Reza’s job has put her in the face of every kind of death. Thanks to her guns, her car, and her dapper style, she came through The Bad Years alive, but since losing Angie things haven’t been right. Tonight’s job threatens to bring the worst terrors of that time skittering back to life. “Anyway: Angie” is a new urban fantasy story with more than a touch of horror from rising star Daniel José Older, set in the world of his upcoming Bone Street Rumba series.
This short story was acquired and edited by acquiring editor Carl Engle-Laird.
Tonight it’s Shelly.
If I were capable of having feelings since Angie disappeared, I might have some for Shelly. Not because she’s finer than the rest of them—she is fine though, don’t get it twisted—but because at the beginning of the night, when she crawls into the back of my Crown Vic all prettied up and glittery, she always catches my eyes in the rearview mirror and asks me how I’m doing. Not in the concerned way but not in the throw-off way either: She really wants to know.
Anyway, I don’t think she’s into women, especially not middle-aged skinny butch ones with salt-and-pepper hair and angry lines in their faces and the memories of long lost lovers dancing around their subconsciouses.
And anyway, I’m not sixteen anymore, in fact I’m not even forty anymore and I’m not here for the quick thrill of teaching straight girls that what they really want is this, this, and this. Been there, done that. Far too many times.
And anyway: Angie.
So I nod. Yes, there’s a glint in my eye. I can’t help that; it’s who I am. But I keep it to the trivial bullshit and then we roll out into the midnight streets of Bushwick to whatever fancy scum made the call tonight.
It’s one of those suburban blocks. Trees and pretty old houses that Germans and Russians abandoned in terror when we Puerto Ricans started moving in a few decades back. The house is all dark with a well-manicured lawn and draped windows, just like all the other ones. In other words, it gives me nothing. If it was a face it’d be a blank stare. I don’t like it.
“You want me to come in with you?” My voice is raspy, disarming at first, but it turns out to be sexy when I’m whispering late at night. I put a cigarette to my lips and then take it out again because I quit smoking last week and I really mean it this time.
Shelly rolls her eyes in the rearview. “You’re such a worrywart.” She finishes putting her lipstick on, atrocious pink against her light brown skin, and flutters her lashes. She’s Trini I think, mostly Indian; getting a master’s in social work and has a set of tits that can call you from across a room, but her swagger’s a little pressed if you ask me. She’s better when she just stays genuine.
I’d tell her that but she might either slap me or fall in love with me. Probably both. Instead I just mutter, “Okay,” and look out the window.
When the ritual of mirror coquetry is done, Shelly clomp-clomps out my cab and up the porch steps. She rings the bell twice and then tries the door; it’s open and she walks on in.
I shake my head. This isn’t how any of it’s supposed to go, but what can you do? Johns will always be unpredictable and finicky with their creepy little preferences and peculiarities. And I’m just the muscle. My gnawing discomforts mean nothing, especially since they’ve been there since Angie went missing six months ago, so who cares if that plunging knell of despair is a little louder than usual? I blip the base that I’m here and the scratchy reply is in Charo’s voice. That’s one thing I’ve always respected about Charo: He runs the whole operation, both the legit end and this side of things. He keeps his eyes on the bank, he checks in with his employees, he must handle an absurd amount of cash every day and still he sits in on the radio board when someone can’t come in. I’ve known him since he was little, know his parents and his sick fuck of an abuelo, I know them all, and believe me, Charo’s the only one worth a damn. We’ve had our disputes but he gets it done.
Charo wants to know if I’m okay. Stupid question and he knows it but I guess it’s in his gentlemanly code to ask.
“I’m fine,” I say. “But I don’t like this place.”
“Maybe,” Charo says, “because it’s only a block or two away.”
I’m about to ask away from what, but then rub my eyes and sigh. Of course! How could I not realize? One block over, halfway down the street just like we are now, there’s a house not that different from this one that Charo and I turned inside out and upside down looking for Angie. It was the last place she was seen alive, and we took the place apart a hundred different ways and didn’t bother putting it back together and found not a single trace of the girl. Nothing.
“Reza,” Charo says.
