Enjoy “Unforgiven”, the first chapter of Higher Than Jesus.
Thirteen years ago, Tia Marta taught you how to please a woman who was hard to please. She took away your name and beat the Cuban accent out of you. She also taught you the word “sidle”, which, she explained, was acting sneaky and casual at the same time. “It pays to improve your word power,” she said, waving a Reader’s Digest.
“Get on your knees, boy. You may look me in the eyes if I see love and devotion in them. If I do not see love and devotion, I’ll take out one of your lovely brown eyes.”
Tia Marta taught you English. She taught you how to lie well, when to hate and how to kill.
Early on in your confinement in a Miami basement, you once dared to complain to your other captor, the Bug Man, how terribly mean Tia Marta was.
“Actually,” the Bug Man replied, “Marta’s little bits of fun sound pretty close to my British boarding school experience.” Then he slipped a plastic bag over your head until you almost passed out.
He did that several times until you lost consciousness, but somehow, lots of brain cells survived. For instance, you remember the word “sidle” and tonight you used that knowledge in the commission of a murder.
* * *
A few hours ago, as soon as It’s a Wonderful Life ended, you sidled up beside the target at the bar and asked him if you could buy him a drink. You want to get out of the business of sidling up to strangers and thinking of people only in terms of predators, prey and potential witnesses. However, this is a special case. You were doing this job for a damsel in distress. Whether she thinks she fits that quaint description, the guy who ordered the hit sure thinks so.
Suspicious, the target asked you why you wanted to buy him a drink.
You checked your watch. “It’s officially Christmas.”
“I’m more of a Hanukkah kind of guy.”
“We’re in a shitty bar.”
The Bartender of Undetermined Asian Descent cutting limes into wedges looked up from his knife.
“Sorry,” you told the bartender, “but it’s no secret.”
He shrugged and returned to his work. To the target, you offered, “All over Chicago, people are either asleep, having Christmas sex or swearing up a storm trying to put a toy together for their greedy, ungrateful kids. We should be much more hammered than we appear to be, don’t you think?”
“Test: Name your two favorite TV shows.”
“Dexter is uneven but delivers great moments. Breaking Bad is best overall.”
The target smiled. “I would have also accepted The Walking Dead.” He turned to the bartender, “Gimme a Singapore sling. He’s buying.”
“Make it two,” you said. “What is a Singapore sling?”
“It’s a sweet drink that was popular when I was in college.”
“Sad holiday nights are for nostalgia.”
“Yeah, or, through the magic of association and sense memory, I’m getting back in touch with the slutty college girls I remember.” He swept his hand in an arc. “When I was a journalism major, this place used to be quite the hot spot. A meat market! Sense memories like taste and smell are strong. For me, a Singapore sling is a time machine. Fires up the brain full of Jon Bon Jovi, feathered hair and girls falling out of their tank tops.”
The bar looked dusty and the only sense you got was the feel of old beer on the sticky floor and, over toward the bathroom, a bottle of bleach did battle with the sharp stench of fresh Christmas Eve vomit. Somebody toasted Christmas with something red and green, so at least the puke was festive.
The Bartender of Undetermined Asian Descent had to check his iPhone to look up how to mix a Singapore sling. When the slings were finally mixed, they arrived sweet and went down easy. You’d already tipped the bartender not to add alcohol to anything he gave you. For the job ahead, the target had to get obliterated mentally before you could finish him physically. You had to be able to find the door and drive.
“Grenadine,” the target said. “I don’t know if that’s just sugar, or flavored syrup or something else.”
You nodded to the little TV mounted high on the wall behind the bar. It’s a Wonderful Life was over, so whoever was in charge of irony at the TV station had switched to news reports that featured the year in review. The riots, both foreign and domestic, looked disturbingly similar. Plumes of smoke and fire rose behind grim-faced correspondents speaking into microphones in news stories that looked interchangeable with all news reports since 9/11.
