taxi cab noir

October driving midnight without elegance
the Fat Man got in the back a mile ago
I watch him in the rear view at red lights
as he looks at his hands, his
fingers with their plump thighs

Don’t Forget the Liquor Store, he says
like he’s reading to me from a tombstone—

In Loving Memory of the Joint at the Corner
Where Cheap Wines Once Rhymed
and Cigarettes Once Kicked Like Chorus Girls

—then he tosses a twenty onto the front seat next to me, saying
there’s something behind the store counter he needs
I should mention his name to the old gal at the til
her name’s Ruth but that doesn’t matter
she’ll hand me a paper bag
what’s in it should be sealed in concrete
but it’s in a lunch bag instead
don’t open it he says
give her the money and come back

I do and the Fat Man looks greedy
shamefaced as I hand it over

what dreams are made of, he whispers
clutching the bag to his breast
telling me to make haste
and head up Broadway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the revised Rosetta

The psychiatrist is Dr Slim, turning pages slowly in a folder open on his lap. The woman, sitting across from him in restraints, is Rosetta. Medium in stature, her body is densely draped in narrow streams of blue braiding Code, tattooed in crisp nine point Andalé Mono font, from the top of her shaven head, covering her face, and flowing downward to where the code disappears past the neckline of her hospital gown, appearing again on her arms where they emerge from short sleeves, cascading to her fingertips. It has been reported by nurses that the vertical lines of Code cover her entire body. Only the green pupils and whites of her eyes stand out in contrast; even her lips are inked. Her stare is steady.

Slim is reading Rosetta’s case file voyeuristically. His eyebrows raised when he discovers juicy slivers of clinical gossip, something ironic or hostile placed there by another doctor or disgruntled staff. Then frowning and making a too-too-too sound with his tongue, whenever he encounters more relevant clinical notes. He has a lunch date in forty-five minutes, and thinks he’ll have the grilled chicken bruschetta.

“You haven’t slept for a very long time,” he says, about to bite his thumbnail, then changing his mind. Then turning the pages back to a place near the beginning, he says, “Ah, here we are: No sleep since admission, three days ago. Patient spends the night sitting cross-legged on bed, claims she hasn’t slept since 2010.

“No sleep for three days,” says Slim. “That’s easy to fix. But you say you haven’t slept since 2010? That’s very interesting.”

“Is it?”

“Do you want to say more about that?”

“No.”

Slim shifts in his chair.

“Are you hearing things?” he asks. “Voices?”

“I hear your voice.”

“Auditory hallucinations are a common effect of sleep disorders. And in your paperwork…,” he turns more pages to be certain, “…there is the diagnosis of schizophrenia. You’ve had bouts of psychosis, and now you’ve committed a very serious crime. Were you commanded to do so?”

Next he’ll ask me if I smell shit, she thinks. He’ll without the apostrophe is Hell. He’s Hell. This prison is Hell. The handcuffs and florescent light. The walls too white. The isolation rooms too small.

“And the tattoos,” he says, “I understand from staff that you’re covered with them, nearly every centimetre of your body.” He considered the alphanumeric chains, and her frank expression behind them. “Done with such precision, too. Do you know what I mean when I say self-harm?”

Rosetta’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you aware of seeing things,” says Slim, “people for instance, you’ve been told others don’t?”

“Of course.”

“How do you know others can’t see what you see?”

“Because I can’t see what they see. Makes sense, right?”

“Can you give me an example of what you see, that others can’t?”

“Why?”

Eight years, sleepless.

“Because this is a clinical assessment.” He says this smiling without rapport, reveling uneven teeth. “I assess, prognosticate and recommend therapy. Not necessarily in that order. And at some point, I make a recommendation as to whether you stay here or return to court for criminal sentencing. To achieve all of that, I ask you questions and, ideally, you answer them honestly.”

There were no answers to such ordinary questions.

Three days awake. The fool had no idea.

She began practicing wakefulness, and forsaking dreams, as a child, out of  a fear of sleep, slowly and carefully at first, counting breaths and heartbeats silently. Clearing her mind of everything else—the sickening touch of hands. Beginning when she was five. One touch, two, three…. The slow impossible wrongness. Ghosts sitting on her bed, stroking her cheek in the nightstand lamplight, speaking musically, slow and backward, saying they loved her. Each time taking on their spider-likeness, because that’s how some ghosts attack.

Her wholly wakeful life began much later, when she was fifteen years old, after escaping the haunted house and running to the slum side of the city. It was there, in a skid-row hotel room, that she first floated over the lawless atoms of night, her fear of sleep eclipsed by a splendid new twenty-four hour consciousness.

And there she began her journal, in pencil at first on the walls of her room, and then the corridors of the decaying hotel, refusing to correct errors as she wrote. Correction was the slaughter of blameless fractions of thought that were becoming the Code. She’d never understand it, she thought at first. But then came the moment of discovery, when she became aware that in order to understand the Code, it must be inked upon her skin.

Awkwardly at first, she used sewing needles and razor blades, and a potion of India ink and cigarette ash, later finding expert and trustworthy artists, who wouldn’t look beneath her surface at the perfect swirling binary as they marked her.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about the things you see and hear,” Dr Slim says.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

She translated ghosts into humans using the Code. Human thirsts were easier to decipher. Slim was with the ghosts.

“We’re also concerned about cognitive impairment,” says Dr Slim—“Your possible premature decline. We’d like to do tests. Untreated psychosis causes neurodegeneration. Left untreated, you may even be left unable to recognise the passage of time.”

“Time or times, Doc?” Rosetta says, finally relaxing in her chair. “Epochs and eras? Or just ticks fucking tocks, spawning hours.” She grins. “Clock guts. The 6am news you wake up to every morning. I know Time. I recognise him just fine. I’ve got his phone number. I call him and laugh whenever he’s late. Time crosses the street when he sees me coming, runs and hides like a coward behind the eyes of old women.”

“That’s very poetic,” Slim says, looking again at his thumbnail.

“Fuck you.”

“Look,” says the doctor, “you’re not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. So, this isn’t prison, but it is confinement and refusing therapy, drug or otherwise, isn’t an option.”

“I’m going to escape,” she says.

“No, you’re not. No one ever has. This place is more secure than a penitentiary, in its own way.” He paused and then said, “We’ve a long list of neuroleptics at hand, each with its own charming set of side-effects. And we always over prescribe. The drug addled never wonder far.”

“I’ll escape. I’ll sleep. It’s finally time, I figure. Just try to catch me then. I’ll sleep where there aren’t any ghosts.”

“There are no ghosts,” Slim says. “There never were.”

“You’re one, you know? I didn’t think so a minute ago, but now it’s obvious.”

“No, Rosetta. I’m not a ghost.”

“You’re challenging me?”

“Yes.”

Ghost facts

  1. Ghosts exist.
  2. Ghosts are of the dead, but not the dead. This is obvious to anyone who has seen one.
  3. Rosetta has lived surrounded by ghosts since childhood.
  4. There are castes of ghost.
  5. Rosetta knows each caste by its name—killer, lost, screamers, etc.

Rosetta encountered her first ghosts when she was orphaned at age five, after one parent died of a mysterious violence in the house on 8th Avenue, and the other went to prison.

These first ghosts were named mister and missus shade. They were wanting-ghosts, posing as foster parents. They wanted Rosetta—wanting the things she’d no idea breathed inside of her. And they hated her for it.

Wanting-ghost facts

  1. Wanting-ghosts want.
  2. Wanting-ghosts take.
  3. Wanting-ghosts prefer to remain visible, though they often pass through walls and ceilings when no one is watching.
  4. They’re clever.
  5. Few see them for what they are.
  6. They sulk.
  7. They worry, shout and show their teeth.
  8. Their hands are quick and fierce.
  9. They’re selfish and violent.
  10. Wanting-ghosts hate what they want.

Wanting-ghosts have mural faces—gasoline fire eyes, a cloud of planet gravity discordant orbit phases wheeling round each of them. And when Rosetta refused their raw touch, when she turned her head and cried out, or hid in closets or under her bad, their faces blistered and their fierce hands became claws. And when they failed against her defiance, when they knew she’d never be meek and surrender, they chose loneliness for her instead, locking Rosetta in a basement.

At first she fed herself from the cellar shelves, peaches from mason jars hard to open with small hands. She ate them as she looked out of a small square reinforced window onto the resting winter garden. When the peaches ran out, she starved for a week before a bowl of something began to be left each evening on the uppermost step of the stairs to the kitchen.

Other ghosts came to her in the basement, and Rosetta began to know each kind. The sad, the shining, the watchers who sat very darkly in the corners, the ones that screamed loudly but were never heard, the ghosts of children quietly unable to understand the fact of their own deaths.

Once during an uncounted spring, a little boy, who might have been a ghost, snuck into the garden, hunching down to looked at her through the wire mesh window. He’d a round face and brown eyes, and wore a clean striped tee-shirt. After staring at each other for a minute, the boy ran away and vanished through a hole in a fence, returning later and placing a candy bar and a fistful of caramels on the windowsill. An offering she’d never touch. Then he ran away again, and never came back.

A bath came once a month, the day before the lady from the Foster Agency arrived. After each bath, Rosetta was placed in a room with a warm bed and picture books. And that’s where missus shade would leave her. Each time, before she left, twisting Rosetta’s ear very hard and instructing her to tell the Agency lady that she loved her foster parents. Then missus shade locked the door behind her.

Eventually the lady from the Foster Agency stopped coming. The shades told Rosetta she’d been adopted, and left her in the basement watching from the window as the garden bowed to each season, again and again. She wanted to count each cycle, but hadn’t learned numbers. Time, a thing she discovered later was passing. More ghosts arrived, surrounding her on and on, until one showed her how to escape.

