The night air weighed heavy enough to drop a feather from the sky like a stone. It was the time when thugs stirred to haunt the streets and leer in the coal-dark crevices of the city in wait for an easy mark. A time when a good man bagged his trumpet, cradled it under his arm, wished the bartender goodnight, and strode for home within a whorl of fog that cloaked the city and shrouded the salted firmament.
A time ripe for a smashup.
The bite of a muzzle pressed against the small of Tony Marco’s back. As instantly as a wildling sensing danger, he pegged the assailant as right-handed because the weapon was pressed against his right kidney.
Tony’s mask of stone shrank into a withering cringe when the thug made his demand, his slurred diction and whiskey-scented breath betraying his drunkenness. Although defiant, the gunman belied an undercurrent of jitters as if his demands were stolen from tiresome crime movies. “Move, and you’re a dead man. Now, give me your wallet and phone.”
Distant explosions fired behind Tony’s eyes: the rocket launcher blasts, the rataplan of M16s, and the woof of helicopter rotor blades thrashing the walls of the hospital tent. Those memories awakened the familiar visceral responses of muscle tension and feral alertness.
“Whatever you like,” he said, his words soft and slow and resonant. “You mind if I set my trumpet on the ground?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll take good care of it for you.”
With a straight back, Tony squatted, set the gig bag on the pavement, then eased up, standing tall, his chest expanded.
“Now, the wallet.”
Tony noted the man had taken two shallow breaths to mutter the order, his diction quavering as if dithered by his own holdup. “All right. I have to get to my breast pocket.”
“Slowly, pal,” the thief said, sticking the pistol deeper into Tony’s flank.
“I’m not going to do anything stupid. That would be bad for both of us.”
The mugger responded by ratcheting his alpha dog facade. “Not so much for me,” he scoffed. “Just give me the wallet.”
“You’ve got it,” Tony said, patrolling the gray-misted street festooned with its line of spindly honey-locust trees.
It was two o’clock in the morning on Minetta Lane—normally a time he relished to unwind and rethink the riffs he’d nailed or bungled after another late-night gig at the Village Vanguard. But he was not replaying jazz figures now. He worried about tourists on a stroll after closing time at Minetta’s Tavern, but the street was empty. The Village slept—not a soul to take a stray bullet. He blew out his last vestige of weariness.
In one explosive movement, Tony spun counterclockwise, sweeping the pistol away from his body. Snatching the wrist of the assailant, he rotated and bent the mugger’s hand backward, digging his fingers into the thug’s nerve bundle at the wrist between bone and tendon. The pistol rapped to the ground, and Tony booted the weapon so fiercely it rebounded off the face of a concrete foundation.
The thief crested on his knees, his wrist, elbow, and shoulder in a jujitsu lock. Tony added more pressure, and the man twisted and fell onto his back, his face flushed. He expelled a long, tortured whine.
The click-clack of footsteps. An approaching shadow.
His senses alive, Tony raised his head and detected a ragged twenty-something woman with burnt-out eyes and mousy mop-strung hair. She eyed the mugger as though disgusted by a heap of garbage. She was fifteen feet away and moving closer.
She advanced, her stride clearly hampered by her floor-length dress, the hem brushing the pavement. “What’s going on?” she asked, her voice a tired rasp.
Her dry corroded words reminded him of the sound of death, of soldiers gasping to pronounce their own elegy before slipping into darkness. In remembrance, his face shrank into mourning, but not for long. The girl and he spotted the handgun at the same instant.
“Don’t,” Tony snapped.
Scrambling for the pistol, she stumbled over her skirt and fell forward. On her belly, she swiped at the weapon, but the swath of her hand was a foot short.
With one hand on the mugger, Tony dropped to his knees and onto his gut. He outstretched his free arm to snatch the gun, only managing to nudge it with his fingertips toward the girl.
Snaking forward, the woman grabbed the pistol, scrabbled to her feet, and raised the barrel. Holding the weapon with both hands, she cocked the hammer. Far from muddled or strung out, she appeared possessed by a demon, one who taunted her to squeeze the trigger.
“No!” the mugger shouted.
Tony released the thug, spun on his hip, and whip-kicked the girl to the ground.
