Friday, June 26, 2009

"Castrating Firemen" by David J. Keaton

I will leave work to get you a cigarette because you’re crying. Being broke, I’ll consider stealing one, but instead bum two off of a man filling our vending machine on the sidewalk. I’ll have to smoke my first one as I walk away to cover my ruse. It will be hard to hold with my bad hand. This mad dash home in the middle of my shift will force me to skip lunch with my parole officer, but it’ll will feel like it was worth it when I see you light it, smoke it, and your eyes finally clear to see me again.

On the way back to work, I will turn up the radio to celebrate, not caring if I’m in trouble or not. I’ll pass a church with a sign that says, “God’s favorite word is ‘come’!” and turn the song up louder, smiling and wishing there was time to take a picture to show her.

Then I’ll hear a siren behind me, but notice that its howl is choppy and broken, stuttering with feedback at the peak of its wail. Reluctantly, I’ll move over as the shrieking vehicle blows by. It will be a volunteer fireman, of course, not even a real one. Leaving near the fire hall, I’ll know all their names and plates. Convinced I’ve been gone too long to successfully sneak back to work, I’ll follow the siren instead. Luckily, my fellow telemarketers notice little with their headphones and horse blinders. A mile later, I’ll be rewarded with a new mission when I see the truck swerve to clip the back legs of a small animal crossing the road. I’d follow him over a waterfall after that.

Eventually, the truck will pull into a driveway. I won’t even look for smoke, knowing immediately that the fireman is home. He’ll get out and go inside as I look up and down his neighborhood street. I’ll count six trucks on this block with red domes, yellow strobe-light bars… and fake plastic testicles swinging off their trailer hitches. Inspired, I’ll run to the fireman’s cab and find it unlocked. Pushing the driver’s seat forward, I’ll find the toolbox I expect and inside a pair of wire cutters.

* * *

It’s no accident I hate these fuckers. Never mind my hand. The best kept secret where I’m from is that they’re the worst thing you can have show up when you have a fire. Not just because they won’t get there in time if you need them and their general incompetence when it comes to navigating a smoke-filled room, but because, if you look real close, there’s nothing coming out of those hoses they‘re holding. Some people might call that a sexual dysfunction. All would agree that these assholes are just there to give the illusion of a rescue.

I will begin with a gleaming candy-apple red 4x4 three doors down, raising the fake testicles gently so that the truck remains sleeping (never has there been a more obvious symbol of what these trucks are supplementing), then clipping them high near the hinge that makes them swing. Just like they teach you at the slaughterhouse. Then I’ll walk across a yard to another one. The fake testicles on the next truck will be metal instead of plastic, and the wire cutters won’t be able to castrate them as effectively. So I’ll pull out a magic marker and scribble a tumor on the left testicle, the one that always hangs lower, and I’ll move on. Three doors down, I’ll geld another truck without waking it. Bright pink, of course, always sparkling Easter egg colors (“Pascua huevos!” my daddy calls them), and I’ll clip and toss the testes up into the bed next to a pile of plumbing supplies and kneepads. I’ll move further down the block, remembering a documentary I once captioned about bats and how they preyed exclusively on sleeping cattle. One gruesome shot in particular framed a bat hanging off a bull’s scrotum, licking furiously as the mixture of blood and saliva around a wound. I attached a “(Somber Music Plays)” caption to the scene, even though the audio was silent. Because of the natural anticoagulants and anesthetics produced by the bat, the bull never knew what had happened until the farmer tried to milk it by mistake.

I’ll work my way across the street to neuter two more sparkling all-terrain utility vehicles, then circle back to the fireman’s driveway just in time to see him exit his house. I’ll toss a handful of rubber testicles at his feet for a distraction, then kick out a headlight and duck around his truck with him screaming fast after me.

“What the fuck!”

“So, where’s the fire, asshole?”

* * *

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Why did you run over that squirrel back there?”

“What squirrel?”

“The one you swerved to hit while you pretended you were on your way to a fire.”

“What? That was a rabbit! Well, not really a rabbit. A toy! And it was my daughter’s. It’s been there for a month.”

“Well, who the hell runs over their daughter’s rabbit?”

He’ll almost catch me before I elbow off his side mirror. He’ll stop to cradle it sadly and give me time for more questions.

“Why do you have this “I Brake For Trains” bumper sticker? That’s like saying you brake for dinosaurs. Of course you’d stop for a fucking train, stupid. Otherwise it would kill you. Why do you feel the need to brag about this?”

He’ll let the mirror slip from his hands and shatter on the asphalt as his eyes narrow and he loses some contractions in his sentences to sound as serious as possible.

“It is to save lives, so people do not run the crossing gates when they are coming down.”

“Oh. Maybe it should say that on the sticker instead. Of course that would cover your whole goddamn bumper.”

I’ll begin kicking heel marks into this bumper, hoping to loosen it from the frame, then I’ll settle for smashing a tail light because he’s running out of wind on our fifth lap. I’ll slow a bit, and he’ll surprise me with a lunge. I’ll laugh at the sky as he misses and crash lands in the road, backwards and confused like a grasshopper after a jump. When he stands, he’ll be holding his arm away from his chest at an odd angle, and this will give me time to hop into the bed of his truck and talk even longer. I’ll tell him my well-worn list of the World’s Top 100 dangerous occupations (“Loggers, dude, I’m telling you!”) and where he most likely stands (“Number 97 on your worst day!”) then I’ll talk about a typical firefighter’s physical condition (“Fat fucks that wear more jewelry than baseball players!”) as I dwell on the seventh to last show I captioned before I was fired:

“...they were interviewing some of these firemen and their families, and the wife or kid would smile proudly and say smug stuff like, ‘You know, it's just his job.’ Such bullshit. The only reason these words are spoken is because they want to be clear that it's not just a job. What they’re really trying to do is boast about these dangerous, heroic things their fathers is doing. You know what's really going on when your son says these words? It's the equivalent of some dumb bitch spending six hours getting ready for a party, then saying to the first person who compliments her on the dress with her tits hanging out, ‘Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on.’ See, that's what you’re really hearing, and seeing, when your boy, or you, says, ‘It just my job.’ You’re seeing a bitch with his tits hanging out. So fuck 'em. Did I already say ‘fuck 'em?’ Well, fuck ‘em. And why are you wearing dog tags!? Holy shit, do you think you’re in the Army?! How funny is that?! You know what? I want them. Come here...”

I’ll start to climb down, and he’ll be backing up, still holding his arm by the elbow, now truly concerned that I’m dangerous, possibly recognizing me finally. So I’ll keep talking. And talking.

“Okay, since I got you here to listen, one of them said the words ‘It’s what we do,’ one said, ‘Anything to save a comrade’ like you guys are cosmonauts or something, one referred to fire as a ‘monster,’ one collected photos of his cosmonauts in dangerous situation and covered his refrigerator with them, one used the word ‘proud’ no less that eight times in as many seconds, one claimed to have gone ‘nine days without sleep,’ a medical impossibility by the way, one had a ‘Great Chicago Fire’ pinball machine that he clearly played with more than his kids, and one kept all the dog tags off friends of his who had died, most of natural causes, of course. Which reminds me...get the fuck over here!”

He’ll try to hide inside his truck, but I’ll pull him out. He’ll wince when his broken arm rebounds off his front tire and crumple again, but he’ll leave this arm vulnerable when he covers his dog tag protectively. He’ll almost be pleading.

“Why do you want it?”

“No, the question is, why do you have it? I’ll tell you why. The only reason you have a dog tag is to pretend that you’re somehow at war...with fire! Are you serious? Do you dream of clutching this necklace and weeping as you trip over a hose and extinguish a burning doghouse? Wait, I’m sorry, a burning doll house? Yeah, dude, you're a warrior. Thanks for looking out. That's why you’re the same fighting weight as a Major League pitcher, 220, not a muscle in sight. Hold still. I think I want to try to take a shit on your head...”

Inspired by that, he’ll get a good, quick punch into the soft meat of my neck, so I’ll punch him harder in the voicebox in return. While we cough and I roll off-balance into the street, he’ll be trying to crawl under his truck while I pull on his ankles.

“...oh, you’re so brave! A house is on fire. Whoopty shit. You remind me of my dad’s brother’s ex-girlfriend's sister's husband who was a cop. He told me that he kept obituaries of dead cops on his ‘fridge, too. I didn't say this to him at the time because I honestly didn't think of it back then, but you know why he did this? Not for any type of memorial. He did it for the same reason a kid draws a picture of himself in a burning spaceship for Christmas. He just wanted his wife to see what a dangerous job he had every time she opens the door for a juice box. Just so he could then downplay it and say, ‘Don't worry, baby, it's what I do.’ Fuck him. Cops and firefighters ignite! Er, I mean ‘unite!’…”

I’ll try to twist his ankle out of its socket.

“…Hey, you know why I say, specifically, ‘Fuck him?’ Because I played backyard football with that cock, I mean, ‘cop,’ and his other two brothers one Christmas morning, and they gave me a concussion. The ground was frozen, and we were stuck running around between about five brick buildings. It was like playing football on roller skates in a drained pool but, you know, dangerous. I thought my brain was going to squirt out my ears before the end of the first quarter. I was ready to drill a hole over my eye to let the pressure out. I’m completely serious. Maybe if I had both hands, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but who knows how much brain damage that football game caused me. I don’t think I can even do multiplication tables anymore. Forgot most of my piano lessons. Can't finish my...”

I’ll get a knee then a foot on his ear and pin him down long enough to yank the chain off his throat.

“Let me explain something. My daddy was cooking something to keep our family afloat. That smoke was supposed to be there. You were nothing but a fucking distraction that day. Nobody called you.”

Then I’ll roll him down his driveway and stand up behind his car to shake the gravel out of my elbows, pausing to rip his license plate off, convinced it reads “Transylvania” instead of “Pennsylvania.”

I’ll hesitate, then go back for those wire cutters one last time.

And as I run back to my car to hang his dog tags on my rear view mirror with the rest of them, I’ll see that he finally notices my bad hand, red as the blood behind my eyes. Maybe this one remembers being in the truck that blocked us in the driveway that day to wait for the cops. Maybe this one remembers me holding the door shut when the ax came down, trying to warn my daddy through his gas mask while his tattooed arms kept working those bottles and burners like a mad scientist’s drunk uncle. Maybe this one finally understands the need to cull the herd and why creatures like him have no business pretending to save lives.

BIO: I am in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh and a full-time
closed-captioner. I am also a contributor to The College Rag and a
reader for Hot Metal Bridge.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Elephant" by Kieran Shea

A loft in Jersey City, fourteen years ago....

