An Excerpt From Devil Red
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We were parked at the curb in Leonard’s car, sitting near a busted-out streetlight. We were looking at a house about a block up. It was a dark house on a dark street next to another dark house, and beyond that was an abandoned baseball field grown up with summer-burnt grass that had died two months back but was still standing, the tops curved over like bent sword tips. A fresh fall wind was bullying some dead leaves about and we had the windows rolled down and the air was cool and soothing. Beyond the baseball field it was dark too.
The whole area wasn’t exactly what you’d call a great place to hang out. You did, there was a chance they’d find you next morning in a ditch with your throat cut, your pockets turned inside out, and sperm in your ass, or perhaps a sharp instrument. It was the kind of place where the mice belonged to gangs.
But there we sat. Sacrifices to fate.
I said, “I feel like a hired leg breaker.”
“You are a hired leg breaker,” Leonard said.
“This is pretty mean.”
“He beat up an old woman, Hap. Took her money. That’s so mean the mean has to wear a hat and tie.”
“A hat and tie?”
“It’s an expression.”
“No it’s not.”
“All right. I made it up.”
“Of course you did.”
“Thing is,” Leonard said, “the cops didn’t do dick.”
“They took him in for questioning.”
“Whoop-te-doo,” Leonard said. “And it was Mrs. Johnson’s word against his and now he’s free and he’s sleeping in that house, him and his bud, and they got the old lady’s money.”
“The bud didn’t hit her,” I said.
“Yeah, well, the bud ought not to hang around with the wrong people.”
“I hang around with you.”
“But I’m charmin’,” Leonard said, cracking his knuckles. “You ready?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What’s to think about? We took the job.”
“The money for one. Twenty-five dollars, to split. Really? That’s our payment?”
“Since when do you worry about money?”
“Since it’s twelve fifty.”
“It’ll pay us back for those cheap-ass baseball bats,” Leonard said.
“It will at that. We might even make a quarter or two when it’s all over.”
“So what are you complainin’ about? You’re comin’ out ahead.”
“We could go to jail. That’s one complaint. It could be me and you and Marvin and Mrs. Johnson, all of us sitting on a cot in a jail cell knitting sweaters with the words dumb ass across the front.”
Leonard sighed, leaned back in his seat, and adopted a tone akin to a father about to explain to a son why making bad grades in high school won’t get you far in life. “This douche bag ain’t gonna say squat. He’s got a badass reputation to maintain. Think he wants to say he got caught off guard and beat up by a worn-out honky and a handsome majestic queer with baseball bats?”
“Reputation? He beat up an old lady, what kind of reputation is that?”
“He probably doesn’t advertise that part, just the stuff about him being a big gangster and all. He’s a legend in his own mind. We’re just here to get Mrs. Johnson’s money back.”
“We’re going to rough somebody up for eighty-eight dollars?”
“And some change.”
“Yeah, don’t want to forget that, Leonard. He got another forty-five cents.”
“Forty-six. If you’re living on a fixed income, it matters. And, hey, we’re getting twenty-five dollars of it, and Marvin, he’s got a cut comin’.”
“You know we won’t take any of it, and he won’t either, and that this isn’t a real job. This is a favor. Marvin to her, us to him.”
“Yeah, but we can pretend,” Leonard said. “It’s fun. Didn’t you ever play pretend?”
I gave Leonard a sour look. “While we’re pretending, guys in the house might be serious. And I’m tired of beating up people and getting beat up.”
“All right, then. I’ll do the hitting. You don’t break anything. Him or the furniture. We’ll just let him know we don’t like him doin’ what he’s been doin’, and I’ll hit him on the meaty parts.”
“You’re just saying that, aren’t you? You’re going to break something.”
Leonard was silent for a time. “He broke her hand, so I got to think maybe his hand has to get broken. But you don’t have to do dick in that department, brother. Just come and watch out for his friend. The big guy, Chunk. I might not want him runnin’ up my ass.”
“Isn’t the friend’s supposed to be pretty damn big,” I said.
“Would it put you in better spirits if you broke the guy’s hand and I watched for the big guy?”
“Hell, man. You get to choose. Which is it?”
I sighed. “You do the breaking.”
“So we’re on?”
“Yeah, but remember, when we’re doing a stretch at Huntsville, I didn’t like the idea.”
“Noted,” Leonard said. “I’ll even give you my bread in the prison cafeteria.”
“What’s this guy’s name again?”
“What’s it matter?”
“I like to know who I’m beating up.”
“Thomas Traney took the money. The big guy, he’s called Chunk, that’s all I know. You heard this already.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t listening so good. I didn’t think we were really going to do it. Next we’ll be twisting grade-schooler’s wrists to find out who took whose lunch money. Or maybe we can take their lunch money ourselves, being tough guys and all.”
“You through bitchin’?” Leonard said, pulling on a pair of skintight gloves, then handing me a pair.
