Big Slick’s New Job
I steered across the cracked-tar parking lot of a Cajun joint and backed into a space beside the kitchen entrance. Floyd’s was a long skinny place with one wall shingled by Kentucky license plates that ran back fifty years. There was a bar in the front and two rows of beat-up café tables with overlapping names carved into the surface like regional cuneiform. The smell of fried food permeated the air. Floyd’s was slow at midafternoon, exactly what I wanted. I sat in the rear where I could watch who came in. If necessary, I could skedaddle quick through the kitchen, which is why I’d left the car nose out by the back door. Bandits and cops don’t parallel park.
I ordered coffee and waited for Max. We grew up together, best buddies since fourth grade, and by high school we were knocking over private poker games. Max liked to be first through the door, but I was better at it. He got carried away by adrenaline, which, if you’ve never felt it, is unbelievable—a surge through your body like you’ve just pissed on an electric fence. Max would point and yell, giving people time to react, but I just pistol-whipped the man closest to me. At eighteen we got arrested and given a choice—prison or the army. Max picked the state pen in LaGrange, where he educated himself in the further pursuit of a criminal career. I shipped out to Fort Benning. Now, twenty years later, Maximilian Lincoln Lee was the Bluegrass king of crime.
Max strode in the restaurant, still walking like the gunsel he once was, but weighing 300 pounds and wearing a French silk raincoat that billowed behind him like a cloak. He never went about armed and always carried cash. I watched him tip the cook, the waitress, and the hostess en route to my table, where his knees creaked and his back wavered as he settled into his chair like a Mardi Gras float on the collapse. His breathing normalized to the wheeze of a busted accordion. We held a brief look and all his hog-headedness faded away, the lines and pouches and extra chins, and he became the boy I’d shared the streets with—cunning, hungry, ruthless. I wondered what he saw in my face.
He spoke first, a wood rasp scraping rock.
“Fuck you, Big Slick.”
“Look good,” I said. “Lost a little weight?”
“Yeah, the doc said I’d outlived my dick so they cut it off.”
He summoned the waitress by flicking a quick glance in her direction, and she shot forward as if yanked by a ski boat. She was one of those jumbo southerners who can surprise you with her speed. Max ordered coffee and two pounds of crawfish. We watched her boxy hips as she walked away.
“Warm in winter…” Max said.
“…shade in summer,” I completed.
We grinned together, linked by bad humor and worse history. Sometimes I wondered how our lives would be if I’d gone to prison and he’d joined the service. He’d probably be a general, and I’d be doing push-ups in the solitary wing of the army brig.
“How’s your family?” I said.
“Girls.” He shrugged. “Four daughters and a wife. You know they all get their period at the same time. Never seen anything like it. All I do is keep my yap shut and pass out aspirin like fucking M&M’s. You can’t talk to them. I just go to the basement. You’re lucky with a son. How is he?”
“Pretty much fucked in the head,” I said. “He’s at Centre College. Taking Marxist Theory, then switched to poetry. I don’t know which is worse. A communist or a homo.”
“They’re trying to get that same-sex law on the books. He’ll be legal at least.”
“You’re a comfort, Max.”
“And Marxism ain’t the same as Communism.”
“Take it easy.”
“You take it easy, Big.”
“I’ll take it anyway I can…”
“…the easy ones first,” he completed.
We laughed like maniacs until I wondered if Max was going to have a stroke, but the crawfish came and got him refocused. We laid our ears back and went through the plate like Sherman through Georgia. To fill up on food that small, you’ve got to eat a gob, and we didn’t talk until the plates were wiped clean with a passel of garlic bread. The waitress cleared the table and we ordered pie. After she brought it, Max hunched forward and lowered his voice, which meant business was at hand.
“Work,” he said.
“I’m phasing out.”
“This is special.”
“It’s always special,” I said.
“Not so good.”
“It’s for me, Big.”
“I like it even less.”
“A solid,” he said. “I’m calling one in.”
“No cops. No wives. No kids. No judges, Feds, or elected officials. No priests, rabbis, or imams—”
“—no whores, no exceptions,” he completed. “I know the fucking mantra, Big. Do this and I’ll never ask you again. You’ll be done. Retire. Buy a house on the coast of Alabama and sunburn yourself to the fucking grave. Just do this one.”
And I did—carefully. When I listen to someone, I do it with my whole body, every pore opening wide to nuance, each cell straining for information. It’s a lifesaving craft I’ve learned to trust. Intuition gets short shrift in our current era of polls and statistics, data and theory. I trust my gut and little else.
“It’s my youngest daughter,” Max said. “Mindy. You came to her birthday party six years ago.”
I nodded. Mindy—pretty, spoiled, sullen—Fayette County’s finest.
“She’s driving her mother crazy. That’s normal, they all did at her age. They fight with each other, then band together against their mother. It’s incessant and ridiculous. You give them chocolate and they complain about the box it comes in. Girls are bad as poker players. Worse.”
I lifted my eyebrows.
“But things are out of hand now,” he said. “Way out of hand.”
He drew his bottom lip into his mouth and pressed it tight against his teeth, which meant he was hardening himself to the seriousness of his words. I’d seen it occur at moments of tremendous ferocity. He lifted his head and spoke.
“Mindy got a monkey.”
He stared into my eyes as if I was supposed to understand everything—his daughter, his dilemma, the proposed solution. After a moment, I realized that Mindy had developed a dope habit, and Max needed her supplier taken off the board. Street work like that was simple. The biggest danger was Mindy accidentally getting in the way while trying to score. I hoped it wasn’t OxyContin or meth. Oxy has a high rate of overdose, and cranksters are too volatile to predict. I preferred old-fashioned junkies.
“Put Mindy in rehab,” I said. “Some fancy residential treatment center out of state. Use a fake name. I’ll give it two weeks to be safe, that way there’ll be no trail back to you. Then, poof. Problem is retired, and so am I.”
“No, Big.” Max shook his head. “Not a monkey on her back. This is a real monkey—a fucking monkey monkey.”
My senses felt like the Very Large Array of satellite dishes in New Mexico, all of them shifting direction simultaneously. I’d missed something crucial. This doesn’t happen often, and it was alarming. In my business, careful attention to every detail means staying out of prison or the morgue.
