Time is up in Old Town. As the pace of gentrification reaches frenzy in Portland, Oregon, Darby Holland’s beloved tattoo parlor, Lucky Supreme, is destroyed by a bomb that ripped through an entire city block. Only a warning call from his favorite prostitute saved his life. Developers have been like wolves at the door of D’mitri (the drunken landlord) for the past few years, but this is different. With nothing to lose, Darby goes on a rampage to discover first the bomber then the developer who set everything in motion, and along the way falls under FBI suspicion, messes with dangerous pimps and drug lords, gets his face permanently rearranged, and, then, at the lowest point in his adult life, Darby Holland meets the woman of his dreams. Long, lanky, smart, and a foot taller than Darby, Suzanne is a woman of enormous appetite. Darby has finally met his match in bed and at the dinner table. But Suzanne, for all her strength and wisdom, can’t save Darby from his enemies. Fortunately, Delia (Darby’s tiny vinyl clad side-kick) and her punk-rock boyfriend’s band can, and in one of the most outrageous capers in crime fiction, Darby, Big Mike, Nigel, and Flaco (Lucky Supreme faithfuls), impersonate restaurant staff to brilliantly orchestrate a kidnapping of a Russian crime boss, making full use of an Armenian smuggling operation to pave the way for justice and the resurrection of the Lucky Supreme.
About the Author
Jeff Johnson is a twenty-year veteran tattoo artist who has inked gang members, age-defying moms, and sociopaths; he's defused brawls and tended delicate egos. He is also the author of the memoir, Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink, and the novels Everything Under the Moon, Knottspeed, Deadbomb Bingo Rayand the first two novels in the Darby Holland crime novel series: Lucky Supreme and A Long Crazy Burn. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Read an Excerpt
A LONG CRAZY BURN Excerpts Chapter One, Two, Fifteen and Sixteen
The phone rang just after three AM. Nothing good ever happens after three AM. The screeching, static ending of a movie you couldn’t stay awake through. Crappy Chinese take out, eaten by the light from the inside of the refrigerator while standing in the kitchen in your underwear. Sex maybe, but the sloppy, Big Booze variety. Furnace fires. No one calls with the winning lottery numbers at three o’ five AM. The ringing stopped, then started again. I was kicked back at my desk in the back room of the Lucky Supreme, nursing lukewarm scotch from a paper cup and tinkering with one of my tattoo machines. It was a shader, made by a guy up in Washington named Paco Rollins. I ran the stroke long and mushy, so it had rattled itself to shit again. I didn’t enjoy dinking around with machines anymore, so I was still there mostly because I didn’t want to drive home. My sketchbook was out and I was halfway through a tortoise with a hat of some kind, but I didn’t want to work on that either. Portland winter was in full swing, sleet mixed with snow on a thin crust of dirty ice. The steering wheel on my old BMW wagon would be so cold that the bones in my hands would ache just touching it, and after a twelve hour shift they ached already. The car seat would freeze my ass on contact. I was partway through a seasonal mope and I knew it. Whoever was calling was only going to make it worse. Ring. It was still warm in the tattoo shop, even though I’d turned the little electric wall heaters off an hour before, when I put up the closed sign in the window and turned off the front lights. It hadn’t been a bad day for a Tuesday in February. I let my nightshift artist Nigel go home at midnight when it finally slowed down, so he could grab a few drinks with his new girlfriend before the bars closed. He had much going on in the way of skeeby on the side, and it was wise to give him time to persue his activities away from the shop. My late night drinking companion was once again the Lucky Supreme. It had been time for me to enter another period of tortuous woman related activity for weeks, but I’d been putting it off, just like I was putting off the drive home. Everything had burnout written all over it. Maybe I’d decided, deep down inside, where thoughts grew up and then shuffled into hiding, that indecision was my only practical defense. I studied the machine into the fourth ring. It was brass, and at some point I’d engraved ‘Will Fight Evil For Food’ down the side in curling script. Every artist’s motto, whether they know it or not. It still needed a new rear spring and I’d have to cut one, but that too would be a pain in the ass. I set it down on the desk and picked up my scotch at ring number five. In the last two months, I’d spent too many evenings sitting in that chair worrying about things I couldn’t do one damn thing about. Or wouldn’t. A few months before, I’d had a bad run in with the feds and a worse one with a rich psychotic scumbag the very same feds had under their microscope. My landlord was having mental health issues, following a decline that had begun