M.E. Patterson’s Devil’s Hand:
The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:
“The end times are nearly upon us! We will all stand in judgment beneath the
watchful eyes of our Lord! Come now, to the arms of the King, and repent! Repent
for your sins, and you will find everlasting love in the—”
Bullshit, thought Trent Hawkins as he punched the tuner button and
sent the radio frequency careening toward the next solid signal on the band.
End times? Who even believes that shit anymore?
He had only listened to “Eddie Palisade’s Hour of Faith” for a few minutes
out of sheer curiosity and a certain morbid fascination. Too
hellfire-and-brimstone for Trent’s taste, but the syndicated radio show was
immensely popular with the God-fearing crowd. Trent had found it on three
separate stations as he searched the band for some decent music.
Thick drops of rain splattered against the windshield of the rented moving
van. Ahead, the flat horizon glowed like a neon tube set in the sand of the
south Nevada desert, and beyond stood the hypercolor wasteland of Las Vegas, a
neon monstrosity to which Trent had no interest in returning. He looked sidelong
at Susan, asleep in the passenger seat, smiling, blond hair half-covering the
pixie-like features of her face. He would do anything for her, though, even if
it meant coming back here.
The radio hissed through a patch of white noise and then settled on an oldies
country music station, a bit weak in strength, but listenable. Johnny Cash cried
from the van’s tinny speakers, barely audible above the endless drumming of the
rain atop the metal roof. Trent smiled. To Hell with Eddie and the “Hour of
Faith.” He’d take Cash as his preacher any day.
He shifted uncomfortably in the driver’s seat as the van bounced along
Interstate 15. His right thigh ached—an old injury from the crash—the only
physical wound that had lasted. The wet-slick road trashed the van’s handling,
making every steering adjustment a nerve-wracking event. He had always hated
traveling. But after the crash, the hatred had become dread. He wondered again
why he had let Susan talk him into coming back here.
He glanced at her, and then at himself in the rearview and used a free hand
to adjust the angle of the gray cowboy hat. He didn’t think the hat looked
silly. She had said that to him a few months back, on his thirtieth birthday no
less, when he’d insisted on wearing it out to meet friends at a bar. She had
been teasing, he knew, but still…
“You look ridiculous,” Susan had said. “Like you’re trying to be that guy
from Pale Rider.”
“You mean Clint Eastwood?”
Susan frowned. “No, the character, not the actor.”
“The Preacher?” Trent laughed. “You think I look like an old-west preacher?
I’m more like the guy in High Plains Drifter.”
Susan had smiled at him then, one of her smiles that made him feel weak and
strong at the same time. She leaned in and kissed him on the forehead. “You’re
not that guy,” she whispered. “That guy’s pure evil. He only looks out for
himself. And that’s just not you, honey.”
Trent smiled at the memory and turned his attention back to the road, fingers
drumming on the steering wheel.
Johnny sang out from the radio, “Well, there’s things that never will be
right I know—” And then an intense, screeching burst of static, timed perfectly
with a shuddering thump upon the roof of the van that set the entire vehicle to
ringing. The noise dashed Trent’s smile and he ground his teeth together in
Susan sat up, alert and confused. “Wha—?”
Trent gripped the steering wheel even tighter as another massive impact
dented in the roof above him. The van skidded wildly on the road. He peered
through the window, up at the sky, and saw white dots growing larger and larger
until one of them resolved into a chunk of ice that slammed into the windshield
right in front of him and exploded, sending icy shards in a radial spray across
Trent snapped back in his seat. His foot hit the brake. The cowboy hat
flipped backwards off his head. The moving van squealed and fishtailed, the
popping coming faster now, rapid-fire against the metal panels, a tumultuous
barrage of softball-sized hail.
He over-corrected and the vehicle swerved on the two-lane interstate and
crossed over the middle before he managed to bring it back into its original
lane. Balls of ice smashed against the road and the van. It was all he could do
to keep the tires tight against the pavement. Out of the corner of his eye, he
could see Susan, fully awake now, gripping the door handle in frozen panic, her
lips moving. Trent couldn’t hear anything except the pounding hail.
He turned his full attention forward again. Something in the road. A tire? A
hubcap? No, green and rigid, like a piece of a highway sign. Trent threw the
wheel to the left, desperate to avoid the debris, but too late. The broken sign
jumped halfway up onto the hood, then screeched back down, gouging the paint,
until it vanished beneath the tires.
