The Pistol Poets Chapter 24


’’What's with sending me to see that old loon?’’ Jones asked Morgan. ’’Guy's got a screw loose. You know some f*ked-up people.’’ Jones sniffed, wrinkled his nose. ’’You smell like a damn distillery.’’

Morgan couldn't disagree. ’’Mr. Jones, I need your help.’’

’’It'll have to be quick,’’ Jones said. ’’Bob's saving my seat. I don't want to miss the reading.’’

Morgan took Jones by the elbow, started easing him down the hall. ’’How would you like to be a little more closely involved?’’

’’Like what?’’

Morgan said, ’’One of our readers can't make it, and we need somebody to-’’

Jones dug in his heels, pulled his arm back from Morgan. ’’Oh, shit no. Are you f*king crazy?’’

Morgan latched onto the old man, started dragging him. ’’I'm desperate, Mr. Jones. Please.’’

Jones looked like a little terrier being dragged on a leash. He looked side to side for some help, his eyes round with terror. ’’There's like a million people in there. I'll piss myself.’’

’’You'll be fine.’’

’’I don't have my poems. Bob has the folder.’’

’’I'll get them for you,’’ Morgan said.

’’Oh, God. I can't breathe.’’

’’You'll be fine.’’

Morgan floundered backstage until he found the girl with the orange hair. He told her about the change. She didn't understand. Morgan said what the f*k was there to understand? The old guy would read instead of the black guy. She looked unhappy but said okay.

Morgan had fetched the old man's poems from the big bodyguard. It had taken much goading and pleading, but Morgan convinced Jones to read. Jones looked pale and terrified. Morgan had never seen the old man afraid of anything. He wished Jones good luck and left him backstage.

Morgan's stomach groaned. He belched acid. I should have ordered a sandwich. He went back into the lobby, found the men's room. Inside he bent over the sink and turned on the cold water, splashed his face. He leaned on the sink awhile, took long deep breaths.

Behind him, a toilet flushed. One of the stall doors creaked open. Morgan turned and looked into the bloodshot eyes of Professor Larry Pritcher. He stood stiff, neck still in the brace. The professor had tacked up a ’’wanted’’ poster offering a reward for information leading to the person or persons who'd assaulted him with Finnegans Wake.

’’Oh, hello, Morgan.’’ Pritcher talked through clenched teeth. ’’Hope you don't mind if I don't shake hands. I can barely lift my arms.’’

’’Did they... uh... ever find out who attacked you?’’ Morgan asked.

’’No. I suspect a disgruntled undergraduate. I was rather free with the F's last semester. My own injuries are of little consequence, but my Italian ten-speed was damaged beyond repair.’’

’’How's the reading going?’’

’’Every poem feels like a punch in the face,’’ Pritcher said. ’’I'd go home except for the blizzard. Take care, old boy.’’

Pritcher left the men's room. Morgan splashed more water on his face, scooped some into his mouth, and swallowed. He dried himself with a paper towel.

Back in the lobby he flagged down two kids, torn jeans, skateboarder haircuts. ’’Who's reading?’’

’’Some fag,’’ said the kid. ’’It sucks. We're leaving.’’

Wouldn't that be nice, thought Morgan. To live such a simple life. It sucks. I'm leaving.

He stopped at the door to the auditorium. Maybe he could. Why not? Why couldn't he just leave? Why should the skateboard kids have more freedom than he? Jones didn't need him anymore. He'd make or break on his own. The dean expected him to make an appearance. Ostensibly, this was Morgan's show. It had been his responsibility to get Ellis into shape for the reading. But there was no Ellis. The show, apparently, was a drag and would go down in history as the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened in Green County.

The hell if Morgan would stick around for that. He headed for the door but stopped when he heard the girl with orange hair back at the podium. The first two readers were done, and she was getting reading to introduce the old man.

Okay, Morgan told himself. He'd stay for one poem, see if the old man fainted or what. Morgan could at least do that.

The orange-haired girl said, ’’I've been asked to read this before we introduce our final reader.’’ She had a card in her hand. ’’The national weather service has issued a severe storm warning for eastern Oklahoma and parts of western Arkansas. I've been told that Fumbee city workers are now getting the plows out of the garages, but it will be a while before the roads are safe for travel.’’

A low, hopeless groan rose from the crowd.

’’But not to worry,’’ she said. ’’We have another fine poet for your entertainment. Originally, Sherman Ellis was scheduled to read, but there's been a change. I'd like to introduce our next reader, Mr. Fred Jones.’’

It took the old man long seconds to cross the stage. He looked ridiculously small and frail from the back of the auditorium. Someone giggled. The old man reached the podium, shuffled his papers, and wiped sweat off his forehead with a bony hand. Morgan's heart broke a little bit.

He couldn't quite see the bigwigs in the front row, but Lincoln Truman's head leaned toward the dean's. Confused murmurs.

’’I'm Fred Jones,’’ he said into the microphone. He cleared his throat. ’’My first poem-’’

Morgan couldn't stand it. He closed the door, turned around, and headed for the nearest exit. He felt queasy, guilty. His hand reached for the door and froze when he heard the laughter. Aw hell, they're laughing him off the stage. Aw, shit.

