WHAT CAN AIL THE MASTIFF BITCH?
Beer, cigarettes, grease, dirt, perfume, vomit and piss joined together to form one smell to rule them all. This was what you encountered when you entered Knucklebones. Every time it went up my sensitive nostrils I had to blink a few times to keep my eyes from watering.
If the smell didn't keep away newcomers, the regular patrons did. A Knucklebones virgin would have seen construction workers with forceful laughter rising from their thick chests, toothless old men squinting at others over their beers, women who wore too much makeup and too little clothing, hairy fellows talking out loud to nobody and a bartender ready to break a bottle over any troublemaker's head.
And then there were the Cretins. The name of their gang was written in studs on the backs of their blue corduroy jackets, usually above a human skull or a naked lady. They had their own private spot near the jukebox that only played their favorite songs. None of them ever looked outside of their circle on his own. They all looked at an outsider at the same time.
They were all staring at Jamie, Mouse and me when we entered Knucklebones. With her dirty fingernails and hard stare, Jamie looked appropriate for the bar. However, with my long hair and slightly effeminate face, I looked like I belonged on stage with Justin Timberlake. As for Mouse...well, he just looked like he took a wrong turn somewhere.
One of the Cretins walked over to us. More like thumped, actually. Unlike some of the other Cretins, his tall body had no beer belly. He also had several scars criss-crossing his face.
He stopped right in front of Jamie. He looked down at her. She looked up at him. Neither of them blinked. The jukebox played Motorhead -- "I'm so bad, baby, I don't care."
"Lookin' for trouble?" the tall Cretin asked.
"Nah," Jamie said. "I'm looking to kick some ass."
The tall Cretin stared at her for a few moments. Then he turned and walked in his heavy way to the pool table. A couple of guys were playing pool, but they quickly stopped. When the tall Cretin took one of their cues, he heard no objections.
Then he clumped back toward Jamie. He held the cue in one hand like a toothpick. He stopped a few steps away from Jamie, stared at her for another second and then threw the cue at her.
She caught it smoothly in one hand. Half of a smile picked up a corner of her mouth.
The tall Cretin gave her the same smile in return. "Rack 'em up," he said.
The other Cretins cheered. The two guys playing pool moved to one side, but they didn't mind too badly. They were about to see a clash of the champions. The tall Cretin -- his name was Grant -- and Jamie had been pitting their skills against each other for two years.
Mouse and I joined Jamie at the pool table with the Cretins. One of the Cretins went to get Jamie a beer as the balls were racked up. Another Cretin came toward Mouse and said, "Hey, Mouse, how's it goin'? You groovy?"
"I'm groovy," Mouse cheerfully replied, even though he had no idea what that meant.
The Cretin nodded. His name was Joey, and his gray ponytailed hair marked him as one of the senior Cretins. He said, "Have you ever heard about this new model Harley is coming out with?"
Mouse nodded and started to talk about engines. At this point I tuned out their conversation. Mouse and Joey were both gearheads. They could talk about machines into the wee hours. Mouse had even done repair jobs on Cretin motorcycles. That was a risky proposition. Mouse could either get a bike to run like new or make it explode -- nothing in between. Fortunately for diplomatic relationships between the Tunnel Dwellers and the Cretins, only the former had occurred.
As Grant made the break, I caught the eye of Dan. He was the leader of the Cretins. Unlike his compatriots, I had never seen Dan look mean, even when he was knocking teeth out of somebody's mouth. I nodded to him. He motioned toward the bar, meaning he wanted a private talk.
We walked toward the bartender. "Are you finally going to buy me a beer?" I wondered.
Dan glanced at me, then said to the bartender, "A Coke for him."
"Aaaaah," I faux-moaned.
"Haven't seen you in a couple of months," Dan observed. He didn't mention the precise event that we had attended. It had been a memorial service for a friend -- a friend who died because of my actions.
"I've been hanging around with Father, mostly," I said.
Dan nodded. "Good to hear. Wasn't good to hear what happened to you on Fifth Avenue."
"Wasn't good to experience it, either." The old wound in my shoulder twinged.
"You know, if you're ever in trouble again, the brothers and I will be there to back you up. Same goes for your dad and the Tunnels."
"Well," I said as the bartender set a glass of soda in front of me," that's why they call you a Helper." I lifted the glass and toasted Dan.
