Chapter Twenty-Five: The Reprieve
The rugged Charon fainted,
And asked a navy rather than a boat,
To ferry over the sad world that came.
Rayne screamed as she and Sari turned the corner and found us there, this collapsed heap, like some drunks, half of whom had gone into a deep sleep, the other two still reeling drunk watching them. I got my legs under me and stood up, steadied myself with an arm on the corner of the walk-in freezer. I thought I might be in shock but it was hard to tell behind the fog of the mix in my system. It certainly didn’t seem real, it seemed like something you’d see in a movie except it wasn’t going away, there was no scene change, no flash to another storyline. I had to keep forcing myself to confront it, to accept that before me there were two corpses that ten minutes ago were living and breathing, bouncing around that basement.
Francesco was staring out too, trying to make sense of the reality. He had so much mix in him there was no telling what he was seeing, thinking, how much he understood. He’d looked at Gavin whose head was misshapen and unrecognizable and I could see him force-feeding the data, making himself accept he was dead. His lips were mouthing silent tiny words like prayers or talking to himself.
Rayne had run out. Sari watched us grimly, waited for me to say something or for Francesco to snap out of it. I looked at her and asked with my pained expression what the fuck were we doing, what insanity has found us here murdering one another? For what? Her eyes were wide with the same unavoidable questions. She was breathing heavily, her lips twisted down. Then she looked up at me, “Cliff. What…”
Francesco was standing up, more sliding up, the concrete wall. His voice croaked when he spoke, “I’m gonna have to call the cops. Gavin’s mom…”
Sari stood up a bit straighter and got tense in her shoulders: a shift into cerebral troubleshooting mode. She spoke slowly and deliberately to make sure it got through to him, “Francesco, we can’t be involved in this. We have to get Rayne out of here.” I remembered that as far as he knew this was all about Russian sex traffickers trying to abduct Rayne. That’s what he and Gavin were fighting for. Sari went on, “What you’re going to say is this guy came in here with a gun and you and Gavin had to fight.”
“We’re going to give you the gun. It belongs to another person this man killed. If the cops trace it, they’ll connect it to him.”
The Russian sex trafficker story reminded me that there were others. The blonde. I limped to the back. When I moved, my head, my throat, my neck and my balls hurt. Everything hurt. I felt the need to vomit, didn’t know if it was from my injuries or a delayed reaction to the carnage. I took deep breaths, relaxed my stomach, tried to think of nothing. When I got to where the blond had lain she was gone. The hatch was open and a nice breeze flowed downward. I reached up and pulled the it closed, secured it with the sliding bar.
When I returned Sari was in Francesco’s face, trying to talk sense to him, get him to focus on the plan. I walked past them, concerned about Rayne and what other Slavic infiltrators might still be up there. I went up the stairs slowly and at the top Rayne stood with that young bouncer kid looking out at the club. She stood tensely with her arms folded, hiding her distress. The kid looked scared.
The world upstairs was more surreal by contrast than the scene I’d just left in the basement. It had that sense of an alternate reality things can have when waking from a deep dream-laden midday sleep to find the world bustling and wide awake. Upstairs, fun was happening and people trying to have fun and people looking at their phones and taking selfies and lots of alcohol to make it all happen smoothly.
I scanned the crowd, probed faces for anybody looking suspicious. Fishnet girl had blended in and she had a guy with her outside whom I didn’t think I would recognize, so anybody could be one of them. We had to clear this place and find out.
I said to the bouncer kid, “What’s your name?”
“Okay Eric. We have to get everybody out of here.”
Eric looked out at the crowd and remembered the angry mob that had attacked them when denied access earlier. He was wondering how they would react to being tossed out mid-drink, just as the party was warming up. They’d paid a cover charge.
Rayne said, “Pull the friggen fire alarm.”
I said, “No, then the cops and fire trucks might come. We’re not ready for that yet.” I turned to the kid, “Eric, this is an emergency. What did Rayne tell you?”
“There was some guy downstairs, a fight.”
Poor Eric. He was probably just down here for the summer and had gotten what had seemed a fun job. He probably stayed nearby with his parents. He could have still been in high school.