Heaven was an asshole.

Heaven planted a cold engineer boot on Pat Flood’s neck and slowly fanned the room to a freeze with a .45. The girls, Heaven’s “talent”, gathered their frilly things and shouldered past Heaven’s draped open leather coat—out the condo’s front door.

“Keep passing the bag.…” Heaven said.

Pat never saw the blow. Typically he prided himself on his fighting instincts, playing things street smart, being one of the last of the Irish raised in Flatbush and all. But nerves were slowed by hours of tilted stout and a couple bowls of good weed. Christ. Wasn’t this bad for business? Taking off a bachelor party?
And man, he was just negotiating for more time, nothing more. For crying out loud, the ten of them in that condo had enough money slaving in Manhattan day-in and day-out they could have paid the girls to stay for a year and then some. But that had never been Heaven’s plan apparently. Heaven chopped him down.

“Keep it comin’. Yo, Charlie Sheen Wall Street! Watch too, bitch.”

Pat squirmed his cheek in the greasy empty clam of a discard pizza box, elbows cocked as if he were resting between push-up sets. Out of the corner of his bloodied eye he saw the plastic shopping bag sway between the passing hands of his friends. The thin white skin of the bag was dark with wallets, jewelry and loose bills. Finally, the bag was handed over his head to Heaven. The pressure from the boot increased on Pat’s neck as Heaven looked in the bag.

“Nice. Might wanna take a minute to pull together your story an’ shit before dialing any police, seeing that I now own these wallets. Couple wedding bands ‘round the room too. Good times, huh? Went to college together an’ shit?”

Somebody mumbled.

From the shift in pressure on his neck Pat could sense that the .45 in Heaven’s hand had swung back across the room.

“Yeah, well. You college pussies oughta know better.”


Two weeks later....

Pat did the bench squat next to his cousin Mikey, both of them rolling paper cups of coffee between their hands. Pat stared absently at the impatient 6:40 commuter shoes and felt the chugging vibrations of the Staten Island Ferry deep in his spine.

“What do you want me to say, Pat? Yeah. Of course the guy has a sheet, d’fuck you think? Jesus. Petty this, couple of pops, nothing major. But then he finally screwed the pooch and did six and a half in East Jersey State for a liquor store robbery. So, what? So now he’s pimping strippers and you guys fucked up and lied to the Jersey City cops because a couple of you were stupid enough to buy blowjobs and nobody wants to ruin their precious life? Big deal. Grow up. Buncha babies. Chalk getting’ robbed to experience. Get back to your MBAs, your jobs, your fiancés, whatfuckin’ever. I’m telling you, a douchebag like this character? S’not worth it.”

“Just gimme the paper, Mikey.”

Mikey sighed, slurped his coffee, then warned, “This comes back to me, I swear to God, Pat…”

“Yeay, yeah. I got it.”

Reluctantly Mikey fished a folded-up square of paper from his breast pocket. Pat snatched the paper and gave his cousin an envelope.

They both drank their coffee for a while after that and said nothing. When the ferry finally bumped into the Manhattan terminal Mikey stood.

“So. These good seats or what?”

Pat looked up at his cousin adjusting his creaking duty belt.

“They’re gold. Third base line, fifteen rows up. Company seats. Make sure your kid brings his glove and pays attention.”

The masses of humanity shuffled past.

“Fuckin’ kid,” Mikey said, “He’s like half a fag for Mr. November, y’know?”


Present day—Bergen County, New Jersey....

“Honey, what’s this?”

Pat poked his head around the corner into the master bedroom. He had a half a beard of shaving cream and a thick, black towel cinched around his waist.

“What’s what?”

“This,” his wife Jeanie held up a faded swatch of paper, “This was in your junk box on your bureau. I’m cleaning it out. Is this important?”

Patrick padded over and plucked the paper from his wife’s scissored fingertips, giving her a puzzled look. He unfolded the paper, read the handwriting and felt a surge of memories rise behind his eyes.

“Who is Raúl Gomez?”

Pat tsked dismissively. “Um, just this guy… wow. Phew. Long time ago. Forgot I even had this piece of paper anymore.”

“Is that a Social Security number?”

“Umm…kind of. Yeah.”

“Why do you have his Social Security number?”

“It’s a long story.”

Later that day in midtown, Pat swiveled in his desk chair and stared out at the canyons of Manhattan. Rain leaked jagged streams down his office window.

It had been over ten years since he asked his cousin Mikey in NYPD for that favor, a wild young hair up Pat’s ass…looking for some payback. He had no idea what he’d do and in the end ended up doing nothing. Once again Pat was amazed at the banal dross of life accumulating around him like so much cold, wet sand.

Nothing really came of the stolen credit cards and missing driver licenses from that night. After all, the robbery was back in the salad days of the Internet, back when identity theft was just a faint notion on a far back burner.

A couple of gas charges, a restaurant bar tab, and poof—it was over. Cops said cards were probably buried deep in a landfill somewhere.

Pat swiveled back and picked up the piece of paper from his desk blotter.
Raúl Gomez. A.K.A. Heaven.

Pat unclipped his personal cell phone from his belt, shut his office door, and made some calls.


“He owns a what?”

The private detective next to Pat trolled a finger down his report and squinted. They were perched in a Starbucks window on West 56th.

“Ahh…a small auto supply house in South Amboy, New Jersey. Actually they just sell high end rims. Fancy chrome accessories, that sort of thing. The detailed, bass thumping 808 crowd, if you know what I mean.”

“And he’s no longer doing anything criminal?”

The detective smoothed his tie. “From all outward appearances, no. After his last jolt for aggravated assault, nothing comes up. Rents an average looking townhouse, has a wife who runs a nail salon and a daughter in private preschool if you can believe that. It seems the correctional system has rehabilitated Mr. Gomez. Joined the rate race as it were. Here’s a current picture.”

Patrick looked at the photograph taken from a distance. Older, yes, softer, yes, eyes of menace still. Hair gone and a shaved dome, dipped a bit more in ink and a tad on the jowly side, but it was definitely him.


“Yes, sir. Raúl Gomez. Heaven.”

Pat snorted and shook his head in wonder. He then shook the private detective’s hand and wrote him a check.


The following Saturday, Pat Flood opened the glass door to Heavenly Hubs a sharp electronic deet-deet-deet announcing his entrance. Heavy plodding hip hop vibrated the air and hard April sunshine blasted through the barred windows, flashing up the chrome.

A clerk at the front with a flat-brimmed purple Yankees cap, wet-looking Lil’ Wayne dreads, and an oversized Nets jersey cocked a fuzzy chin at Patrick, “S’up, can I do y’fo’?”

Pat’s heart raced. Gingerly he made his way forward down the central display area, his mouth drying. At the counter he drummed his fingers on a glass case near the register. An aisle over, two wannabe bangers in white skull caps and droopy shorts were snickering.

“Owner around?”


“Is the owner around?”

“Depends, dog. You sellin’ shit?”

“Selling shit?”

“Yeah. You a salesman? Sign front window says, like, no solicitation.”

“No. No, I just would like to speak to the owner that’s all, please.”

Purple Cap leaned back on his stool and scratched the neck of a panting Rotweiller the size of ottoman resting on the floor behind him. Patrick noticed the dog’s collar was a hand tooled black leather belt with the word PRIME on it in raised, sharp studs.

“I’ll check if he’s available.”

“Thanks,” Pat said, the dog looking up and appraising Pat’s presence. Purple Cap paused at the doorway and turned back.
“And who’re you?”

Pat crossed his arms and forced a smile, “I’m Patrick.”


“Yeah. Patrick Flood.”

“A’ight. Watcha register, Prime.” The Rotweiller whined.

After a bit a man emerged from behind a doorway with the Purple Cap trailing behind. The man smelled of onions and vinegar was chewing open mouthed, wiping his ring adorned hands with a yellow paper napkin.

“Can I help you?”

Pat let his memory roll backward then forward. It was him—Heaven—the guy who brokered the strippers for that bachelor party oh so many years ago and brutally pistol whipped him to the floor.

“Are you Max Hernandez?” Pat asked, floating a ruse.

Raúl looked at Purple Cap then back at Pat standing there. There was an exchange of rough, smoky laughs. Pat felt sweat on his upper lip. There wasn’t even a flicker of recognition in Raúl’s eyes.

“Naw, man. My name is Raúl. I’m Raúl Gomez.”

Yeah, Pat thought, old anger tightening in his chest.

I so fucking know who you are....


What happened next was possibly the dumbest, mid-life crisis play of all time.

Pat figured he’d wait a week, come back and case Gomez’s closing routines. Then he’d seize the right moment, get a couple of shots in and settle the ancient score once and for all.

Meanwhile at the gym Pat signed up for a couple of early a.m. private sessions with one of the martial arts instructors to beef up his arsenal of debilitating quick strikes. Catch Gomez off guard, unleash the barrage, and drop some knowledge on his gangsta ass.

It was a crazy idea, dangerous. But Pat had seen the photos from the detective. I’m in way better shape than that scumbag, Pat thought. He’s gone doughy, looked slow. Plus he’ll never expect it or see me coming.

Pat’s grandfather, a strict off-the-boat mick who drove for the MTA for forty-five years, always told him—they may beat you down and it may take a while, but the Irish? The Irish always have a way of coming around. Memories like elephants.
God damn right.

But Pat’s vision of justice didn’t go down that way.

What Pat remembered was the parking lot behind Heavenly Hubs tilting. He remembered being kicked and stomped and beaten and rolled over, a thick worming hand fishing free his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans. Then nothing for a while as a car alarm chirped and a door was opened. Then footsteps before the hot shot of a baseball bat caved in his front teeth. Pat passed out.

Later there were flashes, bursting snapshots…like when he used a View•master back when he was a kid, the toy with the waffled disks of images you advanced by fingering a lever. The dark blue coats of the EMTs, himself using his thumb and forefinger to tweezer out a bloody piece of glass the size of a diamond from his chin, stay with me, stay with me, the doctors at Raritan Bay Medical Center with their minty smocks and that syringe the size of a sixteen inch screwdriver.

Oh yeah. And the screaming.


Pat cracked his left eye, the one that wasn’t swollen shut like a leaking fig. His wife Jeanie was at his bedside. Pat’s throat was on fire but he managed a croak.

“Jea …”

Jeanie snapped to, her watery green eyes flicking desperately back and forth as she leaned closer, touching his chest, “Oh thank God, you’re awake!” She cried over her shoulder, “Nurse! Nurse! He’s awake!”

Pat weakly clasped his wife’s hand. “Did you…ulkk… say…anything?”

