Harbinger

I was staring at the lion fish gulping air amongst the shards of broken glass and coral scattered over the shag carpet. Smaller candy-colored fish twitched their last between bits of kitschy aquarium decor—a plastic treasure chest, a skull, a figurine sporting an old atmospheric diving suit—that had a moment ago decorated the sandy bottom of  Keno’s 100-gallon pride and joy.

“Hoe-lee, shit.” Gerald ejected the magazine from his pistol and slapped in a fresh load.

“No,” I pumped another round into my Remington. “Just another piece of Ninth Circle shit.” A thin whisp of smoke coiled around the muzzle of my Remington as I turned to face him. “I don’t suppose you actually hit it? ‘Cause you sure as shit got everything else.”

Gerald puffed his cheeks and shrugged. “Fast little fucker, I’ll give ’em that.” He smiled weakly and went to examine the destroyed fish tank. He stepped gingerly,careful to avoid the glistening sea life slowly suffocating under the weight of their collapsed gills.

I walked back over to Keno.Had it not been for the softball-sized crater in his chest, he would have simply looked like a guy who had fallen asleep in front of the t.v. after a few beers. His tattooed arms, a writhing collage of snakes and skulls and cryptic phrases done up in old school chicano—Hierba mala nunca muere and muerte sin testigos—hung limply over the arms of the recliner. His chin rested on his chest, an unlit cigarette stuck to his bottom lip. In his lap a catalogue for exotic pets was opened to a page on pythons and boa constrictors.

I crouched next to the Lazyboy, laying the shotgun across my lap, and peeled the blood-soaked catalogue from his chinos. I did a quick pat-down and checked for a pulse. Nothing.

You could never be too sure with these harbingers. Sometimes they sold parts of themselves to their familiars for a little mojo. Apparently Keno hadn’t gotten around to that yet, because he was dead as a fucking door nail. “Should’ve stuck to temporal trafficking, my friend.” I turned his hand over. No stigmata. Ran my hand over his arm and his leg, squeezing as I went along. To the outside observer it might have looked like necrophilia foreplay, but I was checking for bogginess, a sign of imminent reanimation. Keno, however, was as plump as a Thanksgiving turkey. “Good boy.” I patted his leg and got up.

“Gerald, start searching the back rooms. I’ll take the kitchen.”

“Looka this fuckin’ thing.” Gerald extracted his hand from the tank and held up between thumb and forefinger a spiny sea cucumber. “Looks like some shit out of a hentai strip.”

I shook my head and pumped a fresh round into my 870. “Stop fucking around. We ain’t got all day.” I squished past him and started toward the kitchen.

Gerald was my best friend, but he was also a complete idiot. He scraped against my better intentions like a rusty box grater, but he had the second sight, which made him indispensable. Even if he was a lousy shot.

Passing through a short hallway lined with old, shit-encrusted cages, many of them home to small lumps of feathered and furred decay, I entered the kitchen. Smaller fish tanks containing red-eared sliders, salamanders, and various other forms of amphibian life lined the counter tops. More cages, seemingly empty, were piled up next to and on top of the fridge. I fished my thermal imaging monocle from my breast pocket and clipped it to the receiver of the Remington. Raising the gun to my shoulder, I panned the kitchen.

The heat signatures of the fish tanks showed blobs of dull yellow. I swung the Remington toward the cages, all of which glowed the cold, deep blue of inanimate space. I began going through the drawers and cabinets one by one, keeping the shotgun tucked in tight to my shoulder. Most of the windows in Keno’s place were either closed or boarded-up, and the confined air felt thick and rotten. Although distracting, it actually worked to my advantage since any sudden drops in temperature would tell me I was close before the TID picked up the white signature of perdition.

The kitchen was empty, though, the cabinets and drawers completely devoid of anything edible, and the fridge was empty, all of which set my nerves on edge. Harbingers were still human and had to eat.

I could hear Gerald rummaging and cursing down the hall. He didn’t need a TID for this part of the job, relying instead on a set of somatic protocols that were way beyond the primeval capacities of my parietal lobe. He sensed things, to be sure, but they were things that hid beneath the brambles of perceived reality, slipping between material space with a viscosity that defied the friction of the physical world. It was both a blessing and curse to have the second sight, and it was endowed only to those few whose moment of demise had collided with a converging moment of absolution and damnation. In Gerald’s case, that meant catching a bullet in the back of the head from a harbinger at the same moment a priest, whom he was about to murder, deposited the hostia on Gerald’s tongue and completed the liturgy. Sacrament and sacrifice. Gerald went to get saved that day and instead ended up in the morgue, where he woke up later that evening with a pounding headache and a new lease on life. Seems things worked out after all.

Oh, and the priest? That’s the mother fucker I’m looking for now. He’s just a little less priest-y at present.

I turned back toward the hallway to check on Gerald. “Gerald, how you . . .”

Oh fuck.

Keno was gone.

I guess that explained the empty kitchen. I brought the Remington up and began doing a slow, steady scan of the room with the TID. I was just about to move toward the back rooms to find Gerald when I felt the first wave of frigid air slither over my boots and coil around my ankles. “Gerald?” Nothing. “Gerald, you better fucking sound off!” I heard a dull thump and scraping, followed by a wet snap. The air was now coming in thick gouts, rolling over me in waves and setting my teeth to chattering. My breath condensed in the-half-light of the hallway, giving it a poisoned aspect. We called this the demon lung. I was very close.

I moved slowly toward the room at the end of the hall, where the door was ajar, the temperature steadily dropping as I crept along. The scraping continued at steady intervals and another wet pop sent a jolt through my fingertips and down into the pit of my stomach where it seethed like a hot piece of iron plunged into slack tub.

“Gerald.” The word tumbled out of my mouth like a broken tooth. I already knew there would be no answer.

I reached the door and was about to nudge it open with the muzzle of the shotgun when I saw the pair of size ten Chuck Taylors recede deeper into the room. In that moment the slab of smoldering fear in my gut hardened into anger and I smashed my boot into the door, which twisted off the top hinge and wedged itself into the adjoining wall. I stepped into the room, gun raised, just in time to see the soles of Gerald’s sneaker disappear past the forked tongue of an enormous serpent, its great tangled body filling the room. A pair of hot white gashes superimposed over the great Stygian coils so that they seemed to float in a sea of blue. Even in the cold, dim light of the airless space, I could make out the stretched lettering that flexed and roiled along the scaly body. Hierba mala nunca muere.  

 

The Eighth Gunsmoke Basket (in progress)

I was going to kill that piano player. I had been staring at him all night over the tops of my cards, tracking his long, thin fingers as they crawled back and forth over the ivories. Watching how fast they worked. But the rest of him? Why, he was nothing more than an old moss-back, frail and wasted looking, the tattered extremity of all those yarns that had preceded him. Bodie. Abilene. San Antonio. El Reno. Sacramento. God damn Weston, Missouri. Where, as the tale goes, he faced down half the James-Younger gang with nothing but a parlour gun and a hatchet after a .36 caliber slug bored through one of his lungs and took up permanent residence deep within his chest.

As the tale goes.

He should have died that day. And on all the the other days. Like that morning in Bodie when Ham Collins, in a less-than-sober effort to collect a sizable bounty, kicked in the door of the room where the piano player had been lodging and began firing wildly. His last bullet chewed its way in the pianist’s liver after smashing through the wall behind which the he had taken cover when Collins made his clumsy entrance. As the drunken gunfighter made to reload, his prize cashed him out with a .50 caliber slug to the chest. And for good measure one to the head. The innkeeper had to pry Collins’ teeth out of the floorboards with a penknife.

As the tale goes.

He should have died a long time ago. And yet here he was drubbing the hell out of Stephen-god-damned-Douglas in the middle of Delamar. “I don’t ask questions,” the bartender responded when I asked him about the one-and-only. Was real squirrely about it, too. “Quiet feller. Don’t talk to nobody. But he keeps the place lively and he’s free.”

“What do you mean ‘he’s free?'”

“Won’t take no pay. Refused it flat out. Just said he wanted to play until his time came.” That’s when I knew. The dead don’t take pay for services rendered. They just serve.

The bartender was smartly dressed as bartenders go, but he had a rancid look about him, something that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Like a piece of meat just gone bad. The brain registers that it smells and looks okay, but your gut, in response to some secret foretaste of private corruption, recoils. “Anyway, I ain’t complaining none. And neither should you, son.” He poured my shot and left the bottle, a clear sign that he was done talking. Once I was done with the piano player, I meant to fix that bartender. I’d be doing him a favor.

Some folks had it in their heads that the gun-slinging piano player had been elected to do the Lord’s dirty work. That he saw to it that when the laws of man failed, as they so often did, that the laws of heaven would supersede. As the tale goes, he cut a crooked sheriff in half with a double load of buckshot in San Antonio, then sent three of his deputies on a Texas cakewalk. But not before he made each of them empty the loads from their shooting irons and swallow each round. Payback for the one he took in the gut by the sheriff after he interrupted his public pistol-whipping of a boy, not more than ten or eleven, for stealing. At least he gave the deputies whiskey so they could do the job right. Strung ’em up by their gun belts. Singlehandedly.

As the tale goes.

“And almost all things are by the law purged with blood,” the good book tells us, “and without shedding of blood is no remission.” A rather profane form of divine justice, if you ask me. And if the tales are to be believed, I don’t reckon it a blasphemy to say that sometimes the mysterious ways of the Almighty lack moral imagination. A man who doesn’t pay his debts is a thief, but a god who doesn’t undertake his own collections is a coward.