“You want me to send you Miguel?”
Miguel’s the biggest driver we got. No, that’s not true: Carbrera is the biggest driver we got, pound for pound. But that’s all lechón and batidos. Miguel is made of muscle. He’s on the legit end, doesn’t know a thing about this side of things in fact, so I guess all the other muscles are off on calls. I used to think he was a wuss, all that muscle not withstanding. He has a on-again-off-again chick that he never shuts the fuck up about—Virginia? Vanessa? Vanessa—but really there’s no one else I’d rather have my back in a fight. Except Charo himself, of course, because sometimes sheer wrath will take you further than any workout video or tae-bo bullshit.
“No. It’s fine. I’m strapped and there’s nothing wrong, just us being paranoid. No te preocupes, Charo.”
I’m sure he shrugs at this point, probably lights a Conejo. Then he says, “Suit yourself, Rez.”
I roll down the window and let the Brooklyn night in.
I usually clean the Vic to pass the time, but I ran her through thorough last night and once-overed her with a rag earlier, and now she’s immaculate, even by my standards. My suit pants are pressed and spotless; the perfect line runs down the center of each leg and stops just above my steel-tipped snakeskin shoes. The matching gray vest I’m wearing hangs just right over the Glocks tucked securely under each arm. There’s a dagger strapped to my ankle and the bigger hardware in the trunk. May seem like a lot to you, but I still have some habits left over from The Bad Years and one of them is Never Be Outgunned. There’s a gold crucifix around my neck and a locket that Angie gave me that sometimes brings me comfort and sometimes nightmares. I never take it off.
The radio’s playing old salsa, the good Cuban shit that’s so true and raw they can only put it late at night on one of those 88.whatever college stations. I take the cigarette out of my mouth again and replace it in its gold case, shaking my head. I’m not thinking about Angie. I’m not thinking about Angie.
The doctor that Charo made me go to said, “Try not to think about Angie so much.” Might as well’ve told me to try not to have an arm. But I try. The song wants to take me elsewhere but Angie’s smile keeps wrenching me back. And then the emptiness her smile left behind. And then the frantic search. And then the feeling of gnawing desperation. And then giving up. And then giving up. Which I never really really did, probably. Give up. On Angie.
Even though Charo has told me to again and again.
Probably I dozed off, because a muffled scream wakes me from some kind of dazed stupor.
I’m out of the car, breaking towards the doorway, accosting the night air for any hint of another scream, anything.
It sounded like Angie.
Everything sounds like Angie when I first wake up.
I stop. This is no way to move. I’m wide open to attack. I’m barreling forward recklessly. This is not me. There may not have been a scream at all. My haunted head. There may have only been silence, like right now. I stand perfectly still on the front porch. Cicadas are chirping their spring drone into the night. Cars are passing on nearby streets. The Jackie Robinson isn’t too far from here; it cuts through that big old cemetery on the border of Brooklyn and Queens.
No one is screaming. No one is screaming but something skitters over my foot in the darkness of the porch and I jump back so fast it almost sends me toppling down the stairs. One of my guns is out by the time I regain my footing; it’s pointed at where my foot was, but whatever-it-was is gone. It looked like a thing I hate more than death itself, a thing I would prefer not to even mention, thank you very much. And if it was that thing, there are more of them. There are always more of them, that’s the rule about that thing. Many more. Seething, writhing masses of more. I reholster the Glock, walk back to my car, resist the urge to jump in and drive straight into the house, madman-on-a-rampage style, and come out firing. Instead I go into the trunk, bypass the secret compartment with the heavy guns and dig through a duffel bag until I find a can of bug spray. It seems ridiculous I guess, but like I said, I’ll never be outgunned. Not by no killers and certainly not by no six-legged hairy monstrosities, no sir. I get a flashlight too and then I walk onto the porch again and test the door.
It’s open and I slide ever so quietly inside.
