Monday, July 5, 2021

Give or Take A Quarter Inch, fiction by Joseph Walker

            Ryan Vargas had been home for ten minutes when his phone buzzed with an incoming text.    Tina, no doubt, with an explanation of why she wasn’t there.    When a man gets home after three weeks on the road, he has a right to assume his wife will welcome him.    It’s nice to feel you’ve been missed.    Ryan took a deliberately long swig from the soda he’d opened before picking up the phone to see what her excuse was.

            The message was from Tina’s number, but it wasn’t text.    It was a picture of Ryan’s wife in a chair.    There was a strip of wide silver tape across her mouth and more wound around her arms and legs, holding her firmly in place.    Her hair was unkempt, and her wide eyes had a pleading expression as she stared into the camera.   

            Ryan put his drink down.    He was very aware of the sound of his pulse in his ears.    He brought his hand up to the phone, but new messages began scrolling up the screen before he could begin typing.

            3CY3YOUNG3.    WE’RE WATCHING YOU.

            3CY3YOUNG3” was the password for the security system installed just last year.    With the password and Tina’s cell phone, whoever this was had access to every camera in the house.    Ryan forced himself not to look at the one mounted over the fridge that covered the entire kitchen.

            TWENTY MINUTES.    GLEN OAK PARK.    LOWER DIAMOND.

            COME ALONE.    CALL NOBODY.

            Glen Oak Park was just a few blocks away.    Ryan had donated the funds for its professional-grade baseball fields, where he played host to Little League tournaments played under banners with his name.    He had money, plenty of money.    He could pay a ransom.    But the message didn’t say anything about a ransom, and twenty minutes wasn’t enough time to gather any cash.    He stared at the screen, uncertain, and after a few seconds, a new text appeared.

            YOU’RE NOT MOVING, RYAN.

            He moved.

#

            There were four baseball fields in different parts of the sprawling Glen Oak Park, all, thanks to Ryan, fully equipped with ample bleachers, real dugouts, and banks of lighting for night games.    At the bottom of the long, wooded slope on the park’s north end, the lower diamond was the most remote from the park entrance.    There’d be a game there almost any weekend day and many nights during the week, but now, on a crisp Tuesday morning a month into the new school year, only one other car was in the parking lot.    It was a dark blue Honda sedan, the rear end starting to go to rust.    Ryan got out of his SUV and started toward the field.    As he passed the sedan, he used his phone to snap a picture of the license plate.

            A row of tall pines divided the parking lot from the field.    He followed a paved path through the trees and came out behind the bleachers on the first-base side.    A man sat on the edge of the dugout roof across the field, swinging a bat idly back and forth in front of his legs as though practicing golf swings.    He was wearing track pants and a sleeveless black t-shirt, with a red baseball cap pushed far back on his head and a disheveled beard.    His arms were thick with muscle and densely covered with tattoos, a web of symbols and words Ryan found incomprehensible.    The man watched him coming across the diamond, his expression blank, the bat a metronome in front of him.

            Ryan stopped ten feet away.    “Where’s my wife?”

            She’s safe,” the man said.    Up close he looked a little older than Ryan had thought at first.    Close to his own age.    He held up a cell phone.    “She’s with a buddy of mine.    As long he gets the calls he’s expecting from me, and I say the things he’s expecting me to say, she’ll be fine.”

            I want to talk to her,” Ryan said.

            You know what they say about folks in hell and ice water.    What you want isn’t part of the game right now.”    The man’s voice was deep, with just a trace of some kind of accent.    Something southern, maybe, but barely there.

            Ryan crossed his arms.    Absurdly he wished he had a prop, like the bat the man was swinging.    Something to do with his hands.    “Then let’s talk about what you want.    How much?”

            We’ll get to what I want,” the man said.    He tilted his head back, inviting scrutiny of his face.    “You remember me?”

            Surprised, Ryan looked more closely.    “No.    Should I?”

            I’ll give you a hint.    My name’s Mickey Loch.”

            Ryan’s mouth went dry.    He’d never been through a kidnapping before, but he was dead sure kidnappers didn’t generally go around announcing their identity.    “Why would you tell me that?”

            Thought it might spark something.    I’d be surprised if you did remember, though.    It was nineteen years ago.    1997.    Your second Cy Young year.”

            That’s ancient history.    What does this have to do with my wife?”

            I told you we’ll get to it.”    Loch pointed into the dugout with the bat.    “You want to sit down?”

            No,” Ryan snapped.    “I want you to tell me whatever the hell it is you brought me here to tell me.”

            Man’s in a hurry, I guess,” Loch said.    “Okay, we’ll start the Wayback Machine.    It was about this time of year, a game in Oakland that didn’t mean a damn thing.    You boys had already locked up your division, and Oakland was just trying to avoid losing a hundred games.”    Loch hopped down from his perch, put the bat on his shoulder, and swiveled into a batting stance.    “Maybe you remember me better like this.”

