“You love me, right?”, he slurred into my ear.
It was always the same crap. Lie lie lie, and lie some more. The kind of mindset that a life of utter largess creates is something like perpetual teenage lovestruck catatonia. My buddy Jean says it’s the drugs, but I don’t believe it. I gaze back into that semi-concussed face and lie my life away. I draw up a satin covered pillow that cost more than some folks make in a month and start the job I was hired for.
Once he was dead the necessities of the moment began to snap into place with automatic precision. Kill folks. Get out. Get safe. Get paid. Lay low. No room for self analysis here. I ran to the closet to retrieve my extraction kit. The small pistol felt heavy in my hand, and while there was a silencer on it, anything I could do without using it would be better in the long run. I strap on my minimalist bulletproof “vest” – it covers nearly nothing, just a square foot on my chest and my back, but every little bit counts.
The muscle head out in the hallway was a joke, his expensive and showy gun hidden deep within his expensive and showy suit, in an expensive and showy holster that he didn’t know how to use. I felt bad for a second, seeing his All-American Boy face without the thousand dollar sunglasses and the earpiece, just more collateral damage. The two goons in the room downstairs were going to be harder, and things would get really complicated in fifteen minutes since Mr. All American wouldn’t be checking back in.
Skating down the stairs, I hit the vent behind the first planter, loosening screws as fast as I can, trying not to wake any of the other folks around the house. Last night was a screamer of a party, so I doubt anybody remains ambulatory, but I can’t afford to leave too many bodies behind. Two is par for the plan right now, and if I’m lucky I can make it out of here without intestines on my pants.
Ten minutes, two unconscious men, one dead partygoer, and four tapes stuffed into my pants for secure elimination later, it’s time for the prime target to get his. I was still only one round into my magazine and feeling good, this one was going by the numbers. Running, getting sloppy, got to tighten it up. I rounded the corner and slammed into a woman from the party. Crap, one more bullet down the drain: another piece of evidence that could be linked with others. I reach for my pistol with a tinge of regret, not sure if it was for messing up my perfect game or for her life.
I feel the knife less as a cut and more as sudden impact, a punch that just stuck and never faded. She is dangerously fast, and strong, and she looks pretty motivated to kill me. I noticed the wig now, the fake eyelashes, no shoes, just a pair of socks with tread on them. I wonder on some level what she’s doing here, and I can see her adding up my obviously fake tan, my nonskid shoes made up to look dressy, the gun I’m struggling to aim at her head. We wrestle on the linoleum, both trying not to make much noise, kill the other person, and get on with our day. I suppose in the dim illumination of the house, we could look like rutting partiers, trying to smooth the transition from narcotic high to crashing low with some vigorous coupling. The deep wound in my chest is starting to really throb and if I keep tearing it, I’m going to pass out. The fight is helping, the adrenaline keeps me above the surface. She looks like she’s done with the calculations, decided I’m some collateral damage too, and wants to seal the deal. I see the shuffle and realize she has a holdout piece hidden somewhere in that tight outfit. Time for some applied probability.
The gun goes off with a quiet whuff and I see the fight go out of her. In spite of all my bad luck, the bullet must have ricocheted around inside her chest. If the lights were brighter, I bet I could watch everything else go out of her too, and I’m angry at myself for making the crack about intestines on my pants, I can feel her gut shot body bleeding all over my khakis. I see the little pucker where the bullet went in next to her collar bone. I see the dimple in my vest where it tumbled out and hit me. Must be my lucky day. I check my watch and sigh. Fourteen minutes in, I knew it could only go downhill from here.
The imaginary silent alarms are blaring in my head, and I’m still wondering if she had anything I should be worried about. I’m running 45 seconds off plan, but all I can see is the mixed blood that coats my shirt and pants. I know I should be getting my head in the game, but it’s tough, and I’m trying to think of a doctor that can give me a discrete visit, a couple of stitches, and an STD screen. I look down at the knife I took from her body, the two shot derringer she was going for at the end, and try to shake the worry. Lisa was going to go apoplectic if she found an unexplainable bottle of antibiotics in my bag. Maybe they can just give me the one time shot. You get the runs for a week as it ravages your intestinal flora, but hey, no angry girlfriend at home, and it’s a good excuse to avoid sex since you are obviously sick. End of the hall, turn left, third door on right, he’s with at least two women and one man, with any luck they’ll all be unconscious and this can be quick and I can concentrate on getting out of here.
Of course, there could always be 20 women and 10 men, and they could all be on some brand of designer PCP, yanking on each others skin with pliers and bleeding all over the room. I realize now that my worries about a semipro hitter giving me the clap are pretty ridiculous, in the face of this orgy of genetic material and blood samples. But I get paid to find Alex James, to kill Alex James, and to make sure nobody knows who did it. So it’s actually kind of convenient. If I play my cards right, it can look like it was one of the party girls going nutso. I wish I had known about this earlier, because that could have saved some and maybe I wouldn’t have had to kill the All American. I silently curse the quality of private sector intel and move on, wading through a room of shredded silk sheets, destroyed TVs, and people passed out from either blood loss or exhaustion or both. Looking for the face, waiting to see the small scar over the eye, the right earlobe missing a notch, all the while trying to keep my distance from the piles of naked people. My skin crawls as I think of a clammy frantic hand slicing my achilles, a hollow eyed face climbing up to bite my face and try to have sex with me. This brand of evil was what I drew up when I had to kill somebody I didn’t want to.