Go, get out the door, he told himself. You didn't ask for any of this. But Morgan couldn't move, couldn't leave the old man. He went back, flung open the door in the back of the auditorium.

And the cheers washed over him. Students on their feet, howling.

Morgan blinked, rubbed his eyes to see if somehow Metallica had appeared and taken the stage. No. It was the old man. He shuffled his papers again and leaned toward the microphone. ’’My next poem is called 'The Zydeco Gangster.' ’’ He read:

When I came from Philly to the Big Easy in '72

in a baby blue Impala full of smack,

I was already pushing gray around the ears.

And I don't move so quick no more,

and the back gives me trouble,

and the hands are kinkin'up.

The hands are key.

So when the dagos hired me

to work the Quarter,

I got a big moulie shadow to do the bone work.

The old man's narrative unfolded. He read it like a pro, voice spinning its magic over the crowd. Morgan too was mesmerized. Jones was a natural. His gift radiated from him like a beacon.

So I went to hear his song

on a humid night in some bayou shithole,

and Che was huffin'on the accordion,

and another bony moulie

was beating time on a washboard,

and the shuffling, breathless racket

sounded like the time we leaned on Tiny Allen

in the homo bar

at the rotten end of Bourbon.

The poem was sad and sweet and nostalgic, yet comic at the same time. Morgan did not remember this one. It hadn't been in the stack of papers the old man had handed to him weeks ago.

So I'm talking to Little Mike on the phone

with Big Mike on the extension

and they say everything is jake back in Philly.

I try to explain the zydeco shakedown,

and how it's so different from

the tearful, slow Pagliacci pleading

when we'd bear down on the mark

like a lumbering toilet-paper mummy

in a Peter Cushing flick,

but they don't get it.

So I ask Big Mike if he remembers the time

we chopped down the glassblower over on Sullivan the brrrrpt da bript brip chingle chingle bript

when we riddled his display cases with Mac-10s,

the nine-millimeter percussion

the tambourine tinkle of broken glass,

and I think he's starting to get zydeco.

And we laughed and laughed

and wondered if the Motor City fellas

do it to Smokey Robinson.

The crowd roared, the applause shaking the building. It was right up their alley. A whole generation who'd thought poetry had to be about flowers and bumblebees. Now they'd heard poetry on steroids. Gritty. Extreme poetry like in a Mountain Dew commercial. Morgan stayed to hear three more. The old man's voice had found strength. Perhaps they enjoyed it for the wrong reasons. Maybe there are no right or wrong reasons. It might not have been the reading Dean Whittaker wanted, but Morgan thought it was beautiful.

forty-four

Even over the blizzard, Morgan still heard the kids cheering. The snow mixed with a little sleet. Morgan didn't care, didn't mind that it stung his face. His smile was a mile wide. Something good and right had finally happened. Morgan ducked his head into the wind, put one foot in front of the other toward Albatross Hall. He wanted to find Valentine, have a drink, toast to Fred Jones's success. It was after working hours, and the main doors were locked. His keys jingled in his shaking hands. Finally, he found the slot, inserted, turned the key, and pushed the door open. They grabbed him by both arms, rushed him into Albatross Hall, and shoved him to the floor. Morgan hit hard. He flipped over, looked up at ten black men in long coats. All had pistols out. A man in a bright yellow suit pointed down at him. ’’Stay put, motherf*ker.’’ Morgan nodded. ’’Okay.’’ ’’Anybody else in this building?’’ ’’I don't think so,’’ Morgan lied. ’’What's up there?’’ The black guy in charge pointed his gun at the ceiling. ’’Dorms or something?’’ ’’Offices.’’ ’’What you doing here?’’ ’’My office. I left something. A book.’’ Morgan looked at the guns pointed at him and felt sick. ’’There's nothing here of any value. What do you want?’’ ’’We're gonna go upstairs and kill everyone we see.’’ Morgan gulped. What the hell's going on? ’’What you want to do, Zach?’’ one of them asked. The man in yellow said, ’’Fan out and search the floor. We'll work our way up. If Maurice said they were here, then they've got to be here someplace.’’ ’’We ain't seen Maurice.’’ ’’We'll find him,’’ Zach said. ’’What about this guy?’’ Zach's henchman indicated Morgan with a trigger-pulling motion to the head. ’’Don't shoot. They'll hear it upstairs,’’ Zach said. ’’Just knock him a good one.’’ The henchman leaned over Morgan. The butt of his pistol came down sharp and fast across the back of his skull.

