This is Issue #1 of Step by Step. This is the first issue of Volume One.
Tom Gallagher laid asleep forever at the bottom of a six-foot grave in a forest outside of Smith's Ferry and waited for the shovel in the hands of Nolan Brackenbury, a man of little sleep for three days. A low moon had settled on the evening sky. It served barely a purpose, for the night was too dark.
The gravedigger, a common man with brown hair spread across his head like butter, was gripped with a fear that was too much fright. He rubbed his ass and then looked to his friend, a black man watching from the trees who donned a stainless white, plain shirt. Nolan knew this man to be his true friend, who would leave a wound in his heart if he was to leave his side.
"Indiana," the black man said. "She's beautiful. You think?"
"I think so," said Nolan.
"I think I grown fond of her. She's a love. She's there when you're in the woods, here alone. There, when you smoke a Marlboro or two, here in good company," the man said, a cigarette hanging wet in his mouth. He took a drag on it. The addiction had been his since his early years. His lungs stiffened, held still, then relaxed like a warm blanket had covered them. It would have been pointless to try to stop now.
Then his headache went away. He didn't even know he had one. It was relaxing, clarifying.
"Until you leave the state."
"We ain't cheating on her. We staying here in Indiana. Least, for some time. Tomorrow this time, we'll both be on the way to the bank. Get that cash deposit, grab four seats at a five-star restaurant. You dig?"
Nolan nodded and stabbed the shovel into the lump of dirt above the grave. He began shoveling the grave, telling himself that it wasn't so, but the blood on his hands was there, clotted dark with dirt and gravel. The black man, his face smooth and shaved, white shirt stainless, walked over to his friend and clasped his shoulder with a clean hand. Nolan met his eyes. A bug fell on his denim shoulder. It flew off, but the paranoia did not.
He pointed at Tom's spot, "Make sure you add extra dirt there."
"Don't think about it."
"I can try." Nolan covered his lower face with a handkerchief. He looked around one last time.
"You eat breakfast today?"
"I slept terrible."
These parts scared him, it was dark country. Some place to be avoided. He noticed his voice was trembling, taking feet with no breath in them.
"Give me this and go," he said and tightly pulled the shovel out of Nolan's hands. "Tell Derek's dumbass to come over. You, rest a little. Go downtown, with Dennis. Get some cash, here," he continued, thrusting a bundle of bills with the faces of dead presidents into Nolan's breastpocket. "Eat."
"What you recommend?"
"Pussy, the daily value."
Nolan reddened at the pale face and burst laughing, spit flying in his friend's face. Nolan gave him a good shove and pointed at the grave.
"You got this?"
The black friend mildly grinned. "We got this."
Nolan thanked him with a smile and turned to walk away.
"You take care, you heard me?"
"His ass heard me," the black friend muttered and started to shovel. He let the cigarette hang from his bottom lip with a grin. He too had slept terribly the past few days. Hadn't eaten breakfast too. Last meal had been a supper before the assassination of Gallagher. His throat hungered and his tongue thirsted. He shoveled and groveled, the heat taking him, boiling his blood, just a little too much, and he grunted. He looked up to make sure that Nolan was no longer in view. His eyes watered. Never had Lyle Jackson been so tired.
A knot, painfully tight, formed in Lyle's throat, accompanied by the warmness of excitement, as he stabbed the shovel into the side of the grave, leaving the rest for Derek, that fool. He arched his back, cracking it in places, and wiped his eyes, his clean hands now wet with the tears of a man who knew his heart would be broken by the day's end.
The plan had been executed perfectly. He looked around, for he was surrounded by graves, ones already filled by Nolan. The last grave was for Gallagher. The others his associates. They had been beautiful murders. A perfect execution, one for praise. Rockefeller would be proud, give him another handshake. Invite him to come back to Smith's Ferry. For small talk over a dinner at his expense. Then Lyle would go to his daughter, Elise, the beautiful girl, and would say his secret farewell, for theirs was unexpected fruit of the plan, unfortunate but so bitter to let go. Theirs was a love to be temporary, the only way Lyle could see himself survive.
Lyle Jackson, his hands clean of blood, threw himself to the base of a nearby tree. It would be a few minutes, just to rest. Calm himself. The Derek boy would finish the rest of the hole. Get his hands dirty. Lyle smiled, exhaled, closed both eyes.