When I find him, I realize that the hitter was on the way back from the job, not on the way to it. It’s hidden, but I can see the terror on his face, and some of the cuts are too deep to have been made with the knives I see in here. Shit. Well, I got paid to make him dead, and he’s definitely dead. The sleeping ghoul next to him rouses for a second, but doesn’t actually wake up and look at me. No harm, no foul. Time to get out of here.
Back to main hallway, turn left into bathroom, reach under the sink for another set of clothes. Pulling on the comfortable sweat pants and the nondescript worn t-shirt, I stare out the small window. I tear up the night shirt into a makeshift bandage and try to plug the hole. No security alarms, which makes sense since it’s 14 inches wide and 3 stories up. I manage to lever myself out and stare down at the yard. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this with the damage to my chest, but it had better work. With dawn’s light spilling into the house, I don’t have time to go back to my primary exit, this one is going to have to do. Slowly, I put all of my weight on my right arm, and wince with the pain, but it holds. Miracles never cease. I swing for the small ledge that will get me to the drain spout, and that’s when I hear the first siren. Siren? Siren. And it’s close. There is no way that the cops got all the way out here in 15 minutes, and I doubt that anyone inside the house would have been apt to call them in the first place. There was enough junk laying around the place to put a lot of them in jail, or at least smear some bad press on them. I shimmy down the pipe and make my way around to the path that I’ll take into the woods. I wish for a moment that I’d left the knife on the hitter, that would tie this thing up with a bow for any detective smart enough to find it. Now it’s on me and if I’m caught with it, there will be problems. I consider ditching it, but the sun is coming up fast now and I don’t have time.
Then I saw them. SWAT van out in the road, team suited up, a captain talking anxiously into his throat mic. I start looking for the shooter. He’s not pointed at the front door, he’s not pointed at the windows of the master suite. There he is, sneaky bastard, up in a tree. I chuckle at how far off of he is from being able to cover a major exit. But I trace his line of sight back to the house. He’s pointed at the kitchen staff door.
My primary exit.
There is a certain terror that you feel when you’re being set up, a cold knot drops in your stomach while you start to tally off all the people who know where you are, what you’re doing, trying to put together who could have screwed you. Couldn’t be Jean, he would know that I always plan a secondary exit. My feet are on autopilot now, scrambling through the receding shadows towards the relative safety of the woods beyond. Could be the client, he knew where I was, knew what I was doing. Could be the fixer who hooked us up, but that doesn’t make much sense. Guy gets dead in a hurry doing that in his business. I know I probably shouldn’t be running this fast, it’s aggravating the cut in my pec and isn’t going to help me get out of trouble any faster, but the adrenaline has dumped in full force again. I look at my watch. I’m 25 minutes out now, I know that the cops are inside the building. They’ve figured out Alex is dead, they’ve found the dead hitter with the bullet holes in her. They’ve found Mr. All American and the wire garotte I left around his neck, they have found the unfortunate would be lover that I smothered. It’ll take longer to find the two dead men in the video room, and longer still to find the missing tapes. But whoever set me up has already figured out I’m on the move.
Once I get into the sleepy little town at the other end of the woods, I loop around to get onto the jogging path favored by folks from the little college campus. I ditch the dress shoes, I won’t have to run too much further, and I don’t think I could come up with a valid reason why I’d be jogging in brown leather Bruno Magli knockoffs. That’s the worst part about alternate clothes during a plan, the shoes are a huge pain in the ass. Socks fold though. I pull on a thick pair of white athletic ankle socks. I try not to look like a guy who just ran five miles with a seeping chest wound, and more like an out of shape middle aged guy who never made it out of the college mindset. The two are surprisingly similar looking, one just has less blood on him. In order to stay in character, I stare at the college girls out jogging back towards campus, noting their various flawless surfaces with due respect. I head over towards the bank to see how blown my plan is. I don’t see a shooter, I don’t see any cops. I see the guard waiting for the manager to do his walkaround, and the tellers are blinking the sleep away outside.
I go grab a cup of coffee at the little shop across the street, sit at the window counter and nurse a mochachinafrizio until it’s safe to head in. I wait half an hour, read the paper, buy a bran muffin. I wonder idly about my colon health and consider throwing away the 1200 calorie cup of brown sugarwater, and I’m starting to think about aunts and uncles and family histories of diabetes, when I see the guy. He’s dressed too nice for this part of town in the morning, he has the same brand of purchased confidence and style that Mr. All American had. He isn’t very good at this, he stares around like a secret service agent scouting an entrance for the president and then heads straight into the bank. Walks up like he wants to open an account, stares around awkwardly, and then leaves. Blown, the whole plan is totally blown. Who the hell could know all this? I finish the bran muffin and head back into the bathroom. I take off the bushy eyebrows. The sweat from the jog did a good job on most of the fake tan. Thankfully nobody has noticed that I am all dressed up for jogging with no shoes, that’s the sort of thing that makes you stand out when police ask about anything weird happening. Shit, that stupid safe deposit box had a good ID in it, a pair of shoes, a nice outfit I could change into, and the keys to a rental car from the airport Avis. All blown. This whole thing was getting less profitable by the minute. A good ID costs a lot, and a credit card blown on the rental car, and a prepaid cellphone, man, this is beginning to really aggravate me.
