by Bob Strother
There were lots worse places to live.
On the Southside, he’d once shared a second floor room in an abandoned hotel with a bunch of meth-heads missing half their teeth and most of their brains. The busted window let in the elements—which under different circumstances, would have been worth it to help diffuse the stench emanating from his tweaker roomies who’d never think to bathe even if they had the opportunity. The problem was the pigeons. Those goddamn rats with wings infested the room whenever he went out, and shit all over everything. He wondered who there were more of—the homeless or the fucking pigeons.
Even now, in his current and much-improved location—a cardboard refrigerator box tucked into an alleyway—he’d chase the beady-eyed little bastards, lurching down the narrow passageway, waving his arms like some giant raptor swooping in to capture a nicely-feathered brunch.
From the depths of alley, the buildings on either side rose up and tilted inward, the rooftops reaching toward one another like old friends about to join hands. They weren’t really tilting, of course. He’d once taken a class in design, and knew it was simply a matter of perspective. Similarly, looking down the concrete corridor from one end to the other was sort of like looking through a telescopic sight, something he’d done more times than he’d like to remember.
“PTSD,” the VA doctor said. Easily diagnosed, never treated.
These days Casey’s “work” consisted of making the rounds of the various businesses lining the streets on both sides of his alley, sweeping floors, taking out trash, and doing other small, odd jobs in return for a few dollars or a meal. He liked his people and they liked him, or at least tolerated him in good humor. One of the stores, an appliance shop, provided refrigerator boxes whenever he needed a new one, keeping him in housing. Another, a drycleaners, let him have clothing and bedding materials left behind. The day spa even let him use their shower a couple of times a week. He felt he belonged. It provided him a sense of community.
The appliance store on the north end and a pawnshop on the south bookended the left-side string of businesses along the concrete corridor. On a cloudless Tuesday morning in March, the air still cool but promising an early spring, Casey stuck his head in the pawnbroker’s front doorway.
“Good morning, Otis.”
The sixty-something shopkeeper looked up from his paperwork, eyes red-veined, rimless spectacles pushed up onto the top of his head. He sighed. “I guess it is morning at least.” He sighed. “I’ve got coffee that’s not too old, if you want a cup.”
Casey stepped over to a Mr. Coffee located behind the glass-top counter where Otis kept a wide array of sheath and pocketknives, and poured himself a cup. Steam from the coffee warmed his cheeks. He added three spoons of sugar and a generous dollop of powdered creamer for nutrition. “Anything I can help with you today, Otis?”
Without turning around, Otis let out a heavy sigh. “Yeah, you can loan me fifty-five large. No, wait—that’s what got me into this mess. Better you should just give me the money.”
Casey brought his coffee around to the front of the counter and leaned on the glass right where Otis had taped a sign—Do Not Lean On Counter—to the underside of the glass. “I’m a little short this week, maybe next Monday?”
Otis didn’t laugh. Instead he pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Then he turned away, but not before Casey saw him swipe a tear from his cheek.
“Otis, man, what’s going on? Is Sandra worse?” Otis’s wife had undergone a series of heart surgeries during the last year. Casey had met her once, in the store. She seemed nice, but fragile like fine bone china.
“No, Sandra’s okay.” Otis held his hands out, palms up—a gesture of helplessness. “But the hospital and doctors’ bills … oh, man, we were way underinsured. The costs kept mounting up. I was afraid they’d refuse to complete the surgeries. Our home and the shop here already have hefty second mortgages, so the banks wouldn’t lend any more money.”
He removed the glasses from atop his head and toyed with them, folding and unfolding them as if they presented a puzzle he was trying to solve. Finally, he stopped and looked up at Casey. “I borrowed forty thousand from this guy, a loan shark I heard about from one of my customers. I had to have it for Sandra’s last surgery. It didn’t matter if I had no way of paying it back. Not then, anyway. Now, the interest alone ups the ante a thousand a week.”
“He’s threatened you?”
Otis pulled his shirt out of his trousers and held it up high enough for Casey to spot the yellowish-purple bruises along both sides of his ribcage. “That was last week. The loan shark guy watched while one of his thugs beat the crap out of me. Apparently he likes to be on hand when the punishment’s being dealt, even laughed every time I yelled out in pain. Yesterday evening, when I got home, I went out to feed my dog and found him dead behind the doghouse, his throat cut.”
Otis didn’t even try to hide the tears now. His face contorted in what Casey imagined to be a mixture of grief and anger. “How am I going to tell Sandra about Orwell? She loved him so much. What kind of monsters do that? Kill an innocent little cocker spaniel?”
Casey had forgotten all about his coffee, but he swallowed a couple of ounces, trying to think how to respond to Otis’s question. The cooling brew tasted bitter in his mouth. He felt bitter, too, knowing there was nothing he could do to help his friend. He wished he still had his sniper rifle, a Heckler& Koch G28.
