The June Challenge

Below are the stories, posted scene by scene, from the June Challenge. The latest story will  be at the top of the page and so on to the earliest. When there’s a title, the story number is indicated in parens. Where I have no title, the story number is shown as the title. Enjoy!

Adele and the Makers (Story 8 of 30)

Low to the ground and long in the tooth, our car crept along the pitted street.

The Makers picked us partly because of that car. At least I think so. We had no other qualifications to make us stand out. A hundred or so others had also applied to distribute the Makers’ warnings among the people. But they had chosen us.

The car did stand out. Even at 40 years of age, it was long and low—they used to call these “low riders”—and a vibrant, cherry red. And it had the metallic paint, so it sparkled with silver flakes mixed in when the sunlight stuck it.

The better to call attention to the message of the Makers.

Never mind that the three of us were dressed crudely.

We all wore jeans, with sneakers on our feet. I and José Orosco, the youngest of us, wore ribbed white undershirts too.

My friend, Rafael Orteño, who owned the car, chose not to wear a shirt at all.

* * *

The day before, the three of us stood in line and shuffled toward a set of open double doors. The other side of that opening was the interview and application process. When schools were still open, this was a hallway to a gymnasium.

Most of the others in line were paired off. I didn’t see any other trios.

The job for which we were applying call for only two people, really. But José was our friend, even being a few years our junior. And Rafael and I couldn’t fault him for wanting to help. More importantly, we couldn’t fault him for wanting to feel like a man.

As long as he didn’t become a liability, we would treat him as an asset and make a place for him. After all, in this world jobs were at a premium, and José had a mother and sister to help feed.

We continued to shuffle toward the opening at the end of the hall.

At some point Rafael’s lack of a shirt struck me. He was trim and very lean, like all of us, but still. “Rafael, there is still time. Why don’t you go and cover yourself?”

But he only grinned and shrugged. “They won’t pick us anyway,” he said.

Well, when Rafael was right, he was right.

I sighed and acceded the point. “That is probably true.” We continued to shuffle forward, and a few steps farther I looked up at him. “But there is always a chance, isn’t there. Otherwise, why are we here?”

Again he grinned and shrugged. “Where else is there to be?” he said.

I took his point. We could waste time here, where there was at least a slim possibility of reward, or we could waste time at any of several other places where there was not.

But Rafael was more prepared than I knew.

Soon we came to the open double doors.

The representative of the Makers sat behind a small desk in the center of the room. A scuffed path led across the once highly polished floor to the front of the desk.

Several feet behind the representative was what appeared to be long, horizontal planks, laid on their sides and stacked one on top of the other. But years before I had seen that before. The old wooden bleachers had been squashed up against the wall.

To one end of the room, a basketball goal hung down, but at an awkward angle and without a net. To the other, the goal apparatus had been cranked up so it hung horizontally, fiberglass backboard and all.

The representative cleared his throat and curled one finger, gesturing for me to come forward. “There are three of you?”

“Yes sir. But we are very good as a team.”

He nodded, as any bored man might nod. As I approached, he said, “What is your name, please, and why do you wish to participate?”

I grinned broadly, a result of my nerves. “Ignacio Rouel, sir, and I am a strong supporter of the Makers.”

Heat rose in my face and my brain flinched. A strong supporter of the Makers? Was that condescending enough?

I hoped my embarrassment didn’t show.

But he only gestured to one side with his pen. “Stand there, please.” Then he looked up and curled his finger toward José. “Your name please?” He frowned. “And aren’t you a bit young to drive a car?”

José stepped forward. “José Orosco, sir. And yes, but only a couple of years.” He had turned 14 the week before. “But I will not be driving.”

The representative nodded. “All right, please stand—”

“And we do have a car, but it is not my car.”

The representative nodded again. “Yes, very good. Please stand next to your friend.”

Finally José stopped talking. He stepped over beside me. He glanced at me, then mimicked my posture, with his feet slightly spread and his hands folded one above the other below his waist.

The representative looked at Rafael. Rafael without even a shirt.

The representative’s lips curled almost into a sneer. “And you. What is your story?”

Rafael grinned and stepped forward without waiting for the curled-finger invitation. From his back pocket he pulled a small square paper. “Rafael Orteño, representative. I will drive.” He extended the paper square. It was a photograph. “And this is the car.”

The representative took the paper square automatically and glanced at it. The look was abbreviated, both to show his displeasure at the irregularity and as a precursor to his frown. After all, the job announcement had not requested photographs.

I was certain in that moment Rafael had dashed our already slim chances.

But the representative looked at the photo again. As if involuntarily, he nodded slightly, his gaze still on the photograph. Barely audibly, he said, “Very nice.” Then he leaned to his right and peered past Rafael’s shirtless waist. A bit more loudly than his normal speaking voice, he said, “The job has been filled. The rest of you may go.”

As the sixty or so people gathered just outside the open double doors turned away, mumbling, the representative looked up at Rafael. “You understand the job pays one dollar per hour, yes?”

Rafael said, “Each?”

The representative said, “Yes, each.”

Rafael pumped his fist. “Score!”

Only Rafael. I grinned despite myself.

In my left periphery, José raised onto his toes and grinned too.

The representative shook his head and returned the photograph to Rafael along with a slip of paper. “Report to this address tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. With your car. And a shirt.” He looked down at his small desk on the pretense of scribbling something. “That’s all. You may go.”

The three of us exited the way we had come in. Only now the hallway outside the open double doors was empty.

As we walked, I said quietly, “Why did he ask our names? I didn’t see him write anything down.”

Rafael shrugged. “He wanted to hear our voices maybe. Does it matter?”

Of course, it didn’t.

2

The next morning, at the address the representative gave us, a really big woman behind another small desk—but this one was in the former living room of a very small house—took the slip of paper. Only I and Rafael went inside.

When we pulled up, a line of cars stretched along the curb, then curved into the driveway.

Then the driveway and the line of cars on it curled around the back of the house after passing through a space that, as evidenced by the remaining foundation, used to be filled with a garage.

She scribbled something in a lined book, then dropped the slip of paper into a trash can. Without looking up, she said, “Your ration card number is 83.” Then she looked up. “Get that?”

Rafael and I both nodded.

“The gasoline is only to get you from your home to your route, through the route and back to your home. Nowhere else. Get that?”

Rafael grinned. “I got nowhere else to go anyway.”

“Uh huh.” She looked down again, made another note and put a check mark in a box in the same lined book. Then she picked up a small square of paper from a stack. She wrote “83” in the corner of it, then extended it toward Rafael. “This is your route. You are not authorized to travel any other routes. Get that?”

Rafael took the slip of paper and mimicked her. “Uh huh.”

She glanced up sharply at him, then returned her attention to the book and made another note. “Fill your tank here this morning and then each day when you’re through. You’ll find the line outside. So—”

“Oh, the car is already in line. My friend is edging it forward for me while we’re in here. I’m efficient that way.”

She said, “Uh huh,” then winced slightly with the effort of trying to pull it back in. She shook her head slightly and said, “You get paid once a week on Friday.” She looked up. “After your route. Any questions?”

Rafael grinned. He started to raise one hand and his lips twitched.

I stepped past him and said, “No ma’am. We got it. All of it.” I took Rafael’s arm. “C’mon, Rafael. We better get started.”

I felt the woman’s gaze on us as we went out through the door.

The car, with José back in his place in the passenger seat, was idling at the curb. Two new loudspeakers were mounted to the roof, one on either side. The flat pewter color was bland against the cherry-red roof.

* * *

The first day and maybe the next were almost exciting. Well, as exciting as driving slowly and repeating a message through loudspeakers could be.

A week later, the novelty had worn off and we realized we had a job.

Rafael did his best to miss the pot holes, I think. But there were so many he couldn’t miss them all. It was more a matter of choosing the smaller ones.

Across from him, José’s head and shoulders bobbed almost rhythmically from the jarring.

Most of the time, only Rafael’s right wrist, at the end of his bare arm, made contact with the steering wheel. Now and then he uncurled his fingers and wrapped them over the wheel at about the 1 o’clock mark. That was to hold the car steady when he hit a particularly nasty pot hole.

“All right,” Rafael said. “It’s coming up.”

José leaned over and turned on the PA system. Then he took the microphone from the bracket on the dashboard. He keyed the microphone and held it just above the back of the front seat, facing the back of the car.

I was on.

I leaned forward from the back seat, trying to aim my voice at the mike. “Remain calm,” I said in the manner of one whose mind has gone numb from delivering a repeated message. “The evacuation will begin soon. Remain calm.”

I leaned back to await my next performance in the next block. And my attention was diverted to a lack of movement through the passenger window on my right. I turned my head.

On the broken, upsurged sidewalk, dozens, maybe hundreds, of bland, disheveled people shuffled one way or the other amid shards of broken glass, bits of brick with mortar still attached, and other remainders of the recent missile attack. Most of the dust had settled, but nerves were still in the air.

The people all wore a look of disbelief, starting and stopping, politely sidestepping each other and starting again, making their way past the shattered storefronts as if they had anywhere at all to go. All of that was the new normal.

But a lack of all that movement had caught my attention. What was it?

3

There it was.

Separate of that garbled mass of dazed humanity, seemingly balanced on the curb near the middle of the block, was a young woman.

Her astounding shock of purple-blue-pink hair was cut evenly into a tall flat top. On the sides and back it hung to just below her bare shoulders. She seemed to be the only color in an otherwise greyscale setting.

Her tube top, striped horizontally in broad, shiny black and red and white stripes, fitted snugly over her breasts. Her nipples, both nestled in a white stripe, provided evidence that it was of some sort of faux silk. Her skirt was red and short, the top of the waist aligned with the center of her hips, the hem several inches above her knees.

Her tan boots were heavy duty and with thick soles. The rough side of the leather was turned out. Heavy black boot laces zigzagged up to a perfect double loop at mid-shin.

She alone was not moving. She alone was paying attention. And she looked angry.

She glared at our car as we crept past, then cupped her hands around her mouth.

I quickly reached to roll the window down an inch or so.

She yelled, “There ain’t no evack! You don’t know nothin’!”

She absentmindedly reached down to scratch the outside of her right thigh with long fingernails, then stopped and raised her arm, extending her middle finger in the direction of the car. That fingernail was black.

As I was about to turn my attention back to the microphone, a man slipped from the crowd and draped his arm over the woman’s shoulders. He pulled her to him and bent his head as if to kiss her.

I leaned farther forward and continued to peer through the side window, but at a much steeper angle.

She reached her left arm around his waist and pulled him roughly against her.

With the beginnings of a fantasy playing in my head, I didn’t want to see that.

But I couldn’t look away. The man was off balance and much larger than she. I thought sure he would fall against her and crush her into the street.

But just as his lips touched her neck, her right shoulder and arm jerked. She drove a knife through his filthy urban camouflage uniform jacket. She plunged it so hard that dust flew up from around the hilt.

I felt my eyebrows arch. “Whoa!”

Then she took a half-step back, her hand still gripping the handle of the knife.

She looked up and flashed a quick smile at the surprised look on his face. Then she scowled, tensed her arm and twisted the knife hard before withdrawing it.

I quickly turned to the right and peered over the back seat through the back window.

The woman took another step back to let the man fall.

His hands clasped over his upper abdomen, he stared at her. Then he crumpled past her and fell into the street alongside the curb.

From the front seat, José said, “Ignacio?”

The woman turned on the curb again and glanced at our car just before I turned away.

What a woman! And dangerous to boot.

Again, José said, “Ignacio?”

I glanced at him, and past him. Through the front windshield, the next block was coming up. I barely had time to make the second part of the announcement to the current block.

I turned back to look at the woman again.

Still she was staring at our car. She shook her head. She knelt and wiped the blade on the arm of the man’s jacket as I turned away.

The right front tire dropped into a pot hole and my mouth smacked into the mic. José already had it poised over the back of the front seat.

A bump formed on the inside of my upper lip on the right.

I shoved the mic away and sputtered, “Did you guys see that?”

Rafael said, “What?”

Then I remembered the announcement. There might even be spies around to report cars that didn’t make the announcement, or didn’t make it correctly.

“I’ll tell you later,” I said, then crooked a finger at José.

He raised the mic again and keyed it.

I leaned forward, put my lips next to the mic and said, “Still it is not too late to undo what you have done. Repent. Send your prayer tokens to 783 Tollway Road. Show the Makers you are of one mind with them. Show the Makers—”

A heavy bottle shattered against the window to José’s right and he jumped.

Again the mic hit me on the lip, and in the same spot.

“Damn!” I said, and clapped my hand to my mouth.

But I heard my voice outside the car. The mic must have still been keyed. “Damn!” It seemed to echo among the buildings through the slightly open rear window.

José glanced at me. “Sorry.” He dropped the mic on the seat next to him and turned to look out the window as the car dipped into the cross street.

The window was covered with an oily green substance. It sagged down the window in streams, bits of brown glass floating in it.

4

The car dipped into the cross street.

Good. We were in the next block. There was time for a quick glance back at the woman.

I said, “Hey, José.”

“Yeah?”

“We’ll do the next announcement about a fourth of the way through the block, okay? So let me know.”

He was nodding as I twisted around in the seat.

I put my hands on the top of the back seat and peered hard through the window.

The woman was still there. She seemed to still be staring at our car.

Farther down the block, three men, all dressed similarly to the one she had knifed, were roughly pushing their way through the crowd. And they were coming in her direction.

I like to think she picked up on my thoughts. Or maybe she heard them coming.

As if she had radar, she turned away and stepped off the curb, then raced across the street. When she reached the other sidewalk, she stepped into the crowd. Then she turned left and moved hurriedly back the way we had come, zigzagging through the same greyscape.

On the other side of the street, the three men were still coming in the same direction. Good. But how had they not seen her?

I switched my attention across the street again and watched until she disappeared into the crowd. When that happened she was almost at the far end of the block.

I turned around and sat back, dejected. “Aw man.” Probably I would never see her again.

Rafael glanced in the rear-view mirror. He grinned. “A chick, right? Gotta be a chick. Hey, if she’s still there when we come back, you can see her then.”

I shook my head. We wouldn’t be coming back this way until tomorrow. And she wouldn’t be here.

I leaned forward. “It’s okay. We have a lot of ground to cover if we want to get paid, right?”

José keyed the mic and held it up over the seat.

I looked at it and repeated the same tired message. “Remain calm. The evacuation will begin soon. Remain calm.”

The woman came to mind again. There ain’t no evack, she said. You don’t know nothin’.

Well, maybe an evack was coming and maybe it wasn’t. How could she know? And even if it wasn’t coming, maybe there was a reason the Makers wanted people to believe it was. Like to keep people from panicking more than they already were.

Why was this particular woman sticking in my head? She was colorful, to say the least, and opinionated. But she was still just another woman, and the missiles changed everything. Nothing was the same now. It might not ever be the same again.

And I need the money from this job. Concentrate, Ignacio.

We were almost three-quarters of the way through the block. I was late again.

I leaned forward. “Put the mic up again, José. I’ll do the other part now.”

He looked around at me. “What?”

“Put the mic up here again.”

He nodded, then picked up the mic from the seat. He fumbled with it for a moment.

We were almost to the end of the block.

Finally he keyed it and held it up.

“Still it is not too late to undo what you have done. Repent. Send your prayer tokens to 783 Tollway Road. Show the Makers you are—”

The back passenger door on the left side of the car suddenly swung open. Something soft but solid—another body—hit against me and shoved me to the right.

“Move over, jerk!”

I dropped the mic and twisted to the left.

It was the girl. The woman. The woman from back down the street.

She dropped into the seat and slammed the door, then slapped the lock down.

José looked around.

“You!” she said, pointing at him. “Eyes front!”

I couldn’t believe it. It was really her.

Rafael sat up and peered into the rear-view mirror. “What the hell, man?”

“It’s the woman, Rafael! It’s the woman I saw back there!”

I turned my head to look at her. I grinned straight into the biggest, most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. I put my left hand on my chest. “My name is Ignacio. I saw—”

Rafael said, “Tell her to get out, man. You know we ain’t allowed to—”

The woman reached over the seat and pressed the fingernail of her index finger into the left side of Rafael’s neck. “This is a knife, creep! Shut up and drive!” She pressed again. “And floor it!”

José was still staring straight ahead.

