It was a friendly street and, aside from it being recently paved, one not all that unique in Hogstown. Spanish moss hung from the power lines in the heat and haze of mid-summer. The street where Goldberg and Dan lived seemed not to live in any particular time, but just always existed in its current state of maintained, comfortable dilapidation. Everything seemed to be growing, baking or giving off pollen. Even Goldberg’s apartment seemed to breathe as if alive.
Mr. Aye examined the two story duplex from the passenger’s seat of the Buick, specifically the top floor, where Goldberg lived.
Carl looked around. “Here we are, the address I got from the boss. It’s the upper apartment. We sure this is the place?”
“Ya. It looks like the kind of place this guy would live in. Address matches. It’s right.”
The man smiled. “I told you. Mr. Loveless always comes through.”
“Nobody home, though. Your man didn’t know that. Thought this was a snatch job.”
“Well we are here to tell him that and we got a back-up plan. There is always a plan and you stick to the plan.”
“Yeah, well, I got a plan too.” Mr. Aye opened the glove compartment and retrieved a handgun and a new, cylindrical silencer. He screwed the two together and tried to fit it into his shoulder holster. It wouldn’t fit right and rode too far into his armpit.
“Crap!” He took the silencer off the pistol and shoved it into the holster under his tan jacket. For now, the black metal tube of a device went into his front pocket instead of on the gun.
“Everything OK over there?” The driver looked at him.
“Yeah, fine.” Mr. Aye gave the man stink eye.
The air was hot and moist. He opened the door to step out and It wrapped around him like a lustful squid. The heat was baking the sleep deprivation into Mr. Aye’s brains, leaving him an angry bag of flesh with a mess to clean up.
The security here was beyond bad. There was a cinder block-enclosed stairwell leading to the porch which created a perfect hiding place for a thief. Of course, they wouldn’t need a hiding place because the porch was shielded by palm fronds from the road. Up on the porch, Mr. Aye considered his many entry options and wondered if the people who lived here were retarded. The door was locked, but the window was propped open by a fan and protected only by a screen. As it was, the experienced Mr. Aye left his lock picks in his pocket and simply opened the door with an old credit card.
He entered the hot and dirty apartment. While the place was somewhat orderly, a film of filth and grime covered everything. The well-used coffee table was still set up as a pot smoking parlor. A water pipe sat on the only clean corner with weed strewn all over what appeared to be the remnants of breakfast. A pile of books and unopened mail buried the kitchen table. Things were everyday messy, but after the collector’s place, this was spotless.
The backup plan was crap. It was just as ill-defined as last night’s disaster. Go find… something… anything that might have been retrieved from the Collector’s house. Also, somehow, find a reason why this guy decided to visit the collector that morning. Mr. Aye frowned at the task as he attempted to undertake it. He crossed the room to begin his search, yet failed to notice one small, furry detail.
Junior napped under the table, stoned and stuffed with cream cheese. His tail swished the air. Unattended by his conscious mind, it landed where it found the least amount of natural resistance… which happened to be right in the path of a steel-toed boot.
The patchouli-scented waitress came with the check and Goldberg chased it down. “Seems pretty stupid to go dutch-treat at this point, eh? Hey, can we get a batch of those fortune cookies you make here? And not the rude ones, the regular ones.”
“Fortune cookies?” Joy said.
“Well yeah. They are pretty good. And after this morning’s weirdness, I’ve a new fondness for generated randomness.”
She smirked. “You think a cookie will tell you your fortune?”
Goldberg shrugged. “No, but I didn’t think I’d have some guy give me a dump truck full of cash today either. So… may as well set up a pitch and swing.”
“Reasonable point, I suppose. So what are you going to do first?”
“Disappear,” He said quickly, then turned. “Hey Dan, you feel like toking it up old school? Woods behind the ‘rock?”
Dan was picking his teeth with a straw and stopped long enough to say, “I like it. Somehow I’m feeling the swamp.”
“You would,” Joy smirked. “Well, I’m supposed to meet Sarah and her boyfriend for a late lunch after I’m through with office hours.”
“On a Saturday?”
“Unlike somebody,” She gave Goldberg an accusing look, “I’ve still got to grade papers. Comp on a condensed schedule is pretty crazy.”
“Stats compressed is just as bad, but I make all my stuff due on Mondays. I always plan on being lazy and useless over the weekend.”
She rolled her eyes. “So are you going to meet me for lunch or what, stone boy? You can even bring the slug.”
Dan made a slurping noise that made Molly giggle.
“Sure thing, but don’t think I’m going to clean up just to meet your family.”
“Ah, it’s just Sarah. And anyway, I wouldn’t worry about the ‘rents, were I you. The most threatening thing about them is their desire for grandkids.”
Goldberg’s pasty complexion became even whiter as Joy grinned.
