lost ironies

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Tag: Short Fiction

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook

a Trumpish fantasy

 

Day #16

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #1: Once you have arrived at your assigned location, hunker down and wait for ancillary instructions from your Assignment Coach.

4 a.m.

A lamppost lit view from the window—crows quarrel over a dead rat in the gutter.

CNN, I haven’t turned it off for two weeks. Images of desert proxy-wars percolate through the cable; ISIS driving US Iraq-abandoned Humvees and armoured vehicles; teenage recruits firing AK-47s into the Mosul sky. Domestically, unarmed American black men shot dead while reaching for their ID; the unqualified buzzkill of the Republican National Convention.

The assignment is to instigate a shakeup, by diverting the ginger haired sociopath’s motorcade down the street below my window. I have his picture taped to the wall, a smug man in orbit round himself. He’s got Secret Service protection, naturally. That will complicate things. There’ll be revolution if I accomplish my assignment. A master class in failed democracy, for all those who care to attend, and everyone must.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #4: Continue to take prescribed performance enhancing drugs until instructed to discontinue.

There’s food for a few more days, and I keep my iPhone charged. They may have forgotten me, or abandoned my mission without bothering to call. This happens from time to time. I continued to inject the methamphetamine they supplied me with in ever increasing dosages, against protocol, and my supply ran out two days ago. The situation has become dire.

The room’s haunted, or I’m hallucinating. The ghosts walk through one wall, across the room, and disappear into the other.

Out of boredom, I disassemble and clean the rifle twice a day, being careful with the scope. Its zero’s set. The octanitrocubane satchel charges are in an Eddie Bauer backpack on the nightstand. An RPG launcher, with rocket mounted, stands in the corner by the door, like an umbrella waiting for rain. I’ve spent days wondering if these are the right tools for the job, but they’ll have to be.

My room is well situated over the busy skid row street below, Central Avenue. The hotel is old, though. It disgusts me. It’s a slum, on the edge of a vast precinct of slums and housing projects. There are rats in the walls, junkies in the halls. Roaches fuck in the empty soup cans I’ve thrown onto the floor. The deranged and the addicted come here to die. A woman’s body was retrieved from the stuck elevator, yesterday. She died waiting for rescue that never came. Her screams and weeping went on for days, getting quieter over time, until only the hush of ordinary cruelty remained. She must have died slowly in the dark, jonesing all the way. Her body had been in there for a week, before a repairman found it. The rising smell alerted no one.

7 a.m.

The iPhone rings. For some reason the ringtone is Elvis singing Jailhouse Rock. I make sure that the triple encryption is on, and answer.

“Hello?”

“There’s been a delay,” someone says. “The target’s gone off the radar, so to speak.”

It’s a voice I know. A woman I must have met at indoctrination, or during training. Nameless, monotone. A survivor of enough assassination assignments, I assume, to have earned a telephone on a desk in a cubicle, surrounded by a hundred other Assignment Coaches, each managing multiple operatives in various stages of waiting, execution or flight.

“Yes?” I say. “What do you mean by delay?”

“I mean that you have to hold on,” she says.

“For how long?”

“We’ll be in touch.”

“Wait! Don’t hang up.”

“What?”

“I need things,” I say.

“We gave you expense money.”

“I can’t leave, though—in case….”

“Don’t worry about that,” says the woman. “The target’s stationary, for the moment. It’s his day off. He’s at the Marriott downtown, probably sweating all over some twelve year old they scooped at the mall. He won’t go mobile for another eighteen hours. Besides, yours is only one of several possible routes to the airport. The itinerary is open to change. Go out and get what you need. Get receipts.”

“I need more shit. I don’t think dealers give receipts.”

“Shit? What do mean?”

“Crank,” I say. “Meth.”

“Discontinue use. You don’t need it at the moment. Things have stalled. We’ll let you know when it’s necessary to start taking it again. Stand down, rest up.”

“You can’t be serious. Fuck, I need it. I can’t go without it now.”

“Symptoms of withdrawal are to be expected,” says the woman. “You’re sleep deprived. Take a nap, and endure.”

“You must be joking. I’m crashing like a Malaysian 777. I was told to take it, to keep myself ready. Now I really need it. You’re right, I haven’t slept for days. There’re ghosts….”

There’s a click, and a fresh silence on the line.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

I’ve been watching the dealers on the street from my window since I arrived. They’re mostly pink-cheeked, clean-jeaned juveniles who drive in from out of the neighbourhood. Their bosses use them because they aren’t hooked, yet. It’s thought that they won’t swallow, snort or inject the inventory. But when they finally do, which is inevitable, they’re damned where they stand.

10:30 a.m.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #10: When told to stand-down by your Assignment Coach, rest, restock and study analysis.

For the first time in days, I leave my room to go outside, and pass through the lobby on my way. The lobby’s post-apocalyptic. It’s an impact crater. More ghosts. There are three frail old men, sitting in a shabby row. Threadbare clothes on a threadbare couch. Hoary hands on canes. I can see right through them. A woman in a corner confers with her own personal invisible, beneath a dark and dusty framed picture of a nineteenth century aristocrat on a stallion in the countryside. The clerk sitting behind the wire-mesh glass looks up from his internet porn; someone naked, in handcuffs on the screen.

Outside, the sidewalk’s a perpetual motion machine. Dead storefronts, faded graffiti, prison tattoos. Scammers, hookers, junkies and dealers. Bodies nudged over to the curb. Vehicle traffic hardly moves. There’s a slow procession round the block, men driving family cars, looking for bargain basement sex. Lunatics cross the street blindly. The cops cruise through occasionally, but never stop. It’s a bottleneck. Only a major emergency detour would force the target’s motorcade down such an impassable street. That must be the plan.

I haven’t changed my clothes or taken a shower for more than two weeks. I blend in. There’s a dealer I recognise from looking out of my hotel room window a few feet away, talking to a drag queen. The dealer’s white, dressed like a department store rapper, trying too hard. I approach, and stand next to him with my fists in my pockets, tight and trembling. He takes one look and walks away. Shit.

The drag queen looks me over.

“You’re some kinda fucked up, boy,” she says. “You gonna follow him, or just stand there and melt?”

I shiver and smile. Now I get it. I’m supposed to follow the dealer to a more practical spot. I go and find him in the crowd.

The deal takes place mid-block, away from the corner, beneath a broken surveillance camera. We’re surrounded, hidden in the chaos. Our eye contact is brief. He’s impatient.

“What you want?” he says, trying to sound bad, missing the mark.

“Meth,” I say.

“You stink, man.”

“I know.”

“You shit your pants?”

“I might have,” I say. “I don’t remember.”

“How much you want?”

“Fifty.”

“Fifty what?”

“Fifty dollars,” I say. “What will that get me?”

“What kinda junkie are you, don’t know what fifty’ll get you?”

“I’m new.”

“You’re a cop.”

“Hell no. Do I smell like a cop?”

“No,” he says. “You smell like a pig.”

“C’mon, I got the money here in my hand. See?”

What follows is a relaxed current of motion, a clandestine double jointed hand-off. The ease of it surprises me. I’ve never done this before, but something occult inside of me has assumed control. Drugs and money exchange simultaneously, in what looks like a failed handshake, after which the dealer looks away. It’s over, fast. I got more for my money than I’d guessed.

For the dealer, though, I no longer exist. If I was on fire, he’d just step away. He hates junkies. I should go and shoot-up, but I resent his attitude. I stare, and hate him back.

“You have nightmares,” I say, but don’t know why. Maybe it’s the same death wish that got me here in the first place.

“What? Fuck you. Fuck off.”

“It’s the junkies,” I say. “People like me, your clientele.”

“Don’t push it, freak. Disappear.”

“We occupy your sleep, like insurgents.”

“I’m warning you,” says the dealer, drawing a switchblade, making a show of it. It snaps open.

I can’t stop, though. Violent isolation and vivid cravings have transformed me, have somehow made me telepathic. I see deeply inside of him. He’s a piss-puddle of dread. The knife in his hand is meaningless.