So some of us are left to do the dirty work of providence run amuck. And there’s a lot of dirty work that needs doing.

After Tombstone he disappeared for nearly ten years before turning up one night at a watering hole down in Coloma. Walked right in, ordered a bottle of bourbon, and tucked himself into the old parlour organ and began playing. Didn’t stop for two days. Didn’t touch the bottle of bourbon. When the bartender’s eggs finally dropped and he asked the drifter to give the keys a little rest on account of the girls upstairs, the man, still clad in his duster and spurs, looked up and smiled. A ragged furrow of scar tissue over the left eye which receded over the temple and tapered off just above the ear caught the light, and the bartender stumbled backward as if momentarily blinded. He fled his own establishment and never looked back. Packed up his family and his belongings the next day and hitched his team for some unspoken destination, all the while muttering something about the “eighth conferment.”

It was Johnny Ringo who sealed it. The eighth gunsmoke basket. Eight lead pills, each administered by a malicious hand to a separate vital organ where they nested and festered, necrotizing the soul as it nourished the body with spite. The Lord’s work, the Devil’s work . . . it’s all the same. The powers-that-be exist in service to the actions of those who serve. The power to do good or evil is simply a product of intent. Shoot a man because you hate him, and you get a pitchfork shoved up your ass. Shoot a man in retribution for a sin, and you get a pair of wings. Not so far removed from the man-made laws that see vicious murders kill with impunity without punishment and God-fearing men hanged for their incorruptibility. Ain’t no magic in that. God, the Devil . . . hell, they’re just scavengers feeding off the

It was Ringo’s bullet, its deadly trajectory bent just far enough so that it grazed the piano player’s las the final act of blood-borne sacrament imparted by the hands of evil men, the one that annuls a man’s claim to the afterlife and binds him to the earth, arms him with hell-defying animus, and binds his fate to whatever supernatural perogative had decreed that he must live so that others may die. Ringo made him untouchable. A lone rider on a very dark prairie.

The day after the piano player left Tombstone, a rancher found Ringo’s body under an old oak tree in West Turkey Creek. He was propped up against the trunk as if he had fallen asleep. The body was still warm when the rancher arrived, and just before he knelt to examine the wound on Ringo’s temple he saw a lone rider in the distance heading west and canting heavily across the withers of a Colorado Ranger he had seen in town the night before. He knew who the rider was for he had witnessed him leave the Crystal Palace Saloon after Ringo had challenged him to a dual. Said that each of them was one pull away from the eighth but that there could only be one. Ringo was an educated man, but not smart enough to know that the eighth could only be given, not taken. We are simply the means, not the ends. Props in a celestial bag of tricks.

Yes, I was going to kill that piano player. Test his magical sleight of hand. I wanted to be the hard hand to send his molocher flying and sign the legend over to a pine box, the one to tunnel a dusty hole right through that reedy chest of his just to see if he had all those stories still locked away deep inside of him. I wanted to snap his thin, withered neck like an old broody hen.

“Carson, you gonna sit there all day fanning that ugly face of yours, or you gonna throw in?” Amos shifted his cigarillo and leaned over the table. “I know what you’re thinkin’, boy,” he whispered, “and you don’t want to go there. Ain’t nobody seen that train of thought to its destination and lived to tell about it. Best you just focus on losing.”

Perkins spread his gums into a tobacco-stained smirk, the whiskey on his breath thick and sour. “At least show your hand before you run off to get killed.”

I returned his smile and laid my cards down very slowly. The other men at the table leaned forward to examine my hand.

Perkins’ expression curdled. “The hell is this?! This some kind of a joke, Carson?”

I gathered the cards and laid them out into a five-spread formation so that they formed a cross. The other men at the table blanched. “Yes, Perkins. A very sick joke. But before I kill you and every god-forsaken fiend in this hell hole, I’m going to read you your rites.”

Perkins leaned back in his hair and smiled wickedly, his formerly whiskey-shot eyes now glazed Crimson and his rotted teeth now filed to tiny serrated daggers. A low, rumbling snarl, like coals being fed into locomotive’s firebox, roiled deep within his chest.

The sound was followed by the winding clockwork of a hammer drawing back a drawing time on a target.

“Move and I’ll blow your nether parts back to Abaddon.” I shift my stare to the other men at the table. They regard me warily, but their baleful stares, each tinged in the varying shades of their subservient ranks—yellow, violet, green—clearly communicate their murderous desires. I nod in their direction, “And in case any of you boys get into those worm-eaten heads of yours to pull your irons, you should know I’ve brought some friends.”

I folded back the left lapel of my duster to show them what they already suspected was there. The Ring of Bullets. Seven in all strung together on a rope of silver threads. I had come to collect the eighth and final piece. “And if I don’t get what I came for,” I pulled the lapel further, “we’re all going back to hell.”

Which would have suited me just fine. The twenty sticks of dynamite wrapped around my torso made it hard to enjoy what would probably be my last drink, and the blasting caps had been digging into chest all night. “Special order just for you, Perkins.”

The phlegmatic rumbling in Perkins chest that passed for a laugh in other places would have drained the blood from my face had I never heard it before. Like a grizzly trying to digest a bucket of pitch. But I just smiled back.

“Boy,” he leaned in closer, the heat coming off of him was like standing broadside to a furnace, “my soul swims in fire. The only thing you’re little sulfur and brimstone matchsticks are gonna do is waste a lot of good whiskey.”

I leaned in so that we were eye-to-eye, my smile stretching wider. “Boy, I whispered, “you think I didn’t pack my tinderbox with silver nitrate and a shitload of garlic and wild roses?”

Neptune Is Dead

Neptune is Dead

It had been three days. That’s around 250, 000 seconds, close to a quarter million victories, and with each tiny conquest I felt myself moving closer toward defeat. At the splintered edge of that third day I was beginning to feel desperate, tight-chested and gutless, waiting for the arrival of the nameless dread that had been scratching at my windows and snuffling at the door frame. I distracted myself by wandering aimlessly from one meaningless task to another. I resolved to just stay busy, pecking away at the piles of unfinished work that crowded my writing desk, committing to chores that didn’t need doing because they had already been done. I cooked enough food to feed twenty people, chopping and boiling and mixing with a fractured focus that only seemed to compound my agitation. I ironed, I vacuumed, I did laundry. It was when I started dusting my vertical blinds that I started to worry.

And then the phone rang. “By the Seaside” sauntered across the Harold Arlen standard I had playing in the background. It was crawling up on midnight, which would make it nearly 3:00 his time. Not good. Nothing positive ever comes out of a 3:00 a.m. conversation.

But, so desperate was my need for distraction, that before I was able to take a moment to think about whethI tapped the green button.

“Hey, dad.”

A wheezy sigh. Yeah, it was going to be one of those conversations full of auditory traffic jams and delayed responses. By now those neurons would be too banged up to coordinate the 70 or so muscles it takes to form a single word. And a 3:00 a.m. call meant many words. This was not going to be pleasant.

“Hiya, son.”

I took a deep breath and tried to sound casual.

“What’s going on?”

I could see him sitting at that old kitchen table, a hulking mass of knotty pine that he had picked up at a yard sale, rough and unevenly planed. Years ago after he retired, he had hammered his Budweiser into the table, told me half-jokingly that he wanted to build his own his coffin out of the table. His callused fingertips had worn the insignia smooth, years of tracing the contours of the eagle and the trident, years if remembering that which could not be forgotten. He would be perched like an old, sick vulture in a straight-back chair, peering over that beak-like nose of his at the dirty floor that he had told himself every morning he would sweep by day’s end. That floor hadn’t been swept in five years.

“Got some good news today from the folks down at the VA hospital.” Another pause for a dose of the old medicine to taxi along the gizzard. “They’re gonna take me off the blood thinners tomorrow. Won’t have to give myself shots in the stomach anymore.”

My turn to pause while I weighed the consequences of reminding him that he had read off of that cue card nearly a dozen times over the past month. This was the part I hated. But, as always, I stuck to the script.

“That’s great.” I couldn’t even manage an inflection. It was the best I could do.

“Yeah.” Neither could he. We had drowned pretenses a long time ago, were now just tiredly rowing back and forth across a scummy basin that continuously contracted and yet grew deeper. The act didn’t have to be convincing at this point. It just needed to be done until there was no room left to row. I figured he would let me know when that time had arrived. “Figure I can finally get some work done on this old place.” The metaphorical possibilities of that sentence nearly threw me into a fit of caustic laughter. “Maybe do some sight seein’.”

My eyes followed my hand as it ascended toward the cabinet above the stove, brought it down just as my fingertips made contact with the cold, brass handle. I wasn’t sure if I was up to rowing tonight.

“Hey, ’member that old mining pit we found lass year?”

“The one out by Lovelock. Yeah, I remember.”

He didn’t say anything for a few moments. I almost thought we had lost the connection until he continued.

“Yeah. That was som’thin else.” I looked at the cabinet defiantly. Fuck you. “Was thinking that I’d drive out there tomorrow. Poke around a bit.”

I felt something uncoil in my chest. Something warm and spiny. The clock on the stove read 11:11. And suddenly there were tears in my eyes.

