Free Fiction: In the Long Shadow of Eddie the Mope

Copyright © 2015 Brad J. Boucher

 

PART ONE

 

            What Eddie would always start out by telling them, these guys who came up to him at their meetings and get-togethers, was that it was the little things that would trip you up. They would all come over to him sooner or later, knowing he worked for Nunzio whenever he was working in Boston, and they’d have a thousand questions.

            Who do we trust?

            How do you know when you’re made?

            What’s it like to kill a guy?

            He’d talk to them in little groups if he had to, but what he preferred—what he really liked—was getting a little one on one time with some of these up and coming guys.  Face to face, with no one else around to listen—that’s where the truth came out.

            Or at least Eddie Tragin’s version of the truth.

            He’d start out with the basics, the stuff they’d probably heard before but would grab their interest and pull them in.

            Pay attention to the little things, the details.  That was always his first piece of advice.  Not exactly original, but 100 % true, and nobody could deny it.  The details were the things only an amateur would let slip by, and those were the things the cops always managed to find. 

Always.

            Another good one he always shared, doing his best to look sharp and seasoned, was that the most expendable person you could ever meet was a bystander.  One gets in your way, he’d say, you deal with him, simple as that.  It’s not your fault they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

            They loved that one, these young tough guys.  They could picture themselves doing it, pulling a piece and maybe holding it out sideways like they did in all those gangsta videos.  Maybe saying something cool before pulling the trigger on some stumbling wino or cab driver.

            And once he roped them in, once the hook was set and he could pull them aside for some serious personal guidance, that was when things could really get going.  That was when he could preach his own philosophy, his own personal gospel of the streets.

            That was when the truth could come out.

            His truth.

            The first rule of his truth was that there were always bigger things ahead of you, and better things you had to work towards.                  Onward and upward, he called it.

            Heh-heh.

            He’d tell them this with a straight face when he had them alone, a couple of drinks in him, no smile at all, and as soon as he saw the way they’d look back at him—like he’d just offered them the most vague, greeting-card inspirational crap they’d ever heard—he’d set the hook.

            “I’m not talking about hard work and rosy cheeks,” he’d say.  “I don’t mean putting in your time and kissing everybody’s ass.  That’s not what I’m talking about at all.”

            He’d lean toward then, and lower his voice.  And he’d glance once or twice over his shoulder, as if some unwanted ear might be nearby, listening in.  That would pique their interest again.  All at once, with just a few words, they’d look at him like he was some sort of guru.

            That would mean it was time to reel them in.  These green young punks with their gleaming eyes and big plans.

            “What I’m saying, what I’m telling you,” he’d go on, “is that I see something in you . . . I don’t know . . . like a younger version of me almost.  I feel like I can trust you with this.”

            He’d look around again, and then speak so softly that they had no choice but to move closer to him.  He liked that. 

            “If you trust me too—and I really think you should—I’ll tell you something.  Six months to a year, you and me . . . we’ll practically be running things down here.”

            They’d smile then, or try their best not to, still looking cool.

            Fairly often, he’d kiss them on the cheek then, like it was some big blessing that put them in his protection.  They wouldn’t fight it; by then they had no idea what was right or wrong.

            He liked that too.

A few times, if it felt right, if he thought he could get away with it, he’d hold their faces and force their heads around and kiss them full on the lips. 

            And he liked that most of all.

            That was what he really wanted to do when he met Johnny Rennert.

 

 

PART TWO

 

           

            Johnny Rennert was something of a special case for him.  He’d been told about Johnny while he was working in Boston one night.

            “The kid’s getting too big for his britches,” one guy said.

            Another one told him, “What I think is that he’s hooked, too.  I think he’s using.”

            And this third guy, some lowlife he didn’t even know, he stepped right up to Eddie and tried to put it as eloquently as he could.  “You show me five guys doing what he’s doing for us, I can tell you right off the bat he’s the one that’ll be causing trouble.”

            That night it seemed like everybody who was there at the meeting had something to say about Johnny.  And not an inch of it was good.

            And then Nunzio himself, the big guy, he stood up at the end of the table and stared out at the rest of them.

             “It’s one thing he’s moving our product out of that basement of his, that’s not really the problem,” he said.  “The problem is he’s not careful at all about it.  Sooner or later, one of his buddies is gonna overdose down there, and the cops will come down on him like a ton of shit.  And when they do, that kid’s gonna point straight back at us.  I know it.”

             The thing was, they all wanted this Johnny guy taken care of.  Nobody wanted to get their hands dirty, of course not, but they all knew what they wanted, and what they wanted was for Eddie to say he’d look into it.

             Funny. 

             He knew nobody from the Boston scene thought very much of him.  He knew the kind of shit they said about him behind his back, that he was just small-time, that he’d never be more than that.  But now that he was here, and they needed someone from out of town to do what needed to be done to this two-bit pusher from downtown?

             All of a sudden he was Mr. Popular.

             Eddie wasn’t stupid.  Crass and a bit untamed, sure.  But not stupid.

             Never stupid.

             But that didn’t mean he was gonna say no.

             So before they could get around to asking him, or telling him, he stood up from his spot at the long, crowded table, and raised his glass of whiskey on the rocks.

             “Tell you what,” he said to Nunzio, to all of them.  “I’ll meet up with this guy for you.  I’ll talk to him, see what’s going on in his head.”  He paused here for effect.  If there was one thing he knew about talking to these guys, it was that the most important parts of anything they had to say came during the pauses, when they really weren’t saying anything at all.  “If I don’t like what he has to say about it . . .”

             An even longer pause this time, while he pretended to stare into his drink.

             “. . . Let’s just say I’ll take care of it.”

             One day and seven hours later, he met Johnny Rennert for the first time in a dive bar down near Haymarket, a place called Steggie’s, of all things, and he was as about as far from impressed as a guy could get.  The things he’d heard at the get-together, about this guy Johnny trying to get too big for his situation, about him maybe pushing too hard in his little square of Freemont Street real estate?  Jesus, it sounded ridiculous to Eddie when he got a good look at the guy.

            Clearly he was using his own shit.

            Clearly he was an addict.

            A four year old could see it in his eyes, in his body language, in the way he talked.  Give this guy a year and he’d end himself just through his stupid habits.

            He was jittery and wide-eyed and couldn’t stop rubbing his arms and his elbows. 

            But shit . . .

            Shit, man, Eddie thought he was gorgeous.

 

 

PART THREE

 

           

           

             Why?  Why did he have to look this way?

            Eddie studied him walking in, this Johnny guy.  Even in the dim light of this crappy backstreet bar, he could tell he was going to be interested.  He could see the facial structure, the high cheekbones, the good hair that had probably never seen a comb, maybe just a bit too long at the back.  The looseness of his muscles, the ease of bringing himself into this place. 

            Half of it was the natural movement of the junkie, nerve endings slow and unresponsive, elbow and knee joints bouncy and feeling free.  But the other half, the rest of it . . . Jesus, it was just so feminine and unexplored that Eddie understood immediately that he’d never be able to resist.

            A big mistake, yeah, and he knew it.

            And it wasn’t even that he was into guys that much, really.  It was just the vulnerability thing, man, how he got off on that.  The full and bushy eyebrows didn’t help, though, did they?  And those half-closed eyelids.  What was that?  What did that bring back, from all those sleepless, teenage nights?

            Stallone?  And that other guy, that rock band guy, who was that?

            The name wouldn’t come to him but he tried to store away the idea of it.  That was who Johnny reminded him of.

            But then Johnny opened his mouth and words came out of it.

            Not good words, that had been planned and practiced.

            Just words.

            “Hey, man.  What’s happening?”

            And Eddie thought: Shit.  Don’t you know you’re in trouble?

            Don’t you know half the guys who know about anything that happens in Boston know that they want you lying in an alley somewhere, bleeding out with two bullets in the gut and two in the head?

            Eddie looked at him again, at his hair and his eyes, and the fading definition of his muscles.

            Don’t you know they sent me here to meet with you? 

            To talk you into some false sense of security?

            To drive you out of town and out of state and leave you in a ditch somewhere?

            You stupid shit.

            “Sure could use a drink,” Johnny said.  “You buying?”  He used a smile now that looked rehearsed, like a go-to kind of thing, and Eddie pretended to fall for it, pretended to relax.

            Just two guys having drinks together, no big deal.  He signaled the bartender, called him over and ordered two doubles.  Whiskey, top shelf.  A man’s drink.

            “You know why I wanted to meet with you?” he asked.  “Any idea?”

            Johnny shrugged.  It was a movement he seemed built for, and he was comfortable doing it.  He knew he didn’t look stupid; he just looked like he didn’t give a shit.

            Eddie leaned forward.  “You don’t know?  Is that what you’re trying so hard to put into words for me?”

            “Look, man, I’m just—”

            “You’re just doing your thing, is that it?  Am I right?”

            The kid nodded, his eyes buzzing around.  Was he high now?  Really?  Meeting with a made guy from out of town, did he really not know what that could mean for him?

            “Tell me where you’re from.”

            “Hey, man, like, you know, I—” 

            “Tell me in English,” Eddie said.  “Look, it’s easy.  Just put the words together in pairs.  Pretty soon you’ll be able to make whole sentences.”

            Johnny gave him a bit of a glare for that, but he was either too wasted to be fully offended, or he just didn’t have the balls to show it.  Either way, he answered the question.

            “Hartford.”

            “Hartford?”

            “Yeah.”

            “A rough town, Hartford.  Real tough.  But let me tell you something: you think you can come down here, to Boston, and pull the shit you can get away in Hartford . . . then you’re gonna find yourself in trouble.”

            “I’ve been in trouble before.”

             “Not this kind of trouble.  The kind I’m talking about, you’re gonna find yourself dead.”

 

 

PART FOUR

 

            

            That made the kid pay attention to him a little more.  It got his eyes focused and his grin straightened out.

            “Is that what you want to see me for?”

            Eddie cocked his head.  “Ask the whole question.  Say it to me.”

            Johnny wiped a hand across his lips and leaned back in his creaking chair.  “Okay.  Are you here so I can find myself dead?  Is that it?”

            “More or less, yeah,” Eddie told him.  Does that warm you up inside?  Knowing that?”

            “You’re serious.”

            “I’m very serious.  And the guys that sent me, hey, they’re very serious too.”

            “Do you have any idea how much of their product I’m moving?”

            “Yeah, don’t worry, they have a real good idea about that.  That’s not the problem, though.”

            “Then what is it?  What’s the problem?”

            Eddie wanted to slap him.  He wanted maybe to reach out across the table and punch the little bastard straight in the face, loosen a few teeth.  And he wanted to kiss him, too.  There was that.  Instead, he tried to reel everything in and start fresh.

            “Look,” he said, “it’s not how much you’re selling, or even who you’re selling it too.  It’s the way you’re doing it.  Right out of your apartment, and letting people use down there—”

            “They’re my friends.”

            “They’re not your friends.  They’re friends of friends of friends who don’t give a shit where they shoot up or who they’re with.  They’re junkies, Johnny.  Don’t you see that?  And junkies talk.  They talk to other junkies, and if things get bad enough, hey, you know what, they talk to cops.  You see where I’m going with this?”

            Johnny nodded and looked away, but he looked far from enlightened.  He moved his shoulders and rubbed his arms and Eddie knew he was going to have to spell it out for him.

            “Listen,” he said, “and listen close.  These guys downtown, guys much higher up on the ladder than me, they told me to come down here and handle you.  Do you know what they mean by handle?  Do you?”