Morgan's eyes flickered open. He saw only darkness. He closed his eyes and opened them again. No change. He rubbed the back of his neck, climbed to his knees. He tried to stand and lost his balance. His hand flew out and he grabbed something wooden. It wasn't attached to anything and didn't offer any support. He fell forward into a pile of clattering items, metal and wood. Something fell on him, plastic and heavy. He didn't try to stand this time, crawled forward, a tentative hand in front of him. He found a wall, no, wait. It was wooden. Hinges. A door. He felt his way up until he found the knob. He twisted it, fell forward into the light, a clattering wad of brooms and mops. An empty metal bucket rolled out in front of him. He staggered and stood, felt the back of his head again. Swelling. He looked at his hand. No blood. How long had he been in the closet? Morgan checked his watch. No more than five minutes. They'd expected him to be unconscious longer, out of the way. Who the hell were those guys? What had the gang leader said? He'd ordered a search floor by floor. If Morgan acted quickly, he could make it upstairs in time to warn Valentine. Or he could save his own ass and run away like a little girl. It shamed him a little that he paused an extra few seconds to decide. He bolted for the stairs, legs still wobbly. He didn't pause at any of the lower floors although he wished he knew where the gangsters were. Possibly they were already ahead of him. Perhaps he would find only bodies on the fifth floor. He didn't stop to think about it, bounded up the steps two at a time. When he reached the fifth floor, he collapsed, lay sprawled on his back, heaving for air. His lungs ached for breath. His stomach churned and burned with alcohol. His brain spun with the knowledge of imminent death. He willed himself to his feet, jogged the maze to Valentine's office. He threw open the door, stumbled in, startled a ’’whoa’’ out of Jenks. ’’There's a bunch of black guys coming up here with guns,’’ Morgan said. Morgan leaned heavily against the doorjamb, out of breath, sweat sticking his shirt to him, his heart nearing terminal velocity. His eyes took in Valentine's office, darted around the room, and landed on Wayne DelPrego, who sat in a corner chair with his head in his hands. Morgan frowned. What was his student doing there? Then Morgan saw Jenks. His eyes shot wide. ’’You!’’ Jenks looked confused. ’’Yo, Professor. What are you doing-’’ Morgan leapt, hands outstretched, a feral scream splitting the air. He hands went around Jenks's throat, and both men tumbled to the floor. ’’Where have you been, you stupid son of a bitch? I'm going to get fired because of your sorry ass.’’ ’’Get him off me,’’ Jenks yelled. ’’Get him off.’’ ’’Professor Morgan!’’ Valentine leapt on Morgan's back, heaved him off Jenks. Jenks rubbed his throat. ’’He's crazy.’’ DelPrego had watched the whole altercation unfold, hadn't moved. ’’I've looked everywhere for you!’’ Morgan deflated in Valentine's grip. ’’F*k it. Just f*k you.’’ ’’These young men have been hiding here with me,’’ Valentine said. ’’Those men downstairs are killers.’’ ’’No time for this story now,’’ Jenks said to Valentine. ’’We need a way out of here.’’ Jenks went to Valentine's desk, where Bob Smith had dropped the revolvers. Jenks had been glad to see the guns because he was afraid he'd need them. He tucked the.38 into his belt and checked the load on the Old-West Colt. Wayne DelPrego sat up from his chair. He looked pale and distracted. In a low, even voice, he said, ’’Give me one of those.’’ ’’No way,’’ Jenks said, without looking at him. ’’You're not straight in the head.’’ ’’I'm not asking you. I'm telling you.’’ Maybe it was the eerie calm in DelPrego's voice. Jenks nodded and handed the Colt to DelPrego. Valentine thumbed two shells into the double-barreled shotgun. ’’I know a way downstairs. Follow me.’’ They followed Valentine out of the office, zigzagged the crazy turns of the fifth floor, and stopped at a door with the word ELECTRICAL on it. ’’Here?’’ asked Jenks. Valentine opened the door, and Jenks recognized the fireman's pole he'd helped the custodian carry. It descended through a wide hole in the floor. Before Jenks could say anything, Valentine leapt on the pole and slid down. Jenks followed. The fourth floor whipped past and the pole ended. There was an alarming second of free fall, and Jenks landed on a dusty mattress. It was the third floor. Morgan landed on top of him. ’’Get the f*k off.’’ ’’Excuse me, Batman,’’ Morgan said. ’’I don't have a lot of pole experience.’’ They managed to roll out of the way right before DelPrego hit. The four of them were in an abandoned classroom. Valentine cracked the door to the hall, took a peek. ’’I don't see anyone,’’ Valentine said. ’’The stairs are directly at the end of the hall. We go down to the first floor, and there's an exit outside right there.’’ ’’Let's go,’’ Jenks said. They filled the corridor, stalked the hall with long, determined strides toward the stairs, guns at their sides, jaws set, eyes hard. The door to the stairwell flew open and three gangsters filled the other end of the hall. Jenks recognized Red Zach's men. They saw Jenks and the professors, and their hands went into their coats. Valentine, Jenks, and DelPrego lifted their guns as one. The gangsters fired at the same time. The hallway erupted, shook with gunfire. Dust fell from the ceiling, plaster flying where lead hit. Morgan hunched against the wall, arms over his head. He felt his coat jerk where a slug ripped through the fabric. He heard yelling, realized it was him. Birdshot from Valentine's twenty-gauge sprayed the first gangster. He dropped his gun, screamed. The other two fired back. Jenks fired three times. The first bullet went wide. The next two struck home. The gangster who'd been sprayed with the birdshot lifted off his feet, a new red hole in his chest. The thug next to him fell back, his head spraying blood. He twitched on the ground a long second before going still. The last of Zach's men bolted back for the stairs, firing wildly over his shoulder. The door banged shut behind him, and he was gone. Smoke and cordite hung in the air. ’’Dear God,’’ Morgan said. ’’We got to move,’’ Jenks said. ’’They heard the shots.’’ They ran for the stairs. DelPrego paused over the bodies of the dead black men. He stuck the Colt in his belt and picked up the two fallen pistols, heavy automatics, one nickel-plated. Jenks looked back. ’’F*k that shit, Wayne. Let's go!’’ They flew down the stairs, feet barely touching each step. The exit led them out to the blizzard. It still howled, wind flinging snow and sleet. ’’Where's DelPrego?’’ Morgan shouted over the wind. Jenks turned around, saw DelPrego wasn't behind him. ’’Shit.’’

