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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the revised Devil and Billy Romance

 

during the 2nd war

So, there was this guy called Billy Romance. Don’t ask me what his real name was—maybe that was it. Maybe he came from a long line of Romances, some moldy old lineage going back to the Old Country. Whatever the hell that is, Old Country I mean. Sounds like something somebody forgot in a bus station men’s room, and never claimed at the lost-and-found, something some guy wakes up in a motel room in another city and says, “Holy shit, I left the Old Country in the can at the Grey Hound station before I boarded the bus, a thousand miles ago. What do I do now? I guess I gotta start over in this shitty little town, sans ancestry. How’s a guy do that? I guess I’m gonna find out. I guess my lineage starts all over, right here.” Then he drinks enough liquor to kill an elephant and his lineage never actually starts over, because he’s shit face and smokes in bed, and dies in a mattress fire. I’m just saying that that’s what might have happened. I’m speculating, get it?

Anyway, Romance was a musician. He played piano at bars round town, but mostly he played at the Arthur Murray dance studio down on Main Street above the White Lunch—the place with the one armed head cook, that tenor who’d been bounced out of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna for fondling the wrong soprano backstage during a performance of La bohème, so he moved to Canada and now he sings Puccini all day over the burger grill and the bacon and eggs. How he lost his arm is some kind of a mystery, though, and he gives anyone who asks the High C fuck you.

The reason I bring Billy Romance into the conversation is because he used to say the craziest things. I remember once he told me that he hated walking up hill to get downtown, that sort of thing. He cracked me up. He told me once that a piano’s got eighty-eight keys but an organ’s got no strings attached. Ha! But then there were times when he’d say spooky shit, quiet like Doom was in the room with him, smoking a cigarette, sitting on the kitchen chair next to the window, across the alley from another building’s fire escape where a dishy lass sleeps out on a mattress with almost nothing on in the summer, which is beside the point I know. But, more to the point, this one time Billy says all gloomy and unequivocal-like, “Sometimes I feel like I wrote my life left handed across a page and smeared the ink.” Whoa Billy boy, I thought. Where’d that come from? Besides, you’re a righty not a lefty (I guess that was his point). I mean, your life really would be a mess if you wrote it out with your left hand. Never mind spelling mistakes and tense-confusion.

But I should move on with the story. I don’t want to digress.

Some people say that I do that, occasionally. Digress, I mean. Like a girl I dated once named Ethel. Ethel the Red, they called her on account of her red hair, which is kind of a preference of mine. But then I found out she was just a blonde on our second date—don’t bother asking how—not a red head at all, and we had to break up as a consequence of my disappointment.

“You’re a bum!”—were among her last words to me, as I got up from the table in the Savoy Barroom and walked away into the tobacco smoke. That’s the Savoy on Hastings, by the way. Not the one they tried to open on Columbia Street for the Navy boys, but there were too many fights so the Shore Patrol shut it down.

“And all you ever do is digress,” she said way too loud for such a little room like the Savoy, on a Wednesday night when it was kind of empty. “I can’t keep up when you tell me all those crazy stories,” she shouted. But by then I was exiting onto Hastings, because that’s the street the Savoy’s on, in case you’re wondering and you didn’t get it the first time I said it.

So, it was back in 1944 when something strange happened to Billy, maybe I should’ve mentioned at the beginning that this is a story about the strangeness of something that happened once, but I guess it’s too late now. Anyway, he had a bum ticker that kept him out of the war (I had the bone spurs, by the way), and the skirts really went for him, his frailties making him sort of sympathetic. Just picture a paler Frank Sinatra, round the time Louis B. Mayer bought Franky’s contract from RKO and moved him over to MGM. The dames love that kind of shit, and because a lot of the boys were overseas, he had the girls lining up. His dance card was full, if you know what I mean. But the thing was, Billy Romance didn’t go in for the dolls. He could have had a different chiquita on his arm every night, but Billy Romance was head over heels in love with a tugboat mate named Spike Dillinger.

Don’t ask me Spike’s real name, by the way. Maybe that was it. But I gotta picture a new mother, to believe it, still in the Maternity Ward, looking down at the wailing little bastard in her arms and saying, “Spike,” for the first time, with all the love in the world, forgetting the pain of delivery, forgetting the absentee bum who knocked her up, forgetting that she didn’t have two buttons to rub together. Now that’s someone who never knew there might be an Old Country waiting for her to pick up at the bus station lost-and-found.

Trouble for Billy, though,  was that Spike Dillinger was a ladies’ man, and he was all squishy over this quail named Rosita Sangria—a name just dopey enough to be real—a beautiful yet volatile underwear model for the Hudson Bay Company with a blue rose tattoo on the back of her left shoulder, and that was pretty hot stuff back in ‘44. How could a big dim mook like Spike Dillinger resist? Too bad he lived in that tarpaper wharf-shack on the docks off Campbell Avenue, brushed his teeth with sea water and only took a bath once a week at the Mission to Seafarers on Waterfront Road. Plain enough that he and Rosita moved in different circles. How could she know he even existed? And even if she did, what were the chances of her and Spike consummating his drool-soaked fantasies?

