1. Order of the Purple Heart
It was just like the bastard to not tell me he was in town for all this time, and to wait until something serious happened before he got in touch with me. I don’t know how he got my cell number, but he called me at work, while I was in the swivel chair in front of my computer and looking at a vet’s disability claim.
“This is the Meritorious Order of the Purple Heart.”
An automated voice came on the line, telling me I had a collect call from the Hamilton County Jail, and to press “pound” to accept the call. I hit “pound,” sighed, and waited.
“What’s up, man?” It was Dunphy. I recognized the laconic stoner drawl. We’d gotten tighter in the Army than I’d ever been with anyone, except for maybe my brother. But I was clean now and wasn’t going to let him drag me down with him, memories of Germany and Iraq and Texas be damned.
“I don’t have any money to post bail,” I said.
A knock came at the door and I spun in my swivel chair. My boss stood in the doorway, his gut pressing against his collared polo shirt hard enough to make it seem like the patterned stripes on the raglan material might break in two.
“Did you get those x-rays yet?”
I cupped the cellphone and spoke to my boss. “His private provider is waiting on the signed release.”
My boss shook his head. “If these kids want the VA to handle their medical, they should get care here.” He paused, patted his gut. “It’d make our jobs easier.”
Yeah, I thought and almost said, But it would make their lives that much worse. Only an idiot or a poor man would get his medical care from the VA.
“Shoot me an email when you get the fax.” My boss winked and then walked down to his own office. I put the phone to my ear. Dunphy was still there. Crosstalk between two angry men speaking rapid-fire Spanish echoed in the background on his end.
“Foster will post. You just got to let him know.”
“Why not call him yourself?” I asked.
I liked Foster, as did everyone else who ever came across him. He was one of those sons of privilege who didn’t seem to take it for granted, who had fun with his money and tried to make sure everyone else around him enjoyed themselves, too. He was one of the few rich kids I knew who’d also been an enlisted man in the Army.
I exhaled deeply, spun in my chair. On-screen an item of mail appeared in my mailbox. I had other stuff to do besides deal with friends in jail, or hang out with active IV drug users who might cause me to relapse. My last slip was only a Suboxone strip I’d gotten from a friend on heroin-replacement who went to the clinic down on Ezzard Charles Boulevard, and that had been months ago. Foster may have literally lived in the penthouse of an expensive skyscraper divided into 25 condominiums, but he inhabited a figurative abyss, a vortex into which my supposed friend wanted to send me, just to get him bail money. He would accuse me of disloyalty if I said no, but I already had grounds to call him selfish.
“Alright, asshole,” I said.
“I love you, dog.”
“Watch your cornhole,” I said.
“Nah,” Dunphy said. “I still speak some Spanish. These vatos don’t have the numbers in county here to flex yet.”
“Then watch Oprah, or whatever else is showing in the dayroom,” I said, and hung up. I stared at my computer screen, saw that the time was three-twenty-three p.m. Working at the VA was sort of like working at the DMV, except instead of not helping people with their car problems you did what you could to pass the buck on men whose brains and bodies had failed them, which at least prepped them for the neglect I handed out in eight-hour increments.
I ignored the email that was probably from my client’s MD, and I opened a game of solitaire. The cards were dealt on the virtual green felt, and I got a shit hand. I took it as an omen, even though such a haruspex wasn’t necessary to let me know Dunphy was trouble and Foster even moreso.
2. On the Decline at the Incline
The Incline was a pretentious, postmodern nightmare designed by a world-famous architect who had survived the Holocaust and seemed to channel all his trauma into the ugly glass, metal, and steel structure that Foster called home. I parked my white Honda four-door across the street, in a pay lot, not wanting to arouse derision from the valet sitting in front of his lacquered walnut podium under the awning at the building.
I was coming from work and radiated a solidly lower-middle-class vibe with my starched white shirt and paisley tie, and I looked more like I was here to walk somebody’s dog rather than making a social call. Foster, like a lot of rich kids, dressed ultra-casual whenever he happened to wander away from the Incline, usually in flip-flops, a wife-beater, sweatpants, and a backwards ballcap from a second-tier college.
I walked up to the guard in his brass-buttoned pelisse. He looked at me like I was lost. I was, but not in that sense. “Here to see Louis Foster.” That was another thing rich people seemed to have in common. They had two last names instead of a first and last one.
The man looked down, exposing a scrambled eggs braid of brocaded gold thread running the length of his hat’s brim. “Name?”
I gave him my name, and he dialed Foster with his white-gloved hand. “Right . . .” he muttered into the courtesy phone, hung up, and pressed a button which pulled the two glass doors apart. He kept his voice low and spoke in a different tone, locking eyes with me before I went. “Tell him he owes me five grand.”
“Will do,” I mumbled back, barely opening my own lips, like a ventriloquist. I walked across the Vitruvian marble in the hallway, ignoring the sensation that the stone cherub statues with their bows were aiming their arrows for me, and I pressed the “up” button on the elevator.
A strong whiff of cologne hit me, and I turned right, to see the former world-junior-welterweight champ of the world standing there waiting on an elevator in a double-breasted leather jacket and Dolce and Gabana sunglasses. The blackness of his beard, tough as steel-wool, contrasted with the lighter ebony of his skin. He was alone, and since he was sans entourage or even sidepiece girl I figured he wanted to remain incognito. For all I knew he was on his way up to Foster’s to buy or sell dope or just play video games.
I left him alone at any rate, knowing that few black athletes find it savory when white males fan-out on them. The door to the elevator opened, and I walked to the mirrored back wall of the car, grabbing the golden rod that ran the length of the elevator.
The champ took an opposite corner and stared up at the soft bulbs lining the car as the doors closed and we went upward. I reached forward to the buttons encased in the platinum panel. I pressed “P” and the champ pressed “Eight.”
I took a chance. “I made a lot of money off your win against Grainger.”
He smiled, and I saw I hadn’t overstepped my bounds. “I told you I’d bring out the bitch in that boy, but y’all didn’t want to listen.” The doors opened and he stepped off. I looked at the numbers up above glowing as the elevator soared from floor to floor. Vertigo made my stomach somersault, and I felt nauseous. Even without windows I could somehow sense we were high up in the sky.
The elevator finally stopped, the doors pulled open, and I stepped on the carpet that was thin but too soft to register footfalls. Foster’s was the only door on the floor and it was open. Old Wu-Tang was playing loud from a high-end sound system. To the left of the door was a Grecian statue of a woman, maybe a goddess, without arms and with downcast eyes.
I walked inside.
“Hershey Stains, Hershey Squirts!” He shouted. I wasn’t too keen on my old Army name, and thinking back, he may have been the one to tag me with it.
The penthouse was on an open floor plan, rooms separated from each other only by superfluous Doric columns with miniature statues perched on pedestals. The walls were floor to ceiling glass curtains, but the place was dark, and the view which was the place’s main selling point was negated by blackout shades.
Foster sat on a leather sectional couch that faced a wide glass coffee table dominating the space. The table spread like another wall-length glass curtain until it touched the edge of the plasma TV on the far side of the room.
