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Art by Mike Knowles 2020

Fire Man Answers a Call

Part 3 Fireman Series

By Terry Butler


You Billy, right?

Sometimes, yeah. What’s up?

Friend of mine say you in here a lot. Ax me to look you up. Cat name Lionel.

How’s my friend, Lionel?

He cool, want you to know he got something for you.

You have it?

Naw. He say come up to Lupine.

Buy you a drink?

Aw-ight. Thanks, man. Double Johnny Black.

This is my daily. The Brass Rail on Vallejo. The only working man’s bar on the Beach now that our town has been invaded by successive waves of self-seeking outsiders fleeing inauthenticity in order to find something resembling it in an historic neighborhood, in an historic small city not New York, Chicago or L.A.

If they’d just ask a native he could set them straight. Kerouac and Ginsberg are dead. Bob Kaufman and Corso stayed here for a run with the hippies, and Ferlinghetti might be in the bookstore in the evenings, but the vibe is in SOMA now, and you can find that shit in any town.

Just before this cat approached me, I’m trying my best to be sincere with Geno, my homeboy from forever. He’s telling me about his woman problem. Again. Right now, he’s got two great ones, Jenny from Mission High days and his wife from the streets, instead of a string of whackos like usual.  He sits on the same stool every day and when he knows it’s time for me to come in, he gets the one on his left empty so he can talk at me.

Hey, Geno, I gotta go. Tell me about your talk with Jenny later, OK?.  No, yeah, it’s all good, it’s just a heads up, a need to know.  Say hi to Jenny. And your old lady too.


I haven’t been to Lupine Court for a while. Aubrey’s house is bulldozed. Corner stakes are up, showing the lot boundaries, but the yellow tape is up too. There’s still a dumpster in front. My gut is tight.

That night, carrying her out of the fire, a crazy kill I’d never expected, caring for her until she calmed, loving her to sleep. Never to be forgotten by her or me.

Across and into the cul-de-sac, Lionel sits in a lawn chair inside his lit up garage. His system plays softly and spreads peaceful Marvin Gaye into the twilit drizzle. Brother, brother, there’s just too many of us dying.

He knows I’m here, so I walk up. This is the first time we’ve met beyond those momentary connections, but the connection is strong. He’s big, and I am too, but he’s solid in the way a wall is solid, his bump and embrace is an illustration of physical power beyond ordinary.


Hey, B. Thought you should know. I seen her.


Yeah, right here. On foot. She was all covered up, but I knew it was her because she went dead to the burn pile and walked right in. All the way to the back of the lot. Old shed back there didn’t burn. I started to follow quiet, but I knew I wouldn’t make it through all that shit without her hearing me.

She went in?

I heard the door open. She come right back out. Walked fast right by me. I’m standing on the sidewalk and she looked right through me.  Hey, man, she knows me. We talked a few times, she came to a barbecue I had.  The girl ain’t dead but she’s a ghost.

Did you talk to her?

I told you, I was like a phone pole or some shit. I called her name and she didn’t even notice. She went to the bus shelter and when the 52 bus come, she got on it.

52 goes downtown, right?

Yup. Greyhound terminal to out here.

The drizzle is turning to rain. The smell of the ashes gets more noticeable. I can see the shed, the door hanging open. When I step inside, I wonder if its empty because it always was or if people have taken the contents. It is definitely empty. Aubrey hid something here.

Nothing seems out of place. It’s just a shed for garden tools.

Shit, Lionel. Guess I’ll go downtown.

Looka here, Billy. I ain’t no friend of god damn Sleepy myself, know what I’m saying? 


Right. And I will back you when it’s time, but those motherfuckers all know me. Go to the terminal on your own this time, ask some hooker where Fleur is.


A Grey Dog depot is the same everywhere. Big city, small town. Other than size there’s no difference. It’s about who is around there. Poor folks mostly, and those who have no eyes for a settled life, as well as those who prey on both. Bus depots are always downtown and always dirty, with a view out onto the broken parts of their city or town.  This one was once a painted and tiled palace of bus traffic. Now it’s dying. A terminal for folks who have to travel and can’t afford to fly.