5

She’d told Rafael to floor it. The car sped up, but only a little.

One finger of her left hand still at his neck, the woman glanced at me out of the corner of her eyes. She shook her head slightly and brought her right index finger to her lips.

No, I wouldn’t say anything.

Rafael said, “But we gotta say the message or—”

She huffed and pressed harder with the fingernail. “Listen to me! There ain’t no war! Understand? And there ain’t no evacuations coming! They got us right where they want us. An’ if those guys back there catch up with us, they ain’t gonna ask whether you’re friends or enemies. They’re just gonna start shooting. Now floor it!”

My grin disappeared. That’s right. Someone was trying to hurt his woman. “The guys who were chasing you?”

Rafael sped up a little more, still unsure.

She moved her fingernail away from Rafael’s neck and slumped back in the seat. She turned to me and jerked her left thumb over her shoulder. “Look, my name’s Adele Martinez. You were watching, right? Did you see me stab that one? This guy grabbed me and—”

She told me her name. I grinned again. I couldn’t help it. “Yeah, I saw that. What was that all about?”

She ignored the question. “There’s three more just like him. You didn’t see them?”

“I saw three guys running.” I shrugged. “Maybe toward you. Then you ducked across the street and—”

“That’s them. They came after me, chased me. I led ‘em the wrong way, then circled back.”

She grabbed the back of the front seat to lean forward. More to Rafael than to anyone else, she said, “If they catch us, they’ll kill us.” Then she looked at me again. “Listen, I’m not kidding.”

I looked at her for a moment.

Beneath the dye, her hair was dark brown. Her face was beautiful, with the sharp features of a Chicana with Indian influence. Her brown eyes were dark and large.

I slapped the back of the seat. “Rafael, you hear her? Let’s get away from here.”

“But we gotta say the mes—”

“We gotta cover a lot of territory too, man. Let’s go to some other part of it.”

He canted his head slightly to the right, then shrugged. “Okay.” And he floored it.

Six blocks down the street he took a hard right. A block later, he slowed. I know him well. He was thinking of turning and then driving slowly up another street to deliver the same message.

I quickly tapped the seat again. “Hey, Rafael, we gotta do the whole route, right? So let’s do the last part first today. We can do part later. Or just skip it and do it tomorrow or something.”

The woman crossed her arms and settled back against the seat. “You guys can’t possibly be this stupid.”

I frowned. “Hey, that ain’t no way to talk to—”

She looked at me. “If you say ‘the guys who saved you,’ I’ll scream.”

“Well, we did.”

“Oh you did not. I had to run like hell to catch up to you. You even saw that first guy grab me and you didn’t do anything.” She looked away. “Not that you should have. If they don’t get me one way, they’ll get me another.”

Why would she say that?

I said, “How do you know all this?”

“Because I used to work for them.” She fell silent for a moment, then said quietly, “Only a handful of us left.” She paused. “All the others are dead. They had tracking devices, Ignacio. They put us under, then implanted tracking devices. Under the skin. We all had them.” She reached down to her right thigh and pointed to a scar.

It was where she scratched earlier.

“See here? I found mine right here almost a month ago. I dug it out with my knife. So at least I know they can’t get me that way.”

“What way?”

“They send men first. If they miss, they send a small missile. It homes on the tracking device.”

Oh man. I looked at the scar again. It was a small rectangle.

“I’m tellin’ you, guys, there’s no war. They’re bombing their own cities, blaming it on other nations, then saying there’s a war. Then they gouge the public for money to help in the war effort.” She paused. “But you don’t have to take my word for it. I’ll show you.”

She leaned forward, gripped the back of the front seat and peered through the windshield. A moment later, she tapped Rafael on the right shoulder. “Martinson Avenue. You know it?”

Rafael shook his head.

“Up here about half a mile. Take a right.”

For the first time, I looked at the soft, smooth skin on the back of her neck.

Just below the hairline, just to the right of her spine, a dim rectangle started to glow green.

There was a high-pitched sound from somewhere outside the car.

I leaned forward, squeezed my head in next to hers.

Through the windshield, a dot, growing larger.

It was too late.

Everything was too late. “Adele, you have another—”

*******

What Happened That Day (Story 7 of 30)

Tell you what, there wasn’t no way alive outta that stinkin’ room. Not that I could see. Not at first.

An’ it was impossible things got that far all at once.

***

Okay, so me an’ Nicky an’ Jake an’ Max, we was sittin’ there playin’ cards on one of them foldin’ card tables. Our jackets was draped over the back of the chairs. Just them metal foldin’ chairs, you know.

Well, all except Nick. His jacket was hung up by the door on a hook over there. ‘Cause, you know, he’s Nick.

But that’s all there was in that room. I mean there wasn’t no couch to hide behind or no big ol’ easy chair, nothin’ like that. There wasn’t no regular table you could turn on its side. Not even a little coffee table, y’know? There wasn’t nothin’ like that.

There wasn’t even no lamps or nothin’ like that. Just the bulb hangin’ down over the table. Hangin’ there on a wire, y’know? An’ one of them little brown push-button switch sockets on it. So you could turn it off right there or with the switch by the door.

So there was the main door an’ then the door to the room where we had the girl.

In that room there was the little army cot where the girl was an’ one of them little blue plastic chairs with the chrome legs.

An’ then along the wall in the main room on the other side of that door was the sink an’ a cabinet with a hotplate, an’ then that little refrigerator.

It wasn’t much, that refrigerator. A little one, y’know? An’ old. It had that rounded top an’ the little ice box inside behind a little aluminum door. It wasn’t even turned on, but Big Mike said we wouldn’t be there more’n a day or two.

An’ then there was the back wall with the window, an’ then the other wall an’ then the front wall an’ then the door again. That’s all there was in the whole room.

Well, an’ about in the middle of the room was that card table an’ them four chairs.

I don’t even remember what game we was playin’ for that hand. You know, dealer’s choice an’ all that. But I remember jacks was wild.

Oh, an’ just before it happened, Stinky Gus came outta the back room there where we had the girl. I remember ‘cause he closed the door real quiet behind him.

An’ Jake looked up at Stinky an’ he said, “Hey, you gotta—” an’ he was gonna say “stay in there” or somethin’ like that, you know. ‘Cause it was Stinky’s turn to stay in the room with the girl an’ watch her.

Big Mike said specifically we was to take turns watchin’ her, an’ he said we had to be in the room with her durin’ our turn. He didn’t want us to lose her. He was tryin to make a point with that Jack Tilden guy. You know, the private dick. He was tryin’ to make a point that the guy needed to leave us alone.

So he had a couple of guys snatch the girl an’ bring her up there an’ put her in that room. An’ then he set us to watchin’ her.

Anyways, maybe that wasn’t right, y’know? I mean, it ain’t like there’s no windows in that room or nothin’ like that. The only window in the whole place was the window on the wall there behind me.

Oh, an’ that one, it had sort of a curtain on it. I guess you’d call it a curtain, only somebody just kind of draped part of a ripped-up old sheet over it on a couple of nails or somethin’.

I mean, none of us was interested enough to lift it up an’ see what was under there. But it looked like maybe nails or screws or somethin’ was tuggin’ up the corners.

But anyways, hey, what Big Mikey says, that’s what you do, that’s all.

So that’s what we was doin’ when Stinky came out. It was Stinky’s turn to watch the girl, an’ then the rest of us was playin’ cards to pass the time.

Only Jake didn’t finish sayin’ what he was gonna say to Stinky ‘cause Stinky put his finger up to his mouth and said, “Shh!” real hard but still quiet, you know. An’ then he turned his hand around and said, “It’s a’right. She’s sleepin’ real good.”

An’ Jake, he just looked at me an’ shook his head.

An’ I knew what he meant. If somethin’ happened an’ that girl skipped out, Big Mike wasn’t gonna be happy about it. An’ if that happened, it ought to all come down on Stinky.

Only that ain’t how it’d be. I mean, Stinky’d pay for sure, but the rest of us’d be right up the same creek with him. I mean, you know, we might be a little more dry than Stinky. We might even still be breathin’. Only you don’t wanna go up Big Mike’s creek any distance, y’know? That ain’t a good place to be.

So I looked up at Stinky an’ I said, but real quiet, rememberin’ the girl was asleep, I said, “Nah, you gotta get back in there, Stinky.”

An’ he frowned at me real hard ‘cause he don’t like that name. Hey, I forgot for a minute, you know.

An’ Stinky, he says, “Hey, she’s sleepin’. You wanna go in there an’ make like a log, go ahead. I want in the game.”

Well I wasn’t gonna go in there. We was on two-hour shifts watchin’ the girl, an’ Stinky wasn’t in there more than about a half-hour.

So I looked at Nick an’ Max, you know, with my eyebrows raised. Like askin’ them did they wanna go in there. I didn’t look at Jake ‘cause I already knew what he thought about it.

Max, he just looked down at his cards even though he didn’t need to. He already looked at ‘em once, an’ I never known Max to look more’n once before the draw.

That was it. We was playin’ five-card draw, jacks wild. A real sissy game, but Max called it.

Anyways, the way Max played, he’d look one time an’ pull out what he wanted to discard, an’ then he’d settle back an’ look at the other guys. You know, tryin to read ‘em.

Only when I raised my eyebrows at him, he looked down at his cards, so I knew he wasn’t interested.

Now Nick, he’s a cool customer. When I looked at Nick, he just smiled about halfway and moved his head real slow left, then right. One time each way, meanin’ no.

So I looked back up at Stinky an’ I said, “We ain’t interested, Gus.” That time I remembered not to call him Stinky.

But he just shrugged, then looked around the room for another chair.

Only there wasn’t no more chairs except the one in the room with the girl. So he hooked his thumbs in his belt and just stood there, lookin’ down at the table. Waitin’ to watch the cards land I guess.

I should’a made him go back in there, only I didn’t. An’ really, it wouldn’a made a difference.

2

Anyways, we was sittin’ there playin’ a hand an’ I’m thinkin’ what do to about Stinky when all of a sudden somethin’ crashes through the window behind me.

I rocked my chair over backwards to the right, you know. I was figurin’ there was someone behind me an’ I was tryin to get outta the way.

An’ as I was fallin’ over, I seen Nick on my left an’ Jake on my right an’ Max across the table, all slappin’ toward their left side for their guns.

Stinky slapped too, only there wasn’t nothin’ there. I could see that. There wasn’t even no holster an’ no rig. I guess he left his gun in the room with the girl, which wasn’t the smartest thing to do. I mean, the girl was thirteen, so prob’ly she could use a gun.

But that’s prob’ly what he done ‘cause Stinky had a bad habit of takin’ off his rig an’ drapin’ it over whatever chair he’s sittin’ in. Only the chair he was sittin’ in last was in the other room.

Anyways, then there was a crash on the main door an’ a big explosion.

Somebody grunted an’ landed hard to my left, like over by the counter or the refrigerator or somethin’ but I didn’t see who it was. Maybe Stinky or maybe Nick. An’ there was another explosion from over there an’ then the light went out.

So maybe Nick shot the light on accident. Stinky didn’t have no gun.

Anyways, somethin’ little sprinkled down on my face an’ neck, an’ I was thinkin’ it was dust.

So I spit real hard an’ reached both hands to wipe away whatever it was, an’ there was another explosion on my left. Only this time there was a streak of fire in the dark. It went toward the door.

I figured that had to be Nick maybe, shootin’ at the door from that side

Anyways, my face hurt when I rubbed it an’ my hands hurt some, so I figured the stuff was glass from the light bulb. So I quit wipin’ an’ went for my gun again.

There was another big explosion only I didn’t know where an’ I didn’t see no fire. An’ then there was a thwack when the bullet hit, an’ then a thump right above me, like somebody landed hard back by the window. An’ then a groan from back there.

Well, that had to be Nick or maybe Stinky, but I was on the floor an’ the bullets were in the air, so I stayed down there.

While I was gettin’ my gun out there was another short explosion an’ then another one an’ another one, an’ bullets slappin’ walls all around. Those were in front of me on the right. So maybe Jake an’ Max were shootin’.

An’ then another explosion from my right an’ somebody yelped, an’ then the girl’s door was openin’. That was real plain ‘cause it squealed.

An’ then two more explosions, one from the middle of the room out to my right an’ one from close to the girl’s door.

Then somebody thumped against the wall to my right and fell on the floor. I felt the floor move. Only no groan this time.

I finally got my gun out an’ was gonna shoot toward the main door but somebody ran past my right side. I was gonna shoot that way but maybe it was Max or Jake, so I didn’t.

So I’m still layin’ there on my back tryin to see what’s goin’ on an’ what way to shoot.

Then there were feet scrapin’ toward the main door an’ some guy yelled, “I got her!”

An’ somebody said, “Good” real loud an’ then the main door slammed an everything fell quiet.

The room stunk with sweat an’ the smell of guns goin’ off.

So I said, “Nicky?”

An’ nobody said nothin’.

An’ I said, “Hey Gus?”

An’ there wasn’t no answer.

Then “Hey, Joey?” came at me from my right side, like over by the wall. Only I couldn’t be sure who it was. An’ then there was a groan.

I pointed my gun that direction. “Yeah?” I said, only real quiet.

“Hey, did they get Max?”

Okay, so that was Jake over there by the wall.

I said, “I don’t know.” Then I called, “Hey, Max, you okay?”

There wasn’t no answer.

But at least it was only my guys in the room.

I rolled onto my left side an’ my feet got tangled with my chair.

So I kicked it loose ‘cause I’m mad an’ it folded up an’ slammed to the floor. This was my deal. Big Mike told me this was my deal.

I lost the girl an’ I lost Max an’ Nick an’ Stinky Gus.

I might’a even lost Jake. No tellin’ how bad he was shot.

“Hey Jake,” I said, “how bad you shot?”

An’ I’m on my hands and knees, an’ my face was poundin’ from the pressure of the blood. You know, pushin’ on the glass. An’ my pistol was pressed against the floor an’ I was pushin’ myself up an’ my palms were hurtin’ from the glass. An’ more of it was cracklin’ an’ crushin’ under my hands, right? Like I ain’t had enough already.

Jake says, “I can’t walk, Joey. They—I think it’s my left hip. But like close to my business, y’know? I’m bleedin’ real bad, Joey.”

You got a’ artery or somethin’ right there. I know that much.

So I say “Yeah?” an’ I finally get to my feet. “Hey,” I said. “Hey, I’ll turn on the light in the kid’s room. Then maybe we can see somethin’.”

An’ I turned toward where I thought the girl’s room was. I took a step an’ then another one, only real careful ‘cause it’s pitch black an’ I don’t wanna step on nobody. An’ my hands was out in front of me feelin’ for the wall.

An’ then the knuckles on my left hand touched the wall, so I slid my hand to the right. You know, lookin’ for the door frame.

I found that an’ I said, “Hey, Jake, I’ll get the light here.” An’ I reached through the door an’ felt by the wall an’ found the switch an’ flipped it up.

The light came on an’ it almost blinded me, y’know? I blinked an’ I looked at the cot.

It was on its side, an’ the girl was gone.

Well yeah, I knew that much. An’ Big Mike wasn’t gonna like it.

So I turned around and I saw Jake layin’ over there by the far wall.

He was kind of sittin’, his shoulder blades pushed up against the wall. His pistol was on the floor next to him an’ both his hands were right there on his lap. He was pushin’ for all he’s worth.

Only even from that far away I could see the blood pool growin’ under him.

I looked to the right an’ there was Nick, layin’ by the counter on his back. His ankles were crossed. It looked silly for a guy like Nick. His head was rolled over to the left, like he was lookin’ underneath the counter. An’ he was bleedin’ out through his throat.

Behind him was Stinky, an’ I wondered how he got back there. That must have been the guy I thought fell under the window.

He was sittin’ in the corner of the wall an’ that little refrigerator, an’ there was a blood smear on the front of that refrigerator. His head was down like he was lookin’ at his lap.

An’ Max— Max was layin’ next to the table on his face. He fell almost on top of me, only beside the table.

There wasn’t nobody else in the room. I thought sure we got at least one of ‘em, but there wasn’t nobody else there.

An’ Jake, he was bleedin’ out pretty bad.

I thought about what Big Mike was gonna say.

