SAINT JUSTICE – EXCERPT – MIKE GRIST
Christopher Wren slumped at the wheel of his leased Jeep Wrangler, looking at the still tableau of the bikers' bar set against the purplish Utah night. Red and white neon in the window announced Budweiser, King of Beers. An air conditioning flap clicked repetitively like a high, strange pulse, next to the single red dot of a functioning CCTV. Stars wheeled lazily above, insects burred and clicked, and in back the red tracer rounds of receding cars sped by on I-70.
Wren squeezed the bridge of his nose. He'd been driving for weeks, on interstate highways when the mood took him, on dirt roads through little desert towns when it didn't, through forests and canyons and empty American plains, looking for something he hadn't yet found. There was a fog in his head that wouldn't clear, that time and distance couldn't shake. Perhaps this place was what he needed.
The Brazen Hussy.
The bar's name shone with a yellow backlight. Ten large black bikes were parked neatly out front like dutiful hounds. He knew the makes and the plates, some Harley and some Triumphs, and in the fuzzy halogen glow of the bar's one security light, he registered the gang decal on their tail fins; a blue skull with blond dreads and a hammer of Thor.
Vikings. They were a mid-sized chapter based across five states, involved mostly in drugs, underage porn and low-level human trafficking. Dry figures and facts rose up from the last debrief he'd got; their rank amongst other biker gangs, the roads they claimed as their own, their affiliations with white power organizations. The Brazen Hussy was their central Utah chapterhouse.
He killed the engine and stepped out of the Jeep. The blacktop of the lot was hot even through his Mulberry loafers, pitted and scratchy with gravel. For a moment he stood in the dark, letting his eyes adjust to the warm night breeze, redolent with the ozone smell of the desert, the green sap of blooming cacti, and the acrid waft of gasoline. He thought about ripping up a shirt and weaving it into a turban, so there could be no misunderstanding at all. It would be good if he had his full beard, more than this scraggly stubble; but he had what he had.
A brown man walks into a white supremacist biker bar in Utah; like a joke. The punchline was coming, and he walked toward it. The Jeep's locks clicked and he tossed the keys casually into a puddle of shadow at the bar's side. After a moment's thought he took out his wallet and did the same thing, extracting only three crunchy ten-dollar bills. His heart beat hard; this stuff never got easier.
He pulled open the door. Inside it was dark, hot, and smelled like a used boxing glove; fermented sweat mingling with cracked leather and grease. All eyes swung to him, and he scanned them in turn, taking in the details even as he made for the bar, feet sticking on the stained vinyl flooring. Half the space was cordoned off; in the shadows beyond lay a stage with a strippers' pole, not tonight. Along the back wall five men were gathered round a pool table with torn blue felt, downlit by the table's lamp. Three wore their chapter jackets despite the residual heat, as if the struggling AC was doing a far better job. One was stripped to a white wifebeater, late-twenties and showing off pale muscles written with Celtic cross tattoos.
These would-be patch members; made men in the world of organized bike gangs. They looked at him with a mix of aggression and surprise. Probably this had never happened before, a sheep striding into their den.
Wren walked up to the bar. On the wall they'd hung white power memorabilia: the Confederate flag, the Don't Tread on Me serpent, a large Viking seal, a swastika Stars and Bars, a cheap-looking painting of a rosy KKK knight atop his white charger.
"I love what you've done with the place," Wren said.
The bar girl glared at him. Two bikers at the bar, mid-aged with long ZZ Top beards and leather jackets grayed-out by the sun, just stared at him, like there was no way to compute his presence here.
"I'll take a Bud," Wren said.
"I ain't serving you," said the bar girl. She was young, twenty-two maybe, wearing her bleached blond hair in natty sideshot pigtails, with a hint of meth-mouth visible in the redness round her lips. Wren looked at her and read a lifetime of coming last. Last at school, last at home, last in life.
"Why not? You clearly need the money."
Her mouth snapped open to respond, but one of the bikers raised a quieting hand. "That's all right, Liza. City boy here's got a smart mouth. Nice Jeep, too." He pointed a finger at the CCTV screen in the bar's back. "What are you, some kind of banker out of Salt Lake, getting rich off the Jew bailout?"
Wren looked at the guy; late forties with the scarred cheeks of a bare-knuckle boxer, now subtly slipping on a silver knuckleduster beneath the bar. Possibly a gang enforcer; the muscle who kept the gang protected.
"Banking of a kind," Wren said, looking him in his blue eyes. "Collecting old debts, mostly. I specialize in reparations."
The boxer laughed.
"I'll buy one for you," said Wren, "and your boyfriend there too."
The guy next to the boxer looked surprised.
"This is a gay bar, right?" Wren went on, feigning uncertainy. "I thought, all the leather? Of course, I'm not judging."
The boxer laughed, but the edge was there and building. "Boy, you must be high. I guess we should go easy for that. How you feel, Jug, shall we go easy?" He patted the hefty shoulder of the man at his side.
Jug was younger, early thirties, wearing a few metal studs in his face with a gang tattoo on his shaved skull. He wasn't a ranking member, Wren figured; not from the redness around the tat. He was a prospect at the bottom, on probation for full-blood membership.
