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

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bipolar Express, Chapter 21

Last Week: Holt lost it, and fought back.
This week: He could bleed his life away before he gets another chance to fight for it.

Chapter 21

            I yelped, grabbed my leg and rolled around on the floor. Cracked tile fell from the wall, and I launched into a litany of curse words, watching the blood leak onto my hands.
It took a while for my brain to connect with my body. After the initial pain, I kind of just sat there clutching my wound, staring at it, disconnected. It was just something else in the world that had happened. I stared at it like an art project. Like one of those paintings in the psych ward. Maybe it was shock. I remember thinking I should have been shocked.
If they hit the femoral artery in my leg I was dead. Now I was going to bleed to death. I looked underneath my hand, and waited for blood to shoot across the room in the same rhythm of the pulse pounding in my head.
It didn’t. That seemed like a good thing.
            I started to make a tourniquet out of my belt and then realized I had on overalls, no belt. So I dragged myself over to the guy passed out on the floor and stole his. After I’d wrapped the belt around my leg, I debated on whether or not to tie him up by his shoelaces. I wound up checking his pulse and decided to take his coat too.
I was cold. He was colder.
            As I pulled his army jacket off I realized I hadn’t even searched him yet. There was a moment of hope when I went through his pockets and discovered what I think was a 9mm. Browning auto. It was empty. He had a butterfly knife and some rolling tobacco. That was it.
            I rolled myself a cigarette and played with the knife. I tried to stay positive, telling myself I was a little better armed again. Big deal, I had a knife. So what? I was still pinned in by three or four guys who, judging from the way they had been shooting, had more guns and ammo than the ATF. My mind wandered—Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. I cocked the gun, lit the cigarette, and thought about drinking. Might as well just step out and let them shoot me. I sat on the floor, staring into space, trying to come up with an idea before I bled to death or my leg fell off.
            After a while I figured everybody was stonewalled. Anybody who moved got shot. I snuck through the shadows in back of the bathroom and managed to come up on the other side of Little Hitler in the doorway. I didn’t bother to check his pulse. I hit him on the head one more time so he wouldn’t be any trouble, and then sat down in the stall so at least they wouldn’t know where I was.
About an hour later everybody was waiting for somebody else to do something. Wes and Frosty didn’t have any firearms, and they’d have to be more than just crazy to come charging in. The beat cops fired an occasional shot in their direction just to remind them of that. Meanwhile, if the skinheads went after Wes and Frosty, I could shoot them. They knew where I was, and that I was armed. What they didn’t know was I had next to no ammo, and I was a lousy shot. I hoarded every bullet, not firing the entire time.
            Out of boredom I set some of the toilet paper rolls on fire and tossed them over the shelves they were using for cover, just to taunt the bastards. I could hear them cursing and stomping the fires out. That was about all the action for another hour, and I realized I had screwed up. If anybody was going to smoke anybody out, I was in the worst position. I hoped I hadn’t given them any ideas.
            “Wes! Frosty! Can you hear me?”
            “We can all hear you, asshole,” somebody said from behind the shelf in the stockroom.
            I kept that in mind. 
            “Wes! You guys okay?”
            “Never better!” Wes answered. “You making friends, Holt?” I could barely hear him through the door and the dog was barking.
            “And influencing people!” I said. “Listen, I got two hostages over here—”
            “Shoot ‘em,” Wes said. “Let ‘em know you mean business.”
            “You hear that, boys?” I yelled.
            They fired another shot at the wall. Strangely enough, it hit the corpse in the head.
            “Hey, Wes!” I said, “I only got one hostage over here now!”
            “Good!” he said.
            I didn’t bother with details. I figured it was better to let them think they’d killed one of their own. Somebody from behind the stockroom shelf screamed. I don’t know if it was the shooter or the wounded, but somebody was in pain. Good.
            “Wes, I need you to open the door, and come out shooting!” I yelled. “They’re behind the shelves right across from the office.”
            Guns fired from the stockroom shelf in every direction. I held my breath, hoping Wes wouldn’t announce he was unarmed.
            “No problem! Gimme a li’l time,” Wes said.
            If I could get their attention on the stockroom door, maybe I could get out of here.
            It was quiet for a while, other than the whimpering of the wounded coming from behind the shelf, and an occasional rattle from the other side of the stockroom door. Wes was doing something. I hoped it wouldn’t get him killed.
            I counted off how many men they had in my head again and came to the conclusion that there were three of them left. I hoped.
            I was laying back in the dark, lighting another cigarette when the wall behind me went K’tang and started rumbling.
At first I thought Wes might have come up with some secret weapon. Maybe he was blowing something up or dropping something through the ceiling. The wall started shaking. Maybe he was about to drive a car through it.