I seen myself in a boat—no, not even in a boat. This was my deal. Big Mike gave it to me. I wasn’t in no boat. I was hangin’ onto a dirty old root or somethin’ in that creek, just goin’ up the creek. An’ the creek was floodin’.

Nobody wants to be up Big Mikey’s creek.

I walked over to Jake an’ he put up one hand. “Help me up,” he said. “I gotta get to a doc.”

Big Mike, he’d wonder how I come out okay. He’d wonder did Tilden turn me. An’ he’d wonder did Tilden make me talk about other things too.

Would he let me tell him what happened?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Hey, I hear the west coast is nice this time of year, y’know?

I’m tellin’ you, there wasn’t no way alive outta that stinkin’ room. Not that I could see. Not until right then.

So I said, “Sorry, Jake.”

An’ I raised my gat an’ put one neat between his eyes.

*******

Incident in a Cantina (Story 6 of 30)

It isn’t like they show it in the movies. At least that isn’t the way professionals do it.

In the movies, the gunman makes a dramatic entrance.

With the camera zoomed-in just so, he turns the door knob.

Or he works the metal latch.

Or he shoves one or both sides of the batwings open.

He steps into the room, still clinging to the door knob or the edge of the door. Or holding one or both batwings at arm’s length.

Then he stops.

He dons a serious look and scans the patrons. But carefully. Taking his time, pausing on each face to make a determination.

While silhouetted in the doorway.

Gunmen call some practice targets silhouettes.

It’s because they’re easier to hit.

***

The tired old beat-up bus slowed and groaned. The engine coughed as the driver downshifted. The bus shuddered, then lurched as it stepped up off the dirt road onto asphalt.

We were coming into the village. I glanced at my watch. The face read 9:34.

The sun was low in the eastern sky, but the day was already hot. The sound of tar bubbles popping beneath the rear tires of the bus filtered up through the partially open side window. The acid smell of exhaust fumes came with it.

How long would the layover be?

If it was long enough, I’d be on the same bus headed south. If it wasn’t, or if it was too long—well, I’d have to wait and see.

I was on the back seat, sitting sideways.

My nearest neighbors, a middle-aged man and woman, were four rows ahead of me on the right side of the aisle. He was wearing a blue and white plaid, collared shirt under a western style straw hat with an extra-wide brim. He was currently studying his lap.

The woman, seated next to the window, was in a faded, floral-print dress with a low collar. I noticed when I boarded in Nogales. Her hair was salt and pepper, pulled back into a severe bun on her head. A pair of pretty pink knitting needles made an X through it.

When the bus lurched, their heads bobbed.

The man continued to look down, maybe napping.

The woman stretched her arms over her head, then shifted in her seat, peered forward and to the right through the window next to the passenger in front of her.

We passed a barn-looking structure on the right at first, on the edge of town by itself. A corral extended away from the north wall.

A half-minute or so later we passed buildings on both sides. A few houses at first, some with low adobe walls, a couple with low, cast-iron fencing around them. One or two whose dusty yards were open to the road.

On the right, a golden-skinned child in a diaper bending, reaching for a ball. On the left, two pre-teen girls, arms laden with books, walking the same way we were going.

No sidewalks, only the ragged asphalt edge of the road gone to gravel, a few clumps of grass and a few weeds, and a worn footpath on either side of the road.

Then businesses. Shops, really, that looked almost identical to the houses. Repurposed, they say nowadays.

A flower shop on the left. Where do they get flowers?

On the right, a carneceria, then another house all within a crumbling red-brick fence. Probably the proprietors of one are the residents of the other.

And other shops coming up on both sides as the bus slowed again.

Ahead of the man and woman and to their left front were eight or ten other passengers, evenly divided among men and women.

They were coming to life. Shoulders flexed, heads turned, lips mumbled and fingers pointed. Heads nodded, and lips smiled. Torsos leaned forward, arms reached for belongings as they prepared to disembark.

If everyone was getting off, perhaps the layover would be long enough.

2

I peered forward past the driver to the left.

The back of a head came up, blocked my view for a moment, then turned away and ducked again.

A large whitewashed building. Except for a few vibrant blue or yellow houses, most of the buildings were whitewashed. But this looked strangely both ancient and new.

It had to be the church. So probably the center of the village.

My stomach churned slightly with anticipation, and I glanced to the right through the window a few seats ahead of me.

A moment later, a wide, squat building came into view. Across the street from the church. Where my contact said it would be. And very appropriate.

The building took up the space of two or three shops and it was also whitewashed, but faded to a dingy, sun-baked off-white. Above the arched entrance of the doors were dark brown letters, probably also sunfaded from black: CANTINA.

As if on cue, the brakes on the bus groaned, the ball joints creaked and the bus shuddered to a stop.

The brakes sighed as the driver released the air and opened the accordion door.

The other passengers stood, gathered items to their chest.

Men stepped into the aisle, extended one hand toward their women. Each spoke a name softly as they gestured toward the space they’d reserved in front of them.

The women smiled with bemused or endearing appreciation, then shuffled past to occupy the space.

The first pair on the left were a thin little old woman and a skinny little old man. Her long silver hair swayed behind her shoulders as she took the space in front of her husband.

But she didn’t stop. Her flat, sagging breasts and a paunch shifted slightly behind her plain brown dress as she moved past him on an angle across the head of the aisle.

In jeans, a plaid shirt, the requisite straw hat and a belt too wide for his stick body, he placed his left hand gently on her back at her waist and followed.

They were practiced.

When they’d attained the landing, he stopped momentarily. As she moved down to the second step, he shuffled forward. As she moved to the first and clasped the vertical chrome bar there, he stepped down to the second.

Then she stepped off tentatively, shuffled her feet to turn around, and offered him her hand.

The first pair from the right, another middle-aged couple, moved to the top of the steps to wait their turn. The woman nodded past the little old man, smiled graciously and said something quiet to the little old woman.

When the skinny man had rejoined his wife outside, they moved past the front of the bus and across the street toward the church.

Pair by pair, left then right, the others followed suit and wandered off in various directions. Only two couples walked past the cantina and turned the corner onto a side street. The others would be reboarding.

When the last pair was on the landing, the woman grasped the vertical chrome bar.

I gathered my small bag, draped a light jacket over my left forearm, and stood. I would have to find a place to leave the bag and jacket for a few minutes. And if I lost them—well, it was nothing I couldn’t replace somewhere down the road.

The man turned his head to the driver. In Spanish, he said, “And when will we depart again?”

The driver, already turned sideways in his seat to watch his passengers safely off the bus, took a toothpick from beneath his mostly grey moustached. “Ah,” he said, and wagged one hand side to side in the space between them. “Probably a half of one hour. You know, more or less. But I will not leave without you.”

The man grinned, displaying the lack of at least one tooth behind his left top canine, and nodded. “Gracias. An’ we will endeavor not to keep you waiting.”

3

I too would endeavor not to keep him waiting.

A half-hour, more or less.

Not much more, I hoped. The driver’s eyes had already said it wouldn’t be less.

I walked toward the front of the bus, swung right past the chrome pole and skipped down the steps.

I glanced away from the cantina, back up the road, then walked in that direction. I had minutes to kill. The next building north held a guitar shop. In the window were three types of guitars, from the large, thick things you think of when you think of roving Mexican musicians playing classical flamenco to a more standard sized Spanish guitar to a mandolin.

If I had more time— But that wouldn’t do.

The next small building held a leathercraft shop.

I stopped and admired the goods in the window. The show-stopper, a beautifully hand-tooled saddle with an attached rifle boot, was centermost on an old wooden saddle tree. At either end were two more, smaller saddle trees.

Over one was draped a selection of finely tooled belts. From the other, small shelves protruded. On those were displayed wallets, checkbook covers and folding card holders. A lone bag, also finely tooled, was set off to one side. Perfect.

I moved past the window and into the shop. There was a long glass counter on the left with a small antique-looking cash register at the end near the door. Then an aisle that led away to the back of the store, then three tables on the right.

On the first table were several stacks of bandannas in various colors. On the next were scarves, ostensibly to entice the women who accompanied their vaquero men into the leather shop. On the third table were several tanned cowhides and, rolled up on one end, a 7 or 8-ounce white leather horsehide.

A short, mostly bald man with a silver fringe and a drooping moustache to match smiled at me from behind a glass counter. Inside were three shelves with silver and turquoise belt buckles, bracelets, rings and other ornaments.

He leaned on the counter with one hand and gestured with the other vaguely toward the front window. “I saw you there at the window. You like my work?”

I smiled as well. “Yes, yes. I mean sí.” I waved one hand toward my mouth and forced a little color to my face. “My Spanish is not good. Please forgive me.”

“Oh, no no, it’s okay. I like to practice my English. What can I do for you, señor?”

“Actually, I was looking to buy another bag.” I set my bag on the counter. “Something perhaps this size, perhaps a little smaller or a little larger.”

Lines drew across his forehead as he bent over it. “Yes, I make bags like this.” He looked up. “A little larger, a little smaller. Big sellers.” He gestured toward an open archway in the back of the room. “I have some of them back there. You want to see?”

“Thank you. I’d like that.”

As I picked up my bag and jacket, he came out from behind the counter. He turned left and walked toward the archway. I grabbed a couple of red bandannas from the table behind me and followed him.

Just inside the door, he gestured to shelves on the left and said, “If you want to begin here, we—”

I grabbed his left shoulder firmly with my left hand. “Señor, no quiero hacerte daño. Por favor no te vayas. I don’t want to hurt you. Please don’t turn around.”

He bowed his head slightly and nodded.

I quickly rolled one bandanna and draped it over his eyes, then tied it behind his head. I leaned down near his left ear and whispered, “Nunca me viste, ¿verdad? You never saw me, right?”

Again, he nodded. “Sí sí.”I tied his hands behind his back with the other bandanna. “Regreso en un momento. Por favor, no te muevas. I’ll be back in a moment. Please don’t move.”

He nodded, and I seated him on a small stool to the right, then drew a curtain across the archway.

From my bag, I took my pistol, an unregistered Charter Arms .22 revolver with a silencer on the end, and ducked out the back door of the shop.

4

As I walked quickly along the alley, I tugged my shirt out of my trousers all the way around. At the corner, I paused and tucked the gun behind my belt. Then I exited and moved to the front of the cantina.

The double doors of the cantina were open. There were batwings, but even standing back near the street I could see over those well enough. No need to tempt misfortune. No silhouettes on the shade here. Or in the door.

Intel said the target had no idea anyone was after him. But intel was often wrong.

A couple strolled past in front of me. Were they from the bus?

But they kept going, then crossed in front of the bus toward the church.

Other people were milling about near the shops up the block. Probably fifteen or twenty minutes had passed.

I could make out the bar. It was an L shaped affair, as my contact had said. The long side stretched from the north wall two-thirds of the way through the room. There it turned and ran to the west wall. The only gate on it, though, was near the north wall. That was convenient, at least for me.

Tables and chairs filled the wide, shallow main cantina area that extended from the front of the bar to the east wall. More tables filled the long, narrow third of the cantina that took up the south end of the room. Those marched away into increasing darkness in the southwest sixth of the room.

If my contact was right, the target would be at “his table.” He liked his solitude. His table was past the bar on the left, in the corner formed by the bar and the west wall. It was the darkest corner in the place.

I finally caught a glimpse of it, and the right half of a man sitting with his back to the west wall. His other half was hidden by the bar.

To the left or south of his table was another. Nobody was seated there. In fact, there were only a couple of hearty souls at the bar, toward the north end. The bartender was there, talking with them. As I watched, a woman, probably his wife, came out of a small room behind the bar, set some glasses on a shelf, and went back into the room.

There were three people at tables between me and the bar, but to the right. Two at one table—a man and a woman, talking quietly—and a young pretend vaquero, un norteamericano from the looks of him, at a table by himself.

It wasn’t the perfect situation, but it didn’t suck.

I neared the door to one side, leaned against the wall, ducked my head and closed my eyes. It was a trick I’d learned years earlier. I was going into a darkened place.

When the bright pink behind my eyelids faded to a darker shade, I reached for the batwing doors and pushed through the left one.

I staggered a little, intentionally, then raised my right hand and walked toward the bar.

The bartender looked up, then moved toward me.

Okay, change one to the basic plan.

He smiled broadly. “May I help you, señor?”

“Un Negra Modelo, por favor.” I grinned. “And a glass?”

He laughed. “Right away.” He flopped his bar towel over his shoulder and turned away. He swiped a glass from the stack the woman had set down, then approached a large cooler and took out a Negra Modelo. He swung around again, worked a bottle opener on his way back, and set the glass and beer in front of me. “That will be—”

But I’d already laid a five dollar bill on the bar. “Keep it,” I said, picked up the beer and glass and turned away. To the south.

Behind me, the bartender said, “You could join us if—”

But I kept walking.

I heard him sigh, then his footfalls as he walked toward the other end of the bar.

I rounded the corner of the bar and angled toward the back door.

In my periphery, the man in the corner glanced up, then went back to studying his drink.

I set my glass and beer on a table some ten feet from the door and about twenty feet from the target at an angle. My back was to him.

5

I pulled out my chair, then made a show of tucking my shirt into the back of my trousers. As I did, I backed up a step or two as if a little off balance.

When I got the back tucked in, I looked down sharply and started on the sides, using mostly my thumbs. As I did that, I turned a little to the right and back another step, again as if off balance.

Most people in a bar will watch such antics for only a moment, then go back to their own thoughts.

I finally glanced over at the man as if I hadn’t noticed him there. I put a grin on my face.

But he wasn’t watching.

As I turned back to face my table, I slipped my hands toward the center of the front of my waist and eased the revolver out, then turned.

His table was only five or six steps away.

The gun at my side, I walked directly toward him.

As I approached his table, he finally glanced up. His eyes seemed glazed over.

My trademark line is, “Nothing personal.”

I stopped at his table and brought the revolver up.

I centered it on his face. “Sorry,” I said quietly as my finger tightened on the trigger. “Nothing per—”

The fingers of his left hand barely moved off the table, then fell to it again with a rap. He locked my gaze with his and a slight, very sad  smile curled one side of his mouth.

Quietly, he said, “What took you so long?”

I squeezed the trigger six times. The first two took him just to the left of his nose in the corner of his left eye. Three more hit his face before he slumped forward.

I walked around behind him and put one more into the place where his spine joins his brain. Then I set the revolver in his lap, walked to the back door, and let myself out.

Back in the leather shop, the old man was lying on his side, sound asleep.

I picked up my jacket and put it on, the picked up a leather bag and stuck my old bag inside it. I dropped a fifty dollar bill on the floor next to the proprietor.

Then I walked out through the front door of the shop and headed for the bus.

Two people came out of the bar. One ran down the street past me. The other curled around the side and headed up the side street.

As I boarded the bus I smiled and nodded at the driver. I jerked a thumb over one shoulder. “What’s going on out there?”

“Hey,” he said, “did you hear? Something happened in the cantina.”

I hoisted the new bag. “I seem to miss everything.”

* * * * * * *

Story 5 for June (Story 5 of 30)

In the back room of The Sicilian Lounge, four men were seated in mismatched chairs around a heavy wooden table. In front of each man was a coaster with a glass on it. The glasses were sweating and still half-full, the ice cubes in them slowly melting.

In the center of the table, a large amber ashtray was half-filled with grey ash. Above it, a 60 watt light bulb hung under a green shade beneath a slowly rotating ceiling fan.

The walls and ceiling had been white at one time. Now they were off-white with years of cigar and cigarette smoke. Along the edge of each fan blade, the built-up dust resembled fur.

There were no windows. One brown painted door led to a corner behind the bar. From the lounge, it was hardly noticeable.

The old gaming table reminded Mike Moretti of his days in Vegas.

Back in the day, the center was covered with a three-foot circle of green felt. Outside the circle, around the edge of the wooden surface, six shallow but elaborately carved designs marked the positions of the dealer and the players.

Much of the green felt circle had gone threadbare. Much of the varnish around the table had yellowed, puckered and chipped off. The inscriptions were worn down and filled with the grime of years.

But Moretti liked the table. It always seemed lucky for him. So when he relocated back to Brooklyn, he brought the table with him.

Now, in a cream colored suit and tie with a black shirt, he was seated as always in the dealer’s spot. His straight black hair, gone grey at the temples, was thinning but combed straight back. His fedora hung on a peg on the wall behind him.

