I start every day with a yoga pose at which I excel. This is the Dead Guy Pose. I don’t bother to get out of bed. I swipe the pillows to the floor, arrange my arms palm up beside me, and let my mind go blank.
The last part of this does not require so much effort. Then again, the other parts don’t either.
On the morning that concerns us here, I was distracted briefly by the curtain fluttering in the window, by the birds doing their usual twittering, and by what sounded like the neighbor’s pitbull going for the paper boy. Then that delicious nothingness settled on me, until out of the blankness my mother’s image appeared.
Okay, I was a momma’s boy. I don’t make any excuses. Just because she’s been dead twenty years doesn’t mean so much has changed. When momma sends me a message, I listen.
This is what she said: Get up on your tiptoes, Charles. Strange things gonna be happening.
Monday: Trouble at Ivan’s.
After a healthy breakfast I walked down University Avenue, huffing and also puffing. It is not for nothing that I am known as Fatman. People pronounce it as one word. I’m used to it.
I think of myself as majestic. When I sink my head upon my chins and look down my nose at you, well, you know you’re being looked at. For all that, I am surprisingly light on my feet. Believe me, it’s not the only contradiction in the way I’m put together.
I walked east from Victoria Street, toward AAA-A1 Auto Repair, to retrieve my Volvo from a gentleman named Ivan.
I was outside his shop when I felt the sidewalk tremble beneath my feet. No surprise there. Earthmovers tore up the street. Workmen in their lime-colored vests were building the light rail line that would accomplish, in theory, all sorts of things. Move workers to their jobs. Spur development. Transform the, oh, sketchy environs into something they had not previously been. Like prosperous.
I looked around to see what was making the ground jump. There: a front-end loader dumping a few tons of rubble.
Maybe this is tough for you to feature, but for a moment it seemed that the world held its breath. Workers stopped in place. Birds quit their chirping. Even the bits of dust froze in the air.
Then came another rumble, this from deep beneath my feet. The fresh scent of a summer morning was replaced by something else. My nose twitched. Sulfur. That was it. Like a few thousand eggs boiled somewhere inside the Earth.
“You smell that?” one of the workmen yelled to me.
“Maybe you hit a gas line.”
“No way. We got it shut off.”
“Then what? A volcano?”
“Don’t be messing with me.”
“Okay, you don’t like my idea. What’s yours?”
“Smells like somebody opened the door to hell.”
Despite all the official explanations and denials that were to come, this was less wrong than you might think.
Tuesday: “Customer service” a la Ivan
The signs on Ivan’s shop made a lot of promises. Friendly, reliable service. Quality you can trust. Oil changes, $14.99. False, false, false. But as I walked in the door I was, briefly, hopeful.
I found Ivan engaged in customer service with a Hmong kid, who explained that he had brought his car in to have some suspension gizmos installed. His idea was that his Civic would be raised in the back, creating the impression that even when parked it hurtled forward. “But your guy, he puts them on front, not back. Maybe he doesn’t understand?”
All of this was said apologetically, an exercise in doling out face-saving opportunity.
“My guy! My guy!” Ivan snapped. “You say my guy is stupid? He doesn’t know which way is which?”
“No, no, no! He’s not stupid! Maybe he doesn’t understand.”
“Down, up, up, down. He does it the right way, like the instructions say.”
By now Ivan had a finger poised, ready to jab the kid in the chest.
“You guys smell something funny?” I asked.
“What! Now you say my shop stinks!”
“Cool down, brother. Try your nose instead of your mouth.”
“I’m not your brother.”
“Man, just take a whiff.”
That smell from the sidewalk was stronger now. I figured it might be leaking through the cracks in the floor. Our nostrils twitched together. We all went a little cross-eyed, considering.
“I don’t smell nothing.”
“Like matches,” said the kid. “Like somebody lights a whole book of matches.”
It wasn’t just that. Something was getting under my skin. Normally I find ranters like Ivan interesting, amusing even. But mostly now I wanted to get a hand around his throat. This wasn’t me. Usually I’ve got a song in my heart.
The kid slammed a fist on the counter. “Your shop stinks,” he said. “Your service stinks. I tell everyone I know. Stinks!”
My feeling was we were all being poisoned.
Before Ivan could react, a cop let himself in.
“Yo, Fatman,” he said. “You a satisfied customer here? Put you in an exclusive club.”
“Roscoe. You’re in consumer services now? What happened to murder and mayhem?”
“Wears you out. Anyway, my sister-in-law’s got issues with Ivan here.”
“I got issues,” the kid said.
“Of course you do. You’re doing business with Ivan. My advice…” Roscoe paused. His nose pleated up like an accordion. “What the hell. Ivan. You butchering pigs in the back?”
“My thought was hard-boiled eggs,” I said. “About a million of them.”
“I was pissed off when I walked in here and I’m more pissed off now,” Roscoe observed. “The sister-in-law’s transmission shifts like it’s full of gravel. My brother is climbing up my back. I got my eye on you, Ivan. That’s all I’m saying. I’m coming back tomorrow. You need a plan to make me happy.”
“Officer, he puts on my lifters, backward.”
“He does everything backward. My advice, buddy, go someplace else. Anyplace else.”
The kid and Roscoe cleared out at the same time, leaving me alone with Ivan. “You! What do you want!”
“You’ve got my Volvo. Oil change. Fourteen ninety-nine.”
“Not ready! Come back tomorrow!”
“You know I’ll be back! It better be ready!”
Ivan grabbed a heavy-duty torque wrench. “Don’t tell me what better happen,” he whispered.
“Okay, man. Okay. I’ll be back. Tomorrow morning. Nine. I want my car.”
“Oh, you’ll have your car.”
I hit the door and strode back onto University Avenue. Once I got a block down the street I felt my usual self again. Out with the angry stomping, in with the happy swagger.
I wondered, What was that all about?
Tomorrow: Scene of the Crime
I’m a punctual guy. My trains run on time. When I told Ivan I’d be back at nine, I didn’t mean two minutes after. I didn’t imagine he’d be there, but I figured it would make all the more of an impression if I was leaning up against his door, waiting.
I listened to the birds sing for a while before rolling out of my bed at seven. Same drill as always. A healthy breakfast. Most important meal of the day. Eggs, toast, bacon, yogurt, orange juice, coffee, cream and sugar, berries, maybe a few other items that I’m forgetting. I’m a hungry man in so many ways. Newspaper spread out before me. Old school, that. Who reads the things anymore? Then outside to dabble in my garden. Tie off the tomatoes. Deadhead the flowers. Listen to the bees.
I’ve got a tidy little place. Get this: there’s even a white picket fence along the sidewalk. Sure, a little too often someone spray paints Screw you Fatman on it, and I’m another hundred bucks into Alfonzo, my handyman. But still. You can’t let yourself get dragged down.
I sauntered down Charles Avenue, turned on Victoria and headed east on University Avenue toward Ivan’s place. I’m not telling you the neighborhood is beautiful. There are places where people are trying, places where they have failed, places where the idea of trying was lost a few generations back.
Ivan’s place was still locked up when I arrived. No surprise there. I got out the local section of the paper that I had tucked in my back pocket. I lowered myself — okay, it’s a job, moving my girth — onto the weed-choked planter outside Ivan’s door. I was grinding through the paper’s daily dose of murder, beatings and child abuse when Roscoe pulled up in his cruiser.
“Fatman,” he said. “What? You think your car is finished?”
“Finished. Yeah, it might be that.”
Roscoe gave me a dead little chuckle. “Same as my sister-in-law’s car. Christ.”
Roscoe hitched up his belt. His gear pulled it down over the arc of his belly. The squad-car diet hadn’t done him much good.
“This guy think he’s a banker? It’s after nine. He hiding in there?”
“How should I know? Why don’t you shoot the door open?”
“That’s Dirty Harry stuff. We go by the book. Mostly.”
He took out his flashlight and banged on the door.
“You’re going to break it with that thing.” The flashlight was the size of a toddler’s arm.
He put a hand against the glass and pressed his face to the window. “That your ride in there, Fatman?”
“I like how he changes the oil.”
“Pulls the plug and lets it drain on the floor.”
I struggled to my feet and arranged myself beside Roscoe. “That all you see?”
“I’m not telling you how to do your job. But if I were you?”
“I’d be curious about that pair of feet sticking out from under my car.”
Tomorrow: Suspect list a mile long
Roscoe slammed his flashlight against the glass door. It shattered. We walked through. “Police,” Roscoe shouted. “We’re going to get you out.”
“Doesn’t look like there’s any rush.”
“Come on, Fatman. Let’s be positive.”
“Be positive if you want. The guy’s still dead.”
“You don’t know that.”
I hit the button for the lift.
“Jesus, Fatman. That’s evidence. Don’t go smearing everything up.”
“You’re the one thinks he’s living. I’m getting the car off him. You give him mouth-to-mouth. If he’s so alive.”
“Call nine one one, will you? Do something useful.”
I got the car six feet in the air and stopped it there.
“Jesus, what a mess,” Roscoe said.
I told the dispatcher there wasn’t a rush on the ambulance.
“Looks like you don’t have to keep your eye on Ivan anymore,” I said.
“That’s Ivan? How can you tell?”
“Says Ivan on his shirt.”
“Yo Sherlock. You ever considered a career in law enforcement?”
“I can read. Why waste my talents?”
“With all due respect, go to hell, Fatman.”
“Yeah, you’re welcome.”
“What do you think? The lift failed?”
I shrugged. “It goes up.” I lowered the car a couple feet. “It goes down. You got engineers to check it out, right?”
“Oh yeah, we got a couple dozen just waiting on me to call.”
“Looks to me like somebody dropped it on him.”
“Don’t these things have safety catches?”
“Maybe somebody jimmied it. You’re the cop, remember?”
Roscoe ran a hand over his bald head. “Shooting a guy, sure. Happens every day. Stabbing. But dropping a car, even on a knucklehead like Ivan. That’s cold.”
Oil and water don’t mix; neither do blood and oil. The red was bright against the black puddle.
“The suspect list,” Roscoe said. “Man, that’s everybody who ever walked in the door. My sister-in-law for starters.”
Sirens sounded. The fire station was just down the street, but the way University Avenue was dug up it would take a while before the trucks arrived.
“Might as well take a load off,” Roscoe said. Ivan had a mini-van seat propped up against the wall. Roscoe and I sat side-by-side and stared at the corpse.
“What next?” I asked. “Do I change my own oil?”
“Get used to walking, Fatman. Your ride is evidence now. You’re screwed, pal.”
“You take some pictures, you take some prints. How much time do you need?”
“You ever hear about government work? You don’t like walking, maybe you should buy a bike. Exercise. It might do you some good.”
“Now you’re a doctor.”
“I wish. I’d get paid more for looking at blood.”
That shut us both up. You can joke for a while in the presence of death but it catches up with you.
“It still stinks in here,” Roscoe said. “What the hell do you think it is?”
As a description of the facts, what the hell turned out to be closer than you’d think.
Tomorrow: A message from the birds
I figured Roscoe was right about my car. Ivan’s shop would be a crime scene for days. My car would be stuck on Ivan’s lift. Then the cops would impound it because it was a murder weapon.
“Come on, I’ll give you a ride home,” Roscoe offered after the investigators were done with me. “Long way for a big guy to walk.”
“I don’t know. Cop car. Always makes me a little nervous.”
“Take a walk on the wild side, Fatman.”
Out in the street it was the usual end-of-the-world scene that comes with a murder. An ambulance. A fire truck. A half dozen cop cars. Then the news trucks and cameramen. A few photogs from print. A couple dozen gawkers.
“Over here,” Roscoe said, pointing toward his cruiser.
Some kind of bird was belly up on the hood, its wings just barely flapping. “What are you, Roscoe. The angel of death?”
“A grackle,” Roscoe said. “Not like there’s a shortage.”
“There might be. Look around.” I saw another dozen or so, dead or near dead. They looked like they had fallen out of the sky. Then I spotted a rat wriggling in the gutter on its back.
“Maybe you ought to call somebody,” I said.
“Like who? James Audubon?”
“Poison Center. Natural Resources. Animal Control. I don’t know. Somebody. Even the rats can’t take it. Does this look natural to you?”
“It’s Frogtown, Fatman. What’s supposed to look natural?”
“Okay, you got me.”
Some stunted trees grew out of metal grates in the sidewalk. Weeds sprouted from the cracks. That was it for nature where we stood.
“You could put one of them in a plastic bag at least. Take it to the health department.”
“I’m a street cop, okay? Not Francis of Assisi. Give me your paper, will you?”
I still had the newspaper tucked in my back pocket. I handed it over to him. Roscoe used it to brush the bird from the hood and into the street. Then he looked at the paper with disgust. He dropped it on top of the bird and got into the car.
“What happened to the litter laws?”
“You want a ride or not?”
“I’m telling you, Roscoe, nobody respects my neighborhood.”
“Of course not. You ought to move.”
“It’s home, man. You’re insulting my home.”
“I’m saying maybe you need a new home. Think about it.”
Monday: Fatman makes three-wheel deal
We drove a couple blocks, past the CarX and the U-Haul shop. We were closing in on Little Junior’s second-hand rat’s nest when I yelled at Roscoe, “Hey, stop!”
“Something else dead, man, I’m throwing you out of the car and driving away.”
“No, it’s wheels, Roscoe.”
Little Junior had his usual flotsam stacked on the sidewalk. Chairs, a couple beds, dressers, tables. Stuck in with it all was a three-wheeled bike.
“That’s the spirit, Fatman. Human powered. Next thing you know, you’ll look good as me.”
“That’s flattery, pal.”
Roscoe parked illegally. Little didn’t bother to look up from his crossword when we walked in. “You two,” he said. “Good cop bad cop.”
“I’m no cop.”
“Close enough. Mister Morality.”
We go back. I told him once his soul would rot if he continued to overcharge me. Next time I came in he handed me a Mason jar with what looked like dried up dog shit inside it. “What’s that?” I asked him.
“I believe it’s my soul. I thought, ‘Maybe Fatman would like to keep it.’ For you, no charge.”
I asked Little about the bike.
“Two hundred,” he said, pulling at his ear. A thicket of hair grew out of it. Disgusting, sort of, but Little wasn’t making a living as an ear model. Whether he was 80 or 180 years old was hard to tell.
“I got fifty.”
“Don’t insult me.”
“Look who’s talking.”
“Okay, Fatman. As a contribution to your health and well-being. One fifty.”
“Roscoe, put him in cuffs. He’s trying to rob me.”
“I ought to toss you both into the cruiser. Aggravated penny-pinching.”
“Aggravating,” I said.
“This is my final offer, Fatman. One twenty five.”
I rode it away for eighty-seven fifty.
Feral youth mocked me on the way home. Kids holding down the corner, holding up their pants. “Need the wide load sign on that! Get the blinking lights! Lookout Mr. Street! You gonna get a workout!” So on and so forth. Ha ha. Comedians.
Shouting back at them was pointless. The nothing industry was out there waiting for them. They’d figure that out soon enough.
Anyway, Doris was waiting for me.
Which made up for just about anything.
Tuesday: My baby wakes the dead
Doris is one of the few people on Earth who does not call me Fatman.
“Charles, baby, what’s this? You’re exercising?”
“The cops got my car. It’s a long story.”
“It must be a long story if you’re riding… what do you call that thing?”
“Tricycle. Trike, I suppose.”
“Next thing, you’ll look like a stick. Charles, I’m warning you. I don’t care for those little stick guys. I like a guy who packs a punch, you know what I mean?”
“Don’t worry, sugar. I got a lot to spare.”
Doris sat on my porch glider. Her hair was piled on top of her head. She wore denim shorts that looked like they had been cut with a machete and a t-shirt that could have been a size larger.
A lot of people wonder, What is she doing with him!? She has caused traffic accidents just walking down University Avenue. It’s the blonde hair (bleached, but still…), those ripe lips and a few hundred other things. You can watch the heads snap as men drive by. You can watch the heads snap as women drive by. Her toenails are enough to drive me crazy. Where a lot of other women have a tattoo of a rose or a flowery doo-dad, Doris has a leering devil with a flaming pitchfork. That’s my baby.
As for what she’s doing with me, well, she’s had her share of guys who regarded her as an ornament — a living version of a Rolex watch or an Armani coat. Whereas I know what I’ve got going here and I act accordingly. I ply her with chocolate and champagne. I don’t stint on the bouquets. If she says, Chuck, my feet are aching, I’m on a tear to heat up the scented oil and grease her little piggies.
“What, you were speeding? Why did the police take your car?”
“Okay. Short version. It was a murder weapon.”
“Your car murdered somebody? Your old junker?”
“It’s not a junker. It fell on the guy who was changing the oil. Actually it was dropped. He looked like a bug.”
“Who does something like that?”
“He wasn’t much of a mechanic.”
“Yeah, but that’s extreme.”
Doris twisted a strand of hair. She looked thoughtful, which is not always a good thing.
“Charles. I am embarrassed to say this.”