“Junkies surround you in your worst dreams,” I continue. “Don’t we? Clawing at you, grasping and pulling you down onto the pavement. Legions of us. Tearing your skin right down to the bone, ripping out your eyes with our filthy fingernails, stabbing you with dirty syringes, each one of us looking for a fix. Ten thousand fixes, a hundred thousand. We want what you can’t possibly deliver. You struggle. You call out for your mamma. You seek Jesus. You’re desperate to escape.  You’re in agony, but we won’t back off. We’re mutilating you. Smothering you in our stench. But you can’t stop us. You wake up screaming; you’ve wet yourself. The fear feels like a bullet in your gut. You fumble like a fool, reaching for a weapon. But who are you gonna kill, nightmare tweekers or yourself? And when the nightmare’s all over, and you’ve put the panic back into its tiny cupboard somewhere in your sick little brain, you still know that you have to return here, this sidewalk, with your pockets full of junk, the terror phosphorescent on your skin. Just look at you, you pathetic sack of shit.”

His eyes are wide, chin back, shoulders up. I’ve tapped into something. How or why’s a mystery. Maybe clairvoyance is a gift of sleeplessness, appearing without restraint.

Without warning, he thrusts his blade into my side, through the ribs. The force of the blow, his fist on the handle of the knife, throws me off balance. I stagger and fall. He walks away. The fluid crowd fills his vacated space. No one looks down at me, as I scramble to stand.

Then I hear Jailhouse Rock, and answer the phone.

“Hello,” I say. The knife has pierced a lung. I’m coughing blood. I try to focus. I’m drooling dark red spittle.

“He’s moving,” I hear my Assignment Coach say. “We didn’t expect it. Protests are springing up across the city, and the protesters are way more organised than we thought they’d be. They’ve blocked nearly every possible escape route. His motorcade may be coming your way. Where are you?”

“On the street.” I touch my side where the knife went in. Lung blood, everywhere.

“Get back up to your room,” says the Coach. “You’ll know if the motorcade is coming your way when you hear three explosions a couple of blocks away. Car-bombs. The blasts will box them in on three sides, we hope. Turning left down Central will be their only option. The bombs will detonate simultaneously. Wait for them before you make a move. The cops will try to clear the street. The SUVs may even take to the sidewalk, but even if they do the convoy will be moving slow enough for you to get off your shots.”

Get off my shots.

“I’ve been thinking,” I say. “The rifle you gave me, and the SUV’s bulletproof glass, they don’t add up.”

“You have what you need. Take the initiative. Do what you have to.”

“Yes, but a little direction from your end would…. Hello?”

A familiar silence.

I run into the hotel and up the stairs. The lock on the door to my room is sticky—the key won’t turn. Several tries, and after dropping the keys multiple times, it finally opens. The rifle is disassembled and lies on an oil cloth on the bed. I’ll have to reassemble it. Where did I put the shells? Panic.

Rigs and other paraphernalia are on the dilapidated dresser. I throw down two small baggies of crank, and then look into the cracked mirror above the dresser. In just two weeks, I’ve become a zombie. What happened? Who cares? I begin the mix, using water from the swamp toilet down the hall. Two points—no, three points—to 12 units of water, then I load the syringe. There are still good veins in my arm, in spite of the bruising and spreading infections. Finally, it’s time to inject. The sting of the needle piercing the skin sets off a conditioned flow of endorphins in my brain, not the buzz I’m looking for, but at last a sign of hope. I’m moments away—

And in a second long precursor to catastrophe, time dies, and is then ferociously resurrected.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Appendix 6, Sec. 9.7—Explosives in an Urban Setting—Lateral Damage: A blast wave is pressure expanding supersonically from an explosive core, preceded by a shock of compressed gases. The detonation of explosives in a city setting differs from that in an open area, like a battle field. In a city, the blast wave will be forced to funnel along the street grid, and be constrained by structures along its path, making the potential for significant lateral damage very high.

The sound of the blasts is deafening. The building quakes, and I look up from my arm in time to see the window shatter, and feel a fast moving wave of glass missiles, large, small and microscopic, wash over me as I’m pushed off of my feet and onto the floor.

My face and other exposed bits of me have been torn to shreds. My clothes have been ripped to pieces. I’m oozing blood and macrophage from the neck up, and I’m nearly deaf. The syringe remains full, but its needle is bent in my vein. Blood runs into my now lidless right eye, from above where the flesh of my forehead once was. I blink, and try pushing the plunger down. It won’t budge.

From somewhere nearby, I hear a faint rendition of Jailhouse Rock. I answer the phone: “What the fuck. Are you using nukes?” I lisp and slur my words. Large portions of my lips and cheeks are gone.

“It was a bit too much, I admit,” says my Coach. I can barely hear her, but it’s obvious that she’s rattled.

“Speak up,” I shout.

“We’re sorry,” she hollers. “We used ISIS defectors to build and plant the car bombs. We flew them in from Iraq last week. They’ll provide us with a plausible deniability mechanism, but they clearly lack the subtlety necessary for a more civilized milieu. That’s beside the point, though. Are you still viable?”

Viable? I’m on the floor with much of my facial epidermis ripped away, I have what I must assume is an ultimately fatal stab wound to my lung, and I still need a fix.

Standing up, I jam the iPhone between my shoulder and what’s left of my ear. It nearly slithers away in a smear of blood.

I try to remove the syringe from my arm. It breaks, but the needle remains steadfastly hooked into my vein. What’s left of the meth and remaining syringes have been blown off the top of the dresser, to who knows where. I begin to hack up blood again, more with each cough.

“I’m viable,” I say—cough, cough, cough. Spit.

“Good,” says the Assignment Coach. “Maybe we overdid it, but the plan worked. The motorcade was forced to turn left. We’re following it now, via satellite. They’ve stopped for the moment, but they’re headed in your direction, very slowly. There’re bodies everywhere, but there’s also a mob forming on the road. Mass-hysteria caused by the blasts, who knows? Radio chatter indicates that the police, wherever the hell they are, are preparing to use tear gas. Your neighbourhood’s gone berserk. Looting’s already begun. Looks like we’ve provoked a riot. Unintentional, but perhaps to our advantage. Get to work.”

I disconnect, and do a quick inventory. It’s time. The sniper rifle, the Armalite AR-50, even with the armor piercing incendiary shells, probably won’t do the job unless I’m closer. I’m going through serious withdrawal now, my hands too shaky to reassemble it properly, or get off an accurate shot.

I grab a Glock and extra clips from the nightstand, and the backpack of satchel charges. Then the RPG launcher, with the rocket attached.

Then I take a moment to tug at the needle hooked into my forearm. It’s good and stuck. Looking into the mirror again, I see the zombie only without a face, just gore and flesh fragments, exposed bone, teeth and lidless left eye. The zombie’s carrying a polymer-framed automatic handgun, rocket launcher and enough explosives to take down the hotel and every adjacent building for a block and a half. I open my hotel room door and run, through the haunted lobby and out onto the street.

Bedlam.

In a very short time, the desperate people of a desperate neighbourhood have risen up. Whore hunting family men are being pulled from their cars, robbed and beaten, their vehicles set ablaze. Pawnshops and convenience stores are being raided, the proprietors shooting back. Three motorcycle cops try to navigate and take control of the throng. They blow their whistles, sound their sirens and rev their engines, and are quickly taken down. A pickup truck drives by with thugs in the back, wielding AR-15s.  Suddenly, it looks like Baghdad, only with Hip Hop music and gangbanger wheel hubs.

Standing on a bus stop bench, I scan the stormy scene. Then I see them. A half a block away, approaching through the swarm, three SUVs. All of them with men wearing flack vests over their starched white shirts and striped ties, standing on the running boards, firing indiscriminately into the crowd with fully automatic assault rifles.

It’s my target; my long awaited love.

I jump off the bench, moving mechanically, getting closer, looking for the best vantage. I’m walking quickly, as implanted data begins to flow in my head, like an organic code. Then I hear, with my nearly deaf ears, what might be the screech of tires behind me. I turn round, and there’s the pickup, with seven heavily armed locals in the back.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #28: Recruit local inhabitants to your ends, wherever and whenever possible.

The passenger side door opens, and a well-dressed man of the hood steps out, with a .45 auto in his hand. This is no department store rapper. From his stance and cold approach, I can tell that he’s something else, altogether. He’s a warrior, and this is the beginning of his war.

“Where’s yo face at?” he says, making me aware once more, that I’m a virtually faceless man, bleeding profusely from my side. I hack up more blood.

“Most of it’s back in my room,” I say, lisping and slurring.

He folds his arms and strokes his chin.

