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Chapter 12

The Flower

I

Washington, DC

       Agent Johnson pulled his face away from the eye pieces of the iris scan and

stood in front of the chrome door, waiting. Over the years the fancy gadgets and

procedures of the NN had become a part of everyday life for him—no different

than brushing his teeth, or washing his hair—minor inconveniences that were

forgotten with repetition.

       “Palm print please,” a voice not quite female said from the speaker just

above the eye scanner. Johnson slid his hand into the space-age mold, his large

fingers almost overflowing the indentations. Even after years of the routine he still

got a chuckle: the first line of NN palm-scanners had to be replaced after Johnson

was recruited, because of the size of his hands.

      “Verbal confirmation please,” the woman/computer voice said from the

speaker.

     “Agent Johnson.”

     Two seconds passed and the silver door slid sideways into the wall panel at

what seemed to be speed of light. “Thank you Agent Johnson. Have a nice day.”

      The room was dome-shaped, the walls, floors, and ceiling all one piece.

The entire room was made of one material, like that of a theater screen, only much

more durable. The room was completely bright white yet there was not a light

fixture to be seen. In the middle of the room was a small crystal podium and now

Johnson walked to it, pushing a number of buttons on its display, and then laying

his hand in another analysis scanning mold.

       The light from the room dimmed to black, the whiteness evaporated, and in

seconds Johnson was surrounded by the dark walls of what seemed to be a

different room. Brown was the color of this room. To both sides of him were

several people seated in bench rows behind a wooden partition, like a jury. In

front, at a raised desk something like a judge would sit in, was a man he knew

well, a man he spoke to weekly, a man who had no name. There was only enough

light to see the people’s mouths—darkness covered their eyes like veils. The

hologram was so good that Johnson often felt like he was before judge and jury.

       But in this court there was no Lady Justice holding her scales, no lawyers, no

doorways: only a meeting of people who were the first line of defense against evil

in the world. They knew each other not, but trusted each other completely. The

people in the jury boxes never spoke, only observed. They weren’t really there

anyway—they were just agents scattered across the country in different buildings

and rooms all projected there by one hand touching an analysis mold.

       The speaking and orders were left to the “Voice,” the man sitting in the

elevated wooden podium in the foreground. He leaned away from the edge of the

light, so that even his mouth receded into the darkness. Was he looking at

something? Maybe a computer screen?

       Finally he spoke and his voice thundered down, surrounding Agent

Johnson, penetrating him, the loud bass vibrating throughout the room and echoing

long after it left the leader’s lips. Surely it wasn’t his real voice. Johnson had

never heard something so low and inhuman, something so threatening, but so full

of truth. Just another cruel trick of technology.

       “Agents have confirmed the location of Kazar in a small village in Syria,”

The Voice boomed. “The interrogation of several of Numar’s agents leads us to

believe that there is a large-scale attack planned on U.S. soil. Specifics have not

yet been compromised; we lost several good agents acquiring this information.”

A three-dimensional picture popped up in front of Agent Johnson. Floating

in mid-air was an image of Kazar, his rap sheet, and a map of Syria.

       “There is good intelligence that leads us to believe that Kazar has the entire

plan on paper, either on his person or one of his men,” The Voice continued. “You

are to retrieve these documents. Kazar’s meddling has elevated him from petty

information dealer to a genuine terrorist threat. You are also to eliminate him.”

       “I understand,” Johnson replied, his voice small in the emotionless room.

These conversations were never long or friendly and Johnson started to pull his

hand from the podium, but stopped short when The Voice spoke again.

      “What of Dr. Sebastian Jesup?” The Voice boomed.

      “We have been unable to locate him,” Johnson replied.

      ”He must be acquired. If he falls into the wrong hands, it could mean the

end of the NN, the end of the world, the end of everything. He still possesses half

of the plans for the device?”

      “Yes, in his head,” Johnson answered. “He only blueprinted the first half.

Our psychological profile on him leads us to believe he would never put the other

half on paper. He fled in fear of his own invention after completing only half of

the layout. He has become very paranoid and is convinced it should never be

built. He also claims that angels came down from heaven and gave him the idea

for the device. Even if we don’t know where he is, nobody else does either.”

       The Voice was silent. Johnson started to pull his hand away again.

      “What of the one called Swivel?” the Voice thundered.

      “He’s out there somewhere. I haven’t made him a priority. I imagine he’s

just trying to blend in, trying to be a normal teenager. Personally I don’t think he

is a threat to anyone. He’s had a rough way to go.”

      “But he’s not just a normal teenager, is he?”

Johnson chose his words carefully. “He’s quite exceptional sir.”

       “And what of your last dealing with him?”

       “I was unable to acquire him. That was in September I believe. I took him

too lightly.”

      The Voice was silent, but Johnson could feel it thinking, digesting his

statements.

      “The NN doesn’t take anyone lightly, least of all you Agent Johnson.

Could it be that this Roman Swivel has become more powerful than you once

thought?”

      Johnson inhaled a reluctant breath but said nothing. His mind flipped

through memories from Bravo.

      “Agent?” The Voice was louder now.

      “Possibly, sir. Possibly.”

      “Then you have your orders. Eliminate Kazar and stop whatever threat he

has devised. Then acquire this Roman Swivel. He was one of us before and will

be again. He would be a puissant ally indeed.”

      “And if he refuses? I mean if I can’t physically bring him in?”

A long silence.

      “Eliminate him as well. God be with you on your journeys, Agent

Johnson.”

      With that the dark courtroom melted away and Johnson stood alone at the

crystal podium once again, in a cloud of white, still with his hand on the scanner.

He exited the room, remembering times he had felt better about his orders.

II

      January’s one good attribute was that it gave birth to a new year. And even

that, to some, could be a bad thing. The month had a stone-cold heart, showering

the area with its deceptive tricks:fluffy white bits of heaven purifying the earth,

only to turn brown and slick over a day’s time; the fervent traffic of the mall,

reduced to a faint shuffle of occasional feet; Christmas trees, once the center of

hope and joy, massacred to their last rotting places; ponds, frozen for a duck’s

eternity; the stead blow of pins and needles out of the northwest; nights requiring

several thick blankets; days of thermometers struggling to make it past twenty.

Back to the institution, to the days of boredom and repetition. Graduation floated

millions of miles away, like Venus in the springtime telescope.