But bang! One day it happened. People start seeing Dillinger and Sangria round town, like a couple of kids that just arrived in the Shangri-La of Love. Spike had stalked her, of course, haunting the streets for weeks until the moment was right. And it finally happened in the rain, as she came out of the Hudson Bay store onto Granville Street. She couldn’t open her dime store umbrella, so he stepped up to help, and just like a puppy, pathetic and weepy-eyed, he shucked and golly-geed his way into her heart, the way that only guys, so often referred to as big lugs, can do it.

That was hard on Billy, because he played piano every Friday and Saturday night at the Metropole Hotel Bar, on Abbott Street across from Woodward’s Department Store, where Spike Dillinger was now spending a lot of his time when he wasn’t out on the inlet. Spike would sit there all evening, happily quaffing beers, with his arm round the shoulder of Rosita Sangria who’d be sipping her Smirnoff and Coca-Cola and nagging him about all of his short-comings, while Billy pined and sadly played slow jazz renditions of Hit Parade love songs.

And I mean the gig wasn’t even that great for Billy. He was just playing for tips, a thing which I hear was common for musicians back then, bar owners being tightwads, real cheap rat-faced sons-of-bitches. There was even this jazz guitarist named Aldo Ferrari—not a real name, you must agree—who went on a killing spree once round Christmastime. He ended up killing five club owners who’d done him wrong, reimbursement-wise, before the cops cornered him in the lobby of the Georgia Hotel and shot him dead. In a hail of bullets said the Vancouver Sun. A hail that also killed a bell-hop named Wally Goebbels—don’t get me started. Aldo had waited hours in the hotel lobby, on a couch under a palm tree, before he got a clean shot at the manager—whose name I never got, but I bet it was a doozy—who’d refused to pay Aldo on the basis he’d played The Surrey with the Fringe on Top in the wrong key one night. I’d have murdered the prick, too.

But back to Rosita and Dillinger. They were on a fling. Rosita had a new tattoo on the back of her right shoulder, an anchor, the most secure thing in a sailor’s life, the tattoo artist said. She’d even had the artist weave Spike into the rope that coiled round it. That’s what finally broke Billy’s heart, Spike’s name in a rope. Some tried to console him, but the more they tried, the more he wept.

So, eventually Billy Romance does this really strange thing. He goes to see this old Romanian broad with a green glass eye, which is important to the story because her other eye, the real one, was blue, and that made her all the more mysterious to the common Post-Toasties-kind-of-guy off the street. You see, she’d been getting a little less sexy over the years, poor girl, and different coloured eyes made all the difference, because nothing sells fortune-telling like sex and/or mismatched body parts. And that’s what she was, a fortune-teller. Elga Coal (Now if that ain’t a made up name, I don’t know what is.) : A clairvoyant of repute, said her Yellow Pages ad.

Billy went seeking her guidance because he needed to know if the future held any chance of  him wooing Spike Dillinger. By then he’d have even settled for a fractious ménage à trois—him, Dillinger and Rosita, as long as it would last forever. For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer.

It was dark outside when he arrived at Elga’s, her lair dimly lit with candles and oil lamps. Sitting at her table, he let her read his tea leaves, watched her lay out the tarot deck, and finally held out the palm of his hand for her to analyse.

“Your palm is mountainous,” she said, her voice tangy and guttural. “There are deep river valleys and alpine meadows. But there are also ogres in the caves higher up, where the snow never melts. They sleep on the bones of ruined hopes. They’re your sworn enemies. Your greatest aspirations are especially delicate and delicious, and these ogres tear them with sharp claws and gnaw on them with their blunt teeth.”

“Then these ogres must be defeated,” he said, quiet as though Doom was in the room with its cigarette.

“Defeated?” said Elga. “One’s ogres are never defeated. You might chase them back into their caves, but they will always be there. Watching and waiting for their next chance.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Then go home,” she dismissed him.

“What will be my future, then? Let’s forget about ogres for now.”

“Maybe loneliness and death,” Elga said, shrugging.

“Maybe?”

“Maybe long life and happiness?” She began to roll her own cigarette.

“But, that’s not helpful!” said Billy. “It leaves me no better off than before I came to you.”

“Fate’s that way.” She stuck out her tongue, and heartily licked the gluey strip of the cigarette paper.

“What about love? Will there be love in my future?”

Elga looked again at Billy Romance’s palm. This time she saw something new and said, “Oh!”

Oh?” he said. “Look, I need more than that. I’m paying for more than, Oh.”

“You’re a homosexual,” said Elga, grimly, as though she’d just discovered the Old Country dead in her closet. “That’s difficult.” She sparked-up her rollie with a match, drew hard and inhaled deeply. “I should have seen it right away in the alpine meadows—and there’s something else, oh my.”