“Yeah, but I’m going to sound like a nutter.”
“Compared to who? Baby, you’re a beacon of common sense.”
“Last night as I’m walking in from my car…”
“I keep saying you should move in with me. I’ve got room…”
“Look, let’s not get into that right now. Last night, I’m going into the house, this guy runs by on the street.”
“You still got the Mace I gave you?” To say that I worry about Doris is putting it mildly.
“No time to think about that. But this guy…”
I’m not sure I want to hear this.
“He’s running and it’s hard to say. But he looks…”
“Okay, it’s crazy. But he looks like… what was his name?”
“I don’t know, baby.”
“The one from the motorcycle shop. Deadarm? Was that his name?”
“That’s the one. Deadhead. Not such a bad guy really.”
“Just to set the record straight, he was. He had some good points. He was an excellent mechanic. If you had a Harley. But he’s dead.”
“Right. That accident. With the gun.”
“I don’t know that I’d call it a total accident.”
“Still. He was running down the street. He looked at me and I looked at him and, Charles, we knew each other. Then he keeps on running like the devil is on his tail.”
“Hmm,” I said.
Doris is a sensible gal, but sometimes her perceptions are compromised. Hand her a drink or a joint and she won’t necessarily say no.
“Let me think about that,” I said.
Wednesday: A visit with Deadhead
You’ve been around as long as I have and you’re in a dreamy place between what is and what used to be.
I head south on Dale, make the left on University and expect to find a lumberyard. Which hasn’t been there for thirty years. Ditto for the porn and strip joints that filled three out of four corners. The Belmont Club, the Notorious Faust, and the peep show storefront that, if it even had a name, I’ve forgotten: gone, gone, gone.
Farther down the street, the barbecue shack that doubled as a stolen goods emporium until the police shut it down. In the other direction the Gopher, a logical stop if you needed a drink, a lump of crack and a prostitute. When the cops made their final bust, they brought a city bus to accommodate the mob that needed a trip downtown.
That’s local color! That’s atmosphere! People yap about gentrification and expect me to share their outrage. The past: Fatman don’t want to go back there.
Deadhead. Sure, I remember him. May he rest in peace.
He operated out of a cement-block garage in the alley between Sherburne and Charles, within earshot of my tidy cottage. If you laid eyes on him once you understood why he was called Deadhead. Not because his pals were deeply imaginative. His skin looked like it had been spray-painted on his skull. Eyes: sunken. Teeth: vile. When meth came along he was an early adopter, a real trendsetter.
Especially for a guy so thoroughly zonked, he was a mechanical genius and an artist. The bikes that came out of his shop rumbled in a way that made you think you were listening to Satan’s upset stomach. If you parked them in an art museum, no one would have asked why.
He drove all of us nuts. When you’re flying on crank, you don’t care where the big hand and the little hand are pointing. Deadhead didn’t think twice about revving a Harley engine at three in the morning. If his customers stopped by on their bikes, burned rubber in the alley, test-fired their weaponry and tossed empty beer cans, Deadhead was not losing any sleep. Because he wasn’t sleeping anyway.
“Fatman, we got to have a meeting,” the neighbors said to me. They wanted someone to do something, but they didn’t want to do it themselves. There was no telling what Deadhead and his associates wouldn’t do. No one wanted to turn into a target. They figured that was my job.
I agreed. Not because it was smart. Mostly because I was so tired. Like everyone else, I never slept through the night. I couldn’t think straight enough to refuse. Plus I have certain attitudes toward running to officialdom to solve my problems. My attitude is, DIY.
I picked a gentle summer morning for my meeting with Deadhead. Birds sang their heads off. Fat clouds floated overhead. Butterflies flapped here and there. It all made an impression — the sweetness of creation! — because I could imagine reasons why I wouldn’t see any of it again.
Deadhead’s garage door was open. The grease-splotched building seemed to suck up the sunlight. “You in there, Deadhead?” I yelled.
Thursday: A chrome-plated pistol in his hand
“Yo, Fatman,” Deadhead said. “What’s all the shouting?”
“It’s early is what I’m saying.”
Deadhead lurked in the shadows. If you said he was a vampire, who would argue?
“Deadhead, I got to ask. When’s the last time you got out in the sun?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Vitamin D. It’s a big deal. You get it from sunlight.”
“You’re going to start dishing out health advice, you ought to lose a hundred pounds first, man.”
“Yeah, okay, okay.”
Doris tells me I’m a healthy fat, like a sumo wrestler. There’s a lot of muscle under that sleek top layer. I take off my clothes, I don’t look like a melted candle. There wasn’t any point getting into that with Deadhead.
The name of his gang, Los Amigos, was stitched on the back of his leather vest. Below that was a cartoon of a guy on a Harley, wearing a sombrero. Deadhead looked like an anatomy lesson. The veins popped up under his pale skin.
We went to high school together. Talk about your two roads diverging in a yellow wood. Except that neither road took us out of Frogtown. Back then he was one of those artistic runts, always doodling in his notebook. He would have been bullied, except for his older brother, Earl. In a modern school, Earl would have been hung with an alphabet’s worth of diagnoses. ADD. ADHD. PTSD. NUTS. At the time people said, Earl, he just don’t care.
“Deadhead, the neighbors…”
“Oh, screw the neighbors, Fatman. What do they ever do but complain?”
“They want to get a little sleep. I want to get a little sleep.”
“So sleep then. You got the whole night ahead of you.”
“It’s not so easy.”
“Close your eyes. Count some little lambies. What’s hard about that?”
“It’s the noise. Motorcycles. Gunfire. Drunks hollering all night long.”
“Close the windows. Turn up the air conditioner. This is a city, you know? Not everybody goes to sleep after the news.”
“I’m trying to be reasonable here, Deadhead.”
“Fatman, I’m still talking to you. Which is more reasonable than I would be with most people. We go back.”
“That’s why I’m here. We don’t work something out, you know what’s next. The neighbors call the councilman. The councilman leans on the cops. The cops lean on your friends. It’s no good for anybody. You can run your business here, nobody cares. It’s the noise, man. You got to do something about the noise.”
What I was saying about the demolished buildings that I still see? That’s how it was talking to Deadhead. I saw the hollow-eyed crack fiend, sure, but also the little geek in his button-down shirt, sketching with his tongue stuck between his lips.
“Whatever happened to home of the free and land of the brave, Fatman? Whatever happened to a man’s home is his castle? Give me a home where the buffalo roam!”
“What? Who’s talking about buffalo? This is Frogtown, Deadhead. All we got here are pitbulls.”
“Then give me a home where the god damn pitbulls roam!” Spittle sprayed from his lips. They were a shade of blue, like he was freezing. I was thinking about that when he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a chrome revolver.
Friday: A bullet with a mind of its own
“Put the gun away, Deadhead. It makes it hard to talk.”
“You got any idea about my life, Fatman? Do you?” He jabbed at the sky with his pistol.
“Honestly, Deadhead, I think I do. We had the same nuns slapping us around in school. We were altar boys together, for Christ’s sake. We go back.”
A faint light turned on in his eyes, like a candle lit on the other side of the valley. “That was some crazy shit. Teachers dressed like Darth Vader. Everyday with that and you think it’s normal.”
“Well, it was normal. For us. Those were the days.”
“They sucked, man.”
“I’m talking about now. You know how many people I got crawling up my ass? Guys who don’t pay me. Guys I don’t pay. People who think they can rip me off. People I got to convince they can’t rip me off. Dead guys. Dead guys’ relatives. Now the neighbors. You think a little noise is on my radar, Fatman? I mean, really. Noise?”
“I’m just saying, why not take care of the problems you can take care of?”
He pointed the gun at his head. “Why don’t I just blow my brains out? That would take care of my problems.”
“Well, they’re your problems. But that seems like taking things too far.”
My policy is, never argue strenuously with people waving guns.
If Deadhead had stared at me any harder his eyes would have popped out of his head. Before either of us could say another word, the opening riff of Born to Be Wild sounded.
“Sorry, Fatman. My phone.”
He dug it out of his pocket, glanced at the caller ID and sighed. “I got to take this.”
I tried to imagine what kind of call Deadhead had to take. He held the phone in one hand and the gun in the other.
“Yeah?” he said.
High-pitched squawking came from the other end. Deadhead rolled his eyes, which was like tipping over a pair of tombstones.
“Yeah,” he said dully. “No.” Pause. “Yeah.”
Then, agitated, “What is this? International Chew Deadhead’s Ankles Day? Christ, it’s not even noon and I got you on the phone. I got Fatman here telling me the neighbors don’t like the noise. The noise! What’s next? What’s next?!”
A stray pitbull swaggered down the alley. He stopped at Deadhead’s garbage can, got his paws up on the lip of the can and tipped it over.
“I’ll tell you what’s next!” Deadhead shouted into the phone. “Pitbulls in my garbage. That’s what’s next!”
He still had the phone to his ear when he pointed the gun at the dog and pulled the trigger. The dog glanced at Deadhead, then went back to pulling at a styrofoam tray stuffed with pork rib bones.
The gun’s report was followed by the high-pitched zing of a ricochet. I turned back toward Deadhead in time to see him collapse onto the garage floor. The hole between his open eyes sprouted a lazy rivulet of blood.
That’s the long version of why I doubted that Doris had seen Deadhead running past her in the street.
Monday: How my money got to the bank
“You ought to spend the night here,” I told Doris.
“I got to work tomorrow. I should get some sleep.”
“Who says you can’t sleep? You’ll get plenty of sleep.”
“What, you’re gonna sleep with that guy prowling around your house?”
Doris didn’t answer that. She doesn’t like to admit that she’s afraid of anything.
“You make me breakfast?” she asked.
“Anything you want, baby.”
“You got it.”
“Those little sausages?”
“I’m pulling them out of the freezer right now.”
“Broiled. Brown sugar on top. Butter.”
“With cream and sugar, just how you like it. A big breakfast like that, makes you want to go back to bed. Sleep it off.”
“Just because you don’t have to work, Charles, doesn’t mean everybody has that luxury.”
“Okay, okay. I got a little bit of luck.”
“You’re half past lucky. They invented luck so you could have it.” She put one hand on my stomach for balance, then got up on her tiptoes to give me a kiss.
“Maybe I deserve it.”
“Not so much, really.”
It’s not like I won the lottery. At least not literally. My parents left me nothing except my house and a small pile of credit card debt. But my father’s brother, Jacob, was a bachelor farmer with four hundred acres out in what used to be the sticks. Eventually this became the prosperous suburbs. He ran a herd of dairy cows, grazing them in the wooded pasture that surrounded the lake plunked down in the middle of his spread.
He drove developers nuts. They imagined the lake surrounded by McMansions instead of cows that crapped in the water. Uncle Jacob never shared their dream. Finally he collapsed in his barn. The neighbor found him open-eyed, face up, surrounded by cows that were licking his dead face.
I was the sole heir. News flash: I am not the agrarian type. I stayed in his place for a night and the quiet drove me crazy. The cows became hamburger. The land went to the highest bidder. I figured I could live off the interest if I kept my overhead low. So far so good.
Doris tossed her clothes on the rocker in my bedroom. She jumped on my bed, kicked back the sheets and held her arms open wide. “What you waiting for?” she said.
“What happened to sleep?”
“How much do you need?” she asked.
I don’t know exactly what woke me up. Doris was draped over me. She’s a drooler. My shoulder was a slime slope. I slid her onto her back. She mumbled something I couldn’t understand and started to snore. Doris is no delicate flower. She’s an enthusiast. There’s not much she does halfway, even when she’s asleep.
Truth be told, she may be a little young for me. I’m getting to the age where I never sleep through the night. I wake up, I start thinking about my bladder. Try to ignore it. Can’t. Sigh. Roll out of bed. Which was what I did.
I glanced out the window. A face looked back at me.
It’s never dark in Frogtown, what with the streetlights and the security lights and the motion detectors. Gloomy: that was the word. As I peered at the face in the gloom, I thought: Deadhead. Down to the tidy hole in his forehead, right between his eyes.
I reached for the bedside table where I keep a little something for protection. When I looked back to the window again, whatever was there was gone.
There are a lot of different types of dreams. I wondered if I had actually seen anything at all.
Tuesday: How much does Doris need to know?
“I love to watch you eat, baby, but I don’t understand. How do you get away with it?”
Doris cut her pancakes into tiny portions and dabbed at her lips with a napkin. But she puts enough away to keep a lumberjack going.
“I’ve got a high metabolism, Charles.”
“Sure, you must. You sit at a desk all day. You ought to be the size of a truck.”
“Is that what you want?”
“What I want is what I got.”
“Maybe just one more pancake. And a sausage. Maybe two.”
“Coming right up!”
I didn’t mention Deadhead. In the light of day that seemed ridiculous. Deadhead staring in the window. First stop on the dementia train.
Doris drained her coffee.
“More?” I asked.
“It’s a balance, Charles. Enough edge so they know I’m not calling for fun. But not so much that I’m screaming.” She handed me her cup. “Just half, okay?”
Doris does phone collections. She’s heard it all and she is not impressed. You signed on the line and now it’s time to pay. Case closed. Save the explanations for someone who cares.
“Why don’t you stay here tonight?” I said. “Take a little vacation from your place.”
Doris knows I’d marry her tomorrow. “That’s sweet,” she says when I mention it. “But you ask me, love and the law don’t go together.”
If the here and now weren’t so beautiful, Doris would break my heart.
“You trying to get me to move in, Charles? Is that your game?”
“I just want you to be safe.”
“What are you making for supper?”
“What you want? Just tell me.”
“You made one of those steaks lately? The kind you marinate in that garlicky stuff and then grill on your apple wood? With those potatoes baked in foil with the bacon and cabbage. Maybe some tomatoes from that garden of yours, sliced with basil?”
“Beer or wine?”
“It’s summer. Beer.”
“We’re on, sugar. I’m riding to the meat market.”
I walked Doris to her car. My idea was to give her a discreet peck on the cheek.
“Charles, really. What’s that?” she said. She planted her feet on top of mine, grabbed one of my chins and pulled my face downward. I wondered if I’d have lips left after she was done.
I heard a car creeping past. I opened my eyes to see Roscoe. He stuck his head out of the cruiser window and leered at us.
“Hey Fatman, we got laws,” he called. “How about you get a room?”
“How about you jerk off outside the doughnut shop?” Doris replied. If you didn’t know they were pals you might have looked for cover.
Doris patted my chest, winked and said, “See you tonight, lover.” This for Roscoe’s benefit.
As she drove off, Roscoe got out of his car. “Of all the things I don’t get in life, Fatman, which is quite a bit given my customer base, I got to say, this is number one.”
“I know, I know. What’s she doing with me.”
“My exact thought.”
“Maybe you should ask yourself what special qualities I got that you don’t. Maybe ask if I teach a class.”
“What I think is, one more crazy thing in Frogtown. Which never lacks.”
“First your pal, Ivan and his death by Volvo. The birds dropping out of the sky around his shop. What a stinking mess that turned out to be. Then last night.”
“What about last night?”
“You didn’t hear?”
“What am I, clairvoyant? I was busy.”
“Yeah, sure, busy. Anyway, two citizens turned up dead.”
“Two? That’s kind of high.”
“That’s what the chief is saying. He’d like to keep his job.”
“Anybody we know?”
“Two knuckleheads in the pharmaceutical business.”
“Street or management?”
“One of each.”
“Could be a coincidence, right?”
“Could be. Except both of them had their heads twisted off.”
“As in twisted off? Like a bottle cap?”
“More or less. Except it wasn’t that neat.”
Wednesday: Twist offs, explained by the Colonel
I got on my trike and headed for the grocery store. Doris would be thinking T-bone all day. She’s a woman with appetites.
If you can waddle on a tricycle, I suppose that’s what I did. The trees made a canopy overhead. The breeze dried some of the sweat.
At five miles per hour you get a view of the neighborhood. Look, there’s the cottage where every blade of grass is trimmed with a scissors. And next door the slumlord-owned dump. There’s the garbage tossed in the alley because there is no municipal collection. Ditto the old tires, set loose in the street because it would cost a couple bucks to get them hauled away. These are my people. My people greeted me in their way. “Yo, Fatman! Get a wide-load sign!” And so on. Ha ha.
I rolled past Ivan’s former business place. The lot was wrapped in police tape, but the door was open. “Anybody home?” I yelled.
“Halt! Wer da?”
The German told me everything I needed to know.
“Colonel. What? You own this place?”
“Fatman? That’s you?”
He stuck his head through the open door. In terms of girth he was my match, though shorter and rounder. What you noticed was his moustache. It was sculptural, like sabre tips jutting out from his nose. His name was a tongue-twister, Helmut von Raschenbergen or something like that, but everyone knew him as the Colonel. He organized an annual costume ball where he showed up in full Otto von Bismarck gear, including a helmet and sword. He owned property but he was discreet about it. The Colonel didn’t rattle his sword unnecessarily.
“Essen müssen wir alle!
