NO HARD FEELINGS
Turning on the desktop the whir of the hard-drive and fans seemingly deafening, virtually a hairdryer running at full blast, astonishing how we get used to it. I check messages, as is my custom, for some reason the promise of a positive response, an old friend, or god-forbid a love-letter keeps me coming back to the desensitizing stasis of the columns of names, it’s homogeneity, it’s utilitarian dullness. Did I say dullness? I meant abject fucking tedium. Tedium is the byword of this stage of my ongoing existence. Despite the revolver strapped under my left pit, and despite the fact I’m still in underwear (six for five dollars sewn by Vietnamese children at CheapCo). And despite the fact that there was an unnamed lady here some hours ago, tedium. I check the clock as this passes through my mind, nine-fifty. I know all this could be a lot worse. I am aware thank you. In the end I check these messages to earn my money, it’s the job.
Belching very strong coffee and pushing my bush of wiry hair back over my spotty scalp, I study my thick fuzzy chin. Dozens of the messages remain unopened, I fear the return receipt notification activation, notifying my loan outlets that I am indeed alive and worth visiting again. I only open the safe messages those that have gone through my service.
Imagine a love letter, one you’d actually like to receive, imagine that kind of shit. Of course, I’m hiding. And most of these invitations and correspondences are no more than cockroach feelers, they investigate every nook. k.
I light the first King of the day (two cartons 56.00). I open the Seagram’s and take the first caustic swig of the day. Gin eliminates all the mouth’s memories, memories I didn’t feel a need to curate or even identify. Had my friend plumbed the depths of my pie-hole, explored my esophagus, been down into the gastric-sack, touched the acidic swamp of my tricky digestive system with her lanky toes. It was altogether likely. And my handfuls of pills are the best repast, blood thinners, blood purifiers, beta-blockers, alfa-enablers, ceta-repeaters, delta-magnifiers, antibiotics, anti-fungals, anti-plasmodials and a good vitamin. Another hit of the Seagram’s makes it all better.
She was Peter in the “Peter and the Wolf” play, she said they rarely use fellows for that role. The girls just look better. I had a thing for the blonde who played the duck, but we can’t be too choosy can we? The theater girl, Chrissy, is one of my favorite clients. I save her for last but intend to never quite locate her for the company. Just can’t seem to find her and her expensive unpaid loan.
Ah, here we go, Wendy with the list. Up it pops, the secretary hidden behind her walls of security, delivering my duties for the coming week. Of course, while I’m fundamentally evading the minions of numerous banks, I work for one or two or several—I forget—who I’ve rented out my services to. I always thought that irony meant something more interesting than coincidence but I’ve been reassured that my joke of a living, evading, and being the very thing I make my living harassing is more than just a coincidence it’s a blatant schizophrenia, like the endless cliché of crooked cop. I live and breath the obvious. I’m even certain I’m indebted to my employers, though the absolute discussion of such never reaches my particular levels. For all I know Wendy knows and since she does all the interactions with them for me, hell, who knows what she knows. Looks like a full day. The list has a few of the regulars I have to connect with on the more sophisticated level. The little daggers next to the names mean “by any means possible”, though since I operate without their team member shirt, or even a card to flash that tells them I’m a representative of a financial corporation, the employers don’t care to know what methods I use, just as they don’t care what methods are used on me. As I chase I am chased, as I peep in windows, so too are my windows peeped, presumably. Though, it’s been a long while since I had any real windows. I know they take stabs at Wendy, and the best thing I ever did for myself was hire this overseas courier, and the best thing she ever did for herself, if she indeed is a herself, was arrange the false identity, the levels of security, the washed signal. Indeed Wendy is an acronym for Walled Economy Numb-Derailing. A numb is the term used for the seekers and collectors, a numb is any dead-dumb device that doesn’t care what its results are. A numb is a wasp stinging its caterpillar prey. It’s a trash compactor with a prostitute’s body in it being operated by her pimp. I’m a numb, or at least I’m supposed to be. I smoke, and fuck it, I’m on the job. Semper fi.
Few can afford the upscale downtown apartments they erected in the tens all over the corpse of the city. And so squatters invaded them. All along the restaurant and bar strips these last vestiges of any kind of lights flickering in the stinking metropolis, scrambling to give itself some kind of late life cosmetic surgery, barely support them. The mayor let the church feed the homeless in the park and the homeless, of course, never left the park. The cops had to deal with all the ass-rape, and then the park burned down. The huge welcome acorn or pineapple, or whatever the shit it was, was charred beyond recognition, but welcome anyway, from the bottom of our bottoms.
I crawl past the statues of ancient wars and war dead forgotten. Someone died for you, back when the nation had a name instead of the corporate moniker paid for by the rancid burger outlets or coffee factories. Can’t even remember who’s name is on it right now, is it the United States of Raytheon? Pride. The army of Delicacy Donuts, the Constitution of Fruit Stripe Gum, and, of course, all the banking states, counties and their regenerative hopeful prospects for investment and product sales. All of it gambling gambling gambling. Our shared cultural religion, the gamble. Only I don’t participate because it’s fucking gambling and I don’t gamble, which is totally unpatriotic of me. There’s Harvey now.
I pull the jeep over, pushing my dashboard GPS aside and hop out, “Harvey, buddy!”
I see his eyes light on me and go a bit wild, his instinct is to flee, a hand on his collection of bags, “Oh Hack! I thought it was . . .someone else.”
“Ha! I bet you did!” I approach him, upwind, he reeks.
“Whatchoo need?” He fixes a snake-eyes look on me.
“Ah, Harvey, can’t an old buddy just say hello?”
“You know you’re double parked, right? A-and yo gat is sticking out a mile.”
I laugh as I jog my windbreaker back over the Colt. “Look, you know Pendleton? you’ve mentioned him. You know what I need him for? It’s a special this time.”
“Oreo-style sex fun?”
“Aw, no such luck, it’s just a normal shakedown,” I stick a hand out into the air, I felt a raindrop, the day has that dreary overcast look.
“Yeah right, you numbs always being so cordial and all, you call that shit normal.” He looks left and right sets his bags back on the bench. A few sets of eyes watch us from across the burned out hole of a park, the blackened remains of those honorable ancient oaks stand dead as giant used matchsticks around us.
“Look I can make it worth your while, as usual, you know that.” I peel off a few credit vouchers, “Where you wanna have lunch?”
His eyes rest on my hands, where the shining gilt-edged vouchers flutter a bit in the breeze, “I gotta lady likes that Thai place.”
“Harvey! A lady! No shit!?” I approach him, and stuff the vouchers in his jacket. “They’re good anywhere you know that, government issue.”
“Yeah good for everything but what I really need.”
“What do you really need, Harvey, what can’t you buy or trade for with these?” I try to catch what little light there is in the gilt edging of the roll.
“Love, baby, can’t buy no love,” he looks so hang-dog it’s hard to not snort at him.
“Well, they don’t like to expressly cater to your dick’s needs, you know.”
“Despite they being dickheads themselves.”
“Ha! Harvey, that’s good. What’s her name?”
“Who?” He suddenly looks incredibly suspicious—back to business.
“Your lady you dud, your lady.”
“Dex? As in Dexter?”
He nods solemnly.
“You sure your lady ain’t a fellow in disguise?”
“You know, you numbs are kinda backward-ass, she’s a tranny.”
“Of course!” I realize as soon as he impugns me. “Sorry man, I’m not altogether awake yet, rough night.” I notice several of the park denizens slowly rise, backs to me, and carefully saunter out the Northeast walking path, shoulders hunched, past the charred giant welcome nut. Made. Though I’m not exactly incognito talking to Harvey. This is the end of the job the office monkeys won’t do. Not enough antiseptic to clear their perception of filth and they’d be right.
“Look, I need to know if you’ve seen Pendleton, has he been around, the shelter, the soup line, your sleepin’ dumpster?”
“The artist? Ain’t sure I’ve seen his copper-topped ass around,” his eyebrows are high over his brow ridge, eyeballing my pocket of ever valuable government food and shelter vouchers.
“Yeah the artist.” I finger the roll of vouchers in my pocket.
Fucking vouchers for the comforts of civilization, enough of them and he could clean up, get off the wheeze and make his way to a show, maybe even get his pecker squeezed by a professional. He could have a great week on what I’m prepared to stuff in his pocket, life worth living. It isn’t enough to really come out of the gutter, but you know, most of these here denizens of the doldrums don’t mean to. At least not entirely and there are times I don’t blame them.
“Look,” I pull the vouchers out again, “no one else is going to care enough to pay your way, they’d just assume—”
“I know, Hack, I know, you’s my friend, you fucking care, shit, you care about me.”
“You don’t have to say it like that, man, it’s hurtful,” I smirk.
“What you think that copper-top mofo’s gonna do when he finds out I let you in on where he’s at?”
“I don’t know, maybe cut you out of his painting class for hobos?”
“Shit,” he drawls.
“You know where he’s at?” I hold up the roll. Thumb and forefinger pinching it, it’s a snatch of good-life if you’re a junkie. Shit’s useless to me, I don’t need sawdust pillows and some preacher railing at me about Jesus. Of course, you gotta file applications to get on the list to use these things. I actually did that paperwork for Harvey here, just so I could leverage him with the government charity.
“Fuck.” He reaches for the roll, I hold it just out of his reach, man he reeks. “He’s at the fucking foundry.”
“Course he is, what fucking building, that place is a goddamned maze.”
“He’s at the fucking Ciccone Building. The first building where they have the art shows. He’s having a show there.” I let him take the roll of vouchers. The outfit allows me a nearly endless supply of them, but they’re basically valueless to anyone staying above the sewer. It starts to rain. Some of the park life pull out plastic garbage bags and remain sitting under them.
“Thanks Harvey, you are the best!” I yell at his retreating back, “Love you!”
“Fuck you, Hack.”
“Get some soap!”
The rain starts coming down pretty hard when I get to the foundry and catch the eyes of the bulls by the door, and then the cameras. This is the best part of the job. I unwrap my military grade phenylisopropylamine and snort a finger. What I love about the MGP is that it’s immediate. I feel my thighs burst into excited energy. I step out of the car, one of the bulls is headed my way already, and if there’s bulls that means angels are right behind. They’re the only ones who can afford this kind of massive muscle. But my secret is I don’t play fair.
I run past him, or is it a her? Bulked up on massive amounts of human growth hormone the donkey jaw hides any chance of femininity, she or he smells really nice though (the reason I suspect a woman). At the door I shoulder the second bull in the midsection and then kick the door while pulling the Colt, it snags in the holster, and the door requires a second and then a third kick, and by then the first bull–the good smelling one–is at my side.
I turn and just as she’s reaching for a neck hold—goodnight Irene—I land a shoulder, my favorite old wrestling shot. Course it doesn’t take them long to regroup so kick number four better do the trick on the door. I line it up and aim just beside the knob and this time it tears a part of the frame out—cheap junk really—and I’m in. There are a dozen angels in various states of repose and all attached to a bong. Two of them rise, svelte and pale, naked as shaved cats under their diaphanous gowns. . .
“Just looking for Pendleton!” I shout having managed to get the Colt free from the cheap plastic shoulder holster I was issued by the pricks at the bank.
They are unimpressed as usual, apathetic, but pains in the ass when roused. It’s not really a dozen its more like six of them, my eyes are adjusting to the light. The bulls are coming in right behind me, but one of the angels waves them back.
