To feed on children—these days it took wheels. In old times a castle wreck or underground lair would let you sit pat and rake the piglets in at leisure. No more threat on the rounds than a sobbing crofter dad, pitchfork ready and sour turnips on his breath. Tough, sure, but edible with a marinade. So it had gone before, the heyday, but now the runts who bred the meat had grown to seven billion, and they had guns. Even the yokels. Especially the yokels. Firearms, and worse: napalm, missiles, flying robot death machines. Slaughter dreamt up just to take each other out, and no doubt sweet on any target. No monster could outshine that. Going low-key, that was the life now—roam the byways from stick to stick, places where you could vanish a brat without all the goddam fuss.

So the ogre mused from the confines of a 1977 Winnebago Chieftain. The owner of record was bleaching in the woods outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or at least the portions not grunted out in a public stall four hundred miles up the road. Happy memories, but he had vegetables to mince, butter to clarify, an oven to preheat. This was German-built and much too big for the layout of a frumpy motorhome. He had lost a cabinet to make the space. It cut down some on the prep area, the utility overall, but then so did the big box of chickenwire with a girl locked inside.

He looked to her as he diced up the mirepoix—a plump little blonde of seven or so with a home haircut, a ladybug clip, a pink hooded sweatshirt, flip-flops, and drawstring shorts. He gave her the laugh. A marvel of a sound—guttural slop with a whinnying fry between each bwawrgh and grawrgh. It put a rattle on the cage, and that got the salt flowing again. Less need to baste later on.

Mere sight had brought the tears at first. Any child could suss him out—that hulking frame, that snoutlike nose, those goggle-eyes, and a thick unibrow under black curls. But a backwood dad, he never did happen on a clue, there outside the hunting ground, be it a bait shop or Denny’s by the interstate. Not even as the spawn shied hard to a leg.

Don’t you worry, sweet Junella, the hayseed might say, that there’s just a big ugly man.

“Mama!” the girl cried. “Mama!” To shop a dollar aisle for kid clothes—parents so dull could never make out whimpers from miles off. Back to the onions and the celery.

More yuks would have come, clear through to soup and nuts, had the scent gone uncaught. Faint, imperceptible to a man, but it hit the ogre like a maggoty hog. All prep quit. The right hand dropped the Global G-16 chef’s knife, ten inch and whetted sharp enough to cut breath. He took the left off the Cook’s Illustrated, which had been spread to a recipe for schnitzel, and it fanned shut without hurry. A stare through a wall, though the nose did the work. The distance was hard to tell. Thirty miles, maybe. But there was something else to it—some immediacy, however thin the trace.

He was just thinking about the starter key in his pocket—time for escape—when he heard a wrenching groan. His eyes snapped to the windshield, and bent metal blocked the nighttime view. Something at work behind the hood—a sharp tug, a rocking in the springs as the RV settled out.

“Sorry about that!” A bass voice from the dark. “Can we talk for a minute?”

Whatever force had brought ogres into existence, though unnatural, did operate something like the usual biology. Apex predators tend not to be chummy with those who vie for the meat. Where bear met cat, hair would fly, and one or the other would fuck off and get to licking wounds. That it could be so gentle among ogres. For them everything was about a meal. And voice alone told that this was a brute among brutes—so deep a timbre that a human ear would puzzle at words. 

Their senses might be wanting, but humans did have a monkey ingenuity that was good for countermeasures. A ten-gauge pump-action shotty was hung up on the wall. Hollow-tip slugs were the load—custom shot that would carve out a fat gape of meat. Plenty of gun, but the ogre felt no less nervous once he took up the stock. He leapt at the door, and it sprang wide. The top hinge broke.

On sight of the weapon the newcomer hardly reacted at all, in wait by a slumping picnic bench in the derelict water park. The ogre kept an aim up as he had a look. He had never met a specimen of his kind who ran so large, and the other three had tasted just awful. The thing stood nine feet tall at least, eleven with decent posture, and he had a set of tusks in his mouth. Far too ogrish to pass for big and ugly. But those were not the most surprising details, nor that he had got so close. The unibrow was typical enough, and the snout, and the fierce eyes. There was never doubt of what he was. But the hair was shaven to a stubble—as close to bald as a straight razor could take that wire—and the clothes he had on were stranger yet. A robe of black linen. A bib atop the chest. On his wrist, a string of beads, twisted three times with a loop slung low. That was the hand that held the alternator. The cables, frayed to bare copper at the ends, hung lower yet. The right held a bottle—human liquor. And slung to his back, a bamboo tube with cord strung fast on both ends.

“Fuck off!” the ogre said, with all the growl that phlegm allowed.

This drew a smile, no more, and the ogre was astonished not to feel a death urge. That need was most of what he knew—part and parcel of the nonstop hunger. The smile was not snide or proud. The smile was not any thing besides a smile.

“I didn’t want to startle you,” the newcomer said, “but I didn’t want you speeding off, either, not before we spoke.” The alternator met the dirt.

“Just smelled you. Like you only just came in reach of my nose. How’d you get up so fast?”

“Would have gone quicker, but I got to this bridge, and I didn’t have change for the troll.” A silence followed, and at last the newcomer gave a shrug. “That was a joke.”

The ogre let the bead falter but the gun kept ready. “How’d you sneak up?”

“Sneak? Oh. Right. I took a bath. Not for sneaking, but just because that’s what I do. And someone at the monastery, he showed me this deodorant, mineral salt, no surfactants—”

“Could we start with bath? You took a bath? Why the hell would you? You’re an abomination that prowls the outer darkness, and you’re supposed to smell like diaper vomit!”

“Good nose! And you know, as for why I bathe, that’s pretty close to what brings me out. Drink?” The bottle rose. “Peace offering. Sake. Not top shelf, but it was what I had in stock.”

The ogre squinted down the barrel. “What’s your game, pal? We don’t mingle. We don’t even have names. The only reason we use language is because it helps us catch the prey off guard.”

The newcomer set the liquor on the table. “I do have a name,” he said. “I got it at my jukkai ceremony. I’m a Zen monk of the Rinzai lineage. My first teacher was a yokai from the Suicide Forest—an onibaba. She came overseas along with Joshu Sasaki. I think she was a curse, but she got curious about all the sitting. They’re an interesting bunch, those onibaba. We eat children, and so do they, but they get theirs straight from a pregnant lady.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No! They tie the lady upside down—”

“Religion! Human religion! That’s what you’re talking about?”

“Truth—that might be the word. And truth is inhuman. Or nonspecific, say. At the monastery they can see as much. I’m tenzo there. It means I’m in charge of all the cooking and service in the dining hall. An ogre really does make a top-rate chef. It’s that palate. Big nose, smart tongue.”

“You cook for humans? So it’s what, a cannibal cult?”

“No! Of course not. I bake a lot of bread and stew a lot of lentils. Most of the monks are vegetarians. And even the ones who aren’t, well, there’s always ham.”

“Enough! What do you want? Why are you here, if it’s not over turf?”

“The problem of suffering. Once I smelled you down the road I knew you had a cookout in store. It’s a girl you’ve got in there, right? The register is a bit high for a little boy.”

The ogre clenched the anger back. One barrel might not take out the monk, nor both. He was that goddam big. But still, he had to front. “You think you’re going to take her from me?”

“Like I said: it’s the suffering. You’ve been tormenting her. With the laugh and maybe worse.”

“I kidnapped the hicklet fair and square! Go put an ad on Craigslist. It’s been a week since I ate child, and that’s where the vitamins are! Everything else is a snack!”

“Don’t I know it. Do I look like an elf? I’m not taking anything from you if I can help it. I just wanted to ask you a question—make you see, if I can. It’s a given that you eat children. To borrow from Joko Beck, that’s your work. And the humans protect their young from the likes of us. That’s their work. And it’s only right that in their view, that work, we’re monsters. Evil in the flesh.”


“Do you have to be a dick about it?”

The powder clap lit the dark clear to the rickety waterslides. Both triggers—sure was sure. Peppery white smoke put a clot to the air, too thick for seeing past. The ogre felt a tusk end strike his knee as it whirled on through. The sound had got the girl screaming in the RV. As the smoke washed clear, he was looking on a sprawled form, a head wound, and a fair outlet of black blood.

“Ouch,” the monk said through it.

Back into the Winnebago. The girl was pressed to the rearmost chickenwire, giving it all her lungs. The door would not close, so the ogre bent the leaf inward to block the way. The monk was too big for the jamb besides—time bought for reload. To a cabinet, near a window blind. He took out a Tupperware full of slugs. Six more rounds: maybe. Maybe. The girl kept on shrieking. But she fell to a gawp-eyed  silence as a hand shot through the glass and slats.

A yank took the ogre out, all four hundred pounds of him, and he was flung into a tumble. Empty-handed, once he came to a halt: the shotty had flown away. As he sat up, raw in spots and hurting all over, the monk came near, reaching past a shoulder. A blade slid out from the bamboo tube with a rasp and a note that rang clear. One of the monk’s eyes was shut in a bruise, and there was a deep cut on the cheek behind the broken tusk: all an elephant gun could do.

“Call this the sword of Manjushri,” the monk said. “It cleaves through delusion and ignorance.”

“Just looks like a sword to me,” the ogre thought to say on the sweep that took his head.

The monk knew that sight of all the blood—his own and the rest—would be a fright for the child, so he struck off the bottle top washed his face in sake. Getting in was tricky, so he peeled the rooftop from the Winnebago. The girl was crying, of course, but silently now—resigned, exhausted. She stared at the monk as he tore through the chickenwire. “It’ll be all right,” he said, taking her up. “I’m sorry you had to see all of that. The worst is over. Hush now.” He dandled her with a gentle pat and sang through a lullaby. The tears subsided, and in time the girl went to sleep.

Later, as he buried the little bones, clean inside and out, the ogre put his hands up in gassho and said the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo. He built up a cairn and let the smile come—a small rock pile, and then a large.


Pasteup took an eye. A photo layout was a picture of pictures, and a man had to set that art in place. A man had to see, however he hoped the rote of it might blind him.

Each mechanical began as a blank white board. Keylines were drawn on in cyan with a whetted pencil tip. Once that scheme was ready, a craft knife made the crops on tempered glass. Razor strokes through photo stock, each like a shift of sands, far and dry on the ear.

Next, the rubber cement, a popper waft of acetone as trimmed photos took their marks. And then the stat camera, the orthochromatic negative for the plate Ray Glister would never see. That raw bare  flesh would become shape and void, he knew, like pockets in a dark electric ice. If only he could will that reverse into his waking eye—make the task ahead, the glimpse it gave, strange past a sense of guilt.

From one shutter to another. Ray did not only the pasteup but the full preproduction, and the basement had been outfitted. There was a darkroom, a mop closet once. The door was right beside a phone that never rang and that had no finger wheel. Captions were few and banged out in pica ten-per on a typewriter. No line casting in that basement, just the ginny smell of inked fabric and some uncouth words. Any text used made-up names. Rollo. Sabrina. Peggy Sue. Some of them played victim. Some did not.

Ray stacked the output in card and tissue. Such was the hallmark of a taut-run shop, even a shop run for bastards. Where the Carnaghans had all the offset litho done, he had no idea. He never wanted to find out, not any more than he ever wanted to meet a Carnaghan in the flesh. But whoever the printers were, he would tease them in nonrepro blue. Tic-tac-toe, exclamation point, frowny face, mot. None would ever see, of course. All the blue would vanish from the act, keyline and marginal alike. And the printers kept things more professional, it seemed. Samples would come back in unmarked cartons, never with a note. Past the first not a box got opened. But Ray had seen the wares that one time, yes he had. Staple-bound paper stock. But not bad—nothing like the horror show of blown-out stipple that smut like this came on far more often.

Which was not for the better. It was all unaltered save a halftone sheer. Some hard truth indeed. Not just nudie cuties, beefcake, or the lickerish spreads of top shelf, but smut that broke a floor. Stages of a rape, penetrations of all sort, streams of piss, welts, animals sometimes, and now and then what were surely underage children. Those were worst—those ungainly bodies, those mickeyed faces in a scare. The one or two who had not been drugged for it had old eyes. It hurt just to see.

Ray took vodka from a waxed paper cup. It stung his throat like antiseptic on a knee. A clamp-on gave a stringent light as he worked a burnisher, and a cigarette stank up the beam. The fumes had nowhere to go, so they snagged like a shroud on every bulb. Ray liked to use a holder—it showed dash—and the cinder trickled at a jump from his undershaven face.

Once, and not that long ago, Ray had begun a startup. A queer socialist voice of the city on pink newsprint with some record reviews in the back. The Mattachines had been as much an inspiration as had that left coast hippy rag. But the monthly had seen its last at underground newsstands and the better-read gay bars back in the fall, just when Tricky had won another go.

Debts had been owed—to ruffians, in part, true vig-pinching knuckle-draggers. There had been no other way to keep people paid and the dream afloat once the banks got smart. A turnaround had always been just within reach, only to flit off in a spasm like some sky rat he’d spooked.

“I sold your marker to the Carnaghans,” the head shark had said that December, short of hard Rs but with a couple of preemptive Ws thrown in, once Ray came short.

“You can do that?” Ray had asked. Then, “Who are the Carnaghans?”

The usurer had a laugh on him, Ray had seen. Oh, a regular Peter Lorre with that laugh.

“Okay,” Ray had said. Maybe he should have held out for a limp. “What do the Carnaghans want with me?”

“They got use for a faggot.”

“Why not try Christopher Street?” as the panic rose.

“Funny guy! I meant a faggot with knowhow.”

No reassurance, not at first. But here Ray was, in a setup. It seemed the Carnaghans had worked with an impresario for a while—a man Ray’s quote-unquote manager, Declan Smits, had dubbed The Pervert. Such was the smirking thoroughness with which The Pervert had been recalled to Ray that the basement now had a ghost—ascot and smoking jacket, crisp bangs on a white caesar, penchants in a bottomless list. The Pervert had money and had gone on the lam—to British Honduras, word had it, to worry the cannibals, per Declan. Dirty pictures had been a love, and making them public a cockstand. For the Carnaghans, the venture had been low risk, high return—a plus but hardly a passion. Good for the balance sheet, no doubt, whatever other nastiness made up all the line items.

