Wednesday, March 20, 2013

When The Wolfbayne Blooms

A very dear, longtime friend of mine passed away recently. He made me promise, in the last week of his life, to tell his story. My oldest daughter,Crystal, has been battling cancer for the last seven months, and our time has been full. She's in remission now; things have slowed a little, so it's time for me to honor my promise.

We first met over a quarter of a century ago, under less than ideal circumstances. If anyone had suggested at that time that we would become as close as we did over the years, no one would have believed it. The fact that we did is a testament to him and his willingness to have a forgiving heart. Every relationship has its ups and downs; we certainly had ours. Still, the only reason we had one at all was because of him. Please remember that as I tell his story.

I've struggled with how best to tell his story. He didn't want his name used; not to protect himself, but his family. Most of what will follow are things that he wanted to be able to tell them, but couldn't. However, he knew that his experience was far from unique. In fact, he knew that thousands of men from our generation shared a very similar story. His hope was that, in telling his story, warts and all, other families might find some of the peace and closure that he wanted his own family to have. What follows will not be pretty, or told in a manner that paints him as a saint. That was his call. "."Tell it straight."

I'll do my best.


Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
May become a wolf
When the Wolf Bane blooms
and the Autumn moon is bright


He wasn't the world's best husband or father. The truth is, he was abusive to his wife and children: not just emotionally, but physically as well. 99% of the men I have known that were like that were bullies, and every bully that I've ever known was a coward. My time as a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff had only strengthened that point of view. There was, however, that other 1%. That small minority shared one common element: they were all deeply scarred men, full of self loathing for their past, and for their actions against the very ones they loved most. They all had been wounded so badly, so deeply, that the wound simply would not heal. I would discover that he fell into that 1%.

It was two years into our relationship before we became friends. The friendship started on an overture by him that was so astounding, so out of character for him, that his wife didn't believe me at first when I told her about it. It took his family a while to really believe that it was true. Again, as I told you earlier, it was a testament to his character, not mine, that we became friends. What he did was something that no bully would ever do. It was my first glimpse into the real man. The wounded man.

He started to change after that, as if that act had been the initial chip at a glacier that had surrounded his heart. The real change happened a couple of years later. The crucible was the birth of his first grandchild, followed in a matter of just a couple of years by two more. One grandchild from each of his children. He began to mellow. He allowed those grandchildren to do things with him that no one ever thought he would allow. It was like watching a scarred older bear allowing the cubs to chew on him and swat him with their paws. Things he had never had the patience with his own children to allow, he now seemed to welcome...even enjoy. Now, don't get me wrong. He could still be an asshole, especially with his wife. But even their relationship seemed to improve. Her love for him had always been apparent: his far less so. During this period, however, it showed through at times, even in public, in ways that surprised those closest to him. He could still be verbally snippy with her, but even those outbursts seemed to lack their past cruelty. Those were some good years for my friend. Then tragedy hit.

A senseless act of violence and betrayal perpetrated against he and his wife. The old him would have gone after the violators. Hunted them down and killed them. I even offered to go with him. He no longer would, or could. He took his family and moved to a new town. He started to withdraw, not just from life and those around him, but from himself. At first he confined himself to their small town. Then, he would only go to certain places within that town, the circle drawing ever tighter. Eventually he wouldn't even leave his own home. He became a recluse. And, with each step inward he took, the more of the old him came back to the surface. His poor wife bore the brunt of it. I rarely saw much of it when I came to visit; but the tension and anger hung in the house like a poisonous fog. I didn't know what to do for my friend, or his family. He wasn't the type to just open up, let alone talk about his problems. Yet I knew that part of what I saw when I looked at him was a reflection of myself: the same kind of wounds and scars, the same kind of anger and self loathing. Could there be any hope for me down the road if there was no hope for him?

If God has given me any gifts, which I know is questionable, one of them might be the ability to see deep pain in others, and find a way to reach out to them. It is not a gift I ever asked for or wanted, but we don' get to choose our gifts.  A car would have been nice. Maybe a gift card. Cash is always good too. Just kidding, Lord.

A few years ago, while I was out visiting my friend, the door appeared for me to knock on. We were sitting in his room, as we usually did, watching TV and talking. His lovely wife brought in his dinner, and he immediately began to chastise her for the portion size, or something else equally stupid. The look on her face, the abruptness with which he stopped, told a story in itself. The pain in her eyes...anyway, she turned and left the room. He didn't touch the food. Just stared straight ahead, his eyes eventually dropping. His shoulders slumped, and I could feel the self hatred coming off of him like heat from a blast furnace. I said a quick prayer, then assumed my role as God's ventriloquist dummy.

I started talking about my time on the job.  General things. He was a Vietnam Vet, and I knew he could relate to at least some of my experiences. The farther I went in the talk, the more personal things I began to tell. I eventually started telling him things that I've told no living person. I only have a couple of stories from my time on the job that I do tell. Most people find them dark; quite a few visibly squirm and shrink away during the telling. They're not pretty. Those stories, however, are the good ones. The others I never tell. But, I was telling him. And, he was listening. No judgements. No comments. He didn't shy away. Just sat there and listened.

His wife came back in an hour or so later. He hadn't touched his food. She took the plate away in silence. It was time for me to go. He didn't say anything. We shook hands, like always, and I left. I felt like a fool driving home. Not an unusual feeling for me, especially when I let God do the talking. I had seen no results. No evidence of change. Nothing. I went home in despair.

Nothing was different the next time I went out. Or, the time after that. I didn't bring it up again. Neither did he. I don't remember how much time passed. How many visits. Five...maybe six. Then, on one of those visits, after we were alone in his room, he asked me a series of questions:
How had I dealt with those experiences? Why wasn't I more violent? Why wasn't I more of a mean asshole to my family? It was like the ensuing months had never passed and I had just finished telling him my story.

I reminded him of how badly I had treated my family for a few years. He dismissed that with a wave of his hand. "You had nerve damage and chronic pain then," he said. "Besides, you snapped out of it. How do you deal with what you saw? How do you deal with what you did? With who you were?" I didn't answer him right away. I knew he was asking for more than just an answer to my problems...he was looking for hope.

Anyone who is bitten by a Werewolf,
and survives
Is doomed to become a Werewolf himself


That's actually the first thing I said to him. I reminded him that the anti-hero of the old Wolf Man movie didn't start out as a bad guy. He was just a normal guy. A good guy. Minding his own business. He wasn't looking for trouble that night. He heard somebody in danger and ran to their aid. Tried to save their life. Got torn up for his trouble. There was no way for him to know that he was dealing with a monster. No way to know that fighting that monster would turn him into one. Bad kind of monster to become too. The kind of monster that goes after the very people he loves the most. That's some messed up shit. I told him that I had come to view my circumstances that way. Bad thing was, my monster didn't wait for a full moon to come out. He could leap out of his cage at any time. Anywhere. Against anybody. The more that I fought to contain him when I was outside my home, the more tired I would become by the time I got back. Fatigue makes cowards of us all. As soon as I would relax, let my guard down just a bit, out he would come. Right at my wife and kids.

