This is for those folks without two nickels to rub together, and for those who can’t properly work technology like e-books, namely Peter Hardcastle. It’s part of my second novel, tentatively titled ‘Work’ while I try and muster the actual name for the book. If you can find about eight bones you should buy Noir Nation and support the other writers involved. It is one hell of a first issue for a literary journal, which, in their words, “advances works of the imagination that explore the darker geographies of human experience.”
Excerpt from the novel WORK – (Originally published in Noir Nation Issue No. 1 – August 2011)
by Kevin Hardcastle (Canada)
In the dark and pisswet alleyway Daniel stood under one meager light. A lonely bulb sticking sideways out of a socket in the moldy brick, glowing pale orange and humming high and quiet. Rain fell on it and hissed out of existence. He stood with both hands in his jacket pockets, staring blankly at the opposing alley wall not ten feet away. Cars ran by at the near entrance and drubbed the gravel out of the shallow potholes there, sprayed filthy rainwater on the sidewalk and set it sloshing back and forth in the holes to fill up again. The prepaid cellphone in his right hand started to whir and rattle. He took it out and looked at it and before he could look up again a black van turned from the roadway and came bucking down the alley toward him. He put the phone back in his pocket and dropped his hands to his sides and when the van pulled up the side door was open and he got in and shut it behind him and the van went on down the alley and diminished into the waiting blackness.
Clayton sat at the table with his arms crossed, a slight smile coming and going. A wooden table with a duffelbag atop it in the middle of the modest cinderblock and sheet-metal warehouse, nothing else in the place. Wallace King sat beside Clayton and he flicked through the bound billstacks and set the counted money aside. Clayton stared across the table at the other man who sat smoking and exhaled too hard. Snapped loose the ash from his cigarette even when there was none to drop. That man was not armed under his leather jacket but his minder at the door had a Glock pistol slung in a holster and the clasp and thumbsnap removed. Daniel stood on the other side of the metal doorway and he watched the table and the count and the man across from Clayton. And he watched the minder on the other side of the doorway, watched him askance with something like ambivalence.
“I know you,” the minder said. “You’re that fighter.”
Daniel looked at him for a second. Then he looked back at the table.
“There’s not much pistol work done inside that cage. Is there?”
“Not so much,” Daniel said.
The man smiled and put his back against the block wall, his chest sticking out.
At the table Wallace King laid down the last bundle of cash and looked at Clayton. Clayton looked at him as well and nothing was said and then Clayton nodded and reached across the table to the smoking man and shook his hand hard and held it a few moments before letting go. The man dropped his cigarette and crushed it underfoot and glanced over at his minder and the man perked up and started walking to the table. He had gone a few steps before he realized Daniel wasn’t beside him but before he could make a decision to stop or go Daniel came forward and the minder had to stutter-step to stay in line with Daniel as they went to the table. Clayton and Wallace and the other man were standing now. Wallace had swept the money into the bag and it hung heavy by the handlestraps in his right fist. The minder stood beside his man and he and Daniel were opposite each other again with the table between them. Wallace started to hand the bag to Clayton and Clayton reached to take it but then his hand came back in a wild sweeping arc and there was a razor in his hand and it passed through the cheek of the smoking man and drew but a line which seemed to fatten all at once and then opened to show pink gums and white teeth that looked strangely canine before they were swallowed in a swell of red.
The man staggered back from the table and the minder didn’t see the cut right away but his hand started to move to his side. Daniel reared back and booted the edge of the table and it caught the man high on his legs and his hand missed the gun and went up in the air with his flailing arm. Then there was no table between them and Daniel hit him in the chin with a short right hand and as the man crumpled he was hit with a left-hook and another straight right and his eyes were rolled back to where the white twitched in taut ocular muscle. Daniel followed the man down and grabbed the Glock even before he had settled stiff and limbstretched on the cold concrete floor. Daniel came back with the gun in his hand and turned to see Clayton talking to the man he had cut, a pistol of his own pressed against that man’s temple and the man crouching and trying to hold his face together as blood shot through his fingers and spilled down his forearms into his already sopping shirtsleeves. He bobbed up and down under the gun and blood fell to the concrete where it splattered and formed oblong pools, maroon rain that moved with the man as he hobbled by like a ruptured and spastic stormcloud.
Daniel stood there holding the minder’s gun and when he looked down at it he didn’t even have his finger on the trigger. Wallace came over and Daniel turned to him with his eyes wide and murderous. Wallace held up and then slowly reached out with one large and hairless hand.
“Better give me that, big guy,” Wallace said.
Daniel passed the gun over and Wallace took it from him and then handed the duffelbag to Daniel. Wallace checked the chamber and let the slide snap back and then he clapped Daniel on the shoulder and went over to Clayton. Daniel stood there with the bag of money hanging down near his ankles and he watched the man he’d knocked down and he watched him and watched him and would not look away.
