Chapter 2

Family Reunion

I

            Later, it was poker night.  Let me rephrase that, every night was poker night back then.  It didnít matter if it was Ash Wednesday or Thanksgiving night, there was somebody always in attendance.  I played probably four to six nights a week depending on how my luck was runniní that particular week.  I know this sounds strange and is maybe even a little contradictory, but poker and gambling kept me out of a lot of trouble in those days.  I could have been spending five hundred dollars a week on shit I put up my nose, or smoked in a pipe, or placed on my tongue, or rolled in a paper.  I have no doubt that if I had taken that road it would have been the end of me, not only because of the self-destructive habit itself, but because I had no job.  I would have had to steal or deal to keep my habit going, or maybe even worse

            Anyway Iím getting off the subject.  Tonight was poker night, and our poker games were always held at Pick Bryantís dadís tavern.  Pick had a problem keeping his finger out of his nose during the kindergarten through second grade years, and never could shake the name.  It was one of those names hung on people that started off as joke or a way to make fun, but it ended up just being a name.  He was Pick to all of us.  He even called himself Pick.  Anyway the name of the place was simply ĎThe Taverní.  The name wasnít hung outside the entrance in neon or anything like that.  In fact there was no sign anywhere on the building, but I assure you everyone in the city of Collingston knew exactly where The Tavern was.  It was located in the East End of town.  Not the greatest neighborhood in the world for sure, but it attracted all typesófactory workers, police, garbage men, lawyers, doctors, brick layers, bums, babes, you name it.  The outside was brick that probably hadnít been powerwashed since the building was built in the early 1900s.  I have no proof of this but it is rumored that Al Capone and the boys would stop in the place on their routes from Chicago to St. Louis.  There was even a secret trap door that was used to get to the basement if the police should arrive.  That door has since been removed and the floor boarded up.  A picture hung on the wall behind the bar of a man holding a Tommy gun and dressed to the nines; it was supposed to be one of Alís top guys, but like I said, I have no proof.

            Carl Stumot was a regular at The Tavern.  In the hundreds of times I'd been there, Carl was there every time.  Sometimes I wondered if he ever left the place.  Carl sat at the far end of the bar, drinking Miller Lite draft beer in a sixteen-ounce mug for a buck and a quarter. He wore a dirty olive green coat that hung down past his waist, some kind of old beret with earflaps, brown trousers, and big galoshes-style boots that could have waded him through a foot of water.  Carl had nappy gray hair sticky out from under his cap and a goatee that was wrapped with some sort of rubber band.  He looked like a mix between a Chinamen and an African.  I never asked him what race he was, never had any reason to.  As much as the man drank Iíd never heard him stutter or slur a word.  He knew every line of every song on the jukebox and was not afraid to sing aloud if a tune he like played, even though many of those anthems were written well after his prime.  The man didnít sit there and pound beers by any means, but he did drink at a steady pace for a good five hours a night, and who knows how many he had drunk before coming down to the bar.

            I made my way to the back room, stopping briefly to say hello to Carl, who was seated in his usual spot at the end of the bar.

            "Whatís up, Carl?" I asked

            "Ah, just having a drink.  And you?"

            "Playing poker here in a minute," I said.  "Youíre here a little early tonight arenít you?"

            "Ah, those goddamn crack whores wonít leave me alone.  They keep banging on my door.  I had to come down here to get away from them.  I told them before to leave me the hell alone.  I donít want anything from them."

            I smiled and asked Laura the bartender if she could break my twenty into ones.

            "Whoís your friend?" I asked, nodding to the guy seated next to Carl.

            "Not my friend," he began. "I can talk to anyone about anything, but this man is a babbling fool, not being able to say anything worth listening to."

            The man next to him was swaying back and forth on his bar stool with an unlit cigarette stuck to his lip, and using what brain cells he had left to keep his eyes from falling shut.  Four pennies and a full mug of beer sat in front of the man.  He leaned in toward Carl closing his eyes completely as if this would help him talk.

            "Yer buy, Iím need another beer," the man babbled.

            Carl picked up the manís already full mug and slammed it back on the counter hard enough to open the manís eyes.

            "Okay there you go now," Carl said.

            The man snapped his head back in surprise noticing the beer in front of him.  He began to talk again in almost English.

            "Geez Carl (it sounded like Curl) that was quick, I owes ya," the man said.

            "No worries my friend," Carl responded, shaking his head and smiling at me.

            "Well Carl, have a good one," I said picking up the ones from the bartender.

