Y and I sat in plush leather chairs. She and Edward seemed to be engaged in a mild battle of wills, waiting to see who spoke first. I wondered if I should break the ice. Then one of Edward's people appeared beside me holding a steaming cup of coffee.
Despite the bandage and ointment applied earlier, I still felt nervous about them handling boiling liquid around me. Edward assured me he felt sorry about burning my hand, and I knew better than to outright doubt the sincerity of his apology. So, steeling my nerves, I accepted the coffee.
"This is fantastic," I said after a cautious sip.
Edward bowed his head in thanks then said, "Shall we get down to business?"
Y took the bottle rockets of out her pocket. Laying them on Edwards's desk she said, "I need to know who's making them."
Edward glared. I gripped the cup in case I needed to fling the hot beverage as a means of distraction before bolting towards the exit. He said, "You risk coming back here for a drug test?"
Y rolled her eyes, "No, I risked coming back here because I want my corner back."
Edward swore, "You can sell your jewelry on any corner..."
She cut him off, "It's the principle of the thing. You taught me that."
The gears in his face ticked as he hesitated. He wanted to say something, yet she seemed to have beat him. Throwing up his hands Edward said, "Fine. If this stupidity is what ultimately gets you killed, it won't be on my head."
"Fine," Y said.
"Very well." Edward made a gesture. He handed the bottle rockets to one of his associates, "Poison these and put them back on the street."
"You're not even going to test them?" Y sounded ready to start stabbing.
Edward said, "These days orange bottle rockets only come from one source. The Kellys."
"Oh fuck," I said.
Edward looked from me to Y. She explained my vague need to get out of town before the Kellys knew I was in Beecher's Hollow. The man with the clockwork face nodded in understanding. He even went so far as to explain he'd made similar declarations in the past.
"That said," Edward remarked, "I like to think I'm better than the Kellys. They always kill."
Not really wanting a deeper explanation of what exactly he meant by that I said, "Look, I got a bus to catch, and then I am gone. I didn't mean to end up here. Shit, I don't even know how I got here."
"Then you have something of a problem," Edward said. I noticed Y slink down in her chair, leaning away from me. He went on, "Unless you have a car there aren't many ways of leaving the city. As such, the bus and train are monitored. I have my own people watching them now to make sure no one skips out on, say, a debt of some kind or another."
I said it out loud to make the fact feel real, "So I can't get out of town without being caught."
Edward shrugged, "You could always start walking, but I assure you it's a long way through a lot of nowhere."
I glared over at Y. She knew how much I wanted to get out of town, and had been dangling the possibility of escape to make me run her errands. Sure, I owed her favors, but I'm not one to pay for nothing. Helping her was all about me getting out of Beecher's Hollow. But when I thought about what we'd been through so far, I figured this was all about survival for her as well. I'd like to say we'd been using each other, as it were, but Y was the better manipulator. She at least got something out of the situation.
I considered stealing a car. I don't how to hotwire, though I suspected in a town full of drunks and drug addicts stealing someone's keys might not prove terribly difficult. Worst came to worst, I'd just hang around till someone got sloppy... but the longer I stayed the more likely someone would find me. Those two shaved gorillas earlier spotted me right off. That said, as my hang over cleared, more and more I'd been wondering how they knew what I looked like.
Edward said, "I believe we can all be mutually beneficial to one another."
Skeptical, but desperate I asked, "How so?"
"I've recently taken an interest in the Ironhorse Tattoo parlor."
Y grinned, "That wouldn't have anything to do with Autumn Nyx would it?"
Edward said, "She and I have been spending some time together. She's a fascinating woman."
"I'll bet she is," Y said, "Huge conversationalist. Huge."
I found it interesting. This exchange between the two was the first I'd heard that didn't drip with venom. It was almost playful like two old friends poking at one another.
"In any event," Edward went on, "My point is I have no love for the Kellys. However, I can't do something for free. That's just not how things are done here. So, if you assist me with a small matter I will have one of my people see you safely out of Beecher's Hollow. I'll even go so far as to provide transportation to anywhere you wish."