"So, next time ask for help."
"Good. Glad to see you're being less of an asshole than you were two months ago."
"Was I being an asshole?"
"You have to ask?"
I smiled and sipped from the glass.
"By the way," Dan said, "some lady down at the other end of the bar is watching you."
"I noticed. She's been watching me ever since I walked in. Never saw her before."
"I have. She's been coming to this bar for the past week. Been quiet. Keeping to herself."
"Not for much longer. She's coming this way."
I eventually turned to face the woman. She didn't look like a regular of Knucklebones. She was dressed casually in a sweater and sneakers, but there are clothes people choose to wear for comfort and clothes people wear because they don't have anything else. Knucklebones' regulars favor the latter. This woman looked like she worked in an office.
At the same time, she didn't seem uncomfortable in the bar. She had a quiet confidence indicating that she knew how to handle herself in a dive. One of those things she undoubtedly had to do in Knucklebones was fend off would-be suitors. She was an attractive woman of Arabic descent. Her skin and eyes came in fine shades of brown. Her dark hair had been twisted into a long ponytail. The plainness of her clothes couldn't hide her healthy breasts and hips. When I turned to her, she smiled at me.
"You," she said, "look like an interesting person."
"Thanks," I replied. "So do you."
"Excuse me," Dan said and headed back alone to the pool table. His departure wasn't brusque at all. I wondered who had so skillfully taught decorum to the leader of the Cretins.
"You seem a little young to be in here," she observed.
"I am." I held up the glass. "That's why I'm drinking this. Not that." I indicated the glass of beer in her left hand.
"Still, I'm surprised they let you in here. Especially since you're not afraid to get in touch with your feminine side."
I laughed and scratched my long blonde hair. "I guess."
She moved forward until she was a few inches away from me. "What do you say we go somewhere quiet?"
Women have approached me a lot more than I have approached them. I'm not bragging about it.
Well, I am bragging. A little. However, I owe my attractiveness to genetics and a unique upbringing. It's nothing I had to obtain deliberately. I never had to chase after a woman.
Except for one. That's why I had to turn down this pretty stranger. I wish that my initial instinct had been to say "Nay, you cannot seduce me, woman!" But as I stood before this lady, I remembered how uncomplicated my love life had been just a few months ago. Back then it was sex, sex, sex with all kinds of women ranging from a pornography dealer to a famous movie star. And I would be lying if I said that I didn't miss it. I once had fun and orgasms. Now I had passion and devotion and a bunch of other bullshit that had given me nothing but grief. I was very tempted to relive the old days and forget about my current troubles. And I knew that Alexandra wouldn't mind. Hadn't she been the one to insist on the distance between us?
I would mind, though. Call me a reactionary, but I think love means putting a stamp on your dick that says "Property of My Amour."
It took me a few seconds to remember that. I cleared my throat and said, "Maybe we should stay right here."
The smile remained on the woman's face, even though her eyes appeared sad. "And the flirting stops just like that?"
"I'm sorry," I sighed. Turning to the right, I placed my glass on the bar. As I turned back to the woman, I said, "I'm very flattered, but right now I..."
Knucklebones, like all sensible bars, had a no-guns policy. And if you kept returning to a bar, someone there would have noticed that you were packing heat. This woman obviously knew that, so she instead had brought a knife.
She hadn't stopped smiling, but now her voice was a hiss. "Be calm," she said, "or I'll cut you wide open."
I hadn't heard the click of her switchblade in the noise of the bar. Neither had anybody else. She was standing close to me so nobody else could see the knife pointing at my stomach.
I froze the smile on my face. "Do I look calm?" I asked.
"Enough." She placed her glass on the bar. "Now the two of us are going to walk out of here. Try to warn anyone and I'll rip your intestines out. Are we clear?"
I nodded. She reached under my jacket and curved her arm around my side. I could feel the wrist of her knife-hand against my back.
"Put your arm on my shoulders and walk to the door. Look casual."
I obeyed her orders. Hey, look, a customer might have said. Jacob bagged himself another one. Look at her pawing him under his jacket, har-har.
I wasn't scared, but not just because I had been in tight situations before. I had the odd feeling that this woman could listen to reason. As we exited the bar for the sidewalk, I said, "Mind if I ask..."
