bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bipolar Express, Chapter 20


Chapter 20

            “Oh, so you weren’t using force when you were shooting at us?” I yelled, as sarcastically as I could. Wes and I grinned at each other like twelve-year-olds secretly spitballing the teacher.
            “That was a mistake,” the voice said. “Our man thought you were hostile.”
            “He stood up and shot a guy for no reason!” I said.
            “If you surrender peacefully there will be no problem!” These guys were crazy. And stupider than the sack of doorknobs they needed to open the door.
            It was quiet for a minute, and then everybody jumped when Jack fired at the door. Or rather, he fired through the crack in the door. I guess he agreed with me.
            “Grrrdamnit!” There was a lot of yelling from the other side. “Oh! That’s it! You shooting at us?” He kicked the door. “We try to do you a favor! And you shoot at us? You’re dead motherfucker! I know who you are now! You know that? You’re dead, asshole! We got no problem killing you! You’re dead! You’re mine! I know where you live!” The guy punched the door every other word. If he was trying to scare me, it was working. “C’mon out! What are you? Chickenshit? I know what you got—”
            Jack shot the door again.  That meant we only had six bullets left, I’d counted them. But it wasn’t a waste of ammo because it shut the guy up. Jack had been around crazy people enough to know when to deal with them, and this wasn’t one of those times.
            There was some mumbling on the other side of the door so we took the opportunity to huddle around.
            “He knows who you are?” Frosty said.
            “Not me,” I said. “The guy’s psychotic.”
            Wes, Jack, and Thing all looked up with the shamed expression of a dog that had just peed on the floor. Thing was the only one of them that had.
            “Oh no,” I said. “You guys? You guys… know these guys?”
            “Rockford,” Jack said. He tried to shrug his shoulders with his palms in the air, the official expression of fuck-ups worldwide. Then he made those annoying little quote marks with his fingers.  “Remember? I told you we ‘borrowed—’”
            “You guys STOLE A CAR from these maniacs?” I left out the, “How could you be so stupid?” part.
            “We had to go somewhere,” Jack said. “We were freezing to death, and we sure as hell weren’t going to join up with them.”
            “We didn’t think they’d follow us,” Wes said.
            “I don’t think they did.” Jack winced and clutched a hand to his wound. “I think they just suspect it was us.”
            “You mean realized it, don’t you?” Frosty said.
            “‘No, we can’t steal a car in the city,’” I mimicked, whining through my nose. “We have to steal one from THE FUCKING NAZIS IN ROCKFORD!” My head was exploding.
            “Hey, they left the car running. We used it. When we got to the city it broke down. We wasted almost two days trying to start another one. That’s why we didn’t want to waste time trying to steal a car.”
            Great, Jack and I were back to the same argument, and he’d proved his point. It was a waste of time, and I didn’t want to waste any more.
“So, the whole parade of idiots just marches into the city, and we’re all trying to kill each other now. That’s perfect. Just fucking perfect.” I was growling more than yelling.
            Frosty started cursing again, kicking trash on the floor around. If he’d had a death wish plan, we’d screwed that over completely. If Jack hadn’t already been wounded, I think Frosty would’ve used the fireplace poker on him.
            “I’m sorry,” Jack said. His eyes were messed up, and he sounded kind of lost. 
            Nobody said anything. The door rattled.
            “I hate that little blonde fucker yelling at us,” Jack said, through his teeth. “Little Hitler, can’t even grow a beard, Napolean complex twice his size, and just plain mean. Evil mean.”
            “Same guy that was shooting at us with that rifle?” I said.
            “Yeah,” Jack murmured, not mentioning it was something else he hadn’t told me.
            “Kill him,” I said. “Just don’t waste any bullets.”
            Voices behind the door. It started rattling again.
            Wes went around the fixtures and walked to the left hand side of the door—machete in one hand, crowbar in the other. “Get mean back,” he said, and stomped the door with the heel of his boot.
            There was more cursing from behind it. He must have hurt somebody. Two shots fired from outside and hit the display case. Wes practically did a back flip over it and landed on his feet, waving us all back.
