“Where are you taking me?” I protested, watching a drab carpeted floor go by beneath me.
Naturally, I was ignored, which was fine because having the answer probably wouldn’t have improved the situation.
Next thing I knew; I was dropped to a hardwood floor at the base of a poker table. When I went to push myself up, a stiff boot dug into my back.
“What do you want us to do with him?” A goon asked.
A croaking voice at the card table responded as I watched a foot tap impatiently on the ground. “I’m in the middle of a game here.”
From the shoes I saw below a tattered blue tablecloth, four men were positioned at the table. Other than that, all I could see was broken cabinetry and dust bunnies. A short pause followed the croaking man’s response, as if goon one and goon two didn’t want to press the issue.
“I know that, boss. It’s just that we got to do somethin’ with him, and-”
“Shoot him,” the boss cut him off.
“Alright, if you say so.” They reached down and started to lift me by my elbows again.
“No, you idiot. I wasn’t serious. God damn these fuckin’ cards,” Croak-man slapped his hand on the table and pushed his chair out. “Alright, lift him up. Let’s see what we’ve got.”
I was yanked firmly upright to meet the face of an aging gentleman. A single hoop earring dangled from his ear and short grey hair covered his head. Below the neck, a sharp suit with broad shoulders.
“What brings you here, kid?” His grey eyes searched mine.
“Is that a serious question?” The thug on my left turned and walloped me in the stomach. I nearly threw up on croak-man’s shoes.
“Alright, alright, you’re alright,” he smacked my shoulder as his lackeys lifted me upright again.
I choked through a very real nausea churning in my gut. “You did; it seems to me.”
“No, no, no,” Croak-man spun a ring on his finger and started to pace around the card table. All his poker buddies just kept playing like nothing was going on. They were transfixed on their hand; unnaturally so.
“I mean, what brings you to Hell, kid,” he continued, leaning on the back of a buddy’s chair. “Everybody’s got a reason for being here. I want to know yours.”
“I don’t know,” I answered, through some labored breathing.
The crony wound up to hit me again but his boss waved him off. “Hey, hey, c’mon Donnie, we’re having a conversation here.” He shook his head and muttered ‘idiots’, before walking back to me. “You don’t know, huh?”
I shook my head, still hunched from a knotted stomach.
“Well, I think you do know Mr. err- uh?” He made a rolling hand gesture in my direction.
“Mr. Just Mike,” he paced a few steps again and then continued, “I think you do know, because we all know why we’re here. We’re just not all willing to accept it; to own it.” He made a righteous fist to emphasize this ideal as he spoke. Croak-man spun on his heel and marched to within an inch of me. “Why are you here, Mike?”
“I don’t know.”
The first punch he threw was the hardest. My jaw popped, though it didn’t break, and blood ran from my mouth like the fountain of youth.
“Why are you here, Mike?”
“I don’t know.”
I took a second round of knuckles to the face, this time from his left.
“There’s two kinds of people in this world, Mike,” he paused to laugh and muse, “listen to me spout clichés.
“Anyway, it’s true. Two kinds, Mike.” He held out two fingers. “Hiders,” he swung a fist into my ribs, “and seekers!” He punctuated the sentence with another slug. I coughed and spat a considerable amount of blood to the floor.
During the monologue, I began to see that the men at the table either weren’t real, or were, in fact, frozen in place.
“Do you have a guess which one you are?” He bent slightly at the waist to look into my eyes.
“I dunno,” I spoke with as much nonchalance as I could, “a thinker?”
He cracked me in the nose. “You’re a funny man, Mike. Funny indeed, but not in the way you think.” He took a kerchief from his suit-jacket pocket to clean the blood off his hands. “You’re funny because you try so hard to deny your nature, only to fail time-and-time again. You’re funny,” he brought his face right to mine, “because you’re a failure.”
I sniffed through blood pooling in my nose. “Where’s her killer?”
He threw his hands up incredulously and looked to the ceiling. “Where’s her killer?!” he parroted. “Where’s her killer, he asks me! Holy, God…” He turned his back to me and made the cross over his body. “Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” He spun and drove another punch into my temple.
I let out something between a groan and a cry as he shook his hand out.
A lull in the violence gave me a minute to drip blood on the floor as Croaker lit two cigarettes. He stuck one of them in my lips and casually sat on the table top.
He took a long pull, exhaled, and calmly continued the conversation. “What’re you doing poking around my club, Mike?”
“You know what I’m doing here,” I answered in a puff of smoke, raising my head to see him through swelling eyes.
The man, who I now knew was Duscias, shifted his weight on the table a bit before responding, “right, but what makes you think he’s here?”
I took a haul, struggling to keep the cigarette balanced in my lips. The smoke rose and stung my eye. “So, the perp is a he, huh?”
Duscias grinned and snickered, knowingly.
“Why are you protecting him? What’s some dead girl’s lowlife killer to you?” I prodded.
He ashed his Lucky in a beer can, and shrugged. “Nothin’.”
“So why go through all this trouble for him?”
Duscias laughed. “I could ask you the same question, Mike.” He squinted at me as if to say, ‘am I right?’. “Why are you looking for the guy? What are you going to do with him if you find him?”
“When I find him,” I interjected.
He rolled his eyes. “When you find him. Why do you do this to yourself, Detective?”
