action adventure

Part 1



The Get Away




I knew it was going to be one of those days the moment I tumbled out of bed; one of those ‘fucked-up, pisser of a day’ days. It had been a late night with way too many shots of Bourbon and Tequila and now my head throbbed like a son-of-a-bitch and my throat felt drier than the Sahara — this was about the worst case of the cottonmouth that I could remember. It’s the Bourbon; it does that to me every time.



I dragged myself to the fridge and got a bottle of water, chugged it down, stretched and drew the curtains back only to be greeted by a gloomy, sunless morning. I watched the dense rainclouds, rolling across the sky like fluffy cotton-candy and swore that one of these days, and soon, I was going to move to Southern California. Get away from the cold Northeastern winters and leave a life riddled with bad choices behind.



The next thing I noticed was the big pile of shit in the middle of my rug. Apache! Damn, boy! I had adopted this puppy from the local animal shelter and he was still in the process of being house-broken. He was a 5-month old Shepherd-Akita mix with sad eyes and a confused expression. Some jerk had let him loose on the highway or he had run off — either way the vet at the shelter was certain he had been abused. There’s a special hell for those who hurt children or animals and I’d give anything to meet up with that asshole. Well, I was determined to make it up to the little guy and a chocolate soufflé of dog turd was the least of my problems.



There were three messages on my cell — two from my ex and one from Vince. I erased the two from Lisa without listening to her bullshit. She had been sleeping around on me and wouldn’t you know it, I was the last to know. I kicked her sorry ass out and now she wanted to get back together — well, that wasn’t happening.



Vince was my bookie but unlike his usual, profanity laced rants, this one was short: “Cal, you’d better get the fuck out of town! Andrei is lookin’ for you.”



I felt my nuts shrink and my toes curl. This was bad. Andrei was a Russian retard; an ex-KGB enforcer with a scary disposition. He was big and mean and as nasty as they come. Whenever Sam sent Andrei it meant he had written off the debt and now it was a question of making an example out of the poor slob, in this case, me! Shit! I was looking forward to a leisurely morning; roughhousing with the pooch, reading the papers and taking my time over breakfast – maybe tomorrow, but now, I needed to get the heck out of here.



I fed Apache and put him in his crate; a quick shave and shower and I was ready and just in the nick of time.



I heard the heavy banging on the front door and a muffled, “Come on! Come on out, little man! It is time to play!”



It sounded a lot more ominous and strangely funny with the Russian accent. A peek through the peephole confirmed my worst fears – it was the big, hairy gorilla himself. Just then he kicked the door and if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a steel-reinforced, security door, I’m sure it would’ve caved. I grabbed my Glock 19 and slipped through the kitchen window and onto the fire-escape. The back alley was my best bet.



I was halfway down and pretty certain that I was in the clear when I spotted Andrei’s trained monkey, Nikolai. He was another scary dude; tall and lean and paler than a Norwegian albino. The tattoos on his neck and arms were worn as badges of honor representing years spent in Russian prisons. He was leaning against the adjacent wall looking up with a toothless grin on his face – both his Maxillary Central Incisors were missing, that is, his upper, front teeth for those not familiar with dentistry. The flattened pug nose and scars above his eyes were vestiges of fights won and lost and added to his intimidating appearance. Fuckin’ Russians! It must be those frigid, sub-zero Siberian winters; they were tough as nails and as determined as hounds on a fox’s tail.



The Glock crossed my mind but I had a feeling that in a gunfight with this asshole, I’d lose.



“Okay, comrade, you got me … I’m coming down!” I yelled, throwing my arms up in resignation.



He flipped the cell phone open and I could hear him jabbering in Russian while keeping an eye on me. He had that smug expression that said: we got the little bugger, boss!



He should have paid closer attention to me instead of blabbing. He moved under the ladder looking up at me but was still chattering away while nonchalantly picking his nose. Ten feet up from him and I jumped, feet first, right at his monkey ass. I heard him grunt and then we fell in a heap, arms and legs all entangled but I had the advantage of surprise and managed to scramble to my feet first. I knew I had knocked the wind out of him.



“Hey, you … you wait!” he gasped, slowly getting up on all fours, groping blindly for his phone. What a dick!



A knee to his jaw and I saw his eyes roll back before he crumpled like a bad suit and lay still. That’s all I needed. A quick look around to make sure that there wasn’t a KGB convention out there and I was gone, ducking down the alleyway and melting into the morning crowds. And, true to the script, the skies opened up and it began to pour. Yeah, it was one of those days.



*****



The Viper – Sam Eliasberg



“Sam, I swear I’ll pay you back! Call the dogs off, okay?” I pleaded with Vince’s boss.



Samuel Eliasberg was an anomaly. In the ‘who’s who’ of underworld businesses run by the Russian Mob, the Italians and the Albanians, he was a Jew and a sophisticated one at that. He looked more like a research scholar than a gangster. But looks were deceiving and I had the feeling that even the Russians gave him a wide berth. The story goes that he dropped out of Harvard Business School to pursue his real avocation — crime! I had to admit the man had a special gift for inflicting pain. A creative aspect often overlooked by the less astute in the business.



I had witnessed some his handiwork up close so my pleading was definitely sincere. I was present when I saw him drill through a man’s knees with a quarter inch drill bit, yup; he actually drilled through this dude’s knees! Harvey “Stick” Johnson was a good-looking, black cat who possessed a humongous cock and made the mistake of sticking it into one of Sam’s girls and that, apparently, was a major no-no. Johnson wouldn’t be laying that piece of lumber into anyone for a while, that’s for sure. The gory memory of the blood, bone and cartilage being dredged out by the drill was still fresh not to mention the screaming.



“Why should I believe you, Cal? You’ve had plenty of time to pay me back,” he answered in that soft, effeminate voice.



“Give me a couple of days, Sam, that’s all I’m asking for and I’ll pay you back in full.” I was being as earnest as possible, “I swear! Two days!”



There was a short silence.



“You broke Nikolai’s jaw and that’s not nice. There’s the question of services lost. Your marker just went up another twenty.”



Twenty grand! Is he fuckin’ kidding me? This guy is the bastard amalgam of Shylock and Attila the Hun!



“Oh, come on! I was trying to get away from that ape! You can’t blame me, Sam!”



There was a silence and I instinctively looked behind me. Samuel Eliasberg had contacts everywhere so I had to keep my eyes peeled even in a churchyard. For all I knew the parish priest could be on his payroll and was a hit-man in drag. Okay, I’ll admit it; I’m a bit paranoid when it comes to Sam. Then, he was back on the phone.



