(story391.wpd: May 21, 1997) … now renamed as “Mostly Charleston People” Chapters 18 through 23
The day after Hricko was one day late. Nick hunched his shoulders and shuddered, for the morning had come up that way, leaden heat, an offshore breeze laced with raindrops and the cloying scent of storm-wall; emerald fragments of the Gulf Stream crashed around him. He struck into the deep sand above the tidal pool - late by an hour, they hadn’t waited.
“Hricko, damn-your-eyes, Hricko. The sharks ate ya?” Swells from the south-east had carried Vitalle and Hricko out of sight, lost them in a 2-nd breaker-line. If they only floated … float ya bastards ... they certainly would know where to find him. They knew rip-currents paths repeated like a Roman road.
Somewhere near the killer walked one. Nick felt sure of it stripping off his bagman sweats. And to follow that path only cost another dead blond. Paid to the private account of Peg Bottie. The cry-baby who saw nothing. Nikki Petrakis walked another; hectored him with her whole, cursed family.
But the third of those paths passed through the Tepy house; dead ended at Hricko, the Island refugee. Did his obscure game protect a life? Gordo thought he knew. In the end, Nick had followed Hricko.
“Water’s hot as piss. Hold it in Tony!”
Where were those two bastards?
A sand devil raced toward him, skirting out from the water’s edge. Nick turned away, looked past station thirty-two into the wet dunes, reminded again of why he hated beaches and all that dwell there. Hricko thinks it’s heaven. A steel-jacketed slug had tried to bury him here last night, him too close to the killer’s heaven. He needed Sam at his back. Tomorrow. It wasn’t the string of dead blonds, or Vitalle’s guts that brought him this close to the surf, not exactly.
Nick scanned over beach seaweed for the god damned broker. Between breakers, the glass-like surface smoothness had been replaced by a creamy layer of froth, water worked beyond its strength like the eastern rim of pewter-black thunderheads. By afternoon, wind direction would shift, and sheets of rain and lightening would move in from the Gulf Stream and sweep the beach clean. Not the detective, of course. Not his ocean; not his island. Nick hitched his trunks and headed into the surf.
Vitalle and Hricko had again fought their way out to the 2-nd line of breakers. No trivial task against the heavy, quartering current. Tony could occasionally see their heads bobbing above the green shoulders, pyramids of water from which the curling flash of a long wave might appear and into which the men vanished in a rolling thunder of foam.
“Nicky tries to swim. We oughta bought him a ducky!” Idiot.
Both men flipped to the racy sand bottom and headed inshore. A burble. “Erlyne was forgotten quickly,” Ben Hricko grunted through a nose clogged with brine, “but a long way from leaving the house.”
He and Vitalle knelt at the edge of warm tidal pool, hacking up two- pack-a-day habits under flickering beams of sun. Special, body-surfing seven foot breakers. Nick waded the fringe, trying to catch his breath. The bullet hole in Nick’s mirror had not interested Hricko. “Consider trying a filter-tip?”
“Not since fifth grade.” Vitalle forked a Red and a Zippo over to Nick. “Got em from a little red-head girl.” The tobacco taste bit into the clean air.
“Precocious little bugger.”
“She sold the reefer.”
“I’m not planning to buy a thing.”
“This one’s for free.”
“Pleased to be remembered, naturally. A day late.” Not the bullet hole, but the noise under the willows, imagined, half-remembered. Hricko didn’t push it, Nick didn’t mention Kranic’s dowsing, and they had gracefully slipped into the Tepy woman. Vitalle coughed, and tossed the Zippo into his canvas bag. “Nobody said Erlyne wasn’t a careful girl, or ever let a tit sag.”
“Do tell, Tony! You heard that direct from the old whore?”
“Never asked when or who birthed her, but she never looked old!” Hricko chewed on the wet tobacco end. “She didn’t have to tell me a thing.”
As the offshore winds had grown, leftover morning clouds had scattered in a crazed patchwork of metal-fringed cumulus and blue. Nick had taken the big dive, considering as a challenge the thin line of waves, the kissies as the kids called them, which washed in from the dying seven foot breakers. Seven and rising cause SOB had them metered and Hrocko caught the LED-flash when he woke.
Now, sometimes his head stayed above water; mostly he caught the bottom. DeLeon’s chest had been sanded red as a boiled lobster; Hricko and Vitalle seemed to consider that price of admission. “Even when she started out, working the truck stops, she always accepted credit cards from the drivers. Called herself a transport consultant.” Tony exhaled from the Pall Mall Red and spit pieces of wet tobacco back into the sand. “She had a high opinion of herself, and made the Johns pay for it. Lot a love in that hard ass, though.”
DeLeon was still puffing hard from the surf and trying to find a comfortable position on the crumbling edge of the pool. Salt water crusted in his eyes and mouth. He hadn’t thought to bring a towel, but thought he knew different about the whore. “Erlyne claimed she started at the Mills House. Nothing but a first class lay. Then again, who ever checked her resume?”
Hricko was using a clam shell to tighten a screw on his dichroic. In the patterned light, he looked like hell. “Barlet, for one. He custom built her house, on credit. Must have had some guarantee. Damned if he didn’t.”
Nick said. “Private paper.” He washed away old salt with new. “Erlyne kept good records, that’s what you’re telling me.”
“The best. And she knew how to keep them safe. When I moved into the house, I saw the little things. Like the ceramic inlays above the bed, within arm’s reach. Your boys never noticed, but if you push them just right, they pop open. Erlyne kept a Walther and a four-inch wrist knife in the cavities. Just in case somebody got crazy.”
Nick briefly raised his feet from the brine and stretched; except for the cramps, his legs felt numb. “Too bad she and the Columbian weren’t in the sack when it happened.”
“Wouldn’t have helped much, not for what took them.”
Hricko winced at a peculiar scud of clouds, the mottled-white bottom of a towering, black thunder-head. Nick pounded on the edge of the pool with his foot, and a clod of wet sand collapsed into the water and disappeared. He gave it a long count. “Don’t start on me now, Hricko, with your friggen’ hash dreams. You have an open circuit somewhere between the ears, and cosmic shit spills out of it. Over me. Wire it shut.”
Nick’s outburst seemed to pass unrecognized through the broker, for his dichroic never left the sky. “Whatever, Nick. I didn’t mean a thing.”
The detective’s voice could not have been softer. “Gents. I have a cutter and three dead young women; a fourth on the way. Nobody seems surprised. I want business done now.”
“We needed the proper . . . time window.”
“I have no time.” Nick smoothed off the new edge with his hand and stared at Hricko, but Hricko only shrugged his crusted shoulders. “Erlyne would have understood.”
“Yeah. The women always do.” And so would Nick, given time and the badly wrong chance. He slipped away, beneath the pool surface, and lay on the bottom, feeling the nudges of trapped spot-tails and the nip of crabs. And he stayed at the bottom until lack of air drove the last bit of reason from his mind. And with it, the sound of a man being taken down, under the willows . . .
When he finally resurfaced, Hricko had grubbed a Red from Vitalle and was vaporizing the brine from one wet end. Vitalle zipping the duffle.
He said to Nick. “Hricko’s crazy.” Butted the Red into Hricko’s clamshell. “Time for a walk - for your health, Nick, part of the show.”
Nick was standing armpit deep in the pool. “Explain the deal like this to Fairchild?” He couldn’t think of a friendly way to say it, but no flinch from the broker and no cut from Vitalle. He waded to the edge and stood next to Hricko, watching the mass of thunderheads join to a seething mass of pitch. “Too bad Bottie’s the other way.”
“Which other way is that?”
“Not for long.”
“Bet’s on the Irishman.”
Hricko led, and the three men headed north from station thirty-four. Trash talk on a deserted beach, an ocean scoured clear of trawlers and a sky with not one bird. They skirted several large tidal pools before passing station thirty-seven. To their left, the three sets of rolling dunes gave way to the green, ocean-front lawns of the Wioka Land Company developments. Poaching had narrowed the beach to a roadway’s width, this already swallowed by the sea. The men walked knee deep in the surf, rolling with it on a path cycling over the small shells that were almost sand . . . watching pieces of lawn crumble and disappear under foam that reached low and patient.
Nick said. “They expect to last through the first real blow?”
“Them folks got rights.”
They walked through a collapsed decking which led to rows of sandbags stacked gamely stupid under a washed-out concrete foundation. The house was a marvel of brown teak slat that split the first dune-line and wouldn’t last the year. “Take our ass with them, no surprise.”
“Imagine what they’ll call it, when they get to naming.”
“Wild Dunes,” but even Nick couldn’t imagine that.
Hricko bummed another Red from Vitalle. His voice was matter-of-fact. “Tony and I found it replacing one of the cedar planks on the veranda. She had the two-by-eights nailed down good with three-penny bronze, but when we got the third one up, the underside had a brass box screwed into the bottom.”
Vitalle. “Solder-sealed and waxed like she expected it to be there a long time. Bingo.”
Hricko kicked at the undercut, faux green sod that fronted a tall, art deco cottage; the circular balcony reeked of afternoon sex; neither would survive the first serious high tide. Hricko’s smile hinted at no small satisfaction. “I needed some reason, Nick, to get a TV.”
Vitalle’s lapsed Chicago brogue broke over the waves. “Them some tapes, my man. Guess that Walther wasn’t enough insurance for an old fashion working girl.” A bit of Fila’s malice showing, Nick felt. “Tell him, Ben. Don’t those girls give a show to break your dick?”
Hricko looked cautiously at the detective. “Judge for yourself. The box held two video-tapes. Both taken at the whorehouse off Church Street. One seems to be just fun and games, like Erlyne saying these were her favorite bangs and whips. Naturally it gets a bit more interesting than that. The second tape is the warning, the insurance policy, the old girl rattling her tail. Every pol in Charleston County has his own scene. If you can name the face, you can find the dick stuck in something and loving it. Gives the term low country a new meaning.”
Nick broke in. “Any snuff?”
Hricko paused a moment, for a stone silence had come over his companion, Vitalle, and a need, so Nick thought, for both men to answer. Hricko picked a shell from the sand and tossed it hand-to-hand before responding to the detective’s question. “Lots of S&M. Hard to tell if a plastic bag got jerked over a head a bit late.”
The answer satisfied only Hricko. No way for Nick to know whether only two tapes had been found. Or whether Hricko had already edited and copied what had been found. Tony had slipped back into the ripples at the water’s edge and splashed along silently until the beach began its curve toward Dewee’s Inlet; houses spread out and back from the sand and the first row of dunes reappeared.
Vitalle slipped into the breakers, but hurried back, spitting sand and carrying a hand full of sea-grass. “Won’t be long, but it will be bad.”
Hricko nodded. “Regan will take a piece of it - sink or swim.”