People like sharks and Carnaghans looked at Ray and The Pervert and saw the selfsame animal. Many did in truth—Ray’s own parents, for a pair of them. So it came to pass that a slight Jewish queer with decent taste and most of a college degree was used for a plug. Sold out but fed and even on the mend. The debts were not bottomless. The work would not go on forever.

A key scraped at the lock. The steel door banged open, toed aside. Declan wore a peacoat with rain at the shoulders, and that same rain was washing down the steep rake of stairs and sucking through the grate. In the crook of an arm he had a wet grocery sack. In the other was a beefy suitcase.

Ray felt a thrill, and not just fear. Declan was red, handsome, strong, and calm, always calm. He never raised a voice or a hand, not to some schlimazel like Ray who did what he was told. But then Declan never would have had to. He was muscle, but he had smarts, too. His family was another fixture, lower in the ranks than the Carnaghans but valued even through the changes of regime. Smitses had been in the rackets since before there were rackets. Or so Declan had put it. The words were never fancy. It wasn’t book-smarts, not for that big rascal.

“Get a shave,” Declan said, as he handed over the sack. “And a haircut. You look like a chippy ’t fell in the pepper.” The suitcase seemed to hold a weight even for Declan. It put him out of true.

“Achoo,” Ray said. Declan never did mind a crack. Sometimes that sculptured face even gave a smile. A joke that landed would make a dimple, deep as the tip of a dart—smack, a bullseye.

Tonight he just seemed worn out, noncommittal to a shrug. The sack held a reuben in paper and a fresh bargain jug. There was some bubblegum at the bottom.

“I forget the smokes?” Declan asked. “The Bazooka Joe’s for me.”

“How fares our lad? Got half a carton, thanks.”

“Stinks in here. Ought to put a window in just so’s you can crack it.”

And leave off the bars, Ray thought. He eyed the suitcase as it went onto the pedestal desk. It locked—three dials at the handle. Declan brought undeveloped rolls and took the layouts to the printer, but he had never used a locking case before.

“Glister, listen up. We got to talk.”

Ray had never heard it stern, not from Declan. “Everything copacetic with the majordomos?”

“What? Oh yeah, plenty … copa. No, this is something else. And it needs some special care. It’s what I have here in this case. They’re photographic plates. What do you call it—sheet film. Taken with this big camera, looks like a Dick Contino squeezebox.”

Best passed up. Ray pointed to the stat. “Like that, with a bellows? You usually bring rolls.”

“These are different. From start to finish. You could even say they’re why we’re here. The Pervert, he got this place running with these in mind. Once, twice a year, I bring them. They’re for the uptown money. At the plant they print up a few copies, and they bind them like a book, not a Saturday rag. Like cloth, with those squidgety end papers. That shoestring off the back to mark your place. Real class.”

Each clause thrown in made it all worse, uptown money or not. Ray stared at the case.

“So Glister, can you, uh, develop sheet film? You need someone else in here?”

“No, I’m good. Sheet’s easier than rolls. Is it black and white? Just need trays and some dark to work in. Developer, stop bath, fixer. Some distilled water at the end to wash off the halides.”

“Yeah, halides, okay. Because Glister, there’s only one shot with this stuff. There’s no other copies. You hear me? And you know, any of this heads south, too many of these get lost or loused up on the way to the shop, well, you’d end up meeting Frank Carnaghan—you and me, too, hat in hand.”

“You don’t wear a hat.”

“I’d bring one. Don’t want to scare you unnecessarily, you understand.”

“I do.”

“Be fuckin scared. Look at me. I’m a Smits boy. I’ve seen stuff. I got standing and a reputation and a chin. Even took a bullet once without the knee. And someone like me, even he don’t never want to have that meet with Frank Carnaghan. You know what they call him in our little world?”




“Yeah really—you know why?”


“Well, that might could be, but the real point is it ain’t cause he’s a fellow countrymen. A Carnaghan goes by Princess, you better be scared.”

“I am. And yeah, that’s irony.”

“Good to know it.”

“It’s almost impossible to, to louse this up.” A thumb to the mop closet. “Everything I need. What kind of layout is it supposed to be? Do you have a mockup?”

Declan mouthed the last word to himself. The idea amused him or did worse.

“So layout,” he said at last. “Totally straightforward.” Declan had the terms. “One picture per page, crown folio and inch margins, just recto, no verso—all gutters sit left. And no type. Not a single dirty word. Easy peasy.”

And on that cutesy two, come from such an earthy mouth, Ray felt the real fright.

Declan rolled the dials on the suitcase one at a time and thumbed the latches. But the lid stayed down as Declan backed away. He pocketed his hands as he made for the door.

An inch ajar. The suck rang loud behind him. “Hey, uh, Glister. Ray. Just … just take it easy, all right?”

Shut without the usual tough-guy slam. Not even a click of the bolt into the strike. On the far side Declan let go of the knob, and his rising steps were lost in the undertone of the drain.

At which Ray’s shirking eye could work its way back to the delivery—the sprung latches—with a glance that held longer each time.

Going deaf was a point of pride at the Dray House printing plant, for one man at least. He stood in the onrush like a feat of strength. The break of a dam without he once lost his feet.

Or so a lifelong boy of the city liked to see it. Herbert Masurinsky was only halfway to death, he figured, if he laid off the smokes and the well drinks, and had never seen a dam in person. Nor any water that didn’t have window lights hung in it upside down. He would work in that noise for hours—the flood of eld scrubbing past a manly stance. The spin of machines was a tickle at his heart. It even kneaded out some of the ache in his back. Such a thoughtful reckoning.

The presses ran in a parallel the length of the floor, an offset web roller rig and an old roto. They had a stink as well as a voice—paste inks and scalding hot paper in a sharp mix. In Herbert’s nose it brought back the days of the first job, during the Big One, double-yew-double-yew-deuce. Herbert had been all of thirteen and just itching to go serve on a szkop, as Pops had called them, once a recruiter would be a guy. The mess had ended before he ever got the chance, and in the meantime he found a savor for the work. Earplugs came later, and the machines had cleft through the top of his hearing. It made his small-boned soprano of a wife, Dolly, hard to follow on the telephone and sometimes at home. Not too steep a price to pay for a love of thirty years.

The printing plant was a union shop even though they didn’t run the news—just magazine and catalog and small press. Everyone who worked there knew he’d have a job and a paycheck until he died or quit or shorted on his due. Herbert could remember when it hadn’t been so. Union work meant you did favors here and there, sometimes for some rough guys. But it beat the rougher way of life that had been in place since any of Gutenberg’s fifteeners took a clothespin.

Herbert looked down to the bindery end, out past the old brick arch. Once a gate had hung there, where the draft horses had hauled out the kegs. And as he watched a yellow flatbed roamed into sight, let loose near the hampers, and the web rollers going full throttle.

That was no good. A flagrant violation of house safety rules and just plain fucking dopey. His guys all new better, except maybe the one. Herbert went to stomp down the foot brake. Trolley secure, he came around a hamper and had the one confirmed.

Ed Cruz had always been a mite slow. He went by Ricky Retardo on the loading dock, Herbert knew. But in that chinless face with its fuddled eyes he saw the kid he himself had been when new to things. Ed was almost twice as old as that, but still. Never mind he had a Rico name. This was a more enlightened era and an upright shop. Ed’s uncle Jack was a rep, a standup guy, Rico or not, but that never meant the kid himself was afraid to work, and he had shown it. He had arms like holiday brisket, thick through the wrists. And he was using that strength to dig through the bins of waste paper. Sheafs were tumbling to the floor.

“So what’s the trouble, Eddy,” Herbert shouted.

They had to bark over the machines. Still a voice wouldn’t carry, not every time, nor now when it mattered. So he set a hand to the near shoulder.

And on that slightest touch Ed about jumped clean from his bibs. The eyes found Herbert’s, very large. The face was slick, and white as a leaf.

A glance could become a vow. Donald Vandam had known as much since he was the smallest boy. Nothing singled out in his mind would go free easy. He lived in the moment but every other moment did as well. Figments of his time stayed as close as the air he drew.

Four reared up even as he pulled the delivery truck to the curb at the newsstand, going on dawn. The pole of a parking sign, bent to a nod, recalled a wooden horse. It had sat atop a steamer trunk in Margerie’s attic, his spinster great aunt. The slack in the truck’s suspension as he came to a stop brought back a canoe ride from a summer at camp, the same easy heave beneath a seat. A cafe man across the street, setting out a board, conjured up that first egg cream with coffee milk syrup. Brake lights were in a transit on the avenue up ahead, busy even then. They became a stroke of tracer fire.

Donald’s breath smoked in the cold. The grate was up at the newsstand. A dim light showed inside. Early for the old man to open shop. Most often Donald would toss the bundles to the awning and be on his way. But he could carry them in. Show a little kindness. Humanity came wanting too often that early, a sun yet dug up.

The canoe had run upon the carcass of a doe, long adrift and ripe. It had sheared in half around the wales and sunk into the slow black water. The horse had rocked of itself, three lone creaks that spoke off the dusty rafters. The egg cream had been delicious—no going back to chocolate. Wonder no one else had ever thought of that south of Warwick. He and two men had opened fire into a brake of Stone Age vegetation past any semblance of a name. There had been a voice. All three had heard it. No body had turned up in the leafy mow aside the trail. Only a tablet, upright and mossy, and on it a graven footprint older than the faith.

A newspaper van pulled up close. The high beams lit in Donald’s mirror and threw a frame across his eyes. Then the horn. It was not a neighborly sort of street but people did sleep in that vicinity, in flats and singles above the fronts. The Herald, he saw. There was pride at the Herald. No local press had run longer. Under the needless toot he heard the the rankle.

Toy horse, canoe, egg cream, gunfire. That toy horse. That canoe. That egg cream. That gunfire. And now headlights. Those. Forevermore the beams, those curse words, sounding in his eyes.

Donald took up his walking stick. With a cautious step he lit down on the curb. Active duty had ended with a gimp. He would never sprint again, fast and low. But neither would he take a fall.

“Move that goddam piece of shit!” the other driver shouted.

He had left doubts behind, the weight of other men’s failures. In search of off-hour work he had moved to the biggest city he could. Gone tail-first into a delivery truck while he went to electrician’s school with help from the Bill. A new kind of dawn patrol. It had nothing on the tour of duty, but it came with its own set of misty marvels. Until he had a license and seed money he would be witness.

Past midnight another world rose. Same confines, same map, but an emptier place. The shines were out in force, but away from the platforms and the risky acreage in the park they kept at their own. None might have guessed a whore worked so late, well past four. But that was when the bars let out, men so drunk they shouldered the walk and wept without cue from the laugh. Newspaper vans shared the streets that early. Little traffic, but vying all the same, a feud for nothing.

This driver got out too, once he saw Donald stand the ground. A thickset man. He had a sense of himself, the danger he brought. More often those truckers ran with partners, those who threw the bundles off the back. Someone must have called in sick. A second would have made no difference.

“Pull that breadbox up a piece, you fuckin mook. I’m working here.”

“There’s no call for that kind of language,” Donald said.

Only then did the Herald man size him up, the walking stick. It was a number four bat—a shank of maple that reminded Donald of home, where leaves would turn a glory before they fell in a clump.

“I spoke in haste,” the Herald man said.

Donald liked that, the show of tact, words chosen better, once a man was mindful. He also knew the repute: don’t test the stacks guy who never gets mad and uses a slugger for a cane.

He did hit now and then—most often just a thrust, in warning. And it was fair. Up one sleeve he had a slapjack, in a boot a surplus bayonet. At the small of his back where it wouldn’t show he kept a Special with JHP. And aside the seat he had a twelve-gauge Beretta Silver Snipe, over and under. A fowling piece, as Granddad used to say while it had been his own. Unsawn, with knotted rope for a combat sling. One barrel held buck, the other a slug, a load meant for big game at close range. It would unmake a man. Even without a weapon, Donald knew how to strike, and where.

He said, “I’ll just be a minute.”

“Nah, I’ll hump them on over,” the Herald man said, and stepped away backward to the rear of his truck, eyes humble.

“Back up some,” Donald said—for room to work. He needed a free yard to drop the hand truck.

“Will do,” said the rival, already at the wheel. Not without a mutter, and that was fine, in restraint.

Donald’s anger was a subtlety even to himself. But wrongdoing did carry a grief. He had certainly seen enough of it—seen and done. When he had first come to the city, Geoff Levy, a friend from boot, had tried to set him up with some easier work, flexible hours—a matter of collecting from deadbeats. But Donald would not go that way, whatever he had on his book. A lapse against a crook was no lapse at all, not as he saw it. Geoff had been a help, though—another phone call had brought the route.

“You take this filth back!” 

The old man had come out. His cap slipped free of sprung white hair. He threw something to the ground at Donald’s feet. In the other hand he had a bat of his own, and it shook in his grip.

“You take back this, this wickedness, you motherfucker!”

A short bundle, done up with twine. The plastic had been torn, then slapped together again. The ends of the strapping were sprung like haywire. A return—and a rude one.

“There’s no call for that bad language, mister.”

The old man raised his bat for show, and Donald’s swept out. The wood broke from the hand, and the barrel end clattered on the walk. A cheap corked ash, slivered at the waist.

Donald might have done a little more, just to get those knotty hands back in place, but he saw that the old man’s cheeks were wet with tears.

The maple came down, but easy. Donald set his palm upon the knob. Just a cripple’s crutch again. “So tell me, mister,” he said.

Ray felt the edges in his hand, the sheet stripped from the dark slide, pliant and wet. The blackness in that space was complete, a smell of mop busy in the air. Even through that mildew and bucket pine, the bath sent up a trace. Like a tongue on a battery or a clean bone. Right beside was the fixer, hypo from a jug, and then the water, distilled to a blandness.

A pair of tongs, meant for cooking, got the sheet into the first bath. The move was like the tuck of a baton, a beat for time. Whatever came out of that wash he felt glad for the dark. The photo would have begun to take, like a rust. From one blank to another if left to soak.

The tongs slipped and he lost the edge. He threw them aside and sought the corners with his fingertips, knuckle deep. A modest burn like dill brine. Once he was done he would pour a vinegar on his hands. Soap and water would never take it off. It would burn him raw.

Thumb and forefinger, a dainty hold. By touch alone his mind cast a likeness. Black pane, black room, there at the bottom of a well. The second bath, the rinse.

