The walls of Tarovale encircle the crossing of four roads. To the west the road leads to Milton and beyond the heart of Kale on the coast of the Mare Luna. To the North the road is the way to the Sheppards' Hills and the great fortunes to be hard won in the Kalenor Mountains. To the east is the road to Northbend at the edge of Kale where gypsy caravans bring strange wonders from lands beyond. To the south is the Great Bridge over the River, the unkept road beyond leading through the Darkwood into the lands of Mourngoth.
None may cross the Bridge without explicit permision from Count Onnit. Unlike the other parts of town, Southend is not well travelled and is not well kept. It is where the poor. beggars, thieves, muggers, and murderers survive. Crime is rampant despite all the guards and soldiery in the down, for their gaze looks outward rather than in. On the main stretch of the seediest part of town is an ugly little inn where those who manage to scrap up a coin spend it on ale and the occasional meal: The Rat and Broom.
At the bar sits Oaf Ortuna, an orphan of the Southend streets. He remembers having parents once, but for most of his life he's lived in a straw-lined shack in the Circle; a rotting culdesac on the edge of Cemetary park. He's survived by begging and stealing , and by the kindness of the demented old woman who lives next door who knits his ragged clothes back together, and Digby, a gate guard who has provided him a meal a time or two, and let him practice archery in the gatehouse when no one was around. Kind old Digby has always tried to keep Oaf out of trouble, but for his slow and somewhat gullible nature has not always been sucessful.
Oaf is down to his last two coins and a mug of ale. The usual characters are at the bar of the Rat and Broom; Hans the bartender smearing grime into the mugs with his rancid apron, Hilda, his wife, drinking his profits away. Sad sacks, mad men, the usual Southend urbanites. At the end of the bar Krump, Oaf's occasional friend when it's in both their interests, looks like he's plotting something. Oaf goes to find out what.
"Hey, Oaf. Did ya hear about the new travelers in town? Fresh from Kale. Fat purses, too. They're staying at the Golden Waffle. Maybe some of them might like a little more spice in their night life? I was thinking we should invite one of them down here to the Southend. Sound like a plan to you?"
Krump's plans were not so much plans as ideas which never quite live up to reality, but occasionally netted a profit; although often with more running than anticipated. Oaf fingers the two coins remaining in his pocket. "Sure, I got nothing better to do."
"Well, we're not going to sweet talk them with you looking like that." Krump pulls a thread off Oaf's burlap shirt. "Granny's been slacking off again?"
"Yeah, she gives em back worse off than before."
"Well let's run up Easterville and visit the gypsies. They usually have something decent for cheap. Maybe you can make a deal? Or get a five finger discount."
As the sun sets over the city walls the young rogues cross Cemetary Park, an unlit and unkept place of rememberance for lives lost in centuries of battles over the Bridge. Beyond the dead trees and gravestones are the lights of Easterville where middle class merchants buy goods from eastern traders, carry them across town to the West side and sell them again at ten times cost. In most cases it's best to skip the middle man altogether and go straight to the traders who bring the goods into town. However, dealing with gypsies can be dangerous not only to your wallet but to your life.
Walking through the markets streets busy with closing shops and pub bound shopkeepers almost to the outer circuit which runs along the city wall and north through the alleys between the humble yet far from modest homes, Krump and Oaf reach the pond around which the gyspy caravans are parked. The dark skinned people sing and dance around a camp fire; a beautiful raven haired girl in flowing silks and jingling bells dances while her father fiddles. Krump hangs back as Oaf approaches an older woman sitting on the stairs of her caravan smoking a pipe.
"Excuse me," he says, "I need some new clothes."
"Ah, young man," she says as she puts her pipe down, "indeed you do. I have lovely silk garments and fine woven fabrics, all of which it looks as if you cannot afford." Her tongue rolls words out through a thick, smokey accent.
Oaf looks sheepishly at his tattered rags and sandals.
"I hope you were not planning of distracting me while your friend sneaks round and steals from me. That would not be wise."
Oaf looks back to Krump, who suddenly changes the direction of his pace towards the firelight, whistling.
"How much money do you have?" She asks.
"Two gold," Oaf replies as he produces the two coins.
"Wait here," she says as she reaches for the coins. Oaf clasps his hands around them. She disappears into the caravan and returns an instant later with a rather fine looking dark brown cloak. "I'll give you this cloak for your two gold and a favor."
"The red vine that grows in the Darkwood. You will collect some for me. As much as you can carry. It has four leaves like this." She holds her hands together in front of her, one palm on the back of the other with her thumbs tucked under. "When you cut it, it bleeds red." She straightens her thumbs. "Five leaves, like so, do not touch. Is poison."