She pressed her hand against my back. "Move. We're heading for the subway."
"Look, whatever I did..."
"Shut up and keep..."
The door to Knucklebones opened and several people exited at once. It sounded a little too rushed to my ears. It sounded the same way to my kidnapper. She yanked my arm off her shoulders, jerked my hand behind my back and spun me toward the door. She held the knife just a centimeter away from my throat.
I could now see Jamie, Dan and the Cretins. Jamie must have seen me with the woman and gotten suspicious. Jamie and Grant were still holding pool cues. Mouse looked around the corner of the door in confusion.
"Think about what you're doing, lady," Jamie suggested as she gripped the stick.
"You think about whether you want your friend to die." The woman forced me to move backwards, but slowly. Jamie and the Cretins followed her, equally slow.
Dan, as always, looked kind. "Ma'am," he said, "even if you get out of here, we will find you. We have contacts all over this city."
"I'm sure you do," the woman sneered and pushed my arm up another painful inch. "This shithead's friends will undoubtedly help him like last time."
"Last time?" I whispered. I felt very conscious of my neck muscles at that moment.
"Joe Maxwell sends his regards," she growled in my ear.
Now it was clear. With a louder voice I said, "Jamie, go back inside."
Jamie looked firmly into my eyes, wanting to know if I was sure.
"All of you. Inside. Now."
Jamie turned to Dan. The two of them had a silent conversation, then Dan nodded to the Cretins. Reluctantly they pulled back into the bar. Jamie gave Mouse a firm nudge to keep him indoors.
"Is that supposed to impress me?" the woman said.
"This might." I grabbed the wrist of her knife-hand with my free arm. She had been expecting that, but not my speed and strength. Before she could respond, I pulled the knife away from my throat and jerked my other hand out of her hold. My left hand joined my right hand on her arm, and I swung her to the front of me.
She was faster and stronger than I had expected, too. As I swung her around, she hit me in the ear with her free hand. I saw spots squirm in front of my eyes. I decided that I had taken enough of this.
When I got her all the way around, I charged forward and slammed her against the wall of Knucklebones. She clenched her teeth and kept from crying out, but her hand weakened. The knife slipped from her hand and landed on the sidewalk.
As I pressed her against the brick wall, I got right in her face and said, "You think I'm responsible for Joe's death, don't you?"
Her angry expression was my answer.
I pushed myself away from her and spread out my arms. "But not in the way you think."
She stared at me, undoubtedly wondering if she should go for the knife.
"Know this -- if I could have taken the bullet for Joe, I would have. He was my friend -- one of the best friends I've ever had. And I'm guessing he was your friend as well. Which means that we could be friends, but we got started on the wrong foot here."
Her expression was becoming more confused than angry. I continued, "I'm also guessing you know I was there when Joe got shot. And maybe you also think I set him up for a hit, right?"
"What else am I supposed to think?" she muttered.
"I don't know." I sighed, then said, "I'm Jacob, by the way."
She took a long hard look at me, then bent down and picked up the knife. "Well, Jacob..." She stood up straight and folded the knife. "...why were you sitting next to Joe when he got shot? And how come I haven't found one statement by you in the police records? And just how were you responsible for his death?"
I crossed my hands behind my back. "It's complicated."
"Short answer -- I did some stupid things that put Joe in the cross hairs."
"Whose cross-hairs? The people who killed Russ Garner?"
I laughed briefly and without mirth. "You know quite a bit."
"Not nearly enough. What I do know is that Joe had been investigating the murder of a book-dealer. And that the description of the young man with him at the time of his death matches the description of another young man involved in a rather unusual incident at 817 Fifth Avenue. I also know that even though there are a whole lot of things here which make zip sense, nobody -- and I mean, nobody, not the new District Attorney, nobody in his office, the police department, the mayor's office, the media, Homeland fucking Security -- seems to want answers." She paused, then added, "Except me."
"I gather you used to work for the D.A."
"I was an assistant for Joe. I used to work for the new D.A. until I got tired of getting jerked around."
"So you hang out in bars."
"I've been going to the places Joe used to visit regularly. Like this place." She pointed her thumb at Knucklebones. "I couldn't figure out why the hell he kept coming here. I only learned about it after I went through his personal stuff."
