Blues from a Gun, Chapter 5: Accidents Will Happen

By Bryan Pedersen

I had to get away from Jenya, but I didn’t want to be alone yet. It was still early so I swung over to The Ellipses for a drink. A few sections of the day’s newspaper were at the end of the bar. I found the crossword puzzle inside and started in on it.

It’s a simple way to waste a night, and one I find to be fairly relaxing. Deciphering the clues and searching for the words is a good way to forget about the things that are bothering me. Better even than the alcohol.

It starts out well, most of the empty squares seem to call out for their letters, but eventually I reach that point where only a couple of words remain and I can’t seem to grasp them. Times like these my mind has a tendency to wander, my concentration drifts, and I find myself face to face with my reflection in the mirror. And that’s no good.

Luckily, that’s all it took. I put my pen back to the page; fill in a few more empty squares, and that leaves only two words blank. One of the clues reminds me of something Frank told me years ago. He said that we all live in hells of our own making; that most of us construct our personal hell from walls of want. I can’t quite remember whether the floors and ceilings were formed by hopes or unrealistic expectations, but I do remember it all came back to what he called his one commandment: Thou shall not want.

But he couldn’t have meant that about everything because right now all I want is a seven-letter word for twenty-two down. That’s gotta be an okay want, right? Not even Frank could be that much of an ascetic.

Elton points at my nearly empty glass and I shake my head.

“Wrapping it up?”

“Getting there.” I put my pen down and finish off the drink.

“Say, do you, uh, remember that favor I asked?”

The answer is no, but I don’t tell him that.

“You know,” Elton continues. “About my, uh, business situation?”

Right, his missing money. “Of course I remember. What about it?”

“Oh, nothing, man, I was just wondering how that was coming along.”

I tip back my glass, nothing left in it but a melting ice cube. It slides into my mouth. “I’m still working on it.”

“Sure, that’s cool.”

“It’ll probably be a couple more nights. Are you here this weekend?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll fill you in then.” Putting on my jacket I wonder if I still have the business card Elton gave me of the guy handling his finances.

“I really do appreciate the help,” Elton says.

“I know you do.” I tuck the newspaper under my arm and head for the door but a small, firm hand snags me first.

“Hold on there a moment, buddy.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.” Tina sets an empty mug on the end of the counter. “Where were you last Friday night?”

“Me?”

“Still you. Because the thing is, I know where you weren’t.” She takes a swing, hitting me on the upper arm. “You weren’t at my birthday party.”

“Easy now.”

“I asked you to be there.”

“I know.”

“You said you’d come.”

“I said I’d try.”

“Wex!”

“Tina. I bet you didn’t even notice I wasn’t there until you saw me tonight.” She responds to that with a cute little fake pout. “I’m sure you had plenty of other people to celebrate with.”

“But that’s not the point. Don’t you know how a party works? A good party’s like a salad and the people are the ingredients, so you need all different types to make a good one.”

“Is that so?”

“It’s not so, it’s a salad.”

“And I’m not a cherry tomato.”

“But I wanted you there,” she says and pouts again, and suddenly I’m not so sure she is faking.

We talk it over awhile longer, eventually she backs me into a not entirely inauthentic apology. I’m not sure it makes her feel any better, but it’s all I’ve got.

When I get home I rummage around until I find the business card of the man Elton suspects is swiping his profits. I must’ve stuffed it straight into my pocket that night because I don’t remember noticing Fong Duc’s name on it before. Of course there were bigger things were on my mind that night, but if I had noticed it then I would’ve handed the card right back to Elton, would’ve told him that getting robbed is the price you pay when you put a crook in charge of your money. But since telling him all of that now would be admitting that I’ve been blowing him off I toss the card on my end table and make a promise to start on it in the morning.

***

The sun sits harsh and low, inches below my car’s visor, distracting me as I drive uptown. Even through my sunglasses I’m forced to squint.  It’s a struggle, but after almost forty minutes of bumper-to-bumper congestion I get to where I need to be. Time to recruit.

