Agent Johnson pulled his face away from the eye pieces of the iris scan and
stood in front of the chrome door,
waiting. Over the years the fancy gadgets and
procedures of the NN had become a part
of everyday life for him—no different
than brushing his teeth, or washing his
hair—minor inconveniences that were
forgotten with repetition.
“Palm print please,” a voice not quite female said from the speaker just
above the eye scanner. Johnson slid his
hand into the space-age mold, his large
fingers almost overflowing the
indentations. Even after years of the routine he still
got a chuckle: the first line of NN
palm-scanners had to be replaced after Johnson
was recruited, because of the size of
confirmation please,” the woman/computer voice said from the
passed and the silver door slid sideways into the wall panel at
what seemed to be speed of light.
“Thank you Agent Johnson. Have a nice day.”
was dome-shaped, the walls, floors, and ceiling all one piece.
The entire room was made of one
material, like that of a theater screen, only much
more durable. The room was completely
bright white yet there was not a light
fixture to be seen. In the middle of
the room was a small crystal podium and now
Johnson walked to it, pushing a number
of buttons on its display, and then laying
his hand in another analysis scanning
The light from the room dimmed to black, the whiteness evaporated, and in
seconds Johnson was surrounded by the
dark walls of what seemed to be a
different room. Brown was the color of
this room. To both sides of him were
several people seated in bench rows
behind a wooden partition, like a jury. In
front, at a raised desk something like
a judge would sit in, was a man he knew
well, a man he spoke to weekly, a man
who had no name. There was only enough
light to see the people’s
mouths—darkness covered their eyes like veils. The
hologram was so good that Johnson often
felt like he was before judge and jury.
But in this court there was no Lady Justice holding her scales, no lawyers, no
doorways: only a meeting of people who
were the first line of defense against evil
in the world. They knew each other not,
but trusted each other completely. The
people in the jury boxes never spoke,
only observed. They weren’t really there
anyway—they were just agents scattered
across the country in different buildings
and rooms all projected there by one
hand touching an analysis mold.
The speaking and orders were left to the “Voice,” the man sitting in the
elevated wooden podium in the
foreground. He leaned away from the edge of the
light, so that even his mouth receded
into the darkness. Was he looking at
something? Maybe a computer screen?
Finally he spoke and his voice thundered down, surrounding Agent
Johnson, penetrating him, the loud bass
vibrating throughout the room and echoing
long after it left the leader’s lips.
Surely it wasn’t his real voice. Johnson had
never heard something so low and
inhuman, something so threatening, but so full
of truth. Just another cruel trick of
“Agents have confirmed the location of Kazar in a small village in Syria,”
The Voice boomed. “The interrogation of
several of Numar’s agents leads us to
believe that there is a large-scale
attack planned on U.S. soil. Specifics have not
yet been compromised; we lost several
good agents acquiring this information.”
A three-dimensional picture popped up
in front of Agent Johnson. Floating
in mid-air was an image of Kazar, his
rap sheet, and a map of Syria.
“There is good intelligence that leads us to believe that Kazar has the entire
plan on paper, either on his person or
one of his men,” The Voice continued. “You
are to retrieve these documents.
Kazar’s meddling has elevated him from petty
information dealer to a genuine
terrorist threat. You are also to eliminate him.”
understand,” Johnson replied, his voice small in the emotionless room.
These conversations were never long or
friendly and Johnson started to pull his
hand from the podium, but stopped short
when The Voice spoke again.
Dr. Sebastian Jesup?” The Voice boomed.
been unable to locate him,” Johnson replied.
be acquired. If he falls into the wrong hands, it could mean the
end of the NN, the end of the world,
the end of everything. He still possesses half
of the plans for the device?”
his head,” Johnson answered. “He only blueprinted the first half.
Our psychological profile on him leads
us to believe he would never put the other
half on paper. He fled in fear of his
own invention after completing only half of
the layout. He has become very paranoid
and is convinced it should never be
built. He also claims that angels came
down from heaven and gave him the idea
for the device. Even if we don’t know
where he is, nobody else does either.”
The Voice was silent. Johnson started to pull his hand away again.
the one called Swivel?” the Voice thundered.
out there somewhere. I haven’t made him a priority. I imagine he’s
just trying to blend in, trying to be a
normal teenager. Personally I don’t think he
is a threat to anyone. He’s had a rough
way to go.”
he’s not just a normal teenager, is he?”
Johnson chose his words carefully.
“He’s quite exceptional sir.”
“And what of your last dealing with him?”
was unable to acquire him. That was in September I believe. I took him
Voice was silent, but Johnson could feel it thinking, digesting his
doesn’t take anyone lightly, least of all you Agent Johnson.
Could it be that this Roman Swivel has
become more powerful than you once
inhaled a reluctant breath but said nothing. His mind flipped
through memories from Bravo.
The Voice was louder now.
“Possibly, sir. Possibly.”
you have your orders. Eliminate Kazar and stop whatever threat he
has devised. Then acquire this Roman
Swivel. He was one of us before and will
be again. He would be a puissant ally
he refuses? I mean if I can’t physically bring him in?”
A long silence.
“Eliminate him as well. God be with you on your journeys, Agent
that the dark courtroom melted away and Johnson stood alone at the
crystal podium once again, in a cloud
of white, still with his hand on the scanner.
He exited the room, remembering times
he had felt better about his orders.
January’s one good attribute was that it gave birth to a new year. And even
that, to some, could be a bad thing.
The month had a stone-cold heart, showering
the area with its deceptive
tricks:fluffy white bits of heaven purifying the earth,
only to turn brown and slick over a
day’s time; the fervent traffic of the mall,
reduced to a faint shuffle of
occasional feet; Christmas trees, once the center of
hope and joy, massacred to their last
rotting places; ponds, frozen for a duck’s
eternity; the stead blow of pins and
needles out of the northwest; nights requiring
several thick blankets; days of
thermometers struggling to make it past twenty.
Back to the institution, to the days of
boredom and repetition. Graduation floated
millions of miles away, like Venus in
the springtime telescope.