Oaf thinks about it for a moment. Cautiously he takes the deal and hands over the two gold. He'll have to complete the task, for crossing the gypsies means he'll wind up dead in his sleep, or worse. But for now, he needs this investment to better his future, or so he thinks.
"Very good. Meet me here tomorrow night with the red vines." She hands over the cloak.
Oaf puts it on. It's finely woven, nicely weighted, and just covers his ratty clothes. The brass clasp is new and shiny enough to draw the eye away from his unwashed sandaled feet.
Krump returns to his side. "Nice. You must've made some kind of rotten deal with that gypsy. But, hey, we score well tonight and you might be able to skip town before they take your eyes or whatever you traded for that."
"She asked me to go get some vines from the Darkwood." Oaf suggests, hoping perhaps Krump might be interested in assisting.
"Whoa, good luck with that," he replies.
The two follow the main road around the south side of the Tarovale Keep towards the West Side. The Count's daughter can be heard singing from the southwest tower. Sometimes Oaf would wander out this way just to hear her voice, and catch the occasional glimpse of a silhouette in the curtains of the window. No such luck tonight.
The West Side is the richest quarter of the city, where the merchants who just made ten coins on a gold spent on the other side of town hob-nob with the merchants who will make twice or more than that taking the goods into Kale. Just inside the gate is the most pleasant, welcoming inn in town, the Golden Waffle. The smell of warm mead and fresh bread soaks the bright lit streets with a pleasant flavour. Well dressed men and women wander aimlessly past windowed shops displaying all the finest wares in town.
Krump and Oaf lean on the corner of the Golden Waffle, just out of sight of the guards at the gate.
"Alright," explains Krump," all we gotta do is wait for the right opportunity.
A pair of fat men in fine clothes with short swords dangling below the hems of their capes laugh jovially while smoking sweet smelling tobacco. "Did you see the size of that orc I slew?" "Yes, but his smell was much greater! Oh, hohoho!" they laugh.
Krump and Oaf roll their eyes.
Eventually a young man with a fne robe and spectacles comes out of the Golden Waffle. He looks longingly to the sky before slumping himself on a bench. "Here we go," says Krump. "You go, he looks like your type."
Oaf slides around the corner and sits down next to the guy. "Hey, you look lonely."
The young man ignores him.
"I know where you might find some company? Maybe a little entertainment?"
"Not interested," says the young man. He digs into his satchel and produces a book which he proceeds to bury himself in.
"Ya like 'potions?' I know a place that brews up the best."
"Leave me alone," the young man says, slamming his book shut. He gets up and goes back into the inn.
"Haha, that was terrible!" Krump laughs. "Watch me!" He steps around the corner and approaches a large man with a beard and hardly any clothes on. The man is obviously very drunk and looks unable to walk let alone wield the titanic broadsword strapped to his back, if he could even draw it. "You look like a man who enjoys a fine ale!"
"No," booms the large man.
"You sure? I know where you can find the finest for cheap!"
"Go away," he thunders again. Krump withdraws.
"I watched you," says Oaf. "It was hilarious."
A short while later, a bubbly young woman bounces into the streets. Her robes are similar to those worn by the young man from earlier. She's carrying a similar satchel, even. Oaf steps from out from the alley.
"Hi!" he says.
"Hi!" she says back enthusiastically. "My name's Robin! I'm an adventurer!"
"My name's Oaf. I live here in Tarovale! How do you like it so far?"
"It's great! All the lights and people and great food and drinks! It's great!"
"You haven't seen anything yet! How about I show you around town?"
"Well, I don't know. It's my first adventure and everything and I don't think I should leave my party..."
"Oh, just a quick walk around the inner circuit. I know a great place to go dancing!"
Krump steps out from behind the shadows with a huge grin on his face.
"Who's that?" asks the girl.
"Oh, that's my friend Krump! He lives here too!"
Krump tries to laugh along with her infectious laugh, but it comes out rather malicious.
Oaf leads Robin towards the keep, past the lavish mansions of the West Side. "This is were Lord Mouldebutte lives. He's a very famous adventurer and captain of the guard." As they round the keep and begin to enter the dark streets of Southend, Oaf has to work harder to think of things to say. "And this is where Lord, uh, Cuttlebum was defeated after rasing an army of the dead, and, uh, rats, too. Lots of rats."
Robin is less and less sure about this. "Sure is dark in this part of town. Can we go back into the light? I liked all the mansions and things. I think I should be getting back to my party."