And so it went, thirty-six sheets. He let them pile up, unhurried but steady, and he knew the overhead bulb would have to go on again. The string pull teased at the back of his neck.

“What? What’s that? Hang on now.” Herbert switched ears. The rotogravure had run on the left, and it had a thrashing squeak that cut right through the foam. “Say again? No, pretty sure. Sorry, Dolly. You know how I love that tuna. What? Yeah, put some foil on, leave it in the oven. I’ll make it up to you. One of my guys, he needs a hand. You know how it is.”

Phone hooked and missus back in sorts, Herbert took a seat with Ed at the lunch table. It was not a glamorous place for a frank talk or a cup—a picnic bench, bolted down under yellow skylights—but hours on foot did thaw off there. And that was in spite of the draft, cold as a hand up the back. Herbert fought it by putting on his cap and shearling coat, the last a gift from Dolly that had outworn the years. Between the mugs he had set out bourbon, a back-pocket pint. They were past sunset and coming up on the end of the shift.

“I ran something I shouldn’ta,” Ed said. “I made a copy. I mean copies.”

“You ain’t bowling me over here.”

“I know I was wrong. I thought maybe it got in the wastepaper. I hoped.”

“Quod erat demonstrandum.”


“Blame the sisters. The Latin, it’s a Catholic school vice. Forget it. You stashed whatever you ran someplace and it didn’t turn up.”

“In a box. I wrote just trash on it and put off to the side. You know, in that side room’s full of chairs and stuff.”

“The old farriery.”

“Huh? Who is?”

On, Herbert cued him.

“I didn’t figure they’d empty it,” Ed said. “You know. For the overstock last week. Not without I got a chance to get it back. It was filthy in there. You’d think they’d have to burn all the garbage out. Like that leper cell from whatsit, Ben Heard.”

“You have a locker.”

“Wouldn’t fit, Herbie. The door, it didn’t close. Not even when I had the box up sideways.”

“Why not just take it home with you?”

“Hey, it wasn’t for me, you understand. I don’t want no part of that. Santa forbid my wife gets a look. Vincent, that guy who loads the truck, he thought we could move it on the side. He knew a guy. Or a guy who knew a guy—I don’t know. You’d have to ask Vince. It got away from him.”

“Now Eddy, we are talking about something from Declan Smits here, right?” A pause, a nod. “Something we run late? When most good boys have gone to bed?”A nod. “One of those specials for mail order, or for that newsstand delivery straight out the back?”

A nod.

Herbert shook his head but only to himself. “How were you going to turn a dollar? It’s a bulk business, ain’t it? One box, it don’t make a difference. Anyway, you don’t want to compete with that crowd for walking-around money. They watch for dippers. And there’s a reason that’s all on the q.t. The law would have you, too. Eddy—you’d hope for the goddam law. With that stuff your only bosoms are the leches.”

“It wasn’t a magazine, Herbie.”

“It wasn’t.”

“Well, it didn’t start out like one, but I ran off some extra, like I said. I just stapled it with a blank cover and set it aside. It was a funny size, so I had to use broad and trim it down. Did it up in the plastic wrap like a regular newsstand bundle. You know, for disguise.”

“In a box that said just trash. What do you mean not a magazine? All those things Smits brings in, they’re periodicals.”

“Except the one.”


Herbert took his time. He knew of the one but he denied it, at first. Let it be anything else, he thought. He sipped his way through half a cup, waiting for Ed’s eye. It never came.

At last he said, near a whisper, “Twice a year Smits brings in work I’ve never looked at. I’m not even here for any of it. Floor’s clear except three fellas who come in off the clock. They’re inside guys—sworn like. And then there’s this freelance, a bookbinder, who takes the whole run off site for the finishes. None of us even knows his name. Now, you couldn’t have made your own print off any of that. The plant’s shuttered. None’s left sitting here for the day shift. Not even the scums or jams. Whatever don’t go with the binder, it goes straight to the furnace.”

“One of those three fellas you said, he’s Tom Wilmer, right? So he brought me in. To take his place one night, you know? He had a head cold. He said I was too smart to talk.” Ed shrugged. “Plus, you know, I got my uncle. That’s an inside guy right there. It don’t get more inside than Jack, less you’re made. I suppose that gives me consideration.”

Herbert stared. Wilmer. Any cold would have been caught from a bottle.

“That one,” he said.

“That one.”

“Maybe it went out to the dump. Along with the junk. Head deep in a landfill.” Herbert’s outlook had took a turn.

“Yeah, maybe, except the empty box, just trash, it was still in the room.” Ed hesitated. “Herbie, you know, I saw, I just saw—”

“Don’t tell me,” Herbert said.

“I meant I saw a chance is all. A leg up, you know? Some rich bicho’s toy, wrong as it is. Me, only thing I want off a fat cat, it’s the fat. I sure as hell never want anything to do with what, with—.”

And there it was, that wrung-out stare. Herbert had seen the same reflection show from Janssen, from Graves, even from Wilmer before he took to the drowning.

Speaking of which. The cap came off the back-pocket with a pinching twist and did a table dance. A splash into the coffee mug—make it a double.

“Not one word of description, boy.” A swallow, a clean sting of whiskey. “Not one damn word.”

No, Ray thought, and no more.

He found himself at the drafting table, back first. He had reeled the whole way, eyes on the darkroom door. The knob had struck the drywall hard enough to punch a hole. Past the jamb the bulb swayed into sight, back out, back in, shadows at a bob. The filament scratched an afterimage into his stare. The negative sheet lay on the floor in plain view, right where he had let it drop.

No, he thought. And then not even so much as that.

A rattle. Ray jumped.

Dull and dry, but a shock in that stillness. The wall phone. The withered pulse gave out. Never heard before. Something was wrong with the mechanism—muted or broken or choked with a dust.

Again the rattle, longer this time, a full cycle, and the silence. Ray watched until it quit, a dozen rings or more. Someone with patience. But a wrong number, it could only be.

“You clean up those goddam bins,” Herbert said as he walked past the wastepaper cast about.

The shout was not in anger. He and Ed were back in the throat of the plant, and a shout was a given. The machines had not stopped running, though Herbert had let the other two men on go home right before the short shrift upstairs. 

Ed looked cowed—thrashed. His hands began to rake through the misprinted leaves.

Good. Herbert shook his head as he walked on to his favored spot, near the old double-swung doors where he could look back on the plant. A kid never knew, he supposed. It was all in the word. Not even a goat when it came to sense. He smiled to himself. A youngster could learn.

The contraband—it had gone to a better place, most likely, along with the rest of that deadroom scrap. No one sought loot in a heap of junk, not even flagged by a dimwit ruse. And any string of chances that might have led it places, they would have been thin to breaking. Herbert had a qualm, all right, and how, but not enough to lose all the sleep he so sorely needed.

At the end of a run the machines got hot, which got them noisier in turn. So loud the air seemed to clot and shudder like a gel. The set brought a funny state of mind. Herbert called it “the spooks” on account of what came into the edges of his sight. Shadows that fled the turn of his head. Herbert would let the batch complete and collate in the morning.

A gust. No sound, not above the run, but a hard bat of wind. Herbert bowed and took a step but kept his feet.

The double doors had come open in a storm—the first thought. But that wouldn’t account for all the shards of wood thrown around. He saw his cap hit the floor. He caught a firecracker smell, a whiff of burning hair. And only then did he feel all the buck scattered up his back.

He turned with a stumble as the blood began to dot. There was a hole centered where the lock had been. The door leaves were swinging forward on the blast but at a creep, each with a half-moon bite taken out, a two-thumb thickness of old-time oak.

And there stood a man behind a smoking barrel. Dark hair, clear eyes, and a quizzical look. Mild in a way but cutting—a stare into the task at hand.

Ray had a police station in mind, and nothing else, not even a future, an excuse, when he came upon beat cops in the dark. They sized him up, from the slip-ons had had forgot to change to the shaky tip of his cigarette holder.

“Hi,” he thought to say.

And he was trying to come up with more, plead the case, when one gave the other a look. The unspoken language was not lost on Ray. He knew all too well how it would go from there. One cop was Italian, the other Irish. Foremost both were police, which was Irish of a whole nother kind.

“What brings you to the neighborhood?” said the Italian.

“Sure you didn’t miss a turn back there?” said the Irish.

“Get off the map back in the Village?”

“Looking for a bar someplace? A new best friend?”

“Maybe a Tootsie pop. How many licks?”

“Okay,” Ray said.

“What’s okay?” asked the Irish.

“You’re okay?” asked the Italian.

“I don’t think he looks okay. Me, I think he looks a bit sick.”

“You know what’s up there on that cul-de-sac ahead?”

“No,” Ray said.

“Trade,” said the Italian.

“Something for the discriminating taste,” said the Irish. “Like an open-air market.”

“Finook,” said the Italian. “In the old country it means fennel. Tastes kind of like licorice.”

“Faygele,” said the Irish. “Different country, I suppose. Got change for a twenty?”

“Five bucks can work miracles. Suspend the very lawrs of nature. At least with one of those young twinkle-toeses looking for a sandwich.

“And a side of nuts. What, too much?”

“Officers, I just stepped out for a pack of cigarettes.” Ray had noted that the holder was empty. He had come out in a clench, though walking fast, clear into his teeth on the stem. But now he saw that it was all no good. Once again, the selfsame animal, him and a deviant, him and the layout he drew. “I work at the caster warehouse down the street. The night shift.”

“You got all the way over here without you met a corner store?” said the Italian. He and the Irish exchanged another glance.

“They didn’t have my brand.” There was no store. No difference.

“Should we escort him back to the workplace?” said the Irish.

Ray had been looking as scared as he felt, but more he felt the wear. “Oh please do,” he said.

The police shared a smirk. It fell away once the attention came back to him. “Get outta here,” said one of the two, thumb in a barb. By then Ray had forgot which was which.

Herbert took a backward walk, each foot at a drag, shackled down. Looking for the chain he saw the scuffs and beads of blood. A wetness had spread over his back and to his ankles. The leather had taken damage, but not the brunt. He was hurt bad. He retreated into the pummel of machines.

The dark-haired man stepped forward, keeping pace with a steady eye. He had slung the shotgun like a knapsack and taken up a bat, leaning into it one bump at a time. The other hand drew a revolver, unaimed yet. He used the thumb and finger to pluck a rolled-up journal from his belt. The pinch held it forward, and it uncurled. A black cover. Not a hint of detail. Like a dummy for the bin.

Look at it, the stranger mouthed. In that thundering narrows no voice would rate.

Herbert had his hands up. He tried to speak, heard or not. “I didn’t do it.” He couldn’t make out his own words, nor the hum in his head behind the plugs. “It wasn’t me.”

A toss, underhand, almost carefree. The magazine lit at Herbert’s feet.

The stranger formed the words again, each with a show.

Look. At. It.

The gun made a gesture. Herbert looked down into the spread. A page had fallen open.

“Oh my God.”

His vision had gone a sickly yellow and now it shimmered through the tears. By then he knew he had backed into Ed’s line of sight, from the hoppers, and that had been his only goal. He didn’t want the boy to risk his neck, only to hunker down and hide. Sound carried better in that corner, so Herbert shouted as loud as he could.

“You one of Declan’s guys?”

Who, the stranger mouthed.

And he knew at once the man was not. All the same he yelled out the name, so Ed would hear and with any luck understand.

“Declan Smits! Look for Declan Smits!”

Okay, the stranger said, under the machines. Herbert thought of the missus, safe at home. He was thankful. A stranger might come calling anyplace. And then a clap struck out the noise and the light.

The phone had been ringing again while Ray shuffled down the basement stairway. But it had gone quiet once he made it to the lock. He left the key in it, full turn, the bolt unshot. He would snap off the bow once he found a mallet. But first he had to get to work. And find the strength.

Some hours passed before Declan barged in. In his hand he had a pistol.

“Christ Jesus, Glister, you can’t answer a phone?”

“It never rang before.”

“Never had a reason to ring.”

“That’s for me?” Ray asked, with a look to the gun. There was a red bleariness in his eyes. They scraped at the blink. He was tired past caring, wept to a parch. And he was not yet finished.

“Just for your protection. Here.”

“You’re handing me a weapon?”

“Got one of my own right here, in the holster. That switch on the side, at the thumb? That’s the safety. You’ll need to press that first.”

“I don’t think I have it in me.”

“Can’t help there.” Declan looked past Ray to a mechanical. A single image pasted into four keylines, in black and white. In truth boards were stood up all over, camera-ready, on every tabletop.

Ray read the sadness in the handsome face. “Goddam me,” Declan said. He even made the cross. And he said it once again without a sound.

“Want me to cover them up?” Ray asked.

Declan only shook his head. He pulled something out from under his coat and handed it to Ray. A staplebound cover, black and glossy, a magazine of some sort. No title, no feature, no cover price.

“I wouldn’t bother looking.”

Ray did anyway, leafing through. Declan was right: more of the same. And yet that did not lessen the wrongful shock.“Who wants this?” he said aloud but softly.

“Here’s what you need to know. I got a call. A fella in the outfit, name of Geoff Levy, he turned up cold this afternoon. That was left on his chest. Someone went and beat him to death.”

The pages hit the floor.

“Oh there’s more,” Declan said. “I just got back from Dray House, the printers. There was a survivor, and another full of holes. And an issue, left just the same. It’s the last one The Pervert did himself. I don’t know how it got out there, done up like that. But the witness, he said the guy got hit, he gave up my name.” Declan shook his head in distaste. A bad memory—there had been a follow-through. “How I hate the housekeeping. Look, we’re exposed. Me, these pictures, that plant—what’s the common denominator, huh? It’s this one damn room and all ’t comes out of it.”

“How does Levy figure?”

“Don’t know. Shawn and Mick and Frank, they got a sleuth on it. Meantime, we’re going to burn this out. Your marker—call it paid. If there’s police, and there will be, the Carnaghans and me would rather hand them ashes. I got three cans in the trunk. You just make up a pile, okay?”

“It was thoughtful of you to come, Declan. When I didn’t pick up. Not everyone would have.”

The face was not so wrought it couldn’t spare a grin. Even to the dimple. Thank heavens for that goddam dimple.

“Aw. You know how it is.”

