Breach Kick


I had been waiting for things to shake out, give myself a chance to get the facts sorted, but on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I realized there was no more waiting, that I would have to find Durney McKusker's killer. On that day, I was at the barber's for a shave and a haircut, and the barber asked me about the tiny red spots around my left eye. He had just taken a hot towel off my face, and was foaming soap with his brush, when he said, "Ora, what are these red dots around your eye?"

I hadn't previously noticed the spots myself, which might seem odd, but on that morning I knew I would be going to the barber, and had therefore neglected most of the routines that would ordinarily involve looking closely at my face in the mirror. I actually enjoy looking at myself in the mirror. I keep my face very clean. But when I brush and floss my teeth, I direct all my attention to my mouth, and espcially so on this particular morning since my mouth was hurting like hell, a problem made only worse when I gargled Listerine. Also, my glasses, when they were on, actually made the spots more difficult to see, not easier. As soon as the barber described the spots, however, I knew exactly what they were because I had been to see the doctor about the same problem a couple years before, and from what the doctor said, I was fairly certain the spots had been caused by an especially rough episode, the preceding day, of strangling myself. The doctor didn't say any such thing outright, but he made statements like "usually caused by a trauma to the head—sometimes, in people with colds, by violent fits of coughing." I could tell by his tone of voice that he was hinting at, sort of tip-toeing around, the possible causes, but that he had no wish to ask any direct questions; he certainly didn't want to know the answers to the unasked questions that sort of hung in the air between us. It's hell working in the rackets; you can't ever have a normal relationship with your doctor or your lawyer or your accountant or your pastor. Everybody knows you're a gangster, but nobody let's on; nobody wants it known that they know. Doc probably thought I had been strangled in a fight—I'm a bagman mostly, but also an enforcer. Doc would refuse to say anything that might make me think he suspected those spots had been caused by the violence, which, unfortunately and unfairly, is often associated with my occupation.

It was somewhat funny, therefore, that the spots had nothing whatsoever to do with my work for the local mob, but rather with a personal activity I sometimes enjoy in the privacy of my own home. Just goes to show that nobody, not even doctors, should make assumptions. In any case, the doctor said that, whatever the precipitating cause, the spots were harmless broken capillaries, and would clear up in a few days. Despite this favorable prognosis, and the hilarity of the situation, I left his office feeling a little anxious. I remember getting into my car, rolling down the windows, and listening to "Techniques for Relaxation", a cassette tape I had recently purchased from Waldenbooks at the mall over in La Salle. Following the instructions on the tape, I mentally noted the red spots, dismissed them, and then let my attention return to my breathing, which I accomplished by smoking a cigarette. I'm not actually a smoker—in fact, I strongly disapprove of smoking, but it helps me to concentrate on my breathing, and I find it difficult to complete the relaxation exercises without smoking.

A couple years later, therefore, when my barber asked me about the red spots around my eye, I didn't particularly want to tell him how I got them, so I said, "Hmm...I had those last year too and went to the doctor. He said they're caused by stress." It was only partially untrue.

The barber put his straight razor to my neck and began shaving.

As I said, it was only partially untrue that the spots were caused by stress. For two months, I had been under considerable stress, and neither the relaxation exercises nor my medications seemed to be working. Even smoking wasn't helping me to focus sufficiently on my breathing. When my medications and my relaxation exercises don't help, I try the long barrel of a loaded 9 mm rammed down my throat and a leather belt strapped tight-tight-and-tighter around my neck. That, my friends, gets you real focused real fast. Thus the broken capillaries, which manifested themselves as red spots, around my eye.

If the barber had been a dentist, he would have been asking instead about the gash wounds on the roof of my mouth. It's difficult to keep a gun in your mouth when you get excited, and shoving it repeatedly back down your throat can sometimes cause the front sights to cut the inside of your throat and mouth. Every defect, every deformity, every thing has a cause, I guess. I often wondered what caused me: I probably forgot to mention that I'm a bastard.

As the barber scraped away at my face with his razor blade, he said, somewhat philosophically, "Stress eh? Well, I never heard that before, but now I guess they're sayin' stress is the cause of all sorts of things we never thought of. The spots aren't that bad, really, and with your glasses on I don't think anyone'll even notice. I just hoped it wasn't anything serious."

"Neh. Like I said, I got it last year and it went away pretty fast. Doc said it's nothing to worry about, but that I should watch my stress levels."

"Stress levels? Well that sounds like good advice. I wouldn't mind findin' out what my stress level is."