I moved closer and raised my voice slightly. “Yeah, well two people are dead. We have clear this place.”
He didn’t move.
“Okay, can you turn off the music? Then go to the door and let people out but nobody can come in.”
He looked at me, paralyzed.
“Rayne, help him at the door. Move!”
Eric ran behind the bar. When he flicked the switch a whole level of noise, of energy and atmosphere swirled down the drain. Patrons looked around but continued sipping their drinks.
I stepped forward and used my teacher voice, “Okay everybody, there’s been an accident and everybody has to leave.”
A chorus of complaints and condemnation, the specifics of which canceled each other out. Nobody budged, just frowned at me.
I went toward the crowd, shooing them, “Come on, you have to vacate the premises.”
Nobody moved. I mustn’t have have looked like a person in authority. That and the several spots of blood on me probably made them want to stay to find out what happened like rubberneckers at a car accident.
I looked around for something to threaten them with. If I was outside I’d spray them with a garden hose. Maybe it was the idea of hoses, of the soda fountain, but I intuitively went back to the server station. On the wall at the top of the stairs was a red fire extinguisher. I took it off the wall and examined its business parts. There was a ring one pulled. I yanked it out and headed to the non-compliant twenty-somethings with the hose held in the other hand. I focused on one girl in my direct path girl. She had sunglasses on her head and big dull eyes. When she saw me coming her eyes went wider and her mouth opened around the straw coming out of her drink. She couldn’t believe what she knew I was about to do.
I squeezed the trigger as a warning shot and a forceful stream of dirty white powder went right at her. People screamed and around the periphery of the cloud I created some were already running to the door. The powder settled. A few had fallen, tripped over one another in their panicked retreat. They were now covered in white dust. A girl in heels and a dress tried to stand up, slipped in a spilled drink. They cursed me. One of the guys who was really pissed started walking toward me with two fists before him. I aimed at him and he ducked and ran the other way.
There were some holdouts further back, hadn’t gotten much of the extinguisher blast, irrationally thought I’d see reason, let them stay, maybe until they finished their drinks.
“Out!” I stepped toward them with the hose outward.
The rest of them got that I was serious and bee-lined to the door, guzzling what was left in their bottle or glass, a few chucking their empties across the place out of spite.
The bartenders had stayed and were looking at me in astonishment. The one was feeling around for a phone, presumably to call the cops.
“Don’t call,” I held up my hands to tell them to stop, yelled, “Gavin is hurt. Francesco will be up to handle things.”
I took out my phone which, unlike me, was somehow undamaged. It was 3:50. Sari said the captain would be there at four. I put my phone back in my pocket and examined myself, especially the blood at my chest where the girl had bitten me and the splattering down my leg from Francesco’s shivving of Rudi. How my appearance would be explained away I had no idea.
Rayne and Eric came back from the door swatting away the chemical fog in front of them. I told Rayne to collect her things, that we were leaving. We went upstairs and she went in the office. I got the gun from where I had hid it, went back down the steps, then down to the basement. Sari had gotten Francesco away from the bodies and was still working on him, probably doing some of her psychopharmacological hypnosis stuff.
I didn’t want to see the dead bodies again, but I had to plant the gun that would tie Rudi to Kyle and support Francesco’s eventual claim of justified homicide. I let Sari see I had it, then wiped it down as best I could. Around the corner the bodies still lay. Rudi sat hunched, beneath him Gavin was a bunch of clothing and bloody flesh. I avoided looking at the gore, focused only on what I needed to. Rudi’s huge hand was on the floor facing upward. I lifted its dead weight, put the gun handle in his palm and curled his fingers around the grip as best I could to leave his fingerprints. His fingers were huge. It took my entire other hand to move four of his fingers. As a result of my refusal to look at him as the dead human he was, I got mental flashes, visuals of hunters posing with big game, lifting their paws, smiling for the camera.
I didn’t leave the gun in his hand. That would make no sense. More logically Gavin would have met him as he entered the basement like I did, somehow disarmed him while knocking the chairs around, then fought his way up front. That’s where I slid Kyle’s gun: among the pile of broken chairs.