Everything is in its right place in this standard American front hallway. There’s an old staircase, coats on the coat rack, an open door leading off to the kitchen, a few closed doors on the way. It’s dark but some hazy streetlight comes in through the window over the door. I can make out the old-fashioned swirly motifs along the wallpaper leading up the stairs. It’s dusty in here and the air is thick with mold. But nothing moves, no one screams. No creatures crawl across the walls. I don’t lower the spray and my gun hand twitches slightly, ready. The kitchen is the same; so is the living room. Everything’s just so and that’s how I know something’s off. It’s all been carefully placed there, but no one lives here. The place is dead, a mask.
I’m standing in the kitchen looking out the window into the backyard when I see it. I can stand so still I almost disappear and it makes every tiny movement crisp, shrill even. A tree is waving around outside, making a wild shadow show on the far wall. A digital clock on the microwave blinks 12:00; a car passes. And: something scurries across the floor and disappears under the fridge. I don’t freak out. I don’t. I let the freak-out wash over me and pass; it’s only a jittery tremble now and I’m about to take a step forward when another one of ’em shoots out of nowhere and makes its silent, frantic sojourn to the fridge. It pauses a couple times along the way; before it’s gone two more appear.
Even in the darkness, I can tell there’s something different about them. They’re pale. Instead of that dark maroony swirl glinting with light, these are pinkish.
Anyway, maybe there’s something rotting in there; they’re making their way to a wretched feast. Maybe. I swallow a little bit of vomit that found its way up into my esophagus and inch towards the fridge, my finger shuddering against the spray can button.
There’s nothing in the fridge but an unfortunate brown stain that’s dark in the center and spreads into lighter, crusty circles. At any second, a thing will fly out from under there and up my pant leg, I’m positive. I step back from the fridge, carefully, and take it in. My brain knows there’s something wrong but my eyes can’t decide what yet. It’s one of those old antiquey ones, all bulky and aqua blue, and it stands next to the door coming in from the hallway. The front steps climb straight alongside the hallway, so the landing on the second floor should be right above my head and . . . there should be a basement. All these old houses have basements. There should be a door along the hallway wall that leads under the front steps. But there isn’t. I stare harder at the fridge.
I know what I’m about to do and I already hate myself for conceiving of it. But there’s no other way. I place my half-gloved hands on either side of the fridge and with two quick moves tip the thing onto one side and then lurch it forward at a diagonal away from the wall. About fifty shadows skitter out around my feet and I catch my breath, dancing backwards, point the can down and push hard on the trigger button. They scramble away in a frenzy and I’m left panting, sweating, and cursing as quietly as I can. I still myself, will my terror back into the iron box I keep it tucked away in. Breathe. There’s something behind the fridge. Something besides hairy ungodly insects I mean. It’s a small door, wood-carved and old-fashioned, but just a brass hole where the knob’s supposed to be.
I want to hold my breath but I know that’ll only make things worse when something awful happens, and I’m positive something awful is about to happen. So I breathe, reluctantly, deeply, as I reach my finger into the hole. The door swings open with a creak, reveals more darkness. And I’m actually relieved I finally have real cause to unholster this Glock and point it into the emptiness as I step-by-step it down some old stairs.
The wall doesn’t crawl to life when I swat it with my hand. It’s solid and cool, not even the bumpy decay I was expecting in my less wild nightmares. I flick something and a fluorescent glow blinks to life from the ceiling. It reveals a recently remodeled basement, shiny white walls and gray carpets, even that fresh paint smell. A couple of boxes are stacked in one of the corners and the floor is covered with children’s toys. There are stuffed animals, plastic trains and action figures. It makes me nauseous, so I try to keep my eyes away from the toys as I work the perimeter of the room, checking the wall for irregularities. There are none: Everything is solid sounding, support beams right where they should be, paint even. I shove the boxes over to the side and there behind them is another small doorway. This one is just big enough to fit through if I duck, and it has a doorknob.
I realize I’m sweating. And my breathing’s not quite right. None of which is usual for me. I won’t go into details, but The Bad Years put me in the face of every imaginable form of death, my own and others’, and I’m one of the only ones who made it out of that time alive. Charo’s another, but even he had it relatively easy compared to what I got mixed up in. They say Death walks just a few feet to the left of every man. Fuck that. Me and Death are kissing cousins. But right here right now? I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me. Besides the obvious things. I guess I’m still not right. Maybe I’ll never be. Or maybe it’s the hairy monsters, whose absence in the basement is somehow even more unnerving to me than their abundance in the kitchen. Or maybe it’s those toys, which have no business being in a place like this. Whatever this is.