Ten minutes passed. Lyle smacked his lips, awake. He rubbed his chest, groped his neck, and felt his gums numb up. Knew just what to use to wake them up. But couldn't. He didn't have Kodiak chew tobacco on him. Had he some, he would whip out the can and drip the chew tobacco in his mouth, tar the teeth. But excite his tongue and gums. Always worked. Lyle wondered then if Derek had ever rubbed a handful of Kodiak. The gaunt man did have a haunting look on him, coupled with the fact that his chunks sunk into his face whenever he took a breath.
A cold shiver trembled his spine and chilled his skin. He was being watched. A man came into view from the side, hand clasping a kerosene lamp, the nice yellow light illuminating the critter-buzzing ground. They were like thieves hiding something, fresh at night. This lanky man locked eyes with Lyle, and came to a halt three feet from him.
"So?" Lyle's voice was deep, every tree and leaf turned to him. He had a baritone that reverberated through the calmness of the trees. He said nothing more, putting a cigarette between his teeth. "Get a move on."
"You made him dig them holes?"
"You'll dig the rest of it."
"How long it's been?"
"Then we go back, meet with Rockefeller."
"How long you made him dig for, Jacky?"
"We're almost finished."
"What's the time?"
"Time for you to get a watch."
Derek Woods passed the lamp over to Lyle and reached for the shovel, aggressively wrenching it from the soil before stabbing the hump of dirt for the grave. Lyle observed him close.
"Went out with Nolan."
"Both of us did."
"Dirty clothes in washer?"
"I thank you for what you did," Lyle said, feeling the warm relief come over his lungs. "Your part, your hand in this. You feel me, Derek. I appreciate it." He noticed that Derek had paused shoveling. "You best appreciate your portion of the prize. Be content with it."
"You ever love a woman?"
"Make love to several, yes."
"No, fool," Lyle stood up, rubbing the back of his head, groping his neck where it was tense with stress. "Meet a woman, open what little heart you got left to her. Don't tell her that your ass loves her. Say it with your actions. Kiss, kiss, be a gentleman. Care for her?"
"Yeah, I did."
"I broke her heart," Derek said, straining to look at Lyle's eyes. "Let it heal, then broke it again."
"What should I do?"
"It's Elise, right?"
"Best to break it fast and quick."
Lyle nodded. The man walked over, circling Tom's grave. "What happened here?"
"We killed Gallagher."
Lyle remained silent. Derek felt a heaviness in the air. "You killed him," said Lyle. "Dennis got one, and then Nolan got them other two. This man Tom, you got him."
Derek nodded with bitter eyes.
"He just got a little bit too hot," said Lyle. "You know what it's like. With the sun all day. People get hot, really hot."
"A little too hot," Derek corrected him.
"We were all a little hot today," said Lyle. "The blood starts to boil."
"That's what happened."
A chilly breeze blew their way. It'd eddied past the mustard weeds, coming like the breath from a headless pigeon. As a matter of fact, right before Lyle left, Derek saw his shadow had no head. He moved to the side, and then it appeared. He gulped down fear.
"You good here?"
"Finish quick. I'm out."
"Gonna catch me the evening services."
The moon is full above the Town Hall in Smith's Ferry. Tonight the two-hundred year old building was as stiff as a mummy, the shadows of the night like its sarcophagus. Red Smith knew what this town had gone through—for the first years of his life, he'd broken his back and hands working in the fields. Out in the sun all day, with his brother Donovan, they'd work that field from the wee morning hours till the early evening. Then, if Pop had enough spare change, the two brothers would enjoy ice cream, pure white ice cream. Dairy fresh, too. None of that homogenized shit.
Then it'd be back to the fields. The two would run back madly, screaming and jumping over fences to be there on time. On time was another of Pop's sayings for "if you're not here by the time the sun's at the sky's asscrack, I'll beat you til your butt cracks."
Here sat Red Smith, head balded and pale, waiting in his office. Red Smith puffed on a lengthy cigar before sitting upright in his chair. The desk in front of him, empty of papers, empty of documents. The room heavy with time. He counted each second. The four boys were running on his generosity. They were late an hour. And Red Smith thus late an hour to meet with his associates. So he had called them in, and pushed Lyle and his men to the side. It was not personal, only business. He'd get to them afterwards.
