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Authors: Richard Bowes

If angels fight

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Table of ContentsPart One: THE STREETS OF NEW YORKOn Death and the DeuceEast Side, West SideHis Only NoseWhips and WandsTears of Laughter, Tears of GriefThere’s A Hole in the CityOn the SlidePart Two: ACROSS WORLDS AND TIMEThe Ferryman’s WifeJacket JacksonThe Mask of the RexA Member of the Wedding of Heaven and HellPart Three: HOME AGAINBlood Yesterday, Blood TomorrowA Song to the MoonSavage DesignIf Angels FightAbout the Author

IF ANGELS FIGHT

RICHARD BOWES

FAIRWOOD PRESS

Bonney Lake, WA

IF ANGELS FIGHT

Stories by Richard Bowes

If Angels Fightincludes fourteen stories, written over the last twenty-five years, beginning with Bowes’ first published short fiction, “On Death and the Deuce.” These stories deal, among other things, with time travelers in 1950s U.S. suburbia, Vampire Fashion design and the marriage of Heaven and Hell. Many are set in various incarnations of New York City. Four of these stories appeared on Nebula short lists. “There’s a Hole in the City,” won the Million Writers and International Horror Guild awards. The tile story, “If Angels Fight,” won the World Fantasy Award.

“On Death and the Deuce,” “The Ferryman’s Wife,” “The Mask of the Rex,” and “There’s a Hole in the City,” were adapted into chapters for Bowes’ novels,Minions of the Moon,From the Files of the Time Rangers andDust Devil on a Quiet Street. We see them here in their original form.

You can learn more about Rick at his website:Rickbowes.com

IF ANGELS FIGHT

A Fairwood Press Book

October 2013

Copyright © 2013 Richard Bowes

All Rights Reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Fairwood Press

21528 104th Street Court East

Bonney Lake,WA 98391

www.fairwoodpress.com

Cover design by

KRISTINE DIKEMAN

Book design by

Patrick Swenson

ISBN: 978-1-933846-40-8

First Fairwood Press Edition: October 2013

Printed in the United States of America

eISBN: 978-1-62579-224-2

Electronic Version by Baen Books

www.baen.com

COPYRIGHTS

Stories copyright Richard Bowes except “Jacket Jackson,” copyright Richard Bowes & Mark Rich

“On Death and the Deuce” first appeared inThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction(May 1992)

“East Side, West Side” (3 flash stories)—”His Only Nose” first appeared inJenny;YSU Student

Literary Arts Association(2011) “Whipsand Wands” and “Tears of Laughter, Tears of Grief” appear here for the first time.

“There’s a Hole in the City” first appeared inSciFiction.com(June 2005)

“On the Slide” first appeared inNaked City;St. Martin Griffin (July 2007)

“The Ferryman’s Wife” first appeared inThe Magazine of Fantasy & ScienceFiction(May2001)

“Jacket Jackson” first appeared inElectric Velocipede#10 (Spring 2006)

“The Mask of the Rex” first appeared inThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction(May 2002)

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” first appeared inApex Magazine(March 2012)

“Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow” first appeared inBlood and Other Cravings;Tor (Sept 2011)

“A Song to the Moon” first appeared inBewere the Night;Prime Books (April 2011)

“Savage Design” first appeared inBloody Fabulous;Prime Books (Oct. 2012)

“If Angels Fight” first appeared inThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction(Feb. 2008)

To Paulette and Dennis For So Many Reasons

My Thanks to the One and Only Kris Dikemanand also to Patrick Swenson

My city is my subject. It’s the only place I’ve ever wanted to live. If I’m somewhere else I think of this place every day. Jeff Ford said New York was like a character in a lot of my stories and that seems right. Several of these stories, “On Death and the Deuce,” “There’s a Hole in the City,” “The Ferryman’s Wife,” “The Mask of the Rex,” were adapted into chapters in my novels. What you read here is each story as it originally appeared.

Part One:

THE STREETS OF NEW YORK

I hadn’t written short fiction since I was in college in the early ’60s. But in the summer of ’89 I started writing spec fiction short stories. “On Death and the Deuce” was the fifth story I wrote and the third one I sold. However it was the first to appear in print (F&SF, May 1992). It was included in a couple of “Best Of” anthologies and reprinted years later in the ’zine,Sybil’s Garage(March, 2007).

The narrator is Kevin Grierson and over the next five or six years I wrote and published nine more “Kevin Grierson” stories, all but two of them forF&SF. One novelette, “Streetcar Dreams,” won a World Fantasy Award and is included in a couple of my earlier collections. All ten of them became my novelMinions of the Moon, which won the Lambda Award and was nominated for the International Horror Guild and the Dublin Impac awards.

The location for this story is New York City but it’s the hard and damaged city of 1974 when I (like Kevin Grierson) was thirty. The dream of being murdered by a doppelganger is one I had. The therapist Leo Dunn is strongly based on Vincent Tracy, who helped me break my drug and drink addictions that year. I wasn’t as tough or desperate as Kevin Grierson. But I was, I assure you, every bit as stupid.

