Ed Lacy - Shoot It Again
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The watery, vague eyes didn't even see me as I yanked the green booklet out of his limp hand, feeling a true sense of relief at having my passport back. I spent a second thumbing through it with my free hand—all was in order, including my bloated-face evil passport photo.
“Come on, laughing boy, what's this about?” I snapped, shaking him again. Up close he had this unwashed stink.
Flinging one skeleton arm at the sunlight coming down from the wall opening like a stage spot, Parks shrilled, “What is this all about? Man, why not go for the larger question—what is life all about? Gaze at the sun's staircase. Often I crawl up that golden gangplank, escape this filth—soar out into a new world of dazzling colors and fuzzy warmth. As Tennyson said, 'Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'... Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades... Forever and forever when I move.' Old Tenny bugs me, because man, it really is forever and...”
I shook him hard. “Come on, cut the stupid chatter! What the hell is your story, Parks?”
Blinking many times, tears started down his hollow cheeks. “My story? Haven't you heard? I'm Robert Parks, the junkie poet!”
“The news shatters me! Stupid, what's going on here? What did I step into?”
“I'm the talent chump, the new Sandburg, the modern Thomas Hood. 'Talent is that which is in mans power: genius is that in whose power a man is.' James Russell Lowell. I...”
I shook him until his bones rattled. “Stop making school boy quotes! What's happening here?”
As if talking to himself, Parks said, “I came to Europe to study that elusive passion called art—poetry, the art of communication... and now I'm carrying the world's largest monkey on my back. My Christ, what a buggy term, what horrible imagery—I cart the whole damn zoo on my poor back! Thomas Grey so perfectly stated, 'The paths of glory lead but to the grave.' Trouble today—our poets are snobs, don't dig the wisdom of the old masters or the...”
“Cut the lecture, you foolish bastard!” I slapped him: not much of a slap but his nose began to bleed and he crumpled in my arms. His blood was such a faint, pastel pink—I almost threw up in horror.
I let him fall on the cot. Watery eyes, running nose, pasty skin, sores on his arms—he wasn't kidding about being on dope. Okay, that was his private little red wagon, he could pull it any direction he wished- How did my passport fold into his nightmare? Far more important: how was I to get by the goons outside, ever shake this trap?
I tried the door, as if doubting it would be locked. One of these ancient, solid doors, built when a man's home was truly his castle. I couldn't even rattle it. Pushing Parks and the cot out of the way, I stood on the chair. The opening was about a foot square in the thick wall. Squinting against the sun, I saw the destroyer anchored in the harbor. Getting up on my toes for a moment, I had a better view—of nothing. We were on the top floor of an old, balcony-less building. If it was possible to climb out—and I couldn't even get my fat head through the window—I'd face a sheer drop of at least a hundred feet.
Coming down off my toes, I rested, the sea breeze sweeping through the opening cooling me off—a little. One thing was for certain—I'd never be missed. No one would bother looking for me, nor report me missing. Even Syd didn't have any idea where I could be. The only out was to tangle with gangster-boy and the Judo barkeep—I wasn't sure I could take another pasting. But if I could talk to them, explain I didn't know which end was up in this deal, the old innocent bystander who...
I heard dragging sounds outside the room. The heavy door creaked open—big blondie was flung into the room, bouncing hard on the stone floor, as the door slammed shut fast. They'd worked her over. The meaty face, never pretty, was bruised, one eye already swollen shut and turning a Mars Red.
Noel lay on the floor, whimpering and moaning. Glancing down at Parks, still out cold on the cot, I crossed to an old pipe and faucet sticking up from the floor in one corner. Noel was wearing a white and blue flare-skirt, thin white sleeveless blouse fighting her great breasts. Tearing a hunk of the ripped skirt—seeing much heavy thigh, I wet and ran the damp rag over her face. The good eye slowly blinked at me. In slow, hysterical French, she said, “Fool! We thought you would surely come with the police—now we all die!”
“Take it from the top. Why should I bring the police?”
