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A dying mob boss receives a visit from a man with a mysterious technology capable of healing him; by Saket Badola.
It was three in the afternoon when Olan arrived at the village. He gazed out the train window. He could see that the heat was dry, the sun was bright, the people were sparse, and the sleepy village was even sleepier at this time of day. Olan brought the tech with him. He'd taken the tech around the world many times over: from large cities like London and Hong Kong, to boroughs and suburbs, to so many nameless, faceless small towns. He liked the small towns. To them he was a stranger - a foreigner with no name.
Olan exited the train. He rubbed his face, dusted his long coat, kicked his shoes against the bench to shake the dirt off, and picked up his bag.
The platform of the train station was covered with bright red tiles. To his right was the train station's only building; it was small and bright yellow with large wooden doors. To his left, across the train tracks, Olan saw lush, green, purple, and red tomato fields. He walked out to the parking lot to find two men waiting for him in front of a Fiat.
The tall one was well built and bearded, wearing dark dull-black shoes with heavy soles, well-worn brown trousers and a denim jacket.
The other one was shorter, maybe five feet, five inches tall. He had intense eyes that immediately tried to size up Olan. He had a pencil mustache, hard eyebrows, and a slick, well-combed head of hair so thick that not a stray strand moved. He wore crisp khaki trousers and what looked like an English cricket vest and a light orange scarf.
Wow, Olan thought. Even the muscle in Italy is well dressed.
"Hello, I'm Olan."
The shorter man took the lead and shook Olan's hand with a firm grip. "Yes, Mr. Olan, we come for you. I'm Domenico. Yes, you come to meet signore Moretti."
The tall one stood motionless and stared at Olan with blank eyes.
Domenico pointed at the bag and said, "Tommaso."
In one lumbering motion, the tall one picked up Olan's bag and put it in the trunk of the Fiat. He then opened the rear door. Domenico climbed in first, followed by Olan. Tommaso started the car and drove down the main street. It was a cobbled street made of old stone that had been laid a hundred years ago. The sun shone brightly off the blue and white buildings on either side of the street. Tommaso drove slowly as Domenico spoke rapid-fire short sentences of accented, broken English.
"Mr. Olan, you come from America, yes. You... help signore Moretti, yes."
"You help with his medicine, yes."
Olan nodded tentatively, not wanting to give too much information.
"Do you think he'll be well?"
"Maybe, I'll have to see his condition first, then I can answer."
"So, you... doctor? Like surgeon?"
"No, I'm a scientist."
Olan saw Domenico hesitate. Maybe Domenico didn't understand English well. Or he was unsure how a scientist was here to help signore Moretti.
Domenico continued, "Mr. Olan, you help Mr. Moretti, how?"
"I specialize in medical technology. When we get to the house, you'll see."
Domenico nodded and looked out the window.
Tommaso looked at Olan in the rear-view mirror. Unlike Domenico, he wasn't studying Olan. He was staring at the tech.
They drove to the outskirts of the village and entered the flatlands. They were surrounded by green fields dotted by little huts and small European vans and trucks. After a while they passed the green flatland and entered desert country - no vegetation, no inhabitants, just arid land with mountains. They finally arrived at a lonely large estate, surround by high, coarse, dark-grey stone walls built with jagged rocks. The car slowed as they approached two large wooden gates covered in peeling, lifeless red paint.
Domenico rolled down the window and barked something in Italian at the guard. The guard quickly opened the gates, and Tommaso drove down the long driveway made of faded sun-yellow brick stone. The driveway cut through a bleak green lawn, with large patches of yellow dry grass. It took a few minutes to drive the bumpy half kilometer of road to the house.
Tommaso stopped the car in a large veranda outside a spacious Italian villa. It was covered with aged white plaster and had a brown terracotta roof. Its broad, square windows covered most of the front wall, and unkempt pale-green hedges covered the bottom.
The three men walked across the veranda, climbed the steps, and reached the front door. The upper half of the dark-oak door was mounted with unwashed glass panels. Tommaso opened the door, and they entered. The floor was laid with ancient Jerusalem stone. The sparse room boasted drab, plastered walls, and the air was dingy; it was as though no one was lived here.
They walked up the large, winding marble staircase to the back of the house, where they arrived in the master bedroom. It had a clinical smell, and the room was sickness cold. There were large glass windows on the right wall to let in the Italian sunlight, but they were covered with thick black curtains. In front of the curtains, there sat a grey hardtop sofa resting on black hardwood floors. The cabinetry was dark oak, and against the back wall was a large king-sized bed. Lying in it, on black sheets, was a small, shriveled man; he was little more than skin and bones. Tubes came out of his nose, chest, stomach, and arms, and they were connected to machines resting on the end tables on either side. There was a respirator that rhythmically breathed for him. There was a kidney dilation machine, a heart monitor, and an assortment of other machines beeping monotonously. Here was a man living purely on technology and willpower.
The man slowly raised his hand, and with his bony fingers, he motioned for Olan to come to him. Olan walked to the bed and sat down.
The man said something in Italian to Domenico and Tommaso, and they left the room. Though his body was frail, his eyes were alert, and his words shot forth crisply with command.
In polished English, he said, "Forgive the darkness. I've a skin condition, and I'm sensitive to light."
He peered at Olan, studying him, and said, "So, you're the one who can work the tech?"
"Well, we'll see. I've known many people over the years who say that they can. Some of them even made it as far as you have, to my house and in my bedroom. But all of them have failed me. We'll see if you're worth anything."
Olan said nothing.
"Do you know where the tech comes from?"
Olan said, "Where it comes from or where you found it? They're two different questions."
Moretti nodded approvingly, "Fine. Let's start with where I found it?"
Moretti gave a squeal of approval, "Very good. You've passed the first test."
Tommaso brought them drinks.
"Ok, here is another question for you. To whom did the tech originally belong?"
"The man from the mountains."
"Ok, you've passed the second test. I can see I'm dealing with a contender," Moretti said enthusiastically.
"And going back to my original and final question. Do you know where the tech comes from?" Moretti continued.
"From beyond the mountains," Olan said.
"Yes, yes, you're the one," Moretti said with a loud cough and a wolfish smile.
Once the coughing spell passed, Moretti continued, "Ok, so you know the story. Only a handful of people on the planet do, and you're in our little club. Today, we'll see if you can do something with the tech. Can you?"
"You understand how it works? You've used it before?"
"Do you know how my illness started? Do you know who I am?"
"Only what I read in the papers," Olan said.
"The papers, dear Lord!" Moretti rolled his eyes. "They're filled with lies. I know because I owned several. Ok, since you're in our little club, I'll tell you my story. I'll start from the beginning so that you can understand why you're here."
Moretti took a slow sip of his drink and then started his history. "I was born in 1938 in Creatable, an Italian village. I worked on the farm with my father, but it wasn't for me. My father was a silent, strong type. He came from a long line of silent, strong Italian farmers, and then came me: the black sheep. I was very loud and O! so proud. My family for several generations tilled the land in the same village. But I'd big dreams, of running away, of becoming an actor in the movies. I was ready to leave at thirteen, but my father wouldn't have it. He wanted me to take care of the farm and he didn't want a young boy galivanting around the big city.
"I tried to obey my father, and I even made it as far as my sixteenth birthday, but I had to flee the village. When I was fifteen, I formed a gang with some of the local boys. We started small. We'd steal some fruits from farms and sell them. It was all very innocent. One day, we were stealing fruits from a farmer and noticed that no one was home. We entered his house and found a watch, some money under the bed, and then we found the farmer's wife's jewelry. We went to Merchant Street and sold the jewelry to a pawnbroker for sixty thousand lire, which is around a hundred American dollars, and back then that was a lot of money. We spent the money in Rome: on wine, women, and gambling at the casino. I was hooked. I couldn't leave the village and dishonor my father, but this was the life I would pursue all of my days.
"No longer satisfied with stealing a few lire from farmers, we started hijacking cars on the long road to town. Back then, it was common for rich people to carry large sums of money when they were traveling to Rome. So, I got rich quick, and as the leader of the gang, I kept the lion's share. I made more money in a week than my father made in a year.
"There were rumors about me in the village, and the police came to our house and asked my father questions. 'We hear your son is involved in the highway robberies,' they'd say. My father was concerned, but the police had no proof. So, when I was questioned by my father, I denied everything. For a while, the questions and insinuations from the police tried my father's patience, but I lied each time and quieted my father's concerns. The straw that broke the camel's back was when I decided to rob an entire train. My gang was against it; they said it was too risky, but I was adamant, and they yielded.
"We boarded the 9:00am train going to Monterotondo. We carried guns, we tied handkerchiefs around our faces, and we robbed the passengers. Most people were meek and mild, but some were defiant. I beat them with the butt of my gun 'til they were unconscious. We finished our great train robbery, and we then jumped from the rear of the moving train and disappeared into the countryside.
"We left that day with a fortune. I'd enough money to live at the casino for a year. But the robbery was reported in the national papers, so dozens of policemen were dispatched to all the surrounding towns and villages. In our town, a lot of rude questions were asked by gruff, beefy policeman. 'Who are the bad boys? Who are the criminals?' Of course, our names were mentioned, and the police interrogated members of my gang, and some of them relented under the beatings. They gave my name to the police, and one evening I returned home to find several police cars in front of my house. I climbed into the back window of the house, snuck into the living room closet, and hid behind the clothes. I could hear the police in the kitchen with my father and mother. They wanted to know my whereabouts. They had signed confessions from members of my gang, naming me as the leader. The police said that I would go to prison for a decade. They were loud, and my father was quiet. I left that night, never to see my family again.
"I took the money I had and went to Rome. I tried my hand at the movie business but had little success. I was handsome, but there were dozens of handsome boys, and finding a role, even a small part, was difficult. Soon, I ran out of money. I took a job as an errand boy on a movie set, but found it boring. Restless, I started a card game on the street, amongst the merchants in the red-light district. It started off small. I made a few lire here and a few lire there, but as you Americans say, it wasn't enough to pay the bills. You can only make so much money on the street amongst the poor. However, I had an idea. Back then it was customary for men to deal the cards, but I hired some of the prostitutes to deal the cards. My little street game became an overnight success. I made enough money to slick my hair, buy a gold watch and some flashy clothes, and I had a few lire left over. But it wasn't enough for the life I wanted.
"I moved the card game into the suite of a local hotel. It was respectable enough to attract the right crowd. I hired a bartender from a local fine-dining restaurant, the daughter of a respectable socialite as the hostess, and fashion models as card dealers, and I managed the clientele. I invited all of my friends from the movie industry, and soon we became a hot spot for low-level producers, directors, and up-and-coming actors. The money was good; it was certainly better than what I was making on the streets. I bought a brand-new sports car and two dozen expensive suits, and I rented a flat in the nice part of town. Things were going well, but I was still dissatisfied.
"One day, I was on a movie set. I knew the producer because he frequented my casino, and he owed me some money. In exchange, he gave me a bit part as a waiter in his movie. I'd a few lines, and it was a pleasant experience. It was a small-budget movie, but the producer called in a few favors, and he managed to get Giovanni Rosso to do a guest role in the movie. Giovanni Rosso was, at that time, the most famous actor in Italy. I arrived at the set and saw Mr. Rosso sitting by himself. No one would approach him since he was such a big movie star. I walked up to him and introduced myself. I chatted with him for a while, and soon we were fast friends. I invited him to my casino, and he said yes. Word got around the set that Giovanni Rosso was coming to my casino.
"That evening, all the tables in my casino were occupied by the top producers and directors of Rome. I had to bring in some chairs and tables to accommodate the famous actresses that were part of Giovanni's entourage. Needless to say, it was a great evening. I'd hired twelve card dealers, and their tables were full throughout the night. The socialite I'd hired did a great job of hosting the party. She was charming, and she kept the patrons' spirits high. The bartender had just returned from Hong Kong, where he'd been working at one of the top hotels, and he served all these exotic cocktails. Even the movie stars were impressed with the drinks and hors d'oeuvres.
"Giovanni gambled like a mad man but had little talent for the game. By the time the evening was done, Giovanni had lost a small fortune. But being the gracious host, I insisted on covering his losses, and I wouldn't take a single lira. I told him, 'What's money amongst friends?' He promised me he'd let all his friends know about the best party in town, and they'd surely come next week. Whatever I lost to Giovanni I obtained from the producers. Like Giovanni, they gambled heavily and had little talent for the game. That night after all expenses were covered, I walked away with six million lire, which is around ten thousand of your American dollars, and in Italy back then, it was a fortune. I'd never seen so much money in my life.
"The next night, I heard loud knocking at the door of my flat. I opened the door, and three large men in suits, with thick necks and stubbed noses, forced their way in. They told me that they were from the Lazio mafia, that they oversaw all the gambling in Rome, and I wasn't allowed to run a casino without their permission. I told them that it was just a little game that I ran for the people in the B movie industry, but that didn't satisfy them. They knew Giovanni Rosso attended my casino, so it wasn't some little card game. They told me that I owed them all the money I made the night Rosso was my guest, and they'd be taking over my casino.
"I gave them what little money I had in the house. One of them grabbed the money and punched me in the gut. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach, and I fell on the floor. While I lay there, they kicked me repeatedly, cracking a few ribs. They told me they'd be at the casino next Saturday. I was to be there, and I had to give them twelve million lire. That's six million that I'd made that night and another six million as punishment for running a casino without their permission. They'd then take over the casino, and I would have to leave Rome forever.
"After they left, I checked myself into the hospital, which is where I stayed for the next three days. While at the hospital, I sent a telegram to my old gang from the village and asked them to come to Rome. They arrived the next Friday, and I bought them a few guns and gave them all waiter uniforms from the casino so that they would blend in with the crowd.
"Saturday night, the three Mafiosi came to the casino and gambled with the patrons. At three in the morning, the casino closed, and all the guests left, except for the three gangsters. They went with me to the back room, and while I was getting the money for them, my gang stormed the back room with their guns drawn. I made the Mafiosi raise their hands as I took their guns. They were indignant and agitated. Something like this had never happened to them before. They told me I was dead. The mob would rain fire down on me, my crew, my family, my dog, and they'd kill us all.
"I asked them who their boss was, and they wouldn't answer, so I shot and killed the first one. These were stoic men, and the remaining two still wouldn't budge. I shot another one, and the third one gave me the name of Rene Falco, who was a mob boss and owner of the finest casino in Rome. I asked him where I could find Falco, and he told me he would be at his casino. I killed the third mobster, and we dumped their bodies in a river on the outskirts of town.
"Me and my men went to Falco's casino that night. It had closed for business. We went in the back room to find Falco with his men. They were six of them, and they were sitting around a poker table, passing around bottles of bourbon. They were quite drunk, and we had the element of surprise. We killed all of them in a shootout. That night, we let the Lazio mafia know that we weren't to be trifled with. If they wanted to come after us, they'd pay a price.
"After hearing what I'd done, a rival mafia called Banda della Magliana approached me and offered me protection from Falco's boss. They were going to force the Lazio mafia out of the casino business. If I joined with them, I could take over Falco's casino and run it for them, and I would get a percentage - a large percentage. I agreed, and next thing I knew, I was running the biggest casino in Rome. I was taking home six hundred million lire a year.