The office had been his bed of rest for a decade. Red was the mayor on paper. He was something to the people. He had grown up in this village. Followers, Red thought of the Beekman family, their funeral home run by brothers Gary and Bram Beekman. Red Smith pondered his own family. His father, Whittaker Smith, while though he was a poor man with farmland to care for, he had established ties, thick ones, with the Beekmans throughout his life. The patriarch Smith had taught each of his sons, as his father had taught him, that life was the cow of many. Red Smith laughed now, sitting at his desk.
Nights at the Smith farmhouse, Red recalled, were full of lessons. He now felt the memories warming up in his head. Full moon outside, hanging low in the sky. Out on the porch, with his father and brother Don. They were there, standing on the porch with the lights on, eating ice cream, laughing. A couple of scarecrows stood around the cornfield by the house. One of them was ogling the young Red Smith and the boy couldn't help but look back at it, for the scarecrow was a menacing one.
"You've wet your pants, haven't you?" said Don.
Red Smith had grimaced at his brother.
"The bobcat freaked you out, huh?"
"It wasn't no bobcat."
Whittaker Smith had been glaring at his two boys. "The Springer ranch'll pay me good money for the bobcat," he had said, and Red Smith remembered his father pointing at the dead animal at the head of porchsteps.
"The cow of many, right dad?" Don had said.
"Life's well-milked," had said Red in return.
"And badly fed."
"Right," the farmer Whittaker had declared, grinning out with his tobbaco teeth. "Life's just like that, some sort of cow for all folks—rednecks, black people, yellows, and all of them."
That night, stubbornly, after the bobcat's attack, Red's youth began its end. Over the months that followed, with time, the patriarch Smith had taken to leading his boys out onto the same porch in order to teach them the ways. Their father would teach them how society would treat them, in the the world ruled by the Man. A world in which his sons wouldn't survive without the ways of the sickle and of the hammer.
Red breathed in now, rubbed his hurting heart, and said, "I did it."
The door to the office opened. In came walking a casual man, low brown hair, wearing workman clothing unfit for the office. This man had the best excuse.
Red Smith rose to grace him. The two brothers embraced warmly, Red slapping his back with glee. "We did it, we did it."
"Can you believe it?"
"The impossible is possible," Red smiled and ushered him a taste of his cigar. "It's been a stressful month. But it's done."
Donovan accepted the cigar. "The beginning is done. Now is what follows," he said, bowing his head to meet the flame from the lighter in Red's clean hands. "I just came from the funeral home."
"And? How are the Beekman boys?"
"They brought Tom in a body bag," he began. "Bram and Gary let the three of them take in the body. Into a room. Followed them in there, both of them. With Lyle and his boys in the back. Lyle telling them that they'd found him like this. Lyle's complaining. Tom's three friends, they unzip that bag, see it's Tom. Gash in his forehead from an ax. Bram, quiet. Gary, his ass starts laughing."
"How they react?"
"It was only Gary laughing until Lyle let his boys sick Tom's friends."
"Lot of blood?"
"Not too much."
"Bram cleaned their bodies."
"He's a good man. What are both of them doing now?"
"Bram went to sleep. Gary, he'd fallen asleep already."
For months Tom had been under their radar. A fly on their web, first caught and now buried. His friends had infiltrated the Beekman family funeral home through working as mortician assistants. Gary Beekman was too unintelligent to realize this, only his brother Bram had connected the dots and realized it before it could become a fatal error. Gary was the face, Bram the brain behind the machine. As had been with their uncle and father from which they had inherited the business. Red Smith chuckled now, for what Bram gained from his father Gary had to have gained in some way from the uncle, through way of a shared wife. He chuckled.
"Can you stay?" Red said to Donovan.
"Stay with me," he said. "I need you, brother. Tonight was very good to us. Tomorrow will be better."
"And we'll be better."
"Out with the misses."
"I want him here. Go, send in Timothy. Tell him to come here a while."
Donovan opened the office door and called for the clerk. Red Smith waited in his chair. A few moments passed before appeared at the door his clerk, a giant man hiding tightly under his tie and shirt a barrel-sized chest. The room was quite big, but felt ever so smaller once Timothy entered.
