Skeletons And Keys


A Wickedly Humorous Novel
Of Love, Tragedy, Betrayal, And Revenge



by Steve Beigel
Copyright © 2008–2009 by Steve Beigel
All Rights Reserved
steve@blueberrysoftware.com



The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Joanna are now all that remain
  – Bob Dylan, Visions of Joanna

 

Table Of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten


Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty


Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One



Chapter One



The door to the gun shop jingled when I opened it.

Or maybe it was a tinkle. I hadn't take bell chimes in school. Tweed probably had, that asshole. He'd probably say it tintinnabulated. It's tolling for you, Tweed, that's all I can say.

The guy sitting behind the counter looked up and eyeballed me. He closed his eyes and sighed, then got up and leaned on the counter. He was wearing a white T-shirt with some sort of death message on it, Levi vest, jeans, wide leather belt, long dirty hair, big hairy arms.

"Hi," I said.

He gave me a bored nod.

"Nice shop. Lot of guns in here."

"That's what we sell. We got everything."

"I was thinking of buying one."

"I'd guess that's why you're here. What are you looking for?"

"I'm not sure. This is my first time."

"No kidding. What do you need it for? Hunting?"

"No. Protection, I guess. My neighborhood is making me nervous."

"Well, a shotgun is pretty effective. Especially for a first-timer. You don't have to worry about aiming it. General area will do the trick."

"Sounds good, but I don't think that would work. If I had to use it on a burglar or something, it would probably mess things up too much. I'd lose my cleaning deposit."

"Right. Hand gun, then."

"Yeah. I think so."

"Okay. Let's take a little tour."

It was amazing how many different types of guns there were. And you could just buy one if you wanted. Like Mom had always reminded me, it was America, son. Wise up.

Unlike people who sold any one of two trillion types of worthless or disgusting commodities, this guy loved his goods. Fondled them, if you wanted to get psychological headed about it. Freud skulled.

There was an awesome amount of choices and he seemed to know everything about each of one of them, speaking in a foreign language about all of them. Millimeters, recoils, grains, takedown pins, cam slots, compressed recoils, locking lugs, blowback vs locked-breech, square-bar steel, rimlock, SAAMI drop-testing. Even bullets had their own exotic dictionary of decimal denominations under 1.000. None of the decimals was bigger than one. Small was big. .50 was huge. A real hole maker.

I was familiar with the terms barrel, bullet, chamber, and trigger. And the thing that stuck up for aiming purposes, whatever it was called. I knew about the Walthers from reading spy books. The revolvers from cowboy movies. The mammoth Clint Eastwood model was definitely impressive. Unlike the movie stars, who were always smaller in real life than they looked on the screen, this gun was bigger when you saw it up close. Heavy, too.

"You like that puppy, don't you," he said, watching me point it around the room.

"It's definitely a pistol. No doubt about that."

I wondered how many guys he had killed. There was always a back room in these types of shops. Where the stolen Army bazookas were stored. Only guys who knew inside slaughter talk could hint their way in there for a looksee.

"I own one of them myself. It scares people so much you don't have to actually shoot them. Might have to change their diapers, though."

That cracked him up. Somehow, he didn't look like the diaper changing type, though. I wouldn't want him changing mine, that's for sure. It was a scarier thought than having my guts shot out.

"This gun's a dual purpose weapon. Best gun in the world for pistol whipping some schnook upside the head. A real brain rattler."

"It's a real beauty, all right. But I think I want something a little smaller. My kid might have to use it, you know. If I'm not home or something. Too big for him."

A lie. I didn't have any kids.

He showed me some other guns. I kept shrinking down the size of them with one amazing pile of horsecrap excuse after another.

Finally, he said, "You want a derringer?"

The way he said it made me suspect what he really meant was "We don't sell pea shooters here, lame guy. You want or gun or what?"

"Derringer huh." I made a mulling it over face. "Yeah. That sounds pretty good. I always wanted one of those."

"Right," he said. "Well, you don't look like a handbag guy, if you know what I mean. It's a good gun for a crooked poker table or suicide. Backup pistol from a leg holster. You have to be real close to be effective. Know what I mean?"

"You're saying you have to stick it in some guy's ear. Right?"

"Pretty much. Anything past ten feet wouldn't be a kill shot unless you were damn lucky."

"You have one of them?"

"Nope. Nobody carries them anymore."

"Why not?"

He reached into a display case and produced a tiny little thing that was smaller than a plastic water pistol.

"Got better stuff now. This is a Kel-Tec P-32 semi-automatic. It's 5.07 inches long, 3.5 inches tall, and .75 inches wide. Weighs 6.6 ounces empty and 9.4 loaded. Seven cartridge magazine. Very nice little piece. All edges rounded and smoothed so it don't get snagged on your clothing upon extraction."

Extraction. Hmm. I guess they didn't say draw anymore. No wonder they stopped making westerns. The dialogue wouldn't work any more. Two guys facing each other down on a dusty street under a digital display tower clock and one of them spitting out, "Extract, you society bottom feeder!"

He handed it to me. It weighed about as much as a cube of butter and was smaller than my hand. Not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Unbelievable.

"This is perfect," I said and handed it back to him. "I'll take it. And one of those ankle holsters you mentioned, if you have one."

After the mandatory ten day wait, I picked it up and took it home. It was as easy as buying a suit on layaway. The gun dealer didn't care if I was going to kill myself or my wife or the dog. Well, he wouldn't like the dog. That would steam him. All big burly guys who shot hell out of things always had big burly dogs who were their best friends. Rex or Sam or Meat. Never Patrick or Sidney.

All very Second Amendment. None of his business.

But the Derringer Kid was now armed and dangerous.

# # #

I had learned about the Honorable P. William Gourd's nine am Saturday morning golfing habit from an article about him on the Internet. The whole world was becoming an open book. You could read a blog from a rice farmer in northeast China about his battle with acne, if you wanted.

Today was the third time I had driven all the way down the California road map from Sonoma County, where I lived, to Oakland, where he did, trying to get the asshole kidnapped so I could, I guess, sort of, kill him. It was about an hour and a half journey.

I'd park my trusty old 1986 Nissan truck at the Oakland airport, take the airport shuttle to the Bart train station, ride it to the Rockridge exit, and hike to the Claremont Country Club. There was no way to trace my movements. No cabs, phone calls, nothing. I was a clever little boy. I had thought this all out. More or less. Over a six pack one night, actually.

I'd even bought some golfing togs to blend in at the golf course while I lurked around waiting for Gourd's black Cadillac to show up. A white polo shirt with a tiny alligator over the pocket. Tan slacks. A visor with Arnold Palmer written on the band over the bill. White shoes, even. Only the pistol in the leg holster was not standard golf tog attire. To my knowledge.

It was a beautiful course, no doubt about it. Too beautiful. It was the kind of cathedral type joint where they'd send in the marines if you forgot to rake the sand trap properly after you'd flogged your ball out of it.

But as soon as Gourd would show up, so would two or three other morons who would park right next to him. By the time I got back home, a whole day had been wasted and I was in a crappy mood. It was the unglamorous side of being a bad guy.

Today, finally, he parked off by himself and nobody was around.

I extracted my pistol and walked over to his car while he climbed laboriously out of it. He had to grab the top of the door frame to help lift himself up from the driver's seat.

He closed the door and turned around. He had not seen me come up behind him and was startled to find me suddenly there in his way. Perhaps the pistol pointing at his nose contributed to his surprise.

Perhaps not. He recovered his poise and said, "What do you have there, son. Is that a toy gun?"

He thought this was a prank. He was smiling with an old man's benign world weariness. His gray hair was thinned out to strands, combed ridiculously from one ear to the other. His red-hued face was round and puffy with hanging jowls that flopped around when he moved his head. His nose was a swollen blob. His eyes were watery and a deadened gray.

"This ain't no toy old man," I said.

He thought that was funny and laughed at me. Shit. What did I have to do? Blow his ear off to convince him?

I punched him with the jargon. "This a Kel-Tec P-32 semi-automatic with a seven round magazine. It'll make permanent holes in your head quick as a blink."

His face sobered up immediately, going from mirth to concern to confusion.

"What's this all about?"

"Turn around and put your hands behind your back."

He looked around for help. There was none. He tried bluster.

"What if I say no? Go to hell. You must be crazy to think you can shoot me here."

"Like I said, this is a quiet gun. Nobody will hear a thing. I won't get what I want, but you'll be dead on the asphalt."

"You didn't say it was quiet."

"I didn't?"

"No."

"Okay. It is. Now turn around."

He saw a ray of hope. That I wanted something other than just killing him. He couldn't resist giving me a disdainful look, but he turned around anyway and put his hands behind his back.

I took the car keys he was still holding and cuffed his hands together with some three dollar handcuffs I'd bought at Toys R Us. He had a cell phone hooked on his belt and I took that, too. Then I marched him around to the back of the car and opened the trunk.

"Get in," I said. "Face down."

"I can't. My hands are tied."

"They're cuffed."

I put my hand on his back and shoved him in. It knocked his face on the floor and he whimpered, slobbering the carpet fibers with DNA drool.

His top half was in, but his belly was on the bumper and his legs were dangling out. Too much lobster for lunch. I put the gun in my pocket and wrestled him inside. He didn't fit lengthwise and I had to curl him on his side. I pulled a strip of duct tape off my wrist, where I'd stored it earlier, and pasted it over his mouth.

I gave him a warning. "You make any noise, and I'll douse you with gasoline and toss in a match."

Another lie. They were all over the place once you started telling them. I didn't have a match. All I had was a lighter. There's no way I would waste a lighter on him. I didn't have any gas, either. Except in my intestines. But that was for humor, not fires. My kind of humor, anyway. Some people didn't see any humor in intestine gas. Just the opposite. I could never figure out why.

I slammed the trunk closed, got in the Caddie, and drove out of the parking lot. No one had noticed a thing. The weakest part of my plot had succeeded. The rest would be easy.

Nice car. It felt like floating a boat across a calm lake. Automatic everything. Lush interior. A half empty bottle of Perrier in the coffee cup holder. Vacuum streaks on the seats. No dust on the windshield. Glove compartment with a car manual, a registration certificate, and a wallet. What a laugh. He'd purposefully left his wallet behind so he could stiff somebody for drinks at the nineteenth hole. Typical rich guy trick.

And the car manual. Give me a break. Gourd wouldn't even open the hood and look at the engine without a 911 call. He was definitely a peek over the mechanic's shoulder type of guy. If that.

The ash tray was in pristine condition. I couldn't help myself. A feeling of naughty little brat invaded me and I lit a cigarette so it would stink up the upholstery and I could grind it out in the ashtray when I was done. I couldn't leave the butt there, of course. They'd do forensic work on it. All they'd know was a smoker had done it. That was safe, wasn't it? Was there a database of known smokers out there hidden in an FBI basement? The FBI sure must have some huge basements. Someday a whole state would collapse because a basement got too big and the roof fell in.

I got on the freeway and drove north up Interstate 80, past Berkeley and Richmond and the light years of culture that separated these two cities, the ivory tower and the mean streets, side by side.

It was always that way in cities. They never gradually went from one level of status down to the next and on out to the bottom status. It didn't work. The high status had to steal from the low status and the low status had to steal back from the high status. They needed to be neighbors or nothing would work. You had to be able to view the other side to point out sarcastic value judgments.

It was Saturday morning and the traffic was light. All the weekend vacationers had left on Friday night and the commuters were recovering from hangovers. I threw the big baby into Cruise Control and set it for the speed limit.

Past Richmond and on up across the Carquinez Bridge through Vacaville and east to Sacramento and then the long climb up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Donner Pass, before descending into Reno.

East of Reno, I filled up the gas tank and took Highway 447 north to my destination, deep in the middle of total desert nowhere.

# # #

I opened the trunk and said, "Get out."

Gourd just looked up at me. Cold, hate-filled eyes. He didn't even try to move. Sweat beads covered his face. He had just spent six hours cramped up in an oven that bounced around whenever I drove over a bump or hit the brakes too hard. Especially the last part of the journey, out into the baking hot desert where no road existed. Just rocks and ruts, thumping him around mercilessly.

I smiled at him. "You'd like to pound your gavel and send me to jail, right Gordo? Give me the old one way ticket."

No response. His gut rumbled.

"Ah, the big dog's gotta eat. Sorry. Not today."

No response. Old guys knew how to spoil your fun.

He was pretty old, it was true. Probably seventy or more. I guess it wasn't very nice of me to treat the aged so harshly. Too bad he deserved it. In my opinion, anyway.

"Suit yourself," I said, shrugging.

I had parked near a small outcropping of rocks. There was nothing for miles around but scrub brush and cracked dirt. And small mean animals and bugs with names you insulted people with. Snake in the grass. Toad mouth. Maggot face. Scorpion butt. Beetle head. Lizard breath. Gila Monster teeth.

I'd bought some beer back at the gas station and I took a bottle over to the rocks and sat down to wait.

It didn't take long. Gourd was an evil old fart, but he wasn't stupid. He could die in the trunk or find a way to get out. I felt like a mean little kid watching a turtle try to get off his back and land on his feet, more curious than concerned.

He wriggled around till he was on his back. Then wriggled some more and got his legs out. Next he laid back and used his shoulders to push himself forward inch by inch. Finally, he got his butt wedged up against the frame of the trunk, rocked his legs back and forth for momentum, and heaved himself upward.

It didn't work. He flopped back down and lay there catching his breath. I could see his stomach heaving up and down. The indignity of it all.

He rolled over on his stomach. Now he was getting it. He wriggled forward in a side to side motion, using his fat rolls like oars, squooging himself forward till his feet reached the ground and he could simply stand up.

I clapped my hands. "Bravo."

He sat on the bumper, breathing heavily and looking around at the vast emptiness surrounding him. He saw where I was and walked over to the rocks and sat down. His shoulders slumped wearily.

I reached over and ripped the duct tape off his mouth.

"Ouch!" he bawled, as the tape tore loose.

I smiled at him. "That hurt a bit?" I asked.

He licked his lips and let out a big sigh. "Now what, genius?" he asked, with as much scorn as he could muster.

I took a swig of beer and belched, knowing it would both offend him and confirm his opinion of my low class, uncouth status.

"Nothing," I said.

"What do you mean, nothing. You dragged me out here for some reason."

"That's true."

"Then get to it. And take these damn cuffs off."

"No. I think not."

"Do you have any idea who I am?"

"I think so. Otherwise I've wasted my time."

"I'm P. William Gourd. Senior Judge of the Northern District of California in Oakland. You are in serious trouble young man."

"I'm not young. I'm fifty."

"You're still in serious trouble. Kidnapping is a felony. A federal offense. You could get life in prison for this."

"You're scaring me, judge. I'm sweating like a pig. Wait. It's hot out here, isn't it. Shit. That's why I'm sweating. Maybe you don't scare me, after all. Let's see. Life. When does that damn thing start? At fifty, I must have used most of it up already, wouldn't you say? So life is really only a ten or twenty year deal. Give or take my health."

"That's a long time behind bars. You've never been in prison, obviously."

"Let's not worry about me right now. Okay? I'll worry about me later. Let's worry about you. That's a lot more fun."

"What in hell do you want? Money, I suppose. I've got money."

I played along. "Good. I was hoping you might. I bet you're in the upper class even. You own a yacht?"

"You can't have my boat."

"I might want it, though. I'm seriously thinking about that."

"It's mine. I earned it. You can't have it. You can have some money, but that's all. How much do you want?"

"How much does a yacht cost?"

"Stop fixating on a boat. It's out of your league. You can't have mine and you can't buy one. Money is all you can afford."

"You got one. Why can't I get one?"

"I'm me. You're you. Get a clue. You're a stupid crook."

"You don't have to call me names. It's not polite."

"What would you know about polite. You think it's polite to kidnap somebody and put him in a trunk for six hours? It was hard to breathe in there."

"I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd want to come of your own volition."

"How insightful. You're a real deep thinker."

I imagined a guy up in my brain digging a hole. A real deep one. Way down there where Super Thoughtsville was. The place where fleeting glimpses lived that were just out of reach all the time.

I swallowed some beer. I'd gotten drunk in a lot of places, but never in the middle of the desert. A lizard poked his head out from under a rock and nosed it around. Then he scurried over to another rock and disappeared under it. Reptile jogging. Staying in shape so a bigger reptile could have a nice meal. Probably a teenager reptile. The smart scale heads just stayed under the rock and cursed God.

Gourd was giving me the serious eyeball. I thought maybe he was bucking up to beg for a drink. No such luck.

"You look vaguely familiar," he said. "Have we met before?"

I nodded.

"In my court room?"

I nodded.

He reached into his head and thrashed around, throwing old papers and photos helter-skelter in a frantic search through his memory drawers, searching for me. Finally, he found what he was looking for.

"Monona," he said. "Monona vs Tweed."

"Bingo, your royal judgeship."

"Monona vs Tweed," he mumbled, laying the case out on his desk for review. His forehead wrinkled in puzzlement.

"That case was trivial. Hardly worth the court's time. I only put it on my calendar for a break between serious cases."

"Court lite, eh? How generous of you to throw us a few of your precious minutes."

He caught himself smiling at the memory. "That's what this is all about?" he asked. "You and your little business."

"I'm afraid so."

"You can't be serious. Your beef should be with Tweed."

"He's on my list, too."

"There's a list? Over this partnership squabble case? Absurd. Who else is on the list?"

"The Receiver you appointed. Weasley."

"Anyone else? The court reporter, perhaps?"

I ignored the sarcasm. "No. Just the three of you. For now."

"Let me get this straight. Help me if I struggle to grasp it all. You are going to kidnap three people, risk life imprisonment, all because you're upset with how the trial worked out. My God, you're insane."

"It's a possibility."

"I might be able to understand this if someone's life was at risk. But you and Tweed just had a two-bit worthless business hardly worth fighting over."

"It was worth it to me. Cost me a lot of money. Sorry it bored you. I noticed you nodding off half the time."

"I wasn't nodding off. I was pondering."

"You were snoring. It's in the transcripts."

"Nonsense. You bought the transcripts? What for?"

"Page thirty-two. Line four. Court's response. 'Zzzzzzzzzz'."

"Zizz? What the hell is that?"

"Imagine a big log in the forest. A lumberjack. Sawing and sawing and sawing. Little Zs falling off the saw and floating into the air."

"Nonsense. There's no Zees in there."

"There should have been. How else could you miss that traitorous, lying scumbag Tweed committing perjury twice. His wife, too."

"I heard them. Everybody lies in civil court. Perjury only counts in criminal court."

"I didn't lie."

"You're a fool."

"Why are we all in there swearing to tell the truth then, if it doesn't mean anything?"

"It's a formality. Grow up. I rule on the evidence. The evidence doesn't lie. You tried to prove he stole the business. You didn't prove it."

"Did he steal the website from me? Did he steal all the money? All the clients? All my source code?"

"There's no such thing as stealing in a partnership. Partnerships exist solely upon the good faith each partner has in the other. Neither partner has to do anything to fulfill his role in the partnership. Unless there is a written agreement between the partners. You and Tweed had no written agreement. The only recourse is dissolution."

"Why did you take the case then?"

"The source code. You claimed you owned it, not the partnership."

"I wrote all of it. Tweed just did sales. He had no right to use my code in a separate business."

"You didn't prove you owned it."

"The copyrights were mine. And I wrote all of it. He admitted that was true. You violated federal copyright law."

"I make the law in my court."

"You violated state law, too. In a partnership dissolution, one of the partners is selected to perform the winding up of all the business."

"I gave you the ownership and the wind up responsibility."

"The winder upper is supposed to get paid for his work. You didn't do that. You made me do it and yet gave Tweed half the revenue. I had all the expenses, too. He had none. Nice retirement package for a liar and a thief."

"You got ownership of the source code. You got to continue on in business. The ability to get new clients."

"Not with half the money and all the expenses of the old business. I was the programmer. I had no sales experience. How could I get new business?"

"That's your problem."

"It's yours now."

"You're pathetic. You people all expect the justice system to give you what you can't get on your own."

"You people? What people is that?"

"Losers. Look in the mirror."

I finished my beer and fetched another. Gourd stared at the ground, his chin resting on his chest. Neither of us spoke for awhile.

The sun was past its zenith and heading for the horizon, but it was still hot enough to see heat waves rising from the ground in the distance. And a lake way, way out there that only existed in the minds of scraggly bearded old guys crawling around dying of thirst. Physics could be cruel. Or was it chemistry. Or biology. I wasn't any good at any of them. Science and my brain were like peas with no pod.

At last, Gourd lifted his head. He looked tired. "Let's get this over with. How much money do you want?"

I laughed. "Your senility is showing. You should know by now I didn't bring you out here for money. I don't give a shit about your damn money."

"I'm not senile."

"Then I guess you're just plain stupid."

He didn't say anything. I watched him get a clue that he was a dead man. I gave him all the time he wanted. It was the moment I had been waiting for. I wanted to see him wrap up his life when he should have been sitting in the nineteenth hole at the golf course. Sucking down a beer with his buddies and talking about the riff raffs of life like me.

Teresa was dead. And he played a big part in her dying. Tweed was the main killer, but Gourd and Weasley had stuck in the knife, too. If anyone of the three had not done what they did, she would still be alive.

He looked around at the sky, probably wishing I had picked a more scenic place to kill him. Maybe on his yacht, anchored somewhere in a nice tropical cove. Forested hillsides and spacious beaches. Befitting his exalted journey in life. He was a real somebody. Yes sirree. A real somebody.

A cloud passed over his face. God, was he going to miss himself.

Finally, he got around to looking at me. Like he'd never seen me before. His eyebrows did some knitting. What sense did I make in his life? A nobody. A fucking nobody. How could this possibly happen?

I really got a bang out of being the last person he would ever see. I couldn't help smiling. I imagined all the people out there he had screwed over time. I tried to enjoy the moment for all of them, beaming little joy waves out of my head to mail across the ether to them. A guy he had sent to jail would get a license plate to make that read "FCK GORD" and have a good laugh. A skid row drunk he had ruined financially would find a twenty in a dumpster underneath a rotten gourd and have a good laugh.

It was comical. Two guys in golf togs sitting in the middle of the desert with dueling imaginations.

Finally, he gave it up.

"I don't suppose I can dissuade you from this lunacy," he said.

"No, I don't suppose you can. All the plaintiffs and defendants you've screwed over the years. Did you enjoy it enough? Was it worth it? Would you do it all over again, knowing it would turn out this way?"

He sighed and smiled. "You're a loser, Monona. You'll never be anything else but a loser."

I finished my beer and stood up. "Time to go. Any last words?" He closed his eyes and lowered his head, waiting for a bullet in the brain.

"I'm not going to shoot you, Gourd. Mother Nature will deal with you."

His head came up, eyes wide open. All his peace gone in a heartbeat. "You're just going to leave me here?"

"I'm afraid so. Robert Frost wrote a poem once about whether fire or ice was the most preferable form of destruction. You'll get a chance to form a learned opinion out here. The heat of the day is matched by the cold of the night."

"No! Please! Just shoot me!"

"So long, P. William Gourd. Your case is closed."






Chapter Two



It was a long drive home. Zombie driving. Thoughts wandering in all directions. Steering wheel butt.

One bastard down and two to go.

I ran Gourd's car through a car wash in Reno, to get the desert dust off. I gave it the vacuum cleaner treatment, also. I left my cigarette ashes in the ash tray, though. I decided I might want a signature type of thing to drive cops nuts with. Ashtray Killer Strikes Again.

Reno was the kind of place you never went to unless you were old and corny or on your way some place else. Las Vegas got all the action. Lake Tahoe had all the beauty. It was only a half hour away, with Nevada on one side of town and California on the other. Why would anyone want Reno? The name even sounded bad. Like something involving used cars or rectal rearrangement.

I was tired and so was the sun. I got on the freeway and chased it west back to the Oakland airport to retrieve my truck. The road was pitted all to hell from the tire chains of winter and made a sound track of a migraine headache all the way to somewhere east of Auburn, below the snow line.

By then, the stars had come out but I couldn't see them. Nobody could any more, unless you lived somewhere where nobody else lived or were lying on a sidewalk with a lump on your head. Stars had disappeared into assumptions you could make if you were in a mood for metaphors. The world refused to turn off its lights at night. You could only see one or two of them now, instead of the sixteen zillion gabillion hexatrillion of them that were out there.

Stars used to shoot all the time, too. Even the astronomers hadn't yet figured out where they shot to. Or maybe they had. I never read the magazines where they would talk about it. After you got out of school, you didn't have to educate yourself all the time any more. All you needed were good, strong, baseless opinions. The stronger the better.

Coming over the last hill out of Auburn was like coming out at the top of the Matterhorn at Disneyland, but not as much fun. The lights of Sacramento and the surrounding valley towns suddenly splashed out in all directions below you. Thousands of joys and sorrows cramped up in a huge ooze of anonymous, pervasive insecurity.

I left Gourd's car at the Oakland airport in the long term parking area. I locked it and tossed the keys in a trash can.

I drove through Vallejo for the fourth time today and turned west on Highway 37, a two lane stretch of road across the top of San Pablo Bay popularly known as Blood Alley. Before the concrete divider was installed, seventy mile an hour head-on collisions occurred regularly. A real gore feast.

There was a farm truck with a load of hay, crawling along at forty miles an hour in front of me. The hay kept flying off the back like it was shedding hair. Some of it stuck in the windshield wipers. Very annoying. I couldn't get them off since my wiper blades were worn down to the nub and scratched the windshield if I used them.

But I was in no hurry.

Gourd was out in the desert, eyeballs jumping at every noise in the night, getting colder by the minute. Nothing to look forward to but an hour of warmth in the morning and an hour or two of cooling off in the evening. Hoping death would hurry up and arrive. I wondered if waiting for death was like trying to get to sleep when you couldn't. Am I dead yet? No. Shit. Close your eyes. Try again.

If he'd given his life a quick once over before I left him, he had a lot more time to pick through it now. Remembering the past as it oozed out his fingers.

Holy shit! I can't believe I actually just left him out there to die!

It was cruel of me, no doubt about it. Probably even sadistic. Someday I would have to pay for doing it. There was too much remnant religion and fear of karma in me to believe otherwise. The fires of eternity were burning through me as I drove.

Wait. It was the lit end of my cigarette burning a hole in my pants and searing into my butt flesh. It had fallen down between my legs. One of those cigarettes where the tobacco was packed too loose and the tip flipped off when you flicked the ash. Shit. I raised my butt and leaned it against the back of the seat and wiped around furiously underneath me on the seat. Sparks flew around right and left as I wiped with one hand and drove with the other, trying to stay on the road.

Fucking tobacco companies. It wasn't enough to kill us with lung cancer. They had to make loose, car wreck cigarettes on top of it.

Crisis averted. Back to dead Gourd musing. At least I could live knowing he had paid for his crimes. I wasn't comfortable leaving that up to the afterlife. I needed to see the justice happen in this life. Not that I didn't trust God to be fair and wring the gizzards out of the jerk, but, frankly, I didn't. One of those Little Faith O Ye-ers deals. He was a God of Love. He even loved Gourd. Too risky.

Killing him had worked already. I realized I no longer seethed with hating him. Probably wasn't even his fault. Just born cruel and mean. But that meant I wasn't my fault, either. Just a guy born without the ability to control his emotions when some absolute asshole had helped cause the death of his wife. Life could work for you if you twisted it around enough. Shrinks twisted it for a living. Why couldn't I?

At Sears Point Raceway, the road finally expanded into a two lane freeway and I left the hay truck in the dust. Napa County gave way to Sonoma County. Just over the hill at the county line was the ever present Clover Stornetta Milk billboard on the right side of the road.

Clover changed it regularly, unlike the billboards most companies put up that stayed the same till they were invisible and the paint peeled off. It was better than any Welcome to Our County sign.

The current Clover cleverness was their beloved cartoon cow, Clo, dancing divinely in a sequinned ballroom gown with a tuxedoed carton of milk dancing partner, while she sang "I'm in the Moooo for Love."

Me, too, Clo. But that swinging door to my heart was closed forever. Boarded up. Out of business.

Ten miles short of Novato, I turned off the freeway and took the country road north to Petaluma. It was a peaceful old two-lane road by day, meandering at the edge of the foothills on the bottom end of the mountain ranges that eventually covered the entire northern part of California. Redwood country. Loggers vs tree huggers vs marijuana growers. What a State. The road wended its way through cattle ranches and grape vineyards, with glimpses of the Petaluma River off to the west.

One area of it had some very tall trees with tops that leaned out over the road and formed an arbor like tunnel. Very postcard type of spot. The kind you put into jigsaw puzzles with leaves blowing around and a red farm house with a white pasture fence in the background. Once in a while one of the trees would lean over too far and fall on the road. They had a "Watch for Falling Trees" warning sign.

At night the road was just a quiet, dark and winding reverie, though. The trees whispered on me as I passed underneath. None of them fell, which I half expected to happen. They sounded like saxophones in a graveyard, drifting from tomb to tomb. My head was packed with death similes. The sound track of the road to hell.

At Petaluma, I caught 101 north to the legendary little town of Cotati, a '60s and '70s mecca for the North Bay music scene and the entire potpourri of hippie extravaganza. Before the fun ran out and the music died. It had since returned to being a yawn stop along the freeway. The park in the center of town still existed, but people took naps there now, not LSD.

Cotati was also the Gravenstein Highway exit ramp westward to my humble little home in a thirty-two foot trailer, located in a trailer park two miles west of Santa Rosa, at the eastern edge of Sebastopol.

Home sweet home. A dump. Where Teresa and I ended up after Gourd was through ruining our lives. Almost two years ago. Two long, long years in utter, utter agony.

Where she had died.

# # #

I was on my second cup of coffee when there was a knock at the door.

I opened it half expecting to see a cop full of questions, but it was only Frisbee. She lived in the trailer next to me, on the right. She stood there with an empty cup in her hand, beaming cheerfully as usual.

"Morning, Blue. Can I borrow some sugar?"

She had a good, throaty, quick laugh. Like a machine gun burst. And she was always perky and fidgety. It could be annoying if you were grumpy and sullen.

"C'mon in," I said.

My trailer rocked slightly as she climbed the steps and stood in the doorway waiting. Trailers always rocked when you moved around in them. It was like sea sickness. You had to get used to it. On the positive side, though, it made it hard for throat slitters to sneak up on you during the night.

I got the sugar and poured it into her cup.

There was a purple bruise on her forearm. Her boy friend Moose must have paid a visit while I was gone.

Trailer parks were like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Everybody was just Jim or Ed or Phyllis or Denise. Or Frisbee. No last names. Unless you put a homey shingle on your trailer that read something like "The Fleabiscuits." I'd known Frisbee for over a year and had no idea what her last name was. I didn't know her real first name, either. She said she didn't have one.

I knew about her life, though.

Frisbee was thirty-eight, with shoulder length red-brown hair and dark, darting, playful eyes. She was slim, trim, and mildly pretty, though her looks were weathered from a life of drugs and bad boy friends.

One of them had knocked out her teeth in a crank fury and she now wore dentures, though you didn't notice them unless, like she had once casually done, she popped her bottoms out into her hand with a hearty laugh, saying "Oops!" like it had happened accidentally. She loved to shock people. Especially about sex. She liked to drip it into her conversations anywhere she could.

Her sixteen year old son from one of the bad boy friends lived with her mother, a fairly well off alcoholic who had bought Frisbee the trailer she now called home. Frisbee and her mom didn't get along too well, evidently. Her kid was in and out of trouble regularly and showed up from time to time for a day or two of refuge.

All in all, I liked Frisbee. She was a cheerful survivor. A bona fide character. A fun type of neighbor. Her business card read: Fast Frisbee's Cleaning Services, which is how she made a marginal living.

"You look pretty cheery today, Blue," she said. "Almost happy. Have a little fun yesterday? Wink, wink."

Strange, but I did feel lighter. One less Gourd to carry around on my back, I guess.

"Don't I always look cheery, Frisbee?"

"No. Not particularly. Kind of gloomy most of the time."

"Really?"

"Definitely. Trust me."

I couldn't help smiling. If only she knew type of smile. I could see a whole future ahead of me, standing around shooting the shit with people who didn't know they were talking to a cold-blooded assassin. My little secret.

"You know, Blue, you ain't half bad looking for an old guy. When you're not dragging around dressed like a slob and all gloomy like, that is. A bit scarred up, but enough left to tell you'd been fairly handsome once. Course, that was a long, long, long time ago."

"You got a few tread marks yourself, Frisbo."

"I still got my boobies, though. Guys still want a handful."

"I never noticed."

"Right. If I was sitting at a table wearing a dress, you'd drop a fork on the floor so you could sneak a peek."

"I'm not that old. Fifty isn't nearly as old as it looked like when I was ten."

"It's old. Trust me."

"I'm actually only forty-nine."

"That's even older."

"Whatever you say, mom."

"Mom hell! You could be my daddy though."

"Only if my thing was working when I was twelve."

"Oh, it was, Blue. Those things get lethal earlier than you think."

I tried remembering when exactly was the first time I'd squirted anything out of there other than urine. I assumed I'd been fourteen or so. But thinking back, I wasn't really sure. Twelve? Sixth grade? Was I squirting then? I couldn't remember. How did she know, anyway? Girls knew everything. One more proof of it.

"You're not exactly cheering me up, Frisbee."

"Then how come you're smiling?"

"I'm being sociable."

"You never have before."

"I'm turning over a new leaf."

"Good. I'm having a barbecue tonight. For old Fred. He don't eat so well. Bad back and a sick dog. You want to join us?"

"No Moose man?" Moose was her boy friend, like I mentioned.

She curled her upper lip in disgust. "I'm through with that jerk."

"Right," I said.

"I mean it. He's history."

"Right."

It was a sentiment she expressed quite regularly. Moose had been history more often than new conspiracy solutions to President Kennedy's assassination. But Moose would be back tomorrow, stalking angrily to her trailer, deep inside himself wrestling mightily with the demons he could not shake free of.

He was much younger than Frisbee. If he didn't bang her off the walls all the time, I might have liked him. The police came regularly, which would now scare me when they did. Were they coming for me? He was always gone by the time they got there. She never pressed charges. The neighbors had stopped worrying about whether he was killing her or not.

Frisbee rattled off her laugh. "He can't come tonight. He's in jail."

"No kidding. Shit. What for?"

"Cops caught him stealing scrap off a construction site."

"Why the hell would he do that?"

"It's how he makes a living. Cashes it in at the Recycling station."

I couldn't help laughing.

"That's my Moose. Dumb shit. Guy can do anything. Handyman deluxe. Steals junk instead. What an idiot."

There was a pregnant moment where I resisted the urge to enthusiastically agree with her assessment. She smiled and said, "Thanks for the sugar, Blue," and pranced out the door laughing.

All my life I had wondered what it would feel like to kill someone. You couldn't watch TV or go to the movies without it crossing your mind. Cowboys did it for good and evil. Soldiers did it for country. Cops did it for protecting society. Assassins did it for money. Businessmen did it for greed. Lovers did it for jealousy. Prisons did it for punishment. Governments did it for power. Victims did it for self-defense. And some, like me, did it for revenge.

I certainly didn't feel any thundering, dark weight out of a Russian novel, like you were supposed to feel. Actually, what I was feeling was better. I felt better. Maybe that's what Frisbee had noticed.

I got up to water the tomato plants. Maybe I'd drive into Santa Rosa and have lunch at one of those small cafes my ex-partner Tweed frequented where there were only two things on the menu. Twenty types of very thick coffee, and twenty types of sprout sandwiches on grainy bread that tasted terrible. It didn't have enough glue to hold together while you ate it. The crusts fell off and the sandwich crumbled up in your hand. You had to eat it with two hands to keep it from falling all over the place. Most people cut off little chunks to eat it with manners. Which was no way to gobble down a sandwich, in my opinion.

My opinions were getting obsolete, though. Teresa had a word for it. Dinosaur. I liked to think of myself as more of an endangered specie.

The real reason for the crumbly sandwiches was the fiber, of course. It was supposed to crumble up your turds and make them squeeze out of your butt more easily. It wasn't digestively stimulating to have conversations extolling turd removal, though, so these places had cleverly put in little round tables where you could instead read a ponderous book or chat about the necessity of non-gender specific pronouns.

Political Correctness. It was extremely fashionable nowadays. You could even just use its initials, PC, and everyone knew what you meant.

Tweed worked full time at being Politically Correct. He wasn't that way back when I first met him in college. He was more of a snotty little prick then, which was very fashionable in college. It was one of those gradual evolutions that you didn't notice at any one particular moment. Forks in the road that led to other forks which eventually became knives and finally arrived at spoons.

His snotty little prick side was still there, of course, but it was hidden from view. Only his wife Margaret could be allowed to see it. She was a snotty little prick herself, so they got along pretty well snotting and pricking in their hidden views. They'd climb in there when their kid was asleep and work their way through a bottle of wine while they sneeringly dissected and excoriated any human entity that wasn't them. Brandishing their voluminous vocabularies to bone and fillet the entire human contraption like some master medical examiners probing through a full autopsy.

Out in the public eyeball, though, they were full time PC wunderkinds. They never made a mistake being on the wrong side of topics and agendas and directions and proper definitions of how society should be conducted.

Naturally, to me, old dinosaur head, PC stood for Phony Crud. So I won't get into all the unpleasant reactions that occurred in my stomach lining and barged up out of my throat into the toilet bowl whenever I got trapped in a room with this stuff.

In fact, it was close to happening now, just thinking about Tweed.

Planning his demise was the only thought about him I enjoyed having.






Chapter Three



Two months passed.

The story of Gourd's disappearance faded quickly from the various Bay Area news media. There had been no mention of me or any clues. No visits from the police. A new RV neighbor moved in across the lane. Frisbee laughed. The tomatoes grew. I ate them. God, they were good.

Nothing happened. Weird. Maybe this hit man stuff was easier than Joe Schmo was ever led to believe. If you watched even one episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, you would have to conclude it was impossible to ever get away with murder. If you even sneezed in the air in a two mile vicinity of the crime scene, they would track you down by the wind currents and calculated altitude of where the DNA in your sneeze could be captured by some computerized air gizmo analyzer half way across the Atlantic on the bottom layer of the Jet Stream.

It seemed safe to move on to target number two, a lawyer named Payne Weasley. Connecting his disappearance with Gourd's, two months apart, would be a stretch for even the FBI basement guys. It would only be when Tweed went bye-bye that the dots would connect directly, and only, to me.

Weasley was located in a city called Walnut Creek, which was over the hills from Oakland out in the East Bay. Contra Costa county. He was your routine shyster lawyer type, as though there was any other type of lawyer. Well, maybe he wasn't routine. More like an odious, one-legged, slime-bellied, amphibian crawling, tail dragging, snout drooling, halitosis breathed, fang toothed version of shyster. To some lawyers, shysting your money was just business. There was no special thrill involved. Nothing personal. Just some routine wallet lightening. But Weasley was the other type of lawyer. The kind who shysted your money and played a laugh track as you left his office.

What a loathsome profession. My recent experience in the court system didn't lead me to the conclusion that the revulsion for lawyers so universally felt was overstated. Just the opposite. They were worse. A real sanctimonious sadism infected these reptiles. Who married these jerks? Shouldn't we be looking into that?

Weasley was a full fledged partner in a "prestigious" law firm in downtown Walnut Creek. Prestigious. Gag me. Very successful crooks, basically.

I won't get into how much I didn't care for lawyers. There might be one in my family tree somewhere that I'd have to be nice to at a wedding or something. Or need when I was indicted for triple homicide, I suppose.

I drove down to Walnut Creek and parked my truck at the curb across the street from the building that housed Weasley and his cronies. It was a four story edifice on the corner of California Avenue in the downtown area.

Weasley's office was on the second floor. I had been there once before. It was right after Judge Gourd had appointed him to be the Receiver.

Teresa and I had an inkling then of what would come. Upon hearing the amount of money he would be expected to receive from the partnership royalty clients, he turned away from us and stroked his chin lovingly while gazing at the ceiling.

"That's a nice chunk of change," he mused. We could almost hear the cash register in his mind go "Ka-ching!"

At five-thirty his dark green Mercedes poked its nose out of the exit from the underground garage of his office building. I followed him home.

He lived in Clayton, about five miles north of Walnut Creek on a hillside golf course community at the base of Mount Diablo, the mountain that rose majestic and solitary over the flatlands that surrounded it. There wasn't another mountain anywhere near. From the top of the mountain, on a clear day, was a panoramic view a hundred miles in all directions. In the waning hours of the day the sun turned the mountain a burning red hue which could be seen from far, far away. And thus its name. Assuming the devil was red, of course. Some people thought he looked like Jack Nicholson, which would make him sort of off-beat yellow-whitish. Red seemed to be the prevailing view, though.

After a hundred miles of panoramic clear viewing, the earth curved, I guess, and you couldn't see any more view. The hundred wasn't just an estimate, like you might suppose the Chamber of Commerce would put out in a brochure. A guy who wore an orange vest had actually walked off south from the mountain with a pedometer on his ankle until he disappeared from view at the hundred mile mark.

Later, it was discovered he had kidded around once or twice by walking in place and screwing up the pedometer which didn't have a joke recognizer built into it. So, maybe it was only ninety-nine miles and nine-tenths. Close enough.

Okay. I was kidding around there myself. The surveyor geeks had measured it. It was one hundred miles and four and three-eighth inches.

Clayton was a small town converted over the years from a tavern in the woods biker haven to a petite, clannish upscale community. The real long timers, squeezed out of fashion by the upscalers, now referred to their old gussied up town as "Puke and Putt".

It was a fitting locale for Weasley. He drove into his garage and I cruised on past his house to reconnoiter the area a bit.

His house adjoined the golf course. One of those over-built two story homes, precisely like all the other two story homes on the block, except for the paint jobs, which had four variations to avoid sameness. Right. And they all had four bedrooms, two cars, a golf cart, and no kids. His golf cart had been parked to the right of his driveway.

The name of the street was "Cape Cod Way." It should have been "Oddballs Prohibited Place."

I located the golf course club house and parked my truck in the lot, near the maintenance shed where it wouldn't attract any attention or horrify a member with its nearness to his waxed luxury sedan.

The eighteenth green was twenty yards from where I parked. I could see down the fairway stretched off in the distance behind it. A slightly curved par four with young trees lining one side of it and white out of bounds stakes lining the other, all along the edge of the houses and their back yards.

The sun was getting low in the sky and the trees cast long shadows across the fairway and the green. As the final foursome was finishing up in the near darkness, I walked out onto the course and followed the cart path at the edge of the houses. Weasley's home was along the thirteenth fairway. Like most of the houses, there was no fence separating the small backyard from the golf course. You could walk right out of your house, throw down a ball, and skull an iron shot as easy as pie. Or you could sit on your patio and accept the embarrassed apologies of golfers retrieving their errant shots from underneath your rose bushes.

It was dark and the lights were on in his house. The patio furniture on the redwood deck was illuminated by the light from his dining room, shining through the French doors. I could see his wife and him sitting at the dinner table. There were no children sitting there with them. He was reading a magazine with his left hand and poking food in his mouth with the right. She was sitting across from him, eating alone with her arms tucked at her sides, fiddling with her food between pensive, soul searching bites.

I crept into the backyard on the side opposite from the dining room and felt my way cautiously along the wall of the house. There was a brick walkway there and I followed it, ducking under a bedroom window at one point and then stopping at a side door. I tried the knob. The door opened into the garage. How nice.

I closed the door and retreated back to my truck. It would surely be noticed if I left it here, so I drove back to Walnut Creek and left it in the parking lot of the Bart train station. The duct tape was in the glove compartment. I put it in the pocket of my jacket and took a city bus back to Clayton.

At the outer edges of Clayton, there were two shopping centers with the usual mega-store chains like Safeway and Longs and Starbucks, but downtown Clayton was the old part of town, two blocks long and two blocks wide. A Post Office, a local bank, a hardware store, some real estate offices, a small market crammed with goods in narrow aisles, a couple of liquor stores and barber shops, and a very nice and homey old bar with wooden tables etched with the marks of time and lots of beer mug dents.

The bus let me off there. I walked in and planted myself on a bar stool to await the appointed hour.

The bartender ambled over and said, "What'll it be?"

He was short, with a sizeable beer belly. Some of the saloon profits were undoubtedly stored in there. He leaned on the bar with some chubby hands that were attached to some thick, hairy arms. He didn't look like a man you wanted to mess with.

"I'll have a Ranier Ale," I said.

"Green Death, eh. You ain't gonna cause no trouble, are you?"

"I can handle it."

"You'd be the first. They may as well call it 'Oblivion Express.' No sippers with that stuff. The only destination is serious muscle slobber."

He cocked an eye at me, but there was a crooked grin below it. I realized he was being friendly.

"Don't worry," I assured him. "I walked here and by God I'll crawl back the same way I came. Brought my knee-pads with me."

"I'll alert the street sweepers to keep a careful eye on the curb debris tomorrow." He went away and returned with my beer and a glass.

"You probably won't bother with the glass. Deathers usually don't. But here it is, anyway. I'll say one thing for the Death," he added. "It ain't for celebrating and it ain't for bawling on your woes. Can't even bust somebody's nose on it. You can get your own busted real easy, though. Death just numbs a guy down slow and easy till he puddles up on the floor holding onto a chair leg as blissful as if it was Marilyn Monroe's ankle and he was peeking up her dress."

A frigging poet. Looks could be deceiving. He walked down to the other end of the bar and left me alone. He knew Deathers liked to drink alone.

I hunkered down like he said, to drink beer and pee and keep it up until midnight arrived and the pumpkin came to escort me home. And during this time, obviously, my brain enjoyed becoming much more lucid at figuring out just what the hell was going on in life.

It was a weekday, so the crowd was too sparse to get loud and reckless with either fists or lips. The sports channel on the multiple TVs endlessly repeated today's scores and highlights, interspersed with obnoxious, bloviating commentators who yelled and gestured wildly about every topic somebody shoved into the teleprompter to feed them. Sports news was an all-you-can-eat buffet and they devoured it like grunting hogs.

No offense to hogs, or anything. I hear they're very smart animals and certainly tasty in little strips next to fried eggs. It's just the grunting part. Unnerving, even for people like me who didn't have any table manners.

The unchanging, high-powered volume had the effect of anesthetizing all the bar patrons into a quiet, sullen stupor. If one of the TV heads actually whispered anything, the whole bar would probably have jerked to attention like a grenade had just been lobbed into the center of the room.

As I was leaving, the bartender waved good-night and said, "Say, you look a might shorter than when you got here. Your legs shrink on you?"

I actually looked down at them while teetering from side to side. My response may have been a tad slurred. "You noblissed that! I bedder pud on my night fision gobbles so nobothy can see how swort I am."

I wobbled out of the bar for his amusement, then straightened up like there was nothing wrong with me. Well, maybe not. My leg buckled a bit on my first step causing me to lurch into a street light pole. I reached out with my forehead to protect myself from injury. The stars came out in sudden abundance, but confined themselves to the inside of my head. One of the places I mentioned before where they were still visible.

Whew! If I could feel anything that might have hurt. Damn. I kicked the street pole for its rude behavior, then wended my way back to the golf course.

The night air was cool and helped refresh me. That and the adrenalin rush that came when I thought about the task that lie ahead.

The cement floor of Weasley's garage was cold and hard, but I fell asleep fast, stretched out alongside his car.

# # #

Bang!

The newspaper clanged off the garage door, waking me up fast and fearful. When my heart stopped pounding, I remembered where I was and got to my feet.

Who needed an alarm clock when the paperboy was heaving fastballs at the crack of dawn. My head felt like shit. There was a knob over my left eye that winced when I touched it. My butt bone was bruised from squashing against the cement all night.

Sounds came from inside the house. The front door opened. Footsteps retrieved the paper. The front door closed. It would be a while.

Two cars were in the garage. Weasley's Mercedes and an SUV. I didn't know the make of the SUV. Once upon a time, cars had unique looks. A Corvette and a Thunderbird did not resemble each other. Neither did a Chevy and a Ford. A Cadillac and a Lincoln. People had rooting interests like the cars were baseball teams and you were either a National League fan (Chevy) or an American Leaguer (Ford).

Now cars all looked the same, built for safety laws and aerodynamics. To tell them apart, you had to be young with a brain that had lots of eager, unused cells that could store trivial information with rapid ease. Or a car geek, like a salesman or a fringe lunatic with permanent oil hands. What did girls think when one of those oil stained hands went in for a grope? Queasy thought.

There were two types of suburban garages. Cluttered storage containers and pristine car homes.

Weasley's was the latter. He had a work bench along one wall, but the only tools on it were a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. Real handyman stuff. Lots of shelves above it for things that might someday be needed. Screwball gadgets with forty-one different uses. A ten drawer tool cabinet without a spot of grease or scratched paint. A bicycle with flat tires hanging from a wall holder.

I waited by the washing machine next to the door. After an eternity, the door finally opened. I crouched down and took the gun out of my leg holster. Extracted it.

Weasley pressed a button on the door frame and the garage door began to rise. He went to his car and reached for the door handle. I stepped up behind him and put the gun to his head. I cocked the hammer so the noise of it would impress him. He froze, even though the cocking hammer only made a little "tick" noise.

"Don't make a fucking sound," I whispered in his ear.

He slowly nodded his head.

"Move."

I pushed him to the rear of the car.

"Open it."

He put his key in the trunk and it popped up. I took the keys from him.

"Give me your cell phone."

He reached inside his coat and took it off his belt and handed it back to me.

"Get in. Face down. Don't turn around."

He climbed in, resting on his hands and knees.

I got the duct tape from my pocket and tore off a strip and put it over his mouth.

"Get down. Flat. Hands behind your back."

He complied obediently. I taped his hands and feet, and closed the trunk.

Clayton was next to Walnut Creek to the south and Concord to the west, with Pleasant Hill beyond that. One big metropolitan area divided into four cities with boundaries nobody but the city tax collector could decipher.

I avoided city traffic by driving north out Willow Pass Road through a 12,800 acre stretch of countryside called the Concord Naval Weapons Station. It was only five miles removed from the four cities and looked like pasture land.

Au contraire. Beneath the surface of the land were missile silos. The Station was also the major ammunition transshipment port for the West Coast. Ships full of bombs and other lethal stuff docked at Port Chicago, arriving and leaving via the Sacramento River which emptied into the San Francisco Bay and on out to sea. Very thoughtful city planning.

It was okay to live in this area and make plans for the future as long as you didn't get all kooky and alarmist about nuclear war or somebody dropping a lit cigarette on some spilled fuel on the floor which led over to a box of grenades next to a bin full of bombs which accidentally blew up twenty acres and a few unlucky citizens.

Willow Pass led to Highway 4, which led to a merge onto 680 that went north across the Martinez Bridge and twenty minutes later merged into 80 just south of Fairfield. It was now a straight shot to Reno. But I didn't go straight. I took the Highway 49 turnoff out of Auburn in a fog of old habit and headed north to Nevada City, back to where it all began, some twenty years ago.






Chapter Four



It was 1982 and I was burnt out.

Five years of running the nightclub in Cotati had taken its toll. Night after night of loud music, cocaine, dope, booze, three am passion, breaking up fights. My ears were blown out and my health was shot.

Art Tweed was an old college buddy. We had shared most of the mayhem and wild times of those years and remained close after graduation. Best friends, I suppose. He and his wife, Margaret, ran a small, marginally successful typesetting business located in a historical gold rush town up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, roughly half way between Sacramento and Reno. It was surrounded by forest and a long way from the noise of civilization.

He had a job opening for a typesetter and I took it gladly.

Quiet, mindless work and quiet, early evenings. I rented a two room cabin at the edge of town and savored the solitude. My jarred brain began to heal. The thousands of faces of the nightlife revelers that had stomped their way through my head like thundering herds of buffalo slowly faded from memory.

Through a friend, Tweed had been introduced to computers and how they could allow him to upgrade his business to include book manuscripts instead of being limited to restaurant menus, flyers, and pamphlets. The computers were the door to the future. And Tweed was determined to step on through.

Tweed loved to be on the cutting edge of life. His move to computers was visionary as a broad view. For the short view, however, he bought the wrong computer. This right, but wrong syndrome would become almost his trademark in the years to come.

Most of the world was going ape over the Apple II, the TRS-80, the Commodore PET, and the just introduced IBM PC. Tweed shunned the obvious and bought an Altos 8000, which could support up to ten users instead of the other single user models.

Ten users. Tweed was building in expansion for the grand view of himself that was surely his destiny. It was the number he usually overestimated things by. Life was always tenfold less than his vision foresaw it would become. And usually on another planet.

There was only one person using Tweed's Altos, though. Me. And its Digital Research CP/M Operating System was buried out of existence within the year by the Apple OS and the IBM OS. The IBM OS was bundled with every IBM PC and was called MS-DOS, produced by a little known fellow named Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen.

For keyboarding manuscripts onto the computer screen, however, the Altos was more than adequate. That was my job. Typing in the manuscripts. Seven hours a day. An hour for lunch. Nine to five. Not bad. Six dollars and fifty cents an hour. Not great. But livable. For now.

From the computer screen, the typed characters were stored in containers called files. Files could then be saved on huge eight inch floppy disk pancakes so they could be retrieved and edited and saved, over and over again. A vast improvement on typewriters, for sure, which tended to produce wads of paper for trash cans and cases of white-out bottles for the office supply room.

When the files were ready to become galleys of type, they were sent through a wire to a ticker tape type of gizmo that punched holes in the tape. There could be up to eight holes per line. Each line, by its particular choice of holes, represented a character in the alphabet, or punctuation, etc.

Some of the holes were various arcane typesetting codes that were instructions. Stuff like where a paragraph ended and whether it was aligned on the left, right, centered, or justified. Maybe indented. What typeface was being used and how big or small it should be. How much spacing between lines. All the stuff that made typesetters different from everyone else. A world with a whole language of weird jargon all to itself. Art and Margaret had all the jargon down cold. They were pros.

The tape with holes was then driven to Sacramento and given to a shop that fed the holes into a Mergenthaler, which followed all the instructions from the lines of holes and produced galleys of type which were brought back and delivered to the customer who could then take the galleys to a printer who would produce him his book.

Simple as mud.

Except when the tape had a wrong code typo on it that, for instance, indented everything over to the right side of the page so there was only about room for two characters per line. Art would bring home this galley and it would be about six miles long and utterly useless. You couldn't even use it for scratch paper since it was slick and didn't like ball point pens or even pencils. Off to the dumpster. Very expensive trash.

Tweed interfaced with the customers and drove insanely to and from Sacramento each night. He had a two hour wait there before the type was ready to bring home. Nobody knew what he did during those two hours.

Margaret didn't seem to care. It was a break from each other, I guess. They certainly could use one. I couldn't help wondering about what he might be doing. You could drink coffee in a cafe for only so long.

Nobody suspected he was having affairs and things. Even me. Art wasn't the affair type. He was barely the husband type. Heck, he was barely even the boy type. During college, he hadn't dated at all. He'd rather sit in the dorm room and wait till you got home and could tell him how your date went. He loved the juicy parts. If there were any. That's why he had other friends than me. Guys with more juice on their hands. My hands usually only had some mascara smudges.

As usual, Art imagined more things were happening on dates than anyone was telling him. In fact, it would have been a lot more interesting to come home from a date and hear him tell the juicy parts of the date he didn't have.

Good old Art. He was an entertaining dinghead. He wasn't like anybody else I'd ever known. Most of my friends in life had been sports nuts or troublemakers. Art was an expanded horizon for me.

I'd met him because we lived in the same dorm wing at college. I couldn't help being curious about him because he was so different from the normal maniacs who lived there. He liked to be the invisible guy behind everyone in a crowd. If he was there at all. He didn't like to do anything that everyone else was doing.

We'd had a fairly strange beginning as friends. Looking back, it was probably the only way we could have met.

There was a Batman rage loose in the dorm at one time. Very camp. Really goofball show. Everybody would gather on the third floor in the TV room when it came on each week. One week I thought I'd get myself a big laugh.

There was a ledge along the wall outside the TV room. To get to it, I had to jump about four feet from the top of the roof to the ledge. If you missed, have a nice funeral. It was three floors down and a bunch of bicycles to break your fall and all your bones. Or worse if you landed straddling anything. Normally, it wouldn't have been too difficult, but I had a towel tied around my neck like a cape flowing behind me. A Batman cape. My big ha, ha.

I made it to the ledge okay, though. Ledges were pretty comfortable territory for me. I was out on them a lot. There were two windows there into the rec room where everyone would be watching the boob tube. I'd unlocked one of them previously and opened it up behind the curtains. The TV show started with some music and singers singing "Batman! Doot, doo, doot, doo-ooh-ooh-ooh. Batmannnnn!"

My plan was to dive through the window at the "Batman!" cue and jump up like I was Batman, with my towel cape. I thought maybe the other idiots would get a laugh out of my idiocy. It was my experience that people generally thought idiocy was humorous as long as it wasn't them. Volunteer idiots were usually welcome at any party. Even if they drank too much and ate off your plate.

I had to wait about five minutes for the show to begin. That's when I noticed Art sitting on the ledge below the other window. Probably to listen to the show without having to be in the same room as everyone else. Later he could claim he never watched the show. Which would be technically true. Art got a big bang out of being technical.

We looked at each other. Like "What the fuck are you doing here?"

He was smoking a cigarette. I was wearing a towel. We couldn't talk or say "Hi" or anything. People would hear us out here and we'd both be caught. So we waved at each other like it was just another boring day at the bus stop.

And that's how we got to forming a friendship.

The joke didn't work out quite like I planned, though. When I dove through the window and pranced to my feet expecting some laughs, all that happened was silence. The Dean of Students had decided to bond with the students that night by sharing in the TV show. He was standing right in front of me. Not a happy guy. It was naturally against the rules to be on the ledge. Ledges were always outlawed everywhere I went in life. I had to go see him and swallow a lecture the next day.

Knowing Art all these years, my best guess was he was spending the two hour wait in Sacramento asking the guy in the type shop to tell him about all the juicy parts in his life. The juicier, the better. If the guy wasn't juicy enough, Art would find someone who was. He'd look all over Sacramento till he found a juicy person.

Margaret did layout for the small jobs like restaurant menus and local flyers and local information stuff. She also kept track of the books and bank account and all the paper clips in the office. At night, while Art was gone, she read Crime and Punishment to Leonard, their four year old kid, to put him to sleep.

Then she had some time to herself. I don't know what she did with it. I didn't even want to guess. Margaret was even weirder than Art in a lot of ways. I could barely guess what non-weird girls did, let alone what weird girls did. I didn't guess much about girls, period. It was too dangerous. It was a no-win deal. If you were wrong, you were disgusting. If you were right, you were disgusting. I could be pretty disgusting all by myself. There was no sense in improving my skills at it.

All I did was type.

At night, I sat around in an old, plush rocking chair and smoked marijuana and drank a six-pack of beer. It was how I meditated. I was at the point in life where I was taking a break from the action. Doing some thinking things over stuff, before I leapt into gear for another round of screwing things up.