"Like most mobsters, I started legitimate businesses. I learned as much as I could about the textile industry, and then I bought mills, warehouses, and stores. Unlike most mobsters, though, I found I had a flair for business. I knew how to read the markets and run a frugal enterprise, and I developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the textile industry. I was good with people and knew how to hire talent. Soon, my legitimate business was earning more than the casino. I thought about becoming a legitimate businessman, but it wasn't in me. So I bribed politicians from every party, and I made sure the police commissioner was well compensated, and I bought all the local newspapers and kept my name out of them.
"By the time I was thirty, I was one of the richest industrialists in Italy. My name did appear in the papers but mostly as a textile baron. I married into Italian nobility and moved into a mansion in the heart of Rome. My wife and I hobnobbed in high society. I kept the casino, but it was in the background. By then I was so wealthy, the mafia came to me for loans.
"In the early 70s, there was a major effort by the politicians to reduce crime. The Mafia families had been feuding amongst themselves for territory, and there had been one too many car bombings. The public was fed up, and the politicians had to come after us, even thought they'd taken our money for decades. After the patriarchs of some of the families were arrested, I saw the writing on the wall, and I sold my share of the casino.
"I didn't become a legitimate businessman because I'd come to loath my previous life. It just was the right time for me to leave. With the life of crime behind me, I plunged forward, giving all my energies to my business. I traveled across the world and expanded my textile business into England, America, and Australia. Soon, my empire was a multi-billion-dollar corporation. I owned everything from railways to shipping yards to freight container companies to football teams.
"I'd accomplished everything I wanted, but it came at a price. I had no friends, only business acquaintances. My wife lived on the French countryside away from me, and my sons were raised in boarding schools. I was alone at the top. I'm not saying it bothered me; it didn't. As far as I was concerned, it was just the price I paid to become the man I wanted to be.
"After college, my sons came to work for me, and they quickly climbed the corporate ladder. They were both young, brilliant, and fierce. They were, dare I say, even more ambitious than I. They started as sales clerks, and within two years, they were department store managers. Few years later, they were regional managers, and within ten years, both were amongst the top executives in the company. Anyway, long story short, they took over the business in a hostile coup and ousted me from the company that I'd built. They didn't even let me have a seat on the board of directors, fearing that I might attempt a comeback. They bought me this house twenty years ago and left me here to die.
"When the coup happened, I was already undergoing chemotherapy for stage-four lymphoma. I had also acquired an assortment of blood diseases, because of which I was bedridden. My sons thought that I would die here, but I beat the cancer. I beat it again the next year when it returned and the year after that. Through medical care and determination, I fought the blood diseases. By the time I recovered from the myriad of illnesses, it was too late for me to fight for my business. I was a has-been, and none of my associates would return my calls. They were working for my sons and wanted to have nothing to do with me.
"I survived, but I've been a sickly man since. I'm ninety pounds of bones, and one disease or another has attacked me, and I can sense the end is near. Over the years I've employed some of the best doctors; I've experimented with all manner of healers, shamans, witch doctors, and alternative therapists. Finding a way to live has become an obsession for me.
"Ten years ago, I heard rumors that there were people who had managed to cheat death for hundreds of years. They weren't immortal but had technology that allowed them to rejuvenate themselves and age very slowly. It was just a rumor I'd heard from a shaman I'd employed. The kind of thing most educated people would dismiss as a folk tale. But I always had a keen instinct for profitable business deals, and..
An ageing couple live in a decaying old house in Galveston, and it's not clear who will collapse first; by Scott Archer Jones.
Until today I took care of my younger brother Donnie. Each morning Donnie would ask, Elizabeth, what shall we do today? For sixty years I gave the same answer. Donald, we'll have breakfast, then we'll tend to the past.
Great Grandfather called the house Arcadia. Cotton shipping built it on an elegant Galveston esplanade. Flat-roofed: how I hated that roof - its amalgamation of tin and copper, solder and hot-tar patch. Leak in, cold in, bats in.
I had lived within one of the beautiful bedrooms that opened not only onto the landing that circled the stairs, but that had double doors onto a balcony that overlooked the ballroom floor. After my first fall, we moved downstairs to the Jubilee parlor, a room that flanked the front hall. Donnie and I emptied out the furniture, the books and boxes of family photos, my Barnard degree. We disassembled the breakfronts. He would tug on the area rug we placed under each piece of furniture, and I would shove. Into the ballroom depths, into narrow rows of the past. Twin beds in the Jubilee, where we could keep tabs on our infirmities, his dementia, my heart and eyesight.
On top of Arcadia, rested a beautiful yellow cornice and a widow's walk. The brick facing had been reinforced during the Civil War with Star of Texas cast iron plates painted black. A portico wide enough to hold two carriages side-by-side. All those lead lights allowed the sunshine to stream in across the wide pine planks. During the 2008 hurricane, we brought the deadlights out of the carriage house and covered all the glass. Just too much, installing the old pine battens to protect the glass. We never took them down. Mr. Childapeth painted them white, as he painted Arcadia for two weeks each year. He's been dead for ten years. All slipped away, first the gardener, then the cook and maid, then Childapeth and the nurse.
Donnie maintained the gardens wonderfully, what he could reach from the ground. He loved the physical work, the sheer mindlessness of it. He clipped the grass with the push mower as much as four times a week. The palms, older than us, like shaggy old men who held brown and gray whiskers against the house, dripped fronds down for Donnie to collect. They promised to die each fall, and were yanked each spring into sparse green.
Donnie loved his newspaper - delivered every morning and read through word by word over breakfast. Our time of beignets had come and gone, and for the last couple of decades we cooked grits and boiled eggs - and coffee like mud, as I prefer it. After a while, the paper could have been the same sheaf of newsprint; that identical set of headlines would have been new and novel to him each day. We had abandoned the kitchen, molding away and full of dust, and now we ate in the dining room, with a refrigerator, microwave, a hotplate. A table that seated twenty acted as our pantry. The kitchen - full of rotted lead pipes, old gas jets, cabinets that sagged away from the wall - became a hall that led to the back door. Donnie bundled up his papers and stacked the bales, left a walkway through the room. The papers' weight must have provoked the further collapse of piers and beams under the house, so the floor swam away from us down into the ground.
Just enough money. All bills went downtown, to be paid by the accountant at Great Grandfather's company, and each year the report arrived at Christmas. But the house itself - demands for love, for repair, for devotion. Our lives slid away from us, caught up in the house and its needs. Every room held its stacks of trunks and old hat boxes, the cases and the valises stuffed with family. The toys and thrills, the hot summer afternoons, the bicycles and dolls of our childhood, and of our parents and grandparents. When the carriage house in the rear began to crumble, I asked Donnie to bring all its treasures into the house. We let the garage claim the four old cars there, and my Buick, and Donnie's convertible Lincoln. They huddled under the collapse, kept just as the family would have wanted.
We used taxis for food and doctors. Called one each week for the six mile journey to the grocery store. Each year, a new driver to learn - who had to wait for us while we shopped. Donnie called each one Joseph, even the young woman.
We lived with cobwebs and pizza boxes. Harder now to carry anything out to the curb for the trash men. They never changed, decade after decade, but we did. We lived on packaged food nestled into the refrigerator. Cheese balls, doughnuts, chicken noodle soup, pot pies. What that dining room had witnessed - Christmas dinners for twenty that lasted hours, under candlelight with the silver its own night sky under the burning wicks, the plates gleaming as they were filled, worshipped, removed for the next course. Fifty years later, I ate my microwave popcorn in counterpoint to the grandeur, and Donnie munched Cool Ranch Doritos and bean dip. The old chandeliers shuddered to see what we had become. Or maybe it was the trucks trundling by on the Esplanade. Donnie stacked the food boxes in the ballroom, their own archives.
Tonight I wait. I lie in the kitchen. I sent Donnie for help, sent him out the door. In my near blindness I had crashed my walker into a wall of newspaper. It swept down to pin me under its ephemeral news. I've been here for a while, two days I think. I believe, sooner or later, someone will discover my foggy brother on the street and trace him back to Arcadia. It hardly matters - Arcadia's future is short.
Patrick Ritter imagines a world in which track racers' mechanical hearts are fine-tuned like F1 vehicles, but it's a future Scott Ryan is determined to resist.
Scott Ryan rose out of a deep stretch. He glanced up at the stadium clock above the track infield. Fifteen minutes until the start of the race.
Scott felt strong and ready. He started jogging along the edge of the infield past the warm-up areas for the other runners. He moved easily, with power and lightness, lifting his knees high with each step.
From the infield, a large red and black banner caught his attention. Scott clenched his jaw as he read it - Flowmax Racing Hearts. Beneath the banner several technicians bent over a young runner sitting in a padded chair. His bright jersey showed off the large Flowmax symbol. The runner was calm, almost bored, his face flushed with confidence. Inside his chest, an artificial heart - the Flowmax T4 - whirled silently.
The hair on Scott's neck bristled. Over the public address system the first of the runners was announced and the crowd roared. Thirteen minutes to go.
As Scott moved past the other runners he saw one of the racing technicians checking a sheet of blue paper: the runner's biochem results from that morning. The technician concentrated.
The precise tuning of a racing heart took a special blend of judgment and precision. He glanced at a climate readout panel, showing current humidity, temperature and wind velocity. In today's heat they would need a higher power output. But it would have to be perfectly programmed to allow enough for the finish.
Then there was the competition to think about. With the statistical workups from previous races, his team had developed an optimal strategy to offset the other racing hearts. All of the other runners, except for one, had developed similar programmed strategies against each other, a game theory battle of codes.
The technician made several entries on a keyboard and then picked up a small transmitter, placing it against the runner's chest. It was centered directly over the man's heart, a custom fit titanium motor powered by graphene polymer batteries woven into his jersey. Across muscle and bone, inductive circuits flowed. Inside the runner's chest a tiny silicon chip stored their electronic instructions for the race, winning instructions they hoped, for the Flowmax Corporation and its latest racing heart.
Scott jogged past other banners fluttering in the wind, announcing companies like Pulscor, Biolite and Pace. Heart mechanics peered at readout panels. Programmers made final adjustments.
Scott knew what they were considering. The key limiting factor was battery usage and how it played into an optimal race profile for today's conditions. But then there was always the unknown. How were the other companies programming the race? Steady ramp up, final e-sprint, or possibly slip-stream battery conserve mode? Some of the vendors even claimed their proprietary game theory software could model and predict all of the competition and assure a victory.
Not all of the competition, Scott thought. At the far end of the infield he stopped and turned around, his face all grit and determination. He looked down the track at the starting blocks, then again at the clock. Ten minutes to the start.
The noise in the stadium dropped suddenly, like the wind before a storm, as the last of the nine runners was announced. "And the only non sponsored contestant in today's event, number nine, from Berkeley, California... Scott Ryan!"
The crowd's applause was obligatory at first, but built into a sustained cheer. Scott Ryan, the last of the pre-tech runners, was clearly the long shot. Without an artificial heart he had little chance of keeping up with the league's corporate runners, equipped with bio engineered miracles of metal and code. But it did add to the spectacle. Scott looked into the first section, where his parents were sitting, and waved. Then he started jogging back along the infield.
Near the Flowmax staging area, a man in a bright red blazer, the president of Flowmax Corporation, paced nervously. Scott eyed him, remembering the conversation he had with him several months before at the recruiting building on campus. Scott had only gone at the urging of his coach. They had been in a small interview room, which was stuffy and quiet.
Scott finally broke the silence. "Look, Mr. Martin, I'm not against progress at all. I think artificial hearts are fantastic for those who really need them, who would die without them."
The Flowmax president leaned forward, placing his hands palm up on the table for effect. The sleeves of his red blazer shifted, revealing the engraved cuffs of the latest, and most expensive, synthetic cotton shirt. A practiced smile flickered across his face. He filled his voice with sincerity.
"Scott, I just think you're throwing away the chance of your life. You're among the best college runners now, maybe the best. When you graduate and turn pro, there's nothing between you and the top." He paused. "Nothing except this fool idea not to get a racing heart. You know as well as I you can't begin to compete in the pros without one. No one's come close."
"So I'm not a runner anymore, just a technology mule, is that it?
Martin continued, undeterred. "Look what fiberglass technology did for pole vaulting, or to skiing. No one put a stop to technology there. Try racing with a bike that isn't nano-carbon. You just can't compete. Technology is embedded into all sports now, and racing hearts are just one more step forward. Anyway, the Sports Federation settled all of this years ago. Artificial hearts are now as much a part of running as the shoes. If you hope to compete in the sport, you've just gotta accept all of its advancements, that's all."
"Advancements?" Scott replied, "You mean high tech gadgets, and risky ones at that."
Martin held out his hand. "Scott, these hearts are virtually flawless, everyone knows that. Since I've been at Flowmax, there hasn't been a single case of failure." He tapped the desk. "You need something extra to win a league race these days and with our new design, sprint response has been upped by over twenty percent. That's about the best in the business, my friend."
Scott shook his head. "So that's it, just strap ourselves to our technology and let it drag us along mindlessly. My God, those aren't athletes out there any more, they're becoming programmed robots. Why not just run the races by computer and save everyone the time? I'm a runner, Mr. Martin, and I want to compete."
"You want to talk competition? We've got em all beat, Scott. I hear Biolite's got a new biovalve it says will deliver faster beat delivery, but it will almost certainly break down. Pulscor is bringing on a real big boy - 95 ccs - which they think will be a winner, but it will drain the power and won't finish strong. Not to mention the weight of the battery wearables. Believe me, I know the competition and Flowmax has it beat. We've got the only continuous flow heart out there. Eliminate the moving parts and what are you left with? Magnetic rotor performance and winning times, that's what. It's going to be unbeatable for at least five years, maybe more. Enough time for you to cash in on it."
Scott stared at him. "I have just one question. When I'm up on the winning platform, just whom do I thank for my great accomplishment? Would that be the corporation, the technicians, or just the heart designer? And do I include the battery manufacturer?"
"Well, there are a lot of talented people who contribute, of course," Martin mumbled. "Scott, you have to think of it as a team effort really."
"That's not the point all," Scott interrupted. "It's the principle. Why is it we have to have artificial hearts in sports at all? We seemed to get along quite well for hundreds of years without them. What ever happened to the pride of individual accomplishment anyway? I'll tell you what happened. It sold out to the entertainment business, and all the techno glamour."
"Now hold it right there," Martin replied. "Sports are about excellence of any kind. And you, above all people, a Ryan. You were raised on excellence. Your father ran, what, the hundred meters? And before him, didn't your grandfather win gold in both the 400 and 1,500 in Rome? They excelled all right. All that stuff about principles is a poor excuse to me. Either you strive for the best or you don't. And the best of running includes its technology."
"The best of running is something my family does know something about," Scott shot back. "And yes, I have a name to live up to. But it's my name, not just another corporate logo."