The van sat curbside in front of the alley where they’d come for him three hours before. The digital clock on the dash read two thirty eight am. There were no people walking on the damp pavement and very few streetlamps in that part of town and the buildings were dark and some abandoned. Dim light shone from perhaps a dozen windows in the apartment rows above the streetlevel stores.
“You want to know why that happened?” Clayton said.
Daniel sat in the passenger seat and Wallace King sat in the back with the money. He had been staring ahead at the street, watching a stray dog that wandered out from the shadow and now sat in the middle of the road, mangy and one-eared, its snout tilted upward like it was taking the air. Daniel turned and saw Clayton’s cold blue eyes, his thin face and neat, graying beard.
“I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you,” Daniel said.
Clayton kept on studying him. Silence in the van.
“Sometimes it goes sideways,” Daniel said. “I know that. Can’t be helped. I accept that as part of the deal.”
“You accept it?”
“I know what I’m there for.”
“There’s no point to a guard dog that won’t bite,” Clayton said, and smiled. “Something like that?”
Daniel gave a nod and then faced forward again. The stray had gone.
“So what’s the matter then?” Clayton said. He had been waiting for Daniel to look back at him.
“I think these days you go in there planning to get bloody,” he said.
Clayton scratched at his chin, glanced away for just a second.
“I thought you didn’t want to know about it,” he said.
Daniel had his fingers on the doorhandle. He looked at Wallace in the back, his cropped hair and his big hands on his kneecaps, the white of his eyes so very white and the irises black as tar. Clayton was smiling at him again.
“You’re right man. You’re right I don’t want to know,” Daniel said.
He opened the van door and started to shift his ass off the seat. Clayton reached out.
“Wait,” he said.
He nodded at Wallace and gestured with his hand and a fat yellow envelope came forward and Clayton took it and handed it to Daniel. It looked like more money that it should have been.
“Look man,” Daniel said. “I told you I ain’t gonna work with you much longer, and that day is comin’ real soon. I’m glad I could help you out Clayton. But I got maybe one or two jobs left in me. That’s all.”
Clayton let his hand drop a little.
“You said that before. Did he say that Wallace?”
“Yep,” Wallace said.
“Where you gonna earn Danny? How you gonna feed that kid?”
“I got a line on something else.”
“Welding piss poor metal and cooking those good hands.”
“It’s real work,” Daniel said.
“Is it?” Clayton said, and took a deep breath, saw himself in the rear-view mirror.
Daniel stood there waiting until Clayton looked over and grinned at him. He dropped the envelope on the seat.
“Sure it is,” he said. “But you wish you still had the welding rig in the truck? You want we could look around for it. Look around for who stole that truck and rolled it.”
“I don’t want no favours, man,” Daniel said. “I know what becomes of ‘em.”
“Oh, well, I’ll bet the insurance will get you back in the game.”
Daniel sighed. He looked sideways down the wet and ragged street.
“You know there wasn’t any,” he said.
Daniel took the envelope and put it inside his coat and then he reached into the van and quickly shook Clayton’s hand, reached back and shook Wallace’s hand.
“Take ‘er easy Dan,” Wallace said.
Daniel nodded and looked at Clayton one more time and then he turned and went into the alleyway. He didn’t walk too fast but he did not walk slowly. He grew smaller and went grey in the halflight and then he stepped into the alleybound darkness and vanished. When he should have passed the solitary lightbulb he did not. They could see no more of him and heard no footsteps.
Wallace climbed over into the front seat, sat down heavily with his knees up high near the top of the dashboard.
“Still handy in a pinch ain’t he?” Wallace said.
Clayton was trying to see Daniel still but then he gave up.
“Yes, he is.”
“You think he’d put a man down if it came to it?”
“I’d want a gun in my hand if I had to be opposite that guy in a fight,” Wallace said.
Clayton sat back in his seat and turned the key. The engine turned and set to growling.
“You never seen him handle a piece?”
“Never,” Clayton said.
“Well, you would think he’d of had to by now.”
“Wallace,” he said. “I think if that you thought about shooting that man he’d be in your bedroom with his hands on your neck before you finished plotting it out.”
“Bullets are bullets. This ain’t TV.”
Clayton laughed a little.
“True. Provided you can get the gun out in time. And you don’t miss.”
Wallace let a breath out slow and nodded his head all the while.
“You wouldn’t want to even think about missing.”
“No,” Clayton said. “No, you fucking would not.”
Wallace started to smile but Clayton wasn’t smiling at all anymore. Clayton looked at him until Wallace nodded again and looked out of the window. Out in the black a shape went by low and creeping. They could hear a high and lonesome howl muffled by the windowglass. From somewhere far away came a wanton reply but they could not hear that voice in the night. A cold and bellowing wind descended and spun old newspaper in the gutter and then went swirling down stone corridors.