“They are going to kill him.” She nodded her over-blonde head toward Parks. “He's a childish man, but I want no part of murder. When he is not high with the drug, Roberto clearly understands his situation, offered me five thousand dollars to help him escape. Since I work in the club, we thought a good plan was to switch passports with another American. We assumed you would remember the club, go to your Consulate, then bring the police. With a little work, the police could follow the trail from the club to here. But—you had to come alone!”
“Why didn't you go directly to the gendarmes? Why bring me in this?”
Sitting up, Noel felt her smooth belly, melon breasts, then waved her fingers and toes—as if taking inventory. “And end up in jail, myself? Or be dead, if any of the gang escaped the police? His passport was all we had to work with, and this way —no one was to know it was me: Roberto agreed once the police came, in private, he would urge them to let me off. With the money I could return to my home in Corsica. Now—all is lost! You don't know these swine, they will murder us without a second's hesitation.”
“Noel, I think I caught all your French, but let's have it again. What gang, and why do they want to knock off Parks?”
“The gang used to deal in the black-market, run a brothel, other bad things. Now all that is finished. Roberto, my silly poet, came to the club two months ago, very drunk. He tried a shot of heroin— for what you call kicks. Many idiots do that, and Georges merely gives them sugar water, which is just as well, you understand. But the following day, when Roberto was still in the club, drinking, he made the mistake of boasting of his wealth—he had over eight thousand dollars in travelers checks, and a letter of credit for ten thousand dollars more. So they see the checks and keep Roberto drunk—in a few days the habit is forced on the poet—strong. They hold Roberto prisoner here and sell him the junk, cashing his checks as he signs them—in Tangiers. Now he has but five hundred dollars left in the checks—when that is finito, they will kill him with an overdose. I do not know if they were able to use the letter of credit, even in Tangiers, but eight thousand dollars—forty thousand new francs —is a big haul these days.”
“Aren't you a member of the... gang?” I asked suspiciously.
“I am nothing. I merely work in the club. My job is to take care of Roberto's... other wants.” Her good eye grew misty. “It is not much, and I do not mind, nor have I any choice. I must do anything they say or I will be badly hurt—this is the kind of pig-men they are. To them I am not even a woman, only for laughs, the fat girl clown. But when I knew of the murder they have in mind... I tell Roberto and we figured out this plan. But it failed.”
“Some plan!” I mumbled, wishing my head would cease ringing so I might think. With a plan like that, I wondered if she was on the stuff, too. I didn't see any marks on her arms or legs. “Noel, the one who looks like a gangster...”
“Georges, if he's the one with the fascinating face, he...”
“I sit on something with a better face,” she sneered, the one eye blazing at me. “There is nothing fascinating about a killer!”
“Look, suppose you started hollering—when Georges comes in I'll jump him, try for his gun? Once I get the gun, perhaps we can force him to let us go.” As I said the words I realized it wasn't much of a plan, either.
Noel shook her pumpkin head, the dancing hair nearly blinding me. “There are others—we should never reach the street alive. No, it is hopeless, we three are done. Monsieur, pray they at least will have the decency to murder us without torture...” She suddenly raised her hands, as if protecting her inflated bosom. “These are the lowest of swine, you have no idea what beasts they can be or...”
“And I don't intend to find out,” I cut in, talking in English to myself. For a long time I sat on the cold floor beside her, trying to force my alleged brains to turn up something—mostly wondering over and over how in the devil I ever got involved in this. Because I got lucky at the Casino and went on a binge with Syd—I was going to end up a corpse!
Noel pulled a compact from a skirt pocket, saw her bruised puss, started to silently weep once more. Perhaps a half hour passed—it seemed like the rest of my life—before Parks came around. Running a hand over his thin nose, he examined the dried blood which came away in red crumbs on his palm. Oddly enough, his eyes seemed almost normal now, sunk deep in his stupid head.
When he finally saw us, he said, “You hit Noel! I'll...
She shook her head sadly. I said, “Oh, stop it.”
“Biner, I dreamt you were here, and now it isn't a dream. I know it's far too late to say this, but I am sorry to involve you.”
“Write that on a postal card to Georges—maybe he'll believe you! Parks, what do the French police want you for?”