Fuck me.

I knew I had to find a way to try and control it. That's why I still worked out. Hit the bag. When those didn't work, I'd go for a walk, crippled legs, bad back, nerve damage and all. Just get out and get away. If I was going to hurt someone, I decided, it wasn't going to be my family.

Sometimes, to my shame, I did.

He asked me then how I'd finally gotten rid of it. I laughed. I told him you never get rid of it. You pray and ask God for help. Every day. Because, it never goes away. It never goes to sleep. Hell, it never even lies down. It paces back and forth in the cage I've made for it. Growling. Howling. Watching with blood filled eyes and dripping mouth for just the slightest opening. The hint of my guard going down. One moment of loss of control. Then all hell breaks loose, and everything I've worked for, every day of good is wiped away. And, getting him back in his cage gets harder every time.

We sat there for a few minutes, neither one of us speaking. I could see his wheels turning, digesting what I'd said. Then he told me a story. A very long, very dark story. I'm going to give you the condensed version here...

It was back in the mid sixties. The Vietnam War was escalating and I'd had a few buddies come back from there on leave. The stories they told were bad. It didn't sound like the place anybody in their right mind wanted to go. The draft was ramping up, and everyone knew if you got drafted, odds were a hundred to one you were going in the Army as a grunt and getting shipped straight over there. So, a few of my buddies and I decided to enlist. You had to serve longer if you did, but you got to pick which branch of the service you joined. We picked the Navy. Seemed like the smart pick back then. I mean, what kind of Navy did the Vietnamese have? Even if you got stationed over there, you'd probably be on a ship a hundred miles off of the coast. Not in country. Not in the jungles. Not humping on the front lines.

Bad call.

We had to take a bunch of tests. I found out later I scored pretty high on some of them. I started getting pulled out for meetings during basic. Officers asking me all kinds of questions. I had to sign a lot of papers. Highly classified stuff. Sworn to secrecy. Never allowed to talk about any of it to anyone. Prison or worse if I did. I got shipped to ONI after basic. Naval Intelligence. Got briefed for my job. I was going to be on a PBR. Patrol Boat, River. They called it the brown river Navy. I was going in country. Deep. I was to report on everything I saw and heard. And, my boat would occasionally pick up and drop off people. I was to report on everything they said and did. Sometimes follow them for a while after we dropped them off. I would be debriefed at the end of each mission. So much for being out of the fire zones.

Every mission was hairy. Firefights. Always looking over my shoulder. I figured if they had me watching others, they probably had somebody watching me. I got really paranoid. Some of our crew would get wounded and be replaced. I was suspicious of everyone. The people we picked up weren't always Americans. Accents from everywhere. None of them looked like military personnel. Following some of them into a random village up river was nasty. Sometimes we were in Cambodia. We weren't supposed to be there. All I wanted to do was survive.

One of our crew was short timing. Almost done with his tour. They pulled him off at our next time back and replaced him with a guy I'll call "Bob". He was just one of those kind of guys you just like right off the get go. Good guy. Funny. Always telling stories. He was the first person I let my guard down with. We got pretty tight over the next few weeks. Shared a lot about our backgrounds. Our families. He was just a great guy. It was good to have a buddy. To not be alone anymore

We were on a Mark I PBR. It runs by sucking water in and shooting it out the back. The pump was actually made by Jacuzzi. No shit. Jacuzzi. Let us run in real shallow water. We could turn on a dime too. It took the VC a while to figure out how to really fuck with them. But they did. We started getting reports of other PBRs getting ambushed. The VC would dump loads of straw in the river. That straw would get sucked into the Jacuzzi pump and foul it. Freeze it up. Then you were screwed. Dead in the water. The boat would float a little down river where the VC had set up. Then they'd tear the boat to pieces. Sitting ducks man. It was a bad deal.

All of the boats had grenade launchers. We had a Honeywell MK 18 mounted on the stern. It fired 40 mil grenades. You had to hand crank it. We unbolted ours and moved it up to the bow. The idea was, you kept your eyes peeled for any sign of straw. First even hint of it, you reversed the engines. Backed up. Then you'd start cranking those honeys out up ahead on both sides of the river. Just blow the shit out of both sides as far up as you could. Then we'd get out some poles we started carrying. Push the straw to the sides and go up real slow. We'd get up to the ambush site and find dozens, sometimes more, of dead VC. Blown 'em to hell. Any of them that survived booked it the hell out of there. Worked pretty good. For a while. But those fuckin' VCs. They...they fought dirty man.

We were rollin' up river. Saw the straw. Started cranking out the grenades. Both sides. Got up to the ambush spot. No VCs. But, they'd tied a bunch of villagers to the trees by the banks of the river. We'd blown them all to hell. Innocent people. Happened right before we were due to go back to base. Quietest trip back I'd ever been on. Nobody said a word. The images of those dead villagers...We got back. I went to my Intelligence briefing. Nobody knew what to make of my report. See, we knew which villages were friendly to us, and which weren't. It had been one of their own villages. Who the fuck does shit like that? Other reports were coming in. Some of the villagers at other hot spots had been screaming before the boats got there. The order was: listen for screams. No screams, you fired. Screams you didn't. We went back out. It worked...for a while.

We come up on the straw again. Stop and listen. Nothing. Grenades away. Cruise up river. Dead villagers everywhere. We recon the dead. They'd cut their tongues out. Tied 'em to trees and cut their tongues out. Couple of days later, we get a screamer. We don't fire. Cruise up. Villagers tied to the trees. VC open fire on us from behind them in the jungle. We've got to shoot through them. I pick up the Honeywell and run to the stern as the boat turns. We're firing like...I start cranking 'em out and we book it out. We got shot up pretty bad. Two of our crew got hit. We limped back to base.

Intel briefing again. Not just Navy either. Everybody has got someone there. No one knows what to do. How do you fight an enemy like this? Someone who'll sacrifice their own civilians? There's a bird colonel there. Pacing back and forth. Goes off on a rant. "Fuck'em. Fuck'em all to hell. We've got the ordinance. Let's bomb those little fuckers back to the stone age. Fuck that. Let's bomb them off the face of the planet. No more selective bombing. No more going after the same god damn sights over and over. Bomb it all. I know the Chinese are sending men. Fuck them too. Our boys are getting fucked over. Let's just fucking do it!" The room got quiet. Pin drop quiet. One of the faceless civilians finally broke the silence. "We can't do that, and you know it. We all have our orders. Our jobs to do. We aren't here to win."  That bird colonel looked around the room. Waiting for someone of a higher rank to say something. No one did. They wouldn't even look him in the eye. He pointed a finger at the bureaucrat. "Fuck you. And god damn the rest of you." Then he stormed out.