Daniel’s truck crept into the driveway, gravel shifting under the heavy tires. No light shone in the cab, which had been bent by the crash and bent back by a winch and harness while the truck sat anchored in a mechanics lift. Daniel rolled to a halt and put the truck in park and there he sat for the better part of an hour, his hands shaking above the steering wheel and his chest tight atop heavy exhalations that left fog on the windshield. He had pulled in at nearly four in the morning watching the sky lighten from charcoal to grey and he didn’t move from his seat until a thin yellow strand began to swell at the horizon line. He made his hands into fists a few times and then he pulled the doorhandle. He had to shoulder the door open and the metal squealed and when he shut it behind him he had to drive it closed with that same shoulder. Too loud. He looked at the house and waited for a light to come on. Nothing happened. Daniel stood with his hand on the battered truck, watching the world take shape as the early morning light showed highgrass fields and a thin, winding stream and the distant, jagged treeline. Nothing there that belonged to him.
He eased in through the front door and made it halfway to the fridge before he remembered his boots and he went back and took them off and tried again. He took a beer from the fridge and his hand trembled still but he got the cap in his palm and tore it loose and drank until the bottle stood upside down with nothing left to spill. Daniel set the bottle on the counter and he could not see clearly through his watering eyes. He felt like he might sneeze but he stopped it and instead burped soundlessly against a part-open mouth. He could see the shape of the bottle now on the counter and he shook his head and tried to think where he might have whiskey. After a few seconds he went back to the fridge and got another beer and when he left out for the bedroom fifteen minutes later there were five bottles lined up neatly beside the toaster.
When he went into the bedroom he could see Sarah laying on her back, her head to the side and crimson hair fanned out over both sets of pillows. Her right arm lay palm up in the dented mattress where his haunches came to rest every night. Daniel stared at her in the shallow light, at her slightly upturned nose, freckles on either side that went sparse as they travelled out over her round, dimpled cheeks. She wore a tanktop and he looked at her strong, slight shoulders, the scar where she had surgery on a torn rotator cuff. Her chest rose and fell and he stood there and watched her sleep, leaning against the doorway by his forearm with his chin at the crook of his elbow. He stood up straight and she stirred and then her eyes opened. She blinked hard and started to smile, mischief in her look. Daniel smiled back.
“Hi,” she said.
“What are you doin’ out there?”
“I caught a late shift.”
“I meant what are you doing standing all the way over there.”
“That’s a fair question,” he said.
Sarah propped herself up on her elbows.
“You look like you got into it tonight,” she said.
He looked down at his stocking feet, heavy black cotton frayed and worn thin in patches. Quiet settled in and he looked back up at her.
“You always wait for me to ask but I never do,” she said to him.
“If you want to know about it I’ll tell you,” he said.
“Just come here.”
“I’m gonna get in the shower.”
“Get into this bed with me,” she said.
“I doubt I smell that good.”
“Well, is it bad like smoke and shitty beer or bad like just you?”
He laughed once.
“Just me I think.”
“Get in this bed with me then,” she said, and threw the covers back. “But you gotta keep your filthy hands off me.”
“I can’t make a promise like that,” he said.
She let herself flop back down and lay with her arms splayed out, like she might start trying to make a snow angel amongst the sheets. Then she rubbed her eyes with both hands and put them on the blanket at her belly. Daniel took his arm off the doorway but he didn’t go into the room. He just stood there and looked in at his wife.
“Hey,” he said softly.
“What?” she whispered back.
“I gotta see the girl first.”
Sarah had her eyes closed but he could see her smiling wider yet.
“I knew that too,” she said.
The little girl slept in a mess of blankets, pillows all about her. She had managed to get the corner of the comforter up to her chin sometime in the night and wore the thing like a massive, stuffed toga. She lay there with her arms and legs splayed out like she were a starfish, skinny limbs in the open but for the cover of her wrinkled pajamas. Daniel looked down at her and shook his head.
“Holy shit Madelyn,” he said.
He started to laugh and then he leaned down to her and put his hand on her forehead. Her skin felt very soft against the roughness of his palm and he moved it away and smoothed her hair and saw the size of his hand next to her little head, the bruising on his fattened knuckles. Daniel stood up and crossed his arms to hide those hands and then after a few minutes he leaned down again and kissed her as gently as he could on the top of her head and then got up and went out, leaving the door partly open. If Madelyn had opened her eyes then she would have seen her father there, speaking to himself at length while he studied her. But she didn’t open her eyes and soon enough his fingers loosed the doorhandle and he went down the hall with his head hanging low.
When Daniel woke up he saw the girl sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed. She watched him intently and when she saw him stir her mouth opened a little and she sat up straight to see if this was the real thing.