            Johnny nodded.  Somehow, he still didn’t look scared, and Eddie didn’t like that one bit.

            “What they want, more than anything, these guys, they want me to get you to feel safe with me, and they want me to drive you out to Revere or up to New Hampshire, and then they’re expecting me to put a couple of bullets in the back of your fucking head and drive away.  You want that?”

            Johnny said nothing, and Eddie leaned back and looked up and their waitress was standing there, three feet away.  Standing there with their drinks, easily within earshot.  There was no way she hadn’t overheard him.   Shit, Helen goddamn Keller would have overheard him just then.

            “What are you looking at, pineapple?” Eddie asked her.  “Ain’t you ever seen a guy proposing before?”

            She stared at him, frozen, her eyes seeing everything there was to see about him while she tried to pretend she couldn’t see a thing.

            “How much for the drinks?” he asked.  “What are we looking at here?”

            “Nine . . . ahm . . . nine dollars, and I think—”

            He dropped a Benjamin Franklin on her tray, a ninety-one dollar tip for a girl who made maybe ninety bucks a night. 

            “You’re all set, honey.”

             And she turned and walked away.

             “And that’s how easy it is,” Eddie said.  “That’s how easy you can make people forget they ever saw you.  You see what I’m saying?  So if you think you and I can’t leave here together and you can’t end up in the trunk of a car somewhere, my friend, then you are sorely mistaken.”

            Johnny did something he didn’t expect then. 

            He might have looked like he was about to shit his pants.

            And he might have started to look humble, really quick, and asked Eddie for a favor.

            But he didn’t do either of those things.

            Instead, he started to laugh.

 

 

PART FIVE

 

            

            “You think I’m kidding?” Eddie asked him.  “You think this is funny?”

            He was getting pissed now.  This kid, this punk, no matter how good looking he was, did he really imagine for a second that he could laugh his way out of the shit he’d buried himself in?

            “I don’t,” Johnny said.  “I really don’t.  I know you want to be scary and threatening and everything, and yeah, you’re doing a good job of it, don’t worry.  But the thing is, for me, it’s different.”

            “How is it different?  Tell me.”

            The kid laughed again, good and deep, raising those bushy eyebrows.  “I mean, yeah, our waitress is probably scared shitless right about now, and I’d say—”

            Eddie slammed his hand down on the table.  He’d had enough of this.  Witnesses or no witnesses, he was ready to pull his gun and plug this stupid shit right here at the table.  Blood everywhere, but at least nobody would be laughing at him.

            “You dim-bulb fuck,” he said, “you have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?”

            “Yeah, but, see . . . the thing is, I do.  I really do.”

            “And how is that?”

            “Because you and Nunzio, and all his little men in Boston, all his little . . . knights and pawns?  None of them can touch me.  None of them can do shit to me.”

            “Why not?  What are you, special or something?”

            Johnny nodded.  He picked up his drink and drained more than half of it in a single, breathless gulp, and then he leaned across the table and stared Eddie straight in the eye.  “Because I have something they will never have, any of them.  I have something anybody in this whole shitty bar would kill for.” 

             He paused for effect, and in his eyes, Eddie could see just about any drink he’d ever had, every line he’d ever leaned over to snort, and any needle he’d ever pushed into his arm.  It was all there, as plain as day, the bleary-eyed stare of a man consumed by every addiction he’d ever had the misfortune to meet. 

              But there was something else there, too.  Some secret.  Some sort of unspoken knowledge.

              “What is it?” Eddie asked.  “You do you have?”

              The kid smiled then, the most honest and confident smile Eddie had ever seen.

              “I can never die,” Johnny said.  “Ever.”

              “What are you talking about?”

              “Nothing can kill me.”

              “So, you’re saying, if I were to drag you out into the alley right now, out behind the bar, and put a couple of bullets in you . . . what, you’d be okay?”

              Johnny nodded.  He reached out again and finished his drink and then he spent a long couple of minutes eyeballing Eddie’s full glass.  Finally, when the message was received, when he could see the weight of Johnny’s need, Eddie nodded and pushed his glass across the table.                    

             “Yeah, here.”

              The kid winked at him and drained that glass, too.    

              And looking at him, in the bar’s unflattering light, Eddie started to see things he hadn’t seen before.  Despite the bushy eyebrows and the great eyelids, despite all the good looks, this kid had to be hurting.  There were deep circles under his eyes, and when the lights hit him just right, when he turned a certain way, Eddie could see the sunken cheekbones and vacant stare of the final stage junkie.  The guy was just inches away from checking out on his own, in some alley or basement somewhere with a needle in his arm.   

            Shit, this guy was in much worse shape than he’d first thought.  This guy was maybe close to the end.

            And yet, the way he moved, the way he talked, the brightness in his stare . . .

            “What are we talking about here?” Eddie asked.

            “Well, I’m not Superman,” Johnny said, “but let’s just say I’m pretty fucking close.”

            “Hate to tell you this, kid, but you sure as hell don’t look it.”

            Johnny lifted one lose-jointed arm and pointed down the hall.  “Come into the can with me then, man, and I’ll prove it to you.”

            It smelled a bit like a trap, but the idea of being alone somewhere with Johnny was just too hard a thing to resist, and so Eddie nodded and followed him into the men’s room.

            And once Johnny showed him what happened if he tried to hurt himself, well, Eddie started to feel like he was hearing the truth.

 

PART SIX

            

           

            Just about the only thing more offensive than the drink prices at Steggie’s was the men’s room at the back of the place.  One urinal, one of those oversized handicap stalls with its door missing, and a sink that looked like it had last seen a good cleaning during the Clinton administration.  Only one of the overhead fluorescents worked, and it buzzed and ticked constantly, flickering every few seconds to give a sort of strobe effect to everything. 

             Eddie followed Johnny in and immediately wished he hadn’t.  “Is there someplace else we can do this?”

             Johnny shook his head.  “It won’t take long.  I just want to prove what I said is true.”  He pointed past Eddie.  “Lock the door, okay?”

             There was a short moment of hesitation for Eddie, but in the end, he reached out and did as the kid had asked.  If it was some kind of trap, it wasn’t a very good one; they were clearly alone in the room, and Johnny’s reflexes were anything but fast.  If he tried anything, Eddie could free his gun and have the kid pinned in a matter of a few seconds.

             Johnny edged past him towards the sink, and Eddie leaned on the metal partition of the single stall, watching him go through his pockets.  There was a little bit of something in all of them; pants and jacket, front and back, and Eddie was only mildly surprised to see it all added up to the typical works of a full-time junkie.  A needle, a spoon, a lighter, a stubby length of elastic tubing, and—of course—a plastic baggie tied off with a rubber band.  Not a small plastic baggie, either.

             “You always carry around that much?”

             “You never know,” Johnny said, “who you’re going to run into, you know?”

             And so Eddie stood there and watched the kid preparing his ride.  He watched him opening the baggie, and pouring the white powder out into the spoon.  And in the fluttering and flickering overhead light, he watched him melting it with the lighter and then sucking up its liquid with the hypodermic needle.

             And that was when he started to get nervous.  Eddie was no expert, but he’d bet good money that the amount of junk in the barrel of the needle was far more than anyone would ever inject, even a seasoned user.

             “Is this all just for you?  Because if you think for one second that I’m going to—”

             “Just hang on, okay?  You’ll see what you wanted to see, don’t worry.”

             Without another word, Johnny shrugged out of his jacket, tied off the rubber tubing around his upper arm, and slid the needle into what looked like a well-traveled vein.

             “Now,” he said, “this won’t be pretty.  Just listen.  No matter what happens, no matter what I do, just hang back.  Don’t touch me, okay?  And promise me you’ll wait five minutes before you try to run out of here.” 

             “Why would I run out of—”

             “Just promise.”

             “Okay.  All right.”

             Johnny nodded, offered him a knowing wink, and pushed the plunger all the way in.

             He hit the floor in less than a minute, and then he thrashed around there against the dirty tiles for another three minutes after that.  Foam sputtered out at the corners of his mouth, and his muscles contracted and relaxed, again and again, from head to toe.  Eddie watched him the whole time, not moving at all until the kid’s body went into a violent shiver and then finally fell still.

             He couldn’t help but think what an idiot the little skinny bastard had been, and what an even bigger idiot he was himself for believing him.  But in the end, as it turned out, Johnny might have just accomplished what Eddie had been sent out to do to him in the first place.  And when someone found him here, stretched out on the floor of Steggie’s men’s room, who would ever suspect Eddie had anything to do with it?  No one.  Because this was a fitting and predictable ending for a guy like Johnny, wasn’t it?  Nobody who knew him would be surprised.

             When a full minute passed, Eddie leaned over and felt the kid’s neck and wrist for a pulse.

             Nothing.

             He counted to ten.

             Still nothing.

             And he was ready to leave then, just get the hell out of there, but he did what he’d promised and stood over Johnny’s cooling corpse for a full five minutes.  When nothing else happened, he gave it two minutes more, and it was only then, as he was turning away and reaching for the door, that he finally heard movement behind him.

             A rustle of clothing.  The thump of a boot.

             When he looked again, Johnny was struggling up to a sitting position, one hand reaching up to wipe away the spittle dripping from his chin.

             What the hell was happening?

             Eddie might have been stupid, but he wasn’t stupid.

             This was the proof of so many of the things he’d been talking about for so long now.

             And this was something Nunzio and all his downtown boys knew nothing about.

 

PART SEVEN

            

      

            They left the bar late, Eddie driving and Johnny sucking down smoke after smoke like a guy on death row, like some guy who didn’t give a shit.

            Eddie started out heading toward Storrow Drive, and when the evening traffic started to get on his nerves, he hit the highway, Route 1 North, out of town.  He was still going to do what he was supposed to do, but he couldn’t see any real hurry in it now.  This kid wasn’t going anywhere.

            And he was really curious too, about why Johnny was convinced he could never die.  There was probably nothing to it; most likely it was probably all just some kind of junkie-immortality kick, but who could say?  There was a lot of unexplained, strange shit out there, a lot of it that Eddie was interested in, and what Johnny had showed him in the bathroom at Steggie’s, man, that had put an awful lot of weight behind the kid’s claim.

So what the hell?  What did he have to lose by spending a few hours humoring this kid?  If things didn’t pan out, he’d shoot Johnny hard and fast and leave his body up in Lynn or Saugus or somewhere.  There were bodies knee-deep in those cities some nights; one more wouldn’t matter.

            He was feeling pretty good, too.  After Johnny had stolen his drink, Eddie had ordered a few more rounds, doing most of the drinking himself this time.  The kid had mostly slacked off after that, some kind of lightweight, showing his true colors.

            Johnny leaned against the passenger door, staring out at the passing lights.  He was trying to piece the words together, trying to talk about this immortality thing, but he didn’t seem to be having an easy time of it.  His words were far apart and his story disjointed.  Stuttering and cheap, exactly the kind of story a junkie would tell to keep his options open.

            But just before Eddie had heard enough, just before he was ready to steer the car towards one of those North Shore towns that seemed to have so many holes to fill up with guys like Johnny, a few words of wisdom came out.  Just a few words, in Johnny’s stoned-out mumble, but they managed to get through.

            “What was that last part?” Eddie asked.  “Say that to me again.”

            Johnny looked across the seat at him.  His dose was starting to wear off, or maybe the drinks on top of it had made him loopy, Eddie couldn’t tell.  His eyes were growing far away, and when he gestured to punctuate his words, Jesus, his hands were all over the place.

