At some point in everyone’s life they choose whether to live or die. Now, this decision is not always melodramatic involving sudden leaps into oncoming trains or putting a pen to the jugular during the third tedious meeting at the office. No, no it’s often something far more sinister.
Two people in a restaurant so lukewarm about one another there’s never been a spark -- which isn’t from electricity, it’s from two magnetic meteorites flying at one another, colliding into a shower of sparks -- there’s a chance to leave, risk the great wide cold loneliness, and perhaps stumble across real attraction not just someone to settle on, except there’s no guarantee of success with the world as large as it is, so just play things safe, share another slice of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake for a semblance of intimacy. This job may be a dead end, but at least there’s no risk of falling from too high up the corporate ladder, shattering myriad bones and nerves on the pavement below; the world might be watching, and all those eyes are bound to find the flaws a well crafted lifetime of lies have made seem less like gaping canyons, and more like subtle cracks one might call character.
The choice between life and death is far too metaphorical for anyone to fear it. And it’s safer being dead. No one expects anything of the dead, other than that they quietly occupy their graves. It‘s the ones that rise up, and go shambling that make people afraid.
I thought about her, the lady with no name. Vague hints of her like pieces of a shattered stain glass portrait flitted throughout my memories. But for all the lack of facts I knew one thing, felt it in my bones. Even drenched in blackout ink I knew I loved her. Perhaps the feeling only belonged to back when we were together, and the possibility existed reconnecting with her would in no way mean another chance to ride the lightning. However, some risks are worth the damage they’ll do.
Besides, I’d rather take my chances getting my heart broke than having my skin peeled off.
Y grabbed my arm, “You do me a favor?”
“Stop thinking, and start doing something.”
“Right.” I checked the windows. All of the few which seemed wide enough for us to escape through had bars across them. The door at the top of the stairs sounded too solid for us to break down, and there was no way of knowing how many Kelly goons stood guard on the other side. Y found the cellar door, but it was locked from the outside.
While Y looked for a sewer opening, I examined the crates. Booze, booze, and more booze.
“You really want a drink now?” Y asked.
“I’m looking for anything we could use as a weapon.”
"Too bad they took my knives."
"You had more than one?" She looked at me like I'd asked one the top five dumbest questions of all time. I said, "Regardless, I'm not giving up. Not this time."
“You want to go down fighting.” She sounded pleased by the notion, a guns blazing girl, ready to die in a hail of bullets rather than admit defeat.
I said, “Not exactly,” -- I held a bottle of moonshine -- “But if we put together a few traps maybe we can get out of here.”
Y came to me, “What’s the plan?”
I nodded, “I don’t know.”
When the Tanner arrived I’d like to say he lived up to expectations. The idea of a man who skins people for a living conjures up particular images. Specifically, I anticipated a rather large set individual with the warped face of an overgrown, slow witted man-child, yet possessing the sparkling eyes of a devil. In a sweat stained butcher’s outfit, greasy from fats I never wanted to know the origin of, he’d come down the stairs with a deep chuckle, sharpening knives as he advanced.
That all said, an elderly man descended the stairs. Bill Dekker and a few goons followed at a distance. The old man wore a white barber’s smock, sported a pair of penny loafers rather than the muddy, viscera stained boots I anticipated, and seemed more pleasant than foreboding. I’m willing to say that provided you didn’t know what he did with his free time, you wouldn’t mind having the Tanner live next door.
Bill laughed, “What da fuck you been doin‘?”
I said, “Feng shui for survival.”
He surveyed the changes Y and I made in his absence. We’d moved liquor crates into one corner of the basement constructing a fort. In addition, small pyramids of stacked liquor bottles dotted the basement. Armed with moonshine Molotov’s, wicks made of torn bar towels, Y lay low in the makeshift stronghold. A flickering candle kept her company while I occupied open ground, hoping to reason with Bill one last time.
“Is this him?” the Tanner asked, his eyes glittering.
“Yeah,” Bill said.
“Can I keep some of him?” the Tanner asked.
“Sure,” Bill said, “I only want his back.” He winked at me, “I always had it anyway.”
I rolled my eyes, “For fuck’s sake.”
“What do you mean what? Come on Bill. You want to kill me why don’t you just fucking shoot me? A friend of mine wouldn‘t want me to suffer.”
Bill shrugged, “Honestly, I’m kinda hopin’ you’ll change your mind during the skinning.”
The Tanner added, “It’s been known to happen.”
That did not strike me as a surprising fact.
Bill said, “Not to sound like anything, but I still want you to be a part of this.”
Sighing, Bill said, “Tell how you feel in a few minutes.” He snapped his fingers. Two goons advanced on me. The third handed the Tanner a black doctor’s bag. The two thugs held me like a living vice.
Bill called out, “Hey girlie, I’d cover my eyes unless you want to know what‘s coming. Because you‘re next.”
“I ain’t covering shit,” Y shouted from the crate fort.
“I knew I liked her,” Bill said. He looked at me like a father regarding a disappointing son, “Maybe I shoulda offered her your spot.”