“I’ve already prescribed a new combination of medications,” says Slim. “And you will take them. The staff will make sure. The meds will help you to sleep, among other necessary things. You’ve said you want to sleep. I want you to follow the nurse’s instructions. Is that clear?”

Slim released Rosetta onto the ward, where the ghosts were slouched and long fingered, where the hospital staff cast spells. She took to a corner in a threadbare easy chair, yawning for the first time since childhood, and wondering if dreams were all they were cracked up to be. A grinning posse would arrive soon, with injections and pills.

How to kill a wanting-ghost

  1. Wanting-ghosts aren’t hard to kill.
  2. Most wanting-ghosts choose suicide.
  3. Want-ghosts must sleep, unlike other ghosts.
  4. Most sleep at night, as they did in life. Some, however, sleep during the day and haunt the night.
  5. The shades slept at night, and haunted the day.
  6. Wanting-ghosts fear sleep.
  7. The best time to kill a wanting-ghost is when it sleeps.
  8. They sleep deeply, rarely waking before their time. This makes them vulnerable.
  9. The most effective way to kill a wanting-ghost is by knife and fire.

Her vengeance against mister and missus shade came on a night when the moon was a hung high thin bit of scrap. She’d become mist for the visit. Entering the house by passing through fissures in the outer walls. Coming to float above them as they slept.

Her accomplice was a knife that had found her, where it lay one night in an alley she often walked before dawn. The knife was handsome, with a pearl handle, and she knew its history when she took it into her hand. She knew why it had been dropped there. There was murder in it. It smiled when she held it. It would kill for her, even if she hesitated.

Coming out of the mist, she sat on the edge of the bed, stroking mister shade’s cheek as she ran the knife’s blade lightly across his throat, watching as his eyes moved swiftly to and fro beneath their lids. And when those eyes opened with a start, he saw her silhouette, her posture still familiar after years, and then her face in the dim light of the slice of moon through the window. Her face behind the torrent of Code; the grownup face of the child he’d harmed so completely. She’d a strange expression of sympathy as she held the sharp edge firmly under his chin.

“Oh look,” she whispered, “you’re bleeding.”

A thin current of blood trickled down his neck as his pupils dilated, igniting the orange inferno of his eyes. The room glowed.

“Please,” said mister shade. “Take anything you want.”

“Anything? Then I’ll have grace and vengeance. And those eyes,” she said. “They’re what I came for.” The handsome knife moved quickly and in a second shade’s eyes were in her hand, still burning and too hot to hold. So she threw them against the wall, mister shade screaming as they exploded into flame. The knife moved faster again when it drew the line, deep and true across shade’s throat.

The fire caused by his eyes exploding against the wall was spreading throughout the room, and Rosetta saw missus shade, with her own napalm eyes, sitting up in the bed.

“You?” the missus said.

“Me,” said Rosetta. The knife went in deep, and missus shade’s eyes faded.

Now the fire would finish the job, as the shades lay in their bed.

Knife and fire.

Neighbours in bedclothes gathered on the street to watch the house burn.

Rosetta turned to mist and escaped.

Grace and vengeance.

Days later, the police knocked on her door.

*

Now she sits silently in the hospital ward common room, surrounded by the staff come to cast spells.

“Non-responsive,” a doctor says. “Has she been given anything yet?”

“No.”

“Weak pulse,” says a nurse, “almost none at all. Get a BP cuff.”

“Forget that,” the doctor says, listening through a stethoscope. “Get the crash cart, room 3.”

“I can’t find a pulse at all now.”

“Get a damn gurney.”

She dreamed as her heart gently failed. A good one, as dreams go. She was a girl and she was a woman, sitting on the veranda of a happily aging house in the country. Shade-trees, birdsong and crickets. Blue skies as a bright red roadster motored by on the quiet road beyond the gate, someone waving out the window. The ink was gone, the characters of the Code having flown heavenward like a swarm of blue bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never hold a gun on a woman

the 2nd in the .38 trilogy
read The Retired Private Eye here

1973.

We were all sitting in the dining hall watching Elvis—Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite—live on TV, drinking coffee and smoking cheap cigarettes. Elvis had walked out on the stage with a crown in his hand, he was the King after all, dressed in a white bejeweled suit. A bit much. I wasn’t an Elvis fan, but it was a distraction from the routine. I found myself, nonetheless, thinking about how I got there. I did that a lot. Life wasn’t fair.

I’d been living in a cold colourless third floor room, with a sock in a hole in a windowpane and a pile of explosives on the floor next to my bedroll.

Vaillancourt, a friend from back on the way, didn’t object to visiting such squalor. Not completely, since this was a recruiting call. He’d asked me to work for him many times before, retailing methamphetamine etc. on a nearby corner. I could live well, he told me, on what I earned, provided I didn’t get hooked. (Secretly, I knew that he liked his street dealers hooked. It made them loyal, until they got too messed up, at which point he’d have them disappeared.)

“So you wanna live like an artist,” he said when he saw the place, “is that it? Like van Gogh during his hard times? Can you even paint write or compose music? I don’t think you can. You’re just a pretender, aren’t you, but I bet the chicks love it. It’s just some pretentious dedication to poverty, right? Suddenly you don’t like money, is that it?”

Maybe it was. But it was the cops and some closet case of a Judge, named Harold T Swallows—swear to God—that put my fencing business to bed, leaving me without a source of income.

After my court ordered detox, my parole officer suggested that I consider a career in fast food. I said I’d give it some thought, and for my next appointment, I shaved off my beard to reveal the colourful grinning anaconda tattoo that slinked from one jaw, over my chin, to the other (a speedball induced error in judgment on my part). Never again did the PO bring up the topic of fast food.

“I’m transitioning,” I told Vaillancourt, “ever since I got clean and started twelve step, NA and AA, baby. My life’s become fluid, like a dream. I’ve become a changing sea of change—” an awkward phrase, I knew. Even I cringed when I heard myself say it, but I’d yet to come up with something better. I thought I’d try improving on it when the tide came in on my serpent-infested sea of changingness.

Vaillancourt made no secret of it, as he considered the sock in the hole in the windowpane, then looking down at the box of C4 on my floor. “Bomb-vests and bank jobs don’t mix,” he said.

He broached the subject again a few days later in a bar down the street, telling me to, “Use a gun.”  That was his advice. “A bank robbery wants a gun. Better yet, get a damn job and forget the whole thing. You’re gonna fuck up this bank job you’re all excited about. Come work for me, seriously. I’ll move you up faster than any other loser I’ve got out in the field.” (in the field. Jeez. He always talked about dealing drugs like it was legit.) “You’ll be in distribution in no time, then accounts and acquisitions, cost benefits analysis—you can add and talk on the phone, right?

“You may be hungry now,” he said, “but you’re not angry or nasty enough to rob a bank. Not yet, anyway. In the end, with that bomb you’re talking about, it’ll just be body parts and dinero falling like autumn leaves. Just think of the moms and dads not taking the bus home after work. All the leggy lady tellers never leggin’ it nowheres ever again. You want that on your conscience? And you’ll be bug splat a second after you flip the switch.

“It’s the street that’s in yer blood, man. Look to accumulate your wealth and status slowly, over time. You could be big one day, with my help. You could go into business for yourself. I’d have to kill you if you did, of course, but that’s way off in the future. Don’t think about that. For now, just come over and work with me.”

Then he leaned in, across the bar table, and said the words I knew would stick with me for the rest of my life, no matter how short it was. He said, “You’re an aesthetic, Arlo.” He grinned warmly when he said it. Like I’d never seen him before. Vaillancourt was a killer, and liked to get kids hooked on coke and heroin, or whatever his trolls could sell at schoolyards and out front of the 7-11. But suddenly, he was like the camp counsellor a kid gets a sweaty juvenile homoerotic crush on—a crush that makes the kid wonder if checking his pals’ junk in the gym shower ain’t so wrong, after all. (Fortunately, I got over that.) “You may not be an artist, but you’re willing to sacrifice for art’s sake. You’ve proved it by going sort of straight. That roach motel yer living in proves it. Are you seeing what I mean? You ain’t no bank robber. You can’t flip the switch on a bomb-vest.”

An aesthetic, he’d said. It wasn’t a jab, either. But who said anything about flipping a switch?

“I don’t want to flip no switch, man,” I said. “Why even say that? You’re gonna jinx it.”

“I’m saying it because, and you keep this to yourself or I’ll cut your thumbs off with a pair of poultry shears, I’ve done a bank job or two myself. It’s how I set myself up in my current profession, and what I know from my experience is that you can’t go in assuming you know what’s going to happen, except that there’ll be chaos. Sometimes it’s a quiet subtle chaos, just between you and the person across the counter, other times it’s a violent kinda chaos, screams and crying, the gnashing of teeth, with the sound of sirens in the background. And when it gets like that, you want everyone to see that you’re serious, that you really will shoot someone if everyone doesn’t just shut the hell up. Except in your case, you’re gonna flip the switch.”

“No,” I said, wondering if he was right. “I only want some respect when I stand  there in the middle of the bank and shout holdup. I don’t get any respect no more, not like back when I was the man with the bones to buy all the hot swag and sell it at a big profit, and loan out money at outrageous interest rates. This job’s gonna be my Renaissance. My AA sponsor says gaining respect is an important element of my sobriety, and I got my three-month chip the other day. I don’t wanna blow it.”

 Vaillancourt looked at the beer in my hand.

“Beer just takes the edge off,” I said to his shady gaze. “You ain’t got no idea what it’s like going dry and clean all at once. Besides, it’s just the arm motion I miss, mostly. A guy misses bending his arm at the elbow, bringing the glass up to his lips and taking a swig. And when a fella’s bending and swigging, it’s beer he wants.” I raised my glass in a false salute and took a gulp, the end of my seventh pint. “See what I mean?” I said. Then I chanced paraphrasing something I’d read somewhere, “The elbow thing, it’s sort of an embedded physical behaviour. It’s psychological.”