I slumped forward and let the oars slide slowly from my hands. “Dad, you know I love you, right?” Folded up on the wooden sternsheet he gazed into the brackish water that clung to the hull, his hands folded in his lap, one bony leg draped over the other. He was wearing that wry smile of his, the one that he only shared with me. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, his brittle chest barely filling the loose flannel shirt draped over his emaciated frame, and his smile broadened. “You won’t be needing that anymore.” He nodded to the sheaf of paper in my hand.

When he opened his eyes they were sparkling blue. Those same eyes that assured me everything would be alright as the doctor set my arm after my biking accident when I was seven. Those same eyes that told me how proud he was when I made the JV football squad. Those same eyes that apologized when he explained why he had to leave me and my mother. That shed tears during my wedding. That gazed into the eyes of his first grandson. That stared into my mother’s eyes as she took her last ventilated breath. That assured me everything would be okay after the accident that would leave me without wife and without child. The depths those bright blue eyes had plumbed, the fathoms they had traversed . . .

“Dad?”

“Yeah. That was som’thin else.”

My hand was moving up toward the cabinet now with purpose. Not now. Not like this. It was too soon. I wasn’t ready. Wasn’t ready!

I had the bottle in my hand.

“Son.” The word was gentle but strong. A firm hand on the shoulder, a warm embrace.

“Dad . . .”

“Son. I need you to do something for me.” His voice was clear now, resonate with a hardened conviction that could only last but a few moments. I was momentarily stunned into silence, my grip on the bottle so tight I thought I would snap the neck right off.

“I need to take a rest. Get my strength back. Yup, figure that ‘ole mining pit would be good to see again. Lots of history there. Nice an’ quiet.”

“Dad, please . . .”

“Son,” his voice wavered. “Son, I need you to dive deep. Deeper than you’ve ever gone. You’ll find it. You will. But don’t drown yourself like I done. Breath, son. Just breath.” And just like that he slipped over the side and was gone.

“Dirty Martini: A Hitman’s Monologue”

Dirty Martini: A Hitman’s Monologue

Some people just can’t keep their mouths shut. I mean, it’s more annoying than anything else, am I right? But it can also get people into a lot of trouble. Bring a lot of unwanted attention. Collateral damage and all that. Ruin lives. Break up families. Know what I mean?

Look, I’m a career man, so I take my job very seriously. If I didn’t, it might be me out there hanging by my nuts off the 59th Street Bridge or taking a trip down to DSNY-land in a fuckin’ Hefty bag. No way. We’re in this together, understand? So I’m here to help you, and you’re here to help me. A partnership. A mutual understanding. A pact, if you will, to ensure that trouble isn’t allowed a seat at the table. Capisce

I’m sure you can understand my position; this assignment came straight from The Commission. From the very top, as in the Capo di tutti capi himself, so you should consider your presence here a huge fuckin’ honor. Really.

So. We’re gonna take our time here. Get to know each other. Have a few laughs. Hey, maybe we’ll even becomes friends at the end of all this? Sound good? Okay.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel that it’s only right that you know a few things about how I work.

First, I’m very thorough. I hold myself to a high standard because that’s just who I am. But more importantly, others expect a certain level of quality from me. High expectations, reputations on the line, yada, yada, yada. You understand, right? People are relying on me.

Lots of guys could go this job, but they can’t do the work, and even for the guys who can do the work, a very precious few possess the . . .  what would you call it? Creativity. Vision. Experience. Don’t get me wrong, what I do isn’t complicated. This isn’t fuckin’ calculus or rocket science.  But it does require a certain awareness. A certain finesse. A certain restraint. Soft skills for a very hard profession. You follow me? 

Second, I’m very particular. If Frank Diamanti says, “Take so-and-so for a swim,” I want to know where and what kind of swimming lesson it’s going to be. Swan dive, breast stroke, freestyle? That’s like going to Bamonte’s and ordering pasta. What the fuck is that? Now, you say, “I’ll have the cannolichi with castelvetrano olives, but please go light on the fucking tomato confit because I have acid reflux problems,” and then we’re in business. Capisce? But, to be fair, my employers, God bless every one of ’em, aren’t chefs. They’re patrons—my patrons—-and they require, and expect, a certain level of service. They come to me, because they know this sort of service isn’t available anywhere else. So they tell me what they want in very basic terms and I make suggestions. Sometimes they leave it to my discretion.

Other times, as in our case, they say, “Surprise us.”

Not many guys get that kind of . . .  “artistic license,” if you know what I mean, and virtually nobody gets to put conditions on the contracts they work, especially when they come down from the top.

But then again, I’m not many guys.

I do message jobs and that’s all I do. Now, you might be thinking, “Aren’t all contracts message jobs?” Yeah, in a manner of speaking. Every job sends a message, but not every message conveys meaning beyond the job itself, beyond the actions that characterize that job. Understand? Let me explain.

Say for example that you want to burn some fuckin’ jamook because he stuck his dick in the skimming operation. Okay. But you and I both know that he ain’t the first guy with the notion. He’s just the guy who was careless enough to get caught. The operative word here is “careless” because everyone in this business, despite whatever they say about loyalty and trust and all that bullshit, is a fuckin’ conman. You ask me, that’s just human nature. Hubris. Greed. Falsehood. Innate fuckin’ depravity, my friend.

What? Don’t you sit there and shake your head like you have a choice in the matter. Like you’re somehow special. Because you ain’t. None of us are.

“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Timothy 6:9. What, you look surprised. Hey, I went to fucking Catholic school just like you. I still got the numbers from Sister Katherine’s yardstick tattooed across my ass. Anyway, I ain’t the first altar boy to do what I do, and I won’t be the last.

Look, our line of work specializes in, uh . . . what’s the word, cultivating “senseless and harmful desires.” It’s not something most of us really think about, right? We just do it because that’s all we know or because some capo sent out the order. It’s weird when you think about it, right? I mean, from the Borgata to the fuckin’ smoked-out crackhead over in Washington Heights, we’re working to fulfill desire.

Including our own. Now, you let your own desires get in the way of the bigger imperatives of our work . . . Well, you know what happens then, right?

Now, when it comes to my particular line of work, there has to be meaning in what I do. Purpose. Like I said, I provide a very specialized service, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that my clients, and my customers, appreciate the quality of the product. Knowing the quality means appreciating the value, which in turn produces meaning. Without meaning, what’s the point, right?

But we also have to believe in what we do. We have to believe in the mission of the Family. It’s not good enough to see or even appreciate the meaning. We have to trust in what we do, which means trusting those we work with, trusting their intentions. You understand trust, right?

That’s pretty fuckin’ hard when someone in the ranks violates your trust, shakes your beliefs. Then you start looking around, start looking at the guys next to you and wonder if he’s gonna be the one to skewer your kidney with an ice pick the next time you turn around. Then you get scared, you get paranoid, and that in turn makes you look fuckin’ suspicious, know what I mean? Hubris. Greed. Falsehood. Add to that Fear and you’ve got a cocktail of destruction that has the potential to bring everything down even though it might have only started with one guy.

We call that guy a dirty martini.

And the guys around you, you start to go soft, start to lose that belief, they’ll see it. Smell it. Guys who been with the Family for a long time, especially the consiglieri, will smell the fear on you from a mile away. I even heard that Vito Galante once . . . Wait, you know Vito, right? Vito “Baby Sledge” Galante? He used to carry around that single-shot .45 he made out of an old set of brass knuckles and some pipe. He’d carry it on a different part of his body everyday based on where he was going and who he was seeing. I once heard that . . . ah, it’s not important.

Anyway, one night we were at his restaurant having a few drinks after hours, and at some point we start talking about Joey Colosimo. Joey did a dime up in Sing-Sing before he went fuckin’ crazy and murdered his cellmate, some fuckin’ rapist from the lower East Side. At his arraignment the judge asked him why he done it, and he said, “I couldn’t stand the stench.” Judge looks at him, “I’m sorry, Mr. Colosimo, could you repeat that?” Joey looks right back and says, “Fear. The stench of fear. The same stench that’s comin’ offa you right now you fuckin’ pucchiacha.” Judge nearly shits his pants but not before he serves Joey a hamburger with fries . . .  twenty fuckin’ years.

So Vito and me get to talking about fear, and at some point Vito gets real serious and he says, “You know. Fear has distinct aroma.” I look at him and laugh ’cause I though it was a fuckin’ joke, you know. But Vito was dead fuckin’ serious. “You mean, like, you can sense it, right?” I asked. “No, fear has an actual scent. Not in the metaphorical sense, but an actual aroma: roses and lime,” he says.

Yeah, I know, right? I respect Vito, but when he told me that I though he was off his fuckin’ rocker, you know what I mean? He saw it in my face, too, so what does this guy do? Brings out a plate, slices up a lime and throws a handful of crushed rose petals from the bouquet on the table. Anyway, just as I started to crack a smile, he says, “Wait.” Then he signals to two of his guys who go into the kitchen. Few second later, they bring out some kid, maybe about seventeen, eighteen. His hands are tied, he’s got a gag in his mouth, blood all down the front of his shirt like they had worked him over pretty good.

