FIRE RING - DAVID PRICE
He’d always been a leader. As a ten year old he was the one who decided where the rag-tag bunch of surfer kids would go on their bikes. He was the first to get a boogie board and soon everyone had one. They journeyed up the coast to different surf spots but spent most of their time at their own beach, South Beach.
At times there were as many as a dozen in their bike caravans. They all had lived in SB since childhood. They attended SB Elementary and were the scourge of the neighborhood. SB was not exactly your typical beach city. It had a main drag of several blocks heading down to its big wooden pier. Shops along the street featured all the usual business enterprises, bars, beach food of every type, coffee shops, head shops, tattoo parlors and a few Mom-And-Pop antique stores struggling to survive.
What made SB different was a very present sleaze factor. None of the stores or restaurants were up scale. No one from outside SB hung out there, unlike Pacific Beach and La Jolla which were destination spots for inlanders looking for a day of sun or to catch the vibe in a beach bar.
If you knew the lay of the land, you didn’t go to South Beach unless it was mid-day and you wanted a classic burger at Greasy’s.
There seemed to be more homeless men riding old banana bikes and carrying all their worldly goods in a trash bag per square mile than any other place south of Venice Beach.
The houses near the beach were little bungalows often with just plywood walls and under 700 square feet. The rent was cheap for a beach city and it drew a great many dopers, bikers and low lifes of every description.
This was the culture Ace and his cronies grew up in. They named themselves the SB Ratz. None of the Ratz parents were too keen on parenting. The kids mostly came from single parent homes or several families living together in cramped quasi-commune style.
Locals from outside the area referred to it as, “The Peoples Republic of South Beach”. It was a pretty accurate description.
Ace wasn’t his real name but it was the only name anyone used. Even his teachers used it. If you wanted him to answer, you better call him Ace.
His Dad gave him the nickname. When his Mom got pregnant, they weren’t married. They had been living together for three years. He was a musician working part time in any SB bar that needed a fill-in. He sang too and was pretty good. He was a long haired free spirit. Every girl that met him wanted to tame him. Ace's Mom had been a college student at the nearby Mission Christian College. One night, she and some friends went slumming and ended up in a bar where she heard his Dad sing. She was smitten and the rest was a downhill slide. She dropped out of school, rejected her family’s pleas and got a job as a waitress to support her man.
When she told him she was pregnant, she expected a supportive reaction. She was wrong. His true colors showed as he ranted and raved, blaming her for ruining his life.
He demanded she get an abortion. She called up her suppressed morals and refused. He told her that they would each draw a card. Holder of the high card would get the call on the abortion. She said, “No”. He screamed at her and drew a queen. He shoved the cards in her face. He said draw or he would kick the baby right out of her. She knew she wouldn’t do as he directed regardless of the card she drew. To buy some time, she played along. She drew the ace of spades.
Within a year, he was out of her apartment and out of her life. He nicknamed the baby Ace and it stuck.
Ace loved his mother but he had a mean streak that everyone saw but her. He was the first in his group to do most everything that seemed important to a kid with time on his hands and no real direction.
He was the first to get in a big deal fight. When he was in the sixth grade, he agreed to meet an eighth grade bully after school. The bully leaned on almost every kid in SB Elementary for a cut of their lunch money. He intercepted them on the school playground before school. If your parents dropped you off early or you walked to school, you knew Ricky, the neighborhood bully.
One day, Ricky was leaning on one of the Ratz. Ace came upon the scene with his buddies. They surrounded Ricky and told him to beat it. Ricky puffed up but the Ratz closed in on him. He thought it over quickly and then challenged Ace to a fight after school at the dog beach. Ace stepped up. It was on.
At 3:30 P.M., at least a hundred elementary kids were at dog beach. Ace and eight of the Ratz came walking up together.
Ricky and two of his friends were there waiting. The three of them stood there taking deep breaths, clenching and unclenching their fists. They were jacked.
Little did Ricky know that Ace had made a battle plan. He was ready to fight mano-a-mano. But, if he lost and was getting pounded, the other seven Ratz were going to come in like a SWAT team. They had screwdrivers, ice picks and hammers. Every kid but Ace had a weapon and was ready to use it.
None of the counter-attack plan was necessary. Ricky was a pretty big kid and he dressed and acted the part of a punk but he had never really been tested. Ace didn’t need to put on a show. He was muscular, athletic and had a mean streak that Ricky was about to experience firsthand. All that and five years of martial arts training his mom had supported in the hope it would provide structure and discipline to control his rage. It didn’t work but it made him the baddest elementary school kid in SB.
