Cat and Mouse

         Detective Ringwood cannot remember the last time he had a really good cup of coffee. His wife will not let him brew his special blend beans at home. A good cup of coffee is just the last link in the long and snaky chain of oppression that starts with a white plantation overseer clenching on his cigar and stomping a brown peasant’s face with the heel of his boot. His wife is an expert on snaky chains of oppression, because she watches OWN, and drags her coffee deprived husband to one of those ‘social justice’ Roman Catholic parishes in the seedier parts of town. Every Sunday sermon is a plea for ‘open hearted borders’ (illegal immigrants, or should I say ‘Undocumented Americans,’ are a blessing to us all, for who else will scrub the pews and the altar linen for a few nickels and a cold lunch every Saturday afternoon?). Every Sunday ‘sign of peace’ feels like a late night, shitfaced grope with a diseased queer; the kind that will make a ‘decent man’ shiver in his shower stall the next day. All this ‘consciousness elevation’ is bad enough. What is worse is that even Sunday ‘coffee hour’ has jettisoned the black bean for the tea bag. Apparently, there is no injustice in the nations that grow tealeaves. The overseers there must be old softies with soft-heeled boots.

         Okay, so there is no coffee at home; but that should not be a problem in light of the fact that Detective Ringwood spends as little time at home with the missus as possible. Except that all the old coffee shops have been replaced by a Starbuck’s (the ‘Budweiser’ of coffee blends) or a Pete’s (also, the ‘Budweiser’ of coffee blends, but priced like a Guinness), and the coffee at work is either a lukewarm piss or a grainy oil slick.

         Ringwood pours his coffee into a wastebasket by his desk. Today’s coffee is the lukewarm piss variety, and he is not in the mood. Indeed, thinking about the plight of the coffee bean gives him a headache.

         Someone knocks on his office door. Ringwood waves him in without even bothering to ascertain whom it is. Frankly, he’d even prefer chatting it up with a ‘light in his loafer’ from internal affairs over reviewing the police reports now spread across his desk. No one joins the force with an eye for doing paperwork.

         Have a minute, boss? Charlie asks, while stepping into the office. 

         Charlie is a big, black, bald dude who used to play linebacker in the NFL.

         Now, he is the chief parole officer for the deadbeats released from state prison. He likes to refer to these deadbeats as his ‘team,’ as in ‘let’s stay away from drugs and win one for the Gipper.’ Or when he hauls one of them into his cubicle to assess how well the deadbeat is doing in his new road construction or public toilet cleaning job, he’ll ask of him: ‘What do you think Coach Lombardi would do?’ When the deadbeat is clueless Charlie will answer: ‘Win! Win! Win!’

         Ringwood regards Charlie as an ‘honorary white man.’ After all, when is the last time a ‘coon cop’ (Ringwood’s normal way of describing a fellow police or parole officer whose ancestry can be traced back to the Congo) had anything to say one way or another about Coach Lombardi, let alone the Gipper? The old and crusty detective is not sure if he likes Charlie’s whiteness. Life is a heck of a lot easier when everyone turns out like they are supposed to be. The creative types out there, the folks who refuse to stay in the cubbyholes allotted to them when they were born, all they manage to do is to throw monkey wrenches into the machine. The machine bursts into flames, and it is the Detective Ringwoods of the world who then have to tag and to bag the charred pieces after the fact. 

         Sure, Ringwood answers. Did one of your ‘teammates’ go ape shit?

         No, not ape shit, but AWOL, Charlie says. And I wouldn’t call David Trent ‘one of my teammates.’ Based on how he’s idolized around here, I’d call him a first string quarterback headed to the Hall of Fame…

         Fuck, Ringwood interrupts, while swiveling his desk chair to look through the window blinds at the Beverly PD parking lot behind him.

         Charlie glances at the wall of framed photographs to his left. One of the most prominent includes Jim Trent, the local police legend who heads up their POA when he is not ‘leaping tall buildings in a single bound.’ In the photograph, Ringwood shakes Jim Trent’s hand like he is in the presence of an Oriental god.

         I thought I should come to you first, Charlie says haltingly.

         Of course, it is not procedure for a parole officer to concern a homicide detective about a deadbeat suddenly falling off the radar screen. Nevertheless, nothing about how the police deal with David Trent is ‘procedural;’ and that is because on this side of the blue line the Trent Brothers are ‘political,’ as in you had better handle Jim’s firecracker brother with kid gloves, if you intend to get a promotion or to earn your twenty year pension. Ringwood passed the twenty-year pension mark many moons ago, and he has no desire for a promotion up to the higher echelons of ass kissers. Still, he toes the line when it comes to David Trent; and the reason is that at his age he has no stomach for hitting a hornet’s nest with a paddle. Roughing up losers in the interrogation room is one thing. It is quite another to be invited to Jim Trent’s riverside mansion for a one on one ‘counseling.’ No one ever returns from those sessions quite the same; and if old locker room gossip is credible, then one or two guys have never returned at all.

         Let’s go out and see what we can find, Ringwood says after a while. 

         Aren’t you going to call the boss? Charlie asks nervously. 

         I’ll handle that, Ringwood says, while still looking out the window blinds.

*   *   *

         Charlie turns right at the intersection of Lizzie and Borden. He is driving an unmarked police car to the very edge of town. Beyond the ramshackle tract homes there is nothing to see but an endless wasteland of tall weeds and sickly shrubs. Vultures circle beneath the matted clouds in search of something in the dirt or on the baked driveways to scavenge. Black crows shriek from the tops of roofs in an effort to scare off the competition for that mangled, dried road kill that is pretty much everywhere. The large vultures seem not at all intimidated.

         There is an overturned Schwinn bicycle by the side of the road. The rear tire is still turning, which indicates that whatever happened to the bicycle (and the rider) must have happened just seconds ago. Nevertheless, there is no child crying over a wounded knee. There is no mother running outside to care for her little one. It is as if whatever happened slid back into a shadow just a moment before Charlie could see it with his own eyes. Way out here near the end of the road, what is seen is much less important than what has been missed.

         Charlie parks the car in front of the tract house at 12501 Borden Road. It is unremarkable along this road, but for the faded yellow paint and white trim; and yet Charlie senses that there is something terribly wrong the moment that he looks at the front of the house. Everything about this place feels abandoned and hopelessly lost, not just within the past several days, but years ago. There is nothing logical about that feeling, for Charlie can verify that David Trent had been living here two weeks ago; and yet that shiver down his spine is what it is.       

         Ringwood steps out from the passenger side, before Charlie turns off the ignition. He too senses that there is something wrong here. Nevertheless, his is not a vague sense of foreboding, so much as a growing certainty that that piece of shit actor back at that McNutt slum had something to do with David’s failure to appear before his parole officer. David may be psychotic, and if the mayhem continues, then Jim may need to tighten the spiked leash he has on his brother (though who is going to tell Jim that he needs to do anything with his own flesh and blood anytime soon is another matter altogether); but that does not mean that David is so stupid as to skip out on his own parole officer. David knows the drill. He knows that even the Beverly PD cannot ignore a warrant for his arrest, if and when a judge gets tired of his failure to abide by the terms of his parole.

         Ringwood looks over the house from the driveway, while Charlie waddles up to the front door to knock. Both are pretty sure that no one is home, but of course procedure dictates one of them do the honors anyway. This is not Soviet Russia, after all. The police do not just barge into a man’s home unannounced, even if that man remains a ward of the state. 

         Charlie knocks several times, while a black crow shrieks overhead. He is about to leave the front door, when an old man walks up to them from midway down the block. Charlie eyes the old man suspiciously, even though he is surely not a threat to the two officers on duty. 

         Something happen with the Trent boy? The old man in the blue pajamas and red slippers calls out to the cops, while hobbling with his cane up the road.

         You know anything? Ringwood asks him in his curt police detective voice.

         The old man seems unfazed by Ringwood’s attitude. He must have had a lot of exposure to the cops over the years what with the crimes that take place routinely so near the edge of the world. 

         Only what I saw about a week ago, the old man responds. 

         Interested, Ringwood meets the old man halfway, while Charlie observes the two of them from afar. The two engage in a short, but animated, talk; and by the end, the old man has a devilish smile on his face. The nosy geezer really lives for the chance to tattle on someone (especially when that ‘someone’ is an asshole who just got off the bus from ‘somewhere else,’ and a dead ringer for a queer bait, pot smoking, Obama voter), and that is just what he has done here.

         Ringwood leaves the old man. He walks up the driveway, while removing a crowbar that he keeps inside his jacket. He barely glances at the black parole officer, before using the crowbar to jimmy the front door lock.

         Since David Trent is on parole, the police do not need a warrant to break into his house. Nevertheless, based on the look on Ringwood’s face, Charlie has no doubt that Ringwood would have bypassed the warrant anyway even if David Trent had had all his constitutional rights. Ringwood is a man on a mission; and he is not going to let the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, or any of the other legal niceties for that matter, get in the way of the neck he wants to strangle. The line between cop and crook can be very thin sometimes.

         As expected, there is no one inside. Charlie checks out the entire house, while Ringwood stays in the foyer. There is something strange about the foyer. It seems almost too clean in comparison to the rat’s nest everywhere else, like the foyer had been scrubbed by a strong person with a keen attention to detail.

         What do you make of all this? Charlie asks, when he returns to the foyer.

         I don’t think David will be checking in with you anymore, Ringwood says.

         Ringwood walks back to the unmarked police car without saying another word. He uses the CB radio to call for the forensic van. He anticipates that that foyer will light up like a firework show the moment the forensic nerds spray the luminol, unless that meticulous scrubber had been careful to use lots of bleach.

         That actor is a dumbass, Ringwood thinks. If bleach had been used, then that actor has an accomplice; someone smart enough to clean up the scene and to throw a monkey wrench in my investigation at the same time. 

         Do you want me to stick around? Charlie asks after a while.

         Hell, yes, you asshole, Ringwood responds with feigned indignation. I am certainly not returning to the station in that goddamned van. Just remain silent while they are here. I want them to scratch and to sniff only. It is none of their business who lives here, you understand? 

         So you can get ahead of the case, before you notify Jim, Charlie reasons.

         So I can do what I need to do, Ringwood says cryptically.

*   *   *

         Walter just fits behind the wheel of his restored, all black, 1931 Marmon Model 16. In order to do so, he first must remove his bowler and place it behind his seat. Also, if he expands his chest too much by taking in too deep a breath, then he will impale himself on that steering wheel. Therefore, he breathes only intermittently and in such a manner as to suggest he is merely tasting the night air on his lips, rather than devouring it in his bowels. 

         Given the tight fit, Walter should be uncomfortable; and yet he does not remember the last time he felt this good. He survived his brother’s return; and though his grandmamma continues to make herself known in the howling of the wind beneath the eaves and in the creaking of the walls after hours, she cannot tease him as she once did. He has the axe now, and Grandma Eunice recognizes to her everlasting chagrin, no doubt, that he is very capable of using it the way it is meant to be used. It took him long enough to get to this point; but the real and inescapable truth of the matter is that he has enough life in him even now to make up for lost time, while she is dead. 

         And so life is good for Walter Whipple. He has the axe, and he has a plan in the back of his mind. He also has his own ‘nigger,’ even if technically Marcos is actually a ‘half nigger’ on account of the European blood still discernible just beneath the surface of his caramel skin and indigenous features. Marcos is very willing to work up a sweat in the garden (perspiration slithering in streaks down a dark torso resembles fourteen carat gold tears, does it not?); but much more importantly, he is able and willing to accompany Walter on this little excursion into town. His mother imagines he is studying with a friend; and, indeed, there is truth in that, for Walter intends to teach his protégé just how dark the night can be. As for why Walter should want or need someone to accompany him now that he has his axe, the answer is simple enough. There is power in any number higher than one; and though Walter has embraced his new confidence, he is not so far removed from the sticky weeds as to have forgotten how badly they sting up the ass. Also, truth be told, he imagines corrupting the boy, not sexually, of course, but somewhere down therewhere that boy maintains his tenuous grasp on humanity; and though the moral and civilized part of his mind urges him not to go down that path, he cannot but find a certain devilish humor in returning a ‘half nigger’ back to the vicious wild from which he sprang. Civilization is much too good a gift for the darkies. Better to give them back to the ravenous wolves and to delight in how quickly and naturally they respond to the call of the wild.

         Walter glances at Marcos to his side. The teenager is just a dark, hulking form; and yet Walter can imagine the grin on his face. Marcos has wanted all of his life to be on the most intimate of terms with the darkness. Walter has seen the look in Marcos’ eyes whenever he talks about ‘playing’ with the hookers on the docks. The actual ‘play’ is probably much less than what Marcos suggests in his ‘tough guy’ demeanor, but no matter. What is important is that Marcos very much wants to be a darker soul than his mother raised him to be. Marcos is just a boy under his mother’s thumb, but he is trying finally to squirm out from that position. Walter can relate to that, even if he can never accept Marcos as ‘fully human’ in any other respect; and so, in a perverse way, they are kindred souls.

         Walter returns his attention to the curvy highway before him. There is a timid part of his psyche that hopes not to encounter again that ape cop waiting for him in the darkness up ahead. Who knows how a monkey with a badge could interfere with his plans? A much stronger part of his psyche, though, the part of his mind that has embraced the axe with unmitigated confidence and definitive resolve, actually hopes that that ape cop pulls him over for some phony reason. Walter imagines slowly rolling down his window, staring petulantly at that ugly, dark face hidden behind even darker sunglasses, and calling him ‘a creepy coon with a lip smacking hunger for watermelon, fried chicken, and underage, white pussy.’ Walter will refuse the officer’s request for his driver’s license. Then, in a final display of defiance, Walter will grin like the Cheshire cat, wiggle his fat fingers together just under his nose, and say, ‘Ta Ta!’ He will rocket forward in his 1931 Marmon Model 16, leaving the ape cop in a cloud of dust, and laughing as if a tickled hyena beside his protégé. Oh, that will be so very pretty, indeed.

         As it turns out, the ape cop is not roaming the highway tonight. Walter is a bit chagrined when he observes that they are fast approaching the city lights of Beverly (well, not so fast actually, given that Walter never once accelerates his 1931 Marmon Model 16 above 35 MPH even when the two-lane highway turns into a fast moving freeway), and he has yet to tell anyone off. The most he can do is to honk at automobiles he does not like for some reason, except that each and every one of his honks is drowned out by the discordant symphony of honks from drivers irate at his slow speed on the freeway. Outgunned, Walter decides to tune out the heavy traffic altogether by playing one of his Super 8 cassettes.

         Walter turns up Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd Movement (Allegretto), A Major, Opus 92. There is a mischievous wrinkle in the steady march of notes, a smiling devil just glimpsed in the plodding steps of an army ready to do fierce battle; that is the image conjured by the first three minutes of Beethoven’s 7thSymphony, 2nd Movement. Walter relishes every moment; as the music ascends to the heavens, and dips effortlessly back into the depths, like Daedalus on his makeshift wings. He does not restrain the smile on his chubby face; a grin that, no doubt, makes him look as deranged as a pedophile on a scent. No matter, as this is his moment; and as the music soars to its highest peak, he feels both his hands gripping so tightly the long handle of his axe that it is impossible soon to distinguish where his pudgy hands end and the handle begins. In fact, Walter is gripping the steering wheel; and his conscious mind knows that this is the case; but he will indulge the fantasy, regardless. He will indulge whatever the hell he wants, for his years quivering under his bed sheets finally have come to an end.

         Walter again glances at Marcos. The city lights flashing off Marcos’ young face show him to be both scared and cocky. The fear is in his darting eyes. The cockiness is in his smug lips. Which emotion prevails will depend upon what the boy does at that moment of crisis, if indeed there is one this evening. Contrary to popular belief, our emotions do not dictate how we act; so much as how we act releases this or that emotion in response. If we just drop our rifles and run, then we shall run scared every time. If we hold our positions in the battlefield, then we shall mask our fear with rage in time; and rage so unrestrained cannot but devolve into a kind of cocky mad disregard for life and limb. So it is fitting, then, that Marcos is balanced somewhere between scared and cocky. He would not be fit for battle if he did not have that serene insanity etched into his face.

         Walter turns onto Memphis Street. The narrow alleyway between saloons on one side and bordellos on the other seems to draw in his vehicle, so that for the first time this evening Walter senses that he is not entirely in control of his own fate. He breaks into a nervous sweat, and frowns. Something is wrong, and it is too late for Walter and his teen protégé to turn back and to call it a night. First and foremost, the alley is much too narrow to allow any vehicle to make a U-turn; but secondly, even if Walter could do so, the lure of the darkness just a few more miles up ahead is much too strong. Walter may have the axe, finally, but the darkness is much more powerful than he had anticipated. 

         Still, he parks his vehicle at the end of the road. He squirms out, slowly, and at one point painfully; takes in a few deep breaths; and reaches inside for his bowler and his walking stick. He is about to close the driver’s side door and to waddle over to the trunk, when he remembers something else within all that clutter behind his seat. It is fumigation, and he proceeds to spray it all over the seat on which Marcos had been sitting just seconds earlier.

         Marcos exhibits mild annoyance, as Walter kills off every bacterium left on that old seat. Marcos catches Walter’s eye as if to ask him: ‘What the fuck?’

         There’s a reason we call your kind ‘Beaners,’ Walter answers, before he tosses the fumigation spray bottle into the clutter behind his seat. 

         Walter closes the driver’s side door, and goes for the trunk. There is one long case within the trunk, which looks like it might store a musical instrument or a large amount of illicit cash. Walter grabs the black case without comment.

         Walter and his protégé walk side by side down the rickety pier. As usual, a heavy fog rolls in from the Manchester River; and there is a ghostly horn way out there somewhere. A woman screams in the distance. It could be a whore on the dock faking an orgasm (men tip better if they walk away thinking that they had been as hung as a horse the whole time), or it could be a whole lot worse…

         So they’re just going to let us stroll right in? Marcos asks anxiously. 

         Of course not, Walter says with a grin. But yours truly has a plan. Ta-Ta!

         Notwithstanding his outward bravado, though, Walter too is nervous. He has gone over this plan a thousand times in his mind; but thinking about all this with Whiskers curled on his belly, and a record on his Victor Talking Machine, is a far cry from actually setting this plan into motion. He almost stops to give his doubt further consideration, but then he hears a witchy cackle out there in the river fog, or perhaps in his own imagination. He is sure that that is his Grandma Eunice laughing at his weakness. He may have the axe, she snarls; but like that night, he is just a pussy all too ready and willing to rush back into his bedroom.

         Walter taps the pier with his walking stick, and continues to waddle into the fog. Marcos remains by his side, though since he really cannot hide the fear in his voice he stays silent. That is actually just as well, for whomever stumbles upon this large teen in the fog is more likely therefore to see him as the strong, silent type. They will fear him, and there is no better way to be regarded when seen sifting in and out of the river mist. On the other hand, the talkative boy is a runt, who has no right to wander down this pier with his fatso buddy this late at night. Down this way it is always open season on the runts, especially if they happen to be big, brown ones with uppity smirks plastered on their Injun faces.

         A husky man wearing a Fedora and an overcoat steps out of the fog. It is not possible to see his face beneath his hat, but it is easy enough to imagine he is the spitting image of Luca Brasi from The Godfather

         Not one more step, ‘Luca Brasi’ barks, while thrusting outward his palms and taking center stage on the pier ahead. ‘Dream Boys’ is closed for the night.

         Walter intends to speak up. He had memorized what he would say in the event something like this occurred, but right now he cannot say anything at all.

         Walter taps his walking stick. He looks like a quirky fatso in a sweaty suit dowsing for water. The ridiculous image momentarily inspires a wide grin even on the uncharitable mug of ‘Luca Brasi,’ though in the darkness neither Walter nor his protégé notice how he let his mask down. What matters is that Walter is able to buy enough time with his strange behavior to dislodge the sticky frog in his throat. He cannot remember if he is about to state what he had memorized in bed back home, but at least he is going to say something to the Neanderthal.

         Step aside, you dago gorilla, Walter responds. 

         What the fuck? ‘Luca Brasi’ mutters incredulously. 

         You heard me, Walter says irritably. I’m a civilized man, and I’ve arrived here tonight with my nigger…

         Marcos glances at Walter. Marcos frowns irritably, and clenches his fists. 

         Your what? ‘Luca Brasi’ asks.

         Well, actually, he’s only a half nigger, Walter blurts out. 

         I don’t care who you are, ‘Luca Brasi’ snarls, while pulling aside the flap of his overcoat to reveal a .44 Magnum holstered to his suspenders. 

         I can’t imagine that you would, Walter continues without a hint of fright in his voice. But I can assure you that Chuckles cares…

         Do you have business with him? ‘Luca Brasi’ asks.

         More like a proposition, Walter remarks cryptically.

         ‘Luca Brasi’ thinks about this a moment. He has seen a few strange cats come out this way with a ‘proposition’ for the man, and he has had to dump all of them into the Manchester River after filling their faces and chests with lead. Nevertheless, there is something about this fatso, and his ‘half nigger’ boy toy, that suggests that Chuckles will respond differently.

         May I presume that you can pay for his time? ‘Luca Brasi’ asks. The man is busy. His time is not dollars and cents. His time is blood money…

         Walter hands his walking stick to Marcos, and lifts the case up to his big, jowly throat. He unsnaps the case. He stares a moment at ‘Luca Brasi,’ smiling like a devil about to snare a child with candy, and then opens the lid to reveal an untold amount of cash spread neatly through the space. It would have been much more dramatic, if the moon had been able to penetrate the dirty fog just enough to illuminate the greenbacks. Still, ‘Luca Brasi’ has a nose for ‘Pay Day’ and so practically smells the mint condition bills.

         Bloody enough for you, stupid dago? Walter asks.

         You’ve got a big mouth, ‘Luca Brasi’ snaps back. Tells me how you got so damned fat…

         Mouths are not just for eating; Walter interrupts. 

         ‘Luca Brasi’ has to think a moment about what that may mean. He wants to sling another verbal rock in response, but decides it is best not to do so. This fat fuck in a suit may be half his size, but he is damned creepy; that’s for sure. As for the ‘half nigger,’ or the boy toy, or whatever the hell he is, well, he says nothing at all; and ‘Luca Brasi’ would rather not discover what is lurking behind his peculiar smile. Sometimes, ‘Luca Brasi’ thinks he is getting a bit too old for the scary ‘mafia enforcer’ gig; and right now happens to be one of those times.

         ‘Luca Brasi’ waves them forward without uttering another word. Walter, brave on the outside, but scared shitless in his bowels, snaps the case shut and retrieves his walking stick. He gestures for Marcos to stay close, and then walks into that screaming wall of fog into which ‘Luca Brasi’ already has disappeared.

         Marcos follows closely on the heels of his partner. The screaming wall of fog through which he is walking totally unnerves him. He tries to tell himself it is the sound of a steam engine valve releasing pressure, but his imagination has considered already the myriad cast of creatures that have inhabited his private nightmares since the first time he learned about ‘El Día de los Muertos.’ This is the experience he has so much wanted for as long as he can remember, and yet that does not make it any less dreadful. 

         Still, for all that, Marcos is even more frightened by his partner. He just cannot understand how it is that they are not two corpses being dragged to the end of the pier. Surely, this Mafioso dude has taken down assholes on much less of a pretext than Walter’s insults; and yet for all his bluster this dude had been just as unnerved by Walter as Marcos is right now. Why? Because Walter is mad or cocky enough to take it to the edge? Or because the dark fates have decided that the pudgy racist is their man, at least for the time being; thus frightening the Bejesus out of everyone else not so anointed? Marcos cannot say one way or another. He only knows that his partner is playing with fire; dark fire, the kind that cannot be seen really for what it is until it is too late. Marcos is fascinated of course, but he is also frightened that he too may need to play on the edge if the two of them are going to get away from this night in one piece. 

         The fog dissipates enough for Walter and Marcos to observe that they are approaching the ‘Dream Boys’ ticket booth. There is a late nineteenth century automaton staffing the booth. His name is Oz the Ticket Boy; and the fiery red hair on top of his square face calls to mind Howdy Doody. For Walter, Oz is old hat; but Marcos is mesmerized by how the boy sits upright and sleeps. It is as if the boy could open his eyes and pounce through the glass partition at any time.

         So Oz the Ticket Boy also lives on the edge. He is an accumulation of old wires and rusted springs; an elaborate toy meant to amuse the hapless rubes as they are digging into their pockets to satisfy their perverse cravings; and yet he is alive. Marcos is simultaneously disturbed and enchanted by that fact; and as a result, he is now pushed onto that same mental and emotional edge on which Walter has been waddling since God knows when. Marcos truly likes it out here, even though he cannot stop that chill from slithering up and down his spine like a mad snake. Tonight, since the fine establishment at the end of the pier is not open to the public, Oz is not amusing anyone with his Howdy Doody antics; and yet that does not make him any less lovely and vicious in Marcos’ youthful eyes.

         ‘Luca Brasi’ leads them to the back of the ramshackle clubhouse. On any other night this place would be buzzing with the kind of dreary energy of older men who can no longer find their younger voice, or squirt their fizz, or wander from their stool to the restroom without stumbling to the floor. ‘Dream Boys’ is where geezers come face to face with the elusiveness of youth. It is a corner of hell quivering near a river that drags debris, and occasional corpses, out to sea.

         And, indeed, ‘quivering’ is the operative word here, for the dilapidated, wooden clubhouse seems always to be in motion, even when it is closed for the night. It could be how the river wind batters against an exterior wall, or how a shingle tumbles off the sagging roof, or how the entire building at once appears to breathe in and out of the enveloping fog. It is a hazy place; a ghost house in a nightmare that is lost to the darkness as soon as it is glimpsed. It is a derelict monument to what cannot be recaptured, such as innocence, or the virility of a young man, or that true love forever squandered. Only the devils laugh here, as the rubes dig deeper inside their pockets, and the dancers groove to the music.

         ‘Luca Brasi’ gestures for his followers to stay back, while he proceeds to knock on a secret door camouflaged by the ersatz wooden beams that make up the back exterior wall. There is a garbage can beside the door held together by padlock and chains. It is impossible to glance at that can without imagining in a dark corner of the mind what Chuckles may have hidden in there. Maybe, there is nothing in there. Maybe, the padlocked garbage can is just one way Chuckles keeps his visitors on edge. Regardless, the overall feeling back here in that the two men are walking into a trap. The only question is who is trapping whom. In the past, that would not have been a question at all, but with that strange grin forming on Walter’s face, and that adolescent smugness transitioning into dark, malevolent confidence on Marcos’ face, there is a very distinct possibility that the man inside is the rat in the iron cage. 

         ‘Luca Brasi’ knocks three times, and then steps inside. There is subdued, muffled conversation inside. Apparently, Chuckles is always mellow, even when opportunity or danger stands just a few feet from his door. It is all the same for Chuckles, it seems, and so the two men are not particularly surprised when the brute ‘Luca Brasi’ opens the door suddenly and waves them into what seems at first glance to be an Opium den in a Sherlock Holmes’ story.

         In fact, the ‘opium’ is marijuana. It is so thick at first that the two men standing in the doorway are not able to breathe. 

         ‘Luca Brasi’ frisks the two men, while they are gagging on the smoke. He takes his time and is especially heavy handed when squeezing the crotch. Still, for all his nastiness he is frightened, like a bully about to get his comeuppance. 

         ‘Luca Brasi’ toys with the idea of closing the door on them and so letting them suffocate. Nevertheless, he knows that his boss is genuinely curious; and, therefore, with considerable regret, he holds the heavy door open long enough for the two men to get some oxygen into their lungs. Still, he allows himself to snicker a moment at their obvious discomfort. 

         As the marijuana smoke dissipates, Chuckles emerges out from the dark and pungent fog as an overgrown child. He is sitting barefoot on a black leather couch and smoking a long, green booger joint. His Bermuda shorts reveal older, knobby knees and thinning legs. His torso and arms are more considerable, thus indicating that he still hits the upper body portion of the gym. Nevertheless, all those smoke lines upon his face, the drawn cheeks, the deep set eyes suggest a fifty something man less able everyday to recapture the oafish jock that he had been once upon a time. Chuckles plasters a boyish smile on his face, even as he is toking on that joint; but it is clear enough at first glance that he is as beaten down by his drug and sex empire as he is its master. The maniacal charm in his eyes, as enticing as it is, just cannot hide the despair chewing away at his soul.

         Walter knows all too well what it means to be a ‘beaten down’ man. He nevertheless is careful not to feel any empathy for the man across from him. In the end, only one of them will emerge from this smoke filled den the victorious feline, Cheshire grinning, and ready to go on the prowl. The other one will be a decimated rat, maybe literally, but at the very least mentally and emotionally. Walter is the man with the axe here. He intends to be the cat with thick blood dripping from his fangs. He frankly cannot abide the world unless he is that cat.

         Motherfucking mad reefer, man, Chuckles giggles. 