Time to run, head over to the burger shack at the end of the street, ask for the bathroom key. You’d think if they were going to go to the trouble of locking up the bathroom that they might occasionally clean it. I’m going to have to bleach my feet after this, I can feel the ick soaking up through the socks. I lock the door, flip up the corner drop tile and pull out the backpack with my secondary exit. I look at the tennis shoes, the hair dye, the second ID card, the cash, a calling card, and a new shirt. I take this chance to check the gash left behind and involuntarily return to the imaginary STD that is now coursing through my veins. Luckily after a long life of practice, I can worry and work at the same time. I wash a little of the gick out of my hair. I can’d do the dye job here, it’ll take too long and somebody is bound to notice the door is locked. I put on the shoes and throw the socks away, I don’t want to be walking around in whatever is on this floor all day. That’s another thing, this simple little job is now turning into an all day thing. Sometimes I miss South America. My fake tan is now starting to fade near my hairline so I stop. A little difference, probably not enough, but it’ll have to do. I’ve retied the shirt into a makeshift bandage and I think that I’ll survive. I won’t be winning any arm wrestling contests this month, but I’m definitely not going to die.
Unless she had something worse than the clap. Need some hydrogen peroxide and a real bandage.
I look at the sad state of my new “disguise” and make a mental note to start paying more attention to the secondary exit plans. I stuff all my new detritus into the backpack, time to get back on track.
I take the town’s little shuttle bus to the WalMart. Everything I could possibly need is available here. I go in and hit the pharmacy, grab a bottle of peroxide, alcohol, some swabs, some gauze, a self adhesive ace bandage (the man who invented these deserves to be rich rich rich), stop for a travel bottle of shampoo and one of conditioner. Can’t have any buildup, got to get one I haven’t used in a while. A toothbrush (may as well make it a two pack, it’s cheaper), some deodorant, a bottle of ibuprophen, a pack of disposable razors, some shave cream. I go back to the sporting goods department and debate whether or not I should get some ammo, but I get the impression that the manager here is one of those “let’s fill out the transaction log completely and thoroughly” types. A pair of reasonably ugly pants, a slightly irregular button up shirt, a bag of socks. I think about getting new shoes, because I can feel the sweat squidging around my feet right now, but the selection here is sooo substandard. Foot powder it is. I’m going to need a snack and something to drink, so I head over to the snack department, this is one of those “smaller” supermegaliths that hasn’t quite managed to crush every other store in town yet, so it doesn’t have a full grocery section. Beef jerky, a bag of little snickers bars. A bottle of gatorade. Maybe some chips. A 12 pack of Coke. I need a prepaid phone, so I head back to grab one of those. After a while I’m kind of zonked so I just kind of meander the store on autopilot. Thankfully, that’s how just about everyone here looks, so I blend right in. In ten years these places will sell cars and then I won’t have to go anywhere else once I finish a job. Just walk into the WalMart, and drive out a new man. I head back to the layaway counter and look for the “family bathroom”. It’s big and has enough room for me to get some stuff done and almost nobody uses them. Nobody at the counter, not unusual for this early in the day, so I just wheel my cart of stuff over next to it, and head into the bathroom to finish my hair, taking the pharmacy stuff and the shampoo. No time to volumize right now. I wait ten minutes, if the security guy was going to come back and flip out, he’d have done it by now, so I get working.
The fake tan gone, my hair redone from dark brown to sandy blonde, a real bandage taped into place the wound, which is now as clean as I can reasonably get it, I head towards the checkout. I munch on a little jerky and open up a soda while I wait for the cashier to come over from some pile of random junk at the front of the store.
“Returns.” she says, indicating the pile, and I could really care less, but nod as if that explains everything. Slowly, she toddles over to the register. She rings me up, handing the jerky back to me. She’s efficient once in gear, looks like a stereotypical diner waitress from the 50s. I wonder what her hair looks like under that wig. She fairly reeks of some kind of powdery flowery perfume and menthol cigarettes. Halfway through running my crap over the scanner she coughs and it’s the kind of rattling phlegm hawking that you can’t help but associate with death. I wonder how old she is, hell, she could have been a diner waitress in the 50s for all I know. The number that rings up is higher than I had planned to spend, but I kind of went nuts, so I accept it, slide the credit card and hold the little fake pen, waiting for it to ask for John Galt’s signature. I can afford it. It takes long enough that I start to worry, and eventually Diner Waitress asks for my card. I clutch the small wad of cash in my pocket and start mentally subtracting things that I don’t really need to buy. She is sitting there swiping the card over and over and I’m just trying to imagine who could possibly have jacked me so bad that they knew to mess up my secondary exit id’s credit card in the four days since I tested it last. Finally someone with a red vest comes over and asks what is going on, and they have some kind of quiet conversation over there. I start to pull out cash and make comments about the card, when I catch the look in the red vests eye. She’s looking at me… not at me. Behind me.
I didn’t hear a single thing. I know I wasn’t that zoned out. But there she is, bullet hole free, wandering up with her hand extended. I try to think how long it would take me to get the gun out of the backpack, and whether or not I could still kick her ass as messed up as I was, trying to calculate where to kick to bring her down fast and how long it would take me to get out the door, when I notice that the thing in her hand is a credit card.
“Honey, you can’t use that one, that’s the old card, here, put it on the Visa.”
Redvest seems to be OK with it, apparently whatever the terminal said about the card wasn’t that serious. I put the fistful of money back into my pocket and watched gawping while the dead woman slid the card through the terminal. I missed out on the rest of the transaction as my mind raced to catch up, but I was slapped back into gear when Diner Waitress said “Thank you for shopping with us today, Mrs. Galt.”
