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An excerpt from
Only Child
by Andrew Vachss

For more information about Only Child, click here.


I'd been gone for years. Dead and gone, the whisper-stream said. But that stream always carries more than one current.

Just past midnight, I slipped back over the border, moving downwind out of the darkness. Because Hollywood's got one part right—the dirty, scheming, heartless bitch never does sleep.

Especially now.

 

The alley behind Mama's restaurant was as immune to time as the chamber of a pharaoh's vault. A pair of dull-orange oil drums stood sentinel. I nosed the Subaru's dechromed black snout carefully into the opening between them, over to an empty patch of oil-stained asphalt. On the filthy wall above it, a square of pure-white paint. Inside the square, Chinese characters, in perfect, fluted-edge calligraphy. It was signed with the chop of Max the Silent, the Chinatown equivalent of a skull-and-crossbones on an unmarked bottle.

I slid the Subaru against the wall, not bothering to lock it. Directly across from my spot was a rust-colored steel door with no handle. I slapped my hand against it three times, hard, and stepped back, slitting my eyes against what I knew was coming.

The door opened outwards. A sudden spray of grimy yellow kilowatts framed me in place. A man's shape, backlit, blocked my way. I slowly moved my hands away from my sides, keeping them down.

The man said something in Cantonese. I didn't move, letting him study me. The door closed in my face.

I heard them moving in behind me, but I didn't change position. Felt their hands going over me. Didn't react. The door opened again; no lights, this time.

As I stepped inside, I saw a man in a white restaurant apron standing to my left. He had a meat cleaver in his right hand, his left hand locked over the wrist. On the other side of the kitchen, two more men. One of them sighted down the barrel of a pistol, as if I were a piece of land he was surveying. The other flexed his hands to show me he wouldn't need anything else.

I heard the door shut behind me.

 

The men watching me were professionals, about as nervous as a yoga class on Xanax. More waiting. Not a problem for me; it's what I do best.

"You come home?" I heard her voice before I saw her.

"Yeah, Mama."

"Good!" she snapped, stepping out of the darkness. "You eat now, okay?"

 

My booth was the last one toward the back, closest to the bank of pay phones. It had the same look as my parking spot. Like it had been waiting for me to show.

I slid in. Mama stood with her arms folded. I hadn't heard her yell anything out to the kitchen, but I knew what she was waiting for.

The guy who hadn't needed weapons came to the booth, carrying a heavy white tureen in one hand—thumb on top, no napkin between him and the heat. He lowered the tureen gently to the table, underscoring the message he'd given me earlier.

Mama sat and took the top off in the same smooth motion, releasing a cloud of steam. No tea ceremony for her; she ladled out a small bowl of the hot-and-sour soup as quick as they ever had on the chow line back in prison. I took a sip, knowing better than to wait for her.

My sinuses unblocked as I felt the familiar taste slam home.

"Perfect," I told her.

"Everything same," Mama said, finally helping herself to a bowl.

 

I was on my fourth bowl—three is the house minimum—when Max materialized.

He stood there, looking down at me. Measuring.

"I'm all right," I signed to him.

He cocked his head.

"Yeah, I'm sure," I said aloud.

He bowed slightly, folding one scarred, horn-ridged hand over the fist he made of the other.

Mama gestured her order for him to sit and have soup. Max moved in next to her, never taking his eyes off me. He used two hands to show a tree springing up from the ground, then pointed where the roots would be, his straight-line eyebrows raised in a question.

I nodded, slowly. Yeah. This wasn't a visit. I was back to stay.

 

It was too late to reach out for the rest of my family. Not because they'd be asleep; the middle of the night was when they worked.

I gave the Subaru's keys to Mama. One of the gunmen had brought my duffel bag inside. Max shouldered it, and we hit the alleys.

 

The faint wash from the streetlights didn't penetrate much past the alley's mouth.

There were three of them. Too murky to pick out details, but they stanced young. I saw a glint of metal.

Max slipped the shoulder strap of the duffel and handed it to me. I pulled a hammerless .38 from its side pocket. A use-it-and-lose-it piece Mama had added to my take-out order. Dull blued steel, the butt wrapped in black electrical tape.

The three figures separated. Max moved to his left, I went to my right.

It was so quiet I could hear a rat doing what rats do.

We kept coming.

When we got close enough for them to see Max, they stopped liking the odds.

 

It was only a few more blocks to the building where Max lived. We went in the side door, climbed one flight up to his temple.