“Nick?” Hricko questioned straight to the detective’s face - he and Vitalle had made their peace, and the broker made Nick an offer. “I transferred the frames to a WORM-drive, before mailing the originals to my place at Tahoe. A girl looks after things . . . Nothing is to leave my study, but nothing has to; my technology is . . . current. You can view the action magnified, at quarter speed, frame by frame. Clean up out of focus or dark faces. Watch whatever; take your time.”
“No problem here with withholding evidence? Could lose your Boy Scout badge.”
Vitalle cut in sarcastically. “Evidence of what? The biggest low country dick?”
The two bastards had the move; even he knew that. Nick was now shivering in a stiff wind that had eradicated the last path of blue from the morning sky. “Anybody I should know?”
Tony broke into a fit of convulsed laughter that could have leveled the dunes. “We’ll do an RGB to NTSC conversion, and put it on Ben’s big-screen. Then you can tell us.”
Tony never stopped laughing, piss hot as the hot shower on Hricko’s dock. Forest Trail Road caught a fresh squall. They retreated into the second floor study for a morning of fun and games and the hot scorpion tip that took away the girl Hricko would not screw dead. Careful work. A test tape ran first, proportioned the screen. No WORM and no disk in view. Hricko could have called it a CD, he could have hurried. A parade of test patterns; a second tape.
Vitalle had just inserted the cassette, when Nick’s pager buzzed; he ignored the first. On the second buzz, and a glance at the message window, he grabbed his holster and dashed out of the room. On the way to the car he checked again, for the alarm code read Officer down. By the time a crackling response came over the police radio, the bandit-chaser had red-lined, charging toward a hostage-murder scene at the Medical University in downtown Charleston. Who would be closest? merciful Christ. Two, maybe more bodies on the ground. Nick had run out of time. New worms and old tapes could wait. All of them.
The bandit-chaser siren wound off the Sullivan’s Island Bridge toward the heart of the city, deepening but never once promising the detective’s return. He ran a station wagon into the ditch at the Route 17 intersection. A name came over police dispatch and he took the Cooper River Bridge at one-forty. He wasn’t thinking about that, or the broker or the contents of the unmentioned third glass inlay beside the hooker’s bed.
It was close and stormy, and not elation but dismay drove Hricko. Nick, feeling a pulse of Deb Fairchild’s blood, a careful man dropped down a hole. Regan pounding the Greek, and ready for another strike. Coffee bold, free-styling. JACK swarming at the beach. What more than a reptile’s twitch possessed the man? Hricko’s Triumph trailing a plume of brine west along Palm Boulevard.
A line of rain squalls swept over Isle of Palm on Thursday evening. They hammered shaggy, goat-like, on the cedar planks of the Jammer, and whipped the sea-oats into a brown, sandy foam. Hricko dodged surly ranks of pick-ups to arrive late. Vehicles streaming to the hardware store, front beach empty. JACK, not the election, brought the Island alive.
Sherif Bunzetti had made the rounds, since the storm had a name, a size and a track. Frank told the weather bureau story: too late in the season for a really bad blow; tourists off the front beach, but not one visitor to be found; for the locals, check the flash-light batteries and sit tight with your sweetie. Older back-Islanders sang a different tune. Whatever floated, they motored across the flats to Shem Creek. Better a deck or cabin ransacked on James Island than a hull buried in the swamp. Not that any locals packed away from the Island, not this early, because swimmers would stay as long as the boat floated.
Thea Bunzetti had said as much to the small group gathering at the Jammer. She had solid nailed the pint of Jack Daniels, rattled on to Coffee like drops on the window-pane. Candy-ass Frank; Bottie dried to a prune. But the moment Hricko arrived, she dragged him to the small table behind the fireplace - dead sober. “You going through with it, aren’t you. Son-of-a bitch.”
“I’m not forcing anything, Thea, and the Irishman could mind his tongue; use it where it’s appreciated.”
“Anybody’s life but yours, bastard.”
“Christ woman! You know everything. Damon whispering in your ear too? Every blasted thing, especially how to uncork a bottle of Wild Turkey!”
“Fuck you, Hricko. Every new day, you sound more like Damon, and less like one of us.”
“Stop it! Stop it!” Coffee raving against them both, Kranic stolid and more tired than the hour.
Not Regan. “To the workbench, you bloody bitch.” The Irishman sat crunched up in an old wicker rocking chair next to the fireplace, and liberally swilled from a fifth of Jack Daniels. Twice ready for an half-considered ploy. But he gleamed foul spirit and menace, balls around, daring the opposition. Thea spit at Hricko, and moved next to Regan, stretching herself alongside the brick firebox.
Kranic said. “Here are the printouts Ben prepared for the meeting. Everybody take two.”
All had been Regan people from the start. Thea Bunzetti, Fritz Kranic, the Coffee girl. Hricko had chosen them all; Vitalle and Beauchamp were absent. Everyone. If Kranic saw the miserable end, he kept his peace. “We’ve caught those devils, haven’t we?” Phil Regan’s eyes gleamed in an evil Irish curse.
Hricko poked at the numbers. “Yesterday’s telephone poll looks good. The Cherokee Strip initiative is winning by eighteen percent; you and Petrakis are even money.”
Hricko folded his arms, and stared first at Thea and then at the Irishman. Regan’s teeth chewed at the half-empty bottle, and a rush of brutal humor spilled over the Jammer’s floor. “Dandy for us, isn’t it Ben, that bitch of yours red-arsed into line.”
Even with the oyster roast, we couldn’t compete with her money, if she had the will!”
“Plug it up, Phil. I don’t know why Petrakis lost support north of thirty-seven, among the women. Bottie’s game? If so, just let her play.”
“Touchy about the quim, eh? Good enough. She’s queered the Greek a wee bit. Now what?”
Hricko shuffled a large, printed graph. “We now have the couples south of marker thirty-seven; Petrakis hangs onto those north, but he’s fading. You also get most of the unmarried woman; like before, no surprise. What hurts us are the unmarried males south of thirty-seven; fifty-two percent still go for the Greek. That’s down from sixty percent before you popped him.” Hricko considered. “May need another fight.”
Regan tossed the graphs to the floor, and glared back at Hricko. “And we do need the time, don’t we Ben. Location. Location. Catch him in the rut.”
Thea said gamely. “Maybe, Phil, we don’t have to do a god damned thing.” Thea slapped a look of disgust across the two men. “Wait our turn for a free poke.”
Across from Hricko, Coffee, arms curled under her breasts. “Wouldn’t the Greek love to hear us now.”
Kranic swore silently, shaking his head, slouched back in his chair; he wished for Beauchamp’s steady hand on the Mick. Kranic, who had outlived more than one bright-faced, hungry fool. “We’re chum for more than Petrakis if we screw up.”
Thea pouted. “One man with sense above the waist.”
Regan stammered furiously. “So it’s my fault now, you bloody thick bitch. I’m muck...mucking this up? Bugger the damned booze, but your do-nothing shit must stop! She’ll break your heart, this Island will, and that’s for sure. It’s not your life she’s promising, but better not be born than to let her slip away.”
Hricko’s cracked smile washed across Coffee - “on cue”, thought Kranic - and back to the Irishman. “Nobody votes for me, Phil. Only believe this. If you take one more shot at Petrakis, he goes down, stays down.”
Snake with a thousand heads. Them damn-fool certain to remove the last. Vitalle had told him that, and Kranic had not forgotten. Behind the table, a shutter gave way to a gust and banged fitfully against the cedar siding. Regan, who had rocked forward in the chair to allow his hand free play along Thea Bunzetti’s bare thigh, suddenly jumped up and ran to the window. Black curtains of rain threw back fractured images of the fireplace.
The Irishman wrenched open the window and roared at the dark. “Show some balls? We’ll show them a blessed fight to skin the last Republican ass. A freaking hurricane party’s what we’ll have.” He ignored the shutter and paraded, conquering. “Lamps, booze, reefer; already here. JACK’s piss poor for a storm, but with the devil’s luck, it might stall off Myrtle Beach until tomorrow night.” Regan surveyed the Jammer, the evil gleam in his eyes now a hell-bent blaze, like his red hair foaming in the rain. “You people want me to buy some campaign insurance? Let’s see what the iron workers think about this wooden ship. Let them ride the storm with us, while Petrakis hides in his fish market.”
Thea winked ruefully at Hricko, and repeated Regan’s curse, words catching in her own sleek throat. “The devil’s own luck; send him to hell.”
Regan slammed the window shut, strode over to Thea, and wrenched the bottle from between her thighs. He drained the bottom two inches in a single pull and dropped back into his rocker. The Irishman waited not so much for a vote, but for a blessing, fierce and daring.
Hricko pounded down a last four ounces of Wild Turkey and threw the tumbler crashing against the rattling back door. “No opinion here, Jet? Crazy idea, eh Thea?”
Bunzetti’s wife nodded in agreement, tired, beaten down. She retreated, arms curled around legs and face hunched toward that same fire.
“And you, woman,” Regan’s face fired up from the rocker, “have you the stomach for it?”
Coffee whispered. “There’s a question you won’t fit in a bottle.”
“Didn’t we fold it, lass?”
“Wake up, lover. Did I miss the fun?” Jet Coffee rose, walked past Regan and out onto the porch. “Fritz!”
Kranic followed her to the screen door that opened onto the sand. That was the joke, she thought, shared by everyone, even Damon. Beyond cosmic, one of them having a choice. She faced the wind, and allowed the rain to sting her, caress her painfully sore and swollen nipples. In this feeling lay the truth; the two men could have admitted that, and saved them all. “First words he ever spoke to me, Fritz. ‘The song, not . . .’ ”
“Hricko’s said that to few. Swept him away, Jet Coffee, like an Island lamb.”
“But not you, Fritz.” Her whip-snake eyes caressed the old man. “Like the mansion’s butler, always preparing the first son’s return.”
Kranic said. “I believe you’ll nurse your own.”
She pulled a wet towel down from the deck lattice and wrapped it around her shoulders. Let Hricko bullshit the detective. She rubbed a bare hole in her jeans and cracked a smile that licked steaming holes into the blackness. Hricko had not hurried her, and when she was ready, it seemed not a part of him at all.
“It’s stealing a bit of time from the void, Ben. How many men can I squeeze into that time?” Hricko had slapped her, and demanded she follow the evil, capture it within an instant that did not exist.
“When I’ve done him, what keeps you from taking his place?” Hricko insisted the time belonged to her act of creation.
Coffee wondered when Hricko had given up the hash. Whether his brain could still manage anything but the numbers, without slipping into a cloud of dreams? Pull her along like the last nickel of her father’s good sense. Hricko’s suck.
“He’s insane, you know, Hricko the coder, Hricko the dealer, Hricko the ....” She was holding the old man’s shoulders, bent close to him and certain like an old lover who would never deceive. “He pretends it’s the Island, but it’s the fisher he’s after.”
“What are we standing on, my dear? Sand that sings, flows as slow and warm as the rivers.”