Judging by some remarks I'd overheard along the way, I guess I was pretty good at screwing up my life. "He sure knows how to fuck things up" was one of the commoner remarks. "I can't believe what a mess he can make of things" was another. And "That boy's gonna come to no good" was probably the most common of all. I got used to it. It was probably just jealousy. Everybody knew screwing up was more fun, more exciting, than not screwing up. Pretty much always. Small screwing up, that is. Not major screwing up like killing someone accidentally or making your mom cry.

So I was doing a lot of thinking about whether I was any good or not, and where I was heading.

After college, I'd headed for the road. You could still hitchhike around in those days. If you looked like a hippie and not a juicy girl. Only other hippies picked you up. It was a hippie duty to be kind to other hippies. Everyone else threw stuff at you or flipped you the bone or just yelled their best dirty words at you. No big deal.

It was nice seeing some of the country. I noticed that there were trees and grass and rocks and water and buildings and people and some type of terrain everywhere you went. Then I returned home and got a job in a carwash. I was the only guy in the carwash with a college degree. The guy who was there with a high school degree didn't like me very much for out-degreeing him.

Then I moseyed around from place to place getting temporary jobs with Manpower for a few days here and there before moseying on someplace else. I had an old Post Office van I was living in. I got it cheap at a city auction in Los Angeles. The steering wheel was on the right side like the English idiots preferred. It wasn't that hard to get used to since you didn't have to drive it on the wrong side of the road like in England. That's where all the difficulty was. It was safer in a way than a normal car. I didn't have to get out of it on the street side and get run over trying to get to the curb.

Getting a real job didn't appeal to me. It was probably a reaction to people saying after I graduated, "Welcome to the real world."

This remark came from the same people who said I was screwing up my life. And wasting my college education. It was clear to me that I hadn't wasted it at all. Four years of partying and avoiding the real world was taking full advantage of my college education, in my opinion. Which I had to keep to myself or risk launching some more of their opinions.

This was probably the time in life where my opinions started to go bad. That eventually led to the dinosaur thing.

Eventually, though, I stumbled into a very good job I decided to keep. It was wadding newspaper up into a wad and tossing the wad into a cardboard box. It called for ambidexterity. The right hand wadded and the left hand tossed. The job title was Paper Cruncher. My first resume type job title. I liked it. It didn't explain out too easily though. People usually ended up with the impression I was some kind of guy they didn't want to continue having a conversation with.

The wads were packing material for shipping pottery. The pottery was created by about ten potters in the warehouse. Mostly stuff like coffee mugs with eyeballs, noses, and goofy mouths on them. Hilarious crap, supposedly. The crap part was right, anyway.

The job was pretty easy and paid well enough for me to settle down and rent my first apartment. Some of the potters were nice looking girls, too, which helped make the job likeable. They always wore very sexy old clothes with clay and glaze slobbed all over them. And their hair was always falling out of their pony tails and strands would stick to the sweat on their cheeks. Then they would wipe the hair back off their cheeks and get some wet clay stuck on the hair and the cheek, so they would use their shirt to wipe it off the cheek but the wet clay stayed in their hair. You can see why this was fairly sexy to be observing all the time.

They were all artists, though, so they didn't give me much time of their day. The Paper Cruncher was considered to be a job manned by a high school dropout with a pre-shrunk brain. It didn't help to tell them I was a college graduate. In fact, it made it worse. So I started claiming I'd never even been to grade school. Which worked better enough that they would wave nicely at me once in awhile. But nothing more.

Then one terrible day the factory owner replaced me with styrofoam worm packing, making me obsolete. I moved out of my apartment and wandered around and landed in Cotati, where I ate some peyote buttons in the park with a nice plump girl who turned out to be the rich daughter of a guy who owned the nightclub building.

The rest is my nightclub history.

And here I was now. Typing away. It didn't seem like something I would do for the rest of my life. I tried to meditate up a vision of what it was I would do. Meditating was hard, though. My head kept wandering off thinking about stuff that had happened in my past. I couldn't keep it gripped on the wheel of the future.

Then the beer would run out, and I'd realize it was time to eat some food and go to bed. Maybe tomorrow it would all come to me.

# # #

It was a one mile walk from my cabin to the office. A very nice morning and evening stroll. An accidental healthy habit. Even healthier in the evening when I added to my exercise by lugging home a six-pack of beer and toning up my arm muscles.

The office was located in an old, rickety wooden building that propped off the ledge of a hill on a side street a block from the downtown area. The building was a two story house converted into an upper and lower apartment complex.

The office was on the upper floor, level with the street, and performed double duty as the front room of the Tweed's home. A door in the middle led into their kitchen. A bathroom was through a door in one corner of the kitchen and a door on the opposite side led into a small bedroom. A final door led out onto a long, narrow back porch with a bench swing and a fine overlook view of the surrounding area.

I arrived for work at nine. As usual, the Tweeds were asleep on the floor. Their bed was a futon which folded up into a couch. They slept in sleeping bags. My arrival amounted to their alarm clock.

It was a bit creepy to step around them and go to my desk while they then staggered out of bed. Fortunately, they slept in their clothes.

"Morning," I said over my shoulder.

"Morning," Art muttered.

Margaret didn't say anything. She liked to be Greta Garbo in her dreams.

While I turned on the computer and began typing, they folded up the futon and went into the kitchen. Tweed had an espresso coffee maker he'd bought on their honeymoon in Greece. In five minutes I could hear it hissing as it steamed up a four swig amount of black mud. He diluted it some by pouring a pound of sugar into his cup. There was room left for two of the four swigs. Margaret took the other two. It was a system they worked out on the honeymoon.

Then came the daily tense hum of the morning argument. It was a version of planning the day. Probably a system also worked out on their honeymoon. For some reason, they never seemed to agree on what to do, and had a fair amount of vicious criticism about what each of them had already done.

Finally, Art emerged from the kitchen with his thimble of mud and cheerily greeted me like I'd just arrived. He looked like the reincarnation of Ichabod Crane. Very thin, with a long pointed nose and face, coke bottle glasses, and a thick mop of dark brown hair that tangled wildly in all directions. He didn't know how to use a comb or anything. Everything about him screamed eccentric intellectual. It passed as his charm.

He set down his mud and enthusiastically rubbed his hands together, cackling as he did so. He preferred this to daily vitamin supplements.

"What's up?" I asked.

"The frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder's in the shock. The day resounds with possibility. Batten the hatches! Storm the ramparts! Let no man dare oppose the juggernaut of our march to destiny!"

"I see you're meeting with a prospective client today."

From the kitchen, Margaret called out. "Art! Hurry up. Leonard will be late for day care."

Leonard was their four year old son, like I mentioned previously, who occupied the one and only bedroom. He was a precocious and fun little fart. Except in the evening when he was sent to bed. Then he was a monstrous little brat who could completely disrupt adults for hours.

Tweed sagged heavily, his boisterous enthusiasm squashed in an instant, and flipped his wife the bird, vigorously thrusting his middle finger toward the kitchen door. He took a deep breath to compose himself and went to get Leonard.

Margaret did not like to be called Marge. You could get eyeballed into shreds if you tried. It was rule number one Art had confided to me. She emerged from the kitchen with her own thimble of mud, followed closely by Leonard and Art, who hurried out the door and off to day care.

Margaret came over and flipped on the meter on the wall next to me.

"You forgot to turn on the timer," she said. "You have to remember. We can't bill the customer accurately if you forget."

She enjoyed pointing out people's faults. And being my boss.

Before she left, she leaned over me from behind to check on my typing. Her long, straight black hair fell forward from her face and brushed against my cheek. She swirled it around like a feather duster and leaned over a little farther to ostensibly look closer, but it was really to press her breast against my shoulder.

She enjoyed flirting. Her husband rarely noticed, even when she did it under his nose. Flirting wasn't juicy enough to catch his eye.

I didn't find her particularly attractive. To say the least. She had a dumpy body with almost no waistline and wide, lopsided hips. Her teeth were slightly malformed and she was self-conscious about it. When she was forced to laugh, she tried to do so without exposing them to view, often covering her mouth demurely with the back of her hand till she had suppressed the hilarity down to simple, controllable mirth. Her complexion was rough from the tiny pockmarks that covered her cheeks.

Still, a hard nipple nudged firmly against your flesh, was difficult to ignore.

Tweed returned. She holstered her nipple.

"It gives me the creeps," Art said, closing the door behind him.

"What does?" she asked.

"Leonard has started calling the day care lady mommy. It's creepy. Maybe we should keep him home."

"We can't operate a business with him running around all day."

"I don't like it."

"He'll be going to kindergarten next year. Relax."

The Tweeds had a little tinkle bell fastened to the top of the front door. In case a customer walked in while they were duking it out in the kitchen. It tinkled now.

Wayne Skindle entered the room. He was an older guy, probably in his late fifties, with long white hair in a pony tail. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit. He had a skin condition that prevented him from wearing shirts and pants. It was some kind of fungus he'd picked up from living out in the woods and not washing his hands properly or using the wrong leaf for makeshift toilet paper. I didn't press for details. It was something even if you were nosey you probably wouldn't want to know.

It was his book I was typing.

The book was about some gold rush prospectors who lived in the area a hundred and fifty years ago and had three generations of family living in a three room cabin. They bickered a lot and slept with each other's wives and mothers and sisters and occasionally killed each other in an axe duel.

All the rest of the time they panned for gold. If one of them found some, there would be a big fight over it which led to the axe duels. Gold was far more important than sex as something that would seriously get one of them pissed off.

Sex infractions were usually handled by slapping around the offending woman. The men would then have moonshine on the porch and flick toothpicks at each other until a big ole fun wrasslin' match would develop and everyone would whoop it up on the porch and be one big happy family again.

Very interesting stuff. Wayne had found a diary about it under the outhouse after it fell over in a storm.

"I made some of it up, though," he told me proudly.

Wayne was a guy you couldn't help but like. Lots of energy and boundless enthusiasm. He always looked at you with fierce eyes that waited for you to get the hidden meaning behind things he said. It could be slightly unnerving. Putting pressure on you to say something heavy with understanding.

I wasn't good at that type of thing, so I tried to avoid his eyes and look at his chest when we talked. There were always white tufts of hair around his throat puffing out over his jumpsuit. I imagined little toy cars driving around in there getting lost in the forest. It held my attention so he thought I was listening to him.

He bounded into the room and headed for my desk.

"Hi Art. Hi Marge," he called as he swept past them.

Margaret sneered at him behind his back.

She was very good at sneering. Excellent you could easily say. She could say practically anything with a simple sneer. Frustration, boredom, wistfulness, anger, regret, envy, incredulity, exasperation. You name it. She could do it. She could even express happiness with a sneer. I'd seen her do it once or twice.

And she had lots of different sneering tools. It was hard to tell if it came naturally or she practiced in the mirror. She could sneer with her mouth, her eyes, her shoulders, her hands, her hips. She once sneered with her feet, which was astounding as hell. There should have been a prize for that one. You had to see it to describe it. I had, and I couldn't.

Naturally, I couldn't help wondering if maybe Art got turned on by sneering. People were strange that way.

"How's the book coming?" Wayne gushed. He was getting a big bang out of this author shit. Anybody would, I guess.

"I'm almost done with chapter six," I said. There were ten chapters on my desk.

"Only four thousand to go," he said.

He stood there staring at me. Then he flourished out, "Just kidding. I'll bring in the next six tomorrow. They're almost done."

He kept looking at me like he was waiting for me to say something. He had trouble ending conversations, I guess. You always had to have the last word, like "Great," so he would know it was over. Then he would widen his eyes like he was absorbing the heaviness of what you'd meant when you said it.

"Great," I said, and went back to typing.

He leaned there watching me for a few seconds. It was hard to type fast with somebody watching. It made your fingers swell up till they were twice as fat and they started landing on two keys at once.

Eventually, he went off with Art into the kitchen for some of Art's mud. I think he wrote a check in there, too. The kitchen was also the check writing room. Art took the payments. Margaret wrote the bills. It was another of their Grecian systems. They had so many you'd think their honeymoon had lasted a year over there, instead of two weeks.

Art and Wayne yapped away in there for quite some time. They got a bang out of each other having these vocabulary sword fights. It was like some people craved candy. I was too much a one word guy to satisfy this urge in Art. He had to do all the talking for both of us. Same with Wayne, since his dog was the only one around for him to converse with. Maybe that's why he waited for you to say something when he was finished talking. The silence was a clue to his dog that it was time to bark, and he had gotten in the habit with humans, too. It was just a wild guess.

Margaret went into the layout room off the side of the front room. I forgot to mention that room. Probably because Margaret was the only one allowed in there. It was a sacred area. I peeked in once, but she gave me a sneer and I never tried that again.

She had been a stripper when Art met her. Not the tease kind, though she had the ability. Just not the body. A layout stripper.

Strippers hunched over light tables, wielding exacto blades and rubber cement. Printing shops employed them to put stuff in the right places on a page so a camera could take a picture of the page and burn a plate to stick in the printing press.

Margaret was a master chef at this stripping business. She could cement down everything so straight on a page that a surveyor couldn't find a flaw. She could do really exotic stuff with the exacto blade.

She marched out of the layout room one day to show me how good she was. She'd managed to cut an eight point italic lowercase "i" out of an old restaurant menu she found in the trash and paste it down on a page in the middle of a word over a nine point roman lowercase "i" which had been a wrong typesetting code instruction. She left just enough paper at the top of the replacement "i" - about two thousandths of an inch - to blot out the dot of the larger nine point mistake.

To really chuckle her knuckle, she practically chortled herself into a spasm showing me how she even slid the new "i" one hundred thousandths of an inch to the left so it was perfectly kerned to the preceding "t." Kerning was how close letters were supposed to be to each other to make your eye happy when you read something. It was impressive as hell, no doubt about it. There wasn't even any rubber cement excess squoozing out the sides where she'd pasted it down. Pulitzer Prize achievement.

I tried not to think about if there was some sort of exotic sex stuff you could do with an exacto blade that maybe Art got a tremendous thrill out of.

Something they'd learned about in Greece.






Chapter Five



After Wayne left, Art came over to me.

"How's it going?"

"Fine. I'm just finishing the sixth chapter."

"Let me show you something."

"Sure."

He pulled up a chair and sat down next to me. Then he dragged the keyboard over in front of him and closed the file I was working on.

"Did you save that file?" I asked him.

"Shit," he said.

So much for Chapter Six. I would have to type it again. It didn't really matter to me. It was his words down the paycheck.

"You idiot," Margaret said.

"It was a small chapter," Art said. "No big deal."

"It was the biggest chapter in the book," Margaret said.

"How big was the chapter?" Art asked me.

"I don't know," I said. "I don't count the pages."

"It was the biggest," she said. "Trust me."

"Fine," Art said. "Have it your way."

"It's not my way. It's a fact."

"Whatever."

He gave a me a look. One eye was giving her the finger. The other was frothing with excitement.

"I've been trying to learn programming," he said to me.

"What's that?"

"Wasting time," Margaret muttered from the other side of the room.

Tweed gritted his teeth.

"It's how you make the computer do things. The stuff you're doing now is using a program somebody wrote that tells the computer what to do. Computers don't know how to do anything on their own. If you learn how to program, you can make the computer do what you want it to. You can create your own programs."

I shrugged. "What for? If somebody already did it, why bother?"

"You can do it different. Customized to your own liking."

"Wasting time," Margaret remarked again.

Tweed snarled at her. "No it isn't. You'll see."

"I don't have any likings," I said.

"You will," he said.

He cleared the monitor screen and opened a new file. It had lines of text that were definitely not an example of the English language.

"See these two lines," he said, pointing at the screen.

The lines were:

for (x = = 1; x < 10; x++); printf("This is number %d", x);

"It's computer code. I can't get it to work. It's driving me crazy."

"What's it supposed to do?"

"Print ten lines on the screen that increment each time. It should say 'This is number 1,' then 'This is number 2,' and on up to ten. All I get, though, is one line that says 'This is number 0'. Sometimes it says 'This is number 1.'"

"Why would you want to do that?"

"To waste time," Margaret said.

"Bitch," Art whispered.

"I heard that. Let Blue work, will you? He's already lost a chapter."

"It's a test," Art said. "If I can get the ten lines working right, I can move on to greater things."

I had little use for idle knowledge. Some said this was a flaw in my ointment that prevented me from achieving a higher plane of existence. Others said I was just lazy. Both views were probably accurate. They both had the concept of sloth in them.

Art felt both views were correct, also, but had learned to just force me along, anyway. When he wanted to. For my own good. Or his.

He gave me a book. It was a manual on the C programming language. There was a bookmark in it.

"Study the chapter I marked when you get a chance. I know you'll figure it out. You're good at these things. For some reason, I'm not."

It was a rare admission from him of personal limitation. It didn't even have the normal inflection of voice that implied he wasn't dumb enough to succeed at something, but I probably was.

What are friends for.

# # #

After work, Margaret and I walked to the National Hotel. Art drove off to get Leonard from day care and then joined us. It was a day ending ritual.

The Hotel was at the corner of Broad Street, right at the edge of town next to the highway. The street wasn't particularly wide, so the name of it was open to conjecture. Every weekday it had a Happy Hour time from five to seven, with cheaper drinks and some hors d'oeuvres that were usually pretty tasty. Not just popcorn or chips and salsa, in other words.

Today, it was miniature barbecued chicken legs. I'd never figured out where they grew these midget chickens. I'm sure it wasn't Greece. Maybe Russia. The Russians were too hungry and cold to wait for a full size chicken to grow, so they grew small ones.

I'd already loaded three of them onto a paper plate and ordered a fifty cent beer by the time Art got there with Leonard. Margaret had ordered wine for her and Art and got two plates for Art and Leonard. She ate off Art's plate.

Leonard sat on Art's lap. Like most four year olds, he was a squirmer. This kept Art pretty busy adjusting his legs and lurching one arm or the other this way and that to keep Leonard from wiggling off and falling on the floor. This made it hard for Art to keep up with the eating and drinking.

Plus he was always growling "Leonard!" as a standard warning/admonition type thing and didn't like to talk with food in his mouth. It was tough trying to relax and have fun with a kid on your lap.

"Kind of crowded today," I said.

"A tour bus came in from Sacramento," Margaret said. "The hotel is filled up." She looked around at the people with a distasteful sneer. "Bermuda shorts and cameras. Nobody who lives here wears Bermuda shorts."

"Ah. Good observation," I said.

Art said, "Any time it's crowded, it's tourists."

"Not always," she said.

Tourists were always coming to Nevada City to verify that the postcards of it were accurate. It had a big gold rush history, meaning some of the buildings were old and still looked like they did a hundred years ago, even though they'd been rebuilt every thirty years or so. The streets were still very narrow and could be called "backstreets." The streams and rivers and gold mining paraphernalia were also still there, suitably rusty.

The only thing missing was the gold. Although tourists who purchased a day excursion of real gold panning along the river were assured that only ten percent of the gold had been dug out so far. This made them all pan furiously, with lotto brains hard at work spending their lucky millions.

It seemed like a suspicious number to me. This ten percent thing. If they could actually calculate the percent, why wasn't it twelve or fourteen. Ten was just too round and convenient a number. The remaining ninety percent must be out there in the mountains hiding out better than a Nazi war criminal in Brazil. Besides, how could they measure something that was missing? Where was the whole per cent to get the ten from?

The whole town was history. The fire station was an Authentic Old West Firehouse. The theatre was Still In Use and you could sit on a seat and it might be the same seat that had been sat on by the butt of Abraham Lincoln or Bret Harte or Mark Twain, all of whom had butted down there once. Reportedly, at any rate. Allegedly. The cushions didn't look like a hundred years of butts had been plopping in there on them, though.

At the very least, you could buy some arts and crafts of mining type junk and take it home and prove you had actually been here. That and the pictures you took, if they displayed the view you had actually snapped at.

Complicated stuff, this tourist tripping. No wonder they all looked tired and irritable. They were having too much fun.

Art looked at his watch. "I'd better get going," he said.

"Off to Sacramento?" I asked.

"Taking down Wayne's latest. The stuff you typed today."

"Twice," Margaret pointed out.

Art's daily runs to and from Sacramento, an hour down and back, with a two hour wait while there, was an insane way to live. To me, anyway. Especially when he could accomplish the same thing using FedEx. But that would take an extra day of turn around time. Two days, instead of one.

Art was convinced this was crucial to business and customer satisfaction. Maybe he was right. Who knows. It didn't matter because he was never going to check it out. He was locked in on his conviction and there was no way to talk him out of it. Maybe it was no more than an average commuting day for a guy in the city. But what was the point of living in the country if you lived like you were in the city?

I changed the subject. "Why'd you move up here, Art? I never did get the story behind that. One minute you're living in San Francisco, the next you're up here."

"His sister lived up here," Margaret said. "He's in love with her."

"Knock it off, Margaret."

"Which one?" I asked. Art had three sisters. He was the oldest. Kid, that is. Four of them in all.

"Janet," Margaret said. "The youngest. Art has incestuous fantasies about her."

"Knock it off, Margaret. Leonard's here."

"What's incheschewus?" Leonard asked.

"It's a bronchial infection," Art said.

"Don't lie to Leonard, Art. He'll grow up dumb."

"I'm not dumb," Leonard said. "I'm very smart."

Margaret pinched his cheek. "Yes you are, Leonard. Yes you are."

"What's incheschewus?"

"It's about love between family members," Margaret said.

"Is that like you and me, mommy?"

Margaret turned red. "No, Leonard."

Art was smiling.

"So where's Janet now?" I asked. My curiosity was worked up.

"She moved back east," Margaret said. "Broke Art's heart."

"Knock it off, Margaret. I miss Janet. Stop trying to make it dirty."

"Right," Margaret said.

Rats. It was getting good there for a second. A little juicy, in fact. I thought about driving to Sacramento with Art and getting some more of the story. He had been a little shit-faced there, no doubt about it.

I tried to remember what Janet looked like. I know I'd met her once, but it was a long time ago. I'd been more interested in her older sister at that time. Darlene. Actually, it was Darlene who was interested in me. She was about to get married and was having last minute nerves over it. She explained all her angst to me out on the side deck of Art's parent's house. I had gone there to visit with Art after college was over with and he had moved back home. Her explanation turned into a lot of feverish kissing around out on the side deck. I guess I was a guinea pig for all the guys she would be giving up once she got married. One of those deals. It was okay. The kissing was a lot of fun. Very enjoyable. She went ahead and got married and I never saw her again.

I decided to warm up the pot again. "Janet. Hmm. Did I ever meet her, Art?"

"Yeah. That one time you came up from L.A. to visit."

"Right. I thought so. She was pretty young then. How old is she?"

"Go ahead and tell him, Art," Margaret said.

"Knock it off," Art said.

"Seventeen," Margaret said.

Art stood up. "I gotta go."

We wrapped things up and left. Art drove to Sacramento and Margaret walked home with Leonard. I bought a six-pack at the grocery store and walked home.

My cabin was fairly large for a dog house. Three old wooden steps led to the front door. Inside was an alcove with some drawers under a large window, with a ledge for plants or stuff. The bathroom and shower were in a little room past that. A doorway to the left of the main door led into the living room. When you folded out the pull-out couch, it pretty much took up the whole living room. I never bothered to push it back up. I never made the bed, either. What for? No one ever came. I had a rocking chair next to the bed, in the corner, by the doorway that led into the kitchen. Aside from the usual kitchen paraphernalia like stoves and sinks and a refrigerator, there was room for a four seater dinette table.

Very swank.

It wasn't the kind of place you could hang around in unless you were seriously, seriously wasted and couldn't move. I spent all my time either in the rocking chair or in the bed. A few minutes here and there were spent in the bathroom or in the kitchen, obviously. Sometimes I drank coffee at the dinette table.

Two or three times a week, I made spaghetti or casseroles. Stuff that could be eaten for two or three days. Cooking wasn't high on my priority list. Once in a while I phoned up for a pizza delivery and ate that for two or three days.

It was the simple life of a normal slob boy who was household lazy.

I had brought home the C Programming manual Art wanted me to study. I had a couple of beers, then opened it up and read the page he had bookmarked. I compared it with what he had written.

There appeared to be four fairly obvious mistakes. The two equal signs, "= =", should have been just one, "=". Don't ask me why, I had no idea. And there was a missing left brace, "{", and a missing right brace, "}", and an extra semicolon ";". I didn't know what any of this punctuation was all about, but that's what was in the manual.

What Art had typed was:

for (x = = 1; x < 10; x++); printf("This is number %d", x);

What he should have typed was:

(for x = 1; x< 10; x++) { printf("This is number %d", x); }

Not much of a mystery when you got down to it.

Tweed could be quirky about obvious stuff, like reading the manual and doing exactly what it said to do. He didn't like to do anything exactly like it said to do it. I guess his brain figured if something was obvious it had to be wrong and a deeper analysis would reveal the hidden truth. As I frequently under-thought things, so he frequently over-thought them. As a team, we had problems surrounded.

The following morning, after Art had finished waking up, making his mud, and taking Leonard to day care, I called him over to my desk and asked him to open up his computer code file. Then I typed in the edits I had discovered.

He stared intently at my changes.

"Let's see if it works," he said.

He closed the file and saved it, then typed in the name of a program and pressed the Enter key.

"I'm compiling it," he said, sitting back in his chair, arms folded.

"What's that?"

"It's a program that reads the file you just typed and transforms the lines of text into machine readable binary code that the computer can recognize as legitimate instructions. It creates a file of this code. You can then just type the name of the file and the computer opens it up and follows all the instructions."

"What's binary code?"

"Its too complicated to explain."

"Oh."

The computer did nothing for a few seconds, then printed "Successful compilation" on the screen.

"Ready?" Tweed said. He was excited.

He typed the name of the newly compiled file and pressed Enter. The screen printed out ten lines just like he wanted. This is number 1. This is number 2. Etc.

"I knew you could do it!" he exulted.

"I just typed what was in the manual. You made some typos."

"Marge! It works!"

She glared at him.

"Oops," he said. "Sorry. It works, Margaret. I told you it would."

"Great. Now leave Blue alone. Let him type."

He went into the kitchen and I went back to typing.

And so began my programming career.






Chapter Six



My life with Teresa began in Nevada City, too.

The Deer Creek Inn was across the highway from Nevada City proper. It had a dining area on the top floor. On the bottom floor was a nice, dark bar.

A live band played every Sunday afternoon on the outside deck off the bar area. The deck overlooked a fast, crisp creek that gurgled through the rocks below.

It was a pleasant place to dawdle the day. The local bands were usually quite good. When they weren't, the sun, fresh air, gurgling river, and beer still made for a fine time in the great outdoors. And nice looking girls occasionally showed up that I could wonder how it would be to fall in love with them.

Or maybe just neck a bit to try things out. It was the first stop in love falling. To see if your lips matched up and some smoke got in your eyes. A lot of times, the lips matched up okay, but there wasn't any smoke. If you could neck with your eyes open, there wasn't any smoke in there to close them. Even a physically brain-impaired, physically height-challenged, physically weight-encumbered moron could see that.

The beer and sun were also splendid tonics for hangovers, should that need arise. For all these reasons I had quickly adopted the Deer Creek Sunday afternoons as part of my weekly routine. A routine was an informal Greek system that didn't have enough mustard to qualify as a rigid fetish.

At any rate, one wonderful Sunday, completely out of the blue, while the band was taking a break, Teresa stepped out onto the deck and paused to survey the scene.

She was alone.

Her dark brown hair was a stunning gush of electrified magnificence that cascaded over her shoulders half way down her back. Her head leaned resolutely forward as though the sheer weight of that great mass of hair could topple her over backward at any second.

She was slender, with long, lean legs, and held her shoulders inward as though cuddling herself against a cold breeze. With her elbows tucked into her ribs and her hands cupped one upon the other at her waist, she slowly and methodically scanned the deck.

Her perusal was not a quick swooshing glance from left to right or vice versa, as people usually did in a self-conscious orientation technique. Rather, she began with the view to the right, paused to absorb it, then moved her gaze a few degrees left and paused again to absorb some more. It was like picking your way from rack to rack in the lady's apparel section, examining a dress, and moving on.

It was a fascinating display of unhurried, public composure.

I was alone at a table against the wall on the far left of the deck. Which made me her final observation. When her gaze fell upon me, finally revealing her face, the impact was profound. Her face was smooth as silk, with high, angled cheek bones, and a firm jaw line. Her lips were wide and extraordinarily luscious looking. And her eyes. They were big and round and dark and deep.

I stared at her with my mouth hanging slightly open like a goon. It was too goon-like to qualify as an all out ogle. Rock stars probably saw this type of face in the front row of swooning fans.

A smile slid across her lips and parked lightly against her cheek. I hurriedly closed my yap. It could have been my imagination, of course, but I was convinced her left eye had twinkled briefly. Was the left eye the Republican side of the brain or the Democrat side? It was important to remember. I couldn't. She had both sides of my brain in the palm of her hands and I had stopped working properly.

She whirled suddenly and disappeared into the bar.

Wow! Did I just see what I just saw?

Much to my dismay, she did not return, taking with her my previously peaceful solitude. I couldn't get her out of my skull. I may have become slightly grumpy at work. My rapid progress in learning computer programming, which was a source of growing excitement, suddenly plateaued.

Did she live here? Was she just passing through? Would I ever see her again? Did she like baseball? Was she offended by belching? Did she only like guys who owned cats? Was she married? Had she given up dating poor guys who were slobs and ate hot dogs? Would she give a guy a chance if he promised to reform?

Two weeks crawled by.

"Let's get some lunch," Margaret announced.

It was Tuesday. Which did not distinguish itself from any other day of the week. The three of us, me and the Tweeds, always walked down the block and up the hill past the grocery store and across Broad Street to the Posh Nosh. It was a small bistro that made great sandwiches and had lots of connoisseur type wines displayed all over the place. There were tables inside, but more outside, down the steps at the back to the patio area.

We always ate outside, where you could get some sun and have a smoke before and after eating. The Tweeds had quit smoking when Leonard was born. I guess I should have gotten married and had kids. It was better for your health.

While we ate, Tweed read a computer magazine named Byte. Margaret pored over a pamphlet about new typesetting fonts and what they signified. I looked at the sky and thought about the little girl with all that hair.

Tweed finished eating and laid down his magazine. He had left his dill pickle spear uneaten. He always did. I grabbed it off his plate and took a juicy bite.

"We should get an IBM PC," he said. "Apple III is a disaster. They're recalling all of them. Steve Jobs really fucked up. He ordered the things shipped with no internal cooling fan. They're all overheating. Dumb shit."

"He's a millionaire. He can't be that dumb," Margaret said.

"He was lucky. It was Wozniak who was the genius."

"He's a millionaire, too. They both are."

"Our turn will come."

"Yeah. In the next life."

"We're doing okay."

"There's less than a thousand in the bank account. When are you going to get a new book client?"

"That's why we need the new PC. Everyone's shit canning their typewriters and switching to PCs. They're starting to bring us five and a quarter inch floppy disks now, not typewritten manuscripts. Nobody's using paper any more. We lost two possible jobs last week because we couldn't read the disks. All we've got is the eight inch Altos floppies. We need to switch to the five and a quarters the PC has."

"You want a whole new computer just for a different size floppy disk drive?"

"I don't make the rules. The Altos doesn't sell five and a quarter drives. Besides, nobody uses CP/M. It's all DOS."

"We just bought the Altos two years ago."

"It's obsolete."

"That's just great. Why did you buy it in the first place?"

"It had ten user capacity."

"We don't have ten users."

"I was thinking ahead. To the future."

"Why didn't you see the future would be five and a quarter DOS, Mr. Seer?"

"His swami hat was at the dry cleaners that day," I said.

I had to break in sometimes before they hauled out their flyswatters and went at it. Normally, being a bug on the wall with them worked fine for everybody. Me, anyway. They never seemed to mind what was on the wall. They could get careless with the flyswatters, is all. Then it got dangerous.

"You'll have to buy it from our money market funds," she said.

Tweed smiled broadly. He had won.

"Yeah. I guess so. We have enough, don't we?"

"It's getting low."

"But we have enough, right?"

"We can't keep affording your mistakes."

"It wasn't a mistake."

"I don't like digging into our savings. It makes me nervous. What if you're wrong again?"

"I wasn't wrong."

"What do you call it then?"

"Maybe I was premature."

She hmmphhed. "You would know all about that."

I could see Art give her the finger under the table. Up on top of the table, he gave her a patronizing smile.

"Trust me. I've done some research. We can get a lease-to-buy deal in Sacramento."

Margaret rolled her eyes and wiped her mouth with a napkin. She folded it on her plate and stood up. It was time to return to work.

Art looked at me. "What do you think, Blue?"

I shrugged. "You're the expert."

He rubbed his hands together gleefully. There was nothing that thrilled him more than getting new toys.

I followed them up the stairs. They stood to the side to let two women pass. The women were laughing about something.

There she was. One of the women. Coming down the stairs. She was going to have to walk right past me.

Three inch heels and three inch earrings. Tight green skirt just above the knees. White blouse opened two buttons. And all that hair.

She stopped laughing when she noticed me. Staring at her again. I gave her my best Tarzan smile. The Greystroke one, not the Johnny Weismuller one. Kind, brave, tough, gentle. It was a hard look to master. If you didn't pull it off, you ended up looking like a Korean mugger with steroid eyebrows.

She burst out laughing. Damn. Korean.

What the hell. I had made her laugh!

She had a terrific way of walking down the stairs. Like each step had feelings and she didn't want to hurt them.

We brushed shoulders as she went by me. She had long eyelashes. My skin jumped out and ran up and down her arm, splashing around in her aroma like it was an oasis.

I watched her descend all the way down to the patio. She turned at the bottom and looked back up at me. I was about to slide down the banister, throw her over my shoulder, and run for the nearest hayloft.

But she turned back to her friend and they went to find a table. Margaret and Art had gone on ahead. They hadn't even noticed me stop my life on a dime. I sat down on the stairway and put my arms across my knees to watch her a bit.

She had a great way of pulling out a chair to sit on it. She wiggled it a few times to make sure it wasn't stuck to the floor or might fall over. Then she pushed it back with one of those great looking legs of hers. Boy, were they great looking legs. They went all the way up inside her skirt where the rest of her was and connected to some great looking hips that were firm on the edge and soft on the top. Her waist went in from there and looked about the perfect size to put my arms around it.

Then she sat down. She had a great way of sitting down. Kind of like a maple leaf wafting down on a gentle breeze and landing peacefully on the surface of a lake.

There were menus propped up in the middle of the table. She had a great way of reaching for a menu. She did it sideways. One hand on the edge of the table and the other reaching out while her profile glanced my way. Her blouse had a great way of smoothing itself over her breasts and making them look very soft and desirable without plunging out and grabbing all your attention to them.

Her face had a great way of suddenly noticing I was staring at all her great ways and sitting on the stairway blocking it up. A couple of people were trying to squeeze around me. I wasn't giving them any mannerly help by budging even one inch. Idiots. Couldn't they see I was in an art gallery mesmerized by the greatest painting ever painted?

She cocked her head slightly to one side to watch me. I won't mention how great the way she cocked her head was. I was distracted from noticing it because she had her hand out there grabbing onto the menu but she wasn't moving from that pose. Instead she was looking at me. Locked in. On me.

I was hoping she was thinking what a great way I had of sitting on a stairway falling in love with her.

# # #

Art and I drove down to Sacramento to pick up the new computer he had ordered. It was a day time trip.

He had an old VW beetle that was fifteen or twenty years old. It was tan when he had it in college. Now it was light blue. There was a car seat in back for Leonard, who wasn't with us. He was in day care, as usual.

Art was excited. A new computer. Hot diggity. He bummed a cigarette from me, which he did whenever Margaret wasn't in the vicinity. They had quit, like I mentioned. Art was still sneaking them, though. He always carried around a breath spray he used to hide the smell. I don't know if it worked or not. Smokers couldn't tell. Their noses didn't work. You had to be a skunk to get in there and get any odor recognition.

"What was all that stuff about your sister Janet?" I asked him.

"Nothing. Margaret's delusional."

"About what?"

"Janet. We're very close. Margaret just likes to twist things."

"Twist what?"

"Everything."

"She catch you guys kissing or something?"

"It wasn't sexual. She's my sister, for chrissakes. Like I said. We're close."

"You weren't groping her, were you?"

"Of course not. It was just a hug. "

I let it go for awhile. Then I asked him, "Where'd she catch you?"

"Drop it, Monona. In the bathroom. What difference does it make?"

"The bathroom? Your bathroom's kind of small."

"We were brushing our teeth. It reminded us of growing up. She liked to come in and brush her teeth with me when she was a kid. It was cute. We were laughing about it. Margaret had a crappy childhood. She was jealous. She was an only child. She doesn't have any good memories of growing up. Her mother was terminally ugly and her father was a drunk. They were both mean as hell."

"That explains a few things."

"What things?"

"Did you have toothpaste in your mouth when you were kissing?"

"It was after we rinsed. We knocked heads over the sink. It made us laugh."

"So then you started kissing and hugging?"

"I told you. It wasn't sexual. It was just spontaneous. Brother and sister. Nothing more."

"I see."

"Jeez. You sound like Margaret. It wasn't like we were naked, for chrissakes."

"I wasn't saying that. Of course not."

"We both had our underwear on."

"Right."

"Kids do stuff like that. Your sisters probably did too."

"Sure."

I didn't remember any, though. Not with my younger sister. Not with my older one. We ran around in our underwear I'm pretty sure. But never together in the bathroom. Definitely never over toothpaste. And only as kids. Small kids. Really small. Art wasn't a kid, either. Neither was Janet.

"Let me have another cigarette. I'll buy you a pack in Sacramento."

I gave him one and let the scenery go by. Forests everywhere. The road wound in and out of the trees. You could barely see the sky. You had to stick your head out the window and turn it upside down.

It was a good road for being ambushed. It was easy to imagine riding along on your horse with some gold in your saddlebags and getting shot in the back by some guy in the trees. It was safer now. You only had to worry about a semi drifting over into your lane when you rounded a curve.

Good old bushwhacking. It sounded like an exciting time. Riding around in the trees shooting people in the back and stealing their stuff. Nowadays, it was called mugging. Words were getting weaker all the time.

Finally, the trees went away and it flattened out into Auburn, which had about ten miles of car dealerships at the north end of town. Very scenic. Back in the bushwhacker days, there would have been horse and cattle dealerships, instead of cars. Once again, depressing progress at work. Then you had neighing and whinnying and mooing. Now you had honking and vvrrooming and tire screeching. Then you had hitching posts. Now you had parking meters. Horses never ran into each other like cars did. You could get thrown off and only break a leg. Getting thrown off a car was practically always fatal.

Art was a Greek-head, like I have mentioned. Not a western guy at all. Not even as a kid. I had no idea what Art had done as a kid. I didn't even want to think about it. I had no idea what the Greeks would be doing up in the trees or down in the flatlands, either. I think they were out in boats all the time, duking it out with various forms of drowning each other or tossing spears into each other. Once in awhile they would lay siege to some city like Troy. It involved a lot of camping and plotting and adultery. According to Art, though, the Greeks spent most of their time inventing thought. Not very exciting.

"What are you thinking about?" Art asked.

"Civilization," I said.

"It's crawling by, all right."

"I wonder where it goes when we're gone."

"Into the toilet, where it always goes."

The Little Girl With All That Hair suddenly ran across a meadow in my head. She was throwing meadow flowers in the air and running around in her bare feet, laughing, the sun glistening off her eyes.

The Little Girl With All That Hair. TLGWATH. Suddenly I could see it was a personalized license plate type mystery. TLGWATH. What did it mean? I phoneticized it out. TuhLigWath. TuhLigWath. TellingWath. TellHimWath. TellHimWhat? No. TellingWath. No. Wait! I had it! She lisped. Without the lisp, it was TellingWays. Her Indian name. She was a see into the future type person. Or just a gorgeous lady. TellingWays. It worked both ways. I couldn't wait to meet her. I knew I would, too. I just knew it. She lived here. Somewhere around here, she was living away right under my nose. And I would find her.

I could see her and me riding down out of the hills on our steeds. Heading to the settlement for supplies. Flour and beans and salt and honey and jugs of fire water. She would be riding a Pinto. Bareback. No saddle. No reins. No bit. She wouldn't want to cause the horse any pain. She rode with the mane as her reins. I would be on a donkey, braying along beside her. Trying to keep up.

TellingWays. I knew it was her.

What was I? The Big Guy With No Brains. TBGWNB. I didn't even have to think about it. It fell into place like an instant. ToBeGoingBlind. Traveling the road with no steering wheel. That was me without her. Of course. It was obvious.

She was getting close now. I could feel it.

We passed through Auburn and down out of the mountains towards Sacramento. The freeway immediately clogged up. A couple miles down the road, we could see an ambulance and two or three cop cars. All three lanes of the freeway had to squeeze into one lane to get around whatever was wrecked ahead of us.

"Shit," Art said. He was anxious to lay his hands on that new computer.

"Who's going to use the new computer?" I asked him.

"I will. At first, anyway. Break it in for everyone."

Break was certainly likely to occur, unfortunately. Art had a habit of losing track of himself at any given moment. Forgetting to save a file before closing it. Putting floppy disks in the slot upside down. Throwing salt in his coffee rather than sugar. Driving north when the direction was south. Lots of little things like that. He needed some kind of secretary to help him out, more or less. To him, though, it was just getting distracted by all the thinking and envisioning ahead that he did.

We all had ways of polishing up our apples, I guess.

By the time we got to the wreck, it was gone. There was some glass all over the road for people to clean up with their tires going over the pieces constantly until the glass was all out there embedded in tire treads somewhere, humming along the road carrying an accident into the future. There was no way to tell how bad the wreck was or if anybody got their head tore off or something.

The freeway was wide open after the wreck part and Art floored the VW up to about sixty-two miles an hour. It wouldn't go any faster without all the fenders rattling off. Cars zoomed past us.

"When are you going to get a newer car, Art?"

"You should talk. All you've got is a Postal van. How fast does that go?"

"Thirty-five."

We both started laughing. Civilization was roaring by us like we were standing still, computer buying guys or not.

The computer leasing office was on the eastern edge of Sacramento, so we didn't have to mess with the downtown area. It was out near Sacramento State University. After we picked up the computer, we dropped in on the campus to get some lunch and see what students were looking like these days.

We'd been out of college for ten years or so. It looked like things had pretty much gotten back to normal. A lot of students had long hair and beards, but none of them looked like hippies. Everybody could wear jeans now, even the teachers. Bras were back in style. Jobs were taken more seriously. The food had more variety of health related stuff. But the basics were still the same. Students talking very, very seriously about how to change the world so it would be better than it was.

Good luck.

The real world had slapped that out of me pretty quick. Out here the main thing everyone talked about was how to survive. How to avoid being road kill on the big highway of life. Very few people thought they could change anything at all – for better or worse. There were two basic schools of thought about it. People who survived by being delusional. And people who survived by being cynical.

I was in the cynical school, obviously. It was more comfortable for me. Failure was allowed. Which produced no pressure situations, which led to no ulcer situations. In some ways, I suppose I was an unconscious health fiend.

Sins and mistakes and shortcomings and the whole lot of generally not good things that seemed to come natural to me were also allowed. Life was okay to mosey around in, have a little success and some fun. But in the end, it was basically a hill of beans. A mole hill that didn't grow. A ship that never came in. A sound with furious nothingness.

A journey to somewhere else.

TellingWays. She was there again. What would she be? Delusional, for sure. Cynicism would not park in her bones. She would shine her way to every lightness through every darkness. Through every snow, rain, sleet, or hail. Delivering the mail of hope and beauty and truth and justice. She'd burn off my cynicism like the sun on the morning fog. I'd be helpless in the power of her TellingWays.

TellingWays and ToBeGoingBlind. Yes.

The journey to somewhere else would be a good journey. She would make sure of that. There was no way to stop a TellingWays. No way at all.

"Girls don't show their breasts like they used to," Art said.

"Nope. They sure don't. But you've got a new computer."

"Yes. There is that. There is definitely that. Let's go home and plug it in."

Fine Art. Plug it in. Plug in your new computer and look for its breasts.

I had TellingWays. She was out there. And I would find her. Old ToBeGoingBlind would find her.






Chapter Seven



Tweed and I leaned on the railing of his back porch, passing a joint back and forth. A doobie they called them once. Not me. Too goofy. A joint, a reefer. Fine. A doobie? Never. No way. Jeez. Wimp city. Rookies, dabblers, moms and dads, knuckle-heads – they smoked doobies. Not me.

It was noon on a Saturday. We were watching Margaret and a woman named Mindy spread out blankets on the lawn fifteen feet below us. Mindy lived in the house across the lawn, which was an area shared by her and the Tweeds. Her house was actually on the next street, below the Tweed street.

Leonard scampered around the yard trying to get a kite to fly. It was going to be a picnic. Wine and sandwiches from the Posh Nosh.

"She sure turns me on," Art said.

He was referring to Mindy. She was directly below us and he was looking down her halter top. Her halter top was smaller than her swim suit bra and exposed a white area of breast that hadn't been tanned. Art was breast hunting again. It was his favorite hobby.

"I'd love to have a foursome someday. You and Marge and me and Mindy."

He nudged me with an elbow, trying to share his juicy fantasy.

"Pass the joint," I said.

I suspected that Tweed was disappointed in me. Perhaps Margaret, also. Their social life, and it seemed their marriage, was about as drab and uneventful as corn flakes with no milk. I was supposed to juice things up.

They had visited the nightclub in Cotati once and drooled at the sexual energy that permeated the scene. It was assumed I would bring that drool with me, stuck on my clothes or something, and wild times would be had by all. Just what I sought to escape, unfortunately for their fantasies. I was duller than them.

Tweed was funny that way. When we went to parties in college he always was a big hit with the ladies. His vocabulary and wit and manners charmed hell out of them. Kept them fascinated. In stitches.

His problem was he didn't recognize when it was time to talk from when it was time to act. By the end of the party, everyone would be off in the dark doing some serious lip surgery and he'd be alone in the living room, watching TV with somebody's younger brother.

It's probably where he got this weird fantasy that people were always having orgies and he'd missed the signal. He never imagined anyone just kissing and petting, or more if you were inclined, by themselves. It was too plain, too ordinary, to just be two people making out. It had to be an orgy. The whole world was orgying away out there without him. For all my supposed drool days, I had never been to an orgy. Not even once. But you couldn't stick any sense into Art when he was latched onto a juicy hallucination.

We finished the joint and went down to the picnic. Leonard ran over to Art trailing his kite along the ground. "Dad," he whined. "Make it work. It won't fly."

Art was wearing his very short shorts, as usual, and no underwear. His legs were spindly as a stork. You could see up the legs of his shorts easier than you could see up a woman's miniskirt when she didn't keep her legs crossed like a vise.

When he sat on his haunches to fiddle with the kite, his balls hung out the edge of his shorts. It was not a pretty sight.

"Arthur, your balls are showing again," Mindy said.

She was a reporter for the local newspaper and tried to report everything accurately and precisely. She could even look at dismembered bodies at a car accident scene without puking. Which was why the sight of Art's balls hanging out didn't faze her all that much. She was used to gross sights.

Margaret started laughing. She knew what Art was up to. Thinking a display of his balls might be sexy. She loved it when someone pointed out he was an idiot.

I was feeling like we would definitely need more wine, even though I was only pouring my first glass. I knew it was going to be a dull picnic if I didn't have enough wine. Mindy and Art liked to hunker down over political discussions like they were lions over raw wildebeests. They could rail and fumigate about legislation and candidates all afternoon. But I needed some serious wine slugging. It was another of my character flaws.

Politics was very boring to me. Legislation was built out of lawyers. Get a clue. It was America. As for candidates, gag me. If you've seen one lying bag of hot winded chicanery with its hands in your pocket, you've seen them all. Freeloaders. Pure and simple. Rhetoric and promises be damned.

I wondered what TellingWays would think about it. I had a lot to learn from her. I couldn't wait to get started. Hurry up, TW. GoingBlind is getting antsy. Show yourself.

Art got the kite flying and gave the reins to Leonard. He held it for ten seconds, then let go of it. The kite blew away over the roof tops. He grinned in that evil little way kids do when they know they've pissed off an adult.

"Leonard!" Art said sternly. "Why did you do that?"

Leonard laughed and started rolling around on the ground. Kids really loved to roll around on the ground and eat sand and dirt. I probably had done it, too. But I couldn't remember. It was how you got worms sticking out of your butt. I remember that. From my sister. Her butt got them. Pretty hilarious seeing them wiggle around when she bent over so mom could verify the diagnosis.

Art watched the kite disappear and looked tempted to go retrieve it.

"Let it go," Margaret said.

Mindy frowned. "That would be littering. You could get fined."

"I'll get it," I said, downing the rest of my wine and walking off before anyone could disagree.

I found it in the next block, caught in the phone wires next to a small house. I knocked on the front door to get permission to climb up on the roof and fetch it. The door opened.

It was her. She was it. TellingWays was here at last.

We stared at each other, mutually dumbfounded.

"Uh, hi," I said.

"Hello," she said.

It was the first time I'd heard her voice. There was a dove on her tongue that flew free when she opened her mouth. She had the kind of voice you wouldn't mind hearing for the next forty or fifty years.

"The kite," I said, pointing at the wires. Maybe she thought I was stalking her. "It's up there. Caught."

She stepped outside and looked up, then back at me and cocked an eye.

"Is that your kite?"

"No. I mean, yes. It's Leonard's. It flew away. I came to get it."

"Your boy?"

"No, no. Not my boy. Art's boy. I don't have any children. I'm not married."

Settle down, you dunce! Her shoulders were chuckling. There were a lot of voices chattering inside her house. Someone called out to her.

"In a minute," she called back.

"I was hoping you'd let me climb up on your roof and get the kite."

"Sure. How are you going to get up there? I don't have a ladder."

There was a tree by the corner of the house. "I could go up the tree and swing over."

She appraised the tree. Then me. It was great her appraising me up and down. Even though I knew boys didn't have anything much to look up and down appraising about. I felt like asking her to dance.

"I don't know if your legs are long enough to make it. What if you fell?"

"I won't. But I'll sign a waiver if you want."

She laughed. "That won't be necessary. Go ahead and try. I'll watch."

I went over to the tree, eager to show her what a nimble, he-man bastard I was. Most boys were addicted to he-manning stuff, it seemed like. Art liked to he-brain things.

Getting to the roof, unfortunately, was no big deal. I stepped into the crotch of the tree, walked out on a limb, and stepped onto the roof. I thought about falling off to see if she would come over and lift up my head with her hands and be concerned if I was okay or not. But if she did I'd have to wonder if she was a gullible moron. Too risky.

I was up and down quickly. The activity helped normalize me, though. It was great standing there with a kite in my hand, fiddling around with it while it tried to blow this way and that in the wind. I was wishing I had taken some Chinese dancing classes in college, so I could break out into a kite dance right in front of her. She was on the porch and I was on the sidewalk. She was a step up from me. Eye level.

"Leonard will be happy," she said.

"He's the one who let it go. I had him point it at your house so I could meet you. In person, that is. It's always been across the room so far. Maybe you didn't notice me. I sure noticed you, though."

"How'd you know I lived here?"

"I didn't. The kite did."

I was getting her attention, it seemed like. She crossed her arms and squinted her eyes and wrinkled her lips. Wow. What a set of lips. They didn't make many lips like that. None, in fact. None at all.

What the heck. I blurted it straight out. "I hope you don't mind but I happened to notice that you are absolutely, totally beautiful."

She blushed slightly. "Uh, thank you."

"You got a husband?"

"No."

"Ex-husband?"

"No."

"Boyfriend?"

"Not really."

"Ex-boyfriend?"

"Yes."

Whew. Girl friend would have broke my heart forever.

"Can I kiss you?"

"Not today."

"Tomorrow?"

She laughed. She thought around a bit. I fiddled with the kite.

"I'll be at the river in the afternoon. Ask me then."

"What time?"

"Around two."

"What's your name?"

"Teresa. What's yours?"

"Blue."

"Is that a mood choice?"

"Color. My dad's odd sense of humor. That was my hue when I came out of mom with the umbilical chord around my neck."

"I see."

"Your last name," I said. "Just a hunch. Is it TellingWays?"

"No. Breeze. Teresa Breeze."

I knew it. She blew into my sails and I floated away.

# # #

The river was a few miles north of town. The swimming area was downstream from the bridge. Upstream, scattered dreamers still panned for gold.

I parked my car and made my way down the embankment over the rocks and through the trees. I stood beside the river and looked for her. She wasn't there. I was a half hour early, though.

I found a rock to sit on while I waited. There was no sand, just rocks. The river was normally shallow, fast, and furious, but here there was some depth that slowed it and created a few swimming holes.

People were scattered here and there on both sides of the river. Some waded or swam a few strokes. Some stretched out on flat rocks in the river and soaked up the sun. Some sat on blankets and ate sandwiches. Normal going to the river stuff.

Everyone was naked. Even the kids. I wondered if Teresa knew this was a nude beach. It could get sticky if she didn't. She had suggested it, though. She must have known.

I'd been here several times. It was peaceful and the burble of the river over the rocks was slightly hypnotic. It was a strangely private place. Nude people kept to themselves and nobody ogled or hustled. There was less sex in the air than there was at a laundromat. Wading around nude in the great outdoors was a free and exotic feeling. You didn't need anything more to make it a fine day.

In the city, you had to join a club to do it. It wasn't the same. Not even close. Clubs were never close. I don't know why anyone joined them.

I took off my shoes and socks, but left the rest of my clothes on. I wasn't sure how this was going to go. I was still ToBeGoingBlind, let's face it.

Finally, I saw her. She stood by the river, looking around. When she spotted me waving she walked over. She didn't sashay her hips when she walked, like most women. It was more like she skimmed along the ground. Elbows in, forearms swinging, palms up, head down and leading the way. Determined. Her hair was in a pony tail today, catching the wind like a stallion.

"I see you made it," she said, stopping in front of me.

"You bet."

She dropped her purse on the ground and kicked off her sandals.

"Did you bring your birthday suit?" she asked.

"I never go anywhere without it."

She smiled and, looking steadily at me, began to unbutton her blouse. I took my T-shirt off as quick as I could and threw it in a wad on the ground. I didn't want to miss anything. Not to be rude, I looked her straight in the eyes.

It was extremely hard not to waver my gaze. Something else was getting hard, too, and would be embarrassing in a few moments. She undid the last button and let her blouse fall to the ground. I willed myself to keep looking at her eyes. I couldn't keep from sucking in a lung full of air, though, and exhaling it slowly. My peripheral vision was peeking around like crazy. I couldn't stop it.

"This is the first date I've ever been on," I said, "where I didn't wear any clothes."

"Is this a date?"

"You tell me. I don't care what you call it. Anything's fine with me."

"Let's call it a rendezvous."

"Sure. With destiny?"

"I guess we'll find out."

We unbuttoned our shorts. She wiggled out of hers, along with her underwear, and let them fall to her ankles. Then stepped out of both and flicked them aside with her foot. I slid mine down and did the same. They caught on my foot. I kicked them loose, but they caught again. I reached down and threw them aside. Women could wiggle out of clothes with ease. Men had to axe their way out.

I blushed self-consciously as I stood there swollen in front of her. She looked down at me and chuckled. Oh, oh.

"Somebody seems to like me," she said.

Whew. I looked down at myself and shrugged apologetically. "Oops."

"That's okay," she said. "I like a man who speaks his mind."

She held out her hand. "Shall we wade?"

The cool water of the river quickly shrank my loudmouthed friend down to size. A little too much down to size to suit me. The cool water had the opposite effect on her, hardening the nipples on her small, round breasts. I was bursting with wild agog. It was the hugest I-can't-believe-this-is-really-happening moment of my whole life.

Wow. People really could actually feel this way. Just like Mom had always said. When it happens, you'll know, Blue. She used to give me that great loving motherly smile then, and ruffle my hair. You'll know, son.

We stepped gingerly downstream, catching each other when one of us stumbled on a submerged rock. I tried not to stumble too often so it wouldn't be obvious to her I just liked having her catch my elbow and brush against me.

The water varied from ankle deep to hip deep. I soaked up being with her. The only thing I could think of to say was, "Can I spend the rest of my life with you?"

It was probably too soon to go that far. Even a moron like me could understand that. I'd wait a half-hour.

"So, Mr. Blue, who are you?"

"Just a nobody who's the happiest guy in the world right now."

She slid her hand up my arm and gave it a squeeze. What a hand.

"What do you do the rest of the time?" she asked.

"I'm working with a friend. He has a typesetting business. Tweed Typography. It's up around the block from your house. I'm learning computer programming. Before that, I managed a night club in Cotati. Over in Sonoma County."

"Computers and music. An odd mix. Do you play? Music, I mean."

"No. I just listen. How about you? Who are you?"

"A girl in trouble."

"What kind of trouble?"

She leaned up against me. Nestled her shoulder in there on my arm. God, her skin was so soft and smooth it melted me like an ice cream cone in a kid's hand on a hot day. Dripping down his fingers faster than he could lick it.

"Man trouble."

Uh, oh. Shit. "What kind of man trouble?"

She stopped and looked at me with a rueful smile. "You."

"I'm trouble?"

"Yes. I didn't want to be with a man right now."

"Does that mean you're with me?"

"Apparently so."

"Don't mind me if I start floating or something. I think a cloud just slipped under my feet."

She coughed through her nose. "You are one full of bullshit character."

We waded on.

Fish leaped out of the water and skated on their fins. Birds danced on the shore holding their wings outstretched as they warbled Moonlight Sonata. Squirrels swung from limb to limb doing triple somersaults in midair. A fawn tiptoed across the water without causing a ripple.

It was funny. I had never noticed these wonders before. It was like I'd been blind all my life. ToBeGoingBlind all right. It was all there to see if you just opened your eyes and spent even a second with the girl of your lifetime.

The river turned a corner and we found ourselves alone.

Teresa led the way to shore and we sat down on a warm, flat rock and dangled our feet in the river.

We sat side by side.

I tried to think of something humorous to say. It was hard to be funny when you wanted to. Only comedians could do it.

"What do you do when you're not in trouble?" I asked.

"I paint. Play the piano. Dabble at this and that. I'm too scatterbrained to focus on any one thing."

"You own your house though, right?"

"It was in my dad's will."

"You probably want to know if I'm a secret axe murderer. It's a standard question on the rendezvous questionnaire these days."

She elbowed me. "Yes. It was on the tip of my lip. That's why I suggested this place. You couldn't hide any weapons."

"I have a miniature one taped to the bottom of my foot."

"No wonder you can't walk straight. And all along I thought you just liked groping me."

"You noticed, huh."

"Yeah. But you didn't."

"You were groping me?"

"No. I was seeing if my skin crawled when it touched you."

"Did it?"

She leaned her head against my shoulder and put her arm around my back. What an arm. She laid the other hand on my hip bone. Smoothing it around in her palm. It stuck out a bit. My hip bone, that is. My insides were groaning up a storm. Total happiness was taking over everything that used to just be me.

I placed my hand on her leg and stroked it reverently. Wow. What a leg.

What. A. Leg.

All I could think of was "Please God, don't kill me now. Wait till tomorrow at least."

We laid down on our backs, our feet still dangling in the water. Side by side on the hot, flat rock of life, our shoulders touching, staring up at the sky. I held her hand. It fit like a glove.