“Here’s what I’ll do and it’s because I like you, Cal, otherwise you’d be a fucking memory! You come in and let’s talk. Maybe there’s a way we can square things up.” A short pause, “Let’s meet. You have my word nothing will happen to you.”



“What about Andrei?” I asked just to make sure.



“You have my word.” He repeated, stressing the last part.



“When and where?”



“2:00 PM tomorrow at the loft,” he answered and the line went dead.



The loft was what he called his apartment in SoHo. It was more like the bloody Taj Mahal. It was an old, four-storey, brick warehouse that he purchased for a song and then had it completely renovated. He converted the first three levels into posh apartments and had taken the entire fourth floor for himself. You had to see it — fuckin’ incredible and a fortress to boot. He had more security cameras, photo-electric beams, laser lights and motion detectors than Fort Knox. You would need a bloody army to storm that place.



I realized a bit too late that the odds were skewed in his favor — I would be on his turf with his goons. I was so relieved that he had called off his big dog that I wasn’t thinking. I tried calling him back to convince him to meet somewhere in public but he wouldn’t take my calls so I had to even the playing field the only way I knew how.



*****



The Warrior — Clay Mackie



“He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword.”



Job 39:22



I’m not one of those idiots who’ll go to a gunfight with a knife. I needed reinforcements and that meant getting Clay to accompany me. Clay Adam Mackie was my childhood buddy and an ex-Navy Seal. Need I say more? He knew about killing than fleas on a mongrel dog but of late it was hard to get him motivated. All he wanted to do was to kickback, smoke weed and listen to music! He was a hardcore “Deadhead”, a Jerry Garcia fan — he was convinced that the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead was speaking to him from the other side, offering profound advice on life, specifically, his life! The weed was eating his brain.



But if you were ever in a tight spot, Clay was the best option to have. He as one of those rare people that actually enjoyed the thrill of danger, and I don’t mean the extreme skiing kind of danger but the confrontational kind, where the other guy is trying to cave in your cranium or stick you with a knife or load your ass full of lead. And, the greater the odds the more it turned him on.



His pad was in Chelsea, a one-bedroom, messy shithole he shared with a red-headed, tattooed hippie who went by the moniker, Red … now that was real creative. I didn’t see the hippie but I winced at the overpowering stench; the place reeked of unwashed socks and the sickly-sweet smell of hashish. You could get high just standing there, that is, if you didn’t puke first.



“Hey, I may need some back-up. Are you up for it?”



I had to shout because he had “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” blaring over his father’s vintage thirty-year-old, Pioneer system. The speakers were being ripped, distorting badly, but he didn’t seem to care. He noticed the look on my face and turned it down, not a lot but enough so my eardrums wouldn’t burst.



“What? ‘Didn’t catch that, amigo … you need money?” he asked with a bemused look on his face.



Clay was always broke. Not because he didn’t have money but because he gave it all away. He was a sucker for a sob story and couldn’t pass a bum without dropping a fiver in his hat, most times, my fiver!



I smiled, yeah, that would be the day. He’s been mooching off of me since kindergarten. He turned the music down a little more.



“I need you to back me up. Are you up for it?” I repeated.



Normally, he’d bust my balls with a bunch of questions so I was surprised when he agreed without hesitation.



“Sure, why not. I need some excitement, man; this shit’s fuckin’ with my head!” He said nonchalantly while rolling another joint, “When?”



“Now. And, I’d skip the joint.”



“Give me a minute,” he said getting up, “what are we up against?”



“Russians! And, a scheming little snake.”



He smiled like he’d just hit the jackpot and disappeared behind beaded curtains into the bedroom.



I had to step over a littering of empty beer bottles, ashtrays and boxes of week-old pizza to get to the stereo system. I turned it off — I didn’t mind the music but the distortion was beginning to bug me.



The bed sheet on the mattress that Red slept on was stained and badly in need of a wash. I began collecting the trash and moving it into a pile in the corner when Clay reappeared. He had combed his hair back and donned his trademark army jacket.



“Fuck that, I’ll clean up later. Let’s go.”



“Where’s Red?” I figured an additional body couldn’t hurt.



“He got a job. The fucker cut his hair, shaved his beard … he’s gone Wall Street, suit and all. You wouldn’t recognize him.”



They had been buddies in the Special Forces and Clay had dated Red’s sister for a while but like all his other relationships, this one didn’t last either. It didn’t seem to affect their friendship though and when Red needed a place, Clay welcomed him in. Red was a wiz with computers — a fuckin’ genius! He could do things that honestly scared me and I was sure that one of these days the CIA or the FBI would be coming for him.



“You gotta get him to clean this place up, man – it stinks like a fuckin’ sewer!”



Clay grinned, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Never bothered you before. Don’t go pussy-winkle on me, brother!”



‘Pussy-winkle’? I liked that — must remember to use it.



*****



The Payback



When we got to Sam’s place, there were four goons I didn’t recognize and Andrei and as luck would have it, it was Andrei who frisked us.



He grinned and said something that sounded like “Pree-vyet, pree-vyet,” before relieving me of my Glock and the little Beretta Tomcat I had tucked away in my ankle.



“My, my, my, the little boy carry lot of guns!” he smirked, handing them over to one of the other monkeys. Then, before I could move, he reached up and grabbed my nuts and squeezed. I gasped as the explosion of pain shot through me paralyzing my brain. Fuck! It hurt worse than a Judas Cradle on steroids and I thought I was going to pass out but as the maroon mist began to spread I heard Sam:



“Let him go. Now!”



The gorilla obeyed but not before giving me one final squeeze. I groaned loudly and held onto the back of a sofa. Clay was behind me and had most probably missed the assault but seeing the smug expression on Andrei’s face and with me wracked in pain he put two and two together.



He moved quickly towards the big man and shoved him back, hard, “Hey, what’s going on? What the fuck are you doing, man?”



I grabbed his arm and managed to gasp, “Not now, amigo … not now. Let it go, I’m okay.” Then turning to Andrei, “That’s all you got? Your sister does better than that. I was poking her last night!”



The big ape glared and took a step towards me.



“Settle down! All of you.” Sam snapped then turning to me he asked, “‘you okay?”



“Yeah, yeah … I’m fine.” I managed, straightening up.



“That was for Nikolai. We are even, no? But, if you want to dance I am here to accommodate, eh.”



