I was cold. Freezing cold. When I was losing consciousness, I didn’t feel any pain, but now I felt it. The pain was persistent, a nagging pulse coursing through my body, not in time to my pulse. I was lying face up on a table, and something was covering my face. I brought one hand up, and it hit a hard edge above me, I have to admit I panicked. I thought I was buried and in the ground, which is nothing I would ever want to experience, being alive and buried, that is. What calmed me was, in fact, the blanket. It was a fabric-plastic sheet, easy to wash and though it was pitch black, I thought I knew what it was. A covering you found in the morgue. I’d been there a few times to identify bodies, never like this.
“Fuck. Charlene, what did you do to me?” My voice came out a croak, and I was thirsty enough to drink a Coors Light. I needed water.
The ceiling was low above me and metal. I was in the freezer of a morgue. I pulled the cover from my face; it didn’t improve my vision any.
“So I am in the morgue.” A flood of joy hit my neural pathways. “Why didn’t…oh, yeah, yeah, I see it. That was rhetorical, Charlene.” More joy.
“So they think I’m dead?”
“Did they do an autopsy on me?”
“Are they going to?”
“So I have to get out of here before they do?”
I received a mixed signal.
“Okay, okay, I got ya there is something else.” I shivered, “I’m freezing, this cold is gonna kill me.” I made it as a statement but received a joyous burst of yes from Charlene.
I was lying on a metal tray, essentially a coffin. All the movies I had seen put the bodies in head first, so I should be able to kick the door open. I braced my hands over my head and pushed myself down to the other end of the unit. It was surprisingly far. I guess they have to account for a wide variety of short and tall people, so it makes sense.
I kicked the door, it didn’t give. Maybe they started locking these things since the zombie scare a few years back? Slowly I tested the door with my feet, keeping my toes near the edges as I did so. I felt a rubberized seal around the edges, which seemed to have some give in the upper and lower right corners. I concentrated on the upper corner, putting my strength into it and I was rewarded with a popping sound and light spilling into the cavity I was laying in.
The door swung wide and made a loud, metallic crunch. Getting myself out proved problematical, the try kept wanting to slide out as I moved, then would slowly move back into the recesses of the refrigerator as I struggled to twist off of it. Finally, I just let it settle all the way back to the far wall and gave a shove with my arms as hard as I could. This propelled the stainless steel tray I was on from the unit into a large room with florescent lighting. The change in light blinded me for a moment, and I chose to roll off to my right, which knocked over a tray of tools on a mobile work bench sitting there. The plastic tarp came with me, and I used one hand to shield my eyes for a moment and the other to clutch the shroud to my body. I stayed very still, listening to see if anyone was coming to investigate the noise. I heard nothing and started shivering uncontrollably while I waited. Easing my hand from over my eyes I took a look around.
“Charlene, be honest, did I die?”
A mixed signal.
“It’s more complicated than that?”
“Can I die with you inside of me?”
A mixed signal. I was still freezing; the morgue didn’t feel much warmer than the refrigerator. I wrapped the covering around me, pulling it over my head like a blanket. It was ill suited as a blanket, but it seemed to help slightly. I pushed the table back in and shut the door, leaning against it for a moment to get my balance back. My muscles were stiff, and my body didn’t want to respond to what I was asking of it. Slowly I turned and braced my back against the wall to get my bearings.
The place was insanely clean, no personal effects, no handy doctor scrubs or loose flannels hanging around to use for warmth. I was in more of a laboratory than an office. There was a long row of glass along one side with cubicles on the other side of it. There was a door set in the side of that glass wall. Unfortunately it was a long way across the room. I didn’t see anyone through the glass, and the lights over the cubes were dimmed.
I sidestepped until the mobile tray I had bumped into was close to me. I pulled it close and used it like a walker to get over to the door. The door had a lock on it, but it was one of those that opened from the inside and gave me no problems when I tried to move through. There wasn’t a bump separating the lab from the cubicles, so I continued to push the tray ahead of me as I started wandering the cubes. It was noticeably warmer here too. The first row of cubes, facing the glass walls of the lab, looked like they had occupants. There was a woman’s jacket hanging from the first cube I passed, but I kept on moving to the end of the row, where I saw a set of blue hospital scrubs hanging from a hook on the cube wall, along with a windbreaker next to them.