Vaillancourt finally blinked, and I got up to go to the men’s room. He followed me moments later, and stood farting fruitilly at the urinal next to me. Then, after shaking off, he followed me to the sink (yeah, I washed my hands) where he looked back at me in the mirror. Then, pulling a gun out of his jacket pocket, he slid it to me across the wet countertop.

As a responsible Canadian, I was conditioned to be suspicious of guns. This one, though, made me shiver. It was an obvious hand-me-down of indeterminate age. Blunt, black and mute in the dim yellow cast of the only functioning lightbulb. It held no opinions on its intended function or its place in the world; it didn’t care. No eyes to see, ears to hear, no soul to take.  No court could convict it; it was a lethal innocent.

“Pick it up,” Vaillancourt said. “It’s loaded, so be careful.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Don’t be an ass,” he hissed, grabbing my wrist and forcing it into my hand. “You hold it like this.” He used his right hand to show me, index finger and thumb. “Your arm out straight, no bending at the elbow. Both eyes open.” I did it. “It’s part of you now, get it? Your blood’s pumping through it. In the bank you walk up to a teller. Choose a man. Men are cowards. Women aren’t. Never hold a gun on a woman unless you’ve already made up your mind to shoot. She’ll have a dozen ways up her sleeve to make you feel like a crumb, otherwise, and that’s not the point of using a gun. And when you aim that roscoe at the guy, you hold it so close to his face he can taste the gun oil.”

Suddenly, I was facing my armed and dangerous self in the men’s room mirror. I was a domestic terrorist, a bag of monster meat.

“Then you cock it,” he said. “You don’t actually have to, of course. It’ll fire fine either way. Cocking a revolver used to be something only pussies did, but it’s what people expect now days. So you cock it, hear me?”

I heard a stony click as I thumbed the hammer down into place.

“And now that it’s cocked, you shout—you shriek it like a motherfucking freak of nature—give me the fucking money! DO IT.”

“Do what?”

“Do it, now.” He slapped the back of my head. “Say it.”

Give me the fucking money now,” I yelled.

The bartender opened the door and looked in.

“Fuck off, Morrie,” Vaillancourt said. Morrie gave a short wave and vanished.

“More,” said Vaillancourt. “Louder. Crazier.”

Give me the fucking money now.”

“Don’t be a bitch,” he said. “Do it again.”

This time I took a deep breath, like they taught in the Sunday school choir when I was a kid, and let loose with my diaphragm—“Give me the fucking money now.”

“That’s better, but try looking crazy when you say it.”

“Crazy?” Another slap to the back of my head.

“Tilt your head like this,” he said, tilting his head ever so slightly in the bathroom mirror.

I did the same.

“Then do this shit with your eyes,” he said. “It’s all in the eyes, and the face follows the eyes. See, like this.”

But I couldn’t copy it. All I could do was stare at his reflection. Just knowing that he was a sociopathic street dealer capable of murder hadn’t prepared me for what I was seeing.

“What’s the matter,” Vaillancourt said.

“That’s fucked up, man.”

“What?” His face had softened.

“Your crazy-look,” I said. “You’re Satan.”

“Nah. I know Satan. I ain’t even close. I’m just doing this to show you that, if you’ve really gotta rob a bank, there are easier ways than a bomb-vest. A hold-up’s all show, I’ll give you that, but a guy can go overboard. Small is large. Remember that. It’s all about art. Be an artist. Now un-cock the revolver, and put it in yer pocket. Take it home. Get used to it, but don’t play with it. Put it where you can see it. Meditate on it. Count your breaths. Empty your mind of everything but it. There’s beauty in its costume of night.”

“Its costume of night?”

“I told you, it’s art. Your chance to be the artist. And just so you know, it’s a .38.”

A .38. My hand was on it in my pocket. I was already counting my breaths. Surely there weren’t many left. I’d become a contradiction: a Canadian, packing.

When I got home that night, I placed the revolver on the table by the window with the sock in the hole in the windowpane. Small, I thought, looking at it. Then I looked down at the makings of the bomb-vest on the floor. Large.

It came to me then; the vest was just an absurd symbol of my lazy rage, comic and sad. Vaillancourt said that I wasn’t angry enough to rob a bank, but maybe I just wasn’t angry enough to do it wearing a bomb.

I picked up the gun again, and found its shape had changed. It fit my hand differently than before. Now it felt like it belonged there. It wasn’t blunt. It was elegant. Straightening my arm out before me, I cocked it and whispered, “Give me the fucking money now.” Then I shouted it, “GIVE ME THE FUCKING MONEY NOW.” My blood was pulsing through the weapon. It was part of me.

The next day I took the bus downtown to the Fidelity Credential Bank of Canada, walking in shortly after opening. I’d been planning to rob it for months, attracted by its interior neoclassical revival features, the kind of architectural features that made it a bank any man would be proud to rob.

Before entering, I put on a baseball cap and sunglasses. I had re-grown my beard to cover my anaconda tattoo.

Once inside, I stood a moment taking in the scene. It was busy. There was a line up, and that didn’t seem right. After all, should I, the guy with the gun, have to stand in line to rob a bank? Vaillancourt hadn’t mentioned this. And as I glumly took my place in the queue and pondered the unfairness of it, something else became unpleasantly obvious. There were no male tellers, just three women, each wearing cat’s-eye glasses, each with a matronly blue rinse, each looking like somebody’s grandmother.

Never hold a gun on a woman, Vaillancourt had said. Or on someone’s granny, I quickly added.

But Vaillancourt also said that this was art, and I was an aesthetic. Pondering further, I realised I had no choice. I had to proceed, for art’s sake. And fuck lining up to do it. I pulled the revolver from my pocket and pushed ahead, to the sound of shouts and slurs coming from the customers in line.

Arriving at the counter, I took off my sunglasses and quickly chose the teller I thought most likely to fold under the weight of the horror I was about to bring down on her, a sad and timid looking crone with bright red lipstick, the lipstick obviously constituting a mask behind which she hid from the world. Her name badge read Daphne.

Stepping up, and cocking the gun, I thrust its muzzle so close to her face she could taste the gun oil, maybe. How could I know for sure? Then tilting my head a little to the side and putting on my most depraved crazy-face, I yelled, “GIVE ME THE FUCKING MONEY NOW.”

A heinous spell had been cast. I was a gun-toting demon now, at the height of his demonic game, the peak of his season. What else could she do but stand transfixed by my absolute evil and hand over the cash. “DO IT,” I shouted, tilting my head the other way now ever so, squinting wickedly and letting my face follow my eyes.

That was when Daphne folded her hands on the cool marble counter, pursed her red lips and said, “You’re not gonna use that gun, junior. I’ve been robbed before. You’re not the type.”

What the fuck?

“THE MONEY,” I hollered, using my diaphragm. Stepping back I swung my aim back and forth, including all three tellers. All three looking at one another, shaking their heads.

“Just someone’s little boy,” one of them said. Rachel, her name badge read.

“Well, shouldn’t we give him just a little,” said the third of the three, her name badge reading, Vanesa. “Maybe something for lunch and bus fare home.”

She’ll have a dozen ways up her sleeve to make you feel like a crumb…. Was this what Vaillancourt meant? I looked over my shoulder. The bank patrons were watching. “I’ve got an appointment,” said a fat man in badly fitted suit. “You wanna hustle this up?”

“Look,” I said, turning back to face Daphne. Now I was confiding, wondering how it had come to this. “This is really important to me. A friend of mine says I’ll fuck….”

“Language!” said Vanesa, holding up her index finger.

Screw this up,” I said, “and I’ve been planning this for months.” I pulled a laundry bag out of my coat pocket and handed it to Daphne. “Just fill the bag. Put what you think’s a reasonable amount in it. Then I’ll go. I was going to use a bomb-vest, you know?”

“Oh, that wouldn’t have worked,” said Daphne. “What if it went off? You’d have just made a mess.”

Now Vanesa was rummaging through her handbag, and said, “Look,” holding up a fiver. “The cafe up the street has a very nice lunch special. $2.99. Includes coffee. It’s usually quite good, isn’t it, girls?”

Daphne and Rachel nodded enthusiastically.

“And you’ll have some change left over if you don’t over tip,” said Rachel.

Vanesa handed the five-dollar bill to Rachel, who handed it to Daphne, who, smiling warmly, held it out to give to me.

“I just want some respect,” I said.

“Give some and get some,” said Rachel, primly.

I stared at the five for a moment. Then I said, “Fine,” and took it.

But then Vanesa said, “Oh dear, I think I hear a siren.”

She was right, we all heard it.

“Now you’re in for it,” said the fat man.

“But he’s not really a bad person,” said a woman with a child at her side.

“I think he’s bad,” the kid said. “I hope they give him the chair.”

“You should go,” Rachel said to me. “And let this be a lesson to you.”

I and my revolver had been defeated by three women with blue hair.

 * * * * *

All of the inmates, including me, cheered at the end of the televised Elvis concert, as the voice of the prison guards’ Shift Supervisor came over the loudspeaker telling us to return to our cells.

 

 

 

 

 

The Retired Private Eye

It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things. It’s what all writers know, what they must know, and why I knew he’d tell me his side of the story.

Ethan Packard was the sort of mess a man can become at ninety—contentedly unkempt, tattoos collapsing, yellowing round the edges. He sat with me at a cafe table, as he took the first bite of his second piece of amaretto cheesecake. Ethan was an earnest eater, and I resisted the temptation to reach across with a napkin and wipe away a cheesy smudge at the corner of his mouth.