      The red Mustang sat on Roman’s curb for almost two weeks, leaving only

for the occasional change of clothes or makeup refill. But as the new school year

prepared to take its spot at the starting block, Heather and Roman’s long nights

began to shorten like the flames of a dying campfire. Soon Heather would be

sleeping in her own bed and Roman would be mopping hallways in the midnight

silence.

       I now understood why Roman had been so hesitant to be with Heather.

Love, with all of its smiles and gifts, in the end left you defenseless. It took away a

bit of your logic and reason, replacing those attributes with dreams and

selflessness. For the first time, Roman was vulnerable. For the first time you

could see right through him.

      And while my first thoughts of this were of regret, and my stomach hurt

from watching their public smooching sessions, I more often than not found myself

smiling at his happiness and cheering somewhere inside for it.

       I showed up on Roman’s doorstep on the Saturday after break ended and

school had started up again. Heather’s Mustang sat in the driveway; their sessions

were being caught up on the weekend. I entered without knocking.

      Roman sat on the couch in only his underwear. Heather sat on the bed,

covering herself with the bedspread before I could get a good look. She picked up

her clothes with one hand, keeping herself wrapped with the other.

     “Damn it,” I said snapping my fingers.

     “Nice try pervert,” Heather said as she walked over and kissed Roman, and

then went into the bathroom.

      “Why is it that if I want to see her naked I’m a pervert, but if you want to

you’re romantic?” I asked him.

      “She’s funny like that.” Roman stopped and thought. “ It’s only romantic

if she actually wants that person—the one that wants to see her naked—to see her

naked.”

      “Oh,” I said.

     “What brings you out so early?”

      “I’m on my way down to On Deck.”

      “On Deck?”

     “Batting cages. It’s pretty tight. I can only hit off those fuckin’ machines

so much though. I need to see some live pitching.”

     “You want me to throw to you?” Roman laughed out loud. “Do you know

how long it’s been since I picked up a baseball?”

     “I’m not asking ya to go out and throw for the Yankees. Just throw a little

BP for me.”

     Roman lifted up his right arm, making slow deliberate circles with his

shoulder, like he was trying to resurrect a piece of antique farm equipment.

     Heather emerged from the bathroom brushing her teeth, hair and body wrapped in

towels.

      “You should go. You don’t have anything else to do today,” she said.

      “I’m glad you know my schedule so well. Fine.” Roman stood up. “Let me

get dressed.”

      Heather kissed Roman on the cheek leaving a white lip print of toothpaste.

      I had to point to my own cheek before he knew it was there.

III

    “Do you have a hole in your muffler?” Roman about yelled the words.

    “Fuck I don’t know. I tried to go through a snow bank the other day, and I

think maybe I ripped the whole damn muffler off,” I said blowing on my hands.

    “The noise doesn’t bother me, it’s this goddamn heater.”

    “Thermostat.” Roman responded. “We’ll take a look when we get back.”

     “So, uh, how is it anyway?”

     “How is what?”

     “You know.” I pulled my hands away from the steering wheel long enough

to make a circle with my thumb and index finger, and stuck my other index finger

in and out.

     Roman shook his head.

     “Come on man. Guys talk about this shit. That’s what we do. Ya gotta

give me somethin’.”

    Roman looked out of the corner of his eye, lost in deep thought, like he was

trying to solve a calculus problem. “It’s changed me. I don’t know quite how, but

it has.”

     “It’s changed ya alright, it’s turned that brain of yours into mush. With all

your kissy face and sentimental shit. It makes my nuts hurt.”

     “Maybe, but it’s worth it.”

     I looked over to see if Roman was joking.

     He wasn’t.

IV

       On Deck was actually a steel sports training complex, one hundred and

eighty feet long on all four sides and sixty feet high. The floor was a green multipurpose

material like rubber. The batting cages hung on cables and could be

automatically lifted, transforming the arena into any sports terrain: full-size

basketball courts, volleyball courts, or a football, soccer or baseball field.

       For the most part, whatever sport was coming up next was the one that On

Deck’s training catered to. Football was over and basketball was in full swing so

baseball was now the primary focus, except for that day. Somehow the grass

fairies were in control of the entire building, running around in their little shin

guards with their shirts off, chasing the zebra-colored ball around.

      “I forgot they had soccer league here on Saturday mornings,” I said as we

stood in the entranceway. “They should be done in twenty minutes. There’s room

over there on the side to play catch. You wanna throw a little bit?”

       “Okay,” Roman said. “Do I need to pay anything?”

Roman motioned to the guy standing behind the cash register.

       “I’ve got a year’s membership here. I can bring in a guest once a month at

no charge. Here, take this glove.” I pulled out my catcher’s mitt and another glove

out of my bat bag.

       Roman put the glove on, first opening the palm and holding it to his face so

he could smell the leather, then running his fingers over the rawhide and pounding

his fist into it. For a moment I saw that small boy waiting to throw to his father by

an Iowa cornfield.

       I did a series of stretches—starting with toe touches, torso twists, and

pulling my elbow as far behind my head as possible for my triceps. Roman stood

sixty feet away still looking at the glove and periodically giving it a fist. His arms

swayed and his legs relaxed. He watched the soccer players, but his mind was

excited for the ball with seams.

       I threw him the ball—soft with an arch—and he caught it two-handed. He

turned the white sphere over in his hand and smiled. A second later he threw it

through the air, and it popped in my mitt a lot louder than it had in his. Back and

forth the white pill went. With each catch, we backed up and soon we were one

hundred and twenty feet apart. Roman was still putting the ball on a line, like a

frozen rope through time.

       I caught the ball and looked at him for a moment. With all of his surprises,

his mind, his fight, his heart, and even his Little League superstar status back in

Iowa—I was still at a loss for what I was seeing. I expected the weak rainbow arc

of an untrained arm and the mechanics of a six-year-old girl. What I was seeing

was quite the opposite—Roman’s leg raising waist high with perfect balance,

followed by the pendulum motion of his long arms, and the whip of the ball into

my mitt with seemingly little effort. Roman punched his leather palm twice,

calling for the ball, hungry to throw it again.

      The grass fairies finally fluttered away, leaving their game scoreless,

something which happened far too often considering the running they did. The

batting cage made its slow descent from the ceiling, and when it reached us we

pulled the net from its resting place above the metal pipes, starting at opposite ends

and working around towards the middle. I dragged the L-screen over. Roman

carried the bucket of balls.

      He stood behind the screen, sixty feet away—a distance I would have told

him earlier was too far for his ability—but now I had seen him play catch. The

look in Roman’s eye was the same as on that night in the Hollow, the same as

when he told the story of Agent Johnson, a look not of a friend ready to serve up

home runs, but of a warrior on the mound ready to strike me out.