"The sky's blue today," I said.

"How remarkable," she said.

We laid there for awhile. It was like an echo chamber. Every sound was loud and clear and whapped around through the trees. You could hear cars driving by on the road above the river. Going north. There was nothing much up north but serious mountain territory. Lots of it.

Where were they going? The car engines sounded lonely. Trudging off somewhere like a beast of burden. Huffing up the road, higher and higher they would go. Radiators panting. Transmissions dug down into low gear. Sweating ahead mile by mile. Tires clutching the road so they didn't fall off a cliff and turn into smithereens all up and down the mountainside. All to get somewhere that was nowhere.

"I know your Indian name," I said.

"I don't have one. I'm Italian."

"Breeze is Italian?"

"No. My mother was."

"Everybody has an Indian name. Yours is TellingWays."

"That's pretty dumb."

"You want to know what mine is?"

"Not particularly."

"It's ToBeGoingBlind."

"I think you're already there."

"I know. You're the there."

"Do you always talk with your mouth full? Or is it just me?"

"It's you. I'm having a thought."

"You're scaring me."

"I'm thinking we should fall in love and live happily ever after. What do you think?"

"We just met. We don't know anything about each other."

"We can find out as we go."

"What if we find out we don't fit?"

"We won't. We do."

"You're pretty sure of yourself."

"Not normally. Just with you. You like me, don't you?"

"I hate you. You're ruining my life."

I rolled over on my side so I could look at her. "Is it okay if I look at you?"

"You already are."

"I know. Wow. You really are beautiful."

She squinted up at me. Then she smiled and rubbed her hand on my cheek. She closed her eyes and sighed.

"Blue," she said.

"Yes, Teresa?"

"You can kiss me now."






Chapter Eight



Margaret was no longer my boss.

This did not sit well with her. Nor did my working at home instead of in her living room. Her thumb had grown accustomed to my face.

Teresa had bought me my own computer for a wedding present, from the proceeds of the sale of her house. She and I and the Tweeds had all moved to Sebastopol, a small burg twelve miles west of Santa Rosa. I was back in Sonoma County again.

There was not enough work in Nevada City. None of us wanted to live in the big city, like San Francisco or Sacramento or Oakland. Sebastopol was the compromise. Small country town, an hour from all the cities.

I was now a contract programmer and not an employee. I didn't work by the hour. I worked by the job. Art wasn't thrilled with this development. It made us equals. He owned him and I owned me. He had always been careful to treat me like an equal and left it up to Margaret to provide the pointed hints to the contrary. Now that equality was fact, however, the wind had gone out of his exuberant leadership. There was no one to lead.

Revenues had tripled, however.

In a stunningly short time, the typing had disappeared from typesetting. The typing was now done by the authors and located on computer disks. With files created by WordPerfect, Wang, Microsoft Word, Displaywrite, Multimate, PFS, PC-Write, Q&A Write, Volkswriter, XyWrite, Samna, OfficeWriter, WordStar, DCA/RFT, EasyWriter, Spellbinder, IslandWrite, SunWrite. Word Processors they were called. New companies sprang up monthly to grab a piece of the pie. It was like some kind of gold rush.

These files all looked like words on the computer screen and on the paper from the printer. However, underneath, stored on the disk, they were all vastly different.

The files were full of entities called bytes. There were 256 possible values any one particular byte could have. This was referred to as the ASCII chart. American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Very sexy stuff.

At first, I had a lot of trouble visualizing these microscopic byte things. It sounded like bacteria squirming around on the surface of the floppy disk. The image probably came from the computer lingo that referred to programmer mistakes as bugs. It made me want to wash my hands after handling one of the disks.

Then I had an idea that worked for me. It was a real Bingo moment. Something else might work for somebody else.

Anyway, I started imagining these bytes like they were each a teensy tiny coffin. Very small. Lived next door to the Molecule family. Each of these coffins had eight levers on the side like slot machine arms. The floppy disk was like a huge graveyard where all these byte coffins were buried.

A programmer was like a grave digger, down there exhuming remains or stuffing them in. You had to sign up for a particular type of programming Union to get a license to get in the graveyard and exhume or stuff.

One was COBOL, Common Business Oriented Language. Obviously, not very sexy. It was used mainly by businesses and produced the stuff you see on the bank teller's screen when she tells you there's no money in your account.

Another was FORTRAN, for Formula Translating System. It was as old as Milton Berle, and was used primarily by severe Math heads and scientific geeks and was definitely not for use in normal society.

A third was Pascal. This one was named after Blaise Pascal, a famous mathematician and philosopher. It was for classrooms that taught you how to do structured programming, instead of wild slopping shovels and dirt every which way programming, so you could graduate into the difficult geek languages later on.

Still another was BASIC. Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. You can tell who this baby was for. Ordinary idiots who flunked math but did well in home making and PE. It was for household programs that reminded you to keep dentist appointments. It was one of the primary unstructured type of programming languages that Pascal could teach you how not to do. Trying to get a clue from somebody's BASIC programming code was like running around in the graveyard dressed in a chicken suit with your head cut off.

And then there was C. Just plain old C. As the name implies, it was a bare bones type of language that didn't gab around with a lot of words when a simple letter would suffice just as well. It was developed in the 70's for Unix computers and spread like wildfire through the computer world. It took up a lot less space to get the job done and was great for writing System Software.

Like good old DOS.

If you didn't pull any of the coffin levers, the lid stayed closed and that meant the byte was named Zero, like nobody was buried there. If you pulled all eight levers, the lid popped up and there was somebody named Two Hundred and Fifty-five laying in there. Smiling of course. These bytes were born to be user friendly. They were robots, essentially, and who would buy a robot who frowned? Two hundred and fifty-five was as crowded as the coffin could get. With the zero, of course, being a two hundred and fifty-sixth type of byte of nothingness. The Unknown Soldier of bytesville.

If you pulled one lever down and not the others, the lid popped up and a Mr. One was in there eating an apple or something. If you pulled only the second lever, and not the first or any of the others, Mrs. Two would be in there. If you pulled the first and second, but none of the others, Mr. Three would smile up at you.

The odd stiffs were males and the even stiffs were females, even though they were both really robots. This gender orientation had been agreed to at a top level conference of very strange people who had formerly just been Dorks, but were now ostentatiously called Nerds. Since Nerds were by definition neuter entities, they insisted on injecting SEX into their work even if it was ridiculous to people who actually had sex. It was best not to interrogate Nerds about their reasons. You could get Nerd juice on your clothes and become impotent.

This Nerd agreement about bytes having SEX was reached only after a long duke out, though, which the Nerds felt was necessary to simulate a marital dispute. They were of the misguided opinion that these marital disputes were a foreplay thing before the actual consumption of SEX. Since they had never been on dates, they had no personal experience that sex rarely involved fighting, especially when both people were very hungry like often happened on dates.

At any rate, for this reason, I never asked the coffin dwellers what they did there in the dark, waiting for their lid to open. It seemed impolite.

Believe it or not, all the combinations of the eight levers up or down could turn out two hundred and fifty-five different coffin stiffs, plus the zero for empty. Two hundred and fifty-six. You had to get a pencil and a long sheet of paper, or take math, to convince yourself this one stinking little byte could have so many personalities.

Then the possibilities got really hairy in a hurry. Some smart-ass programmers started welding two coffins together to get one amalgamated stiff. This stiff could have sixty-five thousand five-hundred and thirty-six different identities, not just two hundred and fifty-six. Not to be outdone, other smart-ass programmers welded three coffins and produced a stiff swelled all the way up to sixteen million seven hundred and seventy-seven thousand two hundred and sixteen. That's 16,777,216.

You don't want to know what the smart-ass number for four welded coffins was. It was too frightening to think about. Plus it wouldn't fit on your calculator display if you tried to get mathematical about it. You'd only get some wild ass calculator display full of numbers followed by an E. The E stood for Error or Egads, I was never sure which. Somehow, this was supposed to be helpful knowledge.

It didn't stop the smart-ass programmers from doing it, though. In fact, eight welded coffins were no big deal anymore. Hell, sixteen even. The sky was the limit. And it was. We're talking stars and galaxies and grains of sand on the world's beaches numbers. Angels on the head of a pin.

All in multiples of eight, for some reason I never understood. Why not ten, which was a lot easier to do math with? When I pointed this out to a really, really severe math infested Nerdolino, however, I witnessed my first experience of a person actually laughing himself to death.

Each of the coffin dwellers, the bytes, had – you guessed it – eight legs. These legs were called Bits. You could yank them on or off like the coffin levers to create mutated entities called Byte Manipulations. When you manipulated the bytes you did it by employing Bitwise Algorithms.

You had to have really small hands to get in there and manipulate, though. And a certain kind of twisted, partially depraved outlook on life, which Nerds seemed to enjoy having. It really made their eyes glow and their eyebrows frizz out all over the place. If you had hair in your ears that could frizz out too, you were considered a top echelon Nerd. These top echeloners had usually been born with abundant Nerd genes and didn't have to learn Nerdness from scratch like I was trying to do. The jargon alone was stressing out brain cells in my head that had made a home on a tropical beach in the Neuron Ocean and never expected to be called to duty.

The characters and punctuation of the English language occupied the coffins with names from Mrs. Thirty-two to Mr. One Hundred and Twenty-seven. The other coffins were called non-printing characters. This was kinder than referring to them as number-challenged discards.

As you might expect, all these unemployed nuts loitering in the coffins became fair game to manipulative programmers bent on erecting their own personal gratification systems. These gratification seekers started rounding up the nuts and putting them in slave camps where they had to perform computer instructions all day long and never got to sun themselves on a printed page.

Some of them, the High Bit stiffs in the coffins past Mr. One-Twenty-Seven, were assigned to be negative numbers. This tickled hell out of the Zero coffin since it restored His Royal Neuterness to his natural state of being in the center of all the action.

This whole activity of the manipulative programmers eventually spawned programs called Word Processors.

None of the Word Processor programs used the nut coffins in the same way, so all the files produced by them were dramatically different. Not only that, but in the DOS world, the coffins were welded together to the right, whereas in the Unix world they were welded together to the left! Pretty nutty stuff.

Ergo, as you can see, all these programs needed to be interpreted and put into a different graveyard where typesetting instructions were buried.

Translation programming. Written in C. In jargonese, Filters. Sifters. Strainers. Pouring bytes through one side of your program and churning out different bytes on the other. Input and output bytes.

Enter me. Yodeling in a universal byte dialect from the peak of Mount Babble. How often in history does a career appear overnight out of thin air. I was like the kid next door when the wheel inventor asked, "Can you do round, boy?"

Sure, and how about a little hole in the middle?

"You should enter the pie eating contest," Art said to me. "I know you would win."

"I'm on a diet," I said.

He was always imagining Herculean conquests from me at ridiculous pursuits. I should have been offended at these subconscious efforts to trivialize me, but I rarely was. Truth be told, I did excel at oddball adventure. I had once jumped off a two story building for the mere amusement of scaring him. It stung like I imagined a lightning bolt might from my heels to my head. All my bones ringed and zinged like the Liberty Bell before it cracked. I filed away the knowledge: Don't do that again, fool.

"What a cute little fair," Teresa said. She was eyeballing the arts and crafts booths spread around the park.

"There's no rides," I groused.

"You'll have to make do with the Children's Corner," she teased. "There's a slide there. And a Jungle Gym."

Margaret was off keeping up with Leonard, who was older now and getting much better at ditching her supervision. We were all attending the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair at Ragel Ranch on the west end of Sebastopol.

It was "The Sweetest Little Fair in Sonoma County." A must see event. Incredibly, hordes of people from the Bay area did in fact actually drive all the way up here to attend. Gilroy had garlic. Iowa had corn. Napa had grapes. Castroville had artichokes. China had rice. Sebastopol had apples.

Monterey had jazz. You could buy the other stuff at the grocery store.

Teresa could read my thoughts.

"Don't get all bah, humbug on me," she said.

She put her arm inside mine and nuzzled against me. All the grouse whooshed out of me in a second. It didn't take much to remind me how nuts I was about her. She could play me like a Stradivarius violin in the hands of old Stradavari himself. Strumming my strings high and low, however she wanted me to sound.

Art didn't care much for schmaltz. He liked Teresa, but not particularly the change she'd made in me. "You guys make me sick," he said. "I need a beer."

"I'll pass," Teresa said. "Why don't you boys run along. I want to check out the arts and crafts."

"I'll go with you," I said.

"No way. You never like anything. All you see is the price tag. If it's cheap, you say it's junk. If it's expensive, you say it's overpriced."

"I bought an artsy ashtray once."

"Right. It was a woman's butt."

"No it wasn't. It was a truck driver's butt."

"How could you tell?"

"It had a twenty-two speed gear box on the side for resting your cigarette."

"I wondered what that was."

Art and I got a cup of beer and found a seat on the grass in the shade of an oak tree. There were no apple trees here. They were off in the surrounding hills. There were pictures of the orchards you could buy at a booth.

We watched the world go by, most of it waddling. America was turning into chunk city. Triple E shoes and Double D bras and size two hundred belts. And no wonder. Corn dogs, caramel apples, barbecued meat, cotton candy, ice cream bars, hamburgers, fries, pickled elephant toes.

The standard fare at every fair. And every mall. And every everywhere. Good finger-licking crapola. They were greasing up the world as fast as you could show somebody a hamburger. You could yap about calories and fat all you wanted. But the crapola just out-tasted the healthy cuisine. There was one yogurt type stand at the fair. It never had a line forming.

"Lot of fatsos out there," I mentioned to Art.

"Calorie absorbing mechanisms," he said.

"Right. Lot of butts that don't fit on the toilet no more."

"Handicapped citizens."

"Right. Lot of guts squeezing over the table tops."

"Appetite disordered individuals."

"Right. Lot of shoes busting out the seams."

"Walking disabled citizens."

"Right. Lot of boobs spooshing out of their bras."

"Good wholesome mammaries."

"I've been thinking about marketing my translation programs."

"You're nuts."

"Brain impaired."

"Fucking screwball."

"I think I could sell them."

He twitched nervously. His body parts were the only way you could get a read on his feelings. His mouth was hidden under a mustache that looked like a weed patch at the edge of town. His eyes were magnified behind his coke bottle glasses and always looked the same. A dinosaur egg sunny side up. The yolk part was light blue.

"How would you do that?" he asked.

"I'd put all my translation programs onto one floppy disk, with a main menu User Interface where you could select the particular translation you wanted to run. If you had a WordPerfect file, you'd select WordPerfect from the menu."

"Who would want to buy it?"

"Typesetters like us."

"You'd be killing our market. Why give away our secret to competitors?"

He didn't mention that "our secret" was my work, not his. He was always he. I was always us. "They wouldn't be competitors. They'd be clients."

"There wouldn't be enough of them. There's only twenty or so in the area."

"I know. It would have to be national."

"How the hell are we going to do that? We don't have any capital."

See what I mean. He was already we-ing himself into my idea. It was okay. I'd need some sort of idiot to handle marketing and sales.

"I don't know. I haven't gotten that far. Get phone books of all the major cities and do a mailing to all the typesetters. Some stupid ass thing like that."

"Blue, you're a dreamer. Hey Mr. Chicago typesetter guy. You don't know me from Jack Diddly Squat, but send me your money and I'll send you a disk."

"They sell brides that way."

"You can see a picture of what you're getting, though."

"So, we'll take a picture of a disk with our name on it."

"It'll never work."

Art didn't like it when I thought of dreams that would never work. That was his job. At least, it had been. Not so much since we'd moved, though.

Nevada City had been a lot more significant for him to swim in a small pond and float on his back. There wasn't much competition there for typesetting and brain size.

He had a small home now, with two bedrooms. The office was a separate place three blocks away. He didn't have to drive to Sacramento every night. Leonard was going to school instead of day care.

It was too sane for him. He had filled a lot of his time with crazy shit that distinguished him from normal living. You could see it made him nervous for his old comfortable chaos.

And mostly, I spent my time with Teresa now, instead of him. He spent his with Margaret. And Mindy didn't live below him to look down her halter top.

Our worlds had changed.






Chapter Nine



Babble Software opened for business in 1986. Its product was called Tower of Babble.

Tweed and I formed a partnership. I made the product and he marketed it. Since we were life long friends, we did not feel the need to have any written agreement as to our business relationship. This would eventually prove to be not a good thing. Just like all the business advisors advised.

Neither of us had taken anything remotely connected to business in college. It seemed like some foreign land where only very bland assholes lived who were too dumb to shop for anything but ugly ties.

Plus they didn't let you smoke reefers in the office. This was number one on our desired employee benefits package. None of the business recruiters who came around in our senior year to swallow up lives with ten minute coffee breaks had a reefer package on their recruiting tables. Especially the military recruiters. They did not look like wholesome specimens of humanity. Scary dudes. Not reefer-friendly.

Which was why Tweed and I had become entrepreneurs. We couldn't find real jobs. Out in the real world. We had to make them up as we stumbled along getting older by the day. It was an impressive sounding job description, though. Like you had a stepmother who had expatriated herself to live in France. It was the kind of job title that implied you had lots of money and were very smart. Maybe even shrewd. In reality, of course, we were just usually fairly broke and marginally employed.

The first mailing to the typesetting industry of America generated three sales. We had mailed out five hundred letters. Three checks in the mail. It was very encouraging. Not the volume, but the fact that there really were idiots out there, hereafter known as customers, who would send you money for a floppy disk on your word alone that the disk actually did what you said it would. Or even had anything on it but a disk label.

Amazing.

Now, when somebody asked what I did for a living, I could say I was an entrepreneur and mean it. I could barely pronounce it. But that was good, too. People were usually impressed with things that were hard to pronounce. It definitely made me taller than my former response of "nothing much." Those in the know knew that "nothing much" was insider-speak for "reefer head." Those not in the know just said, "I see."

By 1990 Babble Software had an office and four employees. The typesetting business was closed. Margaret was now an employee of Babble. I signed her checks, instead of vice versa like in the beginning. She was one of the four employees. She answered the phone, directed the calls, and took orders. Another employee handled tech support calls and user support. The other two were programmers.

She no longer flirted with me. If her hair brushed my cheek, it was to deposit a layer of frost on her way out the door. The more success we enjoyed, the frostier she became. She elevated her sneering wizardry to new creative heights.

Art didn't notice this development. Which was not surprising. As I mentioned earlier, his comprehension of nuance and body language could charitably be described by the phrase "Dense as hell."

In fact, Art was newly energized by life and his role in it. This did not amuse Margaret, either. Art was a well respected man about town. It was "Hi, Art. How's the computer guru today?" Everywhere he went. Up and down the streets. He was the face and brains of Babble Software. A Sebastopol icon.

I still worked at home, where it was quiet and private. And where Teresa was always nearby, her distinctive, feverish music emanating through the house from the baby grand piano in the living room.

I loved to tiptoe in and watch her. She did not play with rigid posture and stern focus. More like Jerry Lee Lewis plays Bach. Her hair flying wildly, shoulders and body swaying and punching the space around her in a fierce frenzy.

TellingWays and GoingBlind. We were made for each other.

"Thank God for Leonard and his kite," I said to Teresa. "We owe our life to a kid and his kite."

We were taking our daily walk in the countryside. Out in the rolling hills where the apple orchards really were alive with the crunch of apples. They were mesmerizing. Row after row after row. Stretching out in the distance in all directions. Thousands and thousands of apple makers, making in a row. Making up and down, making all around. Making in and out, making thin and stout. Making juicy apples for every juicy mouth.

"What are you giggling about?" she asked me.

"I'm feeling like making out. Give me a smooch."

"We're in the middle of the road."

"Who cares."

I grabbed her and we smooched in the middle of the road. A tractor came along and the driver waved his straw hat at us with a big smile on his face.

"What are you so happy about?" she asked. "You're giddy as hell today. What did you do? Get a program to work or something?"

"No. Nothing. I don't know. I love you, that's all."

"You've been in love with me for eight years now. What's so special about today?"

"It was love at first sight, wasn't it?"

"Fourth sight. The Deer Creek, Posh Nosh, my house, then the river."

"I knew at the Deer Creek, though."

We finished our walk. Up the winding road to the top of the hill and around the ridge line back to our house. It was about two miles. When we got there, we sat on the deck and watched the sun set.

We lived in a small house she had bought for us after selling her house in Nevada City. The house was a mile east of Sebastopol, half-way up the slope of a hill overlooking acres of apple orchards we had just walked through, with a spectacular view of the sunsets that emblazoned the horizon and slipped a gradual shadow across the valley below, pulling the bedspread up over another day.

"You should get out more," she said to me, playing with her glass of wine on the table top, making it sing when she rubbed her fingers around the rim.

"But I am out," I said, reaching for my beer can. "We were just out."

"Not outside. Out out."

"Ah. Out out. Out there out, you mean."

"Right. You stay home too much."

"I like it here. You're here. There's nothing out there. There hasn't been anything out there since I found you."

"You found me because you were out. You never are anymore."

"I'm not looking for you anymore. That's the only thing out there was good for. I had to stick myself around till we finally found each other."

"I need stimulation. Adventure. People. Places."

"Ah. You need to get out."

"That's what I've been saying. I'm bored. Let's go out for dinner."

"Again? We just did that last month."

"Exactamundo. Only it was three months ago."

She whirled out of her chair and headed for the bathroom mirror, not waiting for any reply from me. Teresa was not one to dawdle over the decision making process. Once it was made, forward she went.

I did not have to ask her where we were going. Scottie's was on Main Street in the heart of the downtown area. All one mile of it. The only restaurant with tables outside where you could smoke cigarettes.

Fortunately, we both had the habit. Not that smoking was good, but that one who did and one who didn't wasn't.

We settled into our chairs and the waiter showed up.

"Something to drink?" he asked.

Teresa lowered her head and squinted at me through the bangs of her eyelashes, wiggling her eyebrows. She was feeling feisty and mischievous.

"I'll have a Corona and a shot of Cuervos Gold," she stated.

"Same for me," I said.

When the waiter was gone, I asked, "What's the occasion?"

"Nothing."

"I see."

"I'm not in a wine mood."

"I see."

"You could have ordered wine."

"I'm a beer drinker."

"See."

That was settled. Somehow.

Our drinks arrived and we went through the exciting ritual. Salt on the back of the hand. Lick the salt, down the shot, bite the lime. Grimace and blink watery eyes. Say "Whew!" Drink the Corona.

This ritual was all invented in America, of course, to please Hollywood and make getting wasted look like good, healthy, exciting fun. In Mexico, they just drank the tequila. It was too hot down there to mess around with dressing up drinking.

She lit a cigarette and blew the smoke back over her shoulder. A couple walked by. The woman greeted Teresa as they passed by. She gave me a glancing look of puzzlement. Perhaps curiosity.

"See what I mean," Teresa said.

"See what what means?" I asked.

"She didn't know we were married. She didn't know who you were."

"Why would she? I don't know her, either. Who is she?"

"Nobody."

"That clears that up."

I motioned the waiter to bring another shot.

"It's you, idiot."

"Me?"

"Nobody knows who you are."

"Why should they?"

"You don't get it. People know me. They know the Tweeds. Nobody knows you. It bugs me. You're like wallpaper while people are looking out the window. Invisible. You don't get out enough."

"What's wrong with that? I mean, who cares? If a bunch of people know me they'll just start suggesting I change my name to Purple. It would look better on my decor or something. Besides, if they don't know me, I don't have to know them. Which is great. You don't need as many chit, chat speeches."

"You don't get it."

"Hey, it's good for you, too." I decided to needle her. "If they don't know we're married, you don't have to be stuck with the impression you made a bad decision by marrying a bozo. You can always say I'm just your real estate agent."

"Fuck you."

The waiter renewed our shot glasses. We threw them down with gusto and slammed the glasses on the table and laughed our asses off.

"I love this stuff," she said.

"Yep. It's fun to drinko and makes you stinko."

"Don't start in with the horse crap rhymes."

"You used to like them."

"I was lying."

Teresa ordered fish. I ordered spaghetti with meatballs. We had another shot before the food arrived.

While we were eating, Art walked by and stopped to shoot the shit. More like posing the shit. He loved walking around town stopping to shoot the shit with fellow citizens. Even if they were from out of town.

Pressing the flesh, he called it. His hands had turned into portable travel irons that took the creases out of idiots.

There was a sidewalk railing between him and us. He leaned over it resting on his arms. Every two minutes, somebody would walk by and clap him on the shoulder and say, "How's it going, Art? How's the view from the Tower?"

It was mildly annoying. I was glad when he left. So was Teresa.

"See what I mean," she said.

"No. What?"

"Nobody even knows it's your company."

"It's Art's, too."

"It's yours, too. Nobody knows that."

I leered at her. "You kinda like me, don't you sweetie."

"Screw you," she laughed. "Where's the waiter. I need another shot."

We finished dinner and walked around town. Teresa didn't want to go home yet. She wasn't through being out.

Main street had some old fashioned type street lamp poles that were great to wrap an arm around and wave a bottle of liquor with the other arm while singing off key old songs and trying not to fall down.

Nobody did that much anymore, though. Friendly besotted fellows had gone out of fashion. You could only publicly besot yourself now if you were in an old Hollywood movie and owned a Model T Ford.

Friendly drunks were now called disgusting specimens. They were banned from street lamps unless they were on a leash. Otherwise, they had to sit behind dumpsters in an alley and make sure their bottle was in a paper bag.

"They don't make the world like they used to," I said to Teresa as we ambled along, dipping around in the reverie barrel.

"How could they? It's new every morning. Nothing grows backward."

"I wonder why. Maybe there's another universe where it does and everyone complains that they always make the world the same as it was yesterday."

"You had too much to drink. Did you ever notice how boring this town is? It looks nice and homey when you're just visiting, but if you live here you notice there's no overall design or planning to it. The town looks like it got here bit by bit by falling off trucks as they passed through to somewhere else."

"I hadn't noticed that."

"Look at that block. Right on Main Street. A boutique next to an empty lot next to a gas station next to a laundromat next to the Post Office next to a pseudo-San Francisco apartment building. And all these quaint street lamps trying to look like Bourbon Street. Bizarre."

"It's the painter in you. You see too much."

A woman walked by holding a baby. I had to tread around on my heels while Teresa stopped the mother, became life long friends, and goo-gahed over the tyker.

Women had secret bonding codes men couldn't read. All male bonding codes could be seen from ten miles away since they were always loud, overacted, and gross.

Teresa always went bonkers over babies and children. I didn't know if she was more or less this way than other women. They all did it. Even hardened criminals on death row. It was an exclusive club. You could be gay and have ten adopted kids and you still couldn't qualify for membership.

Teresa was quiet when we finally continued our walk. I expected it. She couldn't have her own babies. There were cancer genes in her family and she'd got some of them in her uterus when she was in her early twenties. Removing the cancer had removed having babies. It was pretty depressing to think about.

"Let's go home, Blue."

"Sure."

# # #

"This is it," Art said. "The big one."

We were driving south to Scotts Valley in Art's old VW. It was painted tan now. Ecru, maybe. Beige? I wasn't good with color subtleties. Brownish.

The VW was also on its third engine. The interior was not. There was a hole in the floor on the passenger side, where I was sitting, covered with a piece of cardboard. The floor had rusted through over the years and was decomposing under my toes with every mile of road gunk hurling itself up at it.

Scotts Valley was south of San Francisco, past the Silicon Valley and on out through the mountains toward Santa Cruz and the ocean. It was a very small city, probably just a town. I wasn't sure where the dividing line was between city and town. It was another subtlety. You had to know city planning. I think that was in the civil engineering section. The people in there were almost as strange as science heads.

At any rate, what distinguished this little joint along the highway was Borland International. Scotts Valley was the headquarters of Borland, one of the interesting success stories of the computer business.

Like Art and I in the beginning, Borland had started in the old CP/M world and migrated to DOS. They also went public in 1986, the same year Babble did. Technically, Babble was only public in the minds of Art and me, not public as in stock exchange. Another subtlety, a little huger than the others.

The company was much admired and ardently supported by the anti-establishment nerds in the industry. Borland duked it out with Lotus Development Corporation, an early computer big-wigger, makers of the famous Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, and whipped them in court. They toe to toed it with Microsoft Corporation and beat them with superior products. They also introduced the famous "Borland no-nonsense license agreement" that allowed a software product to be used just like a book could be used, meaning you could read it in the kitchen or in the den or in the bedroom or outside on the porch. This set the standard in the PC world, wiping out efforts by jerks like Microsoft and Lotus to copy protect software so severely that it was like handcuffs instead of usable software. With the old copy protection schemes, you could only read the book in one place. Period.

Borland stressed quality. Microsoft stressed adequate.

Borland was a hero. Something rarely associated with a big corporation.

The lead hero, the CEO, was the flamboyant Philippe Kahn. He was the antithesis of the typical corporate stuffed shirt. His shirt was stuffed, for sure, but not with sterile life style choices. He was simply a tad rotund. To our amazement, he had personally called Art to invite us down to the meeting we were driving toward today. Nobody big and famous had ever called us before.

They had four main products and I used them all. A compiler for creating programs called Turbo C, a spreadsheet named Quattro Pro, a database named Paradox, and a nifty little program called SideKick that was a "terminate and stay resident" breakthrough. You could pop it up on your screen at any time from anywhere with a couple of keystrokes. This was before Windows made popping things up a norm.

Now Borland was about to introduce an as yet unnamed word processor to their product line which would be sold separately and as a "suite" with all four of the other products in one purchase.

They needed "import/export" functionality for their word processor. That's why we were called in. They needed translation filters and we were in the running to get the job. If we got it, our software would be included in every copy of their software that they sold. It was called "bundling."

Needless to say, they sold a lot more software than Babble did. A whole heaping bunch more. Art and I were scared shitless and excited as hell.

"You might be able to buy a new car, Art," I said.

"You might be able to buy one period," he said.

"Tooshay, Mr. A."

"Damn it, Monona. Get serious, will you? This is the big banana."

"I'm wearing a real shirt, Art. What more do you want?"

"I know you. You better not fuck this up."

We were crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge. It was very overcast and the water down below looked the same color as the sky. On the horizon, you couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. It was eerie. Like we were in a surfer wave tunnel shooshing the tube, or whatever they called it. There were too many lingoes in the world. Someone had to put a stop to it before nobody could understand anybody else.

Naturally, being on the famous Golden Gate Bridge, all I could think about was people jumping off and committing suicide or us getting caught in an earthquake and falling in by acts of God. Whenever there was an earthquake, people were always on a bridge or in a tunnel under the Bay or underneath a falling building or on a collapsing freeway. Anyone who lived in California knew this like the back of their hand.

We made it across to the toll booth and fought our way through the city and down 101 and out 17 up over the mountain and down to Scotts Valley.

Borland was in a very big building, shrinking us down to peanuts as soon as we got out of the car. We stood there looking at it.

"I'm going to puke," I said.

"It's just a building. They're just people like us."

"Right."

I gagged some sort of green stuff all over Art's front tire. "Okay. I'm ready."

It started raining as we hurried to the front door. The receptionist directed us up to the third floor, where another receptionist directed us to a room down a hallway. Inside the room were two people. A marketing guy and a nerd. After we all shook hands, Art went off to huddle with the marketing guy and I huddled with the nerd.

The nerd and I laid down the rules between us about how our programs would communicate with each other. We would be an option on his menu. The Import/Export option. If the user clicked on that choice, his program would dial up the operating system and ask for my program to wake up and get to work. A translation was needed.

His program would then put a message on the screen telling the user who had selected our option to wait a few seconds. While the user was wondering how long a few seconds would actually take, my program was translating furiously in the background, hidden from the user, down there in bytesville, slinging coffins open and closed like a madman. It was slight-of-hand stuff all the way.

When my program had finished the translation, it would dial up the operating system and tell his program I was done. Either I had created a Borland type of file from some other program's type of file, which was import, or I had taken a Borland file and turned it into another program's type of file, which was export. Then my program went back to sleep down on the disk and slept around till the next wake up call, and his program popped up a sigh of relief message to the user saying the translation was completed.

At one point while we were all huddling, Philippe Kahn came into the room and shook Art's hand and mine and made both of us feel like he was just another people like us. He even offered to get us some coffee. What a guy. He wasn't even wearing a tie. A T-shirt, as a matter of fact. The T-shirt had a drawing of Bill Gates on the front. He appeared to be attempting to get his head inserted inside his own asshole. "Home Sweet Home" was the caption printed on the T-shirt.

It was pouring rain in buckets when we left the building and walked nonchalantly to the car. We were soaked by the time we got in and drove off. When the building was out of sight, Art pulled over to the curb and we both went bonkers.

"We did it!" Art yelled. "We fucking did it."

He was pounding on the steering wheel. There was nothing for me to pound on. I was going to stomp my feet, but I remembered the floor might fall out. There was nothing to do but reverse-pound by sitting absolutely still and just grinning like a fool.

"How did it go with you?" he asked.

"Fine. How did it go with you?"

"Fine."

After we bonkered around for awhile, Art drove to a burger joint and we celebrated by sitting inside the burger joint and pretending we were just normal people like everybody around us. Scarfing down a burger and fries. Famous guys right in their midst. It was my first semi-famous moment in life.

Then we hit the road to drive home and the problem came up.

The problem was that it was raining buckets and Art's windshield wipers didn't work. We couldn't see shit out the front window. Art was driving blind.

He immediately pulled over to the side of the road and we slung idiot ideas around till we figured out the only option we had if we wanted to get home. We were going to have to open his sun roof so I could stand up on the passenger seat with a rag and lean out over the windshield to turn myself into a wiper blade.

So, Art pulled back out into the traffic and two semi-famous guys went roaring down the highway with one of them hanging out over the windshield in the rain being a windshield wiper replacement and the other one trying to drive scrunched over to the side against the door trying to peer around the human blade and avoid the human butt in his face. Life had ups and downs that could turn you inside out in a second.

Highway 17 was a two lane road that prevented people from driving too fast by being a complete traffic jam all the way up the mountain. Especially if there were RVs or semis or tractors on the road. And we all know that there was always at least one. So the human wiper blade was working pretty well at the reduced speed. Fairly unstressful. Wipe da da da. Wipe da da da. Wipe da da, da. Et cetera.

Going down the other side of the mountain and then onto the freeway, however, was a different story. The human wiper blade was having trouble keeping up with the rain buckets. There was a lot of honking and jeering going on from vehicles roaring around us in passing lane sections that didn't particularly help matters, either. I would normally have thrown a finger or two, but I couldn't get my hands off the wipe, which was increasing its speed also. Wipe da. Wipe da. Wipe da. Wipe da. Et cetera.

The human blade was a left handed blade attached to a weak-ass shoulder that kept getting totally pooped out. Then the human blade had to shift around and become a right handed blade leaning out of the car backwards. Being backwards involved my face being upwards instead of downwards, so the rain buckets were dumping themselves into my mouth and attempting to drown me as well as pound holes in my eyes by waterfalling into them from the great heights in the clouds where the buckets started their freefall from.

All of this contributed to making the trip home a rather long, exhausting journey. As luck wouldn't have it, for Art at least, cops pulled us over three times and gave Art a ticket for improper windshield wipers and for a passenger not wearing a seat belt. These visits from concerned law enforcement agents were welcomed by the human wiper blade, though. For restful reasons. Pant, pant, pant.

Art and I chatted feverishly the whole way home.

"#@*&&+#@^%*$#!" he would yell.

"What?" I would yell.

When I realized I couldn't hear a word he said, I decided to see if he could hear a word I said.

"Marge is an ugly whore!" I yelled.

He didn't even look at me.

"You're a piece of toad-sucking shit!" I yelled.

Art nodded and gave me a thumbs-up encouragement sign.

Bastard. How come I'm out here doing all the work and he's in there warm and dry, sitting on his butt. It was his fucking car, for chrissakes.

Just north of Novato, as I was beginning to come up with the hair-brained idea I could turn myself upside down, hang my butt over the top of the windshield, and use my leg as a wiper blade, the rain abruptly quit. In fact, the freeway and streets were dry all the way home. It hadn't rained up here in Sonoma County at all. Just down there where we had been. Dry as a sunny, summer day.

Art dropped me off at my house.

"What a day, eh?" he said. "We did it, though. We did it."

"Good-night, Art," I said.

Teresa greeted me at the front door.

"How'd it go?" she asked.

"Fine," I said.

"What the hell happened to you? You're sopping wet. Your new shirt is ruined."

"Don't even fucking ask," I said. "Get out of my way. I need a drink."






Chapter Ten



Microsoft Windows 3.0 was released in 1990.

By 1995 it had virtually replaced the old MS-DOS operating system that had been bundled with every IBM PC and PC clone purchased since 1981. Bill Gates had grown bigger than the IBM company that had put him on the map. The software, MS-DOS, had resoundingly clobbered the hardware, the IBM computer itself, in terms of making the money and having the clout. Having clout was a term stolen from baseball. Babe Ruth was a clouter. Stinky "Dink and Dunk" Heimlichterwanghassan was not. He was a banjo hitter. Baseball had lingoes crawling out its athlete's foot. What a game.

Since the hardware was produced by IBM, the entire business community adopted it. Big Blue had dominated the business world with all its typewriters since Noah. Apple got squeezed out of this world and had to settle for the much smaller world of schools, universities, and homes where it was natural to vote for the underdog, which Apple had become, even though they practically had started the whole PC thing.

Along with the operating system, Microsoft also bundled its own products, such as Excel, its spreadsheet, Access, its database, and Microsoft Word, its word processor. Following in Borland's footsteps. With much bigger shoes. With the advent of Windows, word processors muscled up to become Desktop Publishing software, and no longer cost less than a hundred bucks.

To the consumer it became a pretty simple choice. Use Microsoft software, which was ostensibly free with the computer you bought, bundled, or make an extra purchase of somebody else's software. Such as WordPerfect.

In the first ten years of personal computers, WordPerfect, headquartered in the tiny no man's land of Orem, Utah, was the behemoth of word processors, controlling nearly eighty percent of the market. It was especially entrenched in the legal profession, due to its ability to easily produce the staple of the legal world – printed pages with numbers along the left hand side that allowed judges and attorneys to quickly refer to a salient line or paragraph when they were hoisting a petard into someone. Microsoft Word had less than five percent of the word processor market. A true dink and dunker. Banjo city.

The first five years of the nineties and the advent of Windows utterly altered and destroyed the previous dynamics of the word processor market. Although Word was one of the worst and most unstable of the available word processors, and remains so to this day, locking up computers and crashing files between each and every coffee break, it nevertheless, by its freeness, conquered the market.

It was adequate. Managers running business offices were firmly entrenched in the adequate school of butt covering decision making. Quality was too dangerous. It took quality programmers to create and maintain. Adequate programmers were cheaper by the dozen and could easily be replaced.

By 1995 Word owned over eighty percent and WordPerfect owned less than ten. A complete flip-floperoo. It didn't hurt Word's competitive advantage, of course, to be a bed partner of the Windows operating system, down there in the coffins trading insider tips, and knowing about the secret areas under the covers that the competitors didn't know about since they only got to stand by the bedside and couldn't touch anything without permission.

Microsoft's permission.

Sometimes Microsoft's permission would contain typos that caused competitors to crash and burn. Oops. Sorry about that. Adequate plus evil conniving equaled market dominance. Eventually known as a Monopoly. Home Sweet Home, Billy Gatesville.

One by one the competition all died or were living in the terminal ward.

Wang, Displaywrite, Multimate, PFS, PC-Write, Volkswriter, XyWrite, Samna, OfficeWriter, Q&A Write, WordStar, WordStar 2000, DCA/RFT, EasyWriter, Spellbinder, IslandWrite, SunWrite.

R.I.P.

Only WordPerfect, thanks to its niche in the attorney world, Interleaf and Framemaker, thanks to their vast superiority in handling large and complex documents, managed to stay viably afloat. Albeit in motor boats, not luxury liners.

An odd survivor of the obituary column that was the old word processing world was a small company called Babble Software. Small to begin with. Small in the middle. Small at its peak. And still smalling around. Small equaled survival.

After all, there were fifteen years of files out there that were now orphaned. They either had to be reborn as Word documents or shit canned. Tower of Babble simply reversed the emphasis of its original process. Instead of translations from one to many, Babble now emphasized many to one.

The engineering effort (programming had been upscaled to engineering, of course) necessary for this shift in focus basically required editing one line of Babble main menu source code. The bolded "To" was replaced by a bolded "From."

But the handwriting was on the wall.

Art was depressed. He had stopped his pacing and was standing at the window looking out at the parking lot, coffee cup in hand.

I was sitting at a desk, my feet propped on it next to a keyboard I had shoved aside with my feet to make room for them. I was drinking coffee also, even though it was long past the coffee drinking hour.

It was a Saturday afternoon and the office was closed. Art and I often gathered here on weekends for what passed as our business meetings. In the old days, we'd be smoking reefers about now. It was too hard to keep up with all the coffin lids when you were stoned, though. They'd put little nuclear powered turbo hinges in there along the way and the lids were now opening and closing at the speed of light.

Teresa was doing some volunteer work at a nursing home in Santa Rosa. Margaret hated the office and stayed away from it as much as possible.

The office was a dump only a nerd could love.

Margaret's desk was closest to the front door. The first face you saw if you came to visit Babble's headquarters. Fortunately, no one ever came. All our business was "out there," not in Sebastopol. Out there on the internet. Out there at the other end of phone or fax lines. Out there in some other company's product.

Margaret's desk was neat and clean, with one PC, a small printer, a telephone, and lots of little plastic organizers for paper clips, pens, and other desk related doodads that were now mostly obsolete and had become furniture rather than tools. Desks only had them now if you wanted to make it clear this was a desk and not a hog trough.

Behind her desk the rest of the office looked like what might remain if a bomb blew off in a Radio Shack store. Wires, dust, cobwebs, computer monitors, keyboards, tech manuals, modems, printers, disks, tools, ashtrays that were now used for sunflower seed shells, coffee mugs with green mold swamps in the bottoms. Everything was neatly arranged in total, haphazard dumpsterness.

Teresa had come in one day and, with Margaret's stamp of sneering approval, stretched a yellow Crime Scene tape from wall to wall behind Margaret's desk. From then on, Margaret wouldn't let anyone sit on her side of the tape.

Art loved it. Hanging out on the wrong side of the tape made him look like a techno-geek instead of a salesman. He hated being a salesman, even though that was his job. He had his own office, but all that was in there were thousands of yellow sticky-back notes stuck on the wall. It passed as his filing system. Once he had stuck something on the wall, he could forget about it and go across the line and hang out with the nerds.

He loved to pose as a geek. He memorized geek jargon as soon as it slipped off the presses. People ate it up and imagined he had written all the computer code that made Tower of Babble software work. He was not about to correct their misconceptions, either.

In reality, he was our expert beta tester. There wasn't a software program in the world he couldn't find a bug in. He did this by having a knack for selecting the wrong option whenever a program presented options. Not just the wrong option. Options that didn't even exist. Options that never would exist. Options from Venus that had burnt up and fogged over millions of years ago.

It was part of his natural ability to over-think anything you could give him to think about. It was virtually impossible to write a program he couldn't lock up the computer with. He was a genius at computer ineptitude. If a program lasted five minutes of his using it, it was considered virtually bullet-proof software.

Every time myself or one of the other programmers would pronounce a finished version of our software, it was delivered to Art. He would sit down at the keyboard, rub his hands together furiously, and touch something. It could be a keyboard key or the mouse. Maybe a monitor knob or a modem line. It didn't matter. Whatever it was would be the one lunatic choice no one could imagine a user could possibly choose to do.

The program would immediately break. Art would sit there rubbing his chin. Cocking his head while he figured out what was going on. Looking furtively from side to side, hoping nobody had noticed. If no one was looking, he would quickly turn off the computer and reboot and try again.

At first, we hated him for breaking everything we did. Eventually, though, we found out nothing he did was ever done by anyone else we sold the product to. So we ignored his findings. His breakings. We made him write down each and every step he had taken to produce the damage. It was not suitable reading for children.

But it kept him occupied. Out of the way. Otherwise, he spent his time hovering over your shoulder watching you write computer code. Like he would pick up how to do it by observing it being done. Nothing had changed since he looked over my shoulder back in Nevada City days. Annoying, fat finger hell.

This led to the second usefulness Art was good at. Running errands to computer stores to buy a cable or a light bulb or something reasonably cheap and not really necessary. Otherwise known as getting the idiot out of the office. Which Art enjoyed, anyway. It gave him time to shoot the shit around town, tossing off jargon one-liners at bistros and check-out counters. Ironing the fleshes.

You might wonder when Art did any sales work. So did everyone else. It was a mystery. What wasn't a mystery was our sales were definitely drying up, starting to show signs of tricklesville.

The bloom was off the Babble and Autumn was in the air.

"Fucking Microsoft," Art swore. "They're going to kill us off."

"Not for awhile," I said. "We're doing okay right now."

Right now was shorthand for today. This moment. Tomorrow was another now. It would come and scare us on its own.

He started pacing again.

"I'm only forty, Monona. It's a long way to social security benefits. And that little cupboard's probably going to be bare by the time I get there."

"If you hadn't quit smoking, you wouldn't have to worry about getting that old."

I enjoyed tweaking Art with insane logic.

I lit a cigarette. Margaret would smell the smoke on Monday and piss and moan about it. She'd give me The Look. The one that said "I'd sneer a hole in your guts but I just put on my lipstick." Lipstick never did her much good, though. It always ended up on her teeth. She hardly ever wore it. A bad example of what the The Look was saying, I guess. The Look was The Look. It needed no explanation.

"You won't be so bland about it when you're sleeping with an oxygen tank instead of Teresa."

"That day's coming to all of us, sooner or later."

"I'll take later."

"Later's always soon when it comes."

"That's a false optimistic rationalized projection."

The floor started vibrating with the thump, thump bass sound from the jukebox in the bar below. Our office occupied the second floor of the Powerhouse Brewing Company building. The bar was on the ground floor.

"Shut the fuck up," Art growled, shaking his fist at the floor.

"Art, why don't we go get a beer. You're wearing out the carpet."

"There isn't any carpet."

"You wore it out."

"It's the coffee. Marge says I should quit. The caffeine's wracking my nerves."

"Switch to decaf."

"What's the point. There's no zip in it. That's what I drink the shit for in the first place."

"Like non-alcoholic beer."

I guess I was of the opinion that no alcohol tasted good, just for the flavor of it. It was only good for getting drunk. Like I say, it was just an opinion. It you wanted to drink something that tasted good, it had to be hot chocolate. I was uncultured, no doubt about it. Usually, I blamed this on my dad. Parents were especially valuable, when you got older, for blaming things on about how you had turned out wrong. All my bad habits I had learned from him. All my good habits I had developed myself.

"Exactly. Marge says I drink too much, too. Last week, Leonard asked me if I was a juicer. They gave him the clues at school. That's all the schools do now. Teach the kids how to recognize dysfunctional parents. Assholes."

"How's Leonard doing these days? I don't hardly ever see him any more. Isn't he getting about old enough to knock some girl up?"

"He's getting D's. Ditching school. Probably smoking dope. Pierced his nose. Tattooed his ankle. Walks around looking like shit and turning his nose up at dear old dad. And his fucking teachers are worried about his parents. His home life. Like it couldn't be them that's screwing him up."

"Sounds like a normal teenager. Too bad about the grades, though. He was always such a smart little guy."

"He isn't little any more. He's taller than me."

"You're kidding. Wow. Later got soon in a hurry, didn't it?"

"It's still a false optimistic rationalized projection. You're right about beer, though. Let's get out of here. It's depressing me."

We closed the office and went downstairs. The pool table was available. We got a couple of draft beers and racked the balls. We rolled for break. His ball was closest to the rail. It always was. He was an expert rail roller.

"I should drop some acid," I said. "You wouldn't stand a chance."

He laughed. "You crazy fucker. I have to admit you were Minnesota Fats that night. It was amazing. Shit, how long ago was that?"

"Senior year in college. Twenty years almost. Mr. Pockets. Grace Slick was wailing White Rabbit from the jukebox and I couldn't miss. I'll never forget looking down the cue stick across that super green felt and the exact line to the pocket was glowing like a neon arrow. It was so simple. The cue was like a magic wand that couldn't hit crooked."

"How the hell did we get so old so fast? And don't give me that sooner later crap. We'd never have gotten this far if I'd have let you drive the motorcycle home that night. Acid pool is one thing. Acid driving is another."

"You should have dropped some, too. What a game we would have had."

"It was more fun watching you. Safer, too."

We quit after one game. From boredom. Games just didn't grab your attention or seem as enjoyable as they did in youth times. All old people noticed this. So did young people. It was a true pessimistic actualized factoid. Kids had fun. Adults didn't. I had noticed this myself when I was young, but I was on the fun end of the stick then.

It had to be gravity. It pressed you down year after year whether you felt it or not. Even psychologically. Probably why they buried you flat on your back instead of standing up, which would obviously conserve precious ground space. At any given spot on earth, it was clearly a lot deeper than it was wide. Plus it was a lot more metaphorically pleasing to walk on somebody's grave rather than stand on somebody's head. Except for enemies. A good head standing would be a great way to see a turd off into eternity. Especially if you had a full bladder.

We flopped onto stools at the bar, leaning on our elbows and looking into the mirror behind all the bottles. You could stare at yourself drinking beer and needing a shave. Bar mirrors always made people look at themselves with a jaundiced eye. A taking stock of yourself eye. It was never pleasant. At least for me.

You could also keep an eye on the other people in the bar. They were in the mirror over your shoulder. All right, you could keep an eye on the ladies in the bar. Who cared about the other people. They were boys. Possible competitors for ladies' eyeballs. I had done a lot of lady watching in the days before I met Teresa. Now the ladies had turned into people. I never looked any more. It was all jaundice eye now. There I was. Whew. Bad news. There Art was. Whewer. Badder news.

"We're stinking up the world," I said to him.

"It was stinking before we got here. It'll stink after we're gone."

"Did it stink when we were in college. I don't remember it stinking then."

"We were too young to smell it then."

"You're getting old, Art. Your face is starting to crack."

"Thanks, asshole. Have you looked in the mirror lately?"

"I just did."

"Look closer."

I leaned over the bar and eyeballed into the mirror more closely. There wasn't as much hair on my head as there used to be, but the hair in my nose was starting to tuft around near the tip. A couple of hair weeds were sprouting from my ears. My cheeks had some cracks like earth in a drought. My Adam's apple had slipped over to one side and some skin was disconnected from it and sliding around. Shit.

"It's sooner, Art. We're old."

"Fuck you. It's Microsoft I'm worried about. They're squeezing us to death."

"There's nothing we can do about it, Art."

Art started drumming his fingers on the bar. I started peeling the label off my beer bottle.

The bar stools had cushions on top of them that could twirl around like one of those plates on the end of sticks that certain types of entertainers did tricks with. I got an urge, from nothing better to be urged by, to twirl around a bit. I tried a couple of small spin arounds. It worked okay, if I tucked up my knees so I didn't clunk Art while I was twirling.

Art pooped on my parade, as usual.

"Jesus Christ, Monona. Will you knock that off. Shit. You act like a ten year old sometimes. Grow the fuck up."

"Sometimes?"

"Just knock it off. Okay? I'm not in the mood."

"I figured I'd find you here."

It was Teresa. Suddenly skimming up behind us. She eased onto the stool next to me, then wriggled around a bit getting comfortable. To her, there was always an exactly most comfortable position hidden in every seat, even a slab of cement. You just had to take the trouble to find it.

"Get rid of that beer," she said. "Hi, Art."

"Hi, Teresa."

"What's wrong with my beer?" I guzzled it down, just to be safe.

"It's not the right beer for the occasion."

"What occasion?"

She flagged down the bartender. "A bottle of Cuervos Gold, three shot glasses, and three Coronas."

"Jeezus," Art said. "It's only two o'clock."

"You can dance it off and eat early. It's a perfect day for dancing. The sun's out and the day is beautiful."

"The day's outside. We're inside. What's perfect about it?" I asked.

"Because I'm in the mood."

"What mood?"

"The mood I'm in."

"Is it a scary mood?"

"No. A dancing mood. Like I told you."

"What kind of music would be associated with this dancing mood?"

"You pick it out. Put some quarters in the juke box."

"Slow quarters or fast ones?"

"Fast ones."

"What's dancing got to do with tequila?" Art asked.

"It's a dancing drink. I always dance better with tequila. So do you."

"Me? I'm not dancing. No way. I never dance in the afternoon."

"Yes you are. You just haven't thought about it yet. You and Blue are the same. You don't know you're in the mood for something until you actually do it. You'll see. We're all going to dance our butts off today."

Art shrugged. He was not about to buck the moment.

"What got into you?" I asked.

"Nothing."

"Everything okay at the nursing home?"

"Fine."

"Shirley died, didn't she?"

Teresa hoisted her shot glass. "Here's to Shirley," she said, as the tears rolled down her cheeks.






Chapter Eleven



It was 2000. The heady days were over. Long gone. Microsoft had squeezed us down to a pimple.

Tweed had been right about that. Slowly but surely the market for translation software had dried up, month by month, year by year, finally settling on a marginal plateau of solvency. Enough to eke out a living.

All the employees and programmers were gone. The office had been closed. We were both back working out of our houses, just like we were at the beginning.

Only one expense remained that could be cut. The final pare down had arrived. It was an expense that was never necessary in the first place. A luxury we could no longer afford. Sneers be damned.

"We're going to have to lay Margaret off," I said to Art on the phone.

"We can't do that," he said. "She's too vital. She works her ass off for us."

"Doing what, Art? Programming?"

"No."

"Tech support?"

"Of course not."

"Marketing?"

"She helps me at that."

"How?"

"She proofreads my letters. Other stuff, too."

"What else, Art? All she really does is answer the phone and take orders. Right?"

"It's more than that."

"That's all she's ever done, Art. The phone don't ring anymore. The orders don't pile in anymore. We don't have any street traffic. There's nothing for her to do."

"How would you know? You're never at the office."

"We don't have an office."

"The office is here. It's at my house. That's where Babble is. You're never here. You don't see all she does."

"Help me see it then, Art."

"Don't be a jerk, Blue. She doesn't have to account to you."

"Well, actually, yes she does, Art. I sign her checks. Her paycheck comes out of my pocket."

"It comes out of mine, too."

"But it goes back in."

"You're not making sense."

"We've been doing this for fifteen years, Art. I think I know what everybody does. I know what she does. There's nothing she does that you couldn't handle yourself. Hell, I could handle it myself, and we both know how lousy I am at customer relations."

"I'm not going to do that, Blue. She helps me with everything."

"She's your wife, Art. Teresa helps me too. She handles our database and maintenance mailings. She does it for free. We all help each other. It's a two family business now. That's all that's left."

"It's not right. You just don't like her."

"Art, what's not right is that you and Margaret are getting two-thirds of the money. I'm only getting one-third. That's what isn't right. It has to be me fifty and you fifty. Especially now. I can't live on a third anymore."

"It is fifty-fifty. Margaret gets a paycheck. We split the rest."

"And her paycheck doesn't go into your bank account? C'mon Art. It's the only way we can keep the business alive. We were the only ones here in the beginning and we're the only ones left now."

"It's not fair to her. She shouldn't have to work without pay. It's demeaning."

"She doesn't have to work at all. You know that, Art."

"No. I won't agree to it."

"We went through this same argument over closing the office. You refused to do that, too. You said we absolutely needed it. But we didn't, did we?"

"You were an asshole calling the landlord."

"You were a liar saying we couldn't get out of the lease. Babble never had the lease. It was in your name. You got out of it in one month."

"So it's name calling now. Just like you, Monona."

"You called me an asshole. I called you a liar. Fine. We're name call even. Margaret still has to go."

"I won't stand for it, Blue. You can't just do this."

"You have to, Art. I'm not paying half her salary anymore. I won't be cutting any more checks for her. She can file for unemployment."

"We need her. The business needs her."

"I don't need her at all, Art. If you do, then you pay her. I'm not."

"You just want more for yourself." He was practically snarling.

"You're nuts, Art. I just want my half. I have a right to half. That's all there is to it. Be reasonable."

He hung up.

"I see he took it well," Teresa said sarcastically.

"Art is not a happy camper," I said.

None of us were. Laying off employees, closing the office, shrinking the budgets. It was all depressing and sad. Scaling our lives back down to humble city, where we lived when it all began, when we were reefer head entrepreneurs. At least we had enough to survive. Two families could survive. Two families plus Margaret could not.

Margaret. It seemed like she had been a pain in a body location my whole life, even though it was only fifteen years or so. Eighteen if you threw in the Nevada City typesetting years. She had never made the jump from exacto blading to computing. She had never overcome her fear of computers. Some people were like that. They were afraid the thing would blow up and make them look stupid if they touched the wrong key. Art was the same way, but he touched anyway. Margaret didn't.

Art had stuck her in the budget back when things were growing, when an extra paycheck didn't matter that much, and there she had stayed, like a rock on the bottom of the Gibraltar, a sneering squat at the front door. An immoveable planet of doom.

Art was married to her though. I guess it was one of those me or her deals with him. Our friendship had pretty much become sucksville. Even though we only lived three miles from each other, we never saw each other any more. Maybe three or four times a year. We never socialized. It was all on the phone now. Each time we had laid off a programmer, I grinded my teeth at her still sitting there eating up salary and sneering with pleasure. Parked in the Babble doorway like a gargoyle.

It had come to show down time. At last. Inevitably.

A few weeks later, the war began.

It was a client who first alerted me.

Over the years, our revenue had shifted from retail web sales to contracts with other companies who bundled our translations inside their own product. Like the Borland deal. That one had lasted only one year, though. Their word processor flopped and was canceled.

It had been an arrow to the future for us, though. We had gone on to get other bundling deals. OEM deals, they were called in the insider jargon speak. Original Equipment Manufacturer deals. The client was the Original and the Manufacturer. Their software was the Equipment. During the nineties, our whole emphasis had shifted from retail sales to OEM deals. We got paid in royalties from their sales.

The client who alerted me was the lead engineer from one of our OEM deals. My contacts with Babble's clients were with the engineering departments. Art's contacts were with management.

"I see you've changed your company name," he mentioned casually on the phone. As usual, we were discussing bug reports. Bugs in our code I would have to fix for his next product release.

I was confused. "Where'd you hear that?"

"I noticed it on your web site."

"Marketing," I mumbled and quickly changed the subject back to bugs.

When the phone call ended, I punched up Babble's web site on my computer. Art was in charge of maintaining the web site. Our face to the world. A marketing arena. I hadn't looked at it in six months, at least.

There it was. Babble Software had somehow changed to Babble Enterprises. The product was still Tower of Babble. The phone and fax numbers were the same. The company address had been changed to the Tweed home address when we'd closed the office. All the money went there. But now the checks should be written to Babble Enterprises, not Babble Software.

I phoned Art. "What the hell is going on?" I asked.

"What do you mean?" he said.

"What's with the web site? What's this Enterprise shit?"

He cleared his throat. "We can't go on without a written agreement between us. I'm protecting the company until we have an agreement."

"What are you talking about?"

"You heard me."

"Protecting from what? It looks like stealing to me."

"Look, Monona. Sales are way down. Margaret and I can't continue to run this business and have you interfering with our decisions all the time."

