There was a woman. The cost to love her was your life. No other payment but a sending off, a revolver cocked to your temple’s side.
There was no spite in your death, just business.
Hell of a business to run.
I was protecting someone. Never been one to stick around, but this drag had carried for the past year. That gang-owned joint lay but two doors and a cold alley away. Popular place, maybe not the classiest but it had its patrons. Packed with your essentials: pool tables, dirt-licked walls and chairs, mean folk mixed in with the nice. Old fashioned joint with a history. You could almost feel it when you walked in. That small pressure when it’s about to rain? Felt like that had been building up for a decade there.
Some Madonna owned it. Names elude me, but she was just another front; as was the barkeep, the hired bouncers and those mean-eyed slingers that spoke loud in company, silent alone. Heh, almost like an old-fashioned saloon. Who the hell am I in this tale of cowboys and crooks?
I was holed up in that apartment block for the winter. Stiff drapes covering a stiff cold that seeped through the cracks anyway. Cold chills to wake to, and the whiskey don’t warm a damn thing. Maybe it was the ache of a past flame that led me to her. That old touch had languished and misted away in the night of some long dead memory, leaving an old kiss from a young lover on my shivering body. It grew faint with every year’s passing. I struggle to remember this keepsake.
I was a no name protector protecting a no name ghost of a man. Yeah we knew each other. I’m no stranger to keep past talking terms . . . but, hell if I remember his name, how we got into this damn situation and why. Mind’s a little off. Been like that for years.
It was a stumble through the wrong door at the wrong time. Some spiteful voices in the back of the joint or the back of my mind telling me I’m headed for hell and ain’t coming back. See, every day is a crossroad, and I happened upon the worst one yet.
I remember that flaking paint; grime-covered white on a moulding door damn near off its hinges. That suited me, and I hated it. Maybe I grew sick of wandering the same way and turned my life on its spinning head. Spun me all the ways I couldn’t face. Saw a glimmer that fate had readied for me. Don’t think I’ve looked at anything with such eyes since; nor have they looked back at me.
The room was a cramped, dilapidated hellhole like every other room, but with her laying on that bed of hers . . . she was the only clean thing in the whole of this cursed city. Save, she wasn’t clean. No such thing exists; no such thing as clean since your adolescent innocence, and even that went up in flames. Hell, in a city like this I wouldn’t be surprised if the skeletons we kept so tightly locked in our closets outnumbered us ten to one.
Should have remembered that when I saw her, but my mind lay a blank canvas and I couldn’t help but fill it with all the details of this pretty bird. Even those that weren’t there.
No Name yanked me out quick. Never seen him so pale, ghosting further and further from a human being. He’d been running so long I don’t think he even knew what he was running from anymore. His past? Some cop chase from years back, ending with blood stains and shaky hands? A dead kid in the arms of a suicidal wife? Maybe he’s running from himself. Fear in the capacity we contain, and fear in the ways we unleash it around loved ones. I don’t blame him for running. If I was a worse man I’d run from him as well.
Now No Name has it all figured out, even if he won’t let on; and that bird in there ain’t part of the plan. Cash cash, first train out to some no name city for this no name man. In this together, he keeps repeating, like some broke down record player that only plays one song. Well I guess we share more similarities than I’d like to think so.
One night, about a month after settling in that old apartment, I hear raised voices. Not uncommon, but something about this still night woke some fear inside me. A fear I needed to meet with my eyes, a score to settle with myself. Sounded like some bastard outside was hoping to bring down the sky with volume alone. No type of gentleman, just a no prick kid who doesn’t know the difference between command and screaming like a babe.
One gets you respect. Now, the other. . . .
I open those stiff drapes with stiffer fingers. Brush that layer of frozen breath and mist to find some mid-twenty good for nothing punk holding a struggling figure. The apartment ain’t exactly ground floor but even up here I can spot the difference between a gent and a sally. Some broad was in trouble.