His back was to the corner of the room. His face was round, smooth and clean shaven with ruddy cheeks. He had a hawk-like nose, and deep-set dark eyes. His eyebrows arched naturally, lending him a perpetual look of surprise. Except when he had reason to glare at anyone. Then he just looked frightening.

To his left was Paul Plain Pauley Guliatti. He was almost completely bald. What was left of his hair, mostly fringe, was thick, curly and black. His face was round, amiable and clean shaven, which is to say forgettable. It might have belonged to a bank teller or a dry goods clerk.

To Moretti’s right was Pauley’s cousin, Johnny No Nose Guliatti. Johnny was anything but forgettable. His face was pinched, clean shaven and pockmarked with acne scars. Thick black sideburns stopped even with the bottom of his earlobes. A thick single eyebrow separated his high, thin forehead from the rest of his face. Two close-set blue eyes nestled beneath it.

The left side of his nose was still there, though it had been adjusted farther left on more than one occasion. The other half was lost to the knife of an angry thirty-something year old husband when Johnny was seventeen.

Both men wore nondescript dark grey suits with white shirts.

Pauley’s neck bulged slightly over the collar of his shirt. He wore a tie that matched his suit.

Johnny No Nose had no tie, but even if he had, there would be a finger’s width between his neck and his collar. The top two buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned, revealing the top of his stained undershirt.

Across the table, his back to the door, was the only newcomer.

2

Nick Falconi, recently of Chicago, was dressed as well as Mike Moretti, but in a grey pinstripe suit and tie with a light-grey silk shirt under it. His matching fedora was balanced on his left thigh.

A jagged scar ran from the corner of his left eye to his jawline. Another almost blended in with his right eyebrow. His hair was blue-black with a sprinkling of grey at the temples.

He leaned back in his chair and tapped his cigarette ash in the general direction of the ashtray. It fell just short. “So I says to him, I says, ‘Why you gotta be like this, buddy? You gotta know you can’t cross Big Mikey an’ just walk away clean.’”

Plain Pauley Guliatti nodded and shrugged. “Hey.”

The others nodded, mumbling assent.

Nick took a drag of his cigarette, then gestured with it. “Well, he starts blubberin’ at first, but then he finds his balls somewheres an’—”

No Nose said, “Hey, he prob’ly kept ’em in his lady unnerwear.” He grinned broadly. “See, ‘cause he prob’ly wears lady unnerwear.”

Nick looked sidelong at him for a moment, then gestured with the cigarette again. “Yeah—well anyways, then he shuts up quick. But then he says somethin’ ‘bout he’s got kids an’ a wife.

“An’ I just kept lookin’ at him.

“An’ then he says if I’m gonna do him, I ought’a do him quick, like for old times’ sake or somethin’.

“So I let him off the hook a little. I grin at him, y’know? An’ I says, ‘Whaddayou, buddy, some kind’a faggot that I’m gonna do you? What is that? Like I’m physically attracted’a you or somethin’? Like I’m gonna bend you over a pool table or somethin’?’”

The others laughed.

Guffawing loudly, No Nose slapped the table and leaned back in his chair. “That’s it! That’s it exactly!” He overbalanced, but caught himself.

The legs of the chair creaked against the wooden floor.

Nick looked at him again and frowned. “Yeah, okay.” Then he turned back to Moretti. “So anyways, the guy stares at me for a minute, right? An’ me, I got this real sincere look in my eyes, y’know?

“So I say, ‘Hey, c’mon, buddy. I’m just screwin’ wit’cha.’ An’ then I say, ‘Y’know, come to think of it, you might walk away. You know, if you was to say all the right things. I mean, Big Mikey ain’t no hardass, y’know?’”

Moretti frowned and nodded.

Nick leaned forward and slapped the table. “An’ the guy buys it!

“So he straightens up a little an’ he kind’a shakes all over, like nerves leavin’ or somethin’. Then he says somethin’ like, ‘Hey,’ you know, ‘tell Big Mikey I got his back. I even got most’a the money for him,’ he says.

“So I tell him, I say, ‘Hey, you should go get it. You know, for I can bring it to Mikey.’

“An’ his eyes got all big an’ he says, ‘Y’think that’ll help? I mean, right now?’

“An’ I say, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’ An’ I just keep that sincere look on my face, you know, like I really wanna help the guy out.” He paused and gestured with his cigarette. “Well, now alla you guys know I really did wanna help him—out.”

They all laughed, with No Nose laughing the loudest.

Nick glanced at him, then back at Moretti. “So then he nodded—you know, just a little bit—an’ then he turns around. I guess he was gonna go rob his kid’s piggy bank or somethin’. An’ I slipped my piece outta my pocket and bam!” Nick slapped the table hard.

No Nose jumped.

“I popped him right inna back a’his stupid head.” Nick took a drag off his cigarette, looked around the table at the other three men and tapped the ashes off to the floor. “Hey, you guys think that’s what he meant by ‘do me quick?’” He grinned.

Pauley and Johnny burst into laughter.

3

Big Mike Moretti barely smiled, his attention locked on Nick. After a moment he nodded, then glanced at the table for a moment. When he looked up again, he said, “Good job, Nicky. I knew bringin’ you in was a good idea. Hey, you’re in my will.”

Plain Pauley said, “Yeah, good job, Nick.”

Johnny No Nose snorted. “So where’s the goob now?”

The table fell silent.

Nick trained steel-blue eyes on him. “Gone.”

Johnny missed the hint. “Well yeah, I know gone, you know. But gone how, eh? Gone where? I mean, is the guy gonna pop up in the newspapers or what?”

Mike Moretti fixed Johnny with a glare, his voice barely above a whisper. “Jesus Christ, No Nose! Where the hell you get off? Nicky says he’s gone, he’s gone.” The big man looked around the table, commanding the attention of each man. “Hey, ‘gone’ ain’t measured in degrees.” Then he looked at Nick. “Am I right, Nicky?”

One corner of Nick’s lips turned up in a light smirk. He raised his glass with his left hand. “Big Mike Moretti.”

The other two men mimicked his action. “Big Mike.”

As he set his glass back on the coaster, Nick caught sight of his watch. He gestured toward Moretti. “Aw hey, Mr. Moretti. I didn’t realize the time. I gotta plane to catch. You know, unless there’s anything else, eh?” He grinned.

Moretti wagged one hand at him. “Nah, hey, you go ahead, Nicky. Thanks for comin’ down, eh? This one thing you done for me, it ought’a set a lotta guys straight. I owe you.”

Nick picked up his hat and slid his chair back. As he was getting to his feet, he said, “Any time, Mr. Moretti. An’ I mean that.” He leaned across the table, proferring his right hand. “Hey, it was a pleasure.”

Moretti slid his chair back and stood, then shook Nick’s hand. “Yeah, well, thanks. You ever get tired of Chicago, you know—” He shrugged.

“Hey, I’ll keep that in mind.” He glanced at No Nose, then Pauley. “See you around, guys.” Then he turned and left.

As the door closed behind him, Moretti leaned forward and cuffed No Nose behind the left ear. “What the hell, No Nose?”

No Nose’s chair complained again the wooden floor as he pivoted slightly to the right. He put his palms out to his sides. A pained look crossed his face. “What, Big Mikey? Hey, I didn’t mean nothin’.”

“Bullshit! What is it wit’chu today? You come in here, you sit at my table, you drink my booze. An’ then you got the balls to interrogate my friend?”

Johnny spread his hands wide. “Hey, Mike— Boss— I-I was just lookin’ out for your interests. I mean we don’t know this guy, this Nick Falconi. We don’t know the guy from Adam, that’s all. I was just—”

The motion was a blur. Big Mike seized No Nose by the throat and squeezed. “You’re lookin’ out for my interests? That’s it? You think I can’t watch out for myself? Like I’m stupid or somethin’, that I’m gonna bring in a guy I don’t trust?”

He glanced at Pauley. “You hearin’ this? No Nose here thinks I’m too stupid to make my own decisions.” He shifted his attention back to Johnny. “You embarrass me like that again, you’ll wake up with your balls in your mouth an’ your pecker stickin’ out through a slit in your stupid throat. Y’got me?”

Johnny, whose face was turning purple, did his best to nod.

“Good!” He shoved No Nose backward and the right rear leg of the chair collapsed, dumping him on the floor. Mike shook his head and laughed as he glanced at Pauley. “This damn guy, eh?”

Pauley said nothing as Johnny awkwardly got up, his hand at his throat.

For a moment he glared at Mike, but as the big man looked around, No Nose jerked his hand away from his throat and averted his gaze to the floor. “Uh Boss— I, uh— I got some things— I should prob’ly—”

Moretti waved one arm in the air, dismissing the man. “Yeah, yeah, get the hell outta here.” He grinned at the table and shook his head, then looked up at Johnny’s retreating back. “An’ hey, don’t forget that thing. Tomorrow night. Eleven, right?”

No Nose turned around so fast he nearly fell over. “Yeah. Yeah, sure. No problem, Boss. Eleven.”

Big Mike nodded, then gestured again. “Go on, get the hell outta here.”

4

In front of the bathroom mirror in his home, Mike Moretti leaned slightly forward as he straightened his tie and drew the knot up tight.

Marie watched him from the door. “You sure you gotta go, Michael? I mean, you got more assistants than the pope.”

He glanced at her in the mirror. “Won’t take long… coupl’a hours. This is a first major shipment or I wouldn’t bother.” He turned around. “Etiquette, y’know? I wanna be there to shake the man’s hand. You know, owner to owner. Make it official.”

“Yeah, well—just be careful, a’right?”

He raised both hands to his sides. “What careful? Nothin’ dangerous about olive oil. Hey, it’s even healthy, right?” He lightly gripped her shoulders and bent to kiss her forehead. “Back before you know it.”

***

In the back seat of a car near the wharf, Nick Falconi raised the cuff of his left sleeve and looked at his watch. It was two minutes before eleven.

He raised his head and looked at the man in the driver’s seat. “Hey, buddy, you’re sure about this, right? The time, I mean? An’ the place? We got the right place?”

The man glanced at the display in the dashboard, then nodded. “Yeah, yeah. He’ll be here. When Moretti says eleven, he means eleven. Not five of, not five after.”

“What about others?”

The driver frowned into the rear-view mirror. “Who was with him today?”

“Plain Pauley Guliatti. Well, him an’ some moron called No Nose somethin’.”

“That’s all?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Then that’s who’ll be with him.”

“Yeah, a’right.”

A moment later, the lights from a car flashed past the alley in which they were parked.

Nick leaned forward to watch as the lights neared.

When the car passed, sure enough there were three figures inside. The figure in the back was huge. It had to be Moretti.

Nick said, “Moretti’s in the back, as expected. Okay then, so—”

“Pauley’ll be drivin’.”

“How can you be sure?”

The driver grinned. “Would you let No Nose drive?”

“Hey, you got a point there. Okay, good. So when you pull in, trap the driver’s side door. I’ll do the rest. I can’t believe I’m gettin’ a three-fer, eh?”

As Moretti’s car passed by the front corner of the warehouse, a figure separated from the shadows and walked toward the car.

“Here,” Moretti said. “Park here. He can come to me.”

After Moretti’s car was well past the alley, the driver of Nick’s car shifted into drive and gunned it.

They raced around the corner.

A pedestrian was almost to Moretti’s car, approaching on the passenger side. Moretti had just opened the rear door on the passenger side and put his leg out.

The driver of Nick’s car jammed the right front corner of the car up against the driver’s side door of the other car.

As the car rocked, Moretti fell back in the seat, his right leg still outside. The car door slammed against it, trapping him.

Nick opened the back passenger side door of his own car and quickly stepped out. In his right hand was a Kimber .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol. A silencer extended the barrel by several inches.

He pointed at Pauley’s head and fired through the driver’s side window.

Pauley slumped over the steering wheel, then slumped to the right.

On the other side of Moretti’s car, the pedestrian turned and started running.

As Nick walked past the back of the car, just loudly enough to be heard he said, “Run another step and I’ll kill you.”

The man stopped so fast he almost fell down.

Nick said, “Put your hands behind your head. Do it.”

As the man raised his hands, Nick turned, pulled open the passenger side door of Moretti’s car, and shot him in the forehead.

Moretti jerked and lay still.

In the front seat, Johnny No Nose had just turned away from his dead cousin. He shoved his hands up, jamming his fingers against the ceiling. “No!” he screamed. “No! No! No!”

Nick pointed the pistol. “Only smart one of the bunch.” He squeezed the trigger and erased the rest of Johnny’s nose.

He turned around and looked at the pedestrian. “You are Mr. Nguyen Tai Eng?”

The man nodded quickly.

“Good, good.” He took a card from his inside coat pocket. “You will deliver a sample of your wares to this address in Chicago no later than one week from today. Can you do that?”

Again the man nodded, frantically.

“Good. From now on, you’ll be doing business with my boss.”

He turned around and walked back to the car.

The driver stepped out. “Hey, that went better than planned, eh?”

“Indeed. That wife and those children you told me about?”

“Yes sir.”

“Go enjoy them. And thanks for the information.”

He turned and walked toward the side of the warehouse.

The man at the car frowned. “Only—ain’t you gonna need a ride or somethin’?”

Without turning around, Nick said, “I’ll find my way.”

*******

The Pity of Bill Trevor (Story 4 of 30)

As he moved up behind the podium, Bill Trevor glanced at the clock on the back wall of the room. The combination of narrow black hands read 11:02. The thin red second hand seemed to race. It was nearing the 3.

He inched forward, gripped the edges of the podium. The wood was worn smooth and it was cool.

What a thing to notice.

He flexed his fingers, gripped the edges again.

Well, part of it was cool. Part of it was warm. The part where the preacher gripped it a moment before.

The legs of a metal folding chair scraped lightly behind him to the left as the preacher took a seat.

The gentle, quiet scent of flowers wafted up to him.

Jesus, what a cliché.

Next he’d note the lights in the room were dim as a tomb. Before you knew it, he’d be describing the departed as “a good man.”

Well, he wouldn’t go as far as a good family man. He wouldn’t go that far.

Like it or not, cliché or not, the room was as dim as a tomb, or nearly so. No drama there, no overacting. It just was what it was.

If the lights were dim, the lights were dim, period.

But isn’t that what a funeral is anyway? Cliché?

Isn’t it an opportunity to tell the world the only guy better than the guy in the box was Jesus Christ of Nazareth? And the guy in the box was running a really close second when he met his untimely demise?

Demises are always untimely. Always.

Even when they’re deserved, they’re untimely to someone. Even when they’re deserved.

Even when the recently, dearly departed loved one chased death as if they were playing tag, just the two of them?

Even when the doctor told him to avoid salt and he went home, poured salt out of the salt shaker into a mound in his hand and popped it into his mouth? Then licked his palm clean?

Even when the doctor told him to drink plenty of water and get some exercise?

And not even real exercise. Just walking. That’s all he had to do. Just walk.

And he went home and sat in his recliner from the time he got up in the morning until he went to bed at night. And he poured salt into his hand, sometimes from the shaker, sometimes even from the little round blue carton, and he popped it into his mouth.

And when he thirsted, he took an ice cube from a full glass—all ice, no water—next to his recliner and sucked on it until his thirst abated.

“But all you gotta do is walk, Phred,” Bill Trevor said one day. “All the doc wants you to do is walk, even just one end of the house to the other, remember? Do that a few times a day, an’ that’ll help. Remember?”

And in his recliner, Phred dropped his head forward just far enough to peer over the top of his stupid green-tinted glasses and said, “Oh, I do. I walk in here in the morning,” and he pointed at the recliner. “And I walk in there every night,” and he pointed down the hall toward the bedroom.

And Bill Trevor stared at him for a moment, at a loss for words, then shook his head. He looked away, his hands gripping his hips with exasperation, and said quietly, “All right. Okay.” Then he turned and walked out.

Behind him then, there was only silence. The recliner didn’t so much as squeak.

The man in it would refuse to look around too, refuse to watch him leave. He’d rather focus on the bland drug commercial and the monotonous narrator on the television.

It was the lesser threat.

2

Bill Trevor gripped the podium hard, flexed his shoulders.

Behind him, back then, when there should have been something, there was only silence.

Today, when there should have been silence, maybe, someone behind him occasionally coughed quietly or cleared his throat. Or her throat.