            Jack leaned back in his seat, unmovable, his arm extended, gun aimed at the at the door’s edge. I climbed to the right hand side of the floor fixture. If he missed anybody coming in, I’d try to back him up.
Of course I couldn’t have felt like any more of a fool, holding that giant spatula in my hand. Sure, it was a weapon, but with a big fork in my other hand and a tenderizing mallet hanging from my overalls, I looked like the greeter at a Savage Barbecue.
Now there was muttering on both sides of the door. The four of us exchanged glances, telling ourselves we could do this. On the other side they were probably saying the same thing.
            Something clunked by the latch and part of a crowbar forced its way through the crack in the door. They had their work cut out for them if they were trying to push the crowbar in far enough to twist the hook around and pull. Then they still had to force the door back towards themselves. It was an impossible job. They pushed the pry bar in, turned it, and then applied force.
            Jack fired a shot through the wall, just to the right of the door. The curved end of the bar on our side went up. Whoever had been pulling on it went down. More voices yelled and gave each other orders. The first voice kept telling us we were dead.
            Something smashed a hole in the wall next to where Jack had shot. The whole panel shook. That wasn’t good either. They were checking to see how thick the walls were—and if Jack could shoot through it with that little .22, it might be just one layer of drywall. One thin layer. The voices in the stockroom spread out along with a series of thumps that echoed all around us.
            “They’re looking for a place to break through the wall,” I said.
            Everybody glanced from side to side in an effort to guess where. I turned around just in time.
What I saw wasn’t somebody climbing through a hole in the wall, but a guy sneaking up behind us through the men’s room door. That was twice today I’d turned around and somebody had materialized behind me.
            He had to be at least twenty feet away. Our eyes met before I looked right down the barrel of a pistol.
I had a big spatula.
Time stopped.
            “Lookout,” Frosty said, not like he was telling me to be careful, more like a guitar player might yell before a solo. Lookout, here it comes!
            The man with the gun glanced over just in time to see a weighty, little tortilla press bounce off his head. If you’ve never seen a tortilla press, picture a waffle iron. The two sides of the press sort of jumped around what had been Frosty’s hand, and he threw the whole thing overhand by the hinge in the middle. It was like a steel butterfly flew through the air and closed its wings on the gunman’s face.
            His pistol fired in the air and ricocheted off a ceiling beam. The man just stood there, dazed. Jack looked over, but didn’t shoot. He motioned with the gun, and gave me a nod: Go on, do it. He wanted me to take the guy out. 
I don’t think I could have done it if someone hadn’t told me to. I dropped the fork while I was charging and wrapped both hands around the handle of the big iron spatula. Before either of us had a chance to focus, I closed my eyes and swung as hard as I could.
It stuck in the side of his head. When I let go, the handle hung in the air in front of me. The gunman stood there shaking, eyes wide, mouth open.
            I don’t remember seeing him fall. His body kept twitching, but I don’t remember watching it. What I remember is an episode of those “Great Murder” shows on The History Media—the one where Trotsky, this Russian guy, got assassinated with an ice pick in his head. Only when I looked back, my guy had stopped twitching.
            I do remember this sick feeling, more in my chest than my stomach, like I was going to puke part of my sternum out. It was like Jack’s cheap acetone vodka; I’d swallowed something and I had to keep it down. I shook a second. Then I was somebody else.
            There was banging on the door, and thumping on the walls surrounding it. The beat cops kept trying to wedge something in the opening and Wes kept kicking it in on their fingers. Frosty kept his eyes on the walls, fire poker in hand.
            I came back in focus about the time Jack started throwing up blood again, at least it looked like he had been. This time he hadn’t had the savoir-faire to lean over and do it so neatly. His eyes were glazed and the dog stopped barking and sniffed the air. I started to rush over, but Jack waved me back and pointed to the men’s room.
            I picked up Trotsky’s gun, a.38 revolver, and headed back to see how all these guys kept popping up behind us.
            I imagined space-thugs beaming down directly in my path, surrounding all of us with futuristic technologies that only existed in my head. My thoughts were clinically racing again; I could think fast, but I couldn’t concentrate. I wish I could find a way to express the speed with which one thought leads to the next—your brain churning through every possible, and impossible, option, no matter how ridiculous. Nobody had to tell me to think fast.