"Not that easy," said Jug, and stood. He was a big guy, maybe a linebacker once, but far along the road to fat. Wren read the desperation all over him. Bench three hundred pounds and carry close to that in his gut, or he soon would; living off roadkill, exhaust and fast food, dreaming of becoming a respected rider in the mid-ranks, though that would never happen. Wren saw the lack of conviction in his eyes, and took it into account.
Jug strode down the bar, circling around to take up a seat on Wren's right and cutting off his exit.
"You breed them fat out here," Wren said, admiring Jug's girth. "So this is the real America, huh?"
The boxer rested his left fist on the bar top, no longer hiding the knuckleduster. "You've got a real hard-on for this, boy. How do you think it's going to go?"
Wren sighed. Sometimes the build-up to violence made him tired. How much more honest was it just to walk up and punch someone in the face? "It depends how much of a pussy you are, and how many guys here are wearing steel toe boots."
"Steel toe boots," mused the boxer, turning his knuckleduster so it scraped on the bar. "Makes a difference, I suppose. You been beatdown a lot? You get a thrill out of it?"
"This isn't therapy," said Wren, "get on with it."
The guy shot a look to his group around the pool table. They were all watching. He smiled. "Fine, but first I gotta know just what kind of mongrel you are. Wetback? Raghead? All these shit browns blur into one."
"I'm a goddamn rainbow," Wren said. "Mexico by way of Pakistan. It's your lucky day."
The boxer licked his lips, like he was about to tuck into a juicy steak. "And Muslim?"
"Once upon a time. I'm an apostate now. Anything else you need to know?"
"I think that'll do. Jug."
Jug laid a heavy hand on Wren's shoulder. Wren looked up at him while the boxer padded over, and saw through the desperation to the sadness.
Probably his name was Boyd. Maybe he'd been cool in High School but wanted more out of life now. He wasn't smart, and for all his white privilege he'd just landed at a junk food drive-thru, spraying ketchup for college kids. His own kids, if he had any, found him an embarrassment. The tattoo and piercings were an active decision to stop being a loser and get out of the trailerpark.
It was funny. The one thing they never told you when you joined a gang was the truth: we want you because you're a loser. Trust us, we know, because we're losers too.
"What's your real name, Jug?" Wren asked, clamping his own hand over Jug's. It was rough-knuckled with eczema. "Is it Boyd?"
Then the boxer threw his punch. Wren kicked hard off the bar with his left foot just as the knuckleduster arced in, a sweeping haymaker left. His stool rocked back and he fell out of the blow's range, but his hand on Jug's jerked the fat man straight down into it. There was a toothy crunch as the boxer followed through and Jug's mouth splattered in blood, then Wren hit the floor and rolled.
"Shid!" Jug shouted, clamping his hand to his mouth. The boxer wheeled, shock on his face but holding up his guard and taking a step in. The guys at the pool table moved. Wren rose smoothly to his feet, maybe ten seconds ahead of the five of them, and fired a vicious kick to the boxer's groin.
It landed perfect and bent him double; Wren followed with a jump-knee cracking into his forehead, dropping him like a boneless sack of fat. No MMA training for him. At the same time Jug roared through a mouth full of broken teeth and charged. Bareknuckle fights in Kabul had prepared Wren well; he slipped the first and rammed the fat man's belly with his shoulder, blowing the air out of Jug's lungs. While he gasped and bent double, Wren sped around and planted a firm push kick into his wide ass.
Jug tumbled into the five patch members as they closed in, pulling two down with him and knocking a table in the way of another. While they dealt with that, Wren smoothly slipped Jug's wallet into the back of his waistband; palmed in the charge.
"You all wanna see my Koran?" he asked, then the first pool cue came in. It was the guy in the wifebeater, muscles rippling and rage on his face. He had to be their road captain. Wren got a hand up and the cue broke over his forearm, whipping across his vision trailing blood. He sent a straight right but he was off-balance and the captain bulled through it, following up with an elbow into Wren's chin that sent him down.
After that he was done. Wren lay in their midst, rolling and flexing where he could, covering his face and eyes, taking the beatdown as they worked out their rage on him blow after blow. They stamped, and spat, and kicked, and it was good.
Finally the fog in Wren's head began to clear. He deserved all this and more.
Wren roused to a deep rumbling. Opening bleary eyes, he saw white lights rushing toward him, then past, then more coming.
Everything hurt. He ran down a mental checklist as a semi thundered by only feet away, juddering the sandy shoulder beneath Wren's cheek. His eyes worked. His jaw felt loose but he could grit his teeth. His back and sides were a blooming swell of stiffness and pain, and his breathing caught on what was probably two cracked ribs. He extended his legs and arms carefully, like an infant born on the roadside shale; no major breaks.
He rolled slowly up, steadying the dizziness with both palms on the cool blacktop. Yes, there; a broken finger. Maybe two. He looked down. In the oncoming lights he saw the fracture in the middle finger of his right hand. He partially remembered that, now: an unlucky angle when they'd started whipping him with pool cues.