That did it for me. I went and found "Bob". Talked to him first. Then we waited at our boat for the rest of our crew. We came to a group decision: from now on, we were shooting, screamers or not. We were going to do our best to make sure we all went home, and fuck everybody else. Then we headed out.

My friend had been glancing back and forth at me while he'd been talking up to that point. Now he had stopped. He took of his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Set the glasses down. Stared straight ahead. He seemed to be struggling with whether to go on. I didn't say a word. Just waited. He put his hands together on his knees. Interlocked his fingers. The knuckles were sticking out like white walnuts. His body shuddered, and he took a deep breath. Then he went on, still staring at something I couldn't see...

We'd been out about a week. It had been quiet. No action at all. Then...the straw again. No sound. I cranked out the grenades. We waited. Slow cruise up river. The silence was broken by a single cry. Sounded like a child. A young child. Took everything we had to not hump it faster, but we didn't. We came to a clearing. Dead villagers everywhere. Or, parts of them anyway. A few were still hanging from the ropes that tied them to the trees. Then we saw him. There was a baby in a sling that hung off of the neck of a dead woman tied to a tree. She was a bloody mess. Somehow, the shrapnel had missed her baby. He was crying.His plaintive wail echoed along the banks. "Bob" hopped off of the boat in spite of my telling him not too, and headed for the baby. The hackles were up on the back of my neck, and I didn't know why. Something was wrong...I could feel it. The rest of us waited on the boat. "Bob" got to the baby. Gently pulled the sling over the dead woman's head, and turned back towards us. His face was beaming. It was like redemption for him, for all of us. He started back at a trot. That's when I saw it...

At first I thought it was a vine that had gotten stuck to the cloth of the sling. There were leaves on it. But it didn't fall off. And, the leaves disappeared. Just a long wire trailing back toward the tree. I started screaming. He just kept trotting back, looking at the baby. I jumped off of the boat and ran at him, waving my arms and hollering at the top of my lungs. Then something caught my vision back behind him. It was the woman. The one the baby had been slung on. Her head had popped up and she was watching "Bob" and I. Measuring the distance. Their was something in her hands. The wire was hooked to it. Her eyes locked on mine and she twisted the detonator in her hands.

I was still about twenty feet from "Bob" when he and the baby exploded. Felt like a giant, hot hand picked me up and threw me backwards toward the boat. Took me a minute to get my senses back. I was sitting half in and half out of the river. Couldn't hear anything but a loud ringing in my ears. I looked back up the beach toward the trees. The woman was gone. Part of one of "Bob's" legs was still there, sticking up from his boot. The rest of him was gone. I tried to get up. Couldn't. My guys tried to get me back on the boat  I shook them off. I started crawling, looking for his dog tags. Something was dripping off of my face and arms. Blood and tissue. Figured I was wounded. Crawled down to the river's edge to clean up. None of it was from me. I was covered in pieces of "Bob" and the baby.Never did find the dog tags. They loaded me up and we took off.

That was the only time I was glad I was in Intel. I could keep track of the people from that village. A few months later, a few of them were captured. They thought the woman might be one of them. I volunteered to go check it out. Deep in country. The scouts lead me into this village. The prisoners are tied to polls next to some pig pens. I check 'em out. See the woman. Pull her head up. It's her. I get to ask some questions. She never takes her eyes off of me. Black, cold and empty as a tomb. One of the questions is how she could do that to a baby. She tells them it was hers. "Bullshit", I say.  Three of the others confirm it was. The South Vietnamese Officer in charge tells me it's my call on what to do with them.

I leave the village a week later.

I still, to this day, feel like they're all over me. I wash and wash and wash...never feel clean.

My tour was finally up a while later. Came home. People spitting on me and my buddies. Calling us all of these vile, filthy things. Movie stars and others posing for pictures with the VC. Me, I've got "Bob" and that baby on me...and every time I look in the mirror, I see that woman's eyes. Dead, lifeless, empty eyes...and I wonder: are they her eyes, or mine?

He told me more that day. Over the years, he told me a lot more. Never planned, at least on my part. He'd just start talking about one of them out of the blue when we were alone. I've never told anyone those other stories. Never will. They're worse.

He was an avowed atheist when we met. Used to be confrontational with me about my views. We'd go back and forth on things like string theory, membranes, many worlds. You get the idea. His views started to change after that first talk, at least when it was just he and I. More of an agnostic. I had a heart attack a little over three years ago. Made me realize that I had still been doing a piss poor job with my own monster. I tried to work even harder at controlling it. We talked about that too, on some of the visits. He loved watching shows like "Ancient Aliens", and "Through the Wormhole". I always made sure I was caught up on them before going for a visit, because I knew that he'd want to discuss them. He started talking about God. How he believed that only a fool would think that all of this just happened. A full one hundred eighty degrees from where he'd been before.

He got really sick about the time I had my heart attack. He didn't think he was going to make it then. He made me promise then to tell his story after he died. When he thankfully didn't, I put it way on the back burner. I thought that maybe he forgot about it.

One of the biggest breakthroughs came about a year ago. He had shut himself off from his sisters and their families. One of his nephews made a huge overture, and came up to see him. That opened the door for others to come. The young man who did that did more than he'll ever know. It allowed my friend to reconnect with people that he loved dearly. The fault was never theirs, anymore than it was his wonderful wife's fault when he was abusive to her, or his children's fault when he was cruel to them. He knew it too. That guilt: his meanness and cruelty to those he loved the most, was what ate at him even more than the memories that followed him home from the war. You can blame him. You can say he was weak, or cowardly in not asking all of them for forgiveness while he was alive...but you can never call him anything as bad as what he called himself. He hated himself for what he had done. For what he allowed himself to become. He simply didn't have the strength to do it. Judge him at your own peril.

I didn't get to see him very much the last six months or so of his life. Like I said earlier, my daughter Crystal was battling cancer. We almost lost her a number of times. Her still being here, and doing well is a miracle from God. In fact, that was one of the things my friend called her. His miracle. He also called her his hero.His inability to come to see her in the hospital, or on the few occasions she was home, tore him apart. He knew he couldn't handle seeing her that way. His wife told me later that when she gave him updates on Crystal he would cry. He loved her very much.