The van screeched, swayed, and veered off into the left lane again. Then
Trent heard the loud pop and felt the sickening sideways drift. The van careened
out of control.
He jammed the brake to the floor and squeezed the wheel in a death-grip,
gritting his teeth as the van pitched off the left shoulder and headed for dirt.
He wrenched his right hand free of the wheel, threw his arm across Susan’s
chest, and felt her slam against it as the vehicle dove into the muddy desert
and slid to an awkward stop.
Everything went quieter for a moment, save the hail, which continued its
staccato rhythm in time to Cash singing, “Well I know I had it coming, I know I
can’t be free—”
“Susan, baby, you alright?” Trent leaned across the cab, arm still pinning
his wife to her seat.
She looked up at him, eyes wide and mouth agape. She blinked, coughed, and
then formed a weak smile. “Holy shit,” she said.
Another massive ball of hail exploded against the windshield. They both
They looked at each other for a silent moment and then began to laugh,
quietly at first, inaudible above the din, and then louder, until they were both
cackling, foreheads pressed together. Trent kissed her and could feel her
shaking with both laughter and adrenaline overload. He pulled back, looked at
her with a crazed grin on his face, and shook his head.
“I think we blew a tire,” he yelled, gesturing behind him with his thumb.
“Holy shit,” she said again, still chuckling.
Trent looked around the cab for something—anything—that he might use as a
shield against the falling hail. He thought about waiting the storm out, but it
didn’t look like it intended to let up soon. He needed to get the van moving, or
they might end up stuck in the gathering mud. He couldn’t see anything useful,
just the old gray Stetson behind his seat—the hat the hospital staff had given
him from the wreckage of the plane. They had thought it was his but he never had
the heart to tell them it wasn’t. He grabbed it and put it back on his head,
covering up his short black hair. He shrugged and kicked open the driver-side
door with his foot.
“Trent!?” shouted Susan.
He turned to look at her. “What?”
She gave him one of those you’re-doing-something-stupid-
both infuriated him and made him smile. Susan had an arsenal of those kinds of
looks; it was part of what made him love her. And Trent had a history of doing
stupid things since the crash. Maybe it was facing certain death and winning
that had left him dull to the sense of threat. Or maybe the impact with the
ground had just knocked a few screws loose. He wasn’t quite sure.
“It’s too dangerous!” she shouted. Another icy softball punctuated her
statement by smashing against the windshield right in front of her. She
“Gotta change the tire!” Trent replied. “Or we’ll get stuck in this mud!”
She stared at him for a moment and then, with a determined look, she grabbed
the hardcover novel in the passenger-side floorboard, lifted it above her head,
and popped open her door.
“Wait—” said Trent, but she was already out, yelling at the top of her lungs,
the book barely covering her head.
He stared for a moment, irritated but not surprised. Susan was like that.
Farmer’s daughter, never one to stand by while others worked. He shrugged and
leapt out the driver’s side and into the pounding hail, expecting that he could
make it to the back of the truck without any major damage. After all, he was the
luckiest man alive, right?
The first ball smacked against his arm, bringing up an immediate welt and
intense, stinging pain. The second smacked against his denim-covered thigh as he
dashed toward the back of the van. The third chunk of ice crashed down atop his
head. The sudden shot of pain was like a hammer blow, blinding, and he reeled
and barely caught himself on a handhold at the back of the U-Haul as the cowboy
hat tumbled to the ground.
Susan was there and already had the back of the van open and had jumped
inside. She was rummaging through the few pieces of furniture and boxes. Trent
grabbed the fallen hat and then managed to climb gingerly in next to her. He
slumped down in a beat-up old recliner they had taken from her apartment. Most
of the stuff in the van had belonged to Susan. After the Gaming Control Board
blacklisted him, they needed money. Trent’s expensive items brought in more cash
at the pawn shops. Pawn shops and the GCB—two more reasons he hated seeing that
glowing city on the horizon again.
“Yes!” She held up an old whiteboard she had used while studying for her
nursing exam. It was large enough for them both to hide under if they crowded
“That’ll work,” said Trent. He reached up to touch the sore spot on his head.
His fingers came away with sticky blood. “Dammit.”
