Yellow Mama Archives

Kenneth James Crist

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barrywilderfinal.jpg
Art by Paul Dick 2015

Kansas

A Barry Wilder Short Story

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

The goddamn plane is coming around again, and I have nowhere to hide, absolutely no cover. It’s a good fifty yards to the nearest culvert and Iva has already made her run for it. If I can keep the fucker in the sky busy for just one more pass, she’ll make it and be safe, at least for a while.

The plane is fast, a Beechcraft twin-engine Turbo Baron, and it has a single gun mounted in a pod under the belly. Unbelievable. You might expect to see something like that in some third-world shithole like Nicaragua, but in western Kansas? No fucking way the FAA would ever let them get away with this shit.

Just as he gets it wings-level and I see his gun flashes, I squat behind Thumper, my big Harley Ultra Classic, the only cover I have and watch as the machine gun bullets kick up dirt, coming across the field to the north of the road, coming incredibly fast, and not at all like the “squibs” they use in movies. These aren’t in a nice, neat line. They’re all over the place. I raise the Glock model 27 and aim high, knowing my rounds will have to intercept him and I will need to lead him a lot if I’m to have any chance at all.

The Glock has a new wrinkle that I learned from a friend who’s a range master: It’s fitted with Model 23 magazines, with special spacers to match the standard grip. Each mag holds 13 rounds. When I open up, I keep pumping rounds and then, suddenly, I see the plane lurch and the intended low pass becomes dangerously low and I realize I have done some damage. The pilot has stopped firing and it appears he has lost control of the machine. In another moment, I dive into the ditch behind me, convinced that the plane is going to hit me.

In fact it misses me, but strikes the electric lines just above me and then with a kind of screeching bang, hits the ground in the wheat field to the south and in an instant, it’s wadded up and burning. 

*     *     *     *     *

Love can be everything the songs and ballads say it is, or love can be a burden and a right dangerous condition to be in. But no matter how you cut it, we can no more control who we love than we can punch the moon out of its orbit. And most of the time we can’t explain why we love a particular person or why we would be willing to give our own lives just to be sure that person would be safe and would go on living.

I came to this difficult state of mind when I met Iva Gonzalez, a detective with the Natrona county sheriff’s office in Wyoming. Well, okay, not strictly true. When I met her, they had me ‘detained’ in a hospital bed after I killed some people and burned down a ranch that had been the headquarters of some nasty folks who made porn films and meth.

Later on, I’d help find and rescue her from some of those same folks and then we had gone on a mission to Mexico after her housekeeper was killed by another branch of the same thuggish pack. Each time I’d been around her, I’d found it harder to mount the bike and ride away. She was the first person I’d actually missed being with in many years.

Was I getting soft? Maybe. Was I getting old? Definitely. But as a friend used to say, I could still run, jump, fight, fuck and drive a truck. I knew that a lot of weird shit had happened in the last few years and, towards the end, it kept bringing me back to Iva.

And then there came a night at her place, after the last attempt by a very skilled German hit man to kill us both, that we found ourselves together and never wanting to so much as lose sight of each other, ever again. That was when I stopped struggling, stopped trying to throw the hook, and decided to just go with it and see what happened.

Within two weeks, Iva had put on a pretty decent yard sale and gotten rid of a lot of stuff. She got everything else ready to move and rented a 26-foot U-Haul van. The plan was that I would ride Thumper and she would drive the truck. We were moving her to my place in Wichita. After we got settled in, we’d come back to Wyoming and get her car and see how Roland Nesper was doing.

Roland and Iva worked adjacent counties and he had retired the year before after developing heart problems. Two stents had been placed and he was much better, but when that shit starts, you always wonder when the Big One’s coming.

When the sniper made his final attack, intending to take out all three of us by lighting Iva’s house up with a white phosphorus grenade, Commando Cody, the big Doberman, had pointed him out in the dark and I’d shot him just as he was ready to throw. His own grenade did the rest.

Roland was still definitely on the Cartel’s list of people they wanted to put in the ground, as was everyone who had made the foray into Mexico. They’d already got one of us down in Tennessee and I didn’t want them to get any more.

*     *     *     *     *

Iva came scrambling up out of her culvert, her hands and the knees of her jeans muddy, weeds and muck in her hair and her Colt Commander in her hand. God, she looked beautiful. She kept looking at the burning airplane as she walked back to the bike and in her glance I saw a ferocity and hatred I hoped never to see directed at me.

When she got close enough that my tired old ears could make out what she was saying, I heard her say, “Nice shootin’, there, Tex! Been shootin’ down planes for a long time, have ya?”

I grabbed her and pulled her in close and just held her for a minute while my heart slowed and started approaching its natural rhythm.

“You’re gonna get muck and shit all over yer new T-shirt, Lover.” She said it with a grin that I quickly erased with a good solid kiss. Then her arms came up around me and she held on, but only for a minute.

“We’d better haul ass, Barry. Shooting down aircraft is a federal offense. If we were never here it would be a good thing.”

I checked Thumper for bullet holes, found none and fired him up. Just ten minutes before we had been out on a pleasure ride, tooling around out in the country, when the Turbo Baron made its first pass. Up until that point, we’d seen no action from the Cartel, and we had been paying close attention—we’d been in a state of heightened awareness ever since the sniper attempt at Iva’s house in Wyoming.

Now I was hoping no one had witnessed any of this shit, because I definitely didn’t need the cops involved. Hopefully, we would just cruise on home and keep our mouths shut, clean our weapons and get ready for the next attempt. I had no doubt the assholes were gonna keep right on coming until they got us, or we ran them out of people who were willing to try.

 

As we came through Cheney, Kansas, a half hour later, I made a detour and stopped at the Casey’s General Store. It’s not my favorite stop-n-go place, but we were ready for fuel and Iva needed to wash up a little.

I noticed an old grizzled fart watching her as she went into the store and, as I was fueling Thumper, he came wandering over. Nothing like a nice motorcycle and a mud-crusted pretty gal to start a conversation.

“How’s come you ain’t got no mud on you? Ya make her stay on the bottom?”

The guy had about four teeth left in his head and if he wasn’t careful, he was going to lose those, too.

“Naw, thought I was gettin’ a low tire, so I made her get off and check it.”

“Well, now, there’s a man knows what them women are good fur. I be damned. I thought I was the only one left round here…”

“Well, ya know what they say—ass, gas, or grass, nobody rides for free…”

He left me with a phlegmy cackle and sauntered over to a battered old Ford Torino, where an equally toothless hag waited in the front seat and a sullen, possum-eyed teenager moped in the back. The kid looked a few bricks short of a load, too. As they passed, though, I noticed a Marine Corps sticker and a Viet Nam service bar on the back window. So maybe the old Marine was just livin’ his part of the American dream…

When we got into my place in Wichita, there was a message on the machine from Roland. All it said was, “It’s your friend up north. Call me.”

I put the bike away and fed Commando while she made the call, using her cell instead of the house phone. Yeah, we were paranoid, but we had a good reason.

*     *     *     *     *

“Did you shoot down a fuckin’ plane?” Roland didn’t waste any time on, ‘hi, how are ya’ bullshit. Iva had spoken with him and immediately handed me her phone.

“How did you know about that? It just happened, actually…” I glanced at my watch, “less than an hour ago.”

I heard him spit into his cup and then he said, “Funny you should ask. I had a call from an old friend I haven’t seen or heard from since he left up here and went to the DEA. Seems he got a call from a friend of his who is an FBI Agent outta Tulsa. That’s where the plane was from, by the way. Apparently, they knew about the machine gun on the plane and were keeping tabs on him, to see who he was gonna light up with it. They figured it was someone from a rival cartel. Guess they figured wrong…”

“So they just let this fuckin’ guy fly around with a buzzer hangin’ under his plane and didn’t do shit. Well, next time you talk to yer friend, tell him I said thanks a bunch.”

“Yeah, well I’m glad they didn’t get ya, and that’s two more we don’t hafta worry about any more.”

“Two?”

“Yep. Goofy fucker had his kid on board with him. Sixteen-year-old boy. Kid was an honor student at Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa. It’ll be interesting to see how the cover-up develops on that one.”

“So this asshole takes his kid up with him to go and kill people? Figure maybe he was grooming him for a position later on?”

“Well, who knows? Better get off of here. Watch yer back, old son.”

After I hung up, I went to the fridge and got a bottle of Dos Equis and plopped my ass on the couch. I could hear water running and I figured Iva was in the shower. There had been an itch in the back of my mind for a while, and suddenly it sprang full-blown into my fore-brain. How the hell do they manage to find a certain motorcycle from the air in the vastness of the Great Western Wilderness, as Teddy Roosevelt called the high plains? Stupido! How the fuck you think they did it?

I walked back out to the garage and moved Iva’s car back out, then rolled Thumper outside and popped him onto his center stand. Harleys aren’t supposed to have center stands. I added this one shortly after I bought him. I got in my toolbox and got out a strong flashlight and started looking. In about three minutes I spotted the bug, held in place under the rear fender with a strong magnet. I carefully removed it and set it on my workbench. Now I needed to figure out what to do with it. As I was examining the thing, Iva stepped out, her hair still damp and smelling of shampoo.

“What the hell’s that?”

“That, my love, is the reason these thugs can find me any time I’m on Thumper. It’s a radio tracking device. It puts off a signal every few seconds and unless I miss my guess, it gets picked up by cell phone towers and it relays GPS coordinates to a base station somewhere. With modern satellite communications, and the Internet, the base station could be literally anywhere in the world.”

“Shouldn’t we check the cars, too?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, we should. I know a guy who would be glad to loan us a garage bay and a lift for a while, so we can do that. Then, we need to decide what we’re gonna do about this.” I held up the bug, which was no bigger than a poker chip and was a neutral gray color, presumably to make it harder to spot.

“If ya really wanna drive ‘em nuts, you should put it on a taxicab.”

“I like that idea, but sometimes certain cabs will set unused for days at a time. I think I’ve got a better idea. Let’s take your car.”

Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting in the back of the parking lot at the Wichita Police department’s west substation at Central and Elder. We only waited about five minutes until the lot was clear, then I got out and placed the bug up under the rear bumper of the nearest police cruiser, making sure it stuck tightly to the steel chassis.

I walked back to the car, got in and drove off. The secret to not getting caught doing things that might be viewed as unsavory is to look businesslike and professional. Looking around “for the man” is what cops call “acting hinkey” and it’s a dead giveaway that you’re up to no good. Look like you belong there and you know what you’re doing and you’ll seldom if ever be questioned.

After we put the bug on the police car, Iva and I went back home and took both cars over to Merv’s Grease Pit, at Harry and West Street and borrowed a rack and some expertise. Merv Wills was an old retired cop like me, except he had opted for the really dangerous shit. Riding bikes at high speed and stopping 2,500 to 3,500 motorists a year wasn’t dicey enough for old Merv. He had been an undercover narc for sixteen years and was a master of looking like somebody else.

In that time he’d been shot twice on drug deals, both times in the same leg, and he’d been taken for a ride by some cartel types, who were all set to punch his ticket and dump him in Lake Afton, fifteen miles west of town, when the police helicopter had flown over their car and distracted them long enough that he could fling the car door open and jump out at forty miles an hour. That one landed him in the hospital with a separated shoulder and tons of road rash, but he always said, “Pain is nature’s way of letting you know you didn’t kill yourself that time.”

Merv walked with a permanent limp and shuffle and he was glad that everything even worked that well.

“What exactly are we lookin’ for, Barry? And who’s this pretty lady? And why is she hangin’ around a low-life old motor cop like you?”

“This is Iva Gonzalez, Merv. She’s a retired cop too, and she doesn’t take shit from old narcs. And we’re lookin’ for bugs.”

“Crickets, roaches, or some kinda electronic shit?”

“The electronic kind, I’m afraid. Already found one on my motorcycle and we figure they probably got both of our cars rigged, too.”

“Sounds like you got somebody pissed at ya. Lemme guess, the IRS is lookin’ at yer lifestyle because ya cheat on yer taxes, right?” As he was giving me grief, he was lifting my Mustang and getting out a powerful work light.

“No, it’s cartel-related. We got into a lotta shit with them last year and they’ve decided to try and kill us off, one or two at a time.” I gave him the outline as he poked around under fender wells and around the engine and transmission. He got out an inspection mirror so he could see on top of the rear axle and above the gas tank. After forty minutes, he pronounced it clean and I drove it out and brought in Iva’s Taurus.

Same procedure again, slightly larger and newer car. Again, he found nothing. Of course, I offered to pay him and he acted insulted that I would even think of it. As we were getting ready to go, he shook my hand and Iva stepped up and gave him a good strong hug and made his day. If I was still alive at Christmas, I would send him the same gift I’d been sending him for eleven years—a nice bottle of Dewar’s and a silly card.  

It was getting late and we decided we’d go to TJ’s in Old Town for burgers and beer and when we got there the usual crowd of old retired types was there. We lost ourselves in jukebox music and good conversation for a couple hours before we went home to make love in my king-size bed and sleep the sleep of the righteous. It was to be the last enjoyable evening for a while…

*     *     *     *     *

Sunday morning found us sitting in my family room, sipping coffee and reading the paper. In the background, Fox news was droning on about yet another governor somewhere who was accused of taking bribes. And the phone rang.

When I answered it, the voice yanked me backward to a night of violence and mayhem, south of the Mexican border. Max Pilford was one of the blackest and richest men I’d ever met. Once a State Trooper in Georgia, he’d won the state lottery to the tune of a hundred and five million dollars. It had changed his life profoundly.

“What da fuck you doin’, Mistah Barry?”

“Ahhh…mostly keepin’ our heads down and watchin’ our asses. What about you?”

“Oh, they been tryin’ me. Been tryin’ me. Had one creepin’ round my house the other evenin’. I threw his ass in the pool and threw the bar-B-que grill in right behind him. Just happened the rotisserie was still plugged in when it hit the water. City cops hadda come fish his ass out. I left him until the next mornin’, then sorta found him. They ruled it accidental. Said he was probly lookin’ ta steal my grill and just tripped and fell in. They don’t have a lotta use for Mexicans down here.”

“Okay, well, that’s not gonna make ya real popular with the Cartel.”

“Well, fuck ‘em, they can’t take a joke. Gettin’ tired of them and their goddamn threats. I got a big enough arsenal here ta hold off an army. Even got Claymore mines. I ain’t fuckin’ around.”

“Okay, well, if ya need anything you got my number…”

“Yep. Goes both ways, my man, you need anything at all, I got the means, ya know…”

I had no sooner hung up than the phone rang again. This time it was Roland.

“My sources tell me there’s six strangers in town, three sets of two, stayin’ at three motels. Looks like they’re gonna try and take me out.”

“We’ll be on our way. Cell phones from here on. Keep your head down.”

*     *     *     *     *

A fully-loaded Stage 3 Roush Mustang goes for about $75,000 out of the box. It comes with more fancy shit to tickle the ass off rich teenagers than you could ask for and most of it is really just “oooh, pretty” and “gee-whiz”.

Several years ago, I got a chance to buy a Roush “Aluminator” 575- horsepower engine and six-speed tranny out of a salvage yard. After the kid killed himself in it, the engine and transmission were about all that were useable. I bought them, then had to find a car to put them in. I picked up a used plain-Jane Mustang off a car lot on South Broadway. It had the six-cylinder and automatic and it was using oil, but the body was straight. I got it cheap.

I took it to Merv’s and waited six weeks while he and his boys crammed the big engine into it and worked out all the bugs. To all outward appearances, it looked like every other Windmere Blue Mustang on the road and would do exactly 164 miles per hour, if you had enough road. And if you could keep the ass-end glued to the pavement. Iva and I loaded the trunk full of luggage and weapons, which would help with the traction issue and hauled ass for Wyoming. I kept the needle on the high side of a hundred, and all the way across Kansas, we only saw two troopers. One had a car stopped up by Salina and the other was doing paperwork in the median on I-70, near Hays. I don’t think either of them ever saw us. Once we actually got into Wyoming, where the speed limit is still “reasonable and prudent,” I kicked it up and white-knuckled it into Rawlins, stopping only to gas up the thirsty bastard and to pee and get coffee.

Driving fast mile after mile is exhausting work. Ask any NASCAR driver. Driving 500 miles at speeds ranging up to 200 miles per hour requires an athlete behind the wheel and it damn sure isn’t for the faint of heart. In our case, running over a hundred, and at times upward of one-fifty, on public roadways, and contending with traffic and the average American idiot driver had me worn out by the time we pulled into Roland’s driveway.

Later, I would remember seeing a blue Lexus pulling away from the curb as we turned onto his block. I took little notice of it at the time. I had expected Roland to step out on the porch as soon as we rolled in, but the place was quiet. As soon as I was on the porch, I suddenly felt it was too quiet. I had Iva step back to the Mustang and get our serious guns.

 In a moment, she was back with two shotguns, a Remington Model 870 pump riot gun and a Mossberg New Haven 500, cut off to 19 inches. Both were loaded with .00 buckshot. I tried the screen door and it opened. I found the inner door setting against the latch, but not secured. I pushed it open as Iva stood to the other side of the door. Nothing went “bang”, so I nodded to her and we went in, tactical style, covering each other and angling our corners for best target acquisition.

We cleared the main floor in less than a minute and then went up. Nothing upstairs, either. As we rejoined each other at the top of the stairs, she looked at me and said quietly, “Basement…”

We eased back down the stairs and through the kitchen to the basement stairs at the back of the house. The basement door was ajar and there was light coming from down there. At the top of the stairs, I could smell shit and I knew we had a problem.

I figured this was where I would get shot in my legs as I went down, but I was greeted only with silence.

