Firstly, allow me to apologize for being remiss in my blogging duties. I take pride in having posted at least once in twenty of the twenty-six months ifoundthewub has been in existence but, due to those forces so often beyond our control, I have been stymied once again. But never fear, for I am here.
I’ll bring you up to speed.
“Matchsticks” has been fully complete for two-and-a-half months now. And when I say fully complete I mean I’m not fiddling with it constantly anymore. The final part I’m posting here is the epilogue. I still think it’s missing something, but I’m content to let it lie for now.
Five days later.
The little funeral parlor in Bensonhurst was full of people, of the scent of flowers and too much perfume, and of the sound of quiet sobbing and feet shuffling past Dennis’ oversized casket. Linwwood stood near the entrance and checked his watch, the frogman watch. He watched the door as he waited for Jamieson to arrive.
“How you holdin’ up, tesorino?” Linwood turned to find a small elderly woman standing behind him, her blonde-dyed hair styled in an impressively large bouffant. She stood holding her arms open.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Colminetti,” Linwood said. When he bent down to hug her she kissed his cheek and left a large lipstick print behind. “Thank you, thank you,” she said. She wrinkled her brow as she studied his face, rubbing her lip prints from his skin. “My God,” she breathed. “Look at you. What monster could do such a thing’ta such a nice boy?” She stroked the bruises that had yet to fully heal.
“You know, Dennis really liked you, Linwood. He talked about you all the time. I—I’m glad you were with him when it happened.” She began tearing up again, and Linwood placed a hand on her shoulder. When she had collected herself she patted his cheek again, and turned to greet the queue of people still trickling in.
After a time the priest called the room to order. Jamieson slipped in just as the ushers began closing the doors.
After the service Linwood and Jamieson stood on the sidewalk, watching close friends and family get into the train of cars lined up behind Dennis’ hearse. They hailed the cabbies as they came out. Reggie came over to them when they spotted him.
“How ya holdin’ up, fellas?” They both grunted in response.
“Can’t believe the big boss is gone. No trace’a Ricky, neither. Either that little motherfucker got what he had comin’, or he’s smarter than we thought he was an’ he got gone.”
Linwood and Jamieson exchanged a glance.
“You find another gig yet?” Linwood asked.
“Yeah,” Reggie said. “A little garage in Queens picked me up day before yesterday. Oh, right. Before I forget.” Reggie reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded square of paper. “Thanks,” Linwood said as he opened it. It was a crayon of two figures, one large and one small, holding hands underneath a tree with far too few leaves.
“Veronica made it the day after we took her home. The big one’s you,” he added.
“Yeah, I figured that,” Linwood said with a chuckle. “Tell her thanks for me.” Reggie nodded. “What about you, man? How you feelin’?” Reggie asked Jamieson. He inadvertently slapped his chest where his wounds were and Jamieson flinched in pain. “Guess that’s my answer,” Reggie apologized. “Man, somebody worked y’all over good.”
“You should see the other guy,” Jamieson said. Only Reggie laughed.
“Glad to see you boys’re doin’ okay, though,” Reggie said. “I’ll be prayin’ for ya.” The three said their goodbyes, and Reggie left.
“Ready?” Linwood asked Jamieson, who nodded. The pair started off toward 20th Street and the D train. Jamieson pulled out a cigarette, then lit it with a match.
“Really?” Linwood said, surprised. “Didn’t think I was rubbin’ off on ya so much, man.”
“Please,” Jamieson said, exhaling. “Jus’ thought it was time for a change, that’s all. Almos’ gettn’ done in by a psychopath tends to do that to a person.” They both laughed.
“Glad to see Dennis’ people holdin’ up okay,” Jamieson said. “His mom’s a soldier.”
“Yeah,” Linwood said. “She’s a sweetheart. But the whole time all could think was how somebody so big came out of somewhere so… not.” They laughed again. Linwood pulled a cigarette but couldn’t find a match. Jamieson gave him one. A block passed before he spoke again.
“‘Pay attention to the oddities’.”
“What you said to me at the restaurant that night. I told you about how strange the shift was goin’ and that’s what you told me.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jamieson said, remembering. “But what we just went through? That shit’s on a whole other level than odd.”
“But what level?”
It was Jamieson’s turn to think. “Don’t know. Maybe it’s one of those things you shouldn’t forget about.”
“How the hell would I ever forget about that?”
“Exactly.” Linwood rolled his eyes and took another drag from the cigarette.
They spent the rest of the walk in silence. When they came to the station entrance they stopped to finish the smokes.
“So, this guy in the Heights. You sure he’ll pick me up?”
Jamieson took a drag. “Yeah, yeah. I worked wit’ him before I started at Colminetti’s. He knows what happened’ta Dennis an’ he said he’d talk to you. So chill out.” He crushed the cigarette out.
“Yeah, alright.” Linwood did the same, and as he turned to go into the station a man walked into him and knocked him down.
“Oh jeez, I’m sorry,” the guy said. He held out a hand to help Linwood up.
“The hell, man? Watch where the—” His sentence was cut off as he got a good look at his assailant. A big man who had squeezed himself into an ill-fitting suit, he carried a valise in one hand and a newspaper underneath an armpit.
Linwood sat on the ground and shrieked with laughter. Embarrassed, and recognizing Linwood, the fat guy scurried into the station as fast as he could.
“You good, Linwood?” Jamieson asked, confused. He helped him to his feet.
“Y—yeah,” Linwood answered, catching his breath. “Yeah. I’m fine, but… let’s catch the next one, okay?”
This is the second part of the finale to “Matchstick.”
The cop stood up and faced Linwood. “I want you to know that there’s no hard feelings here. You just chose to enter the wrong profession, is all.” He stuck the syringe into the vial and drew up a bit of the liquid inside, removing the air after he had done so.
He moved in front of Linwood and pushed a foot into his chest, pinning him to the loveseat. The first injection the cop had given him was wearing off and Linwood tried to squirm out from underneath his shoe, groaning with the effort.
The cop frowned at Linwood’s feeble attempt to escape. He took his foot away, and when Linwood reflexively sprang forward to take a breath he caught his throat in a vice grip. Holding Linwood’s head back he injected a bit of the drug into his chest, just below the skin. He waited until he felt Linwood’s tensed body relax, before placing the syringe back on the table and straddling Linwood’s lap.
“This,” the cop said, showing the syringe to Linwood, “is lidocaine. The magic of this stuff is it keeps you from feeling pain, but won’t knock you out. A demonstration.” The cop drew a finger across Linwood’s chest with a light touch, then raked the scalpel blade across the same place. Almost at once blood beaded along the cut and began to run down his torso. Linwood looked down, panicked, but just as the cop had said he felt nothing.