“She might take it,” I said watching the Tanner lay out his tools on a nearby bench. The old fiend took special care to show off each one. It was all part of the game. He wanted a context for my imagination when I felt the skin being cut away.
The Tanner, a pleasant smile on his face, produced a syringe
from his bag. He filled it with a cobalt liquid, “This is my own special blend. Besides paralysis, this will make you feel everything a second after it happens. That way you never know when I’ve stopped or started.”
Bill said, “Last chance.”
“No thanks,” I replied.
“It’s your ass.” He nodded at the Tanner. The old man looked so pleased. I almost felt guilty about wanting to ruin his good time by not having my skin peeled off.
The Tanner got closer, and closer, a drop of his special blue concoction dripped from the needle tip.
Y shouted from the crate fort, “Now?”
I hollered, “Were you waiting for me?! Yes, now. NOW! NOW! NOW!”
She touched one of her moonshine bombs to the candle beside her, and lobbed it at the Tanner. I swear, as the obviousness of what was coming flared in Bill’s head, I saw him smile. Then the bottle shattered next to the Tanner engulfing his feet in flames. Soon enough the fire crept up his pants followed by his hands and arms as he tried to beat the flames out. The third Kelly goon went to help the Tanner, and Y managed to toss another blazing bottle right at him. It exploded across his chest coating him in fire. The thug panicked, and streaked around the basement trying to outrun the flames. The Tanner collapsed into a screaming ball of fire.
By now Y was unleashing a barrage of moonshine Molotov’s. She aimed for the liquor bottle pyramids. Each erupted when struck. Flames everywhere. One of the goons let go of me to help his burning co-thug. The other held me tight, while Bill laughed at the top of his lungs.
Bill said, “Not much of a plan.”
“You’ve only seen half of it,” Y said then spat a fireball at him. While everyone else tried not to get burned, she slipped out a side entrance we built into the crate fort. With a jug of moonshine and the candle Y became the dragon lady. She blazed at the Kelly thug still holding me. He let go to protect his face.
The second I felt his grip slack I ran for the top of the stairs. Y smashed the jug at the bottom of the steps then dropped the candle as she followed me up. Luck may not exist, but that’s never stopped people from relying on it. And I’m no exception. The screaming from people in flames, the smoke, the smell of burning flesh -- all came together to cause a Kelly man to peak into the basement. As Luck would have it, I reached the top of the stairs when the door opened.
The man on the other side didn’t expect anyone to come bursting through. Caught off guard, he stumbled backwards. Tripping over his own feet he crashed to the floor. Ten more thugs lined the bar no more than six or seven feet away. Fortunately, a night of drinking slowed their reaction time. They were all fumbling for their guns when Y streaked by shouting for me to follow her. Not one to second guess Y, I chased after her flying up a nearby staircase two steps at a time.
Bullets thudded into the doorway behind us. I felt the spray of splinters, but nothing to worry about. Then I was up on the roof.
I caught up to her at the edge of the roof. She didn’t look happy.
Y said, “I remember this building being shorter.”
“It’s only three stories.”
“You ever jump from three stories?”
“Not that I know of.”
“It won’t kill us, but if either of us broke a leg…” the implication held too many nightmares.
I said, “We go on three.”
Y took my hand, “ONETWOTHREE!”
The crack of a pistol. Y spun right out of my hand. She collapsed along the roof edge, a dark red blossom spreading from her shoulder.
“Fuck,” I heard Bill’s voice. Turning, I saw him standing in the doorway with a gun in hand. He said, “I was aiming for her head.”
Y groaned. I helped her to her feet. She clung to me. It didn’t seem natural for her to be so wounded. Daggers in my eyes, I glared at Bill. Or I should say, The Red Hurricane. The man I knew was gone, if he ever even existed. I couldn’t help thinking I’d misinterpreted all the things that ever passed between us. What seemed like grim jokes on the darkest side of humor may have been wishful thinking for him; and whenever I laughed I unwittingly told him I agreed with how he wanted the world to be.
“Not much of a plan,” Bill said.
“You mentioned that already,” I reminded him.
“It needed repeating.” He stepped forward, the gun level. I felt Y shivering. I didn’t know what that meant. It didn’t seem good.
Bill said, “Basement floor is concrete so nothing really burned, just sorta singed. My boys put the rest out with fire extinguishers. No big deal. Nothing that can’t be fixed.”
“But we almost got away.”
Wagging the gun Bill said, “That you did. Buuuut ya didn’t.”
“You can have this town, Bill. I don’t want it. Let us go, and you’ll never see me again.”
“And you think I feel good about that? I’m not enjoying this right now, friend.”
“Yet you keep threatening to kill me.”
He laughed, “I don’t understand. Don’t you get what this place is? This is ultimate freedom here. In this town what’s right, and what’s wrong is what you can live with. Wanna get fucked up first thing in the morning? Welcome to town. Wanna get stoned at work? Welcome to town. Do you wanna take a pipe to a man for being an asshole? Welcome to town.”
I replied, “Wanna get ya cock sucked by a ten year old? Welcome to town! Wanna watch starving people fight over a slice of coffee cake? Welcome to town! Wanna sell body parts? If you got the stomach to cut ‘em out, welcome to town!”