Andrei said looking straight at me and throwing his arms open in a magnanimous gesture.



“If you want to dance, then I’m your fuckin’ Huckleberry, asshole!” Clay snarled stepping up to the big Russian.



This time Andrei was ready and didn’t budge; his face a stone mask.



“Hey, I said enough! Cal, if your friend can’t keep it together then get him the fuck outta here! I don’t have time for this!” Sam hissed.



I knew that Sam wasn’t about to let us leave. We didn’t have our guns and we were outnumbered. This wasn’t the time for any Ninja bullshit. And though I’d pay to watch these two go at it, I grabbed Clay and pulled him back stepping in between the men. They glared at each other before Clay eased away.



Andrei remained still for a moment studying Clay, as though he was seeing him for the first time, then shrugged and strolled over to the wet bar. He poured himself a shot of vodka, Czar’s Gold (Tsarskaya) vodka, then looked over at us, raised his glass and smiled. There were several slices of dark, sprouted pumpernickel bread on a plate with wedges of pickle on the side. I had dated a Russian gal a few years back so I was familiar with the routine. The toast, the pickles, the hissing, more puerile toasting, more shots, more pickles, more shots and more shots until you were shitfaced and silly.



“Vashe zdorovie!” he toasted softly, sniffed the bread and took a deep breath adding, “Nu …”



We watched him toss back the drink in one gulp and shut his eyes tight as the liquid heat seared through him. He waited a moment and then let out an audible hiss — almost like a low whistle then shook his head, clearing his brain from the sting of the alcohol before taking a large bite of the pickle. These were Russian pickles which have a pungent aftertaste to them; you could smell the Horseradish and Dill. He stood motionless, savoring the flavors, his cheeks red from the rush of the Vodka.



“Oh Khorosho! That was good. Come on, anyone to join me?” He asked, looking at each one of us until his gaze finally rested on Clay, “How about you, tough man, you drink with Andrei?”



“I don’t drink with fuckin’ Tweakers!” Clay muttered back.



The big Russian let out a roar, laughing loudly, the deep rumbling coming from the pit of his belly.



“Come on, it’s not nice to drink alone. Let us be friends, unh … I like your eyes, they are strange, like crazy strange, no?”



Clay had one blue eye and one gray. I had gotten so used to them that I didn’t even notice them anymore. In fact, I couldn’t imagine him any other way.



Clay didn’t answer instead he ignored the big man and looked around, casing the place. It was habit; he would look for exits — doors, windows, partitions etc. Then he would identify the really dangerous players and place himself in a position where he could keep an eye on them. He moved to a corner across from Andrei and a small, wiry guy standing behind Sam. The man had an expressionless face with cold, reptilian eyes and a variation of the Ukrainian Tryzub tattooed on his neck. Instead of the usual Cossack trident, this one had three swords with a lion at the base. One look and you knew that this was a tough customer.



The black dude standing by the door had a boyish face and it was pretty evident that he was nervous. He was young and unlike the others, who were either ex-military or hardened criminals, and was most probably a bouncer from one of Sam’s nightclubs. He kept shuffling his feet, flexing his muscles and looking around at the room like he was waiting for his cue. He was a damn amateur.



I hated inexperienced, wanna-be tough guys. Take them out of their environment and they were lost. They were unpredictable and usually reacted too quickly or not at all — both bad options. I made a mental note to keep an eye on him. But, it was the Ukrainian that I was really worried about and glad that I dragged Clay along.



Andrei made a face and poured himself another shot and looked expectantly at us, “Last chance?”



It was Sam who finally spoke.



“Nah, it’s too early for me;” then looking over at me, “sit down and let’s get down to business. These fuckin’ Russians will drink a Grizzly under the table.” He glanced at Clay and added, “Tell your friend to relax. Nothing’s going to happen.”



I smiled at Clay and could see Andrei in my peripheral vision throw back another while Sam explained exactly what he wanted me to do.



“It’s pretty simple,” he started and that’s when I knew we were getting in far deeper than I would have liked. Who was he kidding? If it were that simple I wouldn’t be here.



This had all the makings of a bloody shit-storm.



*****



The Doubts — Of Jokers and Trumps



It was pretty simple, at least on the surface. I was to meet a Hans-Peter Kriegl at a hotel in Stamford and get a package from him. Then, I was to take the package to Houlton, Maine — wherever the fuck that was. Once I got to Houlton, I was to hand the package over to a bloke named Nazha al-Shishani, a ‘carrier’ from Chechnya, working for the Albanians. This guy took on assignments that no one else would touch — I guess that made him the granddaddy of all Specialists! My debt was paid in full once the Chechen called Sam to confirm receipt of the package. How fuckin’ hard was that? Not hard at all except that I had no idea who this joker Kriegl was and it was obvious that al-Shishani was no choirboy. Sooner or later it was bound to catch up — the proverbial shit was going to hit the fan. No matter how small the odds are of something bad happening, it is simply a function of time and frequency. I was sticking my hands way too many times into the fire. I needed to make a change and Southern California kept looking better.

I took a sip of my coffee and looked at Clay, “There’s something screwy going on. Why does he need me to take the package to Maine? Why the fuck doesn’t he send one of his apes? It doesn’t make any sense.”



We were sitting inside a coffee shop in the Village a few blocks west of 7th Avenue. It was a small, cozy place that always served fresh coffee and had the best damn scones this side of the Atlantic. Crumbly walnut scones with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam … Mmmm, almost as good as sex.



It was a slow afternoon and there were only two other customers there. One was a pretty young thing sitting in the corner reading her Nook and doing her best to ignore us. The other was a big dude stuffing his face with a cruller and yapping loudly on his cell phone. His grating laughter and loud banter drowned out the soft strains of the guitar playing in the background; a favorite of mine, Earl Klugh, from his ‘Music for Lovers’ CD. It was obvious that the lout was trying to impress the girl.



Clay looked over at the guy and I knew he was going to start something. He had an intense dislike for assholes, especially inconsiderate assholes – they topped his list. And, he was still a bit miffed that he didn’t get a crack at Andrei. In a fight, my money was on Clay. Andrei didn’t stand a chance despite the size advantage. Clay was about six-one and one ninety but he was a bullterrier, a real badass that could take you out in a heartbeat. The only guy who had ever given Clay any trouble was a professional mixed martial artist, a Brazilian tough-guy. And even he looked like he had been through a meat grinder when it was said and done.