“I’ve got a bag of doughnuts and some coffee. Park your butt with me, Fatman.”
“I’ve been working up an appetite.”
“What’s got into you?”
“You got my car. That was my Volvo murdered Ivan.”
“Tough luck for him. But try getting the rent out of the guy. I would have dropped a car on him myself.”
“I didn’t know this was your place.”
“Under the radar, Fatman, that’s the way to fly. Unless you want to buy Girl Scout cookies every day of the week. People know you’ve got a little something and everyone wants their cut.”
“Get rid of Ivan’s tools. Scrub the floor.”
“Tough to find a renter. What with the construction out there. No parking. Mounds of dirt.”
“That’s not the half of it.”
“You need more?”
“I tell you, you’re not going to believe it.”
“What wouldn’t I believe? You know how long I’ve lived here?”
The Colonel tore off a page of the newspaper to use as a napkin. The headline was, Freak Slayings Stump Cops. “You read this?”
“No, but Roscoe clued me in. How do you twist somebody’s head off?”
The Colonel poured coffee from a thermos into two Styrofoam cups. He pulled a pair of doughnuts from a greasy sack.
“A normal person couldn’t do it.”
“That’s my point. Not that everybody around here is normal. But still…”
“You need special abilities.”
“Or an awfully big wrench.”
“Okay, Fatman. Most people, I wouldn’t even try to explain this. Just listen. Eat your doughnut. Do something with your mouth besides talk. Verstehen?”
“Good.” He sipped at his coffee and scowled. “You remember back to 1966?”
“I was fifteen. All I remember is being high.”
“Be that as it may. I bought this building. Cheap. So cheap I should have had questions. Not that I would have got a straight answer.”
“No offense, Colonel. But you got a pile of concrete block. Why shouldn’t it be cheap?”
“Spare me the architecture review. You wouldn’t remember, but there was sewer construction going on that year. Looked about like it looks right now.
“Also, every other day, another murder. One guy, railroad spike driven through each eyeball. A guy actually tossed through a brick wall. A cop stuffed into a mail sack and dropped from a stolen airplane.”
“Jesus. But what’s that got to do with your building?”
“There’s a basement, right? Nobody ever goes down there, not if I can help it. Double steel doors. Crucifixes welded on the inside and outside. Other ju-ju that you don’t want to know about.”
Crumbs sprayed on the newspaper when I laughed. “What you saying, Colonel? You got a vampire pit down there?”
“Go ahead. Laugh your head off. Or wait until it’s twisted off.”
That sobered me up.
“It’s a portal to the underworld. All the banging in the street opened it back then. Now it’s happened again.”
“Go ask the twist offs.”
Tomorrow: Oozing up from the underworld
Someone tells you you’re sitting on a portal to the underworld and the question is, What do you say next?
“You got another doughnut?” I asked.
“Sure. Riding a bike, you need to keep up your strength.” The Colonel reached into his bag.
“Anybody else would think you’re a nut job, but I believe you.”
“It’s true regardless what you believe. But thanks. I appreciate a man with an open mind.”
“You remember Deadhead?”
“The motorcycle guy? A pitbull got him, right?”
“Sort of. He was shooting at a pitbull. Ricochet. I was there when it happened.”
“Right. Hell of a mechanic. He fixed up my Zündapp.”
When he wasn’t driving his Mercedes, the Colonel got around in a restored military motorcycle with his Rottweiler in the sidecar.
“He’s been dead, what, ten years? A historical figure.”
“Yeah, well, I saw him.”
“Outside my window. Last night. Doris saw him too. Running down the street.”
“Impressive for a dead guy.”
“You think he escaped from down there?” I nodded toward the floor.
“Sorry to say that makes the most sense. But that makes the most sense. You’re sure it was him?”
“There weren’t too many guys looked like him when he was alive. Plus he had a bullet hole between his eyes.”
“You think Deadhead is behind all this? The twist-offs?”
“He’s not the only one down there. Could be anybody. You got to figure on more trouble.”
“So what happens next?”
“Don’t count on the cops loading up the paddy wagon.”
“They only get so far with the living knuckleheads.”
“Anyway, Deadhead isn’t there the way you and I are here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you try to touch him?”
“I didn’t want to touch Deadhead when he was living. The meth. His overall standard of hygiene. The guy was one big germ.”
“Who knows, maybe the underworld has changed in the last fifty years. My experience is, they feel like slugs. They ooze through things. It might take them half the day but they get through.”
“Since when do slugs twist a guy’s head off?”
“I’m telling you what I know. What I think I know.”
“How did you get them back in last time? What did you do?”
“Jesus, Fatman. I spent fifty years trying not to remember.”
Tomorrow: Revenge rules the underworld.
“The question you got to start with, Fatman, is, Why are the dead in the underworld? Why do they want to come back?”
“What the hell is the underworld? Why is there an underworld?”
“You’re going to go all cosmic on me, Fatman, then there’s no way to continue. Why is there an underworld? Why is there a world at all? The sun comes up in the morning, the moon comes out at night, the birdies tweet up in the trees and the stars go twinkle twinkle. You think of it for a minute, the why of the world, the weirdness of it, your head is going to explode.”
“You got a point.”
“Of course I do. Let’s not even get started on the why of the underworld.”
“Sorry I brought it up.”
“You want another doughnut?”
“I think I’m good.”
The Colonel pulled out another one for himself.
“What is the underworld, now that’s a subject where we can talk.”
“You been there?”
“You can come and go?”
“You wouldn’t want to count on it, the leaving part. But yeah. If you’re lucky.”
“I’m picturing purgatory.”
“That’s your Catholic claptrap. My opinion. Maybe there’s a purgatory, too. Who knows? I’m just saying the underworld we’re sitting on top of is not filled with guys screaming in flames.”
“That’s a relief, sort of.”
“Everything could always be worse. You sure you don’t want another doughnut? I got one left.”
“Okay, give it to me.”
The Colonel reached into the bag again. He held a glazed doughnut in his pudgy fingers. It was something, the way the greasy sugar-coating shone in the morning light. The Colonel was right about the details of existence. You think about this world’s casual beauty and yes, your head could explode. Even if you are sitting on top of a portal to the underworld.
“These doughnuts are really… ah…” This idea was lot to get across.
“They’re not bad. I get them from that kid down at Sugar Rush.”
“He’s a real worker. I like the long-johns. Anyway, it’s not so penitential, the underworld?”
“I’m not saying it’s a joyride. It’s more like a bad Greyhound station. Horrible lighting. Grimy. Smells like crap. The feeling you get is, bad job. Nobody wants to stay. Everybody’s afraid to quit. You figure things could be worse.”
“But they want to get out.”
“Long enough to settle old scores. Longer once they’re out breathing fresh air again.”
The Colonel checked his bag to make sure he hadn’t overlooked anything. Empty. He tossed it in the corner, then settled his chin on his chest.
“Colonel,” I said.
His head jerked upward.
“Last time you closed the portal. How did you do it?”
Monday: Assault on the underworld
“It’s not like I locked up the underworld by myself,” the Colonel said. “I was a kid. Twenty-four, twenty-five years old. What did I know? I got professional help.”
“You looked in the yellow pages?”
“I started with the so-called experts. Himmelmeyer, the padre at the church. I figured it would be up his alley. You remember Himmelmeyer?”
“Sure. The nuns broke too many yardsticks on you, they referred your case to Himmelmeyer. Everybody came back crying.”
“Tough old nut. But he wasn’t buying the underworld idea at the time.”
“It’s a lot to get your mind around.”
“These are the people who brought you exorcisms and the Inquisition. I didn’t think it would be such a tough sell.”
“You convinced him?”
“After one of the nuns got tossed from the belfry. What a mess that was. Everyone agreed to call it suicide. But they knew.”
“What was the tip-off?”
“Another twist off. It’s a signature move. Also, a couple witnesses saw Benny DeVito running out of the church. Benny was dead, so it caught their eye.”
“The reporters must have gone nuts. I’m surprised I don’t remember.”
“It never got in the papers. For Himmelmeyer it was bad enough, one of his nuns dead. But murdered by a ghost? The police chief was a Catholic kid. Mum’s the word, Himmelmeyer told him, and that was that. Suicide, case closed. Except it wasn’t. Himmelmeyer called me the next morning. ‘Tell me more about this underworld,’ he said.”
“How did you know?”
“There was the smell. Plus I saw things. Benny oozing through the floor, to name one.”
“So what, Himmelmeyer showed up with a team of altar boys?”
“More or less. Except not your regular altar boys from the neighborhood. This was a squad from the Archdiocese office. Serious guys. They pulled up to the curb in a black Buick and five or six of them piled out. Himmelmeyer in full game uniform. Brocaded vestment, crucifix around his neck that must have gone five pounds. Miter, the gold staff. The rest of them in altar boy gear. A couple censers. Bells. Crucifixes on wooden poles. One of those big altar bibles. Those boys looked like the defensive line for the St. Thomas football team. Himmelmeyer came loaded for bear.
“We’re all crowded in this office, where we’re sitting now. Himmelmeyer asks me, ‘Where is this underworld?’ It wasn’t like it is now, with the double steel doors. It was just a basement with some cracks in the wall from the sewer construction.
“So I opened the door and pointed.
“Himmelmeyer makes a sign of the cross. Then he turns to his altar goons and says, ‘Okay, boys. Here we go.'”
Tomorrow: Stench of the Underworld
“You went down with the padre into the underworld?”
“Of course I did. I was a kid. What did I know? I open the basement door and say, ‘This way, gentlemen.’ First the smell hits us, like matches burning inside rotten eggs. All the incense in the Catholic Church wasn’t enough to get on top of that. Himmelmeyer starts gagging. An altar boy throws up. Once one of them starts, well, the whole gang is puking. So we got vomit running down the stairs. Himmelmeyer slips in it and bounces down the last half dozen steps. That was the great padre’s entry to the realm of the undead. Or whatever they are down there.”
“Deadhead is dead. Or was dead. He’s still got that bullet hole between his eyes.”
“Whatever. So finally we’re all in the basement. We dust off Himmelmeyer. I turn on the light. It’s a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. The floor is dirt. Cool even on a hot summer day. Like being inside an extra large grave.”
The Colonel leaned in toward me. He had that old guy odor — clothes in need of washing, a body that was none too fresh itself, a whiff of decay mixed with the leftovers from the doughnuts and coffee. It struck me that the Colonel himself might not be one hundred percent alive.
“Did Himmelmeyer have a plan?” I asked.
“Is there a playbook for closing the portal to the underworld? He’s winging it. ‘You with the bible,’ he says to one of his altar boys. “Come over here.” Himmelmeyer puts one hand on the bible. In the other he has his gold-headed staff. ‘Who’s got the flashlight?’ he asks. One of his goons squeaks, ‘I got it, Father.’
“‘Well don’t just stand there. Check for an opening.’
“‘What? Like a door?’
“‘I’m just guessing here,’ Himmelmeyer says. ‘But my bet is, you’re not going to find a door labeled Underworld. Exit Only. You got to use your imagination. Your powers of observation. Sherlock Holmes this thing, son. You with the censer, give it a swing. Let’s see if we can smoke the bastards out.’
“So now we got the vomit smell, plus the stench of the underworld, and we’re all choking on incense. That’s when the basement door slams. Slams so hard it sounds like somebody just pulled the trigger on a shotgun.”
Tomorrow: Face-to-face with the undead
“They had you trapped down there in the basement?”
“Fatman, let me tell you the truth. I don’t know. Maybe it was the wind that slammed the door. Finally one of the altar boys says, ‘What do we do now?’
“Himmelmeyer turns to me and asks, ‘What do you think?’
“‘What do I think?’ I tell him. ‘That’s why I got you!’
‘”It’s your building. Take some responsibility.’
“‘You’re the priest for Christ sake!’
‘”You think they had classes on this at the seminary?’ he says.
“‘That’s not my fault.’
“Then the altar boy with the flashlight yells, ‘Over here, Father!’ He’s on his knees in a corner, scratching at the dirt.
“‘I can’t be crawling in filth in my vestments,’ Himmelmeyer tells me. ‘Go take a look.’
“I’m thinking, well, what did I expect? You want a bingo game, sure, call Himmelmeyer. You want to deal with the forces of evil, call in a half dozen nuns. So I get down beside the altar boy and we’re staring at a crack in the floor. He shines the flashlight and all you see is nothing. I call over to Himmelmeyer, ‘If this isn’t it, I don’t know what is.’
“So now we’ve got Himmelmeyer standing over us, mumbling Latin. He whacks me with his staff and says, ‘Here, take this. Poke around.’
“I grab the gold end and stick it in the hole. A chunk the size of a manhole cover falls away. Me and the altar boy jump back. The smell is enough to choke a rat. We listen and wait and listen some more and finally the dirt hits something.’
“‘You hear that?’ Himmelmeyer whispers.
“‘Frankly I wasn’t sure I heard the dirt land, and I sure as hell didn’t hear any screaming. But you know those old time priests. It’s like being Elvis. Nobody disagrees with you. The altar boy says, ‘Yes, Father. Screaming.’
“‘You with the censer,’ Himmelmeyer says. ‘Let’s have some smoke.’ He was just stalling for time. Who had any idea what to do next?
“So now we’re in a cloud of smoke. Himmelmeyer jabbers hocus-pocus. The altar boys eye the steps, wondering if they can make a run for it. I’m thinking that seems like a good idea, except that five minutes later they’d be gone and I’d be stuck with the same problem.
“I’m waiting for Himmelmeyer to do something when these…these…things start oozing out of that hole in the ground.”
Tomorrow: French kiss from the flying nun
“Things oozing out of the ground? What are you talking about, Colonel?”
“Okay, Fatman, let me say this again. You think the world can be this way but not that way. The sun comes up in the east. Flowers pop out of the dirt. But why not a half dozen blue suns? Why not flowers floating through the air?”
“Because that’s not the way the world is.”
“We think we know what the world is. How much do we know? Sorry to go philosophical on you, Fatman.”
“I try to keep it practical.”
“Right. We’re two old guys sprinkled with doughnut crumbs. All the whys and wherefores, let’s not get messed up with that. Let me just say that Benny DeVito floated up out of this hole. He looked like some kind of jellyfish.”
“Yeah. You ever been to the ocean, maybe snorkel in the Caribbean?”
“Not really my style.”
“You ought to try it. Good for a big guy. The water holds you up. Anyway, the jellyfish float along and you see through them. That’s how it was with Benny DeVito. He oozes up. Then he’s standing right next to us. He starts filling in until he looks like the same old Benny. Except that the same old Benny is dead, and this Benny is walking and talking.”
“Just like that?”
“I don’t know. A minute, maybe two. I didn’t get out a stopwatch.”
“So it’s you, Benny, the padre and the altar boys?”
“Plus the flying nun. The sister that Benny chucked off the belfry.”
“You’re making this up.”
“I’m telling you, Fatman. Believe or not, I don’t care. Same deal, floats up like a jellyfish, then she firms up. I mean, she’s there. Her head is sort of stitched back on with what looks like shoe laces. She plants a big kiss on Benny.”
“Wait. The nun is kissing Benny?”
“I’m not talking about a peck on the cheek. Tongue down his throat. Hand down his pants. The whole deal.”
“What did the padre do?”
“He grabs his crucifix and pushes it in her face. All the while he’s laying on the mumbo-jumbo.”
“The sister rips the cross out of his hand and heaves it down the hole. Himmelmeyer opens his mouth but nothing comes out. When he’s able to talk he sounds like a guy on helium. ‘You can’t do that,’ he says.
“To which the sister replies, ‘Oh, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry. Let me make it up to you.’ She grabs Himmelmeyer by the back of the head. Same deal as with Benny, big kiss, hands in the pants. Himmelmeyer looks like his head will explode.
“‘Later, big guy,’ the sister says and pats him on the cheek. Before any of us get out another word, she and Benny are up the stairs, out the door. The next morning they find the chief of police and the archbishop in a cruiser with two empty booze bottles on the floor and their pants around their ankles. Both still living, which makes it worse.”
“So they got a sense of humor in the underworld.”
“Yeah, for dead guys they’re a bunch of comedians.”
Tomorrow: The Colonel’s got to run
“How did you get Benny and the nun back into the underworld?” I asked.
The Colonel brushed doughnut crumbs from his chest. He glanced at his watch. “Sorry, Fatman,” he said. “I got a date with my lawyer.”
“You think there isn’t going to be a civil case? Ivan gets beaned by a Volvo and nobody pays?”
“But what if the Volvo was dropped by a dead guy?”
“Tell it to the jury.”
“That’s what I think.”
The Colonel locked the door behind us. “Too bad that won’t keep them in,” he said. “I’d let them have the place.”
“They’ll ooze through?”
“A crack in the wall is enough. You can’t keep them in. Not unless you…”
“Sorry, Fatman, I can’t get into it now. My guy bills two fifty an hour starting from the appointment time, not from when I show up. Punctuality-wise, he’s more German than I am. I’ll call you.”