She toppled hard, landing with a husky oof.
Sprawled facedown, she lifted her shooting hand off the ground just as Tony leaped onto her back, slammed both of her wrists to the pavement, and yanked her arms spread eagle.
The mugger dove over Tony’s back, hammered his head with his fists, and stretched for the pistol.
With one hand pinning the woman’s gun hand, Tony hooked his free arm around the thug’s neck and flipped him onto his back, his heft as light as a bag of bones.
The mugger and the girl lay prostrate side by side, both gasping, their faces contorted.
With a knee pressed against the girl’s spine and one hand throttling the mugger’s throat, Tony clawed and torqued the woman’s wrist with his free hand. She screamed—a black sulfuric wail—but released the gun.
After snagging and slinging the pistol into the street, he pushed to his feet, hoisting the pair with him, and shoved them both against a brick wall. The mugger squirmed, and Tony gave him a pulled rabbit punch with enough force to quiet him.
He clutched both of their necks and leaned into them. “Turn around. Slowly”
When they did, the woman set to bolt, and he yanked her back and pressed her solidly against the wall.
She shook her head as if rattling the loose contents.
They stood side by side facing Tony, looking beat down but far from contrite. They were young, especially the mugger who, though street-scuffed, was still a boy. This close they smelled of alcohol and piss and sodden clothes. As his stare lingered, they both twisted under his hand pressure.
He shoved them back, harder than intended, and the woman’s head landed solidly against the wall. “Enough!” he shouted, his pitch piercing his ears. He despised his position, made to be the enforcer. But what other choice did he have? Peering now at the mugger, his tone gentled—choosing an intonation he used when settling wounded soldiers: slow and airy instead of ominous. “What’s your name?”
The kid responded by swiping his tongue across his teeth and spitting. Although crude, he was smart enough to project the spital well to the side of Tony’s shoe.
On examining the boy—rangy, rawboned, and bleared-eyed—he winced in mourning for a dispirited soul. “My name’s Tony. What do they call you?”
“Snake,” the boy said through clenched teeth.
Tony smiled, not sardonically but sadly. “I can’t call you Snake. What’s your given name?”
The thief hesitated. “Matthew.”
“Matthew. That’s a good strong name.” He looked into the girl’s low-slung eyes. “And yours?”
She stalled, her eyes restless as if plotting a getaway. When she spoke, it was behind a raunchy smile with one hand on a jutting hip. “Rebecca,” she said, more a curse than a greeting.
“Servant of God.”
She snuffled a laugh. “Whatever.”
The rebellion in her eyes was unequivocal. He’d seen recruits with her attitude, writhing still under a father’s heavy hand or a preacher’s apocalyptic warning. “I understand.”
He stooped to gain direct eye contact. “I’m going to give you both a choice. Redemption… or death.”
He was being melodramatic, but sometimes fear was more persuasive than compassion. Still, he blunted the sharp edges.
“I don’t want to kill you. I’ve seen too much killing for one life. Nor do I want you to take your own lives… even by slow suicide.” He pressed his thumb and middle finger into the corners of his eyes to swab a trickle of sweat. “So, here’s the plan. I’m going to let you go. Then, you’ll look at me straight on and apologize. Have you got that so far?”
They both nodded, but only Matthew said, “Yes sir.”
Was that self-loathing in Matthew’s eyes? And savagery in Rebecca’s stare? “Then, tomorrow morning, you’ll go to the West Midtown Medical Group on Eighth and West Thirty-Fifth. You know it?”
“Yeah, by Macy’s,” Matthew said, jogging his head toward midtown.
“That’s right.” He waited for Matthew’s eye contact. “You’re going to walk in there at seven, and you’re going to get clean. Do you understand me?”
“Yes sir. I understand.”
“And do you agree?”
Matthew drew a deep breath and expelled the hitched air as if exhaling any secret challenges. At least that’s what Tony wanted to believe. “Yes sir. I’ll do what you told me.”
“And you, Rebecca?”
Her mouth flattened, she stared at her keeper with smutty eyes. “If Snake goes, I’ll go.”
