I nearly swallowed my cigarette, its tip not yet fully ignited as my broadened gaze slid toward the cartoon-witch voice coming from the shadows in the alley behind me. The blanket of darkness split and peeled backward, as my confusion did the same, pitifully illuminating both the vagrant woman and her actual meaning: the cigarettes would kill me.
I snorted a single heavy, anxious laugh that made my head tilt back and my chest puff forward, like a six-foot-three PEZ dispenser in the flesh. I shook it off and returned to my vigil.
If the door to "the Casino's" secret entrance were a pet, it would've been put down long ago. It grunted and groaned as it trudged open into the alleyway, rather than in like a proper door. I had read the archaic concrete scrapes perfectly and the door stopped maybe an inch from my nose, the proximity affecting a reflexive wobble in my crow-footed stance.
My balance is always lousy, but if you factor in my nerves, the awkward stance--I could've just stood further back, hindsight has shown me--and the three hearty sips of courage from earlier that night... well, simply put: I was screwed. I lost my balance completely and headbutted the door soundly. The collision swatted the inner doorknob into the kidney of one of Benny's two bodyguards; a bonus.
"What the..." Benny Delgado's shocked expression as I rounded the door was a far sight more intimidating than my toughest, most concentrated war face, I'm sure.
I almost shrieked in horror as I felt my left arm rear back and deliver a blow right between Benny "The Demon's" eyes, my index knuckle in his nose and my pinkie exchanging loud cracks with his front teeth. The blood spewed across my fist, an odd reminder; this was the first nose I'd bloodied since fourth grade, and back then that kid--full disclosure--that chick tackled me and kicked my ass.
But Benny Delgado didn't kick ass, he made ass disappear from the face of the fucking planet. So I was already hauling mine around the corner of the next block by the time his goons could decipher his bloody, screaming mumbles, "No naftner 'im, ya funkers!"
There was no time to waste. I grabbed the corn husk doll--you can take the boy out of the country...--from the pocket of my hoodie and pressed it against my fist until it had sopped up more than enough to fulfill my purpose.
The hoods' fancy shoes, the spoils of money much bloodier than Benny's corn-husk effigy, rapped the pavement like a heavy metal drum solo.
My guts plummeted into my pelvis. Faster than my conscious mind could navigate, I went from being horrified that I wouldn't get control in time, to mortified that I had. No turning back now; the shit was real. I must have looked like a ghost when I spun to face my pursuers, because they simultaneously skid to a hault, their expensive heels chirping on the asphalt.
Never doubt the value of spectacle. The two oafs murdered offenders as routinely as you or I might say "Bless you" to a sneezer; just a habitual reaction, a recitation. But when they saw a grown man, moments from an ugly demise, turn to them wielding a doll, they were thoroughly unprepared to respond. The doll danced through the air, hopping across before my chest like a game piece in my trembling hand.
I'm pretty sure the fella on my left was about to laugh, the one on the right about to draw, when they heard the unnatural clicking of much nicer shoes than their own; both heels coming down at once, then toes coming down at once. Rat-tat, rat-tat, rat-tat.
Thugs love to brag. And, no story could ever top the one about the guy who broke out the doll right before they shot up his knees and tossed him in a trunk, and then... But they wouldn't get to tell that story. Their boss bounced toward them as if riding the world's greatest pogo stick, each bound taking him fifteen feet up and out.
With the goons distracted, I had time to concentrate, but barely. I closed my eyes and pinched the doll's arm. As I bent it from direction to direction, Benny likewise groping about in response, I tried to find his thoughts--namely the thought "Where is my gun?" His mind was like a steel cage, though. Couldn't make out a thing. Luckily, on the doll's third reach, "The Demon" Delgado caught hold of his pistol and whipped it around front.
The befuddled thugs had plenty of time to draw down on their boss. But, they wouldn't and I knew it--I didn't have to make him kill them. Without their boss, they were as good as dead anyway. Those types don't really function properly on their own; I'm sure they were as afraid of losing their orders as they were their lives.
