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My Face is on Fire: A Novella (Part One)
The man was roaring east across the southwestern territory of the United States of America. It was mid-morning but the desert was already scorching. He didn't let it bother him though, in his restored, 1950s Chevy muscle car.
Despite its appearance, the car was fully compliant with modern emission standards. Global warming is real and everybody needs to do their part to try to avert disaster. You see, the man often visited the forms of the past while setting aside, revising, or, if necessary, rejecting their content.
But his ride did look sweet though: bright yellow; big fins; cannon-sized exhaust pipes for show; flames painted on the sides; and a skull and crossbones painted on the hood as big as life. Or bigger.
He pulled a camper in tow. For men like him did not often use public accommodations.
He had the top down. With the hot, gravelly wind blowing into him, he felt like his face was on fire. And he liked it.
He had his CD player going (he had little use for commercial radio). He sang along with his playlist.
With Black Sabbath he intoned:
"Nobody wants him
They just turn their heads
Nobody helps him
Now he has his revenge"
(Black Sabbath, Iron Man, 1970)
Then the man adlibbed a little, singing:
"Hey, hey, hey you make me come on, babe
I need you tonight, girl, I want you so bad
I want you tonight, girl, I need you so bad
Are you on the pill, girl, cause we got to shag
Let's walk hand-in-hand, girl, into the Garden of Love
You give me the apple and we go down in sin...."
With rapper Big Daddy Kane he rapped along:
"Here I am, R-A-W
A terrorist here to bring trouble to
Phony MCs, I move on MCs
And conquer and stomp another rapper with ease
Cause I'm at my apex when others are below
Nothing but a milliliter, I'm a kilo
Second to none, making MCs run
Don't try to step to me, cause I ain't the one
I relieve rappers just like Tylenol
And they know, so I don't see why you all
Try to front, perpetratin' a stunt
When you know that I'll smoke you up like a blunt"
(Big Daddy Kane, RAW, 1988)
With Rob Zombie and Ozzy Osbourne he screeched:
"What is the purpose? Demonoid phenomenon
Regulate the flux and reflux, so get it on
Loose upon the world, destruct like a juggernaut
Give it to me, yeah, yeah"
He was feeling it with this part:
(Liberate and crucify you)"
(Rob Zombie and Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Head, 2001)
The man's mood modulated subtly, between specific modes. Aggressive and "smooth operator," depending on the track.
With Doug E. Fresh he verbalized:
"... you ain't shhh, no need to curse
Ask me who she is and let me tell you first
Slow down, be cool, and don't act ill
I came to have a good time, party, and chill
With you and don't worry, sweetheart I'm still
With you and after we leave we will
Continue with our plans....
But plans are made to be broken
I'm not jokin'
Try to dis me and I'll give you a token
Cause I'm the type of brother that can't be stopped
And no matter what I'm gonna..... Keep Rising To The Top...
The man was breezing along with Doug E. Fresh when they wound down with this part:
"Pump it up
Yeah, yeah, you know why?
Cause we're the Get Fresh Crew, yeah, yeah
Cause we're the Get Fresh Crew, yeah, yeah
Cause we're the, cause we're the Get Fresh Crew, yeah..."
(Dough E. Fresh, Keep Rising To The Top, 1988)
He and Metallic rhapsodized:
"Look hard at the darkness, and you will see
Just call my name and I'll be there
You cannot touch me, you would not dare
I am the chill that's in the air"
He really dug on this part:
"Dark rivers are flowing back into the past
You are the fish for which I cast
And what of the future, what is to be
As the rivers flow into the sea"
(Metallica, Small Hours, 1998)
He and Nine Inch Nails loudly declared:
"You and me, we're in this together now
None of them can stop us now
We will make it through somehow
You and me, if the world should break in two
Until the very end of me
Until the very end of you
You and me, even after everything
You're the queen and I'm the king
Nothing else means anything"
(Nine Inch Nails, We're In This Together, 1999).
By the time his playlist finished he was feeling like Hercules...
Or is it...
But I go further the length
Cause you can scalp my cameo and I'll still have strength
And no, that not a myth, and if you try to riff
Or get with, the man with the given gift
Of gab, your vocab I'll only ignore
Be sleeping on your rhymes till I start to snore
You can't awake me, or even make me
Fear you son cause you can't do me none
So, think about it if you're trying to go
When you step to me, I think you should know there...
Ain't no half steppin..."
(Big Daddy Kane, Ain't No Half Steppin, 1988)
The point is the man felt like taking on an army and romancing a harem.
A police car with flashing strobe light on top, morphed into this reality from out of the void. Since they were the only two motor vehicles on this and the foreseeable stretch of highway, the man assumed that Deputy Dawg, back there, wanted him to pull over.
He did so, turned off his engine, and waited. He kept his hands on the steering wheel, somewhere in plain sight. He would make no sudden moves to agitate the Mayberry Lawman.
He wondered if he had time to put on his mask, to disguise himself the way he used to look. Even if he could, did he have time to pinch and squeeze it into place properly? Another problem was that he kept his mask in the glove compartment. Deputy Dawg could come up on him at any time; if this coincided with his reaching into the glove compartment, Deputy Mayberry might reasonably think that he was reaching for a weapon, and, justifiably, blow his head off.
He just had to face Deputy Dawg the way he was; and DD would just have to deal with it. It would be hard for him, though. Mayberry's worldview was so limited and narrow. The man would have bet money that Mayberry came from a town so small it couldn't be located on most maps.
