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Authors: Peter Blauner

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled

Slipping Into Darkness (6 page)

BOOK: Slipping Into Darkness
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“You need a minute?” The doctor put aside his chart.

 

“No. Why?”

 

“It’s a lot to take in. Most people would be very emotional.”

 

He looked over the doctor’s shoulder at a cross-section of the eyeball poster that one of the major drug companies had thoughtfully provided. From the side, the figure first resembled a blowfish with dozens of labeled spines coming off it. The iris, the cornea, the anterior chamber, the sclera, the bulbar sheath, the ciliary zonules. But the longer he stared, the more the shape seemed to change. The orb flared a brighter shade of orange and then pulsed and dimmed like the sun getting ready to explode.

 

So this was the future. One day the lights would go out and the world of visible things would cease to exist for him.

 

He started thinking about everything he hadn’t seen yet. What about that driving tour of Ireland he’d been promising to take Patti on? Giant’s Causeway. The castles in Dunluce and Carrickfergus. The so-called ancestral home in County Armagh his father was always whinging on about. Would he have to be in the passenger’s seat the whole time?

 

Forget Ireland. What about just walking to the paint store on Court Street? He should go there right now and look at the color wheel, check out every single shade before his gray zone threshold got any lower. Or maybe he should just go out to Belmont, sit in the stands, and watch a horse run. Just to see how its muscles moved under its skin, to watch the rippling in its flanks and try to freeze-frame the half-second when all four hooves left the ground.

 

He thought of his uncle listening to the results from Yonkers in the kitchen of the old apartment by the Cross Bronx. His cane against the wall, letting his guide dog eat the scraps that fell off his plate, always yelling for Francis or his sister to go look for his Winstons, when the pack was sitting less than six inches from his elbow.

 

Not for me,
thought Francis.
I’ll eat my gun first.
He’d tell no one, at least for now. Less than six months from finally getting the bump to First Grade and the extra five grand a year for the pension? Screw the Braille lessons and the audiobooks. Screw the guide dogs and metal canes. Screw asking strangers to help get you across the street. He was fine. Nothing wrong with his fixation yet.

 

“I’m gonna be all right,” he said.

 

“Are you?”

 

“Sure. I’m used to dealing with bad news in my business.”

 

“Really?” The doctor cocked an eyebrow. “Telemarketing must be tougher than I thought.”

 

 

4

 

 

 

L
ONG AGO, IN
a distant land . . .”

 

Hoolian lay like a broken clock on his cousin Jessica’s ratty-ass brown sofa, twitching in and out of consciousness, while the TV blared and a roomful of little girls played dress-up around him.

 

“I, Aku, the shape-shifting master of darkness, released an unspeakable evil. . . .”

 

He opened one eye and saw a cartoon demon on the screen with a pitchfork head and green lips, then drowsed off again for a few seconds as the narrator talked about a brave young warrior who stepped forth with a magic sword to oppose him.

 

In his half-awake state, he saw himself as the young samurai with his sword, on the steps of the courthouse in a long white robe, his hair knotted back with a chopstick, his blade curving and flashing as he laid into enemies on all sides.

 

“Now the FOOL seeks to return to the past. . . .”

 

He swung the sword again and the crowd gasped and parted, revealing a girl stretched out before him, gagging and pointing to a slash in her throat. His heart shrank as he saw his father behind her, cradling her head and whispering to her in Spanish, trying to keep her calm.
Lo siento, muchacha. Lo siento.

 

He sat up suddenly and found a little girl with a tarnished doll’s face and stringy black hair staring at him, waving a handle in his face.

 

“Would you do this for me?”