The dead woman gestures for me to follow, and I put the bags into my cart and follow her towards the door.
The dead womans name isn’t Dagny Galt, but that’s all she’ll give me. I couldn’t even stop myself from getting straight into the car with her. She didn’t pat me down, no goons smacked me around, nobody took my backpack. She just helped me load my bags into her trunk and then got into the drivers side. I considered running away at this point, I figured that this was probably the last time anybody was ever going to see me alive, but I was transfixed. How was she alive? Even if the bullet didn’t hit her heart, it came out the front of her chest, she’d have bled out, or bled into her lungs or something. Something other than pay for my groceries and give me a lift towards… Where are we going? West, I guess.
I munch idly on my beef jerky and she turns on the radio. It’s one of those automated stations that plays nothing but 80’s tunes that were big on MTV. This seems like one of those situations where you wait for the other person to make the first move. I take some ibuprophen, check my bandage. It’s getting pretty soaked again. She’s still not talking. I look around the car for something interesting. There’s a pack of cigarettes in the console. I start thinking about those potato chips, but then think about the pills I just took. Is it you’re not supposed to eat on a stomach that has pills in it, or is it that you’re not supposed to take pills on an empty stomach?
The chips finally win this argument. I’ve been at that lowlife’s house in some kind of perpetual drug party for 72 hours, and if there’s one thing that psychopathic coke barons don’t seem think about, it’s making sure there’s plenty to snack on around the house. I see her eyeballing the bag and I point it at her, shake it. She reaches in and grabs a couple chips, pushes them into her mouth. She’s a good driver, keeps her distance from other cars. She’s taking some roundabout way out of town and I think we might be headed for Baltimore or maybe right into DC, but when she hits the interstate she could just head up for Harrisburg or Philly, I guess, but she’s taking a pretty bad route if that’s her plan. Of course all of these depend on the idea that she’s not just taking me somewhere out of the way to kill me. Finally I can’t wait any longer.
“Do you have any STDs?”
She blinks back at me for a while and I can see her going from insulted to confused to understanding. I point at the bloodstain that is seeping through my shirt for effect. Finally, a bit of mischief plays across her face.
“You’ll find out soon enough, won’t you stud?”
It’s kind of cute, in this way, but after spending the past six hours imagining the AIDS destroying my immune system while I run from the cops, I want to smash her face in. I try to keep it off my face, but apparently I let it through. She took pity on me.
“Fine, fine, no I’m clean, Mr. Sensitivity”, she finally surrenders.
I can almost feel the weight coming off my shoulders. That must have shown through too. She smiled a little, ate some more chips. I set the bag on the parking brake handle and reached into my bag for the gatorade. I take two desperate gulps, I know I’m getting pretty dehydrated now. Sighing, I tilt the small, awkward jug down and try to figure out where we’re going again.
“Can I get a sip of that?”
I pause, considering it.
“Come on, I already told you I’m clean. I don’t have the cooties either.”
I hand over the bottle. She takes a sip and keeps her eyes on the road. I already gave up the “who talks first” point, so I’m not about to start asking where I’m going. I’m going to play this cool as Fozzie. Fonzie? Which one was the muppet bear and which one was in Happy Days, you know – Henry Kissinger? Or was that the guy who played Colonel Klink? I’m about six stages into my own internal “six degrees of Francis Bacon” when I get the idea to kill her again. I mean, last time was maybe a fluke. I just reach down into the bag, grab the gun, plug her, pull the shifter back into neutral, coast off to a stop. Switch places with her, drive out on a state route until I can get her into the trunk. Stop at a hardware store, pick up a shovel, drive another couple hours, bury her. It wouldn’t be that hard. The biggest risk is that I have to plug her twice, and she bleeds all over the seat. A trash bag and a seat cover from a truck stop will fix that. If I can angle the thing up into the thick part of the skull, the bullet might not even come out, but with my luck today, she’ll cough brains all over the dashboard and I’ll have to spend 40 minutes cleaning it up with my new bag of socks. She gestures for the gatorade again and I hand it over. She tucks it into her lap and jabs my thigh with the syringe. I fumble for the door handle and I hear the “tschk” of the locks being checked, just before it all goes black.
“Hey, hey mister, hey. Hey mister.” *cough cough cough*.
What the fuck is this. I feel like something crapped inside my mouth. I’m slightly damp all over, and laying on an uneven concrete sidewalk. There’s a cotton batting feeling in my ears that I tend to associate with either the beginnings of a high quality drunk or the afterbirth of a low quality tranquilizer. As I don’t remember drinking anything and I have some vague memory of a syringe in my thigh, number two is currently winning the race.
“Hey, man, can you spare some change?”
Somebody was waking me up from sleeping on the ground, asking for money. That depth and breadth of stupidity could only mean I’m on the west coast now. The weather is vaguely warmer, but I don’t see the sun at all. There’s the smell of rain in the air. I look at the panhandler, he’s 20, 23 maybe. Piercings and tattoos all over him. He’s got a hiking pack on that cost at least three hundred, a pair of leather boots that go to his knees that cost another two. He’s doing a pretty good shiver and cough though. I can tell that his parents think that he’s working through something, because he has the pinkish skin of someone who eats on the regular and under his falling-off overlarge bdu pants, I see a pair of white jockey shorts. He probably takes the bus down here on the weekends. Maybe he even drives, his hypocrisy might go that far. Before I even get all the way to my feet, I’ve seen the Go By Streetcar sign across the water. I’m at the corner of two streets that have fish names. The panhandler has evidently decided I’m not going to cough up anything and moves along, and see the big red bridge behind him.