There was a lot of stuff on the glass table. In order, from clockwise to counter, there was a gun, a box of anabolic steroids, a gum wrapper with a wad of black tar heroin, a pack of Kool 100s, and then two more guns.
Foster smiled at me. “Hershey, you don’t visit me anymore. You hurt my feelings.”
“I got to work,” I said. He held out his arms for an embrace, and I noticed he had what looked like a plastic catheter running into his left arm, held in place by an iodine-smelling patch.
He noticed me eyeballing the medical modification and gave up on trying to embrace me. “Check out the P-I-M-P’s P-I-C-C.”
“That for dope?” I asked.
I sat down on the sectional next to him.
“Das ist für alles. Oh, passt auf.” His German was good, as was his French. He’d gone to a series of expensive boarding schools, and his father had tried to groom him for the family business (import-export), but after Foster got caught growing mushrooms at one of his boarding schools, he got kicked out and his dad made him join the Army. At this point I figured he’d been written off as a ne’er-do-well and was probably getting a monthly stipend to stay out of sight and keep his family’s name out of the papers.
He picked up the first of the three guns on the table, a broom-handled Mauser with its feeding mechanism on top of the gun. It looked like a poor man’s Uzi, an almost-skeletal blend of metal and wood, yet it was not without its charms.
The music on his sound system segued from Wu-Tang to Cher. I laughed and he caught it. “Hey,” he said, defensively. “Hate the game, not the player.” He’d been karaoke king in the barracks, especially when he was drunk off his namesake beer, or at least what he considered his namesake beer. For some reason the fact that there was an Australian beer named Fosters and that was his first name remained a point of fascination with him, and pride as well, judging from the cool-cobalt neon Fosters lights that lent the fish tank ambience to his room back at the bees.
“I didn’t think they made those anymore.” I nodded at the gun.
“They don’t, man. This thing belonged in a museum before I started fucking with it.” He scattered some stuff on his glass table, showed me his hex key set and his Gerber multi-purpose tool. Foster had been our unit’s armorer, and proved capable at his job and surprisingly responsible to boot. He’d never so much as lost a firing-retaining pin or a tube of CLP.
He had, however, lost a testicle in Iraq, when a BB from a roadside UXO blew through his crotch protector Dap and split his ball like a soft-boiled egg. He remained not only masculine, however, but a slab of rock-ribbed, gym-honed muscle. He once told me that the loss of his one testicle caused the other ball to work overtime, pumping out enough testosterone to compensate for the loss and then some.
On my first day in Germany, he had been walking through the barracks drunk and wearing a bedsheet as a toga, and had shouted to me across the hall, “Come here and introduce yourself like a gentleman, or I’ll wrestle you to the ground with my steroid-infested muscles.”
Losing the ball hadn’t caused him to lose his step, or his positive outlook on life, and aside from his regular regimen of steroids he now took legal testosterone boosters like topical Androgel, and had even once shown me a polyurethane-based fake ball he could wear if he ever felt insecure when with a girl.
“Hitler only had one ball,” he’d say, smiling, “and he almost conquered the world.”
“Here,” he said now, handing me the Mauser.
I took it hesitantly, not wanting to refuse a gift, and frankly admiring the workmanship of whoever created it, as well as the modding he had done. On the other hand, I was afraid that maybe he also wanted a second set of prints on the gun. If it had gotten to the point where even the doorman at his condo wanted his blood, other people were probably gunning for him too.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked.
“Some dude at a Goth club I met in Köln. His dad was in the Bundeswehr, maybe elite S.S. I can’t remember. I was wasted.”
I studied the selector switch on the blackened metal body. Feuer and Gesichert. “Yeah, but how did you get it stateside?”
He smiled. His features were perfect, Grecian ideals like those sported by the Caesar and tyrant statues adorning his penthouse “Connexes, man. Shipping containers. X-rays can’t see through everything and let’s leave it at that.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
“I don’t want to tempt you,” Foster said, scattering packages until he found a five-milligram glass bottle of morphine on the coffee table, “but if you fall off the wagon, you might as well slam that puro. That sauber shit that doesn’t have a dirty cut on it. Not that stomped-on dope.”
“I’m still good,” I said, though my temples were sweating and it was getting so hard to control the shake in my hands that I put the gun down.
“I respect that.”
I looked at the glass bottle of dope. “That going in the PICC line?”
“Yeah, first I got to do a little saline flush, though.”
I stood, turned away, and walked toward one of the glass walls blocked by curtains. I wondered if he needed the blackout curtains for the same reason I did, that he’d been so used to good “light discipline” in Iraq that anytime he saw light coming through the windows he was afraid of incoming mortar fire, or the memory of incoming mortar fire I should say, since people don’t typically launch mortars at each other’s positions in America.
I kept my back to him, since I couldn’t stand to watch him fix. My needle-phobia had been nil when I was using, and I could have watched the biggest gauge go into the head of my penis just to get that relief back in the day. Now that I was clean, though, my childhood fear that made me faint at the sight of a flu shot was back with a vengeance.
“The stadium’s close by,” I said.
“Yeah,” his voice came from behind me. “A couple of the players live here, too, but I got the penthouse.” He chuckled a couple of times, grunted as cold saline dripped from that catheter in his arm and overspill flowed down into the webbing of his hand.
“Don’t the fireworks get to you?” I asked. “I mean, PTSD?”
He chuckled again, and I could tell from the change in his voice that he was done with the saline and on to the sulfate. “The Reds don’t hit well enough for me to worry about the fireworks that go off when they get a homerun. And even when they do, I take that opportunity to pop shots from my gun off the balcony, and no one’s the wiser.” He moaned softly, as if falling into a dream or being gently roused from one. “I run this fucking town.”
Cher had given way to Frank Sinatra on the stereo, which was a compromise I could live with. The music and the plasma TV were synced up, I noticed, and Ol’ Blue Eyes and the rest of the Rat Pack were standing in front of a dingbat atomic starburst and walking together under Technicolor palms.
“I do it my way,” Foster said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess you do.” When one was rich, they could at least destroy themselves in style. This glass, steel, and stone hermitage in the clouds wasn’t such a bad place to die. A trailer with cinderblock steps, a whining baby, and a barking dog might have made the needle more of a necessity than a luxury.
“So, what’s up?” Foster said, and I realized I must have really been drifting if he was zoning on morphine but still more in the game than I was.
“Dunphy is locked up. He said you can post bail.”
“Yeah,” he said, sniffling, sinking into the leather of his sectional as if it was quicksand. “We got business together.”
I turned around and walked back toward the darkened leather throne where he half-nodded. “Light me a Kool.”
“What you guys getting into?” I asked. “Timeshares?” I rummaged carefully, not wanting to get pricked by a dirty needle that might be laying on the table. I found a Zippo, sloshing with lighter fluid, and featuring a coiled Don’t Tread on Me snake engraved on the side.
Foster saw the snake Zippo, smiled, and spoke with eyes glued half-shut by opiates. “Don’t need the snake to tread on me,” he whispered. “I’m treading on myself.”
I found a Kool and stuck it between his lips, slapped him on the cheek so that his eyes opened wide enough for him to look like he was ready to punch me for smacking him, but he soon sunk back into the lethargy of his high that wouldn’t let him stay angry enough to slug me. His eyes, at least, were open however, so I flicked the flint on the Zippo and lit his smoke for him.
