An excerpt from
This is Life
The New Jack Palms Mystery
by Seth Harwood
......The road with the Czechs was good for the first weeks and better after that. As Jack got used to the motorcycle, its growl and vibration, the open highway, the blowing of the wind, and the sky above him, he left it all behind: his lost career, his problems with the police and Maxine, his money woes and even his issues with karma, exile, and fighting back from his addiction. In short, he started to have fun.
......But eventually the trip had to come to an end, Jack heading back to San Francisco and the Czechs bound for Eastern Europe after a stop in L.A. This is how life had to be: a return to stability. No choices, no decisions. For the Czechs, business called; for Jack, his old life, the house in Sausalito and his routine beckoned quietly, softer than he wanted to hear, softer than the voices that drove his movements and the excitement that made up his days on the Ducati.
......At a certain point, like all good things, the trip had to come to an end.
......At home he thinks of Norma again, of her furniture and her decorating. The house reminds him of the hard times, the junk and losing his wife and getting frozen out of Hollywood. He'll have to start again on ridding himself of the things that brought him down. On the trip, he stayed away from the blow but had a few drinks now and then, here and there. Nothing to be concerned over. This puts him off the wagon, though, retires his break around two and a half years. Still, he feels like it's something to be happy with, not to fear. Regardless of what the drinking might lead him to, he's off the drugs to stay, and a few drinks here and there won't kill him, he's decided.
In the middle of his kitchen table, he finds a fresh envelope with his name printed on it. He'd stopped the mail. Someone has been inside.
......Jack opens the letter slowly, carefully, first looking at the date at the top, the day before yesterday, and then the name at the bottom: Sgt. Mills Hopkins.
Glad to have you back in town. Now we can get together and down to business on the things we still need to work out. You with me? I thought you would be. Here's the list:
1) We need something else on your Russian, the bald guy. He walked. We couldn't make any of the drug charges stick and the shooting at The Coast bounced off of him too. You want to testify that he wasted Tony Vitelli and Junius Ponds? I didn't think so.
2) You remember when we had to meet in the café? That leak on the force is still a problem, something I want to talk to you about. You know who I mean. I need more from you to take him down.
Drop me a call at the station or on my cell. I'll hear from you, or else I'll send somebody to come looking.
Jack crumples the paper and throws it against the wall above the garbage, banking it in. He still prefers the bank to the straight shot, a holdover from his days as a basketball player in high school. With Mills' letter to worry about, he should stay up and think things through, but he's been driving since too early.
......He heads back down the hall and toward his bedroom: down the long hall, the soft carpet. His life's been an extended series of nice hotel rooms, until a few low-rent places once he was on his own, after the Czechs decided to take a last extra week in L.A. The thought of his own bed sounds too good to pass on, as he strips off his jacket, the black leather motorcycle jacket that was new just two months ago, when he first got it along with his bike. Now, like Jack, it's seen wear; the sun and some rainstorms caught them both equally, stretching the skin on Jack's face and tanning them both raw-the difference being that the jacket got lighter while Jack's face got darker. Both though, are loose and easy, the jacket fitting his body like it was made for him, molded to his form by the rain. He drops it on the floor, peels off his shirt and thinks how good he'll feel with a shower.
......Then he turns the corner into the bedroom and sees it: the bed scorched black where the sheets and the blankets used to be, even Norma's turquoise pillowcases, all burned. A dark ring of charred rug runs around the bed on the floor, but nothing else in the room is burned. It looks strange and unnaturally ominous at the same time. Jesus, Jack thinks, not wanting to feel like here he goes again, but a small part of him, even the part he's trying to quiet, thinking, here I go again. Where the feel of his life being in danger was new to him two months ago, now he knows it, remembers how it feels.
......The bed, the blankets, the pillows, all are burned to black, charred with a purpose, a control over the fire that had to be planned. Could Mills have done this? Jack decides the answer has to be no. Whoever did this knew their way around a fire and how to leave a message.
......He touches a few of the larger, remaining pieces of blanket-charred, black shapes of paper-thin remains, long gone cold, that crumble at his touch-and turns away from it all, back toward the bathroom and the thought of a shower.
......Jack goes straight through to the bathroom, turns on the hot, and peels off his jeans. By the time he's under the water, there's steam, and the water's hot enough to wash off the road, the smell, the feeling of being dried out in the sun-even some of the unease at seeing his burned bed. Under the blast of the spray, he shakes his head, feels his hair flop around his temples and eyes. On the road he didn't have a clippers, didn't stop often enough to get a cut, didn't bother. So now he's got hair again, greasy locks that could use a wash or buzzing off altogether.
......Fuck, Jack says. Who the hell would do this to my bed?
