Meanwhile in Baghdad

—Chapter 2—


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A man woke up terrified in the dark. He listened, and as he listened, he felt out his surroundings. Firstly, he was on a bed. There was no sound in the room he was in. Secondly, the bed was a twin, raised off the ground, high enough that he couldn’t feel the ground under it with his outstretched hand. There was a light humming coming from somewhere outside the room. Thirdly, the man wasn’t restrained to the bed: he had a blanket and pillows, not the ropes he’d imagined he felt when he first woke up. The man

got out of bed. His bare feet touched the floor. Carpet. He dug the soles of his feet into it. The man’s head throbbed. He looked harder at the room. A blinking green light on the ceiling. Green felt safe: maybe a smoke detector. Nothing was safe: maybe a camera. The man got back onto the bed, and stood up, balancing so that the box spring didn’t squeal under his feet. On top of the bed in the dark the man felt like an impossible giant. He reached up to feel

the machine the green light came from. Plastic, disk-like. Circular ridges, no lens. Probably a smoke detector. The man felt the ridges until he got to a flat piece of plastic he could remove. After taking it off, he removed the batteries—two triple A’s—and stashed them in his back pocket, just in case. He was wearing pants. Clothes. Suit pants and a shirt with a stiff collar, turned down. Underwear. No socks or shoes. Undershirt. No tie. He put the plastic battery cover back on the smoke detector and got off the bed. The man walked towards

any side of the room, crouched low, dragging his feet, guiding himself with the tactile sensation of his bare toes on the carpet. The tips of his fingers made contact with a wall, and he walked along it, dragging his fingertips against the surface—coarsely painted—until he could find something like a door or a window. He found a set of strings, dangling against the wall from a high place: the kind of strings used for pulling curtains up and down, with a conical plastic piece at the bottom. The man crouched low, well below where the window would be, and faced the room. He pulled open the curtain

and the flash of light blinded him for a microsecond: he forced himself to keep his eyes open and see that he was in a hotel room with nobody in sight. He sprinted low for the bathroom door, ripping the microwave from the wall on the way as weaponry. When he flung the bathroom door open he found nobody inside, and he

exhaled, walked back to the counter, and set the microwave back down on the counter where it had been. He plugged it back in, ran it once for two seconds, to see that it still worked. It seemed to but he stopped it before the beep or the ding. The man walked over to look out the window. He wasn’t on the first floor: the second. He didn’t know of how many. Out the window he saw a very, very small town. The man guessed then that he was on floor two of two. Dust moved across the light-grey streets. In the distance in one direction he could see a factory, and in the other direction he saw desert. Based on the sun, it was just before or just after noon.

The man relaxed his muscles.

He looked at the room again. One twin bed, the sheets now unmade. A pair of dress shoes and socks by the door. A microwave and a stack of papers on the counter. The man walked up to the papers and inspected them. Pay stubs. Hotel bills. Grocery receipts. Darren Mills worked at Bellpond Packaging and Manufacturing Plus and had been renting hotel room 221 of the Bellpond Inn for the past fourteen months. And he was a vegetarian.

Was the man Darren Mills? He couldn’t remember. He…

The man walked to the door, cracked it open, and looked both ways down the hall. Empty. He walked back into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. There were things he should have known. If he was Darren Mills he should have been able to say so. He didn’t think he was Darren, but he couldn’t think of another name that suited him better. The man walked into the bathroom.

In the mirror was a Caucasian—Hispanic?—predominantly Caucasian male. Thirties? Younger? On the left corner of his mouth was a stitched and cleaned gash going downwards towards his chin. The man dry heaved into the sink, but held his stomach. Gripping the counter in his fist, he felt the gash from the other side with his tongue, and could feel the stitches on that side too, although he couldn’t look into the mirror and see his tongue poke through the gash, which was good.

No. It wasn’t good that there was a gash at all. Everything about this was bad. Situation normal, all fucked up. The man walked back out to the main room.