            “What part do you mean?”

            “The thing you just said.  You . . . what was it you brought up, was it voodoo?”

            “Oh.  Yeah.  There was voodoo, man, that’s what did it.”

            “What kind of voodoo are you talking about?”

            Johnny laid back in his seat, thinking about it.  “Well, I guess . . . I’m thinking the voodoo kind, I guess.”

            Eddie sat up straight behind the wheel.  Things were different now.  A junkie mumbling in a bar about being immortal, that was one thing.  Shit, they all felt that way, didn’t they?  But now, in a car with a guy he didn’t know, probably knowing what was at the end of the ride for him?  Talking now, at this point, about immortality, it probably meant something different.

            Something maybe a little more real.

            “Where?” Eddie asked.  “Where did this happen to you?  This voodoo thing?”

            “I was with some people in Lowell.”

            Eddie wanted to smack the kid again.  Did everything really need to take so long with him?

            “Johnny.”

            “Yeah?”

            “These people in Lowell, are they the ones who knew about the voodoo thing?”

            Johnny nodded, his head bobbing like it was about to fall off his shoulders.  “Yeah.  Shit, if anyone knew anything about voodoo, it’d be them, right?”

            “Why’s that?”

            “Because they’re from Haiti, man, and they’re hiding out.”

 

PART EIGHT

            

      

            That didn’t prove shit, but Eddie turned the car toward Lowell anyway.  He had nothing better to do, and Johnny was fairly damn close to nodding out in the passenger seat.  What was the harm?

            The thing was, he’d heard again and again about this voodoo immortality stuff.  The paranormal was something of a hobby for him, although just about everybody he knew and everybody he tried to talk to about it seemed to see it as pure horseshit.  He’d read more books on the subject than he could accurately remember, and he’d spoken with just about anyone in the area who was willing to talk to him about the unexplained experiences they’d had in their own lives.

            Most of them were loons, of course, either completely delusional or just starved for attention, and it was easy to figure out which they were within a few minutes of talking to them.  If they wanted to show you the gateway to hell on your first meeting with them, they were loonies; if they asked you for a little money upfront, before they were willing to talk about details, then they were frauds, guys looking for attention and a quick payday.

            But Johnny . . .

            Johnny fell between the cracks.  He was harder to explain, and harder to figure out.

            He was the kind of guy who barely told you anything, so he couldn’t really be trying to hook you.  And he was the type of guy who had the details, somewhere in that head of his, but wasn’t out there flaunting them. 

            In Eddie’s experience, those were the kind of people who turned out to be the real deal.

            And if there was even a slim chance that Johnny Rennert was the real deal, then Eddie couldn’t pass it up.  Because this immortality thing, for a man in his business?  Shit, it could be just about the most valuable commodity on the planet.

            For a man with his ambitions, with his ideas of how to run things, and how things should go?  Well, there were really no limits to it, were there, if even a trace of what Johnny Rennert had told him was true.

            If it wasn’t, if the kid turned out to be the sack of shit junkie liar that everybody else in town thought he was, then it’d be easy.  It’d be a drive into Lowell, a few minutes of disappointment, a shot or two the back of the kid’s head, and that’d be it.  Eddie could be back to Chelmsford and a warm bed in time for the boobie shows on Cinemax.  No harm done other than a couple of wasted hours and a few gallons of gas.

            The miles slipped away underneath the car while Johnny snored in his seat, and coming off the expressway now, turning onto the Connector, Eddie reached over and nudged him.

            “Which way?  Where to?”

            The funny part of it was, there was no moment of coming awake for Johnny, no sense that he had to get his bearings or figure out exactly where the hell he was before he answered.  Hell, he didn’t even open his eyes.  Slumped towards the door in the passenger seat, he just mumbled hisanswer.

            “Left off the ramp.  Out towards the bridge.”

            “Really?”

            “Yes.”

            Eddie slowed the car and made the turn.

            Of course.  The worst part of town.  Where else would they be going?

            “Let me ask you something else, Johnny.”

            The kid grunted. 

            “You expecting anybody tonight?”

            “Why?”

            “Cause I’m pretty sure there’s somebody following us.”

 

PART NINE

            

                 

            The car was far enough behind them that it could have been nothing, but Eddie had decided a long time ago to never assume that something was nothing until you could be sure about it.

            And so he took his second left after leaving the Connector, cruising through a dark street stacked left and right with sagging tenement buildings, and he took his first left off of that and another quick right.  It wasn’t rocket science, losing a tail.  Unless the driver of the other car knew what he was doing, or had another car working with him, all you had to do was confuse him long enough to slip away.

            Eddie killed the lights and kept his eyes on the rearview mirror.  If the car pulled onto the same street, he’d know for sure they were being followed.  If not, if it didn’t show at all—

            The car, a shit-box Dodge, crept straight through the intersection behind them, there and then gone again in his mirror.  It went by fast enough that it looked like it was just heading along the street, but still, there had been just a bit of hesitation, like whoever was behind the wheel was looking around for something.

            It could go either way.

            Just to be sure, Eddie took a random series of streets leading back into town, trying to keep off the main throughways unless it was completely necessary.

            He didn’t see the car again the entire time.

 

                                                                                           <><><><><>

 

            A hundred yards back, the guys in the other car cruised down one empty street after another. 

             “That was pretty slick,” the driver said, “I’ll give him that.  He’s smarter than he looks.”

            “Think you can pick him up again?”

            “Probably, but not without making it look like we’re looking for him.”

            “Well, we’re gonna have to at least give it a try.  Nunzio says we find out what Eddie’s up to, we better find out what he’s up to.”

            “What if he sees us?”

            “If he sees us, he sees us, who cares?”

             “He saw us once already, that’s all I’m saying.”

             “I told you to give him more space.  Didn’t I tell you that?”

             “You want to drive, mate?  Is that what you’re on about?”

             “If I wanted to drive, I’d be driving, all right?  I’m just telling you, if he makes us again, he’ll probably get spooked and head off somewhere else, and then we’ll never find out where he was going in the first place.  Find him.”

              The driver sighed and started a zig-zag path south, towards the river, trying to figure where a mope like Eddie would be headed in a flea-bag city like this.  Probably an orgy, or a black mass or something.  Maybe both, who knows?  From what they’d heard, Eddie was deep into both of those scenarios.

              Ten minutes later, just when they were getting ready to pack it in and give up, they spotted a flash of taillights on a side street just east of the projects.  It was a random thing, really, just blind luck, but a lot of times that was the way things happened in their line of work.  When they swung around and headed that way—keeping as far back as they could—it turned out to be Eddie’s car after all, and just like that they were back on his trail.

             “Don’t let him see you this time,” the third man in the car said, from the shadows of the back seat.  “Think you can handle that?”

             Behind the wheel, Cyril said nothing.

            But he could feel his patience wearing thin.

 

PART TEN

            

                 

            Once they got closer, Johnny fed him directions, still folded up into the passenger seat and barely looking up, and Eddie did his best to hold onto his sense of direction.  They’d made so many turns, and had to work with so many goddamned one way streets that at times it felt like the kid really had no idea where he wanted to go.  But they ended up on a dead-end that was just about underneath one of the suspension bridges, pulling up in front of a building Eddie thought should have been condemned a year ago.

            “This is the place?  Really?”

            “Yeah.”  Without even looking.

            “Look . . . hey . . .”  Eddie reached out and snapped his fingers in front of the kid’s face.  “Hey, you in there?  Look at me.”

            Johnny did, his eyes clearer than Eddie would have expected.

            “If we go in there and somebody’s waiting to pull a fast one—”

            “No,” Johnny said, “it’s nothing like that.”

            “It better not be.  Cause you’ll be the first one I shoot.”

            “Yeah, I know, I know.  You’ll shoot me in the head.”

            “Listen, kid, you could be lying out back of a place in Saugus already, know what I’m saying?  And you may think you can’t die, but I’m not sure how well you’d do trying to run around with a bunch of bullets rattling around in your head.”

            But even while he was laying down his threat, he couldn’t feel good about it.  Because he still remembered what Johnny had shown him in the bathroom back at Steggie’s, before they’d hit the road.  The thing he’d done to convince Eddie he was serious about the immortality story. 

              Jesus.  He’d never seen anybody try that before. 

              Would a couple of bullets even do the job?

              “If it makes you feel any better,” Johnny told him, “I’ll go in first.”

              They climbed out of the car, and Eddie looked around the street.  Nobody around, just a couple of guys on a stoop further down on the left, sharing a bottle in a paper bag.  He could tell right off they were nothing to worry about.  They probably couldn’t even stand up, much less come down the street this far and start something.

              Across the street, in front of an empty lot, an old Toyota sat up on cement blocks at the curb.  The trunk was open and the windows were smashed.

             “My car gonna look like that when we come back out?”

             Johnny shrugged.  “You never know.”

             “That’s reassuring.”

             The front steps of the building creaked under their weight, and the front door was hanging open on one hinge.  Beyond it, there was only a single bulb burning in a wall fixture, its light almost lost behind dirt and graffiti. 

             Johnny turned sideways to squeeze past the hanging door, and Eddie hung back, trying to peer into the shadows.  He could make out a crooked set of stairs, leading up into the dark.  “You’re kidding me, right?  There are people living here?”

             “I told you.  They’re hiding out.”

             “From who?”

             “Everybody.  Anybody.  Nobody.  Come on.”

              Eddie made one more sweep of the street behind them, making sure nobody was making a move to follow them inside, and then—against his better judgment, he followed the kid into the dark.    

 

PART ELEVEN

            

                 

            All the way up the stairs, three goddamn floors up, Eddie kept thinking things probably wouldn’t get worse.  There were broken bottles everywhere, and trash bags scattered around and leaking rubbish, and the whole place reeked of roach spray and stale piss.  At each landing, there was a weak bit of light, but the stairs themselves were dark and claustrophobic.  The walls had been spray-painted with graffiti everywhere he cared to look, but in the bad light, he really couldn’t make out much of it.  A lot of gang shit, he guessed, guys marking their turf or laying down threats to their enemies; he couldn’t tell which, but it all looked the same to him.

            At the top, where Johnny paused to get his bearings, and Eddie stood for a moment to catch his breath, there was a brighter wash of light, coming from the far end of the hall.

            “Nice place,” he said.  “A little bit of paint, maybe a couple throw pillows, a Molotov cocktail, I could really see it coming together.”

            Johnny turned toward him.  Even in the dim light, his eyes seemed sharp and alive, a complete contrast to the way he moved and talked.              “Listen.  We’re not here to sit down and have tea.  You said you wanted to meet these people, and I’m bringing you to meet them.  Okay?”

            “What are you trying to say?  Am I supposed to be on my best behavior?”

            “I’m saying you may not want to fuck with them, all right?”

            “Yeah?  Why not?”

            “Because then maybe they’ll do to you what they did to the last guy who came in here and acted like he was better than anybody.”

            “And what happened to him?  They take away his polo privileges?”         

            “Nope.”  Johnny turned away and started down the hall, towards the light.  “Two of them held him down, and another one cut off both of his hands with a hacksaw.  I watched them do it, and it wasn’t pretty, believe me.”

 

PART TWELVE

            

                 

               The way Johnny talked, the way he just came out with things, it was impossible to tell what might be true and what might be pure bullshit.  And Eddie knew some really rough guys, truly bad characters, but he’d never known anybody who’d done the sort of thing the kid was talking about now.  In Eddie’s world, if someone crossed you, you had them taken care of.  That meant either giving them a really good warning, like a pair of broken kneecaps or maybe a jagged scar across their face, or making sure they ended up in a landfill somewhere with a bad case of bullet holes.