            Ryan frowned.    “I don’t remember a Loch on the A’s.”

            I was only with them for one game,” Loch said.    “That game.    Phil Jacobs was on bereavement leave and Hector Ruiz was nursing a sprained thumb.    They just needed somebody who could stand in left field and look semiprofessional.”

            And I suppose I was pitching.”

            You were.    I don’t know why.    You should have been resting up for the playoffs.”

            I was trying to get to twenty-five wins.    I had a bonus clause.”    He hadn’t made it, but there was a big bonus for the Cy Young, plus playoff pay.    1997 was a good year.    A bought-my-parents-a-house year.

            Loch grunted.    “Shoulda guessed.    Anyway.    I came up to bat three times that day.    Three at bats, three strikeouts, nine pitches total.    My career in the majors.”

            Am I supposed to apologize?”

            Loch kept going as though Ryan hadn’t spoken.    “Next day, I was on my way back to Triple-A.    And the day after that, I was out on a run and landed in a pothole wrong.    Broke my left leg in three places, shredded my ACL.    X-ray looked like a damn jigsaw puzzle.”

            Tough break.    Are we getting to where my wife is anytime soon?”

            Faster than Ryan would have thought possible, Loch darted forward, grabbed him by the front of his shirt, and shoved backward, at the same time sweeping his leg sideways to cut Ryan’s feet out from under him.    Ryan’s back slammed into the ground.    Before he could move, Loch was standing over him, holding the fat end of the bat forcefully against his throat.

            I been waiting to tell you this story for nineteen years,” Loch said.    “You mind shutting up for a minute and letting me do it?”

            Unable to catch his breath, Ryan nodded.    Loch stepped back, lifting the bat.    Ryan, wheezing, rolled to his side and managed to sit up.    He didn’t try to stand.

            Team cut me, of course,” Loch said when Ryan was breathing more easily.    “First, though, they sent me to a doc who gave me pain meds.    They were handing that shit out like candy back then.    Cut forward six months and I’m unemployed, still limping, and hooked.    Couldn’t pay my dealer, so he told me I could work it off making some deliveries.”    Loch got into a batting stance again and took a couple of casual half-speed swings, staring out over the field.    “I fell in with disreputable characters, is how my lawyer said it.    Word of advice, Mr. Vargas.    If you ever commit a felony, don’t do it in Arizona.    The guards are mean as snakes, and they don’t believe wasting AC on criminals.”

            I’ll keep that in mind,” Ryan said.    It took him two breaths to say it.

            Now, Oregon, they got some nice jails,” Loch said.    “But I guess I’m digressing.”    He crouched down to look Ryan in the eye.    “Bottom line is, I want my fourth at bat.”

            Ryan looked from Loch to the pitcher’s mound.    “Here?    Now?    You’re kidding.”

            You saw the picture I sent,” Loch said.    “Seem like I’m kidding?”

            You kidnapped my wife so I’d, what?    Lob one over the plate so you can say you went yard against a Hall of Famer?    You’re insane.”

            Maybe.    But I don’t want any damn lob.    I want you to try to get me out.”    Loch straightened and walked toward the dugout.    “Doesn’t mean anything if you’re not trying.”

            It doesn’t mean anything either way,” Ryan said.    “For the love of God, man, I’m forty-five years old.    I haven’t thrown a pitch in ten years.”

            That ain’t exactly true.”    Loch stepped down into the dugout.    He bent over and came up with a duffel bag and tossed it up onto the grass.    “I was at that old-timers’ game in Cooperstown back in July.    You threw two scoreless innings, and you can still break 90 when you put your mind to it.”

            Come on.    That was against a bunch of other relics.”

            Think I look like a spring chicken?”    Loch bent again for a three-gallon bucket filled with baseballs.    “So we’ve both lost a few steps.    Just makes it a fair contest.    I was in Indianapolis a couple of nights ago, too, where you did that appearance at a minor league game.    Watched you working with the pitchers.    I’d say you’ve still got something.”

            I’m a scout,” Ryan said.    “That’s what they pay me to do now.    Just how long have you been following me around?”

            Long enough,” Loch said.    He came up out of the dugout with the bucket.    “On your feet, Vargas.    One at bat.    A real one.    After that, I make a phone call, and this is all over.”

            Ryan pushed himself to his feet.    “I’m not really dressed for this.”

            Loch nudged the duffel bag with his toe.    “Tina picked out a few things from your closet.”

            Ryan felt the anger he’d been holding down surge.    “Don’t say her name.”