There. Right there! That was one of the man's problems. In the time he had spent thinking all of that, he could have slipped on his mask, and pinched and squeezed it perfectly into place, thus sparing Deputy Dawg Mayberry's sensibilities.
DD was, no doubt, checking both license plates: the one for the camper and for the car. The man sat there, hands on the steering wheel, fingers tapping.
He sang to himself:
"I push a power that's punishable
Better be a prisoner
The hit man is the
Brother wit' charisma
Showing you that I have
"Nothin' can harm me
Why try to bar me
You couldn't come around The Ra with an Army
You'll get wrecked by the architect
So respect 'em
I disconnect 'em, soon as I inject 'em
Put 'em by the basement
Bust his chest open
Bash his face in..."
(Eric B. and Rakim, Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em, 1990).
The Burning Man
The Burning Man burned cool to the touch
Engulfed in flames, he was not consumed
He burned others but never himself
Did he bring the fires of fury? We do not know
He danced the dance of crackling heat and light
Did he bring the fires of justice? We do not know
He sang the song of the falling star
Did he bring the fires of purification? We do not know
His ways were given to the chaos of the vortex
Was he a saint or sinner? God or Devil? Angel or Demon?
Cop or Crook? Destroyer or Healer? Giver or Taker?
The Light or the Blinding? The Revelation or the Untold Secret?
Yes, of course!
(*part of a song from old central Arizona folklore, circa1624; author unknown)
Deputy Dawg came up beside him and said, "License and regi..."
The man turned to look at him, causing the lawman's stutter.
"What the..." Deputy Dawg let loose a string of expletives that are not repeatable in polite company. He backed up and almost fell on his butt. He drew his gun and tried to keep his hand from shaking.
"Wha-wha-what are you?" Deputy Dawg said.
The man played it cool and kept his hands on the steering wheel. "Tattoos."
"Tattoos. They're just tattoos."
"They're just tattoos," the man said, keeping his hands quite still. "Like many people, I'm a body art enthusiast. You may think I take it to an extreme, but I really like tattoos."
"Where's your face?" Deputy Dawg said.
"Beneath the tattoos."
The Deputy squinted and poked his face forward at the man. "What are they?"
"Flame. Fire tattoos."
Deputy Dawg didn't know what to make of that. He shook his head and said, "Step out of the car. Slowly and keep your hands where I can see them."
"Turn around and put your hands on the hood of the car."
The man complied.
Deputy Dawg held the gun on him with one hand and frisked him with the other. "You got any weapons on you?"
"Got anything that's gonna stick or poke me?"
"Any sharpened pieces of metal of any kind?"
"Turn around, face me," Deputy Dawg said.
The man turned around and faced him.
"Let's have that license and registration."
"Can I put my hands down now?"
Deputy Dawg gestured with his gun that he was at liberty to do so. The Mayberry Lawman still had the gun out. But he no longer aimed it directly at the man; and that was progress!
The man gave over his license and registration.
DD looked at the picture on the driver's license and said, "How the hell am I supposed to tell if that's you or not?"
"You could fingerprint me."
"What'd you go away for?"
"Oh no, officer, I've never been arrested."
Deputy Dawg squinted again and jutted his face forward. "That right?"
"I was fingerprinted when I was licensed and bonded to be a bounty hunter. If you have a portable scanner, we could do it right here."
DD squinted hard. "So you know all about the equipment we use, do you?"
The man shrugged. "Its just that we work closely with law enforcement. Of course every department is different..."
Even Deputy Dawg had not missed the implication that, in this instance, being "different" might be construed as inferior.
"Wait right there," Mayberry Dawg said.
The lawman went to his car and came back with a unit that looked like what the UPS delivery drivers used to get electronic signatures from people who got packages.
Mayberry Dawg did not put away his gun, as he pushed some buttons on the electronic tablet. No doubt getting it ready to read in fingerprint mode.
"Now just put your hand right there, smack in the center..."
Deputy Mayberry really did have his hands full. "Here, let me give you a hand...," the man said.
"Okay," Deputy Dawg Mayberry said, "put your hand there," and he jabbed some buttons with a thumb. He had one of those radio units on his shoulder. Someone from the station buzzed something him at him. He angled his neck, pressed the talk button with an awkward thumb.
"Alright, let me hold that for you," the man said, taking possession of the gun.
The Lawman Deputy Dawg Mayberry manipulated the electronic tablet with two hands now, doing what needed to be done.
When the machine had taken a satisfactory impression, a beep went off, Deputy Dawg said, "Okay, this'll just take a minute to come back..."
The man returned Deputy Dawg's gun without saying a word.
Deputy Dawg accepted it without a word. But he had colored a lovely shade of tomato red.
The man remained absolutely impassive.
Now's a good time to tell you that the man was a thirty-four-year bounty hunter called Wrigley Lord.
He always forgot to ask why it had been that his parents saw fit to name him after a brand of chewing gum. And the 'Lord.'
Wrigley Lord sounded quintessentially English. And his family didn't even have the excuse of being English. However, his close friends in the body tattooing community and carnival circuit called him some variation of 'Torch Head.'
As shall we henceforth.
The computer finally gave him a clean bill of health, after having gone through God-knows-how-many-databases.
It was neither a shakedown nor setup. Apparently, Deputy Dawg attended to his law enforcement duties with a conscientious, honest, and forthright intent, albeit with a bumbling, incompetent, and Barney Fife-like execution. And since being "darn scary looking" was not a citable offense, our boy was let go without a ticket.