      I gripped the wooden bat lightly in my hands and swung at the air a few

times, touched the end of it to the outside part of the plate, then rested it just above

my right shoulder. Roman threw. The first pitch was right down the middle. I

was late but hit the ball hard to the right side. The next pitch I did the same. The

third pitch ran in on my hands. I tried to get around on it but the ball hit the handle

and dribbled lazily back to the L-screen. The sound was awful, the sound that

every hitter has heard more times than they wanted to admit. And now I held in

my hands a broken bat, splintered from where my hands gripped it to halfway up

the barrel. It was a composite bat that I had owned for over a year. Composite

bats weren’t supposed to break like that.

    “Sorry about that,” Roman said. “My control is a little off.”

    “It’s not your control. I’m just late. You’re throwing pretty fuckin’ hard

though, ya know that?”

     “Really? No.”

     “Yeah,” I said. “You’re chucking it up there pretty good. You puttin’

everything you got into it or what?”

     “No. I’m just throwing.”

     “You need to come out for baseball,” I told him. “We need pitching bad.”

     “Yeah right. I haven’t thrown in years, since Little League.”

I grabbed my aluminum bat out of my bag and took my stance again.

     “Give me your best stuff.”

     Roman fired away. His pitches got on me quickly, the likes of which I’d

only seen from a mechanical arm. Some I hit. Some I missed.

     I batted nowhere near .400 that day.

V

        Freddy Flowers wore a suit only at night. During the day he wore jeans

and a T-shirt, often mud-covered from countless hours in his many green houses.

He made several stops during his workday, the three local flower shops, sometimes

the two in Champaign, and often the one in Decatur.

      The name of his company was The Lone Rose. He didn’t come up with the

name himself; the previous owner Stan Williams had done that. Freddy had

worked for Stan, delivering flowers since his high school days. Eventually Stan

retired and sold the business to Freddy for a curious one-fourth of what it was

worth. Three days after the transaction was completed, Stan died after an

unfortunate roofing accident at his own house.

      Under Freddy’s ownership, The Lone Rose systematically undercut the

price of its competitors, running every flower shop within a fifty-mile radius of

Collingston out of business. And it became the major supplier for landscaping

companies in the area, making profits in excess of two hundred thousand per year,

which was about a third of Freddy’s income.

      Collingston enjoyed the fruits of Freddy’s reign. The Flower employed

over a thousand people, a large number of them from the local rehabilitation

center, workers who’d been injured on their old jobs and were unable to return. He

was a financier of the local Boys and Girls Club, built a new conference center for

the library, was the biggest contributor to the Police Benevolent Association, and

provided the yearly budget needs of two soup kitchens.

      His major farm and offices were ten miles north of Collingston. It covered

over thirty acres of land, giving life to a sod farm, a tree nursery, and twenty largescale

greenhouses. Freddy pulled into the parking lot behind the wheel of his

Dodge Ram 3500 extended cab, fully loaded, fully pink pick-up truck. At night he

drove a pink Mercedes.

      The workers knew it was inspection day as soon as Freddy bypassed his

office and went straight to Greenhouse One. There was anxiety in the air, the

nervous heartbeats of greenhouse keepers. The pace of gardeners accelerated at

the sight of their master.

      Freddy entered Greenhouse One, walking down the aisle with arms

extended, fingers caressing the greenery as he passed, his eyes inspecting every

plant. Esteban Ramirez stood in the corner, swaying back in forth in place, saying

Hail Marys repeatedly, and watching his job hang in the balance.

     Freddy stopped on occasion to smell certain flowers, or to feel the texture

of certain leaves. He smiled at the lavender fragrances and the beauty of the

plants—the beauty of his children. He made his way up the second aisle, but his

smile inverted to a frown in front of a row of orchids. He rubbed his temples,

retrieved his inhaler, and squirted a long spray of mist into his mouth.

     “Esteban!” Freddy said with the sound of a grieving father.

      Esteban made the sign of the cross and hurried to his employer.

      Freddy hung his head, shaking it back and forth, leaning against the flower

counter. Upon arrival Esteban stood at attention, moving his eyes up and down the

group of plants trying to find the reason for his boss’s despair.

     “I’ve had such a good morning Esteban, but now my entire day is ruined.

Do you understand that my day is ruined?”

     “Señor, I don’t know...”

     “Silence.” Freddy lifted his head up and grabbed one of the orchids off the

table, petting it like it was a cat. “This plant is suffering, Esteban. Do you see the

brown edges of its leaves? Do you see the way its once strong stem sags like the

scrotum of an old man? This plant is in pain. My child is dying.”

     “Señor, a thousand apologies, maybe I got the fertilizer amount wrong.”

     “So what you’re telling me is that you’re starving this beautiful life form.”

     “Please Señor, I’m sorry. There are thousands of plants in here. That is the

only one that is not perfect. Please Señor.”

     “Oh, oh. So just because you fouled up one that’s okay, is it? How many

children do you have at home Esteban?”

     “Seven, Señor.”

     “So if you feed six of your children, and one dies then you feel you’ve been

a good parent?”

     Esteban hung his head.

     “I’m going to give you a chance to save this plant. If it dies, you will no

longer have a job here and if anything else even looks like it’s sick, I’m going to

turn you into fertilizer.”

     “Muchas gracias, Señor. Muchas gracias. I get to work on it right away.”

Freddy brought the orchid to his face, took a deep breath, and kissed it. He

handed it to Esteban and walked out of the greenhouse.

Esteban again made the sign of the cross.

VI

      Johnny the Killer sat in the back seat of the Caprice Classic with a roll of

duct tape on his lap. He stared out the window watching as the dead trees January

stood frozen in the darkness. He dreamed of sitting at his old school lunch table

with his friends. He dreamed of baseball.

       Boochie drove, eating a hoagie sandwich, the mustard and mayonnaise

escaping from the buns and sticking to his fat cheeks. Next to him Bobby smoked

a cigarette and slouched in the seat like they were on vacation. Boochie’s lips

smacked and Bobby’s lungs wheezed—the back and forth sound of some very

wrong orchestra.

      After the first couple of drives, Johnny never asked where they were going.

He really didn’t care to know. But as they pulled up to this house his stomach

began to hurt. The front porch was adorned with a handicap ramp and the van that

sat in the driveway was all too familiar.