“Somebody at her school,” he said, “gave her a monkey for a present. Mindy’s always had pets—hamsters, rabbits, kittens, dogs, birds. She loved them all. They come, they go—they mostly go. We got a graveyard in the back the size of a tennis court. I got a monkey that needs to be there. Get my drift?”
“You want me to decirculate your monkey?”
“I’m at the end of my rope. It changes the presets on the television remote, and I can’t get them back. It took over the basement like a little fucking king. My home life is a nightmare. It’s worse than when the Feds tapped the phone.”
I narrowed my eyes, remembering that dark era. Every time Max picked up the phone, he went out in the yard and fired a forty-five caliber pistol next to the receiver. The Feds wearing headphones in their van went nuts.
“This monkey is not your average monkey. He’s smart, and he’s malicious, and he doesn’t like me.”
“He doesn’t like you?”
“I think it’s because he’s a boy.”
“A boy,” I said.
“Sure, the only other male in the house. It’s a territorial thing. He’s got a lot to prove. In monkey years, he’s a teenager.”
“How do you know something like that, Max?”
“Because he jacks off all day. He’s like a fifteen-year-old with his first skin mag. In my closet, in my study, in my tub, in my fucking recliner. Do you know what it’s like to live with this?”
I realized the whole conversation was an elaborate ruse. Either Max was speaking in code for imagined eavesdroppers, or trying to soften me up for some particularly distasteful task.
“Sure,” I said. “I guess when he cranks the monkey, he really cranks the monkey.”
“That’s right,” he said, “laugh all you want. Joke like a fucking jokester. But it’s no picnic living with this thing. He’s painting the ceiling with it.”
“Maybe he’s lonely, Max. Get him a female.”
“I thought of that,” he said. “But if it doesn’t pay off, I’ve got two monkeys on my hands. I ain’t taking the gamble. Plus another female in the house won’t help me any. The fucking girl monkey will get her period on schedule, too. Then it’ll be me and Blue in the garage.”
“That’s its name. Blue.”
“That’s the dumbest name I ever heard for a monkey.”
“What’s the smartest?”
“Look, smart guy,” Max said, “the kid calls it Blue. I just want it to be known as the former Blue.”
“No, Prince is back to being Prince again. That guy gets more ass than a toilet seat. I don’t get it—a runt who dresses in disco glam rags. The world's crazy now, Big. What happened?”
He frowned, pondering the iniquities, while I struggled to get a handle on his dilemma. A pet monkey might not flush down the toilet like a goldfish, but my assistance appeared unnecessary.
“Why do you need me, Max?”
“I can’t be involved. They know I hate the little fucker, so it’s got to be an accident. We have to have a backyard funeral. A hole, a box, a headstone. The whole nine yards. Flowers and crying. You’re lucky you got a son.”
“Yeah, lucky. A fruit who thinks I’m an asshole.”
“Could be worse. Could be a little monkey fuck.”
“You’re serious, Maxie?”
“Don’t call me that, but yes. Dead serious. Emphasis on dead. Double the dough.”
Max patted his raincoat in the vicinity of his rather large breast. He used to wear an overcoat to conceal his weapons, now it was money and weight he wanted to hide. Plenty of guys will work cheap, but you get what you pay for, and with me, there’s no comebacks, no mistakes, no loose ends. For a millisecond, I considered forgoing the fee for old times’ sake, but figured Max would be insulted. He was offering twice the money to offset the implied disrespect of hiring me to kill an animal. If his competitors learned that he couldn’t handle a monkey, they’d come at him fast and hard. It was back to the old days now—me covering for him from the shadows—but I didn’t want to do it. Combat is for younger men, even when the enemy is a monkey. But Max is the only friend I’ve got.
“Half now,” I said, “half later.”
He nodded grimly and removed a copy of the Herald-Leader from the inner folds of his raincoat and set it on the table. Inside the newspaper was an envelope.
“Straight job,” he said. “No evidence. No trail.”
“Sooner than later.”
“Pertinent information,” I said.
He passed a manila envelope to me.
“This should do it,” he said.
“No more contact until final payment.”
He stood and threw three twenties on the table, overtipping by a mile. Nobody in town got swifter service than Max.
“One thing,” Max said. “This monkey. He’s not normal.”
“How do you know what’s normal for a monkey?”
“All I’m saying is that if I wanted a normal monkey, I wouldn’t get this one.”
“Thanks for lunch.”
“Watch yourself around that little fucker.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “He’s not normal.”
He strolled out like a buoy with legs, and I waited ten minutes, trying to avoid looking at the waitress, who reminded me of my wife. She died five years ago, and lately her face has started fading in my memory. It’s supposed to be normal and healthy, but I felt like a traitor.
Outside, a stray dog cowered behind a Dumpster. I’ve never owned a pet and didn’t comprehend the desire for animal company. Cats are hoity-toity and play with their prey, a despicable and dishonorable act. Dogs eat their own shit and vomit, then want to lick you. Snake owners were nut jobs. I started my car and drove away. Fuck pets.
In the early years, Max and I worked as equals, but after his bloody clinching of Lexington street power, my role was subordinated to one of clandestine operations. Max sent me into the night with satchels of money for people whose influence he sought, or whose ambitions he desired to halt. I threatened with fist, feet, club, and gun. I shook down pimps, blackmailed politicians, and made extremely meaningful small talk with corrupt men of the cloth. I picked up payoffs from chop shops, bookie joints, and hot-sheet hotels. Twice I’d disencumbered Max of business rivals intent on compelling him to eschew his habit of breathing. I was bagman, strong-arm man, gunman, madman. Amphetamines cut with whiskey put me on the kill. Combat calmed me. Sex was a buffer to sleep. Then my wife got sick, and I quit working for Max.
I spent the next five years trying to raise my son. Without my wife as mediating go-between, we drifted apart, became strangers and finally enemies. Our family home transformed into a hostile camp. My son left high school early and went to college. I threw out everything in the house except my bed. It wasn’t exactly starting over, but close.
Housing developments were as interchangeable as sectional sofas, and the worst of both were covered in vinyl. I lived in a wood- frame house. The furniture consisted of lawn chairs and card tables, and the walls were lined with bookshelves. I’d sectioned my books by subject and carefully alphabetized them on adjustable shelving. For two solid years, I did nothing but read.