“We’re talking about the undead here, Colonel. Don’t you think you ought to make the time?”
“You know what Jesus said about the poor.”
“Yeah, they’re always with us. But the dead?”
“Them too, probably. This is just the portal I happen to know.”
“It would explain a lot, wouldn’t it? Maybe half the world is actually dead. Auf weidersehen, Fatman.”
The Colonel wedged himself into his Mercedes and pulled onto University Avenue. I got back on my trike.
I rolled up to Dale Street and headed north. I stuck to the sidewalk. Only a knucklehead would risk his life riding on Dale. Not everyone appreciated my presence. A mom pushing a stroller inquired, “Mister Walrus too fat for the law? Gotta ride the sidewalk?” A pack of ruffians observed, “Can’t walk no sidewalk if Doughboy be hoggin’ all the space.”
I raised my chins, looked down my nose and passed them all without a word. At Dragon Star grocery on Minnehaha I chained my ride to a concrete lion that guarded the door. Regardless what else was true, Doris still required her steak.
Monday: Feasting on fish guts
It’s the League of Nations inside the grocery store, shoppers from every corner of Earth. There’s fruit that looks like it’s imported from Jupiter; vegetables where I’ve got no idea. Fry, boil, broil? The owner is Asian. Hmong gals run the registers. Mexicans do the heavy lifting. I was after a porterhouse for Doris, but I got distracted by the ox tails.
“Don Fatman, what you need?”
A Latino kid with a couple gold chains and a tattoo creeping out from under his t-shirt poked at the cellophane-wrapped package. Miguel is not the meat manager, but he pretends to be. “You take that home, sear it in oil, get some onion and garlic going, you’re talking comida, sabe?”
“Excelente, Miguel. You got me convinced. But I need a porterhouse, or maybe a T-bone for the little lady.”
“Go with the ox-tail, amigo. The chili, it excites them. Entiende?”
“Maybe. But Doris is an accept-no-substitutes kind of gal, if you know what I mean. She’s thinking steak.”
“Buy both. What can it hurt?”
“You’re a genius, my friend.”
“Claro,” he said. “Now you help me.”
“If it’s legal.”
“Why would you ask?”
“Yeah, why?” I said.
Miguel winked at me. “A sense of humor is a good thing in this world, Don Fatman.” He steered me by the forearm toward a quiet corner near the lobster tank.
I feel bad for the crustaceans, their claws bound with orange rubber bands. Which isn’t to say I’ve never taken a pair home for me and Doris.
“These past days there is funny business with our trash,” Miguel said in a low voice.
“Not my department, Miguel.”
“Listen. It starts because of the fish guts.”
“You sell a lot of fish, you get a lot of guts. Nothing new there.”
“Except we are careful. We put them in the bin. We put down the lid. Otherwise, the neighbors complain. The smell.”
“Well, it’s summer. Things get ripe.”
“But now there are the guts and the heads, spread all around in the dirt. And the stink…”
“You got some new guys on the job? Maybe they don’t know the drill.”
“I tell them. I watch them. I check before I leave. Todo bueno. Then the next morning, guts everywhere again.”
“Who wants fish guts?”
“Exactly what I wonder. Racoons? Rats? But how do they lift the lid?”
“Your wild animal can be a cunning creature, Miguel.”
“Still. So I buy a six pack of beer. I get a lawn chair. I take a flash light and I go up on the roof. I think I will watch.”
“You’re a patient man, Miguel. If I needed an employee, you’d be it.”
“I wait. I drink. I wait some more. Maybe also drink more. Nothing happens. I sleep, for a minute. Until I hear the lid slam against the bin. I shine my flashlight. What I see, Don Fatman, I don’t believe.
“A man is in the bin. He throws guts and fish heads this way and that. Until he finds the head of the catfish. The whiskers. The big dead eyes. And this thing, Don Fatman, he picks it up and tears at it with his teeth. He eats the stinking catfish.”
“Did you notice anything unusual about this character, Miguel? I mean, except that he was eating a rotten fish head?”
“When I shine the flashlight in his face, now he looks up at me, and I think this man should not be living. Because it seems there is a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.”
Tomorrow: Leave it to the cops?
Doris has expectations regarding steak. She’s not the type to trim off the fat and leave it on her plate. “It’s steak, Charles,” she explained to me early on. “It’s not health food.” I’ve got my marching orders. Charred on the outside, rare inside. Seared over a pile of fruit wood. Seasoned with sea salt and fresh-ground pepper, barely cracked.
One thing to say for Doris: she knows what she wants in this department and a lot of others.
We ate out on my patio. I’ve made a retreat out there. I’ve got my vegetable garden, plus a wall of shrubbery, fruit trees and my flowers. Except for the dogs barking, the speeding cars, the boom of rap from vehicles passing by, the cop and fire sirens, the occasional gunshot and the neighbors’ shouted arguments, you wouldn’t think you were in a city at all.
“Usually you look so peaceful out here,” Doris observed.
“It’s my little kingdom, baby.”
“So what’s eating you tonight?”
“It’s that obvious?”
“Charles, I’m not some harpy you just picked up. Something’s wrong.”
“Okay. I didn’t want to tell you. You’ll worry.”
“I’m a big girl. We’re in this together.”
So I spilled it all out, everything I had learned that day. The portal to the underworld. The previous escape by Benny DeVito and the flying nun. The likelihood that Deadhead had oozed up from below and was dining on dumpster fish heads.
“What’s a dead guy doing, eating?” Doris wondered.
“Good question. Maybe he likes the taste.”
She thought about that for a while.
“You don’t have to do anything about it,” Doris said at last. “You can leave it to the professionals.”
“The cops aren’t geared up to handle this. They dealt with Deadhead once. He’s dead. They’re not going to open his file again.”
“That doesn’t make it your problem.”
“It’s somebody’s problem. Dead guys walking around. Dropping my car on Ivan. Plus the twist offs.”
Doris picked up the steak bone and gnawed at the bits of meat that clung to it. “I’m saying there are other people who could step up. The Highway Patrol. The National Guard. The ministerial alliance. That neighborhood organizer, what’s-his-name. The mortuary society. Citizens Against Zombies. I don’t see why it’s your job.”
“Doris, half the things you named don’t exist. And the rest of them, how long do you think it will take them to wake up? Both of us could be twist offs before they pull on their pants and tie their shoes.”
“If it’s that dangerous, why don’t we move? Maybe someplace warm while we’re at it. California. Florida.”
“Who’s to say they don’t have portals there? Anyway, baby, this is where I live. My home. I’m not going to let the a bunch of dead guys drive me out.”
“This doesn’t have to be us versus them. We can decide to leave. We don’t have to say we were driven out. It’s not like this is paradise. It’s Frogtown, Charles. Nobody would blame you. Mostly they’ll wonder why you didn’t come to your senses sooner.”
“I’ll get killed on the real estate deal, that’s one reason. I bought this joint for fifty six, thirty years ago. What’s it worth now? Fifty seven? I would have been better off investing in crack pipes.”
“That still doesn’t mean you’ve got to take on Deadhead and his pals.”
“I am who I am. That’s why you love me. Go ahead, admit it.”
“I’m admitting no such thing.” She pushed her plate away and drained her wine glass. “Why don’t we clean up tomorrow morning and go to bed now?”
Tomorrow: The Colonel is indisposed
Doris jabbed her elbow in my ribs. “Charles.”
“What? You hear something? What time is it?” The sky was still black.
“You never said.”
“The priest couldn’t close the portal. So who did?”
“I don’t know. The Colonel didn’t get around to telling me. He had an appointment.”
“That’s the first thing we do tomorrow, right? Talk to the Colonel. We’ve got to find out what worked last time.”
“Right after breakfast.”
“Eggs would be good. Over easy. Maybe you’ve got bacon? Toast, coffee, juice. A few berries in yogurt.”
“Coming right up. As soon as the sun rises.”
She threw an arm across my girth and pressed herself against my back. She’s like a radiator. In minutes we were both sleeping again.
I’m not saying I was up with the birds, but I listened to them for a while before I made breakfast. Doris knocked off a couple eggs and bacon for two, then dabbed her lips with a napkin and said, “Let’s go find the Colonel.”
“We can’t barge in on him at this hour.”
“Sure we can. I’ve got to get to work.”
“I should call first.”
“He’ll just give you some excuse. Let’s go.”
There’s no arguing with the woman. Doris insisted on riding with me on my trike. She stood on the rear axle with her hands on my shoulders. “Come on, Charles,” she said. “Faster!”
“Faster? You trying to kill me, Doris?”
“You weren’t complaining about your heart last night.”
My lungs ached. She laughed as we tore down the street toward Lexington, where the Colonel lived.
The Colonel took a systematic approach to his house and garden. No surprise there. His flower beds looked like they were laid out with a ruler and a T-square. He had annihilated any weeds that dared to appear. The grass was a green version of a military buzz cut. Which is to say that when I saw the screen ripped out of the front door and the newspaper still on the stoop, breakfast sunk low in my stomach.
“This doesn’t look good,” I told Doris.
“What do you mean?”
“The screen. That’s not how the Colonel rolls.”
I knocked on the door, yelled his name.
Nothing. Not from the Colonel or from his dog.
“Maybe he’s out,” Doris said.
“Stay here.” I peered in the garage to check for his car and motorcycle. They were both parked.
Doris sat on the steps. “So?”
“He didn’t leave.”
“Should we call the cops?”
“We probably will.”
I pulled the screen door open. The main door looked like it came from a castle — forged hinges, cast-iron rivets through the oak, a knocker the size of a man’s hand. I gave it a push with my knuckle. It swung open.
I figured I knew where this was headed, which made the details along the way that much sadder. The Colonel kept a pair of accordions on top of his piano. I’d been to his house a couple times for his Prussian hootenannies, yelping Du, du liebs mir im Herzen while sloshing beer from my stein to the floor, then watching the dog lap it up like the booze hound he was. The Colonel kept a village full of Hümmel figurines on top of a dark credenza. Trolls and angels, little kids with big eyes, sappy but touching, especially given the context. Then his collection of steins. Not to mention the half dozen military sabers hung above the fireplace.
“Are you a hoarder if everything is so orderly?” Doris asked.
“One of the sabers is missing.”
“You sure you don’t want to wait outside?”
“We’re in this together.”
As I’ve mentioned, it’s pointless arguing with Doris.
We found the Colonel in the dining room, pinned to the table with the missing saber. The hilt was buried to his chest. What happened to the dog I don’t want to say.
Tomorrow: Crank freaks or the undead?
Roscoe showed up along with the investigators, the ambulance, a hearse, Animal Control, reporters and most of the neighbors. The squad lights were like Christmas come early, jolly, sort of, if you didn’t think too hard.
We sat behind the police tape at the Colonel’s kitchen table. His Mr. Coffee pot was full and steaming.
“No sense letting this go to waste,” Roscoe said. He took three cups from the Colonel’s drainer. They were fragile things, old lady china. We drank with our pinkies stuck in the air.
“Aren’t we destroying evidence?” Doris asked.
Roscoe sighed. “People watch an episode of CSI and they’re criminologists.”
Small talk seemed wrong with the Colonel stuck to his table like a bug in a museum. I glanced into the dining room. The police photog was at work in there. The Colonel’s mustache still defied gravity. “Somebody should close his eyes,” I said.
Morning light fell through the lace curtains. The shadows were a delicate touch, especially in comparison.
“Fatman,” Roscoe said, “here’s my question. Who needs dispatchers? I should just follow you around. Every time I see you, there’s a dead guy.”
“My bad luck.”
“You got a lot of it. Ivan. Now the Colonel. Who had it in for him?”
“You know as much as I do.”
“I’m starting to doubt that.”
“You don’t know?” said Doris.
“What should I know? I’m a cop.”
“Ha ha,” I said to Doris, hoping to derail her. “Officer Roscoe is your just-the-facts-ma’am style of copper.”
Doris ignored me. “We came to find out how he closed it last time.”
“The portal,” Roscoe repeated.
Doris looked at me. I shrugged. It was too late to stop her.
“To the underworld.”
“Yeah, I hear about that all the time,” Roscoe said. He did a good job at keeping a poker face.
Doris spared no detail. The Colonel, his shop, Benny DeVito and the flying nun, Father Himmelman and the altar boys, Deadhead, the twist offs. Now this. A murder ring run by the dead, or whatever state it was the Deadhead and his pals occupied.
“I mean, the Colonel,” Doris said. “He must go three hundred pounds. Then somebody — some thing — puts a sword through him and the table? You’d need a sledge hammer. What normal person does that?”
“Some freak on crank,” Roscoe speculated. “We had a case the other night, took six of us to get him in the squad.”
“Believe what you want,” Doris said. “Nobody’s paying me to keep the streets safe. It’s your ass hanging over the edge.”
“Okay, so for the sake of discussion, there’s an underworld. Dead guys get out, add to the local dead-guy supply. So what next? I get a court order? A cease and desist?”
“We don’t know either,” I said.
“That’s why we were here,” Doris said. “To ask the Colonel how he did it last time. How he closed the portal.”
“Too bad you waited until the Colonel was so…”
Tomorrow: Straight dope from a blind mouse
The neighbors gave Doris and me a look when we got back on my trike. I recognized one of the old ladies pressed up against the police tape. Last time I saw her she was dressed up with two of her pals as the Three Blind Mice. They weren’t the strangest characters at the Colonel’s Oktoberfest Ball. I went as a jellyfish. Doris was an octopus. I don’t remember why.
“Fatman! You remember me? It’s Lucy,” she called. She hadn’t bothered to put in her bottom plate of false teeth. The front uppers were still original equipment. She didn’t need a costume to look like a rodent. Her fuzzy blue slippers matched her robe.
“Lucy, sure I remember.”
“He’s dead then, is that it?”
“Dead as they get.”
She shook her head. “A real Frogtowner. What was it? Heart attack? The man never passed up a beer or a pork chop.”
“True enough. But it wasn’t natural causes.”
I pulled Lucy aside. Doris mentioned the saber and the dining room table.
“Mother of God, we got lunatics on the loose again,” Lucy said. Next she gave me a suspicious look. “What were you doing in there?”
“We stopped by to chat.”
“Aren’t you the early birds.”
Doris’ knuckles went snap, crackle, pop. It’s a nervous habit of hers. “How long you lived next to the Colonel?” she said.
“When haven’t I lived next to the Colonel?” Lucy replied. “We never moved. He lived in his parent’s house, I lived in mine.”
“So. Seventy years?”
“Then you remember.”
“About the portal to the underworld.”
“Portal to the underworld? You must be one more real Frogtowner.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You know what I’m talking about,” Doris said. “You remember. From last time.”
“I remember all sorts of fairy tales. Doesn’t make them true.”
“The nun tossed from the belfry. The cop in the mail sack, dropped from the plane. You remember.”
“That was long ago.”
“Lucy,” I said. “Please. Tell Doris what you know. Whatever it was that killed the Colonel, justice should be served.”
“Justice,” she said.
Not so much surprises me anymore. Nonetheless I was surprised when she spit on my shoe. From the look of it she had some kind of lung infection.
“What if justice is served? Will the Colonel pull the sword out of his chest and go dancing down the street?”
“So his dancing days are over. That doesn’t mean somebody should get away with murder. Doesn’t mean that more people won’t get murdered. Could be me. Could be you. I haven’t noticed the dead need a reason to do what they do.”
“The dead get away with everything,” Lucy said. “You put them in handcuffs at six and by midnight you know what you got?”
“Empty handcuffs. The best you can do is put them back where they came from.”
“The underworld,” Doris said.
Lucy sighed. “Have it your way. The underworld.”
“What do you know about it?” Doris insisted.
“Okay, okay. Come over to my house. I’ll tell you how it went last time.”
Monday: Send in the psychic
Lucy hadn’t thrown away much in her life. It took a minute to notice that there was a motor scooter in the living room. Doris and I exchanged a look.
“Sit,” Lucy said. “You want coffee?”
“Can you find a cup?” Doris said under her breath.
“Why don’t we go out on the stoop?” I said. I couldn’t see a clear surface inside.
Doris and I watched the traffic stream past on Lexington. Unlike the Colonel, people were going on with their lives.
Lucy appeared with three cups on a tray. “You’re occupying a lot of space,” she said. She stuck the toe of her slipper beneath my ribs and pushed.
She groaned as she arranged herself between me and Doris.
“The underworld,” she said. “You ought to be able to get rid of the dead at least. Everything else piles up. But the dead. You stick them in a hole and you figure that’s that. Then they show up again. One more thing…”
“It wouldn’t be so bad,” I said. “If they just came back and told you what’s what. What you could expect. That would be a service. We might all live better lives.”
“Or worse,” Doris said. “Say there’s no hell, no purgatory. You might as well spend your time sticking up convenience stores.”
“It would still be wrong.” Lucy slurped at her coffee. Her tooth shortage apparently made it tough to drink from a cup.
“People do what they can get away with,” I said.
Lucy poked Doris on the shoulder. “I’m with him.”
