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Every Last Drop.

by Charlie Huston.

RIPE FOR THE TAKING.That's all I can think as I watch them.The crowd pouring out of the Stadium, tens of thousands cramming out onto River and the Concourse, flooding the street under the 4-train tracks as the trains screech in and out overhead, more people packing the cars sardine tight, tripping up the steps, cascading down into the tunnels, mashing into Stan the Man's, northbound traffic making for the Cross Bronx Expressway and the Triborough stalled out from all the people wandering the street. Drunk and half drunk, ecstatic from a win or enraged from a loss, a blue-and-white pinstriped mass of thousands.All of them full up.Each of them enough to keep some sad son of a bit.c.h on his feet for weeks. For months if he has some self-control and knows how to go about his business. Most of them strangers to the South Bronx, never seen more of it than this one subway station or the parking lot and the Stadium itself. Each one full to their pumping heart with quarts of blood.Any wonder every f.u.c.king game brings trouble?Sure, no big secret. That's why the cops are out there. Cops keep the traffic moving in fits and starts. Cops keep the Bleacher Creatures from chewing the ears off any Sox fans stupid enough to stay through the ninth inning on a night their team came to town and won. Cops keep an eye out for pickpockets and for drunks falling under the buses and for s.n.a.t.c.h-and-grab artists.If I gave a shit about any of that stuff I'd give them a hearty pat on the back and maybe buy a boy in blue a beer sometime.But I don't care.What I do care about are poachers. What I care about are starvelings. I care about the greedy and the weak, the foundering and the lost and the plain stone stupid. I care about them so much that I try to show my face around here after every night game. Just to make it plain and clear.Clear that they should get off this turf before I come up behind them in an alley one night and put two in the back of their f.u.c.king skull before they even know I'm there.The halt and the lame. They got no place. Not as long as I'm stuck up here.Up here.Stand up top long after a game, well before sunrise. Stand on the 4 platformand look south and you can see it. You can see the City right there. One stop over the river.f.u.c.king China to me.Coming down to the street, iron bars walling stairs and turnstiles and platforms, arching overhead, meeting the steel undercarriage of the tracks, like walking circles in a cage.My cage.No one shits in my cage.So after a game I make the scene. Truth to tell, figure I'd make it even if I didn't have practical concerns. Figure I'd be out there on River just to take advantage of pretty much the only time I can stick my face out of doors in the neighborhood and not pique someone's curiosity.A white face in the South Bronx after dark, it draws a little attention. During the day, around the courthouses on One Sixty-one, you see plenty of them. Cops and lawyers and the occasional plaintiff. But they all go home come night. Closest any of them live to One Sixty-one and the Concourse might be Riverdale. More likely Jersey or Queens.Still, during the day I could blend in real easy eating a Cuban from Havanna Sandwich Queen on one of the benches next to a statue of Moses bringing theTen Commandments down the hill. Look at my build, my face, my black boots and black d.i.c.kies on a summer day, with my leather jacket draped over the warm stone bench, and someone might naturally think undercover. Think I'm some cop up here to testify.But that would require I was out during the day.Which isn't on my agenda. Ever.Not until I develop a serious taste for dying from instantaneous eruptions of b.l.o.o.d.y pustules on my eyes.So if I desire to take the air, my promenades must come be-times at night. And, man, there just ain't no other f.u.c.king white people in these parts after the sun goes down. And drawing eyes is not something I have much desire to do.Who that guy?Seen him around?Gotta be Five-0.Naw, see him for months. Never make a move on no one.He ain't livin' up here.Don't know, could be he is.What block? What building?Next thing you know, go down a block on a hot night: Old guys got their card table and their wives' favorite kitchen chairs out on the sidewalk to play dominoes; young guys standing around someone s leased Escalade, bass beats rippling their baggy shorts, shooting texts to the shorties looking down from a fire escape across the street; windows open, rice and beans and stewed chicken smells coming out, mothers and grandmothers and pregnant girls inside laughing and sipping sangria made from jug red and 7Up; someone catches sight of me and the party just shuts down. Hear nothing but my boots on the pavement, see nothing but sideways eyes scoping me out all the way to the end of the street until I turn the corner and they all look at one another.Who the f.u.c.kin' white guy?Figure a question like that can drive some people crazy. Figure some people got to know. Figure sooner or later someone gets in my face. Figure that doesn't end well.Figure that isn't the real f.u.c.king problem anyway.The real f.u.c.king problem is when that question circulates too far, rumors start, people tell stories, stories spread.The river, I can't cross it, but any of these people can. And they can take questions and rumors and stories with them. And once that kind of shit is over there on the Island, no telling where it ends up. Ends up in the wrong place,maybe someone hears it. Someone hears it, maybe someone decides to look into it. Someone looks into it, maybe someone sees me. Someone finds me. And once I'm found by someone from the Island, figure my game is played out. Figure me dead.Well, that's on the agenda, but I'm trying to see if I can't attend to that matter at a later date. More pressing business at the moment.Places to go. People to see.And kill.Goals. Ambitions. They keep a man going.Any case, all the restrictions my new neighborhood puts on me, figure I'd stroll over after the games just to mix with the crowd. Just to be out. Anonymous. Free is a word you could use if you like. If you like a good laugh, that is.And while I'm there stretching my legs, I take a look around, take a sniff of the air, see if I maybe smell something I don't like. I smell something I don't like, I can make a point of finding who it is. Maybe find an intimate moment when the crowd eddies around us, lean close and make myself clear.I had such an opportunity tonight.Waiting on the last couple outs of the ninth inning inside Billys, nursing aplastic cup of tap beer, mentally adding the last of the singles and change in my pocket to see if I could make it come out to enough for a real drink before I wrapped up. I smelled something waft in from the street. I knocked the bottom of my cup against the bar and watched the foam rise, watched it boil down, drank the last of it lukewarm and headed out to the street where the crowd from a not very close loss was already pouring surly out of the Stadium.Want to smell rank? Smell a few thousand baseball fans on a h.e.l.l-humid night after a bad loss. Sweat-soaked jerseys, urine-soaked sneakers, dribbled pump-cheese, a cloud of exhaled peanut breath and hot dog farts.Unpleasant.And still, I can smell it.Scent like slightly diluted acid, cutting my nasal passages. Hard sharp poison. Venom.Vyrus.I start cutting the crowd, working my way back and forth across the street on sharp diagonals, looking for the scent. And finding it. Finding it over and over.The d.i.l.d.o somewhere up ahead of me must be following a similar path, but cutting for signs of different prey. Looking for a mark. Someone who will cullthemselves drunk from the herd and wander down the wrong long street, into an absence of light where any old bad shit can take place.I can be patient. Wait till he starts moving in a straight line. That will be the sign, when he stops blundering back and forth leaving trail after trail, that'll be the sign he's found what he wants. The idiot, out here making a spectacle of