Mustang sat on Roman’s curb for almost two weeks, leaving only
for the occasional change of clothes or
makeup refill. But as the new school year
prepared to take its spot at the
starting block, Heather and Roman’s long nights
began to shorten like the flames of a
dying campfire. Soon Heather would be
sleeping in her own bed and Roman would
be mopping hallways in the midnight
now understood why Roman had been so hesitant to be with Heather.
Love, with all of its smiles and gifts,
in the end left you defenseless. It took away a
bit of your logic and reason, replacing
those attributes with dreams and
selflessness. For the first time, Roman
was vulnerable. For the first time you
could see right through him.
while my first thoughts of this were of regret, and my stomach hurt
from watching their public smooching
sessions, I more often than not found myself
smiling at his happiness and cheering
somewhere inside for it.
showed up on Roman’s doorstep on the Saturday after break ended and
school had started up again. Heather’s
Mustang sat in the driveway; their sessions
were being caught up on the weekend. I
entered without knocking.
sat on the couch in only his underwear. Heather sat on the bed,
covering herself with the bedspread
before I could get a good look. She picked up
her clothes with one hand, keeping
herself wrapped with the other.
“Damn it,” I
said snapping my fingers.
pervert,” Heather said as she walked over and kissed Roman, and
then went into the bathroom.
it that if I want to see her naked I’m a pervert, but if you want to
you’re romantic?” I asked him.
funny like that.” Roman stopped and thought. “ It’s only romantic
if she actually
that person—the one that wants to see her naked—to
you out so early?”
my way down to On Deck.”
cages. It’s pretty tight. I can only hit off those fuckin’ machines
so much though. I need to see some live
“You want me
to throw to you?” Roman laughed out loud. “Do you know
how long it’s been since I picked up a
asking ya to go out and throw for the Yankees. Just throw a little
BP for me.”
up his right arm, making slow deliberate circles with his
shoulder, like he was trying to
resurrect a piece of antique farm equipment.
emerged from the bathroom brushing her teeth, hair and body wrapped in
should go. You don’t have anything else to do today,” she said.
glad you know my schedule so well. Fine.” Roman stood up. “Let me
kissed Roman on the cheek leaving a white lip print of toothpaste.
I had to
point to my own cheek before he knew it was there.
“Do you have a hole
in your muffler?” Roman about yelled the words.
“Fuck I don’t know.
I tried to go through a snow bank the other day, and I
think maybe I ripped the whole damn
muffler off,” I said blowing on my hands.
“The noise doesn’t
bother me, it’s this goddamn heater.”
responded. “We’ll take a look when we get back.”
“So, uh, how
is it anyway?”
“How is what?”
“You know.” I
pulled my hands away from the steering wheel long enough
to make a circle with my thumb and
index finger, and stuck my other index finger
in and out.
“Come on man.
Guys talk about this shit. That’s what we do. Ya gotta
give me somethin’.”
Roman looked out of
the corner of his eye, lost in deep thought, like he was
trying to solve a calculus problem.
“It’s changed me. I don’t know quite how, but
ya alright, it’s turned that brain of yours into mush. With all
your kissy face and sentimental shit.
It makes my nuts hurt.”
it’s worth it.”
I looked over
to see if Roman was joking.
Deck was actually a steel sports training
complex, one hundred and
eighty feet long on all four sides and
sixty feet high. The floor was a green multipurpose
material like rubber. The batting cages
hung on cables and could be
automatically lifted, transforming the
arena into any sports terrain: full-size
basketball courts, volleyball courts,
or a football, soccer or baseball field.
For the most part, whatever sport was coming up next was the one that
training catered to. Football was over and basketball
was in full swing so
baseball was now the primary focus,
except for that day. Somehow the grass
fairies were in control of the entire
building, running around in their little shin
guards with their shirts off, chasing
the zebra-colored ball around.
forgot they had soccer league here on Saturday mornings,” I said as we
stood in the entranceway. “They should
be done in twenty minutes. There’s room
over there on the side to play catch.
You wanna throw a little bit?”
“Okay,” Roman said. “Do I need to pay anything?”
Roman motioned to the guy standing
behind the cash register.
“I’ve got a year’s membership here. I can bring in a guest once a month at
no charge. Here, take this glove.” I
pulled out my catcher’s mitt and another glove
out of my bat bag.
Roman put the glove on, first opening the palm and holding it to his face so
he could smell the leather, then
running his fingers over the rawhide and pounding
his fist into it. For a moment I saw
that small boy waiting to throw to his father by
an Iowa cornfield.
did a series of stretches—starting with toe touches, torso twists, and
pulling my elbow as far behind my head
as possible for my triceps. Roman stood
sixty feet away still looking at the
glove and periodically giving it a fist. His arms
swayed and his legs relaxed. He watched
the soccer players, but his mind was
excited for the ball with seams.
threw him the ball—soft with an arch—and he caught it two-handed. He
turned the white sphere over in his
hand and smiled. A second later he threw it
through the air, and it popped in my
mitt a lot louder than it had in his. Back and
forth the white pill went. With each
catch, we backed up and soon we were one
hundred and twenty feet apart. Roman
was still putting the ball on a line, like a
frozen rope through time.
caught the ball and looked at him for a moment. With all of his surprises,
his mind, his fight, his heart, and
even his Little League superstar status back in
Iowa—I was still at a loss for what I
was seeing. I expected the weak rainbow arc
of an untrained arm and the mechanics
of a six-year-old girl. What I was seeing
was quite the opposite—Roman’s leg
raising waist high with perfect balance,
followed by the pendulum motion of his
long arms, and the whip of the ball into
my mitt with seemingly little effort.
Roman punched his leather palm twice,
calling for the ball, hungry to throw
grass fairies finally fluttered away, leaving their game scoreless,
something which happened far too often
considering the running they did. The
batting cage made its slow descent from
the ceiling, and when it reached us we
pulled the net from its resting place
above the metal pipes, starting at opposite ends
and working around towards the middle.
