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By Ronald Damien Malfi
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2009 Ronald Damien Malfi
All right reserved.
Chapter One Beneath a swell of dance-floor lights, John Mavio dropped the zipper of his leather jacket and shook his greasy hair down over his eyes. Industrial music shook the walls. Before him, a mob of dancers jerked and flailed like corks tied to elastic strings, their bodies intermittently bleached by harsh neon lights and shrouded by dense smoke. His mouth was dry, tasted sour.
To his left, Jeffrey Clay snorted and offered him a cigarette.
"You see some of these bitches?" Clay was young, maybe in his early twenties, but his creased face and nicotine complexion made him appear ageless. A wedge of wriggling, leather-clad women by the bar had collected his attention; Clay eyed them now like a hungry wolf. "Every goddamn weekend. You been to the Lavender Room? Just like this, only better." Clay whistled. "I mean, you see these women or what?"
John pitched forward off the wall and caught a glimpse of Tressa Walker over Clay's shoulder. Amphetamine-thin, her skin ghostly white, Tressa Walker caught his eyes and immediately looked away. On a riser above her head and sealed in a glass booth, a disc jockey wearing a wool cap spun records. Studio lights reflected off the glass.
John shifted his weight. He was of average height, well-built, hisfeatures predominantly Mediterranean. He felt out of place in the club. "What's taking so long? Where's your boy?"
Clay lit his cigarette, inhaled. As if tasting something bitter, his lips drew into a frown. Still watching the girls, Clay said, "Chill out. It's all about good times-live in the moment. This is all for the fuckin' moment, you know what I mean? No rush."
"There's people I need to get back to."
"It's all right, man."
"This guy, he's good?"
"We go back a long time, me and Frankie. Grew up in the same neighborhood, smelled the same shit."
"I hate these places."
"So drink something, screw somebody," Clay said.
"Christ, no more beer."
"Give it to me."
Clay took one last drag and passed the cigarette to John. Behind Clay, Tressa Walker looked desperate to disappear. She was twenty-two and had a kid but didn't look like anybody's mother. Her eyes narrowed and her lips pressed tightly together, she stared into the sea of dancers, her thoughts nearly as loud as the music. She appeared to recognize someone in the crowd and brought her head up. She touched Clay on the shoulder. "Jeffrey," she said.
Jeffrey Clay rolled his head, tendons popping in his neck, and grinned. Two men wove their way through the crowd. The lead man, dressed in a tight-fitting Italian shirt and pressed slacks, clapped Clay on the shoulder, whispered something into the crook of his neck. They both laughed. John recognized him as Francis Deveneau. Deveneau's taller companion, decked in leather pants and silver contact lenses, his face a festival of complex piercing, stood off to one side, eyeing John with obvious disapproval. His skin was pale enough to look translucent beneath the club's lights.
"This is Johnny," Clay told Deveneau.
"Bonsoir, Johnny," Deveneau said and saluted. His eyes were bloodshot and sloppy. "Francis Deveneau."
John nodded. "This your place?"
Deveneau bobbed his head, struggled with a lopsided grin. He was tapping one foot to the music. "Some of it. Just the good parts. You like it?"
"Some of it," John said. "The good parts."
Deveneau laughed. "You ate?"
"Jeffrey's been picking up the tab?"
"He's a cheap bastard," John said, and Francis Deveneau laughed again. Behind him, his paleface companion shifted impatiently.
"Come on," Deveneau said, "it's all good tonight. Whatever you want on the house." He turned his attention to Tressa Walker, who offered him a nervous smile, which Deveneau returned. His teeth looked dry and lackluster. "How you doing, babe?" He was a slender guy with hands as bony as hooves. "You been all right?"
"Yes." It was the most she'd said all evening.
"This place," Francis said, "has terrible food. I'm not kidding. Can't help it." He glanced at John. Winked. "Horrendous, sans doute. After," he told the girl. "After. Someplace nice downtown. Guspacco's, maybe." He looked back at John. "So you went to school with my girl?"
"For a little while. Before I dropped out."
"You two dated?"
John smirked. "Nope."
"She's a good one," Deveneau said.
Tressa took Deveneau's arm. "He was older," she said. "Different grade."
Deveneau smiled. Clapped his hands together. "Big man on campus."
"Not exactly," John said. "More like no man on campus."
Clay pushed his way between them. "Come on," he said, and wrapped his fingers around John's forearm.
They maneuvered through a maze of grinding hips and swinging arms. The albino stuck to John like a dog, never saying a word, his eyes viciously sober. Only occasionally did he glance at Tressa, though never when the girl was looking in his direction. He looked at John, too, and with evident distrust. The music drummed on, programmed as one continuous loop. John spat on the floor and tossed his cigarette just as he and Clay followed Francis Deveneau, Tressa, and the albino down a flight of iron stairs. A corrugated concrete hallway closed around them. Metal creels hung from chains in the ceiling, adorned with flickering candles. As they sank deeper into the ground, the odor of sweat and mildew and incense grew strong.
