Friday, September 3, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 574 - Liam José

THE BIG FUZZ - LIAM JOSÈ

Regan knocked back the last of her Comfort. She’d been drinking that shit since she was a teenager. She knew it was shit, too, but it kept her feeling warm, and had a satisfaction that pretention couldn’t possibly bring about. The booze was the last vice she could allow herself. At least, the only one that could be managed.

Plus, it seemed appropriate in the casino bar.

It was all cashed-up bogans and ugly business men. Young girls trying to prove something, and wash-outs who knew nothing else.

The expensive covers on the seats did nothing to hide the cheap craftsmanship of the bar. It was one of those high-gloss bars, named after a fashion designer, that seemed hip to the crowd that considered the casino a night out. Fancy wooden finishes ran vine-like over the roof and formed lazy partitions. Regan though, was too busy watching the TV on the wall to pay any mind to the architecture. The AFL was playing, and although it was a replay, she couldn’t turn away.

It was the 2008 Grand Final, opening of the second quarter, when Geelong was still just dominating. Geelong had come into the match the strong favourites, but ended up getting their arse handed to them by Hawthorn. Regan smiled, she’d grown-up in a household that was dedicated to Hawthorn, and relished in their first Grand Final victory since ’91. Brad Ottens had just missed an easy goal from fifteen metres, and the crowd had become restless.

Regan agitated the ice left in her glass, and sipped at the watery remains of her Southern.

“Ree, you wanna grab next round?”

Ritchie put his hand on her forearm and poked his wallet into her hand. She pushed it away and set her glass on the sticky wooden table harder than necessary.

Regan had been clean for a year, and Ritchie was still making a big show about trusting her with his money. She walked toward the bar, her eyes growing sharper with heat, and refused to look at him.

The odds had been against them surviving, but the gradual tug of war was won by Ritchie, but his bullshit boy-scout routine had been wearing thin. Regan just needed another drink, even though this one would have to be her last.

She pushed past two women who danced for no one in the middle of the bar. Their aging bodies shuddered arhythmically and their curves edged close to the precipice of their ambitious clothes.

“Mutton,” Regan muttered, hoping they’d hear.

While the bartender got her drinks, she looked back to the television. Trent Croad had just broken his foot and was being taken off field. Regan shook her head. The boy had such a strong game, and he’d never play again after that.

She was still looking at Croad’s agonised face when a man bumped into her. He looked somehow familiar. He had one of those pathetic faces, handsome in the right ways, but like he’d been treaded on, like he’d fold inside himself if you prodded him. Her Comfort went all down the front of her black dress.

“Sorry, love.”

Regan walked. No fuckin’ point. She squeezed past the dancing women and put Ritchie’s Crownie in front of him. She didn’t know how he could drink that shit. Used to tell him all the time. That’s shit beer. Sold like it’s premium, tastes worse than bottom shelf. He always just answered with raised eyebrows at her class of Comfort. Touché.

Ritchie was nuzzled up to their friends, laughing about some bullshit that only Ritchie could find funny. Regan had reached the limit of her tolerance for the casino that night, and sat, with her mostly empty Comfort and kept watching the game.

“Shit.” She’d just missed Geelong’s captain, Tom Harley, getting taken off the field with a concussion.

“So, ReeRee, did you seriously come along just to watch the footy?”

“Sorry, Cass, but have you seen this game?”

Cassie smirked, and in one slick movement, slinked under Regan and took a slug from her drink. Regan caught her just as she put it down.

“You bitch!” They looked at each other a moment, before they both smiled, Cassie letting out a short hard laugh. Regan felt uncomfortable then, wondered why two people who no longer had anything in common still insisted on catching up.

Her eyes went back to the game, and she smiled and nodded as Cassie mentioned something about their children, and asked how Nicole was going. Regan said things like ‘good,’ and ‘yeah,’ while the second quarter wrapped up. Hawthorn was just tipping out with eight and three for 51, against Geelong’s six and twelve for 48. It was a strangely paced game, almost dull except for the injuries in the first half, but it became completely different, chaotic, in the second, when the back and forth gave way to one side falling apart. The half-time entertainment started, and Regan wondered why they’d still bother playing that shit for a replay.

She turned back to the conversation, but was distracted, something tickled the back of her mind and she felt removed from the situation. Across the bar, the man who’d spilled her drink stared at her, and Regan held his gaze for a few seconds. A bouncer switched the channel on the television and Regan looked back. He’d flipped it over to the baseball. Her mouth curled in contempt. Her eyes searched for the man, but couldn’t see him anymore.