I dragged the L-screen over. Roman
carried the bucket of balls.
behind the screen, sixty feet away—a distance I would have told
him earlier was too far for his
ability—but now I had seen him play catch. The
look in Roman’s eye was the same as on
that night in the Hollow, the same as
when he told the story of Agent
Johnson, a look not of a friend ready to serve up
home runs, but of a warrior on the
mound ready to strike me out.
gripped the wooden bat lightly in my hands and swung at the air a few
times, touched the end of it to the
outside part of the plate, then rested it just above
my right shoulder. Roman threw. The
first pitch was right down the middle. I
was late but hit the ball hard to the
right side. The next pitch I did the same. The
third pitch ran in on my hands. I tried
to get around on it but the ball hit the handle
and dribbled lazily back to the
L-screen. The sound was awful, the sound that
every hitter has heard more times than
they wanted to admit. And now I held in
my hands a broken bat, splintered from
where my hands gripped it to halfway up
the barrel. It was a composite bat that
I had owned for over a year. Composite
bats weren’t supposed to break like
“Sorry about that,”
Roman said. “My control is a little off.”
“It’s not your
control. I’m just late. You’re throwing pretty fuckin’ hard
though, ya know that?”
said. “You’re chucking it up there pretty good. You puttin’
everything you got into it or what?”
“No. I’m just
“You need to
come out for baseball,” I told him. “We need pitching bad.”
“Yeah right. I
haven’t thrown in years, since Little League.”
I grabbed my aluminum bat out of my bag
and took my stance again.
“Give me your
away. His pitches got on me quickly, the likes of which I’d
only seen from a mechanical arm. Some I
hit. Some I missed.
nowhere near .400 that day.
Freddy Flowers wore a suit only at night. During the day he wore jeans
and a T-shirt, often mud-covered from
countless hours in his many green houses.
He made several stops during his
workday, the three local flower shops, sometimes
the two in Champaign, and often the one
of his company was The Lone Rose.
He didn’t come up with the
name himself; the previous owner Stan
Williams had done that. Freddy had
worked for Stan, delivering flowers
since his high school days. Eventually Stan
retired and sold the business to Freddy
for a curious one-fourth of what it was
worth. Three days after the transaction
was completed, Stan died after an
unfortunate roofing accident at his own
Freddy’s ownership, The Lone Rose
systematically undercut the
price of its competitors, running every
flower shop within a fifty-mile radius of
Collingston out of business. And it
became the major supplier for landscaping
companies in the area, making profits
in excess of two hundred thousand per year,
which was about a third of Freddy’s
Collingston enjoyed the fruits of Freddy’s reign. The Flower employed
over a thousand people, a large number
of them from the local rehabilitation
center, workers who’d been injured on
their old jobs and were unable to return. He
was a financier of the local Boys and
Girls Club, built a new conference center for
the library, was the biggest
contributor to the Police Benevolent Association, and
provided the yearly budget needs of two
major farm and offices were ten miles north of Collingston. It covered
over thirty acres of land, giving life
to a sod farm, a tree nursery, and twenty largescale
greenhouses. Freddy pulled into the
parking lot behind the wheel of his
Dodge Ram 3500 extended cab, fully
loaded, fully pink
pick-up truck. At night he
drove a pink Mercedes.
workers knew it was inspection day as soon as Freddy bypassed his
office and went straight to Greenhouse
One. There was anxiety in the air, the
nervous heartbeats of greenhouse
keepers. The pace of gardeners accelerated at
the sight of their master.
entered Greenhouse One, walking down the aisle with arms
extended, fingers caressing the
greenery as he passed, his eyes inspecting every
plant. Esteban Ramirez stood in the
corner, swaying back in forth in place, saying
Hail Marys repeatedly, and watching his
job hang in the balance.
on occasion to smell certain flowers, or to feel the texture
of certain leaves. He smiled at the
lavender fragrances and the beauty of the
plants—the beauty of his children. He
made his way up the second aisle, but his
smile inverted to a frown in front of a
row of orchids. He rubbed his temples,
retrieved his inhaler, and squirted a
long spray of mist into his mouth.
Freddy said with the sound of a grieving father.
made the sign of the cross and hurried to his employer.
hung his head, shaking it back and forth, leaning against the flower
counter. Upon arrival Esteban stood at
attention, moving his eyes up and down the
group of plants trying to find the
reason for his boss’s despair.
“I’ve had such
a good morning Esteban, but now my entire day is ruined.
Do you understand that my day is
Freddy lifted his head up and grabbed one of the orchids off the
table, petting it like it was a cat.
“This plant is suffering, Esteban. Do you see the
brown edges of its leaves? Do you see
the way its once strong stem sags like the
scrotum of an old man? This plant is in
pain. My child is dying.”
thousand apologies, maybe I got the fertilizer amount wrong.”
you’re telling me is that you’re starving this beautiful life form.”
I’m sorry. There are thousands of plants in here. That is the
only one that is not perfect. Please
“Oh, oh. So
just because you fouled up one that’s okay, is it? How many
children do you have at home Esteban?”
“So if you
feed six of your children, and one dies then you feel you’ve been
a good parent?”
“I’m going to
give you a chance to save this plant. If it dies, you will no
longer have a job here and if anything
else even looks like it’s sick, I’m going to
turn you into fertilizer.”
gracias, Señor. Muchas gracias. I get to work on it right away.”
Freddy brought the orchid to his face,
took a deep breath, and kissed it. He
handed it to Esteban and walked out of
Esteban again made the sign of the
the Killer sat in the back seat of the Caprice Classic with a roll of
duct tape on his lap. He stared out the
window watching as the dead trees January
stood frozen in the darkness. He
dreamed of sitting at his old school lunch table
with his friends. He dreamed of
Boochie drove, eating a hoagie sandwich, the mustard and mayonnaise
escaping from the buns and sticking to
his fat cheeks. Next to him Bobby smoked
a cigarette and slouched in the seat
like they were on vacation. Boochie’s lips
smacked and Bobby’s lungs wheezed—the
back and forth sound of some very
the first couple of drives, Johnny never asked where they were going.
He really didn’t care to know. But as
they pulled up to this
house his stomach
began to hurt. The front porch was
adorned with a handicap ramp and the van that
sat in the driveway was all too
knocked hard on the front door yelling Joe’s name. Both of
Johnny’s new friends had their guns
drawn and urged him to do the same. Johnny
refused though, citing that it wouldn’t
heard Joe wheel to the door, which opened immediately. He smiled
as he welcomed his guests in, trying to
small-talk them. His injuries were healed
but Johnny thought it odd that he
showed no fear. Maybe the smile and talking
was a diversion; or worse, maybe it was
a way of pretending.