 

He rubbed his eyes, trying to get oriented, bits of sleep stinging like ground glass in the corners. It was close to four in the morning when he finally got Jessica on the phone, just coming home from a club, and walked over to her apartment from the boardwalk. Even at that late hour, he’d noticed that things seemed a little off. The heat was up too high and there was nothing in the refrigerator except for a carton of Tropicana orange juice, a few greasy containers of Chinese takeout, and a half gallon of milk three days past its expiration. Five of them were living there and sharing one cramped bathroom, with mold on the walls, a cracked mirror, and a chipped seat on the toilet. Before she showed Hoolian the sofa, Jessica mentioned he had to be quiet because she had three “babies,” who needed their sleep. But now that he looked around, he saw she also had the flyest most up-to-date equipment money could buy: a wide-screen TV, a PlayStation 2, and one of those shiny high-tech stereo receivers with the little red lights that changed from a pyramid to a plateau in time with the beat.

 

“I can’t reach the back.” The girl waved what he finally recognized as a brush in his face. “Do it for me, please.”

 

He covered himself with a blanket and saw that the clock above the TV said it was almost eight o’clock. Why weren’t these girls getting ready for school?

 

“Come
on!
” She thrust the brush at him impatiently, six years old and used to demanding attention.

 

He hesitated, not sure if he could trust himself.

 

“Go already.”

 

He took the brush and watched as she turned like a diva expecting her stylist to make her beautiful. A glistening black seaweed tangle confronted him. It seemed wrong to disturb it, to interfere with its wild natural splendor, to ensnare himself in any way.

 

“What’s wrong with you?” She glanced over her shoulder. “You
stoopid?
”

 

Gently, he put the brush against the back of her head and slowly swept it down, realizing that he had never done this before.

 

“Do it harder,” she insisted.

 

He looked around, hoping Jessica or her current boyfriend, “Exclusive,” would come out and take over for him. But their bedroom door remained firmly shut and the two other little girls kept playing their dress-up game, ignoring them and shimmying like disco harlots.

 

He pulled the bristles through her dark strands, noticing it had been a while since the girl washed her hair.

 

“
Ow!
That’s
too
hard!”

 

He leaned forward, concentrating, steadying her with one hand on top of her fragile little scalp, gently guiding the brush with the other, the worst of the snags already taken care of.

 

“Now you got it!”

 

He was finding his rhythm, getting the glide in his fingers.
Here I am, just brushing a little girl’s hair.
Without a trace of self-consciousness, she sat down on his knee. He reached for the blanket to cover more of himself, afraid that the simple pressure of a warm body would give him an erection.

 

Of course, then the bedroom door opened and Exclusive strolled out, a bony-ass dude with cornrows and a build like a dislocated middle finger, scratching his nuts in beige bikini-style Jockeys. Hoolian already half suspected the man was pitching crack at the projects, what with all the expensive gear lying around. He cast a long mulish look at Hoolian and the girl as he went into the kitchen, grabbed the orange juice out of the refrigerator, and drank straight from the carton. Definitely not someone Hoolian wanted to hang with. The dude left the quart on the counter and sauntered past the two of them, hand stuffed in the back of his briefs now, scratching his ass as he smacked his lips.

 

“That your daddy?” Hoolian asked, nudging the girl off his lap.

 

“Nah, he Exclusive to my baby sister. But he jealous.”

 

A few minutes later Jessica emerged, droopy-eyed and pudgy-kneed in a “Tupac 4 Ever” T-shirt, pink panties, and brown toenail polish.

 

She beckoned him into the kitchen and looked down at the floor. “There’s a problem with you staying here tonight.”

 

“Why?”
He saw the little girl whose hair he’d brushed peeking at him from around the refrigerator.

 

“You know.” Jessica trapped the big toe of one foot between two toes of the other. “My man just don’t think it’s a good idea you being around the kids right now.”

 

“You’re putting me on, right?”

 

“He very protective.” She glanced toward the bedroom doorway, where Exclusive had reappeared. “He don’t like another man touching my girls.”

 

Hoolian looked between the two of them, trying to figure out the balance of power here. “But your moms and mine were sisters. What about
la familia?
”

 

“I’m sorry.” Jessica looked up at him with cowlike eyes. “Please don’t hate me for this.”

 

“
Don’t hate you?
You’re my cousin and you’re putting me out on the street. What do you want me to do,
thank you?
”

 

“Yo, man.” Exclusive came into the kitchen. “What’s the problem?”

