FREE Lunchtime Reading: A Peaceable Mind
A Peaceable Mind
Jon F. Merz
Joey strolled in wearing his shirt untucked, trying to be all subtle about it. I'd been in Medellin, Colombia through the mid-90s so the fashion sense was familiar to me. Either on the back of a hip or in the small of his back, Joey had himself a piece. Knowing Joey, it'd be the right - his strong arm side. A quick flick with his fingers to get the shirt clear and then the draw would be a smooth one-action coming out of low-ready to instinctive fire - bang, bang.
Question was: who was he here to drop?
I took a sip of the Grey Goose and tonic in front of me, tasted the wedge of lime when it kissed my lips like the tawdry citrus bitch it was and let my gaze wander.
Joey settled himself at the end of the bar since it gave him a good vantage point. Guys like Joey grew up watching all the usual suspects on TV and in the films. Then when he got interesting enough to the right people, they plucked him out of fantasyland and gave him a crash course in "grow the fuck up quick."
But still, Joey liked to milk it the way the movie toughs would have.
I knew the sentiment; I'd gone through it, too.
I spotted a couple of possibles cheating each other out of twenties and tens over hands of five-card stud at the small table near the bandstand. No band tonight, though. Lem, the guy who owned the joint, hadn't been able to book anyone to play the place since Vic Demoulas got his third eye opened unconventionally a month or so back. Wouldn't have been so bad if the wanna-be Disney teen stars hadn't been crooning about cafeteria lunch lines and corn dogs when ol' Vic went down streaking bone and grey ooze across the linoleum right in front of the suburbanized moms keeping watch over their flock. I thought Lem was going to have break out the cardiac defib machine he'd had installed; coulda sworn I saw a few pairs of eyes roll over white.
Joey ordered himself a white Russian and I blanched. In my book, milk and liquor are two things that should never shack up with each other. Sacrilegious. I dunno. It's like a dog riding the hell out of a pig. Might look kinda funny, but you definitely don't want to see the offspring.
It was when he walked over to my table that I felt a twinge of surprise. He nodded at me as he crossed the floor, sort of a flag of truce so I didn't put two into him before he got any closer. Not that we had bad blood between us, but in this town, the day you started assuming anything was the day they started digging a hole for you.
"How's it going, Ken?"
I lifted my glass and thought about how badly I wanted about four more of them to help me forget. "You come over here to ask me about my day?"
I shrugged and Joey sat down across from me, his back to the rest of the place. Interesting. "You giving your back to the room? Must be something good you need to discuss."
"I'm on a job."
"Shirt gave it away. I've seen it before." I took a sip and tasted more ice than vodka. "Who's the mark?"
Joey sipped his white Russian and it left a pencil thin mustache along his lip. Made him look like he was fish on his first night in cell block D. "Don't know if I can handle this one alone."
"Why's that? You back in therapy? All concerned about your role in the universe?" I smiled to show him I was only kidding. But Joey didn't rise to the bait.
"Might be out of my league."
"Awfully humble of you."
Joey downed the rest of his white Russian and the glass hit the table hard. "I know my limitations."
"Clint says that's a good thing." I sipped the icy water in front of me. "What team's the mark playing for?"
"Does it matter?"
I stopped drinking. "It does for me. I don't like pissing off friends."
Joey sniffed. "As if you and I have any friends. We're just pawns in this whole thing, man. You know that."
I looked him over. His eyes had bags hanging beneath them. Dark, like he hadn't been sleeping worth shit. "You're definitely back in therapy."
"I need your help, Ken."
He was being way too up-front with me, Coming from Joey, whom I had only a marginal level of respect for, it made me suspicious. But then again, I was pretty much suspicious of anything. Or anyone.
I stared Joey down, trying to see past the beady, tired eyes and get some clue as to what he was up to. He kept his eyes on me, but there was nothing defiant there. Just exhaustion.
I shrugged. "Pay?"
"What I heard you were getting last time I checked." He waited. Patient. Joey always had been good at selling things.