Under the counter was a mini fridge. Resting beside it were two heavy weights. The man—Darren?—crouched down and opened the fridge. Inside was yogurt, an apple, cabbage, two tomatoes, a resealed bag of tortillas, and a plastic-wrapped can of refried beans.

The man stood up. There had to be something to go off of. He looked around the room again. It usually didn’t take this long.

What usually didn’t take this long?

The man’s eyes fell on a piece of paper sitting under the microwave, with just its white corner sticking out. Had he been the one who set the microwave on top of it, or had he uncovered part of it by moving the microwave in the first place? He pulled the paper out from under the box and read.

 

Help yourself to anything in the fridge. I’ll be back from work by 5:30. Charge the room if you need to make a call.

Darren

 

The man set down the note. In the course of a minute, he had learned he was in a hotel room in a place called Bellpond; he was not held there against his will; he knew how to deal with a situation just like a man in a spy thriller or those two from Boondock Saints; he was in physical pain from the gash creeping down his mouth; and he was not Darren Mills.

 

 

The door opened at 5:26 and in walked Darren. He was a tallish black man with short hair and a stubble goatee, dressed in a white and orange factory uniform. Darren saw that, on the counter, there sat a paper hotel cup filled with diced tomatoes and a paper hotel cup filled with shredded lettuce. In the microwave was another paper hotel cup filled with refried beans.

The man stood up from the foot of the bed, and faced Darren with a half smile—the half of his mouth that wasn’t cut. “Welcome home, honey.”

“Sorry. I don’t think I’m over my last boyfriend just yet,” Darren told the man. Darren stood just in front of the hotel door, which had clicked shut as he was talking. As soon as it was closed, he had leaned back against it.

The man shrugged. “It was a joke. Yours was too, but I think only part of yours was, and you really do have an ex-boyfriend who you still want to be with. Am I close?” the man asked.

Darren Mills was silent for a little bit. The man could practically see Darren remembering that his hotel door opened outward, and he cloud leave without ever putting himself an inch closer to the man who had just unraveled something that was probably supposed to be a secret.

The microwave beeped.

“Just a guess,” the man said. He turned to take the refried beans out of the microwave. “Taco?”

Darren and the man sat side by side at the foot of the bed, each of them eating their meatless tacos. They weren’t bad. The man was pretty sure he wasn’t a vegetarian like Darren though, because he had a nagging feeling that the tacos were bland.

“What’s your name?” Darren asked.

“Don’t know,” the man said. “Call me the name of one of the brothers from Boondock Saints. Murphy.”

“Aren’t they Irish?” Darren asked.

“Yeah, good point,” the man said. He took another bite from his bland taco. It was tricky eating in a way that didn’t get food near the stitches on the inside of his mouth. “How did you… why am I here? In this hotel room with stitches on my face. You weren’t the one who cut me.”

“No,” Darren agreed. “I found you like that in the desert last night. You were unconscious.”

Darren and the man went over the details. Darren had found the man in the desert, and carried him back to the hotel room. The man had dried blood on his face, but wasn’t bleeding. Already stitched when Darren found him. Once inside the hotel room, the man had woken up. He’d gone to the sink to wash his face, and told Darren that he was going to get some rest, and that he was fine, really. Darren wasn’t sure what else to do other than let the man sleep. Darren slept on the floor and went to work in the morning. Upon waking up, the man couldn’t remember any autobiographical information. Didn’t know his name, didn’t know who he worked for, but had a feeling that ‘who he worked for’ was the second most important thing to know.

And then there they were. Two unusual people in a hotel room. The man had finished the two tacos he was able to stomach—able to mouth—and was pacing back and forth. Part of the reason he paced was because he felt energized: he was learning. This was good. The other reason he paced was because he was still in a great deal of pain, and moving helped.

“One more thing,” the man said. “Why did you bring me here? Why not a hospital?”

“Town doesn’t have one,” Darren said. “I don’t have a car to drive you anywhere else. Couldn’t put you in a cab or drop you off at the police station.”

“Why not?” the man asked.

“Sorry?”