            Whatever, chief.”    Loch bent over and unzipped the duffel.    He pulled out a batting helmet and put it on, tossing aside his cap.    “Get yourself ready.    I’ll wait out at the mound.”    He picked up the bucket and carried it out onto the field, along with the bat he’d been holding since Ryan arrived.

            Ryan knelt by the duffel bag.    He recognized it now, a relic from his playing days.    It had been sitting on a shelf in his closet for years, untouched.    Inside he found cleats and a cap, and some of his workout clothes.    His second-best glove was in the bottom of the bag.    His best glove was in a glass case in Cooperstown.    He pushed his left hand into the glove.

            There was a gun inside.

            The tiny .22 Tina bought last year, at the same time the security system was installed, after she saw a strange man lurking around the yard and got nervous about Ryan’s weeks-long scouting trips.    It occurred to Ryan to wonder if the strange man had been Loch.    Had he been planning this for more than a year?

            Ryan felt the cool metal of the small gun with the tips of his fingers, imagining the scene.    Loch getting into the house somehow, forcing Tina with a gun or a knife to get this bag together, telling her it was stuff Ryan would be using.    Tina somehow finding a way to slip the gun in.

            But what could he do with it?    Loch had said his buddy was expecting phone calls at specific times.    If Ryan shot him and he couldn’t call, what would happen to Tina?    Even if he just held Loch at gunpoint while he called, what code word would or wouldn’t be said?

            Let’s go, Vargas,” Loch yelled.    “Sooner this is over, sooner everybody gets to go home.”

            Coming,” Ryan said.    He tipped the glove so that the gun fell into the bottom of the bag.    As quickly as he could, he changed his shoes and traded his jeans and button-down shirt for a loose pair of shorts and a t-shirt.    He shoved the clothes he had been wearing into the bag on top of the gun.    Pulling a cap on, he picked up the bag and walked onto the field.

            Loch was standing just to the third-base side of the mound.    The bucket was between his feet, and the bat rested in the grass.    He was tossing a rosin bag from hand to hand.    As Ryan got close, he lobbed it to him.    Ryan dropped the duffel in the grass and caught it.

            Forty warm-up pitches sound fair?” Loch asked.

            It’s your carnival,” Ryan said.    “You tell me.”

            I want this real,” Loch said.    “No excuses.    I don’t want you thinking later that your arm was stiff, and I don’t want you hanging one over the plate in slo-mo.    I want the best you can give me.”

            Fine,” Ryan said.    “Forty’s fine.”

            Loch nodded.    “Go to it,” he said.    “I’ll feed you.”

            Ryan climbed the mound.    He kicked at the rubber, stretched his arms over his head, and bounced the rosin bag in his hand before dropping it to the back of the mound.    “You bat left or right?”

            Right,” Loch said.

            Ryan nodded.    Loch reached into the bucket and underhanded a ball to him.

            Ryan toed the rubber and fell automatically into the stance he’d learned from his father four decades ago and had refined by the best pitching coaches in the world.    Time slowed down.    He felt as he always did with the ball in his hand, at home.   

            He lifted his left leg, still able to bring the knee nearly to his chest, and swung it down as his arm came whipping around at three-quarter speed.    The ball split the plate in two but was chin level as it crossed.

            High and slow,” Loch said.    “You can do better than that.”

            Gotta wake the arm up,” Ryan said.    He held up the glove.    “Gimme another.    This would be a lot easier with a catcher.”

            I’ll try to arrange more accomplices next time.”    Loch lobbed the next ball.

            Twelve pitches in, Ryan could feel the blood stirring, the muscles growing loose and warm.    Twenty pitches in, he started to work on location.    For the twenty-fifth, he kicked into gear, unleashing a full-speed fastball that tore right down the pipe and, hitting the chain-link barrier between the plate and the stands, wedged itself into one of the squares and stuck there instead of bouncing back toward the infield.

            Loch whistled.    “That broke 90, sure,” he said.

            Gimme another,” Ryan said.

            Loch tossed it.    “Lemme ask you something, Vargas,” he said.    “You ever watch the Hartman at bat?”

            I’ve seen it a few times,” Ryan said.    It was the first clip they showed at his Hall of Fame ceremony, the clip they would show on SportsCenter when he died.    Game seven, bottom of the ninth, two-out, bases jammed and his team, the Tigers, clinging to a one-run lead.    Sal Rodgers brought Ryan out of the bullpen on two days rest to face Jace Hartman, who’d won the Triple Crown that year.    It was the only relief appearance Ryan made in his entire career.    His shoulder was on fire before he threw the first pitch, and fifty thousand rabid Pirates fans were howling for his blood.    It took eleven pitches, but he struck Hartman out.

            Thinking about it now, he threw the cutter Hartman had missed for strike three and held out his glove for another.