himself, hunting in the open like a bag-s.n.a.t.c.her.Or.Oh, shit.Yeah, who's the idiot now?Right. Me.It's not a single trail zigzagging the crowd.It's trails.A pack. A f.u.c.king pack in the crowd. A f.u.c.king pack of young-bloods working the crowd after a game. in numbers, ignorant of fear, dumber than dirt.Christ, does that ring a bell.Like my own bell tolling away before I learned a thing or two.I can't tell how many. Their lines are all stirred together in the dead air by the shuffling herd. But the scent is strong. So make it three. Maybe make itfour. No more than that. Four together is pushing any kind of balance. Four can't last together for long. Tear each other apart.No more than four. More likely three. Two?That's wishful thinking.But Christ, let it be no more than three.More than three and I just won't have enough bullets. Three bullets being all I have at the moment. Three bullets, a likewise amount of dollars, and maybe that many days I can get through healthy before I need to get my hands on some more blood of my own.Well, not blood of my own. More like blood of someone who can maybe spare a couple pints. Those people, they tend to be a rare commodity. Most people need all they got. And some of us, some of us need all we can get our d.a.m.n hands on.Every last drop.-Now! Now! Clear the f.u.c.k off now! -f.u.c.k you!-Yeah, f.u.c.k you! -Not your f.u.c.kin' street!-Gonna meet the street in a second. Gonna be assumin the position gangsta style, face in the gutter in a second.-Man, f.u.c.k you!I swing round and watch some cops dealing with four kids whipping through the crowd on bright little pocket bikes, knees jutting high from the two-foot-tall cycles, engines rising and falling as they give little pulses of gas to keep themselves in motion.The cop on point adjusts his gun belt.-Say that word to me again! Say it again! Taser your ass right off that bike. Know what happens I hit you with a Taser? Make you shit your pants, kid. Lie there crying mami, mami and your pants full of shit just like when you were a baby.One of the kids guns his bike, the tails of his do-rag flapping behind him. -Man, Taser you mama. -What? Say what?The kids cut back and forth between cars and pedestrians, never losing balance, staying just far enough from the cops that if the officers get serious the kids know they can get away. -Say you mama need a Taser for her stinky p.uss.y.The cops are half smiling as they walk slowly, herding the kids away from the heart of the Stadium outflow. Enjoying the distraction. But clearly notabove busting a little skull if they can get their hands on the f.u.c.kers.The point cop fingers the handle of his baton and tilts his chin at his partner. -Kid's clearly never met your mama, Olivera, otherwise he'd know how sweet her p.uss.y smells.Olivera hoists a middle finger at him. -Not as sweet as your mama says my d.i.c.k is.Do-rag rises on his pegs.-Cops be all in each other mama's p.uss.ies. I wait till you at it and f.u.c.k you daughters.The point cops fingers curl on his baton. -That ain't f.u.c.kin' funny, you little shit.Olivera adjusts his hat. -I ain't even got a daughter and I don't think it's funny.Do-rag shrugs, weaves around a clot of baseball fans watching the scene play. -No problems, man. I f.u.c.k you wifey instead.And the two cops run at the kids and the two other cops that had been working their way over from the north end of the street where the new Stadiumis going up run at the kids and the kids. .hit the gas, the tiny 49cc engines whining and the crowd scatters and the cops scream and when the dust settles the backs of the kids flick out of sight around the corner, one of them waving the cap he s.n.a.t.c.hed from the head of one of the cops.The crowd rustles back into its former rhythm and shape, everyone avoiding eye contact with the cursing cops. The cops stand in a circle and ask one another if they've ever seen those kids before, what block they maybe live on, what building they maybe live in, discussing how much ass they're gonna kick when they catch up to them.I wander across the street, crossing the path the kids took as they rode off, knowing the cops will be lucky if they never see that particular group of little shits ever again.Poison in the air.Poison left hanging by that pack.Kids no older than thirteen. Could they be older? Sure they could. If they were heavy feeders they could be old men on the inside. But they're not. Old men wouldn't make a spectacle like that. Old men wouldn't bait cops. No, they're new.New to the life.Jesus, thirteen, they're new to everything there is. And destined to never get old to it. Not the signs they're flashing. Big signs, neon and bright: KILL ME NOW!I cross to Gerrard, the crowd thinner, the traffic for the CBE and the Triborough heavy, past the long low bunker of the parking garage.Thinking.Yeah, I'm thinking about the kids. But I got other things on my mind as well. Like I'm thinking about who made them that way. Who bled into them. And how many must have died ugly on the way to infecting those four.And I'm thinking how life isn't an easy thing. Nasty, brutish and short, so they say. And how you got to take your pleasures where and when you find them. Because they may not come again.And I'm thinking just how much pleasure I'm gonna take from scalping the guy who infected those kids. How much fun it's going to be to peel his skull and shove the rag of skin and hair down his throat to m.u.f.fle the screams while I figure ways to make him live as long as possible as I yank his ribs out.Any wonder I'm so distracted I don t register the stink of them as I pass the gated mouth of an alley until I'm twenty feet past it?I pull up and walk back. The alley is right next to Cassisi and CassisiAccident Cases. Se habla espanol. Like any of the ambulance chasers in these parts don't habla espanol.I look between the red-painted bars of the gate, down the narrow s.p.a.ce between buildings where old stone walls topped by curls of razor wire separate good neighbors. There's a concrete staircase climbing to the backs of buildings that face on Walton. A splash of red much brighter than the paint on the gate at the foot of those stairs.I push the gate open, the chain that's meant to keep it closed dangles, links snapped clean. At the end of the alley, a sound. Reminds me of a cat I saw once, had its hindquarters run over by a bus. Cats forelegs kept reaching out, claws rasping the asphalt, trying to get purchase, pull itself away from the pain. People stood on the sidewalk, stared at the mutilated cat. I stepped on its neck and it stopped moving. Way people reacted, you d have thought I did the wrong thing.She's where they left her, on the pavement, blood bubbling from her lips, red fake fingernails raking the ground. Her eyes roll as my shadow falls across her. Looks at me, wheezes, says something. -Ee iunt aigh ee.It takes a second, but I get it.She's right. They didn't rape her. A hard thing for her to fathom about a gangof rabid kids who just bit her tongue out.Her eyes roll again, up into her head this time, and she's out.I look around. Lights in the back windows of the tenements. A collection of overfull garbage cans with a chain running through their handles. The kind of alley where people steal f.u.c.king garbage cans. Up the stairs it's darker, a little alcove huddled at the bottom of one of the buildings, a door leading into a bas.e.m.e.nt.I pick her up and put her over my shoulder and go up the stairs and down into the alcove. The door is steel, the lock is cheap. It pops the second time I put my shoulder into it. I take her inside and dump her in a corner.She's stopped bleeding. She's stopped bleeding for the same reason I'm not drinking her blood right now. The kids infected her. Could have been on purpose. Could have been an accident. Biting off someone's tongue, figure there's a good chance you might get your own lips bit. However it went down, she got some of the kids blood in her.And she liked it.Or something in her liked it.Or however it works.If it hadn't worked, if she wasn't the kind can take the Vyrus, shed be deadin a puddle of white spew already. As it is, the wound in her mouth and the various scratches and sc.r.a.pes she got in the tussle are closed up. Vyrus going to work. So I settle in.I could kill her.I should kill her.I don't and sh.e.l.l either end up drawing attention to her new condition and making things harder for everyone else. Or she'll take to it and be another mouth that needs to feed. More competition for everyone. Not that I care about everyone. Still, fact that she's likely got no future that doesn't involve making my life harder in one way or another is enough that I should kill her now.But I don't.Someone had a chance to make that call on me way back and he passed on the option. I don't talk to that guy anymore. Not since I stuck a nail in his femoral artery, but he did right by me once.Least I can do is try the same.Give her the score.Let her decide.So I smoke. And wait. Wait for the Vyrus to finish working her over. Thenwe can have a talk.Christ I hope she doesn't scream too much when I try to explain it to her.