Stay Humble

Sometimes it’s a good thing to get your teeth kicked in.

At least, that’s what Harry told himself as he lay on the cold concrete floor of the warehouse. He paused to consider how long he’d be taking the beating from the three thugs surrounding him, but time moves differently when all you’re seeing are stars and your ribs are being realigned inside your torso.

A beating keeps you humble, he told himself.

As one of the thug’s dirty work boots made contact his shoulder for the sixth time, he considered everything he could have done differently. The fact that he could coherently consider anything at all told him that this beating had been going on for quite some time.

He remembered the way that Felicia had looked at him the first time she’d come to his office: Curly blond hair, perfect body, dressed to kill, and eyes full of desperation, which switched over to confidence after several visits. She knew that going to the police was out of the question and she hoped that Harry might be the one to help expose her husband’s illegal drug trafficking habits.

In retrospect, Harry knew that the job was too big, but the economy was tough and not a lot of folks had extra cash lying around anymore—especially not to hand over to a Private Investigator. Felicia was different. She was a woman who genuinely needed help and didn’t know where else to turn. The way she told it, she needed an out from her marriage. Harry had never met Donovan, but he gleaned that he was mean, abusive, and had a penchant for getting mixed up in stuff that no authority in the country would turn a blind eye to. Felicia had had enough. She believed in Harry and in turn gave him confidence in himself. Why he thought a nighttime trip to the docks would be a good idea, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps if the beating continued, he’d have time to ponder that as well.

Four knuckles colliding with his cheekbone brought Harry back to the present.

They’re laughing at me, Harry realized as he shook away the fog in his brain. Who am I kidding? I am a joke.

Harry’s typical client needed photos snapped of a cheating husband or a worker’s comp collector jogging healthily through the park. Those cases rarely put him in any real danger. He found himself amazed at what he’d agreed to do for fifty thousand dollars… not to mention the attention of a gorgeous woman.

What was I going to do? Harry wondered to himself as a man’s calloused hand slammed his head against the concrete. I was going to find proof…take some pictures.

Harry couldn’t help but smile as he spied the remnants of a smashed digital camera, the pieces of which were scattered across the floor several feet away. His grin was missing several teeth at this point, though he was oblivious to the fact.

Then what? He asked himself. Tell them to cease and desist?

No, he was going to turn over the evidence to the police and let them do their job. With Donovan in jail, Felicia would finally be able to divorce the scumbag and Harry would get his big payday. He’d hoped to take a vacation afterward…maybe Felicia would go with him.

As one of the thugs pulled Harry to his feet by his hair, he was able to see them with the eye that wasn’t swollen shut. Three male dockworkers that could have doubled as Olympic weight lifters stared back at him. Harry was physically outmatched. In fact, he’d flunked Physical Education in high school. Harry watched stoically as one of the thugs, a bulky, Irish-looking fellow, removed a revolver from somewhere near his lower back.

This is it, then, he thought to himself. This is what I get for getting in over my head…for going out and not telling anywhere where…for letting a pretty lady boost my ego.

The thug raised the gun to eye level. In the dim light of the warehouse, Harry was able to look straight down the large barrel of the weapon. It was pitch black down there. An abyss. It was a dark hole full of regrets and poor decisions.

He’d taken his lumps and he knew his time as a Private Investigator was quickly coming to an end. He realized himself a fool to sneak onto private property owned by a criminal. He had truly believed that he could get the evidence for Felicia and she’d be able to leave her husband. Maybe Harry would even get the girl. As it turned out, all he’d gotten was in over his head and now he had to learn his lesson. Somewhere between the pounding headache and hemorrhaging, Harry managed a final thought.

A beating keeps you humble.

The Hunger

Hank approached the front door of Sid’s Convenience Store and pushed, as the sticker on the glass instructed. The door didn’t move. The man stepped back, confused, and wiped his brow in frustration. A voice came from behind him.

“Store ain’t open yet.”

Hank quickly turned to face the source. A young boy, maybe seventeen years old, stood looking back at him. The boy had his hands on hips and a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. He wore a collared polo shirt with a logo that matched that of the convenience store.

“You Sid?”

“Name’s Steven,” said the boy pointed to the nametag pinned to the breast of his shirt opposite the store’s logo.

“Open the door, Steven.”

“Store don’t open til ten.”

“It’s two minutes to ten,” said Hank, looking at his watch.

“And the store ain’t open.”

Hank paced back in forth while Steven took his time sucking the cigarette down to the filter. Flicking the butt, the boy pulled out his key ring, jingled around for the right one and opened the door.