The fat guy, who was being a nuisance, was a creampuff — it would have been a no-contest; Pit Bull versus a Poodle.



“Forget him,” I said, “what do you think? Is it strange or what?”



He focused his attention back on me.



“Maybe having an outsider handle it keeps the other guys guessing, you know, that Chechnyan guy, El-Shit or whatever.”



“al-Shishani,” I corrected, “Why? Obviously the package is valuable to Sam so why not use Andrei or Nikolai; someone he trusts?”



“Maybe he trusts you more than he does them, you know, something about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer! And then, there’s the fact that you have an incentive to get this done; it squares up your debt.”



“I doubt it … I doubt he trusts me. It just doesn’t make sense.”



“It is what it is, Cal. Listen to Jerry – don’t go looking too deeply for hidden agendas, man; accept things for what they are. Here’s your chance to pay that little prick off so let’s get on with it. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …” he waited for effect then added, “It’s a friggin’ duck!”



Wow, really! He was full of wisdom today but I didn’t get the relevance and Jerry said that? Clay, brother, you’ve got to stop with the weed.



I shook my head and muttered, “And that’s why ducks get shot!”



He grinned, a wide toothy grin, and took a bite of his scone and offered in between chews, “Then call the little prick and ask him.”



Sam wasn’t taking my calls and that was the problem. We sat quietly for a while. I looked out the window, lost in thought, watching the people going by and playing out different scenarios in my head, scenarios where all kinds of shit could happen. It kept circling back to Sam and Andrei. I didn’t like or trust Andrei. The big Russian was a lot smarter than he let on. The dumb, head-knocker act was a façade and I knew that. The fucker was dumb, yeah, like a fox, if you get my drift. And Sam, well he was more dangerous than a pit full of vipers!



But, I had an idea that could work. Using Clay’s phone I called Sam not really expecting him to answer. It might have been curiosity about a number he didn’t recognize or maybe just plain luck but he picked up on the first ring.



“Yes.” I’d recognize that voice anywhere.



“Sam it’s me, Cal,” I said and before he could react, I laid it out straight, “I have a question — why me? Why are you doing this? Why not use one of your Russian hard-hats?”



He let out a soft laugh before answering, “Curious Cal; always looking for answers … you know what they say about curiosity, don’t you, Cal? But fair enough, I’ll tell you why. The Chechen hates Russians. His mother was a doped-out, teenage whore who was gang-raped by a bunch of soldiers during the occupation. And as a result of that vile and pernicious act she got pregnant. Here’s where it gets strange — you’d think a whore would have no compunctions about an abortion but she’s Catholic and she’s religious in that way. So she decides to have the baby and then gives him up for adoption. The child was adopted by an older Moslem couple who had lost their only son in the struggle against the Russians. He was brought up on steady diet of hate; the kind of passionate hatred that once inculcated is impossible to erase. And it was directed, not at the Jews or Christians, but at the Russians.” He paused then continued, “It’s too risky to send Andrei and I don’t trust the others. It’s that simple.”



I was quiet, wondering about the veracity of the story when he cut in, “If you are having second thoughts, Cal, we can move the pawns back and we can call the deal off?”



If it was just Andrei, I could handle it but it would be Andrei and Nikolai and the Ukrainian with the tattoo and on and on and on until I ended up in a ditch with my head busted open. And, it was unfair to drag Clay into my shit. I need to square this up once and for all.



“No. You’ve answered my question. I’ll do it — not a problem.”



“Good.” And the line went dead.



That bit about the Chechen sounded like a plot out of a B-movie but it could have been true, there was no way for me to know. Like Jerry says – it is what it is and it was as good a reason as any. I must be losing it — Clay, Jerry and I, we all think alike now!



Clay didn’t really give a damn; he was back to staring at the annoying creampuff. It wasn’t going to be long before all hell broke loose. I’ve known Clay since we were kids and could read the signs. It was all there.



“Are you in?” I asked him.



No response.



“Clay, are you in?” This time I raised my voice. I saw the cutie in the corner look over at us.



“What? Yeah, yeah, I’m in,” he replied impatiently. He was obviously distracted.



“Okay. Let’s go. I call you when Sam gives me the details. Okay?”



“Sure. Give me a minute, I need to take care of something,” he said and began to get up.



“Oh no, you’re not. Let’s just go, okay? Leave the bum alone.”



We left and I made sure I was in between Clay and the blabber. I don’t think that dude had any clue of how close he had come to having the cell phone shoved up his ass.



The next morning I got a call from Sam with the details of the pick-up. I was to meet Hans-Peter Kriegl at the Hilton in Stamford just off of I-95. The easiest way was to hop the train. Take Metro North from Grand Central to Stamford and flag a cab to the hotel but I preferred to drive. Shit like this, you just never know and we may need to get the heck out of Dodge — quick.



*****



The Wolf — Hans-Peter Kriegl



The executive suites at the Hilton are a pretty nice; a well thought out combination of the old world charm of dark mahogany furniture mixed in with the ultra-modernistic styling of granite and glass. There was an expansive living room with a dining area dominated by a hand-engraved oak table. Behind the dining area, a narrow corridor led past a small kitchenette to the bedroom. From the partially open door, I could see a king sized bed with a multicolored quilt. The bright Indian rug, leather sofas and flat screen TV added to the décor and was done in good taste – I could get used to this real easy. It looked very comfortable and I’m sure, was very expensive. You had to swim in the deep end of the money pool to afford a suite like this.



Hans-Peter Kriegl was a short, heavyset German with piercing blue eyes behind Clark Kent glasses and blond hair cropped short in a crew cut. He had a thick, short neck and a barrel chest. His blond mustache ran down the sides of his mouth and he had a day’s stubble on his chin. When he spoke he looked you straight in the eyes without blinking. He spoke with a heavy, guttural accent though his English was precise and clear.



“Excuse me for a minute, I have to make a call, ja,” he said after the perfunctory handshake and introductions and waved towards the coffee table, adding, “Help yourselves. I took the liberty and ordered coffee.”



He left for the bedroom and I could hear him speaking in muffled tones. A moment later he was back and handed me the phone.



“He wants to speak with you.”



“This is Cal,” I said, not knowing who I was talking to.



“Listen carefully, Cal,” it was Sam, “take the attaché case from him, get the combination and then whack the motherfucker!”



I controlled my surprise strolling nonchalantly over to the far side window behind the dining table and away from the German and Clay, “What?”



“Waste the son-of-a-bitch!”



