Been on a real FF7 kick lately. I really appreciate it when a game gives me the option to derp things up a bit, like the one I’m about to take, above. They throw you a tempting little slice of pie, after dropping multiple hints that this will definitely kill you and that you should be doing some other thing that’s not this pie. And you take that goddamned pie, smear it all over your face-hole, and ask for seconds.
Recently I joined a community for sharing and critiquing stories on Facebook. I looked at a few, sent some replies, then early last night, I submitted my first piece for the group to look at. I got a few promising replies. Then I got this:
It should have bothered me that he only got through the first paragraph, but that was far from what stuck in my craw. Anyone who knows me personally can say I can take a thrashing to my self-esteem with the best of them. However, if you are so clearly wrong and use that wrongness to inflict unpleasantness and irritation upon the good people of this planet, that’s when the hammer of holy wrath comes down. That’s when I sit down for a few hours in front of my keyboard and unload a can of academic whoop-ass.
Maybe I over-reacted? You be the judge! Enjoy!
I don’t know about y’all, but I have a hard time following the writers I like through WordPress. I’ve created an author page on Facebook so people can keep up with me there.
Do you have an author page? Post it in the comments so I can follow you too!
Two lovers sit on a fallen tree.
They pledge eternal love, and share a kiss
That steals each others’ breath away.
Far above, a great wyrm slithers between stars.
The Earth is as a speck of dust against its tail,
And with a careless, ignorant undulation,
The lovers’ kiss ends
Amongst eight billion stolen breaths.
The streets of Hong Kong were paved with people who didn’t seem to notice or care about the light rain that began to fall. Jim snugged his department-store-fresh hoodie over his ears, looking nervously at the faces coming and going past his bench. Just another white guy in Hong Kong. Not so uncommon. No reason to worry. Act like you belong, and people won’t notice. And people didn’t seem to notice. But any one of them could be a cop. Any one of them could know. The bones, however, did notice. They reflected his agitation, growing taught and bristling within him. Calm down. Distract yourself. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out the last of the folded bills they’d looted from the dead soldiers, counting them.
The tin bell on the door of Bai’s Mobile Emporium clanged sloppily, and he craned himself around to see Chuck striding out. He put a shiny new phone in Jim’s hand.
“We’re running low on cash. About 500 yuan left,” Jim said.
“We won’t have to worry about that, we can use these to transfer money to prepaid cards.”
“That’s assuming our accounts haven’t been seized. We still don’t know if our own government is onto us.”
“Or they may want us to have access to our banks. Remember,” Chuck said, taking a seat beside Jim, “Once we turn these on, we’re running on borrowed time. Check everything you need to asap, bank, email, everything. You ready?”
Jim took out the scratch-paper list of messages he intended to send, and nodded. Both men buried their faces in the glow of ensnaring electronic effulgence. Jim checked his files on the university cloud. All of his work was still there. Even a few of the pictures he snapped in the tomb managed to sync before the Chinese jackboots stomped his old phone to smithereens. He sent everything to a couple confidants with a short message for safekeeping. He had six voicemails. Lisa. Lisa again. The department chair. Creditors. A lawyer. Lisa.
Lisa sounded pissed. He had a bad feeling about what for. He checked his bank account. His last rent check bounced. He cursed. His latest paycheck had been waiting to be picked up two weeks ago. He’d only found out a day and a half ago how many days they’d spent picking their way along back roads, avoiding populated areas, floating down rivers, switching cars, being lost, keeping themselves fed in unorthodox ways. The parasite had a voracious metabolism. 28 days.
Chuck powered his phone down. “About ready?”
“I guess so,” Jim said, his thumb hovering ready to itch the social media scratch. He powered the phone down instead. “Got the important stuff done. Hold on a tic.” He got up and went inside Bai’s phone shop.
“Be quick, we gotta move,” Chuck called after him. He slumped back down and powered his phone back on to do some quick surfing.
Jim emerged two minutes later with a simple pre-paid flip-phone. “Let’s go.”
The two men started walking back down the street, window shopping the cars parked along the curb.
“This one looks good,” Jim nodded to a sporty, decade-old hatchback plastered with tuner decals.
“No way, none of these. The owner’s bound to be in there watching.” Chuck thumbed at the restaurant on their left, which boasted a glass-walled storefront. They walked some more.
“Ye-he-hes,” Chuck crooned, stopping in front of a sparkling white luxury sedan. “No reason we shouldn’t drive in style.”
Jim shook his head. “A car this new and expensive is bound to have an R-F-I-D check on the ignition. We might not even be able to open the door.”
Chuck sulked and took a minute to say his goodbyes. The skipped over to the next block where the sidewalks thinned out and the storefronts looked less-watched. “This one,” Jim called to Chuck as he approached an older, but well-maintained German wagon.
“Leather seats, eight cylinders; a good compromise I’d say,” Chuck smiled. “And definitely pre-dates modern anti-theft.”
Jim walked around to the driver’s door and pressed his finger up against the lock. Bone pierced his fingertip and prodded its way into the keyhole, filling the tumblers and pushing each until they clicked. It barely hurt to do this anymore; after fifteen-odd times, the nerve endings in his right index were likely damaged beyond repair. The lock clicked, and he opened the door.
“Here, you drive. I’ve got something I need to do.”
Chuck hopped in without a word and unlocked the passenger door for him. Jim reached over and started the car for him. He severed the skeleton-key from his body and left it inside the tumblers, a new trick he’d learned. The parasite grumbled in protest, but he promised it would get its missing part back.