         Walter already hates the man for talking like some sort of jigaboo. What is it with white people today? Walter thinks. Why the perverse fascination with emulating niggers? As civilization recedes, it slides back into the deep as a fast moving tide. One second there is gentility; the next, there is all this ‘jive talk.’

         Excuse me? Walter responds stonily.

         Ghetto shit, Chuckles answers. It’s what passes for a ‘good time’ among all those assholes out there who won’t dig a little deeper for what I’m selling. I have tried it; you know, just to get the lay of the land. The most you’ll get is a limp dick high; a little thrill up Chris Matthew’s leg, then fucking ‘pop goes the weasel.’ But the worst thing is that repeat users start to get a bit ‘insane in the membrane’ after a while, like the niggers thought they’d go ‘high class’ on the rest of us by mixing a brain buster into their weed. Leave it to the new kid at a poker table to overplay his hand. Don’t they realize that all you need is one nut job to run into oncoming traffic to scare everyone else out of the market? Let’s face it. We all live or die on the margins, and the margins are thin enough what with all that legal shit they can buy across state lines. 

         Chuckles’ words are agitated, but his manner of speech is as laid back as a beach bum surfing the high from his Maui Wowie joint. He stops a moment to toke on his joint. He studies his visitors through the thick fog in between where he is sitting cross-legged on his couch and they are standing on his floor. He has learned over the years how to read people pretty well; but these grinning cats, assholes of the highest order, and probably a couple of fags, remain inscrutable to him. How can they be so obviously scared and confident at the same time? Is this really about marijuana; or are they here to buy something else, like his old and beaten down soul, perhaps? Ridiculous question, of course, but then again, everything about these two fruits stumbling in out of the thick fog is ridiculous.

         Chuckles slowly drops his left hand into the space between his cushions. He grips the handle of his revolver down there. He cannot recall if he loaded it after shooting off some rounds into the side of a docked riverboat for shits and giggles. Usually, it does not matter. Just the sight of a revolver will frighten his visitors into seeing things his way. Nevertheless, he is just not certain that that alone will work with these two weirdoes. Though he remains as outwardly calm as normal, he wishes he had told his old brute to send these queers back home. Of course, he can dismiss them now; but then he’ll be admitting to them, to his old brute, and to himself that he is frightened. He’d rather die than to do that.

         I’ve got a proposition for you, Walter speaks in a voice that is strangely, disconcertingly, calm and detached. I don’t want to take up your time…

         Chuckles interrupts Walter with a maniacal laugh that sends a chill down the spine of everyone there. Walter is so incensed his cheeks glow red, and yet he is careful to keep his mouth shut. 

         Of course, you’ve got a ‘proposition,’ Chuckles remarks. I’ve entertained a lot of visitors, and not one of them ever came back here to share high tea. So let’s cut to the chase, shall we? My man here tells me you’ve got a lot of dough in that case of yours, more than necessary to buy for recreational use. If that is true, then that means you want to buy enough to be a distributor. Mao said the capitalist would sell to the hangman the rope used to hang him, and so you are here to test that theory. Tell me I’m right, bro…

         Walter bristles at the ‘bro’ reference. Outwardly, he remains as calm as ever, except for how tightly he grips the handle to his black case. 

         Here’s what I’m thinking, Chuckles continues. You buy my premium shit, but then you mix in enough hallucinogens and cock teasers to rocket a man to the moon. Over ninety percent shit, so that your purchase tonight goes further, and you can undersell even the ghetto scum.

         Again, Walter remains as silent as ever. He widens his grin so much, and is eyes take on such a dreamy countenance, that he really does look like a huge Cheshire cat sifting in and out of the smoke. 

         As I indicated before, I’m not going to let that happen, Chuckles remarks with an affable shrug that says, ‘Well, that’s the way the old cookie crumbles.’

         Chuckles tightens his grip on that revolver hidden between the cushions.

         We’re already got too many amateurs at the poker table, Chuckles says.

         So Chuckles is not going to sell to these two faggots. This is the moment in the conversation when they are supposed to look crestfallen. One or both of them should be piping up about how this can be a ‘win-win.’

         But nothing like that happens. Instead, there is an awkward silence. The only sound is the river wind shaking the walls, like a cat shakes the iron cage in which a rat has been trapped. 

         Then, Walter hands Marcos his walking stick, lifts his case so that it is by his chin and parallel to the floor, and unsnaps the locks. His face beams like he is a pedophile about to introduce a boy to sin. 

         Now, it’s my turn to play ‘show and tell,’ Walter smiles. First, I’ll show…

         Walter opens the case. Indeed, there is a lot of money.

         Now for the ‘storytelling’ part of the show, Walter continues. I am not a rich man, but I know what secrets lie hidden in my garden. By all accounts, my grandpa had been a henpecked husband. He was a kind man; the kind a woman will tear down and manipulate into an early grave. But for his cocktails and his poker winnings, he would have had nothing at all, but his name and his memory of what it used to be like to walk this earth as a man. He hid his cocktails in his liver the best he could. As for the poker winnings, he buried them like a dog his bone. I’d watch him from my bedroom window do what he absolutely had to do with no guide at his side, but the moonlight and the howling winds…

         Am I supposed to be touched? Chuckles asks, and then giggles.

         Of course not, Walter responds. As you said, I did not come here tonight expecting to share high tea with you. I simply want you to recognize that every one of these greenbacks means more to me than your fucking weed…

         Walter blushes. He is surprised and ashamed to hear himself speak like a common sailor on leave, a truck driver on his bar stool, or a bloated, union hall Democrat delivering a eulogy. He braces himself for Grandma Eunice’s wooden spoon. Each swap of that spoon on his bare ass will sound like ‘fuck’ in his ears.

         Walter collects himself. This is not the time to go down Memory Lane. In this confrontation, only one of them emerges as that victorious cat; remember?

         So what do you want? Chuckles asks haltingly, because he has been truly blindsided by the fact that the two faggots are not here to purchase marijuana.

         Information, Walter answers. 

         Walter and Chuckles stare at each other like old gunslingers on opposite ends of the O.K. Corral. Then, when the tension is unbearable, Chuckles breaks into hysterics. Chuckles flings his joint up and back, though strangely he is very careful still to keep his left hand in between the two cushions. Maybe, he is not so out of control, as he wants to seem then. Maybe, he laughs like a hyena, but thinks like a fox. Regardless, Walter is noticeably infuriated by Chuckles’ laugh.

         How long do you think I’d survive in my business, if I gave out as much as I took in information? Chuckles asks. 

         Walter hesitates. He decides to press on like Chuckles never had spoken.

         So, you see, the information you provide had better be truthful, because I am paying my grandfather’s blood money for it, Walter continues. That means nothing to you, but it means everything to me. Let me make this clear. If I give you this blood money, and you proceed to send me down the primrose path, no one’s going to protect you from my wrath. You’ll be dead; cut down by my axe.

         ‘Luca Brasi’ takes the threat seriously. He once more opens the overcoat flap, so that he can get to his .44 Magnum fast, if needed. 

         Marcos observes ‘Luca Brasi’ out of the corner of his right eye. He notes that the .44 Magnum is not locked in its holster. This allows for quick retrieval, of course; but it also renders the old and tired brute vulnerable to a young man with faster reflexes. Marcos considers this fact, while his heart beats as a drum in his ears. He has been consumed by his cold fears; and yet for that reason, he has never felt more viscerally alive. Every muscle and nerve ending feels as if it is twitching at high alert. He is a bomb about to explode, if something does not happen soon that directs all that nervous energy under his skin into firm action.

         Cut down by your axe, huh? Chuckles mutters. Well, fuck you, fat man. I am not one of those talking parakeets…

         Before Chuckles can say anything more, Walter removes and slings aside the top partition of his case. This is the part of the case in which all of the old, but meticulously ironed, greenbacks had been stored. The bills fall through the air like green confetti over Times Square. 

         Just as fast Walter grabs the long handle of the sharp axe that had been hidden in the lower partition. He tosses the old case aside, holds the axe blade diagonally over his left shoulder, and rushes forward, so that he is close enough to slam the blade into Chuckles’ forehead if he so chooses.

         At the same time, Chuckles removes the revolver from in between those cushions. It turns out there is a bullet left. Chuckles presses against the trigger.

         Marcos elbows ‘Luca Brasi’ in the chest, before the old brute can start to fumble for his .44 Magnum. The old brute groans, while stumbling back toward the door. Marcos reaches back, snatches the .44 Magnum out from that holster, and points the weapon at the head of their host just in time. 

         Chuckles sees the .44 Magnum pointed at his head. He knows all too well that the kid is going to blow his head off the moment he kills this fat fuck with the axe. It is best to retreat before this show really gets out of hand; and so, to that end, Chuckles lets the trigger click forward. Even though he still points his revolver at the fat fuck with the axe, all the tension cools down considerably in a matter of seconds. The three of them remain in position to attack, if needed; but the wild-eyed murder lust dissipates along with the older marijuana smoke.

         So how’s this going to end? Chuckles asks Walter after a while. 

         You’re going to give me what I want, and then my nigger and I are going to leave, Walter snarls, while swinging his axe blade a few inches up and down.

         What do you want? Chuckles asks without any hint of laughter.

         The name and the address of the ‘Restless Wrangler,’ Walter whispers as if asking for the name and the address of God. 

         What? Chuckles blurts out incredulously.

         He is one of your dancers, Walter states.

         I know who he is, Chuckles says. Why do you want him? That deadbeat’s been AWOL a couple of weeks. I’m about ready to kick his sorry ass to the curb.

         The name and the address, Walter repeats impatiently. 

         Sure, why not? Chuckles concedes. Hell, you can keep that son of a bitch for all I care. Saves me from the cleanup work.

         The three of them lower their weapons at once.

         ‘Luca Brasi’ stumbles forward. He is clutching his chest still, but the red in his cheeks has faded to pink. He stares upon his master with sleepy dog eyes.

         Search the Rolodex for ‘Billy Ray Blaise,’ Chuckles orders his brute. Find his address. If you find his blood type and his sexual preference on his Rolodex card, then by all means include that information too. Porky Pig and his Nig Dog deserve the very best from us, do they not? So snap to it before I snap your ass.

*   *   *

         Detective Ringwood opens his car window, and tosses out his coffee cup.

         Technically, that should be a $500.00 fine for littering; but who is going to call him on it? The bums this close to the abandoned railroad depot have no shame. They will wait until he is gone, for they can eye an unmarked police car even in the dead of night; but when he calls it quits, they will stagger out from the moon shadows to scavenge the Styrofoam coffee cups and various fast food wrappers he has given back to nature. Hell, the bums are so far gone that they will not care that they are splashing through the old man pee he emptied into a pan and tossed out the window. The jewels left over from a stakeout appear in many guises and fragrances, and far be it from the bums to second-guess them.

         That is what Ringwood thinks anyway, not that he gives much thought at all to the bums and the pensioners who live this close to the end of the road. It is a wonder anyone can survive for long out here. Rather than thinking of them as resilient, he assumes that there is something wrong with them, like all those unwashed sickos are queer mutants genetically predisposed to filth and futility.

         Isn’t it strange how the weirdoes always live so far from us, whether it is the end of the paved road, or beside the rusted tracks, or backed into the loud, churning river? Ringwood thinks. It is like the misfits have taken the perimeter, surrounding the good folks living in the middle, and lurching toward the middle themselves one crime at a time. Pretty soon, the vicious cat and the squealing rat are one and the same; and then it is time for God to unleash another storm, or a nuclear war, or whatever other nightmare He has up in His sleeve. ‘Mother Earth’ needs a miscarriage every now and then. It cleans out the gunk; and as a result, the good (white) folks who survive have more room in which to breathe, to stretch, maybe even to conceive more good (white) babies. 

         Of course, that is what Jim Trent says. Jim wears many hats. One is ‘the resident expert on the genocidal history of the planet,’ which all boils down to saying that the planet, indeed the entire universe, is oriented toward providing a New Eden for good (white) people to prosper. This will happen naturally; but if we are smart about this, then we in the know can prod the ‘natural order’ to pick up the pace, maybe even create that New Eden in our lifetime. All it takes is a few beat cops and detectives to hold their shit together and to clean up all those messes that might throw a monkey wrench into ‘Jim’s Plan.’ David Trent usually has something to do with those messes. Scumbag queers and artsy folks, like that Billy Ray Blaise fellow, are also ‘bad news;’ for they are too much into drawing their own pictures to get with the picture. You know the type. They all drive Subaru Hybrids with ‘Question Authority’ on their bumpers; or if they are ass lubed twenty-four seven, then they actually prefer the city bus to the Great American Vehicle. Ringwood knew Billy Ray Blaise was a ‘domestic terrorist’ for all intent and purposes the moment one of his officers told him that the ‘actor’ had a public library card and a city bus schedule. God, that Billy Ray is a freak. He belongs in jail for one reason or another, if only to make the City of Beverly just a little more in sync with ‘Jim’s Plan.’ Now, that’s the truth of it, is it not?

         Damn straight, Ringwood mutters in answer to his own internal question.

         Actually, deep down, Ringwood is much too cynical to believe in a ‘New Eden’ for good (white) folks like himself. He imagines a naked whore coming up out of a cake in his retirement party, a kick in the ass when the Democrats get around to raiding his 401K to fund schools for niggers, and finally an inoperable cancer that drops his sorry ass into hospice. There is not much room for a ‘New Eden’ in that vision. Nevertheless, Ringwood prefers to be on the ‘inside’ (or as President Lyndon Johnson snarled: ‘Inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’); and that means cozying up to Jim Trent and his loyal disciples.

         And how does one remain on the inside? He cleans those aforementioned ‘messes;’ scrubs away the ‘shit stains’ that may be found in a police report or a coroner’s certificate; and as in the case here, does some proactive police work off the books. The forensic team had understood from the start that they were not to ask questions and not to share their crime scene assessment with anyone but Ringwood. He only had to say that this case is ‘off the books,’ and they had acted accordingly without so much as an upturned eyebrow. 

         As expected, the forensic team found nothing. The cleanup person put a lot of bleach and elbow grease into removing the bloodstains. Also, each of the switches, windows, and doors had been wiped clean of fingerprints. Bed sheets and sofa cushions had been thrown out back and set aflame. Frankly, given just how extensively the crime scene had been cleaned, it would have been hard to demonstrate forensically that David Trent lived there, let alone to provide any clues as to identity of the perpetrator. 

         And, indeed, though he has no more to go on than his gut instinct, there is no doubt in Ringwood’s mind that a crime has taken place. That means there must be a perpetrator and a victim. The victim is easy to identify, for how else do we explain David’s failure to appear before his parole officer? If in this case David had been the perpetrator, then he would have washed the blood from his hands, put on a clean shirt, and gone to his appointment. David may have a bad temper, but he is not so dumb as to call attention to himself by stiffing his own parole officer. It is a little harder to identify the perpetrator, since David had a lot of enemies who wanted to see him dead. Nevertheless, the nosy old man on Borden Road saw someone who looks suspiciously like Billy Ray Blaise; and then there is that gut instinct. It is never wrong, and it is pointing toward the ‘actor’ (‘actor’ my ass, Ringwood thinks, for in fact Billy Ray is just another scum bum with a pipe dream and a penchant for perversion), who lives in that dilapidated apartment building hidden in moon shadows across the street. 

         As the hours pass, and he finishes off the considerable stash of fast food piled on his passenger seat (stakeout cops bulk up on food and coffee, like they could be sitting in their unmarked police cars for weeks on end), Ringwood asks himself more than once: Why don’t I put this case ‘on the books,’ officially list David Trent as a ‘missing person,’ and corral the whole Beverly PD into looking for that artsy scumbag ‘person of interest,’ Billy Ray Blaise? The asshole would be sitting in my interrogation room right now if I had a dozen beat cops looking for him in the seedier parts of town, and this time I wouldn’t be so soft on him.

         Nevertheless, Ringwood knows as well as anyone else on the ‘inside’ that Jim Trent does not want more attention put on his unpredictable brother. Even if no one wants to admit it, the fact is that David Trent is a liability. If David is a ‘missing person,’ then that news is likely to make the front page of the local newspaper; and that in turn means more awareness of a sore issue Jim Trent in particular would like to sweep under the carpet. 

         Also, if David Trent is a ‘missing person,’ then that means heads will roll at the Beverly PD for insufficiently protecting the Big Guy’s brother. Perhaps in the end Ringwood would survive the purge and then go on to get his gold watch at the retirement party; but, then again, perhaps not. How Jim Trent will react when he learns finally of David’s probable death is too much in the air; and so, for that reason, Ringwood wants to be counted among those who actually tried to bring justice to Jim’s misunderstood and victimized brother. Ringwood hopes to be walking still with his balls in his hand after the ‘Night of the Long Knives.’

         Ringwood steps out of the unmarked police car. He has had enough with this stakeout shit; and, anyway, his wife will be calling for him back at the PD, if he does not get home soon. He grumbles something under his breath, wipes a coffee stain on his trousers, and strolls up to the front door of the old and dark building. He is about to ring the ‘after hours’ doorbell, when he senses that he is being watched. There is no logical reason for him to feel this way, and yet he has learned to trust his instincts in such matters.

         He turns quickly, like he is trying to see someone before that person can leap back into the darkness. There is no one back there, but a shaggy bum just snoring the hours away in a gutter. 

         Still, the night wind ruffles a bush, and kicks up a fast food wrapper that he had tossed to the ground, like it is toying with him. No one wandering about this darkness may know what he is doing here; but the night wind knows, and it is laughing in his face. Kicking up its heels and laughing, like one of those punks in his interrogation room has been able to turn the tables on him…

         That’s enough, Ringwood mutters. 

         There is anger in his voice, which is typical enough; but there is also real fear. Ringwood hates the fear. It is so totally out of character. Fear is supposed to be the reaction he inspires in other people, after all. 

         Moreover, what is all that shit about the night wind ‘kicking up its heels, and laughing’ behind his back? Ringwood is a rational man. He consigns hysteria and superstition to the niggers and the gals. His wife can waste her time all she wants with ghosts laughing up a storm and leprechauns kicking up their magical heels; but he is a crime fighter, a homicide detective, for Christ’s sake. He just cannot indulge that nonsense, especially when he is off the books late at night. He needs to get his act together, goddamn it. Focus on his critical task at hand.

         No matter how hard he tries, though, he cannot shake the feeling that a pair of eyes are staring at him from behind the darkness. Those faggot eyes are undressing him. They are looking at his scars and his wrinkles, tracing those old man lines zigzagging up from his pubic hairs, and catching every one of the fast and pained heartbeats in his ears. Ringwood can mutter ‘bullshit’ as much, and as angrily, as he wants; but those faggot eyes staring upon him see everything…

         I said, that’s enough, Ringwood snarls.

         But it is not enough, and deep down Ringwood knows that to be the case as much as he knows that that sleazy ‘actor’ is guilty of something or other. He is not going to be able to shut that night wind out of his head until it has taken a hold of his heart, and twisted the last bit of courage out of him. 

         And, indeed, it makes sense that he should be beaten down to the status of a punk; because like everyone of those Dirty Democrats and scumbags he has interrogated over the years, he is now acting ‘outside’ the law. Actually, it is a lot worse than that. It is not just that the case is ‘off the books.’ It is like he is ‘off the books;’ a punk barely able to hide behind his badge; an old man with a mean streak skulking under the howling eaves of this shitty apartment building.

         Who is watching whom? Ringwood asks, before shutting out that thought.

         He leans on the ‘after hours’ doorbell, until he hears a pair of hard shoes clopping towards the front door from the inside. He also makes out the distinct sound of a cane tapping on the hard floor. Well, he may be losing his sanity and his courage; but at least his ears remain as strong as when he had been able to hear a scumbag breathing quietly inside a dumpster. His ears are just about the only part left of the body and the soul he had had back when he walked a beat.

         The front door opens slowly. There is an old woman in a floral nightgown and wooden shoes leaning heavily on her cane. She normally can stand upright, more or less, while walking the long halls with her cane; but Jeopardy is done, and the milk is warm on the oven, which means that it is time for bed. Even as she is indebted to Mrs. McNutt, it is times like this that she wishes the old slum lady in her crotchety old wisdom had fingered someone else to be the executor of her Last Will and Testament.

         You’d better have a good excuse, the old woman snaps. It’s damned late to be leaning on the doorbell like an overambitious Amway salesman. 

         Ringwood pulls back his left coat flap to reveal the badge over his heart.

         I figured as such, the old woman says. I saw you sitting in your car across the way. I said to myself, ‘that old cat’s either a bored out of his mind cop or a pervert with a taste for old ladies and bums.’ Might even be both for all I know.

         What’s your name? Ringwood asks testily.

         Mrs. Beverly Soames, the old woman says. I’m the executor…

         I know who you are; Ringwood interrupts. Just another old bitch as far as I’m concerned. Listen, I’m giving you three seconds to hobble aside, or else…

         Where’s your warrant, detective? Beverly asks.

         What? Ringwood asks incredulously.

         You heard me, Beverly snarls. I know my rights. My late husband was Mr. Clement Soames of Soames, Biddlewax, and Barley, Attorneys at Law. My son is a prosecutor. He’s probably deposed you a few hundred times over the years. It will be a fine day when he can cross-examine you ‘cause you’re in the dock for violating his mama’s constitutional rights…

         Hold your horses, Ringwood interrupts her, while also holding up both his hands in a surrendering posture and plastering a fake smile on his face. I’m not here to burden you. I just need to speak with Billy Ray Blaise.

         Can’t leave the poor boy alone, Beverly says in disgust. You’re like Ahab trying to grab a hold of the whale’s tail before it slips back into the ocean. You are a fruitcake, don’t you know?

         Is he here? Ringwood asks.

         Haven’t seen him in days, Beverly answers. 

         Do you have any idea where he may have gone? Ringwood asks.

         Since he’s innocent until proven guilty, I reckon I have no more mind for him than for any of the other tenants, Beverly says. 

         What are you trying to tell me, old woman? Ringwood barks.

         I’m not trying to tell you anything, detective, Beverly barks back with as much bite. I’m telling you straight up that I have no idea where he is, who he’s sharing a bed sheet with, or how he’s making a living. So long as he pays me on time, I’m a happy camper with a steel tipped cane and a pair of iron dentures…

         That’s enough, Ringwood protests. 

         I reckon surely it is, Beverly agrees.

         Ringwood wants to punch the old bitch in the face. Put her in the grave, just like that scumbag ‘actor’ with the pot addiction likely did to Mrs. McNutt…

         Except that deep down Ringwood does not really believe Billy Ray Blaise put the slum lady into a grave and the happy hooker into the intensive care. He will be more than happy to pin the blame on that scumbag, if he can manage to do so. After all, Billy Ray is surely guilty of something. One only has to see how he defies authority in his attire, his mannerisms, even his chosen profession (as if a ‘gypsy actor’ can be said to have a ‘profession’) to come to this conclusion.

         Still, the fact that he does not really believe that Billy Ray Blaise is that criminal makes him question how sure he is of anything at all. As a result, cold, murky fear bubbles to the surface and momentarily subdues that self-righteous anger with which he is much more comfortable. He hears the night wind behind him, kicking up debris, and chuckling at how pitiful he is when he cannot even bully passed a little, old lady. Talk about putting a damp rag over his emotions.

         Moreover, he reminds himself that he is ‘off the books.’ He could punch the bitch, if he were on duty. Oh, sure, he’d have to allege in his police report that she resisted him; maybe even plant a revolver in one of her hands, so that it is conceivable that she posed a threat to him. Nonetheless, because he is ‘off the books’ there is no legitimate reason for him to try to force his way into this apartment. In this scenario, he is just a trespasser; and she is defending herself with her battle-axe mouth and her steel tipped cane as she has a right so to do.

         And so without anything further said, Ringwood steps back into that cold darkness from which he came. He speeds his step a bit when halfway to his car.

         Mrs. Beverly Soames watches him, until finally he has driven out of sight.

         She locks the front door, and hobbles back to her room. She says a little prayer for Billy Ray Blaise, wherever he may be resting his head this cold night. No doubt, the devils are conspiring against him, and he needs all the prayers he can get from the strong and the weak alike. The poor boy probably also needs a bit of warm milk, for the night can chill thin bones when it has a mind to do so.  

*   *   *

         Walter Whipple accelerates his 1931 Marmon Model 16 through the dense wall of fog that hovers just inches above the asphalt. It is like he feels the need to crash through that ghostly, moonlit mist. He is maybe driving 35 MPH along a windy, two-lane highway on the edge of Beverly; but the intense look plastered upon his jowly, round face suggests he is qualifying for the Indianapolis.

         As it turns out, though dense at certain places, the fog on the road is not much of an obstacle. Nevertheless, the night is alive, viscerally, sensually, with expectation. Walter has never been this far out on the edge, not even when he and his protégé visited with Chuckles the previous evening. It is one thing to be gathering information. It is quite another to be skulking in the shadows to get a closer look at the prey. Walter doubts he will do anything more tonight than to look. If he is lucky, then he will catch a fleeting glimpse; probably more a play on his imagination than the real thing; but, regardless, this night will be a first, tangible step towards recapturing what is his. When everything in his world has been set aright later, he will recall this hour as the time he turned that corner.

         Marcos is not able to accompany him tonight. This is just as well. Though reluctant to admit it to himself, Walter had been a bit too frightened by a look he saw in Marcos’ eyes the moment Marcos pointed that .44 Magnum last night. Walter had been fixated primarily on Chuckles, of course; but in his peripheral, right vision he had seen briefly the devil in Marcos’ eyes. Or perhaps it was not the devil, but rather something, or someone, much more familiar…

         Regardless, that look had passed within seconds; but it had been enough to inspire a horrible nightmare later that night. Walter does not remember very much about that horrible nightmare, thankfully, except for the stupid eyes of a black swan. Walter would say that there was no ‘civilization’ in those eyes, not any trace of reason or empathy, nothing to shame them into looking elsewhere. Walter would have said a lot more, like how it feels to be unclothed and fucked up the ass by stupid bird eyes; but he woke up just before any such impressions could form in his mind. He opened his eyes, suddenly, painfully; and he saw his mischievous Whiskers, sitting upon his chest, and staring back down at his eyes.

         All that had been last night. Walter is not now thinking about the dream, and yet he is happy enough to venture out tonight without his protégé. It is not just that Marcos gives him the creeps. Even more importantly, Walter needs to be able to say to himself that, indeed, he took this first step on his own. There will be no turning back, no last minute escape back to his bedroom, because he is the owner of his own fate tonight. He alone will be the man with the old axe.

         He slows down a little, and glances at the axe on his passenger seat. It is impossible to view, except when the moonlight manages now and then to bleed through the fog. Nevertheless, when the light strikes just so, the blade glistens like a wide grin illuminated in blue silver. The curve of that blade, bumping up and down on that leather seat, rattling insane laughter somewhere deep inside Walter’s imagination, is indeed the wide grin of the Cheshire cat. That blade is alive, mischievous, cunning, even if only for as long as it takes the moonlight to pass over its surface; and then, just as suddenly, it is lost again in the darkness of a night once more bereft of its cold moonlight. That blade is there, and then it is not there, and then it is there again, as if something popping in and out of a dream; not a normal dream in terms of duration, but one that continues into a dark and lonely eternity. Walter wants to believe that he is taking ownership of that eternity, like somehow the weakest and pudgiest demon in the litter all of a sudden surpasses Lucifer, sneaks up from behind God, and takes the throne for himself. A fool’s fancy, surely, but all greatness begins as reckless abandon.

         Walter remembers the Super 8 cassette on his lap. He inserts the plastic into his player. It is Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Quando Corpus Morietur. For the most part, the orchestral piece consists of a ghostly soprano choir lending voice to a devout, but also maudlin, contemplation of death. The flesh is weak, dead a while, and then no more than rancid meat sliming back into the earth. There is no moral to the story, so far as Walter is concerned anyway, except this: Get the axe, cut into the dead meat, and wallow in the dead blood, before the guts and the gore have been reclaimed by time. Get the axe, and take what is yours before it is too late. Get the axe, before you are taken up by the endless night.

         The choir sings Amen. Walter mutters Amen as well, though his is a small and unheard whisper in comparison to the chant of praise bleeding through his antiquated speakers. No matter that his voice is small, for the lion is quiet also before it snatches up an unsaved soul. It is as silent as this heavy, brooding fog, silent and still; and then, all at once, it leaps out with its axe blade grin and its ferocious eyes. It leaps out from the moon shadows to rape and then to devour.

         Walter steers onto an unpaved path partially veiled by trees and bushes. Through the foliage he can see the lights of tract homes in the distance; but for the most part, he has escaped from the run down, industrial edge of the City of Beverly and driven into a nightmare of low hanging branches and thorny shrubs. This too is city property; and Walter knows that if he remains on this path long enough, the foliage will thin, and then vanish altogether, to reveal the endless expanse of an abandoned city dump. 