"Your decisions? Margaret? Since when did she become my partner? She's laid off. She can't turn on a computer without somebody pushing the on button for her."

"I'm not going to talk to you if you're going to be nasty."

"You asshole. Put the web site back to normal and knock off this horseshit."

He hung up.

Screw this. I logged onto the web site to edit his changes. The password had been altered.

I couldn't get in.

# # #

The lawyer spelled it out for us. SOL. Shit Out of Luck.

A California partnership was a peculiar business entity. Without any written agreements between the partners, it was even more peculiar. The only way for an unwritten agreement type of partnership to work was if the two partners remained fair, square, and amiable with each other. Neither partner was required, by law, to do anything at all. One could be asleep twenty-four hours a day and still be a full partner with full partner's rights and liabilities. The State viewed this kind of partnership as a marriage between consenting fools who didn't have any prenuptial agreement.

If one partner decided to lock the other one out of the house and take all the money from the bank account, there was no remedy. None.

There was nothing we could do about what Tweed had done. Absolutely stone cold nothing. What he had done, was doing, was taking all the money from the web site and from the royalty contracts. I wasn't getting a dime.

I could not gain access to the web site. When we had acquired our domain name, babblesoftware.com, Tweed had handled the transaction and was the de facto Administrator of the account. This seemed innocuous at the time. And it probably was. Now I discovered that no one could change the Administrator except the Administrator. Who could password his administration.

There was an internet dispute agency which could hear and rule upon administration squabbles. It was designed primarily to take forever, cost lots of money, and shrug at the conclusion. A lawyer system, obviously.

I could not contact our royalty clients and explain the situation. One, they didn't know who I was. They only knew Tweed. All our customers only knew Tweed. Two, the contract specified the address to send the royalty checks. Only Tweed could alter that address. Three, alerting the royalty clients that they were dealing with two partners who might possibly kill one another on any given morning would activate some fine print in the contract that would result in the cancellation of the contract and the ceding to the client of the rights to use all of Babble's source code any way they wanted. My source code.

The lawyer Teresa and I hired had seen many of these partnership free-for-alls from his days in Silicon Valley. It was almost always the marketing partner who ripped off the engineering partner. We were an ordinary partnership disaster.

The police could not interfere in what was to them a business matter, not what I viewed it as, out and out thievery. Highway robbery.

There was one, and only one, option. A roll of the dice that brought into play all of the evil weirdness that had been injected into the bloodstream of civilization since the day Abraham stood before the judgment of the Lord to represent his son Isaac in the matter of death by sacrifice.

It was called a Lawsuit. Appropriately named because it was the wardrobe of attorneys that was derived from the two words that made up the term. Law and Suit.

Law was was derived from the Italian Romans and not the Sicilian Romans and meant, loosely, "To screw over." The Sicilian derivation was, loosely, "To fuck over." Suit was derived from the Upper Hittites, and meant, loosely, "With a bayonet." The Lower Hittite derivation was, loosely, "With a scimitar."

"We don't have any choice, Blue. We have to sue Tweed."

Teresa closed the menu and laid it on the table. She crossed her arms. Her mind was made up.

We were seated at a table in The Sandpiper restaurant next to the Bodega Bay harbor, preparing to have lunch. After lunch we would be going down to the beach. It was a fishing boat harbor, not a yacht harbor. A promontory called Bodega Head protected the bay from the pounding ocean surf.

We came here frequently. Often you might even say. It was only a half hour drive west from Sebastopol. Our favorite getaway choice. Teresa loved the ocean. She liked to smell it most of all. Breathe it in with big deep inhalations.

"You heard the lawyer. Sixty to a hundred thousand dollars for a lawsuit. We don't have anywhere near that kind of money. It's been four months since Tweed stole the business. We're not getting a dime. We're living off credit cards."

"You can't just let Art and Margaret steal twenty years of your work and your life and do nothing about it."

"Eighteen and a half years."

"Whatever. We'll sell the house."

"We can't do that. We love that place. It's our home. We'll never find anything better. Where would we live?"

"We can buy a trailer. They're not that expensive."

"A trailer? You must be nuts. We can't live in a stinking trailer."

"We can live anywhere. All I need is you and all you need is me. We don't need a house. It's just a building."

"It's our home."

"We'll make a new home. In a trailer."

"Your piano won't fit in a trailer."

"I'll sell it. What difference does it make?"

"You love that piano. I love it."

"I'll put it in storage."

"I'm sorry, honey. I'm killing us."

"No you're not. Tweed is."

"He's my friend."

"Was. He's the biggest jerk who ever lived right now."

"I still can't believe he's doing this. He doesn't care what happens to us at all. How could he do that? How could anyone? What happened to him?"

"He's a sick man. Really, really sick."

"How can he live with himself?"

"He can't. He never could. That's his problem. Ask yourself, would you want to be him?"

"Shit no. He's an idiot."

"There you go."

"But he used to be a loveable idiot."

"Not any more."

"I still can't believe it."

"We'll get a trailer. I'll find one."

Art Fucking Tweed.

We ordered a couple of burgers. Teresa slopped some mustard on hers and drenched her French fries with ketchup. She ate away like it was a sunny day in the back yard instead of World War III.

Art Fucking Tweed.

I was numb. In shock, I guess. Flabbergasted, maybe. I thought about all Art and I had gone through together. Thirty years of going through things together. Thirty fucking years. How could you trust somebody for thirty years and then get up one day and find out they had just turned off the light switch and left you in the dark like you were nothing more significant than a face on the sidewalk as they drove by you on a street?

Art Fucking Tweed.

I stared at the napkin dispenser while I ate. It was like a crystal ball that was fogged over. I had never been treacherized before. There was a bomb blast scene in my head. A guy was staggering out of a pulverized building, soot all over his face, blood dripping down his arm, pants shredded, one shoe missing, staring up and down the street like he'd never been there before. A kid was wandering around holding a teddy bear. A woman sat in a doorway quietly weeping. Cars were on the roof tops. Roofs were in the gutters. Pavements were cracked and chunked. Dogs drifted along with their tails between their legs. Smoke poured out of the sewers. Far off in the distance an ambulance wailed and moaned.

Art Fucking Tweed.

What a terrible fate he had come to. Was it Margaret? Was it him? There they were. Tiptoeing out of town. Faces hidden in their shoulders. Picking carefully past all the wreckage. Furtive little connivers, their pockets bulging with stolen households, their souls left behind in the ruins as their feet moved on to their new destiny. Hollowed out with greed, sullen futures full of guilt and regret, onward to the netherworld of nightmares and shadows and ghosts, out to where the dead lived out the lives they had lost beyond redemption.

Art Fucking Tweed. Margaret Fucking Tweed.

"What are you thinking about, Blue."

"Nothing."

"You were coping, weren't you. I think I saw you coping there on the napkin dispenser."

"I was?"

"I think so. Your eyes were looking around behind themselves."

"Caught me with my eyes down, huh?"

"I always do. You know that."

"That's you. Little miss TellingWays. I couldn't put an invisible hoodwink over on you."

"You wouldn't want to, anyway, Blue. You love me too much. What were you coping about? The Tweeds?"

"Yeah. I guess they're coping, too."

"Everybody has to. It's built in. Part of the evolutionary urge. Worthwhiling it."

"Worthwhiling it?"

"You know. Feel gooding it."

"Feel gooding it?"

"Justifying your life. Snowjobbing your mind into being sure you're right so you can go ahead."

"Ah. Davy Crocketting it."

"Precisely."

"So the Tweeds are convinced they did the right thing and I am the villain. Twisted copers."

"I'm afraid so, Blue."

We finished our lunch and flipped a coin. Heads we drove out to Bodega Head and walked in the hills above the ocean. Tails we went down to the beach. Tails it was.

I couldn't see how the Tweeds could cope themselves up. I admit it. No matter how hard I tried to uncope myself and stand inside their copes, I couldn't pull it off. Take the password on the web site. Tweed did that on purpose. The only purpose was to lock me out. So, in his mind cope, he had to feel locking me out was the right thing to do. It was justified. It was good. It was fair. It was honest. It was necessary.

The only way any of these things could be true was if he held the view that whatever was good for him superceded any actuality of his behavior and motives. One of those ends justifies the means deals. Taking care of his own butt and screw me if that's what it took. Screw our friendship. Screw thirty years of trust.

These were not the actions of a thirty year long friend. Down the tortured exhumation of our past I dug. Spading out all the memories. All the laughs. All the "real" moments. All the heart-to-hearts. All the things that in the end meant nothing at all to him. Nothing that couldn't be tossed out the window along the road side.

His cope was clean. It was simple. Art Tweed hated me. It was all the cope he needed. The rest of my spading around was just swimming in the frosting. He just hated me. He wanted to hurt me. He wanted to beat me into nothingness.

Jeez. It didn't feel good being hated. It was sad. Art had really hurt my feelings.

"You're coping on the steering wheel, Blue. He's a reptile. Let it be."

Would TellingWays ever cope out on me? No. Damn it. No. She never would. I knew that more than I knew anything in life. She was right. Art Reptile Fucking Tweed. No more free copes from me, you blithering dipshit.

At the north end of town there were narrow parking lots cut off the road along the top of the shallow bluffs. A portable toilet was at one end of the lot. I imagined stuffing Art down one of the holes. Home Sweet Home jerk.

There were paths from the lot down to the sand. They were steep and you could fall on your ass pretty easily. I walked ahead of Teresa so she could fall on mine if she did. Down on the sand, we took off our shoes and rolled up our pant legs.

The beach was a mile long and fifty yards wide. Plenty of room for families and kids and beach blankets and picnics and volleyball and dogs chasing sticks. The surf was wild and furious back at Bodega Head, but calm and playful here.

It was also a great place for a long walk in the wet sand by the shore with the waves petering out to a gurgle around your feet. A walk for lovers or a walk for the blues.

For us, today, it was both.






Chapter Twelve



It took a full year for the lawsuit to reach trial.

I won't go into the details since it would take two words: What and Crap.

The attorney we hired wasn't the one we hired, for openers. It was our first glimpse into the world of Gouging. You could perform a gouge by drilling your thumb into someone's eye or by scooping out someone's ass flesh.

Attorneys used both methods. We located our first attorney on the Internet. According to his web site, he had never lost a case. Never losing a case sounded perfect to us, so we hired him. Then it became obvious why he had never lost a case. He never did any.

He gave us a free hour of consultation for openers. We used this hour to bring him up to speed and up to date on our Tweed problem which he was going to go out and solve. He wrote pages and pages of notes and made several types of concerned, but encouraging facial expressions.

When we were done with our free hour, he accepted our case and took our retainer check and made an appointment for us to see a lawyer who worked for him who would handle the case for us. George Goodman was this other lawyer's name. He himself would only monitor things. Keep his never lost a case eyeball on developments.

We kept our appointment and spent another hour bringing Mr. George Goodman up to speed and up to date on our case. This hour was not free. The first faint whiff of rat body odor trickled up into our noses.

This second lawyer was not a guy who had never lost a case. Goodman was a guy who had lawyered around in Kansas and had just moved to the Bay Area to start a new lawyering life. He had brought his wife with him and apparently they were having domestic problems. Some of our not free up to dating hour was spent on getting ourselves up to date on his wife's apparently screwball notion that he was a failed asshole who could not get something up often enough. He was innocent of all charges, of course.

Right, we acknowledged.

First off, he plunged into action by writing a letter to Tweed's lawyer introducing himself as our lawyer and informing him that we would be suing his client, Arthur Asshole Tweed. He did not mention, obviously, Mr. Tweed's anatomical orifice. That was our silent insertion. So was our idea of what could be inserted into his orifice, which I won't dwell on.

Beginning with his letter, from now on, according to the lawyer rules, Tweed and I would be referred to as Mr. Tweed and Mr. Monona. It would help keep anatomical orifices from being slung around in the mud. Each Mr. was also henceforth forbidden from communicating directly with the other Mr. The attorney toll booths were now officially open for tolling.

Two weeks of two hundred and fifty dollar an hour typing went by and then Goodman mailed a fifteen page lawsuit to a delivery person in Sebastopol who delivered it to Tweed's house where it was plopped into Tweed's hands while he stood in his doorway having made the mistake of answering the doorbell. It was called being Served.

Our first lawyer, the free note writing up to dater passer offer, tossed in a couple of monitoring hours before approvaling Goodman's typing. He charged three hundred and fifty dollars an hour for this highly skilled eyeballing.

The Gouge was on. Or in. It was too late now for semantics. The dice were in the air. Rolling themselves toward the fateful splash down. Metaphors and similes were avalanching around in the tossed salad of life.

Mr. Tweed's lawyer, Mr. Waylon Warthog, responded with a fifteen page counter suit.

Okay, Tweed-hole, let's get it on.

Not to be. We were suddenly introduced to Calendars. Each attorney had one, and so did the judge, the Honorable P. William Gourd. After a lot of date checking and letter correspondence, which involved several hourglasses full of our coins falling out of our pockets at the rate of two week vacations in Hawaii per coin, a date was set two months down the road for Goodman and Warthog to meet up with Gourd and draw up some new, mutual, official calendars.

After this meeting, the new calendar concluded that four months should be a reasonable time frame to allow for Discovery to take place. After Discovery, the three blind mice met up again and decided that three more months would be a reasonable time allotment for Depositions to occur.

And, ta-da! The date of the actual trial was also finally pinned to the calendar. That would be an additional three months after Depositions were done. Attorneys and judges were never in a hurry to get anything done and over with. No, indeed.

During this pretrial water-treading, attorneys liked to fill the time having lots of fun with our Hawaiian coins. By writing copious amounts of letters to each other. The letters were always very courteous and respectful. Everyone was Mr. or Honorable.

Each of the clients, Mr. Tweed and Mr. Monona, were constantly cropping up in these letters with meat cleavers planted in their necks. The meat cleavers were sharpened with insinuations and accusations involving dark and suspicious smelling adjectives. One of the adjectives stuck to one of my meat cleavers, for instance, was "inveterate pathological mendacitator." I had to grab hold of the dictionary and look up the definitions to see how much blood was involved in this description. Colloquially, it meant "lifelong horseshit liar".

Discovery turned out to be a game of hide-and-seek the attorneys played with inveterate, glandular-throbbing salivation .

In theory, each attorney was supposed to give the opposing attorney all the evidence he would submit in the trial. The trial itself would then only have to deal with innuendo, defamation of character, obscure citations from other trials, and each attorney's acting ability. Four Star actors represented rich clients and One Star actors represented drunk driving clients.

I sneakily asked my attorney, Mr. Goodman, if people drank a lot in Kansas. He opined that he couldn't be sure of any per capita comparison data, but that Kansans did drink enough to cover his mortgage payments.

The dice rolling in the air clanged off my head and rolled onward toward destiny.

In truth, however, Discovery was mostly concerned with hiding from the opposing attorney everything you could get away with hiding, and producing it as late as could possibly be done. This was called maneuvering and involved secretaries wearing out copy machines to mail mountains of totally irrelevant postage to the opposing counsel. This was called burying the needle somewhere in the haystack. To find the needle, attorneys had to set up mountainous hourglasses full of Hawaiian coins to monitor their fingers while they dug around in the haystack with fine tooth gloves, groping for the needle.

The other prominent event was Depositions. More familiarly known as "Playing yoyo with the bozo." In theory, Depositions allowed each attorney to cross-examine the opposing client under oath with a court reporter taking it all down for the record. If the client didn't tell the same lie in court as he told in the Deposition, said client could then be ridiculed and badgered and humiliated and laughed out of court and lose his case.

In theory.

Theory played a huge role in law and justice. It set all the rules that didn't particularly matter a hill of toenails in the end. What did matter was that theory had to be rigidly abided by. Which resulted in, you guessed it, huge wads of Hawaiian coin hourglasses.

After a Deposition, an attorney would know what to ask and what not to ask at the actual trial. Attorneys did not like to have to perform their job on the fly like an assembly line worker or bus driver had to do. They insisted on having a dress rehearsal. This was good for the client by cutting down the chances that his attorney would hoist himself on a petard of doofusness during the trial and lose the case. And, of course, it doubled the amount of Hawaiian coins.

Both attorneys were present at the Depositions, but only one of them worked. The other one sat on his butt all day practicing facial expressions while earning Hawaiian coins.

As usual, Teresa said it best. "Can you believe this shit? What a stinking racket."

There was one particularly poignant moment during Warthog's deposition of me. He flourished a tape recording that Mr. Tweed had secretly made of a telephone call I had made to him. Warthog played the tape.

In the tape it was fairly obvious that I was extraordinarily drunk. For about five minutes, I had essentially gone on at length about how Tweed was a parasite who had crawled up my asshole in order to feed his family off my entrails.

Mr. Warthog was not pleased with my reaction to the playing of the tape. I believe he was expecting me to be extremely embarrassed and too ashamed to continue with my lawsuit. I foiled him, however, by breaking out into uncontrollable laughter and remarking that the truth was the truth.

Tweed's Deposition was a remarkable affair. Almost painful to behold. The previously urbane and self-assured arrogant word tosser was crippled into a state of virtual catatonia. He could not answer any question, even what day it was, without a tortured examination of his shoelaces that could last up to a minute or more of squirming angst. He was paralyzed by a whopping case of over-thinking. He was afraid that any answer could, and would, be held against him. What would his answer lead to? Would it come back to haunt him? Was there a trick involved?

What he couldn't realize, however, was that his performance was shouting out loud and clear that he was a liar and a thief and a guilty SOB. It was sad to see Arthur Tweed die a horrible death right in front of my eyes. He was no longer there. He was someone else now. Someone I knew not of.

The trial with Tweed lasted one week. The Tweeds maintained they were trying to protect the integrity of Babble Software by forming Babble Enterprises to continue to sell the Tower of Babble product during the demise of Babble Software itself. This ignored that the demise was engineered by them and the obvious fact that they had just stolen everything and had every intention in the world of keeping it.

Nobody ever used normal expressions like "stolen everything" in court, though. It was overruled. Bluntness was not allowed in evidence. It wasn't dressed properly.

We pointed out that the Tweeds were not only operating Babble Enterprises, but also Babble Software, and that Babble Enterprises existed only to gradually transfer all of Babble Software's clients, business, and revenue to Babble Enterprises. The Tweeds denied this. Teresa told our attorney to perform a simple test. He called the Tweed business phone right there in the court room and we all listened to Margaret's voice message: "Hello, you have reached Babble Software and Babble Enterprises."

This clearly established that the Tweeds were lying, thieving greed heads. In court terms, they had committed perjury and fiduciary misconduct. Case closed.

In theory.

Theory, however, was a meaningless six-letter word as soon as Gourd pounded the gavel and announced his oral verdict. He would produce a formal written verdict in a month, but he was giving us the gist of things immediately.

It was hard to tell who won. In fact, nobody had. This was the outcome that judges preferred. They abhorred giving anyone the notion that they could use the courts to gain something by sticking the law up the their ass and making them obey it. In a pinch, a judge could always Set a New Legal Precedent.

For poor people who couldn't afford to appeal a decision, like us, this was never necessary. A judge could simply pretend he had paid attention to all the attorney bullshit and that what sounded like snoring was no more than his brain noise as he grinded on himself to come up with a delusion called a Fair Trial which produced a fantasy called Justice. He could do whatever he damned well pleased, that is. He was God.

It was precisely at this point that it became crystal clear that the entire year of procedures and calendars and theories were nothing more than Hawaiian toll booths, pure and simple.

After the Fair Trial, Goodman and Warthog shook hands and compared wallets and suggested doing lunch sometime. Tweed and I sat stone-faced and baffled. I was regretting that I had acted in a civil manner and not carried out my original inclination of just beating the holy crap out of him.

The source code and the entire Babble Software business were awarded to me. Tweed was evicted from the premises. Good thinking, Gourd.

But Tweed was to continue to receive half of all the revenue that would come in from the royalty clients of the now dissolved partnership. In perpetuity. Bad thinking, Gourd.

So, I owned the company and would have to do all the work, incur all the expenses, and Tweed would do nothing and get half the money. Masterful screw job.

P. William Gourd tottered out of the court room. I was obviously not happy. Tweed wasn't happy, either. He no longer had a business to shoot the shit with citizens about. No office. No business. No back-slapping townsfolk. No flesh ironing. And, for what it was worth, I had beat him and Margaret and their plot to steal all my source code and everything I had. It was a pyrrhic victory, nonetheless. The effort had ruined us.

Gourd had rendered another masterful verdict that screwed everyone involved. There were never any winners in his court room. Except lawyers and executioners.

Teresa and I were outraged. Eighty-five thousand Hawaiian coins to buy a sharp stick in the eye.

Gourd wasn't through with his perversity. He passed off his verdict to Payne Weasley, an attorney who would act as a Receiver of the royalty revenue remaining from our OEM contracts. And also, we would sadly learn, "interpreter" of the judge's order.

This ushered in an era that Mr. Goodman and his eyeballing monitor boss never mentioned until the trial was over. The Post Trial era. During this era, Goodman and Warthog got to bicker over details and interpretations about the judge's ruling, and the Receiver, Weasley, got to take sides and encourage as much bickering as possible since he had now set up his own toll booth to collect Hawaiian coins himself.

The Post Trial era lasted longer than the pretrial year. Ours lasted three years. We received no revenue during this time and eventually gave up thinking we ever would. All the revenue that came into the Receiver Weasley's pockets stayed there.

Or went to Tweed. He got all his money out of Babble. I got none. Just the source code ownership, basically. Which was now useless. But it was mine and not his. It made a difference. To me, at least. It made a difference.

End of story.

Was it all worth it?

"We had no other choice," Teresa said.

And that was the simple, painful truth.

All that remained of Babble was the little trickle of web site revenue, which Gourd had forgotten to give Tweed half of.

It was all we had to live on. Most of the money from selling the house went to pay for the trial and subsequent bullshit. We lost our home, everything in it, all our credit cards, all our credit, all our insurance. Everything.

But losing the health insurance turned out to be the killer. Neither of us could afford to go see doctors for checkups any more. Doctors belonged to the same gougers club lawyers did. A twenty minute blood test, along with the usual weighing, measuring, ear checking, mouth tongueing, eye peering, knee thumping, balls coughing, butt fingering, cost nearly a thousand dollars. So we stopped getting any checkups.

Teresa's cancer history slipped into her like a thief in the night. A little knob appeared one day over her left eye. It got bigger. And bigger.

It turned out to be the tip of an iceberg inside her. A fast spreading cancer was all over her body organs. Kidneys, liver, pancreas, lungs, throat, and brain.

Just like that, our life together suddenly came down to six tiny little weeks. Six unbelievably sad and broken weeks to somehow say good-bye.

Then TellingWays was gone.

GoingBlind remained.

And far across the Neuron Ocean, the first small clouds formed above the dark waters of the murderous rage to come.






Chapter Thirteen



Payne Weasley's eyes were closed. Like if he didn't open them, nothing bad would happen. In your dreams, Mr. Weasley.

He was a small man, bald on top and buzzed off on the sides. Like many bald men, he sported a neatly trimmed, close cropped beard. It hurt like hell when I tore the duct tape from his mouth, pulling some whiskers off in the process. His eyes at last flew open, watered over from the pain.

"We're here, asshole."

"You!" he said. He hadn't seen my face when I kidnapped him from his garage.

"You remember me. How nice."

I swung his legs out of the trunk and pulled him to his feet. He clunked his head on the trunk latch coming out. He squeezed his eyes shut like he'd give a hundred dollars to be able to rub the dent in his scalp.

I'd left lard butt Gourd's feet untaped since he was too old and plush to go anywhere on his own. But Weasley was younger. About my age. A day or two older, maybe.

So, I left his feet taped and made him hobble in little jumps as I pulled him along by his necktie. He fell up against my back once and got sweat on my shirt. Creepy.

I parked him against a rock next to the remains of the Honorable P. William Gourd.

There wasn't much left of old Gourdsey. The vultures had shredded his clothes in their frenzy to get at him. Then the maggots had moved in, followed by the beetles. The dinner table pecking order. The ants came last. They were like the vacuum cleaner that took care of the crumbs on the floor. They were still pouring in and out of his eye sockets.

All that was left of P. William Gourd was a skeleton with some black crud all over it. His final judicial robe.

Weasley was eyeballing it. Not at all comforted by the hints it was giving him that the wings had fallen off his airplane.

I noticed a gold chain hanging from the spinal column where Gourd's neck had been. There was a key dangling at the end of it, down inside his rib cage. I lifted the chain over his skull and put it in my pocket.

"Meet your new neighbor," I said to Weasley.

"Who's that?" Weasley asked.

"Your old crooked lawyering buddy. Judge P. William Gourd. You may have read about his disappearance. They'll be talking about yours next."

"You killed him?"

"I sure did."

"Good God! Why?"

"You remember the chicken?"

"Chicken?"

"Yeah. The one who crossed the road."

"What road? What chicken?"

"The road the chicken had to get to the other side of."

"Oh. That chicken. What about him?"

"Her. It was a chicken, not a rooster."

"Fine. What about him?"

"Nothing. You didn't remember. I had to tell you."

"Tell me what?"

"Why the chicken crossed the road."

"To get to the other side."

"Correct. Gourd needed a little push. He didn't want to cross the road."

"I'm talking to a lunatic."

"Perhaps. Enjoy it, though. This will be your last conversation."

"You're going to kill me too? What in hell is wrong with you?"

"Good reference. Give my regards to the devil when you get there."

"This can't be happening."

He shook his head around like a gum machine globe that had taken his penny and not delivered the gum ball. It's America, Weasley. Wise up.

He stared up at me. Mouth open. Dazed eyes.

"Quite a pickle you're in, Weaser."

I sat down on the rock I'd sat on when Gourd was here. It hadn't moved while I was gone. Old faithful.

"Please don't kill me. I'll pay you. Whatever you want. Just name it."

"You should have paid me when you were the Receiver."

"I couldn't. There wasn't enough money."

"There was enough for you and Tweed. Why not me?"

"Blame Gourd. I had to pay myself and I had to pay Tweed. You only got paid afterward."

"That wasn't what Gourd's order said."

"Yes it did."

"No it didn't."

"Yes it did."

I walked over and slapped him across the face. Two slaps. One forward, one backhand. Then I sat back down.

"No it didn't," I said again. He seemed to perceive my message.

"That's what I thought it said," he corrected himself.

"That's what you made it say, you slime headed asshole."

He glowered at me and closed his mouth tight, like he had decided he wasn't going to talk any more.

It was a brutally hot day. Over a hundred in the shade. But there wasn't any. Except in my armpits, which were throwing off sweat like a leaky air conditioner.

Gourd hadn't even bothered to move or try to escape. Just sat there and gave up. Waited for the end. I figured as much. He was probably dead before the bugs heard the dinner bell.

I wonder if he'd said any prayers. I'd given him plenty of time for it. Throw up a last defense of his life. Closing arguments to St. Peter. Plead insanity. Take the fifth. Throw himself on the mercy of Jesus. With Jesus, there was always hope. He had a rep for forgiveness.

But there was a catch with Jesus. You had to be sorry. Did old Gourd have it in him to be sorry? Did Weasley? Would I?

"You believe in Jesus, Weasley?"

"Of course. I'm a Presbyterian."

"Ah. One of those Calvin lovers. Predestined elitist. Nice philosophy. Can't go wrong with that one. Makes it easier for me, too."

"Easier? What do you mean easier?"

"Easier for me to kill you. Easy for you because you're already saved. And getting whacked in the desert is what was preordained for you to experience. Easier for me, too. I'm just the predestined fickle finger of God's fate for you. I'm carrying out His plan for you. I'm getting goose bumps."

"You're getting death row, you fool."

"I suppose so. If I was smart, I wouldn't be doing this. My anger's out of control, I guess."

"See a counselor."

"A little late for that, Weasler. How's your belief system holding up?"

"Screw you."

"Hey, don't be snippy. This is your big moment. Your big, predestined heroic moment. Taking it like a man. Brave to the end. Righteous in the Lord."

"You can't scare me. I have peace of mind."

"Shit. You're taking all the fun out of this. Aren't you even going to whimper a little?"

"You wish."

"I wish you'd paid me my money. That wasn't nice."

He couldn't help himself. He smiled.

"You smiled there. You must have been thinking how much fun your wife will have spending all your money. All those ill-gotten gains."

The smile faded. It was replaced by a far off look. Way off out there in moneysville heaven. All those Hawaiian coins slipping though his fingers. Down into his wife's purse. Bulging it up to overflowing. Coins cascading everywhere. Spilling into the street. Out of his hands. Gone. Lost.

"All that money, Wease-butt. Every dime. You should have quit a few years ago and spent some of it. Too late now."

He didn't respond. Just lowered his head and stared at the ground.

"Poor old Weaser. Sold out his whole life for nothing. Wife get's it all. What hurts more? Dying or losing your stash?"

"I love my wife."

"Good. She'll be real happy now. All that money and no you. Ecstasy."

"She loves me, too. You're crazy. And wrong."

"Am I? Don't forget, I saw you guys eat dinner."

"No you didn't."

"Yes I did."

"You're lying."

"Nope. Last night. Through the French doors. She was stabbing at your little bits. Pushing them around on her plate. Picking through them. The look of an assassin. Cold. Plotting. Slicing the knife through her steak like it was your neck."

"You're lying. I was right there with her. We just had dinner like usual."

"Precisely. You were only giving her one hand of your time. You know what happens to one handed husbands, don't you?"

"What?"

"Death by shriveling."

"You're crazy. I didn't sell out. I've had a successful life. A meaningful life. You're a nobody. You'll always be a nobody."

"That's exactly what Gourd said. You guys all think alike."

"You're a loser, Monona. Pure and simple."

"Not today, Weasey boy. Today I'm flushing a turd down the big toilet of life. Successful life? I scoff on your sleeve. Sure went fast didn't it? What's it worth now? Now that it's passed on by. Now that it's over. Now that there is no more. Now that later has arrived."

"Later? Later what?"

"It's a long story."

"Lunatic. That's what you are. A lunatic."

"A loser, a nobody, and a lunatic. You're wearing out your compliments. I'm also the one who isn't taped up and dressed for my funeral."

Weasley didn't respond. He looked around at all the nothingness, just like Gourd had. I wondered what he saw. Was it the same thing Gourd saw? Or did the desert have views of itself that were personal. The face of death. Teresa had seen it. Someday so would I.

"I'll tell you what you are, Wease-hole. Nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. Remember? That's what you are. It's all you are ever going to be."

"Shut up and get it over with."

"Take a look at Gourd, Wease. Take a good long look."

"Fuck you."

"Whoa. The attorney man knows how to use bad words. My, my, my. On that note, I think it's time to mosey on down the road."

I stood up and looked down at him. He squinched his eyes shut, waiting for the death blow. Just like Gourd.

"Relax, Weasley. I'm not going to kill you. I'm just the chauffeur."

His eyes flew open. The fear had come.

"You're just going to leave me here?"

"I guess so."

It was time for my famous last words. I hadn't thought up Tweed's yet. It would come to me when it was time. Gourd got Robert Frost. Weasley got Abraham Lincoln. Sort of.

"So long, jerk. The world will little note nor long remember your passing."

I extracted a paperback from my hip pocket and placed it on his lap. It was one of those bathroom reading books with nine hundred and ninety-nine jokes in it.

"For your amusement," I said. "Joke number one thousand is on you."

I walked to the car and got in. He started begging. I rolled down the window and listened. He was slobbering and blathering it up pretty good.

It was true what they said. After the first one, the rest were easy. Leaving Weaslely to die didn't bother me at all. It was sick. I was not a good person any more. Not a good boy at all.

I rolled the window back up and turned on the air conditioning and drove away.

Two down. One to go. The hardest one. By far. The one that remained. Arthur Asshole Tweed.






Chapter Fourteen



It was a safe deposit key.

I took it off Gourd's necklace and slipped it into my wallet. Underneath my driver's license. My curiosity was definitely aroused. Nobody wore a safe deposit key around their neck without a fairly significant reason.

I had just finished reading the SF Chronicle. Weasley wasn't big enough to merit any coverage at all. Apparently, a small city lawyer needed to have his head sliced off and rolled down main street to attract major media attention.

Poor old Weasley. In the end, he was only big enough for a last bow in the once a week Walnut Creek Tableau. I'd have to get a copy some day.

I went next door to see Frisbee. She would be good at the idea that was sloshing around in my head. A telephone to me was a dreaded instrument that could bite you in the ear canal or steal your tongue and sell it into slavery. For her, the phone was the cradle of civilization. I saw her cradling it all the time. Up and down the lane in front of her trailer. Getting good cell phone reception and giving her arms plenty of room to emote over her words.

I knocked on her door. She opened it wearing a miniskirt nightgown. She had pretty good legs for thirty-eight and meant to keep showing them off as long as she could. I felt a little bad for her. Somehow she had gotten the conviction that all she was worth was her body parts. They were always on display, dangling around out there like male entrapment catalogs. She used them to receive male assistance from every old geezer in the trailer park with a tongue that drooled at the drop of a glimpse. Errands. Lifting heavy objects. Fixing broken machines. All the dirty work that males specialized in. I couldn't help wondering: what are you gonna do when the glimpses get old and the tongues don't drool?

"Hey, Blue. C'mon in."

Her trailer was narrower than mine, but a lttle longer and a whole lot cleaner. She apologized for the mess. I looked around and eventually spotted a plate in the sink with some dried egg on it. Soaking in water.

"What's up?" she asked, sitting down at her dinette table.

I sat down across from her. "I need a favor."

"You sure do. But I don't do blowjobs in the morning, Blue. Sorry. You can peek up my skirt, but that's all."

She laughed hysterically. She got a big bang out of being bawdy, like I more or less mentioned. Part of the entrapment catalog.

"I'll wait till noon then," I said.

She laughed again. I wondered what it would be like to live with someone who laughed all day long. Would it get annoying? And how did she and Moose manage to fight all the time? Did she make wisecracks while he smacked her around? Take a giggle break to check out a wrist that might be broken?

I looked around to see if Moose was there. No. Making a morning raid on somebody's scrap pile probably. Then I remembered he was in jail.

She had a bottle of nail polish on the table. She was painting her nails some sort of purplish color.

"Okay, Blue. What kind of favor do you need?"

"I need you to make some phone calls. Track down some information."

"You got a phone. Why do you need me?"

"It's a phobia thing."

"A phobia thing?"

"Yeah. You know. Me and phones are allergic."

"How do you order pizza then?"

"I don't."

"What if somebody calls you?"

"That's different. All I have to do is answer. I don't have to ask. Asking is where I'm no good. It's an emphasis thing."

"You're not keeping up with life very well, are you Blue? Is that a Teresa thing?"

"Probably so. How'd you guess?"

"It's a girl thing."

"Right. Of course."

"What kind of information you need, Blue?"

"The location of a bank, actually."

"You don't need a phone for that. You can look in the Yellow Pages."

"I don't know which bank to look for."

"What bank do you want?"

"The one a guy I know uses. His bank."

"Why don't you just ask him?"

"I can't. He's out of the country, so to speak."

"Call him and ask. They got phones overseas, you know."

I looked at her and shrugged feebly.

"Right," she said. "You want me to call him."

"No. Not that. I want you to find his bank without asking him."

"You don't want him to know you're looking for his bank?"

"Sort of. It's a little hard to explain."

"No kidding. Why do you want to know which bank is his?"

"There's something there I need to get."

"All they got in banks is money."

"Well. They got safe deposit boxes, too. You never know what's in them."

"Safe deposit boxes?"

"That's just an example. You can get loans from banks, too. Or open accounts."

She narrowed her eyes. "What the hell are you up to, Blue? You got a Moose type sound to you. That's not good."

"See. That's why I need you to find out. I'd Moose it up."

"No shit. So you want me to find this guy's bank where he's got a safe deposit box. Is that about right?"

"Yes."

"What's in the box?"

"I don't know."

"Didn't he tell you."

"He never got around to mentioning that."

"But he mentioned the box."

"In so many words, yeah."

"Does he know you're looking for his box?"

"Probably." Depending on the afterlife, I guess. What the dead could see back here in life. If anything. Nobody was precisely clear about that. That I knew of, anyway. You had to be a Saint to have that clue. I didn't know any Saints.

"This is like pulling teeth, Blue. What the fuck are you up to?"

"I can't really tell you."

"You don't trust me? Is that it?"

"It isn't that. It's just better if you don't know. Not right now, anyway."

"That don't sound good."

"Trust me. It's okay."

"So what's this guy's name? I'll need to know if I'm going to find his bank."

"Gourd. P. William Gourd. He's a judge in Oakland. He lives in the Oakland hills. Or maybe it's the Berkeley hills. I'm not sure. It might be a Berkeley address."

"Whoa! A fucking judge? What the hell are you tracking down some judge's bank for?"

"Like I said, I can't tell you."

"He's not out of the country, is he? You were lying."

"No, he's out of the country. That was true."

"Are we talking about robbing this judge's safe deposit box while he's out of the country? Level with me, Blue."

"Not we."

"You."

"Not you. That's the main point. You're not doing anything but locating a bank. Period."

"You ain't normally dangerous like this, Blue. What's happened to you?"

"It's not dangerous."

"Bull. I know dangerous when I see it. You got the Moose eye, sure as shit."

I gave her a little smile. "But not the Moose head."

"That's what he says, too. Jail head is what both of you have. You shouldn't do this, Blue. It ain't your style. You're in over your head. Fucking judge, no less. You're out of your mind."

"Are you going to help me or not?"

"I'm thinking I shouldn't."

"Then I'd have to do it myself."

"I'm thinking I'd better."

"Then you will?"

"I'm thinking I'm crazy."

"But you will anyway?"

"You're going to tell me what's in the box, right?"

"I probably shouldn't."

"But you will."

"Yeah. I will."

"Shit. What's this asshole judge's name again?"

# # #

Glenn Saukos was as old as an old guy who you couldn't tell how old he was.

He was old when I knew him twenty years earlier. That old.

"You haven't changed a bit," I said to him.

"How can I? Once you get old, you stop getting old. Of course," he confided with an arched eye, "a little makeup doesn't hurt."

Which was why I had come to see him.

We were in his shop, a converted studio apartment on a Cotati side street. Cotati only had side streets. It was a small, hexagonal community with a park in the center between the freeway and Sonoma State University. There were only a couple thousand residents or so.

The glory days were long gone.

In the seventies, Cotati was a cultural North Bay mecca. There were nightclubs and a grassy park in the center of town with a bandstand. It was the jewel of a collection of nightclubs affectionately referred to as The Reefer Circuit. One club in Marin, one on the Russian River, one in the town of Sonoma, and two here.

In those days, music and street theater vibrated constantly in the town, like it was a jungle village where the tom-toms never stopped. Big bands from San Francisco drove up and played week night gigs and enjoyed the countryside and wine tasting during the day. Jerry Garcia, Maria Muldaur, Coke Escovito, Sly and the Family Stone, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, even the immortal Roy Orbison. They had all come to play. I had been there when they did. A part of the history.

It was a quiet little town now, its heyday long gone in the rearview mirror of life. My tenure as manager of the largest of the two nightclubs, and my youth, gone in that rearview mirror, as well. Dust on the highway.

Glenn had been here through it all, one of the few who remained. Everyone else had gone back to L.A. or gotten married or found a real job. He was a makeup artist, once having worked for Lucasfilm in Marin. He had started out in street theater. Cotati had a fairly famous street theater troop called Free Store. An old wacky guy named Vito was the founder and leader. He had hung around L.A. with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention and then drifted up to Cotati to teach dancing at Sonoma State and form his street theater troop. The troop was very entertaining in an anti-establishment and very bawdy way. Shock theater.

Glenn did all the makeup for the troop. All the troopers wore colorful paint masks depicting any sort of mayhem artso fartso designs that the particular trooper felt a whim for wearing on any particular day. Now he had his little shop and volunteered his expertise to theater productions at Sonoma State and the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

He was a local icon. Somewhat of a legend.

I placed a picture of Gourd on the counter. He picked it up and studied it.

"You want me to make you look like this old puke?"

"He's my friend's dead grandfather. I've a little mischief in mind."

"Is he going to need a paramedic?"

"I hope so. Can you do it?"

He tossed the picture disdainfully on the counter. "My daughter's kid could do it. Pretty simple stuff. Old is easy."

"Great. When can you do it?"

"I could do it tomorrow. It ain't like I'm busy these days."

"Great. Tomorrow it is. I'll see you in the morning. Thanks, old guy."

"You're getting there yourself, punk."

"I'll never catch you."

"You got that right."

Before going home, I dropped by the old nightclub. It was now a Women's Club. I had no idea what women did in a club. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Whatever it was, they weren't doing it now. The parking lot was empty. The doors were all locked. I couldn't get in for a nostalgic wander around.

Instead, I sat in my truck and smoked some cigarettes and reminisced. Life had happened to me in chunks. Each chunk had people in it I would never see again. Hundreds of them by now. Maybe even thousands. People you said so long to one day, thinking you'd see them tomorrow or next week, and somehow you never saw them again. You moved. They moved. School ended. Something. There was never a formal good-bye. One day long afterwards they would pop into your mind and you would wonder, "Whatever happened to old so-and-so? Shit. We never said good-bye."

The chunk-full of kids I grew up with. The ones I went to high school with. The college ones. The parents and teachers of each chunk. The Paper Crunching chunks. The nightclub chunk. The Babble chunk. The Teresa chunk. Each chunk had less and less people in it. Less and less good-byes that never got said. Chunked all the way down to my current chunk. The one with no people at all. No one I could forget to say good-bye to.

No one who would forget to say good-bye to me.

Where were all those people from all those chunks? What were they doing? Where had they gone? Which ones were happy? Which ones were sad? Which ones were dead? Did you ever get to know what happened to them all? Or did they just evaporate into eternity.

It was a mystery. With probably no resolution.

I snuffed out the last butt and drove back to my trailer and went back to work on Gourd's signature. I'd done it a thousand times, at least, but I needed it to be second nature. One last practice session before the big day.

Like most big shots, or big shot wannabes like Tweed, or just lazy guys, his scrawl looked nothing at all like his name. A barely recognizable 'PWG' all mooshed on top of each other with a trailing wiggly line. Strangely enough, the wiggly line gave me the most trouble. It had to be so carelessly precise.

Frisbee had located Gourd's bank in Berkeley without much trouble.

"There was one tight ass full of bank policy," she bragged. "He just needed a little phone sex. All those prissy little prick's are the same."

"You're a natural born diplomat, Frisbee."

"Right. I should go to the UN and solve all the world's problems."

"The UN isn't for solving problems. It's for creating and maintaining them."

"No shit."

# # #

I signed the ledger and held my breath.

The prim young woman in the plain brown pants suit peered at it through her glasses and compared it to the card on file.

"Right this way, Mr. Gourd."

Felony count number one: Impersonating a dead man.

Felony count number two: Forgery.

She pressed a buzzer and I pushed open the gate and followed her into the bank vault. There was no one else in there.

The video cameras stared down at us from their locations on the walls. Saukos had done a great job, though. All the cameras could see was old, doddering P. William Gourd. Perhaps a bit taller than usual.

She took my key and Gourd's key, and led us to his box. She inserted his key and hers, opened the door, and withdrew the container inside. Then she led the way to a room and opened the door.

"You can use this room, Mr. Gourd. To ensure your privacy."

"Thank you," I said.

She left.

Felony count number three: Breaking and Entering. Or was that just for buildings and homes? It was probably on the Internet. I could look it up.

I closed the door behind me. It felt like Christmas morning and I was ten years old with a big present on the floor between my knees, ready to rip off the wrapping paper. Better even. The smaller the package, the better the present. Basic Christmas Gift 101.

There was a sturdy ledge along one wall. I laid the container on it and placed the small suitcase I'd brought with me next to it. I arranged them around lengthwise, then widthwise. Widthwise was the winner. I opened the suitcase and rested the top half against the wall. Would it be big enough? I eyeballed the two containers. The safe deposit box was longer. If there was something long in there and couldn't be bent in half, I was in trouble.

What if there was a severed head in there? Naw. How about some fingers or toes? I gave it a sniff. It smelled like metal. Tin, maybe. Steel? How would I know? I never lived in Pennsylvania. Or was it West Virginia? What if the fingers were in plastic bags and the odor was contained? Fuck it with the meandering wonders. Show and tell time.

"Okay Gourd-butt, let's see what you got in your boxer shorts."

I lifted the lid and fainted. I had an out-of-body experience. My first one ever. A girl I'd known in Cotati had them every couple of weeks, but this was my first time.

I was down, though, not up. Lying on the floor sharing my feet with the un-out-of-body me. I could see up my nostrils, even. There was stuff hanging around in there wrapped in cigarette smoke. Up past the unclean nose were my eyeballs. They had crawled out on my cheeks and were jumping up and down doing pupil bumps in mid air.

I resurfaced into my body again. There in the container were stacks and stacks of hundred dollar bills, neatly bundled with currency bands. I thumbed through a couple of them, like they were decks of cards. All one hundred dollar bills. Every single one. Crisp and flat as hell, untouched by cash registers and wallets and greasy hands and baby's mouths. Nothing but C notes. Drug money? I could see the headlines. "C programmer sees cuffs! Caught at sea with C notes! Papal See disavows seeming connection! See page three!"

I looked around the room. No cameras. No windows. No peek holes. No keyholes. Nobody but me. Slob, broke-ass Blue Monona. Esquire. Just me.

I transferred the money to my suitcase. At first, I was in a hurry, grabbing money wads two-handed and tossing them into the suitcase like a cat in a litter box. Then I calmed down. No sense in being untidy about this. I rearranged the wads in the suitcase into neat rows and columns and started transferring again. This little hand takes one, that little hand takes two. Stack, stack, stack. Pat, pat. pat.

There were one hundred little wads in all. They fit in my suitcase with six to each column, four rows of columns, four wads high. Almost exactly the height of my suitcase walls. Suitcases were probably designed for stuff like this. I wouldn't put it past them. America had a lot of hidden reasons for everything it did.

There were four wads left over. I stuck two in the inside pockets of my suit coat, one for each pocket. I put the remaining two into a little pocket in the suitcase where you would normally shove toothpaste and stuff like that.

There were two last things in the safe deposit box. Underneath all the money. One was a photograph. With a negative taped to the back. It was an awful, awful photograph. You couldn't even stand to look at it. I had to turn away like I might puke. A guy I didn't recognize was kneeling down with his face buried in the crotch of a dazed little boy. I didn't need to know who the guy was. If he was in here with all this money, he was rich. That's all that mattered about him. Rich and incredibly sick. God, where are You? Get down here and do something about these sickos! They're growing like weeds.

I put the photograph upside down in the suitcase, down on the bottom underneath the money. I didn't want to see it anymore. Ever.

The other last thing in the box was keys. Nine of them. Nine other safe deposit keys.

It wasn't hard to guess where all Gourd's money had come from.

Or why nobody fucked with him.

I put the keys in my pants pocket. Then I closed the suitcase and replaced the now empty safe deposit box back in its slot and shut the door.

As I came out of the bank vault lugging my suitcase, the woman asked, "Is everything satisfactory, Mr. Gourd?"

"Yes. Thank you. Everything's quite fine."

Indeed. I walked through the bank with my suitcase and out to my truck in the parking lot. I put the suitcase on the passenger seat and then sat at the wheel looking through the windshield for a while. Coping. I decided that after twenty years of faithful anonymous service, my truck had earned the right to have a name. From now on, in honor of this wonderful occasion, the truck would be addressed as Mr. Gordo Wheels.

"Okay, Mr. Wheels, let's go home. Do you mind if I call you Gordo?"

Vvrroomm. Vvrroomm.

"Thank you."

I drove back to Sonoma County on the same old route that was becoming my second home all of a sudden in life. Up 80, across the bridge, through Vallejo, across 37, up the highway to Petaluma, 101 north.

Clover Stornetta dairy had put up a new billboard along Highway 37. It wasn't as good as the last one, but you had to give them credit. They could just leave the same one up for years like everybody else.

This one had Clo the spotted cow hanging out the wash, wearing an apron and pink pedal pushers. The wash was milk cartons she was pinning up on the line. The title was simply, "Clo's Line."

It reminded me of Mom, hanging up pee-soaked sheets before they outlawed clotheslines from family neighborhoods and made them move to impoverished areas. You wouldn't believe what I have in my suitcase, Mom. But I can't tell you. It would make you cry. Your wonderful, beautiful son has gone really bad outlaw.

Felony count number four: Grand Theft Money.

To be accurate, there were a couple other felonious counts. Kidnapping and Murder. Twice. Interstate badness. I was clearly fattening up on felonies. Felonious gluttony. The Deadly Sins were neck and neck with the felonies.

I was afraid to go home. Somehow my trailer didn't seem like a safe place to be right now. The old dump wouldn't recognize me. It would short out its wiring and burn to the ground trying to drive off its intruder. Fire trucks and cops. Pissed off park manager. Angry neighbors. Bad scene.

So I didn't get on 101 north. Instead, I exited the highway at Petaluma and rented a room at the Sheraton, at the southeast edge of town. It was a very swank joint overlooking the Petaluma Marina. Way over my head financially under normal circumstances. But I was the reincarnation of P. William Gourd at the moment. What the heck. I could imagine his skeleton rattling with wrath. "That's my money!" it would be screaming.

Not any more. Right, Mr. Wheels?

I took the suitcase to my hotel room and tossed it on the bed, then stood on the balcony looking down at the yachts. You could steer one down the Petaluma River through the vineyards and marsh lands to San Pablo Bay from here. If you could steer good and were sober. The river was pretty narrow. A tight squeeze when one yacht was going down river and another coming up. The marina was small and did not have a huge supply of yachts. Which was not unexpected from a town that was best known for free range chickens and the World Arm Wrestling championship.

It occurred to me that a careless kayaker, such as Art Kayaking Man Tweed, could turn into a windshield bug in a hurry if a couple of yachts put the squeeze on while a kayaker paddled down the river. Tweed had become a kayaker after the move to Sebastopol. I savored the thought. Unfortunately, carelessness was not his forte.

I went into the bathroom and scraped most of Gourd off into the toilet. It took more than one flushing. Then I took a shower to erase the rest. It had definitely been weird being him for a day. I looked in the mirror, which I normally tried not to do since there was always a disappointing goon in there using my eyes and impersonating me in public. Right now, though, the old mug seemed like a long lost friend. I wondered what it must have been like to be Gourd and have to wear around his ugly, repulsive face all his life. He had to be relieved being dead. Everybody was beautiful in the afterlife. Supposedly.

I sat down in an armchair next to a little round table. The table had a magazine on it about Yachting. Big surprise. I flipped it over. On the back was a picture of a glass of vodka with ice cubes in it and moisture dripping down the sides of the glass. The glass was held by a semi-naked lady in a black dress with very obvious cleavage. Her cheek was pressed against the glass and her red, wet lips were suggestively parted.

I was immediately subliminalized by the advertising geeks who had put together a very clever system to trick you into buying booze. A guy like me didn't need much subliminal tricking to buy booze, but it worked very well on nice people who normally chilled out with a glass of lemonade. The unsuspecters. Old man Saukos had educated me on this subliminalization technique.

According to Saukos, the whole picture was actually made up of microscopic dots of color. There might be two hundred thousand of them in one ice cube. Naturally, they were too small for your eye to see, but your brain could. This technique was tested and approved by research rats, who had brains that were similar to humans in that you could do any kind of research on them and get Pavlovian results. It was about all rats were good for, it seemed. They provided jobs for another type of geek called a Research Scientist. I suspected a lot of Hawaiian coins were involved in this rat-geek association.

How it worked to get your attention, if the cleavage wasn't enough, which for a woman maybe it might not be, was the clever part. Ninety per cent of the dots in the ice cube, for instance, would be devoted to portraying the actual ice cube. With rounded corners. Smooth. No snagging upon extraction. Get it? But the other ten percent, which you could only notice in the subliminal section of your brain, were blank spots that spelled out the word DEATH. Over on the lips and cleavage the blank spots spelled out SEX.

How did SEX and DEATH help sell vodka? Easy. When your brain noticed them it caused your neurons and adrenaline drops to get into a state called a Tither. The only way to get out of a Tither was to have a drink of vodka or some other drink sold by the same booze seller. Then the ice cubes carrying DEATH would melt or be left behind and allow you to laugh in the face of DEATH. The vodka would slide down your throat, copping a peek at the cleavage and a smooch from the lips on the way down the throat, where it fell into your stomach and made you feel warm and happy and the Tither went away.

Of course, you couldn't drink and look at the magazine picture at the same time, or you would get into an endless loop of getting a Tither and getting rid of it. This was called Getting Drunk, which was far beyond the scope of Tithers.

So I decided to get something to drink. It was hard to gloat over money if you didn't have something to drink.

There was a bar off the downstairs lobby. I bought a bottle of J&B and took it back to my room and locked the door. The suitcase lay on the bed. I opened the Scotch and drank two long swallows, right from the bottle. I may have smacked my lips, I'm not sure.

Finally, I opened the suitcase and dumped all the money on the bed. It made quite a heap of dough. I grabbed one of the packets and counted the hundred dollar bills it contained. One hundred. There were a hundred packets in all. A hundred currency bands with a hundred bills each.

One million dollars.

Apparently, I was a millionaire.

Now what.






Chapter Fifteen



One million dollars.

Five hundred thousand cheap hamburgers. One hundred thousand movie tickets. Twenty thousand pairs of jeans. Ten hospitals in Nairobi. One four bedroom suburban home in a choice location with a view. Quality or quantity. Decisions, decisions.

Savings and interest were out of the question. At least in America. The IRS would have an inquiring and greedy mind. It was my opinion that the IRS had no right to tax earnings that had been acquired by killing someone and stealing his money. If they did that, they'd have to tax themselves, which of course they wouldn't and didn't. Case closed.

Still, according to them, this was Felony count number seven: Income Tax Evasion. Throw in that there were two kidnappings and two murders, not just one. So it was actually nine felonies. I wondered what the felony count record was. I could look it up. May as well shoot for it. What the hay.

The approaching demise of one Arthur Asshole Tweed would probably wrap the chain of guilt firmly around my neck. I was probably the one and only common denominator that belonged to Gourd, Weasley, and Tweed. One plus one plus one equals one. It was elementary criminal math. The computers would find my denominators fairly fast, if they weren't breathing down them already. It was inevitable that I would be caught and shipped off to Death Row, where I would go to law school for ten years and then get the needle to eternity and a posthumous best seller about my depravity. Or maybe it would be back to guillotines by then if certain segments of brain dead idiots managed to get too much sway over American behavior.

Anyway, it was clear that I was in a situation where it was probably better to just spend all the money while I could. Which Weasley hadn't done. Or Gourd. I was determined not to make that same mistake.

Spend it or lose it. That was the deal.

Nine more keys?

Very, very interesting.

Each one of the packets was ten thousand dollars. About half what I now made each year off the sales trickling down from the once thriving Babble Software web site, its Tower product a wounded and crippled hulk, slogging through cyberspace full of bad blood and butchered dreams.

I kept the two packets I had in my suit coat pockets and repacked all of the rest back into the suitcase, along with the ugly photograph. If Frisbee could track Gourd's bank, mine would never be secure. On the way home the next day, I parked Mr. Wheels in Cotati and rented a safe deposit box at the local bank. I dumped the suitcase contents in there. I had no other connection with this bank. Maybe it was safe.

Frisbee was all teeth and eyes as soon as I parked Gordo at my trailer site.

"You're home!" she gushed, like I'd been around the world for a year.

"What big eyes you have, Little Red Riding Hood."

"The wolf had the big eyes."

"Right."

She was wearing the top half of a T-shirt and tight, calf length jeans that topped out well below her navel. Everything from her ribs to just below her hip bones was viewable.

It was the girl fashion of the day, for some reason. The pants made it look like you had to shave the top of your pubic hairs to avoid indecent exposure. It was sort of like the subliminal advertising in that naked navels and skin further south always grabbed boys eyes and led them down the path to forbidden fruitsville. On the backside, though, these fashions cut into the top of a girl's butt forging a second waist line into what normally was a round collector of double purpose fat cells. I didn't find it particularly attractive. But I was too old for my opinion to matter a hill of frogs.

Why women would wear these things was beyond my dinosaur thinkingness. You had to be emaciated to avoid having flab rolls bulge out the front and back over the edge of the pants. But even the large ladies wore them. Even the really, really large ladies. Which always reminded me of the old line from the Raw Tomatoes song: "If you hear people gigglin', you know something is jigglin'." Maybe it was some kind of statement to men: this is me, here I am, screw you if you're looking for Twiggy. Women didn't make many statements when I was growing up. But that had changed quite a bit along the way.

I won't go into the thong underwear craze. How any woman could walk around all day with a string wedged in her crack baffled me. Sometimes I wondered if women didn't have some weird innate necessity going on that if they weren't suffering discomfort they might as well be a man. And that was too scary to contemplate.

Of course, since I didn't know anything about fashion or insider-womanhood, I'm just remarking here. Like you might do if you were having a rambling conversion with a deaf mute car pool buddy whose hands were on the steering wheel and unable to sign language along in the conversation. You know, throwing things out of your head before you'd checked the spelling. The bottom line was that obviously I didn't care if women wore clothes or not. Or how much clothes they wore when they did. If they didn't wear clothes, though, it would wreck the economy and guys wouldn't know what to do with their evil eyeballs anymore.

So, hey ladies, wear away. Make yourselves happy. It's a free world. Even though it costs a lot of money.

I got out of Mr. Wheels and sat down at the round, glass-topped patio table where Teresa and I had eaten so many sunset dinners during the summers. During the winters, we sat there, too. We had bought an outdoor fireplace gizmo that you could throw logs into and have a nice warm campfire right there in the middle of civilization. So we had spent a lot of time at the glass-topped table. A lot of time. All of it gone now. All of it gone.

Frisbee sat down across from me and leaned her chin on her hands. She batted her eyes rapidly and grinned expectantly. Frisbee was about as subtle as a bus running over your head on the street and smashing it flat. She made me laugh though, I have to admit. There was something humorous about a person who was totally obvious about everything she did. It never wracked your brain to decipher her. It reminded me a lot of being five years old. Back in my obviousness days. Before I learned why Dad and Mom always knew what I was up to. Before I learned what they were up to, too.

I folded my arms and looked at her blankly.

She fidgeted. I blanklied. After two fidgets and three blanklies, she couldn't wait any longer. "All right, you jerk. What happened? Tell me."

"Nothing."

"Bull."

"The box was empty."

"What was in it?"

"I can't tell you."

"If you don't, you're dead."

"I might be anyway."

She scrutinized me by sticking her face across the table and staring at one of my eyes, then the other. The old left, right, one, two combo.

"You're lying."

"Exaggerating."

"Whatever. Spill it or I'll sick Moose on you."

"You can't. He's in jail."

"Not any more. They let him out."

"There goes the neighborhood."

"It went when you moved in. Spill it."

I gave her an oversized grin.

"I knew it," she said. "You promised to share, remember?"

She rubbed her hands and wiggled her eyebrows like I was a cake and she was about to blow out my candles.

"On one condition," I said.

"It's still morning, so don't go asking for that."

"You can't tell anyone. Not one soul. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. Especially and even most especially Moose."

"No problemo."