-Here's how the rest of your life works. You're f.u.c.ked. Your family, you don't get to see them ever again. Same with your friends. Your job is over. Wherever you live, you don't live there anymore. You see someone on the street that you used to know, you go the other way. You see those people, you get tempted to talk to them. Try to explain. What you try to explain is that you're sick. You try to explain its not what they think. Its a virus. A thing living inside you. It makes you sicker than they can imagine. And there's only one way to treat it. To treat the symptoms. That's to feed it. And there's only one thing to feed it. That's blood. People blood. Know what happens when you tell them that? They get the same look on their face that you got on yours right now. Know the difference? They're not infected. They didn't just get jumped and beaten and have their tongue bitten out by a pack of wilders who proceeded to suck on their mouth like it was a water fountain. And because that didn't happen to them, they cant feel what you're feeling. That burn inside, the heat and tingle around your wounds. They can't look at the cuts on their bare arms and see they're already closed up, turning pink to white. They cant feel the scab grow over their stub of a tongue, feel it flaking away, feel how smooth and perfect it is now. Feel that it almost seems to be growing back.Unlike you, they hear a story like that, they got no reason to think you re anything but out of your f.u.c.king head, and get you locked up. And that's the happy ending. The unhappy ending is if they should believe you. If someone should somehow find out you're telling the truth. Because they sure as shit wont think you're sick, they'll think you're a Godd.a.m.n monster. And wont it be fun to see that look on their faces. So, no more life. Its over. Other things are over too. You'll never see the sun again. Not unless you re about to die a horrible death. The virus in you goes crazy if it's. .hit with shortwave UVs from the sun. Your whole body becomes cancerous. Fast. Good news, none of the other c.r.a.p is a problem. Crosses, holy water, garlic. That shit, it's shit. You're infected, not d.a.m.ned. Or maybe you are. I don't know. A stake through the heart will kill you, just like any asshole. But when it's fed, the Vyrus will crank up your system. Stronger, faster. Heightened senses. And tough. But keeping it fed is the thing. A pint a week. Blood. Human. More if possible. Think about drinking blood. Not a happy thought. Now think about getting it. The kids that attacked you, they're not the norm. Well, up here they may be a little more normal, but still pretty f.u.c.king baroque. The City, Manhattan, it's organized. Clans got it carved up. Coalition, Hood, Society, others. Each ones got an agenda. A Clan takes you in, they'll help you get settled. Adjusted. Not a joiner, you can go Rogue, stay the f.u.c.k off Clan turf. That means staying off the Island. Means getting blood on your own. Means hurting people, mostly.Means sometimes someone gets killed. But better if they don't. Better if you develop a system. Find a junkie on the nod you can tap him for a pint. Vyrus doesn't care about the junk. Doesn't care about any kind of illness or poison. Keep it healthy, it keeps you healthy. And maybe I'm wrong about your people. Maybe you're special close to someone. Could be your boyfriend. Could be your sister. Someone that's got a taste for being used. You know the type. Maybe they got it in them to let you cut into a vein every few weeks. That makes things a lot easier. Still need to make some moves, but you have someone like that, a Lucy like that, and things get easier. Not that easy is a word gets thrown around much in this life. What else? People know about us. Not a lot, but a few. Well, some know about us, others just hope we're real. Some, they want in on the game, want to make the scene. f.u.c.king Renfields. Others, they got an axe to grind. Some of them got real axes. Van Helsings. A real one is bad news. Someone who can go around in the day, poke into things, has a credit rating to buy guns and bullets and stuff, and who also knows the real score on us, that's a serious danger. And? What? And there's some infecteds think the Vyrus isn't a virus. Like maybe it's something, I don't know, something supernatural. Enclave. They're crazy. And there's a bacteria. Kinda like the Vyrus, cept it turns people into brain eaters. Zombies. But that's pretty rare. So. I don't know what else. I don't usually talk this much. I blow some smoke at the ceiling.-I feel like I'm forgetting something. Vyrus. Clans. Zombies. Stay out of the sun. Don't get shot. Abandon your life. Drink blood to survive.I shake my head. -No. Guess that pretty much covers it.I flick my cigarette b.u.t.t away.-So, question is, can you take it? I lay it out like that, do you think you're the kind who can take it?She wipes at the drying tear tracks in the grit on her cheeks. She sticks a finger in her mouth and touches her healing tongue, takes her fingers out of her mouth and looks at me.Says nothing.I nod, point up at the barred window at ground level, the night sky above. -Look up there.She looks.I pull out my gun and use my last three bullets.Walking down the street, heading north, my ears ring loud from the shots fired in the bas.e.m.e.nt.I'm a good shot. But shooting from the hip, I didn't want to worry about the first bullet missing the middle of her brain and her having a couple seconds to think about it. To feel it. Better to put all three in her face as fast as possible. Leave nothing to chance.She wasn't stupid, shed never have been able to make that play herself.Someone who knew me might say I was trying to make up for some kind of mistake I made in my past. Trying to do something like compensate for the mess I left behind on the Island. Trying to make right for a time when I moved too slow and let someone slip away from me.But no one knows me here.Any other reason to be in the Bronx, I don't know what it could be.At the north end of Joyce Kilmer Park, a rust, primer and white station wagon that looks like it was recently firebombed cruises up next to me and a match flares inside. -Tell me, Joe.I put a hand on my gun, wishing I'd maybe used just two bullets instead of three.The match flame touches the end of a cigarette between two red lips.-Was doing that as unpleasant as it looked?-You see who hit her?-Yeah.-Want to share?-Know anything about tweens on pocket rockets, wilding for blood?She looks at me, puts a tilt on her head, looks away. -Yeah. I know that picture.She leans her arm out the open window of the decaying station wagon, looking at the towering glass facade of the Bronx County Hall of Justice across One Sixty-one from the Concourse Plaza shopping center where she's parked us. -Was it them?I do my own head-tilt.-Did the four spastics buzzing the Stadium crowd chew the chicks tongue out? Tell ya, Esperanza, I didn't witness the act, but I'm assuming they did the deed.She flicks a spent cigarette b.u.t.t out the window.I blow rings at the windshield, watch them explode against the glass.Not to be outdone, she lights a fresh Pall Mall and blows a ring of her own. -That girl without the tongue. You made a lot of noise. Cops are already over there.