      Bobby knocked hard on the front door yelling Joe’s name. Both of

Johnny’s new friends had their guns drawn and urged him to do the same. Johnny

refused though, citing that it wouldn’t be necessary.

      They heard Joe wheel to the door, which opened immediately. He smiled

as he welcomed his guests in, trying to small-talk them. His injuries were healed

but Johnny thought it odd that he showed no fear. Maybe the smile and talking

was a diversion; or worse, maybe it was a way of pretending.

     “Let’s cut the shit, Joe. You’re down big again. A week late with no

returned phone calls. The Flower is not happy. What gives?”

      The greeting charisma had now left Joe all together. “Look fellas. I’ve

checked myself into GA. I’m doing real well too. I know I have a debt to pay and

I will, but I’ve got to get myself straight first. Freddy’ll get his money.”

      Bobby reared back and punched Joe in the face so hard it knocked the

cripple backwards out of his chair. Bobby pounced on the man, straddling him

with his gun aimed at Joe’s forehead.

     “Look you little invalid, I’m sick and fucking tired of monkeyin’ around

with your sorry ass. You’re gonna pay one way or the other...now.”

     “Bobby, I swear I’m dead broke. Every last dime has gone to Freddy. I

need some time. Please, I beg you.”

     Bobby looked at Boochie who leaned against the wall and shrugged his

shoulders. Boochie looked around the room at the big screen TV and other

expensive fixtures in the room. Bobby shook his head, reading the fat man’s

thoughts.

     “Johnny get this stump to the car,” Bobby said.

     “What’s that?” Johnny responded.

     “Tape this fucker’s mouth shut and carry his ass to the car.”

Johnny complied.

     Boochie and Bobby ransacked the house taking anything worth value that

would fit in the trunk. They’d be back later for the big stuff and the van.

The Caprice pulled into The Lone Rose green house entrance, bypassing the

office and the glass houses, stopping a good mile down the cold gravel road just

short of the giant wood chipper and the fertilizer piles.

       Bobby exited first, and opened Joe’s door. He dragged the legless man out

of the car by one arm, dropping him in the snow and walking toward the wood

chipper. Joe lay in the cold snow, crying. Bobby waved Boochie and Johnny

over. Steam rose from all three of their heads.

     The wood chipper was a monstrous structure with an arm that traveled fifty

feet into the air like a crane, and the blower hung directly toward the ground off of

it. Underneath the blower laid a pile of what was the first stage of fertilizer. The

compost had a reddish tint to it. At the bottom, where Freddy’s men stood was the

actual mechanism, several blades that chopped up what was supposed to be organic

plant material. The large funnel-shaped mouth was big enough in circumference to

shred an entire tree into sawdust in a matter of minutes.

     It was below freezing, but somehow Johnny was hot. Boochie stood with

no coat on, like he was on a beach. Bobby sucked hard on his cigarette, stepping

back and forth for warmth.

     “Let’s go, Joe. If I have to come over there and carry your ass, I’m going

to make you suffer before all this ends.”

     “I’ll go help him,” Johnny said as he started back to the car.

      Bobby stuck his arm out. “Let him come on his own kid.”

     Joe began to scoot, sinking his fingers into the snow-covered ground,

pulling himself with his arms, his legs useless. The sobs of the man were loud like

that of an infant and as they went on they became garbled from his tears and snot.

     Boochie dragged him through the snow for the last ten feet, after Joe

stopped of exhaustion. The fat man stood Joe up on his stump legs and held him

by the hair. Bobby pulled out his gun and held it to Joe’s forehead.

     Rivers of tears had trailed down Joe’s face, but now it seemed that the well

was dry, or maybe just frozen. Joe begged repeatedly for his life, saying he would

get a second mortgage on his house and sell his van. It was too late though.

Bobby had made up his mind.

     “You want me to shoot ya in the head first, Joe, or ya just wanna go straight

into the blades?”

     “Kill me now. Just shoot.”

      Bobby tucked the gun into the back of his jeans and smiled.

     “What are you doin’?” Johnny asked.

     “See kid, he wants to go out like a little bitch, like a coward. So we’re

gonna put him in there nice and slow, stumps first, so he can feel it.”

     Johnny wished he could wake up from the nightmare. But his breath filled

the air reminding him of the harsh reality. How had his life come to this? “Maybe

we should just let the guy have one more chance, Bobby. He’s got a good job.

     He’ll come up with the money.”

     Boochie Anderson laughed out loud, a deep bellow from the rolls of his

belly.

     “Yeah he’d be able to pay, but when? When we’re all in fuckin’

wheelchairs? He’s had enough fucking chances. Turn it on, Boochie.”

     The wood chipper struggled to start, firing and then stopping, like a car

with water in the gas line. Johnny thanked God, but then it started—blades turning

slowly at first and then spinning so fast the eye couldn’t see them.

     Bobby grabbed Joe under the armpits and hoisted him toward the funnel.

Joe’s sobbing turned into something Johnny had never heard before—a man

seconds from his death, a painful death at that, screaming for his life. The sound

seemed to go straight to Johnny’s stomach.

     Joe flailed what legs he had, twisting and turning in Bobby’s grip. Bobby

smiled as he inched his way closer.

     Johnny wasn’t sure if it was the terrible screams or the joy that Bobby got

out of it, but something made him do it.

     Something made him draw his gun.

     “Hold it. Just hold it,” the Killer yelled.

     Bobby turned once and then did a double-take. The gun was aimed at him.

Johnny had held the gun in his hand several times before, feeling its heavy

weight and admiring its potential. He’d pointed it in his dreams, but every time his

hand shook with fear.

     There was no shiver now though. His aim was steady, empty of fear.

     “What the fuck are you doin’ kid?”

     Boochie shut off the chipper.

     “Throw your guns off to the side,” Johnny said.

     “Look kid if you don’t wanna watch, go back to the car. But there ain’t

been to many people that pointed a gun at me and lived to talk about it.”

     “Don’t do this, Johnny,” Boochie said.

     Joe’s screams had stopped, but by the look on his face it was from

exhaustion, not relief.

     “I said throw ’em down,” Johnny ordered.

Boochie moved his arm as if he was going for the gun tucked in the fat

between his belt and back.

     Johnny fired a shot, missing the fat man’s foot by less than an inch. Johnny

quickly brought the barrel back up, targeting Bobby.

     “Okay kid. Okay.” Bobby backed up, dropping Joe to the ground, and

then flung his gun a good twenty yards into the darkness. Boochie did the same.