“Oh, honey, are you okay?” Susan set the whiteboard down and rushed over to
He waved her off. “No, no, don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” He jammed the
Stetson back onto his head and grinned at her, but her expression still showed
worry. “I’ve had a lot worse.”
She gave him a plaintive look.
“Come on,” he said and got up from the recliner. He walked over to the spare
tire hanging on the inside wall of the van, next to a hand-crank jack. “Let’s
change a tire.”
The off-road jaunt had sent the front driver’s-side tire across a jagged
chunk of rock, cutting its rubber flesh like a knife. No way would this roll any
further. Trent brought the new tire over, trying his best to avoid the crashing
hail as Susan struggled to keep them both beneath the whiteboard.
They worked as a team, Susan holding the flashlight and whiteboard as Trent
worked to break the lug nuts on the ruined wheel. Every few minutes, he heard
her yelp as a ball of ice crashed down on some part of her that had snuck out
from beneath the rectangular shield. He wanted to tell her to quit—to get back
inside the truck and let him handle this—but he knew better. She wouldn’t leave
him here by himself, even if he told her to.
Trent forced his weight down on the tire iron, struggling to break the last
nut. “Dammit!” he swore, as the hail battered the whiteboard over his head. He
summoned as much strength as he could find and gave the tire iron a powerful
shove. The lug nut broke with a pop, nearly sending Trent pitching forward to
the ground as the tire iron started to spin. He dropped to his knee, removed the
final nut, and pulled off the useless tire.
The hail stopped, as sudden as it had come.
Susan looked up at the sky and then down at Trent with a quizzical look on
her face. He shrugged. The rain had not abated, but at least the pounding hail
had quit. She hesitantly lowered the whiteboard. A sudden, sickening
thwack startled them both. They looked at the top of the van as Susan
shone the flashlight on it. A thin stream of—blood?—was running in a rivulet
down the white side-panel.
Trent dropped the tire and stood up. “What the—?”
Another splat as something landed on the van’s hood and they both jumped
again. A fish? Another slammed down next to it, splattering Trent with blood. He
grimaced and leapt back, away from the van.
Susan screamed as a sudden multitude of fish began to rain down. Panicked,
she dropped the whiteboard and ran for the back of the truck, still shrieking,
hands covering her head.
Trent watched her go, astounded. He had never seen her so terrified, not once
in the years they had been together. She usually had a remarkable fortitude and
a stern strength in the face of obstacles. But this… He looked up as dead fish
began bouncing off the top of the van.
Fucking Eddie is right, he thought.
He grabbed the fallen whiteboard and sprinted for the back of the van. He
reached it and found Susan curled up inside the truck, tears streaming down her
“You okay, baby?!” he shouted.
“Jesus Christ!” She looked at him with tears in her eyes. “What does it look
Trent climbed in and put an arm around her. “It’s just fish.”
She sobbed. “It’s not about the fish, Trent.” Tears streamed down her face.
“It’s everything. Everything’s gone wrong. We shouldn’t have come back here. The
job at the hospital and fucking James and you didn’t want to be here anyway and
your head. This place fucking hates us both—”
Trent grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her on the lips. She kissed him
After a moment, they pulled away and Trent looked her in the eyes and smiled.
“Come on, babe,” he said, gesturing toward the storm raging around them. “It’s
just fish. Happens sometimes. Bad storm, tornado picks up some garbage from a
lake and throws it a few miles. It’ll be over soon. Least it’s not hail.”
They stared at each other for a moment. Finally, Susan cracked a tentative
Trent laughed. “You gotta find the humor in this, right?”
Susan nodded and took the whiteboard from hand. “”Okay,” she said, smile
After a minute, the rain of fish lightened, and they made their way to the
front of the van, to the ruined tire. Susan lifted up the whiteboard, just in
time to catch another bloody slap on top of it. Trent dove under the shield and
grabbed the spare tire. Something about fish dropping from the sky encouraged
him to work harder. Then the pace picked back up again, as another wave of slimy
bodies splattered against the van and the pavement and the muddy shoulder, some
still alive, flopping and writhing as they died.
“This is awful!” shouted Susan, struggling to be heard over the thumping
sounds of flesh against the metal van.
“At least it doesn’t hurt as much,” Trent replied without looking up from his
work. He had two of the lugnuts back on the new wheel; two to go.
Susan stumbled as a particularly hefty fish slammed down atop the whiteboard.
