TKnC welcomes Matthew with his little noir tale...
“Hey Maurice! Little help over here.” Stick whistled across the dank basement, the sound ringing hollow off the dingy cinderblock walls as he crushed the life out of Todd’s nuts. Kid couldn’t have been more than twenty-two, but I’d say at this point any shot at fatherhood was pretty much gone.
“Maurice?” I asked the three-hundred pound slag heap that usually worked the door at Stick’s club but today was pulling double duty as an extra set of meathooks. “I thought your name was Boiler?”
“Some people call me Maurice,” he rumbled in that Barry White baritone of his. “Because I speak of the pompatus of love.”
Fair enough, I nodded from my perch on the cellars splintery tool bench, letting my legs dangle off the edge like a kid in a high chair as I toyed with a pair of needle-nose pliers.
“I need a break.” Stick cracked his knuckles and stepped aside, allowing his muscle to take over. Watching Boiler go to work, it occurred to me that whatever the pompatus of love might be, it probably didn’t have much to do with this. But hey, this was what passed for entertainment down here.
I’d been practically living at Stick’s club for the past five days. I’d needed to lay low after the Vey-has deal had gone so far south it ended up in Antartica, and Stick owed me. Now I know crashing at a strip club for close to a week might sound like a wet dream come true––but trust me, five days of drugs, booze, and titties and anyone but the densest hocky-haircut, sweatpants sporting, trailer monkey is bound to get bored.
“You gonna’ need these?” I asked, holding up the pliers.
Stick waved me off with a, “Maybe in a minute.” This was just work for him. Business as usual. He didn’t need any temp help from a short-con grifter like me. I hated it. Maybe he was just being hospitable, but I really was beginning to feel about as useless as a set of handlebars on a unicycle.
“Look-ayeEE!…stneEEd…alitlemoret…iIIme!” Todd spit out the almost words between broken teeth and bleeding hamburger lips. Pain didn’t even begin to describe what this kid was in. I caught a glimpse of the tips of his shoes as they struggled to find footing, half-scraping tiny crescents on the grimy concrete. Boiler held him just out of reach of the floor with one of his massive hands. An improbably marvel of evolution those hands; they looked like a couple of char-broiled hams.
Stick had given me the 411 on this conference as we hopped down the rickety iron steps that led to the club’s basement. Todd, one of his street pushers had stepped out of line. They were like sled dogs, he explained. They pulled the weight, but were still just dogs and sometimes had to be disciplined or put down.
Come to the show, he’d said with a wink. Ringside seat.
“Take it up with my accountant,” Stick said and on cue Boiler hoisted Todd up another five inches. No scraping now. Just spastic scissors kicks that made the kid’s vocal chords clamp down, pinching his screams to a thin wail.
God this was getting boring. The least they could do was break something on him, a wrist maybe. I twiddled what might have been an awl between my thumb and forefinger. “How about this?” I asked, holding it up. “Do you need this?”
“If you really wanted to help you could have filled up the that can of gas I loaned you.” Stick narrowed his glassy primeval gaze at Todd. “It might have come in handy here.”
“Funny, Stick. That was four years ago––ouch!” I looked down. Seems my carefree handling of the mystery implement had gone netted me a nice puncture wound. I shoved the bleeding digit into my mouth. “Eww ounnidt mappn––” And just as quickly yanked it back out. “Sorry, you wouldn’t happen to have some band-aid brand bandages down here, registered trademark?”
Stick ignored me. “That was a lot of drugs Todd. Where’d it go?”
“AhmaAAgh! FaaghAAm Ma-AA!”
Stick shook his head, then tapped his former NFL linebacker of an enforcer on the shoulder. I could hear Todd practically suck half the air out of the chamber and into his chest as Boiler set him down. I watched the tears stream from the kid’s eyes as oxygen rich blood flooded back into his most prized vascular structure.
“You know this could get infected,” I said to Stick, holding up my thumb, and trying not to let any of the blood drip on to my new Diesel jeans. That poker thing looked rusty too; last thing I needed was a damn tetanus shot. “I wouldn’t want to have to hit you with a law suit, Stick.”
“I said…That was a lot of drugs, Todd! Where’d it go?”
I swear I heard a couple of Todd’s fillings sing like communion bells as Stick laid a heavily ringed backhand to the side of his face.
“I lost it.” Todd’s voice was starting to sound like someone had sent his vocal chords through the Cuisinart. “It was the cops.”
“Really? Which one?” Stick leaned in as Boiler leaned back. “You lost it? Or was it the cops.
“You know I’m getting blood on your tools here,” I said. And in another minute or two that would be true.
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Stick said flicking me a glance, then turning his full attention to Todd. “Well?”
“I los--it was the…I lost it…I lost it.”
“Yeah, I bet you lost it.” Stick tilted Todd’s head back to get a good look at what was left of the kid’s septum. “I think I know where it went to too. Hand me that ice pick. Maybe I can scrape some back out.”
“An ice pick…that’s what it is.” I could have hit myself. “I thought it might be some sort of leather working--”
“Please…I’m begging you.”