      Johnny walked over to the legless man, keeping the gun on the other two.

     “I can’t carry you and keep these guys honest at the same time Joe. Can you hold

onto my coat and I’ll drag you back to the car?”

     Joe nodded.

     Joe dug his fingers into the black leather of Johnny’s coat, a grip that was

stronger than any he could remember. Johnny started walking backwards,

dragging the cripple through the snow, and keeping his gun aimed on Bobby.

Joe’s hands did not release their grip even once although the muscles in his

forearms burned like lava.

     Johnny opened the back door of the Caprice and did his best to help Joe

into the back with his free arm.

     “Ya know, Johnny, The Flower ain’t gonna like this,” Bobby screamed.

Johnny was silent as he entered the driver side door.

     “You’re a fuckin’ dead man,” Boochie yelled.

     The Caprice drove off.

VII

       Principal Hartman did not wait for the broadcast journalism class’s tape of

his disgrace to reach the school board. He resigned over Christmas break citing

personal problems—though everyone knew the truth. Copies were duplicated and

those copies were in turn duplicated until almost every student at Collingston had a

copy of the tape. The school board accepted his resignation without a single

question.

      Principal Greemore now sat at the helm, a level-headed man with two of

his own kids in the school district. Greemore had previously served as Principal of

the JFK Middle School on the east end of town and the powers-that-be had decided

it was time for his shot at the big time.

      It was still prison. Students however seemed to ease into the New Year

with Greemore as the warden, instead of charging full steam ahead as they did with

Hartman. Amazing what a little respect could do.

      In the cafeteria, the guards lined the usual walls, but even their eyes seemed

not as acute, allowing the once-punishable misdemeanors of lunchtime go by the

wayside. We sat at the table, enjoying our lunch, but more than that, enjoying the

break of midday. The conversation jumped around the table, bouncing off one

person and changing all together with the next, like the ever- changing direction of

a racquetball when it hit the wall.

     Our table now held a lot of the old faces that occupied my table at the

beginning of the year. But at the same time those faces had changed quite a bit—

becoming better for the most part. Jack Rollins’s volume level had diminished

significantly over the last five months. He had no leader to follow, but he decided

to stay in school and stand on his own two feet. Brunno had also transformed

himself from the bullish henchman of Johnny the Killer, calming down to the point

where he would go days without his excited stuttering. You could see glimmers of

individuality breaking through. The guys weren’t afraid of what people thought

anymore. Sam Peterman traded his stone black hair for a head full of blond. Scott

Jakowski—the party man—had started to draw pictures, comic book sketches of

mostly the mundane creatures of the night that dripped blood from their fangs. But

I tell you they were beautiful. Even Pick Bryant, with his lukewarm loyalty and

subtly manipulative behavior, had started to take singing lessons and wasn’t

ashamed to belt out in the middle of lunch if the mood struck him right.

    I took a little credit for our renaissance somewhere deep down inside,

where words wouldn’t do it justice. I’d gotten the ball rolling by sitting down to

talk to the janitor, instead of waging war against him. I had changed a little too I

guess. My grades were almost up to a B average. The alarm clock ringing in my

ears every morning sounded a lot better than it used to. Sometimes I was up before

it went off at all. And while I knew that breaking up with Sally was the best thing

for me, a part of me began to miss her.

     I was awakened from my gushy thinking not by noise, but by the lack of.

The cafeteria had quieted to whispers. Every person at the table already had their

eyes on what was going on. I followed their gaze to a table in the middle of the

cafeteria.

      There, Johnny the Killer sat by himself at the end of a large table over by

the north wall. He looked somewhat like the Killer of old, his black leather and

boots turned back to Abercrombie and Fitch attire, the grease for his hair left

untouched in the medicine cabinet at home. He didn’t look up from his tray. He

knew the eyes were on him. You always knew. And even though he had been

gone a couple of months Johnny knew the audio level in the cafeteria was far from

normal. Had Johnny the Killer come to his senses?

      I was glad he was back. I was glad that he actually decided the path he was

going down was the wrong one. I was glad that our baseball team might have their

star pitcher back. It was also sad, the once most popular guy at the school now sat

alone. The leader of so many left now with no one to lead.

      Roman stood up from our table with his tray. Heather grabbed his shirt,

trying to encourage him not to do whatever it was he was thinking. Roman looked

at her. That’s all it took these days. She let go and the janitor walked toward

Johnny’s table crushing the soft chatter of the cafeteria into complete silence.

Roman sat down in the chair next to the Killer.

     Johnny continued to look down at his plate. Redness flooded his face as

the silent moments passed. “I don’t want your fuckin’ pity janitor.”

     “It’s starting to get a little stuffy over there. I’m not much for crowds,”

Roman said.

     “Me and you are never gonna be friends. Not now; not ever,” Johnny said

back.

     “That’s fine,” Roman said. “But just because we are not friends doesn’t

mean we have to be enemies.”

     Johnny didn’t respond. The two sat the rest of the lunch period in silence.

     The bell rang.

VIII

     At Roman’s, the red Mustang was in the driveway, but several knocks at

the door produced no answer. Even if they were doing it they would stop to let me

in, wouldn’t they? Several lights were on across the street. More lights than

usual. Carl should be at the Tavern.

     I made my way across the street, shuffling my feet so I wouldn’t slip on the

hard ice. The door was ajar and I pushed it open.

     Carl’s house must have been a hundred degrees. The heat and small space

instantly reminded me of the Tavern on Thanksgiving Eve. Carl lay on the couch

with a knitted afghan covering him all the way to the neck. His eyes were closed

and he shivered like someone with Parkinson’s. Roman knelt on both knees in

front of the couch. Next to him sat a bucket of vomit and blood. Heather was at

the head of the couch, wiping Carl’s face with a wet rag.

     “More company we’ve got?” Carl said without opening his eyes.

     “I’m sorry I didn’t know, I’ll go...”

     “Sit down would ya guy? ’Tis Carl the only one causing everyone

problems.”

     “You need to go to the hospital, Carl. You’ve got a high fever. You need

medical treatment,” Heather said.

     “Fuck the doctors. A bunch of useless bastards they are. They’d only have

me lay in the waiting room for hours like some sort of scoundrel. Just mix me

some more of the tea lad,” Carl said, his eyes just slits, looking at Roman.

I gave Heather a shoulder shrug to ask what was wrong. The future doctor

returned the same gesture in bewilderment.

      Roman returned with the tea and knelt down again, putting the hot green

liquid to Carl’s lips. Carl spoke between sips. His eyes never opened.