Or maybe it’s the muffled grunt that comes dancing out of the darkness in front of me. I almost yell, “Angie?” but then I remember Angie’s gone, she’s gone. Dead. It’s Shelly I’m trying to find. Shelly. And maybe that was her. It could’ve been. There was a wetness to it, like whoever grunted was choking on her own saliva. Or blood. Enough. I shut down my imagination and duck into the darkness.
I’m in a tunnel. I believe this to be true because of the way the tiny shuffles of my feet echo around me. And there’s water streaming down the middle and an ancient, moldy smell. And I realize something, something I’ve been wondering about since the moment Charo reminded me how close we were to the house we tore up all those months ago: They are connected, the two sites. Some underground tunnel links one to the other and who knows how many others? And I’m in the dank belly of that tunnel, trying not to get my feet wet or make too much noise and gliding along towards those occasional muffled grunts. Or sobs. Or moans. Each one is a little different. I’m not even sure they’re all from the same person.
I step forward and almost yell because my foot doesn’t find the floor, it just goes down into a thick wet muck. I come down hard on the other knee, soaking that pant leg too, but stop myself from crashing all the way in, pull my feet back. When I catch my breath and make sure nothing’s crawling on me, I probe around the edges of the hole with my steel-tipped toepoint. It’s not so large, I can easily hop across. The question is, how many more are there? And how deep do they go? I hadn’t wanted to use my flashlight because there’s really no better way to warn someone you’re coming than shining a light down a dark tunnel, but at this point I’m not even sure if it matters. I didn’t scream but I’ve definitely caused some ruckus on the way.
Something else I’ve learned: I take power from my dapper. Perhaps I have some well-dressed angels watching over me, whoever they are, but when I have my slick on full charge I am unstoppable in combat. It’s just how things work for me. And now my pants are definitely ruined, I’ve probably got some awful fungus living in my sock and who knows what else?
Up ahead there’s a dim light; it’s pouring out of some larger room, delineating the edge of the tunnel. I’m so transfixed by it I step forward again and slip into a world of shit, all the way to my waist in ick. I slosh forward. Things are rubbing against my legs and I don’t have to reach down to know they’re body parts. But I do. I do and I pull out an arm. It’s slender, feminine and green with decay and it’s not the one I want but now I know something; I reach again into the muck and retrieve another arm, discard it and then another and another. And then I stop, because the ring I gave Angie is staring back at me from the rotten, gray-green finger. It is connected to a hand, an arm. It’s not Angie’s—not the way I remember her. Peels of dead skin hang off the water-bloated forearm and the whole thing is tinged with that sickly rot green. I don’t want to see the face. I can’t see the face. I have to see the face. I’m about to pull her all the way out when a scream bleats out up ahead. Then the walls around me come to life.
It’s dark so I can barely make it out, but everything is moving. It’s not just the walls. The black water froths with tiny ripples, little shiny pale backs dip and wrestle across the surface. I catch the scream in my own mouth, bury it back down. Holding tight to Angie’s dead arm, I raise my eyes towards the edge of the tunnel. All the movement is directed towards the light. Shelly—it is her, there’s no doubt—is screaming like her skin is being flayed off. In between screams she whimpers, sobs, and pleads. It’s the worst sound I’ve ever heard.
I can’t lose Angie again. Not even her rotten corpse. I can’t. The burden of it is holding me up but there’s nothing else to be done. I leave her hand sticking out of the water at the edge of the tunnel.
The tunnel opens into a dim cavern. In the center, a cement platform rises out of the black water. Shelly’s hanging upside-down over the platform, suspended by ropes that reach into the darkness. There’s a pale man in a long black robe standing behind her, and beside him is a short, lopsided man with yellowish skin and a sweat-soaked button shirt. He looks familiar somehow; maybe I knew him during The Bad Years, although it’s hard to imagine forgetting a face as collapsed on itself and anguished as that one. Then again, there’s a lot of things I’ve erased from that time.