Torch Head drove along until he came to a trailer park, toward the southeastern edge of the state, that did not look like it had been overrun by Vikings. Before going into the registration office to rent some slot time, he put on his mask. He sat there, carefully pinching and squeezing it into place, disguising himself as the man he used to be.
As Wrigley Lord, he had been a bald-headed, clean-shaven (he had always hated facial hair), nondescript gentleman with a healthy, lightly sun-kissed complexion. He put on flesh-toned hand coverings that extended to the elbow.
He favored red leather trench coats, pull-over turtleneck shirts, plaid "bell bottom" slacks, and black wing-tipped boots. A fedora and eyeglasses completed the illusion. He was put together like a combination of Shaft and Kojak, from the seventies.
When he looked fully human again he went inside the registration office.
Later that evening found him in the safety of solitude inside his camper. At leisure, bare-chested, and once again unmasked as the fire god. He made himself some dinner: Hamburger Helper with Mac N' Cheese, collard greens, and corn bread; for desert: a nice bowl of vanilla bean ice cream topped with honey.
After that he smoked his pipe.
Well... it wasn't really a pipe...
Or rather... it didn't 'smoke'...
The truth is that it was a toy pipe, into which one pours a soapy, bubble solution. Therefore what comes out when one blows are soapy bubbles. So then, after dinner Torch Head blew bubbles from his toy pipe.
The tableau would have looked better with him smoking a real pipe or cigar or even a cigarette, Torch Head knew. But he wasn't willing to risk lung cancer for cool, however. But smoking---even a toy pipe---did give him something to do with his hands. Again, he liked the idea of smoking, for some reason, but without hazarding the consequences.
He was seated at the camper's "dining room" table. He was looking at his laptop, once again scrolling through the information on the man he was after. The skip's name was Martin Winksdale, a fifty-two year old insurance claims adjustor.
The charge brought by the District Attorney against him was homicide, murder one, for the death of his wife, Mildred Wentworth-Helmsley Winksdale. She was one of the Boston, San Francisco, and New Orleans Wentworth-Helmsleys, one of America's oldest and most prominent families, who traced their descent all the way back to England's Shogun, Oliver Cromwell.
The Fugitive slept badly that night. He had the feeling that things were closing in on him, just about to ensnare and entrap him. There were no visible signs that the jig was up. He had every reason to continue believing that he was secure---at least, nine out of ten reasons.
He was having bad dreams. He did not feel guilty about what he had done to his wife, even if the final disposition of her body had exemplified the very idea of overkill. But the dreams came, as though some outside force was determined to foist regret upon him, a regret he rejected.
He did not want to honor his late wife by feeling guilty about her. One of the reasons he had fled and changed his identity was because he could not stand the public obligation to mourn. People watching him as he faked being the grieving widower.
But that is how venomous he had come to feel about her towards the end. He had not married her for her money. He had enjoyed the finer things with it. He had enjoyed the lifestyle that money had afforded him. Him and Mildred.
And Mildred had not been such a chore to be with in the beginning. It was true that she did not set off fireworks within him. He had never looked into her eyes and had a cosmic experience. It was not a feeling of destiny going on for him.
But she had not been a horror in the beginning. At times she could even force herself to be reasonably pleasant.
She had not wielded her family money like a hammer to bludgeon into submission---as she would do later on.
One evening Mildred had given the household staff the night off and cooked dinner for him, all by herself. By candlelight she had asked him to marry her.
He had tried to stall her off by lamenting about the financial straits he was in. What with his divorce from his first wife plus the alimony and child support.
"I just don't have anything to bring to the table right now," the Future Fugitive said.
Mildred said, "If its money your worried about---I have enough money for the both of us. I love you and believe in you. I want to make your dreams come true."
The Future Fugitive was embarrassed. That was the kind of thing a man of the world should be saying to a young woman. Especially the part about making 'your dreams come true.'
But it wasn't just that. He was not in love with Mildred and doubted he ever would be. But he was fond of her.
And she wasn't too bad to look at, as a matter of fact. 'Handsome' and 'striking' rather than beautiful or pretty. She had a commanding presence. She was a big woman with strong Germanic features. Broad-shouldered and well-padded all over, her impressive length allowed her to carry her bulk very well.
She had been a shot-putter and discus thrower in her younger days; and had almost made the Olympic team one year. And it showed: big arms, thick neck, big head, broad back, big butt and thighs. She had never been muscular in a disgusting, semi-masculine way. Just big and thick and solid.
All of that came together into a not unappealing package. And he could not deny that she felt mighty good between his legs.
And so he had talked himself into accepting Mildred's proposal.
Mildred! How he would come to loathe the name!
Why should he continue waiting around for... what? Maybe there was no such thing as a soul mate. Maybe sooner or later one just had to settle down and go for 'good enough' or 'close enough' or 'decent' or 'contentment.'
Why shouldn't he just take what the universe was giving him? Keep looking a gift horse in the mouth, and you just might find the bounty of the cosmos dry up on you.
When Mildred's father had gotten word of the upcoming nuptials, which tradition demanded he pay for, he invited---more like summoned---the Future Fugitive over for a drink and a talk.
Another man was there, a man who turned out to be the family lawyer. Together, the old man and the counselor had tried to pressure him into signing a prenuptial agreement.