more than twenty years ago. Dmitri was a study of ruination in one too many ways for anyone’s comfort. As a person, he was a disgusting bummer of a human being. As a landlord, terrifying. The tenants fixed everything and said nothing. To even hint that there may have been a leak in the past, let alone the present, was to insult him, his sainted father, his entire family tree by default, and also by extention his ethnic heritage, which was unclear. Yesterday, an insurance inspector made a surprise visit and canceled my lame policy, citing the wall heaters, which were dangerously ancient. Now I needed an electrician to come in and upgrade everything so I could re-up the policy. The ringing stopped. I looked at the phone and waited. It started again. The back room was lined with shelves of art books. I stared at the collection directly across from me and then I squinted. A faint blue light was blinking over them, gently strobing in through the windows in the front of the shop and washing through the doorway to the back. Portland’s Old Town had seen a renovation boom in the last year, but it struck me as unlikely that anyone could be working that late on a cold Tuesday night except the most desperate whores, the B string skag hawkers, and me. I sighed. Ring. The construction in the neighborhood had been a drag on business. The bar next door, the Rooster Rocket, was down more than thirty percent, and that was a harbinger. I relied on bar totals as a forecasting tool. That and the weather, which was also shitty. The Rocket was owned by Gomez, the most enterprising chicano in Old Town, and the business slump had hit him hard, mentally and spiritually. Flaco, Gomez’s brother or uncle or ancient cousin, had a taco operation in the old theater vestibule in front of the bar, and it was thriving. No one thought that was a good sign. And now some city crew had fired up something at three in the morning. My car was probably blocked in. I was just about to heave my boots off of the desk and go check it out when I couldn’t stand the ringing anymore. “Lucky Supreme, how may I direct your call?” The line was static, lashed with wind. “Get out of there white boy.” It was little more than a gush of whisper. There was a click and the line went dead. I took the phone away from my ear and looked up at the wall of books across from me. The blue light was still splashing over it, but it had been joined by dialing winks of red. Something huge was erupting on Sixth Street. I walked through the shop to the front door and cautiously peered out the window, keeping well back in the darkness. The local police and I had a very specific arrangement, the very same one I‘d recently cultivated with the feds--they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, so we tried to stay away from each other. We were all very careful to stick to the program, too. So if they were out rounding up the nightlife as part of the new clean-up program, it would be in keeping with our arrangement for me to stay inside. The block had been cordoned off at both ends. There were at least ten police cars I could see, plus three fire engines. And I was right in the middle of it. My car was parked down the street, past the north blockade. It was hard to tell from my vantage point if I was officially stranded, so I grimly decided to go fuck with them. I unlocked both of the deadbolts on the reinforced door and stuck my head out. The reaction was instant. “Someone’s coming out!” a cop screamed. “Get out of there!” a fireman yelled. He waved his arms to get my attention. “Move it!” The writing on the side of the engine closest to the fireman came into focus: BOMB SQUAD. “Holy fuck,” I whispered to myself. A young cop sprinted down the sidewalk at me, skittering a little through the slush. It looked like he might be going for a tackle, so I raised my hands above my head and stepped out. “Run you fucking idiot!” He slid into me and almost yanked my arm out of the socket. The kid had a power lifter’s build and was either fresh into his shift or adrenalized by terror. The door to the Lucky Supreme closed on the spring arm as the monster towed me at a flat out run down the sidewalk to the corner, almost carrying me as I scrambled to keep up. “Get in that fucking car.” He was panting as he opened the back door to the chicken coop of the nearest cruiser. All the other officers that had been milling around when I looked out less than thirty seconds before were crouched behind the nearest fire engine, the big one that read BOMB SQUAD. “Fuck you.” I yanked my arm out of his meaty hand and pointed. “The bomb dudes are hiding behind a fucking fire truck, dumbass.” “Get down!” one of the firemen yelled. I stiff-armed the big cop in the direction of the fire engine. He stumbled a little and his hand went to his sidearm, fumbling at one of the fashionable tazers they’d been pronging old ladies and hobos with for the last year. One of the firemen grabbed the back of the kid’s jacket and pulled him down. I skirted the cop car and crouched at the edge of the group