Thursday, September 13, 2007

First try

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Key

A short story by Tom Osburn

For what seemed like an eternity, there was only silence. Time seemed to slow more and more until it seemed I was no longer moving at all. I was conscious of the cold air on my face as I moved through space; conscious of the cold wind blowing my hair and freezing my wide-open eyes as I revolved in slow motion - down, down, down. My mouth was wide open in a silent scream, working, moving, trying, but no sounds were coming out. It was like a dream when you know it is a dream and you will yourself to wake up and be done with it, but you can’t make your eyes open.

Then I became aware of the icy water surrounding me, hurting like a thousand knives on my body; feeling myself slipping under the surface helplessly, knowing in some far away detached corner of my mind that I mustn’t let this happen, that I must fight to get back to the surface, only I was helpless to fight, helpless to even move now.

Drifting down, ever downward, in a slow surreal spiral, no longer caring, no longer even sure if what was happening was real or indeed a dream. So cold. Aching, numbing cold.

Then nothing.

Chunko was being disgusting, as usual. Seated directly across the restaurant table from me, his mouth stuffed with half-chewed food and one of his packed cheeks puffed out like a half-paralyzed chipmunk, he continued to talk and chew at the same time.

I knew my observation would fall on deaf ears, but I made it anyway. “You’re disgusting. You know that? Fucking disgusting.”

A sliver of pulled pork aged in brown barbecue sauce quivered, stuck just below his fat bottom lip as Chunko continued his thought. “If you ask me, this fucker is connected to the bitch. One way or the other. Mark my words.”

I shook my head at him slowly, a mental picture of John Candy as Uncle Buck stuck in my mind. He crammed a buttered hot roll in his mouth, pushing the barbecue meat back inside his maw as he did so.

One of his ham-like paws punched the air with the half-eaten hot roll, its butter dripping from his greasy fingers onto the table. “Mark my words.”

“The Bitch” was one Jessica Duvall, also affectionally known as Tiny Duvall, a local 280- pound sometime Madam and sometime drug mule from down LaFayette way. Some say she was really a drag queen. I never personally got close enough to her to find out.

“The Fucker” was the wise-mouthed loser in the white pants with the food-encrusted goatee that Chunko had nearly killed last night in the alley behind Hymie’s pool hall on 37th street. All Chunko had gotten for his trouble was the satisfaction of seeing “The Fucker” bleed all over his white pants, because he had been playing pool poorly with no money.

Harold “Harry Mat” Matuzak was sitting at the table on my right, between me and Chunko, staring with his mouth ajar in disbelief as Chunko went to work on another barbecue sandwich. Harry was impeccably dressed as usual, every hair neatly in place, the big blue sapphire ring on his left pinky twinkling as he held his coffee cup in midair.

“What? What makes you say that? And who gives a shit if he is...?” Harry trailed off in mid-sentence and raised the coffee cup the rest of the way up to his mouth, knowing Chunko would get to it in his own good time.

Harry Mat was my best friend. We had been together for 15 years, ever since we had been Marines together as teenagers. Harry was a rock. Harry always seemed to be there for me whenever I found my dick slammed in a door someplace, which was pretty often. I would do anything for Harry.

I was in reasonably good shape still. No smoking any more. A weakness for good scotch but not addicted to the stuff. A shade under 6 feet tall, solid; I could still hold my own. Not as good as I once was, as the country song goes, but still good enough for anything “once.”

But Harry. Harry was amazing. He had always been able to kick my ass, even when we were young - and often had - but he hadn’t lost a single step. Harry was like a cat when he fought, squatting down a bit, bouncing on his springy legs and smiling in anticipation at his foe, waiting happily to snap the guy’s arm or lay his nose on his cheek. Harry liked to fight too much. It was his only weakness.

Me, I was a peacemaker. I kept my cool. I was the negotiator. I reasoned with the enemy. A working-class journeyman hustler with a gift of gab. And if I failed? Harry and Chunko would beat the shit out of them. The three musketeers. Three little boys who refused to ever grow up.

Tiny Duval sat on the porch swing fanning herself with an old Cosmo magazine. It was freezing outside, but the porch was hot from three space heaters pointed directly at Tiny. Her feet hurt. A big nondescript brown dog lay curled up a few feet away. She took a deep deliberate suck on the sticky cigar hanging out of the corner of her mouth and looked up in extreme irritation at the swarthy man in the red-stained white pants and the spongy-looking purple nose.

“So why the fuck come crying to me, dip shit? You got what was comin’ to ya. Did you get the money?”

The dark skinny little white man got a little whiter. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Tiny. The big guy took the key to the locker. I had it in my wallet and the cocksucker took my wallet.”