“Let’s cut the
shit, Joe. You’re down big again. A week late with no
returned phone calls. The Flower is not
happy. What gives?”
greeting charisma had now left Joe all together. “Look fellas. I’ve
checked myself into GA. I’m doing real
well too. I know I have a debt to pay and
I will, but I’ve got to get myself
straight first. Freddy’ll get his money.”
reared back and punched Joe in the face so hard it knocked the
cripple backwards out of his chair.
Bobby pounced on the man, straddling him
with his gun aimed at Joe’s forehead.
little invalid, I’m sick and fucking tired of monkeyin’ around
with your sorry ass. You’re gonna pay
one way or the other...now.”
swear I’m dead broke. Every last dime has gone to Freddy. I
need some time. Please, I beg you.”
at Boochie who leaned against the wall and shrugged his
shoulders. Boochie looked around the
room at the big screen TV and other
expensive fixtures in the room. Bobby
shook his head, reading the fat man’s
this stump to the car,” Bobby said.
fucker’s mouth shut and carry his ass to the car.”
Bobby ransacked the house taking anything worth value that
would fit in the trunk. They’d be back
later for the big stuff and the van.
The Caprice pulled into
The Lone Rose
green house entrance, bypassing the
office and the glass houses, stopping a
good mile down the cold gravel road just
short of the giant wood chipper and the
Bobby exited first, and opened Joe’s door. He dragged the legless man out
of the car by one arm, dropping him in
the snow and walking toward the wood
chipper. Joe lay in the cold snow,
crying. Bobby waved Boochie and Johnny
over. Steam rose from all three of
chipper was a monstrous structure with an arm that traveled fifty
feet into the air like a crane, and the
blower hung directly toward the ground off of
it. Underneath the blower laid a pile
of what was the first stage of fertilizer. The
compost had a reddish tint to it. At
the bottom, where Freddy’s men stood was the
actual mechanism, several blades that
chopped up what was supposed to be organic
plant material. The large funnel-shaped
mouth was big enough in circumference to
shred an entire tree into sawdust in a
matter of minutes.
It was below
freezing, but somehow Johnny was hot. Boochie stood with
no coat on, like he was on a beach.
Bobby sucked hard on his cigarette, stepping
back and forth for warmth.
Joe. If I have to come over there and carry your ass, I’m going
to make you suffer before all this
“I’ll go help
him,” Johnny said as he started back to the car.
stuck his arm out. “Let him come on his own kid.”
Joe began to
scoot, sinking his fingers into the snow-covered ground,
pulling himself with his arms, his legs
useless. The sobs of the man were loud like
that of an infant and as they went on
they became garbled from his tears and snot.
dragged him through the snow for the last ten feet, after Joe
stopped of exhaustion. The fat man
stood Joe up on his stump legs and held him
by the hair. Bobby pulled out his gun
and held it to Joe’s forehead.
tears had trailed down Joe’s face, but now it seemed that the well
was dry, or maybe just frozen. Joe
begged repeatedly for his life, saying he would
get a second mortgage on his house and
sell his van. It was too late though.
Bobby had made up his mind.
“You want me
to shoot ya in the head first, Joe, or ya just wanna go straight
into the blades?”
“Kill me now.
tucked the gun into the back of his jeans and smiled.
“What are you
doin’?” Johnny asked.
“See kid, he
wants to go out like a little bitch, like a coward. So we’re
gonna put him in there nice and slow,
stumps first, so he can feel it.”
he could wake up from the nightmare. But his breath filled
the air reminding him of the harsh
reality. How had his life come to this? “Maybe
we should just let the guy have one
more chance, Bobby. He’s got a good job.
He’ll come up
with the money.”
Anderson laughed out loud, a deep bellow from the rolls of his
“Yeah he’d be
able to pay, but when? When we’re all in fuckin’
wheelchairs? He’s had enough fucking
chances. Turn it on, Boochie.”
chipper struggled to start, firing and then stopping, like a car
with water in the gas line. Johnny
thanked God, but then it started—blades turning
slowly at first and then spinning so
fast the eye couldn’t see them.
Joe under the armpits and hoisted him toward the funnel.
Joe’s sobbing turned into something
Johnny had never heard before—a man
seconds from his death, a painful death
at that, screaming for his life. The sound
seemed to go straight to Johnny’s
what legs he had, twisting and turning in Bobby’s grip. Bobby
smiled as he inched his way closer.
sure if it was the terrible screams or the joy that Bobby got
out of it, but something made him do
him draw his gun.
“Hold it. Just
hold it,” the Killer yelled.
once and then did a double-take. The gun was aimed at him.
Johnny had held the gun in his hand
several times before, feeling its heavy
weight and admiring its potential. He’d
pointed it in his dreams, but every time his
hand shook with fear.
There was no
shiver now though. His aim was steady, empty of fear.
“What the fuck
are you doin’ kid?”
off the chipper.
guns off to the side,” Johnny said.
“Look kid if
you don’t wanna watch, go back to the car. But there ain’t
been to many people that pointed a gun
at me and lived to talk about it.”
this, Johnny,” Boochie said.
had stopped, but by the look on his face it was from
exhaustion, not relief.
“I said throw
’em down,” Johnny ordered.
Boochie moved his arm as if he was
going for the gun tucked in the fat
between his belt and back.
Johnny fired a
shot, missing the fat man’s foot by less than an inch. Johnny
quickly brought the barrel back up,
Okay.” Bobby backed up, dropping Joe to the ground, and
then flung his gun a good twenty yards
into the darkness. Boochie did the same.
walked over to the legless man, keeping the gun on the other two.
“I can’t carry
you and keep these guys honest at the same time Joe. Can you hold
onto my coat and I’ll drag you back to
Joe dug his
fingers into the black leather of Johnny’s coat, a grip that was
stronger than any he could remember.
Johnny started walking backwards,
dragging the cripple through the snow,
and keeping his gun aimed on Bobby.