"Frankenstein's castle," John muttered, and Clay snickered.
The stairwell emptied into a dimly lit corridor that seemed to lead everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They moved across the corridor and entered a large barroom. Red velvet couches, damp with rot and threadbare with age, were staggered like grazing cattle. A zinc bar clung to the far wall, collecting drinkers like fruit flies. Their shadows loomed large and distorted against every wall. A string of Christmas lights sagged against the wall behind the bar, most likely a year-round staple.
"They did a hell of a job down here," Deveneau said. "Whole place was filled with sewage, maybe-what? Ten months ago, Jeffrey? Busted lines, rotted pipes. Christ knows. Rats the size of Thanksgiving turkeys watching you from every corner, hearing their little feet shifting through the muck. I been trying to talk Eddie into turning this place into some sort of underground casino. Like you see in the movies. Some fuckin' tables, wheels, dice-the whole nine."
"And when the cops come, he's gonna spin the tables around and they'll disappear behind the walls like in them gangster movies," Jeffrey Clay said, chuckling.
Deveneau shook his head and glanced at his friend from over his shoulder. "You always gotta be a wise guy?"
But Clay was on a roll. "There'll be a full bar on the other side, and some hot barmaid mixin' drinks, real James Bond shit ..."
John managed a grin. He was becoming more and more restless, charged by the stress of inactivity. The few drinks he'd had earlier were hitting him hard, and he suddenly felt as though he were moving two steps behind himself.
"You can see it though, can't you?" Deveneau paused suddenly, causing the rest of them to catch their feet. He looked up, looked around. His left eyelid twitched. Some of the people at the bar glanced in his direction. "Lights and buzzers, heavy in cigar smoke. Air stinking of alcohol and cheap perfume. Breathe it in, man. All of it. All of it." Deveneau shook his head. "Better than the goddamn swingers club Eddie wants to stick down here." He jerked a finger in John's direction. "You got your money?"
"You got my end?"
"Goddamn," Deveneau said, grinning. From behind him, a number of middle-aged, overweight men pushed out of the darkness surrounded by a group of young girls carrying tropical drinks. A door must have opened somewhere; music was suddenly audible. Someone at the bar laughed too loudly. As the men and women passed, the vague, intermingled aroma of sweat and marijuana followed them. Deveneau's albino companion shifted to let them pass, bumping John in the process. John felt the man's hand brush against his hip.
"You curious about something, powder?"
The albino said nothing. At this proximity, John could smell him: a conglomeration of hair grease, fluoride, and ammonia. There was a faint scar the shape of a comma at the corner of his mouth, pink and raw-looking.
The passing wave of tension did not vex Francis Deveneau. "Should we get a drink? Let's get a drink."
"I've got some other business to take care of," John said. "Besides, one more drink and I'll never find my car."
"Yeah, Frank," Clay intervened, "let's just do it. Johnny-cakes don't seem too social tonight."
Deveneau kissed Tressa on the cheek and ushered her toward a small doorway beside the bar. John followed, aware that the albino was directly behind him; he could feel his shadow pressing heavy against his back.
Francis Deveneau laughed at something the bartender said while absently swatting away a fly with his right hand. Tressa shifted within the fold of Deveneau's arm, caught John's eyes, and quickly looked away.
Someone screamed. And then there was the sound of a dozen muted reports going off at once: rushing feet. Or maybe it all happened at the same time-the scream, the footfalls, the breaking of glass behind the bar, the swarming of indecipherable shadows: coming together, dispersing, coming together, dispersing. There was too much noise for him to pick out distinct, individual sounds-words; commands-but his eyes assessed the room quickly, processed the information, told him something had gone terribly wrong.
"Police!" A flood of blue nylon jackets spilled into the room, fanned out along the walls, dipping into the nooks and shadows. A table was quickly overturned. Then another. Then one of the mildewed sofas. People scattered. "Freeze! Freeze! Police!" They struck like insects in a swarm, immediate and unified, only to disperse at the last moment and scatter like fractured light.
"Freeze, goddamn it!"
"Police! Nobody move!"
John hit the wall as if struck by a passing locomotive and wasted no time gathering his legs up around his body and rolling behind the corner edge of the bar. His head struck the side of the bar and bright, oily spirals exploded behind his eyelids. Legs flitted past him; a barstool crashed to the floor. Breathing heavy, his throat suddenly burned. Something flailed beside him. It was Jeffrey Clay, the color abruptly drained from his face, his eyes bugging out to the size of chicken eggs. Clay fumbled with a .38, juggled it as if unaccustomed to its weight and texture.
He waved a hand at Clay. "Shit," he hissed through clenched teeth. "Shit, Jeffrey!" Jeffrey Clay did not hear him.