I left the rolling tray and got myself into the office chair in front of the desk. As my knees bent to lower myself into the chair, I heard my joints pop audibly. From my new position, I pulled the scrubs down. The shirt was large and fit me easily, I wadded the pants up on lap and was instantly rewarded with a meager amount of warmth. The windbreaker went on next, and I even pulled the light hood up over my head for whatever insulation it could provide. I started shivering uncontrollably, and my teeth started chattering. I sat there for a moment trying to warm myself before I tackled getting the pants on. By the time I had struggled into them I was leaning over the desk, which had an old-fashioned clock on it; it was 2:15 in the morning. I had to be in Vegas, which meant a body could come rolling in at any time.
“I don’t think I want anyone to find me. That means I have to get warmed up, clean up this mess and get out of here before the next corpse passes through the doors.”
Charlene didn’t reply.
I watched the clock for fifteen minutes until I started feeling drowsy and my shivering subsided to a more controllable level. My feet still looked like gray lumps by the time I stood up, but I had regained better feeling with them in during my brief rest. Keeping one hand on the top of the cubicle wall I took a few steps to see how I was doing. I didn’t fall, but I wasn’t confident I could bend over without toppling. Still, walking solo was going to be an important part of getting out of here. Looking at this guy’s desk I scoured it for other things I could use. I found an expired id tag in his top drawer. It had a clip on it, and I pinned it inside the jacket to the scrubs. His name was ‘Mark Trujillo,' I could pull off the ‘Mark’ at least, but his dark complexion was not possible if my face had the same hue as my feet.
Time to go. I pushed the tray back to the laboratory door and gave it a try, to my surprise the door opened, and I was able to push the thing back in. Once inside I rolled it back over to where I thought it came from near my…what? What do you call the tray that dead people rest on in a morgue? A slab? I’m going with slab. I positioned the tray there and examined the door, it was slightly bent at one corner, where I had forced it open, but I didn’t think it would be noticeable at first glance. A quick look around and I couldn’t see anything else out of place, it would have to do.
I walked carefully back to the laboratory door, my shivering had started anew, and I was acutely aware of how cold the tile was on my bare feet. I closed the door behind me and stood staring at the body bag on the floor just outside the cube where I’d taken the scrubs. Bending over would be too much, but like an old man I used the side of the cube wall to lower myself to one knee so I could get my hand on the thing. I stood up and marched to the next line of cubes, where I paused to rest for a moment before getting ready to follow the obvious path out, as dictated by all the ‘exit’ signs. As I was standing there, the lights came on over the cube farm.
I heard the ding of an elevator door beyond the doors ahead of me and shuffled off down one row of the cubes. When the doors were slammed open from the other side, I sat down in the next cube I had reached. This one was full of supplies, not personal effects. I stash the body bag in an empty bottom drawer. Helpfully there were little booties to put over a person’s shoes. As the next body was brought in, I was pulling blue booties over my feet. The crew didn’t waste any time, I heard one of them ask the other which unit to put the guy in and his partner answered “Number seven.” that was it. They didn’t even linger around to chat, just in and out. The lights went out a minute after the elevator dinged. Time for me to go; for real this time.
I pushed through the door to be confronted with more heat and an elevator. The heat was welcome, but I didn’t linger. There were signs to not use the elevator in case of fire, so I looked for and found the stairs. There wasn’t an alarm on them, and I walked up one level to the ‘ground floor’ and checked out the reception area through the glass set in the stairway door. There was a bored looking woman sitting at a desk, looking over the lobby. She watched the ambulance leave, stood up and then disappeared back into the office behind her.
I pushed through the door into the empty reception area, softly easing it closed behind me. There was a bathroom and water fountain on my right between me and the outside door. I decided to risk it and went into the bathroom. I needed water still, and while the water fountain would have worked, the sinks in the bathroom were out of sight. Belling up to one I cupped my hands and drank my fill of water, turning on the hot water and relishing the warmth as it poured down my throat. The reception area and bathroom were cooled against the desert heat, but the water made up for the chill. It felt like I was there sating my thirst for ten minutes, but I’m sure it wasn’t that long. Now I had to make my escape. I opened the men’s room door just a sliver and glanced at the reception area. The woman had not yet returned. I quickly left the bathroom and made my way across the lobby to the exit doors of the building. They were automated and dinged loudly when they opened.