ON DEATH AND THE DEUCE

In the last days that the Irish ran Hell’s Kitchen I lived in that tenement neighborhood between the West Side docks and Times Square. An old lady of no charm whatsoever named McCready and called Mother rented furnished studios in an underheated fleabag on Tenth Avenue. Payment was cash only, by the week or month with anonymity guaranteed whether it was desired or not.

Looking out my window on a February morning, I spotted my Silent Partner heading south toward Forty-Second Street. He was already past me, so it was the clothes that caught my attention first. The camel hair overcoat had been mine. The dark gray pants were from the last good suit I had owned. That morning, I’d awakened from a drinking dream and was still savoring the warm, safe feeling that came with realizing it was all a nightmare and that I was sober. The sight of that figure three floors down filled my mouth with the remembered taste of booze. I tried to spit, but was too dry.

Hustlers called Forty-Second the Deuce. My Silent Partner turned on that corner and I willed him not to notice me. Just before heading east, he looked directly at my window. He wore shades but his face was the one I feared seeing most. It was mine. Seeing that made me too jumpy to stay in the twelve-by-fifteen foot room. Reaching behind the bed, I found the place where the wall and floor didn’t join. Inside was my worldly fortune: a slim .25 caliber Beretta and beside it a wad of bills. Extracting six twenties, I stuck the rest in my boots, put on a thick sweater and leather jacket, and went out.

At that hour, nothing much was cooking in Hell’s Kitchen. Two junkies went by, bent double by the wind off the Hudson.

Up the block, a super tossed away the belongings of a drag queen who the week before had gotten cut into bite-size chunks. My Silent Partner was not the kind to go for a casual walk in this weather.

Looking the way he had come, I saw the Club 596 sitting like a bunker at the corner of Forty-Third. The iron grating on the front was ajar but no lights were on inside. As I watched, a guy in a postman’s uniform squeezed out the door and hurried away. I knew that inside the 596, the Westies, last of the Mick gangs—short, crazed and violent—sat in the dark dispensing favors, collecting debts. I also knew what my Silent Partner had been up to.

But I went to breakfast, put the incident to the back of my mind and prepared for my daily session. The rest of my time was a wasteland, but my late afternoons were taken up with Leo Dunn.

He lived in a big apartment house over in the East Sixties. The outside of his building gleamed white. The lobby was polished marble. Upstairs in his apartment, sunlight poured through windows curtained in gold and hit a glass table covered with pieces of silver and crystal. “Kevin, my friend.” Mr. Dunn, tall and white-haired came forward smiling and shook my hand. “How are you? Every time I see you come through this door it gives me the greatest pleasure.”

I sat down on the couch and he sat across the coffee table from me. The first thing I thought to say was, “I had a drinking dream last night. The crowd watched like it was an Olympic event as I poured myself a shot and drank it. Then I realized what I’d done and felt like dirt. I woke up and it was as if a rock had been taken off my head.”

Amused, Dunn nodded his understanding. But dreams were of no great interest to him. So, after pausing to be sure I was through, he drew a breath and was off. “Kevin, you have made the greatest commitment of your life. You stood up and said, ‘Guilty as charged. I am a drunk.’”

Mr. Dunn’s treatment for alcoholics was a talking cure: he talked and I listened. He didn’t just talk: he harangued, he argued like a lawyer, he gave sermons of fire. Gesturing to a closet door, he told me, “That is the record room where we store the evidence of our mistakes. Any booze hound has tales of people he trusted who screwed him over. But has there ever been anyone you knew that used you as badly and that you went back to as often as you have to booze?”

We had been over this material a hundred times in the last couple of weeks. “You’re a bright boy, Kevin, and I wouldn’t repeat myself if I hadn’t learned that it was necessary. We go back to the record room.” Again, he pointed to the door. “We look for evidence of our stupidity.”

For ten years my habit and I had traveled from booze through the drug spectrum and back to booze. Then one morning on the apex of a bender, that fine moment when mortality is left behind and the shakes haven’t started, I found myself standing at a bar reading a New York Post article. It was about some guy called Dunn who treated drunks.

The crash that followed was gruesome. Three days later, I came to, empty, sweat-soaked and terrified, in a room I didn’t remember renting. At first, it seemed that all I owned was the clothes I had been wearing. Gradually, in jacket and jean pockets, stuck in a boot, I discovered the vaguely familiar pistol, the thick roll of bills, and a page torn from the Post. The choice that I saw was clear: either shoot myself or make a call.

My newly sober brain was blank and soft. Mr. Dunn remolded it relentlessly. On the afternoon I am describing he saw my attention wander, clicked a couple of ashtrays together on the table, picked up the gold lighter, and ignited a cigarette with a flourish. “How are you doing, Kevin?”

“OK,” I told him. “Before I forget,” I said and placed five of the twenties from my stash on the table.

He put them in his pocket without counting and said, “Thank you, Kevin.” But when he looked up at me, an old man with pale skin and very blue eyes, he wasn’t smiling. “Any news on a job?” He had never questioned me closely, but I knew that my money bothered Mr. Dunn.

Behind him, the light faded over Madison Avenue. “Not yet,” I said. “The thing is, I don’t need much to get by. Where I’m living is real cheap.” At a hundred a week, Leo Dunn was my main expense. He was also what kept me alive. I recognized him as a real lucky kind of habit.