I nodded, put on the gloves, leaned over the seat and got the baseball bats, and handed one to Leonard.
We got out of the car and started across the dark yard, went over the dry grass, and up on the back porch. I looked back toward the baseball field and the dark there, just in case someone was watching.
Leonard leaned an ear against the door.
“Quieter than a politician’s brain,” Leonard said.
“We ought to leave it that way.”
Leonard touched the door and pushed gently. “This is a weak and shitty door,” he said.
I didn’t say anything this time. I knew it was too late. It was on.
Leonard stepped back and stomp-kicked the door hard. The door’s lock broke and there was a sound of splintered wood and the door swung wide and slammed against the wall, and we were in.
There was a hallway, and we went along that quick. There was a room to the left with the door open, and I looked in there. There was nothing but heaps of trash. I looked at Leonard and shook my head. The house stank of cigarettes.
Leonard went down the hall ahead of me, a man on a mission. I rushed to keep up. He boldly opened a door on the right and went in and I looked in after him. There was a mattress on the floor, and a woman on it, and there was a window to her right and a bit of moonlight coming through it. All I could tell about her was she was dark-skinned and her eyes were wide and she was nude from the waist up; the rest of her was covered in bedclothes. I knew from the way her head went a little to my left that she was watching someone in the corner, and I said, “Watch it!”
Leonard wheeled and a gun fired and everything went bright for a moment and a bullet whistled through the air and smacked into the wall. I saw Leonard move, and he was across the room fast as an arrow in fl ight. I could hear the air split as he swung the bat. The gun barked again from the shadows, and I jumped. I rushed inside the room, even though I wanted to do anything but that.
Leonard had someone on the floor in the corner and his bat went up and then down. The person on the floor screamed, and I heard something behind me. I turned in time to see a black giant in undershorts fill the doorway, then come into the room carrying a cane knife, wearing a moonlit expression that wouldn’t pass for humor.
He cocked back the cane knife and I swung the bat at him, hit him in the shin. He barked and stumbled. I hit him again, this time in the side. I heard him grunt and he dropped the cane knife at my feet. I put one foot on it and pushed it back and away from me, into the shadows.
I heard Leonard’s bat come down hard, and I heard him say, “How do you like it?”
But I had my own business. The giant tried to get up and I hit him across his broad back. He made with another grunt but got up, and I swung for his kneecap. He went down screaming, rolling on the floor, clutching at his knee. His shadow rolled and crawled along the wall with him.
Leonard said to his man, “You got some money?”
The guy on the floor, who I figured was Thomas, was only wearing undershorts. Just as a fashion note, his and Chunk’s shortsdid not match. He said, “You robbin’ me?”
“Nope,” Leonard said. “I’m takin’ back somethin’ you took that don’t belong to you. Where’s your wallet? And you better hope there’s money in it.”
Thomas had one hand up, to try and ward off the bat. He was otherwise stretched out on the floor, his head lifted a little.
“My pants are on the floor, by the bed. Wallet’s in the back pocket.”
“I’m on it,” I said. I went over and found his pants and took out his wallet and went over to the window where the moonlight was shining in. I stood to the side so I could watch the big man on the floor. He was still rolling around moaning and clutching at hisknee. I figured I had destroyed it. It had been one hell of a swing.
“He’s got maybe three hundred dollars,” I said.
“Take a hundred,” Leonard said, standing over his victim, the bat raised. “That covers what’s owed, plus a bit for our time and him trying to shoot us, and a little extra for the bats.”
I took out the hundred and dropped the wallet on the floor. I looked at the girl. She was kind of pretty, or would be with twenty pounds on her. The last meal she looked to have had probably came out of a needle and didn’t have taste. I wanted to save her, of course. I wanted to save everyone. I wanted to be somewhere else as well, and I wanted to be someone else, and I wished I hadn’t flunked algebra in high school.
I held up the hundred. “Got it,” I said.
“Good,” Leonard said.
“You’re crazy, man,” said Thomas. “I’ll come for you.”
“I don’t think so,” Leonard said. “You’re a fuckin’ coward.”
I saw the man turn his head and look at the gun he had fired. It was on the floor where Leonard had disarmed it. It was maybe six feet away. Leonard said, “That’s right, go for it. I’d love to make a homer with your head.” Leonard lightly tapped Thomas’s shoulder with the ball bat.
I could see by the way Thomas’s shoulders drooped that hope for the gun had gone the way of his young dreams. He was screwed and he knew it.
“Let me leave you with two bits of advice, one verbal, the other demonstrative,” Leonard said. “First, don’t rob and hurt old ladies. Second,” and with that Leonard brought the bat down on Thomas’s hand where it rested on the floor. The scream Thomas let out crawled up my back and nestled at the top of my skull and took a shit.