Otis continued. “This morning the guy called, said I had to pay up today or next time it’ll be me.”
“Go to the cops.”
Otis shook his head. “The loan doesn’t exist on paper. I can’t prove a thing. Besides, that’ll just give them two reasons to kill me.”
“Killing you won’t get them their money.”
“No, but it’ll be an example for any others who’re thinking of welshing on their loan.”
Casey crumpled his paper coffee cup and tossed it into a trash container. “What are you gonna do then?”
Otis splayed his hands. “I wish to God I knew.” He stepped over to the cash register and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, then offered it to Casey. “I got nothing for you to help with today, buddy, but take this anyway. I’d rather give my money to you than those bastards.”
Casey stared at him for a moment, then pocketed the bill and said, “Thanks, man,” gave him a fist-bump and walked out the door. He’d known Otis a while, another veteran from a different war—still a brother, though, a brother-in-arms. He ambled back to the north end of the alley and his heavy cardboard living quarters. Settled inside, he thought about what he might do if he were still a soldier.
He had weapons—a sheath knife he’d hidden behind a loose brick, and a three-foot length of rebar he kept inside the refrigerator box. You had to have something to live on the streets. But neither would fare well in a gunfight. He ran different scenarios in his mind, but found nothing that gave him confidence.
First, he didn’t know whether the attack—assuming there’d be one—would be at Otis’s home or the shop. If it occurred at home, well … Casey didn’t know where Otis lived, so nothing he could do. He finally decided to take up a position close to the front of the pawnshop. At least if something went down, he’d be on his own turf. Several doorways and heat grates along the street provided spaces where a homeless guy might take refuge overnight. Nobody would give that a second thought—not the cops, who already had plenty to contend with, and, he was guessing, not some asshole thug and his enforcer, either.
A little before six, when the shop closed for the day, he took a blanket and his weapons and holed up in a recessed doorway some twenty yards north of Otis’s place. Good sightline to the front door, but he could remain hidden from most of the street.
Waiting, he tried piecing together some kind of plan. Difficult since he had so little to go on. He didn’t know how they’d attack. First they’d beaten Otis, then cut Orwell’s throat. Would they do something different for the third assault? Who knew? In the military, he’d been taught to make a plan of attack but to assume the circumstances would almost certainly change. Improvise on the run, react, but keep moving forward. At any rate, if the guys never showed, the worst thing for him would be the loss of a few hours’ sleep.
As night deepened, store lights darkened, traffic dwindled, and sounds diminished. The scent of exhaust fumes gave way to onions frying at the all-night diner up the block and coffee roasting at the Starbucks across the street and down the block. Casey would’ve liked some coffee but declined to expose himself on the street. Being still was second nature to him. There’d been times he’d spent hours covered in sand camo waiting for a single shot opportunity. Now his eyes adjusted to the dark, his breathing slowed, he became a part of the night.
Shortly after five, a good hour and a half before the first pale glow of dawn would breach the rooftops, a dark, late-model Cadillac cruised slowly past Casey’s doorway. It turned right at the corner and, a minute later, reappeared and nosed into the curb half a block north of the pawnshop. Casey heard the soft purr of the engine, and heard when it stopped. Then nothing else for fifteen minutes. A brief flash of dome light signaled a door opening, a muffled click, the door closing.
Casey remained still, a sentinel, alone, waiting below a murky sky salted with the mere pinprick glimmer of stars.
A shadow moved down the sidewalk across from him, stopped at the pawnshop entrance, and attached something—too far away to tell what—to the top of the doorframe. Then back to the Cadillac, another flash of light and another muffled click.
Casey expected to hear the engine crank, but he didn’t. He thought about what he’d seen. If the attached item was an explosive, it could be timed, triggered by some movement—opening or closing the door and completing a connection—or by remote control. Neither of the first two possibilities would require the thugs to hang around. Remote control would insure the right person—Otis—would be the victim, and not some passerby.
Otis typically arrived between seven-thirty and eight, brewed coffee, and unfolded the heavy steel latticework covering the two front display windows. As a last resort Casey could burst from his hiding place and stop Otis as soon as he appeared on the scene. That would work if Otis parked on the street in front of or near the shop. But if he parked in the alley and entered through the rear door, he’d be harder to spot, and his movements inside the shop more difficult to follow.
The city awakened gradually. A sprinkling of cars glided by, a handful of joggers huffed their way through the nearly-empty streets, and the first vague stirrings of the homeless appeared, like a colony of bees sensing the coming sunlight.