As the car pulled away from the curb and into the wet street, Jim pulled the flip-phone from the pocket of his hoodie. Lisa’s number was the only one he’d ever memorized besides his own. He dialed it, but didn’t call. He laid back with the phone in his hand and closed his eyes. He was tired. This country had tried to kill him twice now. They’d spent a month on the run, looking over their shoulders the whole time. They’d eaten muddy river-fish and wormy fruit, both of which came with awful diarrhea. He’d used his bones to open locks and cut through brush and even to form a raft to float down rivers that went in confusing directions.
He couldn’t sleep yet. He hit ‘call’, but he’d forgotten the country code the first time he punched in the number. The second time around he got a dial tone.
Beee… beee… beee… voicemail. He called again to let her know it was important.
Beee… beee… beee… Hello? Who is this?
“Lisa, it’s me.”
Jesus Christ, Jim. What the fuck? Where have you been for the last month? What the fuck is wrong with you?
“I’m sorry. I’ve been out of the country… I haven’t had a phone. What’s up?”
What’s up? I’ve had men knocking on my door looking for you every week, that’s what’s up. The last one was FBI, Jim. What the fuck have you done?
“Nothing, I didn’t do anything! Listen to me…”
Listen to you? A month ago, I might have cared, but now I couldn’t give a shit. I don’t know what you did, but fuck you for doing it, and fuck you for bringing whatever it is back to me and Jack. Jesus, and we were doing so well, Jim…
Her next words wear garbled by sobs. It was obvious by the expression on Chuck’s face that he could hear most everything. Mercifully, he pretended not to.
“Lisa, stop, listen to me for a minute, you’ve got to leave the house. Take Jackie and find a hotel. Don’t use your credit card. I can wire you money…”
No! Fuck you, Jim. I’m giving them this number next time they come. For God’s sake, turn yourself in. You can’t do this to us.
He wished he could.
“This is serious, please shut up for just a goddamned moment…”
No, Jim, you don’t get to say that to me anymore! Don’t say anything to me anymore!
I don’t know what trouble you’re in, and I don’t care. I hope they find you. Stay away from us, Jim. Stay away from Jack. I hope you never come back. Just stay far away and leave us alone.
Call ended. Time: 2 minutes 43 seconds.
Jim redialed her number. Straight to voicemail. She’d blocked him. Fuck, he breathed, squeezing the phone in his fist as if it were a neck.
“I know it’s not my business buddy, but I’m pretty sure there were at least twenty opportunities to steer that conversation back on track.”
Jim said nothing, lost in thought as they made a left onto a wide thoroughfare.
“Listen, I’ll try calling her next time, once she’s cooled down. She might listen to a stranger.”
“I doubt she’ll answer another call with a Chinese country code.”
“I’ll use my phone, I can risk it.”
Jim nodded glumly. “Listen Chuck, I don’t know how much you heard, but Lisa said the FBI came to her place looking for me. So we’ve got that waiting for us back home.”
Chuck considered this.
“If they’re looking for me, Chuck, they’ve gotta be looking for you too. They’ll have looked at the list of passengers for anyone close to me.”
Chuck considered some more. He passed a slow-moving car. “So they’re on to you about Willy and that kid?”
“Either that, or they’ve received a flag from China. Or Interpol. Not sure how that stuff works, to be fair.”
Chuck sighed, and considered for another moment. “The only way I see myself clearing my name is for you to clear your name. And the only way they’re going to believe your story is to see what you are.”
“No, they’ll need to see the bodies, and those are probably long gone by now. Even if they did see them, there’s nothing to say I wasn’t the monster that squished them.” Jim winced at his own words, briefly reliving his friends’ disturbing demise.
“Honestly, I think we have incredibility working in our favor. The bigger question is what they’re going to do with you, even if they believe you. I doubt they’d ever let out among the general public. The other option we have is to tell the truth about everything except the osteomorph. Hide it. Tell them they died in a cave-in or something. I doubt they’ll ever be allowed to examine the scene of the crime, like you said.”
“I don’t see any investigation not including a medical examination.” Jim slumped under his seatbelt and picked at his fingernails. “Anyhow, we’ve been saying ‘they’ all this time and we don’t even know who ‘they’ is for sure.” He felt like a child again. “So it comes down to choosing between my freedom or yours. Making your life as fucked up as mine.”
Chuck gave him a reassuring touch on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, buddy. We’ve still got time to think about this stuff. Who knows, there might be another way out of this.” Jim hadn’t taken the time to consider how incredibly infinitesimal the odds were that he had a friend like Chuck with him through all of this. He was truly sorry that Chuck was with him through all of this. He might have cried started crying if he wasn’t so goddamned tired.
They parked the car two blocks away from Tim Wimberley’s building and hoofed it the rest of the way to the twelfth-story flat. They took the spare key from under the doormat, and let themselves in to find Tim in the middle of loosening his tie.
“I thought you were working till five,” Chuck asked him as the door closed behind the pair.
“I took an early day, thought I could spare some time to help you guys figure things out.”
Tim had been their godsend, a childhood friend of Chuck’s that they’d been able to contact in an internet café. Tim was tall with a baby face that masked his true age. Chuck knew he’d been living in Hong Kong for the last five years working for a property magnate’s financial office, and they’d been able to track him down using an internet café. After a month spent groping blindly without any idea of what they were groping towards, Tim was an unbelievable reversal in fortune: he was happy to help, he had vast network of connections, and most importantly, he didn’t ask questions. He knew they were in trouble, he knew they couldn’t go to the embassy, and that was about it.
