Rough, brown fingers thumbed over the crinkled corners of dusty old pages, and a pair of dark eyes meticulously scanned the tiny black text printed on the lines.
“Why the hell would Big-Boss have a book like that? You said you found it just lying on the seat?”
“This isn’t a book, Potsie. This here is a mutha fuckin’ big-ass tome.”
The man’s fingers kept thumbing through the flimsy sheets until they came upon the image of a gigantic, winged creature. They stopped, and the index drifted down the page, until it came to rest, pressing against the bold-printed image.
“Potsie, you ever heard the story of the Phoenix?”
“Look at this: Queen of all birds… Scarlet and gold plumage. They say every 500 years she builds a pyre nest.”
“It’s a metaphor.”
“It’s some elegant shit. She builds a great nest of aromatic branches and brushwood, which she then, and I quote: sets wildly ablaze, only to be consumed in the flames.”
“So the bird surrenders to her destiny. So what?”
“This has got nothing to do with surrender. I don’t think you heard what I said.”
“I dunno, Curtis.”
The brown fingers shut the book.
“Did you hear me? I said the Phoenix builds its own coffin. Now imagine that shit. She knows she will be burned alive, and the bitch builds the furnace.”
“Sure sounds a lot like surrender to me.”
“Why do you think the bird willingly lights itself on fire?”
“Cuz that’s its fate.”
“No Potsie. No. The Phoenix accepts its demise because it knows that it will be born again.”
The sun shone high and hot above a sprawling suburban lawn. Down below, a driveway bent to a short walkway that, in turn, coiled around its bordering house. Adjacent the walkway someone had planted a beautiful row of burning red roses, whose tangled thorns had been trimmed a safe distance from the walking path. Next to the roses, a giant willow watched over the property with its wise melancholy, draping a portion of the sun-baked lawn in the sweet cool of shadow. Beside the shadow, on the far end of the lawn, was a curb. Beside, was a van.
“Never give an inch”
“Let me ask you a question: Just how many times do you plan on saying that to me?”
“As many as it takes, dammit! It’s the principle. It’s the most important goddamn thing you need to know. I’ll say it until you hear it.”
“I heard it ten times.”
“You ain’t hear shit. You listened, but you ain’t heard me yet.”
Curtis popped his black jacket collar. He put his black sunglasses on his brown face, tucked away the faded cross hanging from around his neck, and moved to exit the van. Grievances from the passenger seat stayed him temporarily.
“Tell me again, why are we doing this in the middle of the goddamn day? We don’t even have masks, for cryin’ out loud.”
“Why? Because Big-Boss says so, and we do what Big-Boss says. That’s why.”
Potsie grumbled. “Big-Boss is trying to get our asses killed.” He popped his black jacket, put his black sunglasses on his bright face, and pushed open the passenger door.
Curtis was already halfway up the driveway. “C’mon Potsie, and don’t say that shit. It’s bad vibes.”
Curtis paused in front of the door. He stood there with his eyes downward and his hands folded in his jacket pocket, as if engaged in some gripping thought. Soon Potsie caught up. He glanced at Curtis, eyed the door, then looked back at his companion. Curtis, still suspended, did not acknowledge his gaze. Uncomfortable with being in plain sight for any longer than was necessary, Potsie quickly became uneasy. He anxiously scanned the yard and neighboring properties for onlookers. And when he spoke, his voice was half words, half nervous smile.
“So we gonna knock or something?”
The playful tone of the question was flatly disregarded by Curtis.
“Leave that shit to me. I just wanna know if you remember what I told you.”
“You said, ‘the shit’s upstairs, Potsie.’ You said, ‘we hit the shit when the boy and the mutt leave for the walk. Straight in, straight up, straight out,’ you said. ‘Easy as puddin pie.’”
“You said ‘never give an inch.’”
“That’s right. The shit’s upstairs, Potsie. The thing’s unlocked.”
Curtis twisted the knob and led the way inside.
The inside of the house was even more immaculate than the exterior. A high chandelier hung from the ceiling in the dining-room to the left. It patterned the ground with beams of dancing crystal. Ahead, there was the narrow of a choked hallway and then a magnificent kitchen to let it breathe. There was a stairway to the right. They started towards the steps.
“The carpet’s red,” noted Potsie.