Red met his eyes, glasses over them, this man was his Timothy, the oldest of the two Moon brothers. Lucas, the younger, not yet ready for the office, a child of sixteen years, the dearest friend of his nephew, son to Donovan, the worthy Cleon. He and Lucas, friends since childhood. In his talks with Timothy, both agreed that the two boys would join in their cause, quick and efficiently, for soon they would be of age to join their elders in their great cause. This night, with the enemies slaughtered, Red declared, would be the beginning of their childhood's end.
"Good evening, Rockefeller."
"You look happy tonight," Red said. "More than I, myself."
"Elise is asleep?"
"You made her dinner?"
"You're a good man," said Red, but the clerk did not offer agreement. "But I want her here. Wake her up for me. And you've done the paperwork?"
"Sent the e-mails, forwarded my calls."
Donovan glanced to his brother. The mayor of Smith's Ferry stared endlessly at his clerk. Red lightly finished his cigar. Donovan watched and his stomach growled some. Red sensed fear within his brother.
Loyalty, he recalled then, was the reasoning of Donovan's fears, of which his was divided, and Red's was full. The two brothers were opposite faces on the same coin, for if both had the same foundation of rebellion, each had differing prospects for the rebellion to live up to. Loyalties, they said, loyalties were the nuts and bolts of the rebellion, the stability of the shoe which it wore. One wanted this and one wanted that. The loyalists themselves were scarce, but not was the revolutionary spirit, visible in the Smith family. The rebellion was the smoke and the revolution was the fire, for in between meant the existence of a spark. Red Smith, eyes devoted to the new sky blossoming, recognized the three stages of revolt. To the corruption, first came the idea of rebellion. To the doubtors, second was the act of violent revolution. To the disillusioned, third was the establishment of the new and the promise of the future. Smith was aware that no true follower of the reds had ever witnessed the third stage of revolution. To Red Smith, the idea was that his revolution would inspire others to revolt, whereas the brother Donovan would have become disillusioned soonafter. No matter the blood nor the guts, Donovan had split loyalty between the nation and the cause. It was the greatest problem to the question of the rebellion's survival. For the revolution to succeed into stage three, there would remain no dissenters.
"The money is ready for Lyle?"
"He's late. Get it ready."
"After you leave, find Cleon. Find Lyle and his people. Send them in."
Timothy nodded and exited the room, head bowed.
"I'm tired, but I'll stay," said Donovan, his face an exhausted fire, a nation's veteran of fifty years, different only to his brother Red by baldness.
"Very. You too?"
A knock at the door, and entered a slim man, Wilson, he dressed in the dark blue trousers of a custodian, and Donovan served him a dismissing glance. Red bothered not, his eyes fixated on the grandfather clock in the corner of the room, his mouth silently counting the seconds.
"A lot, and I had some taken out tonight."
"You got another janitor?"
"Nothing to worry about," said Red. "Prepare the letters for sending tomorrow. But, Wilson, a favor?"
"Heat some sandwiches for us. Make it six. And a bottle of wine. Two glasses."
"Good taste," said Wilson.
"Yes," Red said, his jaw tense and eyes set on the clock's hand, waiting for the black man and his people.
"It'll be a while," said Donovan. And his brother nodded soundly.
"Wilson?" said Red, and the janitor stood firm. "You're a good worker, you do a great job."
The janitor of the Town Hall, this Drake Wilson, smiled for the first time since the birth of his daughter the year before. He thanked his boss, excused himself, and left to prepare the requested wine.
At twelve midnight Lyle Jackson had no friends. The son of a dead man sat naked and vulnerable in the middle of the pews facing towards the church podium. There stood the priest, his hands clasped tight on the wooden podium, singing his evening prayers. Around Lyle were sitting the elderly, and several wives with boys and girls. Their eyes were on the priest. Lyle, his head bowed ever slightly, stared through the priest, through his dark as night cassock robe, through his white Roman collar.
On his mind, his heart. His heart broken, cracked in half, an utter stabbing pain provoked by his foolishness, and now he trembled in fear before the Lord of his Catholic father, a man taken out of misery from cancer by the friend of all old men, a quiet pneumonia. His mother distraught, and Lyle ever so gentle in carrying the casket to the grave, his hands as clean as now. This moment, the priest sang, and Lyle rubbed his hands, warmly clasped, for the November cold penetrated the walls of the church.