-I guess even around here someone is bound to call in shots fired in their bas.e.m.e.nt.-Well, were not savages up here. -Didn't say otherwise.Smoke jets from her nostrils.-Girl with her face shot off, gonna create some interest. -Maybe. As much interest as another gun killing gets these days. -Could get more than usual attention if anyone saw you. White guy in the Bronx murdering a Rican girl. Never know with a story like that. Turns out she was a college student, maybe supporting her grandma and her little sister, a story like that could end up with legs. Social outrage. White men coming to the Bronx to hunt our Latina sisters. End up with Reverend Sharpton doing interviews at the scene of the murder.I peel a strip of fabric from the shredded headliner.-Better give the Post a call. Give your exclusive before its too late.She blots some sweat from her temple with the back of her hand, a cross tattooed in the flesh where her thumb joins her hand glistens. -I'm not arguing whether it was the thing to do, I'm just saying you could have been a little quieter.-Sure. I could have left a nice quiet corpse of a woman with a broken neck. And they could have autopsied the body and found nothing else wrong, except that she had only half a tongue. Nice and pink and healed and looking like shed been born that way. And wouldn't that have provoked some interest when her family found out about it. Half a tongue? What are you talking about? Oh, and I imagine the M.E. might also have been intrigued by the way she was missing about half her blood with no fresh wounds through which it could have come out.She pinches the b.u.t.t of her cigarette between thumb and forefinger. -And when you showed the f.u.c.k up here on my turf I could have cut a deal with the Mungiki and had you escorted into the f.u.c.king river. But you said you d be cool. So if I want to talk to you about shit that doesn't play cool by me, you can listen and not talk hardcase. Yeah?I flick some ash.-Didn't know you had pull with the Mungiki.She lights a fresh Pall Mall.-Yeah, well, you don't mix enough to know shit up here, do you? -Nope.-No one has pull with the Mungiki. But since they moved to Queens they sometimes need a favor here. -How you get that gig?She sighs.-I used to date one of them. -Dated a Mungiki? Filed teeth and all?She gives me that look again. -Don't believe all the shit you hear, man. They don't file their teeth.She watches as a handful of couples file out of the Multiplex from the last show.-Not all of them, anyway. And he wasn't Mungiki when we were hooking up. Just a guy.-Huh, well, fascinating stuff, but if we're done threatening each other, I thought I might get on. Maybe look into those kids.She blows ash from the tip of her cigarette. -Don't f.u.c.k with the kids.I eye her. -There a reason I shouldn't?She eyes me back. -Yeah. I just told you not to.We do a stare-down while I chew it.Lady looks twenty-one. Maybe younger. She older? Yeah, a few years, but not by much. You don't feed heavy in the Bronx, not heavy enough to keep the years at bay. Look at me, couple years back I looked maybe late twenties. Now Id be pressed to pass for thirty-five. At this rate I'm gonna catch up with forty-eight in a hurry.But she's got youth on her side. Real youth, not the borrowed kind.Long in the legs. Khaki cargo pants, white retro Jordans, a black tank tucked at the waist, tight over a black sports bra. Tattooed shoulders, hands, neck, designs dark against brown skin. Black hair, short and greased back. Sinews running down long arms. Loping muscles built playing point guard with the boys at Rucker Park over the river.Esperanza Lucretia Benjamin.Closest thing the Concourse has to a boss. Only one up here seems to care if the lid ever blows off. Only one can talk to the Mungiki and come away with her head unsevered. One tough chick.Warden.Two ways you go to prison.First way is keep your eyes down and suck up against the wall when the big dogs pass by, hope no one notices how harmless you are, how badly you just want to do your time and get back to your life on the outside. Spend your days counting the minutes till someone maybe decides you got a mighty pretty mouth.Second way is go in and take a look around and find the chair in the day room with the best view of the TV, go up to the skinhead sitting in it, spit in his face, and shank him in the ear with the sharpened end of your toothbrush. Let everyone know you're not going anywhere. You're not a guest, you're f.u.c.king home. Do it that way, and when you get out of solitary you'll find that chair waiting for you to plop down in it and watch General Hospital.Guess which was my approach.Found a patch of Franz Sigel Park, a patch near the corner of WaltonAvenue and Mabel Wayne Place where they got that cute red, white and blue sign. The Bronx. All-American City. A patch of trees and weeds and rock that reeked of some f.u.c.ker doing his thing there for years.Then I staked it out, waited till he dragged someone back into his favorite spot, came up on him as he was getting ready to put on the feedbag and I broke his spine in three places and let him lie there paralyzed and watch me while I dined out on his handiwork.I peed all over his yard.Then I killed him.Soon enough, Esperanza called. Made it clear she was what passed for law around here. Made it clear what she was looking for in a neighbor. Made it clear that One Sixty-one and the Concourse being about as close to civilization as you get up here, she wanted to see it remain that way. Made it clear that the only kind of profile that would do in these parts was a low one. And I made it clear I couldn't agree with her more. Proved the point by showing her the corpse I'd made out of the guy who'd been living in Franz Sigel. A guy it turned out had been the source of Monster in the Park stories amongst the citizens. The kind of stories that attract undue attention.She was pleased.And I was home in the Bronx.Again.Not that I've strayed over to Hunt's Point to walk down memory lane and see the house I grew up in or anything. Do that and I might get inspired to burn it down. And I kind of doubt that my folks are still living there, so what would be the point?Any case, not an easy woman to get on the right side of. And, once there, you don't want to circle round to the wrong side.Not on her turf.Our cigarettes go out and, in the interest of lighting new ones, we end our staring.I inhale smoke, blow it out. -OK. III stay away from the kids.She looks me over, nods. -That out of the way.The tip of her finger touches the corner of her mouth. -You got plans the rest of the night?I wave my cigarette. -Smoke this. Steal some money so I can get more cigarettes. Go hide fromeverybody.-Very nice.-Yeah, and I got a good book and a lovely bottle of chardonnay to curl upwith later.