The same cold sun’s rays split and sparkle off of the surface of my destination, a towering steel-and-glass structure housing the Burcham-Klein offices. Through the revolving doors, a cavernous ground-floor lobby has been transformed into a lush, open space. At its center, surrounding the information desk and a few scattered chairs and couches, stand two tall trees and a bubbling little brook. It’s almost beautiful, a corporate Zen garden, and I’m treated to a bird’s eye view of it on my ride up the glass elevator, but after the eighth floor the scenery is obstructed by dark stone walls with tiny recessed lights. It’s a changeover that says, “That was nice; now let’s get down to business.”

Bobby’s office is on thirty-four, but I’m not going that high today. I get out at twenty-seven to a sea of honeycombed cubicles sprawling out across the floor. Energetic corporate drones scuttle about while their clamoring desk phones keep time.

It all looks very legitimate, like some plugged-in group of day traders, and for all I know that’s exactly what they are. I don’t know the half of what Burcham-Klein handles, how much of it is legal, how much isn’t. And I don’t even care. I’m only here today to see Morris Hoffman.

Far more important than any of the worker-bees, Morris has his own office located in the opposite corner. Following the aisle around the cubicles I’m given cause to ask myself what it is about coming into work that seems to guarantee I’ll run into the person I can’t stand the most.

“Chuckles!”

Shit.

“Fin,” I answer. It really is amazing. I couldn’t even guess at how many hundreds of offices there are in this building, yet Fin Dwyer just has to be coming out of the very one I’m going into. Time to make nice. “Pleasure to see you, as always.”

“Likewise, I’m sure,” Fin says. “So what brings you down here? You get lost? Bobby’s office is upstairs, Chuck.”

I hate being called Chuck, but I’ll let it go for now. “I know where it is.”

“So why are you here? Working on something new?”

“Social visit this time.”

“With ol’ Morris? How about that? I didn’t even realize you two were acquainted.”

“Sure you did.”

“Heh, you may be right. I suppose I did.”

“What about you?”

“I got myself a donor that hasn’t checked in.” He grins crooked and looks like he wants to spit. “Seems she had second thoughts and took to running.”

“That’s too bad,” I say, even though I’m not completely sure what he’s talking about. “Sounds like a lot of extra work for you.”

“Nah,” he says, and for a second his eyes almost sparkle. “I kinda like it when they run.”

Of course he does. I’ve had enough of this so I crane my neck, looking out to the windows across the cubicles, searching for something in the sky that’s of more interest to me than him. A cloud would do fine.

“Well,” he finally says. “Until next time.”

“Can’t wait.”

After Fin disappears down the hall I rap on Morris’s closed door.

“Enough. Go!”

I peek in and the top of his bald head is staring back at me.

“He did. He’s gone,” I say.

Morris looks up at me with his owlish eyes. “So he has.”

“May I?” He nods so I enter and take a seat beside his desk. “Why do I get the impression Fin leaves everyone in that state?”

“It would appear that Bobby likes him.”

“Well, there you go.”

Morris shakes his head. “You ever have Fin try to talk politics at you? It’s unbearable. He condenses and regurgitates all of the bile fed to him by talk radio. And how anyone can combine power-to-the-people with might-makes-right is beyond me. It’s positively schizophrenic. It’s…” I watch him struggle with the words. His cheeks shift from a sallow, waxy-white to a pink as his ire builds, and then just as quickly he stops. “I apologize. That’s not why you’re here.”

“Oh, no, it’s fine. Rant away.”

“We’re both better off if I don’t.”

“You’re sure?”

“No. Wait. Yes. I’m finished.”

“In that case,” I say. “I’m looking for some help with a project.”

“Professional or personal?”

“Purely personal. It has nothing at all to do with the company. The favor is illegal, possibly dangerous, probably difficult, and I can’t say for sure if you’ll even get paid.”

“Sounds interesting.” He scratches his chin. “What do you need?”

***

With Morris for the brains I still needed some brawn, and Harlan Gibbs is all that and then some. I’ve never heard his exact measurements, but I’d list him at about eight feet tall and four hundred pounds. Of course that could be an exaggeration.