Arlotta handed over the threaded needle, and the cop proceeded to sew the slice closed. “This is how it’s going to be, until you slowly bleed to death or I get bored and kill you, whichever comes first,” he said as he worked. “After that we’ll work on your friend over there, and then the troublemaker in the trunk’ll be next. This’ll be an interesting few days, won’t it, baby?” Arlotta smiled in response. “Get another one ready,” he told her. Jamieson groaned loudly just then, catching the cop’s attention.
“And you,” the cop said to Jamieson. He cut the thread with the scalpel, and rose from Linwood’s lap to walk around the table. “I have to say, you’re tougher than you look, Mister Hippie,” the cop taunted. Jamieson lay on his back on the floor where the cop had dropped him. His right hand was balled into a fist.
“It’s always like this with the younger ones,” the cop said to the room. “The drive to live is still strong by this point, so you fight, and fight, and fight. Right up until the bitter end. It’s all very romantic, but…” He stooped over Jamieson’s face, and pulled his head up off the floor. “Everybody breaks.” He dropped his head to the floor with a thump, and stood to retrieve the bloody scalpel. In doing so he shifted the pile of items on the small coffee table, and moved the gun closer to the edge.
“I wonder…” the cop trailed off as he wiped the blood off the blade and onto Jamieson’s shirt. “I wonder how much pain you can take before you pass out.
“T… try me a—an’ see, motherfucker,” Jamieson hissed back.
“That’s the plan, granola man.” The cop laughed out loud, then stooped again to cut Jamieson’s shirt free. He gave him three deep slices, on his chest. He drew the scalpel blade across his skin slowly, made sure that the blade passed through the skin, into the muscle. Jamieson grunted and hyperventilated in trying to handle the pain.
Though Linwood’s vision was obscured by the stuff on the table and the drugs in his system he knew at once Jamieson hadn’t been anesthetized. He could feel the first drug the cop injected him with being overtaken by adrenaline, still pumping through his veins.
The cop stood again, swapping the scalpel for the bottle of rum from the table. He went over to Jamieson’s body and poured out half of what was in the bottle over Jamieson’s cuts, and onto the carpet beside him. He groaned at first, but it soon gave way to wailing. After swallowing what remained the cop walked into the kitchen and came back with a salt shaker.
“You know that adage about rubbing salt into wounds?” the cop said to Jamieson as he uncapped the shaker and poured a pile of salt into his hand. “I wonder how true it is. Maybe you should test it out for me.” He knelt over Jamieson’s body, poured the salt over his cuts, and rubbed it into them with a palm and lots of pressure.
Jamieson turned white in trying to swallow the pain this time. It wasn’t long before he began to sweat and his body began to convulse, and soon after that he screamed as loudly as he dared. The cop smiled. “A myth confirmed, perhaps.” He stood and wiped the sweat from his face with the back of a blood-stained hand.
Linwood listened to Jamieson’s agonized cries slowly fade as his muscles tried to obey his brain’s commands. He watched as the cop and Arlotta made preparations for the next round to torture.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” the cop asked him, rising from the chair. “seeing how a serial killer operates. But it’s so much more than simply taking a life. There’s the ritual, the preparation, the hunt—many, many parts to a most glorious whole.” He picked up the syringe again.
Fu—fuck that,” Linwood whispered. He furrowed his brow in trying to get his larynx to work properly. “You c—can say what… ever you want, but—” His sentence was cut off as the cop punched him across the jaw again.
“Why do you insist on contradicting me at every turn?” the cop asked as he sat on Linwood’s lap again. “Chalk it up to the recklessness of youth, I suppose.” He put four fingers underneath Linwood’s head and jerked it upward. He forced himself to stay still as the cop injected more of the local anesthetic midway between his chin and throat.
“Yes, that’ll do. Maybe afterward I’ll rip these stitches out and take your tongue. It’s been entertaining me all night. And I’m sure Arlotta enjoyed it, too,” he added, smirking at her. “Come here baby, and hold his head back.”
Arlotta rose from the loveseat and did what she was asked without a word, wrapping her forearm around Linwood’s forehead and eyes. Sweat beaded on his torso and face, anticipating the attack to come.
“Number thirty-six,” the cop said, slowly drawing a finger along the underside of Linwood’s chin. He found a spot just under his chin and touched the tip of the blade to it. “You got him, Arlotta?” When she nodded he pushed the scalpel trough Linwood’s skin. Blood leached out over his hand, and the blade in it, as a grin of satisfaction spread across his face. By reflex Linwood thrashed his arms to get free and connected with the side of the cop’s head.
“You… m—motherfucker!!” the cop screamed. He yanked the scalpel from Linwood’s chin and Arlotta let his head go. his eyes widened, his face turned beet-red, and his smile became a grimace. He raised the scalpel to slice Linwood across the face, just as the smell of sulfur and the hiss of a match head filled the living room. The cop whipped around to spot the source, and a beat later four loud pops echoed through the apartment.
The cop bellowed in anger, pain, and surprise as he moved toward Jamieson. As he fell across the table Linwood saw empty bullet casings through the cop’s feet, lying on a scorched section of carpet. Blood pooled between the cop’s shoes.
As he puzzled over the sight Jamieson, beaten, bloodied, and in considerable pain, slowly rose to his feet and picked up the empty Saturday night special. He didn’t say a word as he chambered a bullet, the last one.
“What the—” A fifth explosion burst through the apartment as he shot the cop in the forehead from point-blank range.
For a beat Arlotta and Linwood stared at Jamieson, unable to process the previous ten seconds. Linwood recovered from the shock first, and after springing forward and snatching the scalpel from the cop’s hand threw his arm behind him, blindly slashing at Arlotta. He wobbled out of the chair, and turned to find her clutching at her stomach. A bloodstain grew out from under her palms, spreading across the T-shirt.
“You… y—you…” Linwood watched as Arlotta’s gaze shifted from her wound to his face, and back again. After a few seconds she fell on the loveseat, unconscious from heavy blood loss.
Linwood turned back to Jamieson. Thirty seconds passed, then a minute, before he spoke.
“You—you let ’em take your hat, man.”
Jamieson laughed painfully. “Nah. It’s in that room back there.” He chuckled again as Linwood cleaned and taped a wad of gauze to the wound beneath his chin.
“Ricky killed Dennis last night,” Linwood told him after he’d finished.