"Look at it this way, Scott. You are destined to be a runner, right? Maybe even a great runner. Well, my company would simply be upgrading your skillset to make you that winning runner."
Scott shook his head and rose to his feet. "Any winning I do will come from me, not because of a bunch of code. I just can't get one, that's all."
Martin stared blankly as Scott began moving toward the door. He knew the conversation was over, at least for today. Ryan would probably go down a poor loser, he thought, both personally and financially.
Then the practiced corporate smile rushed back. "Yes, of course we understand your position, Scott. You're probably a born winner. You might do just fine in the pros without a racing heart." But Martin's voice wasn't convincing. "Now, if you do reconsider, be sure to get in touch with my people in San Jose right away."
A loud electronic horn jarred Scott back from his thoughts. Five minutes to the starting gun. The announcer blared, "All runners to the starting blocks!" The crowd roared. Corporate cheerleaders trotted out of the infield waving their banners, followed by the other runners.
Scott took a deep breath and moved out of the infield onto the track. From the stands a gravelly voice broke through the rising din. "Go get'em, Scotty!"
Scott recognized it immediately. He looked into the first row and his face lit up. That old dragon, he thought.
Sitting next to his parents, with one arm raised in salute, was his grandfather. Scott knew he had disobeyed the doctors, once again, to travel cross country for the race. Scott nodded to him and trotted toward the starting line.
The other eight runners were bunched near the starting blocks, eying each other closely, looking for any tell as to racing strategy. No one looked at Scott, who stretched up on the balls of his feet, then from side to side, swaying like a sapling.
The loud speakers bellowed, "Two minutes to the start... Two minutes!" The crowd hushed. Scott stepped to the blocks. Three positions away the Flowmax runner also moved forward. The runners went into a crouch on one knee, digging their feet against the blocks. The referee called, "Ready!" and the runners arched upward, making a line of nine backs. Battery jerseys bulged above eight of them. Scott Ryan stared ahead fiercely.
Thirty seconds... ten... and a tense final pause. Then the starting gun exploded and the runners leaped from the blocks, grimacing, coiled jaguars suspended in mid air for an instant in the hot afternoon.
The race was on, four laps and fifteen hundred meters around the oval track. As the runners got up to speed, pre-set programs kicked in for the racing hearts. The runners surged down the long straightaway, arms whipping up and down in a chorus line motion. They flew around the back turn. Into the back straight, the Pulscor and Flowmax runners moved ahead slightly. Scott was close behind. They rounded the front turn and pounded down the straight away, a blur of arms and legs. Within the other runners signals flooded in from skin and muscle sensors. Finely tuned hearts stepped up into the power phase of the race. Scott felt surrounded by an electronic madness, and it fueled him with an extra boost of determination.
By the end of the second lap the Flowmax and Pulscor runners were still in the lead with the rest of the field stretched out behind. Given no chance of keeping up, Scott was still in the middle of the pack. The group flashed down the track, faces flushed, legs pumping. Extra power surged from batteries and hearts raced faster. From the stands came an ancient bellow, "Come on, Scotty!"
In the third lap, the Flowmax runner pulled away alone, leaving all of the other runners in his wake, a racing strategy that looked to be working. Scott inched up into fifth place. His lungs ached and the track pounded up into his legs. He pushed himself down the straight into the last lap, and set himself for the final sprint.
Around the back turn Scott passed one runner, then another, and moved into third. He shortened the gap, pounded into second, and steadily began moving up toward the Flowmax runner. Down the back straight the lead decreased steadily, but just by a step or two. Scott felt a flame brightening inside him.
As Scott moved up, the crowd moved with him. The cheer began slowly at first, hesitant, and then built into a tumultuous roar. Something was shaken alive in the crowd, as if it had been sleeping for many years. Everyone was on their feet, pouring out a deafening roar of approval. Scott rounded the last turn and bore down on the Flowmax runner. The crowd went wild.
Down the straight Scott pulled even. Time slowed. They sprinted, lockstep, for several frozen seconds. Inside the Flowmax runner's chest, microcircuits flowed and the final sprint subroutine kicked in, precisely on cue. It gave him a supercharge push designed to eliminate all competition. But there was no subroutine for a Ryan in his program. Scott pushed into uncharted territory, reaching for something he could feel but couldn't name. Then he pushed beyond that.
It was a dead heat with fifty meters to go, thirty, then ten. The Flowmax runner maintained his constant speed. Scott reached for the last bit of energy he had, and kept reaching. As they crossed the finish line, Scott thrust himself forward with a tremendous effort, and the electronic scoreboard flashed his winning number. The noise of the crowd broke with it, rocking the stadium. Pandemonium broke loose. The scene was live-streamed to the world.
Later that afternoon Scott walked down a cool stadium hallway. The crowd had long since gone. The media had finally left too, loaded with the sports story of the year. Scott was headed for the athlete's exit where his family waited. He moved past the locker room offices. A door suddenly opened. Through it stepped Martin, the Flowmax president. Trailing behind him were three technicians and the heart mechanic, all staring at the floor. The Flowmax runner followed, looking righteously annoyed. Martin looked tired. His features were sunken. When he saw Scott he stopped. His practiced smile started to form but it faded quickly. In its place a look of genuine awe swept across his face.
Martin stared at Scott for a long moment. Then he said softly, "Some runners are born and not made, eh Ryan?" This time, Scott knew he meant it.
At the end of World War II, a gang of small-town crooks foment resentment when they persist with their shady weekly poker game; by Tom Sheehan.
Mount Carmel Road was a quiet dead end in the north section of town. And in the middle of the night when the war in the Far East was over and the radios blared out the news, all the lights went on in all the houses on that blind street, except where the card game was being played. Many of the neighbors were solidly indignant about that turn of events on VJ Night, two Mount Carmel boys among those who would not be coming back from the mad Pacific, which most of us had only seen in Saturday newsreels at the theater.
This house was a dark house on a dark street in my town that, with some lesions and scars, hangs on to a place in my memory and will not let go. Not ever. The family that lives there now most likely is unaware of its past. Tenants and landlords hardly leave scribed notations of a dwelling, thinking all things will ferment, dissipate, and eventually pass on. Fifty years or more of recall usually get dulled, terribly pockmarked, or fade into the twilight the way one ages, a dimming of the eyes, a bending at the knees, a slow turn at mortality. But this one rides endlessly in place, a benchmark, a mooring place. It resides as a point of time, a small moment of history colored up by characterization of one incident.
Some houses have peculiar histories. This one did. For a full fifteen years at the gray house at the end of the road the big weekly poker game had been going on, and during the war it had been conducted behind thick black curtains that let out no light. "There'll be no beacon trail markers from this game to the Navy Yard," a few miles distant, said Mountain Ben Capri. Mountain Ben, once an expert trapper and fishing guide, owned the house, ran the game, and his wife, the Blackfoot named Dread Child Lovey, made sandwiches on occasion, poured drinks, and picked up loose change. That loose change would have paid some mortgages, it was said, for the stakes in the game were sometimes monumental if not momentous, all according to those said neighbors on that dark cul-de-sac and other parties around town. Some few people in town, most of them elderly men, could remember when Mother Shannon had a shady place of business in the same abode.
The only outsider allowed inside that oft-coveted and dark setting was the young and pesky Frankie Pike, high school football hero of some renown, who tried to sit in one night, showed his money when demanded, had not enough, so finally he asked to simply look on. Subsequently, because of good humor and an abundance of energy, Frankie became the company runner, getting special orders from the half dozen classy restaurants out on the turnpike, hitting the package store for beer, wine and hard stuff when necessary (ordinarily through the back door), collaring the best cigars in town, and not leastwise directing unwanted players away from the game site. After a few games and seeing all the opportunities around him, Frankie cut a deal with Smokey Carlton of Smokey's Diner that they should get a supply of bags, wrappers and boxes from the big restaurants and provide their own specials, as if the biggies had done the service. Smokey was glad to oblige, even though some of the town's big spenders and known tough guys took part in the game. "They're all probably playing with somebody else's money any way," Smokey would say. Frankie, to up the kitty, even went to work at Gargan's Texan Hilltop Restaurant for two days, time enough to stash a supply of purloined imprinted bags and napkins out in the woods. Flies stayed off Frankie like he'd been sprayed with killer juice.
Frankie and Smokey had made a good deal, and they smoked the players with substitute foodstuffs prepared right in the back of the small chintzy diner rather than in one of the popular restaurants. "I got so much booze in there, Smokey, they're half drunk half the time and well into it the other half. That old lobster boater Cal Landers wants Hilltop sandwiches all the time and now yours are as good as theirs are, only Cal don't know it seeing the Hilltop wrappers all the time. Some nights they can't tell Grade A from swill. And I see DC Lovey scooping a bit of change every now and then, too. She puts the wet tray with booze and stuff right on the pot or on someone's stash and lets that old green paper stick to the bottom. There ain't no pesky bugs setting on that old mountain man either, way he goes through jacket pockets when no one's looking. Moves so easy for such a big man. Hate to have him tracking me down. I've seen him go outside and go through some of the cars more than a few times. Smooth he does it, like a ghost in the night, like maybe he heard special information during the game."
So, the game had been going on, and in one quick night the war was over. The whole town celebrated, lights flashing on and off, a few stored-up firecrackers or bottle rockets set off, a lot of horns and sirens cutting loose from long silences. Except the house on Mount Carmel. Nobody went in and pulled a shade back, nobody came out on the porch to see what was going on. The game was the thing. Only the game.
And that didn't sit well with a lot of people. "Tell me, Frankie," Clint Wardley the undertaker said one night around the cracker barrel in the back of the package store, "what the hell makes you think they're such sacred cows in there?" Clint was always in a starched collar, a white one, and locked into his trade. They said his father had died in the same stiff collar. "They all come my way sooner or later." You never knew if Clint's words were promise or threat.
"I'll say this for those boyos," Frankie Pike said, "they're not afraid of anybody or anything 'cepting that game not getting its place of a Friday night. That storm a couple of years ago that shut down the power for nearly a week, they had Mountain get Coleman lanterns and fired them all up. Mountain knows about white gas and them little wicks he calls mantles, like butterfly wings almost. Had three or four of them going he did, almost boiling the room away. Way I hear it, they talk about the game all week long, who did what last game, who can make the big fake and pull it off, who's getting shit luck with his cards and when it began. I think they have a pool on when it runs out, each having some kind of turn at it, it appears. They heard the war was over and that was it. They wasn't in it and wasn't getting away from it."
Frankie's sense of timing was as good as an actor, the stage set, pronouncements being made, his hunk of reality coming down on the conversation. His eyes collected and measured the audience. "Jake Crews said he ain't celebrating people getting killed or not killed. His daddy came home from the Great Stink in France back in '18 all gassed up and not much of a father from then on. Said he never got laid again, even though his old lady was a laundry bag. Life just became one big sour ball for him. Jake ought to know, him wearing the scars of it all, him being the only boy in that big house with that bad ass bastard. 'Cept for the game, he's been a loner most his whole life. I'll tell you this. I'd be comfortable with him across the huddle from me in a big game," Frankie added, bringing football right back into the balance, putting it all in his true perspective, handling the crutch of it with aplomb. "He has that fire in his eye you don't always get, if you know what I mean." Frankie'd get them nodding as though they had the privy inside on certain players that "didn't bring it with them all the time the way Frankie did."
Frankie liked to sit in the back of McGarrihan's Package Store, around the wood stove puffing on a winter day, a dozen pair of boots hoisted on the rim of that iron monger's stove, and hold forth with the other gabbers. They were the pseudo-historians, gossips, ward-heelers and petty politicians looking for the grip on someone, for rich gossip or a shared bottle they didn't have to pay for, you name the front and they come out of it. Frankie had shine here because of his football exploits, being, as many of them would say, "the best damn money player to come down the pike since Harmony Hiltz worked his magic at the stadium in the early Thirties, and then went up country and played for Dartmouth College."
The players in the Mount Carmel game on the other hand seemed a cut from another life; few of them appeared to be daily employed, always having a "piece" of one operation or another. Oftentimes an office was an inner coat or jacket pocket. For most of them money was practically spilling its green out of their pockets like some kind of algae growing down inside with the lint. None of them carried their money in a wallet, rather doled it out of thick clusters kept in the inner breast pocket of a jacket or in a shirt pocket under a sweater lying like a protective cover. "They buy their chips with a wad of bills, ever' last one of them, taking it out of an iron clip." Frankie said "iron" as if it were "eye-ron," bringing the boys deeper into the fold, getting real up-country homey with them. It was true old Yankee stuff he could get at when he had a mind to.
"How much money you think been showed in that room, Frankie, best lot?" Andy Tolliver was a member of the school committee who never went to college, never could spell curriculum, but had a magic for trading off "one for you and one for me" when things got tight. He was never without a bow tie, feeling undressed in his station of life if he were caught so. For twenty-six years he had been on the school committee. It was said Andy could get anything in the system for those who wanted it bad enough, including himself, with the mix of teachers. Now he wanted to know how much money was in that room at one time. Frankie had seen Andy pick up the new history teacher as she walked home late at night. Had seen it four or five times, once waiting for two hours by her house before Andy dropped her off.
"Well," said Frankie, thinking Andy was at least twice as old as the new teacher and having a sudden admiration for him, curriculum or no curriculum, "one night, and this is the truth because I was able to count it out, there was over twelve thousand dollars in that room. Course," he added, the sparkle in his eyes, "some of that was loose change." The laughter was pleasant and a few of the listeners elbowed the guy beside them.
"Andy eyes lit up. "Twelve thousand dollars! My, God, that's almost the budget on raises for the next two-three years."
"Hell," Frankie said, "one night, Mountain came back in from sniffing through the cars and leaned over Jud Duvall and whispered in his ear. They say Mountain told him someone had been fooling around his car, he has that Pierce Arrow with the big lights up on the fenders. So, Jud went out and came back in with his sweater wrapped around something and kept it under his chair and Mountain was real nervous. I heard later Mountain had come across a stash of twenty-five thousand bucks and was scared to death of touching it but had to tell Jud some way. He didn't want to be pegged for grabbing it. Mountain knows Jud would have him dropped in the river for less."
But of all the guys who talked shop and whatever around the stove, it was Wolf Stearns who wouldn't drop the VJ Night ignorance of the game players, going back to that dark and bright night every chance he had. One of the guys not coming back was Wolf's cousin, Edwin Talbot, a Marine fighter pilot lost in the Solomon Seas on the day of his eleventh kill. "Guess whose birthday is next Wednesday, guys? You couldn't guess in a hundred years, now could you? It's Eddie Talbot's birthday. The kid would be twenty-five years old next Wednesday. Do you think those dinks at the game give a shit? Not in a hundred years. They played all through the war and when it came stand up time they stayed behind the damn curtains. Never even came out on the porch to see what was going on, never mind saluting someone for a change." His eyes would darken as if he were measuring an infinitesimal edge, like a wave of heat off the stove top or another space uncounted for, and he'd drop cautious tidbits like, "Somebody ought to teach them a lesson or two. 'S'all I got to say about it." Then Wolf would look again at a point in space none of the others could hope to find. Truth was, Wolf had been around a lot and never left much trail about what he was at or after. He had scars here and there, Wolf did, on his cheeks, one wrist like it had been ripped by barb wire, I'd bet on his back the way he scowled so much of the time, bitter angry, the world to be pissed on occasionally. Some guys said he was as dangerous as an animal caught in a trap.