These were the men who'd killed Timothy Lancaster. DelPrego held the pistols like white-knuckled death. He'd scour Albatross Hall, and all would fall before him. Nothing mattered but his white-hot vengeance. He found them on the second floor. They stood in a cluster, a half dozen of them, one gesticulating the story of the shooting on the floor above. DelPrego ran toward them, picking up speed with each step, arms extended and guns leading the way. Their faces turned, eyes wide, screaming. They pointed guns back at him. Curses. DelPrego didn't hear. There was only the hot buzzing, blood pressure pounding hot in his ears. He squeezed the triggers as fast as he could. The hail of lead shredded the group, one gritting teeth, grabbing an arm. Another pitched forward. Two ran. Three returned fire, big automatics spitting fire. DelPrego caught a slug in the leg, he screamed, went down, but twisted to keep his pistols aimed at the group. He kept squeezing the triggers even after his gun was empty. His head swam, stomach heaving. Another bullet plowed a deep groove into his left shoulder. Blood gushed with each heartbeat. He lay on his side, dropped the empty pistols, and pulled the Colt from his belt. He cocked it, fired along the tile floor, and shattered the ankle of one of the gangsters. The gangster screamed, collapsed to the floor, squirming to get ahold of his ruined ankle. The puddle that formed under his shoe was thick and red and spread rapidly. Two more bullets smacked into DelPrego's chest. He no longer felt the pain, only the dull impact. He fired the Colt one more time, but the bullet went wild. He was shot again. Again. His eyes looked up, dull and unblinking. The smile was faint and oddly peaceful.