“Hey,” Daniel said.
“Hi daddy,” she said. “You up?”
“How long you been sittin’ there?”
She shrugged. Daniel rubbed at his eyes and ran one hand through his hair and pushed himself up so that he was more or less sitting against the headboard.
“You slept a long time dad,” the girl said.
“Yeah?” he said.
“I’ll remind you about saying that when you get to high school and Saturday rolls around.”
Madelyn stood up and walked across the bed to where her father lay. Then all at once she turned and her little legs folded up under her and she was sitting there in the blankets beside him. She looked around the place like she was thinking of moving in. Her nose twitched.
“It smells kind of weird in here,” she said.
Daniel turned to her slowly with his eyes wide and she mimicked him and just sat there looking back.
“Well, that’s your mother’s fault,” he said. “For being the only human being in history who ever told me not to take a shower.”
“What?” she said.
“Nothing,” he said.
Daniel faced forward again and closed his eyes.
“You were saying things and moving a lot. Did you have a bad dream?”
Daniel thought on it.
“I don’t remember,” he said, and then he threw the covers off and looked at the girl.
“Let’s get up outta here and see what’s happening,” he said.
“Okay,” she said.
He stood up beside the bed and she walked over to meet him. When she got there he got his arm around her and swung her up over his shoulder and her fine red hair flew as she went and then it lay all over his right shoulder and upper back and he took her out of the room in a fireman’s carry. She raised her body up and held her arms out in the air so that when they came into the kitchen she looked like half of a ragged little superman flying assbackward to nowhere.
Sarah sat at the kitchen table reading the paper, a can of diet coke in her hand. When she saw them she got up and went over to the oven and opened it.
“Sit,” she said without looking back.
Daniel put his daughter down and she brushed her hair out of her face and went over to the table and took her seat. Sarah saw her go.
“Maddy, you already ate your breakfast,” she said. “And your lunch I guess.”
“It’s alright,” Daniel said.
Sarah took a plate of bacon and sausage out of the oven and then went to the microwave and turned it on and then started putting the meat on a cool plate. When she was done she went to the toaster and pushed the lever and then she waited for the chime from the microwave and heard it and then took the eggs out, steam rising from the bowl. She forked out a mouthful and tried them and then she pulled the rest out onto the plate and chopped them up. Daniel stood there watching her and she looked up at him and smiled.
“I thought you were goin’ to town,” he said.
“We are. But I gave it about a fifty-fifty chance you’d work out how to feed yourself if we left before you got up.”
“I’d have called it seventy-thirty.”
“If you’re just gonna stand there ogling me you might as well get that toast.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
Daniel passed her and squeezed her shoulder as he went and then he was laying the toast thick with butter. When he was done he brought it to the table and set it down and Madelyn looked over and gritted her teeth at the still melting gobs of butter there.
“That’s not the way mom does it,” she said.
“I’m about to hear that again from her when she sees it too, so just take it easy.”
Sarah had gotten him a mug from the cupboard and now poured coffee into it.
“I didn’t think I’d sleep like that,” Daniel said. “What time is it?”
She came over and set the plate before him and took a sip from his cup and then set it down beside the plate.
“For you its breakfast time,” she said. “That’s what time it is. Now eat your food and tell me how good it is.”
He did eat and Sarah sat down and pretended to read the paper while she watched him wolf down the meat and eggs and slide strips of bacon over to his daughter as she tried to hide her giggling. On page three of that morning’s paper there were reports of a warehouse fire in the city that spread to bordering soyfields and still burned wild when the presses ran. But she was not really reading the paper and she didn’t see it.
Daniel showered and then stood in the bedroom in his towel wondering what to do next. He found underwear in the drawer but no jeans. So he went to search them out wearing an old pair of cargo shorts and found himself in the basement looking for the lightswitch. He didn’t like that damp cellar from the first day he went down into it, but he’d set up a heavy bag there with duct-tape covering the dried and cracking leather. Tape had worn out and been retaped and it wound over itself now like the year-lines on the inside of a treetrunk and likewise could have been cut through to count the age it recorded. Daniel walked by the bag like it wasn’t there and found his jeans in the dryer and made for the stairwell. This time he saw the bag and pawed at it with his left hand and the jeans slipped off his shoulder. He put them down and threw another light jab and then a hard jab and felt the meat of the bag under his raw knuckles and then he threw a one two and stung the bag with the right hand and sent it spiraling counter-clockwise. He shook the right hand out and looked at the bruising there and then he stopped the bag and held it still. He backed up and threw a half-assed one two and then his right leg whipped around and his shin smashed into the side of the bag, a sound like a nail being hammered in the hollow of an old shack. He felt a little off balance so he reset and then threw another right and this time there was no slap but rather a heavy thud and the support beam where the bag had been bolted shuddered and sent rumblings through the house. He stutter-stepped and threw a high left kick and rotated hard on the ball of his right foot and there the inside-front of the shinbone dug deep where a man’s head might be and Daniel finished the rotation with his hips and shoulders facing right and then his leg came back and he went with it and he was standing there at the ready again. He threw a few more kicks and they felt better and better and his hairless shins had reddened but they were not very sore, not bonesore at least, just stinging skindeep atop nerve-endings that were long-dead or had too little life left in them to complain anymore.