            "Ah, and you as well sir," Carl said holding up his beer to toast me, even though I had no beer.

            I made my way through the pool players and their tables in the second room, thinking about Carl.  A smile came to my face.  It was well known that Carl, if bothered enough, would give in to the temptations of the crack whores.  I guess a five-dollar blowjob doesnít sound too bad to a man of his age.  But even in Carlís simple world, five-dollar blowjobs can complicate life.

            I entered the third roomóthe one we played poker in.  It wasnít completely finished.  The drop ceiling covered only half the room, the walls werenít painted, and the only form of heat was a small propane tank that sat right next to our table.  When Pickís dad had a good couple of months he would pay the local dry-wallers and electricians under the table to work on the room.  The work was slow and the money slim.  That was just fine with us though, the longer it took to finish, the longer we had a place for our game, and not just anyplace. We were like old-time mobsters hid out from the rest of the crowd.  We drank whatever we wanted even though we were all under age.  The bartender even came back especially to take our orders.  The police knew about our little game, but since one of our regulars was the son of a cop, they didnít throw up any fuss.  Al Capone would have been proud.

            Johnny the Killer, Pick, and two others sat at the table, already playing.

            "I thought you had the flu?" I commented.

            Johnny smiled.  "Iím feeling a lot better.  Needed to get out of the house.  Glad you worried about me though."

            "Whereís Jack and Brunno?" I asked.

            Johnny pulled the cigar out of his mouth.  "Theyíre running an errand.  Theyíll be here later."

            Pick giggled like a little girl at this.  I wasnít sure what the joke was but I wasnít in the mood to play twenty questions with Johnny.  I put my coat on the back of a chair and sat down.

            We played dollar antes.  You could bet two, bump two.  That way it never got too out of hand, and also the big winner that night couldnít buy the pot by out-betting everybody. We played all different games from five and seven stud to Texas hold Ďem to match pot games.  When it came your time to deal, you got to call the game.  Johnny pushed the cards over to me.  Evidently it was my time to deal.  I threw in my dollar and the rest of the guys followed.  I shuffled the cards, offered Pick a cut (which he took knowing that I didnít cheat, and even if I wanted to I was not smart enough or talented enough to set the deck), and started passing them out.

            "Chicago," I said.  Maybe because I had mobsters still on the mind.

            Chicago was a seven-stud game.  First two cards down, next four up, last one down, bet on every card after the first two.  The low spade down split half the pot with the winner of highest hand.  In theory you could win the entire pot if you had both the low spade and the best hand.  I liked the game because you were betting on two different things, and in that confusion sometimes people would give away their hands.

           After several rounds of betting and sticking to my guns everyone folded except for Johnny. He was the Killer, you know? I had raised him the only time he bet and bet the max every time. I controlled the game. After several seconds of contemplation the words I wanted to hear came from Johnnyís mouth. "Take it," he said.

            Johnny would have beaten me with his up cards if he stayed, but I bluffed him by the way I bet and bumped.  Johnny should have stayed if for no other reason than he had quite a bit of money in the pot, and if you go that far you should pay to see the other guyís hand.  But Johnnyís arrogance got the best of him once again.  He would rather lose money and fold, than stay and take the risk of losing to me.

            "Whatíd you have?" Johnny asked.

            "Youíre supposed to pay to see them, Johnny," I said as I collected the money in the pot.  I was just about to mix my cards in with everyone elseís when he grabbed me by the wrist.

            "I said whatíd you have?"  Johnny grabbed my wrist and flipped my cards over.

            He looked, trying to see something that wasnít there.

            "The fucking four of spades.  Thatís all you had.  Goddamn, I would have won half the pot."

            As quickly as he got pissed he calmed down and lit another cigar.

            "Youíre suppose to pay to see them," I said again.

            "Whatís your problem lately, Tony?  You donít hang out no more.  You eat lunch with some faggot janitor.  Whatís the deal?" Johnny asked.

            "Heís not a faggot janitor.  Heís just like me and you.... only smarter."

            "If I didnít know you, I mean if we didnít grow up together, if our maís didnít get their nails done together, Iíd think you were taking up for him, stabbing me in the back.  Whose side are you on anyway?"

            "I didnít know I was supposed to be on a side," I said back.