forty-five

The three of them huddled against the blizzard, looked back at the door they'd used to escape Albatross Hall. DelPrego did not come out. ’’Maybe he took a wrong turn,’’ Morgan shouted over the blizzard. ’’H-he was r-r-right b-behind us.’’ Valentine had fled the building with only a light jacket. He was turning blue. ’’His eyes,’’ Jenks said. ’’He had a crazy look. I think he's going to do something.’’ ’’Can someone please tell me what in the hell just happened?’’ Morgan asked. ’’Get himself killed,’’ Jenks said, still thinking of DelPrego. ’’I better find him before-’’ ’’D-don't be a f-fool,’’ Valentine said. ’’You can't go back in-’’ Valentine's head jerked around. Morgan and Jenks followed his gaze. Distantly, figures took shape. They manifested out of the fog like floating stones, great, hard, square chunks of granite. Shoulders. Hands deep into the pockets of their long dark coats, hats pulled low to cover eyes. A ragged line of them moving forward, taking form as they stepped into the feeble lamplight. They did not heed wind or cold, only advanced like a silent, grim tide. Eight of them;no, ten. A dozen square-jawed ghosts. ’’Jesus,’’ Morgan said. ’’He ain't going to help you.’’ Jenks's hand tightened on his pistol. Valentine clutched the shotgun to his chest. ’’No shells l-left.’’ They marched toward Morgan, Jenks, and Valentine. Behind the line of men came another figure. He was small, bent against the cutting wind, thin hand holding a cloth cap on his bald head. He held on to the arm of one of the bruisers. The small man came within three feet of Morgan and stopped. ’’The reading went well,’’ Fred Jones said. ’’I should kick your ass, but I enjoyed it.’’ ’’Who are these men?’’ Morgan asked. A blast of wind sprayed the group with sleet. Bob Smith had to use both hands to keep Jones from flying away. Jones's thugs continued to march past. ’’The kid told me about his troubles.’’ Jones nodded at Jenks. ’’I called a few old pals to come help.’’ Jones turned to Valentine. ’’A guy from University of Arkansas Press was there. Asked me if I had enough stuff for a whole book.’’ Morgan's mouth fell open. ’’That's m-most fortunate,’’ Valentine said. ’’You're going to freeze your balls off,’’ Jones said. ’’Bob, bring the car around and pick us up.’’ ’’Right, boss.’’ Smith lumbered back into the blizzard. ’’The weather's going to keep the cops off our backs for a little bit, but we got to move fast,’’ Jones said. ’’My guys will finish here. They know what to do.’’ Jenks yanked on Morgan's sleeve. ’’Wayne.’’ Morgan said, ’’One of my students is still in there.’’ ’’I got to look for him,’’ Jenks told Jones. ’’Nunzio!’’ Jones waved over one of the long coats. The guy had big, red cheeks, black eyes. ’’Mr. Jones?’’ Jones jerked a thumb at Jenks. ’’Take this guy inside. He lost a lamb. Make sure he ain't shot by accident.’’ ’’Right. This way, kid.’’ Morgan watched Nunzio lead Jenks back into Albatross Hall. The building looked like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe tale-dark stone, windows like vacant eyes, the snow piling at the corners. Morgan looked down, saw that Jones had latched on to his arm. He'd been holding the old man up. Morgan hooked arms with Jones, stood close to shield him from the wind. Jones let him. Jones craned his neck, lifted his mouth toward Morgan's ear. The old man was trying to tell him something. Morgan leaned forward, cupped his free hand around his ear to block the howling storm. ’’You got to help me get my book into shape to show this Arkansas Press guy,’’ Jones said. ’’He says he'll leave a slot in the schedule open this fall.’’ Morgan said he'd help. Dull gun blasts echoed from within Albatross Hall. Blue light flashed in the windows. ’’W-what are they doing?’’ asked Valentine. ’’Sweeping up,’’ Jones said. A sudden flurry of shots like a spurt of microwave popcorn, flashes from the third floor. Jones's car pulled up on the sidewalk with Smith at the wheel. The big sedan carved dirty furrows in the white snow. Morgan opened the door for Jones. Valentine went around the other side. They climbed into the car, sighed relief at the warmth. ’’Are they going to be okay?’’ Morgan looked at the dark windows of Albatross Hall. ’’They'll be fine,’’ Jones said. ’’I need some soup.’’ Under the car's interior light, Morgan took a good look at the old man. His lips were blue, breathing shallow. Morgan took his hands. They were lumps of hard ice. ’’You okay?’’ ’’I can't feel them.’’ Morgan put the hands between his own, rubbed hard. ’’It was like you said,’’ Jones muttered. ’’When I knew I had the crowd. They loved it. I could feel them. It was the best I ever felt.’’ His voice was fading. Morgan pulled the old man close, tried to give him body heat. This little, gnarled poet. Morgan's deus ex machina hero.

Jenks knelt on the cold tile next to DelPrego's body. His head ached from holding back the tears. Finally, he gave up, let them roll hot and salty down his cheeks and over his lips. Down the hall, Nunzio dragged a gangster's body by the ankle, pulled him to the edge of the pile of bodies the hoods were making. It had been at least five minutes since Jenks had heard gunshots. Jenks pushed himself to his feet. He felt tired, a hundred years old, like he'd been awake for a week. He looked at the last body Nunzio had put on the pile. ’’You know any of these?’’ Nunzio's hand swept over the pile. ’’A few,’’ Jenks said. ’’The one on top is Red Zach.’’ Jenks studied Zach, the slack, expressionless face. Eyes glassy and dull. It seemed impossible that this man had ruled his life. It was a hundred years ago he'd been Zach's go boy, running errands. He had even hoped to be like Zach one day, but now the man was only cold bones and loose flesh and an already fading memory of fear. The cocaine was gone. Red Zach gone. Even Sherman Ellis was gone, with no family to remember him. It was all gone. For Harold Jenks, only the whole, wide world remained.

forty-six

It took an hour for Bob Smith to drive Morgan home. None of Fumbee's stoplights worked. Power was out in various neighborhoods. Fortunately, the roads were nearly deserted, most folks having enough sense to stay at home.

Jones regained some of his color and his voice was stronger. The sedan had good heat and Smith flipped it to full blast. Jones offered Valentine a spare bedroom and the old professor gladly accepted.

Morgan's porch light told him he was one of the fortunate few who still had electricity. He bid everyone good night, rushed up the steps and into his little house. He found the thermostat and thumbed the heat up until it clicked on. He stood over one of the vents, let it blow warm air up his pant legs.

He moved into the kitchen, rummaged every cabinet until he finally tuned up a half-full bottle of Cutty Sark he didn't remember buying. He filled a juice glass and sat at the kitchen table still wearing his coat. Valentine had told Morgan about Jenks. That was the kid's name. Harold Jenks. Morgan still wasn't sure he understood what had happened.

He wondered if Ginny were okay, vaguely wished she were with him. He didn't feel like being alone, wasn't really sure how he felt. His night had been a horror of dead bodies, yet Morgan felt relief he wasn't one of them. He'd begun this mess with Jones bailing him out, hiding Annie Walsh's body. Morgan could no longer remember Annie's face. It didn't seem like part of the same life.

Now Jones had bailed him out again, even given him a ride home. A strange, sweet, odd old man. Morgan drained the Cutty Sark.

He was so tired but forced himself to shower. The hot water felt good.