I felt a vibration and heard the clanking sound again. Once. Twice. Louder the second time.
It was the water pipes. It’s common knowledge in colder climates that when the temperature drops below zero you have to leave some water dripping through the pipes or they’ll crack open and start leaking. The wall cracked and a small, cold stream came tumbling out of the wound.
Then, the entire tile wall—the back of the ladies room I was leaning against—exploded and a waterfall poured in. I jumped back, but it didn’t do any good. Buckets poured out of the wall in a steady stream.
I remember it being. Cold.
And then I was colder. Wet. And screaming. It was like when something hits you really hard in the head and you’re still conscious. And you’re not being hit any more, but the pain, the feeling of being hit, it becomes part of you. And you try to walk it off, but that pain just digs in to the bone and stays, and there’s nothing you can do about it but wait.
I stumbled around, sloshing in the water, one hand on my head and the other on the gun. My vision completely whited out.
I thought about Trotsky on the other side of the wall. The blow to the head. Unconsciousness as mercy. Death as a release. The real Trotsky. His body shaking with a pickaxe in his head.
The real Trotsky had lived thirty more hours. I could still hear him screaming.
Then I was in a pool. Shin high. No sense of time.
I sloshed over to the stall and beat myself so I could feel something—anything, but the cold. I sat on the edge of the toilet trying to ignore my feet, stinging, frozen and burning at the same time.
I still had what was left of the cigarette hanging out of my mouth like a mass of wet toilet paper with wood pulp leaking out of it. I wadded it up, smeared it on my face and threw the rest at the dead guy on the floor. Then sat in the dark and shivered for a while, trying to figure out how long I’d been in this room.
My recovery wasn’t going quite as I’d planned it.
            I had to adjust the tourniquet on my leg. I was bleeding, hungry, and cold. If I didn’t drown, I’d freeze to death. And if I didn’t freeze to death, I’d bleed to death. If I didn’t bleed to death, there were still at least three people with guns that wanted to kill me.
After a while the walls closed in. I had maybe an hour, and then I’d have to go out into the stockroom.
            I tried to dry my hands. Eventually, I rolled another smoke and thought about the institution I had met Jack and Wes in. How it really hadn’t been so bad.
            Wes and I had sort of forgotten to synchronize our watches for our master plan. I didn’t even have one. I guessed it would take him maybe half-an-hour to open the door, if that’s what he was doing, and that would be about as long as I could last.
I finally came to the conclusion it wasn’t the bleeding, or the cold wet. It wasn’t the corpse in the water. It wasn’t even the fact that I’d rolled a lousy cigarette.
It was because I was sick of all this.
Is it mentally ill to be depressed if you really have a reason to be depressed?
Because this particular here and now sucked.
Jack was dead. My wife was dead. My best friends were all dying and so crazy they didn’t even know it.
And the world was upside down.
And three or four men out there were trying to make things worse?
“Hey, sane boy! You, Bud Spud—Regular Guy! Tell me, which way’s North?” I think I said it.  And I was walking around in circles again, one hand clenching my head and the other holding on to the gun.
            I crept to the door. Little Hitler was still out cold, dead or brain damaged. No great loss. I grabbed the other corpse by the collar, and using the wall to support myself, propped him up. I slung him out the door by one of his arms,
hoping it would look like he was walking out the door—which would have been pretty damn impressive considering he had a hole in the top of his head.
            Then he didn’t have a head. I have no idea what kind of shells these guys were using, but his head just exploded. I’m not even sure if they thought he was me or were just trying to show me they were ready.
It was intimidating but, then again, it wasn’t. If I was going to die, quick would be good.
At least I wouldn’t remember it.
            I snuck back into the dark, and was creeping up behind Little Hitler so I could use him for a shield, when I heard what had to be the stockroom door slamming open. To this day I still have a visual from behind Little Hitler’s pimply, half-bearded neck—the door flying open and falling off its one remaining hinge.  
There was smoke, and there was fire…
Okay, there was dust, and something like candlelight or an oil lamp burning. In my minds eye though, it’s still smoke and fire.
            The dog came leaping through the door and before they could shoot her, somebody had hurled two bottles through the air from behind. There were flaming rags stuffed in the top of the bottles. The first one must have hit the floor behind the shelf and then somehow skipped across the concrete. There was a line of flame from behind the stock piled on the floor.
            I was still watching that when the other bottle bounced off the wall behind the shelf. And the wall burst into flame. There was a lot more yelling and screaming.
            My boys had brought Molotov Cocktails. I knew the stuff Jack had in that bottle was acetone.