         Long before the foliage thins, though, Walter’s headlights reflect off the remnants of a railroad track. He would have missed it, if the fog had remained as dense as it had been back on the highway. Nevertheless, out here in the wild the fog thins into shredded, cotton, bed sheets; each quivering sheet calling to mind a boy in a hand-me-down Halloween costume. As if to complete the scene there is also a morose scream in the wind, which had not existed or Walter had not heard out there on the highway. 

         Walter slows to a crawl. He does not want to lose that track. 

         For a while, there are only remnants of railroad track; some so loosened from the earth over the years that they now run diagonally to the path. Most of the rails are orange red and cracked from rust. The wooden ties are mildewed, or have been totally reabsorbed by the ballast rocks and wet earth under them.

         Then, the railroad tracks remain intact for about a half mile. The rusted tracks run alongside an abandoned stockyard. The brick slaughterhouse, so dark and sinister in the shredded sheets of fog, looks like a haunted horror bunker in a Nazi war camp. The billboard over the façade features a freckled, redheaded boy munching on a hamburger. ‘Howdy Doody’ is all smiles, although that devil look in his eyes suggests you may be next on his menu. The cursive script below ‘Howdy Doody’ cries out: ‘Prime Cuts Heaven. Where Steers Meet Their Maker!’

         There is a run down mall just beyond the stockyard. All of the stores are closed and boarded, except for ‘Mr. Peabody’s Novelties’ and ‘$1 VHS Rentals.’ The neon signs for each flicker through the fog like warring lighthouse beacons.

         Passed the mall there is an abandoned Union 76 station, a partially burnt down Waffle House, and finally Mrs. McNutt’s Apartments. The building is alive with lights, but given the poor condition of everything within a mile it seems to be the forked tongue at the end of a long and slithery graveyard. It seems to be as remote as anything can be; and when the moon is new, and the street lamps flicker out, the dense darkness beyond Mrs. McNutt’s Apartments suggests a sad and ramshackle building on the edge of outer space. The tracks themselves are as if swallowed up by that same darkness; and so it is easy on those dismal and endless nights to imagine an old ghost train barreling off the edge of the earth. 

         It is not that dark tonight, though the intermittent sheets of fog obscure the moonlight enough to bathe everything in a ghostly shroud. The world is cast in blue silver hues out here; and that very same world shivers, and then recoils, whenever the wind screams through the low hanging foliage to the right of the railroad tracks. The horror down these rusted tracks is cold, dead, and yet also sentient. The horror down these rusted tracks is aware. It watches you from its own secret mind. It even gets up close enough to pull aside the window blinds…

         Walter parks his 1931 Marmon Model 16 along the left side of the path. It is partially hidden beneath low hanging branches, though of course anyone who might venture down this way would see his vehicle almost immediately. That is a risk, to be sure; but it is much less of a risk than cavalierly parking in front of Mrs. McNutt’s Apartments. Indeed, there is something to be said about coming in through the back way. Walter has had to relearn that lesson more than once; and so, with the long axe in hand, he is especially happy to be on top this time.

         Besides the axe, which he holds blade downward along his right side, he carries a flashlight in his left hand and a pair of binoculars around his neck. The equipment seems to be incongruent with his Mulberry plaid bowtie, white shirt, emerald cufflinks, checkered pants (Gerald Ford would be envious), and black, leather loafers. His bowler hat, tilted towards the right side, on the other hand fits with the duck like way that he waddles down the tracks; for the bowler hat and the walk together suggest a comic character in a silent film. Or perhaps he is a precursor to the Penguin from the Batman universe, especially when he has to quiver his jowls to wring the mist off of his fat face. The water flickering off his face from time to time indeed suggests a penguin worn down by all that ice.

         Walter whistles ‘Camp Town Races,’ while waddling into the fog. For the most part, he keeps his head down. He is confident enough with his long axe in hand, but he can sense how the horror down this way licks its lips and eyes him like an old queer. He is strong, but he is not so sure he can keep the night from seeing whatever it wants to see in him. Is he really on top tonight? Is he the cat on the prowl, or the mouse in the cage? 

         Walter tries not to answer those questions. Instead, he focuses his mind, indeed every part of his life, in whistling that quaint tune from his childhood. It is as if he can avoid altogether the intellectual and moral doubts just under the surface if he whistles properly every single note of that tune. This mental game turns out to be as effective as not stepping on sidewalk cracks, or not breaking any mirrors. The proof is in the pudding, for by the time he stumbles up to the abandoned railroad depot much of that doubt has been replaced by a maniacal focus on seeing this task through to the end. 

         Walter switches off his flashlight. He does not want to be so conspicuous now that he is behind Mrs. McNutt’s Apartments. Just enough moonlight breaks through the fog that he can observe the rickety steps that lead up to the depot from the tracks. The steps crack beneath his considerable weight, but he walks up to a rotted porch and squeezes into the run down depot through a backdoor.

         He stops in his tracks. There is a terrible odor that seems to ascend from beneath all the clutter in the depot and to slap him in the face. He recoils, and almost gags. It takes every bit of his strength and his willpower just then not to stagger backwards onto the porch.

         The immediate assault passes; and as tears slither down his cheeks, he is able to distinguish the pungent odors. The most potent one suggests old wine in the bottom of the barrel. There is also the acidic, and strangely fruity, smell of vomit, not the kind recently pushed out from the bowels, but the kind that had been released sometime ago. This vomit has had time to sink into the old wood beams and to mix into the mildew there. 

         Beneath everything, like an infested swamp comprising the foundation of a house of horrors, is the faint smell of rotted meat. It is actually sensed, more so than smelled; and yet its impact on the imagination is that much more harsh precisely for that reason. It very well may be nothing more than a rotted piece of meat left there by one of the bums that moves in and out of this depot, or it may be a dead rat. The latter scenario is harder to stomach, since one assumes the other rats by now will have torn open its gaseous guts to alleviate their sick and twisted tastes. 

         Then, the darkest corner of the imagination touches ever so slightly, but also undeniably, upon the third logical possibility. Certainly, if this rotted meat smell may be attributed to a dead rat, then it also may be attributed to a dead man. Maybe, he is just a wino; but then again, maybe he is a civilized man. Not all good men have the luck of dying in good places. Maybe, the corpse is a man, who had been fortunate in birth and gentlemanly in disposition. Maybe, he also has his guts torn open; for death, it seems, knows no rank of men above others.

         Walter considers this distinct possibility, while the sweat from his aching forehead joins in with the tears slithering down his cheeks. Though he manages not to stagger out the backdoor, he nevertheless feels the need to lean against the wall a while. He holds the flashlight and the axe by his sides, like they both are weights trying to elongate his arms to the ground. He slumps his chin to his neck, and he takes in the shallow and timid breaths of a frightened, pudgy boy.

         What am I doing here? Walter mutters. 

         He then snaps that thought out of his mind. He may be overwhelmed for a while, but he is not about to leave. Even if only to spite his Grandma Eunice, and frankly to keep his brother Lucius from making a return visit any time soon, he is going to continue with his plan, no matter the horrors along his dark path.

         He steps away from the wall. In the dim moonlight, he can see the ticket booth. It faces the apartment building. From there, he can use his binoculars to watch the Restless Wrangler as long as he desires tonight. 

         He is careful not to touch anything. There may be a dead rat (or for that matter a live one) on the top of any one of the boxes. His nose whispers to him that most, if not all, of these boxes contain cheap booze and marijuana; two of the four basic food groups set aside for Derelicts and Democrats. It is very hard to imagine a civilized man ending up here, but one cannot discount the chance out of hand. Once again, that sad thought takes a hold of his spine and twists it into a knot so that he has to stand in place a while for the shivers to pass away.

         Walter reaches the ticket booth. He leans his elbows on the counter and looks through the open space that used to be a window. 

         Earlier today, he had spent a few hours at the public library. Since it too serves as an archive for old permits and architectural plans, he finally had been able to view a microfiche copy of the plans for Mrs. McNutt’s Apartments. It did not take too long then to determine which unit belongs to his ‘favorite tenant.’

         Walter raises the binoculars to his eyes. He stares rather longingly at the correct window. There is no doubt in his mind, for there is enough moonlight at this time penetrating the fog to distinguish the ugly windows from one another.

         Cheap blinds, Walter mutters. Tsk-Tsk. 

         He contemplates sitting on a stool. His aching back practically cries out for relief. Nevertheless, he decides to touch as little as possible. Rats very well may be anywhere; and then, of course, there is that faint smell of rotted meat.

         Love you, Grandpa Henry rasps. Love you all…

         What the hell? Walter blurts out, while turning away from the booth and clutching at his chest. 

         Surely, he did not hear a real voice. It must be a memory conjured up as a result of how insanely frightened he is to be inside this dark and creepy place this time of the night. Of course, that is the only rational explanation, is it not?

         Except that he feels his reason failing him at this moment. Reason is like water gurgling down a drain. What is left is cold, hard, no more than a slate on which his irrational fears are able to cast their ugly marks upon his soul. Fear is vandalizing his mind, cheapening it, bringing him down to the earth and casting his lot with the groundlings. Even worse, that same fear is turning the inchoate voice from yesteryear into an existential reality here and now. It is clothing the voice in flesh; battered and bruised flesh, to be sure, but nevertheless capable of being distinguished from the flesh of any other man. Fear is bringing his past to the present, and it is invigorating this dark past with sick and demented life.

         Walter catches his breath. He switches on his flashlight. 

         Indeed, there is a body on the floor. Swollen, purplish feet poking out of a pair of jeans indicates that the body has been dead for a few days at least. It is the rotted meat. The open bottle of red wine beside the left leg is the strong ‘bottom of the barrel’ smell. The vomit likely is closer to the dead man’s face. By now, it may be a stain on his chest; or it may have dribbled off to the side in the midst of his death throes. Either way, if Walter traces the flashlight up the dead man’s legs and torso, then he likely will find the vomit stain soon enough.

         Walter does not want to see any of this, and yet he cannot seem to stop his own trembling, left arm from moving the flashlight up the dead man’s body.

         The dead man’s shirt is unbuttoned and ragged. The man seems to have ripped his shirt open in an attempt to grab at his heart. His right arm continues to bend at the elbow. His right hand rests palm down on his heart, like he tried literally to pull his throbbing heart out of his chest at the very end. His left arm must have been flapping erratically, like a little fish out of water. It is covered over entirely by what seems to be a mix of blood and vomit. Only the fingertips on the left hand poke out from the blood and vomit concoction, so that at first glance they look like little purple worms on top of a bed of filth. 

         Walter is too stunned to scream. He struggles to suck in another breath.

         Nevertheless, he still traces the flashlight up the neck. 

         It’s your turn, Lucius whispers. Or are you a pussy?

         Walter gasps. He points the flashlight directly at the face. 

         Lucius lifts his head up from the floor. His eyes are blank, intense, dead to empathy and so able to tear into his weak and vacillating soul. Slowly, a soft and decadent grin forms on his purplish face. His dead lips crackle audibly from the effort; but he would not forsake this grin, no matter the strain involved for a bloated, purplish corpse. After all, he has every reason to smile, for his little, pudgy brother is once more not up to the task. 

         Finally, Walter manages to scream. He drops the flashlight, although the flashlight beam still illuminates the upper half of the grinning maniacal corpse. He also lifts his long axe, so that he can grab the upper part of the handle with his freed left hand. He holds his long axe diagonally over his heaving, old chest.

         Walter steps forward. He bends his knees, like he is preparing to drop his blade into Lucius’ grinning face. His face suggests a contorted blend of intense hatred and fear; and yet for all his emotion, and apparent willingness to strike a deathblow, his older brother continues to grin without any apparent concern. Of course, this is as it must be, for the dead no longer fear death. This is finally the advantage that they retain into eternity. Nothing Walter does with his long axe now can change this fact, and so Lucius just keeps on grinning back at him.

         Grinning back at him, and reminding him that he is still a big, old pussy…

         Walter screams out in rage, and yet at the same time he recognizes that he has been defeated. He holds his long axe diagonally over his chest, while he staggers out the depot and down the abandoned railroad tracks. His binoculars flap against his chest, but otherwise he makes no other sound while he escapes back into the darkness from which he came. Notwithstanding his madness then, he is sensible enough not to call even more attention to his exploit in the depot than his two screams have done already. It is bad enough to deal tonight with a grinning maniacal ghost without also having to deal with the police in due time.

         The flashlight continues to shine on the upper portion of the corpse until just before the break of dawn. The light keeps the ravenous rats away from the rotted meat still clinging to his bones. Otherwise, about a quarter of him would have been digested and defecated by the time another bum stumbles upon him around midday. At least, this dead boozer will be dropped into his grave intact.

*   *   *

         Detective Ringwood squats beside the corpse. The three other policemen in the depot are holding handkerchiefs up to their noses and mouths on account of the pungent smell, but Ringwood does not bother. He has smelled death and decay so often that he almost misses it, when there is too much time between homicides. Back at his office, there is a framed photograph of Robert Duvall in character in Apocalypse Now.Beneath the image is Duvall’s famous quote from that movie: ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’ 

         The bum has been dead probably four or five days now. There is no sign that he had been moved. There is no sign of homicide, unless some asshole put a little toxic booger in his wine of choice. But of course that begs the question: Who the hell is going to waste perfectly good poison on this derelict? Though of course the coroner will make the final assessment of cause of death, Ringwood already has determined that this bum drank himself to death. Vomit projectiles followed by massive cardiac arrest; Ringwood will bet the gold watch he gets at retirement that that is what happened here four or five evenings ago. 

         The first officer who arrived on the scene also speculated as such. Given that fact, why had he radioed Detective Ringwood? Because Ringwood’s order is that he wants to be notified of anything that happens at or near Mrs. McNutt’s, even including a jaywalker who gets mouthy with a beat cop. It seems that the old homicide dick has a ‘personal’ interest in what goes on out here. The other cops speculate privately as to what precisely that interest is, but they are very careful to keep their thoughts unto themselves. ‘Looking the other way’ within the Beverly PD is about as time honored as ‘sweeping warm shit under the rug.’

         Bag him, bitches, Ringwood orders without looking up at the three men.

         Two of the policemen step out of the depot. Of course, it does not take two men to retrieve a body bag; but they are grabbing at any excuse to remove themselves from this dusty, dark, and pungent hellhole. Ringwood really wants to chew their asses, but he decides instead to focus on his developing thoughts.

         The third policeman is as sick as the others, but he stays at his post now without so much as an eye roll. He is more senior and does not want to be seen as just another queasy asshole hiding his childish fright behind a cracker badge.

         It does not matter what the coroner determines, Ringwood thinks, while looking at the vomit plastered face. Billy Ray Blaise, or whatever the fuck he is calling himself nowadays, surely had something to do with this. I am suspicious enough, anyway, to call him back into my interrogation room for another round of mano y mano. I’ve got to break the son of a bitch. He’s my fucking menace…

         Ringwood stands up. He sighs. He looks about the depot.

         What’s that over there? Ringwood asks, while gesturing toward the dead flashlight with his chin, and folding his arms in front of his chest. 

         The third policeman walks over to the flashlight and squats down.

         Not a trace of dust, the third policeman comments.

         While everything else in here is coated in it, Ringwood observes.

         Why bother? The third policeman asks, while looking back at his superior and shrugging. No crime scene; no evidence collection; no paper work…

         Go ahead, and do it ‘off the books,’ Ringwood interrupts him. I just want the prints identified before ‘Happy Hour.’

         The third policeman snickers. He strolls over to the evidence kit in order to obtain a bag and a label. 

         Ringwood steps outside. He sees Mrs. Beverly Soames watching him from the rear corner of the apartment building. She has a sour look on her face, and she leans heavily on her cane. 

         Old bitch must’ve had a hard night, Ringwood remarks under his breath.

         For the most part, though, Ringwood focuses upon the top floor window that belongs to Billy Ray Blaise. He stares blankly into the closed plastic blinds.

         Where the hell are you, one nut? Ringwood thinks. 

         Ringwood stuffs his hands into his pockets. He starts to walk towards his unmarked police vehicle, while the other cops go about their business. 

         What games are you playing, asshole? Ringwood thinks furthermore. That is what I want to know more than anything else, for when all is said and done, I am the man who must put an end to all this. Jim Trent will expect nothing less.

*   *   *

         There is a single hard knock on the office door. 

         Ringwood had been lost in thought, leaning back in his swivel chair, and staring through the blinds at the Beverly PD parking lot. He had not anticipated that anyone would knock on his office door until the end of the afternoon shift. Fingerprints and Forensics usually drop their reports on his desk just as he gives himself license to think about ‘Happy Hour’ at the Kingfish Saloon, and since he salivates for cocktails on clockwork that should not happen for two more hours.

         This better be good, Ringwood barks back in mock irritation.

         The door opens, and in walks the Vice Chief of Police. He is a stocky, old Kraut named Hammerschmidt. Everyone calls him ‘The Hammer.’ He is no more than a thug henchman and bottle washer for the Chief of Police; a man truly to be feared, since he seems to relish his opportunities, now and then, to hammer the nails into the coffins of his fellow officers’ careers. His huge face is always ‘alcoholic red.’ His huge nose looks like something beaten the night before in a back hall. His buzz cut curls ever so slightly when he is irritated, which is most of the time. There is a secret office wager about when he will die suddenly of a massive coronary. The conventional wisdom is that this will occur within a year or so, but Ringwood thinks differently. He has seen his share of old bastards on the thin blue line, and normally they outlive the fair-haired and the ass kissers.

         Hammerschmidt pushes his weight around in general. For the most part, though, he leaves Ringwood and a few other ‘insiders’ alone, even though he is technically their superior officer. He may act like a stupid bull in a china shop, or a drunk Kraut in a novelty store, but in fact he knows when and when not to pull the levers at his command. Indeed, it is precisely because he can exercise self-restraint that he is so dangerous. The result is a big man hated by his peers as much as by his subordinates; a big bully for whom no tears ever will be shed.

         Certainly, Ringwood will shed no tears for him; and yet because, for the most part, Hammerschmidt leaves him alone, Ringwood pays little attention to the Nazi wannabe. Better to pretend the cat is not there than to give it a good reason to pounce out from the shadows with its claws extended. 

         For this reason, Ringwood is surprised, and a bit frightened, when out of the blue the Vice Chief just struts into his office and slams a report on his desk.

         Ringwood swivels back to his desk, and he stands at attention. 

         Hammerschmidt waves him down. This is downright peculiar, for usually he relishes each and every acknowledgment of his superior rank. Indeed, so far as anyone can tell, he never smiles at all, except when another man is standing at attention and waiting for the Vice Chief of Police to order him to be at ease.

         What’s the meaning of this? Hammerschmidt barks.

         Ringwood glances at the report. It is the fingerprint analysis of that dust free flashlight he had seen back at the depot. 

         Crossing T’s and Dotting I’s, Ringwood responds.

         Bullshit, Hammerschmidt snaps. A bum drowns his liver in alcohol. There is no crime scene; no evidence to file; no t’s to cross, and no i’s to dot.

         Every unexplained death is a crime scene, until homicide has been taken off the table, Ringwood says amicably. 

         Oh, sure, by the book, Hammerschmidt seethes. But you and I know that the last time you kept up with police procedures was when you studied for your final exam at the Academy. So there’s something else going on here. Probably, something ‘off the books’ knowing you; and I demand to know what it is.

         Outwardly, Ringwood remains as cool as a cucumber. He folds his hands, looks up at his superior officer, and waits for the tornado to pass. All the while, though, he wonders if Hammerschmidt is truly on to him, or if he is just casting a wide net. Ringwood decides that the latter is more probable, since he doubts that Charlie the Parole Officer has spilled the beans about David Trent. Still, he cannot take this situation lightly; for if indeed Hammerschmidt has cast his net then it is only a matter of time before he learns that David Trent is AWOL, that Ringwood has been operating ‘off the books,’ and that Jim Trent has been kept in the dark. Hammerschmidt will blow the lid off this thing, if he learns enough about what has happened; and he will do so without hesitation. Give a bull just one reason to kick up its feet, and it cannot but destroy whatever is in its path.

         Ringwood decides that the best course is to try to change the discussion.

         Playing ‘off the books’ is a young man’s game, Ringwood lies. I am much too close to retirement to jeopardize my gold watch and my pension.

         No ‘Dirty Harry’ shit, Hammerschmidt snarls. Is that what you are saying?

         I am passed the ‘two minute warning,’ Ringwood responds. I am at least three touchdowns ahead. I can see the pretty blond holding up my trophy. How probable is it that I am going to give my coach the bird and to experiment with a new playbook? I may have bent the rules back in the day, but I am not stupid.

         Hammerschmidt does not say anything. He folds his arms in front of his big chest, and stares at Ringwood, like the old detective has turned into a turd.

         Ringwood decides that Hammerschmidt’s silence is his chance to change the topic of discussion. He opens the fingerprint report and scans the summary.

         Even though deep down he does not think that Billy Ray Blaise had been involved in the bum’s death, he expects to find Billy Ray’s fingerprints all over the flashlight. That creepy ‘actor’ probably spends all his free time down there in that depot scoring and screwing with the derelicts. No doubt, that freak can claim his spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for most STDs in one man.

         But the fingerprints do not belong to Billy Ray Blaise. Instead, there is a match with a fat fuck named ‘Walter Whipple.’ There is a black and white mug shot pinned to the upper left hand corner of the summary page. The perp looks like John Wayne Gacy. The only difference is that the perp has no facial hair at all, and his cheeks are fatter. This official photograph is dated August 26, 1981.

         Ringwood looks back at his superior officer. He points at the photograph.

         You’re busting my balls because I unearthed this old turd from the police archives, Ringwood remarks. So what’s his story, huh?

         Now, Hammerschmidt looks a bit uneasy. He glances back in order to be sure that the office door is shut. He pulls his collar away from his throat, like it is too tight on him.

         Do you recall a young nurse named Alice Werner? Hammerschmidt asks in an uncharacteristically somber tone.

         Ringwood does not answer, although the look upon his face suggests that he is wracking his brain. It is possible to slice through the tension in that office.

         Just another farm girl from Pennsylvania Amish country, Hammerschmidt continues. Hops on a Greyhound, enrolls in a lady’s college upstate, and finds a nurse job over at Beverly Methodist. Cleaning the unwashed masses, bandaging the indigent, by all accounts, she was a modern day Florence Nightingale. Most likely, she was a closeted Marxist, too. Lots of farm girls are, ya know. Just too wide-eyed and full of heart to think straight…

         She’s a cold case, isn’t she? Ringwood inquires.

         Never found a corpse, Hammerschmidt replies. All we know for certain is that she took up with this here ‘Walter Whipple,’ a fat loser living still with his grandma and, one suspects, a troubled heart Miss Werner tried to save. As soon as Beverly Methodist reports her ‘missing,’ the Chief sends a rookie named Jim Trent (Ringwood’s eyes open wide) out to question the loser. Of course, Walter even denies knowing the girl; but the Chief thinks that Jim can make headway, because apparently Jim’s grandma and Walter’s grandma are on friendly terms. The world is downright small and cozy among the families who reside along the banks of the Manchester. Anyway, Jim gets enough evidence together finally to book Walter on a kidnapping charge; hence, the fingerprints and the mug shot in your report. The Grande Dame, Eunice, that is her name, as I recall; well, all she has to do is to dial the telephone, and within minutes Walter Whipple has a legal team at his disposal that puts the local district attorney to shame. A trial judge dismisses the charge for lack of ‘compelling evidence.’ The fact that that judge also happens to be on ‘friendly terms’ with Eunice is pure coincidence no doubt. The headlines die after another week, and that case goes as cold as ice.

         Ringwood closes the report. He folds his hands on top of the cover sheet.

         Hammerschmidt leans forward, so that his huge face is just inches away.

         Sometimes, when a name is buried, we don’t mind if it happens to crawl back up from its grave, Hammerschmidt snarls. Other times, we want the name to stay in the ground. ‘Walter Whipple’ is one of those names. Listen, I am not stupid. I know that you are up to something. I also know that if Walter Whipple indeed plays a part in what you are doing, then you cannot count on Jim Trent, or the rest of us for that matter. You are on your own, if you pick at that scab…

         Hammerschmidt permits that last sentence to linger a moment. He steps back, and again folds his arms in front of his big chest. 

         Thank you for the warning, Ringwood says after a while. But like I said, I was just crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s. 

         And since there is no homicide, there is no reason to push the envelope, Hammerschmidt remarks, while walking tall and proud towards the office door. 

         When the case is closed, the case is closed, Ringwood remarks amicably.

*   *   *

         It takes a long time, but Walter finally manages to scoot over to the side of his bed and to sit upright. He sees himself in his dresser mirror. He is ghastly what with his sallow skin and puffy eyes. It is a wonder his ticker still have any real life in it. Just to be certain he presses on his right wrist to check his pulse.

         The candlelight on his dresser flickers. It distorts his image in the mirror, so that for a moment he imagines a ghoul has taken residence in his stuffy, old bedroom. He looks away in disgust, but does not scream. He is so tired he does not think he would try to defend himself if Lucius or Grandma Eunice suddenly, and without prior warning, pushed his door open and attacked him with an axe.

         The candlelight flickers again. Only then does he feel the cold draft that is swooshing through his partially opened window. He needs to get to his feet a moment, so that he can waddle over to the window and shut it. Otherwise, the breeze will snap at him all night; and he will awaken sometime later with a bad cough. He is exhausted and melancholic now, but he will do without the cough.

         Therefore, he pushes himself up from his bed, steps over to his window, and shuts it. He leans against the window. It is cold and wet against his cheeks. 

         Walter stares into the darkness. It must be overcast tonight, for he does not see any indication of the moonlight that usually illuminates his garden with its silvery, ghostlike glow. Instead, there is an impenetrable void, as far and as long as his weary eyes can wander. He feels like a defeated man, belly hanging low, shoulders stooped, breaths haggard, staring beyond the edge of the world into that dismal nothingness that knows neither class nor rank among the dead. How morose the darkness; how bereft of civilization; how chastened of nobility and racial virtue, that endless void is enough to make a grown man shed a tear.

         Or so Walter thinks at the moment; but then, like any man still caught in a dream that frantically moves from one image or sensation to the next without providing any underlying context, he forgets about the night out there. There is an even colder and darker night on which to fixate, and that is the night inside of his heart. It is a night born of cowardice, of a failure to act when it is pivotal to do so, of an unwillingness to hold back that sun that he sees sliding toward a western horizon. He had been given a chance last night. Lucius himself prodded him as only an older brother can do. 

         And what did he do? He screamed, probably like a girl (though he cannot remember the sound); and then he ran (actually waddled, but it felt like an all out run in his mind at the time) for the safety of his own parked automobile. In that inglorious retreat, he may as well have been the sixteen-year-old boy with gooey blood splatter on his belly, who dropped the axe and ran back to his bed.

         He did not realize until he had returned to his automobile that in fact he had left his flashlight back at the depot. By then, he was in no condition either physically or emotionally to return for it. He could not even berate himself for being so foolish. He just slumped behind his wheel, and turned the ignition key.

         The police are going to come for me, Walter thinks. I did not think then to wear gloves; so they will find my prints, and pay a visit in the next day or so.

         Of course, Walter has dealt with the police before…

         He feels Whiskers strolling in between his legs, but he pays him no mind.

         Instead, he allows his mind to wander back a few decades. He fears such trips down Memory Lane. There are ghosts skulking in shadows down that paved but mud splattered road. They wait there for no other reason than to resurrect an old guilt, or a buried fear; and they always have the last laugh when they go back down the sordid side streets from which they came. Still, notwithstanding his reservations, Walter is a frequent sojourner down Memory Lane given where he lives and with what he surrounds himself on a normal basis. It is a wonder in fact that he goes anywhere else from time to time, but that well trodden path.

         Such a nice girl, Walter mutters, while he thinks of Alice Werner for the first time since God knows when. Oh, so disagreeable her loss; so unfortunate…

         But that is the past, Walter thinks. Haunting, though, it is. What matters at present is that the police shall be driving up to my gate soon. They will say a lot of things, but really they will have only one question: What on earth could a civilized and cultured man like me be doing in a den of reprobates? Just like all those cops way back when said a lot of things to me, but the unspoken question always remained: What on earth could a man like me be doing with a farm girl? After all, Pennsylvania Amish country is practically West Virginia. Who can say, really, how pure are the bloodlines where the Appalachians are close enough to be touched? How often have those white farm girls heard an Injun yelp no more than a stone’s throw? How wild are their dreams, really, when the night is cold?

         Of course, Walter cannot very well tell the police officer that he set out that night to stalk the Restless Wrangler. He will need to put on a dog and pony show; and when he resumes his hunt for the Restless Wrangler, he will need to do so with the utmost caution. The police may be turned away, but surely they will continue to watch him just the same. The cat who chases a mouse must be chased in turn. Perhaps that is how the cosmic scales are balanced in due time.

