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Gaunt, technicolor flares of jaundiced lightning forked from bilious green cloud cover obscuring the heavens above the grime-choked, potholed streets of Templar City’s east side urban sprawl. Primordial howls of feral dog packs echoed in the night air, intermingling with ear-splitting wails of ambulance and police sirens. Cassidy Jenks’s brain took calculated mental inventory of all this as his green-hued twilight vision took in pre-emptive scans of the surrounding inner-city terrain; dilapidated, squat gray abandoned warehouses ram-shackled near a gauche, run-down shanty proffering photos of silicon-breasted scantily clad females in its display window, next to a neon-pink sign that read: Karl’s XXX Adult Books and DVD’s. With a mental sneer, he kept his ears on amber alert and his sneaker-soled footfalls to a casual tread as he half-shadowed, half-escorted his walking companion toward the corner of Leroy and Main, where a seven-foot rectangular Plexiglass bus stop enclosure had already begun to give shelter to a couple of patrons.
“I really appreciate you walking me all this way.” Melanie’s sultry alto voice piped as she fastened the top button of her plaid raincoat and tilted her head up to flash Jenks a thousand-watt winning smile technically reserved for paying clients at the strip club she performed at. Lengthy, mascara-rimmed lashes batted coquettishly as her misty blue gaze sparkled playfully at him. “Sure you don’t want to stop by my place for a drink?”
Jenks toyed with the thought for a nanosecond, but demurred. “Sorry, Mel. Yours is a tempting offer, but I’ve got business to attend to back in the not-so-lovely Metro sprawl of what passes for this city’s community.” His lips managed an excusatory smile. “I’ll wait with you ‘till your bus gets here, if you want.”
“That’s what you always say and do.” Mel pouted, stomping her left red stiletto heel defiantly. “Every time you walk me to the bus stop, when I haven’t made enough to catch a cab ride home. We talk about how shitty my night went, you do the perfect gentleman thing, but not so much as a kiss. I’m pretty sure you’re not gay, so what’s the deal?” She threw the hood of her raincoat up over her lustrous, lacquered crop of vanilla-blond curls and searched his face pleadingly for answers.
A slow exhale escaped his lungs as Jenks rifled through the right pocket of his black leather trench and fished out a crinkled pack of Camel Wide Filters. Fingering out a nicotine stick, he put it to his lips and scrambled for a lighter. “Look doll, you’re a sweet kid, but…” He wracked his brain for the right thing to say. It seemed he was never very good with this sort of thing, and Mel was a decent enough sort to deserve better than some rehashed misquotes of a hard-boiled private eye novel. “As the old story goes, my line of work’s not the safest in the world…less than stable income, for starters, and the retirement package is just plain shitty.” He made an attempt at humor, the corners of his mouth crinkling up in smile as Melanie, with a roll of her eyes, extracted a lighter from her own coat pocket and lit his cigarette for him.
“I don’t care about the money, Cass. If I did, I’d be out there pandering with some of those other sluts at the club, getting fat, greasy businessmen to buy me Ferraris and take me to Cancun with them, not to mention give me vast amounts of money all for…” She shuddered as a look of disgust marred her pixie-like features. “Anyway, I’m not like that. I’ve got better things to think about, like college.” She gave a righteous nod.
“I know you’re not like that, Mel. Thanks for the light, by the way. ” He nodded and took a generous drag of nicotine. Once again, his mind scrambled to find the legendary, ultra-suave right words to mollify the situation. Yet the result was akin to mentally spinning wheels to escape a muddied trench during a thunderstorm. “It’s just, well, the situation is….oh look, your bus is here.” He gave an inward sigh of relief as the blaring lights of the Templar City Route 9 transportation behemoth rounded the corner with a hiss of diesel exhaust and a loud mechanized groan. Jenks stepped forward to enfold Mel in a protective, brotherly embrace. “Take care and stay safe, alright doll?”
“This conversation isn’t over.” She simpered. Grudgingly returning the hug, Mel quickly touched her lips to the right side of his face before drawing back and making a reluctant tread toward her ride. “The Templar City Transportation Authorities won’t save you next time.” She forced a light-hearted reply before turning her back and ambling single-file up the steps of the motor coach.