Joe’s hands did not release their grip
even once although the muscles in his
forearms burned like lava.
the back door of the Caprice and did his best to help Joe
into the back with his free arm.
Johnny, The Flower ain’t gonna like this,” Bobby screamed.
Johnny was silent as he entered the
driver side door.
fuckin’ dead man,” Boochie yelled.
Principal Hartman did not wait for the broadcast journalism class’s tape of
his disgrace to reach the school board.
He resigned over Christmas break citing
personal problems—though everyone knew
the truth. Copies were duplicated and
those copies were in turn duplicated
until almost every student at Collingston had a
copy of the tape. The school board
accepted his resignation without a single
Principal Greemore now sat at the helm, a level-headed man with two of
his own kids in the school district.
Greemore had previously served as Principal of
the JFK Middle School on the east end
of town and the powers-that-be had decided
it was time for his shot at the big
still prison. Students however seemed to ease into the New Year
with Greemore as the warden, instead of
charging full steam ahead as they did with
Hartman. Amazing what a little respect
cafeteria, the guards lined the usual walls, but even their eyes seemed
not as acute, allowing the
once-punishable misdemeanors of lunchtime go by the
wayside. We sat at the table, enjoying
our lunch, but more than that, enjoying the
break of midday. The conversation
jumped around the table, bouncing off one
person and changing all together with
the next, like the ever- changing direction of
a racquetball when it hit the wall.
Our table now
held a lot of the old faces that occupied my table at the
beginning of the year. But at the same
time those faces had changed quite a bit—
becoming better for the most part. Jack
Rollins’s volume level had diminished
significantly over the last five
months. He had no leader to follow, but he decided
to stay in school and stand on his own
two feet. Brunno had also transformed
himself from the bullish henchman of
Johnny the Killer, calming down to the point
where he would go days without his
excited stuttering. You could see glimmers of
individuality breaking through. The
guys weren’t afraid of what people thought
anymore. Sam Peterman traded his stone
black hair for a head full of blond. Scott
Jakowski—the party man—had started to
draw pictures, comic book sketches of
mostly the mundane creatures of the
night that dripped blood from their fangs. But
I tell you they were beautiful. Even
Pick Bryant, with his lukewarm loyalty and
subtly manipulative behavior, had
started to take singing lessons and wasn’t
ashamed to belt out in the middle of
lunch if the mood struck him right.
I took a little
credit for our renaissance somewhere deep down inside,
where words wouldn’t do it justice. I’d
gotten the ball rolling by sitting down to
talk to the janitor, instead of waging
war against him. I had changed a little too I
guess. My grades were almost up to a B
average. The alarm clock ringing in my
ears every morning sounded a lot better
than it used to. Sometimes I was up before
it went off at all. And while I knew
that breaking up with Sally was the best thing
for me, a part of me began to miss her.
I was awakened
from my gushy thinking not by noise, but by the lack of.
The cafeteria had quieted to whispers.
Every person at the table already had their
eyes on what was going on. I followed
their gaze to a table in the middle of the
Johnny the Killer sat by himself at the end of a large table over by
the north wall. He looked somewhat like
the Killer of old, his black leather and
boots turned back to Abercrombie and
Fitch attire, the grease for his hair left
untouched in the medicine cabinet at
home. He didn’t look up from his tray. He
knew the eyes were on him. You always
knew. And even though he had been
gone a couple of months Johnny knew the
audio level in the cafeteria was far from
normal. Had Johnny the Killer come to
glad he was back. I was glad that he actually decided the path he was
going down was the wrong one. I was
glad that our baseball team might have their
star pitcher back. It was also sad, the
once most popular guy at the school now sat
alone. The leader of so many left now
with no one to lead.
stood up from our table with his tray. Heather grabbed his shirt,
trying to encourage him not to do
whatever it was he was thinking. Roman looked
at her. That’s all it took these days.
She let go and the janitor walked toward
Johnny’s table crushing the soft
chatter of the cafeteria into complete silence.
Roman sat down in the chair next to the
continued to look down at his plate. Redness flooded his face as
the silent moments passed. “I don’t
want your fuckin’ pity janitor.”
to get a little stuffy over there. I’m not much for crowds,”
“Me and you
are never gonna be friends. Not now; not ever,” Johnny said
Roman said. “But just because we are not friends doesn’t
mean we have to be enemies.”
respond. The two sat the rest of the lunch period in silence.
The bell rang.
the red Mustang was in the driveway, but several knocks at
the door produced no answer.
Even if they were doing it they would stop to
in, wouldn’t they?
Several lights were on across the street. More lights
Carl should be at the Tavern.
I made my way
across the street, shuffling my feet so I wouldn’t slip on the
hard ice. The door was ajar and I
pushed it open.
must have been a hundred degrees. The heat and small space
instantly reminded me of the Tavern on
Thanksgiving Eve. Carl lay on the couch
with a knitted afghan covering him all
the way to the neck. His eyes were closed
and he shivered like someone with
Parkinson’s. Roman knelt on both knees in
front of the couch. Next to him sat a
bucket of vomit and blood. Heather was at
the head of the couch, wiping Carl’s
face with a wet rag.
we’ve got?” Carl said without opening his eyes.
“I’m sorry I
didn’t know, I’ll go...”
would ya guy? ’Tis Carl the only one causing everyone
“You need to
go to the hospital, Carl. You’ve got a high fever. You need
medical treatment,” Heather said.
doctors. A bunch of useless bastards they are. They’d only have
me lay in the waiting room for hours
like some sort of scoundrel. Just mix me
some more of the tea lad,” Carl said,
his eyes just slits, looking at Roman.
I gave Heather a shoulder shrug to ask
what was wrong. The future doctor
returned the same gesture in
returned with the tea and knelt down again, putting the hot green
liquid to Carl’s lips. Carl spoke
between sips. His eyes never opened.
those goddamn creatures that did this to me. They cursed me with
some other-world poison. These spells
I’ve had since my meeting with them in the
jungle. Happens every other full moon,
it does. I went to the doctors before I was
discharged from the service, but they
had no insight into it.”
heard the story before but knew better than to question him
at a time like this. I looked at Roman
who was ambivalent yo Carl’s words.