      “It was those goddamn creatures that did this to me. They cursed me with

some other-world poison. These spells I’ve had since my meeting with them in the

jungle. Happens every other full moon, it does. I went to the doctors before I was

discharged from the service, but they had no insight into it.”

     Heather hadn’t heard the story before but knew better than to question him

at a time like this. I looked at Roman who was ambivalent yo Carl’s words.

    “This spell will pass as well. The tea always brings me back.” Carl took

Roman’s free hand and gripped it tightly, pulling Roman’s ear close to his mouth

as if his words might not get there otherwise. “I owe ya a debt of thanks, my

young friend.”

    “You would do the same for me. The same for us,” Roman said.

    “For this I thank ya sure, but ’tis not want I mean. That night ya found me

laying in the road, I was ready to cash out.”

    “You would’ve done the same for me,” Roman said again.

    “Maybe, maybe not, for I did not come to know ya yet. But ’tis still not

what I mean. I had the spell again. It came over me before I ever left for the

watering hole. I decided not to drink the tea. I thought it was time for me to pass

on. I’d seen enough I had, of the world going down the wrong path. All its wars

and suffering. Carl had enough. But watching you work as ya did, rebuilding that

house with your heart, gave me hope. Hope for the world, it did.”

     I could see a thin glaze of tears come over Roman’s eyes. “You say these

things like this is the last time we’ll talk.”

     “Ha! I ain’t going nowhere just yet, guy. But now ya must leave me be. I

need my rest.”

     “I don’t want to...” Roman started.

     “Leave me I say. Carl will see ya tomorrow, strong like before.”

     He patted Roman on the cheek and with his own hands took the glass and

drank the rest of the tea.

IX

     Johnny the Killer thought it was a dream. His eyes only saw black. But

wait, he wasn’t laying down, he hadn’t even gone to bed yet. And why did the

back of his head hurt so bad? Had he fallen off the chair and bumped his head?

No that wasn’t it. He was walking down the driveway, never made it to the house.

Somebody’d clubbed him from behind. Maybe with a bat? His eyes opened, still

blurred, but the answers became clear in his mind. Through the waves in his vision

Johnny could see the blotch of a person in front of him. The man wore a bright

green suit. What started out as a dream or nightmare had turned into something

far, far worse.

     There were several aromas in the room. Johnny could smell the sweet

fragrance of flowers in front of him, their names he was not sure of. Behind him

though, the odor of stale smoke mixed with bologna, hung in the air like a gray

fog. He now knew the identities of his attackers without a visible confirmation.

Freddy Flowers sat on the other side of the desk. His long thin face and jetblack

hair pulled back in a ponytail slowly came into focus. Suddenly, Johnny’s

stomach hurt worse than the back of his head. Freddy stood up, spraying the

leaves of the plants on the shelf behind his desk with a squirt bottle.

     “Do you know why I’m in the flower business, Johnny?”

     “To cover up your real businesses?”

     “Incorrect. I do it because it brings peace to the world. Flowers are God’s

artwork. It brings smiles to the faces of even the most ungrateful souls. It gives

hope to the sick in hospitals, gives reassurance between lovers, and ties the bond

between parents and children. Do you agree?”

     “Sure.”

      “But there’s something else. Plants and vegetation are on a higher plane

than most of the monkeys running around this world. They aren’t violent. They

don’t cause problems. They mate indiscriminately. They don’t hate. They’re here

for one reason, to give us joy and oxygen. Plants my young friend, don’t muck

things up. They leave that for the two-legged humanoids. What do you think?”

     “I think you’re more fucking psycho than they give you credit for.”

      Freddy’s face was emotionless.

     “Not psycho, Johnny, enlightened,” The Flower responded.

     Freddy motioned toward the back of the room. Boochie left the room.

Bobby came to the front holding a plastic bag in one hand, and a zip tie in the

other. Johnny could hear a soft whimpering behind him, from down the hall

maybe. As the whining got closer it was apparent that the sound was not from a

human.”

     “Do you recognize it?” Freddy said. “Listen closely.”

Johnny knitted his eyebrows in confusion, but before the animal was in

front of him he knew. Johnny had a strong urge to vomit.

     “Please no, not Apollo. He hasn’t done anything to you.”

Boochie walked Apollo in on a leash. The dog jumped up on Johnny’s lap

trying to lick his master, but was yanked back by the chain around his neck.

Bobby Dukes laughed.

     “That’s where you’re wrong, Johnny” Freddy stated. “This dog was put on

earth to do to one thing, destroy. His aggression was apparent before he was even

conceived. It’s in his breeding you see. A genetic bundle of violence.”

     “He’s not violent. He’s a coward. Please leave him out of this.”

     “For his sake let’s hope his breeding doesn’t fail him. He’s in the spotlight

tomorrow night, competing against some of the most vicious of his peers from all

over the state. You won’t be here to see it of course.”

     Johnny’s head hung down toward his chest.

     “The thought of your dog being torn to shreds is an awful one, I know. But

take comfort in something. After we put you through the shredder, your imperfect

flesh will eventually be used to give nourishment to the beauty of nature.”

Freddy laughed.

    “You’ll be reborn. Where you failed as a human, your remains will be

perfect in the cells of a plant. Ironic isn’t it? How the worst of creatures make the

best of fertilizers. Enough discussion.”

    Freddy motioned. Bobby put the plastic bag over the Killer’s head. Johnny

tried to free himself, grabbing the bag where it met his neck. It was too late

though; the zip tie was already pulled. Johnny fought for air only to feel the plastic

suck against his face. Boochie and Bobby bent his writs behind his back and tied

them as well.

     Apollo barked in the distance, unable to get close enough to help his master

because of the chain around his own neck.

     Johnny’s feet dragged in the snow, his arms now limp in the grasp of

Bobby and Boochie. The trunk popped and Freddy’s men hoisted the dead weight

into the empty blackness. The trunk door closed and with it all light from the

outside world.

X

San Diego, CA

      Max Sheehan was a drifter, always had been. His parents died before he

graduated from college, and there was no reason to stay around home. He traveled

the country from one ocean to the next and back again, never staying too long in

one spot. There was no reason to. No girlfriends, no pals to drink beer with, no

relatives. Bouncing from job to job was his choice not his employers’. He had

been everything from a car salesman to a lab tech. Right now he was a carpenter.

Classic Design specialized in hand-made wood fixtures—everything from

small night stands to dining room tables. Like most of his jobs, Max picked up on

the wood working very quickly and six months into it had mastered the craft.