And Ray did, all at once. It was like taking in a breath. Whatever story Ray had missed, so sorry for himself, the Smits boy had been sent down to the basement for a reason he knew all too well: a use, as people saw it. Declan was just another man caught in a scheme. And who knew a flop of an activist might, just might, wind up a gunsel?

“Make no mistake. I’m happy these will burn.” Declan had picked up the nearest board. But before he tossed it for the pyre he noted what was written faint, in nonrepro blue.

So much for hopes.

Declan looked around the basement, to the same lower corner of each board put on display.

“We’re going to destroy them, aren’t we?” Ray said. “What’s the difference?”

The gangster had turned about to face him. Never such a look.

“Did you—you’re in on this, Ray?”

“In on—?”

Truth could read, and so could relief. There was still a break of trust. Just not a murderous one.

Declan shook his head. “Talk later. You just stack them up. I’ll be right back.”

Ray dared not move. His eyes tracked Declan as he pulled open the door and stepped into the well. A flash and a thump just as the door swung shut. One shivering foot had stuck through, the pant leg peeled back up the naked calf.

The slug had been meant to breach the door. A waste of firepower, a show put on for no one. But the big man had come through and the shotgun had been what Donald had up and ready.

Waste was right. There were legs and arms in a sprawl, the lapels of a long coat, and the rest was unstrung mayhem. The sound of a trickle came up from a drainpipe.

Donald watched himself go down the stairs with the bat, one bump at a time. All that day had come at the same remove. He was aware of the heat behind the rampage but felt no more involved in the one than he did in the other. Whatever he was was not a mind, he saw. The last truth of him was something else—something at a picture show.

There had been a yelp. Another man in there, another culprit, whatever else he’d find. Perhaps the show of force had paid off unintended.

The key was in the lock. Odd. No matter—the door was ajar, held open at a dead man’s knee. Donald shouldered it, Special up and ready, sweeping the room as it came into view.

A studio of some sort. Pictures all around. And they were more of the same. From a seat in the back of his head he marveled at the fury. Even then, with so little left unseen.

A man stood waiting—small and timid, olive skin, longish hair. Not so different from Donald except he had no heft and seemingly no wish to survive. No try to hide, no cover taken. There was even an automatic set down at his feet—right beside a copy. The black issue Donald had left with a friend. He recognized a dog-ear and a tear. And every moment of that day was as present as the one right before him, whatever came, however bare the truth.

The newsstand vendor had known some about what was being delivered, of course. He had no stomach for it, but men had made him see it their way. They had not named whoever they worked for. Which had left Donald with Geoff Levy and a question that needed asking. The material had been stashed in the bundles, bound up with magazines and crossword puzzle books. The old man had had to break them out, of course—unwrap them, set them beneath a countertop for discreet buys.

Brown bags under the cash register. Never with a glance to a page that came shut and under wraps. But blank and black and in the open—that had all just been too strange to leave unturned.

“Put up your hands,” Donald said.

“Why?” the man asked, a hoarse voice.

Fair enough, Donald saw. The man posed no threat, though he knew what would come. He stood beside a drafting table with a few tools laid along a steel lip. One of the boards was taped onto the tilted plane under a clamp-on light. Just finished, a photo tamped into a grid of pale lines.

“Do you see that?” Donald asked.


“That’s me.”

Donald was unsure what he meant. It had come from up front, not his true self at the back.

“It’s not,” said the man. “That’s—that’s someone else. But I’m sorry.”

“Where do the pictures come from? Who is the photographer?”

“I don’t know. They were brought here.”

“By whom?”

“The man you just killed.”

“His name was Smits?”

A nod.

Donald had tailed the big ginger from a meeting at the plant—a hunch on whom to follow. Come to a dead end. But it went further. Donald had more to do. There was a source. Whatever room had been caught in the background, he would see it firsthand, like that camera eye.

Looking there, the likeness of the room he’d go to, he noticed something written on the board. A name, scratched into place with a light stroke.

“This is you?”


Donald picked it up to squint close, then held it out to his side to show the other. “This is who I need to ask?”

“I’m sorry,” the man said. His hand had gone to the lip on the table, and it took a swipe.

A chilling sting at the side of his neck. Donald thought to raise the gun, but the hand stayed down, the weapon past his reach, finger without a twitch on the trigger. The weight of what he knew fled him. All the figments, those he saw and the one he never had, left him to the dark.

A craft knife was like a scalpel. No less surgical, no less sharp. The lie of a putty rubber had blocked the gleam, and the pencil labeled nonrepro blue had covered up the handle and the stem. All a chance. And then another.

Ray caught his breath. He looked at what was thrown across the darkroom door, the broken phone, half the camera-ready art. None had marked him, not a drop. He was amazed. The blood had rushed out with such force that it held a note in the wound.

The unknown man lay on his face, turned by the jet, the bat fallen aside. Whatever became of Ray in days ahead, he would never know more about the visit. What he had done was no worse than anything he had seen. Nor was it any better.

Soon he would take those few last steps to the door. Shove it aside. Say a hard goodbye to Declan Smits. But first he looked to the last mechanical he would prepare, where it had fallen. He took up the board and set it back on the drafting table, under the heat of the bulb.

He considered what was written there like a signature, and elsewhere, thirty-six times in all. Frank Carnaghan. He took up the pencil and struck out Frank. Above a caret, a proofreader’s fix, he wrote Princess. The script was ghostly faint in that cyan pencil wax, sharpened to a prick. But it would read.


“Glad you could make it,” the homeowner said. “A busy man like yourself, on three weeks’ notice.”

“Sure thing. Contract’s a promise, right? There’ll be new drawings? Where’s that architect, anyhow? First meeting he’s missed.”

“He’s done here. I’d just like this to be between you and me.”

“No college boy–hourly, eh? Ching-ching.”

“He came cheap. The upstairs addition—nothing left but the trim work.”

“Oh, we’ll get there. Shed dormer, plumbing, electrical. Not the sort of thing a homeowner can knock out on his lonesome. Never did think you needed that guy, though. A gee cee like me comes in, takes notes, calls the engineer for the math, and ready set go. No need for a sticky nose, day in, day out. That’s how a three-month job winds up taking nine—that dead weight. I got two hands and a brain somewhere between them.”

“Somewhere. Let’s look at what I’m thinking of. It’s in the basement.”

This was an unlit space. On the yank of a pullstring a bare bulb cut shadows. Webs stood thick up in the joists and beams. Spider molt and egg sacs were hung up in the silk. The general contractor missed the last tread. From ten a.m. until two he had taken the usual round of noon drinks.

“The stairs might use a fix. Kind of slippy.”

“This back corner. I want a room maybe fifteen by twenty.”

“What, a darkroom? Photos?”

“No. It’s for my playing.”

“Music? Now we’re talking. You ever hear that Earl Scruggs?”

“He’s banjo. I’m guitar.”

“Well not just any banjo.”

“It’s easy enough. A framing job—stud walls, gyp board. But I want them double hung, with a dead space between. Say a foot. Nothing but air.”

“What for?”

“Soundproofing. The amp. I’d hate to disturb my neighbors.”

“You play that metal stuff?”

“I don’t know what you’d call what I play. Maybe jazz. No insulation except on top. Spray foam in the rafters, that ought to do it.”

“Easy all right. No call for an architect. Wall like that, you won’t hear a jetway from inside.”

“Or out. But before the framing goes up, I need drainage.”


“A drain. In the floor. See the slope? There’s already a sump down here. So it shouldn’t be tough to get the low point in the jam room and let it drain out from there.”

“What for, though?”

“I’ll have some nice equipment. An amp stack for sure. Wouldn’t want gear like that to get damp.”

“No, ha ha, reckon not, Jimi Hendrix.”

“Another thing. When you frame it, I’ll need reinforcement. A bar will go all the way across aligned to center—here to here. High-tensile stainless steel, about this high.”

“Wrist high?”

“If your wrists are overhead, sure. It’s for hanging guitars. I have a lot of them. It’ll have to take a lot of weight. Three hundred pounds easy.”

“Sakes, that’s what I weigh. That is a lot of guitars.”

“Actually, stronger. Sometimes when I jam I get carried away. Double the load in case of pulls. Drill supports right into the beams.”

“That’s sturdy all right. You thought this out. Shit howdy—you never did need that architect. Maybe you don’t even need a general contractor.”

“Not for much longer. I’ll want outlets. Maybe two-twenty to handle the power load.” The fingers aped a strum and chords. “And a sink with a spigot threaded for a hose. Make the walls waterproof. Sometimes I do my laundry by hand.”

“You want fixtures in there? Ceiling lights?”

The homeowner thought it over. “No. I like candles. They set the mood. When can you start?”

“You want I should draw up an estimate first?”

“No, that’s fine. I trust any sum will be fair in the end. Get to it when you can.”

Most homeowners were pests. The cost overruns, the way a schedule could creep. Some thought it was torture. But here there had never been a complaint. Only patience.

“Tell you what,” the gee cee said. “I got time. I’ll get on it soon—three weeks out, if that’s good.”

“No rush,” said the homeowner.


It was a stubborn wood on Nussack Isle, a timeless knot of trees. And noonless besides, even at the hottest of July, when no beam of sun could paw the ground. But summer was a ghost now, November was showing in the freeze, and the trees were nodding at a storm—a howling blow that wore for hours.

No forecast, no small craft advisory, just a snap dusk and a pelt of rain. The gales rose just as fast and threw Jessy Wilcox off her feet. Ramps cut among the trunks. She gimped for cover, forging on up a golf cart route, past a way sign with names in royal we. The Digbies. The Vanderslices. The Fanshaws. The Rumplesses. The Van Winkles. All so plummy they were storybook. Water struck the letters in a boil. The plant litter had begun to crawl. A thunder came in rips and rumbles, and the gaps were drawing shut.

“Wicked pisser,” the towniest of townies would be saying, not a mile off across the Squirrel Gut, under roof and flush with beer. South Reach Island would be all but derelict itself, but some kept there year-round—locals safe before a hearth, dewy can in hand, armed for a duel.

Jessy hankered for the pull, the hiss, the sip of foam. Instead she went with what she had, an ankle twist, a plush seat with an antimacassar she used to dry her hair, and half a mouth of Pussy Van Winkle’s cooking wine. That swallow was all that was left, a salty grape from the back of a cupboard. Even for a nineteen-year-old with an eye roll near at heart—“Figures”—it was sad loot.

A feat of mother nature—the whole house shook. A wrecking bar, her new best friend, had got her in just in time for the electric show. The dark deepened between the bolts and the wind hauled upon the roof. The empty took a tumble and a roll, all unheard. It stalled just aside the mohair lounge, so chic, so damp, while Jessy made a face and got the courage down.

The Van Winkle house had no power, same as any on Nussack, save one. There was no light except the Maglite she had brought in her camera bag and the strikes catching in the slats. Nor running water, the conduit throttled down for wintertime, dead dry. But that could almost pass for a joke.

An unshuttered window lay ahead but not against the wind. She stood up to dare the view and try the leg. A fire poker became a human kickstand. With a dumb slop her fleece hit the floor.

Out in Gamma Bay all the seething water seemed aglow between the flashes. The lightning froze it up like a snapshot and a stare thawed it out. There were combers out there. There were never combers in a bay, least a three-mile inlet shaped like a potsherd. Tonight nature had the aim, a straight shot at a memorable worst. The Fibbers were out there under the surge, and even if a local like Jessy hadn’t known just where, nor how deep, the surf was shooting up where it struck the rocks, a spew of foam higher than the island she had come to raid.

Trees stood thick, it was true, at least where no plat for a summerhouse had been staked. With a beam of half a mile and a crest of forty feet, the isle could hardly make a stash of anything. Deep ranks stood just behind many a porch or gingerbread verandah, spruce and oak. All that showed from the wharfs and windows of Wilkes Harbor, up the bay, was the mass of leaves, where sky met sea.

South Reach ran closer, with a better glimpse of all aboard. But most Reachers, too, were from away. A swing bridge made the real estate less select, the summer folk more of this earth. It had also got the forests thin in a time of stoves—not so long ago to those who stuck it out in winter.

A different sort had gone to Nussack since the nineteen-aughts. They never thought about the trees they kept, though fireplace cords had been boated in with something like a given damn. They would be looking outward instead, to the waters of the bay, smalt blue and dotted up with buoys for the traps. But only for the wakes left by pleasure craft. In those leads they might natter on about horsepower and sail-plan and who had bought what when.

The newsletter had shown the hearsay. No need for townies, little need for town itself save the ferry and a grocery run, that most often made by staff. The Nutties kept themselves to themselves. Which was what they called each other, drolly so, they thought. They had no grasp that it stood for Nutsacks. At least it did to those who had watched them throw down gangways and take them up for a hundred years.

“Wicked pisser,” Jessy shouted to herself. An hour of fear for a mortal hide had been enough. She had limped to a bedroom. Where else? Pussy’s figurines were skittish in a glass display. But the walls baffled the sound if not the shudder—maybe enough to sleep through. The mattress had been stripped for months, but she found a chest. And in the tuck of the blanket inside it she found a fifth, or close enough in a Swedish metric—high-proof vodka, tax stamp unbroken.

“Bless you, you withered biddy,” she said aloud through the sting in her mouth. There was a picture frame on the vanity so Jessy had seen the gnomish smile. Like someone’s idea of a grandmother. The lady had a problem, it seemed, or someone in her employ did. It took a special kind of cad to misuse a widow. Bottoms up! She had found mealy tabs of aspirin in a medicine cabinet, and they made do for an olive. The clothes went on a curtain rod, wrung to dry as best they could. The wool put an itch on Jessy’s naked skin.

The caretaker was the only person within a hobble. Jessy wondered how he was making out in his fort, a cottage with electric light and a cistern full of water and a fireplace to read beside. It was at the only good landing, on the lee side to the north. A modest slip known as Sachem Wharf, for some reason, since it was neither a wharf nor royal. All the private docks were up for winter. The ten-foot skirt of granite was too sheer for anything but the worst of waves. Which, hello.

She would be seeing the caretaker again soon enough, Jessy supposed, five gulps down. Little chance her kayak had stayed put, less that she could get the ankle into the sprayskirt and hold the foot out straight. Her cell phone had no range. A call and a ride was what she needed, whoever made it, whoever drove. Handcuffed, printed and mugged, given a day before the court. But that was all just giggles. Her father would be the one who found out next. She loved the harbormaster, surly though he was, but man could he slap a pretty face.

