Deacon Blue had a puppy in his lap and a pistol in his boot. He was a Man of God.
St. Agatha’s was quiet; it was late. Precarious Lee had called him, filled him in. Well, not completely filled. He knew the broad outline The meeting with Tommy Amici didn’t go well, and then Tommy got kidnapped and the Reverend Arcade Jones got hit by a van. Amazing how many things can go wrong in just one sentence, Deacon Blue thought.
The Reverend had refused to give up the puppy until he was sedated and on his way into surgery, and the nurses handed him off to the deacon. They did not know his name, so Deacon Blue sat there with a dog he had not been introduced to, a short-haired mutt the color of rusty gold with floppy ears, and soon the puppy fell asleep because all puppies do is sleep and trust humans. Arcade had been taken to surgery by the time the deacon arrived, so he went into the Emergency Room, through the OSHA-mandated sliding glass doors Death into the artistically-mandated ornate marble entrance. Inscribed into the stone above was the hospital’s motto, Quid hoc fecisti, ut tibi?
Deacon Blue knew everyone there. Rufus Mantooth, the security guard, and Andrea Edmonton, the woman he had in a headlock. (Rufus was an equal-opportunity headlocker.) Alsace Lorraine in the corner with the broken nose, waiting for his name to be called. Charlee Browne had a bruised vagina. Two monks from St. Sebastian’s waiting to hear if their brother’s suicide took. He knew Fancy Delaware, too, the Chief of the ER at St. Agatha’s. Clergy got to know the staff at the local hospital in most places, but in Little Aleppo they got to know the ER docs real well.
Always need for a preacher in a hospital. Last rites, or sometimes a dying atheist wanted to tell you off for the last time: always need for a preacher. There were people who needed a hand to hold while they came to terms with things. Others were utterly shocked to find themselves where they were. Cynics say you die alone, but clergy disagree.
Deacon Blue knew Fancy Delaware well, and when she came out to meet him in the ER’s waiting room, she nodded at him, and she did not shake his hand or kiss him hello.
“He’s in surgery.”
“Jesus. For what?”
Privacy laws prevented Fancy from saying precisely what was wrong the Reverend, so she said,
“He ruptured his een-splay.”
“Well, he didn’t rupture it: the van did.”
“Don’t be pedantic. Third floor. There’s a dog.”
“Third floor. There’s a dog.”
Fancy Delaware walked out of the waiting room and back into her ER, where she was supervising the treatment of a gaggle of teenagers with hysterical psychosomatic rabies. (Basically, one of the little bastards got so high that he thought he had rabies, and then the rest were all, “Cool, rabies, let’s do that,” and now there’s a half-dozen teens growling and frothing in Fancy’s ER.) Deacon Blue went to the third floor, where there was a dog.
The seats were black metal with brown padding. Thin legs and armrests. There were tables with magazines from three months ago. On the wall, a poster advised how not to get chlamydia. Old lady knitting. Young couple leaning into one another. A cop awaiting an outcome. There was a teevee suspended in the corner, and it was tuned to KSOS. The Late Movie was on, and Draculette was the Horror Host.
“Quintana was the bad guy the whole time, boogers! How about that?”
That night’s movie was Swordbeast of Dagger Island, and it was about a haunted tent. Tiresias Richardson, the woman jammed into the Draculette getup, spent the first hour of the film yelling at the main characters during her spots…
“JUST TAKE THE TENT DOWN, DUMMIES!”
…until she got so fed up that she began improvising her own, better, movie. A cheesy action flick with explosions (Tiresias did the sound effects SPLOMSH! and BRAKOOOOM!) and one-liners (she ad-libbed them) and gratuitous boobage (she provided the boobs). The hero’s name was Detective Strutter O’Day, and he was a cop on the edge. You could place Strutter O’Day on a giant sphere: he would still find the edge, and then endeavor to be upon it. Quintana was the captain, or lieutenant, or chief–his rank changed several times as she told the story–and he yelled at O’Day, and demanded his badge. Tiresias acted out both sides of the very dramatic confrontation:
“Dammit, O’Day, gimme your badge!”