Streams of smoke billowed dragon-like from his nostrils as he watched the bus depart. Real smooth there, Casanova. A surly voice mocked in the back of his head. You’ve got such a way with the ladies…explains why you haven’t had a date since practically the turn of the goddamned century…
A mechanized vibrating hum from the folds of his left trench pocket, followed by the digitized melody of Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Fear the Reaper’, jolted him out of introspection and back to the haphazards of twenty-first century reality. Scrambling a hand to his pocket, he fished out his Sprint PCS cell phone, flipped it open and held it to one ear. “Jenks here…it’s your digitized quarter, shoot.”
“Jenks? Hey bro,’it’s Sanchez.” Carlos Sanchez’s guttural tone reverberated in his left ear. “Where are you, man? It’s after one - you were s’posed to meet me and Windwalker down at Sully’s half an hour ago.”
“Got caught up with one of my charges, I guess.” Jenks admitted sheepishly, retracing his steps down the jagged sidewalk back toward the east side district, past garbage-lined gutters strewn with broken beer bottles and fast food throwaway containers. “I’ll be there soon as I can.” As he stole his way into the decrepit urban jungle, his senses sharpened reflexively, remaining ever on the look out for danger. Such was his disposition, well acclimatized at twenty-three toward the nature of streets he was born and bred into. Letting one’s guard down for as little as a split-second could mean getting your lung, gut or head pierced by a stray, (or not so stray) bullet, not to mention knifed, bludgeoned and various other unsavory mishaps.
“One of your ‘charges’, eh?” Reverberations of guttural laughter hooted in his ear. “So, how was she?”
“Wasn’t like that bro, and you know it.”
“Just jerkin’ your chain, man.” Came Sanchez’s nonchalant reply, then in a span of a blink his tone hushed, grew a shade more brisk. “Seriously though, your butt’s needed down here asap. There’s a potential situation in the works.”
“What sort of situation?” Instantly his mental perceptions came online.
“Not over the phone, bro. Just get here, alright?”
Dense fogs of tobacco smoke billowed in tangible shrouds within the sparse-lit, brick-walled confines of Sully’s Pool Hall and Grille. Banshee-like shrieks and coarse electric guitar riffs claxoned out death-metal dirges on warped vinyl jukebox records, as rowdy young men and women of varying ethnicities clad in leather and flannel, denim and sweatgear rallied round the back room billiard tables, jostling each other and hollering out bets amidst a sea of empty beer bottles and greasy french fry baskets. Aside from the back room crowd, the place was nearly vacant, save for a scattering of men squatted on stools at the front taproom.
Strolling casually through the saloon-styled swinging doors like the regular patron he was, Cassidy Jenks stepped up to the bar and ordered a Killian’s red. The bartender, a svelte young brunette known as (among other names) Kat, slyly took his order whilst monitoring her tip jar. “I see you’re having the usual, handsome.” She remarked with a wink, carefully adjusting her bustier.
In the hazy, smoke-filled setting, Jenks doled out a five-spot and scanned the bar for signs of his compadres. He spotted Sanchez almost immediately, hunched over a pint of frothy brown ale at the end of the horseshoe-shaped bar. Apparently his bro’ had been imbibing lightly that night, for it took not a span of a blink before the young male Latino’s gimlet gaze met his. For an instant his chiseled features appeared shark-like and predatory. Then his swarthy visage split a grin, and he raised his glass in salutation.
With a cursory smile, Jenks strode his way over to his chum. “Got here as soon as I could.” He pulled out an empty stool near Sanchez and sat, taking a healthy swig off his Killian’s as his other hand rifled briefly in his trench pocket, fished out his packet of Camel Wides, and set them down on the graffiti-stained bar with a crinkle of cellophane. A casual glance toward the back room turned up his other buddy, Jack Windwalker, whose towering, sinewy physique, clad in threadbare black jeans and t-shirt with the caption: Earth First! We’ll Screw Over The Other Planets Later, crouched nimbly over the second felt-swathed table, aiming his tapered cue stick like a sniper rifle at its spherical target.
“Sweat no bullets over it, my brother.” Sanchez shrugged, craning his posture to level his gaze at Jenks. “While you were finishing up playing chivalry-man with the stripper-chickie and ‘Walker decided to show up the local pool sharks, I managed to get hold of Watkins, my info-dish at Precinct 17.” His small, round eyes slowly narrowed in barely repressed seething as his jaw-muscles clenched and twitched.