He went back to a familiar theme. “Kevin,” he said, looking at the smoke from his cigarette. “For years, your addiction was your Silent Partner. When you decided to stop drinking, that was very bad news for him. He’s twisted and corrupt. But he wants to live as much as you do.”

Dunn said, “Your Silent Partner had the best racket in the world, skimming off an increasing share of your life, your happiness. He is not just going to give up and go away. He will try treachery, intimidation, flattery to get you back in harness.”

He paused for a moment and I said, “I saw him today, across the street. He saw me too. He was wearing clothes that used to belong to me.”

“What did he look like, Kevin?” I guess nothing a drunk could say would ever surprise Mr. Dunn.

“Just like me. But at the end of a three week bender.”

“What was he doing when you saw him?” This was asked very softly.

“Coming from a mob bar up the street, the 596 Club. He was trying to borrow money from guys who will whack you just because that’s how they feel at the moment.”

“Kevin,” said Mr. Dunn. “Booze is a vicious, mind-altering substance. It gets us at its mercy by poisoning our minds, making us unable to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t. Are you saying that you had to borrow money?”

I shook my head. Very carefully he asked, “Do you mean you remembered some aspect of your drinking self?”

“Something like that,” I said. But what I felt was a double loss. Not only had my Silent Partner discovered where I lived, but Mr. Dunn didn’t believe what I said. My Partner had broken the perfect rapport between us.

At that point, the lobby called to announce the next client. As Leo Dunn showed me to the door, his eyes searched mine. He wasn’t smiling. “Kevin, you’ve done more than I would have thought possible when you first walked in here. But there’s what they call a dry drunk, someone who has managed to stop drinking but has not reached the state beyond that. I don’t detect involvement in life from you or any real elation. I respect you too much to want to see you as just a dry drunk.”

The next client was dressed like a stockbroker. He avoided looking at my street clothes and face. “Leo,” he said, a little too loudly and too sincerely, “I’m glad to see you.”

And Dunn, having just directed a two hour lecture at me, smiled and was ready to go again.

Outside, it was already dark. On my way across town, I went through Times Square and walked down to the Deuce. It was rush hour. Spanish hustlers in maroon pants, hands jammed in jacket pockets, black hookers in leather mini skirts, stood on corners, all too stoned to know they were freezing to death. Around them, commuters poured down subway stairs and fled for Queens.

Passing the Victoria Hotel, I glanced in at the desk clerk sitting behind bullet-proof glass. I had lived at the Victoria before my final bender. It was where those clothes the Silent Partner was wearing had been abandoned. Without trying to remember all the details, I sensed that it wasn’t wise to go inside and inquire about my property.

Back on my block, I looked up at my bleak little window, dark and unwelcoming. Mother’s was no place to spend an evening. Turning away, I started walking again, probably ate dinner somewhere maybe saw a movie. Without booze, I couldn’t connect with anyone. Mostly, I walked, watched crowds stream out of the Broadway theaters.A Little Night Musicwas playing andA Moon for the Misbegotten. Then those rich tourists and nice couples from Westchester hurried into cabs and restaurants and left the streets quite empty.

In Arcade Parade on Broadway, goggle-eyed suit-and-tie johns watched the asses on kids bent over the pinball machines. Down the way, a marquee announced the double bill of COLLEGE-BOUND-BABES and BOUND-TO-PLEASE-GIRLS. Around a corner, a tall guy with a smile like a knife gash chanted, “Got what you need,” like a litany.

Glancing up, I realized we were in front of Sanctuary. Built to be a Methodist church, it had gotten famous in the late ’60s as a disco. In those days, a huge day-glow Satan had loomed above the former altar, limos idled in front, a team of gorillas worked the door.

Now it was dim and dying, a trap for a particular kind of tourist. Inside, Satan flaked off the wall, figures stood in the twilight willing to sell whatever you wanted. I could remember in a hazy way spending my last money there to buy the Beretta. My trajectory on that final drunk, the arc that connected the pistol, the money, the absence of my Silent Partner, wasn’t buried all that deeply inside me. I just didn’t want to look.

At some point that night, the rhythm of the street, the cold logic of the Manhattan grid, took me way West past the live sex shows and into the heart of the Kitchen. On long dirty blocks of tenements, I went past small Mick bars with tiny front windows where lines of drinkers sat like marines and guys in back booths gossiped idly about last week’s whack.

I walked until my hands and feet were numb and I found myself over on Death Avenue. That’s what the Irish of the Kitchen once called Eleventh because of the train tracks that ran there and killed so many of them. Now the trains were gone, the ships whose freight they hauled were gone, the Irish themselves were fast disappearing. Though not born in the Kitchen I identified with them a lot.

On Death, in a block of darkened warehouses, sat the Emerald Green Tavern. It was on a Saturday morning in the dead of night at the Emerald Green that I had found myself in a moment of utter clarity with a pistol and pocket full of money reading a newspaper article about Leo Dunn. I stood for a while remembering that. Then maybe the cold got to me and I went home. My memory there is vague.

What I will never forget is the sight of a ship outlined in green and red lights. I was staring at it and I was intensely cold. Gradually, I realized I was huddled against a pillar of the raised highway near the Hudson piers. One of the last of the cruise ships was docked there and I thought how good it would be to have the money to sail down to the warm weather.