The concession seemed to drain her strength. She wobbled and buckled at the knees. Tony hooked his hands under her armpits and raised her to her feet, her anorexic body feeling like a beetle’s exoskeleton.
“Take your hands off me.”
She let a jagged sneer speak her mind.
There was little Tony could do. Maybe there was hope for the girl at another time, another place but not now. Not with her heart encrusted with fear, anger, and hate. “Uh-huh,” he said, more to himself as he turned to the boy. “What do you have to say to me?”
Matthew raised his head.
Because Tony, now thirty-five years old, stood at least four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than the boy, he didn’t wish to overpower him. He bent at the knees to make himself smaller.
Matthew appeared leeched of arrogance. When he’d first appeared out of the shadows, he burlesqued a cocky tough-guy. Now, he seemed vulnerable, maybe even pliable.
The boy cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, sir. What I did was stupid.”
He rested a hand on Matthew’s shoulder. “I accept your apology.”
“No one calls me that,” she said, her eyes fevered with unveiled contempt.
“What do they call you?”
As her upper lip arched in lechery, she slapped both palms and the sole of her boot against the wall and snorted as if a witch’s oath. “Pussy.” Glancing aside in a clumsy act of misdirection, she slipped her hand behind Matthew’s rump.
The boy swiped her hand away. “Stop it.”
“What’s going on?” Tony asked.
Matthew plucked a switchblade from his back pocket. He released the blade and balanced the knife on his open palm. “Take it if you want.”
Detecting a flash of repentance in the boy’s eyes, Tony only shook his head.
The boy retracted the blade and slipped it into his front pocket.
Capturing Rebecca’s eyes, Tony asked, “Really? That’s what you want? Blood on your hands?”
Any remnant of innocence wizened. “What did you expect? Love at first sight, and I’d spread my legs for you?”
Matthew gripped her arm, but she jerked away.
“I’m done,” she said. Without glancing at the pistol in the middle of the street she turned and flounced away, never bothering to look back.
The click of her boots faded into the night. It was a sorrowful sound, as funereal as the steady knell of a kettle drum. After the last beat stilled, he squared off on Matthew. “I’m sorry for Rebecca.”
“Me too,” the boy said with both meaning and misery.
The moment was tricky. He could let things stand as they were—ambiguous with latitude for escape—or he could raise the heat. Although challenging the boy might pitch him skittering like a cockroach for the nearest cavity, it was a risk he was willing to take. “Tell me something. What were you thinking when you mugged me?”
The boy searched the concrete for an answer. “I wasn’t thinking,” he said, his utterance more mumblage than articulate speech. “I was acting on my gut.”
As if the city were eavesdropping, Tony gripped Matthew by the shoulders and drew him in, speaking privately, his mouth to the boy’s ear. “Well, your gut has shit for brains.” Although the reference irked enough to cower the boy’s head, Tony hauled him in for a less strident spur. “Don’t be a dope.”
Matthew smiled sheepishly, reached into his pocket, and fished out the switchblade. He then reached for Tony’s wrist and slapped the unopened knife into his palm. “Thank you, sir. I’ll remember you.”
Although he tried to be army-resolute, Tony’s belly jostled in sympathy with the boy’s response. “I guess this is it,” he said, extending his hand.
The boy stared at the open palm for an instant. He swiped his hand on his shirt and shook.
Tony grabbed his gig bag and retrieved the revolver. “You know I can’t give you this,” he said, pointing the handgun at the sky.
“Yeah, I know. Don’t want it anyway.”
“Good choice.” He tucked the gun into the small of his back. “Okay. Go home and get some rest. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Tipping his head in what was either respect or weariness, Matthew turned and lumbered east into the shadows, flexing his shoulder and elbow.
Tony delayed walking home even though it was up the lane and across the street. Sheathed in a film of sweat from the sodden air and donnybrook, he leaned against a brick wall and billowed his dress shirt. The city was so still it seemed to be holding its breath.
As the coiled tendrils of fog churned toward other dark city rifts, the receding mist silvered the streets and sidewalks, leaving them shimmering under the streetlamps. He inhaled the perfume of dust and spritz, the scent triggering a familiar ache that weighed heavily: the haunting memory of soldiers slain before their time.