He laughed, but it hurt, so he stopped, then wrapped his left fist around the broken finger. He gave a short, careful pull. The grinding and ensuing dizziness nearly knocked him out, but he clung to consciousness. Probably Jug was in worse shape; taking a knuckleduster to the face. There was something amazing about being beaten while on the ground by a gang. It was infinitely better than being beaten by one person alone. Inflame a gang enough, and they would exhaust themselves batting you around without doing much real damage.
He'd seen it countless times in Afghanistan; a mob of soldiers falling on a single civilian and beating him with all their strength, only for the victim to hobble up and run off seconds later, battered but basically unhurt.
Stamping on a guy on the ground felt good, but all you were doing most of the time was rolling his body over. Few people had what it took to hold a victim still and stamp where it would really cause damage; where bones and joints would be broken. They just worked out their anger, and when the anger was gone they wanted to get rid of the evidence.
Wren pushed himself to his feet. He ran his tongue around his gums. Plenty of blood, but it didn't seem he'd lost a tooth. Half of them were crowns and bridges anyway, lost on other days. He slipped one hand down the back of his waistband and came back with the wallet.
It had been a long shot. In the heat of the violence, then the rush to get rid of his body, they hadn't thought to search him thoroughly. He checked his pockets; the thirty bucks was gone of course.
He opened the wallet and checked out his haul. Some crunched-up bills. Some receipts. Social security card. A kid's prom picture behind a clear window; pretty blonde with retainers. Driver's license. Address.
Jug's real name was Eustace. You couldn't make that stuff up.
Wren stood and limped along the shoulder, rinsed by the rushing lights. He didn't put out a thumb. Someone would stop soon enough or they wouldn't. It couldn't be that far until he hit a gas station anyway.
The station was a TexCo maybe two hours later. By that time the bruising had him hunched over and walking with an ugly limp. His right hand throbbed around the swollen finger. He wouldn't be making a neat fist any time soon.
Across the stained apron, through the glass, the kid behind the counter watched him approach with wide eyes. You didn't get a lot of pedestrians on the interstate.
The kid was black and tall, with tight-knapped curls waxed close to his head. So damn young. The bell rang when Wren pushed through the door.
"The hell happened to you, man?" the kid asked.
"White supremacists," Wren said, picking up a wire basket and scanning the shelves. "You got ice?"
"I got, uh, yeah," said the kid, watching blankly as Wren started plucking products off the shelves. He craned his neck to follow. "In back, bottom of the chest freezer. Did you say white supremacists?"
Wren picked up a box of Band-Aids, a ballpen, duct tape, a liter bottle of Black Jack vodka, a hand towel and a local map showing the small towns clustered around the nearby Manti-La Sal National Forest.
"Like, they jumped you?" the kid asked, peering down the aisle while Wren rustled in the ice chest. He caught a glimpse of himself in the freezer's mirrored back. The bruising wasn't too visible yet, but the blood was. One of his eyes was shot through with red. There were scratches and a gouge in his cheeks and forehead. So handsome, he thought. Just more scars.
"I walked into one of their bars."
He limped back down the aisle and the kid hurried behind the counter. "You did what? Are you crazy?"
Wren shrugged, leafed through Jug's wallet and put fifty bucks down. "Keep the change."
"Should I call the police?"
Wren looked at the kid a minute. He was seventeen, likely a bit of a nerd, unlikely to ever join a gang out here; maybe a cult when mid-life disappointed him. Good parents, good school, but probably not the most popular kid. College would make or break him; it all depended where he went. Either way he'd always remember this night, when a guy walked up after an epic beatdown, and what was Wren but a good role model?
"I wanted them to do it. Now I know where they live. Don't worry about me, James."
"How do you-" the kid started, before remembering he had a nametag.
Wren held out a hand. "Restroom keys."
James stared a long moment, not processing again, before he gave a nervous laugh and fished them out. "Yeah. Here. You sure you don't need some help?"
"Everybody does," said Wren and limped out the door.
The restroom was clean enough. The door didn't lock but that was no concern. He got the hot water going in both sinks then stripped and washed with the handcloth. Blood and dirt came off him everywhere. The smell of piss came too, along with a faint memory of them urinating on his head. Huh. It was their bar.
His back was a welter of rising purple, striped with bright welts where they'd lashed him with pool cues, darker blots where they'd punted toe-first. Muscle helped absorb most of it. There were a couple of round stab marks, a few slits where impact had split the skin, but nothing too serious. His legs were much the same; bruised and cramped but basically OK.
He doused the washcloth with vodka and swabbed himself liberally, enjoying the clarifying sting. Next came Band-Aids. Covered in other people's piss, with clothes he couldn't waste time cleaning now, infection was his main concern. Last he used the pen as a splint and strapped his broken finger tight.
He looked in the mirror. He looked bad; dark tan skin that could pass for a broad spectrum of American minorities between his twin heritages of Pakistan and Mexico, but puffy and bloated now. He'd passed for Pakistani-born ISIS in Afghanistan; that was sixteen months he'd never get back. He'd passed for Guadalajara MS-13 in Mexico, policing the northern border for rival coyotes and cartel mules. He'd even briefly passed for a Native American in the Big Sur terror scare.