Now I sat at a card table, inspecting the contents of the envelope Max had handed me. With cash up front, I needed to treat the job as any other. Usually this required a few weeks of surveillance, an enormously boring activity that primarily consisted of sitting in a car with binoculars, eating caffeine pills, and pissing in a bottle. Since the monkey never left the house, that was as useless as watching a hermit’s hut.
Max’s packet contained a detailed diagram of the house with points of entry marked and the positioning of motion-sensitive lights indicated. He’d listed the schedule for a cleaning woman, garbage pickup, mailman, and school bus. He’d included security codes to bypass the alarm system and house keys. The only absent document was photographic verification of the target, which was an acceptable omission under the circumstances.
His wife was in and out of the house with a community social life that included being a board member of the Children’s Museum, Wildcats Booster Club, and the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation. She was also involved with a highway beautification organization, which had apparently contributed nothing yet since our auxiliary roads are still ugly as homemade sin. Louise was as solid a citizen as I’d ever known. I’d met her a few times over the years and liked her, although she remained aloof since I was one of Max’s business associates and not part of Lexington Society. She was deeply feminine—makeup, heels, nylons, jewelry—and used southern politesse as armor. Still, she was married to Max, which meant she possessed more backbone than a dinosaur.
The oldest daughter was doing graduate work in Indiana, home on weekends. Another attended Transy and stayed at her boyfriend’s house most nights. The youngest girl was Mindy the monkey owner, a senior at Loveland-Moore, the most elite private high school in town. Though wealthy, the students dressed in ragged clothes. Their primary means of rebellion was their hair, which came colored, shaved, mohawked, faux-hawked, dreadlocked, and dirty. The publicity material front-loaded photographs of light-skinned black, Hispanic, and Asian kids to prove that Loveland-Moore was diverse, while simultaneously reassuring skittish parents that the minority students were appropriately conservative and well-to-do. Students demonstrated against sweatshops, nafta, outsourcing, and corporate tax breaks—the very entities that provided the kids with their safe enclave. Due to their shameful performance at sporting events, the boys were called the Loveland Smores. For other reasons, the girls were known locally as the Loveland Whores.
A night mission was out of the question since the family slept in the house. A daylight operation meant a hot prowl of the house, a vehicle visible on the street, and my face in the neighborhood. I didn’t like it. But then, nobody truly likes this kind of work except sociopaths, and they’re not to be trusted. For years I wondered if I fit that category, until I did considerable reading on the subject. I have sociopathic tendencies, but my thinking is organized. I’m non-delusional, follow orders, and obey most laws. My operational mode boiled down to three steadfast rules—I never underestimate, overlook, or get involved. If things go hairy, I get out.
The objective consisted of achieving entry, decirculating the target, and exfiltrating without incident. A one-man mission with no recon required a direct but pliant plan. With more time, I could conceal a sedative in the food supply, or acquire a gun that would fire a needle loaded with a tranquilizer. But Max desired quick completion. I had to be flexible on the fly, a way of innate thinking that the military had chosen me for and subsequently trained me into developing. Maybe I was made for monkey work.
Upstairs in my bedroom, I pushed aside the dresser and rolled a section of a ratty carpet to expose the painted planks. Years ago, I’d used a drill and a hole saw to carefully carve out a section of flooring and build a storage compartment for ordnance. I pried the lid up with a knife. The weapons lay in orderly rows, tipped at a slight angle so the oil in the bore wouldn’t drain into the stock. A few small pouches of silica absorbed moisture. Resting in prime position was the SIG Sauer P229, the official handgun of choice for the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs, Coast Guard, and U.S. Postal Service. I went with the smaller P225, a double-action automatic. The magazine capacity was only eight rounds but it wouldn’t bulge beneath my clothes, and was powerful enough to nullify most mammals. My backup was a .38 revolver made by Smith & Wesson, a snub-nose five shot known as a Chief’s Special. I took two magazines, a speedloader for the .38, an ankle holster and a belt-clip holster. I slid the lid in place, blew dust into the cracks, unfurled the rug, and shifted the dresser in place. The dust was pink, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. I owned nothing in that color.
Downstairs, I sat at the card table and cleaned the guns. The SIG Sauer is a Swiss/German gun—quite the combination—and I don’t like either bunch. Switzerland likes to play neutral politics, but for seventy years their government’s corrupt banking system concealed international criminals. Their whole political stance of no standing army is absurd since nobody really wants their country anyhow. They can trot out the Red Cross till the cows come home, but the fact is that Switzerland designed the most effective killing pistol ever made. To circumvent their pansy-ass laws that ban weapons production, the Swiss collaborated with a German company for manufacture. Germans are a disciplined and orderly people, which makes them splendid Americans, but left to their own devices, Germans make the worst Germans. They’re always starting trouble with their neighbors, which in Kentucky is a dangerous habit. It hasn’t worked out well for Germany either.
After loading the weapons, I laid them out on my card table and retrieved my ready bag from two hooks above the door inside my bedroom closet. People rarely look there. I inspected its contents: five thousand in cash, a credit card and passport under a false name, unregistered .22 pistol with extra ammo, Ka-Bar knife, twenty mres, first-aid kit, mini tool set, fifty feet of cord, a never-used cell phone, an atlas, waterproof poncho, heat-reflective blanket, a pair of binoculars, and a fully charged Taser. If the mission fell apart and I needed to disappear in plain sight, I was confident of going black for a good long while. The only thing the ready bag lacked was a rifle and a large caliber pistol. But as my training officer always said, the best gun in a gunfight is the one you have with you.
I slid a web harness over my body and holstered the SIG under my left arm, and snugged the little .38 against my right hip. I slipped the Taser in my pocket. Kitted out, I went to the garage, placed a shovel and a rake in the bed of my old pickup, carefully positioned so the business ends were visible. To the doors I affixed two magnetic signs that said jackson landscaper. I stowed the ready bag on the passenger side floorboard, fired up the engine, and drove to Max’s slicked-up neighborhood.
The streets were clean and empty, the sidewalks sparkling from embedded quartz. The foliage was already budded out as if summer had been mandated to arrive early for the high tax bracket of the residents. Any attempt to blend in would fail, which meant I had to capitalize on not belonging. I parked near Max’s fortress of brick and fake-weathered siding. Two kids on bicycles rode past staring at me, each with a handlebar basket containing a skateboard. They were white boys, one with a shaved head, the other wearing dreadlocks.