Jeanie turned back, “Say anything?” She stroked his matted hair above a bristling
wedge of fresh stitches, “What? Say anything about what, baby?”


“Who? Who did this to you? They don’t know. Police are saying you got mugged. What were you doing in South Amboy anyway, Pat baby? I don’t understand, why were you down there, honey pie?”

Pat tried to shake his head but could barely manage an agonizing drift. Jeanie started sobbing. Smiling and sobbing.

As the nurses buzzed around him Pat fought the pull of the medications insisting that he slip back down into the cool, black zero. Sweet freakin’ Christ, he hurt, how can he be forty-one and hurt so God damn much?

If Raúl Gomez had his wallet, well, then Gomez had him. He may have forgotten Pat from the robbery more than a decade past, but he sure as shit knew where Pat lived now. Lived with Jeanie. With his two kids.

Jeanie kissed his cheek, her breath hot and sour, lips dry as a paper.

Man, Pat thought miserably. Payback such a bitch.

BIO: Kieran Shea scratches at the crime fiction eight ball like a lot of sordid lots. He blogs his struggle at BLACK IRISH BLARNEY (

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"The Natural Order" by R.A. Zilber

Before leaving work on Friday, Rachel zipped a flash drive loaded with the Current Population Survey Data into a small compartment of her purse. Saturday morning she drove to Brooklyn to meet an old friend who reconnected with her on Facebook. Brighton Beach locals paraded the boardwalk. Young women walking fur clad dogs, cocky teenagers huddled in groups, fat eastern European ladies with their overindulged grandchildren.

A man in his early forties with a dark receding hairline approached her, “Raych!” Smiling, she placed her hands in the front pockets of her jeans forming a barrier between them, after a momentary embrace they walked along the boardwalk.

“So how have you been?” Michael asked.

“Well, hanging in there. You heard Leila died?”

“Yes, I am sorry; so young and all those children. I don’t know how you and Jake manage. I couldn’t do it with one”.

“After Leila died, I adopted her children, and have since come to look upon them as my own. It’s not easy. We do what we have to.”

“And how has life treated you?”

“Well, I had my moment to shine, but I didn’t make tenure. After ten years at Stern, the academic senate voted me out because I didn’t publish in the appropriate journals. I received offers from lesser schools, but after NYU everything seemed minor-league”.

“Yeah, the bureau has its share of washouts, but they didn’t washout of NYU, if you know what I mean. A diller, a dollar, a tenure washout scholar”, Rachel threw her head back in laughter.

“A diller a dollar, switched to statistics, sucky math scholar”, Michael retorted with a wink. “To be honest, I was relieved to leave the academia. There is no going back, but when I began turning into a windbag with a ‘Hey Day’ from NYU, I licked my wounds, and took a job with an investment bank, eventually making triple the money,”

“And your family?” Rachel asked.

“What family? My bed was still warm when the chair of Stern moved in with my wife and son.” “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be. That’s just how it is sometimes. Love belongs in fairy tales,” he said, resuming composure. “A few years ago I met a Swiss banker, originally from Israel and educated in London. After fulfilling his military obligation, he studied economics in London, and before accepting a position with a Swiss bank, worked for the Mossad. Adam formed a wealth management group employing eastern block talent; economists, programmers, and mathematicians, a manage-a-tres made in heaven.” Rachel recoiled at the visual. “He calls them ‘Oracles’ and that’s how he got his nick name—‘King Solomon’. When I mentioned your name --Adam insisted on meeting you, he is a scrupulous businessman.”

“You mean scruple-less businessman,” she said laughing. It began to rain, “Remember ocean beach in San Francisco--how the waves grew bigger curling into themselves before striking shore?” Pointing toward the hovering seagulls, she said, “In contrast to humankind, animals live in nature’s prime real estate. People pay to live in slums surrounded by garbage; their by-product --misery and ugliness.” Feeling a chill move down his spine, Michael turned up his collar, and walked Rachel to her car.

Later that evening, Michael appeared somber when he picked up Rachel in a rented black BMW. Before ariving at the restaurant, Michael said “Adam insists on having a personal relationship with his clients. It’s his trademark”. Rachel remained silent. “Raych, everything will work out, one way or another it will work out.”
“Of course it will, and let’s hope that it works out one way and not the other,” she replied.

The elevator doors opened into a glass walled lounge overlooking the Manhattan skyline. The maître d’ led them to a table occupied by a large bearded man in his late forties with reddish hair in. Michael smiled as Adam stood to greet them. While they chatted, Adam studied Rachel through his crystal goblet.

“Well, let us not waste time”, he smiled revealing small white sharp teeth.
“Rachel, ever played 21 questions?” Adam asked in an indistinguishable accent.

“Yes, I know it”.

“Ok, let’s begin then,” he said. “What distribution has the same mean and variance?” “Pardon?” Rachel said, startled by Michael’s nudge. “Oh, never mind. The Poisson.”

“Very good. Now, tell me what the central limit theorem says about n large?”
“Well, if n is large, the distribution of X (the thing we are estimating) will approach a Normal distribution, also known as the Gaussian distribution, and the Bell Curve,” she answered smiling. “Good.” he said.

“How likely am I to win a game against you, if you won 15 out of the last 20 games we previously played?”

“You are three times more likely to win.”

“Tell me something that you didn’t memorize from a flash card.”

“Ok”, she said. “I believe Gauss used the Mispar Kidmi to arrive at his formula for summing all numbers, she said.”

“Gematria. The Mispar Kidmi is a form of a Gematria.” He said, stroking his beard.

“Yes! Each letter is the sum of all the letter position respectively, up to and including itself. Forming a series of sums where A=1, B=3, D=6, E=10 and so on. Notice the pattern of the difference is n plus 1. Now we find an appropriate scaling coefficient, which gives us Gauss’ result; the quantity, n plus 1 times n and the whole thing divided by 2. Maybe Gauss was Jewish”, Rachel grinned.

“I will accept this as a conceivable hypothesis.” Adam said. Rachel exchanged glances with Michael and excused herself.

“I don’t follow you”, Michael said.

“Michael, decent mathematicians become actuaries, the rest become statisticians. Since she is the latter rather than the former, I had to check her level of statistical understanding before starting collaboration”.

When Rachel returned, Adam asked, “Now, please tell me about your data.”

“Well, I have access to the Current Population Survey—the mothers of all surveys, from which key economic indicators are born. The Bureau collects, processes and delivers the data to the sponsor—the Labour department.”

Adam said, “Yes, I know the Labor department construct economic indicators out of the survey”.

“The bureau is not a research institution; its primary function is collecting and processing data.

Typically it’s the PhD program washout with a chip on his shoulder, claiming to be doing “high level work. I have yet to find someone who published beyond their graduate program. In all fairness to the Bureau, what it lacks in statistical talent, it compensates with geographers” Adam scratched his temple with a manicured finger, revealing a brass ring set with four jewels inside a hexagram.

Narrowing his eyes, he said, “Rachel, name your price.”

Rachel hesitated, and then said, “Mr. Brahms, unauthorized disclosure of confidential information carries a penalty of two-hundred fifty thousand dollars and five years in prison. How much is five years of life worth?”

“Please—call me Adam,” he said. “If it is agreeable to you, let us employ a risk aversion formula to determine an appropriate payment for your services. Please trust me to provide you with the details later.” Reaching inside her purse, Rachel produced a flash drive.

“Gentlemen, one year of CPS data, for the Oracles to practice their skills,” like a well-trained dog waiting for his treat, Adam’s gaze moved from Rachel to the flash drive and back again.

The waiter brought a 1999 Vintage Dom Perignon Rose and chilled Beluga Caviar on mother of pearl plates. Optimism about the future warped her thoughts. Surrounded on all sides by wrong, at that moment, Rachel believed --she was doing right. While Michael was on his cell, Adam moved closer to Rachel and slithered his hand up her back making his way to the nape of her neck, she wriggled, forcing his hand to release, and slither away. Clearing his thought, Adam said, “I owe much of my success to Hedonic principles. For example, optimism bias; an exaggerated idea about how much control we have over outcomes. Most people are far more optimistic about their own circumstances then someone else’s.”

“In other words”, Rachel said, “Optimism bias is a combination of arrogance and a desire to be an individual rather than a statistic.” Afraid of what Rachel might say, Michael raised his glass and said,

“To a lucrative collaboration!”, the clanging of the crystal produced a clear resonating sound.

Surprisingly enough, Rachel was satisfied with the outcome of her trip. It pleased Rachel’s internal sense of order to formulaically establish a price for her services. She sensed omnipresent perfection--keeping the money a secret gave her time to try and understand its purpose. Rachel loathed thinking of herself as a consumer unit. She liked Plato’s ideas from “The Republic”. Plato described an ideal state and the abandonment of the typical family structure. A matrilineal dynasty came to mind; “the House of Rachel”, she whispered. The dynasty would have to wait, and so will Jake, she thought smiling. Rachel wasn’t about jeopardize Jake’s security clearance, it’s too early for him to quit his day job, she thought.
The following morning, Rachel woke to the smell of coffee that Jake made for her before leaving for work. Each sip increased her feelings of disappointment. An inner voice said, ‘you are a mediocre person-- living a mediocre life’. “No! Today is a beginning, “she thought, “it’s a sign of things to come.” She hurled the coffee toward the sink, breaking the cup and splattering the creamy brown liquid against the steel. She tossed the broken cup fragments into the trash, rinsed the sink, and ran upstairs to wake the children.

After meeting with Adam, Rachel’s desire for professional advancement began to wane. All work at the Bureau, she thought, was essentially the same-- cleaning and processing data. She remembered a professor from her graduate program, saying in a thick Russian accent, “Only excellent statisticians analyze data, most of you, one way or another will be cleaning it.”

She didn’t doubt that the Oracles will reverse engineer Labor’s algorithm. Michael called with the news, “Raych, the Oracles can consistently match Labors economic indicators, and they also found evidence of a data-fudging algorithm that intentionally distorts economic indicators”

“Really!” she exclaimed

Michael said, “Well, it extends time for the rich to convert to cash. Adam is anticipating a market adjustment. Economically speaking, the US economy is going to hell in a hand basket and he is preparing to take advantage of fallout”.
To construct a username for the Swiss bank account, Rachel used the Kabalistic method of calculation she described to Adam previously. She calculated her Hebrew name’s minor Gematria to be 9. She reasoned, nine is three to the second power, a pair of triplets, three points in a triangle; two triangles form the Star of David. She used the census of the twelve tribes from the “Book of Numbers,” for the password. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw a pending deposit of two million.
Rachel executed her scheme with mechanical precision. Each morning she copied the survey files, and keeping only the variables Adam requested, created new data sets, which she transferred to a flash drive, and sent to Adam by overnight mail. Rachel’s scheme provided an escape from commonplace existence. Possessing a natural inclination toward solitary activities, Rachel found most social interaction aversive and hoped that within a few years she could quit her job and live a bohemian life.

