Hugger Orange

“Fuck…” Jackson planted his left foot, palms flat on either side of his gas cap, stepped into the push. “You sure the brake’s off, it’s out of gear?”

Dash leaned against the open driver’s side door, flicked sweat off the end of his nose. “Tasks such as this are why auto-mobiles and I are currently at odds.”

“Fuck.”

“You ’bout in desperate need of a more di-verse and entertaining dialog. ‘Nother half a block, all we need.”

“You said that two, three blocks ago. Why the hell did we go to Venice Beach anyway?”

“I painted you a verbal picture of mustachioed muscle men in mi-nute elastic panties and beautiful women on roller skates in far less. You were overcome with a need to see those wonders for yourself. I was obliged to accompany, you a stranger in a strange land and all.”

“Fuck…”

“Must I admonish you further?”

“Whose idea was Ripple or whatever that was we put in the radiator?”

“The mixture of ‘whatever’ be a varietal blend of leftover fluids found in the Venice trash, and was installed under decree by committee. We come close to makin’ it, though.”

“Said the Titanic to the iceberg.”

“See what you come out with, you think on it?”

***

Jackson backed out of the passenger door of his dead ride with a shopping bag full of six years of console, under seat, trunk and glove box junk. He stepped away a few feet, took it in. All the memories. All the bullshit. There was still a quarter of a tank of gas in it. All he needed was a match.

“Somethin’ on your mind, Casper? I perceive a vibe that bodes ill for this sad piece of industrial sculpture.”

“Maybe we get a keg, throw a block party with a bonfire.”

“Block party in El Lay always a winning proposal. Famous bands and topless women a given. But an auto-motive bonfire spells R-I-O-T to the po-leece. We be fingerprinted and on Channel Seven ‘fore the fire’s out.”

“Fuck.”

“There you go again.”

“I can’t afford to fix it.”

“Don’t want to afford to fix it. Howsome ever,” Dash turned his palm up in a game show model’s ‘here’s your new washer and dryer’ move. “Even in its current immobile state ride still looks cock. If you will allow me to speak on your behalf with a brother I know who specializes in vee-hicular transactions I might persuade him to offer you a modest amount of cash or functional in-kind trade for your lifeless possession.”

“You have a friend who deals in dead cars?”

All kinds of cars. Magic is afoot in East Compton, my brother. Buster put a black Jag-u-ar in one end and a red Lincoln pops out the other. Same may be said of dead or damaged in, alive and well out. Shined all the hell up and runnin’? This’ll be seriously ripe for a low down and payments guaranteed to last longer than Star Trek reruns. Buster will perceive, as I do, that a Messican or pimply-assed kid will think their dick grew three inches they find themselves behind the wheel of this aww-toe.”

“He’ll keep it the same color? I’d hate to —”

“Output color depends entirely on condition and Buster’s means of acquisition. It’s legal and wrinkle free. Only his feelings on Day-Glo Orange come into play.”

Hugger Orange.”

“Nigger, please. A rose by any other name, we understand each other?”

***

Jackson followed Dash down from the wrecker cab in a swirl of east Compton dust. Dash took a fistful of cash from a tall, skinny kid with red eyes and an eighteen inch ‘fro, disappeared through a heavy, steel-clad door. A few long minutes passed and from the minor sea of Quonset huts and rutted gravel a primer coated 1964 Impala SS with shiny bumpers, pimp wheels and zero trim pulled up purring smooth and low like a fat cat in a circle of sunshine. A sweaty, wiry gray-haired black man in grease stained pin-stripe overalls stepped out, leaving a hint of Bay Rum and an old time barbershop in his wake.

“You bein’ the only thing white I see ‘sides the garage door, this’n must be yours.” He stepped around, popped the hood, spit tobacco juice in front of Jackson’s feet. “Supra Sport Shivvies came stock with a 409. Big and dumb as our current crop a heavyweights. I put this new 327 crate motor in yestiddy. Old with no blue smoke keeps the gov’nor happy an the po-leece away. Break ‘er in easy she’ll stay that way. ” He dropped the hood, wiped his hands on the red shop rag hanging from his back pocket, spit again. “Small block’s lighter, lets you keep some rubber on the tires, drives past a gas station ‘casionally. Axe me, rides some better, too, all that weight gone. Had in mind to paint it, but you come along.”

He paused, examined Jackson like a man encountering a disease. “Air conditioner blows cold, no back seat, no radio. No charge for the trunk mount spare cover. It come in from somewhere, don’t fit nothin’ else, tired a walkin’ around it.” He held up the keys, dropped them so quick Jackson almost missed the mid-air save. The old man nodded, spit another stream of tobacco juice. “The Dash be along drekly with paper an plates.”

Jackson watched the man walk away, his bowlegged side to side gait kicked up light puffs of gravel dust, a walk punctuated with an off-beat sway of the shop rag hanging from his pocket and an every fourth step spit. “Nice to meet you, too.”

***

“Needs paint. Legal, mostly. Nothing due, no change, even up.” Dash put his hands on the door sill. “You an Ellis get on?”

“You mean the old guy who spits redneck diarrhea, no. No handshake, no thanks. No take it easy, no fuck off kiss my ass honky punk. Must’ve left all that in the same place as the back seat and radio.”

“No radio?” Dash’s head rolled back. “Muh-ther fuh…” He tossed the plates and registration on the passenger seat, went back through the heavy door, wasn’t gone long, wasn’t happy coming out. He landed in the seat, right leg still out, hand on the door. “Hang left, follow the drive around back. Stop where I tell you.”

Jackson stopped on command, Dash slid out, vanished behind a corrugated metal door, was back in under thirty seconds with a nearly new Delco combo radio and cassette player from a Cadillac. He eased back into the passenger seat, set the radio where the back seat should have been. “Radio’s for the shit paint job. I told the motherfuckers, you know, I be ridin’ in this aw-toe and you were cold as ice. Next thing I’m back, askin’ all them old domino an Jack niggas sittin’ around, you know, what’s their fuckin’ damage, where’s my fuckin’ radio? They tryin’ to fuck a brother ‘cause I brought a deaf dumb and blind cash money client to their criminal empire? Motherfuckers. ‘Take the deal, fool, you an the ghost take a walk’? Fuck they doin’, talkin’ that shit to me? Thinkin’ I didn’t come up in here, don’t know their shit?” He took a breath, smacked the door sill. “Fuck it. You drive, I’ll di-rect. Weekend comin’, college calls on Monday an I need some unwind time. You’ll be droppin’ me down to Lakewood at my little slice of heaven’s place. I’ll draw you a map home from it on the way.”