Oaf leads her into a dead end alley with Krump blocking the only exit. Krump draws his dagger. Robin turns around. "You might want to hand over all you've got, dear."
Robin reacts quickly, reaching into her satchel and throws a handful of dust as she yells a word, igniting the powder in a bright flash right in Krump's face. Krump stumbles backwards, dazzled and clutching his eyes.
Oaf grabs her from behind in a choke hold with such suddenness that she immediately faints. He lays her on the ground. "You alright, Krump?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. What's she got?"
Oaf removes the satchel from her shoulder, opens it, and digs in. "80 gold, a book, and a bunch of powders and stuff."
"80 gold! Brilliant! We'll split it 70 - 30. How much is that?"
"No, we'll split it 50-50."
"It was my idea! 60-40."
"I did all the work. 50-50."
"Alright, 30-30. Wait a minute, that's not right. How much is there again?"
"80 gold and a bunch of powders and stuff."
"Alright, I'll take 45, you take 35 and the satchel. You probably can't fence that kinda stuff anyway." Krump examines a bottle of slimy, lumpy somethings. "Who want's a bunch of whatever this is, anyway?"
Oaf nodds his head and takes the offer. Maybe the gypsy woman will buy this stuff, he thinks. She's obviously interested in herbs and things. He flips briefly through the book, but none of it makes sense. He's not even sure it's written in words. It might be worth something to someone, anyway. Krump never put much value in things he didn't understand.
After splitting their earnings, Krump departs. Oaf thinks maybe leaving this girl lying passed out in the alley isn't such a great idea, so he tries to pick her up and hide her in the nearest barrel, which happens to be full of trash. He only succeeds in knocking the barrel over and dumping garbage all over her head. He decides to run off before she wakes up.
He slinks through the alleys of Southend all the way back to his shack on the circle. After barring the door to keep Krump from renegotiating their deal in the middle of the night, he curls up on his bed of hay and slips off to sleep.
The next morning, Oaf is feeling every ounce of his 35 gold haul. It's not quite a million, but it's a start. He gets up early and heads to Northendaton, the quarter where the miners and local adventurers stay. Northendaton has all the best smiths and equipment suppliers on the City. He heads towards one of the best, the Bait and Tackle, which strangely has no fishing equipment whatsoever. What they do have is boots, and that's what Oaf needs.
"What kinda boots d'ya be needin?" asks the bearded, half-dwarven tanner. "You goin' minin'? Hikin'? Workin' in the fields?"
"Hiking," Oaf replies.
"Aye, then you'll be needin' these," he produces a pair of tall leather boots. "Padded on the inside but with a hard sole for long trips. Only 50 gold."
"30," Oaf shoots at him.
"30? Hahaha! I like you, son. A straight shooter. Alright, 30 it is, but only if you promise to come back and spend more later."
"I promise," says Oaf. He wears his new boots out and leaves his dirty, broken sandals in the garbage bin.
After stopping at the Rat and Broom to pick up a loaf of bread, Oaf heads for the southern gate. Digby is alone guarding the gate. "Hello, Oaf? How are you today? You're looking good in that new cloak. I'm afraid the Captain won't let you practice archery today."
"That's okay, Digby. I'm not here for that. I need to go into the Darkwood and collect some red vines for a gypsy."
"You made a deal with a gypsy? Oh, son, that's bad business. I'm afraid no one's allowed to cross the bridge without permission from the Count."
"I've got to go, Digby. If I don't get these vines back by tonight the gypsies will cut out my eyes or worse."
Digby reluctantly submits. "Okay, but you're going to have to sneak past the guard on the other side of the gate. I'll try to get outside duty tonight. Just this once, though." Digby moves to open the gate but stops. "Here," he says as he unslings his bow and quiver. "You better take this. It's dangerous out there."
Oaf accepts the gift heads through the gate. On the other side, the guard is leaning on his spear, snoring. Oaf sneaks as quietly as he can passed the guard, but, un-used to his new boots stubs his toe on a cobble stone and yelps. The guard wakes up and levels his pike. "Hey, you! Halt!"
Oaf freezes and turns around. "You''re under arrest," the guard yells. Oaf turns back towards the Darkwood and runs for it. The bridge is long, but with the clanking chainmail of an angry guard behind him Oaf hardly notices. In an instant, the guard is far behind and Oaf is in the Darkwood.
A young man in a fedora and a zoot suit marred by tire tracks across the chest shuffled sheepishly to St. Peter's lectern.