No towel on the rack when he stepped out of the shower. He dripped and shivered as he walked to the hall closet, feet slapping wet on the floor.

Morgan didn't even see the lamp until it was an inch from his nose. It shattered against his forehead, and Morgan went down, blinked blood out of his eyes. He climbed to his knees, shaken, opened his mouth to yell. A fist caught him hard on the jaw, rattled teeth. He bit his tongue, more blood.

Morgan lay on his back, legs curled awkwardly under him. He looked up into the grinning face of the man over him. Stubble. Bloodshot eyes, dark circles. All disturbingly familiar.

The man's left arm ended at a red stub, which had been wrapped in white gauze, blood spots seeping through.

’’Oh, no.’’ Morgan heard his own voice, small and without breath. It sounded like fear.

Deke Stubbs laughed, a low wicked mix of scorn and amusement. ’’I thought you might remember me, Professor.’’

’’I thought...’’ Morgan rolled over, wiped the blood out of his eyes. His head throbbed.

’’You thought I was dead?’’ Stubbs shook his head. ’’Nope. But I can see how you might think that since you left me trapped in the back of a goddamn car that was sinking into the f*king ocean.’’

Stubbs kicked Morgan hard in the ribs, and Morgan whuffed air, went into a fetal position. Stubbs kicked again. A third time. Morgan felt something give along his side, wondered if a rib had cracked.

’’I want to tell you something, Jay old boy,’’ Stubbs said. ’’When you're halfway through your own arm with a saw, you really learn how to hate. I've killed you so many times in my imagination, I've lost count.’’

’’Please.’’ Morgan backed away, tried to stagger to his feet but froze when he saw the automatic in Stubbs's only hand.

’’In one scenario, I shove broken glass up your ass for an hour before I put a bullet in your head.’’ Stubbs stood close to Morgan, stuck the barrel of the automatic against Morgan's temple. ’’But that's too quick. After what I been through, everything's too quick for you. You're going to learn about a whole new bright world of pain. There's going to be jagged things and sharp things and fiery hot things, and it's all for you.’’

Morgan said, ’’I just wanted out of the car. I thought it was sinking.’’

Stubbs slapped the barrel of his gun across the side of Morgan's head. Little fireworks went off behind Morgan's eyes. Bells. Morgan felt something cool on his cheek. It was the floor.

Morgan was dizzy, couldn't get his bearings. He lost track of Stubbs, allowed himself the fantasy that Stubbs had left, changed his mind for some reason.

But Stubbs was too in love with vengeance. Morgan felt his wrists being bound together. Some kind of thin cord. Then he was being dragged into the bedroom. Morgan could only get one eye open, the other caked closed with blood. He tried to twist around, see what Stubbs was doing.

Morgan felt himself lifted by his wrists. He was half on his bed, half on the floor. The cord holding his wrists had been lashed to the bedpost. Stubbs's footsteps retreated into the next room, but his voice carried. He was still talking, telling Morgan his gruesome story.

’’After I sawed off my hand,’’ Stubbs said, ’’I think I was in some kind of shock. The memory is a bit hazy, but I think I climbed out of the Mercedes.’’ Stubbs voice was closer now. ’’I threw up too. My gut was tossing pretty bad. Like I said, shock. Also, I swallowed about a gallon of salt water.’’

Morgan smelled smoke, heard Stubbs inhale. A cigarette.

’’Anyway, I wasn't much good to swim with only the one hand. I couldn't work against the tide. I floated along even with the shore for a while until my feet touched bottom and I trudged ashore.’’

Morgan felt the white-hot cigarette butt grind into his left ass cheek. He screamed, tried to twist away, but Stubbs held it in place. Finally, he let go.

Stubbs flicked the butt away. ’’Look at that. My cigarette went out for some reason. Guess I better light another.’’

The burn throbbed, made Morgan nauseous with fear and pain.

’’I had to tie a tourniquet with my belt, pull it tight with my teeth,’’ Stubbs said. ’’If things slow down, I'll tell you how I cauterized the wound. By the way, as if you couldn't guess, yes it was pretty goddamned awful.’’

Morgan realized with cold dread that this was only the beginning. Stubbs had nursed his hatred since Houston and wouldn't be satisfied until Morgan suffered every possible agony Stubbs's warped mind could generate.

Morgan filled his lungs with air, screamed as loud as he could. ’’Help! Help! Police! Call the-’’

Stubbs's body crushed against Morgan's. Stubbs forced the professor's face into the mattress. He clubbed Morgan twice more with the butt of the automatic pistol.

’’No, no. That's not how we do this.’’ Stubbs's breath was hot on Morgan's ear. ’’I know what you think. Maybe the police will hear or maybe not, but anyway maybe I'll panic and kill you quick and clean. No way. I got plans for you. You're going to beg for a quick death before this is over. And, buddy, just scream your f*king head off because nobody's going to hear you over that blizzard out there.’’

Morgan only half heard, was only half-conscious. Black spots claimed his vision. He didn't think he could take any more blows to the head. Maybe that was better anyway than being awake for Stubbs's torture session.

