Nick Burns died a gruesome death, and when they found him he looked almost serene, seated such as he was in his beloved, careworn La-Z-Boy with his hands folded over his round belly. There was tea on the stovetop, more than enough for a man living alone. Both of his companionable blue eyes were gone, each extinguished by a single, deliberate bullet, his tongue, a source of comfort and understanding to so many of us, removed and pinned carefully through the breast of his crisply starched black shirt, speared by a toothpick, displayed pointedly over his stilled heart. And still he was at peace, as though without changing his church clothes he’d brewed that black tea beneath the lazy hum of the oscillating fan in the kitchen, waiting quite patiently for death to rap lightly on the door of his unassuming one-bedroom apartment, at last settling comfortably in his nearly bare living room and greeting his visitor with a weary yet hospitable smile that lingered still. A stained poplar crucifix standing sentry cried wooden tears; a faded replica fresco, St. Paul, looked down and away; a dog-eared TV Guide three months old lay askew on the otherwise bare coffee table.
The men who knocked on Nick’s door were never found. Four people saw them that day, to my knowledge. Three of us lived, and we lived in silence. Cal’s father made sure of that, for all our pleas otherwise. It had to be that way, probably—men like that have a way of coming back. Those faces have occupied my thoughts for the better part of these twenty years, and I know they’ve remained with Cal, even changed his life, perhaps. I can’t say he wouldn’t have gone into the church. I can’t claim to know for certain that the natural progression of his life wouldn’t have led him there. But the respectable clergyman, when that day plodded into that afternoon, was an irreverent, arrogant, foul-mouthed boy, kicking a bottle in an alley and cursing his luck for being born so bored and unimportant.
The men who knocked on Nick’s door were never found. Four people saw them that day, to my knowledge. Three of us lived, and we lived in silence.
“Didn’t break it, did I?”
“Not yet,” I rejoined. “You got lucky.”
The tea-shade bottle fishtailed on its invisible glass axis, narrowly skirting a large rusty trash bin. I pushed my bangs from my eyes and cringed.
Cal rolled his eyes and gave it a hard kick in my direction. I laughed and leapt aside.
“Damn, just about bagged me a pussy!”
Caleb (Cal, to everyone but his mother) had an inexplicable way of cursing quite casually while at the same time avoiding detection. I cringed and waited.
“Jesus, Akin, come on.”
He was often impatient, and sometimes rightfully so, but I was our acting conscience, and as such, I looked out for trouble while Cal looked for it with his unorthodox vulgarity.
“Fuckin’-a ‘Kin, what’s the problem?”
I shrugged. He really was operating on an encrypted frequency. I aimed a kick, perhaps a little harder than I would have had my thoughts not lingered on his relative freedom from persecution, and I actually whooped when the bottle skidded like a rogue pebble over a choppy black pond and struck him in the shin. He yelped and hopped back, teetering on one leg as he tugged at his pant leg to appraise the carnage. I stopped laughing at once.
“Holy shit,” he said. “You cut me, you red-peckered whore! Jesus God that hurts.”
“Keep it down,” I hissed. “It’s not that bad.”
He lurched toward the bottle, which had trickled to a lethargic, southward necking stop and stooped for it. I backed away.
“Just stop it, Cal. I didn’t mean to cut you.”
“Christ, come look at this.”
Cal shot a perplexed look my direction.
“Huh? No, not that. Never mind that. Look.” He’d retrieved something from atop the heaping trash. He held it aloft, studying it closely. It was a magazine page, ripped jaggedly along the seam and folded and unfolded so that it went limp in his hands. He grasped firmly the sides and held it taut.
“What is it?” I asked.
He’d forgotten his grievance.
“She’s bare-ass naked, ‘Kin! Holy shit, what dumb redneck threw this out?”
It was a page from a smut book, apparently good enough for some stranger to save for a time, disappointing enough to later discard. To Cal it was gold. Frantically, he stalked back to the trash and upset several oily rags and empty cans.
“Shit. That’s it I guess, but man, Cal. Look at her.”
“That’s rot, Cal. You don’t know who had that thing before.”
Cal’s incredulous appraisal, an expression I know well. “You’re not even gonna look? Shit’s wrong with you, ‘Kin?”
“Shit,” Cal mouthed, folding the page along the previous admirer’s creases and hiding it away. His father rounded the front corner of the store.