He picked up the jeans and shut off the light and went up the crude wooden stairs in pure blackness. Then he was out in the light and shut the door behind him and there he wiped a line of sweat from his forehead. He went into the kitchen and sat in his shorts at the table and looked around the small house. There were cracks in the ceiling plaster and wind came whistling through the warped and core-rotten windowframes. The stove had been old when it was put in fifteen years ago and Sarah washed her dishes by hand under hard country water that had to run for a few minutes before the brown-red tinge of rust and seepage cleared out of the stream. He saw the old fridge with its lever-handle and yellowing corners and then he noticed that the fridge magnets held nothing there except for a few handwritten notes. No envelopes. Daniel looked around for just a minute more and then he was up and the jeans were tossed onto the couch in the living room as he went by. A few seconds later he came past the other way wearing a sweatshirt and his sneakers and he left out through the kitchen with the screen door swinging wild and slapping back against the jamb as he ran across the tired late-autumn grass.
Daniel ran over uneven ground with knots of hard dirt and towering weeds and he heard his heart pounding in his ears as he went up a gradual rise and passed a stand of trees and beside them a weatherworn cross stabbed into the earth. He hadn’t lived there long enough to know who or what lay under that ground but he thought about it long after he passed by. He ran out toward the treeline and it did not come quickly and when he got there his chest ached from heaving the cool air. Daniel slowed down and stopped long enough to grab hold of the outstretched and low-hanging limb of a fir and his hand came back sticky with residue. He was about to turn and make his way back but there in the shadow at the forest-edge Daniel saw a dark and languid shape in strobe behind the columnar trees. He had never seen an animal move like that before, soundless and sure and very, very quick. He took one step onto the needlestrewn soil that rarely felt sun and one step was enough to turn him around.
Daniel ran again on the open ground and found his pace there and headed home, a single figure streaking across the fields, leaving brief and chaotic dustclouds to settle on the shortgrass. The little house that he went to sat lonely on the dirt road between fields to the south and those to the north with the forest beyond, the back door as he had left it, swinging free behind a chill easterly wind.
Daniel hung up the phone and set the receiver down on the kitchen table. He went back outside to the front steps and sat down on the cold concrete and stared out at the dirt road. High above the lines ran from pole to pole, black ropes swaying slightly in the twilight. Bats burst out of the dark as if fired by cannonade and the frantic beatings of their wings could be heard from the shadows where they hunted Mosquitoes and other insects. A near-full bottle of beer sat on the step beside Daniel and he picked it up and poured it out on the grass. He leaned back with his palms on the stone beside him and there he waited until he saw a speck of light appear way out in the blackness and he watched that light swell and split into two tiny dots which grew and burned brighter as they came shuddering forward over that tired country road.
When the truck pulled into the driveway Daniel sat there for another few seconds and then he stood up and brushed the grit off of his jeans. The driver’s door opened and Sarah got out and then she slung the straps of her purse up over her shoulder and reached back into the cab and lifted Madelyn out. She set the girl down and her feet were already in action and she hit the ground and came at her dad running and got hold of his legs. He held her little head in his hand and walked over to the truck with her feet on his one foot, lifting her clear off the ground as he hobbled over to see what he could carry. Sarah handed him one bag and he kept his hand out for more until she slapped it down and reached into the cab again and took out three grocery bags and shoved the door shut with her hip. Daniel looked down at the person affixed to him.
“You think you can grab that door there trooper?” he said.
The girl let go and hustled up the steps and yanked the door open with both hands and lay flat against the wall with the screen squashing her nose. Daniel put his free hand out until Sarah rolled her eyes and gave him the two heavy bags and then he walked ahead toward the door.
“We’re you waitin’ out here for us?” she said.
“I was just sitting out.”
“I didn’t know we’d be gone so long. It got dark in a hurry.”
“When d’you work at?” he said.
She passed him and sighed.
“Too soon,” she said. “But we got some time.”
She went inside and Daniel looked at Maddy behind the screen door and told her to come on and she let go of the handle and went around him and into the house as Daniel propped the door open with his back. He took one last look at the outer dark and then he followed his daughter inside.
When midnight came and went Daniel sat out on the step again. Sarah had taken the truck hours before and Madelyn lay sprawled in her covers with her nightlight aglow in the corner of the room. He had looked in on her maybe half a dozen times while he waited and when the car pulled into his driveway he held his index finger up to his lips and went inside to check on her one more time. The driver nodded.