 

“There’s no problem. I’m just talking to my cousin.”

 

“Shorty asked you to leave. So why don’t you bounce?”

 

“Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?” Hoolian made a fist. “How ’bout that?”

 

He saw Exclusive freeze and look back toward the bedroom, as if he’d left his courage in there. Something about the way his cousin followed the look told Hoolian there might be a gun under the mattress.

 

“Aw, forget about it, man.”
Hoolian waved in disgust. “Y’all ain’t worth the trouble.”

 

He went back to the couch and started stuffing the rest of his clothes back into his duffel bag, aware of the girl still tracking him, as if his skin were melting away, revealing a shivering shameful monster underneath covered with oozing sores and exploded carbuncles.

 

“Yo, I don’t know what the hell you expected anyway,” Jessica said. “You may be
la familia,
but I don’t even fucking know you.”

 

 

5

 

 

 

THE COFFEE SHOP menu was longer than
War and Peace,
and Francis found his eyes getting tired as he scanned each page from side to side with its tiny columns of daily specials, soups du jour, pancake breakfasts, lunchtime wraps, triple-decker sandwiches, Greek dishes, and Mexican delights.
Jesus, they really went on here, didn’t they?
In a few years he’d probably need somebody to read it all for him. He closed the leather-bound book in disgust and looked up at the waitress.

 

“Just give me two eggs over easy and a side of bacon, cup of coffee,” he said, defying Dr. Friedan’s warning about the effect of diet on his disease. “And gimme an English muffin with lots of butter on it.”

 

Across the table, Paul Raedo, the executive assistant to the Manhattan DA, ordered a plate of raw carrots and a cup of Lipton tea with honey and lots of sugar.

 

“And they call
me
a flake,” Francis grumbled.

 

Paul, who’d asked Francis to join him for a late breakfast near City Hall, was a human exclamation point, a sleek guided missile in a Brooks Brothers suit. Francis sometimes felt a trifle uncomfortable discussing cases with him in the office, because Paul would bounce off the walls like a hyperactive child, close-cropped hairs poking up like hundreds of tiny nail points through his scalp, black suspenders gripping his shoulders like restraining devices. But he was a good man to have beside you at the barricades, always ready to go for the top charge, agreeing to talk plea deal only after he’d shown a defendant the gates of hell. More than once Francis had begged off going to one of Paul’s famous Tuesday Night Massacre Poker Games, figuring that after a long brutal day in Homicide the last thing he needed was that kind of aggression coming at him across a stack of money.

 

“How are the kids?” asked Paul, closing his leather menu with a muted
pfft
and handing it up to the waitress like a sealed indictment.

 

“Ah, you know, competing to see who can give the old man a coronary first.”

 

Francis was wary of people without families inquiring too closely about his children, figuring maybe half the time there was an agenda. With women, it was an occasional stirring behind the smiles, like a sniper behind shades. With men who weren’t close friends, it was more often outright manipulation, an attempt to soften you up for a favor.

 

“Don’t you have a son in the army?” Paul squinted.

 

“Just got sent to Korea,” Francis said with a grunt, trying to ignore the way the thought made ice water seep into his stomach. “My daughter’s the one with her mother’s brains. Studying genetics at Smith. Says she wants to prove her father’s the missing link.”

 

A deep horseshoe grin creased Paul’s face. The man had no clue. Had never even been close to married. All his girlfriends seemed to come and go within six months. Instead, most of his free time seemed to go into planning extreme sports vacations. Where other people had family pictures in the office, there were photos of him biking across Russia, hang gliding in the Yucatán, and bodysurfing in Maui. And for reasons he’d never clearly explained to Francis, a harpoon hung on a wall opposite a portrait of General George Armstrong Custer in his Union army uniform.

 

“So, what’s up, Paul?” he said, wanting to focus on something other than his diagnosis or his son for a while.

 

“I guess you heard about Julian Vega.”

 

“What about him?” he said tightly.
BOOK: Slipping Into Darkness
12.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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