         Walter sighs. He is way too tired to think further. That run last night had hit him harder than he realized then. He hopes that he is back to his old self in another day or so; for regardless of what the police do, he must see his task to the end. He has no choice, really, for Lucius will return, if he fails with his axe.

         Whiskers meows. Walter had been too taxed to feed him earlier this day.

         He is too tired to go downstairs now, but fortunately for Whiskers he has a bowl full of kibble in his bedroom from when he had stockpiled goods upstairs to escape from the black swans. He takes that bowl out from one of the dresser drawers, and places it on the floor beside his bed. He pours some water into an antique tin cup, contemplates drinking it himself, and then puts it by the bowl.

         Lucky I’m in a charitable mood, pussy pube, Walter says to his Dragon Li.

         Whiskers purrs appreciably. Walter has noticed how Whiskers seems now to respect him more. Perhaps the cat knows that he will get the axe, if he does not behave. Cats can stare into a man’s soul, to be sure; but even more so they can contemplate the strange and sordid devils that populate the darker corners in there. No doubt, in his own way, Whiskers knows all too well where Walter is headed, when Walter conjures up the axe in his mind and then takes it in hand.

*   *   *

         Detective Ringwood wanted to drive out to Walter Whipple’s mysterious riverside home the moment Hammerschmidt left his office. He decided to wait a few days instead, so as not to seem too eager in ‘crossing t’s and dotting i’s.’ Moreover, he needed to think about how he could drive out there without being tailed by one of Beverly PD’s finest. Hammerschmidt had Ringwood squarely in his crosshairs, and there was no reason to presume that the tight ass Vice Chief would tire of the hunt any time soon. 

         Therefore, Ringwood arranged for a Hertz rental car to be dropped off in the parking lot of a sprawling multiplex outside the city limits. On his next day off he went out there to see the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious. He sat next to his wife in the theater. She yacked the whole time about how no self-respecting lady should subject herself to such cinematic mayhem. She had travelled out there by the bus, but she returned home in Ringwood’s Dodge. He sneaked out a different exit, and he beelined for that Hertz rental car with the key waiting for him in the ignition. All went well enough, except that his buddy at the Beverly Hertz franchise outfitted him in a Commie, Rice Burner Hyundai.

         Deek’s gonna pay for giving me a clown car, Ringwood had snarled, when he first saw the ‘Jap Trap’ parked alongside a real American automobile. Guess maybe I’ll have to tell his wifey how he’s been screwing his old high school girl.

         But, of course, Ringwood will do no such thing. He is too ‘old school.’ He will respect the unstated code among men, as much as he maintains the sordid secrets of the ‘Jim Trent Gang’ within the thin blue line. Men who abide get to grow fat and old. Men who rock the iron cages end up floating face down in the Manchester River. Ringwood here chooses the ‘fat and old’ option, not so much because he loves life, but because he loves to see how his peers truly hate him for managing somehow, year after year, to turn up like a bad penny. Survival is the greatest revenge, especially as the head turns grey and the shoulders bend.

         Ringwood is thinking about survival, when he drives up to the front gate. 

         His instinct is to lean on the horn; but he decides instead just to observe a moment, before chatting up the weirdo whose fingerprints had been found at the depot. A chill rolls down his back, like he is observing an ancient graveyard that has been framed on both sides by the rusted posts of an iron fence. He can smell death, not literally, but spiritually. It permeates everything around here; and in a twist that he finds most discomforting, this spiritual death feels as if it is focused on him. Death has eyes, and just now those eyes are laughing at him.

         Ringwood steps out of the Hyundai. He feels the afternoon breeze lazily kissing his legs with leaves and twigs. Though he can hear the churning old river behind the spooky Victorian, everything about this place seems dry and brittle, like a corpse about ready to release the last of its skin and meat to the heavens and to crackle into spent bones. 

         Ringwood leans against the front gate. There is a vintage automobile not too far inside the property. He thinks it may be a Marmon from the ‘20s or ‘30s but cannot say for sure. Whatever it is, it is far better preserved than the dried weeds and diseased trees clinging stubbornly to the remnants of a pond further up the driveway. The man of the house has yet to relegate his prized wheels to the graveyard, which implies that he is not the hermit most persons think he is.

         Ringwood is startled to see something move behind that parked Marmon.

         He is about to reach for the revolver holstered on his chest when he sees that that something in fact is a person. An adolescent, Hispanic male had been crouching behind the trunk. The dirty rag in his hand suggests that he had been polishing the bumper back there. The barrel of soapy water and the wet sponge beside the driver side door indicate that the teenaged boy had had to scrub off a lot of dirt before he could start with the clear polish. 

         Strange, Ringwood thinks. The ‘Walter Whipple’ in that old police report does not seem to be the ‘off road’ type. On the contrary, the man in that aged mug shot seems to be downright fastidious; a mama’s boy always holding up his clean hands in the hopes that she will toss him a cookie.

         Ringwood observes the tall, hulking boy in the collared shirt and trousers now applying polish to the trunk. He could be someone hired for the afternoon, but Ringwood does not think so. The boy seems too focused on what he is doing just now, like somehow he has a proprietary interest in this automobile. A teen hired to do slave labor for a few hours is not likely to exhibit any pride in what he has to do, but this boy has nothing but pride. He even has an odd ‘I’m gonna kill the gringo, someday’ smile on his face, like he has the scheme mapped out in his adolescent mind. Ringwood will not be surprised if someday he hauls that beaner into his interrogation room for that ‘special treatment’ he dishes out to minorities. When that day comes, he will break that beaner, so help him Jesus.

         May I help you, officer? A soft and almost feminine voice asks Ringwood.

         Ringwood jerks his eyes away from the adolescent, Hispanic boy. He had been so focused on the teenager that he had not seen the fat man in the prissy, collared, white shirt and checkered trousers waddle down the driveway toward him. So much for being an observant cop. Ringwood is ashamed to be this rusty in dealing with a live soul outside of his interrogation room. Usually, he goes to homicide scenes; and corpses generally do not sneak up from behind him there.

         Ringwood searches for the man who had called out to him. He is not able to view him at first due to the glare of the late afternoon sun in that direction. It is as if a ghost has called out to him from within the graveyard. Another chill rolls down his spine, but Ringwood does his best to remain outwardly stoic now.

         Am I that obvious? Ringwood asks.

         I saw your badge when you almost went for your revolver, the voice says while stepping out from the glare. 

         Ringwood beholds the same man he had seen in the mug shot, except of course considerably older and fatter. The eyes are the same, though; playfully mischievous in a superficial sense, but lost and disconsolate behind all that silly make believe. Ringwood can tell already that this man will be pulling his leg all the time that they are together. The key for any good detective is to discover a kernel of truth in all that fool’s gold. Ringwood never doubts his capacity to do just that, although admittedly something about this weirdo scares him in a way that no one ever has. Perhaps, he is frightened by the intensity with which this weirdo is setting out to deceive him; or, perhaps, he is frightened by something much darker at play. Ringwood cannot put his finger on it, which is even worse.

         My name is Detective Ringwood, Ringwood remarks while pulling back his jacket to reveal the badge hanging from one of his suspenders. I suppose you’re Walter Whipple.

         Logical presumption, Walter says with a sly grin. Reason always has been a detective’s chief handmaiden.

         She can be a whore, too, especially when a gumshoe’s too creative with a few odd facts at his disposal, Ringwood reasons. Reason can lead him astray…

         Walter reaches the other side of that gate. The two men size each other up pretty fast. Then Walter leans his fat face in between two gateposts, like he is a jailbird leaning halfway out of his cell. His belly is too big to fit, and so the detective realizes at once that Walter will have a hell of a time breaking out of this graveyard in which he is mired. He can drive around in his vintage Marmon, but he can never leave. A sad situation indeed, and yet Ringwood has seen this same phenomenon thousands of times among similar dirt bags, who know damn well they just cannot escape what they have done. Or what was done to them…

         Oh, I doubt that hurts the gumshoe, Walter remarks.

         Really? Ringwood asks. What makes you say that?

         If he is creative enough, then he’ll get his share of sensational headlines in the Beverly Times, Walter continues amicably enough. Perhaps even a glossy front-page picture of himself handcuffing a young man, who has been made out in the press to be a pudgy, perverted buck…

         Buck? Ringwood asks. Did you say buck?

         In substitution for that other word; Walter responds with just a hint of real hostility in his otherwise ‘friendly neighbor’ voice. The world is so crass. It is a godsend to be able to maintain civilization in ones home, do you not agree?

         Of course, Ringwood says.

         The shot had been staged, you know, Walter continues.

         What shot? Ringwood asks. What do you mean?

         Oh, detective, you can set aside the ‘Columbo’ routine, Walter says with a wide smile. We both know why you are here. You desire to keep tabs on that ‘weirdo’ who had been implicated in the disappearance of Miss Alice Werner. If I may be so bold, then I may presume from your age that you were on the force back when Officer Trent paraded me before the cameras. Perhaps, you want to see if you can ‘break’ me, before you collect your pension. It would be a grand send off. Who knows? Perhaps, you would get your handsome face in the paper.

         Tell me about the staged shot, Ringwood says.

         Oh, that, Walter says as if he had forgotten all about it. The police chief called my Grandma Eunice to tell her that they had decided to book me. I went into town on my own. Officer Trent saw me coming, and pulled me aside. ‘Just for the cameras,’ he told me. ‘Smile, if you want to. I don’t care,’ he said. The press and the protesters had been lined up on the front steps. I almost thought I would be signing autographs, but Officer Trent got all the attention. I felt like a prop. Frankly, that was a lot more humiliating than the mug shot. After all, in the mug shot, I was the focus. I just wish the mug shot had turned out better. I think an ape nigger could’ve done a better job with a camera, don’t you agree?

         Ringwood remains silent. He folds his arms before his chest.

         So you’re here, because you want your ‘fifteen minutes of fame,’ Walter continues with a hint of sarcasm. 

         A sensational ‘J. Cooper’ expose on the front-page of the Beverly Times, Ringwood remarks with a grin. Minus the blood and guts, though, since our talk is not likely to descend into a knife fight.

         It makes sense, doesn’t it? Walter asks. You’re tired of seeing only those scumbag murderers and murder victims on that cover. It has been what? Thirty- four years since Officer Trent rocketed to fame? It is time for another man with a badge to get some well-earned adulation or notoriety, depending on whether this cold case actually ends in a conviction. And you must do so before the ‘old geezer’ clause in your work contract sends you out to pasture.

         Well, I shall admit that I did come out here to talk to you, Ringwood says with a fake sheepish grin.

         Walter stares at Ringwood in silence a moment, and then he smiles.

         You’re very good, Walter remarks while wagging his right index finger at him. You could have been an actor. Do you know that?

         What do you know about actors? Ringwood asks.

         I know how to judge them, Walter says tensely.

         There is an awkward pause, and then Walter plasters the wide grin upon his face. He steps back from his front gate, and bows deferentially at his guest.

         Forgive my poor manners, Walter says. You are my guest this happy day, and yet you are still standing out there in the dirt. 

         Ringwood glances at his shoes. This patch of earth seems no dirtier than any other around here. Nevertheless, he agrees that it will be nice to go inside.

         Walter turns toward the adolescent boy. He snaps his fingers. 

         Come now, and open the gate for this fair man, Walter barks officiously.

         The adolescent boy sets his rag down, and rushes toward the front gate.

         Mexicans, Walter whispers conspiratorially to his guest. You have got to keep them busy. If they’re not pumping gas, then they’re pumping our women.

         Ringwood nods in the affirmative, but says nothing. He steps back to get out of the way, while the well-dressed, Hispanic teen does as he has been told.

         Once the gate has been opened, Ringwood steps onto the driveway. The adolescent boy looks at Ringwood in a predatory way, but then steps away from the two older men deferentially. No doubt, that boy is waiting for his time; and if he strikes before Ringwood gets his gold watch, then Ringwood definitely will pull whatever strings he must to be the guy who puts the handcuffs on this sick and twisted motherfucker. Ringwood almost admires Walter Whipple in a way; but for this frito bandito he has nothing but contempt.

         Walter leads Ringwood up the driveway. The two men glance at the duck pond that has been diminished by time to the size of a puddle. There remains a lot of foliage sprawling out from the edge of the pond; but since everything has been dried and browned by the sun in recent days, the overall impression is dry and brittle death. A breeze rustling through the foliage sounds high and tinny in tone, like teeth chattering in the skull of a living skeleton. Nothing at all really lives here, but death itself; and Ringwood senses that the longer a man stays in this corner of hell the more he transitions into a drab ghost. Such a pitiful man, no doubt, will need to go to great lengths to try to convince himself he matters in the real scheme of things. He must scream just to be heard above a whisper.

         Walter notices that Ringwood is lost in thought. That is never really good news, since a thinking detective is the kind that can put puzzle pieces together and, more importantly, can discard the pieces that do not belong on the board.

         I’ve had a problem with a trespasser recently, Walter comments.

         Oh, really? Ringwood inquires, while snapping back to the here and now.

         Probably a Mexican, Walter continues. They can be tricksters, you know.

         You don’t suspect your little worker bee back there, Ringwood remarks.

         No more so than any of the others, Walter says. Anyway, the trespasser, whoever he is, infested my garden with scores of black swans. Impressionists in the South of France may have depicted them as long-necked paramours; but, in fact, they are no better than raccoons with wings. Ever look deep in their eyes?

         No, Ringwood says. I cannot say that I have.

         They’re like Jews waiting patiently for their pound of flesh, Walter says. 

         The two men walk a little further in silence. 

         So where did they go? Ringwood asks at last.

         Huh? Walter mutters, while swimming up from his thoughts.

         The black swans, Ringwood says. Did they just waddle off the plantation?

         Walter looks upward, as if he is considering seriously the question posed.

         No, Walter answers. They are still around here somewhere. Nothing ever really leaves home sweet home. 

         Another chill rolls down Ringwood’s spine. Again, he feels like the sheep being led to the slaughter. Everything about this place, the creepy Victorian at the end of the driveway, the dried up garden, the bug eyed Marmon, even that intermittent breeze that now and then kicks up a miniature tornado of dust and dirt, can be thought of as a pair of dull, remorseless eyes piercing his grey soul. Piercing his grey soul to find his weakness, so that he can be compelled to stay here; forever ‘off the books’ along with the other crying ghosts lost to history…

         Moreover, ‘home sweet home’ had been just as diabolical thirty-four, or sixty-four, or a hundred and four years ago. If Ringwood is the next sheep upon the list, then likely Miss Alice Werner had been the prior one. Ringwood senses that Miss Alice Werner is here along with the other ghouls; likely not her thirty-four year old corpse, for the Manchester River is the most logical grave; but her premature ghost for sure. Of course, sixth sense alone does not a warrant make even among the good ol’ boy judges who predominate the circuit here; and this is especially true in cold cases. So unless there is a surprise discovery down the line, Ringwood likely will not be putting scuffed handcuffs on this obese weirdo for anything that has to do with Miss Alice Werner. Nevertheless, that does not change the fact that as the minutes pass Ringwood is more convinced that he is in the presence of a dangerous and dark soul forever intent on the devil’s work.

         Ringwood tries to turn his mind away from these thoughts. He is not here to solve Miss Alice Werner’s disappearance, after all. He is here because Walter Whipple’s fingerprints had been found in an abandoned depot directly behind a slum apartment occupied by Billy Ray Blaise. When all has been said and done, Billy Ray Blaise is the man who matters here, because Ringwood is sure that he alone can lead to David Trent; and Ringwood wants to be the one man who can explain David’s disappearance. Jim Trent will demand nothing less of him when he learns inevitably that the police failed to protect his brother. 

         Walter rests a moment on the bottom step that leads up to his porch. He is tired on account of the walk up the driveway. He pulls out a perfumed, satin handkerchief and dabs the sweat off of his forehead. He extends his right pinky the whole time like a silly faggot, though Ringwood senses that this is for show.

         The sun blisters the body first, Walter remarks. Then, he fires up the old soul. We are intended for the night you know; when the dark shadows loom so long as to extend from east to west. 

         Beautifully said, Ringwood says. Are you a writer?

         Oh, I dabble, Walter answers. Nothing that will replace the Bard…

         There is a hint of sadness in Walter’s voice, and once more the two men are at a loss for words. They stand on the bottom step a moment, looking back at the dead garden, and watching how the dry breeze kicks up the dirt now and then like a vandal upsetting tombstones. Time, it appears, even tears down our finest sanctuaries. Walter cannot replace the Bard, but time can and will do so.

         Come on inside, Walter finally says. It is time for a hot fudge sundae, no?

         I don’t want to take up much of your time, Ringwood remarks.

         False modesty does not become you, detective, Walter laughs. Come on.

         Walter leads Ringwood up the steps and into the musty, old Victorian. It is dusty, dark, and creepy in the foyer; and Ringwood eyes the ‘family room’ to his immediate right for something bright or new that can free his mind from its unsettling preoccupation with a sheep in a slaughterhouse. He focuses in on the flat screen television. It is on FOX News, but it is mute. The man on the screen looks like a demented leprechaun. At any event he must have said something funny, for he is laughing uproariously at himself. That is the cue to the rest of us to laugh with him, though we really have no clue what he said.

         Ringwood almost relaxes, but then he sees the life-sized mannequin with the muscular torso and the erect cock. The mannequin looks like a hung teen in a pedophile’s rape fantasy. ‘I’ve done you countless times. Now, it is your turn to be ‘the man’ while I get on all fours and play horsey.’ That about sums it up.

         Walter regards the strange look on Ringwood’s face. Walter smiles evilly.

         We all have our secret lives, don’t we, detective? Walter remarks. 

         Is he on to me? Ringwood thinks. Ridiculous, and yet he seems to know…

         I’m curious, Ringwood says, after clearing his throat and darting his eyes away from the ‘family room.’ Have you been in contact with Officer Jim Trent, since he booked you so many years ago?

         Why do you ask? Walter inquires.

         I guess I don’t want him or anyone else to steal my story, Ringwood says.

         Walter stares straight into Ringwood’s eyes. This time, Walter is not sure that the detective is acting. Perhaps, this detective really cares if he has been in contact with his arresting officer. God only knows why that may be the case; but if so, then this means that the disappearance of Miss Alice Werner is in fact more than just a diversionary conversation topic on Walter’s part that distracts from Walter’s trip out to the depot the other night. The Beverly PD indeed may have reopened the cold case, or this detective may be pursuing something else altogether. Something that involves Officer Jim Trent, a name that Walter had hoped and prayed never to hear again. Either scenario is bad news, and for the first time Walter viscerally fears what may happen as a result of this interview.

         I have had nothing to do with that man since the day he booked me for a crime I did not commit, Walter says without a trace of his former glibness. But, of course, this begs more pressing questions: Do you believe me? Can you afford to do so? Or are you the mouse in the funhouse never sure if you see yourself or a beast in the mirrors all around you? If reason is the gumshoe’s handmaiden or whore, then confusion is his stalker, creeping up from behind, whispering doubt into his left ear. Oh, the web we weave! Better to gorge on a hot fudge sundae than to focus on how sticky sweet that web feels on our skin and inside our ass.

         Walter starts to waddle towards the kitchen. Ringwood stops him.

         I actually do not have an appetite for ice cream just now, Ringwood says in an overly firm tone intended to cover up his own insecurities at the moment.

         No? Walter says, turning back, and grinning. What a pity! I have cookies…

         Ringwood waves off the cookies. He is notably impatient. 

         Walter responds by plastering his face with a Cheshire cat grin, although he too is privately anxious about where this interview may lead. He steps back into the foyer, so that he can be near enough now to read the detective’s eyes.

         I have something to bring to your attention, Ringwood remarks.

         I am intrigued, detective, Walter responds. Kindly, tell me more.

         A few days ago, I responded to a call, Ringwood continues. A corpse had been found inside an abandoned railroad depot behind the McNutt Apartments. May I presume that you are familiar with the area?

         I would not recommend that, Walter replies cryptically. 

         Ringwood stops a moment to consider Walter’s reply. He then presses on with as much of a hard ass demeanor as he can fake. He is not so sure how well a job he is doing in this regard, for the weirdo’s Cheshire cat grin never falters.

         I found a flashlight by the corpse, Ringwood continues. Practically new. I ran the fingerprints and, lo and behold, they are yours. 

         Were mine the only fingerprints found on the flashlight? Walter asks with a sly look in his eyes that suggests he is getting the better of the detective, and damn well knows it. 

         There were two others, Ringwood answers. Unidentified.

         Because the Beverly PD database does not include the fingerprints of our esteemed illegal alien community, Walter says. Indeed, you’ll release a beaner before booking him, so that you do not get his fingerprints. God forbid, ICE may get a hold of those fingerprints, check them against the ICE database of ‘repeat offenders,’ swoop into your precious ‘sanctuary city,’ and deport his brown ass back to Mexico, or Guatemala, or Chimichanga, or wherever. Better to release him than to suffer the indignity of seeing our federal immigration laws obeyed.

         What is your point? Ringwood asks testily.

         My point is that someone, probably a bucking beaner, stole my flashlight out from my shed, Walter explains. He passed it on to another bucking beaner, and that fellow brought it into the depot. I had no idea it had been stolen, but I am glad to know that you have it for me. Thievery has no place in civilization.

         So you were never in the depot? Ringwood asks.

         I have my standards, Walter answers cryptically. 

         I have to hold onto your flashlight pending the coroner’s official report, Ringwood says. Just protocol, until we know for certain there was no homicide.

         As the Mexicans say, ‘Sí tequila, No problema,’ Walter says. Just let me know when I can drive into town and sign for it. I have not had any reason to be at the police station the last thirty-four years, but no doubt I can find its scent.

         That’ll work just fine, Ringwood mutters while turning to the front door.

         Ringwood reaches for the doorknob, and then stops abruptly. He looks at the fat man standing to his side, and grins. 

         Does the name ‘Billy Ray Blaise’ mean anything to you? Ringwood asks.

         Walter noticeably twitches. He pastes on his Cheshire cat grin as fast as he can, but in the back of his mind he is damn sure that Ringwood noticed him.

         No, Walter lies. But if Peter Falk had passed on the role, you could have played ‘Columbo’ just fine. 

         Sometimes, I think I missed my true calling, Ringwood says.

         I think we all miss the mark, Walter says. 

         Ringwood considers Walter’s comment, and then opens the creaky front door. He is about to step out when he is startled by the Dragon Li that is sitting on the doormat and staring up at him. In particular, he is really taken aback by the extent of cold, intelligent, predatory viciousness in the cat’s piercing eyes. The adolescent boy outside is a pussycat in comparison to this heartless hunter.

         Oh, Whiskers! Walter says with pride. Catch us a meaty rat for the stew?

         Ringwood looks back at Walter disgustedly. 

         Oh, I’m just building up his self-esteem, that’s all, Walter explains.

         Ringwood notes that Walter did not say whether or not he uses a ‘meaty rat’ in his stew. Ringwood decides it is best not to pick at this scab any further.

         I’ll be calling you, Mr. Whipple, Ringwood says.

         I have no doubt you will, detective, Walter says.

         Ringwood turns his back to the weirdo, and leaves. The whole time he is walking down the driveway he can feel Walter staring into the back of his head and foraging for whatever he can find back there. He is grateful that that front gate had been left open, for the less time spent in exiting this creepy corner of hell the better. Heck, he does not even mind using a rice burner to drive away.

         Walter watches Marcos close the front gate, after the detective has left.

         In the meantime, Whiskers steps into the foyer, and starts to meow for a bite to eat. The meows are very respectful, though; not at all like the old days.

         I know, pussy piss swallower, Walter responds, after closing the door and letting out a concerned sigh. But you can wait until I’ve finished my sundae. No insult intended, but let us be frank with one another. There is a timeless order to the civilized world, and man stands above cat on that primordial totem pole.

*   *   *

         Claire Bruner had been a real looker back in the day. 

         Billy Ray never would have guessed what with her formless sweaters and tightly wrapped shawls. Also, her big owl eyeglasses suggest that she had been an ‘old lady’ before her time, always retreating from the world into a quiet life of books, and eschewing actual relationships for the deeper solace of the mind.

         Nevertheless, the framed, black and white photographs on the wall very much show otherwise. The Claire Bruner captured forever on film wears the big owl eyeglasses; but she is slim, happy, and flirtatious. She either is dancing in a 1950s ballroom, or holding up her arms and laughing on the top of a large Ferris wheel, or sunbathing in a two-piece bikini. All of the photographs are from the late 1950s to early 1960s, like that half decade or so had been the high point of an otherwise desultory life. If indeed Claire had grooved with other hippies and stoners to Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock, as Billy Ray had determined, while sitting in her office and sipping tough gin from a plastic cup, then for whatever reason she had decided not to retain a record of that exploit on her wall. Billy Ray imagines that the less innocent material, the drug use, the creepier lovers, the weight gain, have been relegated to a locked drawer somewhere.

         For even our guardian angels have their secrets…

         Billy Ray rolls over to the side of the bed, and sits up. He is still slow and unsure of his movement, but at least most of the pain has subsided. Much more troubling is his lack of mental acuity. The strike to the back of his head appears to have done some damage to his faculties. He can think with more clarity now than he could just a few days ago; but even this morning, as he is sitting up and looking at those framed photographs, he slips in and out of mental blankness. It is like watching a film that is cut up for seconds at a time by a black screen. He not only does not see the film during those times. He forgets that he had been even watching a film. These glimpses into limbo frighten him more than he can fathom, and it is a wonder he does not curl into the fetal position, and just cry.

         Billy Ray looks at the basket of personal items by his feet. The night that Claire had decided to move him from his place to hers, she had returned to get a basket full of his things. She knew from personal experience that a figurine or a photograph from ones previous life could be the trigger needed to recover. At the very least, a touch of home might make her charge a little less despondent.

         On top of everything else in the basket is a framed photograph of his son and closest friend, Gary. The innocent is three or four, clothed in the adorable baseball uniform he wore all the time back then, and happy go lucky about the entire world and also nothing in particular. His eyes practically dance in mirth, and they urge daddy to pick him up off the floor and join in on the fun. Though he tries, Billy Ray cannot recall why his son had been so happy that day; and so it occurs to him that the worst part of maturity is not just losing innocence, but forgetting the prior occasions of innocence. From the vantage point of a soiled, darkened soul, it is as if every moment prior had been robbed at the time of its tangible and eternal goodness. It is as if nothing previous ever had been sacred.

         Billy Ray is about to grab the photograph off the top of the basket. Then he stops midway. What is he going to do with it? Sit on the edge of the bed and stare at it in his hand, until his eyes well up with tears? What good will that do?

         Instead, Billy Ray reaches for the bell on the bed stand. He rings the bell feebly. It hardly generates a sound, and yet the cabin is small and cozy enough that Claire can hear it from wherever she is at the time. 

         Sure enough, within seconds, Claire opens the creaky bedroom door and enters. She is dressed already in her formless sweater and shawl, although that sickly, purplish haze floating through the bedroom window suggests that we are still ten or fifteen minutes from sunrise. But for the candlelight flickering upon the dresser across the room, Billy Ray would be lost in darkness just then, since that sickly, purplish haze is not yet strong enough to illuminate anything. 

         Claire stomps into the bedroom with her heavy boots. The floor beneath her creaks in distress. The clop-clop-clop of her heavy heels is a bit frightening, even though he should be used to the sound by now; but on the plus side, those heels slap him awake like he imagines Reveille does for a soldier. No matter his condition when first he opens his eyes, he is awake and ready for his painkillers by the time his guardian angel sits beside him on the edge of that unmade bed.

         She hands him his painkillers without saying a word. Sitting side by side, they look like two children on a playground surreptitiously passing from one to the other a stick of gum. God forbid the yard duty personnel notices, for gum is a definite no-no. Just like painkillers bought on the black market so as to avoid the kind of doctor’s visit that later may be brought to the attention of an aged, but determined, homicide detective…

         Billy Ray chews the painkillers. He should swallow them with water, but he has a fear of choking that goes back to the time an adult had had to use the Heimlich maneuver on him. The taste is horrible, like metal dipped in hot spice for God knows how long; but it is worth it to turn his throbbing and disorienting pain into a kind of listless numbness. He rather would be stoned on these horse pills (or so they seem because of their size), than forced to endure the electric shocks and the horrid screams that erupt in his head when he is not medicated.

         You’ve improved a lot the last few days, Claire observes.

         Doesn’t feel like it, Billy Ray grumbles, though in fact he realizes that he can think better than before and can walk just fine with only the aid of a cane.