"Name?" asked St. Peter.
The young man looked around him. "Man, I ain't been in a line this long since I was holdin' my Ma's hand at a soup kitchen. Promised myself that would never happen again." The young man removed his hat, and gave a respectful nod to St. Peter. "Vincent DiMaggio. Wit' two G's. But my friends call me Vinnie."
"Well, sir, I'm in accounting. I kinda keep books for people who don't like to write things down. You might say I'm a bookkeeper."
St. Peter looked at him over the rim of his glasses. "You wouldn't be lying to me, would you, son?"
Vinnie pulled out the St. Mary medallion, somewhat flattened, from around his neck, kissed it and maked the sign of the cross. "St. Mary, Jesus and Joseph! No sir, I wouldn't lie to you, Pete! My ma had me in church every Sunday. She'd take a belt to my backside for lyin' to a saint."
St. Peter returned his quill to the registry. "Cause of death?"
"I was hit by a car while helpin' out a fellow motorist by the side'a tha road."
"Why are your pants around your ankles?"
"Well, sir, it's kinda'va funny story..."
"We may be in Eternity, Mr. DiMaggio, but as you can see, I don't have all the time in the world. You can pull up your pants now."
"Well, I would, sir, but they'd just fall down again seein' as I don't have a belt. Like I told ya, I was helpin' out a fellow motorist when I got hit by a car."
"So you used your belt to tie up a loose exhaust?"
"Not exactly. I used it as a tourniquet."
"You see, I was on this date. Took my girl Gina to Giorgio's. You know that classy restaurant on 49th? They do it up right. Candles, crystal, the whole shebang. If you ever go there, ask for Lennie: He'll treat you right. Tell 'em Vinnie sent ya. I was having the clams casino, ordered a bottle of their best vino 'cause it was a big night. I was goin' to pop the question, make Gina a respectable woman, seein' as how she'd been my girl for so long. You know I ain't the easiest guy to get along wit', and she's been kinda antsy, ya know."
"The belt, Mr. DiMaggio."
"Vinnie. Yeah, well, I'm gettin' to that. Had the rock in my pocket. Gotta good deal on it from Freddie Goldberg down in the Jewish District. I tell ya, if you ever need a diamond the size of your knuckle, you see Fred. Tell 'em Vinnie sent ya."
St. Peter looked at Vinnie with the patience of a saint. "As you can see, Mr. DiMaggio, we have no need for worldly possessions in Heaven."
Vinnie looked at the Pearly Gates and beyond. He could see glowing figures quietly walking in flowing robes.
"Yeah, well. I had it all set up with Lenny. When he brought out dessert, he called his cousin Vittorio over with his violin. He's the real deal, could'a played in the symphony 'cept for the stint he did in the joint. Violin strings make handy tools. Anyways, I got down on my knee and asked her to marry me, and for a minute it looked like she was gonna say no. She looked like a cat caught up a tree. Then I remembered the ring. Can you believe I damn near forgot the rock? When I opened that box, it was like a firework goin' off. Her eyes got big as saucers when she saw that hunk'a ice. She jumped out of her chair, slid the ring on her finger, and waved it around, showin' everybody in the damn place."
"Watch your language, Mr. DiMaggio."
"Sorry, Pete. Well, I wanted to go home and celebrate, if you know what I mean..."
"We have no need for base physical interaction here."
"No hidin' the salami, huh? That's a shame. Anyway, Gina wanted to show off that rock so I slipped Lennie a fin and helped Gina with her mink coat. We went downtown to Mark's juke joint. It's got anything you could want: cigars, booze, broads and a band that will keep you on your feet till you just can't stand anymore. Knock three times on the back door and tell 'em Vinnie sent ya'. When we walk in, whose there but Big Tony. He's my, uh, employer. Anyways he's sittin' at a table up front near the band, and he asks us to join him. Can't say no to Big Tony. So we go sit with him. He sees the rock on Gina's finger and he's lookin' at me like he's payin' me too much or somethin'. We're drinkin' and dancin', feelin' a little sauced if you know what I mean."
"Those are vices we have no use for here, Mr. DiMaggio."
"Really? We could make a mint bringin' hootch in here. Get it from my friend Angelo. He'll set us up real nice. Of course, I'd get a percentage of the action."
"We have no use for currency, either. I suggest you get to the point."
"That's what I'm getting to. Like I was tellin' ya, we were gettin' a bit lit when Big Tony calls me over and says he's got a job for me. Gotta be done that night. Seems one of our, uh, delinquent accounts was planning a little vacation without lettin' us know. Big Tony says he'll take Gina home."