I have one Glock out and leveled steadily at the air around Shelly. She’s still in her clothes, but they’re all hanging at weird angles and she’s trembling, gasping, screaming. She’s between me and the two men. I can’t make out what they’re doing to her but it looks like both have their pants on, so that’s something. All I need is for one of them to move just far enough away for me to get a clear shot. The water around me is still frothing with its millions of swarming vagrants; they’re paddling frantic billions of legs, propelling their shelled monstrosity selves towards the platform. They don’t even seem to notice or care about me, and that’s just fine because it gives me the mental space to keep my aim steady.
Just when I think I’m going to have to change my position and risk blowing my hiding spot, the tall, robed one steps to the side. Before I fire I make out his face—a middle-aged man, white, with light-brown eyebrows and a tensely furrowed brow. His eyes squint with intense concentration, his mouth opens and closes in what I can only imagine to be some demonic prayer. He’s alongside Shelly now, reaching up to her face with a long, ugly hand—too long, I think, just before I squeeze the trigger and blow a nice hole in it. My second shot tears a gash across his face. That should be the kill shot but he doesn’t fall, just turns his broken head towards me, his mouth open in shock.
The little sweaty one roars, a terrible high-pitched sound that I wish I’d never heard, and then vaults across the water into the darkness of the far side of the room. He moves fluidly; he’s somehow short and gangly at the same time, and his head is so big and boxy it looks like it should throw him off balance. But this one’s the least of my concerns right now, considering the guy whose face I just shot off is still standing there staring at me and Shelly is screaming again and the army of insects has begun swarming up the platform towards her.
This is the part where I don’t panic. It’d be easy to. It’s what my body aches to do. But I don’t. I unholster the second Glock, train one at the head and the other right at the heart. Before I can squeeze the triggers though, the slippery fuck ducks down. At first I thought he was finally collapsing but no, instead he slides into the water and wades quickly towards me.
This is the part where I panic. A little. I don’t know how many shots I squeeze off, only that I’m firing and firing and the air is exploding around me, the cruel bursts of gunfire echoing up the dark walls of the cavern, and I don’t stop shooting until the clicks that mean I’m out of bullets.
For a second he just stands there. Angry holes pockmark his face, his hands, those long robes. Little curls of smoke plume out of each one and I can only imagine what the blowout from the exit wounds must be like on the other side. Then I see the skin on his neck shudder; it’s moving. It’s alive. It’s one of those evil fucking insects, making its skittish, evil way up his chin across his startled face. Another one detaches itself from his flesh and then another and I finally understand: They are his flesh. They pour across his face, burst from this sleeves. What’s left is a trembling skull, tattered skin barely hanging on, two wide-open eyes. The robes he was wearing cave in on themselves and sink into the water as a thousand little shiny monsters swarm out of the murk where the man was just standing.
I’m frozen. Nothing in the world is alive except the billions of crawling fuckmonsters and the memory of Angie, and Angie’s dead, she’s definitely dead now, and that thought alone, her monstrous corpse, her empty eyes, that is what finally breaks me from this nightmare of stillness. Shelly is still dangling and whimpering. I move towards her at first without thinking, automatic pilot, through the scattering of life, careful not to get caught up in the thing’s robes. Something moves in the darkness beyond the platform and I snap to attention. My Glock is reloaded and pointed at the nothingness, little splotches dance across my sightline. I see nothing.
“Please,” Shelly moans. “Please.” I move closer to her but I keep my eyes on the emptiness and my gun ready. And then I finally turn to her, because something keeps calling my attention, something just out the corner of my eye. It’s a splotch on her leg. She’s filthy and her light-brown skin shines with sweat but there’s something else. I heave onto the platform, finally out of that filth, and she looks up at me. Black rivers of eyeliner and sweat swivel down her cheeks, her lipstick is smudged straight across her face, her dress hangs loosely from her shoulders. But most important of all, that dark smudge on her calf: It’s red. Dark red. A bullet hole. Shelly’s been shot, I realize as I fuss with the ropes around her wrists. I shot her.