Roland was in the furnace room, duct taped to a chair and he was a mess. He was alive, but barely. Nearby was a hacksaw, a pair of pliers and a propane torch. The first thing that struck me was how much weight he had lost. The man had evidently put himself on a diet. He was a shadow of his former self.

Behind me I heard Iva, already on her cell phone and talking to the emergency services dispatcher. I could see Roland was missing the last two joints on two fingers and part of an ear. His shirt was open and I could see blistering on his chest where they’d burned him. They hadn’t gotten around to his eyes, tongue or nuts, but they probably would have.

Just as I was getting ready to start cutting duct tape, he opened one eye and looked at Iva, who was directly in front of him. “Bout fuckin’ time you guys got here…”

Iva dropped to her knees and looked up into his face. She said some things to him, mostly in Spanish, and he seemed to understand. I started cutting away tape and in the distance we could hear sirens.

Then he said, very clearly, “I seem to have soiled myself a bit. Bein’ tortured is really the shits…no pun intended…” Then he passed out again.

When emergency services arrived, I sent Iva upstairs to bring them back down and along with them came yet another familiar face. Deputy Tim Lloyd, who had driven me back from Laramie almost two years earlier, when I’d had to stash my bike and make it appear that I’d gone home. He was a little older, a few pounds heavier and, when he saw Roland and the condition they’d left him in, he had to go out in the yard and stand for a while and talk to the trees.

After EMS had rolled for the hospital, I walked over and reintroduced myself. “Don’t know if you remember me, Deputy, Barry Wilder, from Wichita?”

His handshake was bone-crushing and he threw an arm around me and just held onto me for a minute. Iva walked up behind him and touched him on the shoulder and he turned and hugged her, too.

Soon, he broke away and swiped at his eyes with the back of one tactical glove. “Roland’s been closer to me than my dad ever was. I’m sorry, guys. Gonna hafta hurt some folks now. These…these fuckers have…have gone too damn far, now…”

“We saw a blue Lexus on the block here as we were pulling in, don’t remember what the tag looked like, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t local. Someplace to start, anyway.” I looked him up and down, then added, “You’ll wanna put him under guard, just to be on the safe side.”

“Already in the works. Sheriff’s a pretty new guy, but he’s good at his job. He’ll get him covered, and he’ll probably want to meet you, too.”

“Okay, well, as soon as your crime scene people get here, we’ll let you lead us to the hospital.”

Lloyd went back to his car and made some radio calls and also talked a while on his cell phone. While he was there, a plain white Ford van rolled up and parked in the driveway. Lloyd and the crime scene tech talked for a few minutes and Iva and I stayed out of the way. When the crime scene guy took over the house, Deputy Lloyd waved to us and we jumped in the Mustang and managed to keep up as we headed across town to the hospital.

*     *     *     *     *

“Shit, this is not good,” Iva said as we headed east on Second Street.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“He went right on by Wyoming Medical Center. They must have taken him out to the new hospital, Mountain View Regional. They must be worried about his heart. It’s further away, but it’s also the trauma center now.”

“Well, I’m sure they’re gonna take him wherever he’ll get the best care.” Behind me, I saw blue flashing lights and I moved over to let a plain white police-package Taurus go by, his siren on yelp and his foot in the firewall. “Wonder who the hell that was?”

Iva just gave one of her little half-grins and said, “I believe that’s the new sheriff…”

When we arrived, the unmarked Taurus was parked under the canopy by the front door, its LED lights still running. Tim parked out in the lot and we followed suit. There followed better than an hour of standing around, drinking coffee and bullshitting with whoever came around. And they all came around. I got to meet just about everyone on the Natrona County sheriff’s crew including Paul Ridgeway, the “new guy” in charge. He had won the last election by a narrow margin and he was now in the process of winning the trust of his people. Roland hadn’t been retired that long and he was well-liked by the people he worked with. Paul was smart enough to know that and show up where he could be seen to care.

He was about five-eleven and stocky and he wore a western-cut charcoal suit that must have set him back several hundred dollars and boots that looked hand-made. The dove-gray cowboy hat was genuine Stetson and the bolo tie had a chunk of turquoise that was big enough to use as a weapon. He had the firm handshake and look-em-in-the-eye, Dale Carnegie style. Everything about him said, “trust me”, and I didn’t. But I smiled and nodded and drank their coffee. I wasn’t there for the sheriff. I was there for Roland.

When they brought him out of the trauma bay, headed for a room, they stopped for a minute and Iva talked to him again.

“Hey, amigo, how you doin?”

“I’m hurtin’. Not so bad now, though. They gave me some stuff, probably morphine. I’ll make it. Good to see you, Sweetie.”

“How many of them were there?”

“Just two. Chelsea Barber and some goddamn ape that was half my age and twice my size. I couldn’t stop ‘em. I tried. I really tried…” I watched a tear slide out of the corner of his eye, headed south toward his ear. Being tortured is an unmanning thing. So is frustration and helpless rage.

A nurse said, “Ma’am? We need to get him settled into a room. Then ya’ll can visit, kay?”

I saw Iva flare up and I knew what was coming. Even so, I winced when it hit.

“You need ta hold yer fuckin’ horses just a second, chica, this is not ‘visitin’! This is an investigation!” Then she turned back to Roland and asked, “What did they want? Were they lookin’ for information?”

“No. They never asked me shit. What they wanted was for me to die. Slowly.”

“How come they took off? How did they know we were comin’?”

“They heard sirens. It spooked ‘em.”

Iva looked up at the nurse, who was pretty pissed off, and said, “Okay. Now you can go. And thanks. Sorry I blew up…”

We followed the medical staff to the room assigned to Roland and stood around some more while they got him settled in. He had monitors and IV’s, tubing and wires running everywhere.

Presently, Tim walked up and said, “I got to talk to the doctor. They’re thinkin’ he may have had another heart attack, a mild one, but they’re bringin’ in a specialist to check him out. I’ll take the first watch here and there will be a deputy here all the time. I assumed you guys would wanna get settled in somewhere and get some rest.”

“Okay,” I said, “let me give you our cell phone numbers in case something changes.” That being done, Iva and I headed for the Mustang.

As we walked out into the lot, my phone buzzed and I squinted at the number in the fading afternoon sunlight. It wasn’t one I recognized, and I thought, shit, he’s already going sour?”

“Hello?”

“Barry?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“It’s Chelsea…”

*     *     *     *     *

Looking back on it later, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Chelsea had called me on my cell before and, in fact, she’d had that phone all the time I was held captive on her mother’s ranch, doped to the gills and an unwilling participant in porn films. I only got it back when I was ready to leave after that incident was all behind me. I’d found it sitting on the seat of my motorcycle with a text message on it from the Bitch Kitty herself.

I’d never seen fit to change my number, either. Too many folks I cared about had no other way to reach me. I hesitated only a moment and then said, “Well, once again you demonstrate that you have bigger balls than most men I’ve met.”

Her chuckle was as low and sexy as ever, but her voice was sounding a lot more like her mother’s, that hoarse, slightly raspy tone of the lifetime smoker and drinker. “And why shouldn’t I call and wish you a happy Veteran’s Day? You are a veteran, right?”

“You already know I am. How’ve you been, Chelsea?” In my peripheral vision, I saw Iva’s jaw tighten and I knew I had to watch my ass.

“Can’t complain, except it gets tiresome staying a step ahead of the law all the time. You’re coming up here doesn’t help at all. Your testimony in front of the Grand Jury has pretty well cooked my goose, whenever they catch me.”

“Yeah, well, it might go easier if you’d just turn yourself in…”

“Fuck that bullshit! You know me better than that. I’ll go for all the freedom I can while I can. Once they get me, I’m lookin’ at hard time in the Federal pen, maybe life. I repeat, fuck that!”

“Okay, so why did you bother to call?”

“I think we should meet. I’d like to see you again…”

“Okay, now that makes no sense at all…”

“Why, are you afraid of me?”

“After seeing the condition you left Roland in, yeah, I’d have to say I’m afraid of you. I’d be an idiot not to be.”

“Too chickenshit to come meet me? I wouldn’t have believed it.”

I kept telling my ego to cool its jets, but goddamn, she was pushing all my buttons, and she knew it. “All right, where?”

“Washington Park, by the tennis courts. One hour. Come alone, or I won’t be there.”

*     *     *     *     *

Iva and I came as close as we’d ever been to having a fight when I decided to actually go meet Chelsea. “Barry, I don’t like this shit one goddamn bit. They could just have a dozen people there to kill you. Anything could happen. It’s not worth it, just to massage your ego. I realize what she did to you made you think of yourself as less of a man, but that’s all bullshit. You know it and I know it. You should have moved on from that by now.”

“I should have, yes. But, we’re all in danger and I’m also curious. I wanna see what she’s got on her mind.”

“And you’re gonna trust her to show up alone?”

“No, and I’m not too proud to tell you I’m gonna need eyes and ears on this. We gotta move, we don’t have much time.”

Iva flipped open her phone, saying, “Dumb bastard,” under her breath and started making calls.

When fifty-five minutes had passed, I rolled up to the tennis courts and parked. They were at the north end of a triangle-shaped park and the parking stalls faced the courts on the west, or street side.

I had no sooner parked than my cell rang and when I answered, Chelsea said, “Changed my mind. Meet me at the kid’s jungle gym to the south of where you’re at now. Leave your car there. Come on foot.”

I hung up and said, for the benefit of the wire I was wearing, “Change of plans. Going to the kid’s playground to the south. On foot.”

I got out of the Mustang, adjusting the Glock on the back of my right hip and trying not to be obvious about it. Then I started walking.

The military part of my mind was looking for possible cover and fields of fire. There were kids on the playground. Of course. That would be so I wouldn’t risk a shot at her. She didn’t lack smarts and I knew that going in. There were several large trees to the south that were still retaining a number of leaves. It had been a warm fall so far. Their trunks would provide cover, but it would be a sprint to get there.

As I approached the playground area, I saw Chelsea, sitting in a kid’s swing, waiting on me. She wore a pale blue dress with a full skirt and western boots and she had a large orange designer purse over her right shoulder and her hand was in it. Not a good sign. I certainly hoped the wire was working. I took a quick glance around, looking for anyone on my team or hers. No one seemed the slightest bit interested in us.

“Well, Mr. Wilder, you’re certainly looking good.” I looked her over and saw several signs that she wasn’t doing very well at all. She had lost maybe forty pounds and that didn’t look good on her. There were new lines on her face and her eyes looked dull, as did her teeth. Gone was the great smile and in its place, that of a solid drug user. She was into the meth, and it showed.

“Not lookin’ too bad yourself, there, Babe.” It was bullshit and she knew it, but the smile came back, at least for a moment. “So, what’s this all about?”

“You ever heard the expression, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’?” The hand was coming out of the purse now and I could see it was holding a gun. As it came further into view, I saw it was a nickel-plated .45 Colt, and I spoke up for the benefit of the wire, and the deputies who were, hopefully, receiving me loud and clear, “Now what are ya plannin’ to do with that cannon, Babe?”

“It’s time to settle up, Barry. You cost me a shit load of money and ruined my lifestyle. You shoulda just walked away when you could. You cost the Cartel a lot, too. I’ll be doin’ them a favor…”

From some distance away, there was the sudden crack of a rifle and the sound of tree branches crackling as a body fell. It hit the ground with a solid smack a hundred feet behind me. I saw Chelsea glance that way and I knew I wouldn’t get a second chance. I dived to my left as I drew my Glock. Her reflexes were just a bit too slow. As she tried to get her front sight on me, and began squeezing off rounds, I popped her twice, taking center body mass. Kids and mommies were screaming and running every which way, when another rifle shot cracked and Chelsea took another round just above her right eye. She was dead before she hit the ground.

I stood up slowly, just as an engine cranked and a white van took off from just south of where we were, headed south. In a moment, two marked Sheriff’s cars roared by with lights and sirens, in pursuit. Tim Lloyd walked up, carrying a scoped .308 Browning rifle. “You okay, Man?”

“I’m just peachy. Missed the sniper up in the tree, though.”

“Well, the sun was probably in yer eyes. I had a better position, but I almost didn’t see him, either.”

Iva rolled up with the sheriff a minute later and she came to me and I held her for what seemed like forever. She told me some things in Spanish, and the only thing I really picked out of it was, El Stupido. I would imagine she was referring to me…

*     *     *     *     *

In the next four days, Roland improved dramatically. The second-degree burns on his chest were small enough he didn’t need the services of a burn unit, although the doctor said they would definitely scar. His torturers had opted to remove parts of fingers from his left hand, rather than his right. His shooting hand would not be impaired. As for the chunk of ear that was cut off, it would just be one of those injuries we all accumulate. Our scars define who we are and what we’ve done with our lives.

By the time they let him out, the house had been released as a crime scene and Iva and I moved in with him, not only to keep him company, but in the hopes that the Cartel would make another attempt on his life. There was no doubt we were in a war and we were ready to join battle again.

Each time we would need groceries or anything else we would either bundle Roland off with us, or one of us would stay at the house with him. By the end of a week, he was healing nicely and starting to get tired of ‘the babysitter routine’, as he called it. He was eating well, too well according to him, and starting to add a few pounds. He was not sleeping as well as we would have liked, but that would only come with time and the resolution of our Cartel problem.

The local cops and the sheriff’s office were keeping an eye on the motels in the area, checking license plates and watching for known offenders. We figured since the demise of Chelsea Barber, the outfit would either fall apart or get stronger and come at us that much harder.

Street snitches had gotten the word that Deputy Tim Lloyd now had a price on his head. It wasn’t as much as mine and Iva’s, but it was significant enough to make him aware of his surroundings and to keep him well-armed at all times.

At the middle of week two, Iva and I approached Roland about moving down to Wichita, bringing just enough stuff to get along on, and staying with us until we reached a point where we felt the threat was no longer imminent or serious. We expected resistance, but, to our surprise, he agreed readily to go along. Iva called the Sheriff and made arrangements. We would leave the next morning. Roland’s house would be under frequent checks and various county sheriffs and highway patrols along the intended route would be made aware of our vehicle description and the situation.

That night, Iva told me she thought Roland just needed to get out on the road and that she was sure he missed Commando Cody. The big Doberman was piling up bills at a boarding kennel on the west side of Wichita and I could only imagine how crazy he would be to see his people back. It was going to be cramped in the Mustang, but we could switch around every gas stop so nobody would have to be wedged in the back seat for too long.

She also told me that at one time, she and Roland had been lovers and had almost married. They had been smart enough to live together for a while and, before they screwed up and tied the knot, they figured out they were too much alike and it wasn’t gonna work. Somehow, this news was not disturbing to me at all…

*     *     *     *     *

My home in Wichita would probably be described as a “sprawling, spacious ranch-style estate”, or some such shit. It was built in the 1970’s and it looks it. It has never been “updated” or “modernized” in any way and that’s how I like it.

It has a basement and four bedrooms, a three-car garage, an open-air kitchen and three gun safes. It has a safe room in the basement that could only be opened with the correct combination or by the proper use of high explosives.

On the way there, as soon as we got into Wichita, we went and picked up Commando Cody. Greetings were accomplished outside the car, to save the upholstery. The folks at the boarding kennel said he’d been the perfect gentleman the whole time we were gone. That was a good thing. They said they weren’t afraid of him, but they were lying. I knew it and he knew it, too. Once we got going, with his big ass in the back with Roland, I noticed Roland had to wipe his eyes and blow his nose a couple of times.

The assholes were already in the house waiting on us when we rolled into the garage. As soon as we were inside, I hit the remote on the visor and the door went down. We were in the center bay, and the first hint that something was wrong was when the light on the garage door opener went off. It should have stayed on for about four minutes. This was when the guy in the basement cut the breaker that controlled power to the garage.

Between the garage bays there were large tool boxes on roll-around cabinets. When the guy on the left stood up, I saw his shotgun and everything went into slow motion. I cranked the Mustang’s motor and it caught immediately. I reached up to the visor and hit the remote, but of course, nothing happened. Earlier, I had taken my Glock from where it was digging into my hip and had moved it, placing it between the side of my seat and the console. This act alone may have saved my life, along with the fact that the window was already down.

I snatched the Glock and fired two shots out the window, then crammed the car into reverse and nailed it. The big engine roared and the back tires spun, digging for purchase on the polished concrete floor. That was when the second guy stepped out from behind the tool box on the right and opened up with an Uzi submachine gun.

The garage doors, like the rest of the house, had never been updated. They were old and made of wood and should have been replaced with something more current. As the Mustang plowed into the door, it gave out with a bang and splintered, pieces exploding into the driveway. 9mm rounds were coming into the car, hitting everywhere.

Halfway through the door, the car got hung up and stopped. The guy with the Uzi had moved and was now walking around toward the front of the car, loading another magazine. The shotgun guy was just standing up, and one of his arms was hanging limp, with blood dribbling off it onto the floor.

In the back seat, Commando was going apeshit and Roland was yelling. I slammed the car into low gear and nailed it again. The Mustang leaped forward and the Uzi guy realized too late, he’d put himself in a bad position. He was walking to my left and as he tried to reverse and scurry back out of the way, his foot slipped and he went halfway down. He was in that position when I hit him and crushed him against the wall. As soon as I had him pinned, I grabbed the Glock again and placed another two shots, this time with much more accuracy, into the shotgun guy. Then, I shut the car off and yelled, “Out! Everybody out!”

I rolled out the left door onto the floor and was immediately bowled over by Commando Cody. He was scrambling to get out and I heard his nails on the concrete. I was conscious of Roland scrambling out of the back seat and in the back of my mind I vowed never to buy another two-door car. I reached back in and hit the trunk release and yelled, “Weapons!”