"I mean it. Nobody. We're both dead meat if anyone finds out. Dead, dead, dead."

"Deal. Deal, deal, deal."

"Swear?"

"On what? Yeah, I swear. Swear, swear, swear. Jeez, get on with it. These word threesomes are killing me."

I fished one of the wads of cash out of my suit coat pocket and laid it on the table. Then I cracked my knuckles and swooped my hands around over it. She zoomed a hand over to snatch it, but I beat her to it. I held it up to my face, so I was looking over the top of it, and fanned it a couple of times.

"Damn you!" she opined. "Open that damn thing up."

I tore off the currency band and counted out ten bills and slid them across the table to her. A thousand dollars. I didn't want her to get greedy too soon by telling her I had a few more of these packets in my possession. Greedy people arguing about money always attracted more people to argue about it and eventually attracted police. Oftentimes coroners. Everyone knew that. I had no intention of stiffing her or being a miser. I was here to spend money. And I suspected she could be quite helpful in that regard. Just a hunch.

She grabbed the bills in a flash and spread them out before her eyes like a poker hand. Then she counted them down into a pile on the table. She nodded her head over them. It looked like some digestion was occurring. Then she looked over at the bills I'd kept.

"You got a lot more than me."

"Yes. I guess I do."

"How much more?"

"Nine thousand. It used to be ten thousand. You got ten percent."

She thought it over. "That's like an agent commission."

"For the phone calls."

She sat back and scratched the front of her neck. A smile spread over her face. She was happy.

"Fair enough, Blue," she said. "Fair enough. Shit that was fun. I'm tempted to make an exception to my morning rules."

"Thanks for the thought, Frisbo. But I'm still in mourning."

And always would be.

Tom Waits said it best. Tom Traubert's Blues. "A wound that will never heal."

# # #

The trailer site across the road from me had changed tenants again. For the third time this year.

The new neighbor looked like an ex-football player, a linebacker more specifically. The guys on the team who ran into the guys on the other team. Collision athletes. I was six feet tall and he was a few inches shorter. He was built wide and tough, whereas I most certainly was not. More like thin and wimpy. Or sleek and dangerous. You could bend the adjectives around anyway you wanted, depending on the occasion. He also had broad shoulders and hips. Big arms and thighs. Thick chest. Lumberjack hands. Wide, Neanderthal face with a flattened nose and square jaw and a big forehead that sloped down and out to a hard ridge over his eyes. Muscle city. He looked to be somewhere in his late twenties.

I met him at the dumpster the day he moved in. Which was the day after Frisbee and I had divvied up the spoils. You met everyone in the park at the dumpster, eventually. It was like the trailer park meeting hall. Everyone dumped trash and dumped it regularly. Lots of it. Not just the thirteen gallon kitchen bag variety, either. Sofas. TVs. Stereos. Old computers. Book cases. Chairs. Bicycles. Barbecues. Microwave ovens. Cement blocks. I hadn't seen anybody toss an old car in there yet, but it wouldn't surprise me if it happened. The dumpster was huge. Industrial size. And it was filled to overflowing and dumped three times a week. Serious trash, is what I'm saying.

Anything that had lost its usefulness got tossed. There were no garages to shove things into a corner and decide what to do with it ten years later when you moved. Sentimental attachment to stuff could not be afforded.

Otherwise, you ended up like the previous neighbor. When he and his wife moved into their trailer ten years earlier, he'd stored their household belongings and treasures in a storage shed for two hundred dollars a month. Ten by twenty shed. Almost as big as their trailer. Ten years later, he'd tossed twenty-four thousand dollars down the toilet for stuff that wasn't worth more than five hundred to begin with.

Before he left, he ruefully admitted he was now going to pay somebody two hundred bucks to clean out the storage shed and haul everything to the county dump. His kids didn't want any of it. In the end, all that really mattered were the family photographs. Which would have fit in his trailer all along.

The across the street neighbor was Paul. It was a disappointing name, in my opinion, given his looks. Cement Truck Willie would have been much more appropriate. He was an unpleasant enough fellow. I gave him the big hello. He gave me back the big drop dead. I gave him the big my name's Blue. He gave me back the big what's it to you Paul. I gave him the big see you around. He gave me back the big fat chance.

There weren't going to be any unnecessary neighborly waving hello scenes, obviously. Or complimenting or cursing the weather.

During the following two days, while I mulled over what to do next, I drove Gordo around on several errands. Trying out my new wallet size.

At the supermarket, I expanded my eating horizons a bit. Instead of fish sticks and hamburger, I got a filet mignon and a lobster. Over in the ice cream section, I skipped over the Brand X imitation vanilla and picked up some Dreyer's Tin Roof Sundae. In the coffee aisle, I upgraded from MJB to Seattle's Best, wondering if Seattle had approved of this claim and then, of course, wondering what Seattle's Worst would taste like. My brain was always sliding sideways on me, partially out of control. I picked up a dozen red roses like Teresa had loved so much. I made no change in the liquor aisle, picking up a six pack of Ranier and a quart of J&B. Some things could not be improved on by price.

I ran Gordo through a wash and wax place, bought him four new Michelin radial shoes, and made an appointment to get him a full two hundred thousand mile checkup. I'd noticed a bit of wheezing on his underbelly lately.

I bought Frisbee a brand new ten speed bike. Moose had stolen her old one and sold it.

Each time I returned from one of my errands or adventures, however, I started noticing that Paul was arriving back at his place right after I arrived at mine. It was too many coincidences for even a New Age coincidencer to account for. It got my suspicion hackles up and hackling.

So, I decided to perform an experiment. Sleuth things out a bit.

The sun had set and the sky was graying out to dark when I climbed into Mr. Wheels and started up my experiment. I slammed Gordo's door a couple of times to enhance the noise hints that I was going through the beginnings of leaving to go somewhere.

The trailer court had one entrance, up a curved little road to a stop sign that nobody paid attention to, causing a lot of near accidents and angry looks when two cars simultaneously ignored the sign. There were five narrow roads leading from the stop sign. Two left and right, and one straight ahead, past the manager's office.

My trailer was on the far left road, half-way up it. Next to Frisbee's and across from Paul's. I backed Gordo out of my driveway and drove away. As I rounded the corner that led to the park entrance, I glanced in the rear view mirror. My neighbor's gray SUV had backed out, also. Paul was pouncing on the plot.

Instead of proceeding to the stop sign, I made a quick turn up the other left side road and parked Gordo in a visitor slot. The gray SUV drove by. I smoked a cigarette and waited. Ten minutes later, the SUV returned.

I left Gordo where he was and walked back to my trailer on the wrong road, then cut through and slipped inside it unseen. I opened the blinds a crack and sat back from the window in the dark.

A half-hour elapsed. I began to wonder whether the coincidences were really just paranoid rain drops falling on my head. A weather forecast of how my life would play out now. The guy in the laundromat would be watching me. Pretending to clean his jeans while he made evidentiary notes for his Murder Book that all police detectives kept. I would believe I had seen him before. Delusional behavior would pour out of my laundry detergent. Mental breakdown over the agitator, churning me down, down into the vortex. Waiting to be cuffed away to hell. Wishing it would come and get itself over with. Yes, yes, I did it! I'm guilty! Take me away and fry me!

A blast of light suddenly flew out of the RV door, lighting up the SUV parked next to it. The linebacker stepped out. The thought plickens, I humored to myself. Okay, Paul old buddy boy, old linebacker head, let's see what gives.

I hurried back to Gordo and took off after Paul and his SUV. He drove southeast and boarded the freeway at Cotati, heading south. In the daylight, Mr. Wheels could have easily been spotted by Paul, but now in the dark Gordo was just a pair of headlight eyes in the auto stream behind Paul.

Petaluma went by. Then Novato. How far was he going? I hadn't figured on a long trip. Gordo's gas gauge registered a quarter of a tank. Great. Nice planning, Blue. If he goes farther than San Francisco, I'll run out of gas.

At San Rafael, the SUV split off from 101 onto 580 which went east across the Richmond Bridge. It also passed by San Quentin Prison at the edge of the Bay. My future home, I couldn't help thinking. Death Row cells. Needle city.

San Quentin was not as famous, unless you were a criminal, as Alcatraz, out in the middle of the Bay just to the south.

Alcatraz was closed. San Quentin most surely was not. Bad place to be. Sadistic almost, since it was located just across the water from the Belvedere and Tiburon Peninsulas, two of the richest chunks of yachts and mansions real estate in the world, and also on the shoreline of the glamorous San Francisco Bay. Everyone wore little sailor caps and Italian shoes and windbreakers with yacht club logos on them.

If the inmates couldn't see over the walls, they could sure smell the salt air and imagine all those sail boats and bikinis just tantalizingly, yet intergalactically, out of reach. Cruel and unusual punishment. Better off in one of the inland prisons where the land beyond the walls was not so vastly different.

Across the Bay, the SUV merged south and exited at Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. Whew! My gas gauge was flickering just a tick above the big E for empty. Or, I suppose, it could stand for Elapsed, or End, or Et all up.

The SUV drove east into the Oakland/Berkeley hills, the east Bay acreage of choice for the well-to-do. About all I knew of this area was the winding road along the top, Grizzly Peak Boulevard. It was a neck and pet Mecca with a stunning view of the entire Bay Area. I'd been there once in my long ago youthliness but only got as far as the necking. A view could be a big help, but not enough to overcome being a clumsy, sweaty clodhopper who thought "moves" was a verb for people who abandoned houses and followed U-hauls to someplace else.

After winding around the various streets for awhile, the SUV finally pulled into a gated driveway and waited. In a few seconds, the gate slid open sideways, the SUV entered, and the gate closed.

I parked Gordo on the street and walked to the gate. An ornate, hand carved wooden sign stretched across the top in a gentle arc.

P. William Gourd.

# # #

It didn't make any sense.

If the surviving Gourds had tracked me down, why hadn't the police? And if the police hadn't, why wouldn't the Gourds let them know? Who the fuck was this Paul guy? How had he found me?

Maybe I was just a suspect. I couldn't be more than that, could I? If I was a suspect, why hadn't I been questioned. Suspects weren't any good if you didn't question them. Take their DNA and compare it to a strand of hair that had fallen out and been found in the driver's seat of Gourd's car by a magnifying glass and tweezers.

Paul was just staking me out. Apparently. Why? Hoping I would lead him to Gourd? Why not just beat it out of me? He was certainly equipped for beating stuff out of people. Mrs. Gourd would want her husband found and his killer punished, right?

Maybe she couldn't care less if he was dead. Knowing Gourd, that wasn't hard to comprehend. She would care about that safe deposit box, though. Even if they slept in separate bedrooms, she had to know about that key around his neck.

Even more reason to beat it out of me.

One thing was certain. It was time to get lost. Fast. Before the beatings began.

I went back home and packed up some clothes and stowed them in Gordo's rear end, along with my laptop computer. Then I locked up the trailer and went next door to Frisbee's.

She was sitting in her doorway, carefully painting a wooden horse that had obviously once been attached to a toddler size merry-go-round. The pole handle that pierced through the middle of the horse was still attached. She loved oddball things she could renovate and pretty up her trailer site with.

"Hi, Blue. What's up?"

"Hi, Frisbo. Nice horse. Where'd you get it?"

"Moose stole it for me."

"You stole a fucking horse off a merry-go-round!"

She laughed. "Of course not. Moose did. He's so sweet sometimes. It's a present."

"I guess it would be tough to take it back."

"Exactly."

"Where is Moose, by the way?"

"In jail."

"Again? What for this time?"

"He flipped a lit butt out his truck window."

"So?"

"It went through the open window of a cop car next to him."

"Super dumb. Littering. They don't put you in jail for that, do they?"

"It was a joint."

"He threw away part of a joint? Shit, he ought to go to jail."

"It burnt a hole in the cop's pants."

"Christ. Assaulting a police officer."

"He tried to out run them."

"In that beat up piece of shit truck of his?"

"He ran over a fire hydrant. Tore it off clean."

"Destroying public property. Flight to avoid. Reckless driving. He went for broke this time."

"He took off on foot."

"Where'd they catch him?"

"Hiding in a confessional in a church. One of those Catholic ones."

"He went to the right place, I guess. How long's he in for?"

She shrugged. "He was on probation for the construction site burglary. Could be awhile."

"Oh well. Live and learn."

"Not Moosesie. He don't tick that way."

"Uh, Frisbee. I need a favor."

Her eyes lit up and she put down her paint brush. "Oh, boy! Anything like the last favor?"

"Sort of. I've got to go away for awhile."

"Oops. You're in trouble, aren't you?"

"It looks like it."

"Shit. Me too?"

"No. You're fine.

"How do you know?"

"Trust me. You're in the clear."

"How bad's your trouble?"

"I don't know. Bad enough. I have to lay low for awhile."

"How long?"

"I'm not sure. Awhile. I need you to pay my rent till I get back. I'll leave you some money."

"Sure. No sweat. I hate to see you go, though. It won't be the same around here without you farting at the crack of dawn every day."

"You can't hear that."

"Then how would I know? I've got good ears."

"You're scaring me."

"Don't worry, your secrets are safe."

I winced. "My secrets?"

Her smile was devilish.

"All of them?"

Her smile was even more devilish.

"Shit."

I gave her five thousand. "That should cover me for a couple of months. The rest is yours."

"That'll cover a lot more than two months. The rent's only five hundred. You ain't coming back, are you?"

"I'll be back. I'll stay in touch, too. Keep an eye out for anything that seems weird, will you? Don't do anything, though. Just keep an eye out."

"Sure."

I started to go, but she stopped me. She got up and gave me a hug. "Take care, Blue. Watch your butt."

I drove to Oakland and rented a room at Motel 6.5, a metric joint near the airport. I'd gotten old Saukos to slime me up with Gourd again on my way down. He was a little suspicious about my having another friend with a dead grandfather who was a twin of the other dead grandfather, but he did it anyway. I bought a new suitcase that was twice as big as my old one. Two new suitcases, actually. Then I made three trips to Gourd's bank and cleaned out all his safe deposit boxes.

Each one of them contained one picture and an even million in cash. It seemed to be Gourd's going rate for blackmail. A Catholic bishop. A baseball player. Two congressmen. A famous attorney. A macho movie star. Three guys I didn't recognize. Probably somewhere in Who's Who. No women. It figures. Women were not known for doing sicko things. When it came to that shit, it was a man's world. All the way.

It was absurd. I'd gone from a flat-broke gloomy philosopher to a multi-millionaire assassin in one summer.

It occurred to me that ten men and one wife must be pretty damned nervous about the disappearance of P. William Gourd.

And the identity of me.






Chapter Sixteen



Frisbee didn't own a car. She got off her ten speed and parked it against the above ground family tomb in the Sebastopol Memorial Lawn cemetery.

There were twelve coffins to the tomb, four across and three high. Names dating back a hundred and fifty years. All Italian. There was a marble bench in front of it, so you could ponder the remains, I guess. The name over the tomb was "Fuggeddaboudit," which sounded vaguely familiar.

She sat down next to me, facing away from the tomb. I was facing towards it. The wind was blowing between us.

"Creepy place for a meeting," she said.

"Nobody comes here. It's private. All the patrons are dead and so are the people who knew them. And the people who knew the people who knew them."

"Who mows the lawn?"

"The city. It's a tourist site."

"Figures. Tourists would come see anything. Just tell them it's a tourist site and here they come. Where are they?"

"They only come in the summer."

"No wonder the grass ain't mowed."

"Thanks for coming. It's good to see you."

I patted her shoulder. She was huddled up in a windbreaker and sweat pants. It was nearing the end of Autumn. The nights had grown cold and the days were following suit in a hurry. The rains were on their way. Winter would settle in soon. Not nearly like it settled in up in North Dakota, but still a settling in. Cold was all relative. Your skin was the relative. It felt what it wanted to, no matter where you were.

"It's good to see you too, Blue. It'd be better if we were in a warm cafe and you were buying me lunch."

"I've got a better offer than lunch. I hope."

"You're making me nervous. Your last offer got a little hairy."

"What happened?"

"They came, all right. Like you warned they might. Tore up your trailer pretty good. The lock on your door don't lock any more, by the way. I put some tape on it to keep it closed. Then they grilled me. Wanted to know if I knew you. Where you were."

"Did they hurt you?"

"No. I played dumb. Gave them a few peeks to keep them happy. They swallowed it."

"What did you tell them?"

"I said you were a grumpy asshole and I avoided you as much as possible. Everybody in the park avoided you if they could. Hadn't seen you for awhile. Didn't know where you'd gone. All the easy bullshit. It wasn't that hard, since it was all true."

She dug me with an elbow. "You been gone three months. Where the hell were you?"

"I took a trip."

"Where to?"

"Nowhere special."

"You would think of that."

"How many were there?"

"Two guys. The first time."

"The first time?"

"It happened twice. There was only one guy the second time."

"Why would they come back twice?"

"They didn't. It was different guys each time."

"Shit."

"You better tell me what's going on, Blue. I'm too young and pretty to join all these stiffs."

"Fair enough, Frisbo. I'll make you an offer you can't refuse."

"Don't give me the creeps. You sound like a mobster."

"I think I am, actually."

"You ain't Italian."

She stood up and looked down at me, giving me the once over. I shrugged. She sat back down, straddling the bench, facing me.

"What the hell are you talking about, anyway? Why did you bring me here? And don't feed me any bullshit."

I'd never seen her look serious before. It made me laugh.

"That does it. I'm outta here."

I reached out and grabbed her shoulder and held her down. "Take it easy, Frizz. How would you like to buy a nice house for us?"

"No way, Jose."

"What if I paid you a thousand?"

"You must want my knickers pretty bad. I ain't for sale."

"A week."

"A thousand dollars a week! You've got to be kidding."

I shook my head. "I'm not kidding."

"Where'd you get that kind of money?"

"An inheritance."

"My ass. Where? Gourd's bank again? You ain't told me everything, have you? There was a lot more than you showed me."

"I can't say."

"You said that last time."

"This time I mean it."

"You meant it last time."

"I mean it more this time. How about that new house?"

"I like it in the trailer park. I don't want to move."

"We won't be moving far. Just in town."

"For how long? A thousand a week is nice, but it don't buy my life."

"Not long. You can move back to the park afterwards. If you want."

"Why? What do you need me for?"

"You'd be my business partner."

"What kind of business are we talking about?"

"Community involvement. You'll have to dress up and attend a lot of events and talk to phony people about bullshit. The gossip wagon."

"I repeat. What do you need me for? You can cover bullshit in your sleep. What makes you think I'd be good at phony people and gossip wagons. I'm not liking what I'm hearing here. I'm wondering if I should be popping you in the schnoz."

"I have to be invisible. Like I don't exist. There are guys out there who want to find me and kick hell out of me. Like the guys who came and tore up my trailer. They're very angry at me, you might say."

"No shit."

"Very, very angry."

"And."

"I need eyes and ears."

"That's it? A thousand a week for eyeing and earing?"

"You'll make arrangements. Lots of them."

"A secretary."

"Sort of. A Girl Friday is probably closer to the truth."

"A thousand a week is a lot for a secretary. A whole lot. What aren't you telling me? There better not be any strings attached."

"There might be some danger. Maybe a few things that aren't exactly legal."

"Legal don't bother me. How much danger?"

"Not much."

"You're lying."

"Only a little bit. Less than having Moose as a boy friend."

"Very funny. He's out of jail again."

"There you go."

"No sex?"

"No sex."

"Do I get my own room?"

"I do. You get the whole house."

She got up and paced around. I had never seen her thinking before. It was a nervous moment. A lot of people didn't look too good when they were thinking. Some looked squashed under a tractor tire. Some looked caught in the headlights. Some looked like cockroaches running for cover. Some looked like the laxative wasn't working.

Frisbee looked okay. She looked like a tug boat bringing the big ship in to the dock.

She stopped pacing and looked me in the eye.

"Where will we be living, darling?"

# # #

The house was a small two story Victorian building with bay windows, a front porch, and a little wooden stairway up to it from the sidewalk. Cute. Frisbee loved it.

So did I. Especially the location. It was across the street and two doors down from the Tweed residence. I set up a telescope in the second floor window. Along with a parabolic dish microphone that could eavesdrop on conversations up to three hundred yards away. With an attached tape recorder.

The previous owners had used the building to sell real estate. Our offer impressed them deeply. They were only too happy to move their office location elsewhere. Frisbee took the bottom floor and I took the top.

The bottom floor had one bedroom, a large kitchen and dining room area, a bathroom, and a big living room with a fireplace and some stairs going up to the second floor. Up there were a bathroom and two bedrooms.

We went shopping and filled up all the rooms with house doodads. Furniture and stuff. I let Frisbee pick all of it out. She got a bang out of it. It was another difference between men and women. One of those Who Knows Why things. Women liked to shop. Men normally didn't. Men liked to buy, for sure. But not shop. Everybody probably knew all this already, but I was just learning along the way. You had to have money to shop. I'd never had any. So I had never learned what everybody else already knew.

It probably wasn't worth mentioning. I was learning that about myself along the old life way, also. Hardly a day went by that I didn't find myself wondering what the fuck did I say that for? What was I thinking? Nothing much, obviously. Despite all the self-fulfilling self-important delusions of grandeur that twisted out of my head as often as I could yank them out of there, it was getting more and more obvious that I was reality-wise just another mediocre hamburger frying on the griddle of history. Sort of depressing.

During my three month absence, I had flown to the Cayman Islands and opened a numbered bank account. Plopping down wads of cash to purchase things was not particularly workable. Wire transfers were a wonderful solution.

While I was there, I pretended Teresa was with me and we were watching how the other half lived. The rich half. Even though it was only one per cent, and not nearly half. Mathematics was loosely interpreted when used to delude the masses.

It was interesting. For about two days. I was lousy at pretending Teresa was really there, which meant I had to do the watching myself. Which I wasn't any good at. All I could see were people driving around in limos, wearing jewelry, sailing yachts, scuba diving, getting tans, wearing nice clothes, hiring hot young babes for fondling old pot guts, and wearing sun glasses all day long. I'm sure I missed some other things that weren't any fun to watch, either. I saw enough to get the message. Boring.

Now I guess I was rich, too. Upgrading to a one percenter. It didn't make me feel very different. The big difference was knowing I'd never have to worry about paying the trailer rent again. Or having enough money for beer and cigarettes. Other than that, nothing much changed. I didn't care about traveling around the world and seeing everything that was mainly just somewhere else.

There was a lot of history out there lying around on the ground in places like Europe and Israel and Russia and Greece and Italy and Germany and France and Spain and all that Mediterranean area stuff where all the history of the world had managed to happen. Which was nice. But you could read about it or go to a movie about it or study it in school. Other places, like Africa and Asia and South America and India, had a lot of different culture and language driving around on the streets being different. That was nice, too. If you liked being a stranger in a strange land and not understanding a word anyone was saying. It didn't appeal to me that much. I felt that way enough right here in good old America.

In fact, America had about everything in the world all bunched up in one place where you didn't need a passport or a translator. There were deserts, swamps, forests, farm lands, cities, snow, rain, oceans, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons, mountains, breath taking views, animals, stores, trains, planes, cars, junk, food, laws, customs, bad guys, good guys, idiots - it was all right here. I guess I was too lazy to care about traveling. Teresa already figured this out about me. I didn't get out enough. Nothing had changed.

So I spent three months sitting on the deck outside my hotel room getting drunk and staring out at the water thinking about Teresa. The Caribbean was a Sea, not an Ocean. I wondered if Teresa could have smelled the difference. If there was one.

I had gotten drunk a lot before I met Teresa, not as much while I was with her, and now I was at it again with a lot. I guess I was an alcoholic. I'd taken one of those quizzes with twenty drinking questions and if you answered yes to one or two of them it meant you were an alcoholic. I was a yes to nineteen out of the twenty. The twentieth one involved something about Black Outs, which I don't remember. So I guess it was no guess about whether I was an alcoholic or not. I guess I was.

It didn't seem to matter anymore. My life had come and gone. What difference did it make how I wasted the rest of it.

It came and went sooner and was now later, like I'd told Art it would. Somehow I'd managed to use it all up with nothing much to show for being a guy with creation inside his skin except being in love with a girl named Teresa. I'd used up childhood, high school, college, sowing oats, making a living, and finding my one true love. That was about all there was to do. Give or take getting old and sick and dying. Which wasn't really something to do, so much as something to eat with spoons.

Good old life. It was pretty much what everyone said it was. Long in the beginning, hard in the middle, and short in the end. All the songs about it were true, sooner or later. The speeches and sermons weren't. Just the songs.

Songs had been telling the truth for all of history. Sermons had been fertilizing the mind fields for just as long. If you wanted to know what had happened at any one time in the world just go listen to the songs or read the poetry. It was all in there. Everything else was just thick and stinky.

Once in awhile, I walked along the beach. A lonely place to be without you know who skimming over the sand beside me. There were a lot of hot babes sprinkled around everywhere you looked and I tried ogling all their hot stuff hanging out for any tongue to lick. For the first time in my life it made me feel kind of dirty though. That was how good boys were supposed to feel all the time, but it was new to me. Good old life. Full of its ironies. Here I was going bad and getting good all at the same time.

While I was getting drunk and mulling out at the Sea, I tossed around a lot of concoctions about how I would get revenge on Arthur Asshole Tweed. All the concoctions basically boiled down to the same glass, though. Tweed was mud. And I was the mud man. Thinking of him and Teresa at the same time gave me a quadruple loathing for him.

I really came to hate him down in the Caymans. Leaving him in the desert was not going to be enough. I wanted to beat him down to nothing first. Take everything away from him. Make him a dead solid zero. Beat it into him what a worthless piece of shit he was. I wanted to see it in his eyes. When he finally understood, then I could dump him in the desert where he belonged and walk away.

I had Frisbee open a checking account in her name only. I wired money to it as needed. They gave her an ATM card to go with the account. She had located the house and handled the entire purchase. The deed was in her name.

"You're trusting me quite a bit here, Blue," she told me.

"How so, Frisbo?"

"Not that I would or anything, but I guess I own the house here. I could keep it or sell it and you'd be kind of stuck."

"I thought of that."

"You did?"

"Yeah."

"So. What did you think?"

"I thought I had to trust you."

"That's what I said. I guess that means you do."

"I guess that's what it means."

"I wouldn't trust you that much. I won't even mention Moose."

"You don't have to trust me. I have to trust you."

"Then I guess you do."

"Then I guess I do."

"That's pretty sweet, Blue. I can't remember anybody ever trusting me before."

"How many people don't trust you?"

"Nobody that I can think of."

"There you go."

"You know what, Blue."

"What?"

"Every now and then I'm starting to like you once in a while."

"Me, too, Frisbo. Me, too."

I stayed in the background as far as possible. A driveway ran along the side of the house to a three car parking lot in the back where the real estate people had parked their customers. Moose had moved my trailer in the dead of night and parked it there. My truck was parked there also. I entered and exited the house by the back door. Which I never did. But would if I ever did do.

Maybe whoever was looking for me would think I'd gone away and disappeared. At least Tweed would think so.

Till it was too late and he found out different.






Chapter Seventeen



It was Monday. The Tweeds were driving to Lake Tahoe for three days in the snow. Compliments of a Timesharing promotional offer. Three days and two nights at Harrah's. Free. If you agreed to take a little excursion and a tour of fabulous living quarters and listen to a high-powered sales pitch to buy into a timesharing deal.

I knew everything the Tweeds were up to. Some of it I was tape recording for later mischief I had in mind. The telescope and the long distance microphone worked great. Excellent, in fact. Frisbee and I decided Tahoe would be nice this time of year, also. It would be the first rattle in Tweed's head cage.

The drive up there was guaranteed to be a leisurely, pleasant one. The Tweeds would be stopping frequently for gas. Moose had drilled two small holes in their gas tank late Sunday night. He was thrilled with the Craftsman 432 piece Mechanics Tool Set he was allowed to keep for his efforts.

"Let me know when you want anything sawed up," he said to me. Very eager young man. I was finding uses for him that I'd never found before.

"A distinct possibility," I assured him.

The Tweeds backed out of their driveway and headed for the freeway. Art had finally buried his old VW in the junk yard and bought an old Toyota.

"Jeeves," I said to Moose, "would you be so kind as to follow that car?"

Moose was driving, while Frisbee and I occupied the back seat, hidden from view by the tinted windows of the plum colored Rolls-Royce that Frisbee had purchased. It was pretty ostentatious, but that's what we wanted.

Moose had been reluctant to accept Frisbee's new world, particularly my existence in it, and doubly particularly our living together under one roof in one house. But, after a long five minutes of scowling, he had cast aside his fears and enthusiastically hopped aboard the bus to Tweedsville mayhem.

In addition to the odd jobs he was assigned, his primary duty was chauffeur for Frisbee. It worked for him. He got to keep an eye on her and wear the neat little chauffeur cap and outfit she had picked out for him. He got a charge out of leaning against the Rolls in parking lots, waiting for Frisbee, smoking dark brown Sherman cigarettes, his chauffeur cap propped at a rakish angle. His only complaints were having to shave and shower each morning, shine his shoes regularly, and keep his fingernails clean.

"I love driving this car!" he gushed, pounding on the steering wheel for emphasis. It was a no doubt driving lovefest, for sure. Everything about it was smooth as cream. No Skim, no Low Fat, no Non Fat, no Whole, no Half & Half anywhere. Just cream. Pure cream.

"Oh, look," Frisbee said. "The Tweeds are stopping for gas."

"Jeeves, nestle in behind them and replenish our petrol, will you old sod."

"What?" he asked.

"Get a fill-up," I said.

"It's already full," Moose said.

"Fake it," I said.

He did as he was told. I'd never been a boss before. It had its interesting moments. While he faked a fill-up, Frisbee lowered her window halfway. We could hear the Tweeds chatting to each other as Art poured gas.

"I filled this tank last night," Art said.

"You couldn't have," Margaret said. "It's on empty."

"I'm telling you I filled it."

"You think you did. But you didn't. You do that all the time."

"I filled it."

"It's empty."

"There! It's full now."

Art ripped the nozzle from the car's filler hole and slammed it into place on the gas station pump. It bounced off and banged off his leg, spilling some gas drips on his pant leg.

"Sonofabitch!" he moaned, replacing it again more carefully.

"Are you going to check the oil?" Margaret asked.

"I did it last night."

"That's what you said about the gas."

"I told you. I filled it."

"It was empty."

Art stalked around to the driver's door and got in. Margaret got in the passenger side. They drove away.

"I know, boss," Moose said to me, "follow that car."

"Quite so, dear fellow," I said.

The freeway petered out east of Santa Rosa and became a two lane highway wending its way through the vineyards of the valley between Sonoma Mountain on the west and Bald Mountain on the east. As was usual with mountain names, Bald Mountain didn't look particularly bald. Partially, perhaps. Thinning Mountain would have been more accurate. Sparse Mountain.

As we passed through the little town of Glen Ellen, I saluted the mountainside to our right. Sonoma Mountain.

"What's the salute for?" Frisbee asked.

"Jack London," I said.

"Who's that?"

"A writer who built a house that burned down."

"Tough break. Do you know him?"

"Only from his books."

"He live up there?"

"Not sure. If he did, he'd be in the ground. He died almost a hundred years ago."

"Gloomy."

"You think anyone will remember you in a hundred years, Frizz?"

"I sure as fuck hope not. All they'd be remembering was that I was dead. Very creepy. Being dead is bad enough without a bunch of jerks thinking about it for a hundred years. Let me please just be dead and gone."

"I wouldn't worry about it. Just about 99.9999999999% get to end up being dead and gone - like they never existed."

"Great. See. We're in the next world then. Who cares about this one anymore?"

South of the town of Sonoma, we turned east and drove through the hills toward Napa. In one of the valleys, we passed one of the actual Clover Stornetta dairy farms where the cows actually lived and squirted the milk out of their innards when you gave them a good squeeze. There was a billboard out front with a naked cow, good old Clo, on horseback with some milk cartons in her saddle bags. The title was "Lady Clodiva."

As we reached the city of Napa, the Tweeds pulled into a gas station.

"Oh, look," Frisbee said. "The Tweeds are stopping for gas."

"Shall I get a phony refill, Boss?" Moose asked.

"I think not, old spud. Let's tally-ho in here and wait."

"Let's see," I said, "forty-five miles, maybe a fifteen gallon tank. I'd say roughly three miles per gallon. Two-hundred miles left to go. Only four more fill-ups."

"Shit," Frisbee said. "It'll cost them two hundred bucks just to get there. I hope they brought a credit card."

# # #

The Tweeds checked into Harrah's for their free three day excursion.

We checked in, also. Two connecting rooms. One for Moose and Frisbee. One for me. The rooms were on a different floor than the Tweeds, so we wouldn't accidentally bump into them in the hallway.

It was the last few days of Autumn and we were in between the Summer season vacationers and the Winter season skiers, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The weather was between everything, too. Between snow and between rain. It was warm in the day when the sun shined and cold at night. The skiers weren't skiing and the boaters weren't boating.

But the gamblers were gambling. They didn't care what the weather was. Inside the casinos it was always a balmy evening, day or night, year around.

Moose and Frisbee were at the craps table. Why the game was called craps was something I hadn't yet learned. It was probably in the dictionary, some derivation of something. The only crap I knew about was you know what. Maybe the dice were like severe constipation symbols or something. Who knows.

I was at the bar, pushing quarters into the five card draw machine that lay flat on the counter in front of me, covered with glass. Drinking the free drinks they gave you to make it easier to throw your money down their rat hole.

I wasn't gambling to win. I was gambling to see if I lost less gambling than it would have cost to just buy the free drinks. This also meant drinking faster during runs of bad luck. Even with a wad of money, I was still a cheapskate. It was a tough habit to break.

I was wondering who was after me and why the police weren't. I'd been wondering it for over four months. Paul was the only one I knew who had figured me out, or at least suspected. According to Frisbee, there were more who had me scoped out, too. But not the police. Not that I knew of, anyway. Strange.

I was drinking Coronas and Cuervos shots, in honor of Teresa. She was still hanging around in my head everywhere I went, even though she was only relaxing in my memory room running old video clips of me and her doing stuff.

Naturally, we had come here a few times. You got evicted from California if you never went to Tahoe at least once. It was pretty spectacularly beautiful, with the mountains high all around it and the guys who welched on their IOU's sixteen hundred and forty-five feet down on the bottom in their cement shoes. You could jam the Empire State Building into Lake Tahoe and still have two hundred feet to spare. High, deep, dark, and cold.

Tahoe was a lot different than the Caymans, besides the scenery, altitude, and weather. Along with the usual assortment of beautiful young rich assholes who flocked to vacation areas, Tahoe also attracted ordinary fat, old, broke, ugly people. Commoners. You didn't see them much in the Caymans. They all came to gamble and win two hundred bucks. One hundred per cent of the people I talked to who had come back from gambling places had won two hundred bucks. No big deal. Nobody ever came back and said they lost five hundred bucks. It's a wonder the casinos could stay in business giving away two hundred bucks to everyone.

If anyone admitted they lost money, it was spectacular losses like four million bucks. That made it okay. It was spectacular. It also bragged that you had a lot of money to heave over your shoulder with a laugh.

Frisbee pulled up a seat next to me at the bar.

"Where's Moose?" I asked.

"He went downstairs to the video arcade. He loves those games where he can shoot off somebody's head like a watermelon exploding."

"They all do that. How does he pick one to play?"

"He asks the mothers. They always know which one they don't want their kids to play."

"Moose doesn't have a full deck, does he."

"Not upstairs." She gave me a wicked wink. "He's a downstairs guy."

Women got away with smart remarks about men being downstairs. They knew guys were too petrified and insecure to get into a discussion about downstairs furniture and how it got moved around the room for best effect.

I was, anyway. I had to move it around in the dark and hope women would make happy noises about it. Then I learned you couldn't trust the noises. Sometimes they were faked approval noises. Downstairs got into pretty dark territory after that. And you couldn't really feel your way around in that dark. It was the old guess and wing it deal.

Women were nut balls, though. They'd throw on the light at the drop of a switch and poke around the furniture like it was eating an apple. They knew everything that went on downstairs. They had furniture upstairs and downstairs. Their upstairs furniture was right there in broad daylight, even for guys to see. That's why guys talked about upstairs furniture so much. It wasn't in the dark. Sometimes girls took the covers off the upstairs furniture and provoked a reaction in the guy's downstairs furniture. If guy's took the covers off their furniture, they got arrested. Go figure.

"Anybody ever tell you your upstairs furniture is pretty nice, Frisbee?"

"What?"

"Never mind."

It was pretty nice. She was wearing a handkerchief tied at the back and hanging loose in the front. It made you imagine putting your head in her lap and looking up at her furniture. Midgets loved this kind of outfit on women. That's why they always smiled so much during conversations with women who wore handkerchiefs.

"It sure is easy to gamble when you don't need the money," she said.

"That's the way life works."

"I won two hundred bucks."

"No kidding. How did Moose do?"

"He lost forty."

"Well, he's downstairs now. He'll have better luck there."

"Yeah. Maybe I should go keep an eye on him."

"Oh, oh. There's Tweed," I said. I hunkered low over the bar and squinched in behind Frisbee.

"What's he doing?" I asked.

"Going to the Black Jack table."

"Is Margaret with him?"

"No. I can see why."

"Why?"

"He's a total dweeb. How could she marry him?"

"She's a dweebette. They stick together."

"Creepy. I don't want to even think about it."

Even women couldn't go into some of the dark rooms downstairs. The Dweeb room. It was full of contraptions and sinister toys and spooky lighting and ghostly sounds.

"God. He looks like a cricket. His mouth hangs open all the time. How could you get involved with a slooge like that?"

"Slooge?"

"Yeah. You know. Slooge. Butt ass weird."

"Right. He wasn't always like that."

"B fucking S. Guy doesn't suddenly turn into a cricket. That's for butterflies. Crickets are born that way. They don't change. His momma didn't show him around, that's for sure. Whew. Hide that turkey in the closet. Call the exterminator."

I gave him a look over her shoulder.

"Look at that shit," she said. "Elbows just slid off the rail and his hole card flipped up in the air. Can't figure out whether to hit or not. The fucking dealer's falling asleep. Guy next to him left his bet on the table and split over to the craps table. He's taking a hit. Can't count to twenty-one. He's sulking back on his stool. Bust. Lord. Everybody's leaving the table. Dealer's taking a break. He's looking around. Sucking his lip. Going over to the roulette wheel. Shit. This'll be good."

"You're a born announcer, Frisbee."

"Oh, fuck. He just grabbed the roulette ball. He thinks it's like craps dice. I can't watch anymore. Let's get outta here."

We slipped out of the bar and went downstairs to find Moose. The arcade was like a jet plane taking off in your ear and breaking the sound barrier half way though your head. There were eardrums lying all over the floor. Kids were death gripping joy sticks. Gyrating over left and right buttons. Screaming over slaughtered warriors. Feeling each other up and down. Slobber kissing. Blissed out against the walls.

"Nice place," I said to Frisbee.

"What?"

"NICE PLACE!!"

"WHAT??"

Fuck it. Where's Moose?

Oh shit. There he was. Over behind the basketball toss, slobber kissing some babe. Did Frisbee see him? I gave her a look.

Hands on hips. Eyeballs loaded. Nostrils flexing. She was staring at him like a missile about to launch.

I grabbed for her arm, but she shook me off and stalked over next to him and stood there dripping mad. He ignored her. She slapped his arm. He turned and looked at her, then went back to slobbering on the babe. She kicked him in the leg. He gave her a backhanded swat which staggered her backwards. He kept right on lipping it up.

This was gonna get ugly. I grabbed her from behind and dragged her away. She was rubbing her ear where he'd caught her with the swat. I kept pulling her along with me while she craned her head back to glare at him. He wasn't paying attention.

Out in the corridor, I said, "C'mon, Frizz. Let's take a walk. Fuck Moose. He's just being a jerk. "

She was steaming, but she came along. I put my arm around her waist just to make sure she didn't bolt and go back for more. I could finally see how their fight's went. She was a tough little fart who didn't take shit and wouldn't back off till he quit or she was too banged up to continue.

Asshole Moose. I shouldn't have brought him along. He was nothing but trouble.

Outside, I steered us toward the lake. "You okay?" I asked.

"No. Why's that asshole do that to me?"

"I don't know. Maybe because you won at craps and he didn't. Who knows?"

I was lying to her. The real answer was much simpler. He was a fucking moron. Case closed. Furniture or not.

"Hey," I said. "That babe wasn't even in your league. I don't know why he was wasting his time on her."

"She wasn't that hot, was she?"

"Fuck no. I wouldn't get near it, and I'm too old to be choosy."

"You're a liar, Blue. But thanks, anyway. I wish I could mix you and Moose into one guy."

I let go of her waist. My hand was starting to get dangerous ideas over there on her bare skin. Damn thing was thinking about the old days when it had free rein to go groping around anywhere it could get away with.

She held my arm, up around the bicep, like women with parasols always did in paintings about ladies and gentlemen walking along a cobblestone street discussing Freud and Impressionist painting. Shit, her hand on my inside bicep was even worse than my hand on her waist. A woman's hand on the inside of your bicep was a knockout turn on. Maybe they didn't know everything about men, after all. I pretended like it was no big deal. If Teresa had been up in there, we'd never have made it to the lake.

We sat on a bench that was there for people to sit on and look at the lake, which we did also. It was probably there to keep people from lying there looking at the lake and getting the wrong idea about the right thing to do there.

Frisbee let out a big sigh. "I wish Moose would sit with me and look at the lake," she said.

I ignored the put-down. "Maybe tomorrow, when he's thinking straight."

"No, he don't sit by lakes. He's too busy planning his next heist."

"Why don't you get somebody else, Frisbee. You could get anybody."

"I don't know. I should, I guess."

I put my arm around her shoulders and she squooched next to me. We looked at the lake awhile.

"What are you thinking?" I asked.

"I was thinking you were Moose and we were having a romantic moment looking at the lake."

I ignored the put-down. "Don't think I'm Moose too much, okay."

She laughed. "Don't worry old man. I ain't going to creep on you."

I ignored the put-down. "Well, you could try a little. I suppose I wouldn't mind that. As long as it was just a little."

She gave me a kiss on the cheek, then jumped up and said, "I'm hungry."

# # #

We checked out of the hotel early. Frisbee and I whiled away the time in the coffee shop, waiting for the Tweeds to depart. Moose called on his cell phone when they appeared at the checkout counter.

A light sleet was falling as we walked outside and got in our car. The Tweed's car was parked across from us, four slots to the right. The stall next to theirs was empty. We waited anxiously for their arrival. Moose and I had been busy during the night. Preparing a little surprise. I'd been dreaming of it the whole trip. The haunting of Tweed was about to begin. Well, it actually had already started with the gas tank trick. But that was just a warm up.

Here they came. Margaret went to the passenger side. Art unlocked the door and yanked on the handle.

The door fell off and clanged on the asphalt while he scrambled out of the way.

He stood staring at the door on the ground. Margaret looked across the top of the car at him.

"What was that?" she called.

"The door," Art said. "It fell off."

"What!"

She bent down and looked through the car window at the opposite door. It was not there. She stood up and looked over the top of the car again.

"Doors just don't fall off," she said.

Tweed kept staring at the door. "I know."

"You pulled too hard. You're always in a rush."

He looked over at her. "The fucking door fell off. You can't yank them off by pulling too hard."

"Then how did it fall off?"

"How the hell should I know."

"Maybe the dealer forgot to put it back on tight."

"He didn't take it off. He replaced the gas tank, not the door."

"I never liked this car. We should have bought a Honda."

"We could have bought a fucking stage coach and the door still wouldn't just fall off."

"Well, put it back on and let's go home. I'm cold. I wish we'd never come. This whole trip has been a disaster."

"I can't put it back on."

"Why not?"

"The bolts are gone."

"The dealer had to take it off then. Who else?"

"HOW THE FUCK SHOULD I KNOW!"

A couple walking by hurried their steps. Margaret got in the car and sat staring straight ahead.

Tweed carried the door to the back of the car and laid it on the ground. He put his key in the trunk and opened it. He picked up the door and wrestled it into the trunk. It didn't fit. Part of it stuck out over the bumper and the lid wouldn't close.

He rummaged around in the trunk and produced a wad of yellow rope. He lowered the trunk lid and looped the rope through the latch. He threaded one end of the rope down between the bumper and the car. It was a tight squeeze, so he reached down to force it through the seam. When he exerted pressure, the bumper fell off, landing on his feet.

He jumped up and down from one foot to the other, howling in pain.

"Shit. Shit. Shit, shit, shit," he yelled.

Margaret got out of the car and looked back at him.

"What are you yelling about?" she yelled.

"The goddamn bumper fell off. It smashed my toes."

He bent over and massaged the toes of each foot. Margaret walked back to look. She put her hands on her hips.

"You're ruining our car. Everything you touch falls off."

"Bumpers and doors don't just fall off, Marge. It's not my fault."

"You bought this junk heap."

We squinched down in our seats out of sight, as Art scanned the parking lot. I couldn't tell if he was suspicious or embarrassed.

After a minute or so, we eased back up. Tweed was in the car, lowering the back seat to expose the trunk area. He returned to the back of the car and started pushing the bumper in, over the door, and on into the car proper. When it bumped up against the front seat, he stopped. Like the door, the bumper was hanging out, too.

He tied the door to the bumper and located something under the car he could hook the rope around, then connected them all to the trunk latch and pulled everything down tight. Margaret had returned to the car seat to wait till he was done. He got in, buckled up tight, and backed out of the parking space.

With no side door, he looked like a crash test dummy seated at the wheel ready to see if the air bags worked in a fifty mile an hour collision with a brick wall.

He drove slowly away. As the car crossed over a speed bump, the tail pipe and muffler dropped off the car and dragged along making sparks on the asphalt. He stopped the car and craned his neck out the window, looking backwards. The tailpipe and muffler were not visible unless he got out of the car.

He shrugged his head and drove on, leaving the debris on the ground behind him. As he turned right to exit the parking lot, the left rear wheel fell off. The car collapsed on top of it, dragging it for a few feet before Tweed slammed on the brakes.

He climbed out of the car. As he did, the car shuddered slightly. Then the right rear wheel fell off and whanged around on the ground till finally coming to rest.

Margaret got out of the car. They both stood staring at the rear end in utter disbelief. They looked at each other, then back at the rear end. Then looked at each other again, then back at the rear end.

Margaret put her arms on top of the car and laid her head on them. Art sat down on the door frame and put his head in his hands.

"Jeeves," I said, "let's go home."






Chapter Eighteen



It was eight at night and time for the evening surveillance.

I was in my bedroom on the second floor, sitting in the dark, my eye to the telescope, focused in on the Tweed kitchen window. The long distance microphone brought their voices in loud and clear.

They had just arrived home this evening, having extended their Tahoe vacation an extra two days, and were finishing dinner. They were sitting at the kitchen table, working on a bottle of red wine.

"The insurance company will cover it," Art was saying.

"You've been saying that for two days. They won't."

"Stop being so negative."

"I'm not," Margaret said. "I haven't said anything."

"For two whole days. It's not my fault, dammit."

"Fat chance," Margaret said.

"What a disaster. They'll cover it."

"They don't cover anything. Let alone everything falling off the car while we're on vacation in Tahoe."

"We should have made sure it all fell off while we were home? Like that would make a difference?"

"You'll have to check the policy. Check the fine print. I know they'll think it's suspicious."

"It fucking is suspicious. How the hell could we drive two hundred miles and then everything falls off right when we're leaving for home?"

"You're saying somebody sabotaged the car?" Margaret asked.

"Duh. What else? Don't forget the gas tank. There were two holes in it."

"Somebody crawled under our car in the night and unscrewed everything? Who would believe that? I don't. It's insane."

"I do. It's true."

"There's got to be some other explanation. The insurance company won't believe it. It's not like we had a car accident."

"What do you call it then?" Art asked.

"A nightmare."

"A disaster."

"Who would do that to us? It's crazy."

"I can think of somebody. Fucking Monona. He's crazy enough and mad enough to do it. I can think of him real easy."

"Be serious, Art. He'd take a ball bat to it, not a wrench. He's a Neanderthal."

"I wonder where he is. He's not at the trailer park anymore. I checked."

"Miserable little jerk. His lawsuit sure blew up in his face. That was a real pleasure. I loved sticking it to him. Arrogant little snot."

"Then Teresa died. His life's in the toilet. Big time."

"You won't get any sympathy from me," she said. "I couldn't stand either one of them."

Art finished his wine and poured another. "I miss the business."

"Not me. I hated it. I love being typesetters again."

"I don't. It sucks. It's boring. It's small time."

"At least we're making a living."

"Barely."

"Our Money Market funds are back up, too. Thanks to Weasley."

"That must have killed Monona."

"I hope so."

"What the fuck's he doing now?"

"Drinking himself to death probably. What a loser. Why did we ever get involved with him? Another one of your bad ideas."

"You didn't mind it so much when the money was pouring in."

"I minded it every day. I couldn't stand the sight of him."

"He never came around."

"He didn't have to."

Art finished his wine and poured another.

"You're drinking too fast," Margaret said. "Slow down. You'll turn into Monona if you keep it up."

"It's only my third glass."

"Only?"

"Relax. It's just a glass of wine. I wonder where he is?"

"Who cares. I hope I never see him again."

"He's around somewhere. I can feel it in my bones."

"Your feelings are never right. Neither are your bones. He's gone. He can't show his face anymore."

"Who else would sabotage our car?"

Margaret poured a glass of wine. "We should go to the police."

"Right," Art said. "I'll go tell the cops we drove to Tahoe and somebody made everything fall off our car while we were there. When they finish laughing, they'll say it wasn't in their jurisdiction."

"What if it happens again?" she asked.

"Maybe it's a one shot deal. Some punk vandals in Tahoe."

"What about the gas tank? That happened here, not there."

"Right. It's him, Margaret. I tell you it's him."

"It can't be."

"It is."

"Great. What are we going to do about it?"

"Nothing. What can we do about it? We don't know where he is. We don't even know if it is him."

"You said it was him. Make up your mind."

"I'll think about it tomorrow."

Art held up the wine bottle. There was only a small amount left. He poured it into his glass.

"Don't drink any more," she said. "You've had enough."

"This is the last one."

"It better be. The bottle's empty. Don't open another one."

"I said this is the last one. Give it a rest."

Margaret left the room. The curtains closed over the front room window. The glow of a TV appeared.

Art drained his glass of wine.

Their house, like the one in Nevada City, was built on a slope. The front door was level with the street. The back yard was ten feet below the house. It was a very old wooden building, with a rickety front porch and an even ricketier back porch. You had to walk softly on it. Some of the boards were worn through. It was propped up on rotting four-by-fours. The Tweeds didn't like anything that was modern or new.

Through the telescope, Tweed moved furtively and quietly to a cupboard near the kitchen table. He opened it and fetched out a bottle of wine. He took the wine to the back porch and over to the side railing. Out of sight of the back door, but visible to my telescope's all seeing eyeball.

He opened the bottle of wine and poured a fresh glass. He left the glass on the railing and went back inside and put the bottle back in the cupboard. Then he returned to the railing, drank from his glass, and stood there looking out over his backyard, silhouetted by the street light on the corner.

The backyard was small. Small and virtually unusable. It sloped drastically from under the deck down to a neighbor's fence which was covered with vines and various other kinds of unkempt vegetation. Off to the left of the deck was a side yard. It was also small. But it was flat and supported a wimpy lawn.

The lawn was wimpy because it was mostly in the shade all day. There was a massive tree there. So massive it had some two-by-fours nailed into the trunk that led up to a platform that was obviously some sort of tree house for whatever kid had lived in the house before the Tweed's moved in.

Tweed drank his wine and mulled the world over. Finally, he finished his wine and walked down the stairs to the ground. Carefully. The stairs were as rickety as everything else about the deck. The street light gave him enough of a glow to tiptoe over to the tree without tripping over his ass. He climbed up the ladder of two-by-fours.

At the top of the ladder, he crawled over the edge of the platform that was there and stood up. He looked around left and right. The coast was clear. He bent over and fetched something from a the crotch of a nearby branch.

There was a sudden flash of a match being lit. It illuminated his face as he held the match to the end of his cigarette. He took a big drag to light it.

Suddenly, there was a loud pop and a spray of light as the tip of the cigarette exploded under his nose.

Pleasant dreams, Mr. Arthur Asshole Tweed.

# # #

The holidays were not kind to Art Tweed.

On Halloween, someone threw a rock through his front window, egged his house, and stomped a hole in his kayak. Kids. They were all juvenile delinquents anymore. Wrecking up everything just for kicks.

During Thanksgiving, his back porch collapsed mysteriously, evidently causing the water pipes under his house to crack open and flood the property. It was an old house. Shit like that happens to old houses.

Christmas was a sad affair, what with the rain gushing in through a hole in his roof and collapsing the living room ceiling. The Christmas tree keeled over and splattered ornaments all over the floor and started an electrical fire.

And then, to top off his run of bad luck, all the oil leaked out of his car and the engine burned up coming home from a New Year's Eve party.

Frisbee had become friends with Margaret during this time and was now down in the living room commiserating with her on New Year's Day. Art was watching football games and Margaret had come by to visit and seek refuge. Their voices carried up the stairway and into my bedroom.

"My God, Margaret," Frisbee was saying, "I've never heard of so many accidents happening to someone. It's unbelievable."

"I'm not so sure they were accidents," Margaret said.

"Well, the vandalism wasn't. That's true. Kids are so mean anymore. It's really sad. Do you think it's the parents' fault?"

"Everybody's always blaming the parents."

"I didn't mean you, of course."

"I don't think it's accidents or vandalism. I think Art's ex-partner is on a vendetta against us. A guy named Blue Monona. Ever hear of him?"

"No. Never heard of him. A vendetta?"

"Yeah."

"You're kidding."

"I wish I was."

"What for?"

"It's a long story."

"Sounds scary."

"It probably sounds like I'm paranoid, but that's what Art and I think."

"Wow. Have you told the police?"

"We reported the vandalism. They shrugged. It was Halloween."

"What about the other things?"

"What could we tell them? Our plumbing broke? Our roof leaked? Our old porch fell down? We forgot to put oil in the car?"

"But all of them at once. Wouldn't they think that was kind of suspicious?"

"Maybe. Or they might just think our house is old and we're delirious."

"I'm so sorry, Margaret. I don't know what to say. You really think this ex-partner is doing all this?"

"Absolutely."

"That's incredible. Why does he hate you so much?"

"He's a crazy drunk. He blames us for everything wrong with his life."

"Why would he do that?"

"Like I said, it's a long story. He drank his way out of the business. His wife died. He lost his house. He blames us for all of it. Like I said, he's a crazy drunk."

"Can't you tell the police about him?"

"We don't even know where he is. He disappeared last year."

"But you think he's around somewhere? Doing all this stuff to you?"

"See. How weird does that sound? The police wouldn't believe us. I don't know what we're going to do. It's like living in a haunted house. Or a war zone."

Footsteps sounded on the living room floor and the front door opened.

"Art," I could hear Frisbee say. "Come in. Happy New Year. I guess. What's that? Champagne?"

"What's a New Year without champagne," Art said.

"Didn't you have enough last night," Margaret said. "When you forgot to put oil in the car."

"Let me get some glasses," Frisbee said.

"I didn't forget to put oil in the car, and you know it," Art said. "Monona drained it."

"You blame Monona for everything."

"So do you."

"Why didn't the red light come on?"

"The fuse was gone."

"Are you sure?"

"It must have been. Otherwise why didn't the light come on."

"It probably did."

"I didn't see it."

"You were drunk."

"So were you. Why didn't you see it?"

"I wasn't driving. You were. And I wasn't drunk."

"Here we go," Frisbee said.

A champagne cork went pop.

"Here's to a brand new year," Art said.

"I'll drink to that," Frisbee said. "Maybe your ex-partner will leave you alone this year."

"Monona? How do you know about him?"

"Margaret was telling me. How awful."

"He'll screw up sooner or later. He always does."

# # #

The Sebastopol City Council met on the first and third Tuesday of each month in the Sebastopol Youth Annex building. Sebastopol did not have its own movie theater, either. You had to go to Santa Rosa for most of your town type needs. Indeed, for all its hefty size, Sonoma County only had two bona fide cities: Santa Rosa and Petaluma. The city of Sonoma was almost a city, but not quite. Sebastopol was all town, all the time.

There were four councilpersons and the mayor, who presided over the meeting. The mayor was a woman. The four councilpersons were all councilmen.

The Tweeds were in attendance each time the council met. Part of their PC persona. They always sat in the first two seats of the first row, on the left side of the aisle. Part of their PC overdoing it. Highly visible decent citizens. They were on a first name basis with all the council people and could get their attention during a meeting without even raising their hands and being recognized by the chair.

Art had campaigned for a council seat in three separate elections. Five candidates were elected. The highest vote getter became mayor. He'd finished seventh all three times. Of seven candidates. Dead last. Despite personally knocking on every door in Sebastopol to woo the voters. Margaret questioned this strategy. After all, Art was a dork. She felt it might be better if no one got their flesh personally ironed. Flesh ironing worked for mysterious entrepreneur business men. Not for people who wanted someone to actually represent their basic interests.

The front row seats, then, were as close as Art was ever going to get to a council position. He could only be a lobbyist.

Frisbee was seated tonight in the folding chair to the left of the Tweeds, next to Art. Margaret was in the aisle seat, dressed in a one piece gray tent. She was an expert overdone dresser downer. I suspected she was a distant cousin of the Addams Family. Frisbee was dressed in a short skirt, high heels, and a light blue blouse with the first two buttons opened. Art was dressed in a suit and tie. The suit was turd brown. The tie was puke yellow.

Frisbee had been attending these PC events with the Tweeds quite regularly as of late. She didn't know or care a flying fuck about what went on. Wherever Frisbee went, she was what went on.

Art enjoyed her company, as was his wont when there was open season on breast hunting available at the sideways peek of an eye.

Occasionally, a sensitive issue would crop up at a council meeting, attracting the pie throwers and outraged gasbags. But normally, the council goers were mostly wannabe intellectuals and terribly, terribly concerned citizens. Tweed was at home. Margaret was at home. The Tweeds were in Tweedland.

The primary item on the agenda tonight was the intersection of Palm Avenue and South High Street. At issue was whether the Yield signs on South High Street should be replaced with Stop signs. The residents on the four corners of the intersection had grown weary of the constant sound of screeching brakes from drivers who interpreted Yield to mean Token Glance. An accident had not yet occurred, but it was only a matter of time till one did.

Virtually all of the council's business involved things that were only a matter of time. Death from smog. Deforestation. Global Warming. Nuclear Fall-Out. Urban sprawl. Decreased quality of living. Only a matter of time. They would all occur. What Sebastopol could do about any of these issues was open to question. A question no one ever asked. The answer would be obvious. Jack Diddly Squattola.

After the minutes were read and the usual business dispensed with, there was a moment of quiet as the mayor, Abigail Bernheim, shuffled through some papers and conferred with the councilman to her right, Chester Noonan.

Abruptly, a male voice boomed out of the PA system. "Can you believe that ditzhead Bernheim?"

The voice was unmistakably that of Art Tweed.

"The queen of pretentious nobility."