“Why not bring me to the police station?” the man repeated. “Who the hell are you and what kind of felony did you commit that my life was worth less than the risk of being seen by cops you son of a bitch? You’re living in a hotel instead of an apartment and all of your expenses are paid in cash, not credit, because you can’t use your real name. I want to know who the hell you are.”

Darren—not Darren at all—laid back onto his bed. He rubbed a hand against his temple, staring up at the ceiling. “Drake Reddick. Sound familiar?”

“No.”

“Good.”

“What did you do?” the man asked.

“DUI. Three people dead. An attempted school shooting the next morning.”

“Classy. That it?”

“Not really.”

“They know it was you?”

“Feds, cops, and the rest of America for about two weeks.”

The man looked out of the window. He understood why the curtains had been closed. He suspected they were closed by default in that hotel room.

“I need your help Drake.”

Drake closed his eyes, breathed in through his nose, and out through his mouth. “I need to fucking move. You’re the first person I’ve told about my real name you know. Now Bellpond isn’t safe for me, and I have to find somewhere else where you’re not, so thanks. Thanks for that.”

The man continued to look out of the window. The window faced west—the man had been keeping track of the movements of the sun. Bellpond, according to Drake, was in Nevada. The man faced California then. No. He faced a single point in California. “You helped me,” the man said. “Last night in the desert, you could have left me, and you would have been fine, but you helped me. I need you to help me again. I need you to take me somewhere.”

“I don’t have a car—”

“Don’t lie to me,” the man said. “That’s omission. You don’t have a car now but you have more than enough cash under the mattress to get us to California. I could have taken it and been well on my way before you got back here. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t because I wanted information, and I’m not taking it now because I still don’t want to rob you. So hear me out.”

 

 

The black wolf looked at the deer with the scar under its mouth, prey that so proudly danced in front of him. The wolf was a vegetarian. But he didn’t believe the deer’s charade for a second.

 

 

The man looked at Drake, the killer who believed that on the inside, he wasn’t wicked. The man had seen wicked before, he knew that much, whether in the first or third person, and certainly in the second. The man had seen wicked. He was looking at wicked. He didn’t trust Drake at all. But he could use him; a partner, or a killer bargaining chip.

“I want to know who I am,” the man said. “You have some kind of higher calling, internal or external, I don’t care. But I remember a tower in San Samarra. No details. Just that it exists. I’ll give you directions as we go.”

 

 

Rice, Terry, and Ruben pulled into a parking space at the Umber Lane apartments. Peggy and Patrick had stayed in Los Angeles for the day, but Rice had to make a trip. He took their rental car—plus the restless Terry and Ruben who came with it—and made the drive to La Meseta.

The Plateau,” Ruben had said when he saw the city’s welcome sign.

Rice had lived in La Meseta for six years among very fluent Spanish speakers: he had been told what La Meseta meant in English. Afterwards in 1993, he also learned what The Plateau meant in Grunge. But he nodded as Ruben showed off his linguistic skills. He liked Ruben. If this was going to be the last day he saw Ruben for a while, he wanted it to be nice.

After Rice parked, he went around to the trunk and took out the shovel he’d purchased on his way to the plateau. Cheapest shovel at the hardware store, because it was only going to be used twice: once to dig up a rifle, and once to bury a Punk. Rice took the shovel firm in one hand, closed the trunk, and began to walk.

He walked around the buildings, followed by Ruben and Terry, until the three had arrived in a courtyard. Most of the windows looking in on the courtyard had their blinds closed. Those that didn’t were empty. Following Terry’s advice, the three of them wore orange caps and reflective vests, also purchased at the hardware store: camouflage for what came next. Rice walked to the center of the courtyard, right next to the dead cypress tree. He dug.

When he reached six feet and the rifle still wasn’t there, he dug deeper.

When he reached seven feet and he found nothing but stones, he dug wider.

When he had dug a grave, Terry told him to stop. Whatever he was looking for wasn’t there. The blinds had been opened, and people were looking at them.