I made it to the trunk and Roland was right behind me. We both grabbed shotguns. Then I realized Iva was still in the car. A figure moved inside the glass storm door that led into the house and I racked my shotgun and fired straight through the lower glass pane. I was just a tad late and missed.

As I passed by the Mustang on the driver’s side, I made myself focus on the house and our entry. I would not allow myself at that point to look in the car. I knew if I did, I might die right there and Roland might, too. As we entered the house, two guys were jumping the back fence, headed out across the city park behind the house. We ignored them and concentrated on clearing the house. It took a few minutes, being careful and covering each other and when we determined the place was safe, we went back to the garage.

Commando Cody was tucked in behind the right rear wheel of my Jeep Safari, in the next bay to the left. He had sustained a gunshot that narrowly missed his chest and went through his left front leg. As soon as I had checked him and realized he wasn’t going to die on me, I turned my attention to the car.

Roland was already there, kneeling on the driver’s seat and checking Iva. Soon, he climbed back out, looking older and more defeated than I had ever seen him look before. “She’s gone,” he said, “never had a fucking chance.”

As he stepped away from the car, I got in and took my look. She had taken the full brunt of the machine gun blast and the wounds were numerous and ugly. There were tiny shards of glass in her hair and on her face and her eyes were still partway open. She was looking down and to her right, almost as if she were embarrassed that her life had ended with her at such a disadvantage.

Gently, I closed her eyes, then kissed her forehead and smoothed her hair, picking up some glass I would later have to pick out of my hand. When I got back out, Roland was looking under the front of the car, where the machine-gun asswipe was smashed. I heard him say quietly, “Got what ya deserved, didn’t ya, fuck-stick?”

*     *     *     *     *

When Commando Cody was released from the doggy hospital, I took him to Resthaven mortuary, where Iva’s remains had been held, pending cremation. When the mortician brought her out of the cooler, Cody struggled and was able to stand and place one paw on the side of the morgue tray and sniff her. I think he knew she was dead before we went there, but I wanted him to have some closure. He licked her lifeless hand and then dropped back down to the floor. His left front leg was in a cast and a sling-type device and he hobbled over to the door. He’d seen enough and he was ready to go.

Roland and I travelled back to Wyoming for Iva’s memorial service and we split the cost of her headstone. Even though we had both loved her, we were never rivals and that was good. He is living at my place now and I have the feeling it will be permanent.

I kept Iva’s favorite pair of Dingo boots in my closet next to mine and Commando has her old leather jacket lining his bed. I think it gives him comfort. Roland has her picture on the dresser in his room.

I had the same salvage yard guy who sold me the motor and tranny for the Mustang come pick the car up when the cops were done with it. He agreed he would part it out and crush whatever was left. I didn’t want it driven again. I also replaced all three garage doors with new steel ones and had the phone line repaired where the cartel thugs cut it to keep the alarm from going in to the monitoring company. In all the attention to details, I was able to keep my mind occupied and off Iva.

The Cartel has given up, we’re pretty sure. Either we were too tough to kill, or too costly in lives. There have been no further problems and no communication.

Commando is better now and he often runs after something in his sleep, maybe rabbits, maybe bad guys. Maybe in his dreams he somehow saves his mistress.

There was a particularly nice sunset last evening and Roland and I watched it from the sun porch while we got through a few beers.

Iva would have liked it.


Wichita, Kansas

St. Valentine’s Day, 2015



tonighthecomes.jpg
Art by Paul "Deadeye" Dick 2015

Tonight He Comes…

 

A Short Story of Erotic Horror

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

 

Deep in the night, in the depths of her sleep, the man held her, his hard arms clutching her to his brawny chest, his chest hair teasing her nipples to full erectness as his lips teased her elsewhere.

In her bed, she rolled and moaned and, half-asleep, she grabbed the spare pillow and shoved it between her legs, gripping it with her thighs as the dream deepened.

He had shifted now, his lips were on her breasts, his tongue gently licking along the bottom curvature of each round fullness, his teeth teasing, nipping, bringing quick sensations that sped through her body. She could feel slickness inside her, slowly oozing downward, making ready for him. As his mouth crossed her belly, moving ever downward in her dream, her fingers slid along a similar path until they found her pubic mound.

She came awake, gasping, as she began climax. Her hand, suddenly withdrawn from where she’d been touching herself, seemed to have a life of its own, wanting to go back. She would not let it. The camera was on her, she knew, her every move observed and being recorded somewhere far back in the labyrinth that was Marchaud State Hospital.

She had been adjudicated as criminally insane, a danger to herself and others. She was not likely to ever get out. But it didn’t matter. She’d brought Derek, her lover, with her. And as long as she had Derek…

 

 

“She poisoned her husband, you know,” Dr. Cummins said matter-of-factly, while polishing his glasses.

“No,” Patricia said, startled, “I didn’t know…”

“And the rest of her family, too. Two boys, ages six and nine and her daughter, nine months.”

“How horrible.”

“Yep. Gave ‘em grape juice with cyanide in it. Did a Jim James on ‘em.”

“Why would anyone do that?”

“Cause she’s a fucking loon, that’s why,” the doctor said, chuckling.

“Doctor!” Patricia pretended to be shocked. In fact, she was titillated. That the distinguished doctor would use such language around her showed a certain amount of trust and that excited her.

“Well, it’s true. You can throw whatever psychological terminology you want at it, but nobody in their right mind could poison their whole family because of some dream lover.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“That’s right. She was supposedly being visited every night by this fantastic lover, who would give her the greatest pleasure she'd ever known. He told her to get rid of her family and to come join him. Apparently the cops kicked the door just as she was about to drink some of her own concoction.

“Might have been better for all concerned if they’d let her do it,” Patricia ventured.

“Well, cheaper, anyway,” the doctor said, “that way the state wouldn’t have to foot the bill for her care for the rest of her life.”

Dr. Cummins had a number of students who were working the summer internship with him, but none, he reflected, quite as lovely as Patricia Lowell. She was just twenty-four, and that made her about the same age as his daughter, but the doctor couldn't have cared less. If he were successful in seducing her, as he was quite sure he would be, it wouldn’t be the first sweet young thing he’d nailed, and most likely not the last. The doctor was a man who liked his carnal pleasures, too.

He stood slightly behind and to the side as Patricia continued viewing the feed from the patient’s cellcam, admiring the smoothness of her skin, the ripe curves of her full breasts and the long, shapely legs, nicely displayed by a skirt that was just a bit too short to attend classes in. Briefly, he imagined running his hand slowly up her sleek inner thigh and he was almost startled by how quickly he felt the beginnings of an erection forming. Almost.

Dr. Cummins was not at all unattractive. At forty-four, he still had all of his teeth, most of his hair and a good physique. Getting pussy was no problem. Keeping Janey from finding out—now there was the problem. Janey was his wife of twenty-five years and even now, he considered her a hottie. But usually the fact that he had a hot wife at home who was always ready did little to keep him in line when it came to his cute female students. He and Janey had fallen into a sameness that was hard to alleviate, what with their jobs and structured lifestyles. It was always much more exciting to bang some pretty coed on his desk with his office door locked.

Now, as he watched Patricia and she watched the patient, who was engaged in the most involved and complicated masturbation he’d ever seen, he noted her parted lips and quickened breathing, her half-lidded eyes and her fingers absently playing with a button of her sweater, just between her breasts, as she stared raptly at the screen.

Damned if she isn’t getting turned on by this, he thought. Yeah, this won’t be too difficult at all…

 

 

Deep in sleep again, Connie Broward welcomed Derek once again into her bed, and he whispered to her as they made love. He told her of a way she could escape, and a place they could go where they could be together and share their love forever. As his manhood penetrated her heated softness, his words penetrated her brain and found their way deep into her psyche. As she climaxed again and again and Derek brought her to satisfaction, the plan became an active thing in her mind—just like her lover.

 

 

Derek Colvin had been thirty-four years old when his life was cut short in a traffic accident. He’d been drunk at the time and everyone remarked at what a damned shame it was. Especially the two dozen or so women, both married and unattached, who came to his funeral service to mourn his passing. Derek had been what was casually referred to as a “horn-dog”. More than once an irate husband had referred to him as a son-of-a-bitch, too.

But satisfying women was what Derek did and he was good at it. Once beyond the grave, he passed up the chance to “go into the light”, as he didn’t know what was there and he had never trusted religion, had no use for it, really. Instead, he opted to hang around and revisit some of the places he’d been fond of throughout his life. He found that just by concentrating his mind and his life force into a singular process, he could instantly arrive wherever he desired.

He made a few midnight pussy raids and managed to nail a few of his old girlfriends, but they mostly got scared shitless as soon as they woke up. At least one left town and another attempted suicide. A couple of others got over their initial fears and would lay awake at night, hoping for another visit, but Derek was already on the prowl, looking for new adventures.

One night, he returned to the scene of the accident. For some reason, he found himself drawn there on occasion and he would often sit right under the tree he’d rammed with his Beemer and muse about how things had turned out. On this particular night, though, he found himself distracted by a woman who lived in the house where the tree still grew. He remembered seeing her right after the wreck, when the odd sensations of being dead were still brand new. She had come running out of the house, perhaps curious, maybe even thinking she could help. Derek, of course, was beyond help, but even then he’d been thinking what a dish she was, even as the EMT’s were removing his mangled body from the wreck.

Now, he felt her inside the house and it seemed she was reaching out in some way, if not to him, then to any man who would come and love her. It was an exciting moment when he stepped through her bedroom windows, causing hardly a stir of the curtains, and realized she was masturbating. It was dark in there, but to Derek, it made no difference. He saw everything in medium shades of gray, day or night. She was in a twin bed, the other twin bed in the room being empty. Her husband was apparently away. Derek moved quickly through the house, noting the children asleep in their beds and the dog sleeping across the threshold of their front door. Good doggie, you stay right there, he thought as he moved back into the bedroom.

He thought of himself taking off his clothing and he was instantly naked. He thought of himself as aroused and excited and the smell of the woman helped with that and he was suddenly hard as nails.

He moved to the bed and found she had completed what she’d started and fallen asleep. Her hands still smelled of her sex and Derek kissed and tasted her fingers. She stirred slightly and he sought to quiet her mind. As his mind touched hers, he found a seething maelstrom of sexual desire, deeply infused with resentment towards her husband and kids. Her subconscious reached out to him and locked onto his mind and his desires and in moments he was in her. It was quite a long and satisfying night.

 

“It was really Derek who killed my family.” Connie was having a session with Dr. Cummings and the student, Patricia. “I understand that now, but it’s far too late to do anything about it, and besides, what could I do?”

“So this Derek, he comes to you in the night, sort of like an Incubus?” Dr. Cummings was playing along, drawing her out.

“Yes. Yes, I suppose that’s right…”

As they progressed, the doctor learned that throughout high school and college, she had been known as a hottie, and lucky for her, her mother had recognized the signs early on and got her on some birth control. Otherwise, she probably would have been ‘barefoot and pregnant” almost all the time.

When she met Jim and realized he was everything women always wanted in a man, she took her time seducing him and when the time was right, she conned him into marriage. He turned out to be a lukewarm lover, but he had looks and money and they made beautiful kids together. She’d figured she would settle down after a few years of marriage, but just the opposite had happened.

“Let me ask you Connie, and please be truthful with me,” Dr. Cummings asked, “before Derek came along, had you ever had any other extramarital affairs?”

Connie said, matter-of-factly, “On the night Derek first came to me, I was keeping company with three men, whenever and wherever I could find time and get away. But once I’d been with Derek, I realized he was every woman’s dream. He can come to me whenever I want him. He’s the best lover I’ve ever had and I never even had to leave my own bed. No chance of getting caught, either. I dropped those other guys after Derek came along.”

It only took two times of their getting interrupted before Derek started trying to convince her to do away with her family. When she balked at the idea, he abruptly stopped visiting her. She was angry at first, then devastated. It didn’t take long for her to transfer her anger to her husband and family. When she began to put together a plan, Derek started visiting again. Sometimes she could feel his presence all day. And once in a while, he would come into her at the most inappropriate times. She might be driving her van and suddenly he was just there, right where he needed to be to make her come her brains out. She’d nearly wrecked the truck the first time that happened. She’d learned very quickly that when Derek started in, and she happened to be driving, she might as well pull over and park and enjoy it.

 

Patricia came back to the offices a few minutes after Dr. Cummins left for home. She had a good idea what his game was. She knew the very first time she was alone with him that he was hot for her, and she wasn’t surprised. She knew how attractive she was and she had been around the block with a few men. But now, as she watched the patient Connie Broward on the monitors, saw her deep in passion, even though she seemed to be asleep, watched her stroking herself and heard her whispering to her imaginary lover, she became excited much more than she had ever been turned on by any man. Her interest in the patient went well beyond anything merely clinical. She wanted Connie Broward for herself.

 

Two nights later, Dr. Cummins put his hands on Patricia’s ass and she rebuffed him. It happened as they were watching overnight tapes of Connie Broward in what they thought was a complicated form of masturbation. What they were actually seeing was the coupling of two lovers, one invisible to them and their senses. Patricia had already noticed some discrepancies that didn’t add up and she was concentrating on the video image. Dr. Cummins was concentrating on her. When his hands cupped the cheeks of her butt, she was startled, and she had a momentary flash of what she could have with him. In moments they could be engaged in intercourse, right here in the office, or most likely anywhere she chose to go. But then she got irritated with him and moved away and told him he needed to keep his hands to himself, that she wasn’t that kind of girl.

Truth of the matter was, she most definitely was that kind of girl, but she had convinced herself she was bisexual. She hadn’t faced up to the fact that she was a Lesbian and she hadn’t come out of the closet. She still dated and occasionally had sex with men, but she much preferred women. She found the softness and roundness, the smells and tastes of women much more appealing than the touch of a man.

Watching the video of Connie Broward, both live and taped, she had begun to realize there was something more going on than just a delusional woman pleasuring herself. She had seen with her own eyes movements of the blankets, the pillows, the patient’s hair and body that could not readily be explained and she knew that if Dr. Cummins had been paying more attention to the patient instead of her ass, he would have noticed them, too. Some time on the third day, she decided she must visit Connie Broward’s room during the night and try to find out what was really going on.

 

Derek was becoming stronger. He had always been a type “A” personality, used to mostly doing and taking whatever he wanted. After he died, he found he could still play with the girls, but he had little or no control over inanimate objects. That was changing and with every day that passed, he was more able to move or influence objects and to feel the solidity of the universe around him. During the course of lovemaking with Connie, he was now able to actually hold her and feel her warmth and her heartbeat. He could taste her skin and feel the roughness of the blankets on the bed. He could heft the weight of her breasts and turn her and move her, positioning her as he liked. He was aware of the cameras that watched and recorded everything, but he didn’t care. What could they do? He was no more real to the doctors than a fairytale. He had freed Connie from her family, and when the time was right, he would free her from this place, too.

 

The smell of sex was heavy in the room, almost overpowering. Patricia had borrowed the keys from the security officer on duty on the wing, telling him she had to take some readings and check on the patient. As she secured the door, moving quietly so as not to disturb or influence what was going on, she noted the sounds and activity on the patient’s bed. She began to become alarmed when she realized that up close, as she was now, she could see indentations in the patient’s flesh, she could see Connie’s breasts being squeezed by something unseen, but definitely there, she could see the slickness of saliva as something placed its mouth on the patient and, just before she fled the room, she saw what she was sure was semen, ejaculating out of thin air and landing on the patient’s belly.

Once again, interrupted! But this time, Derek was too far into it to stop. And now, the little bitch doctor or student, whatever she was, had seen too much. This was going to definitely cause some shit. Time to think about implementing The Plan. But first, she must be shown that she was out of line. She must be punished.

 

Patricia went straight to Dr. Cummins office and dialed his home number. His wife answered on the second ring and went to get the doctor. Patricia would explain to him what was going on and together, they might make history…

She was unaware when Derek entered the room, in fact, she had no clue until his hands were roaming over her body, reaching right through her clothing. And his touch was cold.

Dr. Cummins got to the phone in less than a minute, and picked it up and was actually beginning to speak when he realized he was hearing a woman screaming. It sounded like Patricia. There were no words, just an inarticulate wailing. Dr. Cummins broke the connection and called security at the hospital first, then the police. Then he threw on some clothes and raced for his car.

 

Ah, yes, you like that, don’t you, you little cunt! You like being fucked in the ass and beaten at the same time! You like it when I claw at your tits and bite you! Here, let’s stick this in your weepy little cunt! What, you don’t like your clothes ripped off? Tough shit, you little whore! You shouldn’t have interfered! Here it comes. Yeah, you like my splooge, huh, right in your face!

The rape and murder of Patricia might have gone on longer, had Derek not been interrupted again, this time by security. The officers arrived at Dr. Cummings office and witnessed the last of it, saw Patricia bent backward over the desk, observed that her neck was most likely broken and that she was bleeding from under what was left of her skirt. Her clothing was mostly shredded and they would both testify later that when they arrived, she was absolutely alone in the office and that they had observed no one entering or leaving. Video from surveillance cameras on the hallways would back up their testimony. They were both bothered, though, by the fact that, even though she was clearly dead, her hips had been seen moving in a frantic motion, almost as though she was having intercourse.

Derek returned to Connie Broward’s room and joined her in bed. As he had so many times before, he whispered to her for some time and at last they were in agreement. She was prepared to do whatever was necessary to be with Derek forever.

Later that same evening, after the police had finished with the crime scene in Dr. Cummings office and he had made his statement, after Patricia’s badly mauled body had been removed, he went down to Connie Broward’s room to check on the patient before leaving for home. He found her dead, obviously strangled from the marks on her neck, even though there were really no signs of a struggle. He went back to his office and reviewed video tapes for several hours, at last seeing what Patricia had seen, what had alarmed her so.