             As the dog veered off to her left, a shot rang out, and must’ve hit her because I heard a “yip.” She veered off even more to the left and hid behind some boxes. I ran out my door to the right, carrying Little Hitler in front of me for about two yards before I just decided to drop him. He was little, but still too heavy. My feet were numb and I could barely run.
I had just enough time to hide behind the corner of the office and kick off my soggy boots. I jumped up and down on my good leg, hoping to feel some circulation. Once I got around that barrier, I’d have to run to the right of the shelf. And then we could all shoot each other.
            Wes came through the door. Wes arriving anywhere was an event in itself. But this, this was an entrance.
He was holding a wire display rack in front of him, using it for both a shield and a battering ram. A bunch of kitchen utensils still hung from the hooks, swinging back and forth and flying off into the air. His machete was tucked in a cloth wrapped around his waist like one of the Arabian Knights.
            The barrel of a hunting rifle came up as one of the men behind the shelf aimed at his chest. Wes threw the entire display rack at the guy, who not only had to dodge the rack, but also the collection of tin pans and knick-knacks flying off its hooks.
            When the rifleman began to raise his gun again, Wes chopped at its stock with his machete. The thing may have been dull, but it was iron. The blade chopped down on the guy’s right hand, and the gun barrel scraped across the floor. Frosty was in the doorway throwing bottles at the guy’s head.
Dragging the rifle by the butt with his good hand, the gunman turned to his right. Thing stuck her head out of a pile of boxes and growled, eyes glaring, teeth bared. Her lips vibrated in a spasm above the gum line, the tremor of a spring-loaded trap.
            The gunman stopped, looked into the dog’s eyes and started to turn back down the aisle. He saw Wes behind him and froze like a baseball player caught in a rundown.
            Wes swung away. If the blade had had an edge, he would’ve Captain Kurtzed the dude, and a head would have rolled down the aisle like in old Samurai media. Instead, the guy’s feet just stuck to the floor, and his body stayed in one place while the machete hit him in the neck. His head snapped awkwardly to the left, folding itself over the blade, then it just kind of wobbled around on his neck while his eyes glazed over. He collapsed right in front of The Thing. Hackles up, she growled and Canine jaws snapped in a vise-grip on his neck. Her head thrashed. His head wobbled. When she let go he was chest down, but his eyes looked up toward the ceiling.  
            I never heard his neck snap, probably because at that moment Frosty dropped a three-gallon keg on the floor and kicked it off with the heel of his foot. Then lit up another Molotov and threw that.
            I realized then I wasn’t going to get any better diversion than this—the most beautiful scene I had ever witnessed. Wes’s gunman was falling to the floor, and that drum that Frosty had kicked was uncorked and full of olive oil. Some of it spilled as it rolled and little waves of flame zipped across the floor as it splashed and ignited. Whoever was behind the shelf was probably jumping back or behind something.
            My feet slapped the concrete like duck flippers, completely numb, as I limped from cover over to the front side of the shelf. I jumped between two big boxes on the floor that had been blocking my view, and pushed one clockwise so I could crawl in between. We already had them surrounded on three sides; and the dog was at their flanks waiting to pounce on anybody who tried to run.
            I pushed open a path between the boxes and slid through on my stomach. The plan was to climb to my feet, jump up screaming, and come up shooting. I never got the chance. One of the rifles I had seen was a shotgun.
            The barrel cracked the left lens of my glasses, and I heard something click. My head was still clearing from getting popped in the eye when Frosty’s drum of olive oil lit up. Instead of just exploding and throwing Italian shrapnel everywhere, the oil acted like rocket fuel, and shot the drum into the gunman’s hip. The upper part of his body—and the double barrels of the gun—rocked back on impact. The gun fired over my head. Almost blinding me, but aimed high.
I grabbed a hold of the double barrel with my left hand, and emptied the pistol into the guy’s face with my right. The puncture wounds didn’t make me vomit anymore, didn’t even cut through the moment.
            The Little Oil Drum That Could continued to tour the aisle in a small circle of fits and starts, spreading more fire. The flaming oil ignited both the store stock, and the bodies lying on the floor. If they weren’t corpses yet, they would be. I held onto the shotgun and backed my way out of the boxes, standing up just long enough to fall on my ass and slap some sparks out of my hair.
            I sat there a second and took inventory. Behind that aisle of stock, a wall of flame was peeking its head over and headed my way. Wes’s voice pulled me out of it.
            “S’go! S’go! C’mon!” I almost hugged him, but I started checking the gun for shells instead. Frosty came out from behind the fire with the damned dog in his arms. They were both smiling.
            He sat her down, and she limped towards the back door, stopping about ten feet inside, and sitting down, waiting for us. Frosty grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall, and kept the fire at bay while Wes and I started yelling at each other.