Tiny’s sunken pig-like eyes narrowed as the light began to come on in her bourbon-soaked brain.

“You stupid fuck wit! You mean to tell me you let that pool shark Polack take the key? Is that what you’re telling me? Is it? Is it?”

The Cosmo was laying on the floor now as the enraged Tiny attempted to struggle to her feet, coughing on the cigar smoke as she rose halfway, teetered, lost the battle with gravity, and then sat back down abruptly in the porch swing. She reached out her meaty hand to grab Purple Nose by his waist band and pull him to her, but he scrambled back and eluded her.

“No, Tiny! You know I would never give it up. The fucker dazed me with a lucky punch and when I got up, my wallet was gone. He took it. I didn’t GIVE it to him, Tiny! Nooooo...”

The key in question opened a small locker at the greyhound bus station downtown. Inside that locker was a satchel. Inside the satchel was $93,600 in new crisp hundred dollar bills and 4 large plastic bags filled with what the police were fond of referring to as “a suspicious unknown white substance.”

Tiny was not pleased. “Fuck! I swear to god you are dead! Dead! Do you hear me?”

The whole world heard her. The spit-soaked cigar lay smoking by her feet next to the torn Cosmo. The big brown dog got up and trotted off , taking no chances. Tiny began coughing again as she reached over and picked up the phone.

I sat on the edge of the bed, painstakingly going through the two-bit drug dealer’s wallet one item at a time, and laying them on the night table under the lamp. The wallet was almost new, light brown, hand-tooled, with the words “Bad Boy” stamped in cowboy letters. An idle image flashed in my mind of the scene in the movie “Pulp Fiction” where the dufus English guy and his dufus girlfriend Honeybun are holding up the breakfast diner, and as Samuel L. Jackson drops his wallet into the plastic bag, you see the words “Bad Ass”, or something like that, stamped on his wallet. I chuckle to myself as I compare Purple Nose to Samuel L. Jackson. “Bad Boy.” Right.

First things first: no money. Not even a dollar bill. What the fuck! Who goes out with no money at all in their pocket? Especially if they intend to play pool? Who IS this guy, anyway?

Photographs, 4 each. One bent and creased picture of a pimply-faced teenaged boy roughly resembling Purple nose. No writing on the back. One snapshot photo of a tired-looking middle-aged woman with stringy red hair in a black house-dress. The photo is torn in half so that whoever else was once in the picture is long gone. Nothing on the back except a pencil-written number “3”. Last picture is of a German Shepherd. Nothing on the back. Who the fuck carries a picture of a dog in their wallet? Finally, a black and white picture of a pretty girl that obviously came with the wallet. Just in case the wallet purchaser didn’t know what the little plastic holders were for. That’s all. No money. No credit cards. No lottery tickets. Nothing.

Almost nothing, that is. I unsnap the coin compartment and see a little brass key. Not even a coin in the wallet. A key. I take it out and hold it under the lamp. Not a large key, like a house key. Not a tiny key, like a luggage key. A medium-sized brass key like the kind that opens padlocks or the like, with the number 41 stamped on one side and the outline image of a dog stamped on the other side - the manufacturer’s logo, probably.

I’m losing interest. I place the key on the night stand and drop the wallet in the kitchen trash can as I look for sandwich makings.

The Minotaur has me cornered now. Time has run out. My breath comes in painful gasps as I kneel next to the rock, desperately looking for just one more escape route. Nothing. The huge creature throws back his terrible horned head and lets out an unearthly laugh, a low, cattle-like laugh like the demon in The Exorcist. End of the line. “Prepare to die, mortal,” the monster sneers, raising his silvery sword high over his head. At the last moment, I lunge to one side and the mighty sword glances off the rock instead of my head, making a high-pitched ringing sound. The monster growls in rage and quickly raises the sword again. Again, I dodge to one side at the last possible moment. Again the metal rings as it strikes the stone. The bull mutant’s nostrils widen in anger at my feeble attempts to prolong my life. He swings rapidly, again and again and again. And each time I miraculously escape at the last possible second and the sword rings sharply into the granite beside me. Ring. Again. Ring. Again. Ring.

I suddenly sit upright in bed, still fully clothed, drenched, breathing heavily at the nightmare as the bedside phone rings again and again, drawing me slowly back to full consciousness.

I pick up the phone and wordlessly hold it to my head. I hear Harry’s voice in my ear. Excited. Urgent. Insistent. “Georgie? Georgie? Are you there? They’ve got Chunko. Can you hear me? Are you there?”

I am awake now. “Who’s got Chunko? Where? What are you talking about?”

As I listen to Harry’s voice in my ear, I stare vacantly at the key on the night stand again. Suddenly a moment of clarity. I pick up the key and examine it again, closer this time. The number 41 on one side and the dog on the other side. Suddenly I understand. Not just a dog. A greyhound.

