“The Pros of a Matchstick”—Installment X – 8 July 2014
First off, allow me to apologize for taking so long to post this installment of “Matchstick”—my computer spazzed out unexpectedly, then repaired itself just as suddenly, and I’ve started a new job on top of it all.
Oh, and another thing—
I’ve settled on a permanent title for the novella. It’s “The Pros of a Matchstick; or, Most Unlikely Things”.
One more point. I’ve decided this will be the final post for this work until I complete it, then I’ll post the entire ending here. It could be tomorrow before I’m done, it could be Christmas before I’m done (hopefully not, though). I’m just as excited as you are to see how it all comes to an end, but not even I know that yet. Well, not exactly.
In any case, here’s installment ten.
The three men were headed south on the FDR. The cop’s sustained prattling and Ricky’s persistent moaning seeping through the trunk prodded Linwood into lighting another cigarette.
The cop looked over at Linwood, then back out at traffic in front of the car. “This is kinda cool,” he stated. He unbuttoned his cuffs and took off his jacket as he steered with a knee. “Like you’re the fare and I’m the cabbie. I understand you better now, I think.”
Linwood gave him a look of incredulity—and noticed the cop’s watch. He paused on it for a beat before returning to his cigarette with a strangled scoff.
“I’m being serious here,” the cop said, lowering his voice. “It’s because of you I understand what makes a cab driver tick. It’s not the danger, or the stories you get to tell your buddies. And it’s not the money, that’s for damn sure. It’s the near-constant companionship, the desire to make that one intimate connection, however brief, with every stranger you come across and, conversely, the rage when you never really do. It’s that hope and that despair, in even, hard-hitting cycles. That’s what drives you—all of us, really.” Neither man said a word as the East River and Brooklyn beyond scrolled by in the dark.
Ricky’s stifled cries became rhythmic thumping—him kicking the roof of the trunk. “Don’t worry about him,” the cop said with a grin. “He’ll get tired. Eventually.”
Linwood flicked the cigarette butt out of the window. He snuck a glance at the big green wristwatch again, and for the first time had second thoughts about teaming with this man in delivering justice to Ricky.
“I’m the best kind of cop, you know—one that refuses to tie justice together with conscience. You do realize I’m here to help, don’t you, kid?”
“Well, I don’t want your fuckin’ help then, bacon bits,” Linwood spat at him.
“Bacon bits.” The cop laughed. “That’s pretty… sophomoric, actually. But still, it made me laugh. Tell you what. Let’s make a little detour.”
The two men stood at Church and Vesey streets, peering through the chain-link at the still-smoldering ruin that was once the center of the world. The day-traders and secretaries and janitors and tourists were long gone, replaced by excavators and volunteers and firemen and policemen, all searching—with decreasing desperation, these days—for the remains of those lost in the attacks two-and-a-half months before. Work lights scattered their beams through the cloud of smoky dust kicked up by dump trucks and backhoes rumbling across the site. Tons and tons of mangled scorched steel were being piled and sorted—patient, round-the-clock work. The buildings closest to ground zero were outfitted in red mesh screening to further protect them from the sad work below, and to Linwood they looked like mourning robes.
“You heard ’bout that guy on the bridge today,” he said to the cop, sotto voce. “He ran from my cab before that train took him out. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
The cop turned to look at him. “What makes you say that?” he said with a smirk.
Linwood looked out at the site below. “‘Cause you’re a fuckin’ cop. And the guy that tried to kill me in July.”
The cop’s smirk became a broad smile. He turned to face the hazy intersection behind them.
“Can’t you see how much hate there is in the world?” he asked. “These people in their turbans and dresses and pinkie rings funded and armed this attack with money and guns we gave them. It took them three hours and these people changed the world, forever and ever. And now we have this brand-new crater to remind us of that.”
He clenched his fists and turned back to Linwood, who had been sadly watching the goings-on below, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips again. The cop unrolled his hands, reached into a pocket, and pulled out a cigarette—along with a lighter. “It was the watch tipped you off, wasn’t it? It belonged to my twin brother Diran,” he began, exhaling the first drag in a sigh. “He was a combat diver in the Navy.
“God, he loved the water. We grew up in Cayuga, a half-hour walk away from the lake, and damned if we weren’t out there every day in the summer as kids. He could swim for hours and never get tired. But like all brothers we grew up, and apart. He went to Annapolis, and I came to the filthy City to… you know. When he graduated my mother went to an army surplus store and bought for him this diving watch, she was so proud of her son the frogman.” He knocked the long column of ash from his cigarette.
“Diran went through all the training, he learned what they said he needed to learn. I asked him what it was he did, once. He told me he specialized in clandestine ops—landing first on enemy beaches, scoping them out for trailing ground troops, and planting explosives and tracking devices on ships, all without being detected. He was good, apparently—got lots of commendations and medals. He was so good they thought he’d be a great help in the Gulf, so they sent him to scout a small island in the Strait of Hormuz. He walked into an ambush but the watch survived, almost unscathed.” He ashed the cigarette again and showed a dent in the watchface to Linwood, who paid no attention.
“Somebody found the watch on that island, figured out it belonged to Diran, and mailed it back to my mother. She cried and cried the day it came, and for the entire week after. My father had died when we were kids and now Diran was gone, and it broke my mother’s heart that all she had left was me. She was dead six months after that.
“I don’t wear it to honor my brother’s memory. I don’t wear it because my mother treasured it so much. It’s because this monstrosity and I are all that’s left.” He threw the butt on the ground as he exhaled the final drag, and crushed it out.