Though their family had a common history, it was the study abroad program that brought her and Jake together. Drunk with infatuation, they agreed to marry once Jake fulfilled his military obligation. Even the best-laid human plans are flawed. When she returned, her father Laban, was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer; he said to Rachel “Some things are beyond our understanding when we must do them. During such times, the internal aspects of our character are tested. There is a natural order to things. In it lies truth. Just as it is natural for a parent to precede her child in death, it is natural for the eldest sister to precede the younger in marriage. Before I die I want to see Leila married.”

Rachel’s distressed state prompted Jake to make his intentions clear to Laban. During the engagement festivities Laban pulled Jake aside saying, “my dear boy, though it’s customary for the bride and groom to be engaged for one year, given the state of my health, I have made arrangements for you to marry my daughter tonight”. Jake in a drunken stupor agreed to everything. After Laban prepared a marriage document, enumerating Jakes requirements to his future wife, two men witnessed Jake sign it. Under a stretched tallit held by four men, the Rabbi read the Ketubah aloud, and placed a ring into Jake’s hand, he then eased the ring onto his bride’s finger, saying, “You are consecrated to me through this ring, in accordance with the religion of Moses and Israel.” The Rabbi recited seven blessings over the couple, each time refilling Jakes wine glass. In remembrance of the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple, with a little help from Laban, Jake broke the wine glass placed under his foot. Jake’s intoxicated state prevented his fingers from lifting his brides’ veil during the ceremony. Joyously Jake surrendered to the men that carried him and his bride to a private room to consummate their marriage. When Jake realized he was tricked into marrying Leila, his mind drew a parallel to a time when he tricked his father.

His mother said, “Isaac is asking for Edom, I beg you, he is blind, if you speak in a whisper, he will think you’re Edom. Don’t let your father die with a broken heart.”

On his deathbed, Isaac said, “Edom my son, I made a secret agreement with Laban, when the time comes, you will marry Leila, and by virtue of being a firstborn son—inherit your birthright”. Isaac touched Jake's face, mumbled some words, closed his eyes and never regained consciousness.

Laban’s voice roused Jake from the trance, “Jake, my son, Leila is your wife, not Rachel. Your father made a promise-- yesterday you fulfilled it. You restored your fathers honor, so that I may genuinely say, ‘May his memory be for a blessing’”. The last six words reverberating in Jakes mind, may his memory be for a blessing, and in some such way, in his inexplicable situation, Jake found comfort in Laban’s resolve.
In the next ten years, Leila bore seven children, six boys and a girl. After the birth of her last child, a routine mammogram revealed breast cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she and Rachel listened to the oncologist’s polished, apologetic, and kind utterance, “Despite our best efforts, the breast cancer has returned and is no longer treatable“. Rachel moved in with Leila and began taking care Leila’s children. Toward the end of Leila’s illness, she said to Rachel, “Jake loves only you; I know how much you sacrificed. After I die, promise me you’ll marry Jake and raise my children.” They hugged, and for the first time Rachel cried.

After Leila died, Rachel devoted herself to the care of Leila’s family. With Jake working long hours, Rachel developed an evening ritual that included Leila’s pain medication. After a long day with the children, she took comfort in small doses of the liquid opiod. Rachel accepted her role when Leila’s oldest son swallowed hard, puffed out his little chest and said;

“We want you to be our mother.” Rachel and Jake soon married, adding two children to their household.

In a restaurant on the top floor of the Mandarin Oriental, Adam said to Rachel,
“My clients are quite pleased with the results. We are holding large amounts of cash, in a cash poor world.”

Rachel interrupted saying, “Within the year, the Bureau’s computer security policy will disable the USB ports, rendering our data transfer method useless and Jake’s clearance reinvestigation is approaching. I feel that this is a natural place for an ending.”

“Rachel, I guarantee that if Jake agrees to accept a detail in the Jerusalem office, there will be no reinvestigation.” Ignoring Rachel’s look of discomfort, and refilling his glass, he said, “I suggest you encourage Jake to accept. Tell him to bring the children, and you will soon join them.” His features gravely set, he said, “Rachel, I must warn you, snitching in never an option” Adam produced a small box with a digital pad, saying, “It opens when you key the letters of your name. Because they are bitter I recommend you take them with a sweet drink. Death will come quick and painless.”

Rachel gasped, “And what about Michael, was he also bestowed with the same benefaction”?

Adam smiled, “Rachel, there is no free lunch. Take what you want—but pay for it.” Before leaving, they agreed to conclude their collaboration within six moths.
That evening, Jake said, “I had a strange dream, a woman-- maybe Leila, was standing tall, her head above the clouds. An angel began clambering up her body, but after a short time he fell and broke into pieces, followed by a second, and a third. But the fourth angel managed to reach the top and disappear into the clouds.”
Rachel felt goosebumps, “And then?”

“Nothing, then I awake.”

“Jake, each person has a unique destiny--a spiritual path. In the dream the angels symbolize four stages of your spiritual struggle and you will come closer to God, by the auspices of a woman.”

Jake with his eyes cast down said, “I believe you’re concealing something, and I must reach beyond myself to discover it.” Rachel pretended to fall asleep, and Jake stopped talking.

Jake accepted a detail in Jerusalem, bringing his children and a housekeeper. One evening, Rachel received a call.

“Hello, this is investigator Ryan Noonan with the department of treasury, is this Rachel Laban?

Rachel’s heart pounded, “Yes”.

“I am investigating a case involving foreign investments in targeted sectors of the US economy.”

Beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. Rachel agreed to meet the detective the following afternoon in a coffee shop across the street from the Marriot Residence, where she was staying. That night, she dreamed that she and Adam were walking through a pomegranate orchard, planning to pick 613 pomegranates. An old man appeared saying, “Pick only the fruit on the trees, leave the fruit that’s on the ground, and don’t pick the fruit from the four corners of the orchard.”

Detective Noonan approached Rachel from the back of the shop.

“I will come straight to the point. I have evidence pointing to your involvement with a central figure of my investigation. We suspect Adam Brahms made investments using illegally solicited data.” Rachel felt bolts of adrenalin shoot through her body.

“Do you have a court order, Detective Noonan?”

“Would you like me to obtain one?” he asked. “Ms. Laban, I can prevent your leaving the country.”

Rachel remained cool saying, “You are going after the wrong person.”

“Are you denying that Adam is your brother in law?” Rachel felt dizzy; she had never met Jake’s brother. The brother’s haven’t spoken since their father died.” He handed Rachel his card, “when you are ready to talk, call me.” Rachel ran back to the residence, and called Adam cell, “Adam”, she hissed, wanting to scream.

“Yes”, Adam’s unemotional voice answered.

“The treasury is investigation us. I know you are Jake’s brother.”

“I returned to collect what is mine.” Both of us lost. You gave everything to Leila’s family, your youth, your love, and your time. Now, you are alone—an orphan—forsaken by the very ones you love. Rachel, with me, you can have whatever you want.” In a low, deliberate voice, he said, “I have a passport and a ticket to Switzerland.”

Rachel interrupted, “No, Adam, that’s not how I am. My answer is and always will be--no”.

When Michael called Jake to tell him everything he set an avalanche of events in motion. All night Jake wrestled with guilt about taking his brothers place at his father’s deathbed. When he met with Adam, he told him about Rachel, Leila, and his children. But the moment of clarity came when Jake said, “Greater civilizations fell before ours and it is inevitable that ours will follow suit. Without society’s constraints, people become like animals capable of eating their young. By observing traditions and rituals of the book and teaching them to our children, regardless of the circumstance—we will remain rooted in humanity”. Before the brothers parted, Adam confessed to Jake that he gave Rachel suicide pills, he said, “if the pills are swallowed whole they will harmlessly pass through the digestive tract producing only an appearance of death, but if they are crushed between the molars -- they will release a fast-acting poison. I told her to swallow them”, Adam voice filled with remorse.

Jake was minutes away when Detective Noonan knocked on Rachel’s door,

“Ms. Laban, I know you’re in there. It’s useless to stall; I will have a search warrant within the hour. Open the door!”

Her nerves wound to the highest pitch of tension, she emptied the contents of the box, remembering Adams words, “death will come quick and painless”. In a moment of weakness Rachel swallowed the rubber-covered ampules. She stretched out on the floor, closed her eyes, and whispered, “Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad,” but the last word came out as “Ehath”. As her breath became quick and shallow, she experienced an overwhelming feeling of regret.

Detective Noonan’s rookie partner Davis sprung out of elevator, waving the warrant,
“I got it! I got it!” Noonan grabbed the warrant,”

Let me see”. Forming a fist with his hand, he pounded the door, blaring, “Open up, I have a search warrant. Open the darn door, I say.”

Davis produced a plastic room key and opened the door. Rachel’s lifeless body was sprawled across the floor, next to her lay a sheet of paper, and the brown rubber ampule. Noonan, grabbed the sheet and read aloud,

Detective Noonan,
Stalemate! You win!

“Bitch! Bitch! Goddammit”, Noonan raved while Davis checked Rachel for signs of life. The rookie detective flinched when Noonan kicked Rachel’s body spitting, “All my work came to nothing! Nothing! I have no goddarn case with that bitch dead. Uhg! Noonan picked up the brown rubber ampule, and said, “She’s dead—these are cyanide pills. I’ve seen them when I was an OPS officer with the CIA,” Noonan said in disgust. “And don’t even think of calling the cops, a scandal like this can cost me a career. I want a promotion not a demotion Leave this trash for the garbage collectors—the Metro police. Understood! Now let’s get the hell out of here.” Davis bowed his head and followed Noonan out of the room.

Minutes later, in the residence’s basement two men pushed a gurney into the rear of a service van and closed the rear gate. Inside the van, a woman positioned one electrode hand over Rachel’s right breast and the other under the left breast. The man stood back as Rachel’s body jerked from the voltage. The woman produced an auto-injector syringe, made a fist around it, swung back her fist, and thrust the syringe into Rachel’s heart. For five long minutes they took turns administering CPR before Rachel’s vital signs stabilized. The blows from Detective Noonan’s sharp pointed shoe caused agonizing pain in Rachel’s hip. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, she heard words: “passport”, “today”, “no time”.