I left the truck and walked purposefully, holding a clipboard—a reliable and classic subterfuge. At the lawn’s edge, I glanced from the clipboard to the house twice, then stepped back as if double-checking the address, and walked across the cropped grass. The yard was like a shag carpet with thick foam padding beneath the sod. I crouched at a basement window and peered inside.
The large room contained a pool table, a foosball table, and a refrigerator. Books and magazines lay on a couch. Scattered along the floor were open tubes of Pringles, plastic-wrapped Moon Pies, and empty pop bottles. There was a portable cd player fashioned in the style of a 1940s automobile, garish and silver and large. The next window held the fogged glass of a bathroom. I moved through a maple’s dappled shade to the rear of the house where a deck jutted into the vast backyard like a pier. Beside it was an enclosed hot tub, infinity pool, and barbeque pit. The back fence rose high above a pool house the size of a gas station. Deep in the corner, beneath an ancient oak, leaned a series of rocks marking the rounded humps of pet graves dug by Max’s daughter. There were no sight lines from the neighbors.
I slid along the rear wall until I could see through a glass door. Recessed fixtures illuminated the room with cones of overlapping light. The area resembled the aftermath of a tornado in a trailer park, strewn with debris, clothing, a torn-apart laundry basket, ripped pillows, broken furniture, and an amazing array of disassembled electronic parts. An Eames reclining chair stood in the corner with a halogen lamp beside it. Leaning back with the footrest fully raised was a monkey holding a book. In a languid motion, the monkey stretched a long arm, extended its fingers, and turned a page, his erection quivering in the air like the bowsprit of a model ship. It occurred to me that maybe Max was playing an elaborate joke, and had hired a costumed actor, a notion I quickly discounted because he wouldn’t risk homicide in his house even if it was just a midget. This was definitely a monkey—there were no seams, and its genitalia looked legit.
I slipped the clipboard in the front of my pants as primitive armor and walked around the house. My plan was simple—divert the target into the guest bedroom, assault through the entrance, subdue with the Taser, fill the tub with water, throw the boom box and target into the tub, and pull back. I didn’t like boom boxes anyhow. People used them like a shroud of music to irritate the world. Maybe Max could sue the manufacturer.
I pecked on the window of the bedroom, then trotted around the house to the walk-out entrance. The chair was empty, which meant the monkey was investigating my diversion. I swung the door open and stepped inside, leading with the Taser held before me. Something hard hit my knee. My instinct was to retreat but my training propelled me toward the attack. The monkey struck my forearm with a broken chair leg. It was a numbing blow of the sort cops use with a baton, and I dropped the Taser. The monkey grabbed it with his foot and pulled it to him. I took two steps back and withdrew the SIG.
We stared at each other in a situation I’d experienced before—two adversaries assessing the other’s abilities before attack. I’d never sized up a monkey before. It crouched without motion, back to the wall, nostrils flared wide, dark eyes never leaving mine. He was a fierce little spud. I had the advantage of height, weight, reach, brain, and pistol. There was little option save killing it on the spot. I lowered the gun barrel to the monkey’s center of mass. One shot, none of that double tap movie crap that gives away a professional. Then I’d break a window and ransack the house like a meth freak looking for a score. No battle plan survives first contact.
The monkey flicked its wrist and the chair leg flew through the air and struck me in the face. I blinked and twitched my head. The monkey grabbed my gun hand and twisted to the precise point where one centimeter more would render a distal radius fracture. I recognized the maneuver from close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat training, but the monkey’s speed and strength surpassed any human. It stared as if waiting for me to recognize my own vulnerability. Glinting in its eyes was the same adrenalized calm I’d seen in men taking fire. The monkey would break my wrist as readily as turning a switch. I released the pistol. The monkey caught it with his other hand and withdrew. I flexed my hand, the pain sizzling up my arm. I’d been disarmed only once before, by my training officer, who promptly taught me how to defend against the attack. He’d be disappointed in me.
The monkey aimed the SIG at me, holding it with an awkward delicacy like a child cradling an egg. I was about to be killed. Nothing flashed through my mind but a spreading sense of shame and despair. I’d bungled the job, let down my only friend, and betrayed my training. It was an embarrassing death. I thought of my son. I loved him, and I hadn’t told him in years.
The monkey pressed the heel magazine release, pulled the slide to check the chamber, slammed the magazine back into the pistol, and set the safety. He repeated this process three times, his leathery hands moving by rote—unload, load, check the barrel, set the safety. Then he reversed the weapon in his hand and offered it to me. I took it. The monkey stretched its spine and stood upright, suddenly resembling a young man standing at attention. I gathered breath to shoot on the exhale, between beats of my heart. The monkey held its position. I underwent the strange and fleeting knowledge that the monkey was seeking my approval, as both an eager apprentice of weaponry and an animal expecting a reward for having executed a series of correct maneuvers. For the second time in my life I hesitated at a crucial moment, confused by circumstances that made no sense, and a sudden fear zipped through my body as I remembered the outcome of the last instance in which I had faltered. My military career had ended shortly thereafter.
A door slammed upstairs, and I heard the rapid tapping of a woman’s heels crossing the hardwood floor of the entry hall. Carpet dulled the sound briefly, then changed pitch as she strode along the tiled kitchen floor directly overhead. A chair scraped. The irritatingly modulated voice on the telephone answering machine informed the world of three messages. Max’s wife had come home early.
I lowered the SIG. It was time to abort. The monkey extended its paw as if expecting me to return the weapon. Instead, I gestured at the ceiling and held a finger to my lips, then pointed the gun at the Taser. The monkey retrieved it, presenting a view of his nasty backside, and passed the weapon to me. I slipped it in my pocket. The monkey maintained its upright stance as if waiting further instruction. I opened the door slowly and stepped from the house. The monkey followed. I shook my head. The monkey shook its own little head. Then it gestured to a window above, aimed two fingers at its eyes, and pointed at me. I heeded the warning and back-stepped against the house. The monkey tapped its chest, and stretched its hairy arm to the side yard. I understood the meaning, having been trained in silent communication with the same signals, using an economy of motion.
I eased the door shut but didn’t lock it, holstered the SIG, and moved to the sheltered shadows of the tree. I strolled across the street, got into my pickup and turned the key. Peripheral movement snared my attention, and I watched the monkey vault with the ease of an athlete into the back of the truck. He lay prone below the sides of the bed. I depressed the accelerator carefully. As I turned the corner, I passed the same two kids on bicycles I’d seen before—Baldy and Dreadlocks. They were staring at me as I drove sedately away.