There it was again.

Oh my?”

“Unrequited love,” she said. “But, this is no surprise. There’s always unrequited love. If I only had $2 for every one-sided love that came through that door….”

“Well don’t you?” Billy said, “Isn’t $2 what you charge people to tell them their love is one-sided?”

“Don’t be so literal,” she snapped. “This is art.”  Then she said, “I see a big man with muscles and tattoos. Needs a bath. A sailor, of sorts. Not very bright. Doesn’t seem your type.” She looked at Billy, who was suddenly dreamy-eyed. “You got it bad, mister,” she said.

“I guess,” he said, “but will my love ever be requited?”

She thought some more, considering the Himalayanesque terrain of his palm, then threw up her hands and said, “No way José.” Which seemed an odd and insensitive way of putting it.

But then she said more, telling Billy Romance that it’d be easier to get blood from a parsnip, than for him to hook-up with his grubby dreamboat. Which is funny, but not the way you’d think. But because at the time there was this faith healer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was doing just that, getting blood from parsnips, to prove his Holy connection with God. Tea pots, car tires, stones—you name it—he was drawing blood from everything he could lay his hands on. Just held his breath and rolled his rheumy eyes until it happened.

People in need of healing were lining up at his revival meetings, with him at his pulpit in a big tent in a field on the outskirts of the city. Arthritis, deafness, ascending colons, the clap—both gonorrhea and Syphilis—he healed them all, right after he showed off his blood-letting talents, so that the unbelievers in the crowd would cast off their demon-doubts and kneel and pray to the Lord God and the miracle-worker himself, whose name was Felix Deuteronomy. And yeah, that’s got to be a fake name. It’s just got to be. I mean what mother who loves a child is gonna name her kid Felix?

But back to the story.

So, Elga sees the bad news is depressing the bejeebers out of Billy Romance, and says that maybe there’s a solution—and bear in mind, I wasn’t there. I’m only paraphrasing here. Because had I been there, I would’ve told Romance to take a powder, to vamoose, to amscray. But I couldn’t have intervened. I was in Winnipeg at the time, for my own reason. Don’t even ask.

“Maybe I should introduce you to Mr Shine,” says Elga Coal, puffing on her smoke.

“Mr Shine?” Billy Romance says. “Who’s this Mr Shine?”

“Oh, Shine’s an old friend, a great solver of problems,” says Elga Coal, her glass eye suddenly blue, and the other green. “He may be able to help you, but he doesn’t work for free.”

“So, what’s it gonna coast?” Billy says.

“That’s between you and Shine,” says Elga, “but it won’t be cheap. Sometimes souls are his preferred currency.”

“Can he help me have Spike Dillinger?”

“He could.”

“Okay,” Billy says. “That’s for me. Bring on Mr Shine. Gimme his telephone number. Tell me where I can find him.”

Here Elga Coal grins, and says, “Don’t worry, he’ll find you.” And as her glass eye turned a burning vermilion, she held out her hand and said, “That’ll be five bucks.”

“I thought it was two.”

“Referrals are extra.”

She didn’t work cheap, either, but he handed over the cash.

So, now—

Very mysterious, Billy Romance thinks, coming back down to Earth as he exits onto the street. On the sidewalk, it seems like some fairy-tale from the Old Country. And five bucks, at that! But what was the point of arguing with an old Romanian broad with a glass eye?

Convinced he’d been conned, Billy Romance walks away tragically toward Shanghai Stella’s, the only place in town where sensitive young men of Billy Romance’s ilk could congregate and be themselves with one another without fear of penalty.

But he never makes it.

It’s tenish, dark and damp after a rain, and Romance is walking through Chinatown, down a shortcut back alley to the music of mah-jong tiles from the open windows above when, without warning, he encounters a smooth looking individual with a flirty smile and perfect black hair, stepping into the yellow light of a bare bulb over the back door of an herbal emporium. Billy, not being the sort to participate in back alley high jinks with strange men, walks on by, and almost makes it down the lane before he hears the man behind him say—

“Hello, Mr Romance. I understand I might be of service.”

“Not interested, fella,” Billy says, still walking, nearly overwhelmed by the strange man’s bituminous odour, but wondering how the perv got his name. Then, overwhelmed by curiosity, he stops, turns round, and says, “What’s your game, mister?”

“No game. The name’s Mr Shine.”

“Yes, and?” says Billy Romance, taking a stab at quick thinking and failing, standing straight and throwing back his shoulders. Elga Coal hadn’t conned him, after all, and it scared him.

“You’ve a wish, I understand, involving another man.”

“Maybe.”

“You want his attention.”

“Maybe.”

“Are you sure?” says Shine. “He seems a little rough round the edges, could use a bath.”

“I wish people would stop saying that.”

“Alright, I know that that’s how love is. Why don’t I arrange it.”

“Can you?” Billy says, with cautious enthusiasm, and visions of dreams come true.