         You’re going to do just fine, Claire remarks while patting his right thigh. There’s a reason we say boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails…

         The two remain silent, while they each recite the nursery rhyme in their own minds. It is comforting to imagine the fight between David Trent and Billy Ray Blaise as just the latest schoolyard fight, and yet deep down neither one of them really believes that. Boys throwing wild punches may go home all bruised and bloodied; but they return to school the next day as much little boys as they had been before the fight, hustling for baseball cards during lunchtime, putting chewed up gum in between library book pages, and dreaming of what it may be like actually to hold hands in private with a sixth grade girl. The fight between David Trent and Billy Ray Blaise had been much more cataclysmic than anything done on a schoolyard, and not just because David and his buddy had ended up a good six feet under when all had been said and done. Killing David Trent surely had been necessary. Nevertheless, in so doing Billy Ray had whacked a hornets’ nest of town secrets, dirty cops, and corrupt politicians. The hornets would be coming for him and his loved ones before too long, in part to avenge the death of Jim Trent’s brother, but more so to silence forever a man who had presumed a right to be something more than just another anonymous victim. 

         Billy Ray reaches back and touches the garish, red scar on the back of his head. He has not yet looked at it in a mirror. Maybe, he never will. He imagines it will look like a beacon to anyone who happens to get too close to him, if and when he returns to the world outside of this cabin; an ugly sign that he had had the wherewithal to take on the hornets’ nest and to survive.  

         And that is precisely why they will come for him, his son, his best friend, his guardian angel, indeed anyone he ever has loved. They cannot let him walk around town as a living sign that it is possible truly to take on the hornets’ nest to survive. They must snuff him out before everything bubbles to the surface as if heated in a witch’s old pot. The next act in this play is cruel, but undeniable.

         I need to see my son, Billy Ray says after a long silence.

         It is too soon, Claire remarks with a hint of maternal disapproval. 

         You said I’m doing just fine, Billy Ray protests.

         I said ‘you’re going to do just fine,’ Claire says. You’re simply not strong enough yet. The cops will be looking for you right there; and when one of them comes up from behind you to ask you a ‘follow up question,’ what’re you going to do then? Poke him in the eye with your cane? Hobble away like a drunk toad?

         Billy Ray looks away, and sighs. Claire is right, of course. Yes, he is doing better; but he is far from a hundred percent. If he is hauled into that goddamn interrogation room again, then quite likely he will leave it inside of a body bag.

         So are you sure I can make it all the way to your mailbox today? Billy Ray asks in an attempt to lighten the conversation a bit. 

         Claire takes the cue, and smiles broadly. Again she pats him on his thigh.

         As sure as I am that candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker, Claire remarks.

         On that note, she reaches into her own formless sweater, and removes a silver flask. She unfastens it, takes a sniff, and downs a mouthful of liquid gold.

         She hands it to her patient and friend. Already, her eyes are spinning off in multiple directions at once. She burps and chuckles.

         You’ve had your medicine, Claire says. Now, it’s time for your breakfast.

         That brings a genuine smile to Billy Ray’s lips, though in the back of his mind he wonders if drinking alcohol so soon after swallowing those painkillers is the best idea known to man. He decides it is not, but swallows his sins anyway.

*   *   *

         Claire Bruner resides in a log cabin in an unincorporated wilderness area about equidistant between Beverly and Manchester. She is several miles distant from the long and serpentine Manchester River, far enough away that she never hears the screams of cascading foam when the river is most volatile. Her windy driveway is little more than a dirt trail that meanders around the tall and stoic trees on her property. The mailbox is about a quarter of a mile distant. It rests on a stretch of asphalt that is hardly used on account of that two-lane highway built alongside the river homes. For all these reasons, her log cabin is a kind of silent oasis, where she intends to grow silly and old reading books and drowning in gin (not necessarily in that order of preference).

         The cabin has a separate bedroom and bathroom; but everything else is one common room consisting of a kitchen, a pantry, and a living room (a soiled and beaten down couch in front of a makeshift coffee table and a T.V. set with rabbit ears). Because there are no longer analog television signals, she uses the T.V. set to watch VHS tapes she rents in town. She is a big fan of Roger Corman and propaganda films. Today, Reefer Madness is poking out of her vintage VCR.

         Since Billy Ray moved into her bedroom, Claire has been sleeping on that old couch. She keeps a small radio on the floor beside her couch, so that she is able to listen to Coast to Coast AM well passed midnight. The call-in show most often deals with topics that range from the silly to the macabre, and yet simply hearing the voices on air helps her to relax. Otherwise, it would be too quiet in the cabin at night; nothing to distract the sleepless from the chuckle of a night wind kicking up leaves, or the whisper of a faint moonbeam floating across the common room floor. For all her love of solitude, Claire is frightened, especially at night, to be totally alone. Books provide plenty of characters with which she may commune, but so does a crackling radio when the rest of the night is dead.

         Claire has been such a fixture at the public library over the decades she has accumulated months’ worth of vacation time. She cashes in several weeks, so that she can remain at home to care for her friend. 

         Today is her first day back. She is only working a half-day, because she is reticent about leaving Billy Ray at home alone for too long. Of course, no one is aware that she is taking care of him. Her excuse is that she is recovering from a strange illness and so must ease her way back into working a full day. Everyone is happy enough just to have her back for as long as they can, since no one has come close to mastering the research librarian job in her absence. The fact she is so obviously needed turns out to be a real boost for her ego and her soul, and as a result she seems less addled while manning her research counter for hours.

         Billy Ray hears her old Volkswagen rattling down her long driveway about ten or fifteen minutes before sunrise. As soon as it is gone, he sits up in his bed and scoots over to the edge. He chews the painkillers that had been left on the bed stand for him the night before. No matter how many times he has chewed the damn things, he cannot get used to the horrible taste; and so he must wait a few minutes for the nausea bubbling up from his bowels finally to calm down.

         Billy Ray grabs his cane, and hobbles over to the T-shirts and jeans that he has piled on a chair beside the dresser. He is very slow in putting on clothes; and the arduous effort reminds him that, perhaps, he really is too weak still to be venturing into town. Still, his fiery stubbornness wins out, as it usually does.

         Her hobbles into the living room. The television is still on from the night before. It is just muted snow, of course, because she no longer can pick up any signals with her rabbit ears, and because the tape in the VCR has been ejected.

         Her turns off the T.V. set. He also turns off a local yokel wannabe shock jock, whose radio show starts just after Coast to Coast AM has signed off. All at once, the cabin is totally silent; and he has to fight off the urge to let his mind entertain the doubts now trying to crack through his castle wall. Silence is truly deadly for the soldier about to step into battle. It allows his fears to blossom at the least opportune time. Better to hear thousands of other boots stomping and kicking through the field of mud, than to hear nothing but his own heavy heart.

         He grabs his overcoat off the hook beside the door. Last night, before he had hobbled off to bed, he had hidden a ball cap in his overcoat pocket. It is a hideous, oversized, Budweiser beer cap that another actor had given to him as a joke many years ago. God alone knows why Claire had seen fit to include it in the basket of personal belongings she brought back from his apartment. Still, it is large enough to cover completely the scar on the back of his head; and so he senses that, perhaps, bringing back this old cap had been a blessing in disguise.

         He puts on his overcoat and cap, and then calls for a taxi from a vintage rotary phone Claire keeps on her coffee table. He supposes she uses that coffee table as a makeshift work desk, for there are also pencils, pens, and notebooks spread neatly across the surface.

         The taxi will take forty-five minutes to get out there. That is fine, for it is going to take him that long to hobble out to the mailbox. 

         Billy Ray steps out the front door. The first inkling of sunrise is right now illuminating the tall trees and shrubs before him in a soft, purplish haze. A cool wind snaps the sleep out of his face, and yet the haze imparts a kind of dreamy quality to the world that works against the sudden trumpet call of the wind. He is therefore transfixed a moment between being asleep and awake. As a result, he has one more chance to heed that voice that tells him to go back to his bed.

         He deeply inhales the cool air. He views Claire’s axe stuck in a log off to the side. The axe is an omen, somehow, and he almost turns back out of fright.

         Get a hold of yourself, Billy Ray mutters. 

         He imagines Gary looking back at him from the playground and laughing. That is all it takes for Billy Ray to set the doubt and the fear aside. He is going to go through with his plan, as it has been too long since he has seen his son as it is. He only can hope that this morning the fates stay on his side for a change.

         Billy Ray closes the door behind him. He does not have a door key, but it seems neither does Claire. Apparently, Claire feels safe enough way out here to forsake a lock and key. Billy Ray is not so sure, and so he makes a mental note to urge his friend to lock up before a drifter happens to wander down her path.

         God only knows what evil lurks out there, Billy Ray mutters, while taking up his cane and starting down the dirt driveway. 

And who is peeking through those blinds…

*   *   *

         Billy Ray’s trek to the mailbox had been much more arduous than he had anticipated. As a result he practically collapses into the backseat of the yellow-checkered taxi that is waiting for him along the side of the road. He practically whispers the destination, leans against the leather bucket seat, and falls asleep almost at once. He is lucky that the driver is conscientious and, thus, does not take the ‘scenic route’ to the private boys’ school in town. 

         Billy Ray pays the driver a handful of rumpled bills from deep in his dirty overcoat pocket. The taxi driver, a Pakistani who very well could be chosen by central casting to play the role of a lunatic Jihadist, does not count the bills at that moment. Either he trusts white men in Budweiser beer caps and overcoats implicitly, or he wants this particular white man to exit out the backdoor of his taxi sooner rather than later. 

         Billy Ray hobbles out of the taxi and across the street. He practically can touch the old wood carved sign that reads: Saint Robert Bellarmine Elementary School for Distinguished Boys. Visit by Appointment. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam…

         He realizes the Jesuit brother at the top of the steps may see him there.

         For that reason, he hobbles halfway down the block, and hides behind an overgrown tree. Of course, that makes him seem that much more suspicious to the parents (mostly mothers) who are walking their boys to the front steps. It is only a matter of time before one of those concerned parents removes a cellular phone from her purse and calls for the Beverly PD.

         But what can he do? He knows that this whole operation is foolhardy and that he should be back in bed rehabilitating from the beating he received. He is taking an unnecessary risk, when the police are trying still to pin that gruesome murder and attempted murder on him. 

         But is the risk really unnecessary, when he considers just how long it has been since he advised his son to do what it takes to get an Orel Hershiser (good condition, at least, but preferably mint condition) for his growing baseball card collection? If Billy Ray waits too long to reach out to his son, then God knows if Gary still will be interested in baseball cards, or Barney the Purple Dinosaur, or his own father for that matter. Boys change faster than men, and that seems to be the case especially when they have lost some of their innocence. 

         The boys file by in their blazers and slacks. The younger ones seem a bit sad or frightened, like they know all too well what they are about to endure for the next eight hours and cannot imagine anything good about the prospect. The older boys have pompous grins on their faces. They rule the roost, and they are embracing the prejudiced mind of a privileged caste. Soon, if not already, most of these older boys will be so insufferable that even peaceniks like Billy Ray are going to favor a return to the draft. Let some of these assholes get shot up in a desert nightmare somewhere upon turning eighteen years of age. Maybe a dose of PTSD will give them some of the humility that they had lost in Jesuit schools like this one, or maybe they will die before they can become scumbag lawyers. Either scenario would be a good attitude adjustment for these privileged snots.

         Billy Ray keeps his eyes open for the new, grey, Mercedes Benz SLS AMG convertible that he ex-wife drives. Many expensive cars drive up to the curb to release one or two towheaded Aryans apiece, but none of them are Stacey’s. It would be too much against character for Stacey to be running late; and thus, as the last few automobiles drive away from the curb, Billy Ray concludes that his son is not going to school today. 

         Or perhaps Gary is no longer going to school here. Billy Ray cannot put it passed his ex-wife, and even more so her manipulative father, to take Gary out of this school simply to make it that much harder for Billy Ray to see his son on occasion. Surely, his ex-wife and her father must have foreseen that invariably he would come out this way to view his son or, even worse, to kidnap him. Billy Ray indeed has contemplated kidnapping his son. He has set that thought aside as too risky even for him. Nevertheless, if he thought about it, then his ex-wife and her father no doubt did as well. 

         Incensed, Billy Ray hobbles out from behind the overgrown tree. He sees the Jesuit Brother at the top of the steps. The surly, old man in the cassock has a few more JUGs (Justice Under God) in his hands. He wants to get rid of them; much like a traffic cop wants to reach his ticket quota before his shift ends. He therefore accuses a few of the boys of whispering to one another within the so-called ‘quiet zone’ (ninety feet before the front steps), when very clearly they had not done so. He pins a JUG on each of their blazers. JUG in practical terms means detention after school. The boys know better than to argue their case to the clerical gnome leering down at them, lest they also get Saturday detention.

         Do you want to try to pin one of those on my coat? Billy Ray asks the old Jesuit Brother acidly, while he is still slowly walking up the steps with his cane.

         The Jesuit Brother is stunned at first. Then, he too is beyond peeved. He stares down at the man in the overcoat and beer cap like he is watching a dark, hairy beetle climbing out from inside a turd.

         By the time Billy Ray reaches the top step, and lets out a tired sigh, the Jesuit Brother is standing beside an Hispanic bodybuilder security guard with an ornate ‘Knights of Columbus’ belt around his midsection and a big walkie-talkie in his right hand. That bald, mustached security guard looks like he would be a much better fit in Jennifer Lopez’s entourage than in a snotty school full of old Jesuit Brothers in cassocks and pompous boys in blazers. The security guard has an inhuman intensity to his eyes. No doubt, he is thinking about what it may be like to tear this visitor in the overcoat and beer cap into pieces. The Jesuit has no empathy in his soul, either, but he is a pussycat in comparison to this brute.

         I’m looking for my son, Billy Ray says. His name is…

         I know who you are; the Jesuit Brother interrupts Billy Ray by holding up his right palm. And, of course, I know who your son is also.

         Billy Ray is momentarily speechless. He leans heavily on his cane due to a sudden spurt of pain in the back of his head. The stress of this encounter with the cleric may be too much for him to handle.

         Master Bloom is no longer enrolled with us, the Jesuit states officiously.

         Billy Ray is not sure he heard him correctly. Did the surly, old man really say ‘Master Bloom,’ or did he imagine that? Did Stacey actually enroll their son into this school under her maiden name? To what extent will she and her father go to rip Billy Ray’s life and soul out of their son? Apparently, those two will go so far as to make it seem like Gary is a bastard child with no known father. The name change is a slap in the face, but it is less devastating for Billy Ray than an awful image he entertains suddenly of his son sitting alone somewhere, forever abandoned and fatherless. In his daydream, he wants so desperately to grab his son and to remind him that he is much loved; but something, or someone, holds him back. It is the same something, or someone, that has been peeking through the blinds and undressing Billy Ray with his sick eyes. It is the same something, or someone, that has been whispering to him each night: Take off your clothes. Take them all off. I want to see everything, bitch. I want to see your lost soul…

         Billy Ray snaps out of the daydream, when with his left peripheral vision he sees the security guard whisper something into his walkie-talkie. Most likely, the security guard has called for the police. 

         Why don’t you come with me? The Jesuit asks with a strange grin. So we can discuss this matter as gentlemen, no?

         So he can detain me until the cops arrive, Billy Ray thinks. They are truly crafty, little buggers. I can say that much about them. 

         Billy Ray does not say a word. He just turns on his heels as fast as he can and starts to hobble down the steps. There is another spurt of pain in the back of his head. He tries to ignore it, though he cannot deny the fact that his vision blurs a few seconds. More disturbingly, for a few seconds he also forgets where he is and what he is doing here. It is only because of his momentum down those steps that he continues to hobble downward while he is disoriented. Otherwise, he would have stopped cold in his tracks and been apprehended by the security guard just a couple of steps behind him. 

         Billy Ray gets to the last step. Only then does he feel the security guard grabbing a hold of his left elbow. He yanks his elbow free; but he also knows it is only a matter of seconds before the security guard grabs something else and, this time, manages to hold on until he has been stopped. Billy Ray then will be arrested, hauled into that interrogation room, and smashed into the floor by an enormous, hard, steel rimmed heel. He is certain there is no other scenario for him, if he is detained by this ‘rent-a-brute,’ and then handed off to the police.

         Billy Ray remembers something Claire had asked him quite recently. The memory floats before him like something out of a dream. He can feel that he is indeed still hobbling forward, and yet he is also sitting on his bed beside Claire. 

         What’re you going to do then? Claire asks. Poke him in the eye with your cane? Hobble away like a drunk toad?

         Billy Ray turns on his heels, faces the brute head on, and spears his right eye with the end of his cane. The security guard grabs at his eye and howls. He falls on his butt, and rolls along the sidewalk in agony. 

         Billy Ray does not see any blood squirting through the man’s fingers, and so he presumes that he did not really puncture the eye. Nonetheless, the brute will need to go to an emergency room and hold an ice pack on it for some time.

         So far as Billy Ray can tell, there is no one else on this street then. Thus, the coast seems to be clear. All he has to do is to hobble to the main boulevard a block away. He should be able to hail a yellow-checkered taxi fairly soon, all the while keeping an ear open for the wail of a police siren coming toward him.

*   *   *

         The coast had not been clear, after all.

         Lazio is very good at what he does precisely because he is inconspicuous. A private investigator can be as handsome as Tom Selleck, race a red Ferrari on the Kalanianaole Highway in Oahu, make love to Sharon Stone in a shower, and solve a crime alongside Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, if he is a lead character on a popular television series. In the real world, the cheating spouses and the workers’ compensation frauds would see Thomas Magnum coming from a mile away. They would be out of sight, before Mr. Magnum even had a chance to snap one discreet photograph. Moreover, since that same Mr. Magnum would never catch the real bad guys, and so never earn any big paydays, he would be just another ‘strike out king’ among the beauties at the bar, no matter that he is even better looking than Clark Gable and as handsome as Cary Grant. Sure, it is true that good looks count for something; but, really, how enamored are the beauties going to be with a handsome face whose billfold does not make even a tiny crease in his pocket? How great is handsome, when she has to foot the bill?

         So Lazio is happy enough to relegate the heartthrobs to the boob tube. If his paychecks do not bounce, and if he can munch on a pastrami roll without all that grease dripping on his rumpled trench coat, then he figures he is a step or two ahead of the competition. 

         Moreover, look at the bright side. Unlike those deadbeat dads he follows around town in his unremarkably drab, grey, Ford Focus, his kids have been out of the nest for the better part of two decades; and his ex-wife, Gladys, has had the good luck to befriend Beverly’s ‘Winnebago King.’ She has her painted nails in so many car dealership bank accounts that she will have no case, if ever she goes back to court to demand yet again more alimony. This means that once he has paid off the IRS tax lien on his house, and settled a few old scores, Lazio is going to be a free man. He figures his indentured servitude will be done by the time he hits sixty, plus or minus several years. That beats out all those Average Joes out there, who must haul ass well into their seventies to make ends meet.

         Lazio finishes his pastrami roll. He manages not to drip any grease upon his trench coat; but then he wipes his lips upon his sleeve, and farts. Go figure!

         Lazio’s client could only give him a partial description. He claimed never to have seen his face. Lazio did not believe him at first; but the client insisted. Lazio finally decided that weirdoes do weird things, and one weird thing that a weirdo might do is to refrain from checking out the face of the man with whom he is so obviously enamored. Maybe, Lazio’s client is not a face man. Maybe, he is into knees, or thumbs, or rump roasted rear ends. Who the hell knows; and if the paycheck clears, then who the hell gives a rat’s derriere? 

         Lazio’s one extravagance is the new, leather notebook that he buys as a Christmas gift for himself every year. As he finished interviewing his client, the private investigator with the rumpled trench coat, the scuffed shoes, the holey socks, and the pristine notebook had to contend with the fact that, for the first time in his career, he had to start off a case without a facial description among his copious notes. He would have to add another step to this new investigation.

         Therefore, the next day, Lazio had to drive out to the pier to speak with a buddy of his at the ‘Dream Boys’ shack (also known as the ‘Whank your Willie Wienerschnitzel’ among his fellow gumshoes). He got his facial description; and he got an earful about how Chuckles wanted to drop that AWOL bitch first into the Yangtze River (let the river pollution burn off his good looks), then into the Manchester River (discard his bones with the rest of the contraband hidden way down there). Apparently, lots of guys are enamored with this burlesque dancer.

         Lazio had to spend a number of hours on public records’ databases trying to figure out this guy. The task had been more cumbersome than normal, since the target almost lives off the grid. Who the hell does not have a bank account, for Christ’s sake? Who does not own a car? What kind of asshole does not have a driver’s license, when even illegal wetbacks can get their hands on that plastic?

         Finally, Lazio found a marriage certificate, which the ex-wife (another in a long line of shrews, no doubt) had tried to erase from the public records. The marriage certificate led to their son’s birth certificate. The son’s name led to a search of all the school databases in town. 

         Lazio never found a ‘Gary Blaise,’ but he found a ‘Gary Bloom’ (okay, so the shrew is also a flaming feminist who insists on putting her maiden name on everything she touches). ‘Gary Bloom’ is a special needs student at that preppy Jesuit school, you know, the one named after that saint whose claim to fame is forcing Galileo to recant his heliocentric teachings.

         And so since that discovery, Lazio has been sitting in his car on this block every morning, watching the parents drop off their little rascals, and waiting in patience for the day that Billy Ray Blaise does the same. If he had realized that the Saint Robert Bellarmine Elementary School for Distinguished Boys’ database had not been updated in a few weeks, and that ‘Gary Bloom’ recently had been removed from the roster, then he would have had to go back to that proverbial drawing board. He would not have been sitting in his Ford Focus, and munching on his pastrami roll, as Billy Ray Blaise hobbled out of a taxi, hid behind a tree like some sort of pervert, and hobbled up the staircase in what looked like a fit of rage. He would have missed his target; and though he would have gone on to interview the ex-wife, he guesses she would have had little information to give and even less inclination to give that much. After all, The Taming of the Shrew only happens in those picture books, especially with feminism now all the rage.

         Regardless, the fates had ordained that this time Lazio got his target. He therefore wipes his lips on his sleeve, and picks up his camera. He will be ready to shoot the moment he sees Billy Ray Blaise hobbling back down the staircase. He intends for these to be the best pictures yet, since he only got the backside, when the target had been hiding behind that tree or hobbling up that staircase.

         Lazio is surprised to see Billy Ray hobbling downward with a Mexican or a Puerto Rican bodybuilder on his heels. The bodybuilder is clearly the brute, and yet the target lands the best punch when he turns on his heels at once and jabs the man’s eye with the end of his cane. It is like a chase scene from one of the vintage ‘Three Stooges’ comedies. It would be funny, except that that howling, writhing Mexican or Puerto Rican surely is suffering from real, debilitating pain.

         Lazio sees his target hobbling toward the boulevard. Likely, he will hail a taxi and hightail it out of here, since the police will arrive within minutes. That is good news; for if Lazio can stay far enough behind not to be noticed, then he will find out where the target hangs his shabby coat and his beer cap, when not accosting Jesuits and bodybuilders. Maybe, Lazio’s role in this drama will finish before his stomach starts gurgling for another pastrami roll. What a break if so!

*   *   *

         Ringwood has a raging headache; and his coffee is cold, even though the ‘police girl’ with the Jennifer Lopez ass stepped into his office and handed it to him about five minutes ago. He imagines strolling over to that old coffeemaker, throwing it out the window, and screaming at the top of his lungs: ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.’ Normally, he likes to see himself as more calm and collected than Howard Beale; but right this moment, stupid and sick on account of all his stress, he does not give a damn what the others think.

         Actually, this is not true. He cares a lot about what Hammerschmidt may or may not be thinking. Usually, Ringwood does not see the Kraut King strolling through the precinct for weeks at a time. Hammerschmidt is there, to be sure; but Ringwood does not take notice. Today, though, Ringwood sees him on three separate occasions. Each time, Hammerschmidt is dressing down a beat cop for this or that petty grievance; and yet his eyes fix on Ringwood, like Ringwood in fact is the real culprit here. Hammerschmidt is keeping score, which invariably means that Ringwood is falling further behind in Hammerschmidt’s speculation.

         Hammerschmidt knows more than he acknowledges, just like that obese weirdo with the beaner boy toy. Hammerschmidt does not know enough to nail the detective for acting ‘off the books.’ Otherwise, he would have done so; but he is close enough that the detective practically can feel his gin breath burning the hair on the back of his neck. Moreover, the detective can feel his cold eyes burrowing into his bones. There is a soul somewhere in there. Maybe, his soul is locked in his bone marrow. Maybe, it is not felt outright, so much as it is barely intimated in how his bones quiver of late when he is frightened or embarrassed for falling up short in his informal investigation of David Trent’s disappearance. Regardless, Hammerschmidt is searching; and soon he will find something dark, insidious, embarrassing. What does Ringwood do then? What actually can he do?

         There is a knock on his office door. Ringwood looks up, and folds his grey and arthritic hands on his desk. He looks like a sad soul about to make his final confession. He has no idea what he will do, if Hammerschmidt enters his office.

         Come in, Ringwood says in a halting voice.

         In walks a young detective with a police report in his hand. Ringwood at first has no idea who is his visitor. Neither does he care. He is just happy not to see the Kraut King filling up his doorway. 

         What do you want? Ringwood barks more like his old self.

         Ringwood recognizes the young detective with the perpetually confused look on his face as his sometime interrogation partner, Hooper or Hopper. He is not sure which. He has never asked, and he does not care enough to do so now.

         Thought you might be interested in a police report filed about two hours ago, Hooper or Hopper remarks. An assault and battery of a security guard over at Saint Robert Bellarmine’s…

         That’s strange; Ringwood interrupts, while grabbing the report out from the young man’s hand. Did one of the rich moms over there slap him for failing to give her a reach around?

         Hooper or Hopper does not know how to answer. He folds his arms, looks  down, and traces his own shoelaces. 

         Speak up, Ringwood barks. Now, why should I care about an assault case?

         An eyewitness has identified the attacker as ‘Billy Ray Blaise,’ Hooper or Hopper comments, while still looking down at his shoelaces like a bashful child.

         And there’s an APB for his shitty ass, Ringwood says with a demonic grin.

         Well, that, and the rest of him, too, Hooper or Hopper comments.

         Ringwood looks at the young detective incredulously. He then waves him off irritably, though in fact for the first time today he actually feels damn good to be wearing a Beverly PD badge.

         Just wait until I get you in my little love chamber, Ringwood whispers to the composite drawing of Billy Ray Blaise in the police report. Together, we get to the bottom of what happened to David Trent, or we dance. It’ll be your call.

         Ringwood files the police report, and leaves early for the day.

         In one brief spurt of cheer, Ringwood almost decides to go directly home and to spend some ‘quality time’ with the missus. He decides that that is going too far. The prospect of arresting that scum bag actor is good news, but not so good that he will relinquish his old barstool for the night at the Kingfish Saloon.

*   *   *

         Walter Whipple nervously wrings his hands on his belly, while he watches Marcos clearing dead brush from the garden. The boy’s white, collared shirt has been drenched by sweat for an hour already; and yet he does not slow down his pace at all. He is the mule that will walk to his death chasing that carrot that is dangling just inches in front of his nose. He is determined, to put it mildly; and though Walter cannot see his eyes from his bedroom window, he imagines them to be as blank and as intense as a dead man walking. 

         This is as it should be, for Marcos has made it clear that he embraces the macabre underbelly of ‘El día de los muertos’ with every fiber of his soul. Sure, Marcos’ fixation is immature. It is an example of adolescent excess, like all the pre-teen girls going gaga about a poorly written vampire novel, or like the Goth boys lurking by the high school bleachers and imagining how they will kill every one of those happy go lucky cheerleaders on the way to the football field. Most of these dark souls chicken out way before falling for a vampire James Dean, or taking a loaded rifle to school. 

         But some do not chicken out. For whatever reason, the dark sparks living in those souls just keep on expanding outward until there is an explosion. Every explosion is unique, but for the fact that something or someone is dead as soon as the smoke has cleared. Death is the common denominator; those blank eyes staring into eternity, and those ghosts remaining long after the outrage and the chatter. Death is the legacy of that boy, who cannot restrain his own dark soul.

         And Walter senses that Marcos may be one of those boys. He just cannot deny the hell he saw in Marcos’ eyes, when Marcos pointed that revolver on the ‘Dream Boys’ proprietor. Nor can he deny how those intense, dead eyes remind him of the brother he had last seen sliding down the hill and into the river. The comparison with Lucius is most unsettling; but Walter cannot deny what he saw then and what he sees now: A mule going after that one carrot until he is dead.

         And everything in his way has been laid to waste… 

         Walter hears Whiskers purring beside his lower right leg. Now, that is an unusual sound. Whiskers is the Pussy Prince of growling and screeching, since at any moment he is either hunting his prey, going for the kill, or bemoaning how a caged rat or a bowl of ice cream turned out to be too far to reach. Purring, it would seem, is not a part of his vocabulary; and yet here he is, rubbing against his leg, and purring like the train engine that could. Probably, he is hungry; but if so, then this is a strange way for him to convey that message.

         Why are you so bucking happy, you feline flamer? Walter asks his Dragon Li without dropping his eyes from his bedroom window…

         Walter is startled by what he thinks he said. He turns beet red and steps back from the window. He wrings his hands even more so as if a Nervous Nellie.