I passed Sari and Francesco on the way back, told Sari where I put the gun so she could communicate that part of the plan to Francesco at whom I didn’t even glance.
I found Rayne upstairs in the office packing her things at the couch. I came up behind her and put my arm on her shoulder. She was shaking. I pulled her around to face me and was confronted with a face tremulous with fear or disgust or hatred—I couldn’t tell—but in it there was no love for me. She blew me off, turned back to her packing.
I said, “It’s four, the ferryman isn’t going to wait.”
She said nothing.
What had I said? The choice of words struck me: ferryman… going to wait. Sounded Dantean, a subconscious reference to the ferryman Charon shuttling the souls of dead across the river to Hades. Was it a line from something?
I was running those lines over in my head hoping to find their source. I didn’t come up with anything but found myself staring at the back of the office door where hung a pair of black dress pants. Probably Francesco’s. I held them up and guessed they’d likely fit me, then took off my shoes and pulled them on over my bloodied khakis. The pants were tight over mine, but doable. I found the windbreaker I came in with and covered my upper body with that.
Sari came in the door to get us. “It’s time to go.” She had it in her to smile, “Nice outfit. Rayne, do you have everything?”
Rayne didn’t reply, didn’t even look at us, but walked past us and down the stairs. Sari and I exchanged a glance. She smiled, trying to downplay my concern. How did Sari keep up the positive attitude considering what had just happened?
I got the bag with the remaining mix and handed it to her, the test tubes still in their foam packing. She stowed the whole thing in her bag and we turned to follow Rayne out to the boat.
Downstairs the bartenders were gone and Eric stood with Francesco at the top of the stairs. Francesco had been leaning over, hands on knees as if trying to catch his breath or gather himself. When he heard us he stood up straight and looked at us with stricken squinting eyes. Rayne went to him and gave him a kiss and a hug said some words of thanks. He looked at Sari and me and we both held up a hand in thanks and as a final goodbye.
The three of us turned and went out the sliding doors to the dock where the Captain waited for us, eyeing us with his usual guarded scrutiny. The boat took off and we sped toward Delaware without a word to one another or a glance back at Baydacious.
The sky was overcast, but the water was calm. In every direction the bay was an endless flat grayness, the solidity and depths of which felt to me like a huge whale, the boat slicing across numb leviathan skin of its back. During the downtime of the long boat ride the mix was seeping through from the background. What had happened back in that basement had been compartmentalized, quarantined behind a protective film that was now giving way to reality. I was besieged by emotions, unsolicited visuals of mangled flesh, of lifeless eyes, the final sounds men made before their death. It seemed as if these ghosts accumulated from the air, like the spray that clung to us as we raced home. I averted my face from the others, covered it with my hands as if to massage away tension. Hot tears seeped between my fingers. Phrases sounding Biblical and Homeric whispered within me like incantations. The Ferryman won’t wait. Smiting with clubs and staves.
When I peeked back Rayne wasn’t cuddling against Sari like she usually did, but had curled up in her hoodie with her back to her sister. Sari leaned with her elbows on her knees, rocking slightly from the motion of the boat, her hair getting darker and flattened by the wetness. She stared off, lost in her own thoughts. What had I done to my relationship with Rayne? Was this funk she was in just part of her drug trip or had she concluded Sari and I were screwing around behind her back?
When we approached the other shore an Uber Sari had requested was awaiting for us. Ha, Uber. Like Ubermensch. Where had he gone? The drug still flowed but none of those delusions of grandeur had me in its spell. And what had I thought of in connection to Leuschner? I couldn’t even remember. Did one build up such a tolerance to the drug that its effects became less pronounced? If so, exactly what was going on? Did it just allow one to function normally through otherwise scarring events? Is the drug what makes Sari be Sari?
The three of us piled in the Toyota still not saying much of anything. The driver headed out to the highway and down to the Fowl’s Point exit. In town Sari directed him to stop not far from Graham’s sandwich shop, her destination when she was abducted by Rudi. There her car sat in the parking space like any other car. I became vigilant. I had originally seen Alan’s boat nearby and I knew he had others that could look for us. No seedy Slavs lurked, not many people around the immediate area of the car. The girls didn’t seem worried and we all got in the car after Sari retrieved a parking ticket from the windshield. Rayne went to the back seat before I could allow her the front seat so I sat there next to Sari.