“Danke,” he said.
“Bitte,” I replied.
He took a puff on his smoke, rubbed the back of his neck, which was no doubt prickling with sunshine vibes down to the last cell in his muscled tissue. “What’s his nut?”
He laughed that off. “I got fifty thou in the shoebox back there.” He lifted the arm with the catheter and the gauze on it toward the back of his condo, where a half-shell-shaped jacuzzi dominated the suite’s master bathroom larger than my apartment.
“You should pay back your doorman,” I said. I moved quickly to the back, wanting to find the shoebox and get it back to him before he fell asleep and set himself on fire.
“Fuck him,” Foster said, drowsed and agitated at the same time. “I got a parabellum chambered and enough ammo to go Branch Davidian on the banks of the Ohio if they want it like that. Plus, I can go through five grand in ten minutes, if I stop with this Mexican mud and get some good dope. Why pay him when I can use that money to get higher?”
I went into his bedroom, where enough Jordan sneakers were lined up against the wall to supply a South L.A. swap meet. There was a framed and signed throwback jersey on the wall, and a couple of Klimt paintings in which women with dresses made of golden coins linked like chainmail posed as studies for the master. Turquoise glyphs that looked like spots on peacock trains appeared in the bricolage, no larger than the nipples that snuck from the women’s dresses. The paintings were reproductions, of course. Foster was rich, but not that rich.
I carried the Nike shoebox back into the front of the penthouse and dropped it into his lap, waking him and causing him to drop a bit of cindery ash onto his wife-beater, which was already riddled with more holes than Bonnie and Clyde’s death car.
He spoke with the cigarette flopping in his mouth and squinted with his doped-out eyes to keep the smoke from blinding him. “You’re one of the few guys I trust. You could have just gone in the box.”
“Nah,” I said. “I don’t feel right doing that.”
He clenched the half-smoked menthol between his thick, sensuous lips and opened the box. On top of a pile of hundred-dollar bills featuring a Ben Franklin who looked self-satisfied to me (as if to say, You won’t see me often, you broke bastard wage slave) there sat a massive, flaccid rubber and PVC penis so lifelike that the veins bulging on it looked like living earthworms.
“It’s not what you think,” he said.
“I’m not judging,” I said. I’d made the mistake of letting one girl play with my ass once, and now it was a matter of trying to convince every other one I hooked up with to try it, too. I was old enough and perverted enough that I needed to find a wife, so that I could acclimate someone to my kinks once and be done with it. Why not? I had a decent job, and a good disability rating to boot. I’d used my Montgomery GI Bill to get a degree. I wasn’t a catch exactly, but I wasn’t a total albatross unless a woman had something against ass-play.
“Whoo!” Foster blew smoke and waved the rubbery cock in my face.
I slapped it away. “Get that dick out of my face.”
“This dick is a life-saver.”
He sat up, continued trying to lance me with his fleshy weapon. “Nah, it’s a Whizzinator. I hide clean piss in it, and so if I got to see my P.O., I’m good. Speaking of which . . .” He went back into the shoebox filled with money, sex toys, and probably another gun or two and a couple glass bottles of morphine. “You’re clean, right?”
I nodded. He held out a bladder depending from a PVC line much like the one in his arm. It looked like a miniature bath pillow. “You know the drill, troop. Specimen time. Fill ‘er up.”
“Fuck you,” I said, but I took the thing and walked to the bathroom, because I was a friend and it felt like the right thing to do. He spoke to my retreating form.
“You got to come with me to get Meth Daddy Dunph.”
“Why?” I asked, and stopped with my piss bag and my fake dick, turning on a dime.
Foster demonstrated great agility for a man locked in the arms of Morpheus, slinging his leg over the back of the leather sectional, displaying a black ankle bracelet with a red blinking light cinched with a Velcro strap below his grapefruit calf.
“I’m allowed to leave to look for jobs, but other than that, I’m under house arrest.”
I shook my head and went to go piss for him.
3. Bail and Other Bonds
The view of which we’d been deprived in the penthouse was on full display as we drove across the suspension bridge, above the river separating Ohio and Kentucky. The skyline was several glass-skinned and granite buildings surrounding the stadium, where floodlights were coming to life as night fell.
I was still trying to get the hang of being so high up from the ground, situating myself in the Corinthian leather of Foster’s Range Rover. Its body was ivory white, and its windows were tinted dark enough to thwart a flashlight, making me feel like a dictator surveying his plantation workers as we drove through downtown.
Foster was fixing in the passenger seat, which disturbed me even though the windows were dark. He’d thrown on a gray Champion hoodie before leaving his condo, and with his bugeye sunglasses he looked like a celebrity ducking the paparazzi.
“How much of that shit are you slamming?”
I turned right, heading in the general direction of the main VA downtown where I worked, which also happened to be near the county lockup.
“This is local anesthetic, so my line doesn’t start hurting.” He looked at me from behind his sunglasses. “Sorry, but I need the line. I can’t afford to have a bunch of track marks. One IV hole is okay. More than that and when my dad checks for tracks at dinner, he’ll cut me off.”
“Just don’t ask me to shoot any depo in your ass.”
He finished fixing, and rolled down his sleeve, the cotton material soaked with blood. “I can hit a vein easy, so the last thing I need is help with intramuscular injection. You might hit my sciatic, anyway.”
I thought of something. “What about a bail bondsman?”
Foster shook his head, pulled a Surface tablet from underneath his hoodie. He flicked an attached stylus across the liquid crystal screen. “I told you I got this. This guy specializes in getting rich kids who crash daddies’ Lambos out of the clink before it becomes a problem.” He tapped the screen a couple more times, and then put the high-tech toy in his glovebox. “It’s not an issue. Dunphy should be getting into his civvies right about now.”
I shook my head. “Money is magic.”
“You got that right. Which makes me the Wizard of Cincinnati. There!” He pointed through the tint. Dunphy was walking across the concrete quad separating the multistory jail from the other judicial buildings. Pigeons scattered at his approach, and a man wheeling an aluminum hotdog cart with a superfluous sunshade rolled his vending wares along the cobblestones. A crosswalk tone buzzed, and a cab honked as several men in gray suits with attaché cases made their way across the street.
Dunphy saw us, nodded his head, bopping to his own internal rhythm. He shot us the peace sign with the hand holding his cigarette, and marched toward us, his potbelly protruding out so that the pentagram on his Slayer shirt looked like a 3-D hologram sprouting from the decal.
Foster smiled, and so did I. I wanted to be frustrated, pissed actually, but I couldn’t be. “He still shredding?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Foster said, as I pulled to the curb and hit the master unlock. “He used to be part of a metal group.”
Dunphy opened the backdoor and picked up the thread of the conversation as he got in and settled into the leather. “I’m going to start my own band. Fuck them sorry jabrones.” He reached his hand over the headrest and clasped Foster’s non-bloody arm. “What it does?” He cracked the window and blew smoke outside, spilling his breath deliberately in the direction of the jail.
“What’s up?” I said.