This voice was female and belonged unmistakably to Margaret Tweed.

The council chambers suddenly to attention with a lot of heads turning this way and that. The mayor dropped her papers and stared around the room.

I was sitting in the back row, low in my seat, hiding behind two wide-bodies. It was the first time I'd ever been to a council meeting in my life. I was here to enjoy Moose's handiwork in rigging my tape recorder to the PA system. The tape itself was the product of a particularly pithy night of long distance eavesdropping on the Tweed kitchen dialogue one evening after a city council meeting that had not particularly pleased them. One of their erudite recommendations had evidently been pounded flat by Bernheim's gavel.

As the buzz of idle chatter in the room scaled down into furious murmuring, the voices on the tape droned on. The mayor and the councilmen sat up straight, surprised and confused, looking down at the Tweeds in the first row. The Tweeds lips, however, were not moving.

Art's voice boomed out again. "How Bernheim ever got elected is a mystery."

Margaret again. "Not really. This town is populated with illiterate morons. You saw that when you canvassed for votes. Talk about rubes."

"Leonard! Turn down the fucking music!"

"Let's play pin the tail on the dimwit," Margaret suggested, with a twinkle in her giggle.

There was a pop. A cork removed from a wine bottle.

Art spoke. "You take Bernheim. I'll take Noonan, that overweight carcass of petrified brain matter. The idiot needs an interpreter to find the right bathroom. If a fire broke out in the council chambers, he'd grab a gas can to extinguish it. He thinks lips are enema equipment. He's flushed out dear Abigail so many times his nose attracts flies."

While the Tweed voices laughed hysterically, the council chamber became even quieter. The fascination of death filled the room. An Amtrak was derailing in the swamps with two hundred people about to get badly broken.

Art had initially looked furiously around the room, but was now shrunk to elbows on knees, hands cupped over the eyes of his lowered head.

Next to him, Margaret sat up straight, pretending not to hear or be affected by events. Her face, however, was glowing like a stop light at midnight on a dark road.

Frisbee, sitting next to Art, leaned away from him and craned her neck to observe him. What an actress. She was playing the part of a neon direction arrow perfectly.

The councilmen and the mayor stared at the Tweeds with open mouths.

On tape, Margaret spoke sarcastically. She began to mimic the mayor.

"Hi, I'm Abigail Bernheim. I have naturally curly hair. And it really is red. You can tell by my matching mustache. My eyelashes go up and down at the speed of light. You can't see them move, but you can feel them flutter you with warmth and cool you to sixty-nine ecologically appropriate degrees. I am an energy efficient person. My mother selected me from a sperm bank with a five star rating. My lips are wash and wear. If you pull the string in my back, I'll sing Mary Had a Little Lamb. A cappella, no less!"

Abigail Bernheim sat back in her chair, folded her arms, and stared at the Tweeds with a frigid fury. Chester Noonan got up and began to search for the tape machine. The other councilmen held their breath, looking at each other nervously. Were they going to be flayed next?

The tape played on.

The Tweeds rose slowly from their folding chairs. Art looked around like he was checking to see if he'd left his wallet on the chair. Margaret was busy folding up her tent. All eyes were upon them.

It was thirty-two and a half miles to the front door. They set out upon their longest journey, gamely staring straight ahead, a pleasant stroll and nothing more, each painful step monitored with precise attention by every eye in the room.

As they finally closed the door behind them, the crowd burst into noise. The mayor pounded her gavel until, except for the tape, there was silence. She looked out at the citizenry.

"The agenda is tabled until next week. This meeting is adjourned."

No one moved. The tape played on.






Chapter Nineteen



The Tweeds were finished in Sebastopol.

According to Frisbee, our girl about town, the Tweeds were the talk of the town. Everywhere she went, there was only one topic of discussion. Did you hear about the Tweeds. They had never been so famous.

They couldn't show their faces anywhere without drawing stares and silence. Small towns can be cruel places when your dirty laundry is hanging out on the line. On the sidewalks. In the supermarket. In the restaurants. Everywhere. They were prisoners in their own house. Their typesetting business was dead.

The "For Sale" sign appeared on the Tweed lawn within two weeks. But they were already gone, leaving it to the realtor to show the house. They weren't even present when the moving van eventually came and loaded their possessions and took them away. They had long since snuck off in the dark of night.

Before I could set about finding out where they'd gone, however, what Frisbee called "a situation" arose.

"Moose's gone," she told me. She had come upstairs to my room.

"And that ain't all, Blue. The Rolls is gone, too."

I shrugged. "No big deal, Frisbee. I don't need him anymore. And we can always buy a new car."

"That ain't the point. It was my car. I liked it. He didn't have no right to steal it. Besides, I feel shit-faced."

"Why? You didn't do anything."

"He's my rotten egg. Not yours. It makes me look bad."

"Look bad with who? Me? Nonsense."

"You dimwit. You're my friend. I don't have that many. You've treated me good. Better than anyone. Moose's treating you wrong."

"Gee, Frisbee. You really mean it? I'm your friend?"

"Don't let it go to your head."

"I'm your friend?"

"Your lucky day."

I walked over to her. "I like you, too. And you're my friend. Right now, you're the best friend I got."

"Don't get mushy on me."

"I'm going to hug you."

"Don't even think about it."

"Yes I am."

"No you ain't."

"Yes I am."

"Get it over with then. And hurry up. No drooling around."

She squinched her eyes tight, like she was about to get dunked in a carnival water tank. I put my arms around her, careful not to press against any of her. The way I hugged my sisters. She kept her arms at her sides. Waiting for it to end.

"C'mon you dud," I said. "Give me a fucking hug. I ain't leaving till you do."

"Asshole," she muttered.

But she put her arms around me and we hugged each other. Once we got used to it, we hugged a little closer, a little firmer. It felt good. Very good. I hadn't been touched by anyone since Teresa died. We lingered with it. Then let it go.

"Satisfied?" she said.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"It was horrible. Don't try it again."

"Well, old buddy, I guess we better figure out where Moose is then."

"About time you got the message."

I went to my dresser to get a clean shirt. First, I took off the one I was wearing and gave it a big sniff.

"What the shit are you doing?"

"Got some of you on it."

"You are one sick fuck."

I opened the dresser and stopped dead. Finding Moose suddenly went from curiosity to panic. I still had one of Gourd's grisly pictures in the safe deposit box in Cotati. The other nine were in this dresser drawer. All nine of them were gone.

Idiot Moose was about to get himself killed.

# # #

I finally told Frisbee the whole story. Teresa, Babble, Tweed, Gourd, Weasley. The keys. The money and the pictures. The skeletons in the desert. All of it.

It was the first time I'd ever seen her speechless.

I was in my rocking chair, she was on the sofa. She had a look on her face like she was trying to remember something. I spelled it out for her.

"Moose's going to get himself killed if we don't find him and stop him."

"Moose? What's this got to do with Moose?"

"Unless I miss my guess, he's going to try blackmailing some very dangerous people. The ones in the pictures."

"Oh, God. He's too dumb to pull that off."

"Exactly."

"You killed two people?"

I nodded.

"Two people. You murdered two fucking people!"

I shrugged lamely and nodded.

"Jesus Christ, Blue. Two fucking people?"

"Yep."

She wiped her hand over her mouth.

"Oh shit. I'm living with a fucking two time killer. Oh shit. What in the hell were you thinking? You can't just kill two fucking people. For one thing, it's slightly against the law. For another, it's fucking insane."

"Well, I did. I'm not sorry about it, either."

"You're going to kill Tweed, too. Aren't you?"

"Probably."

"This is crazy. This is fucking crazy."

"I'm not really a killer, Frisbee. You know that."

"You're fucking nuts. Insane."

"No, I figured it all out. Nobody's going to find them. I think."

"You think? You fucking think!"

"I'm pretty sure, yeah. Unless you tell somebody."

"Then you'd kill me?"

"Jesus, Frisbee. Of course not. You're my friend. I'd never want to hurt you."

"Tweed was your friend, too."

"That's different. He's a scumbag traitor. He sold me out. He killed Teresa."

"What would make me different? If I told somebody."

"You'd just be doing the right thing. I wouldn't hold it against you. I'm sure you'd have a good reason. I can't think of any. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt."

"I'm real reassured."

"Of course, I hope you don't tell anybody, though. Pretty please. With sugar on it."

"And here I am thinking you're a nice guy."

"No you don't."

"I even liked you."

"No you didn't."

"Yes I did, you jerk. I really did."

"You did? Really. You really liked me?"

"Stick it. No. I never liked you."

"See."

"Fuck you."

"Okay," I said. "But what about Moose?"

"What do you care? "

"He stole my car and the pictures."

"My car."

"Actually, it wasn't my car or your car. It's Gourd's car. Everything is Gourd's."

"I thought you said he was dead."

"He is. His money isn't. I got it."

"Ten million dollars. Wow. Unbelievable."

"We've spent some of it."

"How much is going to be mine?"

"Enough. Quite a bit."

"You said I get ten percent."

"Right."

"I guess it wouldn't be too smart to turn you in then."

"I was hoping you'd see it that way."

"Let's just let Moose have the car then. Who cares? Like you said. We can just buy another fucking Rolls."

"It's the photographs. If he tries to blackmail somebody, it could all lead back to me."

"I see. You might be right."

"It's not worth taking a chance."

"Two fucking people."

"Hey, they're just lawyers. Two jerk lawyers. Who cares? They're not even human."

Frisbee let out a long, deep sigh. "Twilight Zone. Fucking Twilight Zone."

"So, where's Waldo?"

"Waldo? Who the hell is Waldo?"

"Moose's new name."

Frisbee slapped her knees and laughed hard. "Waldo. That's great. Perfect."

"We have to find Waldo."

"Yeah. Waldo. Where's fucking Waldo?"

# # #

Frisbee took Gordo and went looking for Waldo. She swore up and down she wouldn't tell him anything.

The pictures were going to be hard to explain, though. Even to a dim bulb like Moose. Frisbee was good at explaining dim things, though. She'd figure something out.

With Tweed gone, it was safe to drop the hermit role. It was getting dark. I walked downtown to a bar on a side street off of Main. Johnnie's Small Game Tavern.

I'd never been there before. The name was too long to swallow. Tonight I was thirsty, though. Okay, so I just needed a drink. And I needed to think things through. Wherever through was that thoughts went.

It was a dark joint. Cushioned booths with picnic type tables along one wall. Long bar counter along the other. Pool tables in the back. Cheap square tables in the middle with plastic chairs. The kind of tables with a metal post in the center connected to a round base on the floor. They always tilted one way or the other when you leaned an elbow on them. Lots of spilt beer and cussing. Feeble attempts to level them with folded matchbooks or napkin wads shoved under the base. It never worked. They still tilted. As soon as you did get them leveled, if your ever did, some a-hole would come along and move the table an inch or two to re-arrange it or something. Back to tilted.

I grabbed a stool at the end of the bar and ordered a Ranier. Over the bar were the stuffed animal heads that gave the bar its name. Mounted up there were a squirrel head, a rabbit, a chipmunk, a lizard, a chicken, and a rat. In the middle was a gold plated slingshot.

"Good shootin'," I said to the bartender when he brought my beer.

"Not me. My sister. Dead shot. We got a peashooter gallery at home, but some of them ain't legal. If you know what I mean."

"Gotcha."

I could imagine a wall in the den with stuffed robin heads, praying mantis noggins, potato bugs, maybe some toads.

Meanwhile, out there in the galaxies, out there in Huge Game Heaven, big trouble was brewing with the Big Bang Theory. Scientist geeks were running out of Latin and Greek words to name things. Like Jupiter, Neptune, Mercury, gallissimus bladderissimo. Big Bang was the tip off. C'mon dudes. Big Bang. Sheesh. We're talking Supremo Maximus BlowUpness.

It was much worse than just a language problem. Much worse. Small potatoes even. The Big Bang Theory itself had been busted. Newton's gravity had sprung a leak. Atoms made up everything in the universe. This was a scientific fact. Then some smart-ass geek actually sat down with nothing better to do for thirty years and put all the atoms on a scale and discovered that they only weighed four percent of the universe's real weight. Thirty years. Thirty years playing around with an atom weighing scale. It was easy to see why these people were commonly referred to as Geeks.

His research revealed that ninety-six percent of the universe was a missing person. Where was it? That was the hot question in geek circledom. Was it here once and somehow got lost? Had it just never been found?

Scientists are resourceful assholes, though. So they made it simple. The missing stuff was determined to be invisible. It had to be. What other explanation could there be? It was, it was, it was . . . . It was Dark. Black had already been used to name the Holes out there that the galaxies fell into and disappeared.

Somewhere in the Seventies, while Reggie Jackson was turning into a drink-stirring straw for the Yankees, a brilliant scientist invented Dark Matter. It explained where the invisible stuff was.

Sort of.

So the geeks spent about ten years of weighing this invisible dark matter on invisible scales invented by scientists who weren't invisible but should have been, in my opinion. But the dark stuff, or matter as it was technically called, only weighed out to another twenty-one percent of the universe.

Seventy-five percent was still missing.

Boy, talk about a real brain-buster. The geek cocktail parties were riveting raves. And you can imagine the scene, since all scientists were able to talk faster than the speed of sound and flap their arms and eyes wildly with uncontrolled excitement while sweat dripped down their noses and fogged up their glasses. It would have been a natural place for Tweed to hang out, it occurred to me. But he hadn't.

Then, finally, the most brilliant scientist of all, Frxyzt Khvgycgbwz, figured out the missing stuff. It was Dark Energy. They weighed it all up and sure enough Dark Energy weighed exactly seventy-five percent. And magnificently wonderful, Dark Energy was even more invisible than Dark Matter! The world was saved.

Squirrel heads and Dark Stuff. Who cared about two dead lawyers?

Cops. They were paid to care about tiresome crap. I'd made the big mistake. Cops just laid back and waited for crooks to make the big mistake. Sooner or later, they all did. I was no different.

Telling Frisbee was the big mistake. It was one small drop of water oozing through the dike, dripping from the cave top, getting underneath the paint job. One day it would flood the lowlands, raise a stalagmite, rust a car.

And Waldo had the pictures. And where did he get them? The whole perfect crime was unraveling like a cheap sweater with a loose thread.

It was Dark Energy loaded with Dark Matter heading my way in a Dark Dump Truck which would turn my world into Dark Shit.

It was the Dark at the end of the tunnel.






Chapter Twenty



Frisbee was sitting at the kitchen table when I got home from the bar.

"Where the hell have you been?" she asked.

"Went out for a drink. Any news?"

My bottle of Scotch was on the table. She poured herself a drink.

"What's going on?" I said. "You don't drink hard stuff. You're a reefer head."

"I know."

She took a swallow and made a face. "God, this shit's awful."

"Most people put ice in it first."

"What for?"

"Ice cubes have DEATH embedded in them. You get to stare death in the face. It makes the drink cooler, so it doesn't hurt as much."

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

I got a glass and sat across from her. "Mind if I join you?"

She shrugged. "It's your booze."

She poured me a drink. I took a swallow.

"You didn't put any ice in it."

"I never do. It gets in the way. Makes my nose cold."

She lifted her glass. "Cheers."

We clinked and drank.

"Where's Waldo? Did you find him?"

"Yeah. It was real hard. He's at the trailer. The Rolls is parked out front. He ain't hiding, obviously. Sitting in my trailer with my car."

"He's your boy friend."

"Don't remind me."

"So?"

She poured another, took a drink, and smacked her lips. "Gets better as you go."

"Take it easy. That shit's lethal."

"He says he only borrowed the car. He'll bring it back."

"What about the pictures?"

She made a face. "He sent one."

"He sent one? Shit. Where?"

"Some movie star. Wouldn't say who. You know, don't you?"

"Yeah."

"Who?"

"Slade Bromide."

"Slade Bromide! Slade fucking Bromide! Christ. He's gigantic."

"Yeah. Real tough guy. Likes to wear diapers and get spanked by nannies."

"Get outta here."

"Yup."

"No fucking way."

"Yup."

"You gotta be shitting me."

"Nope."

"What a fucking waste. You're kidding, right?"

"Nope."

She shook her head sadly and took another drink. "What's wrong with these people? How the hell am I ever going to be able to see any of his movies anymore?"

"That's why he coughed up a million."

"Shit."

"How'd Moose send it?"

"Fax."

"I didn't know he had a fax."

"He doesn't. He used the Tweed's fax. After they were gone. Before the movers came."

I started laughing.

"What's funny?"

"The Tweeds are in worse trouble than having me after them. And they don't know about any of it. Too funny."

"I'm not following you."

"Fax machines put a slug line at the top of the faxes they send. It has the fax number on it. The number of the sending fax machine."

"The Tweed's number?"

I nodded.

Frisbee dribbled some noise through her lips. It was some kind of burp laugh thing. "Poor fucking Tweeds. You think Slade will come after them?"

"Wouldn't you?"

"It's not an address. Just a number. Can they track that down?"

"I wouldn't bet against it. Money buys a lot. Did Waldo ask for money?"

"Yeah."

"How much?"

"Ten thousand."

I burst out laughing. "Ten thousand! Ten fucking thousand! Gourd got a million."

Frisbee shrugged. "What can I say? Moose's so fucking dumb he can't even steal right."

"Frisbee?"

"What?"

"What do you see in Moose?"

"Don't ask."

I took a drink. So did she. We poured another.

"How's he plan to get the money?"

"He wouldn't tell me. Dumb as he is, he'll probably have them bring it to the trailer in person."

"Probably as safe as anything, actually. Hard to get in and out of the trailer court without being seen. Have to use a knife on him. A gun would be too noisy."

"Quit it. You're scaring me."

"Naw. They'd wait till later. Strangle him in a parking lot. Break his spine over a knee."

"Stop it, Blue. This is heavy shit. What are we going to do?"

"Get drunk. Make funeral arrangements."

"Asshole. I'm serious."

"Why are you smiling, then?"

"I'm not. My jaw's stuck."

"I guess mine is too."

We looked at each other and burst into laughter. Guffawed and snoffed till we were too tired to continue. Burbled a few more spasms and took a deep breath for composure.

"Okay," I said. "We need a plan."

"Good thinking."

"First, another drink."

"Good thinking."

Clink. Drink.

"Okay," I said. "We need a plan."

"Good thinking."

"I guess we just wait."

"Good thinking. How long?"

"I don't know."

"Sounds like a good plan."

"Maybe we should stuff Waldo in a closet till this is over."

"He's claustrophobic."

"Rats. Then we just wait."

She leaned on her elbows, hands on chin, a dreamy look on her face.

"Blue, you look a lot more handsome when you're blurry."

"Don't we all."

"Am I blurry, too?"

"You bet."

She stood up and came around the table, using her hands on the table edge to steady her balance. She flopped down onto on my lap. I put my arm out to make sure she didn't flop right on by me and off onto the floor. She put her arms around my neck and leaned back to see me better. Then she kissed me. I kissed her back. She pulled away.

"Mmmm," she said, like she was deciding what flavor I was.

"You're a good kisser, Blue."

"Thanks."

"You want me, don't you?"

"Sure. Do I look nuts?"

"How come you never try?"

"You're not interested."

"That doesn't stop most guys."

"I'm dumb that way."

"What if I did want you to try?"

"You don't."

"But what if I did?"

"How would I know?"

"I could tell you."

"Are you?"

"Guess."

"I'm no good at it. I always guess wrong."

She rested her head on my shoulder.

"I like you, Blue. You're a sweet guy."

"I like you, too, Frisbee. You're pretty damn sweet yourself."

"Even if you did kill two people."

"Nobody's perfect."

She fell asleep on my lap, head on my shoulder. I picked her up and carried her to bed. I took off her shoes and put her under the covers with her clothes on. I'd rather have her pissed at me for not undressing her than for undressing her. Nothing could ruin a good friendship like inappropriate undressing.

I went back to the kitchen. There was a couple of swigs left in the Scotch bottle. Two swigs weren't worth shit when you were sober. Just enough to give you a headache. No sense leaving a headache lying around for temptation. I drained the bottle.

Maybe I wouldn't have to find Tweed after all. Maybe someone would beat me to it. Karma worked in mysterious ways.

# # #

Frisbee was pissed.

"Why didn't you undress me? I hate sleeping in my clothes."

"I took your shoes off."

"Now I've got to wash my sheets."

"Your clothes weren't dirty."

"There was smog all over them."

"You'll live. I haven't washed my sheets in a month."

She cringed. "God, you're a slob. Remind me never to sleep with you."

She went back in the house.

I was on the front porch, sitting on a padded bench swing drinking coffee. It was nice not having to hide in the house any more. I'd missed the smell of car exhaust mingled with daffodil fumes.

A real estate lady was across the street at the Tweed's house. Former Tweed's house. She was hanging a SOLD sign over the For Sale sign in the front yard.

I walked over with my mug of coffee.

"Hi," I said to her.

She had wide lips that were smeared with some kind of bright red axle grease. Evidently this helped her sell complete piles of worthless lumber to extremely stupid house buyers.

"Good morning, sir."

"Somebody bought this dump, eh?"

"It's a quaint little house. A nice fixer-upper for the right homeowner."

Real estate speak for "Yeah, it's a dump all right."

"Who bought it?"

"A San Francisco couple. Retiring to the country life."

"God help them. Where did the old owners go? The Tweeds."

She pulled up her face like she'd just smelled a dirty sock. "I believe they relocated to Santa Rosa somewhere."

"Gee. They didn't even say good-bye."

"I suspect they were in a hurry. Were they friends?"

"He owed me money. You don't happen to know where in Santa Rosa they moved to, do you?"

She shook her head. "No, I'm afraid I don't."

I thanked her and returned to the swing. Frisbee came out with a mug of coffee and joined me.

I gave her a little nudge with my elbow. She flinched away. I wiggled an eyebrow at her. "You gave me a little smooch last night."

"You took advantage of me. I was drunk."

"You said you liked it."

"I didn't want to hurt your feelings. I had to gargle with mouthwash this morning."

"You're hurting my feelings."

"Good. You deserve it. Move over, you're too close."

"I can't. I'm at the end."

"We need another swing. This one's too crowded."

I got up and sat on the railing, facing her. She squooched sideways to the middle of the swing so there was no room for me if I tried to sit back down. She propped her bare feet on the railing. I looked down at her toes. They weren't like the rest of her, which was fairly slim. Her big toes were fat on the end, like a scallion bulb that had been dipped into a can of purple paint. I could see up her toenails. There was some gunk in there. The vacuum cleaner didn't have a small enough attachment gizmo, I guess.

She noticed me looking. I guess I was smiling, too. "Pervert," she said.

"The Tweeds moved to Santa Rosa," I said.

"Where in Santa Rosa?"

"I don't know."

"There's a hundred thousand people there. How do you expect to find them?"

"I don't know. Scour the sewers."

"You probably got friends who live in there. You can ask them if they've seen a Tweed float by. What about Moose?"

Right. Fucking Waldo. "You'd better go see him. See if you can get the pictures back. Tell him he can have the car for the pictures."

"It's my car. He ain't getting it."

"I'll buy you another one."

"Fine. Then I'll have two. I'll give the new one to Moose."

"Try to talk him out of the blackmail idea. Tell him he'll probably get killed if he picks up the money."

"He won't listen. His mind's like a submarine. Once it sinks, the doors don't open."

"Then find out where the pickup exchange is. Tell him we'll help."

"Sure. He'll think we want some of the money."

"Tell him I'll give him the money if he doesn't go through with it."

"You don't understand. Smart ideas don't stick in his head. There's no glue in there. You need a hammer and nails to post anything on his bulletin board."

"That's what I'm afraid of."

"Me, too. Poor Moosesie. I better go help him. You got any chloroform?"

"It doesn't work. Except in Hollywood."

"Sure it does. It's on TV. Don't you ever watch anything?"






Chapter Twenty-One



Frisbee got out her ten speed and pedaled off to see Moose at the trailer park, a couple of miles out of town.

I sat on the swing watering my head. Hoping an idea would grow. It reminded me of flowers. And Teresa. If she was here, she'd know what to do. She always did. Starting with not being in this pickle in the first place. I hadn't done anything right since the day she died. Before I met her, I didn't know what a mess I was. So I thought I was all right. Now I knew better. I'd always been her Moose. Her Waldo.

A car pulled up to the curb in front of the old Tweed house. They didn't park neatly. One end was more than two feet from the curb. You could get a ticket for that.

Two guys got out. Each one hitched up his pants.

One of them was Paul, the guy who'd been following me, then I'd followed him. To Gourd's house. Cement Truck Willie.

What the hell was he doing here? It wasn't a good sign, whatever the reason was. He was supposed to be gone forever.

I slid off the swing, which I'd re-commandeered after Frisbee left, and hid behind the railing on my hands and knees so Paul couldn't spot me. He and the other guy walked up to the Tweed front door and knocked.

I crawled across the porch, reached up and turned the door knob, then crawled through the front door, stood up, and raced up the stairs to my bedroom. I turned on the long distance mike and focused it on them.

"Nobody home," Paul said.

The other guy went over and cupped his hands to the front window, looking inside.

"Looks like they moved," he said. "Place is empty."

Paul walked to the real estate sign and scanned it. He got a pen from his sport coat and wrote something on his palm. Probably the address of the realty company.

"Let's go," he said.

His partner spit on the floor of the porch and walked back to the car. Tough guys were always spitting on something. It was probably taught in tough guy school.

These two guys wore sport coats and khaki pants. It meant they were professional tough guys, not amateur punks. Their shoes were wingtip brogues for kicking your face to shreds and busting your ribs and shins. Punk toughs wore sneakers for running fast and climbing over chain link fences in alleys. Both types were always fairly ugly guys. Handsome guys never scared anybody. Unless it was a teenage boy at your front door with a boner in his pants as he arrived to pick up your daughter.

I went out to Mr. Wheels, got in, and drove to the realty office. Their car was parked out front. It was a plain dark green used car that had been upscaled to a pre-owned Taurus. Punk toughs always drove black Chevy's with "Eat Shit Mutha" painted in flames along the sides. Occasionally you saw a pink Lincoln go by with a stenciled cardboard sign hanging from the door handle that said "Ha, ha, Dad. I stole the car." But this was rare and not too scary.

After fifteen minutes, they emerged from the realty office, got in their car, and drove toward Santa Rosa. Gordo and I followed them.

Santa Rosa didn't have a Main Street. They'd forgotten to make one. The downtown area was at the intersection of Fourth Street and Mendocino Avenue. Mendocino went south and became Santa Rosa Avenue at First Street, where it looked like this was the original plan for the downtown area, but it hadn't worked out. Guys who fixed radiators had taken over this area, squeezing the main part of town north to Fourth. Radiator guys had a lot of clout apparently. They had tattoos long before kids discovered them. The mean looking grease hands probably contributed to the clout they seemed to have.

Paul and his buddy took a right off Mendocino onto Fourth Street. Fourth Street had originally been a straight street. Not good enough. A Downtown Renovation had occurred. Now Fourth Street had some parking space curve outs along it to be able to plant a tree in the jut outs and trick you into taking a pleasant stroll while you were spending your money. Money always spent faster when you could take pleasant strolls. That's what Downtown Renovations were all about.

It made the street a log jam to drive, though. I could see Paul's car gunning the exhaust pipe with impatience as the traffic inched along.

They drove one block and turned right, or south, on D Street. Mendocino was built on top of where C Street should have been, so there wasn't any C Street. A Street was behind the mall and under the freeway where you couldn't find it. The city planners had definitely been working the bottle a little too hard when the city was concocted.

They drove a block on D Street, then turned right, or west, on Third Street, and then back to Mendocino again for another right turn. They performed this driving around the block trick one more time. Then they drove around the block to the left two times. Tough guys at work. I was taking notes. Maybe they were padding their mileage for the travel expenses. Reconned downtown: four miles. Gordo and I were getting dizzy.

Finally, they stopped driving around in squares and headed east out Fourth Street. After three blocks, Paul and his buddy pulled into the curb across the street from a small park where brown baggers ate lunch on benches, with homeless people asleep underneath them and pigeons fighting over the crumbs.

I pulled Mr. Wheels into a dentist's parking lot where they couldn't see me. They walked across the street even though the crosswalk light had a hand up to signal pedestrians to Don't Walk across the street right now. A couple of kids pointed at them and tugged on their mother's dress, complaining about why she was holding them by the neck so they didn't walk out there and get run over.

There was a two story building next to the park. Paul stood in front of it, sizing it up, while his partner walked around back. The bottom floor of the building was a hair salon joint with a big front window. Chez Nous was painted on the window.

Having been a typesetter back there in Nevada City antiquity, I recognized the type face the sign was painted with. A fairly new type face. It was called "New Age Horseshit" and was quite popular in Northern California.

I had taken one semester of French back in my college days, but had quit when I discovered the course required you to actually learn how to speak that shit, which required having a bent mouth and a swollen tongue. I switched back to Latin to fulfill my foreign language requirement. I could speak Latin. Anybody could. Understanding it was just a matter of what kind of grade you were hoping to get. D was fine with me, so the class was no sweat.

Anyway, I knew this Chez Nous salon translated out to "At the place of Metaphysical principles." The big window allowed you to look inside while you were strolling by and see lots of women sitting under hairdryers reading magazine articles about emaciated women who were dying of anorexia or bulimia. But with metaphysical hairdos that were obtained at places like this.

A stairway led up the side of the building to the top floor. There was a shingle hanging at the top of the stairs.

Tweed Typography.

Good job of tracking down old Tweed head, Paul. Thanks.

Paul hooked back up with his partner and they drove back to Mendocino and parked in a cut out space in front of a jewelry store. His partner got out and stared at the jewelry store and appeared to be fondling the diamonds in the store window with his evil intentions. He had his hand inside his sport coat. Probably where his gun was stashed in a shoulder holster.

Paul grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away. They walked across the street and over to a city bus stop where you could wait for the bus inside a glass booth which had lots of humorous graffiti slopped around to amuse you while you were waiting. Depending on your amusement preferences, of course. Some people didn't like seeing how many ways a body part could be cartooned up to look. And, of course, you had to appreciate slang language.

Paul sat down in the booth and his partner went over and lurked behind a tree. He leaned against the tree with his back and crossed his arms in front of him. After awhile, he crossed his legs, too. Then he uncrossed them and his arms and leaned against the tree with one arm, placing the other arm on his hip. This seemed to suit him.

Paul leaned back on the bench and took a pair of Howdy Doody sunglasses out of the pocket of his sports coat and put them on. Then he put both arms up on the back of the bench, resting them on his elbows and spread his legs to wait nonchalantly. This was a thug disguise with which I was unfamiliar.

All this tailing around had made me hungry, so I bought a hot dog from a street vender and ate it, hiding behind a life-size sculpture of Luther Burbank standing there in the little plaza.

Luther was the most famous guy who had ever lived in Santa Rosa. Even more famous than the Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz. Luther was a rare type of famous guy. He actually seemed to deserve to be famous. He invented hundreds of new plants. And not just flowers, which Teresa would love. But also fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grains. Which I would love. He said his purpose was to increase the world's food supply. A truly amazing screwball.

Now, of course, he had all kinds of streets and buildings and police stations named after him. He insisted that he be buried in an unmarked grave. I guess he knew what was coming.

All of a sudden, the hot dog got stuck in my throat, causing me to cough some mustard out my nose. A fuzzy haired guy was walking to the bus stop booth. It was Waldo Moose. The Howdy Doody glasses were apparently a recognition device.

Waldo Moose sat down next to Paul. He was carrying a manila envelope and proceeded to take something out of it and showed it to Paul. Paul glanced at it and nodded. Waldo then put it back in the envelope. Paul took an envelope out of his pocket and gave it to Moose. It was a small business letter size envelope. Moose peeked inside, nodded, then gave Paul the manila envelope.

Paul started to get up. Moose got angry and grabbed Paul's shoulder. Paul shook off Moose's hand, then took off the sunglasses, petted them fondly, and handed them over to Moose, who snatched them eagerly. They both stood up. Neither shook hands or anything. Paul just walked away. Moose danced a little jig then put on the Howdy Doody sunglasses and strutted off in the opposite direction from Paul.

Paul's partner followed Moose.

Somewhere in Seventh Heaven, Clarabell the Clown was honking his horn, Buffalo Bob was working the Peanut Gallery into a frenzy, Flub-a-Dub was flubadubbing, and the evil Phineas T. Bluster was standing in the shadows purposefully plotting perfidious possibilities.

# # #

Paul got his car and drove in the direction Waldo Moose had gone. I boarded Mr. Wheels and followed after him. He had a cell phone up to his ear, and I guessed he was probably in touch with his partner.

Cell phones had made walkie-talkies obsolete. They were one of the most annoying inventions of all time. Everywhere you went people were blabbing on the phone. It was like you could never get out of the living room anywhere you went. The whole world had turned into a teenage girl who tied up the phone line. Parents loved them. They could track a kid any hour of the day or night and use the family phone whenever they wanted. Kids countered by always having an uncharged battery when their parents called. Cops and robbers, parents and kids, the wars went on.

Paul drove down Santa Rosa Avenue and made a right on Sonoma Avenue, which dead ended at the freeway, in back of a department store. Pretty desultory ending for an Avenue named after the whole damn county. Once again, you had to wonder about the boozing habits of the city planners. Maybe there was a reefer head in the mix, also.

There was a walkway overpass that led to the other side of the freeway. Paul's partner was standing at the entrance, hands on his knees, huffing and blowing.

Moose had outrun him. It was sneakers over brogues in a landslide. Maybe I'd underestimated Moose. He was sneaky dumb.

Paul stood over his partner giving him the old red ass. The partner ate it like a sandwich hauled out of a dumpster.

This made it clear Paul was the lead singer of the duet. The other guy was strictly backup vocals. They got in their car and drove to a motel. I parked Gordo and waited while they checked in. When they came out of the manager's office, they drove to the back end of the motel and entered Room 142.

I called Frisbee on my cell phone. Handy little pieces of shit, you had to admit. Especially in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire and no spare. Which had never happened to me, but could. One of those things that were just a matter of time.

"It's me," I said when Frisbee answered.

"Me who," she said.

"Me."

"I don't know any Me's."

"Me Blue, for chrissakes."

"Ohh. That Me. I never heard you on the phone before. Your voice sounds wimpy. Where are you?"

"Santa Rosa. I'm parked outside a motel."

"You don't have air conditioning in your truck. Why don't you go inside?"

"I haven't checked in yet."

"That's dumb. What are you staying at a motel for?"

"I followed the guys who followed Waldo. They checked in. Now I'm checking in. With you. Then I'll check in. I guess."

"Have you been drinking, Blue?"

"I wish. Two tough guys showed up at the Tweeds after you left. I followed them."

"How do you know they were tough guys?"

"They had sports coats and wing tip brogues and one of them spit on the porch and they drive a dark sedan. It's obvious."

"Are you sure you haven't been drinking. They might just be vacuum cleaner salesmen or something like that."

"I doubt it. They found out where the Tweeds live. Maybe from the fax Waldo sent."

"Blue?"

"Yeah?"

"Don't call him Waldo anymore. Okay?"

"Sure. I thought you liked it."

"I did. But only once. It don't sound right now. Like it's not really him. He's Moose. My Moosesie. Let's leave him at that."

"Whatever you say. Anyway, these two guys showed up at the Tweed's old house. Then they went to the real estate office and found out where the Tweeds moved to. Then they drove to Santa Rosa and I followed them."

"Why did they go to a motel?"

"They didn't. They drove by the place where the Tweeds are now living."

"What did they do?"

"Nothing. Looked around. Then they went to a bus stop and met up with Waldo. I mean Moose. Sorry."

"Oh my God. What happened?"

"Moose gave them the picture and they gave him the money."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that."

"So what are you doing at the motel for then?"

"After Moose got his money, they tried to kill him."

"Oh my God. Is Moose okay?"

"He ran away. One of the guys ran after and tried to kill him, but he got away. He escaped over the bridge. He outran them."

"That's my Moosesie. He's so smart once in a while. Why would they try to kill him? They got the picture, right?"

"Yeah. But maybe they want the other pictures. Maybe they want all that money. Maybe they don't want any witnesses hanging around. Tough guys don't like to make trips and go home without waxing somebody."

"Shit. I got the other pictures, by the way."

"You did! Great."

"Moose wasn't there at the trailer. Now I know why. I found them under the mattress. He always hides things under the mattress."

"Maybe we'll get out of this alive. As long as they don't find Moose. If they find him, he'll tell them about us."

"He wouldn't tell. He's too stubborn."

"They'd shoot off his fingers till he did."

"I see your point. I better go stick it in Moose's brain to make sure he understands."

"Good idea. I'm going to get a room here and see what these guys do next."

"Be careful."

"You too."

"Blue, this is kind of serious, isn't it."

"I'd say so, Frisbo. I'm sorry I got you into this."

"You did, didn't you. I forgot. You've been getting me into a lot of things lately. Why didn't you tell me it was going to be this dangerous?"

"I don't know."

"You always say that."

"I was a stupid idiot. I really didn't know."

"You got one thing right, at least."

# # #

I checked into a room across the parking lot from Paul and his partner. I had a clear view of his room from my front window.

They had the curtains drawn, but I could see them with the back of my mind. They had two double beds. Paul was lying on the one closest to the window. He was watching Judge Hatchett on TV roll her eyes around at two schmos who had brought their case before her. One said the other owed him fifty bucks for drawing up some architecture plans for a dog house in the backyard. The other contended it's a frigging dog house, not the Taj Mahal, and should only cost two beers.

Paul would of course favor the plaintiff who wanted his money. His partner would of course favor the dog owner because he was dying for a beer. But the judge, like any good judge, like Gourd, would figure out something nobody could predict. Especially idiots watching it all on TV. She would make the dog owner give the dog house plans back to the architect and call it even. One guy would be pissed because he didn't have dog house plans any more. The other would be pissed because he didn't have a dog in the first place and would have to take the dog house plans to the city dump or donate them to the Animal Rescue joint.

My mind stumbled on, like it was good at doing. I could see Paul's buddy sitting in an armchair at the little round table motels always stuck into rooms right by the air conditioner so you could get the cold shoulder. He was reading a comic book called "Batman Meets the Steroid Designated Hitter. A Tale of Two Bats." He was reading the pictures out loud and Paul was telling him to shut up so he could hear Hatchett. He, on the other hand, was telling Paul to turn down the sound because he couldn't read while his ears were hearing. Paul screwed a silencer on his gun and shot a hole in his partner's comic book. This ended the dispute.

Tough guys had a lot of ways to kill time.

I wasn't too shabby at it, either. I had a nagging peeve that everyone was charging too much money for everything. It was a common peeve in America. Since I wasn't any good at haggling prices lower, I made sure the price included some things the price-setter didn't know he was including.

For instance, the first thing I always did when checking into a motel room was turn on all the hot water faucets and leave them on until I checked out. Same with the air conditioner and all the lights. And the TV and the miniature coffee pot and the hair dryer. Anything that could be turned on without quarters. This made the nickels flow out of the price in a hurry. The utility spike for my occupancy would look like an earthquake reading on a seismograph.

Teresa never allowed me to do this. It was wasting resources and acting like a brat. When she was around, though, I never had to kill time.

Good old time. It had been getting killed for a pretty large amount of sun dial go-arounds. Where did it go after it was killed? To Hell, supposedly, so there could be agonizing days and hours of pain. The theologian geeks maintained time didn't exist in Heaven. Everything was just Now. I don't know. How could you look forward to having a beer if there was no time to look forward towards? This being dead business was very confusing to me. The only way I could make sense of it was to shrug and conclude that basically being alive was a dead-end and that afterwards things would be very different. So I'd just take the old procrastination approach and wait till I was dead to try and figure it out. By then, Teresa would have it figured out and she could just clue me in like she always did.

I called up Pizza Hut and ordered a Biggest We Have pizza with Everything They Had on it and gave them Paul's name and room number to deliver it to.

Then I called up the crisis hotline and told a very nice lady my name was Paul and I was in room 142 fondling a gun and contemplating suicide. I ended the call by banging my shoe on the table and groaning.

The pizza delivery guy showed up about a minute before the two squad cars. He was at the door arguing with Paul when two cops walked up with their guns drawn. The other two cops stayed by their car, hiding behind the tail lights in case this turned out to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

In the end, after a lot of confusion, the cops made Paul pay for the pizza, which they impounded for evidence. The delivery boy went away happy, Paul was happy he got to keep his gun, and the cops were happy because they hadn't had dinner yet. Judge Hatchett would have been proud.

I called Frisbee again, but she didn't answer. Maybe she was taking a shower with Moose. Showers in trailers were too small to fit two people unless they were having contorted sex. Which Moose probably liked.

I killed some more time, then called her again. Still no answer.

When she didn't answer the third time, I got an ominous little feeling like parents get when their kid isn't on the bus when it returns from a field trip to Quicksand Park.






Chapter Twenty-Two



For some reason, I got to thinking of Paul's partner like his name was probably Brickhead. Just a wild guess.

Anyway, Paul and Brickhead left their room right after the street lights came on. I followed them, but only with one hand on the wheel. The other was dialing over and over trying to connect up with Frisbee. I was beginning to be very worried about her. I'd called at least forty-six times, but she still hadn't answered. The best I could hope for was that her battery was dead and she'd forgot to bring her charger. About as likely as an honest President.

Brickhead was driving this time, instead of Paul. It was probably a night shift type of thing. Brickhead was a very lousy driver. He shouldn't have been behind the wheel. He drove like dads drive when they are turned around and shouting at their kids in the back seat. He ran over the curb on right turns, wandered in his lane, and didn't put the brakes on until they screeched to a sudden stop and threw your head forward into the windshield.

I called the Highway Patrol and gave them the license number of a bad driver. They said it was okay. It was the good drivers who caused all the accidents. Good drivers were always obeying the laws that were made to be broken, which in turn caused road rage and drive by shootings.

Brickhead parked in back of the Tweed's new home. You could see the lights on in Tweedland. They were obviously double-dipping on the residence zoning like they always did. Home and office, all in one.

The dentist parking lot was empty, so it was too obvious for me to park there. Two doors down was a church building. It was a secret what was in the church since it was all cement and no windows. The Congregation of United Reformed Recently Discovered Assyrian Albinos for Christ. More or less. The paint on the lettering was peeling like a four day old sunburn. I had to guess at ninety percent of the words.

I always wondered what gene disorder led people to scrounge out God in these offbeat sects. There was a subtitle to the church which was written in sanskrit or something that probably explained things. But the paint had peeled off all of it, and I couldn't read it even if I understood the sanskritian language.

Everything here was basically a mystery, which any good religion had to have. If you could understand it, it couldn't be God.

This parking lot was also empty, but I figured Paul and Brickhead would think it was normal for only one car to be parked in a church lot. And Reformed Assyrian Albinos always drove old pickup trucks. Even Brickhead would know that.

They walked up the stairs to the Tweed's front door and knocked. The door opened and they went inside. I could see the shadows on the curtain of people walking around. Then they all sat down and I couldn't see any more shadows.

Eleven minutes elapsed. Suddenly, a thirteen inch black and white TV crashed through the window and landed on the sidewalk, splattering TV guts all over the place. Margaret was not going to be happy about that. She thought black and white was more artistic than color. But you couldn't buy them anymore. Except in Russia. Too far away, even for Margaret, who had been far away her whole life.

An old guy was walking his dog and barely missed being squashed. I could hear him yell something at the smashed window above him. It sounded like "Hey! Watch where you're throwing things!"

The Tweed front door opened and Brickhead came out. Then another person, followed by Paul. When they had all reached the bottom of the stairs, I could see the other person wasn't Art Asshole Tweed.

It was his kid. Leonard.

I had kind of forgotten about Leonard while I was swamped with wanting to kill his dad and maybe throw in his mother also.

Crap.

It gave me a queasy feeling. Leaving a kid with no dad was a lousy thing to do. Even if the dad was a gigantic fucking asshole who deserved to be skewered with a sharpened telephone pole and thrown off a plane into a tank full of starving crocodiles.

Paul and Brickhead threw Leonard in the backseat of their car and drove him to their motel room. They were probably going to flush him down the toilet if Tweed didn't tell them where the photos, money, and Moose were. Which Tweed couldn't do since he didn't know shit from radishes about any of it.

A lot of lives were piling up on my conscience.

I called Frisbee. A weak voice came over the line. "Blue, help me."

Then the phone went dial tone.

I immediately abandoned tailing Paul and Brickhead and galloped Gordo to the trailer park as a best first guess where Frisbee might be. The Rolls was parked next to Frisbee's old trailer, meaning Moose was there, so I parked in a guest area and slithered through the dark till I was at the back of Frisbee's trailer.

Now that Moose was the primary resident, it wasn't as neat as Frisbee had used to keep it. To say the least. Moose had gotten sloppy with the pump out hose connection and some of the bowel debris was dripping on the ground. It was pretty stinky stuff. Not a place to linger over plans.

I started crawling along the side of the trailer opposite from the side with the door. I was looking for a crack in the accordion blinds so I could see inside. My knee walked onto a sharp little rock and made my teeth scream like a cherry pit in a pitted cherry getting rammed into a cavity at full chomping throttle.

The little bastard practically embedded in my knee. While I was rubbing away the pain and silently using some of my extended four letter word vocabulary, a pebble clunked off my right ear. Shit. This was the last time I was going to go slithering around in the dark alongside a fucking pebble pushing trailer.

Then another pebble clunked off my ear. I looked under the trailer and there was Frisbee. She was lying on her stomach, hiding there behind the double set of tires. She put a finger to her lips for me to shut the hell up if I was even thinking about saying anything.

I backed off enough to give her some room to crawl out of there. She slithered out using her elbows as feet, dragging her legs behind her. When she had half of herself out from under the trailer, I grabbed her by the armpits and pulled the rest of her out, falling over on my back in the process. She dragged free and drug over on top of me. There was blood all over her face and one eye was swollen closed. She laid her head on my chest and I put my arms around her and we took a few seconds to catch our breath.

Naturally, some turd walked by on his way to the trash can and had to give us his opinion. "Can't you guys do that crap in private?"

We got to our knees and crawled away from the trailer. As soon as we could stand up and walk, we did.

I drove Gordo out of the park and we headed for home.

"What the fuck happened?" I asked her.

"Fucking Moose."

"Are you okay?"

"Shit no! Do I look okay? Christ."

"Is he in the trailer?"

"Fuck yes."

She lowered the sun visor and examined herself in the little mirror clipped to the back side of it. Teresa had put it there. Naturally. She always liked to flip it down for a once over when we got in the car and once again before we got out. I had only used it once. To find out where a booger had lodged itself in my hair. It had stuck there instead of flying out the window where I'd flicked it to go. It was one of those sticky, gluey kind that could be very frustrating to flick. You had to be a nose picker flicker to understand. A lot of people weren't.

"Shit," she said, after surveying her damaged face. "That fucking Waldo sucking asshole eating bastard."

She started feeling around on her face and head, probing where all the damage was located and seeing if poking at it produced pain. The blood was coming from a cut just over her forehead, about an inch into her hairline.

She opened Gordo's glove compartment and fished around in there until she came out with an old Der Wienerschnitzel paper napkin that had been in there for about fifteen years. I was sure she didn't need to be acquainted with this peculiar tidbit of history, so I neglected to mention it. She used it to staunch the flow of the forehead wound.

"What happened?" I asked her again.

"Asshole beat the shit out of me. What does it look like?"

"Why?"

"Because I took the goddamned photographs."

"How did you get away?"

"He went to get the photographs back."

"Shit."

"Don't worry. I lied where they were. He's going to kill me if he finds me."

"Why didn't you take off on your bike?"

"Asshole stomped it to shit."

# # #

The house was a wreck.

"I take it you told Moose the photographs were here," I said, as we stood in the living room looking over the mess.

"I had to tell him something he would believe."

"Why did he tear everything up then?"

"I wouldn't tell him where they were in the house. He wouldn't believe me if I told him exactly where."

"You're a real expert Moose reader."

"Unfortunately."

"Do you think he found them?"

"No. They're not here."

"Where are they?"

"In the oven."

"Here?"

"No. There."

"You left them in the trailer oven?"

"Under a cookie sheet."

"That's clever. Why not just put them on the kitchen table and shine a light on them and paint a big arrow pointing at it?"

"Drop dead. It's safe. He puts everything in the microwave. He's never opened the oven door in his life. It takes too long to cook anything. Besides, he thinks they're here. Not there. I gotta clean up."

"We can do that later. You need an ice pack."

"I meant me. Not the house."

She threaded her way to the bathroom and slammed the door.

I needed a drink. It was impossible to ignore. Part of the subliminal conspiracy. Everything in the world was made up of subliminal dots. They all said the same thing. YOU NEED A DRINK.

I poured a Scotch into a coffee cup and sat on the edge of the sink. Moose had busted up all the kitchen chairs. The kitchen table was missing. Probably on the roof. I'd look for it in the morning.

Fucking Moose. What a nightmare numbskull. I pulled up my pant leg and looked at the little gun in my ankle holster. It had taken a while to build up calluses on my ankle so the holster wasn't turning my skin raw. I always wore it, even though all I'd ever done with it so far was point it and cock it a couple of times.

Frisbee came out of the bathroom and joined me in the kitchen. She'd cleaned off all the blood, but her eye was purple and puffy and shut to a slit. She handed me the Scotch bottle and bent her head down.

"There's a hole in my head. Pour some of this shit on it. It's in the movies. It'll sterilize the germs."

I moved her hair around carefully till I found the cut. It was about an inch long, but not too deep. I poured a little booze on it.

"Ouch. You don't have to pour so hard."

I gave it another little dose. Two shots. Down the drain. Fucking Moose. Scotch was expensive.

"Can't we use something useless like vinegar for this sterilizing crap?" I asked.

"We don't have any vinegar," she said.

She stood up and faced me. "How does it look?"

"Okay," I said. "It doesn't look too bad. How the hell did you get it?"

"Shithead threw me against the wall. Knocked me out. Damn near broke my neck."

She moved her head around, massaging her neck and making little groans.

"Pour me one of those," she said, waving her hand at the Scotch bottle.

"You want ice?"

"Fuck it. Make it raw."

"They call that neat."

"Call it whatever you want. Just pour it."

I found another coffee cup and poured it half-full. She took a good swallow and let out a tired sigh. She stared at me through one eye and said, "I'm getting sick of this crap, Blue. I'm getting beat up. I'm wearing phony society clothes. I'm hanging around with dipshit people. I'm turning into a boozer. When does it end?"

"We shouldn't stay here tonight."

"Why not?"

"Moose might come back. I've got a motel room. Let's go there."

"How far?"

"Just to Santa Rosa."

"Let me get change my clothes."

# # #

The room only had one queen bed.

Frisbee eyed it. "You planned this, didn't you."

"I swear. I didn't know I'd spend the night here. It was just to keep an eye on Paul and Brickhead."

"And Leonard."

"And Leonard."

Telling her about Leonard had made her forget her own hurts in a flash. Her own kid was about Leonard's age, maybe a year or two younger. She was ready to rumble. One good eye like a pirate on the bow, sword drawn, defiant in the wind.

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

"Get some ice."

"What for?"

"Your eye. It looks like shit."

I went to the ice machine and filled up the tiny bucket and carried it back to the room. I shook some of the cubes onto a hand towel from the bathroom. She laid on the bed and delicately placed it on her eye.

"God that hurts," she said. "Fucking Moose really did it to me this time."

"I feel like shooting his ears off."

"You can't."

"Why not?"

"He wouldn't look good anymore."

"What do you care?"

"You wouldn't understand. Besides, you don't have a gun."

I pulled up my pant leg and drew out my pistol. "Yes I do."

She laughed. "You call that a gun? Shit, I can't even see it."

It was hidden in my hand. I could barely see it myself. I held it up by the barrel. My fingers practically covered it.

She laughed again. "Stop it. You're hurting my eye. I got a water pistol bigger than that."

"Maybe so. But this shoots bullets, not water."

"God, my head is killing me. I need some Advil."

"All we got is Scotch."

I had brought the bottle with us. I went to the bathroom, unwrapped a plasic cup, and filled it with Scotch. I gave her the cup and kept the bottle for myself. Plastic cups made my teeth wince.

"Let me see that thing."

I gave her my pistol. She looked it over. "This thing really works?"

"Ask Hitler."

"He's dead."

"Exactamundo."

"No kidding? With one of these little toys? Shit."

She gave it back to me and I put it away. I walked around the bed and sat on the edge of it and picked up her free hand.

"What are you doing?"

"Holding your hand."

"What for?"

"To make you feel better."

"You're fucking weird, Blue."

She pulled her hand away and wrapped it around her cup of Scotch. I turned away from her and put my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands. For some reason, my eyeballs sprung a leak and ocean water dripped down my face. Some of it dropped off and landed on my shoes.

"What the fuck? Are you crying?"

I shook my head.

"Shit. Yes you are. Christ."

She put down her drink and pulled one of my arms off my head and held my hand. Shit. Now my nose sprung a leak and started sloffering. I felt the bed wiggle and then a hand on my back, rubbing around like you would burp a baby. Then she laid her head against the back of my shoulder.

"You really made a mess, didn't you, Blue."

"I sure as fuck did," I slobbered.

"We'll just have to clean it up, then."

"I wish I knew how."

"We'll figure it out."

"I'm no good at this shit, am I?"

"Nope. You stink at it. It could be worse, though."

"How's that?"

"You could be good at it."

I finally pushed a big sigh out of my lungs and stopped all the leaky plumbing. I wiped the snot off my nose and flung it on the floor. It was drooly snot, not globbed up snot, so it would dry and get invisible. Tomorrow the maids would vacuum and somebody new would rent the room and walk around on top of it not knowing anything about my snot being flung there getting stepped on by their shoes. Or bare feet, which would yike them out pretty good if they knew what they were walking on. I looked around at the carpet, wondering how many snots and stuff were spilled around that you couldn't see.

We sat there quietly for awhile. Her head felt nice on my shoulder. It reminded me of Teresa. Of the part of my life that was missing. Her hair falling all over me when she came up behind me and nestled her chin into my neck, pressing her cheek against mine. There was one tear left in me and it slid out of the corner of my eye and slipped down my cheek and came to a stop on my lip. I licked it inside and swallowed it.

Frisbee laid back down and smooshed the pillow around and then propped herself up with the smoosh and put the ice back on her eye and took a sip of her drink. I got up and went back to my armchair and drank right out of the bottle.

"You better get some sleep," I said. "I'll keep watch."

"Okay, boss. I am kind of tired."

She drained the rest of her drink and grimaced to keep it down. She didn't get under the covers. She hadn't brought any nighties and wouldn't wear them in front of me anyway. And she didn't want to get any smog on the sheets, of course.

"Blue."

"Yeah."

"If you get tired, it's okay if you lay down here."

"Sure. The chair's fine, though. Get some sleep."

She was snoring in five minutes. It was funny. Women were always absolutely sure they never snored. Just men snored. Not them. Of course, people couldn't ever hear themselves snore because they were asleep when they did it. So you could never prove to a woman she snored. Unless you used a tape recorder, which would get you killed if you tried.

Plus, women always thought men snored on purpose. Just to piss them off. Why any man would want to piss off a woman in bed was beyond me.

Men didn't mind a woman snoring, though. I didn't, at least. It was kind of cute and cuddly. More like a snorgle burbling between the rocks of a sleepy little stream in the mountains and you were the only one who could hear it. It made it sound like the woman was happy and at home and feeling totally safe even though you could see them without any makeup on.

I guess it was hard to imagine a man being a cute little stream, though. Maybe that was the problem. Men probably sounded more like a geyser blowing off underneath your picnic blanket and ruining a fine day in the sun.

I turned off all the lights and opened the curtains just enough to be able to see the room across the way. Paul and Brickhead's room. Its lights were still on.

I imagined myself going over there, knocking on the door, putting a bullet in Brickhead's forehead, tossing him aside like a rag doll, pumping six shots into Paul before he could get his gun extracted, and saving Leonard.

Unless Brickhead peeked out the window when I knocked, pulled out his gun, opened the door from a crouching position, and shot me in the guts.

Then it hit me.

I called up information and got the number for Tweed Typography. I dialed the number and Art answered the phone. I put my hand over my mouth and talked through my fingers.

"Da kid's in da room at da Tropicanda Moteld. Da numbder dis 142."

"Who is this?"

I hung up.

Twenty minutes later, two squad cars pulled up in front of room 142. The Tweeds pulled in behind the cops.. Two cops went to the door and stood on either side of it, guns drawn. One of them pounded on the door. "This is the police," he shouted. "Open the door."

"Don't shoot," somebody called out from inside the room. "I'm coming. I'm coming. Please don't shoot."

The door swung open.

"Outside!" one of the cops yelled. "On the ground. Face first."

He yanked on a guy's arm and pulled him out. The other cop pointed his gun at him. The guy laid down in a big fat hurry. The other cop pointed his gun into the room. "Everybody out! Hands in the air!" he yelled.

A girl came out. She was in her underwear. She had a pillow over her breasts. The cop yanked the pillow away, which I thought was a little tacky. "On the ground!" he yelled.

She laid down next to the guy. The cop looked around the room, then cautiously made his way inside. A few seconds later he called out, "All clear!"

He came back out. "Where's the kid?" he yelled at the guy on the ground.

"There's nobody but us. Just us. Nobody else."

The cops looked at each other. Tweed came running over from his car. He looked down at the guy and the girl.

"It's not them," he said.






Chapter Twenty-Three



"They must have left when I went to get you away from Moose."

Frisbee was pacing around the room. She'd slept through all the cops crap last night, which pissed her off. She also woke up lying next to me in bed.

It wasn't my fault. I was hanging off the side of the bed giving her plenty of room when I finally went to sleep. Some sort of sideways flesh magnet had moved her over next to me, though. And her eye was throbbing and giving her only a slit to glare with, which wasn't very intimidating.

She was not in a good mood.

"I'm hungry," she said. "I can't think straight when I'm hungry. My gut's too loud. Is there anything to eat in this place?"

"No. Maybe some doughnuts."

"I hate doughnuts."

So we checked out of the room and drove to an omelet joint on the other side of the freeway near the old train depot. It was the older part of town with old buildings that had been souped up to sell oddball stuff while you could look at the ceilings and see the exposed beams and pipes. Very avant garde atmosphere. The shops sold souvenirs, old clothes, weird paintings, old phonograph records, and antique furniture that people had tossed in the dump, not realizing how valuable junk could be to particular types of cultured show-offs with too much spending money.

Teresa always said I was just a grumpy yahoo. She tried to get me to knock off all the cynical remarks. They made it sound like I was intimidated by culture. Maybe even threatened by it. A redneck boob, in other words.

It just shows what love can do, though. I canned the grousing and actually got to like the area for just being strange. All because of her. Once I even put on some cultured duds especially for coming here for brunch. Some pants that had a crease down the middle of the pant leg. And a beige shirt made out of some kind of twilly material, with buttons down the front and a collar. The top even had lapels that folded open so my clavicle was exposed. Teresa liked my clavicle quite a bit. She used to rub her fingertips on it like it was a mink coat. She looked at it while we were eating like most guys would look at cleavage while they were eating. I still have the shirt. But I don't wear it anymore.