Jenks raised a crimson eyebrow. He’d been about to ask his bro’ to make with the point already, but decided against any wisecracks as he took in Sanchez’s volatile, hair-trigger expression, the look he got before entering into a fight and spilling blood. Setting his beer bottle down, he sifted through his pack of Camels. Snatching a cigarette from the crumpled pack, he stuffed it between his lips, salvaged a lighter from his pocket, flicked it twice and ignited the tip. “Okay…”
Sanchez drew a hiss of breath. “Word is a bunch of different kids are ending up in St. Jude and the Mercy Clinic’s ER, tweaked out and going into seizures over what some punk-ass dealer sold them street-side.”
A blink. Deep inhalations of nicotine as his brain processed the statement, followed by the reflex-tensing of nearly every muscle fiber he owned. Smoke-fumes sputtered sharply from slowly curling lips as Jenks’s right middle and index fingers clenched his cigarette filter in a shaking, near-death grip. “Go on.” He rasped, ruddy complexion deepening toward violent red.
Sanchez took a long pull from his pint, continuing after a thick swallow. “Sergeant Dani-girl tells me narcs is ‘looking into’ the situation.” He rolled his eyes. “But so far no good – can’t ID the asshole ‘cuz everyone who’s seen him’s either too messed up in ICU, or just ain’t talkin’. And since the shit went down in a Class X, chateau ghet-to sprawl district…” He tossed Jenks a knowing look.
“So it’s contract time, eh?” A wicked snarl-grin flared across his face as his other hand clasped the Killian’s bottle. Normally, the prospects of such independent contract work – bounty hunting, wetwork, call it whatever – would have etched out a more solemn demeanor in Jenks, but the particular circumstances of this case had set off a volcanic nerve rooted in flashbacks of boyhood memory, before Child Welfare services had inter-vened on behalf of him and Sheila, his now-estranged younger sister who he hadn’t been able to track down in eight years, since she’d been adopted by some New England couple while he’d remained stuck in the youth home, thanks to his needle-addict mother and whatever smack-dealing boyfriend she’d given it up to that week…
He forced the memory aside with a shudder, absently aware of the 8K head-price Sanchez had quoted to retrieve (or make disappear) both the dealer and supplier. Jenks tapped his cigarette in an ashtray and steeled his nerves. “So, what do we know?”
Sanchez jerked his head toward the back room. “Our boy Jack thought he might get some answers while sharkin’ the sharks in a couple games. Other than that, Dani says the narc squad told her they think we’re looking for a scab pushin’ oxicottons laced with some sorta THB derivative. ”
Down the morphine slide, with a final jumpstart. Before Jenks could reply, Jack Windwalker had sauntered his six-foot-six frame up to the bar, slapped down a Jackson bill, and mouthed a couple words to Kat, with a nod toward Sanchez and himself. Flyaway straggles of shoulder-length ebon hair obscured the left half of his bronze, wolf-ish countenance as his left hand sporadically tapped a small drawing pad against his left thigh. With a crimson smile to her bow-shaped lips, Kat snatched up the twenty and hustled out his drink orders as he maneuvered himself over toward Jenks and Sanchez, nonchalantly pulling up a stool. “Figured I’d catch the next round for you two meatbags,” His husky drawl belted out in his trademark greeting method, “For all your patient waiting…” He flipped the sketchbook open and set it carefully down upon the bar top. “Let’s hope it’s all worth it.”
“To think you dropped outta art school for this line of work.” Sanchez gave a low whistle as he and Jenks craned around their compadre’s composite sketch. Before succumbing to the woes of ever-rising student loan costs and citizenship Visas, the Canadian-born Hindi-Sioux had been a visual arts major at Templar University (un-affectionately dubbed Temp. U by its alumni due to its sixty-seven-percent dropout rate over the past half-decade).
Windwalker shrugged, a tad ruefully as he took a sip of his White Russian. “At least my achievements will be recognized in this lifetime…keep in mind there’s a margin of error. General consensus pegs the lowlife at about five-nine, blue, maybe gray eyes.”
Jenks studied the drawing, depicting a vole-faced Caucasian male, late teens to early twenties. A fairish hair ponytail sported oily cornrows on his bullet shaped head. His left eyebrow had been pierced, under which rest a crescent-shaped scar. The dealer’s expression was vacant, zombie-like. While no art critic, Jenks nevertheless had to admit his buddy had a mad talent. “Damn, Jack old buddy – after we nab this creep I’ll be owi-ng you a drink.”
“Damn straight.” Jack split a grin, displaying a row of slightly filed, conical teeth.