Jackson drove south out of east Compton, Dash ranted on Buster’s crew like they were his dysfunctional family while he took a BIC Stick and drew a map on a paper napkin that would have done a retentive Renaissance mapmaker proud. He had Jackson roll up slow on a semi-residential, semi-small business street in Lakewood and stop near the middle of the block.

“You get to the crib, call your people. Tell ‘em you’re alive and where you’re at, how wonderful your new friend Dash Man be. ‘Cause if San Andreas opens up an your white ass drops they can tell the bloodhounds start lookin’ for you in Long Beach. They need to find you and this ray-dee-oh on the west side, don’t need nobody sniffin’ around my shit in Compton. Least till Buster’s player’s caught some chill.”

“Anybody. You don’t want anybody, or anyone, sniffin’.”

“You gonna be the grammatically co-reckt English Nazi all the fuckin’ time? I thought you played music or some shit.”

“Habit. Can’t get sloppy. People take you more seriously when you don’t talk like a refugee from a corn field full of single-wides.”

“Your accent don’t clean up soon you’re gonna need all the help you can get you expect to gain some on serious.”

“Doesn’t. Not don’t. Accent doesn’t clean –”

“We have arrived, Jeeves. I doesn’t require your services any longer,” he interlocked his fingers, popped his knuckles. “You straight on how to get to the crib?”

“Yeah. And ‘don’t.’ That one was ‘don’t.’ Like that shit’s bad for your hands, don’t.”

“Get back to me, I ‘don’t’ got room in my head for any of that shit today. You know where the stash is. Blank’s for the drive.” Dash tossed a thin black cigarillo on the empty bucket seat, lit one of his own and walked away. Jackson leaned over to pick it up, looked out the window and damned if they hadn’t pulled up in front of a beauty shop called Little Slice of Heaven.

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Rather See Than Be One

“Hold up.” Crocker handed me the Prince Albert tobacco tin, reached over to cut up his daughter’s slab of flank steak. “Just got her dinner on the table.”

“You need to eat?”

“I can wait,” Crocker said. The unasked question was did I bring beer. I set the paper bag on the table.

“Miller. Quarts.”

“Man of his word.” He picked up the bag and put it in his fridge. “I said two was fine.”

“My mother says do more for people than they ask.”

“Your dad still around?”

“Yeah.”

“Shame. I was startin’ to like Mom.”

I took in the upstairs apartment, one of 8 in a two story red brick box, in a block of red brick boxes not far from where we worked. Small. Old. Wood floors. Thirties probably, like where I used to have to collect for the paper from old people. Unlike those, that smelled like ancient carpet, dust, mold and pee these smelled like Pine Sol and incense. I wondered if the teenage version of my dad had delivered the lumber. The chrome and Formica kitchen table was by a window, the curtain plain, off white with a wide band of lace holes across the bottom. It was clean, like the rest of the place. Couldn’t have been called a place with “a woman’s touch” but clean. A naked Barbie and some stuffed animals, coloring books, Golden Books scattered around, and a well-loved green dragon on the kitchen table next to a petite, clean little girl with messy blonde hair.

“Shell, this is Harper. We work together.”

“Hi.” Loaded mostly with disinterest and a touch of mild, corner-of-the-eye curiosity. She might as well have said, “So?”

“Shell’s six. She doesn’t talk to strangers. Idn’t that right, Shell?” He rearranged her food with a steak knife, moved the plate in front of her. “Harper’s not a stranger, okay?”

“‘Kay.” She was infinitely more interested in dinner than in me.

Crocker looked back at me, winked. “She figures that, you’ll be stuck reading books about talking racoons and listening to her go on forever.”

“Nunuh,” she said, around a mouthful of dinner.

“Shit.” Crocker put a tired pair of hands on his thighs, got up to answer the knock on the door.

I was 16. Summer job building BIA houses, pre-fab. Aside from the drunk cowboy who drove the big forklift, the office boss and me the rest of the crew of about a dozen were Native American Nam vets from Anadarko. Living loud and large on working man’s wages and making it out of the jungle alive. They arrived in a caravan of three and four to a muscle car every morning. Even a lime green Daytona Charger with the clothesline spoiler. Crocker was from Anadarko as well, the only white eyes. They’d all served at the same time. Crocker had been a conscientious objector, but he had a wife and a baby and wasn’t interested in Canada or shooting one of his toes off so he went along. They made him a medic. Tail end of the Tet offensive, 1968. He got the call to come home late May 1969, after Hamburger Hill with no field hospital and nothing but a bag full of gauze and morphine to use up on over 400 screaming wounded in ten days.

The story I got about him coming home, all jumbled up, was Crocker’s Dad had a farm outside Anadarko. And a crush on his son’s wife. Crocker went to Viet Nam, Gramps’ itch got the better of him. Gramps made his move out in a field one day and Crocker’s wife said hell no and she was going to tell. A shotgun and a tractor got involved. She died, maybe from the shotgun or run over by the tractor, Gramps killed himself, shotgun or tractor rolling over on him, take your pick. It was a convoluted, disjointed telling after a joint at lunch, then dodging heavy machinery in a prefab wall plant while the story was told and absorbed. At 16, it was all over my head. Like Crocker being twenty something, having a kid and living in an old apartment and being cool and kind of Robert Redfordish in a country way, experienced like Hendrix, wise, with a lost, sad look in his eyes sometimes. He took the apartment not to have to commute to Anadarko every day, or drink everyday with the Kiowas, Shell being his priority.

Crocker opened the door, let his neighbor in. A guy closer to his age than mine, going bald early, horn rimmed glasses, thin. A younger, shabby version of Dennis the Menace’s father. He sits in the window chair next to Crocker, across from Shell.

I should say here that Shell was named after her mother, Michelle. She was a baby when Crocker went off to be subjected to the conscientiously objectionable. He came home to the shotgun and tractor story, his crazy mother blaming him and his dead wife for all of it, after saying she and the baby could live with her and horny Gramps, be around family while he was away. All that just before she finished a bottle of vodka and blew her brains out in her kitchen when he was walking out the door. He’d jumped at the prefab job and the opportunity to get the hell out of Anadarko. He never said, but after the shotgun and tractor and Mom story no way he could have stuck around, lived in that.

Crocker pulled a pack of ZigZag whites out of the Prince Albert can. “You bouncin’ on her belly yet?” I knew he was asking about an overbuilt blonde girl who’d picked me up from work a couple of times.

“No. Not her. Not yet.”

“Slow starter?”

“Her brother knocked up a Federal Judge’s daughter. She said it wasn’t much of a party, but the girl told her his dick felt like a telephone pole. First time they did it they got pregnant. So she’s cautious. But a little curious about the telephone pole.”

