“He telling like a felon,” said Purn. The old saw man snapped a lighter, its spark flashing red in the clingy darkness.
“Who he telling?” asked Reese, but he knew the answer same as me. Reese was sharp on nailing words of consequence — little bites of syntax that might lead anywhere.
The old saw man snapped another spark, catching a flame this time that set his eyes agleam. His copper cheeks wavered like molasses under the light, his yellow teeth smiling wide.
“I say who he telling, Purn?”
The saw man kept his eyes on the tiny finger of blaze, looking lean and hungry. His pink tongue seeped out his mouth to moisten his lips then slid back into place. After a minute he said, “He telling the Pin. He telling the Pin ’bout you,” Purn nodded at Reese, “and you, Turn-round Tom,” he nodded at me.
“Pin don’t care ’bout us, saw man,” I said, but my neck hair was standing erect.
Purn let die the flame and leaned his old back against a dumpster. He slid down to squat on the macadam, his bandy legs bent at odd angles from his prison-thin frame.
“Pin cares ’bout everything, Turn-round Tom. Pin cares an awful lot. He got you name in his book. He got you wife’s name.”
Reese grabbed up the saw man by his rotten coat, pressing his gold teeth against Purn’s scraggly cheek.
“You listen, sodom-asser, you walking thin making threats at us. Don’t nobody know we work the Shield save God and you. And God don’t tell the Pin nothing.”
Purn made a little squeak, his feet kicking the air six lonely inches from the sidewalk.
“I don’t make no threats. You think I tell Pin something? You think Pin listen to the gutter? Pin know you. Pin know me. I be dead ‘afore you two. I ain’t got the Shield over my head. It Rutgers what told Pin. You know it.”
Reese dropped the old saw man who thwacked his head on the dumpster.
“We’re done, Tom,” said my partner, his voice ardent with regret.
I took his elbow and steered him away from the old man who lay huddled in the darkness. We crossed Fuyess street where the night held sway under myriad streetlamps like broken headstones. A pimp filled the near alleyway with curses and slaps, milking work from one of his girls. Reese and I ignored their noise. We moved northward towards Kingston Burrow, where, twenty years before, the sawdust had first appeared, bringing addicts the ultimate pollination, the all-point rainbow, the capsheaf ejaculation of society’s dregs.
It was home.
“What now?” I asked, my voice a husky whisper that passed my lips with a spray of steam against the cold night’s stillness.
“What of Pin?”
“Pin is next. Pin has always loomed over us, Tom. At night men like us go down to our rest and Pin beats in our hearts and heads like a mordant note played by a black figure we can’t see. We’ll have no rest ’til our names are wiped from his book — ’til our nights are simple darkness again.”
I stilled myself even as I walked, my boots calling out upon the hard concrete, as if to say, look at this man, he is not of you! Look you saw-hos, you vagrants, you disease-ridden masses, here is this man that took the Shield; the great DEFENDER, the PROTECTOR, the SERVER; this man with a gun he will gladly use to empty your braincase out the back of your head if you know his secret.
The more I walked, the more I ran with worry.
“So what for Pin?” I asked.
“A shotgun colostomy, an exploding gag pacemaker, a millstone and a benthic tour.”
Glacier ages passed. We shuffled through the slums, stealing inexorable steps towards a bar we knew: Rococo by the Bay. Pin would be there.
We passed a flabbergasted maître d’ who came in tow, as if the wind of our passing bore him along. His prattle and rolling eyes were lost in our wake.
In smoky haze we found Pin, the room warm with the charm of his life. He was large and bald and dressed in white; a dinner coat made from scads of gabardine with a red silken scarf rising flare-like from his breast pocket. Big-breasted vixens in low-necked gowns draped his shoulders like vampires. Arranged round his large private table were seven lowlife reprobates dressed like gentlemen. I could smell bullet stink on them like rot on bad potatoes.
“I tried to stop them,” said the maître d’, his voice all nasal cavity and obsequious blather.
“It’s fine, Alfoie,” said Pin. His voice, like his shorn head, was bold and thick. At his utterance, Alfoie retreated, perhaps sensing the tension around us, viscous and bitter.
Pin took up a hard roll, split it with a silvery knife, and began to butter its insides.
“So you’ve come,” he said, his little eyes on the roll.
“Like David to Goliath’s call,” said Reese, his fingers dancing at his side.
Pin, without a glimmer or interest, ignored Reese, though several of his cronies placed spare hands inside their dinner jackets, ready to start the screaming, popping death that loomed overhead, greedy for every living soul at that table.
“Tom,” said Pin, in a voice of purest joy, as my heart jackhammered rivets into my ribs, “I heard you were out of the block. How long did the Shield have you locked up?”
“How long you been free to fly?”
Pin fixed me with a stare so cold, so menacing that the muscles in my neck began to fire the way a dead man’s limbs jitter when his synapses are still dispatching last minute messages to a rapidly decaying body.
“How long you been turned, Tom? How long you been working behind the Shield?”
“Three years,” I said again, my voice breaking on the words like glass on stone.
“No man can serve two masters. Says that in Matthew. You ever read Matthew, Tom?”
“A shame.” Pin placed his hard roll down on the gilded plate before him. With meaty hands he shooed away his girls, then signaled his men to draw their weapons. Eight long silver and black tubes faced us, each a harbinger of the black equinox.
Alfoie, the maître d’, scooted among the tables, forcing those wealthy customers who hadn’t noticed the argle-bargle at Table Twelve to flee the restaurant.
“I didn’t come here to fight,” said Reese.
Pin laughed, his voice uproarious. “Did you come to have a steak?”
“No. I came here to kill you.”
Reese had drawn his gun and launched himself, already firing a shot, before anyone could react. He landed belly first atop the roast rack of lamb, his outstretched free hand making a mess of the Rocco’s flower arrangement in the middle of Table Twelve. His first bullet struck Pin in the face just left of center, entering the fat man’s head through a pinhole in his cheek. Pin’s head exploded, brain matter, blood and bone spraying across the room, splattering the near wall like the paintings of the dribblers a hundred years ago.
Reese’s second shot tore through Pin’s gabardine suit coat to reveal a bulletproof vest beneath, which protected its already dead owner’s midsection famously.
I was still drawing after Reese had landed, kicked one of the stunned cronies full in the face and was rolling off the table to crouch beside the nearly decapitated Pin.
I fired three shots, increasing the population of hell by three in the process, and clearing one side of the table. A john managed to gain his wits and fire at me, missing my chest by half an inch, and burying a bullet in my right shoulder.
In movies, hardnosed tough cops keep firing. But in reality I sprawled on the floor like a pail of dishwater, screaming. The searing pain was fire and ice and crushing weight, shorting out my brain, closing off all pathways to reason and sanity. I writhed. I cried. I left my partner alone.
Shots rang and I moaned. A woman was screaming, a man calling for his mother. I retched where I lay, unable to lift myself clear of my own sick.
Time slipped gone, returned, slipped again.
I awoke, Reese standing over me — bleeding down at me — one side of his face swollen, blood-splattered.
“Looks worse than it hurts,” he said and cracked his gold-toothed smile.
I made a vain pass at a smile of my own.
“Hurts worse than it looks,” I whispered.
Meds and feds. They carried us off — one faction or another — to a hospital where doctors carved their way into my arm and removed the bits that didn’t belong. Reese convalesced at home until our hearing.
The commission waved its magic gavel, clearing us of all wrong doing. But what did that matter? Cover was over — they all knew we wore that Shield.
Now we sit a desk all day, moving papers from box B to box A.
Life is smooth, predictable, and a drag.