Periodically I checked the rearview mirror. Wind rippled the monkey’s fur like bluegrass in a field. I parked in my garage and the monkey sat on the wheel well, patient as a grunt facing deployment. I motioned with the SIG for it to precede me into the house and down the basement stairs. He complied immediately. Spider webs spanned the joists of the low ceiling. Water from a recent rain trickled across the cement to a mildewed drain. I marched my captive to a storage room with no window, the ideal place to shoot it. I lifted the pistol once more.
I remembered Max telling me that this was not a normal monkey, and despite the failure of my primary objective, I was deeply curious about the animal. Its hair was long and parted in the middle of its forehead like an old-time pharmacist. Its hands were bigger than its head. I looked into its eyes, surprised by the depth of intelligence, the mind’s apparent awareness of itself, and a ruthless quality possessed by combat survivors. Behind that, like a scrim through which light dimly shone, I saw an overriding despair—not so much the hopeless variety, but a tragic optimism as if he perceived existence on its own terms—boring, short, and full of pain. I abruptly realized that the monkey was observing me as well. We were momentarily interchangeable, foreign and familiar.
I locked him inside the room and went upstairs. My adrenaline began to fade. I breathed deeply until the trembling in my hands ceased. Max’s family could logically surmise that the monkey escaped, either through its own devising or someone having accidentally left the door open. It meant mounting a search, which Max wouldn’t like. He’d know the plan went awry. I needed to decide what to do, but also what to tell Max. First, I had to figure out why I hadn’t killed the monkey. Twice.
I called my son and left a message telling him I’d spring for lunch at our usual place in Danville. I owned a small business and wanted to expand, eventually franchise. For no good reason I could think of, I wanted my son to take over. It was nutty as a bunny rabbit, especially since Bobby had no interest and we were not close. At his age, I was jumping out of perfectly good planes in the 82nd Airborne. But I was thirty-eight years old, the age some men find a girlfriend half their age, others get sentimental for the past, and some like me imagine a future that can never be.
Traffic south was its standard horrendous self. We had the cleanest sidewalks in the country because we rarely walked them. Once Kentuckians got in a vehicle, they stayed there like a cowboy who wouldn’t leave the saddle. We drank in a car, slept in a car, even engaged in a fistfight with another person sitting in his own car. California might be a car culture, but Kentucky was a car-wreck culture.
I passed bland developments of vinyl and fake brick houses with monstrous garages fastened like barns on the side. They didn’t resemble homes, but automobile storage units with a dwelling quarters offhandedly attached as an afterthought. Danville was a crummy town that didn’t want to admit it. The only people who actually liked Danville were those unfortunate souls who grew up there, kids who went to college there, people who moved there for work or marriage, small-business owners, weekend tourists, and family visitors. Everyone else knew Danville sucked. At least I did.
I parked by the old railroad tracks and walked toward Centre College. A granite whistle post leaned like the remnant of an abandoned sundial. I remembered a training sergeant drunk in a bar after teaching silent-killing techniques. “The worst way to die,” he said, “is any way you die on the railroad.”
I walked to Guss’s Café and ordered coffee. The red Formica tables were banded by metal. Slices of pie resided within a glass-encased box on a long counter facing the kitchen. The waitress brought coffee without my asking. She had a face like an unmade bed.
“Hungry?” she said. “The soup du jour of the day is cheese soup.”
“What’s the base?”
“Cheese, I reckon.”
“Maybe later,” I said. “I’m waiting for my son. He’s a student here.” The proud tinge of my tone surprised me. “A junior.”
“Tell him to show you the new viaduct. Pictures in the paper and everything. They’re building a parking garage next. Just think, little old Danville.”
She glided away, awestricken by the urban splendor of her town, unaware that a new road would draw fast-food restaurants and eventually end her job. I sipped coffee for an hour. A van drove by outside. Stenciled on its side was a business name, Mullins Exterminators, with its motto scrolled below in crimson cursive: the critter gitter. I thought about the monkey in my basement. Then I stepped back mentally and considered the implications of being compelled to think about a monkey in my basement. It essentially meant I was slipping. I’d made an error. It wasn’t crucial; no one was dead or wounded. Mindy might suffer a sense of loss, but Max would give her a dog. I have never owned a pet, believing that attachment is too powerful a force to squander on animals. My son was due here an hour ago. I felt jittery from caffeine and frustration. I left two bucks on the table and strode into the sunny Danville sun, ready to strangle the first monkey I saw.
A young woman dressed in black with heavy boots was slinking languorously up the sidewalk. Her long hair was dyed to match her clothing. Earrings swayed below her lobes. She carried herself in a familiar way, and, as she approached, I recognized my son. Eyeliner lined his eyes. Silver rings adorned his fingers, the nails of which were painted black.
“Hi, Dad,” he said. “Did you just get here?”
“Class, you know.”
He fluttered his fingers in dismissal, and I worried that someone might drive by and think I was hitting on jailbait.
“What’s all this?” I said.
“It’s how I feel today.”
“Like a girl?”
“No, Dad,” he said. “Would you say the same about Johnny Cash?”
“He wore black for the people in prison.”
“I wear it for the prisoner inside myself.”
“It’s not the color, Bobby,” I said. “It’s…it’s…”
“Style,” he said. “Just because it’s not important to you doesn’t mean the rest of the world stops.”
“You’re dressed up like a girl in broad daylight.”
“And you look like a thug trying not to look like one.”
“You learned a lot from your mother.”
“There’s nothing I want to learn from you.”
“How about punctuality?” I said.
“You mean being exactly where you tell me, no matter what else is going on in my life? Excuse me for not following orders. Wonder where I learned that from?”
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of this getup.”
“She didn’t approve of much.”
“Like you?” he said. “You respected her more after she died. You barely noticed her alive.”
“That’s not true. I loved your mother.”
“I was there, Dad. I heard your fights. You think the walls were soundproof? You think just because you stopped talking when I came into the room, all the other shit stopped? I did the math. I know why you got married.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You knocked her up on leave, Dad. Then married her on your next leave.”
“That’s not the case.”
“But it’s close, right?”
“Your mother had a good life. She had a house. She loved you.”