He stuck the joint he’d rolled one-handed in his mouth, pulled it through his lips. “Not too bright.”

“Her or her brother or the Judge’s daughter?”

“At least the brother. Girls get heated up they aren’t thinking. Bagging the swimmers is our job.” He smiled, small, soft, almost chuckled, tapped my leg. “Rubbers are always a good idea, believe me.” He nodded toward his daughter, “Right, Shell.”

“Nnhhh.” I was starting to worry the kid was nonverbal, but she was doing some damage to her dinner, a heaping plate of mashed potatoes, green beans, beets and the kid-sized flank steak.

“You got a somebody else or three, to relieve the pressure?”

“Yeah.”

“Figured you to be that way. Best to let a first timer pick her moment. She gets it when she really wants it she’ll die with your name on her lips.”

I’m not sure I believed that, but Crocker lit the joint, proceeded to tell me the story of how his ’68 Camaro came to be purple sparkle with the wide racing stripes in silver sparkle. He and some guys were drinking, he was fresh back from the war, being wild.

“Don’t you ever swap out with your copilot?” I must have looked lost. “We were cresting this hill, about 70, gave the wheel to my man, I laid the seat back, threw my legs up, plan is my buddy slides over. We swap out. I’m in the back seat, he’s driving. You never done that?”

“No…I uh…”

“Don’t. It’s fuckin’ stupid.” He let a contained laugh out through a smoky exhale. “We’re halfway through the swap, come flyin’ up over the top like fuckin’ Steve McQueen, and there’s a goddam Fritos truck pokin’ along about halfway down the hill. Flat spotted the tires, my buddy an me both standin’ on the brakes. Didn’t help much. Still don’t know if it was him or the wreck broke my foot.” He took the joint back from his bogarting neighbor, handed it to me. “When they’re done puttin’ my car back together they say it can be whatever color I want. Shell and I were into singin’ that nursery rhyme, about the purple cow? Rather see than be –”

FUCK!” Neighbor screamed, one hand clasped inside the other. Across from him Shell had a severely pissed-off Shirley Temple face, fork in her fist. Crocker turned to check them out.

“Goddamit! She stabbed me! With her fuckin’ fork!”

Crocker gives Shell a dad question mark look. Shell keeps her glare, doesn’t back down.

“Motherfucker stole my steak.”

Crocker, back to neighbor. “That right?”

“Well, yeah. A piece. I started for another, and…” Neighbor opens his hand. The one inside is a little swollen and bleeding from what looks like a four toothed snake bite. “You got any bandaids?”

Something happened in Crocker. The Hamburger Hill medic, the blood, the shotgun and the tractor, I didn’t know, but he went cold as ice and thousand-yard stare. He took the neighbor’s hand, twisted it to look. “You’re ain’t hurt for shit, and I’m not dealin’ with it. Need to go on to the house, fix yourself up.” He dropped neighbor’s hand. “Fix yourself some dinner while you’re at it.”

Neighbor looked longingly at Shell’s steak and the dead joint between my thumb and finger, but he didn’t say anything. Shamed by Shell’s unrelenting glare and the icicles he got up, made his exit.

Crocker came back from the stare, checked me to see if I had made any judgements. I hadn’t. I was a little shocked, but the whole scene, like I said, was beyond anything I could understand at the time. I said nothing, offered him the joint. He took it, relaxed back into the chrome and red vinyl kitchen chair, looked at his daughter. He took the fork she’d stabbed the neighbor with, tossed it in the sink behind him, got a fresh one from a drawer. He leaned in toward his daughter, eye to eye, handed her the fresh fork.

“Good girl, Shell. I don’t give a fuck who he is, don’t ever give any man a chance to start any kinda shit with you. Always stand up for yourself.” There was a telepathic aspect to their communication. She knew exactly what he was saying, knew exactly what had happened to her mom. Six years old.

“Okay.”  She stabbed a small square of steak. “He’s an asshole.”

“Yes, he is.”

“Will he come back?”

“No. Harper probably will, if that’s okay.”

“He don’t talk much. But I guess it’s okay.”

Crocker let a flash of amusement cross his face. “I didn’t roll this to smoke it by myself.” He re-lit the joint, handed it to me. “Was that beer cold when you bought it?”

 

It would be nice to live in a Norman Rockwell sit com/rom com world where the problems are small and stupid, and the solutions come in under half an hour. Where nine-year-olds don’t shoot each other over dope turf, twelve-year-old prostitutes are an urban legend and pregnant eleven-year-olds are the figment of some pervert’s imagination. Where thirteen-year-old girls don’t get killed in a weed stash-house rip-off. Where middle school girls don’t shout “Bitch! Seriously?” and throw a hospitalization required beat down on their vice principal. Where small town high school football players don’t take steroids and acid and rape and kill a couple of cheerleaders, cut up and burn their bodies. Where the chasm between street people and the yard of the week people wasn’t wide and unfathomable.

But we don’t. So I populate my fiction with those from the perimeter that I have known, broken bread with, overheard, observed. I find them far more interesting to listen to as they develop than finding dialog for stereotypes. To me a black dude who is street wise and on a photography scholarship/intern program from the Smithsonian and his neighbor, the potty mouth “Fuck that” daughter of a hard working single mom, a daughter who gives the dopers in the parking lot behind her apartment crazy nicknames, are all as real as the crabgrass in not the yard of the week. 

Writing Class – 750 Word Limit

The Magic Typewriter, by P. Huston

Looking out his window of the house he’d lived in for 54 years, Bob saw a pickup truck. Parked in front of his house. It was his neighbor Darnell again. By golly, Bob thought angrily, today was the day it stopped. Knowing in his mind Darnell, attempting to avoid the heatwave later, would be sitting on his pickup drinking beer.

***

About one o’clock in the afternoon Bob, walking purposefully across his lawn, was confronting Darnell.

“Darnell, you have to stop parking in front of my house,” Bob said, testily.

“Why?”

“It’s very unattractive and I do not like looking at it,” Bob replied.

“Think of it as sculpture. Modern art.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in a long time. I’m not the only one, you know. The Mexican woman across the street is tired of it, too!” Bob proclaimed noisily.

“The one with the little dog that looks like a woman who has sex for money’s bedroom slipper and poops on the sidewalk? I’m awfully tired of seeing that.”

“You wouldn’t see it if you parked in front of your own house,” Bob said, firmly.

“I’ll think on that for a while, Bob. Later. Too gosh darn hot right now.”