“So,” begins Vito. “I sent this fucking babbo over to Harlem yesterday to make a pick up. Simple job. But this little fuck comes back light. ‘Where’s my fucking money Louis?’ I ask, very politely. Says he was robbed by some mooley. Pretty fucking convenient, if you ask me.” Louis starts screaming through his gag, so Vito gets up and walks over to him. Very slowly Vito reaches into his jacket, rummaging around his pockets as if he can’t find what he’s looking for, and Louis stops screaming. The whole time he doesn’t take his eyes off of Vito’s hand as it moves beneath his jacket, and the whole time Vito doesn’t take his eyes off of Louis. If you’ve ever looked for too long into Vito’s eyes, chances are you’re not still among the living. But Vito knows exactly what he’s looking for; he’s just drawing it out, building the tension. Louis doesn’t know this, though, and he’s getting more and more nervous. Eventually, Vito slowly pulls out a switchblade. Beautiful fuckin’ knife. Ivory handle with gold inlays, and he starts cleaning his fuckin’ nails. Doesn’t say a word to Louis. Just stands there cleaning his fuckin’ manicured fuckin’ nails still looking directly at Louis, who by this point is shaking and sweating like a pig.

Just when Louis is about the piss his pants, Vito has his boys bring him to the table, where they sit him down and tie each of his legs to the chair. Vito puts his knife away and takes out his gun. Starts polishing it, checking the cylinder. By this point Louis’s eyeballs are about ready to pop out his head and I swear he’s hyper-fuckin’-ventilating. I gotta say, I was getting pretty nervous myself at this point. So Louis starts screaming through his gag again, but now he’s crying and shaking his head . . . it was kind of sad and funny at the same time, you know?

Vito looks at me, nods to the kid and waves his hand under his nose. You know, like you see chefs do when they’re leaning over a pot of sauce or something and waving the aroma into their nostrils. So I walk over to Louis, who’s lookin’ at me like I’m the angel of fuckin’ death, and I bend over and sniff. And what do you know? Limes and roses. Faint but distinct. Then he waves me over the plate of sliced up lime and rose petals. Same fuckin’ smell. Amazing. We sat there and laughed for a good minute while the kid finally pissed himself. Vito let him go after.

Minus a hand.

I mean, it’s probably a hormonal thing or somethin’, or maybe it was just the power of suggestion, I don’t know, but Vito called it a combination of fear and doubt, two things that make you a liability in this business. Fear and doubt. They make people do some crazy things, right?

But, fear. Fear’s like a fuckin’ plague. Once someone catches it, it can infect the ranks faster than you can say a Hail Mary, so you gotta nip it in the bud. Find the infection and cut it out.

So, you take that first jamook I mentioned earlier and you make an example out of him. You turn him into the meaning. Capisce? Sure, you could bring in a crew, work him over with bats and crowbars, Mossberg kiss to the back of the head, feed him to the mulcher or the fuckin’ dogs. But those are just the kinds of  overstatements that people are expecting. Beyond the short-lived shock value, they don’t have much substance. Definitely no style. People read about ’em in the paper and don’t even bat an eyelash. And, besides, any fucking cugine can do that kind of work.

So you gotta do something that’s going to make people sit up and pay attention. Get them to think about the meaning behind the work.

A few years back, Jimmy Tulano came to the Family, complained that a couple of his girls down on Spring Street were getting knocked around by one Marco Silvestri. Yeah, you remember him, right? Handsome kid, big, used to work the docks until Frankie brought him on as a dropman and a head-crusher. But poor old Marco, his belt didn’t go through all the loops, know what I mean? Not his fault he never made past the sixth grade. His old man was a real piece of work, used to beat the living fuck out Marco because life hadn’t turned out quite the way he expected. Probably beat the entire fourth and fifth grade out of Marco. Anyway, turns out, that all this . . . ah, “conditioning” made Marco good at two things: following orders and hurting people. In fact, Marco liked to follow orders and he loved to hurt people. Like they say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the fucking tree.”

But sometimes Marco went too far. He had that bloodlust that made him a mad dog. And there’s only one way to deal with a mad dog.

But Frankie, God bless his big fuckin’ heart, thought that maybe Marco just needed some taming, some reconditioning, so he set it up with Jimmy, and a couple of times a week Marco would . . . you know, release any unspent aggression into one of Jimmy’s girls. Worked out pretty good for a while until one of the girls got mouthy with him and Marco cracked her one. So, long story short, Marco discovers that he likes hitting women. Apparently he got off on that shit. Only reason Jimmy or any of the girls didn’t say anything sooner is because Marco threatened to dismember anyone who did, even threw in a little extra cash for property damage. But eventually, Jimmy started losing business. Johns don’t want girls who look like they French-kissed a wrecking ball. So Frankie makes the call and I get the job.

This wasn’t an execution job, which meant that once I got through with him, Marco would be a living symbol of what happens to mad dogs. To fucking misogynists. To guys who don’t have any respect for women. Who don’t have any respect for the Family.

Marco’s life would finally have meaning.

So I tase Marco at the base of his skull as he’s about to get into his car one night, I tie him up, and then I take him over to a little place I have in City Island. And you know what? As Marco is sitting there crying like a fucking baby, blubbering about how sorry he is, how it’ll never happen again, and yada yada yada, scared as holy fuck that I’m holding an acetylene blowtorch about a foot from his nuts, you know what I smell? Roses and lime. 

Un-fuckin’-believable.

It was only after Marco was staring death in the face that he got a conscience. Now that’s something to ponder, ain’t it?

Anyway, it took surgeons over three hours to detach Marco’s melted dick from his melted leg. And thanks to a few swipes of the old angle grinder over those well-used knuckles of his, Marco can’t make a fist anymore. You see, Marco’s body had now become a narrative, a story with a moral. It’s advanced reading, but not so difficult that even the doctors couldn’t pick up on it. They discharged him the next day. 

Hey, look at you, getting all worked up! See, I knew that you especially would understand. I mean, you think about it, that’s fucking beautiful, right? A man’s life goes from being a cliché to a work of fuckin’ art. He becomes a symbol. A logo of my handiwork and a representation of Man’s folly.

Wow, that . . . excuse me. Sometimes when I think about this stuff, it kind of gets to me, you know?

Okay, I’m alright.

So, here we are. Just you and me. I just gotta say, sir, it’s a real honor to meet you. Frankie’s told me so much about you. Wow . . . so you used to run with fucking “Gorgeous” Guiliano D’Amati, right? Man, that guy was a fucking legend. Anybody from the neighborhood mentions his name, they cross themselves. That’s fucking respect. Omertá to the end, that guy, but he was determined that his last statement would be a resounding one, am I right? Grenade in each hand, walks right into the fucking Fifth Precinct, and declares that he was there to turn himself in. And BOOM! Fucking incredible. I mean, who does that?

Yeah. Who does that?

Hey, definitely not you, right? Frankie says you like to talk.

A lot.

Hey, I’m sorry, that was disrespectful. You’ll have to pardon me. It’s just that . . . well, sometimes I let my emotions get the better of me. It’s just that . . . I really fuckin’ love what I do, you know?

So then. Listen, it’s been really nice talking with you, you know? But now we need to get down to business.

So I want to introduce you to a new friend of mine . . .

. . . hold on. You’re gonna love this . . .

. . . this is something very special. Something new I’m trying out. The package calls it a “finecut power handsaw,” but I call it fucking awesome. Am I right? See, I knew you would agree.

And . . . what do you know . . . it’s not even that loud.

Hey . . . you smell that?

Smells like roses and lime.

 

~ J. Boydstun, June 20, 2014

 

 

“Dead to Rights”

“Dead to Rights”

Angel was always a portrait of composure. The type of composure that made people uneasy. The type of uneasy that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It was impossible to be near Angel and not feel the uncanny force of his presence, which seemed to engender its own weight, its own gravity, like a black hole that warped the space and time around it and moved about within its own concave fracture in the universe. Light did funny things around him, too. Bent at weird angles, like a cloud of broken glass viewed through a kaleidoscope. Spooky.

Like now, for example. Staring down the maw of Cosmo’s dyspeptic Mossberg, which I fully expect any second to discharge a brimstone belch into Angel’s face, Angel doesn’t even break a sweat. Doesn’t twitch. Doesn’t even breathe. He’s a monolith of calm. The air around him seems to balloon and dance with atomic chaff, amplifying and then drawing together the collective frequency of everyone’s anxiety. And although the greasy pall of afternoon urban heat now settling over the Upper West Side is doing its best to render us all down into disfigured lumps of clay, everyone (except Angel) is sprouting goose bumps because we can all sense that Death is tuned in and standing by with someone’s funeral rites.

“Alright Mr. Zen Affect, the time for goodwill hunting is at an end and so is my patience.” Cosmo levels his bloodshot eyes down the top barrel of the sawed-off over-under shotgun, which looks like a pair of hollow black frankfurters folded into a walnut bun, and waits for a reaction. The mirrored aviator lenses that cover Angel’s eyes stretch and distort the proportions of the squat weapon, making it appear as if Angel is staring into the chasm of a howitzer. “I want my fucking soul back.”

We’re standing in the middle of the intersection of Amsterdam and W. 112th, literally a hundred feet from our destination, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where we have an agent waiting in the ambulatory to receive an important and long-overdue package, which, upon delivery, will entitle Cosmo to a one-way, first-class ticket aboard the Cocytus Express.

The intersection is strewn with bits of glass, metal, and fiberglass, most of which belong to our car. Not five minutes before, as we were turning onto Amsterdam, a pair of yellow taxis slammed into us, one from the front and one from the back, hard enough to deploy our airbags and pop out our windows but not hard enough to damage the reliquary containing Cosmo’s precious cargo. Cosmo had somehow divined the time and place of our drop-off. Not surprising. Angel and I had expected him to turn up. We just didn’t think he’d be so brazen about it.