“This spell will
pass as well. The tea always brings me back.” Carl took
Roman’s free hand and gripped it
tightly, pulling Roman’s ear close to his mouth
as if his words might not get there
otherwise. “I owe ya a debt of thanks, my
“You would do the
same for me. The same for us,” Roman said.
“For this I thank ya
sure, but ’tis not want I mean. That night ya found me
laying in the road, I was ready to cash
“You would’ve done
the same for me,” Roman said again.
“Maybe, maybe not,
for I did not come to know ya yet. But ’tis still not
what I mean. I had the spell again. It
came over me before I ever left for the
watering hole. I decided not to drink
the tea. I thought it was time for me to pass
on. I’d seen enough I had, of the world
going down the wrong path. All its wars
and suffering. Carl had enough. But
watching you work as ya did, rebuilding that
house with your heart, gave me hope.
Hope for the world, it did.”
I could see a
thin glaze of tears come over Roman’s eyes. “You say these
things like this is the last time we’ll
“Ha! I ain’t
going nowhere just yet, guy. But now ya must leave me be. I
need my rest.”
“I don’t want
to...” Roman started.
“Leave me I
say. Carl will see ya tomorrow, strong like before.”
Roman on the cheek and with his own hands took the glass and
drank the rest of the tea.
Killer thought it was a dream. His eyes only saw black. But
wait, he wasn’t laying down, he hadn’t
even gone to bed yet. And why did the
back of his head hurt so bad? Had he
fallen off the chair and bumped his head?
No that wasn’t it. He was walking down
the driveway, never made it to the house.
Somebody’d clubbed him from behind.
Maybe with a bat? His eyes opened, still
blurred, but the answers became clear
in his mind. Through the waves in his vision
Johnny could see the blotch of a person
in front of him. The man wore a bright
green suit. What started out as a dream
or nightmare had turned into something
far, far worse.
several aromas in the room. Johnny could smell the sweet
fragrance of flowers in front of him,
their names he was not sure of. Behind him
though, the odor of stale smoke mixed
with bologna, hung in the air like a gray
fog. He now knew the identities of his
attackers without a visible confirmation.
Freddy Flowers sat on the other side of
the desk. His long thin face and jetblack
hair pulled back in a ponytail slowly
came into focus. Suddenly, Johnny’s
stomach hurt worse than the back of his
head. Freddy stood up, spraying the
leaves of the plants on the shelf
behind his desk with a squirt bottle.
“Do you know
why I’m in the flower business, Johnny?”
“To cover up
your real businesses?”
do it because it brings peace to the world. Flowers are God’s
artwork. It brings smiles to the faces
of even the most ungrateful souls. It gives
hope to the sick in hospitals, gives
reassurance between lovers, and ties the bond
between parents and children. Do you
there’s something else. Plants and vegetation are on a higher plane
than most of the monkeys running around
this world. They aren’t violent. They
don’t cause problems. They mate
indiscriminately. They don’t hate. They’re here
for one reason, to give us joy and
oxygen. Plants my young friend, don’t muck
things up. They leave that for the
two-legged humanoids. What do you think?”
you’re more fucking psycho than they give you credit for.”
face was emotionless.
Johnny, enlightened,” The Flower responded.
motioned toward the back of the room. Boochie left the room.
Bobby came to the front holding a
plastic bag in one hand, and a zip tie in the
other. Johnny could hear a soft
whimpering behind him, from down the hall
maybe. As the whining got closer it was
apparent that the sound was not from a
recognize it?” Freddy said. “Listen closely.”
Johnny knitted his eyebrows in
confusion, but before the animal was in
front of him he knew. Johnny had a
strong urge to vomit.
not Apollo. He hasn’t done anything to you.”
Boochie walked Apollo in on a leash.
The dog jumped up on Johnny’s lap
trying to lick his master, but was
yanked back by the chain around his neck.
Bobby Dukes laughed.
you’re wrong, Johnny” Freddy stated. “This dog was put on
earth to do to one thing, destroy. His
aggression was apparent before he was even
conceived. It’s in his breeding you
see. A genetic bundle of violence.”
violent. He’s a coward. Please leave him out of this.”
“For his sake
let’s hope his breeding doesn’t fail him. He’s in the spotlight
tomorrow night, competing against some
of the most vicious of his peers from all
over the state. You won’t be here to
see it of course.”
hung down toward his chest.
of your dog being torn to shreds is an awful one, I know. But
take comfort in something. After we put
you through the shredder, your imperfect
flesh will eventually be used to give
nourishment to the beauty of nature.”
“You’ll be reborn.
Where you failed as a human, your remains will be
perfect in the cells of a plant. Ironic
isn’t it? How the worst of creatures make the
best of fertilizers. Enough
Bobby put the plastic bag over the Killer’s head. Johnny
tried to free himself, grabbing the bag
where it met his neck. It was too late
though; the zip tie was already pulled.
Johnny fought for air only to feel the plastic
suck against his face. Boochie and
Bobby bent his writs behind his back and tied
them as well.
in the distance, unable to get close enough to help his master
because of the chain around his own
dragged in the snow, his arms now limp in the grasp of
Bobby and Boochie. The trunk popped and
Freddy’s men hoisted the dead weight
into the empty blackness. The trunk
door closed and with it all light from the
San Diego, CA
Sheehan was a drifter, always had been. His parents died before he
graduated from college, and there was
no reason to stay around home. He traveled
the country from one ocean to the next
and back again, never staying too long in
one spot. There was no reason to. No
girlfriends, no pals to drink beer with, no
relatives. Bouncing from job to job was
his choice not his employers’. He had
been everything from a car salesman to
a lab tech. Right now he was a carpenter.
specialized in hand-made wood fixtures—everything
small night stands to dining room
tables. Like most of his jobs, Max picked up on
the wood working very quickly and six
months into it had mastered the craft.
cabinets and armoires poured in daily, especially since the company had
gone online. He had a certain number of
orders to fill weekly. The freedom of no
set hours had kept him around longer
than he would have expected.