“And what’s that for, Frankenstein?” He points at the rocket launcher.

“I’m on an assignment,” I say. “You see those SUVs stuck up the street?” I thumb over my shoulder. “That’s the apricot dick-weed nominee you’ve been watching for the past year, saying he’s gonna build a wall and make America safe for white people again. Someone on high thinks he might win the election, so I’m here to frost his cake.”

“For real?” says the Warrior. “You a shooter?”

“Absolutely.”

“And that be him, Mr Whitey Man Tan?”

“Yup.”

“I hate that mother fucker.”

“He hates you more,” I say.

“He ain’t got no right comin’ down here after the shit he’s been sayin’.”

“Hey,” a teenager shouts from the truck, “his guards are killing everyone.”

“Shit,” says the Warrior. “How much you want for that rocket gun, you got there?”

“Waddaya you give me?” I say, my allegiance to the cause rapidly dissolving.

“Hundred,” he says.

“Two,” I counter.

“Deal.”

He pulls out a wad, and peels off the bills. I offer over the weapon.

“Glock for sale, too?” he says.

“No way. This chunk might help me get out alive.”

“Ain’t no one gettin’ outta this alive,” says the Warrior, and taking the rocket launcher form my hand, he aims it at me. I wink back, reach forward, and release the safety.

“Now you’re ready, my friend,” I say. “But don’t waste it on me.”

“Ain’t gonna,” he says. “Just seein’ what you’d do. You cool, for such a gruesome mother fucker.”

“Thanks,” I say, and pulling a small brown booklet out of my back pocket, I recite—

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #11: When attempting to disable a lightly armoured civilian vehicle with a rocket propelled grenade, fire first on the front wheels to disenable steering, forward mobility and braking capacity, thus rendering the vehicle immobile. Then attack the body of the vehicle with remaining rockets and or whatever weapons remain.

“Righteous,” says the Warrior.

Then I take a satchel charge out of the backpack, and recite again, The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #17: Nothing is bombproof, provided the bomb is large enough, and well enough placed.

“I’ll throw these in,” I say, pointing out the triggering mechanism. “You only got ten seconds to get the hell outta Dodge once that’s set. Then take cover, baby. Works best when placed directly under the vehicle, so you or one of your homies has got to get in close.”

“Fuck yeah!” he says, grabs the pack, and gets back into the truck. He smiles and waves as he and his crew drive away, up the street toward the stationary trio of SUVs.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #35: After successfully completing an assignment, wait for the Assignment Coach to contact you. Be patient, as this may take a while. Do not seek medical aid if injured, no matter your condition, as doing so may draw attention to, and compromise, your mission.

I think about Rule #35 as I lay in a morphine haze, watching a TV screen, from a gurney in a hospital emergency ward gone mad. I arrived here in an ambulance filled with six other seriously injured street people, and have been triaged to near the front of a very long line.

Fox News footage shot from a helicopter is repeated over and over as the world marvels at the unanticipated and improbable end of a wanna-be politician. Some mourn and some cheer as images of his body, in a lake of blood on the pavement fades into a television commercial for Walmart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Merry Christmas Lucas Quil

1923

Quil was a calm man, though some said cruel in appearance, who watched the world through dark eyes that decrypted all he saw without astonishment or sympathy. And though prone to hatred and a grim violence, he baffled those who knew him by his introspection and apparent pining for a mysterious lost heart. Indeed, he was the conundrum in his own mirror, where, of late, he seemed to have become increasingly transparent.

Having boarded in Toronto, he now disembarked from the CPR Transcontinental at its Vancouver Waterfront terminus, stepping into a steam dragon on the platform. There, he checked his pocket watch, nearly 8pm and cold. Pulling up the collar of his wool coat, and with his suitcase in hand, he climbed the stairs from the platform, and walked through the station. Light snow was falling on Cordova Street, silhouetted against the yellow light of streetlamps, as he exited. It was Christmas Eve. He hailed a cab.

Taking the backseat of the taxi, he felt the butt of the vicious little gun he carried in his belt, against his waist. Trying to ignore it, he said, “Yale Hotel,” to the driver.

“Just got into town, eh?” The cabby was looking at Quil in the rear view mirror, observing a man in an expensive coat and hat. The suitcase, he noticed, was fine leather, a pricy item.

“Good guess,” Quil said, “since you picked me up out front of a train station with a suitcase in my hand.”

“Well,” said the cabby, “I just wanted to worn you, that’s all. The Yale’s a bit of a dump. We got better in this burg.”

“And yet the Yale is where I want to go.”

“Swell,” said the man at the wheel. Then he said, “By the way, mister, this can be a very lonely town. I can get you ladies, or, you know, whatever’s yer fancy.” He turned and offered Quil his card. Quil didn’t take it, and they drove on.

The furniture in the shadowy Yale Hotel lobby consisted of worn velvet and cracked leather sofas and chairs. An elderly man listed to the left as he snored on a once grand chesterfield. A dilapidated piano stood in a corner, and the chandelier had lost many of its crystals.

The clerk behind the counter was an untidy man with yellow teeth and nicotine stained fingers. Quil gave him his name, and the man lazily scratched it into the leger with a fountain pen, writing Quill with two Ls.

“It’s one L,” Quil said.

“That so?” said the clerk, annoyed, scratching out Quill, and saying out loud, “Mr Lucas Quil,” as he wrote with a faux flourish. “Esquire. One. L.” Then, looking up smugly, he noticed a certain change in the quality Quil’s posture, and immediately regretted his little drama. “Sorry,” he said, nervously. “I’m a little tired. My relief hasn’t shown yet. I’m beat, but it means I might be here all night.”

“Just get me the key to my room,” Quil said. “And I’m looking for a Miss Lilith Drakos. I understand that she has a room here.”

Now the clerk grinned a dirty little grin. “If there’s a guest here by that name,” he said, “I can deliver a message.”

“There is no message,” Quil said, conjuring a ten-dollar bill out of the air, as though it were fruit from an invisible tree. “I want to know what room she’s in.” He held the bill under the clerk’s nose, as the shabby little man licked his lips.

“Preserving our guests’ privacy is important to us,” said the clerk. Then he took the bill, and inspected it. “That was a clever trick,” he said.

“I’ve another trick,” Quil said. “One I do with a straight razor, in the dark of night.” There was nothing minacious in his tone. It was a simple statement of fact. The clerk believed it.

“#205,” he said, anxiously pocketing the cash. “The woman you’re looking for’s in #205. I’ll put you in #207, if that’s agreeable.” He held out a battered skeleton key.

“Fine,” Quil said, taking it.

“That’ll be a dollar for the night,” said the clerk.

Quil said nothing. During the transaction, he’d unbuttoned his coat to reveal the revolver in his belt.

“Ah yes,” the clerk said sheepishly, eyeing the butt of the gun. He patted his pocket where the ten dollar bill now nestled. “Shall I’ll take up your suitcase for you.”

“I’ll carry it up myself.”

“A pleasure to have you, sir. Just shout if you need anything.”

Quil climbed the staircase, stopping a moment outside of #207. There was the faint scent of fresh sandalwood from inside, bringing back memories of an unhurried time of jazz, and a passion too dear to last. He lingered and listened, and then moved on.

His room was stale. An exposed electrical wire ran up the wall, and was strung across the ceiling to where it connected to a bare light bulb. The drapes hung loose and dustily from a rod over the window. The bed linen wasn’t fresh, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t sleep. He sat on a kitchen chair looking out onto the street until shortly after dawn, Christmas morning, then decided to leave for breakfast.

Surprised at seeing the man leave the building from her window, she donned her coat and went to the lobby, stepping out when she was sure that he’d moved on, and following him to the Aristocratic Cafe. There, she waited on the sidewalk until he was seated, then entered unseen, taking a booth in the back.

Lilith Drakos was a pale, slender woman in a bland flower print dress and a second hand coat, purposely drab in hopes of moving through the world unnoticed. A chill ran through her as she watched Quil at his table, drinking his coffee and reading a newspaper. He was exactly as she remembered him, the handsome crime boss with a hard-earned elegance that hid his beginnings and the essential cruelty that had brought him to prominence.