The preacher was back there, his wife, and the director of the mortuary.

Trying to get him to hurry along, maybe.

That thought made him aware of a quiet murmuring in front of him too.

Had those few behind him enlisted the aid of the multitude out front? Was it a conspiracy to get him to hurry along?

He imagined the director of the funeral parlor tapping his watch. In private of course. “Gotta get this one in the ground,” he’d say. “We got another one in twenty minutes.”

Did he have another funeral scheduled?

Bill Trevor had meant to check, but he’d forgotten. That wasn’t his business anyway. But he hoped not.

In an old recording about a football game, Andy Griffith talked about what happened when a player was injured on the field.

“Some fellers would tote a stretcher out there, slap it on the field next to the feller an’ load ‘im up. An’ no sooner would they carry one away, they’d run another’n right back in.”

In the background of the recording, the audience laughed. Bill Trevor and his friends laughed too. It was funny at the time.

He flexed his fingers again, tightened his grip on the podium, looked out over the assembly. Cleared his throat.

Some in the assembly shifted on the pews, straightened the slightest bit, looked up.

Nobody in the front row moved.

He looked down, just past the leading edge of the podium. He sighed, but quietly. No need to make a spectacle. That would come soon enough.

From here he could just make out the far edge of the lower half of the box.

In his mind, his stepmother’s face appeared. She smiled, reached to touch the side of his face with her soft palm, then her fingers as she slowly drew them back.

It was during a quiet time. A quiet time.

His father had left for work. He and his mom were eating toast with syrup and butter at the little brown table in the kitchen.

The skin beneath her left eye was still an angry red with a little yellow at the edges.

Better than the puffy black it was a few days before.

Better than the greenish blue it was yesterday.

Through the smile, she said quietly, “Be kind, Billy.” Her lips twitched slightly, and she said, “You don’t have to be like anybody but yourself.”

She was right. Mama was always right. Even after she paid, she was always right in those quiet times.

He glanced down again. He could just make out the edge of the bottom of the casket. The casket, not the box. That and the top half, the raised half, of the lid.

The top half, the raised half, was a shield. It worked both ways.

It shielded him from the face on the other side.

The face and the shoulders and black western-cut suit coat with the flower on the lapel. And the white shirt and the black tie and the green-tinted glasses.

And the arms in those black sleeves, white cuffs just below them, angled down to the thick, meaty, overlapping hands.

And it shielded the guy in the box—the casket—from the pity of Bill Trevor.

But wasn’t that taboo? Wasn’t it taboo to feel pity for a guy like the guy in the box? The casket?

“Feel how you want to feel,” all the experts said. Even so, there was an approved list. He was certain pity wasn’t on it. Not for a guy like that.

Still, poor guy. What an untrue pose.

He’d never held his hands like that in his life. Most often one was extended to shake the hand of a friend.

Or slap a family member. Or balled into a fist.

He never wore a suit either, western-cut or otherwise.

At least the suit coat matched his hair. Well, some of it.

3

At least it wasn’t hot up here.

The last time he spoke at a funeral, it was in a Catholic chapel. At least dozens of candles were lighted just below the podium. Maybe hundreds. It was like a condensed range fire.

They were on a table—or an altar, maybe—in little tin cups set in little holders that were inset in the table itself. Or altar.

Is there a difference?

Doesn’t a prayer go as far whether it’s flung up from a table or an altar? Or doesn’t a table become an altar when a praying man kneels in front of it? Doesn’t the prayer go as far and just as quickly with or without the candles?

If it doesn’t—well, then the system’s flawed somehow.

What if you have a need to pray but no candles are available? Surely there are allowances.

He gripped the podium, looked down at his notes.

All the things he wanted to say in this formal eulogy.

Negative reinforcement.

Phred’s entire parenting syllabus.

Teach them what not to do by giving them a sample or two. Or thirty. A day. For seventeen damned years.

Tension rode up along his neck on a pony with pointed hooves, then subsided.

And examples of the technique. He’d listed several examples.

Stripping the clothing from “the wife” in the living room. With a knife. While she cried, her hands over her scarlet face. While the children were made to watch.

Proclaiming a child is a “thief” because he “stole” a slice of day-old white bread from the bread box after supper.

Bill Trevor’s jaw clenched.

Forcing a two year old child to admit bedwetting. Aloud in front of the family. In his wet underwear.

Sending the same child back to the same bed. To bend over the edge of it. His face in the wet spot. And wait for the belt.

Beating the same child with a broad leather belt across the buttocks, lower back, upper thighs. And hands if they get in the way.

On the cop shows, they’d call the scars on the little hands defensive wounds. All defensive wounds.

Pain fired through Bill Trevor’s left wrist.

He averted his gaze from his notes to the left side of the podium.

His knuckles were protruding, white.

His fingers ached.

He focused on his back, shoulders, arms. Relaxed them. Relaxed his grip on the left side of the podium. Looked out over the assembly.

The room was filled, every pew. And more were standing along the far half of the aisles and along the walls.

More were standing beyond the open left door of the double doors of the sanctuary.

No, the room.

The room. Sorry, Mom. No room with Phred in it could be called a sanctuary.

The faces in the back several rows, and those standing. They were sad-like, all of them, but accepting that life had happened. They were here for a sendoff. A hail and farewell. “To show their respect.”

And a little pensive. They had lives to lead, things to get back to.

He recognized some of them. He’d seen them around, maybe.

Oilfield workers. Cops. A waitress or ten.

All acquaintances of the guy in the box.

The casket.

The faces in the nearer rows were sad too, and a little pensive. They had things to get back to but this was more important for the moment.

Friends of the deceased. Friends of Phred.

People who thought he was normal because they had no evidence to the contrary. People who didn’t want evidence to the contrary.

People who envied him, even, because they didn’t know enough to pity him.

And the faces in the first row. All sad, maybe. Some sorrowful, some relieved. Maybe.

Those younger than Bill Trevor were sad. Sorrowful. Filled with trembling to sorrow. They knew a whole other Phred.

Well, except the salt thing and the water thing and the walking thing. How would they explain that?

But he wouldn’t ask them to. Ever. No point.

Those nearer Bill Trevor’s age—well, they were sad too, maybe. But maybe not sorrowful.

And pitying. And relieved. They were relieved.

4

He had so much to say when he’d left the first row and climbed the three steps up to the dais.

He’d written it down earlier, back at the house. “Lowlights,” he called the list.

But that was earlier, back at the house. And maybe not aloud.

And then here, later, he’d left the first row and climbed the steps.

And after he let the preacher pump his hand, and after the preacher released his grip on his shoulder, the preacher turned away to go to his folding chair and Bill Trevor turned away to go to the podium.

And he took the folded sheet of paper filled with lowlights from the inner pocket of his jacket.

He took it out and unfolded it. He spread it on the slant of podium and wondered briefly whether it might slide away.

But the lip at the bottom edge of the podium wouldn’t let it slip away. So he relaxed his thoughts about that. And he was grateful. Because this was not a time for worry.

He looked down at the paper again.

Below the entry on the bedwetting child there were other entries.

Slapping the child.

Beating the child.

Kicking the child.

Pointing out a beautiful small trusting creature, smiling.

Then shooting it.

Then making the child retrieve it.

Years later, handing the child a small caliber rifle, pointing out a rabbit, telling the boy to aim and squeeze.

Berating the boy for killing the poor, defenseless creature.

Threatening suicide. With a loaded revolver. To his head.

All vile things. All hateful things.

Hating the child.

He glanced again at the raised upper half of the box. The casket.

He muttered, “You don’t have to be like anybody but yourself.”

For once, Phred had managed inadvertently to shield him. Maybe he would return the favor. If he didn’t, someday maybe he’d wish he had a chance to deliver the eulogy again. Maybe not.

But the one positive thing Phred taught him was to tell the truth. That was the one positive thing.

The last time he’d seen Phred, he’d said, “All right. Okay,” and left.

All right. Okay.

He raised his chin, looked out across the assembly.

“My father taught me many things. He—”

Bill Trevor paused and glanced down at the list, then looked up again. He caught sight of the clock on the far wall.

The narrow black hands still read 11:02. The clock was working. The thin red second hand seemed to race.

But it was only nearing the 9.

He ignored the faces in the back several rows and those in the nearer rows.

He looked at the upturned faces in the front row. The expectant, upturned faces.

This was a funeral. This was a time for cliché. A time for pity.

“I’m sure he will be missed.”

Bill Trevor released the edges of the podium, picked up the sheet of paper, folded it carefully. He slipped it into the inner pocket of his jacket and looked again at the upturned faces.

“He was a good man.”

*******

 

Story 3 of 30 (No Title Yet)

The beat-up, squat white rectangle of a bus slowed as it neared the north end of the village. The sun, risen only a half-hour earlier, reflected in gold and silver flecks off the plume of dust it kicked up. As it moved south, the shadow stretched away across the desert, warping into arroyos and momentarily darkening creosote, prickly pear and chollas.

Inside the bus, halfway along the aisle on the left, Ariana Crowley was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved pink shirt. The shirt was tucked into her jeans behind a narrow brown belt, the sleeves rolled to her mid-forearms. On her feet were comfortable white Nikes.

She smiled tentatively and glanced around at the other passengers. And immediately felt a bit self-conscious.

Most of the other women on the bus were wearing dresses. Some with shoes, most with sandals. Only the men and one or two women, maybe, wore jeans or faded dungarees and shoes or boots.

Almost every seat was filled too, usually with two passengers on either side of the aisle. When she boarded in Nogales, she hadn’t noticed. She’d plopped her bag into the window seat, then seated herself next to it on the aisle. But none of the other passengers seemed to care.

Across the aisle was a plump, short woman in a faded, flowery dress. Her face was round and full, her upper lip covered with fine black hair. A worn straw hat sat on her head.

She was thirty-five? Maybe forty? It was difficult to tell.

Her black hair was streaked with grey, but of course, that was no indicator of age. Perhaps she’d had a difficult life. Save a few stray strands, the woman’s hair was pulled back along the side of her head into a small bun. It  lay beneath the brim of her hat on the back of her head.

On her lap she held a small cage with a live chicken inside. It rested on a straw nest. The woman didn’t return Ariana’s smile, or even notice. She was looking straight ahead, her eyes lifeless, apparently as bored as the chicken.

Next to her, a man slept. His body was angled away into the corner formed by the back of the seat and the inside wall of the bus. His thin brown face was graced with a long, thick, drooping moustache beneath a hawk-like nose. Conversely, there was almost no sign of hair on his right cheek and jawbone. The skin there was shiny and smooth.

Beads of sweat lay on his deeply lined forehead beneath his tangled black hair. He was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved light-blue sweat-stained shirt. A straw hat similar to the woman’s lay on his lap, his hands on the brim to either side of the crown.

Behind them, an obviously older woman in a dark grey dress sat next to the aisle. Her head was bowed beneath a full head of silver hair. It too was pulled back and gathered into a bun. Her fingers worked rhythmically as a pair of small knitting needles clacked together. On her lap lay what appeared to be a large white doily. The string fed regularly over the arm rest to her left.

So Ariana wasn’t the only passenger who was taking up two seats.

As the bus lurched over an irregularity in the dirt road, she turned back to the front.

In front of her were two young men, judging from their thick black hair and their unlined necks. One was wearing a light-blue shirt, the other a slate-grey. Neither wore a hat or cap. They seemed almost to be dancing, their shoulders and heads moving slightly in sync with the jostling bus.

Past them, slightly to the right, a large, ancient-looking wooden building came into view. It had been whitewashed at one time, but the wood showed through the faded paint.

She gripped the arm rest for balance and straightened in her seat. They were coming to their first town. Oh, it was all so exciting!

3/2

A tentative smile on her face, Ariana put her hands on the back of the seat ahead of her and leaned forward.

The faded sign above the wide door of the barn-like structure was broken a little right from center. The two halves hung away from each other in an oddly formed chevron.

She focused, tried to remember her Spanish.

It seemed to read—something, Blacksmith Shop and—something else. There was a corral several yards to one side of the building. Livery Stable. It must be the old blacksmith shop and livery stable.

As the bus continued, she turned to the right in her seat, an eager smile on her face, to look through the window. In a reflex action, she reached with her left palm to wipe dust from the window.

The window leapt beneath her hand as the bus lurched.

She gripped the arm rest more tightly and reached again to wipe at the window.

It did no good. Most of the dust was on the outside.

Still, she peered out as best she could, turning her head slightly to watch as the livery stable receded. The village, whatever it was named, was the first stop in what she was sure would prove to be an exciting journey.

Her parents had driven from Albuquerque to Nogales to see her off. They’d enjoyed an amiable breakfast with her at her hotel, during which they implored her, a final time, not to go. There were drug cartels in Mexico, they said. And gun runners. And people smugglers. And who knows, maybe even slave traders. Any of those would be more than happy to take advantage of a fresh-eyed 23 year old girl.

“But I am not a girl,” she insisted over a tight smile. With her chin jutted slightly toward her father, she said, “I am a woman.”

Her mother smiled the slightest bit. With pride, Ariana liked to think.

She was a woman, after all. And she was young and unencumbered. And her people had a history in Mexico and she longed to witness her ghosts first hand. Surely they must understand.

They didn’t.

But they drove her to the bus station. There, first her mother then her father blessed her with hugs and a kiss on the forehead.

Then with her father’s left arm draped protectively around her mother’s shoulders, they each raised a hand to bid her a safe journey.

Her last memory of them was her father’s fingers gently flexing on her mother’s left shoulder.

In wake of that memory, she glanced at the seat to her right. Her bag was there, her only companion. Over a tan, light-canvas base it was covered in happy, scrolling green vines and pretty pastel flowers in gentle shades. Inside were two skirts, two more pair of jeans and three button-up blouses similar to the pink one she was wearing.

There were also a few t-shirts in various colors and a pair of white leather thong sandals, as well as underwear, a few tubes of Chapstick, and some other incidentals.

The silver zipper raced along the length of the bag on a black strip and ducked into a corner over the top edge. The handles of the bag were comfortable rolled leather, one on either side of the zipper.

The livery stable some distance behind them, the bus slowed further as it pulled into town.

3/3

Excited, Ariana peered through the windows on her side of the bus. She wanted desperately to see what was on the other side of the street as well, but she chose not to stare past the passengers across the aisle. It might be considered rude.

Most of the buildings she could see from her side of the bus were of whitewashed, thick-walled adobe. Some even had sod or thatched roofs, but most were of wood planks. A few were covered with sheets of corrugated steel.

She had expected to see neat, covered boardwalks in front of the buildings. That’s what she most often saw in the movies filmed in these small villages. Neat boardwalks with thick cedar-post uprights every so often supporting a wooden roof covered with thatch or maybe thin wooden shingles. Perhaps even a covered boardwalk stretching from one block to the next through town.

The boardwalks were there, but they were open to sun and wind and rain. Well, if it ever rained. And they were worn, the wood splintered in places.

Still, even as early as it was, people, mostly men, were already out and about. They were gathered in small groups on corners or walking along the boardwalks. Most were dressed in the same way the people on the bus were dressed.

Most of the men wore jeans and western hats and snap-front or button-down shirts, and some wore the low-crown, rounded straw hats like those of the woman and man across the aisle. She didn’t see a traditional sombrero among them.  The few women were in dresses, either entering or exiting shops.

Most of the pedestrians glanced up or looked around as the bus eased by, perhaps as curious about the passengers as Ariana was about them.

She looked beyond the faces, from one building to the next.

But the shops! Almost every building had a glass window.

And almost every window was lettered with tattered, partial words in tired, faded paint.

There was a carniceria—a butcher shop. A white counter was partially visible inside, leading away from the front of the store.

There was a panadería—a bakery—and next door, a tortilleria, for the flat, unleavened bread so many favored.

Through one shop window, she caught sight of genuine leather belts and a display of silver buckles. There as a stack of brightly colored bandannas to one side, to filter the ever-present dust from the air.

Through another window, seemingly ancient, worn tables were stacked high with everything from leather boots to sombreros to western hats, serapes, blankets and rugs.

Through another, tables held folded jeans and shirts. On a display in that window there were also various sculpted clay pots and bowls.

On stands in a display through another window were guitars and mandolins.