“No way, Sam! That wasn’t part of the deal. I’m not wasting anybody!” I hissed.



“He’s a stone-cold killer and you don’t stand a chance. Listen to me, son, do him before he does you.”



My voice dropped to a whisper but I needn’t have been concerned. Clay and Kriegl had migrated to the kitchen and were engrossed in an animated conversation.



I looked down at the pretty cobblestone courtyard before asking, “Why? Why would he want to fuck us? I mean, why would he want to mess with you, Sam, and risk the whole deal? Am I missing something?”



“He’s an independent, a freelancer. Once he hands you the attaché case his job is done. He knows what’s in there and believe me, Bubba, it’s a lot more than your lives are worth! This business is about money, Cal. When the fuck are you going to learn?”



I thought about it and didn’t like it — any of it. But I have a stubborn streak in me and whacking someone on a whim wasn’t what I had agreed to do.



“Our deal is for me to take this package and hand it over to the Chechen in Houlton and I’ll do that. You don’t worry about it.” I replied.



There was a pause before he answered.



“Suit yourself but remember what I told you.” Sam said then added, “Call me when you are on the highway. Take 95 … it’ll take you all the way into Houlton.”



“It’s an eight hour drive. When do you want me to call you?”



He was quiet again and I was about to repeat the question when he said, “You’re not going to call me because you’re already dead; you just don’t know it!”



And he hung up. That was reassuring.



I walked back to the living room and handed the German the phone. They were exchanging stories of guns and wars and all the other shit that they had been into. Nice. Exactly what I needed now — Clay and a new buddy who just happened to be a killer.



“Hey, Hans was in the war too! He was in Afghanistan as part of the UN Peacekeeping Mission.” Clay informed me enthusiastically.



“Ja, I was a medic, a kid you know, with all these grandiose notions of world peace, brotherhood and love,” Kriegl offered and smiled, “It’s part of the German psyche … the guilt; part of who we are now.”



“That’s really touching and I’d love to stay and chat but it’s an eight hour drive so we need to hit the road. You have something for me?”



“Ja, ja, but maybe you leave after lunch, yes? They have a great buffet here and you’ll skip the traffic.” Hans offered.



“Yeah, dude, I’m starving!” Clay concurred and then fished out a joint and asked the German, “Do you mind?”



“No, no, not at all, it doesn’t bother me but this is a non-smoking room.” He replied pointing to the smoke detector in the corner. “You Americans are fussy about smoking, ja, not like Europe. You can take it outside, in the courtyard. It should be okay there.”



Clay thought about it and then decided against it. “Fuck it. Let’s just have lunch.”



So we took the elevator down to the lobby chatting like long lost friends about Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan and all the other fucked-up places in the world. Except that there was a knot in my belly that was beginning to grow each time I looked at the German. He didn’t seem that innocuous anymore — there was an edge to him. He reminded me of a Malayan Mountain Pit Viper, short, squat and deadly. It wasn’t a question anymore of ‘if’ but ‘when’ he’d strike.



After lunch it was all business. Kriegl disappeared into the bedroom and returned with an attaché case, a manila envelope and a digital camera. It was a Sony Alpha NEX-5N. The only reason I recognized it was because I had one and it struck me as strange, a German with a Japanese camera.



“Well, here it is,” he said extending the attaché case out to me. “The instructions and details of the meeting place with the phone number are in the envelope.”



I took the briefcase and envelope.



“Let me take a photograph, ja, so we have proof that you have taken possession.”



“Sure,” I replied, “just make sure you get my good side!”



Here it comes; the set-up and then the strike. But I was ready. If he made a suspicious move or even flinched the wrong way, I was going to cap his sorry ass.



He adjusted his position, crouching awkwardly and was about to take the picture when he turned to Clay, “You get in the picture too, Clay, come on.”



I tensed, sure that he was about to try something, but I needn’t have been concerned. He snapped off several shots in quick succession and smiled. He was obviously good with the camera and caught Clay and me with the attaché case smiling like drunken teens at a prom night party.



“Oh, there is one additional thing you need to know,” he said while putting the camera away, “the lock on the briefcase has been wired. If anyone tries to open it without the combination, even one attempt, it goes ka-boom!” He gesticulated with his arms to emphasize the explosion.



“What do you mean? What if we get stopped?”



“I suggest you don’t get stopped, ja, or run; run fast … and far! There is enough “Plastique” to blow up a city block!”



I dropped the case gently on the sofa, “Hey, I’m not taking it without the combination.”



“Suit yourself, Caleb, but I cannot help you. I cannot give you what I do not have.”



This was the moment of truth. I stared at him trying to determine if he was lying or not. It was impossible to tell. His face was an inscrutable mask and the unblinking eyes, lifeless and cold. This was heading for a Mexican Standoff: Sam was up to something and now, this asshole throws me a curve. Fuck! Nothing was simple anymore. It crossed my mind to put the screws on, to see if I could get him to talk, but I decided against it. Working him over wasn’t going to help — not at this moment anyway and I doubt he would have talked.



“Okay, I’ll deal with it. Let’s hit the road,” I said picking up the attaché case with exaggerated care.



We left without shaking hands and I noticed a smile on the German’s face except that it was more of a sneer.



“Travel safe, ja, and don’t let anyone take that from you!” he said just before closing the door.



There were others in the elevator so we remained quiet staring blanking at the door. The little girl standing by her mother had been studying Clay intently and when we got off, I could hear her.



“Ma, that man had one blue eye and …”



“Ssshhhh. That happens sometimes and it’s not polite to stare!” Her mother reprimanded.



As we walked towards the car, I couldn’t help it.



“You have a way with women, you know that don’t you?” I teased and chuckled.



“Yeah, right! Just what I need, a comedian!” was the terse reply.



“What do you think? I don’t want to drive with fuckin’ C-4 in the car! It’s nasty stuff.” I said when we reached my ’69 Dodge Charger. It was a badass car, the ultimate symbol of American Muscle, a stubborn “up yours” in the face of a sea of souped-up Toyotas and Subaru STIs.



“Yeah, it’s nasty but don’t sweat it,” Clay answered, “It won’t go off unless we fuck around with the lock and set off the detonator.” He paused before continuing, “In Indonesia, in the jungle, I used to start fires with it, I mean, to cook. C-4 by itself is pretty stable. You can throw it, shoot it, sit on it … without a blasting cap, nothing happens.”



Okay, so I learned something. And, not surprisingly, he seemed to know a lot more about it than I did. I was glad that one of us was cool about having a fuckin’ bomb in the car.