He wouldn't pass for shit now.
His eyes drifted to the names tattooed on his chest, done on the day they were born. Their mother's name too. Shit. He couldn't think about now, and wasn't that always the problem?
He cleaned up the restroom as best he could; leaving no blood, all the trash in the wastebasket. No sense in the kid having to do it.
Back in the store, holding the ice pack to the back of his head, the kid just stared.
"You don't look any better, man," he said.
Wren checked the clock behind the counter; after three. "You want to help, call me a cab."
"A cab? Uh, you know where we are right? On a highway? It's not exactly downtown."
"Uber then. There'll be someone."
"Yeah," began the kid, hesitant, "maybe out of Salt Lake? There's no Ubers around here?" He ended it as a question, as if Wren might have better information.
Wren sighed and dumped the contents of Jug's wallet on the counter. "I'm only going to," he read Jug's driver's license, "Emery. Is that far?"
The kid snorted. "We're practically in Emery, man. Thirty minutes max."
"So call the Uber. I'll wait out front. And take this," he gestured at the money. "It'll cover it. Give the rest to charity, whatever you like."
The kid stared at the money, reached for his phone, then paused. "It'll be my Uber, in my name. And you bought duct tape. You gonna kill some guy?"
"He's not gonna die," Wren said, firm and calm, like he was handling a skittish animal. "I'm not even gonna hurt him."
The kid looked distraught. "Then what are you gonna do?"
Wren gave a tired smile. It's what he'd been doing all his life. "I'm going to change his mind."
The cab took an hour to arrive. Wren sat out front of the gas station, looking over the forlorn gas pumps and the road, enjoying the cold of the ice against his battered head. A couple of steel toe boots, maybe? If he hadn't known just how to move, where to twist, the damage would've been much worse.
At least the fog was gone.
The Uber pulled up; a Prius driven by a young guy, artisan moustache with an ironic T-shirt showing Hilary Clinton swearing. The kid actually got out of his car to look at Wren.
"Je-zuz. You get run over?"
"Something like that," said Wren, and waved to James in the store. The kid waved back awkwardly.
The ride passed mostly in silence. The guy asked a few questions, but Wren only grunted replies, and that was that. He had the car stop outside Emery at the bottom of Eustace's road.
The Prius pulled away, leaving Wren alone. He surveyed the neighborhood; a cracked asphalt street with duplexes stood side-by-side like neglected herd cows, overgrown with poison oak and sprayed with desert dust. Street cleaners didn't come out here, he bet. There was no municipal care for the lost souls inhabiting this forgotten burg.
Wren walked unevenly up from the bottom of Eustace's street, favoring his left side. Old trash lay in the gutters like slurry; fast food chicken wrappers and cheap porn bleached from endless days of sun. It was coming up for dawn now, and people would be rousing; headed east to the endless hay farms, Utah's biggest agricultural product, or north to one of the coal mines in the Wildcat Knolls, with old folks rushing out to catch the first great Walmart deals of the day three towns over.
Political lawn signs sprouted from weed-clumped lawns everywhere, all the same color. Big, rusted Chevy trucks were the order of the day on broken-flagged drives, trailing dark oil marks like telltale bloodstains.
Eustace's house was the same as any, with a toppling telephone post at the corner, likely left that way since some neighborhood DUI a year back. Likely there was no money in the town coffers for repairs, though live cables were trailing down around head height. The front porch was peeling white paint, showing cheap beech boards beneath. There were holes in the roof felt, dozens of dry clay wasp nests under the rotten eaves, and the porchswing hung by only three chains.
Probably Eustace's mother's house. A story of loss. Already the air felt hotter and drier out here, like the neighborhood produced its own miasma of hopelessness. The only good-looking thing about all of it was Eustace's bike; parked on a neat cement pad under a diagonal awning strung from the wall. Twin heavy-duty security bolts anchored the wheels and frame to eyelets in the cement. His prized possession.
Wren walked up to the front windows and peered in. The glass was scaled with old dust. Inside no lights were on, but he picked out a low den. He opened the fly screen and tried the front door but it caught on the deadbolt. Given the poor condition of the wood frame it would only take a single shoulder barge to force it, but he didn't want to make any noise at all.
He moved around the side. Under the awning he rested a hand on the bike's glossy engine fairing; it was cool. Eustace had been back at least an hour.
The back yard was more depressing than the front: a swingset smothered in poison ivy, like a ruin of better days; a couple of saplings trying to break through the thick chokeweed and failing, destined to the same stunted lives as 'Jug' and his sad family.
The back deck boards creaked underfoot. A rusted BBQ lay open in the shade, holding a moldering puddle of old grease and moss, buzzing with morning mosquitoes. The back slide door was open a crack. By the pre-dawn light Wren saw the glass near the handle was shattered. Probably the mechanism didn't latch anymore. He doubted anyone had tried to rob this place; probably this was Jug's own work, some drunken night he came home and couldn't find his keys, and he hadn't bothered to fix it since.