            Loch tossed it.    “That second pitch,” he said.    “The one Hartman fouled straight back.    You remember?”

            Ryan grunted.    He remembered.    The crack cutting right through the crowd noise, the momentary sense of an abyss of despair before he realized where the ball was heading.   

            He stepped off the rubber and stretched his arms, feeling the fine sheen of sweat he’d built up.

            I figure he missed that one by about a quarter inch,” Loch said.    “Bat’s a quarter inch higher, that’s maybe a grand slam.    No parade in Detroit, no third Cy Young.    One-fourth of one inch.    You ever think about that?”

            No,” Ryan lied.    He got back on the mound and threw.    The ball skipped off the dirt two feet in front of the plate.

            Yeah,” Loch said.    “I guess not.”

            Ryan held out his glove.    “Gimme another.    Shouldn’t you be warming up?”

            Spent most of the morning at a batting cage,” Loch said.    He tossed the ball.    “Two more pitches, and it’s go time, chief.”

            Ryan turned his back to the plate and looked out across the field, rubbing the ball between his palms.    The fence seemed a lot further off in the old days.    He turned back toward the plate and uncorked a beauty of a slider.

            One more pitch—a fastball he deliberately put high and inside—and Loch nodded.    “Okay,” he said.    “Batter up.    Just remember, Vargas.    You’re not going to like what happens if I think you’re teeing it up for me.”    He picked up the bat and walked toward the plate.    “And if you’re thinking about beaning me, remember I’m due to make a call soon.”   

            For the first time, watching Loch walk away, Ryan noticed the minuscule catch in his stride, the whisper of a limp favoring his left leg.    The ghost of one bad step, one moment of looking the wrong way.    Off by a quarter inch, maybe.

            He shook his head.    He wasn’t here to feel sorry for the man.

            Loch got to the plate.    He kicked aside the balls that had rebounded into the box, turned his shoulder toward Ryan, and screwed his back foot into the dirt.    His stance was compact.    Coiled.    Ryan felt a distant tickle of memory.    Maybe he did remember Mickey Loch.

            He peered over the top of the glove for a second, picturing Vic Kelly, his longtime catcher, holding out a target.    He dropped his hands to his waist, spun into his delivery, and gave Loch the best fastball he’d thrown in years, sizzling in just over the inside corner. Loch tensed as it came, lifted his left foot a fraction of an inch, but couldn’t pull the trigger.

            Strike one,” Ryan said.    Loch stepped out of the box, looked like he was going to argue for a second, then nodded.    Ryan got two more balls from the bucket, dropping one just behind the mound.    He felt good.    Loose.    The way he had always felt on the good days.    The ball was itching in his hand, begging to be thrown.

            Ryan had always been a fast worker.    Keeps the batter off balance.    The Vic Kelly in Ryan’s mind shifted slightly to the outside, dropped two fingers between his thighs.    Ryan nodded to nobody, went into his windup, and produced a curveball that broke three laws of physics on its way to the backstop.    This time Loch swung, but he didn’t come within a foot of the ball.    He stepped back from the plate, cursing.

            Ryan didn’t say strike two out loud.    He turned and picked up the third ball, and rubbed it up and got set.    If Loch had said anything about Tina at this moment, it would have taken Ryan a beat to remember what he was talking about.    He was entirely absorbed in the feeling he’d had all those thousands of times, the feeling he’d almost forgotten, the sense that he was ten feet tall and bulletproof.    He was gonna strike his man out.

            The phantom Kelly held down a single finger.    Back to the heat.    Ryan nodded again, dropped his hands, and sent the ball screaming in.

            He didn’t see Loch swing.    He didn’t have to.    The sound was enough, the solid, sharp concussion of wood meeting leather.    Ryan let the momentum of his delivery carry him around to face the outfield, already knowing what he would see: the ball hurtling toward the wall in center-right, a solid line drive, fast and straight.    The apparition outfielders weren’t even trying to catch it, just head it off.    The ball bounced once, hit the wall halfway up, and spun back onto the grass.

            In the silence, he heard Loch’s footsteps clearly.    The man came and stood beside him, and they looked out together at where the ball had landed.

            Double?” Loch said.

            Probably,” Ryan said.    He didn’t look at Loch.    “I don’t know how fast you were before you caught that pothole.”

            Fast enough,” Loch said.    He took off the batting helmet and dropped it and the bat in the grass.    He walked over to where he had tossed his hat,    picked it up, put it back on, and walked back to the mound.    Ryan was still staring out at the wall, his hands on his hips.

            Loch pulled a keycard from his pocket and held it out.    “Residence Inn,” he said.    “Room 327.”

            Ryan finally broke his gaze from the wall.    He looked at Loch and slowly took the card.    “327,” he said.    “What about your buddy waiting with her?”