“We’re just consumers and destroyers now,” you said. “We buy everything made from anywhere but here and we don’t make anything besides guns and ammo. How would we know about anything nice, especially sweet stuff like grenadine?”
The target turned and looked you over, apparently considering you seriously for the first time. “Nice suit. I like the red tie. Christmasy.”
“Thanks. Silk. The last gift my ex-girlfriend gave me.”
“Ex, huh? So that’s what brings you to this hole on Christmas? I’m guessing the ‘ex’ part is recent?”
You gave him a cagey shrug and, perhaps reassured you weren’t coming on to him, he offered his hand. “I’m Thomas.”
“Sully,” you lie. “Sully Martinez.”
He shook your hand. “You look like a Martinez, but I never met a Sully who looks like you.”
“It was Sal, as in Salvador, but when you get called Sally in elementary school enough days in a row, you switch to Sully as soon as you can.”
“Heh. Sally. Can’t blame you there, son. Bad bounce.”
“What brings you out in the snow tonight, besides memories of college girls?”
Thomas finished his drink and ordered another, switching to Scotch. “I read a novel a while back. It was called Still Life with June. Good stuff. I’m here a lot, sure, but I remembered something in the book about how people in a bar on Christmas have the best stories. How about it? Got a story?”
You could have told him you’d been following him off and on for a week and he’d gotten wasted in this bar five days out of the last seven. Instead, you told him, “I’m only here because my girl broke up with me. Not much interesting in that. Happens all the time. Sorry.”
“Shit. I’m a bit worried, Sully. There’s only you and me in here and Chinese Rick doesn’t talk. Not much English, anyway. It’s a bit concerning when I come here for the sad stories and I might be the saddest ass in the place.”
“Rick’s Chinese? I couldn’t tell.”
Thomas burst out laughing. “I don’t know his name, Sally, but he’s running the bar and the original title of Casablanca was — ”
“Everybody Comes to Rick’s. I get it. And it’s Sully,” you added, curiously defensive over your fake name.
He toasted you, tossed back his Scotch in one go and winced. “A cinemaphile, huh? Or is it cineaste? I used to know lots of shit like that. I should have gotten a job in journalism, but I got into it too late, born too late. Freelanced for a while here and there, but it wasn’t paying the bills. Now so-called journalism is all about working for free and linking to some shit-for-brains blogs. No money in that and I’m still paying off my student loan.”
The line of work he ended up in, he can easily pay off those loans.
“Why’d your girl dump you on Christmas, Sally — uh, Sully?”
“She wanted freedom and travel and I wanted to settle down.”
“You’re too young to settle down.”
“I’m one of those guys who needs stability, I guess. This time next year, I’ll either be sleeping in my own bed or having Christmas sex with my new wife or maybe even swearing up a storm, trying to put a crib together.”
“Christ, you’re young and in a hurry.”
“I’ve always been in a hurry to get married. Feels…safer, and love — especially new love — is a drug, right? Besides, it’s always later than you think.” You made a show of trying to catch up and knocked back your Cuba Libre. Only you and Chinese Rick know that it’s only Coke.
You bought the target all his drinks and watched him get steadily plastered. He did most of the talking and he did have some interesting stories. “Kennedy said we had to beat the Russians to the moon, but that was really about developing rocket technology. He had to justify those huge budgets so he told America it was about the Space Race instead of developing better ICBMs to nuke the Russians.”
He switched to Seven and Sevens — two ounces of straight grain whiskey, five ounces of 7-up and a wedge of lemon. Chinese Rick just gave you the lemon and 7-up.
“Now NASA is all about unmanned space missions,” the target said, gesturing with his glass. “We don’t even have shuttles anymore. Unmanned missions, just when we need the best flying killer robot drones possible. You think that’s a coincidence? It’s the Space Race all over again, but this time, with the tech they’re developing, they’ll use it on us, on American soil. Just wait until those DEA and Homeland Security douchebags get hold of surveillance drones that are the size of houseflies!”