“I forgot it at home.”
“Oh. Well. Tomorrow, then.”
(Tiresias made the captain-who-yells Hispanic instead of black, and congratulated herself for being diverse.)
Five minutes of movie, five minutes of commercials, five minutes of Draculette. Repeat that twelve times, and you’ve got yourself the KSOS Late Movie: three tracks of competing agendas and interlinking narrative nonsense; they commented on each other incidentally and on purpose, and there was synchronicity, accidental symmetry, simultaneous soliloquy. Rivers of content doing the three-man weave. The movie was there to get you to watch the commercials, and Draculette was there to get you to watch the movie, and the commercials were there because they were paying for everything.
Quintana assigned Strutter O’Day a partner, a rookie, named Sissy Bump; she was murdered immediately, and Strutter swore revenge. Quintana then assigned another him another rookie partner, Camera Doughnuts. (Tiresias had reached her personal capacity for comedic names, and was now just looking around the room.) Camera was blown up. Another rookie partner named Sheila Penny. (And now she was using names of people she knew.) Detective O’Day had a new partner in every scene, and they were always killed instantly.
But by who?
The puppy in Deacon Blue’s lap woke up and got on his feet, paws on either thigh, and growled at the empty chair across from him. The deacon followed the dog’s eyeline and said,
“You must be Officer Rodriguez.”
The empty chair said,
“Nice to meet you, Deacon.”
Precarious was sitting next to the deacon, and he reached for the cigarettes in his tee-shirt pocket, realized where he was, nuzzled the puppy.
“Emergency,” Precarious said.
“Does he always do this?”
“The invisible bullshit?”
“Yeah. What’s an emergency?”
“He’s a pain-in-the-ass. Don’t worry about him. The dog’s name is Emergency.”
Deacon Blue stared into the dog’s beige eyes, and scratched under his chin.
“The Reverend thought so. Love at first sight. How’s he doing?”
“They’re taking out his spleen.”
“What”s the spleen do again?”
“Bile,” the deacon said.
“Nah. That’s the gall bladder.”
“The spleen is basically a big lymph node. It filters blood,” said the empty chair across from Precarious and Deacon Blue. The old lady looked up from her knitting. The young couple searched the room for the voice’s origin. The cop didn’t give a shit about anything but his job. Precarious leaned forward and whispered,
“Shut the fuck up.”
And though Romeo was invisible, Precarious still somehow knew where his eyes were for the purposes of glaring.
Precarious sat back in his chair, and he and the deacon affected casual airs. The old lady went back to her knitting. The couple went back to each other. The cop continued not giving a shit.
“I need your help.”
“It’s a bad time,” Deacon Blue said.
“It’s worse than you think.”
“Tommy Amici got kidnapped and Arcade got hit by a van, man. How much worse can it be?”
“He got kidnapped by the heiress to Boone’s Docks.”
Deacon Blue was wearing a suit-colored suit. White shirt. Green-and-yellow striped tie with a fat Windsor knot, loosened and his collar button undone. He had escaped from jails in two countries. He had robbed a bank. (He was technically stealing back his own money, but still: robbed a bank. It’s a long story.) He had never sold drugs, but he had trafficked some. The deacon used to be a roadie; just like Precarious, but not: Precarious worked for one group his whole life, and Deacon Blue went from band to band as a freelancer.
It wasn’t like he had much of a choice. He had met Precarious many years before, and always thought that his job–Deacon Blue had never said this to his face–was damn close to a cult. There were a million rock and roll bands, and some of them making good money, but none of them acted like that band of weirdos, windowlickers, and Oregonians that Precarious hooked up with. A vote! Precarious used to get a damned vote! Deacon Blue was made mad by this fact; it was not the way the world was supposed to work. Band was up here, and crew was down here. If everyone’s in charge, then no one is.