"And that's when you get into the accident?"
"That's what I'm gettin' to. I went and picked up some muscle, I mean a negotiator, and paid a visit to our client. It didn't take as long as I thought. We convinced him to stay in town for a couple days and, uh, arranged a financial plan that would be mutually beneficial. Let me tell ya, I was tired on the way home. Thought I might not be able to live up to my new husbandly duties, if you know what I mean."
"But you had not yet taken your vows of matrimony."
"C'mon, A guy has needs. Anyway, I'm drivin' out to Gina's place. Got her a nice set up in Jersey, little house on a hill out in the boonies. She don't like it 'cause it's not where the action is, but it keeps her outta trouble. Or that's what I thought. I pull up, and Tony's car is still in the drive. I think what the- Sorry Pete. It don't take that long to drop her off. So I look in the front window, but they're not in the parlor. I can see light coming from the bedroom. So I creep around the house, and look in the bedroom window, and did I get an eye full. Gina's in bed with Big Tony. She's in her nightgown and got my rock on her finger, and Big Tony's got his stinkin' hand on her ass. They looked real familiar with each other, like this has been goin' on for some time. You can bet how pissed I am, and the first thing I think to do is charge in there, kill 'em both. But the dicks would finger me, oh and that would be a sin. So I put my car in neutral and roll to the bottom of the hill, wait along the side of the road. Big Tony leaves and I start to follow him. He's headin' back into the city, so I realize I gotta make my move. So I run into his car."
"You caused the accident?"
"That one, yeah, but not the one that killed me."
"Do you mean to say there were two accidents?"
"That's what I've been trying to tell ya. Big Tony's car goes crashin' down a hill. I didn't want to kill him, just have it out man to man. So I's go runnin' down the hill. Big Tony is gettin' outta the car, kinda dazed. He sees me, and goes straight for my throat. Now, Big Tony has hands like hams, and I can tell from the things he's sayin' he ain't gonna give up the fight without some convincin', so I pulls out my knife and he grabs my hand, and we're fightin' real close, and the knife accidentally goes in the side of his throat. Blood is gushin' like one of those fountains you throw a penny in to make a wish, and Tony let's go, holding his throat with both hands."
"You still haven't explained the loss of your belt."
"I'm gettin' right to it. So I think back to my Catholic school days, Pete. Sure could make those nuns nicer. I mean what's under those habits? I remember learning first-aid and how to apply a tourniquet, so I whipped off my belt and put it around his throat."
"I couldn't exactly carry Big Tony so I left him there and headed back to Gina's to call this doctor I know. When I get back, I stopped in the bathroom to clean up this new suit. Only she wakes up and sees all the blood and wants to know what happened. So I tell her I mighta accidentally whacked Big Tony, and I can forgive her for her indiscretion, but she gets mad, and says, 'Why did you go and do that for? I had a good thing going.' She was getting gifts and a place to live from me, and gettin' money from him. That why did I have to blow it by asking her to marry me? She coulda been a happy woman, and she starts packin' up her things, puttin' all the clothes and jewelry I bought her into a suitcase. I'm tryin' to talk some sense to her, how we can still make it, but she says I've signed my death warrant killin' Big Tony.
"I'm telling her all this as she walks out the door to get into her car, and I tell her she's not goin' to leave, over my dead body. I get in front of her car wavin' my arms to try to stop her, but my pants slipped down again and when I go to pull them up, she ran right over me. She broke my heart, Pete."
"I've heard this story before, Mr. DiMaggio, only from a different point of view. Please go to the end of the line to the entrance to Hell. Right behind Mr. Antonio Grande. That's Big Tony to you. Tell 'em Pete sent ya'."
Astrid knew she wouldn't be staying in her cell for long. She wished a disdainful good-bye to the parasites in her bedding. It was nearly fourth-cycle, and the guard was coming down the corridor.
Quickly she produced her next bit of contraband, a length of old conduction cable encased in an insulating sheath. She'd found it in the yard that afternoon. She had stripped it at one end so the metal could pass through the field while she could hold the protected end and not get fried. It was long enough to reach from the cell to the guard on the floor if she crouched, and sturdy enough to maneuver his hand into the barrier.
The wetware in his gloves did its job and deactivated the force field. Astrid dragged him into her cell. She stripped the guard of his bio-wear gloves and boots. She slipped quickly into them, the living leather conforming to her size and contours. She was glad to be out of those nasty rubber sandals at last, her cut and bruised feet instantly felt warm and cushioned.