No “Wicked pisser” per the caretaker. Maybe a “Mein Gott” or some other patness. He was a trim silver man of late middle age with a mild accent. Jessy and her friends had used it for a bullseye.

On days off, spring through fall, he came to the Salty Dog in Wilkes Harbor. There Jessy tended bar of late, cheat book in hand for any drink more complex than added ice. A tidy loner, the caretaker—canvas pants and a sweater of a thickness from cashmere to rag, per the weather. He would take a domestic beer or two, steamed clams or a lobster roll, and a New York Times crossword, done in pen.

With sly voices Jessy and Prudence Hazard and “Radical” Stew dubbed him Wolfgang Hochstetter, the Teutonic Titwillow, Judgment at Nuremberg, Curse You Red Baron, and other darts of a short range. He was so nice and unassuming that it became fun to peg him for a fiend. They said he did unspeakable things, German things, when left alone for winter, which they spoke at length. The rich were different, true, but not so odd as the man who stayed put to latch their gate.

The three were bored, was all—young and bored and pushing for room. No harm was meant. And Jessy only saw as much when C.Y.R. Baron caught them at it.

“Radical” Stew had just flounced into the Salty Dog. Jessy and Prude knew the choice of word because he announced it. “So ask me why I’m flouncing.”

“Why what now?”

“Flouncing. As in, to-flounce. It’s on the SAT.”

“You’re thinking of that GED our dad made you take.”

Prude was his foil and twin sister, to Jessy best friend. Their father owned the bar, as had his father before him, and so on back to the sepia Hazards in frames on the wall. The present mister was also the town manager, tax collector, road commissioner, and treasurer, which was how Jessy got the job despite the age and sweeping indifference. He, the harbormaster, and the sheriff were the illuminati of Wilkes Harbor—them and maybe the tourist board.

“Look,” the dropout said. He held up a newspaper, tabloid size and folded double, and slapped it to a tabletop. It was late spring and the place was empty coming on noon, save the three of them.

The Nutty Times,” Jessy said aloud. “It isn’t.”

“But it so totally is. Official organ of the Nussack Isle Home Covenant Association.”

“You’re an official organ,” Prude said, in observance of due forms.

Jessy asked, “Where’d you get it?”

“Old Lou takes a cup of chowder just before the noon run. At the Java Hut, right by the boats. And he puts a lot of trust in his fellow genus homo. The mail sacks for the Nussack post office, they’re just sitting there on the gunwales. Low-hanging fruit and all that.”

“The Nutsacks mail themselves news about themselves?”

“It’s not like they got a printing press out there, or a paper boy. And it’s not like”—a glance to the address label—“Mr. and Mrs. Wolfie Presters are going to miss a single issue.”

“Ayuh,” Jessy said, but only flip. That part of the coast did not go in for Downeaster. Too many accents came in from abroad, like the license plates, to keep theirs pure and separate. “So what do the neighbors got if not the means to production?”

“Lessee,” Prude said, tracing a column inch with a press-on nail. She frowned. “What the hell is an ice cream social?”

“Maybe it’s like a Cleveland steamer. ‘The HCA proudly welcomes the Deevers of New Canaan to our cherished solstice kingdom.’ What are they, druids?”

Prude said, “You run out of ways to say ‘summer resort.’”

“‘These scions of’—skee-ons?”

“Maybe it’s like ‘science’?” Stew said in that California voice of his.

Prude said, “Try ‘cylons,’” and her deadpan was mwah.

“‘These cylons of old Connecticut will make a worthy addition to the neighborhood of Metacomet Court, where they will be taking over the fine falu-red sommarstuga formerly leased to the Whipple-Burlies of Darien.’ What got the Whipple-Burlies the bum’s rush?”

“One of those hyphen marriages,” Prude guessed.

Jessy read more aloud but the cracks had grown stale. The wear was half brat, half moral, so she said, “Me, I’m just glad the Gestapo’s got a tall boot out there.”

“Why is that?” asked the caretaker, right behind her.

Three sets of knees and pairs of lips clapped shut. Even as Jessy shrank she saw the man had no particular look on his face.

“I’ll have a Coors Light,” he said at last, scooting back a chair and laying out a paper open to the puzzle. “And an order of steamers. None of those from Cleveland, please.”

And he set the tip of a turned-out finger square beneath his nose.

So Attila could sense humor. That might be of help, Jessy thought as she toddled through the wreck of Nussack. “I’m sorry I called you the Sorrows of Young Werther,” she would say, or not. And then he’d ladle out a schnitzengruben and get on the elektrischalpenhorn, or whatever the hell it was the overmen called a telephone. Sorry again, she thought in advance.

What she really wanted was just some stupid water, that searing blue a.m. The wind had been gone when she woke—all quiet save a bleat of sprain and headache. The squirt bottle had fallen from the pack as she had fled, it seemed—a vodka gone down uncut. She had never come so near to lapping from a toilet tank. Upper deck of course.

Four more aspirin had gone home, chewed dry like bitter chalk, mind over gag reflex. She had bound the ankle with a high-threadcount dishrag. The sneaker went on with care, a cuss, and a lengthy sigh. She had tried a few steps. Slow but not tragic.

She looked back. Not got far. For shelter the summerhouse had been a godsend but also a bore, like the rest. She had only jimmied two doors before the storm—the Gantries and the Connors, names almost Zulu there—but she had seen the pattern. Tea sets on a kitchen island. Board games in a coat closet. Bookcases full of mass market paperbacks. The rich weren’t different, they were vanilla with options. An offshore sundae bar.

Her refuge stood on higher ground. As Jessy took a bend toward Sachem Wharf—a quarter mile, maybe—she was surprised to see what had come up over the ledges in the night.

Sand for one—whole drifts of it like a nicotine snow. The bottom of Gamma Bay was rock and molt. There was not much sand, the lobstermen said, except a few beds out past the islands to the south. That was at the lip of the no-trap zone they called the Bottomless Hole, where the floor fell out and no pot ever came back. How a storm could whisk it up and carry it there, that was one for the ice cream social.

The trees stood and all the buildings were intact save the shingle work. Nussack had stared oncoming nature down like a porcupine in the road. Jessy supposed that made her some kind of flea or tick. Nowhere did she hear a bird, and seas had come to visit. She walked past a fishing float, long since cast away and bearded up. Then a ghost net, marine green, hung in the branches of a spruce. Manmade gear come home at last but seeming otherworldly where it lay.

It was a funny kind of eerie, no more—Jessy wished she could text the sights to Prude—until she came upon a full boat. A puller, sixteen feet from a sharp bow to a canoe-style stern, with thwart seats and rowlocks. Old-timey, in other words. She looked to a broken davit arm. The paint job told her whose.

A hopping race got her to the ledge. Broken-bellied at the shelf of South Reach was the whaler she knew she would see. The replica had been in dock near the swing bridge, two miles off. A long restoration, lately finished with Nantucket colors. It had been up on blocks, well out of the water. The rigging was thrown down like a string game. No birds, no noise.

And that ship was not alone: a flat and a trawler were thrown aground, too. In the Gut a tug was belly-up—part of the port fleet, one of her Dad’s, sent adrift. No Coast Guard, no salvage team. Not even the sound of an engine. The bay water had gone silt brown, and the marker buoys had all broken loose. A whole catch lost, pots and all.

“I’m going to burgle the Nutties this fall.”

“Is this because you didn’t get into an Ivy?”

“You can be so vaginal.”

“Semper vi.”

Prude and Jessy had been shrooming—wavy caps from the other coast. They had been part of a kayak instructor’s stash that had outlasted a summer job. On the farthest seaward tip of South Reach there was a marina, small and ramshackle. A good place to stare down the moon and hear the water breathe.

Up it came on a slow draw, hoisting up boat and dock alike. It held and then went down again—a wet sigh of mussels as the plane fell away. Neither girl had tried magic before, and not knowing how, each had made a quid, a full gram apiece. The “strong psilocybe” smacked of shit, each could confess at last. So they swallowed the wads down just to get them past a sense of taste.

Half an hour later the world was doing tantric yoga. Sunlight would have shown color, but a cast of stars, a trackless deep, a phosphorescent world-skull in flight—these were nothing to rebuff.



“So burgling!”

“Got the outfit all picked out—black, black, unt mehr black. Even the underwear is black—merino wool. I have a knit cap in black and inked-out laces for my sneakers.”

“You could write ‘swag’ on a burlap sack.”

“It’s not a costume party.”

“Without a sack you’re a Swiss puppeteer.”

“If I were a Swiss puppeteer I’d be barefoot.”

They made out a little, just to try. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just weird.”

“I know, right? Who came up with an open mouth? I’m all kill that sushi.”

“There’s no getting on Nussack without the ferry slip. And there with the Stasi on watch. For all you know he’s a hunter, and you’re going to play a deadly game of cat and mouse.”

“I streamed that movie.”

“That’s like six.”

“On the south side there’s a place to land. A split in the rock where the runoff washes out. It’s full of pebbles. At neap you could make it in with a canoe or a kayak. It’d have to be a light boat. Something you could pull up into the trees so it didn’t float away or get spotted.”


Once Prude had said it aloud, neither had ever heard a stranger word. They marveled together for the space of three breaths.

“I just want to get me a trophy,” Jessy said at last. “It’ll be a knick-knack. It’s not like they’d leave anything valuable there.”

That was not the real story, but it did make her sound more like her namesake from the Bible. There would be breaking-and-entering in plenty. There might even be some sneak-work, if the caretaker drove out in the state cart to point a flood. And who knew, if a souvenir presented itself, some Christ figure in Hummel, she might even snatch it up for a place on the shelf, right next to the pint-size loving cup from the fourth grade, awarded to her for citizenship.

But no—pictures were the truth of it. These would be posted online under a nom de coward. Just for the dare. Just to show, she didn’t know, God, fate, Dad, that there was no such thing as limits. There had to be something sinister in those houses, or cringeworthy, or, failing that, ridiculous. Any take on funny would suit her fine.

“Were you looking for a second-story man? A yegg?”

“This Jezebel Wilcox must do alone. To show her mettle.”

“So metal. But why tell me at all?”

“I wanted you to think I was cool.”

“You’re my idol. What do I have to do, slaughter a goat?”

Sachem Wharf was a long and unset table. From the head, near a golf cart motor pool and the seasonal post office, Jessy could just make out one end of the harbor. A column of smoke was rising above the ridge to the right. That would put the fire in the townie docks.

Thoughts went to her father, to Prude, and even to Stewart, though of late he had been a dick. She might have liked to fret, to pull her hair like ripcords, but the nearer sight was too hard to look past.

Leeward side or not, the caretaker’s motorboat had beached in the storm. No help there, and no ferry due. His cottage stood on a foot of crusted brickwork that rose up right from the water. A shallow slope led to a landing on the other end, the slot for a golf cart in danger orange. There would have been a front door with a manager sign if there had not been a splintered rubble instead. No wall to hold a doorjamb upright, nor an eave to keep the sun off. Smashed siding, a staved roof. And thrust out from that breach, what, the tail of, what.

Tracks showed on the driveway, dits and dahs that were going dry. They led back to the seawater where, what, had first come aground. Jessy’s eye followed the path back to, what.

No mistaking the armor, not for a townie, nor even for the most grab-asstic landlubber. Segments, a tail fan, a spread of legs. But it was not the profile that would go on a Midwesterner’s bib. The form was no less wrong than the scale—stouter claws, a thicker body, and a head that ran broad like a wedge plow. The color was strange, too, a dark but lustrous indigo. Fringed with a weed—even scratches, a crust of barnacles. She had not molted for an age. Not fussy at all. All very unlobsterlike.

Most so the size. Thought of a fake never crossed Jessy’s mind. The search, the fidgets, the rasp from mouth parts ringing faint in the hollowed-out ruins—these all showed the life.

Jessy had squinted a good minute, in a daze. That time let a scent carry. The bug backed out. Tatters of siding and sheetrock fell away, and plaster came down in a drench. The cephalothorax swung about. Jessy heard the thick scrape of the carapace and the mincing strike of dactyl claws.

It had yards on it from rostrum tip to tail fan, five or more. The feelers swept with the whoop of a caber toss. Crusher and cutter each made a gauge of her, open and shut. The eyes had no depth, clouded globes larger than a fist. Speaking of human body parts, in the mandibles was a foot, bare and white. The palps sucked it back. A pop of bone. Chewed.

Monster movie, Jessy thought, but not without a sickening fright. The keys were in the ignition of the nearest cart, she saw. Three months idle—the battery might be as dry as the main.

She glanced back up and saw how fast the star attraction could move. It would never show in a dash but it could bear down on a pretty girl with a limp in no time at all. The vinyl seat felt cold.

The key turned with a backward click toward reverse. Jessy felt the chill up her back at the dead silence under the buzzer. But she remembered what the motor was—a rotor in a magnet waiting for a voltage—and she stomped the pedal to the floor.

A backward lurch, a skidding turn, a foot to the brake. Her hand stayed on the key and she flipped it past off to drive. As the cart got up to speed she heard the drum of eight heavy limbs. The front two of ten overall would be up and ready, she knew, from times she had heckled at an open-top tank.

A bollard stood in the path beside the post office—foot traffic only, a gentle reminder—but the gap was broad enough. Jessy sped though, clipping the sides, losing the mirrors. One claw rang the bollard out of true and the other smashed through corner windows and a stud post. Beads of safety glass shot into Jessy’s hair. But neither claw swung free to make the grab.

The sawlike nose rooted at the back—a burn of ammonia or worse as a marker fluid shot out—and the rear wheels left the ground. The mouthparts were champing with an appetite. Jessy yelped through the cough and the fumes and the thought of being eaten. At the loss of drag the front-wheel drive sped up. The rear axle hit with a bounce, pulled free.

Past reach—ten miles per hour over a phony-rustic shop lane. A two-ton mud locust galumphing just behind. It should suffocate in air, Jessy told herself, with a newfound love of rules.

Shattering glass and a rip of hedges fell behind. What passed for a mall on Nussack was runty, and Jessy swung a hard right—as hard as stubby tires and a clown car could permit. By then the bug had given up or found something else to eat. There had been a crêperie.