*****



The Passage



Clay wanted to drive so after checking the address where we were supposed to meet al-Shishani and entering it into the Garmin I settled back and told him what Sam had said about Kriegl being a killer and our lives being in danger.



“Well, he didn’t try to kills us and if he does, we’ll bury the fucker somewhere in the wilderness outside Houlton. No one will ever find him!” He said, adding, “Don’t worry, brother, the party won’t start until we meet the Chechen. I have this feeling. You relax and catch some zees.”



I settled back and closed my eyes. The last time Clay had a feeling, we fucked his sister. It was years ago – we were teens spending summer at his father’s fishing cabin up in New Hampshire. His sister, Karen, was a cutie; a year younger than us but had matured dramatically over the previous year. I mean her body. She had developed curves and a pair of knockers that would blow your mind along with that mysterious, sensual look that some girls have — she could have been a pinup for any teen rag!



One afternoon after goofing around in the pool we were cooling off under a tree when it happened. Our parents had gone into town and had taken my younger sister with them leaving the three of us alone. Jenny, my sister, was four years younger and was still a kid so we were glad that she wasn’t around. She was at the age when she was curious about everything and could be a real pest. I remember that day like it had happened yesterday.



Karen was lying in the middle, in between us, knees raised, eyes closed, her long hair tossed about her head like a golden halo while she drew lazy patterns on her belly just above her bikini bottoms. She had long, slender fingers with nails that were painted a startling red. Her boobs were threatening to spill out of the skimpy bikini top and her legs, man, her legs just wouldn’t quit. She would open her thighs a bit and then close them tightly, squeezing them together before repeating that maneuver over and over again, like she was playing an accordion with her knees. Her cheeks were flushed and her breathing was getting heavier but I was clueless, only aware of the overt sexual energy sparking between us; all of us. I was as excited as I had ever been. I kept peeking at her, hoping she wouldn’t notice the prominent boner I had sprouted. I had to do something soon because it was getting to be painful.



I got up and turned quickly away with my back to them, “I have to pee. Do you want anything from the house?”



“Suntan lotion,” Karen replied elbowing up and shaking her mane back.



“I’m going to grab something from the fridge,” Clay said getting up. He was a lot less self-conscious about his hardon tenting out from his swimming shorts. I caught Karen staring at it through hooded eyes, her tongue wetting her lips. There was a hint of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth and a look of satisfaction, like she had achieved what she had wanted.



She glanced up at me, smiled and then settled back, closing her eyes, “Don’t be long.”



As soon as we got to the cabin, Clay grabbed my arm and said, “I have this feeling, man, I think we can do it … we can fuck her!”



“You have a feeling?” I was incredulous.



“Oh, come on! Don’t act coy, Cal, I know you’ve been thinking about it! We can fuck her, man, I can feel it. She’s in the mood.”

The odd part was that I didn’t think it was strange that he wanted to bang his sister. Our hormones were raging and fucking a girl, any girl, was all we could think of.



“God, she so beautiful!” was all I could stutter.



And that’s how it began. She asked us to help her with the suntan lotion and one thing just led to another. I was doing her legs and Clay was doing her back but it was when he slipped his hands under her bikini and squeezed her tits that it shifted into overdrive. It was a race to see who could get undressed the quickest. We took turns licking and fucking her while she sucked on one of us. I remember distinctly, how turned on I was watching Clay with his sister.



I didn’t last long and had just cum in her mouth and was lying back, watching them. Her thighs splayed, legs wrapped around his ass while he pumped in and out of her. I remember thinking: “I can’t believe this! Clay is fucking Karen!”



Every now and then she would look over at me, watching me stroke my dick, her expression oozing of wanton sexuality. It was a look of desire and discovery, one that is the exclusive privilege of the naïve. Knowledge and experience robs you of wonderment — the downside to the Apple in the Garden of Eden.



It didn’t take him long to cum. With each ensuing stroke, she would moan louder and louder until finally, when he climaxed, she screamed, not a loud scream but some primitive, sensuous, half-gasp, half-moan that seemed to emanate from deep within her. It was a distinct orgasmic sound so female and raw that it transcended mere eroticism and I knew that I was stained by its memory forever.



The three of us spent the rest of the summer getting away from our parents and avoiding Jenny and fucking our brains out. What I didn’t know was that Jenny had taken to spying on us; watching Clay and I take turns with Karen.



A year later Karen was killed in a car crash involving a drunk driver and Clay was never quite the same; in fact, none of us were. It marked the end of our innocence.



*****



The Relationship — of Sisters and Brothers



It had started to rain again; a cold, icy shower that drummed heavily down on the car with a rumbling staccato. I glanced at Clay but he was focused on the road, eyes squinting through the rhythmic swishing of the windshield wipers as we whizzed past snaking lanes of cars and trucks inching along the slushy Interstate. It was the perfect weather to stay indoors, snuggle up under the covers with a book and a cup of hot chocolate. I eased the seat back a bit more and closed my eyes and let my mind wander to another time and another place when fate and the rain had connived to complicate my life.



Even before Karen’s death, I had begun to look at Jenny differently. Maybe it had something to do with watching Clay and Karen and how turned on I’d get but the traditional filial boundaries had been breached, at least in my mind. And, as time went by, I began to notice every little nuance about her, from her pouting mouth to her budding breasts and the cute bubble butt of hers. I kept wondering what it would feel like to fuck my sister and spent much of my time at home in a state of hyper-arousal. I would jerk off three of four times a day fantasizing about her and the different ways I could seduce her. It didn’t help that she was always barging into my room, asking questions or just wanting to hang out. There is a very fine line that separates fantasy from rationale and I was straddling it and every passing day brought me closer to crossing it. She had no idea what she was doing to me or what was going on in my head, at least not until that fateful night.



It was little past midnight and we were in the middle of a series of particularly severe thunderstorms and as far back as I can remember lightning and thunder had always terrified Jenny. It was an irrational fear that no amount of explaining or logic could mollify. Whenever she was frightened at night, she would scramble into bed with me and that night was no exception — it didn’t matter to her that we were older now only that she was scared and did what she had always done.



“Cal, are you awake?” she asked in a nervous, little voice, her flashlight pointing towards the carpet and away from me.



I feigned like I was waking up.



“I am now. What’s up?” I answered groggily, “and turn that damn thing off!”



The flashlight went out instantly and except for the hazy glow of the nightlight, the room was bathed in shadowy darkness again.