People just sank.
Wren slid it open and stepped in to the dining room. There were stacks of cord-wrapped magazines everywhere, on the table and heaped on the veneer floor, fuming up an overwhelming smell of must. He had to pick an uneven path through the piles. A kid's nightlight was plugged in over the breakfast nook, illuminating a neat enough kitchen. Wren handled a magazine. Seabass Angler. He checked another. Modern Huntsman.
Maybe an old subscription. Wren found one still packaged, addressed to a Eustace Sr. Without a doubt, though, the old man was dead. The mom had become a packrat, if she hadn't been one already. Eustace, his kids forgotten, had gone off the rails in a deep sink of his own misery.
Was it misery? It didn't matter. Out here you didn't have a lot of mirrors to reflect yourself back, and the few you had were rarely positive. Your dad eats the business end of his hunting rifle, and it leaves a mark.
Wren worked a path to the stairs. He could hear Eustace, Jug, snoring up above. Each breath came with a pained catch. Having your jaw rearranged by a knuckleduster would do that to you. There was no way the gang had taken him to a hospital. There was no way Eustace had health insurance, not with all the cuts at the Federal level. These were libertarian folks here, bred with a deep self-reliance that left them high, dry and helpless when the shit really hit the fan. They refused to grasp how much help they needed; how much everyone needed.
Now Wren was going to help.
Halfway up the stairs he saw family photos. Better days, perhaps. Eustace Sr. was there, looking massively overweight and smiling despite his haunted eyes. Ma Eustace. Little Eustace, with waifish hair and none of the current tats or piercings. Later on, skipping years, his girl was on his arm, ironically some part Hispanic herself. Probably that was what flipped him over; the day she left, breeding a hatred that spread to an entire race. Maybe. There were two beautiful little kids, in the back yard with the BBQ on the go.
Damn, it was sad.
On the upper landing Wren stood at the half-open door to Eustace's room. He knew it was Eustace's because it had his name on a plaque, like he was still a kid. Mama's snoring came from nearby. Eustace's breath was like a symphony of misery. Wren pushed the door open.
Inside it was sparse; not even a TV. Eustace had likely sold everything he had, and much of what his mother had, to push that tricked-out thirty grand bike out front. Leveraged to the hilt, he'd gambled everything. He'd put his life on a new track, because he hadn't seen any other way.
Wren had seen all that in his eyes. Windows to the soul, they said. The boxer, not so much. Maybe some of the homeboys around the pool table. There was a point where you were too far gone, and then there could be no coming back. In Wren's philosophy, few people really passed the point of no possible return, but most went beyond a point of feasible return. They couldn't be brought back with anything other than a titanic effort, and who had the time or the money for that kind of deprogramming?
Wren brushed a tear from his eye, as he scanned the empty walls. There were no Nazi insignia here. No white power bullshit, no clippings of newspaper lynching stories, no KKK, none of it. This was a man's heart laid bare, and it was just barren.
He sat on a magazine stack at Eustace's side. Hunter's Journal, it said. His Ma's hoarder addiction was deepening, that it had spread into here. The fat guy was out like a light on his single bed; feet sticking up over the edge. His face had bandages slapped on amateurishly, but what did a bunch of Viking pricks know about bone chipping and temperomandibular disorders? Likely Eustace would suffer stroke-like symptoms for a while, all up and down his body. Without insurance he'd go undiagnosed, and bad habits would make it worse. He'd get a hunch, and twist a knee under all that extra weight, then he'd never walk right again.
Wren just looked at him for a while. The tattoos were war paint, like with so many men. Be afraid of me, they said. Respect me. Really they just cried out an inner insecurity. Weak people could do tremendous damage too. It didn't make them any less weak. It just baked in bad routes to strength, thereby cementing the core weakness in place.
He wasn't going to need the duct tape. He did a quick, gentle probe for a gun under the pillow or down the side, but there wasn't one. There was nothing dangerous within reach.
"Hey Eustace," he said, and flicked him lightly on the jaw. "Wake up."
Eustace came to with a snort. One hand went up to rub his jaw, then came back sluggishly with a delayed whimper of pain. His eyes rolled as he tried for focus. Wren figured they'd put him out with some milder opioid, most likely a generic codeine.
Perhaps that would make this easier.
"Eustace," Wren said softly.
"Wha-?" the big man asked, then winced. Of course, speaking would hurt. If Wren really cared, he'd get this man a doctor. But there had to be consequences.
"Don't speak. That's fine. Just focus on me. Look at me."
It was dim in the room, so Wren leaned over and pulled the curtains open. The sun was rising outside; a new day. In the fresh influx of light he saw the blood stains on Eustace's pillow and sheets. His bandages were sopping through.
Now Eustace's eyes were a little sharper. It took a while, but recognition came. He started shuffling as the panic came on slowly, trying to get the covers off him and perform a sit-up to get up. Probably he hadn't done a sit-up in a decade, so it wouldn't take much to hold him down.
Wren put a calming hand on Eustace's shoulder. "Shh. Calm down. Your momma's in the next room. Let's not wake her."