A minute later Daniel came back with his jacket on and the driver of the car got out quietly and left the door open.
“Hey Newfie,” Daniel said and shook the man’s hand. “Thanks for drivin’ out.”
“No worries,” the man said.
“I didn’t know what else to do about it. Sarah’s got the truck and I can’t have these motherfuckers coming out to my house.”
“No way,” Newfie said. “I get it man.”
Newfie had shoulder length hair and he wore a ball cap over it and a t-shirt under a heavy flannel overshirt and loose-fitting jeans. He scratched at the week’s worth of scruff on his face.
“There’s a full tank in that old bastard,” he said, and cocked his thumb at the black Monte Carlo that sat idling on the gravel drive.
Daniel nodded and took a long look at the car and then he looked back at the house again.
“Door’s open,” he said. “She won’t wake up to the TV or anything up to maybe an elephant stampede down the hall.”
“What do I do if she does wake up?”
“She likes you Newf. You’ll be alright. Just tell her to go back to bed and I’ll be in when I get back in an hour or two.”
“And what about her momma? What does she know?”
Daniel shook his head.
“That’s tomorrow’s problem,” he said. “And today ain’t over yet.”
Newfie laughed and then started for the house. Daniel was getting into the car and turned to see Newfie tip-toeing back and pointing and Daniel looked into the passenger seat and saw a six pack of tall-boys standing on the leather upholstery. He grabbed it by the rings and handed it over.
“Shit,” Newfie said. “Almost blew the whole deal before it got started.”
“I got beer in there,” Daniel said.
“Well, you might not later.”
Daniel smiled and eased the door shut and Newfie helped him by pressing it all the way closed with a little shove of his right hand. Then he held that hand out again and Daniel took it.
“Be careful bud,” Newfie said, and he gripped Daniel’s hand very hard and looked at him straight in the eyes.
“I’ll be back in a couple hours,” Daniel said.
Newfie nodded and let go and then went tip-toeing back toward the house and up the steps and the he was gone. Daniel let the gearshift down and backed out of the drive as slowly as he could. He waited in the road until he saw the door of his house closing and then he crept down the laneway until he could only see the porchlight in his rearview mirror and there he thumped the gas pedal and the tires threw broken chips of brittle tarmac as he went roaring townward through that cold and lightless country.
They were waiting for him this time. Wallace stood beside the windowless black van and Daniel pulled the car down into a service ramp a block away and came over on foot. No cars passed and the area was badly lit, a grid of industrial plazas and storage lockers and low-rent warehouses guarded only by dogs and decoy cameras. They were at the western limits of a suburban boomtown between the northern counties and the city proper, a part of the town that development skipped over or outright forgot. The lights of the town carpeted a mountain-rise to the east, and to the west there were abandoned train tracks aside a rude, skeletal wood and after that there lay swamp and cesspools and nothingness.
Daniel stepped light and Wallace didn’t see him coming until he had come within twenty feet of the van. Wallace’s hand went into his coat and then he widened his eyes and let his hand drop and shook his head, leaned down and put his hands on his knees. When he stood up again Daniel could see the pistols slung under his jacket over a black shirt that sat very square over his chest. The van’s side door had been left open a crack and now Wallace slid it gently to the side and Daniel saw the men inside.
Clayton sat there on his haunches with two other men that Daniel had seen before and one that he hadn’t. Clayton had pistols slung in the open over his shirt and the two men that Daniel knew had Remington 870 tactical shotguns resting across their knees and each man had their hands on the pistol grip with their fingers pressed against the triggerguard. The man that Daniel didn’t know had short blonde hair and a scar that ran the length of his scalp and trailed off into his left eyebrow. His eyes were so pale that they did not seem real. That man sat back against the barrier between the front and rear of the van and he had his legs splayed out and crossed one over the other at the ankle. Black combat boots under black cargo pants. He stared at Daniel for a long time until Clayton spoke to Daniel and then the man looked out emptily at the vacant streets and lots beyond.
“You’re fucking late,” Clayton said.
Daniel looked at every man again.
“Why you all got the fucking Kevlar on?” he said.
“Just get in here,” Clayton said.
Daniel glanced back over his shoulder and he could see where he had parked the car. He closed his eyes and caught the scent of burnt rubber, distant woodsmoke. There were no excuses he could make nor did he really try to think of one. He got into the van and Wallace shut the door and Daniel took a seat at against the divider beside the pale-eyed man. He sat with his hands holding his knees and felt the van dip slightly as Wallace got in. There came the sound of the driver’s door shutting and the engine turning over and then they were travelling.
“I thought you said we were just goin’ to talk to this kid?” Daniel said.
