chance with her. He’d always been a zero, a nonentity. Now he would be a hero. Her hero.

Now he knew why Kevin hadn’t wanted him to shoot at Kelly. If for whatever reason something went wrong. If Mark insisted on carrying another gun. If Mark loaded the rifle himself. If who knows what.

Yes, it was all clear. But how could this happen? Kevin was his best friend. And what about their motto?

As the bullet sped toward him, he thought, “Live together, die—”


Monday, July 31, 2017

Whacked, by Jim Chandler

You had to watch Louie's right hand. If it went under his jacket you were in a world of shit. It was close to his lapel now and he was frowning behind his shades. It was not a good sign. I figured to be fished out of the river in a few days with a hole in my head. And on autopsy, they'd find a couple of cracked kneecaps as well.

"You disappoint me, Jake," Louis said. He raised his Cuban to his lips and took a deep drag. The cigar looked like a black dog turd. I felt like the cigar looked, except I might be stomped on the sidewalk.

"I'm sorry, man, " I said, trying to keep the fear out of my voice. "I did the best I could to come up with the dough."

Louie shook his head and turned to Bones the Undertaker. "He didn't try hard enough, did he Bones?" Bones, looking glum as your friendly neighborhood mortician, nodded. In fact, Bones was a mortician. It was a handy way to get rid of things, in his fiery crematorium. "So," Louie added, "What should we do with him, Bones?"

"I don't know, boss," Bones answered.

"I'll make it good, Louie," I said. That just pissed him off more.

"Like hell you will!" he yelled at me. "You had six months and it ain't good yet. Why will things changed now, huh? Tell me wise guy."

It looked like it might be it for me. What the fuck, I wouldn't beg. I'd taken on some bad dudes in my time and I'd always come out on top. But there was no taking on Louie, Bones and Big Rick. They had me cold. My piece was in Louie's side coat pocket. I was a goner.

"If you're gonna whack me, just make it quick will you," I said. "Is that too much to ask?"

"You want me to whack you?"

"Naw, but I figure you're about to," said I. "I don't wanna die man, but I won't beg either."

Louie sort of smiled out of the corner of his mouth and cut his eyes over at Big Rick. Big Rick was a fucking psycho; he was just standing idly by waiting for Louie to give him the sign. Once he got it, out would come his straight razor. I'd seen his handiwork once and it wasn't pretty.

"Damn, he sounds like a made man," Louie laughed. "How 'bout that, Rick, think he's afraid to die?"

"Gimme the word and we'll see, Louie," Big Rick grinned. "Bet I can make him change his fuckin tune in a hurry."

"Fuck you too, Rick," I said, figuring what the hell. I was a goner but I wasn't going to take any shit off him. "Take that razor outta your hand and you're a helpless piece of shit!"

Rick would have jumped me right there but Louie stopped it. "Cool it man!" he yelled at Rick. "Jake's got more balls than I gave him credit for."

"He won't have none when I get done with him," Rick growled. "I'll cut his fuckin nuts off and shove 'em down his wise mouth!"

All of a sudden, the irony of all this struck me. Louie had hired me a year before to do some legwork for him. He needed a private dick, one a bit on the seedy side, to find an old girlfriend. I took the job, found the girl and that was that. Oh yeah, the girlfriend was the one I saw Rick play his razor music on. Meanwhile, my gambling habit got the best of me. The ponies ran sour for several weeks and I wound up twenty gees into Louie. I managed to make the vig for a while but then things went south. Push came down to shove and here we were, with my tit in a big crack. It was going to slam tight and there wasn't a goddamn thing I could do about it.

"Well hell, let's see," said Louie. "You owe me still about sixteen long ones and it's growing every day. But there might be a way to get out from under that. You interested?"

"Is the fuckin Pope catholic?" I said. "Has a goat got an ass?" That got a twitch of lips from Bones, who had never been known to really smile in his life.

Louie laid it out for me then. Staying alive, and clearing my debt, was simple.