It worked as a caution and a threat. Eustace didn't need to know that Wren would never do anything to his family, at least not for this offense. What he needed was to stop struggling.
He stopped. His eyes burned through the opioid fog.
"You tug by wallet," he said, wincing with every mispronounced word. Now his eyes shone with rising tears. He probably thought he was about to die.
"I did," said Wren. "You didn't tell them that?"
"I didn't notith," Eustace said.
Wren nodded. That was how he'd planned it. Rile them up, serve them up. He sat for a time just looking at Eustace, letting this new reality set in. He didn't have a gun or a knife, but Eustace didn't know that. Still, it wouldn't take much. He could break the big man's trachea in a second, watch him choke, and they both knew it.
The fight went out of Eustace. It always did, when you woke people up like this, when they were injured already, when you came inside their houses and threatened their family. Wren let that fear do its work. He took his hand off Eustace's shoulder and sat on his stack. The man was bound by tighter ropes than any duct tape now. His momma. The first tear spilled down the side of his head.
"Why'd your wife leave you, Eustace?" Wren asked.
"Your wife. I've seen the family photos; you left them up. There's no X's over her face. Your kids are in the frame. You're covered in bullshit tattoos now, cult crap for weaker men, but there's none of that in your house. Because it would upset your mom? Because it would upset you? Or because it would upset your wife, if she ever came back?"
More tears flowed. Eustace struggled again, as if this was a final straw, but he didn't really try to get up. He couldn't, not without swinging his legs out, and Wren was blocking that. He was a prisoner under his own weight.
"Ged tha fug out. Ged oud of by house."
Wren just looked at him. "Nice bike, Eustace. I know what a Triumph costs, and it's more than you or your momma has. Look at this place. When did you last fucking dust, man? Mow the lawn? It's overdue."
Eustace grumbled something Wren couldn't catch.
"Speak up," Wren said. "It's just us chickens here. You want me to be convinced."
"I thaid, fug off!"
Wren looked at him, then put a hand on his jaw and squeezed. Eustace immediately squealed, tried to recoil, tried to kick out and grab at Wren, but his flailing, half-addled arms were easy enough to fend off.
"Arrghhh!" he yelled.
Then Wren let go, and Eustace fell limp. There came the smell of urine, and then a call from the next room; an old woman's wavering voice.
"Eustace? Are you all right?"
Wren looked at Eustace. Eustace stared with a new terror.
"Tell her you're all right. Everything's fine."
"I'm all righd, momma! Everything'th fine. Go bag to thleep."
She said something inaudible, then started pottering around in her room.
"She alwayd geth up now," Eustace whispered, pleading.
Wren shrugged. It was fine. He could talk down the old lady easily enough. He had that charm.
"Look at me, Eustace," he said. "You need to focus here. I asked you a question. Why'd your wife leave you? Where'd she go, and where are your kids?"
Eustace stared fiercely. These were things he'd never told anyone. Secrets held close to his chest; for shame, for guilt. So many possible answers might follow, and each would dictate Wren's next choice. Had he beaten her? Abused her? Had she beaten or abused him?
People just sank.
Eustace squeezed out a few more tears, then confessed; the canker at the center of his soul, around which all this pearly bigotry had formed. "Bitth cheaded on me. I went to du guy, and he laughed. Thaid I wath fat."
Wren tried not to laugh. "You are fat, Eustace."
"We had a fight. She called me a lother. She left and took the kidth."
Wren weighed that. It sounded about right. A goddamn pity party. This guy wasn't evil, nor was he too far gone. He was just sad, and he needed help. His dad's death had left him without any resources, so he'd gone in search of them."
"So you bought the bike. Got the tattoo. Didn't shed the weight, though."
"Fug you!" Eustace shouted, suddenly angry again.
"Eustace?" came his momma's voice.
"Nothin', mama!" he called. "On du phone."
She went on pottering. Wren waited for Eustace to get calm.
"I was going to take your bike," he said. "Exchange for my Jeep. I assume they took that?"
Eustace just looked away.
"Did you think you'd killed me?" Wren asked, more curious than anything. "That I was dead? Aren't you relieved I'm still alive?"
That puzzled Eustace for a moment. Was he supposed to be relieved to have this guy in his house? "Whad d'you wand?"
"My Jeep, to start with. It's a lease. And your bike? I think if I took that, you'd kill yourself. Am I about right?"
Eustace stared at him. Now he was cutting the man to the quick. Seeing him at his weakest. It was nothing new for Wren.
"You'll drink and moan," he went on. "You'll make excuses for yourself, but in the end you'll look in the mirror and see the loser that you've become. Eat a gun." Wren scratched his chin. "I don't want to cause that. So, what's your job, Eustace? You work in a drive-thru?"
"Drugthtore," said Eustace rebelliously.
"Ah. So that's your in to the gang. You slip them excess, they deal it? Hmm. They treat you with respect there, Eustace? You just work the counter, or you trained in making up pills?"
Eustace's face went through an array of emotions that belonged better on an angsty teenager's face, before spitting out a one-word answer. "Training."
"Hmm. Bet they don't like your new ink?"