He said, “did Bai hook you guys up?”
“Yeah, man, perfectly. I know it’s getting old, but I can’t thank you enough for what you’re doing for us.”
“No sweat. I mean it’s you, Chuck. I know you’d do the same for me if I was ever in a pinch.” Tim got out his wallet and pulled out a yellow post-it-note. “And I’ve got some more good news. A buddy of mine knows a harbor guy who’s done him some favors and owes a few. He called ahead and told them to expect you tomorrow.”
“That’s fantastic,” Jim exclaimed. He stepped forward and gingerly took the note, reading the name and address.
“You’re going to have to go down yourself and work it out; we’ve got to keep our noses clean, I’m sure you know? Anyways, enough of that.” Tim disappeared into the kitchen and returned with three beers. “There’s a game tonight, and they’re gonna have fireworks at halftime.”
“Fireworks?” Jim echoed.
“Yeah, man, fireworks. Where’ve you been? It’s the fouth of July today.”
The three of them spoke not another word of the business at hand for the rest of the afternoon and evening. They picked up a case of beer and groceries, and Jim cooked while they drank and talked about sports and politics and women. They sprawled out on Tim’s black leather sofas and watched the game. The fireworks were fantastic. They binged on American television all night via Tim’s illegal satellite dish, laughed through two-hour comedies, and drank themselves to sleep just as dawn was approaching. For a precious night, they escaped into normalcy.
* * *
Jim and Chuck were making their third and final trip to the harbor. They’d arranged to pay a sizeable fee, almost entirely from Chuck’s funds, to stowaway aboard a freighter bound for San Diego with a three-day stopover in Manila. Jim held his smartphone in one hand and dialed Dr. Klinger’s office at the University of the Philippines at Diliman into the flip-phone in the other.
Dr. Klinger was out of the office. He’d try back later.
“Better shut it off soon. We’re getting close.”
Jim nodded and moved to power the phone down but stopped. It was vibrating in his hands with an American number across the screen. He knew he shouldn’t. Chuck glanced down at flashing screen nervously between watching the road. Jim answered it and listened.
Hello? Is this James Rogers? a voice asked after a period of silence.
Jim hesitated a moment more. “Yes, this is him.”
Chuck looked nervously at Jim and slowed the car.
Great! This is good, news, fantastic. My names Brett Schafer. I’ve been trying to get in contact with you for a while now, James. Can I call you James?
He motioned for Chuck to pull the car over. Chuck double-parked between two cars to keep from getting blocked in, but pointed to his wrist and then to the phone. He had to keep this brief before they were cornered.
“My friends call me Jim. Are you a friend?”
Yes, Jim, yes. I hope we’ll be, anyways. Listen, Jim, I know you’re in a bit of a pickle, am I right? I’d like to be of help. You see…
“Listen Brett, I’m sorry but I don’t have much time. It’s hard to explain.”
I see. Well Jim, I don’t want to scare you off, but I’ll cut to the chase. I’m a special agent at the Seattle branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Please bear with me through this next bit, okay friend? I understand this kind of phone call can be a bit scary.
“Scary was a month ago. Trust me. Please hurry.”
Brett cleared his throat. Well Jim, you’ve been connected with a missing persons case.
“Are these missing persons Shane Waters and William Blankenfield?”
Yes, yes, they are. It looks like we’re on the same page.
This conversation needed a good place to end soon.
Now, if I were a betting man, I would say you’re not willing to come in for a cup of coffee anytime soon, seeing how you’ve been aware of their disappearance for over three months without coming forward to make any report of it. But it’s important that we talk, okay? We need your help to…
“I’m sorry Brett, but that’s all the time I’ve got. It’s not you, it’s me. If I could bring myself in, I would, trust me. But it’s complicated.”
I see. Can you tell me how so?
“I wouldn’t know how. I’m hanging up now.” Jim hesitated. “But if it helps,” he swallowed, “but if it helps their families… they’re dead. It wasn’t me, but I saw them die. I can’t tell you how. No one would believe the truth of it. But they’re gone.” Jim pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed the tension out of his eyes. “If you can, tell them I’m sorry. I’d do more for you, but like I said, it’s complicated.”
Jim ended the call, then saved the number into his flip phone before shutting the devices down. Chuck checked the rearview mirror, then pulled out into the lane as quick as caution would let him.
“That didn’t sound good,” Chuck said just as he mis-shifted, the sound of grinding gears almost lost to the sound of the traffic around them. But, he wasn’t talking about the car, and Jim knew it was neither possible nor fruitful to hide anything from him.
“That was someone from the FBI,” he said carefully, looking out the window. The night before, downtown Hong Kong was a range of dark, majestic mountains whose spires were decorated with stars from the sky above. The drab, silent forest of skyscrapers, whose canopies disappeared into a gray mid-morning haze, now rolled by inconsequential and indistinguishable behind the transparent, transposed image of Chuck in the driver’s seat.
“They didn’t say anything about you, though.” The face in the reflection gave no outward reaction to the news. He wanted to know what Chuck was thinking, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask.
“Well, we can’t say we didn’t see that one coming. So they’re looking for you, possibly us. That gives us at an edge at least, to know instead of guessing now.” He shifted gears, smoothly this time. “We’ll definitely have to ditch our phones, throw ‘em overboard.”
“No doubt.” Jim wasn’t the least bit indoctrinated in the geo-political realities of the United States’ network of spooks, but he’d put money that there was a whole base of them in the Philippines.