A few other guys seemed to side up with Wolf but never got too vocal about it. So, under the layers it was apparent that a means of revenge was swilling in the thicker cloth, probably dark and mean, and naturally would have the backing of the whole town who loved its heroes to the death.
When it happened, it was clean and quick. It was just after midnight, Mountain getting sleepy in one corner, Dread Child Lovey about done with her work and smoking a cigar, Frankie Pike's errands long over and him ready to go home, when the door burst open and four masked gunsmiths stood aiming their sawed-off shotguns at the table. Mountain rose from his seat and one of the gunsmiths hit him with a crow bar. Mountain hit the floor like a pallet of concrete blocks. Dread Child Lovey continued to smoke her cigar, ignoring all the men in the room.
Jud Duval, pivoting idly in his chair, said, "If I were you guys, I'd... He said no more as the barrel of the shotgun was stuck in his mouth. "There'll be no talking but us," said one of the masked men. "Rake it up, Three," he said, pointing to the players. "Empty their pockets, their money belts, their wallets. Clean out their jackets. Look under the chairs."
He heard Mountain groan and nodded to another gunsmith. "Hit him, Two." The man popped Mountain on the head again with the crow bar. Dread Child Lovey kept on smoking. Jud noted the men were all in sweat suits of a kind, with sneakers on. He recognized the use of coded names and put that away for future reference.
The sweep down was complete in every sense. Every coin, every bit of currency in the room, including the entire cash drawer kept by Mountain and Dread Child Lovey, was scooped up and placed in a black bag looking much like a doctor's bag.
Frankie started to move once, looking to get to a door, but was jabbed in the backside by one of the gun wielders. "Uh, uh, kid, we need you. You're going to be a bit of security for us. Hostage stuff. You're gonna earn your keep this night, hero." The guy turned to the others and said, "One frigging bad word outta any you guys, we knock off the kid. We're taking him with us. Don't nobody move around or scream until the big guy wakes up, and then I'd be real gentle about that. That's gonna be one pissed-off man."
One of the gunsmiths opened a door to a small pantry and motioned all the players and Dread Child Lovey into the soon-crowded space. The door was slammed on them and a couple of spikes were knocked into the door and the jamb. Silence came. Darkness set about everything, falling like enveloping clouds on top of Mountain who'd be out of it for almost another hour. Later we heard a couple of guys copped a few feels of Dread Child Lovey who never batted an eyelash or said a word in that crowd. And later Mountain was really pissed because when he finally woke up and freed the players and his wife from the pantry, he found her underpants on the floor.
Mountain, they said, was like old Mountain, ranting and raving and carrying on like a wounded bear. Said he marked every one of the players with his dread eye, cowed them right out of his house like a curse was placed on them.
The cops gave up the search for the kidnapped Frankie Pike two days later when he walked back into town, a few marks on his face, but healthy as ever otherwise. There never was another game at Mountain's place. The players, after a few weeks, found another place to play, at Tal Rumson's boathouse. It was said that Frankie walked with a jingle and a tingle and was never out of coin for the next year. But nobody did anything about it, figuring the players had finally paid their real dues.
A hit man is haunted by the memories of two of his victims, by Michael McCarthy.
It's a balmy evening, there's a couple leaning out of a dimly lit window at the side of a house overlooking an alley. They're both naked and their heads are wreathed in smoke from their cigarettes, its effect heightened by the intermittent blinking of a faulty street light. You can't even see the moon or stars.
Let's call her Kate and him Daniel.
There's a very light drizzle shining on their skin. If you saw them, and you were that way inclined, you might find their bearing iconic like a scene from a European Art House film.
This house is empty apart from them. There was a fire in which two people died. The only two people in the house: the owner and his female friend. The house had been in the process of being converted into flats for rich singles as an additional pension for the owner.
The man is clearly older, he's tanned and balding with cropped grey hair. Kate is a dyed blonde, her hair lying loose on her shoulders. She looks about twenty years younger than Daniel, but neither of them care. Age is irrelevant to them.
Kate prefers the cool shade of her back garden, while Daniel is very well travelled. They're both smiling. There's some music playing in the background, an infectious pop song. It's not loud, it just... carries. Kate's moving her head from side to side in time, while Daniel's swinging his hand in front of him and clicking his fingers like a band leader.
They've clearly found each other. It took them long enough.
Kate traces arcane patterns on Daniel's shoulder and he puts his arm around her and pulls her close, gently. They drop their cigarette butts and they fall through the grill in the gutter below. They never miss.
They love the night. It belongs to them. The other sounds of the night: traffic, dogs barking, drunks, voices, breaking glass, don't trouble them. They're not startled by or curious about abrupt noises.
Daniel reaches for the cigarettes between them on the window sill, hits the bottom of the packet against the heel of his hand and takes one out with his mouth, strikes a match with one hand, lights the cigarette and places it in Kate's mouth. Then he repeats the action for himself.
They like stroking each other. It's almost like their way of conversing. They don't need words. Looking at them, you would feel that this is their time. They have all they need, each other. There's something else about them; they know their destiny. Time doesn't weigh heavily. They have all the time in the world. If you walked into their room you would see two naked bodies, but they wouldn't be concerned. They wouldn't need to be. They spent their first night together here. Now they're inseparable.
Somebody is on the way to see them. He has unfinished business. Let's call him Barry, he's a hit man. He's sweating. It's warm, but that's not why he's sweating.
They know he's coming and that, unlike them, he's frightened, but he can't stop himself. Barry's alone and he's armed.
He did a bad thing. He tried to separate them. That unleashed a terrifying inevitability. For him. He had no idea of the possible outcome of his actions. He never thinks that far ahead. But that's tough. Some people have to learn the hard way, a lesson they'll never forget. If they live long enough.
His boss doesn't know Barry's here. Barry heard a whisper that two people had been seen cuddling and leaning out of the window, again. Barry doesn't understand that.
Barry's standing at the corner of the street, but he's not looking at the house overlooking the alley.
He's thinking about the night he first came here and what he'd been told by his boss that evening.
'I want you to get rid of two people. No questions asked and no, absolutely no, talking to anyone. Not even me.' His boss had barked. He was always loud, always seemed to be shouting at somebody.
'Shooter?' Barry had whispered.
He always felt in awe of his boss and felt uneasy being on his own with him. His boss had the unsettling habit of staring at people when he spoke to them. He had stunning, ice blue eyes.
Just staring coldly, analytically, even after that person had finished speaking. Nobody could hold that gaze. Barry just looked at the floor.
Otherwise, Barry's boss was an unremarkable figure, short, round shouldered, grey hair cut in a pudding basin style. In fact he reminded Barry of an office clerk longing for retirement. Until he looked at you. Barry had never seen anybody try to compete with those eyes.
'Burn them.' His boss answered, after an eternity.
Barry had known this day was coming. He'd built a reputation for chilling and unrestrained violence. So he was ready.
Barry was given the keys and the address. It was just like tonight. It had been drizzling then as well and the moon and stars had been invisible. He'd walked up to the house. The couple were at the open window at the side. He hadn't give them a second glance. Orders are orders. They were smoking and listening to music. It wasn't loud, it just... carried.
Barry didn't know the song but it had a killer melody. He could hear them laughing. An intimate exchange of joy.
He'd let himself in silently. Feeling his way carefully, he'd padded up the heavily carpeted stairs, not making a sound. He hadn't even turned the light on. He stood outside the door and listened. The song was just fading to its end. He unlocked the flat door and stood inside, a door directly opposite him, at the end of a hallway, was partially open, shafts of faint light leaking out.
Barry had a bottle containing a flammable liquid with him. He lit the rag in the neck of the bottle and waited. Then he pushed the door completely open, it was the kitchen.
The couple turned around. He knew them and they knew him, he froze as his mind weighed up the situation in a split second. In that moment he knew, without a doubt, that he was an incurable coward. He had no choice. He knew if he didn't carry out the hit his boss would kill him. Without discussion. His boss wasn't interested in excuses. If he told you to do something, you did it.
Barry threw the bottle into the room, pulled the door closed and locked it, and ran down the stairs and out of the house. He was shivering and crying uncontrollably. As soon as he was in safety, skulking in the alley, he pulled out his phone to dial 999, just as he heard the sirens of the approaching emergency services.
He waited until they had extinguished the fire. The damage was contained.
Barry rocked backwards and forwards on his haunches, his hands clamped over his ears to block out the screams of Kate and Daniel. But that was impossible. Then he left. He hasn't slept properly since. He can still hear their screams. He will for the rest of his life.
Barry's not in sight yet but Kate and Daniel can sense him.
Kate leans into Daniel's shoulder, he pulls her closer, gently. Daniel lights two more cigarettes. They only smoke non-filter, some exotic brand Daniel picked up on his travels.
There are even longer gaps between the sporadic flickering of the street light now and there's still no sign of the moon or stars.
Daniel starts conducting the music, the end of his cigarette is like a fire fly darting here and there.
Barry is approaching. He can see them in the open window. He can see the gutted and flame-scarred upper building, even in the intermittent dark. And he can see the cigarette end moving around. It looks like it's stabbing holes in the night. And he can hear the music. That same contagiously catchy song playing in the background. It's not loud, it just... carries. He concentrates on the couple at the window.
Could it really be them? He thinks it is. His boss's wife was a lovely looking woman. Homely, kind and fresh. But she had sad eyes. Barry had sensed something about her. She'd experienced something horrible. He just knew it. The first time he saw her she'd looked at him in a motherly manner. He'd known it was motherly because he'd never seen it before. She made him look at himself anew.
In the mirror Barry was furtive, cheaply dressed with greasy black hair. He could barely face his own reflection. He didn't like looking at himself, it brought back too many memories of nothing. Kate had always been good to Barry, treated him like her own.
'How's my Barry?' She`d coo whenever he visited the house, which was nearly every day. Either to collect his boss or deliver him or deliver papers or collect them. Or just wait. Barry never asked questions, he just did as he was told. Then she'd make Barry a cup of tea, and sometimes a meal, and they'd talk. She'd been so easy to talk to.
During his first visit, he'd told her his entire life story. It hadn't taken long. Not many people had ever listened to Barry, but she always had.
'Call me Kate,' she used to say.
Barry couldn't do that. His boss called her Babe. Barry certainly couldn't do that. Daniel and the others called her Kate. He wanted to call her Mum, but he was too shy. So he settled for, Mrs W, short for White. Barry thought the boss would like that; respect. The boss was big on respect.
Once when his boss was away somewhere, Mrs W had been a little drunk and had poured her heart out to Barry. He couldn't help her, but he'd listened, nervously in case his boss came back early. Thankfully, she went to lie down on the couch to sober up, while Barry retreated to the kitchen to read the tabloids.
She'd found out her husband had been cheating on her, yet again.
'I've never even looked at another man,' she'd told Barry.
Barry had believed her. He couldn't understand it; she was the woman of his dreams, older certainly, but she was pure class and she listened. She'd told him other things which Barry decided he hadn't heard. No wonder she was sad. She used to ruffle his hair sometimes, he'd melt.
He didn't know how it had happened but she'd transformed him. After a while when he looked in the mirror, he saw somebody he didn't recognize. Somebody well dressed with clean, shiny, bouncy hair. Somebody who could even meet his own gaze. She'd done that, little by little. And with enormous patience.
Daniel had treated Barry like his little brother, promised to be there for his first hit. He was.
'Alright, son?' He'd ask.
They used to go out for a few drinks once a week. Barry looked up to Daniel. He knew Daniel had a reputation as a ladies' man.
'Piece of advice, son?' Daniel had often asked him, in his distinctive raspy tone.
'You bet, Danny,' Barry always answered.
He instinctively knew Daniel was worldly and sophisticated. Somebody he could and did learn from. Not just about the mechanics of the job, Barry had a natural talent for the intricacies of violence and associated matters, but about life; drinking, eating, clothes and women.
'You could go far, son. Remember, don't shit on your own doorstep,' Daniel advised him once.
Barry thought back to that now. He'd suspected that his friendliness to the boss's wife had rung alarm bells and that Daniel was looking out for him. Now he knows it was something else.
Barry is standing in front of the house. He's looking up at the window, his mouth is open wide and he's dribbling. He's confused. It must be the lack of sleep.
The only sleep he has is alcohol induced, but that's not real sleep he knows, and that's getting difficult. Even worse is the debilitating self hatred he feels and the echoing sense of loss. He doesn't know how much more he can take.
Barry has packed his bags. He's going to drive up north after this visit. Barry can't face his boss. He thinks his boss will take him out after all.
Barry knows he's on the way to becoming a liability. If he isn't already. He's a nervous wreck. His boss isn't speaking at all and Barry just stands there wilting. His appearance has deteriorated. Barry doesn't look in the mirror anymore.
But he's got money. He wants to leave the country. The thing is, he's never been abroad. He doesn't know what to do. He misses Mrs W and Daniel. So does his boss. More than he ever thought possible.
Barry had thought about going to the police and spilling the beans about the fire, but that wouldn't bring Kate and Daniel back.
At least, the police aren't after him, although he almost wishes they were. A man was seen running from the scene of the fire, but his description was too vague.
Barry can't shut out the screams.
Are Mrs W and Daniel waiting for him? They're holding out their hands, making ushering gestures to him. Barry has a good feeling. He rips away the red and white police tape from across the doorway and enters the house. The front door is easy to open, and he makes his way excitedly up the stairs, ignoring the cloying stench of charred destruction. He stops before he gets to the flat and listens, the song is playing again and Kate and Daniel are laughing. That song must be their all time favourite. It's his too.
The flat door is lying off to the side on the floor so Barry walks in, the kitchen door is half open. Barry knocks on the kitchen door before he pushes it open.
A day later Barry's car was found by the police just up the road from the house. His luggage was inside. But Barry wasn't. Somebody had rung the police to say that a person roughly corresponding to the description of the man who had fled the fire had been seen lurking in the area again.
The police decided to watch the house that night.
Two officers parked outside, but fell asleep and awoke after midnight. It was warm and the car windows were open. They woke up to what they described as:
'The sound of a song playing, something that, even after one listening, stayed in your head.'
But they'd never heard it before.
'It wasn't loud,' they said, 'it just... carried.'
Then they'd seen a weak light at the window. They'd walked up to the house and looked up at the window at a couple moving to the music. The street light was flickering on and off irregularly, and the moon and stars weren't there. Two cigarette butts fell from the window and dropped into the drain at their feet. They heard them sizzle out.
They noticed the police tape lying coiled in front of the door and entered the house carefully, carrying torches. The door was easy to open. They made their way up to the burnt out flat. The door was lying to the side. The music they had heard outside came to an abrupt end.