Blood ran off the edges in glimmering red streams. “Hurry up!” she yelled.
“Okay, got it!” Trent torqued the final nut down and kicked the release on
the jack. The van slumped back down, mud squelching from beneath the shiny new
tire. “Let’s go.”
They dove into the cab and slammed the door shut. Susan scrambled across the
center into the passenger seat. She dumped the whiteboard into the space behind
She looked at the windshield, now nearly opaque with fish guts and bloody
smears. The periodic thumping against the roof seemed to have a predictable
rhythm. “What the fuck?!” she exclaimed, laughing. “This is
Trent looked at her wryly. “You never been in a fish-storm before?”
She punched him in the shoulder.
He chuckled. “Well we better get this thing out of the mud. Hope it can still
move. You need to be at work in the morning.”
The statement made him feel worthless. He had no job. It had only taken a
year of unbeatable pro gambling before they blacked him out. A lot of money
gained and a lot of money lost; now he did odd jobs if he could find them, and
those rarely lasted long. Bad things happened at job sites when Trent was
around. After the crash, when the swelling had gone down and his spine turned
out to be intact, the doctors called him the ‘luckiest man alive,’ but he didn’t
really feel it, not anymore at least. Except at the poker table, he felt just
He glanced at Susan, who had pulled her blood-smeared rain slicker around her
shoulders. The storm had brought an unusually cold chill with it. She grinned at
him, still shaking her head. He smiled back. Well, mostly unlucky, he
A trio of fish smacked wetly on the glass in front of him and then slid
slowly down onto the hood. He flicked on the wipers, creating a transparent pink
window amidst the blood, illuminated weirdly by the coruscating shafts of
colorful light from Las Vegas in the distance.
He gunned the engine. The wheels spun in the mud, but eventually caught, and
the van hauled itself back onto the road. The hail chunks had nearly all melted,
but the dead fish were not going anywhere, making driving even worse than
before. It felt like riding on grease.
Trent eased the vehicle back into the proper lane and gave it just enough gas
to set it trundling down the Interstate, barely topping 10 MPH. Only twenty
miles to go, but he figured it would be near-morning before they made it to the
Trent glanced at Susan. “Yeah?”
Trent nodded, then ran his hand through his hair, matted and wet with
rainwater and blood. He winced when he touched the spot where the hail had
“It’s okay,” he said.
But he wondered at the truth in that. It didn’t seem like Vegas wanted him
back any more than he wanted to be there. It definitely did not seem okay.
The rain sluiced down out of a concrete sky onto concrete earth, cold needles
pricking at the old man’s skin. Neon of every conceivable color filled the
firmament with a gray-brown sludge, like the puke-stained parking lot in front
of a strip club. It was a place, he thought, where no one ever looked up. There
is no night sky in Las Vegas; only a dull smear of a ceiling where the tallest
Salvatore Cortina shuffled wearily along the sidewalk, as he did night after
night, his brain churning through the memories that always threatened to slip
away and be lost forever.
Aldzheimer’s, the doctor had said years before. Salvatore remembered that the
man had refused to make eye contact as he delivered the bad news. It was the
tiny, sour memories like that that always remained. And the big, awful ones.
He walked past the Luxor hotel, tattered shoes slopping through puddles of
ice-cold rain and sidewalk grease, in which swirled endless parades of naked
women on soggy paper cards. The usual men who lined the sidewalks handing out
the cards had retreated for the night to wherever they go when the weather turns
foul. It was, thought Salvatore, a small blessing. The weather could not stop
the gamblers, though, who still filed in and out of the casino entrances like
drowned rats. A soaked, over-endowed prostitute stood upon a street corner, no
umbrella, rain soaking her bleach-blond hair as her trembling hands fumbled to
light a too-wet cigarette. This is the Hell that I have chosen, thought
Salvatore, and not for the first time. This is my penance.
And one of those huge, terrible memories came rushing back.
He snarled and coughed and tried to force the images of fire and sounds of
screaming from his mind. There was nothing I could do, he thought.
Nothing at all. God took them. It was His will, not mine.