Sari was turned around in her seat looking out the rear window to back out of the spot. “Look kids, I got us an Airbnb we can relocate to, but it’s not available until tomorrow. We can either spend the night at a hotel or risk your place Cliff. For now I have to go buy another phone.” She put the car in gear and headed toward Route 11. “Who’s up for a trip to the mall?”
We acquiesced with our moody silence.
The mall was far north, over half an hour. I hunkered down and watched the scenery pass, afraid to look back and meet Rayne’s eye. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I took it out and saw an unfamiliar number. Sari looked over. We all knew it was Alan. While we were at Baydacious Sari had already deactivated her phone that Alan had kept.
I considered not answering it but thought I would regret it if I didn’t so I took the call.
“Yeah Cliff. It’s me.” Alan’s usual laid-back tone was a notch higher due to stress or annoyance, “Look, I’m busy dealing with this situation you created. This gives you about twenty-four hours to think carefully about your next move. You’ve escalated things. The gloves are off. I’ll bring in a team, armed, snipers. You’ll all be dead. They’ll find evidence of narcotics near your bodies. Drug dealers getting what they deserved. And don’t think of running. I’ll find you. I know you’re back in Sari’s car heading north. You’re lucky to have a temporary reprieve Cliff, but give up the product twenty-four hours from now or I’ll have you all killed. I’ll kill you even if I don’t get the product and I know some friends of Rudi that would love to do it.”
I lowered the phone and stared out at the road before us. I was numb. I didn’t want to be there or for that to be happening. I wish I never saw Rayne, never met Sari. I wish I had stayed home reading on my couch.
Sari was using her coaxing voice, “Don’t let him scare you.”
I looked back at Rayne. She was spread out on the back seat covering her face with her arms.
I half whispered, half growled at Sari, “I’m already scared.”
Sari’s eyes were wider and went back and forth from the road to mine. She bit at the inside of her lip, “What did he say.”
I stared at her hard to press my point, “We have about twenty-four hours and that’s it. He knows where we are right now.”
She tried to laugh it off but didn’t come off convincing. She looked forward and cleared her face of any expression because she knew I still stared at her. She knew she could get me in line by going icy and beautiful and it worked. I turned away and watched the roadside imagining I was riding my bike on it.
The mall was a welcome distraction. I felt safe there and its stupefying atmosphere of gratuitous consumption acted as a mental narcotic. We strolled around looking at the herds of consumers with their shopping bags and their junk food and their chewing faces staring at their phones. It seemed like everybody waddled. Different pop songs or jabbering recorded pitches came at us from a half-dozen different directions. Each store had its own personality it was trying to sell, its own color scheme and look, the products of highly refined marketing industry, a latter day science in which countless dollars and careers were devoted to make humans want things they never knew they wanted. Seeing this now was as if we were from a different planet exploring this world for the first time. The mix must have had something to do with it. Yes, we were easing into the Twilight Zone where you think effects are not because of the drug but they really are.
Only days ago—was it a week?—Rayne and I had a mini fight because of the Twilight Zone. Rayne still wasn’t saying anything to either of us, her normally kind, flirty eyes were deadened and glasslike. We found the phone store and while Sari took care of business Rayne and I sat on a bench outside. Passersby would never guess we were together; we looked like two strangers invading one another’s space. Sari finally walked out thumbing her new phone with a smile. We continued our entranced tour of the mall mostly in silence, eyed the merchandise and slunk in a few places to examine things more closely with a curiosity both dull and morbid. Finally an announcement came on that they were closing.
Going outside I held the door for the girls and as they passed I caught the perfumed scent of Rayne, was brushed across my midsection by Sari. A tingle shivered up my torso to the back of my head. The next phase was the Craving. I would be out of my mind with arousal spending the night in a house with two beautiful women: one who apparently hated me and one who wouldn’t dare do it with her sister nearby—or would she? It might be a very long night.