They stood in the doorway. Directly opposite them through the blackened and acrid destruction, was a half open door with a hint of subdued light bleeding out. They pushed open the door, there was still smoke in the air. The room was a scorched mess, but clearly there was nobody there.
After securing the house they hurried away. They stood leaning against their car, shaking their clothes and running their hands through their hair.
'This burnt smell, it just clings to you,' one said.
'Have a cigarette. It might mask the smell,' the other answered without irony.
It started to rain and that song started playing again, not loudly, it just... carried. They looked up at the window and saw a couple smoking and swaying to the song.
Even in that light and through a thin film of drizzle they could see a couple clearly in love. And with all the time in the world.
Billy's golfing ability mysteriously improves overnight, but at what cost? By Ronald Schulte.
At six over through twelve holes, Billy had a great round going by his standards. With a little luck he just might break eighty. However, as he watched the sun dip toward the horizon from the thirteenth tee, he wasn't sure he'd finish before dark. A damn shame that would be, walking away from a round like this. Time to stop dawdling. He grabbed his five-iron and walked up onto the tee box.
Number thirteen wasn't a tough hole. It played about one-ninety to the front edge, with a nice wide green and just one small bunker in the back right. There was a little water on the right, but it was well short of the green and not really in play. The contours felt good to Billy's eye, and his normal right-to-left draw would be perfect for feeding the ball toward the back-left pin location.
Billy teed up his ball and started his pre-shot routine. He visualized the shot he wanted to play, took a deep breath, and approached the ball. Two practice swings, as always. Another deep breath. Then the swing.
He knew right away that he'd mis-hit it. He'd made contact, just barely, but far from the center of the clubface. It was the dreaded shank, a hosel-rocket, and in Billy's case, a serious momentum killer. The ball shot out diagonally to the right, straight into the (not really in play) water hazard.
Billy slammed his five-iron into his bag and stalked off toward the pond, wondering if he could find a way to salvage a bogey. It was a lateral hazard, so at least he'd be able to take a drop a little closer to the green. He walked along the edge of the pond, glancing casually into the water, looking for his ball, knowing he wouldn't fish it out even if he found it.
The superstition was nearly as old as the course itself. No one was sure exactly how it had started, but Billy suspected the hole number - thirteen - was at least partially to blame. His father had worked the course as a kid, caddying and fishing golf balls out of the various water hazards scattered around the course. All of the hazards, that is, except that pond to the right of thirteen. Even back then, no one would go in there.
It was bad luck.
There was no shortage of rumors describing the strange accidents that had befallen those golfers brazen enough to fetch their golf balls from that stagnant water. Norm Tucker, dead from a stroke three weeks after retrieving his wayward shot. The old club pro Freddy Funkhauser, gone missing just a few days after plucking a ball from the drink. Morty Barnhardt, heart attack. Gerry Walters, golf ball to the head. All rubbish, of course. But since there were also tales of golfers whose games had forever gone to shit after recovering a ball from that hazard... well, now. Better safe than sorry.
Billy didn't see his ball, so made his best guess at the proper spot to take a drop. He was still over a hundred yards from the green. He shook his head; he'd be hard-pressed to make double bogey from here. He fished around in his golf bag for a new ball... and couldn't find one.
Huh? He was certain he'd been carrying at least a half dozen balls the last time he'd checked. He cycled through all of the bag's pockets twice, reaching into nooks and crannies, hoping against hope, but he was out of luck. The bag was empty.
"Shit!" he shouted again. This was always the way of it. Whenever he had a good round going, something would happen to derail him. He glanced toward the water, then at his scorecard, then at the water again.
"Oh what the hell," he muttered.
He walked to the edge of the pond, searching more seriously this time. He walked about thirty yards back toward the tee, then back to his bag, and then thirty yards further on toward the green. The pond was mostly in shadow now, and he couldn't see the bottom. He didn't see any golf balls.
"Well, that's that." The round was officially over. With a sigh, he walked back to fetch his golf bag.
As he pulled the strap over his shoulder, a disturbance in the water drew his attention. Something suddenly broke the surface, protruding maybe a foot into the air. A log?
No. An arm.
As Billy scrambled away in horror, the balled up fist at the end of the arm slowly opened. A gleaming white eyeball appeared in the palm of a moss-covered hand. Then the motion stopped, and everything was still.
Billy stopped scrambling away. He took a deep breath, then another. Closed his eyes, reopened them.
He no longer saw an arm. It really was a log, just as he'd first thought. And the eyeball wasn't an eyeball at all. It was a golf ball.
Billy got to his feet and walked a little closer. He could see the little red Mickey Mouse he drew on all of his golf balls to help identify them. Not just any ball, then; his ball.
Where had that log come from? Had it been there the whole time? Maybe he'd simply missed it in the shadows. Maybe the motion he thought he'd witnessed had been something else: a frog leaping, perhaps, or a bird taking flight. Or maybe it had been one of those giant snapping turtles. Surely it hadn't been the log itself, emerging from the water, bearing his golf ball.
That made no sense.
He glanced once more at his scorecard, then snatched the ball from atop the rotted log before he could change his mind.
Billy ended up making a great bogey on thirteen. After retrieving his ball from the pond, he'd hit a beautiful wedge to the center of the green, then drained a twenty-five footer to save bogey. He'd let out a chuckle and a small sigh of relief; his game seemed to have avoided the curse. Still, it had left him at seven over with five holes to go, and after wasting all that time on thirteen, it was too late to finish before dark. He'd called it a night after sinking his bogey putt.
When Billy returned a few days later to play in the Monday night league, he had a dozen brand new golf balls in his bag. He wasn't about to repeat his mistake of running out mid-round. Yet when he stepped up to the first tee, he was holding the same ball he'd recovered from the pond on thirteen. He hadn't intended to use it again, but when he'd seen it amongst the other balls, he'd felt something. He couldn't explain it; it had just seemed like the right choice. So he'd grabbed it.
Billy teed it up and ripped a three hundred yard drive down the right-center of the fairway.
"Nice bomb, partner!" shouted Steve Finkle, Billy's playing partner. Their opponents - the Scott brothers, Jason and George - raised their eyebrows; Billy wasn't exactly known for his distance.
For his second shot, Billy hit a sand wedge from ninety yards. It landed five feet past the hole, took one bounce, then spun back, settling about three feet from the pin. Billy rolled in the putt for birdie and won the hole.
On the second hole, a par three, Billy hit a seven iron to ten feet and drained the putt for birdie.
By the time they'd finished nine holes, Billy's scorecard totaled thirty strokes. Six strokes under par, seven strokes better than his personal best on the front nine, thirteen strokes less than his nine-hole handicap.
"Seven handicap my ass," grumbled Jason. George just walked away shaking his head.
"What the hell did you eat for breakfast?" asked Steve.
"I don't know," answered Billy. He felt like he'd just stepped out of a trance. During the round, he'd known he was playing well, but he hadn't realized just how well until Steve had tallied up the final score.
"Well, that was amazing, partner! I hope it doesn't lower your handicap too much! Let's grab a beer in the clubhouse!" Steve slapped Billy on the back and drove off to take his clubs to his car.
Billy pulled the golf ball from his pocket and turned it absently in his hands. He'd played almost eighteen holes with it now, but it still looked to be in pretty good shape; no cuts, no major scuff marks.
"I'll be playing you again," said Billy to his golf ball.
It was the start of an incredible run. For the next month, Billy was unstoppable. He followed up his thirty a week later with a thirty-three on the back nine, causing one of his opponents to snap his putter over his leg in disgust. He shot thirty-five the following week - his worst score of the run - but still good enough to win his match; his opponent, Jim Hughes, was the best golfer in the league, and while Jim bested Billy's score by a stroke, Jim had to give Billy four strokes due to their respective handicaps. Another thirty-three followed, and then the best round of all: a twenty-nine on the front that included two eagles, beating his thirty from a month earlier, only one stroke off the course record this time.
As the weekend of the course championship approached, Billy's handicap was down to a four for eighteen holes. He'd started the season as a fourteen. Whispers were flying around the clubhouse. Jim Hughes had won the last three championships, and five of the last six. But now some of the members were putting their money on Billy to dethrone the king. The attention made Billy nervous.
He went out for a final practice round late Friday afternoon before the weekend tournament. The weather wasn't great; it had been drizzling all day. He had the place to himself. He made good time through the front nine, scoring a casual thirty-four with no bogies (he'd only made two of those since the start of his incredible run). He birdied ten, parred eleven, birdied twelve. As he walked toward the thirteenth tee, however, he realized he wasn't alone on the course after all.
The man seated on the bench behind the thirteenth tee box was wearing an oversized rain jacket with the hood cinched tightly. He was stretched out, legs crossed, arms spread across the back of the bench. He didn't appear to be in any hurry. As Billy dropped his golf bag near the bench, the man didn't move an inch. Billy wondered if the man was asleep. Billy hesitated a few moments, then cleared his throat and spoke.
"Hello, sir? Excuse me? Do you mind if I play through?"
Apparently the man wasn't asleep. The hood turned toward Billy, the head nodded, and an arm extended toward the tee box as if to say, "Be my guest." The hood was cinched so tightly that Billy couldn't see any of the man's face within.
"Thank you." Billy grabbed his six iron - he used to hit five on this hole, but he'd been hitting his irons a little further lately - and stepped up onto the tee box.
"Quite a run you're on lately," came a slightly muffled voice from the within the hood.
Billy glanced over, slightly startled. For some reason he hadn't expected the man to speak.
"Er... thank you. Who is that? Do I know you?"
"Not likely. I don't come out much anymore. Starting to feel my age, know what I mean? I still pay attention to things around here, though. I keep tabs on most of the regulars. I knew your father. He was a good man," said the stranger.
"Yes, he was," said Billy. An awkward silence ensued. Finally Billy cleared his throat and stepped over to tee up his ball.
"Still playing that ball, huh? I didn't think it would last more than a round or two."
"Yeah, it's proven quite durable... wait. Who are you?"
"I'm the one who fetched that ball out of yonder pond for you. Remember? You damn near crapped your pants!" The man slapped his leg and laughed until a coughing fit caused him to stop abruptly.
"The ball was on a log," said Billy. The color was slowly draining from his face.
"Hah! What are the odds?" The man chuckled, then propped himself up a little higher on the bench. Billy could have sworn that he heard something pop as the man moved.
"Mister, I was alone that night," Billy insisted.
"Keep telling yourself that if it helps you sleep better at night." Billy couldn't see it, but he was positive that the man was grinning at him from within the hood. The two stared at each other for a few moments. Billy finally broke the silence.
"You fetched that ball? For real?"
"For real, kid. Fetched and then some. 'Enhanced' is probably a better word for it. You're welcome, by the way."
"My pleasure, Billy! My pleasure indeed! And since I can tell that you're a nice guy like me, it stands to reason that you'd want to repay my favor. Am I right?"
"I guess that makes sense. If what you say is true," said Billy cautiously. Cold sweat dripped down the small of his back. His mouth had gone very dry. He needed a drink.
"Of course! But we're gentlemen - this is a golf course, after all - and gentlemen wouldn't lie to each other. So... care to shake on it, friend? A favor for a favor? What do you say?"
Billy looked at the man's outstretched sleeve-covered arm uncertainly. Light rain pattered gently against the rubbery material.
"What... favor... are you expecting in return?" asked Billy.
"Not sure just yet. But when I'm ready, I'll pull you in. Deal?"
Billy reached forward and shook the man's hand. What other choice did he have?
"Deal," Billy said reluctantly.
"Excellent! Now go ahead and knock it in the hole, Billy! Mind the water hazard, though!" said the man with a cackle.
As Billy walked up to the ball, he realized his right hand had a little mud on it. He casually wiped it off on his pants, then started his pre-shot routine. The gentleman on the bench leaned back in satisfaction to watch the shot.
Billy caught the ball flush this time, and the ball sailed true, just as he'd visualized it. It hit the rain-softened green with a little sidespin, checked up, and rolled lazily into the cup. His first ever ace. He jumped excitedly into the air and turned toward the strange gentleman.
"Woo-hoo! Hole in one! Did you see that, mister! Did you see..."
But the man was no longer there. The bench was empty.
The club championship was a thirty-six-hole stroke-play gross score affair, no handicaps involved, played over the course of two days. The pairings for the first day were random; the pairings for the second day would be based on score. For the first eighteen, Billy found himself paired with Jason Scott. Jason eyed Billy warily as he tied his clubs onto the back of the cart.
"I'm going to be watching you, Billy. I don't know what you're doing lately, but something smells wrong. I'll be watching," he repeated as he circled around and took his place in the passenger's seat. Billy gave him a tight smile but said nothing. Jason had the largest biceps Billy had ever seen on a golfer. Billy wasn't about to get into an argument with the guy. Jason snorted as Billy climbed in and drove to the first tee.
The results were much the same as they'd been for the last month. Jason finished the first eighteen holes in eighty strokes, eight strokes over par. Billy finished with a sixty-seven, three under par. As they shook hands on the eighteenth green, Jason shook his head. "I don't get it, Billy. I don't get how someone can get so good so fast. I really don't. But you seem to be the real deal. Best of luck tomorrow."
"Thanks," Billy muttered. Jason detached his clubs from the cart and walked - not quite stalked - away.
After all the players had completed their first round, Billy walked into the clubhouse to check the leaderboard. Not surprisingly, Jim Hughes had posted the best score, a five-under-par sixty-five. Billy's sixty-seven was good enough for second, only two strokes back.
"Looks like we're in the final group tomorrow, Billy," called Jim from the bar. He had a big grin on his face.
"I see that," answered Billy weakly.
"Looking forward to it. Let's give them a good show tomorrow!"
"Sure thing, Jim. A good show," stammered Billy, searching for words. But Jim, ever arrogant, had already turned his attention back to his cronies at the bar. Billy wandered to the other end of the bar and ordered a club soda. He had a pretty bad headache. He popped a few ibuprofen tablets and sat in silence. A few people wandered over to compliment him on his round, but soon no one was paying him any attention.
As he sipped his club soda in silence, he pulled his golf ball from his pocket and examined it. It was really starting to show some age now. There was a serious scuff mark near the logo, a small gouge on the bottom, and his original Mickey Mouse decoration was now only faintly visible. The ball was barely playable. Billy wondered if it was even legal anymore under the rules of golf. He quickly pocketed the ball and shoved that thought from his mind.
He'd play the ball until it tore in half.
This line of thinking, of course, inevitably led to the gentleman he'd shaken hands with on the thirteenth tee. He'd certainly given Billy goose bumps. The way he'd spoken, the mud on his hand, the way he'd disappeared so quickly. The hole-in-one. Billy could almost believe he'd imagined the whole thing. Maybe his euphoria at hitting his first ace had mixed with his superstitions about the thirteenth hole to form some sort of false memory?
Keep telling yourself that if it helps you sleep better at night.
Billy finished his club soda, paid his tab, and went home. He turned in early hoping for a good night's sleep before the final round, but sleep eluded him for much of the night.