            Before Johnny could say anything else there was some commotion in the other room and then the door opened.  It was Jack and Brunno and they werenít in good shape.  Jack had a huge goose egg over his eye almost to the point of being swelled shut.  Brunno had tears running down his face and a bag of ice over his right hand.  Dry blood had formed a river from his nostrils, down his lips to the end of his chin.  Johnny sat them both down at the table.  The two new guys that were playing poker with us looked uneasy.

            "I think my fu-fu-fuckiní hand and nose is broke," Brunno said, breathing heavy.

            Jack grabbed some of the ice from the bag on Brunnoís hand and put it up to his eye.

            Johnny looked Jack and Brunno over.  His face had the presence of disgust and pity mixed together.  "Donít tell me the two of you got your ass beat by the fucking janitor."

            Jack and Brunno looked at each other and then dropped their heads simultaneously.

            "Not exactly," Jack began.

            It seemed the geek janitor had been busy taking out the trash so to speak. Roman somehow beat the tar out of Johnnyís two best men. And according Jack he did it without ever throwing a punch.

II

            I got to school twenty minutes early the next morning.  I looked for Roman but was not successful.  To be honest I didnít know where to look.  I had no idea where his locker was or what floor it was on for that matter.  I did though hear a couple of things from random people in the hallway that morning.  Some of them I knew well, some I had never talked to in my life.  They were talking about Roman.  They were talking about his little run-in with Jack and Brunno.  They were talking about him giving Johnny the Killer mouth to mouth.  As I walked to my class I only caught bits and pieces of several different stories but one thing was for sure.  The legend of Roman Swivel was growing.

            Not hard to believe.  Like I said before, people are looking for anything to break up the boredom of school life, the more controversial the better.  Itís amazing how this story was told to about seven people at the most, and overnight everyone and their brother knew about it.  Thatís how high school was though.  Fragments of the story that I heard had been somewhat changed and in some cases over-exaggerated.  One account said that Roman picked Jack up over his head and body slammed him head first to the ground.  All it took was for one of those new guys to tell one of their girlfriends the story and pretty soon cell phones and pagers would start blowing up like fireworks.  For information to travel the fastest, you knew a girl had to be involved.  My mom even asked me about the story later that day.  Needless to say she had been at the beauty shop.

            Lunch finally came.  I double-timed it to the cafeteria and beat everybody to the table.  Roman came in first with his applesauce, salad, and milk.  I looked over at Johnnyís table, the table I used to sit at, and nothing but pure hatred radiated from the Killerís eyes.  He was staring at Roman.  Jack and Brunno were absent.  Probably had the flu.  Caught it from Johnny maybe.

            I decided to play the waiting game and make Roman talk first.  Surely the past nightís events would get him to say something, anything.  I waited.  And waited.  I couldnít hold it in anymore.

            "Arenít you going to say something?" I asked.

            "What?" Roman replied eating his applesauce.

            "What...oh I donít know, you just whooped two of Johnnyís toughest thugs, and there isnít a scratch on you."

            "I didnít whip anybody.  They did that to themselves.  Youíve heard the story already Iím sure," Roman said.

            "Yeah, but I want to hear your story," I said back.

            "I just gave you my story."

            Romanís attention was directed over to Johnnyís table.  Heather walked by it, ignoring Johnnyís kissy face, and came directly over to our table.

            "Are you all right?" she asked Roman.

            "Iím fine."

            Heather sat down between us and looked at Roman for a second.

            "This shit is going to stop.  I already informed Johnny that if he wants to be with me then he has to leave you alone."

            I rolled my eyes.

            Heather began again. "He denies he had anything to do with it but I know better.  Iím sorry you had to go through it, and Iím quite sure that it wonít happen again."

            I rolled my eyes again.

            Roman smiled and drank some of his milk.

            "How come you were following me yesterday, Tony?" he asked.

            I stopped in mid-chew.  It caught me off guard at first, but then I wondered how the hell he knew I was following him if he never looked back.

            "I uh, was just wondering where you lived, since you never let me give you a ride," I said with a full mouth of pizza.  I know the answer was lame but it was the truth.

            "If you wanted to know where I live, why not just ask me?  I live at 25 Kingdom Street," Roman said.

            I sat there not saying anything like some kind of dumb ass.  I should have just yelled his name in the cemetery.  Mostly I was embarrassed, but I was still in shock that he knew I was following him.  The bell rang.  Heather said her good-byes.  Roman stood as she got up from the table.

            "Iíll see you later Tony," Roman said as he left the table.