Her foot kept hard to the floor as the cart took the path back to the west-side summerhouses. There at least she knew the lay of the land, which way to run, if run were the word for the pegleg gait she had to work with.

As she drove over the footbridge she dared a look back. He eyes came back to the asphalt with a short-lived relief. But they held on the shallows to the right. There was no wind and all that rich bathroom brown was deathly still for a mile out. But the water stirred just offshore. It drained from a scratched-up and mottled blue. Shells broke the surface, dozens of backs all at once.

The trouble with the local catch was that it would eat just about anything, itself included if left to itself. And what had trotted ashore was close enough to call the selfsame beast. A lifelong diet of sinkers and fish carcasses had to pale next to fresh red meat. Unless a chipmunk ran fat, the only hot morsel on three hundred acres would be Jezebel Wilcox.

There had been no sign of a chase. She needed distance, but she noted the stink on the cart, and then just what stank. A paste of that head tinkle, yellowy brown and bumper high. Speaking of which, great, it appeared that she, too, had wet herself all in the ruckus. Just a half-cup at the crotch. Thirsty or not, her fear could spare it.

Right at the intersection that led up to the Van Winkles, she left the cart behind, limping at a stride, holding back the pain with a smirk and a shitty attitude. “Great. Great. Fuck you. Fuck.” A bottom feeder had no use for a jump. The granite drop around the isle would hold them back. If they had the interest, or the gills, they’d have to take a walk same as anybody else.

Toxic waste, she thought at each step and wince. Radiation. An Indian curse. DARPA plankton. But another idea began to shout any of those more arcane hurdles down: fresh water, fresh water, how about some fresh water.

One of these Nutsacks had to have a plastic jug on hand. And maybe a gun cabinet. TNT. Some of that fertilizer that low-rent militiamen and Arabs were always making bombs out of. Jessy would have settled for a racket to go out swinging with—any show of a fight, ad out or not.

Pussy’s house was a no-go for a drink, she knew already, unless the last tenth of that fifth got to be a quality-of-life issue. So she tried the house next door, and ungently, with the bar right at the front jamb. No more side windows for her, not with these stakes. The Fogles, the door read, with a wood carving of a pig in a top hat and spats that came down prone on the welcome mat.

The guts of the house were a chintz—flowers on the curtains, flowers on the vases, and where there was no flower to be found, a doily. Jessy swept the kitchen cabinets and found a can of snaps. A drawer gave up an opener. Soon she was helping herself to the pack water. Disgustingly delicious, downright sweet under the zing of tinplate, though it had no sugar. And then she wolfed down the beans, a green clump in three chews. Like fondant peeled off a wedding cake.

On to the next house, an ample bungalow, leased out to the Vanderslices judging from the nameplate. No sign of a stampede, or even a stray dogie, eyes on the path. Here there was vent glass aside the door, and she shattered it with a backhand.

The decor showed better taste, even a haut, but she had no time for Danish modern or regrets. The kitchen and the downstairs rooms gave her nothing to work with, no nectars in a supermarket can, but she was surprised to see a basement door under the flight that led upstairs.

Cellars were rare along the water and unheard of on the islands. The coast was a thankless solid rock. Even sewer lines were laid above grade. But a basement would be where she pictured a shotgun or a jug of something flammable. So she opened the door and took a set of steps, steep and narrow, Mag and beam overhand like a spear. And she promptly came to another door.

This one gave her pause even as it stopped her. It was some kind of oiled walnut with black band and heavy rivet. Medieval, in a frisky sort of way. Someone had babied it. Most definitely not where the rags and thinner would be left. Dreams of molotov cocktails faded to a sulk.

Jessy tried the handle though she saw the deadbolt plain enough. Locked tight for winter, duh. Back up the stairs she went. And then up the next flight, to the half-floor above, looking out through quarter-round windows on the duff and dirt. There the other comers would scuttle up to feed. She hoped she would taste like soggy old beans.

Her pulse had slowed to double digits. She checked the time on her cell, useless to her otherwise. Better than an hour had gone by. She gave it another two before she went back down to ground level. Even in the danger a restiveness had set in. She just had to know how safe she was, whatever a b-movie or comic book might have told her not to do. That sort of animal needed water to breathe, she knew, unless it was like a sowbug. So until a roly-poly showed up in jumbo, there was room for hope.

And the crack she heard in the air decided it, just as she peered out the door. A rolling pop, like a signal or a shot, maybe a flare gun or starter pistol out on South Reach.

The path led her with nothing like a hurry. She walked past the cart, straining an ear ahead. Once the demolition reached it—faint even in the stillness, but all wrong—she hunkered down to hide. But then she remembered that smell would be the trouble. And scrunched up low like that, all her own ripeness brought before her nose, she frowned and stood.

A wet fingertip told her nothing about the air, it turned out. No sense of current or direction. Her scout troop had lied to her. So she went no farther up the path. Instead she cut through to the ledge for an angle on the summerhouses ahead. And a view of the near island.

South Reach gave no tell of man, or not of man in person. Floes of garbage were drifting by on mudded water—all of Gamma Bay a leaking trash. And there on Nussack not many of the avant-quaint buildings showed well that close to the granite and through the trees.

But Jessy saw enough and heard better yet. A skepticism was only healthy, whatever her senses told her outright. But her heart took a prompt dive. Her visit had a purpose, and so did the other, it seemed. Fate was getting up in her shit. Time to find Jesus.

Coming back, thoughts lost in how she might live, she took a thicket for a shortcut. Her hands batted through the twigs. She let out a sob of anger, brushing needles and probably Lyme disease from her face as she got back on the path.

There stood a man in a gimp suit. Black latex, rings for a body hoist, zippered hood and all. Two bluish eyes gave cool regard through the holes. Slung over a shoulder was a rifle with a long clip.

A finger yanked the zipper ring. The mouth was free to speak. “Sorry, it’s cold out and this is all I have to wear. Nice to see you, whatever brings the company. But we should be moving.”

A modest German accent. Jessy looked to his boots—both full, both legs intact—and only then, with the low viewpoint, did she realize that she had fallen square on her cheeks.

“I know, I know,” he said, holding out a hand. “Make your fun, but hurry—”

“They’re tearing down the summerhouses,” she said on the rise.

“I was hiding in one. Not the safest, it turns out. Let’s—”

“Why are they tearing down the summerhouses? Is it the smell of us?”

“Reasons won’t make death by arthropod any sweeter,” he said. “But you might ask.” A nod toward the path, where it led north. Jessy heard a flam in eights just around the bend, growing loud.

“I can’t run, my ankle, I can’t—”

Aside went the rifle, and up she went, a fireman’s carry.

“Don’t, leave, that, gun, behind,” through the jostle.

“No good,” he said, clipped by puff and pace. “I tried. A shot.”

And she gave a shriek as the drummer came into sight. Larger than the first—much—and faster. No shine, so dark. A tear in what she understood—clutching, giving chase, and not alone.

“More,” Jessy shouted. “More.” More meant dozens, all.

The cart. The caretaker dropped her in the passenger seat, not gently, gasping hard but never slowing. He leapt over her and got the ride in forward gear.

A claw swoop, unseen but felt in Jessy’s chest. The top canopy was snatched off in a wink. It flew into the trunks, struck hard, tumbled to the understory.

“Not that way,” she shouted. “It’s a dead end!”

No answer though that hack of breath. Jessy spun in her seat and saw the flock, the ram at the head. The stink of seafloor was wafting off them, a salt in her throat and sinuses, sucking her dry.

“Come on!” the caretaker shouted. He laid a skid in front of the Vanderslice house.

“What are you doing?”

“You must trust me!”

He was shoving her through the front door. She had left it ajar, and that carelessness was what saved them. And then they were coming up on the stairwell as the house skidded inches off its slab. The doorway flew clear to the stairs jambs, leaf, and all. The floor was yanked out from under Jessy’s feet and the ceiling broke above her.

The caretaker had pulled her through the basement door. “Light,” he shouted right into her ear.

Her hand searched the pack. The lesser of them had caught up and they all began to slam the house at once. A harangue of nature like the night before, thunder shouting Jessy witless. The frame was coming apart, the pictures and surfaces beneath breaking away. Only the treads underfoot kept still, bolted to the granite. At the bottom Jessy and the caretaker splayed against the walnut door, shrinking back. Billows of dust were choking out the flashlight beam.

Wallboard gusted through the open doorway above. Debris bounced down the treads, pelting through the chalky cloud. A black crusher claw broke through the frame, larger than a backhoe arm.

The caretaker used what light he had in the thick. He felt along the lintel. A key tumbled off, winking in the beam, and his free hand snapped shut.

Soon enough the key was threaded, the bolt unshot. Once the door was pushed to behind them, the violence fell to a busy mutter. Quiet save the gasps of breath, harsh and quick, his and hers alike.

The flight down was too tight for anything but a single file, and that of human beings, and it was made of coastal granite. Without a view neither of them could see how much they were wanted. Claws prised at the floorboards, then the rock. Little gave, but the whole commotion went on, muted by the soundproofing—a room within a room, acoustic foam and flats of steel overhead. Dulled or not the tale came through. Fast work of the floors above—a heave all around as the uppermost gave out and smacked hard. The flashlight rolled from Jessy’s hand.

The two had slid down the near wall, backs against. That cushionless rest was all Jessy had ever wanted, and more. Thank God and the rest for a sit and a safe place to have it. The Mag rocked to a halt, still throwing a light.

Once she had a mind to, she looked to what her beam showed—a smooth and sealed concrete with drainage traps. An object lay farther up in the wedge. She squinted.

“Is that a sex swing?”

The caretaker was peeling off his mask. The sweat made a suck. His hair was sprung. “No point in denying it, since you ask. There has been a vibrant underground here since the early 1970s. Rickard Vanderslice is a tycoon in paper cups. Men in charge, well, sometimes they get a taste for discipline.”

“Praise the Lord!” The Nutties were a letdown—a drab—but color had showed up in the mix just in time to save her life. “So the tycoon, in cups, he chipped out a cellar so he could get a little me-time? And you knew. Was it you-time, too?”

“The prior tenant, he had a fallout shelter built on the sly, which made it easy. And if the set and setting has you worried—and my manner of dress—please don’t be. I’m a gentleman however I choose to butter my toast. In any case you’re not my type. Conserve those batteries. There are candles here—part of the, ah, ministration.”

Hot dribbles for a spank, then. Also, a source of light. Once the caretaker got wicks burning, several of them, with long and slender matches from a chalice near the door, Jessy saw the cell in whole. Before she even had the view, she had begun to smell leather and oils and plenty else.

“Holy shit,” she said. The piety had flagged. She had the digicam out and flashing. “Do you mind?” she thought to ask.

“I could hardly be fired for allowing it. There is no longer any job to dismiss me from. But tell me, young lady—if you had a camera all this time, why weren’t you photographing the …?”

The strobe quit as she took the meaning of his dot dot dot. “Dang it!”

“Why do you have a camera at all? And by the way, what are you doing here?”

“I came to play a joke. Taking pictures of the insides. Shit. I could have sold photos to the news. If there is a news. And a world that’s not ending.”

“Wait now. Why joke? And what joke?”

“You know. Take that, privileged folk—here’s your dirty laundry!”

“You’re Cain Wilcox’s daughter, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Only child of a harbormaster?”

Slower: “Yeah. Why?”

Again the smile. He shrugged. “There is always room for youth.”

“So whose foot was that?” She explained what she meant. With as much tact as it allowed.

The stare held. At last he shrugged again. “A guest—leave it at that. As I said, you’re not my type. And there’s always going to be a secret.”

“But nothing to beat a swarm of giant shellfish?”

“That’s no secret. Call it a mystery or call it the weather—either way it will pass.”


“Because this is all unheard of.”

Jessy had a different take—a nicety between “unheard of” and “unreported”—but she kept it to herself. And hoped that he was right.

Pass it did, and overnight. Meanwhile there was sacramental wine among the toys, as well as a commode behind a shoji screen. Jessy didn’t care to wonder why, or for what, in either case. But she felt the gratitude. A fresh helping of booze helped hours pass once again. She and the caretaker split a meal of pump-action love jam and edible underwear. The cellar was in the mid- to low forties, and a rank of candle flame was nothing like fireside. For warmth the two of them spooned—in mutual disinterest, but not without team spirit. They even managed to nod off.

At last the sunrise was on them. So the app on Jessy’s cell told them in the dark, just before the battery crapped out. With a last nerve the door came open, debris kicked past on the flight up. The caretaker heaved up a rafter to clear a space. Both he and Jessy were glad to hear song—bird voices in a dawn chorus—and nothing else.

The new light showed the ruin all around. The Vanderslice house had not only been razed but vivisected, each piece dragged from every other. A catlike care. And every other house on that court had been unmade just so. Not only taken down but spread out, and stinking of a message.

A lease on Nussack had expired. All the sights along the cart path were the same, however slow they walked it. They gave a start at any noise, more brittle than courageous. Nothing but the trees yet stood, each of those without a scuff or even a spray. Doom had been choosy.

At last they reached the line of shops, demoed and stamped down to a single ply. And then the wharf, so-called. Every board along its length had been broken and only tarry pilings were showing whole. Jessy and the caretaker would have gone no closer to the water, not so soon, but a Zodiac boat had tied off close to the peaceful lap. A man was wading through it, come ashore.

They ran down as fast as they could, keeping a fit pace for the swollen ankle. Reek aside, no sign remained of what had come and gone except where the ground was soft. There a code had overwritten the grass and moss—dits and dahs a hundred deep.

The newcomer was a handsome sort, blond and stalwart, with a chin dimple and a lot of mackinaw beneath it. He looked them over, double long on that unhooded gimp suit.

“I am a claims adjuster,” he announced.

And there would have been more, question and answer and even a name to go by, but Jessy batted him aside with a gasp and a freak strength. She had recognized the boat that was coming in off the Squirrel Gut.

The water had gone back to a slaty blue as sediment fell out of it. Soon Jessy would be ashore again, perhaps to relocate far inland. All the whys might be sorted out in time, whatever difference knowing would make. The caretaker had struck up a conversation with the insurance man, and it would take them places, too.

Her friend was hollering at her from the top deck, cheeks wet from the relief. “That’s right, baby, I snitched you out! Never mind omerta! It’s cavalry time!”