hiding behind the truck. The sleet was soaking my hair and the back of my tee shirt. My jeans were already plastered to my legs. I started to shiver. “What the fuck is going on?” I asked, to anyone in general. There were at least twelve cops and as many firemen behind the fire engine. “You were alone in there, right?” one of the firemen asked. He was the one that had pulled the cop off me. “Yes yes! Now what the fuck is going on?” He gave me a hard stare, then peeled back the sleeve of his big rubber jacket and checked his watch. “We’ll know in just about--” That’s when the bomb went off. Chapter Two Agents Pressman and Dessel looked at me like the loving parents of a two-headed baby chicken. Mutually fond of my embarrassing, almost certainly brief existence, and proprietarily gloating at their proximity to the conclusion. Both of them would have given the last week of their lives to see me rotting in a prison cell for eternity, or at the very least reupholstering hot rods in Argentina. In our brief association, I’d destroyed a case they were building that would have made headline news. I’d gloated about it, too, and that was wrong. I know that now. “You dudes get my Christmas card?” Pressman was the older of the two, a homely guy with a pockmarked face and a beer gut he was ripening properly. He gave me a disgusted, girthy grunt. Dessel looked like a boy’s underwear model on a coke binge. He beamed joyously, like he had indeed received the card and put it on his refrigerator next to the unicorn. They were both wearing shitty suits from a discount department store. It was their version of a uniform. “Quite an explosion,” Dessel said casually, almost like he was congratulating me. I’d just been ushered in via squad car and the interview was officially off to a creepy start. It was an ominous sign that I’d skipped police central and been taken straight to the Federal Building. Even the cop who brought me in was spooked. Dessel patted his pockets and came up with a bent generic cigarette. Pressman opened the window behind him. It was a no smoking building. I’d learned from eavesdropping on the squad car radio that the bomb had gone off in the Lucky Supreme’s restroom. There was a low whump and the windows blew out, blowing glass and sheetrock out in a ring that spanned two city blocks. The roof of the building flapped up a few feet, rippling like a cotton sheet in the wind, and then came crashing down, warped but still there. Most miraculously of all, the toilet at the epicenter of the blast remained whole and sailed like a cannon ball all the way through the bar next door, where it lodged in the far wall. White fire ripped through everything. The little convenience store to the one side of the Lucky went up like a gas refinery. All those plastic packages of greasy snacks, I guess. Thick black smoke gushed from the shattered windows of the bar. The Lucky Supreme had been alive with flames, a real floor ring of hell inferno. I’d watched in mute horror as the fire department snapped into action, obviously prepared in advance. As soon as it stopped raining glass and plaster, they were pumping several thousand gallons of water a minute into the roiling blaze. The heat almost dried my clothes from a block away. After ten minutes the fire had died down, but they kept spraying, really hosing the place down to ensure the most thorough possible destruction. “Yeah dudes,” I told the feds. “It was like something out of a movie.” I’d been shuffled into the back of a cop car after that. Pressman and Dessel were waiting for me when we got to the Federal Building, a place I’d been spending way too much time in over the past few months. The two of them never seemed to sleep. So it was four AM and I was back in the interview room, but this time I had a gray blanket draped over me, I didn’t have any cigarettes, and I was unemployed. My transformation into a street zero had been lightning fast. “So tell us,” Dessel said with a tiny smile, “everything. Especially the lies. Let’s Start with those wonderful lies you tell.” “Give me that fucking cigarette,” I said quietly. Dessel handed it over and I put it in my mouth. “Light,” I prompted. He leaned out and fired it with a dime store lighter. I took a double deep drag and blew two lungs of generic smoke in his general direction. “It started with lights on the street. I was working late fixing some broken equipment. When I went out to see what the hell was going on some cop dragged me down the block. Whole place was already cordoned off.” I poked the cigarette at Dessel’s smile. “They knew. Some fucker tipped those guys off.” “Interesting.” Dessel leaned back in his chair. Pressman stared at me. That was his job. “So tell us more. I understand from the lead officer that there’s been… oh, let’s just say it was getting time for you to move your little circus. And we know it’s possible you might want to. Plus, you sort of…” He sucked at his teeth. “You made some people really angry recently, and they might… oh, I don’t know, maybe feel like blowing all your shit up… There’s