               He couldn’t see the point of cutting some guy’s hands off.  Maybe to scare the hell out of someone else who needed straightening out, but . . . no, it seemed stupid and excessive, so he chose to look at it as nothing but a story.  And besides, how much trust could he really put in a junkie to remember exactly what he’d seen a day or a week or a month before?

               Johnny led the way along the hall, towards the door with all the light spilling out from underneath.  He was still walking in that loose, casual way, like he had all the time in the world.  Of course, if he really thought he could never die, Eddie supposed he did have all kinds of time.

               The light was better at this end of the hall, and the graffiti started taking on a different look.  Less scrawled words and more drawings now.  Stretched out faces with screaming mouths and skulls with empty eyes.  Animals with legs way too long and hunched shoulders.  Not exactly your run of the mill vandalism, but then again, there wasn’t much about tonight’s trip or their destination that felt ordinary to Eddie.

               At the door, Johnny stopped with one hand raised up and turned to Eddie again.  “You’re sure about this, right?”

               “Yeah,” Eddie told him.  “If what you’re telling me is true, I really want to meet these people.”

               “Oh, it’s true, don’t worry.  But once you meet these guys . . . well, you kind of can’t un-meet them, you know what I’m saying?”

                Eddie nodded towards the door.  “Let’s do this.”

                Johnny shrugged and knocked, a little double then triple rap with his knuckles on the edge of the door.  Nothing happened for a few seconds, although Eddie thought he could hear some sort of music seeping out at them from inside the apartment.  Nothing he recognized or could focus on; there was a beat there, somewhere, but it felt like it was all over the place and he couldn’t follow it.

                A voice came through the door, deep and rumbling, with an accent that was hard to pinpoint.  “Go ‘way.”

                “It’s me.  It’s Johnny.”

                “I know it you,” the voice said.  “That why I say you go ‘way.”

                “Come on, man, open up.  I have a guy here who needs to see you.”  Johnny banged on the door again, ignoring whatever code he’d tapped out before.

                There was another minute of silence, and then another voice came.  Slightly higher pitched, but sharing the same accent.  “Who is this with you?”

                “A new friend of mine, name of Ed.”

                “Eddie,” Eddie said.

                “And what he want?”

                “He doesn’t believe me when I tell him what you can do.”

                “Tell him we can.  Tell him we can, and we do.”

                Johnny rested his forehead on the door.  “Yeah, well, he doesn’t believe you.  He's the kind of guy Mama will want to meet.”

                There was a longer silence this time, and then a lock was disengaged, and the door swung slowly open.  Eddie couldn’t see much of anything inside, despite the light that seemed to fall over everything.  All he could make out was the shape of a very tall man, standing just beyond the open door. 

                “Come inside,” the deep voice said, “and we will see what can and cannot be done.”

                Johnny stepped through the doorway without hesitation, and after just a short pause to consider his options, Eddie followed.

                The door closed behind him, and the first thing he saw, once the giant of a man moved out of the way, was something that looked like a wooden coat rack up against the wall.  It looked like an antique, something that would be really expensive, completely out of place in a dump of a building like this.

                And when Eddie stepped up to get a closer look, he couldn’t help but notice that part of what made up the top of it sure as hell looked like what could have been a pair of human hands at one time.

 

PART THIRTEEN

            

                 

            Down in the street, parked half a block away and facing the tenement building, Cyril and Angelo couldn’t agree on their options.  Going in was probably a bad idea; who knew what Eddie was there for, or how many guys might be waiting for them inside?  After all, he’d caught them following him once.  The odds that he’d managed to do it again were fairly good.

            “You’re giving him too much credit,” Cyril said.  “He’s all show, that bloke.”

            Angelo pointed down the street.  “A guy who’s all show doesn’t come out to a neighborhood like this in the middle of the night.  And he doesn’t go into a building that looks like that with a guy he barely knows, does he?”

            “Depends what they’re here for, I’d say.”

            “Whatever it is, it ain’t anything good.  I doubt very much they’re having a bake sale in there.”

            “So you’re saying we just sit here and wait for him to come out?  Nunzio wants us to take care of him.”

            “No, he wants us to find out what he’s up to.  Don’t go putting words in Nunzio’s mouth.”

            “I’m not.  But one usually leads to the other, doesn’t it?  We wouldn’t be following Eddie in the first place if the big guy didn’t think he needed fixing.”

            Angelo sighed.  “You’re getting ahead of things, Cyril.  Okay?  It’s your job, I know Nunzio gave this one to you, so it’s your call.  But I say we give him another fifteen, twenty minutes.  If he don’t come out by then, we’ll talk about going in.”

            Cyril reached out and adjusted the rearview mirror so he could see the face of the man in the backseat, the guy who still hadn’t spoken a word yet.  “What do you think?  You must have something to say about all of this.”  When he still didn’t get an answer, he twisted around in his seat.  “Stan?  Hello?  You with us here?”

            Stan leaned forward.  “It’s like Angelo said, it’s your job.  You’re going to do whatever it is you want to do.”

            “You must have some opinion, though, am I right?  You’ve been working with Nunzio the longest.”

            “If you want my opinion, I’m with Angelo.  We should wait, see what happens.”

            “And why do you feel that way?”

            In the thick shadows of the backseat, Stan shrugged and looked away.  “I don’t know, this thing . . . something just doesn’t feel right about it.”

            “How so?”

            “I don’t know, it’s just a feeling.  I can’t put it into words.”

            “Try.”

            “Well, for starters, this kid he’s with, who even is he?”         

            “Johnny Rennert.”

            “Yeah, okay, so Eddie’s supposed to be taking care of him, right?  For Nunzio.”

            “That’s right, he is.”

            “But here he is in the middle of the night, driving out to Lowell with him.  Something’s up and we don’t know what it is.  And I don’t like it.”

            Cyril nodded and turned back to stare out through the windshield again.  “Okay.  I guess it’s settled then.  We’ll wait.  But if he doesn’t come out of there in fifteen minutes, we’re going in after him.”

 

PART FOURTEEN

            

                 

           

            Eddie didn’t much care for the look of the place, but the smell of it was even worse.  There was a rancid odor hanging in the air, like unwashed bodies and some sort of sour, foreign cooking.  It was like being in a third-world marketplace somewhere, assaulted from every side with some new and terrible odor.

            He tried to play it cool, to give the impression that he was the kind of guy who could handle any situation, but right now, what he wanted more than anything else was to travel back in time about thirty seconds and change his mind about leaving the hallway.  Because not only was there a horrible stench to this place, there was something about it that made him feel like anything could happen to him, at any moment.

            He’d never felt anything like it.  Sure, he’d been in tight spots before.  Guys with their guns out, looking for him; cops pulling him in and questioning him; even a crazy woman one time, coming at him with a knife in a subway bathroom.  But all those situations were different.  In any one of them, the threat was obvious.  The gun was a gun and the knife was a knife, and both were weapons to be dealt with.  But here . . .

            Man, here the threat felt like it was coming off of everything.  There was a sense of dread in the apartment like he’d never felt before.

            The giant of a guy who’d opened the door looked them both over for about five seconds and then simply turned and walked away, like he had something better he needed to get back to.  There was another guy slouched over in a chair in the corner, turning his head constantly from side to side, good and slow, like he was doing a radar sweep of the room with his eyes.  Eddie assumed he was the other voice they’d heard from the hallway, but there was no way to be sure.  Hell, there was no way to be sure about anything that was going on here.

            Johnny took a step away from him, but he grabbed his arm from behind and held him back.

            “Not so fast, kid.  What the hell is this place?”

            “It’s just a place they’re at for now.  Hiding out and waiting.”

            “Waiting for what?”

            “Until it’s time for them to go on to the next place.”  Johnny tugged his arm free.  “Come on.  I want you to meet her.”

            “Her?  Who?”

            “Mama Boko.  She’s the one who did this for me.”

            “Did what?”

            “Made me what I am.  Just like I showed you at the bar.”

            Johnny led the way from one room to the next, through gaping openings with the doors removed, into rooms crowded with broken furniture and light that was there but seemed to come from nowhere.  The walls in every room were covered in the same sort of grotesque graffiti Eddie had seen in the hallway outside the apartment: human facial features pushed towards something inhuman; screaming mouths and empty eyes.

            And through it all, that smell.  God.

            Eddie noticed something else, too, something that kind of crept up on his thoughts the deeper he moved into the apartment.  Anything he laid he eyes on, anything his mind recorded into memory, it became foggy and indistinct just a few seconds later.  There was a brightness to everything he saw, sure, like it was meant to stand out and be noticed, but then, when he tried to think back on what he’d just seen or heard in the room before this one . . . it was hard to pull the memories back into place.

            “Where are we—”

            Johnny stopped him before he could finish the question.

            “We’re here,” he whispered. 

             They were in front of a closed door now, the only door Eddie could recall seeing in the apartment, though he couldn’t be sure.  Just like he couldn’t retrace their path in his mind; they’d taken so many lefts and rights, and gone through so many open doorways, he couldn’t imagine how all the distance they’d covered had taken place in this single apartment.

             “If there’s anything you want,” Johnny said, “more than anything else in the world, you should try to hide it right now.”

             “Yeah, why’s that?”

             “Because she’ll know what it is.  And she’ll use it on you.”

 

PART FIFTEEN

            

                 

           

            Everything Johnny was saying seemed to ride out into the air with an echo to it now, like words repeated just a half-second after they’d been spoken.  Eddie shook his head, trying to focus.  Was it something in the air here?  Were they burning something in this shithole apartment that was fogging his thoughts and feelings?  Had the kid slipped something into one of his drinks at Steggie’s?

            No.  Neither of those felt right.

            This was something deeper.  Something he could feel in his bones, or jittering along the currents of his central nervous system.  But what?

            And then that feeling came again, like he couldn’t remember anything he’d just seen.  He tried to remember coming into the place, tried to imagine the apartment doorway and who might have been there to open it.  But there was nothing.  It was like waking up from a dream and feeling all those vivid details just melting away to nothing, no matter how real or important they’d felt just a few seconds before.

            “I don’t want to,” he said, barely aware that he was saying the words out loud.

            Johnny turned to him, his hand already on the doorknob, already turning it.

            “What’s that?”

            “I don’t want to go in.  I don’t . . . I don’t want to see her.”

            “Sorry, Eddie,” Johnny said, his voice filled with echoes and bursts of sudden static.  “It’s too late for that.  Nobody comes this far without seeing her.”

            He opened the door.

            Eddie could feel sweat rolling off of him.  Off of his face and neck, and God, under his arms.  His shirt felt damp and sticky, and when he raised one arm to tug at his collar, he could smell himself.  He could smell his own sweat, his own city-boy, working-man odor. 

            What the hell was going on here?

            He looked into the room now, beyond the open door.  A weak and intermittent light flickered in the far corner, something like the light from a campfire, only bathed in blue and green, and in its glow he could make out a complicated series of geometric lines and patterns covering the bare wood of the floor.  Black and red lines, hundreds of them, crossing again and again, in ways that seemed both random and carefully arranged.

            The walls were naked here, free of the graffiti that he seemed to recall seeing in some of the other rooms.  But they weren’t empty, not exactly.