Eustace looked away. Likely he'd already lost his job, or was close to it.
"And where's your wife now? Where are the kids?"
"What is that, an Amish camp?"
"Town! Nod far."
Wren smiled. "Yeah. With the guy? Yeah. So here's what you do, Eustace. You quit the gang. There won't be any local chapter left in a few days anyway. You start getting that tat lasered away. You buckle down at work. You clean this goddamn place up, dust it man, and get your momma some help. She's not right, Eustace, and it's not going to get any better. At the same time, you lay off the goddamn beer. All this fat?" He poked Eustace's belly. "That's beer. You don't need to exercise to shed that. Just stop drinking. You give it a year, however long it takes to make this place nice and get yourself right, then you go see your kids. Get a court order, if you need to. Once you've cleaned up, they'll give you one. Get visitation. Trust me, you're gonna want to be part of your kids lives."
Wren felt guilty to say that. This whole thing had meant to be taking him away from his own mistakes. Yet here he was, dishing out advice he couldn't take.
"You live for your kids. Forget the gang. See, Eustace, you've started putting on a mask here. Wear that mask long enough, it'll eat you up, and there'll be nothing inside but bitterness and rage. Like a spider eats a fly from the inside out, with a straw-tongue. Like your pal the boxer, did this." He pointed at Eustace's jaw. "Remember, that wasn't me. Those people are not your friends, Eustace. Your kids are. Do right by them."
Wren rubbed his eyes. Eustace was staring, angry.
"And I'll be back in a year," Wren said. "I've got your driver's license. I know where your momma lives. You think that's unlikely I'll be back? Eustace, I collect people like you. I've got hundreds all around the world. These days I don't do much but go around checking on them, like a full-time hobby. Pass your one year with me, you get a coin, like AA. Pass your three year, your five, your ten, all coins. Fail, and you go back a step. You're on coin one now, so back a step now means you're coin zero and I take the bike, anything else to balance the failure." He shrugged. "Probably leave you in hock, but that's your choice. It's how I roll. It's on you to make better choices."
Eustace stared, more in wonder now. "Who de fug are you?"
"Christopher Wren," said Wren, and started to rise, then sat again. "Oh, and one more thing. All this help I'm giving you, it doesn't come for free. You know I said the gang would be gone in a few days? I was gonna get my Jeep back? I'll need your help with both of those. For extra credit on your first coin, tell me everything you know about the Vikings. Don't leave a bit out, Eustace. You're complicit now, and all our lives may rest on it."
Wren had always wanted to go undercover with white supremacists. For a while he'd toyed with various whiteface makeups, but they were fantasies only. There was skin bleaching, but that would never fix his features; too much plastic surgery, and end up looking weird forever. He'd always had to settle with running others as moles.
Limping down from Eustace's house, he thought about how he'd proved to be pretty useful; a proxy mole with a fair haul of info. He was only a prospect member in the Vikings, that was true, but as a new potential inroad on some good pharmacologicals, they'd let him in on a few things.
Now Wren had an idea where his Jeep might be, resting idle for the night while they fetched fresh plates and arranged for transport to a fence out of state. It was the same warehouse they'd had Eustace drop samples off at. He'd heard stories of the gang's other sources of income, confirming what Wren remembered; porn, drugs and low-level fraud. He knew there was another meet planned at the Hussy in two nights time.
Wren could work with that.
It was a thirty-minute walk into Emery; a windswept, widespread desert town flanked by nothing on all sides. A bullet-riddled sign at the town limit proclaimed 'Pop 288". Beneath it someone had pinned a faded, laminated sign: CLIMATE CHANGE IS A HOAX.
Wren walked on, past the mustard-yellow Mormon church, the tallest standing structure. There were a lot of broad gray asphalt roads, laid out in a grid as if a long-ago city planner had imagined this little burg expanding to service a population of thousands.
Now most of those roads serviced nothing. Half the blocks were wholly barren lots, sometimes showing evidence of demolished, half-baked foundations, overgrown now with browning grasses. There were a smattering of houses spread amongst the blight, and a neatly manicured 'Rest Area'; little more than an empty parking lot with banks of grass either side. Local tax dollars at work.
Wren wondered what it would be like to live in a town like this; smothered with its own lapsed dreams, unable to live up to the ambitions of its founders, surrounded by the same people you'd grown up with, gone to school with. What kind of choices had Eustace had?
Randy's Services, a tiny gas station and mechanic's spot, sat on the banks of the capacious Main Street opposite the Post Office. By the clock standing in the Rest Area, Wren saw it was not even six yet. Randy's had an opening time of ten.
He sat down on a bench to wait.
Slowly the little town rose to life around him. A few pickups raced down Main Street. The Post Office opened. The sun rose, and the thermometer in the park registered it was already mid-seventies. It was going to be a hot one. Wren leaned back and luxuriated in the sun, baking some of the stink off his clothes. He badly needed to do some laundry. He needed some more ice to help with the throbbing in his head. He needed WiFi, and a phone to use it with.
He woke from a nap to see a man standing before him. He had an officious look about him; a brown suit, tightly knotted maroon tie despite the heat.