           

III

            Kingdom Street was in the East End of town a couple of miles from The Tavern actually.  I drove down it after school that day.  Iím not exactly sure why.  Maybe I thought Roman would be out in his front yard and I could stop and say hi.  Or maybe I did it for the same reason I chose to sit at Romanís table instead of smear lasagna in his face.

            Kingdom Street was a short jog more than a real street.  It was only a block long.  At the north end of the street was a steep hill that I imagine in the winter many cars tried but failed to reach the top of, and beyond that was a huge cemeteryóthe one I lost Roman in.

            The sun was out and it seemed more like summer than early fall.  As I drove down the hill the houses I passed were much like I expected.  They were trash.  The first one I passed had no screen door on it and the grass looked as if it hadnít been mowed since the spring.   Some were abandoned although Iím sure when winter came people would have no choice but to call them home.  Windows were cracked and shattered, garbage littered the yards.  Piles of tires and an old rusted-out car frame lay in one of them.  In another a fallen tree branch had smashed against the roofóthe people that lived there were either unaware of this or simply did not care.  Someone thought it would be a good idea to make a fence surrounding their yard out of old wooden bowling pins.  Music blared from one of the houses.  Little girls were using a thrown-away television cable to jump rope.  Dogs ran through the neighborhood unleashed.  I smelled the embers of charcoal and later the sweet scent of barbecue.  Two hookers were flirting with a potential client.

            And then there was 25 Kingdom, and the house directly across from it, 26.  26 was well maintained but Romanís house stuck out like a mansion in the middle of the ghetto.  His yard was neatly cut, countless flowers remained in bloom, and the sidewalk was edged out against the yard.  The house was white with black shutters, freshly painted I thought.  There was a porch with a swing on it.  A green plant hung in the large window south of the front door.  There was a bright green hose neatly wound and hanging against the house.  There wasnít a weed to be seen in the flowerbeds or the small cracks in the sidewalk.  His small one-car garage was empty except for a mower, a ladder, and some gardening tools all neatly organized in the back corner.  Maybe his parent or parents werenít home from work yet.  I had never heard Roman speak of his parents during our conversations at lunch.

            I slowed the car down, contemplating stopping it all together.  Romanís front door was open and I waited to see if he would come out.  He didnít and after waiting longer than I told myself I would, I drove off.  If Roman wanted to open up his world to me, to be my friend, then he would ask.

            My mind drifted to last nightís events with Jack and Brunno.  Much like Johnny those two were tough, maybe the toughest behind him.  Jack was a wiry son of a bitch and used to take peopleís lunch money before school and beat them senseless.  It eventually got to the point where those poor punks would seek Jack out before school and hand over their money to avoid the beating.  Jack wanted whatever Johnny wanted.  If Johnny said go shoot the president, Jack would at least attempt it.  Jack once drank a small cup of Pennzoil to impress Johnny; luckily he got to the emergency room to get his stomach pumped before he digested the stuff.  I would have hated to be the toilet he sat on the next couple of days.  Johnny would put Jack up to getting the booze and reefer.  He was Johnnyís right hand man and loved every minute of it.

            Brunno was a wrestler and damn good one; he made a run at the state title last year.   Brunno was not his real name, Brian was.  His father hung the name Brunno on him before he could even walk, against his wifeís wishes Iím sure.  I once saw a kid stand up to Brunno at a pick-up baseball game by hitting him with a wooden bat square in the mouth.  Brunno was dazed momentarily but when he got up, he just smiled at the kid, and pulled out one of his front teeth that were loosened by the swat of the bat.  The kid ran.  I wish I could tell you he got away, but that day ended with Brunno repeatedly slamming the kidís head into the ground.

            Brunno was fascinated by storms, but instead of watching them from inside the house like everyone else did, Brunno would climb on top of his roof.  There was a tornado last year that blew Brunno into the neighborsí yard knocking him unconscious until the next morning.  It was also rumored that Brunno was hit by lightning on more than one occasion, but of that I have no proof, except for his sporadic stuttering.  His tongue-twisted speech has gotten less over the last year, probably because Brunno preferred shaking his head repeatedly instead of speaking.

           

 

IV

            Heather sat at the dining room table that night, scraping over her food.  There were two large candles sitting on the long lavish table.  Classical music played softly in the background.  Her father ate at a good pace.  He missed lunch earlier while performing surgery, repairing an ACL on a football player from the U of I.  He was in sports medicine and renowned all over the state for his work.  Heíd fixed countless tendon tears on everything from shoulders to ankles.  The Bulls and Sox even used him from time to time.  He had married Gina after graduating from medical school.  Both were older parents.