            Isn’t one,” Loch said.    “Oddly enough, I don’t actually know anybody willing to commit a felony, so I could get my lifetime average to .250.”

            But she’s all right?”

            I imagine she’s pissed,” Loch said.    “Scared.    But yeah, otherwise fine.”    He crossed his arms.    “For what it’s worth, Vargas, I didn’t say anything to her about the woman in Indianapolis.    The one who shared your taste in bourbon.”

            Ryan clenched his jaw.    “You want me to thank you?    Or, what, not call the cops?”

            Loch shrugged.    “Doesn’t matter.    I’m already wanted in five states.    Car I came in was stolen this morning.    An hour from now, I’ll be in a different one and across a state line.”

            So that’s it,” Ryan said.    “This really is all you wanted.”

            It’s all I’ve wanted for nineteen years,” Loch said.    “Guess I’ll find something different to want now.”    He turned to face Ryan fully.    “I don’t suppose you’d shake my hand.”

            No.”

            All right.    Goodbye, Vargas.”    He turned away.    Instead of heading straight for the parking lot, he trudged out to center field, where he picked up the ball he had hit and stuck it in his pocket.    Ryan watched him every step of the way.    He might have been imagining it, but Loch’s limp seemed a little more pronounced as he turned toward the right-field line and eventually disappeared through the pines.


Joseph S. Walker teaches college literature in Indiana.  His short fiction has appeared in AlfredHitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly,  and a number of other magazines andanthologies.  He has been nominated forthe Edgar Award and the Derringer Award, and has won the Bill Crider Prize forShort Fiction and the Al Blanchard Award. Follow him on Twitter @JSWalkerAuthor and visit his website athttps://jsw47408.wixsite.com/website.

Monday, June 21, 2021

...signifying nothing, fiction by L. Jordan James

             The bus drove out of the Main Gate and made a series of lefts and rights until we merged into traffic on the highway. When the driver stepped on the gas and we roared forward, leaving Pawtuck behind, I let loose a pent-up sigh. I had a recurring nightmare of being pulled off the bus and thrown back into special housing, back into the dark.

            Pawtuck Penitentiary lay behind me in my rearview mirror, or so I thought until I reached the halfway house and saw many faces I recognized, the bars on the windows, and the rent-a-cops playing correction officers. I didn't want to look over my shoulder, afraid I might find the cell I lived in for the past year open and waiting for me. This halfway house felt like Pawtuck Penitentiary—A.K.A. the Devil's Oven — had followed me back into society.

                                                                        #

            I did what the system expected of me. I attended the court-mandated addiction courses and saw there were still many tense jaws and smoked cigarettes from other recent releasees. All present (all except me) filled coffee cup after coffee cup crammed to the halfway mark with sugar and milk, bursting with anything sweet that would tamp down on cravings. This was life for a jonesing, partially recovering addict who knew that heaven was a short cold February walk down the street. Let them find their version of paradise. I wasn't an addict. I attended, but I paid no attention. I damn near fell asleep, but I showed up, and that's what counts.

            I needed a job, though, or I'd wind up back at Pawtuck. That's the way it works. If I didn't get a job and demonstrate I could hold my own, back I'd go. I had been a cop until I went to prison. That line of work was out of the question now.

            After the Narcotics Anonymous meeting, I went to my room, sat on the edge of my bed. My bed, for the moment, would belong to someone else later on. I stared out of the window. In all of my time at Pawtuck, I never suffered from claustrophobia but looking out of the small window, past the bars, and to the brick wall beyond--my only sight--a deep, and negative emotional chatter started. The babble spoke to me about not needing much to tie the sheet around my neck, end everything and not think anymore. This thread of thought was a mistake. To stop the feelings, I avoided looking at the wall and peered around the dingy room. I thought of a line from Shakespeare. I changed it to suit my circumstances.

My life is a tale lived by an idiot

full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

            Yes, I am the idiot, and yes, the sound and fury were great. I went to sleep and dreamed nightmares.

                                                                        #

            One year ago...

            I arrived at work, coffee and bagel in hand; my boss and detectives waited for me at the door of the Evidence Room. They instructed me to turn to the wall. Faced with this situation, my mind and body could not come to terms with what was happening. I stared at the people around me. My boss took my breakfast from my hand. A detective placed his hand on my shoulder and moved me.

            I followed his motion and placed my hands against the cold brick because I didn't know what they wanted. Both my gun and badge were taken. I heard rustling. My boss opened my breakfast and began to eat. White matter populated the corner of his mouth as he chewed.

            "Mm, everything bagel with cream cheese," he said around the food in his mouth.

            I heard slurping. He drank my coffee. I didn't look his way because I knew he wanted to piss me off. "You wouldn't want this breakfast to go to waste, right?" he asked. He slurped again. I didn't say a word as one detective pulled one arm behind me and then the other.