I didn't know what stress level I was operating at either, but it was pretty high. Did I mention it had been a stressful two months? Durney, my boss, was murdered, and I was pressed into the service of a rival gang. It wasn't an easy change to take. It felt like betrayal. Betrayal isn't a feeling you can explain so easily these days, because people have a pretty thin notion of loyalty. I don't think, for example, that I can say, "I was loyal to my boss," and expect people to understand what I really mean by "loyal". (People do still seem to understand friendship, which I find odd because I for one do not understand friendship, and I don't think I even have any friends.) When I tried, in the past, to explain what loyalty meant to me, people sort of snickered, and one son-of-a-bitch, Mitch Turner, he taunted me and claimed that I was in love with Durney, that I was some kind of faggot. I had never liked Mitch. For starters, he was a heavy drinker, and drinkers disgust me, especially sloppy drunks—it's no way to behave on the job (we both worked for Durney at the time). So when he started mocking me for my loyalty to Durney, our boss, I sort of snapped. Alabama Simmons held Mitch while I pounded his face in. I mean that literally: the cartilage and bone just collapsed like papier mâché, only it wasn't dry like papier mâché is, but warm and moist and soft, like a litter of baby possums I once found trying to nurse from their dead mother. I can't deny that I cried, when I found the baby possums trying to nurse from their dead mother; I cried hard for over an hour. I tried to save the babies, but one by one they died, and I cried in anger against the unjustness of the world, against its cruelty. Anyway, that's what Mitch's face felt like after I had finished beating it in: warm and soft and moist, like those baby possums, only I didn't cry for Mitch. I couldn't let him live even though I wanted him to live, because I wanted him to suffer as long as possible. But if I let him live, then he'd want his revenge and I couldn't handle the stress of having to watch my back every moment of every day. So I shot him in the face. It was weird, though, because the bullet just sort of disappeared into all of the gore that had formerly been his face: if the bullet hadn't blown out the back of his head, I wouldn't even have known that he had been shot. But that's what I mean about people not understanding loyalty anymore: if anything, they think it's something to laugh at, whereas for me it's something serious, and the stress of Durney's death was starting to break me down: every week it went unavenged, the stress became that much greater, and my anxiety more difficult to manage. Not all the Valium in the world could help.

I needed to kill the stress. I needed to find Durney's killer, and kill him. The problem was that I had very few leads to go on. The one person I thought might be able to help me was a woman who, people said, had at one time been Durney's mistress, and who, all agreed, continued to enjoy his confidence right up to the end. Her name was Blondie. Unfortunately, Blondie didn't particularly like me. For that matter, not many women do. My own mother abandoned me as an infant, which I guess puts me in that rare company of men whom not even a mother could love.

I paid the barber and gave him a tip. I don't understand why you have to tip a barber. Why can't they just charge the amount of money they would like to receive for the services they render. That's how it works in the rackets. In the rackets, the only kind of tip is information.

I stepped outside. Main Street in Tiskilwa. It was cold and gray out. I sat down on a bench. There's never anybody on Main Street. Town looks fucking deserted half the time. Across the street was the grain elevator: big, concrete towers connected by catwalks at the top. Not as big as the Galena Trail grain elevator down on the river, but still pretty big, built between Main Street and a railroad siding. Gray concrete grain elevator towers on a gray day. It sort of leached the life out of you.

I noticed a young guy walking on the sidewalk across the street. I didn't recognize him, which was unusual in Tiskilwa. From where I sat, he looked like a very young Tab Hunter. It's weird how people can look just like movie stars, and yet not themselves be movie stars. This Tab-Hunter-lookalike was walking with that mopey strut that high schoolers sometimes have, but he couldn't have been a high schooler because they were all in school just then. He was moping down the sidewalk in nylon basketball shorts and knee-high compression socks. I thought he must be cold, but youngsters never do get cold, do they. He turned off the sidewalk and disappeared behind the grain elevator. I wondered what he was up to. I considered following him, but I wanted to go speak with Blondie...

Last I heard, Blondie was still working at a motel in Bureau Junction. So I drove there.

This motel always had a shabby, derelict appearance in the early winter, especially in the morning. You certainly wouldn't have guessed that the holidays were upon us—Thanksgiving just two days away. Inside the motel, at the reception desk, I asked for Blondie, and the desk clerk pointed toward the cocktail lounge, saying, somewhat dismissively, "Back there," as if he was giving me directions to the service entrance, or maybe the toilet.