"You can trust him," Y said. I didn't find her reassurance entirely assuring, but not having much choice I asked what needed to be done; I'd learned in Beecher's Hollow it's best to just get things over with as quick as possible.
Edward said, "Just a small repossession."
As I came to understand things, in Beecher's Hollow a person can get a tattoo for only a small down payment followed by regular monthly installments. Nine times out of ten this results in people getting fantastical, elaborate beautiful pieces which they eventually pay off. However, there are the occasional lapses in payment. While there is a grace period to make up for such instances there is a possibility one's tattoo will be repossessed.
"That's the long and short of it," Y said.
I nodded, "Which explains the filet knife and address Edward gave us."
"Yeah, this guy lives just around the corner. We'll be done in like ten minutes. Maybe a half hour. It depends on -- ya know?"
"On how much he wants to keep his skin."
Y said, "Hey, he might have the cash then we're out of there like that." She snapped her fingers.
I wanted to be back home in my apartment. The door solidly locked. Sitting on the windowsill, half out on the ledge like a hesitant gargoyle, smoking and watching the world. Alone. No worries about who might be coming to kill me, what person needed to be flayed, the cost of leaving town, or the vague memory of a face I wanted to touch -- okay, maybe that last one would linger regardless of where I was, but the impending death would certainly be lessened. I wanted a drink.
I headed towards the first flashing neon that caught my eye.
"Where are you going?" Y called after me.
"I have to brace for impact."
The street reminded me of Mardi Gras. A raucous horde of slack smiles on shuffling, stumbling feet flowed like sludge from one gaping neon maw to the next. Some slipped down black holes to gasp on moonshine, while others made the sky rain with cash in topless bars too dark to reveal the strippers' many scars, the ones in their eyes as well as on their bodies. Amidst the screaming tourists, who sent up a cacophony of babbling delighted drunk talk, darker faces moved. These belonged to the locals who herded the crowd towards this or that den of iniquity; sold drugs, flesh, and promises; picked pockets, or led tourists down Crow tagged alleys to be hoisted away by bungee jumping bandits. The air thick with the smell of sex, booze, and blood (burnt plastic and weed as well) -- I felt high on the city fumes.
Y had to catch up to me for once. When she did I was already inside a place called Rose's. The bartender, a retired Valkyrie, poured me a whiskey without my even asking. She said I looked like the type. I suppose if anyone could tell it'd be a bartender in Beecher's Hollow.
"We don't have time for this," Y said.
I swallowed the artillery shell of a shot in one burning gulp. Then I turned to Y saying, "I'd really appreciate it if you didn't casually presume I'm capable of skinning a human being. This may be old hat to you and all the freaks in this town, but this is not something common for me. Don't get me wrong. I like my weird -- I blew up a car with a fuse made out of socks because I was fucking bored; however, I'm not too big a fan of the wild, when people get to being like feral dogs hunting for blood just so they can roll around in it. I'm a decent alcoholic for fuck's sake. So please, give me a minute to fuel up before I have to carve some motherfucker like a turkey... a tattooed turkey."
Y gestured to the bartender. The Valkyrie poured two drinks. Y tossed down a few dollars. She took one glass, swallowed half, and said, "I'm not casual about everything" -- she downed the rest -- "I'm in a hurry before I lose my nerve."
I felt like an idiot. Stabbing a man who's attacking you is one thing. Cutting a person up because they're late on a bill, well, that takes a certain kind of sociopath. Just because Y was willing didn't mean she wanted to do what helped her survive. The problem is that not doing that thing she found awful meant she might not make it to the next day.
"Sorry," I said.
"Forget it," Y said.
I finished my drink like it might save my life. Then, "Let's do this."
Eyes set on after the deed was done, we headed back onto the street. We didn't see the crowd, we saw the end of the line. It felt like two steps, going from one end of the block to the other. We doubled checked the address. No words. Glance at the slip then the numbers above the door. Y picked the lock, and we flew up the stairs to 3E. A gentle knock at the door.
The door opened a crack. I remember the rattle of a chain.
"George Brennan?" I asked.