Billy could feel a buzz in the air as he carried his clubs from the practice green to the first tee where Jim awaited with their cart. Jim had conveniently neglected to pick Billy up on his way past. It was all gamesmanship; Jim was notorious for it. It didn't bother Billy. He was used to it.
"Morning Bill!" Jim bellowed as Billy tied his clubs onto the back of the cart. Billy could only see the back of Jim's head, but he could imagine the enormous shit-eating grin on the man's face.
I'm going to wipe that away by the end of the round, thought Billy. He realized suddenly how badly he wanted to win this tournament. Billy's run had been going on for a little over a month; Jim's had been going on for years. It was time for someone to cut him down to size. He had some work to do, coming in to the final round down two strokes, but for the new Billy two strokes was nothing. He felt confident as he settled into the passenger seat and waited for the tee to clear.
There was very little drama for the first three holes. Jim and Billy both parred the first. Billy gained a stroke by birdieing the second, but Jim snatched it back with a birdie of his own on the third. "Nice putt," said Billy. Jim gave Billy a wink as he plucked his ball from the bottom of the cup. They recorded their scores and drove on toward the fourth tee.
Then the fun began.
Billy birdied the fourth, fifth, and sixth. Jim did his best to keep up, birdieing two of the three, but still saw his lead shrink to a single stroke after six holes. Both men parred the seventh, then Billy birdied the eighth to gain back another stroke. Both birdied the short par five ninth. When the dust settled, their respective scorecards showed that Billy had posted a thirty, while Jim had posted a thirty-two.
They were now dead even.
After hearing the results from the front nine, a small gallery formed and followed their group to the tenth tee. The club hadn't seen this sort of contest in years; Jim usually ran away with these tournaments. Billy hated the scrutiny. Jim seemed to be his usual unflappable self.
But looks can be deceiving.
When Jim hit his tee shot on number ten, he made the first real mistake of the day. He tried to draw the ball around the corner - the hole doglegged slightly to the left - but the ball never turned and it ended up behind a tree in the right rough. He had no choice but to punch the ball out sideways into the fairway. He managed to make bogey from that position to limit the damage, but Billy stuck his approach two feet from the pin and made birdie to take a two-stroke lead.
On eleven, Jim hit it in a green side bunker and failed to get up and down. Another bogey. Billy made another birdie to go up four. As Billy recorded his score on his scorecard, he noticed that his nose was bleeding.
Jim parred the twelfth. Billy made birdie to go up five. Jim threw his putter in disgust, causing the small gallery to gasp. It was a wonder the club didn't break or hit someone. As this all happened, Billy was pinching his nose with the towel from his golf bag. The blood was really gushing now.
"You okay, chief?" asked Jim as he pulled himself together and returned to the cart. The man was still frustrated, but Billy thought the look of concern on Jim's face was sincere.
"Dozebleed. Doh big deal," responded Billy. But he didn't like it. He never had nosebleeds.
They pulled up to the thirteenth tee. Billy's nose was still bleeding. He wasn't sure how he'd be able to hit the ball, but he had the honor and had to hit first. He procrastinated as long as reasonably possible before walking up onto the tee box. He dropped the bloody towel on the bench and teed up his ball, sniffling to keep the blood from dripping out. He started his pre-shot routine. He visualized the shot he wanted to play, took a deep breath, and approached the ball. Two practice swings, as always. A dribble of blood escaped his nose, running down his upper lip, down his chin, down his neck, staining the collar of his golf shirt. Billy ignored it.
Another deep breath.
Hosel-rocket. Dead into the water hazard on the right.
A huge splash erupted from the surface of the water. There'd be no recovering the ball this time.
The crowd gasped.
Jim gasped. Then chuckled.
"Trying to give me a fighting chance, eh, Billy?"
As Billy resumed pinching his nose, Jim hit his tee shot. It was one of his best swings of the day. The ball settled about four feet from the cup.
"I still have a pulse!" shouted Jim to the crowd. The crowd erupted in laughter.
Jim drove the cart toward the water hazard. Billy conferred with Jim, and they agreed on the point where Billy would take a drop. Billy realized that his nose was no longer bleeding, so he jammed the bloody towel into the golf cart's basket. Jim glanced at it in disgust but said nothing. He left Billy with a spare ball and a few clubs, then drove off toward the green.
The crowd murmured as Billy walked along the edge of the hazard, peering into the water. He walked back and forth a few times, past the spot where he'd recovered his golf ball all those weeks ago, muttering to himself.
"Where are you this time, mister? I sure could use that ball back right about now," muttered Billy. He finally backed away from the water to take his drop.
After accounting for the penalty stroke, Billy was playing his third shot. He dropped the ball - a brand new ball, clean and pristine, such an alien sight to Billy's eyes - in the agreed-upon spot, stepped up to the ball with his sand wedge, and promptly bladed the shot into the tiny bunker behind the green. He grabbed his handful of clubs and stomped toward the green. As he approached, Jim stepped onto the green, marked his ball, and threw Billy a knowing wink. Billy ignored him.
Billy stepped into the bunker with his sand wedge. He played an explosion shot but hit it too fat. The ball barely squirted out onto the fringe of the green.
Jennifer is glad her daughter is finally financially independent... by Joe Giordano.
"How does your daughter enjoy receiving a paycheck?" Hairdresser Emma clipped Jennifer's brunette bob.
"We like it more."
Emma's scissors snipped. "I get it. She's no longer your financial obligation."
Jennifer sighed. "Cara graduated without student debt, but it wasn't easy. The day she matriculated at the University of Texas, we cut our credit cards in two. Cash-only disciplined our spending. I can count on one hand the number of times Ted and I ate out in the last four years. Vacations? Forget about it."
Emma said, "You two lived like a cloistered religious order. We insisted our William work while in school. Bill Sr. told him, 'Nobody will roll you over in bed and stuff a hundred dollar bill inside your pyjamas pocket.'"
"Cara majored in computer science and the curriculum was gruelling. We didn't want her distracted. Her job was to graduate. Ours was to foot the bill."
"Cara's done well?"
Jennifer smiled. "Google gave her a signing bonus. She's attending their training program in Dallas. As NASA would say, 'We have liftoff.'"
"Will Cara be home for Christmas?"
"If work allows. I'm speaking with her later today."
Cara and Jennifer connected on a Facetime call.
Cara's brow furrowed. "Mom, who did your hair?"
"You don't like it?"
"It's okay. I go to Vidal Sassoon in Fort Worth."
Jennifer smiled. "Your hair's lovely. How's the job going?"
Cara beamed. "Terrific. I met lots of new friends. We're together every weekend."
"What about Christmas?"
"My boss will advance me a few days of vacation. I'm coming home."
"I can't wait to show you my new car."
"You traded in my old Taurus? What did you buy?"
"A canary-yellow Porsche 911 Carrera."
"Oh. My goodness."
"It's a rocket. I turn heads."
"Your signing bonus was that large? Did you set aside any money for Google's 401K plan?"
Cara's face turned serious. "Mom, I'm twenty-one, a financially independent woman. I make my own decisions."
"Of course. I was just wondering... Never mind. Your father and I want to visit Dallas after the first of the year to see where you're living."
"I have a duplex apartment in Luxor Heights. Twentieth floor. You'll love the view."
"Wow. You're moving fast. I'm not sure your Dad and I can keep up."
"So much is happening. I can't wait to tell you."
"Suddenly my daughter has transformed into a mature woman. I'm so proud. When you were a child, we knew what to buy you for Christmas. You'd squeal with delight over a new doll or a blouse. What could we possibly give to the sophisticated young businesswoman who has everything?"
"Well. You know, I have an idea."
"Perhaps, you won't consider it a festive enough present."
"Honey, if you need something, tell me." "How would you and Dad feel about paying off my credit card debt?"
A drifter working as a barkeep is befriended by an unusual regular; by Tony Billinghurst.
My father died shortly after I was born. Mum's latest partner was a pig; he didn't like me and I didn't like him. To make matters worse, I think Mum was afraid of him; whenever we had arguments she'd side with him. It all finally blew up on my 16th birthday with another row and I'd had enough; I told them to shove it and left. The last time I saw Mum she was standing at the gate crying. I didn't know what I wanted to do in life so I drifted from one dead end job to another, I even briefly considered joining the Navy but didn't and I did bar jobs instead.
In this pub it always happens when it rains. The bus stop outside doesn't have a shelter; those waiting put up with rain till it gets heavy then overcome their misgivings and come in and wait. Most keep their backs to the bar and face the window. The more brazen sit at the tables and don't give a damn. A few buy something small like a bag of nuts to ease their consciences.
It's a biker pub and at night and weekends it's jammed with petrol heads. It's a beer out of the bottle, full throttle service, shots of whisky, ear shattering, hard rock, head shaking, hot, stale, dingy place with leathers and tattoos at every turn and the largest, most aggressive jukebox on the market. The only thing drawing breath that isn't tattooed is the landlord's dog, Vincent, and even he doesn't go near the toilets they're so dire. Most of the time the place is awash with testosterone but get a biker alone and you often see a messed up hurting life. This game taught me most people put on an act but eventually the real personality breaks through the charade. When that happens, most want to talk and some find it easier to talk to a stranger; as a barman, being that stranger is part of the job.
That day, it was raining hard; passengers waiting for the bus crept in, desperately trying not to catch a barman's eye. Amongst the crowd was an older guy; he definitely wasn't our usual sort of customer. He wore a suit, tie, raincoat and a Trilby. He looked around, hesitated, took his hat off, shook it, put it back on again then started towards the bar, got half way, stopped dead, drew a breath, went pale and stared at me, wide eyed. One of the other barmen greeted him, but he didn't respond; I don't think he heard him. Eventually he came up to me, still staring intently, then looking past me at the shelves behind the bar and pointed.
"Could I have one of those, please?"
"What, a pickled egg?"
"No, the pork things." He picked up the packet, took out his purse and paid. He clearly wasn't going to eat the scratchings. "Is this your regular job?" He asked putting them in his pocket.
"Yes, here most days."
"Have you always worked in pubs?"
"No, I've had a go at a lot of things but its all zero hours contracts now. When the boss fancies someone new the hours dry up then he chucks you out to make room."
"But surely that's not legal."
"Maybe not, but work's erratic and bills aren't when you're at the bottom of the heap."
A bus came and most of those sheltering rushed out. The old man turned to the window, then looked at his watch.
"I must go... it's been very nice talking to you...?"
"Glenn. See you again soon."
I thought no more about him, but the following day he came back. I was serving a Knucklehead and a rough cider chaser. Knuckleheads take a while, especially when you can't find a clean tumbler, so another barman asked the old guy what he'd like. He blanked him and waited for me to finish.
"Hello... Glenn. Nice to see you again. Remember me, I was here yesterday? Is there any chance I could have a coffee... do you sell coffee?"
"Hello; sure, we can do you Americano, Short Black or Latte"
"Oh, I don't mind. What sort do you drink?"
"Americano it is then."
"Small or large?"
He thought for a moment.
"Large please; life's all decisions these days, isn't it?" Two other customers came in, so I gave the old guy his coffee and left to serve them. The old guy put his newspaper and coffee on a table near the bar and sat. Every time I glanced at him, he was staring at me; it was unnerving. He waited until it was quiet again, then got up and caught my eye. "Could I have a whisky please Glenn - that one looks interesting." He pointing to a half empty bottle behind me.
"Would you like to go large for another £2?" He didn't respond for a while as if the question was too hard for him.
"I'd better not. Could I have some water with it please? So, have you worked here for long?"
In bar work, if a customer wants to talk, you hear what they're saying, serve others and keeping the conversation going with bland chit-chat. An experienced hand can have two or three conversations going at once. The skill is to leave each customer thinking you were talking to them alone. People come to bars to talk, few come to discuss and most leave with the views they came with. The old guy was different; he could talk on a wide range of subjects and always asked for my opinion. If I side stepped a sensitive topic, he wouldn't let it go, he insisted I told him what I thought. He became a regular and only wanted to be served by me, and as time went by the conversations started to change. Other than asking how I was that day, or was there much traffic on my way to work, he stopped asking me my opinion and started to tell me odd things. I didn't realise what had happened for a while until one Tuesday I spotted the change. He started as usual.
"Morning Glenn; how are you today? I'm a bit later this morning, I've been planting parsnips in the old strawberry bed, the one by the fence."
"Yes, tricky blighters, I've tried everywhere and they won't grow, so I thought I'd try there; it might work. The grass has started growing early this year, the patch by the kitchen window is still too wet to cut so I took the mower to bits and found why it was squeaking instead."
"Did that fix it?"
"Yes, a bit of fence wire was caught in it."
The old guy was always polite and often didn't drink what he ordered and always left a generous tip. But every time he left, I felt uneasy, but not for any reason I could pin down. He'd been coming in for nearly three months and I thought he hadn't been looking too good lately but I didn't like to mention it, when one day he got off his bar stool a little more unsteadily than usual and instead of saying goodbye, he stood still. I looked to see if he was ok and I thought he had a tear in his eye. After a while, he lent over the bar, swallowed hard and patted me on the arm. "Well, goodbye... take care of yourself," and he left, turned at the door, waved and never came back.
A few weeks later, an older lady came in, very cautiously. She wasn't our type of customer either. As she searched around the room, she spotting a large wall poster of a biker chick who'd forgotten to dress draped over a Harley; she recoiled, clutched her handbag tightly and took a rapid step back. She saw me, looked relieved and came over, rather hesitantly.
"Excuse me... are you Glenn?"
"Yes. What can I get you?" Ignoring the question, she opened her handbag and took out two photos.
"Oh, I'd better buy something. Do you have tea?"
"No; I can do you some coffee."
"Better not, it doesn't agree with me. Can I have an apple juice then please?"
I found a bottle at the back of the chiller cabinet and as she watched me pour it, she seemed to be coming to a decision.
"Glenn - you don't mind me calling you that do you?" I tried to put her at her ease.
"Glenn's fine, I answer to a lot worse." She didn't smile.
"Glenn - I understand a while ago my husband used to come in here." She put one of the photos on the bar and pushed it towards me. It was of the old guy.
"Ah yes, I haven't seen him for a while, how is he?" She didn't reply, but took the photo and put it back in her bag. Looking at me closely she nodded and said something so quietly that I couldn't hear it, then she put the other photo on the bar, facing me.
"I wanted to come and thank you. You were a great help to my husband - a very great help."
"Was I?" She nodded to the photo. I picked it up. It was of a young man, my age and build. It was uncanny, like looking in a mirror, we were so alike we could have been twins. "Good heavens."
"Yes - this is our son. He was a Corporal in the Army. He was killed in Afghanistan last year - stepped on one of those improvised bomb things. He was terribly injured and died two weeks later. He and my husband had a silly row at the end of his last leave, he went back to Afghanistan and they never had a chance to make up. Talking to you helped him to come to ter,s with our loss. It gave him a lot of peace, I think in his heart he was finally able to say goodbye to Jonathan. I just wanted to say I'm very grateful to you - very grateful." She looked at me, tears welling in her eyes and picked up the photo. I didn't know what to say for the best.
"Do tell your husband I always enjoy our chats... I look forward to seeing him again soon."