            Gina Hawthorne had never worked a day in her life.  Not at Seven Eleven as a teenager and not as a teacher even though she had the degree.  She was from money and married money, just like her mother and just like her grandmother.  She was Dr. Hawthorneís trophy wife and that was fine with her.  She lived through Heather: through her grades, her cheerleading, her dances, her friends, and most importantly her looks.  She always knew where Heather was and what she was doing and conversations she had and whom those conversations were with.  Gina would not let go, not now, not until she had to, not until Heather left for college.

            Heatherís parents had raised her right.  Growing up she took piano lessons, was active in the Girl Scouts and sports, and was in beauty competitions and ballet.  She always got straight Aís, and was in line to be the valedictorian of Collingston High.  Heather was the president of the student council, interested in politics and worldly affairs.  She spoke French very well.  Heather was aware of the world even though her mother was not.

            "Something wrong honey?  You havenít touched your food," Gina said from the far end of the table.

            "Iím just tired, thatís all," Heather responded.

            "I heard thereís a new boy at school causing some problems.  Thatís what Cynthia said at the country club anyway," Gina said as she patted her lips with a white cloth napkin.

            Heather looked up from her plate dropping her fork onto it.  "What boy?"

            "Some vagrant that works as a janitor during the night shift at the high school," Gina said.

            Heatherís face reddened.  She threw her napkin down on the table hard enough to get Dr. Hawthorneís attention.  Her father knew better to say anything though.  He had been outnumbered in the house for eighteen years and got his head torn off trying to be peacekeeper with the ruling majority in many a battle.  He concentrated on his food.

            "First of all heís not a vagrant.  Heís a student, just like me, and a nice guy at that.  He saved Johnny from drowning in the lake and he put back the cheerleader grandma gave me after I accidentally shattered it into a million pieces.  He defended himself when Jack and Brunno tried to jump him.  Thatís all," Heather said.

            "Cynthia said..."]

            Heather interrupted. "Maybe Cynthia should keep her mouth shut if she doesnít know the whole story, and better yet maybe you should not listen to people that have nothing better to do in life than gossip at the club and run down the lives of people they know nothing about. 

It sounds like to me the only reason you and the other hags do it is because you have no life of your own."

            Heather got up from the table and went up the winding staircase to her bedroom.

            "Did I say something wrong dear?" Gina asked.

            "No dear, sheís just tired, remember?" Dr. Hawthorne replied.

 

V

            The Saturday came when Collingston sent its best and brightest to compete in the scholastic state tournament.  Even with all of Mr. Buttworstís prodding and pleading Roman never turned in that permission slip.  Mr. Buttworst even held the bus from leaving an extra ten minutes hoping that Roman would show.  When his hope was gone, Mr. Buttworst instructed the driver to go.

I didnít know it at the time but that Saturday would show a glimpse of who Roman really was, of where he came from and where he was going, and how talented he truly was. It is that glimpse that I want to peek into now.

            Although Roman wasnít on the yellow school bus that morning, he was on a bus, a Greyhound headed for Iowa just as he had told the bearded teacher.  It was a six-hour trip from Collingston.  Roman paid for his ticket in cash.  He read books the entire way, sitting by himself, minding his own business.

            At the Greyhound station in Iowa, Roman threw his duffel bag over his shoulder and began to walk.  He stuffed the second half of the round trip ticket into the front pocket of his jeans.  He walked through the center of town past the mom-and-pop shops and taverns and flower shops.  He ended up at the cemetery.  It was a small cemetery and he seemed to be the only visitor.  Roman scanned the tombstones and trees trying to remember the exact location.  It had been six years since he had been there, and although there were some things that looked familiar, Roman felt like it was his first time.  He saw a big oak, the biggest in the cemetery and remembered they were just west of it.  He walked to the tombstones and knelt down with duffel bag still over his shoulder.

            Sometimes when people lose loved ones and visit their graves, it makes them feel close to the departed.  They talk to them like they were sitting at the kitchen table over dinner, and even though no one else can hear their response, the one still here seems to hang on every word.  Roman said nothing and heard nothing.  The stories he heard of extraordinary things happening in cemeteries, to him were just fairy tales.  He felt alone even though he was only six feet above them both.  There were no surges of wind to let him know they were there and watching.  Birds did not start to chirp.  The earth did not move.  There were only two gray headstones that were now weathered by time and less glossy than he remembered.  The dates on the stones were todayís date only six years earlier.  Roman reached in his duffel bag and pulled out their gifts.  He placed the bouquet of white carnations on his motherís grave and a baseball, brown from use, onto his fatherís.  He wanted to speak but the words would not come.  They would understand anyway he thought.  Roman sat there the good part of the afternoon not speaking or crying.  Crying got old the first few weeks after their deaths.  Memories flooded his mind and smiles came to his lips from time to time.