            Eddie thought he could see shadows moving there.  Back and forth, and side to side, the shadows of crouching things and frightened men, moving across the walls, with nothing in the room to cast them.

            “No,” he said, “I don’t like this.”

            “Nobody said you were going to like it,” Johnny said, “but you’re the one who said you wanted to see it.”

            On the far side of the room, Eddie could make out two figures.  One of them seemed to be a giant of some kind, a guy taller than anyone he’d ever seen.  Some dim flicker of memory came to him then, from a thousand miles away: a very tall man, with a deep and grating voice, standing in a doorway.  The image came and then vanished, and Eddie tried to turn his attention to the second figure.

            This one was smaller, crouched down—or maybe sitting, he couldn’t tell. 

            He couldn’t make out any features.  He could only see a vague shape, and a hunched, crooked form.  He imagined it as female, but that might have only been because of Johnny, and his constant references to “her” and “she.”

            And yet . . .

            There was a deep sense that he was in the presence of not only a woman, but a woman of great importance.  The feeling was deep and primordial, and Eddie couldn’t have denied it if he’d wanted to.  It was complete and overwhelming, and everything that made him a man seemed insignificant in its shadow.

            And then, out of the glittering, flickering light, she spoke to him.

            “There come a man who believe,” she said, “but does not accept.”

 

PART SIXTEEN

            

                            

            Her voice was like fallen leaves crumbling underfoot, a dry and brittle sound that set Eddie’s nerves on edge.  She spoke in the same deep accent as the other voices he’d heard earlier, and although he knew her words had come from the room’s far wall, there was some unknown quality to her voice that made him believe she might be standing right beside him at the same time.  He fought the urge to look to his right, understanding that his mind might react badly if he discovered her standing there.  Instead, he peered into the deep shadows in which he’d first seen her shape.

            He cleared his throat.  “I’m . . . I’m here because—”

            “I know why you here.  I know ever ting you feeling right now.”

            Eddie squinted against the gloom.  For just a second, he thought he sensed a hint of movement, as if something in the air between the far wall and himself had shifted and moved aside.  He tried to glimpse it again, whatever it was, but it was gone now, and he got his first clear look at the woman that Johnny had called Mama Boko.

            His first thought was that she was dead, that he was looking at a body that someone had dug up and propped in a chair.  Her face was a web of wrinkles and deep creases, as dry as parchment, and her eyes were sunken so deeply into her face that at first Eddie was convinced there were only empty sockets there.  But then a tiny chuckle reached his ears, and a glint of light glimmered in her eyes.  She raised one withered, shivering hand and pointed her skeletal fingers it at him.

            “You tink I dead, but you wrong.  I as old as the world, boy, that true, but I alive.”

            Eddie felt himself stepping forward, despite an overwhelming urge to turn away and leave the room.  The room, the building, the city; Christ, he wanted to put as many miles between all of them as he could.  He looked down at his foot, trying to remember if he’d consciously willed it to

Move.  Before he could figure it out, his other leg swung forward.

            What the hell?

            This time, as soon as he took his step, the giant of a man left the wall and placed himself between Eddie and Mama Boko.  His face and body seemed like they’d been carved from black granite, the bluish-green light flickering off of his oily skin.

            “It okay, Tee’Ma” the woman said, “I make him come to me.”

            The giant glared at Eddie a moment longer and then moved back into the shadows.  There was no doubt in Eddie’s mind that if he tried anything, if he made any attempt to harm the old woman, the giant would be on him in a heartbeat.  And Eddie didn’t want to think too much about what the guy would do to him.  It would be something terrible.  Something violent and painful.

            His feet rose and fell again, first one and then the other, and Eddie couldn’t do a single thing about it, and when he finally looked up again, he was only ten feet away from Mama Boko.  She was seated in an ordinary wooden chair, draped in a dark and shimmering cloth that seemed to change colors as the flickering lights from the corner flashed across it.  Up close now, other detail stood out in her features, and Eddie found he was unable to look away.  Her chin was long and pointed, and below it, the hollow of her throat seemed more like a gaping wound than a natural depression of her anatomy.  A deep scar crossed the lower half of her face, the remnants of some long ago diagonal slash from her right eye down to her jawline. 

            Her skin was the darkest Eddie had ever seen, and her arms—when she raised them toward him and held her crooked hands out in a gentle stopping gesture—looked too thin to possibly be functional.  And yet there she was, moving and talking.  Breathing and, yeah, smiling at him now around teeth so perfect and white they could only be dentures.

            Eddie’s legs fell still immediately when she held her hands out toward him.  In fact, he felt as though he couldn’t move a muscle if he tried.

            “Now.  You tell me why you here.”

            His tongue felt fat and heavy in his mouth, but he somehow managed to speak.

            “You . . . said you knew.”

            She laughed at that.  “I do.  But I want to hear you say.  What a man tink and what a man say, they not always the same ting.”  She cocked her head and the smile left her face.  “And nothing tell the true of a man more than the first lie he tell you.”

 

PART SEVENTEEN

            

                            

            Eddie couldn’t be sure what his response should be.  If the old witch knew everything he was thinking—a claim he was damn well ready to believe—then what could he say to her?  What would be the point in lying?

            And yet . . .

            Well, he wasn’t the kind of guy who had an easy time sharing the truth.  Maybe it was his line of work, or maybe it was just something his old man had ingrained in him back when he was still crawling around in diapers, who could tell?  The fact was, with Eddie, the urge to lie almost always outweighed the need to tell the truth.

            And even though he understood that lying would be a very bad thing to do at this moment, one rose to his lips before he could try to stop it.

            “I’m here,” he said, “because Johnny told me he couldn’t die.  And I don’t believe him.”

            Mama Boko nodded, her sunken eyes never blinking.  “No more?”

            “What do you mean?”

            “There no more you want to tell me?”

            “No.  That’s it.”  The lies came more smoothly now, as if the first of them had loosened his tongue.  And all at once, Eddie began to believe that maybe she couldn’t read his thoughts after all.  Or at least not all of them.  “I wanted proof that what he was saying was true.”

            Eddie looked to his left, where Johnny had been standing in perfect silence the entire time.  But the floor was empty.  And when he managed to turn his head to look behind him, there was no one else.  Or maybe there was; with all the shifting shadows and the lines painted on the floor, it was hard to tell if he was truly alone.

            He turned to face the woman again, but just as he started to move his head, he saw Johnny.  The kid was just a couple of feet behind him, slightly to his left.  His eyes were glazed and far away, his mouth hanging open.  Eddie froze, staring at Johnny.  He hadn’t been there a second ago; he was sure of it.  But now . . .

            He shifted his eyes and the floor was empty again.

            A trickle of sweat ran down the center of Eddie’s back, but it might as well have been ice water.

            The old woman laughed again, and he looked toward her.

            “Some time our eyes lie, too,” she said.  “Some time, there no such ting as true.”

            She was leaning forward in her chain now, the light from the corner painting her face blue.

            “I tink the why of you coming here, it maybe not the same as you say to me.”

            “Listen,” Eddie said, “I’ll just . . . I’ll just go, okay?  I’m sorry I lied to you, but if you—”

            “The lie reveal the true.  The gift I give to John, you want it.”

            “I don’t know if—”

            “You want it for you.  To be how he be.  To always live and never to die.”

            Eddie was about to protest again, but stopped himself.  There was no use in carrying on with the lie; she could read him like a neon sign. 

             “Yes,” he said.

             “You want it for power.”

             “Yes.”

             “And to do bad to them who do bad tings to you.”

             Eddie nodded.  All of it was true; why deny it?          

             “Then come close.  But let me say to you first: ever ting there is, it come with a price.”

 

PART EIGHTEEN

            

                            

          In his head and in his gut, Eddie knew it would be a mistake to do as the old woman had asked.  Somehow, getting closer to her would be the worst thing he could ever do.  But even while these thoughts crossed his mind, he began to move forward.  His arms and legs and body moved on their own, and there was nothing he could do to stop them.  He fought back anyway, because it was in his nature to fight.  He tried to will his limbs to stop moving, tried to put up some kind of wall in his mind, the kind that maybe the old crone couldn’t reach him behind.

          A wave of nausea swept through him, and what little he could see in his peripheral vision faded away to indistinct shapes and figures, moving in and out of sight.  From some other room, muffled but bleeding through the walls, the strange music with its slippery beat seemed to grow louder.  And the smell, the horrible, rancid odor that filled the place—Jesus, that was getting stronger too.

          Eddie felt his stomach churning, and the sweat poured off of his forehead and into his eyes.

          He blinked against their sting, and something in that simple motion reached him through the fog.  It had been an involuntary movement, true, but it had been something the old woman could not control.  And if that could happen . . .

          He fought harder now, trying to think of instinctual movements and reflexive actions that might be beyond her reach.  He didn’t think any of them would lead to him suddenly finding the ability to reach for his gun, but he’d be damned if he was just going to give in and let her pull him across the room this way.

          She was only eight or ten feet away now, and beginning to frown, and in that moment, he knew he might still have a chance.  He blinked again, and then managed to swallow, and then he focused every ounce of his strength on bringing his forward momentum to a stop.  He concentrated on the muscles themselves, the moving bands beneath the flesh of his arms and legs, struggling to make them stop expanding and contracting and . . .  

           And he stopped.

           Just like that, just five feet away from the old woman, in the middle of the empty floor, he stopped walking.

           There was a moment of complete imbalance then, a feeling like he was standing on the ridgeline of an impossibly steep roof, where the wrong move in either direction would send him plummeting towards the earth below.  He held his breath, still feeling the pull from the old woman, but not as fully.  It seemed easier to resist now, as if he’d somehow broken through at least a small part of her control over him.

           He focused on his movements again and actually managed to take a single step away from her.  And that was good, that was fucking wonderful, because it made him feel like there might still be a way out of this. 

            He didn’t want what Johnny had, not anymore.  All he wanted now was to be away from this place and these people.  And from her.  Most of all, to be away from her.

            But just as he was taking his second step back towards the door he knew must be back there somewhere in the shadows, a hand that felt like a steel claw closed around his shoulder and the giant spoke up from behind him.

            “You don’t go nowhere,” the man said, his voice as deep as a lake in winter, where the ice and the darkness send you spinning further and further into the depths.

            Eddie looked toward the wall, convinced the giant had never left this place at the woman’s side.  But the wall beside her was empty; somehow the big man had managed to get behind him.  When the hell had that happened? 

            The giant leaned over and filled Eddie’s ear with the sound of gravel.  “When Mama tell you come close, you come.  No other way for you.”

            He shoved Eddie forward, towards Mama Boko’s grinning face.

 

 

PART NINETEEN

            

                            

            Down in the street, Cyril was far from happy.

            In fact, he was just about as pissed as he’d ever been in his life.

            Because Angelo was still sitting there in the passenger seat, sucking on pistachio shells and telling him in that calm, even voice of his to just relax and wait it out.  And in the back, Stan—that bastard that Angelo had insisted come along to drive Eddie’s car away later, if it came to that—he was just staring out the window, not saying a goddamn thing unless it was to agree with Angelo.

            They went way back together working for Nunzio, yeah, fine, but did that mean they had to stick together on every little thing?  A couple of wankers, that’s what they were.

            Cyril stared through the windshield, barely watching the building now.  He’d agreed to wait fifteen minutes, and he’d made good on that, but ten minutes ago, when he’d pushed open his door and announced that Eddie’s time was up, Angelo had laid a gentle hand on his arm and told him they should give it fifteen more.