“Hell, what are you doing back here?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Akin, you told your mother about the phone, right? I don’t need to catch hell today.” Without fail, my mother would call the store for me on Wednesday afternoons, for no other reason than to remind me not to forget church, which I never had. The phone in the station had been down since Sunday and Mr. Reed hadn’t bothered to see about it yet. Besides, he assured us drily, Akin’s the only one around here that uses it. “You reassured her, I expect?”
“Yes sir, I reminded her and told her I wouldn’t forget. Thanks, Mr. Reed.”
“Uh-huh. See how he talks, Cal? You should take a page out of his book.” The irony wasn’t lost on us. “I need you up front.”
Cal trudged toward the front, his hand still lingering near his back pocket. As we emerged from the alley a long, sleek black car crept down Rosemary and turned into the lot.
“Alright. Cal, there’s a broom inside with your name on it. Akin, you about ready to head out?”
Cal interrupted. “Aw, can’t I go to church with ‘Kin? At least once?”
Mr. Reed grimaced and expelled a considerable wad of brackish phlegm. “Go inside and do what I asked you. We’ll talk about that when I’m done.”
With that, he stepped briskly off to meet the newcomers. I lingered. It was rare to see out-of-towners pass through and even rarer to see a car like theirs.
“Fuck.” Caleb spat through his teeth, resentfully tramping to his waiting broom.
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Mr. Reed called.
The pair wore cleanly pressed suits that should have left them sweltering and yet the driver didn’t appear in the least bothered by the heat. He wore crisp pin stripes, thinly interwoven threads of white. Expensive. He looked quite at ease, in fact, as he nudged the car door shut with an index finger.
I watched through the dusty plate glass. It was a polished Ford Galaxie XL—a land cruiser, a long, sleek glider. The driver looked about Mr. Reed’s age, late thirties or early forties, clean-shaven, tall and lean but not gaunt, he moved with a deft litheness that unnerved me even from the shelter of the store. His eyes were dark and glinted hungrily above his affected smile. A paper-thin scar, barely visible, cleaved his left cheek from his eyelid to the fringe of the dry, deep parenthetical wear-line that framed his thin, pale lips. Perched aloof in the corner of his mouth was a sharp, dry toothpick. Their voices carried easily.
“What can I do for you?” Mr. Reed asked without trepidation.
“Well, I suppose we could do with a fill-up, right Jack?” His colleague, a much younger man in a less impressive suit, returned a stiff nod and stepped to the rear of the car, lighting a cigarette without the least display of interest in the proceedings. I thought, even then, that he wasn’t there to talk—not like the driver talked. Almost too quick to follow, the toothpick flicked reflexively from one corner to the other and back again. He would’ve fit nicely in a funeral home, an austere, patronizing curator, or in a used car lot as a cunning, predatory salesman. But he was neither of those things—he was something lower, something worse. I knew it then and I think Mr. Reed knew it too, but leaning against the pump with the oily rag clutched in his hand like a talisman and speaking calmly to the man whose eyes did not smile, he didn’t betray the slightest unease.
“I think that’ll do fine,” the driver continued. His voice had a slightly sharp, nasal quality. “I think we’ll do just fine with a fill-up, and I wouldn’t mind the key to your facility.” The toothpick darted beneath his crooked eyebrow and the implacable smile seemed to flirt with scorn without actually touching.
“No problem, gentlemen. The bathroom’s right around the side there, unlocked. I’ll get you taken care of, check your fluids and wipe your windshield too. No problem.”
The driver waved dismissively. “Just the fill-up, today Mack, if it please you.” He clapped Mr. Reed on the shoulder and strolled over the spider-webbed concrete. The heels of his polished black shoes clicked noisily. The young man watched Mr. Reed work without comment. Normally, small talk would accompany his work, but not today. The passenger smoked and watched the narrow residential street free of traffic and quiet.
Watching the driver pass the open door of the little shop, I was gripped with a surreal, nightmarish certainty that he would stop and turn those glinting, black eyes on me, crouch down with the toothpick working back and forth, and smile that uncanny smile, but no. He walked briskly past. If he knew he was being watched he didn’t concern himself with the attention of a child. He probably doesn’t even see me, I thought, not in the way that other people do.
“What’s your problem?” Cal said petulantly. “What’s so goddamn interesting?”
He aimed a jab at my shoulder. I absorbed it without comment. He faltered, considered a moment and looked out the window.
“Holy shit,” he said. “Look at that thing. I bet she purrs like a jungle bitch, ‘Kin.” He lingered a moment and then stalked away. The ruffling of the page, again. “I can’t believe it. Who would get rid of this thing? Good thing I found it before they got here.” That was the extent of Cal’s investment in the proceedings, for the moment.