The next day, he signed Connie Broward’s death certificate. On it he listed the cause of death as “natural causes.” Within a few weeks, Dr. Cummings left Marchaud State Hospital and eventually opened his own practice in another state.

The rape and murder of Patricia Lowell remains an open case to this day…




treehouse.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe 2015

The Tree House

by Kenneth James Crist

 

Steve and Marty Westover never really paid much attention to the decrepit old tree house when they bought the fifteen acres, house, barn and paddock a few miles outside Norfolk in 2004. Steve had looked at it briefly and thought, there’s another job I’ll have to take care of . . . get that old pile of lumber down and burn that shit.

It was situated in an old, half-dead Live Oak that actually hung partway over the back fence, so it was a long way from the house, and one thing leading to another, it was largely forgotten for a few months as the family moved in and got organized. Living in the new place meant Steve had to drive nearly forty miles every morning and evening just to show up at his cabinet-making business and the plan was that at some point, everything would be moved to the farm and into that spacious barn.

While Steve and Marty forgot about the tree house, their ten year-old only child Phillip fell in love with the place and took it over. It was in pretty ratty condition, but there were enough old boards and other scrap, even including a couple of windows, still in the old barn for Phillip to make improvements. Even without much in the way of carpentry skills, he found himself able to fix things and generally turn the tree house into a snug retreat to use as his own personal space.

The family cat, Spider, also took to the tree house immediately, much more readily than he took to the move to the country. When they’d lived in the city, Spider had been mostly an inside cat. Now, there was suddenly an entire world to explore and, after the first few days, he would often be missing all day, only showing up to tune in on the sweet music of the can opener.

Spider was a gangly cat, long-legged and rangy, with unruly fur that tended to bunch up and lay in multiple cowlicks. And he was the blackest cat the Westover family had ever seen. As a kitten, he would creep about the house and suddenly attack their feet, coming sideways up on his tiptoes, tail whipping from side to side. Steve said in the darkness of the family room, with just the light from the TV, he looked like a fucking Tarantula. Hence the name.

Phillip was a gangly kid, too, but he was red-headed, with pale, white skin and dapples of freckles wherever the sun put a finish on his skin. He also had piercing gray eyes that could be disturbing when he was in a sour or angry mood. The red hair came from Marty’s side. Nobody knew where the gray eyes came from.

Up in the tree house, Phillip had installed a few amenities. There was an old battery-operated radio that he’d retrieved out of the trash when they were moving. He’d cleaned the battery contacts where the old D cells had leaked and corroded them and finally got it working again. His dad could never figure out why their flashlights went dead so quickly. Phillip considered the radio to be more important than flashlights and so he swapped out batteries whenever he needed new ones.

From the barn, he’d taken a chair and a milking stool and some short boards he turned into shelves. There had also been an old ladder that got repurposed and provided a safe way up and into the tree house. An old cable spool made a dandy table and when the place was snug and dry, Phillip moved comic books and magazines, toys and other kid junk out there and he and Spider might spend most of the day up above the world and removed from the humdrum everyday life.

The tree house could be a rocket ship, a pirate ship, a submarine . . . or anything a ten-year-old’s imagination wanted it to be. By the time Steve and Marty realized what was going on, the tree house was in good shape and no longer an eyesore. And Phillip liked it so much. They decided to let it be.

*     *     *     *     *

It was another month before Phillip slept in the tree house for the first time. Summer had come on and the weather had become sultry. Steve was pissed because the air conditioning wasn’t working very well and the system was old enough it was going to be hard to find parts. He’d hoped when they bought the place that it would hold out at least one season, so they could save enough to have it replaced. They all spent several nights rolling around in hot rooms and sweaty sheets and finally Phillip asked if he could sleep in the tree house. He convinced his mom it would be cooler, but he really thought of it like camping out—as an adventure.

He carried an old air mattress out there and managed to get it up through the hatch, then made himself dizzy as hell blowing it up. Then he went and got some bedding, a flashlight, a 2-liter of Pepsi and a box of Famous Amos cookies. What more could a kid want?

He settled in for the night, and soon Spider joined him, only too happy to be up in the leafy retreat for the night. Just before he dropped off to sleep, Phillip heard an owl hoot three times. He found it a comforting sound, not scary at all.

. . . And he was flying. Phillip always dreamed in color and sometimes with sound and conversations. He liked his dreams, for the most part, but flying dreams were always the best. Unlike most kids his age, Phillip knew exactly what he wanted to do for his life’s work. He would be a pilot and fly jets. Military, if he could make it, commercial if he had too. He didn’t care if he had to fly cargo for UPS or FedEx.

In the dream, though, there were no jets, in fact there were no planes at all. In the dream, you didn’t need a plane to fly. You just spread your arms like wings and thought about it and lifted off. There were cities floating in the sky and beautiful farms down below. And there was a girl.

Phillip was already noticing girls in his waking hours. Maybe he was a little early, as most of the boys he hung out with professed to “hate” girls, but Phillip liked and admired them. The girl in the dream was Cassandra, and she was a bit older, old enough to have developed a slight woman-shape and the beauty and grace that went along with that.

That first night, though, Phillip found himself a little shy and tongue-tied with her. He found he could hardly look at her directly, she was so pretty, and he hardly spoke to her at all. But she took his hand, her cool fingers holding his (his fingers a bit sweaty from her touch) and they flew through the night to strange and beautiful places.

In the floating cities, they saw thousands of people and there were no cars or trucks. Everyone flew wherever they liked and there were buildings that were miles high and gracefully shaped to accommodate the people and their needs.

Cassandra wore a gown that shimmered and changed colors as they whirled and floated and her jewelry sparkled in the sunlight. She wore a necklace of emeralds and matching earrings that were the exact color of her eyes and several rings. She even had a toe ring. Her hair was of a shade even redder than his own, a rippling mane of red fire when they flew. The dream was so real that when he awoke in the morning, there was a very real ache in his chest. He hoped this would not be one of those dreams that never came back. He wanted to go with Cassandra again. And he vowed he would be more outgoing with her. He’d be brave and strong and show her what he was made of.

The day seemed to drag on forever. His mom and dad had decided he needed some chores to do, just to keep him occupied and out of trouble and also so that he could earn a little money.

He learned to drive their John Deere lawn tractor and he kept busy with yard work. They didn’t mow the entire fifteen acres, but Phillip kept the two acres around the house and barn looking like a golf course. He was understandably proud of his skill with the tractor and his dad appreciated not having to deal with yard work when he got home. Still, the dream bothered him because of its realism and he had a growing fascination with Cassandra. He didn’t know everything about girls, yet, but he knew enough. She was prettier than any girl in his class and friendlier, too. He wasn’t in love yet, but Cassandra had his attention.

*     *     *     *     *

“We can travel through time, too, you know.” Cassandra was talking to Phillip in another dream. It had been almost two weeks and he had been beginning to doubt he would ever see her again. Then, tonight, she was just there. He was in his own bed, instead of in the tree house, because it was storming. The storm had made his sleep unusually deep and now Cassandra was back.

“No, I didn’t know. How would we do that?” They were seated together on a Victorian sofa in an old house somewhere—Phillip had no idea where—and outside, a storm was raging, just as at his house in Virginia.

“The same as flying, we just have to agree where we want to be, in the past, in the future . . . whatever we desire.”

“Is this what heaven is like?”

“Why, Phillip, why would you ask that?”

“Because . . .” He suddenly found himself tongue-tied again. God, she was so beautiful. . . . “I can’t imagine being happier than when I’m with you!” He blurted it out, embarrassed by his own boldness, but not sorry he’d said it. He dreaded her answer, though.

“Thank you, Phillip. I like being with you, too. Would you like to travel into the future and see yourself as a man?”

While he thought about that, hesitating for only a moment, she stood and turned to him, offering her hand. “Come, let’s go, before the night is wasted. . . .”

. . . And they flew, climbing up and up until atmosphere was gone and they were in the depths of space, a cold airless void, but they didn’t feel the cold and it didn’t matter that there was no air.

“Are we moving through time?” Phillip asked.

“We are going to the point in space where the world will be in ten years. It will make ten orbits around the sun, each a little different, and the sun moves, too, as the universe expands. We must go to where Earth will be then.”

Their speed was so great that the stars appeared as dashes, rather than points of light, and very soon, there was Earth, just as Phillip had seen it in pictures taken from space. As they approached, Cassandra slowed them down and they dropped right into a town in Montana, landing in the parking lot of a honky-tonk bar.

It was Saturday night, and the Bison Lounge was roaring with music and drunken laughter, whoops and shouts. They moved inside and Phillip immediately saw himself at the bar. He wore jeans and a leather vest lined with sheepskin. His hair was longish and he was clutching a beer in one fist. He was also quite drunk.

“You can be him for a while, if you want. Just move up and step inside him.”

Phillip moved across the dance floor, invisible to everyone there. He walked up to his older self and stepped right into his own body. Other than feeling bigger and sort of out of control, Phillip didn’t think he felt much different.

Then a woman, about five foot eight and very curvy, walked up and grabbed him. She landed a real wowser of a kiss right on his mouth and said, “Hi lover! Did ya miss me?”

She was shoving her boobs against his chest and Phillip was feeling a lot of things happening. “Dance with me!”

Before he could react, she was dragging him out onto the dance floor. Her western boots set off a pair of great legs and as she spun, her skirt whirled and showed off a lot of skin. She was pushing all his buttons and she had no idea he was only ten.

Fifteen minutes later, they were in her car in the parking lot. Her breasts were out of her top and she was struggling with her panties when Phillip was suddenly yanked out of his other self and he and Cassandra were again swooping up into the darkness. She was laughing at him, and he said, “Why did you do that? It was just getting really interesting . . .”

“Yes, a little too interesting, I think, for a young guy like you. Anyway, welcome to the adult world. Did you like her?”

“I liked what I saw and what she was doing. Don’t know if I really liked her.”

“It’s going to be morning soon, I have to take you back.”

“Will I see you again?” Phillip was worried again, needing reassurance.

“Any time you want. When you dream, I’ll be there.” She took off one of her emerald earrings and handed it to him. Then she faded.

When Phillip woke up the next morning, he yawned and stretched and turned over, anticipating another half-hour of sleep. Something jabbed him in the side and he groped around under the sheet and found a teardrop-shaped emerald earring. . . .

*     *     *     *     *

Phillip’s eleventh birthday was celebrated without much fanfare. The family had cake and ice cream. He had Cassandra. Through experience, he had learned that sleeping in the tree house was still the best way to be with her. Together, they had gone so many places, hundreds of years before his birth and hundreds of years after his own death, which she would not let him see.

They had been around the dark side of the moon and he had walked on Mars. He had seen Saturn’s rings up close and personal. The only problem was, every morning he had to wake up.

A week ago, they had finally gotten down to the questions he had really wanted to ask.

They were sitting in a secluded spot in the Amazon rain forest, where there was a small waterfall in the background and the sight of humans was so rare that the birds and animals had no fear of them.

“Where do you come from?” Phillip asked the question with a coldness in his heart. He was afraid of the answer.

“I really shouldn’t tell you,” she said, lowering her eyes and looking down at her lap, where her restless hands were braiding some pieces of grass.

“Yes, you should. C’mon, I’m old enough to know the truth.”

“I’m not sure you can handle the truth. . . . ”

“Try me!”

“All right. . . .” She looked up at him with those emerald eyes and said, “I come from the same place as you. I lived in your house forty years ago.”

“Forty—forty years ago? What happened to you?”

“I killed myself when I was fifteen.”

As he started to ask another question, she placed her fingers against his lips and stopped him. “I know you have a million things you want to ask, but here’s all you need to know. This life, my life, of dreams and illusions, is all I’ll ever get. This is limbo. This is what you get if you don’t let your life run out its natural course. No heaven. No hell. No beginning and no end. Just this.”

“But . . . but this is wonderful!”

“Hmmm, you might think so, but I’m thinking it’s gonna get old after a few thousand years. . . .”

“How? I mean how did you do it?”

“I hung myself. In the barn. If you look up in the hay loft, I’m pretty sure the rope’s still there. . . .”

. . . And the rope was there. Just where she said it would be. It was eight days after their last talk, and Cassandra had not visited. Phillip didn’t know if it was because she felt she had said too much, or if perhaps she was just waiting for him to make the next move.

The more he thought about what he might do, the more he knew what he must do. In the end, he found his life didn’t really mean all that much to him, at least if it meant being without Cassandra.

He had originally met her when he was in the tree house. He would end it—one way or the other—at the tree house, also.

He stood in the doorway, the floor being nineteen feet from the ground, the noose around his neck and the other end of the rope running out the opposite window and secured to a sturdy limb. He held her earring gripped tightly in his right hand. He thought it over carefully. And when he concluded that his life was meaningless without Cassandra, he merely stepped off.

At the end of the rope, he felt his neck crack and there was a huge flare of light.

She was waiting for him there, in the place she called limbo. His spirit joined with Cassandra’s as it left his body and they flew, gloriously free, to be together for eternity.

Spider, curious as his species always will be, sat at the edge of the door sill, patting at the rope as it swung and creaked in the breeze, following the arc of the body with his cool eyes, wondering at this new game. . . .

 

When the coroner examined Phillip’s earthly remains, he found an indentation in the palm of his right hand. He said the boy was doubtless gripping a small object very tightly just as, or just before he stepped off into eternity. However, nothing was ever found.



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Art by Noelle Richardson 2015

Shining Up Grandma

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

The following is based on a true story. The names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent…

Laura Sue Billings stepped out onto the porch and lit yet another cigarette. It was her twenty-first of the day, but then it had been a long fucking day. At twenty-five, Linda was a small, thin woman, twice married and once divorced, her first husband having been killed in a car crash.

When she was young, she was a heller. She’d always been a tomboy, more interested in working on cars with her dad and playing softball than wearing girlie clothes and dancing. When she was seventeen and seven months pregnant, she hitchhiked all the way to Big Sur, just because she’d always wanted to go there, and to prove to herself she was up to the task and could survive.

She huffed smoke out into the eastern Colorado wind and thought, Fuck, it’s cold out here! Manzinola was a small town on the flat, dry plains of the eastern end of the state and there was little to break the wind coming out of Canada, except the occasional single-strand barbed wire fence.

In a way it was damned inconvenient for Grandma Billings to die in the winter, but as soon as she had that thought, Laura hated herself for it. Grandma was down in Ordway, about ten miles south, lying in her casket in the funeral home, and she and her younger sister Terri Ann were supposed to go down for the viewing, but as always, Terri Ann was late. Always late. Most irresponsible woman God ever put upon the earth, Linda thought, she’ll most likely be late to her own goddamn funeral, how could I expect her to be on time for this one?

 Fifteen minutes later, Terri Ann had arrived and they were headed down to Ordway, gabbing away in the car, with the heater turned up, catching up with the goings-on of their extended families. Terri Ann summed up her lateness with two words. “Black Ice,” she said, and Laura remembered how long it had taken her and Jerry to make it up from Dodge City. As always, Laura forgave Terri her trespasses and they were buds again.

Jonachs’ funeral home was nothing fancy, a chalet-style brick building with a steep roof and an ornate door that led directly into a foyer, where there was a podium set up with a remembrance book, so everyone could sign in. As Laura picked up the pen, Terri said, in a thin whisper, “Will the real Laura Sue Billings please…sign in?” It was a takeoff on some old celebrity game show and Laura didn’t think it was funny. She wondered if Terri was using drugs again. Or still. She handed the pen to Terri, who stuck her tongue out and scribbled her name across two lines.

They walked in to the cloying smell of too many flowers and something else, probably embalming fluid.

There was a center aisle in the chapel, with pews on either side, along with family seating at the right front with a privacy screen of sorts. They were greeted by one of the proprietors, a lady named Linda Lentz who showed them back to where Grandma Billings lay in her silver coffin, a single spotlight shining down on her. The rest of the room was lighted by about six or seven candles, placed on tables and shelves. That was part of the smell, too. Linda said, “I’m gonna run on home. You gals be sure and pull the door shut tight when y’all leave. G’night.”

And they were alone with Grandma.

“Her hair don’t look right,” Terri Ann said, “she never parted it like that.”

“I know, and look at all that makeup! Grandma never would have painted herself up like that.”

“You gotta comb?”

“Lemme see.” Laura dug around in her purse and came up with a hair brush. It would have to do. They set to work getting Grandma’s hair done right. She’d always worn it combed straight back and in a little while, with a bit of work, it looked better. It looked more like Grandma Billings.

“Gotta do something about that makeup. Gawd, look at the fucking rouge!”

It wasn’t unusual for either of them to drop the “F” bomb and they both giggled. Laura said, “We need Kleenex, and I don’t have any.”

“Here!” Terri Ann was looking back in the rows of pews and she came back with several boxes of tissues, the cheap kind you always find in funeral homes and hospitals, the kind that shred apart in nothing flat and never hold enough tears.

They set to work, scrubbing Grandma’s face, using up tissues like crazy, having to wet them with spit and then change frequently because neither of them relished the thought of licking a tissue that had just been on a dead person’s face, even if it was Grandma.

“Grandma always liked me better than anyone else,” Laura said, as they scrubbed away.

“Did not.”

“Did so.”

“She tell you that?” Terri was changing tissues and eyeing her with a mixture of curiosity and scorn.

“She didn’t have to. I was the only grandkid she ever spanked.”

“Yeah, that’s love, right there.”