Bob, walking away stridently thought Darnell the most boorish person ever to live in the house next door. Slamming his door Bob was walking into the dining room where his mother, dead these 20 years, had kept 183 penguin mementos, acquiring them in her travels as a military nurse. One with sunglasses leaning on a palm tree, one as the handle of a coffee mug. One with a clock in its belly, one…Wait a minute, does anyone really care? No? Sorry. Bob had the cleaning lady dust them once a month never having the heart to box them up.

Well, enough of Darnell. Bob, lifting the lid on mother’s old Remington Travel Riter and sitting and inserting paper and typing he began…

***

“Darnell, is that beer cold?” his sister Monik hinted, tentatively.

“Yes.”

“Could I have a sip?” she asked, hopefully.

“No. It’s my last one.”

“Didn’t Momma teach you any manners?” she demanded, haughtily.

“They wore off.”

Monik walked away huffily in disgust. Well, she thought, Darnell was the worst brother ever but she decided cleverly to walk around the side of the house and hide behind an overgrown boxwood and wait patiently for Darnell to set the beer down and go inside to answer the call of nature knowing he did that regularly.

Sure enough, after a few minutes Darnell set the Colt 45 Tallboy in the ice chest sitting in the bed of his truck and went inside.

Monik, running to the truck, drank hastily all the remaining beer.

Darnell, returning, tipped the can to his lips expecting beer, then pulling it away, looking down inside it.

“Monik, did you drink my beer?”

“No,” she said, averting her eyes and looking away.

“Yes you did.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did.”

“Okay, maybe I did. So what?” she retorted hotly, wondering what sort of stupid big brother thing Darnell would do now.

“Girl, I told you it was my last one. It’s 112 degrees and the air conditioner is broken.”

“Get over it,” she said, dismissively. Turning, she was watching Darnell walking to the front, reaching inside, walking back with something in his hand.

“What do you think you’re doing, Darnell?” Monik asked, apprehensively.

“I told you.”

“Darnell –” And she was looking at her brother. Shooting her in the head.

***

The policeman leading Darnell to the squad car with another policeman, asking him curiously, “Why did you do it? What were you thinking?”

“Ask the idiot who wrote this.”

“Him?” The policemen guffawed immodestly. “We did. He said this was Limited Omniscient. Didn’t you see it? You got no tags, no interiority. Besides, what’s in a man’s head who shoots his sister over a beer?”

“That’s not fair,” Darnell said, blubbering sadly.   (ooops)

“Coulda been worse. Coulda been Objective. Or Journalistic. Woulda been over a long time ago.”

“Yeah, and we wouldn’t have gotten any lines!” The two policemen shoving Darnell in the car laughing and laughing, thinking they were the two funniest policemen on Earth.

***

Bob watching gleefully the tow truck pulling Darnell’s pickup away. Rubbing his hands together briskly, stepping lightly to the table he was snapping the latches on mother’s typewriter, closing the lid gently. Darnell was handled. The Mexican woman’s bedroom slipper pooper would have to wait for another day.

 

Fact -In the midst of the 1980 heat wave a Houston, Texas man, while sitting on the side of his pickup, shot and killed his sister for drinking his last cold Colt 45.

 

 

 

 

Octopus!

Madam K’s ballet studio, West Hollywood, California / November, 1981

A pink ripstop Capezio ballet bag exploded against the old oak sign-in table to Jackson’s right, knocked over the metal fan that sat on top. Several rolls of sport tape, a flimsy black ballet skirt, toe shoes and pink floor shoes, a couple of tampons, Capezio logo t-shirts, an illegal in Madam K’s class leopard print leotard, hair brush and maybe a thousand bobby pins scattered out. One of the rolls of tape wobbled away like an old tire. The exploding bag had stopped him in the middle of the doorway. His legs hurt. No, they screamed. Not even a week in and ballet class made his old high school football practices look like two-a-days for pussies. The exploding bag, his legs…Maybe today would be a good day to —

“It’s like totally not right, Kenny! It’s so, so like totally, com-pletely, MEGA FUCKING WRONG!

He looked to his left, the direction the bag had come from, and a dancer who’d introduced herself as Logan somebody in the round robin of intros his first night side-armed another roll of tape that he fielded left handed. The other pre-class usually warming up dancers were against the far wall, a huddle of pink tights, black leotards and hair buns. A couple of the older ones, the mom age never-give-up-ballet-class types formed an outer circle in an attempt to protect the younger ones from Logan who was screaming, flouncing herself around, crying and babbling fuck this and fuck you and fuck everybody. Especially fuck Kennedy Costigan the reincarnationist space case hired gun ballerina right in front of Logan taking the brunt of the abuse. Jackson figured this was down to Kennedy and Logan being the only real pros in the room, both of them back home in L.A. on rehab hiatus from some big deal dance company in New York.

“Ten fucking years, you know, and like it’s all ‘there’s the door, adios Logan, motor.'” She paced in a small circle, threw up her arms, got up in Kennedy’s face. “God dammit, it’s so-like, like, totally unfair to the MAX!”

“Logan, you’re letting your positive energy get away from you and wasting it on –”

“Shut up, Kenny. Bag it, ’kay? Just shut up! You, you like still get to dance now and it’s so not, not,”  she spun around as if no one could see her full-blown end-of-the-world-and-my-life-as-I-know-it-face in the mirrored wall. Saw it herself and turned back.

“Logan, I had surgery. I’m telling you that you need to use this emotion, this energy, to get past whatever is holding you back.” Kenny put her hands in front of her chest, swept them slowly out and down then up in a wide arc. “Breathe, Logan. This is how we grow.”

“Get real, Kenny. I am like full grown and like breathing or I’d be dead, duh, a’right? What’s holding me back is like this mega stupid tape. Look at it!” She stood flat footed and perfectly balanced on her right, held her left leg straight out, the ankle wrapped in a cast of tape. “And like the gag me with a chainsaw totally dweeb hosers ‘it takes time’ doctors, and, and like you and your ‘listen to your bod, Logan.’ As if! What’s it going to say, Kenny? Huh? Gee whiz, Logan, you’re so like such a totally lame poser dancer person now that you like barf me out when you even like try?” She looked past Kenny at the dancer huddle. “And like for real I’m so sure you’re all psyched. ‘Logan can’t dance, did you see her spazz her jeté? Now she’s a totally wiggin’ loser’…” After what felt like an eternity to Jackson she lowered the leg she’d been holding out, wrinkled her face in defiance, dropped into the wooden chair behind her and folded over, shoulders to knees. A ballet rag doll in the throes of death.

***

Madam Konstanova breezed through the door, ever present clipboard and cassette tape in one hand, battered ghetto blaster in the other, immediately registered the entire room. She devil eyed Logan’s debris field. “Miss Bevan-Burns, are you quite through? This is a dance class, not anger therapy. You will pick up your things and prepare yourself…Mr. Jackson, that is Miss –”

“Her mess, I know.” He stuffed the wad of clothes and tape in the pink bag. “Give me a minute?”