All I had to do was whack Superior Court Judge Harry Grogan. A piece of cake, Louie said. Yeah.
***
As it stood, I had three options: I could whack the judge, let Louie whacked me or maybe set Louie up with John Law. I knew I couldn't do the first and the second wasn't too appetizing either. So I decided to fuck Louie over.

None of the cops were big fans of mine because I tended to get in their way sometimes. Most of them hated my guts, but there was one sergeant who could at least tolerate me. I gave him a call.

"You want Louie Bostone?" I asked Bill Dill. He snickered.

"Everybody wants old Louie," he said. "The feds would give a million bucks for him. You can turn him?"

"He wants me to hit Judge Grogan," I replied. That got Dill's attention.

"No shit! How did you get hung in that?"

"The ponies ran sour," I said drying. "You know the tune."

"Yeah, well meet me off Rock Canyon Road at six, up by the dam. We'll talk more."

"I know the place. I'll be there."

I went to my filing cabinet, bottom drawer, and got my backup piece. Fucking Louie had my .44 Bulldog Magnum, my real firepower. I flipped the barrel down on the owlhead .32 and noted all five cylinders were loaded. I slipped the peashooter in the back of my waistband and stuck a handful of extra shell in my side coat pocket just in case. The .32 was a shitty piece, good only if you were going to cap somebody in spitting distance. But it beat nothing by a long shot.

My office was in the low rent part of town and I was always cautious coming and going. This day I was more cautious than most, peering out the front windows far as I could see in both directions. I was looking for Louie's Caddy, a big blue number. Big Rick would be at the wheel; besides being a primo blade man, he was the best wheel man in town. I saw nothing unusual and slipped out the front door into the afternoon glare.

The sun hung in blue haze back over the ocean like a festering boil. It was one of those July LA days when the air was still in all directions. The thermometer hovered around 98 and the humidity was close behind. You could take Bic Rick's razor and cut a chunk out of it.

I scoped the area casually before crawling under the wheel of my beat up Mustang. I didn't want anybody tailing me to my meet with Dill, else I'd be fish bait before morning. I figured to take the long way around and keep a close eye.

It was like a sauna inside the car. The air conditioning had quit a couple months before, but I didn't have the bread to fix it. I had to support the ponies, fuck cool air. I rolled down the windows and grimaced when the 5.0-liter engine kicked over. The car looked like a piece of shit but it would move when you kicked it. I kicked it away from the curb hard and hung a left, bolting off in a way certain to draw attention if anybody was tailing. A move like that might fool a rookie. Big Rick was no rookie, however.

I made about five miles of unnecessary turns trying to spot a tail. I pulled up in front of a liquor store on Studebaker and got out. I went in and got a bottle of Beam for later, then came back out. Everything looked cool to me, except the mean ass heat rising in the street. I turned north toward the canyon and was pleased to see that the only thing behind me, way back, was a bread truck.

Dill was waiting when I arrived, leaning against the front of his white Ford. He was smoking a cigar and I could tell he was squinting behind his Ray-bans. Most cops are pricks, but Dill was a little less of a prick than most. He was still a prick though.

"You're fuckin late," he said. I looked at my watch.

"What the fuck's ten minutes."

"Yeah, well, it can make a lot of difference sometimes," he said, but grinning a bit. "Like when you're screwing. By the way, you still seeing Margie?"

Margie was something I didn't want to talk about. I'd run out my string with her and it was finished. I stayed away from the club where she worked because I was afraid I would kill somebody.

"Screw that, I came here to talk about Louie," I said. "If you don't wanna talk, I'll walk."

"Calm down, man," he said, flipping his smoke butt. "OK. Lay it out for me."

I did, the whole nine yards. Grogan was supposedly bought and paid for, but he fucked them with Little Stevie Benza. Little Stevie was up on an attempted murder charge because a guy happened to get in the way of Little Stevie's 'Vette. In fact, the guy got under the wheels about four times according to doctors who tried to put him back together. Grogan was suppose to direct an acquittal during the trial, but he didn't. And so the jury found Stevie guilty and gave him 27 years. Little Stevie was married to Louie's daughter, so Louie was sorely pissed. He wanted Grogan wasted. That was it.

"We'll have to wire you," said Dill when I finished. "Then you'll have to get him to say this again."