“Yeah, that motherfucker told me already. He told me a lot of crazy shit tonight I didn’t know about.” Jamieson winced, and fell to his knees in pain.
“Jamieson!” Linwood rushed over to him. “Don’t worry, I gotcha.” He threw one of Jamieson’s arms over his shoulder, stood, and walked him over to the blood-free sofa. He took a look at the salted wound on his chest, then shuffled through the stuff on the table as Jamieson thanked him.
“That chick, she told me ’bout how you two met,” Jamieson told him. “How her husband was gonna kill you, an’ why he decided’ta track you instead. Given all that’s happened, I think a seven-point-five was more than generous for that bitch.”
Linwood laughed as he came back with gauze, tape, several rubbing-alcohol pads, a bottle of water, and a syringe full of something. “I—I’m sorry,” he told Jamieson as he knelt in front of the sofa.
“For noticin’ that your shitty hat was gone before thankin’ you for savin’ my life. Twice, now.” He opened the bottle of water and pored a bit of it over the raw wounds on Jamieson’s chest before giving him the rest of it. He laughed as Linwood held the gauze in place and taped it. “I can’t help but notice they took your fuckin’ hoodie too, jerk,” Jamieson said.
“Yeah, but still. The Islanders, man?” Linwood opened one of the pads and rubbed it near the wound on Jamieson’s chest. “It’s okay,” Linwood said as he flinched. “It’s only an antibiotic. I checked.” He gave Jamieson the injection.
“So, what’s the verdict?” Jamieson asked as he rose from the couch. “Should we go to the hospital, or what?”
“I’m pretty sure at least three bones in my face’re broken, so yeah, we better. We’ll tell them we got jumped.” He stood and walked over to his vomit-stained hoodie lying rumpled on the floor.
“I guess that’s that. Let’s get the fuck outta here, man.” Jamieson walked to the back of the apartment.
Linwood put the hoodie on, wincing with the pain. He looked around the living room again, and at the two bodies. His eyes lit upon the frogman watch. He hesitated, before giving into the urge to take it off the dead man’s wrist and pocket it.
Five minutes later the pair stood on the sidewalk, Jamieson in a freshly-pilfered T-shirt and leather jacket, and the Islanders cap. He studied his twisted eyeglass frames, deciding if they were worth salvaging, as Linwood searched his backpack for a cigarette. Their battered faces drew puzzling stares from passersby.
“Come on, man,” Jamieson said. He lit a bent cigarette and exhaled the smoke in irritation.
“Yeah, alright,” Linwood agreed, finding one and lighting it. He inhaled deeply, and exhaled in absolute relief. The pair started toward Penn Station, but after a half-dozen steps Linwood stopped. Between the now-empty tenement and the building next to it the turd-colored beat-up sedan was parked. Now, though, there were no sounds coming from the trunk.
“What?” Jamieson turned to find Linwood staring at the car.
“Nothin’,” Linwood answered. He looked at the trunk for a beat, then continued with Jamieson toward the station.
This is it—the finale, part one. It’s the thrilling (I think) ending to “Matchstick.” It’s been complete for nearly three weeks now, but it’s been put through it’s paces and, for the foreseeable future, is done. I thought that I’d be able to mass the ending together in a final post but… that’s not going to happen. I’ll split it into three parts—the first half of the final chapter, the second half, and the epilogue.
One note, though. I retconned into the plot that the apartment is the only one in a tenement under renovation. Thus screaming is of no consequence.
Ten minutes later Linwood stood gasping for breath in front of Arlotta’s door, sweaty and afraid. It was locked. He called out for her as he pounded on the door, alternating between shoulder and fist. He heard the building’s front door open and close, then footsteps, slow and heavy, coming up the empty staircase toward the apartment.
“Come on, kid,” the cop taunted from below. “You didn’t really think you’d be able to outrun me. Oh, you did? Well, you were wrong. I’ve invested far too much to let you escape now.”
“Fuck you, prick!” Linwood yelled down to the cop still climbing the stairs. “Where’s Arlotta? And Jamieson?”
“What did I say about asking stupid questions? A better one might be how do I get this door to open up? Or, can I kill this guy before he kills me? Or even, do I have any hope at all? Any of those would be of more use at the moment than where are they. You already know they’re in there. Go in and get them.”
Linwood heard the footsteps pause on the landing below, and desperately began ramming his shoulder into the door again. He cried out in pain as his left shoulder separated, and in despair as the door held fast. He slid to the floor, defeated.
The cop came to the door and towered over him, Linwood’s backpack in hand. “You tried, kid. I’ll give you that much.” The cop nudged Linwood’s dislocated shoulder with a foot, smiling as he grimaced in pain. Then he reached down and effortlessly yanked him to his feet, wrenching Linwood’s left arm against the small of his back and pinning his body against Arlotta’s door with his own.
“Hmmm,” the cop said, taking in the scent of Linwood’s sweaty hair. “You smell so good, you know that? Like fear and defeat. People think you can’t sense an emotion without seeing it on someone’s face or in their body language, but they’re dead wrong. The nose does a much better job of picking up on pheromones in body sweat than the eyes ever will in deciphering a glance or a gesture. And the nose never lies.” He tightened his grip on Linwood’s forearm and popped his shoulder back into place, making him gasp in pain. “Do you know why I didn’t take you that night?”
Linwood said nothing.
“It’s because of that hippie. The second I heard his voice, I knew. I knew you and he had made that kind of connection I was interested in, and I wanted to see how deep it went. So I left. But I didn’t let you go, not by a ling shot.”
He reached into his left pocket, and produced a key which he slid into the lock. He reached into the pocket again, and this time fished out a capped syringe. The cop pulled it off with his teeth and spat it onto the floor, and inserted the needle into a vein bulging out of Linwood’s neck. He fell against the closed door, and as he slid to the floor again the cop turned the key and opened it. Linwood’s unconscious body fell inside.
“It’s about time you got here.” Arlotta emerged from the apartment, barefoot and dressed in an oversized T-shirt.
Linwood came to with a gasp, in a shower of ice water on the love seat in Arlotta’s apartment. He had been stripped to the waist and placed in handcuffs. He tried to sit up, but was unable to move.
The cop was standing there, holding a bucket, jamming his tongue in Arlotta’s mouth as far as it would go—so much so that, when they separated, she had to wipe her chin with the back of a hand. Linwood tried not to arouse himself in groggily trying to find Arlotta’s curves hidden beneath the shirt.