She's how I knew about the omelet place. We had Sunday brunch there quite a few times. They had a hundred and fifty different ways to cook an egg. And the champagne made me daring enough to try something other than ham and eggs with hash browns. Once I even tried out some Eggs Benedict, whoever he was. Probably a mobster. It was pretty good, I have to admit. In fact, I liked it so much that's all I ever ordered. I got into ruts just as fast as I got out of them. There was no way even Teresa could overcome my rut inclinations.

"There's no ham and eggs with hash browns on the menu," Frisbee said.

"It's down there at the bottom of the last page."

"The print's microscopic. I can't read it with my eye."

"They like to make omelets."

"I don't trust omelets. They fold the top over and glue it so you can't tell what's inside. Cooks are always picking stuff off the floor and hiding it inside the food. I like to see what I'm eating."

"Let's have Eggs Benedict, then. They're pretty good and nothing's hidden."

"I don't know. What are you having?"

"Eggs Benedict."

"Okay. I'll have some, too."

"You want champagne?"

"Sure. What's the occasion. The world's in the toilet today."

"It's National Toilet Day."

"Very funny. There's no such thing."

"I made it up."

"No kidding. I'd rather have a joint."

"You can't smoke in here."

"Everybody looks like Vogue Magazine," she said, looking around the room.

"Not us."

"That's for sure."

"How do you know anything about Vogue Magazine?"

"It's on the rack next to Cosmopolitan. I see it when I get the National Enquirer. Cosmo covers always have hot long haired blonds staring at you with clever cleavage. Vogue has brunettes in designer outfits with short hair stuck to their faces while they gaze mysteriously at something you can't see. Cosmo girls wear sandals and don't smoke. Vogue girls use long silver-tipped cigarette holders that don't stain their gloves."

"I never noticed."

"You're a Cosmo type. Your eyes don't see anything else if there's cleavage in the vicinity. That's why Enquirer has big headlines about bad shit. Tragedy's the only thing that can compete with cleavage."

"Death and sex. Just like booze."

"Not death. Dying. Death is boring. Dying is exciting. As long as it ain't you. That's why separations and adultery are so great. They got dying and sex all in one story."

"Frisbee, I didn't know you were so damn insightful."

"I told you. You're a Cosmo guy. You don't see me 'cause I don't wear clothes around my neck. If I did, you'd see me."

"Why don't you wear clothes around your neck then?"

"I don't want anyone seeing me. Get a clue. Do I look like a Vogue girl?"

"I guess not. Does that make you a Cosmo girl?"

"Shit no. I told you. I'm a National Enquirer girl."

The waitress took our order and poured two glasses of champagne. She gave me an angry look when she left. Everybody in the restaurant was giving me an angry look I suddenly realized.

"Fuck," I said. "They all think I spousal abused you."

She grinned. Then she laughed. People shook their heads and went back to their own food. We were obviously a sick couple locked into the cycle of abuse.

"I'm glad to see you're feeling better," I said.

"You look kind of cute when you squirm."

"Let's go sit outside. We can smoke out there."

They had patio tables out front on the sidewalk. We told the waitress to bring our eggs out there and we took our champagne and went outside.

We sat at a table and smoked and drank champagne and looked around. I don't know what Frisbee was looking at. I liked watching people get out of their cars. It was harder to do than it used to be. Especially if you were fat or had three kids under six years old.

When I grew up, longer and longer ago all the time, a whole family could pile into a car in five seconds flat. Four kids in the back seat and one in the front between mom and dad. Bench seats and roomy interiors. You could even have a kid or two on the floor back there if you had too many for the seat.

Now everything was squashed to economy-size, even Cadillacs and Lincolns. You had to wriggle yourself into all of them. And no kids could ride in the front. They had to be in the back buckled into car seats. Only three car seats would fit across the back seat. It took forty-five minutes to get the car seats locked in and the kids buckled into them. You had to have a strong back and muscled arms, too, to lift the kid and the seat into the car while ducking and leaning over.

If you had four kids, you had to buy a minivan or SUV to go anywhere. An outing to the beach took half the day just to get in the car, drive where you were going, find some place to park, and get everyone out of the car. Then you got to repeat the whole process when you packed up to go home. It was amazing people with kids ever went anywhere at all.

Mothers were weird people. They blandly took every pain in the ass life tossed at them and toughed it out like it was nothing to load up the kids at the crack of dawn and drive them to different schools for specific age groups and then come home and work like a dog around the house all day and then pick up all the kids in the afternoon and come home and whip up dinner. Unbelievable. Then the father would come home at night totally exhausted from lifting pencils all day. Except for fathers who worked for a living and had a right to be tired. But even they couldn't lift kids in and out of car seats all day and still do anything else.

"I'm glad I'm not a mother," I said. "It's too much work."

"Does that train depot go anywhere?" she said.

"Yeah."

"Where?"

"Nowhere."

"It's already there, then."

The eggs came and we ate them. Then we had another glass of champagne.

"How's your eye?" I asked.

"How's it look?"

"Puffy. Purple. Painful."

"Mr. Pea-brained Piss-head Poet."

"I got a problem, Frisbee."

"This is news?"

"I don't know if I can kill Tweed anymore."

"That doesn't sound like a problem. It sounds like somebody regaining his sanity."

"You can't regain something you never had in the first place."

"You got a point. Your brain ain't ever had a closet organizer."

"I've got to find Leonard."

"We don't know where the hell he is."

"I think I know. I've got to get the Rolls back first."

"What for?"

"Gordo's too well known."

"Who the fuck is Gordo?"

"My truck. Gordo Wheels."

"Jesus. What next? A name for your shoes?"

"They already have one."

"Like what?"

"Mr. and Mrs. Steps. Jane Steps and Joe Steps."

"Which one's which."

"The left one is Jane."

"You're making Moose sound like a Nobel Prize. So who knows Gordo? I can't believe I'm saying this."

"Leonard would recognize him. So would Tweed."

"I wouldn't mind getting my Rolls back, now that you mentioned it."

"You can't come. It's too dangerous."

"Wake up, Blue. Having Moose for a boyfriend is dangerous. Besides, I got no place to go. Moose's in the trailer, the house ain't safe, my bike's broke, my head's got cramps, and I hate motel rooms."

"You shouldn't come. You might get killed."

"I'm coming."

# # #

The Rolls was parked by the trailer.

"I told you," Frisbee said as we drove by it. "Moose hates roosters. He don't get up till he has to pee."

"How often does he pee?"

"Whenever he feels like it. Except in the morning."

I parked Gordo in an unused parking space of an abandoned mobile home. The kind of mobile that meant you could cut it in half and stick it on two trucks and paste it back together somewhere else. Nobody ever mobilized them. But theoretically, they could. People either died in them of old age or moved out to go live in jail or with a daughter. Either way, they weren't worth the hassle of moving them or selling them. Eventually, the park tore them down and fed them to the dumpster.

Frisbee waited in Gordo while I went to get the Rolls. I had a duplicate key to it. I tiptoed to Frisbee's trailer. Old Fred was sitting on the steps to his trailer talking to his dog. He saw me go by.

"Hey, Blue," he called out. "Where you been? Haven't seen you lately. Why are you tiptoeing?"

Shit. He had a deep, hoarse voice that made him growl too loud. You could hear him all over the place. Fortunately, he didn't have many front teeth, so you couldn't really know what he was saying. It sounded like, "Hay glue. Wear lube inn. Half an see mule ate leaf. Wire tulip owing."

Hopefully, Moose wasn't up peeing and didn't know how to speak Fred.

I waved at him.

I stopped at the front of the trailer next to Frisbee's and peeked around the propane tanks. The Rolls was backed into Frisbee's parking space, so the driver door was next to the trailer. Piss.

I tiptoed around the front of the car and put my key in the door lock. Just my luck. The lock was one of the extra loud locks that came with certain models of Rolls-Royce's like mine. When I turned the key, the lock made a very loud thunk.

I could hear the toilet flushing in the trailer.

I yanked open the car door.

The trailer door flew open and Moose made a dive at me. I ducked aside and his head plunked into the bottom of the door frame. He pushed himself up off the ground and sat with his back against the car, blocking the doorway. His forehead was bleeding. It looked like a serious owie.

He sat there grinning up at me, blood leaking down his nose. "Nice try, Blue. It's my car now. You can't have it back."

He had a point. I couldn't call the police. Then again, neither could he.

I kicked him in the foot. "Get out of the way, asshole."

"Make me, old man. C'mon, try it. I'd love to kick your ass."

I slammed the door against him. He pushed it away and flung himself up onto the car seat. He was rubbing his arm where the door had banged it. Then he locked his arm around the steering wheel so I couldn't pull him out.

He forgot to pull up his legs. I slammed the door on them. He howled and grabbed his shins. As he was bent over, I slammed the door on his head. He stuck his foot out so I couldn't slam the door on him anymore. He glared at me like a wounded beast.

"Get out of the car," I said.

"Fuck you."

He got to his feet and bared his teeth at me. There was blood on them. He was breathing heavily. He heaved me aside like a pair of pants headed for the laundry basket. I stumbled backward and fell over a patio chair, then rolled over and jumped to my feet. He stalked towards me. He had crossed the line from toying with me to stomping all over my face.

I backed up to lure him further from the car. Also, I was scared shitless. He picked up a flower pot and heaved it at me. I fended off the pot with my hands, but the dirt flew out of it and splattered my face and shirt. Some idiot had watered the plant and the dirt was mud. It stuck all over me.

I grabbed the hose and turned on the water. The nozzle had six settings. I pointed it at Moose and squeezed the trigger. It was set to mist. I threw it at him. He caught it and set it to fire hydrant and blasted me.

I backed up further, fending off the water. He was aiming at my eyes. It was hard to see and fend at the same time. Suddenly, I was up against the fence. I leaned against it, battling the hydrant. The fence was rotten. It collapsed. I was on my back. He honed in closer, fiendishly hosing me down.

I reached down and got my gun and pointed it at him. "Back off, bucko," I said.

It worked. He shut off the water and roared with laughter at me. "You ain't going to shoot. You don't have the nerve."

It unworked. He started hosing me again. I had no choice. I shot him in the thigh. Frisbee was going to be really pissed about this. But there was nothing else I could do. The guy was a bulldozer with no one driving.

Oops. My shot was off line and put a hole in his crotch. Lucky for him he was wearing low crotch jeans.

He dropped the hose and looked at his crotch in shock. He looked at me. "You fucking jerk. You tried to shoot off my dick. I'm going to kill you."

I should have bought the shotgun, like the guy suggested.

I rolled underneath the trailer. He got on his knees to come after me. I poked him in the eye. He jerked his head up from the pain and conked himself on the undercarriage. I bounced a rock off his nose. He conked himself again.

I rolled forward a couple of rolls and then back out the side, coming out so I was between him and the car. He was still half under the trailer. His butt was sticking out. I couldn't resist. I extracted my gun. Pop. Conk. Pop. Conk. He groaned and whoomped flat on the ground. He didn't move.

I ducked into the trailer and grabbed the photographs from under the cookie sheet in the oven, then jumped in the car and drove away. Fucker wouldn't be sitting on his ass for awhile, that was for sure.

I waved at Frisbee to follow me in Mr. Wheels. Fred called out as I drove by. "Ice eating stew a jamb loo. Humpbacks noon."

I drove to our house and parked the Rolls in the back. Frisbee pulled in behind me and parked Gordo next to the Rolls.

"What the shit happened to you?" she said when she saw me.

There was mud all over me and my clothes were soaked.

"Moose attacked me with a hose. I gotta change clothes."

"Oh my God. Is he all right?"

"Is he all right? Is he fucking all right! You're asking me if he's all right? Shit. What about me? Ask me if I'm all right."

"I can see you're okay. You're just all wet."

A big grin came over her. "You tricked him, didn't you?"

"Yeah. I tricked him."

She clapped her hands gleefully. "I knew you couldn't whip his ass."

I kicked a tire of the Rolls.

"Don't do that," she said. "You'll hurt Princess Diana."






Chapter Twenty-Four



The dark green sedan was parked in the driveway oval in front of the P. William Gourd estate.

"Nice cottage," Frisbee said as we peered through the front gate.

The house was lit up with floodlights and looked like a building you might see in Louisiana or Virginia with a lot of columns and a huge double front door that only a butler could open. Inside, of course, in a big round room, would be a statue with some famous last words on the pedestal.

They were probably building a statue of old Gourd in there right now. The famous last words would be: "He didn't screw everyone, but he tried. A giant among legal aliens. A man who devoted his life to scumming the bag."

If I was doing the inscribing, that is.

I had figured why Paul was involved. He had to be working for Gourd's wife. And before that, Gourd himself. He might even be an illegitimate son or something if Gourd was from Mississippi in his pre-historic past. Not that Mississippi was the birthplace of all the illegitimate sons born in America. But it was probably in the top ten. Maybe top five. Probably number one. I'd never been there.

When I'd met Paul at the trailer park dumpster, I'd noticed his garbage had a lot of cans of hydroquinone, sodium sulfite, potassium hydroxide, and benzotriazole. Which, as everybody knows, are used to develop photographs. The potassium hydroxide could also be used to burn somebody's face off if you used it in a heaving glass. Heaving glasses were usually disguised as champagne glasses and were quite popular in silent movies because they sounded better than a slap in the face which couldn't be heard.

So I had Paul pegged as the photographer who took the ten pictures Gourd had in his safe deposit boxes. I had read The Complete Sherlock Holmes as a teenager and had learned how to peg things. It wasn't that hard if you knew how to stroke your chin properly. It helped to have an idiot named Watson to be your constant companion. What was with those two, anyway? Did anybody ever ask?

Slade Bromide, as revealed by his picture, was too wimpy to bust any butt on his own. He had probably called Gourd's phone and whined to Mrs. Gourd about getting blackmailed twice. Mrs. Gourd probably didn't know anything about it. Guys like Gourd always married women who didn't know anything. It was in the prenuptial agreement, which the wife didn't know she had signed.

So there was the typical crying and hankie wringing scene in front of the fire place where Paul revealed to Mrs. Gourd all the skeletons in the closet. When Moose faxed the blackmail photo from Tweed's home to Slade, Paul finally knew old Gourd was probably dead, not missing. He also knew there was money that was missing, since he had handled all the original blackmail exchanges and knew blackmail usually involved money.

I take it back. Paul wouldn't tell Mrs. Gourd anything about anything. If he did, she wouldn't not know anything. It would screw everything up.

Frisbee yanked on the gate. "It's locked."

"Good observation."

"How we gonna get in?"

"I'm thinking."

"Leonard's probably dead by now. Think faster."

"We could rent a bulldozer, crash through the gate, smash into the house, run over Paul, Brickhead, Mrs. Gourd, the lawyer, the butler, the maid, and the crooked accountant. There's probably only thirty some rooms to run over to find Leonard."

"What if Brickhead just shot us in the head. Bulldozer's don't actually go too fast. He'd have plenty of time to cock his gun."

"Good observation," I said.

"I know!" she exulted. "We could set off the fire alarm. Everybody would run out of the house and we could sneak in behind the fire trucks."

"I don't see any fire alarms."

"Shit. You're right. Gates don't catch fire."

"Naked babes. That works every time. We hire some hookers to wave their skin around at the gate till Paul and Brickhead and the butler come out to take a peek. They'll have to open the gate to get their noses in the cleavage. Then we only got the maid and Mrs. Gourd to worry about. You can take care of them while I find Leonard."

Frisbee slapped me.

"You slapped me," I said. I was a little stunned.

"You deserved it."

"What for?"

"You take care of Mrs. Gourd and the maid. I'll find Leonard."

"That's why you slapped me?"

"No. Don't be a pig. Think of something else besides naked babes. You guys are all the same. Naked babes solves everything."

Well, not exactly everything. They didn't solve acne, for instance. But they did help make it more tolerable.

She turned away from me. "I thought you was different."

"Shit, Frisbee." I gave her a little rub on her arm. "That's the nicest thing you ever said to me. You're right. I'm sorry. It's my male genes. They slip out of the skeletons whenever I stick my head out of the closet."

"Okay. I forgive you."

"That's the second nicest thing you ever said to me."

"They probably killed Leonard while we're talking."

"Right. Okay. We rent a plane and sky dive onto the roof. Then we rope ourselves down to a window and crash through it."

"What if we miss the roof?" she said.

"Good point."

"We could get a blow torch and saw off the hinges."

"That would work. Good idea, Frizz. Then we'd be inside. Next step. A hundred yards to the front door over a lawn with no trees or bushes."

"I wish you had a bigger gun."

"Yeah. Me too. I wish I had a tank."

We sat down leaning our backs against the Gourd wall. It was some kind of brick type wall with vines on it that bugs loved to live in, bugging around like mad in their creepy little world, doing atrocious things to each other - swallowing, sliming, stinging, biting, constricting, poisoning. Ugh. Get a life, bug heads. I put my arms on my knees and sunk my head between them. Frisbee put her arm around my shoulders and gave them a squeeze. It reminded me of Mom. She always knew when to give me a squeeze. Good old Mom. Shit. I sure wished I was still her little boy and she knew the answers to everything.

"Blue," Frisbee said. "You can't quit now. They might be strangling Leonard in the basement. Think, you asshole. Think."

"Okay," I said. "Fuck. You better wait here in case things don't work out so good. Here. Take my wallet. I don't want any ID on me."

I got up and walked to the gate. Then I started shaking it back and forth as loud as I could shake, and screaming at the top of my cigarette infested lungs, where the bottom was already used up by black goo, so I had to really stress out the middle and top bronchioles to produce any loudness.

"Hey you fucking assholes! Open the goddamned gate or I'll tell all the neighbors what a bunch of fucking crooks and killers you are! I'm going to stand here all night yelling my guts out until you open this fucking gate. Do you hear me you assholes. Hey, neighbors, you're living next to some homicidal maniacs. They're killers. They steal children. They kill them. They eat them. Go ahead and arrest me. I have EVIDENCE."

The gate opened slowly.

I looked over at Frisbee. "Well, shit. That was easy."

# # #

Brickhead's qualifications to being Paul's partner were clear now. He was the crap beater-outer guy.

He liked to bone up on his mathematical skills while he worked.

Slug. "One black eye."

Slug. "Two black eyes."

Burnk. "One bloody nose."

Blap. "One split lip."

Whack. Whack. "Two puffed cheeks."

Crunk. Crunk. "Two bruised ribs."

Blooph. "One tummy-ache."

Clop. Clop. "Two ringing ears."

I made the mistake of being a wise-ass. "You missed my toes, Bluto."

He took off my shoes and stomped on my toes with my own petard. Thank God he couldn't count past two. Oops. Mistake.

"Round two," he said.

Slug. "One double black eye."

Slug. "Two double black eyes . . . ."

Somewhere during Round Four I had the good sense to pass out.

The room was dark when I woke up. I assumed it was the same room where Brickhead had started in on me. Just off the main room. Some kind of bedroom. There was a crack of light coming in under the door so I could see how blurry everything was now that I had acquired double vision.

Shit. I hadn't felt this bad since a previous lifetime when I'd been dragged behind a chariot through the cobblestone streets of Mykonos, Greece.

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. Something else woozed around in there when I did, so I left the cobwebs alone. Unclear would have to suffice.

Brickhead hadn't even asked me any questions yet. I had one for myself though. How was getting the shit killed out of me helping to rescue Leonard any better than standing out in the street in one piece? Either way, I was accomplishing nothing. One way, I was turning into meat grinder output.

I realized I had not thought things through very well. Too much adrenalin not enough Stratego. I hadn't thought out what to do after I got in the gate. Walking across the lawn to the front door I had decided that there wasn't much I could do but knock politely on the door and suggest reasonably that they let Leonard go free and lock me up instead. It seemed like a fair exchange. After all, I knew everything and Leonard knew squat. I wouldn't be stupid enough to mention that I knew everything, of course. It would come up when I bargained with them to see if they would refrain from blowing my head off.

I had put all my head stock into how I would conduct this bargaining situation. It would have to be quite clever if I wanted to go on living.

Unfortunately, Paul and Brickhead tossed my scenario right on its head as soon as they opened the door. Actually, it was only Brickhead who had opened the door. I didn't see Paul around anywhere. Before I could even say hello, Brickhead grabbed me by the shirt, yanked me into the house, threw me on the floor, kicked me across the room, dragged me into this bedroom, tied me up, and then began his beating the shit out of me routine.

I was tied to a kitchen type of chair. Or maybe one of those foyer chairs that nobody ever actually sat on. My hands were tied behind it. My ankles were tied to the legs. My thighs were tied to the seat. Brickhead had tied up all my loose ends pretty thoroughly.

He had used duct tape. Nobody used rope anymore. Tape cost less and you didn't need to know how to tie knots that wouldn't come loose during fierce wriggling. Tape could also be used for other things, like patching holes or sticking Kick Me signs on people's backs. Rope could only be used for clotheslines, which had all been outlawed unless you lived in poverty or on a Clover Stornetta billboard.

Fortunately, I was afflicted with an exotic fingernail disease that put vertical ridges in the nails and made them brittle. They were always chipping off here and there on the ends. Which left sharp little points on the ends that snagged on my clothes all the time. It also explained why my nose bled after a serious session of picking it. A dirty little secret I was embarrassed to even tell Teresa.

I wiggled my thumb under the tape and started sawing at it with a jag from the nail. The thumbnail jags were practically a lethal weapon since the nail was so thick and hard. I had learned to be very careful with my thumbs around soft things like skin that was on a girl.

I could hear voices walking around in the hallway outside the door.

"Who the fuck is this jerk?" It was Brickhead's voice.

"He looks familiar, but I can't quite place him," Paul said. "You might have thought to ask him before turning him into hamburger, you idiot."

"I needed the work out. Besides, they always end up talking faster when they know what's coming."

"It doesn't look like Tweed's going to respond. He must not give a shit about his kid. Weird."

"Should I go ahead and whack his little ass?"

"No. Let's wait till morning. I wonder if this jerk knows anything about it. What the fuck is he doing here? And who was that other guy? That crazy schmuck who wanted the Howdy Doody glasses. The one we gave the ten grand to? How many fuckng people are in on this?"

"What do we do with the old bag? Mrs. Gourd wants to go to the police."

"She'll do what I tell her to do. She's only got one son."

"You ain't really her son, though. You're a bastard, no offense."

"But I'm his real son. That's good enough."

"Let me check in on the unknown jerk."

The door opened. I faked like I was still out cold. The door closed.

"Pussy. I'll give him another hour."

"How's the kid?"

A door opened and closed. "Watching TV."

"I thought he was tied up," Paul said.

"He is. I let him watch a ball game."

"Well aren't you nice."

"What the fuck. I'm gonna whack him in the morning."

"It's your turn to take out the garbage," Paul said.

"I did it yesterday."

"No you didn't."

"Yes I did."

The voices trailed away, leaving me in suspense. Who's turn was it?

It looked like Paul had forgotten meeting me in the trailer park way back when. Not that his memory deficiencies would last forever.

I went back to sawing at my tape. Scritch. Scritch. Scritch. It was slow, hard work. Sweat rolled down my face and pulled up a seat in one of the splits on my lips that Brickhead had so thoughtfully produced. It stung like hell.

Finally, I could feel a slight tear at the edge of the tape. Unlike rope, duct tape had a weakness that made it vulnerable to scritching. If you got a little rip going, duct tape would tear on the dotted line. People always ripped off a piece that way. You didn't need scissors like with black electrical tape, which didn't tear. It stretched like bubble gum.

I abandoned the scritching and switched to straining my wrists apart, trying to get a good rip going. Straining was harder work than scritching, by far. It wore out your whole arm, not just your thumb. Finally, there was the beautiful, telltale sound of "Ip."

Not a full rip, just a leak in the dike rip. I took a deep breath and strained like mad. You had to hold your breath to strain, for some physics reason I hadn't learned.

"Rrr . . . iii . . . ppp!"

I was through. I unfolded my wrists and worked one of them free of the adhesive. It tore all the hair off my wrist, leaving a band of bare skin the size of a hippie girl's bracelet from the 1960's. The bracelets made of soothing copper which displayed the entire world's variety of flowers on them.

Getting the rest of the tape off was work, too. As usual, all the ends of the tape had hidden themselves so you had to feel around with the delicate touch of a safe cracker to find the end seam. Then you had to try and pinch up a corner with very fat fingers. It was hard to have the necessary patience when you were scared to death.

At last I was free of all the tape. I had carelessly balled it up as I went along and tossed it on the floor. I stood up and took a step toward the door. A big wad stuck on my shoe.

While I was getting it off, I could hear footsteps in the house. I looked around the room for a weapon. All I could see in a frantic glance was the chair I'd been tied to. I picked it up and held it over my head at the side of the door.

A very loud thud suddenly shook the floor. I heard footsteps coming down the hallway. I cracked open the door and peeked out.

"There you are," Frisbee said. "Christ! You look like shit."

She was standing in the hallway holding a shovel.

"Where's Paul?" I whispered. "Where's Brickhead?"

She held up the shovel proudly. "Brickhead's out by the dumpster. I whacked him on the head. Really hard. Gardener forgot to put away this shovel."

The suspense about whose turn it was to dump the trash was solved.

"How'd you get in?"

"I came in when you did. Obviously."

"Where's Paul?"

"On the floor by the front door. I smashed him in the face when he opened it."

"Thanks for coming sooner. I'd have missed the fun of getting pounded to smithereens."

"Somebody had to divert them. You did a good job, it looks like."

She held up her hands, which were holding two guns.

"Look what I got."






Chapter Twenty-Five



"How about a little smooch, cutie?" I said as we drove home.

Frisbee and I laughed as hysterically as our faces would allow. Hers was puffed and pummeled from Moose. Mine was black and blue from Brickhead. We looked like two people whose car had flown off a roller coaster and bounced on its head ninety-four times in the parking lot.

Leonard was in the trunk, blindfolded, so he couldn't tell Arthur Asshole Tweed who had rescued him. We had put paper bags over our heads when we blindfolded him, took him from the room, and then placed him in the trunk.

"I wonder what the Tweeds think is going on," Frisbee said.

"Yeah. Me too. They know there are important photos somebody wants badly. They probably know about missing money, too. They don't know about Gourd, Moose, or us. So it's just the photos and the money. And they don't know why somebody thinks they have them."

"Brain fry. They've spent a day and night not knowing where Leonard is and not able to turn over anything to free him, either."

"I'd say the Tweeds are having a bad hair year."

"Just like you wanted."

"Yeah. Just like I wanted."

What I wanted was Teresa. Making every day of my life a great place to be. Even if it was an extremely shitty day. Even if she was throwing plates at me and I was steamed as hell and threatening to wring her neck. Even then I wouldn't have traded anything in the world to not be with her.

"You're getting gloomy, Blue. I can see it. Your eyes are sinking."

"Teresa."

"You loved her quite a bit, didn't you."

"I sure do."

"Nobody ever loved me quite a bit. It must be nice."

"What about your ex-husband?"

"He wasn't my husband. He was a chicken shit."

"What about Moose?"

"Don't make me laugh."

She laughed anyway. "Fucking stupid Moose. What an asshole. I sure know how to find them."

"The swinging door to your heart is gonna open someday, Frisbo. And Mr. Right will walk right in, sit right down, and steal your heart away."

"You talk that kind of crap with Teresa?"

"She called it the malarkey on her tree."

"No wonder. Anybody tries to swing through my doors, I'll knee him in the nuts."

"You can't hide forever, Miss Toughie."

"Wanna bet?"

It was past midnight when we dropped Leonard off in front of Tweed Typography. I sat him down on the stairs and told him to wait. It was a ruse so Frisbee and I could drive away without him seeing our license number.

Before I left, I told him, "You and your parents better disappear fast. Those two guys will definitely be back."

We drove two blocks and made a U-turn. As we came back down Fourth Street and neared the Tweed Typography building, I pulled into the curb to watch the big reunion. I couldn't believe I was actually bringing joy to asshole Art.

There wasn't going to be a reunion, though. Leonard took off his blindfold and used his teeth to get the tape off his wrists. Instead of going up the stairs to mommy and daddy, he just walked away down the street.

Down Fourth Street, all the way to the Mall at the end. On B Street. He jaywalked across the intersection and a block later turned right on Third Street and walked under the freeway. When he came out the other side of the underpass, he crossed the street over to the freeway onramp which led south.

We pulled into a parking lot under the freeway, just across the road from the ramp. Leonard was holding out his thumb for a ride. There weren't many cars this time of night. Finally, some guy in an old El Dorado pulled over.

"Where you headed?" he said to Leonard.

"Anywhere but here," Leonard said.

"I'm going as far as San Francisco."

"That's a good enough start."

Leonard got in and they drove off.

Frisbee and I looked at each other.

"Shit," I said. "It looks like Leonard just ran away from home."

"That's what it looks like," Frisbee said.

"Why the fuck would he do that?"

"You never ran away from home?"

"Nope."

"I did."

"What for?"

"Duh. I didn't want to be there. What else?"

"He's only eighteen. What the fuck's he going to do?"

"Anything he wants. Join the fucking Army. Be a beach bum. Shit, Blue, are you so old you don't remember being young at all?"

"He's just walking out on his parents and not telling them anything about where he is or how he's doing?"

"Of course. That's the point. They're why he's leaving."

She gave the thumbs up sign. "Go get 'em, big guy."

I looked at her. "What if your kid ran away?"

"He don't have to. I don't breathe down his neck on his life."

"Tweed will think he's dead. They killed him."

"Better for Leonard. They won't have the cops out looking."

"Poor old fucking Tweed. Guess Leonard got tired of moving."

"Yeah. Funny, ain't it. Leonard's hurting him worse than you ever could."

"For now, maybe. Five years from now, though, it'll be different. He'll come home and patch things up and everybody will live happily ever after. Sorry. Tweed killed Teresa. I'm not forgetting that. Not by a long shot."

"Let's go home. I'm beat."

"We can't."

"Why?"

"Moose. He's on the war path."

# # #

Fucking stupid dangerous Moose.

I didn't confide my plans for him to Frisbee. They hadn't completely formed yet, anyway. I had to get rid of this guy, that's all I could think of. Maybe he should take a seat next to Gourd and Weasley in the desert. Frisbee was pissed at him now, but couldn't be trusted to remain that way. When it came to him, there was a black hole in her head that sucked all intelligent life from her solar system.

"That crazy asshole," she said. "I ain't got no clothes to wear. I feel all grungy. My hair's snarled up. My face looks like hell. Shit."

It was morning. We had checked into the Holiday Inn, at the edge of Sebastopol on the Gravenstein Highway. Two double beds.

"Your Moosesie. The guy's a fucking hazardous waste."

"You don't have to call him names."

Christ. Here we go.

I stood at the window grrring under my breath. I didn't say anything. It was better to just wait it out. The old eat shit and die trick.

I was in a very black mood. I felt old, tired, beat up, and seriously pissed off. Getting involved with Frisbee and Moose was crazy. What was I thinking! I was the lunatic, not Moose. Moose was just Waldo.

"If I hadn't gotten involved with you, none of this would have happened," she said. "Everything was fine till you started killing everybody."

I stood at the window and grrred under my breath.

"Now everything's fucked up. I'm screwed. Moose's screwed. The Tweeds are screwed. Everybody's screwed. Everybody but you, asshole."

I stood at the window and grrred under my breath. Bring it on, Frisbo. I looked out the window at the bright and cheery day. Fuck you, I said to it. Stick your cheery brightness up your cheery dark asshole.

"You got enough revenge yet? If Teresa was here, she'd dump your ass. She wouldn't be able to stand the sight of you."

And while you're at it cheery bright day, eat smog and choke.

"Fucking two-time murdering asshole. Where do you get off pissing on Moose?"

"I'm getting some coffee," I said.

"Fine. Get some fucking coffee."

"You want some?"

"Sure. Bring me some fucking coffee. That'll fix everything."

"You want milk or arsenic?"

"Fuck you."

She threw a pillow at me as I opened the door. It hit me in the back.

I walked down the hallway to the lobby and off into a room where you could get coffee and some of their "signature hot cinnamon rolls." Give me a break. Like the rolls were imported from an Austrian dough maker with a carefully guarded secret ingredient his family had protected for six hundred years.

It was one of those days where everything looked ugly and phony. Which was how things really were anyway, let's face it. We all learned how to make the world look like it was on the bright side, when in fact it was a dump. Stupid looking clothes. Cheap shit furniture. Pukey wall paper. Hideous curtains and bedspreads. Idiot hairdos. Makeup and paint slopped over everything. Insincerity dripping from every pore and mannerism. An honest person an extinct species. You couldn't even take a nice deep breath any more The whole frigging atmosphere was polluted scum. Some fucking bright side world, all right.

I had to wait while a middle age couple made a five act play out of pouring two coffees. Definitely bright sider types. Where do these people come from?

The he part of them was wearing a light blue hat which the manufacturer had pre-rumpled to look seafaring. His shirt was a lemon colored polo type that was pre-faded to look like forty rounds of golf in the hot sun. His shorts were ghastly knee-length khaki bloomers that made his legs look like a stork. White crew socks and white tennis shoes. Immaculately white. Not a sweat stain or grass stain or dirt scuff anywhere.

She wore a white blouse with big red polka dots and pink shorts with perfect pleats and a wide-brim straw hat that bumped into things when she turned her head. Bright red patent leather sandals.

"Caffeine or decaf, dear?" the guy asked.

"I think decaf today. I'm a little edgy away from home."

"Milk?"

"Of course, Phil. I always have milk. You know that."

"Just checking, dear. Sugar?"

"Not with decaf."

"Here you go."

"Could you get me one of those napkins?"

"Here you go."

"You forgot the little stirring straw."

"Here you go."

"You know, Phil. I'm not sure I want coffee today. Would you take mine?"

"I want the caffeine."

"Darn. I hate to waste this. But I really can't drink it. I think I'd prefer orange juice. Can you get rid of this somewhere."

"Sure, dear. Just set it down there while I pour my own."

"Don't forget my orange juice."

"You can pour it yourself, you know."

"There's no reason to snap at me, Phil."

"I'm not snapping."

"It sounded like snapping."

"It wasn't. Here. Here's your orange juice."

"You spilled some on the tablecloth. Hand me a napkin. I'll sop it up."

"You've got a napkin."

"That's for me. Not for sopping up."

"Excuse me," I said.

They turned around to notice I was there waiting.

I pushed between them and sopped up the orange juice with my shirttail. I took her decaf and heaved it in a trash can. I poured two coffees, added milk, put on the plastic lids, and grabbed two packets of sugar in case Frisbee liked it that way.

"Thanks," I said, as I walked away.

"How rude," she muttered.

A tall vase with long stem red roses sat in the middle of the table where the signature rolls were laid out to yummy your tummy with. I copped one of the roses and took it back to the room along with the two coffees. It couldn't hurt.

I had to knock on the door, since I hadn't brought the key card with me. Frisbee opened it and I handed her the rose. She looked at it, frowning. Then she gave it a sniff. Then she shook her head and frowned some more. Then she looked at me.

"You sonofabitch," she said.

# # #

Frisbee took the Rolls, or should we say Miss Princess, and went to the mall to buy some clothes and stuff. I was no idiot. I didn't ask her what "stuff" was. It would take all day to explain. I told her I was paying and asked her to pick me up a few things while she was loading up her stuff bag.

"Sure. Like what?"

"Eight T-shirts. 100% cotton. No logos or messages, no pink or yellow, extra large. Stripes are okay. But no checkerboards or polka dots."

"Extra large? You ain't that big. Yet."

"I don't like the shoulders to pinch after they shrink. It makes me look like some guy trying to show off muscles that don't exist."

"Why eight?"

"One for laundry day. Eight jockey shorts, white."

"Daring."

"Eight pairs of crew socks, white. Two pairs of Levi's. One blue, one black. Thirty-six waist, thirty-two length."

"Moose's thirty-two waist."

"I was too when I was his age. I'm actually thirty-five, but they don't carry that size."

"What else?"

"That's it."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"Meat and potatoes wardrobe. God, Blue, you are so boring. We're staying here awhile, ain't we?"

"Till we figure out what to do with Moose."

While she went to the mall, I took a long walk around town. The motel was on Gravenstein Highway a half mile before it split into two streets, one going west and one coming east. The road came back together on the other side of town.

I didn't go that way, though. I walked up Elphick Road into the apple orchards countryside, taking the long way around town. It was a three mile walk this way. But a lot more scenic and conducive to picking through brain debris for some form of intelligent life.

Elphick Road took me by the house where Teresa and I had lived in our halcyon years together. Elphick went uphill and turned into Watertrough Road at the top of the hill. Our old house was at the end of a short one lane gravel road off Watertrough, just below the top of the hill as it started to go downward from Elphick.

I walked down the gravel road, crunching along it with the missing footsteps of Teresa haunting along beside me. I hadn't been out here since we'd moved into the trailer. What a great spot to live. I couldn't imagine ever having a better one.

An old pickup, a Mazda, and a minivan were parked in the carport, reminding me that somebody else lived here now. I was just a guy on the street who would make them nervous if I stood here too long. .

Sigh. Double sigh. Life never stood still long enough to hold it. Relentless tomorrows becoming todays and turning into yesterdays, leaving you asking yourself, "Where did it all go? I was holding it in my hand just a second ago."

Till we meet again, TellingWays. I am lost without you. Till we meet again.

I waved good-bye to the house and walked back up Watertrough and west along Pleasant Hill Road. Out among the apple orchards again, row after row of them, making little apples and who gives a shit.

I was not the same guy any more. It was hard to believe I had once had wrestling wars with my conscience over killing Gourd. A lifetime ago. I didn't give a crawling asshole about it now. Good riddance and who cares? My eyes had been opened. Killing jerks was as natural as all of history. We were all brainwashed to think it was bad. That civilization would collapse. Right. Bad for business. Cops, lawyers, judges, wardens, and white collar thieves would all be out of work. Weasley? Sure, let him screw over five or ten or twenty people's lives every year for the next twenty years. Wring my hands. Eat Rolaids every time I thought of him. Do nothing. What right did he have to be a cruel jerk all his life? The right people gave him who didn't have the nerve to stop him. Hiding behind his law degree committing legalized atrocities at will. For the fun and profit of it. I didn't feel bad killing him. I felt pretty damn good about it. He wasn't helping society. He was perverting it. Good fucking riddance. I didn't fear hell any more. I didn't fear karma, either.

No, I was not the same guy any more. I had finally wised up.

Paul and Brickhead would be coming for me. And Moose. All of them with one relentless quest in mind wasting my bony ass. And how was I dealing with this threat to my humanity? Holed up in a motel room with Frisbee the Flake who was off on a shopping spree to take care of the horrors of grungy clothes.

Shit. What a fucking mess.

Wait a minute! I'm a fucking multi-millionaire. I kept forgetting it. What the hell am I messing around with all this happy horseshit for? Get on a plane and get the fuck out of here. Get my ass in the wind. Heave this mess in the dumpster. Go back to Iowa and sit in the mud. Squeeze it between my toes. Drink beer and throw twigs. Out of this horseshit California. Back where you could fall down drunk on Main Street and nobody gave a crap. Back where PC meant Public Crapper. Back where nobody cared what you wore or how long you lived or what spoon you ate it with. Back where my cap gun was still in the weeds where I'd lost it some forty years ago . Back where I belonged. Back to my roots.

Back to the future.

Shit. Who was I kidding. I hated it back there. I was a multi-millionaire, though. I could get on a plane and get out of here.

Yeah. That's what I would do. That's exactly what I would do.







Chapter Twenty-Six



A day that started with everything looking ugly and phony had somehow been rinsed out so everything was memory lane where the magnolias grew along the street and the snow had melted and spring was in the air. Making one stinking decision and suddenly it was bright sidersville. Who could take life seriously? Walter Cronkite, I guess. But he was retired.

Next stop: Splitsville.

I had just come to the end of the long walk along Pleasant Hill Road and emerged from the orchard land at the back edge of town. I was standing on the corner of Bodega Avenue where it left Sebastopol, became Bodega Highway, and meandered off through the hills and trees toward Bodega Bay and the coast.

To the right was the cemetery, where I'd recruited Frisbee to be my partner. Across the street and down it a bit was Ragel Ranch Park, where I'd sprung my Babble Software idea on Tweed during the Apple Blossom Fair almost twenty years ago. To the left was an old cowboy bar where I'd gone to feel out of place and drown in the lonely suds after Teresa died. Behind me was what I'd left behind. An old Joni Mitchell song. Circle Game. "We can't return, we can only look, behind from where we came."

I cut through the cemetery, past all the tombs and skeletons and forgotten lives summed up by a beginning and ending date, and wiggled through the small back streets of town, up and over the hill back to Main Street, and walked back to the motel.

Frisbee was prancing with glee when I got back to our room. Clothes and stuff were spilled over her bed like Queen Elizabeth had cleaned out her closets. She was taking this Princess Diana stuff seriously. Over on my bed were two polite little stacks of cotton threads. Not a polyester particle to be seen.

"God, this is fun," she squealed. She whirled around showing off one her new skirts, one of those wraparound handkerchief kinds she was so fond of.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"Nice. Beige. Short."

"How about this one?"

"Nice, too. Red. Very short."

"Aren't they cute? And this one?"

"Wow. Very nice. Green. Short don't describe it."

I turned on the TV while she modeled all her new clothes. Some were actually pants or shirts. Several pairs of shoes, of course. All the clothes basically fit into three distinct categories. Short. Tight. Short and tight.

I looked through my T-shirts. She'd done pretty well. Good even. Maybe as far as nice.

"Thanks," I said, holding one up. "Good job. I'm impressed. This color's kind of neat. What is it?"

"Kiwi pulp green."

"Right. Of course. One of those birds with dud wings that they grind up for hamburger in Australia. I didn't know they had green innards."

"Kiwi fruit. It's green inside."

"Oh. Right. And this color. What's it?"

"Kiwi fuzz brown."

"Some related thing like green and red apples?"

"No. The outside of the fruit that's green on the inside. And they don't grind up those little birds for hamburger."

"Fucking Australians. What is this? Some kind of national holiday over there?"

"New Zealand."

"Even worse."

"Shit," she panicked. "I forgot to get hangars."

"Oh, no! It's nuclear war. Let's jump under the bed and pray."

"Very funny."

"It was?"

"No."

I turned off the TV. Time to begin the end. "Let's get out of here. I feel like a drive to the coast. Bodega Bay. You want to come? We can have an early dinner. We need to talk."

"The coast? It's all salty out there."

"So what."

"It's bad for your cholesterol."

"Breathe through your nose. The stuff in there filters it out."

"You're lying."

"So what. I want to buy an official Bodega Bay jacket."

"You're going to buy a jacket?"

"Absolutely."

"I'd better come then."

# # #

The salt air was always a lungful of pleasure to me, cholesterol or not.

Frisbee and I were sitting in The Sandpiper restaurant, finishing dinner. I had my new lightweight jacket on. White-ish with a blue Bodega Harbor logo on the front. Fairly dapper, in my opinion. Frisbee had picked it out. I would have, given the time. I just got caught up for awhile over in the hurricane weather rain gear. That shit was amazing. There was one that had fifty-six little pockets and was supposedly harpoon proof. Some salt head's yarn, if you ask me.

Frisbee had fish. I had a burger. She had salad. I had fries. She had water. I had a beer. Three, in fact.

I didn't trust fish. People were always choking to death on the bones when they ate at restaurants where nobody knew how to Heimlich. Hamburger never had bones. There might be an old shoe lace or a chef's finger in the grind, but never sharp sinister little bones that always swallowed horizontally and got lodged half way down.

Teresa said my fear of fish was a lot of hog wash. Frisbee said it was a lot of bullshit. Semantics. They were both wrong. It was Fear of Fish, plain and simple.

It was still light out and the boatsmen were unboating in the harbor, calling it a day from fishing around out there in the salt. Embedding their hooks in the roofs of little fish mouths, yanking them up in there but good, dragging the fish heads out of the water and then clubbing the poor sonofabitches to death on the deck. Grisly, inhumane, brutally cruel work. What's wrong with a net and some instant poison?

"If salt air is bad for cholesterol," I remarked to Frisbee, "then how come you never see fat boat guys?"

"This is a nice place," Frisbee said. "I've never been here before."

"Teresa and I used to come here."

"Naturally. Every place you've been, you were with her. You couldn't find a place on your own."

"Was that a fleck of jealousy flicking?"

"In your dreams."

"I've never been to Rhode Island. Neither did Teresa. We could go there. A brand new place that I'd never been with Teresa to."

"Who said anything about we? Why don't you go?"

"What fun would that be?"

"Broaden up, Blue. You can't keep following Teresa's memories around all your life. You're going to have to get your own now."

"I went to the Cayman Islands."

"You didn't take me. Thanks a whole bunch."

"I would now."

"Gee. I'm all knocked out."

A lady came out of the kitchen and stood by the cash register. She looked familiar. Right. The lady who owned this place. Teresa would know her name, but I couldn't remember it. I gave her a little wave when she glanced our way.

She puzzled up a bit. Who's that guy? Where do I know him from? Then she smiled and came over.

"How's the food?" she asked.

"Great," Frisbee said.

Sheila. That was it. "Hi Sheila. This is Frisbee."

I turned to Frisbee. "Sheila owns this restaurant."

"No kidding," Frisbee said. "Nice to meet you, Sheila. You got a great place here."

"Thanks," Sheila said. She looked at me with a strange smile. "Did you know that your face is really bruised?" She looked at Frisbee, too, but didn't include her.

"Yeah. I noticed. Guy beat hell out of me. Have to watch my mouth, I guess."

"My fucking boy friend," Frisbee said, pointing at her own bruised face. "It wasn't Blue. He ain't my boy friend. We just live together. My boy friend's Moose. He's the one who clubbed me."

"I see," Sheila said.

She didn't believe either one of us. Nobody believed you when you told the truth. We small talked around and Sheila left. Frisbee couldn't wait to grill me.

"You were cheating on Teresa, weren't you."

"Jeez. Hold on, Frizz. I only met Sheila when I came here with Teresa."

"I don't believe you. My antennas are twitching."

I imagined two little feelers peeking out of her head with little eyes on the ends, scouting around the room. It made me laugh.

"What's so funny?"

"I saw your antennas. They were naked as a jaybird."

"See. Sex is the first thing she plants in your evil little brain."

"Whatever you say, Frisbo."

"You stinking bastard. How could you?"

"I didn't. I told you. I hardly know the woman."

"Men."

I changed the subject. Here we go. "I guess we ought to talk about our living arrangement. Now that the Tweeds are gone. What do you think?"

"I wish I was back in my trailer and you were back in yours."

"You'd want me around?"

"Don't let it go to your head. I've gotten kind of used to you, that's all. Besides, if you're there, Moose can't move in next door to me. Or somebody even worse. I can live with you around. It's tolerable."

"I'm really touched. I don't think I could be around Moose anymore, though. Not only is he a dangerous lunatic, but he's a dangerous lunatic."

"Yeah. I'm kind of bummed out about him myself."

"You could go to a different trailer park."

"I suppose so."

"Or buy another house."

"Do we have to talk about this right now? I ain't ready to decide. We can stay at the motel for awhile, can't we?"

"Or go our separate ways."

Thud.

"You want to get rid of me, don't you?" she said.

"Actually, Frisbee, no. I don't. I like being around you. It's been pretty lonely since Teresa died. But . . . ."

"Well, I have to say one thing, Blue. I sure don't have to put on any airs around you. It's kind of comfortable. I never had a brother, you know. You ever have a sister?"

"Two."

"Where are they?"

"Off having families. One's in Alaska. One's in Germany. They both married Air Force guys."

"You ever see them?"

"Just at funerals and weddings."

"That's sad."

"Not really."

"Why?"

"They don't like me."

"I can understand that."

"I'm sure you can."

I paid the check and we walked out on one of the docks. The boats were all pretty old and beat up. Fishermen were like farmers. They didn't care how they looked.

"You could live on a boat," I said.

It was a romantic kind of idea to me, anyway. Always had been. I didn't know anything about boats, though. Supposedly, there were barnacles and crud that overpopulated on the bottoms and had to be scraped off all the time. Plus, you could get too drunk and fall overboard and drown. That's about all I knew. Some had motors. Some had sails.

"There's too much boat language I'd have to learn," Frisbee said. "All the salt, too. I couldn't stand it."

"There sure are a lot of boats."

"Somebody's got to bring home the bacon. It don't just flop into the frying pan."

I started to say something, but while I was looking around at the boats I saw a guy walking down a dock. Actually, two guys. They went aboard a really old boat. The boat was so old and beat up it seemed like a miracle it could still float.

Frisbee was looking the other way. She didn't see them.

One guy was Moose.

The guy behind him was Brickhead.






Chapter Twenty-Seven



The dock was the creaky kind that groaned and sighed while the water Hula-Hooped around its wooden legs. Maybe all docks did. Like I said, I wasn't much of a boat guy.

The creakiness was good and bad. Good because it hid the sounds of Frisbee and I sneaking down it. Bad because we had to stop after a few feet while Frisbee coped with seasickness. Reefer heads had this problem, but boozers like myself didn't. We were used to watery stuff sloshing around inside all the time.

After depositing most of the fish she'd had for dinner back into the sea from whence it came, slightly altered by chewing and digestive juices, she seemed to be okay.

We snuck on.

After a brief argument on shore, we had decided that crouching made for better sneaking than standing upright while sneaking. Crawling was probably the best way to sneak, but we both had old knees that didn't like to be used as feet anymore and Frisbee didn't want to chip the paint off her toenails if they dragged over a splinter.

"You wouldn't have that problem if you wore sneakers," I'd told her.

"Ugh. Sneakers start stinking the second you put them on. Your skin starts gagging for breath and sweating. No way."

So, we crouched our way down the dock. There were five boats tied up to it, inside little boat driveways with walkways along the sides where you could tie up your boat and walk to the dock. The boat with Brickhead and Moose was the one in the middle, the third one. The name on the side of it was Boat from the Blue. These fisher fuckers were fanciful.

All around us lights twinkled in the houses that were staying up late tonight. I couldn't help wondering how many domestic disputes were raging behind all the twinkles. You could never be sure because everyone knew how to comb their hair and put on a smile if you knocked on the door to visit. Nowadays, you didn't even have to comb your hair. Morning seaweed was a legitimate hair style.

Good old domestic disputes. They had quite a history. In the confederate south, hunkered in the old plantations, domestic disputes all had large vitriolic vocabularies with old fashioned English terms like mendacity that had razor sharp edges that could slice up your face over a drink that had an orange slice skewered on the rim of the glass. In the cowboy states, there were just brief punch arounds where everyone fell over the kitchen furniture and rolled out the front door into a cactus and then laughed on the ground while blood oozed through their teeth and cactus stickers stuck in their butts. In the eastern states, the disputes were carried on in separate bedrooms with maids and butlers passing nasty notes from one disputer to the other. In the great Midwest, people had their disputes over yawns during the ten o'clock news when the kids were in bed and the disputes ended when the first disputer fell asleep over a bowl of ice cream. In the great Northwest, people disputed by ignoring each other for several long painful lifetimes while they stared out the window at the dark, lonely rain that never stopped coming down.

If you watched TV, of course, you would never know how popular domestic disputes were. The Cleavers never had them. Neither did the Nelsons or the Waltons. The Bunkers treaded dangerously close, but the whole family was too dumb to get beyond Groucho Marx eyebrows. Even now, when TV family environments consisted of dysfunctional idiots who lived in apartments and made everyone laugh uproariously every time they concocted a phrase, domestic disputes never got further than a ten second smirk down.

But out there in the twinkling real world, the domestic disputes were going on. I was convinced of it.

Not here among the boats, though. These were boats where everyone went home at night. Fisher guys never worked at night and wives weren't allowed on the boats to domestically dispute with, anyway.

We reached our destination at the third boat and sat down on the edge of the dock to gather our courage, from whence ever courage was gathered from. The house lights were twinkling on the water and I had a brief distraction wondering if the fish down there were having any domestic disputes tonight. Nibbling away at each other. An occasional fin in the eye or a brutal tail whack.

Frisbee restructured my focus by hauling out one of the guns she'd stolen from Paul and Brickhead. I had the other. I pulled it out. They were fairly big pieces. And they had silencers. Very superb. I loved the way they sounded when you shot them. Sploink! Without them, it was Prraackkowwrring! Which always produced twinkled lights in homes.

Using dialogue we had learned in Navy Seal movies, we released the safeties, then locked and loaded so we were cocked and ready to rock.

Then we kind of sat there.

It was too dark to see what Frisbee was thinking. Maybe she wasn't. Hard to tell. It would be like her to leave me with all the thinking to do. So I thunk around a bit and thought up that Waldo Moose wasn't worth getting killed over. Especially since I wanted to kill him myself and he wanted to kill me. Maybe I could slip a note under the door. "Please call when you have killed Moose. Then we'll come and kill you. Fair enough?"

Frisbee dug me in the ribs with an elbow and pointed at the second boat. She snuck over to it and went aboard. I followed her.

We snuck across the deck and into a room with large windows on each side and a big wheel with spokes sticking off all around it in front of a dashboard type thing with lots of dials on it. The driver's room, obviously. The big windows were a little disappointing. It was easier to be dangerous when you were peeking out port holes. This felt more like we should have a glass of wine and break out some crackers and cheese. Excuse me. Water wafers and brie. Tasteless, unsalted crackers and goopy cheese. Oat Queasing.

We crouched by the window, which was kind enough to have a little two foot wall at the bottom to crouch behind, and ogled over the edge at the third boat. Light shined through the port hole down around the water line. There were two port holes, actually. The light shined out from the other one, too. I couldn't see anybody in either hole. Just some bunk beds in one and a toilet in the other.

"What are we doing here?" I whispered to Frisbee.

She whispered back. "I thought we should see if Brickhead might stare out a port hole. Then we could just shoot him in the face."

Anything that avoided the inevitable was fine with me. I lit a cigarette and imagined it was the last smoke I'd ever have. Dead man smoking. I wondered if they let you smoke in heaven. You could in hell, obviously.

I watched Frisbee. She didn't smoke. It must be tough killing time if you were a nonsmoker. You had to scratch yourself here and there or straighten your clothes or drum your fingers. Or get impatient.

"We can't crouch here all night," she said. "I'll cover the port holes. You break in the front door."

"Real fair," I said.

"You're the boy, asshole. Get boying."

"Brickhead doesn't know you, though. You could get in easier without getting shot. Plus, you're a girl. You've got boy distracters. He'd be tempted to think you were just his lucky night. You could maneuver him around the room until he was in line with a port hole so I could shoot him."

"I knew you were gutless."

"I went into Gourd's place first. Besides, he's your Moose, not mine."

"Fine. Have it your way."

She gave me her gun, then poofed her hair around and walked over to the Brickhead walkway and down to his boat door. I could see her knock on the door. She was only about five feet away from me. The door creaked when it opened. Then it closed and I couldn't hear anything but muffled voices.

I couldn't see anything, either. I moved out of the driver's room and crouched by the wall along the deck of the boat, so I wouldn't have to shoot through two sets of windows. I still couldn't see anything moving around in the port holes.

Then Frisbee appeared in a port hole. She was talking to someone. While she was talking, she leaned one of her eyes out the port hole at me. The big eyeball. A little obvious, if you asked me. I knew she couldn't see me, so it was probably just a signal that she wasn't dead yet and was in the process of maneuvering Brickhead into a port hole window so I could shoot him.

She backed up out of view. Then a nose appeared from the other side of the port hole. It stayed there for a second and then backed up out of view. Then Frisbee's nose appeared and left. Then the other one again. Then her. Then it. Again. The old ring around the nosey deal.

It would be a dicey shot, about five feet across the walkway to the port hole. No sense being heroic. I climbed over the edge of the deck and out onto Brickhead's walkway and snuck over to the port hole with all the dancing noses in it. I got right up next to it, about six inches away from the glass. I aimed carefully and waited for the appropriate nose to appear. When it did, I squeezed the trigger.

Sploink!

I ran up to the door and pushed it open. It was a pull it open door. I peeled my face off it and pulled it open and jumped into the room, my gun extracted and ready for more sploinking. Brickhead was lying on the floor on his stomach. Frisbee was standing over him with a frying pan. Blood was gushing out his nose.

Where his nose used to be, that is. It was long gone now. Flat face city.

# # #

"Good shooting," Frisbee said.

"Good plunking," I said.

After my gunshot had removed Brickhead's nose, he staggered around looking for it and cussing up an X rated streak. Some of the streak had scandalized my ears on the way through the doorway. He found a nostril over behind a leg of the pot bellied stove. When he bent down to retrieve it, Frisbee had flattened him with a two-handed blow from the frying pan.

He was bleeding all over the floor. The blood was burbling out of his nose cavity like a heartbeat. Blurp. Blurp. Blurp. Et cetera.

Anyway, it was making a mess. I dragged him across the room by his feet over to the bathroom and stuck his face into the toilet so the blood would go down the sewer. He was knocked out cold.

Frisbee was untying Moose. Which I wished she wasn't. He was tied up to the bunk bed. If we just drilled a hole in the boat and walked away, life would be a lot simpler.

"Oh, Moosesie. Are you all right?" she cooed.

Gag me. My finger itched on the trigger. A good sploinking was just what Moose needed.

He sat on the edge of the bunk bed, rubbing his wrists to get his circulation improved. Making faces like a bull does before stampeding at you. She was lolled around his neck, kissing his fucking ear and stroking his fuzzy head.

Gag me. Frisbee's black hole was open wide and ravenously sucking down her sanity. It was ugly to watch. Fawning all over a complete asshole who had just finished beating the shit out of her and nearly getting all of us killed. I had one of those feelings like I was on the wrong planet or something.

He shrugged her off like a strand of spaghetti. She fell backward and conked her head against the wall. That's it. I've had it.

"Hey, you stupid fucking moron. She just saved your worthless ass. Get on your knees and say thank you."

He looked over at me. I was pointing the gun at him. He sneered at me. Wrong choice. I walked over and clopped him across the face with the gun. A forehand stroke. Not too hard. Just to get his attention.

His head snapped sideways and he yowled. I grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him off the bed and shoved him into the stove. He bounced off it and landed on his hands and knees. When he looked up, I gave him a backhand stroke. He sat back against the stove, drooling blood.

"Say thanks," I said.

"Thanks," he spit.

"Thanks what?" I said.

He looked at me. Clueless. He shrugged. "Thanks, sir."

Hopeless. Utterly hopeless retard scrap of humanity. No one home in the lighthouse. Dead CPU. Empty gas tank. You name it. It was missing.

I looked at Frisbee. She was up and rubbing the back of her head.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Don't hurt him, Blue. He's just a boy."

"I ain't no boy, you bitch."

Christ. They'd be humping on the floor any minute now.

"Shut up. Both of you," I said. "Just shut up."

I sat down on a chair. Frisbee sat on the bed. Moose sat on the floor. The waves lapped at the boat. The room was filled with the silence of three brains sinking in quicksand.

What to do with Brickhead? What to do with Moose?

Brickhead had now seen all three of us. And seen us together. We were an item. An item that involved Gourd and his money. If we left him alive, he'd keep looking for us till he found us. Again. He had to go. There was no other way.

On cue, there was a groan from the bathroom. I got the rope Brickhead had used to tie up Moose and took it to the bathroom. Brickhead had pulled his face out of the toilet and was sitting on the floor, leaning back against the wall. Blood still oozed from his face.