That worried me. Louie was no fool and he'd had Rick pat me down good before, when he got my shooter. The fucker had been real thorough, even grabbing my nuts. "I don't know, man, they'd probably find it."

"I'll be close and I'll put a couple more guys on it, we'll cover your ass," said Dill. "What choice you got?" He had me there.
"OK, let's do it," I said. What the hell, my options were nonexistent. "I'll try to make a meet with Louie and get back to you."
"Do that," said Dill. "The sooner the better."
***
But I let it slide right up to the two days Louie gave me to make up my mind. I didn't want to look too anxious to waste a judge because Louie would smell that. I had to play it as safe as possible and that's what I tried to do.

I called Louie. I didn't have to pretend to be nervous. I was scared shitless.

"OK, I don't like it, but I'll do it," I said. "I ain't got much of a fucking choice."

Louie laughed. "I figured you were smart enough to stay alive," he said. "You do this and the debt is clear, capiche?"

"Yeah, but we need to get together and talk about this. I'll need a piece and. . . "

"I'll have Rick get a clean piece to you," he interrupted.

"Fuck that noise, Rick will try to waste me himself," I said quickly. "I trust you, Louie, man I'd rather deal with you." That bit of ass kissing seemed to work. Maybe Louie wasn't as smart as I gave him credit for.

"OK, screw it," he said. "Come by the Shady Lounge at nine this evening. We'll set it all up and you can pick up the shooter then."

"I'll be there," I said, hanging up. The next call was to Dill. Six-thirty o'clock at dam I'd get wired.

I was shaking like a dog shitting peach pits. I didn't like to be scared. It made me dangerous.
***

I had almost four hours to kill before meeting Dill. It dawned on me that it might be my last day on earth. What I wanna do if I knew it way my last sunrise? I asked myself. That was simple. I wanted to see Margie one last time.

That decided, I piled in the iron and headed for the Chez Sally Club. If I was lucky she'd be working the noon crowd still hanging from a long lunch. I was lucky. Maybe my luck would hold.

I found a stool off to the left of the stage and ordered a double Beam. She worked the pole just as I remembered all legs and tits and blonde hair. I looked at her trim spreading as one leg went high on the pole and the memory of how she tasted made my heart ache. I realized at that moment how much I still cared for her. She saw me then, her face twisted in what was supposed to be some erotic move. Her eyes widened briefly and a tiny smile played over her mouth.
Two drinks got me through her set and she left the stage. A few minutes later she came up, covered now in a blue gown, and slid onto the stool next to me. She put her hand on my arm

"Hi, Jake," she said. "It's good to see you." There was something in the soft look of her green eyes that told me she hadn't forgotten me.

"Yeah, it's good to see you too, kid," I said. "You're lookin' good as always."

Damn. She was 27 and I was 43. We had got on good for awhile, then I got the notion I was too old for her. And I fucked things up big time because of it.

"Kid," she repeated back to me, grinning. "Same old Jake. Thinks he's an old man when he's not."

"I guess it's all relative," I said, smiling in spite of myself.

Her face got serious then. She must have sensed something was up because she asked me, "So, why are you here now, after all these months of nothing? What's happening that brought you here to see me?"

"Maybe I just wanted to see an old flame."

"I don't buy that, you're too bullheaded to come because of that. Please, tell me . . .are you in some kind of trouble?"

What the hell, it might be the last time I ever laid eyes on her. It was time for the truth. So I laid it out for her, or as much as I could. When I finished she had the beginning of mist in the corners of her eyes.

"Oh baby, come home with me," she said. "Please." She took me by the arm. I followed. I would have even if I hadn't believed it might be my last day alive.

She was better than I remembered, much better. You know what they say--good pussy is wonderful and bad pussy is pretty damned good. Margie was somewhere way beyond good pussy. She had a way of slinging that left leg around high on your back and then digging the heel of her right foot into your ass. She could rock you to heaven like that.

At least I had one more trip there before possibly taking the elevator down. She rode me high and hard and she was, yeah, way better than I had remembered.