“Relax, Tee, we’ve got this, he’s just a wayward scab,” she says gently as if talking to a child.
I’m crouching behind my extended arms the Colt looking wicked in the acid den. It can’t be helped, she’s right, I am a scab, possibly somewhat wayward too. “Yeah, well, at least I’m doing my job.”
“Larunda’s servants do her bidding.” One of the angels pipes up, feeling unusually defensive.
“And if I actually thought you were in the service—”
“A church is where we make it,” another angel blurts like an automaton. This is one of their favorite remarks, a church is where we make it, a church is where we make it, you can hear this all day long in the sewers, in the burned out parks, in the shelters, in the squats.
The speed is burning my vision a bit, and the glowing ladies seem to float. One thing about them I do envy is how relaxed they always appear.
“Put your gun away, numb, you don’t need it,” says another of the angels. OK, I now count seven of them lounging on evilly-stained pillows, and with their tits out and all.
I put it back in the crap plastic holster, they’re right, I’m not there to shoot angels, or anyone else really.
I suddenly realize I’ve torn the sole of my shitty right loafer. Goddamned it. It’ll soon be flapping like a loose tongue as I step. So I was right, it’s a den of angels and their bodyguard bull dykes, but what about the lout I’m tracking, worth the better part of my rent for the squeeze I’m to put on him.
“Larunda sees all, child,” the main angel who stood up and waved off the guardians now wants to engage in a bit of spacey goddess lip-service.
You know, I’m not against it. I actually kind of like the angels, they’re usually really lovely. I even tried to get it on with one one time, but they do not stop talking that Chthonic ritual crap. You can be folding her in half, and pounding deep up inside her and she’ll be gasping it out at you, all about Larunda’s gifts, and Earth mother this and that. It never ends.
“Look, I’m just looking for a copper-topped asshole named Pendleton, he owes—”
“What and whom does he owe?”
“Whom? . . . He owes money, what do you think he owes?”
“You must give up those Earthly attachments, brother.”
“Brother? I’m looking at you thinking of stuffing my cock up your ass, and you’re calling me brother?” Shocking I know, but I was hoping to unsettle her little ritual of Earth mother, hoping to trip her up, get her yelling at me, poison her poise.
“You cannot be happy like that, brother.” It didn’t work. God her eyes were gray-blue, her tits were amazing too.
“What happens to the angels when their asses drop, do they retire off someplace?” Fuck it, I light a cigarette.
“More poison for your system, brother.”
OK there’s a doorway back there, an exit sign barely showing in the gloam.
“I’m going through there, OK?”
There seems a general disinterest, this seems to be what the angels are best at, a practiced religious superiority.
“Your actions are guided by Larunda.”
“Yeah well, don’t you think she’ll be a bit pissed off if you don’t assist me then?”
“Larunda does not respect your measure of success or failure.” One of them takes the pipe out of her mouth long enough to say that.
“Larunda can kiss my ass.”
This also does not shock nor alarm, it merely seems to instigate a further peeling off of textbook interaction with me it just makes them seem like disappointed parents, shaking their disappointed, communal, stoned . . . and lovely heads.
“If Larunda doesn’t care about my success or failure why are you idiots protecting Pendleton?” I march past and try the door knob, puffing smoke like a train as I go. I swear that at least one of the angels was looking hungrily at my pack of smokes. You know, one of these days, fuck it, I’m joining them, imagine just rolling around in all that flesh.
The door opens I step through, “Larunda be with you, numb.” I hear as I shut it behind me.
It’s just a long corridor in front of me lit by a few flickering fluorescent bulbs with bad ballasts and old doors. Goddamned it, this guy gets harder to put the squeeze on every time. I start bashing the doors in, “Pendleton!” I call out.
“Jeesus Christ, Hack! What the fuck, can’t you just be a human being for once?” The red-headed deadbeat calls out from behind his door. I see an easel behind him, and paints and a very dramatic colorful painting on the canvas, one of those impressionistic things, beautiful though, there are several more along the wall. He’s good. He’s actually great, used to teach and everything.
“No I can’t, you know the drill. What time of the month is it?”
“So you’re menstruating?” he quips, his face flat as Pat Paulsen giving a campaign speech. I hear a baby screaming.
“C’mere, got something for you.” I cackle mirthlessly.
“Yeah yeah,” he comes out the doorway in underwear, stands next to me.
“Smile asshole,” I grin at the microcamera as I hug him to me, he holds up the notice I’ve handed him. “Hold up a handful of cash or something will you?”
The flash, and I pocket the device, a global positioning system camera-pen and my pack of notices and stroll away, “Good to see you copper-top, have a good day.”
“You still carrying that broken pistol?”
“Shhh, they don’t know it’s broken.” I stub my cigarette out on the filthy concrete floor.
“Gimme a cigarette.”
I toss him the remains of my Kings.
Pendleton lives, has the notice, and therefor has been cornered, the GPS coordinates, his ugly mug, the crying baby . . . all recorded. He’ll move again, of course, but this time I found him. I don’t care what he is, he simply owes and they pay numbs like me to keep him reminded.
Outside the rain has slackened. In the jeep, I pull out my list, Carney next. I’m not looking forward to it, but it’s the best pay of the month if I do it. I turn the key, the jeep won’t start. No juice. I grab my oversize screwdriver, pop the hood, prop it with the arm, use the screwdriver to tap on the solenoid mounted on the jeep wall. The bull dykes watch with disinterest. It starts. I drop the hood.
“Have a good day, ladies.”
Grease from the hood latch I rub off on my pants and jam the screwdriver back between the seats.
I pat my breast pocket checking the foil wrapped trucker speed, I don’t need it just yet, but I always feel more comfy when I know it’s there.
Carney, I am relying on a hunch, has been in cardboard town for a couple years, possibly. An endless housing block made of discarded siding, car skeletons, and tirelessly collected and maintained cardboard boxes, stacked, leaned, and tied together. It’s no secret human misery of a magnificent sort resides in that mess of collected and tunneled trash. The stench alone is enough to drive even dogs off. Today a mild fire seems to be consuming it from its rancid depths. I survey, parked on the Broad Street Bridge high above it. Though, if things keep going as they have been last few years—without a significant collapse, flood, or fire—shit cardboard town might just reach the bridge, incorporate it, perhaps adding some significant structural support.
I lean on the rail as I light another cigarette. How do they keep this from going up and roasting everyone? Children play in the shit around a few tires, slick with it, for fuck’s sake. A creek meanders past where a woman is collecting rags of some sort. Water levels are low. A grimy fellow is using cable ties to lash more cardboard up above an existing pile of boxes, he ties to a telephone pole, damned near loses his balance, but manages to keep from falling the fifteen or twenty feet. He looks up grinning at me. I wave at him. Steeling myself, I break out plastic booties and yank them over my half ruined loafers. I climb down the embankment. Wires are wrapped around everything, boxes rot, have newer boxes strapped onto them, paint of every color is splashed about on every surface. Alleys no wider than a man’s shoulders lead through the high-rises of trash. One thinks of ants—really smelly ants.
The bank hasn’t heard from Carney in about two years, he’s worth a pretty penny to locate. My heart is pounding as I wind around the corners, guard rails modified to hold up boxes, which in turn hold up bodies like corpses as they sleep. A pair of eyes glare at me from the darkness of a lean-to made from a city limits sign.
“Where’s Carney?” I inquire as politely as this pit allows.
The eyes retreat. I move on. Round another corner more ragged children play in the muck, a tiny courtyard and a few dying pepper and tomato plants struggle, maybe a sunflower.
“Any of you kids know where I can find Carney?”
They scatter like cockroaches, crawl into the most slovenly of holes.
There’s an easier way. I pull out a roll of vouchers, their gilt edges catching the sun even on the cloudiest of days. I strip off four or five and let them flutter to the ground.
“First twenty five vouchers goes to the one who knows where I can find Mike Carney.”
The shanty-town comes to life. When you see a half dozen faces there are scores of them hidden away. Sequestered in these vile pipelines of human filth and overpowered by the funk of a thousand unwashed souls, where even the blue-eyed angels don’t tread. Out they come on hungry bellies, waving hopeful hands. Gasping to rise up from this miasma of despair. But they’re children, and children don’t know how bad their backyards are. They smile up through the film of sewerage, they reach out with hands I hesitate to touch. I drop some more vouchers and they scramble for them with surprisingly healthy-looking smiles.
“Carney?” I wiggle the roll in front of a shockingly grimy little girl.
Instead of taking the roll she wordlessly takes my hand. I overcome my revulsion and I let her lead me down a couple of shit stained alleys, buzzing with emerald flies. And there sitting on a milk-crate with a stethoscope pressed to the chest of another little girl is Carney.
“Hello, Hack,” he says, moving the stethoscope to her back.
I pull out his notice, and my GPS camera pen, after wiping my hand on the best looking of cardboard box walls. “Just need a quick confirmation of your receipt of this . . .”
He rises and moves to a line of women holding babies, they scratch themselves pitifully. Flies and grime are everywhere. They look as if someone just poured used motor oil on them.
“All these children have dysentery, Hack. Why don’t you help me.”
I freeze in my place as he returns to his bag, records a temperature.
“I just need confirmation, Carney. You know what I’m here for.”
“We trained together you and I . . .” He says over his shoulder studiously keeping his back to me, avoiding my confirmation photo, “these are people who need us, this is what we trained for, right here.”
“For fuck’s sake, I’m not arguing with you, take this goddamned notice and let me confirm—”
I suddenly, looking up in my frustration, happen to notice a roof rat, its bold angular face poking between the cartoons stacked high on colorful plastic bread racks zip-tied together. Then I look again at a filthy little boy dragging a dead one by its tail, it twisting lifelessly in the unsettling mulch behind him, a horrible brown and black mess. I had earlier misidentified that lousy vermin as a mop head. “Oh . . .” I hear myself moan.
Just then the little girl, whose hand I had been holding, vomits grotesquely all over herself, “Oh shit!” I drop the bank notice, back away, the little girl’s face pinches and she begins to cry, reaching her hands up. Sores I did not see before all over her.
“Losing your touch, Dr. Hack.” Carney chuckles, still back to me as he dresses a wound on another kid.
The little girl looks up at me and I take two steps back, I use the GPS cam-pen and shoot the notice, I shoot a picture of Dr. Carney’s back and I flee, stumbling over boxes, crates, rotten food, and shit piles of undefinable refuse. The Knot-a-Boot disposable booties tear and fall off my feet. I’m gasping at the foul air. I kick and shudder. I’m lost for a moment, trying to get my bearings under black storm clouds. Finally I escape to the path, climb the embankment, yank the top off the steri-clean napkins wedged under the jeep’s seat and start bathing myself in the antiseptic. “Goddamned it.” I wipe everything down, the entire interior of the jeep, the door handle, “Fuck! This ain’t worth it. Dysentery my ass, they’ve all got fucking plague.” I hear myself blurt. I find my stash and immediately quaff two prophylactic antibiotics they’re also high-end military grade shit, supposed to be the top of the line. They stick in my throat and I keep trying to swallow. I ain’t got enough of these. Not for me, and not for that goddamned cardboard town. I light up a cigarette. Call in the airstrike.