I hadn't seen Blondie in a few months, but she looked as if she had aged five years since then. She stood behind the bar, drying pilsner glasses with a white rag. There were no customers. The alcoholics and gambling addicts usually don't start coming out until the afternoon. She dropped the bar rag and approached me without interest or enthusiasm. "Hello Ora," she said, "What can I get you?"

"Hi Blondie. Actually, I just came to see you."

"Well, you'd better order something anyway. Art sees you sitting here just talking to me, he'll get suspicious."

"Alright. Give me a glass of soda water."

She poured me a tumbler of club soda, with no ice, from a 10 ounce bottle. I hate soda water with no ice, and I don't particularly like it from a bottle, though it's better from a bottle than from a can.

I said, "I thought you fired Art?"

"Well, he's back. And I'm lucky I still have a job."

"What do you mean?"

"What do you mean, what do I mean? I ended up on the losing team—same as you. The new owners made Art manager. I suppose he was one of Peoria's stooges all along. I knew there wasn't something right about him; I just never knew how wrong."

"But I thought it was Durney wanted you to hire Art in the first place?"

"That's right. Durney said it was a favor for a friend, or someone he thought was a friend. He didn't have many friends in the end, did he? Not true ones anyway."

That last comment made me feel defensive, as if she were suggesting that I was among those who hadn't been loyal to Durney. I said,"Look, Blondie, I know we never got along very well, but—"

"Guess we didn't at that, and now none of it matters anyway. I'm lucky they offered me this job tending bar. What did they give you?"

"Sleufooting for Vending and Amusements."

"Peoria V and A? That's where we get our poker and cigarette machines from now. Pinball machines too, I think. Don't you feel guilty?"

"For what?"

"Working for the bastards that murdered Durney."

"That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about."

"How's that?"

"What makes you so certain they were behind it?"

She shrugged her shoulders, "Who else?"

"People always claimed you were so smart..."

"I don't understand," she said, more as if she didn't want to understand. She picked up her rag and began drying glasses again.

I said, "Things had gotten crazy that last month. Weird crazy. You saw it yourself; you know you did. An ordinary gangland hit would have been clean, and this was anything but clean. Durney had Todd Menocken killed, and then just hours later Durney himself was plugged. How does that happen? What are the chances? I want to find out who really killed Durney, and run the fucker to ground. I think you can help me."

"I don't need to relive Durney's death, Ora."

"But don't you want to know what really happened? Don't you want to get whoever did it?"

"Do I want to?" She stood there, silently. She dropped the bar rag again, then put a cigarette on her lips and lit it, almost as if to provoke me, almost as if she knew how much I hated watching women smoke. She said, "No, I don't know as I do. It won't bring him back, will it."

"But for revenge."

She shook her head, and then, exhaling smoke, said, "Revenge? I'm not even sure I know what that word means to me. Why the sudden interest, anyway? I never knew you and Durney were that close."

Fucking bitch, always thought she was the only one who had ever been "close" to Durney, and maybe she was. I never wanted that anyway, never wanted to be close to Durney in the sickening sentimental way she meant it. I couldn't explain to her that loyalty wasn't about being close, couldn't expect her to understand what it meant to me, my loyalty to Durney: it was the only thing about which I had ever been completely certain, and his gang was practically the only family I had ever known. I was born a bastard, and had been looking for loyalty long before I knew what to call it. Working for Durney was the best thing that ever happened to me, and in Durney I found the bond of loyalty that I had been seeking my whole life. So no, Durney and I weren't close; we weren't intimate. She could take her closeness and shove it up her cunt for all I cared; I couldn't expect a woman to understand that loyalty was a relationship even greater than mere intimacy. But I also couldn't afford to alienate Blondie. "Say what you want about me, Blondie, but I think even you will admit that I was always honest and loyal where Durney was concerned."

She tapped an ash into a square glass ashtray. "Okay, but how do I know that you aren't just as loyal and honest to your new bosses?"

I almost winced when she said that. Loyalty isn't something that can be transferred from one person to another. It's not like love. It's not an affection; it's more like an unalaterable law of physics. I would always be loyal to Durney first and foremost, and all other loyalties would forever have to square themselves with that one. I could never be loyal to my new bosses until I knew that they weren't behind his murder. In life, all your loyalties have to balance, like a checkbook; it's a zero sum game. I couldn't be loyal to one person if that loyalty in any way compromised my initial loyalty to Durney. It's how come I could be loyal to Alabama Simmons, and he could be loyal to me: because our loyalty to each other could never require any disloyalty to our ace. It's why I believed I could trust Blondie, because I knew that, despite her hatred for me, we both shared that principal loyalty to Durney, and therefore nothing either of us ever did could undermine that principal loyalty. We were like blood relatives who disliked each other. Still, I was in no position to argue with her, so I conceded, "I guess you can't. You'd just have to trust me. Durney always said you had a way of understanding, of knowing, people. I wonder if he was right. Do you, for example, really understand me? If I find out the boys in Peoria really were responsible for his murder, you can bet I won't be working for them much longer: I'd rather die taking my revenge. If you really believe they're the ones, then what are you doing working for them yourself?"