            "I thought I might find you here," a voice said from behind.

            Roman turned and jumped to his feet.  He looked at the giant man behind him and took a few steps back, thinking of running, but holding the urge at bay.

            "Youíve turned into a man Roman, physically I mean of course.  You look good," Johnson said.

            "Agent Johnson," Roman said with exhaustion, scanning the cemetery for more agents.

            "Still blaming yourself for their deaths?" Johnson said with a smile that hid his pity.

            "Still trying to kill the enemy and reverse 9/11?" Roman asked.

            Johnsonís smile faded.  "I have to say Iíve seen a lot in my travels over the years, but your stunt with the trains last time was very impressive."

            Johnson looked at Roman trying to read his thoughts.  "I know you want to run, but take this under consideration: the gun in my hand has a dart filled with a tailor-made cocktail thatíll stop a buffalo in his tracks thirty yards away.  Besides, arenít you tired of this?  Tired of the running, the hiding?"

            Roman said nothing.

            "If itís that business in Colombia youíre worried about rest assured it was a success whether you realize it or not.  Thereís always going to be some collateral damage, Roman.  Iím sure youíve heard the saying that to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs."

            "Iím sure youíve heard the saying that liars prosper," Roman said back.  "I just want a normal life."

            "That stopped being an option the moment you laid eyes on the Jesup file.  What exactly is it that anyway, a normal life?  Your country needs you."

            Roman laughed sarcastically.  "No, my country thinks Iím a national security risk."

            "I was trying to be cordial.  Look, Iím taking you back one way or another.  Itíll be the easiest on both of us if you just come on your own accord," Johnson responded.

            Roman stared into his eyes and then looked at the black van parked on the path fifty yards away, then back at the man.  With a swift kick to Johnsonís hand the dart gun went flying through the air.  Roman took off.  Johnson ran to his van, started it, and began after him.  Roman ran down one of the car paths in the cemetery, but in a matter of seconds the van had caught up to him.  Roman darted to his right hurdling the tombstones.  The van circled around and followed from a distance on one of the asphalt paths.  Roman stopped on the far side of a mausoleum, out of sight from the van.  He waited several minutes hoping the van would turn off and then he would make his escape.  If Agent Johnson was on foot Roman had the advantage gun or no gun.  The vanís engine continued to run.  Roman peeked around the corner but couldnít see a passenger in the van because of the tinted windows.  A twig broke behind him. In that split second a four inch needle on the end of a syringe came at Romanís neck.  Roman grabbed Johnsonís arm and stopped the penetration just centimeters shy of his neck.  Johnsonís weight pinned him against the brick wall of the mausoleum.  Johnson was at least five inches taller and outweighed Roman by a good seventy pounds.  With Romanís free arm he threw an elbow at Johnsonís temple but Johnson blocked.  Another elbow, Johnson blocked again and grabbed onto Romanís free arm pinning it against the wall as well.  The needle was now right against Romanís throat.  Roman kneed Johnson in the groin, then again.  Johnsonís grip loosened and Roman grabbed his attackerís ear, pulling it downward just before the point of ripping it.  Johnson let out a moan.  Roman kicked Johnson in the back of his leg buckling him to the ground on one knee and bent back the wrist of the hand that held the needle.  Johnson let go.  Without hesitation Roman jabbed it in the side of Johnsonís neck and pushed the concoction from the syringe into the agentís veins.  Johnson wrapped his arms tightly around Romanís waist.  He looked up at Romanís eyes.  Roman sidestepped the wall with Johnson still holding on.  The grip got lighter and eventually turned to nothing.

            Roman dropped the needle and started running for Johnsonís van.   He was halfway to the vehicle when he felt a sharp pain in the back of his leg.  He reached down and pulled out the dart, but he could already feel the poison taking over.  His eyes began to feel heavy and his vision blurred but he managed to turn around and look at Johnson.  The agent was still on the ground but had enough strength left to lift his head and squeeze a round off from his heavy hands before he completely passed out.