Hank slowly walked up and down the aisles of the store.  He touched the handle of the gun tucked into the waist of his pants. He was just giving Steven time to get settled behind the cash register. As Steven turned on the radio to a country station, Hank knew that it was time to make his move.

Hank casually walked toward the register, removing the gun from his pants and hiding it behind him. Steven looked up from fiddling with his cell phone to face the man.

“You need some smokes?”

“No.”

“Whatcha need? You didn’t bring anything up here.”

Hank lifted the gun, pointing it at Steven.

“Give me all your Moon Pies.”

“Moon Pies?”

“Yeah, Moon Pies. You gotta problem with me wanting the Moon Pies?”

“Not really,” started Steven. “Never seen a man rob a store for Moon Pies. Maybe you’re the one with the problem.”

“Shut up and get the pies, Kid.”

Casually and in no hurry at all, Steven climbed down from the stool and walked down aisle two where the snack foods were kept. The whole time, he glared at Hank who stood his ground, following him around the store with the barrel of the gun.

“I got three boxes,” said the kid from aisle two.

“Only three?”

“That’s what I said.”

“You got anymore in the back?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Well if I had a gun on me,” Hank began. “I think I’d be going and looking.”

From the front of the store Hank watched Steven disappear into the stock room. After the door swung shut Hank went and collected the three boxes of Moon Pies from aisle two, stacking them neatly on the counter.

“How’s it looking back there, boy?” called Hank from his position at the cash register. He gave a pause for Steven to answer, but none came.

“Don’t make me come back there with this cannon.”

Silence.

“You’re gonna be regrettin’ this,” mumbled Hank as he made his way toward the stock room.

The back room was crowded with brown boxes, but Steven was nowhere to be seen. Another door further in the back, leading out into the alley hung wide open, slowly swinging in the breeze.

As he walked back to the cash register, Hank sighed. He grabbed his three boxes of Moon Pies and headed out the front door, tucking the gun back in its hiding place. Next time, he’d call ahead.

The Last Straw

“You’ve burned dinner for the last time!” screamed Nathan, throwing the plate of charred steak and potatoes across the room.

The supposedly unbreakable Corelle plate shattered easily against the wall, leaving a trail of gravy which gravity slowly pulled toward the floor. By the numerous visible stains adorning the wall, it wasn’t the first time this had happened.

Nathan gave a cold stare, “I come home from work, and all I want is a hot meal. Something decent. Something edible!”

Standing up aggressively, Nathan knocked over the rickety wooden chair he’d been seated on. It clattered noisily onto the linoleum floor and the table vibrated from the commotion, the silverware making a slight tinkling sound.

“Is that too much to ask?” quizzed Nathan.

He paused a moment, expecting an answer that would never come.

“Well… IS IT?” he demanded.

His eyes wild, Nathan brushed his shaggy brown hair out of his face. He crossed his arms in cold anticipation, his muscles flexing beneath his flannel shirt. Met with deafening silence, he continued on.

“Fine,” he began. “If this is how you want it to be… you’re leaving me no choice.”

Nathan spun around and exited the kitchen in a heated manner. From the next room, the sound of the hallway closet being opened broke the dangerous silence. What followed were rustling noises and mild grunting as Nathan shuffled through the closet’s contents. He was obviously searching for something and when he reentered the kitchen, it was clear what he’d been looking for.

“I promise you,” Nathan started in a hushed voice, rhythmically tapping the business end of the wooden baseball bat against his open palm. “This’ll hurt me more than it hurts you.”

Nathan began moving forward slowly. His eyes narrowed and his cheeks tightened. When he got in one of his moods, he had the ability to become wildly unpredictable, not to mention, dangerous. He wrapped both hands around the handle of the bat, raising it above his head slowly for dramatic effect.

“Never again,” whispered Nathan, bringing the baseball bat down with all his might.

The first contact hit home and only fueled his rage. It felt so good to take a stand that he couldn’t stop himself. He indulged in the mindless violence, taking in and savoring each moment. Twelve swings later, Nathan finally dropped the bat to the floor next to the wooden chair. He leaned against the wall to catch his breath, a smile quickly growing on his face.

Nathan wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve and looked over at the remains of his microwave oven. Broken glass and splintered white plastic covered both the marble counter and the floor. He felt confident that he had made his point.

Fluorescent

“I can’t feel my limbs,” groaned Kerns.

“Don’t worry,” the man’s voice responded. “Only a few more minutes and everything should feel normal again.”