“You thought I’d killed you?” the cop asked. “No, not yet. I only gave you a bit of mivacurium, a quick-acting anesthetic. It knocks you out, it paralyzes you. Too much would kill you, for sure. But that would be too easy. I diluted it in saline solution, gave you fifteen milligrams at a concentration of point-two-five parts per million. Just enough so you’d feel it.”
A thud came from the back of the apartment. “I guess the hippie’s awake. Arlotta, keep the kid comfortable.” He left the room with a chuckle.
Carefully Linwood scanned the apartment again, this time with benefit of light. Two of the picture frames on the wall held larger reproductions of illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy—the brain and the heart—and the third contained a degree. The overstuffed bookcase was full of medical textbooks and manuals. Piles of gauze and bandages, vials of drugs, several unopened bottles of water, and sterile syringes now covered the coffee table. The ceramic elephant that was on the table beside the door lay on the floor in no less than five pieces. Arlotta watched him ponder over it.
“You know there’s no running from us, don’t you,” she said. “You’ve come to the realization that my husband isn’t just talking to hear himself talk. This is the third time I’ve seen it and it’s always happened this way.” She moved to sit next to him on the wet loveseat.
“Karayan is an amazing being, so much more than a mere man,” she began. “He really knows everything. I gotta tell you, I believe him.” She turned to study Linwood like she’d done in the cab, and moved to pull a wet lock of hair from his face. Linwood gurgled in protest and pulled back from her, but the anesthetic’s dulling after-effects caught him. He swung like a pendulum and landed face-down in her lap.
Arlotta laughed. “I really do like you, Linwood. That’s why I’ll level with you. Everything we did to you today was planned. We watched you for weeks, learning your routine, and that’s how he came up with the plan to capture you.
“I was planted on that train. Really. I missed the Q train this morning and Karayan told me he paid a bunch of kids to keep you on the platform until the next train came. He said you’d be there, and you were. He told me to set up a phony business dinner, and you overheard it. Everything that he says will happen always happens.
“The only reason I exist is for him. As long as I do what he tells me to do, we’re golden.” She ran a hand through his hair, then sat him upright again.
“My husband does something to me, Linwood. I feel it burn within me every time he speaks. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. I’ve spent the last year and a half tryingto figure out what it was he saw in me. I still can’t find it, Linwood.” She began stroking his chest. Linwood could only roll his eyes in resisting the erection threatening to erupt from his pants.
“You know how I met him? As a client. The client. At first it was just business, but not long afterward it for to be pretty 9 1/2 Weeks-ish—you know that movie? That first time we fucked in the space between the last two cars of a 1 train. During rush hour. That’s how the lessons began.
“He told me what it was he did, taught me how to keep his secret safe. Three months after we met he gave me the keys to this place, with one caveat—that I assist him. My first was number thirty-four.” Her fingers steadily moved down Linwood’s torso, lingering at the button on the waistband of his jeans.
“When he told me to find you, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, a cabbie… But you, you were everything Karayan said you would be.” She began unzipping his fly. Linwood stopped resisting and turned his clouded attention to her hand at his crotch. Another thud came from the recesses of the apartment. She snatched her hand away.
The cop came back, with Linwood’s backpack in one hand and Jamieson’s bloody collar in the other. His nose was broken, a gash on his head shined in the light overhead,and his shirt was splashed with blood and soaked with sweat. His glasses were missing and fresh rope burns wound around his wrists. The cop let go and his head hit the carpet.
Jamieson moaned softly in pain. Adrenaline surged through Linwood’s body at the sight.
“This one,” the cop said, pointing at the broken statuette. “He gave us some problems.”He gave us some problems.” Linwood tried to stand but both the injection and Arlotta had him dead to rights. She shoved him into the bookcase and he fell to the floor, along with a few upset books.
“Don’t do that, baby. It’s in bad taste.” The cop held out the handcuff keys to her. “In fact, apologize to the kid. Take his cuffs off.” He wore a smile as Arlotta straddled his back and did what she was told. As soon as she was free Linwood reached for the waistband at the small of his back.
“No, no, no.” The cop taunted him with the Saturday night special he had taken from the fare on the Williamsburg Bridge. He opened the cylinder and the bullets fell out onto the carpet. “It… What’s this, Arlotta?” He motioned at Linwood’s unzipped pants. “We were having a little too much fun with the kid, weren’t we?” He threw the backpack at her.
“Just givin’ him a little background, Karayan, that’s all. He should know why this is happening to him. Right, lover?” she added to Linwood. She began pulling items from the backpack—the match case, the notebook, the fare log. Before Arlotta set the bottle of rum on the table she shoved other items out of the way to make space, and accidentally knocked the matched to the floor next to Jamieson.
The cop put the empty revolver on the table and picked up the bottle. “Not a bad choice, kid,” he said after taking a long pull. He walked over to the bookcase. “So. You know my name now. You know what ‘Karayan’ means in Armenian? Dark. I suppose it fits.” He ran a hand over the volumes and, finding the appropriate place in the stacks, probed for something between two books with a thumb and forefinger.
Linwood watched the pair, Arlotta rifling his possessions and the calm cabbie-killer caressing his books. He tried moving again but when the cop came toward him with a scalpel in his hand he gave up.
The cop placed it on the table. “You keep trying to get up, kid. I’ve already told you, you aren’t running from this.” He stood over the hyperventilating Linwood, and struck him across the jaw without warning. “I… told you”—punctuating words with wallops—“I control this show. You… don’t get any say in this, get me?” The cop took a deep breath and shook the pain out of his hand. “Find anything, baby?” he asked Arlotta as he sat on the other side of Linwood. Blood dripped from his broken nose onto his chest as the cop put an arm around his shoulders.
“Nah, just stuff we knew already.” She dropped the empty backpack to the floor and reclined back onto the chair. Arlotta began stroking Linwood’s chest again, drawing her fingers through rivulets of his blood. Jamieson’s labored breathing rattled through the living room.
“Remember the lady boy I told you about?” the cop asked Linwood. “That’s the scalpel I killed him with. What do you think? It’s been a decade but I still keep it sharpened.” He moved the blade into Linwood’s face. The flash from it glinted into his eyes.
“This is going to hurt, and you’re going to bleed. A lot. But we can’t have you passing out from the pain, or blood loss.” he sat up again, and put the blade on the table. He picked up a vial and a syringe, and showed them to Linwood. “It’s time, Arlotta.” At the command she searched the table, and found surgical thread and a sterile needle.