His wife called me early one morning. He wasn't doing well at all. He was refusing, as always, to go to the hospital. She asked me to come out. She had somehow managed to get him to go in the ambulance. It was pulling away when I arrived at the house. She and I went, along with some of his children. He and I were alone for a short while in the ER. He was amazingly calm about everything. I think, in some ways, he was almost relieved. He made me promise then to help look out for his wife. He had left a collection of items that he wanted her to sell, in the hopes it would help take care of her. He told me he wanted her to travel. Have some fun. He knew he had been a chain around her ankle for a very long time. He hoped that she would finally be able to have some freedom. I told him I'd do my best, but we were a long way from that. "Bullshit, Chris", he told me. "I'm short timing." I think it was the next day we found out for sure how bad the cancer was. A few months, they said. Maybe more with treatment.

I came out the day after that. He was being released to go home. I was alone in the hospital room with my friend and his wife. She told him she had moved his room to the one closer to the bathroom, and he went off. All of the vile, hateful words...I asked his wife, rather forcefully, to leave us alone for a few. She did. He went on for a minute more, ranting. Then the fire went out of his eyes. "I know she means well. She wants everything to be easier for me through the end, but I'm not going to be here long enough for it to matter. I told them I'd do the treatments, but I lied. I'm not. Please don't tell anyone. I'll stall as long as I can, but I don't think I'll have to do it for very long." Then he asked me if I remembered my promise from two years ago. "Start getting it ready. You'll be writing it soon." Then I talked to him for a while. The content of that conversation I will probably take with me to my grave.

We had a nice ride home, the three of us. Stopped for a little while and looked around at things he hadn't seen for some time. He didn't go into the new room when we first got back. Just sat out in the kitchen. He'd promised me he was going to try his best to not be his usual asshole self when he did go in, and he was trying his best. He and his wonderful wife finally went in and sat down on matching recliners. We all talked for a short time, then he asked if I'd make a roast, mashed potatoes and gravy to bring out during the weekend. It was one of his favorite meals. So I said sure, told him I loved him, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. They were holding hands when I left.

My whole family went with me that weekend. He asked about each one, and was grateful that they all came. He spoke to each one alone. Told Crystal she was his hero. His wife brought him a plate of the dinner we'd brought. I thought it was too much. I cringed inside, waiting for him to go off on her as he had so many times in the past. Not one word. He finished the whole plate. I went in alone later. He told me again not to forget. He told all of us he loved us when we left. His wife called the next day to say they made sliders out of the left over roast, and that he'd eaten every bite. When she called the very next day, it was to tell me that he was gone. Almost one week to the day that he first went to the hospital.

I've struggled for weeks over writing this. He was adamant that it wasn't to be a pity party for him, or an excuse. He didn't feel that there was any excuse for how he'd treated his family. But, he had wanted them to know some of what was behind it. He wanted them to know he was sorry. That any problems they'd had were totally his fault, not theirs. He also wanted others to hear his story. He knew that it wasn't unique. Over two million men and women served during that war. Many of them came home to lead productive lives. Many of them didn't. Many of them ended up out in the woods, alone. In mental hospitals. On the streets. Homeless. Forgotten. He wanted their families to know that they all had their own stories. Some of them worse than his. Not everyone can deal with the bite of the monster. You can't possibly know how well you would do, until you've been bit. The monster isn't the Vietnamese. It isn't the armed forces. The monster is the powers that be, who think nothing of sacrificing the lives of others for their own personal gain; whether that sacrifice is planned and played out in a foreign country, or in the streets of the inner cities of our own country.

Our talks about God, and the security of God's Grace I won't discuss here except for this: he didn't believe he deserved to go to heaven. I told him that if deserve determined it, I would be going to hell. I'm not going there, and I made sure he knew that he wasn't either. I know, at the end, he finally believed me.

I'll close now with the same thing I closed his and my initial talk about our inner monsters with. Perhaps you know, or have known, someone like my friend. If so, say this last thing for them. Forgive them. Give them, and yourself, peace.



The way you walked was thorny
Through no fault of your own
But, as the rain enters the soil
The river enters the sea:
So tears too run to their predestined end
Your suffering is over. May God grant you peace now, my friend


At the end of those old werewolf movies, the hero, in death, returns to his original self. I can see my friend now: his hair and beard long, a smile creasing his tan, handsome face. He is sitting with loved ones and friends, his only hopes that others can learn from his failures...and that his wife and family can forgive him and find their own peace.

I'll see you soon buddy. I love you.


















   

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Daughters Business

My daughter Lacy started a small business a few months ago to bring in a little extra post graduation cash. She makes custom hats, scarves, and soon to be purses. You pick the price, the color(s), and the style. All you have to do is contact her and make an order. She ships anywhere. Inside the United States and outside as well. Please, go take a look and Like her facebook page. Place an order today and have a one of a kind hat or scarf sent to you before the New Year.

Facebook Page -
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Piece-of-Portland-Homemade-Hats-and-Scarves/304129106264778

Order Website -
https://sites.google.com/site/apieceofportland/

Friday, November 18, 2011

The First Chance You Get
Prologue

Present day


      I had been dreaming. It was the summer of sixty-eight. That was the summer I worked for Mr. Olveras mowing yards. It had been my first real job. I was twelve. We started before sun-up, and went until dark, six days a week. He had a beat up old truck with a trailer hooked on the back. Me and the rest of the yard crew rode in the back of the pickup. He kept the mowers, edgers, and trash cans in the trailer. Each trash can had a rake, broom, and shovel in it. Mr. Olveras would pull up to a house, hop out of the cab of the truck, and unload the equipment. Whichever one of us that was “up” would jump out of the back of the truck and pull our equipment out of the street and up onto the curb as the truck pulled away in a wheeze of smoke. One hour later he’d be back. Load you and your stuff up, then on to the next one. We averaged fourteen houses a day.. Each. Two dollars a house. Hard fucking work; but it made you appreciate the value of a dollar. You wanted to buy something, that little equation went into your head: How many yards does this cost? Taught me not to waste my money. Not to take things for granted. Bought my first pair of Levis that summer. No more Zody’s jeans with iron on patches for me after that.  


I was still waking up. My face was bouncing lightly on a cool piece of sheet metal. At first I thought I thought I was still in the back of Mr. Olveras’ truck. I could smell fresh cut grass, dirt, gasoline, and the pungent aroma of fresh fertilizer. Plus, I was rocking and bouncing to the movement of a big truck on the road. But, as I continued to come out of it, I knew I wasn’t back in sixty-eight. Or, in a dream. The first clue was the black nylon bag that was tied around my head. Not good. The second was the bite of the plastic flex cuffs into the skin of my wrists and ankles. Really not good. I tried to sit up, and went right back down. Too soon. Too groggy still. OK. Time to figure out what the fuck’s going on.  