I leave my pants and shoes right there on the street and drive to the Wal-mart, march in in my boxers, ignoring the glares, pull a pair of new painter’s pants off the shelf put them on, tearing off the tag. I try on a couple pairs of loafers and settle for the most expensive pair. It was time for some new ones anyway, the flapping sole was getting annoying. I grab two cartons of Kings, another stack of antiseptic wipes and a bag of Indonesian socks. At the register I present the company debit chip. It still works. Damned right. They owe me for that one. Oh they’ll argue about it, but they’ll pay.
The little girl’s face and Dr. Carney’s voice haunt me all afternoon.
I spend the rest of the afternoon in the shower scrubbing. Wendy keeps dinging me with “foul” messages on the Dr. Carney photo. Best we’re going to get, I tell her. The location is solid, sell it. It’s going to have to be a discount I’m told. Bullshit on that, I reply. I’m not known for my witty repartee. Those bank ingrates would not have survived that submerge into the unholy filth. Plague!
And then I have a flash back to grad school, back to epidemiology back to a past life where we were friends, Carney and I. And we thought we’d be saving the world from its disgusting orifices of creeping rot. No shit. I was there with him, he wasn’t just barking mad. But the world changed and I had to make some hard choices.
I want to see Chrissy. Her shining plump cheeks and smiling bright eyes as well as her vibrant hips, the sweet inward-curving sweep of which, as they slope up to her ribs, have me in a state of reverie. All I have to do is get down to the theater and hope she’ll let me drag her away to my hovel in the depths of this defunct mill district. I sniff check the place and pull the trash out. I spray some cheap cologne around the sofa, clean the toilet (even behind it), burn a stick of resin, and change the bed sheets to the other set. High hopes.
I fight the urge to knock back the rest of the gin. I also fight the urge to light up another cigarette. Of course it feels like I’m already getting delirium tremens, so I do the right thing and make myself an amphetamine protein shake with a shot of gin.
In the art-space I pay for my ticket, sold by the tattooed cherub behind the glass—why are they always behind glass do art patrons get rough?—and head through the piles of leaves, clusters of colored lights, a singing Don Ho puppet (“Tiny Bubbles”), a hatchet on a wall made of a videocard from an old PC, a fan with bits of mylar attached to it–oscillating, and find the door to the tiny theater. I yank it open with irritation and as I do so I spot Harvey standing by a row of felted abstractions, leading down a side corridor. He chews on a stick of shrimp and spots me at the same time, freezing for just a moment and then grinning big. I duck into the theater. Inside are a few musicians and actors warming up while a number of weirdly bundled white-haired retirees poke around their uncomfortable seats. The place was obviously once an elementary school, everything is extra diminutive. These early folks cluck and coo as they work their fat rear ends into the tiny hardwood, low-backed row seats. I opt to stand by the back, in a shadow, where I am always most comfortable. And there’s Chrissy, wearing a hooligan grey ivy cap, her hair tightly bunned up inside it, emphasizing the curves of her sweet face. She stretches, and does a cartwheel in her suspenders and button-down shirt. My body demands nicotine and so I chew another couple of the chicles of it I get from a PX exchange who swears by them.
The stage manager or the director maybe is hovering over Chrissy, talking quietly, his hands are a bit too all over her. I kind of feel myself start to burn a bit and then he plants a fat kiss on her mouth, which she accepts with what looks to me to be gusto. She keeps smiling as he pats her rump and calls to everyone to get ready. The stage clears and a few more customers come into the little theater. I stand in the back chew-chew-chewing and burning. I could have done without seeing that guy. My brain rolls over, gin spiders crawl over my back. There must be booze out there I can partake of. I crash with annoyance back out of the little theater, into the well-lit art show, the puppet with mini-ukulele is still singing (“Sweet Someone”). Harvey is still there grinning. I see a table of wine in plastic cups—that’ll do.
I spit out the Nico-gum and quaff about five of them fast.
“Cornelius Hack! You old son of a gun!” I hear someone behind me say with gushing affection. I know the voice, but I don’t know the voice until I spin on my heel and . . .
Someone slugs me hard in the jaw and the lights spin and I hit the floor. A cry goes up as I try to recover myself and then take a kick to the ribs.
“Doctor-doctor, how do you feel doctor?” the thug laughs, as he lands a pointy boot in my neck.
“Fu—” is about all I can gasp.
Several hands are on me, eyes in shock all around, “You’re being served mutherfucker!” says the thug.
I’m dragged out a side door into the street, round a corner and shoved into a pile of trash.
“Fuck Pop, this is work!” says a pimply faced kid as he releases my arm.
“Shut up Dooley, you’re gettin’ paid ain’t ya?”
As I sit on the weedy concrete next to a rotting stack of garbage bags I begin to take in the scene, my hand reaches into my jacket for the Colt but Cody puts his foot on my chest and levels his automatic at my forehead.
“Don’t even, I ain’t in the mood, Hack.”
“I ain’t got anything on me, Cody, you can lower the fucking pistol. I ain’t gonna shoot nothing.”
“I know you got heat in there. You think I forgot how you operate?” He reaches into my jacket and struggles a bit yanking the Colt out of the plastic holster, “Fuck! What’s it glued in there?”
“It’s a terrible holster, economy . . . ”
“Seriously! I got this one,” he flips open his jacket and shows me a beautiful Gould and Goodrich all leather affair, “things been perfect, but yeah, it set me back a buck and half.”
I nod approvingly as he slings his automatic, “I hope you didn’t pay Harvey too much, that prick’s playing both sides.”
“That’s the beauty of using the impartial informant, Hack, equal opportunity. Though I don’t need to tell you.”
Cody’s a bit shorter than myself, a bit wider, perhaps a bit grayer round the temples as well. He moves with the efficiency of a line cook, no wasted effort. He’s had real training. He even has a military background before he got his degrees in journalism. The kids with him are his sons. Family business. He pulls a familiar paper from his sportscoat pocket and jams it into my breast pocket.
“Smile shithead!” He raises the GPS cam-pen
Before the flash goes off I lash out a solid kick to the knee, it connects with a satisfying crunch and Cody stumbles back shooting a flash picture of the sky. Then he crashes into his sons and onto his can with a horrifying holler. The boys just stand there as dad goes down. I yank the bank statement and shred it and press myself up to my feet—new shoes feeling good. I put a knee on him, uki gatame, it’s called in judo—the floating hold, but it feels more like a truck parked on your belly. I retrieve my pistol from his waistband.
“My fuckin’ knee!” Cody cries, holding it with both hands.
“Sorry about that.”
“Fuck you!” he sobs.
“Dad!” says the pimply-faced taller boy.
“Stand down kid, he’ll be OK. Call him a medic, right there,” I point at the GPS cam-pen lying on the ground, standard issue for us numbs.
I stuff my revolver back into my cheap holster, “That’s all, Cody, that’s enough, stay off my shit.”
I walk tough, hobbling, but brave. His two snot-nosed brats stand there dumbfounded. I should have thought Cody might wake up if I stuck my head out, but honestly I thought he actually got a real job, must be moonlighting.
I get back into the art-space, people are staring. I straighten up a bit, find out I’ve got blood on my face, wipe it up with a napkin. Harvey looks terrified, I walk up to him and catch his stench, “I’ll talk to you later.”
I press too loudly into the little auditorium where Chrissy is Peter and dancing about like a fey kid dressed as a Dickensian urchin. The baggy outfit hides her charms. I drift back to my shadows, the seats are full of gray-hairs. I can’t stand it and I stick a cigarette in my mouth, my hands are jittery as all get out. I stoop down behind the seats and flick the lighter, and get the soothing warmth of the smoke as it fills my lungs. I blow it straight up toward the ceiling, concealing the lit end of the cigarette with a cupped hand. Chrissy dashes about with another pretty girl dressed as a cat. Ah there’s the duck, that girl is adorable, her lovely fat legs poke out of the yellow costume. On her feet are these orange plastic duck foot boots. I’m not sure why I love her so much. She doesn’t do much, but she gets the drama of being the wolf’s prey. And when it happens, when the wolf grabs her, something happens to me deep inside. I both adore her, wanting to rescue her, and want a shot at being the wolf, having my way with her another form of adoring her. In the show of course he just carries her behind the plastic stage prop of the garden and she tosses a handful of feathers as the narrator says she’s eaten in one bite. But her eyes are so amazing, she’s utterly into it, seems to really imagine that clod in the wolf mask is going to do her in. I am told over and over, Chrissy said it a couple of times, that each of the characters are portrayed by a different musical instrument. They say this with a kind of fever in their eyes, as if it were really something pertinent and special. But I forget to notice that each time I’ve seen this thing. It’s the fourth time now and I’m still just focused on that cute girl’s hams.
At the end they all come out and bow, the director dirtbag is all arms around Chrissy. It occurs to me that the story would be much more solid if the duck didn’t come out for the bow. We could sort of continue our fantasy mourning of her. But she’s there, in those big silly duck-foot booties. Her thighs are dreamy. The lights are up and the audience groans to its teetering old feet, applauding. A sea of ancient people lapping up this children’s play. And now I can’t decide . . . the cat girl, the duck girl or my Chrissy, though not the sparrow she’s a little twig. Which do I love? As If the world worked like that and it actually mattered what you desired . . . Somehow they’re even more wildly attractive to me as they strip the costumes back, and their little whiskers and overly painted lips remain. Is this what we’re applauding? These grown women in their prime playing on a stage like children. The musicians are bowing now—who cares? I feel like they could have just played a recording I’d probably not have noticed.
I meet up with Chrissy as she’s enveloped with the director fellow.
“Oh Cornelius! You’re here!” she beams at me. “What happened to your face!” she adds with a gasp.
“Oh it’s nothing. You were great! I wouldn’t miss it,” I light another cigarette. I blew it, so much for staying smokeless.
“Oh you must meet Leonardo. Leo!” she turns to him, beaming, “This is my friend Cornelius!”
“Hello,” he says with a big cheesy smile, his arm goes around my girl, his hand disappears into the waist of her stretch pants, exploring down the crack of her buns.
I nod, trying to seem cool while I feel my blood pressure spiking.
“How do you know our Chrissy?” he says with a mock villainous squint, and I see his eyes taking in the cuts on my chin.
“Oh, we go way back, years, don’t we, sweetie,” I put my arm around her from the opposite side, pull her hips toward me.
“Cornelius is my loan off—!” she squeals as I mash her against me and suck a huge kiss off her irresistible mouth. “Hey!” she says as I release her lips.
“Easy there, buddy,” Leo steps up, his hands out in front now, having lost his ass-grip on Chrissy during my tug of war.
“Oh fuck you!” It’s been one of those nights, and I’m not keeping good tally of my reaching out and touching someone. I land a right jab directly on the point of his chin and he crumbles in a dramatic and somewhat delicate heap. Holy crap, that was much better than I planned.
“Oh my god!” Chrissy yanks free of me, and I begin to laugh as I admire my handiwork. “What the hell are you doing!”
“C’mon, let’s get out of here,” I reach for her and she pulls away further.
“I’m not going anywhere with you, you goddamned nut! This is my friend! He’s taking me to a cast party! I’m going to meet people!” Her face is as outrageously pinched as another little girl’s I saw today.
“Oh for fuck’s sake it’s just a little love tap,” I lean over Leo and help him to a sitting position, he’s tiny, his bird bones are surprisingly frail—what the hell has this guy been doing all his life? How could any man be so . . . has he ever done a push-up?
“Just go, get out of here!”