“Oh my god! Prudence Hazard, you bitch! I love you! I love you!”

Weeping at each other across a distance that was closing. Jessy was a little more hesitant about the other face she saw, that above the helm of the buoy tender. She felt antsy as she watched him tread ashore, that scowl aglow through bushy beard and eyebrow. She even shut her eyes to brace herself for the palm, the sting. But instead she felt the arms go around her, and a wonder at her father’s grateful sobs.


Stacy Pinks—he had never been a friend of mine, but we had grown up on the same slot in a chancy westside neighborhood and you might call him a worthy bastard. So the frown was honest even though I had gone in at risk of worse. A bandaid, a bruise, knots of gut above an eye—these were the question. And “in” meant to the back of a joint, dark at noon, where his guys were on the ears of the usual booth. Three meaty men in team nylon—racketeer business casual—and him the centerpiece. 

“I’m going to be late on the vigorish,” I said.

“Nobody real calls it that.” None could have grudged me that I was the better read, even as a kid. Least him, with a hold on my neck down in the urinal. “But what’s with the mouse ick setra?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, touching at the welt. “Sorry about the cash. End of the week I’ll—”

“How’m I supposed to smack you around, you looking like that? No, no, out with it. You’re no pushover.” True. I was tough enough and had to have been, as the boy who had lived nearest to Stacy Pinks. “Not as smart as you think but no punk neither. So Rye, c’mon, who did the do?”

“No one who counted, not after the ten.” Kidding might spare me the worst, I thought.“Been broadening myself, see. Couldn’t tell you the name, but I do know where his wife lives.”

“Whoa!” Shep said, to the left of the smalltime warlord. A former con, inky from crack to wrist and worst of the three when it came to all the likelihoods.

“‘Broaden,’” tried Rickity, a gym pup to the right. He did the hitting most often since he knew how not to. Where hitting got delegated, that was. “Get it? Because broads. Eh? Wha?”

“There’s that shelter on West Forty-eighth,” I went on. “The lady owns the building, she’s been giving me cash to mind the door. Those women in there, well, they have reason to be. Got married to some real pieces of work.”

The math of it, of what I thought was clear, brought up a squint. “How do you mean ‘shelter’?”

“You know,” I told Stacy Pinks, “a women’s shelter.”

“What’s a women’s shelter?”

Off his beats. I had to start from zero. He took it pretty well, news of evil in the world so unlike his own. “So these women,” said Stacy Pinks, “their husbands or boyfriends got handsy, more than just like a swat on the rear, say, and their families, their men, didn’t do nothing about it?”

“That’s right.”

“And this lady, she let them stay at her house?”

“More like a fort, but yeah, she lives there too.”

Rickity said something like “butch college.” Stacy Pinks gave him a look and, with it, first thoughts. “And those dings on you?” he asked. “You can’t handle some mince who hits girls?”

“Four minces,” I said. “Or a mince and three lollipops. They took the curb in a junker LTD and came out with bats. It wasn’t just me there. Scamp—you know Scampi—he was working same as me, and there’s this volunteer who’s there the whole time.” Speaking of butch college. “Some kind of libber, you’d say. She likes a weapon but doesn’t seem to need any.”

“Mike Scampi? That jamoke? He couldn’t cut a birthday cake.”

“He did all right.” Though I figured he wouldn’t be back for more, since a bat had swung low for the bleachers. And it would have found his head, too, if Peg hadn’t yanked it from the grip and put the knob into the slugger’s mouth. A knee took time to mend, but teeth, they never did.

Stacy shook his head with a tut-tut grin. “So there you are in the street making war with braves from the numbnuts nation. All for what was right. Like a knight in armor and his band of merry men.” Thrown wide, but his fun was a relief. “Hey, let’s get a toast in. Vince Ryan’s day on the grass. A bottle and four, Rickity, and one in the balls on the way up to the bar.” Soon glasses were aligned and Stacy did the honors, pouring off brown ounces. “Come on, Rye, stand up for your drink already. Don’t you puke on that floor. I can’t take the smell of a mop.”

Watches began at eight p.m. Scamp out, for two days it was just me and Peg, in foldout chairs and knit caps at the top of the stoop. There was always coffee in a thermos to keep us warmish, alert, and stale of breath. A row house street—no walk-ups, no lots, even some trees thriving curbside. I brought an ice pack that first night after, and it never drew a curiosity, not out of Peg, even with where I set it. More often than we spoke we played cards—cribbage, or poker when we had the loose change. She was taller by a hop, and a pale head of hair had been dyed to a rich black. Power in the thigh and shoulder, and not far from cute. I could tell the nose had been broken, but without more to go on that was any story. “You make me nervous,” I admitted once, a ten-high straight in hand.

“Why, do I shit different? Do I drop it lengthwise like a boat?” Full house.

Since Peg handled the front—including my hire and payment—I had never even met the saint in charge, Maggie Phelan. While I’d been there no women had been brought up, not at night, and none inside had ventured out. Now and then the wired glass in the door showed a silhouette, and this was all that let me know anyone was home—that and the men who wanted to see more than a shadow. Two days, and no one made attempt to force entry, but a couple had made the usual reconnoiter, trying not to look and easy to spot. They liked to pull a ball cap low and walk with hands in pockets, all but screaming incognito. The ones who did stop were a model of gallantry, the slappy fucking cads, asking to see their wives by full name as if we ran a velvet rope and had a clipboard to check. On the refusal, no less polite but firm, they would walk off in a hunch with pity on loan from an imaginary friend. But sometimes there was a show, like from an ape with a branch and some dust to raise. I was out strictly for the cash, so only Peg lit up when chimps put on a display. She was content to lead a rich inner life and wait for the chance. When she did speak to me at any length, it was a riff from nowhere. “I got it in my head today,” she said once, “that all the British are Jarvis Cocker.”

“That singer from Pulp? What about Elton John?”

“Jarvis Cocker.”

“Prince Harry?”

“Jarvis Cocker.”

“Benjamin Disraeli?”

“Jarvis Cocker.”

“Well, okay, but what about Dame Diana Rigg?”

“She’s Candida Doyle.”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Keyboards. Pulp.”

“Oh, the one from Ireland. Some theory.”

“You knew she was Irish but not her name?”

“Can-dee-duh Doyle? Should the middle name be Blarney Stone before I take a guess?”

The month took on an autumn bite, and counts to sunup grew long. A dumb joke helped pass the time almost as well as any card game. Scamp had come up light that way, except maybe as a punch line. But neither had he been replaced by Wednesday. A dread had grown. Black-and-whites had crept past, both officers on board ready with a stare through the roll.

“Guessing one was a cop,” Peg had said on the second pass. “A cop’s first cousin at the least.”

“Who,” I had asked, though I had known.

“The Baseball Furies,” on a pop of gum. No remand, then. Out and about.

Mrs. Phelan was up on things, Peg said, which might have put hustle on the look for a new third. Either that or a candidate had leapt like a bull for an open lap. Imagine my relief that Wednesday evening as Peg led the introduction at the foot of the stairs.

“You look like you got the pepper,” he said, team nylon swapped out for fleece.

“The two of you are friends?”

“Wh,” I most of asked.

“Oh we know each other all right,” he said to her. “See, he mentioned that mess the other evening, and I just thought,” sniff, “hey, Stacy Pinks, why not lend a hand?”

“Sure, why not. Vincent, anything I should know, since you seem all shook up?”

Just out with the question. I was about to answer, or not to, when a ball cap came into view up the walk. The glance from the bill caught Stacy Pinks and stopped the looker cold. The pockets gave up the hands nice and slow. A step back, then a veer between bumpers at the curb.

“You’ll work out for now,” Peg said to Stacy Pinks.

Even as the amazon in charge and I took chairs—not to say settled down, not for me—he stood below and waited with a prowling eye. That interest was unsparing, given out with a snap-turn above the neck and a slow matchup of the body underneath. My ribcage drew tight whenever anyone got close. Not many went out so late, but people did use a walk to walk. Even a homeless with a cart got the scrutiny. Stacy Pinks looked ready to glove up and set a penlight in his mouth as the cans and bottles rattled by. Like a TSA agent going through a divorce.

“Your friend’s in his strides,” Peg said, and dealt for cribbage.

“Strides,” I said. “Us too. Maybe you should ask him to, dunno, take it easier.”

“Any reason he shouldn’t be here, educate me.”

That voice of hers waltzed right on down. Stacy Pinks said, back yet to us and vigilant of eye, “What worries Rye is I’m in collection. It’s how he knows me these days. Jeebies aside, that just makes me a valuable add-on to the team.”

“So you’re not a nice person,” Peg said down to him, same volume.

“Not to people who owe and get late. And these sorts of guys, they owe big. Rye, he’s short, too, but with him it’s just money. ’S not so bad, though it does embarrass him. It’s why he don’t want you to know I’m his shark.” Blush here, and from Peg a throaty laugh—the first I’d heard.

“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s those connections you have. No disrespect.”

“Community outreach,” he said, and even I found it funny. Not that the guard went down. Someone unfamiliar with that calm, that reluctance to shout or curse, might take him for a breeze.

“I like to hit,” Peg said. “So I’m not nice either. There are better reasons to, and worse.”

“Maybe you’re one for the boxing ring.”

“Yeah, maybe. But you ever want to stand off, Mister Pinks—show them what they are, and you—try being a chaperone at a clinic protest.”

“Oh, Pinks—that’s not a family name, Peg. Miz Peg. ’Scuze. I don’t know yours neither.”

“Never gave it,” she said.

“Eustace Rosetti,” I threw in, just to take part.

That made him turn. “He is correct on that, though I’ll talk for myself. Think about having that any time you had to get past a stoop, and you a boy whose nonna put the bow tie on. Seems I recall Rye here giving me grief about all that, too, right ’fore he learned up. We was, I don’t know, eleven?”

“That doesn’t sound like me. Eleven or not.”

Peg said, “Our man Ryan, he’s more, like, in touch with a nurturing side.”

Thus distracted, we took no hint of trouble. The time had got near four a.m., which thanks to last call got sticky, Peg had warned. A beer bottle had missed Stacy Pinks, slung for his head to guess from where it struck. Our eyes snapped to the bright froth and shards, then to the street. There stood the drunk, posed in follow-through like something on a trophy. Lamplight showed the face at work. The slack of many angry pints gave way to doubt—that he could miss so large a target—and then horror as large began to read. Two more had been with him, but on the cast they had fled like fish.

“Just when I thought it might be slow,” Stacy Pinks said.

The drunk took off, tripped on himself, cartwheeled upright with shitfaced gymnastics, and kept on keeping on. Stacy Pinks stood in place. “You’re not going after?” I asked.

“And catch up too fast?” To Peg, “What’s that rule? A hundred yards?” Before a word came back he launched into a sprint. I had never seen him move so quick, though that didn’t count times in boy years when I had been facing in the wrong direction and thought I had a lead.

“Not sure what he meant with the yards,” she said. “But it’s the thought that counts.”

“We’re just going to stand here?”

“Did you want to see?”

The state of the sportswear when he got back understruck the no. Like he had walked through a mist at the slaughterhouse. On the one damp spot a stray tooth clung. He was in a happy amble and whistling hard rock from the seventies, and I never meant to notice—led by the whiteness of the tooth—but he had a championship bone going on.

“Feel like I should say something maybe,” he said, shaking out a fist.

“What,” Peg asked, “a one-liner?”


“That little joke,” she said, “just the moment after.”

“Like ‘The dry cleaning is a bitch,’” I said.

“Dry—?” The fleece took a glance, then a baleful stare. “Why that—” Up the block he ran again, past the count of yards. I figured out that he had been thinking of the crime report. By law a venue with booze that was too near a fight got cited for review by the liquor board. No one could mistake our post for a night spot, but never mind. Usury, sports, hurt, and bars were the corners of his square one, and everything outward of those was hopscotch.

Stacy Pinks never came back from the second heat, not by morning. I hoped whatever had gone on in the dark had cured him of the valiant itch. I did have a part-time gig—after-school tutoring—which left an hour for a tilt at the a.m. dollar menu and six to chase dreams in my rattrap apartment. A quilt of past due notices kept me warm, and the bedsprings were in a slump of shapes that long predated mine. Not a lot of shuteye to be had in that uncanny valley—but more out of trouble with what was on my mind than under my back. I went out loopy, which made talking binomials to a fifteen-year-old sound like riddles from a sphinx, even to me.

Twenty-two blocks on foot, another dollar item, this one with some lettuce on it in a nod to health, and around the corner onto West Forty-eighth again. Only twenty minutes past sundown—enough twilight to make out every fine gold link and speck of chin stubble on Shep. He was positioned for an ambush, with a kick sole up on the wall.

“Hey Rye,” he said.

I took one hand off my nape and the other off my precious two and got up from the concrete. But he had never done more than speak and was gauging my cowardice like a mud puddle. Looking around to see who had seen, I spotted Rickity up and across the road. “Wh,” I most of asked.

“You and me, we’re besties now? You mind your piece up ahead, and I’ll mind mine.” A chin stuck out toward the shelter, which was where the question led anyway.

“They stepped up,” she said from the folding chair. “Or got volunteered by your loan professional. He came by first, said he had a meet.” Same tone my mom used for a skittish cat. 

“Thing is, Peg, he’s not here for the right reason, so that goes double for them. Whatever upright streak he’s got, on them it’s flat out sideways. You might not want guys like that on the payroll.”

“The what? One, it’s cash out of pocket, as in my own damn. You won’t get forms and no one will garnish your wages. Two, he never asked for a rate. He even turned money down.”

“Of course he did. They think it’s for fun.”

“Let ’em.”

“They don’t care about those women inside.”

“You do?” A sting must have shown. “I am glad you’re here. But you’re here because of the listing and because you’re broke and for no other reason. Once your problems get solved, this one doesn’t, and there’s nothing so wrong about that. Job’s a job.”

“They better not make trouble.” A glance to the nearer showed me sidewalk pushups.

Peg said, “Christ, Vincent. It’s war.”

That word, loaded already, had brought a bag along. My second week—so I dropped one two on the next. “You knew,” I said. “You knew they’d come. That brawl wasn’t just the ordinary here. You heard something about the husband—that he was the sort who showed up with numbers.”