"And you believe you're too old for me?" she teased afterward, rubbing the hair on my belly. "You wore me out."

"Yeah, well I ain't consistent," I grinned. I reached over and shook a weed out of the pack on the nightstand, firing it with the gold Dunhill. She smiled when I did that.

"You kept the lighter I gave you," she said. "That must mean something."

I laughed. "Yeah, twelve hundred buck lighters don't grow on trees."

"It's more than the money," she said.

"Yeah, you're right about that. I can't deny it. Sentimental value and all."

She rubbed lower. My buddy Willie paid attention, it was hard not to.
***
I used her shower before I left. It was strictly in consideration for whoever would be taping something on my balls. And I also borrowed the little .22 Baretta I'd given her. It wasn't much but it might be concealed and I wasn't going to the meet without something on me, no way.

I thought about Scarface and the chain saw scene. I'd rather drop in a blaze of glory and maybe take a couple out with me. If it came to that, Louie would get the first one. I hadn't practiced lately but I could still throw a head shot offhand if I had to. And I might have to.

Dill was up at the dam when I arrived, this time in a black van. There was a guy named Roman in the back, a skinny dude who appeared a little on the gay side. I had no big problem with gays, but I didn't relish the thought of one dabbing around my balls with tape. But he may not have been gay because he insisted on taping the box and mike on my chest.

"Fuck no," I said. "Hell, I might as well tote it in my hand than do that. It's a sure way to get killed and I won't do it."

"Yeah," Dill agreed. "Seems a little reckless to me too. Go ahead and put it where he wants it."

I wound up with the transmitter behind my balls and the mike cord around and on my lower belly. I'd worn pouch briefs especially for the occasion. I pulled the .22 out of my back pocket. "This is going in the pouch," I said. Dill shook his head. "I'd have to recommend against it," he said, but not with too much conviction. "They find it, you're fucked."

"If they find it they find the wire and I'm fucked anyway. I got a plan."

"Well, you're right about that," he said. "But don't use it unless you have to, understand? We'll be right outside the building, front and back, in case something goes sour."

"That's comforting, but the pistol stays," I said.

"OK, just be cool."

"I'm always fucking cool," I said. I didn't feel too cool, though. The peach pit shit shakes were coming back. I had to get that under control in about an hour or I was history.

Against my better judgment, I took a big jolt of the Beam after I crawled back in the Mustang. It was so good I took a second. After the third one I capped the jug. It was calming me, but I needed a little edge. Not too much, just that quick jump afforded by a small case of nerves.

About five miles down from the dam I seemed to be getting to that place. I even managed a smile. I was going to fuck Louie, or he was going to fuck me. It was all so simple, just like everyday life. People screwed or got screwed.

Tomorrow we'd know who got fucked today. I hoped the screwing I had earlier was my last one for this Tuesday.
***
I pulled into a parking lot a block from the Shady Lounge at twenty minutes before nine. I didn't want to arrive early and appear anxious, so I sat for a few moments. The jug looked tempting and I picked it up and removed the cap. But I thought better of it and screwed the top back on. If I survived, I'd have a drink then. One right now might be one too many.

At about five till, I slipped out of the car and started down the sidewalk toward the joint. There was quite a bit of traffic and a lot of curbside parking, but I spotted the van pulled up on the curb directly across from the Shady. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Dill sitting behind the wheel. I knew there were others in it as well and no doubt somebody would be inside the joint.

I yanked one of the double doors open and stepped into the club. It was dark and the air visible in the faint light looked like one of those news scenes of the rain forest on fire. There were a dozen or so drinkers bellied up to the bar and an equal number scattered in the booths. None of them looked like cops in a brown wrapper, but that was good if they were.

Louie's office was at the end of a hallway in back, past the toilets. I went up and rapped on the door. After a few seconds it cracked open and Bones peered out. He turned and said, "It's him." I heard Louie tell him to let me in and he did, opening the door. I stepped in and Louie held up his right hand in a halt gesture from where he sat behind his desk. Big Rick was standing leaning on a cabinet to his right, looking mean as usual.