Clayton checked the chamber of his pistol and he didn’t look up.
“Is that what I said?”
“Well you didn’t say we were gonna fuckin’ liberate Burma.”
Clayton chuckled then but still he examined the gun and then suddenly he holstered it and leaned back against the rear corner of the van where he sat and laced his hands together in his lap.
“This kid and his shiftless idiot crew boosted a vehicle that I owned and a trunk full of vacuum-packed green. And in doing it they took a tire iron to the fellow who was driving. You know Jimmy Maher?”
“Yeah, I know the guy,” Daniel said.
“Well they cracked his fuckin’ head open and left that kid there against the curb where he near drowned laying up against the mouth of a sewer drain.”
Daniel pinched at the bridge of his nose with his thumbknuckle and forefinger and sniffed hard and then he leaned back and shook his head.
“He alright?” Daniel said.
“Yes, he’s wonderful,” Clayton said, and set to unfastening and refastening the Velcro straps on his vest. “He isn’t dead, if that’s what you mean. And it took a while to be certain of that.”
The van took a wide turn and rumbled over even ground and then straightened out and picked up speed.
“This young biker that robbed you, name’s Dubeau ain’t it?
“Relation to one of the members, charter original, if I remember right.”
“You can’t just open up on that guy. All kinds of shit will start rainin’ down.”
Clayton’s eyebrows raised and fell. His eyes wide for a second in mock fear. Daniel stared at him and Clayton said no more. After a while he sat forward and rapped one of the two hired men that Daniel knew on the shoulder and beckoned with his fingers for something to be given and that man reached down to his side and pulled a semi-automatic Beretta pistol up out of the shadow and Clayton took it from him and leaned forward further, holding the gun out with the butt-end toward Daniel.
Daniel didn’t move. He just sat there until Clayton’s hand dropped. Then Daniel surveyed the men in the van again and he could feel the stare of the pale-eyed man beside him but he wouldn’t engage it. Clayton gave the gun back to the other man and it went back into the dark space between he and the other shotgunner. Everyone had turned solemn and all that could be heard were the sounds of the tires running on rude macadam and the clack and clatter of the hardware in the back of the van as the men were jostled by the drive. They were slowing now and they went along creeping.
“How about you let me talk to this guy before you start layin’ people out,” Daniel said.
Clayton stole a look out of a narrow slit at one of the rear doors. He closed one eye hard and then opened it and closed it again and then he turned.
“What did you think I wanted you out here for?” he said. “These clowns always did have this Goddamned die-hard admiration for you Dan. I can’t say I will ever fully understand it.”
“Something in the water. In these small towns,” said the pale-eyed man suddenly.
Daniel turned to him then. The man smirked and his eyes wrinkled at the edges. Something sickly there in the pallid deep. The man shifted slightly and the shortened stock of a shotgun stuck out from his far side. By the look of it the barrel had been sawn down and when the man shifted the gun was gone into his coat again. Daniel looked back at Clayton.
“You got any more Kevlar?” he said.
“What you need it for if you’re just talking,” the pale-eyed man said.
Daniel didn’t even turn this time. Just cocked his thumb at the man.
“Who in the fuck is this guy?” he said.
“He’s the man that’s gonna replace you Danny,” Clayton said. “Since you quit an’ all.”
Daniel lowered his thumb slowly and let his arm drop and then he anchored his hands against his knees again and he sat silent for a very long time. He looked out through windows that were not there and he breathed very calmly and his heart drummed in his chest as it would if he were walking to the end of his driveway to fetch the mail. The van slowed and slowed and then it stopped and Wallace open and shut his door and left the keys rattling in the ignition. He came around to the side door and slid it open and Daniel’s feet were the first on the ground and he walked out onto the dirt and stone unarmed and unarmoured and he did not slow nor wait to hear footsteps falling behind his own.
Three men sat on their Harley’s outside the tiny, busted garage. The bikes faced the building, a brick grotto with a tired metal awning hanging crooked atop concrete-bound poles. A picnic table sat out front and firelight licked the ground under a closed charcoal grill. A fourth man came out through the open garage door with a beer in his hand and he went and sat straddle legged on his panhead and sat low in the seat facing the wrong way. That man was Darren Dubeau and he sat drinking the beer while the other three men chattered and cursed and then set to laughing. Dubeau looked over at them and then he looked past them and saw Daniel coming and he sat up straight and when he saw Clayton and the pale-eyed man with him he started to stand.
“Sit down man,” Daniel said. “It’s alright.”
The other three men on the bikes turned then and the nearest man’s hand went to his waist.
“Do not fucking draw any pistols,” Daniel said to him. “Don’t you fuckin’ do it.”
The man’s hand kept creeping.
“A.J.” Dubeau barked. “Knock that shit off.”
The man’s hand stopped and just hovered there at his side and then he let it fall.