Piss off the bass player, fired. Catch on with another act. Fuck the guitarist’s old lady, fired. Find another job. Fail upwards. Rock and fucking roll.
But he was a Man of God now, and all that was behind him. The hotels, and the naked strangers, and the bribery, and the sudden nighttime violence.
“You got your pistol?” Precarious asked.
Maybe not all the sudden nighttime violence.
“Why? Yes, but why?”
“Let’s go rescue Tommy. Officer Ghost Dipshit says they don’t have guns.”
“Three of ’em.”
Deacon Blue had long hair that was receding at the temples that he wore tied back. He said,
“We save Tommy, he owes us.”
“You put your finger on it.”
He poked his index finger under the elastic, unlooped it, unlooped it again, and then he pulled the band free and his hair, which was hair-colored, was loose. Shook it out. Ran it back under his palm, and then gathered it and retied the hank.
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” Precarious answered.
“Okay,” the empty chair added. The old lady looked up again, and so did the young couple. The cop had nodded off.
“Harper Observatory belongs to Little Aleppo.”
“No, it doesn’t. It’s a building that sits on land that belongs to me.”
“What about the people?”
“What about ’em?”
“Don’t they get a say?”
“They wanted a say, they should’ve had more money.”
“Reality so often is.”
“And it’s reductive.”
“I don’t know what that means. Explain it.”
“To…to…to try to explain something by too crude a measure.”
“I’m still assuming you’re a college girl. They still call you co-eds?”
“Not for a while.”
“I always liked that. ‘Co-eds.’ Very sexy.”
“College girl, yeah. Harper? Let’s say Harper. School ain’t free. You got the money to buy an education, and so you do. I got the money to buy Pulaski Peak, and so I can’t?”
“Some things aren’t for sale.”
“Some things shouldn’t be for sale.”
“Should? Fuck should. You don’t live in the should world. There’s no such thing as the should world. This is the is world. Better get used to it, kid.”
Plucky was not getting up.
There was a pock on the trail, a gopher hole, a deep step in the ground about two feet down, just perfectly sized for a horse’s foot and WHAMP her right front leg went into the hole, and all of her shuddered and fell and the Reverend Busybody Tyndale was thrown to the leafy earth; behind him was a sound like CHTCHACK from the horse’s fetlock.
There was blood, and the animal was screaming.
Peter pulled up on his horse, dismounted, ran to Busybody.
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t think anything’s broken.”
Peter looked back at Plucky.
“Speak for yourself.”
The horse is lying on her side, half her leg still trapped in the gopher hole, and seeping blood escaping onto the trail.
Plucky has stopped screaming and now making low noises like URRRRRHH, and they were terrible noises.
“She’s your horse.”
And so Peter did.
It was very quiet after that, after the reverberations had cleared from the trail and stopped bouncing in between redwoods. Even the insects shut the fuck up, which was very unlike them.
Peter, who was not a Pulaski, rotated out the cylinder of his Colt revolver and, holding the five live bullets in with his fingers, turned the gun upside-down and shook the casing from the chamber. He took a new round from his gunbelt, loaded it, snapped the cylinder back into place and holstered the pistol. Picked the casing from the dirt at his feet, placed it in his satchel.
Then he helped Busybody up, who said,
Peter’s horse, a paint which he had not named, was bucking and whinnying and Peter went to her and took her reins and jerked them down fiercely; the horse quieted, and he led her to a tree and tied her to it. They were in a wood, and had been making their way by the sun. Moss and creeping lilandras crowded the trunks. The light was speckly and strong, and the two men stood by the dead horse whom had been named Plucky. Half of Plucky’s skull was missing.
“We owe the livery now,” Peter said.
“Death turns us all into debtors.”
They dressed the body. Removed the saddle, and took out the bit. There were still wolves in California in 18–, and the horse would not lay there for long. Bears, too. Smell of blood propagates in a wood. Peter and the Reverend did not delay. Plucky’s saddle got tied to the paint, and Busybody sat behind Peter, and they cantered away.