“All of this, and that’s what you notice?”
“Well it’s not very often you see red carpets.”
“And I suppose you’re used to seeing porcelain and chandeliers?”
“No, I’m just saying. The carpet’s red.”
Curtis’s next response was interrupted by the sound of water being sucked through pipe. It was the hard flush of a toilet upstairs. Potsie and Curtis froze. Potsie was noticeably shaken.
“What was that?”
“I believe that was our friendly homeowner.”
“Apparently, here.” Curtis was talking low now. He un-tucked a black gun from his waist and headed up the steps. At the top, the carpeting transitioned to white marble. A hallway and a banister led to rooms in either direction. One of the rooms was open a crack and there were noises coming from inside. Curtis quietly moved beside the entrance for a listen. He beckoned to Potsie.
“He’s on the can.”
“That’s disgusting Curtis. Give the man some privacy.”
“Privacy? Are you out your goddamn mind? We’ve gotta pop him now.”
“I’m not doing that. I can’t kill a man while he’s on the John.”
“It’s uncivilized. I won’t do it”
“Oh, you won’t?”
“I won’t do it.”
“Oh, and wuddya think Big-Boss will say when we tell him that we fucked the thing up because ‘Potsie thought it uncivilized to disturb the gentlemen while he was in release?’ Well, sorry to offend your mutha fuckin’ sensibilities, but I’m gonna need you to have my back on this one, Potsie. When I kick open this door, I’m gonna need to see one dead mutha fuckin’ homeowner.”
Potsie was about to say something back when the toilet flushed again. The contentious duo waited in silence a few seconds before they again heard the sound of running water. This time it was the shower.
“He’s off the can now, happy?”
Curtis thought a moment. “We’ve got two choices. We can get him in the shower, or we can sneak into the room and get him when he’s dressing.”
“You wanna kill him while he’s naked?”
“Jesus Christ, Potsie. You wanna wait till the man gets dressed? How about we also go in there now and hand him a phone so he can call the cops? How about you give him your gun as well?”
“It’s just not right.”
“What’s not right about it? It’s exactly right.We’re not gonna just wait till the man suits up before we pop him.”
“First you wanna shoot the man while he’s exposed. Now you wanna stick him from behind while he’s naked? I dunno, Curtis. What kind of person do you think I am?”
“A bad person, Potsie. That’s what I think you are. I think you’re a bad person. I think you’re the type of person that would go in and kill a guy without knowing if he did anything wrong. I think you’re a criminal, Potsie. Now open the damn door, and shoot the mother-fucker.”
Potsie looked thoroughly offended. He furled his brow and pursed his lips as if to say something, but no words came out. Thinking of no other reply, Potsie readied himself to move through the door. But not without one more “I dunno about this.”
Curtis nodded. “You don’t know. That’s the mother fuckin point- you don’t know a damn thing. We’ve got to kill the man before he gets prepar—“
—The door swung open and a small, old man shot out, tackling Curtis and knocking the air from his lungs as he tried to form words. Potsie jumped back and let out a surprised shout, as Curtis and the man rolled on the floor in a flurry of fists and feet. The small man, sporting nothing but his boxers, was yelling and wailing on Curtis with all his might. But his advantage was short lived. In a matter of seconds, Curtis easily overpowered him and quieted his flailing with two well placed punches. Dizzied from the impact, the old man’s muscles went limp and he collapsed onto Curtis in a crumpled heap. Curtis was breathing hard and his nose was bloody. He pushed the man’s sagging body off of his chest and rose to his feet. He was looking at Potsie.
“Where the fuck were you?” he said. “Pick that sac of shit up and sit him on the bed in the other room.”
Potsie did as he was told.
“You don’t wanna shoot him? Fine. We’ll tie him up and call the boss. Let him sort it out. You can explain your little moral dilemma to him personally. Man, this little old guy’s got some spirit.”
The man on the bed resembled a wet rodent. His jet black hair was sopping wet and his eyes were small and beady. His bruised body had been tied securely and propped in an upright position. He was trying to blink off the effects of his recent head trauma.
“Hello there… Emanuel.” Curtis was holding the man’s wallet in one hand and his photo I.D in another. “That was quite an effort you made just then.”
Potsie had checked the room to make sure there was no one else unexpectedly hiding in any of its many closets and crevices. Now he was at the door, looking out over the marble hallway. “All clear.”