Four hours later Jake wheeled a heavily sedated Rachel through the security gate at JFK airport. The TSA officer returned the passports to Jake, and in a thick southern accent, mispronouncing their new names, said —Isra-El, take good care of that there Lee-Ah. Ya’ll come back now. Y'hear!”

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Justice" by B.R. Stateham

The windows of the warehouse stared down at my partner and me with a sullen, gray insolence framed in moving shadows and simmering anger. As Frank and I climbed out of my car and closed the doors our eyes never left the ominous pile of brick and battered windows.

It was a slumbering slum of discarded stonework on the south side of town. It sat empty in a long row of empty buildings just like it. Most of the windows were boarded up, the wood weathered and splintered from maleficent neglect. A security fence, with faded signs in big letters saying “Keep Out” hanging from it in thirty foot spaces, did nothing in keeping people at bay. Weeds, coated in a starling silver-white luminescence of moon light, jutted up rudely from several cracks and crevices in the empty parking lot facing it. From somewhere the hot breath of summer was playing with an open door. The door’s hinges squealed; the noise adding a tint of grim reality to an already grim night. As I watched shafts of bright moon light race across the front of the building a thought crossed my mind;

Not a warehouse.

A mausoleum. A tomb.

From underneath my left armpit I pulled out the .45 caliber Kimbler and slid the carriage back and clicked off the safeties as I thumbed the hammer back. The weight of the big gun felt reassuring in my hand. Reaching inside my sport coat I felt for the spare clips. I would need them tonight. Laying the Kimbler on the hood of the car I reached behind me and pulled out the small framed Walther PPK .380 I carried as a back up. It didn’t have the knock-down power of the Kimbler if you hit someone in the chest with it. But if I had to use it I wouldn’t be aiming for the chest. To my right I knew Frank had his 9mm Glock in hand and would be checking the snub-nosed .38 caliber Smith &Wesson he had for his back up.

Someone was going to die tonight.

There was no other way around it.

Debts had to be paid. Justice had to be metered out.

Inside the warehouse were four men and a woman. The men, Mick O’Toole, Chucky Mickelson, Bobby Hardaway, and ‘Beep’ Nickles, were together. A gaggle of young toughs who thought they were good at knocking off jewelry stores and small time bookie joints. Most of the time they were successful. They would target a jewelry store, cut the power to the alarm systems, drill a hole through the roof of the building and slide down ropes. Beep was a talented safe-cracker. He could crack a safe’s tumbler faster than I could pour a cold beer from the bottle into a glass. If he couldn’t, Bobby Hardaway was good at explosives. He knew how to use just enough plastique to shape a charge and blow open a safe door making the least amount of noise. When it was time to get away Chucky Mickelson was the driver.

But the man who was the brains of the outfit was Mick O’Toole. A true Irishman, said to be on the lamb from the IRA. Somehow he had pissed them off. Pissed them off enough to force Mick to leave Britain permanently.

That takes talent. How do you piss off the IRA that much and still live?

All four of them had two things in common. Two traits which made them hook up together and work as a team. Greed was one trait they shared in common. Meanness the other. Each one them wanted dough. Each one wanted to hurt people getting the dough. That’s why they liked knocking off small fry bookies. They’d stroll into a bookie joint, splatter the bookie with a shotgun, kill anyone else who got in the way, grab the take and leave.

The woman in there with them was a young girl by the name of Lois Hogan. Nineteen. Her father was Gill Hogan. Bookie—or more precisely, dead bookie. About a half hour ago Mick and his boys walked into the small restaurant Gill ran for his boss just as the place was closing up for the night. They pistol whipped Gill and then shot him three times in the chest before throwing the night’s bets into a bag and leaving. Gill’s daughter had been sitting out in the restaurant waiting for her father. Mick and his thugs grabbed Lois and threw her into the van they used for a getaway car and came out here. We knew this because twenty minutes ago a guy by the name of Caesar Ortega called me on my cell phone and told me he wanted to talk to Frank and me. Told us to meet him underneath a burnt out lamp post on the corner of Monroe and 113th Street South . Just two blocks away from where we now were standing.

And as the old saying goes, when Caesar calls, one answers. If they valued living.

Caesar Ortega was Gill Hogan’s boss. Gill ran one of Ortega’s bookie joints plus the restaurant. Ortega played the numbers, ran a string of strip joints and whore houses, had his hand in smuggling illegals up from Mexico . He stayed out of the drug business because he didn’t want to butt heads with larger crime syndicates and/or the crazy drug lords coming up out of Mexico and South America . He was a tough hood who knew the streets. A smart businessman who knew how to make a profit and stay out of a police lineup at the same time. That was Caesar Ortega.

When we pulled up to the curb we saw Ortega leaning against the grill of his black Mercedes, dressed in white slacks, a yellow Hawaiian print shirt, and white tipped loafers. He looked tan and in shape. And—from the frown on his face and the way he had his arms crossed—about as pissed off as a man could get.

“Turner. . . Frank,” he grunted, nodding his head, as we stepped around the front of our car and faced him.

“Caesar,” I said, nodding.

“You two working on the Hogan killing?”

Frank almost smiled and nodded.

“Word gets around fast, Caesar. Gill was killed only ten minutes ago.”

“I know, I was there when it happened.”

That was a surprise. I grinned as Frank popped off the obvious line.

“A confession, Caesar? From you?”

A dry, cruel smile stretched across Ortega’ lips as his hot, blazing dark eyes stared at Frank. It wasn’t a smile one would call humorous. Unless the smile of a Great White just before his attack could be considered humorous.

“I was setting across the street when those four creeps came in and wasted Gill. They killed him, took the cash, and threw his daughter into the back of a van and drove off. I know who they are and I know where you can find them.”

“Why are you telling this to us, Caesar?” I asked as I looked at the expensively dressed hood standing alone in front of his Mercedes. “What’s your game?”

“It’s vermin like that that gives a man in my position a bad name, my friend. People in town think these guys work for me. They think I give the orders to hit this joint or kill that fool. Word gets around. People higher up in the food chain start to get nervous and ask questions. When they start to get nervous I start to get nervous.”

Feeling a little pressure from the mob are you Caesar? Starting to look over your shoulder some? Interesting.

“So why don’t you take them out?” Frank asked bluntly.

Ortega flashed us that shark’s mirthless grin and spread his hands out eloquently as he shrugged.

“I’m just an honest businessman, Frank. My organization tries to stay away from trouble like this. But suppose, god forbid, someone in my organization took it upon themselves to clean house and take out the trash? A situation would arise which could easily spiral out of control. These four punks do have friends in certain parts of the city. These friends could become irritated at me. Rivalries could be established. It would be an unfortunate time for all of us.”

“But if we cleaned up the mess for you . . . ,”

“Exactly, Turner. If the police took care of the situation my hands are clean. There’s no room for doubt. Everybody remains friendly. Know what I mean? But Hahn, Morales . . . I gotta tell you. These guys are not going away peacefully. All of’em are fucking crazy. They’ve been in and out of the slammer so many times they’ve got permanent reservations waiting for’em. I’ve been told all of’em have said they’d rather die than go back in. Your work is cut out for you.”

So here we were—standing across the street in deep shadows which kept prying eyes off us as we checked our weapons for the second time and then slipped into our bullet proof vests. Frank, my no-neck lookalike Neanderthal clone flicked open his snub-nose .38 and checked the cylinder before flicking it close and glancing at me.

“How you want to play this?”

I shrugged, curled a finger around the trigger of the Kimbler and gripped the Walther in the other.

“They’ve got the girl. We can’t wait for the tac squad to arrive. She could be dead by then. We go in and take’em out as fast as possible.”


Yeah, right.

Getting into the building was easy. We moved from one dark shadow to the next, slipped across the big parking lot and found an open window. Slipping into the darkness of the warehouse we paused until we heard sounds of men laughing and bottles rattling on the floor above us. We found stairs and moved quietly up the rickety thing making as little noise as we could. On the second floor we found lights burning in a room which was away from any exterior windows. We also heard the moans of Lois Hogan. Moans coming from a woman who had been beaten and abused. Moans from a woman who was alive but knew she was dead.

Our backs against the wall I motioned to Frank I would circle around and enter the rooms where our friends were from the opposite side. He nodded as I moved off and slid around the corner at the far end of the hall. So far we had not been discovered. So far no gun play had happened. So far no one had died.

It all changed in the blinking of an eye.

Leaving Frank, I made a right hand turn down a long hall moved down it without making too much noise. I came to an intersection of a third hall and carefully peaked around the corner to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing it was I slid around the corner and took three steps before Beep Nickles stepped out of an office door unexpected and turned toward me. Beep was a tall straw of a man with thin arms and thin legs. He had a face that a weasel could appreciate and slick, oily black hair. When he came through the door and turned toward me he was looking down at the shotgun in his hands, an oily rag stuffed into the belt of his slacks, chewing on a toothpick and grinning to himself. Apparently he had just finished cleaning the shotgun. But looking up and seeing me his mouth dropped open in sheer surprise and instinctively he pumped the gun once and brought the barrel around and toward me.

The Kimbler in my right hand exploded twice in two rapid shots. The noise of the .45 was loud enough to chip plaster off the walls. Both slugs smacked into Beep’s chest so close together one could put a quarter down and cover both holes. He flew back into the wall and slid down to the floor leaving a long red trail on the faded plaster wall behind him in the process.

Men began screaming. Guns were going off in rapid succession. I hard the sharp bark of Frank’s Glock go off twice. Someone had grabbed a shotgun and was pumping double-0 buckshot through the cheap plaster walls in front and behind me. I ducked and slid into the room where all the commotion was going on.

On the floor to one side of Frank was the body of Chucky Mickelson. There was a 9mm hole in his forehead just above the bridge of his nose. Where there had been the back of his head now was nothing but blood, brain matter and pieces of flesh surrounding a gaping hole about the size of a man’s fist. On the other side of Frank was Bobby Hardaway rolling on the bare linoleum floor gripping what was left of his right knee cap with a set of bloody hands. He was screaming in pain and bleeding like a broken bowl of cherry jello. In the opposite corner from Bobby was the trussed up figure of Lois Hogan lying on the floor. Hands and feet were tied together. Her face was nothing but a bloody mask She was alive. Barely.

But there was no Mick O’Toole.

“That way,” Frank said pointing the barrel of his Glock toward a door I had not seen entering. “I’ll stay here and make sure he doesn’t double back. Be careful, buddy. Be careful.”

I nodded and went after the Irishman. It didn’t take long to find him. He was four rooms away trying his best to open a window. But the old window had been welded shot from years of neglect. So Mick used the shotgun in his hands to blow the window out just as I entered the room behind him.