The winter air is freezing my sweat-wet shirt as I wheel the bike out of the garage, cold even through my jacket. The powerful motor roars to life as I thumb the button. My left hand feels my jeans pocket to make sure the key is still there. It is. I gun the the motor and the bike leaps forward into the cold darkness.

The drug cartel is not amused at Tiny Duval’s phone call. Chunko is tied to the chair, his face a mass of blood, his hands behind his back, as the big Mexican works him over methodically with the bicycle chain.

The leader is calm, standing to one side. He speaks calmly, without a trace of anger in his voice. “The key, hombre. That’s all we want, and you go home. Where is the key?”

“I told you I don’t know what the fuck you are talking about! I don’t know anything about any Goddamn key.”

The quiet man nods slightly to his henchman and again the chain leaps out like a snake and wraps around Chunko’s head, opening another gash in his cheek, drawing more blood and a loud groan from Chunko this time.

I almost lose it as I bring the bike to a sliding stop in front of the bar. I am frozen. My face feels like a mask as I cut the motor and kick down the stand. I am in the front door before the doorman can even react. I push past him, the metal nightstick in my hand now. Suddenly I don’t feel the cold anymore as my adrenaline begins to pump.

I see the skinny purple-nosed fuck at the end of the bar. Too late, he sees me too and turns to run. I press him hard against the wall, pinning him, my fingers gripping him by his long greasy hair, pulling his head back. “Where are they?” My face is only inches from his.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man!”

I’m in no mood. Gripping his hair even harder, I smash his ugly face down hard on the bar. I hear female screams in the background and the bar begins to clear. I lift the sorry fuck’s face up off the bar and ask one more time. “Where?”

His poor abused mushy nose has popped again and is gushing blood in thick spurts. His eyes are wide, fearful. I think he believes I will kill him where he stands. He’s right. He answers my question.

As I walk out, the big doorman blocks my path. He wants to play. He starts to tell me to stop; that I can’t just come in his bar and fuck up his customers. Or something like that. His eyes bug out and he lets out a loud animal grunt as I thrust the end of the nightstick hard up into his solar plexus. Suddenly and agonizingly paralyzed, the fight quickly leaves him and he slumps to his knees. I don’t look back.

I pause outside only long enough to call Harry and give him the address, then I am hurtling through the icy night again. Armed with Tiny Duval’s downtown address, I urge the big bike even faster, close to being out of control now.

A block away, I cut it and coast to a stop behind Harry’s black Mustang.

They are having too much fun to hear us. They are concentrating on hurting Chunko some more. The big boy brings the chain back again behind his head, wielding it like a whip. This time, though, it drops harmlessly on the floor behind him as the big Glock in Harry’s hand explodes in the man’s ear, sending his brains splashing against the wall. They run slowly down the wood paneling like Felix Unger’s linguini. The asshole’s eyes have a weird questioning look in them, but he is long-dead by the time he hits the floor.

The quiet honcho turns in slow motion to see what the commotion is, but I punch his ticket at the same time. His neck in the crook of my arm gives a satisfying crack as my other hand grips his face and snaps it to one side sharply. His lifeless eyes look up at me, his head at an odd angle at my feet.

“Well? Are you fuckers going to untie me?” In spite of the blood running out of his mouth, Chunko is laughing.

Harry and I lay Chunko on a blanket in the back of Harry’s Mustang. Harry wants me to wait for him, to go with them, but I am too eager to get to the bus station and find out once and for all what was so important to these bastards. Time is of the essence. Harry finally agrees. We will meet at the cabin on Lake Drive after Harry takes Chunko to the hospital and after I pay a visit to the Greyhound Bus Station.

The waiting room is mostly deserted. Bus people. A woman is asleep slumped in a chair holding a baby, and two more little ones asleep on the seats next to her. Two watery-eyed winos pass a brown paper bag back and forth as they eye the sleeping woman’s purse. I walk along the far wall to the corner where the lockers are. Be there a locker number 41? There be. I feel like the kid on Treasure Island must have felt when they found the place to dig on the treasure map. What was in the locker? For just a fleeting moment, I had second thoughts. What if there were nothing in the locker but a dead dog? A severed head?

Suddenly, I had the distinct feeling I was being watched. I turned away from the locker as if I were looking for something else and casually let my eyes drift around the waiting room again. Nothing. One of the winos had dropped to his knees and was inching across the floor to the sleeping woman’s purse, but nothing else. Still, I trust my gut feelings.

I hadn’t come this far not to find out, though. Steeling myself, key in hand, I strode quickly back to the lockers and stuck the key in the slot. I turned the key. Nothing. It didn’t work! Calming myself, I turned it the other direction. Click.