“That’s some deadly shit,” I told him, instead, “the cheesecake, I mean. I understand that the doctors are saying your heart’s about to blow?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what they’re saying,” he said, his wet mouth half-full, his eyes burning moistly. “But this morning I woke up seeing the same big brown stain on my ceiling, hearin’ the same bitch down the hall screamin’ at her cuck husband, and smellin’ the same diesel exhaust comin’ up from the back alley where the drivers idle their garbage trucks while they get a bit of head from the local working girls, and I knew, as I always do, in that moment, that I was still alive—just in that moment, buster, a moment same as this one. And like yer average Buddhist’ll tell you, it’s the moment that counts. Everything else is a distraction.”

“You’re not a Buddhist, Ethan.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do. There’s nothing my research that mentions it.”

“Well, maybe I’m just pointing out somethin’,” he said, shifting in his chair, his hand going unconsciously to his hip and touching something there under his jacket, comforted by its ever-presence.

It was the gun on his belt, a .38, a chunky lump of iron full of lead. An artefact, nearly a fossil. Everyone knew it was there. A gun that had only been fired once.

“Besides,” he said. “I’m already too damn old. Too many fuckin’ doctors. I’m getting real homesick for the time back when they left a man alone to die in his own shoes. And, say whatever you like about these old arteries of mine, but it was awful delicious clogging  ‘em up.”

“Swell.” I stirred my Americano. “But look, two pieces of cheesecake in a joint like this don’t come cheap. It reciprocation time. Time to answer some questions.”

“Fine, ask away.” He slurped his coffee. “Waddaya wanna know? Everything’s for sale. Nothing too lurid or confidential. It’s liquidation time.”

I was quiet for a moment, suspicious of that, until he looked at me over his glasses, and said, “What!” Not a shout, just a bark. But some of the cafe patrons looked startled.

“Thelma,” I said.

He waited a second, then quietly repeated the woman’s name, “Thelma.” Then putting his fork down, he said, “Is that why we’re here, why you tracked me down, why we’re here in this crummy joint, for that?”

“Yes.”

“You could’ve at least brought me to the bar, if it’s that.”

“But, you’re a drunk.”

“Only my friends call me that, mister.”

“The fact remains,” I said, “I didn’t want this to turn into some maudlin, drunken rehashing of the sixties. I want clear recollections of what happened.”

He wanted a drink now, it was obvious, more than just the puddle of amaretto his cheesecake was swimming in, and a cigarette. I could see it in his face, the way his shoulders had gone slack, the way his eyes had lost their burn and were just red.

Suddenly, he was longing for a once long black American automobile he used to step out of with style, straightening his tie, a segment of the world watching and taking note. He was romancing his own select version of the past. If he could only gather it up, without all of the loss and common brokenheartedness, he might make it his moment forever. It was the moment that counted, but this moment was the distraction.

I started taking notes.

“Why do you want to know about that?” Ethan said. “What’s there to know that isn’t already long and justly forgotten?”

“I’m writing a story,” I said. “I’m missing details, ones only you’ll have to offer. It was a long time ago. Nearly everyone has passed away.”

“It’s not that long ago.” Ethan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Thelma,” I said again.

“Thelma.” He sighed deeply, but it seemed he was ready now. Sooner than I’d hoped, knowing what little I did. “What the hell kinda name is Thelma, anyway?” More distraction. “What kinda mother names her kid Thelma?”

I shrugged.

“She was gorgeous, though, even on the slab. She still looked like Anita Ekberg, even though she’d spent some time in the drink.”

“And, so to clear this up for me, you were together? Lovers?”

“Fuck no.”

This was disappointing. “Then how’d you know her?”

“Her body washed up on the beach,” he said. “Like I said, she’d been in the drink a while.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I thought that was accepted. It was in the papers. It’s 2017, isn’t it? I thought there was the internet.”

“But I mean before she washed up on the beach. Did you know her then?”

“Nah, but she was beautiful all the same. I’d’ve really gone for her when she was alive. It was some kinda painful meeting her for the first time slid out of a morgue drawer.”

“So, it’s true. You got to see her in the morgue?”

“Sure. That was simple. I had an in with the cops.” He gave an easy wave of a hand. “I was a Private Investigator, get it? I had a good reputation.”

“Okay so, if I’ve got the story straight, you fell in love with a dead woman named Thelma?”

Ethan changed the subject again: “Coroner said the killer used a razor, which was obvious just looking at her.”

“But, in the end, the killer got shot.”

“Sure, that’s justice ain’t it?”

“A sort of unconventional justice, don’t you agree? He never went before a judge.”

“No he didn’t.”

“And he, the murderer himself,” I said, “he wasn’t what you’d call a conventional killer, either.”

“Nah, he was some poet.” Ethan began to eat cheesecake again, with mild gusto. “Some fuckin’ poet with a razor,” he said, with his mouth full. “Someone she’d hooked onto ’cause he had the dreamy eyes. I guess everything he said was like a Happy Valentine’s Day card. Can you believe it? Dames really go for that shit. Some hippie poet with a razor.” He shook his head.

“It all ended with the hippies,” said Ethan. “That was the sixties for you. It was all gone after that. The dark beauty and the menace of the city, I mean. Even the beatniks didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, it was all race riots and political assassinations. Irony took a header, replaced by counterfeit enthusiasm. Irony finally died with a needle in its arm in a back alley somewhere. The movies tried to maintain, but even Noir Hollywood had died. What sixties movie star wanted to compete with shadow for centre stage?

“The sixties were all about the Beatles—peace, love and understanding, and half-baked revolution.

“The age of the real Private Eye was over. I hung on, though. Chased down a lot of cheatin’ husbands and wives. Found a lot of missing persons. Served a lot of summonses. Then I hung it all up in the late eighties.  Whew, the eighties, what a toilet.”

The cheesecake was gone now, and he began using his coffee spoon, attempting to salvage the amaretto on his plate. Finally, he picked the plate up and licked it clean. Patrons around us looked, and then looked away.

“I ain’t proud,” he said.

“But the poet,” I said, “he got shot. They said it was done execution style. Some suspected you.”

“Sure,” said Ethan. “I was a suspect. The cops thought so at first, then the papers. Some smart ass reporter did a thing on it, but it never took off. It never went anyway, neither. You suspect me, right now. I can see it in the way you’re looking at me. You made up your mind about me before we ever sat down here. That’s what this is all about, ain’t it? This little cheesecake interview? ”

It was. I hadn’t realised it until that moment, but it was. The legend of the gun under his cheap, shabby Harris Tweed. The gun fired only once. But there was more than that.

“If it’s true, if you really did kill him, then you killed a man for a woman you never met while she was alive, who you only met post-mortem. It’s such an odd thing to do, you’d have to agree.”

Now without concurring, Ethan remembered Thelma’s pale eyes, her red hair awry, her dimming lips, his sense of the injustice, the rumors of a suspect. The morgue attendant had walked away, out of a strangely felt sense of respect, as Ethan beheld her. Did Thelma, he’d wondered so many times since, represent to him every murdered woman he’d encountered in his work, every woman beaten or scarred by a man?

“I caught up with him,” he said, “in a cold room over a storefront on East Hastings. I still remember the bugs in the sink. Turns out he was a weakling, a coward. He just blubbered when he realised what was about happen.

“I told him to get down on his knees, and he did without a word, just his blub blubbing. I’d expected more of fight, but there wasn’t none.”

“Then?” I said.

“Then I wrapped a pillow round the gun, and shot him once in the back of the neck. The gunshot was loud, though, pillow or no. Too loud, and I expected a knock on the door. But it never came. So, I walked out into the hall and down the stairs, and out the door onto the street, leaving the body of another dead poet behind, bleeding on the floor of his upper room. And I got off free. No one ever proved a thing, and you know what?”

“What?” I said.

“You may be a writer, but you’re not writing no story. You’ve even stopped taking notes. You got something up yer sleeve. So, what’s this really about?”

I tried to imagine the look in my eyes, and looked down at my blue veined, sixty year old hands that had turned so many pages looking for answers, and realised that there was only the truth to convey.

“She was my mother,” I said, “Thelma Brogan. I’m Frederick, of course.”

We sat there a moment looking at each other across the table. Then, “Isn’t that somethin’. You’re her orphan,” Ethan said. “I’m real sorry for that.”

“No need. You did her a kind of justice. I never knew her, but I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

“And here I am, lickin’ my plate clean.”

“I guess I should thank you.”

“Ain’t no need for that nether,” he said. “I guess killing that poet was a strange thing to do, after all. Maybe the strangest in a lifetime of strange things. His name was Francis Kool, by the way. But I guess you know that. Wasn’t so cool layin’ there, though.”

A waitress appeared out of the fog surrounding our table, laid down our bill, and vanished again.

“Well here’s hopin’ I never see you again, Frederick,” Ethan Packard said. “I’m supposin’ you’re feelin’ the same way about me.”

“Yeah,” I said, nearly sad. “I suppose I do.”

It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones, chapter 1: the moment

The time of day?

It was a thing to ponder as he waited. The ever-changing curfews and the random rotation of Commonwealth clock dials had done their work. Personal time pieces were forbidden. Time-Knowing was crime. He stood on a cold corner with the slow world nearly deserted, in what might have once been a 10am light filtering through the fog and coal smoke.

Waiting had been the greater part of the job, since the beginning. He waited and saw. Waited for the right moments to attack and retreat, always being careful. A moment wasn’t a minute. A minute was mutiny.

But he dreamed in moments like these, the dead immense moments before a kill, of doors opening into the Greater Plan. Of being offered a place within it, from which he’d emerge and be magnificent. But first, this. Always this first. This, wrapped in limitless moments.

Now his right fist clenched the smoky snub-nosed revolver in his coat pocket. Small and of indeterminate calibre. He hadn’t bothered to look, but knew it had the blunt blue character of a weapon that had killed before. A hand-me-down loaded by a stranger and slid to him across a tabletop, with an envelope of dirty currency. It was made of iron. It could kill forever. Been lost ten thousand years, like something precious, and found once more to kill again. A cheap ouroboros, an unwelcome eternal return.