’’Session,’’ Morgan said out loud.

’’What?’’ Stubbs lifted Morgan's head off the mattress by his hair. ’’You trying to say something, Professor?’’

Morgan wasn't paying attention. He'd stepped one foot into a dreamland, saw Valentine smoking his bong, DelPrego and Lancaster in his writing workshop. Was this what they meant by your life flashing before your eyes? If so, Morgan was disappointed.

’’Disappointed,’’ mumbled Morgan.

’’What?’’ Stubbs frowned. ’’Dammit, don't you go out on me. I need you awake for the fun.’’

And this Harold Jenks son of a bitch, thought Morgan. This is all his fault, getting me involved with drug lords and gunfights and cocaine.

’’Cocaine,’’ Morgan said.

Stubbs shook Morgan, slapped him lightly on the face. ’’Come on, now. Wake up. What was that about the cocaine?’’

Morgan didn't move. Stubbs shook him again. ’’The cocaine, Professor?’’

’’What?’’ Morgan's good eye flickered open.

’’Don't play dumb. You were talking about the cocaine. Where is it?’’

’’I don't know what the hell you're talking about,’’ Morgan said.

’’Did I mention I was going to put things up your ass?’’ Stubbs said. ’’Now start talking, goddammit!’’

Morgan forced himself to concentrate. ’’You'll let me go if I show you where the drugs are?’’

Stubbs laughed, a sick wheezing sound. ’’Hell, no. But I promise not to do all that sick shit. Show me where you've stashed the coke and I'll kill you clean. No pain.’’

’’Untie me,’’ Morgan said.

’’F*k you.’’

’’Untie me and I'll show you.’’

’’Just tell me.’’

’’No,’’ Morgan said. ’’I don't like being bent over like this. You'll do something to me.’’

’’Tough shit.’’

’’Untie me.’’

’’Oh, for Christ's sake,’’ Stubbs said.

He unlashed the cord from the bedpost but left Morgan's wrists bound. As Stubbs did this, Morgan turned his head, saw that Stubbs had stuck the gun under his other armpit so he could use his good hand to untie the cord. Morgan saw what was probably his only chance. He wanted to hit Stubbs in the face, make him drop the gun, surprise him, anything. If he could get past him, Morgan would even run out into the blizzard naked, maybe try to flag down a car.

Morgan lurched to his feet and lunged, swinging two-handed at Stubbs.

Stubbs sidestepped easily, popped Morgan in the nose with a right cross. Morgan felt cartilage snap, felt warm blood pour down his face and over his lips.

Stubbs laughed, took the pistol from his armpit, and dropped it into his coat pocket. ’’What? You think since I got only one hand, I can't take a pussy like you?’’

Morgan rolled onto his stomach, tried to crawl under the bed.

Stubbs shook his head. ’’Now that's just pathetic.’’

Morgan got halfway under the bed. Stubbs bent over, grabbed Morgan's ankle, and pulled him back.

Stubbs tsked. ’’Looks like we've got to do this the hard way now. Doesn't bother me none, but you're- Oh, f*k!’’

Morgan had rolled onto his back, Fred Jones's little revolver in a two-handed grip held out in front of him. Stubbs fumbled for the automatic in his coat pocket, but Morgan squeezed the trigger.

The first shot was unsteady, shredded Stubbs's groin. The private eye went down, his one good hand clutching his balls, blood pooling. Morgan pulled the trigger again, blasted a hole in his bedroom wall. The third shot caught Stubbs in the top of the head, sprayed bone and brain.

Morgan dropped the gun, crawled away from the body. He watched a long time, waited for Stubbs to get up, but nothing happened.

Morgan limped into the kitchen. The adrenaline rush was rapidly leaving him. The aches and pain flooded in, head and ass throbbing, ribs screaming with every breath.

He found a kitchen knife, sawed the cords awkwardly until he was free.

Morgan went into the bedroom one more time. Looked at Stubbs to make sure he was still dead. He looked at his bedroom, the blood. A mess. He looked at the gun on the floor, the one Jones had given to him so long ago. It seemed like forever.

Then he picked up the phone, dialed.

’’Bob,’’ Morgan said. ’’Is he still awake? Okay, put him on.’’ A pause. ’’Mr. Jones? I know it's late, and it's been a long day. But there's just one more loose end I need you to help me tie up if it's not too much trouble.’’

Epilogue

Most of the students and faculty at Eastern Oklahoma University were glad it was the end of the semester. Summer waited, flings and family and a break from textbooks. For Morgan, it only meant unemployment. He'd have to hustle this summer to find something. Otherwise, it was adjunct hell at some community college.

Strangely, Morgan couldn't bring himself to worry about it. Where or when he might get his next job seemed like small potatoes. His capacity to fret had been exhausted. The uncertain future stretching out before him was a parole from his old life.

Since Fred Jones had made the poetry reading a success (it received glowing reviews in the Tulsa and Fayetteville newspapers), Morgan was not immediately fired, and his contract was allowed to run its course until the semester's end. But nobody mentioned anything more about Jay Morgan being hired in a permanent capacity at the university. It was generally understood that Morgan would move on, thanks a lot, good luck, and don't let the door smack your ass on the way out.