“Old Fritz, perhaps you sent him. My dear old Fritz.” She pressed him, would have nursed him, the peace tiring raw-bone thin cords in his chest, suddenly tired, but he pulled away. Hricko old. She alone.“I’ve seen you with Tess. Do you think she’s pretty?”
“Watched by a tired heart.”
Coffee felt the chill needle-track her arm. “Gordo thinks we’ll end it here.”
“One of us.” Kranic turned from her, but she whorled and snatched at his worn jacket, holding him still and silent and wrinkled old as the Island.
Some protectors, they, some future. The dickhead babbled so before he fucked - even Fairchild had admitted that. On Hricko’s Island, time enough, some warm July evening, to spin out the futures. After they had paid, the Island did care for its own. Always her choice; always no choice. And if not by her, Fairchild would get a bronze.
Regan had broken out a bottle of dark rum, and was filling the huge tin cups that sat before each place. Wasn’t a wicked smile he passed to her . . . Coffee threw the towel over her chair and stretched, growled like a marshcat, winked ruefully at Hricko, and repeated Regan’s curse, words cold with malice in her own sleek throat. “The devil’s own luck; send him to hell.”
“Third time, kiss a frog.”
“May you be in heaven a week, Jet Coffee . . .”
“We’ll start it at noontime, Phil, and run it till the booze gives out.”
Regan fired high by the rum. “This is to the death.”
Coffee’s eyes licked at Hricko’s face. “To your life, Ben.”
Hricko proposed it formally as a campaign expense, and only Coffee thought that worth a laugh. The five of them solemnly raised a toast. To Regan, to kicking ass and to the Island. Jet’s knee pressed against Hricko, washing away any ambiguity and any comfort.
Nick DeLeon’s Rolex clicked passed midnight. Habit, more than anything, brought his eyes to the stainless case every half-hour as regularly as the sharp moving hands on the watch itself. Like Paulings vitamin-C you could taste the stretching time. Through the open door, he could hear his wife’s nervous shuffling in the upstairs hallway. He hoped she would not intrude on his keeping of time with another tumbler of booze.
Steady, low groans of the rocking chair on the oak floor mixed with the temperate breathing of his infant son. No timepiece measured the passage of life more carefully than these; in unplanned synchrony; with a future as certain as the perplexed, shadowed peace cast on the baby by the blue night-light.
Hallway sounds ceased, and time became ever more urgent. Did shadows across the baby-face hide a faint blush? He rose and laid a cool hand across his son’s forehead, and then returned to the chair, cursing himself for threatening the infant’s sleep. His shadow returned to the cream colored wall behind the rocker, its movements also counting time. That dark moving shadow caught his eye as surely as the blush on his son’s face, and for the moment - he never counted as he followed - Nick DeLeon wept.
For with uncanny silence that darkness might have expressed the passing shade of his partner Sam Johnson. The door creakes behind him, and his wife enters, carrying another tumbler of bourbon. He kisses her and cups the cold-sweat tumble in his left hand. She says. “I tried to visit his wife, Nick, but she had already left for his brother’s place in Columbia. The sister is making arrangements.”
“She won’t need to hurry.”
Like a wounded redfish in a school of sharks dead cops were a prize possession;, a prize not often obtained and less willingly released! City Station forensic cutters wouldn’t get to him for a two days. After a week of cutting , a mans parts sliced and labeled … they could arrange Sam any damned way . . . Nick blocked the details from his mind. After a week other cops would pipe-him-off with flowers and a Scots dirge to high cold stone, where the marl wouldn’t push at him . . . a parade damn-their-eyes. Sweat covered his hand. Nick heard the door behind him click shut and again he was alone with his son.
Nick’s thoughts, of a love-crazed graduate student and his now dead professor and Nick’s now dead partner. Sam, with thirty years on the force. He, who would never take a chance. He, as stiff and dead as the dumbest rookie who ever entered a dark alley face first. Did all three now walk together in heaven … did they all or even one … he who lay stretched cold in the morgue, forehead punctured clean by a steel-tipped bullet. Nick swilled the bourbon. Leave the dead in peace.
Details intruded, hung over the detective’s son like a chorus, would not allow banishment from the place of the living. They pumped like blood from a deceived heart. Nick had mapped them up between eleven and two PM at City Station. The kid and the professor had both been involved with the same Church Street whore. She played them coldly against each other, worked them into a frenzy of need. But they didn’t need each other. The student had arrived early at his professor’s lab, pumped out of his mind on hash oil and a bizarre, frog-skin alkaloid even the peyote-toking Pecos redman wouldn’t touch! Sonny-boy intern damned near jerked off relating the spacial delusions - the kid couldn’t feel the floor under his feet, see to the end of his arm, let alone shoot an armed man with a pistol twenty yards away.
Neither could the student have planned. A call had come directly to Sam’s home. Hostage situation. Emergency, from a Dr. Lu. When, where, how, who … angry at the window, Nick scanning the dark reflected Colonial Lake waters for a distortion, a reasonable chaos. No such Dr. Lu person existed and as time measured the professor already bleeding life. Sams call came after the killing ! A flay setup! Johnson had requested City Station backup, and run the three blocks between his house and the hospital emergency room, and was shot dead on the concrete runway. The grad student had fired wildly at the back-up, and died fast.
Too bad the kid had held a 44-cal magnum. Too bad the bullet that had taken out Sam was a 45-cal FMJ.
“If it’s like before, Nick, like ‘57, you’ll never catch him. Never run him down. The bastard’s brain is too twisted; too fast; convoluted back-to-front inhuman. Eventually his own hand finds his own gun and puts a bullet through his own forehead”
Day before yesterday. Seven PM at the filthy, first floor office. Both detectives swilling cold, rancid coffee; Nick worked a fresh Camel while the older man spoke. “He’ll think he can trick you, and he can. You shouldn’t try to stop him or know when. He came after my daughter, the one in ‘57 did, a slicer too, like this one, a white boy. I knew he would come, and my wife saw that nothing I could do could stop him. So my wife packs off the daughter to her boyfriend’s place in Columbia. Pretty girl. Never been laid before, I think, but it saved her life”
“We can’t move.”
“We can move too fast, Nicky!” Johnson squashed the empty Styrofoam against the Captain’s chair. Rapped on the slates, dashing it across the room to crash into the chipped green wall. Nick bit into the Red, his partner a marvel.
“Not making another Negro like you, Sam. That plantation’s gone back to the swamp.”
“A nigger like me? You bet the next one’s not caring about all this white pussy. And about that next white boy with a knife. But oh sweet Jesus, how he’s got to take that first step, once you’re in his sights. He lusts for that step.” Nick flinches cold white, without feeling, standing beside Sam Johnson. “You’re dead, maybe, but Nick, you got to listen for his mistake, that second step. Send him to hell.”
Nick had finished filing the safety on his 32-cal derringer. At the exact tick of the Rolex on ONE-AM his cell-phone chimes. Vice Inspector Morraine: blaspheming he swears Catholic hell … then clenched teeth spit a name. Hang-up. A moment later a 2nd ring tickles his phone. The sing-sing voice shares three words. ‘Careful’. Nick stubs-out the Camel, rises from his chair and slips the derringer into his shoe-top.
He leaned over the sleeping child and kissed him once, then again, and turned out the room light. From a hall closet, he chose the brown leather holster, and a dark trenchcoat that fell below his knees. Nothing to be gained entering, only stopping at his bedroom door, hearing the waiting silence of two women. Good for them. He eased carefully down the stairs to the front hallway, decided again before the formal family portrait, closing the front door quickly against a furious hail of rain.
Thinking that even now, as he diddles an enemy prepares; the man is waiting for him. Certainty compelled him to hurry, but the Ford crawled out of Old Town among late night traffic from the hospital. No brash horns. Viola interlude. Intermezzo. In front of the Mills House, black limo’s lurched, skidding on the slick asphalt, quietly discharged their predators and retreated.
Again the Ford paid an uncomplaining patience. Nick parked the bandit-chaser far along the brick wall of the Ice House, and moved directly into the warehouse blocks south of Market Street. Slate sidewalks gleam treacherous, broken, but he hurries along Queen. Down-spouts mutter, covering swift steps unheard, expected. Along the smooth concrete and brick walls, few opportunities invite his killer, as his own speed invites surprise. Nick moving to kill a man.
In the rain he is a shadow; he is silent; he will not be shot. Yet he takes to the alleys, the corridors of wind, water pouring directly down and then perfectly horizontal. His raincoat, unbuttoned but clasped tightly, whips against the chrome barrels of the ten-gauge which he hides along his right side. Certainly he is invisible, yet his right thumb has removed the safety, the first two fingers play on the cold trigger steel.
Only three blocks from the water, a salt sting on his lips, dry, slightly parted, breathing at dark swirling mist come rushing about the next street lamp. Yes. The trickster must know time rushes at him. Legare Street passes, watches from the eight-eyed chimney beside the red cupola; only a block to the cobbled cul-de-sac which holds the smell and taste of a long-rejected lover and memories vivid only to him - she has meneded into the life of Charleston Battery and forgotten - what vengeance has she forgotten dealing power without mercy?
The detective turns left at a greystone antique shop carved into the corner, another alley, steps so rapid he seems to be fleeing, and presses into the first doorway. Night has cloaked the asphalt and brick in its own blackness; what is not already known cannot be seen so close as the end of an extended arm. But this ignorance is kind, for it is the last. Brick and palmetto and age melt together. Alley-of-stone curves in an S shape. Unlike the others, walls bear close and stone gutters are lined with doorways; any recess could hold the man who waits. He knows this, the detective who would hurry vengeance, and has not seen it stalking his own path. At the blind corner of the S, an oval gate leads to the right, behind that an archway, and an unlocked door. Perhaps at that corner the man waits. Beyond the door lies a world enveloped in tones of pain and pale violet. All this, he knows.
Across from the arch, an infrared sensor is fixed high on the opposing brick wall. Perhaps, in this rain, it will not register farther than thirty feet, four seconds if he hits the corner of the S at a full run. Thoughts are motionless, at peace, and only the rush of wind seems a trick.
The blue barrels are now lifted across the front of his open raincoat. They lead into the blackness. Footsteps clatter behind him, his own, like a friction holding to the certainty of life. Water pours in a blur across the detectives face, but he has made the corner, turns into the archway, feels the approach of the dark pine door. A violet slit swings across his face.
Without slowing he springs forward, and door flies inward against the weight of his right shoulder. Violet and the reek of hash now envelope him, his shoes bury silently in the thick caramel carpet. A woman starts in surprise to his left, one breast is bare and the nipple rouged and full, cowering at the chrome steel barrels which sweep across her body, inquiring, but the foyer is otherwise empty save for the red velvet sofas which shade a bleeding maroon. Her cry is low and she falls away. Two narrow hallways lead off beyond a curtained opening, one straight, one to the right. He cannot remember which life has taught him this, but Fortunas choice darts him to the right. A compatriot whore - he can hear them grunting over-practiced sex - one of many naked, rushes by him toward the front. Her wrist carries an exposed knife, but she does not strike; he may have known her.