I shook the doll's arm, visualizing firing at the other two men, until I heard several clicks from his empty gun. I had complete control of his limbs, but I wasn't taking any chances with a monster like that; I wanted that gun empty. I stepped over the goons, but stopped just on the other side. Entranced or no, I still couldn't stand face-to-face with the head honcho.
Angrier than courageous, my voice quivered, "You ever hear the name Candy Ferrari?"
His eyebrows wiggled, struggling against my control. A hot coat of fury wrapped around me and before I knew it, my puppet was pistol whipping himself into unconsciousness.
I took his keys, ran to pull his car around, and shoved him into the trunk of his own sedan. I slammed it shut with a loud sigh of relief--no, respite. I shivered off the heebie jeebies, like I'd just plucked a brown recluse from my hair.
When I reached Mr. Fuller's mansion, the guard at the gate asked me to pop the trunk, "Just need to check."
I clicked the already-locked doors, for effect and rolled my window only half way. "I'll let Mr. Fuller check. Thanks, though." Rude wasn't my usual approach, but I was almost done. I was ready to be done and if he didn't open that gate so I could go through, I was going over it.
The guy sighed, I'm sure reminding himself how grossly underpaid he was. After rolling upward in frustration, his eyes fixed widely on the pistol in my hand. As he realized the butt was toward him and the business end aimed at my thigh, he remembered to breath and took it with a loud, visible gulp.
The platinum-plated handle had the engraved head of a laughing demon on one side with "Benicio" inscribed below in an elegant script, on the other side was the crying face of another demon above "Delgado." The guard swung behind him, keeping his eyes locked suspiciously on me as he slapped at the wall until making contact with a faded gray button. The gate clicked and then hummed and rattled aside for me to pass.
I've been a conjurer since I was knee-high to a duck, but until that moment, watching that tough guy lock his eyes on me like he was worried I'd do something to him, I never really felt powerful.
I sat on the trunk, my plaid high tops swinging back and forth with a soft tap of the bumper. I was in baggy blue athletic shorts, and an aging red hoodie that said "Dragon Slayer" with a faded-but-colorful illustration of a beheaded dragon above the pocket.
The wind carried a chilly haze of water from the massive fountain centering the driveway outside Mr. Fuller's front door. Every few minutes my glasses would begin to slide from the moisture or the lenses would fill with specks of water and I'd have to remove them and wipe them off.
I hate fidgeting with my glasses. I feel it draws unnecessary attention to my nerdiness. Talk about fueling a well-stoked fire.
At his leisure, almost as though he'd just happened across his driveway, Mr. Fuller approched the trunk wearing a silk smoking jacket--and I believe nothing else--and carrying a highball. He was the portrait of ill-gotten gains with his perfectly manicured mustache and falsely black semi-circle of hair.
"Let's see it," he grinned impishly. He looked like he expected a trick; maybe someone dressed up like Delgado, or maybe an out-and-out double-cross ambush. Or a mermaid, any damn thing but The Demon Delgado.
"I want to see the girl." I tried to sound like the hero in the movies but I could tell from his laughter that I had failed.
"Fuck you, buddy," he chuckled, his harsh words almost dispassionate, and motioned for me to hop up and pop the trunk. I did.
"Well God damn, boy!" he beamed into the trunk at his opponent, tied up in bungie wires and the string that should have been holding up my shorts--you work with what you have.
Finally he looked up at me. When he did, I saw a look I'd never seen; not directed at me anyway. He was impressed and he didn't have the words. His lower lip protruded slightly and his head bobbed slowly in an approving motion. He sized me up, trying to figure out whether it was worth asking how I did it. He must've decided it wasn't.
He realized he was inadvertently praising someone, someone he would just as soon have seen fed to Delgado's Rottweilers. He snapped out of it, with a sigh of disapproval--which he pretended was for me--and slapped his eyes across Delgado. Rage filled him like a balloon. "Go get the whore," he shouted to any of his men, sending his misguided hatred my way.
"She's not a whore." I felt that sense of power again and from the look on his face, he could feel my power too. We both knew I didn't know what to do with it anyway.
Laughing away his concern, be it ever so mild, he regarded me like a child. "Sure, she ain't. Good to know." He might as well have patted me on the head and called me "little fella."
