Of course Mercedes knew not to touch any of the items on the shelves - this was hardly her first trip with her mama to the Piggly Wiggly – but someone had left a Mars Bar within reach on the bottom shelf in the bread aisle and she had been so well-behaved all week and if she picked it up quickly, surely Mama wouldn’t-
“What do you think you’re doing?”
And suddenly the candy bar was in Mama’s left hand and she had it raised up as if she were the evil witch from Snow White and the candy bar was her wand and any minute now she was going to use it to transform Mercedes into a shriveled turnip or a warty toad right there in the bread aisle of the Piggly Wiggly.
“You should know better,” said Mama. “Sometimes you make me so disappointed. And don’t even think of crying, child. Disobedience is a sin and stealing is a crime. You’re just lucky there isn’t a policeman around or you’d be in real trouble. What did I say about crying?”
Mercedes sniffled back her tears and stared at the floor. The egg-white tiles were smudged with dirt and dusty shoeprints. She imagined her tears tumbling down her cheeks and washing clean over the aisle floor and for a moment she’d forgotten all about Mama and the candy bar and then she felt a tugging on her wrist and Mama was dragging her down the aisle toward the front of the store and Mercedes had no idea why they were leaving their cart by the bread and going to the front of the store but Mama was walking so fast and tugging at her wrist so forcefully that she knew it had to be bad and she tried to pull away but Mama’s grip was too tight, as if she’d glued her hand to Mercedes’s wrist, and then through teary eyes Mercedes finally saw what – or rather who – awaited them at the front of the store and she cried out, “No! No!” but all that did was attract the stares of other adults all too half-hearted to rescue her from her fate, for at the front of the store, between the lottery machine and the Fed Ex box, stood a very tall policeman who had a nightstick and a gun and everything.
Oh God, she was going to jail.
“Can I help you?” he said. Her voice sounded like wind-whistles. “Is something the matter?”
“Well, it’s funny - I was just trying to remind my daughter Mercedes here about how stealing is a crime and how she’d be in real trouble if a policeman was around and then I look over here and here you are.”
“Here I am.”
Mercedes tasted blood. She must’ve bitten her lip. She took a deep breath to keep from crying again and winced as the blood droplets slosh down her throat. Could this day get any worse?
“Ma’am, you want me to have a little chat with your little girl here?”
Mama became all flowers and sunshine. “That…that would be very helpful. Yes. Thank you. I’ll just be a few minutes. I’ve got to finish my shopping.”
“We’ll be right here.” His brown eyes found Mercedes. “Won’t we?”
Mercedes nodded mutely.
Mama strolled back to the bread aisle.
The policeman let out a heavy sigh and turned around toward the store’s vast fore window, which was more or less clear save for a thousand oily fingerprints and the black smudges of dead gnats. An early February drizzle covered the parking lot, leaving its two dozen cars and trucks – mostly trucks – shiny and sopping.
Then he spoke to Mercedes:
“I feel sorry for you, kid,” he said. “Your mother’s one sorry class-A bitch.”
Mercedes’s eyes became as wide as moons. He’d just said a bad word! A policeman! No matter that she didn’t know what it meant.
“Kid, if you keep your trap open like that, the wrong person will get the wrong idea.”
Mercedes shut her trap so quickly her lips made a popping sound. Then the policeman pointed at one of the trucks in the parking lot, a red one with a flatbed like she rode on through that peanut farm on her fourth birthday and Mama had held onto her tight on her lap and the road had had so many bumps and every bump sent Mercedes and Mama bouncing up into the air and it was like being on a trampoline with wheels …
Another drop of blood squeezed its way down her throat and as she stood there beside the policeman, Mercedes strangely felt as if like she was back on that flatbed truck and was bouncing up in the air except Mama was gone and the only person to catch her was this tall policeman and she knew that even though he was a policeman, he wasn’t going to catch her, no, he was going to let her fall, all the while muttering that bad word: Bitch.
“What’d you try to take?” he asked. His brown eyes remained fixed on the wet red truck in the parking lot. “What’d you try to steal? Huh?”
Mercedes’s swollen, leaking bottom lip trembled against her paste-dry upper lip. She tried to think of words to say but all she could think of was how the grocery store seemed to be tilting and how the policeman, so very, very tall, always kept one hand on the butt of his holstered gun.
“Kid, you ever licked a lit match? It tastes like the world should be - instead of the way it is.”
An elderly couple in yellow rain slickers smiled their gummy dentures at the policeman and the little girl and pushed their shopping cart, filled as it was with bagged bananas and a package of pantyhose and assorted TV dinners, through the automatic exit doors. The policeman watched them as they slowly passed through the light rain and across the cracked black tar of the parking lot to their wet red truck.