A second turn, but signals have been given. The shaved head thrusts out from a beaded curtain of blood-pearl, licks at him rushing by, a woman. This corridor is short, narrow, ending in a pair of deeply carved French door; this is where he must go. A man waits.
He has only taken the third step forward, when a powerful black lunges through a side door. Not another like Sam, cold, dead. Nick dodges, strikes out at the glistening face with the stock of the shotgun. The black goes down in a gush of red, slippery red splatters the wooden stock, and does not move. But the weight carries against him, slams him against the paneled wall and down to the carpet, rolling to his knees, the barrels still leading as he stands, feet churning on the carpet, running. The smell of hash is now overpowering, sweet, a physical texture to the air. His lungs suck on the sweetness, pounding his chest.
Only another two steps, the detectives knows this, and he drives himself against the French doors, even as they begin to swing open. Outrage. Mindless speed. One body is hurled away by the door. Her arms flail as she strikes the wooden bedpost and crumples to the hardwood - one arm now doll-like, broken under her. Orange candles lick at the red leather boots so suddenly and carelessly laid across their flame. A larded body, glistening from a harvest of pain, lurches from the bed. Poker-tips glow dully among charcoal beneath an iron forge; an entire mirrored wall overflows with their heat. Steel barrels of the shotgun strike the breasts of the woman before him. She also flies backward, uncontrolled, wrists bound behind her and face contorted, a horn-of-steel jutting from her forehead lips silently pleading beneath the leather strap.
She might have begged forever, had at that instant, the steel-tipped bullets coming from behind not ripped out her heart. They also hunger after the detective, whipping around him as so many angry bees. They fly, swarming at life’s honey. A nip beneath his armpit, a sting high on the left shoulder. As he rises from the floor, so the man’s form rises from behind the whore’s flayed breasts. Two flashes of light oppose along lines of steel. The shotgun blast vaporizes a hand in a howl of remorse, as a blaze of heat jerks the detectives head against the wall.
Terror and pain wash across the room like so many birds of prey as an unseen presence strikes him down. A small fire laps at the edge of the bed, laps at the squirt of blood, now finished and staining, downward. Flesh abounds with the texture of wet feathers, reddened. From the hallway, sounds of hasty feet, voices, the double click of a shotgun being primed, then cautious retreat. Heavy steps fade. All motions slow, and drag to the low tones near the edge of awareness.
And in front of him continues the wail of a staggering, olive hued figure. He closes raining blood from the stump of his right arm and swinging the red-tipped poker from the other. The arc comes from behind the figure, a long slow path that follows the howl, raising to the top of the arc, beginning its downward swing, like a pendulum measuring out time. The second barrel of the ten-gauge explodes in a hate poorly measured by momentum and impulse and scattering cross-section.
Nick DeLeon feels the approach of the glowing tip, even as the olive form lifts away from him in a wet pink veil. The metal sears on his shoulder and he rolls away. A woman’s high keening begins and does not stop. An ash ax-handle strikes at him. Then another. How many? These men are paid hard-bodies making way before their master … His fist smashes a bony chin; body stiffens - - falls down. Summer-weight plaid suit forearm swings at his head; another hard man and Ju Jitsu will take him so far. Bile mixes into the cloud of hash; struck again, Nick wretches over the body, the woman whose heart has been severed. Calloused hands grasp his shoulder, swing him around like a clattering toy top.
Smells it - - Nick lurches back as an ice-pick jabs toward his throat. Karma his fists clamp; fingers push a wooden handle and struggle for control … then loosing it slantway weak must overcome strong the steel-point slides by grazing his neck while he ducks under, snatches the derringer from his shoe and fires in one twisting motion. His own face covered by blood-spray Nick sees both barrels rip into ice-pick mans throat so well advised so soon, but now shredded ill-advised.
The detective tries to stand. First hard rough steel against his forehead, a gun-barrel pressing between his ribs. But those are removed; those that follow soft, warm hands that know him. Trusting hands; hands that deceive him; have deceived him. My God. She was just a baby. Worse than him, she was deceived. Soft hands have carried him from the room of orange and blood to the dark. He does not know how long he has been there. He tries to stand and is unable, nausea washes across memory. Jacket and shirt removed someone carries him along the hallway.
Cold water splashes on his face. This room is brighter; he lays on a leather couch. Face a mask of bandage; arms a pincushion. A nurse removes his clothes, replaces the bloody trousers with a cotton wrap and inserted IVs into both arms. Nurse? Did Hricko feel this infinite kind of space with three bullets surgeoned away and he floating between Catholic hell and a nurses warm breasts? Straining … freedom … restraints discourage movements, but she is there with him. She who allowed him to hear the first sound.
Both Negro men armed with 45 automatics. Each carries a professional quiet that would repel a person of good sense. The men are prudent and sober, and between them have taken a dozen lives. Neither speaks to other nor do they to the whore beside them - if they share thoughts those remain alone. They sit on the plush sofa behind the locked pine door, and waited patiently for the dark woman. She was not a friend to them, nor an employer, but both men understood the circumstances of service and the exchange of courtesy - money, transportation and safe-houses to be arranged.
Through the curtain, at the end of the hall, others performed less thoughtful tasks in equal quiet. Hands worked in precise, thoughtless care. A fire raged brighter in the boiler below the building. Two escort SUVs and a long black Lincoln drive up the rain swept alley. Lights dim. Under a webbed balustrade the Lincoln accepts its cargo, skids on slicked cobbles … and all three form a rain-swept strand of light sweeping west on Lockwood Drive. These housekeeping tasks were completed well before the wraith-like figure appeared beneath the same oval archway and was admitted.
Hricko came wide awake, and his hand shot out to the phone. Three AM by the small chrome clock on the stand. A pelleting sound of rain against the broad glass door-panes. Utter blackness outside. He rolled slightly from beneath Peg Bottie’s breasts which had lain covering his left side, and pressed the receiver to his ear. The nipples hard, demanding attention. Them ignored, he couldn’t explain the drill for hurried, late night buzz from the west coast. Iconic missives. Dull, muttered warnings of missed release dates.
The babble of numbers on which he survived. “Hricko here.”
The telephone voice belonged to Tony Vitalle; he sounded and urgent and tired. “You’re in for some shit, Hricko. I’m down at the docks, and everybody’s going crazy. The hurricane didn’t move north. Check the weather channel.”
“Screw. I’ll nail some plywood.”
“That won’t keep this one out, if it comes. JACK stalled 40 miles east of Myrtle Beach, boned up on some heat and may be heading back toward us. Winds at eighty knots, so it’s a real hurricane.”
Peg Bottie stretched softly under the down comforter. Her legs searched for his and squeezed lightly around his thigh. Sleepy eyes tried to open. “Anything wrong, Ben?” He patted her warm cheeks as he lowered to the pillow.
Tony was still talking. “I’ll bet the police want to evacuate Isle of Palm. You should be safe, but the front beach will get blasted. Got the Senator with you?”
“All over me, Tony. Hard to move.”
The voice on the phone grunted. “We’re trying to get a ship unloaded and send her back out. Nobody wants to be in the harbor when JACK hits. If it does. Check the TV, Ben You can get me on the car phone if things look bad.”
Really bad news always came second, Vitalle’s voice turning low, muzzled and sickly. “Ben, did you get a call tonight from Nick? Or from his wife?”
“Nothing at all, Tony. Not a word. What do you know?”
“Just a hunch. Don’t you ever listen to the news? Some crazy student at the med school shot his professor, then shot a cop. That’s why DeLeon didn’t stick around yesterday.”
“You don’t think DeLeon got shot? Did you try Eve?”
“Yeah. No answer. She’s probably back from Columbia already. I’m guessing just some bullshit at the station with Nick. Talk to you tomorrow.”
“Fila’s not involved, is she Tony?”
“Not at all, Ben. She’s sleeping like a baby.” Hricko hung up. For no reason he could immediately explain, he rang Nick DeLeon’s number. A first ring got a curt hello from the detective’s wife. She cried. No no no Nicky was-the-hell gone … someplace. Hricko finished the brief exchange, and turned into Peg Bottie’s smiling, wide awake eyes.
He felt her hand on his dick. Stiff as death. She would take any man’s time. Hricko knew how she slept, and why. Fila despised the unconscious. She slept like a coiled mocassin - she slept like an opium dream. Fila would not understand a baby’s sleep. Who was Vitalle kidding? Bottie’s teeth bit into his neck. Hricko rolled over to feed on a body that had become suddenly full of life.
Later, as Hricko slept, Peg Bottie punched through to Damon Willis. Angry words, in return, but her’s also had the bite of a cornered predator. Afterward, she curled against Hricko and found a deep, despairing revery.
The low pressure front had exploded eastward over the southern Appalachians. Landslides on Depression-era backroads pitched a lux express-bus carrying twelve NYC investors into a rattlesnake infested mountain ravine. Killed all twelve thus preserving for 30 years two Carolina sheet factories. That bus plowing into destruction snapped a buried fibre-cable thus disabling another robot weather-station and cutting data exchange along the Cumberland Valley. Not satisfied with small virtue the storm moved like General Sherman toward weak-breasted Columbia, South Carolina.
More than trapped sleet or patches of hail, this sawtooth ragged front caused tropical storm JACK to do an about face one hundred-twenty miles off the Carolina coast, and move on a path south and west. As JACK edged toward the lee, it acquired the classical features of a hurricane. Shearing winds decreased atop the storm center; dropping barometric pressure boosted the circulating winds which provided more energy from evaporating salt water. The pressure dropped even further, now at nine-hundred fifty, and the southwestward path stabilized. Central winds had risen to ninety-one knots. The storm surge grew but did not extended! Pressures at the base of the storm-wall changed so violently that the storm-feeding sulfur-laden hot-water balloon deep beneath the surface surge dove a thousand feet , dragging with it surface flows and impossibly collapsing the storm-surge inward as a rolling cylinder toward the eye.
Yet the storm remained deceptively compact … a careless radar man might miss the signature, and sonar might decypher the pings as a school of reds, snapper or even shrimp. A dolphin pod was so fooled, and while stunned by the 300 foot drop from cloud to water provided an easy lunch for two cruising Orcas. Rainbands hugged the eye. JACK found its second human victim.