“So, have you given any thought of where we’re going after Manilla,” Chuck probed, keeping the car aligned through a crowded boulevard that plunged into the heart of the Hong Kong harbor district.
“No, I figure I’ll just lay low for a while. Use whatever resources Klinger has to find you a way home, if possible.”
Chuck shook his head at him. “Jim, what the hell are you talking about? You don’t have a plan. What are you going to do? Hide in the Philippines forever? Seriously, we need to talk about this.”
Chuck was right. There wasn’t a thought in Jim’s head about anything. The running and hiding had turned him into a frightened animal. The country he was in was trying to kill him, and the one he came from had killers pacing on the shoreline, waiting for him. It all whittled him down into a sort of prey-mindset. Knowing all of this now didn’t help him a bit.
“You still want to get it out of you, right? That’s still goal number one?”
“Sitting around in Klinger’s office isn’t going to help you do that. But I can. And I’ve got a lead on a fancy new medical research facility. In India.”
“India,” Jim exclaimed. “Jesus, Chuck, don’t you want to go home? Aren’t you tired of running around? Don’t you have family, friends? A cat?”
“Buster’s in good hands. And what do I have waiting for me? I’ll tell you what I don’t have. The single-most amazing biological discovery in human history. That’s you. I’m sorry to phrase it this way, but you are my chance. I’m a medical scientist, and you are a medical miracle. I’d be stupid to skip out on helping you.”
“Just when I thought you were doing it all for friendship,” Jim grumbled.
“In this case, it coincides.” Chuck was wearing a big, goofy grin as he turned onto the street that ran parallel to the shipyards and Victoria harbor beyond. “If there’s a way to fix you, we’ll find it there. All you’ve gotta do is keep your osteomorph inside and out of sight.”
As if to remind Jim it was still there, it grumbled deep inside of him. Jim pulled an energy bar out of his backpack and scarfed it down. He was eating for two these days, and the damned thing was always hungry.
They passed two smaller shipyards until pulling into Yai Be Chan, stopping before a chain-link gate that spanned the driveway underneath an arched, green steel girder sign with metal Chinese characters welded onto it. Beyond lay an impermeable maze of green, brown, blue, and rust-colored shipping containers. The same man that had stopped them the last two times they were here ran out of his guard-box with the same angry face he’d always had. Chuck rolled down the window and pressed a roll of yuan into the man’s hand, shouting ‘Wen Lu, Wen Lu,’ the harbormaster’s name.
“For fuck’s sake, Wen Lu,” Chuck had to yell again before the guard took his hands off the car with a scowl, and trudged back to the box he came from.
“Asshole, like he’s never seen us before,” Jim muttered.
The angry little man shot off one last grudging look through the window of the guard-box before the fence gate creaked into motion and trundled open. As they accelerated through, Jim rolled his own window down and hazarded a stiff, upright middle-finger. If all went according to plan, he’d never see that asshole again.
They circled the employee parking lot and found the closest open spot to the harbor offices. The ‘offices’ was a portable, sheet-metal building on blocks that lacked air-conditioning. A wire running from the roof of the building spliced directly into power lines dangling overhead to supply it with electricity. They walked up a short gangway of steps and opened the flimsy, aluminum door, which banged weakly and rattled against the side of the building.
Wen Lu’s office was occupied by only one desk, Wen Lu’s. The rest of the space was littered with file cabinets that hung ajar, molding cardboard boxes stacked everywhere there wasn’t a file cabinet, and a spattering of papers that badly needed to be sorted into either a box or a cabinet. Jim doubted this place could survive an audit, but a man like Wen Lu likely used the money earned from ‘favors’ like this one to keep the suits away.
Wen Lu was seated at his cluttered desk behind a decade-old computer monitor, pretending to tick items off the mess of papers in front of him with a pen. Another man, a diminutive office-type in blue suit-pants and a matching tie leaned against a cabinet near him, smoking a cigarette. He adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses and ashed carelessly in an open drawer. Jim gave the man a sizing glance and walked up to Wen Lu’s desk.
“Wen Lu,” he said, tapping his fingertips on the desk. Wen Lu looked up, pretending to notice them for the first time.
“Oh, hello,” he greeted, leaving his mouth agape as he squinted at Jim under a sweat-dappled brow.
“It’s us, remember? We leave today?” Jim was just about out of patience with these people. Wen Lu’s grasp on English wasn’t great, so he repeated himself. “We leave today, on the boat. Remember?” Jim pointed to himself and Chuck and made a boat-like motion with his hands.
Wen Lu looked nervously at the smoking man and back to Jim. “Yes, yes, he said. Today.” He pretended to hit keys on his keyboard, and glanced again at the smoking man, who was now messing around with his phone.
“Today,” Wen Lu repeated, louder. Jim craned around to see just what Wen was doing on his computer. The only thing on the monitor was an unfinished game of solitaire.
“Today,” Wen Lu squealed. The smoking man put his phone away and straightened himself, rubbing his cigarette out on the face of the cabinet.
“Gentlemen,” the smoking man said in clear, singing British-English, “if you’ll be so kind to follow me, I’ll direct you to your transportation.”
Jim and Chuck exchanged a glance and followed him out. The man walked briskly, leading them into the mouth of the shipping-container labyrinth. Jim took a last look back at the car, wondering what would happen to it. They rounded the first corridor under the shadow of a gargantuan lifter going lazily about its duties. The little man slowed his pace and spoke to them.
“You are James Rogers and Charles Masterson, yes?”
Jim and Chuck stopped in their tracks.
“Don’t stop, gentlemen. Walk and talk.”