We’re at the tunnel edge when I hesitate. You can judge me if you want, but if you haven’t felt a girl like Angie move beneath you, look at you the way she looked at me, and then lost her forever, you just don’t know. I hesitate because I can’t have both, but I can’t stomach the thought of leaving Angie’s sad corpse behind. Not now. Not when I just found her.
Could this love be greater even than my will to live? I think if I hadn’t shot Shelly I’d really be in a fix. I’d probably try to bring them both and then we’d be caught for sure. Shelly lets out a series of gasps. I don’t think the wound is too bad—looks like it went straight through without clipping any major arteries, but still: It’s there. I look at the spot where the top of Angie’s green-brown hand breaks the surface and then I shoulder Shelly and we hobble through the tunnel and carefully, painfully up the stairs.
It’s behind me. That gangly motherfucker. I can hear it scrabbling around, limping with that horrible grace through the tunnel towards us. Shelly screams, a horrible gurgly sound, and we break into a pathetic, ungainly run. We’re out of the kitchen and into the front foyer when I hear the wooden door bust open and smack against the wall. It’s panting and sniveling and I would turn back and take a shot but we’re already at the front of the house. Someone’s standing there in the darkness of the porch, a short, stalky figure. I raise my gun, bracing myself against the wall.
“Reza?” Charo. My God, it’s Charo.
“Charo!” I gasp and drag Shelly with me out into the fresh night air. Charo raises a shotgun as we pass. He points it into the hallway. His face, I catch a glimpse of it before I hurtle down the stairs, it’s calm, not tensed or sweaty or nothing; his eyes so peaceful, almost sleepy. I know that face. It means he’s about to kill.
The last time I cried was in the fourth grade and it was the first time I’d been shot. And the first time I ever shot anybody. That was it. Angie used to cry when she came hard enough, great heaving sobs as her pelvis rocked into my face and my hands worked her nipples. It would move me, believe me it did, but never in a way you could see. She could see it, knew how to decipher those small shudders along my well-defined cheekbones, the way I’d look away, the patterns of my breath. But no one else. No one else could ever know.
Now, running full bodied and barely breathing out of this house, I still don’t cry. I almost do though. It’s the closest I’ve come in all these years, the tears sneaking around the edges of my eyes, waiting. The truth is, I’m too afraid to cry. Too in it. I hurl forward and it’s like Shelly is barely there, might as well be floating above me for all I notice, but we’re both out and breathing and panting and she’s throwing up, bleeding still, and I’m not thinking about Angie’s broken abused body being back in there all alone with the monsters I’m not I’m not I’m not but I am.
Miguel is standing there in front of his Crown Vic. He’s got one of those emergency gray rescue blankets opened up and I’ve never been so happy to see him in my life. I hand Shelly off to him and he makes a little Shelly burrito with that blanket around her and lifts her easily into the cab. Then he looks at me. I’m soaking wet and panting, put my hands on my knees and lean forward to catch my breath, but otherwise I’m okay. I wave him off.
“The fuck happened?” Charo wants to know. No boom came from the doorway; the thing must’ve held back. Surely it’s watching us, lurking.
“Angie” is all I can say. “Angie.”
It’s all I need to say. Charo nods his chin towards where Shelly is writhing in the backseat. “¿Y esa?”
“Flesh wound,” I say. “But I don’t know what else happened before I got there. They were doing something when I showed up.”
“At least two. A . . . thing . . . man, I guess. And something else. Something cockroachy in a robe. I got it though. But there’s more, I know there’s more. But Charo . . .”
He looks at me. His expression’s still that muted emptiness that means someone’s about to die, but I know he’s listening. “I have to get her. I have to go back in.”
Miguel knows better than to say anything, but I see him start forward with horror. Charo just nods towards the door. “She’s . . . ?”
“She’s dead, yeah.” First time I’ve said it. First time it’s felt true. It only makes the need to bring that body back stronger. I won’t take a full breath until it’s done. “I can’t leave her.”