“Fuckin’ right. At least in our family. If they don’t love ya enough ta smack ya once in a while…”

At last, most of the garish undertaker makeup was gone, leaving just a hint of blush on the old lady’s cheeks and a bit of lipstick. Grandma looked a lot better and they both knew she would have been pleased with what they’d done.

Terri Ann walked over to a casket spray of roses and carnations and pulled two carnations out. She stuck one through the lapel button hole of her shirt and put the other through Laura’s. “Grandma always shared with us,” she said. Then she punched Laura a good one right in the shoulder. It was something they’d done to each other since they were kids. Trading punches was not abuse. Not in their family. Trading punches was being tough and spitting in the eye of the world. Trading punches was love. Terri took all the nasty used tissues and wandered off to find a trash can or the restrooms. She came back in a few minutes and then they were ready to leave, their respects paid, their duty done.

When they got to the door, they turned for a last look and Laura whispered, “G’bye, Grandma…”

And every last one of those candles suddenly went out…




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Art by Sean O'Keefe 2015

The Dog Days of October

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

“Hey, Robby!” The dog speaks to me as he approaches the bus bench I’m sitting on. I always hate it when animals talk to me. Very disconcerting. But then, after all this time, I guess I should be used to it.

“Hey. What’s up?” I answer him because I know from past experience that if I don’t, he’ll either do something terrible or turn into something hideous right in front of me and then I’ll be screaming again and they may come take me away. It has happened before.

“The guy over there in the black coat has a gun.” Like most dogs, he points with his eyes and his lips. I look across the street and see the man the dog is telling me about.

“What makes ya think so? Did ya see it?”

“Naw, man. I smelled it. Hoppe’s #9 nitro powder solvent. And I smelled him. He’s a fuckin’ whacko. He’s really keyed up. Gonna shoot pretty quick.”

I’m doubled over now, my hands over my ears. I don’t wanna hear this shit. But the dog’s voice penetrates.

“It’s up to you, Robby. I’m fuckin’ outta here…” He scurries away, a small terrier with his tail tucked down, protecting his balls. He’s carrying his left back leg part of the time, running nimbly enough on three legs. Probably a touch of arthritis, he’s a pretty old dog. I hate it when they do this shit to me.

I look around for a weapon and see some steel posts holding up some sagging fence. I get up and grab the weakest-looking post and bend it back and forth. It screeches in protest. It screams, “Leave me! Leave me!” It means leave me alone, but posts rarely complete a coherent sentence.

I take the broken post and walk across the street at an angle. It has begun to rain and the drops whisper to me, but they’re not good with sentences, either. They go, Splat! Rat! Tat! Flat! Shat! And incoherent bullshit like that. I pay no attention. Leave me the fuck alone. I’m busy.

The man with the gun has stepped back into a doorway. The people on the street are queueing up for the bus that’s coming down Columbus, less than a block away. I move along the wall, so the gunman can’t see me approach. As I get close, I hear the bolt on the weapon clack as it slams home. As he steps out of the doorway, he raises the rifle, an AK-47, and I complete a full swing I’ve already started with my steel post. I aim for the cheap seats and catch him just above his eyes. The rifle flies out of his grip and clatters on the pavement. I hear someone scream and I know they’ll be frantically calling 911, their answer to everything. The gun dude is definitely fucked. His forehead is caved and one eyeball is hanging by its optic nerve. He’s all done. Pretty sure. I toss the pipe and split, headed down the street for darkness. I glance back once in time to see a cat creep up and sniff the body.

Please don’t speak to me, I think. Just fucking don’t…

“Nice shot, Slugger,” the cat says, then he fades the other direction, not liking the sirens any better than I do. They talk to me too, like screeching, bitchy wives.

I retreat, back to my place, under the 9th Street Bridge. Lucille speaks to me in her easy, southern drawl, as I slip in and under. “Hey, Robby, ssssup?” Lucille is six feet long and shiny black. She keeps me company and keeps the rats down. She tells me things, too. Things I should do to be a good citizen.

Once she told me about a man who lived under the next bridge down. You’d think that would be Tenth, but it’s not. It’s Oliver Parkway. She said, “There’s a man down there and he’s dying. You must help him.”

“How will I know him?” I asked.

“You’ll smell him,” she replied.

She was right. His feet were rotting away and there were maggots in his boots. I went and flagged down a cop, who seemed disgusted with his job and with me. They sent the man to the hospital. A crow who would know told me the man died anyway.

Back under my bridge, I shook out some blankets and wrapped up, trying to get warm. If I built a fire, I knew someone would report the smoke and then the red trucks with the whiny, bitchy sirens would come screaming, you you you you you you and why? why? why?  and alla that shit.

Fuzzy had left me a sack and I checked the contents. McDonald’s again, but it looked pretty fresh. Fuzzy is a German Shepherd and he rarely has anything to say. He definitely has nothing good to say about most people. He told me once he had been a K-9 with the cops in New York, but he got his fill of chasing and biting on command and he split. We share our food back and forth whenever we can. Whenever we have enough. Far as I know, I’m the only one he associates with. Maybe because we’re both crazy.

I was adjudicated once as being ‘dangerous to myself and others’ and they sent me away. Said I had PTSD and a couple other things…yeah, paranoia was one and I guess I’m schizophrenic, too. After a while, they got me medicated to the point where I was a zombie and I couldn’t hear the voices and they let me out. I didn’t like feeling that way. I’d rather hear the animals. Most of the time they make more sense than the doctors.

I was in pretty good shape until the roadside IED in Iraq. I was in the gunner’s seat in our Humvee and when it went off, it shot me right out of the top and over about twenty feet. I still had the M60 light machine gun in a death grip when I landed. Then all these people came running with rifles to finish off me and my buds. Men, women, kids, they all had guns and they were shooting. They never saw me until I opened up. I had about half a belt of ammo and I chewed their asses up.

If you’ve never seen a nine-year-old hit with four machine gun rounds, you haven’t lived. Or maybe I mean you haven’t served.  Wicked shit there, and it comes back on ya when you least expect it. For a long time, loud noises would make me go ape-shit and try to take cover. The same people we fought to protect sometimes think that shit’s pretty funny.

Well, now I’m just Crazy Robby and I live under a bridge and talk to dogs and cats and snakes. I get along okay, but it’s hard to keep clean. I could bathe in the river, but even I’m not that crazy. It’s so polluted, I expect it to catch fire any day. That really happened up in Cleveland. Not just once, but ten times from 1822 to 1969. The Cuyahoga River on fire. Wow!

You wouldn’t think I could find things to keep me busy, but you see how the animals help out. Just like the dude with the AK-47. Action kinda helps take the edge off, and when something’s goin’ down, I usually know it, because the strays from the neighborhood know it. Dogs have a hell of a grapevine. Just listen to ‘em sometime, barking back and forth and running around smelling each other. I call it reading the mail. They know what’s up and when it’s something bad, and it’s around here, they tell me.

Then, if I can, I do something about it. There was a hell of a wreck on the freeway a while back. The pigeons knew it was gonna happen, and they told me there would be little kids hurt and burned alive. The crows knew about it too, and they even knew where it would be. I tried to talk to Lucille about it, but she didn’t know shit that time. Breaker and Slowpoke finally clued me in on where to be. Breaker is a three-legged Pug who’s escaped from the shelter at least a dozen times. Slowpoke is a Jack Russell, or so she claims. She always looks up Breaker when she’s in the mood for pups. The rest of the time, she likes me better.

They came to me about an hour before show time and Breaker said, “That wreck’s gonna be in about an hour. Better get down there, Robby.”

“Where am I goin’?”

Slowpoke said, “Third street off-ramp. Gonna be a lotta cars and a gas truck. Big bang, Man.”

Breaker lifted his leg and peed on the concrete bridge support. “You’ll need one a them fire things…”

“An extinguisher?”

“Yeah! Be careful, Robby…” He and Slowpoke trotted away, sniffing trail.

I got moving. Near Third and Looman, I stepped into the dry cleaners’ and there was nobody at the counter. There was a ten-pound dry chemical extinguisher hanging on a hook right by the door. I liberated it and walked on. At Third and Prospect there was the WalMart neighborhood market. I latched onto another extinguisher there, from around back by their dumpster. It was a pressurized water job, but maybe better than nothing.

I humped this heavy shit for too long, and when I got to the freeway, I walked up the off-ramp toward the top, but not too close. People honked and flipped me off, cause I look like warmed-over shit, but I waited, leaning on the railing with my equipment. In about ten minutes, I heard the first screech and bang of impact and the car that was rear-ended slid almost up to me. Right after that, there were many more collisions and I was ducking debris as I headed on up the ramp.

I could already smell gasoline and I knew I had to hurry, but I also knew if I was right at the cars when the fire lit off, I could get blown over the guardrail and lose some hair and skin. The thing about gasoline is that liquid gas won’t burn. It’s the vapors that burn and by a series of perfectly-timed explosions, run your car. When gasoline vapor is mixed with just the right amount of air—not too rich, not too lean—it’s more dangerous than dynamite.

I had my extinguishers, but I knew they wouldn’t last long. I could see kids inside a black Ford Escape that was sandwiched between the back of a gasoline tanker truck and a big Dodge Ram quad cab. They were all nicely strapped into their car seats and they appeared unhurt. They were screaming bloody murder and that’s always a good sign. It’s the kid that’s pasty-white and not making any noise you really need to worry about. Behind the Ram truck was a VW convertible. Another kid in there.

In the Escape, the woman driver looked dead. Sometimes you can just tell. In the VW, the man driving was repeatedly slamming his shoulder into the door, which was jammed.

Just then, there was a quiet, “Woof,” almost like a dog when he knows there’s somebody fucking around, but he doesn’t know who or where. That was the gasoline igniting. Instantly, there was a blast of heat and the back half of the Escape was engulfed. I popped the dry chemical extinguisher and blew out the fire as quickly as I could, wrapped my shirt tail around my hand and yanked open the back door. I pulled my knife and slashed seat belts and yanked the kids out, car seats and all, tossing them far enough away to keep them from getting burned. I snatched open the front door and leaned across and checked Mom’s vitals. Zip. No breathing, no pulse.

As soon as I backed out of the car, the fire lit off again. Now there was enough gas on the ground, the Ram truck was going to burn along with the VW. Whoever had been driving the Ram had jumped out and moved well away. I ran back to the VW and stabbed the side glass with the heavy blade of my knife until it shattered. Another pause while I knocked down flames again, then I yelled to the man in the front, “Crawl out this window! Hurry!” He didn’t have to be told twice.

“My daughter’s in the back!” He was frantic, and I couldn’t blame him. He was split open across his forehead and blood was running in his eyes. The fire flashed again, and I hit it again with the dry chemical, but the extinguisher ran out. I was forced back and the kid in the back of the VW was gonna roast. Knowing water wouldn’t work on a gasoline fire and would only serve to spread it, I pulled the pin on the pressurized water extinguisher and used it to wet my clothing, face and hands and then I waded in.

I got inside the front seat and reached over into the back and snatched the little red-haired girl out, turned and backed out. She lost some hair to the flames and so did I. My clothing was steaming as I handed her to her dad.

You might have seen me that day on CNN. I was the “mystery good Samaritan” who you see calmly walking up to the two cars that were on fire and knocking down the flames and pulling kids out before the fire department even got close. When there was no more I could do, I faded back outta there and went home.

And so, this is my life. I do what I can and I mind my own business as much as possible. Once in a while, those in the know give me assignments and I do the best I can with what I have. I have my wits and I have my strength and I have my strange abilities. Or maybe I’m just bat-shit crazy…

Anyway, Guthrie, who’s a poodle from about five blocks over, said there’s a rumor about the President coming to town and some guy’s gonna try and kill him. So far, Lucille hasn’t heard a thing…




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Art by Sean O'Keefe 2015

Christmas in the City

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

Fuzzy never licks me to wake me up. Usually, he just stands very close and pants until I realize he’s there and acknowledge him. He’s a German Shepherd and he’s not the licking kind. In another life, he was a K-9 with the NYPD. Had another name, too. He was Fritz von something-or-other and he didn’t like it all that well.

He also doesn’t like snakes, even though he acknowledges Lucille and he knows we’re friends. He won’t do anything to harm her, but he won’t have anything to do with her, and I understand that.

On this particular chilly morning, two days before Christmas, Lucille had slipped into my sleeping bag and was warm and comfortable. Fuzzy knew she was there, of course. Snakes have their own peculiar odor, some more than others. Lucille is a Bull Snake, about six feet long and to me, she has no particular smell. To Fuzzy, she reeks of…well, snake.

“Hey, Fuzzy,” I yawned, “wassup, Man?”

“Nothin’ shakin’ this morning, Robby. Just hungry, is all.”

“Who is that?” Lucille hissed from inside the sleeping bag.

“It’s just Fuzzy,” I whispered, “he won’t hurt ya.”

“Not unless she fucks with me,” Fuzzy growled.

“Now, don’t you two start. It’s too fuckin’ early. How ‘bout I just ease on out and we’ll go find some breakfast? Lucille, you can stay warm and surprise anybody who tries to take my sleepin’ bag.”

“Works for me,” she said, “hurry back, Lover.”

Fuzzy said, “Yuck. I don’t even wanna picture that…”

Not that Lucille and I really have a thing goin, but if it were possible, I know she’d want to mate with me. I think she loves me. Or as close as snakes ever get to the institution of love.

I eased on out and put on my boots and field jacket. Those are my leftovers from when I got my ass blown out of a Humvee in Iraq. Since then, I’ve never been right in the head and I can hear animals talk. Sometimes it drives me bat-shit, but most of the time I just deal with it. I have my place under the 9th Street Bridge and I do what I can for my community. I draw the line at bell-ringin’ at the WalMart, though. The bell-ringers were out, for sure, doin’ their thing, and that’s okay, too. Just not for me.

And there are people in the community who help me, too. Of course, I get my meds at the V.A. hospital, but they don’t feed ya, at least not every day. I have other places that help me out.

On this particular morning, Fuzzy and I went to Le Bagatelle. I know, it sounds French and all hoity-toity, but it’s really not. This guy named Slim cooks there on the morning shift. I’ve never known his real name, but it’s not important anyway. Whenever he screws up an order, instead of tossing it in the garbage, he boxes it up to go and sets it aside. Slim knows whenever he needs help with most anything, he can just mention it around any of the stray dogs he feeds and word will get to me, sometimes pretty fast.

Fuzzy sat back a little in the alley while I rapped on the back door of the restaurant. Slim came out in a minute and handed me two fairly heavy Styrofoam carry-out boxes. He lit up a cigarette and offered me one. I don’t smoke, and he knows that, but he always offers.

“You heard anything about some weird shit goin’ on, down by the docks?” Fuzzy was pacing around, impatient to get to the chow. I set one carton down for him and opened the lid before I answered. As Fuzzy set to, I looked up at Slim and said, “What kinda weird shit we talkin’ about?”

“People disappearin’, and…like that.” He seemed almost embarrassed at having to talk about his concerns.

“Haven’t heard anything about that, but I’ll put the word out and start gathering intel…”

“Put the word out, huh? Sometimes you tickle the shit outta me, Robby. You really talk to dogs and birds and alla that shit?”

“Yeah. It’s my curse. We all have our crosses to bear…”

“Okay, whatever. Anyway, my neighbor lady said her daughter was out the other night and the kid never came home. She’s worried sick. Called the cops and all. They don’t have a clue.”

“Got a description?”

“Yeah, girl’s name is Sandy Dean. She’s fifteen, red hair, freckles, kinda pretty, but not overly bright. Mom said she had on a blue skirt and blue heels. Tryin’ ta look all grown up, maybe. I hope she’s just hangin’ with friends, but I got a bad feelin’, ya know?”

“Yeah, Slim. I’ve always got a bad feelin’. I come up with anything, I’ll let ya know.”

I took my breakfast and headed back to my bridge. Fuzzy had already bolted his food and was eyeing mine as we walked.

“So, did you get all that? People going missing down along the docks?”

He looked at me like I was stupid. Sometimes he does that and it’s pretty disconcerting when he does. “Yeah. Got it. Red hair, freckles and woof woof. People disappear all the time, Robby.”

“I know, Fuzz, but just ask around, okay? So we can go back and say we tried.”

“No prob. You gonna give up any a that?” He was checking out my breakfast again. I sat down by my sleeping bag and opened it. Corned beef hash with the eggs. I hate corned beef.

“You can have this meat and then you head out and see what you can find out, okay?”

“You got it, Robby. Now gimme.”

*     *     *     *     *

Later, I took a long walk, down along the waterfront. Being homeless and scruffy and smelly gives one certain advantages. Truth is, most people don’t wanna deal with you. Some won’t even look at you. They don’t want you to even exist in their world. Makes me damn near invisible, and that’s okay with me.

Dock workers and steel workers and construction types always want to project their tough-guy image out into the world around where they work. They’ll wolf-whistle the pretty girls and make rude noises, call the guys in suits ‘honey’ and ‘darlin’, but the fact is, they’ll be the first to drag people outta burning buildings and to save little kids from creeps.

I stopped to shoot the shit with a dozen dock workers that first day, some I’d met before and some I’ll probably never see again. A couple were skeptical and stand-offish, but most were as helpful as they could be, as soon as they knew I was looking for a young missing girl and that people were disappearing. Some were even wearing Christmas stuff, whatever they could get away with. They’re all union, and they can get away with more than you’d think.

One guy, who was wearing a Santa Claus button that said, “I believe” asked, “How do I get ahold of ya, if I see somethin’?”

“Just tell any stray dog you wanna talk to Robby.”

“Yeah, right—get the fuck outta here…” He was smiling like he was waiting for the punch line.

“Or a bird. They all know me.”

“You fuckin’ with me? Cause I’ll punch yer face in right now.”