“Thanks for calling Foster.” He extended his hand to me, and we clasped fingers. An electric surge of memories flooded through me. I remembered my first day on the range in Germany, when Dunphy came up to me and said, “Don’t put that m16 too close to your face.” I had asked him “Why?” since the m16 had little kick. He’d told me that the armorer always gave the FNG (“Fucking New Guy”) the one bad m16 A2 that kicked so that he’d bruise himself, leaving a racoon-eye mark. It was part of initiating the new private, mild hazing like when I first got to the motor pool and I was ordered to “collect an exhaust sample.” It was an impossible task that would have led to a day of embarrassment if Dunphy hadn’t quietly taken me aside and let me know it was just more FNG BS.
We had been roommates in Germany, laid awake nights talking about our deepest fears about what might happen in Iraq. And then, once in the warzone, we had talked about everything—our favorite bands; movies; women; suicide; whether there might be a God, whether George W. Bush was just stupid or evil or both and if we might also fit into either or both those categories.
“Get on I-75 North,” Foster said.
His place at The Incline wasn’t in that direction, was in fact in the opposite direction. “What’s up?” I asked.
“Meth Daddy Dunph will tell you.”
I’d forgotten that someone had saddled Dunphy with that name back when we were in garrison in Germany. He’d grown up in the Missouri backwoods, and had an unlimited store of tales about running nitrous through the country roads and ducking the cops. It was like a darker version of Smokey and the Bandit. He’d regale us with tales about things like trying to put out fires with a small extinguisher when his cousin’s mobile labs went up in flames or how a weird batch of meth had turned his girlfriend’s poodle pink. Dunphy, like Foster, had the ability to make everyone like him, to put them at immediate ease. The task was easier for Foster, since he was rich.
Dunphy meanwhile was a poor white boy with a mild twang to his voice, but there was something about his pothead demeanor and his desire to stay to himself and play guitar that made him a fixture, sort of like a mascot, even with black and Hispanic soldiers in the unit who cliqued tightly and were especially uncomfortable around the flyover state whites. “I’m white trash,” he’d say, “not a redneck. The difference is rednecks are racist, not just lazy and fucked up on meth and Mountain Dew.”
He tapped Foster’s headrest as I merged onto the highway. “Give me interwebs.”
Foster opened his glovebox and reached in for the Surface. Then he handed it back to Dunphy. “What’s going on?” I asked, knowing I wouldn’t get an answer, or at least not one I wanted.
“Dunphy will tell you,” Foster said, and shed his sweatshirt, to reveal web leather shoulder strap holsters. A black revolver sat in one of the holsters and a smaller aluminum air-weight piece was snug in the other. I had never been much of a handgun guy, since in the army they were mainly for MPs, officers, and warrant officers, which made them well outside my wheelhouse and that of the rest of my wrecking crew on convoy detail.
“I’m not shooting anyone.”
“You’re not going to have to shoot anyone,” Foster said, and lit a Kool with his Zippo. “The guy’s a pussy. The guns are . . . what did we used to say on foot patrol?”
“To establish a presence,” I said, my heart thudding in my chest.
“That’s right,” Foster said. “We’re establishing a presence.”
Dunphy leaned forward, his time as a stepchild confined to the backseat at its end. He kept his smoke away from the Surface, which he placed in my lap. “I can’t look at it,” I said. “I’m driving.”
“Pull over for one second.”
“Sure,” I said, easing over to the highway’s shoulder where weeds grew around the rail guard. “Why not? It’s not like we’re riding dirty with two guns and some dope.”
“Three guns,” Foster said, pulling his broom-handler from inside of his waistband.
“That’s not a safe place to keep your piece.”
“I’m not going to shoot off my other nut,” he said.
I looked down at the surface, vaguely recognized a physician with beady eyes and a painful squint for a smile, wearing a lab coat and a black mortician’s tie.
“I know that guy,” I said. “I mean, I recognize him.” Trying to place him created a vague cloud of uneasiness in my stomach.
“You know him from two places,” Dunphy said. He waited. Apparently, he wanted to play a guessing game. I didn’t, though a part of me, a terrible part, realized that if they were robbing a doctor I wanted in. I wanted to fall off the wagon, sleep in the abyss without pain that Foster had created in that dark penthouse.
“Help me out,” I said.
“He works at the VA with you.”
“That’s right,” I said. “He’s at the OIF-OEF Clinic.” The Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom center was a pair of trailers made of bolted, corrugated tin set adjacent to each other on a wooden catwalk. The VA had really gone all-out for the returnees from the most recent adventures abroad.
“Yep,” Dunphy said, coaxing me along. “Now try to think of the other place you know him from.”
A semi breezed past us, and barely made the Rover budge. If I’d been in my little Honda it would have been moved by the wind like a bumper car. I watched my sideview and rearview mirrors and got back onto the road, holding the pedal down. “Beats me,” I said, shrugging as the ride accelerated.
“From the TV and newspapers,” Dunphy said.
“Did he write a self-help book or something?” I laughed uneasily. I’d only seen the dude a few times at the clinic. He was nondescript, seemingly without features or personality. He was the picture of normalcy, which either meant he was exactly what he looked like or one-hundred and eighty degrees in the other direction. Most doctors at the VA had a disgraced look to them, as if they’d once had thriving private practices but had suffered a malpractice suit or left a once-flourishing clinic under a cloud of suspicion and now had to treat war’s disposable leftovers without worrying about oversight.
I tried again. “Did he get in trouble?”
“Bingo!” Dunphy said. He looked over at Foster. “I told you he’d get it.”
I felt excluded for a moment as the two shared a glance. Dunphy had always been my friend, my boy. We’d bonded over bullets. Now there was a jealous, childish part of me that was started to life and wanted to partake in the heist just so that we could get closer again. Even if we struck out we could be cellmates together. How much worse could it be than days of paperwork under the glow of fluorescent light fixtures eight hours a day at the VA?
“He was one of those doctors at Walter Reed who was selling patients’ medication while they were laid up without legs and dying. Remember the scandal?” Dunphy asked. “All the rats running around. They had dudes with stumps doing charge of quarters on crutches.” He shook his head.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. Heads had rolled, all the way up the chain-of-command, so that even the President had been forced to make some pro forma statements and the wider world had to pretend to be scandalized for a second or two of the news cycle. I laughed a bitter laugh. “So, I guess it’s like the priesthood. They fuck one kid and move them to another diocese, or I guess in this case another VA.”
“Sort of,” Dunphy said, “Except you skipped a step.” He used the cherry of his smoldering and mostly-smoked cigarette to light a new one. He was obviously nervous.
“Enlighten me,” I said.
Foster was gun-happy in the passenger seat, playing with the swing-out ejection rod on the revolver. He spun the six cylinders, which each had a round in them.
“He went to work at one of those clinics,” Dunphy said. “Pill mills.” He’d spit the words out with a little bit of spit flecking his lips as he spoke. He probably had some of the pothead’s natural cottonmouth, but I suspected there was some bile there, too. Missouri wasn’t Appalachia, and Meth was king in Mizzou, but I’m sure he had friends or relatives who’d succumbed to pills as well as the devil’s dandruff. I almost had.