     Orders for cabinets and armoires poured in daily, especially since the company had

gone online. He had a certain number of orders to fill weekly. The freedom of no

set hours had kept him around longer than he would have expected.

Max was an animal of routine. Although by mandate he had no set

schedule, he still awoke at six, breakfasted right after, arrived at work at seven, ate

lunch at noon, and was back home by four. The orders came in and Max carved

away at them, often ahead of schedule.

     It was a warm day and Max stopped at Cream Delight on his way home to

pick up a double scoop of lemon ice cream in a cone.

     “Beautiful day isn’t it?” the man in the window asked.

     “It’s always beautiful here,” Max said and then licked the pale yellow ice

cream.

     On his street he stopped the car abruptly so a kid could run out and get his

ball. He was still eating as he opened the door to his home. He flipped on Oprah

and sat on the couch hearing stories of gradeschool heroes and their parents. The

lemon ice cream was good. He wished he’d gotten three scoops.

     He had bought the house cheap, because of all the inadequacies with it.

He’d fixed it up with new siding, a roof, and windows, and doubled the value. He

gutted the interior and started over. He enjoyed redoing all of those things, but his

prize accomplishment was the basement. He looked to the living room wall where

the hidden door was and marveled. With his fine craftsmanship not even he could

see the edges. The basement. The thought more than excited him.

     He made his way to the kitchen first though, and wiped the sticky lemon

remains from the corner of his mouth and the tips of his fingers. He washed his

mouth out with water from the tap and dried himself. He went to his room

removing his shirt first and then the rest. He brushed off his chest, removing a

small amount of sawdust. No matter how careful he was at work, the pesky

shavings always seemed to find him. He looked at the long mirror, following his

reflection from his shaven head, down his trapezius muscles, his carved out chest,

his statue-like abs, and finally stopped at his semi-erect penis. What could he have

been if he’d looked like this in high school? It was too late to think of such things.

      He grabbed a ring with two keys on it from his nightstand. The blood started to

pour in more heavily now.

      He pressed the living room wall firmly. There was a soft click, and the

panel door opened about an inch, just enough for him to get his fingers behind it.

He walked down the white-carpeted staircase to another door. He inserted one of

the keys and the door opened.

     The basement was covered with more white carpet on the floor and on the

walls. There was a bathroom immaculate white floors to the right filled with all

the necessities: a shower, towels, soap, perfume and, of course, a mirror. There

wasn’t a hint of mildew or scum anywhere. The main room was the size of two

regular bedrooms; it did not run the length of the house. On one side of the room

sat an entertainment center that he had built himself in his spare time at the shop.

     But there was no TV or stereo in it. Twenty feet away was the bed—a king size—

dressed in white comforters and pillows. From the ceiling, four chains at each of

the four corners of the bed dangled with shackles at the end of them. On the wall

next to the bed were at least fifty pictures: mostly young women, most naked, all of

them brunettes, and many bound and gagged but all alive—in the pictures at least.

     They were taken in various locations—the woods, basements, one in a farmhouse.

     There was still room on the wall for several more pictures.

     She was on the floor next to the bed with her arms hugging her knees, her

knees covering her breasts, and her legs and feet obstructing the view of what Max

wanted. The bruise around her eye was light green now and almost gone. She

would soon be back to perfect, just the way he had found her. He could almost

hear her heart beat from across the room, violent and uneven. If she were excited

that would be good. Being afraid would be far better.

     He walked slowly toward her. Tears were in her eyes although she did not

cry. He grabbed one of her wrists firmly and swung it away from her body,

clasping it in the first shackle. She didn’t fight or yell, in fact ever since the first

time, she had fought less and less. Now the fight was out of her. After all arms

and legs were secure, he lay on top of her.

     When he finished he unshackled her and she ran for the bathroom. On his

way back up the stairs he stopped at the bathroom door.

     “Can I get you anything?” he asked.

     There was no reply, which was fine with him. He would fix her supper a

few hours later and then be done with her for the day.

     After she had cleaned herself up she sat down on the floor next to the bed.

She refused to sleep in the bed and spent most of her time on the floor. She looked

around for her clothes and then remembered she had none. She had nothing much

of anything now. For the past week everything Mary Baumbright had been was

being stripped away layer by layer. The veterinary medicine student was now in a

cage of her own. Her family was across the country in Cincinnati. Her boyfriend

and girlfriends were on winter break. Mary was supposed to be in Japan studying

the panda bears and eating sushi with the rest of the students. Surely her professor

would call someone when she didn’t make the trip. Surely her mother would

become suspicious when there was no call from Japan. Surely someone was

looking for her. But she had no way of knowing. There were no windows in the

basement. The walls were carpeted and probably sound-proof. Obviously no one

had heard her the entire week, and she had heard nothing from outside. Had he

designed the basement for this very thing? The thought sent shivers down her

spine.

     Mary knew eventually he would kill her, either out of psychosis or

boredom. Most of her wanted him to. If she somehow returned to normal life,

where would she begin? Would she go back to class as if nothing had happened?

Would she be on Court TV reliving every horrible minute for the pleasure of

America? How could she face Zach or touch him again? How could she ever be

with another man? Life made no sense now. She’d planned to be a veterinarian,

but now she was ruined and she would probably be dead soon.

    Death.

    The word did not feel right in her head. As much as she wanted this

nightmare to be over and as much as she thought that she had lost her life already,

she was not ready for death. There had to be a way out. There is always a way

out. She looked at the chains hanging from the ceiling. She’d tried to pull them

out after the first time he raped her, and if she couldn’t do it then with all the anger

and adrenaline, there would be no chance now. What about the bathroom?

Showerhead, razor,s the mirror—all potential weapons. Weapons. And then she

remembered what her father used to say. Use the most dangerous weapon a human

has is—its mind.

XI

      We sat in Roman’s living room in dead silence. The somberness was

understood without a word spoken. Each of us was alone with our thoughts.

Although I didn’t know exactly what Roman and Heather were thinking, I still

didn’t buy the aliens.

     I broke the silence. “He’s fuckin’ off his rocker about this alien shit.”

    “What do you care?” Heather asked.

    “I care ’cause I’m tired of wading through waist-high shit every time he

talks.”

    “It’s not like he’s asking you to change religions or something,” Heather

said.

    “It’s just goddamn annoying,” I said. “What do you think Roman?”