Ricky put on a big show. He took off his jacket and put up his fists and said, “Come on, Ace, it’s time for your whipping.”
Ace stared into his eyes and then spit in his face. As Ricky used his hand to clear his eyes, Ace attacked. He caught Ricky flatfooted with a snap kick to his groin. It was a bullseye. As Ricky bent over, Ace unleashed a barrage of fist and elbow strikes to his face and head. Ricky went down and yelled, “Stop, I give.”
Never did words fall on deafer ears. Ace mounted him and proceeded to beat his face bloody. Then he got up and kicked Ricky three or four times in the kidneys. He said, “If I ever see you around my school again, I will teach you a lesson you will never forget.”
As the fight started, kids cheered Ace on. By the time it was over, they were sick and frightened. They had had just seen evil unleashed.
That fight and several that followed over the years with the same result, made Ace’s reputation. All the way through high school, he was the man to stay away from.
His cadre of fellow Ratz shrunk to five by the time they entered high school. They were all tough, fearless and too ready to fight.
The high school football team benefited from their anger and aggression. They played together through their senior year. It was the best team at SB High in the past twenty-five years. Ace was the middle linebacker and spiritual leader of the team on the field. Off it, only the five Ratz would have anything to do with him.
Ace was also the first to get a tattoo. His junior year, he found an out-of-work tattoo artist who didn’t care he was underage. He proudly wore a large black rat with red eyes and a snarling open mouth on his right shoulder. Above it, the words, “SB Ratz.”
It was soon followed by crossed surfboards with a dagger on his left shoulder. Down his right calf was a series of Chinese kanji. He was drunk when he got it and couldn’t remember exactly what the symbols meant. He knew it said something about courage and honor with the character for dragon.
As a local, he was known everywhere in SB. People steered clear of him even the local bikers. He worked pick up jobs and surfed every chance he got. The Ratz still hung with him as they all drifted into adulthood with no goals or ambitions, except to earn or steal enough to support themselves and surf as often as possible.
As with many surfers, the locals were possessive of the best surf spots. Outsiders were often intentionally hit with surfboards launched as water missiles. If a tourist or inlander was ever stupid enough to cut in on a wave, denying one of the Ratz the ride, they would be harassed and eventually attacked when they came in to shore.
Fortunately for the Ratz, there was a SBHS alum who owned a construction company. After following their football successes, he offered Ace and two others jobs.
None of them worked enough hours to support themselves so they lived at home in the same dysfunctional families where they had grown up.
When Ace and the Ratz turned twenty-one, they were able to continue their years of alcohol abuse in the bars of South Beach.
Their favorite bar was Torchy’s, just a block from the beach and the pier. One summer night, Ace and three of the Ratz were at Torchy’s tossing back way too many tequila shots with beer chasers. They never stopped hitting on the girls, especially the ones from Mission Christian. When they were feeling no pain, Ace and his buddies staggered out and headed to the beach by the pier. There were several fire rings with people around them and a few were unattended. Ace found one with the wood and coals still smoldering and sat down. His buddies joined him.
They sat around loudly telling profanity-laced stories, making rude comments to passersby and generally waiting to sober up while making themselves obnoxious.
Ace was feeling mean and depressed. He started ragging on a group sitting around a nearby fire ring. They just ignored him. This made him madder. Then he started in on the girls in the group.
“Hey, you hos, come on over here if you’re looking for a real man.”
“Say, bitches, I’m talking to you. Say something.”
There was no response from the group but he did draw some over-the-shoulder looks.
“What, you too good to talk to a local? Hey, I’m talking to you skags.”
Finally, a tall rangy guy wearing a backpack walked over to the Ratz. “Say, mate, can’t you just leave us be? Nobody wants any trouble.”
Ace looked the guy up and down. He had a funny accent. Ace couldn’t place it but he gave it a try.
“Hey, you London fuckface, why don’t you go back home where you belong. You’re on Ratz property. Get moving before I kick your limey ass.”
“First, I’m from Austrailia. Second, I didn’t come over here to cause a problem. Can’t you just be cool and leave us alone?”
When Ace was in one of these alcohol-driven depressions, he was always looking to add an adrenaline rush to the mix. A fight was his tried and true method.