-Feel like company?I look at her. I try to do it from the corner of my eye, but why bother? She knows I'm looking.This one, pure h.e.l.l on wheels, asking me if I want some company.Do I.I take a drag, chew on it, let it loose, and climb out of the car. -I want company, III find a dog.She keys the ignition and the wagon grinds to life. -If that's what floats your boat, Joe, you have a good time.She puts the car in gear, rolls to the drive, exhaust pouring from her tailpipe.I stand there and watch till her lights are lost in traffic.It ain't the first time she's asked. Not that I'm bragging. I'm just saying she's the kind of woman knows how to complicate a mans thinking.A place like the South Bronx has a way of narrowing a persons focus. So you'd think my thinking would be pretty uncomplicated all the way around these days. That would be smart.People having a conversation about me, that word, smart, it doesn't come up often. And I'm just smart enough to know there's a reason why.But not smart enough to do anything about it.What can I say? This old dog, he's still too busy chasing his own tail to bother learning any new tricks.Across the river I had a life. Or a thing that I'd shaped into a semblance of a life. Had a face in the straight community. Folks downtown, citizens without know-how of this other life of ours, they knew me as a local fixer and rough hand. A guy could take some shifts when your bouncer got picked up by the cops for armed robbery and you needed a quick replacement. Guy you could come to when that deadbeat boyfriend still hadn't gotten out of your apartment four months after you dumped him. Guy you could slip a few bucks to escort said boyfriend to the curb. Trace a skip. Kick the vig loose from a welcher. No office, mind you, but a guy around that if you knew the right person I might get pointed out as the type could solve your problem.Not what you d call steady work, but I made my own hours. Kind of a keypoint, all things considered.And some gigs for the Clans. Do some deeds in the cracks, unofficial and off the books. And toward the end, a real job with the Society. But that didn't go so well. Low job satisfaction. Engagement terminated by agreement between both parties. No references forthcoming from previous employer.Guess it was that nail in the artery thing. That and maybe that I didn't give two weeks' notice. Not really sure which it was that queered the deal.Any case, on the Island I was a face, and a face can make some money. Make moves. Get his hands on the necessities of life.Food. Shelter. Clothing.Blood. Bullets. Money.Those kinds of things.Blood is tricky. But blood is always tricky. Money can help you lay hands on blood but its always tricky. No doubt it's trickier up here, you expect that. No local organization means no hustlers, no infrastructure to support a dealer who might be able to buy pints off the local junkies or something, act as a clearinghouse. Means no friendly faces at Bronx-Lebanon or St. Barnabas who you might slip some cash to and come away with a bag.No, it's all pretty much smash and grab up here.An uncomplicated life in the Bronx. By which a man means a predators life. No job. No prospects. No permanent place of residence. No prospects. Prized possessions are best carried on ones person, as running may be required at any moment. And needs of the moment are the tasks of the moment.So, after having Esperanza cloud my thinking, I work my way south. Toward a certain dead-end block of Carroll Place, just behind the Bronx Museum, where I recently clocked a rotating cast of young men receiving calls on their cells, soon after followed by slow-cruising cars that swept into the cul-de-sac, paused to pass handshakes out the window, and rolled back out the way they came in.Blood. Money. Bullets.I feel in my bones that the guy hanging on the stoop with his cell will have all three.How fortunate, that vacant lot at Carroll and One Sixty-six. It invites privacy. Limits distractions. While I tend to business.I should have broken into a couple cars on the way, scrounged a few bucks for a pack of smokes. That would have passed the time. Better, I should have done something to scratch Bullets off my to-do list before running this particular errand.Who'd have thought the modern crack dealer went unarmed these days? Not that I expected his bullets to fit my gun. Id assumed he'd be carrying the standard 9mm that's been all the rage for decades now. My own sidearm is a fusty .38. But, not being too attached to these things, I'd have happily tossed mine in favor of his. Seeing as I used mine to commit a homicide earlier this evening, I'd planned on leaving it on this guy after I knocked him out, took his cash and tapped him for a couple pints. With a bit of luck he might have kept it, at least that mugger left me with a gun, and gotten busted while it was in his possession. A long-odds bet, but worth putting some chips on.But no gun.Pity.A gun would come in very handy when the hornet buzz of furious engines bounces from the sides of the buildings lining Carroll and I find myself pinned in four crossing headlight beams.The engines drop to idles. -What up with white guy? -Yo, what up, white guy? -He a funky-lookin' white guy. -Like that jacket.-You like that jacket, n.i.g.g.ah? -Like that jacket. -Gonna bite off white guys style? -Just I like that jacket.I shake my head. -Kid, this jacket won't fit you.The one who snagged the cop's cap outside the Stadium pulls the bill of that cap to the side. -White guy talks.The one with eyes for my jacket runs a finger over the thin shadow of a moustache that rims his upper lip. -Don't worry, white guy, I grow into it.The smallest one guns a bike forward into the light from the streetlamp, and I see she's a girlShe snaps her bubble gum. -Don't know why you want that funky-lookin jacket. Look stinky.The last one, the one with the Dominican flag do-rag, drags on a Newport.-Too hot for a jacket. He don't need no jacket.Moustache holds out his hand. -Gimme the f.u.c.kin' jacket, white guy.The unconscious drug dealer in the dirt at my feet groans. I was just getting ready to slip the business end of an I.V. needle in his arm when the kids rode by and one of them caught a whiff of me and they veered onto the sidewalk and into the shadows behind the abandoned shed at the back of the vacant lot. With just me to worry about, the dealer would have been in pretty good shape. I'd have taken his bankroll, sure, that and whatever rock he's carrying, to make it look like a straight robbery. Other than his arm being a little sore and his head being a bit woozy, he might never have known about the blood I would have siphoned off.But now it looks like he's gonna have a few more mouths to feed.I look down at him as his eyes flutter open. -Trust me, buddy, you don't want to see any of this.I kick him in the head and he goes back to sleep. -Said, Gimme the f.u.c.kin'jacket, white guy. Didn't say kick n.i.g.g.ah in the head.I look at him.-Told you it's too big for you.He rolls his shoulders. -Told you I grow into it.I stuff my hands in my jacket pockets. Gun, switchblade, blood works, lock picks, Zippo, last few dollar bills and some change fill those pockets. Those things I'm most reluctant to leave behind when the running starts.Prized possessions?Not really.But the jacket itself.That was a gift.I take my hands out of my pockets; one holds the switchblade, the other the empty gun. -Touch my jacket, you won't grow any more at all.Gum Snapper pulls a gun as big as her head from the waistband of her skintight low riders and shoots me in the stomach. The clear advantage of having actual bullets being that you get to shoot people instead of just empty-threat them.I fall on top of the dealer and bleed on him and point my gun at the four kidsas they duck-walk their bikes over and look down at me. Moustache reaches for the gun and I pull the trigger a few times, hoping my math is off and that maybe there's a bullet in there I forgot about. But there isn't.He takes the gun and looks at it. -This a nappy f.u.c.kin' gun.He chucks it over the fence behind the lot, down into the bushes at the back of the Museum.Do-rag flicks ash from his Newport. -You gonna rock his jacket, or what? -Jacket got blood all over it now.Gum Snapper climbs off her bike, tucks the massive piece back in her pants and comes over to me. I wave the switchblade at her and she kicks it from my hand.-bit.c.h, don't even think bout cuttin1 my ass. I stick that thing in you f.u.c.kin d.i.c.k.She grabs the shoulders of my jacket and pulls me off the dealer.I could make it harder for her. The pain is pretty bad, but I could definitely make it harder for her. Except that gun she shot me with, it was really, really f.u.c.king big. And just now I need to focus on holding the guts that want to spillout of my belly in their proper place. Right now I need to focus on not moving too much so the Vyrus can use all its energy to close up this Godd.a.m.n hole and put my intestines back together. Whatever attention I can spare from that task, I can maybe use hoping the bullet didn't fragment inside me and rip up my liver and kidneys and spleen and such. Cause that much damage, I don't know if I can get better from that.So I'm gonna lie here quiet in the dirt and try to bleed as little as possible while Gum Snapper breaks out a set of homemade works that consist of the sharpened needle from a bicycle pump, a length of junkie's rubber hose, and a few heavy-duty Ziploc freezer bags. She goes to work on the dealer, and Police Cap comes and looks at me. -Think this him?Do-rag takes a wire cutter from the pocket of the jeans that sag down past the top of his boxers. -It him.He climbs the fence and starts clipping lengths of barbwire, handing them to Moustache. When they have four long ones he climbs down and comes over. -Got it all?Gum Snapper pulls the needle from the dealer's neck and licks it.