Focused as I was on seeing what Angel’s reaction would be, it took me a moment to realize the crimson Rorschach test on the white bladder of the airbag had been caused by my nose, which had taken the brunt of the impact. Somehow Angel had silently exited the vehicle, although his door was still closed, and he was standing next to the car, adjusting his cufflinks, cool as a cucumber. Not a wrinkle, not a scratch. I wiped the back of my hand across my busted nose and cursed my mortality.

Before I can ask the obvious question, “What the hell just happened?” I’m ushered out of the vehicle by a ski-masked gentleman who smells like a delicatessen on the tenth day of a power outage. It’s a sordid bouquet of vomit, bad Roquefort and spoiled salami that would soon captivate every fly within a quarter mile, and it’s a stench I recognize all too well: revenant.

We’re being hijacked by god damn zombies.

My undead captor is waving a shiny chrome pistol in my face and capering about like he has ants in his pants, grunting and twitching in that trademark fashion of the newly dead, his body percolating and shaking out the last decaying bits of life. The other meat puppet, a fun-sized character who reminds me of Warwick Davis from Willow, is perched atop the yellow hood of a Crown Victoria that rear-ended us and has a drum-loaded street sweeper tucked up under his right arm pit aimed in my direction. I’m assuming he wasn’t the driver.

Cosmo probably has another hour or so before all that’s left of these two are corpuscular puddles of mush, and while their nervous systems are deteriorating by the second so are my nerves. Even from twenty feet away, a hiccup or a muscle spasm from Mr. Baggins will turn my chest cavity into the Grand Canyon. I’m suddenly regretting asking for that extra shot in my latte.

The musty exhalation of the cathedral’s nave is seeping down the front steps of the cathedral, coming from the great west doors. We’re close enough to make out the many engraved details in the cathedral’s gothic façade, which are crowned in a patina of pigeon shit.

I just want to find a nice quite spot behind one of the chapels and take a nap. We’ve spent far too much of the past two months on this job and the better part of today day in Acheron filling out paperwork to procure the aforementioned “fucking soul” that Cosmo has so kindly asked for. I’m sure Cosmo would rather avoid an eternity of stygian gelidity, although apparently not bad enough to settle his outstanding debts and effectuate the terms of service agreed upon during his purgatorial arraignment. The said terms would have required him to inveigle a more wholesome brand of hocus pocus, but cearly, Cosmo had no intention of coming over from the dark side.

And now he has run out of options.

Hence the lead-slinger and the shake-and-bake revenants, the latter crime being the very thing that first earned him damnation and then a reprieve. You see, Cosmo possesses a very eclectic skill set that makes him universally dangerous and invaluable to all of the powers-that-be. And when I say all, I mean all. Strictly speaking, Cosmo is a diabolist who specializes in necromancy, but he is also a former priest whose bloodline can be traced directly back nearly 2000 years to Lazarus of Bethany. Yes, the Lazarus, as in ‘the guy Jesus raised from the dead.’

There is actually a fine line between resurrection and necromancy since both essentially involve the rehabilitation of souls, just for different purposes, the former for good, the latter for the not-so-good. Cosmo’s sentence was quite simple: work for the Man to help recover lost souls and earn himself parole in Purgatory or go straight to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200. The sentence basically amounted to a bail bond (euphemistically referred to in our line of work as a ‘hell bond’), a conditional form of parole, that must be worked off under the supervision of a bondsman (i.e. Angel). I’m the special agent, the mortal middleman if you will, who was lucky enough to be assigned to Cosmo’s special case.

Unfortunately, the recidivism rate for the dark arts, from the most troglodytic occultism to the most refined sorcery, is very high, so Angel and I stay very busy doing God’s dirty work by collecting the bounties on fallen angels, spiritual reprobates, and, in Cosmo’s case, bail jumpers.

Diabolists draw much of their power from the dynamos of their corrupt souls, but once that soul was taken from Cosmo, if he wanted to perpetrate any dark deeds, he would have to go old school. Books, tarot cards, crystals, chicken blood, that type of shit. With his knowledge and skills he would have been able to help the arch diocese with resurrections, exorcisms, blessings. But it’s hard to get someone addicted to junk food to become a vegetarian, even when their everlasting soul is on the line. Put down the Twinkie and eat your broccoli like a good boy. Easier said than done.

It’s now clear, however, from our present circumstances that deceit was always the underwriter for Cosmo’s hell bond, something borne out of a robust conceit in his ability to wizard his way out of his debt and steal his soul back. He never had any intention of paying back that bond. This is the kind of shit that makes my job difficult. It is also now clear that Cosmo has come to the sickening realization that even if you possess a prodigious amount of magical prowess, when you’re liable to both heaven and hell, you’re going to pay one way or the other.

We have contingencies for that sort of thing.

But then again, some contingencies work themselves out. Maybe I’ll have time for that nap after all.

“Bail Jumping, Malicious Conjuring, Assaulting a Divine Messenger, Terroristic Threatening . . . congratulations Cosmo, I think you’ve graduated from the Seventh to the Ninth Circle.” Angel’s voice doesn’t obey the laws the physics and is less a thing of sound than it is of awareness, something you feel rather than hear. Cosmo’s eyes widen slightly as pulls the gun into his shoulder, his stubbled cheek pressed tightly into the steel receiver. He shuffles closer and splays his feet a little wider. This is it, I think. All Hell is about the break loose.

About a dozen pedestrians are sporadically hunkered down behind cars, trees and lamp posts, afraid to move lest Cosmo make good on his promise to drop the hammer on anyone who moves. Sirens can be heard in the distance, and I know the boys in blue are going to be here any minute, so we need to get this wrapped up quickly. This scene isn’t something you can explain to a judge, at least not here in the physical world.

The barrels of the shotgun are now almost kissing Angel’s cheek and Cosmo is growling now. “Hand over what rightfully belongs to me and I’ll reconsider turning your head into a wiffle ball.”

What happens next is something that the human eye can’t properly register. The closest thing I can equate it to is a film that skips frames, where the sequence of a series of actions is interrupted so that three or four seconds are abbreviated into one. This is what it looks like when Angel grabs the barrel of the shotgun and presses it to his own forehead. And Presto! Cosmo is a magician, a powerful one at that, but the look on his face right now is the kind that drunk tourists give to guys like David Blaine and JB Benn when they have their puerile imaginations fleeced on the Vegas strip or in Times Square.

“How do you feel right now?” Angel’s lips don’t even move now. This is a secure line, but I’ve been given certain privileges, so I’m in on the conference call. Cosmo’s grip over the revenants loosens, so ski mask and Mini-Me have gone slack like a couple of marionettes, their weapons clattering on the pavement. They just stand there making Pollack paintings in the pavement with their drool.

The mirrored lenses magnify Cosmo’s mixture of confusion and indignation. “Let me tell you. You’re angry. A raw, unpretentious emotion anger is. Pure, simple.” Cosmo is rapt now. He’s waiting to see what the magician Angel has done with the card he’s chosen.

“But anger is primitive, axiological, instinctive. All creatures have the capacity to feel anger. To protect, to hunt, to feed, anger is a necessity. But . . .” Angel let the word hang in the air a moment before his continued. “. . . to murder. Well, that takes a little something extra now, doesn’t it Cosmo?”

The tension in Cosmo that had held the shotgun bolted to Angel’s face has relaxed, but Angel keeps his forehead pressed to the twin barrels. Clearly he is trying to make a point.

“Yes, you’re searching for it right now, aren’t you? That ‘something’ that’s going to put the weight behind your trigger finger, the push that’s going to give your anger motion, meaning.”

The word slices through the tension with the precision of a scalpel. “Malice.”

“Hatred. Malignance. Loathing. Spite.” The air around Angel positively crackles now with the force of feeling. “Oh, but I can see it in your face, Cosmo. You’re slowly coming to realize your mistake, why no matter how hard you try, you just. Can’t. Pull. The. Trigger.”

Tears are streaming down Cosmo’s face, and the sobs wracking his body are surely enough to produce contact between index finger and hair trigger. But nothing happens.

Angel pulls himself erect, gently removes the shotgun from Cosmo’s hands and places his own hands on the magician’s shoulders. There is a tenderness to the gesture that induces an autumnal change to the air that a moment ago felt like it was on fire. I begin walking toward Angel but something tells me to maintain my distance.

Angel pulls Cosmo closer so that their foreheads meet. I’m still in on the conference call.

“So much potential, but you squandered it, didn’t you? What was it, Cosmo? Perhaps a touch of Jonah Complex? A dram of vitaphobia? Because even the most petty tricksters and the lowest satanists know that killing per se isn’t an act that requires will.” Angel has pulled Cosmo into an embrace now and is speaking audibly into his ear.

“And where does will come from, Cosmo? Tell me, Cosmo, from where does the power of life and death stem?”

The word slips between Cosmo’s lips like a dying breath. “Soul.” Cosmo buries his face into the shoulder of Angel’s shark skin suit and a new round of sobbing ripples through his limp frame.

“Yes, that awful truth. Murder, as one of the ultimate expressions of evil, requires a soul, and it seems you are short, Cosmo.” He pulls apart from Cosmo and pats him on the shoulder as Cosmo wipes his eyes. “You should have read the fine print, my friend.”