The guys I work with, guys that occasionally do a job alongside Harlan, they try to top each other making jokes about it.

“Harlan’s so big, when astronauts look down from space all they see is land, sea, The Great Wall of China, and Harlan Gibbs.”

“I went to a movie the other night. When I bought some popcorn the girl asked me if I wanted that small, medium, large, or Harlan Gibbs.”

One long night while parked outside a house in the suburbs, waiting on a guy who never showed, Harlan told me his favorite. “Apparently I’m so big that they’ve started casting Godzilla versus Harlan Gibbs.”

So I told him mine. “Harlan’s gotten so big that he doesn’t even return Oprah Winfrey’s calls.”

He liked it. I liked him. We’ve been friends ever since.

I park my car, knock on his front door, and when he answers he has his newest, a three month old named Zoe, tucked in the crook of one Redwood-like arm.

“Hey, come in,” he whispers. After I enter he closes the door behind me, latching it quietly. “Lemme put her down. I’ll be right back.”

In his living room, I sit on the couch and glance around. The shelves are covered with pictures of Harlan, his wife Emily, and their three kids. Stuffed animals and plastic toys are scattered across the floor.

When he returns he takes a seat in the recliner across from me. It groans beneath his weight. “How you been?”

We catch up, but then I get to the point of my visit. It doesn’t take long to explain what I’m working on and he immediately agrees to help. We spend the rest of the afternoon talking about old times, having some laughs. In the middle of it he gets up to answer the cries from the back room. While he changes his daughter’s diaper I try to reconcile this man with the one I once saw bite a head off a live rooster to frighten a gang of knife-wielding teens.

“Tell Emily I said hi,” I tell him on my way out the door.

“I’ll do that. See you tomorrow night.”

He gives me a wave with a hand the size of my head and it reminds me of something Frank once said about him.

“Harlan Gibbs is so large that all of us are a part of him, and he’s a part of all of us.”

And sure, I suppose it works on a certain level, but I sort of get the impression that Frank feels that way about everyone.

***

I spent the morning sleeping in. After getting up I sat in my kitchen and had a bagel, but that only lasts so long so I wasted the afternoon in a record store, then picked up a rental van and went back home to wait some more. Time crawled slowly after that, but it’s finally reached midnight, and it’s time to get to work.

The streets are frozen and empty. It’s only me and the radio out here right now. I hit half a dozen stoplights on my way to pick up Morris. About fifteen years older than me, he’s what I might’ve become had things not taken a turn in a strip club alley five years ago. Sometimes that bothers me. It’s not that his job is squeaky clean, I’d bet none of ours are, but the financial work he does is far more respectable than what either Harlan or I do. Morris’s work is the sort that, at least on the surface, he can share with acquaintances. That’s got to make things easier.

I park in front of the high-rise condo, buzz the intercom and he answers, letting me up. The apartment’s layout is familiar, clean, cold and quiet; similar to my own. Smaller, though, and without the view, but still nice.

Back in the van we head to our next stop. Even with little traffic it’ll take some time to drive over to Harlan’s.

“Nice place,” I tell him.

“Hm?”

“Your condo, it’s nice.”

He doesn’t respond at first.

“Seems big for just one person, though.”

I can see him study me before answering. “I like it.”

“Reminded me of my place. I like it, too, but I have to admit that sometimes it feels… I don’t know. I guess maybe it feels sort of empty. You know what I mean?”

He doesn’t answer. There’s fifteen more minutes before we make it to Harlan’s and I’m thinking it’s going to be one awkward journey. I’m beginning to search for other topics of conversation when he opens his mouth.

“Yes,” he says, drawing the word out slow and cautious. “Sometimes.”

A red light and we stop, waiting for nobody to cross in front of us, waiting for permission to move ahead with our night.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know what my deal is lately. I suppose it’s just a phase, but it seems like there should be something more, something—“

“Get a cat.” He reaches over and turns the radio up and that’s the last thing said on the trip to Harlan’s.