They brought Candy out of the front door, her curly red hair pinched by the black tie around her eyes. Her hands were untied, but either elbow was held by a man weighing no less than two of her. They released her hands and she untied the blindfold. She looked at me apologetic but grateful. She scuttled down the stairs and to my side. As she passed Mr. Fuller, he looked at her with a smile that made my insides sizzle, my chest and ribs pressed out to their limit until it felt like my skin would rip. He winked at her and raised his glass. I took the black tie from her hands and rubbed the rim of his outstretched glass, distributing a bewildered pause to all around.
"With just your saliva, I can do much more than I did to him. Leave us alone." Now that I wasn't trying to be hard, only granting fair warning, I think I sounded much tougher.
His face shifted from anger to a sort of pity to a disgusting amusement. His gross smile returning, he taunted, "Well, alright, hero. Hope you and your princess live happily ever after." His laughter was a rumbling chuckle as he looked back and forth between us. As my face hardened his amusement grew until he could hardly speak the words, "Fuck off, you moron." He shooed us away as he began directing his men on proper Delgado disposal.
Candy started off without a word. I followed her, clumsily as I always am, and finally caught up with her at the gate.
"You shouldn't have come here," she said shaking her head and averting her eyes. She looked pitiful, miserable, at her wit's end. But, she didn't look like she would cry.
"What are you talking about? Those men were going to kill you."
"So?" She looked almost mad; sympathetically disappointed. "What does it matter if they were going to kill me? Now you crossed Benny, he's going to kill you."
"I don't think he's going to get out of there," I felt the morbid smile creeping in and disguised it quickly by contorting my mouth from side to side. The improvisation, as usual, made me look much more foolish than the smile would have made me look cruel... or whatever I was worried about looking like. Dammit, I'm a nerd.
As I berated myself quietly, Candy started to walk away again.
"Wait!" I shouted.
"He's going to get out. And he's going to get you. And then, he's going to get me back. It was sweet of you to try," as she said this a shit-eating-grin built in my heart until she continued, "but you're a goddamn idiot. You shouldn't have involved yourself." She started away once more, her high heels squeaking with her gait.
"How can you say that? We're..." I didn't know what to say.
She stopped, spun and stared daggers through me. "We're business associates. You pay me, I dance."
I tried to at least look like I shrugged it off, "Pay you well." I could tell from the look on her face she didn't have the heart to contradict me; our understanding of money was quite different but she wasn't the type to make someone feel bad over a thing like that.
There was a clamoring mixture of shouts, gunshots, and profanities. Then, from beyond the gate came the loud, moan of bending metal. From the darkness and confusion, the sedan shot into the air and landed on the fountain, sounding like a train wreck caught in an avalanche.
"Oh no," her voice collapsed.
"I'll protect you," I swore.
She looked at me, dumbly, her beautiful lips parted silently as she watched me as though expecting me to go "Just kidding!" She took a deep breath and her ample breasts distracted me with their ascension. When I looked back to her face, I saw the fugitive tears finally making their way home. She tried not to look at me, "They aren't after me. Benny's already got me. I'm not like... one of you."
From the smoke cloud engulfing the front lawn, I saw the form of seven or so men and women, their path apparently ending where we stood.
"But they are." She looked from the figures to me urgently. She was frightened, but unsurprised, as though she'd known exactly what was going to happen. "Go, please."
I could see in her eyes that there was something. Maybe not feelings--not real, actual romantic feelings. But, there was something. And that was enough.
"Wanna see something cool?" I smirked at her. I could feel her anxiety as I stooped and dug around in the foliage along the gate. Finally, I found an agent, and it was a good one: a pill bug; roly poly; man's original best friend.
I held the little fella in my right hand and grabbed her hip with my left. It was hard to stay focused and ignore the remarkable sensation of touching her hip, finally; the club has rules, you see.
Then with a few words that I can't spell and you wouldn't know what to do with anyway, I channeled the tiny agent's might and matter into a towering black dragon. I looked at her and for a moment I swore she was going to laugh delightedly at my skill, but then she just fainted.
Oh well. I may not be smooth, but I get the job done.