In the glass cases in another were billfolds and checkbook covers and turquoise-and-silver necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

It was overwhelming.

She had originally planned to pass through the first several villages. But she should stay here at least one night. This village deserved exploration.

As if the driver read her mind, finally the old bus groaned to a shuddering stop at the only major intersection. On the corner on Ariana’s side of the bus was the first building she’d seen without a large window. The faded letters above the heavy arched doorway read Cantina. Across the street ahead of her was a hotel. And across the main street was the only freshly whitewashed building in town: the church.

After the dust cloud wafted past the front of the bus, the driver worked a lever to his right and the folding door squealed open.

3/4

Ariana picked up her bag and stood.

She looked around and waited, but none of the passengers behind her stirred.

When she looked to the front again, the two young men seated directly ahead of her were in the aisle and moving toward the front of the bus.

They had boarded immediately after she boarded in Nogales. Odd that they were getting off in the same small town.

The first man stopped and said something to the driver. Over the sound of the bus idling, she couldn’t quite make out what he said.

As she turned her head to smile again at the woman across the aisle with the chicken on her lap, in her periphery she thought the man talking with the driver gestured toward her.

It was probably nothing.

Beyond the woman with the chicken, the man was still scrunched in the corner, asleep.

The woman continued to stare straight ahead.

Ariana felt her own head cant slightly as she wondered whether she had said or done something to offend the woman, but she couldn’t remember any possible infraction.

Still smiling, she turned back to the front and sidestepped out into the aisle.

The driver, who was still seated, quickly turned his head back to the front.

The first young man was going down the steps of the bus.

Then the second young man stopped to talk with him.

Ariana looked at the driver. Was he looking at me?

But surely not. There was no reason.

The driver was wearing light khaki trousers that had been sharply creased at one time, a matching shirt without a tie, and a khaki, leather-brimmed visored cap.

As she made her way toward the front of the bus, the driver gestured and said something to the young man. Again, she couldn’t quite make it out.

The young man nodded and said, “Gracias” and turned away to start down the steps of the bus.

The driver, still sitting sideways in his seat, shifted his gaze toward her for a second.

His eyes seemed sad. At least she thought so.

But as she approached, he nodded, then grinned and said, “I think you are the only other one getting off here. I was just telling the young man, the bus will leave again in one half-hour.” He wagged his hand side to side in the air. “Give or take.”

As she had thought, it was nothing.

She smiled. “Thank you. I mean, gracias. But I’ll be staying here at least one night. When is the next bus due?”

The driver’s grin faded. “Ah, sí señorita, pero there is no other bus. Only me. Well, me and my brother.

“I drive the bus north through here each week on Thursday and then back to the south on Saturday—like today—at about the same time.” Again he wagged his hand side to side in the air. “You know.

“And then my brother, he drives the bus north on Monday and back to the south on Wednesday. We always come through here at about the same time, 6:30 or maybe 7.” He raised his right index finger. “And we always stop at this corner.”

He leaned forward. “Of course, we take Sunday off, alabe a Dios.” He crossed himself.

Ariana nodded, her smile still in place. “Gracias, señor. That’s perfect. I’ll stay here for a few days. Then I’ll catch the bus with your brother or you again going south.”

He wrinkled his brow. “But you are going farther south? Porque? I mean, why?”

It was the first time anyone had shown interest in what she was doing. “Yes, far to the south. My great-grandfather’s friend, un Tejano, was the marshal in a fishing village a long time ago.” She shrugged. “I grew up on stories about him. I hope to see that village before I return home.”

“May I ask what was the name of the village?”

“Agua Perlado.”

“Ah, sí, sí. That is very far to the south indeed. And it is a dangerous trip. Please be very careful. We have a beautiful country here, but sometimes the people, they are not so beautiful.”

She laughed lightly and nodded. It was like having another dad. “I’ll be careful.” She raised one hand. “See you in a few days.”

He raised a hand as she turned and stepped down from the bus. Briefly, his thoughts turned to the two young men who had preceded her off the bus. Quietly, he said, “I hope so.”

3/5

Ariana decided to check into the hotel first, then explore the shops in town. Swinging her bag with her right hand, she crossed the street to the hotel.

When she walked through the double doors, a set of three small bells tinkled.

The clerk was on the near side of the desk. He was a gruff-looking, rotund man. He was dressed in dirty black slacks that slouched over scuffed black shoes that hadn’t seen polish in awhile. The formal appearance, such as it was, ended at his belt, which was also black but had faded and worn edges. Above that he wore a white ribbed a-frame undershirt.

When he looked around and saw her, he scowled, then walked through a small wooden gate to wait behind the counter.

As she crossed toward the desk, she appraised him further.

His face was round and puffy and red, with a few days’ growth of salt and pepper stubble. Horizontal lines seemed permanently and deeply etched into the fat on his forehead. He was bald save a salt and pepper fringe above his ears and a few long stray strands on top.

From the right corner of his mouth protruded a cigar he had clenched between his teeth. He was holding a fly swatter in his right hand, and as she crossed the lobby he swatted flies on the counter twice and swept them to the floor with his hand. In that time, he rotated the cigar three times with his tongue.

Even this early in the day, the temperature was nearing 90 degrees. Despite three overhead fans slowly rotating in the lobby, thick beads of sweat trickled among the hairs on his beefy neck and shoulder and chest.

When she got close to the desk, Ariana ran headlong into his body odor. She stopped cold, then took a half-step back. Her nose was scrunched up and her forehead wrinkled.

The man looked up before she could erase the look. “So you wanna room or not?”

“Are—I was just wondering, are there any other hotels in town?”

“No. This one is all. So you wanna room?”

For a moment, she considered. She could still get back on the bus and— But no. What was to say she wouldn’t have a similar problem the next time she wanted to stop?

She smiled. “Yes. Yes sir. I’d like a room for—” She paused and mentally counted the days. To continue south, she would have to wait a week. “For seven nights.”

“Ah, so that’s a week, eh?”

“Yes sir.”

He put his palms on the edge of the counter and leaned forward slightly, running his gaze over her from head to feet and back. Then he grinned. “Hey, you don’t gotta call me sir. We’re practically the same age, you an’ me. You’re stayin’ a week, eh?”

“Yes sir. I mean, yes. Probably.”

He quoted the price, then said, “In advance.”

She set her bag on the floor, unzipped it and took out a small clutch. As she dug the money out, he turned away and took a key from a box on the wall behind him.

When she put the money on the counter, he took it without counting it, then slapped the key on the counter. “That’ll be 208, up the stairs, left, room’s on the right.”

She reached for the key, then said, “So that’s in the back?”

He nodded.

“I—I’d rather have something overlooking the main road.”

“208. Take it or leave it. No refunds.”

She frowned. Why was he being so gruff? “I’ll take it.” She slapped the key, turned on her heel and headed for the stairs.

He watched closely as she walked away.

3/6

The room was carpeted with surprisingly thick carpet, but otherwise sparsely furnished. It had with a double bed, a small chest of drawers and a bedside table. On the table was an alarm clock with annoying, bright-blue luminescent numbers and a lamp. Across the room near the door was a small dressing table with a chair in the leg well.

Ariana pulled out the chair, then slipped her bag into the leg well and left to go shopping.

She shopped all morning. She had brought plenty of clothing with her, if she could locate a washing machine once a week or so. But after seeing the ladies on the bus, she thought it might be nice to buy a couple of dresses and maybe even a hat or two to protect her from the sun.

She selected two dresses, a plain peach-colored one and a dark green one, then two pair of shorts, both khaki, and a second pair of running shoes. She didn’t find a straw hat she liked, but she bought a bright yellow ball cap and a rose-colored t-shirt that caught her attention.

When she returned to her room in the early afternoon, she was exhausted, but her mind was racing. She needed a plan. There would be plenty of time tomorrow to visit the few remaining shops and maybe visit the historic-looking old church.

But the way the man downstairs acted bothered her. And that made her think back about the bus driver, him glancing at her as he was talking to the first man who got off the bus ahead of her.

Her father would approve of her growing paranoia, but she didn’t like it. She preferred to trust people until they gave her a reason to distrust them.

Still, she decided to follow the local custom, up to a point. She would nap during the hottest part of the day. Siesta, they called it. But she had a reason other than escaping the heat. She would stay up all night.  By tomorrow morning, she would know whether she had reason to worry.

For now, she laid her purchases neatly on the dressing table. She locked the door to her room, then took the chair from the dressing table and wedged the top of it under the door knob. After checking the window to be sure the latch was secure, she closed the thick red curtains and lay on the bed.

By 3 p.m. she was asleep.

She awoke with a start at 8 p.m. For a long moment, she stared at the ceiling, wondering where she was. When she remembered, she glance to the left.

The chair was still under the door. Across the room, the curtains were still closed.

Good.

With only a few hours of sleep, she was still exhausted, and groggy to boot. Surely a few more minutes of sleep wouldn’t hurt anything. Maybe another hour.

And the door and window were undisturbed. She’d get comfortable. If anyone was going to try anything, it wouldn’t be on the first night anyway.

She got up and turned down the quilt, tossing it to the end of the bed. The top sheet would be more than enough cover.

She stripped off her jeans, shirt and bra and tossed them onto the new clothes on the dressing table, then slipped under the top sheet.

The bottom sheet and pillow were cool on her skin, soothing.

She closed her eyes.

3/

7

Ariana was still sleeping soundly when three men crept into the hallway opposite her door.

Two crouched quietly near the wall on the other side of the hall.

The third man knelt and slipped a standard wooden yard stick under the door. Putting the chair under the door knob was a typical tourist trick. The men in the hallway had long ago learned how to thwart it.

On his knees in the hallway outside the door, the man moved the stick cautiously side to side until it bumped against the left rear leg of the chair.

Then he withdrew it slightly, keeping pressure on one side of it, until he was able to center the end of the stick on the base of the leg. Then he adjusted the angle of the stick to the chair leg from 90 degrees down to around 30.

He paused, took a deep breath, then released it so he could listen.

He steadily increased the pressure on the end of the stick until, at last, the chair leg began to move to one side.

But he pushed too hard.

The back of the chair slipped a few inches and lightly scraped the door

The springs in the bed creaked as Ariana stirred and rolled onto her right side.

The man listened for a long moment. When no further sound was forthcoming, he inserted the yardstick again, located the other leg, and shoved.

The chair toppled over on its left side, landing on the soft carpet with hardly any sound.

Again the man waited for a moment, listening. Finally he took a passkey from his pocket, quietly unlocked the door, and let himself in.

The other men followed.

***

Less than ten minutes later, three men went down the back steps of the hotel into the alley. The one in the lead carried only a bag. It was tan and made of light canvas with leather handles. A floral design in pastel shades was imposed over scrolling green vines.

The two men in the back carried a larger burden. The casual observer would think they were carrying a rolled-up carpet, though on closer inspection he would find it was a quilt with a body inside. A living, breathing body that had been rendered calm through the liberal use of chloroform.

A black, windowless van was waiting.

The man in the lead paused at the base of the stairs. He looked up and down the alley.

Nothing moved, save an old cat that hung out across the street behind the cantina waiting for scraps.

Still watching, he raised his right hand and gestured for the other two to come ahead. Then he preceded them to the back of the van and opened both doors. He tossed the bag into the van along one side, then stepped around the door and walked along the passenger side of the van to get in. He would be a passenger tonight.

The second man put his end of the burden—the heavier end—in the van. Then he knelt and put his hands beneath the center of the quilt, pushing straight up to help his friend maneuver it in.

The third man grabbed the smaller end of the burden and lifted just as a heavy thump came on the passenger side of the van.

The second man straightened, forgetting his task, and frowned into the darkness. “Rodrigo? Siguendo, mi amigo? What’s going on?”

No response.

He looked at the third man, said, “Aw—José, empujarla! Shove her in!” and gestured angrily toward the bed of the van. Then he walked past the man to see what was going on.

A shadow detached itself from the area of the driver’s side rear tire. When the other man had passed José, the shadow launched. A fist connected with José’s left temple.

He rebounded off the open door and sagged forward.

On the other side of the van, there was a distinctive crack followed by a yelp of pain. Then the van rocked again under the force of something again being slammed against it.

A moment later, José was bent forward, his face shoved hard against the floor of the van, his hands cuffed behind him. The first shadow straightened, pulled a cell phone from his pocket and called the police.

The second shadow emerged from behind the van, two men walking ahead of him. One was limping badly.

The second man looked at the first. “You got these guys?”

The first man grinned. “Sí, sí.” He gestured toward the quilt. “Get her on her way home.”

The second man nodded, stooped, and picked up the quilt. He turned and carried it back upstairs.

Almost an hour later, Ariana, still a little woozy, was fully clothed in one of her new dresses. She was  sitting on her bed in her room.

A young Mexican man was sitting near the dressing table in the chair he’d picked up from the floor. His arms were crossed over his chest. A grin was plastered across his face.

She frowned at him. “What happened?”

“They took you.” He shrugged. “My brother and me, we got you back.”

“But how— Why— What happened?”

“Your father, he knows Francisco from the war.”

“Francisco?”

“The bus driver. He is my uncle. He called me in Nogales, asked if we might like a trip to Mexico. We said sure.”

“But—”

“When you got off, we would get off. When you got back on, we would get back on.” He shrugged again. “Simple.”

“Oh—okay. Okay, I understand.”

“So you will go north when my other uncle comes through on Monday. My brother and I will—”

“What? I’m not going back north.”

The grin vanished. “What? But—”

“I appreciate your help, but I set out for Agua Perlado, and I’m going to Agua Perlado. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get some rest.”

He got up and walked to the door. In the hallway he looked back and frowned.He was still frowning when she closed the door.

*******

The Storm (Story 2 of 30)

At Galen One Alpha, Harold Sloan woke up alone, as usual, knowing without reaching across the bed he would find it empty.

He strained for a moment to listen for the storm, then remembered the apartment was soundproofed. Oh well.

Probably Millie was already in the kitchen, making breakfast. He never had to worry that she might be outside the apartment anywhere. She just wasn’t the adventurous type. Then again, the fewer worries the better.

Maybe he could go to work today.  Maybe the storm had finally abated.

He flipped the covers off, then stood and went to the small chest of drawers to take out a fresh undersuit and a pair of socks. He sat on the bed and pulled on the socks, then put his legs in the undersuit and tugged it up over his calves and thighs. It was easier that way than trying to stuff the socks up under the legs if the undersuit was already on.

He stood, spread the upper part of the undersuit behind him, and slipped his arms inside. When he had those pulled down to his wrists and the front adjusted, he zipped it up. Then a memory came to him of last night. He dropped heavily on the bed again, looked vaguely at the baseboard beyond his side of the bed and shook his head.

Why in the world had he dreamed of Joy Schlicter? He’d never dreamed of her before.

In fact, he’d never dreamed of any woman before, other than Millie. And even those times were tame. And rare.

Millie did sometimes appear in the periphery of his dreams. But even then she was more a representation of herself than her actual self. Odd that he never saw her face.

When he dreamed that time of almost having a traffic accident, she was sitting right there in the passenger seat of the car.

But she was turned away, looking out the passenger side window. She hadn’t turned to him even in her surprise when he hit the brakes.

Another time he dreamed of waving goodbye to her from his pickup as he backed out of the driveway. He was headed to the city capitol building to take a battery of tests for the new job placement program.

But as he looked up to wave, she had just turned away. He caught only a flash of her shoulder and the closing door.

And then he dreamed once of them having a picnic in the park close to their house back on Earth.

That one was really strange. There was no park nearby that he could remember, and they’d never had a picnic as far as he could remember. And dreams are just an offshoot of memory, aren’t they?

But there it was. A picnic, complete with a red and white checkered tablecloth spread on the ground. And it seemed so real. Now and then a breeze rippled one corner of the tablecloth.

In that dream, he at least came close to seeing her face. He was leaning forward, busily brushing away the line of requisite ants when she said something to him.

But when he looked up to respond, once again she had just turned away. “Oh look!” she said. She was pointing, watching someone’s german shepherd go after a Frisbee.

Even when he dreamed of their wedding it was a frame by frame kind of thing. He looked at the preacher and nodded as the man said, “You may kiss the bride.” He felt the grin form on his face as he was turning back to Millie. And he was reaching to lift her veil and kiss her—

But something distracted him and he shifted his eyes to one side for a split second as he lifted the veil. And when he shifted them back and bent to kiss her, she had just turned away to greet someone. He still remembered the taste of the hairspray and the stiff feeling of the bun on the back of her head against his lips.