that. I’m just fishing here, trying to get a bead on the situation.” Agent Dessel was talking about Nicky Dong-ju, the crazy gangster I’d killed a few months ago and rolled into the river. He’d set me up in an incredibly complicated way to get his hands on some of the Lucky’s old art, which had been used more than fifty years before in a smuggling operation run by a dead con man named Roland Norton. Nicky had been relentless, and in the end I had no choice. I would have nightmares for the rest of my life about the last minute of his life. They were still looking for him, and they suspected I was involved in his disappearane. It was the reason I’d spent so much time telling lies in the interrogation room. “Think about this, Dessel.” I took another drag and flicked some ash on the floor. “My insurance got canceled yesterday. What does that tell you?” He shrugged, but I could tell it made him happy. “Christ.” I dropped the cigarette on the floor and ground it under my heel. “You two cretins think I know who planted that bomb? Believe me, if I did I’d be sitting in county facing murder one. Call me a cab.” “I love these little meetings,” Dessel said thoughtfully. He stroked his chin, at the soft little stubble there. Pressman grunted like he was on the toilet after a tour of the downtown burrito scene. “Cab,” I prompted. “Pay phones are in the lobby. Let us know when you get a new cell phone.” Dessel winked. “Don’t leave town, but do leave that blanket. Can’t have a bum in a welfare get-up walking around Federal. Makes us look like regular cops.” # I was glad my house wasn’t on fire. It was an old yellow clapboard two story pile with Tudor frills that had been divided into a duplex decades ago. I had the ground floor and the basement. The first thing I noticed when the cab pulled up was that the lights were on. All of them. I paid the driver and stood in the freezing rain and studied the place as the car pulled away. Someone had just blown up my life and now someone was in my house. I walked over to the steps and rooted around in the semi frozen dirt under the skeleton of the Rhododendron until I came up with a hank of wire I’d hidden there a few months before. A fat braid of wire with a knob of concrete at one end and no conceivable previous felony on it. I pulled the muddy thing loose and hefted it. Half whipper, half sap. Normally I carried a metal ball bearing, but the whole explosion thing had caught me by surprise. The last one probably melted into the sooty remains of the jacket I should have been wearing. I opened the door and Delia flew into me, her head smacking into my chest. I dropped the wire and held her as she sobbed. I could feel her heart hammering through her bony chest like a hummingbird’s. We just stood like that for a minute. Delia had worked for me for close to four years. She had a spare key to my place, so she could take care of my two cats when I was out of town or being detained by the police. Standing there with my arms wrapped around her, I realized for the first time that she’d lost it all, too. All of her art, her equipment, her job. Pretty much everything. “I thought you might be dead, you fucktard,” she sobbed. “I’d have to take care of your cats, like, forever.” “Nah.” I rubbed her back. She also had a speech condition I thought of as robomouth. Her short hair smelled like lavender and cigarettes and puke. “I was just getting interrogated.” “Why didn’t you call me?” She pushed me away and wrinkled her tiny pug nose. “You’re all freezing wet and icky, dude.” “My phone was a casualty.” “Dipshit.” She sniffed and smeared her makeup around. Delia was one of the scrawniest little punk chicks imaginable, and her fashion sense ranged from the bizarre to the perfectly dreadful. It was five AM and she was wearing baggy black rubber pants with an imitation snake skin belt with a Texas rodeo buckle the size of a coffee saucer, and some kind of shirt that looked like it was made out of pantyhose. The bra underneath was more of a half-corset, with eyes where her tits would be if she had any. Dangling from her right earlobe was an earring she’d made out of the tooth of a hipster dork who got his ass kicked in front of the Rooster Rocket. “We got any beer?” I asked. She wiped her eyes again. “Go change. You smell like a trash fire. We have vodka.” “Bitchin.” I went into my bedroom to change while Delia busied herself in the kitchen. My two cats looked up at me from the bed, insulted by the commotion. Chops was an ugly little guy, so he projected bad vibes with ease. His sidekick Buttons was huge, red and glorious, but close to vegetables on the intelligence totem pole, so projecting anything for him was a fleeting affair. I stripped my shirt off and dropped it in the hamper. It did smell like fire. The pants did, too. I smelled like a burning building, and it was deep in my pores. I wanted to take a shower and wash the ashes of my life off my skin and out of my hair, but I wanted the vodka more, so I pulled on a pair of cords and went barefoot into the kitchen. Delia handed