Kerns began to flail on the cold metal slab. His arms and legs were engulfed in the pins and needles sensation as though they lacked proper circulation.

“Please relax,” said the man calmly. “You’re going to throw off my readings.”

Kerns’s rolled his eyes to the left and right as far as he could, but the leather restraint across his forehead wouldn’t allow him to move his head or see the source of the voice. The strap matted his dirty blond hair to his forehead. Nervous beads of sweat formed across his brow.

“What readings?” asked Kerns, exasperation slowly to filling his voice. “Come where I can see you!”

“Do you feel any pain?” quizzed the hidden voice from the depths of the room.

Though he couldn’t see the man, Kerns assumed he was located somewhere to his left. He focused his blue eyes, staring hard into the fluorescent light affixed to the ceiling directly above him. The annoying buzz of the light matched the buzzing in his extremities.

“I don’t feel… anything.

The hidden man ignored Kerns’s pleas and continued on.

“Try to move your right arm, Mister Kerns?”

“I can’t feel my right arm,” answered Kerns, flatly.

“You must try.”

“You’ll let me go if I try?”

“Of course,” answered the man in a patronizing tone.

Kerns continued staring into the bulb above him. It was all he had to focus on. He concentrated for a moment, but felt nothing.

“I can’t,” gasped the man on the metal slab, exhaling deeply.

“Once more?” bargained the voice.

Kerns realized that the voice was moving. The man was several feet behind him now, near his head. Kerns looked deeper into the fluorescent bulb above him. His cheeks began to quiver as he focused all his energy on the simple motion of wiggling the fingers on his right hand. Once again, he felt the familiar sting of failure.

“I can’t!” wailed Kerns.

“Oh, but you did, Mister Kerns. This is truly remarkable.”

“I’m uncomfortable. Make this feeling go away.”

“And now the left arm?”

“No!” snapped Kerns. “Not until you tell me where I am!”

“Do you remember where you were before this, Mister Kerns?” questioned the voice.

Kerns blinked.

“Of course I do.”

“Would you share with me?”

Kerns blinked again, the buzz of the light filled his mind. He reached into the depths of his brain for a recent memory. He fished for any memory to share. He needed to show this man to show that he was in control. His search was met by only the buzzing of the light.

“I… I can’t remember,” whispered Kerns.

“That’s wonderful news!” encouraged the voice.

Kerns was tired of the light. Tired of the buzzing. Tired of this man’s games.

“How is that good news!?” demanded Kerns.

“It means that you do not remember the accident.”

“Accident?” asked Kerns quietly.

“Yes,” answered the voice. “Very traumatic.”

Kerns’s voice was rapidly descending into a whimper. It was the sound of a man losing hope.

“What accident?”

“The fact that you cannot remember means that the upload link is working.”

“What are you—“

“Good!” interrupted the voice, suddenly filled with enthusiasm. “You moved the left one! Now your right leg.”

Kerns retraced the voice to somewhere near his feet. It was clear that he couldn’t bargain with this man. Cooperation was his only option. He refocused on the light.

“Fantastic work!” complimented the man. “Motor skills online.”

“Please let me go now,” begged Kerns, his face glistening with sweat.

“Absolutely, Mister Kerns. It is, in fact, time to let you go.”

Male arms appeared over Kerns’s face, lowering a pair of metal goggles over his eyes.

“Please count backwards from five,” requested the man.

“And you’ll let me go?”

“Yes.”

Kerns closed his eyes. He had no choice but to trust the voice.

“Five.”

Kerns could still hear the buzzing. He could still feel it in his arms and legs. It had invaded his head and replaced his memories. It was everything.

“Four.”

The buzzing grew more intense. His arms and legs began to burn.

“Three.”

Kerns’s head began to throb.

“Two.”

The buzzing engulfed Kerns, pulsating through every vein in his body. The sound pounded in his ears as though his insides had been replaced with a swarm of bees.

“One.”

The buzzing stopped. All sound had ceased and feeling returned to Kerns’s body. His memories began to trickle back in. He opened his eyes to find himself staring a man in a white lab coat. Gray streaked his predominately black hair and he smiled at Kerns as he pushed his glasses up on his nose.

“Welcome back,” said the man in the familiar voice. “This body should feel much better.”

“What do you—“ started Kerns.