Bill said in a calm voice, “No one is saying you have to do those things. They’re just options. But if you wan…”
“No! I don’t.”
Off in the distance I heard an oddly familiar sound like a large piece of metal tumbling down the street. Y stirred. She pressed a limp hand against my chest.
Sighing, Bill said, “I’m really sorry buddy. I guess some people just don’t want to be free.”
The rumbling got louder. Bill turned in the direction it came from and squinted, “What the fuck?”
I risked a glance. A dumpster with half a telephone pole acting as a mast sailed down the street, the old picaroon at the helm. I suddenly understood Y’s hand on my chest. She was trying to get my attention, and the more she pushed against me the more I realized she wanted us to jump.
Holding her tight, I dropped backwards. It didn’t dawn on me till I was over the edge that perhaps I should’ve estimated the distance before taking the plunge. After all, there was a strong possibility of missing the old picaroon’s ship. Even when I felt his crazy quilt sail scoop us out of the air, I didn’t feel safe till we came to a hard stop on the deck of the dumpster.
Gunshots barked from the rooftop of The Side Door.
“ARRR! YA SCURVY DOG!” The old picaroon hollered then fired back with a musket made out of faucet pipes.
“CAP’N!” I shouted. He looked down at me. Seeing Y, he shoved me aside.
Dropping down to one knee he demanded to know what happened. I pointed back at the roof where Bill was still firing after us.
The Cap’n nodded, “Say no more lad.” Seizing the wheel he hollered, "Hard uh starboard!" and spun the ship around. He grabbed me by the shoulder, ordering me to take the wheel. As I steered back to the Kellys’ tavern, a line of mobsters appeared on the roof with guns ready to rain bullets on us. I hoped the old picaroon had a plan.
From under a tarp he produced the ship‘s main gun. Once upon a time it might have been a cement mixer, however, through sheer mad ingenuity the old picaroon had fashioned a small cannon. The Cap’n aimed for the roof. I could see Bill laughing his ass off. I might’ve laughed if I didn’t already know just how serious the Cap’n could be.
“YA BASTARDS SHOT MY LIL GURL!” The old picaroon bellowed. He whipped out a lighter, “Brace yerself laddie.”
I took a firm grip of the wheel. The lighter’s flame barely touched the wick before the cannon boomed. The shot launched us in the opposite direction, rocketing us down the street. The upper corner of the tavern exploded in a mammoth fireball.
The old picaroon came back to take the wheel.
I said, “I’m so glad you were in the area.”
“Aye boy-yo. Haven’t stopped since the market, when I seen you last.”
I felt compelled to ask, “Can you stop this ship?”
“We’re goin’ tuh have tuh.” He nodded toward Y, a puddle of blood spread out around her.
From tragedy comes salvation. The old picaroon’s cannon didn’t survive its first firing. However, this left it available to serve as an improvised anchor.
First though, the Cap’n steered his vessel closer to The Rabbit Hole. Together, we shoved the anchor out the back of the dumpster, the rear having already been modified by the old picaroon to open. The cement mixed, lashed to the mast by a chain, smashed against a few cars before slowing to a halt. The noise drew the attention of the man with the clockwork face, who immediately ordered his associates to take care of Y. I tried to thank the old picaroon, but before I could, his ship was already underway sailing off into the side street sunset.
I told Edward about the evening's events. He actually breathed a sigh of relief hearing about the death of the Tanner. After a tense hour one of his associates reported Y was going to be okay.
I was ushered into a secret room the back of The Rabbit Hole. She lay on a bed with IVs feeding her blood and painkillers. Her weak smile made her seem stronger than I could ever be.
“You’re going to be okay,” I told her.
She said, “I owe you one.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, “That would mean I’d have to stick around till you repaid me, and no offense, I want to get the fuck out of here.”
She laughed, her face contorting in pain. Y said, “I can pay you back now.”
“Those guys, back when we first met, they weren’t after you. They work for the mayor. They recognized me, and when you ran too I figured…” she trailed off.
I understood. Hell, even before all we went through I don’t think I could blame her for what she did. She needed help, and there was no one to ask. So I told her, “I’m pretty sure I humiliated them at poker, and they were still pissed. They were after us both.” I said it, though truth be told I couldn’t be certain. But I didn’t see any sense in her feeling shitty with a bullet in her shoulder. I’m not that petty.
I said, “Let's just say we’re even.”
“I’m good with that.”
“Take care of yourself, Yvonne.”
“I’ll see you around.”
I left her to rest. Outside the room, Edward introduced to me one of his associates, a young man named Ohms.
Edward said, “He’ll take you anywhere you want. Bus station, train station, even all the way home. He’s been given explicit instructions to see off safely.” I thanked him, and the man with the clockwork face asked, “Where would you like to go?”
I thought about it harder than anything I think I’ve ever thought in my life. Then something fired in the back of my mind. For a brief moment I saw the lady with no name. I knew everything I needed to know then like a smoke ghost she vanished leaving me with only her name. Smiling, I said, “I’m looking for a woman.”
But finding her is a whole other story.