The adrenaline started to wane as she punched the final sequence for a superluminal hop. In twelve sub-cycles she’d be on the other side of the cluster, back on her home plate. She was free, and soon she would be home. She sat back in the command chair and sighed, closing her eyes. The dream flowed up the tube and out the nozzle, into pill form.
The stack of wrinkled twenties was a full hand high and limped to the side like a slinky about to step down from the round wood footstool to the cigarette-stained carpet below.
"I ain't askin' you to kill her, man," Tony expectorated. "Just make sure she leaves town."
Darren picked his coffee mug up from the stool, his stare slowly shifting to it from the pile of money. The cup was cracked, a fault along the side steadily stained deeper brown. The coffee its self was thick and bitter. It tasted like the mold that was only briefly rinsed from the carafe and not noticed in the filter catch. God only knows what fantastic new diseases lurked amongst the soggy paper plates and piles of unwashed pans littering the whole of the studio's kitchenette.
The August sun made the frosted windows glow white hot. The tiny air conditioner could do nothing but stain the wall with condensation. The heat made Darren sweat through his Croft & Barrows into the once green corduroy couch, but it was not the only reason he was sweating.
He put the coffee down. "She's your wife, Tony."
"Not anymore she ain't. Not after what she did to me."
"It's only been two months." Darren looked around the wreck of an apartment. He had to stop himself from counting empty Budweiser cases.
"Feels like a goddamn decade." Tony stoped pacing long enough to add his cigarette butt to the forest of them on the footstool. He squated down opposite Darren, the money between them. "Look, man, I'm giving you everything I got. Plus, you fuckin' owe me this."
"Owe you?" Darren said, feigning ignorance. "Why's that, Tony?"
"You're the one who fucked her, that's why!" Tony yelled, hoarseness clogging his throat. He got up and started pacing again.
Darren sat silently, unable to argue against that point. He couldn't help but remember the smell of Stephanie's strawberry hair mixed with the sweat of brief, uncontrollable office passion and Astroglide. The memory of that whole fantastic night swirled over him, momentarily relieving him from the oppressive heat. The wave of pleasure left guilt in its wake, as it always did, and Darren found himself sweating in this hot seat.
"Look, man," Tony continued, calming himself down with another cigarette. "I don't blame you, I blame her. I've known you a long time. I know you wouldn't'a done it if she hadn't pushed you. I know her, she's a goddamn succubus."
Darren did not correct him. "What do you want me to do? Drive her out into the desert and leave her?"
"That don't sound too bad. But, nah, I just want her gone. Take her to Philly or Detroit or something. Rip her off and leave her on the street."
"You want me to abandon my boss in Detroit? What's that going to prove?" In his incredulity, Darren considered picking up the coffee cup again, but then thought the better of it.
"She'll learn a goddamn lesson. She'll know what it's like to be kicked out of your home and left for fuckin' dead."
"All she's gotta do is walk into a bank and say yell 'Don't you know who I am?' and all that shit she does."
"Haha. Yeah, normally. But since the divorce her green card ain't worth shit, and she ain't got her work visa yet. She ain't gonna get it either, since the company tanked. How long you think your office is gonna hold up without support from Berlin? A week? Two? Why the fuck you think she's been so sweet on you? Once all the accounts are closed, you and she are out of a job, and she ain't got no place to go but back home to the goddamn fatherland. But if she's stuck out in some paved-over shithole, nobody'll give her the fuckin' time'a day."
The plan was the ridiculous ravings of a half-drunk revenge-crazed divorcee, but that pile of money seemed to grow every time Darren looked at it. Since that one glorious, insane night, his life had been total shit. Tony wasn't the only one screwed out of everything in divorce court. Darren imagined his apartment would look like this one in a month or two. He thought about how few accounts were on the books and the Beamer-sized hole in his pocket.
He thought about Stephanie again. He thought about her soft accent gently telling him how sorry she was for stealing the DuPont contract away from him, and how she said she would make it up to him with the Fredricks account and didn't.
He felt her lips on him, staining him with lipstick like a cigarette, and Darren knew he would end up standing upside down, burnt out, and crushed along side Tony and all the other men snuffed out in her ashtray.
Darren scooped up the pile of cash and stood. "Okay, you've got a deal. We close the last account on Tuesday. Thursday we head out for Seattle with a long layover in Detroit."
Tony smiled. "A very long layover."
Darren knew it wouldn't work. He knew she'd find some way back to kick both their asses. But it'll at least be worth a laugh. Darren chuckled. "Sometimes a cigarette will burn you back."