Here sat the man Lyle, white shirt and black trousers, head bowed, with thoughts of love and beautiful murder, looking past the priest and to the body of Christ the Redeemer, a statue hanging above the priest's head, the face of Christ golden, a man pained yet soothed. Lyle, his hands clean, but his mind dirty, soiled by unrest. He sat on the pew and his trembling grew stronger. He would not blame himself. He had accepted the deal from Red Smith, just the deal. He had brought his friends. He supervised them only. His three friends, Nolan, Derek, Dennis had ended the lives of Red's enemies. Not him. Not Lyle. Cross his broken heart, Lyle had no blood on his hands.
The children and elderly grasped tightly their rosaries. A man came in from the side and entered the pew. The man, brown hair golden, carried a denim jacket folded over his arm.
Nolan Brackenbury sat beside his friend.
In childhood he had first met Nolan, in the same elementary school. He lived on the other side of town, but they always rubbed elbows, some way, somehow. Nolan had a brother and sister, he the middle child, the sore thumb. Lyle was an only child. Through the years, Lyle lost people whom he considered friends and made new ones, filling holes, but never to fill a hole left by Nolan. On the occasion Lyle wouldn't hear from Nolan for a year. He would make new friends. By the time Nolan returned, these new friends had disappeared, them being of disloyalty. At a certain point, Lyle had realized the mortality of these friends, for in the end, he alone would be left, with Nolan warmly at his side.
Nolan knew how dirty he would have his hands after this deed for Red Smith. The mayor of Smith's Ferry had clean hands when shaking palms with him and Lyle. He must have washed his hands after shaking those of Derek and Dennis, the two beastly men. Derek was a boy with an insignificant face, one of the forgotten kids of the Indiana city. A boy who spent all his money calmly on alcohol, tattoos and whores, then had the courage to talk morals with Lyle. Sitting on the pew, his blood simmered. Derek, leader of his petty gang at the age of eighteen, had been recruited not for his courage, but for curiosity, and as cannon fodder, a boy expendable for the sake of he and Nolan. In his chest, he felt respect for Dennis Johnson. A man with veins rich in heroin, a face wrinkled by the horror of street meth. Through fault of his own, he had a daughter out of wedlock, and out of fear, married the mother to raise the infant, a girl now five years old. Lyle, upon recruiting Derek, had refused to contract a father, but Dennis was close to Nolan and the father pleaded for a share of Rockefeller's prize for the hit on Tom's head, even if it meant promoting himself from drug trafficker to murderer.
"You eat enough?"
"I ate some hamburger with fries. Dennis too."
"Quiet. I told him he'd be with his family tomorrow."
Lyle licked his lips. "It's good he's quiet. Derek, we keep eyes on him. He's got a long tongue on him tonight. Little swollen."
"The swelling should go down by tomorrow."
Lyle licked lips once more. "We keep eyes on him, after this. When he goes back to his city. He ain't got a family. Nothing to lose, that's dangerous. He can be better by tomorrow, yeah, but that's not enough. It ain't enough for me, not for you, not for Rockefeller. What he doesn't do now, he'll do in a month. Six months. A year."
"We'll keep eyes on him."
"The night's over. I'm calm."
"You're ready to meet Rockefeller."
"I haven't gotten to seeing Elise."
"You can just disappear. She'll get the message."
"Leave her for last."
"He sent his man. Look," said Lyle, and waved his chin at the other side of pews, a giant man sitting with a red rosary bleeding in his hands, Timothy Moon, the mayor's clerk, observing the two friends as he had observed Lyle from the moment he set foot inside to cleanse his ears and heart with the peace of a priest's words.
"A lot of people here tonight," said Nolan.
"For the nightly services, yeah."
"It's as if they know."
"Thank you, Nolan."
"For everything," Lyle said, and he stood up, and Nolan noticed Timothy Moon prepare to rise from his pew. "Let's go in peace. Where's them two?"
"Outside, the sidewalk."
"I know Derek's armed. You, Dennis too," said Lyle, and Nolan rose to embrace his friend in a silent hug. "I trust Rockefeller. He'll let us walk with the money. No gimmicks."
"His men'll be armed."
"Let's go. You ready?"
"Rockefeller's been ready for me."