"For Christ's sake, Ora, what else am I supposed to do, at my age? Start selling Avon?"

"So that's it, then? You just want to go on living?" She suddenly seemed pathetic to me, stripped of all dignity, satisfied merely to continue living, to survive, and for what? What did she even have that was worth living for?

She said, "Okay, well tell me what you do know, and I'll see if I can add anything"

"It's just an idea. There was this man. I think this person either pulled the trigger himself, or else set Durney up for the hit. But I don't know who this man was working for, or why."

"Who was it then?"

"I only ever knew his first name, Bruce; he never told me his last name. Durney seemed to trust him completely. He was night auditor for the Galena Trail Farmer's Cooperative, at their grain elevator down on the river. He was there, at the grain elevator, with Durney and me, the night Durney was murdered, and when I left that night, he and Durney were alone together in the night auditor's office. It was Bruce who later called the police and claimed to have found Durney's dead body inside the trailer office. I think he either killed Durney himself, or else put the finger on him. Did Durney ever say anything to you about somebody named Bruce?"

Emphatically, she said, "No."

That really surprised me. I always assumed Durney told her everything. That really surprised me.

"So why are you talking to me? I don't know this guy, Bruce. Durney never mentioned him to me. Why aren't you out looking for him?"

"That's just it. A week after everything went down, I did go back to the grain elevator, and asked if there was a person working there named Bruce. The secretary confirmed that there was, and I asked if I could speak with him. She got on the telephone, and eventually a man appeared in the office. He introduced himself as Bruce, and asked what he could do for me. But it wasn't Bruce. I said to him and the secretary that there must be another Bruce working there, that the Bruce I wanted was the night auditor. This guy said that he was the night auditor, so I said, no, I meant the night auditor who found the dead body the week before. Again this guy said that he was the night auditor who discovered the dead body, and that it was him who called the police. The secretary was nodding and grimacing a little, as if she thought I was a madman. But I'm telling you, Blondie, this guy was not Bruce, and the man I'm looking for is out there somewhere and I want to find him."

"But you say Durney knew him?"

I nodded. Actually, I knew him too, I guess you could say. He turned up about a year before, I can't remember when exactly. Durney favored him, and he gave me the impression that he was sort of looking out for Durney. He'd meet me places, and ask for updates about Durney. I thought I was helping him help Durney, helping him keep an eye on the bigger picture. I guess it ended up being a little more than that. We sort of became friends, or so I thought. I never really had friends before that; I really liked Bruce. He and I seemed to be on the same wavelength. I thought there was a mutual loyalty there, a mutual loyalty to Durney.

Blondie finished smoking her cigarette, and ground it out in the ashtray. The crushed cigarette butt made me think of Durney, all burnt out, dead and abandoned in the most undignified way. She stood there silently, and then, somewhat panicked, she said, "Here comes Art. You have to leave. A lot of stuff did happen; you're right about that. One thing agitating Durney was that Todd Menocken showed up—one day, about a month before Durney was murdered—and made a big to-do about the fact that he had brought a union organizer into Elmville. For some reason, Durney felt threatened by this, but Todd acted as though he was doing Durney a big favor. The guy's name was...what was his name? He was shacked up at the Ragon Motel...Will Sneed—that was his name. Now you gotta get out of here."

As I left the cocktail lounge, I passed Art Newman, who said, with phoney friendliness, "Ora Thomas! Long time no see. What brings you here?"

"Just in the area and thought I'd stop by for a drink."

"I never thought you drank. Well I'll join you for a second one, on the house."

"Another time, maybe. I have an appointment down in Lacon."

"Oh, certainly, of course. Well it sure is good to see you Ora," and he vigorously shook my hand.

I got in my car and and thought over what Blondie had told me. It didn't seem like much to go on, but I had nothing else. I looked at my eye in the visor mirror. The barber was right: with my glasses on, the red spots weren't terribly noticeable.

I drove to Elmville, to see if anybody at the Ragon knew anything.