He was a demon, or had been—the delinquent fog that had fallen upon a city, and its underworld. A dark paint of whispers, the lips of others that had moved, but out of fear, confessed nothing. She’d met him in that place of cast shadows, of nights that had rendered the red of her lipstick black. He ate the dark; it had sustained them both. She’d seen it run wet down his chin, and in his in ruthlessness, he ruled the city. For all of that, though, in the end he’d succumbed to his greatest weaknesses, jealousy and greed.

And now he’d stalked down.

She stood, and walked to his table where she took off her coat and hung it over the vacant chair. “So,” she said, sitting down, “you’ve found me. How?”

“Hello Lilith,” he said, trying to sound pleasantly surprised, but sounding sorry for something instead. “Let me buy you breakfast.”

“No.” Quiet rage in her voice. “Answer me. How’d you find me?”

“I’ve always known where you are,” he said, putting down his newspaper. “Here, and the other places you’ve been. I’ve developed a talent for clairvoyance, since our parting. You have too, I’m sure.”

She had, but didn’t say so. “Why have you come?” she said instead.

“To apologise.” He looked at her a moment, poker-faced, before shifting his gaze onto the once vibrant red rose tattoo on her wrist. Its colour was nearly gone. Fading. The thing he’d noticed in himself, when he looked in a mirror.

“Apologise?” Lilith said. It was a broken word when he said it. “That’s rich, all things considered.” She absently placed her hand over her heart.

“Why are you dressed that way?” he said, hoping to change the subject. “You look like a dime store frump.”

“It’s how I prefer to be seen now days. It’s how I looked before you recovered me from the trash, and had me dressed up like your silky little harlot.”

“Those weren’t such bad days, were they?” said Quil. “At least you ate every day. You had money and a warm bed. You had your jewelry box filled with little golden trinkets. And there was romance, wasn’t there?”

“It’s how I chased away the poverty,” Lilith said. “It hurt going hungry, and you rescued me for some reason—a woman running errands for nickels and dimes, and sometimes selling myself for a few dollars to your torpedoes. I still don’t know what you saw in me, I was nearly ruined by the time you salvaged me, but at least you weren’t a pimp. You were mean, though. They weren’t always such happy times for me.”

“You remember it differently than me. I remember that you were young. I saw such beauty in you.”

“That sounds fake.”

“And I loved you,” he said.

She stared at his straight face. Then, “Bastard,” she said, standing and putting on her coat. She left the cafe.

It was a necessary sign of civility, simply knocking on a door to gain entry. One he’d acquired later in his career, to replace more violent or stealthy ways. Lilith’s door didn’t open immediately, though, when later that Christmas evening he knock.

“Please let me in, Lilith,” he said gently. Then quietly waited.

“No,” she replied through the door, moments later.

“I’m not going away,” he said.

“Then you can wait ’til Hell freezes over.”

“That’s just what I’ll do, then.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.”

“What’s that have to do with it?”

“It’s a time for forgiveness,” Quil said. “God and sinner reconcile, and all of that. Get it?”

“Which of us is the sinner, in this case? You always thought you were God.”

Quil was quiet again, then said, “It’s a metaphor, Lilith. Maybe God is what passes between us, when we speak to one another. Please let me in.”

That was poetic. The door opened a crack, and she peaked out. “You’re a murderer,” she said.

“Several times over.”

“There is no forgiveness for that.”

“Then let’s just have a drink.” He held up a brown paper bag. “Bourbon,” he said. “The good stuff.”

“You’re getting easier to see through, Lucas.”

“We have that in common, don’t we,” he said.

“I ain’t been drinking lately,” she said, but invited him in.

Her room was immaculate. A small Christmas tree stood on the nightstand. The bedcover was a colourful eiderdown. There were oriental carpets on the floor, and a comfortable chair by the window.

“Please sit,” she said, and taking the bottle from him, she poured them each a drink in glasses she took from a cupboard above a small kitchen table.

Quil sat on the bed. She sat next him, handed him his drink and put the bottle on the floor next to them.

“So.” she said. “Let’s talk forgiveness.”

He gulped back his drink, and for the first time revealed the butt of a gun in his belt.

“You still carry that damn thing?” she said, with disgust.

Quil looked down at the .38 revolver in his belt.

“You brought it for old time’s sake, I guess,” she said. ”Is that it, you bastard? Memory Lane and all that?”

“No” He sighed. “It’s a curse, a small part of Hell. I can’t seem to lose it. I’ve tried. I threw it into the St Lawrence once, but there it was again the next time I looked.”

“That’s some story.” She gulped back her own drink, and poured them each another.

“Do you believe in Hell?” Quil said.

“I guess. Why the hell not?”

“We’re both easier to see-through than ever,” he said. “I guess we’re finally on our way out.”

She placed a hand over her heart, where her fatal wound was now slowly becoming visible.

“Does it still hurt?” he said.

“It never did,” said Lilith. “How could it? It happened too fast. You’re a quick draw.”

“Oh God I’m sorry.” He touched his own gruesome fatal head wound, slowly revealing itself, and then looked at his bloody fingers.

“I’ve suspected it for quite a while,” she said. “This fading of ours. We’re disappearing. It’s a symptom of having finally reached the end. It sure took a long time.”

“I thought I was invincible,” he said, “coming to, after the fact. Somehow, I was still in the world, in spite of what happened. Turns out the dead don’t just fall to the ground, though. We disappear piece by piece, until we ain’t there no more, disappeared to all we loved.”

“And you thought you were bullet-proof, when the next day there wasn’t a hole in your head and your brains were still in the same place. I guess I thought the same thing when my heart seemed to be where it belonged, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a world of the dead, millions fading each at their own pace. Some of us standing still and watching, witnessing what we can while we’re still able. Others sick with wishful thinking, convincing themselves that what they see in the mirror is a lie.

“Which were you, Lucas? I think I know. You’re not the standing still type. You believed you’re such a big man that he could return from the dead.”

“At first, I guess I thought I’d live forever,” he said. “Now I know I’m a vanishing ghost. Best I can hope for is to be a memory.”

She put her hand to her breast again, and felt the deep wound of the heart, manifest once more after so long.

“It’s the final insult,” Quil said, “in the end our wounds appearing again.”

“And you dare bring that gun with you.”

“I can’t get rid of it, I tell you. It’s a kinda Hell.”

“You killed us both, and you expect angels?”

“Forgive me, Lilith,” he said. “Please, before we’re both completely gone. We were in love once, weren’t we? I did it because I couldn’t face it. You were ready to leave.”

“No. You did it because you’re sick, jealous and obsessed with what you can’t have. I was a piece of property. You’ve killed a lot of people who wanted what was yours, and because you wanted what was theirs, and you couldn’t stand losing me to my own freedom.”

He wept in his final earthly misery, and she tenderly stroked his cheek. Their invisibility was now so nearly complete that she could see the vivid colours of the eiderdown through them both.

“It’s hard,” she said, “and I don’t know what good it’ll do either of us, but I do forgive you, because it’s Christmas.”

Quil’s tears were bloody from his suicide wound, and out of a strange sympathy, she said, “Merry Christmas, Lucas Quil.” And as she did, the still solid .38 in Quil’s belt fell to the floor, as they finally disappeared like ghosts.

 

 

 

 

 

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 4: Rabble Town

Late evening, darkness falling

It wasn’t really a town, only a bleaker neighbourhood in a bleak city. And across its busy Centre Street, lined with shabby carts, a threadbare sex trade, dead storefronts and hawkers, was strung a multitude of crackle screens, like paper lanterns hanging over a once brighter Chinatown, each screen with the face of the Chief Victor, leader of the Federated States, speaking, all day every day, assuring the People of the brightest and winningest of futures, interrupted only by advertisements.

Noah Bones leaned against a brick wall at a corner, sipping cheap street cart tea from a paper cup, watching an advert for a sugar confection called Pokyfun, a thin brightly wrapped bar of cheap genetically modified carob gown in rooved-over reclaimed asbestos mines in the irradiated Western Wastes, and tempered with hydrogenated pork fat, paraffin and microcrystalline wax.

The ad consisted of a bald mustachioed man in an orange pinstriped suit and purple tap-shoes capering madly across a stage to frenzied music with a Pokyfun bar in each hand as a line of scantily clad dancing girls in gold lame kicked and smiled deliriously behind him.

“Pokyfun,” the mustachioed one finally shouted, as confetti fell, bright coloured lights flashed and strafing jet fighters flew across the length of the stage on green screen, dropping napalm on fleeing victims, “it‘s the Chief Victor’s favourite bar!”