         Oh, I’m so sorry, my Pussy Peter Pumpkin Eater, Walter whispers. I know I could have said ‘buck’ instead of you know what. Oh, and I don’t think you’re a flamer, even though you sort of purr like one. It is just that the mind wanders sometimes. It takes flight, and goes where it goes, no matter my self-restraint.

         Walter looks back out the window again. He can see Marcos’ well-formed back muscles through the sweaty shirt. Until now, he had never realized why so many men go ape shit over ‘Wet T-shirt’ contests (not that Walter has any firm impression of what actually happens in those contests). The boy is as beautiful, as he is strange and menacing. Walter insists that he has no fairy faggot lust for the boy. He is much too civilized to entertain that kind of debauchery. Still, he cannot deny how the brown boy intrigues him, keeps him off balance, and even nudges a ‘no-no’ word out from his lips every now and then. 

         Lucius had inspired a similar kind of restlessness way back when. Lucius, poor boy, eventually turned so perverse only the Manchester River could douse his dark soul. Can Marcos be held back from the precipice, restrained somehow before his intensity turns perverse, and so kept in check like a bridled mule? Or does Walter deep down actually relish the madness of his crazed, kicking mule?

         Who is chasing whom here? Walter mutters. Who is chained to the wall, and who is forced to dance? Is it possible to tell? Or am I stuck in a funhouse of disorienting mirrors, never able to tell the victim from the beast? Forever lost…

         Walter vaguely recalls having asked himself the same questions, perhaps just once before or perhaps a thousand times before. It does not matter if he is wielding the axe. The questions linger: Who is chasing whom? Is he forever lost?

         Walter leans his forehead on the bedroom window. He drops his fat arms to his sides, like they are being stretched by heavy sandbags hanging from each of his fingers. He blinks his eyes wildly, like he is trying to excise a pebble from each of them. His face starts to contort, like the first few seconds of a horrible stroke; but then his face calms into a blank, dead man’s stare into nothingness.

         No, Walter mutters after a while.

         Walter steps back from the bedroom window. He looks down at Whiskers a moment as if he does not know what he sees. Then, for no apparent reason, a light bulb turns on in his eyes; and a devilish grin forms on his sweaty, fat face.

         No, Walter says more emphatically. It does not have to be that way, and it will not. 

         Whiskers stops his uncharacteristic purring. He may admire that ‘hunter’ that he now senses in his owner; but he is also hungry; and the ‘good cat’ does not get that bowl of kibble, as quickly as the ‘bad cat.’ Therefore, he replaces the purr with a hint of a growl, and he pats his owner’s loafers in irritation.

         Walter pays no attention to the antics of his cat. He returns at once, and with renewed enthusiasm, to his bedroom window. He pulls on the edges of his Mulberry plaid bowtie like he wants it to be as crisp and as straight as a bowtie can be. He also presses down the soft lines on his white shirt. He is very nearly metrosexual just then, but for the big belly hanging over his Gerald Ford pants.

         A drab, grey, Ford Focus drives up to the gate. The driver leans upon the horn. So much for the ‘inconspicuous’ gumshoe; but Walter calms his nerves by reminding himself that there is no one around for miles on this lonely stretch of highway. Still, he can expect a dumb Cholo to lean on a horn, but his gumshoe?

         Walter waddles down to the front door. Whiskers follows excitedly. After all, whatever happens downstairs now may lead to crumbs falling off the table.

         Walter opens the front door, and orders Marcos to open the gate. Marcos does so without saying a word or even looking up. The boy is clearly in his own, dark world right now and does not want to be disturbed more so than necessary to do what he is tasked to do. Walter understands what it means to be lost for a while in your own mind, smelling the carrot just inches before your nose, and imagining that it is there for you and for no one else. It is for this reason mostly that he lusts after the brown boy as much as he fears him. 

         Lazio walks through the gate. He does not say a word to the adolescent, since he does not imagine that the adolescent will be signing any checks at the end of this business relationship. Moreover, he desires to have as little contact with this place, and the people who have anything to do with this place, as will be necessary to finish his business. Everything here gives him the creeps, for he is being watched here, not by any one man so far as he can tell, but, somehow, by the property itself. The history of this place eyes his soul to see what it may devour. That makes no sense rationally, but that is Lazio’s impression just now.

         Walter can sense Lazio’s discomfort, as he watches his gumshoe walking up the driveway in a crumpled trench coat and a sweat stained fedora. Even as Walter intends to be outwardly gracious, privately he does not care that Lazio, a private investigator from the wrong side of the tracks who probably could not distinguish a salad fork from a dessert fork, is so out of sorts. The reason is that Walter resents having had to hire a private investigator. He had wanted to hunt down the Restless Wrangler himself with nothing else but his axe in his hand. In his mind, he would have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams; and yet, he had to back off once that police detective showed up at his front gate. Ringwood is no doubt trailing him even now, and so he has had to rely on this gumshoe from the wrong side of the tracks to do the legwork for him. Walter will get his final kill, figuratively speaking, but he resents not now being able to hunt him down.

         Still, for all that, Walter plasters on a big smile and puts on a good show.

         Happy day, isn’t it? Walter asks, while reaching his hand out to his guest.

         They shake hands on the porch, but Lazio removes his as soon as he can from what feels like the cold and clammy hand of a corpse. Or perhaps that is a handful of sticky ice cream he feels. Either way, Lazio is not really in the mood to shake hands with this queer man in the white shirt and checkered golf pants.

         Well, come inside, Walter offers after an awkward pause. I have cookies.

         Walter leads Lazio back into the formal living room. The ‘family room’ is a more proper place for eating cookies, but business is best conducted beneath the glare of the grandfather clock (even though the clock does not work). After all, there are proprieties to be maintained even with bottom feeder gumshoes; and Walter realizes that the fact that he can treat this groundling with outward civility is a testament to his higher breeding. So ‘Ta-Ta’ to those who may think otherwise, for those puerile gossipers clearly have no notion of noblesse oblige.

         Walter gestures for Lazio to sit on a Louis XV loveseat. Walter settles for the high backed chair beside the Oriental screen. The seat cushion is too small for his derriere, but the chair is as close to a throne as he has. Walter has good memories of this chair, for this is where he would sit for hours on end in abject silence waiting for Grandma Eunice to bruise his butt with her wooden spoon. It is strange at first glance that he should regard this chair with affection, and yet in his childhood the calm before the storm invariably turned out to be the high point of the day. He knew what was coming for him, and that is so much better than those ghosts that snap out of the shadows suddenly without prior warning.

         Or the older brother who just appears in the doorway naked, erect, dead to everything else but the dark fire that is about to erupt from inside his flesh…

         There is an assortment of cookies on a plate on a coffee table in front of the loveseat. Lazio has no appetite, but the peculiar look in Walter’s eyes tells him that he will be better off in exhibiting politeness than defiance. He takes a sugar cookie, and he nibbles on that dried and tasteless wafer for the duration. He imagines that he is chewing on one of those communion wafers from church except that, in this case, the Holy Spirit (along with Elvis) has left the building. The result is a communion wafer that actually depletes him spiritually. He has been a lapsed Roman Catholic a long time; but he remembers enough of his old life in the pews to be able to regard this sensation as ‘holy communion with the body of the devil,’ as opposed to the ‘Body of Christ.’ Lazio wonders if a signed check from this weirdo is indeed worth the time spent in communing with him…

         Lazio snaps out from his stream of consciousness. He senses vaguely that Walter has asked something of him, and he is expected to cough up the answer.

         I am sorry, Lazio mutters. What did you say?

         Walter does not flinch outwardly, and yet the strange glint in his eyes at that moment suggests that he is more than a bit peeved to have to repeat what he just said. Noblesse Oblige is not easy, when the groundling totally refuses to see just how lucky he is to be the recipient of such kindness. After all, it really takes two to tango, and Walter thinks he has done more than his share of steps.

         Do you have a name for me? Walter repeats.

         Oh, yes, Lazio says, while putting the cookie on his lap, and retrieving a leather notebook from the pocket inside his trench coat. 

         Walter eyes the cookie to make sure that it does not fall to the floor. He wonders if it was such a good idea after all to bring such a lowlife gumshoe into the room that his Grandma Eunice had spent a lifetime furnishing with antiques and preserving from light and dirt. You can bring an ape into the holy of holies, and yet that beast will spend the whole time there looking for a place to squat. 

         Whiskers also eyes the cookie. He kneads an Oriental rug in anticipation.

         Billy Ray Blaise is living with an old woman by the name of Claire Bruner, Lazio reads from his notebook.

         Walter drops his phony grin in an instant. He wrings his hands a moment.

         Walter regains control of his behavior, and even manages to plaster that insane grin on his face again, but not before his guest sees what has transpired.

         Do you know Miss Bruner? Lazio asks.

         No, Walter lies. Though I confess that I have heard the name before. It is a small world after all, like that children’s song says.

         Yes, it is, Lazio remarks, while not at all believing Walter’s quick denial.

         There is an uncomfortable pause. Lazio nibbles again on the cookie so as to do something. Whiskers observes a cookie crumb on the floor and goes for it.

         Well, then, we are not here to converse about Miss Bruner, now are we? Walter asks with a hint of irritation. 

         No, we are not, Lazio agrees. 

         So what else do you have for me? Walter asks.

         Miss Bruner works half-days at the public library, Lazio continues, while referencing his notebook now and then. Billy Ray stays indoors the whole time. No doubt, he has figured out that the police are looking for him. 

         And that is still the case? Walter asks.

         Yes, Lazio answers. The cops still include him daily in their APB. My man in the Beverly PD informs me that the beat cops are taking bets as to which one will catch him first. Billy Ray is a ‘cause célèbre’ with the pigs; let me tell you.

         I know all about that, Walter thinks, while keeping the smile on his face.

         It is only a matter of time before they find him, Walter says aloud.

         Yes, Lazio agrees. Miss Bruner’s cabin is remote, but one of these days a cop will come a knocking on her door.

         Time is short then, is it not? Walter asks without veiling his real concern. 

         Lazio does not know what to make of his question. He reaches for words.

         Well, time is short for Billy Ray; that is true, Lazio finally answers. Like I said, the cops are not going to stop…

         What is her number? Walter interrupts.

         Number 8, Old Lumberjack Highway, Lazio reads from his notebook.

         No, Walter waves Lazio into silence. I mean her phone number.

         Unlisted, Lazio answers quickly.

         Walter stares at his gumshoe incredulously. His phony smile is long gone.

         I’ve got a man who works for the phone company, Lazio says with some hesitation; for he knows he can get into real trouble, if his man squeals on him for attempting to elicit this unlisted home phone number. 

         Good, Walter says, clapping his hands together, and grinning once more.

         Lazio drops what is left of his tasteless cookie. Whiskers goes for the kill.

         Oh, I am sorry, Lazio mutters, while fidgeting his notebook into his coat.

         Walter waves away the apology with a false show of magnanimity. Truly, he is peeved, though, and that disdainful look in his eyes again gives him away.

         Tomorrow you will return, and provide me Miss Bruner’s phone number; Walter remarks, while straining to get up from his antique, high backed throne.

         Lazio nods in assent. He hurries toward the door. He has given up even a bare pretense of politeness.

         Walter watches Lazio walk quickly down the driveway, while Whiskers is again purring beside his right leg. 

Walter allows his mind to wander a moment, once he sees that the Ford Focus has left the scene. He comes back to earth, and calls for Marcos to come up to the porch. He now sees the extent to which the front of Marcos’ shirt has been drenched by sweat. It turns out this mule is as beautiful on the front side.

Time is short, indeed, Walter thinks, while he watches Marcos walk up to him from the old garden. I must promote him at once from field slave to house nigger. There is considerable risk in taking him so close to my bosom, but I just cannot do myself what needs to be done upstairs. I am ‘the man’ with that axe by my side, but I am a bleeding pussy with a hammer and nails. Furthermore, it is a scientific fact that Mexicans have been bred to work well with their smelly, brown hands. Why else do we give them driver’s licenses, and let them work on our big construction sites? After all, even a slug is good for something, is it not?

*   *   *

         Billy Ray Blaise dips his Saltine cracker into the soup bowl on his lap. His chicken noodle soup is lukewarm. Claire would not blink if he asked her to cook it a while longer on the stove, but he is happy enough with the soup as it is. He really just wants something that can make his Saltine crackers soggy, so that he does not have to chew them much. 

         Besides swallowing wet crackers, and stirring his soup with his spoon, he stares blankly at the VHS tape being played on that television set opposite him. He thinks that he is watching The Best of the Wheel of Fortune, Vol. 6, though the truth of the matter is that he may be watching still the previous volume. In his late afternoon daze, he has lost track of how many times Claire has stepped in from the kitchenette to change the VHS tapes.

         Is your tummy still crummy? Claire inquires in the voice of an empathetic Kindergarten teacher. 

         Billy Ray looks up and over to the side. There is his guardian angel again checking in on him. As always, she wears the same old formless sweater, shawl, jeans, and boots. Wrapped over her sweater and half her jeans is an apron with Clarabelle Cow stitched over the front. Notwithstanding Clarabelle’s traditional ‘happy go lucky’ smile, the cow looks like she has been butchered already what with the blood and the entrails sliding down the apron. 

         Claire clutches a hatchet in her right hand. Blood drips off the blade and onto the wooden floor. Claire either does not care or does not notice the gooey blood drip. Indeed, she seems oblivious to pretty much everything, but for how well her charge is doing at any given time. This indicates either early dementia or narrowed focus. Billy Ray prefers to believe the latter; but frankly he cannot be so sure, especially when he observes how her eyes look glassy now and then.

         Billy Ray nods in the affirmative. He is feeling a bit nauseous. 

         Claire reaches into her sweater with her free hand. It is as if she has the entire contents of her purse stuffed in between her breasts. 

         Out comes a few candy wrappers, a crumpled Kleenex, even a leaky Bic fountain pen. Finally, Claire smiles devilishly, and removes her silver flask. She uncorks the flask, takes a whiff of the poison, gulps thirstily a couple of times, and splashes the rest of it into the lukewarm chicken noodle soup.

         Claire sits beside Billy Ray on the couch. She glances briefly at the T.V., and chuckles at what she knows is about to happen.

         The Wheel of Fortune phrase is ‘F_REG_NE C_NCLUSI_N.’ If the man says ‘foregone conclusion,’ then he wins the entire game. Instead, the man chooses to buy a vowel. Pat Sajak is incredulous. He does a ‘Johnny Carson’ double take which goes over the man’s head. He asks him if he really wants to buy a vowel.

         Now, this one’s poopy in your pants funny, Claire says to Billy Ray. 

         Billy Ray looks at the screen in time to see that the man who has victory in his hands has purchased the letter ‘A.’ The crowd moans. Claire laughs like a hyena on a hot seat. In so doing, she knocks much of the soup onto the cushion.

         Can you imagine that? Claire asks giddily. Oh, golly, what people will do!

         Although he has been invited to do so, Billy Ray cannot even muster up a grin, let alone a bout of laughter. He sees himself in that man on the television screen, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and wondering still what had hit him. In Billy Ray’s case, the wheel of fortune had been clear enough: All he had to do was to hide out here, and to recuperate in bed, until the passage of time invariably cleared the coast. Then, he could have hired a lawyer to battle for custody rights. By going out too soon, he practically guarantees that his ex-wife gets full custody of their son, since how else can the family court respond to a biological father, who also happens to be the target of a citywide dragnet? Moreover, Billy Ray has been in declining health since that altercation with the bodyguard. He is an invalid slowly, but surely, losing what remains of his sanity while cooped up in this cabin out in the middle of nowhere. Hard to chuckle at another man’s plight when your own is as pathetic as you possibly can imagine.

         I’m so sorry, Billy Ray mutters, while looking away from the T.V. 

         I’m the one who should be sorry, Claire says. Oh, the mess that I made…

         Miss Bruner, you can spill as much soup as you want, Billy Ray says. This is your home, your life, and I have put you in danger. We know what is going to happen to me when the cops show up, but what about you? ‘Harboring a known criminal,’ ‘obstruction of justice,’ whatever else the D.A. cooks up to send you to the prison library in Sing Sing…

         Enough of that, Claire interrupts him with a wave of her hand. Now, I am not the first turnip to have fallen off the farm truck, but neither am I the last. I have been a bruised, ugly, old thing in the mud a lot longer than you can know, sometimes even mistaken for a road apple. I’ve been trampled underfoot many times, scorched by the light of day, even left for dead in the rain.

         What are you saying? Billy Ray asks.

         What I am saying is that I’ve been around the block as much as any damn whore, but without any of the sweet-talking and the parting gifts that might’ve made it all worthwhile, Claire explains. In my case, the ‘john’ has been my life and all those secrets I’ve been hiding beneath my sweater. Life has been ‘doing me’ hard, and it has not let up in my golden years. 

         What do they want with you? Billy Ray asks.

         You mean all those ‘johns’ out there? Claire asks.

         Yeah, Billy Ray says in earnest. The usual suspects…

         Dead, Claire says so matter-of-factly that Billy Ray feels a chill slithering down his spine in response. Or at least so senile that no one will listen to me, if I tried to spill the beans. What they want is for the secrets to stay hidden; and, in the end, people like you and me are an existential threat to them.

         What do you mean? Billy Ray asks. I don’t know anything

         It’s not what you know now, Claire continues. It’s what you could know. We practically live off the grid, you and I, almost accountable to no one, really hard to trace, especially when we are careful. We can walk through town, hear and see a lot of shit, and they’ve got too little leverage over us to tell us what we are allowed to remember and what we are supposed to forget. 

         So we are the reason for all this? Billy Ray asks.

         Get your head out of the clouds, Claire laughs. We are not that special, so long as we keep to our marginal occupations and our small hobbies. But if by chance we should happen to be caught up in something big, well, let us just say that they will not forsake the opportunity to strike us off of their ‘To Do’ list. It is true what that Chicago politician said: ‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do thinks you think you could not do before.’ When David Trent killed your landlady, and almost killed your friend, they had their crisis. I don’t imagine they wanted it, but they got it thrown onto their laps anyway. So that means we are going to be in the crosshairs, until this blows over.

         What if it does not blow over? Billy Ray asks. I mean David Trent is not in any condition to show up out of the blue at the next Trent Family Reunion. Also it is not likely that they are going to close the book on him without a body and a murder weapon. Average Joe victims turn into ‘cold cases’ if unsolved after a while; but the rich, the famous, and the well connected stay on the grill for as long as it takes. I do not know why the Trents are so damned important around here, but they are. Even the ‘out-of-towner’ passing through senses that much.

         Jim Trent’s the big bully around here; that’s for certain, Claire mutters.

         What do you know about him? Billy Ray asks.

         Claire considers the question a moment. She looks off in silence; and for a moment, it looks as if she is passing into another fit of dementia. Her old and penetrating eyes at once lose their color. It is like a glass film slides over them.

         Billy Ray glances at the television set, while Claire floats back into a sad past that she had hoped never again to encounter. On the boob tube, a fat lady screams excitedly, and jumps up and down, because she had managed to solve ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE’ when given only the letter ‘E’ and fifteen seconds. Due to her girth, there is a very real fear that her excited leaps into the air may cause the old stage to crash down. There is only so much a stage, or a man, can take.

         Claire slips back into consciousness. She looks at her charge, and smiles.

         The less said, the better, Claire finally responds.

         But what if I have to confront him? Billy Ray asks. We both know that the police are not likely to back off, until Jim is out of the picture, or is compelled by circumstances, let us say, to tell his lieutenants to back off. If he is weaving the web, then none of us can escape until he and his web have been cast down.

         Another reason why the less said, the better, Claire states. If indeed you knew half the damn story, you would never confront him, not because you lack testicular fortitude, but because you remain, most of the time, sane and sober.

         Miss Bruner, I need to know, Billy Ray insists.

         I’ll tell you what you need to know, Claire states, while getting up from the old couch, and walking over to a hidden wall safe behind the television set.

         Billy Ray watches in stunned silence, while Claire slides a wood panel to the side, and turns the dial left and right. There is more to this cabin than first thought, just as there is more to his guardian angel than he could have dreamt. Indeed, at times like this, he wonders if this is not just an elaborate nightmare.

         Claire retrieves a .44 Magnum. She tosses the firearm across the room to her charge. She chuckles, when she sees how very frightened he is to handle it.

         You’ll need to know how to use my dildo, Claire says with a playful wink.

         Your what? Billy Ray mutters.

         Oh, I’m just kidding about the dildo, Claire continues with a wide smile. Then again, maybe, I’m just kidding. What matters is that it is good for soldiers of fortune to think of their rifles or revolvers as simply ‘cocks’ writ large. Cock, revolver, cannon, missile launcher, they’re all made to shoot their wads and to leave the girls screaming for more. If you think of it that way, then it won’t be so foreign to you.

         I can’t believe this, Billy Ray mutters.

         You’re the one talking about confronting Jim Trent, Claire continues. Do you think you’re going to stroll up to him on his pretty yard and have yourself a friendly chitchat? Don’t you think he’ll do worse than strike you with a wrench?

         Billy Ray looks away. He knows that she is right.

         Claire walks up to her charge. She drops her glib manner, and then takes his hands into hers. She stares into his face with an intense, maternal love that makes him feel secure and uncomfortable at the same time. 

         Now, I don’t want you doing anything half-cocked like before, Claire says solemnly. Jump into battle too soon, and you’ll just get yourself killed…

         Jump in too late, and they’ll arrest me before I can take him down, Billy Ray interrupts, while placing the .44 Magnum upon the soft cushion beside him.

         Just promise me that when the time’s right you won’t hesitate to go for a kill shot, Claire says. You’ll literally need to take him down. Trust me when I say that there’s no persuading Jim Trent. He is not crazy like his little brother. Indeed, he is perhaps the sanest man you will ever meet; but precisely for that reason, he will be the most dangerous as well. That’s all I’m going to say about him, since I want to be able to sleep tonight without digging up old nightmares.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray hardly sleeps over the next few days. He is nearly delirious with exhaustion at times, and yet his nerves tighten and explode every time his eyes drop about midway down. His survival instinct wants to keep him awake, glassy eyed and incoherent, but at least capable of ‘fight or flight’ in the event any of those predators leap out from the shadows. 

         And, indeed, he has convinced himself that there are untold numbers of predators out there. Apart from his guardian angel, the elderly woman who has replaced Mrs. McNutt back at the apartment building, his comatose best friend, and his son, the whole world is either against him or indifferent to his plight. In the darkness, he feels few warm hands. Most are cold, clammy, ready at even a slight pretext to clutch at his throat and to rip out what remains of his soft and trembling voice. Unable to cry out in anguish, he will know sure enough that his silence is his final death. His inability to say or to do anything is his prison cell, the warden unable to hear his pleas, the other prisoners anxious to devour him.

         Billy Ray glances at the .44 Magnum on the bed stand. It is loaded, since his guardian angel has made it clear that an unloaded firearm is the same as an erect cock within the trousers of a limp wrist watching Carol Doda dance on her burlesque stage. That cock may be erect for any number of reasons; but unless the limp wrist converts to Jesus right then and there, his cock will not shoot so much as a blank in her direction. This makes sense, in a way; and yet whenever he observes his loaded firearm on the bed stand, he is reminded not of the fact that he has a means of defending himself now, but that he is sick and impotent in comparison to this mindless and lukewarm thing. He can recite complicated, lengthy monologues from memory (even when delirious, Hamlet’s speeches are never too far from his tongue); but he is nothing in comparison to a spark, a bit of gunpowder, and a projectile. 

         He looks away, and cries. It turns out the worst part about losing childish innocence is not what is lost, but what is gained. And what is gained? Two eyes capable of penetrating the mystery of mortality. Billy Ray can see death clearly and unambiguously. It is the residential street that just ends abruptly at a field of thorns. It is the end of the road overflown by vultures and stained by sunset.

         Gary no doubt has had a glimpse of that road. The child with the ‘Barney and Friends’ backpack and the growing baseball card collection surely is not as far down that road as his old man. Nevertheless, he has seen enough to tear up at night after his mother shuts the bedroom door on him. He has heard enough to think that his father may be gone for good. He has felt enough to imagine his own flesh turning blue, cold, and clammy whenever he has been a naughty boy.

         Gary will see, hear, and feel a whole lot more, if his father does not end this drama sooner rather than later. For that reason alone, Billy Ray decides on more than one occasion while resting in bed not to pick up that firearm and to blast his face away from his skull. Gary alone is the reason Billy Ray indeed has not been buried alongside the faithful pets and the forgotten lovers further out in the woods; for who else but his dad will turn him back from a field of thorns?

         I certainly cannot save him, if I am a teary-eyed invalid, Billy Ray thinks.

         And so for the first time in days, Billy Ray forces himself up and off that warm bed. He grabs a hold of the .44 Magnum without thinking too much about it. He knows that if he thinks about it he likely will keep the firearm right there on that bed stand, where it will be too far away if and when needed. He stuffs it into his jeans’ pocket (frightened the whole time that inadvertently he may shoot off his dangling balls in the process), and he limps over to his cane. He is a winded, old man by the time he gets to his cane, though he suspects that his exhaustion at this time has much more to do with stress than physical exertion.

         Billy Ray finally catches his breath. He limps out to the front door, grabs his overcoat off the hook, and puts it on over his T-shirt and jeans. Again, he is careful not to jostle the firearm in his pocket, lest he be made fit for the quiet life of a eunuch. He steps out into the clear and cool morning air; the envy of a city dweller; the unassuming mentor of a person disentangling slowly but surely from the electronic and telecommunications grid. Like all mentors, that lovely morning air points to a ‘better way.’ It suggests that real life rustles freely and quietly through leaves, lending health to the invalid, and a home to sojourners.

         Romantic nonsense, Billy Ray mutters.

         Even if so, is it not better to believe in the life that flows through trees?

         Is it not better to indulge quaint fantasies when the alternative is a sick, humbling stare into death? If there is hope still, then does that not signify that, indeed, hell is somewhere else than here? The condemned cannot fancy lovely morning air, for the real essence of hell is pain everlasting but without so much as the faintest memory of relief. The morning air cannot be known down there.  

         Billy Ray manages a faint grin. He determines to get to the mailbox in an hour. The previous week he had been able to get down there in much less time than an hour, but that was before spending a few days nonstop in bed. He does not think that he will find anything down there, for over time unplugged people like Claire Bruner and himself get less and less mail. What matters is the actual journey, not the imagined destination, and so he steps forward with as much of the old gusto as his weak flesh permits.

*   *   *

         It does not take long for that faint grin to vanish from Billy Ray’s face. Is it because the breeze has taken on a colder chill than before? Or does his spine tingle for a reason that has nothing to do with the temperature right now? Also, if Billy Ray intends to indulge these questions, while he continues to hobble on his cane down the curvy driveway, then he must ask himself the following: Why does he suddenly pull up his overcoat collar, and drop his chin to his neck? Is it really because he is cold? Or is he trying to hide his face from whoever happens this very moment to be watching him? Does he really think that by staring down at his shoes he can remain oblivious to the eyes searching through those blinds?

         There are no blinds out here, Billy Ray thinks. Indeed, that is true; but in place of window blinds, there are untold acres of low hanging branches, thorny shrubs, and tall weeds standing side by side like the planks of a mildewed wood fence. A Peeping Tom’s Paradise, that’s what a forest is. A man can hide out in the woods, and tear off my clothes with his eyes, before I feel any goose bumps on my skin. As for a ghost, well, let us say that he can stay out here, and do his mischief, for as long as he wants. The priest can exorcise someone’s house; but he cannot exorcise a forest, let alone a world of predators who watch and wait for the optimal time to go for the throat. The shaman, the priest, the Old King of Peace, where are any of them now to lift up my chin and to restore my grin? So where is my other cane, the one intimated in dreams, that proverbial shield and buckler promised for times like this, as I take one heavy step after another down this driveway? And what is it with all this religious talk anyway? Am I now in a foxhole, the burial ground for atheism? Or am I actually in a fishbowl, seen from up close to be the sad fool that I am, and surrounded everywhere by eyes?

         Billy Ray cannot answer any of his questions. He can only shiver from the kind of disorienting fear that, if not relieved soon enough, induces madness and opens the gates to hell. Indeed, it is impossible to pass through those old gates, unless one is as frightened as Billy Ray is right now; for this is the fear that will harden later into self-hatred and despair, the two pillars in every house in hell.

         Billy Ray senses those two pillars in a flurry of mental images that exit as soon as he tries to grasp them. His mind is like a body sinking into quicksand. It cannot hold onto anything long enough to stop the inexorable slide into a dark, suffocating grave. Indeed, his mind is such that he cannot stop from taking one step after another, like the mindless zombie pulled by an unseen string into the one grave from which he will not be able to escape. 

         Consumed by fear, stooped by his own mental weakness, Billy Ray senses the world falling onto his back. This is what it feels like to be watched by dark, soulless eyes. This is what it feels like when those same eyes seem to speak out from the blackness, telepathically, or perhaps in a voice: Take off your clothes!