me a double on the rocks and we carried our drinks into the small dining room and sat down at the table. She fired up two smokes and passed me one. “So what the fuck?” It came out of her with a tiny pause between each word, and it wasn’t a question. “I was sitting around when Monique called. I’m sure it was her, even though she tried to disguise her voice. She’s the only person who calls me white boy.” Monique was a local hooker we’d adopted. “Anyway, I looked out and the street was blocked off. Went out and the cops corralled me.” I stared at my drink, remembering again. “About a minute later the place blew. I watched them hose it down for as long as it took for them to get the call to bring me in to see Dessel and Pressman. Radio chatter said the bomb was in our bathroom.” Delia shook her head and took a sip of vodka. Her hand was shaking. “We’re in shock,” she stated. “We need medication. I’m in shock, Darby. I feel like I’m about to have a heart attack. You’re sitting there like a mental patient. You’re blank.” “I know.” I squinted at her. “We have any drugs?” She shook her head. “I hurled my emergency valiums an hour ago. Biji said she could bring by some Xanax.” “Fuck.” She poured us more vodka. “So Pressman and Dessel are still wicked pissed at me,” I went on. “But it says something that the first people who grilled me were those two guys. Interstate crime. They might already know something.” “Jesus Darby. It’s personal with those two.” She studied my face and her expression went from worried to sour. “You got all smart mouth again, didn’t you?” Her nerves were shot, I could tell, her movements jangly and wrong. “I did.” “Bigi called me a few hours ago and told me it was on the news when she got home. I drove down there, but they wouldn’t let me anywhere near the Lucky. They wouldn’t even tell me if you were in there.” Her lower lip quivered and her eyes watered up again. She took a quick drink and sniffed. “And then I came here and you were gone. I let myself in and did your dishes.” She shook her head and looked up at the ceiling. “What the fuck are we gonna do?” “I don’t know yet,” I said, “but we’ll figure it out. We always do.” Delia sniffed and looked up at me. She smiled a little. “So I guess this means I don’t work for you anymore.” “Way to look on the bright side. But don’t even think about putting my dick on your menu.” Delia barked out a laugh and curled her legs under her. “Like I’d even think about it after seeing your underwear.” “Least I wear some.” I went into the kitchen and got the bourbon and brought it back, then splashed a little into our glasses. It was time for mixed drinks. “Darby,” Delia said after she’d taken a few meditative sips, “you better find out who did this. You know the feds have been trying to bring you up on something after you blew their last big case. This could be their golden opportunity to hang you.” “I know.” It was true. “I’ll start tomorrow. I mean today, I guess. After I get some sleep.” “I’ll call Big Mike and Nigel. They’re both going out of their minds. Why don’t you go rinse off the soot.” Big Mike and Nigel were my two other former employees. Neither of them would have had anything to do with it. Nigel would have killed someone the moment he caught wind of a bomb and then demanded some kind of reward for it. Big Mike usually needed a hug after he hurt anyone or anything.There was also Earl and Ted, but they were new, as in two weeks new. I ruled them out as suspects immediately because both of them hadn’t been in for a few days and the bomb had been planted in the last twelve hours, plus they were both salon tattooer hipster pussies. We’d never see either of them again after this. I sighed as Delia took out her phone. “Thanks.” She looked up from dialing and cocked her head. “I’m glad you’re alive, Darby Holland. It’s a daily fucking miracle.” I grinned, even though I felt empty. Delia was right. I was in shock, and somehow, for me, it had taken the form of nothingness. When I finally got out of the shower and into some pajama jeans and a tee shirt, Delia was asleep on the couch. I got a spare blanket out of the cabinet and covered her up. The sun was coming up. I was bone tired when I crashed down on the bed and pulled the quilt up to my neck, but as soon as my head touched the pillow the explosion went through my head on continuous loop, replaying over and over again, punctuated by flashes of Dessel, smiling and laughing, Nicky Dong Ju, coming at me with dead eyes and a hole in his face where his nose should be. Slowly, the booze caught up with the ten second movie reel and blurred it into flashes of light and echoes. After about an hour of that, I heard the soft patter of bare feet on the kitchen floor and then the bed rocked a little. Delia climbed in under the quilt behind me and wrapped an arm tight over my chest. “Cold,” she murmured. I could feel her tooth earring pressed into the back of my neck. She snuggled around a little, burrowing for warmth, and then her breathing became soft and regular. It was that sound that finally