We were pushing farther north, the smells of a distillery comingling with the acrid cruddy wind from a papermill. Cincinnati was called “The Nasty Nati” with good reason. Proctor & Gamble had their headquarters here and there was a higher-than-average rate of cancer. The air always had a smell that reminded me of the pungent cordite mist that drifted from a live-fire range on an overcast day, as if Cincinnati’s clouds were made of gunpowder.
“He was a script-writing fool, signing his name like Charlie Hustle.”
“And then they got him?” I asked.
“Yup.” Dunphy nodded. He took the Surface from my lap and read, which was fine since I couldn’t read it and drive. “He lost his DEA registration. They stripped him of his state medical license.”
“So, he’s working at the VA without a license.” I shook my head. That was some shoddy background check work on the VA’s part.
“No,” Dunphy said. “He got reinstated.” He scrolled with the stylus and spoke as he read. Foster was finished playing with the air-weight and re-holstered it. “He paid fifteen grand in fines and did some community service.” Dunphy cracked up, as if he’d taken a bong hit ten minutes ago and was watching The Wizard of Oz on an IMAX screen. “They even made him do this stupid commercial where he had to sing.” He covered his mouth as his staccato laughter threatened to rob him of oxygen. When he recovered Dunphy said, “I think that’s what got him.”
“What got him?” I asked.
“Oh,” he faltered for a moment, squinted. He had the hardcore pothead’s habit of confusing an internal conversation he’d had with himself for something spoken aloud. “I went to the OIF clinic for PTSD and recognized him.” His mirth evaporated as he choked on rising gorge. “I recognized him from a Stars and Stripes story. They also had a bit about him on AFN.” He paused, took a deep breath, and gripped the back of Foster’s leather headrest until his knuckles were white. “I was gonna kill his ass.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I needed pills and money, man. Not for me, but for my mom. She’s got a bulging disc. At least, at first they were for my mom.”
“So, you blackmailed him?” I regretted the words when they were out of my mouth.
“I leaned on him,” Dunphy said. “I went in his office, showed him that video, and his ass might as well have been a private locking up at attention for a hard-ass DI. He flat-out asked me what I wanted to keep it hush-hush. I said ‘Pills.’”
“And?” I had some idea of where we were going now. The exurban industrial ugliness and roar from intersecting flightpaths now tapered to blue sky and green fields, grain silos and that pastoral pastiche that wasn’t quite country but was outside of the city’s grasp.
“And he gave me my dope, until a couple of nights ago.”
“He cut you off?” I asked.
Foster took the surface and stylus from Dunphy and looked at something, perhaps scrolling through MapQuest directions. “Three more exits. Exit 187, get off.”
I nodded. Dunphy said, “He didn’t cut me off. He said, ‘I don’t have any pills right now. How about you take this watch?’ It was a nice timepiece, Swiss precision. He said it was something he’d gotten as a gift after five years with the pill mill.” Dunphy gritted his teeth, his eyes becoming sharp in a way I’d never seen before. “So, I go pawn the thing, get a ticket, fill out the form. I figure, ‘It’s not hot.’ And maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but the boys showed up at my house and took me downtown on a fencing beef.”
“You think it was a setup?” I asked. We were two exits away from 187, our point of departure from the highway, and our first leg on the remainder of the journey.
“Cops, DEA guys, doctors, everyone gets dirty for dope. Either they’re addicted to it like the rest of us or they’re hooked on the money. Sometimes both.”
I gripped the steering wheel tightly. I had to be careful choosing my words. Dunphy was my best friend, my brother even if not by blood, and I would have done anything for him, but it seemed like there still should have been a reason for this journey, something greater than revenge. It didn’t have to pay better, but it had to mean more.
“You just want to put the fear of God in this guy, make him piss his pants?”
“Nah,” Dunphy said. “He’s like all civilians. That’d be too easy.”
Our exit was up, the side of the road shrouded in ominous walnut trees. Pylon arms for restaurants, gas stations, and motels were scarce here, less billboard pollution than in the average suburb. The doc was evidently doing alright for himself, hiding out among new money in one of these McMansions.
“So, what do you want?” I asked, “Besides to wail on this guy?”
I slowed the Rover. “Make a right,” Foster said. I cued the turn signal, and the light reflected in the sideview mirror, track-lighted arrows formed by separate small bulbs, orange like construction cones. High-speed.
“He’s got money,” Dunphy said.
“How much?” I asked, turning right.
“Maybe as much as twenty mil.”
“From fucking working at the VA!?”
“No, dummy. When the DEA raided the pill mills, they deported most of the doctors and put the guys who ran it in the slammer.”
“Deported?” The only time I’d heard this weasel doctor speak (while waiting for him to get his sea-salt mocha at the Starbucks on the ground floor in the lobby of the VA) he’d had a slightly midwestern, nondescript accent, basically the absence of an accent as far as I was concerned, since I’d grown up in the same region.
“The other docs were Haitian,” Dunphy said. “Anyway, the DEA never recovered about twenty-million in cash.” He leaned forward, gave me a tap on the shoulder. “It’s like the Central Bank thing in Iraq. Remember after they toppled the Saddam statue and it looked like it was going to be a cinch, like the Gulf War?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Someone made off with two-hundred million.”
“Try closer to two-hundred and eighty.”
“Some of that should have been ours,” Dunphy said.
“I got my disability check,” I said. I looked over at Foster, who was still charting the remainder of our course on MapQuest. “He’s got his own revenue stream.”
“It’s not enough,” Dunphy said.
“For what?” I asked.
“Just stay straight for a while,” Foster said, sensing my unease and making me feel less rudderless. A large red barn loomed from a green hill on the right that looked foreshortened in the moonlight. The weather vane rooster on top of the barn looked like some sort of second-tier superhero’s bat-signal. Rooster Man to the Rescue.
“Tell him,” Dunphy said to Foster, “him” in this context meaning me.
Once again, I felt like odd man out, excluded even though I was in the driver’s seat.
“We went to this job fair,” Dunphy said. “Green to blue ain’t happening.” He meant the program that let guys who’d been in the army become cops. “They think we’re damaged goods.”
It was hard to argue that. I waited. When Dunphy didn’t say anything, I said, “So?”
“So, there was a stand there at the fair about opening a Frisch’s Big Boy franchise.”
“How much?” I asked.
An old fire-engine red pickup truck was in front of us. I glanced in the rearview and saw the distant headlights of another car slowly approaching. We were now on a two-lane asphalt road and I felt hemmed in and paranoid. I deliberately avoided long rides because I was afraid of triggering my PTSD from our days on the road convoying down the main MSRs in Iraq. I imagined Foster had his own problems with the road. You don’t lose a testicle without losing a piece of your mind as well.
“Three-hundred and fifty-thousand will get us in the door with our very own Frisch’s Big Boy,” Dunphy said, speaking of the drive-thru hamburger joint as if it was Shangri-La. The place was certainly a large part of my own childhood. That big blue-eyed statue with the checked overalls and the Elvis pompadour and the massive fully loaded cheeseburger in his outstretched hand was more iconic for Cincinnatians than Grimace or Ronald McDonald were for Japanese fast food fans obsessed with Americana. I’d even had a Big Boy piggy bank as a kid.
“Alright,” I said.