“Uh Oh.” Dan looked towards the door with a mix of horror and anticipation.
“What?” Joy moved her head to see what he was looking at and her bright mood darkened. Megan, Goldberg’s ex-girlfriend, descended on the table like depression.
Though the perky blonde young girl smiled, her presence cast an unwelcome shadow. “Hi Ryan! I thought it was you over here. Nice haircut. Um … Can we talk?”
Goldberg remained calm, like someone waiting to have a bone set. “We’re talking now. What can I do for you Megan?”
Her smile started to falter. “Well, I saw you in the paper and I just wanted to say congratulations.”
“Uh, thanks, Meg.”
An uncomfortable lull came over the table as Megan continued to stand close to the table, looking at Goldberg. Joy frowned as Dan grinned at everyone’s discomfort. Goldberg ignored Meg. He ate a fortune cookie and examined the message inside. He showed it to Dan with a grin. It said ‘An enemy will come to you with smiling eyes.’
Dan snorted through his nose
Finally Megan broke the silence. “Well are you going to introduce me to your new friend?” Reaching across Goldberg she stuck out her hand at Molly. “Hi I’m Megan, and you are?”
“Molly.” They shook hands limply. Molly still was in a bit of shock and her buzz was starting to wear off, so the conversation died right there.
The Blonde girl straightened up and looked at Joy. “And Miss. Winter, interesting company you are keeping. I wasn’t aware that you had met my boyfriend, Ryan.”
Joy’s face flushed, but her anger at the presumptuous girl kept her going forward. “I’m not surprised. There are so many things you don’t know. Goldberg and I met years before you came to the University. How are your studies going? Still channeling Dickensonian angst?”
Goldberg said to Dan, “Didn’t she break up with me two months ago? Twice?” Dan shrugged.
“Honestly man, I turned the station on that soap opera four or five break-ups ago. Crap writing. It just got repetitious.”
Megan ignored the two men and defended herself from Joy’s sharp tongue. “Well, after taking your class, I decided it really wasn’t for me and became a Business Major. English is such a… soft field of study.”
“I guess it depends on your approach and how serious you take it.” The older woman’s eyes shot daggers. “I guess we see that you just aren’t terribly serious and care deeply about money.”
Dan was amused while Goldberg was just confused. He wanted to leave with a little class. “Um, look, we were just leaving. Can we offer you the table?”
“Well,” she puffed herself up and regaining her composure. “Actually I was wondering if you were busy later.” Shooting a sideways glance at Joy she said, “I really wanted to, you know…. talk.”
“He’s going to be pretty busy later.” Joy broke in.
Megan looked only at Goldberg, cocked her head and smiled. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Goldberg slid out of the booth and stood. “I’ve, uh, got to finalize some things, you know… lottery stuff.”
The blonde girl perked up. “That’s so cool! Congrats again. So tell me, what did you do when you found out? Were you excited?”
Before anyone else could speak, Joy cut in. “Actually we went home and fucked like a couple of high school dropouts on Ecstasy.” Every eye shot to the thin, dark-purple haired woman, who shrugged and smirked.
Megan spat, “Eloquently put as always, Miss. Winter.”
Joy began to pull apart her fortune cookie. “That’s why they have me teaching Comp. to you zygotes.” She held up the tray. “Cookie?”
“No thanks,” She said, in full retreat. “I’ve lost my apatite.”
“Merow!” Junior yelled in pain, and surprise. He reeled around, yanking his abused tail out from under the boot. Giving the furry, gray tail a good twitch, he found that it hurt, but it wasn’t broken. The owner of the feet, now back-stepping away from the table, should be so lucky to escape damage.
The shriek hit Mr. Aye’s ears like an ice pick. Though he still didn’t know what was going on, he instinctively retraced his steps. Fatigue clouded his mind so that it was only capable of one thought at a time. Right now, the source of that awful noise pushed out thoughts of his goal.
In his classic low fighting stance, which made his round belly scrape the ground, Junior sized up the man who had dared to step on his tail. The man wasn’t his daddy or the other guy who gave him food. And he wasn’t apologizing in cooing tones! This guy was bad and Junior was pissed. The human-nip hummed in his ears accentuating his desire for large game. Emitting a low, rumbling growl, he examined the man, looking for a weakness. The great hunter had found deserving prey.
Hearing the commotion, Billie startled from her relaxed nap. Human-nip always put her in the mood for a good cat nap before chasing anything that needed to be chased. From high on top of her bookshelf, she surveyed the scene. Junior had called out, but now he seemed to be playing with a new human friend.
Claw hit ankle as the chunky cat opened his offensive. The man backed away through the room, mumbling angry human-speak. The time to strike was now! He reared up and grabbed the man’s other leg, sinking his claws into the taut tendons behind the knee. With a savage bite, his fangs dug into the fleshy area just below the man’s knee cap eliciting a bellow of pain. Junior wondered if it was anywhere near as painful as having your tail stepped on by someone twenty times your size.