         Take off your clothes, so that I can judge you raw, and see your secrets…

         Someone turns on a car engine up ahead. This sudden break from the old and timeless silence of the forest frees Billy Ray from his confused thoughts. He stops in his tracks long enough to decide that the car engine had been switched on about a quarter of a mile up Old Lumberjack Highway. 

         More importantly, the car is coming down the highway toward the cabin.

         And then that car idles in front of Claire Bruner’s old-fashioned mailbox.

         It is idling longer than required for a mailman to do what he needs to do.

         Billy Ray hobbles around a tree. This is where he is first able to view the end of the driveway. He cannot really make out the mailbox, for it is off to the side and hidden from this vantage point behind roadside shrubs. What he views, though, is enough for him to know that something is totally wrong this morning.

         Indeed, as his ears had forecast, there is a car idling where the driveway curves into the Old Lumberjack Highway. It is not a mail truck. It is instead just another drab, grey, two-door something or other, the kind of car that is always discounted by Avis or Hertz. 

         There is a man standing behind the car. He seems to be wearing a trench coat and a fedora, though it is impossible to tell for sure this far away. What is more obvious is that he is staring back at Billy Ray through a pair of binoculars. Two dark, circular, binocular eyes stare through his chest and into his soul. The binocular eyes are like black holes, which suck more of reality into themselves, and as such grow larger, with every step that Billy Ray makes in their direction.

         Get the fuck out of here; Billy Ray tries to scream, while waving his free hand in an agitated manner. 

         In fact, Billy Ray is not able to scream at all. The most he can do is a sad and sickly whisper. Even his hand waving had been ineffectual, since the weird man in the trench coat and hat seems unfazed. Either the spy had expected the unwelcoming wave, or he does not care one way or another how he is regarded at this time. That, more than anything else, makes the spy that much creepier, at least in Billy Ray’s estimation. It is one thing to stumble upon a curious man. It is quite another to stumble upon a sociopath altogether impervious to shame.

         Nevertheless, Billy Ray continues to hobble forward, though a part of his psyche wishes he had stayed in bed today. The stronger part of his mind wants to find out just what the hell is going on here and, if necessary, to put it to an immediate stop. Maybe, the spy is looking for a bribe to keep quiet. Maybe, the spy gets his jollies from giving disabled men like Billy Ray a case of the shakes…

         Billy Ray tries to think of one or two other possible reasons why this man is watching him through his binoculars, but his mind fails him again. All that he can do is to hobble forward, while the wind kicks up dead leaves upon his path.

         Billy Ray and the spy keep staring at each other, while Billy Ray carefully closes the distance between them. Billy Ray does not make any other attempt to wave him off, let alone to speak, and so the silence between them emerges as a kind of deafening, malevolent life in its own right. The silence is a terrible force through which Billy Ray must walk in measured steps, so that at times he senses that he is walking underwater or through a thick wall of ice toward two, growing, black holes. He will die inside those two holes without having said one word that the other man heard and acknowledged…

         Or so Billy Ray imagines, until he is about ten minutes away from the old mailbox. He then senses that the man has been watching him to make sure that he is going to go to the mailbox; for as soon as the man thinks that he is finally close enough, and thus likely to finish his journey, the man reaches into his old trench coat pocket. The man retrieves something that is too small for Billy Ray to make out this far away. The man puts it into the mailbox, hops back into his idling car, and leaves the scene in a cloud of exhaust fumes and highway grime.

         The man had moved quickly after lowering his binoculars, and retrieving something from his pocket; thus preventing Billy Ray from getting a clear view of his features. Billy Ray can say that he is white and middle aged, but anything else would be a guess on his part. It is just as well, since Billy Ray cannot go to the police with this strange story. Moreover, Billy Ray suspects that this middle aged, white man had been nothing more than the messenger; just another oily cog in the machine that will be thrown out when the newer parts finally arrive.

         Billy Ray hobbles up to the mailbox. Again, a paralyzing chill slides down his back; and he has to lean heavily on his cane to keep from falling to the dirt.

         The moment passes. He opens the mailbox door. He looks side to side, as if he is in the porn section of a bookstore and about to flip through the pages of a particularly nasty fetish magazine. He can feel his shame burning up his face, and he imagines if he were to look into a mirror he would observe a radioactive blush on both of his cheeks. 

         Billy Ray reaches into the mailbox. There is a bird chirping overhead, but otherwise everything has been shrouded by dead silence.

         Inside is a simple, folded, white postcard. ‘Ta-Ta’ has been emblazoned in stylized, pink cursive on the front cover. It could be a party invitation, based on the front cover alone, although Billy Ray’s sick fear insists it is anything but.

         Billy Ray unfolds the postcard, and he reads the handwritten note inside:

I know who you are. I have seen you up close.

You are the rat trapped in my maze.

You are hungry for my cheese.

Kind of gay when you think about it, is it not?

You want to escape the maze.

I am the cat who can feed you and free you.

It all depends on how well we play.

So answer the phone where you are staying.

Tomorrow. 9 o’clock sharp.

With nothing but your rat cock in your hand…

Oh, and say nothing at all to the nosey bitch.

Or I shall give her the axe.

Until then, enjoy your sweet little rat dreams.

Oh, and don’t forget your dance shoes. Ta-Ta!

*   *   *

         Ringwood goes through the motions as best he can. He carefully reviews the status reports on a few other open homicide cases. He meets with a couple of the boys in the ballistics room, in order to make sure that one of the victims could not possibly be a suicide. He asks the right questions, records just enough of what they say, and files a memorandum that no one ever will read. He shuts the file cabinet door a minute before he first thinks how nice it will be to savor a late afternoon martini. Unless he is dispatched within the next half hour or so Ringwood thinks he can get out of this day without anyone sensing how terribly jumpy he is beneath the surface. 

         He is about to grab his coat, and to lock up his office for the night, when there is a knock on his door. He sighs, for there is nothing about the hard sound that suggests a peer stopping by to see if in fact he is on his way to the Kingfish Saloon. Moreover, the dark figure on the other side of his snow glass door is not a peer. True, Ringwood prefers to think of him as an ‘honorary white man,’ for there is something lovable about the big guy; but that does not mean Ringwood is about to saddle up to the bar with him. Ringwood knows this, and he is quite sure his ‘black buddy’ knows this too. Therefore, the hard knock has nothing to do with tipping cocktail glasses and sharing ‘nigger jokes’ until the missus calls.

         Charlie, what the fuck? Ringwood grumbles.

         Charlie is the chief parole officer. He is actually pretty high up there on the flowchart; high enough, anyway, that a number of the grizzled, white cops still drawing a paycheck every two weeks refer to him behind his big linebacker back as ‘Mr. Affirmative Action’ or ‘the coon that counts.’ Nonetheless, Charlie certainly does not put on any airs; and so true to form, he steps into the office wearing a collared football coach shirt and a pair of shorts. He holds a report in his big left hand. TEAM ROSTER is printed in bold, block letters upon the cover.  

         All the boy needs is a dirty whistle hanging around his neck for him to be a bona fide ‘pigskin coon,’ Ringwood thinks, as he waves Charlie up to his desk.

         Got a message from the Vice Chief this afternoon, Charlie says. He wants to check up on David Trent’s parole record.

         Hammerschmidt’s putting puzzle pieces together, Ringwood mutters.

         The boss is going to see for himself that your ‘golden boy’ did not sign in the last time, Charlie continues. No ‘John Hancock’ where it is supposed to be.

         What are you talking about? Ringwood barks. Give me the fucking report.

         Charlie does as ordered. He stands back, and folds him arms. 

         Ringwood turns to the right page. He grabs a pen off his desk, thinks for a moment, and then signs ‘David Trent’ on the dotted line. He looks at his own penmanship. Several times, he had had to sign ‘David Trent’ to official forms or affidavits filed with the parole board. Most had been dummied up evaluations, which made him look like Mother Theresa behind bars. One had been a ‘course of study completion.’ Another one had been an affidavit purportedly in David’s own words acknowledging ‘the importance of finding Jesus’ and ‘the urge to do good in the community to compensate for his past sins.’ 

         This signature is almost as good as the others. It will pass muster. There is something to be said about still having the touch, even when one can see the retirement home not too far up the road. 

         Holy Jesus, Charlie exclaims. What are you doing?

         I am not doing a goddamned thing, Ringwood says.

         But the signature, Charlie states in exasperation…

         Yes, Ringwood interrupts. Be glad that I found it. You probably missed it earlier because you’ve been overworked. I suggest dropping your report on the Vice Chief’s desk right now, and then taking a couple of days of R and R. There is no shame in it. Hell, even Coach Lombardi snuck out to a spa once in a while.

         Ringwood hands the report back to Charlie. 

         Boss, this can’t continue forever, Charlie remarks in a firm, serious tone.

         Ringwood stares him down a moment. Charlie stares back.

         I know what I am doing, Ringwood says after a while. Just do as I say. By the time you return from R and R, I’ll have David Trent’s killer in my crosshairs.

         So David Trent went missing after he saw me, Charlie remarks in disgust.

         Damn straight, Ringwood continues with a strange grin. Indeed, the very fact that he saw you just before he went missing proves how upstanding he had been even up to the end. A model parolee, keeping his appointments, going out day after day to win one for the Gipper; curse me to hell, if I don’t shed a tear.

         Charlie drops his chin, and shuffles out the door. He does not like any of this. Still, he will do as he has been told, if only since he is in too deep already.

         Ringwood swivels his chair to the side, so that he can stare out the dirty, old window blinds. He wrings his hands nervously. He had kept a strong face in front of his ‘black buddy,’ but now his fear is trembling up to the surface. This can’t continue forever. Charlie had been right about that. The fake signature is going to fool Hammerschmidt one or two days max. Then, his instincts will take hold. He’ll sense that something’s not right with this report. He will hop into a patrol car, and drive out to that yellow house on Borden Road to take a looksee for himself. What is he going to see out there? A house that frankly looks like it has been abandoned for years. Likely, he will see a vulture circling the roof for good measure. Perhaps, just to fuck things up royally, he will get the same old earful from that nosey neighbor that Ringwood received a few days ago. He will wonder if that nosey neighbor is describing the same guy for which there is now an APB. A lot of puzzle pieces will come together; and time will be short, then.

         Ringwood thinks about Walter Whipple. Ever since speaking face to face with the fat weirdo, he is more and more convinced that the weirdo must have something to do with David Trent’s disappearance. After all, the fat fuck has a motive. Killing David Trent is as close as he can get to balancing the scales with the likes of Jim Trent. Or maybe he is working with Jim Trent, notwithstanding his assertion that he has neither seen nor heard his arresting officer since 1981. It makes sense in a way. Jim is tired of bailing out his brother, or Jim believes that David will be a weak link in the Munich Putsch he will put into effect soon. Walter takes care of David at Jim’s behest. Then, Walter keeps tabs on the PD investigation of the crime out there at the McNutt Apartments, just to see who is covering up for David Trent, and who is not. This accounts for that flashlight found at the abandoned railroad depot. This also accounts for Walter’s evasive behavior when Ringwood drives out to his place for the good neighbor chitchat.

         And yet, for all that, Walter also is connected to Billy Ray Blaise in some way. Ringwood remembers how Walter twitched when he denied ever knowing the deadbeat actor. Even a rookie cop could have read that lie in Walter’s eyes and body. But if Walter is behind David’s disappearance, either to get revenge, or in a plot masterminded by Jim, then how does Billy Ray fit into that picture?

         Then again, does it really matter how Billy Ray completes the puzzle? In the end, Billy Ray is the ideal suspect. He is on the edge of society already as it is. No one will cry foul if he is thrown into a cell and forgotten to the end of all days. On the other hand, arresting Walter Whipple no doubt will mean opening up a can of worms no one in this town wants to see opened. Ringwood is not all that sure how or why that is the case, but his clear instinct for political survival tells him that that is so. Better to throw the hippie thespian faggot into a filthy jail cell and to let the weirdo hobble about his grounds looking for black swans.

         Ringwood swivels away from the window blinds in time to view the Chief of Sergeants walking passed his office. He walks over to his door, opens it, and calls out for Sergeant Buckles. He manages yet again to put on his ‘game face.’

         Buckles, can I have a moment? Ringwood asks.

         The sergeant is happy to oblige. He is a good ol’ boy type with a bloated face that calls to mind the Pillsbury Doughboy on a beer binge. He is also a ‘get along to go along’ type who never asks questions and never sees what he is not supposed to see. Ringwood could not have found a better sergeant at this time.

         Can you put some more men on that Billy Ray Blaise APB? Ringwood asks.

         Got an old itch up your sorry ass? Buckles asks his buddy good-naturedly.

         You can say that, Ringwood says. I want to question that asshole about a slew of other crimes. He’s a goddamn freak, a real hippie, probably queer bait. Hell, I would not be at all surprised if he voted for that chimpanzee fag Obama.

         What’s the world coming to? Buckles grumbles.

         So can you put some more men on it? Ringwood asks. Ask the old sheriff to knock around the river country for a couple of days. Give his boys something to do beyond evicting little old ladies from their doublewides. What do you say?

         The sheriff owes me $200 from our last round of Texas Hold ‘Em, Buckles answers. I’ll forgive the debt. But are you sure this freak is worth the manhunt?

         Honestly, this is about the only thing I know for sure, Ringwood answers.

*   *   *

         Would you like breakfast this morning? Claire Bruner inquires with a grin.

         Billy Ray is sitting on the edge of his bed. He massages his neck with one hand, and stares at the pain medication in his other hand. He is not so sure this time he wants the pain medication. It does little for the pain, except make him drowsy and confused. On the other hand, he is afraid to imagine what it will be like if he does not take his daily dosage. 

         How much longer do you think? Billy Ray asks without looking up.

         Realistically, another month, Claire responds. You should thank the luck of the Irish that you are still not much older than a pink bunny. Bones simply do not mend so well after you’re over the hill and down the grassy knoll, I can say.

         I’m not Irish, Billy Ray mutters. 

         Well, someone out there is, Claire reasons. You can thank him someday…

         Billy Ray imagines walking up to any old Irishman, and thanking him for a spot of his luck. It is a ridiculous image, of course, but so is waiting in subdued silence for the old telephone on the living room floor to ring at 9 o’clock sharp.

         Billy Ray chews the pills. They taste as horrible as always. Some things in this world never get better no matter how many times repeated. 

         He drinks the water on his bed stand. The water does absolutely nothing to get rid of the nasty taste. If anything, then it makes him feel more nauseous than when he ate the pills alone. The water wants to gurgle back up his throat, and to carry up with it undigested portions of pills, as soon as it hits his bowels.

         The nausea dissipates. Billy Ray looks at his guardian angel, and he grins.

         I’ll have two eggs scrambled, bacon, and hash browns, Billy Ray remarks.

         Good, Claire says as she hands him her flask. The ‘blue plate special’ for my favorite customer. Just hope the eggs are not too runny.

         Billy Ray grabs the flask, and gulps down the hard whiskey. The bedroom spins a few times; but ironically he feels more in control of his faculties as soon as the room grinds to a stop, like a carousel at the end of its ride.

         The eggs are not runny, Billy Ray says with a smile that is much too wide to be all that sincere. Now, the bacon is not as crisp as I would like…

         Billy Ray drops his last sentence without finishing it. His stab at humor is not working. There is just too much tension under his skin, no matter that he is trying now to hide it. He stares ahead, like a dead man eyeing his own eternity.

         Without looking down, Billy Ray lifts the flask to his lips; but it is empty.

         This breaks the spell. Billy Ray eyes Claire again, and gives her the flask. 

         There is a nervous silence between them. Claire senses that something is wrong. Billy Ray had been careful to burn that postcard in a wastebasket, after hobbling back into the cabin yesterday. Billy Ray had tried to engage Claire in a round of pleasant chitchat, when she had returned finally from her half-day job at the public library. Nevertheless, in spite of his efforts, she had read the very real concern in his eyes. The pupils in particular are gateways to ones soul, and it is clear enough for Claire anyway that Billy Ray’s soul is in a truly dark place.

         Just remember to wait your time, Claire says in all seriousness. I believe you can beat him. No man is invincible, even if he spends a lifetime trying hard to cultivate that kind of reputation; but you’ll need to be further along in your recovery. Able to take the nastiest black diamonds, not only the bunny slopes… 

         I know; Billy Ray interrupts.

         Except that deep down Billy Ray does not think that Jim Trent, the man he presumes wrote the postcard and is going to call him later this morning, will give him a month to recover completely. Likely, he’ll give him a couple of days to go to this place at that time. Also, just like in the movies, he’ll order him to arrive without any backup. Oh, and he’ll need to keep his revolver at home. No one needs a firearm, after all, for this is a meeting of two civilized gentlemen; is it not? Before hanging up, Jim will tell him once more to wear ‘dance shoes,’ whatever the heck that means; thus giving Billy Ray a small detail about which he will need to worry before the actual visit. Yep, this is what will be spoken in the phone call later this morning, just like from a scene in a Dirty Harry movie.

         Claire eyes Billy Ray a long time in silence. She is not buying his implicit assent to her recommended course of action. Indeed, she has convinced herself it is only a matter of time before he sets out with his revolver in hand to finish off Jim Trent once and for all. Likely, he still will be hobbling on a cane, when that homicidal rage overtakes his self-restraint. All she can do really is to hope that the fates protect him when he confronts his demon at the end of the road.

         You’ll win the good fight, Claire remarks with a friendly smile, although deep down, and for the first time, she too questions her own optimistic refrain.

         Billy Ray cannot respond. He faces once more into his own eternity with a heaviness of heart that almost paralyzes him altogether. It turns out there is not much to see in his eternity, except a wall at which he has stared for a long time already. He thus decides that it will be a better use of his time to stare at his own lap. His crotch is not much to see either, but at least the shaft and the balls packed inside are his alone. He can lose his mind, but he is not very likely to lose his manhood before all of this ends. Now, that is a silver lining, is it not?

         Sure, it is a silver lining, Billy Ray thinks. It means that whatever they do to me, I am still a man, and Gary still has a father. The bastards can break me. Deep down, I really do not care if they do; but they cannot take away from my son the fact that, somewhere in this sick world, he has a father who loves him.

         Billy Ray is staring still at his own lap, when he hears the familiar sound of the Volkswagen spitting exhaust into the cool, morning air, and driving down the driveway towards Old Lumberjack Highway. He even hears the tires kick up leaves. The leaves tremble back to the ground from which they came, and in so doing they generate a sound that suggests pleated skirts rustling in a cold wind.

         Then, there is absolute silence, not even a bird chirping upon a wet leaf.

         Billy Ray is alone, so much so, in fact, that he is no longer accompanied even by his sorrow and his fear. Even his thoughts abandon him. The result is a kind of limbo that does not calm him; so much as it separates him from himself for minutes at a time. He is a disembodied loner observing the peculiar travails of a man much like himself. He watches as that man sits on the edge of his bed and buries his chin ever more so into his chest. He sees how blank is that man’s face, how devoid of hope, how consumed by moments of time that last only for a few seconds, but that feel like centuries. He sees how naked and vulnerable, how abandoned, is that man’s soul. His eyes witness everything. His eyes know.

         The phone rings. Billy Ray is startled out from his doldrums, and he very nearly slides down the side of the bed and onto the bedroom floor. 

         What the fuck? Billy Ray mumbles, while his discordant thoughts are still in the process of coming out of his mental fog and piecing themselves together.

         The phone rings. Billy Ray’s conscious mind snaps together at once.

         He hobbles out to the living room. He sees his cane within reach, but he decides not to go for it. There is no time to waste, since he does not know how many times that phone on the floor beside the couch is going to ring. Moreover, since he needs to get to the floor to answer it, he realizes in a split second that the cane actually will be a hindrance for him in doing what he needs to do. His knees no doubt will scream holy hell, when he lowers himself to the receiver in the nick of time; but so be it. He simply cannot permit himself to miss this call.

         The phone rings. Billy Ray trips over a VHS tape on the floor. He staggers forward and downward, and in so doing bumps his right knee into the hard edge of the coffee table. He screams out in pain. He vaguely senses that this scream is little more than an effeminate whisper, for he is too bottled up by his nerves now to express much of anything through the sock he imagines in his throat. His pain, nevertheless, is not a whisper. It is excruciating, and once more his slight grip on sanity is nearly lost altogether. Indeed, only the prospect of not getting to that phone in time keeps his mind focused and sane.

         The phone rings. Billy Ray falls to his knees, and crawls forward upon his elbows to the old fashioned, Mamie Eisenhower pink, rotary telephone kept on the floor next to the couch. He knocks over the radio, which is also kept on the floor, while he grabs frantically for that telephone receiver. He also must have knocked against the coffee table again, for he feels papers and pencils slide off of the surface and onto the back of his head. He winces, even though all those papers and pencils combined are no more than a few ounces of pressure to the back of his head. Apparently, because of how David Trent attacked him, he has now an ingrained fear response to anything at all that hits the back of his head.

         Billy Ray picks up the receiver just before the phone rings a fifth time. It takes every last bit of his will to hold the receiver up to his ear. He trembles as if a cornered rat about to be clawed. 

         He listens. There is no sound. He fears that the man hung up on him, but in the back of his mind he knows this cannot be the case. He would hear a loud dial tone, if he had missed the call. Nonetheless, his fear overpowers his reason just then, and he can feel the tears of his despair starting to fall down his face.

         Then, there is something, faint, indescribable; maybe nothing more than an audio glitch in the telephone wires. Billy Ray concentrates as best as he can on what that sound may be. He is like a psychic or an astronomer trying to hear the most distant of signals from out there. Probably, it is psychic or deep space noise; but in the off chance it is something intelligent that is intended for him…

         There is a loud, gravelly, breathing sound. It is an obscene phone call, to be sure, but from someone who suffers from asthma or sleep apnea. Imagine in your darkest mind a smoker or a fat man breathing hoarsely through a receiver, while he is rubbing sticky squirt out of his wiener. Prominently, there is a sickly heaving and gurgling, heaving and gurgling, heaving and gurgling; strained, but also rhythmic, breaths that seem more mechanical than human. It calls to mind a ventilator on its last legs that, somehow, obtains a conscious mind of its own, and sets out to place an obscene phone call. In the background, mostly unheard through the rhythmic breaths, but at times popping through like slime breaking the surface of a swamp, is the distinct sound of cock cum. It is the squirt of an old-fashioned turkey baster, except that there is so much gunk now clogging up the thin-lipped mouth of the turkey baster that a fart accompanies each squirt.

         Billy Ray is repulsed, and yet he simply cannot remove the receiver from his ear. His whole body trembles. It is as if he can feel that sticky cum bleeding through the tiny holes on his telephone receiver and dripping into his ear canal.

         Take off your clothes, bitch, the demented man on the other end says in a voice that barely rises about a hoarse whisper. Take them all off. I demand to see everything. Your skin, your flesh, your soul, everything savored by my eyes.

         Billy Ray wants to scream, but he cannot voice anything through the sock he imagines in his throat. He sits on his butt, and crouches into a ball, although always careful to keep that receiver glued to his ear. He wants to make himself as small as he can be; maybe, even, crawl back into a womb, if that is possible.

         His frightened, wet eyes dart every which way. They seek out the blank, soulless, Peeping Tom eyes that stare through the spaces in between dusty and warped window blinds. They seek the demon eyes that desire so much to smash through the window and to eat him whole. They seek the eyes of endless night.

         It is time to play in person, don’t you think? The man says with a strange chuckle that calls to mind gargled phlegm. No more of the silly ‘cat and mouse’ routine; no more hunting and hiding; no more of that old ‘catch me, if you can’ bullshit, um, I meant to say bull woopsie poopsie, um, well, anyway it is time…

         There is a long pause. Perhaps, the man on the other end is waiting for a response from Billy Ray Blaise. If so, then he will have to wait a very long time, for the trembling man cannot articulate much of anything. Yes, Billy Ray is able to moan, but the pitiful sound is much too feeble to be heard on the other end.

         Meet me at midnight, the man says. Go to the Trent Estate. Wait for me there in front of the Iron Gate. Do not tell the nosey bitch. I am a jealous man. I know that it takes two to tango, but three’s a bucking crowd. So for her sake, leave the nosey bitch home, and leave her uninformed. Do you follow, cowboy?

         Billy Ray is taken aback by the ‘cowboy’ reference; but, soon enough, he forgets it altogether. He is much too stressed to put any puzzle pieces together in his mind. He only can focus on holding up the receiver, until the horror ends.

         Again, the man seems to wait for a response; but Billy Ray cannot speak.

         Don’t be late, bitch, the man growls. And don’t forget your dance shoes.

         There is a click. For a moment, Billy Ray is not sure what has happened; but then he hears the loud and obnoxious dial tone. He hangs up the old phone.

         Billy Ray knows that he should crawl back to bed, but he is too tired now to do anything. He buries his face in his arms; and he sheds the tears of a little, beaten boy. He cries in this horrid way until sometime later he sinks into sleep.

*   *   *

         Walter Whipple sighs. He thinks a moment longer, and then slowly hangs the brass earpiece of his antique, American Electric candlestick telephone onto the switch hook. He continues to hold onto the telephone neck, like he is trying to throttle it. He looks down, sees how he is acting, and returns the candlestick telephone to the small table beside the coat hook in the foyer. He stares at the telephone a while, like it is the chief evidence found at a bloody murder scene.

         Walter is exhausted. He leans the left side of his body against the wall at the bottom of the staircase. He continues to stare at that telephone in front of him. He is so disgusted he feels as if enveloped by the clammy skins of corpses.

         I did what I had to do, Walter thinks. There is little time. Very soon, that old-timer detective will return. He’ll have more questions for me. Maybe, he’ll take me downtown, and force me to sit inside one of those interrogation rooms where they also question queers and niggers. No matter how much I insist I am not going to be given a segregated interrogation room. That bit of civility went out with knee high socks and cigarette cases. So I needed to lure him just a bit faster than first planned, to sweeten the bait, to give him a rise. Certainly, the Restless Wrangler of all actors should have been able to handle my sticky sweet humor. Heck, the kiddies nowadays are more obscene when they’re dressed up like Britney Spears or Hillary Rodham Clinton for Halloween. Anyway, that man, that little burlesque dancer in tight jeans, he made his own bed. He brought all of this upon himself by going AWOL on me. Inspired Lucius to come around for a spell. Infested my garden with those winged raccoons. So there’s no reason for me to suffer any guilt, none whatsoever. He did this! The dancing cowpoke, the wiggling wrangler, he started all this when he bucking defied me! The scales of justice will balance! If he won’t dance pretty for me, he’ll dance with the axe. 

         Walter steps away from the wall. He feels a little better now, or at least more self-righteous. He ties the cloth belt around the voluminous red robe that he wears most mornings. There is pre-cum dripping down the inside of his robe. He likes to think of this as ‘Monica Lewinsky’s Signature.’ They truly should put his robe in that Smithsonian alongside Miss Lewinsky’s infamously stained dress.

         Walter briefly chuckles with that thought in mind. Nevertheless, overall, he has yet to escape the dark self-hatred in the back of his mind. Besides what he is doing now to the Restless Wrangler, which he can rationalize as necessary to speed up the process, he cannot forget how he said ‘bullshit,’ when a proper gentleman from the start would have said ‘bull woopsie poopsie.’ He can try to pass it off as nerves, but that is not going to cut it in the end. Of all people, he should know better. His ancestors are heralded, after all; and Grandma Eunice, the wicked witch of the creaky walls, always has her wooden spoon in reach. So what came over him? How can he look at himself in the dresser mirror upstairs?

         Walter cannot answer those questions. Therefore, digging his hole just a little deeper, he asks himself if indeed it had been a good idea after all to lure that man to the Trent Estate. It seemed like poetic justice before the break of dawn when he had conjured up what he was going to say on the telephone call. Many ridiculous ideas appear a heck of a lot better before the first light of day.

         And yet had it been ridiculous? Walter ponders, while turning around and starting back up the staircase. After all, in a way, Jim Trent also had made this happen by poking into matters decades ago not intended for his eyes or ears. In those days, Jim had been a young cop on the make; and so he had pursued me, little, pudgy me, like a scorned lover in a Homosexual Harlequin Romance. So if the authorities later trace the Restless Wrangler to the Trent Estate, and force Jim to taste even a bit of his own medicine, then who am I to shed a tear? That is the crux, is it not? You can only kick civilization so long, before it kicks back.

         Walter reaches the top of the staircase. He is winded, but he feels much better, for the guilt that had weighed down his neck and shoulders earlier is all but gone. He is doing what he has to do; and he is doing it with the reserve and the decency of a gentleman, that is, except for when he had said a ‘bad word.’