“We’ll all three manage it together.”
I looked over at Foster. He headed off my question, rubbing his probably infected arm. He looked slightly irritated that I couldn’t view him except through the prism of his privilege, which was rose-colored from where I sat but probably a hellish red from where he was slumped in the passenger seat. “My trust is set so that I get ten grand a month. That barely covers my habit enough to keep me from getting sick. I’m on a maintenance dose, basically, not chasing the dragon.” He sat up, massaged the back of his neck. “We deal with this thing, having a job, my own money that I earned, that will center me. Give me some dignity.” He shrugged. “I might even go to rehab, really kick this time.” I shrugged with him. Robbing was earning money as far as I was concerned, the most dangerous way to earn it and therefore maybe the hardest.
“Alright,” I said. I was on board, and both Dunphy and Foster placed hands on my shoulders. We weren’t in the army anymore, but we were a unit, friends, and nearly family. In fact, we had been through so much together that we understood each other in a way that our blood family couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to even if they could have. That made us even closer. If they were going down, I wanted to go with them.
“Good,” Foster said, glancing down at the tablet screen again. “It’s only two miles away.” Twilight had yielded to night, and between that and the tinted windows, the blue from the Surface screen gave the confines of the Range Rover the marine glow of an aquarium. Foster looked at me and said, “If I go five more miles, my ankle bracelet will report me as a flyer.” He lifted his leg, where the red light blinked in counterpoint to the blue from the screen.
I’d almost forgotten about his ankle bracelet. He had too, apparently. “Pull over there,” he said, nodding toward a copse of tall sturdy trees gathered in the darkness against hedges sheared into topiary stars. “We got to do PCI.”
It had been some time since I’d done pre-combat inspection. I slowly drifted over to the cover and concealment the trees provided. I figured this was the part where I got my gun, and I hadn’t figured wrong.
4. A Nickel-Plated Moon
My own addiction went back at least as far as Iraq. I have to put the bulk of the blame on myself, but some of it has to go to that dentist at Tallil Airbase in Nasiriyah.
We were told Nasiriyah was called “Camp Cupcake,” and that it was a joke compared to Bagdad. Maybe it was before we got there, but just about the time we convoyed down there (our callsign was some bullshit wannabe macho thing like “Bulldogs”) some British soldiers had beaten the hell out of handcuffed Iraqi teenagers on camera. It happened in Basra, which was not far from Nasiriyah. The attack was all over the news, replayed until the wounds of the conquered Iraqis were rubbed deep and raw, almost like the Abu Ghuraib scandal but not quite that bad. That meant we started getting a lot of incoming mortars from the insurgents shortly after we got to Tallil Airbase, thanks to those wankers.
To relieve the tension before we discovered drugs, we did things like go to the gym, masturbate, or put on boxing exhibitions. We would sometimes fight out of boredom, but it also wasn’t hard to find reasons to fight when it was one-hundred and thirty degrees outside and you hadn’t had sex in eight months. The things that were supposed to make us feel connected to the homefront, like webcam sessions with family members in the Morale, Welfare, and Rec Center, just made us feel even more frustrated and isolated, and it was especially hard on those guys who had wives and kids.
One day I was sitting in the convoy room, which was just a shack surrounded by Hesco barriers with sandbag and plywood walls and a sliced Mogas barrel used for clearing weapons out front. For no discernible reason De La Crux (tagged “De La Douche”) shoved me on the back of the head while I was watching a boxing match on the Armed Forces Network.
I’d finally had it, and even though De La Douche was a freemason and a juicehead and he outranked me, I told him to get the gloves and the headgear from the same cubbyholes where we kept our armor, ammo, and CamelBaks. I was convinced he was going to whip my ass, but before he did, I wanted to get just one good punch in.
We went out back, underneath the shade of the woodland-patterned nylon netting in an impromptu squared-circle between two hammocks tied to Iraqi date palms. Sunlight broke through the shaded mesh in a gridwork pattern, and I tapped my gloves together.
“No talking shit afterwards,” Sergeant Omero said. “No matter who wins.”
We’d touched gloves and I started wailing, cursing as I did, enraged at the world, at my own fear, at Iraq, my stomach a mass of nerves that somehow became stilled as I swung and the panic converted to violence. I struck like a cornered animal even though I was pressing the action and taking no shots in return.
De La Douche was covering his head, bitching out so badly that the rest of the convoy team started clowning on him and egging me on, even though he was popular and I wasn’t.
“Fuck him up, Hershey Stains!”
“All that muscle, all that juice, and De La Crux can’t even throw a jab.”
We were pulled apart, and as my heart rate slowed, I heard Sergeant Carman shout, “Hershey Stains, you’re bleeding!” I looked down at my shirt. Red warm volutes of blood spilled from the back of my tongue onto my shirt like upchucked mouthwash.
I thought I was dying, and after I stripped off the sparring gloves and headgear I staggered through the beginnings of a sandstorm to the troop clinic, where I lay on a Naugahyde chair shaped like a banana and a dentist took out my wisdom teeth. After that, he gave me some Vicodin, which I took, and which led to short-term paradise that curdled into a long-term nightmare.
I thought I’d escaped, but here I was now, thinking about the pills this doctor might have, or the money he might have that we could take from him and use to buy some good dope. My hand was sweating on the rubber grip of the lightweight S & W. It didn’t feel much heavier than the toy gun attached by a metal cord to the cabinet model shooting games in the arcade. The lightness of the air-weight added to the unreality as Foster mapped it all out for me and for Dunphy, who was leaning against the hood of the Range Rover.
“Alright, he may be packing,” Foster said, feeding a magazine into the top of his broom handle Mauser.
“What kind of doctor packs a gun?” I asked.
Dunphy looked over at me, trying the nickel weight of the .357 he had. “Any doctor who prescribes to pill heads has to pack, just in case he refuses to write a script and that fiend is waiting for him in the parking lot after work.”
The moon was high, full, and pocked with silver craters the same color as the nickel plating on Dunphy’s piece.
A grass defilade covered in a thick bed of dry pine needles led down into a dense gathering of wintergreen firs and pitch-black pines. “Let’s go,” Foster said. He disappeared into the trees and Dunphy and I followed behind him.
I whispered as I moved, power-walking to catch up with Foster. “How many other houses are out here?”
“None,” he hissed back. He two-handed the broom-handler now, advancing like an SS man who’d let a prisoner get a head start and was now ready to start shooting him as he made for the barbed wire. “The only thing we got to watch out for is DEA agents.”
I was as loud as possible while still maintaining a whisper. “Say that again?!”
He rolled his eyes, so put out with me that I could see the gesture even in the dark. “They’ve got this place staked out. The doctor’s feeding them info, but they still don’t trust him, so they’re watching him.”
“So . . .” I faltered. I couldn’t believe my friends were this dumb. “We’re just going to walk in there and hope they’re not there?”
Dunphy caught up with us, wheezing and smelling of stale cigarette smoke. He’d always had trouble with the Run portion of his APFT test and did something like two miles in sixteen-and-a-half minutes. “Nah, it’s cool Brosef. You forget how many times I met this doctor. I did recon every time I drove in and out of this neighborhood. You can’t stake me out without me scouting you out in return.” He looked down at his glow-in-the-dark watch. “We’ve got an hour window before the next shift gets here.”