“Are you serious? The baseball?”

“Sorry, sweetie, boss’s orders.”

“But who can even understand that shit?”

“You can watch the footy at home, if you want.”

Regan looked back to the screen, someone was throwing a ball and a guy swung at it with a bat. This much she understood. She looked at the scores, the numbers running across with what she assumed were the innings, and tried to decode the dozens of figures sitting underneath. She didn’t bother.

The baseball was just the last sign that it was time to leave.

Regan turned back to Cassie, who looked pissed, obviously ignored. She attempted an apology, but decided to just cut her losses and pulled Ritchie out of there.

*

“You okay, Ree?”

She wasn’t sure, said, “Yeah, fine.”

“What’s up? You gotta talk to me.”

She shifted down a gear as the traffic crawled along King’s Way.

“Look, I’m okay. I just don’t like the casino. I mean, who’s idea was it anyway?”

The traffic came to a stop.

“Who gives a shit? We’re just out for a night. Are you worried about Nicole? She’s gonna be fine. Nancy’s dealt with her for a lot longer than one night before.”

“Don’t - don’t bring it up tonight.”

Ritchie stared straight ahead. Duties for raising their child had bounced between himself and Regan’s mother for the two months she’d been in rehab. And even when she was back, it was still a long time before anyone trusted her with Nicole.

Ritchie let it go. “Look, hon, it’s –”

“Ah shit! I don’t have my wallet with me.”

“Shit. Do you know where you left it?”

“I dunno, it must be back at the bar.”

“Well, I’ll just call Cassie and see if she can find it.”

“Fuck it. I’ll just go back, look around.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

At the lights, she crossed the tram tracks and spun the car around. Didn’t see the car that was approaching. The other car almost managed to stop, and can’t have been moving at more than 15 kilometres when it struck. It clipped Ritchie’s passenger door, enough to put a sizable dint in it and jolt their car to the edge of the road.

Ritchie wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and bounced high in his seat, hit his head. Regan’s belt held, her neck snapped against the force and the airbag went off. She regained herself a moment later, looked to Ritchie, who was wincing.

“You okay, Ritchie?”

“Shit. Yeah. No. I think so.”

“Look at me. Did you hit your head?”

“Yeah, I think it’s okay, though. I can think alright.”

Regan undid her belt and moved towards him. “Just pass me the phone, we’ll call an ambulance in case, and I guess the police. You wanna talk to that dickhead or should I?”

“I don’t mind.”

“You don’t look so good. Pass the phone, please.”

“Oh God.” Ritchie’s eyes opened wider.

“What? You’re hurt?”

“Oh fuck, ah fuck. I dunno. I dunno. I can’t move. I can’t feel my arms or legs.”

An ambulance arrived within minutes.

*

It would be some time before anyone would know if the damage to Ritchie’s spine was permanent. He was doped up, kept immobile with padding and inflated plastic blankets, cables running from him, monitoring his vitals.

Regan sat with him, she wanted to stroke his hair, but wasn’t sure if she should touch him. Slowly, she drew her hand toward him and touched his blonde locks. She ran their thinning numbers through her thumb and forefinger and stared at him. Occasionally he would stir and look at her, only just comprehending what was happening. He looked at his wife, tried his hardest to concentrate and keep his eyes open, occasionally he’d try to tell her it was okay, then he’d haze, look past her, and droop.

She held his hair and whispered, atonally, a song she used to sing to him.

“I’ll know you by the thunderclap, pouring like a rain of blood to my emotions. And that is why I stumble to my knees, and why, underneath the heavens with the stars burning and exploding, I know I could never let you down.”

She kissed him as softly as possible on the cheek, and looked at the time. It would be morning soon, and she wanted to hold her child. She felt bad leaving Ritchie, but she needed to see Nicole.

*

Kevin Mitchell couldn’t believe he’d seen her again. She’d floated around his life years ago, he’d seen her in their rehab groups and never been able to talk to her. He’d tried, sure, but she always acted better than him. Had that arrogance he hated.

He’d stare at her, and she’d look right through him. He wasn’t nobody though, he was someone, and she’d see that if she just talked to him.

Nobody talked to him, that was the problem.

Kevin was off the wagon. He’d managed to stay in the casino tonight without getting kicked out, which was no mean feat. The last two days had zoomed past on a binge of speed and edging it down with some ‘ludes he’d managed to score. The only thing he regretted was pounding some ice. It had left him feeling off kilter, scattered and not in the good way. The kids today didn’t know what they were doing.