Standing outside and watching the pale light settle on the loser side of the street, on its locos, thieves and innocents, an emptiness grows in me.  I think Aubrey is familiar with bus depots. She never explained a thing or told me a full story, but I know she’s seen these corners.

I’m feeling a fool, looking for heaven, walking in limbo.


Hey, man, you’re Fleur right? The nice lady said I should look for you here.

What nice lady?

Oh, Cookie, over on the other side there.

What you want? Must not be Cookie. 

Actually, I’m looking for friend of mine. Aubrey. One of her neighbors told me she disappeared after her house burnt down. He said she was a hooker and said to try asking around the Greyhound depot.

Neighbor? What neighbor?

I didn’t get his name. Older man lives around the corner. He knew her well enough, I guess.

I don’t know no Aubrey. All I got is pussy for sale. If you don’t want none then I can’t help you.

But Cookie seemed to know who I was asking about.

Fucking Cookie got a big mouth.

Fleur takes his gold tooth pick out of his pretty mouth and at last looks right at me. If he had a dream other than this one he’s living in, he would want to be a spoiled fop in the decadent French court of Louis XIV. He tries to look dangerous.

This the truth fool, you take your ass out this neighborhood. Don’t come back no more. Aubrey ain’t none your business.

You know her then.

Oh, Man! You a smart-ass motherfucker ain’t you? Fuck this sucker up!



Yeah it’s me.

Where the fuck am I?

I brought you to my place after they dropped you behind the dumpsters. Me and Deirdre.

Man, everything hurts. Fleur did it?

Shit, that punk ass bitch would worry he might break a fingernail. No, it’s those assholes who hang with him. But he told them to do it.

Wow. Cookie. You helped me. 

Aubrey is my friend. We go way back. Fleur put us in his string the same day.

You know where she is?


Maybe. It seemed important and I tried to hang on but pain and a glimpse of a dark hole I could crawl into pulled me in. I needed to close down so I did.

In a burning house I watch a beautiful child run from room to room in panic and fear. My feet won’t move. I’m paralyzed, my lungs are filling with choking smoke and my heart is hammering. Aubrey! I scream. Billy! She shouts.

I’m fading from life, whispering, Aubrey…? Billy, she moans.

And then it rained.


Take this ice water Baby. You need to drink.


No, baby. Cookie. Lionel’s here too.

Physically I’m feeling like a hurricane and an earthquake just happened right on top of me. But even in the fog and with the annoying ringing sound that is my consciousness I can still be startled by the idea that Lionel and Cookie are both here in this room. I try to sit up, I feel puke rising. Lionel lifts me and places my shoulders against a pillow and I spew into a bowl that Cookie has ready. I tell my head to stop spinning and my gut to stop being in charge.

Lionel? What the fuck is going on?


Lionel tells me that he has known Aubrey since she stepped off the bus. There wasn’t any band that dumped her, no scuffling for singer gigs. She was one of many kids running from the empty middle of the country to the mythic coasts and the bright, lit up interior cities. She was looking for an own-self, someone in a dream, a version of what could be created in the right place and time. Just a runaway.

Lionel, the sometime predator, chained to a gorilla habit that was killing him little by little, happened to be in that terminal when her bus came in.  She was a small goddess, he says, almost perfectly formed, looking over the top of her shades, casting about for something, a newborn lost in the forest.  She was open, available to the world, and he was instantly in love. His love was immediate, but his commitment was temporary because after all, it was just business. She was more valuable to others than to him in his currently limited usefulness, so he took her to Sleepy, and after, with his purse full of silver, he went back to his slave life.

He never let go of her or what he had done.

She was 16, Billy. My sister was 17 and I thought about that. Didn’t stop me though.  Man. Shit. Fuck.