Inside the little cubicle, at eye-level, was a brand new leather satchel. Smooth light brown leather, the same color as Purple Nose’s wallet, with brass corner protectors. I didn’t take time to admire it. In seconds, it was in my hand and I was walking rapidly out of the bus station, pausing only long enough to kick at the wino on the floor and scream in the woman’s face. “WAKE UP!” Her pale blue eyes popped open and the baby began to cry, but I was already outside.

I laid the satchel across the front of the saddle and gas tank, holding it with my left hand as I started the bike and gunned out of the parking lot. Immediately the headlights of a car were behind me. I knew it. Goddamn it. Why didn’t I wait for Harry? Why didn’t I GO with Harry? I picked up speed quickly but the car behind me stuck.

I pulled the cell out of my inside shirt pocket and autodialed Harry while trying to balance the satchel between my knees. I still didn’t even know what was in it. All I knew was somebody else wanted it too. Harry didn’t answer. I was on my own for a while.

We were coming to the edge of town now, the streetlights were getting fewer and fewer and soon we were on the dark open highway. I accelerated quickly, knowing I could easily lose them, but the road followed the lake and was full of curves, and soon I had to back off again. The headlights weren’t so close now, but they were still back there. In fact, there were two sets of headlights now, the second car right on the tail of the first one.

I was coming up quickly on the turnoff to the cabin. At the last possible minute, I locked the brakes and leaned into the corner. Too fast. Much too fast. I was losing it. But I felt the rear tire bite and I shot forward down the side road along the lake. Quickly, I heaved the heavy satchel as hard as I could toward the side of the road and saw it bounce into the high grass. The car was just now turning the corner behind me and I could only hope they hadn’t seen me throw the satchel or see it as they passed. As I cranked it down hard, I saw the second car also turning the corner behind me.

I knew the road well, and I knew I was going much too fast. I could see the headlights behind me swerving back and forth as they negotiated the curves. I could smell the lake. I was close. Could I pull it off? I eased back on the throttle and let the lead car close the distance between us. Not too close, Georgie boy. Don’t want to get shot at.

The hairpin curve was coming up fast. Too fast. Again, I backed off until finally they were close enough. I began to hear strange whines of some sort of bird or insects flying right next to my ear. Puzzling. Suddenly, I realized I was being shot at. At the same time I became aware that I couldn’t feel my hands in the numbing cold. They were both on the grips, but I couldn’t feel them. I could only hope my frozen body would respond. I was about to find out.

The car was right on my ass as I downshifted and braked, and at the same time almost laid the bike on its side as I entered the hairpin curve. I could hear the car braking frantically behind me, but it was too late. The braking sound stopped as they went straight over the edge of the cliff.

I didn’t have time to find out if the second car followed suit or if it backed off, because I was in deep shit. I desperately tried to bring the bike back on the road, but I was going much too fast. I was losing it and I knew there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it but hold on and pray.

The bike screamed as I felt myself go airborne, then an eerie silence as I began drifting in seemingly slow motion down over the lake. As I kicked off away from the plummeting motorcycle, all I could think of was how incredibly cold I was, and how incredibly much I wished I was home in my warm bed.

This time, the Minotaur had dropped his sword and was choking me with both of his powerful hands. The harder I tried to breathe, the more he tightened his grip around my throat. I could feel myself getting weaker and weaker. The mutant beast had finally won. It was checkout time.

Suddenly, the Minotaur’s eyes took on a startled look, and I could feel his grip on my throat weaken. I could breath again. As I greedily sucked in the cool fresh air, my monstrous adversary began to fade. Then he was gone. I started to cough, trying to get my breath back.

Harry was kissing me! The fucker! Taking advantage of me! He had me down on the cold hard rocky dirt next to the lake. In fact, my feet were still in the icy water. The pervert! I tried to push him off me - he wasn’t letting me breathe with his kisses. Kissing me and slapping me. I threw up in his face.

The inside of Harry’s Mustang was nice and warm, and the thick blanket wrapped around me felt good, despite Chunko’s dried blood on it, but I was still shivering uncontrollably.

“It’s right about here,” I pointed to the side of the road.

I was too cold to get out of the car. Fuck it. I watched Harry slowly walking through the weeds at the side of the road in the headlights, his breath coming out like steam. Before long, he moved down deeper into the ditch and bent down to pick something up. The satchel.

Once again Harry had pulled my bacon out of the fire. Dragged me out of the lake. Gave me my life back. It was Harry in the car behind the thugs who were chasing me. Good old Harry. Harry had always been there, ever since we were kids. I pulled the blanket tighter around me and slumped down in the leather bucket seat. Yeah. Good old Harry. I smiled to myself as sleep finally came.
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