“Mr. Jackson, I do not think you –” Kenny put a hand on her arm.

“Jackson is an old soul.”

“Of course he is, Miss Costigan.” Madam K rolled her eyes, set her clipboard down. “Aren’t we all?” She righted the fan and faced the action with folded arms.

Jackson knelt, thighs wailing, in front of the dead ballerina doll’s color of a slightly overbaked biscuit ballet bun.

“Hey.”

“Hey what?” The bun didn’t move. Knees slightly apart, feet together, one flexible ankle folded over on the floor, the other flat footed, a sweaty, dirty cast of athletic tape around the back half. He reached for the bulk of taped ankle, she pulled it away under the chair.

“NO!” She raised her head, not her body, tears smearing her cheeks. “Leave it a-lone! You can’t like fix it. You’re like, like a street guy, not even a dancer. My foot’s screwed and I’m like totally screwed and like nobody can fix it. Leave me a-lone.” He pulled her foot back out.

“Tape’s gotta go, Logan.” He looked over his shoulder. “Scissors?”

Madam K opened a drawer in the sign-in desk, rummaged, brought him a pair of long, thin, knife like barber’s scissors.

“NO!”  Logan twisted her entire upper body almost a hundred and eighty degrees to her hips, “Oh shit! Don’t! I can’t watch…The doctor…NOHHHH!”. She dropped her head and arms over the back of the chair.

“So Logan,” he moved into a cross legged position on the floor. “What’d your mom call you when she was mad?”

“Huh?” She raised her head off her folded arms, tried to find him in the mirror. “Like, seriously?”

“Seriously.” He wedged her taped foot in the bend of his knee.

“Oh.” She lost the glum for a second. “Um, Godammit Logan?”

“No,” he slipped the blade of the scissors behind her ankle bone, “your whole pissed off mom name.”

“Godammit Logan Nicole?”

“That’s it?”

“She like always never said all of them, Godammit Logan Nicole Bevan-Burns.” Logan snuffle snort laughed. “She’d like have totally forgotten what she was mad about if she yelled all of them.” She quit fighting his leg with her foot. “I like thought my first name was Godammit, you know, until, well, I went off to mega bitchy skinny old men and witches ballet teacher Nazis school, and they like totally forgot all our names and yelled godammit at all of us for-ever.”

“Yeah? What’d they yell about?”

Everything. Eat this, don’t eat that, drink more water, stretch more, get over your hips, where’s your extension and like we neh-ver got to bounce from dance class. Neh-ver. Dance. Get yelled at, dance, dance, dance.”

“Madam K’s not that bad, is she?”

“That was at Sob, not here.”

“Sob?”

“Oh, like duh. School of American Ballet? When I was 12 I like got a scholarship. Named after a car.”

“The Camaro fund for future ballerinas?”

“Are you like totally dance blank? Ford.” She paused, index finger to top lip. “I think.”

He could see her watching the red SUSHIRAMA sign from across the street flash in the mirror, hoped it would hypnotize her while he made small eighth-inch progress snips in the tape.

“Are you like into sushi, Jackson?”

“No. I –”

“It’s like raw fish, right?”

“Yeah. I tried it once, wasn’t sold. Like oysters. Both were lost on me.”

Oy-sters?” She sob laughed again. “Oy, oy! Like why not Oy-oy-sters. Grody?”

“Maximum grode factor. A guy I was in a band with, he took me to a seafood place when I was 16 where everyone at this long bar was shooting oysters.”

Shooting them? The little rock things in the cold place at the back of Safeway? Like with guns? That’s like, like so wrong.” She saw herself in the mirror. “Like me.”

“Nothing’s wrong with you but some bad advice. And the shooting wasn’t with guns. Where we were the oysters came on a big plate, already open, and the people covered them in hot sauce and slurped them down. They called it shooting.” He felt her leg relax more, kept snipping.

“Like in one bite? Guh-ronk?” She gulped for effect, trying invisible oysters. “How big are they?”

“Well,” he was getting close to having the tape off. “The only way I can describe them is like the way this guy who took me did. I asked him, you know, what were Oy-oy-sters like and he said ‘Jailbait, no way we gonna eat that shit. People can’t put enough hot sauce on them damn things to make ‘em right.”

“No?”

“No. He said only really sick puppies would eat something that looked like it fell out of a cow’s nose.”

She snapped back around, eyes wide. He wished he had it back. Her eyes got wider and she grabbed the tops of his shoulders.

“Ohmahgawd. Oy oys. They’re like…hugh-go SNOTS? Like when you’re not totally sick anymore, but kinda, and you cough and like this com-pletely gross mess jumps into your mouth from the back? And it’s like get rid of it now, don’t like swallow it or it’s technicolor yawn time?”

“Yeah.” The tape hinged back off her ankle. “Like exactly, totally like that.”

“Ohmahgawd, Jackson. Octopus!”

“Octopus? Wha –”

“I know. Yuk-oh, right? Betcha can’t eat it.”

“Yeah?”

“For real. Some old tuxedo and flowers man? He like took us all to dinner and told us it was like some delicacy, right, and I like chewed a bite like a biggo gum wad till I thought I was about to turn into a cheerleader or something. And like it was still there. So I, um, well, like kinda coughed it into my hand and dropped it under the table…And Squid! Like how can anyone like eat something called…” Her whole face relaxed, her lips pulled in to a small pucker. She looked down. “My foot. It’s…free. You like…what?”

“Who taped this?”

“Uh…A doctor? Or a guy like a doctor, only isn’t but works there? And like wears doctor clothes and waaaaaay too much cologne and like con-stantly smiles like a Halloween pumpkin thing? I go every other day or, well, it like gets totally sweated out and,” She wrinkled her face again. “But they say I can’t like dance without it, so…” The tears started to come back.

“Can’t like dance with it, either. C’mon, Godammit Logan Nicole Bevan-Burns, lighten up. You’ll be right in no time.” He picked up the roll of tape he’d caught, tore a strip. “Tie your shoe.”

She wrapped the pointe shoe ribbon around her ankle, tied it off. Wiggled her foot, winced.

“Ohmahgawd. Over my pointe shoe?”

“Yeah. Watch this, you’ll need it.” Jackson had no idea how anyone could bend that far over from seated but she did, and watched, engrossed, while he wrapped the piece of tape under her heel, around her Achilles, across her ankle, pulled it tight before he smacked it open-handed.

“Ow!” Her eyes came up from his hands to his face. “Is that like, re-quired?”