But Mildred had burst into the room like an NFL fullback and told her father that if he didn't lay off, she would never speak to him again for as long as she lived; and that he would never have any contact with his grandchildren.
The old man relented, against his lawyer's advice. For his only child, Mildred, had never been one to make idle threats. She had learned that from him: "Always say what you mean, and mean what you say."
Torch Head did not accumulate weapons. He did not store them in his home. He did not store them in his car or camper. He did not transport weapons across state lines. He did not carry weapons on his person, unless he was in the immediate process of apprehending a skip.
For each assignment, he bought what he thought he would need. He had suppliers all over the country. 'Suppliers' might be too elegant a word. They were procurers. They could get you what you wanted and needed---no matter how far outside the laws of the Constitution and human decency---for a price.
Torch Head cultivated such people in and around the world of the carnivals and the tattooing subculture. The bounty hunter only ever wanted weapons. All the rest of it, he left alone.
Three days after getting himself set up at the trailer park---he was in no hurry---Torch Head drove over to something called The Happy Face Lemon Drop Carnival of Food, Games, Amusements, Diversions, and Wonders---that had blown (and 'blown' was the word) into town just forty-eight hours before.
As he got underway, his car's mp3 playlist had him rapping along to a mellow one by Rob Base.
"Swinging like a soloist, trying to get the outcome
All the funky beats that the Rob done
Lay 'em down, listen to 'em by myself
Then I thank God for my good health
Makin' beats hour after hour
When I'm done, I go take a shower
With soap, the beats I make are kinda dope
I hope they hold like a thick rope
If they don't, then I go start again
Making up beats that you comprehend
With the beat you can deliver a message
That's why I'm here in this session
Send a message out to a young brother
Stay in school, learn how to love each other
While the rap keep blowin' up, blowin' up
Negativity keep showin' up
Take a minute, and hour, a second
Evaluate the meaning of this record"
(Rob Base, Outstanding, 1990)
As he drove along, to the carnival, Torch Head sang along with Tina Turner's rendition of Let's Stay Together. He considered the version of this song, done by Al Green, to be a classic; and Torch Head was an absolute Al Green fiend. But he liked Tina Turner's version of this song a little better.
As far as he was concerned, on this tune, the Godmother of Rock n' Roll had out-soul-ed the King of Soul, Mr. Al Green.
"Let me be the one you come running to....
Yeah, let's stay together....
Loving you whether... whether
Times are good or bad, happy or sad"
(Tina Turner, Let's Stay Together, 1982)
He pulled into the parking lot rocking, talking about:
"Open sesame and let down the main gate
Before you scream EPMD you should wait
I roll with a posse, can you try to stop me
Also, yo, brothers try to pop me
On the sneak tip without me knowing
But I keep goin' and my rhyme keeps flowin'
Point on and I don't quit
I get pushed to the limit, and yo that's it
A young kiddie from the city
I have no fear and I have no pity
To run up on you and wax plus tax
Your gold, your money, and from your eyes, your contacts"
(EPMD, The Big Payback, 1989)
The time was getting on 11:30. They should be wrapping things up for the night. Torch Head came here to meet on of his procurement contacts.
He decided not to mask himself. It was late enough. If any straggling customers saw him, they would most likely think that Torch Head was part of the carnival. A human freak exhibit they hadn't gotten around to seeing that day.
Torch Head waited around back. He kept himself inconspicuous, in the shadows. It was after midnight when he finally saw his man retire to his trailer, alone. Apparently he was still a bachelor.
His name, what he went by, answered to exclusively, was the designation of Pike. He ran some of the games of so-called chance. Slowly but surely separating the marks from their money.
Torch Head knocked on the door.
It swung open. "What the hell?"
"If it isn't the ersatz Quasimodo," Torch Head said.
The face broke into an ear-to-ear smile. "Look what the cat wouldn't even bother dragging in."
"Get in here," Pike said, drawing Torch Head into the trailer. He turned on the light. "How long's it been, three, four years?"
"Five," Torch Head said, as he watched Pike remove his fake hump and fake orthopedic right shoe, which faked a club foot----props he used to garner more sympathy from the marks.
"So, how're you doin,' man?" Torch Head said.
"Still a hustler, baby!" Pike said.
"I can tell."
"My face is on fire!"
"I heard that," said Pike. "Keep on keeping on?"
"'til the day I die."
"I know that's right."
Pike moved to his mini fridge and got out a couple of bottled beers. "You still in the business?"
"You know it," Torch Head said, accepting a beer with a nod of thanks. "You?" He was referring to the business of procurement.
Pike shrugged. "Sure."
They clinked bottles.
"That why you out this way?" Pike said. "On a job?"
"What you want?"
"A stun gun, Pike."
"Okay. What else?"
"Just the stun gun."
"Not expecting much trouble, then?"
"Nah, my guy's old and slow now. Its been more than twenty years. An old case."
It was an easy order to fill. Pike had one of those on the premises.
Torch Head finished his beer, paid for the stun gun, embraced with his friend again, and left the premises.
The Fugitive woke up screaming, "Easter Island meat slinky! Easter Island meat slinky!"
"... a slinky, a slinky, a wonderful, wonderful toy."
"... a slinky, a slinky, fun for a girl and a boy."
The Fugitive had two basic kinds of dreams, with minor variations on those general themes. He found himself in a desert; he was set up something like a Cary Grant, North by Northwest situation.