            They walked me out of the precinct in handcuffs; cops poured out onto the street to watch. They placed me in the backseat of a patrol car. I observed two cops walk to my sedan.

            I had an old car. Nothing special. Nothing flashy. Rodriguez and Thompson, two patrolmen, used a slim jim to open it. They made a big deal of going through the backseat, the trunk, and then the driver's side seat. Rodriguez's back stiffened and he stood. In his hand was a red-bordered evidence bag. In the evidence bag was a kilo of tightly wrapped drugs. Some cops there clapped and laughed. Others hooted while they pointed their phones in my direction and back to Rodriguez holding the drugs, recording everything for the internet. I laid my head against the cool car door window. I didn't care what the drugs were. They weren't mine. I had never stolen anything from the evidence room. Never. Stolen. Anything.

            We pulled away, and not too long afterward, I arrived at the local jail.

                                                                        #

            When I stepped through the doors of the Devil's Oven, I thought I'd be safe. I hadn't been a street cop, arresting people or laying hands on criminals. I had worked in the Evidence Room, cataloging, tagging, and keeping track of all things legal and illegal that came my way. I was proud of my job. I did my job well. I wouldn't tell my business in prison, and I thought no one would know I used to be a cop. Hmphf...

            The next day I stood in line for breakfast at Pawtuck surrounded by other convicts in blue uniforms, the battleship gray walls, and battleship gray floors to match. The inmate working the serving line had thick glasses. I stared, wondering if he could see to the next state. I caught movement in their reflection. Someone ran toward me. I picked up the tray and met his oncoming fist with its hard plastic. A part of me wondered why someone would attack me. I didn't understand the nature of the beast, though, not at that moment.

            His fist hit the tray, and I heard a wail of pain. Hot oatmeal covered my hand. I didn't care. I approached him, convict versus convict. We locked eyes for a second. He understood. I hit him with the tray. He fell and I continued to hit over and over again. I didn't kill him, but I left him with scars he would have to explain for the rest of his life.

            I was taken to Special Housing, the politically correct term corrections uses for solitary confinement or the Hole.

            I sat on the hard bed, puzzled by what happened. As the hours ticked by, I understood that no matter what, if I understood or didn't, I had to be ready if I was scared or not. I began doing push-ups and sit-ups and anything else I could think of to get prepared.

            I didn't understand props; it's slang for respect; inmates get their props differently. One way is to knockout, stab, or, if you were a lifer who didn't expect to see freedom again, kill a cop. I was a target by default.

            Props could earn you entrance into a group while in prison. The group would provide protection, drugs, and a little bit of power. Perpetrating a violent act against an ex-cop would also give the inmate the enviable tag of someone who T.C.B.--takes care of business.

            I could have asked to remain in solitary, but I was mad. I didn't show it. I stayed outwardly calm, but inside I seethed. I boiled while I paced my dark, quiet cell. When they released me to my unit, I knew it wouldn't take long for someone to try me. It didn't.

            When they released me from solitary and back to the unit, I played basketball, and I had to admit that it felt good to get my heart rate up. My unit had an outside basketball section. Above the court was a dirty mesh grill sitting on bars reminding everyone of where they played.

            When I finished, I went to pick up my shirt when someone hit me. I saw my blood spray against the concrete wall of the court. I stumbled back. The world slowed and hazed over, but everything snapped back into focus. Two people came at me. The larger of the two swung with all of his might. If he connected, I would've woke up in the morgue. He didn't connect, though and his wild swing left him defenseless. I stepped to him and hit him as hard as I could in the nuts. Down he went.

            The second, smaller man came at me. I wanted to take my time, but I knew the officers would arrive at any minute. I moved to him and jabbed. He backed up. I jabbed, again and again, hitting my mark each time. He lost all fight and ran back into the unit.

            I turned back to guy number one. I wanted him the most. He was a big man. Most men are very primal. Masculinity 101: hurt the biggest man among them and the others will hesitate. I needed that man to send a signal to the rest of the unit.

            He rocked back and forth clutching his crotch. I walked past him and picked up my shirt. I went to him and wrapped my shirt around his neck, and dragged him from the basketball court to the unit. All movement inside stopped. Everyone watched. He fought, but he was on his back, and the shirt was long enough, so he couldn't touch me. I pulled him and kept him off balance.

            The officers stopped me when I arrived at the staircase leading to the upper tier. I wanted other inmates to think I was going to throw him over. I wasn't. When the officers ran to me, I complied. I didn't fight them. I didn't curse. I turned around and 'cuffed up.