“Sets the tape.”

“‘Kay.” She dropped her head, watched as he tore another strip and came at her heel, Achilles and ankle from the other side, tightened and smacked it. He stood, took her hand, pulled her out of the chair. She hit pointe, wobbled a little, found it.

“Oh…mah…GAWD. What? How? This is so…” she pirouetted, stopped dead still, raised her right leg, dropped it on his shoulder. Her arms wide she added a hand flourish that sent her fingertips skyward before bending forward, all huge eyes in his face. “How?”

“Long story. Short version is I knew someone with Frankenstein tape on both ankles. A sports doc said she’d never get any strength back with her feet locked up in tape. Tell your not-a-doctor you want some stretchy kinesiology tape and you can tape like you are now before the shoe goes on. You good?”

“Bo-nus yeah!” She spun away, three, four, five tight turns, caught her usual place on the the first barre and curtsied, her face as red as a cherry. “Sorrr-eee, everybody.”

Madam K clapped twice, icicles hung from “Ladies…and Mr. Jackson.” The huddle against the wall broke, classical piano music seeped out of the battered jam box, the volume undulating in a slow tremolo with the movement of the oscillating fan. Jackson found his place at the far end of the third barre and thought about Logan and snot and octopus chewing cheerleaders. It helped him make it through another class. For the first time without any involuntary groans accompanied by fuck me.

***

Madam K, clipboard clutched to her chest, stopped him by blocking the door after his post class duties as the male balancing stump for dancers needing to work with a prop.

“Mr. Jackson, you may have helped her for the evening, but I do not believe she heard a word you said, nor do I believe Miss Burns will be able to tape herself.”

“You watch.” He worked himself into his sweatshirt. “As bad as she wants to dance? She’ll get the tape.”

“You have a great deal of confidence in someone, who, were she unable to dance as she does, would surely have been killed by now.”

“What I’m sayin’. Nobody who dances like Logan could be as big a bimbo as she puts up. She just needs to talk to somebody besides dancers once in a while.”

“Perhaps.” Madam K tapped her chin with the class cassette tape. “In the event she has difficulty?”

“Send her to USC sports med and the kinesiology people will make her better than she was. Sending her’s not a bad idea whether she can tape herself or not.”

“My usual attitude toward musicians, particularly the young, modern set, is one of tolerant contempt. With you I may have to adjust my position. You do realize that you will never be a dancer?”

“You’re the second person to tell me that since Monday. And you know what?”

“Yes, I do. But please, don’t say it.” She stood aside to let him out. “Miss Burns’ episode was quite enough profanity for one evening.”

Grab My Purse

It was nice to have Bobby and Annabelle back, thou, trapped in a warehouse fire by a ruthless Dixie Mafia type who doesn’t want Swamp Vue to sell enclosed swamp cruisers in the Everglades. If you read this from book two you’ll know what happens. Without further ado, the edited version –

The sixty-foot-long string of fire along back wall of SwampVue’s old galvanized odds and ends warehouse didn’t go up with the special effects wooomph Bobby thought it should have. It wasn’t all that big yet, either, just a trickle of fire across the bottom.

“Those two sonsabitches.” Annabelle pulled a Glock 26 from her purse, set it on one of the overturned buckets they’d been using for chairs.  She stepped into a black fire-retardant mechanics jumpsuit she’d found a box full of them in the warehouse, zipped it, pocketed the Glock.

“You figure they knew we were in here?” Bobby zipped into his own jumpsuit.

“The fire was supposed to be a warning, Bobby. You and me being here is gravy.”

“Maybe we don’t need to sell boats in Florida. Maybe we should talk –”

“Selling boats in Florida is a distant second to ‘maybe’ we should think about how to get out of here before we go well done. That fireline sayin’ to you ‘c’mon out y’all, let’s all have us a lemonade and a chat?’” She scanned the warehouse. Buckets of Bobby’s wrong kind of paint, pallets of Bobby’s pre-Annabelle reclamation material runs from the Katrina salvage yard. Senior Eldridge’s Swamp Vue customized tractor. Big, rusty industrial tools and conveyor runners stripped from the old machine shop that was now Swamp Vue Building A. She looked up at the sprinkler heads doing nothing, knew the Matchstick Men had shut off the water. “Mr. Preston fucking Umbridge and crew have gone from being pains in our asses to dangerous. Where’s my idea boy?”

Bobby had  been walking the warehouse while they talked, came back and yanked the canvas sailcloth off his dead in the water project car that had been rolled into this warehouse with all his other unfinished projects.

“What the hell is that?”

“Half a plan? It was a Ford GT, before Katrina. When I got it most of the aluminum was gone. I’d thought about turning it into a marketing car, like the beer companies have? Half GT on the front and over the engine in back I wanted a small, high gloss wooden pickup bed. Unless we could do the front end like a baby ’57 Fleetside maybe. You know –”

“Bobby, goddammit, brevity. Does it run?” She waited, eyed the fire climbing the back wall, sweat glistening on her forehead.

“Hell yeah it runs.”

“And the half a plan?”

“We could drive it out, or, or…”

“Bobby, it’s a NASCAR grade go kart. Walk, or drive out in that thing, front or back, they’ll pick us off.” She thought for a minute. “Start it. Point it at the front, tie the wheel down.” She could feel Bobby hesitate. “Bobby? Listen up, baby. If this works? I’ll put a four-man team on the damn thing until it’s right. Set it up, start it.” She hit him with the scare a voodoo priest eyes, walked to a pallet of acetone cans and picked up two in each hand, took them to the back wall. When she heard the GT go-kart roar to life she stacked the cans in the flames, backed away in hurry. She pulled the pistol, held it two handed, looked over her shoulder at Bobby and raised her chin.

Bobby jammed a piece of re-bar between the accelerator pedal and the seat on the GT, flipped the transmission paddle to D, Annabelle shot the bottom can of acetone. The GT screamed through the front wall at the same time the acetone cans blew a hole in the back. She grabbed Bobby, pulled him down behind a pallet of junk aluminum while front and back the pop…pop pop and brrrrappp of gun fire punched holes in the galvanized tin that turned the moonlit warehouse into a redneck planetarium.

The shooting stopped, a couple of long minutes passed, Bobby and Annabelle drenched with sweat, each watching the black holes in the warehouse. Someone out back hollered “Anybody still alive in there won’t be fer long.”

***

Leading with an AR-16 the one called Walrus stepped through the acetone hole, Bobby hit him in the face with a shovel. Annabel grabbed the gun before he hit the ground, frisked the prone Walrus and came up with two more clips.

“Jesus.” Bobby looked down at Walrus and back to Annabelle and the rifle. “You know how to use that, too, huh?”