            And now here they were, almost half an hour into a stakeout that he hadn’t wanted to start in the first place.  He wanted to move.  He wanted to get out of the car and get into the building and find out exactly what Eddie was doing in there.  He wanted to act.  Nunzio was a man who respected action, not careful observation.  And if Nunzio wanted Eddie followed—and taken care of, it that was the way it had to come out—and if he wanted the kid, Johnny, taken out either way, then what was all this waiting around for anyway?

            He thought about Angelo, about how he was so different when Stan was around.  Cyril had seen Angelo being pretty ruthless, when it was just the two of them.  He’d seen him lose his patience and strike out violently, more than once, when things weren’t moving along fast enough for him.  But now, with Stan hanging around, what, was he all of a sudden ready to wait around all night if he had to? 

             He and Stan had both come out of the same neighborhood together, out of the worst part of Charlestown.  So what?  Loyalty was one thing, but this kind of buddy/buddy routine was pathetic.  If there was a way to bust them up, to turn one against the other, then at least they might be able to get something done tonight.  And if Cyril could think of a way to get Nunzio involved . . .

             “The hell with this,” he said.  He pushed open his door and climbed out of the car.  “I’m going in.  You two want to sit here and play pocket pool, be my guest.”

             He wasn’t surprised to see Angelo turn around in his seat, looking for some sort of approval from Stan.  And Stan must have given him the nod, because a few seconds later, the two of them stepped out into the street.

             “Okay,” Stan said, “but here’s how it is: if we get in there are and things get out of hand, and if I say it’s time to go, I don’t want any kind of argument about it.”

              Cyril felt his jaw starting to clench.  “Look, I don’t know why you think you’re here, but it’s like Angelo said: Nunzio gave this one to me.”

              “That’s right, he did.  But if things go south, he’s gonna want to know somebody was using their head and not just going in half-cocked—”

              “If you think I’m—”

              “—and when it comes right down to it,” Stan went on, “Nunzio is sure as hell going to trust my word about this more than yours.  You got that?”

              There really wasn’t much chance of arguing that point, and Cyril knew it.  He’d seen it happen for himself, more times than he’d prefer to acknowledge; the guy with the longer relationship with the big guy was the one who Nunzio would ultimately look to for answers later on.

              From the way things were coming together, it didn’t look like it’d be much different this time.

It was enough to make a guy start to hope that Stan wouldn’t make it out of the tenement building alive.

 

PART TWENTY

            

                            

            As a seven year old boy, Eddie once spent a chilly October afternoon pressed to his bedroom window, watching a dead body, the first one he’d ever seen.  The home he’d grown up in—not exactly a mansion, but not bad for a family that was barely scraping by—had a steep and overgrown backyard that led down to the Merrimack River, and on that cold, misty Monday, a team of cops and paramedics were busy fishing a body out of the water.  They were only maybe a couple hundred feet away, and directly beyond the rusted chain link fence that marked the end of his father’s little lot of land, and Eddie’s view couldn’t have been better.

            At first, when he’d started to understand what they were up to down there, he hadn’t wanted to look.  All he could see was a pale human hand, its slick skin bone-white against the darker water, and his first instinct was to close his eyes and pull the shades.  He knew little boys weren’t supposed to see things like that, especially the kind of little boy who’d once wet his pants in fear while watching The Pit and The Pendulum on Creature Double Feature a few years earlier.

            And yet the idea of what else he might see beyond that single, clutching hand had kept him at the window, his muscles stiff and his eyes straining.  If he finally got a glimpse of the guy’s face, would it be somebody he knew?  If anything had happened to the guy, like if he’d been shot by a cop or stabbed with a knife, would the wound still be gaping and obvious, or would the river have washed it all clean?

             So, with two and a half hours left before his mother got home from the dry-cleaners where she spent a couple of hours every day, seven year old Eddie Tragin had remained at the window, trying not to fog the glass with his breath, trying to make out more and more detail as the cops down by the river eventually pulled the body free of the current and dragged it onto the narrow strip of mud that made up the shoreline.  When he finally did catch a glimpse of the face—pallid and glistening, with just two black hollows for eyes—it was far too bloated to possibly recognize as anyone he might have seen in town. 

            He’d felt a confusing wave of emotions at that moment.  There was sudden fear, of course, something far stronger than anything he’d felt watching Vincent Price’s dead wife rise from her coffin in that Pendulum movie.  And there was the half-understood notion that everything he knew about life and death and the world around him had changed forever.  But worst of all—and maybe this was the thing he struggled with the most to make sense of—there was a sense of excitement, deep down inside, in some dark and secret place that he’d never explored.  What made this feeling worse than the others was the realization that it was what he felt most prevalently in the storm of mixed emotions. 

             He knew that what he was seeing was somehow beautiful to him.

             And that, in and of itself, was the most disturbing thing that had ever happened to him in his life.

             Until now.

             The memory of that long-ago afternoon, of that innocent seven year old boy staring raptly out of his bedroom window, tumbled through his thoughts now as Mama Boko reached out for him.  It came up out of nowhere, something he hadn’t thought about in years.  And while most of his childhood memories had become dusty and muted through the intervening years, this one suddenly felt shiny and new to him, every detail standing out in perfect clarity.

              Mama Boko’s hands slid up to his cheeks, cupping his face, her palms dry and flaking against his skin.  He might have expected them to be icy cold, like the hands of the dead man pulled from the river that day, but they weren’t.  They were warm to the touch, and in some way that seemed contrary to everything else around him, the moment of contact was almost soothing in its intimacy.

              Her ancient features filled his vision, her face only a foot away from his, and in her eyes he saw a wisdom so deep and terrible that he understood immediately that any wall he managed to put up in his thoughts—no matter how high he built it—would never keep her out.

              “Now, boy,” she whispered, “it time to show me ever ting.  It time to see what you really are in there.”

              She leaned forward and pressed her thin and cracked lips against his.

 

PART TWENTY-ONE

            

                            

            Somebody was screaming.

            Long, agonizing cries that stretched out into the night, riding on strange currents of air that made them echo and twist in and out of range.  At first it sounded like the screams of a child, though whether that child was male or female, it was impossible to say.  But just as Eddie tried to focus on the sound, it suddenly became the scream of a man.  Somebody fully grown and suffering the worst pain any man had ever endured.

            And it might have been him screaming, for all he knew.  Truthfully, he couldn’t tell.  He wanted to scream, he could feel the need, building up inside of him and trying to force its way out.  But whether he was actually setting it loose, whether it was his own voice he could hear swimming in and out of his awareness, he had no idea.

            Because there was too much going on in his head, too many conflicting thoughts and feelings and emotions.  And too many people, too; that was maybe the worst thing.  He was there, of course, still trying to make sense of what was happening, still struggling to come up with a way out of this mess, and yet . . .  The small boy he’d been all those years ago, that curious seven year old whose innocence had first been challenged and then corrupted watching that body dragged out of the icy currents of the Merrimack—he was there, too.  Not just the memory of the boy, but the boy himself.  The thoughts he’d been thinking that day, and the confusing swell of emotions he’d experienced.  They were all right there, as vivid and as fresh as the day they’d been conceived.

            And the woman.

            Mama Boko.

            She was there too.

            He could feel her walking the corridors of his thoughts, unlocking and opening every door, peering behind every memory and feeling.  He could feel her eyes in his head, too, searching everywhere and seeing everything, missing nothing.  Worst of all, he could sense her own thoughts, digging into his, clutching at them like fingers tearing into the dripping, fetid mud at the edge of a moving river.

            She uncovered everything about him, everything he was, everything he’d ever experienced that had shaped him into the man he was today.  He felt her watching every man he’d ever killed, every woman he’d ever lied to or cheated on.  He saw her laughing at every moment of weakness or self-doubt he’d ever known, and nothing he’d ever done, no act great or small, escaped her attention or her judgement. 

            And when it was over—when her grasping fingers slowly unfurled from his deepest feelings and memories, when he realized at last that he was the one screaming—she pulled her lips away from his.  The movement was slow and deliberate, almost loving in its tenderness, and as he felt the contact broken, he couldn’t help but wonder what she was taking away from him.

            He felt his mind settling, felt the boyhood version of himself drifting back into the past.

            Mama Boko smiled, her teeth filling his vision.  “I know what you are like now,” she told him.  “I know you heart and you mind.  And I even know you dirty little soul.  Do you doubt what I tell you?”

            Eddie shook his head, his face still cradled in her hands.  Ancient hands, as still as a surgeon’s, without even the hint of trembling to betray her age.

            “You have a gun with you.  This I know.” 

            He nodded.

            “And you are want to use it now, don’t you?  You are want to use it on me.”

            Eddie thought about denying it, just for a second, but knew it would be pointless.  She would know the truth.  Of course he wanted to use his gun on her.  He wanted to pull it from his pocket and press it against her wrinkled old forehead and silence her voice forever.

            And she must know that, too, his hatred for her, his wish to see her dead.  It was the only retribution he could imagine for the way she’d invaded his mind, for the hold she had over him.

            “I can see it in you.  You want so much to shoot the old Mama Boko.”

            Eddie nodded.

            She leaned toward him again, staring straight into his eyes.

            “Then try.”

 

PART TWENTY-TWO

            

                            

            There was a moment, coming up the stairs in the dark, when Cyril thought he could feel the building shift under his feet.  Not an earthquake type of shift, but something more subtle.  Almost like it had shrugged and resettled itself.  He knew that was crazy, but he couldn’t shake off the idea of it.  Because the feeling that something was really out of place here was getting stronger with every step he took.

            He remembered what Stan had said in the car, about a feeling he couldn’t put into words, a feeling that something was wrong here.  That feeling was like a lead weight in Cyril’s gut now.  It made him want to stop, right there in the middle of the stairwell, and reevaluate his plan.  It was the same way you felt when you got closer to a fire; you weren’t close enough to get burned, at least not yet, but you could definitely start to feel its heat.

            He reached the top of the stairs, on the second floor landing now, and when first Angelo and then Stan stepped up beside him, he turned and stared at them in the bad light.

            “You feel that?”

            Angelo shrugged and swiped a sleeve across his forehead.  The only thing he was probably feeling right now was the strain the stairs was putting on his heart.  Stan, though . . . yeah, he was feeling something.  Cyril could see it on his face.  Not fear, not exactly, but maybe a feeling pretty damn close to it.

            “This is what you were talking about, isn’t it?  In the car.”

            Stan shook his head.  “No.  This is worse.”

 

 

<><><><><> 

 

 

            Johnny felt it too, the odd lurch under his feet, but he didn’t think of it as a shrug, as Cyril had.  Standing just inside the door of Mama Boko’s room, watching her whispering to Eddie, Johnny imagined the shifting of the floor as the first movement of some immense and powerful beast as it began to pull itself out of a deep and ancient slumber.  His thoughts were clearer than they’d been when he’d first left the bar with Eddie, but here, in this place . . . well, it was never easy to think straight.  Something in the air here, or some power of juju or voodoo or whatever that circled around Mama Boko like a protective cloak made that sort of clarity impossible.

            To be honest, he didn’t mind it at all.  In a lot of ways it reminded him of a really good high, the kind that makes everything blur together into a single soothing haze.  But now . . . man, the way that floor had just shivered underneath him?  Shit, he’d been here more than once—several times, in fact—but there had never been a feeling quite like this to the place.  This was heavy.  This was a feeling like something huge was about to happen, like unseen forces were aligning themselves all around them.