Angel gestures me over as Cosmo pulls himself together. When I reach them I hand Angel the shoebox-sized package that contains the reliquary that houses Cosmo’s soul. Angel hands the package to Cosmo, who looks up at Angel with an expression that contains too many emotions to list here.

“Are you ready?” Angel nods at the cathedral.

Cosmo inhales deeply and blows out hard as if he’s preparing to take a very deep plunge, then nods once and turns toward the cathedral. He holds the box in front of him submissively, reverently.

“I’ll walk you in.” Angel slips a hand under Cosmo’s arm and the two make their way up the steps and toward the great west doors of the cathedral.

Jeremiah Boydstun 8/31/13

Word Count 2382

“Cabal”

“Cabal”

Under a clear blue sky, the two brothers descended into the field. They had been walking for some time, and their village, visible to the north, was but a flyspeck upon the horizon. The older of the two brothers, a shepherd, stopped and looked over his shoulder to the east at the broad, sloping pasture from which they had begun their silent journey. The sun had just cleared the horizon and he could see his flock scattered over the hillside like grains of millet, their long shadows sliding into the brook at the base of the hill. He suddenly felt very alone.

The shepherd turned to look at his brother, who had also stopped but who kept his back to the rising sun. The shepherd watched in silence as his brother brushed his palms back and forth over the fleecy heads of wheat that bobbed and swayed in the breeze. His hands were the hands of a plowman and a thresher, strong and rough, but his touch was gentle, caressing. Merciful.

“Brother, why have you brought me here?” asked the shepherd.

The plowman turned and smiled sadly at his brother. His olive face was smooth and handsome. A bundle of auburn hair swept across his forehead and curled about a pair of dark, intense eyes. He looked down at his hands, turning them over and gently touching one with the other. How many fields have I sown? How many cubits of earth has my plow traversed? How many mouths have I fed? And still his hands had failed him, would always fail him, he realized. He looked up to the sky, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply the cool morning air, savoring the tawny woodiness of the crop field. When he opened his eyes, he was looking again at his brother, but he was not smiling.

He turned and walked toward the shepherd, whose confused expression changed to one of alarm when he saw the object in the plowman’s hand. As the plowman approached, the object ascended slowly, trying, it seemed, to float away and take the plowman with it. When the object, which the shepherd could now see was a small stone axe, the kind farmers use to gouge and tear at the earth, reached its apex, the plowman was standing over his brother. All had gone silent and a dark cloud passed over the face of the sun, diffusing gray shadows over the land and over the face of the plowman, whose eyes now looked like pools of pitch and whose open mouth appeared as a chasm of endless emptiness, something that fed on darkness but that could never be filled. The shepherd was surprised at the sudden force of this thought, that his brother should appear before him so unfamiliar, that the fear that now seized him should be so great as to render him incapable of speech.

The shepherd’s eyes followed the axe as it floated just a little higher. The plowman’s body was drawn taut as a hunter’s bow, every sinew and fiber gone rigid with the tension of built-up force . When the plowman freed the strain from his muscles, the axe descended with a swiftness that, just before it split his head open, the shepherd found remarkable.

Almost as remarkable as the fact that, although the blow made his entire body shudder, although he could see the bright red spray fan across his brother’s breast, leaving a cincture of crimson upon his tunic, he felt no pain. There was only the distant roaring in his ears, like a river heard from far away, and the warm floating sensation as if he were being borne away upon the warm, briny waters of that river.

And then, like the touch of a mother, gentle and caressing, and second blow cleaved the left side of his head, down his cheek and into his shoulder. Now the red came in gouts and spurts. My life. My life is flowing away from me, the shepherd wanted to cry out. But he had somehow lost his ability to speak.

Strangely his legs had melted beneath him, and he was on his knees now, bowing to the earth, his broken head spilling its contents at the plowman’s feet. Brother, why have you done this? Why? Why?

After the third blow cracked open the base of the skull, nearly severing the head from the body, the plowman stood panting over the ruined figure of his brother, whose forward fall was halted by a bare shoulder that had wedged itself into the earth. The cruelness inflicted by the second blow was hidden as the body pitched forward and pressed the once beautiful, youthful face into the earth. As if in askance, the right eye stared heavenward. Why?

The head of the axe glistened like a fresh pomegranate in the newly returned sun, its handle slick and sticky with gore. Again, the plowman closed his eyes and breathed in the familiar scents of the land, scents now tinged with the sweet, ferrous aroma of new life.

Jeremiah Boydstun

8/23/13

“Dragging the Plant”

Dragging the Plant

Barry tilted back the remainder of his pint and glanced at his watch. “Fucking ‘ell,” he sighed heavily. He surveyed the crowded pub once again, painfully aware that the black pea coat and cargo pants he had chosen made him appear out of place, suspicious even, amongst the urbane mix of west Londonites who currently occupied the Fox and Thistle. Though he had done his best to tuck away his nearly two-meters into the shadowy alcove at the end of the bar, the singularity of his brooding presence created a gravity that drew wary glances over shoulders and provoked muttering over the mouths of pint glasses. Barry noticed, as he always did, but worked at appearing just another bloke coming up for some air after another long day in the salt mines, a man who was simply thirsty and just wanted a little time to himself and his thoughts.

In truth, that was all Barry really wanted at that moment. A nice, quiet drink by himself, free of impending responsibilities or the approach of the hour hand. Free to just sit and sort himself out while he decided his next course of action. But as the hour hand approached half-past seven and the pub swelled to capacity, the din of a hundred conversations held over clinking glasses and the scrape of metal utensils over china made such a wish prohibitive and served only to remind Barry that his next course of action had already been decided for him. Now there was nothing to do but watch the minutes tick away and secretly hope that responsibility didn’t show up.

With a little assistance from the pint of bitters, Barry coaxed his nervousness into submission and began drumming his fingers to the bouncy rhythm of “West End Girls,” which filtered down to mingle with the legalese and corporate-speak of the recently arrived, smartly dressed barristers and bankers settling into their first and second pints. Barry also did his best to avoid staring at the bright, clean-shaven faces for too long, lingering on the silk ties, the crisp collars and pleats, the soft leather bluchers, the Rolexes and gold cufflinks. He did his best not marvel over the clean, cut-glass accents and the artless, polished gestures. Yes, Barry did his best, but it was a tiresome undertaking, and the longer he was left waiting, the longer he had to endure the kvetching looks and carping tongues, the more difficult that undertaking became.

Barry understood all too well that his presence engendered in others different versions of the same emotion: fear. Loathing, deference, suspicion, awe, ridicule. All symptoms of the anxiety with which his quiet, oversized presence seemed to fill public spaces. To his employers, this made Barry an invaluable asset. Oh, so you don’t remember where the money went? Maybe my associate Mr. Green can help you to remember. Most of the time Barry didn’t even have to make a fist. He would simply put on a vacant expression and smile as if to say that his capacity to cause large amounts of pain would cost him little effort and virtually no compunction.

The feeling, as Barry called it, came on as a familiar mix of clammy shame and restlessness, of fear and anger and frustration. When in public Barry often felt like a sandwich man and envisioned himself girdled on all four sides with a garish marquee, replete with pudgy letters painted in red and festooned with carnival lights  It made him want to run, to break things, to hide from the gossiping looks that whispered their banal insults. Have a look at Billy-No-Mates. Bloody Tonk. Lunkhead. Fucking hench, that one. Pillock. Flashbacks to primary secondary school, to the days before “bullying” became a bona fide  when pupils flung their verbal salvos from the relative safety of a pack, where girls passed notes about the holes in Barry’s shirts or the stains on his coat, where teachers  He thought about removing his coat, but a man his size didn’t do such a thing in a public place without inviting the types of looks people reserved for stray mastiffs. So he waited and watched. And waited some more.

Despite his size, Barry was not a man who craved idleness or who looked forward to the late afternoon languor that seduced so many to seek the inertia of a tavern booth or bar stool. Inactivity made him feel vulnerable, anxious, something confirmed by the empty glass sitting before him, its sides still beaded with condensation, a thin collar of foam sagging along the inside rim. He didn’t even recall drinking it.

Continuing his observation of the pub, Barry fell into the familiar ritual of tracing over the chalk and cheese incongruity of his presence amongst the electorate, people who, like the nearby coteries of punters huddled around hardword pub tables and packed into booths, had steady jobs, stable lives, families to go home to at night. Roast beef and potatoes at 7:30, an hour of Inspector Lewis in the palor, pack the kids off to bed, a leg over with the missus. Pub crawls and Prem games with your mates on the weekend, once-a-year holiday in Costa Verde, afternoon tea with the boss, mortgage, a white Vauxhall Corsa, vegetable garden, dog, cat, goldfish. Security. Ease. Boredom. A life of ease and predictability.

But the crooked trajectory of Barry’s life had taken him far beyond the straight and narrow, well-worn thoroughfares of pedestrian life, propelling him along a crosshatched network of unexpected detours, dark backroads, unavoidable shortcuts, trapdoors, sinkholes, and dead ends, and had deposited him in a place where circumstance and potential went strolling hand-in-hand down dark, deserted alleyways, each holding a knife to the other’s throat. A life filled with ventures and vultures, perils and predators. Stop swimming and you drown. Let your guard down and expect to get carved up and bruised.