“Afghanistan. By way of Detroit. Help me.” They hog tied Walrus in an upward arch, ankles and wrists together, stuffed a rag in his mouth when he came around enough to make noise. Annabelle handed Bobby the Glock. “You know how to use one of these?”

“Since I was six. We’d go trollin’, Daddy’d get drunk and put me on gator –”

“Bobby? Jesus, boy. Count to thirty, empty that pistol through the front. Then drag his sorry ass up there and wait for me.”

“What if they see you?”

“You have to be kidding me.” Annabelle held out her arms, assault rifle in hand. Black woman, black overalls, night.

“Right.”

Bobby counted, wiped his sweaty hands on his jumpsuit, emptied the clip through the hole his GT had made. There was a round of pop pop…pop pop pop that punched a few more holes in the front of the warehouse, a man’s voice called out for Walrus. There was another pop, louder, closer.

“Get on outta there, Bobby,” Annabelle, her voice raised. “Grab my purse on your way to the water valve.”

***

Bobby stopped his two-wheel dolly next to Annabelle’s tumped sideways wheel barrow, stood it up and Walrus, screaming behind the rag in his mouth fell on the Swamp Vue dock next to his partner.

“You put gas in the tow skiff?”

“Yes ma’am.” Bobby nodded to the far side of the dock. “That red Bandit four-seater set up for water test is a lot faster.”

“I’m not looking for speed. I think a nice, slow moonlight ride under the Spanish Moss might give these gentlemen a chance to reflect on the errors of their ways.” She looked at the two Matchstick Men, trussed up like Houdinis in a mixture of chain, rope and wire. “Besides, they’re bleeding and the skinny one vomited himself over the hole I put in his shoulder.” The burning warehouse reflected in her eyes. “And I’ll be godammed if these boys’ll ruin any more Swamp Vue inventory.”

Bobby helped her roll Walrus and Steeple unceremoniously from the dock into the green, slimy bottom of the tow skiff, both men wild eyed and squirming, still trying to holler through their gags. Bobby untied the skiff, watched Annabelle kick the Merc outboard up and disappear into the swamp.

***

Sheriff Wylie pulled up by the dock, joined the flashing light show of Terrebonne Parish emergency vehicles surrounding Swamp Vue’s back warehouse. He climbed out of his cruiser, met with a fireman who talked for a minute before he went back to his truck.

“I declare, Bobby B,” Wylie pulled his Smokey the Bear hat, wiped his forehead. “Seems ain’t no kinda shit can be got up to foreign to anywhere you’re at, boy.” He reset the hat, tweaked it. “Where’s Ms. Annabelle Mo-nay?”

“She, uh,” Bobby felt the weight of the canvas bag in his hand, heard Annabelle asking him if gators’d eat anything, how she’d heard a story about somebody cutting a gator open and finding a pocketwatch. “She took the tow skiff out. To clear her head. All the chemicals…”

“That right? Big city lady knows her way around the bayou now, does she?”

“GPS.”

“Mmm.” Wylie walked to the warehouse, frowned at the puddles under his shiny boots, wrinkled his nose at the smell of smoldering paint, burnt rubber. They both watched the firefighters rolling hose for a few. “Late start on the sprinklers, huh?”

“Valve stuck.”

“You don’t say. Head honcho Fire fella told me this mighta been arson.” He poked a stubby finger through one of the bullet holes. “Y’all got any problems I need to know about?”

“No sir.”

“The bag?”

“This? Oh, uh, just some, uh, lost and found.”

“Sure ‘nuff?” Wylie shined his high-power penlight into the bag. “Lessee now. Coupla phones. Coupla belts with big fancy buckles like them two slicks outta Florida was wearin’. The ones been hangin’ to the 76 truck stop talkin’ up the waitresses and hookers how they’re big shot Matchstick Men? Two wallets. A watch, an en-graved pocket knife,” he turned it over under the penlight, “to Walrus from LuLu. Makes you wonder about people, don’t it? A three-inch wood handled lock-back gizzard splitter. A baby Colt semi, looks like a 380. Car keys on a key ring fulla those grocery store cards. And you got nothin’ to tell me?” He shined the light on a cluster of bullet holes and moved it to Bobby’s face. “No problems? You sure?”

“Yes sir, I’m sure.” Bobby pointed to his GT, a 427 engine on a bent aluminum frame embedded in a giant old cypress. “We’re gonna fix that GT up right, put the logo on it, haul it to boat shows. And Ms. Monet thinks after tonight Swamp Vue’ll start selling more boats in Florida.”

“No doubt.” Wylie dropped the wallet he’d opened and gone through back in the bag. “Fact is I’d bet on it.” He walked back to his cruiser, tossed his hat on the passenger seat, leaned on his open door. “You be sure to give Ms. Mo-nay my regards.” He put a foot in the cruiser, stopped his descent. “Y’know, Bobby, she might give me a holler sometime, she’s of a mind. Tell her lunch is on me.”

Gambits #5

Poison is So-ooo Passe

Naegleria fowleri is found in 70% of US lakes. Nicknamed “The Brain-eating Amoeba,” it hijacks the victim’s brain causing confusion, hallucinations and loss of motor function. Death can occur in as few as seven days.

All you need is a jar of lake water, a hot tub and a little playful “dunk that pesky, fickle bachelor” and he’s history.

Up your game. Poison? Puh-leeeeze…

Dusk in Douala – Rev 3

Dusk in an abandoned-by-Eminent-Domain Douala, Cameroon Ghetto / August 1998

A pair of mud caked motorcycle taxis pulled up in front of the overgrown, abandoned, dirty white cinder block house in the sweltering Douala ghetto. Two Anglos in wilted white tuxedos backed off the seats, the younger of the two, athletic, thirtyish with longer hair said something quietly in French to the drivers, paid them, watched them disappear around a corner. He looked up, scanned the 12 x 12 two-story structure encased in tropical greenery. Hung above the missing door a once colorful sign featured a smiling African woman, her head surrounded by vegetables. The abandoned structure, minus the sign, repeated all around them. An eminent domain ghost town.

“This is what economic development looks like in Cameroon, eh?” The older Anglo, slender, maybe 40, clean cut and early gray nodded toward the gleaming forest green Ford Expedition pulling up. “Nun in a knocking shop.”

“Part of his act.”

“Shit, Cas. It’s the only thing big enough to drag his fat ass across Douala.”