“You’re a depressing pair.”
“We’re just old,” Lucy replied.
“You’ve seen it all before.”
“Not all. But a lot.”
“The last time the portal opened. You were there,” Doris said.
“It’s not like I was down in a flaming pit. I heard about it. The Colonel told me.”
“Maybe that’s why they killed him this time. Get rid of the only person who knows how to close the door.”
More slurping from Lucy. “What makes you think the Colonel knew?”
“He told me he was there with the priest and the altar boys,” I said.
“That worked about as well as you’d expect.”
“So who got the portal closed?” Doris asked.
“You remember the psychic on University?”
“Fatima?” Doris said. “The one who works out of the house?”
“No, no. Before her. Lady Elizabeth. She had that place above the Notorious Faust.”
“The old porn theater?” Doris asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Lady Elizabeth. There was some question whether she was strictly in the psychic business.”
“I knew her from church,” Lucy said.
“The way I heard it, she spent time on her knees and time on her back.”
“She was a complicated lady. A generous donor to the faith. Anyway, she got out of the psychic business…”
“Assuming she was in it…”
“You want to tell the story? Then she got into home health care.”
“It’s coming back to me. What did they get her for? Embezzlement?”
“Exploiting vulnerable adults, as I recall. Anyway, money was missing.”
“But she closed the portal,” Doris said. “She could still tell us how she did it. Even if she is in prison.”
“She’s not in prison. Not anymore.” Lucy made more noise with her coffee.
“How do we find her?”
“She might come walking down the street some night. The way things are going.”
“Stabbed dead. The gal with the knife said Lady Elizabeth stole her auntie blind.”
“So now what?” Doris asked.
“She had a daughter in the psychic business with her.”
“Fatima?” Doris asked.
“No, forget about her. The daughter went by Mistress Leona. But she got out of it too. She’s a clerk at Target. You’ve probably seen her there. Big lady. Pile of gray hair. Cat-eye glasses. I hear she still does consultations. But you’ve got to know her. Or get an introduction.”
“You could introduce us?” I asked Lucy.
“I can’t promise. She’s got a few screws loose. Like everyone else around here.”
Tomorrow: Consult on the forty-ninth floor
She only said hello, but Leona had already upset my expectations.
We stood at the window of her apartment, me, Leona, Lucy and Doris. She had a downtown condo on the forty-ninth floor of the Airye. Frogtown was out there to the west, blurry in the summer morning haze.
The wood floors were covered with rugs hand-knotted by Pakistani twelve-year olds. A couple of black leather chairs and a sofa surrounded a glass coffee table. What the art on the walls intended to say I couldn’t tell you, but it said a lot. Mostly it said money.
Leona said her mother left her some cash, to which Lucy rolled eyes. “I bet she did,” she said sotto voce.
“Why did I get out of my profession?” Leona repeated my question.
She crossed her arms over her chest. Easier said than done. Like me, she was an impressive figure.
“I’m a life-is-for-the-living sister. Most of the customer base, it’s all about Mister Dead this and Misses Dead that. You start thinking your own self that life is for the dead, and second for the people moping around after them. Rather work at Target, I would. Dealing with people dealing with real things. Like buying a bag of potato chips. Keeps the mind occupied in a pleasant way.”
“You’re saying you don’t believe in the underworld?” Doris asked.
“I don’t take it to no extreme,” Leona replied. “I think what most your professional people think. You can only run your own life. Barely that most of the time. You can’t control what living people do to mess you up. Forget about controlling the dead. They just don’t care.”
“There you have it,” said Lucy. “The dead don’t care.”
“They don’t care about your so-called feelings. But they care about a lot of things. Getting even. Collecting debts. Of one kind of another. Lucky most times they can’t do anything about it. They stuck where they ought to be. Which is not here.”
Birds flew below us. The river snaked along to the south. You could cultivate a sense of detachment from just about everything at this height.
“Well, they’re out again,” Lucy said. “The dead. They’re out.”
She had all her teeth in. Instead of her fuzzy slippers and robe, she wore a polyester dress and sensible shoes, the type of black lace-ups you used to see on nuns. In Leona’s condo she looked like a time traveler.
“Where this time?”
“Same deal. The Colonel’s shop.”
“Why don’t he call me? He think he’s going to save some money, do it himself?”
“The Colonel’s not doing anything for himself anymore.” I explained about the saber and the table.
“Probably didn’t suffer much,” Leona said. “You got that.”
“The blade looked like it got smacked in with a pile driver,” Doris said. “There was blood on the ceiling.”
“I mean, I don’t expect it was a long fight. ”
We all thought about that for a while.
“You want me to close up the portal.”
“Don’t know who else to ask,” I said.
“Nobody else to ask.”
“You’ll do it?”
“Depends. I’m not closing no portal for free.”
I heard Doris’s knuckles cracking. “We got the dead running around down there and up here we’re talking about money.”
“Watch your mouth, young lady,” Leona said.
“What kind of number you thinking?” I asked.
“Eight would have done it. I got to be insulted along the way, ten.”
“What about nine.”
“Half up front, half after the portal is closed.”
“Don’t worry about no portal being open once I get done.”
“Don’t worry about getting your money when it is.”
“When do we start?”
“I got to work tonight.”
“You going to make nine at Target?”
“I am a responsible person, Mr. Fatman.”
“Every night goes by, we got dead rising up. They’re not coming for a picnic.”
“Tell me something I don’t know. But I’m saying we start tomorrow night.”
Tomorrow: Up close and personal with Deadhead and the Colonel
“Charles, I don’t want to be by myself tonight.” Doris had just put away a plate of pasta with shrimp in wine sauce. We sat on my back patio, listening to the crickets.
“We should be together.” I pulled the wine from the ice bucket and filled her glass.
“You think we’ll be okay here?”
“My feeling is, the dead are like death itself. They want to find you, they will. But being afraid with company beats being afraid and alone.”
“You get your head twisted off you still don’t have a head. Doesn’t matter who’s around and who’s not.”
“Let’s finish the wine and go to bed,” Doris said.
I woke up with my face buried in Doris’s hair. The crickets were still at work outside, competing with the freeway noise.
I never sleep through the night anymore. I’ve got an inventory of thoughts that keep me busy in the dead of night.
I hadn’t gotten far on them when I was interrupted by a tap on my shoulder.
“Huh!” I jolted upright.
Doris screamed. “What?”
We were both naked, half covered by the sheet.
Laughter from both sides. Then, “Relax, Fatman. Relax. It’s old friends.”
“One thing we ain’t is Jesus.”
“Deadhead. Colonel. What are you…”
“What’s going on, Charles?” Doris said. She sounded calmer than I did.
“Colonel? What the hell,” I said. “You haven’t been buried.”
Even in the darkness his white uniform was enough to make you squint.
“Who says I have to be buried?”
“Aren’t there rules?”
“I hate rules,” Deadhead said.
“Anyway, they’re more like procedures, recommendations. From what I can tell so far,” the Colonel said.
“Thanks. You like the pickelhaube?”
“On you it looks good. You feeling okay? Last time I saw you…”
“I wasn’t at my best.”
“That’s one way to put it.”
“Now I feel like a kid again.”
“That’s great, Colonel. You guys hungry? I could get you a beer.”
“Nah, forget it, Fatman.” Deadhead pulled a chair up to the bed and sat down. “We don’t actually eat.”
Doris pulled the sheet around herself.
“It’s liberating, sort of,” the Colonel said. “The basic human needs, gone. Food, money, sex.”
“Breathing,” Deadhead added.
“There’s a lot we don’t need.”
The conversation stalled. The Colonel cleared his throat. Deadhead leaned in toward us. “Nice seeing you again, Fatman. I got no beef with you. I had some issues with the Colonel from back in the day.”
“Issues?” Doris asked. “I like how you negotiate.”
Deadhead shrugged. “It’s the underworld. We don’t deal in shades of gray. Well, we do. I mean, the whole place is sort of gray. But otherwise, we’re on or we’re off.”
“What was your gripe with the Colonel?”
“He never let up. Maybe it’s a German thing. The persistence. The attention to detail. A crack in the floor, next thing you know you got five guys laying rebar and concrete. Speck of rust on the door and in come the painters. The old guys were stuck down there, what, fifty years? All they want to do is get out, settle a few scores, and instead they spend decades bumping up against steel doors and concrete. They get frustrated.”
“You’re living, you don’t understand,” the Colonel said by way of apology.
“That’s it. You don’t understand. You’re dead, okay, you don’t eat, you don’t crap, so forth and so on. You feel no pain. You’re strong as a gorilla. But that doesn’t mean everything’s settled. You still got desires. You know what you finally figure out?”
Tomorrow: Deep thoughts from the undead
“You’re dead, okay?” Deadhead poked my shoulder.
“Actually I’m not.”
“Whatever. Anyway. You’re dead, you still got desires. You know what that makes you realize?”
“I’m thinking I have no idea.”
“You realize the things you wanted were … what’s the word?”
“Veils of maya?” the Colonel suggested.
“Total crapola. I tell you from experience, Fatman. As a living guy, you think you want a beer, you want a steak, you want, excuse me ma’am, some ass. Then you’re dead. You got, finally, some time for reflection. Like, decades. You see what is what. Which is, the things you wanted were never the beer and the steak and the piece of ass.”
Deadhead fingered the bullet hole in his forehead. “Well, maybe forget about the ass part. But you see what you wanted were things you can’t buy. Love. Respect. Justice.”
“Isn’t it a little late for that?” Doris asked. “Excuse me for pointing out the obvious.”
“Living or dead, what are we to others?” the Colonel asked.
“Colonel, I got to ask. Are you guys high? I had this conversation every night in 1971.”
“With all due respect, Fatman? You’re getting a clue-in from the beyond. What happened to gratitude?”
“It’s just… it’s the middle of the night, okay?”
“As I was saying. We’re an idea, right? A conception. Most people, you’re not having sex with them. You’re not hitting them. You’re not tickling their toes. Your physical reality…”
“…or lack thereof…,” Deadhead added.
“This is fascinating, guys,” I said. “It’s a lot to think about. But two a.m., it’s a hard time to think.”
“Have it your way. Down to business.”
“We need you to stop trying to close up the portal,” the Colonel said.
“A couple days ago…”
“I know. A couple days ago I was living.”
“You understand the problem, right? You guys make a mess.”
“Lots of people make a mess,” Deadhead said. “The cops. The military. They leave behind bodies and nobody complains.”
“It’s part of the job.”
“We all got our work.”
“You’re saying, leave the portal open all the time? So you can do whatever whenever?”
“We’re trying to give you a break here, Fatman. We don’t have to convince you. We got other methods.” Deadhead cracked his knuckles. It sounded like he was snapping baseball bats in two.
“Okay. Excuse me. I’m just trying to understand.”
“We know you’re trying to hire Mistress Leona.”
“You guys get around.”
“Take my advice, Fatman,” the Colonel said. “Put that one in the dead letter file.”
“You got to make some kind of deal with me.”
“Oh, let him talk. What you got in mind, Fatman?”
“Say we open the portal a couple times a year? Not day-to-day chaos. Not unreasonable confinement. Something that works for everybody.”
“We not authorized. Maybe somebody can make that deal. But we can’t,” Deadhead said.
“Bureaucracy. On Earth as it is below,” the Colonel said.
“We’ll get back to you,” said Deadhead. “Maybe schedule a meeting.”
“Should we pencil something in? Say tomorrow?”
“Jesus, Fatman, slow down,” the Colonel said. “What makes you think we have to make any kind of deal?”
“Because if you don’t sooner or later everybody’s on your trail. The wiccans, the druids, the cops, the priests, the evangelicals, the National Guard. Somebody’s going to know how to take care of business.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“You guess wrong and you’re trapped down there again for who-knows-how-long.”
“Maybe you got a point. You ain’t so dumb, Fatman. What you’re doing living here all these years I don’t understand. But that’s a different question.”
“So we talk again tomorrow. Say an hour after sunset. That’s good for you?”
“We’re not vampires. But okay.”
“Where? I don’t think we can get a table at Wendy’s. Considering.”
“You got a nice place. Here is okay. Just one thing, Fatman.”
“Just to make sure there’s no monkey business?”
“We take the girl.”
The Colonel pushed me down against the bed. Deadhead wrapped Doris in the sheet and threw her over his shoulder. He went for the door. The Colonel dove through the window. I rolled off the mattress gasping for air. By the time I got to my feet they were gone.
Tomorrow: Too late on Leona
I ran through my options.
Call the cops to report that two dead guys kidnapped Doris.
Next stop, nut house.
Chase Deadhead and the Colonel into the underworld to take Doris back.
And end up as a twist-off.
Plead with Leona to get on the case.
I put on some clothes and got on my trike. I headed for the psychic’s highrise.
I rolled down Sherburne as fast as I could, which was not too fast. Even so, my heart was going like a timpani. I hadn’t taken the time to button my shirt. It fluttered behind me. My belly jiggled with every bump in the road.
Oh, I wished I could fly. And there I was on my trike, the big lazy june bugs outpacing me as they flew from light to light.
A methed-up hooker stood on the corner of Western and gawked as I pedaled past. “Big boy,” she yelled, “I got what you need.”
No, no, no you don’t. I need Doris back. I need Leona’s help. I need the dead locked up underground.
A pair of characters stumbled down the street with a forty in a paper bag. Near the corner two cars pulled up and idled. Hands reached out from the driver’s seats — cash headed one way, dope the other. My watch said two forty eight.
A two-syllable rhythm played through my head as I pumped at the pedals. Fail-ure. Fail-ure. Fail-ure. Doris came to me for protection and I was utterly useless.
I crossed Rice Street and coasted down the hill past the Capitol. Looking up at the golden charioteer beneath the dome I could all but hear the mockery. Yo, chump! Get some horses!
I saw the blue and red flashing lights long before I got to Leona’s place. There were cop cars, a couple fire trucks, an ambulance. The street was shut down. I looked for Roscoe but he was nowhere in sight.
A kid in a cop uniform came up to me. “Move it along, sir. There’s nothing to see.”
I hoped my hunch was wrong. I looked up the glass wall of Leona’s building. The forty-ninth floor: a long way down.
“A jumper? A suicide? Somebody went out the window?”
“You got it.”
“Black? Big? Cat-eye glasses?”
“Sort of hard to tell right now. Flat, mostly.” He gave me a look. “You know a lot. Why don’t you stick around?”
He turned to yell at a guy with more stripes on his uniform shoulder. In the meantime I slipped behind the ambulance, put a fire truck between him and me, then pedaled off the wrong way up Jackson Street.
Leona wasn’t going to be any help.
Monday: When in doubt, a doughnut
The sun hadn’t risen but it was getting there. Under normal circumstances the pink blush would have been beautiful.
I tried to pedal back up the hill from downtown to Frogtown but got stuck halfway to the History Center. Sure, it was embarrassing to be so out of shape. Lucky there wasn’t anyone around to see. I got off the trike and pushed it up the hill.
I needed time to think. I also needed a cup of coffee. Once I got back on level ground I pedaled to the Holiday station on Rice Street.
“Ain’t you the early bird?” said Ebony, the girl at the till. She used to live down the street from me.
“All the good worms are out right now.”
“Ha, ha, Mr. Fatman,” she said. “You go have yourself a splendid day.”
The curb being such a long way down, I arranged myself on the seat of my trike and rested the coffee on the bulge of my belly. I set the pair of doughnuts in the trike basket.
My knees hurt. I was sticky with sweat. And Doris was a hostage in the underworld.
I tried to come up with a plan. You want to negotiate, it helps to know what the other guy wants, what he needs, where he draws the line. Who knows how to make a deal with the dead?
I knew where I was going after I finished my coffee and doughnuts. I didn’t want to admit it quite yet, but I knew.
I’d need all the strength I could muster. I took a big bite of doughnut and washed it down with Holiday coffee.
Then I brushed the crumbs off my bare chest. The sugar glazing smeared against the sweat that was pooled there. I gave that mess another swipe and pointed my trike toward Ivan’s shop.
Toward the portal to the underworld.
Tomorrow: Breaking and entering
University Avenue was a dirt track both ways. A truck filled with slabs of asphalt jounced westward. The ground shook under my feet. That sulfurous smell of the underworld hung in the air. Sweat poured from me now, running in streams over the arc of my gut.
I hadn’t considered the particulars. Police tape. Locked doors. Lack of tools. Et cetera. Jesus Christ Himself wondered if the cup might pass. I felt entitled to a few second thoughts.
I figured Doris would not share that view.
I lifted the police tape over my head.
The shop door that Roscoe had smashed was now covered with plywood. I gave it a push with a finger and it opened.
I stepped inside.
Scene of the crime. Ivan’s blood dried on the concrete floor. Unpaid bills scattered on Ivan’s desk. A film of grease and car exhaust settled over the windows and walls, this so thick that it swallowed the sunlight.
The basement door was gray steel, secured with a metal hasp. The lock was as thick as my index finger. I tugged on it. Nothing happened.