lulled me to sleep. Chapter Fifteen Getting drunk in Portland is as easy as falling down a staircase. There were more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the world, but the day I had to pay to see a naked woman was the day I blow my brains out, so those were never on the menu. That left a wide spectrum of old man dives, theme taverns, and garden variety hell pits. The trick, of course, was to pick the place that matched your mood, and that was an art in and of itself, but the city was very accommodating in that way. There was something for every occasion. I stopped on the way home at one of my favorite Mexican drive thru operations, a place called Beanco, built into the shell of a retired Kentucky Fried Chicken. Portland was filled with those kinds of operations. There was actually a Taco Bell right next to it, with a long line of sorry people on their cell phones, waiting in their cars for their usual, oblivious. I zipped through the no wait at Beanco and got a jumbo pastor burrito, four rellenos and a double side of refried beans with lard and four pickled jalapenos, then drove home and parked my car for the night. There was no reason to drive later, considering the variety of bars close to home and my ever decaying popularity with the police. When I opened the door, the cats rampaged in without so much as a hello and went straight to their food bowl. I sat down at the dining room table and unwrapped all the Beanco goodies. When the cats were done, they came out and watched as I made my way through all of it, even the rellenos I’d been planning to save for later, plus all four jalapenos. I knew from experience that they wouldn't eat Mexican food, but they liked watching me do it. When I was done, I threw all the wrappers away and wiped off the table with one of Delia's new dishrags, then laid down on the couch, too full for the moment to move. It was early yet for Operation Drunk As Possible, and I was tired anyway. I closed my eyes and almost immediately I was out, way down deep in a dreamless place. When I woke up I was hungry again. I dug my new cell phone out and looked at the time. It was a little after eight and I'd missed two calls from Delia. I'd slept for six hours. I got up and stretched, and I wished I'd taken my boots off. After I brushed my teeth and gently washed my face, smeared some ointment around, I studied myself in the bathroom mirror, my eyes tracing the details of my new scar. My purpose became as clear and strong as a hurricane wind. I needed to have fun. I needed to get laid. I need to wash a ton of bad, clingy crap out of my mind, to howl and maybe even dance. I need to feel free, even for just one night. I needed a God damned break and I was taking one. Not tequila, not vodka, certainly not wine or anything with an umbrella. It was whiskey night. Even the weather was in line. The Fart Club, as it was affectionately known, was the skanky grease hole second home of union skinheads, creepy chicks with a big dick in their thought bubble, and trolling art school hipsters brave or stupid enough to make a run at the place. The owner was a washed out skinhead drunk and possibly one of the shittiest humans ever to walk the earth, so it was the perfect match for my mood--a soup of bristle and horny chaos, garnished with madness and the type of gaiety born from desperation. Plus I knew all the bartenders, since I'm the steady sort as far as moods go. The bartender that night was a pear shaped little monster with bad teeth named Daisy. We never got along all too well because I'd beaten up a guy who I didn't know was her boyfriend a few years back and she sold shitty diarrhea coke to the hipsters, which I considered low and mentioned one too many times. A steady stream of generous tips had helped ease the tension to the point where she almost smiled sometimes, which was a step up from the way she treated most everyone else. The place was only half full as I took a seat at the bar and nodded at her. She didn't even recognize me. “Whatcha want,” she snapped. “The usual. Jamison's rocks and a beer back.” She squinted at me and nodded. When she plunked the drinks down in front of me she gave me her brown and yellow half grin. I slid a relatively clean ten across the counter. “You change your hair or something?” She actually seemed concerned. Maybe we were turning a corner. “Nah. Just a little monkeying around with my head in general. Why? Do you think I need a hair cut?” She shrugged and slid the ten back. “On the house.” It really was a first, so I slid the bill back. “Buy yourself a diamond.” She flashed me the full grin and pocketed the bill. Daisy didn't let me pay for another drink all night, which is how I got so impossibly wasted at a time when I should have been holding my shit together a little better than I did. Blowing off steam is one thing, but the booze animal wriggled out of my grasp once again, and true to form the unusual happened. I was into my third round in less than an hour and the bar was packed when I noticed the woman sitting next to me. She