Fucking Portland. Why the hell would somebody drive me all the way across the country and deposit me, still alive, in fucking Portland?
It doesn’t make any sense.
I start taking inventory. Walking along, trying not to draw attention to myself. Nothing in this pocket. Nothing in that pocket. A pair of spanking new shoes on my feet. Black leather casuals with laces and oversized rubber outsole that runs up over the toe. Kind of ugly. Looking again, I realize they’re just new to me, they’re fairly broken in now. I look at the pants, I don’t recognize them. They’re some kind of green microfiber fabric. The shirt seems to be a black polo, thin and stretchy, under a heavier cotton knit jacket with satin quilting inside. No watch. Man, I wish I had a watch. Judging by the light, it’s either morning or afternoon, or shit, it could be noon, fucking Portland. There’s a little kydex holster tucked in the small of my back on the belt, feels like a four or five inch fixed blade knife in it. I fight the urge to pull it out and look at it, and that’s when I notice my right arm feels fine. There’s no way I should feel fine. I’ve been stabbed. I try to look nonchalant, but there really aren’t a lot of ways to coolly look at your mantit when you’re in a heavy jacket and a polo shirt in the dim daylight of an overcast day. I finally pick a shitty looking sandwich shop and head in to use their upsettingly bright flourescent lights. It doesn’t smell even vaguely like food in here, and I’m oddly not very hungry, so I just order a coke. I head into the bathroom to inspect myself about halfway through the soda. I pull down the shirt and stare at the completely healed place where I should have a neat puncture scar. Not healed, that’s not the right word. Completely blank. There isn’t a scar, there isn’t even a scar coverup scar. This isn’t like plastic surgery “there isn’t a scar”. There just isn’t a scar. Then I see the ink. I was too preoccupied with the where and the what before to see it. I have a tattoo on my chest. That’s a business no no. Oh, man, oh, man. In a panic I pull the shirt clean off, and I see the tat, a black stylized dragon stretching up and down my left side, down into my waistband and up to my neck, where it’s tongue flicks at my ear.
This is not good.
Someone is rattling the door handle in the passive aggressive “come on I need to pee” maneuver and I put my shirt back on, finally tearing my eyes off the huge, freaking bullseye that looks like it’s clawing it’s way up from my crotch and I remember the knife. As I already suspected, it’s hers. I look at the checked rubber grip and sigh. A dead woman’s knife in my back. Very appropriate.
Trying not to run out of the diner, I make my way over to the transit stop near the river, I can ride the train for a little while, get out of the cold and sort out my shit calmly. Hell, I could just scream and fidget, it would all blend in pretty well with the regulars on the train.
I try not to think about the fifteen people that have seen me so far and concentrate on the problem at hand. I was drugged in a tan Chevy Malibu and deposited 3000 miles away. No chance of tracking the car, it was probably a rental, and there are roughtly ten million of them in the United States. Shit, there could ten million of them in this state, cheap cratio-polish built uzbekistani-chinese cars sold as the Heartbeat of America. Normally I would fall into a pleasant thought stream about the outsourcing of American production and the globalization of our heritage, but there are more important things afoot. Like finding that bitch, killing that bitch, and finding a doctor to remove two thirds of my fucking skin and trying to make me look normal. “Oh, officer it all happened so fast, I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, just a guy in sensible clothes, average height, average weight, with a GOD DAMNED THREE FOOT LONG DRAGON ON HIS CHEST.” Calm down, calm down. No reason to panic except that I don’t know what day it is and I have no money and I’m in a state where I have zero resources, and I’m a walking joke and I don’t even have a phone. I make my way down whatever passes for a main drag here and see someplace I can get off the street for a while.
The titty bar is one of the great American getaways. You can always count on two things. The girls don’t care if you aren’t paying attention to them, and they won’t bounce you for not buying a drink for right around half an hour. Long enough for me to get some kind of plan together. I ask the bartender if the manager is around and he shakes his head. No dancer is out, but I can hear a commotion in the back while they draw straws to see who is going to come out and dance. Finally, the bartender/DJ/bouncer walks back to the door on the side of the stage and yells back into the darkness beyond. He trudges back to the bar, pulls up with a microphone and turns it on. A squeal of feedback gives way to his monotone announcement about the sexiest girl in the entire northwest, Dagny. My anus puckers and I lose all track of my ‘plan’ when I hear that name. I look up at the dancer coming out and freeze in place, transfixed. Long, blonde hair courses around the dead woman’s frame, and I can see that it probably isn’t her natural color either. A set of upturned breasts barely covered by a mens dress shirt draw my eyes inexorably down her body past her flat stomach to a pair of fly front white jockey shorts. She spins and begins a half hearted striptease to “It’s a Man’s World”, while the room swims around my head. She must have decided that she had teased me enough, because she came back to the rail in front of me and bent down, head between toned calves, gesturing me to lean forward.
“Go to the bartender and tell him you’re Peter Tork. He has your kit.”