Ace stood up and stepped within a foot of the stranger. The stranger didn’t back up, he simply raised his open hands as if say he wasn’t looking for a fight.
There was no stopping Ace and all the Ratz knew it. They all stood up. When trouble started, they always fought as a team, just like gang tackling in a football game
Ace sucker-punched the stranger just as he placed his arms up. It was on the chin and dropped him hard. He hit the sand face-first. The instant he was down, Ace began kicking him. The other Ratz joined in. Then Ace picked up the skateboard of one of the Ratz and swung it hard and down on the stranger’s head. You could hear the thump like the sound of a bat hitting a watermelon.
The girls around the other fire ring began to scream.. A couple of the guys jumped up and started toward the Ratz.
The Ratz peeled off like jet fighters and formed a line around Ace like they were pass blocking for a quarterback. The other guys hesitated.
Ace reached down and grabbed the stranger’s back pack and pulled him right into the fire ring, face first. He was out cold and never reacted to the smoldering embers.
Ace and the Ratz walked off like strutting victors in a professional wrestling match.
That altercation changed Ace’s life in ways never expected. The Ratz had left many victims beaten and injured but they had never been held accountable. This time was different.
The incident made front page news in the local newspaper and was carried on every local TV news report. The stranger was a twenty year-old college student and part-time model on vacation from Australia. The other people around the fire ring were a couple of German students and some girls from Mission Christian.
The victim suffered a devastating skull fracture, broken ribs and third degree burns to half his face. He was in critical condition in a local hospital for six weeks. His parents flew in from Australia and stayed for weeks, holding daily vigil at their son’s bedside. He was in a coma for thirty days.
The local news media carried daily updates on his condition and the ongoing police investigation.
It didn’t take long for the description of the lead assailant to be identified as Ace. Within three weeks, Ace and his fellow Ratz were in custody.
Ace was arrested in a 5:00 A.M. raid at his mother’s apartment. Bail was set at $500,000. He wasn’t about to make the ten percent fee required by the local bail bondsmen.
When the victim was able, his parents flew him back home. He would undergo many months of vocational rehab. The facial burns were extensive. There would be innumerable skin grafts in an attempt to rebuild the once handsome face. They would not succeed.
Ace drew a break he didn’t deserve. With the victim back home and in no condition to return to testify, he was not available for Ace’s trial.
The D.A. had to cut a deal. Ace was facing twenty years to life in prison for attempted murder and mayhem. He plead out to aggravated assault and received one year in county jail as a condition of five years probation. He was ordered to totally abstain from the ingestion of alcohol and controlled substances. He would have to submit to urine testing as directed by his probation officer.
Ace did his county jail time without official incident. He did have a couple of run-ins with other inmates but his violent reaction and all-out maniac attack mode let everyone know he was best left alone. He breezed through the last few months.
When he was released, he was clean and sober for the first time in years.
He took a few days just to relax. It was good to get some sun and ride some waves. He was due to see his PO at the end of the week.
When he reported, he had to drop a urine test first thing. His PO was a crusty old guy who was tired of his job and tired of spending his days looking across his desk at crooks who were trying to run a game on him.
When Ace left the office, he had an appointment in two weeks to check in again with his PO and to provide a urine test. And so it would go for the next two years at least. He also was ordered to get a job or provide documentation of every place he had applied for one.
Damn, he thought. This was going to be hell. Within a week, he got his old construction job back. He was working four to five days a week and earning good money. With random urine testing, he couldn’t spend his money on drugs or alcohol, as he had done in the past. One dirty test and he could be headed to state prison to serve out his sentence.
He quit drinking but he still loved to hang out at Torchy’s. Sometimes the house band would let him jam a little with his guitar. Mainly, he just enjoyed hanging out with friends and looking for girls. Without alcohol fogging his mind, he became quite an observer of human nature. He watched guys get drunk and make fools of themselves, often ending up in fights just as he had done many times before. He noted that there were very few women who wanted to hang out with a drunken fool.
As the months passed, he found he was leading a life he had never seen for himself. At work, he was promoted to a journeyman position. The money was coming in and he putting a little away every payday as well as paying his mom a share for room and board.
He and his Mom were getting along much better. She had a boyfriend who was a lifeguard. He was an old timer but a cool guy. He treated Ace with respect and was very committed to his Mom.
He enjoyed his low-key life but he sure felt something was missing. He no longer was involved in altercations now that alcohol was removed from his live. The only adrenaline rush he experienced was when he caught a big wave and that was enough for him.