The whole thing was very weird.

He’d never even thought of being with another woman, consciously or otherwise.

And now he’d dreamed of Joy Schlicter. But why would he dream of Joy Schlicter?

Still, it was only a dream. Nothing particularly erotic about it or anything like that.

But throughout the dream, she was never looking away.

2

The dream began with Joy Schlicter walking toward him in the grocery store.

So at least he was reliving in the dream something that had happened in real life.

But in real life, he hadn’t even been aware of her until she touched his hand, reaching for the same peach he was reaching for. And that was the sum total of the experience.

Only in the dream, it was different. Vastly different. And definitely enhanced.

He’d already started reaching for that peach, an action that would take only a second in real time. Yet in his dream, as he reached he also watched her approach.

She came around the end of an aisle, probably thirty feet away. Her left sandal-clad foot first, then her left leg, then the rest of her.

As he watched, his right hand ostensibly still moving toward the peach, it was almost as if she was floating toward him.

But she was definitely walking. She was only what, five-two? Maybe five-three? Petite any way you cut it. Even compared with Millie.

Not that he would ever compare her with Millie. Millie was his wife. Had been for—what, a dozen years? But the confident stride of Joy’s tight, lithe legs made them look long.

In her right hand, she had one of those small red plastic baskets with the black handle—like a rectangular pail. It swayed to and fro as she walked.

She was dressed in tight pink shorts that didn’t make it quite a fourth of the way down her thighs. On her feet were those white leather sandals. And above the shorts, a frilly white peasant blouse.

The sleeves of the blouse just covered her shoulders, and some of that frilly, lace-looking stuff ran vertically from the front of her shoulders down over her breasts. The blouse had white buttons that were shaped like little flowers. Each one had six petals on it.

The top two were unbuttoned, revealing ample cleavage. The next two were buttoned so the blouse reached a point just below her ribs. The remaining buttons were open. Then she’d pulled the tails around and tied them in a loose knot over her flat abdomen. Probably two or three inches of skin showed between the knot and the top of her shorts.

Her hips swayed the slightest bit in that womanly way as she approached, as if she were unconscious of it. But then, that had to be natural. They couldn’t fake that without exaggerating it, could they?

And that hair. The day he’d seen her in the grocery, her hair was up in a ponytail. But in the dream it wasn’t. It was thick, clean and blond, and it hung down past her shoulders. “Platinum blonde,” they called it on those hair commercials back on Earth. And “luxurious.”

But something about it apparently bothered her, because she shook her head almost effortlessly. He remembered that from the commercials too. Her hair swung side to side past her shoulders, revealing one delicate, petal-like ear and then the other.

And her skin. From her feet and legs to her tummy to her delicate throat, her skin was so fair it was almost clear. You could practically see through it.

As she drew nearer, she smiled. Well, more beamed than smiled. In the dream. You could bring in ships with a smile like that. And she had ice blue eyes that seemed to smile even when her lips weren’t smiling. But when she did smile with those perfect, full lips, her eyes practically lit up. And her nose—well, it was just perfect.

He sighed. In fact, everything on the entire woman was perfect. She was proportional. Her head was just the right size for her body, and her throat looked like it was carved by an artist or something.

Cripes.

As to the rest, well, her shoulders were narrow, like shoulders should be on a woman, but they were square too. The woman definitely had pride in her bearing. You could tell, just from the way she carried herself.

Her arms were lean and smooth. Her wrists were small, her hands delicate but with long, slender fingers. Her well-rounded breasts, her small waist, her hips—everything was perfectly proportional. Her thighs and calves even seemed exactly the right diameter. And the length of her thighs from her hips to her knees, her calves to her ankles, all of it.

And her feet—until the dream he’d never seen them outside of those little running shoes and ankle socks she wore that day in the store. But there was no reason to believe they weren’t as perfect as the rest of her body.

In the dream, she drew closer and closer, even while Harold was locked in the singular, insignificant action of reaching for that peach.

Then she was there, right in front of him. She stopped, smiled up at him even as her slight scent wafted over him. And her left hand with those beautiful fingers was reaching, touching—

And that’s when he woke up.

3

The baseboard came into focus, and Harold was suddenly aware he was sitting on the bed.

He laughed quietly. He’d sat right there on the bed and replayed the whole silly dream.

He shook his head and sighed, then put his hands on his knees and leaned forward to get up.

Joy Schlicter.

He grinned, almost laughed again. Even her name was perfect. Joy.

At work, that name alone could launch a dozen off-color jokes and at least a hundred wishful if silent innuendos among the crew.

Well, if John Schlicter weren’t his assistant foreman.

He sighed again. Silliness, that’s what it was. All a bunch of silliness.

He slapped his palms onto his knees, stood, and padded around the end of the bed.

He paused at the door.

Millie was standing at the replicator in the kitchen, about to prepare his breakfast. She had already prepared two steaming cups of coffee and her own breakfast. The cups waited on the counter alongside her sugared oatmeal and banana slices.

She was dressed in a dark-green blouse and rose-colored pants that stretched to mid-calf. The blouse had an oriental look. It was covered with fine green vines and tiny curled leaves, all on a black background. Small pink and rose-colored flowers were scattered intermittently over the thing. It seemed to have no set design, but Harold had yet to find a leaf or flower that wasn’t attached to a vine somewhere.

There was one, though. Had to be. Or a part of a leaf or a petal of a flower protruding from beneath a seam. Nothing was perfect. Nothing.

Not that he’d point it out even if he found it. He would never risk embarrassing Millie.

Her dark brown hair was cut—well, nicely. It was the kind of hair style a nice girl would wear. It was full, kind of bulged out from the sides and back of her head, and it stopped an inch or so above her collar. A little curl turned the ends up all the way around at the edge.

Her bangs hung almost to her eyebrows, which were perfectly matched over brown eyes. The same curl flipped up at the bottom of her bangs too.

Her face was nice too. Kindly, in a motherly sort of way. Round, pinkish cheeks and a rounded chin with full lips and a tiny dimple at each corner.

She slipped a grey plate into the replicator and keyed in bacon, buttered wheat toast, hash brown potatoes and three eggs, over-medium. “There,” she said, and pressed the power button. Then she tapped another button that enabled the replicator to emit the sound and aroma of sizzling bacon.

She sensed Harold and glanced past her right shoulder at him. He was just coming out of the bedroom and, as usual, he was dressed in a fresh undersuit. The man was ever hopeful. She could say that for him.

As he neared her, she smiled. “Morning, Harold. Coffee?” She picked up a cup and offered it to him.

With a half-grunt, he muttered, “Thanks,” then took the cup and bent to breeze a kiss across her cheek on his way by.

He set the coffee on the table at his place, then went to the window.

His rounded shoulders were raised slightly and slumped forward, his hands pressed against the wall on either side of the window. The fabric of his undersuit strained a little across the back.

Quietly, he said, “Well, damn it. Damn it.”

Without looking around, Millie said, “Still blowing, Harold?”

“Yeah, it’s still blowing.”

Sand had been blowing past the window long enough that surely he’d watched the same grains pass by dozens of times.

4

Still peering out the window, Harold felt his mood slipping. He could be ready for work in a matter of minutes. He had only to pull on his boot liners over his socks, then slip into his stipplesuit. The boots were permanently attached to the base of it.

Like everything else here, that was all wrong too. What could possibly be right about a man’s boots being eternally attached to the base of his work clothes? But that’s how things were nowadays.

What wouldn’t he give to be back on Earth right now? Well, other than Millie, of course. There were storms there too, but nothing like this. On Earth a man could go to work. A man could do what he was supposed to do. And his boots weren’t attached to his clothes.

For the hundredth time he noticed the texture of the wall, what little texture it had.

It wasn’t quite soft, but almost. It wasn’t quite pliable, but almost. Touching it was pleasant, like the first instant your head contacts the pillow in your bed at night when you’re really tired. Not after you’d pressed into it, but in the instant when your skin first touches it and you’re anticipating pressing into it.

Touching the wall was like that. A pleasant sensation, especially for his calloused fingers and palms.

He almost smiled.

But he wouldn’t want Millicent to think he was pleased to be trapped in here. He wasn’t pleased at all.

He lifted his right foot to tap it against the base of the off-white wall, but caught himself. Millie didn’t like it when he tapped the wall with his toe even when he missed the air exchange. Eventually it would leave a mark, she said.

Hell, it was just a toe inside a sock. No way would it leave a mark. But neither was it worth the argument.

Besides, tapping the wall with his toe like that gave him no particular satisfaction. When you tap the wall with your damn toe, it should at least make a sound, shouldn’t it? However slight?

But it didn’t, even with Harold’s bulk behind it. He could haul off and kick the wall hard enough to jam his toe back through his heel and the impact still wouldn’t make a sound.

Something about that wasn’t right either. It was disgusting, really. If a human being chose to kick a wall, the impact should matter. At least enough to make a sound. But it didn’t. Not in this place.

Then again, he hadn’t even thought about the lack of sound until he realized it was absent. Still, that didn’t make it right.

He returned his attention to the storm.

The replicator buzzed somewhere behind him. The door clicked, opened and closed.

Plates slid onto the grey plastic table that matched the grey plastic chairs and the grey plastic cabinets and the grey plastic walls.

Outside, the seemingly endless grey sand continued blowing past the window.

Millie said, “Come eat, dear.”

Still peering through the window, he nodded. “In a minute.”

The whole thing—his whole existence—was a bland, grey blur. At least the sand had enough texture to tell it was moving. The sameness of it, and the repetition of it, was mind-numbing.

Especially combined with the annoying hum of the air exchange.

He glanced down.

That brand new innovation ran along a half-inch strip between the floor and the baseboard. It replaced the older, more noisy air exchange that was once mounted on the bedroom wall. And this one was supposed to be silent.

But how was a guy supposed to avoid kicking it occasionally down there? And since when did two or three light taps with your sock feet knock something loose enough so it would hum like that?

As was the case with most so-called innovations, every time the bureacrats improved something, they made it worse. At least he could close the bedroom door to shut out the sound of the old system. This new one was ever-present.

Usually he wasn’t even aware of the gentle, quiet hum. But today it was annoying. Perhaps because it constantly reminded him he was trapped.

Damn sand would never stop blowing.

If Millie could hear his thoughts, she’d say something like, “The sand can do nothing on its own, dear. It’s the wind, not the sand.”

And she was right. She was always right.

Okay, so the wind.

Damn wind was never going to quit.

5

At six-four and two hundred and forty pounds, Harold’s weight was commensurate, generally, with his height, as required by the Program. But he was the largest man on the terraforming crew by far. And the miners? Forget about it.

Most of the men on the terraforming crew—his crew—were between five-ten and six feet. By contrast, most of the miners were between five feet even and five-three. So even the smallest man on the terraforming crew was considerably larger than even the biggest miner.

Still, he didn’t mind his size. It seemed an advantage back on Earth. It seemed an advantage everywhere but here, in these quarters. It came with a form of automatic respect and confidence in his abilities. Those were inane notions with no grounding in reality. But he learned early on not to question them. Hey, in this world you had to take what you could get.

Well, back on Earth. But probably in this world too.

He turned and shuffled to the breakfast table. The grey breakfast table. Why’d everything have to be so colorless?

The living room was furnished with a couch, a small easy chair and a recliner. All were the same drab grey color.

There was also a coffee table and one occasional table. Both were of a heavy grey plastic. The occasional table set alongside the recliner. Grey. All grey. It was as if the designers had given up any hope of making any of it look better.

A short hallway led from the living room along the back wall of the kitchen. The bathroom was through a small door off that hallway to the left just past the kitchen.

The bedroom was through a door at the end of the hallway. It was the same size as the living room. In it was a bed. The bed frame, like the two small night stands that accompanied it, were made of that same boring grey plastic. The mattress, made of a special woven polymer, was the only truly comfortable accessory in the apartment. Except that it was grey.

The interior walls were replete with alcoves. A wide one in the living room held adjustable shelves for books or knick-knacks. The others, in the utility room and the bedroom, were smaller and designed in varying configurations: narrow and tall, narrow and short or broad and short. The only broad tall alcove in the apartment was next to the front door. It held Harold’s stipplesuit. Barely.

He glanced around from his chair to look longingly at the stipplesuit. If only he could put it on and go to work.

It looked remarkably like a deflated human standing there, especially with his work boots attached to the bottom of it.

Well, a human with no head, that’s what it looked like. Thank God his helmet didn’t have to remain attached to the thing too. That would look eerie. Not that the helmet would have fit in the alcove. It was stored in its own alcove in the bedroom. That particular alcove was broad, short and deep.

He turned back to glance toward the window.

The mind-numbing, ongoing, never-ceasing fury of sand rushed by.

He shook his head and sighed.

The storm wouldn’t last more than a day or two, the magistrate said. Only rarely did a storm last more than a day or two, he said.

Well, then apparently this was a rare occasion. But at the moment it didn’t feel rare. At the moment it felt common.

He looked across the table at his wife. No face. She was looking at her plate, loading her fork with a slice of banana.

Docile as a lamb, that one. How does she do it? Nothing seems to bother her.

He cleared his throat to dispel a bit of his mood. “Millie, why did we come here again?”

She looked up, her fork hovering over her plate. She canted her head slightly as her brow furrowed a bit. But at the last moment, she smiled. “Why, because you wanted to, dear.”

“Yes, yes, I know that. But why did I want to?”

She lowered her fork to her plate. She picked up her napkin, put it to her mouth and yawned, then blinked. “Well, I’m not really sure.”

6

Harold’s frown became a scowl. His voice grew slightly louder, releasing a bit of his frustration. “What? What do you mean, you aren’t sure? How can you not be sure?”

She ignored the question. “I remember the Colonization Council offered only sixteen couples the chance to colonize this part of Galen. The mining camp. I remember that because you were so excited at the prospect. You must have said a dozen times, ‘only sixteen couples!’” She grinned broadly.

“And you had the right skills to fill any of the three necessary positions, so you applied.” She lifted her fork and put the slice of banana in her mouth, then chewed and swallowed it. Then she shrugged. “And here were are.”

“You mean you packed up and moved just because I came in one day and said I wanted to?”

Her smile returned as she canted her head again. Sweetly, she said, “Why, yes, dear. You are my husband, aren’t you? And if you’re thinking maybe I feel cheated, I don’t. I don’t feel cheated at all.” She laughed lightly.

He hated it when she took that condescending tone.

She bent to her plate again and continued. “Anyway, I suppose it didn’t occur to me to wonder why you wanted to come here. I just assumed you had your reasons.”

“Well, sometimes I wonder, Millie. I really do.” As he was turning away, a bit more quietly, he said, “Damn sand. Damn wind.”

Again Joy Schlicter came to mind.

He’d bumped into her and John—her husband, his assistant foreman—in the common area. He was meeting John to go to work and Joy had come with him.

It was a Friday morning, and she asked John what time she could expect him.

John laughed and jerked his thumb in Harold’s direction. “Here’s the guy who’d know that.”

While John was still facing Harold, Joy looked past John’s shoulder. She winked and smiled. “What do you think, Harold? You gonna get off sooner than usual today?”

And for a moment, he wondered, did she emphasize “get off”?

And there were at least a dozen other times. Or at least he thought there were.

Thankfully, except that one time in the store, she had always been with someone else, either John or one or more of her lady friends.

Or that’s how he remembered it. Of course, all of that might only be wishful thinking.

It was silly anyway. She’d never go for him.

Not that he’d act on it even if she did. Not as long as he was married. And he planned to be married ‘til death us do part like the vows said.

But what was really annoying was how do you ask anyone about a thing like that in such a closed society? If he asked any of the other men whether they’d noticed similar behavior, it would at least give them ideas about Joy. That thought alone caused something akin to anger to rise in his throat.

He shook his head to dispel the feeling.

Anyway, at worst, they might think he was interested in her.

Which he wasn’t. The very idea was ludicrous.

Still, it was nice—well, enjoyable—to think a sweet young thing like Joy Schlicter might find him attractive.

He certainly found her attractive.

Not that any man wouldn’t. Maybe even alluring.