They didn’t budge.
“How do you know our names? We never gave our names,” Chuck demanded.
The short man turned around and put his hands on his hips. “We know everything about you. We know you are both employees of the University of Washington. We know you have entered the country both times and illegally trespassed on areas important to the national security of our republic.”
The short man’s voice quavered as he recited each new verse of the things he knew, and had taken two full steps back. Jim had taken two full steps forward while his bloodthirsty parasite subtly shifted some bones around, readying itself for some long-due action.
“Most importantly,” the man continued, voice cracking, “We know how dangerous you are, and you should know that we have taken certain steps to assure your peaceful cooperation!”
“Oh no, please, God no,” Chuck cried from behind. “Not again!”
“Who’s we,” Jim growled, striding towards the short man. His fists balled up as the rage of a cornered animal took over. Underneath the skin of his arms, the bones had already formed blades, waiting for the word to split his skin and taste the outside air. “Who do you work for?”
The parasite seized a moment and ducked his control, and a blade extruded itself from above his right wrist. Adrenaline masked most of the pain. A drop of blood danced along one of its long, beautiful, ivory edges. Jim pointed it at the little man for effect.
“Lisa Alderman!” The little man threw his hands up and cringed as he squealed. “Lisa Alderman! Eighteen-nine-twenty-seven ninety-third avenue Kirkland Washington! Diane and Thomas Masterson! Five-fourty-three chapel road Charlottesville North Carolina!”
Jim froze in his tracks. Footsteps thundered up from behind. He turned to see a cadre of soldiers, fully outfitted for a warzone, rounding the crates and moving on him with weapons raised.
“Are you fucking serious,” Chuck wailed, sinking to his knees. “Come the fuck on! Please!”
Jim’s arms fell to his sides as the familiar feeling of defeat overwhelmed him. Soldiers dragged Chuck up to his feet and pushed them both down the corridor of crates past the small man, who was busy hiding the fact that he’d soiled his blue slacks.
“We were there, goddammit,” Chuck sobbed as he marched alongside Jim, hands interlocked over his head. “Why can’t we just get out of this goddamned country, man. We were right there…”
Jim’s heart broke, watching sidelong as Chuck’s optimism and determination, the willpower that arguably saved them, finally broke. He had to take care of him now. They couldn’t both be broken.
The shipping-crate corridor ended in a right turn, opening into what seemed like logically ordered rows. Their doomed march took them down one of these, which twisted again, opening onto what could only be described as a courtyard, walled with – unsurprisingly –shipping crates, which seemed to have been perfectly arranged around the dimensions of a behemoth craft that dominated the enclosure. It was black without markings, with a fuselage that might have belonged to a passenger airplane, but the rotors of a helicopter – four of them – sprouting from pylons upon which the weight of the craft rested.
As the soldiers pushed Jim and Chuck near, a man in officer’s dress stepped out of the aircraft’s shadow. He wore riding boots on his feet and leather gloves on his hands. His uniform jangled with an absurd collection of medals, more the caricature of a Nazi than a modern military officer. Peeling off a glove, he extended his hand towards them.
“How exciting to finally meet the men who have given me so much recent trouble! I am General Huang Shen, and these are the men of the Fourth Special Task Force whom I have the pleasure to command,” he said in an accent nowhere near as polished as small man from before. He extended his hand first to Chuck, then to Jim. Neither took it. Aftershave that reeked of vanity poured off his perfectly smooth chin, diffusing into the oily harbor air.
“Which of you, then, is the man I’m looking for,” he continued in an ominously playful voice, replacing the glove. “I think you know what I’m referring to when I say that, hmmm?”
Jim looked at Chuck. Chuck looked at the ground. An order was given in Chinesse. A rifle muzzle pushed Jim forward a step.
“Wait,” Jim cried, looking back at Chuck. “I’ll cooperate, I promise you, but only if you let him go free. Let him live, and I’ll do anything you want.”
The general tisked and shook his head, “what makes you think I want to kill him? How do you know I don’t need him too?”
“You will, and you don’t.” Jim did his best to keep his voice steady even as his hands started to shake. “I’m not stupid, I know how these things work.”
Shen placed his hands on his hips and looked up into the sky. “Didn’t lieutenant Ma explain things to you? Where is that useless fool? I swear, if he – he told you we have your families, yes? One call, and our American assets are at the door of your wife?”
“Ex-wife,” Jim corrected. “And if anyone comes to her door, they’ll find out what a miserable bitch she is.” The bluff was out, teetering on a single fact. Jack hadn’t been mentioned yet.
“This man is my best friend.” He gestured dramatically towards Chuck. “He’s pulled me through hell, and I owe everything to him. Stood by me at his own risk. If you don’t believe I’d put him before a woman who is a constant pain in my ass, you’re sorely mistaken.”
Shen paused a moment, then gestured in acceptance. “What choice do I have then? He can go.” Gloved hands shooed Chuck away. “Go on, walk away best friend.”
“No,” Jim countered. “Call Wen Lu. Have him drive up here in his car. When Chuck calls me, when he’s safe, then I’m yours.”
General Shen did not like that at all. He glowered at Jim. He cursed and spun a slow circle, spitting on the ground. He barked an order, and resumed his death-stare for the tense five minutes it took for Wen Lu’s blue Peugeot to come meekly creeping along. Wen Lu got halfway out of the car, his sweaty face white as bone.
When Chuck didn’t make a move towards the car, Jim walked up and threw his arms around him.
“Get out of here,” he said into Chuck’s ear.