The last thing I remember is pulling into the driveway of the RV Park, and pulling up next to our motor home. It was late, there were no other people around, and no sound but the nearby Pacific Ocean. The sound of the waves breaking across the road at the beach usually soothed me, but not tonight. I had failed. We all had. I got out of the car and stood next to it. I was debating what to tell my wife Annie, and then…lights out. Somebody got me right there. Right next to my own fucking motor home. Talk about being H-U-A. Fuck.    


What about Annie? Was she OK? Think you idiot, think. You got nabbed outside. Would’ve been safer to take you inside, but that would have required dealing with Annie, so…she’s probably all right. For whatever reason, whoever grabbed me up probably left her alone. Thank God for that. Although that means she’ll die alone. She doesn’t have much time left. Two, three months max. Would have liked to been there for her. Hold her. Wipe the tears away. Not going to happen now. I’m pretty sure I’m dead tonight. Maybe tomorrow, if they want to fuck with me for a while first. That’s a pleasant thought. Oh well.  


      OK. Where am I now? Back of a truck. Medium sized commercial, from the feel of it. Fifteen, twenty foot bob tail. Split axle; I can hear it when the driver shifts. Should be two by fours running up the sides as braces for the walls and roof. I scoot over until I hit a wall with my face. Inch along until I feel the wood. Yeah. Almost like a mid-sized rental truck for moving your shit around town. But, not a rental. The smells…this was somebody’s landscape truck until not that long ago. Bad guys probably stole it out of…wait, wait… 


Well, fuck me in the ass with no please or thank you. I saw the fuckin’ truck on my way into the park. It was sitting next to the mobile taqueria in the parking lot across the street. Juan’s Lawns, I think it said. Juan’s Lawns. Shit.  I guess I was totally Head Up Ass tonight. Sure, it was a Mexican yard truck next to a Mexican food truck. Still, it was out of place. That taqueria has been there for years. Hardly ever moves. Never been anything next to it. Should have been on guard. Too distracted. Too much cryin’ in my beer. Boo hoo motherfucker. Look where that shit got you. Now, Annie’ll die alone. Just ‘cause I forgot one of my most important rules.  


I went on the LA County Sheriff’s Department thirty years ago. Went through a bunch of fucked up shit, right from the get go. Made a lot of rules for myself. Right towards the top of the list was this: No one was going to get me because I’d gotten fat and happy. No one was going to get me because I was walking around with a cup of coffee in one hand and my dick in the other one. I mean, look, if some smart fucker wants to set you up; I mean really set you up good, there’s nothing you can do about it. You get a 459 silent call at some warehouse at O dark thirty; a killer’s waiting in there somewhere, well hidden, with an infrared scope and Teflon coated bullets, you can just kiss your ass goodbye. But, too many guys, good guys, get popped because they turn into slaps. They start playing the odds game. Not me. Never. Not in my few years on the job. Not in the many years since as a high level bodyguard and PI. Oh, they’d gotten to me when I was on the job, way back when. Twice. Almost died. But, not because I was spankin’ frank.  Shit. Picked a hell of a time to fuck up.  


Maybe there was still hope. Maybe whoever had snatched me hadn’t gotten to the others. Not all of them. Certainly not the Count. Nobody could get to him. Maybe I was the first. Maybe the others were looking for me right now. No reason to give up yet. Hang in there. Keep thinking. The others, in their own ways, were almost as capable as the Count. Except the writer. Well, OK, he could write. That wasn’t going to help much right now. Had to give him his props though. He’d shown a lot more balls lately than I’d given him credit for having. Circumstances had a lot to do with that, but hey…most people under pressure just fold up and quit. He hadn’t. Yeah, no reason to hang my head yet. They might still be out there. Might be coming. 


      I was jostled out of my little pity party when the truck turned off of the paved road we’d been on, onto gravel. The chunks of rock kicked up by the tires clanged against the metal under carriage of the truck. We swerved a bit at first; the driver hadn’t anticipated the weight shifting in the back would rock the vehicle the way it did. I slammed against the sheet metal wall hard, then bounced back onto the floor. That’s when I realized I wasn’t alone. 

      "Ki gogot sa?"



I’d know that deep baritone Creole voice anywhere. Any other time, I’d be happy to hear it. Not now. Second worst voice I could hear. The first would have been Annie’s. This was almost as bad. 


“What the fuck is right.” 


“Jay? That you?” 


“Yeah, Bela, it’s me. You alright?” 


There was a short pause before he answered. Taking the same kind of inventory I had not long ago. I knew he wasn’t going to like what he found, any more than I had. Just had to hope he wasn’t badly injured on top of everything else.  


“Fuck no, I’m not alright. I got a bag over my head, and I’m trussed up like a Christmas goose.” 


“Me too. You hurt?” 


Another short pause. Counting body parts, probably.  


“Just my pride. Where the fuck are we?” 


“Back of a truck. Out in the desert, I think. Just turned off onto a gravel road. Probably heading out to the boonies.” 


“Ki le li ye?” 


“I’ve got no fucking idea what time it is. Gotta be night time though. Maybe early morning. No light leaking through the truck. Even with this bag over my head, I’d be able to see sunlight, if it was comin’ in. Plus, still pretty cool. Too cool for daytime in the desert, this time of year.” 


“How you know we in the desert?” 


“Grew up in the desert. You know that. I can smell it. Feel it.”


Both of us silent for a bit. Trying to figure shit out. Right now they had two out of five of us, if you count the writer. Probably should count him, he was in it now passed his eyeballs. OK. Two out of five. That still left the writer and…


 “You hear that Jay?”  


Cocked my head to one side. Listened hard. Somebody was groaning. Low, deep in their throat. More deep breaths from somewhere else in the back with us. Couldn’t tell how many.  


“How many you hear, Bela?” 


“At least two…maybe more. To?” 


“The same. More of us?”


“Probably. Merde.” 


The truck swung again, the turn much tighter. I slid from one wall of the truck to the other, my face banging into a knee. The truck started bouncing more now. No more gravel clanging underneath. Dust started to seep in through the seams. A dirt road now. Fuck. Every bounce of the truck in the ruts made my face slam back into the knee. Hurt like hell. 


“Bela…get your fuckin’ knee outta my face.” 


“Not mine.” 


“Shit.” 


I tried to time my movements with the rhythm of the road. Bad jazz. Got it on the third try. Rolled over twice, then made my way to the far wall. Scooted like an inch worm until I was back up in a sitting position. Pushed down with my heels to keep my back pressed against the wall of the truck. Someone was moving my way.  


“Over here, Bela.” 


He found me with his head. Worked his way up, using my body for leverage. We pushed against each other to stay up. The road was rough. It felt like a really bad Carney ride. Then the music started. Coming from the cab of the truck.  Piano. Low, slowly building in intensity and volume. Now it’s joined by a guitar. Electric guitar. I know this song.  


“What the fuck?” 


“Locomotive Breath. Jethro Tull. This is not good, Bela. “ 


“Why?” 