            It didn’t take Einstein to figure out the gunman had come down through a hole in the drop ceiling of the washroom. I hadn’t even thought of it before; the rest of the store had these huge warehouse ceilings, but the restrooms—which were right by each other but on opposite sides of the stockroom wall—had drop ceilings. All that trash piling up in the ladies room hadn’t been Frosty. Some son of a bitch had been casing the joint all along, grabbing snacks and eating them on the way out.
            Somebody else had had an entrance into the building all along, probably through the ventilation or from another store. I thought about the dog growling at night and the pitter-patter of little rat sounds. They had been waiting for us, counting the days. Too scared to come in, they had simply kept watch, scoped us out and waited. Then we had forced them to come in anyway.
            I stepped up on the toilet seat and pulled myself up on the side of the stall. In one motion I stood up and grabbed onto the edge of the opening in the ceiling to balance myself. It was hell pulling myself up. Not until my viewpoint cleared the ceiling panel did it occur to me that somebody could be up there playing whack-a-mole. They could have taken my head off.
Nobody was there. Trotsky’s backup must still be in the ladies room. Great, this was going to be like fighting in a tunnel.
            I jumped back down to the floor, and had to take a second before I could head back to the sales floor, my knee was hurt. When I opened the door, the sales floor had become a combination of the Alamo and every old zombie media-vid you’ve ever seen.
            One of the metal shelves from the stockroom was wedged into an opening in the door and the beat cops never stopped trying to wedge more stuff in there to get it open. It was metal against metal, and only a matter of time. Wes would jump over the barrier, knock back whatever he could with a tenderizing mallet, and then he’d have to jump back immediately because somebody shot at him.
One of them was dumb enough to try to squeeze himself through the door for a second. He realized that wasn’t going to work about the time Wes broke his arm with the mallet.
            Frosty was running from side to side, making sure nobody came in through the drywall. Every once in a while something would poke through the wall and Frosty would poke right back. For the most part though, something was holding them back. The majority of the walls turned out to be concrete, lined by steel beam construction—thus the fire door—but there was one section they kept poking through, maybe just paneling and drywall. Frosty wound up guarding that. They wound up being forced to concentrate on the door.
            The dog was barking and running around Jack in circles, guarding him. I ran over to Jack, in an effort to tell him about our worries with the tunnel rats in the ceiling.
Jack was dead. He had the gun in his hands on his lap, and his eyes stared blankly at the door. I checked his pulse and where it had been real fast, now it was nonexistent. He’d bled out.
            The dog looked at Jack and then looked at me, as if there was something I could do about it. Just like she had done back at her dead master’s apartment. Maybe she thought I could wake him up, or wave my hands and he’d come back to life. Broke my heart all over again; first looking at Jack, then the dog’s eager eyes, looking into mine like I was going to fix it. I took the gun off Jack’s lap.
            “Wes, Frosty, they got a tunnel in the washroom ceiling. I’m going to see what I can do.” I was trying to sound tough, but my voice cracked. And I was crying.
            Here’s where my thoughts get a little weird. It might have been the wrong meds, or withdrawal from alcohol, protein shock from all the food I had been eating, emotional overload or just plain feeling human. But I stopped asking “why.”
In the East they say that to live is to suffer, but in the West we ask “why.” The people of the East seem to accept a world of turbulence, shit and tsunami, and just keep keeping on, damn near happy. Meanwhile, on our side of the world if people don’t have the right car, clothes or toothpaste, it’s cause for an emotional breakdown. It’s all about fear. At that moment I finally stopped asking why. Fear is the problem.
These guys had killed Jack. I would give them something to be afraid of.
            In the long run, one of the things that has always depressed me was how pointless human life can be. If you look down through the ages most people die struggling for some piece of land or food, or their back gets broken just trying to get by. For a while there people were fortunate enough to die of old age, but for the most part, most of us just wear out. Or we’re casualties on some planner’s chart for acceptable ratios of death.