Standing around wondering where he was, where "here" was, and how he got there. Trying to figure out what direction to go, to get... where? He did not even know where he wanted or needed to go.
Just as he was beginning to think about water, he heard a sound. He couldn't imagine what it was. Kind of like someone was scrubbing the desert with a Brillo pad. Only it wasn't a back and forth motion he was hearing...
No... it was more like some kind of bulldozer, or some other earth-moving machine, moving steadily in one direction. He turned to look, here and there, before he saw it coming right at him.
How bizarre, he thought, when he had seen it. It was Mildred's face. And only her face, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty feet high. With that big, forward-jutting chin of hers, plowing the desert ground before her.
Her mouth was open. And steel, razor-sharp blades, instead of teeth danced up and down from her gums.
He just barely recovered from the shock of it in time to run. So run, he did.
Another one came at him from his front. This one was the face of his former father-in-law, who had never liked him or trusted his motives. In addition to digging out the desert, this face seemed to be saying something.
"...my little girl... my only little girl... my little girl... my only little girl... my little girl... my only little girl... my little girl... my only little girl... my little girl... my only little girl..."
The Fugitive shrieked and ran in another direction. Only to be confronted the by gigantic face of the family lawyer, who'd tried to pressure him into signing a prenuptial agreement.
As his great chin was scooping out the desert sands, papers constantly spewed from his mouth---symbolic of the would-be prenuptial agreement. As the papers noisily ruffled together, as they were ejaculated in his direction, the Fugitive also heard a voice.
It was broken tape of the family counselor, saying: "... if you really love her... prove you're not in it for the money... for Mildred's protection.. sign here and here, initial there... prove you're not in it for the money... if you really love her... sign here, here, and there... prove you're not in it for the money.... initial here... and here.... if you really love her..."
He tried another path of escape. Only to be confronted by the giant, gnashing face of Mildred's cousin, Betty, the slut who had given him mixed messages all the time he had been married to Mildred.
"... you're no good.... rotten scoundrel... all you want is her money...sleep with me, Mildred will never know... rotten scoundrel... Mildred will never know... rotten scoundrel... all you want is her money... sleep with me... you're bad but I love you... all you want is her money.... you're no good... sleep with me, Mildred will never know... never know... never know... Mildred... will... never... know..."
There was no escape. Every path of escape was blocked.
Then it was the man from the SEC who suspected him of insider trading...
Then it was man from Vegas pushing to pay off his gambling debts...
Then it was his girlfriend on the side who wanted to know when he was going to leave his wife, as he had promised, and marry her...
Then it was his first ex-wife and her dirt bag lawyer demanding he pay up his child support and alimony, threatening to garner his wages...
Then it was the woman whose fender he had clipped in a fender bender at a traffic light; and the way his luck worked, he had been found at fault when the case had gone to court; and he was rendered liable for her damages...
Then it had been his illegal narcotics dealer claiming that his accounts were in arrears...
And then, when he had nowhere else to run because the Easter Island faces had him surrounded --- they would give off a high-pitched shriek, in unison.
Then would also spin around them, also rotating on their axis as they did so. They would spin and turn round him faster and faster.
Then the circle would claustrophobically close in on him.
And then they would fall onto him.
At this point he would scream.
Sometimes he would actually awake into reality. But other times not. He would think he was awake for a minute, before realizing that his mind had faked him out. At which point he understood that all he could do was to prepare himself to suffer part two of the nightmare.
He would find himself in some kind of room, of one sort or another. He would be winded as if he had been running. For a moment he would struggle to recall what had set him to such exertion.
The old routine was that he would find himself somewhat cornered. Then he would hear a sound. It was like chup. chup-chup-chup. chup. chup-chup-chup. chup. chup-chup-chup.
Its hard to do the sound justice; but in addition to the chup. chup-chup-chup, there was a wetness. The chup. chup-chup-chup sound had a quality of wetness. It sounded like something water-logged was slapping together.
It was a moist-thudding-slapping. And it drew inexorably closer and closer to the Fugitive. He was always perplexed as to what on earth that sound could be. He always felt that it couldn't be anything good.
His anxiety rose by degrees. Then he saw her. It. Her. It. Her. It.
Her-It. It-Her. The Thing. The Thing that had once been a person. The person that was now The Thing.
Mildred. Nothing like the vital creature she had been in life. But now a cruel mockery of it: zombified undead.
She moved around by hopping. The sound she made as she did so was "chup. chup-chup-chup." She came toward him, for him.
Arms outstretched, she called to him. "Maaaaaarrrrrrtin," she would say, "chup. chup-chup-chup." "Maaaaarrrrtin. chup. chup-chup-chup." "Maaaaarrrrrtin, chup. chup-chup-chup."
Words cannot adequately describe his fear. Therefore we shall not try. Suffice it to say that he was so scared he probably extruded a number of bodily fluids upon himself --- as well as bodily substances that are not so liquid.
If that wasn't enough---and of course it wasn't---her body did something else, as she chup. chup-chup-chupped toward him. Her body appeared to be sectioned off in slabs, running from top to bottom.
When she chup. chup-chup-chupped along, the sectioned-off slabs instantly separated and came back together again. The only thing the Fugitive could think to compare it to was a coiled metal spring toy, he'd had as a kid: a slinky!
"... a slinky, a slinky, a wonderful, wonderful toy."
"... a slinky, a slinky, its fun for a girl and a boy."