Minutes passed, and Mr. Reed replaced the nozzle with a heavy clunk.
“Good man, good man,” said the driver, his brisk heels preceding him. “Here, this should cover it, with my gratitude.” He slipped a folded bill into Mr. Reed’s shirt pocket.
I relaxed. That was it, then. But Mr. Reed reached for the bill, balked, and his posture changed. He stood straight and indicated slowly with the bill, a universal gesture of incredulity. “What’s this about, fellas?”
I held my breath and cursed Mr. Reed’s stubbornness, but the driver only feigned glibness, flashing his eerily pearlescent teeth. “Why, you topped her off and I paid you for your services. The veritable quid pro quo of commerce that makes this sorry weary spin round, Mack.” He whistled and whirled his index finger near his temple.
“That would be just fine but this is more than what I’m charging. Around here—or anywhere, as far as I know—people don’t give out something for nothing.”
“Don’t I know it?” said the driver, pausing, his eyes searching Mr. Reed’s face. “I certainly meant no offense to you or your business, you understand. And, much as it pains me to do it, I am bound by honor to hereby concede your point and validate your suspicion. But if you give me one moment, you’ll see that what I ask is really not anything at all. Harmless little thing, really.”
Mr. Reed remained static. Briefly, I thought, there passed behind the driver’s eyes a betrayal of what he really was, perhaps a warning flashed and gone in the same instant. He winked, the toothpick working. “It’s just that myself and my associate are in town looking for an old friend. Family, in fact, our cousin, you see. Angling for a little family reunion. It’s been a long time. I was just hoping you might be able to give us a nudge in the right direction, is all. To our shame and regret, one of us hasn’t exactly been as assiduous in his efforts to correspond as our longstanding familial bond warrants. I’m sure you understand.”
Mr. Reed wiped his brow and cleared his throat, spat on the cement. He held out the bill. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”
But the driver smiled heartily, seemed almost about to laugh even, his eyes ever cold and piercing. “Come now, I’m sure you know him, small town like this. Older guy, must be gray by now, tattoo of a dame riding an anchor on his left forearm, here. About this tall, I’d say, real thick, bushy eyebrows.” He elucidated with a long thin index finger through his own brows that were razor thin. “Maybe even has a bit of an old-fashioned, Mid-western accent. A trace, perhaps. Chicago, maybe. Nick Burns, he used to be called, our old cousin. You may know him by something else, but the important thing is that you know him, am I right? I’m not good at much in this world, Mack, but I can read a fella’s face. That I can do. So, am I right?”
Mr. Reed’s voice faltered. “Listen, fellas, I don’t want to get mixed up in anything, here. Just take your money. The gas is on me. Really. Please. Here.”
Like a patient desert predator, the driver didn’t flinch, leaning in giddy anticipation for a protracted moment. At last he sighed and shrugged, gestured to the younger passenger, then beamed at the gas station owner. He held his palms outward at his waist. “Hey, no skin off our ends, Mack, we’re not looking for trouble either—just our old, mangy cousin, the lovable derelict he is.” He retreated back around the smooth steel bumper of the black Ford, winked at Mr. Reed, and pulled the driver’s side door open smoothly. “As for the money, my friend,” said the driver, nodding at his partner, who returned the curt gesture and entered the opposite side, “I must insist that you hold on to it. Like I said, for services rendered, with my untarnished gratitude.”
Mr. Reed lowered his hand feebly. Relief washed over me.
“Have yourself a pleasant day, Mack. We’ll be seeing you.” The driver ducked into the car and it roared to life, a smooth, velvety purr. Mr. Reed watched the car ease carefully out of the lot, heading west on Rosemary, trundling slowly into town like a black serpent swallowing dust.
Cal, who’d approached the window without my noticing, quickly darted away and began sweeping. He stopped when his father trudged through the open door without acknowledging us, his eyes fixed on the crisp bill. I saw it clearly. It was a fifty-dollar bill. I’d never seen one before. He seemed to have forgotten us for when he looked up; his eyes swam then suddenly focused. He stowed the bill in his breast pocket, cleared his throat and crossed the store to the counter.
“Right,” he said, placing the dead phone back in its cradle with an uncharacteristic air of resignation. He looked down at his feet and we waited. Even Cal was disconcerted, the broom forgotten against the wall.
“Right,” he said again, more resolutely. He considered me directly, a strange gleam in his eye. “Akin, you can take Cal to church after all, if you don’t mind the company. I’ll apologize to your mother later for not warning her.” He emerged into the open floor of the shop, near the window where I lingered. “Cal, come here. Now listen, I want you boys to do something for me.” He gazed out the window, as if reevaluating.