I used as much vigor as I could and moved through them and off to one side as quickly as I could. I don’t think the receptionist saw me. Outside I relished in the heat of the night for a moment before I walked down the slight ramp to the street. I got my bearings and found that the morgue was attached to the hospital, which appeared to be just a few blocks off the main strip. Lacking any other direction, I decided to head that way, feeling every pebble on my feet as I went. I needed to figure out what had happened. To do that I needed resources.
Looking around I thought about where I was and what I could do. Harold’s place was too far out to walk to. I had no money. I sure as hell wasn’t going to show up at Andro’s place like a beggar, hat in hand. The “Terrestrial Tours” company was out this way, less than three kilometers from where I was standing. What were the odds that my bag of snacks and phone were still stashed in the bus? It was worth a detour to go and find out.
Perhaps an hour later I was walking up to the tour company lot, there was a bar over the driveway to prevent cars from pulling in at night, but I easily walked around it and began looking for the small bus I’d stashed my phone in. There were only three of the shorter buses, and I was able to find the one I had been on using my keen memory; I got into detective work for my keen attention to detail, after all. It was the number by the door that gave it away.
The door was closed, but it was one of those bi-fold deals, and it opened without much effort as it was no locked. I found the bag where I had left it, including the two bottles of water and the bag of chips. I had 18 forwarded calls. I sat down in one of the seats and broke open the first bottle of water. While drinking it, I ate the chips and started to think about what to do. I needed to get back to Woody’s place. Chances are my car would still be there. I had spare keys under the bumper, and I had left a few hundred dollars in the visor. Hell, the bulk of the casino winnings should still be hidden inside of it as well. That brightened my mood considerably.
How to get there was another matter. I had no money. No cabbie was going to run me out to Woody’s….damn, no I was wrong. I looked at my phone, I had texted Anaj from it. I smiled and called him.
“Who is this?” his accented voice answered.
“I need a ride, Anaj, are you working tonight.”
“Who is this?”
“I assure you it is.”
“You are dead.”
“I assure you I am not. Now will you come and get me? I’m out at ‘Terrestrial Tours.'” I gave him the numbers off the building as I looked out at it from the bus. “And Anaj, do not tell anyone. Okay?”
“I’ll park close by, you’ll have to walk out to me, I’m not getting robbed.”
“Anaj, I’ve had a rough couple of nights, I’m not going to rob you.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. “Okay. I believe you. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
He pulled up in his taxi about three minutes later, he didn’t stop directly in front of the tour company, and I did have to walk over to him, when I tried the door, it was locked. He rolled down the front passenger’s window a crack, I noticed it was very thick, like bulletproof glass thick.
“Anaj.” I said.
He peered out through the crack of the window, “By the prophet! It is you!”
“I told you.”
He shuffled through the papers sitting beside him until he came up with one he was looking for, which he thrust through the crack of the window. “You made the front page, Mister Compass. I recognized you. And I dropped you at Andro’s place. I knew he was bad business. Am I in danger?”
“No, I don’t think they are going to go around killing every taxi driver who I got a ride with. What am I looking for?”
“Front page, fold it back.” He lowered the side window a little more.
Finally, I found the front page; I’d made the headlines, “Shiner Compass, Slain in Gun Battle in Las Vegas” the byline was “Many questions left unanswered” I looked at Anaj, “I don’t suppose we can do this transaction off the record?”
His only answer was to turn on his ‘Off Duty’ light and unlock the doors.
“Thanks, Anaj. How’s your wife?”
“Oh, you know how she is. She is still angry with you from the other night, which means I am still giving you goodwill.” He said in his clipped dialect.
“Would you do me a favor?”
“Anything, my friend.”
“I need a phone. I feel like I shouldn’t use the one I bought the other night anymore.”
“We can stop by the Alt-Mart.”
“I don’t have any money.” I thought for a moment, “Yet. I mean. I need you to drive me to this guy’s house, where the gun battle was. I have money there that I can repay you with. And for the ride.”