In fact, it would have been good to have any money at all. My worldly wealth was on me, suede boots and no socks, an overcoat and suit and no underwear. In one pocket was a penny, a dime and a quarter—my wealth. In another was a set of standard keys and the gravity knife I’d had since college.

Then I knew why I had stolen the keys and where I was going to get money. And I recognized the state I was in, the brief, brilliant period of clarity at the end of a bender. My past was a wreck, my future held a terrifying crash. With nothing behind me and nothing to live for, I knew no fear and was a god.

With all mortal uncertainty and weakness gone, I was pure spirit as I headed down familiar streets. A block east of Death and north of the Deuce, I looked up at a lighted window on the third floor. I crossed the street, my overcoat open, oblivious to the cold.

Security at Mother’s was based on there being nothing in the building worth taking. Drawing out the keys, I turned the street door lock on my third try and went up the stairs, silently, swiftly. Ancient smells of boiled cabbages and fish, of damp carpet and cigarette smoke and piss, a hundred years of poverty, wafted around me. This was the kind of place where a loser lived, a fool came to rest. Contempt filled me.

Light shone under his door. Finding a key the right shape, I transferred it to my left hand, drew out the knife with my right.

The key went in without a sound. I held my breath and turned it. The lock clicked, the door swung into the miserable room with a bed, a TV on without the sound, a two-burner stove, a table. An all too familiar figure dozed in the only chair shoes off, pants unbuttoned. Sobriety had made him stupid. Not even the opening of the door roused him. The click of the knife in my hand did that.

The eyes focused then widened as the dumb face I had seen in ten thousand morning mirrors registered shock. “I got a little debt I want to collect,” I said and moved for him. Rage swept me, a feeling that I had been robbed of everything: my body, my life. “You took that god-damn money. It’s mine. My plan. My guts. You couldn’t have pulled that scam in a thousand years.”

For an instant, the miserable straight-head in front of me froze in horror. Then shoulder muscles tensed, feet shot out as he tried to roll to the side and go for the .25. But he was slow. My knife slashed and the fool put out his hands.

Oh, the terror in those eyes when he saw the blood on his palms and wrists. He fell back, tripping over the chair. The blade went for the stomach, cutting through cloth and into flesh.

Eyes wide, his head hit the wall. The knife in my hand slashed his throat. The light in the eyes went out. The last thing I saw in them was a reflection of his humiliation at dying like that, pants fallen down, jockey shorts filling with dark, red blood. His breath suddenly choked, became a drowning sound. An outstretched hand pointed to the loose board and the money.

“I was just cut down,” I told Dunn the next day. “It wasn’t even a fight. I left that knife behind when I had to move and the fucking Silent Partner had it and just cut me down.” It was hard to get my throat to work.

“It was a dream, Kevin, a drinking dream like the one you told me yesterday. It has no power over your conscious mind. You came home and fell asleep sitting up. Then you had a nightmare. You say you fell off your chair and woke up on the floor. The rest was just a dream.”

My eyes burned. “The expression my Silent Partner had on his face is the one I used to see sometimes in the mirror. Moments when it was so far gone I could do anything.”

“Nothing else has reached you like this, Kevin.”

“Sorry. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Don’t be sorry. This is part of the process. I don’t know why, but this has to happen for the treatment to work. I’ve had detective sergeants bawl like babies, marines laugh until they cried. Until this, you haven’t let anything faze you. Our stupid drinker’s pride can take many forms.”

“I won’t be able to sleep as long as I know he’s out there.”

“Understand, Kevin, that I’m not a psychiatrist. I was educated by the Jesuits a long time ago. Dreams or how you feel about your mother don’t mean much to me. But I hear myself say that and spot my own stupid pride at work. If dreams are what you bring me, I’ll use them.” He paused and I blew my nose. “What does your Silent Partner want, Kevin? You saw through his eyes in your dream.”

“He wants to disembowel me!”

“The knife, even the murder, were the means, Kevin. Not the motive. What was he looking for?”

“My money. He knew where I had it.”

“You keep money in your room? You don’t have a job. But you pay me regularly in fairly crisp twenties and hundreds. It’s stolen money, isn’t it, Kevin?”

“I guess so. I don’t remember.”

“Earlier you mentioned that in the dream you went for a gun. Do you own a gun? Is there blood on the money, Kevin? Did you hurt anyone? Do you know?”

“The gun hasn’t been fired.”

“I assume it’s not registered, probably stolen. Get rid of it. Can you return the money?”

“I don’t even know who it belonged to.”

“You told me that he was in a calm eye when he came after you. That was his opportunity. You described having that same kind of clarity when you decided to leave him. You had the money with you then?”

“The gun too.”

“Kevin, let’s say that some people’s Silent Partners are more real than others. Then, let’s say that in a moment of clarity you managed to give yours the slip and walked off with the money the two of you had stolen. Without him holding you back, you succeeded in reaching out for help. The money is the link. It’s what still connects you to your drinking past. I don’t want any of that money and neither do you. Get rid of it.”

“You mean throw it away?”

“The other day you said your Silent Partner was borrowing from the West Side mob. If he’s real enough to need money that badly, let him have it. No one, myself above all, ever loses his Silent Partner entirely. But this should give you both some peace.”