Sanchez topped off his pint as soon as Kat suavely doled a fresh round of alcoholic reinforcements to their side of the bar. “Thanks for the tip, Mr. Urban Primitive.” She twirled a crinkly strand of raven hair and shot him a salacious wink.
Beneath his game-face, Jenks could have sworn his Canadian friend hid a blush. In other circumstances, he would have given Jack a good-natured ribbing. But the time for business had arrived.
“Alright, my brothers.” Sanchez raised his pint of Guiness in salute. “One last round, then time to go to work.”
A rotted-egg stench of dioxide fumes permeated through swells of grime-choked vapor in the east side sprawl, brought forth from the acidic downpour. Torrents of mercury-hued slivers pelted mercilessly against skin and clothing, asphalt and concrete.
Collaring up the folds of his gunmetal trench, Jenks made a dash for a nearby awning, squelching through oily, pond-sized puddles and mired soil. The onset of a sneeze itched about his nostrils for the span of a blink, only to stave its way down his throat as he ducked beneath the windswept canopy folds the shade of overripe bananas.
Of the seven bars he and his compadres had hit before last call, only two had proven worth the legwork – the bartenders and bouncers at the Babylon Pussycat and the Danse Macabre had divulged to them amid pulsing techno-digital strobe beats and iridesc- ent splays of glimmer globe pyrotechnics that they’d glimpsed the suspect in question in their taproom dance clubs amidst a cluster of raver kids and black-garbed children of the night the previous evening somewhere between ten p.m. and midnight.
In the distance, cloaked by shrouds of contaminated mist, the St. Jude Cathedral’s bell tower clock boomed three times, its mechanized knells reverberating through the near desolate gloom like a brooding mechanized entity foreshadowing an urbanized Apocalypse
in the not-too-distant days to come. As if attuned to such portents, the savage growls and ululations of feral canines chorused in time to the soulless cadence.
Three a.m. Any sensible triggerman worth their ammo would have called it a night after the last round of beer and whiskey shots had been slung and closing time was announced. Even Sanchez and Windwalker had opted to retire, saving their game-faces and the thrill of the hunt for next evening, with the unspoken agreement that each member of the trio would do their individual scrounging during the afternoon hours before meeting to trade info at Sully’s tomorrow, six p.m. sharp.
More than a case of chronic insomnia was the source for his extended nocturnal jaunt. Garbled fragments of gray matter recollections wound incessantly in his psyche like an old Quentin Tarantino film, plaguing him worse than any potential strain of influenza brought about from the night’s info shakedown: the shrill blaring alarm clock rousing his ten-year-old body to consciousness as stark shafts of sunlight permeated his bedroom. First, a loud rap on the wall as his pre-pubescent tenor voice urged his younger sister to wake up, time for school. He didn’t like to actually yell it out at her, but Sheila was a slow riser sometimes. Then it was out of bed and into the clothes he’d laid out on his bed frame the night before, after he’d showered. Five minutes in the bathroom to wash up, brush his teeth, and whatnot, a final knock on Sheila’s door to make sure she was awake, then down the dreaded stairwell, his adolescent mind hoping, praying feverishly to whatever powers might exist that today held something different…he wouldn’t find Mom passed out on the living room sofa, wouldn’t have to try to shake her limp, rail-thin form awake, still clad in the skimpy dresses she wore the nights she spent serving drinks at the casino, her tarnished sunset curls fiercely askew, veins in both her arms bruised and distorted as his lanky, eleven-year old form tread a cagey path across the sour-smelling gin soaked carpet, maneuvering his covered feet past spilled cigarette butts and blood-caked, used-up syringes…
Clamping his eyes shut, telling himself that the watery sensation pooling around his corneas was a result of sulfur emissions from the acid t-storm, as his right hand balled a fist and blindsided stray currents of air while his other dove toward his trench pocket and made a lunge for his all-but-empty pack of Camels. Shaking fingers shred and mangled the wrinkled packet and clasped the remaining coffin nail, then reached up and stuffed it between his teeth, biting down hard on the filter in effort to steel his nerves. “Whoever you are, shit bag…” He ground out between clenched teeth. “Better live it up now before I get my hands on your sorry punk-ass …”
Green eyes smoldering like plutonium fire, Jenks leaned forward into the oncoming downburst and stalked a route back toward the cramped, dingy space of his ramshackle studio apartment.