“Move over,” she said and without preamble crawled in under the covers.



“Jen, you’re getting too old for this … come on! It’s really nothing; just a little rain.” I had to protest, I mean, I was the older brother. But deep down I was thrilled.



And, I hadn’t accounted for predestination or karma or whatever. No sooner had I said that than a brilliant, electric flash of lightning was followed by a loud, clapping thunder that literally shook the house. That was it. She scooched right into me.



“Did you hear that?” she said breathlessly and snuggled closer, “Are we going to be okay, Cal?”



“Yes, we’re going to be okay. Stop worrying and go to sleep.”



We were lying spooned with her facing away from me. I shifted my hips back so she wouldn’t feel my erection but she reached backwards, behind her body, and took my arm and placed it around her waist and held on to it. She must have felt safe and secure with me holding her.



Her hair smelled of shampoo, a clean, fresh aroma that mingled with the faint scent of her perfume and the natural fragrance of her body. She had always kept her hair short, pixie like, in a bob that framed her face. It was soft and silky brown, a lot like Mom’s but thicker. I lay still for a while without moving enjoying the warmth of her body and the satin feel of her skin. Her breathing was even and deep and when I leaned over and looked at her, she was sleeping or pretending to be but I was pretty sure she was asleep.



I loved her little pointed nose, the full lips and the stubborn set of her jaw. She was more cute than beautiful and if it weren’t for her eyes, she would have been just another pretty face. But it was those aquamarine eyes that made her special; that made you look at her and take notice. They were large and almond shaped and sparkled like flawless gemstones. No cloudy speckles of deception; only the pristine brilliance of a translucent blue-green lagoon. It drew you in to its endless spiraling pools with promises of sunshine and happiness; ebullient portals that sparkled with the innocence of her soul.



It was confusing. On one hand I wanted to fuck her in the worst way and on the other, the risk of breaching her trust weighted heavily on my mind. She was sweet and naïve and had always looked up to me and I wanted to preserve that but I couldn’t stop the images of Clay and Karen from churning in some allegoric compartment of my brain. It was this tricked out need that created a frenetic flurry of bodies and faces dancing lewdly in the darkness. It was the ultimate subterfuge; this Freudian transfer of brothers and sisters; Clay and Karen: Jenny and me. That was when I realized that my hand was cupping my sister’s breast over the silky fabric of her nightie.



It fit so perfectly, that small, succulent mound of pliable flesh capped by a nubby tip. I rolled the nipple between my thumb and forefinger and felt her shift, fingers tightening briefly on my forearm, and waited, heart pounding hoping that she was awake and would be complicit. But her eyes remained closed and her breathing even. My cock, now firmly wedged in the crack of her panty covered ass, was throbbing with crass anticipation; seeping the sticky treacle of need for my sister. I toyed with her nipples moving slowly from one breast to the other, feeling them plump up, pebbling under the caress of my fingers and all the while grinding myself against her bottom. Not aggressively but with a slight, imperceptible back and forth motion, the subtle frottage sending pulses of sheer pleasure shooting through me. I could feel my precum soaking through the thin fabric of her panties, the silky sensation enhanced by the increasing slipperiness. I was filled with fear and excitement, lust and love and the primordial urge to bury myself deep inside her. To anoint her cunt with my incestuous sperm and manifest the many fantasies I’ve secretly harbored.



Her nightie had bunched up around the apex of her thighs, riding a little above her panty line. It was now or never. I moved my hand slowly down my sister’s body, caressing the flat lines of her stomach, making small circles with the tips of my fingers, mapping the outline of her bellybutton and the gentle swell of her abdomen. And when I reached the elastic band of her panties, I stopped, and hesitated, unsure of how far I should go. I flirted with the stretchy bastion, pulling it slightly off her body before letting it go then pushing it down and pulling it back up again debating the course of my next move. But in the end I decided to play it safe and ran my fingers over her panties down into the triangle of her sex. Her breathing had quickened, lips parted slightly, fingers gripping tighter, but her eyes remained shut. I adjusted her upper leg to give me more room and felt her shift as if to comply. I knew then that she had either resigned herself or was also eager to explore whatever the night held in store for her … for us. The thunder was all but forgotten.



Reassured, I ran my finger boldly along the furrow of her crack, feathering up and down a few times before pressing against the little nubbin crowning her slit. Her reaction was immediate. I heard her breath catch in her throat, a muffled gasp with a slight trembling, her back arching with hips pushing against my fingers while spreading her legs wider. I could feel the seeping moistness spreading, wetting the bridge of her undies, and sensed a subtle change — a musky, aphrodisiacal redolence that filled my nostrils, driving me to a level of excitement I had never experienced with Karen.



I began thrusting faster and harder, reaching under her to hold my cock firmly against her cunt. There was a part of me that wanted to stop, to pull down her panties and fuck her but the slick, slippery feeling of rubbing along the gulley of her slit through the slimy wetness of her panties was too much. I could hear her breathing, short, choppy breaths, timed to my thrusts, fingers digging into my arms while her hips moved with mine in the symbiosis of a disjointed and unpracticed dance. I felt the familiar tingle all too soon; the runaway diesel of imminent orgasm emanating from the tip of my cock, racing unfettered down the tracks of nerves until it exploded in a startling array of lights in my brain.



I pulled her tightly to me and couldn’t stop myself from crying out, “Jenny, oh fuck, I’m cumming … Ohhhhh God, Jen!”



I thought I heard a whispered “Oh, yes, yessss … mmmm!”



And then it happened. It was intense, the most intense orgasm I have ever had. I kept shooting glob after sticky glob of viscid cum into her panties and her abdomen, some of it dribbling down her thighs and soaking into her scrunched up negligee. I thought it would never end. I twitched uncontrollably against her, grinding and grunting loudly with each thrust, my face buried into the back of her neck inhaling the irriguous essence of her, until finally it was done.



We lay still, panting, unmoving for a while, bathed in the recessive aftermath of the most intimate of acts. Her hand still gripping my arm, her soft behind pressed against me. I could feel her breathing, labored, her mouth parted slightly in a sensual pout, and her eyes shut tight. I removed my hand from the messy wetness in between her legs as the repulsive bite of conscience flooded my brain. It was the gradual metamorphosis from blinding lust to reluctant rationale that defined with clarity, and without excuse, the extent of my action. The pellucid awareness of what had just transpired exploded with the subtlety of a cannon. I had violated an unwritten rule by taking advantage of my sister. She was complicit, of that there was no doubt, but she was young and naïve and inexperienced and I should have known better. I rolled away from her and closed my eyes, my mind finally free from hormonal torment and numbed by the consequence of my actions. I drifted slowly into an uneasy sleep wondering what she was feeling and how she would deal with the transmutation of our relationship.