He nodded, “You are a man in need, whether you can pay me or not matters nothing. I shall take care of you. Billy. Or should I call you Compass?”
“Billy is fine, Anaj. Thank you.”
We got to the Alt-Mart, and he made a call to his wife, they had a brief shouting match in their own language, which he apparently won, then he got out of the car. I moved to join him, and he shook his head and forced my door closed, “No. They have cameras everywhere. Best if you are not seen, no?”
“You’re probably right.”
“What size of shoe do you take? Are you wearing, excuse me…underclothing? What about a shirt and a different jacket?”
“Anaj you don’t have to…”
He held a hand to my face, going so far as to press his finger against my lips, it smelled of tobacco and the wine he had given me two nights before. “Billy, do not offend me by declining my hospitality. I will not hear of leaving you ill equipped and ill dressed. Give me your clothing sizes, or I will just estimate.”
I gave in, and he recorded the information on his phone. “Do you have your old phone?”
“Shall I dump it here?”
“Give it to me, and I’ll take care of it.”
I handed it over. I didn’t know this guy that well, but somehow I trusted him and my gut was rarely wrong. I started getting antsy after twenty minutes, but I stayed in the car. I did rubber neck, keeping an eye on the streets for the police or feds or even long, dark cars that could be gifts from the Ramos cartel.
Somehow Anaj managed to get five steps away from the car without me noticing when I did finally see him I twitched in surprise. He laughed, “It is only me, my friend.” He unlatched the door and sat two bags of goods and a large shoe box in the back seat with me. “I could find no one to help me with the phones until I complained to the manager, I think I purchased the same one you had before, yes?”
I dug around in the bags until I found the phone, along with two twenty dollar calling cards to charge it up with. I looked up, and he was watching me closely, “Yes, Anaj, it is the same. Thank you for having faith in me and for your loan of money to purchase these goods.”
“It is nothing. You can change on the way. Do you know the address?”
I shook my head, “Not really, I just know how to get there.” I told him the highway we needed to get on, and he got in and started driving while I investigated the bags.
“Give me the phone, and I will charge it up here while we drive. Will you have a car there, at your friends?”
“My car is there. I’m not sure I want to take it. I’ll see what condition it is in; it may be out of commission.”
“Okay, we shall play this by ear, as you say.”
He drove, I changed. Everything fit well enough and was clean. Someone had cleaned me up in the lab, but I still felt gritty and in need of a shower. The shoes were especially welcome. Anaj had gotten me a pair of low cut hiking boots with steel toes, more of a working boot. They fit fine with the wool blend socks he got me. Otherwise they might have been a little big. I wadded up my old clothing and stuff it into one of the sacks. Into the other one, I stuffed all of the packaging for the goods he’d bought and then tucked that into the box the boots had come in.
I also had a powerful pocket flashlight and a utility pocket knife, one with pliers and various screwdriver and knife blades, I tucked these into the pockets of my new medium weight jacket. The receipt was conspicuously missing from the bag, but I knew better than to ask Anaj about that.
By the time I was dressed Anaj was on the road to Harold’s place. The gate was open, which didn’t make me feel too good.
“I can walk from here.” I told Anaj. He pulled in and started up the road.
“My friend ‘can’ and ‘will’ are two different things. I will get you there and stay as long as you need me.”
“I really hope no one is there to greet us.”
“Your Mister Harrel is staying in town, at the Giza. It was on the six o’clock news.”
“He might have left a security force out here.”
“Yes, he might have. Or remote surveillance. Or some of Andro’s thugs may be out here too.”
“Worry is for old women and young children. I am an adult, and I know that wasting time on worrying about things that may never happen is a waste of time indeed.”
The house looked horrible. True, I hadn’t seen it from the outside since I ducked into the garage, but it looked destroyed. Harold had taken off all of the logs from the front, leaving gaping holes where the contents of the room were on display for all the world to see. There were three metal lights in the driveway, one had been knocked sideway, almost parallel to the ground and wasn’t working. The other two provided enough light to view the front of the house and the garages. Both of the garage doors were perforated with bullet holes, but only the woodshop had been blown open. My car, unfortunately, had been parked by the woodshop. It was laying on the driver’s side door, wheels facing the house.
