Emmett Casey is an anti-hero. Trapped by circumstance and comfortable on the wrong side of the law, he still exercises his self-righteous inner conscience. This is a chapter from the full length novel, For I Have Sinned, the second book in the Emmett Casey series. The first is titled, Bless Me Father.
They call these places shooting galleries. It was dark and cold, red low-watt lightbulbs randomly screwed into fixtures in the ceiling. A brick brownstone apartment building rose four floors above me from this basement apartment. There were people here and there, lying on old mattresses, or propped in corners. Their bodies were alive, breathing, twitching, but their eyes were not. An old woman lay spread-eagled on a mattress next to a man sitting with his back against the wall. Her dress is pulled up above her waist and the tie-off hangs loose around her upper thigh. His tie is loosened and the sleeve of his white business shirt is rolled up, the syringe still in his hand. Both of them stare at nothing, oblivious to each other. The air stinks of sweat, filth, and poppy. It is quiet, only wraiths live here. Low voices emanate from somewhere farther back. These people didn’t come here for the conversation.
This was a new place to me. I’d been in ones like it before; they’re all the same. In the service, these places were far off post and I was there to find one of the men before he got caught or robbed or worse. These days I was usually here to retrieve someone for someone else, a loved one gone too long, or a son or daughter gone astray. Tonight, I was here to meet someone. We were supposed to become friends.
The two burly men who stood out of sight in the darkened doorway had checked me out carefully and competently. They worked like a team, one in front, one behind, ex-military most likely, worth whatever they got paid. I had been expected but they were cautious just the same. I’d taken my new knife, thinking that they would expect me to. I’m not comfortable carrying a gun, so I left it in the car. This was supposed to be a business meeting. They took my knife They both pulled it out of its sheath and hefted it, then smiled at me and winked. One of them carried it with him when he brought me inside. I’d be wanting it back.
We stopped in the front room to let our eyes get used to the low light; there was no sense tripping over anyone. Then we went back in the direction of the voices. There were more rooms opening to the right and left as we walked down a hallway, each one with the same decorator. At the end of the hall was a closed door and bright light shone underneath it. The voices inside were now louder and clearer. The big guy knocked softly, two knocks, a pause, then one. The voices on the other side of the door stopped.
From behind me the big reached around me and turned the knob, then pushed the door slowly in. Bright florescent light spilled out into the hallway. He let the door swing all the way open while his hand came up and barred me from moving forward. We did not step into the room; instead we stood in the doorway waiting. There were five people in the room. Two of them had guns pointed at the doorway: one was a pump twelve-gauge shotgun with a pistol grip, the other one a Colt 1911. It took me a few seconds to notice anything else in the room.
The other inhabitants were an elderly man and two young women. One of the women stood in the center of the room and was entirely naked. Emaciated, with sharp, bony points sticking out everywhere, every joint in her body appeared more prominent than the skin that covered it. Her knees and elbows incredibly knobby, she shook all over and shifted from one foot to the other. Her breasts were shrunken and lay flat on her chest. Even if she’d been healthy, they would probably have been very small. Her filthy hair was sparse, her scalp showing clearly in places. Her eyes were sunken deep in their sockets, and her lips were thin and cracked, pulled back from her yellowed teeth, and she chewed on the lower one. Up and down her arms and legs ran a roadmap of tracks. She appeared to take no notice of us in the doorway.
The elderly gentleman stood looking at us with interest, a syringe poised in his right hand. He was dressed in an impeccable tie and white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His well-creased pants appeared to be right off the hanger, and a matching jacket was draped around the shoulders of the last inhabitant in the room. She was hunched in the corner, sitting on the floor, pulling the coat around herself. It was not because it was cold in the room; she was trying to make herself as small as possible.
“You’re the one they call Hole.” Not a question.
“You should come in. We’ll be finished in a few moments. William, you should stay as well. Charles can handle the front. We will need an extra hand in a moment.”
I stepped into the room and walked to a corner where a capped gas pipe and the cracked linoleum evidenced a stove used to stand. Putting my hands in my pockets, I leaned against the wall. I was a little surprised they couldn’t hear my heart pounding in my chest and ears, or my asshole clenching and unclenching. I tried to keep my high school coach’s words in mind, “Always act like you’ve been there before.”
From the corner I could see the girl on the floor and watch the proceedings. The girl on the floor was young, thirteen maybe fourteen years old, maybe not even that. She’d had a ponytail, but the tie had come loose and now her strawberry blonde hair was tangled up in it and all over the place. She was wearing stone-washed jeans and high-tops, and cheap nail polish. Her eyes were the size of saucers but puffy. She’d been crying, but the spectacle in front of her had fixed that. Now she was dumbfounded.
“Melinda, we cannot find a vein for you. Which one have you been using yourself?”
“Jeezus, Mr. Anthony, I’m dyin’. I got bugs and worms crawling out of my skin, c’mon, please, I can’t hit nothin’ anymore. I been skin-poppin’ mostly. God! I itch all over. I can’t stand it. I think I hit one in between my toes yesterday day though. I put one in my tongue the other day, but I don’t think that worked too good.”
The man with the twelve just kept watching me, and his finger never came out of the trigger guard. The one with the Colt spoke up, but his eyes never left me. “Christ, Mr. Anthony, she’s all used up. You’re wasting good product on her. She’s not earning her keep anymore.”