The cop stood up, straight and tall, and walked over to Linwood, smirking again. “Of course it was a lie. Everything around you is a lie, all the time. But every story has a grain of truth at its heart.” His reflexes dulled by the liquor, Linwood couldn’t block in time the rib-fracturing punch that landed squarely on his solar plexus. He fell to his knees, promptly vomited up the half-bottle of rum he’d drunk, and struggled to take a breath as he writhed on the ground. “I’m sure you’ve realized it by now, but you’re gonna be my 9/11. My crater.”
“Fu—fuck you,” Linwood wheezed, still dribbling. “Either you kill me now, or I’m gonna go home and go to sleep.” He wobbled to his feet.
“You can leave, if that’s what you want. But that sack of shit in the trunk and the tall hippie are both mine if you do.” Linwood wrinkled his face in consternation and discomfort, and when the words sank in he turned white as a sheet.
The cop drove through the West Village, north along Hudson Street. As he had predicted Ricky had fallen silent in the trunk. Linwood was quiet too, and nauseous still.
“Remember how I came across you two at that restaurant in TriBeCa? I wasn’t really writing your friend a ticket. I was planting a tracking device on his cab, same as I did yours when I stopped you today.” The cop reached into his pocket and pulled out an electronic device similar to a black television remote. “This is the transceiver, right here. I followed him until he found a spot I liked, and then I took him—with a little help.” He chuckled as he returned the transceiver to his pocket. “It’s also how I know about you and that unfortunate nigger on the bridge.”
“Is… is Jamieson still alive?” Linwood asked in a small voice.
The cop ignored the question. “Perhaps it would be best if I began at the beginning.” He reached in his breast pocket for a cigarette, but came up empty. “Hey, where’re your cigs? Huh?” He frisked Linwood, and took one when he found them. The cop took a drag from the cigarette, and then another. They came to a red light at Watts Street.
“I really did have a twin brother named Diran. We were the smartest Armenians Brighton Beach had ever seen. But he always wanted to be different, and not just from everyone else—from me, too. He’d cut his hair different from mine, he got his ear pierced. He bought an obnoxious green watch, just so everybody else would be able to tell us apart. He wore it every day, and every day I hated him for it.
“I went to Yale to study medicine, and he blew off a scholarship to MIT to stay here and drive a taxicab. And it made me angry, you know? It made me angry that Diran would rather slum it with junkies and whores and niggers, and waste the potential he knew he had. He wasn’t ever going to touch any of them because he was better than they were. He—we could have been so much more than we turned out to be.” He threw the butt out of the window as the light turned green.
“So I graduated, and I became an anesthesiologist. A good one, too. I had a residency in a little hospital in Yonkers, then moved to a bigger one in D.C. After that I did a four-year stint with Doctors Without Borders.
“I found the first in Pak Kret, a lady boy. Sheeny black hair, missing a lower canine, the right one. I did him—her, it, whatever—with a scalpel. Three nicks to the femoral artery behind a salapao stand. He was dead in ten seconds.
“They found the body the next day. The papers ran with the story for a week. It was glorious. Empowering.” The cop looked over to Linwood, still huddled in the seat behind him. “You okay, kid? I hope you aren’t fading. Not yet.”
Linwood watched the wet sidewalks pass by. He wasn’t fading, he was numb—numb because Dennis was dead, because Ricky was in the trunk, because somehow he had gotten Jamieson involved, because a sociopath had been tracking him like an elk for four months. The cop poked Linwood in the ribs with an elbow, then shrugged his shoulders when he failed to elicit a response.
“So, where was I… oh, right. After Thailand I went to Kenya, the Sudan, Brazil. I experimented a bit. I stabbed a few. I shot one. I beat one to death.
“But when I came to the syringe…— So unassuming and easily secreted, I knew that was the way to do it. By the time I came back to the States in ’94 my skills were sharp—God, were they sharp. I got a grant and I opened up a clinic in the Bronx. Gotta have a day job, right? And then I settled back to wait.
“It took a full fourteen months to prepare, and not just in finding the uniform and the cruiser an a garage to hide it all in. It took that long to become a cop. I would practice for hours in the mirror. I told the furniture to freeze and read them their rights so often I’d go hoarse. I went to a gun shop and bought a Glock 19, and learned how to use it. I read that handbook they give to Probies cover to cover.
“And while I did all that I got close to my brother again—very, very close. I figured out his routine. I found out all his favorite fare haunts. We’d go to Mets games together, we’d eat together, all in the name of research. When the time got close I planted a bug on his cab. I watched him, followed and waited, for three weeks.
“Diran was in Ozone Park when I pulled him. His expression when he recognized me… I’ll never forget it. I can’t even describe it to you now, not even if I wanted to. But he laughed when he saw me in uniform. Laughed. I didn’t say a word as I stuck the syringe in his shoulder and gave him the injection, a huge dose of pure succinylcholine. And then he was gone. I took his watch, this watch. My twin brother was the first one, the first cabbie.”
They came to a red at 23rd Street and Linwood sat up straight, slowly scanning the intersection as worry flooded his face.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
The cop paused, then steamrolled over the question. “It’s only because Diran became a cabbie that I started killing them, you know. Had he been a greengrocer, or a mechanic, or—”
“I asked you a question. Where are we going?”
“My ignoring your stupid question should have answered it for you, kid,” the cop stated. “If you want to make—” Before he could finish the answer Linwood tore out of the car and sprinted up Ninth avenue toward Chelsea Park, toward Arlotta’s apartment.
“Stupid kid,” the cop muttered as he shut the door Linwood had left open. “He’s going to beat me there.”