The man’s leg came up off the ground, flailing around. Junior bit harder and clawed deeper in an effort to hang on as the man’s boot came up between his legs. The cat thought that this guy was trying to kick him in the balls, take him out of the fight! An ineffective move! Junior was castrated.
Through the haze of human-nip, Billie saw the action and got excited. Hey! It’s play time! She readied herself, wiggling her little butt in the air, and when the time was right, she jumped onto the man’s shoulders. Up here she would receive love and attention, like daddy and the other guy would give when they came home.
The new guy was terrible at this game, though. She had to use her front and back claws just to hang on while he tried to pet her. It almost seemed like he was trying to swat her off of his shoulders. Weird!
Mr. Aye, now beset by two crazy cats, was totally panicked. Pain clouded his senses and thoughts of escaping it overtook his blurry mind. Nothing he did worked.
His head swam with a sudden wave of vertigo from his sleepless night. Rage, was starting to well up, supported by the fatigue. If only he could get to his gun! He’d kill these damned cats! The briefest flash of what he was doing crossed his mind. He was here for something and couldn’t just shoot. He needed to get the silencer! Damn it!
Finding new resolve in murderous thoughts, he kicked hard with his leg in one mighty flick. Junior’s claws held, but under the force, mercenary’s tendons gave. A painful shock ran through him as he realized just how badly the big cat had damaged his right knee. He groaned in agony.
From her awkward perch on the squat man’s shoulders, Billie had come to the conclusion that this guy was just no fun. Something else attracted her attention through the screen door. A bird! A bird had flown in and sat on their railing, right where she liked to catch her morning sun. She sized up the small animal as it fluttered its wings, seductively. Surely it wanted to play!
Grabbing an extra tight hold of the man’s neck, the spry white cat sprang from her no-fun human perch and ran off to play with the bird. As she often did, she forgot that the screen door actually had a screen in it. Nose met screen as Billie rebounded off the door and back into the room. Regaining her equilibrium, she licked her nose and sneezed. Confused and embarrassed, she watched the bird fly away and looked around for something else to chase.
Cats usually land on their paws, but the human nip had messed up Junior’s balance. Having been flung off of his prey’s leg, he tumbled on the hardwood floor and skidded to a stop. When the big cat got back to looking for his adversary, he saw Billie bump hard into the screen door. Junior was incensed that someone else would rough up the little white cat! That was his job! The time had come. All quarter be damned! This is war!
Momentarily free of cats, Mr. Aye drew his gun from his holster. Fishing into his pocket for the silencer, he did not see Junior. The large cat barreled into the back of the already weakened right knee, making the mercenary fall to a half kneeling position. His damaged kneecap smacked the floor with the force of a jackhammer. It moved in a way that was not natural, tearing at the bitten and clawed tendons.
Shocked and dizzy, Mr. Aye flailed his arms for support. The pistol flew from his hands, scooting underneath the couch. The tube-like silencer fell from his pocket and spun on the ground right in front of Billie.
Nature took over. Billie pounced on the animated object, smacking and batting it in front of the screen door. She managed to get the object between her paws. Biting into one end, it squirted through the flap in the screen the cats used to get out. She chased her new toy through the hole and out onto the porch. She liked this toy! Lots of action!
Mr. Aye’s bitten and clawed knee dug into the hardwood floor, shooting pain up his thigh. He bit back the pain and assessed. From just ahead of him, he heard a noise like an engine starting. Slowly, He raised his head.
The low growl emanated from the stoned and angry Junior. The cat eyed him, ears flattened against his head. From his perch on the overstuffed arm of the chair, he lowered his head and stuck his back up, adjusting his rear paws. The claws on his hind feet dug into the burlap covering for better traction as he shifted his weight for an optimal strike.
Mr. Aye was hypnotized by the predator’s eyes, momentarily frozen.
The cat shot through the air like a furry cannonball, closing the distance in a heartbeat. Muscular arms opened wide in mid-leap. Sharp claws appeared at the ends of large paws. Grey fur, flab and bulk pounded into Mr. Aye’s face and chest, knocking him backwards. He could feel the claws ripping into his neck and chest as front claws tore at his ears.
The back of his head smacked on the floor producing a shower of stars in his vision. When his sight cleared, he saw the angry animal, inches from his face. He could only scream as Junior slowly tilted his head to one side, opened his mouth wide, and chopped down on the bridge of Mr. Aye’s nose. A sick crunching sound sawed through the man’s skull as his nose broke in the clench of the cat’s jaws.