            As they led me away, I had to admit to myself the fighting felt good. It was great not to be a leaf blown in any given direction the wind wanted. Other cops treated me like a leaf when they handcuffed me and took away my gun and badge. The justice system treated me like I was a leaf. No, I did not like being a leaf at all. I liked being an oak tree--something solid that stands the test of time.

            While I stayed in the Hole again, I exercised until bile rose and couldn't manage another push-up or sit-up. I cut a small thin strip of my bed sheet and used it the tie my mattress in a circle, like a sleeping bag. I put the mattress on my back and did squats. It wasn't very much weight, but it was better than nothing.

            That's how my life went. I'd go to a unit, get into a fight and find myself either in the hospital or the Hole. Fighting became my life. I welcomed it. I enjoyed it--on the surface. At night when sleep came, I paid the price.

            Then one day, it was over. A year into my bid, they called me into the office and told me that I would be released to a halfway house. I didn't understand, but neither did I question. I boarded the bus like a good little inmate and arrived at the halfway house as a parolee.

                                                                        #

            I debated about what to do next. There was the criminal route. I could get a gun and let loose on everyone who wronged me, but I'm not a murderer. I won't kill. I had scant outlines of a plan, but a key electronic piece was missing. I could order what I needed over the internet but who knows how long it would take to deliver. I also live in a halfway house with a bunch of crooks who were so good at their job they could surreptitiously steal the gold from your mouth while having a conversation with you. My nightmares sealed the deal, though. I took a bus downtown and accessed my bank account. Stores lined the block. I chose one and entered.

            Electronic devices lined the display cases; most I recognized, some I didn't. I had to choose something, though. I had to record a conversation with something small enough for everyone to overlook.

            Everything I wanted to accomplish--beyond the stereotypical clearing of my name, beyond punishing those who sent me into the Devil's Oven, I wanted to slit the throat of my dreams and watch the blood flow. Nothing would stop the knife from falling every night unless I grasped the hilt, pulled out the offending object, and used it on my nightmare. I had to fight in both the real and dream worlds.

            All of my hopes depended on people and their habits. Would those habits still apply? Did they still go there? I didn't know. After all, a year had passed.

            I walked around the block, trying to lose the tension running my body. I walked until I saw the bar I wanted to enter. I passed it, though uncertain about my next steps. Ralph's wasn't the typical cop bar like Lucille's over on the west side. Yes, cops were always present, but they didn't come to Ralph's to bust drug dealers or have a drink after work. Cops went to Ralph's to buy drugs—usually from other cops.

            I didn't believe it when an older, more experienced cop told me about Ralph's when I first joined the force. "Go hang out at Lucille's," Donovan said. "Avoid Ralph's. There's enough drugs at Ralph's to supply the whole city for a year." Donovan leaned to me and said in a quieter tone: "Don't get any ideas about taking it down, either. You're not Kojak. You work in the Evidence Room. And besides, it's protected."

            I nodded then just as I nodded in this time, my body acting on automatic as if agreeing and saying: Yes, it happened that way.

            Habits, I thought, still nodding. Would they still be there? I walked eying the place, hoping I would see someone familiar. I knew I had to make a decision. I reached down, grabbed my balls, and made a decision.

            I put my glasses on and walked into the bar. I noticed nothing changed. No music played. The quiet was broken by a small black and white T.V. droning on in the background. The ceiling was still the old-style tin, painted over on so many different occasions its original color lost to time. Two ceiling fans crusted with dust spun leisurely. A couple of tables and some booths sat directly across from the bar itself.

            Ralph's was big. The further back a person walked, the darker it became. The rest of the establishment stretched out into the dim recesses. What happens in the far reaches of the bar, in the pitch black, I could only imagine.

            Three people sat at the bar sipping their beers. I recognized them. I don't think they knew me. I had attended their retirement parties. They were former cops.

            Two or three years ago, I walked into this place out of curiosity. I ordered a beer, sat at a booth, and looked around. When I saw him walk in I knew the rumors were true. This operation was protected.

            In the short time I sat at the bar, I saw four more cops I recognized. They came in with baseball caps, sunglasses, and hoodies. They all walked past the bar and to the rear. All came back out seconds later, legs moving at an impatient, hurried clip.

            I finished my beer and left. At the time, my thoughts ran along the lines of I'm not Kojak. I work in the Evidence Room.

            Back in the now, I knew the person I searched for sat at the rear, out of sight--a master puppeteer no one ever suspected.

            His bodyguard--another plainclothes cop--stopped me and turned to Benson, his boss, to get the thumbs up or down.

            "Holy shit! As I live and breathe. Darren Wilkes. Hey, you lost weight. And you wear glasses now ."

            Muscle pushed me against the table. I bent over and grabbed the end of the sides a he ran his hands up my front and down my back looking for a weapon or a wire. He moved his hands down my legs and cupped my balls. In prison, this was nothing. Try squatting and coughing while naked.