The two childhood men released each other from embrace. Lyle put a hand on his shoulder, gently pulled and pushed, as if reassuring Nolan and emptying him of any doubt that Rockefeller could be trusted. Rockefeller had contracted four men to end the life of his four enemies. The cause of why they were enemies did not interest Lyle, did not interest his pocketbook, and he would not have sympathy for another man's enemies. Only a thought, that Gallagher could have done the same to Red Smith, fates reversed, had he more brain. This thought, only one. The two friends proceeded to leave the pews, with Timothy following behind to guide them to the Town Hall, and the remaining elderly and children continued to pray and sing for their souls.
His grandfather and his brothers had become men on the beaches of the conquered islands of the defunct Empire of Japan. Nolan Brackenbury faced the door of the office belonging to Red Smith at the right hand side of his friend Lyle Jackson. He had become a man at twelve years, his first arrest, with some time in juvenile detention for petty theft. He had stolen a man's bicycle with bolt cutters. It had been planned for days. The lock was cut like butter in seconds. A long time ago. On recalling the theft, Nolan would become ashamed. A man had no right to steal from the other. Nolan, disgusted internally, never stole once more in his life. He should have been hung like horse thieves in the old West. But tonight, this was money owed, a money earned.
A loud silence echoed in the hallway outside of Red's office. The night's chaperone Timothy Moon knocked three times on the door. Behind him, there stood Nolan and Lyle, his waist empty of holster, heart full of cracks, and as Nolan observed him, a man with a tight jaw and bitten tongue.
The two criminals stood close by, Dennis standing tight behind Nolan, near clinging to his back, unsure of these parts. He was a trembling man, a boy in a man's body. His shaved head was held high with eyes clenched with fear. A streak of blood had dried on his forehead. A bulge had formed on his pant leg from a hidden revolver. He wore clean clothes, green trousers and a flannel red shirt unbuttoned, his hairy chest naked, but he wasn't too clean, for his shoes had forgotten filth and the red remnants of blood. Beside him was Derek Woods, an insignificant man with an insignificant face, another street boy out of thousands, foolish enough to carry a white revolver on his waist for all eyes to see.
"Is it you, Tim?" Donovan spoke.
Timothy knocked once more.
"Timothy, you may come in," spoke the voice of Red Smith.
Timothy gently opened the door. He had spoken little to the four men in the walk from the church to the town hall. He entered first and Nolan followed his tail. A rush of blood to his head made Nolan dizzy, and he let himself come to a rest in front of a desk.
"What's the time?" Red Smith asked him.
"I don't know," said Dennis, speaking for Nolan. Red Smith focused on him from the desk where he sat. There was a dinner plate covered with a steel cloche.
"It's one o'clock."
"The clock says near one o'clock," Dennis continued, pointing to the grandfather clock in the corner.
"It's almost one o'clock. You're late by some hours," Red Smith said. "My ass hurts from sitting here. But I don't pain. I don't have time for it. Where is Jackson?"
The blood came to peace in Nolan's head. His nose burned from the smell of cigar smoke. The air tasted like sawdust. He realized he stood in the presence of Red Smith, a man who had not bothered to greet them this time with hand shake as in times past. Behind him in the chair was Donovan the brother. The fat mayor, his face strong with clout and tight from years of sun exposure, made his standing brother pale in his shadow. This night Red Smith was furious, but he did not have time for it.
"He's here," Lyle said from the hallway, not yet passing through the open door.
"Come here, I need to see your face."
"You see the faces of my men."
"I need to see the last face Gallagher saw."
"Was my face," Derek said.
Red Smith looked to him with a degree of sympathy. He was the age of his daughter Elise, an inch or so less.
"How long it take?" Donovan uttered.
"Take what?" said Derek.
"Him to die."
"A minute or two."
"Very good," said Red Smith, his face easing with the glee of a smile.
"Did he pray?" asked Donovan.
"Yeah," said the boy Derek.
"A minute or two."
"Let's see your face, Jackson," said Red Smith.
"Rockefeller, you see my men."
"Who are they, if I cannot see you?"
"They are my friends."
"We're the friends of Lyle Jackson," said Nolan. "We came for our goodbyes."
"And not to eat?"
Donovan Smith reached for the dinner plate cover and lifted up, exposing a plate of hot sandwiches.