“You have no leverage here, sweetie.”
“Fuck off with your ‘sweetie’ bullshit.”
“You have no leverage. You are weak, and I am strong.”
“You’re taped to a chair.”
“Your eyes are clouded by those stupid fucking pantyhose. Take ’em off.”
“Lemme see your face.”
“There’s nothing you can do here. Your only option is to save yourself.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You’re hoping. Hope is an expensive commodity. Are you willing to pay for your hope? The reality that lies before you is in contradiction to your hope. Which one will you stake your future on? Reality or hope? I’m gonna fucking crucify you if you keep me here any longer. That’s reality. Don’t choose hope.”
St. Agatha’s was on the Downside of Little Aleppo, and Big-Dicked Sheila was walking towards. As she passed her shop, she rattled the doors to make sure they were locked, and then she slapped one little foot in front of the other down the sidewalk of the Main Drag. KSOS behind her, she had helped Tiresias into her Draculette costume but they were not really talking, and then the phone call from Precarious. Reverend was worse off than it seemed, and Sheila started crying because she knew that Precarious was not a liar. Then he said that he and Deacon Blue were taking care of things, and she stopped crying because she knew that Precarious was not a liar.
The Downside. Sheila was in the same clingy black dress she’d been wearing for 36 hours, and her hair was spiky and short and ketchup-red, and she was wearing green Converse sneakers with brand-new, bright-white laces. She lit a cigarette with a yellow plastic lighter, and her shoulders went forward with momentum, and she looked at the Downside from under raised eyebrows and dared it to fuck with her. She had friends down here, and temporary lovers, and one-time fucks, and sworn enemies, too; the Downside was just like the Upside, but shittier.
Doo-wop groups protected their turf with harmonies, and stabbing. It was deep into the night, and not hot at all, but there were still ethnic children doing cartwheels in the spray of an opened fire hydrant. There was urban blight everywhere, plus some rural blight that had come on vacation. There were muggers.
One leapt out in front of her.
Right into the sidewalk, and the mugger ran; no one on the Downside who had just watched what happened saw anything. A .380 doesn’t have the power of a 9 mm, but it also doesn’t have the kick; Sheila had skinny arms, and the .380 was the most she could handle. She liked the Sig Sauer. It had a wooden grip, and she thought that was very fancy. If you had to shoot someone, Sheila thought, you should be fancy about it. Pistol back into her purse next to the prescription bottles of varying fullness, and her cigarettes and makeup.
That was an overreaction, she thought. Which was needed every once in a while, she further thought. Psychotic overreaction saved time. Being reasonable was the moral thing to do, but shooting at people who bothered you was far more expedient.
Mount Charity was off to Sheila’s left. The bankers lived there, and they were awake; they turned math into money. Mount Booth, too, which was the last of the Segovian Hills. Stray dog in the street. Alligator in the sewer. Sneakers on the telephone wire. There were two men sitting on a stoop drinking tallboys of Arrow in paper bags, and one of them called out to her,
“Hey, baby I like that ass!”
That was probably an overreaction, too, but Sheila was in no fucking mood anymore and goddammit everyone was a fucking idiot. Tiresias was blitzed, Penny was a lone wolf, Precarious thought he was Steve McQueen, and she was the worst of them all for not taking charge.
Sheila passed the Zweitel Footwear factory, which wasn’t there anymore. It caught fire and 162 workers, mostly women, burned. She passed the spot where the Pulaski laid their village next to a lake which also no longer existed, but was still there.
She had not expected this much death.
St. Agatha’s was ahead, lit up like a Christmas tree on the Fourth of July, and Sheila slapped one green sneaker in front of another towards. She tried to muster up hope, but she was on the Downside and there was just reality, so she kept her hand on a pistol concealed in her purse as she walked down the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.