“Nope. Serious as a letter from the IRS, man. Thanks. I’m outta here.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” Under his breath I heard him say, “ya crazy fuck…”

I walked on. Some people believe in me and some don’t. But most of the time I sense that they all want to. Being able to communicate with animals is not new. Some guys specialize in horses and make money off it. Horse whisperers. Almost all animals talk. They just don’t use voices. Not using voices makes it very hard for them to lie.

My day was pretty much fruitless, except that I got the word out there amongst the humans. Fuzzy took care of the rest. And that evening, he brought back one blue, high-heeled shoe.

*     *     *     *     *

“Doesn’t smell like death, Robby.” Fuzzy was telling me about the shoe. “Doesn’t even smell like violence. Smells like she just lost it.”

“You think it’s hers?”

“The girl Slim told us about? Yeah, it’s hers.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“People smell different, Robby. Red-haired people smell different from everybody else. And I can tell you she’s young. Probably her…”

“Yeah, okay, I’ll go along with that. Think you could track her? From where you found the shoe?”

“I look like a fuckin’ bloodhound to you? No way. I think she got put in a car. Or got in herself. Without a struggle. See what I mean?”

“I wonder if she might have been hookin’…”

“Explain hookin’.”

“Selling herself.” He still looked puzzled. “Selling her pussy.” The light still didn’t dawn. “Screwing guys for money?”

Finally, he got it, and his tongue flopped out and he turned his head away from me. “That’s nasty, Man.”

“Yeah, I know, and only humans do it, I’m pretty sure. It’s called prostitution.”

“I dunno, could be…”

“Guess tomorrow, we’ll go back down and find out.”

“Excuse me, but wouldn’t now be a better time? I mean, it’s gonna be dark soon…”

He had me there. I stashed my stuff up under the bridge girders and we headed out. Before we left, and with Fuzzy’s permission, I put an old leash on him and grabbed a pair of sunglasses. On the way down, Fuzzy stopped and talked to three other dogs and an alley cat who had once been known as Herbert, before his people moved and left him behind. He seemed to be doing okay, but he was lonely.

*     *     *     *     *

At night, the waterfront wasn’t about dock workers and boats, cargo and noise. At night, it was about drugs and hookers. Women stood on corners, freezing their asses off in hotpants and short skirts, short tops that showed more than they covered. Cars cruised by slowly, guys checking out the merchandise. In the traffic mix, I saw more than one car with reindeer antlers and red noses stuck on the grille.

In dark doorways, men waited on customers, too, those looking for a baggie of this or that. Not a cop in sight. Probably all paid off by the people who ran the whores and drugs. No Christmas freebies there. Just addiction and misery.

I had a couple of bucks I’d been saving and I walked over to a street vendor and got us a couple of hot dogs. It wasn’t much supper, but it would hold us for a while.

I put on my shades and took up the slack in the leash. “I’m gonna make like I’m blind, and you’re my seeing-eye dog, okay?”

“Sounds like fun. What if I walk you into a truck? You gonna be pissed?”

“Most likely…”

“Just messin’ with ya, Robby, I got this.”

Fuzzy did a good job. He walked me right down where the girls were working and I managed to strike up a conversation or two. On the subject of it being dangerous out here, and, like I heard people were disappearing, they clammed up quick and moved away from us.

Later, as we were headed back home, Fuzzy said, “Lotta fear there, when you started talkin’ about folks disappearing. Could smell it on ‘em.”

“Yeah, and hookers don’t scare easy. They’re tough, usually…”

The black limo pulled up when we were almost to 9th Street. Two guys got out with guns and one said, “In the back, Motherfucker. The mutt, too.”

We piled in and the car took off, almost silently gliding up and down streets until I was thoroughly lost. Fuzzy was checking everything out and I could tell he was nervous, but not scared. Not yet. And these guys weren’t buying my blind guy act.

We reached a townhouse on the Upper East Side and cruised into an underground garage, where the driver parked and we were hustled through two levels of hallways and into a basement. There were cages on both sides of the hallway and each held a person, mostly young women who watched us with silent, frightened eyes. Fuzzy and I were placed in the last cage on the right and locked in.

“Make yourself comfortable, asshole. The boss has a party tonight. He won’t wanna deal with you until tomorrow.”

There was no food and no water. There was a bucket to do my business in. There was a hard bunk and a blanket. They left us alone.

“What now?” Fuzzy didn’t seem to blame me for anything. As far as he was concerned, whatever happened just happened.

“Guess we get some sleep.” Together, we curled up on the bunk for the night. There was just enough room.

*     *     *     *     *

Sometimes it’s hard to believe, the places a guy can actually sleep in. In the other cages, there was weeping and the occasional outcry in the night, along with muted conversations.

In spite of all that, Fuzzy and I were hardly disturbed at all. Of course, I’m used to sleeping under a bridge that has constant traffic day and night. Sometimes Fuzzy beds down with me and sometimes not, but he’s used to urban noise, too.

In the night, I dreamed of Iraq and a very different Christmas four years earlier. The American armed services are the best fed and best equipped in the world, and morale is a big deal. At my fire base, we had a real Christmas tree. We heard they flew ‘em in on C-130’s from the States. The tree didn’t last long in the dry heat, but it was a touch of home. It made some guys happier.

The next morning, we were awakened by one of the thugs we’d met the night before when he rattled the cage door and said, “Hey, Dickhead, wake the fuck up!”

He was smirking through the bars, when I said, “That sure is a pretty mouth you got there. If you don’t want me to slap it around onto the back of your head, you’d best mind your manners with me.”

“Oh, yeah? You comin’ on all badass with me?” He produced a shiny Kimber .45 semi-automatic, pimped out with pearl grips and engraving. “Just remember who’s got the gun, Fuckface!”

He unlocked the cage door and swung it wide. “Step on out here, Dipshit. And the mutt stays…”

Just then, the mutt lunged and locked onto Mr. Badmouth’s nutsack and the fight was on. While the idiot shrieked and tried to get a round chambered, I came up with a passable Karate kick that broke his wrist and sent the pretty Kimber flying. When Fuzzy turned him loose, I chopped him in the throat and it was all over. He dropped like a sack of shit.

From the other cages, I heard, “Wow!” and “Holy shit!” and “Alll right!”

I snatched up the Kimber and got the keys off the mouth with the attitude and looked up at a couple of young girls in the next cage. “Ya liked that, huh?”

“Yeah, fuckin’ bastard raped us both. He should die…”

I looked down at him and realized he was still breathing. The throat chop should have locked up his larynx, but I must have been a bit off. I sat him up and grabbed him from behind in the old patented sleeper hold. It shuts off the arteries in the neck and provides zero blood flow to the brain. Five seconds can knock you out. A minute can kill you. I held it for two minutes, just to be sure. Then I looked at all the others staring at me. “You didn’t see shit. Any questions?”

There seemed to be little or no curiosity, so I said, “We’ll be back for ya…” and Fuzzy and I headed off to see what other mayhem we could stir up. On the way up the stairs he said, “I haven’t bitten anybody in a while. Felt good.”

“You’re most likely gonna get another chance here shortly.”

Fuzzy went up the stairs easily twice as fast as I could manage, and I’m actually in pretty good shape. Sure enough, as we neared the top, a door opened and I heard a guy say, “What the fuck..?” And then a yell, as Fuzzy took him down. There was a lot of snarling and screeching and just as I got there, a second guy stepped out onto the landing, taking aim at the big Shepherd. I raised the Kimber and, just as he turned to glance at me, I fired a slug into his eye. The back of his head exploded onto the wall and all over Fuzzy. The guy he had been busy killing had stopped screaming and was gargling now as he choked on his own blood. We left the two guys there and continued to the third floor.

When we were halfway up, a shot whizzed by and clipped the newel post on the second landing. I fired back, but only once. I wasn’t wasting ammo on something I couldn’t see. The Kimber only held eight rounds. As I made it to the third floor landing, I heard someone yelling, “Boss! Boss!” Fuzzy shot past me and down the hall. I yelled at him, but I could have saved my breath. He had his blood up and he wasn’t stopping for anything.

I saw him dart into a door on the left side of the hall and I immediately heard a shot and a yelp from the dog. Then Fuzzy came out the door backwards, suddenly not quite so ready to lay it all out there. He didn’t look wounded, but he was damn sure gonna be in just another second.

I saw a gun hand come out the door, the gun pointed down, and I snapped off a shot. It missed, but it clipped the door frame and sent splinters into the hand, and spoiled the guy’s aim.

He peeked around the door frame and then stuck the gun back out and capped two rounds at me, firing blind. Then Fuzzy lunged and got his gun hand, dragging him out into the hall. Bones were popping and crackling in his hand, and in another instant, I heart-shot him and he went down. The sudden silence rang like a bell.

I checked the guy to make sure, as Fuzzy calmly walked into the room. It turned out to be an office, a very plush one, with an excellent view. When I stepped in, Fuzzy was admiring the ankles of a man who was standing on a chair. He was about fifty, with a full head of hair and the kind of smooth face you only get from plastic surgery. His nails were manicured and he was wearing an honest-to-God smoking jacket.

“Fuzzy, let the man down.” Fuzzy reluctantly backed up a bit and the man attempted to regain his composure.

“Just what is the meaning of this? Who are you? And…and what is this…this beast doing in my house?”

“Your house, huh? So that means you’re responsible for all those kids down in the basement? My name’s Robby Metcalf, by the way. And the beast is here to dine on your cojones if you choose to give me any shit.”

“I don’t like dogs. Get him out of here!”

“I see you’re used to giving orders. No, Pal, the dog stays. I imagine you’re the one who gave the order to pick us up last night, so here we are. Did you want to talk with us?”

“I…I just don’t like people snooping around in my business. But…I can be reasonable…”

“You can be reasonable? Well, I can’t. Not about sexual exploitation of underage kids.”

“Those young people all came to me. They were on the streets… homeless…and I took them in…I…”

“The fuck you did. They’re in cages down there, you nasty cocksucker!”

Suddenly, I knew exactly how this was going to go. With the Kimber, I motioned Mr. Big to his seat behind the desk. He sat, but he was eyeing the dog warily.

“Fuzzy, watch him. If he makes a move you don’t like, you can kill him.”

Fuzzy leaped up onto the desk and sat his ass right in the middle of all the papers and junk on the guy’s desk. He made himself comfortable and his lips peeled up off his teeth. I smiled at Mr. Big and said, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”

I went back to the basement and opened all the cages. I fielded a lot of questions about, “What do we do now?”

I said, “The man that caused all of this is on the third floor. My dog is holding him for you. I suggest you go up there and make him pay for what he did to you. You’re all juveniles. If the law catches any of you, they won’t be able to do much. And one more thing. My dog and I were never here…”

There was a red-headed girl in the bunch, with a blue skirt. “Are you Sandy?” I asked.

She nodded her head, as tears ran down the smooth skin of her freckled cheeks. I handed her the Kimber. “Be careful where ya point that. It’s loaded and ready to go.” Then I handed her a roll of money I’d taken off the mouth earlier. “This is cab fare. Make sure all these kids make it home okay?”

I walked up with them and called Fuzzy to me as they crowded into the office. As we left, the door shut and the screaming began. Fuzzy and I headed out to go find breakfast.

As we hit the street, he said, “By the way, I’m not your dog.”

“Oh, you heard that from clear up on the third floor?”

“Yeah. I heard it. I like you, Robby, but nobody owns me.”

“Got it, my friend.”

“Yeah, I like that better…”

“Merry Christmas, Old Scout.”

He looked up at me and squinted. “Now what the hell does that mean?”



Free Association

by Kenneth James Crist

 

Free association

They call it, but

In reality there’s

Nothing free

About it. . . .

 

So molded are

We by our

Rearing and

Environment and chosen

Entertainment

 

How could our

Freely executed

Thoughts turn to

Anything but

Murder?





catwhodroppedin.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe 2016

The Cat Who Dropped In

Kenneth James Crist

 

I awoke staring straight up at cold, gray concrete. Concrete that moved and trembled, if ever so slightly, as constant traffic hammered over it. This was my bedroom, tucked back under the 9th street overpass and I was here by choice, not by chance.

In the corner of my vision, I saw something else, something quite beautiful, certainly much more attractive than concrete. The face of Minnie Stryker leaned over me and she said, “Hey, Robby. You awake?”

“I am now. . . .” I yawned and scratched a couple personal areas.

“Is it warm in there?” She was referring to my sleeping bag, thrown out on bare dirt. I took in her clothing and realized she’d been out turning tricks again. She was in a short, light summer dress, a light sweater and two-hundred-dollar “fuck me” pumps. She definitely looked hot, but it was way too cold for that shit. Minnie is still pretty, even though at one time or another she tried about every street drug known to man. When meth started to ruin her teeth, she quit that shit and never looked back. She’s that tough. And she’s always been kind of vain about her smile. On the low side of thirty, she was a full-time waitress and part-time hooker, when the rent was due.

I said, “Yeah, it’s toasty. Want in?”

“Is that damn snake in there?” She was eyeballing the sleeping bag with a certain element of apprehension.

“Lucille? Naw, she’s hibernating by now. Most likely won’t see her till spring. She’ll be back over there, in her hidey-hole.” I glanced back toward the other end of the bridge.

Minnie quickly slipped out of her high-dollar shoes and said, “Scoot over, man, it’s cold out here!”

I unzipped the bag halfway down and she slid neatly in with me, turning her back to me so we could fit like spoons. I wrapped my arms around her and nuzzled her curly, dark hair as she shivered against me. She gathered my hands and pulled them up under her breasts and held them there. In moments, she was asleep.

*     *     *     *     *

I woke up next about three hours later and found that Minnie had turned over and was plastered against me. Her dress was hiked up to her ass and one leg was hooked over mine. Her groin area was pressed against me and I was almost painfully erect. I carefully tipped her face up to mine and gave her a damn good morning kiss. Hookers never let customers kiss their mouths. Too many chances of disease transmission there. She kissed me back and I knew that when we made love, this was one thing she always enjoyed most—being able to abandon all caution and forget about disease and pregnancy and all that entails.

Now, she broke away from my kiss and said, “Damn! We need a shower and a toothbrush. We smell. Wanna go to my place?”

“I guess we could . . . if ya don’t wanna roll in the dirt with me.” I had slipped a hand down between us and I was stroking the front panel of her panties and I could feel the start of moisture.

“Nope. Nope. Robby! Stop that, now! Oh, Gawd, stop. . . .” She pushed my hand away and scrambled out of the sleeping bag and sat to put on her shoes. I slipped out and pulled on my jeans, tucking my friend, who was wide awake but getting softer, under my shirttail.

We hiked the seven blocks down to her third-story walkup apartment on Mead. The sun was out and it had warmed up a lot. The building was old, made of red brick and mostly rundown, but not quite tenement grade. The rent was a mere eight hundred a month. Once inside, though, Minnie’s place was nicely decorated and extremely clean. It reflected her personality and her caring nature.

She put on the coffeepot and we headed for the shower. Naked, Minnie is a truly luscious woman. Her breasts are smallish and lightly freckled at the top, her waist is narrow and her butt, small and boyish. Her legs are fabulous, slim and hard-muscled. When we were together like this, I made a heroic effort to never think about how many men had touched her, loved on her, and mounted her to spew their passion.

Like any hooker, she would take anyone who had the money, but never without protection. She had never tested positive for anything nasty. She has assured me I am her only “bareback” lover, and I believe her.

Most of the time, Minnie doesn’t work the streets. A lot of her trade comes from the restaurants where she does her honest work. Guys will hit on her and then find out she is willing, but only for a price. Many are put off by this. Those who aren’t, and have the money to spend, get to enjoy Minnie’s charms.

When she and I are together, I pay a price, too, but it’s never in money. I pay with friendship and respect, and once in a while, when it’s needed, protection.

Coming out of the shower, we dried off with large, fluffy towels that smelled faintly of bleach and then we headed for the bedroom. The coffee could wait. We could not. Our lovemaking was infrequent enough that it had never become routine. We made love twice that morning, once rather quickly and frantically, just taking the edge off, then again, slower the second time and taking much longer. It became quite hot and sweaty in her bedroom, in spite of the ceiling fan. When we were sufficiently satisfied, we hit the shower again, just a quick rinse-off, then I fixed breakfast.

Among the many things I’ve done in my life, I’ve been a short order cook at several diners and fast-food places. I have a knack for making pancakes and omelets and getting hash browns just right. Minnie is not much in the kitchen. Microwave ovens were invented for gals like Minnie.

As we sat down to eat, she looked at me and said, “One of my friends died last night.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Who was it?”

“Just a girlfriend. Another street girl. She overdosed, I guess. Or whatever she took was maybe cut with something nasty. Lot of that going around. Dealers get greedier than they should and cut the dope too many times, use all kinds of shit, not just milk sugar.”

“I’m glad you’re not into that shit.”

“Me too. Jaunice was a nice girl, very compliant. Lots of guys liked her. She was a light-skinned black girl, really stacked. Had beautiful skin. She wasn’t a bitch like so many of ‘em, if you know what I mean.”

“When’s the service gonna be? Any idea yet?”

“I doubt that we’ll even hear. Her family’s not from here. They’ll probably ship her home.”

“Well, keep me up to speed on that and if ya need someone to go to the service with, I’d be glad to do that.”

“There’s one other thing. . . .”

“Yeah?”

“I know who sold her that shit. I know her connection.”

“Okay. . . .”

“I talked to the cops about him. I turned his ass in.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Yeah, ‘oh shit’ is right.”

“Street thug or big operator?”

“Well, he’s a punk, but he works for some heavy hitters.”

“And you’re not worried about them finding out you talked to the cops?”