“Drop the gun and hands above your head, O’Toole!”

For an answer the Irishman whirled around, stepped to one side and let go a round of double 0 toward me. He was fast. Unfortunately for him I was faster. The moment I saw him begin his move I leapt to one side and rolled on a shoulder, coming up on my feet in a squatting position. The roar of the shotgun filled the room and a huge chuck of the wall behind and above my head disintegrated into a fine white powder of plaster and sawdust.

I didn’t let him get a second shot off. The Kimbler barked two more times in my hand. The slugs found their mark. Each leg just above the Irishman’s knees caught some lead, buckled visibly, and collapsing the madman onto the floor in howling rage and pain. But he still wasn’t finished. He rolled onto his back, slid himself back to lean against a wall and reached inside his shirt for a weapon. But too late. I was too close to him. He brought a 9mm Smith & Wesson auto out and started to lift it up toward me. I used my left foot to kick the weapon from his hands and then brought the foot down hard onto the gaping hole of his left leg.

“Not getting out of prison time today, boyo!” I said, grinding my foot into his wound.

The pain was too much. The Irishman’s eyes rolled up into his skull and he slid down onto floor unconscious. I cuffed him, searched him, then grabbed him by his shirt collar and dragged him back to the room where his comrades were.

“Jesus. What a fucking mess.” Frank grunted, a wiry smirk on his face, coming to his feet after checking the woman’s wounds. “We’ll be up all night with the fucking paperwork. And the lieutenant’s not going to be happy we had to use deadly force.”

“Yeah, it’ll just tear him up, won’t it,” I said, grinning.

Our lieutenant down at South Side wouldn’t say a damn thing about the use of deadly force. The Irishman’s gang was well known to us. Nobody was going to be second guessing our use of force tonight. No one.

BIO: I am a sixty year old ex-teacher who currently has two novels out on the market. One is a police-procedural called Murderous Passions. The second is a fantasy novel called Roland of the High Crags: Evil Arises.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"A Slight Adjustment" by Glenn Lewis Gillette

The heavy man carried threat in through the restaurant door. Alarms bristled up my spine. Were they alarms from my last five years as the lover of a gay-liberation activist? From the last twelve years since I'd admitted I was a faggot? Or from the previous six years as an Army Ranger? Did it really matter?

Yes, I decided. Threat determined response.

I regretfully and quietly laid knife and fork onto my steak: regretfully because I liked to eat it piping-hot; quietly so I wouldn't draw premature attention. Then I leaned back in my chair and watched the heavy man.

Ignoring the young hostess, he lumbered to a stop and planted his feet, trenchcoat scrunched back so he could stuff his pants pockets with meaty hands and look everything over slowly and thoroughly.

When his eyes found mine, he leaned into the stare like a linebacker poised at a line of scrimmage. His hesitation cued me, and I swallowed a sigh. He had come after Ivan and here I sat, a six-two, 220-pound signpost wearing olive-drab fatigues sans insignia. Oddly, I didn't recognize this dick -- though I'd been sure I knew all of Red Lake's detectives on sight.

Why Ivan insisted on living in this family-mummifying, right-warped Christian, scripture-threshing, whatever-happened-to-a-loving-Jesus, homophobic town where he got arrested for blowing limp-wristed kisses at City Hall (and other things) ... well, I did know why: precisely because it was a family-mummifying, right-warped Christian, fag-hating town.

I held the stare, right shoulder quivering with my urge to look over it. Ivan had strutted his stuff in that direction just moments ago, disappearing around the corner that bent the dining room into an L-shape, as he searched for something new on the salad bar.

I didn't follow that urge, trying to catch a night-backed reflection of Ivan in the restaurant's waist-high wall of windows. Instead, I pictured the sprawling salad bar right beside the flimsy door leading to the restrooms -- and the rear exit. There'd be one more dick covering that way out. Probably a couple more out front as well, hidden by the restaurant's brick entrance. As backup, ready to hop to, depending on which way we ran.

And run we would. Ivan made it a policy never to surrender to a cop who wasn't breathing hard.

Normally, I didn't mind the game -- arrests meant Ivan had struck a nerve -- but tonight ... something deep, maybe from my Army days, muttered to my adrenal glands and they started getting all worked up. I decided that, this time, Ivan would get away from these dickheads. I owed him that much for the everyday calm he brought to my heart.

That meant I had to divert them all -- before he waltzed back around that corner.

Shrugging for show, I broke away from the heavy man's stare and looked down at my dinner. It beckoned to me, oozing the aromas of grill and grease and A.1.® Sauce. Before I could do anything about it, though, the heavy man strode up to my table. His leather soles slapped the shiny linoleum. His trenchcoat swooshed. His hands hung clenched at his sides.

"Theodore Roosevelt Azzarrio?"

I didn't look up. "Just call me 'TR.'"

"Where's Ivan Zaporizhia?"

I reached out with my combat boot and jerked it back hard, hooking his ankle. He dropped right there on the glistening floor. His chubby mouth flopped open, dark and wet like a slab of raw liver. I leaned right, dodged his big, shiny shoes, and swooped away, low, down the aisle till I could rise into a sprint.

Sitting at tables lined up around me, people jerked their heads up. I flung my arms high. "Everybody down!" I shouted. "Ivan, Ivan, Ivan!" I fired his name three times in warning, then came our code: "Escape!" Hide. "Escape!" No, run out the back. "Escape!" Better yet, wait and slip out the front.

Again, I didn't glance in Ivan's direction: don't remind the heavy man of his primary target; get him to focus on the bird-in-hand getting away.

I braked and slid up to an open table. I took two seconds to peer through the evening-mirrored glass above it. Headlights from the parking lot beyond swung past, broke the reflection, and showed me a clear sidewalk outside.

I flung a glance behind me. The heavy man had gained a knee, one arm braced across the remains of my dinner. Between us, abandoned tables sprouted an occasional curious face.

Straightening, I launched a chair at the window. It crashed outward with a satisfying burst of shards. I followed it.

No phony Hollywood dive for me. I stepped precisely but quickly up to the window-sill, ducked under the jagged edge, finally down to the concrete. Cars nosed the dirty-gray strip like curious steers along a roadside fence. I straightened to the sound of pounding foot-steps.

To my right, a cop popped out of the alley into parking-lot light. To my left, two more wheeled around the corner, their arms flailing as they swung toward me. Behind me, still inside, the heavy man plodded through a field of tabletops.

Done and done! I could rely on Ivan to sneak out the front door while I led these minions of Red Lake City Hall through ranks of parked cars, then on down the strip-mall lining Highway 63.

I darted between two cars, but a blue-and-white woke up in front of me, its rooftop lights flickering dizzyingly. I veered left, and another patrol car, flashing abruptly, roared from the highway to block that way. I jigged again. The back-alley dick -- Detective Merkins, I could see now -- filled in that gap. I spun, but the backup twins -- Gonsaglio and Ferguson -- arrived, puffing, and snared my elbows.

They held me while the heavy man strode up, his flat feet snapping glass shards like small-arms fire. When he could, he reached out a plump finger and poked my shoulder.

"Theodore Roosevelt Azzarrio, I am Public Health Inspector Symington. Pursuant to Colorado statutes and my responsibility to protect the Public Health, I must arrest you."

I gave him my best unimpressed-with-authority shrug, though my stomach swam with misgivings. Public Health?

The heavy man -- Inspector Symington -- stepped closer. "Where's Ivan Zaporizhia?"

"Somewhere else," I snarled. "Phoning our lawyer to bail me out."

He arched back with a booming laugh, then peered at me through his amusement. "Yore a'hollerin' down the wrong well. I'm not puttin' you in jail." He sent sharp looks at the three detectives beside me. "I'm puttin' you into quarantine." He jabbed a fleshy thumb over his shoulder, then spun on his heel.

I lurched back, fear juicing up surprise. "For what?" I yelped.

With a pitying glance, he said, "Yore queer, son. We're gonna fix that."

The heavy man led the way to his car. The cops followed. I, of course, went along.

Dawn licked at me, over my cheeks and forehead, through my eyelids. I opened them, then squinted at the pinkish-yellow sunlight poking through a barred square in the opposite wall. Not the first time I'd arranged for the Giver of Life to awaken me in a strange place. I rolled upright, sock-feet on concrete floor, and glanced around.

Wall with the only window and the craters where I'd ripped the cot loose from it. Back wall with toilet and sink. Wall behind me -- I checked it: I'd missed nothing important last night in the dark. Front wall with solid, stout door interrupted only by a wide, high hatch above a shallow ledge; no handle on this side.

Time to get to work. I fetched the obligatory tin cup from the sink and approached the door. Cells in the City Jail, fronted by metal bars, made this part easy. Here, however ... I ambled back to the cot, traded cup for a laceless boot -- the heavy man had taken my watch and belt and cleaned out my pockets, too -- and picked a spot on the latch-side of the door. I decided on an Art Taylor rhythm: "Tanya" with Donald Byrd on trumpet and Dexter Gordon on tenor sax. Would Art use toe or heel? I went with the heel for higher impact.

More than two hours of jammin' with no reaction, allowing myself a ten-minute break each hour, before a squeaky voice interrupted: "Hey in there!"


"You TR?"


The hatch opened. A short, buzz-cut prune of a man thrust a cell phone at me. "Punch redial," he said and turned away, closing the hatch again.

I followed instructions; I just hoped the owner of this gift horse was on my side. After the first ring, Ivan said, "Teddy-bear?"

The unnamed knot in my chest vanished. Joy rushed into its place, spreading warmth through me. Words of relief perched in my throat, but I had to know about him first. "Are you loose?"

"Not since I met you, darling. At that luncheon buffet--"


"Remember that day, Teddy-bear? I've been true to you ever since."

"Yes, I do. Do you remember what's going on here and now?"

"Of course."

"I'm not in jail, Ivan. A different building entirely, a couple of blocks south of City Hall and a block east. 'Public Health Inspector Jesse Symington' stuffed me into some kind of --" I scanned the room again "-- isolation ward. No Miranda, no phone call, no rights at all."

"I know," Ivan huffed.

That was my Ivan. Leave me twisting in here till he knew what was going on. He probably spent the night doing it. I could almost see intense crows' feet setting off the smudges under his soft brown eyes. Will generated his stamina, not his body. Heavier, stronger, meaner a lot meaner -- he'd have made a great Ranger.

I made way for his explanation with silence.

"TR, have they stuck you with anything?"

My hackles bolted upright. "No."

"Have they taken pictures of your head?"


"Tied you down with your head inside a ring-shaped device?"