Then after a snowy pause, the Chief Victor himself appeared on screen to deliver a brief pre-recorded message, one viewed and heard by millions ad nauseam.

“I smell dog on the air,” he said, his creased pastel expression hardening, his small hands gripping the podium top. “Underground influences, enabled by Koslov himself, have delivered sham tidings. Koslov, the enemy. He’s the heaviness you feel. The promise of thunder, rumours of disaster. He’s what estranges us and isolates you, and why long ago I intervened on your behalf, placing all art and expression under my gracious care. Fake dispatch is a disease that weakens the Greater Plan, and undermines the righteous authority of your Great Leader—sad.”

“He’s stopped ad libbing,” said a man coming to stand next to Noah, and lighting a cigarette, the smoke mingling with the stagnant odour of Rabble Town.

“That’s old news, Markus,” Noah said, sipping his tea. “I’m not even sure it’s him anymore. Suddenly he’s downright eloquent. He must be being handled by some spook in the background. On the other hand, maybe he’s retired to some tropical island, laughing his head off. Or maybe he’s already dead.” Noah pointed at the image on the screen. “Maybe this is an automaton or data generated.”

“Then what’s the point of this meeting?”

“The point is that we’re here,” Noah said, “like we promised we’d be. The point is that Dr Vlad promised he’d be here too, sometime close to dark.”

Marcus sneered, “I don’t trust that little queer.”

“It’s too late for that. We needed an insider disenchanted with the Plan, and Vlad’s definitely that. He’ll be our push against their shove. Besides, Sylvia M says he’s on the square. That’s good enough for me.”

“I don’t trust her neither,” Markus said. “Vlad’s her little slave. There’s something kinky going on there. Plus he’s a puny little zealot, and I bet he’ll be cashing in big if we pull this off. While we’re sent packing with just a pay cheque.”

The video on the screens hanging above and down the length of Centre Street distorted for a second, the sound crackling noisily as the Chief Victor’s image disappeared, replaced by a manic ad for hand soap, featuring battle tanks and missile silos.

“And don’t forget,” said Noah Bones, “we’re just the hired guns. We aren’t the thinkers. That means that we—you—can leave anytime.”

“No,” Markus said. “We can’t. We’re in too deep now, know too much. If any of us left now, he or she’d be dead in a day.”

“Then why not just enjoy the ride?” came a voice from behind them, as small well-dressed man stepped out of a shadow cast by a street light. “We’re plotting history here. You’ll be heroes soon.”

“Or in a corpse pile,” said Markus, “awaiting trial, post-mortem.”

“Heroically dead, then,” said Dr vlad. “What’s not to love?”

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Noah Bones is a story written in short chapters, not quite flash fiction. This due to the fact that I now have a real job, and less time for writing.

Chapter 3
Chapter 2
Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones Chapter 3: Sylvia M

Read Chapter 1 here
Read Chapter 2 here
__________________________________________________________________

There came the words whispered, “Who’s there?” after a too long silence that followed her knocking.

“Sylvia,” came a female voice. “Let me in.”

Light shone through an eye hole drilled in the door. Then it didn’t.

“But you’re dead,” said the man behind it.

“A dirty rumour,” the tall darkly dress woman said. “Something I’ll deny, if pressed. Now open up.”

A bolt slid, loud in the hall that time of night, and the door opened a crack. A single bright eye peeked out.

“Hello Vlad,” Sylvia said, smiling halfly. “Open up.”

Dr Vladimir Cromwell knew the woman, Silvia M, and her clique well enough. He’d been forced into their plots before, as they raged against the Greater Plan. Violence and certain disappearance came to the noncompliant. He moved back and away from the door, and let Sylvia M enter.

“Cigarettes,” she said stepping in, “and the good stuff. I know you have it. None of that Rabble Town canteen shit.” Vladimir Cromwell obeyed. Vanished a moment into the dark regions of his well furnished apartment and returned with a deck of cigarettes, the package embossed in gold. He handed it over. Sylvia M lit up and unbuttoned her coat.

“There’s been a killing,” she said.

“There’ve been many,” replied Cromwell. He was a meek man, slight in a dark red robe that might have been made of silk. He could have been mistaken for a woman in the low light. His toes were nervously clenched in his slippers. His was an inescapable flamboyance which he tried to hide during the day, but not now in his own home. “The dead are stacked in common refrigerators in morgues all over town, each awaiting its criminal conviction and incineration. We’re overwhelmed.”

“No, none of them,” said Sylvia M. “The one I want you to think very carefully about was a high ranking Agent of the Greater Plan. He won’t be in a stinking corpse heap. He’ll be stored in his own drawer, as is his privilege. You’ve already done the autopsy, I’m certain, Dr Vlad. You’ll remember him for the tragic gunshot wound where his manhood once dwelt, and the fatal bullet wound to his head.”

“Yes,” Cromwell said after a moment, nodding. “I know him. Chief Justice Agent Ahriman, scheduled for pick-up tomorrow,  by a funeral chapel chosen by his family.” In passing, he said, ” It was a tragic wound,” and swallowed.

“No,” said Sylvia M. “You will not hand him over to a funeral chapel.”

“No?”

“No. You’ll lose him, instead. But let him not be so lost that he cannot be found again if necessary.”

“But lose him? What do mean? It would be a criminal act to tamper with the remains. Besides, it’s almost impossible to do. Certainly with the standard operating procedures I’ve implemented since my appointment as Chief of the Forensic Pathology Department of the Justice Bureau.”

“Then, Dr Vlad,” Sylvia M said, “what you’re telling me is that you’re the primary obstacle to my plan?”

“No, not at all. I….”

“Because small effete men frequently end up in stinking corpse piles, don’t they? There’s a prevalent prejudice against ladylike men in the Greater Plan, as you know. I’m no fan of the Plan, of course. I fight against it, and I disagree with many of its phobias. But some wonder how you’ve lasted this long.”

A male silhouette moved across the dark parlour behind Vladimir Cromwell, in the pale light coming through a window from the street, then disappeared.

“I’ll see what can be done,” the doctor said.

“Good,” said Sylvia M, now buttoning her coat and pocketing the deck of cigarettes. “And there’s the wine I enjoy.” She took a card from out of her handbag and handed it to him. “You know it. That Italian red. You’ve gotten it for me before.”

“Yes,” he said, taking her card. The fingernails of his soft hands manicured, and buffed to a glossy lustre. “It’s quite expensive, though. I’m not sure if it’s in my budget.”

“Have a crate delivered to the address on the card, and you know that neither I nor any of my people will be found there, so don’t get any ideas. The wine will find its way to me on its own.”

“Yes, alright.”

“These are dangerous times, Dr Vlad,” said Sylvia M, taking a different tone, smiling halfly again. “Especially for some.” Reaching out, she stroked the smooth lapel of his robe. “But the dead sleep like clouds, don’t they? Moved along by hurricanes, or, as in this case, by soft surreptitious winds? And when they’re gone the sun always shines, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Pausing a moment, she looked into his sad eyes and said, “There’s shame in these rooms, Dr Vlad. There needn’t be, but there is. It’s because you somehow agree with the opinion others have of you. Shame’s a weakness; it reveals too much about a man. Don’t carry it out into the world with you when I’ve assigned you a task.”

“No.”

“Be sure to eliminate all paperwork, audio, video and data-chronicles. All physical evidence; identification, clothing, shoes, any trinkets found in his pockets. This Agent never existed as far as your forensics is concerned.”

“I understand.”

______________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

___________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fez

—from a couple of years ago—

The guy upstairs has a swollen prostrate. I know because it takes him ten minutes to piss. He starts out okay, a steady stream, then it becomes short bursts. Bang, long pause, bang, long pause, bang…. The sound comes through my ceiling, in a dim sort of high fidelity. The sticky darkness adhering to it, giving it weight. It’s the curse of whiskey and the gift of insomnia. I hear everything in the dark, and I’m blessed with empty hours to interpret.

The guy upstairs wears a fez, red with a black silk tassel. He reads E.E. Cummings and Aleister Crowley all night, and drinks absinthe. He listens to opera on his Victrola, too. Then, round 5:00 a.m., I hear him fall into his mattress. Like a meteor hitting a desert mesa, obliterating everything.