“She hated what people said.”
“Bullshit gossip at the beauty parlor,” I said. “She didn’t pay attention to that.”
“All she did was defend you! My husband served his country! My husband never goes out at night! My husband hasn’t talked to Max in ten years! My husband is not a criminal.”
“She was loyal.”
“That’s all you wanted. You lied about what you did and expected loyalty. Then got mad if it wasn’t there.”
His fists were clenched. He leaned forward as if straining against an invisible wire that held his body tight. His intensity was ferocious. I admired this level of fury. It reminded me of an attack dog, but I didn’t know what controlled the leash, or why it was aimed at me. Bobby was a stranger with my face.
“Look,” I said, “we got off to a bad start.”
“Yeah, twenty fucking years ago.”
“I meant today, right now.”
“No, Dad, this isn’t a bad start. This is the usual. I’m sick of it. We’re not close. And I’m tired of pretending we are every time you get lonely.”
“I’m the only father you’ll ever get.”
“Mom picked you. I didn’t. She married you because of me. Then died to get rid of you.”
I suddenly felt depleted of every resource. My son was defiant and brave, the sort of boy who’d question an officer, but never go so far as to frag one. He had plenty of backbone—covered in black taffeta. I suddenly wanted to hug him, but didn’t know how.
“You need any money?” I said.
“Not a cent.”
He turned and walked away. Each time I saw Bobby I was disappointed, wondering how I had failed him. Today was different. I wondered if there was any aspect that I hadn’t failed him. Still, there was no denying it—he was my son in every way except for being gay. And he was right about the marriage. My wife and I shared no common interests or enthusiasms, and she was as distant as my mother. I never knew what she thought or felt. I’d joined the army to avoid jail. I reenlisted to avoid my wife.
A sudden spring rain misted the windshield as I drove back to Lexington. My wife always knew I was a criminal; she just never wanted confirmation. That way it was easier to deny to all and sundry, and mainly herself. She was like my mother that way. Confronted with a truth she didn’t like, Mom wrapped a blindfold across her eyes. My wife rarely took hers off. It’s what I loved about her at the beginning and hated by the end. Then the cancer cells began growing in her lungs. It was extremely rare, one in a hundred thousand, and she didn’t even smoke. I couldn’t protect her. No wonder Bobby blamed me. I used to carry him on my back, listening to his squealing laugh when he brushed his tiny palms on the ceiling. He wanted to be a cop when he grew up.
I pondered all this while driving, my mind seeming to slow in tandem with the increasing velocity of the car. The road unfurled before me as if I remained immobile and the rest of the world flowed by, horse-farm fences rushing from post to post, the ditch a steady moving trench, green fields of grass streaming like a river, trees and barns and roadside stores on an endless transit flashing past my window. I underwent a tremendous urge to yank the wheel and plunge my rig into a fiery fatal wreck. I had felt this way many times, but it was my son who always sustained me. He still needed me, if for nothing more than an object of resistance. Life was too lonely to leave him alone.
My skull began pinging like submarine radar, and I rolled on past my house. Something was amiss. Nothing overt—the curtain askew, a shadow out of place, the welcome mat disturbed—like seeing the face of a friend and knowing instantly that calamity had befallen. My home was off-kilter. I was a fool to leave the monkey alive.
I parked down the block, withdrew the .38 from its hidden compartment, and reconned my house. The garage was secure, the side yards empty. All windows and doors intact with no sign of a forced entry. I peered through the window.
Two young males knelt on the floor, their backs to me, intent on something before them. They appeared unarmed. I entered through the back door and locked it behind me to prevent their escape. Their excited voices came from the living room, amateur burglars divvying up the loot before absconding.
I stood by the doorway and listened.
“You got one! Now behind the warehouse.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCKING A!”
“Yes! You’re the best. He’s the best!”
“Now go to the left.”
“Watch out, dude!”
I stepped around the door and roared an animal sound, the pistol in front of me. The kids jerked their heads, startled as mice, and I recognized them as the boys on bicycles in front of Max’s house. Crouched between them like a little brother was the monkey holding a plastic device.
“Drop that!” I yelled.
The monkey complied, and I charged, booting the bald boy in the chest, keeping the pistol aimed at the monkey. I kicked the gizmo against the wall. The dreadlocked kid gave me a dirty look.
“Aw fuck, man, dude," he said.
“Shut up,” I said.
“Dude, man, we didn’t save.”
I gave him a rabbit punch to the face, and he toppled over. The monkey remained still as a tree stump. The bald kid held his scrawny chest and wheezed, striving for the breath I’d kicked out of him. The one with dreadlocks struggled to sit, holding his bloody face.
“You broke my nose,” Dread said.
“If I wanted to break your nose,” I said, “I’d have hit you differently. What I said was shut up.”
I punched him above the eyebrow where the skin is thin over bone, a spot vulnerable to a cut, which opened immediately, sending a fresh cascade of crimson careening down his cheek. He screamed and scuttled backwards like a crawdad. The monkey didn’t move. Baldy gathered his lost breath.
“Take what you want,” he said. "It’s not our place.”
“I’m not a burglar, you fucking idiot. This is my house.”
“Oh, man. Sorry.”
“See your buddy, here?” I said. “I will escalate his discomfort unless you answer my questions. Do you understand?”
Baldy nodded rapidly.
“What?” I said. “Utilize the English language.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“How’d you get in my house?”
“Blue let us in.”
Without shifting the pistol’s aim from the monkey, I kicked Dread's left knee hard enough to bruise the tendon, but not tear a ligament. His little body flopped. Blood striped his face and dripped from his jaw.
“It’s true,” Baldy said. “He unlocked the door. He knows us.”
“Who sent you?”
“Nobody. We’re on our own.”
“How’d you find my house?”
“We plugged your license plate into Auto Track.”
“An online service for law enforcement.”
“You two aren’t cops.”
“No, man. I fucking hate cops. Serious, dude. We’re not cops. Auto Track’s a public company. They give you all kinds of stuff fast.”
“How do you know the monkey?”
Baldy clamped his lips tight as bark to a tree. He looked at Dread and shook his head. Like most two-man cells, this one had evolved to that of alpha dog and deputy. There’s nothing more amusing than junior tough guys. I thumbed back the hammer on the revolver and centered the barrel on the monkey’s head.
“No!” Dread said.