There were a few ageing black automobiles parked at the curb, and the occasional pedestrian walking quickly past the dingy storefronts. Civil servants. There’d be permits in their pockets, allowing them to be out. They had that privilege, and the consequential dread held tightly somewhere inside. In the gut or wrapped tightly round the heart. Privilege was sedition, when one’s moment finally arrived.

He checked the action of the revolver’s hammer by pulling it back with his thumb, then gently easing it forward with his finger on the trigger. Stiff, gritty.

Then a man stepped out of a café across the street. Ugly but well dressed, familiar from a photograph. Suddenly the revolver felt unmanageable in Noah’s hand. He thought of running, as he always did at moments like these, but crossed the street instead, and met the man at the door of his car. And in a fluid movement, he drew the gun and squeezed the trigger—the sound of it surprising them both. Snap! it said. He cocked and squeezed the trigger again. Snap! Empty chambers? Impossible. Why hadn’t he checked? He was no amateur. A gun slid across a tabletop for an assignment was always loaded.

His target sneered. In seconds it might have been a grin.

Noah looked down at the revolver in his hand rather into the ugly man’s face. Then, desperately and without aim, he squeezed the trigger once more. “Bam!” it said this time, and the ugly man stepped back, eyes wide, hands grasping at the now bloody, empty space where his genitals had been seconds before.

“Oh shit,” Noah said, “I…. I didn’t mean….” …to shoot you there, he wanted to say. But then took more careful aim and, “Bam!” put a hole in the ugly man’s head, over the left eye, causing the eyeball to pop out at speed, and hang gluey from the socket by its optic nerve. Smoke swirled in the mist as the ugly man staggered against the car, falling dead onto the sidewalk. Right eye still open. The left looking away.

Privilege was sedition.

*   *   *

“The first two chambers were empty,” he said over the telephone in his room. “Was that some kind of fucking joke?”

“Are you laughing?” It was a woman’s voice. Familiar from nightmares and previous phone calls.

“No.”

“Not much of a joke then, eh?” she said.

“Yeah, well fuck you.”

He nearly hung-up, but then heard the woman say, “You want into the Greater Plan, I hear. Your Assigned Intermediary says that he sees it in you.”

“The fat fuck who gave me the gun, you mean?”

“And the money, dear,” the woman said. “The filthy filthy money. The Fat One thinks that you might make a sound candidate. You’re just bustin’ to move up, according to him.”

It was true. He was.

“When?” he said.

“When your moment comes.”

“Well when the hell’s that, a week, a month?”

There was a pause, a hush. He heard the very faint sound of a man shouting on a separate, very distant connection.

Then the woman said, “Don’t push yer luck, boyo.”

___________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the producer

The producer drove east with all the windows down on Interstate 40 through the moon glow Mojave Desert. He checked his watch. It was 1:01 a.m., and he thought about all the chumps out there to the invisible horizon who’d dug their own graves.

He was ready to drive Pacific to Atlantic, to avoid the same fate. Hollywood was a history lesson. Now he hoped to end up in a small town. Maine, he imagined. That sounded good. Nice and anonymous. Maybe he’d write. Publish under a pseudonym. Use a woman’s name and remain underground as long as he could. Perhaps forever. Forever sounded real good.

The Ford was new but basic. It would get him where he wanted to go in simple proletariat splendor. He’d wait until New Mexico before he insured it. He laid his hand on the brown paper bag, content in his belief that the money could last a year or two if he was careful. Buy a house with cash like he did the car, and sit on the porch in the evening and make like it was all a Norman Rockwell print.

He got Barstow on the radio, the late night news. The LA crime Family had been up to no good. The body of a character named Rosy Cola, a mob up-and-comer, and two unnamed associates had been found in an alley with their throats cut. A professional hit the cops said. The wages of crime said the pious announcer. The producer wondered if it would be madness to write about it one day. Then threw his father’s razor out into the desert, leaving it behind doing sixty.

Hollywood California, in his office on the phone, a few days before, sort of in the late 1950s

“Thank you for calling Central Casting,” a cheerful switchboard operator said. “Call volume is extremely high, so I’m putting you on hold. One of our agents will be with you shortly. Thank you for calling Central Casting.”

“Son of a bitch,” Oscar Child muttered. “Goddamn bastard son of a bitch.” He picked up a sharpened pencil and twisted its tip into a note pad. “Fuck!”

In the near silence came the thoughts of a desperate man, who’d been placed indefinitely on hold: We all pray in the end, if not to God then to the End itself. (Oscar Child decided he preferred the latter, and composed his prayer.)—Dear End, you dirty son-of-a-bitch, let it be dignified when you finally knock on my door. You prick. Just a bullet or a quick toss out the window. Maybe a little something in a drive-by shooting. Please, no drawn out trip to the waterfront in the trunk of a car. No shit kicking preamble. No switchblades or icepicks.

Then there came a click.

The operator repeated herself, “Central Casting, The switchboard’s busy due to a high volume of calls. I’ll put you on hold and get right back to you.”

“No, wait. I don’t want to be on hold. I’ve already been on hold for ten minutes. Wait, no!”

Dead air all over again. Clicks and hiss and an overlapping ghost call, very faint and far away, a man’s voice, barely audible, shouting and crying, “Never in Burbank. I’ll cut my wrists first!”

Then the sound of a receiver being lifted out of its cradle and a woman coughing.

“Hello?” Child said, remembering to be cautious. These people were barracudas; they could smell fear. “Look,” he said, “we need a one legged woman. The right leg preferably, but a missing left’ll do if that’s all you’ve got. We can change camera angles if we have to.”

“What for?” said the woman on at the other end. Her chewing gum voice might have been familiar. Or maybe all dames sounded the same.

“A movie,” he said. “What else? This is Oscar Child speaking, the producer.”

“Who?”

“I don’t usually do the casting work, ‘cept in a pinch. But this ain’t no pinch. It’s just a rush call, so don’t go thinking I’m panicking or anything. Everything’s copacetic at my end.”

The line went quiet, except for the sound of other agents talking in the background.

Then the woman said, “Oscar Wild, you say? I’m checking.” Pause. “You’re not on my Rolodex, mister. Let me check the file cabinet. Wild, Oscar, right? Like that fag writer from a hundred years ago? I hope this ain’t no joke, fella. I don’t have time for joking around.”

“No it’s Oscar Child, Child. Willya just listen? We can talk about how much I hate my mother later. This broad we need’s gotta be an opera singer, too. It’s a Three Stooges feature, get it? It’s gonna be their big comeback. But that’s hush-hush, understand?”

“A one legged opera singer, eh? That’s kinky. Oh yeah, here you are, Oscar Child. You’re on the Rolodex, after all. A to C. But we ain’t got no dames with one leg that sings opera. I think we got a tap dancer, but I might’ve been drinking.”

“This is Central Casting, isn’t it?” Child said. “Aren’t you supposed to have a variety of experienced performers for bit parts? Who am I talking to?”

“It’s Rebecca Malinowski, Mr Child. We’ve worked together before, you and me. Remember, that circus comedy thriller with June Russell, before her bust went bust, with the riot scene in the second act with all the dwarves tryin’ to unionize but the circus owner’s a real fascist bastard and brings out the elephants and fire hoses, but the day’s saved by a strapping young and handsome but tragic quasi-socialist war hero whose probably a homo with a hula girl tattoo and a heart of gold? What was it called again?”

Birth of a Socialist Nation.”

“That was quite the call,” said Rebecca Malinowski, “200 dwarves, I’ll say.”

“Yeah well you came up short and we had to fill in an awful lot of empty space with non-dwarves. Wound up shanghaiing winos off the street, and had ‘em running around on their knees. Had to pay them extra hooch, thanks to you, for all the scrapes.”

“And what a flop, huh?”

“It was meant to be a statement not a block buster.” He wondered why it sounded like he was apologising. “It was for, and of the people.” He was tired of apologising for Birth of a Socialist Nation.

“I heard it was financed with mob money, too. What a mistake, I’ll say.”

“Look, just say you got what I need.”

“Well this is a rare bird you’re asking me for,” Malinowski said. “I guess we could run an ad.”

“No we need her like yesterday. The whole damn plot hinges on it. But don’t get me wrong, everything’s just swell on our end. I’m not worried, really. How about just some gal with the one leg, no opera singing necessary. We can do a voice-over, even if it ain’t in the budget.”

“I don’t know. I’ll check the files and get back to you. You may be in a pickle, though. I’m thinking we may have to charge a little extra.”

“No!” Child barked. “I mean I’m a good customer. You said so yourself. I’m spending other people’s money here. You’re taking advantage of the situation. It’s un-American.”

“Hey, I was in the USO, fella. I spent the whole Second World War in Honolulu slappin’ sailors. Don’t tell me I’m un-American.”

“You’re killin’ me here,” said Child, “you know that? And just before they blow my head off, my last request will be for them to drop my body off on your desk so you can live with the result of your jacking me around like the fucking useless bimbo you are when you could have done your goddam job. Hopefully I’ll crap my pants when my brains splatter so I really stink up your office and make you wish you were more accommodating businesswise when you had a chance. Put that in your pig shit crapping mother fucking Rolodex and smoke it, you US Navy slut.”

Click.

“Hello?” Oscar Child shouted. “Fuck.”

After throwing the phone across the room, he went into his bathroom and opened the cabinet, and stood looking in. Reaching the end of one’s rope, he noticed, came with a spookily calming sense of deliverance.

He knew what he had to do, but had only a vague idea of how. The alley behind the automat, greasy and dim. How ever it turned out, he knew it would be his greatest achievement.