Although I’d never worked in recreational pharmaceutical distribution myself, I knew the drill. Street dealers like Todd worked on commission. Stick would front them the goods, and they’d sell it in smaller amounts at a higher price overall. The smart ones paid for it up front. Then again, the smart ones didn’t dip into their supply either. I could see this kid hadn’t started off full-blown, but it’s easy to forget you’re not a junkie with eight ounces of coke or meth burning a hole in your pocket, or your nose.
Or your brain.
“You took something from me Todd, and you have to pay for it,” Stick said rising to his full height, arms outstretched to the wet cinderblock walls. “There has to be a reckoning.”
Todd shivered. I watched a dark patch spread across his crotch and down his pant leg. An acrid stench hit me square in the nose. The kid pissed himself. Not that it mattered, he’d have done it after he was dead. Just another part of the business. I knew there was a reason for that drain under his feet, and for the garden hose coiled on the wall behind him. For this and for the blood.
I felt a smile creep across my face. I smile a lot, usually just a hyena-rictus, though––a counterfeit reflex there to keep the jack-holes at bay. It’s not often that I’m blessed with the unconscious grace of a true grin. It was as rare a thing as a good hard-on, and I could sense the beginnings of that too.
It’s the way I’m wired, I guess. Sometimes I just need to see someone get hurt. It’s not like I’m alone. That bloodlusty part of the human equation––the one that likes to watch, the one responsible for Roman gladiatoral games and reality TV, for Alabama lynchings and the guillotine––it’s in all of us. For most of civilized society it lurks around at the back of the audience. But make no mistake, it’s never really going to leave. It’s bought its ticket and it wants to see the show.
“Please don’t kill me.”
“Relax, numbnuts. Nobody’s gonna’ kill you,” Stick answered, his voice low, a lullaby lilt. “If we killed you, where would I get my money from?” He turned to me. “Hand me them garden shears, will ya’?”
“Righty dokey,” I said rooting around the scattered tools. I was glad to finally be of some help, be able to shake the feeling of being nothing but a barnacle on Stick’s hull. “These ones?” I asked, holding up a pair of heavy duty pruning shears.
I ran my thumb across the edge of one blade, dull from over use. It left a red-brown streak. “They look a little rusty.”
“That’s not rust. It’s blood.”
“Oh, yeah. Look at that.” I knew what it was. I’d seen enough dried blood in my day. “Here you go.” I tossed them to Stick who caught them with barely a glance in my direction.
He snapped them open, snipping the air around Todd’s face. “Which hand?”
snip snip snip
You could tell by the glassy look in his eyes that Todd had heard rumors about this. About Stick and his collection. Sometimes it was teeth, occasionally an eye or something a bit more valuable. But his favorite seemed to be fingers.
snip snip snip
“Please, Stick. Don’t do this…please!”
“Which hand do you jerk off with?”
snip snip…snippity snip snip
“I told you! There has to be a reckoning. Now stop being a pussy and pick a fucking hand. Right or left?”
“Excuse me?” Stick cupped his ear.
“What was that? Both? I think he said both. Boiler––”
“No wait…” Todd started to crumble into himself, all the air leaving his lungs as he answered, “Left.”
“Right it is then. Maurice, the hand please.”
The kid let loose with a fresh volley of screaming negations and negotiations as Boiler shoved his massive fingers in between Todd’s, splaying them out.
Starting with the pinky and tapping each tip with the shears Stick intoned, “Eany meany miney…” and so on.
I watched Todd’s eyes skipping from finger to finger, trying to out count Stick, hoping to figure out which little piggy was going to get to run screaming all the way to his new home on the dirty cement floor right next to the rusty drain cover.
I was rooting for the thumb.
“…catch a tiger by his toe. Wait, maybe I should I say finger? Nah...toe, toe. Catch a tiger by his toe. Eany meany miney moe.” The point of the shears came to rest on Todd’s right pinky. Stick took a deep breath and, “...my mother told me to--I’m just kiddin.’”
That was it. Pinky on the floor. Todd screeching and clutching his diminished hand as a fresh flow of blood streamed down his forearm.
“Now hit the bricks,” Stick said with an ushering wave. “You got two weeks to get me that money. Two weeks, got it? Or that’ll be your prick on the floor.”
Todd nodded as he grit his teeth to keep from wailing. I watched as his eyes landed on his severed finger lying in the dirt and urine. He shifted on his front foot a couple of times before lurching forward to pick it up.
“Leave it,” Stick commanded. Todd obeyed and beat his retreat up the stairs as Stick retrieved the digit, tossing it to Boiler. “Put that in the jar with the others.”
And I felt that smile take hold again. Five days was what it took to get bored with the naked girlies and the blow. But this…
This was probably good for at least a week or two.
Matthew Quinn Martin is an author and screen/play writer and has seen his work published at the Oddsville Press, MFA/MFYou, A Twist of Noir, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Eastern Standard Crime, Thuglit and JMWW.
MQM also collaborates with Libby Cudmore.