“What’ll I do for money? I won’t be able to pay you.”

“Do you think after all this time, I don’t know which ones aren’t going to pay me?” I watched his hands rearrange the crystal ashtrays, the gold lighter, as he said, “Let’s look in the Record room where we will find that booze is a vicious mind-altering substance. And we have to be aware at every moment of its schemes.” I raised my eyes. Framed in the light from the windows, Dunn smiled at me and said, “Keep just enough to live on for a couple of weeks until you find work. Which you will.”

Afterwards, in my room, I took out the pistol and the money, put two hundred back in the wall and placed the rest in a jacket pocket. The Beretta I carefully stuck under my belt at the small of my back. Then I went out.

At first, I walked aimlessly around the Kitchen. My Silent Partner had threatened me. It seemed my choices were to give up the money or to keep the money and give up Mr. Dunn. The first I thought of as surrender, the second meant I’d be back on the booze and drugs. Then a third choice took shape. Payback. I would do to him just what he had tried to do to me.

Searching for him, I followed what I remembered of our route on the last night of our partnership. It had begun at Sanctuary. Passing by, I saw that the disco was no longer dying. It was dead. The doors were padlocked. On the former church steps, a black guy slept with his head on his knees. No sign of my Silent Partner.

But I finally recalled what had happened there. Sanctuary was a hunting ground. Tourists were the game. That last night, I had run into four fraternity assholes in town with seven grand for a midwinter drug buy. Almost dead broke, I talked big about my connections. Before we left together, I bought the Beretta.

Following my trail, I walked by the Victoria. That’s where I had taken them first. “Five guys showing up will not be cool,” I said and persuaded two of them to wait in my dismal room. “As collateral, you hold everything I own.” That amounted to little more than some clothes and a few keepsakes like the knife. With the other two, I left the hotel that last time knowing I wouldn’t be back. I recognized my Silent Partner’s touch. He had been with me at that point.

Turning into an icy wind off the river, I took the same route that the frat boys and I had taken a few weeks before.

At a doorway on a deserted side street near Ninth Avenue, I halted. I remembered standing in that spot and telling them this was the place. In the tenement hall, I put the pistol at the base of one kid’s head and made him beg the other one to give me the money.

Standing in that doorway again, I recalled how the nervous sweat on my hand made it hard to hold on to the .25.

When those terrified kids had handed over the money, I discouraged pursuit by making them throw their shoes into the dark, to take off their coats and lie face down with their hands behind their heads. The one I’d put the pistol on had pissed his pants. He wept and begged me not to shoot.

Remembering that made my stomach turn. Right then my Partner had been calling the shots.

The rest of that night was gone beyond recovery. What happened in those blank hours wasn’t important. I knew where the search for my Partner was going to end. Death Avenue, north of the Deuce, had always been a favorite spot for both of us. The deserted warehouses, the empty railroad yards, made it feel like the end of the world.

Approaching the Emerald Green Tavern, I spotted a lone figure leaning on a lamp post watching trailer trucks roll south. Only a lack of funds would have kept a man out on the street on a night like that. Touching the pistol for luck, stepping up behind him, I asked, “Watcha doing?”

Not particularly surprised, not even turning all the way around, he replied, “Oh, living the life.” I would never have his nonchalance. His face was hidden by the dark and masked by sunglasses. That was just as well.

The air around him smelled of cheap booze. “We have to talk.” I gestured toward the Emerald Green.

As we crossed the street, he told me, “I knew you’d show up. This is where we parted company. When I woke up days later, all I had was these clothes and a couple of keepsakes.”

That reminded me of the knife. My Silent Partner knew as soon as that crossed my mind. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I sold it.”

He went through the door first. The Emerald Green was a typical Hell’s Kitchen joint with a bar that ran front to back, a few booths, and beer-and-cigarette-soaked air unchanged since the Truman administration. The facilities were the one distinguishing feature of the place. The restrooms lay down a flight of stairs and across a cellar/storage area. You could organize a firing squad down there and the people above wouldn’t know.

Or care. The customers that night were several guys with boozers’ noses, an old woman with very red hair who said loudly at regular intervals, “Danny? Screw, Danny,” and a couple of Spanish guys off some night shift and now immobile at a table. The dead-eyed donkey of a bartender looked right through me and nodded at my Silent Partner. In here, he was the real one. We went to the far end of the bar near the cellar door where we could talk. I ordered a ginger ale. My companion said, “Double Irish.”

As we sat, he gave a dry chuckle. “Double Irish is about right for us.” At no time did I turn and stare my Silent Partner in the face. But the filmed mirror behind the bar showed that he wore the rumpled jacket over a dirty T-shirt.

The camel hair coat was deeply stained. When the whiskey came, he put it away with a single gesture from counter to mouth. Up and in. I could taste it going down.

It was like living in a drinking dream. I touched the back of my belt and said, “You found out where I live.”

“Yeah. Billy at 596 told me you were staying at Mother’s. Of course, what he said was that he had seen me going in and out. So I knew.” Indoors, my partner smelled ripe. The back of his hand was dirty.

“You owe them money?” The last thing I needed was to get shot for debts he had run up.