Pulling into the driveway I catch a large silhouette in the living room window. Harlan’s pacing back and forth. I knock softly, not wanting to wake his whole family, and he answers with baby in arm, a bottle in the little girl’s mouth.

“Mr. Mom works all night, huh?”

“I need a few more minutes,” he says. “We got the time?”

“We’re fine,” I tell him and head back to wait in the rental van.

It’s warm enough in the van, heater running at half-speed. Morris says something that I can’t quite hear over the radio so I turn it down and ask him to repeat it.

“I said that Harlan’s gotten so big, Stephen Hawking’s currently developing a theory about him.”

***

There’s nothing incredibly original or complicated about what we’re heading out to do. It’s your basic shakedown, and it’s not too different from the sort of work Harlan and I are occasionally assigned.

Morris made step one incredibly easy. He had the connections to get the proper script and codes and when the time was right, made the call. When Fong Duc answered Morris played the part of an operator at the security company, told Fong that something had set off the alarm at his building. While Fong was wiping the sleep from his eyes Morris explained that a van from the security company was already at the scene, along with some police, and that even though it appeared to be a false alarm we still needed him to come down and reset the system. Fong grumbled and cursed a few times then said he was on his way.

His building is a four-story rectangle of moldering cement wedged into a mostly deserted stretch of the city. Other than a couple hole-in-the-wall bars and a grocery store with iron bars over the windows Fong’s is the only real commerce around.

It’s nearly two in the morning now, so of course the lights are off, but during business hours the fluorescents and neons act as a beacon to all around. The first floor nail salon is where most of the traffic occurs. It’s probably the most legitimate of Fong’s ventures. Above that, the second floor houses a specialty massage parlor. The specialty’s no secret. Third floor doubles as jewelry and pawnshop. Placing it up there acts as a security measure; if anyone were to rob the place they’d have to pass all sorts of witnesses on their way back down.

At the top is Fong’s office. It’s where he runs his little empire, and also where he’d have kept track of Elton’s finances, along with whatever other sketchy ventures he dabbles in on the side.

With the van parked out front, Morris and I wait at the door in navy blue jumpsuits and ball caps and wait for him to arrive.

“It’s freezing out here,” Morris says.

“You’ll be fine.”

“I can’t feel my feet.”

“Distract yourself.”

“And how would I do that?”

“I don’t know. Play with the alarm box.”

Morris stomps on the sidewalk a few times to get his blood going. “I’m serious. If he doesn’t show soon I could lose a toe.”

“No you won’t.”

“I might.”

“You wore two pairs of socks, right?”

“I did not.”

“Well, then you might lose a toe.” But then two headlights swing around the corner toward us. “Hey, just in time.”

I wave to Fong as he parks alongside our van. Barely five and a half feet tall and built like a wire hanger, Fong storms up to the alarm pad to reset it. “Move over!”

As he does, Harlan comes out from around the corner, towers quietly behind the little man. When Fong sees that the alarm is already armed he takes a quick step back, bounces off of Harlan’s chest, and says, “Oh.”

“I will admit,” I say. “The phone call was misleading,”

“Simple misunderstanding, yeah?” Fong says. “You here to rob me?”

“Not exactly. We just need to check on a few things. Think of this as an audit. Now, if you would.” I step to the side so he can get to the alarm box and locked door.

“Okay, okay,” Fong says. He reaches in a pocket and pulls out a packed key ring that’d make any janitor proud, picks out one amongst the many and reaches for the door.

I crack his wrist with the side of my hand and send the keys crashing to the ground. “How about turning the alarm off first?”

Fong looks up at me and rubs his wrist. “I have to try, you know.”

“No,” Harlan says as he reaches out a hand and swallows up one of Fong’s bony shoulders. “You don’t.”

We climb the four flights in the dark. I lead and the linoleum-covered steps squeak under my feet, pop back and crack again as Fong follows. Morris keeps close behind him, Harlan bringing up the rear.

At the top Fong picks another key from his ring and opens the door. He flips a switch and the fluorescent lights flicker and warm. Their stark glow gives everything a pallid, cheap look.