“Too late,” I said. “It’s the monkey or the truth.”
“Break my nose,” Dread said. “Break my nose!”
Dread leaned forward, neck craned toward me, his head tipped slightly back to present his nose in the ideal position for breaking. He was sincerely offering disfiguring his face to save the monkey’s life—but still refusing to reveal the information I required. I was unprepared for this kind of standoff: monkey, nose, pistol.
My interrogation training had presupposed a tough adversary schooled in resisting interrogation. First came prolonged isolation. Next, lull the subject into false trust with small rewards and minor punishments. Third, apply electricity to their genitals. Finally, waterboard the motherfuckers. I had blown all my training by immediately using violence, and now Dread had called my bluff. I was rusty. I was embarrassed. That made me vulnerable, but I still retained tactical advantage. What I lacked was basic intel: know the enemy.
“Take off your clothes,” I said. “Both of you. Shoes first. Then pants and shirt, socks and underwear.”
“Dude,” Dread said in a nasal voice due to swelling tissue. “You’re, like, sick.”
“Shut up and strip, or I’ll blow this monkey’s brains all over your face.”
They disrobed, releasing the smell of long-unwashed bodies. Baldy’s torso and limbs were smeared with tattoos like a comic book. A heavy silver hoop pierced his left nipple. Dread’s body was smooth, as if all the cellular energy devoted to hair growth was routed directly to his head. Both boys sat awkwardly to conceal themselves.
“Slide your clothes over.”
They shoved the mass of filthy rags across the floor, leaving a trail of stench, and I examined their pocket litter. They were carrying two wads of cash, a Ziploc bag containing marijuana, and a small key. There were no wallets or identification. These drug-addled savants were running their own little black op.
“Where’s your id?”
“We’re off the grid,” Dread said.
“What’s the key open?”
“Storage locker at the bus station,” Baldy said.
“What’s in it?”
“Open your legs,” I said.
“Spread your legs and put your hands on your head. I’m going to shoot one of your testicles off. Don’t wiggle. You can get by as a one-nutter, but it’s advisable to keep your cock intact.”
“Okay, okay,” Baldy said.
“Wait!” Dread screamed.
“We got a mini-dv camera,” Baldy said, “a cell phone, dvds, a map of uk campus, and a floor plan for their Animal Lab building.”
“What’s on the dvds?” I said.
Baldy hesitated, and I lowered my aim to his pubic hair. I’d eyeballed three sets of genitalia in one day, but there was still nothing there I wanted to see.
“Evidence of actions,” Baldy said. “We upload them to the Internet.”
“To show the world what we did! If not, the labs tell the press we’re just vandals. They want to dismiss us as druggies, not revolutionaries.”
I felt as if an invisible partition had suddenly manifested between the world and me. I could see clearly, hear well, but not interact. Baldy and Dread lived in an alternate universe that I was compelled to comprehend.
“Pretend like I’m from another planet,” I said.
“No problem,” Dread said. “You are.”
“Shut up. You have to explain everything very slowly and very carefully so I’ll understand. Tell me about the fucking monkey.”
“We liberated him,” Dread said.
“Liberated him from what?”
“He was imprisoned by vivisectionists.”
“Shut up,” I said. “Baldy, you talk.”
“Blue was a test subject in a government facility. They were running experiments on him. A scientist contacted some people who sent us to help. We met the scientist. She had Blue sedated in the trunk of her car and we transferred him to Mindy. The whole thing was already set up. We did our part.”
“Yeah,” Dread said. “Total abolition of animal exploitation.”
“Shut up,” I said, and pointed at Baldy. “Why Mindy?”
“She belongs to peta. She lives in a big house with no other pets. It was an ideal home.”
“Does Mindy know anything about the monkey?”
“Nope, nothing,” Baldy said. “That’s what makes it perfect, see. She’d take care of Blue without knowing his history. And nobody from the lab would have any idea where he was.”
“He’d live a good life in a safe haven,” Dread said. “Free from sadists.”
“Yeah, yeah. Why were you over there today?”
“To make sure Blue was okay,” Baldy said. “He might get depressed, you know. Or abused. The mother looked normal, but we never saw the father. Maybe he doesn’t care about animals enough. But you took Blue before we could check on him.”
“What’s that thing you all were looking at when I came in?”
“The new Cosmic-4 cell phone,” Dread said. “Blue likes to play video games on it.”
“He’s awesome, too,” Baldy said.
I looked along my gun sight at the unflappable monkey. He was facing death like a combat warrior, calmly waiting for his opportunity to counter strike. I realized that if the monkey let them in, he could have left at any time. He didn’t regard himself as a prisoner here. The solution to all my troubles was abruptly obvious.
“You want the monkey?” I said. “Take him and go.”
“We don’t want Blue,” Dread said. “We want to know why you want him.”
“I don’t,” I said.
“But you took him.”
“No, he followed me, and I locked him in the basement.”
My initial adrenaline had faded, and I was starting to lose operational tempo. I wanted a glass of aged bourbon in the worst way. I wanted to drink alone in my backyard until I starved to death and the birds pecked my eyeballs and the insects laid their eggs in my decomposing meat and the nocturnal animals scattered my bones. I aimed the revolver at the ceiling and eased the hammer down. Baldy and Dread unleashed audible sounds of relief.
“Why were you at Blue’s safe house?” Baldy said.
“That’s not your business.”
“It is if you’re with us,” he said.
“I’m with nobody.”
“That sucks, dude,” Dread said. “It can put you in a bad karmic spot. You need friends. No man is an outpost.”
“Island,” Baldy said. “The saying is island.”
He glanced at me for validation, and I gave a quick nod that silenced Dread as if he’d been gagged with burlap. My siding with one confirmed for me that I’d lost control over my own home. The intel was utterly uninterpretable and from a clearly questionable source. I was still several steps behind full comprehension—the worst place to be: not knowing what I didn’t know, and aware of that lack. In four hours I’d gone from living in peace and solitude to sharing space with two dumb kids and a smart monkey—all naked and unafraid.
I slid the gun in my belt, gathered mail from the floor below the slot, and opened the single letter. A private security company suggested that due to my classified military background, I could find lucrative employment as a civilian security contractor in Iraq. I wondered how they could know about my background if my files were truly classified. One more idiotic question.
“You boys hungry?” I said.