“What’s up Dan? Clayton,” he said, and looked behind Daniel. He stared at them for a minute and then he pointed.
“I don’t know you,” he said to the pale-eyed man.
The pale-eyed man shuffled his feet and started to say something.
“Shut the fuck up,” Daniel said, and looked at the man over his shoulder. The man looked at Clayton but Clayton wouldn’t look at him. He eyeballed Dubeau and nothing else. Dubeau just sat there.
“You know what’s up,” Daniel said. “You bashed that kid and robbed the car, took all the shit in the trunk. I know you didn’t know who the kid worked for. But you gotta give up the green you took or hand over what it was worth.”
“I already talked this over with the big man,” he said. “He said you’d be comin’ for it.”
“What else did he say?”
“Said give it to you.”
Dubeau got up then and the bike rose on its springs and he downed his beer and scratched at his chest and lifted his left leg over the bike. He stood about six foot three and had wide shoulders and nearly no neck whatsoever and black hair shaved down to stubble. He pitched the beer can into an oil drum a few feet away from the grill and then he started for the garage.
“Hold on,” Daniel said. “I’m comin’ in there with you.”
“Okay Dan,” he said.
Clayton walked up and clapped Daniel on the shoulder and Daniel walked over to Dubeau and the bikers stared up at him as he went. Dubeau watched him come up and then he led the way into the building through the open garage door.
“I heard you were done with this shit,” Dubeau said as they walked in past rusted-out parts and filthy utility shelving and an ancient hydraulic lift. Daniel kept his eyes on Dubeau’s back and his hands and he stood in the doorway of the dim back room and inventoried the place very quickly while Dubeau retrieved a large duffelbag and hefted it out and to where the inside of the bag could be seen.
Daniel didn’t look into the bag. He just nodded and waved Dubeau by and then he followed him out toward the front of the shop.
Daniel had not cleared the entryway when the detonation came and fire streaked at him through the night and staggered him there against the door’s edge. Dubeau spun forty-five degrees to the right and as he turned pieces of him were flung out in the open air and they were of all different sizes and geometries and they trailed red and one such part flew skewered with rib-bone and articulated frantically like a wounded bird trying to take flight. The jacket had been shot into ribbons and the fraying ends rattled wet in the blast-wind and then stuck to the man. His right leg had left the ground and swung wide in an effort to follow his torso and now he pirouetted on the toe of his left boot before dropping facedown onto the greasestained tarmac. Thunder echoed in the shop and out in the darkness ever-lessening concussions came back to them over miles of hard and mottled field.
Daniel managed to get up out of the garage doorframe and as he stood so did the other three bikers and they were looking at Clayton and the pale-eyed man who had a double-barrel shotgun pinned to his shoulder at the stock with smoke and vapour rising yet from the sawn muzzles. The bikers were barely upright when the other two men that Clayton had brought came out of the shadow at the other side of the lot and opened up on them. The men had circled around the building and came forward with deliberate strides and shells spat from the guns and new shells racked and the bikers were blown backward over their motorcycles and already lay dead or dying where they had crumpled against the outer brick wall of the shop. Daniel stood in the doorway with his hands up. He looked at the shotgunners and the killed bikers. Dubeau had bled out with his leg bent at an impossible angle and his mouth open, eyes wide and staring blind to the west. The bikes dripped red and one had fallen down and rested atop the rider who had gone over it. Daniel took a step forward and saw the nearest man to him lying on his back on the asphalt beside his bike. An arm lay separate atop the black leather saddle.
Daniel stared into the open garage at the sickly light offered there. He counted steps from the doorway to the spot where Dubeau fell. Then he turned and walked over to Clayton with his eyes clear and cold and fixed on the new man with the sawed-off at his side. The pale-eyed man had been observing the scene with some sincerity and he didn’t look up until Daniel was nearly on top of him and even then he seemed not to know what he was looking at. The emptied shotgun rose up like he were using it to wave and Daniel pushed it aside with the outside heel of his right hand and smashed the man in the cheek with a left-hook from the hip. The pale-eyed man let go of the gun as he fell and it clattered to the ground where Daniel kicked it wide and went on. An angry red line had been drawn across the felled man’s cheek and as he tried to crab his way backward the cut widened and the blood came hard and ran like demented fingers trying to reach out and take hold of the underside of the man’s face. Daniel stopped and waited and the pale-eyed man got to one knee very quickly and his hand was already reaching inside of his jacket but Daniel got there first and yanked the pistol clear and then got hold of the man by his shirt-neck and drove the butt-end into the bridge of the man’s nose and the man would have crumpled again but Daniel held him up and hit him one more time between his rolling eyes before Clayton and the other goons wrapped him up and got the gun from him and dragged him clear.
Copyright © 2011 – Kevin Hardcastle