A rock shrimp trawler sporting a rebuilt 400 HP high-torque diesel had sailed out behind the storm. Well seasoned, its Captain looked for an easy catch along edge of the Gulf Stream and never imaged that JACK might turn about. Making eight knots with the wind, it had suddenly been overtaken, all nets out and laden with a ton of the rock shrimp. Bravely, the hull cut-through the top seven feet of the comber. Another fifteen feet overhung the pilothouse. Hit, wallow and dive nose first as its hatchways shattered. Five crew went down with the hull , slid through the heat-bubble finding a 200 fathom bottom in a blink. Death without a chance to radio a warning or say the first prayer, death only allowing trawlers captain to bubble its proper name- Dirty JACK- as the billows took him down.
Vitalle’s second call had come a hour earlier, she and Ben playing . . . slow, sweet morning sex. She didn’t recall him sudden, he had denied her nothing, yet Vitalle’s message had peeled him away like dry frosting from a cake.
“Your stalking, Ben, do you see that?
Hricko paced the front lawn for an hour. Shards of rain cut him to pieces, his vigil, tracing the poppies, between the cedars, as far as the muddy scar beyond the shell ledge, where she had come out to him. “So watch.”
“I don’t prowl you, just by sharing your bed.”
“Take the Lincoln and beat it. You’ll be safer at Beauchamp’s place.”
“He’s expecting me? Christ, Hricko, you and the gangsters are going to kill somebody!”
“Gangsters?” Hrickos’ face twisted. “Watchers, we’ll take a look.”
Bottie had drawn her face around, directly into the wind, and close to the broker as a raindrop. “For whom?”
Hricko had not looked at her kindly. He was puzzling among bracken at the marsh edge. “Nick’s in a rage. Fila after him.”
It struck her - my Fila, Tony’s Fila, your Nick. He was good at that, Hricko, explaining another’s action, never his own. On her, wasted words. “He goes looney when his partner’s killed - she’s mothering.”
“Fast, not crazy. Mothering’s zero for the twin.”
Hricko looked her over and spoke plainly. “You friends are split over SOB. Only the Fairchild girl held them together, because one of them killed her. Nick was close to nailing that bastard.”
“Who else beside Nick?”
Moaning silence. “Coffee? May have gotten to Regan. McCain? God help the baby.”
Bottie ran from the water, sod already clotted, pulling at her but she made the dock and drew against a piling, like the wind had a single direction like the ground sucked down and Hricko was going to melt her heart. Hricko followed.
Her words. “Damon was right. This place reeks of the Tepy whore. She kept vigals you know, squatting on her dock with a naked toy-boy and burning lamp … whale oil if my chemist got the smudges analysed correctly with a healthy dose of DMT.” He turned away. “She could see forever!”
She said. “Alright, you fucked her, Hricko before swamp creatures chopped her to bits.” Pure sarcasm! “Chopped up as you watched! That’s something not all men would brag about.” Hricko spit and chewed on his Camel straight. Bottie looking for a quick kilkl. “So now a new day, a new piece-of-ass and suppose you can see forever. Float me away … then you and Vitalle do what?”
“Put down what Wioka LLC & Tepy meditations tried calling up!”
“Really Ben, stalking a ghost from the ocean? Some hunter you, with DeLeon and McKay lost in Charleston and Tony driving out here in the middle of a hurricane. I don’t like ...”
Gusty rain raked a slew of Pegs bitching. “Peg sweetie, not your fight - - Bomb-out now cause either they or other SOB darlings may need rescue.”
“Rescue shit. Who are you hunting? Give me a name.”
Monstrous thunderheads rolled westward above the sea. Like the screen of a theater, the sky fractured with the forked play of lightening, flipping frames jagged white. Hricko felt he tagging along , at his shoulder while he made rounds of his cedars, felt them tremble, standing the fools upright pose against wind and thunder. His flash caught retreating moccasin and rattlesnake glint; coiled on rockpiles their kind had survived hurricanes forever. Stripping boots and rain-slickers, they delivered brandy and glass hash-pipe into the study and waited.
Tony Vitalle arrived at nine-thirty, between sporadic fits of rain that rang like grapeshot against the narrow, east facing windows. Behind him a sky of pewter and pitch. Bottie rushed down to meet him punching codes into the front door. Vitalle brushed her aside and headed directly for Hrickos computer-laced study. “Ben ya bastard … Nicky has gone missing,” he rattled. “My scanner nicked cops swarming a downtown shoot-out. You heard anything?”
“Not one sweet word from the Web-mistress.” Ben hung out the door waving two mugs of scotch. “His cellphone auto-patched, but no data. If Nicky coughed she would have heard!”
Hricko full of himself, Vitalle thought. Good cop that he was Nicky stayed dim until he didn’t! Can’t tell that to a geek whose data-linesd are always open! “Sez you,” Vitalle grinted snatching the mug, his soaking, beard rustling but the words did not escape. Bottie followed, again, commanded to watch, and the three of them sat aside the whispering CONVEX and before the Hitachi , wall-size screen spraying everything, but the detectives own signal.
When quiet besieged her Peg said. “Willis creeps me !”
“Probably not that faggot. I’d guess a Portugee dock-hand.”
“Willis! MURDER MASTER pegged him #1 suspect for months.”
“I didn’t know SOB had crime prediction software.”
“Predict ? Not humans - - only the physical. But retrospect we can pick your last lay outa the class photo!”
Bottie winced. “Not mine!” Damn-you Hricko not mine! Yes, she had called Damon Willis last night. Someone would have, if not you. If not Fairchild, then another. Political animals are family. Who have you picked? That is a question.
She took to the 2nd story widows-walk for a quick hash-nap, came downstairs before the men had finished their scotch. Time passed. Enough to feel deserted, time enough for her to find reasons for being any place else in the world. Far side of the room they found her curled in a Lazyboy, blue-toothing an obscure 78 big-band tape. Her handbag, and a canvas duffle sat fully packed beside her.
Hricko seemed unnaturally comfortable carrying the chrome-plated automatic beneath his left shoulder. He spared her the warmth - both men sized her, but only Vitalle spoke, repeating Hricko’s warning. “The governor wants everybody to bail. Go to Beauchamp’s, Peg. Ride out the trouble. Nothing really concerns you.”
“Screw you, Tony.” Hricko watches his back. Tony doesn’t have to ask, if the alley is dark. “Fila just . . . slipped!” But she had always prepared carefully, always chosen the fight. “Is this payback time for screwing a democrat?”
Stroking his beard, in menace. “If you have to come.” She did not cower, and Vitalle continued. “If Jack doesn’t drown us, if we’re not shot, figure this as public relations for the unwashed.”
Her smile made it half-way. “Wrong again!” She looked at Ben. “Giving head, Hricko, like you wouldn’t notice.”
She could have been another, the way Hricko’s eyes came back to hers. “I hate soft shell crab.” They were in a stillness, all three, in the future until she shrugged and clicked off the stereo. Hricko rummaged in a hall closet. He tossed out two yellow slickers, a flashlight and a worn leather holster which held a pearl-handled Browning. Bottie clipped it to the back of her belt.
“Lock them doors?” Bottie a wire of flesh between the two men. “Lock’s not for us.”
Hall lights flickered and died … then revived as the propane generator kicked-in, spit power. Hitachi backup like the computer screen held steady to minus-one db. Three pairs of steps over light and dark and light redwood flooring became long echos. They made the front door and the flagstone walk - only the gas-lit lantern along the driveway stood as sentinel. They ran.
None noted a thick, dark form beside it, curled about the base of the thin cedar trunk next to the lantern, the moccasin aggressive already prepared for the rats promised him by an approaching storm. Bottie’s heat had drawn the rattler to the dock piling, where its tongue explored the faint salt imprint of her thigh, where Hricko had crushed the softness against redwood. Rain beat on the three as they dove into Bottie’s Lincoln. Hricko and Vitalle sat stoically in the back seat, while she roared off through the deepening waters of Forest Trail Drive.
The time was exactly twelve noon, and Jack roared southwest at eleven knots. Yet the path remained erratic, now pointing toward the southern tip of Bulls Island, again shooting further south into the very heart of Charleston bay, while a half hour later changing northward into Pauli’s island.
Storm gods would have found a simple cause. The huge bucket of hot , super-salted water trapped under … and maintaining the hurricane drive had flattened as it striving found more shallow beach-front. Close to boiling temperature at high pressure volume strove to increase, as entropy always does, but the broad sandy coves of Caroline made that rule more not less impossible; the bucket of entropy performed the only maneuver allowed by natures rule … Gaias bitch Jack was and dumped heat into the tidal Carolina rivers.
Torrents of warm water advanced, as rain-swollen and flooded tributaries drove against it. Battle most ruthless of natural oppose. Humans experienced only the border of that conflict, the anthropic human enemy JACK! As if lightening-flecked fingers of the storm were human, probing for a weakness in the coastal defenses of the low country, seeking that point of entry at which its fangs of tide and wind could rip most easily at the life of low-country marl.
Twenty miles offshore, the central winds had grown to one-hundred and five knots. Dump it must at the for’ard fringe, but Jack still sucked in enormous quantities of new energy from long-heated marl underlying shallow, coastal waters; wind havoc and power-surge destroyed most weather sensors so neither the final wind speed nor the height of the storm surge could be determined.
The Russian submarine that had followed hurricane cavitation to rock jetties forming the Cooper River mouth … and exit to the Charleston submarine base … had first discovered the enormous near-beach energy transfer by multi-frequency sonar pings. Hull-ripping! Terrified the Russian capitan soon to retire physics academician. Cranking his bronze-plate noise-generators to frenzy he drove Admiral Berg at flank speed ... damned-the-TFET-sono-bouyes and kilometer-long super-conducting-mercury vib.dets ... toward the Atlantic deeps. JACKS landfall would occur in about two hours.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
Withheld by request of Eve DeLeon. Anything personal detailing that lost world into which Nick DeLeon was thrust however briefly. Perhaps. Sometime. Ms Peepers will have a word in the Charleston Gazette.
Gentle reader: a writer who chronicles as much as he creates does not have all freedoms you imagine.
Dirty JACK came ashore 8-PM at 32-47’06.34N, 79-47’07.56W. Central tangent eyewall winds clocked at 126 knots and pressure gradient of 200 mb. For three minutes sea-life boiled-alive at Breech Inlet inside an isolated thrusting salt-cone of the 4-m storm surge.
Jammer and Comber: two black jacks. I knew Nicky would be waiting. Like body surfing Station 32 at 5-PM with Hricko the pale-skin southron bastard was too tough to bug-out and too mean for riptides to keep him ashore. How he could drive through a fuckin-A hurricane … Redman did it 300 years before and I guess he could too. I didn’t need to know how.
Palm Boulevard had flooded at station twenty-two, carrying half the blue and red mailbox reflectors slapping into the brine. We retreated, drove back Island, following Waterway Drive, close to the marsh, until turning on twenty-first. Bottie’s Lincoln hazarded front beach nearly alone. Frank Bunzetti’s had parked his cruiser cross-wise to the street. Its flashing top-bar had fallen to bottle of Coors, while the dash-globe pulsed angry blue. Doors open. Hrickos donated scanner crackled noise - brine hissed at the tires flowing west.