As they walked away, Terry and Ruben both conceded that Rice should take the car. They could both find a way back to Peggy and Patrick in Los Angeles. The three said their goodbyes. Take care. Knock ‘em dead. I’ll see you around, buddy.

Rice drove away from the Umber Lane apartments. In the trunk was a suitcase full of clothes, and a shovel stained with dirt. Rice’s hot and blue guitar sat in the back seat, tuned, and begging to be plugged in. He drove with one hand on twelve. He was trying to decide if he should get a tattoo before or after visiting Joey.

When Rice walked into the pharmacy his skin was still blank, but he did have two piercing in his left eyebrow, and one through the bridge of his nose. He had remembered that tattoos took time to heal, and he needed to be in a good condition for the upcoming hours or days. But he did need to represent. His hair was shaved on the sides, spiked up down the middle, and dyed and assertive blue. Rice Fuckin’ O’ approached the pharmacist behind the counter.

“Holy shit,” the pharmacist said, staring at Rice up and down. “It’s like I’m looking in a fucking time portal. Where’s Johnny?”

Rice shrugged.

He looked over his shoulder. He and Joey were alone. Joey’s nametag said J. Epstein, and seeing that hurt a little. But a part of Rice could understand it.

“When’s the last time you heard from Yote?” Rice asked.

“God, years I think,” Joey said, scratching the back of his head. “Why, getting the band back together?”

Rice laughed, and shook his head. He pointed up at the cameras lining the ceiling. “Do these record audio?”

“They—”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m going to kill Johnny Hick. I don’t think that’ll bother you enough to tell on me for saying it.”

Joey flattened his lips, pressing them together into a narrow, pale line. Quietly, he told Rice, “I’m going to have lunch in five minutes. Why don’t you meet me outside.”

Rice nodded, and left. He had misjudged. His words almost put Joey in tears.

Rice lit a cigarette. As he held the lighter near his mouth, he tried to think back to whether or not Johnny had smoked. By the time he had pocketed his lighter and taken his first drag, he was pretty sure that everyone in the punk scene had smoked. Some had quit since then, or were in the process of quitting, but the fact that smoking happened at one point in their lives was, as far as Rice remembered, universal.

Rice wondered about lung cancer in The Immortal. He wondered about addiction. He was pretty sure The Immortal couldn't get cancer, since that was, eventually, fatal. But could The Immortal become an addict? Was smoking to him a compulsion or a design choice?

Rice heard the pharmacy door open behind him, and stamped out his cigarette butt.

“I don’t think you should do it,” Joey started.

The two of them began walking down the sidewalk. The city was one Rice had never been to, but had been ambiently aware of, living not too far from it in his punk days. Some place in SoCal. Not on many maps, but otherwise, a nice place to live. Mostly retirees. Not too many punks.

“Convince me,” Rice said. “I’m willing to hear you out.”

“Well have you listened to the radio?” Joey asked. Maybe not Joey for very long. Maybe soon to be J. Epstein, depending on how he presented his defense for Johnny Hick. In the meantime, it was Joey who told Rice, “Punk music has been making a comeback lately.”

Rice felt chills across his mohawk; he was talking with Joey Low Action alright, in the flesh and blood.

“Listen, I think he’s a son of a bitch,” Joey said. “I really, really do. But why do you want him dead? What’s it fix?”

“Nothing,” Rice said. “It fixes shit all. I still want him dead.”

“Why then?”

Because he’s dangerous, was one reason, but it wasn’t a very good one. It didn’t cover Rice’s ass, since Rice was the one plotting first degree murder as they spoke. Because he deserves it, might have been a closer truth. Because he hurt me. Because he hurts us. Because he hurts all of us.

“Because Johnny killed punk,” Rice answered, practically in bold. “Because he built it and then he shattered the cornerstone, and left us standing on a house of cards that was already falling by the time he was gone. And I don’t think he deserves to walk away from that.”

Joey Low Action gave his unconditional blessing, and Rice began his hunt.


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© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 16, 2016