“You want to see something real cool?” the policeman said. His whistle-voice lifted in pitch. It had becomes a nighttime wind, and even though he was a policeman, Mercedes did not feel safe with him, no, not at all, but his long hand was now glued to her wrist and the back of his long hand mottled with dark brown freckles and cross-thatched with dark brown hair and she looked away from his hand and up to his face upon which had sliced a wide, wide grin, though not meant for her. His focus remained on the red truck.
Mercedes peered out through the glass. She tried to see what was so special about the red truck or the old people, who were loading their bagged groceries onto the flatbed. The truck was parked maybe forty feet away. There were no other cars in its row so the view was unobstructed, but why did it matter? They were just an old couple a lot like Mercedes’s own Gramps and Gram and –
Oh. Hm. There was a stick propped up underneath the front end of the truck. That was weird. And at the bottom of the stick was a piece of silver garbage, as if the stick were pinning it to the ground. Why had the policeman – because it had to be him who did it, it had to be – why had he stuck a piece of garbage underneath the front end of the red truck? Was he playing some kind of prank?
The elderly couple got into the cab of the truck, he behind the wheel and she in the passenger seat. He pulled his seat belt over his shoulder and then leaned over and helped her with hers. A shiver vibrated through Mercedes and she opened her mouth – her trap – to shout out to them, but all sound in her throat must have been trapped with dried blood.
The truck’s engine started.
The old man shifted into reverse.
The truck rolled back.
The stick toppled.
And the entire front end of the truck exploded into a blue-orange bubble, roaring dragon-like across the parking lot, louder than anything Mercedes had ever heard, screaming, really, truly, only the screaming, she realized, was her own, for she had finally found her voice, and she screamed and screamed and screamed as truck-pieces that had been tossed into the air by the explosion now rained back down onto other vehicles, shattering windshields and denting roofs and the truck-pieces were still on fire and some of the truck-pieces maybe weren’t truck-pieces at all because at the end of one of the pieces were what appeared to be four wiggling fingers.
Some two hours and two hundred miles hence, in a Waffle House just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, the very tall policeman – who of course wasn’t really a policeman at all but an unemployed Georgia Tech dropout named Hank Barry – took a seat at the counter and waited for his associate to arrive. Hank wasn’t entirely keen on having his back to the door but the owner of this particular Waffle House had installed an electronic bell which chimed every time the door opened; plus, Hank didn’t want to appear to his associate as if he was on his guard. No, he wanted to appear - what was the word? “Nonchalant.” Yes. He wanted to appear nonchalant, this despite the fact that his nerves remained electrified with hot adrenaline over what he’d done to the old couple and their car in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly. When Hank waved the snaggletoothed snow-haired waitress over with his right hand, he noticed the hand was positively shaking.
“Coffee?” she asked him.
“Decaf,” he replied. “Please.”
Hank took out a thin vinyl wallet from the back seat of his blue pants and removed a gas receipt tucked behind his array of 1s and 5s. On the back of the receipt was scribbled the address of this Waffle House just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee and, below it, the number 6. The digital clock above the cook’s stations displayed in large red LCD the current time: 6.
He looked around the small establishment. Maybe his associate was already here. The problem, however, was that he had no idea what his associate looked like. Few did. He imagined a large man, a swift-legged brute, with thick callused hands and a world of pain barely submerged behind a pair of ice-dark eyes.
“Don’t worry, Hank,” the man had assured him on the phone. “If you follow my instructions, I’ll recognize you.”
And his instructions had been simple. Lacking a notebook, Hank had written them on a series of receipts he’d let accumulate for whatever reason in his wallet. Although his handwriting hadn’t really progressed since the third grade, he’d made an effort to write slow and keep it legible because, if all went well, he, Hank Barry, college dropout, would become a star.
The Waffle House was half-full with its dinnertime crowd: a hodgepodge of loud families and sullen loners. Because the jukebox was broken, the sounds inside the restaurant became a mix of white noise chitter-chatter, with ceramic dishes clacking together for percussion, and meals sizzling in the open kitchen to fill out the bass. Customers left. Customers arrived.
The digits on the clock glowed a red 6:10.
This was not good. A man like this would be punctual – if he was coming at all.
Why wouldn’t he come? Hank had followed his instructions to the letter. He’d picked up the package – unusual as it might have been - from the men’s room locker at the YMCA on Preston Ridge Rd. in Alpharetta. He’d mailed the package at the blue postal box inside the Piggly Wiggly off I20 in Conyers. He’d then, according to instructions, “used the premises to demonstrate his prowess.” The homemade land mine he’d left under the pickup may have been simple but no one could argue its effectiveness.