About a year and a half after he got out of jail, he found what was missing.
One night, after jamming at Torchy’s, he noticed a very cute beach blonde type watching him.
Never the shy one, he went right over to the bar where she was sitting.
“Hi. I’ve never seen you here before.”
“I just transferred in to Mission Christian. I heard this was a cool place to check out.”
“My name is Ace. It’s a nickname but it’s the only one I use.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Cindy.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Palm Springs. I got my AA at Desert Community College. I transferred to Mission Christian to be near the beach. The Springs are just too far away from the ocean.”
“Do you surf?”
“When I can. That’s why I came here to school. If I can get my BA in education and surf every weekend, this will be the best two years of my life.”
“Great. Maybe we can surf together. I’m usually down by the pier every Saturday and Sunday.”
“Cool. Maybe I’ll see you there.”
She left her beer half-full and smiled as she walked out. His eyes followed her. A cute little body in tight jeans and a MSC hooded sweatshirt, she was a doll.
Ace was up early on Saturday. He ate some mini chocolate-covered doughnuts, washed them down with a Coke. A real surfer’s breakfast. He was on the beach, waxing his board, when he saw her drive up in one of those little non-descript American economy cars.
He watched her unload her board from the roof rack. She already had her wet suit on. She didn’t see him.
He picked up his board and walked over to her. She looked up.
“Hi, Cindy. I was hoping you’d be around. I didn’t expect to see you so early.”
“I came to catch waves, not the sun.”
“Great. I’ll see you out there.”
He walked into the white water and then jumped up and onto his board as the next surf swell passed beneath him. A few powerful strokes and he was out past the shore breaking stuff to the open water where a dozen other surfers sat straddling their boards and waited for a good swell. It looked to be a good day.
Soon, he caught a wave and rode by her as she was making her way out.
He was almost back out to the waiting spot when he saw her shoot by him riding the wave in a low crouch, her hand touching the water in the wave’s barrel. Then she kicked out and over as the wave broke near shore. Damn, this girl could surf.
They chatted some as they sat astride their boards. She’d been surfing for years. When she paddled, her strokes were powerful and relentless. For a life long inlander, she was something else.
He asked her if she’d be at Torchy’s that night. She said, “Maybe.”
He was there and brought his guitar. If she showed, he wanted to impress her. He was definitely interested.
Just as he was about to give up, she appeared.
“I was afraid you weren’t coming.”
“I’ve been studying. Decided I needed a break.”
They sat and talked. They made eye contact. The vibe was good.
Later in the evening, he jammed with the band and sang a ballad. He looked at her the whole time. She never stopped smiling.
He rejoined her after. A while later, she said she had to get back to the dorms. He reached gently for her hand, held it and leaned down and kissed her cheek. She blushed.
As she walked to her car, he waited. Just as she got to it, she turned and waved. That was as good a sign as he could expect.
At his request, she had given him her cell number.
He waited three days and called. He invited her to meet him for coffee later that evening. They talked for two hours. He had never been so at ease with a girl. It was like they were best friends.
At work, he found himself thinking about her. He was reminded of his Mom and Dad. If they became a couple, he wouldn't mess it up like his Dad had done. When you find the right person, you need to do everything you can to make it work.
He called her Friday to see if she wanted to surf Saturday. She said yes and they agreed to meet at the pier.
They spent a perfect morning surfing and talking. When it was time to go, he reached and placed his hand on her cheek. She looked up at him and smiled. He leaned down and kissed her lips softy. He felt her hand on his bicep. It was brief, tender and just right.
He asked her to meet him at Torchy’s that night. She said she couldn’t as her parents were coming into town for parent’s weekend.
He told his Mom about Cindy on Sunday night. She was impressed with his taste. He knew she was going out to dinner with her boyfriend on Wednesday night. He told her he wanted to invite Cindy to come over for dinner. He would make his famous spaghetti dinner. It was only famous to him. He made it occasionally for his Mom and she always complimented him on it. Now he hoped to try it out on someone else. His Mom said, “Go for it.”
“Hi, Cindy. This is Ace.”
“How are you?”
“I’d like to make you dinner Wednesday night.”
“At my apartment. My Mom will be out with her boyfriend. It’s his birthday or something. Anyway, I make some great spaghetti. We could just kick back, listen to some music. Very low-key.”
“Well, I have a big biology test Thursday morning but I could break away for two hours but only on one condition.”