The trip up the stairs has Morris wheezing.

“He gonna be okay?” Fong asks.

“I would suggest installing an elevator,” he says between breaths, “but I’m never coming back here, so.”

The whole fourth floor is one big, dirty room. A long counter on one side looks like an old jewelry display case, now housing only a few small cardboard boxes and a lot of dust. On top sits some crumpled bags from various fast food joints and a napkin with a small, congealing puddle of ketchup.

We walk Fong to the other side, to a desk littered with paperwork and several half drunk mugs of tea or coffee, the liquid inside gone fetid, evaporating and sharing their scent with the room. Rows of metal file cabinets line the wall. The corner of his desk holds an old computer, its keyboard blackened by years of greasy fingers.

“What you want?” Fong asks. “Money?”

“Could be.” I tell him about Elton’s concerns, his suspicion that his finances aren’t being handled properly.

“He lying!”

“Now, Fong…”

“You wanna see books? That it? Fine, I’ll show you.”

“Nope, not me.” I point to Morris. “Show him.”

Harlan and I step back and wait while Fong turns on his computer, pulls some files from one cabinet and lays it all out for Morris. I watch and do my best not to touch anything.

Fong points at numbers and notations on the pages, keeps saying, “See?” Morris’s face is impassive. Fong goes on, circling a couple of items with a chewed-up pencil and growing indignant. He taps on his keyboard some, pulls up a file and prints something out to show Morris.

“Hey,” Harlan says to me in a lowered voice. “On the way back, can we stop somewhere? I need to pick up diapers.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. Turns out my little girl’s a poop machine.”

“You know, when she gets older I’m going to tell her you said that.”

After a few more minutes of interchanges between Morris and Fong, Morris looks up at me.

“Switch spots with him for a minute,” I tell Harlan, and Morris and I step out into the hall.

“Well?” I ask.

“What he’s showing me, it adds up. But…”

“But?”

“But it would,” he says. “If you’re going to embezzle you’re going to keep a clean set of books to show your client.”

“So we need the other book.”

We head back into the room and Fong asks, “Now can I go?”

“Fong, your place is disgusting. Let’s get some fresh air.”

The roof is icy but flat, its eastern edge hanging out over a narrow alley. Nothing pretty above us, the lights from the city cast a gossamer blanket between us and the stars. The only charm of this particular night is its lack of wind.

Harlan follows Fong up the stairwell, and when the little guy hesitates Harlan gives him a shove from behind. Fong stumbles and slips along the roof’s icy surface, but doesn’t fall.

“Easy, man! I showed you what you want,” he says.

“You showed some,” I say. “Where’s the rest?”

“Rest of what?”

I turn to Harlan and he grabs two fistfuls of Fong and lifts him up, holding him out over the edge.

“The fuck, man? Lemme go!”

“Don’t put ideas in his head,” I say. “Now, where’s the other set of numbers, the ones that show where Elton’s money went?”

“There aren’t…” he twists his neck around and looks down at the alley floor below. “Shit, oh, shit! I’m not lying!”

Harlan’s very big and very strong, but holding someone out in front of you, even one as wiry small as Fong, it won’t work for long. One trick is to let him hang close enough to the edge to get the tips of his feet on it. It’s amazing how much weight your toes can support given the chance. And it’s no less frightening for the man hanging out in empty space. Those toes won’t be enough if the other guy lets go.

“How much did you take?”

“C’mon, man, I wouldn’t do that.”

“Fong.”

“Okay, I would, fine. I would, but I didn’t. See? Man, there nothing to take!”

I nod at Harlan and he stretches his arms out a little further. Fong freaks.

“Serious! His checks, they bounce,” Fong says. “He’s broke! His last check to me bounced.”

“Thinkin’ about seeing if you’ll bounce,” Harlan says.

“Shit, man! You been to his place? It ever look busy? No, man, it a dump. It empty. He don’t make no money. He make nothing, how can I steal?”

“Where is it, Fong?” I say and Harlan lets go with one hand, letting Fong twist for a second before pulling him back again. It freaks him out.