A hacksaw would work. Ivan must have had one. It would be slow going. But when you’re looking at what could be your final moments, a long walk to get there is not so unappealing. Then I noticed the acetylene torch that Ivan had stuck in the corner.
I put on the goggles and leather gloves that hung from the tanks. I fired up the torch. White flame nipped at the steel. The lock glowed red, melted, fell to the floor. I found a screwdriver to pry open the hasp. The door swung open.
I grabbed a flashlight from Ivan’s desk. Then I took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold. Into the underworld.
Bare concrete steps led downward, ending at another steel door, this one shut with a submarine-style bulkhead set into cement. The Colonel was not a halfway kind of guy. I twisted the crank to open the lock. A blast of warm, foul air hit me in the face. I stood there, motionless, and peered into the gloom.
The first few steps were hewn from rock. I turned on Ivan’s flashlight and pointed the beam into the darkness. There wasn’t anything to see. There wasn’t anything on which to base a plan. There was nothing to do but take one step and then another.
So I descended.
Tomorrow: Please, have a seat.
One thing about the underworld: the lighting is as bad as the air.
I walked for I’m not sure how long along a hallway cut from rock and dirt. It sloped downward at a gradual pitch. Eventually I noticed a faint glow ahead, what you’d get from a twenty-watt bulb hung in the Grand Canyon.
A voice traveled through the darkness. “Who’s there?”
“You don’t know?”
“Why the hell should I know? What, you’re the only guy in the world? I’m a mind-reader?”
“Okay, okay, my name is Charles.”
“Come on in, Chuck. Don’t be shy.”
The hallway opened into a vast space. The walls were the same rock and dirt. So was the floor. A figure sat at a gray steel desk plopped in the middle of this nothingness. He was still so far away I couldn’t say what he looked like.
“You got a last name, Charley?”
“Kramotski. People call me Fatman.”
“Fatman! Why didn’t you say?”
“It would have mattered?”
I was close enough now to make out his features. He could have lost a few dozen pounds. He could have used some hair. His beard needed a trim. Truth is, he looked unnervingly like me. But then so do a lot of guys my age.
“Of course it matters. You’re a topic of conversation, man.”
“That’s good or bad?”
“Ha ha. You’re a character. It’s always good to get people talking. Get the brand out there.”
“I’m not worried about my brand. I’m trying to find my girl.”
“Doris. Sure. High-spirited gal.”
“So she’s here.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“How do I find out?”
“Let’s face it, Fatman. You don’t just show up and get answers boom-boom-boom. It’s a process.”
I noticed he had a pad on his desk. He jabbed at it now with a ball-point pen. “Let’s get your particulars. Name I got. Date, okay. Time, we’ll call it eight thirty. I mean, who cares but what the hell. Purpose of visit. What you want to say here? Reclaim girlfriend?”
“What do you think?”
“No point beating around the bush. Why don’t you have a seat?”
There wasn’t another chair. He caught me looking around. “Sorry, but what we got here is the floor. The underworld is a low-accommodation facility, sad to say. You can lean against the wall. There’s a good spot over there.” He pointed vaguely through the gloom to his left.
“I got to take this downstairs. Just wait here. I’ll be back.”
He pushed himself out of his chair and limped off, leaning on a cane. He dragged a mangled leg behind him. His pant leg was tattered, as if it had been chewed by a pack of pit bulls. The tap of his cane against the floor was like the sound of a very slowly ticking clock.
I didn’t know what to do next. I sat in the dirt. I waited.
Tomorrow: Old friends in the underworld
I checked my watch. I stared into the dark for what seemed like ten minutes. I checked my watch again. Nothing moving. No tick tick tick. I tapped on the bezel. The watch was dead.
I stretched out in the dirt. Maybe I fell asleep. Finally I heard something in the emptiness beyond the reception desk. Mumbling. The tap of that cane. Feet dragging in the dirt.
“Fatman, buddy, you still there?”
“Over here,” I called. I struggled to my feet. I was stiff and sore, plus covered with the dust of the underworld.
“Come on into the light. Such as it is.”
“What you working with? Five watts?”
“We’re sort of off the grid down here, you know what I mean? The light is the light. The heat is the heat. The air-conditioning, forget about it.”
“That you, Deadhead?”
“I brought some friends. The Colonel. Leona. Jack from reception. You already met Jack. Plus Benny. A fellow Frogtowner. Maybe you heard of him.”
“Benny DeVito? The flying nun guy?”
“Sure, I heard.”
We gathered around the desk. They weren’t a great looking bunch. The Colonel’s white uniform, top notch the night before, was now gray with underworld grime. The saber wound wept through the fabric. Jack from reception had lost most of the flesh on one leg. Leona… well, you can’t hit the pavement from the forty-ninth floor and show up the next day on a magazine cover.
“What you looking at?” she asked.
I made some noises that weren’t exactly words.
“You could say, Sorry. Sorry Mistress Leona that I got you wrapped up in this. Sorry my friends threw you out your window. Sorry all that retirement planning you did got so unnecessary. Sorry you won’t be going on that cruise you got booked. Sorry you…”
“Okay, Leona,” Benny said. “Everybody has plans. Things happen. Deal with it. Silently would be best.”
She opened what was left of her mouth to answer but Deadhead put a finger to his lips and shook his head.
Benny sighed. Nobody would have said, oh, he looks so natural. More like he was straight from a makeover by bad students in a mort sci class. “Fatman,” he said. “A pleasure. I’ve been hearing so much about you. From my associates here. From Doris. What a firecracker.”
“So you’ve got Doris,” I said.
“You’re jumping ahead.” Benny waggled a finger at me and grinned, like this was a big joke.
“You’re not saying you don’t.”
Tomorrow: “You need a lawyer”
“Don’t see why we’re pussyfooting around,” Leona said.
She sounded drunk, not that she was. She had mechanical issues. Her jaw was out of whack; she was missing a lot of teeth.
“We got the girl. He knows, we know. Don’t matter where she is exactly. We still got her.”
Benny gave her a look. “As I was saying, Doris brightens things up around here. She’s a colorful gal. No offense, Fatman, what’s she doing with you?”
“I heard that before. Why don’t we ask her?”
“Ha ha,” Benny replied. “I’m dead, not dumb.”
“You guys are as strong as gorillas. It’s not like I’m going to muscle my way out of here with her. You got something better to do?”
“He’s got a point there,” Deadhead said, yawning.
I heard a yell from off somewhere. Across the room, down a hall, maybe behind a door. Distance was like time in the underworld. Blurry. “That’s Doris,” I said. “What are you doing to her?”
“Relax, Fatman,” the Colonel said. “We’re honorable people. Sure, we’re kidnappers. But we’re not torturers. She’s comfortable. As comfortable as anybody else.”
“That’s only saying so much,” I said.
“We try, Fatman,” Benny said. “It’s not like we got Martha Stewart on retainer.”
“You telling me,” Leona said. “Had a nice penthouse situation ’til I got tossed out my window. Leather loveseat and sofa, good carpet on the floor. Then no thanks to you, Mister Fatso, bang! I’m squatting in the dirt. Rocks under my butt now.”
“Yeah, those are special rocks under your special butt. Jesus.” Benny sighed.
“Okay, Jack,” he said. “Go get the lady. We’ll have a little reunion, talk about what’s next.”
Jack limped off again with his cane. At his pace this was going to take a while. He disappeared in the shadows.
“No offense, Benny,” I said. The silence was getting to me. “But I can’t figure out your strategy. What do you want from me?”
“I thought we made that clear. Didn’t you make it clear, Deadhead? Colonel?”
“Sure,” said Deadhead. “We told him. No stoppering up the underworld. That’s the deal.”
“Fine. But what are you going to do? Keep Doris forever? You give her back, what’s to stop me from doing whatever I want?”
“For one thing, we’ll come back and get her.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but not if I plug up the underworld. You’re here, I’m there, you’re not going anywhere. Am I missing something?”
“Yeah, yeah, you got a point. But it’s a gamble, right? It all works until it doesn’t. They build their little choo-choo train upstairs, the ground shifts again and next thing you know, you got me and all my pals on the elevator going up. A little sewer work, new cable lines, and who knows, maybe we’re coming through the cracks. You think we’ll be bringing you chocolates?”
“Okay, I hear you. But I could move with Doris. We don’t have to stay here.”
“Let’s be real with each other now, Fatman. You lived here, what, forty years? You’re going to move? You’re a Frogtowner, man. You’re not fit to live anywhere else. You wouldn’t know how to do it.”
“So you’re saying all I got to do is promise not to plug up the underworld and Doris goes with me?”
“You’re moving a little fast,” Benny said. “We got to have some whereases and wherefores. A contract. Written in blood probably.”
“You guys have blood?”
“Some. For a while. The Colonel still has a bit. Look at his uniform. Leona, it’s all over her. Me, maybe not so much,” said Benny. “Anyway, it’s more a figure of speech.”
“We need some lawyers then.”
“You think the underworld isn’t full of them?”
Before we could get any further I heard Jack and Doris approach.
“Charles, it’s about time,” were the first words out of her mouth.
Monday: What about Duke Black?
“Baby, it’s only been a few hours,” I said. “I haven’t rested since they grabbed you.”
“It’s been days,” Doris said.
“Centuries,” said Leona. “One thing time don’t do here is fly.”
Doris was still wrapped in the sheet from our bed. She’d tied it up so it looked like a toga. She wasn’t better at staying clean than anyone else in the underworld. All the same, she made my blood jump. The smudge of dirt on her cheek and the dirty toga did something to me. I had to push my mind back on track.
“They treating you okay?”
“Maybe you noticed it’s not the Hilton.”
“They feeding you?”
“Chee-tos. Potato chips.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Come on, guys.”
“We’re not running a soup kitchen,” Benny said. “Nobody else here eats. It’s what we had around.”
“I feel like a mole, Charles. You’ve got to get me out of here.”
“I’m working on it, sugar. Before we made any kind of deal I wanted to be sure you were still… you know…”
“Damn, Fatman,” Deadhead said. “What you take us for? Animals?”
“Devils, you asking me,” Leona said. “The way you all tossed me out the window. Like I was a bag of potatoes. Animals wouldn’t have done that.”
“That’s different,” Benny said. “Security threat. You do what you got to do.”
“So what’s the deal?” Doris asked.
“We agree not to seal up the underworld. They agree to let you go.”
“Sounds fair enough to me,” Doris said. “What now? We shake on it?”
“They’ve got lawyers.”
“Lawyers!” She cracked her knuckles a few times.
“Relax, Doris,” I said.
“Lawyers!” she said again. “Down here they’ll have billable centuries. I’ll never get out!”
“We’ll get on it pronto, honey. They’ve got their guys, I’ll get ours. We’ll meet…where?”
“Here is good,” Benny said.
“Here is not good.” Doris worked her knuckles over again.
“Okay, here is simpler. Fewer questions. Our best guys don’t look so great,” Benny said.
“Who’s our guy?” Doris asked.
“I’m thinking Duke Black. Seems like his kind of caper.”
“Duke Black,” said the Colonel. “I appreciate that, Fatman. Shows respect for the process.”
“I think I still owe him a couple thousand,” Deadhead said. “He got me off on a murder rap.”
“You guilty?” Benny wondered.
Deadhead gave him the first genuine grin I’d seen from the dead. “If I was innocent why would I hire Duke Black?” he said.
Tomorrow: Into Duke’s inner sanctum
Duke and I go back. We were schoolboys together at St. Agnes, pre-Vatican II, back when God still spoke Latin. After high school he went his way and I went mine. His way led to a thirty-fifth-floor downtown office with a view of several congressional districts. The man lives large, both in the physical sense — he matches me pound for pound, with maybe a few to spare — and in lifestyle. His suits look like they’ve been melted on his skin. Third world bandits would cut off his arm to get at his Rolex. A box of his cigars cost more than my car. If I still had a car.
I rode my bike to his office, coasting down the long hill to his doorstep. Grooming-wise, I had buttoned up my shirt.
I got some looks in the elevator. Duke’s receptionist gave me a hard stare over her reading glasses before she said, “How exactly may I help you, sir?” At the same time she reached under her desk to hit the security button.
The side door opened and a well-dressed palooka appeared. He had a shaved head and a neck like a fire hydrant.
“Could you tell Duke that Fatman is here?”
“First name?” the receptionist asked.
“Just Fatman. He’ll know.”
“Get you a cup of coffee?” Duke’s muscle asked. “You look like you could use something.”
“You say so.” He didn’t look convinced.
Duke’s geared up, but not frightened. Murderers, rapists, extortionists, thieves; they’re all Duke’s bread and butter. Unless you’re a fool you understand it’s Duke’s way or the highway. Given that the highway generally ends at a facility with bars on the windows, there’s no point in getting on Duke’s bad side.
Duke burst through the door. “Fatman!” he shouted. Then, “Man, what? You crawled through the sewer to get here?”
“Something like that. I need help, Duke.”
“That’s why I’m here, friend. Step on into the inner sanctum. We’ll get you straightened out.”
He held open the door to his office. There was a glass table with a glowing laptop and an Aereon chair behind it. Any Arab potentate would have been happy to fly the carpet. One of the walls was a sheet of glass, the others were paneled with the type of lumber you look at and think, endangered species.
“Sorry to say, you look like hell, Fatman. Here’s what. Step into my bath, take a shower, put on a robe. We’ll talk.”
“I’m short on…”
“Everybody is. Just humor me. Go on.”
The water ran gray over his marble tiles. I fought the urge to settle on the floor and sleep under the hot spray. Then I saw Doris’s face again, Doris stuck in that pit of filth, the seconds dragging on like hours, and every one of them counting against me.
I dried myself on a towel as soft as a cloud and slipped on a terry robe.
“Hey, hey,” said Duke. “I feel like I’m talking to a human being now. So! Who you kill, Fatman?”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Complicated. That doesn’t come cheap.”
I gave him the story. The portal, the dead, the oozing, the twist-offs, the flying nun, the Colonel and Leona both bumped off, Doris nabbed.
Duke didn’t question the basic premise. He’s heard it all before. Instead, he shouted, “Deadhead! He still owes me six thousand bucks!”
“You can try to collect. Maybe the dead pay their bills.”
“Christ, the living don’t pay their bills.”
“The point isn’t Deadhead. It’s Doris. I need somebody to negotiate. They got lawyers.”
“I bet they do. Probably some top talent down there.”
“I got to have someone who can go head-to-head with their guys.”
“Needless to say, you’re in the right place.”
“When do we start?”
“How about now?”
He hit a button on his phone. “Judy,” he said. “Cancel out the rest of the day’s appointments.”
Tomorrow: Down low with Duke
Duke loaned me a navy blue track suit monogrammed with his initials. We took the elevator to the basement and climbed into his Benz. I melted into the leather seat. You don’t realize the tension you’ve stored up until finally you relax. It was the first time I felt like myself since Doris and I found the Colonel skewered to his table.
This was Duke’s genius. He made you believe that you had done everything you reasonably could, that everything would work out for the best. Except that you’d end up with his bill.
I directed Duke to Ivan’s shop. We got stuck behind a pair of dump trucks loaded with broken asphalt. “This kind of deal, imagine the legal work,” Duke said appreciatively. “Your construction contracts, the inevitable screw ups, the civil suits, maybe some criminal, who knows? Anyway, where do we park?”
“In front of Ivan’s door. He’s not using it.”
I grabbed the flashlight from Ivan’s desk and directed Duke toward the doors to the underworld. “This is it?” he said. “A couple of doors and we’re in?”
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know. A little drama. Charon rowing over the River Styx. Maybe the dead wailing in eternal flames?”
“Sorry, Duke. It’s not the Inferno. We’re in the basement of a Frogtown mechanic’s shop. And not a very good one at that. At least the air stinks.”
“You ought to have a torch instead of that crummy flashlight.”
“This is what we got.”
The beam of light hardly seemed to matter. All it lit was a patch of black dirt in the overwhelming darkness. We stumbled down the tunnel for I don’t know how long until again that dim glow appeared before us.
“Hello!” I shouted.
In return, nothing.
I shouted again. Silence.
Sweat prickled on my bald scalp. It was hard not to fear the worse. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s a double cross. Maybe they took Doris and checked out for good. She might not even be…”
“Stop,” Duke commanded. “As your counsel, I advise you to get a grip, Fatman. They’re playing your emotions. This is business.”
“No, it’s not business. This is love. This is Doris in the hands of… They’re dead, Duke. They don’t care about the things we care about.”
“We’ll see about that. They got things they want. We got things we want. We’re talking about making everybody as happy as they can be. Well, really, making us as happy as we can be. It’s the same old deal.”
We marched together toward the gray puddle of light.
Tomorrow: A meet up with old pals
“Damn!” Duke exclaimed. “Pimlipper! Graydon! Look at you two!”
The underworld’s representation sat at the steel table. They brought along a pile of paper, a quill pen, a shallow clay bowl and a scalpel. Behind them stood Deadhead, the Colonel, Benny and Leona.