The Fugitive would manage, somehow, to slip away to somewhere else. Only delaying the inevitable. He'd locked himself in somewhere he was sure The Thing Mildred could not follow him. Some smaller enclosed space, which could be locked up tight from his side.
Mildred would always manage to follow him in the most unexpected ways. Chup. chup-chup-chup.
She would ooze through the tiniest crevices and reassemble. chup. chup-chup-chup. She would fall through grates in the form of what can only be called meat-chunk-splop rain.
And the sound of the meat-chunk-splop rain, coming through the grate was the familiar chup. chup-chup-chup.
She would meat-slinky up stairs after him. Splutterrrrrrrrrrr. Splop. Splutterrrrrrrr. Splop. chup. chup-chup-chup.
"Maaaarrrrrrtin. chup. chup-chup-chup. Give me a kiss. chup. chup-chup-chup."
The Fugitive figured it was the sound, the chup. chup-chup-chup, that was majority responsible for what he was certain was his post traumatic syndrome.
He would wake up screaming: "Easter Island meat slinky! Easter Island meat slinky!"
Always alone, of course. He was never good at sustaining relationships, even before he had met Mildred. And he certainly couldn't do so now. Certainly not now that he was losing his grip.
The Fugitive had none of the charming vulnerability that attracted female nurturing, in the form of mothering.
Torch Head found himself wandering around a neighborhood, in which all the buildings in the business district, had been painted in the brightest possible shades of red, orange, yellow, and green. The streets were black and the sidewalks were white.
This place had obviously been somebody's idea of an art project. It must have been glorious at one time. The town hit hard times. Gotten a bit rundown . But there was a spirit about the place. The economy may have gotten a bit rundown; career prospects may have gotten a bit rundown; perhaps even hopes and dreams may have gotten a bit rundown.
But the people have not been rundown. They had hung onto their pride. Kept the head up. And kept a stiff upper lip. The place would come back someday, in winning fashion.
With his headphones on, Torch Head was listening to his mp3 lineup, playing from his Smartphone. At the moment he was listening to the man he liked to call the black Hemmingway of rap, Rob Base.
In his own world, gesticulating to the beat, he said the words:
"... cause I'm a leader, no I'm not a follow-a
M.C.s like you I swallow-a
So don't look and try to judge me
Cause you think that I'm another M.C.
Well, I the new kid, I just moved around
But that don't mean I can't rip up the town
Me and the boys, we make noise
I hate M.C.s that think that we're toys
I'm hittin' harder than any other M.C.
Who tries to come up and go against me."
(Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock, Joy and Pain, 1989)
Other than that, as he came to the corner to cross the street, the only thing he was thinking about was what to have for lunch: pizza or Chinese. He came to the corner traffic light and saw a crowd gathered across the street.
He moved to see what was going on. There was a scraggly man, dressed in several dirty layers of clothing. Best bet was that he was homeless.
As Torch Head approached he heard snatches. Interspersed between the sounds of the town going about its business.
He heard things from the homeless man like: "... been here ten years..."
And: "... right here on this corner.... living right among you..."
And: "... give a damn?..."
And: "... even acknowledge me as human?..."
And: "... my existence?... Do you?... Do you?..."
And: "... think I like this?..."
And: "... having to ask for help? Just a little help from my fellow man?"
And: "... was like you all..."
And: "... had a job..."
And: "... a family..."
And: "... friends..."
And: "... then the owner moved the plant to China..."
And: "... along with all our jobs..."
And: "... not a perfect man..."
And: "... took to drinking... and drugs.."
And: "... have a right to live?..."
As he joined the crowd, Torch Head could see that the man had a prisoner. He had an arm wrapped around the throat of a young woman. In his other hand he held a brick poised above her head.
He asked a bystander what was going on. The bystander told him; and the situation turned out to be pretty much as he had gathered.
"Anybody give him any money?" Torch Head asked.
"No," came the answer from the bystander, "I don't think so."
"Did anybody call the police?" Torch Head asked.
"No," said the bystander again. "At least, I don't think so." But several people were holding up their cellphones, filming the incident.
"Did you?" he asked the bystander.
"Figured somebody else would do it."
Torch Head held up his hands, palms facing forward. "My friend," he called out to the man, as he approached him.
"Stay back." To show he meant business, the homeless man shook the brick menacingly.
"My friend," Torch Head said, "you misunderstand. I'm not trying anything. I just want to talk to you."
"About how much you want for that brick."
"The brick," Torch Head said. "How much you want for it. I've been looking for a brick just like that for my collection."
The man said nothing but tightened his grip around the woman's throat.
"Come on, man. What's your asking price for the brick. How much money are you willing to sell it to me for?"
The man looked at the brick, as though he were in a trance. He was hungry as hell, no doubt about it. Desperation had made him snap. If he could just get something hot in his belly. If he could just sit inside somewhere, get something hot into his belly and think for a few minutes...
If he could just get some coffee and a Danish... Was that too much to ask?
Having thought it over he finally said, "Five dollar?"
"Ten dollars," Torch Head said.
"I said I bid ten dollars." Looking around at the assembled gathering Torch Head said, "Who'll go fifteen?"
No one answered. But Torch Head did. "Fifteen."
"How 'bout twenty?" the homeless man said, getting his hopes up. But he still hadn't released the girl.
"Twenty-five," Torch Head said.
They went on like that until Torch Head said, "Fifty dollars and that's my final offer. Take it or leave it."