"Frisk him," Louie said. Rick grinned and started over. It was now or never for me, because the frisk he gave me before would find the gun and the wire. Then it would be razor time.

I raised my hands high and stepped to the sides, spreading my legs wide. I grinned as Rick approached.

"Hey, give my balls and cock a good one," I laughed. "I noticed how much you liked it the other day, must have picked that up in the slammer eh?" His face went red and he gritted his teeth.

"Fuck you man," he said. "That mouth's gonna be the end of you some day." But he merely rubbed under my arms and around my waist and stepped back, scowling.

"This chickenshit ain't got the balls to come in here packing," he said to Louie. Louie nodded and then reached into a drawer and removed a pistol. He lay the .22 revolver on the desktop.

"Here's a clean piece. Pitch it when you're done. You got two days to make it, or your ass is mine."

"No, boss, you promised me it was mine, remember," Rick grinned.

"Two fucking days?" I said. "Christ Louie, I can't set it up that fast, killing a fucking judge!" I wanted to get him to commit to that on the wire.

"Just do what you gotta do in two days," he said like he meant business. "Do it and you free and clear. Don't, and your friends will wonder what became of you."

"He ain't got no goddamn friends," Rick laughed. "Nobody wants a low ass gumshoe for a friend."

It was about that point that the problem began. I felt it before I heard it, felt a vibration in my crotch. I almost went into a panic but I managed to stay cool enough. But seconds later it was making an audible sound, a high pitched beep. Everybody started looking around.

"What the hell, somebody wearing a wrist alarm or a beeper?" asked Louie. Then, the noise got louder and they all looked at me. Louie understood what was happening first, because, his eyes bulging out of his head, he screamed, "The motherfucker is wired!"

That was it. As Rick broke from his spot by the filing cabinet, I spun to my left and made a dive forward, my hand going down the front of my pants. I got the handle and pulled the little shooter on the roll, coming up on my back with Rick closing in fast. He'd fished out the razor and it was about four feet from cutting my throat. I threw the pistol up and popped a cap, watching as a tiny red spot opened up between his upper lip and nose. I triggered again and saw his right eye disintegrate and his head snap back. He stopped in his tracks, sat down limply on his ass and fell to his right, dead before he hit the floor.

About the time I saw Rick die, I heard Louie's 9-mm fire. I was slammed halfway around to the left. Bones had come out with a snub-nose piece, but seems to have a problem because he was fumbling with the safety. I fired two rounds at Louie, missing but causing him to duck, then took Bones out with an aimed shot through the forehead. Louie came back up firing and that's when all hell broke loose. There was a loud crash and the door fell in. It sounded like a reenactment of World War Two suddenly as Dill and his boys came in shooting. Louie took at least a dozen rounds, dancing back to the wall and sliding in his brains down it.

"How bad you hit?" Dill asked, coming over. There was blood seeping through the front of my jacket. "Get an ambulance," he told one of the other cops.

"Hell I don't know, left shoulder is fucked up some," I said. "It's not hurting but it felt like a bat hit me. That fucking wire almost got me killed."

The little guy who had put it on me grinned, then looked at Dill. "It worked just fine, didn't it Sarg," he said. Dill grinned. "It damned sure did," said Dill. "Like a charm."

It hit me then what had happened. "You sons of bitches," I said. "You used me as bait to get these fuckers." Dill laughed.

"Jake, you just performed a hell of a public service. And you saved the taxpayers a big bundle of dough."

"Fuck the taxpayers," I said. "And fuck you too."
***
That was a month ago. I spent the night in the hospital for the flesh wound. A doctor said if it had been an inch higher it would have clipped an artery and I'd probably have bled to death before the meat wagon got there.

I had to leave town. I'm staying in a friend's cabin in the mountains now, but I can't stay here forever. I'll have to watch my step because Louie had friends. I'll be looking over my shoulder for a long time.

I thought about bringing Margie with me. She'd come, I know, but I decided that was no good. I'm too old for her and besides, she'd be in danger. If they whacked me, they'd whack her just for the hell of it.

So, I screwed Louie and Louie screwed me. Dill screwed us both.

But shit happens, as they say.


And they weren't lying.