The should-be-dead woman does some kind of standard stripper butt drop maneuver and heads back for the door to the dressing room. The bartender is already yelling at her to come out and dance, but I wave him over and try to calm him down. The sound of pulsing blood has faded now and I think I managed to even look relaxed as I talked to him.
“I’m Peter Tork, I hear you have something for me.”
“Shit man, you shoulda told me before. I thought you were one of those ‘got to see some morning poontang’ weirdos. I tell you, some of these guys…”
Typical northwesterner, never say in five words what you could drone on for twelve about. He continues in this vein for five or six minutes, and when the conversation has inexplicably turned to something about his family life that even he seems to realize isn’t germane to the situation, he stumbles off with an apologetic wave.
“The stuff is next to the register, let me get down there and get it for you, you need a drink or anything?”
I think momentarily about the cigarettes I see back there and my hands clench involuntarily. I could really use one – I mean, it calms you down, right? People smoke when they are out of their depth, and I am certainly that. It takes conscious will to avoid asking for a pack. I think about the cold sweats and the cough and the crankiness of the year it took to really quit and decide against it.
“Just a tomato juice.”
“Coming right up, nothing else in there? I’ve got some decent vodka and some hot sauce, maybe even a piece of celery or a…”
“Just the juice”, I head him off before he gets rolling.
I sure hope there’s some money in there. He goes to find the least dirty glass in the place and I start unpacking the brown paper bundle he gave me. There’s a gun, not mine, with a fat thick supressor on it. Not quite as good as I had in my backpack, but it will do. I stick it in the side pocket of my jacket before Chatty the Barkeep comes back. There is a cheap nylon wallet with a Washington state drivers license, two credit cards in the Peter Tork name, three hundred dollars cash, a tin of stage makeup – concealer, a bag of thick white athletic socks. Chatty rolls back over with my juice and I put a 20 on the counter. He is under the impression that I don’t need any change, and I decide not to make waves. He stops hovering and eventually retires to the chair that he was sitting in when I shoed up, reading some well worn magazine that featured a goober holding a giant fish on the cover.
Reaching the bottom of the package, I find a manilla envelope. I open and start to leaf through the dossier.
Everything I have ever done, all the places I have ever been, the people I have done business with. The people I have killed and what I used to do it. Credit card statements in names I have used, pictures of my safe houses, of my parents, of the street I grew up on, of the girls I have dated. Autopsy photos of the targets, financial statements of my distant relatives. All photocopied, clearly cheap duplicates, intentionally low image quality. This wasn’t a question, or a business proposal, this is as statement.
WE OWN YOU.
I head to the big pink building and take the elevator to the basement. I almost inadvertently end up in the mail room while trying to find the lockers. So much for security. Meandering back out and around, I locate the locker room, find locker number seven and open it up with a little apprehension. If this was a revenge gig, this could pretty easily be the part where they just kill me somewhere that nobody will check for hours. I could either try to figure out if there were explosives in here or I could do it quick and just hope. I choose the rip-it-off-like-a-band-aid method. The ridiculously narrow locker squeals open. There’s a clean set of clothes, some shampoo and soap, a towel, a plastic bag containing a scrap of t-shirt with a crimson bloom on one corner and a spray of viscera I recognize from Baltimore gig, and another manilla envelope, not nearly as thick as the one with my info in it. I stow both the envelopes and the t-shirt evidence in the locker, take the soap and the towel over to the shower. I relax as I think about it. This is just a blackmail deal, not a revenge thing, they’ll probably let me live. If I’m a good boy, I might even get paid.
The hot stinging needles of water hit me and I try to let my mind wander, carefully avoiding the thought of the dead woman’s strip tease, try to think a little about where I am and what could have happened to my stab wound, avoid thinking about the naked Dagny shaking what her moneymaker at me, try to prioritize my activities for the rest of the day, avoid thinking about the long toned legs, STOP IT STOP IT. As unlikely it is that anyone will show up here, I’m not going to wander out into a men’s locker room with an erection. That is another one of those things that stick in people’s minds, like three foot long dragon tattoos and expensive cars and strange accents and men stuffing guns in faces and women who make your stomach drop. I try to concentrate on the knowns. She made me, she set me up, she kidnapped me, she drugged me, she ditched me in a city I know about as well as I know my own left buttcheek, she has a little birthmark on the small of her back, she has forever altered the way I will look at that scene in Risky Business, when she eats potato chips, she wipes her hands on her pantleg. Stop. Got to get serious now. She owes me an explanation, and I’m not going to get it if I let any kind of sexual tension get in the way. I need to look at this the way an engineer looks at a car accident, clinical, solution oriented. I just need to figure out the best way to guarantee that I get my life back, figure out how to get compensated for this stupid tattoo, then anything else is cream. When there isn’t any potential embarrassment from my daydreaming, I wander out, clean as a whistle, and get dressed in the fairly sensible outfit. Jeans, t-shirt, light sweater. I spend some time putting concealer over the dragon’s tongue, I look at all the junk I have accumulated already and sigh, I always feel like such a woman when I have more stuff than I can carry in my pockets. I trash the shirt and pants I woke up in, save the jacket in case it gets cold, put on a fresh pair of socks. I am thinking about what all else I could ditch here without running extra risk and I decide that the t-shirt scrap could probably go, I’d rather not have it on me and risk getting picked up. I wander over and find a janitor’s closet door propped open, find a bottle of bleach that I stuff the scrap down into and leave the whole thing marinating in the bottom of the locker. I think about ditching the knife, but some retarded part of me insists on keeping it and I don’t have the energy to argue right now. The gun goes into the front of my pants under the bulky sweater and everything else kind of gets bundled into the jacket. I think about leaving the rest of the socks, but I figure I could probably use them later, and I’ll go buy a backpack soon enough.