Max was an animal of routine. Although
by mandate he had no set
schedule, he still awoke at six,
breakfasted right after, arrived at work at seven, ate
lunch at noon, and was back home by
four. The orders came in and Max carved
away at them, often ahead of schedule.
It was a warm
day and Max stopped at Cream Delight
on his way home to
pick up a double scoop of lemon ice
cream in a cone.
isn’t it?” the man in the window asked.
beautiful here,” Max said and then licked the pale yellow ice
On his street
he stopped the car abruptly so a kid could run out and get his
ball. He was still eating as he opened
the door to his home. He flipped on
and sat on the couch hearing stories of
gradeschool heroes and their parents. The
lemon ice cream was good. He wished
he’d gotten three scoops.
He had bought
the house cheap, because of all the inadequacies with it.
He’d fixed it up with new siding, a
roof, and windows, and doubled the value. He
gutted the interior and started over.
He enjoyed redoing all of those things, but his
prize accomplishment was the basement.
He looked to the living room wall where
the hidden door was and marveled. With
his fine craftsmanship not even he could
see the edges.
The thought more than excited him.
He made his
way to the kitchen first though, and wiped the sticky lemon
remains from the corner of his mouth
and the tips of his fingers. He washed his
mouth out with water from the tap and
dried himself. He went to his room
removing his shirt first and then the
rest. He brushed off his chest, removing a
small amount of sawdust. No matter how
careful he was at work, the pesky
shavings always seemed to find him. He
looked at the long mirror, following his
reflection from his shaven head, down
his trapezius muscles, his carved out chest,
his statue-like abs, and finally
stopped at his semi-erect penis. What could he have
been if he’d looked like this in high
school? It was too late to think of such things.
grabbed a ring with two keys on it from his nightstand. The blood started to
pour in more heavily now.
pressed the living room wall firmly. There was a soft click, and the
panel door opened about an inch, just
enough for him to get his fingers behind it.
He walked down the white-carpeted
staircase to another door. He inserted one of
the keys and the door opened.
was covered with more white carpet on the floor and on the
walls. There was a bathroom immaculate
white floors to the right filled with all
the necessities: a shower, towels,
soap, perfume and, of course, a mirror. There
wasn’t a hint of mildew or scum
anywhere. The main room was the size of two
regular bedrooms; it did not run the
length of the house. On one side of the room
sat an entertainment center that he had
built himself in his spare time at the shop.
But there was
no TV or stereo in it. Twenty feet away was the bed—a king size—
dressed in white comforters and
pillows. From the ceiling, four chains at each of
the four corners of the bed dangled
with shackles at the end of them. On the wall
next to the bed were at least fifty
pictures: mostly young women, most naked, all of
them brunettes, and many bound and
gagged but all alive—in the pictures at least.
taken in various locations—the woods, basements, one in a farmhouse.
still room on the wall for several more pictures.
was on the floor next to the bed with her arms
hugging her knees, her
knees covering her breasts, and her
legs and feet obstructing the view of what Max
wanted. The bruise around her eye was
light green now and almost gone. She
would soon be back to perfect, just the
way he had found her. He could almost
hear her heart beat from across the
room, violent and uneven. If she were excited
that would be good. Being afraid would
be far better.
slowly toward her. Tears were in her eyes although she did not
cry. He grabbed one of her wrists
firmly and swung it away from her body,
clasping it in the first shackle. She
didn’t fight or yell, in fact ever since the first
time, she had fought less and less. Now
the fight was out of her. After all arms
and legs were secure, he lay on top of
finished he unshackled her and she ran for the bathroom. On his
way back up the stairs he stopped at
the bathroom door.
“Can I get you
anything?” he asked.
There was no
reply, which was fine with him. He would fix her supper a
few hours later and then be done with
her for the day.
After she had
cleaned herself up she sat down on the floor next to the bed.
She refused to sleep in the bed and
spent most of her time on the floor. She looked
around for her clothes and then
remembered she had none. She had nothing much
of anything now. For the past week
everything Mary Baumbright had been was
being stripped away layer by layer. The
veterinary medicine student was now in a
cage of her own. Her family was across
the country in Cincinnati. Her boyfriend
and girlfriends were on winter break.
Mary was supposed to be in Japan studying
the panda bears and eating sushi with
the rest of the students. Surely her professor
would call someone when she didn’t make
the trip. Surely her mother would
become suspicious when there was no
call from Japan. Surely someone was
looking for her. But she had no way of
knowing. There were no windows in the
basement. The walls were carpeted and
probably sound-proof. Obviously no one
had heard her the entire week, and she
had heard nothing from outside. Had he
designed the basement for this very
thing? The thought sent shivers down her
eventually he would kill her, either out of psychosis or
boredom. Most of her wanted him to. If
she somehow returned to normal life,
where would she begin? Would she go
back to class as if nothing had happened?
Would she be on Court TV reliving every
horrible minute for the pleasure of
America? How could she face Zach or
touch him again? How could she ever be
with another man? Life made no sense
now. She’d planned to be a veterinarian,
but now she was ruined and she would
probably be dead soon.
The word did not
feel right in her head. As much as she wanted this
nightmare to be over and as much as she
thought that she had lost her life already,
she was not ready for death. There had
to be a way out. There is always a way
out. She looked at the chains hanging
from the ceiling. She’d tried to pull them
out after the first time he raped her,
and if she couldn’t do it then with all the anger
and adrenaline, there would be no
chance now. What about the bathroom?
Showerhead, razor,s the mirror—all
potential weapons. Weapons.
And then she
remembered what her father used to say.
Use the most dangerous weapon a human
in Roman’s living room in dead silence. The somberness was
understood without a word spoken. Each
of us was alone with our thoughts.
Although I didn’t know exactly what
Roman and Heather were thinking, I still
didn’t buy the aliens.
I broke the
silence. “He’s fuckin’ off his rocker about this alien shit.”
“What do you care?”
“I care ’cause I’m
tired of wading through waist-high shit every time he
“It’s not like he’s
asking you to change religions or something,” Heather
“It’s just goddamn
annoying,” I said. “What do you think Roman?”
complaining the other day about how you cuss all the time. How
you squeeze your colorful adjectives in
front of the most unlikely of nouns,”
“What does Pick
care, he cusses all the time too. Besides sometimes ‘gosh
darn it’ just doesn’t get the point
across like ‘fuck’.”