-I got it.Moustache kneels at my feet and starts wrapping barbwire around my ankles while Do-rag runs the ends to the bikes, twisting one strand each around the bikes' rear forks.Police Cap helps Gum Snapper with the blood bags and they all saddle up.Moustache looks over his shoulder at me. -f.u.c.k I want you shitty jacket anyway, white guy? f.u.c.k you jacket.Gum Snapper rises up on her pegs. -Roll. Get this white guy to lament.And they gun hard, rear tires roostertailing dirt all over me until they grab traction and burn out of the vacant lot and onto the street. Dragging me behind them, trailing blood and wondering why they think they need to take me to lament someplace special.I can lament just fine here.-Miserable. Pathetic. Meager. Low.The four kids stop what they're doing and look at the man.He bends a twisted finger at the bags of blood set on the rusted TV traybeside him. -What is this?The girl snaps her gum. -S'blood.He leans forward and peers at her. -What is that in your mouth, Meager?She shuffles her feet, looks elsewhere. -Nothin'.Something like a tongue snakes out from his mouth and leaves a slimy trace over dry lips. -Is it? Is it nothing?His arm snaps out and long spider fingers clutch her round cheeks and squeeze. -Then you shall not mind opening wide for me to see.Her throat works, trying to swallow, and he squeezes harder. -Now, now, dear. Open wide.He wrenches and her mouth opens and he thrusts the fingers of his other hand inside and comes out with the gnawed wad of gum.-Nothing.He grips her by the jaw, three fingers inside her mouth, his thumb digging under the chin, and pulls her close, holding the gum in front of her eyes. -This is nothing, is it?She makes a grunting noise.He clacks his teeth twice.-Chewing chewing chewing. Grotesque. Perhaps I will change your name. Grotesque. Would you like that? It would suit you.Her throat hitches again, tears are coming out of her eyes.The hand holding the gum is shaking.-No? You would not like to be Grotesque? Well, to keep your name there will be a price. This, this is nothing? Then the price will be easily paid.He shoves the gum into her left nostril, yanking her head down as she tries to pull back. -This is nothing, child, nothing at all. Be still.A long whine comes from her throat as he forces the gum farther inside, his index finger pushed in past the second knuckle, blood trickling out. -Don't fret so, child, but a little farther and it will be back in your mouth.She coughs and gags and he shoves her onto the floor. -Nothing,He holds out his saliva and mucous covered hands. -Pathetic.The boy with the police cap steps forward with a box of tissues, and the man plucks several and wipes his fingers.-The ends I went to, the sacrifices I made, the labors endured to bring you here for your betterment. And yet here you are, even now, defying my most basic edicts and commands.The girl hacks loud three times and the gum coughs out of her mouth, elongated and glossy.He mashes the tissues and throws them at her. -Wipe your spittle, child.She takes the tissues, still hacking, picks up the gum and wipes her phlegm and spit and tears, creating wet trails in the grime on the filthy linoleum.He lifts his chin high, looks down his nose. -Disgusting. Foul. Those names, too, would be apt. -You know, next time he sticks his fingers in your mouth, you should reallybite them off.The girl and the man and the three boys look at me in my dark corner of the room where I lie in my own blood, bound in the twisted lengths of barbwire. -Seriously. You snap off a couple of those digits, I guarantee he'll be thinking twice before he goes mining for your gum again. Those things don't grow back too well. Makes a real impression when you bite one off. -Low!Moustache pushes the mans wheelchair forward, into the overhead light. -Closer, boy, closer.He rolls until his feet are inches from my face, the long gnarled nails almost poking me, reeking of toe jam and rot. -A biter, are you? Like something to chew on, would you?His foot lashes and the nail of his big toe cuts into my lips and he forces it inside. -There. Tasty? How you most like it, is it?I bare my teeth, the toe between them.And he pulls a cap-and-ball .44 from the greasy bathrobe draped over his shoulders and puts it against my head.-Yes, now bite. It will please me if you do.So I bite.But I don't think it pleases him much at all.He doesn't shoot me. He just watches as I rip his toe off and spit it onto the floor. And he laughs as he has the three boys work together to keep me from thrashing too much while they take one of my boots off and the girl lifts my foot to the man and he shares with me just what it feels like to have a toe bitten off.Me, if I had the gun, I'd definitely shoot him. A lot.-You see, yes, you see how they task me, yes? This, this is what they bring me. This paltry offering. This soupcon. And out of this I am to feed us all? How, I ask you, how?He takes one of the bags of blood from the TV tray and unzips the top a little, places his mouth over the opening and tilts his head back and sucks and swallows and the blood runs too fast and wells over his cheeks and down his chin and onto the collar of the robe and the pleated front of his wilted tuxedo shirt.He finishes and tosses the bag aside and lifts his chin. -Miserable.Do-rag takes a crusted square of linen from the TV tray and wipes the man's mouth and chin and neck, careful not to pull on any of the long strands of oily reddish hair that hang to the mans shoulders. -Yes, good, enough.The boy steps back.The man lifts the second swollen bag of blood.-And this to last for how long? How long until they can find some other feeble and crippled runt that they might manage to bring down? Barely worth keeping. Pathetic.Police Cap takes the bag from him, to a fridge wheezing in the corner, and slips it inside onto shelves loaded with bags of pig trotters and chicken feet.The man picks up the last and smallest of the bags, the dregs of the dealer the girl drained in the vacant lot.-Since you still resist the concept of industry, this will have to serve for all of you.He holds the bag out at arms length and the girl reaches for it. -Not you, Meager.He points at the empty bag on the will serve for you.He offers the bag to Moustache, a grin cracking around the teeth that still trap a bit of my toe between them. -For you, Low, to share with Miserable and Pathetic.The boy reaches for the bag and the man pulls it back. -And you say what?Low touches his moustache. -Thanks, Mr. Lament.Lament smiles again. -Such a good boy.He gives him the bag. -And all of you?The kids chorus. -Thanks, Mr. Lament.He nods. -Yes, manners. When prompted, I know, but some manners, nonetheless.He flicks his fingers at them.-Away now. Go feed your disgusting faces away from me.They scramble for the door, the boys clustered with their half-full bag, the girl trailing, looking at the red residue inside hers.The door closes.Laments kinked neck bends toward me.-Children. One can do little with them short of stuffing them in a sack and tossing them into the river like kittens.I bleed, eyeing his scalp.