Glimpses of the last day had been pouncing out at him from hiding, snatching at the gooey insides of his brain and he kept blinking them away. He had to keep sharp. Shit. Kevin remembered losing out big on the roulette table. Stupid, stupid. He knew to never play that shit, why was he tossing down so much on it? That cash hadn’t been easy to come by and he wasn’t sure how he was going to get anymore.

He looked up at the road. How did he ever get on this street? He pulled over, and amazed himself that he hadn’t killed anybody. Stupid, so stupid, Kevin. Driving in this state. How far was he from the casino? He looked around, checked the streets. Checked the map. Looked like Balaclava or some shit. He didn’t ever remember leaving the casino. He was only five Ks away, he supposed, so it wasn’t so bad. Oh god, oh god. He’d gotten the shakes again, he needed to balance himself. He pulled something out of his glovebox. Prayed it was the right thing. His mind traced the actions a good few seconds after they occurred, and he was sure he wasn’t able to control himself.

He’d seen her again, though. That was something. What was her name?

He picked up her wallet, looked like it had already been rifled through. It was probably me, figured Kevin. Well, it seemed she lived in Glen Huntly. He was already heading there. Was that the plan all along? What are you getting at? I must be returning her wallet for her. Sure, sure, he’d taken it, Kevin had pinched it, but he was just going to give it back to her. She’d be so happy to get it back. So happy on its return. Then she’d talk to him. Ask him about himself, and he’d be able to tell her. What would he tell her? The truth? It was hard to know what would impress her. Maybe a joke. Yeah, jokes always worked well on first impressions, break the ice, all that.

God. It was too easy, the plan, that was. He’d just drive over there.

Knock on the door, open it up. She’d come. Would she like him? Course she would. Everyone would if they just gave him a chance. Listened. Was that the sun coming up? Wow, he’d better go fast. What a weird night. He should just pull out and get moving. Back on the road. Was that someone beeping at him? God. Shit. Stupid, so stupid, he was already driving. Well, it could’ve been worse. He squinted, stared at the road ahead, had to concentrate, not get fucking distracted. Look at what’s in front of you. He knew how to get to her place. It was all too easy. Simple.

*

The cab pulled up the front of her house, and Regan wasn’t feeling anything properly. Everything was just washing and blurring from moment to moment. Life moving at bad animation speed, four frames per second.

She was at the door, fumbled to get her key in. It looked like the light was still on. She hoped her mum had gotten some sleep.

Inside. Now. Finally. She just needed to see Nicole. Hold her. Then she would sleep. And tomorrow things would be different. She tried not to think of the words ‘damage,’ or ‘injured’. Tried her best.

It was hard to know what was real. It was like being fucked up again. Like a Xanax hit, chopping up the little neurons that danced in her head. The pieces that didn’t snap together but just floated in a deviant proximity.

Her mum was crying. It was okay. She understood. Regan figured she was probably crying too, all things considered. But this wasn’t right. Snap back, everything straightens, the house moves in its bearings; reality rearranges itself to something different.

“Regan Brantley! Oh god, wow. I just. I never even knew your name. I mean, what are the chances? How are you?”

Regan stared at the man on her couch. She recognised his face. He was at the casino? Yeah, that was it. She took in every detail as carefully as she could, as slowly as possible. Regan looked at her mother, Nancy, on the couch, crying, holding herself. Regan looked at the baseball bat in his hand. Regan looked and looked, but she didn’t see her child.

She spoke slowly. “Who are you?”

“God! Ha – really, I mean, you don’t remember me? We used to be in group together. I’d – ha – I mean, you’d wear jeans all the time. I think you looked at my hair, like you didn’t like how it sat or something, and so, well, yeah, it’s different. I dye it sometimes.”

Regan stared at him, cold sweat formed on her neck.

“I’m here to return your wallet, Regan.”

Regan looked to her mum, who’d stopped sobbing, tears just streaming down her cheeks now.

“Mum, are you okay? Is Nicole okay?”

“He just came in. He just came in, he said he knew you. I said to go away. He came in anyway. He...”

“Mum! Is Nicole okay?”

“She’s in the room, he didn’t like her, he locked her in her room.”

Kevin laughed and poked Nancy in the ribs with the bat, “I told you to be quiet, didn’t I? We’d just sit and wait? Yes? Yeah. Yep.”

“What do you want?”