I let the cigarette fall from my mouth and ground it into the floor with my foot. “It’s my job.”
“Please,” Duscias said, standing from the table, “spare me the righteous indignation… I’ll tell you what. Let’s make a trade. The dead Simmons-girl’s killer, for the reason you’re here. Fair?”
“I already told you, I don’t know why I’m here.”
He gritted his teeth at that, then smiled. “Atta boy, stickin’ to your guns. I can respect that.” He took the final drag off his Lucky, flicked it across the room, and nodded to Donnie. The guy snapped into action, driving a knee into my ribs and slamming me to the floor. The two lackeys proceeded to stomp me into oblivion. They were mainly aiming for the body, but I did catch a few kicks to the head that opened up gashes around my ear.
Eventually, after I spit out a piece of molar, Duscias called them off.
“So,” he began, arms at his back, standing over me, “how’s your memory?”
I rolled to a shoulder carefully, then sat up, looking in vain for some relief from the pain. My breath was hot and tasted like iron. My left eye was completely swollen shut, but I could feel stinging tears form in it just the same. It wasn’t the beating. I wasn’t any stranger to beatings. It was what I was about to tell him.
“There was a little girl,” I muttered, sitting upright and reaching for my cigarettes. Before I realized I didn’t have them, Duscias handed me a pack. “Thanks.”
I removed one and lit it.
“There was a little girl,” I repeated, exhaling a cloud. I could hear blood drips falling, spattering my clothes. “She died because of me.”
“She was, what? part of case you were working?” Duscias asked, impatiently.
I shook my head. A few tears blended with streams of red. “I was, um,” I looked around the floor anxiously, like there might be some escape down there.
“C’mon. Out with it, Mike.” He kicked my leg as if to get me moving.
“I was driving home from work one night, you see. Well, it wasn’t from work, exactly. I had just closed a case that day. A case involving a thirteen-year-old boy. He had taken a friend of his for a hiking trip on a local nature trail. Only, once they got far enough out, the kid killed him. I guess he just hit him with a rock, over and over again.” Shakily, I smoked some of my cigarette, reliving what I’d always wanted to keep locked away. I glanced up at the eager group, who didn’t appear sympathetic to my story.
“Anyway, I just couldn’t take it anymore, you know? Seeing ten year olds killed by thirteen year olds, watching the same guys get out of jail to stab or rape somebody else, all for nothing. There’s no reason.”
I shook my head, as if to shake off the story itself.
“I went to the bar and um…” The tears were really leaving me then. I gritted my teeth and felt a dreadful tension squeeze my ribs like a boa constrictor. “I, uh, I got really drunk that night, you know? And when I drove home…” I sniffed, trying fight off a bloody, runny, nose, to no avail. I dropped my head into my hands and made a violent, tearful, gasp. “She was on her bike and I… She was in the street. I just- I just didn’t see her coming.”
A few moments of relative quiet went by, my sporadic sobs the only thing to hear.
“I just didn’t see her,” I repeated.
“I know,” Duscias replied, kneeling down and setting a hand on my back, “I know. There, there.”
Out the corner of my eye I saw him dip his head to better see my face.
“Do you want me to kill you?” He asked.
I only sobbed and shook my head.
“Are you sure?”
“You selfish son of a bitch, I love you already.” He smacked my back and stood. “Alright buddy, a deal’s a deal.” I looked up to see him scrawling something on a yellow pad of Post-It notes. When he was finished, he tore it off and let it fall into my lap.
“Go there. You’ll find who you’re looking for.” He turned to his hired muscle and spoke. “Alright boys, let’s get out of here. I’ve got to find somebody to shoot,” he adjusted the cuffs of his blazer and continued, “just feels like that kind of night, you know?”
The trio made for the door, and exited, with Duscias stopping to deliver me a final statement.
“Here, you’re going to need this, one way or another.” He tossed my gun to the floor between us. “How I see it, you got two options,” he paused to light a cigarette, the ember glowing a viscous red in his eyes. “Hide,” he puffed, “or seek.”
The door shut and I raced across the floor, picked up the gun, grabbed the door handle, and opened it, ready to put all six into that motherfucker’s back.
I found an icy tundra on the other side, not a being in sight. A whistling wind carried a soft but deadly chill through the door.
I slammed it closed and turned my weapon on the men at the table.
“Where’d he go?!” I shouted. The men continued to stare at their cards. “Hello?! Are you listening?!”
One man’s head started to turn, but it didn’t stop on me. It just kept going. Unscrewing. I watched with my one good eye as the head rose and rose, eventually toppling from his shoulders and rolling off the table.
“What the fuck,” I whispered to the air.
From the hole, where blood and viscera should have been, a shadow sprouted. A black root system growing into the air, sending out tiny shoots in search of God knows what. They spread exponentially, swallowing the room, rendering it a void. Before it took me with it, I made the only choice there was to make.
I opened the door and dove into the snow. Only, it wasn’t snow any longer. It was pavement.
I rolled to my back, in agony, and looked to the door as it shut of its own volition. Just before it closed, a gust of wind rushed into the alleyway, carrying Duscias’ tiny piece of yellow paper with it. The note fluttered weightlessly, twisting and turning in the violent air, but finally coming to a rest in my lap.
It read, “Go Home.”