He cracked his knuckles and then pulled his threadbare long coat tighter
around his shoulders in a futile attempt to stave off the waves of chilling rain
that were coming down now at an angle, blown by sudden gusts of wind. The sheets
of cold sent young women in skimpy dresses into laughing shrieks as they
sprinted inexpertly from one casino entrance to the next, stilettos
clip-clopping. One of the women, tall and thin, twisted her ankle as her high
heel snapped in half; she went down with a huff and a childlike cry and laid
there in a puddle, looking pathetic. Her friends stood under a casino awning,
pointing and laughing. Salvatore shuffled past, and couldn’t stop himself from
mumbling, “whore” as he did so. The woman was too preoccupied to hear.
Past the jet-black Luxor pyramid and the Excalibur with its gaudy castle
facade, past the New York-New York and then down an alley between it and the
Monte Carlo. Salvatore had made this trip many times. He needed an ingredient,
and with the tunnels flooded for a few hours, there wasn’t much else he could do
other than forage.
Salvatore Cortina lived in the drainage tunnels beneath Las Vegas. Built over
a number of years, and stretching well beyond the city proper into the desert
beyond, the tunnels were a means of channeling rain from torrential
downpours—like the one ongoing—into the desert rather than into the streets and
But Las Vegas was not a place where rain fell often, so the tunnels remained
mostly dry. Squatters, bums, and junkies set up camp when they could,
occasionally shooed out by the LVPD, only to return in a few days time to a
different section of tunnel where the police would leave them alone.
Salvatore had a fairly permanent residence there, with an assortment of
propane tanks, gas burners salvaged from turkey-frying kits, and odd pots and
pans pulled from dumpsters behind hotel kitchens. It was another sort of
penance, a Purgatory that he shared with those cast out by the surface-dwellers,
the underclass of the weak and ruined and addicted. And Salvatore was their
His sermons came weekly, as they should, on Sundays in a large cross-connect
between several tunnels. His was not the only ‘church’ in the tunnels, but he
had a reasonable congregation; a dozen or so broken souls hoping for salvation
in their lucid moments and hunting for their next fix anytime else. If Salvatore
could lengthen the former and diminish the latter, he considered it God’s work
being done through his voice. If he could fill their bellies with something more
than despair and alcohol, he knew that God was directing his hands.
He reached the back alley behind the Monte Carlo’s first floor kitchen, now a
swamped, gravel-strewn resting place for several green metal dumpsters and an
assortment of loose beer bottles and the ever-present escort service flyers.
Under an awning, a fat Hispanic man with a goatee, face tattoos, and white line
cook’s uniform was taking a smoke break. He looked up as Salvatore approached,
smoke curling from his nostrils.
“Whatchu want, Sallie? I ain’t got no more tonight. You already picked me
Salvatore did not recognize the younger man, but knew that he had allies in
the kitchen here, once-members of his flock that had escaped the tunnels and
found gainful employment, willing to part with kitchen scraps and mostly-empty
jars of spices, tomato pastes, and olive oils. With the basics and some
scavenged, uncooked pasta, Salvatore could work miracles.
“Seriously, man,” said the cook, “I’m out. Whatchu looking at me like that
It was the day-to-day memories that disappeared. The recognition of someone’s
face or name, the hourly sequence of events in his life, the things said or
unsaid—those were the casualties of Salvatore’s disease.
The doctor had proclaimed, matter-of-factly, that Salvatore wouldn’t even
know his own name in six months. That was eight years ago. He had beaten the
odds. His mind still felt sharp and clear. He had no confusion, just holes where
bits should be. Things forgotten. He could probe the empty spots with his mind,
like fingers probing a bloody wound whose edges were well-defined, but the more
he did, the more it brought on migraines. He had, instead, learned to accept the
forgetting and forego the pain.
“I don’t remember you,” said Salvatore, his voice quiet and trembling from
the cold. “Did we meet recently?”
The Hispanic looked shocked. “What the Hell, Sallie? You known me for two
years. George Rodriguez. I helped with your church until I kicked the crank and
got this job. You been getting food from here every week.” He gestured at the
kitchen door behind him and took a long puff from the cigarette with his other
hand. “Come on, Sal, you never forgot me ‘fore now.”
Salvatore shook his head. “I’m sorry, I have a rare form of—”
“Yeah, yeah, you got the old timer’s. My uncle got the same thing. I know
that. But you forgetting me now? You must be getting worse, Sallie.” He
took another drag on the cigarette.
“I was here recently?”