“Good. I’ll tell you what, Emanuel. You really surprised us back there. We didn’t expect anyone to be home.” Emanuel blinked at him woozily. “We need to know if anybody else is in the house. Is anybody else here?”
“N-no. Who are you?”
“Now, Emanuel. That right there is the kind of question you want to ask your guests before you tackle them to the floor. I wanna know where you learned your etiquette.”
Potsie sneered at this from the door. He walked back toward the bed. “Listen pal, we’re not here to play any games. Just tell us what we need to know, and you won’t get hurt.”
Now it was Curtis’s turn to sneer. “Don’t go making promises you can’t keep,” he replied.
The man was looking more resentful than scared now. “Who the hell are you guys? You’re not even wearing masks.”
“We’re the bogeymen.” Curtis got up from the bed. “Potsie, when you looked around the room, did you find what we came for?”
“Good, then let’s quit messin’ around. The boy and his mutt will be back anytime, and I don’t wanna deal with another crisis.”
Curtis’s plans to issue final commands were interrupted by the interjection of ringtone music coming from his pocket. “What now?” he murmured to himself. He quickly reached for his cell phone, but not fast enough to avoid some ribbing from his companion.
“Was that Lady Gaga?”
Even Emanuel joined in. “And I’m supposed to be afraid of you?”
If Curtis had been any lighter, his face would have been red. “Did I ask for comments from the peanut gallery?”
It was not Big-Boss on the line. But it was Curtis’s wife.
“Babe, I’m at work. Can this wait?”
“Yeah, I’m still here.”
“Well this ain’t a typical day. Today I’ll be home late.”
“Dinner date? You ain’t tell me ‘bout no dinner date.”
Curtis looked up at Potsie and Emanuel. He felt the need prove some toughness to his audience, especially after the ringtone incident.
“I ain’t forgettin’ shit. You ain’t tell me bout no dinner date.”
“Left me a what? A voicemail? You can’t set up no date through voicemail.”
Curtis’s wife obviously wasn’t taking well to his overly brazen display of pseudo masculinity. Curtis became more desperate to protect his ego.
“Bitch, voicemail doesn’t count. You cannot arrange a dinner date through voicemail. Emanuel, tell the bitch that voicemail doesn’t count.”
Threatening with his gun in one hand, and holding his cell in the other, he thrust the phone in Emanuel’s face.
“Voicemail doesn’t count.”
“See bitch. I ain’t comin.”
“What? Who’s Emanuel? He’s a colleague. Don’t worry about Emanuel. Don’t wait up. If you wait, you gonna be waitin’ all night.”
Thoroughly pleased with his display, Curtis hung up the phone. He was sure his audience would have gotten a kick out of the conversation, and he turned to them with the clumsy cockiness of a overconfident amateur. But his smirk quickly turned to seriousness when he saw their reactions. To his displeasure, Potsie looked half past him with a horrified stare.
“Aw, c’mon, I wasn’t that awful to her was I? She had it comin’- always going on about me coming home late and missing dinner. Nevermind that, let’s just get out of here.”
Potsie was still staring. It dawned on Curtis that Potsie was not looking at him, but beyond him, to something in the near distance. It also dawned on him that Emanuel was no longer reeling from his concussion. In fact, he was utterly grinning, wide-mouthed, and also staring straight in Curtis’s direction. Curtis felt a deep sinking in his stomach. He turned his head around slowly.
The three of them looked on a horrifying sight. There, standing bold and foolish in the marble hallway, was Chris. He was a tall, lanky young man, and he had a reckless scowl on his face. Chris was at least 18, not the small ‘boy with his mutt’ Curtis and Potsie had been expecting. Worse, Chris was standing there holding the biggest .50 caliber hole-puncher they had seen in their entire lives.
“Holy shit,” Potsie whispered. And that was all. The only other sound was the hissing of Emanuel’s maniacal snicker in the background; it was growing into full blown laughter.
Chris’s voice rippled through the tension in the room. “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my house?”
Before anyone could answer, a small dog ripped around Chris’s legs and burst into the room at full speed. Curtis and Potsie reached for their guns, and dived to the floor before Chris fired his first shot. The racquet of gunfire and barking that ensued was deafening. The bounding dog was taken out of the air with a well placed shot from Curtis. A glass mirror in the back of the room shattered, and feathers exploded into the air when stray bullets tore through pillows on the bed. In 10 long seconds, the smoke cleared and the chaos was over.