I head out and try to find a Wal-Mart, but then rapidly remember that I’m in the middle of downtown fucking hippie ville and start trying to find an independent sporting goods store. I find two, closed, their buildings decaying from the outside in. I think of what I might give for even a K-Mart at this point, when I stumble into some Evil-Huge-Corporation-But-Good-At-Hiding-It tinymart and buy a ridiculous and not particularly useful manpurse/”courier bag” that is large enough to hold all of my gear, but not well laid out enough to organize it in any way. It hangs from one shoulder across my chest and I can just feel the testosterone output of my glands dropping. I find a convenience store that has a couple of prepaid phones for sale and I wanted to buy three of them. If the clerk found this interesting in the slightest, the pot would likely completely submerged any consciousness, but there was a security camera. I settled on just one. Once he figured out how to activate the phone by the third phone call to the 800 number on the back, I grabbed the phone, noted that the camera was one of those dummy stick-on plastic ones, and sighed a breath of relief. I was so worried about that that I had completely managed to ignore the cigarettes behind him. Things were finally starting to look up. As long as I didn’t think about sex or blondes or Risky Business or tattoos, everything was going to be A-OK.
A few calls to a couple of financial institutions later, and the depth of the research done on me was revealed to be “porn star deep”. I am tapped out – any liquid resources that I could get on any sort of reasonable notice? Gone. The only things that I have left are various cash stores in safe deposit boxes throughout the southwest US and Mexico, and some real estate holdings and investments that would require me to be present to withdraw from and would cause a significant fiscal penalty. I make some quick mental calculations and decide that if this blackmail gig is going to go down like normal, I shouldn’t worry too much about the money, it’ll be returned to me as a reward later. Not looking like I’ll make out too good on this one though, the number of ID’s that just got burned is going to set back my retirement fund significantly. Eventually I realize that I haven’t bothered to figure out what day it is. It was Sunday when I jogged into this mess, and it’s definitely a week day. I go buy a paper and have to check it twice. I fight the urge to ask people walking by to confirm it.
Three weeks. How could I lose three weeks?
I figured four days, five days tops. A couple to get me here, a day to mark me up and dump me. This… this didn’t make any sense. I still couldn’t possibly have healed this completely in three weeks, but what did I do? I would feel more soreness from being bedridden that long, and I’d remember at least some kind of haziness if they kept me drugged and mobile.
I almost reach for the gun but relax when I notice it’s just two of the filthy young people talking to each other. I’ve stumbled into some kind of brick parking lot sized amphitheater thing where the most common activities are twitching and scratching, in that order. I look sufficiently low key, like somebody slumming it, that nobody really bothers me. The three weeks bit bothers me almost as much as the scar thing and the tattoo thing, but the only way I’m going to get answers is if I prove I can be a good boy and play along. The constant smell of cigarette smoke is choking me on and off, but I think I have plenty of privacy to break out with envelope number two, who I can only assume is my target. And sooner is almost always better in this sort of situation. I settle down with a warm cup of brown bitter water from Seattle’s biggest export since flannel shirts, start to rifle through my pack for the envelope, and notice the car across the square. In the reduced light of the overcast sky, there would be almost no way to notice the camera taking pictures of me if it weren’t for the oversize telephoto lens and flash exploding uselessly into space. This is another message.
We Are Watching.
I can only hope that reports of me reading the dossier would go in as brownie points. It is a thick envelope, government class depth of detail, at least, or at minimum a very, very wealthy client had some some very, very expensive checking on something. There are a series of documents that are in some code I can’t decipher, a mixed picto-character cipher that wouldn’t be very fun to crack, I hoped that wasn’t going to be part of the test here, because I was going to fail that one. Then I found a series of photographs – All devoid of any content I’d be interested in. Here is a picture of a car. One of a ladybug. One of a cartoon cat that I think might be named Savoir Faire, but that might be the name of the city he lived in – he was the B-act in the Underdog show. The next shows a picture of Snidely Whiplash from that awful live action version of Dudley Do-Right with Joe Frazier, you know, that guy who was in that caveman movie with Pauley Shore and Stephen Baldwin. Some more landscape shots, an artists representation of the eruption of Krakoa, east of Java, the island that walks like a man. I never did understand why they made a comic book about that, it didn’t make much sense. A postcard that had a bunch of thong-split bottoms on it proclaiming that Brazil was great, and that the sender wished that I were beer. A bumper sticker about some kind of referendum measure 217 that said “We don’t need another JFK” was stapled to a hand written note in the cipher. The lowercase i’s were dotted with little circles. I stare at it, about eighty or ninety documents and pictures all told, and realize it is all gibberish. None of it makes sense at all. This is like sending someone the clippings that a schizophrenic took out of the Picayune Registrar over the course of 20 years. This is less than useless. I look up hoping to at least shoot a disturbed shrug at the car that was watching me, but it was gone. Something in the folder caught the corner of my eye, and I glanced down to try to chase it, but it was like a fragment of a dream, I chase it, but it owns up nothing. The filthy half-children are starting to bother me, so I figure I had better get up and find someplace else to hang out, this is going to be a long day.