George nodded and blew out a big cloud of smoke that was quickly torn apart
by the falling rain. “Last night. You was looking for some stuff for an
arabiatta.” He shrugged. “Gave you all I had. I’m tapped out.”
Salvatore felt his shoulders slump. Had he forgotten the sauce he had been
making? He had left his ersatz kitchen ahead of the coming storm, knowing that
the tunnels would likely flood. Had he secured his equipment to the tunnel
ceiling to keep it out of the floodwaters? He couldn’t remember, and the probing
was threatening to bring on a new migraine. He pictured his favorite sauce pot,
boiling away above a propane burner as the tunnel waters rose up and carried it
off. There would be no meal for the congregation this week. And had he really
known George for two years? Maybe the forgetting was growing worse.
“So you have nothing,” he tried, hoping to salvage what would be a
disappointing Sunday with no food. “Nothing at all?”
George frowned and flicked the remains of his cigarette into a puddle.
“Nothing, bro.” He stood up. “Hell, I gave you more last night than I probably
even shoulda. I get caught given stuff to bums and the owner’ll have my ass.” He
made a shooing motion with one hand and then turned to open the kitchen door.
The smells of high-end cooking spilled out into the night. “I can’t help you no
more. I could lose my job.” Then he stepped into the kitchen and let the metal
door slam shut behind him.
Salvatore’s stomach rumbled in response to the kitchen smells. His head
ached. Had he not been through this a dozen times or more already, he might have
The next two visits went no better. At the rear of one restaurant, he knocked
and had the door slammed in his face moments later. At the other, the
speed-addicted line cook that talked with him gave him a single dinner roll and
told him not to eat it all at once, laughing. It was the stop after that where
Salvatore finally scored some provisions.
The giant black man that answered Salvatore’s knocks looked him up and down
and then said something inaudible back into the kitchen. A reply came, the black
man nodded, and then turned and said, “hold on,” in a gravelly voice. He shut
Salvatore had almost given up and turned to leave when it creaked back open.
The black man appeared with a plastic grocery bag full of jars and cans, topped
by two half baguettes, obviously going a bit stale, but still good. “Here you
go,” said the man. “Don’t tell nobody.” Then he shut the door.
The old man’s heart danced in his chest. Enough for at least a halfway decent
Sunday meal. The congregation would get something, rather than nothing. He
stared at the restaurant’s kitchen door with its tiny, faded sign that read:
Antonio’s. Italian restaurant. Salvatore had no recollection of the place and
that made him worry. How could he not remember an Italian restaurant? The wash
of joy faded from him before the reality of his deepening memory loss.
He sighed, clutched his plastic bag tighter inside his coat, and left back
down the alley by which he’d come. He was nearly to the street when the
coked-out mugger stepped into his path.
The man was jerky and highly agitated and waved a trembling knife at
Salvatore. “Empty your pockets, gimme the bag.” Just for good measure, he made a
mock thrust with the knife and added, “now!”
Salvatore stood frozen, his brain confused by the unexpected situation. What
to do? He had no money. Would the thief stab him for being poor? At first, his
arms clutched the bag tighter to his chest, as if it were the only thing left
that mattered to him. But then, a quiet, defiant voice rose up in the back of
his mind, deep beneath the years of memories, sliding through the mists of
“No,” he said, voice quivering.
The mugger let out a weird little shriek. “Dammitdammitdammitdammit just
gimme the shit, man! Just gimme the shit!” He took another step forward and
threatened a few more stabs with the blade.
Salvatore felt his bladder loosen and warmth trickled down his left leg. The
defiant voice was drowned out by feelings of anguish and embarassment. He was so
old, too old for this sort of thing. He just wanted to go back to the tunnels,
where he could be alone, where it was quiet and the smells of his junk kitchen
were all that mattered.
“Please.” He shook his head. “I don’t have anything. I’m just homeless.”
A look crossed the mugger’s eyes, a look that suggested a moment of clarity,
but it was quickly replaced by rage. He rushed forward, knife outstretched.
Salvatore fully evacuated his bladder then and his arms went weak and the
plastic bag fell to the ground, spilling its contents into the grime. The loaves
of bread went immediately soggy. Glass jars shattered and splashed their
contents onto his feet. The provisions were lost. But no matter. Salvatore knew
that he would be dead in minutes.