His office in Albatross Hall was almost cleaned out. He filled a cardboard box with books and file folders but paused over the newspaper clippings. They were yellow at the edges. In the weeks following the Albatross Hall slaughter, Morgan had collected the clippings obsessively. They seemed to chronicle an episode in his life that had refused to end. Every other day a new article.

Some he liked better than others. The article about the man found wandering naked with cuts all over his face seemed unrelated, but Morgan had suspicions.

But the one about the drug raid at a local farmhouse was clearly the result of Fred Jones's machinations. According to the article, authorities had pieced together the following story after finding the bodies of Annie Walsh, Deke Stubbs, and Moses Duncan. Local drug dealer Moses Duncan had hidden the body of the Walsh girl after she'd overdosed on some of Duncan's merchandise. She was found buried under the house. Tulsa private investigator Deke Stubbs, hired by Walsh's parents, had apparently tracked the girl to the farmhouse. Evidence at the crime scene supported the theory that Duncan and Stubbs had killed one another.

Several gruesome details of the killings were left unaccounted for. Morgan tried to laugh about this but couldn't. The officer in charge of the case, a Sergeant Hightower, promised to keep investigating until authorities were satisfied.

The article also quoted Annie Walsh's parents, who expressed relief that the matter had at last been put to rest. Morgan felt a pang of guilt and regret. He tore up the clippings and threw them into the basket next to his desk.

But he kept the postcard from Harold Jenks. It had arrived two weeks earlier and been addressed to Morgan, Valentine, and Jones. It said he was doing fine and thanks for everything. It also said he wasn't sure what he was going to do next, but don't worry it would be something ’’straight.’’ When Morgan read the postcard carefully, he thought he could just barely detect an apology. Or maybe that was wishful thinking.

He also kept the letter he'd received three days ago from The Chattahoochee Review. They'd accepted the poem Morgan had written about smoking the cigars for the old man.

Morgan had tried to call Jones to tell him about it, but the number had been disconnected. The next day, Morgan had found a note from the old man in his mailbox. Jones had written that his ’’government friends’’ had been upset. Jones's picture had been in the paper the day after the poetry reading. Evidently that was a no-no, and Jones had been ’’relocated.’’

It made Morgan sadder than he'd anticipated. He missed the old man and wished him well.

Dirk Jakes walked into Morgan's office without knocking. ’’Hey, hey, Morgo-man. Just wanted to stop by and say no hard feelings on losing my Mercedes.’’

’’I sure am sorry about that, Dirk.’’

’’No biggie,’’ Jakes said. ’’The insurance check finally came, and I just bought this sweet Lexus. Did I mention they found a severed hand in the back of the Mercedes?’’

’’It's a crazy world,’’ Morgan said.

’’Cops say maybe some kind of whacko gang ritual.’’

Annette Grayson walked in, put her hand on Jakes's arm. ’’Come on, Dirk, you're taking me to lunch, remember?’’

’’Sure, babe. Just let me catch up to you in a minute.’’

She looked at Morgan. ’’See you later, Jay.’’ There was a message in her eyes Morgan didn't understand, but he suspected it was supposed to be some kind of joke on him.

After Grayson left, Jakes said, ’’Just between you and me, Morgo-man, I've been banging her for three weeks. Yeah!’’ Jakes made hip-thrusting motions and stuck his tongue out. ’’I'm sure you can imagine what that's like.’’

’’I can imagine.’’

’’Listen, don't sneak out of town until we can grab a beer, okay?’’

’’Right,’’ Morgan said.

Jakes waved and was gone.

Morgan took his last box of personal belongings out to the car and drove home lost in thought. The old man was gone, Jenks was gone, even Valentine had found a new place to hide. Morgan would leave Fumbee the way he'd come in, alone and a stranger.

But he smiled when he saw Ginny waiting for him on his porch. A week after the blizzard, Ginny had shown up drunk and lonely. They'd f*ked for five hours. The next day she'd said it was a mistake, and four days after that they spent a weekend in Dallas. Once Morgan had the pattern down, she'd been easy to cope with.

He stopped in front of her on the porch. ’’Hey.’’

The weather had turned warm. She wore a dark green tank top and denim shorts. ’’Hey, yourself. All packed?’’

’’Almost.’’

She took his hand, stood, brushed off the bottom of her shorts. ’’Did you pack up the bed?’’

’’Not yet.’’

’’I thought I'd stop and say good-bye,’’ she said. ’’You know.’’

’’I know.’’

’’But you're leaving town, so, you know, it doesn't mean anything.’’ She led him through the front door, past the taped-up boxes and into the bedroom. ’’I mean it simply can't because you're leaving, right?’’

’’Right.’’

She tugged his pants down. He lifted her tank top, cupped her breast.

She sank into him, said, ’’So this is it for us?’’

’’Yes. The absolute end.’’ He lifted her chin, kissed her deeply and long.

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