“Oh come on, I can say I’m sorry soon as he’s revived, get him some wine.”
“I want you out!” Chrissy points at me, right in my face.
I roll my eyes around and step back. I grind out the cigarette, billow the lungful of smoke and trip over some cord. I catch my balance with some martial grace.
“C’mon Chrissy, I was just jealous, I’m sorry!”
“No more mister, I’ve had enough of that kind of crazy in my life.” She’s gritting her teeth and looking impenetrably determined.
“Fine, here, hold this.” I pull out a wad of papers, find her statement, stick it in her hands.
“What’s this?” she frowns.
“Say cheese,” I flash her with the GPS cam-pen.
“Oh you fucking asshole!” she screams, totally losing her shit.
“Just doing my job, sweetie.”
A minute later, making distance from the slammed theater door, feeling all my hopes withering up and blowing away, I hear a feminine voice behind me.
“Hey! Wait up!”
And it’s the duck girl. Her amazing thighs throbbing and naked as she makes her way to me.
“How do I disappear, Dr. Hack?” she asks this running her fingers through my thinning hair as I mash hungrily into her thighs with my face.
“Call me Kees, and well, you could get eaten by a wolf,” I chuckle, kissing and squeezing her.
“I’ve been doing that all week,” she chuckles, her fingers continue threading my mess of hair. “I’m going to be finishing my master’s, defending in a few weeks, there’s no money, I need to just vanish.”
I sigh, and pulling her under me, crushing my arousal against her legs and smooching her tummy as she submits sweetly to my greediness, “There are places that for a few bucks will forge your death certificate. Fake a car accident on paper, or whatever.”
Phoebe gasps as I gobble her boobs, “That’s it! That’s what I need. Where . . . again . . . do I go?”
“Mexico, the Philippines probably best, Tulsa maybe, you’ll have to have a new name—how married are you to Phoebe?”
“Oh that’s just a stage name,” she laughs.
“Will you help me?”
“Hmm.” I roll her to her belly and spank her flawless white ass a few smart slaps. “I’ll research it for you.”
She shrieks and laughs as I redden her behind. She was actually impressed with my basement hovel. She even asked if she could move in.
“Please? Dr. Hack, I need your help,” damsel-in-distress, eyelashes fluttering. “I’ll clean for you.”
“Is that right?” I grab hold of her thick blonde hair.
“Uh huh, wouldn’t you like a little slave girl?” she snickers into the pillow.
I grind against her hips which she arches back up to me, we’ve been at this for a little while now.
“Haven’t you had your fill yet?” she joshes.
“I like duck. I don’t get to have it very often.” I roll her back over and she suddenly notices the blood on my chin, which I had forgotten.
“Ooh, Dr. Hack, you’ve got like a real cut, how did you get that?” her hand pats at my chin, her brow growing serious, “let me take care of that.”
“In a minnit.” It’s far less than that, but the beauty of her thighs is everlasting. Mailer once said that all cynics are overly sentimental about sex.
On the sofa both smoking, and after iodine applied to chin and forehead by her caring little hands, I continue the conversation.
“You won’t be able to see your family or friends, except, you know, awfully incognito and rarely.”
“Yeah, that’s fine, I’m kinda a loner and a black sheep anyway. My lawyer father about cut me off when I switched from poly-sci to milking cows on the research dairy.”
“Yeah, I love them, cows, pigs, turkeys I’d spend every day on the farm if I could, but, there’s no pay in it, and it’s hard to fit into a pre-law major.”
“And the theater?”
“Ah, I’ve just been dancing around for kids since I was a kid. I’m good a playing animals.” She grins.
“You know it was you I spotted first, these lovely duck’s legs sticking out of the costume, but I didn’t know how to approach you.”
“Really? My fat thighs got you going?” she slaps them and they wobble with smooth meatiness.
“Dreamy thighs,” I lean forward and smooch them again as she lays them across my lap.
“I have dreams of them too, but in my dreams they’re so big I can’t walk!”
“What made you chase after me?”
“Oh shit, I thought you knew, cause you dropped Leo, it was . . . awesome.” She mimes a punch.
“Ah, man, I’m gonna pay for that,” I groan a bit.
“It’s worth it—every penny—that shit needed to go down and you folded him up like a marionette, strings cut! Flop! He’s such a pompous ass, all over us all the time.”
“And Chrissy loves him.” I puff a little extra hard on the cigarette while kneading Phoebe’s perfect gams.
“No she doesn’t. None of us do. He’s just there—necessary for the production. He knows people. We’re all working him.” She billows smoke, “Anyway, you don’t need her anymore, she’s a chiseler.” Phoebe sits up and pecks me on the cheek, arm around my shoulders, “You got me now, but I gotta go!”
“Come back soon, anytime, . . . like tonight?”
“I want to. Maybe after the show, you should probably miss the show tonight.”
“I’ll stay away a bit,” I sigh.
We kiss again and she scurries off my lap, collects her various items, closes the bathroom door behind her. And now it’s time for me to check messages. I turn on the cheap desktop and it whirs to life finding the messages. I’m paid, including for Chrissy. Though they refused to buy my cigarettes.
A new collection notice pops to my attention. Cody didn’t get a firm ID on me, but he absolutely phoned in his encounter and that location is solid, only blocks away. Bank thugs will be probing, I may have to increase my Wendy service. The higher levels of numb-derailment are much higher monthlies. Hopefully they didn’t see me with Phoebe. What about Harvey? Is it time to move him down the river?
What’s my silhouette look like this evening? I type to Wendy. Usually an unconfirmed spotting isn’t considered a very high threat level, but the fact that I actually had a goddamned fist-fight with Bank of the Midwest’s Cody and sons might be a spike high enough to bring out some rougher bounty hunters.
The girl wets my cheek with a fat kiss, surprising me. She flows out of the office thudding on her bare heels, “Do you know where my shoes are?”
“Phoebe! Remember, you don’t know me, I don’t know you,” I nod at her solemnly, getting up and following her out.
“OK.” She says with equal severity, shoving her feet into her ballet flats found by the sliding door.
“Do you carry anything? Protection? You know?”
“No. I hate weapons. I’m afraid of them.”
“OK look, I’ve got something for you, not a weapon, a flash-bang–-blinding light, loud noise, scares the wolves away.” I pull it out from my canvas bag stash, back of closet.
“What if I like the wolves?” she grins.
“Seriously, darlin’, I’m trying to give you something, it’ll make me feel better if you have this thing, be careful with it, pull pin and throw, OK?”
“OK, shit it’s heavy,” she pouts.
“Put it in your bag.”
We kiss a last time. I let her leave unescorted, point out the back alley, it doesn’t smell great, but it’s harmless and then into the bright lights of the street and you’re on the market stretch, no troubles there.
“Harvey!” I call out to him as he lounges on his park bench, “I have something for you.”
As usual he makes like he’s going to skedaddle, but does not, instead he turns on his charm, arms spread apart like the black Jesus on the church stained glass window.
“Kees, c’mon man, you know how this game is played, out to the highest bidder.”
“Oh no hard feelings, Harvey,” And I front-ball kick him solidly in his surprisingly soft belly. He groans in dejection and goes down to his knees. “C’mon I didn’t hit you that hard, back when I was in Tae Kwon Do, I could fold the hundred pound bags with my front kick!” I grab him by the scruff of his stinking jacket and drag him to the jeep during this little lecture, where I summarily smash his head on the door. “No hard feelings at all!”
“Fuck!” he cries out, holding his head.
“I’m sorry, Harvey, but you have to go,” I shove him out of the way with a side kick, open the back door of the jeep and nearly strain my back stuffing him into the backseat, like I’m loading a huge sack of laundry mixed with potatoes. He fusses but does not fight. As I slam the door shut and dust myself off, I look around. Not a soul has even budged, the cars progress, the bums sleep, no flatfoots around. So much for the commercial district.
We roll down Canal Street toward the bus depot.
“Here’s what’s going to happen, Harvey, you’re going to start up a new life, in a new city! You get me?”
“Fuck you talkin’ about? I ain’t done nuthin!” It smells like he may have shit himself.
“Harvey, seriously, you’re a liability I can’t afford, by all rights I should just put a bullet in your head and let them find you in the Tiber. You hear me?” He hasn’t risen in the backseat, probably for three reasons, one he’s hurting, two he doesn’t want to be seen back there, and three he’s pocketing my supplies. He can have some steri-wipes.
“I didn’t do nuthin, Kees. You know this business, I just said I seen you.”
“Harv, I’m gonna do you a big favor, huge, no one’s ever done so much for you,” I pull out the rolls of vouchers, I start tossing them into the back seat. “You see those?” I watch in the rearview as he comes to life collecting the rolls. “You’ve helped me a lot over the years, Harvey, but in the end you turned on me, that’s OK, I get it, but you’re not going to stay here.”
“Fuck, Kees, I can’t leave, I can’t start again . . .”
“What are you talking about you’re a fucking Bum,” I nearly spit over my shoulder at him.
“I got people here, Kees you can’t make me leave.”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do. You’re fucking going, pick a city.”
“I’ll have to come back,” he moans.
“You do and I’ll shoot you.” I produce my pistol, for some reason it slides out of the plastic holster this morning without any trouble. I wave it in the rearview. “I’ll fucking shoot your ass.”
In the train station he stands next to me, hunched over like a defeated vulture, his pockets loaded with voucher wealth, a ticket to Portland in his hand.
“West coast, my man, you are going to be a hobo in style, they like poor folks up there, hell you might even have an art show, you could live in a hotel for a month on what I just gave you. For fuck’s sake I wanna go there!”
He doesn’t talk he just stares, “Don’t fuck this up Harvey. My kindness knows some bounds.”
He nods slowly, climbs onto the bus amort. I watch it as it pulls away, waving at his slack features in the window like I’m family.
“Bye Harvey!” For some reason I’m laughing so hard I nearly give myself a hernia.
The usual. I try to locate Edward “Bunny-Rabbit” Hutch who apparently the bank monkeys have not seen sign of in thirty years, but was excitedly rumored by several numbs on the wire to be holed up in plain sight not far from my grid. The story goes he’s not only responsible for the largest of the nation’s outstanding loans unpaid, he also managed to get successive loans for successive degree programs even after disappearing. He’s apparently one of the most educated and bankrupt living bounties still on the docket. Of course his hunter signal hasn’t budged from the negative in a decade. How old would this cash cow be? Most say he’s likely in his seventies. Chasing this bounty, which would pay me enough to not only clear my loans, but get me a real life, house, and a maid possibly, would make me famous and push my hunter value up three or four fold. There would be articles, interviews, photoshoots, perhaps a stint as a training coordinator at the Midwest, possibly a tour. I try not to spend this kind of time day-dreaming, it’s wasteful, a distraction. Springfield rolls by my windows, duller than a Bob Ross landscape painting. I toss the cigarette out the window. Bunny-Rabbit could be anywhere, he’s a ghost, an urban legend I expect. I could be looking right at him, the only way I’d catch the bastard is if he turned himself in to me. But I can pretend I had a lead while I eat my favorite gyro lunch across from the Don Ho University so that I can eyeball the girls, each of them wracking up their debts. Even if its only to their wealthy folks.