Eventually, Barry had eased into the life, had learned to see in the dark, to swim freely amongst the nefarious demimonde who became his colleagues, this employers, and sometimes his enemies. And while the services he provided did not require a great deal of intelligence, they did require an ability and willingness to accept with a certain degree of professionalism the inglorious rigmarole that those services required—bite into shit sandwich, chew slowly, swallow, repeat. There’s a good lad. In the early days, Barry didn’t mind that bit so much, but a chap could only take being called a ‘meat-head’ or being told to ‘piss-off’ so many times before he reached his limit, got brassed off, and misbehaved.

“Yeah, ‘an then what?” asked Noodles, Barry’s sometimes partner. The question had been posed several weeks prior in response to a complaint of ‘inadequate compensation’ following the heist of a rival betting house in Holloway that netted less than half of the estimated takings and resulted in a high-speed chase through Tufnell Park. Barry was working on a reply when the old Ford Fiesta came fishtailing around Tufnell Park Road and onto Dalmeny, a pair of Kalashnikov-wielding villains riding side-saddle out of the open back windows and using the luggage rack for support. Noodles had laughed and pushed the Peugeot 308

 

“‘Mr. Joe Soap, would you be so kind as to provide us with your most recent savings statement, payslip, list of outgoings, and council tax bill?’” handed Barry an imaginary sheet of paper

Which is why Barry had been so highly employable: despite possessing nearly twenty stone of , a combination that made him intimidating and employable. But the job was beginning to wear on him like an ill-fitting boiler suit.

He hated this part of the life, the expectancy, the humiliation. Fucking bollocks. His very presence in this pub stood as a reminder that he lived a life of peonage, of subordination, of what some lovingly referred to as ‘dragging the plant,’ a phrase crammed full of incrimination and the dirty facts of existence that Barry’s day-to-day life as a lawless citizen revolved around. Like so many colloquialisms born out of environments that required a permanent state of contestable machismo, ‘dragging the plant’ was understood to literally mean one man performing a task, usually of a disagreeable nature, that has been forced upon him, like disposing of someone else’s corpus delicti or setting fire to a rival betting house that doubled as a puppy mill. Morally reprehensible, but a job; offensive but part of that job. Metaphorically, it simply meant that your employer had you by the shorthairs and that it was time to prove that you were the type of dog’s body who knew where your loyalties lay, that your cobblers were polished, and that you were prepared to chaperone Mssrs. Potential and Circumstance into the cold shadows with nothing but a pair of heaters to keep you warm.

“Yeah, fucking bollocks,” Barry grumbled. He needed another pint to settle his nerves. If nothing else, to offer a little camouflage. But he was afraid Simon might walk in, see the empty booth, and then quickly deduce that Barry had been all mouth and no trousers. Then Simon would leave, taking with him the promise of enough cabbage to feed Barry for the next six months, keep a roof over his head, pay off a debt or two. And so with that tentative promise Barry had already agreed to drag the plant. He was committed.

For a long time Barry had been comfortable reproducing the remedial sums that his services garnered, along with inglorious rigmarole that those services required—bite into shit sandwich, chew slowly, swallow, repeat. But a chap could only take being called a ‘meat-head’ or being told to ‘piss-off’ so many times before he reached his limit, got brassed off, and misbehaved. Which is why Barry was so highly employable: he was big as fuck and cool as a cucumber, a combination that made him intimidating and employable.

Sweat was running in small rivulets down his back and sides. Crikey it’s hot in here! Maybe he had misunderstood Simon’s instructions and had taken a booth in the wrong corner of The Foxglove and Thistle. Maybe Simon had found someone else to do the job. Maybe he had decided to call the whole thing off. Barry was just about to get up and order drink when he saw Simon, wearing his trademark grin and a gray herringbone jacket, shouldering his way through the crowd, a pint of Fuller’s in each hand.

When Simon reached the table he set the glasses down and slumped heavily into the vinyl-covered booth. Heaving a sigh, he threw Barry a wink and began working on his beer.

“Glad you could finally make it, gov.” Barry made no attempt to hide the irritation in his voice.

Simon did not seem to register the comment, focused as he was on methodically discharging the contents of his glass, taking the long measured gulps of an ardent and parched drinker. After draining off the last of the beer, he regarded the empty glass for a moment, running his tongue over the foamy mustache on his upper lip, and heaving another sigh, “Oh, that’s nice.” He set the glass down and turned toward Barry with a start. “Oi, Barry! I didn’t even notice you there! All right?”

“Smashing.” The word felt thick and foamy in his mouth as he pushed it between clenched teeth. Barry had prepared for this, however. Dragging the fucking plant. He knew that before Simon would give him the details of the job that his dignity would need to undergo the requisite flogging, a ritual necessary for Simon to reestablish a precedent of authority and thereby lay claim to certain job-related prerogatives. In order words, get a nice big handful of the short and curlies. Simon liked to draw the ritual out, have his fun, show up to appointments forty fucking minutes late. If you really wanted the job, you took your flogging happily, smiled as if to say, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ and prayed Simon did not change his mind. So Barry painted on his best counterfeit smile and returned his attention to the other drinkers lest Simon see the anger smoldering in his eyes.

Simon smiled broadly at the silent acknowledgement that the ritual was proceeding as expected and nodded at Barry’s untouched pint. “Are you planning on imbibing your beverage, good sir, because if not I would . . .”

“All yours, mate.” Barry slid his glass over the Simon, who received it eagerly. Just as he brought the amber liquid to his lips he stopped and raised the glass, which he addressed with wistful reverence, “Now a soft kiss—Aye, by that kiss, I vow an endless bliss,” and then proceeded to slowly pour the beer down his gullet. After a moment, he came up for air. “That’s Keats, by the way. A shit poet but a lovely dreamer. Cockney School, what a load of rubbish!” Simon snorted and went back to sucking on his pint glass. He knew bloody well that Barry hadn’t a clue as to what he was going on about, but that was the point. Bite, chew slowly, swallow, repeat. But Barry was having a hard time getting it down today.

After a long, uncomfortable silence, Barry shifted his bulk and cleared his throat. Simon continued to drink slowly, making an obvious show of ignoring the big man seated across from him. The big man who could crush his melon like it was made of papier-mâchè but wouldn’t because he needed to eat, put clothes on his back, and pay for his shithole, rat-infested flat. Barry could feel his hackles rising. He had worked with Simon on a number of jobs in the past, each characterized by an obvious swell in the man’s loftiness and by a greater affinity for outright rudeness, something that Barry attributed to familiarity and to his subordinate position. Simon’s jobs were always top drawer, though, real earners, usually a simple nick, the kind that allowed one to retire for six months. Those kinds of jobs didn’t come along often, so when they did, you made yourself fit and you dragged the bloody plant.

But things changed after the last job. The whole thing had gone tits up as a result of bad intelligence, poor planning, and Simon’s hubris. A Bishops Avenue smash-and-grab that was to take no more than twenty minutes, involve only three marks—a flaccid private security guard and couple of blue hair housekeepers—and net them over £4 million in Russian antiques. “Bloody milk run,” Simon had laughed after explaining the details. Turns out the security guard, although a bit of a salad dodger, was former MDPGA, while the two housekeepers were a couple of knife-throwing Romani who were both mad as hatters and who almost turned Simon into a human bulletin board. How Simon got his shit wrong Barry would never know. That, and how those two nutters ended up as housekeepers.

Upon entering the home, Simon quickly discovered that recent renovations had turned what was supposed to be a straightforward operation into an absurd room-by-room pillage, and after nearly thirty minutes of faffing about like a couple of dilettantes and finding nothing worth taking, Simon and Barry had made some renovations of their own. This had never been part of the plan, but Simon’s misinformation had forced them into a scuffle with the trio of tooled up live-ins, and when it came to a scrap, Simon and Barry were all business. The rent-a-cop made the first contributions just after he produced a hand-cannon and began punching out new windows in the drawing room, where Simon and Barry had been forced to take cover. After the guard burned through his seven-round clip and Barry heard the tell-tale click of the hammer dry humping the firing pin, he was up and charging out of the drawing room and into the main hallway where, with a little encouragement from Barry’s size 12, the guard knocked out a new door leading from the hall to the living area. A moment later the kitchen took a splash of color thanks to a collaboration between Simon’s modified Olympic cartridge pistol—a gentleman’s weapon, he called it—and the knife-wielding Romani, the latter of which provided the pomegranate and burgundy accents to the previously white marble countertops and cabinets.

The next day most major newspapers, including The Sun and The Daily Mail, ran front-page stories about the bungled burglary which they described as “shocking” and “brazen” and which Simon seemed to find amusing. “Seems a bit harsh, eh Bazz? There’s no context. Of course the facts are going to seem disagreeable when deprived of rationale and context. A little blood and a broken vase and now every cozzer in Scotland Yard is tripping over his own water gun to be the next Dixon of Dock Green.” But after a little consideration, Simon thought it best to declare a temporary moratorium, which meant Barry would have to go back to playing the brainless bogey man for tight-fisted dealers and smoked-out nightclub owners. Dragging the plant once again.

“Crikey, Simon, slow down. Can we at least discuss the job before you get sloshed?” Barry tried to keep his tone friendly, but the province of familiarity was territory governed only by Simon, and Simon did not share the liberties that he enjoyed. Barry had just trespassed.

Simon brought the half-empty glass away and leveled an unfriendly stare at his companion. “You’ll want to mind that pretty little mouth of yours, old chum. I’ve just spent much of the bloody day sorting out the details of ‘the job,’ as you so crudely put it. The engagement promises to be quite the remunerative affair, and we do have much to discuss, so,” he clapped Barry on the back and raised the glass to his lips once again, “sod off just a moment while I make myself gregarious.”