Curtis and Potsie inspected the scene from their respective spots on the bedroom floor. Neither had been shot. Not once. In fact, as Curtis saw it, the only harm done was the complete and unnecessary devastation of a wonderfully expensive bedroom. Potsie was eyeing the dead dog near the bottom of the bed- a beagle, no more than twenty pounds light. Its tongue dangled from its open mouth and its eyes were frozen wide in post-mortem terror. In the hallway, Chris was moaning and holding his leg. Curtis slowly got to his feet– he was more rattled than he had thought, and his legs were wobbly. He staggered to the bedroom door. Propping himself against the tattered doorpost, he studied Chris as he writhed on the ground. Noting that there was no more ammo in Chris’s gun and satisfied that he was too incapacitated to pose an immediate threat, Curtis backed into the room and watched Potsie climb to his feet. Potsie was almost too shaken to speak, his words came out like marbles and dice.
“You think he was tryna have us killed?
“That seemed to be the point.”
“No, I mean Big-Boss.”
Curtis resented the comment. “Didn’t I tell you not to say that shit again?
Potsie wasn’t listening. He was somewhere in his own head. He began nervously talking to himself. “I mean, He didn’t even give us masks”
“If you wanted a mask, Potsie, you shoulda made yourself a goddamn mask. Don’t blame Big-Boss for that shit.”
Again, Potsie did not hear. He continued his self-rambling “He knew about Emanuel.”
“Look, sometimes it just hits the fan, and you gotta deal. If you can’t deal, maybe you’re in the wrong shit.”
“He wanted our asses.”
“Maybe he wanted your emotionally dysfunctional, half-witted, amateur ass, but I’m the best he’s got. No way he wanted my ass- don’t even think that shit.”
Curtis quickly changed the topic before Potsie could speak again.
“We have to do something about that boy in the hall.”
Potsie didn’t respond.
“We’re gonna have to shoot him, Potsie.”
Potsie’s reply was strained and quiet. “What is wrong with you, Curtis?”
“There’s nothing else to do now. He’s bleeding. He’s seen too much. We’re going to have to shoot him.”
“No, you’re going to have to shoot him.”
Curtis walked right up to Potsie, lifted his gun, and pointed it squarely at his companion. “Potsie, I didn’t want to have to do this, but I need to know I’m not in this alone. You’re gonna do this. Shoot him or I shoot you right now!”
“You would shoot me, Curtis?”
“That’s what I said.”
“You gonna kill me?”
“If I have too.”
Potsie drew his gun and fired two sudden shots into the hallway. Chris recoiled and fell limp.
It would have been the perfect time for a respite, Potsie and Curtis both needed it, and the tense silence that followed the loud blast from the gun would have surely provided the ideal opportunity for peaceful recovery. But when Curtis and Potsie returned to the bed, their hearts and minds did everything but recover. They found Emanuel still propped up on the bed; but his head was slumped over, and there was blood dripping from a lethal wound there.
A noise escaped Potsie. “Oh my God.”
Curtis was affected differently. “Aint that a bitch,” he said. “I had kinda started to like the guy.”
Potsie resented this statement. “You wanted him dead. You wanted him dead all along.”
“Settle down, Potsie. The important thing is we’re alright, you and me. That’s the most important thing.”
“You woulda’ killed me too, if I hadn’t shot the boy.”
“He was just a boy. We shouldn’t have shot him.”
“Listen, Potsie, settle down. We did some shit that had to get done. You and me are fine. We’re lucky, that’s the important thing.”
“This doesn’t seem lucky to me.”
“It doesn’t seem fortunate.”
“All this shit that happened today, it was in God’s hands. You and me are just pawns. We just play our parts.”
“Do you really believe that shit?”
“Then you’re a fool. Let me ask you a question: why do you even bother wearing that thing?”
Curtis got defensive. He clutched his chest. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, is that why you always keep it all tucked away? So you can do some shit like we did here today and not feel so bad?”
“Watch your mouth. You should be thanking The Lord right now. You’re alive. We were truly protected here today?”