In a full panic, he threw the cat across the room, sending chunks of flesh from his nose with it. The pain was enormous and he started to bleed profusely. His eyes blurred as he tried to get to his feet, thinking of nothing else but getting the hell out of there.
Spitting out the nasty piece of bad-human meat, Junior saw the man trying to flee. He reared up on his hind legs and pounced, claws ripping through the seat of the man’s pants and making four large tears in each ass cheek. Mr. Aye shrieked like a schoolgirl as the cat bit forward and chomped his crack, one tooth scoring a direct hit on the rim of his hole.
Mr. Aye crashed through the door in full retreat, startling Billie so much that she abandoned her new toy. He turned to run down the stairs but stepped on the round silencer. As the white cat watched, he flew through the air and crashed down the stairwell. His back hit the wall on the bottom of the landing where the stairs turned back on themselves and he went limp as a bag of sand. Gravity pulled him down the rest of the wooden stairs and he smacked, head first into the concrete foundation of the house, finally coming to rest among the debris just inside the apartment door.
People were starting to come out of their houses to see what all the yelling and banging was about as Mr. Aye limped, blood gushing from his face, to the car. He threw himself into the back seat, and as he sat, the cat bite on his ass hurt him like a dagger. “Drive. Get away. Go!”
The driver zipped away as Junior looked through the porch railing. Nobody steps on my tail!
“What happened to you? Did you get what we needed?” Carl asked from the driver’s seat.
“Shut the fuck up.” Mr. Aye took a box out of his belt and punched in a number. He held the phone up and said, “Bee. Bee, come in. I need another plan!”
“What the hell was that!?” Goldberg stared at Joy’s back as she shoved open the door to the street.
Joy got as far as the sidewalk before turning on her heel. “You know what your problem is, Goldberg?” Her finger came up and pointed at his nose.
“You are way too nice. And way too willing to go along to get along. That girl used your heart as an ashtray and you even consider being civil? Maybe you thought that you could ‘be friends’ or something!… invite her over for a potluck and other such nicey-nice.”
The glasses hid his confused scowl. “You are pissed that I didn’t light into her for no reason?”
“Ash. Tray. How many times did that trollop cheat on you last semester allone? Three?”
His voice lowered. “You knew?”
Joy’s face flushed slightly and she turned away. “It’s a small town, when you get right down to it. She was in my class. She used to brag to her little slut friends before class, that’s how I knew and I…”
She turned. Goldberg looked at her over the top rim of his glasses. The look made his nose look very long and his eyes soft and warm.
“Damn it!” She sighed. “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself? Don’t you get angry? Someone craps on you and you are just like all ‘Dude, that’s uncool’ instead of giving them the shit they deserve!”
“And what would that solve? What would that have changed with Meg? Huh?”
“It may not have made a difference the first time, but the second time … Maybe. And the worst part is that she said how much she liked you but would continue to carry on because she could get away with it. I mean … didn’t you care? Don’t you care?”
The question hung in the hot sticky air as cars rolled by. “We’re not talking about her anymore, are we.”
Joy turned away and took a few paces before wheeling around on her heels. “Anyone ever tell you you suck with women?”
“Only every girl I’ve ever dated.”
“Well, since you are dating a woman now, it’s time to change your tune.” She pointed into his chest. “You getting me?”
The heat caught up with Goldberg and he began to sweat anew in his confused silence. “So, does that mean we’re dating now?”
“Yes! I mean… aren’t we?” She sighed and relaxed. “Look. Goldberg. Unlike her and unlike a lot of people that will probably start popping from the woodwork, I really don’t give a crap about your money. You’ve got to believe that. I…” She looked into the rose of his glasses. “I… We want the same things. We understand each other, don’t we?”
His eyes gazed into hers and he felt himself fall in. Everything was happening so fast. “Joy, I…”
They both stopped as Dan and Molly burst through the door. Dan was laughing and Molly looked like a zombie. “Ah man! Luxury Automobile is a damned trip!”
“Who?” Molly said, mostly to herself.
“The guy! With the guitar. Ah to hell with it.” He turned to Goldberg. “So… that was horrible and uncomfortable. What are we up to?”
“I need to go home and … I guess … something.” Molly said. She raised her head. “Maybe I can get some of my stuff?”
Joy met Molly’s sad eyes and sighed again. She gave Goldberg a pat on the chest. “Look, I’ll go with her and then I have got to do office hours. You want to get back together on campus? The Pen, one thirty? I’ll have to work some after that as well, but I’ll be free after four. Sound good?”
Goldberg paused, still spinning from Joy’s rant. “You sure?”
She stood on her tippy-toes and kissed Goldberg’s nose. “About lunch? Yeah. We’ll work on the rest later.” She lightly squeezed his scrawny upper arm. “We have later?”
“Yeah, we have later.” They hugged as much as the heat of the day would allow and then the group parted ways along gender lines.