            "He's clean."

            "Lift up his shirt!"

            Muscle pursed his lips reached around, and pulled up my shirt.

            "Pull down his pants!"

            Standing straight, I waved off his guy. I took off my jacket and handed it to Muscle. I took off my glasses, fully removed my shirt, and undid my pants, so they fell around my ankles. I did a slow turn. Some in the bar swiveled their heads our way but turned back to their drinks. Street Rules 101: If it doesn't concern you, don't look too hard and forget everything you did see.

            Benson and I held eye contact. I tilted my head as if to say: Satisfied?

            He nodded, and I began to dress. Muscle checked my jacket, he handed it back to me.

            "May I?" I asked. I pointed at the seat across from him.

            "You may."

            I sat there for several seconds, trying to decide how to approach the subject. Detective Benson got impatient. "What do you want?"

            Benson worked the same precinct as I and was as crooked as the Mississippi River. Nothing happened within the walls of the precinct he didn't know about or order. Benson was the man I saw on the previous occasion I sat in this bar. He had never talked to me, though. Never.

            "Why?" I asked

            "Why what?"

            "They sent me to the Devil's Oven!" My anger peeked out from behind my calm fa├žade. I swallowed hard and pushed it back down.

            "I know. I know." He smoked a cigarette below a "No Smoking" sign. "Darren, I'm a good judge of character. I knew you'd never do the things I needed you to do. I never had any problems from anyone else but you... I knew you'd be a problem. Would you have taken a bribe?"

            I bowed my head. "No."

            "Like I said, I'm a good judge of character. I needed you out of the Evidence Room."

            My stomach roiled. I wanted to fight.

            "Why was I released early?"

            "I'm not privy to that information, but I guess your urinalysis came up negative. They probably didn't find any Monopoly money in your bank account or flashy clothes. You didn't drive an expensive car. If anything, they saw the theft increase after you left. These facts probably left the D.A.'s office in a bind. They talked to some people and pulled some strings."

            "They didn't want you exonerated, nor did they want to charge any more cops with drug theft. That would've been a political shitstorm. I mean, how many D.A.'s put a cop in prison for something he didn't do?"

            I wanted to hit the piece of shit in front of me. But he was a cop. A dirty and crooked cop but a cop, nonetheless. I was an ex-con.

            "You put me in prison. You almost got me killed."

            "Okay, that's enough," Muscle said. He pulled out a snub nose and let it hang at his side. He faced me, but his eyes darted around the bar. I knew what thoughts flowed through his mind: Who will see if I put one in his brainpan?

            "I know what happened to you was wrong, but what's right in this world?" Benson said. He smiled a reptilian smile—a smile that didn't touch his eyes.

            I moved out of the booth to the exit. The bartender held his sawed-off shotgun; the barrel pointed to the ceiling. Other patrons pulled out their handguns, ready to use them. They all smiled like they shared the joke Benson told.

            As I walked out of the bar, I heard him laugh. I didn't know what he laughed about, but I guessed it was about me. I hadn't laughed in a year. My girlfriend left me. My mother died while I rotted behind bars -- denied permission to attend her funeral because they said I was too violent.

            I caught the bus back uptown to the halfway house. I sat down at my desk with an envelope and scribbled the New York Times address on the front. I took off my glasses and saw they were still on. I turned them off and folded them. In the folded position, the memory card was exposed.

            Donovan's voice chided me, stopping me. You're not Kojak. You work in the Evidence Room.

            You're right, I countered. I'm not Kojak. But I don't I work in the Evidence Room anymore nor am I a cop.

            I placed the memory card in the envelope, sealed it, walked over to the mail chute in the hallway, and threw it in.

            Every night I pay the price of living by dreaming nightmares. My dreams had gained weight and heft, a ball and chain pulling me down into a whirlpool I couldn't escape. Maybe, tonight the ball and chain wouldn't pull me in as deep, and I would sleep in peace.

            I walked outside into the February cold, pulling my jacket tighter, hunching over against the wind, passing the drug dealers and prostitutes peddling their fake version of momentary paradise.

            I went into McDonald's. The manager worked the cash register.

            "I need a job," I said.

            "Gotcha," she replied.

            She smiled and looked my way more than a heartbeat too long.

            I smiled back. I knew if she were free, I would be a potential suitor. But unbidden thoughts came to me of how long I could've stayed in prison, of all of the other ways my life could have ended, but I landed here--safe. And with a pretty woman looking my way. My smile gained momentum and became a chuckle.

            And damn, it felt good.

                               

L. Jordan James has held several jobs, but none gives him as much enjoyment as writing.  He is a veteran and has worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He grew up kicking around Brooklyn. Now he kicks around New Jersey.