“Quiet, Willy, that will sort itself out in good time. William, please step up and hold Melinda still. I’m going to put this into a vein in her neck. I would just as soon she didn’t flinch.”
The burly guy who had accompanied me from the front door and was apparently named William stepped up and, grasping Melinda by the upper arms, simply picked her straight up off the floor. It didn’t look like he expended any effort doing it. The syringe moved forward. Melinda did not flinch; Melinda didn’t do anything. Instead, with a long sigh, her head lolled back and her eyes rolled up into her head so that nothing but whites showed. William deposited her on the floor exactly where she’d been standing, and she sagged like a pile of jackstraws. Turning, he walked to the door, where he paused with his hand on the knob and gave me a look, a combination of disgust and pity is what I got out of it. He dropped my knife on the old kitchen table, where there were a few other things, and went out the door. The young girl stared at the heap lying in front of her, just a pile of white and purple skin with bony corners sticking out in all directions. A puddle of urine began to seep out from underneath Melinda, spreading out in her direction. The smell just one more factor in this room already filled with horrors.
Mr. Anthony walked over to a small table and stowed his syringe, zipped the leather kit closed, then put the kit into a leather briefcase which he closed and set down near the door. Opening a bottle from the table, he poured some of the contents on his hands and scrubbed them, the smell of alcohol adding itself to the stench of the rest of the room. Shaking off the excess he held his hands up while they air dried and stood with his back to me, looking down at my knife on the table. Finally, he picked it up, unsheathed it, and turned it in the light, examining it closely, and then put it down. He turned back to me and gave me a long “up-down.” The twelve-gauge had not wavered.
“You have an odd name.” He stepped around the one called Willy. “I’m sure there’s a story behind it.”
My mind was starting to recover from the adrenaline-fueled fear and anxiety. The timing of the events in this room was too convenient to be coincidence; it had been calculated as a demonstration. If it had been meant to scare me, it had succeeded. Act like you’ve been there before.
I shrugged. “It works for me.”
“You are ex-military, 173rd Airborne, a relatively elite unit, assigned to a reconnaissance squad. You received numerous decorations and were wounded, med-evacuated out of Vietnam with multiple injuries after an ambush and the subsequent firefight that included hand-to-hand combat. Only about half of your squad survived. You are rated expert both in rifle and pistol, and you also scored well in sniper fire. You carry a gun and a knife but apparently prefer to use your hands.
“You then served both stateside and then in Europe after that. You received an honorable discharge and separated with the rank of Specialist E-5, yet oddly remain on probation after your separation. You attend regular meetings with a probation officer, in spite of receiving an honorable discharge. A curious chain of events to be sure. Your record for much of your time in Germany has been redacted, however.” He peered at me to see if I might offer a clue. I didn’t.
“Even though your record has been laundered, there are things that can always be discovered if one knows the correct passwords.” He paused and ran his finger down the barrel of the twelve that was still pointed at my chest. “It would seem that you present a danger to people who work around you, Mr. Hole. It seems that you can be a rather bad man to get on the wrong side of. At least you were once.” He paused and took another step in my direction. Making eye contact he added, “I am in need of someone who still is.”
Most people who do the kinds of things that I do sort of expect employers to do a little background check, but Mr. Anthony had done some serious homework.
“I was concerned that the P.O. might present a conflict for you. I can’t have someone with divided loyalties, you see. People who earn their way to a probation officer can often attempt to ingratiate themselves—do them little ‘favors’ in hopes of reducing their probationary restrictions—I wouldn’t like that, I’m afraid.” He raised an eyebrow, and Mr. Twelve-gauge nodded agreement. “But it turns out that your probation officer doesn’t like you very much.” He shrugged and made a small smile with only one side of his mouth. “I spoke to him personally, you see. I was impressed by how fast the color went out of his face. He is scared to death of you. Can you imagine that.” He didn’t say the last sentence like it was a question but instead looked me hard in the eye.
Score one for team Walter Dunn. He scared the shit out of me too. Apparently, he had had a little chat with Mr. Couldn’t Give Two Shits.
The little girl still hadn’t taken her eyes off Melinda but had moved her feet back to avoid the piss puddle.
“I believe the story may have outrun the reality.”
“Anyone who fancies himself a ‘bad man’ can shoot someone,” he looked down at the heap at his feet, “or poison them. It takes a different kind of man to kill someone with their hands. You see their death as you deliver it. It is intimate—personal. You, Mr. Hole, have done it more than once, and on more than one occasion. Most normal people cannot even conceive what it must take.” Then with a half-smile,
“Who’s the kid?”
He looked me in the eye, a hard look. “Which one? They’re both kids.” He looked down at the heap of bone and flesh. “This burned-out skank is Melinda; she just turned sixteen. For the evening, Melinda is the lesson. She is what happens to others when they don’t want to behave the way we want them to. I’m afraid our Melinda is all used up and serves no other purpose to us anymore. The other is Megan. Megan is new—she just arrived today as a matter of fact. Little Megan has just had her first lesson, a hard one, I’ll admit, but life is hard sometimes.”
He casually put his hands into his expensive pants pockets and walked up to me, eye to eye.
“Megan is the package that I need delivered.”