            He looked over his shoulder.  Mama’s giant was gone.  He’d faded out of the room right after forcing Eddie to his knees in front of the old woman.  That didn’t mean he was gone, of course; Johnny wasn’t so dumb or so high that he believed that.  The giant was always around, even when he wasn’t.

            But still, seeing how things were going at the moment, he couldn’t help but think it might be a damn good idea to get out of here while he still could.  It might be true that he could never die, but in Mama Boko’s presence, anything could happen at any time.  And considering she was the one who’d given him this gift, it was not out of the question that she might decide to take it away from him if the mood struck her to do so.

            And that was a chance Johnny wasn’t willing to take.

            Glancing once more at the old woman, he took a step backwards and slipped out the door.

            The last thing he saw before leaving the room was Eddie, still on his knees and reaching for his gun.

 

PART TWENTY-THREE

            

                            

            His gun was a thousand miles away, as far out of reach now as the idea of getting out of this place in one piece.  And yet, even as the notion occurred to him, as he considered the fact that he’d never be able to find his gun again, it was suddenly in his hand.  He could feel its familiar shape against his palm, could even identify it as his own by the tiny nicks and the well-worn areas of the grip.  Only its weight seemed unusual; what had once been a perfectly balanced weapon now felt like a fence post. 

            He struggled to lift it, straining his muscles, and eventually it began to rise up at his side.

            Mama Boko continued to smile at him, her face wide and dark, filling his entire field of vision.  Her hands were no longer warm against his face.  They seemed to be getting colder now, and when she spoke again, there was a curious hollowness to her voice.

            “You tinking so hard about you want to kill me, you letting it blind you.”

            The gun was at his chest now, still moving slowly, so slowly.  After what felt like an hour, he’d only managed to bring it up to his shoulder.  But he refused to give up.  And the entire time, the old woman continued talking to him.

            “I see it in you heart, this hate of yours.  It is black and dark and it make you its prisoner.  You do not see that?”

            Eddie didn’t answer.  Couldn’t, really. 

            “It will consume you, this hate.  It is in ever ting you do, I can feel it.  And I don’t know if it is you do not see it, or if it is you do not want to see it.”  She paused, and the next words came before she even opened her mouth again.  Eddie heard them clearly in his head.  “But it is gone be the death of you.”

            With a supreme effort of will, Eddie finally brought the gun up to the old woman.  He pressed its cold steel barrel against her left temple, his eyes locked on hers.  He flicked off the safety, surprised she was letting him go this far.  His finger slid toward the trigger, and all at once he could feel a smile slipping on to his face.  Was it really going to be this easy?  Was she just going to sit there and let him blow her away like this?

            “You really would do this,” Mama Boko said.  “Shoot a old woman like me.  You are a ugly man.  Ugly to the heart and to the soul.”

            He rested his finger on the trigger, counting down in his head.

            Three.

            “You the kind of man who cannot be saved.”

            Two.

            “You deserve ever bad ting that will ever happen to you.”

            One.

            “You no ting like Johnny at all.  You want his gift but you not deserving of it at all.”

            That stopped him.  In his hunger to kill the old woman, he’d lost sight of why he’d come here in the first place.  He forced his mouth open, searched for the words and managed to get them out.

            “I don’t care anymore.  Goodbye.”

            She smiled.  “I tink before you do it, you want to open your eyes.”

            “My eyes are open, don’t you worry.”

            “Are they?”

            Eddie frowned.  What the hell was she talking about?  She was staring straight back at him, she could see that his eyes were open, for Christ’s sake.  And he could see her clearly, she was right there in front of him.  Of course his eyes were open.

            But then he took a second to concentrate, and suddenly he could feel that his eyelids weren’t open.  He could tell they weren’t, even though he could see the old woman’s face just a foot away from him.

            There was a moment of complete confusion for him now, as one fact collided with another, both contradicting each other.

            He focused all his thoughts and slowly forced his eyes open.  Reality seemed to double in his vision, one image overlaying the other, and as Mama Boko’s face swam into focus, he realized what he’d been staring at so intently had only been an illusion.

            Everything was the same—right down to the last detail—except for one thing.

            He didn’t have the gun pushed up tight to Mama Boko’s temple.

            He had it pressed against his own.

 

PART TWENTY-FOUR

            

                            

            Johnny was halfway to the hall, almost in the clear, before the giant stepped out of the shadows and blocked his way.  Tee’Ma, the old woman had called him, but whether that was his name or some sort of voodoo term of endearment, Johnny had no idea.  He only knew he could see the door to the apartment over the big man’s shoulder, and it looked to him like the kind of place he wanted to get to as soon as he could.

            He stopped short, and just as he did, another shivering tremor rippled the floor beneath him.

            “What is that?’ he asked the giant.  “When the place shakes like that.”

            Tee’Ma stared down at him for a moment, saying nothing.  But then he cocked his head and seemed to be listening to something that Johnny couldn’t hear.  “It will be soon,” he said.  His voice was harder than gravel now; it was steel hammers smashing gravel into dust.  “We will be leaving this place tonight.  That why I tell you to go way.”

            Johnny smiled.  “Tell you what, big guy: I’ll be more than happy to go way right now, if you don’t mind clearing a path, you know what I’m saying?”

            “You can go, that is fine.”  He stretched one long arm out and pointed towards the apartment door.  “But you cannot go that way.”

            “Why not.”

            “Some ting bad coming.  Bad for you, and for the man you bring to Mama Boko.”

            None of it made very much sense to Johnny, but avoiding trouble always seemed like a good idea to him.

            “Well, how the hell am I supposed to get out of here then?”

            “I show you the way.”

            Without another word, the giant turned and led the way deeper into the apartment, through rooms and doorways that Johnny didn’t remember seeing before.

 

<><><><><> 

 

            “You better tink twice about pull that trigger, Mr. Eddie.”

            Eddie winced.  He hated the sound of his name on her lips.  A part of him felt certain that each time she spoke it, he was being cursed in some way.  “All I wanted,” he said, “was what Johnny has.  What you gave to him—”

            “Immortality?  It not some ting for a man like you.  Not for a man with a black heart.”

            “But . . . you gave it to him.  A junkie.  An addict.  Why would he deserve it and not me?”

            Mama Boko studied him, her sunken eyes flicking back and forth.  “The gift I give to him was some ting he did not ask.  It some ting he needed, or he be dead.”

            “I don’t understand.  You’re not—”

            “He dying when we found him.  In a secret place, where only my kind should go.  A doorway.”

            Eddie tried to put the pieces of her story together, but his thoughts were too muddled.  And Jesus, he still had the gun to his head, his finger still on the trigger.  He imagined a doorway, in a dark alley somewhere, filthy and damp, and there was Johnny, shivering in the permanent junkie cold with a needle in his hands.

            Mama Boko shook her head, apparently seeing into his thoughts again.  “Not a doorway like you tink of it.  The kind I talk about is a place between worlds.  The boy was there, I do not know how he find his way, but he did.  He dying, maybe that how he came to be there, but if it happen there, if he die in our doorway, it close forever.  And then we never move on.”

            “So you gave him this gift, for what, keep your doorway open?”

            She nodded.  “After that, he find us any time he want.  It make no sense, but he do it.”

            “He repays your gift to him by shooting up.  By taking drugs and getting high.  And you say he deserves it more than me?”

            “He do what he do because he cannot help himself.  He use the gift to live.  You . . .”  Her expression grew dark.  “I see it in you.  You would use it only to kill.”

 

PART TWENTY-FIVE

            

                            

            At the top of the stairs, Cyril peered along the hall towards the single door that had light shining out from underneath.  He’d already drawn his gun, and seeing him do it, Angelo and Stan both followed his lead. 

            He leaned toward them, keeping his voice low.

            “We go in all at once,” he said.

            Stan squinted at him.  “You don’t even know what’s going on in there.  Could just be a bunch of junkies sitting around.”

            “The way this place feels, do you really think that’s true?”

            It took a few seconds, but then Stan shook his head.  “No, I don’t.”

            “Good.  Then let’s do this.  I’m through screwing around.  We find Eddie and the kid, and we pull them the hell out of there.”

            “And then what?”

            “And then we deal with them.”

            They approached the door as quietly as they could, all of them armed, all of them riding a different wave of excitement and anxiety.

            Cyril reached for the doorknob, sure it would be locked, sure they would have to kick it down to get in.

            But it wasn’t locked at all.  And when he tried it, it turned easily in his hand.

            The bolt disengaged and the door swung inward.

                            

<><><><><> 

 

            The next time the floor shook, Johnny felt a tingling sensation in his feet and legs, the same pins-and needles feeling that came along with a limb falling asleep if its blood supply was interrupted.  It only lasted a second or two, and coincided so perfectly with the vibration beneath his feet that he didn’t doubt that the two were connected.

            As he followed Tee’Ma from room to room, he tried his best at first to imagine the layout of the place, but quickly gave up.  They’d walked along so many hallways and turned into so many separate rooms that he understood that whatever reality they’d entered, it was no longer his.  It was clear to him they were now far beyond the borders of the simple two-bedroom apartment he and Eddie had stepped into a short while ago.  Because in an apartment that size, you could walk every square inch of it in about two minutes; here—wherever here was—they’d been walking for five minutes and he hadn’t seen the same room twice.

            “Here,” Tee’Ma said, coming to a stop at the end of yet another hallway.  “This is how you go.”

            There was a plain wooden door in front of them, painted black.  Two diagonal red slashes had been etched into its surface, and beneath them, a long line of words in a language he couldn’t recognize.

            “Where’s it go?  A fire escape or something?”

            Tee’Ma shook his head.  “It go home for you.  Go through, and do not try to come back in.”

            “Why not?”

            “The door will not be here again, after it close.”      

            The giant didn’t wait for a reply, and didn’t allow Johnny to ask another question.  He pointed toward the door one last time and then turned around and walked away.

            Johnny considered the words scrawled on the door only for a few seconds before reaching out and pulling it open.  They were still completely alien to him, nothing he could make any sense out of, but in some way he couldn’t understand, just passing his eyes over them made him feel as though no harm could come to him in their presence.

            A cool breeze reached him from beyond the door, and slipping through, into blackness, he looked just one last time over his shoulder at the inside of the apartment.  It was an instinctive motion, really, to make sure he wasn’t being followed, but it was a move he would regret for the rest of his life.  Because—even to a junkie, whose sense of reality is far removed from that of the average person—there are some things that challenge the idea of what can and cannot be.

            An intense feeling of dizziness came over him, darkness crowding in, leaving him blind, leaving him numb and speechless and—             And he opened his eyes and found himself in another place.

            Standing on the grass median strip by the side of the Lowell Connector, miles away from the tenement building, although a part of him was convinced he could still hear that black-painted door coming to a close behind him.

            He stuck his thumb out, hoping to hitch a ride back into Boston.  But what he’d seen in that last moment glance into the apartment wouldn’t leave his thoughts: the walls, shivering in and out of focus, giving way to some other place, some other reality, a place of wide plains and trees dripping with rain . . .         

 

PART TWENTY-SIX

            

                            

            “So is this how it’s gonna go?” Eddie asked.  “You make me shoot myself with my own gun?”

            Mama Boko sighed.  “I tink you maybe like that idea too much.  I tink there be another way.”

            “If you’re going to do it, than do it.  I don’t have all night.”  It was tough-guy talk and Eddie knew it.  And Mama Boko, she’d know it too.  But he wasn’t about to just kneel down here in front of her and give in.  If she wanted to make him twitch his finger on the trigger and make the lights go out for good, then she would; there was nothing he could do about that.  But that didn’t mean he was going to put up with her shit for very much longer.