I’m guessing at some of this, of course. But some of it I know to be fact. I broke into his place a few weeks after he moved in, while he was out doing whatever a guy like that does. There were the Cummings and Crowley books stacked on a side table next to an overstuffed chair, the fez and the absinthe. That and several decks of Fatima Turkish cigarettes. The ashtray was full. I found $83.76 in his sock drawer. I ate okay that week.

The other night he had a fight with some broad up there. It was 2:00 a.m. when it started. I was awake, working on a second quart of Seagram’s, smoking Export plains, playing solitaire on the floor.

“You bitch!” he yelled. That’s how it started out. “You have no talent.” He has a German sort of accent.

“But you promised me that I did,” said the broad. I placed a red nine onto a black ten.

“You must understand that the voice is not a percussion instrument. You’re no soprano, after all. You wouldn’t survive on stage. They’d eat you alive.”

“You’re cruel,” she said. And I kind of had to agree. Black jack onto red queen.

“We must end the partnership,” he hollered, and then there was a loud thump on the floor above. I guess he stamped his foot to emphasise. I’m drinking from the bottle now. Drinking from a glass at this point is sort of insincere. Red five onto black six.

“I won’t go,” she shouted. “I have nowhere to go.”

“Then sleep in an alley, you artless whore.”

Jesus, that was some kind of painful shit. I placed an ace of diamonds up top.

Something glass shattered, a face was slapped. Then the broad started to cry. Or maybe she wept. I never knew the difference. Red seven onto a black eight.

“I’m sorry I disappointed you,” she said, weeping. “You showed such enthusiasm, once. Maybe you lied. Men always lie.”

“And women always pursue the lie, like it was gold. And they believe it whenever they hear it. No matter how ridiculous or what form it takes. Even though they know better. And then you always blame another for your self-inflicted grief. That is woman’s greatest flaw. Is it my fault?”

Now he was the one kind of making sense. A real can of worms, though. I wouldn’t have even suggested it. But then, I didn’t wear a fez. Red three onto black four. Ace of spades goes up top. Two, three, four of spades onto that.

“Leave me in peace,” he shouts. Another slap, hard this time. And the sound of a body stumbling to the floor.

“I’ll kill you.”

“Ha!”

Red ten onto black jack. I’m starting to run out of plays. This might not be a winning hand.

Then kapow! It’s a gun. Something small, like a .22, .32 tops. Something a gal would carry in her purse. Another body hits the floor.

It’s the woman’s voice now. Not so loud this time. “You should have seen that coming. Not so tough now, are you? Did you think I would take your abuse forever?”

I need another ace. But its hidden somewhere under a queen or a nine. The game’s over.

Footsteps across the floor, small feet, high heels. The door upstairs slams shut.

I reassemble the deck and shuffle.

In an hour there was a dark reddish stain forming in the middle of my ceiling. I guessed the fez guy was bleeding out on his snazzy Persian rug. His swollen prostrate wouldn’t be such a big issue no more. I went up and checked his door. The dame hadn’t locked it. I went in and there he was, cold and dead. On his back, looking up at the light fixtures. A single small bullet hole in his forehead. She was a crack shot.

I took the absinthe, the Fatimas and the fez. I’m wearing it now. 3:00 a.m. and the steam pipes are banging something awful. Red three onto black four.

photographing Spencer

It’s just me and Spencer, alone in an alley on the Downtown Eastside. He’s struggling with the Brillo in his crack pipe.

“Just hang on man,” he says—“I just scored. I’m really jonesing.”

He’s been sleeping on benches, shoplifting and begging. He’s filthy, a stunning ruin of a man. Finally he lights the tiny nugget in the glass tube and inhales. Then he shudders, exhales and says, “Ahhh fuck me.”

I’ve come to take his portrait so he can send it home, but now he’s wrecked. His eyes’ve gone reptile, and he’s confused by gravity. It’s not the picture his family will want to see.

“Damn you’re a mess, Spence,” I say, and he grins at me with his blistered crack-lips.

“Go ahead then. Take my fucking picture.”

And bam, I do. Sometimes I think the D-300 sounds like a gun going off. Bam bam bam…. Holding down the shutter release, circling him. It’s evening and the light is runny, the colours blunt. Every line on his face is accentuated, every deep hungry hollow, every childhood abuse stitched into his psyche.

“Last I got my picture taken, it was the cops,” he laughs. But his buzz is changing, even now. He lights up again, inhales/exhales and says, “I’m running out already. Lend me some cash.”

“I’ll buy you dinner at the Ovaltine, but I won’t lend you money.”

“Shit, I don’t want no dinner. I can get dinner at the mission.” Then he says, “Check this out…,” and attempts a pirouette. He falls on his ass, and I catch the fall in six shots, like the frames of a motion picture. I’m not cruel; I’m just a photographer. I offer him my hand. He ignores it.

Now sitting in the gutter sludge, Spencer says, “My old man fucked me, you know?”

“Yeah, Spence. You told me.”

“Like I was a bitch. Tore me open every time. Stopped when I was about fourteen. Guess I wasn’t pretty no more. Kept beating the crap outta me, though. The prick had a heart attack a couple of years back, died. Shit his pants when he did, my brother says. My mother’s fifty-five. Looks ninety.”

“Pictures are for her, huh?” I say.

“It was hard for her. ”

I’m silent for a moment. Crows are massing overhead for their night-flight back into the suburbs.

“I’ll work on the pics tonight,” I say, “colour and black & white. I’ll track you down tomorrow. We can use a computer at Carnegie to send them home. Try to make that shit in your pocket last.”

“I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”

“I’ll look for you, anyway.”

“No,” he says, handing me a grubby note, “I mean I really don’t know.”

He’s already walking away as I read what’s written on the slip of paper—

Please send these words with the pictures: All my love too family and friends. Good-bye. This is followed by a short list of email addresses.

I shout at him, “What’s this mean, Spencer?” Then I run after him, grab his shoulder and turn him around. “What’s this mean?” And I know what it means just by what’s on his face. I let him go. I’m just a photographer.

________________________________________________________

a Canadian over Hiroshima

In a favourite frequent dream he was Little Boy, released lazily from the fuselage, falling freely over the city with his eyes open wide, toward the topography and civil systems, framed by the compass horizon. This was the elegance of his descent, the landscape static below for that long minute, having been dropped from so high, decent divorcing distance. Then the dense second of his detonation, uranium-235 colliding, as he became the toroidal vortex that defined him forevermore.

He woke at 3:00 a.m., in the heat of that fire over Hiroshima. But he remembered quickly that it was August, and that the heat was merely the swelter over his dull prairie neighbourhood. He sat up in his bed, scanning the dark for ghosts. But until that night, there had been none. The dead had spent no time in his ordinary garden. They hadn’t peeked over its walls, or tried its gate. The dead danced on other planets.

He was a man of many regrets, prone to saying he had none. Alive to the murder/suicide in things, he wrote equations to forget, on his ceilings and walls, papering over the windows and writing over them. Kilometres of binaries, brackets, numbers, functions, powers and variables throughout the house, all in 4B graphite pencil. There were holes in things. He gauged their sizes and pinpointed their locations. Strings of calculus. He dusted carefully the boundaries between objects, a bit of mathematical fibre on a toothpick run along the cracks in things. 3:00 a.m. glowed in the dark. Fictitious, a fraud.

Time is equal to distance over velocity, t = d/v; anguish equal to isolation over remembering, a = i/r.

The Enola Gay, with a crew of 12, 7,000 gallons of fuel, and a 9,000 pound bomb in its belly lifted off from Tinian Airfield at 2:45 a.m. on August 6, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress had four engines and was propeller-driven, a heavy bomber designed by Boeing. It was advanced for its time, with a pressurized cabin, an electronic fire-control system, and remote-controlled machine-guns. The crew dropped the bomb over the city at 8:15 a.m.

A girl on the ground, at that moment, looked up at the silver bead falling in the sky, her head tilted back, her mouth open slightly. Curious at first. Then, “Raijū,” she said, a second before she was blinded.

She wore a blue cotton dress like any Japanese schoolgirl of her time, and now sat on a chair near the bedroom window opened inches to the night. “I saw you in the sky,” she said to him, “that morning. And for all of the enmity and cunning that delivered you there, you were passive and imbecilic, round and ridiculous, a silly tantrum.”