“Not even five. My credit’s no good,” he said. “You left me with nothing. They locked me out of the hotel. Ripping off those kids was something you never could have done by yourself. You needed me.” He signaled for a refill. The bartender’s eyes shifted my way since I was paying.

I shook my head, not sure I could have him drink again and not do it myself. “I’ve got most of the money on me. It’s yours. So that we don’t attract attention, what I want you to do is to get up and go downstairs. After a couple of minutes, I’ll join you.”

“Pass the money to me under the bar.” He didn’t trust me.

“There’s something else I want you to have.” For a long moment he sat absolutely still. The TV was on with the sound off. It seemed to be all beer ads. “When you come back up here,” I told him, “You can afford enough doubles to kill yourself.” That promise made him rise and push his way through the cellar door.

For a good two minutes, I sipped ginger ale and breathed deeply to calm myself. Then I followed him. Downstairs, there were puddles on the floor. The restroom doors were open. Both were empty. One of the johns was broken and kept flushing. It sounded like an asthmatic trying to breathe.

The cellar was lighted by an overhead bulb above the stairs and another one at the far end of the cellar near the restrooms. Both lights swayed slightly, making it hard to focus. My Silent Partner had reached up and bumped them for just that reason. It was the kind of thing that I would not have thought of. He stood where the light didn’t quite hit him.

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I reached back and drew the .25. He seemed to flicker before me. “Easy does it,” he said. “You know how jumpy you are with guns.” His tone was taunting, not intimidated.

I realized I could read him as easily as he could me. My Silent Partner wanted me to try to shoot him and find out that I couldn’t. Then after I failed, we could both go upstairs, have some drinks and resume our partnership. Carefully, I ejected the clip and stuck it in my pocket. His eyes followed me as I put the empty pistol on the stairs. “You bought this, you get rid of it.” I said. “My guess is it’s got a bad history.”

“You’ll never have another friend like me.” His voice, my voice, had a whine to it and I knew this was getting to him. I reached into my pocket and took out the money and a piece of worn newspaper. “You thought about what it’s going to be like to be broke,” he asked. “It’s not like you’ve got any skills.”

I’d had thought of it and it scared me. I hesitated.

Then I noticed that the newspaper was the page with the Dunn article. Taking a deep breath, I riffled the money and told my Silent Partner, “Almost six grand. Just about everything I have.” I put the cash on the stairs beside the Beretta and turned to go. “So long. It’s been real.”

“Oh, I’ll keep in touch,” he said in a whisper. Looking back, I saw nothing but the blur of light in the shadows.

On the stairs, I felt light-footed, like a burden had been laid down. This was relief, maybe even the happiness Mr. Dunn had mentioned. From his perch near the front, the bartender gave me a slightly wary look like maybe I had come in at 2 A.M., drunk ginger ale, and had a conversation with myself. I occurred to me that if that’s what happened, the first one to go take a leak was going to get a very nice surprise.

But as I went out into the cold, the bartender’s gaze shifted, his hand reached for the pouring bottle, and I heard the cellar door swing open behind me.

The verbal snapshot, the anecdote, the New Yorker “Casual” is a staple of life in this city (“You wouldn’t believe what I just saw!”).

Recently there’s been a newfound interest in very short stories (usually a thousand words or less) referred to as “Flash Fiction.” Once this was a popular length for newspaper and magazine fiction and the pieces were called “Short-Shorts.” By the late ’50s that term was used by people my age for the pants girls wore in summer and boys wore for gym.

Here are three of mine.

EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE

His Only Nose

Afew weeks ago I passed a guy on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. He was saying in a loud, aggrieved tone of voice to the woman he was with, “I ONLY GOT THIS ONE NOSE.” And though I’ve lived in Manhattan for a long time and heard lots of great mad street cries and wonderful twisted passer-by talk, I still paid enough attention to wonder what led him to mention this.

When I told people about the incident a writer friend suggested that the woman had bopped him in the nose. An interesting premise, but in my quick glance I’d seen no evidence that his nose (a serviceable but common enough medium sized specimen—not a pug, not a wild honker) was bleeding or was in any way not “a virgin.”

That’s how unbroken noses were described in the South Boston of my childhood, a time and place where it was said that anyone who reached the age of twelve without a broken nose was either a newcomer or a girl.

My friend, Liz, who has known me for decades, was inclined to believe that he came from an alternate world where any individual could have a variety of noses and other body parts. At first I thought this was a nice piece of whimsy on her part and was amused. Then she reminded me of certain experiences we had shared.

The first involved a man with whom the sister of a mutual friend went out, a guy who was fascinated but terrified by electricity. One night, drunk and stoned, he claimed to be from a reality where Con Edison had never moved from very crude Direct Current to Alternating Current. Thus the New York City of his birth was dangerously lighted and electrical fires were commonplace. The sister soon dropped him and we learned no more.

Another was a bartender with what sounded like a French Canadian accent who worked at a place on Sullivan Street some years ago. He would claim once he’d had a few in him that he came from a world where Napoleon had conquered North America and Noveau York was French speaking.

“You know,” my friend said, “that every time there’s calamity anywhere in the world: war, poverty, pestilence, man-made or natural disaster, refugees from that location appear in this neighborhood and open ethnic restaurants. It’s a law of nature.