I’ve come to an impasse in writing my novella—a bit ‘o the old writer’s block, it seems. It’s probably the dozenth time it’s happened in writing the beast. That means it’s time to take a step back and use this time constructively, polishing and rechecking and polishing even more.
And that’s okay.
Last week, I stumbled upon an honest-to-goodness wub (refer to my first post if you’re confused as to what a wub is). It’s something very, very precious to me—a flash drive, a 1G piece of plastic and stainless steel I’ve had for five years, and thought was lost to me for good. It’s full of un-revised short stories, and haiku and sonnets and free-verse poetry I’d scrawled down in the margins of class notes, sometimes in lieu of class notes—but only when the lectures became insufferably boring, of course. And even though most of the stuff on it isn’t anything special… (yet), it’s important that I came across it again. It’s a litmus test of sorts, a watermark that shows me where I’ve come from, but also where I want to go. I thought I’d share one of the more interesting pieces with you all.
It’s an experimental piece—something I’ve termed a haiku cycle. It’s something akin to an outline of a scene in a short story (and I’m pretty sure the idea began as a short story), but it’s told completely in haiku stanzas, three to a part. Now that I’ve read it again it may be a format to revisit, I think.
Queen of the Subway—Haiku Cycle No. 1
Sunshine streaming in,
And a line of blind-shadows
Slices the air. Their
Slashes line up in
A neat row. They draw my eye
To their marching, and my thoughts
Again return to
The “what-might-have-been,” though it’s
The why that stymies
I spotted you on
The rush-hour J train. It
Was your hair, lifted
In an afro, the
Queen of the subway. My gaze
Traced your length, along
The hem of your tight,
Clingy dress, down to your hand
Steady on the pole
Three weeks pass. Not once
Do you desert me. You pulse
Through my muscles, my bones. My
Mind fogs over, my
Spirit is broken by mere
Thoughts of you. I knew
That you were meant to
Be mine, and mine alone. I
Needed to find you
Again I see you
On the J, queen regent of
Brooklyn, and as sure as we’re
Magnets, as sure as
Two always comes after one,
We are drawn across
The space, together.
Mixed in amongst the Others
A burning will lies
I steel my nerve, and
Push my way through them to you.
We’re finally there.
The crown up close, it
Draws breath, quickens pulse, distracts.
Then I find your hand.
I reach out for it… but an
Other gets there first.
Sunshine streaming in,
And a line of blind-shadows
Slices through my heart.
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.”
And here’s part nine. And, at last, I have a clear vision of how I see “Matchstick” coming to a close. But that’s a ways away, yet. There are a few clues in this part. Let’s see if you’ll spot them in the coming weeks.
The rain fell in sheets again as Linwood pulled up to the closed bay doors fronting the garage. He let himself in through the unlocked business door, and immediately the sounds of Ricky and Dennis’ strange argument fell upon his ears.
“I ain’t scared’a you, fat man.” Ricky’s sniffling leaked through Dennis’ closed office door.
“Jus’ shaddup, jagoff. Why’dya tonight ta knock a fuckin’ screw loose? Huh?” It sounded as if Dennis had already started drinking. Linwood cracked a smile, imagining Dennis’ head cradled in his huge hands, trying in vain to stave away the migraine that was well on its way.
He opened the door and Ricky wheeled on him, sighting Linwood with a small revolver. His nose was bleeding, he’d been crying, and a shiner had begun to swell his right eye shut. Startled, Linwood dropped his smile and put his hands up, but he did notice that the pistol’s hammer wasn’t cocked. He looked over to Dennis, puzzled. The man took a long draw from a bottle of bourbon.
“That bitch… this bitch,” Ricky growled. He pointed the gun at Dennis again, sitting at the desk with a finger to his temple, angry now. “The big bossman’s been fuckin’ my wife, newbie. Been fuckin’ her for a long time, too.” Ricky wiped the tears and blood and mucus from his face with a wrinkled shirtsleeve. Sweat fell in drops from his hair, and his body trembled and shook so much the rattling of the bullets in the gun was audible. “I ain’t scared’a you,” Ricky repeated. He pulled the hammer back, and it clicked once, but Dennis didn’t flinch.
“Wha’? If ya gonna shoot me den do it, ya pussy,” Dennis taunted with a laugh. He stood, and reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette. “Y’know why I started seein’ Maria? ‘Cause’a you, ya basehead. You went’ta prison fa six years. You got out an’ still kept gettin’ inta shit. You made her cry ev’ry single day you was gone. It’s your fault I started up wit’ her, Rick.” He motioned for a light from Linwood, standing behind Ricky in the doorframe. He tossed a match over Ricky’s shoulder, and after Dennis lit the cigarette he exhaled the smoke into Ricky’s face.
“Fuck you, Dennis,” Ricky said through clenched teeth. “She’s a cunt, a fuckin’ cunt, man.” At this, and with surprising speed, the big man scrambled around the desk and stood in front of the smaller one. As Ricky stood there and quaked Dennis slapped the gun from his hand.
“Say dat again,” Dennis threatened him. He wrapped a hand around his throat, lifted him up against the wall and throttled him. Dennis moved in close, and the cigarette in his teeth touched Ricky’s nose, making him gurgle in pain. The small man writhed and thrashed between the wall and Dennis’ grip, and when he felt sure Ricky got the message the big man let go.
Ricky fell to the floor in a ball, took two enormous, hacking breaths, and fell to sobbing again. Linwood held out a hand to help him up, but he slapped it away and spat out a curse instead. Linwood shrugged his shoulders, and pulled out a cigarette himself. “Is that what you two’re arguin’ about?” he asked as he lit it.
Dennis sank into the creaky chair again. “Dat, an’ I axed his ass dis mornin’.” He ashed the cigarette, but thought better of it and crushed it out. “But dis was som’thiin’ that jus’ happened,” he said sadly. “I wasn’t tryin’ta be a mothafucka. But he was neva dere, wit’ Maria an’ dem kids. Always out scorin’ ‘stead’a raisin’ his family. I wanted her, yeah, but they needed me.” He pulled a bottle of painkillers out of a drawer. “I don’ feel bad about it, neitha. Dat cocksucka can burn in hell fa all I care. Ya hear dat, asshole?” Dennis took a long pull from the liquor bottle. “Come in here’ta talk shit ’bout Mimi an’ pull a fuckin’ piece on me. On me!” Dennis roared. “You lucky shitstain.” He tried to open the pill bottle, but quickly grew tired of struggling with the child-resistant cap and tossed it to Linwood. “Here, open dis for me, will ya, kid?”