“Don’t do this, Jim,” Chuck whispered back.
“No more options. This is the only way. Don’t fuck this up.”
“Take this, then.” Chuck pressed something into his stomach. “Switch me phones.”
“Because I don’t know your stupid number.” Jim slipped his smartphone out of his hoodie and into Chuck’s hands with just enough time to spare before a soldier physically separated them.
General Shen called from afar to hurry before he changed his mind.
Chuck wandered slowly Wen’s car and got inside. His eyes were glued to Jim as the car pulled away and drove out of sight. The soldiers surrounded Jim on all sides. He did his best to look like a man who followed through with threats.
“I see you’re a clever man.” Shen paced as they waited for the call. “That stops now. Any more cleverness and you will regret it. I promise.”
The phone rang. Jim reached into his hoodie, but it was the phone in his pants that was ringing. Clever Chuck. . He flipped it open.
“Are you safe? Were you followed?”
I’m good, pretty sure. Hide my phone if you can. It’s got satellite mode. Hang up before they get suspicious. I love you, buddy. Stay alive.
Jim turned around, switching the phone over to his right hand while his left dipped into his hoodie. He pretended to say one last thing to Chuck. Fingers of bone wrapped around Chuck’s phone and drew it deep into his body. Jim’s knees locked and teeth ground as the phone was passed like a Thanksgiving dish around the family table, up the inside of his arm and coming to rest somewhere inside his ribcage. It was an incredible new kind of pain.
He turned back around to face Shen’s outstretched hand. The cheap phone was snatched away and ground to bits under the general’s patent-leather boots. A soldier frisked him head to toe, confiscating a small amount of yuan and a piece of scratch paper penned over with important phone numbers and notes.
“Now you keep your end of the bargain,” Shen sneered. “Follow.” They circled to the rear of the aircraft where a ramp opened to a vast cargo bay. They passed soldiers busy buckling themselves into inward-facing seats along each side of the bay. At the far end, a metal crate was strapped to the floor with cargo webbing. General Shen nodded to it.
“I had it built for you.” The crate was sealed with three enormous locking bars that looked to be six inches thick. “But if you behave, you can ride first-class with me.”
“I’ll take the upgraded seats, please.”
They ascended a flight of steep steel-grate stairs connecting the cargo bay to an upper level. On one side, a hatch was open. Jim peered inside to see two pilots flipping switches and tapping instruments. One noticed him, and quickly reached out to pull the hatch shut.
“This way.” General Shen opened a hatch on the opposite bulkead and ushered Jim inside. A fantastically appointed apartment awaited him, day and night from the stripped-down, utilitarian design that described every other part of the aircraft. A velvet crescent of a sofa curled around a hand-painted table, a replica of motifs that Jim tentatively placed in the pre-Boxer rebellion era. Opposite the sitting area was a small kitchenette. Farther back, a Song-dynasty zhanmadao with enough tarnish to be the real deal hung over red a curtain that partially concealed a large bed.
Shen directed him to the sofa. “Please, make yourself comfortable. We have some hours ahead of us.” The general disappeared behind the bedroom curtain. Jim wasted no time treating his buttocks to the plush perks of corrupt government spending. Outside the window to his right, a rotor spooled to life. It was surprisingly quiet for its size, and soon the shipping containers of the harbor were shrinking out of sight. The aircraft banked slowly, affording a view of Hong Kong that nearly made him forget the trouble he was in.
Shen reappeared stripped to his socks, trousers, suspenders, and a white silk shirt. He moved to the kitchenette, taking down a porcelain tea set from a cupboard. “Now then, which one are you, Charles or James?”
“James. Friends call me Jim.”
“Yes, the archaologist.” Shen pulled a pinch of tea leaves from a jar and put them in the pot. “It was you who made that wonderful discovery then?”
“Technically, Willy found it. But Willy’s dead.”
“A shame.” He pulled a lever that dispensed a steaming hot water into the tea pot. The aircraft shifted underneath them, causing some of the water to miss the pot and spill onto his foot. Shen cursed and pressed a button on the wall. An intercom crackled alive. He cursed again into it, then resumed making the tea.
“As you can see, I have a love for history too.” Shen set the tea cups down, then poured. “Please be careful with the table.”
“You shouldn’t worry too much, it’s a fake.” Jim picked up his cup and took a delicate slurp while Shen furrowed his brows. “The paint is early Qing, but the construction is full of European influence.”
“Even so,” Shen continued, “As I said, I have a great appreciation for the history and culture of my country. The reason you are here, Jim, is you took something that belongs to China. Something of immeasurable historic and cultural value.”
Tea nearly came out of Jim’s nose. “Historic and cultural value? Did you see that thing in the tomb? I saw it. There was nothing Chinese about it. It was a monster!”
“That is not for you to decide! You are in possession of a treasure, a heritage that belongs to the people of China, and it will be returned!”
“You think I want this thing inside me? For fuck’s sake, if you can find a way to take it out, you can have it. Please. We’ve tried though. It wouldn’t let us. So good luck, buddy.”
Shen recomposed himself and lifted his tea cup. “It won’t be luck that grants me success where you have failed. I have something on my side that you never will.”
Jim crossed his arms. “I’m all ears, buddy.”
Shen lifted his cup, took a sip, then set it down, revealing a new look in his eyes that didn’t settle right with Jim.