Honest, you can be so tedious! "I told you 'No'!" Or are you trying to distract me? Didn't work.

"Well, they want to, TR. They want to inject your brain and ... and cure your homosexuality."

My hackles had nowhere else to go. They were already giving their all to the cause of getting me ready to flee or fight, but the rest of the organism joined in now: adrenaline flowed, sweat cropped, stomach clenched, lungs heaved.

Ivan continued, "I've been aware of research projects -- funded by the Religious Right -- that focused on the so-called gay gene and its expression in the human hypothalamus. Are you with me?"

Sometimes, his tenderness rankled me because he was showing off his intelligence. Today, though, I appreciated it. "Yeah," I grunted.

"I never thought they'd try to do anything about it, I mean, try to find a fix for, uh, our condition." His voice tightened. "But I was wrong ... apparently.

"Listen. Lots of legitimate researchers think that the size of a certain part of the hypothalamus -- the third, out of four --" he drew a breath "-- 'Interstitial Nucleus of the Anterior Hypothalamus' -- determines what gender people are attracted to."

Brilliant, insecure, Ivan didn't make points; he constructed them -- then dropped them on his enemies. I had learned to admire the process, which wasn't always easy. Like now.

"If these areas are small or not present, a person likes males. If large, he or she likes females. These neurons affect attraction only, though, and not sexual roles or behavior. Cross-dressing comes out of a different place."

I wouldn't admit I was lost, but I did say, "Yeah, so?"

"So they think if they can make these parts of your hypothalamus larger, you'll be attracted to girls and not guys."


Pain flared behind my eyes. Where is my hypothalamus anyway? The rest of my brain spun furiously. "How are they going to do that?" I said. "Aren't adult brains, well, fixed in size already?"

"Good, TR, keep thinking." He sent a kiss down the line. It helped. "Here's where the Remorseless Right have made their own progress. They've adapted an avian neuron-growth hormone to fit cells in other brains -- it seems, birds change the size of their brains according to the season. Add a bit of testosterone and in a matter of days, you've got more neurons wherever it's been injected. They've tested it on ferrets, like several studies already published. Now, apparently, they're ready for people."

"Is this legal?" I demanded.

Ivan paused, way too long, then sighed. "Depends on how you read the law. In this country, a lot of responsibility for public health gets delegated all the way down to the towns. Colorado statutes give this man Symington more than enough authority. They say he may 'exercise such physical control over property and people as he may find necessary for the protection of the public health', or words to that effect, at least four times."

"But I'm no threat to public health!" I barked. I needed more from him right now than quotes from law books.

"TR! You, me, all gays, are a threat to Red Lake's 'public health,' so to speak. You know how they feel about us around here. They're afraid we'll 'give' homosexuality to their impressionable youth."

"State authorities are not going to look at it that way." Suddenly not so sure, I added, "Are they?"

Ivan sighed again and I knew he'd been avoiding something. "Our guess, TR, is that the city thinks they can cure you, which means you're infected, which means you're contagious, which means you can be quarantined, so that they can cure you. The same kind of reasoning they use to pick and choose among Scripture to condemn us.

"Look, I'm going to drop the Fourteenth Amendment on these people like an anvil. I've called the U.S. Attorney and the F.B.I. They'll get back to me soon." Maybe being hooked up with a celebrity is worth something, after all. "I'm hoping Red Lake didn't count on me being loose to make these calls. I am, thanks to you." Of course, that's what got me in here in the first place. "Still ..." Another one of those way-too-long pauses. "I don't know if I can awake the Federal hounds soon enough.

"Just in case, I've also called the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Governor's Office, and four TV stations in Denver. No point talking to the local rip-and-read crews; they know when to turn blind eyes."

Swatting at his implications like swarming bats, I tried to drive past them with, "Will it work?"

My Ivan continued with cool dispassion. "We don't know. I've had two medical researchers reviewing the literature since midnight. They can guess what these guys have been trying, but they don't know how successful they've been. Our people have also been kibitzing the URnet -- Ultra-Research Network -- so we've got internal memos, too, but we haven't cracked their encryption yet." He swallowed noisily.

"God, TR! Even if it doesn't affect your sexuality, what else could this thing do to you? Your hypothalamus sits smack in the middle of your brain in a veritable soup of hormones." A sudden storm of words. "It regulates the pituitary gland! Body temperature! Appetite! Water retention!" A spiraling plunge from the heavens of purpose, logic, and resolve into self-doubt and -pity.

"Ivan," I broke in.

"TR, they're after me, not you, always have, always will."


"Where'd you say they took you? I'll come right over."

"Ivan Sergeivitch Zaporizhia!" That shut him up, as usual. "They won't let me go even if you do come in. They won't leave me the way I am because then, I might 're-infect' you once they let both of us go. And they'll have to let us go. This is still the United States, even if the Religious Right runs Red Lake City Hall. You're too well-known in the national gay community, and I'm part of the publicity package. Stay away, Ivan, far away. I'll handle this."

"Right." Meekly, ashamed now of his emotional outburst, as usual.

"You work on getting me out of here." Pumping him up fed back into my own attitude. The room around me no longer seemed so grim.


"You stay the hell away. Just send lawyers and TV crews."

He snapped, "I've got it, TR!"

I grinned, then said, "That's my Ivan. Sic 'em, boy!"

"Do what you can to stall them, TR. Use those big feet of yours to good advantage.

"Look," he went on. "They'll need at least a robotic arm to deliver the hormones." I heard him gulp. "It'll stick you right behind the ear, no anesthetic necessary, just a skin prick. Once it's inside, the brain doesn't feel a thing.

"They may use a CAT scanner to guide the arm, or they may just clamp your head in a vise and go from there."

My Army training echoed through me. Capture on a black operation meant secret interrogation, which meant anything goes, and there's not much anybody can do against the human genius for giving pain. The point: don't get captured. Well, too late for that.

"TR? TR?" Ivan sounded scared.

"Yeah," I said gruffly.

"I love you." Gentle again.

We'd both started with the same hex on our bodies, but I'd grown up mean and only recently, with his help, turned easy. He'd started easy and all by himself, turned ... smart. "Love you back," I whispered.

The connection clicked away. I was alone again. Echoes from my past came back louder, trying to match my present. A black op into Chile where I'd performed rear-guard in a gully till the chopper whiffed my team and me out of there. That awful week twelve years ago when I confronted -- and accepted -- my sexuality. But none of them measured up. I just wanted Ivan safe, far away and safe, slapping the world silly until it gave us our due, maybe, but safe. If that left me here, in a stew without a carving knife, then so be it.

So, I punched through the gloom of reality. Meeting come to order. Any Old Business?

The cell phone. I knocked gently on the door. The hatch popped open, and buzz-cut smirked at me through it.

"You're one of Ivan's boys?" I asked.

He stretched the smirk into a grin.

"You work here?"

"We're everywhere." And that prune of a man poked out his left pinkie, stropped it across his tongue, slicked down an eyebrow, then flipped it to the side in a queenly salute.

"Thanks," I said.

He picked up the cell phone, bounced it once in his hand, then with a nod, closed the hatch gently, but firmly.

New Business? I turned to the room, dark once more.

"Hey!" I yelled through the door. "Can you turn the light on?"

Two overhead banks flickered into stark white life, washing away the window's narrow sunlight. Now I could see what I had to work with.


The detectives did spot-check things, but I'd counted on that. I lunged at them, hollering "Yew-ha!" They slammed the hatch, waited a moment, then threw open the door and charged me. The cot, on its side across the doorway, caught the three of them by surprise. They went down. I dived over their stunned heads into the hallway, tucking, rolling, banging against the far wall. I came up fast -- and took a nightstick in the solar plexus.

The heavy man followed up with two sets of manacles. All I could do was stare, limbs buzzing with nerve overload, while he grinned at me, jumped to his feet with hands raised in victory, then walked on down the hall.

I could hear him hollering: "Get that mCAT going ag'in! Is that robot needle on-line yet?"

A female voice challenged him: "Is the patient hurt?"

"He's fine," the heavy man blared. Detectives Gonsaglio and Ferguson appeared at my elbows, lifted me, scurried me along, sock-toes dragging over carpeting. "Let's get this show on the road!" They pulled me into a room.

A cot, its head encircled by two whirling gizmos, one wide, long, and curved, the other aimed at it across the diameter like a furious peach-pit. Cables sprawled from there to a computer box and a squat metal torso with an arm, like a saluting amputee. Beside that, a chrome trolley proffered instruments on a white cloth. In the middle of it all, the heavy man faced a statuesque blonde and a petite brunette in nurses' uniforms.

The detectives dumped me on the cot, cuffed my wrists and ankles to it, stood back to glare at me.

At least they were breathing hard.

The heavy man leaned toward me, careful of the gizmos whizzing around my head. "Yore friend Ivan is playin' hard-to-get. I'm not goin' to wait for the cops to roust him from his hidey-hole." With a sweep of his meaty hand, he sent the detectives from the room. Then he beckoned at the nurses.

I rejected an attack on the gizmos. Ivan had indicated that this mobile brain-scanner wasn't critical to the procedure. I couldn't waste my one chance at disruption on it.

The brunette, dainty, but plain, flicked electronic switches while the other one marched toward me with a thermometer-gun. She filled out her uniform very well, from flaring hips to full breasts. She'd wrapped her long blonde hair into a chignon, severe but serving to emphasize her other charms. (Hey, even a fag can appreciate an attractive woman. She just didn't turn me on.)

I peered past her business-like approach to the trolley. It probably held the bird juice, Red Lake's new weapon against us "scourges of humanity," and the syringes to deliver it. I had to destroy that trolley. Failing that, I'd appeal to these "angels of mercy." Yeah, right, sisters in homophobia more likely. Anything was better than lying here, letting this fat bastard steal a part of my soul.

I rolled away from the blonde, as far as the cuffs would let me. She had to stretch over the cot. I threw myself at her, harsh twinges in wrist and ankle rewarding my lunge. The cot went over. I thudded to the floor. The blonde staggered back, taking the brunette, then the trolley, down as a clanging, sprawling, glittering mess. Missed the robot, though. Yew-ha!

The heavy man took a step toward me, but caught himself. Leaning into a glower instead, he ordered, "Fetch the other kit."

"I don't want to risk it," the brunette shot back. "This isn't Patient Zero."

Who? What?

"Do it anyway," the heavy man said.

"The police said they've located him."

Ivan? Is she talking about Ivan?

"He's slipped them before. He'll do it again."

Damned straight he will. I grinned at him.