Thomas ordered again without even pretending he might reach for his wallet. You kind of liked him. You might have liked him more if he wasn’t so cheap, but you’d had that problem, too, lately. You reminded yourself that your annoyance was really a case of the reformed sinner getting more annoyed at an unrepentant offender.
“I’ll tell you another thing. Nixon said, go after marijuana users and keep the whole Reefer Madness propaganda going. Our government is still doing that shit. We got a recession and they’re spending billions on policing weed instead of making billions taxing it. Organized crime — this should tell you all we need to know — wants to keep weed illegal so their business model isn’t interrupted.”
You nodded, knowing from personal experience that this was true. You’re not surprised that he sounds informed. He bloviates — thanks Tia Marta and Reader’s Digest for more word power — but he’s informed. Given the main reason you’re killing him — besides the money — his views on drugs surprise you.
“You know why Nixon and all the other douche nozzles in authority wanted to go after marijuana? Because weed is the drug of all those protesters and the jobless and the kids with student loans they’ll never pay back. Cocaine users aren’t protesting shit, but you want to have another handle on Occupiers so you can lump more charges on them when you arrest them for getting the snot beaten out of them? That’s how you do it, son, and the scared middle class just nod and say, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another? Hope you don’t come after me with a cannon that shoots sound and melts my eyeballs.’ ”
“Somebody once said, ‘Question Authority before Authority questions you.’ ”
“Hell, yeah!” He toasted you again.
His politics bored you, but the more toasts, the better.
“Have you noticed that there are no major drug busts anymore? The feds have all this new technology and weaponry that Homeland Security gave them so they’re all militaried up, but you hardly ever hear of huge cash and drug seizures like in the old days. I think it’s because the cops are doing the seizing before they get the drugs and cash back to headquarters. Safer to send SWAT through a door to squeeze a bunch of stoners. Try that shit with a bunch of meth heads and they’ll shoot your balls off and fry ’em for breakfast.”
You gently pushed that subject, seeing where Thomas would take it. “I’ve done some weed, but I never thought about it like this. I mean, I know the underground economy is tied up in the regular economy. Gangsters mix with banksters.”
“Heh. That’s not the half of it! In the late ’80s, the locals…big Chicago gangs like the Black Kings and the Latin Kings? Crack was the drug of choice then. It’s a cheap, quick high. Now we got meth, which is some crazy shit. But it’s the prescription drug companies that are the huge pushers. International conglomerates, and they’re the ones killing off all our celebrities. Prescription drugs have their uses, but a bunch of these kids have no idea what the wrong dose of Vicodin will do to their livers. I’ve seen some crazy shit. You see that earlier this year? Sly Stallone’s kid? Sage? Gone. Too many prescription pain meds. And Heath Ledger? Shit. He’s gone, too.”
“Heath Ledger played the Joker the best it has ever or will ever be played,” you said. That was the first earnest statement you’d allowed yourself tonight.
Thomas slammed his glass down so hard, you thought it might shatter. His words had grown more slurred. “Right! To Heath Ledger! Best Joker ever! Hot damn! Made you totally forget Nicholson’s Joker and the totally unrealistic anal sex in…in…!”
“I hope you’re talking about Heath Ledger having ‘totally unrealistic anal sex’ in Broke Back Mountain.”
“Right.” After a few minutes he leaned closer. You resisted curling your lip and turning your head from his boozy breath. “You say you’ve done a little reefer, Sally?”
“Sully, and yup.”
“Do you realize the resources that go into stopping people from sacrificing a harmless plant to the fire gods? The government is so stupid, they even outlaw hemp. Hemp can’t even get you high. Makes the best clothes, paper, fuel and rope and, just because William Randolph Hearst wanted to keep his lumber companies profitable in the last century, we still can’t have hemp in this century. This country is crazy. Henry Ford’s first car was made out of hemp and you could hit the fenders with a hammer and not leave a dent!”