“They want... me?”
I told him what the flic had said upon seeing his passport in the cambio shop. Parks scratched his ragged red hair. “Beats me, unless my lawyer—not having heard from me in months—looked into the matter and found I was cashing checks like crazy. He's the executor of Dad's estate and poor Mama probably suspects I'm in trouble—again. One thing Georges overlooked—my not writing even a card all this time. My lawyer could have asked the French authorities to look for me... Biner, any chance of this cop you socked, finding you... us?”
“Nobody knows or cares where the hell I am. Have you ever tried to escape?”
Parks sighed. “But naturally! For several hours between shots, I'm perfectly okay. The soaring wears off within fifteen or twenty minutes after the actual fix. Of course in another half-dozen hours from now I'll need a shot... I've been taking so much that... oh my God how I'll need one! What I'm trying to explain, in my normal hours I think only of blowing this joint. Not a chance. Milton wrote of escape, 'The... ”
“What's below the window up there?”
“Waterfront street, never too crowded. I know what you're thinking: I've tried standing on the chair and waving my arm, or part of my shirt, until I was exhausted. Nobody noticed. I once wrote FREE ALGERIA on a rag with Noel's eyebrow pencil—hoping it would bring the fuzz. Wind carried it away. You see, the damned mistral is always blowing in from the sea. One reason I'm in my shorts—I waved my pants out the window, first lighting the cuffs. Sole result: filling this lousy cell with smoke until I choked, then a beating from Georges.”
“How about writing on the magazine, throwing it out?”
“Told you, I've tried everything. Directly below there's like nothing, only rocks and rubbish. You'd have to throw an object at least three hundred feet straight out for it to land on the street. Main difficulty, even if you could toss that far, can't put your head through the opening, see what you're doing. The... Man, I suppose you've got the message as to what they have in store for all of us... now?”
“As I said, my sincere apologies for bringing you into...”
“Aw, shut up!” I grunted, watching Noel—still on the floor—carefully powdering the bruises on her tremendous face. What a time for vanity to... I grabbed the compact mirror from her thick hand. Jumping on the chair again, I put my arm through the opening, held the mirror at an angle outside the wall.
Parks got off his cot. “Man, you're the cleverest— I never thought of a mirror. Think you can signal the warship in the harbor?”
I shook my head, wishing the fool would stop all this would-be hip talk. Via the mirror I at least had a view of the area below us. Directly back of the house were rocks and piles of old trash, then a narrow cobblestone street with a few empty push carts. On the other side of the street more rocks and the water. Two men were fishing from the rocks. I shouted at them.
Parks called up, “No use. I've stood up there and screamed myself hoarse—the wind blowing the words back down my throat. If you know Morse code, why not try signaling the destroyer?”
Holding the mirror gently, I jumped off the chair. “I don't know any code—do you?”
“How soon will Georges come in here? I understand you... eh... give him a check every day, when...”
“Already had our little transaction for today. Tonight, I'll need another... transaction.”
“If he thought I was killing you, would he come in now?”
“Man, you're sopping over with happy talk!”
“Dammit, Parks, I'm not making small conversation! If you started yelling, would that bring Georges in here?”
“I guess so—I'm still worth $530 to him—the last of my checks. We play our daily haggle scene: he knows I need a fix and I know if I signed all my checks at once—be autographing my death warrant. Don't say it, Biner... I tried a mistake in spelling when countersigning the travelers check. All it got me was a licking. Georges is a rough cat with his fists.”
“Why did you sign any of the checks?”
Parks gave me a sad, tolerant smile. “Clayton, you're clicking your gums from way out in nowheres. When that time arrives—I have to have a shot! Worst form of torture ever devised—everything from your soul to bowels screws tight. Sometimes, I try to enjoy it—pure pain can also be the most rare of sensations—I read someplace. But when I'm hurting, nothing remains in the world, no 'if,' 'but,' or rational delights: the sum of the universe is neatly reduced to getting that shot. Even though I have a big habit, haven't had it long, so if I can only reach a drug hospital, think I have a good chance of kicking it and...”