I tilted the glass back, caught the wedge of lime and bit into it looking for the last bit of juice before slapping it back down on the table. "All right."
The clouds pissed on us as we drove across town, Joey next to me with his hands folded like he was going to church. "Heard you got away for a while."
No such things as secrets in this town; they lasted about as long as a virgin backstage at a rock concert. "I did. I'm back now."
"They welcome you back in?"
I wheeled down around the waterfront, past the corrugated roofs - past the tramp steamers lolling in the harbor swells. "Well, they didn't waste any bullets on me."
"What the hell's that mean?"
"Means they didn't take too kindly to my going off the reservation. I'm back, yeah. But it's more like probation. They need to feel like they can trust me again."
Joey nodded. "Who knows? You helping me with this might just make you look good enough again."
"Maybe." The tires splashed through a puddle. "You going to clue me in here or do I have to keep waiting for you to spill it?"
"Keep driving over toward Fort Channel. I'll give you the information when we get there."
Fort Channel was a thin strip of nowhere populated by a mass of warehouses slung next to weeds, old oil drums, and rusted car wrecks. The place reeked of low tide, seagull shit, and rotting corpses. Usually, rats. But two-legged bodies had been known to show up on occasion. Looked like we'd be adding to that tally tonight.
I wasn't naïve enough to ignore the possibility that Joey was going to stick a couple of Teflon rounds into the back of my head. But I didn't think he was. Still, a healthy dose of cynicism has kept me shambling around longer than most.
"Pull in over there." Joey pointed at the narrow alley nestled between two of the larger warehouses. Ahead of me, a pile of broken toilets and sinks formed a pyramid of busted porcelain.
I slowed the car to a stop and then killed the engine. Joey was busy making sure he'd topped off his magazine. I watched his fingers work pushing rounds down. He smirked. "You're going to like this."
His eyes gleamed, catching the yellow sodium lights overhead. "Trust me."
As if. I slid out of the car and patted the back of my right hip. The USP Compact I carried still hugged me tight.
Joey cleared the car and came around. "You recognize this place?"
"One of Le Clerc's."
I frowned. The thought of doing something on my boss' territory didn't exactly sit well with me. I usually stayed well away when off doing his bidding. Killing someone here violated that whole "don't shit where you eat" protocol.
Joey didn't seem to mind, but then again, we weren't getting ready to plug someone on Marchand's turf. He could afford nonchalance.
We closed on the closest warehouse and Joey pointed out that there weren't any cameras around. "Probably doesn't think anyone will bother him down here."
Joey just eyed me. "Dude, Le Clerc."
"He's the target?"
"Duh." Joey shook his head and pointed at the door. "You go in first. He sees you, he'll relax."
I put a hand on his arm. "Wait - how exactly does this get me back into good standing with my him?"
Joey smiled. "I never said doing this would make you look good to them. But it will to my people. And you'll need a home after this anyway. Nothing worse than an orphaned killer. You'd just wander around aimless. No sense of purpose. No one controlling you."
He had a point, of course. And Le Clerc hadn't exactly been kind when I'd returned. The idea of killing him didn't make me feel all that awful.
I nodded and moved ahead to the door. My stomach ached at the thought of Joey being behind me, but I had to trust the situation, not the man. If that got me killed, then so be it.
The door was a pre-fab number, hollow and metal, but suitable for barring entry to the place. I turned the knob and the door opened.
Inside, the place reeked of incense. Le Clerc always had some of that shit burning in braziers hung on chains off the framework. Given the usual aroma of Fort Channel, I couldn't blame him. Even if incense made me want to puke.
I sensed Joey behind me, moving in the shadows. Maybe he expected Le Clerc to have a big welcoming party or tons of guards around him. Fact was, he didn't need them. Unless it was for show.
Joey pointed around my shoulder. "Up there."
I looked and saw the reflection of flames dancing on the walls on the second level. Le Clerc had a fire going. And I could hear something now as we approached.
I took the steps that brought us up and down the catwalk, I could see where Le Clerc had set himself up amid an altar and a blazing hearth. He was dressed the way he usually was in flowing deep burgundy robes and a brilliant yellow sash knotted in three places to denote his rank within his particular order. The glow of the fire made his ebony skin gleam.