            People live one moment and then comes the moment they don’t. You think you’re a war hero destined for greatness, and then, in the middle of your great charge, a cannonball takes off your head. If you’re lucky somebody with a chart writes it down, and you get to pretend your life—or your death—was exactly how you planned it, instead of just the sum result of the less than tolerable decisions you were given. If you’re lucky, you get to make one or two good decisions. Bubbles in a tidal wave.
            Everything was slow motion. I walked back to the washroom, ignoring the pain in my knee. The dog followed me, wondering why I hadn’t woken Jack up yet. Frosty and Wes were hollering just as loud as the idiots on the other side of the door.
            And I had two guns.
            I added up about five bullets in each and hoped I was right. I should have given one of the guns to Wes but I wasn’t thinking. Too late.
            This time, when I got to the men’s room I stepped up from the toilet seat to the top of the stall barrier like I was walking up a staircase. The revolver cleared the ceiling before my head. I should have waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark, except there was already somebody waving a flashlight across the support beams that held the ceiling up.
The beams were the steel-iron warehouse type, about a foot wide. It took no small effort to pull myself up there, hoping they couldn’t see me. I climbed up onto one knee. The light hit me in the eyes.
My brain argued with me. Take time, take aim; don’t waste ammo. Don’t be stupid, if you don’t shoot you’re dead anyway. I pulled the trigger.
The flashlight fell on top of a ceiling panel below me, and before it had stopped rolling around, a body fell through that. My man must have been crawling across the beam because it looked like I had shot him in the back. He laid there on the floor with the fiberboard from the ceiling and part of a light fixture wrapped around him. I don’t even think he was armed.
            I hoped he was dead—or at least paralyzed. I was trying to save ammo. I didn’t feel guilty about it. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t have time. I left the .22 in my pocket, saving it for close quarters. I only had to crawl about twelve feet and was above the ladies room on the other side of the wall. Candlelight peeked up through the hole in the ceiling. Nothing was moving.
            The whole time I kept telling myself to stop and plan, I needed a plan. But my body just kept going. I lurched over the side of the beam, trying to go down the same way I had gotten up, using the stall and toilet as a staircase. It was a good theory, but a bad idea. I stepped down from on top of a wobbly stall to the edge of an open toilet, and ran face first into the other side of the stall. My head bounced a foot backward, but I didn’t fall over.
            When I snapped out of stupid, I realized nobody else was in the room. My nose was bleeding and my knee was blown, otherwise I might have just walked out into the open. Being forced to wait while the stars spun around my head might have even saved my life. Gradually, I heard voices coming from the stockroom.
            I edged slowly over to the door and stopped. I could open the door and go out with guns blazing, but I didn’t know how many of them there were. I’d look pretty stupid stepping into the center of a circle of armed men and getting my head blown off.
            I could peek through the door and see what I was facing, but I’d probably end up just like Trotsky did over on our side of the wall. Or I could wait. But the barbarians were banging at the gate for Wes and Frosty.
            I was still wiping tears from my eyes when I realized they weren’t trying to bust down the stockroom door. There was whispering, and some hammering noise, but it didn’t sound like they were trying to slam a square peg into a round hole anymore.
            I waited.
            I couldn’t hear exactly what anybody was saying, except for that one guy still going on about how we were dead, nonstop.
            “Where are Tuck and Noah?” I thought I heard one of them say.
            Probably dead, I guessed, but I wasn’t exactly about to dance out and give these guys the news. Somebody giggled about something, and I heard footsteps approach the door.
            Okay. Plan B.
            I couldn’t very well hide in the ceiling, and pretend to be their flashlight buddy with my knee blown out. It was out of the question. What I could do was go back and hide in the stall, be all sneaky, and stand on the toilet so they couldn’t see me. But I was too damned tired.
            I blew out the candle and stood next to the door with my back to the wall.
            The kid walking in stopped, probably because of the dark, and looked like he was just going to stand outside holding the door open. So I had to grab him by the collar and pull him in, hoping the whole time nobody else was with him.
            I hit him medium hard in the head three times because I didn’t want to knock him out, and then I kept poking him with the gun. It was hard to tell in the dark, but I’m pretty sure I had my knee on his chest and the gun pointed at his head when I told him to shut up.