But so, here I have to interject on the topic of enthusiasm. Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and a guy nuts for the assembly line, once said:  Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes shine to the stars. Now, I figure yeast coming into it is sort of strange since it’s just a bunch of bugs farting in the bread dough. But some people really take the yeast thing to heart, because Ford made a million off the Model-T, which was really just a little wagon-wheeled piece of crap compared to, say, the ‘41 Ford Super Deluxe Coupe with the big fat V8, but what do I know. Maybe the yeast’s got something going for it I don’t understand, farting in the bread dough. I just know that I was all enthusiastic once, about Ethel the Red. Look where that got me. I hate enthusiasm.

Anyway,

Shine says, “Consider it done.”

And Billy Romance says, “Swell.”

And Shine says, “Swell, indeed.”

And Romance says, “That’s it?”

“Yeah,” says Shine, grinning.

“I’ll just be going, then,” Billy says.

“That’s fine. Have a lovely evening,” says Shine. “I look forward to the time when we meet again.” And he disappears.

“Meet again?” Billy Romance whispers to himself, like a guy who’s just borrowed way too much from a loan shark to buy something he’s suddenly not sure he really wants.

But, the next morning the Vancouver Sun ran the headline: Underwear Model Shoots Tugboat Sailor and Turns Gun on Self.

Friends and witnesses reported that a quarrel had begun between the two at Roscoe’s Tavern when Spike Dillinger suggested to Rosita that they might spice up their affair by inviting a third party into their bedroom. Apparently, this third party was a young Asian man by the name of Larry who was a waiter at the Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant on West Pender Street, where they serve that satay honeycomb ox tripe that everyone says they don’t like, but that the Ho Ho sells out on every night.

Billy Romance was devastated, naturally, and returned to Elga Coal’s the next morning to demand she conjure Mr Shine to offer up an explanation. But when he arrived, he found that there’d been a fire in her flat and Elga never made it out alive.

After the fire crew and police left, Billy climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old woman’s walk-up, and standing down the smoky hall, dressed in a snazzy suit, holding a lacquered stacked leather walking stick, was Mr Shine. “Really messed things up, didn’t I?” he said.

“Yeah, I guess you did,” said Billy.

Death still happened to be there too, his work done, standing behind Shine—a little boy wearing a tee-shirt, sneakers and a pair of jeans with a slingshot in the back pocket.

“You!” Romance squinted, sneering at Death. “Haven’t you got other places to be?”

“Sure,” Death said, “but I wanted to hang around to see the dope who was so hot for that swabbie. Whew! He needed a bath.”

Kicking him would probably have been a mistake, Billy knew. Death was Death, after all.

Then, “Catch you later,” the little boy Death said. And after Shine had said the same, they both vanished into the stale bitter scent of the burnt-out corridor.

So  here I’d like to mention a little something about fire safety, and forgive me if I digress. If the Devil’s real, then maybe God’s real, and if He is, God’s supposed to be in charge. And if Hell is real, then God and the Devil are working together to get us all there as fast as possible. And that ain’t fair, because each of us is born damaged goods, due to some hiccup in God’s fuzzy blueprint. And in a world where even the Devil can’t get things right, we’ve got to be careful round open flame; got to know where the exits are; and we’ve got to know not to play with matches, and, as in the case of Dillinger, Rosita and Romance, to not play with hearts. And even though Billy got out clean this time, that doesn’t mean that the two ogres, God and Shine, aren’t still out to get him.

As  for how Billy Romance’s actual fortune unfolded, it wasn’t long after VJ Day that he met a Canadian Air Force Corporal just back from England. They hit it off, discovered leather together, and eventually moved to Hollywood, California, where the demobbed Corporal  consulted with the big studios on World War Two Air Force epics. Billy bought a quiet piano bar on the Sun Set Strip, where sensitive young men like him could congregate and be themselves without fear of penalty.

But Billy never forgot Spike Dillinger, the big lug.

note

As for Mr Shine and God, they sometimes have dinner together at a little bistro in Florence, Italy, near the  Ponte Vecchio. The pair of them sit for hours at a time at a corner table on the shady patio discussing the old days, art and mass extinctions, catastrophe and evolution. Sometimes, they even speculate on the future. God loves the Veal Piccata, and is known as a crappy tipper, while Mr Shine sips Absinthe and offends the staff and other customers with his sulphurous odoriferousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the angel of 1913

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 crossing the street, she disappeared into the dark wet city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rah-rah-rah Hopscotch

flash fiction—under 500 words

This is him in my neighbourhood back in 1948, pissing in the men’s room at the Chevron gas station on Broadway, then shaking off and moving to the mirror over the sink, muttering hate you on seeing his reflection, his lips out of sync with those in the glass. He combs his tangled hair with a five cent comb.

It’s a cloudy autumn day just outside of the restroom door.

There’s a tiny kind of grit on the sidewalk that wears away shoe leather.

There’s diesel exhaust in the air.

There’s an elementary school up the street where girls play hopscotch after classes.