......His first thought runs to Norma, his ex-wife, that she's back in the Bay Area, came by and found some remnant of Maxine and set the sheets on fire. Of course that's not beyond her. The alternative, actually, is much worse: something from the Ralph deal, something about the Czechs and maybe that the guys who killed Ralph never got taken care of. Jack doesn't like that thought. It means someone's coming after him and that they've been in his home.
......But Norma would never think to pre-wet the rug with water or use a kind of firestarter that she'd be able to put out; she'd burn down half the room or the whole house. This job was done by a pro.
.....Jack shakes his wet head, leans against the wall of the shower and lets the water drill into the back of his skull. He watches the drops falling toward the drain around his face, alternately looking like solid streams and individual drops. If he squints, he can almost make them stand in midair, or even move backwards, fall up.
......He's glad he took the time outside to put the motorcycle into the garage, didn't leave it out in the driveway; the less sign of him being back the better. He should probably avoid using too many lights too. But he's got a few hours before he has to worry about that. It occurs to him that maybe going out and finding a decent hotel room for the night might not be a bad idea. But he's not into that. He's been gone for too long and this is his home, the place he finished tearing his old self down and then did the hard work of building himself back up.
......He gets out of the shower and towels off, puts on his old bathrobe. Looking down at the tub across the room, he's reminded of Ralph's dead body at the bottom of his jacuzzi, the bloody remains of his head and the splatter on the wall. It's not where he wants to end up, no not at all. But being on the road and going through what he's gone through, he's not about to give up and scare off just like that.
......Looking through the cupboards, wearing his old robe, Jack locates his supply of cereal and puts a handful into his mouth. He's not going anywhere for a little while, he's decided, but he's not quite ready to go to sleep yet either.
......When he does go out, he's unsure whether he should go find Mills or track down Joe Buddha. Mills would know if anyone's mad enough to fuck with his house; Buddha would know, hopefully, whether Norma has been back around SF and if there's anything going on around the city that Jack needs to know about. He picks up the phone and dials Buddha's number.
......After four rings, a machine picks up, tells Jack in a soft voice that Joe Buddha and his wife aren't home. Jack leaves a message at the beep.
......Sure, the easy thing to do would be to call Sgt. Hopkins next and start answering questions, trying to do his best to calm the guy down, Jack's not ready for that much shit yet, for the load Mills is likely to drop on him. He left the good sergeant holding the bag on the Vitelli shootout, also called him in the middle of the night one too many times.
......As much as Jack hates to admit it, he might owe the big cop a favor.
......But for today, it'll have to stay owed; Jack takes the cereal and heads for the sectional couches. In the old days when he was still junking, he'd find the remote and nod out on the couch over a buzz. Then after he cleaned up, he'd find a good book and read, exhausted from working out. Now, he's too exhausted to read.
......On the road he'd watch TV in the few hours when he had free time to himself, catch up on ESPN and kick back, let himself relax and not feel guilty about the fact that he wasn't working out, wasn't doing anything. Just being, is what he would tell himself, how he liked to think of it. Sometimes the times with the Czechs could be fun, but also they could get exhausting; the need to demolish every city's boundaries and bars, stomp the nightlife no matter where they went, wore Jack down. Maybe it was a new kind of working out, conditioning himself toward overindulgence. If everything that went down in SF led Jack to believe he had a right and a place in the city's nightlife again, maybe this trip was just enough to cure him of wanting that, a big enough taste that he'd be able to stay home for a while.
......But now he has Mills Hopkins to deal with, a cop who wants something, a crazy fucking Russian who might be out there gunning for him, and a bed charred to shit and gone. The longer he can afford dealing with these, the better. He turns on the TV.
......Jack wakes in the middle of the night, in the dark, the VCR clock flashing 12:00. The clock on the wall reads a quarter to three. He's not sure if he heard a sound, if that's what woke him, or if it's just nerves. Maybe he needs a run like the old days to help him relax. But he doesn't want to go back to that, the hard work on his body, the same boring routine. Part of him just wants to keep rolling with a life that pulls him, instead of one he needs to build at every step.
......And then he hears another sound, something like a stick breaking outside the patio doors, in the yard behind his house, and it's clear that he's not entirely alone. Probably just a deer tramping through the brush, he hopes, an animal looking for a late-night meal.
......He looks over the back of the couch, out the back windows, the double doors leading out to the back yard, and sees only darkness to the rock wall of Norma's old garden. The he hears another sound: like the first, but louder, a crunch from something heavier than a deer, even the biggest buck: a sound like someone walking outside just past his little evergreen trees along the back wall of the house. But Jack doesn't see anyone, anything.
......He hits the floor on all fours, crawls between the couch and the coffee table, around the end of the couch, and toward the back door. Past the bookshelves and the CD stand, Jack stays low along the floor and gets to the glass doors with his head at the lowest windows. He's tried to be quiet; whatever's out there, he wants to know it before it knows him.