I kicked. The door flew open. Pieces of the door chain flew, glittering through the air. George stumbled back. Tripping over his own feet, he fell to the floor with a crash. The neighbor below immediately pounded on the ceiling below. Y slipped in, and dropped a knee down on his neck. He flailed, but she caught him by the wrist. Twisting it into a painful angle, she gestured for me to come in.
Someone down the hall stepped out saying, "What the hell is going on?"
I pointed at the person with the filet knife, "None of your fucking business."
"It is not," he said, returning to his apartment.
I closed the door. We asked if he had the money. He knew what we meant. He said no. There was only one thing left to do. I would like to give George credit for putting up a good fight, but the truth is after he said he didn't have the money, adding that we could fuck ourselves for asking, Y applied pressure to his neck until he passed out. We hoisted him onto the kitchen table. Y collected a few belts, ties, and other household items we used to lash him down as well as gag him.
From the left shoulder past the elbow down to his forearm an iridescent feathered serpent coiled around George Brennan's arm. Though made of ink, I found it hard to shake the feeling the animal might come to life at any moment. His flesh seemed like its cage.
"Are you ready?" Y asked.
"Should I do this, or you?"
"I need you to hold him down."
George didn't wake up right away. Y managed to peel from the shoulder down around the armpit before George started kicking. I leaned my whole body weight on him. The table jumped whenever he thrashed. I can't really say I blame him. Messy business. A few times George's struggling caused Y to cut too deep sending rivers of blood running. Her hands got slippery causing her to fumble with the knife, cutting him but not freeing skin. It took a while, however, we got it done.
Unfortunately, between George's thrashing and Y's slick hands, the tattoo got cut into three pieces. I saw a roll of wax paper next to George's sink. Wrapping up the pieces, I put them in my coat pocket.
Y undid one of his arm restraints then we took off. Back on the street we went straight to a nearby alley. We were done, for the most part. All that remained was delivery. I put my hand in my pocket. The skin still felt warm.
The look on my face inspired Y to ask, "You okay?"
"I will be. You?"
Back in Edward's office I laid the pieces out on his desk. He shook his head, "It's too bad about the damage. I don't think I'll be adding this to my collection." He handed them to one of his people, who took them away. Edward remarked how he liked to preserve, at the very least, the art. In another part of the The Rabbit Hole he kept a gallery of repossessed tattoos in air tight displays. He asked if I wanted to peruse his collection before departing. I made sure to politely as possible decline, suggesting that on some return visit I might take him up on his generous offer.
"Very well. You're missing out on a remarkable reproduction of a painting by Egon Schiele, but that's your loss." He came from behind his desk. Standing next to Y he said, "It was good talking to you again."
She folded her arms across her chest, "You know where to find me."
"At war with the Kellys." He ticked a grin, though not a happy one.
Something about helping a person skin someone changes the nature of your relationship with them. It really is a bonding experience, though not one I'd recommend. As such, I thought about Y for the first time. Before she was someone I needed to get out of town alive. Now, she was my friend.
"She can't take them on alone," I said.
Y said, "I don't intend to."
"You and the old picaroon can't take them on by yourselves," Edward remarked.
Y nodded, "I know. I'm going to take your advice for once, and just let things slide." She looked at me. She smiled, "No sense losing my head over a street corner." She shook her head, "But I gotta ask, since when are the Kellys rocketeers? I always thought they stuck to the classics: coke and dope."
Edward said, "They've been making a lot of strange moves lately. A few months ago some new player stepped onto the scene. He took over the whole Kelly operation in a few weeks."
Something clicked in Y's head. She said, I suspect more for me than Edward, "I remember. Not too long ago there wasn't a night without a gunfight or a bomb going off."
Edward said, "Once Eddie Coonan died there was no one left to stand in the way. The Red Hurricane took over." -- that name sounded too familiar to me -- "He's been taking the Kellys into every business in Beecher's Hollow. He's even trying to take over the hooker school."
"Good luck," Y snorted.
Red Hurricane... "I know that name." I asked Edward to describe the Red Hurricane. He did me one better. He showed me photo -- know thy enemy. I stared at it in disbelief. I showed Y the photo, "This is Bill Dekker."
"You said they sent you a box full of his ashes," she said.
I said, "What the fuck is going on?"