“I want you to play your guitar for me.”
“I’ll be there, just give me an address.”
He did. It was all set. He knew he wouldn’t be meeting another quality girl like this anytime soon. Go slow. Invest the time. He would play this like a total gentleman.
At 7:00 P.M. on Tuesday, he heard a gentle knock on his door.
He quickly checked the apartment to be sure everything was straight and neat. He had one of his Mom’s Sinatra records playing on her little phonograph. His marinara and sausage sauce was simmering on the stove. All he needed to do was boil the water and toss in the pasta.
“Just a minute”, he yelled from the kitchen. Yeah, the place looks great. He opened the door.
“Hi, Ace. This is just the break I need from studying.”
He stepped back as she entered. She paused and looked up at him. He closed the door and reached down to hug her. She returned the hug as he kissed her cheek.
“I’ve missed you”, he said.
“You did? How sweet.”
“Please come in and sit down. I’ll start the water for the pasta and be right back. Want something to drink?”
“A Coke would be great.”
He turned to walk to the kitchen. He only made it two steps before he felt his legs buckle and he fell face-first to the floor. Three hundred thousand volts from a handheld stun gun will do that to you.
He felt like he had been shocked but how could that be?
He convulsed on the floor and tried to roll over. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her kneel to help him. Then he saw the arcing blue light from the stun gun in her hand as she touched him again near his heart. He convulsed and was only semi-conscious.
She moved quickly to his feet and pulled a razor sharp curve-bladed carpet knife from her purse. In two surgical moves, she severed both of his Achilles tendons. He could barely generate a muffled scream as the intense pain reached his confused brain. He would walk stiff-legged like a 100 year old man for the rest of his life. He would never surf again.
Then he felt the liquid running down from his hair, over his forehead, into his eyes and down his cheeks to his neck. Damn, it burns. As he regained some body function, he wiped his eyes. Through the blur, he saw the burning wooden match flying toward him. The only word he could utter was, “Why?”, as he squeezed his eyes shut before his head ignited like a human torch.
She capped the lighter fluid can and placed it and the carpet knife in her purse. Using a handkerchief, she opened the door and exited the apartment. A few quick steps and she was down the exterior stairs of the little seven unit building.
Two blocks over and she was in her car and driving away.
Earlier that afternoon, she had checked out of the no-tell motel that she had called home the past two weeks. She paid cash daily for the room. This place didn’t care about names or ID if you had the green.
A mile away from Ace's Mom's apartment, she entered the freeway on-ramp to Interstate 5, which would take her north to Los Angeles.
Sixty miles north, she pulled off the freeway in San Clemente and drove to a chain fast food restaurant that she had spotted two weeks before on her way south. She pulled into the lot and exited her car carrying a food bag with the restaurant’s signature logo on it.
Inside was a wiped clean carpet knife and lighter fluid can covered by a dozen napkins and a day old order of super fries purchased just for this purpose. She dropped the crumpled bag in the outside trash can.
She returned to her car and placed a dirty hand towel in front of her left rear tire. Wrapped in it was the stun gun and the burner phone she had purchased ten days before. She drove forward three feet, obliterating the contents of the towel. She exited and put the towel in her car.
She drove to the gas station just before the freeway on-ramp and filled up her tank. Into the adjacent dumpster she threw two bags. One contained the neatly cut up Mission Christian hoody she had purchased at the campus bookstore when she arrived in San Diego. Her name wasn’t Cindy and she had never been a student at the college. In the other bag was the towel and the broken pieces it contained.
An hour and a half later, she followed the direction signs at LAX to the airport car rental return and dropped off her non-descript American economy car. She had used a phony California Drivers License and phony credit card to rent the car. Now she paid cash to settle her bill. They would never run the credit card.
She took the shuttle bus to Tom Bradley International Terminal to check in for her non-stop Qantas flight to Sydney.
As she settled into the lounge seat at her departure gate, she reflected on the past two weeks. She was anxious to get back to her family and her last semester of nursing school. But mainly she wanted to see her baby brother. She wanted to tell him that he had been avenged. But she knew there would be no point. He had no recollection of the horrible attack. Now and for always, he would have the mind of a small child.
BIO: David Price is an ex-college jock and retired probation officer living in California. His work can be found on Thuglit, Thrillers, Killers 'N' Chillers, Flash Fiction Offensive, A Twist of Noir, Powder Burn Flash, Darkest Before the Dawn and Crooked.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago