Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 022 - Andy Henion


Hollins masturbated on the bed next to his third wife. He was careful not to shake the mattress, for such undulation, no matter how slight, would wake her without fail. “What are you doing?” she would say, and Hollins, unfailingly close to orgasm, would slap the pillow and respond through his teeth, “Rolling over. Do you mind?”

But this one went off without episode, Hollins ejaculating from a half-limp penis onto a dirty work sock as Marcia purred away. He dropped the sock to the floor and rolled to his side, ready for sleep to take him…and heard the pug dog lapping at his paws. “Stop it,” he hissed, and Ollie, camped on the floor, put his head on his paws and stared up with buggy cataract eyes. Hollins drew a batch of air into his lungs, released it slowly…and heard the ceiling fan ticking away, once every eight seconds, meaning it wasn’t the rotation of the blades but the pull-chains clicking together, something he’d meant to correct for weeks...

He gave up and looked at the green digits: 1:36. Five hours and he was up for work, five and a half if he pushed it. Hollins rose gently as to not wake Marcia, and stepped on the gooey sock.

“Fuck,” he said, aloud this time, and her eyes opened.

“What is it?”

“Twisted my ankle.”

“Where are you going?”

“Heartburn. Need to sit up for a while.”

“Need to quit the popcorn,” she said, and Hollins frowned at her tight little figure under the covers.

“I didn’t eat any popcorn,” he said, but her breathing had turned heavy. “And I don’t have heartburn. But I am rotting inside.”

He made his way downstairs and into the kitchen. On his counter was the remainder of his birthday cake: marble with cream cheese frosting, his favorite. He removed the aluminum foil, which brought the dog hobbling down, and scooped a massive piece onto a dinner plate. Licking his fingers, he carried it to the easy chair and settled in. Flicked on the big screen and in the corresponding glow saw the man sitting on his couch. He started, making a small noise in his throat as the plate fell to the floor.

The man’s face was his face, thirty years younger. Hollins put his palm on his chest as if to contain his hammering heart while Ollie went about the business of cleaning cake from the carpet.

“Nice watchdog,” the man said. “Big house like this, nobody for miles, you might consider an upgrade.”

Hollins nodded absently.

“So,” the man said, “how’s the plastic surgery racket these days?”

“It’s. I. Just.” Hollins exhaled and forced himself to focus. “It’s been better.”

The intruder sniffed as if he didn’t believe the older man. He wore neatly pressed fatigues and spit-shined combat boots: a common sight with the military base outside the city. His chin was squared and his hair dark, like Hollins’, but bristly. The insignia on his collar meant nothing to Hollins. The nametag on his chest read Steinman.

“A little background is in order,” the man said. “Thirty years ago a medical student passing through Cherry Hill, New Jersey, stops at an all-night diner. It’s two in the morning, he can barely keep his eyes open, but still he chats up the waitress. See, the young stud can’t turn it off. Next thing you know he’s got her knees pinned back at the roach motel next door.”

“Hey there—”

“Oh, I forgot to mention that he was a newly married man, a fact he conveniently chose to keep from his conquest.”

Of course Hollins remembered. When he masturbated next to his latest wife, that long ago night, with its grappling and shrieking, was a frequent vision. Her name was Devora, a nineteen-year-old ivory-skinned beauty with dreams of writing Broadway plays. Hollins had been an English minor himself, yet they didn’t leave themselves much time to discuss literature. It was, for him at least, the night of a lifetime.

When Hollins had finally managed to return to the diner, three years later during a training conference in Philly, he learned from another waitress that Devora had married and moved south with her traveling salesman husband. There was no mention of a child.

“How is she?” Hollins asked.

“No,” Steinman barked, jabbing a finger. “Not something you get to know.”

Hollins held up his hands. “Fine. Tell me about you then. Army, is it?”

Steinman simply looked at him. Ollie had given up on the cake and wandered over to sniff at the visitor’s boots. Hollins raised an eyebrow. The dog, rescued years before from an abusive environment, rarely went to strangers. Steinman picked him up and stroked his sagging jowl.

“Losing your muscle,” he said. Then, to Hollins: “You know, we shoot ’em over there. Mercy killings, mostly.”

Mostly? thought Hollins. He took in the crude skulls and blazing cannons on the soldier’s muscular forearms; the thick scar below his temple. Hollins shifted in the easy chair. Ollie looked at him expectedly.

“He’s twelve,” Hollins said. “Pretty fragile. You have dogs growing up?”

“Old man didn’t allow animals.”

“No? What’s he do?”

“Lies in a grave,” Steinman said.

Hollins was careful with his expression. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not,” Steinman said. “He was not what you would call a pleasant man.”

Ollie was squirming. Steinman had stopped petting and was staring down at the dog, eyes wide and unblinking.

“Better let him out for his last potty,” Hollins said, rising.

“Sit down.”

Hollins hesitated, considering the order, and his options, and did what he was told. Keep it civil, he thought. No need to burden Marcia with this.

Ollie was released and jumped down, whimpering from the blow to his arthritic limbs. Steinman watched the dog limp away without seeing, back in his trance. Hollins decided it was time to address it.

“When were you over there?”

“Half my adult life and counting.”

“They’re sending you back?”

“Isn’t that what you and your country club buddies want?”

Hollins held the conservative leanings of his father, an obstetrician, and his father before him, family practice. He felt no need to apologize. “I don’t play golf,” he said, “and I don’t wish for anyone to die.”

“You don’t wish for anyone to die?” Steinman said. “That’s rich.” He reached into the rucksack and withdrew a snub-nosed pistol. Held it up for display, turning it over and again as if it were up for auction.

“The shrink told me I may never feel safe again. In my own fucking country.”

Hollins had never served, but he was pretty sure the military didn’t issue silver thirty-eights.

“Maybe he’s wrong,” he said. “They say time heals all.”

“Is that all you have? Clichés?”

“I’m not a therapist,” Hollins said. “I’m doing the best I can here.”

He waited—hoped—for the gun to disappear back into the rucksack, but Steinman lowered it and held it against his thigh, loosely aimed at his host. Hollins’ face tightened.

“So you break into my house in the middle of the night and now you’re holding a gun on me?"

A bed groaned upstairs: Marcia rolling over, maybe going to the bathroom. Hollins held his breath. Steinman glanced at her picture on the wall and gave him a smart-assed look.

“She’s a looker,” he said. “So, what, keep ’em in sports cars and Louis Vuitton and they forget about the age difference?”

Was that the size of it? His business partner had once said boob jobs would make them kings and Hollins had lived the life for decades, snorting, drinking and fucking at will. Marcia was simply the latest silicone trophy, an aspiring actress without a sliver of irony. He had augmented her body but couldn’t do the same for her mind. What she didn’t know was that the money was gone, he was emotionally spent and all he desired at this point was a stimulating companion to spend Saturday nights sipping Sangiovese and discussing Proust in front of the fireplace.

“Why don’t we get to the heart of it?” Hollins said. “How long have you known about me?”

“Since I was old enough to hate,” Steinman said.

Then why now? Hollins wondered. And then he understood: Steinman was being sent back, only he wasn’t going. Instead he was taking care of business before...before what? Before taking himself out? Before fleeing the country? He thought suddenly of the stepfather lying in his grave.

Steinman grinned. “You’d make a shitty poker player,” he said. “The answer is yes. I smoked that chump and dumped his ass in a swamp.”

He didn’t blink, and Hollins knew it was true. “When was this?”

Steinman looked at his watch. “Twelve hours ago.”

The young man was homicidal, possibly psychotic, but Hollins clung to his one advantage: the same blood flowed through their veins.

“You know, my own father could be a real bastard,” he said. “But he—”

“Don’t give a rat’s ass about your old man.”

“No, I can’t imagine you would,” Hollins said. He leaned forward and opened his hands. “Listen. Your mother. Devora. What we shared—”

“I told you,” Steinman cried, dropping to his knees. “Off. Fucking. Limits.” The gun came up in both hands, a marksman’s move, but behind it the eyes bulged and the jaw quivered. It was a mask of both rage and anguish, as if he dreaded the very killing for which he hungered.

“Son.” Hollins said it, for there was nothing left to say. “Son, please.”

“I’m not your goddamn son!”

Marcia came then, approaching the soldier from behind with such purpose that Hollins checked her for weaponry. Steinman took the unintended cue and swung around on his knees, gun leading the way. Hollins emitted a breathless no, squinting his eyes in anticipation of the blast that would surely come.

There were no shots, though, just an unarmed Marcia placing a hand on the soldier’s head.

“That’s not the way, Michael.”

Steinman wrapped his arms around her waist. She moved her fingers through his short hair and looked at Hollins. After a moment the soldier hoisted her teddy to nothing underneath, pushed her legs apart and buried his face there. Marcia was lifted off the floor awkwardly and when she closed her eyes and bit her lip, Hollins thought, Another shitty performance.

It was time to move, yet he was melded to the chair putting it all together. Steinman had mentioned Louis Vuitton, a common enough brand but also Marcia’s favorite. Then there was the dog, clearly familiar with the soldier. How long have they been at it? He wondered. And what’s their plan for me?

Hollins lunged from the chair as the soldier ate his wife. Marcia tapped her lover on the head and he came up cat-quick, clocking Hollins above the eyebrow with the thirty-eight before he could even extend his fist. Hollins fell on his ass already closing his right eye against the blood. It ran down his cheek and pooled on the carpet between his legs.

Marcia threw up her hands. “Goddamnit, Michael. No blood in the house, remember?”

Steinman said, “Let’s go to Plan B then,” and shot her through the left breast. Marcia looked down at the wound, then up at the men in succession. Her venom was reserved for Hollins. “Rotting inside?” she rasped. “Asshole.”

Steinman shot her twice more and she toppled back onto the recliner and convulsed a bit before lying still.

“Fuckin’ nag, anyway,” he said, and took a seat on the floor, Indian style, directly in front of Hollins, who had rolled his shirt up on his head to soak the blood.

“Nice turban.” He placed the thirty-eight on the floor like a peace offering. Clapped his hands together and made a face of surprise.

“You know, in all the hubbub I forgot it was your birthday. The big six-oh. Sixty years young. How does it feel?”

“Hurts like a cocksucker,” said Hollins, fingering the bloody shirt, and Steinman put his head back and laughed, ignoring the weapon between them. Hollins smiled despite himself. Kid’s got an infectious way about him, he thought with an odd rush of pride. Then he snatched the thirty-eight, took aim at the cackling lunatic and pulled the trigger. There was a metallic click. And another. And another.

“Just enough bullets to do the job,” Hollins said. He set the gun back down and nodded, as if he had been simply testing the younger man. “Efficient. Just like your father. Just like me.”

Steinman lost it at this point, rolling to his side and pounding the floor. It was a deep laugh, a familiar laugh, and soon Hollins joined in, laughing until the tears streamed down his cheeks and pooled with his blood on the carpet, a pinkish smear.

BIO: Andy lives somewhere cold but beautiful with three females, eight legs between them. His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, including Plots with Guns, Thieves Jargon, Hobart, Spork and Hardluck Stories.

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