It was muggy outside, one of those summer days that you’d forgetten happen because haven’t needed to step outside of an air-conditioned car to get into an air-conditioned building for more than thirty seconds in over twenty years. I’d only been walking around outside for fifteen minutes, but I looked like I’d been traipsing through a jungle for days. My hair was plastered to my forehead, upon which rivulets of sweat ran to course down my neck and feed the dark seas staining the armpits of my once-crisp, white button-down, which had just recently broken through the last dry patches to flow into the pond in the middle of the shirt. I hated these calls. I needed desperately to find this deadbeat soon.
I passed the bus station and gauged a line-up of vagabonds milling about outside, doing whatever vagabonds do. None of them fit the bill, and I walked on. My toes slithered within their swampy socks as each of my black leather shoes clapped against the white-hot downtown sidewalk. Each click and clack bounced off the tall buildings around me and mixed with the droning of the cicadas. This was the symphony of hot, summer insanity. The last time I had to suffer like this, I must have been in college. I’d forgotten all about it.
“Fuck me,” I grumbled as I bent down to retie a stray lace. How long would these shoes last? It seems like I go through a new pair every six months. I can remember a pair I bought six years ago that lasted three. Each pair since seemed to last half as long as the last. What happened to shoes? I own a pair of casual-athletic shoes I got on sale for $20 two years ago. Those are still holding up. Why aren’t my $80 designer-leather shoes doing the same? It’s all a racket, I bet. All the shoemakers, Kenneth Cole, Stacy Adams, Calvin Cline, and all the other shoe-moguls got together one evening and said, ‘hey, we gotta stop making our shoes last so long. We can make twice the money if people have to buy shoes twice as often’. I bet that’s exactly how it went down.
Irritability was making me desperate, and I started flagging people down. “Hey have you seen this man?” I shoved the photo into peoples’ faces. “He probably looks older now. His beard’s probably longer.” Most didn’t even bother to look. Can’t blame them, I must look like a sweaty lunatic by now. Or worse, a sweaty, lunatic evangelist. “He was last seen a few blocks from here. He lives on the streets.”
This was getting me nowhere. I pulled my phone from my pocket and queried directions to the nearest Starbucks. Maybe if I cooled off with a cold drink, I could get some fresh perspective. The screen was slick with perspiration. My thumb tapped furiously at it, but half the taps either missed or didn’t register at all. I had to wipe it on my pants with every few keystrokes.
The phone took me through an alley shaded from the afternoon sun, which was nice, but it would have been better if there were some wind. Halfway through it, I started really regretting it. Empty boxes were stacked outside of windowless doors on each side, and here and there blue dumpsters were overflowing with the reek of stale beer, accented by the punch of old piss. I was on the wrong side of these bars. Seeing as I was already half in, I held my breath and pushed though.
I passed a pile of trash that, by some good fortune, happened to catch my eye. Sticking out from underneath some mud-dappled black plastic that once belonged to a bag were ten toes, each camouflaged by a disgusting coat of grime and callouses and terminating in long, black talons. I stooped to get a look under the dingy mop of hair half-hidden under a ragged towel. By god, it was him!
“Mr. Lawrence Pines,” I called to him, enunciating as clearly as I could. The pile of garbage didn’t make a sound.
“Excuse me, Mr. Pines!” A shudder of recognition trembled through the rags and bags. He lifted his head to show me a pair of cloudy blue eyes sunken deep behind a mess of lines and beard. “Mr. Pines, I’m here on behalf of Mahoney and Company, I’ve been looking for you all day.” I put some emphasis on the last two words so he might grasp some inkling of the inconvenience he’d put me through. It wasn’t likely someone like him would care, though. If someone like him cared, I wouldn’t be here in the first place addressing the repercussions of his negligence. I fumbled the claps of my briefcase open and pulled out his file.
“Mr. Pines, I’m here because on December the seventeenth of 2008 you were contractually obligated to return a textbook, one titled “Composition and Design in Digital Media” to the University of Texas bookstore, which you failed to do so.”
I pulled out the records and invoice, both neatly imprinted under the Mahoney letterhead, and held them out in front of his face for his inspection. He drew his toes in under the bags and shrank from the papers as if they were poison.
“I don’t…” His muttering grumbled away into some incoherent things.
I took a pen from my slacks and clicked it.
“Sir, I need you to sign these documents acknowledging you received them and have arranged payment to me.” I dropped the papers at his feet and let the pen fall on top of them.
He made a feeble kick at the papers with one of his monstrous, clawed feet. He made sounds like the attempt of words, then strung together a sentence: “I’ll return it. This week. I promise.”
I frowned. He clearly wasn’t getting it. “Mr. Pines, even if you had the book on your person, which is highly doubtful by the looks of things, it’s far too late for that.”
“Please,” he groaned, “I’ll talk to the University, please. I’ll go there today, I promise.”
“Now listen here, Mr. Pines!” I had lost what little patience I had. I was going to close this case today and have nothing more to do with this cesspit of an alley. “The University can’t help you, if they even would. You owe money to the bookstore, not the University, to the tune of $320. Now, how do you plan to pay?”
“Three hundred and… but the book, it only cost seventy dollars…”
Jesus, he can remember how much the book cost, but couldn’t remember to pay it? These fucking dirtbags, all the same. I can remember to pay my debts, and I can’t even recall the ballpark amount of a single one.
“Mr. Pines, $70 may have been the principle amount of the book, but it accrued a non-return penalty when you failed to return it, obviously. The account was then taken on by a debt insurance firm, where it accrued fees for their services; the firm then contracted my employers, Mahoney and Company to handle the collection, where it accrued the fees for our services. The amount may have been smaller if you had ever answered the phone number we were given for you, but now a $50 service fee has been incurred because I had to track you down to this – “ I paused to avoid saying something unprofessional – “place.”