“Fuck, fine! I’ll pay. I don’t care, okay? Just let me… Fuck, I’ll pay!” Fong’s yelling now, and he tells us about the safe hidden in his floorboards. I flip open my cell and call down to Morris, tell him where it is, then pass along the combination.

“Let me back up, okay? I don’t fucking care, just don’t drop me, please.”

I figure we’ve got what we need so I nod to Harlan, and that’s when Fong’s toes slip off the edge. Harlan lurches forward, adjusting just in time to keep his grip, to keep Fong from dropping. There’s a moment where everything stops, but then a loud tearing sound splits the night as Fong’s shirt gives out under the pressure leaving only a strip of fabric in Harlan’s fist.

It doesn’t take long to fall four floors. Fong screams, his voice rising in pitch all the way to the bottom. After he hits I turn to Harlan, say, “What the hell was that?”

“Sorry, man. It was an accident.”

We both look down at the body. A few years ago a man I was working with fell from a height like this and didn’t die. He spent a long time in the hospital afterward. To this day he can’t walk properly. But he got lucky, he’s still alive. Looking down now at Fong and the way his body is twisted on the cement below, he wasn’t so lucky.

“Shit.” Harlan turns to me. “Will you help me clean up?”

Back down the stairs, and I stop on the way to tell Morris what happened. He’s crouched on the floor, pulling packages out of the safe.

“There are some very interesting things in here,” he says, “but I’m not sure we’re going to find what you’re looking for. I’m starting to believe he’s telling the truth.”

“Me too, so just do whatever you think’s best. We’ll be out in the alley. Call if you have any questions.”

“Sure, I’ll – hold on, why the alley?”

“We dropped him.”

“You dropped Fong?”

“Yeah.”

“Off the roof?”

“Yes.”

“Huh,” Morris said. “Now that’s a shame.”

By the time I make it downstairs Harlan has the van backed up to the mess. It makes loading easier and should also block our hasty little cleanup job from anyone that might pass by. We get started but after a minute I have to step back for a moment. I’m not sure if it’s merely a case of déjà vu, but seeing another dead body in yet another dirty alley is becoming far too common to me an experience for me.

It only takes thirty minutes to clean up after Fong. The fall wasn’t quite high enough to splatter him about too far, but he did leave a sizeable puddle of blood for Harlan to sponge up. I scoured the edges, finding one of Fong’s teeth beneath a dumpster some twenty feet away. There’s really no way to get the alley to a forensics-level of clean, especially not in the dark, but that’s not necessary. As long as we clean it so that nobody guesses it as the scene of a man’s death we should be fine.

It’s actually fairly mundane work, similar to cleaning up a typical household spill. But one moment stood out. In the middle of searching for bits of Fong along the wall I glanced back and caught Harlan going through the dead man’s wallet. It wasn’t money he was pulling out, though, it was pictures.

“He had kids,” Harlan said when he caught me looking. “Two girls and a boy.” It’s all that he said while we cleaned. When we finished, Harlan stayed in the van with the body while I went to get Morris.

Upstairs, I find him alone in the dark, sitting at Fong’s desk. He’s already replaced the floorboards over the safe. From my spot in the doorway the computer monitor blocks half of Morris’s face, lighting him with its faint blue glow.

“Finished?” he asks.

“We’re ready. What’d you find?”

A couple of final pecks at the keyboard cause the glow on his face to flicker. He looks down at a fat yellow envelope resting on the edge of the desk.

“Is that the money?”

“Yes.”

“How much did Fong take?”

“From your friend’s bar?” His eyebrows lift for a second. “As far as I can tell? Nothing.”

Approaching the desk, I notice he’s using a pencil to type the keys, and a tissue is resting between his hand and the mouse. I pick up the envelope, and it’s heavy. A peak inside reveals fifties and hundreds. “So what’s the deal with this?”

“That deal is something the Nazis taught my people many years ago,” he says as he shuts down the computer. “There’s no better person to rob than the dead.”