Charo studies me for a fraction of a second. “Miguel,” he says, still staring at me. “Take Shelly to Dr. Tijou. Tell her what happened.”
“What the fuck did happen?”
“Tell her what you know.”
Miguel shakes his head, walks around to the driver’s side. He gives me one last doubtful look, mutters, “Be careful,” and then hops in and speeds off.
“Your trunk is full?” Charo says.
The street is empty. It’s late, a quiet night. We gear up quickly: more ammo clips, more bug spray, some shock grenades. We move fast up the porch and into the house. Our motions are aligned: a singular two-headed four-armed angel of death, a perfect killing machine after decades of staying alive side by side. The place is empty again: No movement, no shadows spring to life. That smell lingers though, it’s a decaying type of stench. It’s everywhere.
Down the stairs and through the freaky clean playroom, into the tunnel. Nothing comes. No bugs, no gangly man. Nada.
“Here.” The first word I’ve spoken in what seems like a long, long time; it’s just a hoarse whisper. I wade back into the dark waters, Glock leveled at the blackness around me. The light at the far end is out, so I have to feel my way along. Behind me, Charo makes barely a sound as he enters the water, the slightest intake of breath and then a tiny splash as the waves circle outward from him.
I have one hand stretched out ahead of me, just over the surface of the water. I feel those body parts rub against my legs as I move forward. I should be near the edge by now but there’s no Angie. A little desperation creeps into my grasping, a whisper of nervousness. She’s not here. I make a little splish noise as my hand pats the water. She’s not here. I reach down, holding my breath, swipe from side to side. Nothing.
Charo moves past me, gun first. The tunnel opening interests him. I’m considering the possibility that I imagined Angie being there in a fit of desperation when my hand brushes past something solid. Angie. I wrap around it and pull; a dark shape breaks the surface.
“Charo,” I whisper. He doesn’t answer so I look up and he’s frozen, staring past me down the tunnel where we came from. There’s something behind me. It’s true in the tiny hairs standing up on the back of my neck and the clenching in my gut, true in my finger as it tenses over the trigger.
“Down.” He says it so quietly. It’s a whisper, just for me. If I’d hesitated even a second I’d be splattered across the tunnel, another body for the collection. Charo’s double-barrel comes up as I fall face-first into the water. I tuck forward and glimpse behind me as I fall: Silhouetted in the dim light of the tunnel, there’s another tall robed man just like the one I blew away. He’s only there for a second before Charo unleashes that deafening blast and the man disintegrates into a raging swarm.
For a second, the water closes over my head. I come up sputtering, still clutching Angie’s wrist. Charo’s gone. Something’s there, a bluster of movement in the darkness. It’s Charo, I realize, but he’s covered, every inch of him, covered, in the pale swarm. He’s not screaming, but only because he knows what’ll happen if he opens his mouth. I belt the gun and retrieve the can of spray, put it directly on my friend, and blast away. It only sort of works. A few flutter away, a few move aside. Mostly they are unperturbed. We have to get out of here.
Charo’s brushing them off with quick, deft slashes of his hands as we grope through the darkness out of the water. In the tunnel, I help him, find his face beneath the writhing, squirming creatures. I can see he’s doing everything he can not to lose his shit. For a few seconds the only sounds are our hands brushing feverishly against his skin, his clothes, and then his panting, coughing back the urge to scream. Finally he nods at me. There are still a few on him but we can’t stand here anymore, not knowing what’s coming from where. I hoist Angie onto my shoulders. She’s too heavy, and water and black ichor pour from her flesh. Something falls off, maybe a foot. I ignore it. I have to.
We make it up the narrow stairs, back into the brightly lit playroom, so sterile and full of untold horrors. I know the short gangly one is watching us. He’s close. I can smell him, feel his eyes all over us. Then we’re bumping through the kitchen and once again into the hallway and finally, finally, out into the blessed night.