There’s something he’s supposed to have done, and maybe he has, perhaps many times, that results in the dark moving cellar of his loneliness.

Someone’s at the door, savagely twisting the locked doorknob, but he has the key.

The girls in the playground have invented a cry that they all yell as one of them jumps from square to square toward a ring of keys—Rah-rah-rah Hopscotch!—like a kamikaze shouting on his way to glory.

He could stand at the fence and watch them all day. His Timex says quarter past two. The girls play hopscotch again shortly after three. He pulls up his fly. Now someone’s knocking hard on the door.

He believes he picked up his inclinations by chance, in a divine paper bag. Blissful inclinations, hard to resist. He needs a place to be until the three o’clock bell. Coffee’s a nickel. He finds it in his pocket. He can sit in a cafe until school’s out. Someone’s shouting through the door, louder than street traffic. Someone’s kicking it.

Rah-rah-rah Hopscotch—the little girls are ferocious in their perfect skirts and dresses. They’ve braids, and clean white socks to their ankles; their shoes shine like black brass-buckled moons. The familiar tension returns at the base of his neck. He wants to lick his lips but stops, believing it’s a giveaway to the world, a curse of a helpless animal in a forest. More banging and kicking.

He was laughed at once. The high pitched taunt of a girl he’d offered to guide home. Best intentions, he’d promised. No, she’d said standing there like a whisper. We’re not supposed to. Then she laughed, surprising herself. Child cruel as a woman. An angel needing an angel escort to paradise.

This is him laying on hands, flat on the door, then an ear, feeling the decent-fisted on the other side, feeling trapped. Blameworthy, maybe, of a clumsiness, the error of forcing a whisper and then dropping it onto a red and orange floor of leaves, leaving it there, looking up at an autumn-cast ceiling.

The hat of the first cop through the door falls off, his gun dead black. They strike again and again, fists eagerly, and he sees his blood, liquid shrapnel, spray the mirror. Rah-rah-rah Hopscotch. Just like that, he’s a bomb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hamlet, a Halloween Tragedy

shortly before

He wept, looking up from his prison beneath the open air stage on the Thames, through the cracks between the boards where above the actors strode and hammed-it as he lay forever-sleepless in his paralysed and prone position upon the dark and spidery dirt. He’d been there so long that his self-pity had become a script in its own language, written overhead on the stage’s dark underside—an enormous page of words beginning at its centre and radiating out, dense and nearly endless, in all directions. A greedy soliloquy with no one to hear, for muteness was also an infirmity he suffered from the spell that held him in place. He hated her for it, and prayed to demons and angels and archaic realms, if there were any of those, for someone to come to his rescue. But no one had ever come, not for a hundred years.

Until the night he saw the burning red eyes of Cyro, peering at him through the floorboards above.

“Edwardo,” Cyro said. (It was more of a sizzling lisp.) “The stench of self-pity is more repulsive than the grave.”

“Meaning what?” said Edwardo, or thought, since he couldn’t speak.

“Meaning you stink.”

“Bastard. My plight is my own, and I’ll suffer it in my way. And if I stink, it’s because I’ve lain here a century without a bath.”

“Yes, there’s that too.”

“Who are you?” Edwardo said.

“I’ve been called Cyro. Let’s stick with that. I’m a spirit of a kind.”

“You’re the powerful demon, then. The one I’ve beckoned.”

“Not the demon, but a demon. One who once sat at a cross roads and heard a pitiful call, and came.”

“Then you’ve come to set me free from this spell?” Edwardo was delirious.

“Maybe,” Cyro said. “But this spell she’s cast on you is more than just ironic. (A talentless actor imprisoned beneath a stage; that’s rich.) No, a spell like this is like a house with many rooms woven one twig at a time. A clever witch knows how to squeeze time to make it look quick and easy, but in reality, it takes a very long time cast. Stones disappear in the time it takes to cast a powerful spell like the one you’re under. And a house with many rooms, like the one she’s built, takes time to deconstruct.”

“How long, then?”

“A very long time.”

“How long, damn it? How much more do I wait. Maybe I need to conjure a better demon than you.”

“The spell is already broken,” Cyro said. “I foresaw your situation long ago. Before many of your rude, muddy-faced ancestors were even born. Such is the imperceptible unfurling of mischief, as I’m able to see it, but that’s beside the point.”

“So I’m free, then?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well damn it,” Edwardo startled himself by shouting for the first time in too many years, “I can’t move.”

“Try,” Cyro said.

Edwardo lifted a finger. The pain was cruel, but it was a start.

“Now hear the nails,” said Cyro.

Edwardo listened and heard the shriek of nails pushing themselves out of the boards and joists. Then the boards flew away, and suddenly Edwardo saw the light of stars.

“Now, Lazarus, rise up,” Cyro said.

Edwardo did, creakily at first. And as he stood for the first time in a century, he saw Cyro as a whole for the first time. The demon was at once hideous and handsome. A molten monster Adonis, and Edwardo couldn’t help his gaze.

“Don’t fall in love, fool,” Cyro said. “You’ve got a witch to hunt down.”

“Where is she?”

“A city in the New World,” said Cyro. “Look for her there. That’s all I’ll say, until we meet again.”

*   *   *   *   *

She waited for song, walking the streets of dreaming, hovering half haunted above herself in the dark. And she saw its face at her tenement window, its moist poisoned palms on the glass, its eyes of buttons and teeth of stitches. Of all the demons, her lips moved in unconscious summoning prayer, in all of the splendidly lonesome worlds, you are the one. Sing for me again, she said, dreams still thick round her shoulders and endless in the territory behind her eyes. But it didn’t sing, only watched. Night had come, and she woke to the popping of firecrackers and the not too distant booms of larger ordnance.

Having risen, she sat in the light of a computer screen, the grim pixels of war news. She ate thick-skinned grapes and drank coffee in her solitude, sealed in her cherished killing jar of isolation. A man upstairs played his jazz too loud, Monk and Coltrane, others. She listened carefully, and against all rules, lit a cigarette. American forces had been discovered in Niger, inexplicably. The dead marched off a transport plane at Dover Air Force Base. She showered, dressed, and left her rooms. The city was already ablaze. There was the conflicting threat of rain.

Her name was Bridget and she seemed no older than twenty, and she knew that it was her pale absinthe eyes and paper-white complexion that separated her physically from the ordinary. That even now on the burning sidewalks, eyes were on her, and she was glad. She kept the far less ordinary things to herself, however. The things that really mattered¾how she romanced shadow, could conjure and reshape matter, and how she’d survived for so long in her pale, slim body, while so much of what and who she’d known over the millennia had wilted beneath the rays of distance and history.

History and distance, they were nothing without seconds. This she knew. Seconds colliding and fusing. They were the source of everything that appeared and perished, hope and hate. Minutes and hours, atoms and ages, were incidental. Seconds ruled. Almost painfully ignorant, they were monsters, they were chaos. It was pointless to measure them the way men did. Only the dead and the shadows that ate the human heart could measure them.

She could measure them too, and she’d lived too many. She was a crypt of memory, of conflict, much of it thousands of years old, long foxed round the edges. It was the curse of immortality. Memories of torture, lunatic religion, genocides, jungle napalm. Witnessing the history of intentional inhumanity. Witch magic was a blessing; life eternal was damnation.

It was a neighbourhood of dark edges and ebbing angles in an angry, violent city. A left-behind kind of place that excited vandals and the instincts of the unseen. There weren’t even jack-o-lanterns this Allhallows Eve. The first hint of him was an out of place shape, still as a century, silhouetted against vandal-fire across the road. She stopped and said his name out loud, “Cyro.”

“I could never hide from you,” he said to her in his blistering lisp. “Not when so nearby, anyway.” He stood next to her now. “And, by the way,” he said, “I resent that this is how you see me now.” He turned a 360, showing off his filthy voodoo doll-like appearance. No longer robust and six foot tall, but the size of a plump child. “It’s offensive and clearly a slight.”

“It’s how you come to me in dreams,” she said. Seeing him how she liked, after so long was her privilege. “I dreamt you differently when we were lovers, before your many betrayals. When I could still see you beautiful and nearly human.”

“You have to take some responsibility for those betrayals,” he said. “You knew I was a villain when we met, and don’t the girls just love a villain?”

“I was a fool,” said Bridget.

“One of many.”

“Now you must end this curse. That’s why I’ve summoned you.”

“What curse?” Cyro shrugged.

“This curse of endless life; you know what I mean. End it.”

“You called it a blessing once. You begged me for it.”

“I’m begging for something else now,” Bridget said.

“But you’ll die if I do it,” said Cyro with questionable concern. “Besides, I’ll say it again, you were the one who asked for immortality, and it was granted.”

“I was young and ill-informed,” she said, now having a familiar vision, remembering a lantern lit cave in the hills over the sea in what was now Ireland—priests and fellow witches chanting in a circle and in dark passages, drumming, phantoms dancing. It was a memory of them both, the night he granted her wish. Him terrible and handsome, savage and vile. And her, ambitious, a witch too young and guileless to be consorting with a devil, unaware that it wasn’t necessary. She’d seen his cold, warning eyes in that cave, and he’d tricked her by granting her wish of life everlasting. A spell, he knew, that would cause everlasting pain.

After that he used her. He sang so beautifully from afar and in her dreams—a demon’s most powerful lies are told from afar and in dreams, he’d said once—and she was smitten. It was an innocent adolescent smitteness, though, which made it all the more amusing to him.

“I’ll die for certain,” Bridget said, “when you remove this spell. I want that right returned to me, and only you can do it.”

“I saw this coming,” said Cyro.

“Then do something.”

“You should have asked me for wisdom, instead.”

“Just do something,” she hissed.

“Who says that I won’t,” he said, “but you should know that forever doesn’t end with death. Death just changes the scenery.”

“Do it now.” Bridget held her head in her hands. “The suffering is endless. This world is Hell.”

“Immortality requires patience, my dear. Death is an idiot. It lacks discipline. It lacks subtlety and courage. And it routinely fails to follow instructions, even from someone like me. Especially in a case like yours. Immortals scare the life out of death. But don’t worry. Because of this maddening moan of yours, I’ve intervened on your behalf. Watch this night for a man we both know.”

“Who?”

“I’ve granted him certain advantages.”

“Who? Tell me who it is.”

“It’ll be fun for me, entertaining, because he’s only a man.”

“Who, damn it?”

“I think he found you a little while ago, actually, but has waited for tonight to reveal himself—a night of witches and darker things, the moon waxing like an animal chasing itself in orbits. He loves irony. He’s creative that way.”

“Tell me who it is,” she shouted, “or I’ll send you back into the fire.”

“Then I’ll cancel everything.”

She said nothing. Cyro vanished.

There was a massive explosion in a tenement two blocks away, more festive high-explosives. She saw the building’s facade crumble onto the street, as the blast wave nearly knocked Bridget off her feet

“Hey bitch,” someone shouted behind her. “What you doin’ on our street?” It was a neighbourhood gang. They were all wearing devil masks. She thought she recognised the voice of the leader. “Tonight’s some serious shit,” he said. “We’re out huntin’ for some treats, and you’re lookin’ very edible.”

“Don’t hassle her, Elijah,” someone said. It was a gang member heard from the back of the small crowd. “She’s that spooky wench from up the street.”

“Yeah,” said Elijah, “I know it, and I’m sick of lookin’ at her walkin’ round the hood. She don’t sell it; she don’t give it away. Maybe tonight we take care of her.”

“Yeah, yeah Elijah,” came assenting voices. “Take care of her.”

“We’ll cut you up,” Elijah said to Bridget, pulling a knife out of nowhere.

Flames glinted off of the blade, and she wondered if this was it, if somewhere behind a mask was the face of the man Cyro said they both knew. Elijah broke from the group, and walked up to her.

“Take off the mask,” she said, and the man did. Bridget recognised him. He was local. Tall and well built, but a bully and petty criminal. Maybe this was the night he hit the big time. Rape and murder. “You know Cyro, then?” she said.

“Don’t know no Cyro.” Elijah spit out the words, as he held the blade against her throat.

“Then too bad for you,” Bridget said, grinning.

Suddenly there was fear in Elijah’s eyes, as the knife in his grip began to move back, away from her throat and towards his own. He clearly couldn’t stop it. In seconds he was holding the knife against his own throat. Blood began to trickle. Then began to stream.

“See,” she said to dying Elijah, “your homie was right. I’m spooky.” There was horror on Elijah’s face as the blade dug into his throat. He screamed, and Bridget said, “Bye-bye, tough guy.”

Now she heard words like fuck and holy shit coming from the gang, and Bridget set each member afire without warning. There were shrieks of agony and a grotesque dance for several moments, before the scene was reduced to nothing more than smoldering bodies and bones on the pavement.

“Well done,” someone said behind her, slowly clapping his hands.

She turned to see who it was.

“You?” It was Edwardo. “You moldy ham sandwich,” she said, “you’re what Cyro sent me? Last I checked, you were where I put you—under that stage with the bugs. This is very disappointing.”

“Not for me,” he said. “And you had no right casting a spell on me.”

“But you outted me as a witch.”

“But you are a witch.”

“But I was run out of London by the Church, because of you. By a horde of cross-dressing priests with their torches.”

“But I thought you’d enjoy the drama, since you’re such a bloody aesthete.”

“But you only did it to get back at me,” Bridget protested, “for questioning the quality of your acting.”

“But you’re not a drama critic.”

“But you stank,” she said. “Your Clown Hamlet was an apocalypse.”

“It was innovative for 1917.”

“It stank the place up.”

“Besides,” said Edwardo, now dewy-eyed, placing his hand loosely over his heart, “I thought we had something.”

“You’re mad.” She waved him away. “I don’t carry-on with mortals. I’d tear you to pieces in bed.”

“But we attended parties together. Gala dinners. They said we were inseparable. I thought they were right.”

“It was all for show,” Bridget said. “You’re a fool if you think otherwise, and you know it. A witch either hides or takes the town by storm. She doesn’t have a quiet little flat and attend the shops daily. Not when you stand out like I do.”

“A pale goddess. Everyone said so.”

“It would never have worked, Edwardo.” She was sneering now. “Besides, you stole from me.”

“Well, I was willing to try.”

“You lied,” she shouted. “You told the whole of London that we were sleeping together.”

“I did it because I loved you.”

“You were a pickpocket and an embarrassment,” she said.

They both paused and look into each other’s eyes. So many memories for Edwardo. Just a miserable pinprick in time for Bridget.

“I hate you,” she said to him.

“And maybe after all,” said Edwardo, “ I hate you, too. For leaving me in that prison. When was my term to end? When would you have released me?”

“Maybe never,” she said, smiling as a heavy rain began to fall.

“You pig!” he said, grabbing her round the throat and digging in his thumbs. “I hate you more than anything.”

She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t struggle when her time came, but this was Edwardo. Passivity was out of the question. Cyro had made him strong and had seized her immortality. Suddenly she was witnessing her life passing before her eyes, one infinite second at a time. The carnage and injustices of man. In Washington, DC, a fat sociopathic apricot held the nuclear codes in the sweaty palms of his diminutive hands. Things would never change.

If Edwardo succeeded in killing her, he’d be left behind to live out the remainder of his mortal life, to artlessly walk the streets of an unsuspecting world. Perhaps even to take to the stage again. She knew she had a duty to prevent it, and reached up taking his throat in her throttling hands. Now it was Edwardo’s turn to struggle as a small crowd of revelers raced past, and ran into a derelict building across the street, oblivious to these two people violently trying to kill each other.

“You bitch,” Edwardo gagged and gulped. “Cyro said you’d die easy, so die.”

“No,” Bridget wheezed and heaved, “not at the hands of a degenerate, no-talent stage fart like you.”

“I thought this would be more meaningful,” Edwardo choked. “I hoped for some last minute intimacy coming out of my strangling you, but you’re still the cold blank landscape. I thought you’d show some appreciation, some passion in dying so savagely, but I was wrong about you again.”

Now, as the revelers sped out of the derelict building across the street, he reached under his coat and pulled out a revolver.

“I’m going to splatter your brains all over the sidewalk.”

Bridget knew she was in trouble. Suddenly, she wanted her immortality back. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to muster whatever magic she had left to cast a spell. Just a small one would do. As she focussed, she heard the hammer of the snub-nosed revolver against her head drawn back, but no spell seemed forthcoming.

“Say your prayers and good-byes,” said Edwardo, “you little whore.” And he pulled the trigger, somehow missing his target. As it turned out, Bridget did have a speck of magic left inside of her.

The bang, however, was much louder than either of them expected from such a puny weapon, though neither was experienced in such matters. In fact, it was deafening and had caused a shockwave, pushing them both down onto the pavement. And looking up, as they fell, they saw the facade of the derelict building across the street exploding outward, its lethal flame and aggregate soon to snuff them both out as the revelers who’d set their masterwork Allhallows Eve firebomb danced and jumped with joy a block away.

shortly afterward

She was in what was either a small gymnasium or auditorium—Cyro standing in the centre of the room in all of his tall, purple lava-like glory, surrounded by an adoring crowd of geriatric women. He seemed to be signing autograph books. Bridget smirked and made a self-deriding tsk-tsking noise.

“Oh!” said Cyro, looking up and acknowledging her. “There you are.”

“Yes,” Bridget said.

“Well welcome to our little troupe meeting. Ladies, meet our guest.”

The circle of aged women turned its attention on Bridget and applauded.

“And look!” Cyro enthused. “There’s our very famous guest star, Edwardo.”

Edwardo skulked in a far off corner. One or two of the senior women made as though to swoon.

“We’re dead, aren’t we,” Bridget said.

“Why, yes you are,” chirped Cyro. “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s just what you asked for.”

“And this?” Bridget waved her hand, taking in the entire room. “Is this what you meant when you said that death just changes the scenery?”

“Yes it is.”

“Explain.”

“Well,” Cyro said, “this is a ladies dementia ward, and they’re rehearsing their production of Hamlet.”

Hamlet,” Bridget said flatly.

“Yes,” said Cyro, with joyful enthusiasm. “It’s Hell, don’t you see. The ladies are rehearsing for a Shakespeare Festival that will never come. Never ever, ever, ever,” Cyro grinned. “And you’re the director, and our cringing Edwardo in the corner is the star. Isn’t it wonderful?”

The elderly ladies applauded some more.

“So I guess suicide’s out of the question.”

“Don’t be such a Silly-Willy,” Cyro said.

Edwardo now wept and gnashed his teeth, as a bevy of demented old women danced round him in his corner, nakedly waving their diaphanous hospital gowns over their heads.

“I hate you, Cyro,” Bridget said.

“That’s the spirit,” the purple one beamed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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, jazz and a passion. 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 dusty 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 almost hid his beginnings and the essential cruelty that had brought him to prominence.

He was a demon, or had been—a 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 her 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. Instead she said, “Why have you come?”

“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. Your jewelry box was full. 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.”

“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? Memory Lane and all?”

“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.”

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

“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.”

He touched his own wounds, slowly revealing themselves, and then looked at his bloody fingers. “Oh God I’m sorry.”

“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. I guess the dead don’t just fall to the ground. We just get disappeared to all we loved.”

“You thought you were bullet-proof. I guess I thought the same when my heart seemed to be where it belonged, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a world vanishing .”

“I thought I’d live forever,” he said.

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.