“It looks like you might need a ride after all.” Anaj said. As he turned off his light and drove to park next to my car. “Here?”
“Here is good.”
I climbed out, watching for any movement from the ruins. Anaj came with me as I approached the top of my car. “You might want to stand back.” I warned him. He moved back a couple of steps and I braced my feet on the ground and pushed the car. The metal twisted and groaned as I grunted and struggled to right it. Anaj jumped in and lent his weight and strength to the effort, the car tipped over onto its wheels.
“Won’t they notice?”
“Probably, but I didn’t feel like climbing around inside of it like that, and I need to get into the trunk.” I didn’t have the keys, but I hadn’t locked it, and the passenger door opened up when I tried it. The windshield was fractured, and both windows on the driver’s side were shattered and gone. The back window was amazingly intact. I pulled the latch for the trunk, which popped open. Using the light Anaj had bought me I fished around in my glove box for part of my casino winnings, they were where I left them. In fact, everything was there, my revolver was still under the driver’s seat and the special Sun bullets I’d gotten from Agent Dermott were still in the trunk, along with some more of the cash. I had some spare clothing in the trunk as well, a few shirts and a pair of slacks. I’d been in business long enough to know that a clean set of clothing comes in handy, whether it’s to change into after a long stakeout or…because it gets soiled in a little fisticuffs action.
“You have a gun, good. I almost bought you a knife, but I thought, ‘what would a Shiner do with a knife?’” Anaj said.
“I’m not big on fighting at all. I guess if push comes to shove I’d rather have a gun than a knife, but I’d much rather be sitting on your patio drinking fine wine with you and that wife of yours.”
“The time will come for that, my friend. Have you no other weapons?”
I shook my head. “There are weapons in the house.”
He looked at the devastation, “Is it safe to go inside?”
“Probably for me.”
“I will go too.” He said firmly.
I put my stuff in the cab, aside from my revolver, and we went into the house. I stopped by the edge of the couch; there was a large pool of dried blood on the flood. It had been smeared, stepped in and tracked all over the place. Moving my eyes further afield I didn’t see any of the rifles Harold had given his men and I. “This way,” I said, moving to the basement door in the kitchen. The electricity was out here, but something was beeping downstairs.
We moved down, and I saw that the wall to the secret part of the basement was back in place, a keypad was beeping with a soft LED light keeping time with the noise. I moved to the pad and tried to regurgitate the numbers I had seen Harold use. He had only changed the passcodes by one digit for the remote hatch and the door to get into the basement safe room. Could it be that he only had ten different codes he used by changing only one number in his pin? It was pretty much the only shot I had so I entered in 54078 for my first try. The panel flashed green, and I heard a mechanical click as machinery unlatched the door. It pulled open fairly easily, and I was looking into the safe room and the armory.
“Did you know the key?” Anaj asked.
“I got lucky; Harold is a person of habit.” The lights here were working, when I palmed the switch by the door, they came on quickly and silently, bathing the area in clean white light. There were bloody boot prints on the floor, leading from the door to the gun safe. The safe was open. I could tell from where I was, still standing in the doorway. Why would they leave it open? An oversight by Harold or had someone else been in here. I couldn’t see the security team making a mistake like that either.
I stepped into the room and cautiously looked around, nothing else seemed out of place, the back door to the tunnels was still closed; the cart and the shop looked exactly as I had last seen it. The only thing different was the bloody tracks on the floor and the open safe.
As I was puzzling this out one of the computer monitors came to life and I saw a hazy, dimly lit Jacob appear on the screen, he was sans shirt and in the background was a hotel room suite, with Vegas showing through the window beyond. “What the fuck?”
“God damn technology.” I muttered, I should have known they would have this place wired up with cameras and electric alarms.
“You’re alive!” Jacob yelled. I saw the picture blur as he moved the camera around with him, obscuring the video. “Harry! Oh my God! Harry!”
Harry? I guess I could see that. Fuck. “Anaj, do you want to move outside? They might not have gotten a good look at you yet.”