“You make another sound, and I’ll beat you to death.”
            He groaned a couple of times, and I hit him again. I don’t know where, but it must have hurt because he gasped like he was going to yell before I hit him again. I got the gun either in his mouth or his ear, and that shut him up.
            “I will beat you to death, and then shoot you,” I whispered through my teeth.
            He started flailing in the dark. Something hit me in the face, one of his hands probably, and I slammed his head on the floor.
            “You tell me how many friends you’ve got out there and I might just let you live.”
            “You’re dead, motherfucker,” he mumbled. Great, it was that guy.
            I’m pretty sure I hit him in the head again, he was pissing me off. The “You’re dead” guy was Jack’s Little Hitler. I was torn up by the fact that Jack hated this idiot, and then had to die with him yelling at him the whole time.
            “How many of them are there, you piece of shit?” I hit him again.
            “No, I’m not—”
            I hit him again.
            And again.
            I grabbed him by the hair to slam his head into the tile one more time.
            “I dunno. Ten, maybe. Ten. There’s ten of us. Ten, counting me,” he said.
            You don’t count.
            I left Little Hitler knocked out on the floor. There wasn’t time to waste any ammo on him. The very next second, somebody else walked in the door.
I hit him in the head so hard I thought I’d broken the gun. Then I pulled him to the side as fast as I could, and realized I had at least one hostage. I was kind of hoping it would be this one and not the “You’re dead” guy.
            When I pulled number two in, I saw the rest of his friends all gathered on the other side of the stockroom, around the barricaded door. They were murmuring to each other, practically whispering in each others ears and giggling. They had guns, and one guy was using a hammer and screwdriver to take the door off the hinges.
            If you ever want to piss off somebody who’s clinically depressed, just giggle. It was as much that as them trying to take down the door.
I eased the door open and shot two of them in the back.
            “You guy’s leave, and I won’t kill your two buddies in here!” I yelled, hugging the wall in the dark.
            Guns fired and bullets punched holes in the door. Tiny rays of light shined next to my shoes. I don’t think they heard me cursing. By now there was so much yelling and shooting going on, I couldn’t understand anything either. I started to pull Little Hitler over to the wall so he wouldn’t get too shot up, and then I got an idea.
            “Coming out,” I hollered. I picked up Hitler and stuck his head out the door. They stopped shooting. Wedged into the opening, he slid down on his ass into an almost sitting position. He made a good doorstop.
            I broke the bathroom mirror, and held up a piece of it so I could see outside without getting shot. I could see what they were doing, but that was about it.
Let’s face it. I’m not that good a shot. I wasn’t exactly going to be able to aim around the corner with a mirror. I’d used most of my marksmanship skill on that prodigious display of back shooting I’d just done. Not that I was ashamed of it. I just didn’t care.
They were dragging their screaming wounded behind a row of shelves, and screaming along with them, running around in circles. They didn’t know whether to shoot at me, shoot Little Hitler, keep working on the door, or take care of their wounded and possibly dead. I tried to bluff them out.
            “If you leave now, I won’t kill you or your friends,” I said.
            Somebody fired, not through the door where their fearless leader was propped up, but through the wall. The bullet punched a hole in the tile about a foot from my head. One of the guys I’d shot in the back had been holding onto a rifle. I guess somebody else had it now. Apparently, they weren’t going to throw down their guns in surrender and beg for their lives. I didn’t feel quite so confident all of a sudden.
            I had two shots left in the revolver. A total of seven left to shoot how many guys? There were two in here, Trotsky, and the flashlight guy made four. The two shot in the back. That was six. What about Camo-pants, did he count? Okay, that meant there were three, maybe four, left. I hoped my shooting was better than my math.
            I banged the back of my head against the wall trying to come up with an idea. The longer I waited, the more time they had to build a better fort behind that shelving, get better organized. Problem was, now they were concentrating on me. If I’d have been smart enough to wait until they almost had the door open—and then started shooting—at least they’d still have Wes and Frosty to deal with.
            “Wesley! Frosty! Can you hear me?” I yelled.
The only response I got was another shot through the wall. This one punched a hole in my thigh.


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