“Are you out of your mind? This isn’t divine intervention. We’re damn criminals.”
“The Lord watches over all.”
“There’s the bloody corpse of a dog right over there on the floor. Poor Emanuel is dead in front of our eyes. I just shot a boy! Where was your watchful Lord then?”
“Fuck you, Curtis. Fuck you.”
Curtis couldn’t fathom why Potsie was so upset. He was alive too, after all. After a moment of thought, Curtis tried again.
“Was it the Mutt? Is that what’s got you so upset?
“It was a Beagle; it was a pup, and you didn’t have to kill it.
“I don’t care if it was a pint sized pup or a rabid Rottweiler, it was fuckin’ up our plans, so I took it out.”
“What was it going to do, yap us to death? You know what your problem is? You’re problem is you have no soul.”
Curtis scoffed. “I knew it was the mutt. I saw you staring starry-eyed at the thing, like you were waiting for a goddamn resurrection.”
“I’m not the one waiting on some phony-baloney resurrection,” Potsie said halfheartedly.
“Ah hah, I know what’s going on here.” Curtis was sure he had finally found his answer. “No wonder you’re so upset. You’re one of those atheists, aren’t you? One of those science nuts who thinks we’re all giant monkeys who control our own destinies.”
“I don’t think you even know what you’re saying. Why are we even talking about evolution? It’s science. Nobody even doubts it in Europe. In other countries everybody knows it’s true.”
“Then go to goddamn Europe.”
Potsie got up and walked to the door again. “You don’t have to use the Lord’s name in vain.”
He peered, once again, out over the hallway.
“Jesus Christ, Curtis. Look at this.”
There was a line of crimson tie-dye blotches staining the white marble, from the stairs to the bedroom, like someone had taken dye to the stone, indiscriminately splashing the entire top floor of the house with red paint.
“Well,” Curtis looked over the spectacle. “I guess we’ll have some cleaning to do when it’s all said and done.”
As if a sobering response to the off-color remark, a chilling moan emanated from the bathroom at the other end of the hallway. In a moment of dread, Curtis noticed that Chris’s body was no longer on the floor where it should have been. He rushed past Potsie toward the sound. For the first time that day, the look in his eyes betrayed him, revealing a man who was genuinely shaken. Curtis found Chris on the floor at the other end of the hallway, halfway inside the bathroom, and babbling incoherently from the pain. He pulled Chris out by the legs.
“God-dammit Potsie, you shot the kid in his stomach.”
“I- I didn’t know”
“He’s leaking blood, Potsie. He’s still alive.”
Chris was babbling. Blood was bubbling from his mouth and his stomach.
“Do something for him,” Potsie said looking away at the floor.
Curtis reached to his waist and once again took out his gun. Chris was making choking sounds. He was coughing up red splotches.
“Hurry up, do something. Oh my God.”
Curtis pressed the gun against the man’s temple. He turned his head away, and began rubbing the trigger anxiously with his index finger.”
“What are you waiting for,” cried Potsie, still looking at the floor. “Do it, for Christ’s sake.”
“No.” Curtis was eyeing Potsie coldly now, his gun still firmly against Chris’s quivering head. “You’re gonna do this.”
Chris was trying to move, but the open wound in his stomach was gushing blood, and it spilled over with every effort. Curtis was trying to keep his hand steady. He was glaring at Potsie, hardly blinking.
“Time for you to make up your mutha-fuckin mind.”
Potsie was still averting his eyes. His hands were trembling uncontrollably as he drew his gun. “You bastard.” His words were barely audible.
Chris was wheezing, and there was fluid in his throat when he breathed. He was looking directly at Potsie now, who had kneeled down beside him. Chris’s watery eyes were pleading for something, and he was reaching up- groping at Potsie with his pale, clamy hands. As Chris’s wet hands smeared blood and mucus over Potsie’s face, Potsie felt an icy shiver run through his body. He jerked, suddenly, and pulled the trigger. This one went right through Chris’s eye.
Reverberations from the thunderous crack left a hollowness in their wake. Both Potsie and Curtis sunk within themselves, their breaths fell to long, shallow whispers.
“You can’t give an inch, Potsie. I told you that. We got no time for that shit.”
