Welcome back to Words, Pauses, Noises. This week we have an exciting short story from United States Navy veteran and writer, Thomas McDade. The style of this piece keeps the reader in the moment, seeing things as the protagonist sees them as the events unfold.
After exiting the cab, I cautiously walked the half-mile or so, the words from the Boss’s letter crossing my mind like the old Times Square news ticker. “Clint is in bad trouble. He’s in a cellar, 22 Hargrove Street. It’s the sticks.” Step by step instructions followed, ending with: “There will be help.” Two sets of keys were enclosed, a house key and an odd looking one, reminded me of a skeleton key to my grandmother’s old house. A rabbit hobbling across my path scared hell out of me. Well, least it wasn’t a black cat. All of a sudden, I walked taller, increased my pace, hands in tight fists. I felt like a soldier on a WWII recruiting poster. I couldn’t imagine Clint screwing up. “Clint zigs when he should zig, zags when he should zag,” the Boss always said before warning us about keeping a sensible distance from clients, physically and emotionally.
I slowly walked up the four creaky steps. A breeze squeaked the glider. A squirrel leapt off. I didn’t flinch. The key could have used a shot of 3-1 Oil. I opened the door without a sound, switched on the flashlight and shaded it with my free hand. A man was sitting on the easy chair, calico cat in his lap, dim lamp on a small table. According to the Boss’s note, the guy had been drugged at the VFW. I could hear him breathing. He had grey hair and long sideburns. The cat jumped to the floor. Sleeper stirred. I froze as if standing at attention, a general inspecting me. The cellar door was warped, some finessing required. A silver horseshoe fell off. I caught it with my foot and took a deep, deep breath while replacing it. The cat sat up tall a couple of feet away, observing. I shut the door, using as much pressure as I could because of the warp, then I started down the stairs. My beam found plenty of objects to foil an intruder on either side of each step: three of four cowbells, containers of this and that. I half expected to find absolutely nothing, all a prank. Tools, pieces of old furniture, paint cans, and a roll of insulation filled the space like any other cellar but for the cage, about six feet high by seven or eight feet long and wide. Weld marks spotted the bars. Sleeper must have brought in the metal, built it in place. He never could have gotten it through the door and that was the only entry as far as I could see. The two windows had sheet aluminum where glass should be. Clint was slumped in a cage corner. I saw a light switch, flicked it, high noon. I clipped my flashlight to a belt hoop. A couple of five-gallon pails beside him must have been his toilets judging from the stench. A tray like what I ate off of in my merchant marine days was in the middle of the floor, full of moldy spaghetti. Syringes sat on a one-by-ten two-foot board with prescription looking bottles and foil packets. No chains on Clint. The key wasn’t a snug fit and took some trial and error to open. He looked like a werewolf. I could see needle marks in his arms. A tattoo: “Diana” on a banner across a heart looked sliced with a razor blade in an attempt to scab over her name I guessed, Christ almighty. Clint wore a sleeveless t-shirt and Bermuda shorts, probably had pneumonia. I shook him. He looked up, goofy grin. Swinging him around, I got my hands under his armpits, dragged him out. I worked his dead weight up against the bars. He was breathing heavily. I tried not to; the poor guy stunk. I got him walking a few feet, his arm around my shoulder, mine across his back as Sleeper nearly stumbled down the stairs. He was waving a pistol. “Drop him, or I’ll kill you both!” I eased Clint down. “Say your prayers and out loud,” Sleeper demanded.
“Now take it easy,” I cautioned.
“You’ll take a bullet easier.” An 8X10 color photo safety was pinned to his khaki army shirt. Pretty smiling face, long black hair, looked like a blown up yearbook photo. I started the slowest “Lord’s Prayer” in history, pounding heart a distracting choir. Close to done, I tried to recall the Protestant ending in case he wasn’t keen on Catholics, as if it would matter! As I found the first words, “For thine is the kingdom.” I spotted a kid who couldn’t be more than twelve or thirteen creeping from under the stairs on all fours. The Boss was recruiting them young. “The power and the glory,” left my lips.
“Hurry up or I’ll blast the Amen for you,” yelled Sleeper, straightening his arm for better aim. “Diana, oh my Diana,” he moaned, close to tears. The kid poised himself like a stalking cat that cornered its prey behind Sleeper. He gritted his glitzy braced teeth and widened his eyes as if begging me to do something to make Sleeper take a step back.
Suddenly, the jump pin on his shirt above the photo magnified a hundred times. I’d seen a WWII movie on TV just last week, soldiers shouting “Geronimo” before jumping from their plane. I screamed it. Sleeper jerked back and toppled over the kid. He got off two shots into the ceiling. He was out cold, motionless. I hoped to hell he wasn’t dead. The kid stood, grabbed the gun and shoved it into his belt.
“Whoever you are, you are my hero, Lone Ranger and Superman combined,” I blurted.
“Batman,” he corrected.
It was a chore getting Clint up the stairs. I don’t think I could have done it alone. At the top, I nearly tripped over calico. Opening the front door, I neatly blocked his exit with my foot. We sat Clint on the glider. The kid asked for my flashlight, signaled an SOS into the trees. A pickup truck slowly approached. Clint was able to get in on his own. “I’ll take the keys,” said the kid. I happily complied. “All I needed was a window and these,” he added, lifting both arms and flexing like Charles Atlas. We shook hands, wished each other luck. He spun the pistol on his finger then ran off. The driver signaled me to jump into the truck bed.
Clint was dropped off at a storefront with a sign that read “Jesus Hates Heroin.” It was crazy, a world class pusher ending up in such a place. I cringed, imagining the Sleeper regularly injecting him, had to be that way. Was Diana his daughter, an overdose victim? I jumped out of the pickup at a gas station that doubled as a taxi stand, thought about running away: Canada, Mexico. A silver limo appeared. The kid jumped out, held the door open for me. Scratching my pulsing head, I got in. The woman on Sleeper’s shirt was sitting on the other end of the seat, smiling. Two tourniquets and syringes sat neatly on a small console that separated us.
Diana switched on a light, started the procedure. “Clint” was tattooed on her bicep. “You are number one now,” said the driver. The voice belonged to the Boss and cut across my being like a straight razor.
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