Hank was recalling the first IED he ever built, way back in high school, when the waitress refilled his mug and scratched at her hairnet said:
“If you want something to eat, it’s on the house.”
“In these parts,” she added, “law enforcement eats free.”
Ah yes. The costume.
“So what’ll you have, sweetheart?”
“I’m fine right now,” said Hank. “Thanks.”
The waitress shrugged, pocketed her order pad, and teetered off.
At that moment, Hank took note of a man sitting alone and reading a moist newspaper in one of the corner booths. The man had a scraggly beard, plaid shirt, florescent orange hunter’s vest, wore a tight John Deere ball-cap over his greying scalp, and peered up from his paper and locked stares with Hank Barry for well over ten seconds before returning to his newspaper.
Could it be? It had to be. No one else in this restaurant, except perhaps the burly-armed fry cook, fit Hank’s preconception of his legendary associate. Hank gathered his courage, got up from his stool, and crossed to the man’s booth.
The moist newspaper lowered.
The men once again locked stares.
Then the scraggly man with the moist newspaper spoke:
“You got a problem there, flatfoot?”
Hank opened his mouth. “I…uh…”
“How about you stop invading my privacy, Himmler?”
Hank walked away. He walked all the way out of the Waffle House, his refilled mug of coffee still steaming inside on the red countertop. He walked into the winter drizzle and walked toward his twenty-two year-old black Trans-Am and didn’t even want to stop walking when he put his key into the door lock and folded himself into the driver’s seat. Coming here had been a mistake. This had all been a mistake. He’d failed somehow, somewhere, failed again, and his face filled with hot blood and his hands squeezed at the leather steering wheel and he kicked the floor with his boots repeatedly, angrily, because he knew he hadn’t failed – he’d followed the instructions down to the letter. His associate was the one who’d failed, his associate, Cain42, so revered, so high and mighty, so full of shit.
Hank had been nothing more than a courier. That had to be it. Because of his high profile, featured as he was on the FBI’s most wanted list, Cain42 probably hadn’t wanted to risk mailing that unusual package himself and so he’d falsified this offer of employment, this fake test, and Hank, optimistic fool that he was, had fallen for the bait.
“I’m going to kill him,” Hank muttered. “I’m going to watch his flesh melt.”
He inserted his key in the ignition and started his Trans-Am’s purring engine and popped the clutch and glanced in the rear-view to make sure the coast was clear - half-hoping someone was there, maybe the scraggly newspaper man, so he could back over his body and crunch his bones - but no one was there and so he shifted in reverse and stomped down on the accelerator. The muscle car’s chrome 20” wheels screamed with friction against the moist pavement and then the car zipped backward but only an inch or two before the stick Cain42 had propped underneath the front end tipped over and the handmade land mine Cain42 had propped underneath the stick exploded its main charge (1.3 lbs. of sawdust soaked in nitroglycerine), erupting like a volcano under the driver’s seat of the Trans-Am and cooking the driver’s seat, the steering carriage, and Hank Berry into black-hot mulch.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Risk (and reward)
Well, I'm not sure what the biggest risk I've ever taken to become a writer is...but I can share with you one of the biggest risks I've ever taken as a writer...because it happened this past Friday.
You see, last week, I started to write WATCH ICARUS FALL, the third novel in my Esme Stuart series. Naturally, I had the whole thing outlined - not by choice, but because my publisher (at the time) requested that I do so. This particular outline was - and is - about ten pages, double-spaced, and essentially summarizes the entire plot of the novel. One of the premises in ICARUS is that Cain42, the villain from the previous novel, has recruited his remaining internet disciples to help him get his revenge against Esme and her mentor, Tom Piper, for taking down his How-to-Be-a-Successful-Serial-Killer self-help website and message board. One of these disciples, a rather icky fellow named Hank Berry, proves to be Cain42's most loyal lieutenant and, about a third of the way into the novel, he helps Cain42 abduct Esme's 8 year-old daughter Sophie.
And then I wrote Chapter One:
So I guess Hank Berry won't really be helping anyone do anything, eh? I was sticking very close to my outline until about the last 200 words of the chapter when Hank began to do a bit of self-flagellation and I realized that Cain42 wouldn't ask this pathetic excuse of a human being to even change a tire. No, Cain42 would use him and dispose of him and hope none of Hank's loser germs had migrated. However, with Hank Berry out of the picture in Chapter One, so much of what comes next would have to change. The comprehensive outline, which I'd slaved over, which I'd taken apart and put back together to make sure all the gears clicked in perfect unison, might as well be tossed in a bin. Still, I needed to trust my instinct. Hank had to die.
But what would come next?
Give me about three months and hopefully I'll be able to show you.