“That’s the demonstrative tip,” Leonard said. “That’s to let you know messin’ with and hurtin’ an old lady, that’s gonna get you hurt. You come back, you touch her, next time they find you it’ll be with this bat up your ass and your dead mouth wrapped around Chunk’s dead dick.”
Thomas was holding his hand, which, in the moonlight, looked kind of fl at to me. He was breathing fast and lying on the fl oor, completely stretched out. A sound like a dying mouse seeped out of his mouth.
Leonard leaned over him. “Let me make it even more clear. You bother me, or send someone to bother me, or my brother here, provided you even know who I am, who he is, and I’ll kill them, and then I’ll kill you, even if I don’t know for sure you sent them. And then I’ll kill you after your dead. That’s how much I’ll kill you. Savvy, asshole?”
Thomas had his mouth open and was holding his hand. It was like he wanted to speak but nothing would come out.
“Savvy!” Leonard said.
“Savvy,” Thomas said.
“That’s good.” Leonard said, then went over and picked up the gun and put it in his belt. He looked back at Thomas. “I’m not just whistlin’ out of my ass. I mean what I say.”
“Yeah,” said Thomas. “I got you.”
“But do you believe me?”
“Let me hear an amen.”
Thomas looked at Leonard like he’d lost his mind. So did I. Leonard just kept looking at Thomas, waiting.
“Amen,” Thomas finally said.
“That’s right, ass wipe,” Leonard said, turned toward the door, stopped, and looked down at the giant. He said, “You can get big as you want, Chunk, but eyes and balls and kneecaps, they’re what we like to call vulnerable. Tell him, Hap.”
“Vulnerable,” I said. “Don’t let me see your ass around either,” Leonard said.
“You might consider a different climate. Comprehend what I’m saying?”
The man didn’t speak. Everyone in the room was so quiet, we could hear their IQs drop. Of course, they didn’t have far to fall.
Leonard kicked him on the kneecap he was holding. Chunk bellowed.
“Well,” Leonard said. “I understand,” Chunk said.
I looked down at Chunk, and even in the dark, I could tell he was looking at Leonard the way I sometimes looked at him, like he was looking into a deep dark pit that had no bottom.
“Good,” Leonard said. “Our work here is done.”
I looked at the woman on the bed, said, “Probably goes without sayin’, but maybe you might not want to say or do anything either. And you’re maybe two pounds shy of organ failure. Eat something greasy.”
“Good,” I said. “Thanks.”
Out back we slung the baseball bats in the direction of the ball field. We went and got in the car. Leonard said, “You thanked her? And gave her a diet tip?”
“It just sort of came out,” I said.
“It took the edge off my witty remarks.”
“Well,” Leonard said. “You got to be you. How about we go by Wal-Mart, buy some cookies-and-cream ice cream, some vanilla wafers to dip in it?”
“Nothing like leg breaking and desert,” I said.
“I broke the motherfucker’s hand, and I think I got a rib too,” Leonard said. “You’re the one broke a leg. A kneecap.”
“I can still hear it crack,” I said.
“Maybe we’ll get a couple cartons of ice cream, brother.”
Leonard started up his car and pulled out.
I said, “That really made you feel good, didn’t it, Leonard? Hittin’ that guy.”
“I don’t know good is how I feel, but satisfied sort of fits,” Leonard said. “And he didn’t shoot me, so I feel good about that. Motherfucker would have done better to throw the gun at me, his aim was so bad.”
Leonard took Thomas’s gun out of his waistband and handed it to me and I popped out the clip and cleaned it with a Kleenex. I wrapped the clip in the Kleenex and Leonard drove by a Dumpster behind a mall and I dropped it in. Then we drove out to the edge of town and I wiped the pistol clean and wrapped it in a piece of newspaper from the backseat and gave it to Leonard and he carried it out into the woods. When he came back, he said, “There now, all done. I dropped it down an armadillo hole.”
“If we hear of armadillos taking over possum kingdom, then we know what happened,” I said.
We took off our gloves, Leonard drove us to Wal-Mart, and we bought ice cream and cookies. I didn’t say much when we got to Leonard’s place, which was recently rented and cheap and in a part of town only slightly better than the one we had just left. We went upstairs and sat in fold-out chairs in a corner that served as a kitchen at a crate that served as a table, and with a spoon apiece, and cookies to dip, we ate and counted roaches racing across the floor. There were a lot of roaches, and some of them were bigger than my thumb. I was glad Brett wasn’t around for a change. She would charge a rhino if she felt it necessary, but the clicking of roach legs on linoleum could run her ten miles and make her climb a tree.
When we were done eating, Leonard said, “You want to go home, or you gonna stay?”
“Drive me home,” I said. “Brett will be waiting. Besides, I don’t want to get eaten by roaches.”
“You have gotten so persnickety,” Leonard said. “I remember a time when you would have named them, made them each little hats, and called them your friends.”