“How much time do we need here?” I asked. Somewhere in the near-darkness an owl hooted from its sentry on an outstretched tree branch.
“Five minutes,” Dunphy said, “Maybe less.”
Great, I thought. In and out, and then Dunphy could look for suits for his court date and Foster could make it back in time to justify the trip recorded by his ankle bracelet. He could say we really beat the pavement looking for third shift work in the boonies as . . . what? Game wardens? Even worse was if the thing had a GPS (and I didn’t know much about the bracelets). If that were the case, some inquisitive dick might be able to figure out that Foster was here when the doctor got robbed, or killed, or both.
The house was before us at the wood’s edge. It was a faux-travertine and marble behemoth built to be flipped as much as to be lived in, with a roof that mushroomed into a lighthouse-shaped spire with a portico at its pinnacle in the center, pulling the multiple chimneys and spires toward the central feature like an architectural sinkhole. Beneath that was an entryway where a Venetian window gave view onto a chandelier that looked like it had been bought bauble-by-bauble from QVC by an undersexed housewife. The mansion was dark, and the pebbled wraparound driveway was empty. All was silent except for the low insectile hum coming from floodlights in faux-carriage house lamps. The lights were interspersed with palm trees whose fronds were browning in protest at being imported to the inhospitable Midwest. I thought the trees looked like they would have been happier in Iraq.
I hoped the good doctor didn’t have a wife, a girlfriend, or a prostitute with him, since I had no desire to see anyone else die. I hadn’t even bothered to remember his name after glancing at the article Dunphy had shown me, and I thought that was for the best. I didn’t know the names of any of the men I killed in the war. Sometimes I didn’t even know if my shot had been the fatal one. I had the feeling, though, that this time would be different. Anything I did here or even watched would be something I had to own.
We broke through the tree line and emerged in front of a mailbox clad in an impressive stone skin of dressed ashlar. An American flag pendant was planted in a bronze pediment on top of the box, billowing slightly in the wind.
Dunphy gritted his teeth. “Phony motherfucker.”
His rage at the show of patriotism seemed to make him stationary, and Foster had to tug the sleeve on his black Slayer tee to get him in gear again. “Let’s go.”
Dunphy moved behind me, with Foster in the lead. We shuffled as a six-legged beast. We approached the garage where an indistinct noise was gathering momentum and achieving a metronomic pattern. The sound resembled a printer overheating during a long job already weighing down the paper tray and draining black ink. As we moved forward it hit me we were using tactics we’d been taught a long time ago for stacking to clear a room.
Foster looked back at me, sweat dripping like Tammy Faye tears from his forehead. “I see the motherfucker.” He mouthed the words more than said them, though I could read his lips. I looked back at Dunphy, who merely nodded his head, lowered on his haunches like a boxer fighting out of a crouch.
We turned at the same time and swept our guns through the open garage door, covering our sectors of fire with the weapons as if they were M16s or M2s. We had the doc’s position enfiladed and had debouched outward.
“Don’t move,” Foster said. The doctor looked up from the lawn chair where he had been sitting, next to his champagne-colored Jaguar. The luxury sedan was parked to the side of the poker table where his money counter flickered, whirred, and beeped as the digital face showed thirty bills that had been stacked neatly.
The machine rifled the notes into a tray where the creamy green lucre sat. There was my old friend, Ben Franklin, and an army of clones, so much money already rubber-banded that the machine looked to be producing the bills via counterfeit rather than just counting them.
“Busted,” Dunphy said, stepping forward with the Blackhawk trained on the doctor, who probably hadn’t predicted his blackmailer would be out of jail so soon. “I was thinking of jumping bail, but it looks like I’m not the only flight risk in the room.”
The doctor slowly raised his hands, and Foster and I moved to the sides of Dunphy, ready to back whatever play he had in mind.
5. Burgers and Blue Eyes
It was the doctor’s great misfortune to be caught in the act of counting cash that he otherwise probably would have denied having if it were in a safe. The optics of the open alligator-hide Samsonite where wads of money were already stacked also didn’t do much to help. I didn’t know anything about his threshold for pain, but he quivered as if it might be time to check for a puddle of piss on the cement floor of the garage already covered in oil stains.
“Dunphy . . . I had to . . .”
“Had to what? Fuck me?” Dunphy wasn’t advancing on the doc, which made me more anxious than if he had started to pistol-whip the balding man. The sweat on the doctor’s egg-shaped pate glowed like a coat of shellac, and his beady eyes looked feral behind wire-rim glasses.
The doctor looked at his luggage case. “Skip town,” the doctor stuttered. “I’m involved with some really dangerous people.”
“No shit,” Foster said, taking over. “Us.”
The doctor shook his head, as if he pitied Foster for thinking he could play at this level. I didn’t see why Foster or the rest of us couldn’t. We had guns, we had killed before, and we had done it for a lot less. If I could clip some insurgent unknown to me for college money why couldn’t I shoot some corrupt DEA agent or mafia greaseball for six, seven, or even eight (!) figures?
“Watch our six,” Foster said to me, as if afraid the men the doctor warned of might now materialize. I turned around in the garage, and kept the air-weight facing the darkness. I took cover to the side of the Jaguar, knowing that if there was someone out there in the dark, they could knock my dick in the dirt before even the hawks in the trees spotted them, let alone a nervous clerical worker and ex-soldier and ex drug-addict sitting in a brightly-lit garage. We were sitting ducks if we didn’t beat the clock.
The cash machine chirped behind me, and seemed to burp out a bill, which sailed like a paper airplane in my direction. I heard the whap of steel connecting on meat, slicing flesh and breaking through to bone. I managed to catch the floating hundred-dollar bill as a draft buoyed it over my shoulder. My reflexive action was no mean feat, but my friends were too busy with other things to give me any credit for the cool trick.
“What the fuck?” I said, turning. The doctor’s face was already starting to bleed from a wound that was superficial but still pumped a rusty stream of blood thick as paint.
“Counterfeit,” the doctor wheezed, as Dunphy secured the man’s arms behind his back with bungee cord probably used previously to tie a kayak or dog crate to the top of his Jag. “Not all of it,” he said. “But when you have a lot of money, especially dirty money, it’ll happen every once and awhile. The machine has a UV feature that spits out bills without the hologram.”
“Where were you off to, Doctor?” Dunphy asked.
Foster, confident that I had his flank, put down his gun and walked over to a workbench where some tools were scattered.
“Florida?!” Dunphy asked. “Didn’t you lose your license in that state already?”
“I was . . .” the doctor paused, gulping back tears. He seemed to know no sympathy would be forthcoming, and that if he tried to elicit it, he might make things worse for himself. “I was going to write a book on medical ethics and shop it to small publishers I know in Miami.”
“Bullshit!” Dunphy was so enraged that he no longer used the gun to beat the doctor. Instead, he held the elongated barrel against the man’s face and pushed with the cylinders, grip, and nose of the weapon, shoving the rubbery lips and fat of the doctor’s face from one cheekbone to the other, as if his features were a latex mask that could be degloved to expose the lying skull beneath. “You’re a liar. If you don’t tell me what you’re really up to, I’m going to blow your fucking head off right here. You think I won’t?”