“We’re vegan,” Baldy said.
“What’s that? Secret code?”
“We don’t eat animal products,” Dread said.
“I’m not talking about eating the monkey,” I said.
“No eggs. No dairy. No meat.”
“What’s that leave?”
“Not much,” Dread said.
“Vegetables,” Baldy said. “Soy. Tofu. Wheat germ. Pasta. Grains.”
“I’ve eaten rabbit food. Not bad,” Dread said. “By the way, I dig your crazy lawn furniture in here. No animal products. Cool.”
“I’m tired of telling you to shut up.”
“It won’t help,” Baldy said. “I’ve told him the same thing a million times. He has theories about talking, and if you get him started, you’re stuck listening to him talk about talking.”
Baldy rolled his eyes to me and shook his head, seeking my comradeship in the face of such idiocy.
“Can I take a shower before lunch?” Dread said. “Seeing as how I’m already undressed and all.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. I pointed at the narrow stairwell. “Top of the steps. You’ll see the towels. Don’t use the striped one, it’s mine.”
I looked pointedly away as Dread walked nude across the floor and up the stairs. He smelled as bad as any soldier living under field conditions. The monkey continued to stare at me. There seemed to be an expression on his hairy little face, but I couldn’t read it—a mixture of acceptance and awe. Since my entry, he’d utterly ignored the boys. Things had rapidly turned into a Charlie Foxtrot, what the old ’Nam vets said in polite company when referring to a first-class Cluster Fuck. I hoped Dread wouldn’t use my towel.
“You got a lot of books,” Baldy said. “You read them all?”
“Are you a professor?”
“No, I just like to read.”
“Lot of people like to read, dude. But that doesn’t mean they have a thousand books in their house.”
“Two thousand one hundred and twelve,” I said.
“I guess you like books.”
“It’s what’s in them I like. Information. Something I can put to use. Books are just the delivery system.”
“That, I understand," Baldy said. "My life is a delivery system of compassion. I serve animals. The FBI considers us the nation’s top domestic threat.”
“If you two are the menace, I guess the country’s pretty safe.”
“There’s a lot of us.”
It occurred to me that maybe I’d pegged this pair all wrong, that they were the new breed of post-9/11 government agent, deep-cover moles operating without control, who’d managed to burrow their way into my home to serve their own nefarious agenda. I wondered if it was connected to the letter about Iraq. Or Max.
“What do you know about Mindy’s family?”
“Her dad’s some kind of business man. Her mom does what wives do who don’t work. You know how it is. Poor people make time. Rich people fill time. They own things.”
“You say that like it’s a problem.”
“It is a problem. Everyone wants more stuff. The more junk you have, the better you feel about your lousy life.”
“What’s that got to do with the fucking monkey?”
“Everything! We have to share the planet with animals. Right now, I’m the same as Blue in your house. The only difference is I can talk.”
We both looked at the monkey, who had an erection protruding from his fur. In a motion as casual as brushing crumbs off your shirt after a meal, the monkey began to stroke himself. When my son entered puberty, my wife gladly passed responsibility for all filial instruction to me. The average teenage boy gets an erection every ninety minutes. He can’t help it; his body is on autopilot. It’s a result of hormones rampaging through his body like intermittent bursts of a cavalry charge. I explained to my son that there was nothing unusual about it, and he shouldn’t be alarmed if it happened when he was hanging out with his buddies, talking to the lady serving lunch in the school cafeteria, or watching television. Everyone masturbated and anyone who denied it was a liar. There were only two rules—don’t get caught and clean up the mess. I felt proud of myself for the way I had handled the situation with my son—mature, direct, without a hint of shame or embarrassment. My own experience was somewhat less informed. When I was fifteen, my mother told me that every time I touched myself God killed a kitten.
All of this passed through my mind quick as double triggers the moment I saw the monkey make his first casual caress. Behind me, I heard Dread descend the steps.
“Holy smokes!” he yelled. “Blue’s got a boner!”
“Shut up,” Baldy said. “You’ll embarrass him.”
“I doubt that,” Dread said. “Look at him go. He’s a champion.”
The monkey’s action was picking up speed, but he still seemed unconcerned, as if cleaning a pair of spectacles by rote. Dread laughed. He wore a towel wrapped around his hips and his body appeared several shades paler, the water having rinsed away layers of dirt. Improbably enough, his hair was more absurd wet than dry, as if a beaver dam was hanging off his head. The monkey continued his activity without regard to anyone.
“Stop!” I said to the monkey, putting no menace into my tone, but every iota of command at my disposal. Only fools threaten and only cowards plead.
The monkey halted immediately and fastened its implacable vision to my own. I underwent the fleeting sensation that it recognized not so much my language or tone, but my superior rank, as when an officer enters a room. “Bathroom only,” I said to the monkey. It remained motionless.
“That’s an order,” I said. The monkey slowly lowered its hand and seemed to subtly shift the expression of its eyes to one of comprehension.
“Yo, man. Chill,” Dread said. “Take it easy on Blue. And thanks for the shower. That hot water blasts like a rocket. I didn’t touch your towel. You know water weighs more than dirt? My hair is like ten pounds heavier right now. Don’t worry, I got the mud out of the tub.”
“Outstanding,” I said. “Baldy, you’re next.”
I slipped the Cosmic-4 phone in my pocket.
“Wait,” Baldy said. “I need to make a call.”
“Out of the question,” I said. “Consider yourself commo-black.”
“It’s important,” he said. “I have to call before three o’clock.”
“Fuck!” I said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
“What’s up, bro?” Dread said.
“Class," I said. "At three.”
“You said you weren’t a teacher,” Baldy said.
“I’m a student. I’ll be gone two hours. After the shower, wash your clothes. Facilities are in the basement. Watch the monkey. Don’t answer the door and don’t go outside. I don’t like leaving you here, but I got no choice. I have to be in class. When I get back we’ll get to the bottom of this. Be ready to move out at 1700 hours.”
“What’s that mean?” Dread said.
“Five o’fucking clock. Two rules—stay out of my room, and no sitting in my chair.”
“Which one’s yours?”
“Of course,” Baldy said. “The one with the television remote duct-taped to the arm.”
“Where’s your TV?” Dread asked.
“Threw it away,” I said. “Don’t let that hairy bastard make a mess in here. I got to go. I’m never late.”
I grabbed my textbook and left.