Sitting the lowest shelf in the cabinet was his father’s old straight razor. He’d never used it before. It scared the hell out of him. He stuffed it into his pocket and put on his jacket.

a month and a half earlier—the meeting that led to this whole mess

“So zip it and listen,” Rosy Cola said to Oscar Child, who hadn’t yet spoken. They sat together in the busy Finster’s Automat on South Main.

Rosy was a smallish man with a boyish face and soft hands, and tried to make up for it with a cigarette behind his ear, a book of matches in his hat band and a balisong knife in his sock. Finster’s was Rosy’s favourite joint, and he was a late night regular for dinner and off-the-radar meetings.

Two of Cola’s larger associates sat a few stools down, slurping back their Spaghetti Bolognese.

“Washing the cash,” said Rosy Cola, “goes like this. And remember, I’m tellin’ you this because you’re a tenderfoot, not because I like you. I don’t want no case for you ruining an excellent opportunity out of ignorance.

“With the washing of the moolah,” Cola continued, “I give you the dough that stinks because it’s ill-gotten, see? Then you transform it into semi-legit assets by putting it into your bank account and using it to make a movie, and then paying me back my investment plus the profits, real square kinda. That’s the washing part, simple. ‘Cept it ain’t really washing unless I get the clean dough back after it’s got washed. That’s where the pay-back part comes in. You with me so far, daddyo? Then after you pay me back my investment and profits, you pay me what you already owe me from before with the interest. Isn’t that great?”

“Of course, terrific, wonderful.” Child took a bite of his lemon meringue pie, and chewed stoically.

“Now I gotta tell ya though,” Cola said. “I gotta a niece, see? A real brainiac this girl is, and she says a situation like this is called a paradox. And if I understand her right, a paradox ain’t a sure bet. You see, you’re gonna do this for the Family because you’re a bum who owes the Family big time, but you’re also a bum because your films are flops and that’s why you owe the Family big time. That’s the paradox. But I don’t want no flop this time. I want a masterpiece, a cinematic achievement that’ll have the squares and the suckers linin’ up. I want it to rake in the wampum, capisce?”

“Of course, sure, real capisce.” Child gulped his coffee and burned his tongue. “But it’s really a distribution problem.”

Cola said, “I get it. You was black-listed. No one wants to touch you or your sick degenerate commy merchandise. But that don’t mean you don’t still owe my Family and me twenty-three grand.”

“That much?” Child said.

“That much.”

“You sure?”

“That’s this week’s total,” said Cola. “But maybe I can get some other degenerate mooks I got on the hook to handle the distribution part.”

Oscar Child chased a crumb round his plate with his fork and said, “With all due respect, Mr Cola, I’m an artist, not just a business man. I’m not a machine. Besides, no one’s sending me scripts anymore.”

Rosy Cola stared back, quiet for a moment, unused to backtalk, visibly disappointed in Child’s negativity and straining to keep the murder out of his eyes. Then he grinned and looked down at his untouched tuna fish sandwich and glass of milk.

“There I can help,” he said. “I gotta nephew. He’s got a corker of a script for you, a real masterpiece all ready to go. The squares are gonna love it. It’ll star the Three Stooges, see? Larry, Curly and Moe. Their manager says they’re ready for a comeback, and my nephew’s script is golden. It’s a romantic historical drama with a message, understand? The Stooges wanna go straight and do some dramatic work. The script’s spicy hot and ready to blast-off, baby. You just have to raise the cash and put it all together.”

“But I thought you were making the investment,” Oscar Child said, “with the ill-gotten dough.”

“I already have. I bought my nephew’s script. Cost me ten grand. The kid knows how to bargain. I’ll give him that.”

“Ten grand for a script?”

“Now you see why success is an absolute necessity,” said Cola.

“Look, Mr Cola I’m broke. The standard Hollywood money’s out of the question. The studios and the legitimate lenders won’t come near me.”

“Then I guess you’ll need another loan. I’m ready to write the cheque.”

“A cheque?”

“In a manner of speakin’.”

“I’m not a good risk, Mr Cola. I think you know that.”

“But there ain’t no one in town who recognises my nephew’s script writing genius, but you will because what the hell else you gonna do? You’re the guy, see? You gotta read it. It almost sings. Sal, bring over the script.”

A couple of stools down, one of the big men put down his fork, rummaged through a satchel and then held up a stained, dog-eared and unbound type-written stack of pages. Then he reverently placed it in Cola’s small soft hand.

“Just listen to this,” Rosy said. “This is the opening where he’s setting the scene. It goes like this: The pong of richly orchestrated bosa nova is on the air. Poolside, there are cabana boys and a marimba band plays the Mexican Hat Dance. Happy hotel customers sip rum and pineapple cocktails, as dancing chiquita girls greet our three stars.

“Waddaya say?” said Rosy Cola, beaming like an imbecile. “Pretty damn classy, huh?”

Oscar Child said, “But how can the pong of richly orchestrated bosa nova be on the air if the marimba band’s playing the Mexican Hat Dance? And what’s a chiquita girl?”

Rosy Cola’s imbecilic beam faded.

“You listen to me,” he said, gulping back his milk and slamming the glass down on the counter. Then lighting the cigarette from behind his ear, he drew so hard that half of it disappeared first drag, and he inhaled like it was his terminal breath. “I don’t gotta do this. You’re just some pinko fucking castrato that owes me money, just like all them other deadbeats whose graves I had them dig themselves out in the desert. I could mail your intestines to yer fucking Aunt Tilly in a plain brown parcel, and there’re people in the Family who’d like that.”

“But not just anyone can write a script,” Child pleaded. “There has to be a basic talent. It’s not only an art, but a science. There’s serious technique involved. Technique that has to be learned. Some scripts take years to research and develop, to write and workshop, and then be rewriten again and again. How many scripts has your nephew written?”

“Just this,” Cola said, lovingly stroking the pile of smeared pages. “He’s only twenty years old, just breakin’ into the business.”

“Then he’s still a youngster. Let him go to school. UCLA has a great program. I know people on the faculty. I can get him in, even with a third grade education.”

“Don’t be a smartass. He’s got grade five.”

“Whatever.”

“I want a business plan by Monday?”

“Monday? Which Monday?”

“The Monday after Sunday.”

“This Sunday?”

Rosy Cola nodded.

“That’s only four days away. It’s impossible.”

“Your own hole in the desert,” Cola said. “Think about it.”

“Shit.”

“And I want production in full swing within the month. Actin’ and directin’, the works.”

Child said, “You don’t understand the business, Mr Cola.”

“Franky,” Rosy Cola said, and one of the big men got up, pulling the napkin out of his collar.

“Okay,” said Oscar Child. “Sure sure, alright.”

“Here’s some green to get you started.” Rosy slid a paper bag over to Oscar. “Get receipts and keep ‘em.”

Cola and his boys got up and went to leave by the backdoor, through the kitchen. But before they went behind the counter, Rosy said, “Hey Franky, waddaya call a fella sitting alone in an automat with a bag full of mob money and no choices?”

“I don’t know boss,” Franky said. “What do you call a fella sitting in an automat with a bag full of mob money and no choices?”

“HA! A Hollywood producer! You get it?”

Franky laughed and slapped Rosy Cola on the back. “Sure I get it! That’s a good one, boss!”

Cola said, “I already told ya, Franky. No back slapping.”

“Sure boss.”

*   *   *

Now on the highway chasing the moon across the Mojave toward freedom, Oscar Child remembered and hoped he’d have a chance, himself, to tell that joke one day.

 

 

 

 

 

the numbers

Asher was anemic, just a kid with dry lips and dark rings round his muddy eyes. He’d been following me around for days, and had finally cornered me on the patio of a coffeehouse on Hornby Street. That was where it all began. And now that I’m in on the joke, I don’t think the punchline could have been any different.

It was hard times when we met. I’d wagered myself into a corner, doing what all high stakes gamblers on a streak do, eventually – I’d crashed. Now there was only enough money in my pocket for a latte and a slice of chocolate cake, with a little left over.

Asher was a ghost, by the way. He told me he’d died when he was twelve, seventy-two years ago, 1943. But he’d never made it to the other side, whatever that meant. He’d been following people round ever since. I was his latest fixation. Sure, I’d tried to shake him, but he was a tenacious little shit.

“First I got sick,” he’d said, sitting across from me at my patio table. “I puked for a week, and my mamma was real worried, and the doctor came into my room and he was worried, too. I was trying real hard to hang on because of the war. Back then everybody was dying. My brother died in the Atlantic. I didn’t want to break my mamma’s heart, but I died all the same. When the moment came, I sort of stepped out of my body, and I saw myself there, on the bed with my eyes half open. The doctor shook his head, and my mamma cried, and I just walked away.”

Asher was pretty convincing as a ghost, being a little less than solid, and a little more than transparent. Bugs flew right through him, and there he sat barefooted in the grimy pajamas he’d died in. What else could he be?

“Who can see you?” I nodded to the surrounding patrons. “Any of them?”

“No,” Asher said. “Just you.”

I spoke to him with my deactivated iPhone to my ear, to keep from looking like I was talking to an imaginary friend.

“Just me, why?”

“Because I like you.”

“But why aren’t you in Heaven, or Valhalla or some shit?”

“Ralph says there ain’t no Heaven.”

“Who’s Ralph?”

Asher pointed across the street, at an unkempt crowd of semitransparent individuals, some with serious body traumas, others just pale and hopeless. I looked way, and took a gulp of coffee and a king size bite of cake.

“That’s very disturbing, Asher,” I said. “Please don’t show me shit like that.”

He shrugged. “Ralph is the one in the fancy suit with a hole in his head,” he said.

I risked another look, and saw a grinning man wearing a tuxedo. He waved. There was a bloody hole in his head. It had to be Ralph.

“What the hell does Ralph know about Heaven?” I said.