Thomas fell forward. You caught him before he could fall into your lap.
“It’s about time,” you said. “I thought you were going to bore me to death.”
You slipped one of Thomas’s arms across your shoulders and helped him to his car. You already knew which car was his just as you knew where he lived and that his garage door opener was clipped to the sun visor over his driver’s seat.
You slipped your gloves on before touching his car door. As soon as he was inside, Thomas lay slumped in the passenger seat. You fished his keys out of his pants pocket, but he didn’t stir. “No more political lectures,” you ordered, sure now that the murder would be righteous, if only to shut him up. Thomas began to snore.
* * *
Twenty minutes ago, you parked the car in the target’s garage, pushed the button to close the door and left the engine running.
Every assessment of a crime scene is based on the easiest theory of the case. It’s Christmas day, so when detectives are eventually called, Occam’s Razor will go in your favor. The easiest narrative is that Thomas drove home, drunk and depressed. The cops will think he decided to end his life as a Christmas gift to himself, though you happen to know his death will be a gift for a stunning blonde.
Christmas, you reasoned, is for suicides, domestic and child abuse and family fights. Even though holiday suicides are really a myth — you Googled— it’s a persistent lie and who could say the victim himself didn’t believe the myth so much he acted upon it? More people commit suicide than murder and someone offs themselves once every seventeen minutes — Google again — so why wouldn’t the police jump to the easy conclusion?
Besides, hit men usually take Christmas Day off. Not you, but most.
When you were a Military Policeman, you saw far too many suicides. The target’s crime scene would look open-and-shut clean and DIY. Checking out via carbon monoxide is one of the easier ways to leave this world and find out if hell has room. Bullets and blood get complicated and you’ve had all the complications you can stomach.
You left him in the car, engine chugging and tailpipe spewing. You planned to go out and check on him once you completed your search. If he had receipts or any clue he was in Chinese Rick’s bar, the evidence leaves with you. The hardest part of this hit would be to muscle Thomas into the driver’s seat.
* * *
Five minutes ago you checked the refrigerator and freezer. You looked in, under and behind the stove. The cupboards stood nearly empty except for bags of chips. The client promised the money and drugs would be hidden in the house. However, Paulie, your only remaining contact with The Machine back in New York, didn’t know where the target stashed the drug money. Paulie owed you his life, but more important, you’re pretty sure he’s too afraid of you to screw you over. You continued the search.
The tough part of the job was not to make a mess. Tossing the small house wouldn’t take so much time if you didn’t have to worry about keeping the suicide narrative intact. You moved from room to room, confident you were alone, but losing faith in Paulie as you searched. The house seemed too bare for this to be the target’s only flop. The cupboard held one dish and one water glass. Where were all the empties and the cleaning supplies or even a bottle of ketchup in the fridge? The living room held just one chair, a large square glass coffee table and a plasma TV with a PS3 game system beneath it. He only had one game: Lego Batman 2.
Only one small picture hung in the entire house and it was in the bedroom. You paused to note that it was a photo in a cheap frame: a stacked blonde in a red tankini whose face was turned away from the camera toward the setting sun. Since it was the only picture in the house, you were sure you’d found the treasure. You checked behind the frame for a hidden wall safe but again, came up zeroes and snake eyes. You looked under the mattress and found nothing but dust bunnies. There were no sheets, just a sleeping bag and a stained pillow. Despite your surveillance from the street, from where you stood, the target’s house looked more like a front by the minute.
Finally, you discovered Thomas’s stash of Vicodin — a bundle of pill bottles wrapped in plastic held tight with thick blue elastics. He’d hidden the stash behind the toilet tank in the upstairs bathroom.
* * *
A few seconds ago, you heard the crash and tinkle downstairs. You pulled your SIG from your waistband and raced downstairs, pausing at the landing to peer around the corner.