"Sold," the homeless man said gratefully concluding the strangest auction he'd ever heard of.
Torch Head opened his wallet and dug out the fifty. He held it out to the man.
"Give it here."
"Let the girl go first."
He looked at the girl in his headlock, as though wondering who she was and how she had come to be in his arms. He let her go.
Torch Head gave him the money and accepted the brick.
The show was over and the crowd dispersed. Torch Head asked the girl if she was okay; and she said that she was and thanked him. To which he said, alright then, and pulled the homeless man aside for a quick, private heart-to-heart.
"What's your name?" Torch Head said.
"Ralph, I hope the cops don't get you." He went on to advise Ralph to avoid the area for a few days, let things blow over; that he should keep his head down and keep a low profile in the meantime.
"Thanks," Ralph said, "for seeing me."
Torch Head smiled at him and gripped a shoulder. "I knew you didn't want to hurt the girl."
Torch Head left him to his fate, whatever that may have been. It would be both pizza and Chinese for lunch and then the most decadent thing he could find for desert.
He'd probably get cheese pizza---extra cheese and white rice and bean curd and vegetarian egg rolls, or something like that. No pepperoni or sausage, or anything like that on the pizza and no obvious meat with his Chinese.
Torch Head was almost a semi-vegetarian. That meant that he consumed dairy: eggs and cheese, he didn't like milk; and fish, sometimes. His reduced meat intake had nothing to do with ethical considerations.
If meat wasn't prepared in such a disgusting way by the industry, he would happily eat tons of beef, pork, and chicken. However, the cow, pigs, and chickens were raised in disgusting conditions, as if nothing had been learned since Upton Sinclair had written The Jungle over a century ago.
The cows, pigs, and chickens were raised in almost unspeakably cramped and unsanitary conditions, such that it was necessary to shoot them full of antibiotics all the time.
"That's the real danger," Torch Head would say whenever the subject came up, "all those antibiotics. Its not even that eating the meat will make you sick, per se. Its not even the fact that the drugs pumped into the animals will make you sick either---at least as I see it. Its that you eat the drugged up beef, pork, and chicken all your life; and then when you do get sick of, say, cancer---again, nothing to do with what you eat---and they give you chemotherapy; it might not take because you have developed an immunity to various drugs, all your life, by eating the drugged up beef, pork, and chicken. You see?"
Of course, his almost semi-vegetarian thing went out the window when he visited the home of his teacher, Mama Meadows. Thinking of her made Torch Head smile. She was one of the few people in this world with whom he could truly be himself.
He would go to see her; and if nobody else was about she would embrace him and say something like: "Come on in, baby. Take your face off, sit down, and strap on your feedbag."
He'd take his face off, sit down. Mama Meadows would putter about in the kitchen. They'd shoot the breeze about this and that. And before he knew it, she was sliding a plate of fried chicken, dumplings, and butter-drenched biscuits under his nose.
When you visited Mama Meadows, you'd better bring your appetite; because refusing her hospitality, in that regard, was not permitted.
Mama Meadows knew about Torch Head's sanitary sensitivity about meat. To her credit, she had the decency to say that she always bought her meat free-range organic.
That's what she said. But who knew? But that is what she said.
Torch Head went somewhere for his pizza and somewhere else for his Chinese food. He went looking for a third spot to get his desert. He finally happened upon a building that looked like a one-story house, painted peppermint red and white. It looked like a place where a gingerbread family would live.
He was instantly charmed. He went inside and bought a half pie: peaches, pears, and bananas, topped with hot caramel and butterscotch and whipped cream; and espresso. There was plenty of seating for eating in, so he grabbed a booth.
He listened to Sade's greatest hits, ate his pie and drank his coffee, and thought about his partner, Bollinger---how he would have handled the Ralph situation.
Depending on his mood, Bollinger would have either ignored the whole thing or stomped Ralph to within an inch of his life. There was no third way with Pete Bollinger. At six-six, two-ninety-five, the former linebacker never felt the need or inclination to offer alternatives.
The man had no finesse, no subtlety, no sensitivity. Which is why it was best, strangely enough, that he stayed behind and handled the office, and left the fieldwork to Torch Head.
Perhaps it had been a mistake not leaving the country. He should have put an ocean between himself and the scene of his crimes. He should have fled to Brazil or someplace remote like that---Australia or Tokyo.
On the other hand, he didn't speak any other language but English; and his aptitude for learning languages was not that great. And besides, he had changed his life, his work, and his demeanor so completely from the man he had been when he had been married to Mildred.
He was a couple thousand miles away from his crimes. The clincher was that he was dead, therefore he did not expect anybody to be looking for him. He had faked his death very convincingly.
Overcome with guilt, he had taken his own life. That's what he talked about in the suicide note he had composed with care.
He had been sorry for the nonexistent affairs he had had with other women... and men... and underage boys and girls...
He had been sorry that this had made him vulnerable to blackmail...
And having nobody to confide in, he had taken to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol...
He had begged, borrowed, and stole to raise the blackmail money...
He had tried to gamble his way out... What's more he gotten involved with "fixing" college basketball games...
Soon he had found himself pressured from all sides...
He had been too ashamed to tell his wife or anybody else about it...
He embezzled money from the insurance company that his wife's money had bought for him to run...
It was a very long letter.
After the fact he had tried to lay the impression that his wife's death might have been dealt out by underworld gangster elements, in reprisal against Martin for huge debts he had accrued without repayment.