“What is it?” Cal asked.
“Right,” his father repeated, sighing heavily. “I need you to go straight to church. I need you to walk fast, but don’t hurry. You understand what I mean when I say that? You sure?”
We nodded, not sure at all, in fact.
“When you get there, go straight to Father Callahan’s office and tell him that two men came by the store looking for Nick Burns. Old friends. Family, they said. You understand that?”
We nodded, and he said no more, just looked again through the streaked glass window. After a minute, Cal spoke up.
“Is Mr. Burns part of the church?”
“Cal, that doesn’t matter. If not, then Father Callahan will know where to find him, anyhow. This isn’t a game. Go straight to the church, tell Father Callahan what I told you to tell him, and then go find ‘Kin’s mom and go to church. Cal, I’ll be there to pick you up. I’d go now, God knows, instead of sending you boys but I can’t close down right at the moment. Not….” he rubbed a hand along his stubbly cheek. “I don’t think it would be wise to close down right at the moment.” We nodded. “Now repeat it back to me.”
We did. He nodded along.
“Now go. Remember what I said. Walk quickly but don’t hurry. You’ll be on the main street with everyone else going to church, so you won’t…. Anyway, go on.”
We passed out into the hot afternoon. Despite Mr. Reed’s reassurances, I couldn’t help but fear the suggestiveness implicit in the trust he’d extended two children—adults so rarely speak to each other like that, let alone us. Something bad was happening, or was about to.
“Think they wanna pop this guy, Burns?” Cal asked as we cleared the street, a safe distance from the shop.
Instead of the old frustration, I deliberated. “Yeah, yeah I do.”
“Why don’t we just go tell him ourselves, then?”
I slowed, perplexed, then remembered Mr. Reed’s words and quickened my pace. “What do you mean?”
“Short, bushy eyebrows, tattoo of a naked chick on a rocket? Sound like anyone?”
“No. What are you talking about?”
“Mr. Mallard, you damn idgit.”
He gestured impatiently up the street. “Brick house, always yells at kids to get off his lawn, never comes out for anything else. Real prick, that guy. Probably has it coming, but we should warn him anyway. Christian thing to do an’ all, now that I’m a church goer.”
With that, he resumed studying the creased photo, smoothing with his thumb a fuzzy crease that partially obscured the model’s right breast.
“Put that thing away,” I shot. All around us, families filtered into the sidewalks in their church best.
“You’re a pussy, you know that, ‘Kin. A first rate….”
“Mr. Mallard is bald, you stupid asshole. His eyebrows are thin. He looks nothing like the guy.”
Silence, but Cal recovered quickly. “Well, these guys haven’t seen him in years. He could very well be bald and gray.”
Dammit if he didn’t have a point, though. “Let’s forget about all that. You heard Mr. Re… your dad. Father Callahan knows this Nick Burns, and we don’t. He will tell him what to do. Not us.”
“Oh, what does that fucking crony know about it? He’s just gonna end up getting Burns killed, sending us to the middle man.”
I resolved to ignore him. The austere, uppermost steeple of the church rose steadily over the green caps of the rank and file oaks.
“Why doesn’t your dad send you to church?” I asked, suddenly curious.
“He says it’d be hypocritical. Fucking phony.”
“What does he mean?”
“I don’t know. He just needs the slave labor, is all.”
I shrugged. What can you say?
“I still think we should just go tell him ourselves.”
“Shut up, Cal.”
* * *
Father Callahan was at his desk. The door was open. Shuffling feet beyond the wall, early comers filing into the main hall.
“Hello boys. Akin, Caleb. What can I do for you today?” His eyes were warm and gentle, the genuine antithesis of the driver’s black eyes. His office was lined in musty, faux-wood paneling. Pictures hung in scattered clusters.
“We have to tell you something,” I said mechanically, suddenly nervous. “It’s from Mr. Reed.”
“Oh! And how is your father, Caleb?”
“Good, I guess.”
“Good, good. Glad to hear it.”
I swallowed and blurted it out all at once. “He told us to tell you that there were some guys asking about Nick Burns. Guys in suits….”
“Really nice suits, in a really nice car!” Cal interrupted.
“He didn’t tell us to say that, Caleb.” I said, more sharply than I intended. I composed myself, then appealed to our elder. “That doesn’t matter. Does it, Father?”