When Curtis’s phone rang again, there were no jokes about Lady Gaga or comments from the peanut gallery. Potsie’s body was covered in blood; he stood, intensely silent, nearby. When Curtis answered the phone, he was already spread thin.
“What do you want?”
“I told you, fuck your dinner date.”
He tried to sit down on the bed to relax, but Emanuel was there. He was beginning to lose control.
“What’s wrong with me? Nothing’s wrong with me. I had a rough day. “
“Fuck your day. I don’t give a shit about Gina at work.”
“A text message? No I didn’t check your text message. Fuck your text message.”
“Emanuel, tell this bitch I said fuck her text message”
Curtis thrust the phone under Emanuel’s blood caked face.
“Did you hear that, bitch? No? You know why? Because Emanuel’s dead, Linda. That’s why.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m standing in a muthafuckin’ house with a dead man.”
“Still think my situation isn’t urgent enough? That’s what I thought. Bitch, I am not in the mood.”
He hung up the phone. “Women.”
Curtis looked over at Potsie, who was standing by the bedroom curtains. He was staring at his red splotched hands. To him, the blood seemed to be spreading, like a disease, uncontrollably over his body. He could feel the blood in his own body churning and burning under the skin. The blood on Potsie’s face gave him an otherworldly appearance; it was smeared wildly across his yellow face, and it dripped from his chin. From a short distance away, where Curtis stood, he almost wondered if Potsie might be crying underneath his scarlet mask, but the sheer ferocity apparent in Potsie’s eyes quickly purged that thought from his mind.
“Ain’t that somethin’,” said Curtis, trying to remain confident, but nevertheless a bit shaken by the surreal image of his companion. “Looks to me like you finally got your hands dirty, today.”
Potsie was still silent. Now he was looking at the window curtains.
“W-what are you lookin’ at now?”
Potsie’s head moved side-to-side, his stare alternating between the curtains and his hands.
“C’mon Potsie, cut that shit out. What the hell are you doin’?”
Potsie finally spoke, his voice dry and calm. “Those curtains are red, Curtis.”
“So those curtains are red, and earlier that carpet was red, and all the blood in the hall—“
“–And I suppose you think the driveway and the sidewalk were red as well?”
Potsie averted his gaze. Then he thought better of it, and looked back at Curtis. “Well,” Potsie started again. His voice carried an authority that Curtis had not heard before. “There were the flowers.”
Curtis paused a second, trying to remember. “Blood red roses,” he said, half laughing. “Huh, imagine that. Ain’t that some coincidental shit.”
“That wasn’t blood, Curtis. It was fire,” said Potsie, columns of red streaming down his cheeks. “Those roses were burning, just like this house, just like you and I. We’re burning, Curtis, and that little cross you’re wearing won’t save you from what’s coming. “
Potsie moved toward Curtis, who was stumbling as he tried to back away. Curtis tripped, but managed to catch himself just before hitting the ground. He looked up toward his companion’s blood soaked face, and tried to compose himself again. After several silent blinks, he stood up and took a resolute step toward Potsie.
“You know what they call people who think like that? They call them crazies.”
The statement hit Potsie hard.
“I am not crazy, man.” He was starting to sound defeated now. “Don’t condescend to me. I’m not crazy, I have a heightened sense of awareness.”
“You know why the carpet’s red, Potsie? Because old Emanuel or his son Christopher thought red would be a real nice color for the ambiance. This hall here is red because you fucked up and shot Christopher in the goddamn stomach. It’s red because, apparently, you decided the color would spice up the mother fuckin’ décor. And the curtains are red because they like red curtains, Potsie.”
“Now start cleanin’ up this mess. I’m gonna go get cleaned up, and then I’ll call the Big-Boss, ask him what to do with the bodies. And Potsie, wipe that goddamn shit off your face. You’re caked in it, and I can hardly tell it’s you.”
“On second thought, do me a favor. Handle this shit for me. I have to catch Linda before she leaves the restaurant. She’s gonna give me hell.”
“Never give an inch.”
Curtis walked past Potsie toward the bathroom. Potsie watched him go.
“Good idea,” he said groggily. “Better get that jacket cleaned off before you meet with the misses.”
“No, I’m going to wash my hands,” replied Curtis. “They’re bloody, and I don’t want to dirty the cross.”
© 2012 Garrett Ashe
Check out my previous short story here: The Little Glass Lie