“No, I know you will,” the doctor said, and now the waterworks started, albeit involuntarily. For all I knew we were doing him a favor, that at least this way his body wouldn’t be dissolved by the mob or a crooked agent in quicklime. If he was deep into opioids himself, every day could have been an increasingly futile struggle to stop withdrawal from gnawing at his bones, the betrayal by bliss-turned-misery worse than a cuckoldry at the hands of a high-school sweetheart. Maybe he was ready to be put out of his misery.
“Alright,” he said. “I was going to get involved with some medical supply fraud.” Spit fell down his lips, the bubbly flecks of foamy saliva making him look rabid instead of scared. “There are a lot of retirement communities in Florida, a lot of old people who aren’t going to have their money much longer anyway. I figure it’s better than letting them will it to ungrateful brats.”
Dunphy conked him on the bald spot with the Blackhawk’s walnut butt hard enough for me to wince and grit my teeth. Foster looked up at me, and away from his tinkering on the bench. “Watch our six, Hershey Stains.”
I turned back toward the darkness, holding the sights of the gun toward the black pines and the moon. “Fuck the six,” I said. “Our five minutes is up.”
“He’s right,” Dunphy said. “We got to pop smoke. Let’s get the money back to the Incline.”
I knew then that the doctor was definitely going to die, if I hadn’t known it before. Dunphy cocked the hammer on the Blackhawk and the stream of blood leaking from the doctor’s face and head was now joined by the piss I’d expected earlier. It looked like cooking oil in the harsh glow of the fluorescent light as it formed a blot on the crotch of the doc’s khakis, spilled over his argyle socks, and trickled through the leather spats of his Hush Puppies and across the concrete floor of the garage.
“You remember how rats were eating on soldiers’ stumps in Walter Reed while you were selling their morphine out the back door?”
“It never got that bad!” The doctor was blubbering now, seeming to argue with his conscience more than the young man before him to whom pain had made him blind. “They sensationalized it for the papers. Malpractice, okay, but . . . but . . .” He looked up, and even though I knew I should have been watching our backs, I had to turn around and look. “I’m just like you, only it’s harder. I had access to these drugs. Girls who made fun of me in high-school, girls who wouldn’t even look at me in med school were willing to blow me to get the pills! I didn’t lose my virginity until I was twenty-six! I had-”
“You had your chance,” Dunphy said, raising the piece and steadying it against the doctor’s head. The doctor was wincing so hard that he reminded me of the Vietnamese guy who had the bullet in his head when that Pulitzer-prize winning photo was taken. He was bracing for his death but accepted it at the same time. I thought he was doing well for someone who hadn’t been trained by circumstance to die like this.
“Nah,” Foster said. “That’s too good for him.”
I heard the whir of a drill, a rusty bit spiraling on itself as it locked into a chuck. It was an 18V DeWalt. Foster was wearing gardening gloves, presumably to keep his prints off the drill or maybe to keep blood off his hands. He looked back at me, happy as a worker bee with his power tool, so elated in fact that he didn’t tell me to turn my back. I probably should have.
“Remember those Hajjis in Sadr we read about?” Foster said. “They used a drill on traitors’ heads to save money on bullets. Just go in and out behind the ear and it’s done.”
The doctor looked at Dunphy. “Shoot me,” he said, panting and then glancing once at Foster before deciding he couldn’t watch the young man with the drill coming toward him. “Remember those times you begged me for a couple of extra pills to deal with your pain? I always caved! It wasn’t about the blackmail. I had mercy. Have mercy!”
Dunphy lowered the hammer on the Ruger with his thumb, until it was locked flush against the back of the gun. “Nope,” he said, the single syllable making a bubblegum pop before the drill in Foster’s hands whined and bored through the front of the bald man’s already-bloody skull. The bit grinded obstinately, and I wondered if skull was stronger than masonry. I also wondered why Foster had opted for the front of the cranium rather than the parietal lobe as promised.
The doctor shrieked until his scream was more piercing than the whine of the drill. The bit twirled, found purchase in the flesh, establishing a spiraling beachhead in skin lubricated by a soak of blood, but the bit bounced and smoked when it struck bone. The dulled metal point skittered off the doctor’s head, fuming and giving off the odor of a dental drill that struck a fetid cavity. Bits of bone flecked like obstinate woodchips as the bit grazed and pocked skin on the doctor’s cheek, nose, and chin while dancing and skittering around like a firehose on full-blast. Even with all his muscle, Foster was having trouble controlling the power tool.
“Shit,” Foster said. “I think I had it on the wrong setting.”
“Gnyuhg,” the doctor said, spitting as he tried to speak. The features of his face were pulverized into one mass of raw meat. I wondered if Foster had pierced his frontal lobe, or at least grazed it, and accidentally given the guy a lobotomy. I thought about the doctor stealing the meds of catatonic soldiers with traumatic brain injuries who depended on him for care, men he had taken advantage of who had forgotten how to tie their shoes and whose memories spanned five minutes at most.
Foster worked his hands in the cumbersome gardening gloves, trying to reseat the bit in the drill as the doctor moaned. I decided based on the timbre of the mewling that the doc wasn’t lobotomized. He was fully aware. He had to be conscious of what was happening, in so much pain that he was separated from his own body, hearing his voice from the distant place of disbelief sadistic men finally find too late, when they discover others can do to them what they have done to others.
This was ugly, worse than almost anything I had seen or done in Iraq (and when things get horrific enough, your body and mind and soul cannot tell the difference between seeing and doing), but I also knew this was something that had to happen. It was long overdue, in point of fact.
The doctor’s moment was here, as was Dunphy’s, and mine, and Foster’s. For the first time since I’d gotten back from Iraq, I felt like I was getting some real, pure therapy, the revenge better than the drugs that just left one listless and sapped and feeling betrayed, rather than making one energized like I was feeling now. Drugs were temporary. This man’s spirit and will would be ours forever, our secret to share even if it cost us our freedom for the remainder of our dark lives.
We would do it. We would torture this guy a little more, finish him off, and then we would pop smoke before the crooked collaborators showed up to either double-cross the doctor or just wish him luck and bon voyage.
There looked to be well over three-hundred grand on display, between what was disgorged by the suitcase and what still needed to be run through the machine. We’d take it all, and we’d start our lives over, correcting the mistake we’d made when we’d signed on that recruiter’s dotted line all those years ago.
We’d live the American Dream, sell cheeseburgers and make money. Big Boy’s blue eyes and dimpled smile were waiting, and they’d soon be ours for the taking.
The drill just had to go a couple inches deeper and then the screaming would stop, it would all be over, and we’d ascend to the stratosphere at the Incline, at home among the kitsch Olympian pantheon and bloody needles, with the world at our feet.
I would call in sick to work tomorrow.
Joseph Hirsch is the author of several published novels, short stories, novellas, essays and articles. He holds an M.A. in German Studies and has also worked as a sports journalist, covering boxing matches around the globe. His most recent novel is the neo-noir boxing crime caper, My Tired Shadow. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and can be found online at www.joeyhirsch.com.