Wendy is blinging my GPS Cam-Pen. I finish up lunch and walk to the DHU Library and moving as if I belong there—no one ever questions me—I settle in next to the kids surfing porn (always scantily clad Asian girls), and pull up my Wendy account. The results of my spike check are in. It’s not good. The Cody family having had their little tussle with me bumped me onto the level-two “radar” grid. I’ll be attracting the attention of more desperate numbs who may have so little going on they see no reason not to venture on out to look for me. Hopefully having disposed of Harvey it’ll be a little more difficult. Of course, Wendy offers me a limited time discount on the next level of numb derailment. Thank you Wendy, but it cannot be afforded just now. News is showing several more communication satellite crashes have disabled a great deal of mapping and remote internet capabilities. Could work in my favor. Leaving the library, it feels like every eyeball that meets mine is a potential wasp’s nest of trouble.
I locate Professor Lauren Bullock economics and North American trade historian as she’s hauling her laundry. Her car registration glowing on the jeep’s nav-tracking gear. She’s just a kid and hasn’t learned enough about obstructing the bank’s methods of surveillance. I don’t help her out any. I just deliver her bill and snap her portrait. She looks it over as I help her with her laundry bag, loading it into her SUV.
“I can’t pay this,” she says, her pretty lips pursed.
“Not my department, ma’m,” I fall into my cowboy routine.
“Right, you’re just the messenger.”
“Well, mostly, yes ma’m.”
Ten minutes later I’m peeping into a basement window behind a donut shop. That’s where I’d live, and sure enough that’s where Dr. Bartholomew Linus Taylor is holed up. He’s a famous chemist working on potential replacements for dangerous food additives. He’s one of my regulars, fat as a sow, and nearly as friendly. I have heard he’s been recently promoted to Dean of College of Sciences. But his hovel is still a hovel, and his outstanding loans are still . . . well you get the picture.
“Bart? You down there?” I can see a huge screen television broadcasting the usual cartoons, this one about a choo-choo train. “Hey Bart, I know you’re here, everyone knows you’re here.”
“Fuck off, numb!”
“There you are! Nice to see you Bart, do me a favor and come to your window and hold up this bill so’s I can get a nice picture of ya.”
It’s quiet a moment, and I get a tingling feeling, “Don’t you do anything stupid, Bart. It ain’t a problem it’s jess money. You know what they say a problem is somethin’ you cain’t fix with mon—”
Boom! And it looks like someone whacked the bricks behind me with a hammer, a whinging sound reaches my ears immediately after as the bullet spins away, “Not good, Bart!”
The good news is I’m going on full record mode now, and pay doubles. I pull out the cam-pen and survey the the damage on the wall then hang it on my pocket and leave it running. I pull out the Colt and make sure the cylinder is lined up by eye and hold it in place while I wedge a piece of soda straw plastic in to hold it still. The cylinder lock is broken, it just flops about allowing the cylinder to turn freely. I really have to get it fixed one of these days.
“This ain’t the old West, Doc Taylor,” Secretly I’d love him to take another shot, just not a good one. It’s great to have the offense digitally preserved.
“Go away!” he shouts.
“I can’t, sir, I’m sorry about that, it’s my job.”
He shoots again, kind of wildly out the little broken window, I hear a woman scream. He’s got a lady in there with him!
“C’mon Dr. Taylor, you know this is just business,” the bank loves when you use titles for the debtors. Funny thing about debtors there are hardly any terms for them. Renegers, creditors, no one uses these terms. They are just debtors in arrears, course we numbs call them jobs, catches, hooks and paydays.
The lady is shouting at him, I can hear a few words. I sure hope he doesn’t turn that weapon her. I hear someone coming heavily up the basement steps, the steel door is on my right, I crouch down, leaning against the bricks, holding my broken Colt Detective Special in two hands, hoping the damned round is lined up. The door swings open with a bang and shudders on its rusting hinges. I see the barrel of a rifle. Good image for the hazardous pay bonus.
“Where you at, Hack?” Taylor grumbles.
“Dr. Taylor, I’ve got a .38 pointed at you as we speak, do not do anything foolish.” The bit of straw plastic I’ve got wedged to hold the cylinder falls out, and starts to skate across the tarmac before I stop it. “Fuck!” I mouth under my breath and scramble to wedge it back in.
The rifle end bobs a bit as he considers options.
“We are on camera as well, sir, I’d like to remind you of your promissory notes and your excellent education that you’ve used toward amazing discoveries. You’re a respected scientist, sir, let’s not make this any worse than we have to.” Hopefully this will end simply I don’t need too much exposure, “We can take a check.”
“Aw shit, Kees, can’t you let me be just this once, I got a lady.”
“I am very sorry about the timing, sir, but if you kept in touch with your officers willingly . . . ” I see the barrel rise again, ” . . . I mean, you know, you ain’t that easy to locate.”
“Awright, awright, I’ll get you a check.” The rifle barrel disappears.
I’m dumbfounded. He’s going to get a check? He’s going to pay something?
I hear some bickering going on, the lady apparently is upset with him about something. She comes storming up the stairs, pushes the door the rest of the way open, I lower the pistol. It’s one of the blondes from the coven of angels I met yesterday at the Foundry. She’s in flowing white robes. She spots me, does not seem to recognize me at first, approaches me with a swagger in bare feet, she’s maybe a few sheets to the wind, and then her eyes get large as she reaches out with a check. “Take this, numb.”
“Really?” I shake my head, “I thought you witches were celibate,” I eyeball the check.
“Who says I’m not?” She tips her head back, chuckling like a tom turkey and I catch a blast of alcohol, which nearly makes me dizzy with its potency.
The check’s one of Doc Taylor’s, even has this location as address, even has his correct name in full, even has an image of a panda bear wearing a trilby on it. I pull the cam-pen off my pocket take a close picture of the check and shut it off, got all the good stuff I’m gonna get.
“Christ what are you two drinking down there straight-up E.t.O.H.?”
She sways a bit, waves her arms, smiling, “Larunda approves.”
“Well you look good, I like this outfit, what do you call it, vestments or something?”
“I call it a dress,” She smirks. She turns on her long bird-like feet and traipses back to the iron door. Her diaphanous gown catching alleyway breezes.
I didn’t suck my amphetamine for this encounter, and back at the jeep I take a dose just to fix the oversight. A black quad-copter drone is in the air nearby looking for me, it wants the check. I get out and hail it. It buzzes over to me and lands, I remove the little film can and roll the check up inside and replace it. I step back and it rises straight up like a bottle rocket and disappears. They must have run the numbers and found an account they can attach to. Impressive. old Bart’s probably online right now draining it.
I fight the urge to go find Phoebe and indulge the dreamy fantasy of wrapping her thighs round my head. My entire day’s solution seems dependent on meeting her back here in my hole in the ground, no better than ole’ Doc Taylor’s and yet I get paid to chase him. Wendy put in my hazard pay. They did not oblige willingly. They were upset that they heard but did not see Doc Taylor, they were upset that I did not pin the document on him. They were however very pleased with a check flown to headquarters, and that old Taylor had not emptied the account and that the check was indeed good. Wendy showed the guns, the bullet holes and in the end the blonde chuckling angel, calling all of it extreme. I’d argue the angel was OK, only Bart was really a problem. Did I tell you he wears an eyepatch? No joke, each time I find him it switches eyes and he creates a new pseudonym. He used to be Dr. Danny Duncan. In the end, double pay for that hook. I damned near danced in my tiny office. The only thing that could have made it better would have been a visit from Phoebe. I hoped she was OK and I hoped she was not on her way with a legion of numbs behind her.
I stopped at the Liquor.Gov for a fresh supply of juice and bought up-scale this time, a little reward, got some decent gin for a change, Damrak instead of the usual cleaning fluid. I’ll still clean with it, depending on what needs cleaning. The citrus undertones give it an even finer perfume-like flavor.
I switch on the idiotbox and flip channels, going past animated fairy tales, Captain Kangaroo revivals and the usual animal programs with annoyingly whimsical musical scores, and settle for Bob Ross teaching another of his impressionist landscapes. I could use a shower but I’m cleansing with gin instead. Mellow old Ross is placing a number of “doers” around a mountain. I’m told he was once a drill sergeant and one day just decided to never yell again.
There’s a pounding on the door frame. I freeze with my drink. Maybe just an accident or a nearby door, or a car? Though my buzzer is broken. It commences again, maybe it’s Phoebe. I rise and flick on the hidden camera, and lo and behold its that blonde angel from Doc Taylor’s place. And she’s looking seriously distressed.
I click the intercom, “Yes?”
I see her shoulders slump, as she leans into the little speaker, “C’mon Dr. Hack, can’t I come in? I know you see me.”
“You ain’t got ole Bart with you, do you?”
“Absolutely not,” she shakes her blonde tresses.
“I’ll buzz you in.” Buzzing system defunct, I just climb the stairs push the caltrops out of the way—remembering her big feet—and wrench on the bolt lock.
“Oh, I thought you said . . .”
“Yeah, watch your step there’s some obstacles.” she glides right through with elfin ability, not touching the hanging bicycle lacking a chain, the the numerous fly-strips, spiders webs, nor caltrops.
I rebolt the door with some energy, and push the caltrops back into place with the toe of my shoe as she trips down the stairs talking over her shoulder at me.
” . . . I’m sorry to bother you, Dr. Hack, but Dr. Taylor has become impossible, and I’m in need of a secure . . . how should I say it . . . a secure vantage point, someplace I won’t be found.”
“May I ask, how you found me?”
“Of course, that’s easy, I followed you. I’m sorry, but Dr. Taylor is a disaster and he’s a mean drunk and I’ll have one of those if you don’t mind.” she smiles disarmingly, eyeing my drink.
“Sure, coming right up,” I slide the stairway door into place as we step onto the piece of Berber I have for the tiny living room. She slips off her Mary Janes and leaves them by the door Japanese style. I’m impressed that both ladies did that. A consideration that has never occurred to my dull mind. I find a second ugly tumbler in my cupboard and wipe it off and slosh the gin into it.
“You didn’t happen to notice any other peculiar night owls about my door did you?”
“No, are you expecting any?” she seems worried, all of her poses are elegant and attractive.
“Well in my line of work there are often a few—as a partner of mine used to put it—wounded behinds looking for a bit of further parley with the, uh, mediator of their inconveniencing.”
“He said it like that?” her face incredulous.
“Nope.” I chuckle.
“I see, may I sit?”
Wendy is dinging from my office and I step in and shut the system down for the evening.
“You seem remarkably healthy Dr. Hack.”
“Uh,” I return to her in the living room, “well, I maintain a strict regime of smoke and alcohol.”
I’ve been enjoying her formality. And as she smooths her dress behind her and places her wonderful derriere down on the second hand bedbug-free sofa I suddenly awaken to the idea that this blonde coven-witch, whose name I’m not even familiar with, is hitting on me.
“Would Larunda approve?” I smile at her wryly.
“Could I have a cigarette professor Hack?” she smiles sweetly.
I pull out the Kings and shake out a smoke and produce a light. I’m supposed to shake out two, light them both in my mouth and then give her one, but it seems utterly corny—which as luck would have it is another short version of my name.
“I love this guy, this painter guy,” she gestures with the cigarette. Her big gray eyes and high cheek bones are accented by the glow coming from the television in the dark room. Somehow she’s now beautiful to me. Utterly. There’s also something about her movement, lanky but studied, aware and smooth. She doesn’t bang her elbows on things. Her feet are right together her knees right over them, her drink perched there with her ivory hand.