His wife, Immaculata, was waiting at the top. She held a finger to her lips, meant for me.

"Flower is asleep," she said softly.

"Okay," I whispered back.

"Oh, Burke," she said. "We never knew if you were—"

"I'm fine, Mac."

"My husband wanted to go and be there with you. But Mama said you were—"

"It wouldn't have been the play. And it doesn't matter now, girl. It's done."

"You are back for good?" she asked, echoing Max.

"Yeah. I don't know if this is the place for me, Mac. But I found out for sure there isn't any other one."

"Can you manage all right down here? Just for tonight? As soon as we tell Flower, you can—"

She stopped in response to Max's thumb touching the back of her hand. Max can't hear, but he reads vibrations like forty-point type.

"I already know, Mom!" Flower said, bursting into the room and running to me. I started to bend to scoop her up, but the little baby I had known from her first days on earth was a teenager now. She wrapped her arms around me, burying her head in my chest. "Burke, Burke ..." she cried, hanging on to me like I was going to run out on her.

 

Mac told Flower I'd come a long way, and needed to sleep. Flower smiled sweetly and ignored her, demanding to know everything I'd done since I'd been gone, and who I'd done it with.

I fobbed her off with generalities, catching the caution lights in her mother's eyes.

"The last time I saw you was when you were so ..." The girl's voice trailed away.

"I'm all right now, Flower. Just like I was before."

"You don't ... look the same. Not at all."

"Hey! I paid good money for all that plastic surgery. What? You don't think I nailed the Robert Redford look?"

"Oh, Burke." She giggled.

"I didn't lose anything important," I said gently. "You understand?"

"I remember what happened," Flower said, as if reciting a lesson. "You were shot. You almost ... died. They had to fix you. And so your face isn't the same, that's all. You look so much better than when you were here ... before."

"Yeah. The doctors said I'd get better-looking every day. Money-back guaranteed."

"Mom! Make Burke be serious," she appealed to Immaculata.

"This is Burke, child. Your uncle that you missed so dearly. You know he is never serious."

The girl gave her mother a look much older than her years.

 

By the time I'd finished answering all Flower's questions, light was breaking through the high industrial windows. "I know!" she called to her mother, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek before she ran off to get ready for school.

Max gestured as if playing the bongos, looking from side to side. Telling me the word was going out.

I lay back on the futon. Closed my eyes, waiting for the drift-down. Wondering when I'd feel strong enough to face my hometown in daylight.

 

What I tell you, girl?" the small, handsome black man crowed. "Sweet-potato pie; the roots never lie. Didn't I say it? Rhymed the poem—Schoolboy's coming home."

"Yes, Prof," Michelle said. A wicked grin played below her loving eyes. "That's what you said, all right. Every single day since he's been gone."

"My father—" Clarence stepped in to defend the Prof.

"Oh, honey, please," Michelle cut him off at the knees. "Everybody knows the Prof can foretell the future and all that, okay? He was just a little out in front on this one."

We were in Mama's, at the round table in the corner. The one that permanently sported a fly-specked "Reserved for Party" sign. I never knew why Mama bothered—no tourist ever tried the food twice, and no local would risk it once.

"Give it up, pup," the Prof said, his hand flashing to my shirt pocket, just like old times. "Huh!" he grunted, coming up empty. "Where's your smokes, dope?"

"I don't puff for real, anymore," I told him. "Just use them as props."

"Your ticker? From when they ..."

His voice trailed away. Clarence bowed his head, as if the man he called his father had blasphemed in front of a priest.

"It's okay," I told them all. "My heart's fine and"—looking around, to make sure they all got it—"I don't do flashbacks. It's just that, ever since it happened, cigarettes don't taste the same."

"Not even after ...?"

"No, Michelle." I laughed.

"It's your call, Paul," the Prof said, reluctantly extracting one of his own hoarded smokes and firing it up.

 

It took a long time to satisfy them all. Michelle was the worst. Little sisters always are. I must have told them a dozen times that I was okay. Just wanted to come home.

"What I don't know is how things ... are," I said.

"At first, the drums really hummed," the Prof said. "But, last few months, anyway, the wire's been quiet."

"And the people who started it ...?" Michelle anted up.

"Gone," I said, watching her arched eyebrows so I could avoid her eyes. "All gone." The Prof and Clarence had been around at the beginning, Michelle for the middle, but none of them at the end. "If there's any trouble here, it's only from the cops. They may still be looking for me."