From his vantage point across the street, Casey observed both doors of the Caddy opening. Two men got out, stretched, mumbled something, and headed down the block toward Starbucks. Casey could hardly believe his luck. Didn’t matter why they went—take a leak, get a coffee, hit on the barista—he’d have a chance to take a look-see. He waited until they passed his hidey-hole, one of them tall and stocky—the muscle man, probably—the other shorter and rounder, then cautiously unfolded himself and crossed the street.
The package taped to the top of Otis’s front door was a cake of C-4 plastic explosive about the size of a pack of cigarettes, enough to take out the whole front of the pawnshop, and anyone else within several yards of the blast. Casey pried it and the imbedded detonator from the door frame, folded some napkins he found in his jacket pocket to resemble the shape and size of the explosive charge, and re-taped the package to the frame. He glanced down the street—still empty. But Otis’s would-be killers wouldn’t take any longer than necessary. He needed to hurry.
Three minutes later, ensconced once again in his doorway, Casey saw the guys leaving Starbucks carrying two cardboard containers of coffee, just like two office workers fortifying with caffeine before starting their day. The big guy chuckled, presumably at something the fat one said. They climbed back into the Cadillac, and the waiting game resumed.
The shopkeeper arrived a few minutes before eight, judging from the light creeping over the tops of the buildings. Otis didn’t walk to the door, he trudged, each step like that of a condemned man facing execution. He fumbled with his keys and finally selected the correct one. Just as he started to slip it into the lock, a Cadillac parked half a block up the street exploded.
Casey thought it an impressive blast. The Caddy actually lifted off the pavement a foot or so. Orange tongues of flame erupted from the car’s passenger compartment, and safety glass rained down on the street like sleet pellets. The flames continued to roil, feeding on whatever fuel might be left in the interior. In front of the pawnshop, Otis had been knocked off his feet by the blast. Casey hurried over.
“Otis, you all right?”
The shop owner looked up at Casey from the sidewalk, his lips moving but no sound coming out. Casey extended a hand and helped him to stand. “Are you all right?” he asked again.
“I … I think so. What the hell happened? I thought for a split second it was me blowing up.”
Casey glanced over his shoulder. The orange flames still reached higher than the car’s blackened carcass but mixed, now, with black smoke. Then the gas tank blew. The second blast was smaller and maybe a bit of overkill in this case, but still satisfying.
Casey turned back to Otis. “Maybe you should call 9-1-1.”
Otis’s hands shook so hard he couldn’t fit the key into the lock. Casey took the keys, unlocked the door, and pushed it open. He nudged Otis over the threshold, reached up and snatched the napkin package, and stuffed it into a pocket while his friend’s back was turned.
Otis made the call. Within minutes, the fire department arrived, soon followed by the police. A large crowd gathered to watch as the two municipal agencies debated when, how, and who would extract the immolated corpses from what remained of the Cadillac.
Casey and Otis watched from inside the pawnshop. “Honest to God, Casey, I thought I was a goner when that car exploded. I thought they’d blown me away. Thanks for helping settle me down.” He wiped his forehead with a yellowed handkerchief. “Do you think it’s possible it was the guys after me? That maybe they blew themselves up by mistake?”
Casey shrugged. “Anything’s possible; I guess time will tell, huh?”
The following morning, Casey stopped by the pawnshop. The scent of fresh-brewed coffee filled the air. Otis busily wiped down the top of the front counter. He looked less ragged this morning. He almost smiled.
“Heard anything from your loan shark assholes?” Casey asked.
Otis lowered his voice, as if speaking too loudly might dash his hopes. “Not a word, nothing, no calls, no threats. I’m beginning to think I was right—that those guys blew themselves up by accident.”
“Couldn’t happen to nicer guys, right?” Casey helped himself to a cup of coffee. “Anything I can do for you today?”
Otis punched a key that opened the cash register and extracted a twenty which he offered to Casey. “No, but take this anyway. I think you might be my lucky charm.”
“Thanks, but keep it. I’m doing okay right now. Buy Sandra something nice—a rescue puppy maybe, one with big, soulful eyes, one she can’t help falling in love with right on the spot.”
Casey finished his coffee and started up the block. He still had a few dollars left from the twenty Otis had given him Tuesday morning. A couple of fried eggs, some bacon and hash browns from the diner sounded good, a positive way to begin the day. Several yards up the block, the blackened pavement stood as evidence of yesterday’s conflagration. Half a dozen obsidian-eyed pigeons strutted and pecked at the asphalt among leftover bits of debris. They looked up at him, arrogant, not in the least disturbed by his presence.
He cast them a sidelong glance. “Stay out of my alley, you nasty fuckers, or I’ll kill you, too.”
A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, award-winning author Bob Strother‘s work has been published internationally and adapted for film. Previous publications include a collection, Scattered, Smothered, and Covered, and the novels Shug’s Place, Burning Time, and A Fire To Be Kindled. He is also a contributing writer for Southern Writers Magazine.