But if Martin had truly feared for his wife's safety, why hadn't he even so much as mentioned the possibility to her? Of course, he was not around to ask this question. But the family thought this was a lie, because Mildred had not mentioned any such thing to any of them.
Of course, there had been no sexual activity with men or boys. Martin had been incurably heterosexual; and he was no pedophile.
Of course, there had been no sexual activity or affairs with other women. Mildred had broken his spirit too much for him to enjoy the feminine mystique---at least in the near-term.
Of course, therefore there had been no blackmail about sex.
Of course, there had been no gambling of any sort. Which means that he had nothing to do with any gangsters, thank you very much. Which also meant that he had had nothing to do with "fixing" college basketball games.
But he had really embezzled money from the insurance company that his wife's money had bought for him to run---her money but not her love. He had used that money to set up his new identity, his new sets of identity papers and the like.
The truth was he had killed his wife because... well... out of spite, when you really got down to it.
Since he had been planning to disappear anyway, why had he also bothered killing Mildred? He had not hung around, trying to collect her fortune as the widower. So why had he bothered killing her?
And the way she had been disposed of... He didn't want to think about that.
Torch Head was perfectly skilled in all of the crime detection and people locating methods, familiar to the professional investigating class: police detectives and private investigators and so forth. He also had one or two unconventional tricks up his unconventional sleeve.
He could locate a fugitive by the pitch of his dreams, provided he has dreams intense enough for him to remember. That is how Torch Head had pinned down the precise location of his latest quarry, after he had gotten all the mileage he could out of conventional investigative techniques.
He had been taught to do this by his teacher and mentor, Mama Meadows. This was just one of the many gifts and knowledge she had bestowed upon him.
"The dreams of the criminal, particularly the murderer are prone to be especially kinetic and therefore detectable," Mama Meadows would say, guiding Torch Head through his meditation exercises. "And maybe---just maybe--if you can detect them, you can learn to influence them subtly."
Mama Meadows was the undisputed voodoo queen of the South Carolina backcountry. Actually she was a sorceress. But 'sorcery' was not a word very familiar to folks around the South Carolina backcountry. 'Voodoo' was. Some folks said she could raise the dead---if they had been killed through injustice; and then the spell was good for seventy-two hours.
Mama Meadows, part West African Yoruba and part East Kansas Lakota, was a commanding presence. Even her elders called her nothing but 'Mama Meadows.' Always an old soul, she had picked up the honorific sometime in the middle of her teen years.
They called her nothing but 'Mama Meadows' at her job, where she worked as the supervising head nurse of a trauma care unit, in a major metropolitan hospital.
Just how Mama Meadows and the Torch Head had come to meet, and became friends; and how he had become her disciple is a story for another time.
Despite his homicidal hatred for her, the Fugitive often thought it had been a tactical mistake to kill his wife, Mildred. Her death had not been germane to his plan of escape. Perhaps, he thought, in some ill-defined way, her death had complicated things for him.
For the life of him, he could not see how. But he still wondered why he had taken the trouble. Why had he taken the trouble to add another body to his conscience? To his guilt about Stanley.
Since the Fugitive was laying the foundation for his "suicide," yet obviously had no intention of actually killing himself, it stood to reason that he would need a stand-in. Someone nobody would miss. Somebody nobody would come looking for. Somebody that nobody cared about. Somebody with no friends or family. Somebody completely cut off from the bonds of love---from humanity, for all intents and purposes.
Somebody alone and unseen: preferably a transient. It would need to be somebody who bore a close resemblance to the Fugitive---so that when the time came, when the arranged tableau was unveiled for the public to see, there would be no question as to the identity of the victim of the "tragic suicide."
Enter Stanley. The Fugitive hadn't known his last name. It didn't matter. Stanley would be sent off to the afterlife carrying a new name: Martin Winksdale, the Fugitive.
As he spent the hours conceiving, shaping, and molding the scheme, in his mind---seated in his den, in the plush leather reclining chair, looking out the great big picture window, at the man-made duck pond and waterfall---he was struck with an inspiration.
The end result of this shift in his planning was that Stanley, last name unknown---dressed and groomed as Martin Winksdale---was found blown up in a car registered to the Fugitive. This way it seemed as though the Mob had murdered him with a car bomb.
In his "suicide" note he had given the impression that he meant to swallow a lot of pills, go to sleep, and never wake up again. There was even a rambling part in the letter where he talks about different methods he might use to destroy himself.
In the end, as he expressed in his letter, the Fugitive was too much of a physical coward to shoot himself with a gun, lay down across railroad tracks, drive his car off a cliff, jump out a window on a high level of a high-rise building, or anything like that.
And besides, suppose he had not been "killed" by any of these stunts. He might have ended up a hopeless cripple, who was not allowed to die.
Pills were just the thing, he decided. Nice and neat. No pain, no suffering. Just instant, endless sleep.
The fiction emitted to the world, then, was that a desperate man, who had been planning to kill himself---and was, perhaps, working up the nerve over the course of a few days---had been assassinated with a car bomb, by the Mob, before he got the chance to self-eradicate.
But why had he bothered killing Mildred?
In the end what it came down to, he decided, was fairness. If poor Stanley No-Last-Name had needed to die for the greater good---well, Martin's greater good---then it was only proper that the shrewish and nagging Mildred, whose fault everything was, should be required to pay the ultimate penalty.
And pay the ultimate penalty she had.
End of Part One