I appreciated the gesture, it probably didn’t matter anyway; they had probably been filming us the entire time. Harold’s face came onto the computer screen, from the jittery shot it was clear they were using a cell phone or tablet for this call. “My God, Compass! Oh my God!”
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, Harold.” I thought Charlene would appreciate that. I got a warm buzz of pleasure from her.
“What happened? How did you? It’s never, no one…” Harold said.
“Look, Harold, Jacob, security isn’t coming out here, are they? I’d hate to have to explain things to them.”
Jacob said, “Stay right there, give me a minute.” He disappeared from the screen, and I heard him making a phone call in the background.
“What happened? They shot you. In the head, you were dead. They were working you as the ambulance took you away, but you had no heartbeat. The doctor’s told me you died in surgery, the coroner let us see your body when they were done with you, your...your brains were oozing out the back of your head, Billy. You were dead.”
“I was wondering what had happened.” And now I knew. Charlene, we so need to talk.
“You didn’t know?”
“The last thing I remember is they were trying to get the gun off of my shoulder.”
“It went off when that idiot guard’s hand slipped into the trigger guard.”
Nothing was ever that easy. “Say, Harold, could you check on him? That guard? Do a thorough background check, see where he came from?”
“I’d bet, if I were legally still alive and a betting man. Unfortunately, my new status is going to come with some complications.”
“No one comes back, Billy. I mean, yeah there were rumors of the Phoenix in ancient times, but if they are still alive they’ve been keeping a low…. Oh my God are you the Phoenix? Or Lazarus?”
I rocked backward, What the hell is he blabbering about? “No, no. Jes….I mean, uh, get ahold of yourself, Harold! I’m not a two-thousand-year-old Shiner!”
Jacob’s face reappeared beside his lover, “Security is not on its way. No one is going to be out there except us. We’ll be there in forty minutes.”
“No, no, there’s no need for that!” I said, “I was just hoping to grab a rifle and some ammunition to augment my gun.”
“What? You’re going on an armed vendetta against the Ramos Cartel on your own?”
“I’m not happy with them right now.” I admitted, “But I’m not suicidal either.”
“It wouldn’t matter, you’ll just come back!” Harold laughed.
“I don’t know that. I don’t know what happened.” I lied, “And I don’t know if it will happen again and I’d sure hate to find out I was wrong. Plus, if they killed me again, they would probably burn my body or worse, encase it in concrete and drop me in a lake, wouldn’t that be great? No, I’m working on something else. I’ll get revenge when I solve my client’s case.”
“You are working a job? Already?” Jacob asked, from beside Harold.
“I was working a job when I came to see you, we just hadn’t gotten around to that part of the conversation yet.” I told him.
“Who are you working for?” Harold asked me.
“Client confidentiality. I won’t tell you.”
“What’s the job?” Harold asked, he was pulling on clothing, having handed the phone to Jacob, who now had a shirt on.
“No. Client confidentiality.”
“But it means going up against the Cartel. I can help.” Harold called over Jacob’s shoulder.
“Just let me grab a gun and get out of here.”
“We have other weapons there.” Jacob said, “More discreet.”
“I have my revolver for discreet.”
“Who is your friend?”
“Don’t say anything!” I warned Anaj.
“Anaj Khalaf. I am a cabbie.”
“Anaj I will give you a thousand dollars if you just stay there until we arrive.”
Anaj shook his head, “My friend, I am very pleased to meet you, but I am here for my friend Billy and cannot be bought so readily.”
I saw Anaj hesitate for a moment, but he finally shook his head, “I cannot. Billy needs friends right now, and the Lord God put me in his path for a reason.”
“Billy I never understood how you get people to do things for you. Are you a mentalist of some sort?” Harold gave an exasperated sigh, “Please just stay there, okay? I’m not telling you, I’m asking you, I’m begging you if it helps, please just stay there until we get there and we can hash this stuff out.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Fuck!” Harold swore, disappearing from sight.
The camera moved to show that Jacob was following Harold to the elevator. They were in the Giza; I saw the insignia on the wall of the elevator. “Billy?” Jacob asked.
“Stay if you can. There isn’t a rush; the world thinks you’re dead.”