Of course, it was Thomas.
* * *
And now, having stumbled in from the garage, Thomas smashed through the glass coffee table, ass first. He’s trapped on his back, helpless as a turtle. He looks up at you through red, bleary eyes, coughing and bewildered. “Dude…Sally…my car’s out of g-gas, man.”
You thought you were cool, but you forgot to check the gas gauge.
A trickle of blood drips beneath him, but he doesn’t seem to notice. It takes him a while to work through the equation that you’re standing in his living room, a pistol in your fist, the business end pointed at him.
“Where’s the money, Thomas?”
“Wh-what? What are you doing here, Sally?”
“Jesus. My name is Jesus Diaz.”
“Where’s the money, Thomas?”
“H-hey, man…are you…are you the bad guy?”
“No, man. I’m not the bad guy. I’m just a bad guy. You’re the bad guy.”
He tries to get up. You push him back down.
Thomas straightens his legs, which makes him sink deeper into the well of the broken table. It’s like he’s trying for a sit up with his ass in shattered glass.
“This is not Cirque de Soleil, Thomas.”
Still, as he reaches up awkwardly, his pant leg slides back and — surprise! — he’s packing a little .22 in an ankle holster. Ankle holsters suck to wear and are slow to use, so you have just enough time to shoot Thomas in the upper chest once. His body jolts, his arms fall back and he makes a sound that starts with a growl and ends on a high note of despair followed by a long wheeze.
He looks up at you, glassy-eyed, draining and fading fast. Breathing in tiny birdlike gulps, he manages to say, “I’m not…Thomas.”
* * *
Tomorrow you will skim the news websites and find a reference to an unidentified man found dead in a nearly empty house on Chicago’s east side. Police will say they found $20,000 behind the kick plate under the kitchen cupboards.
Paulie told you the target could have at least $80,000, maybe more, and Paulie expected a heavy finder’s fee for being your agent in addition to your cut of whatever cash you found. The rest would go back to the guy who ordered the hit. Maybe the guy who called himself Thomas was right. Maybe the DEA doesn’t have major drug and money busts anymore because cash and drug seizures are the only reliable retirement fund left. They’ve got kids with student loans to pay, too. You pop some pills because the only thing you know for sure is that you will never know.
It will bother you that you missed out on at least $20,000, but you’ll be so high on Vicodin, it will lessen the pain. You will stay in your room, play Lego Batman 2 on Thomas’s PS3, and dream of finally meeting the woman in the red tankini face to face.
The Vic-induced euphoria will kick hard and sweet, but you will wish the Vicodin could do more, like make the woman in the photo speak to you. You will hold up her picture close to your face and whisper, “I’m not really the bad guy. I’m just a guy. I can dance and we’ll play pool and have fun and I’ll never leave you. It’ll be good. I’ll be good. I’ve been trained to make people happy who were very hard to please.”
But who is the real you? Which is the higher self who will graduate from this life and deserve the girl in the red tankini? What happened to the innocent kid from Cuba, pushed into this life?
“Jesus,” you coach, “you’re losing the thread. You’re losing yourself. You can’t think in terms of what you’ve done. You have to cut the past off and burn it. You have to forgive and forget. Everybody says that so it must be true.”
When you start to hyperventilate, you resolve to stop taking any more Vikes for a while.
You tell yourself aloud, your voice bouncing off the hotel room’s walls, “It’s always later than you think! You’ve got to live in the now, not think about what might have been.”
The counsellors at Veterans Affairs call what you’re doing “dissociation”. You call it the only way to be you and live.
You will fall asleep holding the photo of the girl in the red tankini to your bare chest, so only she will see your scars. You hope she’s as nice as she seems from a distance. You want her to be pure. You want to be pure for her.
Intrigued? The pace gets faster and faster from here on out…
Here’s where you can read the rest. Thanks for checking it out. ~ Chazz