“Yeah, of course I’m worried. The cops always say they can protect you, but you know how that is.” She was sitting with her arms folded, wearing her fluffy pink robe, her hands nervously rubbing her upper arms.

I slid over next to her and took her into my arms. “We’ll do everything we can to keep ya safe, okay?”

“We? You, and who else?”

“Me and my friends. I got lotsa friends.”

“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. Need help? Just tell any stray dog, right?”

“Yeah. Or any bird, or cat or snake. . . .”

“Okay, I get it, Dr. Doolittle.”

Then it was time to quit talking and take a nap.

*     *     *     *     *

Barnabus is a huge cat. I’m pretty sure he’s a Maine Coon, from the shape of his body and the thick, bushy, ringed tail, but he can’t confirm that. He goes about thirty-five pounds in fighting trim, and even though Maine Coons are supposed to be sociable and lovable, Barnabus apparently never read that book. His ears are scarred from constant fighting and he has one milky eye.

It took over three months before Barnabus would even speak to me, let alone come close. He still doesn’t care to be petted, but we have reached the point of grudging respect, and he no longer minds having me live under his bridge. He never comes around if Lucille is there and he barely tolerates Fuzzy.

When I got back to my place later that day, after giving Minnie another roll in the sack and stopping by one of my back-door restaurants for some supper, Barnabus was there, well back in the corner. He was having a late afternoon snack. Looked like it had been a rat or a squirrel, I couldn’t exactly tell. If I tried to get too close, he would growl and drag his prize away, so I left him alone.

Over the period of a year, we’d had some long talks, and I knew that he’d never been a family cat. Looking at him, you’d never believe he’d been born and raised in the sewers of the city. He keeps his luxurious coat tidy at all times and he never smells like sewer. He once told me, “Even though we must sometimes walk in filth, we needn’t wallow in the leavings of others.” I think he read that somewhere and he’s holding out on me.

I spoke to him as I sat down to eat and he gave me the look. The look says, don’t fuck with me right now, if you like your face the way it is. I’ve always respected the look.

Fuzzy wasn’t around, so I had more food than I could deal with. When Barnabus finished his rodent and moved over by me, I asked, “You want some of this? There’s plenty. . . .”

He approached slowly and took a delicate sniff. Here came the look again. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s Chinese. Very healthy. Except for the monosodium glutamate.”

“And you actually put that in your mouth? And swallow it?”

“Yes . . . it’s called food, Master Barney. Here, try some.” I held out my fork with a couple noodles on it.

He turned his head away and said, “You two-legs have some strange ideas about what constitutes food. Save it for your dog-friend.” The contempt in his voice was obvious.

“Okay, but yer missin’ a treat.” At this point, he realized I was deliberately fucking with him and he turned and glared at me.

“That looks like roots and snot. My rat was better.” He stalked off to go groom himself.

*     *     *     *     *

Minnie came by again the next morning and I could tell she was worried, maybe even more than the day before.

“Ya okay, Babe?”

She was clearly troubled, but she put up a brave front. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

This dope dealer around last night?”

“He’s always around. . . .”

“Tell me about him.”

“Why does it matter?”

“Because, if anything happens, I need to know where to start lookin’.”

“Name’s Deandre Wiggams. Black guy, tall, skinny, jails his pants halfway to his knees. Carries a big, pearl-handled gun.”

“Sounds like a real piece of work.”

“Yeah, somethin’ like that.” Once again, she crawled in with me and I held her as we listened to the traffic whining overhead. I didn’t try to make love to her. I sensed she wasn’t in the mood. Very perceptive of me. I knew she would tell me if Mr. Wiggams tried to hurt her, or anything. If she got the chance. She dozed off and then settled into a deeper sleep and soon I conked back out, too.

When we woke up, Fuzzy was lying beside us, packed in tightly for warmth. I didn’t speak to him, but I rubbed the scruffy fur at the base of his neck, just to let him know I was awake. I felt his tail thump against my leg and I knew we were okay.

As it got on toward noon, Minnie got up and left, kissing me quickly on the cheek before she went. “Gotta go. Gotta get cleaned up. Got a shift to do over at Harold’s.”

“Be careful, okay?”

“Always, Babe.”

After she’d gone, Fuzzy said, “She in trouble?”

“I think so, Fuzz, but she hasn’t asked for help yet.”

“And by the time she does, it may be too late. . . .”

“Well, I don’t quite know what I should do about it just yet.”

Fuzzy gave me a scathing look. “Dumbass. . . .” was all he said.

“Well, okay, Mr. Smartass, what would you do then?”

“Follow her. Keep an eye on her. See what’s goin’ on. I mean, she’s your . . . friend, right?”

“Yeah. I guess that’s right.”

“Of course, I know you’re busy . . . got lotsa shit to do. . . .”

“Okay, enough already. I live under a fucking bridge. I get it.”

He smiled his doggy grin and said, “Want some help?”

“Damn right I do, always from you, buddy.”

I rolled up my stuff and stashed it in my usual hidey-hole and we set off for Harold’s Restaurant, 4th and Providence, Great Home Cookin’ and free pie on Wednesdays.

*     *     *     *     *

Fuzzy and I watched the restaurant from the park across the street until closing. Inside we could catch a glimpse of Minnie once in a while, just enough to know she was still in there. At closing time, we moved on down the street so we could keep an eye on her, knowing she would probably go down by the docks to work the streets for a while.

Instead, she came out with her boss and they drove off in his car, obviously headed to her place. It was only about seven blocks and Fuzzy and I made it as fast as we could. When we got to her apartment house, her boss’s car was nowhere around. We watched for a while and we could see her now and again, moving around up there. When the lights went out, I told Fuzzy, “Looks like she’s in for the night. Might as well go home.”

“Go ahead. Think I’ll hang out for a while. . . .”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine, you go ahead.”

“Kay. Come around in the morning and we’ll do breakfast.”

I went back to my bridge and rolled out my sleeping bag. I had barely dropped off to sleep when I heard Fuzzy howling and raising hell. To anyone else it probably just sounded like someone’s dog going apeshit. What I heard was, “Robby! Get up, Man! They took her! Motherfuckers took Minnie! Get up!”

By the time he came dashing up to me, I was wide awake and already stashing my stuff. “Two black guys, Robby! They had guns! They’re gonna kill her, Man! Hurry!”

“Shit! What kinda car? Which way did they go?”

“They didn’t have a car! They walked her down towards the river!”

“Okay, maybe we can find ‘em! Let’s go!”

Fuzzy is a true athlete. I’m in pretty good shape, but there’s a reason cops use dogs. He kept having to slow down and let me catch up and it was killing him. Once we got to the street they took her down, he slowed so he could follow her scent and the going was easier. I could actually keep up.

*     *     *     *     *

Barnabus slid from parked car to hydrant to tree to parked car, always in shadows and as silent as outer space. He’d been in the process of stalking a sizeable rat, most of his mind on a late supper, when he’d heard Fuzzy raising hell. He didn’t speak dog-ese, but he knew Fuzzy’s bark and he knew Fuzzy was one of the quietest dogs he’d ever met. Something was definitely wrong.

He headed toward Robby’s place, but soon saw Robby and Fuzzy headed down toward the river. He kept to himself and followed along. This was much more interesting than hunting rats, which, compared to the intellect of a cat, were truly stupid creatures.

When they got near the river, he slipped on ahead, a dark form within dark shadows, always watching and ever silent.

*     *     *     *     *

We made it all the way to the riverbank and everything appeared quiet. I figured we were too late and Minnie was probably dead. There was a pinch of despair in my heart. Even though we’d never professed to be in love, we were still friends and lovers and losing her would definitely hurt.

Then Fuzzy worked the ground a little more and looked up at me. “They went down that way.” He pointed with his nose, that keen instrument of detection, and we again moved off.

This section of the river was kept in pretty good repair by the city. There was a wide promenade that was paved with concrete, the trash cans were evenly spaced and set in wrought iron cages, and about every hundred feet there was a picnic table made of steel and bolted to the concrete. The trees were in good shape and the streetlights were unbroken. The only reason nobody came down here at night was because of assholes like Deandre Wiggams. The thug ratio was just too high in the area for decent folks to deal with.

We had walked past five picnic tables when we spotted them up ahead. They had picked up a third guy, either a light-skinned black or a Latino. They had Minnie on her back on a picnic table. Deandre held a wicked-looking switchblade knife and the other two held guns. It was February and the leaves had been gone off the trees for months.

The light from the nearest street lamp filtered down through the tree above the scene and caused the knife blade to gleam and sparkle. It also allowed me to see that Minnie’s dress was rucked up above her waist and that her panties were on the ground.

Deandre stood with his back to me. With his pants jailed halfway down and belted around his thighs, getting to his business was a matter of dropping his pretty red silk drawers.

He was just doing that, standing between Minnie’s legs, as we approached. Fuzzy was well aware of the guns. I could tell in the sudden stiffness in his walk and the hair standing erect on his back that he was ready to fight and he was aware we might die in just another minute. A low growl issued from his throat and he moved to the right to start circling. “Watch your ass. . . .” I said.

All he said was, “I hate knives. . . . ”

The Latino turned and said, “Hold it right there!” I figured he wouldn’t shoot until I was much closer, so I kept coming. Most thugs like guns really well, they just can’t shoot worth shit.

Just then, from the tree overhead, a brown ball of fury, weighing thirty-five pounds, dropped directly onto Deandre’s head and all hell broke loose. Squalling, ripping, biting and clawing, Barnabus took care of the skinny dope dealer all by himself. The other two thugs turned as one and took in the astonishing sight of their leader, screaming and staggering around, his considerable privates hanging out and a wildcat riding him like a circus animal.

He tried to fight off the monster that was eating him alive and in doing so, he staggered into the river. The Maine Coon is known to be a good, strong swimmer. The average big-city dope dealer is not.

As I tried to watch the cat, I saw one of the other thugs trying to take aim at me. Fuzzy hit him so hard he bowled him over and he hit the corner of the picnic table and went down. His gun went flying and slid to within fifteen inches of my right foot. I snatched it up just as the third guy turned away from the scene in the river to look back at me. He found himself with a Beretta 9mm in his face.

 “Put it down!” I didn’t yell at him. I didn’t have to. He knew he was fucked if he tried to shoot. He lowered his gun and let it drop to the ground. In the river, Deandre went under in a burst of bubbles. I could only imagine how cold that water was. Less than a week before, it had been entirely frozen over. We’d had a warm spell and the ice had mostly disappeared.

Fuzzy was guarding his guy, ready to re-attack at any provocation. I picked up the second gun and said, “Deandre’s in trouble out there. Either of you dudes wanna jump in there and help him? No? Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

Briefly, Deandre was up again, struggling and sputtering, but each time he came up, it was like ascending into a buzz saw. He went under and came up one more time, then there was a large burst of bubbles and I knew he was trying to breathe water. If he had been pulled out at that exact moment, saving his life would have required a trained medical team and a lot of luck. There were no medical types around, and as for luck, Barnabus ran him out of that.

In another moment, all was still on the river, except for Barnabus swimming back to the shore.

I turned just in time to see Minnie slipping off the picnic table and modestly adjusting her skirt. She picked her panties off the ground, looked them over and stuffed them in her purse.

As soon as Barnabus hit the shoreline, he headed for the nearest storm sewer opening. I’d hoped he’d stay for a few minutes, but he was dripping and I knew he would spend hours getting dried out and groomed. I called after him, “Barnabus?”

He paused and looked back just before diving into the curb grate. “Thank you,” I said.

He slipped out of sight and then answered with a low “Meowl” that sounded like, “No problem.”

With one of the guns, I gestured toward the picnic table. “Have a seat, guys.”

“You gonna kill us?” The black kid, no more than sixteen, actually looked frightened. The older Latino, not so much.

They sat down on the picnic table and I said, “Deandre’s gone, fellas. In a couple days, the cops will find his body, when it decomposes enough to produce gas inside and he floats. You guys are gonna go on about your business and forget you ever knew him. You’re also gonna forget you ever saw this woman, or me or this good dog over here. If you ever decide to fuck with us, you’ll join old Deandre. Understood?”

They both nodded their heads vigorously. Then the Latino actually had balls enough to ask, “Can I get my gun back, Man?”

I reared back and threw it as far as I could out into the river and said, “Sure. It’s right out there. Go get it whenever you like.” Then I threw the second gun just a bit farther.

I turned back to them and said, “Now get the fuck outta here!”

They got up to saunter away and I turned to Fuzzy and said, “Fuzzy, would you move ‘em along?”

He jumped up and started their way with a snarl and once again his hackles were up and they took off, running as fast as they could go. Fuzzy entertained himself for a while by nipping at their heels, then he eventually came back.

I slipped my jacket off and draped it around Minnie’s shoulders and looked around at Fuzzy. “What ya think, Big Boy? Shall we walk this nice lady home?”

He paced along with us for a minute, then he said, “I dunno. She got anything to eat? I’m starvin’. . . .”



plwhitevan.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2016

Plain White Van

Kenneth James Crist

 I remember the first time a dog ever told me a joke.

Fuzzy is my best buddy. He’s a big German Shepherd and we get along really well. He was a police K-9 dog in a former life in the Big Apple. One night, while on patrol, his handler sent him into danger for about the millionth time and Fuzzy, whose police name was Fritz, just said, “Fuck this shit,” and took off into the darkness. He’s lived on his own ever since.

I always felt that dogs had a certain sense of humor, or maybe a sense of the absurd, but after I came home from being blown up in the Iraq war and I was able to hear animals speak, I found out just how far that sense of fun goes in some species.

Fuzzy has a sarcastic wit that surprises me all the time and he likes to play tricks on anyone, not just me, but anyone or anything that falls into the category of “hapless” is considered fair game.

I had known Fuzzy only a short while when he came in under my bridge one night and kind of sidled up to me, his rear end low to the ground and his tucked-in tail making short wags. In dogs, this is a clear show that they are not sure of their situation and they are afraid they’re going to be chastised for something.

I looked at him and asked, “Fuzzy? What is it, man?”

He grinned a little and kind of hung his head and said, “Wanna hear a lame joke?”

“A joke? Really? I didn’t know dogs told jokes.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t always tell ‘em real well. Sometimes I get to the punch line too quick. But this one’s bugging me. I heard it down behind Vernon’s Deli. Gotta tell it, man.”

“Okay. Go ahead.”

“Okay, a horse walks into a bar . . . and the bartender looks up and says, “Hey Buddy. Why the long face?” At this point, Fuzzy rolled completely on his back, showing me friendship and being completely submissive, and at that point, I hadn’t heard the joke before. I had a good belly laugh and Fuzzy was pleased. He said, “I’m glad that went over well. Now maybe I can quit thinkin’ about it.”

Since then, we have told each other jokes all the time, but I have to be careful and not get into stories that are too complicated. Dogs tend to take things literally and the more a story drags on, the less effective the punch line will be when joking with a dog. The short, one-liners work best with them.

One of Fuzzy’s favorites that I told him, I borrowed from Groucho Marx. It goes: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Of course, Fuzzy doesn’t really understand the concept of reading that well. How a person can look at some marks on a page and derive any meaning from it goes beyond his capacity to understand. But the thought that inside a dog it’s too dark—well, somehow he gets that.

~     ~     ~

It was turning out to be a nice spring day and Fuzzy and I were hanging out at the park. I had a Frisbee I’d found in a dumpster and we’d played with that for a while. When you’re homeless, dumpster diving is one of the things you do. You’d be amazed at the perfectly good stuff people throw away, just because they have no use for it and they’re too lazy to take it somewhere and donate it.

I find all kinds of perfectly good food that’s thrown away every day because the “use by” label is expired. The government makes manufacturers put expiration dates on every goddamn thing nowadays, even bottled water. Is that fucked up or what? Gimme a break, water doesn’t expire.

Building materials is another pet peeve of mine. I could easily build myself a house with all the good shit I’ve found in dumpsters, but I have no land and, building codes being what they are, I could never get away with building a house outta scrap lumber and old lighting fixtures and used plumbing. Government again.

When the kid walked up to us, I wasn’t paying all that much attention. Fuzzy immediately took to him, letting the kid pet him and make a fuss over him. But then, dogs just seem to know about kids like Billy. Within just a minute or two I realized Billy was a pretty high-functioning Down Syndrome kid and I started talking to him. He didn’t seem to be with anyone and that worried me. What worried me more was that he didn’t seem to mind being alone.

“What’s your name?” Billy asked. Like many Down kids, he was very outgoing and didn’t seem to have any shyness about him.

“I’m Robby. And this great guy here is Fuzzy.”

“Fuzzy!” he laughed, “I like that name. Fuzzy is a good dog.”

“Yep. He’s a great dog.”

“Is he yours?”

“Nope, we’re just friends. Fuzzy doesn’t belong to anyone but himself.”

“That’s kinda weird. Most dogs belong to somebody.” He looked up at me, his open face shining, seeking answers.

“I know, but Fuzzy was a police dog and he ran away. He’s hiding in plain sight. What about you, Billy? Did you run away?”

Two fingers went into his mouth, even though he looked to be ten, maybe twelve years old. I’d struck a nerve there. “Billy? Did you run away from home?”

He turned to the dog and ignored the question, petting Fuzzy and crooning to him in a high, sing-song voice.

“Billy?”

“Leave him to me for a little while,” Fuzzy said, “I’ll get him to talk after while.” Fuzzy set about charming the socks off the youngster. Even though Billy wasn’t any kind of proficient with the Frisbee, Fuzzy would chase it, running it down whether it went twenty feet or twenty inches, returning it dutifully and laying it at Billy’s feet every time. Billy and Fuzzy fussed over each other and in ten minutes, it was like they’d known each other forever.