In the crushed shell lots across from the bars, two battered pick-ups, a red Mercedes and a cream-pale Jaguar braced stolidly against the thirty knot gusts, useless as nuns in a whorehouse. Bottie eased the Lincoln around the blockade and skidded to the Jammer’s front door. Flickering camp-lights and the Dead spilled from the opening like bad, French roast coffee. The Lincoln steamed as a wash of salt water caught the radiator and oil-pan; Bottie killed the engine and we three scrambled out.
“Heh Tony, your ears hurt like mine?”
“Feels like a suction cup got stuck on. Mebby all the air got sucked into the Comber!”
Bottie clung to his arm and wind just ripped at flesh. “You first ...”
“Fuck …!” Lifeless, lightless and shuttered … so the Comber appeared and spit water from its dead shingles and eves. Eyeless, silent, motionless except for storm flags that whipped from a lonesome mast. That tipped me off. More careful observers, or more frightened ones might have detected two forms that appeared over the roof-rail. Dim cloaked watchers, hunched low, clinging together, unmoving with a kind of perfect certainty. An old fisherman would have recognized them. Not as individuals, nothing as trivial as that. They were a night watch at sea, waiting the barocline, awaiting a crew that could not make them safe. They were without consolation, yet they did not move. I knew Nicky would be waiting.
I see their confusion, Bottie, Vitalle and Hricko must have had a go at sanity, lost and now drowned snake hunters. Bottie left her Lincoln at a run, between the two men. Breaking from a side door streams of Islanders surrounded them. Some were Regan people with a hate for the black Greek, and less fear of deep water than for an empty bottle of d’Turkey. The north Island folks single-filed in from Palm Boulevard past the water tower, and no longer cared if Regan was a Jew. A smattering of back Island crust and spit.
“Okey allright I ain’t Jesus Christ calming the storm. Got fish? Crappola so all back into the building,” shouts Vitalle!
The groping the front passage, groups of fisherman in yellow rain slickers exchanged half-empty quarts of Jack Daniels, turning into the wind as the bottles passed around. Two women in cut-offs and bare to the waist dashed from between the two bars, and, seeming surprised at the city police car in the street, turned back into the wooden tunnel, as if from its dark they would be transported to heaven.
If I patted under the shoulder, where the Browning usually made a home, my hand came away sticky and red and smelling of iodine. Damn that hurt, teflon and silk patch to a ragged knife-slash the medic sewed on. But the pain didn’t seep, it sliced, pinched, nicked at edges. I should have taken another Perc right then and turned south. She must have felt the pain, too, and steadied me, but I knew my luck. The lead worms could have buried deeper, and my belief remained solid in their child-like confidence.
But I did see him - looking toward me and not seeing - just before Bottie pushed him through the door. Hricko thought it, mute, but I could see resignation in his face. The Island had turned on them. She had betrayed them. He could have broadcast the message to the stars - only he cared. I felt Hricko believed that as surely as he breathed.
Easy for me - huddling - to imagine thoughts of the people below. Hricko so single-minded in doom. But one betrayal didn’t explain the half of it. Not for me, slow-foot, waiting, guessing along, preparing for the time, if the broker was right, I would join them. Nothing explained Fairchild’s death. Not that I still breathed and the Greek did not, or for others, matters of life and death were to be decided here.
Fila tapped me, and we drew away to the ocean-side railing for a quick kick of fear, trunks of water raised from the ocean’s green. I’ve always distrusted those deeps; its rush took away the pinch, the blood and some of the long night. But among those who lived only a foot-path away, among the reckless hearts and strong bellies, nobody had their fill. While the free green swill of the Atlantic moved east, every serious Island fool who had ever been drunk, stoned or laid had beaten Hricko to the Jammer.
Vitalle led the way, pounding up the redwood steps, and hitting the front door at a run. The vibrations stopped him, turned him around on the threshold. A low keening sprang at him, the excitement teased by the wind from beams, bolt and fiber of the building. Shudders of concrete buried deep in uncertain, melting sand. He felt the sense of it, the measures, as the single note of a song, drawn long wasted by south island hash. The tone pinned him to the sounding board. Hricko brushed by, and they struck through the guard of stoned, high-iron men and into the small dining area at the front; the knot closed behind.
Phil Regan, his flushed face lit by a dozen kerosine lamps, blocked their way. “Feel it too, don’t you lads. Drive you daft without a firm hand on the tiller. And the Senator sailing with a new master.”
Vitalle shook a beard-full of water. “Where’s the tourist lounge, Regan, and the car-check?”
Regan snickered, swilled from a pint of Jack Daniels. “Thea’s serving first class – upstairs.”
“Frank’s on the job early.”
The Irishman reached the bottle toward Bottie. She had a nip and he beamed. “We saw you crazy bastards drive up. Don’t you know Jack’s long arm’s come searching?”
“Us too,” she said, dribbling a second hit.”
Regan jumped back as they hurried into the sulfur glow. Though the heat lay on them, wet to the bone and heavy, Bottie thought it was the coldest part of hell. Bodies packed in steam, the mahogany bar packed four deep with a motley collection of fisherman, construction workers and their girlfriends. To the left, proper couples crowded the tables. A stylish group from north of station thirty-seven surrounded the central fireplace. Smiling, half of them, nervous twitching smiles to the others who must have known - damned fools - how the Island tempted them to stay away. Not the four long-hairs toasting Fender pick-ups on the gas-powered generator while the amplifier tubes flickered.
Song’s from Workingman’s Dead, and one of them knew the words to Casey Jones. A dozen lovers danced between them. The pool table had gone to craps, and was littered with twenty-dollar bills and silver lockets and three sets of bones.
Regan rushed up beside. “Didn’t we say we’d do it, lads, fill the hold; mind you - Coffee’s rolled in the last barrel.” He bent to a fallen Yarder, grabbed at his wife’s bent thigh, leaned on Vitalle. “Tomorrow, you and Frank can find your cars on Goat Island. Balls on the table, so belly up.”
“You’re insane, dumb as a drowned turkey, ” Tony shouted above a blast that set the lamps swaying confused, rattling them against the walls. Hricko had Bottie crushed against him, she pale as a new moon.
Regan ran his hand over the new oak tang on a window. “She’s as faithful and tight as your lover’s ass,” the Irishman bawled merrily. “She ride it out and so will anyone inside.”
“Got a Bible?”
“Marriage’s same as a funeral.” Regan demanded a new bottle, and Nikki Petrakis tossed one over the bar. His eyes patrolled the Bottie woman. “Trust the Captain to do both. Have a dance with him, Peg.”
He pulled her a step toward the music, but stumbled as Damon Willis butted through a pair of fisherman to his side. “Trust the Captain, Senator, for a guided tour, one way, to his brother Davy Jones.”
“Stove in your face, bloody bastard with half a leg.”
“No cold high grave for you, Peggy dearest. Not with the Irishman about.” Willis slapped Hricko on the back like a long lost brother. “Safe as your fucking Island, Hricko? You and your detective can go to hell.”
Jet Coffee followed behind, and pulled him away from the Irishman. Willis’ hand came pawing up under her tit in a hashish dream, his eyes crossed on the broker, then Vitalle, questioning. “Keep hoping, Hricko. I don’t think you’ll find a thing, after dirty JACK.”
Hricko grabbed Coffee by the throat and lifted her around Willis. “Nobody at your back. Stay with Peg.”
Coffee buried her face in Hricko’s ear, and bit till her lips tasted warm salt. “Closer than you think, sweet Ben.” Then she drew away, searching for Willis.
The Irishman raved. “It’s Broona’s mask she’s wearing, lads, and neh for the rest of us.” Willis’ face a sickly white, until Coffee locked an arm round his neck and jerked him into the crowd.
“That’s a pair for Hells 7-th circle.” Regan’s act floundering among the chaos; a wild captain of a mad crew, ship awash, sails unreefed. Hricko had a swill at the bottle. Regan’s face stained a deep maroon, following the girl. “Yes we have, Ben me lad. Sewed it up tight as we can. But we’ll need to watch that one, eh lad, that she doesn’t slip away. Have a drink to that; make it two.” Regan traipsed back toward the front door to greet a soaking mass of arrivals.
Vitalle swore at Hricko. “Can’t handle what he’s got. Can you two stay close to Coffee?”
“Peg?” The roof beams shuttered; behind them, a lantern jack-knifed onto the floor, flames licking at the seams, wet blankets snuffed them out, and another bottle of Black came round to the firemen.
She said. “OK Hricko, whatever you need.” She came up tight to Hricko and threw her denim over a chair. “Ladies choice, my dance.”Bottie in a high chill, in Hricko’s arms.
Coffee and Willis too. Vitalle left them immediately and plowed toward the knot of people at the narrow, rear windows. A false lull gathered them thick as sugared rum. They planned for after - as they planned, the wind rose stealthy. A radio had been set beneath them, on a bench; the radio voice said “Evacuate”, had said little else for an hour.
A woman was saying drunk. “Well. I’ve screwed on the Custom’s House steps.”
“Not me,” said the man.
“It’s just . . . all that marble looking down at you.” He had her pinned against the rough table and no one watched. But now JACK wanted all of it. Lightening struck close and bright and took out the generator and the radio and every tube in the Martins, the lights over the bar - oaths struck back, loose talk of wooden ships and sailors, iron men.
“No . . . here.”
Two boys went acoustic with Uncle John. Peg said, dancing close as butter. “You can still have it, you know, if we make it.”
“It’s not the taking, but the wanting.”
“Take, want, buy. I’m not one of your harem girls, Hricko.”
“I never asked you to.”
“That’s right, Hricko, you never asked.”
That next hour, few fear-struck souls left the Jammer and fewer rode the terror back. But the firebox crackled a yellow salt heat, hash soaked the rum, dirty JACK a pounding memory. Four bourbon’s later, and a go at the table, Hricko and Bottie worked their way from the fire to the end of the bar. Tucked into the corner, Nikki Petrakis stood over Thea Bunzetti. Frank sat on the floor between them. He had just staggered back from the beach, still wore the dark rain-cloak of a shrimper and the huge eyes of salt water fear . . . brine streamed freely about his hair and face, and he paid no attention to the crowd.
“Me, bastard … me!” The women’s eyes bore into him, pinning him to the floor like car headlights pin a buck to the road. The eyes said, how could they be so foolish? Thea leapt off the floor and smashed both hands into Hricko’s chest. “Whose next, son-of-a bitch?” She glared at Bottie. “Now it’s the older cunt?” Hricko pushed Bottie behind him, but Thea had already backed away, like she had been stung by the cold chrome under his shoulder.
Frank pulled her down and grimaced up at Hricko as he approached. The edge had come very close this morning, where he had been. His eyes offered Hricko the chance to see for himself. “Where are we, Frank? You get to the pier, check the shower-huts?”