         As for the ‘bad word,’ he has a solution in mind for that too. He waddles into his bedroom. Whiskers meows at him from the foot of the bed, but he pays no attention to his Dragon Li just then. Instead, he goes straight to a particular dresser drawer, removes a bar of soap, and clamps down hard on the soap with his teeth. Of course, he desires to vomit at once, which is the intended effect. If only he could vomit that word from his vocabulary, then he could be content.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray awakens from a restless sleep. His whole body screams in pain. He has a headache, too, no doubt brought on by the stress of listening to such a vile phone call. He would not mind at all, if he just died that very moment; but then something catches his attention. Is it a sound? Or is he still hearing part of a dream that has yet to release him back into the world? 

         Billy Ray slowly, painfully, stands up. His balance is way off, though, and so almost at once he stumbles forward. He has to lean on the front door, while his trembling knees decide for themselves what the heck they will do. Will they decide to firm up just enough, so that he can hobble back to his bed for several more hours of restless sleep? Or will they fail him, so that he slides slowly down the door and lies prostrate and beaten on the floor for God knows how long? He is not so sure which scenario is better. Either way, he is then beaten and alone.

         With his left ear pressed against the front door, Billy Ray hears an engine of some sort. This is not a figment of his imagination. There is a real car driving up to the cabin.

         The certainty of a car engine coming up the driveway knocks some sense into those knees. Perhaps, it is just a squirt of that old ‘fight of flight’ instinct; but Billy Ray also feels a certain mental clarity take over as well. He realizes of course that he is in no condition to fight, let alone to run, but he has the basic wherewithal to open the door and to try to figure out what is approaching him. This begs the question, though: What good is it for the defenseless rabbit to be able to ascertain ahead of time that it will be eaten by a tiger instead of a lion?

         Billy Ray pulls the front door open just enough to poke his face out. This is a risky move. If the driver happens to see the cabin at that moment, then he will see that it is occupied. 

         At first, Billy Ray does not see anything at all. He hears the car engine a lot more clearly, though. It is not the recognizable Volkswagen. Neither does it sound like the loud growl of a work truck. Beyond that, he does not have a clue really. He wishes for the first time in his life that he really could distinguish car engines by their unique sounds, like a dog can smell the calling card of a breed.

         He views leaves shooting into the air within a cloud of dust and exhaust. His eyes zero in on that part of the forest, but by the time they do so the car is long gone. The driveway winds so erratically an approaching automobile can be in this or that section of the forest at any given time. Tracing the approach is a bit like tracing the curves of a particular string of spaghetti within a large bowl of pasta. In a way, it would be far better if Billy Ray never received any visual clues at all, since each one simply sends his eyes on a wild goose chase through an expanse of trees and foliage. The illusion is that many cars are coming up to him simultaneously from all directions, and that he is powerless at ground zero.

         Did he just see a tactical light somewhere out there? It had been a spurt of rotating red, and after a blink or two it had been gone. Perhaps, it had been reflected sunlight, but red? And rotating? But is he certain it had been rotating?

         Billy Ray catches that light again. It is only a split second of observation, but it is enough for him to judge that it is a lot clearer and closer. Also, he has no doubt in his mind that it is a tactical light on a police patrol car. In another minute or so, he will see the black grille in front of the bumper. That grille will remind him of a cat’s teeth. The headlights on either side will be beady, blank, and vaguely sinister; the eyes of a beast without empathy, if indeed you are on the wrong side of the law, or driving while black, or living too far off the grid in the estimation of the ‘good people’ in this town. The windshield will be tinted, so that the driver remains a hulking, shadowy enigma, a figure from a dimly lit nightmare, rather than a man with a wife and a family of his own.

         Billy Ray closes the door, when he senses that the front grille is about to come into view from behind a cluster of tall trees. He probably poked his goofy face outside for too long. The officer probably knows that the cabin is occupied as a result. Maybe, if the officer had been an especially attentive eagle eye, he had managed also to identify the man in the doorway. That is far less likely, of course, but it is possible. Really, anything is possible, as the cat gets closer. Its extended claws can come out of anywhere at anytime to tear apart that mouse that, until recently, had imagined itself to be far enough removed from danger.

         In the end, it turns out that mouse never had been far enough removed…

         Billy Ray can hear the tires grinding through the dirt. The engine whines. The tires are gravelly. The combination suggests an irritable, hungry feline that is so close to its prey that it is salivating. Though the headlights make no sound Billy Ray senses that they are elongating, as if a cat alien in the grip of passion.

         Billy Ray tries to push that frightful image out of his mind. He cannot do so; for with every passing second the approaching sounds get that much louder, and that means that the cat alien image is that much more visceral. He hobbles in pain back to his bedroom. He wants to get away from the front door, surely; but even more so he senses that if he does not move forward he will fall to that floor beneath his feet like a wooden marionette whose strings have been cut all at once. He will be a heap of trembling limbs, when that cat catches up to him.

         Billy Ray grabs the .44 Magnum on the bed stand. A wave of fear literally rushes through him. He uses his free hand to wipe sweat off his forehead, but it is no use. The sweat drops like a torrential rainfall. With his other hand he tries to hold the .44 Magnum diagonally across his chest, like he has seen heroes and villains alike do in the movies when they are hiding behind a barrier. When the time is right, they will bolt out from behind that barrier, extend their revolver into a Weaver standing position, and go for the kill. The major problem is that this is real life, not a movie set; and he does not really know how to stand in a proper Weaver stance. Moreover, his hand is trembling so badly the muzzle hits his heart repeatedly. His index finger is not on the trigger, thank God; but what if he is shaking so much the weapon fires anyway? Is that even possible? All the soldiers from a buck private to a sharpshooter can answer that question, but he cannot, for he is just a second rate actor with a pretty large DVD collection. He has seen his share of commando movies (though he prefers the 1980s comedies) but realizes this very moment that that does not mean shit. Nothing in his prior life has prepared him to hide behind this bedroom door with this heavy firearm in his hand. Nothing has readied him to step out and to kill a man in cold blood.

         Yes, he killed David Trent. Does that not count as experience in the area of homicide? At the very least, does that not remind him that, indeed, it is very possible for him to get out of this predicament alive? Well, no, actually, for he had killed David Trent during an undisciplined fight to the death. To claim that he has experience is to claim that a street brawler with no learned technique is going to have a shot against the heavyweight champion of the world. Moreover, at that time he had been literally out of his mind. Right now, he is afflicted by the opposite. He is not out of his mind, so much as he is consumed by his mind; his internal dialogue, his self-doubt, his unanswerable questions screaming out from within every dark corner of his mind. Standing here, waiting in existential agony for something to happen, tapping the muzzle of his gun against his heart, he cannot escape his stream of consciousness long enough to come up with any clearheaded course of action. He senses vaguely that he may jump out with his gun screaming holy hell, like a pumped up cowboy in the final act of a western; but then again, he may do nothing at all, but to be arrested, or to end his short and defeated life. Each of these scenarios seems equally possible and desirable in what passes for conscious thought at the moment.

         The car engine stops in front of the cabin. If there is any doubt as to the kind of automobile, then that is dispelled for Billy Ray when he hears the driver side door opens. There is first the sound of a crackling radio. It is followed by a dispatch officer telling all units on or near the intersection of 18th and Burr of a domestic disturbance that may include the use of a firearm. All units must have backup before approaching the Happy Holiday apartment building at 1807 Burr.

         The dispatch officer is going to say something more when the driver side door closes. Billy Ray closes his eyes and imagines what the dispatch officer on the radio is saying right now. The suspect is a black man in his mid 30s beating up his baby mama. He accuses her of flirting with the nigger downstairs. If that baby mama wants something other than his cock in her pussy so bad, then he’ll oblige by sticking the muzzle of his revolver so far up her wet pussy that he can tickle her tonsils. How about that, you baby mama bitch? How about straddling my old Saturday Night Special? Come on, cunt! You think you can hide from me?

         Billy Ray ends his fantasy before the man with the Saturday Night Special catches up with his baby mama. It turns out that by thinking about someone or something other than himself, even only for a few seconds, he calms down way more than he had thought possible. His sweat still drips down his cheeks, but at least he is no longer tapping his chest repeatedly with his muzzle. Indeed, he is able to hold his firearm without imagining that it is about to explode in his face or to misfire a bullet into his heart. 

         Billy Ray peeks his head around the corner. He now is facing directly into the living room. He sees the radio and the phone on the floor, the work papers and pencils that had fallen onto his head, the stained couch cushions, the worn afghan folded over the back of the couch…

         And a chiseled, unsmiling, white face staring from the porch and through the window blinds directly above the couch. 

         The Peeping Tom is an officer of the law. His eyes are hidden behind the darkest and most menacing sunglasses Billy Ray ever has seen. His patrol cap of course covers completely his hair, but Billy Ray imagines a military style, blond crew cut. The officer of the law would have made a fine addition to the Waffen SS back in the day. Indeed, Billy Ray fantasizes that the heels of his boots click together every time he walks from one place to another. The image in his mind is cartoonish certainly; and yet Billy Ray clings to it, as if it is the Gospel Truth.

         Imagining this uninvited visitor is a Waffen SS cartoon character, instead of a real police officer with a family of his own, Billy Ray senses that he will be able to control his emotions enough now to fire a shot into the man’s forehead. 

         A slight, but murderous, grin forms on Billy Ray’s face. He is lucky not to have been seen, for the police officer is staring through the window toward the kitchenette. After a few seconds, the police officer will investigate this portion of the cabin; and when he does that, he will view Billy Ray looking back at him. So Billy Ray has a window of opportunity, but it will be shut on him soon. Now, right now, is the time to act. Just pull on the trigger, and all this will be done…

         Billy Ray places his index finger over the trigger for the first time. Sticky sweat in his eyes makes it difficult for him to see, but that is okay; for Billy Ray senses that successfully firing his firearm will have a lot more to do with ‘going on instinct’ than with whatever he observes. He grips the handle so hard he has a brief fantasy of breaking the firearm in two with his inhuman strength. This is a mental image worthy of a mad chuckle, and yet Billy Ray senses that he does not have the time to indulge. The seconds may tick away like minutes, when he is this close to committing cold blooded murder; and yet he is sane enough still to sense that outside of his cooked up imagination his window of opportunity to tilt the scales of justice in his favor is short. Now, right now, is the time to act. Just pull on the trigger, and all this will be done. Just pull on the damn trigger.

         Billy Ray snaps awake. He hears himself whisper: ‘Just pull on the damn trigger.’ He would have done so, too, except at the last second he sees that he is pointing the muzzle of his .44 Magnum at his own right temple. Moreover, he is no longer looking around the corner and into the living room. Instead, he had stepped back into the bedroom; and right now, with his eyes blinking nervously and his heavy heart echoing in his ears, he is leaning his head and his shoulders against the bedroom wall. He is looking up at the ceiling. He realizes that if he had pulled on that trigger, then the last thing he would have seen in this insane world is a crack in one of the ceiling tiles.

         He would not have seen Gary’s face. He would not have hugged him one last time. He would not have imparted unto him his final words. Instead of that cinematic ending, he would have seen an ugly crack in a tile square, heard one loud explosion by his right ear, and fallen over the edge and into the blackness.

         Billy Ray lowers the firearm to his side. He opens his fingers, slowly, one at a time, until the firearm falls to the floor. There is a loud clank sound, when the firearm strikes the floor beside his right foot. He does not care if the police officer outside hears that sound. He does not care for anything at all just then, except for his son; and even that abiding love that he has for his son feels then so out of place as to be vulgar. Love of any sort is unwelcomed so close to hell.

         Billy Ray wipes the sweat out of his eyes. He pokes his face again around the corner. The cop is no longer looking through the old window blinds. Indeed. Billy Ray senses that the cop has left, assuming of course he had been out there in the first place. Perhaps, Billy Ray had imagined the entire episode. Being so exhausted and disoriented, especially after that obscene phone call, he cannot deny that this is a distinct possibility. He really may have slipped into madness.

         Billy Ray should hobble outside on his cane to see if there are any police car tracks. But what if there are no tracks? He decides that he would rather not know for sure that he had been mad, than discover definitively that he belongs in an asylum. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it can help a man get his required eight hours of sleep. That is a small thing, to be sure; but so close to hell even the smallest comfort matters.

         Billy Ray picks up the firearm. He places it on the bed stand, so that his guardian angel does not stumble upon it when she checks in on him later today.

         He hits the sack and is dead asleep within seconds. He dreams that there are eyes everywhere. They are watching him from all angles. The eyes tell him to take off his clothes, to take them all off, to render his soul naked before the critic. Yes, that is right. He is the actor, and the man watching him from every direction at once is the critic. He is also the mouse, and the man watching him from every direction at once is the cat. That is the way of the world, no matter if we are on the grid or not. There is one escape, one only; the blast of the .44 Magnum an inch above the right ear, and the darkness that falls upon the deep.

*   *   *

         And from out of the darkness emerges a single pair of eyes. They are the eyes of an unthinking beast, a man without empathy, a creature looking only to devour the naked flesh that he now savors in his sick imagination. The eyes are staring blankly through the space in between two parallel window blinds. There is no window on the other side of the blinds; and so the creepy man standing in the dark, the man whose eyes only have emerged out from the shadows, is able to reach out with his left index finger and to push the lower window blind down a bit more. Therefore, his eyes are not obstructed. His eyes can see everythingreal, everything imagined, all the hopes and the fears of a small man observed as if the small man’s nude flesh. His eyes know that there is no final refuge for that small man, no place for him to hide; and so his eyes laugh. Yes, they laugh as the devil laughs; a hearty, mercurial, sick chuckle of triumph over the weak and the stupid. In the end, there is nothing else, but those eyes and that laugh.

         But, then, after an indeterminate time, there is something else. It is just a sound, but it is something.It is the pitter-patter of pebbles striking the outer side of a window. Those pebbles are so hard and loud when heard in contrast to the silent, bellicose laughter that, at first, the small man imagines the pebbles to be hail. He has a vague memory of looking up at the overcast sky. He is four or five, holding the hand of an adult, and wondering how high the heavens are. A small piece of ice, no larger than his pinky toenail, smashes onto his skin just beneath his right eye. He screams more from surprise than pain. Within several seconds, a thin trail of blood squirts out from under his eye. It slithers down his right cheek. It drops off his chin. It makes a small, red dot in the fresh snow. If that had been all, then he might have put that experience out of his mind; but, within several seconds, there is a second red dot, then a third, then a fourth. It does not take long before the snow is covered in blood, and the blood congeals into a ghoul face that looks up at him, grins, and laughs.

         The little boy is too paralyzed in fear to run away. It is like his little boy shoes are glued to the snow. He manages finally to dart his precocious eyes in a different direction. It is not much, but it is enough for him just then to see that in fact he is a grown adult lying in someone else’s bedroom. He sees those eyes staring through the window blinds, but they are hardly eyes anymore. They are instead globs of rainwater sliding down a window that had not been behind the window blinds only seconds earlier. The rainwater is blood red, and with every passing second it looks more and more like the face of that crazed ghoul in the snow. No matter where he turns, the ghoulish face of death faces him head on. It laughs at him. It speaks to him: Go this way or that. It does not matter. I am going to be watching you from the shadow, tearing off your clothes with my old and timeless eyes, and heaving your innocence to the side, dead and forgotten.

         And so the rain falls, but it is blood red, and it chews away at your soul…

         Billy Ray opens his eyes. The dream falls away, like water gurgling down a drain. In its place, he sees real life rain striking the bedroom window. It does slide down the glass in haphazard streaks, but there is no ghoul looking back at him with mercurial blood eyes. So far as he can tell, there is nothing out there, but rain smashing into the earth under the cover of nightfall. Nothing but rain…

         I wish that were the case, Billy Ray thinks. Of course, it is not. There is a lot out there, it turns out. A son who forgets my face just a bit more with each passing day; an ex-wife who wishes she could forget; a Jesuit fondling the cross that hangs around his neck; a bodyguard with a nasty shiner in place of an eye; a ‘Captain Ahab’ homicide detective who wants me in the electric chair; a love asleep in a coma in an intensive care room never visited by family or friends; a boss who wants to toss my AWOL ass into the Manchester; two dead men crying out for vengeance from inside their grave; oh, and before I forget, the strange, corrupt, older brother of one of the two men in the grave, a demon in the guise of a man, a twisted fuck manipulating me even now into his spider web. Squint into the nightfall, look beyond the rainfall, and there is a world of fear ready in one way or another to beat me down. I should stay here, hide under my sheets, and let my guardian angel take care of me. There are a lot of things I should do now, like get a driver’s license, and open a bank account. Let the world know I fear it, but it has no reason to fear me. But, of course, I shall not do any one of those things. Maybe, I am principled. Maybe, I am an obstinate asshole. Maybe, there is no real difference between the two. Regardless, I am who I am. Sounds like Popeye. Sounds like God. Sounds like a man whose going out tonight to get himself stuck in a spider web. Sounds like a man whose just a goddamned fool…

         You are not a fool, Claire interrupts.

         Billy Ray is startled. He had no idea he was whispering aloud some of his internal dialogue. How long has she been standing there beside the old dresser? How much did she hear? Did she also tear into my naked soul with those big owl eyes of hers? Must I be an open book to friend and foe alike? Is that the price of love in this cruel night world? These questions flow fast and furious through his mind, as he sits up in his bed, and tries unsuccessfully to smile at his old angel.

         Just a line in a dream, Billy Ray mutters, as he looks away embarrassed. 

         So you are not going out tonight? Claire asks skeptically.

         Billy Ray does not respond. He wipes a lonely tear off of his weary face.

         Claire walks over to the side of the bed. She glows from that sad flicker of candlelight that is on the dresser behind her. She is more like the ghost of a white angel; her aura spent, the light in her eyes diminished; the hope dying on account of the brutal reality now facing her. She can no longer keep her charge safe and sound in her bosom; for the devil claims him as much as she does; and on this night, her charge must go on out there to live or to die by his own hand.

         What time? Claire asks, while taking his left hand into hers.

         Midnight, Billy Ray states, while still looking away from her. 

         Where? Claire asks.

         In front of Jim Trent’s Iron Gate, Billy Ray states.

         You know it’s a trap, Claire remarks, as she squeezes his hand.

         I know, Billy Ray whispers. But I have no choice…

         There is a choice, Claire whispers through her tears.

         Billy Ray turns his face, so that he is looking at her head on. Though still wet from tears of his own, his eyes now seem to glow with a ferocious intensity that frightens Claire. She tries not to look afraid, but he reads her fear anyway.

         Until today, I thought I had to do this for someone else, Billy Ray states. I had to avenge my friend, and I had to save my son. I still think the scales need to be balanced for the two of them; but today, this morning, I realized that my own soul is at stake here. I can’t explain it. Maybe, probably, it was a dream in my fucked up head; but I discovered today that I had it in me to kill. I could’ve pointed that damned firearm over there at his forehead, and pulled the trigger without even knowing his name. And I would’ve liked it. I would’ve smiled until I had to figure out what to do with the corpse. Miss Bruner, this madness, all of this, everything has got to stop. I cannot live with myself anymore. I cannot do it, not one more night, unless I know that I’ve ended this once and for all time.

         Claire wipes away her tears with her free hand. 

         I’ll drive you out there, Claire says after a while.

         No, Billy Ray insists. You’ll get the axe for sure.

         Get the axe, Claire whispers, while she tries and then fails to remember something or other from her distant past. 

         There is an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. Both of them seem to look through the other person and instead at their own fears. Except for how Claire holds Billy Ray’s left hand each of them would be totally alone just then.

         I’ll call a cab when it’s time, Claire says. 

         Claire wipes away more tears. She turns to leave the bedroom.

         Thank you, Billy Ray calls out to her. For everything you have done…

         Don’t thank me, Claire says, while she stops briefly in the doorway. Just come back alive, okay? And call me if you’re in over your head. Don’t be proud. 

         I don’t know your number, Billy Ray says.

         I don’t give it out to every cowboy who saddles up to the bar, Claire says in an attempt at humor. For you, I’ll make an exception.

         Billy Ray cannot think of a response. He manages a smile, though, which lightens both of their hearts for a moment. He then sinks back into his pillow to relax his aching head, and before long he falls asleep to the sound of raindrops.

*   *   *

         Walter Whipple sits behind the wheel of his 1931 Marmon Model 16. Like always, it is a tight fit. He cannot take in any deep breaths without his fat belly ‘becoming one’ with the steering wheel; and so he must content himself with a number of short and shallow breaths that suggest a man about to flat line on an old ventilator. He should be excited just now. He is about to grab his prey. Like the man on that old ventilator, though, he is instead exhausted and depressed; way passed the time he should have clocked out and wondering why everything feels anticlimactic, if there has been no climax. Must everything be a let down?

         To make matters worse he never could get the Super 8 cassette player in his vintage automobile to work tonight. It has never let him down since he first installed it in the winter of 1975. Bell-bottoms and shag carpets were cancelled about the same time as The Brady Bunch; but like everything that Walter holds dear, the good old Super 8 had managed to withstand the march of time. Every time he had heard the poor quality sound, he had been transported in his mind to the time before Alice Werner, Jim Trent, the ape cop down the highway, the faggot maître d who kicked him out of Belvedere’s, all those underhanded kicks and punches against civilization. Tonight, he had no such opportunity to escape the times. He could not do anything to tune out that insane chatter in his mind.

         Walter taps his fingers on the rim of the wheel. He is attempting in vain to capture the melody of one of Beethoven’s symphonies. Anyone will do, even though he does not love all of the symphonies equally. The moment just before the assault, nevertheless, deserves its own underscore; and so if he cannot get that damned Super 8 to work, then he will have to do the honors by memory. It should not be difficult. After all, he has listened to these symphonies for years; and yet, as the old watch in his breast pocket ticks down to midnight, he is not able to tap any one of the melodies properly. 

         What a bucking crock, Walter thinks, when he finally give up on tapping the rim of his steering wheel. 

         He stares straight ahead through his windshield. There is nothing to see. It is dark outside, and the rain is coming down harder than ever. He knows that the Restless Wrangler is across the street, standing in front of Jim Trent’s Iron-Gate with his hands in his deep overcoat pockets, and staring through two posts at the strange mansion with many gables on top of the hill. Surely, the Restless Wrangler will be looking for a light to turn on up there, or perhaps the sound of a car engine coming down the driveway; something that indicates this midnight meeting is about to happen. He will not expect anyone to come up from behind him, notwithstanding how the deadliest ghouls lurk everywhere in night storms.

         Walter has not been able to view the Restless Wrangler’s backside, since the yellow cab left him there staring at the many gabled mansion. Nonetheless, he senses how the Restless Wrangler is consumed by the same exhausted fright that chills his spine now and then. He may be the cat in this scenario, but he is feeling a lot more like a mouse as the time approaches. Maybe, when the hunt gives way to the kill, both predator and prey are the same: tired, frightened, a vicious struggle unto the end that reduces everything in their lives to the total, incomprehensible darkness of death. One will remain dead; the other will move on in this lifetime; and yet the sting of death will have marked both their souls.

         Walter turns his head toward that hulking, dark figure sitting beside him.

         Are you sure your mother thinks you’re doing a ‘sleep over’ at the house of your little barrio buddy? Walter asks. 

         Yeah, sure, hombre, Marcos responds in such a snide manner that Walter wants to slap him in his face. 

         I do not want to return to my home and discover that the cops are there to question me about your whereabouts, Walter insists. 

         Mom doesn’t know I hang out with you, Marcos says with a strange laugh.

         Don’t be a fool, Walter snaps. Your women may start out in this world as mamasitas, but give them a dozen babies and a welfare check each month, and they’ll turn into brujas. Believe me, your mother knows more than she lets on…

         Enough with my mother, Marcos interrupts him. 

         You wish, Walter chuckles, while looking away. You’ll find out over time that boys never get enough of their mothers. Or grandmothers for that matter…

         Walter feels the watch vibrating in his breast pocket. 

         It’s time, Beaner Buddy, Walter says. Remember what I told you earlier. Do not make a sound, until you are practically on top of him.

         Like that idiot gringo can hear anything in this rainstorm, Marcos sneers.

         Without hesitation, Walter reaches out with his right hand, grabs a hold of Marcos’ crotch, and squeezes. Marcos shoots up the back of his leather seat, and squeals like a pig caught in a fence. The pain is unbearable, of course; but even more so is the sudden and unexpected change in power from the teenager to the old man. Marcos is humiliated; and, naturally enough, after the shock of what is happening, his first coherent thought is to kill the son of a bitch, who is squeezing his manhood. Nevertheless, instead of reaching out with his stronger, bigger hands, and choking that fat fuck into a super wide grave, Marcos lets out first a squeal, and then a pathetic cry for mercy. He feels all of three years old at that moment, but at least the fat fuck loosens his grip on his ‘Marky Marcos.’

         I want you to sneak up from behind that ‘idiot gringo’ like he is a border patrol agent, and you have got to pass him to get in line at the federal welfare office, Walter whispers slowly and viciously. Pretend the ‘welfare pushers’ just now are handing out ‘Obama Phones,’ so that’s another reason you don’t want that border patrol agent to hear the pitter-patter of your little, Mexican feet. I hope you understand me, because if not you’re not likely to father any children by the time I’m done with you. So what’s it going to be? Yes, I understand what you’re saying, even though English is my second language. Or no, squeeze, until I pretty much qualify for a boys’ choir. 

         Le entiendo, Marcos just manages to whisper. Por favor…

         Walter releases his grip. He stares out the windshield. He still cannot see anything through the intense darkness and the rain; but he senses that, indeed, the Restless Wrangler is staring through the iron posts at the mansion, while he is beginning to fidget on his wet loafers. If something does not happen within a few minutes, then the Restless Wrangler will shuffle back home. Walter doubts he can coax him back out here. An obscene phone call will not be as shocking a second time, no matter how much Walter puts into his performance. Moreover, as the shock subsides, the Restless Wrangler will rely more on reason than fear in determining his next move. Give a mouse too much intelligence, and he will forsake the bait before him every time, even if he is hungry for a bit of cheese.

         Go, now, Walter urges. There is no time to waste.

         Marcos opens the passenger side door. He steps into the rainfall without so much as a word. Still, for all of his adolescent petulance, he is careful not to slam the door shut. He grabs the wool mask out from his back pocket, drops his chin down to keep the rain out of his eyes, and strolls nimbly into the night. He is no longer visible to anyone at all after he passes the front of the automobile.

         Walter taps nervously on the rim of the steering wheel. He fidgets with the corners of his Mulberry plaid bowtie. He pulls his collar away from his neck.

         This is taking too long, Walter thinks. Marcos only had to come out from behind a bush, to cross a two-lane highway, to pull the mask over the Restless Wrangler’s head, and, if necessary, to immobilize him. That should take what? Twenty or thirty seconds max? But I’m pretty sure I’ve counted a whole minute of time, maybe more; way too much time for everything to have happened just as planned. Maybe, the Restless Wrangler had exited stage left already. Maybe, Marcos bucked up. The second option is more probable. Leave it to a Mexican…

         Walter cannot take the tension anymore. He grabs the large umbrella by his side, opens his driver side door, and switches on his headlights. It takes him a while to slide his fat belly passed the steering wheel and out the car; and, as soon as he stands up outside, his heels slip backward on mud. He almost hits his head on his car roof. Instead, he manages to grab his open door and to hoist his enormous bulk into a standing position. He drops his umbrella in the meantime, and so he is forced to catch his breath while raindrops keep falling on his head.

         Bucking song, Walter mutters, as inside his flustered head he hears that B.J. Thomas song, ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.’ What a crock of putty!

         Walter finally manages to shield his eyes with his right hand and to push himself forward. He slips and slides on the mud, and he rips his checkered golf pants somewhere along the way. Nevertheless, by sheer will, he waddles across the two-lane highway and up the short muddy slope that leads to the Iron Gate.

         With his headlights shining on the scene, he sees that the two men are in an altercation. Marcos managed to pull the wool mask over the big head of the Restless Wrangler, but he did not manage to immobilize him at once. Thus, the two men grapple for what looks like a gun poking out of the Restless Wrangler’s overcoat pocket. Marcos grabs for the gun from behind him; while that Restless Wrangler, fighting with what little endurance he has left, repeatedly throws his elbows back in an attempt to knock the younger and bigger man off of his back.

         Marcos manages to grab a hold of the gun with one hand and to push the Restless Wrangler forward with his other. The Restless Wrangler slips, reaches out in vain to try to grab something, and then falls face down into the mud. He tries even then to push himself back up; but Marcos steps forward, and presses his left boot heel into the defeated man’s butt. The Restless Wrangler writhes, like a fish out of water, but there is no way that he is going to push himself up now that Marcos is able instead to push all of his considerable weight onto him.

         Marcos reaches forward with his gun in hand. He is going to shoot him in the back of his head. The insane grin on his face says that he will love doing so.

         No, you beast, Walter orders. I want him to dance for me, and dead men don’t dance. Knock him out with the butt of the gun; but don’t shoot him, fool!

         Marcos glares at Walter for the longest time, while still pointing the gun at the back of the Restless Wrangler’s head. He finally smiles, and does as told.       

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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