“Somebody’s getting themselves psyched up.” 


“For what?” 


“Killing….” 
The song built to its crescendo, then slowly faded, the final lyrics repeating over and over. There was a short pause; three or four seconds, and then it started over again. A little louder this time. 
“Fuck.” 


“What? What is so terrible about this song? Why are those soaks playing it again?” 


“You don’t know the song, Bela?” 


“No.” 


“It’s a song about judgment. Death. Killing the unrighteous.”  


We sat in silence, the song building again. A sort pause at the end again. Then it started over.  


“Why is it repeating, Jay?” 


“They’re getting pumped up to kill us…and they want to make sure we know it.” 


“Bagami-as pula in mortii matii.” 


I hadn’t heard that one in a long time. Bela could swear in more languages than there are loony fanatics at a Pentecostal snake handler’s convention. His swearing just got worse, and more diverse, as the song repeated five more times. Finally, there was blessed silence. 


“Now what?” 


“No idea, Bela. Maybe we’re getting close to wherever their taking us. Maybe they’re already pumped enough to get the job done, and don’t need the music anymore. Maybe…”


I was cut off by the start of another song. Two hard guitar riffs, followed by some drums. Fuck me if I didn’t know this song too. The lyrics hit quick and hard.  


“Now I know we’re fucked, Bela.” 


“Why? What are those sei ham ga chan, sei puk gai trying to do?” 


“Those fucking sons of bitches, as you so elegantly put it, are trying to send us a message…and they’ve got a sick sense of humor.”

“Why?” 


“This is a song about a child molester…they’re making sure we know why we’re getting whacked…as if there was any doubt.” 


“Hijos de mil putas.” 


“Pretty much, yeah.” 


“So, what’s the song?” 


“Aqualung. Jethro Tull. Same band as the last song.” 


“Sa me fut.” 
“Yeah…fuck me too.”
      We huddled together, the bouncy ride rocking us all over the wall of the truck. I was saying a silent prayer that this song wouldn’t be repeated. The implications of that didn’t sit well with me. We’d been going after a pedophile. An extremely powerful, high ranking, well protected piece of shit. Vicious and insatiable. He was part of a network of other child molesters. We knew if we could bring him down, we’d be able to put a dent in their organization. Maybe get some names out of him. We’d lain in wait for him, after months of chasing…and we’d failed. I’d seen what he, and those other miserable cowards, were capable of doing to children. Torture beyond your ability to believe. God only knew how many of them were in on this. How long they might keep us alive while they fucked with us. And then, I knew. My prayers hadn’t been answered.  


The song started over again. 


Aqualung is a long song. Six, seven minutes. I lost count of how many times it played. Ten, eleven, I don’t know. Louder every time. That meant we were on that rutted dirt road for well over an hour. Must be going to the middle of butt fuck nowhere. The music was so loud, we couldn’t even talk anymore. No time to try and plan anything. Of course, when your hands and feet are flex-cuffed, there’s not much you can do. The road seemed to smooth out a little bit finally, then we came to a stop.  


The truck settled in on its springs. Dust hung in the air, making it hard to breath. I could hear the hiss and clatter of the engine as it died. Then, nothing. Silence. Silence as absolute as a tomb. I kept waiting to hear other cars pull up. There had to be more than just a couple of guys in the cab, right? Taking down any of us, let alone all of us, should have required some heavy manpower. Still, there was nothing. My mind was racing, trying to put the pieces together. Maybe the others were already here. They could have come earlier. Just be out there waiting. Finally, there was movement inside the cab of the truck. Another song started. Jesus H. Christ, wasn’t this shit ever going to end? What was it this time? 

Bela obviously was thinking the same thing. 


“What the fuck now, Jay?” 


“Kansas.” 


“You think we’re all the way in Kansas?” 


“No, Bela. Kansas. The band. ‘Dust in the Wind’ is what’s playing now. Whoever it is thinks they’re funny.”

There was movement in the cab. A door opened and closed. I waited for the other one. It didn’t. OK, we only had a driver. The rest must already be here. I could hear the footsteps come around the back of the truck as the song played out its mournful lyrics. There was a click, then the door slammed up. Another rattle, then a sliding sound: metal on metal. The driver was pulling out and lowering a ramp fixed onto the back of the truck. Footsteps padded up the ramp, the truck swaying slightly from the movement. There were shuffling and sliding sounds as things, and bodies, were moved around. Something else; rope, being untied. Rolling wheels. Must have had a dolly tied to the wall. I could hear something being lifted and dropped, the floor reverberating with each thud. The wheels moving now, out of the truck and down the ramp. I didn’t know then what else had been in the back with all of us, but it took whoever was moving it eight trips. A short pause now. I could hear a lighter, then smell the smoke from a cigarette. Break time, I guess. 


There was more movement and sound coming from the others back there with me and Bela. Sounds of stirring, maybe coming to. I heard a heel grinding on the floor of the truck. Smoke being put out. I guess break time was over. More movement. Sounded like somebody being moved; lifted. What was that? Tape? Yeah…from the sound it made when he tore it, probably duct tape…maybe packing. The wheels of the dolly rolling again down the ramp. One, maybe two minutes of nothing, then the dolly was coming back up and in. Same procedure two more times. I was wondering if he was going to try and do Bela and me like that. We could try and kick at him, I suppose, but kicking blind is about as useless as an open bar at a Mormon wedding reception. Now, the dragging sound again. Obviously a body being pulled to the back. A split second of silence, then a loud thud and groan. Fuck. Whichever one of us that was, just got dumped rather unceremoniously on the ground. Gotta hurt. Probably what’s in store for me and Bela because we’re awake. Gone longer this time. I decide to try and whisper to Bela. 


“Got any ideas?” 


“Yeah.” 


“Well? You gonna let me in on’m, or just kepp’m to yourself?” 


“You won’t like it.” 


“Try me.” 


“Prayer.” 


“What the fuck do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?” 


“Pray harder.” 


“Thanks. That’s just fuckin’ great. You’re a big help. Some ramrod you are.” 


Somebody coming back now. I heard Bela grunt, and the sound of him being lifted in the air. Another grunt, and the footsteps went away down the ramp. I listened, but no thud. Well, at least Bela hadn’t got dumped on the ground. A minute, then the person was back. I felt hands grab my shoulders and pull me to my feet. I tried to head butt whoever it was, and missed badly. I was lifted, thrown over a shoulder, and marched down the ramp. I’m just average size; five eleven and a buck sixty-five. But, Bela’s a decent size man. Six-two, six-three, and almost two hundred. Somebody’s pretty strong, or at least used to working with body weight. Funny though; it didn’t feel like I’d been lifted very high, and the shoulder didn’t feel all that wide.  


Who the fuck was this guy? 