They both watched a fat man in overdone military garb, complete with double gold rope wrapping his armpits from both epaulets, exit from the Expedition’s back seat. A smallish, bald, black as midnight man in a bright yellow shirt covered in printed orange pineapples, an aluminum briefcase handcuffed to his wrist stepped from the front passenger side. The fat man’s “military escort,” a tall, thin blond man in a black uniform somewhere between Roaring Twenties chauffeur and Nazi goose-stepper swung from the driver’s seat, a Chinese Glock nine knock-off in his right hand that he used to direct the Anglos to the door. Inside, with its boarded windows, missing second floor and roof, the place was an oven.

Monsieur Caswell?” Saying it Kays-Weel, the fat man’s voice wet, full of spit and bullshit. “And Kar-kleen.” He held his eyes on the older Anglo, enthusiasm diminished, before turning to Caswell. “You know, how I have said of heem, and yet…” he shrugged.

“What you say, Colonel, has no bearing on how or with whom I conduct business.” He shrugged in return, mocking the self-imposed rank of the Coalition of some bogus Liberation Front’s front man. “You have my money?”

“I have your money, Kays-weel, but these man of yours, Kar-kleen? To me? He reeks of betrayal. Shoot heem, for the cause, for all of us.” His smile beamed in the dusk’s semi-darkness. “Do so, the money is yours.”

“I’m a businessman, Colonel, not a gangster. I’m not armed.”

“No? A businessman you say? Or a spy? Perhaps a clever American?”

“I could be a Martian for all it matters. You’ve seen the weapons, have guards posted on the container. I want my money.”

“You exude the aroma of an anarchist, but retain the soul of a capitalist. I’m afraid we –”

“If I’d wanted a sermon from a hypocrite, Mon Colonel, I’d have found a church. We do the money, now, or this gets uglier than your Momma’s dog.”

The fat man’s laugh went off in the stifling heat like a small bomb full of ego, gold teeth, curry, cigars and spit spray. “You – You keel me. These is why I liked you, Kays-weel. In the face of a most unprofitable death you make jokes. As you are,” he gestured to his Glock clone wielding driver with a minor wave of his hand, “how should you propose to make it, as you say, uglier –”

Caswell grabbed chauffer Nazi’s sweaty wrist with both hands, jammed the Glock clone up under its owner’s chin with enough force the chauffeur pulled his own trigger. The sound of the muffled shot went straight up with the bullet and brain spray into the palm branches overhead. The chauffeur gurgled, fell away, relinquishing the gun to Caswell who waited in the sticky thickness of cordite and blood mist while the Colonel fumbled with the flap of a shiny, black military holster. From it, in slow motion, he pulled an equally shiny black pistol. It cleared the holster, Caswell’s nine popped, the Colonel screamed, blood staining the sleeve of his uniform and dropped his pistol.

Kirklin knelt, collected the gun from years of packed down squat debris and rat shit, racked the slide, jammed it above the bridge of the Colonel’s nose. “Not so bloody funny now, eh, your Momma’s ugly dog.”

“You…Never.” He grimaced, blew air out of his nose. “You weel never leave Douala alive. You two, not so clever of you to bring your own whores, leave them alone. Not know who you are dealing with!” He looked at the blood oozing between his fingers, half laughed, half screamed. “You have to let me go. I need…I’ll be…missed. And I have your women. They –” The shiny gun went off, a cannon in the close confines of the concrete room. The Colonel backed up, the cross-eyed surprise on his face a cartoon trying to look at the hole in his forehead. He sat down, hard, fell over on his dead military escort.

Caswell collared the sweat soaked pineapple print shirt, pulled the small black man up from wretching, stuck the nine in his ear. “Open the briefcase.” The little man bent again, vomited air and noise. “Jesus.” Cas stuck his free hand in the man’s pockets, fished, pulled out a pearl handled .25 Saturday Night Special and a key ring.

“Just cut his fucking hand off, Cas.” Kirklin said, fanning the powder smoke.

“Newwww…Puh-leeze.” The black man snatched the key ring away, freed himself from the briefcase and handcuffs. “I am, I, le courrier, pour le financier.” He thumped his chest. “Seulement! There is, family, I –”

“Shut up,” Cas jammed the nine back in Black Baldy’s ear, kicked the briefcase Kirklin’s way. “Open it. See if the little man was running his own game.” Kirklin squatted, went through the keys, flipped the lid on the case.

“Money.”

Cas dragged pineapple shirt to the empty doorway, put his foot in the small of the man’s back and pushed. “Kiss your family for us.” They listened to him dry heave down the empty street. Kirklin lit a black cigarette, blew a smoke ring.

“Shoulda killed him, too.”

“I have locals following whoever walked out of here alive. We need to know where he goes.”

“Mmm. You worried?”

“About?”

“Elise. Oriana?”

“No. You?”

“No.” Kirklin blew another smoke ring. “I’m sure they neutralized whatever these refugees from acting school sent before they became an issue. No doubt with a good deal more finesse than we put up here.”

“Not much of a trick.” Cas jiggled the little finger he had in his ear. “What the hell is that?”

“Beretta.” Kirklin held up the Colonel’s pistol. “M9. Forty-five. A right argument stopper. I might keep it.”

“It’s too fucking loud.”

Kirklin moved his lips, mouthed soundless nothing. Caswell slapped him in the chest with the back of his hand. “I was just asking what about these two?” Kirklin pointed the Beretta at the two dead men.

“We’re gone five minutes,” Cas nudged the Colonel’s glossy boots with his foot, “they’re picked clean, teeth pulled and carcasses set on fire. You ready?” Kirklin nodded, Caswell stepped through the door, saw the kid on the corner vanish, heard the put-put of the motorcycle taxis fire up a street over.

“You cheap out, Cas,” Kirklin flicked his cigarette into the dusk, focused on the corner, “not tip them enough?”

“Too much, and they didn’t thank me. Showtime.” The motorcycle taxis rounded the corner, drivers with guns drawn. A pop from the Glock clone, a BOOM from the Beretta and the motorcycles were put-putting on their sides in the street.

“Goddammit that thing’s loud.”

“A bit too heavy as well. The Ford?”

“No one, even after dark in Douala, jacks a pair of thirty-year old Honda Sixty-fives.”

“Right. Lottery night in the squats, then.” Kirklin squeezed the handlebar clutch on the closest bike, lifted it. Caswell pulled up the other, let it skitter around him till he knocked it out of gear with his foot.

“What were the locals supposed to do if we hadn’t walked out of here?”

“A note at the hotel, a cold phone coded to the Oxford drop for Dunning.”

“One of these days,” Kirklin straddled the duct taped seat, briefcase between his legs, “someone will need to kill Richard Dunning.”

“Don’t try it from a motorcycle,” Caswell shot Kirklin a clipped smile, dropped on his own duct taped seat. “Be a shame if the bastard heard you coming.”