“Hey, do you want to get a cup of coffee?” Clay asked shaking my shoulder and jolting me back to the present.



It took me a moment to get my bearings, descending from that nebulous realm bridging the space between somnolence and reality. It was dark and had stopped raining.



“Yeah, sure … how long was I sleeping?” I asked.



“You had passed out. You’ve been sleeping for about three hours.”



“Wow! I must have been tired.” I muttered then looked over at him and asked, “How are we doing for gas?”



He glanced at the indicator, “We could use some. Let’s take a break, I need to stretch my legs and get a caffeine fix.”



Clay drank more coffee than anyone I knew and when we saw signs for Hampton Falls in New Hampshire, we pulled off the highway.



*****



The Praying Mantis



“Her golden hair is tied around my memory



The pain she left with me is here to stay



I’m doing all I can to go on living



And yet I die a little more each day”



Riff from a Country & Western song: She’s Walking Through My Memory



The nice thing about a buddy is that you never feel compelled to make small talk, you know, the kind of idle, polite bullshit because the hanging silences get too damn uncomfortable. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and he is the closest thing to a brother I’ll ever have. Oh, I do have a brother, a half-brother, who is ten years older and a real piece of work. Phillip is some hotshot VP at Merrill Lynch with loads of dough and an I-know-everything attitude that bugs the heck out of me. Not that he cares for me either — the feelings are definitely mutual. He thinks I’m a waste of a life but he dotes on Jenny so I’ll cut him some slack. He was the product of my father’s first marriage and I don’t remember a single moment of any consequence that I shared with him. Clay has been more of a brother than that prick will ever be.



“Do you ever think of her?” He spoke so softly I had to strain to hear him. He was looking into his coffee, his forehead furrowed.



I knew he was referring to Karen but my mind went blank. We had never discussed her, not since the day of the accident. I mean never; not a word. It was almost eight years now and it was one of those ‘don’t even go there’ topics with Clay. There were two days every year that Clay disappeared — Karen’s birthday and her death anniversary. No one knew where he went or what he did, he was just gone and we knew better than to ask.



“What do you mean?” I countered because I couldn’t think of an appropriate response.



“You know what I mean, so stop being an ass,” was his brusque retort.



Of course I thought about her — for a while she was all I thought about. She was my first and was gorgeous and bubbly and mysterious. And, we shared that maddening, innocent, convoluted teenage passion that was so tortured and all consuming. The three of us swore eternal love and allegiance to one another and foolishly thought that it was forever without really comprehending the concept of time and the fragile unpredictability of life. We saw ourselves as outlaws trapped in some forbidden triangle; those indestructible gypsies of ecstasy whose incestuous profligacy was the sole reason for living. I don’t recall how many hours we had spent making love but it was a lot. And, it wasn’t just making love or fucking or whatever other tainted forms of physical carnality we indulged in — we truly enjoyed being together. I close my eyes and I can still see her laughing; rumpled, golden hair and blue eyes; a Rapunzel trapped in a capsule, in that beautiful, ageless moment of memory. How could I not think of her?



“Of course I think of her … I was in love with her!” It just popped out but it was the truth.



There was an uneasy silence. I could hear the clatter of dishes in the background and the tinny laugh of a waitress at a nearby table.



“I was too …” he said, paused and added, “fucked up, eh? A brother in love with his sister?”



“Hey, it’s no one’s fuckin’ business!” I answered and I meant it. It was no one’s business but theirs.



“Amen to that, brother!” he said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “The day she …” he grit his teeth fighting back the demons, his face wracked in pain, “… that day was the worst fuckin’ day of my life. I died too. A part of me will always be dead. I used to spend hours planning on killing that drunken bastard; different ways; painful ways so it would last. I wanted to get pleasure from his suffering, watch him beg! He had no right to take her from …” he paused again, struggling for control, “I was sick, man, real sick. But when I found out that he was some forty year old loser with three little kids, I couldn’t do it. I knew that she wouldn’t want me to do anything; she was the sweetest, gentlest soul.”



He fell silent, lost in thought. I had no idea where this was coming from; this rambling in non sequitur. He wasn’t high and he wasn’t drunk. It wasn’t like Clay to get emotional. I remained silent; I figured he needed to talk and I was ready to listen.



“She was beautiful and sweet,” I offered softly trying to commiserate.



“I was never jealous of you, Cal. She loved you … she loved us. She used to tell me that all the time. And I didn’t care that I was sharing her as long as it was only with you. You’re my brother, man, and there is nothing, I mean nothing, that I …”



He left it hanging, unsaid, ambushed by the charitable deception of nostalgia. But I knew what he meant and that he was wrestling with the sudden flood of emotions, the catharsis of sharing feelings that had been bottled up for years. He stirred his coffee, staring into its blackness, working his jaws, allowing the stinging silence to salve our buried wounds.



I had to help him out and this was getting a bit too heavy, even for me, “Stop. You’re making me misty! Anymore and I’ll start bawling.”



He looked up, his expression changing and laughed, “You were always a cry baby!”



“Me? Damn boy, you were the friggin’ cry baby! Don’t you remember the park?” I countered.



My family had just moved into the neighborhood. We were kids, about 5, and playing at the local park. Our moms were busy chatting when we had a disagreement over the swings. He pushed me and I punched him in the eye and that did it; Clay bawled like his head was on fire. His mother came running over and examined Clay’s eye. She tousled his hair and murmured softly to him before returning to the bench where the other mothers were sitting and said, “What are you going to do? Boys will be boys!”



“Yeah, I remember … you beat me like a drum!” he smiled, “but you came over and gave me that stone. You told me it was a magic stone and I believed you. I knew then that we were buds for life. Man, those were the good old days!”



“Yeah, the magic stone; it was a piece of black marble that I carried around with me … a good luck charm. What did you do with it, dumbass? I want it back. I could use the luck.”



He chuckled, “I kept it under my pillow for a few weeks wishing on it — certain that if I wished hard enough it would give me the power to fly like Superman! But when that didn’t happen, I gave it to Karen. Little good it did her!”



He had a sad, melancholic smile on his face and then looked up from his coffee, “Don’t blow it, man.”



“Blow what?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

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