He sighed too and brought the camera close to his face, “Okay, stay or don’t. The guns in the safe have been disabled, the firing pins have been removed, and the cops took them when they left. It was the only way they would let us keep the ones that hadn’t been fired. In the shop, we have a drawer marked ‘Atv Inlet Needles,' you’ll find more firing pins there. The code for the ammo cage is 9478.”
I heard Harold in the background, “Jesus! Why don’t you tell him the combo to the safe too? Maybe he needs some ready cash?”
“Quiet, I’m trying to convince him to stay.” Jacob turned back to me, “There’s no money in the safe; otherwise I would give it to you. The security team took most of the assets out of the cabin when we left, I’m sorry we can’t offer you any help financially…unless you wait for us. We set up the ready room in case the perpetrators came back and broke in. To get pictures, you know, just in case.”
“I understand. I said I would think about staying put, so maybe we’ll be here when you arrive.” It struck me as funny that Jacob was the one effectively getting me to stay while Harold ranted in the background.
“Okay, here is what we can do for you if you stay. Money. Transportation.” Jacob hesitated, glanced off the screen and then said, “A new identity. So you can travel around and use credit cards and things.”
It sounded too good to be true, but then I knew who was actually providing the backing; Andro. “You have my interest. I’ll be waiting here. Nothing happens to Anaj.”
“Nothing bad happens to Anaj.” Jacob clarified. “We know how to treat our friends.”
“Being friends with Andro right now could be very dangerous for Anaj.”
Jacob frowned, and the tablet passed from him to Harold, “Andro runs this town, nothing can touch us here. And you worked…uh, work for him too. I’ve already had a talk with the boss, and he told me you accepted a position running security for Bircus. If you didn’t know it, he owns Bircus too.”
“They have a contract, that’s all, short term business.”
“I caught up with my reading, I saw you in the paper and on the e-sites. You are, were, moving up in the world, for someone who had a dull shine.”
‘Dull shine’ was a term used for people who had what society considered a ‘low-level ability,' usually, my inherited toughness, strength, and healing ability would have been considered good, but low level.
Harold continued, “Of course, now we know you actually shine brighter than most of us, don’t you?”
I heard Jacob say, “Thanks.” to someone then Harold was ducking into the passenger seat of a nice looking sports utility vehicle. Their car started, and they were off, the strip flashing by as they went. The video got choppy, and the audio dropped, making me miss Harold’s point.
“….so you see why?”
“We’ll talk when you get here, you’re breaking up right now.”
He nodded and the screen blacked out. I looked over at Anaj, “You should probably go.”
“Go, my friend? Why would I go? He promised me ten thousand dollars just to stay here.”
I laughed and clapped him on the back. “Shall we go upstairs and raid the bar?” I did grab a gun, a firing pin from the shop and ammunition from the cage before we went upstairs.
Tradition in a bar dictates that you put the highest priced liquor where it is most likely to break if it falls off the shelf. The bar upstairs had been hit by some bullets and quite a few of the bottles had fallen or been shattered, however, there was still a decent selection. “Harold keeps a good bar.” I said to Anaj, “What’s your poison?”
Anaj pointed to the middle shelf all the way to one side. “It is a brandy, made with fruit. That one is apricot, very good.”
I got down a bottle of whiskey for myself and a couple of whiskey glasses. There was a long leather couch in the room too, it was facing the front wall, which was missing. I dusted it off and sat down on it, inviting Anaj to do the same.
He let me play host, and I opened and poured a stiff drink into his glass, which he picked up and sniffed. I poured myself a slug, and we toasted, he said, “Slahnche!” and we drank.
“Was that Arabic?” I asked.
He shook his head, “I speak Bosnian, Italian, and English, but that toast is Irish. I’ve been told it means ‘Health!’”
“Are you a Muslim? I’m just curious, I don’t care if you are.”
“I am.” He raised his glass in front of himself, “But not a very good Muslim.”
“Oh, right, no drinking for you. Why not?”
“It befuddles our ability to see God.”
“So I am told. At least that what the Imam would say when he came by and drank Rakiya with us. Wine was popular also.”
“Were you in the war?”
“I was. I lost much of my family; tonight is not the time to talk of such things. One day my friend, we will have time to discuss my life. Tonight, perhaps, we should focus on yours?”