I bounced up and down on the guy’s shoulder. Went about forty, fifty feet. He squatted and set me down on the ground. I didn’t even try and head butt him this time. No use. Then things got weird. Felt him move around behind me. Pulled me to my feet. Cut my hands loose. I was wobbly, trying to get my balance. Hard to do when you can’t see and your feet are tied close together. Then, the bag came off of my head. His voice behind me: 


“Be smart. Get your bearings first. Then do what I tell you to.” 


There was a round, wooden railing in front of me. I grabbed it to hold myself up. It was cold and rough. Weather beaten. I looked around. I had been right about the desert. And about the butt fuck nowhere part. But everything else had a surreal quality to it. Like a dream. A really fucked up dream. Maybe I was still high on whatever he’d knocked me out with. I gripped the railing harder. Felt the rough, splintered, dry wood. Nope, no dream.  


I was holding onto a hitching rail. I was standing in the middle of what had once been a small, old west town. Five, maybe six buildings total. They were all in various stages of decay, crumbling to the ground. Mounds of sand had blown into piles along the walls of each one. Tumbleweeds dotted the street, or at least what had once been the main drag of the town. Now it was just dust and sand, with old ruts worn into the earth where wagons once rolled. Most of the buildings, or what remained of them, lined the street up and to my right. There was one directly across from me. It was down a slight incline, maybe fifty or so feet away. There was a faint light coming from it, and shadows danced in and out of the gaps between the decaying wooden slats that had once been its walls. It looked like someone was inside of it. Couldn’t be sure. 

What I could be sure of was this: I'd been here before. Many times. My Dad brought me here as a boy. Taught me to shoot. I came here as a young man. When I was on the job. And after. To continue that practice...and other things. Coincidence?

Bullshit. 


I looked up and to my right again, following the line of the hitching rail. It was over twenty feet long. The wood was gnarled and grey in the pale light. There were old, rusted iron rings embedded onto the top of the rail. Each one was spaced about eighteen inches apart. There were three people tied by flex-cuffs to the rings, starting at the end farthest away from me. Their heads hung down, covered by black bags, just like I’d been wearing. Must still be out. A couple of feet closer to me, Bela was sitting, his hands still fixed behind his back. A black bag was still on his head too, but he was turning, leaning towards us, trying to hear what was going on. The voice from behind me again. Soft. Slow, but steady.  


“I’m going to cut your friend’s hands loose. There are three flex-cuffs by his feet. I want you to hook his hands up through the ring, just like I’ve done the others. Understood?” 


I just nodded. Felt him move from behind me over toward Bela. Then I saw him for the first time. About my size. That shocked me. Figured him to be bigger. Dressed all in black. Pants, shoes, and a hooded sweatshirt. The hood shielded his face from me. He pulled something from his pocket. A flick of the rest, and a blade glinted in the night. A butterfly knife. And he was good with it. Real good. He cut through Bela’s bonds and stepped back behind both of us.  


“Go ahead.” 


I hopped over to Bela, trying not to fall right on top of him. Hard to do, even with the railing for support. Harder still to squat down by his feet and pick up the three strands of plastic. My body is beat to shit. I was crippled on the job, long, long ago. The years haven’t been kind either. Artificial knee. Degenerating discs. Busted shoulders. Nerve damage. The long, cramped ride hadn’t exactly left me refreshed either. I was stiff and sore. Bela looked at me questioningly, and I tried to nod “No” as imperceptibly as I could. Nothing we could try right now had an ice cube’s chance in hell of working. Better to be patient. I looked down the line at the other three to see how they were hooked up. Each one had a flex-cuff around each wrist, with the third one looping through the iron ring above them holding the wrists to the rail. I did the same thing to Bela’s, trying to leave just a hint of slack. No luck. 


“Tighter, please.” 


I pulled the cuffs tighter around each of his wrists, and started to turn back to our captor. He stopped me with the blade at my shoulder. Handed me two cuffs.  


“Put them on, please…good. Now, sit down, and put your hands up next to the hitching ring.” 


I did as I was told. I wanted to try and put up a fight right then. Figured I might not get many more shots at him. But, there was really nothing to try. Besides, he could get to Bela, or any of the others, before I could do much. Patience may be a virtue, but it sure as shit ain’t mine. Eating me alive to wait. He was still behind me. Threaded the remaining flex-cuff through the ring and the ones on my wrists. Pulled them tight…but not as tight as I would have. I would have done it so the circulation started to shut off. Make my opponent’s hands go numb. Less of a threat. It wasn’t like they were loose enough for me to do anything, mind you, it just seemed…fuck, I don’t know. Just seemed wrong.  


He walked down the line behind the five of us. Stopped by the one closest to Bela. Took off the hood. It was Big Mar. Shit. Our soon to be executioner put his fingers at Big Mar’s neck. Took his pulse. Lifted the massive head. Pulled up the eye lids. Looked carefully. Lowered the head gently. Repeated the operation on the last two: the writer, and Chance. Smart placement. Put the biggest, strongest guy in the middle. Less likely to pull an end up out of the ground. Put somebody weak between Big Mar and Chance. What I would have done. Guy was prudent. Planned ahead. Good for him. Not for us. 


He was standing in front of me now. The blade flashed in his hand as he squatted down in front of me. Looking me straight in the eyes. His face was mostly in shadow created by the hood. But, I could see his eyes. Intense would be an understatement. Seemed to be looking right through me. The hint of a smile in his eyes as he spoke.  


“Your other friends should come around soon. You’ve all come this far. Wouldn’t want them to miss out on the rest of the evening’s activities, would we? Wouldn’t be right. Anyway, time to do work.” 


He got up. Started to turn away. My mind was racing. His last comment about ‘doing work’. Old Crip slang from back in the day. Meant it was time to kill. He wasn’t black. Couldn’t have been a banger. Ex-cop, maybe? But, how did he know about me? My past? Only a couple of living people knew about what I’d done, undercover, back in the early eighties. Was he sending me a message?  


All of those thoughts went through my mind in a nano second. They stopped when he did. He turned back to me. Squatted down again. His eyes like coals of fire burning out of the shadows. 


Tetelestai.”   


Just that one word. He held my gaze for what seemed an eternity. The blade flashed between my feet. He’d cut the flex-cuff holding my feet together. My legs were free. Then he was back up again, heading down toward the decrepit shack across the road. I watched him, more confused and apprehensive than ever. Bela was watching him as well. When he got down to the shack, he bent over something lying next to the door. Seemed to fiddle with it. Then he was up, opening the decayed door. I could see, just before he pulled it shut behind him, a figure inside the shack. There appeared to be a rope holding whoever it was up. The figure’s head was hanging, as if in sleep. The door shut quickly, hiding him from view. Music started to drift up from the outside of the shack. Same hard guitar riffs as when we were riding in the truck. ‘Aqualung’ again. Not too loud. Just enough to keep us from hearing any conversation that might go on inside.  