-It was a misstep on my part. I will admit to that much. But the blame is not entirely my own. If I had been listened to, left unmolested in my methodology, I might have avoided the conflict utterly. As it was I had no choice but to confront the rabble.He wheels himself to the fridge and takes out one of the bags of trotters. -I had operated in admirable discretion.A gnarled finger pokes into the bag and comes out with a trotter. He holds it before milky eyes and studies it. -Until they manifested.He digs a bit of meat from between the pig toes and sucks it from his yellow nails. -Mungiki savages.He rotates the trotter, finds more sinew, tears it loose with his teeth. -It would be almost comical. Their pretensions. That is to say, not only are they not from Kenya, but most of them are not even negroid.He licks the trotter, sucks a last twist of gristle from it, and tosses it aside, plucking another from the bag. -Skag Baron Menace.He spits on the floor. -Filthy child. He read about the Mungiki in a magazine article.He waves the fresh trotter at the moldy magazines and newspapers heaped along the walls, barricading the windows. -An article from my library, no less. Yes, this is ironic.He pops the whole trotter in his mouth, rolls it about, the sound of cracking cartilage loud, then opens his mouth, dribbling the stripped foot onto his hand then dropping it to the floor. -Kenyan gangs that thrive on kidnappings and protection rackets. Politicalparty enforcers that cultivate legends of their own brutality. They keep oil drums of blood. And drink it. So the stories go in backwater Kenya. If it is not redundant to use the words backwater and Kenya together in a sentence.He holds the bag up, shakes it, doesn't find what he wants and puts it back inside the fridge.-Menace thought it was clever, naming his little litter of hyenas after the blood-drinking gangsters. Clever? As if cleverness is a thing that ever happened inside Menace's feeble head.He rolls to a small shelf of books, pulls down a moisture-swollen Webster's and flaps it open in his lap.-Not even his own name is his. Menace. Something that threatens to cause evil, harm, injury, etc. I gave him that name. I had hoped it might instill some sense of pride in him, some modicum of self-respect. Something for him to aspire to. Better if I had done as I originally planned and named him Insipid.He slaps the dictionary closed.-Perhaps it did inspire him. Sent him off to new territories. Queens. Indeed. As if that was my fault. They act as if it was my fault. His adventurism of my making. But it was meddling in my methods that caused the problems. They have bred their own complications, not I. Little hairy monkey with dreams of his own empire. Skag Baron. The pretension of it. That little sc.r.a.p of half-n.i.g.g.e.r

and his delusions of n.o.bility.He places the book back on the shelf.-Skag is a word I know not the meaning of. Nor do I deign to seek it out. So sure am I that it is some foul slang for v.a.g.i.n.a or p.e.n.i.s.His chair creaks close and he b.u.t.ts me with the wheels. -And you, were you in my charge at an early age, what should I have named you?His lips purse, dry flakes of blood, and grease from the trotters, mingle in the whiskers on his chin.-shiftless. Yes, shiftless. Lazy and contemptible. Placing yourself outside the structure of things. Imagining yourself better than your place. Adding nothing to the common good and weal.He reaches behind the chair and comes up with a short cat-o-nine-tails and prods me with the wood handle.-You are a burden on us all. We strivers, we reachers and dreamers, without us, without our mighty efforts at forward progress, you and your slovenly kind would perish in your own filth.He dangles the knotted leather cords of the whip in front of my face; I can see the dry blood clotted thick.-Parasites. Sucker fish. Tapeworms. Reveling in the bowels of the citizenry. Living off our wastes. Upsetting the smooth functions of the body politic that we nourish with hard labors.He raises the whip and lashes it across my face. -shiftless. Useless. Leech.I flinch, draw up my shoulders and duck my face into my chest.He prods me again with the handle.-Yes, huddle and hide from the light and truth, shiftless. Is that shame? No, I think not. Fear. Simple fear of pain. Well, fear is a good forge. We can work many a useful tool with fear at hand. I have done so for years. In good service.He shoves the end of the handle under my chin and forces my face up. -Sharp tools I made. Even if they have never been appreciated. Good tools and able. Suited to their task. And I would have made more and better. But for interference.He pulls the handle away and bangs it against the floor.-Had I been left to my own methods, Menace would never have shunned his conditioning and reverted to his nature. Under my own auspices and left unmolested here, the Mungiki would never have manifested.He throws the cat-o-nine-tails, upsetting a pile of newspapers that sloughs to the floor.-Skag Baron Menace! With no Mungiki he was nothing. I told them, Leave off and let me attend, yes? But they would not listen. Insisted in meddling. All but created the Mungiki with their own hands. Intrusions. Invasions.He takes his hair in fistfuls.-And who must then negotiate with the savages? Who must settle them in their place? And at what price?He puts his hands on the arms of the wheelchair and pushes himself up on twisted legs; frozen at the waist, he stands c.o.c.ked at nearly ninety degrees, waving arms as warped as his legs, all the bones of him corkscrewed. -Mere seconds in the sun, yes? Cancers in my bones, yes? Mad growths, yes? All because I went out to negotiate, to compensate for failures and oversights that were none of my own.He drops back into the chair, sending it rolling a few feet across the moldering room. -Mr. Lament.-A misstep, did I say? On my own part, yes? Surely it was a misstep. The misstep was loyalty. Listening to the simple caw and cries, yes? I should havefollowed truer stars. My own heart and mind I should have followed! -Mr. Lament.He heaves air in and out, wipes spittle from his mouth, fingering the blisters that pebble his cheeks.-A life in service. For me, who should have been a prince in my own right. This is the price of sacrifice. This is the price of loyalty, shiftless. The wages paid by an ignorant sovereign. -Mr. Lament.He turns to Low, the boy standing in the open door.-You have something to say, idiot boy? Something that cant wait till your better concludes his business? Come here, thing.Low doesn't move.Lament crooks a finger. -Come here now, Low. Or risk my displeasure.Low comes slowly into the room, his tongue probing the ends of his moustache. -Sure, Mr. Lament.Laments hand ducks into the pocket of his robe and comes out with ahoned carpet knife. It flashes once as he uses it to hook the underside ofLows upper lip.-Something to say? Something pressing, yes? Say it, boy! Say it while youstill have lips to make human sounds! Say it before I cast you into your properstation as a maker of animals mewling!-Honestly, Alistair, the boy is simply doing as I asked. You might try an ounceof civility just now and again. We are none of us above the use of goodmanners and simple kindness.Lament and I look at the door where the old woman stands between an efficient-looking young man and woman in matching black suits, holding matching machine pistols that look every bit as efficient as they do. -We are not savages, after all.She takes a step into the room, into the light, luster on the single strand of pearls she wears at the neck of a white cardigan with b.u.t.tons that match the necklace, a faint greasy sheen on the warty gray orb that's half grown from the scarred pit that used to be her right eye socket. -Put the knife down, Alistair. Try to effect the gravity of your years.Lament removes the blade from Low's mouth. -This is my domain, Maureen. How I conduct affairs is my business.She places a hand on Low's head and looks at his face. -How you conduct your business has proven ineffectual. At best.She shakes her head. -A dismal failure is a far more accurate assessment of your affairs.She pushes Low toward the door. -Go out there with your friends.Low looks at Lament.Lament bares his teeth, snaps his fingers, and Low goes out the door.He looks up at the old woman. -A dismal failure? I think not.She inclines her head at the two young people and they come farther into the room.