“I have no set plans right now.” I said.
“You plan to go after the Ramoses?”
“No.” I shook my head for emphasis, “I absolutely do not. Not directly.”
“Not directly. I see. So indirectly?”
“Probably. What do you know of them?”
“What I hear on the news radio. What I read. Andro does not like them. I read that they tried to kill him when he traveled to Canada. There is a feud of the underworld. Criminals killing other criminals? Why should anyone care?”
“Well, he runs Sin City, without him you might not have as many people to pay for rides.”
“That is true, but there are always going to be people needing rides; I could move to the coasts and ply my trade there instead.”
“Speaking of which…” I pulled my wad of cash out of my pocket and held it out to him, “This is all I have, please take as much as you feel is proper as repayment for the ride this evening.”
He took the cash, which half surprised me and fanned it out in front of us on the coffee table. “A friend doesn’t need repayment for help given when it is needed. However, I have the missus to account to in the morning, and I am unsure if your Harold will come through as he promised.” In the end, he took three hundred dollars, and I forced another two hundred on him beyond that, to buy something nice for his wife, which is as much as I felt he would take without being offended.
“Thank you for helping me, Anaj. You could have taken all of my money, and it would still not have been enough to repay you.”
“Your generosity does you credit. Now, tell me, Billy how will you go about your plan?”
“I need a place to lay low, to hide out for a few days. I have to think things through. I was not lying when I said I had no plans. I have some ideas, but I do not yet know where to go.”
“In a few days, you will?”
“I am sure a goal will become clear to me.” Right after we talk, isn’t that right Charlene? She didn’t respond to me.
“You could stay with me. Our apartment is small, but no one would think to look for you there, and we are surrounded by neighbors who do not ask questions.”
“People are trying to kill me, and I would never bring that into your family.”
He seemed almost relieved at my refusal, “They already killed you, who goes looking for a dead man? It is alright.” He said raising a hand to ward off my denial again, “I can see you are set to protect me, and I understand and appreciate what you are doing.”
“I will ask Harold if he has a place I can stay, the man has a lot of money and has houses and apartments all over the place.”
“He sounds like a good friend to have.”
“He isn’t my friend.”
“He seemed very friendly.”
“Actually we sort of don’t like each other. I recently did something very important for him, so owes me a debt.”
“He is a gay? He likes the gay sex?”
“I have learned to keep my judgments to myself about these things. Americans are so liberal. I am an American now, so I too must be liberal. Some liberal things are harder for me to accept than others. I will guard my disapproval when they arrive.”
“I used to think like you do, Anaj. I’ve had to change my mind recently.”
He eyed me with a slight squint, “If I’ve offended you…”
“You have not. You have only treated me as if you were a good friend and I want things to stay that way. I am sure you will be fine around Harold and Jacob. Do you have children?”
“I have four, a boy 16, a girl 14, another son who is 6 and the baby, my last son, who is 4. My oldest two children died in Bosnia years ago, in the fighting.”
“I am sorry for your loss.” I’m a frickin’ idiot, he told me he was in the war.
“It hurts every day. I am lucky my wife survived; that I survived. We got out together. We left the children with neighbors, who would seek out and kill children? We underestimated the enemy.”
He waved a hand dismissively in front of me, “The men who did these terrible things to us…they were only doing them because we didn’t do these things to them first. If we could have, we would have. That’s the guilt I carry with me. I am glad I am out. My children will be free of this curse.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I changed the subject slightly, “Is your younger son in school?”
“He is in a special program, his English is not very good, but there are many boys and girls who are in the same circumstances as he is. He goes to a special school to learn better English and basic maths and sciences. He likes his new little friends, but I cannot get him to speak to me in English at home. I only speak to him in English, but he answers in Serbian. Do you have family?”
I shook my head, “I never found anyone willing to put up with me.”
Anaj laughed, “I know some good girls in my building. I will introduce you when your business is done. They would be proud to have you and you could be assured that they are very devoted and loyal.”
“I’ll look you up when all of this is over. I think that’s them.” I pointed to the head lights coming down the road toward us. “At least I hope that’s them.” I reached around and took the rifle into my lap, barrel resting on the coffee table.