“He knows a lot of stuff.”

“Such as?”

“He knows what horses are gonna win, place and show at Ex Park, and he knows the lottery numbers.”

Horses and lottery numbers; the story was taking on a compelling density. I did some desperate arithmetic.

“The lottery numbers,” I said. “Before they’re drawn, you mean? How’s he know that?”

“Just does.”

“Can he come over?”

“He’s kinda scary,” Asher said.

“And you aren’t? C’mon, call him over.”

And then there he was, Ralph. Sitting across from me, dressed to the nines, with several spots of blood on his starched white shirt. His gaze was fixed. Clearly he wasn’t using those decomposed eyes to see with. Asher sat next to him.

“I love this goddamn kid,” Ralph said, ruffling Asher’s hair. “I knew a dame once, named Flo. She had a kid just like him. Flo did a lot of heroin, see? So the little fella was sort of at loose ends. I took him to see hockey games, and he ran a few errands for me.”

“Swell,” I said. We hadn’t even been introduced, and Ralph was telling stories.

“You know,” he said, leaning toward me across the table, pointing at my latte, every word a trashcan stinking exhalation, “I’d love to have one of them Italian coffees again. Somethin’ real strong. Somethin’ to straighten out the ol’ gonads.”

He was up close now, his mouth a slack, post rigor mortis sneer. He had a musty smell, and the blood on his forehead was still a little wet.

“What’s with the glad rags?” I said.

“Pretty sharp, eh?” He pinched the lapels and gave me a toothy yellow grin. His gums had receded considerably. Then he brushed some confetti off of his shoulder and swatted at a bright red streamer. “The Commercial Drive boys got me out back of the Hotel Georgia, New Year’s Eve, 1929. I was out back doin’ a little of the ol’ cocaine, when they came outta nowheres. Caught me flatfooted, and pop, right through the head. Felt like someone’d got me a good one, upside the skull.”

“Nice,” I said. I was starting to get a little queasy. Ralph simply oozed quease.

“Yeah,” Ralph said. “Life is hard, innit? And then you get iced by the wops, out back of the Hotel Georgia with a cocktail straw up yer nose. Ha! Waddaya gonna do?”

“They must have had a reason.”

“Oh that,” Ralph said, sitting back and throwing up his hands. “Let’s just say that some people can’t take a joke. So what if I had a few longshoremen on the payroll, always good for some marketable merchandise here and there. I had a couple of fighters, too, I gotta admit, training outta the Astoria, took the occasional fall. And so what if I was fixing the horses. The suckers lined up for that kinda shit. Vancouver wasn’t much back then, but there was enough to go round – I thought so, anyways.”

I looked across the street again. “What’s with your crowd of followers?”

“Them? That’s just a little pyramid scheme of mine.”

“What does that mean?”

Ralph spat out a short guffaw, and slapped a knee. “Just a little joke, innit Asher?” He gave the boy a none too gentle punch in the shoulder.

“Yeah, Ralph,” Asher smiled, rubbing his arm, “a joke.”

“Yeah, sure it is,” Ralph said. “But seriously….” And here Ralph got a little grim, as something brown dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. “What’s this I hear about you wantin’ to play the numbers?”

Asher leaned over, and Ralph met him halfway. The boy whispered into his ear.

“See?” said Ralph. “This is why I love this kid. He’s right. I meant the lottery. Jeeze, the more things change…, eh? The government takes it over, and the numbers become the lottery. Same goddamn crooks, different name. Now it’s all contractual agreements, church on Sunday and expensive aftershave. I can’t keep up.”

“What about them, then?” I pointed across the street again. “I still wanna know.” The gruesome troop watched us like dogs waiting for a bone.

“We just sorta wander round together, nothin’ better to do. I lead the way. I’m kind of a guide. Hell, they don’t know where they’re goin’. Most of them’re still suffering from the same shit they were suffering from when they were alive – broken hearts, bad decisions, unresolved tribulations, that kinda crap. They brought it all with ‘em to the grave, just can’t let it go.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t, and it don’t matter, neither. Now tell me, do you want help with the numbers, or not?”

The numbers. My foot started tapping. I had debts, I couldn’t pay. Now this spook was offering me a chance to cash-in, maybe big time. It was too implausible. It was a hallucination. But what could it hurt to play along?

Ralph’s musty smell was getting worse.

“Tomorrow’s Lotto Extreme is worth $25 million,” I said.

“That’s a tidy sum,” Ralph said, “a tidy sum. It’d clear up some of those gamblin’ debts. Oh man, it’d clear ‘em up with plenty of change left over.”

“What gambling debts? What do you know about my gambling debts?”

“Detroit versus Montreal, the other day,” Ralph said, suddenly refined and wise, despite the congealing drool. “That was your last bad last call, wasn’t it? Plenty before that. You were hot once, but that don’t ever last. You’ve worked your way down through the legit bookies to the bottom feeders, and the bottom feeders don’t use collection agencies, do they. I bet there’s some boys in town right now, looking to cut off one or two of your fingers.”

“How would you know?”

“Shit, boyo, if I can tell you the lotto numbers, don’t you think I know what’s what with you?”

There was silence now. The street noise had stopped. Ralph and I sat looking at each other like gunfighters. The one who looked away first, lost.

I looked away first.

“You’re a risk taker,” Ralph said, taking a slip of crumpled paper out of his pocket. “I appreciate that in a man.” He slid the slip of paper across the table to me. His fingernails were black. “Takes one to know one. I was a risk taker, too. It didn’t work out so well for me, of course. But maybe now I can do you a favour. Maybe it’ll make up for some of my own bad decisions.”

I stared down at the paper. It was folded in two.

“Go ahead, kid,” Ralph said. “Go buy a ticket. Use them numbers. After tomorrow’s draw, everything changes.”

Ralph was see-through, but the paper was solid. It slid across the table, caught in a breeze. I slapped my hand down, and caught it.

“We’ll talk later,” Ralph said, and vanished.

“Yeah,” said Asher, “later.” He smiled then and faded.

It’s hard to be cool standing in line, when you possess the winning lottery numbers for a $25 million jackpot. I was snapping my fingers like Sinatra to a song that wasn’t there. I’d written the numbers down on the chit in a frenzy. I didn’t even know what they were. The draw was the next day at 7:30pm Pacific Time.

Just ahead of me, in line, two old men were discussing the physics of trading on the stock market. It was the usual old fart drivel of lottery line-ups.

“I still say Gaussian models are the only way to go,” said the bald one. “It’s definitive.”

Definitive? Was that grammatically correct? Who gave a shit?

“And when it doesn’t work,” said the one in the I heart Stephen Harper tee shirt, “you blame chaos theory.”

“Of course. The universe is chaotic.”

“Then nothing’s predictable, nothing’s definitive, and that’s why you’re living off a pension cheque. Take the lottery for instance….”

Yeah, take the lottery. Holly shit. My foot began tapping again, and I checked my pocket for my last $5, the price of $25 million.

At the counter, I handed the five over to a smiling Pakistani man who moved like a machine, inserting my numbers into the slot, then pulling out my ticket.

“Good luck,” he said, handing it to me.

I wondered how many times he said that in a week. Again, who gave a shit? Then he said, “Do not forget to put your name, address and signature on the back – very very important!” This guy was all drama.

Now I was suddenly aware of the potential of a measly piece of paper. The ticket was nonnegotiable. Yet I trembled as I held it.

It was getting dark and cold, but going home was out of the question. Ralph was right, there were likely some of Philbin’s boys in town. ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin, that is, to whom I owed a little over a hundred grand. He might even be in town himself, for that kind of money. Max was a hands-on kind of guy. So I’d sleep at the bus station, sitting up. If they gave me the bums rush, it would be a back alley. But if all went according to plan, it would be the last time I slept with the rats.

The next morning I woke to a janitor running a mop over my shoes, as he washed the floor.

“Hey, fuck,” I yelped, jumping up. “These shoes are Allen Edmonds.”

“Then you should give them back,” he said.

“Oh, that’s a very funny fucking line for a janitor.”

He smirked as I tried to kick off the slop. Then I saw Asher standing a few feet away.

“What the hell do you want?” I didn’t bother with the iPhone trick. Who cared if a guy sleeping in a bus station talked to himself?

“Golly,” Asher said, as unsuspecting people milled round him, “this sure is a crummy part of town, even worse than when I was alive.”

“Yeah, well that’s 2015 for you.”

“You got the ticket, right?” he said.

“I thought I’d finally gotten rid of you.”

“I got nowheres else to go. What about the ticket?”

“I got the fucking ticket, okay? What’s it to you.”

He shrugged, but was that really a blank expression? What did he know?

It was raining the usual shitty Vancouver rain outside. I checked my watch. 8am, still a whole day to go. I put up my collar, and began to walk. The watch was a limited edition TAG Heuer, purchased after a big win at craps in Vegas. I considered pawning it, but thought any pawnshop unworthy. I found an awning over an abandoned storefront, and sat down. My stomach growled.

“Hungry?” Asher said.

“Bugger off.”

“There’s a soup kitchen round the block.”

“Will you just fuck off?”

“My mamma and me got real hungry sometimes,” said Asher. “She drank a lot of wine, and didn’t wanna do war work. We went to a soup kitchen, the Franciscan Sisters. They gave us food and told us Jesus loves us.”

“Yeah? Well where’s Jesus now?”

“I guess he’s home with the funny papers.”

“Terrific.”

The guy ladling out the soup in the soup kitchen gave me the once over, then a wondering look. My jacket was wet, but it was still an Armani.

“Hard times, brother?”

“Temporary,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said. “But the thing about temporary, I’ve found, is that it can last an awful long time.”

“Can I just have some soup? Gawd, who the hell eats soup before noon anyway?”