            Roman fell to his knees and began to crawl toward the van, fighting the toxins as best he could.  Soon though he was on his back looking at the sun.  It was warm on his face.  Roman tried hard to smile but his muscles didnít respond.  Then darkness.

 

VI

            Although he couldnít feel it, he could hear the wind blowing, rattling the leaves on the trees in the cemetery and blowing the tips of the grass.  At first he thought he was dreaming, but as his senses started to return slowly and nerves began to tingle first in his fingers and then in his toes, Roman knew he was not.  His eyes saw only a black void.  He tried to open them but the lids were like stones cemented shut.  He gave the command to clench his fist, but only his thumb twitched.  The neuro pathways in his brain began to signal each other and Roman began to do what he did best.  He began to think.

            Whatever toxins were in his blood stream were beginning to fade, and soon enough he would be back to full working order.  After all Johnson did not want to kill him, only to restrain him for his trip back.  Agent Johnson.  That was the real problem.  He too was frozen on the ground.  But for how long?  Roman guessed that the needle that Johnson first tried to stick him with was able to hold more of the poison than the dart and thatís why Johnson chose it.  The dart gun was a last resort used only in a circumstance such as the one that happened earlier.  It would have been nice to think that that dart was a last desperate measure from a man falling asleep and thus being lucky.  Roman knew better.  He had seen Agent Johnson shoot numerous times, and luck had nothing to do with it.

            To the business at hand.  There was more poison in the needle that Roman put into Johnson, but Johnson was bigger than him, a lot bigger.  Roman thought that it was probably a draw on who would be completely mobile first.  Now reluctantly, all he could do was wait.

            Minutes passed and Roman began to feel his legs, first his calves and then just above his knees.  It felt like a million sharp needles stabbing at his muscles, much like the feeling of your hand falling asleep and then finally awakening.  Finally his eyes opened.  It was now night and Roman had lain there for several hours.  There were no stars or comets or the shining moon, only a gray layer of clouds.  His head still would not turn.  How badly he wanted to raise up and look to see if Johnson was still lying next to the mausoleum.  He would find out soon enough.

            Time passed again and now Roman was beginning to move all of his limbs.  He still couldnít raise his head but he could turn his body with his legs and aim his head toward the spot where Johnson was.  It was dark by the mausoleum but Roman could see him.  Still on the ground the way he last remembered.  Then there were footsteps walking softly on the brown grass of fall, coming from the opposite directionóseveral footsteps.  At least three people, maybe five Roman thought.

            There were four actually and now they stood over him.  They were his age or a little older, maybe classmates from long ago, but Roman did not have time for a reunion.  One of them bent down and looked at Romanís face.

            "You all right buddy?" he asked.

            Roman tried but the words were locked in his brain.  He still couldnít feel his lips much less use them.

            "This dude must be paralyzed or something," the same guy said, not noticing the small dart that lay a couple feet behind Roman.

            "We better get some help," another of them said.

            "Fuck that, see if heís got any green on him," yet a third one said.

            The first guy knelt down again and felt in Romanís pockets.  Patting him down like airport security.

            "He ainít even got a wallet on him," the guy said.

            "Look," the third one said. "Thereís somebody else laying over by that building.  Letís check him out."

            The four anti-Samaritans started toward Johnson, except Johnson was beginning to stir, still immobile for the most part, but he was conscious.  Seeing this gave Roman the much needed adrenaline boost he was waiting for.  He could now feel the cold air on his skin and was able to move, not totally, but he had a minimal control of his whole body.  He turned his head toward the van and saw that it was about thirty yards from him.  He got to his feet, not dizzy but drunk, like he was looking through water.  He took a couple of steps and then fell back down.  He used his arms to pull and his legs to push, crawling toward the black van.  He didnít look back; any hesitation could cost him his freedom.  His stomach was upset and he puked, still crawling and clawing.

            The four of them stood around Johnson.  One of them nudged him hard with his foot.  There was no counterattack.  The one that checked Romanís pockets began to do the same to Johnson.  He found his wallet in his back pocket.  There was no ID but there was plenty of cash.

            "Jackpot," he said. "There must be four hundred dollars here not to mention the plastic."

            "Letís get out of here and count it later," one of them said.

            They all agreed and started to walk off but a couple of steps into their exit a hand grabbed the back of the neck of the guy holding the money.  The other three froze as well.  Johnson was on his feet.