Dennis’ toss arced high, and the bottle bounced off of Linwood’s fingertips when he tried to catch it. He stepped out into the garage to retrieve it, and when he came back Ricky was standing, shaking, and again pointing the revolver at Dennis. Dennis stared him down from across the desk but made no move to stand again.
Linwood stood there and watched, watched and listened as five times the hammer clicked—pairs of clicks this time—and five times a shot rang through the dark garage. The first bullet struck Dennis in the chest, and the big man collapsed on the desk. The second, third, and fourth went through the crown of his head. The fifth missed. Ricky wheeled on Linwood again, and lowered the revolver.
“You wanna send the cops after me, newbie?” he asked. “Do what you feel. But you saw it. That motherfucker deserved just what he got.” He grimaced, threw the empty revolver at Dennis’ rapidly-cooling body, and brushed past Linwood out into the garage. A few beats later the back door opened and closed.
The cigarette fell from Linwood’s lips as he stood there, and heard the blood gurgle and ooze its way out of Dennis’ body. He stepped forward, watching as it pooled at the edge of the desk and trickled down onto the floor. Linwood’s breath came in ragged pulses, and tears collected on his eyelashes.
Dennis was gone. And so was Ricky.
It took three EMTs to carry Dennis’ body away in a bag. Cops milled around, taking pictures of everything and searching all the cabs. The other four cabbies on shift came back to dispatch to be questioned by the cops, and were sent home for the night. Linwood tried calling Jamieson, and didn’t get an answer. For the past hour he had been questioned and quizzed and queried by police. Now he was too angry and annoyed to feign cooperation any longer, and left through the back door when he found a chance.
He slipped his backpack from his back onto the ground between his feet, and pulled the bottle of rum from the bag. He opened it, and took two long pulls. Linwood reached into the bag again, this time for the rolling papers and pot. He stood there and rolled a joint, the simple, practiced motions Zen-like. and when he was done Linwood brought the finished product to his lips and struck a match on the wall behind him.
“So, it’s you again. The arsonist.”
Linwood froze at the intrusion. He hid the joint in a cupped hand at his side as the cop stepped into view. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said, as he walked up to stand next to him on the stoop. He was more massive than Linwood remembered—at least six inches taller than he, and thirty pounds heavier without the rain poncho, all of it muscle. He wasn’t wearing the hat, though, so the cop’s ears seemed to stick out even further than they had before. “You think after all that I’m gonna interrogate your ass? Hell no. Just give me a hit and I won’t say anything if you don’t.” Linwood passed him the joint.
The cop took a drag and a grin spread across his face. “Hey, kid. I want to show you something.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a Polaroid, still fresh, which he passed along with the joint to Linwood. His careless glance became tight and focused, and his face flushed into scarlet. The photo was of Ricky, hog-tied and bloodied, lying in the trunk of a car.
He handed the photograph and the joint back to the cop. “Why’d you show me this?” Linwood asked him. He exhaled the smoke through his nostrils like an incensed dragon, and took another draw from the bottle.
The cop laughed. “Do you not see what I’m wearing? I damn near own this city, man.” He took a drag from the joint and choked on the hit, just as Jamieson had done. He passed it back, saying he had had enough. “Let me ask you—how much did you respect the big man?” Linwood looked out into the alley, considering the question. “Come on, kid, I’m being serious,” the cop said through a chuckle. “This isn’t entrapment. I’m not trying to implicate you, accuse you, or trick you in any way, shape, or form. I’m just curious, that’s all. So? You respected him. Right?”
Linwood ignored the question. “Where is he?”
The cop smiled. “I’ll take you to him.” He began walking down the alley. After a pause Linwood picked up his bag and followed behind, casting the roach to the ground and capping the bottle.
The cop pulled a cigarette from the breast pocket on his shirt and patted himself down for a lighter.”Let me have a match, kid.” Linwood grimaced, but did as he was asked. The cop paused to strike it on the sole of his shoe.
“I’m all about justice doled out in the most efficient way possible,” the cop said, exhaling the drag and gesticulating as he strolled. “That coked-out basehead killed your boss. Somebody you trusted. Don’t you think he should pay?” Linwood didn’t answer.
He took a drag from the cigarette. “You watched that sick fuck pop him three times and you didn’t do a damn thing. You couldn’t. But I’m giving you the chance to make amends for such a shameful shortcoming. I’m your savior, kid.”
They came to a stop in front of a beat-up turd-colored sedan a block away from the garage. Linwood looked blankly at the car as the cop crushed out the cigarette underneath a heel. “He’s in there, I promise. Come on, let’s go.”
Here’s part eight. Quickly we’re catching up to where I currently am in writing this beast.
Sunday, 12:20 a.m.
Linwood stopped in at a bodega he frequented in the West Village. He waved hello at the teenaged Indian cashier behind her theft-resistant barrier made from chain-link, and made a beeline for the refrigerated cases lining the back wall. He selected a soda, and a bottle of cheap, strong rum from the rack directly across from it, then brought them over to the cash register. She ran a nervous hand through her hair, making sure that every strand was in place before she spoke.
“So. How’s life been treating you, my friend? Keeping dry and out of trouble?”
Linwood chuckled. “If only you knew, Kiran,” he answered. “Can I get these and a pack of the number sevens, and a box of strike-anywheres?” The cashier did as she was asked, then began ringing up the items. “You and these matches, Linwood. You know, you’re the only one that comes in here and buys these from me.”
“That’s ’cause I’m a special kinda guy. There’s no one like me in this entire world, Kiran. Haven’t you realized that by now?” Linwood flashed a smile as he set two twenty-dollar bills on the counter. Kiran took the money as someone came in the store.
“Well, if it ain’t the young buck.”
Linwood turned and saw Reggie standing at the entrance. He went over to give him a handshake folded into a hug. “Haven’t seen you in a while. Boss man told me you were on a cabbie-killer tonight. Goin’ okay?”
“Yeah, no complaints so far.” Kiran gave him his change, then greeted Reggie. “How’s it goin’ beautiful?” Reggie asked her. He walked the same path Linwood had a few minutes before, to the coolers at the back of the store. “Thanks, Kiran,” Linwood said as he picked up the brown paper bag concealing his purchases inside. “So brother,” he called out to Reggie, “knocked off for the night?”
“Yeah,” Reggie answered, coming back to the counter with a sports drink. “Kinda hungry, though.”
“Hell, I could use a quick bite. Want a little company?”
“Yeah, alright,” Reggie said. “There’s a place I know close to Gramercy Park. Best omelettes in the city.”