“You do, bub.” He filled my bowl and handed me some bread. Then he said, “Do yourself a favour. Do whatever you gotta. Rob a bank if you have to. But don’t come back. You don’t belong here.”

The soup’s main ingredients were water, salt and a piece of carrot, and the bread was only minutes away from sprouting mould. Other patrons avoided sitting with me. Asher watched without blinking, from a far corner. Everyone but me ignored a tall grubby man at another table when he stood up and screamed for several minutes. All-in-all, it was a hideous dining experience.

As I left the building, a woman wearing a Jesus Rocks t-shirt handed me a pair of dry socks. They were red, and I was wearing taupe slacks with brown shell Cordovan loafers. It wasn’t going to work, but I took them anyway.

“Keep the faith, brother,” she said.

I would, absolutely. I felt the ticket in my shirt pocket.

I spent the rest of the day walking, my new socks soaked through. At about 7:25, I walked into the mall and up to the lotto kiosk to watch the numbers come in. It was the first time I’d actually looked at the ticket to see what mine were. 2 3 5 7 11 13 17. What the fuck? The first seven primes. My stomach knotted. What a ridiculous combination. It would never come in, all primes in sequence. It was impossible. I’d been played for a sucker by an apparition.

I was about to tear the ticket up when I heard Asher say, “Don’t do it.”

“But this is stupid,” I said. People began looking at me. I should have put my iPhone to my ear. “In all of the history of the universe, something like this has never happened, and never will. I hope you and your deceased pals had a good laugh.”

“Just shut up and wait,” Asher said.

Shut up? Poltergeist Jr. had just told me to shut up. The situation was worsening by the second.

Then the first numbers started to appear on the screen behind the counter. First came 2. Then the second: 3. The third: 5. Holy shit! The forth: 7. This was sick. Unbelievable. The knot in my belly rapidly changed from one kind to another. The next numbers couldn’t possibly be a match. But they were: 11, 13 and 17.

I checked it again and again.

“Holly hot bloody fucking goddamn shithouse motherfucker,” I said.

A couple of people looked over their shoulders.

“We gotta go,” said Asher.

“I’m stinking rich!”

“Yeah,” he said, “but let’s get outta here. You’re attracting attention. Someone’s gonna follow you out if you make too much noise. I can’t protect you.”

He was right. Some members of the normally zombie-like shopping mall crowd were starting to look at me like they were either going to eat my brains or hoist my ticket. I made for the exit, and walked out onto the sidewalk.

Rain.

“You have to call the lottery office in the morning,” Asher said. He was walking quickly to keep up, his naked feet splashing through puddles.

“What do I do until then?”

“Lay low,” he said, and then vanished.

Lay low. Hell, it’d been hours since my bowl of salty soup, and I was freezing. I was a millionaire without a dime in my pocket, and no one to celebrate with. My smartphone was useless, I’d spent most of the day hiding under a bridge, and I couldn’t go home in case I ran into a homicidal bookie. There was no lower to lay.

I hugged the storefronts, weaving in and out of doorways and under awnings, to stay out of the rain. Then passing Dunn’s Tailors, I noticed that they were having a suit sale. I stopped and looked in the window. High end worsteds, nice lines. Snappy but dignified Italian ties. Dunn’s was my favourite tailor. It would be the first place I stopped after I collected my purse.

A few other guys must have shared my enthusiasm, because I was suddenly in the company of three men.

“Nice,” said one, looking into the window.

“Yeah Max,” said another. “Real nice.”

Max? It couldn’t be. What were the odds of him finding me here, now? But then, what were the chances of a sequence of primes being a winning lotto numbers?

“Fuck,” I said, quiet and resigned.

“How you doing, Lester?”

It was, indeed, ‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin standing next to me. Rain streaming down his pale doughy face, illuminated in the dim store window light. He had boozy garlicky Eau de Vart funk hovering over him.

“I’m just fine,” I said.

“You really look like shit, though.”

“Thanks.”

“You know,” Max said, “there ain’t one goddamn decent restaurant in this whole toilet of a town.”

“You should have called ahead,” I said. “I would have told you as much.”

“You know why I’m here, Lester?” said Max. “Because you owe me money, and you’ve been avoiding me like it’s alimony.”

“You got a cigarette?” I said. He offered me a Camel and a light. It was mighty tasty, my first in over a twenty-four hours. “Give me until tomorrow morning. Things have changed for me.”

“Changed how?”

“I won the lottery.”

“Don’t get smart with us,” Max said, “you deadbeat son of a bitch.”

“Look, just give me until tomorrow. Have one of your boys shadow me. Lock me in a hotel room. Handcuff me to a chair. I tell ya, tomorrow I’ll pay you every dime.”

“You’re a liar, Lester,” Max said. “Which ain’t no business of mine, normally. Shit, I’ve told some real whoppers in my time, eh boys?”

The goons laughed and slapped Max on the back.

“But you owe me over a hundred grand, and lies will not be tolerated. Grab him boys.”

They pulled me round the corner, and into the alley. Then they threw me against a wall between two cars, and Max’s goons started kicking and stomping the hell out of me. They were good, and they were wearing me down. It wouldn’t be long before I received the final crippling wallop, so I struggled to pull the ticket from my pocket, and then held it up for all to see.

“It’s legit,” I spit through the blood. “Check it. Use your fucking phone and check it.”

“All right all right,” Max said to his boys, “lay off.” He snatched the ticket out of my hand.

“You got blood on it,” he said.

The goons snickered.

“Check it,” Max said, handing it to one of them. “It don’t seem impossible, I guess. You’ve been on one of the worst losing streaks I’ve ever seen. It’s gotta turn round sooner or later. Why not now?”

“It’s turned around,” I assured him.

“Holy shit!” said the goon with the Android. “Boss, take a look.”

Max grabbed the phone and the ticket, and there the numbers were, on the Lotto Extreme website.

“Twenty-five million?” he said. “That can’t be right.”

“It is,” I said. “I’ll call them in the morning and get the cheque. Maybe it’ll take a couple of days. I don’t know, but I can pay you then.”

‘Las Vegas’ Max Philbin stood there for a moment, flicking the very valuable piece of paper with a finger. There was a machine in his head that could calculate changes in the fabric of circumstance as easily as it did odds and percentages, and this calculation was an easy one. Then he turned the ticket over, and looked.

“Nah!” he said.

“Nah? What does that mean, nah?”

“It means I take the ticket, and we’re square.”

“No way, I only owe you the hundred grand.”

“Call the rest interest.”

“Fuck no!”

“We should whack him, boss,” one of the goons said. “He’ll go to the cops, for sure.”

“And tell ‘em what?” Max said. He held the ticket so his henchmen could see the back of it in the yellow lamplight. “Look, the dumb shit hasn’t put his name or nothin’ on the back. I’ll just fill it in with my particulars, and badda-pow, I got twenty-five mill. If we wax him now, he won’t be able to spend the rest of his life cherishing this little moment.”

My life hadn’t been a bad one, mostly. And if it was a mess now, it was my own fault. But like most fuck-ups, I’d always felt a little like the world was awfully unfair. I figured it had a hate on for me, especially as I bled in the rain. Sure I’d made some bad bets, and taken some lumps, but I’d always lost and taken my lumps from better people than Max.

I guess that’s how the idea came to me. And what could it hurt, now that all I had to look forward to was a life of wondering, what if? So I deciding to follow through, and pulled back my knee until it touch my belly, and then let it go: my foot, heel first into Max’s junk. You could have heard him gasp and howl three blocks away, then he fell onto the ground, screaming like a little girl.

His gorillas were stunned. This was unforeseen.

“Boss?” one of them said. “Wadda we do?”

In a moment, after rolling around in the puddles, Max was able to form the last two words I would ever hear, that side of the eternal curtain –

“!!Shoot him!!”

Then I watched as both of his thugs drew and aimed. There were only a couple of muzzle flashes, that I saw. But I guess they’d kept shooting after that, because a few seconds later, standing over my body, I saw that they’d reduced it to hamburger from the waist up. Forget the open casket. They were going to sop me up and squeeze the sponge out over my open grave; yea, though I walk through the valley…, drip drip fucking drip.

“Glad you could make it, chief.” It was a familiar voice coming from behind me. I turned round and saw Ralph, with Asher at his side.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“What’s to get?” Ralph said. “Like I told ya, it’s a pyramid scheme, the whole death by misadventure racket is. One dead guy enrolls as many other dead guys as he can, and they enroll as many as they can. Along the way a fella’s gotta learn how to recruit participants.”

“Enroll? Participants?”

“Yeah, participants,” Ralph said. He put his hand on Asher’s shoulder and said, “My little man here recruited you. He’s one hell of a recruiter, ain’t ya boy.”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Asher said with a shrug.

“He even arranged for that Max fella to run into you,” Ralph said.

“But why?”

“Hell, I don’t know. It’s a lousy business model. You’re bound to be disappointed. Everyone is. I’m the first to admit that there ain’t no benefit to it. It’s kinda like the leaves falling in October. It just happens.”

“So now I’m dead,” I said. “And you used the lottery ticket as a scam to enroll me. Why didn’t you just have me run over by a bus?”

“Ain’t no fun in that.” Ralph laughed and clapped his hands. “Bein’ dead can get awful dull. A little bit of cabaret is always welcome. We got you a good one, eh?”

“Go to hell.”

“Been there,” he said, his eyes flashing a bright fiery red. “Shit, I even bought goddamn lakefront property.”

* * * * * * * * *

Death is weird. It’s like looking at the living through the bug splat on a windshield.

I swore the moment I heard about it, that I would never participate in The Pyramid Scheme, but Ralph was right, death is boring. So, I’ve caved-in, and I’m about to enroll my first participant. That’s why I’m here in Vegas, standing out front of the MGM.

Oh, hang on. I’ve got to go. Max Philbin just pulled up.