Lawrence Pines buried his head into his rags and made some soft, throbbing sounds. I turned my head to gulp some cleaner air so I could continue. He wasn’t getting away this time.
“You see, it all adds up. You had an obligation, Mr. Pines, and now that obligation extends to three parties. It’s all sound business, you see? You’ve avoided your debt for seven years now, and it has accrued interest. Maybe if you had rented an economics book, you wouldn’t be in this situation, hmm?”
The soft throbbing became a sobbing. Oh God, he was crying. It’s just like everyone says, these bottom-feeders are always crying about their problems instead of solving them. I was resolved to help him solve this problem right here and now.
“Oh, come on, Mr. Pines, we all have debt. You just got to pay them.”
“Please, just leave me alone,” he blubbered.
“I have debts too, you know? I have a debt for the car I drive, a debt for the T.V. I own; when you think about it, I even have a debt for the health of the rest of my life. And you know what I do about it?”
I paused in case he could think of the answer himself.
“I pay my debt, Mr. Pines. By working an honest job. Don’t you want to pay your debt? Don’t you want to be like me? All you have to do is settle up. That’s the only way you’re going to get anywhere, trust me.”
“Please,” he mewled, “I don’t have anything. Does it look like I have anything? Please for the love of God, just let me be!”
“Nothing? Nobody has nothing. You mean to tell me you don’t have a bank card somewhere in that pile of trash?” I fumbled around for card-reader attachment.
Nothing. Nobody has nothing. That’s not how things work. There wouldn’t be debts if someone could have nothing. It’s just not a sound system. In pondering these things, a stroke of brilliance hit me.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Pines, we’re going to straighten this out today.” I opened a search query on my phone, then entered the information from Mr. Pines’ documents upon the ground. “Surely there must be a loan available to someone in your predicament.” I sent a request for his credit information through the first such service to come across my mind. I admit I wasn’t quite sure of the legality of all of this, but I had to solve this today. “Oh my.” His credit was terrible. Abysmal. I searched for another service. There had to be some sort of…
The screen of my phone was seized by a call from an out of state number. I was perplexed, knowing neither the source of the area code nor anyone out of the state who could have business with me. Naturally, I answered.
“Hello, I am calling on behalf of Frankie Lou student loan services. I have been notified that this device has been recently used to access the credit history of one Lawrence Pines. Am I speaking to him?”
“No, but he’s right here in front of me. Would you care to speak with him?”
“Please stay right there with him, sir! It is of great importance that you keep him there. We are sending someone over to your device’s location right away. May we contact you again at this number?”
I hung up the phone. “Shit.” The signifier echoed through the stench of the alley, returning with the properties of the signified.
“Mr. Pines,” I started, slipping my phone into my pocket. I turned back to where he was squatting, but he wasn’t there.
“And just where do you think you’re going, Lawrence,” asked a voice from the end of the alley. Lawrence Pines had managed to hobble halfway to the next street, but was frozen in his tracks. Before him was a police officer, young and clean shaven. His thumbs were through his belt loops, and a baton swung playfully at his side. I rushed to pin Mr. Pines between the officer and myself.
“Thank God, officer. I was just conducting some business with this man, and if you could please explain to him…”
“I just so happen to have business with him as well. Don’t we, Lawrence?” He grinned at Mr. Pines and caressed the baton.
“Please, sir, let me explain. This man owes debt to Mahoney and Company and it is of the utmost importance that it is collected immediately.”
The young patrolman wagged a finger at me. “Not before I collect his debt to me. You owe the city quite a bit now, don’t you Lawrence? Thirty counts of public camping. Four counts of public urination. Panhandling. Intoxication. Consumption of untaxed foodstuffs. The list goes on. And how do you plan to pay, Lawrence? If you don’t make some sort of payment today, I’m going to have to write you another ticket for failure to pay your tickets.”
These goddamned vultures. I wasn’t going to lose Mr. Pines to them. I know why we’ve been under so much pressure to collect this month. I knew what was at stake.
“Listen officer, with all due respect, my employers have every right to due compensation from this man, and I will not hesitate to go through the proper channels …”
“Now you listen to me,” he shouted back at me, beet faced. “The city is owed an obligation from this man, who…” The officer’s hand gestured at an empty space.
We both looked. Lawrence Pines was almost out of the alley. He looked back at us and gave a little yelp. “Please… please…” He doubled his hobbling pace, pleasing with each step.
The officer and I broke into chase. I couldn’t let Mr. Pines get away. The debts had to be paid. Mahoney and Company had been running its business on the credit of the debts it promised to collect, and lately, collections were becoming scarce. If Mahoney didn’t become solvent soon, I would be out of a job. I would be unable to pay my debts. Mr. Pines had to pay. I would wring it out of him if I had to.
Lawrence Pines stopped at the end of the alley, at the corner of the street. His cloudy blue eyes cleared as he uttered one last “please”. I raced towards him as I never had raced before, arms outstretched, lungs searing, mouth foaming. He turned into the street.
He shouted, “let me be free!”
Then he jumped.
A white delivery truck caught Mr. Pines in midair and cradled his broken body out of view. Tires screeched. A woman screamed. A door slammed. A man yelled, ‘holy shit, he’s fucking dead, man’.
The officer and I slowed our sprint to a halt. We both grasped our knees, gasping for breath. He picked up his head and looked at me, chest heaving. In his eyes, I could see him making the same calculations as I. We were scheming at ways to make each other accountable for the debt.