He paused as his eyes focused on the metal slab between them, more specifically, on the male body atop it. It was covered to the shoulders with a pale blue sheet and metal goggles hid the majority of the face. Wires traced off the faceplate to various machines in what appeared to be some sort of hospital room. Kerns wasn’t sure where he was, but he was positive that this was his body. Struck with panic and curiosity, he pulled back the sheet.

Beneath the sheet, bloodstained stumps, which had been cauterized and crudely sewn up, replaced the area where his arms and legs had once been. The abomination in front of Kerns was merely a torso. His torso. Memories of the accident came flooding back into his brain.

“What have you done?” breathed Kerns.

From behind, the man brought his hand to rest on Kerns’s shoulder causing him to jump in surprise.

“I’ve given you a second chance.”

Reel-To-Real

David and Andrew sat on the mauve carpet on either side of the old reel-to-reel player. Both men averaged five feet eleven inches in height and both were dressed in identical black Calvin Klein suits. If not for Andrew’s brown hair contrasting David’s blond, the two men could have been mistaken for brothers any day. Andrew continued to stare down at the device while David had become distracted by the floral pattern on the ugly wallpaper.

“I don’t understand it,” David began, “We’ve been doing this long enough to deserve a nice hotel room for a change.”

“Focus!” Andrew responded, “There are more important things to ponder.”

“Just press the button, already,” David urged.

Andrew, his knees now folded up against his chest, continued to stare at the device, “Why a reel-to-reel player?”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously!” answered Andrew, “It just doesn’t make sense.”

David pulled his attention away from the wallpaper long enough to roll his eyes at the other man.

“It’s always been a reel-to-reel player. Maybe they just like tradition?”

“It’s just not practical,” started Andrew, “They should have changed over to cassette tapes back in the nineties.”

“Isn’t that half the fun though?” asked David, “lugging these things around?”

“You know, it just seems excessive.”

David smiled, “Sure, but we get the fun message, then the puff of smoke, and life goes on.”

“I’m just saying,” interjected Andrew, climbing to his feet, “Compact Discs have to be more cost-effective.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Andrew.”

“Excuse me?”

“When’s the last time you saw a CD blow up?”

Andrew sighed. “They could give us iPods instead. An iPod could definitely blow up.”

David climbed to his feet with a grunt to face Andrew. “And that’s cost effective how?”

“Maybe cost has nothing to do with it,” started Andrew, “they’ve been blowing up reel-to-reel tapes for as long as we can remember.

“True statement.”

“You know,” continued Andrew, “maybe it’s someone’s job to manufacture these tiny bombs.”

“You might be onto something there, and here you are, wanting to change formats. You’d be putting a man out of a job.”

“I didn’t mean—“ Andrew began.

“All because you’re tired of lugging this tape player around everywhere we go,” David interrupted.

“Well now that you’ve guilt tripped me, I suppose it’s not all that bad.”

David had gone back to tracing one of the flowers on the wallpaper with his fingertip.

“Excuse me?”

“You weren’t listening?” questioned Andrew.

“Sorry, the wallpaper was a tad more interesting than what you were saying.”

“Fine, David. Forget it,” said Andrew, crossing his arms.

“So we can get on with it?”

“Yes, fine, let’s get on with it,” whined Andrew, “Forbid we spruce up the monotony here and there… forbid we talk about anything real!

David squatted down on his haunches in front of the reel-to-reel player. He looked up at Andrew as he spoke. “Are you done?”

“Yeah. Whatever. Play the tape.”

David pressed the plastic Play button and returned to the standing position. The aged reel-to-reel player suddenly came to life. The motorized wheels began to spin and the room filled with a soft hiss as the magnetic tape slid across the playback head. The two men stood in contemplative positions and after several seconds a man’s recorded voice broke the silence.

“Good evening, Agent Coates and Agent Layman. Welcome to France.”

The men shifted their weight ever so slightly as the recording continued on.

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to attend the re-opening of the United States embassy. There you will meet the French High Constable who will be on hand to ensure that the opening goes uninterrupted. During the festivities you will obtain his security keycard for duplication and future investigation of Government files.”

“Ooh!” David started, “this could be a good one.”

Andrew put a finger to his mouth, shushing his excitable partner. The audio continued.

“As always, should you or any of your team be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”

“Ready for this?” David smiled, “Your favorite part, Andrew!”

The recorded voice droned on.

“This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Gentlemen.”

Before their eyes, the tape on the reel-to-reel began to smoke and quickly turned to ash.

“Get your gun,” started Andrew, “let’s get going.”

On their way out of the hotel room, David smiled at Andrew, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb.

“Let’s see a Compact Disc do that!”