He was a mess. His face wasn't totally flat, like it first looked like. The tip of the nose was gone, but shreds of the rest of it were still there. The blood oozed out of the hole in the middle of the shreds. It looked like the ragged edges of the top of a volcano after an eruption.

His eyes were fluttering around trying to focus. I pulled him off the wall and onto his stomach and tied his hands behind him. He wiggled trying to resist, so I clubbed him on the side of his head with the gun. He let out a droopy sigh and went back to dreamland.

I hauled him up and stuck his face back in the toilet. Maybe, if I farted around long enough trying to decide what to do with him, he would just bleed out on the crapper and I could shrug it off with an "Oops."

There was a table in the main room with two booths. I sat down in one of the booths. Frisbee was over mopping the blood off her Moosesie. I could see their life together. The domestic dispute lights would be twinkling in their windows every night. Sooner or later, one of them would die or one of them would escape. She was both ones. It wasn't much of a future. For her.

I was tired of both of them, I suddenly realized. Even Frisbee. Tarzan and Jane. If I was smart, I'd sploink them both and walk out of here a free man. Mob hit. Fuhgeddaboudit.

I was a wimp killer, though. I couldn't do it point blank. I had to leave the scene of the accident while the victim was still alive and could be saved by a miracle. Good odds. I didn't have to see them die. Disgusting. No balls. Chicken shit, white collar bad guy. Barf.

"What are we going to do?" Frisbee asked. She was sitting on the floor next to Moose.

"What are you doing here, Moose?" I asked.

"He brought me, asshole. What does it look like."

"How'd he find you?"

"They came to the trailer park. Looking for you. We're all getting fucked because of you."

"Why'd he bring you here?"

"They knew you'd be here. Having dinner."

"How'd they know that?"

"I told them."

"How did you know?"

"Frisbee told me. She tells me everything, cocksucker. Get a clue."

I looked at Frisbee. She wouldn't look back at me. How much else had she told him. Fuck. What an idiot I was. What a blithering, knackered, bloody fucking idiot.

"Don't kill us, Blue," she said, looking at her lap. "We won't tell anybody."

"Maybe," Moose laughed.

"Shut up," Frisbee said. She finally looked up at me. "I only told him about dinner. I wanted him to be jealous."

Moose snorted. "Jealous? Of him? Get serious. Fucking old man. That's a laugh, Frisbee. A real fucking laugh."

"I'm sorry," Frisbee said.

It was probably stupid, but I believed her. It sounded too true.

"Why don't you two just get out of here. Go away."

"What about Brickhead?" Frisbee said.

"I don't know. I'll figure something out."

"Are you going to kill him?"

"Sure. Why not. Who cares."

"Don't do it, Blue. He ain't worth it."

"Don't worry," Moose said. "He don't have the balls."

I looked at Frisbee. "Get him out of here before I put a slug in his stupid fucking head. Get a motel room or something."

She got up and helped Moose to his feet. He pushed her away. They walked to the door. Moose opened it and left. Frisbee turned back to me.

"I didn't tell Moose anything, Blue. I swear it."

"Right."

She left.

I lit a cigarette and looked down at the table top. Decisions were always lying around on table tops. You just had to look to find them. Sometimes they were in grease spots, sometimes in scratches. Coffee cup rings were a popular place for them since the ring was a dark circle. Dark circles stood for life chasing its tail around endlessly in the clueless zone.

There was one on the table top. I looked inside it where the answers would be. A tiny little bug of some kind was standing there poking its head around. Every now and then it would move forward a couple of legfuls. Then it moved back a legful. After about ten legfuls, it reached the dark circle edge. It stuck a feeler down to feel around in the dark. Indecision wracked its abdomen. Finally, it scurried back to the middle of the circle.

The answer snickered over me. If you got to the edge, take the leap. If you stayed in the circle, there was only one thing that could happen.

I pushed my finger down on the bug and its abdomen popped open with a little cracking sound and bug innards squished out on the table top. I left them there as a warning to the next person who sat down here for decisions.

I picked up the gun and went to the bathroom. Brickhead was still cooped up on the floor, his head wedged over the toilet. His nose blood had coagulated to a dripping faucet level. Plop. Tick, tick, tick. Plop. Tick, tick, tick. Plop.

Sorry, Brickhead. You're ticking days are over. I cocked the gun and stuck it up against the back of his head.

Moose suddenly flew into the room and staggered across the floor trying to get his balance. I stepped out of the bathroom doorway. Frisbee walked into the room.

Behind her was Paul, with a gun to her head.






Chapter Twenty-Eight



Paul sat on a chair in the middle of the room, his legs crossed, a gun in his lap.

Frisbee, Moose, and I were sitting on the floor, our backs against the wall, our hands tied in front of us with the rope Brickhead had used on Moose. Our legs were tied individually and to each other. Same with the hands. We were pulled together like a bundle of twigs.

It wasn't particularly comfortable. At least Frisbee was in the middle so I was rubbing shoulders with her and not Moose. The pressure of being wedged together made her blouse poof outward in the middle. I could see down in there. So could Moose. She had on one of those side holster bras with a strap across the bottom that pooshed out most of her breast meat toward the middle for cleavage effect.

Frisbee kept turning her head back and forth to me and him, trying to catch us ogling the view. Giving us the look. The way we were tied, though, pulled us inward so our heads were practically forced to stare down in there. There was nothing we could do. She was pissed. She had some cute freckles in there, I couldn't help but notice.

Paul had lit up a cigar. A big fat, smoke-gushing one, unfortunately. It was stinking up the room pretty bad.

"Do you have to smoke that awful thing?" Frisbee said. "Isn't tying us up like sardines enough to charge your batteries?"

Paul smiled and took a big puff and blew it at us.

"Way to go, Frisbee," I whispered out of the side of my mouth. "Why don't you ask him if he knows how to use that gun while you're at it."

"Screw you," she said.

"Screw me?" Paul said. "That's not very nice. Or is it?"

"In your dreams," Frisbee retorted. "I was talking to this creep on my right," she said. "But as long as we're discussing it, screw you too."

I rolled my eyes. Moose started laughing.

Paul got up and came over and stuck the barrel of his gun down Frisbee's blouse. He rubbed it against the side of each breast. "Nice tomatoes," he said.

"Fuck you, pervert," she said.

There was a groan from the bathroom. Paul walked over and looked in. He reached over and grabbed Brickhead's ear and yanked up his head for a look. "Jesus," he said. "What a fucking mess."

He dropped the head back down into the toilet and put two sploinks into Brickhead like he was spraying weed shoots in a crack on the sidewalk.

He came back to his chair, turned it around, and straddled it, the gun in one hand, the cigar in the other. He looked at the cigar, gauging its remaining smokeability like it was the hourglass of our lives burning down to the butt before he stubbed it out.

"Where's the money?" he asked.

"What money?" Moose said.

"Gourd's money. The money you stole from his safe deposit box. After you killed him. He was my dad, by the way."

"Shit," Frisbee said.

"It wasn't me," Moose said.

Everybody looked at me. Paul took a drag on the cigar and smiled.

"So," he said, looking at me, "where's the money?"

"Why should I tell you? You're going to kill us anyway."

"There's killing and there's killing. Know what I mean? See, the money ain't going to be any good to you anymore. You can't take it with you, right? All you can do with it now is buy some choice in how you die. How long you suffer. You tell me where it is, I pop you quick and painless. You don't tell me, I torture your asses for the next week."

"Tell him!" Moose whined.

"Fuck him," Frisbee said. "Don't tell him squat, Blue."

We looked at each other. Frisbee smiled proudly. I gave her a little bonk with my forehead against hers. She had her moments, I had to admit.

"Okay Paul," I said, "let's dicker."

"You ain't got no dick to dicker with."

"Maybe. Let's suppose I tell you."

"No suppose to it. You'll tell me. One way or the other, you'll tell me."

"Humor me, amoeba brain."

"That's telling him, Blue," Frisbee said. "Damn, I love your vocabulary."

We forehead bonked again. Maybe dying wasn't all bad, after all. Besides, I'm coming to join you, Teresa. I'm coming. Get my seat warm. Break out the Corona and Cuervos. It's party time.

Frisbee didn't have no Teresa to look forward to, though. I felt lousy for her. Moose? Fuck him. But her? Shit, I had to get her out of this alive. I wished I was over in the booth so I could study the table top.

Paul sploinked a hole in the wall just above my head. Then he flicked a cigar ash on the floor. Time was burning out.

"Here's the deal, Paul. I'm going to tell you where the money is and you're going to give us a slim chance to survive. After all, once you have the money, what do you care about us? I can't do anything to you without getting myself arrested for killing Gourd. Besides, it's your money anyway, now that your dad's gone. You're safe. We can't touch you."

"You could try to kill me for it."

"Get real. You're the killer. Not us. We're just nincompoop citizens."

"You killed my dad. I'm a little pissed about that, by the way."

"No you're not. He was an asshole."

"I hate to say it, but you're right. I hated the bastard. But you killed him and you might try to kill me."

"No thanks. Killing you wouldn't get us any of the money back. And none of us really hate you or anything. Right, guys?"

"Right," Frisbee and Moose said. Frisbee added, "I can't say I like you, but I don't hate you. Not yet. If you kill me, though, I'll hate you good. I'll haunt your ass forever. But if you don't, I'll just be glad you're gone. I guarantee I'd never want to see you again."

Paul took a drag on his cigar and mulled us over.

"I don't trust him," he said, pointing his cigar at Moose.

"Well, you can kill him then," I said. "He don't matter to us."

"Fuck you," Moose yelled.

"Blue! Don't say that about Moosesie."

"Don't call me Moosesie, damn it."

"Shut up you two," Paul said.

"Paul," I said. "Don't worry about him. He couldn't tie his shoes if you did it for him."

"I got ten thousand out of you," Moose crowed at Paul.

"Yeah," Frisbee said. "He whipped your ass."

"Look," I said. "You want the money or not? You can't possibly be worried about Moose. Or Frisbee. Or me. You're a tough guy. We're not."

"I'm listening," Paul said. "Where's the money?"

"It's in my wallet."

"Very funny."

"I'm not kidding. It's in my wallet in my left front pocket. It's a safe deposit key."

Paul came over and dug into my pocket. He had clumsy hands and while he was digging around in there he was bumping against my stuff. It was pretty queasy. At least I hope he was just clumsy. It felt even queasier thinking the other thing he might be doing in there.

He fished out the key and looked at it. Then he sat back down. It was the key to the safe deposit in Cotati. Where I'd put the first million dollars. I'd never got around to taking it out. I'd almost forgotten about it, to tell you the truth. That's how crazy my life had become that I could forget about a million dollars. I hoped Teresa was getting a bang out of all this. It sure wasn't anything like our life had been.

"Where's the key go?"

"In a keyhole, dumbo," Frisbee said.

I gave Frisbee a look. A please shut up type of look. She smirked at me. She was one crazy lady. Even if she got us killed, though, I couldn't hold it against her. She had a lot of weird balls for a nutcase girl.

"I'll tell you where it goes when we agree to a plan. There's a million dollars in that safe deposit box."

I was praying he didn't know about the other nine boxes. Or the other nine million. I was counting on Gourd to be a secretive shithole to him about it.

"There better be," he said.

"Well, I spent a little bit of it. Not much. Ten thousand. Maybe twenty. I can't remember."

"What's your plan, Mr. Blue fuck?"

Everybody looked at me. I winked at Frisbee. She smiled.

"Okay. We're all tied up, right?"

"Right."

"So we can't get away, right?"

"Right."

"In fact, if you just left us here, we might even starve to death."

Paul smiled. "Right."

"Or maybe by some miracle we'd free ourselves and go home. A slim, slim chance that would make us happy with hope for a few days. Even if you tied us so tight it was impossible to escape. We could at least die trying."

Paul frowned. "Right."

"So here's my idea. You take that gun and Brickhead's gun and throw them overboard into the ocean. Then you can't shoot us. We'll have to trust that you won't strangle us, but if you try, we'll bite you. Won't we guys?"

"Damn straight," Frisbee said.

"Yeah," Moose said, drawing it out like he was dying to sink his teeth in.

It was Moose I was counting on to protect us. I don't think Paul trusted that Moose didn't have rabies. I was hoping it wasn't worth the risk for him to take a chance. Moose would bite him, he had to be sure of that.

"After you toss the guns overboard," I said, "I'll tell you where the bank is."

Paul got up and paced around the room. He stopped by the table top and looked down at it. It was a nervous moment. Suddenly, he bent down close and looked at the table top very intently. "Jesus," he said, "some asshole squashed a bug right on the table and left it. Fuck, what kind of slob would do that? You can't eat here anymore."

He shook his head in disgust. Maybe it was reminding him of Moose's fangs ripping into his arm and spreading bug rabies into his blood stream.

He resumed pacing. He stopped at the bathroom door and looked down at Brickhead for a few moments. Then he put two more sploinks into him and came and stood over us.

"I'll think about it. The banks don't open till tomorrow morning. I'm getting some shut-eye. Don't go anywhere," he laughed.

"Just for curiosity," I said, "how did you know to come to the trailer park and follow me around?"

"We didn't. We just followed a lot of guys. You, Tweed, a dame in San Bruno, a guy in Pleasanton. Anybody who had an axe to grind with dad. Most of them were in jail, so it narrowed the scope quite a bit."

"Why didn't the cops check up on me?"

He laughed. "They don't think dad's dead. They think he's in Portugal with a sweet young honey."

"Why would they think that?"

"I got connecs, dope. Through dad."

He walked to the bunk bed and laid down on the bottom bunk. Five minutes later, he stuck his head up and looked at me.

"Where's my dad?"

"He sleeps with the fishes."

"Good idea," he murmured, and laid back down to sleep.

# # #

I felt bad for Frisbee.

It was a long night with two guys scrunched up against her and breathing down her blouse. If we weren't tied up, maybe she wouldn't have minded it so much. But we were and she did. I couldn't blame her. It was one of those things which was not fun for girls but would have been fun as hell for a boy in the same situation.

She had a nice shoulder for being kind of bony. She was laying her head over against Moose's head, so her neck was stretched out for me to push the side of my face against it and give myself a nice pillow.

The floor got pretty hard on my butt, though. It was one time it would have been nice to be a really big ass fat guy who had some very sensible cushions on tap at all times. Instead, I had to keep inching the flab around to keep my butt bone from killing me.

Boys butts were about their only parts that women ever admitted giving the ogle to. I tried to see what they saw and maybe get an idea of what a good looking boy butt looked like. There wasn't a whole lot else to do during the night except think about dumb things like butts. Once or twice, I'd studied guy's asses when I was killing time on a park bench or maybe a bar stool. Carefully, of course.

Most guys seemed to either have flat butts or big old wad butts. There were some exceptions. I guessed that the exceptions must be what a good turn on butt looked like. It was hard to judge a turn on butt when butts didn't turn you on, though. Well, boys butts, anyway. I obviously felt differently about girls' butts. Still, it seemed that a hot boy's butt was about the same as a hot girl's breasts or butt. Round and firm. Size really didn't matter so much as round and firm. God's most perfect eye-appealing molds.

I almost got to wondering if guy's ever got silicone implants in their butts to make them look rounder and firmer. Probably not. You had to sit on the damn things, so turning them into rocks wouldn't be an acceptable choice.

A lot of weird ass things could occur to you if you couldn't sleep much and were tied up all night next to a girl and you couldn't get your hands on her.

Hands were kind of underrated as hot looking body parts, in my opinion. You could tell a lot about somebody by looking at their hands. You could cover up the whole rest of their body and only see their hands and you could tell pretty much what they were going to look like when you actually saw them. Whether they were neat or slobby, rich or poor, lazy or energetic, soft or hard, fat or thin, weak or strong, old or young, prissy or cool, you name it, it was all there in the knuckles and fingers and palms.

The only thing you couldn't tell about hands by looking was how they felt when they were rubbing around on you. The way a hand felt then told you more about love than all the smooching in the world. In my opinion, that is, which was dinosauric supposedly. Good old dinosaurs. The big old reptile heads got laughed at for everything. Maybe they hadn't gone extinct. Maybe they just got tired of being laughed at and the whole species curled up under a giant redwood and died of sadness..

At any rate, it was dark as hell all night and seemed forever till the sun came up. Maybe for the last time.

Frisbee, Moose, and I were awake before Paul. I whispered Frisbee into getting Moose to join the idea of the three of us doing a wave like movement back and forth to get some circulation happening. It was kind of fun. Like you would want to break out into singing "Twenty bottles of beer on the wall."

Then Paul woke up and said, "What the fuck are you guys doing?"

So we knocked it off and watched Paul rise and shine.

He sat up with his legs dangling off the bed and went through some yawning and stretching stuff. Then he rubbed his hands through his hair. Over his hair, actually, since it was short. And scratched around on it, spewing dandruff molecules into the air where his cigar smoke had been last night before it drifted around and eventually glued itself to all the walls and furniture and Frisbee's clothes.

Finally, he got up and went around looking in the cupboards. They were all empty. He slammed all the doors to indicate his displeasure.

"Shit," he finally said, after finding all the cupboards were bare.

Then he walked over and sat down on the bench and started drumming his fingers on the table top. All of a sudden, he jumped up and looked in horror at his hand and then wiped it furiously on his pant leg.

"Yuck," he said. "Goddamit! Fucking slobs!"

He walked back to the bed and fetched Brickhead's gun from under the pillow where he'd put it before going to sleep. He'd already tossed overboard the two I had. Now he had a gun in each hand.

"Okay," he said. "I'm going to throw these overboard and you're going to tell me where the bank is. Right?"

"Right," I said.

"Okay. You got a deal. If the money's where you say it is, I won't be coming back and you're on your own. If you're lying, I come back with a chainsaw."

"Fair enough," I said.

He walked over to one of the port holes and opened it. He tossed one gun out, then hesitated. "What the hell," he said.

He walked over to the bathroom and put three more sploinks into Brickhead. "So long, Sylvester, I never liked you anyway, you fucking dickhead."

Sylvester? Sheesh.

He went back to the port hole and tossed the last gun out, then walked over and looked down at me.

"Where's the bank?"

"Cotati."

"Which bank?"

"There's only one."

"Who's the box registered to?"

"Me. Blue Monona."

"You better not be fucking with me."

"I'm not. It's there."

"Okay. You better hope I don't come back. You saw the movie. A chainsaw ain't a pretty thing."

"What movie?" Frisbee asked.

Paul looked at her. "Dumb fucking uncultured broad."

He went to the bed and tore the pillow case up until he had three pieces that would fit in each of our mouths. He stuffed them in. Then he ran a rope around our wrists and legs so we couldn't move our arms up or down. They were pinned to our legs and we couldn't stand up, either. He surveyed his handiwork, nodded approval, and left.

Frisbee glared at me. "Mmmph mmmph," she said.

"Mmmph, mmm mmmph mmph," I responded.

The door flew open and Paul stood there holding an axe. He was grinning. "Just kidding," he said. "Fooled you, huh?"

It's not like I was totally surprised that he had figured out a hole in my plan where he could kill us some other way than strangling. I knew there was a big risk in trusting a homicidal maniac to keep his word. But I'd figured it was the only chance we had, so why not give it a shot.

Still, I was very disappointed in him.

A huge round of mmmmpphhing broke out among the three of us. Paul just stood there grinning. He cocked a hand behind one of his ears and grinned even more, motioning at us to mmmppphhh a little louder, like he couldn't quite hear us. It was a pretty tawdry attempt at humor, in my opinion.

Finally, he walked to the center of the room and started hacking away at the floor with the axe. It was a wood floor of some kind. I'd never learned much about trees other than climbing them and occasionally falling out of them, so I didn't know what kind of wood he was hacking his way through.

Eventually, he got a nice big hole chopped open. Big enough to step down into and do some more axing. He was working like a lumberjack on speed. Really enjoying himself. The wood hacking noise suddenly changed to a metal thonking noise. It wasn't a comforting sound.

Finally, the thonk sound turned into a thonkgawoosh sound. Paul stepped up out of the hole in the floor and stood there looking down at his work. There was a loud gurgling sound coming up out of the hole.

Paul looked at us. "So long, suckers," he said. "You should have brought your swimming trunks."






Chapter Twenty-Nine



Trouble in River City was no understatement.

The water was bubbling up through the hole in the floor before any of us had so much as mmmpphhhed. We were sinking fast.

Quickly, I elbowed my face into Frisbee's so we were nose to nose, mouth full of pillow case rags to mouth full of pillow case rags. We started smooching around like crazy, rubbing the rags back and forth trying to dislodge them. I was smooching around anyway. Frisbee was trying to get away from me like I'd gone mad. After a particularly glaring glare from me and a pithy mmpphh, she finally got the point and mooched into the fray with a frenzy.

It wasn't working. I moved my nose down and used it like a crowbar to dig at the rag in her mouth. She rolled her eyes up like she couldn't stand to watch what I was doing in her mouth with my tobacco infested nostrils. It was about as personal as two people would ever want to get, I guess. But hey, what's a little gross behavior when the only alternative is drowning your guts out.

Whatever. I nosed and nosed in there like mad. Finally, I got my whole nose into the side of her mouth and started nudging out the rag, bit by bit. It was slow work. Her saliva was getting into my nostrils and cutting off my air. I had to take four breathe breaks before the rag finally slid all the way out and her mouth was free.

"That is the most disgusting thing that ever happened to me," she queased. "Why do you always come up with solutions that are disgusting?"

She started spitting and pittooing in case there were any of my nostril contents stuck on her tongue. I could see she was going to overdo the spew cleaning for about six hours, so I interrupted her and shoved my rag into her mouth and motioned for her to take a bite and pull it out. She backed her head off a couple of times, not reading my motioning correctly. Finally, she got what I meant.

"Oh, God," she muttered.

She chewed hold of the rag and we gawked back and forth like a couple of geese heads beaking it up on the shore line while she pulled the rag out bite by bite. There was only a little nibble left at the end and our lips found themselves touching. We looked into each other's eyes. I winked. She yanked out the nibble with a fury and spit it off of her.

"Don't ever try this again," she warned. "And don't ever mention this to anyone. You hear me, asshole?"

"My nose feels all horny," I teased.

"You're sick," she said.

Back to the business of not drowning to death. "We've got to lean down to our knees and get our teeth on that fucking rope," I said. "We've got to get it loose so we can stand up. Otherwise, we're going to drown right here on our butts."

She looked at the water spreading out across the floor. "Got it," she said.

We left the rag in Moose's mouth. Nothing he ever said was worth a shit anyway. Even Frisbee could see that. And we didn't have time.

We leaned forward and down as far as the three of us would go. Not enough. I was too pot bellied to get my head down to my knees any more. I could do it a long time ago, I remembered. Not now. Another example of the disheartening side effects of living too damned long and getting stuck in a fat, wrinkled, old container.

"Fuck," I said. "I'm too fat."

"I'm not," she said. "I can get there. You and Moose slide around to the back of my shoulders so I'm squeezed to the front."

We did as she said. It was a smart idea. When we leaned over this time, she got far enough down so she could get her teeth onto the rope knot. Paul had tied it kind of carelessly. It had some looseness to it.

Frisbee went to work gnawing and pulling at it. As she moved her jaw around, Moose and I flopped this way and that on her back like a couple of knapsack heads. We exchanged a few eyeball daggers during the process. The water was halfway up our legs. Frisbee would drown chewing in a matter of minutes.

"Go, Frisbee," I said. "C'mon girl. You can do it. Hurry."

Just as the water started pooling over our legs she reared back up with the rope in her mouth. We were free.

"You did it!" I said.

"That was the worst breakfast I ever fucking ate," she said. "Yuck. That fucking rope had salt and fish guts all over it."

She sounded a little funny. Then I saw why. Her bottom teeth weren't there. They'd popped out when she yanked the rope free.

She suddenly noticed this interesting tidbit herself. "Oh holy fucking crap," she moaned. "Where's my goddamned teeth?"

We looked around for them. They were lying between my legs. Underwater.

"We gotta get up," I said.

"I'll lose my teeth if you stand," she said.

She plunged her head into the water and tried to grab onto her teeth. I could feel her jaw working around between legs. My thighs, actually. Shit. Mr. Unmentionable started creeping down my pant leg.

She came up gasping for breath. Without the teeth. She looked at me. "I felt that," she said. "You did that on purpose."

"Did what?"

"You know what, asshole."

I shrugged. "I couldn't help it. Your jaw was sliding around on my leg. It's just an automatic thing. Honest. I don't run the show down there."

"Bullshit."

"C'mon," I said. "Let's get up."

Moose had nothing to say so far. A whole lot of angry mmmpphhing, though. Especially when Frisbee was digging around with her face between my legs. I could see his eyeballs blowing geysers over that one.

We pulled up our feet and braced ourselves against the wall and started inching ourselves upward, back by butt by feet. Somehow, without any previous training, the three of us instinctively knew how to perform this rarely attempted pressure based lever and fulcrum maneuver which produced a geek commodity called torque. Or maybe not. It was probably whatever they called it when a worm humpbacked along the ground, sliming his feetless butt forward, which pushed his feetless guts upward and allowed his feetless head to slime forward a couple of millimeters as he roared across the earth at .000000000000000000001 miles per hour. Whoops. Excuse me. Kilometers per hour. Worms were on the metric system, for some reason. Something the Mayflower brought over, I guess.

We were on our feet, backs against the wall.

"Now what?" Frisbee said.

I looked down at our hands. All three sets were dangling in front of her lap, right down there inches from you know where land.

"Don't get no fucking ideas with any of those fat fucking fingers," she said, following my gaze down to her lap.

I noticed she didn't give the same exhortation to Moose. Fat fingers weren't all the same, obviously.

"Jesus, Frisbee. Is that all you ever think about?"

"Me? You're the one with the boner."

Moose wriggled around furiously, almost knocking us over.

"Stop it!" Frisbee yelled at him. "Cease this fucking minute you moron!"

He tried to wrench our hands up to his face to pull out his rag. We resisted. He couldn't overpower us. The rag stayed.

The water was up to our knees.

"We have to chew off the rope," I said.

"Your teeth this time," she said.

We pulled our hands up to my mouth and I went to work. My wisdom teeth had been pried out years ago, so they were no help. Why they were called wisdom teeth when they never lasted long enough to get out of high school had always puzzled me. Whatever. My molars weren't any help, either. One was gone, the other three were capped. All of the capped ones were sensitive to pressure and temperature. I could barely grind a steak to shreds or eat an ice cream cone with them.

So it was up to my premolar, canine, and incisor teeth to do the job. Fortunately, my canines lived up to their name. They had nice little points to them. Not vampire pointed. Cutely round tipped pointed. They didn't snag upon extraction. I used them to pry into the knot and the other teeth to yank at it. Pry, yank. Pry, yank. It was slow work. Almost as slow as scritching.

The water was up to our waists.

"Get a move on it, Blue," Frisbee said. "We're drowning here."

The water was up to our chests when I finally tore the knot loose. Our hands were free. Of each other. They were still tied together per each, though. I'd only gotten the three-in-one rope untied. We were only three-in-one tied together now by our feet.

Moose immediately yanked out his rag. The peace was finally shattered. Before he could speak out his ass-face, though, Frisbee stifled him. Good thinking, Frisbo. "Stuff it, Moose. Not a fucking word. Untie my hands."

It was going to be two against one now, I could see that. Tarzan and Jane. Vine swinging it up and down the playground of their black hole paradise. My hands would be the last to be set free, if at all. I decided to get our legs free in the meantime. Nobody was going anywhere as a six-legged onesome.

I took a deep breath and bent down under the water and undid the all three of us rope. It took three dunkings for old tobacco lungs to get the job done. Now we were finally individually free of each other, even though all our feet were individually still tied up. They had their hands free, though. I didn't.

The water was up to our necks. Mine and Moose's anyway. It was up to Frisbee's nose. I had a brief wondering whether it was more accurate to say we were drowning or the boat was sinking. Very brief.

Moose ducked underwater to untie his feet.

"I'm getting out of here," Frisbee said. "Screw my feet."

"What about my hands?" I said.

"Shit," she said. "You're gonna get me killed."

The water rose up over her head before she got me untied and she had to hold herself up by wrapping her legs around my neck. It was kind of an interesting moment, as you might imagine, even though I was now officially drowning. The water was over my head and Frisbee was holding me down. Here I come, Teresa. Catch me when I fall. I know I'm biting the big one with my face in another woman's personal hygiene area, but it doesn't mean anything to me, I swear it.

Then suddenly I was free. Free hands. Free of Frisbee. I launched up out of the water gasping for air.

"Thanks, Frizz," I choked.

"I'm out of here," she said.

For some reason, Moose was still dunking up and down trying to get his feet untied. Well, there was probably a reason. He was terminally stupid.

Frisbee swam over to the doorway, feet tied and all, and pulled herself out through it onto the walkway. I couldn't see her after that. I swam over after her. The doorway was almost completely submerged now. I paused there for a moment and looked back at Moose. He was still hopping up and down.

"I can't swim," he begged as his head bobbed up.

I looked at him. "Gee. What a fucking shame," I said.

He bobbed down and then bobbed up again.

"Help me, Blue."

"I'd rather help Frisbee."

Down he bobbed again. Try bobbing over to the fucking door you brain dead idiot, I ruminated. Well, you die like you live, all those they heads said. How was I living, I wondered. Not particularly well, I suppose. It seemed a good enough way to die. Dying smart and healthy seemed like a waste.

I swam through the doorway and crawled up onto the walkway. Frisbee had freed her legs and walked onto the dock and was sitting there, her head between her knees. I untied my legs and went over and sat down next to her.

We sat there in silence. Drip dropping on the dock. All wet, pooped out, and numb. Then Frisbee jerked up her head and looked around. "Where's Moose?" she cried out. "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!"

Panic.

I faked looking around frantically for him. "I thought he got out before you. He was the first one out. While you were untieing me."

"Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!"

Shit. She was stuck on a three track mind.

"Take it easy," I said. "I'll go look for him. He's got to be somewhere."

The boat deck and the cabin room were underwater and going down fast. I walked out on the walkway and looked down at the doorway. I slid off and eased down onto the deck, neck deep. Then I took a deep breath and dove down and swam through the doorway into the submerged room.

Moose was sitting on the floor, his feet still tied in front of him, his arms floating around next to him. His dead eyes stared vacantly out through the water at me, through me, focused on some far off point in eternity. Gone to the other side. No longer with us. I tried to imagine where he was now. What he was doing. What he was thinking. What he looked like. Casper the Friendly Ghost? No luck. So long Moose head.

I turned to swim back out, but caught a glimpse of Frisbee's teeth lying over on the floor by his feet. I swam out and got another lungful of air and dove back down and swam over and retrieved her teeth.

I swam back out.

"Was he in there? Was he in there? Was he in there?" Frisbee was still three tracking it.

"Yeah," I said. "He was in there. And he ain't coming out. I'm sorry, Frisbee. He didn't make it."

Hamlet said it best. "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I. A dull and muddy-mettled rascal. I am pigeon-livered. Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain."

The boat shuddered one last time and slipped beneath the surface, settling its slow way down to the ocean floor, however far down there that was.

"Where's Waldo?" would never be asked again.

"I found your teeth," I said.






Chapter Thirty



Frisbee blamed me.

Then she blamed herself.

Then she blamed me.

Then she blamed Paul.

Then she blamed me.

Then, after about a week, she ran out of blame.

"Moose got his own self killed," she sighed. "By being stupid. How fitting is that? Why didn't he just swim out? Why?"

I didn't tell her he couldn't swim. He could have hop-bobbed over to the door, though. At least tried. Frisbee was right. Moose was Moose. To the end. If I'd tried to help him, he'd have gotten me killed, too.

We were in the kitchen, as usual, sitting around the table, which had been rescued from the roof. There was nice comfortable furniture in the living room, which Moose hadn't destroyed, but we hardly ever used it. It was too much like waiting in a dentist's office. There was nothing to stick your elbows on. We'd rescued a couple of chairs from the backyard.

Frisbee had been bawling. She'd been bawling all week. She looked like shit. She'd worn the same clothes all week. Hadn't combed her hair. Slept on the couch all fetaled up in a ball. Whimpering with grief.

"Ah, Moosesie. He was a true horse's ass. I loved that shithead, though. It was love, wasn't it Blue?"

"If you say so, Frisbee. It looked a little different from where I sat."

"I suppose it wasn't Romeo and Juliet type."

"No. Only one of you croaked. The right one, fortunately."

"Don't use that word, Blue. It hurts."

"What word?"

"Croak. It's so swampy."

"He demised, then."

"Thanks. I just can't get used to him being gone. Forever."

"Me neither. I still get queasy thinking he'll show up at the door."

"You didn't like him, did you."

"We clashed. I'm blue. He was sewer sludge gray."

"Don't call him names anymore, Blue. Please?"

"Sure, Frizz. I'm sorry."

"Is Paul going to come back and kill us?"

"No. He thinks we're dead. He never knew about this house, either. All he knew about was the trailer court. You should never go back there, just to be safe. He got his money. That's all he cared about."

"How much money is left?"

"Around eight million. Give or take a couple hundred grand."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"I'm going to give it all to you."

"God! I can't take all of it, Blue."

"Good. I was just kidding. I thought you could keep the house and the Rolls. Miss Princess. They belong to you. And I'd give you a million to live on. Your ten percent like I promised. Does that sound okay?"

"Maybe my boy can move in with me. He never could before."

"I bet he'd like that."

"You're going away now, aren't you?"

"I still have unfinished business. I don't want you mixed up in it."

"Tweed?"

"Yeah."

"Haven't enough people died already?"

"All but the one who matters most. To me, anyway."

"He's gone, though. You don't know where he is."

"I'll find him. I think I know where he went."

"Why don't you just stay here. We get along okay. Let it go with Tweed."

"That's what Teresa always said. Let it go."

"She was right, Blue."

"I know. She was always right. But I'm doing it anyway. I made up my mind a long time ago. I won't feel done till he is."

"When are you going?"

"A couple of days. You seem okay now. Okay enough anyway."

"You've been staying here for me?"

"I love you, Frisbee. Get a clue."

"Not like you loved Teresa, though."

"There's only one of her."

"Then don't go."

"I have to."

"You really love me?"

"Yes I do, Frizz."

"That's sweet. I wish I loved you, too."

"You're too smart for that."

"No I'm not. I'm not too smart for anything. I just know what I feel."

"That's smart enough."

"You didn't think so when Moose was alive."

"It was probably some jealousy thing."

"No it wasn't. You thought I was stupid."

"I guess so. About him, is all. Not anything else."

"You hate to admit anything, don't you."

"I do?"

She let out a big sigh. "I think I'm going to go take a shower and clean up."

# # #

It had been a while since I drove trusty old Mr. Gordo Wheels, but he started up right away. Old faithful. What a guy.

I drove east through Santa Rosa and down to Sonoma and through the hills toward Napa. The same route Moose and Frisbee and I had driven when we followed the Tweeds to Tahoe. As I passed the Clover Stornetta dairy, I noticed a new billboard. Clo the cow, dressed in a judge's robe, holding up a carton of milk with one hoof and pounding a gavel with the other. The caption: "Supreme Quart."

You da cow, Clo.

I wasn't going to Tahoe, though. I was going back to Nevada City. I knew that's where Tweed had gone. He had no where else to go. It was far away from Brickhead and Paul and the infamy of Sebastopol. And far away from me. It was the one place he could still pretend to be Arthur Asshole Tweed.

It wouldn't take long for him to con the locals into believing he was a successfully retired entrepreneur, moving back to the simple life. The life before he became a traitorous shitbag. Margaret would fit right in where she left off.

As I drove north out of Auburn and up into the mountains, I thought about TellingWays riding out of the gold infested hills on her pinto pony, hair flying in the wind, leading the way for GoingBlind.

"We had a great life, didn't we?" I said to her.

"We sure did, Blue," she said.

"I wish you hadn't died," I said.

"Me, too," she said. "Will you do me a favor, Blue?"

"Sure, TW. Whatever you ask."

"When you're done killing Art, would you drive back and take me out to the ocean. I haven't been there for awhile."

"Absolutely, sweet heart. Absolutely. The beach or the Head?"

"I think the Head, this time. We can hike up the hill and sit at the top. It's quiet there and the view goes forever."

Nevada City hadn't changed at all. It couldn't. It had to stay the same or the tourists wouldn't come. Europe was probably full of towns like this that couldn't ever change. They were trapped in history.

I wonder what it's like to live in one of those places that don't have any history at all. Those little islands out there in the ocean where hurricanes plow through them every year or two and wipe everything out right down to the sand. Except for the palm trees. They bent all over hell but never broke. Everybody hid behind them till the wind died down. Then everybody got up and ate a coconut and started up history all over again. Interesting. What kind of brains went on in there with no history to take up headsville with. What did they put in the old noggin bean instead? Bottles from the ocean? They were always washing up in there on the beaches with messages in them that nobody could understand. I think I could finally see what went on in eternity. God would be answering a zillion dumb questions all day long about what the hell He was thinking with this creation thing.

I stopped at the Deer Creek Inn and had a beer on the patio where I'd first seen Teresa. The river was cackling away below the deck, roaring along with the oncoming of spring that melted all the snow in the mountains. Once in a while, if you watched closely, you'd see a skier roar by who had been caught in a melt down and would wash up against a tree downriver, all busted up and broken apart, impaled on a ski pole.

It had been almost a year since I'd thrown my hat in the ring to become a killer. A revenger. What a year.

I sat at the same table as before. Twenty years ago. Off to the side in the back by the railing. I took a long deep glug and lit a cigarette. It was early and the air was chilly. I was the only one on the deck. There were a few drinkers inside where it was warmer.

Frisbee suddenly walked out onto the deck and looked around and spotted me. She waltzed over and sat down with a big smirk on her face.

"What in the fuck are you doing here?" I said.

"Hi Blue. I snuck into the back of your truck. Gordo, I mean. Thank God there was a sleeping bag in there. I'd have jostled my ass to shreds otherwise. You drive too crazy. And you ought to wash that bag once in a while. Pee-yew!"

"What the fuck are you doing here?" I repeated.

"You're glad to see me. I can tell. I knew you'd need me. So I came."

"I told you I don't want you mixed up in this."

"Blue, you ought to know by now I don't listen to nothing you say. I'm here. I'm in. Get used to it."

"Frisbee, I'm going to kill Tweed. You don't want to see that. You ain't the killing type."

"You got that right, Blue. But I'm your partner and that's just the way it is. You weren't the killing type once, either. I can learn."

"Partner! What the hell are you talking about?"

"You said you loved me. That makes us partners."

"Jeezus, Frisbee. I can't kill Tweed with you standing around watching."

She smiled. "Now you're getting it. What are partners for?"

"Fuck you. I'm killing him anyway."

"Suit yourself. Partner."

A waitress came out. Frisbee ordered two shots of Cuervos and two bottles of Corona.

When the waitress left, she said "That's what you and Teresa drank, right?"

"Right. It was our feisty drink."

"So let's get feisty then. I've never tried it. It's on TV all the time now. And in the Enquirer. All kinds of beautiful people are into it. It's called doing shooters. You find out they been doing it when they get out of rehab and promise not to do it any more."

"You don't need it. You were born feisty. It comes natural to you."

"I'm trying it anyway."

"It's dangerous."

"Good. I need to get used to it. You can't go around killing people and drink orange juice. It's in the movies."

The waitress dropped off our drinks.

"You're crazy, Frisbee. This is nuts."

"Shut up and show me what to do."

I poured us each a shot and explained the ritual. We licked the salt, drained the shot, slammed down our glasses, bit into the lime, and drank the beer.

"Wow!" she said. "That was fun as hell. Let's do it again."

"Whoa," I said. "You got to let the first shot settle down in there. It'll get real warm in a second or two. Then your face will get all hot and laughy and your eyes will get misty. Your forehead might sweat a little, too."

She sat there looking at me. Then she drummed her fingers on the table. Then she tried whistling. Nothing came out but a swoosp sound.

"Shit," she said. "I used to whistle good. Before that asshole busted out my teeth."

I smiled. She smiled. I laughed. She laughed.

"Now we can have another," I said.

"I see what you mean," she said.

We had two more and finished our beers and left. We walked around town a bit. She was a little wobbly and had to hold on to my arm while we walked. Everything I pointed out to her seemed funny as hell.

"So this is where all the gold is, huh?" she said.

"Was," I said.

"It looks like any other mountain type place. Why'd the gold come here?"

"Beats me. They say it's where you find it."

"Who found it?"

"Some guy taking a pee in the river."

"Yuck."

I took her to the Posh Nosh and we had a sandwich in the back patio where I'd met Teresa the second time. They still put a big fat juicy pickle on every sandwich plate. Twenty years of big fat juicy pickles. How many would that be? Two million? Ten? Lot of dead cucumbers, that's for sure. Frisbee didn't want hers. I gobbled it down.

While we were eating I remembered Teresa and the great way she had of walking down those stairs and the great way she had of doing everything.

"You're thinking about Teresa, aren't you?" Frisbee said.

I nodded. "It's hard not to."

"Is this where you met her?"

"Sort of. The place where we really met was at the river. Just north of town."

"Let's go there. I want to see it."

"It's a nude swimming place."

Frisbee shivered. "Nice try, but nobody will be nude today. It's too cold. I can't even stay drunk. Let's go."

We walked back to Mr. Wheels and I drove to the river. Deja vu smoke was getting in my eyes the whole way there. I parked and we walked down to the river and stood on the bank watching it do its flowing.

Nobody was there. No clouds slipped under my feet. Fish did not leap out of the water and skate on their fins. Birds did not dance on the shore holding their wings outstretched as they warbled Moonlight Sonata. Squirrels did not swing from limb to limb doing triple somersaults in midair. No fawn tiptoed across the water without causing a ripple.

It was funny. I had noticed these wonders once before. And I still could see them, even though they weren't there anymore. Because I had spent one second of time here with the girl of my lifetime. A second I would never forget. I realized that my life would always be perfect because of that one little second.

"You're crying, Blue."

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay. This is a great place to fall in love. I'd know the feeling if I ever had."

We drove back to town and decided to get a room at the National Hotel under false names. I figured Art and Margaret would show up there sooner or later. For the Happy Hour. I drove past Teresa's old house on the way, to point it out to Frisbee. There was a sign swinging over the porch.

Tweed Typography.

It was like stomping on her grave.






Chapter Thirty-One



Frisbee lured him out. The rest was easy.

We waited till Art made one of his nighttime Sacramento runs. It wasn't a long wait. That night, actually. He was at it again with that daily insanity. Scouring late night Sacramento in search of some hot juice. It was a lot easier not being his friend any more. I could just hold him in contempt instead of overlooking his weirdness.

We had Gordo parked across the street from Teresa's old house when he got home in the dark and parked on the street. The house didn't have a garage or a driveway. Frisbee had Gordo's rear end cap door up and was standing there fussing, her hands tossing around inside it. Naturally, he came over immediately. You didn't have to hint much for his imagination to start cooking up some exotic juice over a truck bumper. It was too dark for him to recognize my truck as the Gordo it was.

He recognized Frisbee immediately when he got up next to her.

"Frisbee," he asked, sort of surprised like.

Before he could say anything else, though, I stood up from where I'd been hiding around the other side of Gordo.

"Hello, Art," I said.

His face went around opening all the drawers of panic and confusion. "Blue," he said. "Frisbee? What are you two doing here?"

"We thought we'd drop by and kill you," I said.

Before he could react, Frisbee shoved a pillow case over his head from behind. I took a big windup and hit him in the face with everything me and the roll of quarters in my hand could wallop him with. He crumpled to the street like a marionette with no strings.

I looked at Frisbee. "God, that felt good."

"That was a real Mooseroosie, all right. He might already be dead."

"Then I guess we better escort him to the graveyard."

We dumped him in the back of Gordo and taped his hands and feet and mouth. Same old taping areas as always. Just for a change of pace, I taped his ears to his hair also. Then we put the pillow case back over his head and took off.

I drove Art's car and Frisbee followed me in Mr. Wheels. We drove east on Highway 20 till it looped back and connected with 80 going east to Reno. Near Truckee, we turned off south on Highway 89 and drove to South Lake Tahoe along the west side of the lake and left Art's car in the parking lot of Harrah's. Then we drove Gordo up 50, along the east side of the lake, and on towards Reno.

"Last chance to get off the bus," I said to Frisbee as we drove along in the dark.

"I already told you. I'm in. I'm going all the way, Blue."

"I thought your kid was moving in with you."

"He didn't want to."

"Why, Frisbee? It doesn't make sense. So far, you're hardly guilty of anything. Not murder, for sure."

"Get real, Blue. I've been an accessory for a long time. I know about Gourd and Weasley. I'm living off stolen money. Evading the IRS. Brickhead's dead. Moose's dead. Who cares? It's too late to stop."

"You ain't killed anybody, though. That was me. And you don't know where the evidence is. Not yet."

"You think I'd rat on you if they caught us? Take a deal to screw you?"

"If it was the difference between life in jail or five years, it would be tempting, wouldn't it. Heck, I would be tempted."

She laughed. "No you wouldn't, Blue. I know you. You wouldn't give the cops the hair off your ear hole."

"I sawed that stuff off last week."

"You missed a few."

"I thought you didn't want me to kill him."

"I don't."

"Why help me do it then?"

"I can't stop you. I already tried. It's the Moose in you."

"I still say you shouldn't do it. Once you do, there's no way back. I'll drop you off in Reno and pick you up on the way back."

"I told you I'm in. All the way. End of discussion."

We drove on up through Reno and pulled into a truck stop east of the city. There was no sense driving up to the burial ground in the desert just yet. I wouldn't be able to find it in the dark. It was three in the morning, so we decided to just kill some time till the sun came up.

There was an all night cafe there, so we went in and pulled up a booth and ordered breakfast. The place was half-filled with truck guys talking truck. It was some special language lingo like all the other lingo rooms in America. We were kind of out of place being assassins.

That was the nice thing about being an assassin head if you liked to work alone, which I always had. It was a solitary kind of career. Underneath it all, I was kind of happy old Frisbee wanted to be my partner. Good outlaws always had a partner. They were called sidekicks. If you were bad enough or famous enough, you got to be called a Gang. The newspapers decided these fine lines.

"If we're going to work together," I said to Frisbee while we were hardening our arteries with bad cholesterol, "we need to invent some nicknames for ourselves."

"What for? I already have one."

"You mean Frisbee?"

"Yeah."

"You still never told me your real name."

"Yes I did. I don't have one."

"I think I'd like to be The Derringer Kid."

"That's real, real impressive."

"How about you? Who do you want to be?"

"The Bewitching Beheader."

"C'mon. Get serious."

"Okay. How about The Deadly Diva."

"It sounds like a Perry Mason story."

"Who's he?"

"Raymond Burr.

She shrugged. A trucker at the next booth slammed his fist on the table and cursed out, "That bitch. She'll be the death of me yet. Next thing you know, she'll be puttin' flowers on my grave if I don't get rid of her."

Frisbee looked at me and smiled. "I think I want to be Funeral Rose."

"Funeral Rose and The Derringer Kid. That sounds pretty good, Frizz. I like it."

"Me, too. This is kind of fun."

"Okay, Rose. Let's go unload the meat."

"Spoken like a true blue boy, Blue. I mean Kid."

# # #

The day was new and the sun was a big fat yolk on the horizon. It was cool with no wind. The sky was clear and blue. The ground was dirty and brown. It was a panoramic view in all directions for one hundred miles and four and three-eighth inches.

Gourd was all skeleton by now. So was Weaseley. They had fallen over and were nestled against each other, skull to skull, their teeth smiling grotesquely. Chums forever.

"Which one's Gourd?" Frisbee asked.

"The big one. On the left."

"How'd you find this place?"

"I just kept driving from one empty road to the next emptier road to the emptiest road and then drove toward that mountain peak way off there to the north until I couldn't see anything anywhere anyhow."

"You always were a guy for intricate plans."

I opened Gordo's rear end. Tweed was still alive. We hauled him out and carried him to a spot next to Weasley. Frisbee carried his feet, I carried his shoulders. Fortunately, he didn't weigh much. He was still a stork butt.

When we had him seated, I took off the pillow case and ripped the tape off his mouth, trimming his moustache in the process. He batted his eyes furiously to comprehend his situation. He was also in a lot of pain. It looked like his jaw was broken. He tried to open it and say something, but it hurt too much. He looked at Frisbee. He looked at me. He looked around at what there was to see. Nothing.

Then he noticed Gourd and Weasley and lurched back against the rock we'd parked him against. Jumping Jupiter eyeballs.

"Welcome to your funeral, Art," I said.

Frisbee fetched a blanket from the back end of Mr. Wheels and spread it out on the ground. She sat down on it and leaned back on her hands. I sat down next to her. We stared at Art. He studied his knees.

"He looks pretty miserable, Blue."

"He looks like a piece of shit."

"What do you do now? This is my first time."

"It's sort of a wing-it deal. You got any ideas you'd like to do?"

"Not really. This is kind of boring, actually. I thought it would be more exciting."

"I got a knife in the car. You could cut off his toes or something."

"Funeral Rose wouldn't act like that. Too sleazy."

"How would she act?"

"Cool. Calm. Smooth. Sleeky smart. Silent but deadly."

"That's what we used to call my sister's farts."

"Shit. You have to ruin everything, don't you. I was just getting into my character here."

"Sorry. So how would The Derringer Kid act?"

"Well, he'd have to be a cocky smart-ass, I guess. Sort of like you, but not so gross and slobby. You'd have to get nicer clothes. Maybe a cool hat."

"Maybe I should just be The Homeless Kid, then. Funeral Rose and The Homeless Kid."

"No way. You'd sound like some brat I picked up off the streets. I think we should have a drink. You bring anything to drink?"

"Does a car have wheels?"

I went over to Gordo and fetched out a fifth of J&B I kept in the back with the camping gear. For emergencies. All I had for cups were a couple of metal jobs with wire handles. Camping cups. Lip burners if you didn't wait for the coffee to cool.

I brought everything back to the blanket and poured us both a drink.

"Here's to Rose and The Kid," I said.

We took a slug and she said, "That's better. Now it feels like fun. Should we give Art a drink?"

I looked at Art. He had some hope twitching around on his face. What the hell. One last drink with my life long friend. I went back to Gordo and got another cup and brought it back and filled it. Then I untaped Art's hands and gave it to him and sat back down on the blanket with Funeral Rose.

"Cheers, Art," I said.

He took a long swallow and sighed. He still didn't have anything to say.

"I wonder where Leonard ended up," Frisbee said.

Art leaned his head forward. Curious and nervous. "What about Leonard?"

"He's not dead, Art," I said. "He ran away. Last I saw him he was heading to San Francisco."

"He said that was a good start," Frisbee said.

"My guess is Los Angeles. Kids like to go there."

"They kidnapped him," Art said. "What are you talking about?"

"You should tell Art what's been happening, Blue. He deserves to know."

"He doesn't deserve anything except what he's getting. But I guess it wouldn't hurt. That's Gourd and Weasley keeping you company, Art. I killed both of them. I was going to kill you next, but all kinds of shit happened."

"My Moosesie. He kind of messed things up."

"Yeah," I said. "Gourd's skeleton had a key on it. Turned out to be the key to a safe deposit box. There was a million dollars in it. And a blackmail picture."

"Moose found the picture," Frisbee said.

"Not that one," I said. "One of the other ones."

"Whatever," Frisbee said. "He used your fax machine to try to blackmail the same guy twice. Moose's my boy friend, by the way. Was my boy friend."

"You following all this, Art?"

Art nodded vaguely. "What's this have to do with Leonard?"

"I'm getting there," I said. "Okay. So, anyway, then Paul and Brickhead followed your fax machine number to you and that's when they kidnapped Leonard to force you to tell them where the money was. Which, of course, you couldn't do because, as usual, you didn't know shit about anything. I had the money."

"We saved Leonard, Art. Me and Blue. Mostly me."

"Tell that to my beat up face, Frisbee."

"What about my face?"

"That was Moose, though. It wasn't connected to saving Leonard."

"Okay. So you get some credit. But we couldn't have saved him without me."

"You were great, Frisbee. Too bad you never got to know Frisbee, Art. She's a hellava girl. You'd have had a million juicy fantasies in your screwed up brain over her."

Frisbee kissed me on the cheek. We had another drink. So did Art. A very healthy slug type of drink.

"Where was I?" I said.

"Saving Leonard," Frisbee said. "We brought him home, Art. But he didn't want to stay there. He ran away. They didn't hurt him or anything. He just didn't want to live with you anymore."

Art hung his head.

"I forgot to mention we had all that fun screwing around with you," I said. "But you knew it was me. I had a long distance microphone on your house. I heard everything you and Margie talked about. Queasy, Art. You guys are sicker than I could possibly have imagined. You should thank me for killing you. I never told you before, but after Nevada City I really didn't like being around you and Marge any more. You guys are really creepy."

Art pursed his lips and wiggled his shoulders like he was putting up with a trivial idiot. God, he made me sick. He couldn't even die right.

"Then Brickhead and Paul came back and found Moose," Frisbee said. "So we had to save Moose, too."

"Only we didn't."

"Poor Moosesie. We tried. He wouldn't come, though."

"He tried, Frisbee. He just tripped over his stupidity."

"Can't we call him something nicer? Stupid is so mean."

"How about mentally challenged. Art would go for that. Right, Art?"

Frisbee was wiping a tear off her cheek. I put my arm around her shoulder, gave it a squeeze, and told her a lie.

"Moose died saving us, Frisbee. He was a hero."

She gave a sad, little laugh. "Thanks, Blue. But he was just stupid, let's face it."

"Well, anyway, Art, Paul killed Brickhead after I shot his nose off. Brickhead's nose, that is. Then Paul made me tell him where the money was and left us to drown."

"But we got away," Frisbee said. "Me and Blue, anyway. Moose didn't. He drowned. Then Blue wanted to come kill you by himself, but I made him let me come, too. So here we are. Nothing personal, Art. Blue's my partner, though. We're Funeral Rose and The Derringer Kid. You're our first assassination together."

Art just looked at us. He didn't seem to know what to say or what to think. It was great to see him speechless. Mr. Glib, all glibbed out. Sizzling in the grease on the griddle of life.

"I forgot to tell you the best part, Art," I said. "The safe deposit box had nine other keys in it. There were nine other boxes. All told, it came to ten million dollars. Paul got a million of it and we spent some, but there's still about eight million left."

I let him digest this for a bit. I knew it would kill him to think I had ended up making more money in life than him. Just flat kill him. And then I was going to actually kill him, too. It was overkill, no doubt about it.

"I guess I'm a multi-millionaire, Art."

"Me, too," Frisbee said.

A tear rolled slowly down Art's cheek. I had never seen him cry before. I didn't think he even knew how if he wanted to. His shovel didn't dig that deep.

He worked his jaw carefully and whispered through clenched teeth. "They'll catch you. They'll put Gourd, Weasely, and me together. You're the only suspect they'd have. They'll catch you."

"Hate to disillusion you, Arthur face. The cops think Gourd's alive. The guy who kidnapped Leonard was Gourd's son. His son had police connections. He sold the cops on Gourd being alive and well in Portugal with a young honey. That only leaves Weasely as a connection point to you. He was only a receiver, though. We weren't even one of his cases. We were always nobodies to him. I doubt if we're even on his books. Even if we are, it wouldn't draw attention. All he did was collect money and disburse it. Why would we have a grudge against him? I bet a lot of his cases have grudges left behind, though. Maybe all of them. That's where they'll look. Already have, actually. It happened last summer."

"They'll know you hated me," he clenched out.

"The Nevada City police? That's a laugh. Marge's weird, paranoid story about me? They'll think no wonder you split. She's a fruitcake. Butt ugly, too, if you don't mind my saying so. You ain't no prize, either, I guess. Dweeb heaven. Maybe you got the itch for a better bed and breakfast. Nobody's ever going to find you, Artie boy. Ever. You're evaporated. Even Marge will have her doubts. The world don't care about you, Art. It'll roll over you like a ripple in the ocean. You spent your life turning out to be nothing. A dork ass fucking zero. End of story. Wasted molecules."

"It's getting warm, Blue. How long do we have to watch Art die?" Frisbee asked.

"I'm ready to go now."

"Great."

We finished our drinks and got to our feet. Frisbee gathered up the blanket.

"Sorry about this, Art," she said.

She went to Mr. Wheels and got in the passenger seat. I looked at Art for a few moments. He wouldn't look at me. Brave to the end.

"Drink up, Art. End of the line time."

He drained the rest of his drink and looked up at me, a pleading, desperate look in his eyes. He moved his mouth just enough to whisper. "Please, Blue. C'mon. We were friends."

"Right. Friends. You and me. Babble Software. Friends to the end. I'll tell you what Art, you convince me you are sorry for what you did and you tell me how you could possibly do that to me and I will let you go home."

"I just did what I thought was best."

"You fucking asshole. You killed Teresa. You killed my life. "

"I didn't kill her."

"Drop dead, Art."

I re-taped his hands and stood over him. Famous last words time. I had decided on W. C. Fields.

But then I had a feet paralysis situation crop up. They wouldn't move. Mr. and Mrs. Steps were not responding. They were forcing me to keep looking down at Arthur Asshole Tweed. I didn't know Weasley and I didn't know Gourd, but I knew this worm at my feet.

He was my friend. And if he could have, he would have always been my friend.

Oh, Lord, what a tragedy.

Fuck. Leonard was still out there, too.

Shit. Shit, shit, shit.

I untaped Art's feet.

"Get up," I said.

I marched him to Gordo and made him get in the back. Then I taped his eyes shut.

"I'm going to take you back to Tahoe and set you free. Don't ever make me hear about you again. Mr. Art Fucking Friend. Or I most certainly will find you and this time I will not let you go. Leonard's out there, Art. Go find him."

"Blue?"

"What?"

"I'm sorry. You were the best friend I ever had. I'm sorry."

"Me, too, Art. Me, too."

I joined Frisbee in Gordo's headquarters and we drove away.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Letting him go. I can't kill him."

"Leonard, right?"

"Yeah."

"Me, too. Right?"

I gave her the sideways glance that meant "you dinghead, wise and aware fruitcake."

"And Art," I said.

She leaned across the seat and kissed me on the cheek. "Teresa would be proud of you."

"Sure."

"It was fun killing him, though, I have to admit."

"You're a natural born killer, Frisbee."

"I'm a natural at everything, Blue. Except finding Mr. Right."

"Your Achilles Heel."

"I don't own any of her shoes."

"Frisbee?"

"What?"

"You want to go to Nairobi?"

"What the fuck for? Where is it?"

"It's in Africa."

"You must be kidding."

"No. We could build a lot of hospital type stuff there. Teresa told me about it. They need a lot of maternity wings there. You can buy them for really cheap. What do you think? It ain't all that safe around here now, anyway."

"Blue?"

"Yeah?"

"I've definitely decided I probably like you."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I think so. Let's go to Nairobi. I'm tired of killing people, anyway."

"You haven't killed anybody yet."

"I did in my mind."

"Haven't we all."

 

The End

 


 

To read another great book from the noggin of Steve Beigel, visit the following link:

The Thieves Of Ann Arbor