Ever since middle school, I had always suspected Charlie Scarberry was a colossal squid in disguise. He was big for a twelve-year-old; the kind of kid who would eat anything, including the vulcanized rubber eggs and cardboard pizza crust from the cafeteria. He would always go crazy on fish stick day, but that in its self is not enough to suspect someone of such a ridiculous thing.
No, it began one day when I was entering the restroom as Charlie was leaving. I greeted him as we passed, but he turned his large, bulbous eyes to the floor with guilt and waddled briskly down the hall. I didn’t think much of it until a moment later when I entered the bathroom and found it freshly painted wall to wall with a black, sticky, foul-smelling substance. The mess radiated out from the corner stall as if someone had set off some kind of fishy tar bomb. It smelled so bad I threw up in the trashcan and ran to the school nurse to call home sick.
The kids always suspected it was I who had so befouled the bathroom that day, and I never heard the end of it.
After that, a colossal squid in disguise was the only conclusion that made sense. There’s no way any human body could produce that much nasty, viscous waste. I followed him with a suspicious eye, and though I tried to remain as unbiased and objective as possible, everything just came together. The way his bulbous, golf ball eyes were set nearly on opposite sides his head, the bizarre beak-like curvature of his nose and under bite, the blotchy redness of his skin and the way it constantly gleamed of briny sweat, the weird fishy smell that both followed and preceded his presence, and I could swear I could hear a squishing sound whenever he sat down.
I stayed close, abandoning my AD&D group to join the school band and the football team just to get into his circle of friends. He was a monster on the yards. He couldn’t run for shit, but nobody could knock him down, and he never dropped the ball. It would stay in his possession through the most skull mangling blows with only a single finger in contact. I swear I saw his arms extend to make a catch on more than one occasion. After a game, he always lingered for nearly an hour in the locker room showers, and it always reeked of fish when he was done. No one but I knew his true nature, and even I admit that he could’ve been the greatest professional player in history if circumstances hadn’t changed.
We had all just graduated high school when it happened. Charlie had won a scholarship to USA and I was going to follow him against my father’s wishes. If my father had had his way, I would’ve gone to MIT. My grades were good enough, but I had to become a Jaguar with Charlie. My entire life had become a sad masquerade of lies and sneaking out late to follow him, trying to find some piece of solid evidence that he was a giant squid. I could never get past the dogs that guarded his trailer park’s meth industry. They always surrounded his darkened trailer, drooling. I was relentless in my attempts, though, and I grew strong and agile in both mind and body. My perceptions were constantly heightened. Madness and paranoia were my only companions. I could tell no one of my suspicions; I had not gathered enough evidence to convince even myself that I was not insane. But I did not let madness stop me; I knew that one day he would slip up and I would be vindicated. I became Charlie’s best friend. He told me all his secrets, or what he said were all his secrets, but he would never invite me to his place, nor would he accept an invitation to mine.
Before we left for Alabama, though, Charlie and I went on a road trip with a couple other members of the football team: Chris Fisher, a line backer, and the quarterback, Josh White. Josh, Chris, and I had all brought our girlfriends: Kristi Miller, Sarah Acton, and Anna Lane, respectively. Charlie never had a girlfriend and was the constant source of jokes in that regard. All of Freshman year was a laugh riot from the sole incident of his spectacular failure in asking out Danielle Wheaton. The sheer scandal of Junior year saw poor Nancy Stoker totally ostracized when she supposedly kissed him after prom. The truth was he had tried to kiss her but she slapped him and splashed the slimy membranous liquid that constantly wets his skin onto her face. I saw this through an air vent, and with that I will never speak of Junior prom again.
Anyway, Chris, Kristi, Josh, Sarah, Anna, Charlie, and myself were all packed into a seat-less blue Ford Econoline. Nearly seat-less, anyway; there was of course the driver and passenger seats, but the only other place to sit was a captain’s chair stolen from a junkyard and bolted through the thin metal floor to a piece of plywood underneath place in such a manner that it in no way interacted with the frame of the vehicle. The rest of us sat on the unfortunately shag carpeted floor. Beyond the inch deep wilderness rug and a cooler there were no other amenities or decorations. Like so many things in life, the fantasy of an airbrushed awesome party van was far removed from the affordable reality. It was hot, dank, and smelled of gasoline and fish, but we loved the thing. We called it the Thundertank.