“Duke Black! I should have known. Have a seat, friend. Let’s get down to business.”
“For one thing, there isn’t a chair. But hold on a minute, Pimlipper. We got some catching up to do. It’s not like this is just another day in court.”
“Not that different, Duke. Except here the Supreme Court really is supreme.”
“Don’t listen to him, Duke,” Graydon said. “We’ve got no idea. You get rumors, but it’s the same as everywhere else. Talk is talk. You hear about your divine judgment, but the evidence? Lacking, I would say.”
“In heaven as it is on Earth,” Duke said. “You boys look pretty good. Considering.”
Pimlipper had that bug-eyed look of the elderly behind his thick glasses. His suit, filthy of course, hung from his shoulders. I could have stuck a hand between his shirt collar and his wattled neck.
Graydon was a beachball in a pinstripe suit. Mysterious, how he maintained his girth on a no-food diet. His skin tone would have looked good on a battleship. But like Pimlipper he was eager for action, gleeful even.
“I’m surprised, I got to say. Not that you fellas are here. But that the billable hours apparently never stop.”
“Money isn’t really a pressing need here, Duke,” Pimlipper said.
“Still, you’ve got work.”
“Not that much. Plenty of potential clients, naturally. Centuries worth of corpses. They all got their gripes. But there’s only so much you can do about it.”
“What do you mean?” Duke said.
“Think about it. Everybody dies with a pile of beefs. People owe you money. Romeo ran off with your wife. Punks stole your car. Whatever. But it’s not like you got eternity to get even. A year, ten years, maybe half a century,” Pimlipper said.
“Finite, that’s the point,” Graydon added. “You want to settle the score but here you are. Trapped. All you got is time and nothing to do with it.”
“Except now and then, something happens. Earthquake. Construction. Your normal erosion. Sinkhole. The portal opens and it’s like spring vacation. Everybody with an open file, running for the exits,” Pimlipper said.
“Most of your dead could care less,” Graydon picked up the scalpel and trimmed a loose piece of flesh from his thumb. “Their files are closed. All their old enemies, kaput.”
“I don’t get it,” Duke said. “Who says you got to settle up with the living?”
“Jeez, Duke. Messing up a dead guy? How satisfying is that?”
“Okay, okay. But everybody’s got relatives, right?”
“Sure they do. But think about it,” Graydon said. “You want to even up with the guy who did you wrong. Not some great-great-grand-nephew twice removed. Even the dead have a sense of proportion. Not the greatest, admittedly. Still…”
“I’m hearing frustration. Maybe you guys need an outside eye?”
“You want to get paid in dust, sure, you’re hired,” Graydon said.
“It would be one kind of despair if you knew the portal never opened and you got no shot at justice,” Pimlipper said. “But it’s another if there’s a possibility you might get out and rip somebody’s head off. Except that it almost never happens.
“It’s like Powerball. You figure you’re not going to win, but you ignore the fact because winning would be so sweet. It’s an eternity of living like a chump.”
“Except for the living part,” Graydon added.
“You got nothing else to occupy your time?” Duke asked.
“You got no idea how much time there is to occupy,” Pimlipper said.
“Not yet, anyway,” Graydon added. “We’ve got a place on the shingle for you, Duke. Pimlipper, Graydon, Black, LLP.”
“Thoughtful of you, boys. Thanks. Maybe now we could do a little business. Why don’t you show me the girl?”
“Trust us, we got her. She’s probably sleeping.”
“I trust you as much as I trust myself. I want to see the girl.”
Pimlipper chuckled. His laughter turned into a hollow cough. “Can’t say I blame you,” he said at last. “Deadhead,” he said over his shoulder, “why don’t you go fetch her?”
Tomorrow: Tourists down below
“You mind if we look around while we’re waiting?” Duke said.
Now it was Graydon’s turn to laugh. “Some day you’re going to see more of the underworld than you want, Duke. But go ahead. Take a peek.”
“I won’t get lost?”
“Benny can show you around, right?”
“He’s no Virgil, but he gets around better than Leona.”
“One more thing I got against you, Fatman,” Leona mumbled through her smashed mouth.
Duke and I fell in behind Benny. I clicked on my flashlight and pointed the beam just past Benny’s feet.
“Trust me on this. You see more if you turn it off.”
“More?” I asked. “A grave couldn’t be darker.”
I followed Benny’s scuffling. “You still there, Duke?” I said.
“Depends on what you mean by there. Black like this, you start to wonder if you’re here at all.”
“Okay, let’s stop,” Benny said.
This was a Three Stooges routine. I ran into Benny, Duke plowed into me.
The outlines of the space began to emerge.
“I don’t get it,” Duke said. “I don’t see where the light comes from.”
As light goes, it wasn’t much; like that dim, gray space between the dead of night and dawn. “No worries about the bulbs burning out,” Benny said. “There being none. You stand in one place and there’s this glow.”
“Not really a flattering light,” Duke observed.
“You get used to it. Anyway, you’re dead, there’s only so good you’re going to look.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Yeah, for now. Trust me, life is a temporary condition.”
A half-dozen hallways fanned out before us. They all looked hewn from coal. The walls had a dull sheen.
“Which way?” Benny asked.
“What’s the difference?” Duke wondered.
“We’re not talking about your circles of hell, if that’s what you have in mind. It’s an equal opportunity environment. One place is pretty much the same as the next.”
“Why, that’s a consolation!” Duke exclaimed. His normal state of enthusiasm was slowly returning. “No ninth circle for betrayers. No eternal cannibalism, no three-headed Satan chewing on you forever.”
“Maybe that happens somewhere else. I don’t know,” Benny said. “Here, one moment, the next, it’s pretty much the same. That’s why Pimlipper and Graydon are so hopped up to see you. Something different.”
“They ought to be out there, settling scores,” Duke said. “They haven’t been dead that long. Right now the door’s wide open. What’s their problem?”
“It takes a lot of energy. You get used to the nothingness of the day-to-day. A guy like Deadhead, he’s motivated. You’re talking about vengefulness, he owns the franchise. Your normal dead guy, he punches in, he punches out. He talks about being frustrated, says he wants to get out there, tear up the world, yappety-yappety-yap, but it comes right down to it? He squats in the dust. He’s not happy, he’s not unhappy enough to do anything about it. It’s a job.”
“Great job security,” Benny said. “Come on, let’s check it out.” We fell in behind him again, like he was the concierge at a no-star hotel.
Monday: Meeting time in the underworld
We stopped. That dull glow appeared around us again. Before us was a doorway leading to a room about the size of a football field. Pods of gray light lit groups of the dead. They sat on overturned buckets, rocks, scavenged furniture. Others squatted in the dirt. There were hundreds, thousands. It was hard to say.
We stepped inside. The buzz was like sticking your head into a bee hive.
“What’s this?” Duke asked. “A convention?”
“You got your loners, you got your joiners,” Benny said. “These would be your joiners, if they could ever agree on what they’re joining.”
“I don’t get it,” Duke said.
“Listen,” Benny said. He led us toward the nearest group. “This is the Association of Dead Northern Europeans. Though it might be something else. They can’t agree on a name.”
A couple dozen dead guys sat in the dirt. A slight, bald corpse stood on an overturned plastic bucket. “I hear the criticism,” he said. “Some of you think we’re moving too fast. The question is whether we have until the end of time or whether there might actually be an earlier limit. In which case our existing strategy….”
“We got a strategy? When did we agree on a strategy? How do we have a strategy if we don’t have a name?” This was from an obese dead lady in an apron covered with flour and dirt.
“Three meetings ago we agreed on a name.” Even for a corpse, the man on the bucket sounded weary. “The Association of…”
“Why you call me Northern European?” The fat lady spit this out in a Russian accent. “I mean, what is Russia? Europe or Asia? Who are you? Stalin?”
“You want to put it to a vote? We could settle this right now.”
“Sure, with the people who are here.” This came from an agitated character who looked like Ichabod Crane. “What about the people who aren’t here?”
“Maybe they don’t want to be here. Maybe they don’t care.”
“Maybe they never heard. How are they supposed to find out?”
“So it’s my job. That’s what you’re saying? What about it’s your job?”
“You’re the big shot standing on the bucket.”
“You’re the guy with his head up his…”
Ichabod and the fat Russian lunged at the bucket man, knocking him to the ground. A dust cloud rose around them as they kicked and punched and bit each other. The rest of the Northern Europeans formed a circle, egging them on.
“You taking bets on this?” Duke wondered.
“Pointless,” Benny said. “Nobody ever wins. Nobody ever loses. It just goes on, day after day. You want to hear more?”
“What do you got?”
“All the people of the Earth got their associations. Your Latinos, your Africans, your Hmong and Vietnamese, your Bosnians. You name it. It’s not like you check that stuff at the door.”
“Some of them must do better, right?”
“Ha, ha,” Benny said.
“You sure this isn’t hell?” Duke asked. “Arguing for the sake of arguing. For what? As a job, a payday, sure, I’ve done it. But for months? Years? Forever? With no pay off? I say this as a member of the bar: does it never end?”
“Not that I’ve seen.” Benny shrugged.
“Powerful case for staying alive,” Duke said.
“I’m not saying it’s a walk in the park. But it beats your fiery pit, your endless scourges, your eternal damnation, that type of thing.”
“I admire your attitude. I need a man down here, Benny, you’re on my short list. But let’s get back. They must have Doris by now.”
We stumbled through the darkness again, following the scuffle of Benny’s feet.
Finally in the gloom ahead I saw Doris. She spotted me. “Oh, Charles!” she called.
My heart went boom boom boom. There she was, even filthier now, still wrapped in that bedsheet toga. Her hair hung lank around her shoulders. The color had drained out of her.
“Baby!” I cried as I ran toward her. I lifted my arms to pull her into an embrace. She stiff-armed me. My nose smashed into her open palm.
“Wha…” I mumbled through the pain.
Something ugly flashed in her eyes. “When do you intend to get me out of here?” she hissed.
Tomorrow: The dead have demands
“Excellent!” Duke said. “The girl’s here, none the worse for wear. Full of spunk. Graydon! Pimlipper! Let’s get down to business.”
“I am not full of spunk,” Doris said. “I am dying down here. What’s it been? Six months? When are you going to start doing something?”
“Sugar, it hasn’t even been a day,” I pleaded. “I’ve been doing nothing but running in circles since you left. Ask Leona.”
“He been getting me thrown outa buildings, you count that working. I don’t know how long it’s been but I know what you mean. Not like the sun rises and sets down here in mole town.”
Duke raised a finger. “Fatman has retained counsel and we have been working diligently and tirelessly. Now, if I could get a chair, gentlemen…”
“How about a bucket?” Pimlipper said. “Deadhead, can you find the man a bucket?”
“We’re working with the available resources here, Duke,” Graydon said.
Deadhead dropped a bucket beside Duke. Duke shook his head. He lowered his bulk onto the bucket. His shoulders and head barely cleared the desk. Anyone else would have looked ridiculous, sitting there like that. But because it was Duke you wondered not if he was too low, but if you were too high.
“You know what we want,” Duke said to Pimlipper and Graydon. “We want to leave with Doris. I need a clear description of what your clients require.”
“Our clients…” said Pimlipper, rolling his eyes.
“They have various requirements,” Graydon said quickly.
“Maybe if we could start with the basics here.” Duke rubbed his temples, which left a smear of dust.
“Prime among them is routine egress from the underworld. We have clients who require congress with the living.”
“From what I understand, that’s to convert the living into the non-living.”
“No need to get hung up on the details,” Pimlipper said. “Why don’t we concentrate on the egress issue for now.”
“What we need here are reasonable limitations,” Duke said. “You open a highway out of here, corpses start piling up from the so-called congress, the next thing you know, it’s out of control. It’s already out of control. The twist-offs, the Colonel, Leona, Doris abducted. You got the cops on red alert, the mayor’s having a heart attack, the newspapers are doubling their ink order. What we need right now is a cool-off period. We don’t need more dead people roaming the Earth. I’m not saying it benefits me. It benefits you.”
“Duke, Duke, Duke,” Pimlipper said. His thin, bloodless lips curled into something like a grin. “I might be dead but I’m not stupid. I appreciate that we’re negotiating here, but Jesus. You’re telling me we should give you the girl and then stay down here in our hole? If you don’t mind the question, what’s the pay-off? I wonder if you could come up with a bone we can throw to our clients?”
“Okay. Say we start with a two-month moratorium? No more revenge killings?”
“That, sir, is a derogatory usage and doesn’t begin to reflect the ethical realities,” Graydon sneered. “For the purposes of an eventual document, let’s say ‘karmic adjustments.'”
“So, two months, no karmic adjustments. Let things cool off.”
“Two weeks, maybe.”
“Okay, six weeks. But then what we need is a system. So many adjustments per quarter. Some sense of community standards. You toss a respected citizen out of a forty-ninth floor window, or skewer a businessman with a saber to his dining room table — it’s not like nobody notices. We’re not talking death by natural causes. Might as well buy billboards along 94: Zombies Coming to Get You.”
“We are not zombies,” Graydon sniffed. “We’re deceased individuals with many legitimate grievances. If we can agree on that then we are much more likely to arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution.”
I slumped down into the dirt. One by one, so did Leona, Deadhead and the Colonel. We were accessories. Our lawyers were having a great time all by themselves, apparently pleased — overjoyed! — to argue for all of eternity.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Doris asked. It was more of a threat than a question.
“Best you just grab yourself a piece of dirt, girl,” Leona said.
Let’s say that time passed. Then it passed some more.
Tomorrow: Memo of Understanding
Duke pulled a fountain pen from his suit pocket and with a flourish scribbled Memorandum of Understanding on the top of a page.
“It’s not a Memorandum of Understanding,” said Pimlipper.
“It sure as hell isn’t a contract,” Duke replied. “Unless you can identify the court of law that will enforce it.”
This set them off for what might have been a half hour, or might have been three weeks. Doris was right. In the underworld it was hard to say.
She leaned heavily against me. Our slightest movement raised a cloud of silty dust.
“Are we ever going to get out, Charles?” A tear made a muddy trace down her cheek.
“Of course we are. We’ve got Duke Black on our side. The rest is just details.”
Truth be told, a tear also plopped from my chin to the dust. Maybe Pimlipper and Graydon had worked some kind of dead-guy spell on Duke, an argument-for-the-sake-of-argument trap that would keep us bottled up forever. Who really knew how things worked down here?
“The details will never end, Charles,” Doris sniffed. “It could take the rest of our lives. If we’re even alive. We’re in the underworld. How is that different than being dead?”
“We’re getting out. We’re not dead.”
“Let’s just leave. We could walk out. Who’d notice?”
She had a point. Leona, Deadhead and the Colonel were flat on their backs, staring up at the ceiling. They weren’t breathing, but then they never did. They looked more dead than usual. Pimlipper and Graydon hunched over the document that Duke had started. They were scribbling, scratching, arguing. We could be in Mexico before they’d know we were gone.
“I’m not sure I could find the way out.”
“So what if you’re wrong? I’m going nuts, Charles. I’ve been here half my life.”
“They think we’re sneaking away, we really will be stuck. We’re operating on trust. They’ve got to think they can trust us.”
“They’re dead. They ought to know they can’t trust anybody. People say they’ll remember you forever. But they throw you in the ground and then they die and who knows you even existed?”
“Baby, that’s a little heavier than we should be right now. We got to stay positive.”
Doris sobbed. She buried her face in my neck. We sat silently in the dirt. I suppose we might have slept.
I woke to what sounded like gunfire. As it turned out it was Duke, slapping his palm on the tabletop. “Boys, we’ve got ourselves a deal.”
“Break out the scalpel, Graydon,” Pimlipper said. “Let’s get this thing signed.”
Tomorrow: Written in blood
Pimlipper grabbed the scalpel from the bowl on the table and ran it over his finger. The skin opened but nothing came out. “Sharp enough,” he declared. “Who are our signatories?”
“Someone to represent the living, somebody for the dead,” Duke said.
He looked at me. “Fatman. You’re living. Looks like you’re the man for our team.”
“What about Doris?”
“Sure, she’s living. But given her previous involvement, there could be allegations that she was coerced, held captive, would have signed anything, so on and so forth.”
“It’s just a little blood, Charles,” Doris said. “Don’t be a baby.”
“It’s just…well…where’s that scalpel been?” It had a wood handle, a rusty blade. It looked like it came out of a Civil War surgeon’s kit.
“We can use yours if you’ve got one,” Graydon said.
“Anyway, why does it have to be blood? Duke’s got a pen.”
“Community standards, Fatman,” Duke said as he patted my shoulder. “This is how they do things. We’re in their jurisdiction. Flexibility is the key here. You can get a tetanus shot once we get topside.”
“I don’t even know what we’re agreeing to. Let me take a look at that.”
I pointed at the three scribbled pages on the desk. Duke picked them up.
