TIME SPIKE — snippet 34

 

TIME SPIKE – snippet 34:

 

 

            James Cook reached up for the six-inch metal bar from the small opening the health examiner required for ventilation in the cell house, that had come loose during the Quiver. He’d taken it down from time to time and had patiently filed the end to a reasonably sharp point, and then placed it back. He just wanted to make sure the sharpened bar was still loose and would come easily into his hand if he needed it. Which he figured he would, with a prisoner uprising underway led by Adrian Luff.

            “Boom,” he whispered into the dark, “we’re trapped like a couple of bug-eyed flies on fly-paper.”

            “Yeah, I know. You got anything useful to say?”

            Cook watched the black giant roll off the bottom bunk and press his ear to the floor. The cell-house was empty. They were the only two still behind bars.

            “They be a lot of blood spillin’ soon. You afraid?”

            Cook chewed on his bottom lip, not sure what to say. To admit fear was to admit to a weakness, a very stupid move when behind bars. But the Boom wasn’t exactly a normal con. Honesty could just as easily be what the giant was after. In the end he decided on a non-answer. “Do I look stupid?”

            The giant shook his head. “Nah. You be one of the smart ones.” He sat up facing the bars. “Half the guards is gone. And the whole world is gone. All that’s left is us and the monsters outside the walls.”

            Just to keep his mind off his fear, James blurted out an idle question he’d been wondering about.

            “How’d a black man wind up with an Italian last name like Bolgeo, anyway?”

            As soon as he asked the question, he realized what a stupid thing it’d been to say. You never knew exactly what might set off Boomer’s temper. Most of the time, the huge man was genial enough. His boys all called him “Uncle Timmy” and the only thing you usually had to watch out for was his cut-throat killer way of playing spades. But when he did lose his temper, the results were legendary. The man must be pushing sixty, but he was still hard-bodied despite his enormous size, and he was almost literally as strong as a bull.

            Fortunately, the Boom just chuckled. “Well, they be two theories in the family ‘bout that. One of them is that Great-grandpa Luigi was an Eye-talian. The other is that Great-grandpa was a high yeller nigger passing as an Eye-talian, who invented the name. I hold to the second theory, myself.”

            “Ah.” That seemed safe enough.

            “Now it’s my turn to be nosy. What you in here for?”

            “Second degree murder. I got charged with first degree, but the jury wouldn’t go for it.”

            “You had a trial?

            Most convicts didn’t. Their sentences resulted from plea bargaining. James’ public defender had urged him to do the same, but James had refused. Stupid, probably, but he hadn’t seen where he could do anything else.

            “Did you do it?”

            That question was so astonishing that James’ jaw almost dropped.  Cons didn’t ask each other if they were guilty or not, because nobody except a fool would try to claim he was innocent in a prison. Didn’t matter if he was or not. That was another form of weakness, and you never showed weakness.

            The Boom really was an odd one. Of course, with his size and capacity for fury, he could afford to be odd.

             With anyone else, James would have just issued a non-committal grunt. With Boomer, though…

            “No, I didn’t.”

            “You was framed?”

            James barked a sarcastic laugh. “Oh, come on, Boom! ‘Framed’? The cops don’t bother to frame Injuns. Or niggers, or greasers. Or poor white trash, for that matter. The prosecutor had a killing to clear off his docket, I was a handy suspect who fit the bill and didn’t have an alibi, and there it was. Their case was weak enough that the jury wouldn’t go for a first degree, but they found me guilty of second.”

            “What happened?”

            “I was in a bar one night. Friday night, after work. It’d been a bad day and I was pretty much tying one on. Which was stupid, because when I’m in a bad mood like that I can lose my temper if I’ve drunk too much. Sure enough. Some asshole starting ragging me, I got pissed, chose him out, we stepped outside and I beat the crap out of him.”

            He took a deep breath. Even now, he still got angry thinking about it. “But that was it. We fought, I won—hands down—he was lying on the ground with a slip lip and a buncha bruises, and it was over. My hands hurt and I felt stupid as hell. So I went back into bar, paid my tab and went home to sleep it off.”

            He took another deep breath. “Which I did. The next morning the cops were at my door arresting me for first degree murder. Seems the asshole went to another bar afterward and got himself killed about three hours later. They found him in the parking lot with the back of his head caved in. Probably from a baseball bat.”

            Boomer nodded. “And nobody saw you come home and could vouch for your whereabouts.”

            “Yep. They said they had motive, method and opportunity.” He spit into a corner. “Never mind that the motive didn’t make any sense. I’d already whipped the guy, for chrissake, so why would I be seeking ‘revenge’? I won, he lost, it’s over. Never mind that they never found the murder weapon. Never mind that no eyewitnesses ever placed me at that other bar. Never mind that I’d never heard of that other bar and nobody had ever seen me there.”