I took some change and went over to some vending machines and bought bottled water and came back. We used the Frisbee as a bowl for Fuzzy and I handed a bottle of water to Billy. We took a break on the grass and I gingerly approached the subject of whether Billy was alone.

“Fuzzy really likes you, Billy. I’ve never seen him take to anyone quite so quickly.”

“Quickly,” Billy echoed. I would soon learn that Billy might sometimes get stuck on a word and say it over and over, repeating it until another grabbed his attention, or he got interested in something else.

“Yeah, he’s probably wondering about you.”

“Wondering . . . wondering . . .”

“Where do you live, Billy? You have a house around here somewhere?”

“Yeah. Big house. Dad said it’s a brownstone. . . .”

Fuzzy moved over and bumped against Billy and the youngster’s hand reached out and sought the dog’s neck and he began petting the dog.

“I think . . . I’m pretty sure Fuzzy wants to know where you live, so . . . um, so he can come visit you sometimes. Would you like that?”

“Yeah. Visit me sometimes. That would be so cool. . . .”

“Guess you’ll hafta show us where to come to find you, huh?”

Billy stood up with a sigh and said, “Yeah. I guess. C’mon, I show you guys what happened. . . .”

“What happened? Billy, did something bad happen?”

I noticed a single tear sliding down Billy’s face and his hand was wrapped tightly in Fuzzy’s thick neck fur. He hugged the dog tightly and buried his face against his neck. I barely heard him say, “A very bad thing. Better go there now. Don’t wanna, but we gotta.”

Billy abruptly stood up and I snapped a leash on Fuzzy’s collar, then handed the leash to Billy. “Tell him ‘Heel,’ Billy, and he’ll walk beside you.”

Billy’s voice was a mere whisper as he spoke to Fuzzy. “Fuzzy, heel!” And we set off in the general direction of uptown.

~     ~     ~

We walked seven blocks up and two over to the north. Billy was very careful about the signal lights and Fuzzy was on his best behavior, sitting each time the youngster stopped, rising to heel as they moved off again. Billy kept a running stream of conversation going, but not with me. At this point, he was talking only to Fuzzy.

Fuzzy in turn was shooting me looks that spoke volumes. “Something’s very wrong here, Robby. We may be walkin into some evil kinda shit for sure. I don’t like this, Boss. This kid’s wound tighter than a cheap watch. . . .”

At last, Billy turned up a sidewalk and went up onto the porch of a fairly nice brownstone. He turned and sat on the top step and I expected Fuzzy would sit with him, but the dog paced and whined. When I reached the top step, I knew why.

“Smell it, Boss?” Fuzzy’s tail was tucked and for once I appreciated being human and having a feeble nose.

“Yeah, Fuzz, I got it. You stay here, keep Billy company, okay?”

“Yer not goin in there?”

“Yeah, buddy, I got to. Gotta know what happened here.”

Billy sat on the step, listlessly picking at some peeling paint on the handrail. Fuzzy parked on his belly beside the kid and I went up and tried the door. It was standing ajar and I carefully avoided touching the polished brass handle. Inside, the kitchen was the first room and I grabbed a dish towel off the refrigerator handle to breathe through and started working my way through the house.

I found them in the upstairs bedroom on the right. Mom and Pop had both been shot in their bed. The house had been thoroughly ransacked. I got my ass back to the kitchen where I had seen a wall phone, and shakily made the 911 call.

I had seen a lot of death in Iraq, fresh and not so fresh. I figured Billy’s parents had been dead at least four days. I was glad the weather had been mild. After the call, I went back out and sat on the step with Billy and Fuzzy until the first black and white rolled up.

The two uniforms got out and came up the sidewalk, adjusting gun belts and chomping their Juicy Fruit as they walked along. They both had the cop swagger of the streetwise officer who has figured out they can legally bully people as long as they don’t take it too far.

“You call, Sir?” I knew from talking to other officers that it was a common cop joke that “Sir” was a cop’s word for “cocksucker” and “Ma’am” was a cop’s word for “cunt.”

“Yeah. This young man’s mom and dad are upstairs. They’re dead. Looks like they been shot.”

The older cop turned to the younger one and said, “Why don’t you go have a look, Paul?”

Paul shrugged and headed inside and upstairs. “Got some ID on ya?” The older cop was eyeballing me like he’d look at dog puke in the gutter.

I silently pulled my old, battered wallet and produced an ID card.

He had his notebook out and was already taking notes. “This address current?”

“Yessir.” I was hoping he wouldn’t recognize the address as being the VA hospital.

He finished with my basic information and then looked me up and down. “How are you related to these people?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Paul come back out of the house and go to their cruiser to get crime scene tape. “Not related at all. Fuzzy and I were at the park and Billy here liked the dog. I wondered why he was out by himself and he eventually brought us here. Told me to go upstairs and look at what someone did.”

“Someone, huh?”

“Yeah. That’s pretty much all I know.”

“I think ya better come over here and have a seat.”

“Okay. . . .” I didn’t like the way this was shaping up at all. Then the second black and white rolled up. Officer Julius Tambar stepped out and called to me. “Hey Robby, wassup, Man?”

Tambar was born in Nairobi and immigrated with the rest of his family when he was four. He served in the military and was in Afghanistan. I’d run into him at the VA and he knew where I actually lived. He also knew about my knack with animals. He didn’t necessarily believe it, but he knew about it.

“You know this guy, Julie?”

A wide, white smile split Officer Tambar’s features and he said, “Naw, never saw that muthafucker before.” Then he came over and shook my hand and grabbed me in a bear hug.

I said, “Julius, you need to meet Billy over here. Somebody did his folks. They’re upstairs. I don’t think he’s got anybody else.”

“Okay, you know yer gonna hafta take a ride downtown and give a statement, right?”

“Yeah, I figured as much.”

“You can ride with me, Robby. We’ll go as soon as homicide gets out here.”

“Okay, sounds good. I’m gonna talk to Fuzzy for a minute if that’s all right.”

I stepped over to where Fuzzy was parked on the porch next to Billy. “They’re gonna take me downtown, Fuzzy. They wanna question me and I gotta give a statement. You be okay?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna hang with the boy here.”

“Well, at some point they’re gonna take him away, too.”

“What? Wait, he didn’t do nothin’. . . .”

“Yeah, I know, but he has to be cared for. He’ll probably get taken to a foster home until they can locate relatives or whatever.”

“I can take care of him. . . .”

“I know you could, Fuzz, but we’re dealin’ with the law here. They have to be sure he’s cared for and alla that. They’re responsible, so when they leave, you can head out. I should be home by supper time.”

Fuzzy laid his head back down on his paws. “Okay. But I don’t like it.”

As I got into the patrol car with Julius, he said, “Fuzzy gonna be okay?”

“Fuzzy will always be okay. He’s smarter than most people. Let’s just go get this done, okay?”

As we pulled away, I gave Fuzzy a wave and he raised his head up and his tongue flopped out in a half-smile. Then he put his head back down and continued to mourn with Billy.

~     ~     ~

Police headquarters has its own block downtown and I had only been in the place one time before. I had gone there to do a ride-along with Julius, a few weeks after I met him. We went out on the night shift and had a pretty good time, but the word soon got out that I was homeless and had a weird way with animals and suddenly I was no longer invited. I guess Julius probably caught some heat from some of his peer group. I couldn’t blame him.

The place had its own parking garage, its own cafeteria, even its own firing range in the basement. It was a pretty progressive department. The interview rooms were located on the fourth floor, in the rear. Before he put me in there, Julius was nice enough to ask if I needed to hit the restroom. I didn’t feel like I needed to, but I went anyway. Cops always make ya wait in the little room all by yourself. They’ll give you coffee or a soft drink for two reasons. The caffeine will make you hafta piss and therefore make you uncomfortable and you will leave DNA on the cup or soda can, which they will swab and send to the lab. If your profile is not in the database when you go in, it soon will be. I didn’t give a rat’s ass, I was already in enough computers worldwide that one more wouldn’t make any difference.

I sat almost an hour and I refused the coffee and soda. Eventually, two detectives came in and we got started. I signed here, initialed there and acknowledged they had read me my rights. I was aware I was being videotaped through the one-way glass that covered most of one wall.

Detectives Devon and Cargill got right to it. “Tell us how you came to be involved in this whole deal. Black and whites rolled up and yer sittin’ on the porch with this kid whose parents have been shot in their beds. How did you get to be involved?” Devon was pleasant enough and he believed in taking copious notes in his own brand of shorthand. Cargill leaned against the wall with his arms folded, chomping his gum and staring at me. I supposed he was trying to play the bad cop.

It took them the better part of fifty minutes to decide I was the real deal and not a murdering asshole who would cheerfully sit and wait for the cops with the handy-capable kid and the scruffy dog.

Before I left, they asked me straight up for a DNA swab. I felt I had nothing to hide, so I told them hell yes. They took a cheek swab and turned me loose. I had to arrange my own transportation back home. I had enough change in my pocket to ride the bus and I was home before the evening rush hour. When I slipped under my bridge, Fuzzy was there, guarding my worldly possessions and looking sad. He’d known Billy for one day and he already missed him.

“He’s gonna be okay, ya know,” I said to him as I sat down next to him. He laid his head on my knee and said, “Yeah, I know. But I gotta have something to worry about.”

“Okay, well, while yer worryin’, let’s go find some dinner.” I didn’t have to ask twice.

~     ~     ~

We didn’t hear anything about the investigation for more than a week. During that time, I visited the VA, where I get my meds and health care and we had a visit or two from my friends, both two-legged and four-legged. Fuzzy and I put the word out through the network about Billy and his parents, but for quite a while nobody seemed to know anything.

Then one morning, a police car pulled slowly in under the bridge and Julius got out. I went to his car and we sat and talked for a while. Billy had been placed in foster care, while relatives wrangled over who would take him. Julius opined that if Billy had been a “normal” kid, it would have already been settled and paperwork would be sailing through the probate court. In his opinion, it didn’t look good for Billy.

Meanwhile the murder investigation had gone nowhere. It was not a lack of suspects or motive. In fact, there were enough thugs living within a six-block radius of Billy’s house that it made it hard to even find a place to start. More than thirty tips had come in to Crime Stoppers and none had panned out. As for a motive, it appeared that simple robbery had been all it was about. When Billy’s mom and dad awoke to people in the house, they were shot for their trouble. No witnesses. By the time Billy realized that bad men were in the house, all he could do was hide and not get killed along with the others.

Finally, just before our discussion ended, Julius said, “I know you have a lot of . . . um . . . assets out there, okay? Nobody else believes you can really converse with every dog and cat that comes along, but I do. Whatever you can find out will, of course, have to be independently collaborated. We’re not gonna get the courts to put a dog or cat on the witness stand and tell all they know. But any leads you might develop, I wanna hear about soonest, okay?”

We solemnly shook hands and I agreed. He gave me his cell phone number and then handed me a phone. “This is just a cheap Cricket phone. Pay-as-you go deal. It’s charged and it’s off right now. Carry it and if you need me or you got somethin’ for me, my number’s in the speed dial.”

After he left, Fuzzy looked at my new cell phone and said, “Well, ya finally gonna join all those texting idiots that walk out in fronta buses cuz their heads are up their ass?”

I looked at him and grinned and said, “Fuck you, dog.” Then I put the cell in my pocket and we headed downtown.

Most humans, not being able to communicate very well beyond their own species, have no idea the extensive network that exists in the animal kingdom. When one takes into account the vast number of creatures in the everyday environment that are capable of at least some rudimentary form of communication, their “information highway” puts the Internet to shame.

Once upon a time, my country had sent me to get my ass blown out of a Humvee and changed me forever. I got out of the VA hospital with a terminal built into my brain that would allow me to tap into the animal information network. At first, I was scared and confused, but then I learned to turn my ability to my advantage.

Just walking around now exposed me to the constant flow of chatter, barks, yowls, screeches and every other noise animals make. For the smells, I had Fuzzy. We made our way downtown because that generally was where the thugs like to hang out. On the way, we encountered seven dogs, eleven cats and nineteen squirrels, not to mention birds too numerous to count. We spoke to each one and relayed what we needed to find out. I expected within a day or so, we’d start getting information back.

Fuzzy and I spent some time downtown, then headed back to our own end of town. We went by the Jersey Diner on Waverly and got a nice handout from a guy named Sandoval, who was an Army Ranger a couple wars before mine. We tried not to bother the various restaurants too often, allowing them to spread their charity around. Sandoval hadn’t seen us in a while. He took a break and we sat on an old picnic table someone had drug around back into the space between the back doors and the alley.

As he smoked and Fuzzy and I ate, we talked, mostly about the killing of Billy’s parents. “Eets a focking guddam chame, ees whut it ees, Man.” He’d been in the USA almost all his life and I knew he could pretty much lose the accent when he wanted to, but around here, it made him unique, so he laid it on pretty thick.

“Yeah, we’re hoping Billy gets a good home, ya know, people who’ll care for him. He’s pretty high-functioning, but still, he’ll need good folks to look out for him.

“Joo got enny idea who did dis chit?”

“Hell no. That’s what we’re doin’ now, putting the word out. Cops got nothing to go on, either.”

Abruptly, Fuzzy left his food and walked down the alley away from us. Almost a block away, a small, scruffy poodle mix lifted his leg against a light pole. Fuzzy went to him, sidling up in a non-threatening manner and they took turns walking around the pole, lifting and squirting and smelling each other. Soon, they came back down where we were. “Give this runt the rest of my food,” Fuzzy said.

I took the plate and set it down on the ground and the poodle looked up at me. “Go for it, Buddy,” I said.

“Name’s not Buddy,” he said, “It’s Sam. Thank-you-very-much.” He sniffed the food and dug in. He looked like it had been several days since food had crossed his lips. He was finished in about a minute flat and then he helped himself to some water from a dish Sandoval kept filled. When he’d finished drinking he said, “I heard a couple guys talkin’ about the killin’s the other day. Said they saw the guys did it. I wasn’t payin much attention, but I’ll get back with ‘em and find out more.”

“A couple guys. . . ?”

“He means other guys like me and him,” Fuzzy said, “ya know . . . dogs.”

“Okay, got it. Well, we appreciate it. Anything ya hear or see, okay?”

“Yup. Okay, I gotta roll. Thanks for the chow.” He trotted off, carrying his tail high and his nose low.

Sandoval looked at me and he was clearly mystified, so much so that he lost his accent. “Okay, Man, I missed alla that. Was that really conversation?”

I gave him a handshake and said, “Never doubt it, my man.” Fuzzy and I headed home.

~     ~     ~

The very next morning a stranger showed up under the bridge. Fuzzy was on the alert and I was half asleep, when I heard him whine and then say, “Boss, we got company.”

I turned over and saw a half-starved Greyhound trotting toward us. In spite of his painful thinness, he looked reasonably healthy. He just needed to be fed more. Fuzzy stood and faced him, barking out a challenge. The Greyhound answered and suddenly everything was okay. Fuzzy came back with the hound trailing at a respectful distance. “His name’s Speedy Mike,” Fuzzy said, “and he’s got information.”

“Nice to meet you, Mike,” I said, looking him over, “what’s up?”

“Sam sent me down. I saw a van leavin’ the place where that kid’s mom and pop got killed.”

“This was at night?”

“Almost morning. It was gettin’ light out. Two dark men got into the van and it left in a hurry. Almost hit me. That’s why I noticed. I smelled blood and fear and I knew it wasn’t good.”

“What kinda van are we talkin about here?”

“Vans are vans. I dunno. . . .”

“What color?” I was taking a chance here, I knew, because dogs have little or no color receptors in their eyes.

“No color. Like the clouds on a sunny day.”

“Okay, a white van and . . . what, two black guys?”

“I think so. They had guns, for sure.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah. I got the number off the back.”

Now this was unique. A dog that actually recognized numbers as being something meaningful, rather than just decoration. “Can you tell me what it was?”

“I don’t know numbers or letters, either. It looked like this. . . .” He proceeded, with much hopping around, to carefully draw in the dirt with his right front paw. He drew: JJ9-1143. It was a scrawl and messy, but it could be read. I reached down and scratched him behind the ears and said, “Fuzzy, we gotta take this guy to breakfast.”

We did that, and later that morning, I hauled out the cell phone, fired it up and called Julius. When I gave him the tag number, there was a long silence. He was in his patrol unit and I heard him key in the number on his car terminal. Another pause, and then, “Holy shit!”

“What? Did we do good?”

“You’re sure this is the right tag?”

“That’s the way I got it.”

“Okay, well I appreciate it. At least it gives us a direction to look in.”

“Wait, why did you say ‘Holy shit’?”

“I’d better not say any more right at this time. Stay cool.” He hung up. I turned the phone back off to save the battery and stuck it back in my pocket.

Fuzzy was giving me his quizzical look, ears up, mouth slightly open, but no tongue, eyes looking directly at my face. “Well?”

“I dunno, Fuzzy, Julius is suddenly being real close-mouthed about this deal. We may have just implicated someone big.”

“What’s implicated?”

“Like we may have just accused somebody that the cops already know. Wish I knew who that tag was registered to.”

He lowered his gaze and then said, “Wish we could find out where Billy is. I really like that kid.”

“Me too, Fuzz. We’ll find out. May take a while, but somebody will tell us something.”

~     ~     ~

Not the next morning, but the day after, I went down to the YMCA. I like to work out there and do some boxing and, a few years earlier, I had used my skills to locate an old dame’s lost Schnauzer. She found out I liked the “Y” and ever since, I’ve had a paid-up membership, courtesy of the grateful matron. I’m not even sure the dog is still alive, but the membership is. Besides, it’s a good place to shave and shower any time it’s open.