    “Pick was complaining the other day about how you cuss all the time. How

you squeeze your colorful adjectives in front of the most unlikely of nouns,”

Roman said.

    “What does Pick care, he cusses all the time too. Besides sometimes ‘gosh

darn it’ just doesn’t get the point across like ‘fuck’.”

    “I understand that. But he says you cuss all the time because you have no

imagination, no thought about having something better to say. Pick says it annoys

him.”

    “Like I give a damn what annoys Pick? It’s just the way I am.”

     “Maybe it’s just the way Carl is too,” Roman said.

As subtle as it was, Roman had a way of slamming his point across. From

that moment on I was a bit more conscious about what flew out of my mouth and

what I said about people.

    “So what now?” Heather said. “Should we check on him every so often?”

    “I’ll check on him in the morning. Even in his weak state Carl wouldn’t

appreciate an around-the-clock intrusion on his privacy,” Roman said.

There was a soft knock at the door. Me and Heather jumped off the couch

out of surprise. I don’t know if it was because the only people that ever knocked

on his door were already here, or Agent Johnson and the aliens had burrowed their

way into the back of our minds. Roman got up calmly and walked to the door.

     When it opened—as if that night hadn’t been strange enough—Johnny the Killer

stumbled through the doorway and fell into Roman’s arms.

      Roman led Johnny to the rocking chair and sat him down. The Killer had

plastic hanging from his neck, and his face was sweaty and gray, like wax. His

hands trembled. Without asking, Roman retrieved him a glass of water.

     “What happened, did you get the bad end of the deal in some sex game?” I

asked and laughed.

    Johnny didn’t crack a smile. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t think of anywhere else

to go.”

    “You didn’t have anywhere else to go because you don’t have any friends

Johnny. You’ve lost all of them over the years remember?” Heather said.

Roman put the glass of water in Johnny’s hands. It slipped from the

Killer’s shaking grip a second later, but Roman snatched it with the hands of a

magician before it could shatter on the hardwood floor. Roman put one hand on

Johnny’s shoulder this time as if to calm his former nemesis, then gave the glass

back to him. Johnny sucked it down violently, the water seeping from where the

glass met the edges of his mouth. He took a deep breath.

    Johnny rubbed back the hair on his head. “Oh shit man, they almost killed

me.”

    “Who?” I asked.

    “Bobby and Boochie.”

    “I told ya not to get mixed up with those thugs. Didn’t I tell ya?”

    “Last night I was with ’em and they almost put some handicapped dude

into a wood chipper. I couldn’t go through with it, just couldn’t be a part of it. So

I stopped ’em. Today they blindsided me and took me to Freddy Flowers’s office,

put this goddamn plastic sack over my head, and stuffed me in Boochie’s trunk. I

thought I was done for, gonna suffocate to death, but I felt a tire iron next to my

head, managed to rub my face on it and poke a hole in the plastic. I managed to

break the tie on my wrist with a screw hanging in the corner of the trunk. When

they opened the trunk I hit ’em with the iron and ran like hell.”

    “You’re lucky is what you are,” Heather said.

    “I told you not to be fuckin’ around with Freddy Flowers,” I said again.

    “So you’re just here for sympathy or what?” Heather asked.

    “No, I want your help.”

    “That’s rich,” Heather said.

    “Help with what?” I asked.

    Johnny tried to clear his throat and then did something I had never thought

I’d see.

    Johnny the Killer cried like a baby.

    Even though tears streamed down his face and snot dripped into his mouth,

when he began to speak, most of his words were distinguishable.

    “They got Apollo, man. They’re gonna make him fight tomorrow in some

kinda gladiator fight against other dogs. He doesn’t stand a chance. He’ll be

tortured. They make ’em fight to the death.”

    Roman went to the kitchen for water and tissues.

   “Why don’t you just go to the police?” Heather asked.

    “It’s useless. Freddy’s got ’em all in his pocket,” Johnny answered.

    “So just go steal him back before tomorrow night,” I said.

    “It’s not that easy,” Johnny said. “I don’t know where they’ve got him

right now. The Flower keeps the dogs somewhere else until the show. And these

fights are just part of a bigger show. Freddy calls it Extravaganza. He has one

every four months. It’s some sick masquerade party. Charges five hundred a pop

just to get in the door. It’s like some sort of perverted circus.”

    “They wear masks?” Heather asked.

    “Everyday people in Collingston can’t be spotted at some depraved

event,” Roman said, handing Johnny the water and handkerchief.

   “Exactly,” Johnny said. “You wouldn’t believe how many high rollers

attend this thing.”

    “Where is it?” I asked.

    “It’s on the same property as his greenhouses north of town. One of the

roads leads way back in the woods. It’s like an old warehouse that’s been

converted into an arena. He uses the basement as a kennel the day of the fight.

The only problem is the only way into the basement is through the arena. There’s

no other entrance. But Freddy lets his guests go down before the show starts to get

a look at the dogs so they can get an idea of which ones to bet on.”

    “How many men will he have?” Roman asked. I could see it in his eyes,

that soft spot for animals, and the computer in his head already making

calculations.

    “Twenty, maybe thirty,” Johnny said.

    “Armed?”

    “There’s an armory off the entrance. Freddy makes even his own guys put

their guns in there. I guess one of ’em got drunk one time and shot a guy awhile

back. Freddy figures he can’t afford people dying at this thing, even if he is tied in

with the pigs and sharks. He figures his soldiers can handle things anyway. The

armory is for emergencies only.”

    “This all sounds pretty ballsy to me,” I said.

Roman’s face was blank, his eyes lifeless. I always imagined the busy

signal noise of a telephone when he looked like that.

    “Not if we’re the only ones with a gun,” Johnny said.

    “No guns.” Roman snapped back from the canyons in his mind.

    “When does it start?” Heather asked.

    “You’re not going. It’s too dangerous,” Roman commanded.

    “Excuse me. I didn’t ask you, nor will I. I’ve known Apollo since he was

a puppy and I am going.”

    “We do need a driver,” I said.

Roman shook his head and let out a long sigh. He didn’t argue any further.

    “I have one stipulation of my own,” I said. “If I put my ass on the line here

you’re going to play baseball this season.”

    “I’m going to. It was all I could think about riding with Boochie and

Bobby,” Johnny said. “I’m tellin’ ya though, we gotta bring my gun...”

    “If you want my help, we do it my way,” Roman said. “My way is without

the gun. Besides we won’t need it. I’ve got an idea.”

    “Imagine that,” I said.


 

 

 

           


 

 

 

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