“I understand that.
But he says you cuss all the time because you have no
imagination, no thought about having
something better to say. Pick says it annoys
“Like I give a damn
what annoys Pick? It’s just the way I am.”
just the way Carl is too,” Roman said.
As subtle as it was, Roman had a way of
slamming his point across. From
that moment on I was a bit more
conscious about what flew out of my mouth and
what I said about people.
“So what now?”
Heather said. “Should we check on him every so often?”
“I’ll check on him
in the morning. Even in his weak state Carl wouldn’t
appreciate an around-the-clock
intrusion on his privacy,” Roman said.
There was a soft knock at the door. Me
and Heather jumped off the couch
out of surprise. I don’t know if it was
because the only people that ever knocked
on his door were already here, or Agent
Johnson and the aliens had burrowed their
way into the back of our minds. Roman
got up calmly and walked to the door.
opened—as if that night hadn’t been strange enough—Johnny the Killer
stumbled through the doorway and fell
into Roman’s arms.
led Johnny to the rocking chair and sat him down. The Killer had
plastic hanging from his neck, and his
face was sweaty and gray, like wax. His
hands trembled. Without asking, Roman
retrieved him a glass of water.
happened, did you get the bad end of the deal in some sex game?” I
asked and laughed.
Johnny didn’t crack
a smile. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t think of anywhere else
“You didn’t have
anywhere else to go because you don’t have any friends
Johnny. You’ve lost all of them over
the years remember?” Heather said.
Roman put the glass of water in
Johnny’s hands. It slipped from the
Killer’s shaking grip a second later,
but Roman snatched it with the hands of a
magician before it could shatter on the
hardwood floor. Roman put one hand on
Johnny’s shoulder this time as if to
calm his former nemesis, then gave the glass
back to him. Johnny sucked it down
violently, the water seeping from where the
glass met the edges of his mouth. He
took a deep breath.
Johnny rubbed back
the hair on his head. “Oh shit man, they almost killed
“Who?” I asked.
“Bobby and Boochie.”
“I told ya not to
get mixed up with those thugs. Didn’t I tell ya?”
“Last night I was
with ’em and they almost put some handicapped dude
into a wood chipper. I couldn’t go
through with it, just couldn’t be a part of it. So
I stopped ’em. Today they blindsided me
and took me to Freddy Flowers’s office,
put this goddamn plastic sack over my
head, and stuffed me in Boochie’s trunk. I
thought I was done for, gonna suffocate
to death, but I felt a tire iron next to my
head, managed to rub my face on it and
poke a hole in the plastic. I managed to
break the tie on my wrist with a screw
hanging in the corner of the trunk. When
they opened the trunk I hit ’em with
the iron and ran like hell.”
“You’re lucky is
what you are,” Heather said.
“I told you not to
be fuckin’ around with Freddy Flowers,” I said again.
“So you’re just here
for sympathy or what?” Heather asked.
“No, I want your
“Help with what?” I
Johnny tried to
clear his throat and then did something I had never thought
Johnny the Killer
cried like a baby.
Even though tears
streamed down his face and snot dripped into his mouth,
when he began to speak, most of his
words were distinguishable.
“They got Apollo,
man. They’re gonna make him fight tomorrow in some
kinda gladiator fight against other
dogs. He doesn’t stand a chance. He’ll be
tortured. They make ’em fight to the
Roman went to the
kitchen for water and tissues.
“Why don’t you just go to
the police?” Heather asked.
Freddy’s got ’em all in his pocket,” Johnny answered.
“So just go steal
him back before tomorrow night,” I said.
“It’s not that
easy,” Johnny said. “I don’t know where they’ve got him
right now. The Flower keeps the dogs
somewhere else until the show. And these
fights are just part of a bigger show.
Freddy calls it Extravaganza. He has one
every four months. It’s some sick
masquerade party. Charges five hundred a pop
just to get in the door. It’s like some
sort of perverted circus.”
“They wear masks?”
“Everyday people in
Collingston can’t be spotted at some depraved
event,” Roman said, handing Johnny the
water and handkerchief.
“Exactly,” Johnny said.
“You wouldn’t believe how many high rollers
attend this thing.”
“Where is it?” I
“It’s on the same
property as his greenhouses north of town. One of the
roads leads way back in the woods. It’s
like an old warehouse that’s been
converted into an arena. He uses the
basement as a kennel the day of the fight.
The only problem is the only way into
the basement is through the arena. There’s
no other entrance. But Freddy lets his
guests go down before the show starts to get
a look at the dogs so they can get an
idea of which ones to bet on.”
“How many men will
he have?” Roman asked. I could see it in his eyes,
that soft spot for animals, and the
computer in his head already making
thirty,” Johnny said.
“There’s an armory
off the entrance. Freddy makes even his own guys put
their guns in there. I guess one of ’em
got drunk one time and shot a guy awhile
back. Freddy figures he can’t afford
people dying at this thing, even if he is tied in
with the pigs and sharks. He figures
his soldiers can handle things anyway. The
armory is for emergencies only.”
“This all sounds
pretty ballsy to me,” I said.
Roman’s face was blank, his eyes
lifeless. I always imagined the busy
signal noise of a telephone when he
looked like that.
“Not if we’re the
only ones with a gun,” Johnny said.
“No guns.” Roman
snapped back from the canyons in his mind.
“When does it
start?” Heather asked.
“You’re not going.
It’s too dangerous,” Roman commanded.
“Excuse me. I didn’t
ask you, nor will I. I’ve known Apollo since he was
a puppy and I
“We do need a
driver,” I said.
Roman shook his head and let out a long
sigh. He didn’t argue any further.
“I have one
stipulation of my own,” I said. “If I put my ass on the line here
you’re going to play baseball this
“I’m going to. It
was all I could think about riding with Boochie and
Bobby,” Johnny said. “I’m tellin’ ya
though, we gotta bring my gun...”
“If you want my
help, we do it my way,” Roman said. “My way is without
the gun. Besides we won’t need it. I’ve
got an idea.”
“Imagine that,” I