“He relaxes me. I was shot at today.” I blurt with a kind of bravado usually reserved for school kids.
“I know. I was there. I tried to talk him out of that, but he wasn’t paying me much attention.” A familiar pattern of sip and puff has settled in, her eyes go from old Bob Ross painting to me.
“So, what do I call you?” I ask offhandedly.
She starts to laugh, “Oh, I’m sorry, call me Gina, Regina Saint Pierre actually,” she stands and extends her hand giving me a penetrating look.
“Glad to meet you Gina,” I plop down and she carefully sits herself back down, and I am suddenly aware of how tired I am, and that Regina St. Pierre rings a bell—is likely a name on my job list.
It’s a Bob Ross marathon actually, and we wordlessly watch him paint several more mountains and happy trees before we are snoring on the sofa.
I awaken at some point early in the morning having dreamed of lean friendly spaniels and shotguns, two of my favorite things. I realize Gina is using my lap as a pillow, there’s a bra laying over the far arm of the sofa, her long feet curled behind her rump. My arm rests on her waist, my neck is stiff as concrete. She must have turned off the television at some point after I passed out.
I note a tiny tattoo on her shoulder that looks like the English Beat mini-skirt girl dancing in front of an ancient hi-fi. I suddenly feel the need to frisk her. She came in with nothing. Does she carry a GPS cam-pen? I look her over, her gauzy dress does not hide much, and her bra apparently got ejected during the night. Though she could be wired herself. I let my hand drift over her back, I can feel the divide of her buns. I slide my hand across the delicate shoulders, under the hair, no micro-cameras hidden there. I touch her slender neck, both sides. She wakes, rolls, stretches and smiles up at me. I lift her head and kiss her solidly on her gin mouth. She reaches up and holds on, and I pull her to my lap, she’s much lighter than she looks. She feeds me some tongue, and I caress her thighs, inside and out, there’s nothing but her here.
“What time is it?” she whispers.
“I’m not sure, it’s early though, you can sleep, or I can pour you some breakfast,” I chuckle.
“I need the restroom, which direction is it?” She rubs her face and slips off my lap, as she does so she reveals another tattoo.
I hold onto the end of her skirt and stopping her progress I raise it up to read: “Property of BLT” in Gothic scroll on her right ass cheek, readable through the sheer satin of her white panties.
“You belong to Bart, or just that particular cut of meat?” I slap her rump as I drop her dress.
“Ah, I’m gonna have to get that fixed one of these days,” she sighs, “I was nineteen, it seemed so romantic at the time,” she smirks.
“Can’t say I’m proud of everything I did at nineteen,” I smile.
“I was auctioned off to him at a fund-raiser he organized, expensive club thing. I don’t think he was supposed to buy me though.”
“Pretty young ladies supplied to Taylor’s, you know, his organization at the university. They let us in because they didn’t have enough young women.”
“Was this before or after the holy rollers took you over?”
“Both.” She walks the few steps to the bathroom door, “I was involved with both by that time, the conflict isn’t as extreme as you might think, giving yourself to Larunda isn’t much different from submission to the quasi-Greek sorority that also bears the name . . . and then the extension to the university faculty is kind of an easy next step.”
“Really? I’ve heard rumors. And I’ve heard they’re quite the bad boy school?”
“More the idea of bad boys I think,” she stands in the bathroom doorway, pouts, and steps inside closing the door between us. “It wasn’t actually him I had hopes of being won by. I was more into the artists, but I learned to love him . . . at least for a while.”
“I thought you ladies were all about release from bondage, you’ve worked hard for this release, you have this fairness and equanimity . . . but you sought bondage again?”
I hear her chuckle from the behind the door, “What are you talking about? You’re a grown man. Bondage I choose isn’t bondage at all. When you’re nineteen it’s just . . . rebellion, play, a kind of push-back against the placid boredom of our parents’ sexless world and schools and children’s stories.” There’s a little pause where I imagine her cleaning up, pulling panties back on. “Plus a lot of ladies, you know, romantically love the idea of being cherished property . . . being intensely enslaved to a powerful lover. And so, I have one more tattoo for your appraisal.”
I’m pleased with myself for having cleaned the toilet and having burned some incense to give the place a feeling of at least Bohemian upkeep, where a lovely woman could squat on a toilet and not fear disease. Though perhaps she’s used to some squalor. I hear the flush and running water, when she reemerges her face is moist with tap water. With a smirk she approaches, steps her foot onto the sofa next to me, and hikes up her dress to show her inner left thigh, milky white but with the image of a tiny naked woman chained to a hulking cock. The pretty little slave’s eyes are downcast, and the tree-like erection looms over her. It is difficult to not have a reciprocal response growing.
“That’s me!” she laughs, “cock slave!”
I pull her hard back to my mouth, and she slumps onto my lap again, arms around my neck lips pressed to mine. Her words rolling about in my head, little girls enslaving themselves to powerful cocks. Doc Taylor is certainly a walking cock.
After several seconds of yanking at inconvenient clothing, and struggling to free my own cock and get her hot reception for it centered on my lap, we commune in a most tremendously satisfying friction of pleasure. Her flexibility creating an astonishingly satisfying mind-bending slippery thrill. Her crazy big feet up over her head, toes stretching toward the cobwebs. Her fingers go places, my mouth inhales her.
The power of the climax is back beat to the pounding heart.
We partake of smoking on the love-sofa which has seen more action this week than in years.
“This auction where did it happen?” I ask with a genuine fever.
“I’m not sure you’d be able to afford it, Dr. Hack, on your bounty hunter income,” She snickers a bit like a nineteen year old.
“I don’t know, I just got a big bonus for that last one, maybe I can buy me a little slave girl.”
Suddenly it occurs to me that Phoebe offered to be such, but this latest encounter has made that pleasure seem almost jejune.
“Your education would get you in, but your bounty hunter notoriety would likely get you black-balled,” she rubs her lips and nose on my cheeks. “They’re the most elitist academic biker gang . . . I don’t even know how to explain it properly, the Chthonic sisters, you know, you call us angels, we’re basically their entertainment.”
“Are you shitting me? That sorority turned religious sect?”
“It’s not why the sect exists, but you know, the old priestesses supply the foundation with girls for the entertainment of the wealthy. It’s a funny thing, no woman wants her man to be attracted to a young woman, but many women amuse themselves with the idea of other’s being lured, you know, it’s like a sport!”
My mind rolls with the idea of it, “How many women get auctioned—are bought each year?”
“Over the course of all these fund-drives you mean?”
“How many fucking fund-drives are there?”
She laughs, “I don’t know! Thousands? How many academic institutions are there? They don’t just get together and drink and have sex, they do actual work, they discuss hires, plan research, allocate funds, you know, this is how they do business since the states pulled their funding.”
“I gotta see this,” I say again, nuzzling her slender neck.
“Well the auction is a spring thing, so you missed that one, but there’s a harvest festival coming,” she looks at the ceiling, “in a few days actually, what’s today?
“Eighteenth I think?”
“They’ve been gearing up for the big fall shindig, goes down at one of those ungulate lodges. When’s the equinox? Twenty-first? That’s a big party. You’ll get the idea.”
“Ungulate? . . . You’ve been doing this for ten years?”
She nods with a smile, “Well, I joined the Chthonic sorority ten years ago, but I quickly outgrew the thrill of it. It really is the same every year, new freshmen meat brought in for the old geezers to chew on, and then we old ladies, you know, we’re chopped liver.”
“You’re no old lady.”
She holds my head in both hands, one on each fuzzy cheek and plants a meaningful kiss on my mouth. The rest of the kisses were apparently not quite so meaningful. This time however, she makes a point.
“Did you ever see that Fellini movie—” I start thinking of the bath sequences in 8 ½.
“Yes. Just like that.”
“You know which one I mean?”
She slides off of me, “All of them.”
A standard day. I check my messages. Wendy informs me my silhouette spike is steady at eleven, which is fine, not strong enough to attract real bounty hunters—but the trouble with this work is it doesn’t take much to get started. One motivated kid could take out a loan and buy a commission—start becoming a serious annoyance. Cody’s kids for example, though, they didn’t seem the most useful tools in the shed. Cody’s fatherhood has reigned in his reach, saddled with care-taking.
Around lunch, I take to following old Dr. Taylor at a distance. I watch him make his way across campus. I watch him teach his famous Pyschotropic Chemistry course. I watch the eye-patched, rotund pirate get fawned over by cheerleaders in short shorts. I cannot deny a bit of jealousy. I wonder how many young women have had “Property of . . .” tattooed on their lovely cans. I watch him meet with dark-suited agents who look like Ken dolls in flat gray suits. I see him fall asleep in his office stacked with grant-writing requests from his grad-students and colleagues alongside other stacks of unread journals. Wait a minute, who were those suit guys? Bank guys!
I head into the library and bring up the wire, sit down next to half-naked Chinese girls looking at porn and giggling, their stubby-toed baby-feet up on the desks. They give me dark looks as I nod at them. I check for news stories about the college of sciences and each of the major bank outlets with arteries running through Springfield. Nothing. Maybe they were bank suits, or maybe they were pharmaceutical cronies. But they weren’t, I stumble on my answer, they were military geezers with a weapons contract with the Don Ho University—tiny bubbles indeed. So old Dr. Taylor is working up a psychotropic weapon, or at least pulling in the Gs to lay out for his cabal by promising as much. In the food court, located in the library, adjacent to the gaming arcade, which takes up most of the Hoku Ho Wing of the library and is where the university video-gaming team trains, I get myself a seared tuna burrito a box of Grenache and rush back out to see what the pirate professor is up to. And, of course, he’s gone. I check labs, route, office, and lounge. Could he have gotten home in that amount of time? I suck the last of the Grenache out of the box and make my way toward the Benevolent Order of . . . what was it Gina called them? Ungulates? Their hall is a magnificent structure that was once a paper mill polluting the hell out of the Spanish Broad River. Unless I miss my mark that’s where the party is set to take place. It’s not far from campus but set far enough off the main strip to not attract too much casual attention. It also has a gate which could be guarded. After about a twenty minute hike, getting turned around once under the rail tracks, and accosted for change at four different corners, I finally reach the hall. Looking around the locked gates, I scoot down into the gully, and make my way around the empty guard shack and up the winding drive. There are people at the entrance several fellows are wrestling with a large crate and a hand truck. More laborers mill about carrying in trunks and casks of what must be party supplies.
I duck into the shrubs just as a VW Vanagon wheels past me stops and produces Professor Taylor with a tall blonde. Hard to make out her age at this range. She’s elegantly dressed, shakes hands and moves about gracefully alongside Dr. Taylor. Another of the sorority Chthonic priestesses no doubt, though probably emeritus. I want to get a look inside, but I don’t risk it. I turn right around and hike back to the university and back onto Franklin Street where my jeep has been duly ticketed. I sit inside and stretch my dogs—most hiking I’ve done in years possibly. I pull up the jeep’s navigation and tick the miles and notice that the old lodge isn’t listed as a lodge but is still stubbornly the Charity Paper-mill. Never mind. I did seven miles give or take.