Barry sat back and smiled thinly. “Sorry, ya? It’s just that I’ve been waiting . . .” The weight of Simon’s stare over the rim of his glass brought Barry up short. Physically, Simon was a bit on the small side—Barry outweighed him by nearly six stone—but the misperception that he was unseasoned was a lesson that never needed repeating. Dozens around London bore the scars and broken bones to prove it. In the hazardous work environment of the criminal underworld, however, the ability to fight like a barmy gypsy only went so far when dealing with people who routinely accessorized with pocket warmers, Ka-Bars, and truncheons. For those whose skill sets did not extend much beyond this fact, options were limited: end up as fertilizer, an aquarium exhibit in the Thames, or as an employee for someone like Simon who possessed weapons far more lethal than the kind that pierced, cut and maimed. Barry left the sentence hanging for a moment.

Simon drained the last of the pint, set the glass down gently, and dabbed at his mouth with a gray silk handkerchief seemingly conjured out of thin air. Not taking his eyes off of Barry, he executed a perfect two-point fold and deposited the cloth neatly in his breast pocket. “And what, may I ask, have you been waiting for? ‘I am to wait, though waiting so be hell, Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.’”

“Let me guess, Keats.”

If looks could kill, Simon’s expression would have rated murder one. “Shakespeare, Barry. William. Fucking. Shakespeare. Sonnet fifty-eight.” He leaned over the table, his bunched shoulders giving him the appearance of vulture inspecting a potential meal. “You know, the one about the bloke, or—” Simon flung an expression of levity to the side as is he was flicking away a stray lock of hair and then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial level—“some wench. But that’s what makes Willie so damned brilliant, you see, this ability to essentially turn art on its arse, to turn the confounding gift of artifice against itself by treating the artificiality of art as reality. Like looking at the world as a negative exposure.” He watched wistfully as his words drifted off into the ochre shadows above the booth to mingle with the trophy black-and-whites of famous footballers and MPs.

Fuck me, ‘e’s either gone completely mad or ‘e’s taking the piss. At my expense. Barry cleared his throat.

Simon’s eyes flicked back like a switchblade and his tone iced over once again. “Fifty-eight. The

And for Barry, options were very limited. While Simon had been gifted with a substantial intelligence quotient and an Exeter education in Art History and unlicensed boxing, something which he managed to parlay into a lucrative business that dealt exclusively in black market objets d’art, Barry had been endowed with a pair of alcoholic parents and an education that abruptly ended midway through his sixth form when, of all things, a drink driver turned his parents’ Vauxhall into a De Kooning exhibit. Sent to live with an aunt in Millwall, Barry’s size and shy disposition made him an easy target for young miscreants looking to gain bragging rights either by conquering or recruiting his size and strength. By the age of 17, Barry had gone permanently truant and signed on as a fence with a crime gang who enjoyed minor celebrity status in the press. From there he was gradually assigned bigger jobs and even ‘rented out’ to other associates, something which Barry did not agree with on principle but which, like everything else, he had no choice with. So while Barry ended up as a garden-variety thug who scraped by, Simon cultivated a green thumb that thrived on the fruits of others’ labor.

After that last job, though, Barry had decided that it was time to make a change. After nearly ten years, an accumulation of clientage and the maintenance of a top sirloin reputation, Barry had been ready to venture out on his own, finally become a self-made man, determine which jobs suited him and which did not, set his own prices. He was done being a lackey for witless cunts and cutthroats, done dragging the plant for others. But the job market had changed quite a bit over the past decade. Now it seemed like every creatine-fed wanker who had a hard-on for Schwarzenegger wanted in on the action, and where supply meets demand, experience went from being an asset to a commodity, especially where the real dirty work was concerned. That was never Barry’s cup of tea. Job quality was important, and he still adhered to the old model of ‘no women and children,’ but which he amended with, “No animals. Except for monkeys. I fucking hate monkeys.” And after a few months on his own, he would have knocked over an entire zoo of chimps and orangutans had someone asked him. Jobs were far and few between unless Barry was willing to drag the plant for half price. “Sign ‘o the times, mate,” one of his colleagues lamented.

Then a week ago Simon rings him. “Barry, old boy, have I got a job for you . . .” which was laden with the typical assurances of an easy take, low fuss, and a generous cut once the goods were sold off. A few quid up front, a little more on the back and Bob’s your uncle. Easy peasy. “. . . so come ‘round to the Foxglove and Thistle at six sharp and we’ll sort it out. Cheers.”

“Barry, mate, you’re sweating cobs. Take your jacket off, stay awhile.” Simon smiled smugly, set his glass down and loosened his paisley silk tie.

That tie could pay my rent for two months, Barry thought.

“Been a little under-the-weather,” Barry replied, dabbing at his forehead with a cocktail napkin. “I’ll be alright in a day or two. Don’t mind me.” He propped his elbows on the table and interlocked his fingers, a sign that he was ready to talk business. Simon responded to the cue by reaching into his jacket for a sheaf of papers which, after casting a quick glance around the pub, he produced and laid out on the table. Floor plans, Sotheby’s appraisal forms, ID tags and swipe cards, photos, the works. Simon carefully ran through the details of the job, which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be more complicated and dangerous than he had originally intimated to Barry over the phone, but for which a careful stratagem had been devised.

“No bollocks this time, old chum. That last engagement was a tawdry affair that I hope never to repeat. You have my word on that.” Simon placed his right hand over his heart and raised his half-empty pint, “Thieves’ honor.” He finished off the last of his beer and fluttered his hands at Barry as if to shoo him away. “Be a good lad and get us another round, ya.”

Barry gritted his teeth and slid his bulk out of the booth. At the bar he flashed two fingers at the barman, who promptly filled a brace of glasses, which he exchanged for the £100 note that Barry slid across the bar. The barman took the note, quickly folded it and slid it into the pocket of his apron, and began wiping down the counter. “Last stall. Brown Oxfords, green socks,” he said while continuing to run the towel over the dry bar counter.

“Cheers.” Barry took the glasses and nodded at the barman. Without looking up the barman whipped the towel over his shoulder and moved casually to the other end of the bar where a covey of patrons were waiting for refills.

Barry returned slowly to the table with a glass in each hand, trying not to slosh any of the dark brown liquid as he walked and reprimanding himself once again for wearing such a heavy coat. He set the glasses on the table and placed a hand over his abdomen as if to staunch a wound. “Be back in a jiff, gov. Have to use the loo.” Simon had already started on his pint and waved him off dismissively.

Barry arrived at the lavatory door just as a pair of young suits came barging out, braying at some joke. Their laughter quickly dissipated when they saw the black-clad giant blocking their path. Barry held the door open and gave the men an impassive look, “Ladies first.” The icy tone sent the two men scurrying under the massive outstretched arm and back into the warm embrace of the pub. Barry entered the brightly lit water closet and made his way to the nearest sink where he proceeded to wash his hands. The mirror displayed a quartet of stalls, the first of which was missing its door, and a trio of urinals, all of which were free of occupants save for the farthest stall where a pair of brown shoes topped by green argyle socks rested on the cement floor. Barry rolled his eyes and said into the mirror, “I hear the edible flower display at the Kew Gardens is lovely.”

The words seemed to have an effect on the feet, which wiggled slightly, and a hollow cough issued from the stall and echoed around the tiled room. “Mr. Green.” The voice was frayed at the edges, suggesting age, but it was confident, self-assured.

“The one and only,” Barry said into the mirror. He turned off the faucet, lightly patted his face, and dried his hands with a paper towel. He remained at the sink in case he needed to busy himself should anyone enter.

“I think we have everything we need, Mr. Green. You’ve done well. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.”

“Great. I don’t suppose you want to be a love and untape this device from my chest? I’m about as broiled as a fucking game hen.”

“Once you leave, my associate will come by to collect our belongings.”

Simon scratched at his chest, realized he couldn’t feel anything through the thickness of his coat, and returned to wringing his hands on the now shredded paper towel. “What about Simon? What happens to him now?”

“That’s none of your concern, Mr. Green.” A momentary pause. “Mr. Green, we would like you to assist us one more time once this . . . transaction is complete. A certain Mr. Halloway, whom you had some dealings with some time ago . . .”

Despite the flash of heat that washed over him, Barry kept his tone even. “Fuck off. I told you I’d give you Simon, and I’ve done that.”

“Bravo, Mr. Green. And so you have.” That mocking tone, always that same fucking tone. “I don’t need to remind you, however, that you and your compatriot out there are still the two primary suspects in the Bishop Avenue aggravated assault and double-homicide.” The voice paused to let that sink in for a moment. “And so, Mr. Green, until such time as you have rendered sufficient service, your arse belongs to us. Are we clear?”

Barry was clenching his jaw so tightly that expected to hear teeth cracking any moment. He pictured himself ripping the door off of the stall, reaching in and . . .

“Good. I take your silence to mean that we have an understanding. Now. If there is nothing else, piss off.”

Barry turned to exit the lavatory. He was shaking, the adrenaline pumping through his large muscles, swelling them to the point that he thought his jacket might split. “Oh, and Barry? You may not think so now, but believe me, old son, there are worse ways to spend your time than dragging the plant.”

Jeremiah Boydstun

8/16/13