“But you misunderstand,” he said. “I simply have dreams.”

She looked around at the numbers on his walls, and said, “I felt your heat for a second, and then I was ash. A silhouette. A moment scorched onto a wall.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his fists twisting the sheets, and at some point fell back to sleep.

She was gone in the morning, and he wrote a = i/r with a finger in the bathroom mirror’s morning steam. Equations and the dead have their silence, and they stand on stone.

 

 

 

 

 

the angel of 1913

a new year’s day story

Every year has its angel. And don’t make the mistake of believing each angel is a good one. For in any age, there are only half as many good angels as there might be, and twice as many wicked angels as there should be. And  even this estimation fails to take into account the ambivalent angels that can feebly preside over a year, and in so doing, cause more grief and discontent than any legion of demons.

It is always on the last evening of each year that the new angel assigned to the new year arrives to acquaint itself with the world over which it will hold sway for 365 days. And so it was on December 31st, 1912, when The Angel of 1913 arrived in town.

The streets were cold and foggy, and the snow, so fresh and white two days ago, was hard and grey. The Angel of 1913 sat in Morrey’s Diner with a cup of coffee, having just finished dinner. He smoked a cigar, and watched a river of souls walk past the steamy window.  He wore a freshly pressed suit with a red silk tie.

The Angel of 1913 was notable among angels. Some angels denied that he was an angel at all. A mere imp, some said. Or a fallen angel, perhaps. But The Angel of 1913 didn’t give a damn what other angels said. He ignored the gossip of cherubs.

For a few moments, he’d been aware of his waitress standing at the counter watching him. This happened frequently. Over the millennia, he’d become used to his power over humans. He relit his cigar. The ember sizzled and glowed bright as a furnace. He deeply inhaled a mouthful of smoke, and made a show of it for her. It disappeared into his undying and incalculable lungs, and he exhaled far more than he’d taken in. It was a Vesuvius of cigar smoke and misty wraiths. The waitress shrieked, and disappeared into the kitchen.

He laughed at this, and in doing so, almost missed sight of a rough looking character with a battered backpack walking down the street past the diner window. There was an air of failure and homelessness about the woman. But there was something else as well; something difficult to define that interested The Angel of 1913. And though it was still 1912, and he had little power over the events of the remaining year, he thought he’d use what power he did have to cause some mischief.

He stood up, snuffing out his cigar in the remaining mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. A silver dollar appeared from nowhere in his hand, and he let it drop into the remains of his meal. It made a sloppy plop sound in the congealing gravy that made him smile. He put on his overcoat, and exited.

The Angel of 1913 walked quickly, staying a few paces behind the backpack woman. What a coup it would be to cause pain and suffering before his year had even begun. He finally caught up at an intersection where a traffic cop presided. There, he stopped next to the woman and said, “Hell of a New Year’s Eve, eh?”

“All the same to me,” said the woman, looking straight ahead.

“Sleeping rough, are you?”

“Maybe. You got some spare change to help me out?”

The Angel of 1913 chose that moment to look down at the curb, and the woman beside him did the same. A twenty dollar bill had somehow appeared there without her noticing; it was unlike her streetwise eye to miss such a rare prize. The Angel of 1913 stepped on the bill, and said, “I saw it first.”

“Fine,” said the woman, looking away. She bit her lip as a familiar spasm of failure travelled through her belly. It merged with the ever-present hunger pangs to create a vicious light headedness.

“But I’ll tell you what….”

“What?” said the woman.

“I’ll take my foot off of the twenty, and you can pick it up. It’ll be all yours. That means a couple week’s worth of room and board and a little hooch, all for you.”

“Okay,” said the woman and she began to bend down to take the bill.

“Or,” said The Angel of 1913, not moving his foot, “you can take a chance on what’s in my right hand pants pocket right now. Before you decide, though, I should tell you that I often carry with me far more than twenty dollars – far, far more, my friend – enough, perhaps, to make you comfortable for all of 1913. However, I feel that I’m equally obligated to inform you that I just had a splendid meal that set me back some considerable amount. There’s a chance that I don’t have much of anything in my pocket at all. You can play it safe and take the twenty now, or gamble on what you can’t see. The twenty under my shoe, or all the money, whatever the amount, concealed in my pocket.”

“You’re nuts. Just let me have the twenty.”

“Are you sure, Maxine?”

“Hey, how the hell you know my name?”

“It’s New Year’s Eve, Maxine. A night of magic and miracles. A night when angels might descend form on high, and change the luck of a down-and-outer like you.”

“You a cop?” said the woman.

“I can assure you that I am not,” said The Angel of 1913.

“You want sex?”

“My goodness, no.”

“Because I ain’t for sale.”

Maxine looked down at the twenty dollar bill. It was a lot of dough, by her standards. But maybe this crackpot did have a wad in his pocket. Maybe this was a night when something good could happen. She looked up again at the man standing there, and licked her lips. Then she ran her finger under her nose and sniffed. “You do this stuff all the time, mister?”

“Sometimes,” said The Angel of 1913.

“Based on your experience, what are my chances?”

“Chances are you will always find life to be unpredictable.”

“That ain’t much of an answer.”

“That traffic cop has changed the direction of traffic twice now during our exchange, Maxine. I hope our business here can be completed before it changes again.”

Maxine ran her thumb under her pack’s shoulder strap. The strap had been digging in all day. It was painful, a disheartening pain. A pain that made the night seem colder, wetter, darker. In her mind, she attempted to calculate the impossible. Could she cash in on what was in this man’s pocket? Could he be a good hearted trickster ready to commit an act of charity? She looked him in the face, and The Angel of 1913 smiled a bland, confident smile.

“Okay,” she said. “Forget the twenty. I’ll take the cash in your pocket, every damn dime.” Maxine held out her hand. “C’mon,” she said. “Give.”

The smile on The Angel of 1913’s face grew broader, and he pulled his clenched fist out of his pocket. It could have concealed a hundred dollars, or a thousand. She waited for the fist to open. And when it did, Maxine felt a familiar spasm in her gut. In the palm of the man’s hand was a nickel and two pennies.

“Shit,” she said.

The Angel of 1913 bent down, and picked up the twenty from under his fine shinny leather boot.

“How do I know that’s all you got in your pocket, buddy,” said Maxine.

“I’m a Gentleman,” said The Angel of 1913. “You have my word.”

“Shit.”

“It’s just stupid bad luck. Isn’t it, Maxine?”

“I guess.”

“You made a bet – you took a risk – and you lost. It’s just too bad.”

“Hang on,” said Maxine. “You’re nuts. That wasn’t no bet. I didn’t lose a damn thing. In fact, I’m up seven cents.”

“Well, that is entirely the wrong attitude.”

“Look, mister, you might have all the money in the world and look real swell in your snazzy duds, but you got no business telling me I got a bad attitude. Now fork over my seven cents. I can get a bowl of soup with that.” Her belly growled at the thought.

The Angel of 1913 didn’t like the way this was unfolding. He’d hoped his little trick would have helped to demoralise this woman. Instead she stood there talking about soup, and how his seven cents could buy some. Perhaps he’d miscalculated. He wrapped his tight fist round the nickel and two pennies.

“How ‘bout we try this,” he said. “I’ll….”

“You’ll do nothing, mister,” said Maxine. “Not a damn thing ‘cept hand over my seven cents. ‘Cause if you don’t, I’m gonna scream blue bloody murder and that traffic cop is gonna come on over, and I’m gonna tell him you mistook me for a women of ill fame.”

“Ill fame?” said The Angel of 1913. “Mistook you for…? My dear woman, have you looked in mirror lately?”

“Fine,” Maxine said. She took a deep breath of air, as though she were preparing to yell very loudly.

“Wait,” said The Angel of 1913, who had yet to receive the advantage of all his powers over the world – the powers that would be bestowed on him a tick after midnight on New Year’s Day. Until then, he was restricted to what were, in his estimation, mere parlour tricks, like the conjuring of coins and bank notes, and the correct guessing of people’s names. Dissuading a dutiful cop from rescuing a shabby woman in distress might be beyond him at this point.

He looked across the street at a bank. Its ostentatious clock read 6:29. He was still five and a half hours away from full influence over Earthly goings-on. He had a thought.

“How would you like to double your money?” he said. “Turn seven cents into fourteen. That’s two bowls of soup.”