            Roman could hear the engine of the van still running.  Just have enough gas to get me out of this cemetery.  He crawled up the side of the door and propped himself against it, standing but wobbling.  He pulled on the door.  He pulled again.  It was locked.  All the doors were locked.  Roman looked toward the mausoleum.  There were now four bodies lying next to it, and Johnson was walking toward him.  Johnson was swaying back and forth, walking with the uncoordinated stumble of a toddler, but quicker.  Roman took off his flannel and wrapped it around his elbow several times.  He hit the van window. Then again.  The third time it smashed but he felt the glass cut into his elbow.  Johnson was twenty feet away and picking up the pace.  Roman reached in and unlocked the door still wincing with pain.  The door opened and Roman sat down in the driverís seat still dazed from Johnsonís concoction.  The fuel gauge read empty yet the van was still running.  He glanced at the rear view mirror and saw the chains and shackles hanging in the backódevices meant for him.

            Roman shifted the van into drive and pushed the pedal to the floorboard, but Johnsonís arm was already in the window.  He grabbed Roman by the neck.  The tires smoked against the asphalt pavement and cried a shrill, high-pitched whine.  Johnson let go of Romanís neck and grabbed the unused seat belt hanging from the corner of the vanís ceiling.  At the same time he jumped onto the vanís side panels so his feet would not drag, as if he done the maneuver a million times over.  Roman kept the gas pedal down and in several seconds the van was running eighty through the small cemetery.  Roman cut the wheel back and forth to the point of almost tipping the van, but Johnson held tight.  Roman steered the van off the paved road, onto the actual graves, hitting the tombstones like speed bumps.  It was all Roman could do to hold on himself.  The vanís grill was now in pieces and directly under it was shredded metal.  There was nothing left of the bumper and the crashes against the tombstones thudded harder.  Roman drove for the big oak just east of his parentís grave.  If he could pass it on the right side, maybe he could clip Agent Johnson off; hopefully Johnson would jump first.  Roman wove in and out of the tombstones trying to build as much speed as possible.  The same instant the vanís driver side mirror was clipped off by the big oak, Johnson jumped away.  The van scraped against the bark of the tree making the same sound as fingernails on a chalkboard, only deeper.  Roman looked in his rearview mirror and saw Johnson hit the ground, turning his fall into a smooth roll.  Roman saw the south exit of the cemetery and his anxiety lifted, but that feeling was short lived.  The engine sputtered, like a dying person taking his last painful breaths.  Then it was dead and empty.  The van continued to roll toward the exit on the momentum it had mustered but was slowing rapidly.  Johnson rolled to his feet without ever putting his hand on the ground and ran toward the van all in one motion.  Roman did not wait for the van to stop completely.  He jumped out landing on his feet as well.  He looked toward the exit; his heart told him to run, but he did not.  Instead he turned and looked at Johnson running toward him.  He unwrapped the blood soaked flannel from his elbow and dropped it to the ground.

            Agent Johnsonís run slowed into a brisk walk.  Seconds later he stood in front of Roman with his gray designer suit soiled and torn.  He reached in his pocket and pulled out the dart gun, but it was mangled beyond recognition.  Johnson threw it to the ground.  He shook the pocket out of one of his pant legs and what used to be his cell phone hit the pavement in several shattered pieces.  Johnson gave a deep sigh fulfilling both his need for oxygen and the frustration he felt.

            "Iím done running," Roman said.

            "Iím glad youíve come to your senses," Johnson said back.

            He grabbed Roman by the back of his shirt, not like an enemy or a man that wanted him dead, but like a friend.  Like a father.  He led Roman down the side of the van looking at the long indentions that the oak inflicted.  Johnson reached onto his belt hidden by his suit coat and produced a key chain.  He unlocked the double doors at the back of the van.  Chains hung from the ceiling with shackles at their ends, five in all, one large one for the neck.

            "Get in please," Johnson said.

            Roman held out his hand, the hand that was on his injured arm.  Johnson looked at it, his eyes following Romanís blood from his hand to his elbow.  Romanís gesture was one of surrender.  Johnson shook it but did not let go.  Instead he raised it to one of the shackles.   But before Johnson could close it Roman grabbed his arm and clamped Johnsonís wrist inside.  Roman grabbed the key chain and yanked it off Johnsonís belt, throwing the keys as far across the cemetery as he could left-handed.

            "I said I was done running.  I didnít say I was going with you."

            Johnson gave a smug grin and shook his head.  Roman began to jog toward the exit.

"I will find you, Swivel," Johnson yelled.

            "Maybe." The voice echoed in the dark Iowa night.



Chapter 3

 

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