"You can't sleep here," he said.
Wren squinted at him, against the sun. The guy was in his fifties, holding a clipboard in one hand with a phone in the other. Getting ready to call the sheriffs? The nearest law enforcement had to be fifty miles away.
"Quite right," Wren said. "I'm awake now. Thank you."
This disarmed the man a little. He puffed himself up, preparing for another go at it. "You can't sit here."
Wren gave him a long stare. "Can't sit here."
"You're a vagrant? There's nothing for you here."
Wren pointed at Randy's. "Agreed. I'm trying to get out of town. I'm thinking your mechanic will give me a ride."
The man looked at Randy's, then back at Wren, clearly displeased with this whole situation. "You need to move on."
Wren looked back at him. Obviously, this was not just about him being a vagrant. Neither of them had any doubt.
"So give me a ride," said Wren. "I'm only going a short ways. Orangeville has motels, I heard."
"Orangeville?" asked the man, as if this was something unheard of. "Maybe you don't understand me. Emery County. You need to leave."
Wren gave the tiniest nod. His head hurt too much for this. His back felt like he'd been beaten by a damn biker gang. Ha.
"No, man," he said, then pointed at the man's clipboard. "Let me level with you. I can take that and shove it up your ass in about five seconds. The phone too, if you'll take out the stick you've already got up there. You'll be shitting ringtones for a week. Is that what you want?"
The man started to turn pink. Like finely braised gammon, Wren thought.
"I expected as much," he said fussily, "this is a Christian town, and-"
"Mormon town," Wren interrupted.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Mormon town," Wren repeated. "It's not the same. Are you of the Latter Day Saints, sir?"
"I, well. That's none of your business."
"My guess is, you are. One of the first truly American religions, franchising off Christianity. That's true entrepreneurship. Are you wearing your magic underwear right now?" The guy pinked further, and Wren snorted. "Yeah, OK. So here's what I'm thinking now. You give me a ride, I'm out of your hair all the faster. Short of that, now I'm thinking about taking up residence on the church lawn. I'll cuss out your fine people. You'll have to lynch my ass to get me out of here. Call it a tithe, just ten percent. It'll be a lot easier than bringing in the sheriffs, who'll have to take me in, and write you up, and what's the crime? Sitting in the sun?"
"Sleeping in the sun!"
"Your word against mine. I realize out here in pigshit nowhere you're some big shot and I'm nobody, but man, in the larger scheme you don't want to mess with me. Just trust me on this. You're asking for a world of hurt. You want a fleet of crisis actors and paid protesters down here, marching up this ridiculously massive Main Street of yours? We can fit a goddamn parade. Is that what you want?"
The man was flustered. Wren stood, towering over him.
"So yeah. Lead the way to your car."
It was a beat-up Ford sedan. The guy was a Post Office worker, Wren read from the decal on his trunk. 'Sometimes I feel normal then I remember I work for the Post Office'. A gift from his kid or a colleague taking a chance. Something that tickled his uptight fancy just enough, right next to the uniform political sticker; same color.
"One ride," the man said, spreading plastic bags on the passenger seat.
"Two," bargained Wren, "if you want me gone for good."
It was a twenty-minute drive back to the Brazen Hussy, passed in silence, with the old guy wrinkling his nose frequently, opening the window and sneering to himself.
"You do it to yourselves, you know," he said, when he couldn't take it any longer. "Your people."
"Do what?" asked Wren, knowing exactly what he meant.
"This. I don't treat people badly. I am a Christian. I'm giving you a ride. But the way you spoke to me?"
Wren sighed. "Yeah." He wasn't in the mood, but there was never a day off, doing what he did. "And you came over with your phone in your hand, ready to call the police. How many times have you roused a drunk local off those seats? And how many times did you call the police?"
The man's jaw worked beneath the skin.
In the parking lot of the Brazen Hussy he peered at the bar, then at Wren's battered face. He'd probably never been here in his life. Driven past it countless times. Heard about it, sure, but been out here in the lot?
"You came here? Last night?"
Wren's Jeep was gone, of course. All the bikes were gone and the lights were out, but the CCTV light was still winking.
"Not everyone's so polite as you. Now do me a favor. I'm not getting out. Go over there," he pointed to the side of the bar, now in full sunlight, "and look around 'til you find my wallet. There should be car keys too. Fetch them, please."
The guy stared at him, about to argue, but he couldn't really pretend Wren wasn't in danger just being near this place. He grumbled quietly, made a show of taking the keys out of the ignition and strode over. He was back in a minute, holding the wallet. He handed it to Wren along with the keys.
"They beat you," he said, looking straight ahead, hands on the wheel. He didn't want to look at Wren. "What did you do?"
"Went inside," said Wren. "I may have cursed them out some too, if that helps you. Now shall we?"
The trip to Orangeville passed in silence. The Ford stopped in front of the Town Motel.
"You're not coming back to Emery?" the man said. There was something odd in his tone now. Maybe regret, or doubt.
"Not for a year," said Wren. "I'm like Santa Claus."
He walked into the motel with the guy baffled behind him.