            “We’re going to need our packs, coats, meds, anything we can grab. Fast!” I said.
            Wes didn’t even acknowledge what I had said, but simply ran back into the store. I started to run after him but my feet wouldn’t let me. When I almost fell over, Frosty handed me the fire extinguisher. He motioned with his head and then went into the store himself. I don’t know if they were brave or just stupid, probably both, but it struck me then that if I were to pass out or something they’d both end up trapped in the flames. I scooted my way over closer to the stock and tried to keep a pathway open.
            Wes came through the door dragging three backpacks on one arm, and three small fire extinguishers on the other. He dropped them just behind me, turned around and went back in. Frosty came out with a handful of coats and a bundle of Indian fabric. He was about to head back in when Wes came out carrying two more bundles, motioning him back. We dragged and shuffled all of our stuff toward the back door, and sat down by the dog.
            It was a lovely fire. We watched it eat fine imports from all over the world.
            “I think we got more coats than we came in with,” Frosty said.
            I looked at the infantry jacket I had borrowed, and realized Frosty was wearing one too. “We should probably put our old ones back on,” I said, “or somebody outside is going to think we’re those guys and we’ll end up getting shot at.”
            “Or worse,” Frosty said, “somebody will think we are those guys.”
            The leaky plumbing was giving us enough time to collect ourselves while we made sure we had everything we’d need. A path of cold wet ran from the ladies room to the sales floor. Regardless, we were sure to end up saying we could have used such-and-such later, no matter what. We had to get out of there before the smoke got to us.
            The fire had done a pretty good job of drying me off, but I still shook what was left of my socks out, letting them dry while we went down our shopping list. I attempted to stand up and get my boots from the washroom while I still had the energy. The dog limped back with me, and picked one of them up like she wanted to play at first. Then she wound up dropping it at my feet like we were reading each other’s minds, both of us thinking, Fuck this.
She licked my wounds, and I looked at hers. Turned out, she hadn’t been shot but a flattened ricochet, or maybe some shattered concrete, had cut the shit out of her right flank. I wiped it off with some water. She jumped but didn’t whimper.
            It took maybe five minutes to figure out that if we didn’t have it by now we wouldn’t. So we packed up our stuff and headed for the door. Wes opened Jack’s bottle of the hard stuff and held it up in the air as if for a toast, before he took a swig and then passed it to Frosty. I pulled a bottle of soda out of a box by the wall, toasted everything goodbye, and drank the whole thing in one swig. Then I reached over and got one for the dog.
            Frosty gave me the fireplace poker to use as a cane and the dog and I limped, as they walked, for the door.
            Something wasn’t right.
            “What about Jack?” Frosty asked.
            “Viking funeral,” I said. “I think that’s what the toast was for.” It took him a second to understand, I think Jack would’ve though. It looked like the whole place was ready to burn down anyway. Frosty turned around and toasted again.
            “Hey! Hold it,” I said. “What did you guys do with Little Hitler?”
            “Little Hitler?”
            Before either of them could go on I interrupted. “Little Hitler. I left him lying outside the bathroom. The little blonde-haired, bearded guy. The one Jack said he hated so much? You know, ‘You guys are dead?’”
            “Oh, him,” Wes said. “Little blonde haired guy?”
            “Yeah! Where is he? I left him laid out by the bathroom door.”
            “I dunno.”
            “I never saw him.” Frosty said, “Then again, I wasn’t looking for him.”
            “That means he’s still around here somewhere,” I said. We all looked at each other and then glanced around the stockroom.
            “Hey, if he’s still back there, he’s good as dead, ‘less he got keys to the front door.” Wes said the whole sentence like one word.
            “And if he’s not, he could be waiting outside for us.”
            “He might’ve just run away,” Frosty said.
            Wes waved his head back and forth, saying no. Frosty paced around not believing it himself. I put my head in my hands for a second. Then we all looked around and shrugged our shoulders. I thought about the little bastard going to get reinforcements.
            “Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said.
            None of us rushed to put on our packs. Frosty went to the edge of the door, opened it a crack, and said, “I’m going to take a look around. Cover me.”
            How the hell was I going to cover him with a shotgun?
            Wes had the same rifle that had been aimed at his head a few minutes before, a Remington 30-06. Before I could say anything Frosty handed me a pitifully small pistol, and ran across the alley, taking cover behind the garbage cans. I kept a lookout on everything within my range while Wes glanced down the sights of the rifle, scanning the skyline.
            “Hey, Wes,” I said. “You even know how to use one of those things?”
            “Sure, point and shoot.” He pulled the trigger and a window shattered across the street.


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