“Sounds like a plan, man,” Linwood told him. “I’ll follow you over there. Bye, Kiran,” he called out as he left the store. “Tell your father I’m comin’ back for ya, okay?”
Kiran laughed, and ran a hand through her hair again. “Good night, Linwood.”
Reggie and Linwood sat in a booth at O’Kelly’s Diner, a greasy spoon on 23rd near Lexington. Even at this hour, with the sky threatening to open up again at any moment, the place was packed with groups of hungry diners recollecting their evenings, and waitresses in stained aprons and forced smiles darting across the floor. A plump waitress with brown hair tied back in a ponytail and a sweaty fatigued face brought them coffee and menus, then scurried off to handle a rowdy bunch three booths away.
Linwood picked up his mug and took a sip. “You’ll never guess what I got into tonight, man.”
“What?” Reggie sat back and listened as Linwood gave him an abridged rundown of his and Arlotta’s night.
“So, the young buck finally got him a piece, an’ can’t wait to tell everybody all about it,” Reggie said after. “If I wasn’t so sure I’d’a thought she popped your cherry, Linwood,” he said through a chuckle.
“In a way, that’s jus’ what happened,” Linwood said. “I mean, this girl is somethin’ special, Reggie, I’m tellin’ you.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts, then stirred the creamer and sugar packets the waitress left him into his coffee.
“It’s been a while, but I know where you’re comin’ from,” Reggie told him. “I been married to Carla for fifteen years now, got two beautiful girls that get bigger every day. Still, sometimes I look at her, an’ she’ll look at me, an’ it’s like we’re still your age, thinkin’ we can take on the whole fuckin’ world. But we know better, now.” Reggie took a sip of the black coffee and scanned the worn, warped menu for his order.
Just then the rowdy bunch at the back of the diner rose in a cacophony of laughter, of loud, drunken speech. The chubby waitress inspected their table for whatever tips they left her, and with a defeated sigh she stopped at Linwood and Reggie’s table. For the first time Linwood got a decent look at her. She was a shorter, rounder, female version of Jamieson, without the glasses.
“Rough night?” Reggie proffered.
“You could say that,” she replied, without looking up from her notepad. “What can I getcha?”
“I’ll have… a Denver omelette an’ hash browns, an’ the kid’ll have the same,” Reggie said. Linwood began to protest but Reggie cut him off. “You’ll thank me for it, an’ besides, I’m the one payin’.” They handed the waitress their menus and watched her stumble away on weary feet.
“Thanks, Reggie,” Linwood told him through a sip of coffee.
“No prob.” Reggie looked around. “Yo, Linwood. Didn’t she look like Jamieson? A lot like Jamieson?”
“You saw it too?” The two men laughed, trying not to get the waitress’ attention.
“So tell me, man. How’s the cabbie-killer comin’? Got any stories for us, yet?”
At once the insane fare from the Williamsburg Bridge came to mind. “I—I jus’ told ya ’bout Arlotta, man,” Linwood said. “What could be more excitin’ than that?”
“More excitin’ than random pussy? As a cabbie? In New York? Everythin’, prob’ly.” Reggie’s cellular phone rang just then. “The wife. Sorry man, I gotta take this.” Linwood nodded as he stood and answered it. “Hey honey. Nah, I’m havin’ a bite wit’ Linwood…” Reggie stepped outside. The plate glass trumped Linwood’s eavesdropping abilities.
Got any stories for us yet? Linwood couldn’t get past the uncanniness of it all. He’d begged for this shift and the most unlikely things kept happening to him—or at least in front of him. “Pay attention to the oddities,” he said aloud to himself, paraphrasing what Jamieson had said to him outside of Renduto’s. “What if everything is a fuckin’ oddity. What then?” For the hundredth time Linwood jumped out of his skin; the waitress crept up as he spoke to himself and cleared her throat, her arms full with two plates of steaming food. He didn’t know how much she had heard, but he judged from the look she wore she caught just enough to be put off.
She put the plates down and the two shared an uneasy moment. “You… want some more coffee?” the waitress asked him. Tightlipped and embarrassed, Linwood nodded. With renewed vigor she hurried away from the table.
Linwood let out a sigh and turned to watch Reggie talk to his wife. The Jamieson-esque woman came back to the table with the carafe of coffee, poured as quickly as possible, then left again as Reggie came back inside. Linwood didn’t think he had ever been so happy to see anyone.
“Carla,” he said as he sat, with a slight worried look. “Apparently her brother was killed today. The guy on the Williamsburg Bridge, the one that got run over by the M, ya know?” Linwood froze. “What wit’ this terrorism shit goin’ on they only jus’ identified the body an hour ago, an’ now she gotta come down to make it official. Damn.” Reggie looked down at the plate in front of him, then back up at Linwood. “You alright, young buck?” he asked. Linwood nodded. “Yeah, I’m cool.”
“I know Carla’s hurtin’ right now, but to be honest that little motherfucker wasn’t doin’ the world no favors ‘cept bad ones,” Reggie said, picking up his fork. “Look at this spread, man. I’m tellin’ ya, you’ll thank me for it.” Reggie reached for the pepper shaker and the ketchup bottle, using both liberally as he prepared his omelette to some secret specification. He shoved a huge forkful into his mouth and let out a hum. “Fuckin’ delicious. Eat up, young buck, eat up,” Reggie prodded. Linwood forced a smile and did as ordered, but thoughts of the fare on the bridge tracked through his brain. The two sat in silence, eating.
“So,” Reggie said, placing his fork on the chipped plate with an audible clink. “Stories. Gimme one.”
“Uh… okay,” Linwood said, trying to clear his throat around a forkful of egg. “Well, this cop, right? H—he came…” He trailed off, watching a little blond girl wearing a pink backpack walk past the picture window. “I know her,” he told Reggie, confused.
“Really?” Reggie said incredulously. “What kid you know would be walkin’ the streets at one in the mornin’, Linwood? On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t answer that an’ incriminate yourself, man,” he added with a chuckle.
“Look, you asked for a story, right?” Linwood asked. “Gimme a sec and I’ll bring it back for you.” He squirmed out of the booth and bolted from the table, out onto the sidewalk behind the girl. She was still within earshot when Linwood spotted her. “Hey!” he called out. “Hey, kid!” The girl stopped and turned to face him, but made no other move to indicate she recognized him.
“It’s okay, I’m not a pervert or anythin’ like that. I won’t hurt you,” he reassured her. “You remember me? From the train this mornin’? I sat next to you when that guy farted.” The little girl smiled. “Yeah, I remember you,” she answered.