“Let me summarize. We’ve got some boilerplate here, defining the relevant parties, the living, the formerly living. Some statements of fact. Legitimate interest of the dead in adjusting unbalanced karmic accounts. Recognition by the dead that excessive adjustments may result in consequences including but not limited to government and military action, private militia or posse activity, adverse publicity, et cetera. Establishment of annual quotas. Certain non-disclosure clauses pertaining to informed parties. And so forth. As your counsel, I advise you to sign.”
It took a minute for this to sink in. Thinking didn’t come easy in the underworld. Who knows what it was — the absence of light, the distortion of time, the vileness of the air? My thoughts seemed to be wading through a swamp. “So we’re agreeing to a kind of regulated hunting season, is that it?”
“Work with me here, Fatman.” Duke leaned toward me and whispered, “If you ever want to get out of here with Doris, just sign the damn thing.”
“Maybe this sounds ridiculous to you,” I whispered back. “But I can’t trade Doris for somebody else who might be perfectly innocent.”
“Who’s perfectly innocent?” Duke asked. He gave my arm a hard squeeze. “Why don’t we deal with our immediate problem and sort the rest out later? You want to get out of here or not?”
“What’s the problem, Charles?” Doris said.
“Are we going to sign or are we going to talk about signing?” Pimlipper rocked back in his chair and put his feet up on the table. He trimmed his fingernails with the scalpel. “Damn things never stop growing, far as I can tell,” he said.
“Sign, Charles,” Doris said. She jabbed my back with a finger.
“Okay, okay,” I said. I stepped up to the table and put my hand over the blood bowl.
“Wait!” Pimlipper said.
Tomorrow: Bleeding a turnip
“First we need blood from our side of the table. Not so simple as you’d think. I don’t have any in me.” Pimplipper reached over and sliced at the back of Graydon’s hand. “Nothing there, as you can see.”
He looked over at Deadhead, Leona and the Colonel. They still slept in the dust. “Deadhead’s dry as a bone, but maybe one of these two.” He kicked at the soles of their feet.
“Wie geht’s!” the Colonel shouted.
“Woman can’t even get no sleep when she’s dead,” Leona sputtered.
“Come over here, you two,” Pimlipper said.
They struggled to their feet. Pimlipper grabbed the Colonel’s hand and stabbed him with the scalpel. “What the hell!” the Colonel screamed. He grabbed his wrist as if to stop the flow of blood. Nothing came out. “Oh,” he said.
“Come here, Leona,” Pimlipper demanded.
“You ain’t poking me.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.”
“Messed up enough already.”
“You won’t notice a little more.”
“Hell I won’t.”
“Let me explain something,” Graydon said softly. He motioned for her to step up to the table.
She shuffled over reluctantly. He grabbed her arm and slammed it on the table. Pimlipper stabbed her with startling speed. An ooze of blood blossomed. He held her arm over the bowl and squeezed.
“Done,” said Pimlipper.
“Nobody sticks me like a pig!” Leona swiped at Graydon.
Graydon blocked her arm and kicked her legs out from under her. She landed hard. A mushroom cloud of dust rose around her.
“Gonna get you,” she said.
“I doubt it,” Graydon replied.
Pimlipper held up the bloody scalpel and pointed at me. “Now the party of the second part,” he said.
“You’re not going to sterilize it?”
“You’ve got an autoclave in your pocket?” Graydon asked.
“Give me that,” Duke said. He took the scalpel from Pimlipper and pulled a lighter from his pocket. Leona’s blood smoked and sputtered. It dried in a crust on the blade. Duke knocked it against the desk, then held it over the flame again. “There,” he said. “Now give me your hand.”
“Wait! I’ve got a question.”
Duke did his best to keep on a game face. I respected that. “What?” he said.
“Maybe I shouldn’t mention this.”
“Stop stalling, Charles,” Doris said.
“We sign, we leave. But what if something goes wrong?”
“Our end or their end?” Duke asked.
“Subsection b.(4(a)),” Pimlipper offered. “Penalties.”
“Next opportunity, they twist your head off,” Duke said. “But nothing’s going to go wrong.”
He stuck the blade in my wrist.
When I came to again I was slumped over the desk. The bowl was half-filled with blood. Graydon stirred it with the scalpel blade. Duke flicked his fountain pen to shoot out some ink. Then he dipped the nib into the bowl and filled the pen’s reservoir with blood.
“Here, he said, handing the pen to me. “Sign.”
Monday: Bon Voyage!
“Deadhead will see you back to the portal,” Pimlipper said. He pushed himself up from the table and straightened out. It took a while. Extending a gray hand to Duke, he said, “Pleasure doing some real business again. We miss it, don’t we Graydon?”
“There’s work,” Graydon said. “But it’s like being a kindergarten teacher. He missed three meetings in a row. She didn’t file her Form 390. On and on. It’s not hell, but you can see it from here.”
“Form 390?” Duke asked.
“Wait until you’re dead. No point in thinking about it now.”
“Don’t be a stranger, Duke,” Pimlipper said. “As per section five” — he picked up the contract and shook it — “our doors are always open.”
“If you drank I’d bring champagne.”
“Can we get moving?” Doris said. She turned and started walking.
“This way.” Deadhead started off in the opposite direction.
My forearm throbbed where Duke stabbed me. I had rocks in my shoes. Each step was painful, but it was pointless to ask Doris to stop for a second. She was right behind Deadhead. Duke was ahead of me. The blackness was obliterating, a trip through nothingness, except that my feet hurt as those sharp pebbles ground into my soles. Otherwise I felt that everything except my thoughts had vanished.
“How do you know where to go?” Doris asked.
“Who says I do? People get lost all the time. I met a guy, said some wolves ate him in 1857, he gets here, turns there, been wandering around ever since.”
“You’re not lost.” This was not quite a question.
Deadhead laughed, sort of. “No. We’re here.”
Deadhead stopped and as usual we all plowed into each other. We stood together and that eerie light glowed around us again. Ahead were the steps that led to the double doors beneath Ivan’s shop. “You take care of yourselves.”
“Coming from a man with a bullet hole in his head, we’ll take that advisedly,” Duke said.
“Fatman, you know where to find me,” said Deadhead. “And I know where to find you.”
I tried to laugh but it sounded like I was being strangled.
“Fine,” Doris said. “Thanks for everything. It’s been a real treat. Charles, we got to go.” She started up the stairs.
We got to the steel door with the crank lock. Duke shut it behind us. Light slipped into the stairway from beneath the door at the top of the steps.
“Isn’t that supposed to stay open?” I whispered to Duke.
“A technicality,” he said. “Not completely defined in the document as I recall.” He gave the wheel that locked the door a quick spin. “Why don’t we get out of here,” he said.
Doris was already at the upper door. She pushed it open and light flooded in. It was blinding, like opening a door to heaven. She stood silhouetted in the light, the sun shining through the filthy bedsheet she wore.
Yes, Fatman, you have arisen, I said to myself. I took off my shoes and cast them aside, then hurried up the steps. I wrapped Doris in my arms. I figured I had seen this movie, I knew how it was supposed to end. “You’re free, Doris,” I said. “We got you out of there.”
Maybe I played the triumphant note a little too hard.
“It took forever, Charles,” she said, wiggling loose. “Anyway, what I need is a bath.”
Duke huffed up the steps and staggered into the light. We hurried out the door to the street. Duke’s Mercedes was covered in construction dust. That same vague stench lingered in the air. A crane dropped rail track in a heap on University Avenue. A cement truck lumbered along the dirt track.
Duke strode into the street. He waved his hands over his head to stop the truck.
“What’s he doing?” Doris asked.
“Baby, I have no idea.”
Tomorrow: Placing an order
Duke shouted to make himself heard over the cement truck’s noise.
“That full?” he asked, pointing at the mixing drum.
“It’s spinning, right? It’s full.” The driver was ruddy faced, bearded. He looked like he knew his way around a Bud and a Camel. “What’s it to you?”
At the moment Duke did not look like the most conniving attorney in St. Paul. He did not appear to be the man who had just closed a deal with the deads’ top legal talent. He was covered with a pall of dust. His white shirt was smeared with grime. He looked like he’d come off a two-week bender in a coal mine.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold money clip that pinched a stack of hundred dollar bills.
“You got a supervisor anywhere nearby?”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” the driver said. His eyes beamed in on the currency in Duke’s hand.
“I’m Duke Black. What’s your name, friend?”
“Bruce,” he said after a moment’s thought. “It’s Bruce.”
The name tag on his shirt said Jeff.
“Bruce, you’re a businessman, I’m a business man. Right?”
“I’m a cement truck driver.”
“Never mind. You’ve got a commodity in the back of this truck. And I’m in the commodities market at the moment. I want to buy your cement.”
“It’s not exactly my cement.”
“It’s in your truck, right?”
“It’s not really my truck.”
“Let’s not get hung up on details here, Bruce. For say, four thousand dollars, is this your cement and your truck?”
He thought about this very briefly. “I suppose it is.”
“And if I wanted you to empty this truck somewhere nearby, you could do that, right?”
“I can’t drive to hell and back if that’s what you mean.”
“I mean right now, more or less right here.”
“Not exactly right here. I want you to drive up to that door, extend your chute, and dump your load into the stairway of this building.”
“It’s your building?”
“Let’s say it is.”
“You’re not a cop?
“Do I look like a cop?
“No disrespect, but you look like a nut job with a hand full of cash.”
“We can work with that. Here Bruce, take the money. Hell, take the money clip too. A souvenir. I’ll direct you to the door.”
Duke shed his coat and tossed it on the sidewalk. It landed there with the Armani label facing upward. “Push the door open, will you, Fatman?”
“I don’t get it.”
“We’re making an addendum to the contract. A fact on the ground, as the Israelis would say. Get the basement door, too, okay?”
Duke jumped up on the running board to confer with Bruce. He shook his head more than once in apparent disbelief as Duke jabbered at him. Finally he turned the truck and lowered a long arm connected to the drum. With Duke pointing and waving, he backed the arm up to the open basement door.
“Okay Bruce, let her rip,” Duke shouted.
A mechanical grinding and churning filled the air. The stink of the underworld was replaced with the smell of wet concrete. The gray sludge oozed down the steps and slowly settled against the steel door.
Tomorrow: Change of Venue?
“Duke,” I said. “We had a deal. I mean, I know they’re dead, but I signed in blood.”
“You’re absolutely right. If the dead get out again, sure, they’ll come looking for you. As your attorney, Fatman, I advise you to move. Probably to another state. You’re getting along in age. Someplace warm would make sense. One story, no steps. No reason to stay here. Florida. Texas. Costa Rica, maybe.”
“This is my home. I live here, Duke, for Christ sake.”
“You’re an adult, Fatman. Do what you think is right. Bruce says this is eight yards of concrete. Twelve tons, more or less. They’ll probably be stuck down there for a long time. What’s it been since they got out? Fifty years? You could take your chances.”
“Duke, don’t take this personally. But you double crossed them.”
“I hate that phrase, Fatman. I weighed the options. I came to a decision. You hired me to get Doris free and lock up the underworld. You got what you wanted, friend. Assuming for the moment they were double crossed, we double crossed them.”
“I don’t want every dead guy in the underworld holding a grudge against me. Not to mention, I got a moral code.”
“They’re dead! Can you screw the dead? I don’t know, Fatman. You tell me.”
“Okay, there are differences between them and us.”
“Like they’ll twist your head off,” said Doris. “They’ll toss you out of a building. They’ll kidnap you from your bed in the middle of the night. It’s not like we’re dealing with the Quakers here. Also, they’re filthy. God, what a rat hole.”
“I’m not saying they’re spiritually enlightened. I’m talking about us, not them. Our word being our word. Doing what we said we were going to do. Morality.”
“Help me understand, Fatman,” Duke said. “You’d rather have an open door policy with the underworld? Some dead guy feels his momma didn’t love him enough, the next thing you know she’s tossed off a bridge?”
“This is a complex moral situation is what I’m getting at. Lying.”
“Versus murder,” Duke replied.
“You don’t think this is complicated?”
“It’s not going to be complicated for long. Once this cement sets it’s going to be real simple.”
Doris tugged at my arm. “Forget about it, Charles,” she said. “We’ll all be dead soon enough. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up in the underworld with them. We can talk about it for centuries then. But right now I’m going back to your house. I’m going to take a shower. Maybe have a snack.”
That hung in the air for a second or two. “What you thinking about?” I asked.
“What you got?”
“Hmm. Leftover carnitas. Tortillas. Probably some ripe tomatoes in the garden. Jalepeños, too. The cilantro’s good.”
“We could swing by the store.”
“Then a siesta. I’m going to be tuckered after lunch, Charles. You got clean sheets at your place?”
“Sure I do.”
“Life is for the living, Fatman.” Duke opened the door to his Benz.
“Yeah, but still…” I got that far and gave up.
Same old story.
“I’m going now, Charles,” Doris said.
“Baby, I’m right behind you.”
Tomorrow: The Mother Teresa approach
What’s it been now? Six months at least. It’s the dead of winter, a couple dozen degrees below zero. All the glitter of the season is bearing down on us, like the beauty and the horror that it is.
So far, so good. The dead have not stuck their faces up against my icy windows. They are where they belong.
Now and then I casually insert a phrase into conversation with Doris. Such as, …when I rescued you from the underworld. Or, …after I stole you away from the dead.
“You did no such thing,” she counters. “Duke Black made that deal.”
“But I was the guy who signed in blood!”
“If Duke hadn’t stabbed you we’d still be squatting down there in the dirt.”
I admit, it’s a problem with my story. Duke was the one who made things happen.
“You’re not really the hero type, Charles,” Doris reminds me.
Yeah, yeah, she’s right. The hero type is not a shades-of-gray kind of guy. Duke Black is simple-minded enough to be a hero. Black. White. Think, but not too hard. Fight it out. Case closed. Send the bill.
I’m a this-and-that character. It takes me time to sort things out, and even then I’m not so sure. Of course I wanted Doris back. But I could see the Deadhead perspective. Given all of life’s indignities, both micro and macro, who doesn’t have scores to settle? Who wouldn’t love the chance to balance life’s accounts? We’ve all got our own ideas about what justice is.
“You’re complicated, Charles,” Doris says. “A lot of times that’s good.”
We talk about following Duke’s advice and moving far away. There’ll be plenty more construction around here in the months and years to come. No telling when another portal might spring open. If the dead bust loose, I figure I’m target number two, right behind Duke Black.
But it’s like everything else. People build their homes at the foot of a volcano, or on a tsunami-scoured coast. You learn to live with anything, even the sense that you’re walking on a shell that could give way at any moment. Then there you are in the underworld, nursing your grudges forever.
“Who wants to end up like that?” I ask Doris. “There must be a way to avoid it. Change your life. Forgive and forget. The Mother Teresa approach.”
“I love that you’re a dreamer, Charles. Maybe not so realistic. But a dreamer.”
“Why is that a dream?”
“Who really forgives or forgets? That’s just something people say.”
“I’m trying to move on to something higher, baby.”
She settles into my lap. Her hands do some cunning things. “Send me a card when you get there,” she whispers in my ear.
Already I’m forgetting what I planned to forgive.
Tomorrow: A final word
Now that the dead are thoroughly cemented back into the underworld — at least for the moment — let me thank you for taking the time to read Fatman Descends. The usual pleasure of writing was made all the sweeter by knowing that a mob of readers was out there downloading installments day-by-day.
To close readers who were expecting 66 episodes, my apologies. I arrived at that number by dividing the 30,000 word manuscript into segments of 450 words. However, many of the episodes wound up in the 600-700 word range. Plus I did some editing along the way that whacked a few thousand words.
Fatman had to end sometime. It just ended a little sooner than I originally anticipated.
Wondering how you’re going to start the day without Fatman, Doris and the vengeful dead? Allow me to suggest alternatives.
I’ve written other novels that are available at low, low everyday prices both at Amazon.com (for Kindle or for many other devices via the free Kindle reading app) and at Smashwords.com (for Kindle and most readers, tablets and phones known to man).
These eBooks include:
- Mermaid in Vegas: A mobbed-up Vegas casino boss captures a mermaid, then builds a display tank for her in an exclusive club where the regulars include Frank, Dean and the rest of the Rat Pack. Urged to action by his firecracker wife, casino detective Tom Blinder reluctantly undertakes a rescue mission.
- Valentine’s Cafe: The God of Love opens a restaurant. Trouble — romantic, political, sexual — ensues.
- Darkest Desire: The Wolf’s Own Tale: Wolf has a problem: his desire to eat children makes him an outcast among his peers. When he encounters the Brothers Grimm in the forest, they offer him a cure. Are they sincere, or skilled manipulators? Wolf decides to take a chance.
- Thereafter: Based, oddly enough, on a true story of a house flipping couple whose relationship takes an unsettling turn when the lady of the house comes to believe that their new home is haunted.
You can find out more about these works at AnthonySchmitz.com.
If you care to know more about the mechanics behind the Fatman novella, please check out today’s post on my blog, Books and Boats.
Again, my sincere gratitude for your interest in Fatman Descends.
Warmest regards — Tony Schmitz