She shook her head, almost imperceptibly and as she turned to go, she whispered:
"Goodbye dear." I watched her go and just said: "Goodbye..." but couldn't say more.
Emma Goldfarb, a high-flying commercial artist, has almost given up finding a partner who matches her intellect and ambition when she meets Glenn, and discovers a new kind of peace; by Gary Ives.
Em glanced through the window over the sink to see Glenn down on one knee rubbing Tuck's huge head while talking soft and low to Nip. The oxen were still yoked. She knew he wouldn't come in to eat until they'd been unyoked and rubbed down, and he had washed up at the outside spigot. She had a thick piece of fresh salmon to poach with a little garlic and ginger. Glenn had grown fond of these two critters and she reckoned he was anticipating separation anxiety as they were due to return to the owner soon. He was funny that way with oxen and mules he trained. He'd spent three months with this pair and, as always, grown attached to the animals. Noticing him washing up, she put the salmon filets into the pan but did not light the fire. "Let's have a beer on the porch and catch the sundown before we eat,' she said.
Years earlier Emma Goldfarb had stumbled into this strangely comfortable relationship with Glenn Harka. Now they spent most nights together at her place on the lake but sometimes at the A-frame up on Henderson Peak. He came down to the city only to hit the book stores and then only rarely as he loathed the traffic, the noise, and crowds. He was that way. Twice they'd vacationed for a month, once in Oaxaca and another time on Skye. Emma Goldfarb had family money and she had grown up rich but ambitious too, enjoying a very successful career as a commercial artist. While still a young artist she had a breakthrough when her submissions to Paulson-Palmer Agency secured a fat renewable contract with a nationwide fast food giant. This was followed within a year by another contract with Tabu Perfume. She thrived and by her 30s had reached the comfortable plateau of being able to turn down job offers. She was steadfastly independent and while she had enjoyed a few relationships, none of the men measured up to her idea of love and certainly not commitment. Each relationship had ended when she asked the man to leave. Experiencing these men, a Silicon Valley tech, a realtor, and a professor, had left her with a strong dislike for pretty boys, pretense, greed, drugs, and inflated egos. So few men of her acquaintance could engage any woman as an equal much less a superior in any field of endeavor or intellect. Whoever claimed that men were the more rational gender had it wrong. By 40 she had come to the belief that needing a man was a weakness.
Glenn she met when searching for a carpenter to install a new butcher block countertop at her condo in the city. He had come down to the city when a bad recession hit Oregon particularly hard. He'd been living in his camper, jobless and reduced to scabbing for work every morning like many others at an intersection by Lumber Liquidators. On any day he might be hired to sheet-rock, or dig lines for plumbers, or anything construction. These contractors paid Mexican wages, in cash - just enough for food and gas. Emma's building superintendent hired Glenn who worked one weekend on the countertop installation which had been tricky, necessitating difficult cuts to accommodate a corner placed range, a grill, and an odd shaped wet bar. So impressed with his work and his quiet, smooth demeanor, she asked him if he'd be interested in a longer project converting the small barn at her lake property into a studio. Later would come the boathouse. Then the loft apartment in the barn. Initially Glen lived in his camper parked behind Em's barn. On weekends Em invited him to use the kitchen and in time to lunch with her in the lake house. She held a master's degree in Fine Arts and owned her own studio employing two illustrators. Glenn had nothing but his tools and his truck. He was older, self-taught, intelligent, and polite, if a little shy. He was widely read and an amateur naturalist. She perceived him not as handsome, but attractive by way of his body carriage, the graceful way he moved and worked, and with a rugged face which Em thought made him look like a gangster or a pirate.
Early into the project Glenn adopted a stray kitten that just showed up one day. This cat seldom left his side. "Maybe she's my guardian angel, Em," he'd said, and so he named the kitten Gabriella. Emma insisted that he let her have Gabriella spayed as she did not want other cats around. Glenn said there was no need, that he could fix Gabby himself once the kitten was a little older.
"And how you gonna do that, Dr. Glenn?"
"Don't worry Em, I'm good with animals," was all he said. And he was good with animals. He could call the crows that lived near the lake and blue jays took peanuts from his hands. He was taming two squabs which had hatched under the barn's eaves to ride on his shoulders.
In mid-summer she closed her town studio for a month and moved to the lake house. Soon the shared lunches advanced to shared beds as the pair drew in to one another. She told Glenn to stop work on the studio and proceed with the loft conversion so that he could move there before winter. Afterwards he could resume work on the studio and boat house enjoying more comfortable living arrangements. To anyone inquiring, Glenn was simply the hired carpenter. In the city her friends cautioned her about housing this carpenter. "You don't know anything about the man, Em. For all you know he's a thief or worse yet a serial killer. You've got no protection out there. He could get drunk and try to rape you; you ever thought of that, huh? You're takin' a big chance, girl."
And she knew that. But, ever headstrong, as always, she trusted her instincts. Glenn was something rare in a man, quiet, strong, sure of himself, without an ounce of braggadocio. He reminded her at times of Gary Cooper's High Noon cowboy. He made no demands on her. Over the table and in bed they had fascinating conversations. An excellent listener, he never challenged or criticized her views. He was widely read and loved discussing books and ideas. Glenn himself had some quirky ideas about reincarnation and had ventured the idea that all of us are possibly inhabited by the spirits of countless predecessors. He told her of having once undergone hypnosis which suggested he had lived a previous life as a teamster and wagon master in the Nineteenth Century. To test this, he had taken a job on a ranch in western Oregon where he broke horses and trained mules. "It came to me as natural as getting up in the morning." He had learned carpentry from his dad who was Cayuse Indian. After the death of his mother who had been shot dead by a drunken hunter, he and his dad moved around Oregon and Washington, working as itinerate carpenters, farriers, and animal doctors. "Dad," he said, "eventually located the hunter and killed him; he died in prison at Walla Walla. He was a very good man and I loved him. He was the only person I've ever known who was always right. Right about everything. Always." She would later learn that refusing to answer his draft notice during the Viet Nam war, Glenn had moved to British Colombia to work on a large cattle ranch, returning to Oregon only after the general amnesty had been issued. "That war was so wrong," was all that he'd say about this.
"Bother you any, that I'm from Jewish stock?" she had once asked to which he'd replied, with a chuckle, "Bother you any, that I'm from Indian stock?" Asked about his plans, he smiled and said, "I guess I don't plan more than a few days ahead. Reckon I just float on time; it seems to work for me." He cared nothing for money. "If I have my truck and tools I can survive," he'd told her. His passions were books, wood, and animals. A smooth, thoughtful lover, though shy with affection, he never made promises or plans. Emma Goldfarb considered Glenn Harka a treasure, a rare treasure.
One Labor Day weekend a Porsche 911 honked from the gate. Em looked up the hill and sighed. "Aw shit, it's Larry Spooner, an old roommate." Spooner was indeed the realtor with whom she'd cohabited for seven months, a spoiled fat-head whom she was sorry to have ever known. He got out of the car and squeezed through the gate's side, bearing a bottle of wine.
"Hey Em, good to see ya. Thought I'd drop by. Hey, get this, I just closed on a prime Queen Anne on Russian Hill. Thought maybe you'd like to celebrate with me."
"No can do. I've got clients coming out here later. Besides Larry, I thought I made it quite clear that you and I were through. Fini. I've got nothing to say to you so just get back in your car and leave."
"Damn, Emma. Well at least give us a little catch-up time. A little champagne won't hurt. Come on, that's my gal."
At this she sensed trouble and turned on her cell phone's video app. She could see he was quite drunk which rattled her even more. "I am not your gal, Larry. I thought we made that quite clear ages ago."
"Listen, draw those horns back in, babe, if just for old times' sake, huh."
"No! dammit. I really don't care to see you Larry, and I have work to do. Now just leave!"
"Nope, I won't leave until you talk to me, Emma. C'mon girl, one little glass of champagne for old times' sake. Is that askin' so much, huh?"
Glenn stepped from the barn and quietly approached the two.
"Oh, so you must be the hired man. Yeah, I've heard about you, hombre," Spooner said snidely.
Glenn saying nothing stood stock still, feet apart, casting a penetrating, menacing stare at Spooner. Then Glenn advanced. Spooner backed out of the gate, opening the Porsche's door.
"Just leave, you asshole!" Emma shouted. "If you don't leave I'll call the sheriff," she said brandishing her cell phone.
Glenn closed toward the drunk.
"Oh, I'm leaving all right. Yeah I'm outta here," he bellowed, then hurled the champagne bottle, hitting Emma squarely in the face.
"You animal!" she screamed.
He quickly entered his car, locking the door, then revved the engine and nudged the Porsche slowly into the gate, warping the galvanized slats and bending the metal gate posts. Before Glenn could reach the car, Spooner had backed out and sped up the drive toward the road throwing gravel and dust. Glenn dashed to Em then walked her back to the house, fetched a cold towel to place against her bloody face and broken nose.
"I'll have that animal in court, I will. Look at this Glenn," she said handing him her cell phone. On it he watched and listened to the video, a complete record of the entire event.
"C'mon Em, let's get you to the emergency room for a couple of stitches and then a little more iron-clad, court-worthy documentation at the sheriff's office."
"A broken nose, and four stitches above the blackened eye. Whaddaya reckon that's worth in a civil suit, cowboy, not to mention assault with a deadly Porsche."
The trial netted Larry Spooner a felony conviction for assault and battery, a hefty fine and a three months (suspended) jail sentence. Further, under the California Code he lost his realtor's license. The civil suit followed which by late summer of the following year was settled out of court by Spooner transferring the deed to ten acres and an A-frame atop Henderson Peak, ten miles up from Emma's lakeside home.
In time Glenn refurbished the A-frame, erected a pole barn with stalls and a woodshop, and established a niche stable for the training of oxen and mule teams. First from California and eventually from all over the country, wealthy hobby owners sent young oxen and mules to Glenn for three months of training which would produce teams able to obey simple commands. Trained, these creatures could move right, left, and back up. They could haul a load and were accustomed to being hitched to wagons, and importantly for clients win contests at rodeos, fairs, and the yearly auctions in Tennessee and Texas.
Glenn loved the site, a level plateau atop Henderson Mountain, served by a miserable rutted road away from neighbors and quiet save an occasional aircraft. He believed quietude was essential to training his animals. "They don't like noise. Noise scares critters." Emma loved to watch him putting a team through its paces. For two hour stretches he would work his yoked animals with his soft voice, a lead, and just a light touch of the rod to a shoulder or haunch. "Haw, Nip, Haw Tuck. That's my boy. Now giddyup Nip, now giddyup, Tuck. Gee Tuck, now Gee, Nip. That's my good boys." Laying down the pole, he'd give the soft command to stop. "Stop, Nip, Stop, Tuck." Then he always knelt and massaged the boys' necks and withers, speaking soft, sweet endearments to the oxen. "You cannot praise an ox too much, Em," he'd said to her at least fifty times. "You're magic with them, Glenn," she had told him as many times.
"Yep, I'm good with animals."
Often she spent Saturday afternoons at the A-frame, fixing lunch, napping and watching him work. Glenn had put new floors, plumbing, and insulation in the A-frame, and while Em wasn't particularly fond of the small A-frame she loved sipping beers or rum drinks with Glenn on the porch watching sunsets from the mountain top. After he had stabled a team for the night they'd drive down to the lake house. The arrangement was so comfortable. Glenn's independent, monastic, hermit-like life style matched her escapes from the city. Their arrangement was so compatible. She brought his groceries, he fixed her fences, toilet, the dock, mowed - whatever - and even paid her rent on the A-frame. The weekend shared meals and bed were a satisfying comfort to them both. Life was good. So good, she wondered if the situation might endure. He was the best man she had ever known. Glenn had assembled a little woodworking shop in the pole barn where he crafted 5", 7" and 9" yokes. His yokes became in demand for their smoothness and a design that ensured greater comfort for oxen and mules. And on the far side of the barn he was experimenting with the construction of a full-sized wagon. The metalwork - wheels, springs, hooks, rings, axles, etc. - was ordered from specialty hardware outfitters, but Glenn approached the wagon's woodwork with the eye and practice of a master craftsman. He concentrated his skills on wagon boxes, using white oak or hickory for the singletrees, undercarriage, and crossbeams, cypress for floors, and a combination of finely finished poplar, pecan, and cottonwood served for side rails, tails gates, and seats. When he wasn't working on his teams, he was wagon building.
One Saturday evening after their sunset beers on the A-frame's porch, she indicated it was time to leave. Glenn said he wanted to finish dressing a side panel, but that he would drive down for supper later. When he drove up to Em's gate he was puzzled that it was closed, as she normally left it open for him. He left the truck and called to Em who did not answer. Leaving the gate area, he walked toward the house. Noticing boot tracks he picked up his pace. Em lay in her doorway, semiconscious, groaning and bleeding from her face and hands. At the community hospital, nurses alerted police who questioned Glenn as a suspect for an hour and a half, eventually releasing him once Emma regained consciousness and told them that her assailant was Larry Spooner. "He was in a drunken rage. Said I had ruined his life. He threw me down and kicked and stomped on me until I passed out. He said he'd kill me. Where's Glenn, I need to see Glenn." By then Spooner was well on his way to his shabby motel room in Elko, where he worked as a bartender at the Nevada Grande Casino. The police traced Spooner to Elko but could do nothing in that jurisdiction.
The scarring of Emma Goldfarb's face was not the worst damage Spooner had inflicted. He'd broken bones in both hands, hands she needed to draw. True she had illustrators who worked for her and could interpret her ideas. But she needed a pen, a pencil, a marker, or brush in her hand for the magic to flow. During the rehab she spent months between the outpatient center and her studio in the city, continuing to spend weekends at the lake house with Glenn. Em, now fifty-two, decided it was time to flick it in. She accepted a generous offer from a large ad agency, listed her condo, said goodbye to the city and moved permanently to the lake house. She thought she might try designing wagons for a change - buckboards, surreys, buggies...
With a copy of the police report Em had shown him, Glenn was able to easily locate Spooner's shabby motel in Elko. With only three rooms rented the place was dark. Spooner's room was at the farthest end where Glenn parked his truck behind the darkened motel, put on the rubber gloves and walked around to the front. The lock on the door of the yesterday's mom and pop motel yielded easily to a credit card. Just before midnight, he slipped silently in, holding a pillowcase. He unscrewed all the lightbulbs then stretched out atop the bed. Spooner finished his shift at midnight but drank at the bar until 2am. At 2:20 he entered his darkened room unsteadily. The taser brought him down as if he'd been pole axed. Glenn stood over him, his boot pressed lightly on Spooner's neck, his tactical flashlight blinding the quivering drunk who lay in a puddle of piss.
"You gotta bill to pay, animal. I ever tell you that I was good with animals? No?"