“We’ve got all the old and new trouble spots from Italy to Ethiopia, Vietnam to Afghanistan. I’ll bet Libya is next. If all of them end up here why not people from Alternate Realities.”

When I mentioned this jokingly to a guy I know slightly, Frankie who’s an administrator the University, he told me in a condescending manner that everyone used to say Alternate Reality. But the label is now considered insensitive. The correct term is Diverse Origin Worlds or DOW. And that this was a situation which was just beginning to be better understood.

I mentioned that troubles in places with less fortunate histories than ours always translate into refugees in the neighborhood. Frankie said, “Once you get used to tailors from Xingjian/Uyghur and Italian restaurants with waiters from Bangladesh there should be no surprise at some couple arguing about what nose to wear.”

“Why would anyone from a place where people had life sciences so advanced that they could exchange body parts at will, come to live here?” I asked.

“Why did so many people flee Europe when it was the center of culture and technology to come here?” he asked. “Stuff back home forced them to. Everyone keeps quiet about it but I’m told there are DOW support groups to help refugees over the rough passages in their transitions to this world. I think it’s kind of interesting!”

Reconsidering the incident that had started all this speculation, I recalled the woman with whom the “one nose” guy was walking. The one she wore was casual but cute and slightly upturned. A fine piece of retrousse nosery if that’s what it was—far more stylish than his.

I wondered if she had made some disparaging remark about the one he wore. A thoughtless person might do this, little considering that the nose someone else wears is the only one he owns and thus force him into an embarrassing confession.

Other things happened over the next couple of weeks: a long ago lover came back and visited the city; I got some unexpected freelance work, found a new yoga teacher and a fine gelato shop. I pretty much forgot the man and his nose.

Then one morning, stuck in traffic on Canal Street, I looked out of the taxi and noticed a sign in a third story window. It offered DOW counseling along with assistance on visas and immigration status. Later on that very same day I again passed the man and the woman on Bleecker Street.

I’m 99% positive it was them. But the nose is an important part of one’s face and their noses were not the ones I’d previously seen. His was somewhat larger and more commanding. Hers was curved and a bit sensuous. I thought of Anthony and Cleopatra. They looked like satisfied and confident New Yorkers striding down the center of the sidewalk and forcing everyone else to walk around them.

On a nice summer day a bit after that, I sat on a bench in Washington Square Park telling my friend Liz all that I’d found out about noses and Diverse Origins Worlds.

Two extremely thin thirty-something women carrying nicely up-scale shopping bags passed by close enough for us to hear them.

“For June it’s clothes for work, weddings and hauntings,” said the one.

“Hauntings,” said the second one. “You mean at that abandoned place upstate?”

“Uh-huh,” said the first.

“But not enough of us are here for a real haunting!”

“Not yet,” said the first woman. “But others are trying to get permanent visas.”

“The easiest way is to marry a citizen,” said the second. At this they both laughed a bit and looked towards the fountain.

Liz and I followed their gaze. Frankie, who first told me about Diverse Origin Worlds, wore a crisp jacket and a bow tie. He grinned and opened his arms to what would surely be his bride.

Whips and Wands

When a question from the past haunts you, rest is impossible until it’s tracked down and resolved. Mine involves the last night of Whips and Wands.

Memories that might bother others don’t faze me. Gauntlets of girls flay the bare asses of boys who run up long, dark stairs with the flash of photo bulbs as the only light. At the top step stands Mistress Whipwell—aka Babe Jerome—in leather g-string and black boots, mascara-lined eyes framed by a black top hat and gold curls.

What drives me is a front page tabloid photo of Whipwell/Jerome’s bloody body in a trash-filled alley. At this late stage of my existence I need to untangle my role in that. It’s why I find myself back in New York. But when you’ve been gone a long while, it’s hard to know where to start.

After searching for what seems like years, I get lucky and more. In an exhibition of photos of 1950s Manhattan, there’s a shot of half a dozen boys jumping a fence in Madison Square Park. One looks right into the camera and I recognize the eyes. Know Jonny Keagan at any age and you remember them.

Keagan is my key. He grew up in Kips Bay, a working class neighborhood centered on Second Avenue in the East Twenties and Thirties. When Whips and Wands opened there Jon ran the door. I need to find him.

Instinct, a hunch, something overheard, eventually leads me to a book promotion at a big Barnes and Noble on Union Square. At the microphone, a shopworn author doubling as used car salesman and used car reads from a memoir of the legendary late 1960s and early ’70s.

A few of the crowd are familiar. But I’ve been gone so long I’m invisible to them. Then I spot a figure wavering like a ghost or a memory. Jon Keagan, white haired, sits tall on the aisle with a cane across his knees.

He turns his wide, almost unblinking eyes on me and whispers, “I’ve thought about you lately.” Jon stands and gestures toward the exit. As we leave the author’s saying, “An abandoned neighborhood contained a secret, dark jewel.” And I feel he’s talking about Whips and Wands.

It’s dusk as we walk uptown and turn on East 26th Street. High rise towers look down on us. It was all five story walkups back when Babe Jerome in guy drag and me passed this way. I was stupid; a would-be actor who rode pay-for-play sex until I hit my late ’20s and was old. Babe Jerome was a spoiled brat who showed me S&M was where I could have a few more years of work.

