Authors: Richard Aleas
I heard someone pick up and Roy took the phone. He was still holding tight to the front of my jacket with one huge fist.
“Mr. Khachadurian? This is Roy from the club. Yes. I’m with John Blake, he says you — Yes, in his apartment. Wayne did. Because he’s sticking his nose — He’s hanging around the club, he’s bothering the girls — No, I haven’t. Yes. Yes. Yes, I understand.” He slammed the phone down.
He pulled me close again. “You’re one lucky son of a bitch,” he said. He shoved me back and my knees buckled against the bed. I went sprawling. Then he was standing above me, blocking what little light came in through the window. I didn’t see his fist come down, but I felt it as he buried it deep in my belly.
“Murco,” I croaked.
“I don’t work for Murco,” he hissed. “I work for Wayne Lenz.” An uppercut slammed against the underside of my chin, snapping my head back against the mattress. “That’s first of all. Second, I don’t like getting sprayed in the eyes.” One more punch, this one aimed at my groin. I turned and caught it on my hip.
“He’ll kill... he’ll kill you.” I could barely get the words out.
“Well, now, that’s third,” he said, and I could hear the satisfaction in his voice. “The man said don’t do any permanent damage. Didn’t say don’t hit you.” The next blow caught me in the side of the head. After that, I didn’t feel the rest, just heard them as they landed...
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A HARD CASE CRIME BOOK
First Hard Case Crime edition: October 2004
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street
in collaboration with Winterfall LLC
Copyright © 2004 by Winterfall LLC. All rights reserved.
Cover painting copyright © 2004 by Robert McGinnis
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Print edition ISBN 978-0-85768-315-1
E-book ISBN 978-0-85768-382-3
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The headline made me sit down when I read it, that and the picture next to it and the article that spilled out over two columns underneath.
After I finished, I spread the paper out on the table, flattened it down with both hands, and stared at the photo. I wasn’t reading, not any more, just watching the girl in the photo stare back at me, a big smile on her face, all her teeth showing, her eyes squinting against the photographer’s flash, blond bangs hanging down under the peak of her mortarboard cap. That was one of two photos the paper had run; the other was on page nineteen, where the article continued. I didn’t turn to page nineteen, not again, just stood up, bearing down on the table, leaning on my fists, and looked at her. The strangest thought came to me then: I thought about the bird.
It was made of styrofoam, with a yellow-and-red coating on it meant to look like feathers, a black plastic beak, and wire feet twisted into claws at the ends. I found it in the incinerator room at the end of the hall, in a balsa wood cage balanced on the rim of the slop sink. I’d come out to throw out the kitchen garbage for my mother, so I went ahead and dragged the door to the incinerator open and let the knotted plastic bag slide down the chute. But my eyes were on the bird, the shoddy styrofoam bird in its shoddy wooden cage.
One of our neighbors must have thrown it out, either the Tolberts or the Nelsons or Mrs. Knechtel in 14-D. No one would mind if I took it. My mother complained that it was filthy, but it wasn’t, not very, and when I promised to wash it off, she said she’d let me keep it.
My father put a hook in the side of my bookcase and hung the cage on it, higher up than I could reach, and it stayed there, where I could see it every time I lay in bed, for the next ten years. My father left us somewhere along the way, but the bird stayed.
When Miranda Sugarman finally let me sleep with her, she did it looking up at that bird, a ten-year accumulation of dust mottling its coat, the cage splitting where the hook bit into the wood. It was the night before we graduated from high school and only a week before she would leave New York for summer school in Los Alamos, where she hoped to get a head start on the pre-med courses that would put her on track for a career as an optometrist, or an ophthalmologist, I could never remember which.
But that night I remember. I remember her eyelids trembling as she kissed me and how, afterwards, she weaved her fingers into my hair and pulled my head to her chest. I remember the curve of her shoulders as she leaned over the side of the bed to pick her glasses up off the floor. I remember listening to her heart as it hammered slower and slower against her ribs. Her chest was sticky with perspiration and so was my cheek, and we lay like that for a long time.
Out of nowhere she said, “I hate that thing. That bird. I really do.”
I followed her glance and it was as though I were noticing the cage up there for the first time. It was an ugly, god-awful thing. I couldn’t remember why I’d ever wanted it. I stood on tiptoe to get it down, wobbling a little as blood rushed to my head. Miranda laughed and I felt her hands around my waist, trying to hold me back, but I carried the cage out to the living room and she followed, my blanket wound around her body. She hissed at me as I unlocked the front door — “You’re naked!” — but she held the door for me and I walked out into the hall, past 14-B and 14-C and 14-D. The door to the incinerator room squeaked as I opened it and again, once I’d put the cage on the edge of the sink, when I let it slam shut.
I walked back, all the length of that long hall, to where Miranda waited wrapped in my blanket, a look of mischief and delight shining in her face; and at the last instant, while a neighbor might still have opened the door and seen her, she opened the blanket and let it fall to her feet.
A sign of things to come? I didn’t see it that way then. I only knew, in that instant, and maybe only for that instant, that I loved her: loved her as only an eighteen-year-old escaping from virginity and high school in the same night can. We swept the blanket under us. It didn’t matter to us that we were in my mother’s living room. We struggled to be silent, and failed. Thankfully, my mother didn’t wake up — or, if she did, she was discreet enough to stay in her bedroom with the door closed. Or if she wasn’t, we never noticed.
The following afternoon, as I mounted the stage to the sound of our music teacher pounding out “Pomp and Circumstance” on the piano, I was struck by a thought. Last night, I’d left the bird in exactly the same place I’d found it ten years earlier, in more or less the same position on the edge of the sink. And despite the decade that had passed, we still had all the same neighbors. One of them was the person who had thrown the thing out in the first place. What a shock it would be, I thought, what a Twilight Zone kick in the head, if the same neighbor who had thrown the bird out all those years earlier happened to walk into the incinerator room today and see it there, exactly as he or she had left it ten years ago. What would it be like? To think that you have safely disposed of something, that for better or worse it is out of your life forever, and then to walk into a room ten years later and find it there again, staring you in the face?