Being the vehicle’s owner, Chris was driving, often drunk. We left Ohio in July and headed south to Tampa. Charlie seemed quite eager to get there. He told us his parents (whom none of us, including myself, had ever seen) took him there every year and he knew all the best spots to hang out and go swimming. The trip was slow, though. The Thundertank was a beast on gas and couldn’t push more than 50 on the highway. No one could operate the temperamental vehicle other than Chris, who was a bit of a whiner when it came to a lack of food or drink or restroom breaks. So our road trip became more of a tour of the Walmarts of Appalachia. Charlie was noticeably agitated.
We stopped in Lenoir City, Tennessee on the third day and parked in the Walmart parking lot to spend the night. Josh, Chris, Sarah, and Kristie all packed together in shared sleeping bags up near the cargo door, while Anna and I shared a blanket in back beside Charlie. We had all been drinking that night and were pretty well passed out, except me. I never slept anymore, especially there, then, in the back of that van, with Charlie, whose nocturnal activities had thus far been elusive to me. The previous two nights had been a bust; we’d stayed in motels in separate rooms and I had obligations to keep up appearances with Anna. In another life, perhaps I could’ve truly cared for her, but Charlie. Charlie. Charlie was my sole obsession, and I weep today for my false passion with Anna.
That night, though, we had all decided to camp out in the van and save our dwindling money supply until we reached Florida. Charlie had insisted we find a motel, even though he’d been camping out in the van the whole time anyway. With that I won the debate, and at last my opportunity had arrived.
As the others slept, I lay still with my eyes closed but my ears absorbing every sound. Charlie was restless, I could hear the squishing sound he made as he turned this way and that. He stopped for a moment and lay silent, do doubt checking to see if we were all still asleep. I barely breathed. I heard him squish quietly to his feet and unlatch the back door. He stepped outside and carefully pushed it shut.
He would not escape that easily. I skipped a beat, opened an eye, then quickly, silently, and with precise movements slipped away from Anna’s embrace, landed a single toe between Josh and Chris, and leapt into the driver’s seat. Checking the mirrors, I could see Charlie walking to the edge of the parking lot in nothing but his forest green underwear leaving wet footprints behind. His head seemed to swell and he stopped for a moment to hold it, as if trying to reposition a balanced bowling ball. I rolled down the window and jumped out, landing noiselessly. I ran diagonally to the semi truck parked nearby and made my way around it unnoticed. I waited and watched as he headed towards the empty highway.
I had to follow him, but there was no more cover and the lights of the parking lot eliminated all shadows. I stepped out from behind the truck. I had to walk silently behind him and make sure I could see him when he crossed the darkness of the highway into the field and then the woods beyond. He stopped for a moment again to hold back the swelling of his head, but I made one step forward. He turned and saw me! He let out a horrible shrieking sound and blasted the parking lot with a jet of black ink tearing right out of his devastated underwear. He ran and I followed, taking the long way around the foul oil slick.
He was demonstrating speed I had never before seen in him. He ran as if he had six legs. His stride became longer, and longer, and impossibly longer. He practically leaped across the highway in two or three steps and into the field on the other side. I pushed myself hard to keep up. As I crossed into the field, he had already reached the woods. I could hear the tearing of branches and the cracking of trees. I turned south hoping to cut him off, knowing his only possible destination would be the Tennessee River.
I kept a grueling pace, vaulting over logs and tearing through brambles. I reached the small creek than ran through those woods, and it was evident that he had beaten me to this path. He must’ve returned to his full size by then. Sticks and branches twelve feet above me were snapped and broken. A tire swing floated mournfully beside its broken leafy branch. The muddy banks of the creek were lacerated on both sides as if whipped by thirty-foot anacondas. I kept to the sides as much as I could, crossing the water only when I had to. It was at the most violent five miles I’ve ever run.
I eventually emerged across the street from a shopping center, where a light night driver sat waiting for a red light. In front of his car was a trail of sloppy wet tentacle prints still slick with mud and ink. I ran across the street and crossed his path just as the light had turned green and he started to move. He stopped again suddenly and honked and yelled, but I did not stop or turn back. I ran on towards the river.
But Charlie was gone. The night was too dark, the clouds obscured the moon, and the still, black water revealed nothing in the reflections of distant streetlights. I stopped and waited there at the banks of the Tennessee River for hours, watching, listening, waiting for something, anything; some sign that Charlie was out there. I jumped at the slightest ripple, but there was nothing.
Daylight came all too soon. The others found me standing by the river. They were worried and, asked me where Charlie was. How could I tell them? Would they have believed me? With Charlie gone, I’d lost six years of my life, my sanity, and my soul. What could I say?
“The damn squid got away.”