Grab that six shooter, old man. The holster smooth from years of wear, small frays on the weathered jacket rubbing against goose-pricked skin. Comfort clothing that never really brings comfort. Not anymore. Guess I’m as bad as No Name. I’m just repeating routine.
Out the hall, no doors left in this apartment block. Stolen, broken, ain’t exactly your family fun lifestyle we’re living. No Name’s holed up in this fortress of upturned furniture and dresser-barred doorways. Lights flicker from between the cracks. The devil ain’t gonna bother with the door, I tell him. He doesn’t reply. Maybe he’s a religious man with one too many sins above his head.
There’s another yell and I feel my blood rise, hairs picking up static, a storm brewing inside that clenched stomach of mine. Take a tumble down the stairs in my haste. Damn crooked balsa wood. Those stairs are gonna end me one day, I swear.
Ground floor. I slam that kitchen door and it cracks against the brick wall outside. Shit. No Name’s gonna burst an artery. Call out for that shithead punk but he’s already eyeing me up. Only a few steps away and I can see the white in his eyes. No . . . those are his pupils. Wide, all cloud-like, he’s fucking dusted up. . . . Almost like looking into the past. Thrice-cursed shit. I’m in trouble.
This ain’t some lover’s quarrel, some twisted fuck’s thought of a good way to end the night. This is a dusthead addict and I’m out of my league. His mid-snarl distorts and stretches past his cheeks and that devil grin sends an electric jolt from the wires of my brain to my heart.
This six shooter is as good as a pea gun against a Smiley.
He’s spouting some glossolalia drifts, layering it like an abominable duet. The coked-up boy in me yearns to understand again, but stiff joints and washed-out dreams have made me a cynic. Ain’t no beauty when you’re tearing things apart to see it. Shithead Smiley’s on the edge and he’s ready to pounce right off. If that broad’s sobbing didn’t jerk at those heart strings of mine I’d be running for my god damn life.
I lift that pea shooter and aim it straight at that devil smile.
He howls. Glass shatters from above. Some black monstrous thing comes speeding at me. I leap through that apartment doorway in time to see shithead Smiley consumed by it. All sharp, all solid that beast slams into Smiley, screaming loud enough to wake this dead city twice over. Smiley thrashes, he splays out to the ground, the beast’s seared flesh erupting in front of me. A piece slices past my cheek and I’m on the ground in tears. I hear No Name scream an incomprehensible curse above. I’m bawling now. Through my tears I spot that chunk of flesh. Fucking balsa wood. Thrice-cursed balsa wood.
No Name had thrown a piano out that barricaded window of his. Tears of pure comedy, that’s what left my face. A Smiley taken out by No Name, I’ll never live this down. His mangled body lies under polished wood. Someone’s yearly worth gone in a second of frantic panic, reduced to twisted wires and cracked ivory. To see something so beautiful destroyed in seconds makes me wonder if the Smiley had gotten the better of us after all.
That broad’s in shock. Splinters covered every inch of ground save that around her; looked like a comet, trailing emptiness behind. Should have noticed it then that something wasn’t right with that scene. Perfectly unscathed beauty sitting there with not a single scratch nor splinter on her, but I was too damn amazed I was alive. Knelt close to her and caught a whiff of some exotic scent on her skin. Some flower. Saw her face and it added another colour to that filling canvas of mine. This pretty bird from the joint. The one men died for. At least No Name had saved one life worth saving, funny it happened to be the one who could take yours in a night.
Names elude me, but the way I remember her . . . the way I remember her is Blossom, for when she came into my life she gave colours to my black and white memory, colours I didn’t know existed, and my black and white morals took a turn down some dawning grey-blurred alley.
So I’m a god damn gentleman and I walk Blossom home while No Name shifts furniture above us. Scrapes of hard wood against wood, filling that void in his once impenetrable bastion. I told you No Name’s got it all planned out already. Guess I’m just here for the ride.
Welcome to the paranormal neo-noir gangster world of Devil Smiles.