was pretty, in a sunburned, ski bum chick kind of way, with short brown hair and high, wind blasted cheekbones. I used to be pretty good at picking up women in bars, or even being picked up by them, but that was before the modifications Cheeks made. I was suddenly terrified to have an attractive woman sitting next to me. My mouth went dry, and my hands got cold and clammy. She glanced over at me and my right pupil pulsed. “Cool scar,” she said immediately. “You get that on the mountain?” “Nope. Golf.” She laughed, a high, clean sound, and like a miracle the tension left me. I took a sip of Jameson's. “I love golf,” she said. “It's too bad I'm terrible at every part of it.” “Me too. I have a good swing, but that's about it.” “I like to board.” She fiddled with her drink, something brown. With her free hand she touched one of her cheekbones. “Hence the sunburn. Looks like we both have sports related injuries, although I think you win.” “Yeah, I do. But yours looks pretty good.” She smiled at that, but there was no way to tell if she blushed. She did do the equivalent with her eyelashes. “Why thank you.” “So, uh.” I'd never been this awkward. “My name's Darby.” “Suzanne,” she replied. She stuck her hand out. Her fingers were incredibly long and chapped, the nails short and plain. We shook and she almost broke the tender bones in my right hand. “Pinkie,” I gasped. “Oh. Sorry.” I took another sip of Jameson's. She downed her shot and waved at Daisy, who ignored her. “This place is packed,” she commented. “Getting loud, too. Nice to meet you, Darby.” “There's a little wine place next door,” I offered. “They have beer, too.” She smiled ruefully down into her empty glass and at that instant Daisy appeared with a bottle of Quervo and refilled it. “This one's on Darby,” she said. She glanced at my half-full tumbler and topped it off with some Jamison's. It was the beer backs that were doing me in. Daisy helpfully plunked a fresh one down in front of me. “Guess we'll stay for awhile,” Suzanne said. “Looks like it,” I replied. I took a slug of whiskey, a real mouthful, and the level of it in my glass didn't change. Daisy was pouring with mystic power. “Three days on Mt. Hood,” Suzanne said, cradling her shot glass in her long hand. “The shots up there were hell of expensive, but I have to say, conditions were sooooo good.” She glanced at me. “You board?” I shook my head. “Nah. I ski, though. I fell down so many times learning how I didn't want to go through the whole thing again.” “Skateboard?” She seemed genuinely curious. “Like a motherfucker,” I said proudly. “I even collect ‘em.” “You should be able to pick it up with a decent teacher, and hey, it might even spare you another golf injury.” I had to laugh. She laughed at my laughing. “So what else do you collect?” she asked. I shrugged. “Fossils, meteorites, cats, books, figurines. Antiques. Art crap.” She put one hand under her jaw with her elbow on the bar, angling herself at me. Her brown eyes played over my scar. “I wonder,” she asked pensively, her voice almost lost in the crowd, “what a man who collects stuff like that does for a living.” “I'm sort of on hiatus. But usually I'm an artist.” I didn't like her looking at my scar. She could sense it, maybe read it in the rest of my face. “Stand up,” she said. I slid off my barstool. Suzanne got off hers, and I understood the pensive smile when I had suggested we go next door to the wine place. I'm five eight and I used to be a hard one eighty. I was getting it back. Suzanne was around six foot five, maybe taller, and lean as a whip. I looked up into her beautiful face and even with one and a half eyes I could see the same fear and doubt I was feeling. “Wow,” I said. “You know, I've always had this thing.” “What thing.” It wasn't a question. She crossed her arms. They were corded with muscles and tendons and veins. “This thing for outdoorsy athletic women,” I went on truthfully. “I'm sorry if I just squirted saliva on you. I swear it was involuntary. Like a sneeze.” Her face lit up. “Still feel like hitting that other place? The quiet one? Talk about meteorites and fossils?” I held my arm out and she took it. And that was how I met Suzanne. Chapter Sixteen I woke up around five AM with the kind of hangover that isn't easy to describe. For a few minutes I didn't know where I was, but since I couldn't really move, it gave me time to piece it together. Jumbled images of the night before skittered through my aching head, like brief flashes caught in the headlights of a speeding vehicle on a bumpy road at midnight. Talking to a tall, tall woman I really liked. Lots of unfortunately varied booze. Gnarly, passionate sex. I looked over next to me and there was Suzanne, asleep on her stomach and naked, snoring, with a condom I had evidently left unceremoniously draped over one rock hard ass cheek. I think I let out a small whimper then, maybe a low sort of moan. Then I peeled a second condom off my stomach and got up. My neck felt like my head had been twisted around a few times, my lower back was numb in