They were pegged behind the bar and against the wall. One of the officers shouted for them to stand, and no one moved. The room thundered like a series of amplified heartbeats. Frantically, John surveyed his immediate area for any sign of Francis Deveneau. At first he didn't see him, but then caught a glimpse of the man edging back across the floor on his hands and knees, his face twisted, his eyes darting. He was crawling backward toward a darkened room. Their eyes met briefly and locked.
Tressa Walker had pressed herself against the doorframe behind the bar, her pale, slender arms wrapped tight around her knees. She was visibly shaking; John thought he could almost hear the sound of her head thudding against the wall, her teeth rattling in her skull ...
"Stand up!" one of the cops shouted. The voice was too close. John could sense their presence all around him, thick like humidity. The walls vibrated. "Stand up slow!"
John slid himself against the wall beside Clay. The guy was shaking. He pushed his hand against Clay's gun. "Chill out," he half-whispered. "Chill out. You're gonna blow your own goddamn foot off. Give me the gun."
Clay didn't respond.
"Jeffrey ..." He closed his fingers around the grip of Clay's gun, slid his index finger behind the trigger. "Give it to me ..."
Clay snapped from his stupor and jerked the gun away. He was struggling with quick, gasping breaths.
"This is bullshit." The voice sounded oddly composed. John turned and saw the albino creeping along the floor behind the bar. "This is some shit." The albino pushed his way in front of Francis Deveneau, his knee striking a bottle of whiskey and sending it in revolutions across the floor. Beside John, Clay leaned his head against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut.
"We got guns!" Clay shouted, his voice breaking.
"Put them down, and stand up!" one of the cops responded.
Clay shook his head, eyes still shut. He chewed at his lower lip. Opened his eyes. "Don't fucking move!" he shouted, more forceful this time. "None of you fucking move! Just stay the hell where you are!"
The albino's face was inches from Deveneau's. He was irate. A purple vein throbbed at his temple; cords stood out in his neck, thick as elevator cables. One white hand shot out and grabbed Deveneau's collar, shook him, slammed his head against the wall.
"You see this? This fucking mess?" He relinquished Deveneau with a single shove and Deveneau's head rebounded off the wall. "What did I tell you? What did I say from the beginning? What-" And his hand shot out again, this time grabbing Tressa by the hair, yanking her across the floor. "You see this? You see it?"
From the other side of the bar: a smattering of footsteps. In an apprehensive burst, Jeffrey Clay shouted at the cops to stop moving, stop moving, stop goddamn moving, couldn't they understand English?
The albino gave Tressa's hair another yank, and the girl shrieked. John heard Clay curse under his breath. The albino righted the girl against his chest, wrapped a pale arm around her neck. Tressa groaned.
"I'm on fucking probation," he said to Deveneau. "You insist on dragging this bitch around and you don't know who she tips off, where she goes shootin' her mouth off! And now this?" He drove a fist into Deveneau's face. "What did I tell you about her? What did I say? Son of a bitch, we've been through this! Didn't I say she's been talkin' to the cops? Didn't I say she was trash, she was goddamn-"
In one fluid motion, the albino withdrew a handgun from the waistband of his pants, swung it around, and pressed the barrel to Tressa's head. His elbow struck a broom that, in turn, struck a tortoiseshell mirror above the bar. The mirror swiveled and repositioned itself, and in an instant John could see a number of police officers, guns drawn, legs spread, hovering just a few feet beyond the bar in its reflection. They were crude renditions of people: no faces, no details. Just guns with legs.
The albino squeezed the girl's neck, pushed the gun hard against her temple. His face had flushed red, had erupted into colorful magnolia blossoms.
It was as if some merciful and divine being suddenly reached out and turned the dial to slow. The albino-the gun-the entire room-became suddenly magnified. And in his mind's eye, John could see the hammer being pulled back, could see that pale, slender finger press back on the trigger, could see the slow revolution of the chamber as a fresh round positioned itself ...
John fired two shots from his own gun buried deep within the pocket of his leather coat. The first shot hit the albino in the forehead, killing him with an almost bloodless vigilance. The albino's face remained expressionless. Only his right arm jerked, the fingers tensing on the trigger of his weapon. An arbitrary shot exploded and ricocheted off the ceiling. The albino fell backward like a piece of driftwood. John's second shot missed completely and shattered a collection of half-empty liquor bottles beneath the bar.
The police began shooting, returning the fire. John flinched, ducked, grabbed Tressa, and pushed her face against the dirty floor. Above their heads, slugs slammed into the wall, bursting bottles and splintering wood. The enormous wall mirror that ran the length of the bar shattered into a blizzard of knifelike shards of glass. Beneath him, the girl struggled to free herself and sit up. He kept one hand against the top of her head, restricting her movement. One of her arms swung up and cracked him against the side of the face, blurring his vision.
"Here, here!" Deveneau shouted at him, motioning for them to take cover behind him in the darkened room. He, too, was now fumbling with a handgun, sliding rounds into the chamber. "Move it!"
Excerpted from Shamrock Alley by Ronald Damien Malfi Copyright © 2009 by Ronald Damien Malfi. Excerpted by permission.
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