“We’re in hell, Hricko! What pier? JACK took that half hour ago. Nothing left but pilings.”
Hricko’s face sunk. “Nobody on the beach?”
“Nobody alive. You saw the water in the street.”
“Station twenty-two is flooded.”
“Yeah - flooded - only a start. The surge is more down the beach than in. Winds been from the north, but shifting east. Another twenty minutes and it breaks through the front beach dunes. After that, nobody gets out of here.”
A few believed him. As the wind grew in abandon, a chorus of drunken threats had met each incursion. Only with the soul-deep rumbles did voices quiet, enough for some to hear Bunzetti, and a first wave of families surged up the stairwell. Thea, bitterly. “Play the policeman, Frank. Maybe you can get me out; my hands are tied.”
Frank slapped her face. “Today, you got to try to stay alive, woman.”
She jumped up and ran next to the fireplace, where Bottie had gathered a group of children and the north Islanders. Some were pitching wet logs on the drowning fire, while others knelt. Christ, were they praying? Thea draped over a pair, plying the bottle of Jack Black, and found a conversion. Christ hadn’t died for them today. Proved a moment later, as the back door flung itself against the brass hinges and a stinging column of rain marched half-way across the room, driving an empty wedge into the drinkers as they packed to the walls.
Vitalle more drowned than not, fought through the door and slammed it shut. Hricko dashed toward him, but Vitalle waved him off. “Forget it. Only the fish can breath out there.” He pitched his slicker to the floor and grabbed his waist, trying to pump in air. “I checked between the buildings, and then went to the dunes; nearly got picked off .”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Peg. Get him a drink”, but she had disappeared from the fireplace, and Hricko grabbed Vitalle’s arm and pulled him toward the bar. They slugged deep from a bottle of rye. Willis’ face like a bad frame snapped past at the other end, alone. A two-by cracked, crashing a trawler photo to the floor. “Damon, but not Wheeler.” Vitalle growled. “Beauchamp’s wrong!”
Nikki slapped the bottle from Hricko’s hand, shouted. “They’re after Coffee,” and pointed toward the stairwell.
Vicious wind tore at the Jammer’s second floor, too proud and too high, and raindrops like a fury of nails bit into the cedar skin and cracked across the shutters. A big man sprawled across the top stair. Peg and Thea pasted to a window, fear clawing rancid lines across their cheeks, but they were moving, now. Bottie pawed across the body. Thea forced her up and against Hricko. Neither would stay. Bottie spoke with her face jammed tight to his neck. “Ten minutes, Ben, and we’ll see you upstairs.”
“Hell you will!” Vitalle had her by the collar and Hricko her arm, but she had heard nothing.
“Give us ten minutes.”
“What have you seen!”
She pressed the cold pearl under Hricko’s neck. “A moccasin. Ten minutes - swear to it!” And she was gone with Thea, edging away and down and lost in the building’s noise.
Hricko and Vitalle alone. Three children sobbed in the narrow hallway - mothers sobbing. Rain had erased the front parking lot; some teens had pressed their faces to the glass and watched it happen - dazed blank eyes remained. An ancient couple huddled in the kitchen with another child; two old men watched them and the cracked flagpole over the Comber strain against the flag ropes. Four couples had taken to the bedroom and swore them away.
From the back window they could see the free flow of tide rolling toward them, a river of black foam which now connected to the ocean. A breaker lifted over the dune, where one had been, sliding unimpeded, top crested creme and mottled. It rolled into the back of the Jammer with a slow-motion certainty, sending a low, growling shudder through the wood, and a new stream of bodies up the stairwell.
Still, revels from below, Regan bellowing curses lifting above the wind. “Fix the door, Johnny; ah, that’s it; nail it down, neat as you please. Out of the way, bitch. Save it for the sun. The fire? Suck it up your quim! Another bottle, Thea me girl” Not a Captain at all, but a devil, conjuring his ship to every port of the dark river.
Some minded him. Others fled, and against them, Hricko and Vitalle forced their way back down. They found Regan at the fireplace, nursing children with a tale of monsters. Kranic beside him. Vitalle shouted. “Can I get from here to the Comber without going outside?”
Regan waved absently behind a model ship and a Coors and a joint fuming between them. “The side door, devil’s hatch, but it should be nailed shut.”
“Have you checked it?”
Regan passed the boat and grabbed Vitalle’s collar. “Checked what? We’ll have a hydraulic between the buildings, when the water reaches the floor-boards. Open the door and JACK will pump you to hell.”
Unknowable - - that’s the thing of fear as some ran, and many walked away to JACKs windswept watery death. Fewer shoulders, now at the bar, and those uncertain, eyes on the windows and hearts tuned to the shuddering floor, the Jammer laid siege. Should’a known better, Nick thought. The Irishmans battery-boosted scraper spit reports of JACKS wicked death-stroke across the Carolina low-country. Shouted out - - unprotected pilgrims smashed like peaches in a Georgia hail-storm.
Here already Nick knew, as his legs wobbled along the buckling floorboard. Unseen invisable pyramids of ocean crested the second line of dunes and washed deeply around the pilings. That low keening which had initially greeted them had now raised in tone to a complaining whine. For the pilings and beams and indeed the entire Island vibrated not only to its own song, but to the enforced, infinite tones of the hurricane. A roar enveloped them all, neither close nor far way, but in them. A misery of wind, without direction but that which split the seams of their hearts. It shredded the shutters, slat by slat, till each became a specter of wooden fangs, and the rain cracked shrilly against the glass panes.
All waiting for some final announcement, and JACK did not disappoint. A five foot comber smashed straight into the rear oak door, twisting it inward like a drumhead and the vibrations were low and cold and heard as a promise. A final exodus began a scramble, turned wicked, and the stairs to the second floor turned into bedlam, four deep, clawing at the wood. Bodies flowing up as time ran out. A shriek of metal on metal, metal grinding against wood, and a loud tearing as the fireplace broke loose and slid across the floor, scattering bodies like a flaming, spitting bowling ball. It crashed and overturned in a burst of steam, steel grates embedding in the mahogany bar.
Next swell was a promise kept. Glass and wood cracked as the fist of water and a following roll of surf took out the back windows. Six went down in the flood, and the two youngest were taken as the sea retreated.
The oak doors groaned, but held, and the strongest men restrained Kranic from following his daughter’s body with his own. Two rock-shrimpers bound him up the stairs.
“Hell’s waiting for you Hricko,” he cursed, passing the two men, but he had arrived before them. Tess hung on his back, her eyes black as her hair, boring into the broker, and he, wordlessly, drawing them deeper.
Nikki Petrakis came up over the shoulder of her straw-headed surfer, slipping of and sliding behind the bar. Rummaging! Hricko thumped his arm and pinned her squeeze against the wall. “TJ, Did you see Peg?”
The boy stumbled and pointed below. “With Frank’s wife and Jet. Five minutes ago.”
“Not by the fireplace!”
Nikki Petrakas shouted. “Behind the bar. They deserve to die like rats!” She had leveraged something from a casement under the mahogany. “Take this Vitalle, it’s the best I can do for the Fairchild girl!” She tossed at him a poly-chrome FLN full-auto in 7.62-cal. Twenty round clip installed. Vitalle snatched from the air, chambered and strapped the weapon to his back. Bloody-mouthed Nikki leered. “Screw them all!”
Eventually, the stairwell fell silent. Regan, his resolve broken and ranting drunk, but like a honest captain, last up from the bilge. Like an honest captain, amid the cries and stench of fear, and the steady pounding of breakers and wash of water below, he consigned the unlucky to the sea and himself to the devil . . . the Jammer beneath the full power of the surge.
At first, the injured groaned at each wrench and twist of the floor . . . of hungry waves. Kranic screamed until his heart stopped, as the tab of blotter acid had only returned the melting image of his child covered with crabs. Then, each screeching, defiant wind found an echo in the numb faces of the young. Torn planks tore oaths from the strong who had abandoned courage. All these responses smoothed into each other, to a faithless moan which accepted the havoc, and this to the desolated, bitter taste of noise.
Hricko and Vitalle in the stairwell. “Maybe, after all, Hricko, we don’t make any difference.”
“Barlet’s rods sing the bastard’s song. We stole that from him. If he want’s the note back, he’ll take it from cold, dead hands.” Hricko and Vitalle had fallen silent and come half-way. For both men, not only JACK twisted at their lives; not only this building had been driven from its own, complex tones to a high pitched ache. It had been eleven minutes. Hricko, grimly. “Peg’s got the automatic.”
Vitalle’s mouth foamed through the beard. “You think Coffee’s gonna let go? Not for the sake of Bottie.” He grasped at Hricko’s revolver. “What are you loading?”
“Silver bullets.” The broker wiped a salt stain from his chrome 357.
“You like the 45? Can’t hit dick, but you cabn blow away the world with that FLN!”
Each man carried a flashlight, attached by cord to their belts. Hricko reholstered his 357-cal . “Nice to know you, Vitalle. Look after the women.”
They stumbled to the bottom. The floor had turned to a jungle, alive knee-deep with twisted debris and shadows keening in the tide that poured through the broken window. Lanterns shivering lighthouses - them wallowing. But the water also surged from behind the bar, a restless pulse that boiled above their crotch. Flashlights swept the foam. A table crashed by and wedged into a corner. Two bodies floated uselessly, face down in the black swirl of water. Despair. Vitalle fought to the bodies and turned them over.
Faces in dead terror grinned up at him; the old woman’s dress had been torn away, and her face crushed like a nut-shell. The young man wore a WORK UNION pin at the top of his blue bib coveralls, and did not show a mark. Released, the room’s wash carried them away, pinned them to the front wall; their hands, unfeeling, harrying the wood, that it also would give them release.
Vitalle sent them off, “Jack’s an equal opportunity killer,” and headed toward the smashed fireplace. Nobody, living or dead was trapped behind it. Despair. Bodies dead by the sea and by it alone moved. He scrambled toward a pile of tables and was ripping at wood.
“Vitalle!” Hricko tore splintered chairs from the bar, grappled with a body that did not resist. Bottie had clung to the beer-taps, her mouth working against the mahogany to close out the water. He swiped at shards of glass, and lifted her to the top. She coughed brine and sucked weakly at the air. Her sweater had been ripped away, a blue swelling creased her forehead, and her right hand still held the 32 automatic. Vitalle took it, Hricko her over his shoulder and headed back to the stairs.
She moaned cruelly as the men - they lifted her to the second floor; she fought their arms, like a memory played back to her, but her eyes never opened. Two women met them at the top and carried her away. Cries of the children and of the complaining wind greeted her. Vitalle was already taking stairs three at a time.
“Hricko! One shot’s been fired.”