Me, Lionel, Geno, and a kid Geno says is the greatest driver he’s ever known, going up from Broadway with nothing good in mind.  Geno and Lionel each take a sidewalk.  I go down the middle of the narrow street.  Cookie sees us and she lets the girls know to get clear and watch. It’s not quite dark but the street lamps are starting to come on. Beer signs in bar windows are just beginning to get bright and inviting. A street sweeper just passed so the pavement is shining, the air smells clean right then.

In front of The Blues Saloon Fleur poses leaning against his Benz. His boys are slack, backs to the walls of a pizzeria and a coffee house. The house band is tuning up, customers are drifting to the door, paying the cover, getting their stamp. Testing, testing. A wailing fragment of Chicago blues harp through a Fender amp, a running scale on electric bass, a drum roll and a rim shot, a thumping bass drum, and cutting loud and clear on top, a few deep-toned 12 bar rides up and down the neck of a Gibson ES 355.

I’m in his face before he can react.

Is this how you want to die Fleur? Just shot down in front of here? I can kill you and gone.

I’ve got his jacket and shirt above his belly twisted in one hand and a .38 deep in the softness just below his belt. He’s scared, not used to this, maybe never saw this since the projects, but that shit was never him, always somebody stupid.

Where’s Aubrey, Fleur? See, a beating like you gave me is one thing but a bullet in your gut is another. I’ll let the ass whipping go if you talk. Either way its pain. Your choice, bitch.

He looks around and sees his friends paying deep respect to mine and the several hard-eyed women moving to close a circle around us.

He points his chin at me and tries not to let go of his self-image as a bad ass.

She’s dead, man. She told Sleepy she wasn’t working for him no more and without no protection some sick fucker cut her up and dumped her across the bridge.

Police know this?

How the fuck I know what the fucking police know man!? It was in the Chronicle this morning! You don’t read the fucking paper?

I let go of his clothes, push him away, and as he straightens himself and gives me a threatening look I put a bullet in his left knee.

The girls turn to face out but keep the tight circle. Geno and Lionel are watching Fleur’s soldiers run. We walk up the hill to where the kid has the plain looking Chevy waiting. I hear the pimp moan as Cookie nudges him in the ass with the pointed toe of her stiletto heel.

Hey Fleur. Now we gone call you the Pimp Who Got a Limp.

I hear the cackling of whores getting even.

We climb into the four door and ease out into Saturday night traffic. Streets fully lit up, people walking against the lights, double parking, buses and cabs. The kid deals with it all like skating alone in the park.

Where we going Billy?

I don’t know. Hit the liquor store on Franklin and Lombard. I need to get a Chronicle.

As it has lately, the violence leaves me empty. No adrenaline rush, no sense of justification. One asshole shoots another asshole, so what? Am I looking for war or a woman to live with?

I’m not sure Aubrey even knows I’m looking for her. I’m not sure she cares.

The End.

Terry's book, CROOKED LADDER is available in paperback from Amazon at :


Terry lives in the country, near a small town south of San Jose, CA called Hollister. He used to write steadily, publishing both in print and online as Terence Butler, but after some health issues, the energy needed to write seemed to dissipate somewhat. He has been a professional photographer and a painter/collage-assemblage maker for most of his working life, so painting and photo art have taken the place of genre fiction as an outlet. Recently the story “Fire Man” appeared all as a piece in his mind so he simply wrote it down. He sent it to Cindy, and in the ensuing back and forth. They somehow discussed using some of his visual art, too. Cindy is simply the best, and a real stalwart in this little world. She has a big heart and a deep love for animals, too!

Mike Knowles has spent over 40 years working mainly in comics, along with contributions to TV, Radio, animation, gonzo-style journalism for a “top-of-the-shelf” magazine and odd spells as a digital artist. Not to mention three gruesome years writing gags for comedians (even though they begged him not to. But what did THEY know about humor?  


I wrote for the comic papers. 

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2020