Spooner lay quivering. Glenn bent down, pulling Spooner's shirt from his waist then, untying his pillowcase, guided the 22" sidewinder under the shirt, taking care to agitate the angry snake over and over again, satisfied only when he saw the rattler's head emerge from Spooner's collar to strike him rapidly twice on the neck then slither out the door into the night. Glenn picked up the pillowcase, replaced the light bulbs, then silently returned to his truck. Three days later the police called Emma Goldfarb to inform her of the suspect's death by snakebite in Nevada.
Sipping beers on the mountaintop porch the following Saturday she said, "Damned snake bit the poor sonofabitch all over his chest and neck. Police figured he must have fallen down drunk on the rattler then made it back to his motel too drunk to call for help. Case closed."
A homeless man starts a relationship with Ally, but must contend with her paranoid father; by Harrison Kim.
Out of the hammock, feet in the dirt. Wow, what a thunderstorm last night! I dreamed lightning came from the skies and cut my throat with a bang. Woke up breathing hard, I saw flashes migraine bright and constant through the plastic sheet above me. Rain pounding on that sheet. It held, as did the rope between the trees holding the plastic peaked and triangular. I cocooned and rocked below, in my custom-made hammock.
I lay and think of the woman with the strange request. Yesterday, I played my guitar down at the beach for some coins and she stood there listening. A petite older lady wearing bright red lipstick. I played Cat Stevens' song "Father and Son," and she walked to me afterwards and said she had a problem with her own father. He's living with her and he's threatening and violent. What should she do? She dropped fifteen dollars in my hat and talked and talked.
I guess because of my voice and tone, and maybe the Stevens song itself, she chose me. After I told her that indeed hers seemed like a terrible situation, and asked if there was anything I can do to help, she wrote me her number. Ally 594-3847. She grabbed my visual attention from the start, swaying to the rhythm in a black bowler hat, her curly black hair puffing out the sides. A lilac white face behind those red lips. She's been on my mind, the urgency in her voice. She'd been holding back a long time.
Last night lying in my hammock I called Ally on my cell and she talked two hours, till the phone died. She talked about how her Dad sat around dismantling appliances and watching TV and telling her he was very sick, very, very sick and how could she even slightly consider moving him out, and besides that, if she did, he'd disown her and drop her from the will.
"He has a lot of money, but he lives like a street person," she said. "He brings old pieces of metal home and keeps them on the carpet, he's always complaining there's not enough room."
And she said she wished she could escape, just fly away up to the nebulae maybe, soar away from the noise and condemnation and bitterness. Myself, I can relate, thinking like an eagle with sharp and precise eyes, following the variable urban ground as I trace my flight path from the hammock to her apartment.
And then she asked, "Do you know about the ancient science of soul travel?" which clicked one hundred per cent for me. Not only was I imagining eagle flight at that moment, I have studied soul travel since reading guru Paul Twitchell's works in high school. I have in fact many times tried to push my soul out of my body and rise away and look down on myself. The best I have done so far is to eagle dream, and you never know where that will take you, because imagination can shimmer to reality if you get that far back in your spirit head.
There must have been a synchronicity. To meet this lady, who is not only a fan of my music but also of my beliefs. A lady with such troubles, she needs support and strength to carry on.
Ally says she's a care aide at the Ellen Burton Center downtown. I thought should I walk by there on an afternoon. Just to see her. I am not a small talker, we have that in common. Ally jumped right into her subject, and that meant sincerity. It's interesting that the millstone-round-her-neck Dad is secretly rich. This is something to keep in mind.
Her soul travel ideas inspire me. It is hard to begin the journey, though. When that lightning flashed, I felt my soul slam back into my body, an eagle crash diving into the sea, from where we all came, and that's why it felt like a slit throat, the tearing between falling and landing. I can't let life bring me down like that.
I moved to this city in my corporeal form with 100 dollars only, applied for welfare and stayed in the cockroach hotels, playing my guitar for cash on the street, paying the other buskers and the street enforcers their territory money, learning to negotiate and make friends with potential enemies. I learned tact and diplomacy, and with my muscle bulk and tallness, got some respect. I work hard at my playing, and save by staying in the forest, because I'm from there, under the canopy. I know the bush. Our family grew up where it's only the trees and the whistling wind, in the back of beyond.
But I don't dwell on past negativity. I need the positive to make a new start. To fire up the soul, make it soar, like Ally says. We have so much potential and we squander it all by playing with machines and eating bad food and being all caught up with work and ungratefulness and argument and apathy. This is not my game. I have to be relentless. I have to win. That means travelling with the upbeat, though I'm starting from the wilderness.
I look around me, here in the park forest among the beech and poplar trees. The air is fresh and the sky is calm. The slender trees all round, misty, still, and damp. The green ferns lifting in the light. Above, a white sun obscured by drifty cloud. I walk my way out of the bush, carrying the red day pack. Tread on the mulchy land with waterproof boots, squish and turn, down the root layered path to the road.
I walk two klicks over to the University student Union building. Washrooms always open. The gurgle of twenty-five sinks and toilets a welcome clean up sound, it's very important to brush the teeth.
Then, it's across campus and down, down, down to Wreck Beach, the nude beach, but this morning just a few potbellied aged ones stroking their chest hairs and moving their feet in the sand. I hike past, along the lowering tide edge. Across the inlet I witness such blue waters and high wild mountains. What a happy morning, here as far West as possible, where the sun sets in the sea.
I turn a corner and view the towering glass of downtown, an emerald and ebony heart pointing out, inside it so many thousands, including myself. Striding through the arteries, a little blood cell going to do his part. But within me also, a heart, and it must pump my life as the crowds pump the city's. As long as there's purposeful multitudes, the system lives, and so do I. Crowd energy picks me up and carries me along. I pass the towers of the West End condos, and one of them is where Ally with the nasty father resides. I check the address on my phone and sure enough it's on this older four storey apartment block she lives.
I stride to Ally's door and ring-ring the bell, she answers in that chirpy invitation voice, maybe much surprised to hear from me so soon, but she even comes down the stairs to greet, and hugs me too, saying last night she soul travelled and viewed me where I slept and it seemed all green and washed by the rain.
"Wow," I said, "That is interesting," because I haven't told her I'm homeless by choice and living in a city wilderness park.
We go into her apartment and it's crowded with dozens of stuffed toys and clothes boxes and many shelves of books, wow, so many books in this day and age. A couple of cats scatter behind the couch, I smell the litter already.
Ally must be in her late thirties, she's my cougar lady maybe, 38 to my 23, this is fine because opposites can attract. Her hands are long and slender and there are many rings. The air of mystery is much attractive, as is her patchouli scent and the sight of her bra where her blouse puffs out between buttons.
And there's her Dad, with a needle and fishing line fixing a purse, the aged father, pale white like no blood in his square and sagging face. He looks up and says, "Hello, are you Ally's new friend?" and sticks out his tongue.
He begins a rambling explaining about all the bad things in the world from the way nothing works any more to the water meter conspiracy to how the country's being run by lemmings and lizards, and on and on. Maybe he never talks to any people for months, because the whole place blocks itself with piles of stuff heaped around. It'd be even hard to get out, the stuff sucks you back with its darkness and density. Ally brings me a coffee and it's pretty aromatic. She stirs it for me. On the cup are images of roses and lavender.
The old man though is starting to grate on my nerves, because the more he talks the more animated he becomes and when I look up or slightly away he leans forward and is loud saying, "You're not listening! You're not looking at me, boy!" Boy is not something I like to be called, and the guy's breath is like rotten sausages. I'm a complete vegan these days and not used to overpowering meat stench.
What's worse, the sex intensity I'm starting to feel for Ally is thwarted by this miserable chatterbox, and positive energy is replaced by irritability and tension, two things I left home to escape. I can't take a lot of tension, it goes right to my legs and arms and they have to move, to do something, even if it's punching a wall.
"You see how he is? You see how he is?" says Ally, right in front of the Dad, and she motions me into the kitchen. "I can't stand it, twenty-four hours a day of this," and I understand what she means, no wonder she must dream away to soul travel. I tell her this and she sighs and touches my elbow.
"Come into the bedroom," she says and we pad across the floor right by the old man gesticulating. Hands push out to pull me back, his head's still bobbing and he's whining and barking because I'm not staring into his eyes with rapt attention.
"You're just like all the others!" he says. "You're here for only one thing."
"Leave him alone!" Ally says and he shows his teeth at her, or what's left of them, and laughs.
"I'm not the only one who's alone!" he shouts.
Now I go into Ally's bedroom with the heavy curtains on the windows and she slams the door shut, turns a key, then pulls out a big doobie and lights it right there, puffing deep. She says she works nights and now hardly sleeps all day because of her Dad, but the marijuana helps.
All of this stimulation does its work on my nerves, for I am a fellow who needs a lot of peace. I sleep outside because no-one bothers me, I can be alone in the swinging hammock in the evening, reading and quiet, just the rustling in the trees and the woodpecker living nearby. The coffee too upgrades my activities, as does all the second-hand smoke. Ally offers me a toke but I say no I'm not into that.
I've seen too many junkies and too many crackheads and I don't want to start anything mind altering. It should all be natural and positive, the taking in of the energy of the world and using it for success. Like I want to do here in Vancouver, something upbeat with my life, maybe a musical career. This all takes money. I tell Ally I earn up to fifty bucks a day playing guitar down by the water. She listens and says yes, music was what attracted me to you, I knew you were a good person.
But I'm not primarily good. My soul aspires to it. However, to survive I must merge, take on the things of the world, use them as the eagle uses prey, to consume and sustain my corporeal self, and realize my dreams.
Ally seems more than a little friendly when she's with the dope and all at once she kind of falls on me and holds me fast. I'm a tall guy but I let her push and she's on top of me looking down saying, "It feels good to have a man under me again."
There's a pounding at the door. I know it's the father, and he's banging and demanding and I can just see his old face wriggle.
Ally jumps off my lap and stubs out her doobie in a lip shaped ashtray.
I tell Ally, "I need to take control."
There's so much noise, the musty smell of the doobie and old newspapers and cat litter, and I turn the key, open the door and the old man falls forward into the room, staggering and waving his arms, "You can't fool me, I know what you're doing in here!"
He's about a foot from my face and I check him out, he's a long way from reality, just thinking about himself and his own misery. I back around him, he follows, and Ally is saying, "Leave him alone, Dad, he's just a boy," and I start singing because there's nothing else to do. As I back away and listen to his yelling I cover it with my own, and I sing some hip hop and dance around while he's stepping to one side, then another, trying to get by me or get to me, I don't know. I start pushing forward with my chest, this guy can't shove me around.
Ally's saying, "Let him by, Cody, it's not worth it," and she runs by us both over to the kitchen, "I'll cook something good, you can stay for supper," and the old man is still trying to get around, and telling me loudly how the youth of today screw their mothers and their sisters and how I can't keep it in my pants he'd like to take a jack knife and cut it off.
"Get rid of all these books! Just get rid of them!" he's saying maybe to Ally or me, then he commands in a sudden deep devil like voice, "Get the hell out of here, get out of my face and my apartment." And it looks like he's reaching for his jack knife, in his pants pocket.
"This is Ally's place," I say, and I push the guy and wow I don't know my own strength or maybe he's a brittle boned weakling, because he staggers backwards and falls with a crash on the bed, his head knocks the wall some. "You get out," I say. "You stay on the street once in a while, see how that feels!"
Ally's watching now, "That's enough, Cody!" because he's stopped yelling now, he's just staring at me in what looks like horror or amazement.
"You pushed an old man! You pushed an old man down," he says in a whisper now, and I am still singing my hip hop song right in his face.
"Set your soul free," I say. "Live for the day. Don't let the misery get in your way."
"You're crazy!" says the old man, but he listens.
I'm so relentlessly positive, it's my own song I sing, going to have a better life, free from trouble, free from strife. I smile and give Dad a little tap every time he tries to get up, which is fairly often, then not often at all, then he gives up and just sits on the bed, not looking at me. "Don't let it get you down," I sing the ancient Neil Young song, "It's only castles burning."
"What are you going to do?" There's Ally putting her hand on my arm. "You're not going to hurt him or anything?"
"No, no," I say, my other arm swinging. "He's just like my own Dad, but way more marinated!"
Ally gently glides her hand to my wrist, and pulls me over. She sits us down beside the Dad because the Dad is kind of whimpering, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I won't do it again." It's like he was really just so anxious behind his energy and now I've pushed a needle into him and drawn out the troubles and there's nothing left but sadness, or maybe he just fears me because of my unpredictable lyric and dance ways. And the fact is I won't let him stand up.
I feel like my soul has left my body, my old body that is, the free spirit limbs and muscles and tendons and skin, I've soul travelled into an aggressive grown up form, becoming involved with the blockages and tight spots here in the city, and with this little family in particular. I can be a surgeon and let things flow again. Treat the problem without major cutting, I hope.
"Why don't we all have a bit of the supper?" I say.
Ally says, "Yes, that's a good idea, come on Dad," and we both lift up Dad and stagger him over to the kitchen.
"I'm sorry," he says between sniffles. "You hurt me, you hurt me."
It's like he can't walk, but I know he's just faking it.
We sit down around a table covered with potted cactus plants and, coming down touching our faces, some ivy and other leafy vegetation, it's a little forest right here in the kitchen, Ally's a real apartment farmer.
She brings us over some coffee and a few nutrition bars and some kale salad in bowls.
I look over at her and she looks at me, and the Dad looks out the window. We hang out like that awhile, until Ally points to a place across the street, "There's my other cat," and the orange creature is tip toeing stealthily along the top of a fence, on the other side of the busy intersection.
"He's a daredevil fellow," I say. "Living for his next foot fall."
The Dad looks up and then he stands unsteadily and says, "That's Jester, that's my old Jester," and he sits down again.
"Well," says Ally, "We seem to have calmed down some."
She's right, I can feel the vacancy, the emptiness, inside the Dad, and between Ally and I, kind of an understanding. I won't hurt Dad, at least not too much, but I won't let him push us around, either.
I leave after picking over the kale for quite a while, and fixing a lamp that's too high for anyone to reach but me. The Dad starts up again just before I leave, but this time it's all about his growing up during some war and how as a kid he used to walk along the railroad tracks to pick up grain dropped by rail cars. "It was so tough in those days," he says, "we were lucky to pick up enough for a loaf of bread," and I wonder how old he is, maybe eighty-nine, or a hundred and nine, Ally won't have to worry about him for much longer, I think. His soul will travel permanently soon, and I tell her as much when I leave.
"You can come back here anytime," she says.
"I will," I reach out and hold both her slender hands in mine, just for a moment.
When I open the door, Jester the cat comes rushing in. I hear the father's plaintive, "My friend, my little friend."
I travel back on the bus, first to my storage locker, where I pick out some new clothes. I charge up my phone in the office while hobnobbing with the staff who know me well.
Then I google search shared rental units. I need to save minimum eight hundred dollars plus a damage deposit to find a decent room. I can't do this on my own.
Sometimes a free spirit must be relentless in search of a dream. Realize and devour the shimmering prey. This soul will eagle soar and seek what's needed to open up true vision. I will clear what blocks Ally's heart, and make life flow anew. I will travel in from the wilderness, gently but firmly remove the poison Dad from her life, and seize the vacant space.