-Fear as a control is limited, Alistair. Your instrument is dulled by it. Incapable of independent actions. They will never serve as anything but your lackeys. Sad prison wards. A pathetic, if necessary, fate for them. Truly, it's as much as mongrel races can or should aspire to, but the added indignity of being lorded by yourself seems all but cruel.He grunts, opens his mouth.She shakes her head. -No. No further comment is required.She lifts a hand and the young man takes the handles of the wheelchair and pushes it to the door. -Go join your proteges.He twists about in the chair, looking back at her as he is wheeled out. -This is my place, Maureen! This conclave is my doing and I should be present.The old woman looks about for a place to sit. -Yes, Alistair. Yes, yes.His further comments cut off as the young man closes the door behind them.The young woman finds a folding steel chair with a cracked plastic seat cushion, wipes dust off it with a few tissues from Lament's box, and places it for the old woman.She takes a seat, runs her hands over the legs of her light wool slacks, then folds them in her lap and looks at me. -And tell me, Mr. Pitt, how have you enjoyed Alistair Laments hospitality?I shrug as best I can.-He's not quite up to your style, Mrs. Vandewater.I glance at the door and then back at her. -I mean, he only let me bite his toe off. You let me take a whole eye.-He was, hard to imagine, a quite remarkable student. Attentive, frighteningly able, insightful in a manner quite unique. An eye for weakness. A sense, if you like, for frailty. Vulnerability. Not a virtue, I admit, in the normal course of things, but essential to certain ends.She looks at the floor, raises the glasses that hang by a chain from her neck, and brings the discarded pigs feet into focus. -Over the years, obviously, he has rather deteriorated.She lets the glasses hang free. -His eye is no less keen, but he himself is blunted. Become vulgar.She looks about the filthy backroom.-The isolation. He seemed to have inward reservoirs. No lack of self-confidence, I'm sure you have noticed, but more than that. Or so I believed. A mind and spirit suited to independent action. Bold initiative. Yet still responsive to authority.She allows a small sigh.-Wrong on many counts it seems.She rises, looks behind herself and brushes at the seat of her slacks. -More willful than independent. When I dispatched him here to see if he might find suitable subjects for infection, I never dreamed how far he'd stray from my prescriptions. Recruiting, identifying those who might take most naturally to the Vyrus, has always required an acceptance of the fact that those most isolated from typical social supports are most likely to embrace an utter change in their circumstances. Offer the unwillingly solitary the opportunity to elevate themselves, to become a part of something larger than themselves, and they will find reserves of emotional and mental resilience they never knew existed. Resilience that can make them capable of the most basic of our compulsions.She bends and picks up the cat-o'-nine-tails from where Lament had discarded it.-After all, if a prospective recruit cannot come to terms with the implications of the Vyrus thirst, what use can we possibly make of them?She weighs the lash in her hand, shakes her head, places it on the TV tray. -Crude.She pulls a tissue from the box and wipes her hands. -So like Alistair.She looks at me, wound in barbwire, my clothes scabbed with my own dry blood, the marks of the whip on my face barely closed, a crust of tangled meat grown over the stump where my toe was.-At this moment, you could serve as the perfect visual referent for Alistair s methods and mindset. Vulgar and base. And, truly, a fair indication of just how far he has strayed.She places a hand at the high collar of her gray blouse.-Set to find loners and outsiders, he went too far afield. These delinquents and hoodlums. What use can they come to? He enticed them with blunt offers of power and money. Suggested they were involving themselves in criminal enterprise.She sniffs. -Narcotics, no less. A context, so he claims, they could understand.She opens the door of the fridge, the corners of her mouth pulling down. -And he implied a dark rite of initiation. Evoked voodoo. Santerla. Again, a context he thought they could embrace.She pushes the door closed.-And then he infected them. Or had one of his current miscreants infect them. And, if they survived that process, he began a program of abuse.Preprogramming. His word, not mine. But apt, I will admit. Whatever slight self-regard they might have, he removed it. Amputated it whole and cauterized the stump. The names he gives them. You've heard them? Failure. Distress. Encumbrance.Her good eye blinks slowly, as if erasing something from the surface of its lens.-My own fault. What I'd failed to account for was how he would respond to isolation himself. Id forgotten that he'd been a foundling in his own right. Lost and adrift until I brought him to harbor and gave him a purpose. I esteemed the training I'd given him too greatly. And once here, once in this lonely outpost amongst the savages, he became very much a product of his environment.A finger traces the edge of the mass of scar on her face. -Not the last time, sadly, I was the victim of overconfidence and pride.She looks at me. -Was it, Mr. Pitt?Something rustles in my gut. The skin has sealed over the wound, but the Vyrus is struggling inside to reknit my organs. I grunt, exhale, try not to move too much. -If that's what you call p.issing me off, then yeah, you were a little full ofyourself that time.A flutter, a twist, a sensation like sharp nails picking at a knot in my intestines. I grunt again.She lifts her glasses, looks at me through the narrow lenses. -Some discomfort, Mr. Pitt?I nod. -Yeah, yeah.She nods. -Something I could do for you?I think for a second. Something the Coalition Clans chief recruiter and trainer of their enforcers could do for me?Sure there is.-Yeah, lady, you could maybe just shoot me now instead of talking me to death.She looks over her shoulder at the young woman with her efficient machine pistol. -Shoot you?She looks back at me.-No, Mr. Pitt, I think not.Slowly, she lowers herself into a graceful squat that someone who looks as old as her should have more trouble executing. -Being shot is not in your immediate future.She reaches out and places the tip of her index finger on my cheekbone. -Other things are in your future, but not that.She presses the finger gently into my cheek, drawing the skin down from the bottom of my eye.-By the way, Mr. Pitt, you mentioned that Id let you take my eye when we last met. In point of fact, and while I don't wish to be thought ungenerous, I never actually considered it a gift.She lifts her finger. -And I've always rather believed you owed me something in return.She opens her mouth wide and goes to work, evening accounts betweenThere comes a time when you think there are no new territories of pain. After a certain number of stabbings, shootings, clubbings, whippings, beatings, thrashings, cuttings, slashings and eviscerations, you begin to assume you'vehad the worst of it and nothing of that nature can really surprise you very much.And then someone comes along to show you that you re wrong.And you can do little but scream your thanks and appreciation for the lesson.So I scream. My eye being gnawed out by a crazed old woman, I scream like I rarely have. Because some things, some things are truly horrifying.But maybe you have to have them happen to you to get that.-Because it was due me.-I am not arguing whether you had grounds, Mrs. Vandewater. I am stating asfact that you were charged to bring him unmolested.-Yes, so I was. And I abused that charge. And you have asked me why Iabused that charge. And I have answered. Because it was due me. This seemsto leave little enough to discuss. The only question seems to be, how will youdiscipline me for my failure to do as you charged?I open my eyes.Correction.I open my eye.Seeing as its caked with the blood that spilled out of what used to