"You had a right to walk out of the hospital, mahn," Clarence said indignantly. "It is not as if this was a jailbreak."

"Yeah," I said, thinking it through. "But I'm not supposed to be missing, right? I'm supposed to be dead."

"Yes," Mama put in. "Bone hand."

"That was slick," the Prof acknowledged. "I would have never thought that dinosaur roller had it in him."

He meant Morales, the pit-bull cop who had hated me since forever. But he'd owed me, too. And he was the kind of man who couldn't sleep with his books unbalanced. After I'd split, he'd come around to the restaurant, told Mama he needed a surface where I would have left a print. Next thing anyone hears, somebody finds a human hand in a Dumpster. Not the flesh, just the bones. And, right next to it, a pistol. With my thumbprint on the grip.

NYPD put the pieces together. Decided it was payback for a Russian gangster who had been blown away in his own restaurant. The Russian had arranged a transfer—cash for a kidnapped kid—and for me to be the middleman. That's when I'd been shot. And when Pansy, my blood-loyal Neapolitan mastiff, had been killed trying to protect me.

Like everyone else who lives down here, my rep depends on who you talk to. And how you ask. But the whisper-stream always carries this piece of truth: Burke's religion is revenge. If you took someone of mine, I was going to take you. Send you over, or go there myself, trying.

So the cops had made me for Dmitri's killer. And they read the Dumpster's contents for how that had all played out in the end.

They were half right.

I'm listed as deceased in all the Law's computers now. Not a fugitive. Not a parole violator. No warrants, no APBs. Maybe the first time in my life the State that had raised me didn't want me for anything.

But my prints hadn't changed, and we all knew how that worked. I might look golden today, but it would all turn a sickly green in a heartbeat if I got myself into custody.

Nobody would ever be able to ask Morales. When the remote-controlled planes took down the World Trade Center, he was one of the first cops to charge the flaming ruins. If I know Morales, he wasn't looking to do any rescue work. He never made it out.

 

So who am I going to be?" I asked my family.

Into the silence, Mama replied, "Still be you."

"I don't get it," I told her.

"If family alive, never die, okay?"

"Sure, in spirit, Mama. But I'm talking about—"

"Spirit? Not spirit. Not die," she spat fiercely, her ancient eyes challenging anyone to disagree.

"You saying Schoolboy be Burke, with a new face, Mama?" the Prof asked her.

"No, no," she snapped. "People owe money, okay? Why pay? Burke gone. Who come to collect? Nobody. Right?" she asked, looking around the table for confirmation. "Nobody collect?"

"Not me or Clarence," the Prof said.

Max shook his head, agreeing.

"You certainly don't think I went into the thug business?" Michelle tossed off.

"Sure!" Mama said triumphantly. "But people come here, okay? Come with money. Say, 'This for Burke,' leave with me. Maybe think dead, but not sure, okay?"

"Who came?" I asked her.

"Plenty people," she said, dismissively. "Anyway, see you, now, not know, okay? You not look like, but talk like, okay? You know what Burke knows. Maybe you his brother. Cousin. So—same name. Maybe still you, new face. What difference? Nobody ever know. Not for sure, never know."

"Makes sense to me," I said, then handed it off. "Prof?"

"Could be," the little man said, not arguing with Mama, but not deferring to her, either. "Only one way we gonna see."

 

It was after rush hour by the time we split up. Michelle said she had to get some sleep. The Prof and Clarence exchanged conspiratorial looks, said something about putting the finishing touches on a crib they'd found for me. I went out through the back door into the alley. A beige Honda Accord sedan stood there, idling. I got into the front seat. Max slipped into the back.

"Burke!" the young man at the wheel almost shouted. Before I could answer, he calmed himself, asked, "It is you, right?"

"It's me, Terry," I said. "Damned if I didn't have trouble recognizing you, too."

"I'm a man now," he said. He'd been a boy when I pulled him away from a kiddie pimp in Times Square, way back before Mickey Mouse took over the territory. He reached his hand behind him for Max to slap, then folded him palm into a fist, tapping it twice over his heart.

Terry pulled slowly out of the alley, heading for the FDR. "This ride's okay, right? I knew you wouldn't want anything flashy."

"It's great," I assured him. "You got paper? A license?"

He gave me the look kids give to adults who should be in detox.

 

© 2002 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

For more information about Only Child, click here.



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