“I just need one, mister.”

“Well now, isn’t that just the sort of thinking that keeps a good woman down?”

“You’re too tricky for me, fella. But you owe me seven cents. Now give.”

“Okay, okay,” said The Angel of 1913. He held a pacifying hand in the air. And with that hand, he produced another twenty dollar bill out of thin air. “How would you like another crack at one of these?”

Her patience was wearing thin. The cop in the centre of the intersection blew his whistle, and encouraged the traffic through. It occurred to her then to simply walk away. Even if she could get the cop’s attention, she’d been sleeping at missions for weeks. She was grubby, and the sort of person the cops loved to run off the street and put in the clink. The twenty in the man’s hand seemed to glow, however. And a gust of icy wind blew up the sidewalk. The twenty could buy a lot of comfort.

“Alright,” she said. “What’s the gimmick this time?”

“Do you like riddles,” said The Angel of 1913 with a greasy smile.

“Hate ‘em,” said Maxine.

“Well here’s the gimmick,” said The Angel of 1913. “I ask you a riddle. If you answer it correctly, you get the twenty. Answer it wrong, and you still get the seven cents.”

“Okay, fine. Hit me.”

“Alright, listen carefully,” said The Angel of 1913. “The riddle is this: It has hands but no fingers. It tocks but says nothing. What is it?”

“It talks, but says nothing,” said Maxine.

“Yes,” said The Angel of 1913, tapping his well heeled foot. “It tocks but says nothing. Do hurry; I have tickets for the stage.”

“Hmm,” said Maxine, putting her finger on her chin. “What talks and says nothing?”

“That’s the riddle, my dear. Can you answer it or not?”

“Give me a minute.”

“You don’t have forever. We can’t stand here all night. Time’s a wasting. C’mon, c’mon.”

Just then the bank clock across the street rang the half hour.

“Hey,” said Maxine. “Do you mean talk or tock? Like as in tick-tock.”

“Well….” said The Angel of 1913, looking sheepish.

“Which is it?”

“Must I answer the riddle for you?” he said.

“No, but I think you’re cheating. Talk or tock? Fess up.”

“Do you accuse me of cheating?” said The Angel of 1913. “Me? How dare you?”

“Well?”

“Fine. We’ll do another riddle.”

“The hell we will,” Maxine said. “Talk or tock? Come clean.”

Had he miscalculated? Maxine was obviously no great intellect, but she was proving that she wasn’t simple either. Perhaps he should have given the riddle more thought before asking it. But it had worked before. He’d been asking the same riddle since the invention of the mechanical clock. There was something tediously assertive about this awful woman. So, what now? What could be worse than surrendering the twenty dollar bill to this unwashed trollop? What could be worse than conceding? He never had. For a second, he thought about pushing her into traffic. But he was unsure he could get away with it before midnight came. She might put up a fight.

“Well,” said Maxine. “I’m waiting.”

“I’m calling off the bet,” said The Angel of 1913.

“You can’t,” said Maxine.

“I already have.”

“Then give me my seven cents.”

“Absolutely not,” said The Angel of 1913. “You were only to receive the seven cents if you lost the bet. You didn’t lose the bet because I called the bet off. Therefore, no seven cents.”

“You cheated,” said Maxine.

“I most certainly did not,” said The Angel of 1913. “I’m incapable of cheating,” he lied.

“Then I want another chance,” said Maxine. “And this time, I ask the riddle.”

He frowned and thought for a moment. Then he tried to read her mind, but all he got were bits and pieces. A broken vase and burnt eggs. This would be a challenge. He hated challenges. He liked to win. But he couldn’t turn and run now. It would be admitting defeat. It would be undignified.

“Very well,” said The Angel of 1913. “But let’s up the ante, and make it a real bet.” He bent over and picked up a candy bar wrapper from the sidewalk. He closed his fist round it, and when his fist opened again, the wrapper had morphed into a large roll of bills held tight with an elastic band. “There’s ten thousand dollars here. What have you got to put up?”

“Nothin’,” said Maxine.

“You might have something,” said The Angel of 1913, smiling his greasy smile. “Something you may have never considered risking.”

“Mister, all I ever had I left behind in a shack on a dead and dusty plot of land in Manitoba.”

“Then consider this,” said The Angel of 1913. “If you win, if you can ask a riddle I cannot answer, you get the ten thousand. If you lose, I will take from you everything you ever were, and more. There won’t be enough of you left to deliver to the infirmary, or even for a priest to offer last rights.”

“You are crazy,” said Maxine.

Hearing this, The Angel of 1913 reached out and tightly clasped Maxine’s hand. He hissed: “Don’t count on it.” Eyes dead and colourless now, all humour gone from his face. His teeth sharp for a second, like those of a dog. Somehow, from somewhere, a choir of deep lament, a chorus of anguish and defeat. And there was the smell of something burning.

“Let go,” said Maxine, pulling free. She stumbled backward a few steps, and looked at the man. He’d become a grinning dandy again, but the burning smell lingered.

“Since this has turned so serious, mister,” she said. “I have one condition that I want understood. By that clock across the street, you answer my riddle in sixty seconds. That’s one minute, got it?”

“That’s acceptable,” said The Angel of 1913. He smiled, and was suave and self-assured. “Do you have your riddle ready?”

“I think I do,” said Maxine. Her belly growled again. Ten thousand dollars would buy a lot of soup. She could sleep on clean sheets, and take the tram where she liked. Maybe for the rest of her life. “Here we go,” she said. “My riddle is this: Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence. What am I?”

“That’s it?”

“Yup,” said Maxine. “And you now have fifty-eight seconds.”

“Why that’s easy, it’s….”

“Fifty-seven seconds.”

“Oh, stop that,” said The Angel of 1913. “It’s annoying.”

“Well?”

“You enter a room and it’s empty, in spite of you being there. Ha, you’re a ghost. That was so easy!”

“Not so fast, mister. It ain’t a ghost. It’s something you don’t even know anything about, so you ain’t never gonna guess it right.”

“Not a ghost? Then, hmm. Then the fog, of course. You’re the fog. The room is empty, but there you are.”

“Nope,” said Maxine.

“Well will you at least tell me if I’m warm?” said The Angel of 1913.

“Not a chance,” said Maxine. “And times runnin’ out.”

“I wonder if you’re not the one cheating this time,” said The Ghost of 1913. “Maybe you’re all riddle and no answer.”

“We’ll see.”

“Something I know nothing about, is it? That certainly narrows it down. But what’s the point if I don’t know about it?”

“Tick-tock, tick-tock,” said Maxine.

The Angel of 1913 was starting to worry. No one had ever asked him a riddle he couldn’t answer. Over the centuries, they’d asked him complex, esoteric riddles. The more complex and esoteric, the easier they were to answer. But this riddle was so simple. Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence.

He had a thought; he tried his luck at slowing the clock. But it didn’t work. His full powers on Earth were still hours away. He cleared his mind and focussed.  …empty, in spite of my presence; …empty, in spite of my presence.

Finally, Maxine said: “Five seconds, mister.”

“I have it!” said The Angels of 1913. “I have it, and now you’re mine, you infuriating little bitch. I’ll make you suffer, I will.”

“Two seconds.”

“Air!” he said. ” …empty, in spite of my presence. It’s air. I have you now.”

“Nope,” said Maxine. “You ain’t got jack shit.

“Then what is it?” said The Angel of 1913. “Every room I enter is empty, in spite of my presence. Tell me what it is, or I’ll throttle you!”

“Hunger,” said Maxine. “I told you you knew nothing about it, and I was right. That’s why it didn’t even occur to you.”

“Surely it’s too metaphorical! It was a trick. You tricked me. I’m calling off the bet.”

“Can’t. I played by the rules. Now hand over the cash.”

“Do you know who I am?” said The Angel of 1913 in a last-ditch effort to intimidate. “Do you know how bad I can make things for you throughout the year to come?”

“Worse than what you see now?” said Maxine as she reached out and took the wad of bills from the hand of The Angel of 1913. “I don’t think so.”

She removed the elastic band with a snap, and began to count. There were too many hundreds, fifties and twenties to get through, but she had an idea that it was all there. “Thanks,” she said, and smiled.

The Angel of 1913 watched, slack jawed, as Maxine waited for the traffic cop to wave her through. Then she crossed the street and disappeared into the dark, wet city.