"You four must be hungry," said Donovan.
Nolan, his belly full with the hamburger he'd had, but his body exhausted from days of hunger and poor sleep, knew well that he needed more than the burger Lyle had bought him. His mouth watered over the food, and Derek beat him to it, the boy diving his mouth into one sandwich and taking up in his hands another. Still Dennis remained motionless.
"Thank you, Rockefeller," said Dennis, restraining himself.
"Eat, my friend," Red Smith said. "If you're a friend of Jackson's, you're one of mine."
Lyle Jackson appeared at the door. Red Smith pulled from under his desk a cylinder object, too short for a rifle and too wide for a pistol. "Today we drink, Jackson," he said, daring to stand up from the desk, his overweight belly shaky on his long, thick hip.
"Good wine. Aged well."
Red Smith pulled a set of two drinking glasses from the dinner plate. He moved past the three men consuming their meals, touched his brother firmly on the arm, smiled slightly, and then proceeded to walk towards the door. "You'll follow me, Jackson."
Lyle Jackson could feel the warmth of joy and laughter in the room and the heat of cigar smoke on his skin. He could sense his bones tingle with unknown fear as Red Smith walked past him.
The hallway outside the office was a cold shell. Lyle followed, for with a nod he acknowledged Nolan, daring him with courageous eyes that he would return alive.
"You were born in Indiana," said Red, leading him out into the cold shell of the hallway. "My father was born here, my grandfather, and his father before him."
"We know how it is. It's heritage."
"What were your parents?"
"He was a good man and she was a good woman. He was a teacher and she was a worker in the factories, like my grandmother."
"Your dad a teacher?" Red continued walking, coming to a halt at the end of the hall. "He followed in your grandfather's footsteps?"
"My grandpa became a teacher, yeah," said Lyle Jackson. "Was a year after he left the war in Korea. He was a good man."
"You're a good man just like them, Jackson," said Red Smith. He cradled the wine in one hand, the drinking glasses in the other.
Red held out one of the two glasses to him. Lyle received it with a good grip.
"You'll follow me?"
"Rockefeller, I will."
"We're good men," said the mayor, and the two victors of the night followed one another through the offices of the Town Hall, down the staircase, and as Lyle listened through the silence for the crack of gunfire from the floors above, they arrived at the bottom floor. A great reception area stood before them
"You know business, Lyle?"
"He's a disgusting man, this business," Red began. "Business corrupts you and your heart. I try to not let it. In this world we call ours, money has to be drawn in, and here it's through business."
"I'm a businessman."
"Not just the streets. I have my company, and then I have my employees."
"What do they do?"
"Provide security. It's contract work."
Red paused just for a sliver of a moment in his walk through the reception room. A certain interest had gripped him. Lyle watched him curiously before Red broke silence and walked once more.
"You'll follow me, Jackson."
"I want you to see."
"Me to see."
"I want you to understand."
"It's the dream of my father that I'm holding in my hands. You'll understand."
"I respect it."
"Your friends will be fine. The food wasn't bad. This wine, it'll make your night. We'll drink to the future. We'll drink to your future."
"Our future," said Red, proceeding to the far end of the room to open a door with key. This door produced a thin passageway, tight enough to be a custodian's closet. Red stepped inside, key in hand. There was a hole in the brick background of the wall, a tunnel naked in view which pulled downward.
"Wilson? You're here Wilson?"
"The trucks are here!"
"What?" said Red. He glanced to Lyle. "What did he say?"
"The trucks are here, Rockefeller!" Wilson shouted once more.
"Follow me, Jackson."
"I'll go," said Lyle, his flesh stiff and his bones cold and trembling.
"Come with me here," Red Smith grabbed him by the hand, pulling him into the tunnel, and both men went hunch back. Lyle's throat choked with the dirty air. He held his breath until a light at the end of the tunnel blessed his eyes with relief.
The end of the tunnel produced a sight for his sore eyes. It was at the basement of the town hall that there was a warehouse. Flood lights illuminated greatly the area. A forest of shelves with brown boxes stood before Lyle. From these shelves worked groups of dressed men and women wearing face masks and filthy gloves of long use. At the center of the warehouse space was a border formed by orange traffic cones. Beyond the border was an assortment of delivery trucks with rears facing Lyle and the steering wheel facing northward towards a concrete tunnel far away, leading to the world beyond, Lyle assumed.