            “I tink, Mr. Eddie, that the gun too good for you.  Too fast.”

            He felt a tingling in his right hand and he tensed up, despite what he’d just said to her, sure that she was really going to make him do it, any second now.  But instead of pulling the trigger, his finger slipped away from it and his hand relaxed its grip on the gun.  A second later, he heard it clatter to the floor beside him.

            “The gun not the only weapon you bring tonight.  Is that true?”

            “Why do ask questions, if you already know all the answers?”

            “Because confession good for the soul.  Tell me.”

            “I have a razor.  It’s—”

            “It’s you favorite way to do it.  To end a life.  I know it from you black heart.”

            Eddie nodded.  “That’s right.  And I’d end yours in a heartbeat, you old bitch, if you’d give me half a chance.”

            “No, I don’t tink you be doing that.  I tink there be a use for it, though.”

            And just like that, Eddie’s hand moved towards his hip pocket, where his straight razor waited snugly in its leather case.

 

<><><><><> 

 

            At first, Cyril couldn’t see a thing inside the apartment.  And that made no sense to him, because there was light spilling out into the hall, but only blackness beyond the open door.  Complete blackness, so think that it could have been a solid thing.  He was tempted to fire a shot into it, a part of him convinced that the bullet would just vanish in the darkness.

            “Am I seeing this right?  You guys see this too?”

            Stan just nodded, but Angelo reached out and pointed pat him.  “How do we even know Eddie’s in there?”

            “Where the hell else would he be?  You saw the rest of this place on the way up.”

            A sound reached them from the blackness.  It was a scream, but so far off that it couldn’t possibly be coming from inside.

            “I’m doing this,” Cyril said. 

             He crouched down and stepped through the doorway.  He knew it was probably the wrong move, but standing out in the hall wasn’t going to do them any good.  If Eddie and the kid were in here somewhere, then the faster they started looking for them, the sooner they could get out of this place.

              Three paces into the blackness, he started to sense a glimmer of light ahead.  Something low to the ground and maybe coming from around a corner somewhere.  He could hear Angelo and Stan, shuffling along behind him, and with his left hand, he reached out ahead of him, hoping to find a wall or a piece of furniture to gauge their progress.

              There was nothing.  Just the darkness, all around them.  From the right, he heard a thump, something making contact with the floor, and he spun in that direction, his gun raised towards the sound.  From overhead, he heard a rafter creaking.

              “What the hell is going on in here?” Angelo asked from behind him, and Cyril froze, trying to listen.

              The room seemed brighter now, though only slightly.  Staring ahead, Cyril was able to make out that faint glow again, and now he thought he could see a small table to their right, tipped over onto its side.  A small lamp lay on the floor behind it, casting its dim light toward an open doorway.  There was more light in that other room, and he let it guide him forward, feeling more confident now that he could see where he was going.

               Just as he reached the doorway, the floor shivered again, a long series of creaks and pops traveling from one end of the room to the other.  He looked down at his feet, just for a second, and when he looked up again, the room he’d just entered—the room that had been completely empty just a second before—was suddenly filled with people.

 

<><><><><> 

 

            “I don’t understand,” Eddie said.  His hand fumbled with the razor, his fingers working on their own against his will.  Tugging it from his pocket, unsnapping the leather case, unfolding the razor itself from the safety of its rosewood handle.  “I never did anything to you.”

            “No, that true.  But you do so much to many, many others.” 

            He had the razor open now, and his hand began to rise.

            A shadow fell over his, and he sensed a presence, someone else in the room with them now.

            A voice reached him, deep and grating, and he knew it was the giant.

            “Mama Boko.  It is almost time.”

            “I know.  Tell them all we be going soon.”

            Eddie heard the big man breathing.  He could feel his eyes on him.

            “So he is the one?”

            Mama Boko nodded.  She spoke to the giant, but her eyes never strayed from Eddie’s. 

“Oh yes, Tee’Ma,” she said.  “He the one”

 

PART TWENTY-SEVEN

            

                            

           

            “The way of tings,” Mama Boko whispered, “is that there is no begin and there is no end.  Not the way you tink of them, you see.”  She cupped Eddie’s face in her warm and soothing hands and stared deeply into him again.  “There is just going on and going on.  And it time now, that we be going on to another place.”

            The razor was icy cold in Eddie’s hand, still rising.  How many times had he gripped it just like this?  How many times had he used it, loving the feel of it against his palm?  It felt like something diseased to him now, something terrible that should be cast away and destroyed.  Yet another thing that Mama Boko had taken away from him.

            Her breath was dry and sour against his face, filled the with ancient stench of graveyards an hidden tombs.

            “There be another place for you, too, Mr. Eddie, you don’t worry about that.  I don’t tink you like it very much, though.  But it the price you pay for coming here to us.”

            His mind tried to process the idea, but couldn’t.  “The . . . what price?”

            “For coming to ask what you tink you was coming to ask.  To be like Mr. Johnny.”

            “But you said—”

            “His was a gift we give to him, that true, but even a gift, it have to have a price.  And tonight, he pay it back.”

            “How?  Where is he?”

            “He back where he belong.  Back to what he know.  But the price he pay, that you, Mr. Eddie.”

            He could feel the razor now, its gleaming edge barely grazing his skin, just behind his right ear.

            “I don’t know what you mean.”  He could hear fear in his voice now, and a pathetic whimpering that he knew was only a few seconds shy of becoming complete panic.  “That doesn’t make any sense.  I didn’t do anything to—”

            “Oh, you do plenty.  Plenty in you terrible little life.  You heart as black as the heart of the devil.  And the price Mr. Johnny pay for his gift, what we need him to do, was to bring you to us.  Tonight.  We need a man with such a black heart, you see.”

            “For what?”

            “To open the gateway, to the other place we go to tonight.  Mr. Johnny, there too much good in him, that is why we had to save him that night.  His heart too clean.  But you . . .” 

            Mama Boko smiled, her teeth glittering.

            “Only the blood of a black heart man, blood spilled by his own hand . . . only that help us move from this place tonight.”

 

<><><><><> 

           

            They were everywhere.

            Crowded into the room and just standing there, people to every side.

            Cyril held his gun out in front of him, trying to point it at all of them at once, swinging it back and forth.  None of them reacted to it, though; they just stood there, perfectly still.  He couldn’t see much of their features, despite the light that seemed to swim and drift over them, a light without any sensible source that he could make out.  They were just dark shapes, the silhouettes of heads and shoulders, arms and legs, completely motionless.

            And behind them, the wall . . .

            God, the wall seemed to fall away soundlessly, becoming transparent for a second.  Only what he should have glimpsed beyond it—the adjoining room that should have stood behind it—wasn’t there.  Instead, he caught a quick flash of a summer sky, a million stars spread out against perfect blackness, and a humid breeze raised goose bumps on his flesh.  It was gone as quickly as it had appeared, and once more, there was only the wall and the ceiling, but that breeze . . .

            He could still smell its passage, carrying the odor of deep woods and freshly turned earth.

            “We need to go now,” Stan said.  His voice was hushed, but steady.  Whether he’d seen the wall blink out of sight or not, Cyril had no idea.  “Whatever’s going on here—”

            “We’re not going anywhere.”

            “I’m not screwing around with you, Cyril.  It’s like I said outside: if I say we’re going, then we’re going.  And what are you going to do?  You got enough bullets to shoot all these people?”

            “If I have to, I’ll find a way.”

            The words had no sooner left Cyril’s mouth than he regretted them.

            Because almost immediately, the crowd of people in the room stopped ignoring them.

            One by one, their heads turned toward Cyril.

           

<><><><><> 

 

            Mama Boko leaned back in her chair, her hands finally sliding free of Eddie’s face.

            He could still feel them in his mind, though, poking at his thoughts, guiding them forward.

            He wanted to scream again, but managed to hold it back.  There was no way he was going to give her the satisfaction, and as soon as the notion skipped across his mind, the old woman smiled again.

            In fact, this time, she actually managed to tiny dry laugh.

            “Oh, you be screaming, Mr. Eddie, very soon.  And you know some ting?  Once you start, I tink you not ever be able to stop.”

            His right hand twitched and started to move, dragging the razor along behind it.

 

PART TWENTY-EIGHT

            

                            

           

            It was Cyril who saw all of it.

            Stan gave one last order to get out there, and then he’d dragged Angelo along towards the hall.  And the two of them were out and on the stairs before Cyril could raise any sort of argument.  Not that he could have at that point.  Because words wouldn’t come to him, not then.

            Later, when he managed to gather up enough of them to tell Angelo about what he’d seen, only about half of it would come back clearly to him.  Later, he would also tell Angelo that they would need to do something about Stan, and fairly damn soon.  Because they would have to find a way to explain all of it to Nunzio, everything that happened.  They’d have to tell the big guy how they’d managed to let Johnny Rennert slip away somehow, and why they hadn’t found out what Eddie had been up to in the first place.

            For now, though . . . now, he watched it all unfolding in front of him.

            He saw the heads turning towards him, and the shapes of arms and shoulders beginning to reach out.  He saw his gun going off, again and again, until the clip and the chamber were spent, but he didn’t heard a single sound or see a single body fall.  And he saw the walls and ceiling disappearing again, solid one second and then gone the next.  He saw that wide-open sky again, the sky of some other place, and he breathed its air, and heard the far-off cry of some night bird in the trees.

            And he saw the shadowy figures around him fading from sight, one by one becoming first just a smudge of motion and then gone.  Just gone.

            At the end of it, the floor beneath him gave one huge, final heave, almost spilling him off of his feet, and then, when it settled, the room was empty.  There was no more strange light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.  There were no further glimpses or sounds or smells from some other place.  It was just a shitty abandoned apartment now, and he was in it alone.

            Well, not completely alone.

            A sound drew his attention to another doorway, further along the hall.  The sound of somebody whimpering, and grunting in pain.

            He crept towards it, wondering who’d been left behind.

            And in the other room, lying flat on his back in the middle of the empty floor, he saw Eddie Tragin.

            He was covered in blood, his eyes wide and staring, and he was dragging a straight razor across his face and his throat and his chest and his shoulders.  He was screaming under his breath, the way someone screamed when they were having a nightmare and couldn’t wake up.

            Cyril flinched back, watching Eddie cut into himself again and again, the razor moving and moving and moving, as if it was eager to seek out new areas of flesh to explore.

            When he knew he’d seen enough, Cyril turned and headed for the stairs.

 

<><><><><> 

 

            At the beginning of it, just after he’d moved the razor for the first time, Eddie thought that first cut was going to be the worst.  He thought maybe the worst of it was over, and soon, as he began to bleed out, he thought his body would first grow cold and then grow numb, and there would be no more pain.

            He was wrong about all of it.

            Each cut was more agonizing than the last, and although Mama Boko could have let him end it all with just one quick cut across his throat, she apparently meant to show him no mercy.

            His hand kept moving, and the razor kept tracing its ugly paths across his skin.

            And long after it was over, after his arm finally fell still at his side and his body began to stiffen and become cool, after his final, ragged breath fled his lungs, Eddie could still feel it happening to him.

            He could still feel the bite of the razor and the breaking of his flesh.

            Because Mama Boko and her people might have moved on, but Eddie could not.

            The other place she’d planned for him was really just a place deep inside his mind, where his wish was granted and he could live forever, reliving his final moments while his shadow grew longer on the floor beside him.