Jon carries his cane like a walking stick. He says, “I’m the neighborhood historian, people always asking about some candy store that burned down fifty years ago. But with ones like you from far away and long ago I feel like a priest, a magician.”

The next couple of blocks it seems we’re back in the old New York, corner stores and bars, people sitting on stoops. But across Second Avenue where Whips and Wands stood there’s nothing I remember.

Jon points to the wall of brick and glass. “When I was a kid Bellevue and all the other hospitals were over on First Avenue with their backs to the river. Everything else was my neighborhood.

“Then one day the hospitals wanted to expand, to house their workers. A bunch of blocks got condemned, houses, stores, Mullins Hall where everybody had wedding parties, graduations. Buildings emptied fast but didn’t come down for a year. Landlords made money renting illegally. Whores, junk dealers: no one cared.

“After the army I did door work at clubs—was good at it. Someone said Mullins Hall had a new name and was hiring. This drag with five o’clock shadow, out of her skull on meth, interviewed me.”

“Whips and Wands,” I say and remember peeling paint, flooded restrooms, manacles and blue lights, glowing death heads in dark halls. “Fairies and Sadists: a little pain, a bit of magic, Mistress Whipwell aka Babe Jerome presiding.”

“She starts screaming at me. You tell her the word is I run a door like I got a sixth sense of who to let in and you say I’m hired. She tries to stab you with a scissors.”

“I was the second banana, accomplice, sometime top and occasional bottom,” I say. “Baby Jerome inherited a chunk of money, spent it getting his girl on. What was left got put into Whips. In two months he’d break even, four months, she’d be rich again and I’d have a bankroll.”

We cross Second, walk down the block to where the club stood. It’s a playground now. Guys shoot baskets in the dark.

“The place got popular,” Jon says, “spoiled kids needing to get spanked. Then came the night I noticed unmarked cop cars all around. Mistress Whipwell and you were fighting. Instinct said to split.”

He waits for my story. I drop my eyes and say, “All I remember is waking up with scratches on my face and arms, blood on my hands and no memory of anything but the fight I’d had the night before. Jerome banged my head on a wall. Told me we were through.

“Then I saw the Daily News photo and headline, SHE-MALE IN PAIN PALACE DEATH PLUNGE. That’s when I found out about the raid and how she fell six floors head first off the roof. I got out of town. But I wondered . . .”

“If you pushed her?” he asks and I nod.

“You came out the door royally fucked up just before I left. I stuck you in a cab. You don’t remember?”

I shake my head.

“Whipwell jumped after the raid started. Maybe that was her release. Like this is yours.”

I look into those eyes, realize nothing holds me. He watches me float up over the roofs of Manhattan.

Tears of Laughter, Tears of Grief

There’s a little shop way west on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. TEARS OF LAUGHTER, TEARS OF GRIEF has been there for years. It advertizes discreetly. “Trouble expressing yourself emotionally?” “Unable to summon the right response in a timely manner?”

Which of us has not had those problems? And TOLTOG has the answers. Unable to produce a lingering tear? TOLTOG has handy eye drops! I stop in whenever I pass the shop. It’s a boutique, really, small but enticing. And the stock!

Stuff one almost wants to find a use for. Sweat of your brow? Sprays on! Drool with envy? With an oral sponge! Sweating Blood is a simple application.

The whole Blood Sweat and Tears treatment requires a little extra time and effort to apply cream, spray and eye drops. But what a pleasure to take that trouble!

The staff is part of the charm, with their words of comfort (achieved with a gargle solution in several delightful flavors) and, sympathetic smiles (a small oral brace which doesn’t interfere with diction in any serious way).

I was reminded of TOLTOG one day not long ago. I’d just started writing a story, a dystopian tale about an orphan boy in a desolate American landscape. His parents have been killed and eaten by Republicans and he is both starving and hungry for revenge.

This, I was afraid, was turning out to be an example of what I call bright flash stories, ones that begin with an image, an idea, an opening sentence, sometimes with all three of those and then linger seductive, unformed and unfinished in back files.

As I fretted about that I got an email informing me that Livonia Failbeck, described as she always was as, “A prominent American fantasy writer,” had died suddenly from a stroke.

A surprise and a coincidence, I’d been thinking how Livonia would have taken my story of unutterable wrong, added some little curlicues to flavor the plot, and subtly turned the story into an affirmation rather than an angry cry.

Normally, to write in the short forms is to dance a dance with obscurity. But Livionia’s formula had won her attention and awards. Twice in recent years I’d been at conventions because I was on an awards short list. Both times Livy herself hadn’t bothered to make an appearance—once because she was elsewhere receiving a more important award. Both times she won. Later she was pleasant about it, shrugging her shoulders at the whims of the fans, the mysteries of the judges’ decisions. But being a pleasant winner is easy, losing not so much.

The announcement of the memorial service followed shortly on the death notice. It would be held here in New York City and I’d have to go, wouldn’t, in fact, have considered missing it. My problem would be decorum. Could I show the proper regret untinged by sardonic glee?

Very shortly afterwards I felt all had gone well because I was at a spec fiction convention and I was receiving an award—THE GOLDEN GOOSE—given for excellence in short fiction. I remembered that Livonia Failbeck had won this prize seven times.

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