Linwood walked up to her and knelt so they were at eye level. “Ya know, you shouldn’t be out here this time’a night, kid. Kid,” he said with a scoff. “I hate to be called that. Even when I was a kid I hated it. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
The girl hesitated, then said “Veronica” in a voice Linwood barely caught.
“Well, Veronica,” Linwood said, “you gotta be hungry, right? You wanna eat wit’ me and my friend? He’s a nice guy. Hell, he might even buy your breakfast for you. Wha’ddya say, huh?”
The two of them walked back into the diner and sat down in the booth next to one another. “Well now, what’s this, young buck? You really know this kid?”
“Yeah, kinda,” Linwood answered. “Her name’s Veronica. I saw her on the train into work this mornin’. Jesus, this’s been a weird day.” He called to their waitress, then turned to the little girl, still clutching her backpack to her chest as if her life depended on it. The waitress came to their booth again, and for the second time shot Linwood a strange look.
“You need me to bring another menu for ya?” she inquired.
Linwood nodded. “Can you bring her a glass of orange juice too, please?” The waitress scurried off to do as she was asked. “I’ll leave the tip if you catch the check, deal? That chick’s gotta be tired of me by now, so I’ll be generous,” Linwood said with a chuckle.
“Yeah, okay, man,” Reggie said. He looked at the scared little girl sitting across the table from him. “My name’s Reggie, sweetheart. It’s nice to meet ya,” he said with a smile. “Apparently you know my friend here, so I won’t drill ya. Trust me, I know how tough it is for some kids. I was there once too, ya know.”
“So was I,” Linwood interjected. “You act like I was born wit’ a silver tea set in my mouth, Reggie.”
Reggie laughed as the waitress returned with the juice and another ratty menu. She set them both down in front of the little girl and eyed Linwood warily as she spoke to Veronica. The little girl pointed to something in the menu without saying a word, and the waitress wrote it down, took the menu when the girl handed it back, and left with it.
Linwood waited for Veronica to finish her glass of juice. “Tell me. Why are you out this late at night? Where’s your mother?”
“I don’t have a mother,” the little girl answered matter-of-factly. “I live at St. Anthony’s.”
“The orphanage in Flatbush?” Reggie asked her. “You’re a hell of a long way from home, little one.”
“How old are you?” Linwood pushed.
“Eight,” Linwood echoed. “Jesus. Why’d you leave the orphanage?”
Veronica looked into Linwood’s eyes, and a few beats passed before she spoke. “I… just don’t like being there. The nuns always beat me and the kids there hate me. My mother’s dead and I don’t know who my father is, and I’m alone all the time.” She spoke the way a zombie might, flat and without inflection.
“So did you just ride the subway all day?” Linwood asked her. Veronica reached into a pocket on the front of her backpack and pulled out a paper transit pass. “I ask for money in Times Square and buy one of these every Thursday,” she answered before either man could ask.
The waitress returned to the booth laden with another fumarole, this one a huge plate of scrambled eggs, four sausage links, and a small mound of hashed potatoes. Immediately Veronica tucked into the food.
“Seriously?” Reggie asked the waitress. “This is what you bring this tiny girl to eat?”
“She’s obviously enjoyin’ herself, Reggie,” Linwood interjected before the waitress could react. “She picked it. And she’s smarter that we’re givin’ her credit for. Could you bring her another glass of OJ, and another refill on our coffees, please?” he asked her. “And the check, too,” he added as the waitress stalked away.
The two men watched with interest as Veronica made headway into the huge plate of food in front of her. At length she put down her fork and looked up at them.
“Thank you,” she said. She gave them a smile, then went back to her food.
The waitress came back just then, with the carafe again and another glass of juice, and the check. As she poured the coffee Linwood handed Reggie the check without looking at it, then pulled out his wallet and set two bills on the table, a twenty and a ten. Reggie set the same amount on top of the check. For the first time that night Linwood saw the moon-faced waitress crack a smile, and walk away from the table with an even gait.
Reggie turned to the girl. “Lemme ask you a question, Veronica. How do you get past the nuns?”
She looked up at him. “Like I told you, they don’t care. I leave in the morning and come back early the next day. At night I just leave through a window on the first floor. Nobody ever notices me.”
“What are you lookin’ for out here?”
“Something else. Anything else.” She finished her orange juice as the men watched her in awed silence.
Linwood rose from the table. “Let me hit the head, then we can get outta here,” he said to Reggie. When he came out he saw Reggie and Veronica on the sidewalk outside. Reggie was on the phone again.
“… an’ we’ll make sure she’s comfortable, just for tonight. We’ll straighten all this out in the mornin’, Carla. You say who’s watchin’ the girls? Ah, okay. Yeah. Yeah, I’m comin’ down now. I’ll see you in a few. Okay.” He hung up and turned to Linwood. “We settled things while you were gone, young buck. She’ll stay wit’ me an’ the girls tonight.”
Linwood sighed with more relief than he meant to let on. He didn’t want to be saddled with a kid for the rest of the night, even if she was even-headed and far more mature than she should have been. But he didn’t want to drop her off at some godforsaken orphanage in the middle of the night, either—especially since Veronica didn’t want to be there in the first place. He walked the both of them to Reggie’s car, and made sure Veronica was buckled in the backseat. Already she was comfortable enough to drift off to sleep.
“An’ you think gettin’ some strange beats this shit,” Reggie said through the window to Linwood. “Sometimes I forget the world’s still new to you, Linwood.”
“Not so new anymore, brother,” Linwood replied. “Listen, you two get home safe, okay? I’ll see you Monday, probably.”
“I gotcha,” Reggie told him with a chortle. “Catch ya later.” Linwood watched the two of them pull away from the damp curb as a fine, misty rain began to fall again. He got in his cab, frisking himself for his cigarettes as the radio crackled to life.
“Callin’ cab two-eight, where da… Sit da fuck down, ya goon!” Dennis roared into the radio, and a beat afterward a crash exploded through the two-way. Linwood abandoned his search and snatched up the receiver.
“This is 3C28, come back dispatch,” he rattled off. “Jus’ got back from a food break…”
“Listen, Linwood,” said Dennis, out of breath and breaking protocol, “I needya ta come back’ta da garage an’ take dis shit-fa-brains home.” Linwood knew at once he was talking about Ricky.
“On the way, boss,” Linwood said. The radio went dead, and he remembered the paper bag from the bodega on the seat next to him. He replaced the receiver in its cradle, found the fresh pack of cigarettes in the bag, and started the cab.