"His personal stuff? How did you get access to..." I paused to examine her tense face, then said, "An assistant, you say."
"And what else?"
"None of your damn business."
"I'm trying to understand why an apparently intelligent woman would try to kidnap a guy. I'm wondering what she thought she was going to do with him. Maybe she was driven by personal rea..."
"Joe and I were fucking each other. Okay?"
"You were lovers."
The woman looked away from me and took several breaths. "Forget him being D.A.," she finally said. "He didn't deserve this."
I walked up to her and almost placed a hand on her shoulder. I pulled back my hand at the last moment. She turned her face to me and said, "So that's my story. What's yours?"
"It's not something you just leap into. I understand why you pulled a knife on me. I sure as hell don't sympathize, but..."
"I didn't know what else to do. When I saw you, I thought -- I have to grab this. I have to bring this guy down and make him talk."
"You jumped through a window without looking."
"I guess so."
I had to smile. "Trust me, I've done that before. Literally and figuratively." I stopped smiling. "And that's what got Joe killed. Do yourself a favor -- back away from this. In fact, that's the very thing I told Joe to do before he was killed. Unfortunately I was too late for him. I hope I'm not too late for you."
I meant for those to be my last words. I turned away from the woman and walked toward the bar entrance. I had gone a few steps when I heard --
"I can't back away."
I stopped and looked at the woman. She looked back at me and, for the first time since I had met her, I felt scared. I felt scared for her and for everyone around her. I remembered what Edward Bradbury had told me about the Tower's more cautious policy toward assassinations. I didn't believe him then, but now I hoped he was telling the truth. If this woman ever got on the Tower's radar...
"What do you need to know?" I asked
Remember that lecture I gave her about resisting your impulses? Well, I'm not good at taking my own advice because I suddenly decided to do something that I had been told not to do since I was a baby.
"If you want to know everything," I told the woman, "then you follow these directions."
I explained where to go. At one point, she interrupted me. "Wait, that's underground."
"Yes. Come there tomorrow and wait."
"Why not right now?"
"Because there are preparations to make."
"Uh-huh. How do I know this isn't a trap?"
"Do you still think I'm working with the people who killed Joe?"
She hesitated, then said, "They're protecting you -- keeping you out of the light."
"I know. But they keep me a secret to keep their own asses a secret. Trust me -- I would love to just wipe them off the planet. If you want to know why that can't be done, follow my directions tomorrow."
She watched my face for any hints of trickery. She found a lot that didn't make sense, but no deception. "Okay," she said. "Why the hell not?"
With that she turned and walked away from me. I almost entered the bar when I realized something. "Hey," I called out.
She stopped and looked back at me.
"What's you name?" I asked.
"Layla Mubarak. And, no, I'm not named after that stupid song. I'm named after a writer."
She blinked. I shrugged and said, "I've read a little."
For the first time she gave me a real smile -- not a big one, but it was there. "You are an interesting person."
I waited until she turned a corner and left my sight. I entered the bar and discovered several people wondering what the hell just happened.
"It's cool now," I said.
"It's cool," Jamie echoed in a flat voice.
"Yeah. Look, I'm going back to the Tunnels. You can..."
"You're not going anywhere until you tell me who that woman was."
"I just met her myself."
Jamie looked like she wanted to crack a pool cue over my head. "What does that..."
"I'll tell you in the morning. Now I just want to go to bed. Good night."
On that rather petulant note I left Knucklebones. Jamie could have chased after me, but must have decided that I was having one of my snits. I was left to walk the streets of New York City alone.
I took the long way back to the Tunnels. I stopped by an abandoned store on 41st Street. Its owner had been murdered months ago. He had been a book-dealer. An hour after I had visited the empty store I sat on a bench in Central Park for awhile. I remembered seeing a friend getting shot on this very spot.
I finally reached the Tunnels and went to my chambers. As I rested in bed I thought about Layla. She was one more person I had hurt through my stupidity. What had been worth all this pain and death?
Then...oh, that voice, that voice reading Keats...the sound surfaced in my memory, overcoming my guilt, making me forget the stories of what she had done, what I had witnessed...
I feel asleep praying that I would meet her again.
When I awoke, I saw my father standing over me. His expression was kind, but also wary. Before I could say a word, he said --