"It's business, Jackson. You'll be a part of it."
"I appreciate the offer."
"I'm raising funds for a big project. My father's dream."
"What was the dream?"
"The betterment of society."
Lyle Jackson was unmoved and unsurprised. He knew illegal practices offered more riches than legal careers. Red Smith chewed on the cork of the wine bottle, yanked it out, and offered wine to Lyle.
Lyle allowed him to fill his cup. "It's just illegal drugs you transfer?"
"The trucks are here, Rockefeller," said Wilson, this custodian with dark trousers. "They arrived not a moment ago."
"You filled them already?"
"Follow me, Jackson."
The two victors of the night strode past the sweaty, dirty workers. Lyle thought quietly of his grandmother and mother the factory workers. His heart itched him with the thought of Elise. The blood in his veins blossomed with heat and stress. He could not break it quick and clean. He could not let Rockefeller find out either. Tomorrow he would kiss her once more, and contemplate this decision to work alongside her father in collaboration. Their love would hold.
"You have a foundation here," said Lyle. "It's impressive, yeah."
"I don't want a decision tonight."
"Tomorrow. Get sleep," Rockefeller said, arriving with Lyle at the rear of the delivery trucks. "Wilson, you'll tell them to open up. I want to see that the trucks are filled properly."
"Where will these drugs go?" Lyle asked.
"What drugs? Those back there in the shelves, they usually ship during the week. Different days, different hours. Never the same time. Too risky."
"And the ones in here?"
"Open up, men!" Wilson shouted.
The back doors of the trucks ripped upward like bullets. There before Lyle and Red Smith was the bare, naked shipment. In each bed of the delivery trucks were masses of alive cadavers, an assortment of women and children laying strewn over one another like trash. There were groans and moans. The ones who could craned their heads over to the light spewing into the dark cavity of the truck. The pale faces with weak eyes stared into the soul of Lyle Jackson's eyes.
"These ones all over the nation. All over the land," Red Smith began to sip the wine. Lyle followed him.
"They could have been me and my brother. My daughter and her cousin. You or anyone of your friends. Fate did not have it like that. These shipments go out internationally."
"These people have been in the cycle for years. It's hell for me. You see how they look, how they smell. It's a filthy cycle of business. I receive them from sellers, send them out to the buyers, then those buyers become sellers."
"Some faces in these trucks I've seen before. You understand, Lyle."
"It's a bulletproof cycle, Jackson. The same clients are the judges, the police officers, the politicians. You understand how it is, this society."
"You help me in this, like you and your friends did tonight. You'll help me reach my goal. Build the dream of my father with the funds. You'll sleep on it tonight."
"How's the wine?"
"It's wine from a senator."
Red Smith smiled with dark glee in the blessing glow of the flood lights. All around they were surrounded by the hum of trucks, the stomping of work boots, and the smog of laughter from the workers moving and transporting drugs throughout the warehouse. Without another word, the trucks closed their rears and roared explosively to life. The trucks rode and down the concrete tunnel, disappearing into the world beyond. Red Smith, his gullet wet with wine and lungs thick with smoke, laughed.
"I'm glad you're happy."
"Sleep on it, Jackson. Your men can sleep tonight in the Town Hall. The guest rooms for visiting congressmen and the like."
Lyle Jackson had a troubled grasp on the wine glass. The trembling of his bones shook his flesh. This night there was a peace in his heart. The cracks yet born had begun to heal. He saw a future with Elise only through holding hands with Rockefeller. For a second, he was glad. There was air in his lungs and that of his brother Nolan.
To that, he smiled.
|Step by Step: Act One|
|Come Here ☢ It's You ☢ Follow Them ☢ Soon ☢ Empty Omens ☢ Children and Fools|
|Step by Step: Act Two|
|Best Wine ☢ 30 Silvers ☢ Faith in Us ☢ Monday ☢ Raw ☢ Lost|
|Step by Step: Act Three|
|Bless ☢ Our Heart ☢ Bad Moon ☢ Monsters ☢ Prayers ☢ To His Lord|
|Step by Step: Act Four|
|Be Friends ☢ Meet Me ☢ Long Kiss ☢ Goodnight ☢ Your Passover ☢ Be-All and End-All|