            He shrugged. “But you know how it is. I had a juvie record. Nothing really heavy, but enough to made me look like a bad boy. I’m not white. I’m not a person of color from a so-called good family. I had no alibi. It was an easy case for the prosecutor, and he didn’t give a flying fuck whether I was guilty or not. Hell, neither did my own so-called lawyer.”

            “That how it is.” The Boom started laughing softly. “But that all behind us now, boy. We in a new world that ain’t got no prosecutors. Just Adrian Luff and his goons and a buncha dinosaurs.”

            After a while, James started laughing too.

****

            Lieutenant Joe Schuler lay on the narrow bunk, tossing and turning, feeling every lump of the mattress and every wrinkle in the blanket. The pillows weren’t right. One was too low; two was too high. He glanced at the chair he was using as a nightstand. The small wind up clock he’d borrowed from Woeltje showed he still had four hours of sleep-time. Too many to just call it a short night and get up.

            He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to stare at the ceiling and tried to relax. He had been asleep earlier, but it hadn’t been restful. He had been dreaming in short, unrelated clips that his brain pretended fit together. The type of dream you seldom remembered. But this one had been a rerun, so he remembered too much of it. He was with Maria, before the split. They were on a picnic.

            He lay there thinking about that. The two of them had never taken a picnic to the beach. Not once. He hadn’t had the time, and she was just as busy. It had always been fast food, or eating at home to save money. It had been his mother who liked picnics and his father who would load everything up in the car and drive the thirty minutes it took to get the family to her favorite spot. A small park sitting next to a creek. The trees were old oaks filled with acorns, birds and squirrels. Joe and his brother, Keith, would play on the swings and monkey bars, occasionally sneaking a look at their parents lying on a blanket staring at the sky, or sometimes each other. He started drifting away, back to his dreams, wondering if Maria went on picnics with her new husband.

****

            Marie Keehn knelt on the flat rubber roof located on the administration building’s new wing. Below her were the offices that use to be payroll; above her was the sky. A portrait of infinity. She spread her bedroll out and laid down. It was just chilly enough to make for good sleeping weather. She had thought about sleeping inside A-block with the others, then changed her mind.

            She wanted to be alone. She needed time to think.

            Hulbert was what she needed to think about. He was in love. It showed. And she wasn’t so sure she wanted that. The fact that he fell so quickly hadn’t surprised her. She thought men usually did. She’d read an article in a women’s magazine once, explaining how it took most men less than two minutes to fall madly in love, and she thought the article had it right.

            It took most women much longer, the article had said. Many of them were actually married for a year or so before they realized just how much they loved their husbands. Women were considered the romantics, but in reality they tended to be a lot more practical with their hearts. It was men who jumped in with both feet to sink or swim.

            And she liked it that way. It felt right to her. Especially now.

            Her grandmother had told her once that a man had to love a woman enough to die for her. And a woman had to love the man enough to live her life for him. That had struck a cord in Marie. It suited something in her personality.

            And it was why she was still single. She had been waiting for that man who would lay down his life rather than let her die. And she had been looking for someone she could wrap her life around. As her dear old grandmother used to say, someone worth giving up the she and becoming the we for.

            She didn’t know how she felt about Hulbert. She knew without a doubt he would step between her and death. He had already done it. Without his quick reflexes she would have been killed when by that scary cat-thing. It was the other half of the deal that worried her. The giving up of the she. The becoming a we.

            She knew the smart women, the ones with good marriages, had remained themselves. They hadn’t become clones of the men in their lives. But the “we” had still taken first place. And if that meant changing a few things, that was fine. They made the changes. If that meant talking or raising hell till the man did something important for the “we,” then they did that too. It was work. And with the world turned upside down right now she wasn’t sure it was a job she wanted to take on.

            She knew Hulbert had started the trip to the field already infatuated. The physical attraction, the chemistry, had been there, drawing them together. Then the other things happened: starting a fire, finding a set of prints, skinning out, reducing meat down to its usable parts, easy to transport. And then came the talking of tomorrow and of yesterday and the working together on the today.

            And Hulbert had been caught, and she was walking around the edges of it, teetering.

            “What the hell, girl. Quit lying. You fell.” She laughed at herself. Yeah, if she hadn’t fallen, she wouldn’t be on a rooftop in the middle of the night thinking about her grandmother’s old fashion sayings and wondering if the name Marie Louise Hulbert sounded right.

 

 

 

About Eric Flint

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