The knife was inches from Salvatore’s throat when the mugger’s eyes suddenly
went wide, a grimace of pain struck his face, and he dropped the knife and leapt
backwards. His feet went out from under him and he fell, landing ass-first in a
puddle on the cement. Salvatore could see blood soaking through the pants over
his right ankle. Beside the mugger’s feet was a long, gray snake, fangs
The mugger saw it too, let out a scream, and began crab-walking backwards,
hands and feet scuffling against the soaked concrete as he desperately tried to
put distance between himself and the creature.
A voice rang out in the alleyway. “Hey, fucknut. Mugging a bum? Really?” A
short, scrawny man in a hooded sweatshirt stepped up beside Salvatore from
behind. He gave the old man a glance and a wink. “Heya, Z.”
Salvatore had no idea what that meant, and simply watched in awe as the
snake, and three more like it that had appeared from behind piles of trash in
the alley, began chasing the thief out of the alley. The man finally managed to
stand, hopped a few times on his injured foot, and then ran sidelong, letting
out a series of whooping shrieks, while never turning his gaze from the oncoming
Still shrieking, he reached the end of the alley and stumbled out into
street. There was an ear-splitting screech. The smell of melting brakes. A
delivery truck moving at high speed. One second there, standing frozen against
the headlights. Next second, a stomach-churning thump and the mugger went from
vertical to a tumbling pile of pink and gray under the tires. The driver
fishtailed, stopped, and then laid on the horn.
The short man in the hooded sweatshirt looked at Salvatore with a surprised
grin on his face, looked back at the mess in the street, let out a sharp, ‘Ha!’
and then whistled appreciatively. “Shit yeah!” he exclaimed. “Gotta love the
“Y- you-,” stammered Salvatore. “You killed him.”
The short man shrugged. “Snakes were poisonous. Would’ve died anyway in a few
minutes. Better than a crack addiction for the next ten years, if you ask me. I
did him a solid.”
Salvatore’s mouth opened, but he couldn’t find the words.
The short man gave him an ear-to-ear grin. “So how you doing, Z? Took me a
bit to find you.”
“My- my name is Sal—”
“Salvatore Cortina,” interrupted the short man in the hood. “Sure, I know.”
He nodded. “Interesting choice by the way. Feeling poetic, are we? Fire and
ice?” He walked a few feet down the alley so he could get a better view of the
truck driver, now panicked, bending over the corpse-heap of the would-be mugger.
The driver had a cellphone to his ear.
The man in the hood turned back around to face Salvatore. “Smart, really.
Made it harder to find you, but it’s gotta diminish you some.” He walked back
and poked Salvatore hard in the chest. “This guy really want you hanging
Salvatore shook his head. He hadn’t the slightest clue as to what the short
man was talking about. Fire and ice? And it seemed like the man was talking to
someone else. Salvatore turned to look briefly over his shoulder, hoping to see
another person that could clear up the confusion.
“Huh,” said the man. “You’re really out to lunch right now, aren’t you?
Salvatore turned back and nodded.
The man laughed. “Right.”
He reached under the hood and scratched at his head, then reached into his
sweatshirt and removed a manila envelope. He thrust it toward Salvatore, the
motion making the old man stumble back a step. “Here,” he said. He shook the
envelope as if to make the point. “Take it.”
With a trembling hand, Salvatore reached out and took the envelope.
“I think you’ll find it interesting. You’ve been looking for what’s in
there.” He paused. “Well, ‘you’ is a relative term here. Just hold onto it for
now.” He turned to leave, watching the commotion in the street, which had now
grown to several people. Sirens wailed in the distance. “Oh,” he said, without
turning back around. “And you should probably check up on your hidey-hole. Some
pretty bad floods tonight.”
Salavatore could only mumble, “ok” at first, as he watched the hooded man,
hands in his pockets now, walking slowly down the alley toward the
commotion-filled street. Finally, Salvatore regained enough composure to shout
out his questions.
“Why are you doing this? Who are you?”
Without turning, the man in the hood replied, “Just a messenger.” And then he
rounded the corner beyond the alley and disappeared from Salvatore’s view,
leaving him standing in the rain in a dark alley, feet covered with ruined
tomato sauce and bits of soggy bread, leg soaked in urine, clutching a manila
envelope in both hands. Police sirens screamed in the distance, growing closer
by the second. Salvatore stood there wondering just what the Hell was going