But who could blame them? Talk about a storm! My god, the woman’s a force of nature.

“Harold?”

Pulled from his reverie, he looked across the table. “Huh?”

Millie was looking at him. The frown was on her face again, but the smile was gone. “Are you all right, dear?”

He forced a quiet laugh. “Sorry. I’m fine.” Again he turned back to the window. The sand continued racing by. Under his breath, he muttered, “I’d be fine if I could go back to work.”

7

Her back turned, Millie forced a smile. “So tell me, what would you like to do to break the monotony, Harold? What would make you feel better?”

He continued to look out the window. “I don’t know. I’m just annoyed with the storm, that’s all.”

He shook his head again. “It’s just that when I’m out there, I’m able to move. You know, operating the equipment, talking with the guys, moving things around and—”

A light sting came on his right triceps. When he reached for it, Millie took his left hand. “Come away from the window for awhile, Harold. Please?” She tugged lightly.

He nodded and turned with her. He was feeling calmer already. As they walked, he looked down at her. “It’s just different, that’s all. Y’know? Out there, I’m doing things. I’m being useful.”

As she led him toward his recliner, he gestured back toward the window. “When I’m out there, the whole world is mine. Or at least our little part of it. I feel like there’s a reason for me to be here. Like I’m accomplishing something. When I’m out there, I matter. Out there, I’m making a difference, and—”

Millie stopped at his chair and turned him around. “Now you matter here too, Harold. You make a difference here.” She gestured past him toward the recliner. “Have a seat here, okay? It’ll help you relax.”

As he sank into the recliner, he looked up. “I know I make a difference here. I do know that. It just isn’t the same. I don’t expect you to understand, and that’s all right.” He settled back. “But when we’re here, you still have your routine. You still do all the things you usually do. You just have me underfoot.” He tried an easy laugh and failed miserably.

“We don’t think of you as being underfoot at all, Harold. We like having you around. It’s almost like a vaca—”

Harold tensed and sat up. “We?” He frowned. “Millie, what are you talking about?”

She smiled. “Did I say we? Of course, I meant I, Harold.”

He looked at her for a long moment, then nodded slightly and relaxed again. “I’m usually part of your routine—I get that—but that’s only at night. Or the one day a week when I’m off. But when I’m here this long, it doesn’t feel like a vacation to me. To me, it’s like I’m trapped in here, and the only difference I make is negative.”

He paused, then quietly said, “I don’t know what to do, Millie. I just— I don’t know what to do.” He glanced back at the window, at the grey sand rushing by, and then at Millie again. “The storm, the sand, this place. Everything’s— It’s like everything’s part of everything else, and it’s all blowing away.” He tried to raise his left hand, saw himself cupping her cheek. “Even you, Millie. It’s like everything’s—passing by. Even you.”

For a moment she only looked at him. Finally she reached to take his hand in both of hers. “Harold, I’m going to get you a program.”

“A program?”

“Sure. One of the hologram programs. You always seem to enjoy those.”

“A hologram program—that—good idea. Good idea.” He tried to grip the arm rests of the chair. “I’ll have to get dressed and—”

“No. No, it’s all right. I’ll bring it up on the computer. Right here in the apartment. Do you want to do that?”

He hadn’t realized his eyes were closed. He opened them, brought her face into focus.

She was smiling sweetly, and tears were brimming in her eyes.

Harold frowned. “A hologram? Here?”

She nodded quickly.

“But we only get three a month between us. I’ve already had one and it’s early in the—”

She put her fingers to her lips. “Shh. I don’t mind, Harold, really.”

“Oh. Well, all right.”

She stroked his forehead gently. “Lie back, dear. I’ll get things ready.”

He lay back in the recliner and closed his eyes.

8

She straightened and looked at him for a moment, then walked to the door and opened it. She pressed the button on an interoffice transmitter in the hallway. “Doctor Parnell, Room 308c please. Doctor Parnell.”

A long moment later, in the psychiatric wing of Arawac Nursing Home in Cincinnati, a vibrant young man came around the corner of the hallway. He was tall and lean, dressed in black shoes, dark grey slacks and a white lab coat. A stethoscope was draped around his neck.

He smiled. “Nurse, how is he today?” His smile broadened slightly and he bent forward. “And by the way, how are you?”

She took a half-step back. “I’m fine, doctor. He’s having some problems. He’s on Galen One Alpha again, wherever that is. He wants to get back to his crew. I think he’s the foreman.”

He folded his arms across his chest, cupped his elbows in his palms. “And?”

“Apparently there’s a storm that precludes him going out.”

“Is that all? Any aberrant behavior otherwise?”

She shook her head quickly. “Not really. But he was getting increasingly upset and— He thinks I’m his wife, Millicent. Millie.”

The doctor nodded. “Really? But she’s been gone—”

“Almost fifty years. Fifty years next week.”

The doctor studied her face. “And?”

The nurse blushed. Quietly, she said, “Vince, is there any way he could know my name?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Why?”

“A few hours ago—I think he thought he was sleeping, dreaming—he kept saying my name. Joy Schlicter. Joy Schlicter.”

“Wow, really?”

“I told him we’d do a hologram program for him. From what I gather, that’s how they take local vacations on Galen One Alpha.”

He grinned. “That would make a really nice belated 96th birthday present. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks.”

As she turned away, the young doctor said, “So, how about Friday night?”

She stopped and turned around. “You know, let’s take care of Mr. Sloan first, okay?”

She turned again and walked down the hallway to visit with her next patient.

*******

 

Getting Paid (Story 1 of 30)

We were all hot and tired and dirty anyway from pulling sea boats into the wharfs down at the dock and tying them up taut to the pilings.

The wind was picking up all day, landward, and the forecast looked to be rough. So that just made a lot of extra work for all of us because the bosses don’t want the boats to break on the pilings down there.

And we tied them up tight. Even if the boats slap too hard and don’t break it could cause cracks you might not see. And then those cracks might break later, maybe even while you were out.

And then broken boats meant less work for us, and less work meant Old Man Morgan would let some of us go. So it all made sense that way.

So we were extra hot and extra tired. Our muscles were knotted on our arms and chests with little streams of dirt and sweat running down. Our dungarees were wet from the waist down. So all of that was the reason for the general mood, I guess.

We’d been waiting more than two hours for our pay while Old Man Morgan sold the day’s catch at his pier-side table. We were paid by the hour, but not for the time we waited.

We listened to feet shuffling past outside as the women and old men came to buy their supper, and we could tell when the crowd was dwindling. We were hoping the old man wouldn’t come up with something else for us to do before he let us go.

Most of us, me included, were squatting down on our haunches in the crew shack, our backs along the walls. A few of the guy were standing, mostly in corners, mostly talking or laughing quietly as they shifted their weight from one foot to another.

I was in my favorite spot, directly across the room from the door. I was watching the latch, waiting for it to flip up and the door to open. The board creaked behind me as I leaned back against it. If I leaned back just hard enough, a little breeze passed through and cooled the back of my neck.

That was how we waited.

Soon the old man would come in like he did every day.

He’d huff and park his fat butt in the only chair in the room at the only table in the room. None of us would take that chair.

Then he’d heft his little cash box up on the table like it weighed a million pounds and he’d huff again, like paying us was the only part of the day he regretted.

2

But us being hot and tired didn’t have anything to do with the incident itself. Other than just our general mood. But I know specifically what caused the incident itself. Harlan Jameson popped off about Mary Jo McWherter not being a virgin anymore. That’s what did it.

Well, it was either that or the smirk that stretched across his face as he said it.

I guess it got to the other guys. A couple of them gave him sideways glances and a few others shook their heads like they couldn’t quite believe he was that crass.

But it got into me deep for some reason. It got me right up off my haunches.

My dungarees chafed quick on the front of my thighs and everything after that was a blur. It was only a second before I was on him.

I caught him pretty good, I guess.

I saw my right thumb curled against my index finger and a profile of my knuckles with the side of his head just the other side of it and there was a jarring that ran up to my elbow. Then we went down and I flipped off the other side of him.

There was a roaring of voices in the background and he landed on me.

Someone grunted and we rolled around for a little bit. There wasn’t room to swing at all but my fingers on one hand closed around the edge of his shirt and the other grabbed flesh. I felt the sharp edge of a broken button against the inside of my index finger.

Then all I saw was wall, floor, boots and muddy dock shoes, ceiling, wall, and a corner with a little outside light shining through. The air tasted like salt, but I don’t know if that was sweat or sea air coming through that crack.

Then something flashed, and somehow I knew it was metal. Somehow I knew it was a knife, maybe because I’d heard he carried a big Buck knife folded in his pocket.

I hadn’t thought anything about that before, but I don’t know that it would’ve made any difference whatsoever, I was that mad.

Anyway, when I saw the same wall a second time it was a lot closer and then the corner was right there and we stopped suddenly. I shook all over. I think maybe his back hit the wall and the wall stopped us.

Anyway, I was on top.

Then some part of him came loose and he moved quick under me and something twitched. Something maybe in his shoulder and arm on the left side next to the wall. And I saw that flash in the overhead light and tried to pull back, but when you want to pull back you can’t pull back fast enough.

I was slow. I had to let go partly to put one hand on the floor on this side of him and another hand on the bottom of the wall on the other side of him to push myself back and away. Only that freed up some parts of him that I was holding onto before, though I guess I still had his legs trapped solid with my knees.

I got myself pushed up and back and that was a good time for a pause. Only I guess Jameson didn’t see it that way.

I mean, if I was in his position and the other guy was turning me loose and pushing himself up I’d have let him get up so I could get up.

But as I was pushing myself up I guess I relaxed my hold on his legs a little too. I had to raise up on my knees. Or maybe I relaxed my hold a little when that pain hit my left thigh. It was like a punch with a point and it shot clear up near my ribs.

I threw myself back in the fight-or-flight and there was a tug over there on my thigh, but then the tug let go.

Then I looked up, sitting back on my butt and saw Jameson was getting himself to his feet.

Then I chanced a looked over and down and saw the handle of that folding knife sticking up out of my leg. And my first thought was at least he didn’t ruin my trousers because the blade wasn’t all that wide. But it was a deep ache like a growing pain mixed with a little bit of nausea. That told me the blade was clear down in the bone.

And that told me he was serious. And it told me just in time.

3

Well then Jameson came at me, reaching down with both arms.

The other guys were all still yelling, only I couldn’t tell what they were yelling.

But Jameson, I was pretty sure he was going to try to grab that knife. Maybe to finish the job or maybe just to get it back, but I knew it’d hurt something fierce if I let him get it.

So I shoved my hands down on the floor and pushed myself backward and yelled, “No!” And that should’ve been the end of it.

Only Jameson didn’t think so, I guess.

He kept coming and he leaned down over me with a bunch of faces blurred behind him. I saw his face, then his shoulders, then his hands, open. They were as grimy as mine. He was reaching hard for me.

I think I remember I licked my lips. I know I tasted salt and dirt. Down on the dock it covers you so you almost can’t breathe, so you have to dig the crust out of your nose. Even in the crew shack afterward it’s like that, though most of us run a hand over our face, but that adds as much grime as it takes away.

Anyway, I kicked away again while Jameson was reaching. I might’ve timed it so I’d get him off balance but I can’t say for sure that I did.

I bumped solid against a pair of knees with my shoulder blades and my shirt moved up on my neck when the knees backed away.

Jameson was still coming. He was part of the blur by then but he was a closer part of the blur.

I twisted and reached left for the floor and the blur flashed past me on the other side.

Then there was a solid thump and some cursing, and that might’ve been Jameson or whoever he crashed into if he crashed into someone. I don’t know.

It might’ve been me too because I caught the point of my right shoulder hard on a table leg.

I hit it pretty solid and all the table legs groaned at once against the plank floor as the table skittered sideways against the grain. The edge of the table must’ve hit the inside back of that ladder-back chair too, because the chair fell over backward with a thwack just as the door opened.

Most of the yelling stopped then so the only big sound was the wind going by. It sounded angry, but it almost always does.

Usually a door opening lets in more light, but there was just a flash of light just for a second, like the wind blew it in there to shove it out of the way. Then there was only a solid shadow.

I was already twisted hard left at the waist so all I saw was the leg of that table and the planks of the floor past it and then the shadow, but I figured Old Man Morgan came in. He’s big enough to close off the light from the open door.

I figured I was in trouble and he’d yell, “Damn it, Nick!” or something like that. Then he’d pick up his chair and slap it back in place at the table. He’d do that with his left hand because his cash box would be in his right hand. And the sound of the chair hitting the floor would be like a gavel slapping the bench in court and everything would be over.

But the shadow just stayed where it was and it didn’t grab the chair and it didn’t say anything at all.

Then I remembered Jameson was behind me somewhere.

I chafed my sore shoulder against the table leg again and pushed against the floor with both hands while I tried to move left and forward around that table leg.

Somebody behind me yelled “Oh!” but kind of quiet and something jerked hard on the side of my right leg. Not like it was grabbed but like it was being pulled on the end of a wire.

4

White-hot electricity fired through my leg again, almost up to my shoulder, as something behind me roared with anger. Jameson.

I rolled hard to my left across the floor and ended up on my back again. But at least I could see him.

Jameson was up and leaning toward me. The others in the room were still part of the wall behind him.

I scrambled to my feet, my arms spread with caution in front of me. Part of that was to show him I had no weapon.

His lips were pulled back into a sneer, his eyes strained and focused and filled with crazy. His forehead was wet in horizontal lines, and little rivers of sweat ran down his cheeks and neck. His light khaki shirt was open and the third button down was only half there.

His red-streaked Buck knife was in his left hand. He held it with the edge down, his thumb on top like he knew what he was doing. In mute testimony, one big drop of blood hung in a blob at the tip, then stretched, then dropped.

Whatever caused the shadow on the floor was in my left periphery. Probably Old Man Morgan but I didn’t risk looking.

I put up my left hand and a shaking voice from somewhere said, “Harlan, if you don’t stop it I’m gonna hurt you.” That had to be me but I couldn’t swear to it.

I called him Harlan out loud on the dock and when I saw him around. But I always thought of him as Jameson, with that distance of a last name. I don’t like him. I never liked him, and you always think of someone you don’t like with distance.

Anyway, me calling him Harlan this time didn’t make a difference.

You ever seen eyes grin? Like they just made up their mind about something and decided it was time to put that something behind them?

Jameson’s eyes grinned. They almost glowed.

He ran his right hand up through the hair above his ear and his shoulders tensed. He was coming.

I kept my left hand up for another beat and planned what I had to do.

My right thigh muscle didn’t much like the plan. It stabbed a memory of pain up through my leg again. The muscles cramped in my right jaw as I clenched my teeth.

Jameson noticed that, me clenching my teeth. He focused on it and misread it and his eyes went from a grin to a sneer. He charged.

My left hand finally dropped as I crouched, then stood, and Jameson was on me.

But when I came up I had my own knife in my right hand, pulled from the strap at the base of my right leg.

My jaw clenched hard again as I braced myself.

Jameson’s right bicep hit my left shoulder and he stopped, cold, as I drove the blade home. He might’ve been a wave breaking on a rock.

His left hand shot forward and the blade of his knife grazed a rib on my right side, then dropped and clattered away across the floor.

He bent forward, sagged heavily over my right fist and arm, his head on my right shoulder. His breath was hot on the right side of my neck. A deep, quiet sigh huffed out against my ear.

A voice boomed, “Enough!” It was like canon fire on a too-distant coast. Close enough to hear but too late and too far off to make a difference.

My hand hidden from the blur along the wall by Jameson’s body and from Old Man Morgan by mine, I withdrew the knife. I tried to pull it out cleanly so as not to cause anymore damage or anymore pain. I tried to not think about Mary Jo McWherter.

My left arm around Jameson, I slipped the knife into my hip pocket and stepped back a half-step. I grabbed the ragged edge of his shirt with my right hand and his right arm with my left hand and helped him roll to the floor.

Then I just looked down at him, my chest heaving with the labor of exertion.

The blur along the far wall fell into a collective silence.

I twisted my head left to await pronouncement.

Old Man Morgan glanced at the figure of Jameson for only a second, as if there was nothing there at all. Then he looked at the blur along the wall and clapped his cash box on the table. “Well, you want paid or not?”

I queued up at the end of the line.

*******

 

 

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