There’s a little den above the garage. It smells like air freshener with a hint of mold; a large window looks over the fleet of black Crown Vics to the big iron gate that keeps the world out. This is where they brought Lizette after she was gang-raped. She lay on this couch, staring at the ceiling, barely moving at all, achingly calm, while Charo and I took to the streets for revenge. The couch is draped with old blankets, one of the armrests is falling apart. This is where Santo lay dying after the Canarsie gunfight, Dr. Tijou frowning over him, his arms flailing out like they were trying to grasp at some lifeline that wasn’t there.
This is where Charo first told me Angie was gone. I don’t come here much ever since that day, but right now I feel peaceful—that calm the world brings after a battle. That calm of finally knowing after all these months.
I’m wearing sweatpants tied tightly around my waist because they’re about eight sizes too big. My graying hair is slicked back against my skull and my skin is raw from so much scrubbing. Charo’s industrial-strength antibacterial soaps have done their thing and I actually do feel moderately clean, considering. Considering. I shudder, run a hand over my face and plop onto the couch.
Charo comes in wearing workout shorts and a Yankees T-shirt. It’s been decades since I’ve seen the man wearing anything but his usual button shirts and slacks. He stands there looking at me and then takes two Conejos out of his pack, lights them both and hands me one.
It feels like an angel is giving me mouth-to-mouth, that first sweet inhale. A blessing.
“Dr. Tijou says she’s gonna be okay.” Tijou was one of Haiti’s top trauma surgeons until she treated the wrong heavyweight’s estranged nephew and ended up in Brooklyn patching up the survivors of various gangland massacres. She’s worked on all of us at one time or another, saved all our lives. Tijou’s always smiling and muttering things to herself in Creole and she’s smarter than anyone I’ve ever met. If she says Shelly’s gonna be okay then Shelly’s gonna be okay.
“There was something on her back though.” Charo scowls. “An opening.”
I raise my eyebrows at him.
“Tijou says it seems like they were trying to implant something in her. Eggs, she thinks.”
“Like they were using the girls as some kind of incubators. That’s what the doc says anyway. I don’t know. They’re still checking . . . Angie.”
“Oh, and she gave me these for you.” He hands me a plastic baggie full of colorful pills.
“Retrovirals and antibiotics.”
“Take them all. I got some too.”
“Alright, alright.” I pocket the baggie.
“I have something to say,” Charo announces. I do too, actually, but I stay quiet. Charo looks uncertain, another first for him. We smoke in silence. When we finish the cigarettes he retrieves two more.
“Want me to start?” I ask.
He takes a deep breath. “I’m done.” It’s what I was gonna say too, and in a way I’m not surprised. We’ve always walked parallel paths. “In fact, I’m mad that it took this”—a vague gesture towards all the hell we’ve just been through—“to get me to this place. But no, I can’t . . . we can’t keep doing this. It’s”—a deep tug on the Conejo, a mountainous release—“not right. It’s wrong.”
I nod. Tonight is full of surprises.
“It’s been coming ever since Angie went missing,” Charo says. “I’ve seen it in you too. We can’t . . . we have to stop.” He’s staring out the window at the pipe-lined rafters over the garage.
“You want to disband the whole operation?”
“A change of direction is all.” He shrugs, looks at me, and suddenly he’s the old Charo again. A mischievous glint dances in his eyes. “This work has connected me to a lot of very powerful, very evil people. Even more evil than us I mean. People with genocide and child rape on their resumes. These are men that can nod and wipe out an entire village in Guatemala.”
He’s not just talking about other gangsters either. I’d steered clear of the corporate connections Charo sent the girls to, mostly because I had the feeling I might lose my cool with them and cause problems for the company, but I’ve heard stories.
“So you want to start a cleanup operation,” I say carefully.
Charo smiles. He likes that. “Yes. Cleanup. Exactly. A balancing of the scales, we could say.” The smile grows wider, stretches to the far ends of his face; his eyes become squinty above those great big dimples. “Justice.”
Charo can call it what he wants. I’m calling it revenge. “I’m in,” I say. “But there’s somewhere I want to start.”
Charo nods. “I know.”
Out the window, the iron gate shudders and rises with a groan. We stand there side by side and finish our cigarettes as morning pours into the garage.
“Anyway: Angie” copyright © 2014 by Daniel José Older
Art copyright © 2014 by Goñi Montes