......At first, he only sees his own reflection against the glass, and then he sees it, just inside the edge of Norma's garden: a glint of something pointing out of a bush-the shiny round barrel of a gun. Jack drops immediately flat to his chest just before the gun goes off, he hears the whistle of a silencer, and a bullet pierces the glass four feet above him, right where he'd be if he were standing.
......Shit, Jack says. Fucking fuck!
......He looks up, through the bottom-most row of windows in the door. A man comes out of the bushes, a man just outside his doors who stands not five feet from Jack in his backyard.
......The guy's face is hard to make out in the shadows of the garden, and Jack can't place him. He's white and serious looking. Jack's seen him somewhere before, but that's just a hunch-maybe not even right. Slowly, Jack gathers himself into a crouch, a position he can jump forward from.
......The man in the yard raises the gun again, its long silencer, and shoots three shots through the right-side windows of the back door. What he's shooting at, Jack has no idea; he probably just sees his own reflection, if anything. Jack feels shards of glass fall onto his back and covers his head with his hands, hoping he won't hear another shot.
He looks up after a few moments, sees the place where the frames of the two doors come together. There are three sets of locks: at the top of the doors, at the handle, and at the bottom. He goes to slide the metal locks away from the floor and, to his surprise, they're already open. He tries to remember if he forgot to lock them, but hasn't thought about the doors since before he hit the road.
......Whatever's here in terms of keeping these doors locked is relatively light in comparison to hitting a man and knocking him down, which is what Jack plans to do. He gathers himself into a four-point stance, his arms straight down from his shoulders, his hands on the floor, and his legs bent behind him, so he rests on the balls of his toes.
......He focuses on the guy's knees, hoping he's still looking at his own reflection. The guy steps forward unafraid, oblivious to the crunching sound from the yard's wood-chips. And that's when Jack goes. He jams his body forward, his legs straightening and pumping, his arms shielding his face and hitting the doorway's wooden center with both forearms. He blasts the doors open, shooting himself out onto the short wooden porch too easily-maybe the doors were unlocked?-and in the next moment, he's into the yard and going head-first for the guy's knees, just as the guy realizes what's happening and tries to jump out of the way. Like a quarterback evading the blitz at the last second, he shuffles to his side-too late-and Jack grabs him around both thighs with an arm and a shoulder, drives him down hard onto his back.
......The gun goes off again, the thhyp of the silencer lisping into the night, but it's pointed away from them both, off into the yard.
......The guy chops at Jack around the shoulder, just grazing his ear with the butt of his fist as it passes by, and Jack feels the hard of the gunstock hitting him around the neck. As Jack tries for a better hold on his attacker's legs and his arm, the guy scrambles backward, turning and crawling on all fours for a few yards before he straightens up into a run, just as Jack's standing, uncomfortable in his socks on the wood-chips.
......In a moment, the guy's gone, Jack hears the sound of feet throwing the chips, going faster than he can run in his socks, and tearing out away from the yard in the dark, along the side of his house.
......Fuck, he says, shaking the dirt and the chips off of him. He scrambles back across the deck and into the living room, vaults the couch, and rushes to the side door.
......In the darkness, from his front porch, Jack can hear feet hitting the driveway, pounding in a run against the asphalt. And then he sees a man under the streetlight, more than thirty feet away: a man of medium build with light brown hair running down the last five feet of the driveway and into the street, to a yellow, new Mustang retro re-do, its backside as recognizable as anything on the road, pushed into the air like a lonely whore. But Jack can see it's somehow slightly different, lacks the familiar Mustang circular emblem and something else he can't put his finger on.
......The guy takes a last look back toward Jack-Jack wants to yell something after him, a threat of some sort-and then hurries into the car. As it starts up, Jack sees a puff of exhaust come from center of the back, and then in a flash of taillights and peeling rubber, it's gone. Jack hasn't even made it off the porch. He has a momentary thought of chasing the car down on his motorcycle, riding after it in the night, but shirtless and without shoes, wearing a bathrobe, he'd never get far.
......Maybe he should start sleeping with his shoes on, that or sleeping somewhere else.
Copyright © 2007 by Seth Harwood .
Seth Harwood, a contributor to this site, is the author of Jack Wakes Up, the first crime novel to be serialized as a podcast. Jack Wakes Up will be published by Breakneck Books on March 16th, 2008, a.k.a. Palm(s) Sunday! Through his website sethharwood.com and Podiobooks.com, Seth has released Jack Wakes Up, its sequel This is Life, and A Long way from Disney, a collection of short stories, as free downloadable audio. His work has been published in Spinetingler Magazine, Storyglossia, Post Road, Inkwell and Sojourn: A Journal of the Arts among others. He teaches writing and literature at the City College of San Francisco, and lives in Berkeley with his wife, Joelle, and their dog.
...... Want more? Tune in to This Is Life at the iTunes store or at sethharwood.com. And read his review of Richard Aleas' "Songs of Innocence" right here on this site.
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"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."
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