She shook her head, “Not anymore. Back in the day, yeah, but I’m on my own now.”
“You must’ve left on good terms.”
She didn’t say anything. I let the matter drop. It was none of my business anyway, and I didn’t want to make it mine. I just wanted the bus out of town.
Yvonne read my mind, “The bus won’t leave for another three hours.”
I figured how hard could it be to lay low. Granted, things hadn’t exactly been going swimmingly so far. However, my hang over was finally starting to abate. I wasn’t a hundred percent yet, but I felt the gears shaking off their rust. Once my mind got going I’d be better able to happen the situation.
I said to Yvonne, “Look. Thanks for everything. I’ll be alright if you just aim me towards the bus station.”
She folded her arms across her chest, “You owe me two favors.”
“Which I will repay…”
I sighed. Nothing is every easy. I said, “Right now,” and she smiled. Yvonne reached into her pocket. She pulled out a sheet of paper that had been ripped to pieces then reassembled with tape. Her eyes scanned a chicken scratch list. Best I could tell it looked like a column of names, places, and punctuation:
So on and so forth. Yvonne pointed to one of the columns. She said, “There’s a guy down in the market named Bryce. He sells orange bottle rockets for two bucks a pop. He’s trying to take my corner.”
I am not known for being physically intimidating. In fact, I think I once thought about kicking my own ass when I saw my reflection out the corner of my eye. Tall, yes, but skinny enough to make a skeleton feel fat -- I’ve never been much of one for beatings. That said I’m good in a fight provided I’m drunk. My main tactic is to come flying in like a rabid squirrel, kicking and punching as I leap at my attacker. The main point being I don’t start fights. I told Yvonne as much.
“First off,” she said, “Stop calling me Yvonne. It’s Y. Simple. Got it?” -- I got it -- “Second, I’m not asking you to kick anybody’s ass. If I wanted this guy fucked up I’d stab him in the ass when he wasn’t looking.”
“In the ass?”
“Right in the hole.” She made a motion that could only be called stabbing something into a person’s asshole. It seemed well practiced. Feeling too disturbed by her anal perforating capabilities to question further, I let Y go on, “I want you to buy a couple of his bottle rockets. That way I can test ‘em. Once I know where he’s getting his stash I can make a few subtle moves.”
Although I hadn’t agreed to anything yet, Y was already walking. I followed. I almost had to run to keep up with her. Not so much because she moved quicker than me, but because she slipped through the crowd like mercury. At one point she simply walked past someone then tossed me their wallet.
“You’ll need money, and I don’t expect you to use your own,” she said. I took all the cash, and was about to pitch the wallet in the trash when Y asked for it back. Seems she wanted the leather.
I said, “You mentioned a corner.”
“Yeah. The market has shops, but everyone sells on the street. I’ve been staked out at my spot for two years now. Then Bryce showed up a few days ago. He flashed a pistol, and evicted me.”
A pistol. The idea of pissing off yet another murderously minded individual in Beecher’s Hollow didn’t sit well with me. Then I considered I would be on the next bus out of the town. Worst came to worst, I was just chalking up another reason never to come back. Still, the fragments from my blackout creeping back into my mind told me I didn’t want to leave straight away. I kept thinking I’d be leaving something behind. A woman in a pinstripe suit wearing a thin purple tie. Her eyes unlocked the horizon, let the Moon rise. Vague hints of a voice echoed from a place in my memory too far to tell me what she said or how she sounded. But I could still feel her. She left an impression in my bones.
Y said, “This guy Bryce is nothing. Trust me. If shit gets weird I got an old picaroon ready to go.”
“Picaroon. Is that a word?”
“I don’t know, but that’s what he calls himself, the old picaroon. I think it means pirate. At least that’s how he dresses.”
This was sounding better by the minute. There’s nothing like knowing one’s safety is in the hands of the mentally deranged.
She slipped down an alley. I hurried to follow, and almost walked eye first into the point of a cutlass. I felt my asshole tighten to the point it almost turned inside out.
“Arrrr! Speak if ye be friend or foe.”
I will say this, the old picaroon looked exactly like a pirate. More to the point one of those pirates from classic silver screen black and white swashbuckling adventures: eye patch, peg leg, tri-corner hat -- the works. The only thing out of place was his hook. It appeared to be a twisted bottle opener rather than a genuine hook.
Y said, “Easy now Cap’n. He’s a friend.”
The Cap’n bobbed his head, “Well, I know ye girlie. But this scurvy dog means nothing to me.” He climbed out of his ship to have a better look at me. His ship, by the by, was a dumpster. Half of a telephone pole -- Lord knows, and I don’t care where he got it from -- served as mast, while a series of shoe strings operated the sails, which themselves were a crazy quilt of various old clothes. A trash can lid welded to several metal bars appeared ready to act as a steering wheel.
The Cap’n hobbled over, the plink of his peg leg drawing more attention to us than I cared. Inches from my face, he used his free eye to examine me. He smelled like good rum and old fish. Muttering some conclusion to himself, he then shifted the patch to examine me further with his other eye. Or I should say what was left of his other eye. It appeared to have been pecked severely some time recently.
Nodding, the old picaroon said, “Aye. Aye, this one’ll do.”
I said, “That’s good to hear.”
The Cap’n said, “He hasn’t the spine to fuck with ye lassie.”
“Few do,” Y said. The old picaroon laughed. He slapped me on the shoulder. It almost knocked me down. He peg hopped to where Y stood. The two smiled at one another like they were closer than family.