With the computer off now it’s even darker. The only light left is cast from a bare bulb at the top of the stairwell behind me. It throws a naked glow into the room, but my body blocks its light from Morris. I can’t see him for my shadow. “In that case, did you find anything for yourself?”

The chair’s legs scrape the floor as he pushes back from the desk and stands.

“Let’s get going,” he says.

***

Thanks to our careers, Harlan and I each have a wealth of experience in the act of disposing a body. When we pull Fong from the back of the van Morris stays to the side, the back of his hand covering his nose.

“You did that?” he asks Harlan.

“Sorry. We picked up all the pieces we could find, though.”

“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, huh?”

By the time we finish, the traffic into the city is starting to pick up. An hour from now and the sun will follow suit. We’re almost back to Harlan’s house when I remember.

“Shit,” I say. “You wanted to pick up diapers.”

Harlan’s expression has been blank since finding the pictures of Fong’s children. His expression didn’t change through the cleanup, the disposal, the ride home, or now.

“I’ll get ‘em later,” he says.

I pull up to Harlan’s house, thank him for his help, and let him out. It’s bugging me as I back out of his driveway. I wanted to apologize for tonight, for how it turned out, for something, but I didn’t know what to say.

“How long have you known him?” Morris asks.

“Harlan? I’m not sure. Four or five years.”

“So you didn’t know him before he met Emily.”

“No.”

Anger is the only thing I’ve found that speeds up Morris’s words. Every other emotion only serves to exaggerate the natural pauses in his speech, and his words come slowly now.

“You should have seen him before,” he says, each syllable delicate and precise. “Harlan, back then, he was an awesome sight. He was the only man I’ve ever known to intimidate Bobby Hoynes.”

I sit quietly while he chews at his bottom lip.

“Handling Harlan is Bobby’s job. That is, it’s a part of his job. Ideally, Harlan is a tool which Bobby can utilize to accomplish his goals. But there are ideals, and there’s the reality of a situation.” Morris reaches to the dash, adjusts the air vent, turning the heat away from him. “You’ve heard of how dangerous TNT was before Nobel invented dynamite? Heard how it was nearly as likely to blow apart a miner’s hand as the rock it was intended for? Back then, before Emily came into his life, it was the same with Harlan.”

He pauses again, measuring out his thoughts with words. “After Emily, Harlan calmed, so much so that some whispered Bobby had hired her for that very reason. After Emily, see, it’s not that Harlan wasn’t still a powerful force; he just wasn’t as likely to blow up in Bobby’s hands. If you’re still following the analogy.”

“I am.”

Morris rubs his hand over his bald head and says. “A couple of years pass; Harlan marries Emily, they have a child,” he says. “How many do they have now?”

I think back to the happy pictures decorating their house. “Three.”

“Three. So, in the beginning,” Morris says, “Bobby had to be careful with how he handled Harlan, with what he asked of him, how hard he pushed. Then Emily came along, and now, with three kids, a house in the suburbs… Tell me, Charlie, how long do you think it’s been since Bobby’s had to worry about Harlan doing something rash? And how much would you wager that when Harlan goes to bed at night, beside his lovely wife, down the hall from his three young children, how much would you bet that Harlan now finds himself visited frightened by the varied ways in which Bobby Hoynes is now able to hurt him?”

A few blocks go by as he lets his lesson sink in. “So, in the interest proper clarity, let me repeat myself,” Morris says. “You ever find yourself feeling lonely, in need of companionship? Get a cat. They’re replaceable.”

Soon after that we pull up in front of his place and I let Morris out. In the silence that fills the van my mind drifts to thoughts of Fong and I start worrying. I’ve killed far better people than him so I know it’s not guilt. But something is sitting wrong with me, something that feels like what happened on this night isn’t going to just fade away quietly.

That’s not at all what I wanted. All I wanted was to help out a friend. But as Frank said, wanting leads to disappointment. And I get it, I see what he means. I understand because right now what I want most is for someone to be waiting for me when I get home, someone to reassure me, to maybe even distract me from all of this.

Someone, something.

Something more than a cat.


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