“Well, I can’t say for sure, Akin. You never know. So Mr. Reed sent you boys here to tell me that?” They nodded silently. “Hmm, curious.”
“He figured you’d know what to do.” Caleb offered, somewhat defensively.
Father Callahan nodded curtly. “He figured right. Is there anything else he said to tell me?”
“No, Father,” I said.
“We know who he is!” Cal cried. “He’s that creepy old man in the brick house that yells at everyone! He’s in trouble now, isn’t he?”
I reddened. Father Callahan looked sternly at us both.
“Rest assured boys, I know Nick Burns very well.” He looked at Caleb directly. “And if you don’t know someone, then making dramatic assumptions regarding his character can serve only to get you into trouble, Caleb. You’d do well to remember that. Both of you.” I started to object but fell silent. I’d been the reasonable one, and I was getting reprimanded right along with him.
Father Callahan was apparently satisfied that we had nothing left to say. “If that’s all, then I think it’s time you ran along to meet your mother, Akin. I’m sure she’s worried sick. Will Mr. Reed be joining us this evening?” I blinked, realized he meant Cal, who nodded. “Ah, perfect! Well, think no more about this matter. Consider it resolved. Now you boys run along.” He stood and gestured. I remained, hesitant, unsure even as I asked whether I should.
“I know it doesn’t matter, I mean to say, it’s not our business. But, what do you think Mr. Burns will do when you tell him?”
“I suppose only Nick Burns can make that decision, Akin. Either way, it’s nothing you need to worry about. Mr. Reed sent you to me for good reason. Nick Burns and I go way back. I have no doubt that with the good word on his side,” he said, delicately hoisting the leather bound bible and brandishing it in the air, “he will make the right decision. Fair enough?” There was an uncharacteristic, even sardonic spirit in his theatrics.
We agreed in unison.
“Good lads, off you go.”
Something was wrong with Cal, I saw. He was quiet. A few paces down the hall, he paused, turned, and went back. I followed, praying he didn’t have another disrespectful outburst in him. But he approached Father Callahan’s desk somberly, head down. He dug into the back pocket of his shorts and produced the folded magazine page. The pastor let it settle on the desk, untouched.
“I found it,” he mumbled. “It’s bad. Don’t look at it. It’s just… I shouldn’t have picked it up. Akin was right. I shouldn’t have.”
Father Callahan considered Cal, then bent, collected the wastebasket beneath his desk, and dropped the folded page into it. “Then it shall trouble you no more. Consider it absolved.” His face was weary with large bags bedding his lower lids, but when he smiled it was genuine, whole. Cal shrugged uncertainly.
“Don’t I have to….”
But the Father waved his hand. “No, no. This one’s on the house. Run along, boys.”
We departed in reflective silence.
After a minute: “What was that?” I was stunned.
“Nothing. Let’s go.”
I finally felt it, relief. We’d done our job and maybe helped Nick Burns, wherever he was. My happiness was short-lived. My mother intercepted me in the parking lot with a frown.
“Mom, I…” but she held up her hand.
“You’re not in trouble.” She shook her head. “I just wish you weren’t dressed like pigs in a sty, is all.”
We filed in through the center aisle. The town was amassed in full and open seats were scarce. I felt eyes on me and burned red—I hadn’t thought of my clothes until now, sweaty and streaked with dirt. Cal remained silent. He simply followed in tow, his head slightly bowed, as if deep in thought. We sat down one minute before the bells were set to toll.
Six o’clock. The congregation stirred. Someone coughed and a child whined. The stirring of restless feet and the rustle of starched clothing. No bells.
One-past-six. We’d done something wrong. We’d gotten Father Callahan mixed up in trouble, somehow. It was our fault.
Still, no bells.
At five minutes past and still no Father Callahan, the restlessness of the worshippers mounted. Several more coughers, less restrained now. Buzzing murmurs, “What are we waiting for?” from the back, a little girl with pink ribbons in her hair, unabashed. But she was simply echoing the sentiment of the anxious mass.
The thick front door opened and slammed against the frame with the subtlety of a shotgun blast in the quiet chamber. The echo died down and we all turned to see who’d entered late—all but one. Cal remained slumped.
It was Mr. Reed. The congregation gaped, having never seen Thomas Reed in church before. He stood at the rear of the church, hat in hand, scanning the crowd. His eyes seemed to linger on the empty podium.
My heart palpitated. This isn’t right. It can’t be. Knowledge like a terrible plague, and Cal knew it first, knew it when the old man smiled goodbye.
Mr. Reed swayed on his heels. He dropped his hat to his side, a gesture like mourning.