The Cap’n produced a bottle from some secret compartment on the side of his ship. The label on it was a skull and crossbones. He offered the first drink to Y. She refused, and he took a long pull from the bottle. He made no move to share any of his concoction with me. I felt slighted, yet somehow glad.
The Cap’n stood up straight. He addressed me like a man used to being in charge, “Are ye aware of the plan?”
I shrugged, “I go up to this Bryce, and buy a few bottle rockets. Simple as that. If anything goes wrong, you’ll spring into action.”
“Indeed. Lets hope the deed is done as easily as it’s spoken. Arrr.”
There are actual buildings one can enter to buy things in the Beecher’s Hollow market. However, all the sales are done on the street. The sidewalks are crowded with independent vendors selling everything anyone could ever want. These dealers form columns in front of brick and mortar businesses. The columns are so thick no customer can make it through the blockade of sales people.
Street vending in Beecher’s Hollow is a clannish affair. Whole families prevent any from entering the hardware store; life long friends form ranks to stop any inflow to the tailor shop, and their phalanx then steers potential customers to a row of woman at peddle operated sewing machines; a loose confederation of like minded fruit dealers bar entrance to the grocer; an entire enclave of Bohemian puppeteers use marionettes to sell strange looking furniture, “This stool is made from my great grandfather’s remains.”
A few of the brick and mortar businesses stand firm, but the only one’s doing well have hired goons out front. Armed thugs beat a path for potential customers. The less well off store owners have been forced to join the mob selling in the street.
Into this cacophony of sales pitches and haggling I plunged find… I didn’t even really know what he looked like. Y told me to head across the market square at a diagonal. On one of the corners at the northeast intersection I’d find Bryce. Except when I finally made it through the dense crowd I found a hundred guys loitering on said corner.
I’ve been around too long to think it’s a good idea to look lost in a sea of con artists, pickpockets, and hard sellers, so I didn’t ask about fireworks. Still, I didn’t see anyone selling anything remotely pyrotechnic. I considered ditching out, but remembering Y’s mercurial movements, I doubted I could give her the slip no matter how dense the crowd. And she was watching me. If things went wrong she was in position to signal the old picaroon.
Feeling like a failure I heard a voice, “Bottle rockets. Rockets here. I got what you want.”
I saw a man in an orange fishnet shirt and baggy khaki cargo pants leaning against a lamppost. Between bites of a cinnamon roll he pitched to the crowd, “Fire in your eyes. Get ya bottle rockets.”
For some reason I felt the need to make a furtive gesture before heading towards him, some type of signal to Y I was going in. However, I’m pretty sure all I did was signal the man on second to steal third.
Across the street I inquired, “You Bryce?”
Without looking at me he said, “Who fucking cares? You want some bottle rockets?”
“Orange bottle rockets?”
“What? Do I look like a fag? Of course, they’re orange. You want purple go see Jimmy Spade. Other side of the square.”
A dim bulb brightened, and I realized orange bottle rockets did not mean actual fireworks. I started to wonder how many of the pitches clamoring around me were euphemisms. What did buying a Sunday suit mean? Are knit sweaters erotica? Did I want a bathtub?
Bryce said, “Look, I ain’t got all day. It’s two bucks a pop, but as good as it is, this shit don’t last.”
“Yeah, you gonna want like six or seven. Believe me.”
“I see no reason not to,” I said and paid him because fuck-all it wasn’t my money. He handed over six vials full of an orange smoke. I put them in my pocket, a faint curiosity forming as to the contents.
I will always blame my parents for what happened next. They regrettably instilled some decency in me which is why I felt compelled to say, “Thank you Bryce.”
He immediately took this the wrong way, “Why the fuck you thanking me? You think I fucking care? You paid. Now get the fuck outta here.” He shoved me to emphasis my dismissal. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.
An actual bottle rocket whistled into the air. It screamed high then burst in a colorful shower of sparkling red. The firework didn’t draw much attention from the crowd. However, the cannon fire that followed it did.
The crowd from the other side of the square screamed. The mob of vendors surged to clear a path. I heard a distant squeal of rusty wheels, clanging metal, and a far off Arrrr! coming closer. When the street cleared enough I saw the old picaroon at the helm of his ship. A slight incline in the road allowed him to pilot his vessel down hill at a shockingly quick speed.
Before I could blink the ship rocketed past. I saw a glint of steel as the Cap’n whipped out his cutlass. A spray of warm liquid hit me in the face when the ship sailed by. Bryce looked stunned. He reached up as if to pull off a hat then collapsed to the ground, the top of his skull tumbling away into the gutter.
The old picaroon steered a sharp turn. The dumpster-ship went up on two wheels. A wreck seemed imminent, but then the old girl righted herself, and the Cap’n vanished around a corner. The silent crowd turned to stare at me. By which I mean the everyone in the market square turned to stare at me. I suspected they were waiting, in part, for some explanation. Realizing it probably didn’t look good being covered in Bryce’s blood, I pointed down the street, “Get him!”
The mob gave a collective shrug. A street cleaner in overalls was already hoisting Bryce’s body into a mobile bin. The cleaner didn’t bother with the skull top. He just kicked it down into the sewer. Soon everything was back to business as usual.
A tap at my shoulder. I turned to find Y standing behind me, a sheepish expression on her face.
She said, “That did not go exactly as planned.”
It was time for a drink.
Coming Soon! Part 6: The Man With the Clockwork Face