He stopped chanting when he saw me. "Ken?"
I shrugged. "Traffic was light."
Le Clerc nodded. "Who's that with you?"
I stepped to the side and Joey came up from behind me, his pistol - a Smith & Wesson .40 - leveled at Le Clerc's head. The shot was a good twenty feet away and in flickering firelight, but I figured Joey could plug him just fine.
"This is Joey."
Le Clerc smiled. "So...this is him."
Joey frowned and I could see the tug on his mind. He grunted and shook it off, refocusing on Le Clerc. "I'm here to kill you."
Le Clerc chuckled. "Obviously."
Joey thumbed the hammer back, but the sound was lost amid the crackling fire. "No tricks, Le Clerc."
Le Clerc raised his hands. "I wouldn't dream of it. Would I, Ken?"
"You're not one for tricks. Pragmatism, yeah. Tricks? Nah."
Joey glanced at me. "You ready to do this?"
I brought my USP out and shrugged. "Suppose so."
Le Clerc said nothing as I drew my pistol up. I could see the fire dancing in his eyes. I could feel the pull of his will on my own. His power was immense. Not that he needed it with me just then.
I turned the gun and put the barrel flush to Joey's temple - pulled the trigger twice - and heard the gun bark-bark. The left side of Joey's head exploded as the rounds exited, taking most of his cranial cavity with them.
He simply dropped.
Le Clerc advanced on me, his voice low and soothing. "Nicely done, Ken. Very nicely done. Am I correct in assuming he had no idea?"
"I doubt it. He came to me for help, just like you said he would."
"I'm amazed that this is the best Marchand could field." Le Clerc shook his head. "I believe the problem lies in the recruitment method. You do get out what you put into it, of course."
I watched the blood dribble out of Joey's head down to the lower level. His eyes were opaque and lifeless now. "Marchand grabs his guys from a security company. Low-level rent-a-cops. But Joey wasn't as bad as the majority of them."
"Marchand doesn't like challenges. These rent-a-cops as you call them, are easier to control."
I glanced at him. "As opposed to the likes of me."
Le Clerc smiled. "Former government operatives are always preferable to me. Yes, it takes a lot of extra work - and yes, there are...setbacks. Your recent vacation was a bit problematical for me. But overall, the results are far superior to substandard help."
"This your way of telling me all is forgiven now?"
Le Clerc's smile widened. "You want to forget?"
"Worse than you could possibly know."
Le Clerc nodded. "Follow me."
We walked back into the glow of the firelight and I saw that he'd set up a small tripod that dangled a deep pot over the flames. Le Clerc took a long wooden spoon and stirred the contents. From where I stood, I caught the familiar scent and my mouth watered at the thought of it.
"It's easier this way, isn't it?"
My eyes were focused on the bubbling mass in the pot. "Yes."
His voice swam in my head. "I'll make sure the usual amount is deposited into your account."
"Are you still happy to be working with me?"
I tore my eyes away from the cauldron and looked at him. "I'm not happy right now."
"But you will be." He pointed with his spoon. "You will be."
Le Clerc dropped his voice and the words came out of his mouth in a jumble of Creole, Gullah, and other dialects I didn't even recognize. I didn't need to recognize them. Their effect was what was important. The singsong utterances fluttered about my head, distracting, unfocusing, and graying out more and more of my thoughts.
At last, Le Clerc drove the spoon into the liquid and drew it out. He sniffed it once and then passed it to me. Already, my sentience seemed to be dwindling. I took the spoon and slurped up the contents.
Le Clerc, the high priest, fed me three times more.
And my mind vanished. Along with all the horrible memories of things I'd done in the name of God and Country. The bodies, the cries, the blood - so much blood - the terror I'd wrought, the demon I'd been.
By the zombie I'd chosen to become.
I was still a tool.
In more ways than one.
But now I had something I'd never had before.
Copyright © 2011 by Jon F. Merz All rights reserved.