“God! I told you, I’m just returning your wallet! Don’t you ever fucking listen?” Kevin stood up, walked toward Regan with the bat, his arm outstretched. Regan backed up until she bumped into the bureau, knocking a photograph over. There was nowhere further to go. Unbearable electricity fuzzed in her chest, spiralled in a corkscrew spiral up her spine and into the base of her skull, prickling everything, popping hot and burning, then turning cold all at once.

Kevin placed the tip of the bat against her cheek, she turned away, he came in close, pushed her hair behind her ear with the bat. “So, tell me about yourself, anyway? This is a nice place. Niiiice place.”

“Where’s my daughter?”

“Past her bedtime, isn’t it? Look, just sit down, let’s have a chat. Did you have fun at the casino?”

Everything pounded hard, Regan was having trouble breathing. If only she could straighten out, see right. She thought about Ritchie, stuck in that fucking bed, her daughter, who... she needed to help her daughter.

Kevin’s face was only centimetres from Regan’s. She looked right into his eyes. He was fucked. He opened his mouth to talk again. Regan jumped to her tiptoes, leaned forward and bit hard into his nose until the cartilage crunched between her teeth and the bitter metallic taste of blood coated her mouth.

Kevin screamed, brought his hand up to his nose but kept the bat in it, grazing Regan. She pushed him away. He stumbled backwards. Regan breathed hard. Felt it move all the way through her body. She felt strong, too strong. Shaky strong. She ran. Not out of the house. Not even to Nicole’s room. Nicole could wait. She ran to the hallway cupboard. Opened it. Wrapped her hand on the grainy wooden handle. Pulled it, dragging, out. She peaked around the corner into the lounge room. He had gotten to his knees and grabbed Nancy by her dress. Regan went to Nicole’s room. Unlocked and opened the door. The girl looked like she’d been crying, and her cheek was swollen, but now she just sat on the bed in a glassy-eyed haze. Regan knew that look well. That bastard had given Nicole something.

She closed the door, went into the lounge room. Her mother was trying to run from Kevin’s grip while he tried to swing the bat at Regan.

“Why did you do that? You fucking bitch! I returned your wallet to you! I did! I was being a good person. I was improving myself!”

Regan said nothing. Raised the axe up like a bat above her right shoulder. Kevin pulled her mother in front of him, held her against his left side.

“Whoa! No. Fuck off!”

Regan swung, looped the axe midair to approach from her left and clapped his right arm with its flat side. He left go of her mother. She ran to Regan, clung to her. He came back at her, raised his baseball bat. He was screaming. Everything slowed. She pushed Nancy over, hard, the woman went tumbling to the ground. Regan raised the axe again, swung it at Kevin’s side, pulled it back immediately. Swung again, brought it in an arc onto his shoulder. Kevin was screaming and swinging wildly. She kicked him. He fell backwards. She stood over his body and kept swinging, over and over, until he stopped twitching. Regan’s mother ran to her again, with the phone. Something about dialling triple zero. Regan smacked the phone from her hand. Pushed her mother over again. Everything was white noise. She kept hitting Kevin in the face with the axe until it was a fat pasty mound, gristle sprinkling over the walls and floor.

Regan walked to Nicole’s room, picked up the girl, kissed her. Put her down, leaving bloody handprints on her. Nicole’s groggy eyes tried to follow her mother. Nancy walked in, draped herself on Regan. Regan walked back to Kevin’s body, fished into his pockets, took out his keys.

Went to his car. Hopped in. Her mother banged on the window while the phone waved in her hand. Regan drove.

*

Regan sat next to Ritchie. He came to for a second. Looked at his wife. He forced the words out, barely a raspy whisper. “Burning and exploding like a slow volcano when you come. Cover the ground with ashes.”

He fell asleep again. Regan looked through the medications that had been left next to him.

That’s how they found her.

BIO: Liam didn’t quite grow up in Melbourne, Australia. Along with Cameron Ashley and Keith Rawson he edits Crime Factory. His writing has appeared on Powder Burn Flash, The Flash Fiction Offensive and made its way in print on the odd occasion.

6 comments:

Jimmy Callaway said...

Man, it feels like it's been forever since I've read a José story. That hit the spot.

Cameron Ashley said...

that's out Liam. Look the fuck out.

Paul D. Brazill said...

A splendid pice of punchy PROPER writing.

Keith Rawson said...

Vicious, Liam, viscous! And brilliant...

Regan Elizabeth said...

absolutely heart pounding suspenseful goodness Mr. Jose.

AJ Hayes said...

Clean perfection. Everything works the way it's supposed. Yeah there is the Holy CRAP! factor that comes in just when it should. Knocks your socks off ya know. Awed.