The room is slightly smaller and less comfortable than a prison cell, but it was $100 a week, cash and no questions. There is a heat register next to the door and a window six feet up the wall I can tilt open for air if it got hot. On the other side of the door, there is a little chair and a shelf on the wall that could serve as a table. The window is also next to the door. Hell, it is all next to the door, the whole room was next to the door. It would be charitable to call this a closet. I feel myself starting in on another panic attack, the black waves grabbing at the edges of my vision when someone knocks. I thought about not answering, there was a strict “no guests” policy, which I assume is to drive down prostitution. I am trying to analyze the knock, how tall the person is, whether they’re mad or not, if they are knocking with an off hand (as one does when one has a gun in your good hand), when I hear a grumble and a rattle of keys.
“God damn it you can’t have OD’d already you fucking idiot… Oh”
The super I paid for my room barges in with his cellphone out, looking like he’s done this a time or two before. He’s got a wild eyed look that fades just slightly as he realizes I’m not foam-mouthed face down next to my dedicated hotplate outlet.
“Sorry, I was laying down.”
“Next time call out when I knock, otherwise I’m liable to come in and start trying to resuscitate you. You have a guest outside, a lady guest. I don’t need to remind you about trying to bring her up in here, do I?”
“Uh, no… What does this lady guest look like?”
“Blonde, tall, out of your price range. Listen, buddy, those escort ads in the skinrags will cost you an arm and a leg for nothin. If you want some action, come talk to me and I’ll find you something that’s more scaled to budget. There’s a package discount with the room. With that shoulder bag, I just assumed you weren’t into that side of the action anyways, otherwise we could have avoided you calling down some kind of uptown competition.”
“Thanks… I’ll go see what she wants.”
We walk down the narrow stairway that I realize must have been a space between buildings in it’s past life and onto the street. The super looks back at me and reminds me about the no guests policy again. Apparently confident that I will send away my prostitute and instead opt for one that pays a tithe to him, he retires back into the convenience store that doubles as his office, turning the “back in 15” sign over to reveal an ad for Camel Wides. I don’t take my eyes off her, and I’m still calculating where in this stupid purse my gun is. She’s looking at me with something like concern.
“What’s the matter, Peter, you don’t miss me?”, she keeps an innocent looking smirk on her face while she takes in my appearance.
“Cut the shit. We need a place to talk, and not here.”, I try to keep my eyes above the shoulders and mostly succeed. She’s wearing a fairly dressy outfit, like she’s getting ready to go out to dinner. It’s got little bone buttons on it like a chinese coat.
“Yeah, nice place though, real good choice. You don’t get to keep those credit cards when you’re done with this, you should splurge a little, it’s all on the company.” Her attitude shifts visibly, like she’s putting two and two together. She starts eyeballing my clothes, and I see her right hand flexing like multiple sclerosis or parkinsons maybe. Not the one Alex P Keaton has, the one Montel Williams has.
“It’ll do just fine. Lets go talk.”
“No, let’s go to work, I heard from home base that you already read the files. Why the hell aren’t you dressed? Why haven’t you picked up the kit from Tommy, he said you were in the square, but you just stared at him like…”
I felt the ground going out from under my feet again. She said something that sounded like ‘mambo’, the word started that way anyhow, and when it ended, it was all muddy and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The world is squishing around like it’s made of Jell-o, or more like I’m staring through Jell-o. I reach for the gun to try to kill her now before the drugs fully take me under, and I notice that my arms don’t even twitch. I am now a passenger.
I feel my body reach for the documents and pull out the folder, but it’s different. I can still see the pictograms, and the pictures of a banana tree, and some flyer for the opening celebration of a carpet warehouse in Marana, Arizona, but I also see something else. I see surveillance pictures of a target. Taken from a telephoto, this one a headshot from a press release. The pictograms resolve halfway into letters, but I can feel the start of a headache when I look at it. Not that I have much of a choice about when to look. It’s disorienting, I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster, this kind of whipping and thrashing around. My body looks up at the dead woman called Dagny and I see a tiny bit of concern in her eyes, but it’s quickly submerged. Her hand reaches up in a kind of palsy gesture for a moment, and then it goes slack. She reaches over for my body’s arm and we march off down the street towards the unknown. I’m struck, momentarily, before I drown in the gelatin that is coating the world, that there are two women fighting over a body. And then it’s dark again.
There is a bleating noise coming from somewhere, it might be an alarm clock. My eyes are glued shut like they used to when I was little, the eyelashes crusted together with some strange dried goo. I am trying to get my hands up around my face to pry them open, twisting the lashes so the crumbles of gick will come out and I can blink again, but there is a disconnect, and I worry for a moment that I’m paralyzed. There are a lot of nightmare vibes coming, and I can’t really remember where I am.
I hope that Lisa will come soon. The idea of her saving me from this situation.
It’s not Lisa, really, she pronounces it ‘lie sha’, but it’s not spelled that way, at least not on the mail that is delivered to my door every day – which, of course, she has to come into the apartment to get. When I try to describe my relationship with her, some people mistake her for a girlfriend or a wife, but that couldn’t be furthur from the truth. She’s an over-curious and pushy japanese landlady for my apartment in Boston. I start trying to put together what happened last night, whether it was a drunken thing (which doesn’t happen very often, but is not out of the question) or a drugged up thing (less common, but more likely considering how I feel). I don’t remember a lot, there was something about a job and it going badly and not having any shoes, but for the most part it’s all gone.