Of late, I’ve found myself checking my six like a nervous cat, and sure enough as I do so I notice a gray suit. He crosses the road several parked cars back, walks casually to the news-front and pauses at some magazines. Could be nothing, but, he sure looks a lot like one of those possible military monkeys. I find myself riling. Fuck it, let’s see if he likes me. I stuff shoes back on, ditch the ticket, shut down the GPS, lock up the jeep and head down to the Greek eatery. I’ll grab one of those minty yogurt drinks. Sure enough, he’s popped out and is trailing along. They’re not military, they’re bad private dicks. I duck into the falafel shop, grab my drink, toss Wade a few bills as he cheers at me, and come back out to find the goon pretending to read the menu taped to the window.
“Good stuff, you should go on in,” I say shouldering past him.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, OK,” he looks me up and down sternly, he’s young.
“Yeah you should try the lamb, it’s outstanding, takes em a little while to cook, hope you’re not in a hurry.”
“Looks like you may be,” and as he says this the bastard reaches back and I shoulder him directly into the plate glass window. He folds up, and I kick his knee. In two heartbeats his buddy has arrived, but I’ve produced the old Colt and this slows him down—hands up.
“Dr. Hack, we’re friendlies.”
“Oh? Maybe you’re buddies with some, but I don’t know you,” I try to keep the folded straw from falling out from under the cylinder. As I move to keep both louts in my site.
We’re getting a few stares and lout two wants us to go into the restaurant, “C’mon Dr. Hack we need to talk to you.”
“You first,” I gesture with the snout of the Colt, the only piece of my game, flesh or no, that gets any respect.
“You goons are telling me Taylor had you tail me to invite me to the hootenanny?” We’re sitting at one of the tiny cafe tables two gray suited monkeys in Ray-bans and me in my cheap blue windbreaker. I break out my cigarettes.
“Dr. Hack, could you please not smoke, I’m allergic,” says Goon number one.
He shakes his head solemnly.
“Wade, get these boys some of that lamb shawarma, you guys gotta try this it’s amazing.”
“He hired us to find you and talk to you, the organization needs a good man like you,” Goon number two says.
“A good man?”
“We’re just delivering the message.”
I look over at the first goon. He holds a bag of frozen okra on his knee that I bought from Wade.
“What’s with all the cloak and dagger then?”
They look at each other and goon one shrugs, “We’re new at this.”
I’m sure I look incredulous.
“You’ll need this to get in.” He lays a blank white key card on the table. “You just give that to the guard at the gate tomorrow night.”
“Right, so what time do festivities begin,” I pick it up and turn it over, there’s a tiny magnetic strip inside.
“You are expected around nine PM,” Goon number two says.
“Christ that’s way past my bedtime.”
“Please Dr. Hack, we were asked to do our best to convince you that you are expected. Some friends of yours will be there.”
“Friends of mine? You mean Regina?”
They look at each other.
“I wasn’t given any specifics, sir.”
I become aware of a tiny bing-bong sound and agent number one touches his ear, “Yes, of course. Ten-four”
“Ten-four!” I chuckle.
“Yes, Regina will be there,” Goon number one says flatly.
“You just learned that? So Taylor is listening in on this?” I feel kind of childish having even asked that.
“Of course, Dr. Hack, Dr. Taylor likes to know right away the arrangements. He wants you to know that there are no hard feelings about your little . . . engagement . . . recently.”
“Engagement? He shot at me.”
“Yes Dr. Hack we heard about that. He’s indeed sorry.” The first goon.
“Wants to make it up to you,” adds the second goon.
“A business proposal no doubt.”
“Yes, sir, exactly right. With some protection, you see, he is aware you have certain obligations that he’d like to help you overcome.”
“How’s that? He can’t even overcome his own obligations, I . . .” but I stop myself, I’ll let him speak for himself.
“Dr. Taylor would like you to know there are no hard feelings, he is quite sorry about his behavior at your last meeting, and wants to assist you in overcoming certain of your obligations.”
“So you said.” I rub my temples. “I need a job.”
“We have a job for you, sorry, I mean they do, I just responded with what he said verbatim there,” Goon one again.
“I got you.”
Wade delivers beautiful plates of steaming hot lamb and salad and precisely cut pita points.
“Guys you gotta try this, it’s heavenly.”
They look at each other like misunderstanding robots, but apparently Taylor gives them the OK and they proceed to slather everything with ketchup and call for sodas.
I shouldn’t but I allow myself to daydream a little about what being in an academic benevolent order of quasi-outlaw possibly cabalistic ungulates might provide me. Lord knows it sure would help with the bills to actually be getting paid a real salary. Could they actually get me a job? Would they? Getting out from under the debt would be great. Do they get out from under debt? Why do they seem so uninterested in it? And maybe being able to actually take a lady out to dinner, impress a Phoebe or a Gina—Gina, is she with me or isn’t she? Maybe I could at least get the Colt fixed, get a pair of comfortable shoes, stop looking over my shoulders all the time. I sock back a bit of gin and lounging on the sofa while Bob Ross splotches out a bucolic landscape. It’s only a matter of time before the bank monkeys really do catch up with me. What is my plan? Shoot my way out with my broken gun? Showing up at this thing feels like a set-up though. Bob Ross is putting some friendly stones in a stream.
The following day I do very little work. Apparently more communications satellites have malfunctioned or been sabotaged, inhibiting normal telecom efforts. The North Koreans seem to be amused but nothing suggests they could interfere. There was even a spectacular rocket explosion on a launch pad. I watch the video about nine times. There’s a knock on the door, I flick on the camera and there’s a drone bumping the door. Now that you don’t see everyday, normally they have to signal you electronically, but someone is doing extra duty. That’s some talented flying. Drones have gotten more useful during the communications failures of the last months. I head up the stairs, heave the door open, retrieve the canister off the drone, and unfurl the strip. It’s Regina and she says she’ll be here at seven and we’ll go to the harvest together. If there’s a problem with that she invites me to reply through the drone. I stick the canister back into the drone and step back. It rises like a shot straight up into the clouds and disappears.
I decide to bake cookies. I walk over to the Compare Foods and fill a shopping basket with sugar, butter, shortening, baking soda, flour, molasses, dried ginger and a handful of seasonings including cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. I buy a mixing bowl in green plastic. I buy a pair of cookie sheets. There’s some kind of cool jazz saxophone music playing, and a handful of extremely short, but lovely Hispanic check-out girls who smile endlessly like they’ve been telling wonderfully nasty jokes behind my back.
On the way back I look over my shoulders repeatedly as my cigarette ash grows, my hands full of cookie making supplies. Nothing seems even slightly out of the ordinary. Where is Gina right now? Not that I need her here or anything, I’m just curious, is she with Taylor? Have they patched-up whatever sent her my way, if it indeed was actually anything that wasn’t contrived . . . forget it.
Oven at 350, ingredients in mixing bowl, possibly overdoing the spices, but I like spices, and there might not be enough shortening, I add a bit more, I start mashing in the flour, violently with a fork. How much is Regina worth, is she priced per pound? Is she priced out of my range? I pat the cookie dough onto the greased sheets by hand. I should at least look up the bounty on Regina St. Pierre to see how much I’m not earning by leaving her out there unhooked. If I don’t someone else will.
I sit down on the love-sofa to wait out the baking. Cookies in twenty-five minutes. . . .
There’s a pounding on the door. I flick on the camera, there she is, slacks and blouse a little blazer over the white, her hair in ponytail, what’s she going to a sock-hop?
“Be right up!”
I climb the steps slide open the door there’s a pop in my head that makes me think of the bullet hitting the brick wall outside Taylor’s and the world goes dark.
I’m seated with a crowd in a darkened room, I’m expecting a magician to take the stage where there’s a mechanism, a large blocky, box-like machine, something out of the cardboard shanty-town, but clean and steel. There’s a shelf on one side with rollers and an entry about the size of a desktop copy machine. On the other side a stainless steel shelf. My eyes start to adjust to the folks around me, mostly white hairs, mostly well dressed. They seem perfectly amused.
“How are you feeling, Dr. Hack?” Bart Taylor grins at me.
“Fuck you,” I try to say, but I’m not quite able, something’s restricting my ability it feels like a complete head full of Novocain.
“I’m sorry about all this rough stuff, I truly am but I was worried you’d change your mind, worried you’d not join us. We have a few things to do for the audience and then we’ll talk.” He rounds his shoulders in a black leather motorcycle jacket.
He leaves, goes onto the little stage in front of the machine, I can see now that there are folks all around, some of them dressed as cooks, white hats, aprons, they have food carts at the ready.
“My friends, we’ve had a grand summer, and on this generous equinox we will celebrate the year with a delicious feast.”
I look for Regina but don’t see her. A few folks turn and smile at me, a hand pats me on the shoulder and croaks in my ear something about taking it easy. I can’t turn my head without a blinding pain in my neck—which has gone stiff as usual. I notice a bunch of diaphanous gowned young women, angels nearby the low stage, each pink-faced, and flush with excitement.
“We will talk about our impressive numbers and fortunes later, first we will partake of the bounty the gods provide us, and we will especially enjoy a feast from Larunda. One of the young women is brought forward, her gown pulled down and away by dark hands, her perfect body is admired, pale and smooth. Men lay her on the tray, she’s flushed and youthful, her breasts pert. They slide her into the machine which seems to chug to life with a masticating sound, the girl disappears, as though slid into a morgue drawer, and on the opposite side, meats are produced, sausage, ground beef. The cooks pick these up, and cart them off. The drawer slides back out without the angel.
My head is spinning and I’m unsure that I’ve just witnessed what I think I’ve witnessed. It’s not really possible is it? Did a machine just turn a woman into sausage and chops?
Dr. Taylor keeps droning on in an incomprehensible Irwin Corey fashion, but this time I am only watching the blonde they’ve brought forward, she lays on the tray herself face down without any help, and the hands slide her into the machine her lovely rump wobbling as she disappears into the mechanism, curling toes last. Again meats are produced and the cooks gather them up and a cart is filled and rushed out of the room. The smell of delicious meats cooking fills the room. I’m reminded of my old man’s backyard, the grilled burgers and Italian sausages. The people applaud.
And now they’ve brought Phoebe forward she’s dressed as the duck from the play. She’s crying. She drops to her knees, and they lift her. I try to stand, shout! Nothing moves, psychotropic chemistry . . . they tear Phoebe’s costume away revealing her lovely curvy, softness, the men press her onto the sliding tray, hold her belly down as she screams. My heart goes into some kind of afib as I struggle to move. I feel a hand pat my back.
“Don’t worry, friend, it’s just symbolic,” a faceless voice assures me.
A middle-aged woman sitting at my table turns and smiles at me, “I did it once, years ago when I was a sophomore, they wouldn’t have me now!” And she laughs as Phoebe is fed to the Kafka-esque contraption, as she’s butchered, her feet kick, her screams cease with chilling finality. Suddenly I’m served a bratwurst with potatoes and food is being passed all around.
Another angel puts up a struggle and is pressed into the machine, I’ve lost track, I can’t follow what’s happening. Finally the horror ends.
As I sit, people drink and eat. My heart pounds in my temples
The lights are brought up.
“You’re not eating?” Regina is next to me, in her gown, smiling patronizingly.
“What the fuck!” but all that comes out is, something like the break squeal from a semi.
She grabs my knife and slices me a piece of sausage, “Eat this!It’s me!” . . .
I hear a pounding, and I snap awake, “oh shit!” I jump up and spill gin all down my shirt. Something is burning and filling the room with smoke—fuck, the cookies!