some places and sparking electrical current in others, my crotch felt bruised and my right eye was swollen shut again. In the bathroom, I used her toothbrush after I flushed the condoms and considered a shower for a solid five minutes, leaning over the sink and waiting to see if I puked. I couldn't remember how, but we'd torn the shower curtain off. First big idea of the day, shot down. So I looked at the drain in the sink for a few more minutes. When I was done with that, I went off in search of my clothes. I found a sock in her living room and one of my boots nearby. The other boot was all the way back under the shower curtain, but no sock. My shirt was by the bed, my pants next to hers in the kitchen. No underwear, mine or hers, was ever found. I put on the remains of my clothes, tracked my pea coat down to its hiding place behind the couch, and then found a pen and an envelope in the kitchen, which I used to write the lamest, most incoherent, poorly thought out love letter in the history of humanity. “Dear Suzanne (sp?) I super dig you. Don't know my phone number. Used your toothbrush. That’s why it’s wet. So come over to my place.” I wrote down my address. The writing was more than a little shaky, bordering on scribble. I included my name as an afterthought, and then the dim realization that an intelligent woman might actually read the papers and thus be aware of my recent spat with the police swam to the surface, so I crossed out my last name. “Shit,” I said. But I left the note. # The rainy walk home brought the situation into greater focus. I paused under a big tree and lit the first cigarette of the day and savored a few drags, stared in meditation into the predawn darkness. The rain felt good on my face and on my scalp. The cold wind was fine on my knuckles. I was slowly coming back to life, which I had a bad feeling was going to come in handy in the immediate future. I kept walking, my thoughts skittering with dyslexic hangover dementia. I'd finally met a woman I really liked, at the lowest point in my adult life. And I did like her. Everything about her. She had nothing in common with the usual string of needy players and flat out horndogs taking a break from the naked parade machine, the thirty something’s who wanted a baby without the love, the hard professionals who wanted a taste of madness to wash away all the stale. She was into rock climbing and snow boarding and travel in general. She liked to cook, as I did. She worked as a law librarian and a freelance travel writer. I'd always had an embarrassing fondness for nerdy chicks with an outdoorsy flair, but I hadn't had a serious relationship in more than five years, and that had been an awful torture session with a severe woman who flew helicopters for the forest service and had an all woman feminist speed metal band called The Captains of Industry. The thought of her made my skin crawl. Delia had almost killed her toward the end, and had finally decided to give me the silent treatment until I either broke it off or allowed her to run the woman over. It was true that Suzanne was a foot taller than me, but damn did she have nice legs. I pictured her in a black dress, lean and powerful, walking into a restaurant to meet me for dinner, and my mouth watered. It would make me feel good to be with her in public. I knew most of the men she had ever been with had some sort of masculinity issue with being seen trotting around with a woman like that, but I felt just the opposite. Deep down, I would have loved to been seen with her on my arm. It appealed to my impossible vanity, for one thing. To be measured as something equal to such a rare creature, to be her companion. Also, a woman like that was tough as nails. She would keep up, just like she had last night. For the first time in my life, the shoe might actually be on the other foot. I may have trouble keeping up with her. Still, to dream of all those lonesome dreams of corny romance I'd all but given up on… To see the Rhododendron valleys of Nepal, to skirt the edge of the Sahara desert at dawn, to play some kind of idiot flute on the Great Wall of China, that kind of thing. She would like that. It sure as hell beat my current sense of romance, which was pretty much getting drunk in a crappy bar and washing my dick in the sink in the morning. I shook my head. Suzanne was dreamy. I, on the other hand, was unemployed, in trouble with the police, recently disfigured, and about to mount an assault on a Russian real estate developer who had a bodyguard named Cheddar Box. I'd also been robbing people lately, though a case could be made that they all deserved it. I didn't get the feeling she would buy it. The timing was almost comically bad, and I would have laughed if it had been Nigel or Big Mike. But it was me. I considered beating the shit out of a mailbox. I considered a few other things. But mostly I walked through the rain and thought about the fact that one of my boots had no sock in it. Delia would have been overjoyed at the flaw in the foundation of my early morning reflection.