The side door lay exactly where the Irishman had said. They struggled to the far corner of the bar and then behind. The corridor led away in a stench of kerosine and toilet, and ended in a narrow, framed exit, cut into the side. High on the wall, rusted signs proclaimed Nehie Cola and Ma’s Root Beer; horseshoes nailed them in place. The door was plank, rooted into the four inch beams of the south side. Never-mind. It had been stove and pried open, and held to the wall with a two-by-four.
Though the opening sat almost two feet off the floor, shapes writhed in that space, for it crawled, breathed menace within the chaos and JACK’s echo. Two beams of light played into the black beyond the doorway, through another opening in the opposing wall, and a wooden ladder had been jammed between. How ass got bought and sold. Past the second opening, scattered confusion.
The men could only shriek torn words. “Believed it . . . earlier . . . Coffee couldn’t . . .”
“Bottie must have found it.”
“. . . delivered . . . blond himself . . .”
“He found her. He’s got the women.”
“. . . pitch them between the buildings.”
“DeLeon . . . Fila.”
Surge road up in pulses of frothing green, shuddering the ladder to match the groan beneath their feet. The hydraulic drove both of them, sucked at each end of the narrow corridor between the buildings while the length of the passage caught variations and played them back - snarls. Among those pulsing snarls lay a hushed, high ringing. A dark form curled among the wooden rungs. Vitalle’s beam caught the flash of its white mouth as it struck and withdrew. Fangs raked the thick leather of Hricko’s boot. He drew and fired twice; the coil writhed furiously, struck at its own tail and swept off between the buildings.
“Save a tree.”
Vitalle’s light punched across the blackness to the far door, and the barrel of his 45 followed. “More of them’s coming.”
Hricko stretched along the ladder and gripped the rungs. He felt the wind-shear tear at his body, felt the irresistible rush of water beneath him, but he scrambled forward, two steps, three steps, and then he tumbled into the waist deep brine of the Comber’s first floor.
He came up choking, dark blind down the muzzle of his 357. A wave lashed through the open door and caught him in the back. He staggered forward, regained his balance and slammed himself against the side of the room. A deep, low grinding sound resonated about the wind, terror multiplied by all the pieces that cannot hold together under attack. Soft flesh came voiceless. He was not alone; a wave slapped the body against him.
Hricko grabbed at a leg, fumbled for the flashlight, and played the beam across the white body. Thea Bunzetti, bare to the waste, an almost bloodless slash across her throat, curving from the tip of her ear to below the left nipple. A crab already tore at the other. Her eyes covered by a mat of hair, that she could not see. She would have chosen to go down in a blaze of red. Hricko wretched toward the wall.
But the pricks of life spun him around. Vitalle shouted and started across. Hricko couldn’t find the voice. Above him, a flickering light shown down the stairwell, and as dimly wrought from the ocean side, a cry of pain.
He flashed the light toward the far wall, catching the outline of two struggling forms, a woman one of them, and the glint of a gun barrel, glint of a knife blade.
“Coffee,” he screamed.
Two flashes of light exploded from the barrel. A sear of heat blazed across Hricko’s shoulder, and he went down grunting in his own blood. Surrounded by a boil of sand and wood. He grabbed onto a fallen beam and pulled himself to the surface. The watery fist punched at his chest. Around him the sounds of a splintering wrench of beams knocked him against the wall and crazed the floor under his feet. Again the grinding; louder, higher.
He saw the bright from Vitalle’s flashlight probe through the door to the far wall. The same two figures, now separated by the same blow that had fractured the floor; Coffee floating limply, her bobbing head below the oily surface, she staying down. He heard two barks from Vitalle’s 45, saw another pair of flashes from across the room and felt the splinter of wood chips from above the door. Vitalle’s light clicked off. Hricko raised his 357 and danced the beam of his flashlight against the figure standing propped the far wall.
Damon Willis thrashed against a floating pile of refuse, leveled and fired sending a bullet burrowing to Hricko’s left, another through the brine into his left leg. Hricko staggered, swore violently above the crashing, and fired. He missed high, shattering a flooded kerosine lamp in a spurt of flame.
I hadn’t seen him until then, until the broker’s shot burst open the lantern. It spread light instantly and evenly like the first instant of reality, when … the first when … new-born gravity tensor had not remembered its 2-nd, asymmetric half! The flash of a gun barrel goes in an instant, enough to see the evil but not the man. Hricko’s luck, a wild shot finding the sun. But I’ll take that luck, for in an instant, during the false sunrise of flickering orange light, Damon Willis’ face shone bright as noon. I’ve never seen a grown man so consumed in peace. Eyes raised in worship, pleased beyond measuring, his blade reaching out for the girl. That was his sickness.
Fila had me around the waist, the two of us on the stairwell. She had kept us on the roof since daybreak; the flashlights had started us. JACK finished it, brought us down with the stairs. They whipped free of the wall, a funny dancing rip of nails from wood. I believe we hung there, in the air, suspended by the brokers light and the brokers curse. “Reach me the Browning will you love?”
Knowing hands on my chest, smoothly, she snaps the retainer sliding a 40-cal waxed walnut grip into my hand. “You never said you loved me, Nicky. Sargent Bowers and Eve will be so jealous.”
One motion, the coppers piece from her fingers into my grip. But Willis was no photon fool, arm rising and steel barrel of his Colt reaching out toward Hricko. “Wrong dead man Willis,” I shout.
“Fuck you DeLeon I have the power, I have the speed momas lil’ baby
spits a damned black creed!”
“Ya could’a gone to Syria and killed Muzzi-wogs. They use knives too.”
“But, Christian girls whimper so fine … I’d lose a dime in time ...”
“Christ didn’t die for you Willis …”
“Who needs a Jew to die!” Seconds tick and fractions hesitate! The man knew his tormentors and wanted done with them. His Colts long barrel found a beam and rested, laying down the shooting line, a mechanical evil lusting his blood-soaked lubricious peace. It and he aware forever. I made that peace go away.
BZAP BZAPPP …. that metallic noise a sudden thing, the Browning 40-cal jerking in my hand, like I hadn’t drawn down on the face, lowered the barrel, squeezed-off the rounds … For the man’s peace seemed instantly contorted, as by the whip of a steel blade - swifter - his head snaps back, gun-barrel slumps and wavers careless.
Then the maelstrom! KBIZZ … KBIZZ … KBIZZ … features disappearing, exploding in a mist of red, as the rapid-fire rake of FMJ fire blasted down from the stairwell. I counted four shots as the body of Damon Willis lifted away and slammed into the fractured beams of the far wall, and slumped toward the water. A wind complained at the cracks, and a black watery fist crashed through the blood streaked planks above the body, a salted long-reaching hand clasping it to death.
I never felt echo-recoil for the sound, the grinding transformed to a high pitch squeal, the rending of metal, some final lack of unknowing will. Fila felt it going and pushed me away. The stairwell collapsed in a flailing mass of timbers, but I think Vitalle smoking barrel of a 7.62-cal FLN held high as an illegal weapon can be held , shouting my name before we hit. “Fucking DeLeon!”
Filas arms toned and stretched bound to me we tumbled downward among the beams. I felt the hail of stones from the roof , a torn shingle slaps my face and a twist of brass rail scrapes blood as it flew upward. We fall into chest deep water and aware of life , but not death for a black time after the fall I remember nothing.
In the lantern-shine, Hricko catches them falling. Nick like a dark angle in white linen and flashlight shine across Filas torn dress. First one figure, then two reappear in the narrow flicker of his strobing flashlight beam. Everything happens at once. Hricko’s leg’s buckles, him turning to Vitalle’s face as it pops through the side opening. On the surge, he rides out and slams against Hricko, and both men go under.
The tidal pull was tremendous, and sucked away the back wall like the cork from a bottle aged too long and too warm. Roof-beams snapped like kindling. The long mahogany bar followed, rotating off its foundations and twisting across the middle of the room, dividing the wrecked first floor of the Comber in two. On the ocean side, two lifeless bodies swept away, almost randomly grappling together, moving east over the cruel expanse of water that had been front beach and out to sea.
Perhaps, within the boiling current, another cloaked form appeared and vanished. How ungraceful, for the island to revive its fortune under the most dire of impulse! They swirl among the splintered beams, while a third joins them. Grappling together in a fierce dance - the living. Vitalle can see their struggles, here voices encouraged and brave, but lashed to an 8x4” may only wait.
Mens experience differ, inside the same event. Torn by chaos I knew … I know JACK returned us. Others scoffed, but Hricko agreed, and would forever argue that - the surge that allowed our escape from behind the bar, then washed us toward him and Vitalles powerful arms. . I had braced against the wood and pushed off, holding the women, but I swear JACK clawed at them like they were his own, holding her awainst the wash for Vittales paws to grasp clean and strong. There was a moment . . . then other hands came alive. First one, and then another joined. Vitalle’s fist pulled Hricko against the crumbled wall. Hricko pulled Fila with him. I had Coffee, Fila both of us. We stood in awe, gripping the collapsed beams of the roof on the high roll of surf.
By the grace of the Island, we had stolen a piece of time. I didn’t figure on a second favor, and jammed everyone toward the door. We could see the ocean, now, or better, we were a part. Scraps of the Comber remained to hold us - the Comber had become a skeleton ship and we about to sail a ladder.
I counted five figures cramped in the unbroken space before the opening, and shouted. “Go!”
Much later, I would remember twice being afraid. Once, when the stairwell had crashed under us, and I had lost a grip on Fila. That’s a dark second, when the water pulls down and away, and one hand on a splintered beam holds you back from the cold. I came up and she did not, caught down at the knee under a broken floor-board. I ripped it out and freed her. Second, when the back wall had fractured, and the water sucked on our lives like a foul tit. I held onto Jet Coffee only by the crack in her ass. The three of us, trapped there hell-dark among the planks. Then Hricko and Vitalle had turned on their god damned flashlights.
Five of us clung to the wrecked beams above the doorway; they were twisted in ways and angles that wood cannot accept and formed an opening impossible on its dark face. Except by our will. Vitalle took a nail across his eye, lucky to keep it. Jet cursing the soul of the Fairchild girl like a lover. I wished foolishly that, like Hricko, I had held the woman. We had the doorway, and the ladder into the black, and a pretty clear sense of dying; but we tried.
Coffee went into the hole first. Save the young one; give her a chance at the Holy City. She darted across the blackness like a snake. Then Fila, catlike. Hricko next, with a thumb-sized bullet in his leg; no strength. Vitalle tossed him onto the ladder, and the women all but tore his head off pulling him through.
I went next, under a vicious, cracking sound that rippled through the building. The side wall had gave under a last hammer-blow, leaving only tortured four-by-twelves standing; nothing you could call a hole. We pulled Vitalle into the Jammer as the ladder finally snapped, pulled down, swept eastward. Probably should have taken Vitalle, that roaring violence, mindless suck of nothing. Hricko and I each had one of his arms. I vaguely remember a shouted threat from Fila to shoot us both if we failed, but I remember that least.