He sucked in air as though mustering patience, then stated flatly, "Go unpack the other kit. Prepare the injection, but don't bring it until I call you. And order a replacement from the Lab." He followed with a glare that made even me twitch.

The brunette hustled out, pulling the blonde with her. So much for Plan B.

The heavy man's gaze followed them. Without looking around, he whispered, "A healthy man would go after that with his cock and tongue hard."

I rattled my manacles. "Lose the bracelets, and we'll just see who's healthy around here."

"Don' tempt me, or I'll forget my duty to protect yore health."

The hard floor pressed against my side, aggravating the bruises it had inflicted. Cuffs twisted an arm and a leg behind me. The other limbs stretched out above me, leaving my belly open and vulnerable. I had to get out of them and onto my feet.

My favorite hand-to-hand technique started with a circle feint to lower the other guy's guard, then a charge right up his middle to throw off his focus. Words had to get me there now, and when I'd talked the heavy man into letting me go, I'd kick him so hard he'd sneeze through his pecker and jack off his nose.

I said, "Let me tell you a little story first."

He sneered, but didn't object.

"You ought to relate to this," I said breezily. "A new weight-loss clinic opens in town. A guy goes in, says he wants to lose ten pounds, and pays his money. They send him to a room on the first floor. Inside sits a nude blonde that would make your nurse friend look like a broomstick. She wears a sign: 'You catch me, you fuck me.' She gives him a good run, but he wins in the end. Plus, he loses the weight."

The heavy man grinned.

"The next week, he goes back, says he wants to lose twenty pounds. This time, they send him to the second floor. He finds a redhead more luscious than the blonde, with the same sign: 'You catch me, you fuck me.' Same story: he catches her and loses the weight on top of that."

His tongue flicked across his upper lip.

"The next week, he wants to lose thirty pounds. He goes through a door on the third floor and it locks behind him! In the middle of the room stands a huge gorilla."

I paused. He glanced around, another grin lurking in his eyes. I smirked up at him. "This time, the sign says: 'I catch you, I fuck you.'"

He sniggered, acknowledging a good straight joke, but then he strangled on its homosexual undertone. He spun toward me, his big, shiny shoes large in my floor-high vision.

"Get my drift?" I pressed him, jabbing at his macho pride. What homophobe thinks a queer can beat him up? Actually, it's what they're all afraid of. "Who's the guy and who's the gorilla? Are you man enough to find that out?"

He stomped over, then squatted to face me. "Is that what you think this is about? Fuckin'?"

Good feint, nice charge, but a total zilch in results. Where do I go next? Desperate, I kept provoking him. "Sure it is." I leered at him. "You fuck one way. I fuck another."

He sank a fleshy knee to the floor and leaned toward me. "This is not about the physical. It's about the spiritual. Whether we're followin' God's plan or Satan's."

"And how do you know which is which?" I asked, guessing his answer.

He thumped the floor. "The Bible tells us God's plan."

"Which part of it?"

"All of it."

"So you obey every single verse in the Old and New Testament?"

He reared back with a lop-sided grin. "We're not goin' there, old dog. Slick words are Satan's weapon."

My top arm tingled. My bottom leg had already gone numb from the pressure of cot and body on it. Never in my life had I depended so much on words over action.

I scrambled after more of Ivan's standard attacks on these people who hide behind scripture to justify their own bigotries. Do these people who quote Leviticus eat bacon and shave? Do the panderers of Paul and his naïve words in Romans buy the rest of his "divinely inspired" proscriptions?

I peered up at the heavy man, but he seemed prepared for that line of patter and so confident about victory that he would allow me a little debate before he plugged me with straight juice and fixed all my problems.

If he fixes me, what will happen to Ivan? I jerked as I thought, What will happen to me and Ivan? I'll lose him! Or rather, he'll lose me because I won't want him anymore. Even a hetero who didn't hate homos was still hetero, wouldn't -- couldn't -- love one.

Making love. Surely Symington can relate to that. After all, there's nobody here but us guys -- and our cocks. I tried again: "Doesn't it come down to love?"

"Of course. God's love for us. Our love for other people and their souls."

I wriggled vainly to get more comfortable. "Do you know what it's like for one man to love another?"

He flinched, his jowly face blanching.

"There's the physical part, of course. It's not all blowjobs, you know. People -- guys -- need to fuck. We gays are not equipped to do it normally, yet we have the same instincts as you. Instincts for ramming deep, plunging our hard cocks as far in as we can, rutting hard to give our sperm a good jump-off, even though they're on a suicide mission, even though I know it's tearing him up inside. I can't help myself. It's what feels good, feels natural. You get that too, don't you?"

He nodded, one curt act, eyes puzzled by his agreement.

I nodded back, sharing that part of our basic selves. "I give myself to Ivan in that way too, knowing it's good for him, letting the residual pain be worth his pleasure. It's easier now, after all these years, but I'll never have a cunt."

He jerked his head up, suddenly alert to where he knelt, what he was listening to. Disgust pushed away that trace of sympathy. He lifted his knee.

Lord, why did I think queer-fear would ever let up enough for him to see what we have in common? My gut shriveled with regret -- over my own stupidity. Lord, why did I think that part was most important?

"Wait!" I cried, driven by insight. "Making love isn't really about the physical! You know that, don't you? Physical love is just a means to carry us to a spiritual plane, a transport to that place where nothing else can take us."

He froze, but my gaze drifted off him, looking beyond this trap of a room. "At least that's what Ivan taught me. Or gave me. Or showed me. Or ... all of that." I found the heavy man's eyes again. "You see, as a guy, I was taught to be stoic and defensive and violent in order to protect family and society. As that guy, I was never happy or even content. Always alert, watchful. Know what I mean?"

He nodded, less reluctantly this time.

"In all my life, only Ivan drives that away. Whether I'm in front of him or in back of him, he lifts me above all that macho bullshit. He enables me to be ... vulnerable." A sigh of remembrance escaped me. There's no greater peace in this life than soaring within your lover's embrace, coursing with your body's electricity, completely free, completely open, completely at his mercy. "Within his arms, I am purely me, unique, pristine, offered up to the Universe for the approval of God.

"Your woman does that for you, doesn't she?"

His face set hard, snapping from ruddy, yielding flesh to gray, rugged stone. He levered himself to his feet.

Unbelieving, I followed him with my eyes. Does he not know what I'm talking about? "Don't take that away from me!"

He flapped a vague hand. "You'll find a woman to do that."

I took my last shot, vain, but I couldn't hold it in. "Like you did, eh? Fat chance!"

He slashed me with hate-filled eyes. "'Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.'"

"I love Ivan! If you change me, I won't be able to anymore!"

Without another word, he plunged out the door. He charged back with the nurses and the detectives. They knew what they wanted. I, of course, went along.


A matter of days, Ivan had said. Where have you gone? Sick days smeared together as I sweated, barfed, pissed every whip-stitch, while the blonde measured me and the mCAT spun about my head. What's the brunette doing? I wondered and caught myself fantasizing about the two of them, my hard-on straining against my hospital pants.

On my first clear day, the door to freedom stayed shut, though the heavy man's face appeared more often at the hatch. The second also dragged by, with only the blonde's tantalizing body stirring my imagination, though her demeanor gave me no hope in that direction. The third one started slowly as well, though it shone bright through my small window.

The door clacked and swung open. The heavy man beamed at me. "Yore cured. Time to go home!" he announced and sent in the blonde to escort me.

"Will I ever see you again?" I asked her longingly.

She gave me a sidelong glance and a mysterious smile. "See, you are all better now." She took my elbow, her fingers cool and precise. I wanted them touching me someplace else. It lurched again inside my pants, wanting that too.

In the hallway, the heavy man beckoned, his eyes dancing with expectation. Behind him, another door stood open. A man stepped out, escorted by the small brunette. I glanced from her tight white ass to his face.

Ivan stood there, squinting back at me, slender, a bit shorter than I expected, brown eyes shiftier, but still ... he had something -- carriage? intelligence? depth? -- that made him crisp and clear even in that dim corridor.

"I believe you two know each other." The heavy man covered us both with a smirk, then sauntered away, his laugh booming.

Then I remembered: a peaceful breakfast in our cozy nook, yellow sunlight caressing his t-shirted shoulder; joyfully watching him laugh, his head back, mouth relaxed for a nice change; my pride as his hand scribbled madly across a legal pad in the fierce light of his desk lamp; playfully lathering his back in the shower; in bed, his arm limp across my belly, his leg entwined with mine, both of us sweaty, exhausted, languid, soaring and happy.

But they were memories adrift in my brain. I could not deny them: they seemed so real. Yet how could I believe in them: they seemed so untrue. Me, love a man? Touch him? Let him touch me? Never! My stomach rebelled. Now I understood the heavy man's reaction.

Yet ... My past with Ivan lingered in a soft chamber, the remains of my betrayed heart, displaced and fading while I grew a new one.

I searched his face, down the hall a half-dozen paces. He searched mine and quirked his brows, forming those puzzle dimples between them. ... as if ... he could read my expression, could know my mind ... after all these years ...

The brunette gave Ivan a gentle shove. He turned to her with a smile and a groping hand. She batted it away nonchalantly and stepped into the room. He shrugged good-naturedly, then looked back around at me.

Nothing in his face now. I was just another guy. Who flung a mean Frisbee and liked trout-fishing ... someone good to spend time with ...

The blonde nudged me, murmured, "Go out that door," then broke away, leaving me lonely. She walked toward Ivan, an efficient, no-nonsense walk that could not disguise the lushness of her hips, the flex of her shapely calves, the strength of her thighs and the promise of what lay between them.

She passed him with a nod and I noticed him watching her too. He twisted to follow her with his eyes as she marched into the room after the brunette.

Safe out of her sight, he leered, his eyes still tracing those rolling hips. "Got anything going on with her yet?"

"Ice queen," I declared. "Gave me a cold shoulder that frostbit my toes. You and the brunette?"

He looked around and shrugged. "Not my type. Care for a beer?"

I nodded and he led the way out. Ivan Zaporizhia, my drinking buddy.

BIO: In the early '70s, Analog published two of my stories; another appeared in Lone Star Universe. More recently, The Jewish Spectator published one of my stories, and Speculations published my article on "Writing Good Computer." My mainstream short-short story "Downstream from Divorce" appears at Flash Fiction Online as part of their March, 2008, issue. More stories appear at or are scheduled for The Monsters Next Door Issue #4, Bards and Sages, Morrigan E-Zine, a Guest-Quarters story at Edge Of Propinquity,, and Sorcerous Signals as well as the Mystic Signals print anthology. You can read more at

I also moderate SFWA's Online-Update and SFWA-News newsletters.