I get to the oven as I hear the pounding again. I pull out the cookie sheet, toss the blackened hot bricks of overcooked cookies onto the stove top, rush back out to the living-room. I click on the camera and there’s Regina in a lovely dress and hat.
I rush up the stairs, pushing the traps out of the way, and heave open the door and carefully peer out into the street.
“Hey,” she hugs me, “you OK? You look upset.”
“I’m fine, c’mon.”
She comes lightly in on her long feet.
“I don’t want to do this, I—I—” I stammer a bit, I need a drink.
“Are you burning something down there?” she interrupts and heads boldly into the apartment. I lock up behind her and find her smirking over my cookies.
“I don’t want to go. I’m a grown man I don’t have to do these sorts of things.” I shake my head and spread my arms in the Native American sign language for no, also used for baseball “safe”.
“Oh c’mon, it’ll be interesting,” she cajoles.
“It could be,” she fingers the bowl and chews a bit on the cookie dough. “Wow, that’s great, what kind of cookies are these?”
“Hermits! How fucking appropriate!”
“OK I need to make this batch,” I start making a new sheet.
“Are you bringing these to the meeting?”
I blink at her.
“Seriously, folks would probably love them.”
At the gate a white gloved smiling fellow wearing a nametag that reads Eddy takes my white chip card plugs it into his reader and says: “You’ll want to head up to the top, and park around behind the lodge, Dr. Hack.”
“What? Why in back?”
“Because that’s where all the spots are,” he smiles, handing me back my card.
“The bikers filled all the front spots, they always do that.” he chuckles.
“Bikers,” I say knowingly.
A few moments later and I knew what he meant as I crested the driveway. About a hundred brightly colored bicycles are strewn about the front parking area, some chained together. A few reclining bicycles with sports flags waving are parked as though they were small cars. A few fellows are pulling off their helmets and changing out of their bike shoes.
“What did you think he meant, like Harleys?” Regina laughs, her hands splayed on a foil wrapped plate of cookies.
I swing the car around behind the old mill and find a spot. My heart is thudding away. I don’t use my speed in front of her. Regina threads her arm through mine while she carries the plate of cookies. I sense my Colt under my shoulder as we walk.
There are folks smoking on the lawn as we approach, we pass through the door unhindered and into the brightly lit space which is arranged like a flea market. All at once I’m aware of cotton candy, thousands of balloons, the smell of popped corn, jugglers, and a kiddie pool full of catfish being caught by some old fuddy-duddies on kid-sized spin rods. The only thing missing is the kids. There’s a guy doing caricatures, a woman selling dried flower arrangements, a Japanese lady who will write your name in Kanji, plus an old fellow carving walking sticks. I don’t see a stage with a meat grinding machine. Off in the distance is a little dance floor and some old farts are disco dancing to Donna Summer’s “On the Radio”, then there’s a row of artists, canvases with landscapes and cute animals, butterflies, and sailing ships. I suddenly lock eyes with Professor Pendleton, standing in front of a work-in-progress, a pack of little old biddies painting along behind him. He nods. I chin at him, hey, no hard feelings.
“Oooh, they’ve got funnel cakes! I love those, I’m getting one.” Regina pats my arm and heads off to the white trailer advertising funnel cakes and deep fried candy-bars.
Now I need a cigarette. I step outside.
“Only the cream of the crop alumni!” I hear a fellow guffaw.
“I only get in because I’m catering it!” I hear a second voice cackle. I’m not looking up, don’t want to get recognized in this who’s who of past creditors I’ve served.
“No shit, who the fuck could get through this door, it’s like a ten-thousand-dollar-a-plate-dinner fund-raiser with DHU’s most fortunate,” says another voice.
“Has anyone been even close to successful in twenny years?” asks a man approaching through my line of sight, with a scruffy beard and Abbie Hoffman hair.
“They’re all old goats!” Yet another voice kicks in.
I smoke quietly, walk through the stack of bicycles noting the stickers, races for cures of all sorts.
A minivan pulls up and a troupe of gowned blonde-haired angels step out, seeming to acknowledge my nightmare, but they turn around and gather up boxes of vegetables, green peppers and eggplants, the vegetarian fare for the fair. “A church is where we make it,” I hear one of them mutter. They are followed by a large thickset lady with a jaw like a horse, hauling a crate of zucchinis—their muscle.
I wander back through the old paper mill, my bounty-hunter senses tingling. Something ain’t right about this. Nearer the back end of things a small boardwalk with some classic games, wack-a-mole, and three for a buck darts and balloons, squirt-guns shot at clowns’ mouths to fill a jug to win a stuffed bear, not one but two guess-your-weight stations. They accidentally overbooked.
Then I see a small door marked private. How private? I back out, I palm my MGP, paratrooper speed, snort a small fingernail of it, feel the familiar oncoming rush. I’m going in, the seedy part of this show has to be here somewhere.
I draw the Colt, look up the narrow hallway, and check the knob, it’s open, I slip in. The room is dark, smokey, and as I step in I am able to see there are tables of white-haired gents in suits playing cards, cigarettes and cigars dangling from their lips. Piles of chips on the tables in front of them. Drinks of many varieties visible as I step further into the gloam, no one looks up, they’re quite concentrated on their efforts. I see a topless serving girl, her lovely bosom bouncing as she walks gaily through the aisle, her hair up in a tight bun, and then there’s another, and it’s Phoebe! She spots me just as a few of the men look up from their hands.
“Kees!” She rushes to me all bubbly, her chest putting on a lively show of its own.
“What the hell is this?” I sputter with annoyance.
“Oh, a backroom,” She chuckles, “it’s a kind of recreation of the old gambling rooms the south used to have, you know, back in the day!’ she rolls her eyes. “But of course, all this money is for the foundation, no one wins any but a small percentage.”
I start to realize there are some white-haired old ladies playing cards too, stogies in their lips. “So you’re making bank here?”
“It’s a very good gig,” she says seriously, “I got lucky, the girl they had for it got flu,” her eyebrows are up on her forehead. “How do you like my outfit?” She leans back and poses, the black miniskirt and lace with white gloves, it’s very fetching.
“You look spectacular.” I nearly moan.
“Maybe I can wear it for you later? Or would you prefer the duck?”
“Both, first the duck, and then this, or vice versa, maybe.”
She giggles sweetly, “Are you gonna play? You should put your gun away.” she nods at my hand slack with the Colt.
I do so, quietly. Sticking the snub-nosed old pistol back under my arm.
“I’ll come by later!” She plants a kiss on the cheek and gets her amazing thighs back to work.
Suddenly there’s an arm around my shoulder, “There you are! I sure hoped Regina could get you to come in.”
I stiffen under the fat arm of the Dr. Taylor leading a small crew of amazingly well dressed aging patrons. They sneaked up on me while I was obsessing over the lovely duck-girl.
“This is the bounty hunter I was telling you about, former epidemiologist,” Taylor turns back to me, “if you’re getting tired of that banker’s hound life, Dr. Hack, we may have a position for you.”
“I get by,” I say with a quiver. I’m jittery now, no place to spill the energy I’ve just artificially stimulated. The folks smile and nod.
A lovely old lady loaded down with jewels guffaws and grins at me, “Now I see! You were one of my husband’s students, I remember you, you knocked the mantle off the wall.”
“Jeesus!” I step back out from the pirate dean’s arm as the memory overwhelms me, “that was professor Jackson’s end-of-semester party, I thought the thing was attached to the wall.”
“Oh honey, it sure should have been, it wasn’t your fault at all,” she waves a tiny frail hand.
“Everything fell down, ruined, I never felt so bad,” and this was truth, it was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and I’ve shot people.
“Water under the bridge, son, what was your name again?” her intense eyes set in ivory over blue veins with a swath of eye shadow—to give her skin some opacity—fix me with a stare.
“This is Dr. Cornelius Hack,” Bart Taylor takes over, patting my back and causing me to choke a bit.
“K-Kees, just call me Kees,” I stammer.
What in the fuck is going on here? Where are the guns, the drugs and the human trafficking?
“I’m planning on sliding him into the foundation chair-person position, putting him in charge of funds acquisitions.” and then to me, “I know I’m kinda springing that on you, but you do have a knack for it you must admit. And I’m getting ready to retire.”
“W-what position? Your position?”
“Of course, we’ll have to hire you on as an adjunct first, is there anything in particular you’d like to teach, think about it, there’s still some time.”
“Ooh funnel cakes!” the old lady spots one as it comes in with a crusty old river-boat gambler type. “I must have one of those,” the old lady crows and leads her doddering old lamp-post of a husband across the floor and out into the fund-raising fair.
“I was told there was a human auction, that you auctioned off women?” I say sternly into Taylor’s ear.
He chuckles, “Yes we get quite a good load of money for the academy through that auction, some of these old goats will pay anything for a dance with pretty girl, and since it’s for a good cause, you know, the old ladies can’t complain.”
“A dance? You mean—”
“A dance, Hack, it’s just a dance.”
“But Regina said . . .”
He shoots me a look, a sour one, “Yes, Kees, that was a bit different, I loved that girl. But things fell apart between us, I haven’t been the best fellow a girl could ask for, and since Kelly, . . . since my wife died, I’ve been a bitter prick.”
I let out an air-bag of a sigh, “So there’s no forced sex going on? Nothing nefarious at all? No guns, no wheeze, Nothing?”
“Jeesus, Hack, I’m sorry to disappoint you. We’ll be having a fireworks show in a few minutes,” he checks his watch, “if that’ll make you feel any better. I’m sure I can get Reggie to dance with you on the disco floor there, if that’ll help.”
“That adjunct job, with the fund-raising thing,” I pause feeling the floor kind of going out from under my feet, “it’s got a stipend?”
He guffaws loudly, “Kees you’ll have a paycheck a regular paycheck, a retirement plan, health care, you know, the whole shebang. One thing though.”
“You’ll have to give up the bounty-hunting, can’t have you in the department tagging the damned faculty.”
“Done.” I picture Carney out in the boxes with the little girl vomiting, maybe I can work some kind of charity for that too.
“By the way,” he smiles an enormous shit-eating jack-o-lantern grin. “You won the baking contest.”
“Hermits or something? You upset a few old blue-hairs with those, but there wasn’t anything even close—is that actual crystallized ginger in those?”
“I didn’t . . .” but, of course, Regina did.
“Blue fucking ribbon there Kees,” he laughs.
The fireworks were top notch and I chain-smoked through them while Regina leaned on my arm.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“I’m fixing this shit, next year we’re gonna have a dunking booth. You’re in it.”
“And a goddamned old fashioned wet t-shirt contest.”
“You’ll have to round up some tits for that.”
“Place needs a little youth around it anyway, maybe a Peter and the Wolf bit of theater? Course I’ll have to make up with a certain director.”
“Oh he’s here by the way.”
“No hard feelings, he understood once we explained it all to him, and reminded him about his outstanding—”
“Outstanding student debts.” I finish for her.
She lands a kiss on my cheek just as one of those amazing blue sprays goes up and transforms into what looks like giant sky-sperm.
The satellites started working more reliably. One fine morning Wendy forwarded me an electronic postcard. It was a picture of Golden Gardens Park Bathhouse in Seattle. Harvey found a job. He apparently discovered his Native American roots out there, Lushootseed or Donqualmie or Tulip or something. He also found a job teaching. He’s finally putting his brains to use. Dr. Harvey studied molecular genetics at Kroger University, one of the old state schools. I hear he had top marks. No hard feelings.