“Speaking of numbers, want a raise?” Half again, no wrangle. That was when I should have seen that the boss was in truth Peg herself. Ms. Phelan, that is. Peg, Maggie—Margarets both. Peg sure didn’t look the saintly part, much less flush. But she had ponied up for my stitches, so duh.

An upgrade from the dollar menu should have felt more like a win. But here came the first ball cap of the night. I recognized him: the one who took a detour on sight of Stacy Pinks. Tonight with nerves, but a more deliberate step. Great, I thought. Here comes the headline news. One of those pockets was going to hold more than a sweaty hand. He had missed seeing Shep and Rickity or associating them with us. Each was in motion—a swagger, no hurry.

Yet here the ball cap did something unexpected: come off. He mashed it between his hands. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said to Peg and me, hardly more than an undernourished kid. “My name’s William, William Lee Pollack, P-O-L-L-A-C-K, and, uh, my lady’s in that house.”

“Nice to meet you, William,” Peg said with sleet.

“I know what I look like,” he said. “I know I … but I’m not … I just ….” A glisten on the look to me. His remorse got less thought than Shep and Rickity. He saw them, too, and set the whelp eye a bit lower. “Could you … could you tell Angie, Angela Pollack, that Billy Lee says he’s sorry? A-N-G-E-L—”

“No,” Peg said.

The look, the heft to the pause, let her know that she just didn’t see. But now the stage was too full for the drama. Shep gave a once-over. To Rickity he said, “You was just at the gym earlier?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Quad work? Lats?”

“Ripped and ready.”

“Got your bag with you?”

“Up there by the sidewalk tree.”

“Bring the baby oil?”

A duck out of the vise, and the steps were quick. But Peg came down into the very spot. “I’ll let it go this once, but don’t think you get to make threats out here. Not even fun-time comedy threats.”

“Whoa!” Shep said. “Threats? What am I, a ruffian?”

Rickity turned to me. “What’s she mean by that? Shep was just feeling ashy, I bet.”

Before I could find a way to suggest that a leg breaker shut up, Peg said it straight, and she said it cutting. “You think you get to play with the work I do, push me, you just take your best or get lost. Want to lend a hand, don’t give out ammunition.” Both of them brightened at the opening. “Shut up. You’re not cute, you’re not smart, and you’re not pretty, but I know how to make you a carnival draw.” A hand hand gone into a pocket. “People will pay to look at you motherfuckers.”

Rickity had fallen into the trance of a well-shamed kid. Shep just stared. Not as I thought he might, that deadpan of the prison yard, but in bloom. On him a simper was a horror show. “Yes’m,” he said, like an all-night florist. “Won’t happen again.” To Rickity, “Step down the block, dumbass.”

“Jesus, Peg,” I said, once they were off.

“Hope he doesn’t ask me on a date.”

“Don’t you like women?”

“Good thinking, Vince.”

Two cars, lux but bruiser, pulled up—a Caddy CTS and a Benz E, both tinted out. At first no door swung and no glass came down. Rickity and Shep had not yet made it back to third and first, and each had turned for a stare. Smiles and a trot for home.

“Uh-oh,” I said.

Several doors opened at once. Two guys, one from each car, came out for a sidewalk cordon—thick-necks like the nearby crew but much better dressed. Rickity and Shep stopped short with silly grins and a show of hands. Then the drivers, keeping at their doors with an eye across the street. Same style—blazers, good for a carry, better than a string waistband anyway. Next was Stacy Pinks, with slick hair and in dinner dress—the kind of suit that got buried and might have been already. Last and most, two middle-aged men with silk polo shirts and good watches. Polo shirts and watches are the fedoras and spats of the modern-day underboss.

“Uh-oh.” Me again.

No lengths of attention for Peg and my figurative piddle. The two were looking at the building as Stacy Pinks spoke and gestured at length. Oratory—veni vidi vici stuff. Both hands toward the shelter, to himself, shrug, head shake, to heart. I couldn’t make it out the voice, but the audience was nodding along with pious frowns. Hands got shook at last, a four-layer clasp each time, studded out with jeweled pinky rings. He stood with proud attention as the uncles slipped into their cars. The whole color guard followed fast, and the fleet went back to the netherworld.

“So,” Peg said, in a long hold on the vowel, “what just happened?”

“Got to small talk over drinks,” said Stacy Pinks, answering for me, “and, you know, they took an interest.” From the smirk you’d think he’d pulled a second rabbit from the first one’s ass.

“Who and in what?”

I stepped in, and on my own foot. “The syndicate?”

“Nobody real calls it that. Also, shut up, Rye.”

“You brought … you brought them … in on this?”

“Me? Them? Bring? Tonight’s talk was, like, other matters. Sorting out this and that, and how much. And those guys you saw, and maybe who you shouldn’t have, they’re not in, whatever in means, just curious. Fellas from the neighborhood, same as anybody. And the neighborhood story, you know, it’s where they like to look back. To rougher corners. Even if nowadays it’s all pillows and tits for them.” With a start he looked to Peg. “’Scuse the, uh, salty talk there.”

“Pillows and tits,” she said, but her mind was outbound. No chitchat left. Peg looked to the soles of her boots one at a time. “I’ll take it,” she said at last. Back she went, to the top of the stoop.

He leaned in. “Say what you want about the Knights of Columbus,” wink, “but it is a chivalrous organization.” No chance that was his, so now I knew how a murder racket liked to name itself.

An uneventful night thereafter, save the fear of Ragnarok. The two underlings stuck it out even as the bossman took up his watch. They liked the task, same as him. Not so much as an unauthenticated pizza was making it through, and I could have put up heels. But the ramrod in my back said no. Peg kept distant, so a hand of cards was out. Her thoughts and dimes were equally her own. 

Hours crept like glass, and by sunup all the brittle holding still had given me a limp. I skipped the eggy griddle and went to bed cold and hungry. There I weighted the dip. Pour batter into that concavity and you could make a cookie man, and he was beginning to look more and more like me.

Shane Kinsler wasn’t stoked on gerunds, would much rather grief faggots over TeamSpeak, and didn’t know why everyone had to be such a dick about it. I hear you, kid, I said to nobody at all. End of the week, so his mom, a paralegal, was there with the cash and some thorough apologies, close to tears. “That’s okay,” I told her. “That’s okay.”

“Tonight,” Peg said once I got there.


“A cop came by earlier. Off duty and in her clothes.”

“A lady cop?”

“Cop, jackass. She heard something at the station house. Somebody knows somebody knows somebody. Does it make a difference? Tonight.”

I glanced around. “Where is—?”

“Got me.”

“And those other—?” No muscleman, no toothbrush shiv. And no Stacy Pinks. Just an empty block lined with no less empty cars. Foot traffic was gone, too, there on a residential street in a borough of one million with enough plus to round upward. You might think people had grown uneasy to take a stroll past our door.

“Hey, uh, here. Careful, all right?”

She had given me a hankie bundle that I didn’t even need to unwrap. The feel spoke through. “Are you out of your goddam mind?”

“Flaunting it will do the work. Anyway, it’s been filed clean. If you have to cut and run just drop it down a grate. Not under a car. Kids live here.”

“Felony possession? When somebody on the other side is PD’s pet?”

“I’m giving you a better option. Anyway, it’s nothing new to me.” A pat at her coat—shorthand. What she hid was not just in that one spot but at the waist and in the boot and maybe in her hair.

“Better option than what?”

“Leaving me to fend for myself. I can handle a lot but not more than three at once—not on my lonesome. Better for me, I should have said.” Those eyes were new, raw.

I handed back the trouble. “There’s coffee, right?”

“Jesus, Vincent, and a box of doughnuts.”

“Any custards?”

“Run a classified ad.”

We’ll skip the suspense because it just looked like sitting pat on two to three maple bars apiece. Come they did, tennish at night, and it wasn’t just the LTD. There was also a Rabbit in a dusty shade of baby poop and behind it the saddest race mod ever—spoiler and lo-pros and ground effect lights on a Subaru BRAT. I counted a dozen once they cleared the doors, all of the same mustache varmint sort thrown our way before. This time they had pulled up slow and got out at leisure. No bandaids, no bats, no need. Twelve au pairs from the avenues could land on us and it would hurt. And say what you like about a block hick—he did know how to do more than just form a pile.

“One foot on my steps,” Peg said, not even up from her chair, “and it’s trespassing.” I had leaned forward in mine, forearms to knees, going for nonchalance and tensed to leap. Her last word got muttered back, to no snigger. I still wasn’t sure who in all that clannishness was the husband, though a guy in sleeveless denim led the rack. She went on. “Trespassing means I shoot—one of you, three, five if I’m quick—I don’t get time.” This could have been a bluff. The sentencing part I mean.

The one-pin said, “Try nine-one-one why don’t yas,” and this got a cackle. Teamwork.

“Women from money,” Peg said to me, “might get us a better class of spousal abuse.”

No counterwit, not here. My eye kept to the war party.

“Sending for her or what?” The leader had cued up to the bottommost step. “I’m talking to my lady and there ain’t shit-all you got to do about it. No matter what filth you put in her head.”

“Boring,” Peg said, hand to coat.

A six-inch reach: mayhem was that close. What we got instead, at first, was a nine-pound terrier skating its leash. Like most dogs of that breed he liked to get acquainted, and he zipped between the legs of those convened below. Forepaws on a shin, a wagging tail, a searching gaze—over and again, all of it done crazy fast. The front man shied from the little pet like his friends had. Kicking dogs would have been a fit, but he was too slow, which was how he got through the next minute intact.

“Sotta,” called an old man in a lemon cashmere sweater, white on top but spry. He had chased the dog, and someone else was rushing after him from farther down the block. The steps made ricochets on all the row house brick. Busy echo—a sound of dozens. “Sottaceto, come.”

The lead said to the old man, “Get out of here, goddam it.” By then the dog-meet had come up to me and Peg. To keep the terrier clear I scratched and petted like I had a mind to. But the old man looked up to us, or to his best friend. We both saw the face.

That dog was safe—as safe as a federal witness in a block of lucite. “The old man” was right, deadweight on the article. Foremost in an open secret, known on sight like no one else from that life. We stood up without a thought, but not too fast. Peg’s hand kept well back from any draw. The twelve were slower to stand down, but even they knew what looked familiar. Dumbfounded stares, no mind paid to due and proper.

Those who had been chasing after the old man were caught up at last, and they shoved through the knucklewalker posse comitatus to step up close. Five silk polo shirts with good watches, two already seen, and a more white-collar type in a worsted suit whom I knew was the gang lawyer.

No sooner were the caporegimes and advisor among us than the underlit street was crowded and alive. Every strip club across the river had broken like a dam. Smaller players, four dozen at least, some in jacket and tie, some in warmups, Stacy Pinks and friends among the last. Tough guys every one, and quick as a hex. The thug I knew best snuck me a look that said, I know, right?

The dog had gone down into the thick for a light scold. “Sottaceto, you bad pickle, you went and ruined it.” Wizened hands took up the dog. In no way did the old man note the human presence, much less whatever you call twelve mooks from voucher housing. No way but a spare smile, like he found a threat of rain ticklish. I looked to the many faces, those at his call, and saw more of the same. Fun—and more open down the ranks. At the bottom, the pledges like Stacy Pinks, it was all one sloppy beam.

“What the hell is this?” first-among-dirtbags thought to ask. And it was no sooner spoke than a connect put him onto his cheeks. The nearest gold watch had flashed in the lamplight. The old man didn’t react at all, no more to the blood than to the crack. Nor did the mustache friends except to count out rosaries in their shoelaces. The smiles all around them ratcheted up a little tighter.

“My wife,” the wife beater cried through his nosebleed. “My wife.” No swagger left, just a lonely grief. Pity a rabid animal, but never let it in. “My wife.”

Peg and I glanced to each other to make sure we were there. I might have got a chance to see that wonderment of hers shift over—to victory, or just to relief. It would have felt good either way, no doubt. But I never did. The door clicked open—the door behind us, which I had never once seen ajar.

What came out was a small-framed blonde in a hoodie, Disney on her chest and pink daypack in hand. Two other women I had never met were on her heels. Not tough like Peg, but I rightly took them for volunteers. Strangers to me, the three of them, yet I knew no less quickly who the small one was, and that the other two had been pleading with her as she came down the inside stairway.

Peg had turned full about. Whatever song had been about to show sighed out of her. “You can’t,” she said. She took a step in front of the woman but kept both hands to herself. “You can’t.”

The small woman looked up, right into her eyes. You could almost call it strength, what showed as she gave back the stare, with never a flinch. Strength, but like a knot.

“Margaret, let me by.”

I looked out to the mob as we made way on the stoop. Every last game face had been struck blank. But the sense of defeat ran no deeper. You saw that look among a sports bar crowd on a home loss. Stacy Pinks took more pride—he was hurt but not rattled. A player, not a fan. He glanced among his own, to the underbosses, to the old man, to me. A shrug said it for the both of us.

Peg had sat down on the stairs in a hard slump. Her two friends from inside knelt close. But no hand went to the shoulder. So I knew to keep my own two right where they hung, good to nobody.

The husband had wormed up from ass to knees, drippy tears and kitten eyes. The wife put a hand to his cheek, and he hugged her at the waist. Friends, mob—they all looked away.

He led her to the LTD, and the cronies filed like sheep into their discount rides. I had a sly look at the old man when I was sure there was no risk. The dog had gone to the lawyer. His face was grim but managerial. He leaned toward an underboss, one of the familiar pair, the local. And though the voice was low, and though I make no claim to sight read any mouth, I understood with no trouble at all the three words that took shape at that trusted ear. Get the name.

Next a relay, the same phrase uttered close three times over, until at last it got down to where it had begun. The old man was already off, so the pimp reserve was thinning out fast. An empty street once again, and no harm done. I watched Stacy Pinks take a knee in front of Peg. He shook his head at me. There was no dare in it, no ultimatum. Only a reminder that here, we were in confessional.

And she gave. I would have wondered if she might, thinking on tests of conscience, bad weighed against worse, but she spoke the name with no hesitation.

A lame goodnight was all I had left, said in a mutter. The shift was not done, but I turned for the short journey to what I was calling home. Not forever, but for now.

“Wait,” she said behind me, in a hoarse voice. “I owe you six hundred for the week.”

“Keep it,” I said back.

“No, no, give it right here,” Stacy Pinks said. “He owes me.”