Bela turned to look at our three companions, then back at me.  


“What the fuck, Jay.” 


“Yeah. What the fuck.” 


You could make out the killer moving in the flickering shadows from within. Couldn’t tell what he was doing. Then it looked like he sat down on something close to the victim hanging inside.  


“What did he say to you, that last time?” 


“Tetelestai.” 


“What the fuck does that mean?” 


“Last thing Jesus said on the Cross.” 


“’It is finished’? That shit ain’t good, Jay.” 


“That’s how it’s translated. Not exactly what it really means.” 


“Well? You gonna tell me?” 


“It was the Greek word that they used to write on bills of sale…it means the debt is paid in full.” 


“What the fuck? Why say that? Whose debt?” 


“Ours, I guess. Maybe a debt he owes to the dirt bags that want us dead. I don’t know.” 


“Gamo.” 


“Oipho.” 


“What?” 


“Oipho, not gamo.” 


“What the fuck are you talking about, Jay?” 


“Never mind.” 


We were both watching the figures in the shack as we spoke. The killer got up. Moved to the hanging victim. Grabbed something off of the ground. Started swing it. We could hear the pounding. Metal on metal. Into wood. Hammer and nails. From the killer’s body position, it was pretty obvious where he was hammering into the vic. The sound echoed in the stillness.   


“You think he’s?” 


“Yeah.” 


We waited. No screams. The vic must still be out. Thank God. Having nails hammered into your dick or balls couldn’t be too pleasant. We seemed to have a lot to look forward to. Silence for a bit between us. The song ended. Started over again.  


“Who you figure it is?” 


“I don’t know. One of Big Mar’s bois? Maybe the clerk for the other Supreme court Justice? The one that tried to help?” 


“Jay…” 


“It’s not her, Bela.” 


“You sure?” 


“Yeah…he’d want me to know. Squirm.” 


“Yeah. OK.” 


“What the fuck?” 


That was Big Mar. He’d just come to. Not very happy either. Chance was stirring next to the writer, who still looked to be out cold. Chance started shaking his head, like a dog with a chew toy. He spoke next. 


“Where the fuck are we Jay?” 


“Middle of the desert.” 


“Who?” 


“I was hoping you’d tell me. See anything before you went down?” 


“Nothin’. Me and Big Mar were just getting out of the car. Felt something, like a sting, in my neck. That’s it. Then here. Mar?” 


“Same.” 


It looked like we all had the same experience. This guy was good. The best I’d ever seen. Or, never seen, I guess. Something was nagging at the back of my mind. Bits and pieces from the past, trying to make a picture for me. The word ‘Jukebox’ was bouncing around in my head like a stray bullet. Other things that I’d heard or seen over the years. They were close, but still in the background. Couldn’t quite pull them up. I looked down the row at everybody. 


“You might want to start trying to wake that scribe up, Chance.” 


Chance pulled his weight up on his wrists and turned his body. Used his legs to start bumping our resident Boswell. It took a few, but he finally started to wake up. Looked around. Panic way deep in his eyes. I don’t think this was anything he had ever anticipated. Lot different than one of his books, where the hero always has some hidden tool, or people coming to rescue him. No tools for us…and no cavalry charging in either. Just us. And, an executioner. 


The music was on its third go round when we heard the screams coming from the shack. They went on for a minute or so, then nothing we could hear. A few more minutes, and the door opened. A snapshot of the inside before it swung close: Looked like a man inside; no more rope holding him up, his hands tied behind his back, his pants at his ankles. Looked like blood on his legs. Couldn’t see his face. There was a wooden pole that he was standing next to. It went from the ground up to the ceiling. My bet was that his package was nailed into that pole. Fuck me, that didn’t sound good. At all. 


The killer walked over to what I now knew was some kind of music player. Bent over and fiddled with it. Straightened up. Walked over to the side of the shack. Came back around with a five gallon can. Started pouring the contents over the outside of the shack. Then the music started. Bela was first. 


“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I know that one. Used to play it in ‘Nam. Right before we were going out on a bad one. Into the jungle rivers in our PBR. Fuck. That’s bad mojo, Jay. Really bad Mojo.” 


Chance and Big Mar just looked at us. It was the writer who spoke then. 


“What’s the song? And, what’s a PBR?” 


“Don’t worry about PBRs right now. The song is ‘Fire’. ‘Bout burning down some fool’s wasted life.” 


The killer opened the door. Splashed the remaining liquid around. On the vic inside as well. More screams. He pulled the door shut again. Walked around to the side of the shack again. Came back with an axe in one hand, and a short stick with rags tied to one end in the other hand. Set the axe down. Took a lighter out of his pocket. Lit the torch. Walked over and touched it repeatedly to the dry walls of the shack. It went up in flames in less time than it takes me to go from zero to asshole. Burning hard and fast. The screams from inside were louder now. The killer picked up his boom box, or whatever the fuck it was, and moved it away from the flames. Squatted down on his haunches. Waiting.  


A new version of the song started. Ozzy’s cover. Louder. Slower. The flames engulfed the small building, tongues of it hungrily licking at the roof. The sky was filling with smoke. Hot ash rained from above, the wind pushing it our way. We all started to pull on the railing, trying to break free. Nothing doing. One of the buildings behind us caught too. Tendrils of fire crept up and out of one window. Everything looked and smelled like hell. 


The door to the shack burst open. The man was smoking, his clothes and head burning. He stumbled a few feet, his pants bunched at his ankles making him fall. He rolled over and over trying to put out the flames on his head, back and arms. The fire behind him was so bright, it backlit his face. Between that and the burns, couldn’t make out who he was. His voice sounded strangled; rasping and hoarse from the smoke, the heat, and his own screams of pain. He was trying to crawl away from the fire toward us.


The killer rose out of his squat. Carried the axe with him. We could all here what was said next, the voices carried over by the blast furnace wind: 


“You, you swore you’d let me go…if I tore my balls off, you swore you’d let me go…you swore it…you promised…” 


The killer stood over him now, the axe rising slowly over his head. 


“I lied.” 


He brought the axe down in a vicious arc, severing a foot. Blood watered the desert beneath him. The killer reached over for the torch. Pushed it hard against the stump. The flesh sizzled. The blood flow stopped. The man’s screams rose into the heavens. The killer turned from him and headed up the slight rise toward us. He stopped in front of me. The axe rested on his shoulder.  


“Well Jay…it’s your turn now…” 


And, with that, he swung the axe down at me…     


      

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Christopher Blake is a loving husband...devoted father...minister...crippled ex-cop...screenwriter...novelist...actor...and more than a little rough around the edges...