Aphelion Issue 263, Volume 25
July 2021
 
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Every Single One

by Robert W. Bertrand


He should be dead, but he's not. Though, from the look of him, he might as well be. His left arm cradled by a poor-man's sling, his face hidden by layers of smoke and grime, bloodied lips and bruises that tell the story all too well, these things together tell me more than I need to know.

That's a bad sign, the first one I've seen all night in this red light district slum the locals convinced themselves was a diner. He approaches me and I wonder where his mind is at, here…with me in this "diner" or back on the battlefield.

"I need a gun," he says through gritted teeth, his manner evoking memories of ancient detective comics and times I thought were a long time gone. "A big one."

"Sit…please, for me, sit down."

"I don't have time to sit."

"First, how are you holding up?" I ask, trying to avoid a scene. Then I realize that at the moment we are surrounded by a dozen different on-going and semi-important dramas.

Behind me a pimp is telling her wares the importance of customer-service. Her face is hidden by make-up and over-sized sunglasses that take up half the surface of her face. A drug dealer is arguing with a waitress about the price of his meal, I can hear his high-pitched voice distinctly in my head as I try to figure out whether or not I'm going to add one more element of drama to a storybook brimming with the stuff.

"The spirit is willing. We'll see if the body sees things the same way."

Such machismo.

"Dead Man," I say to him, and this time the nickname seems a lot more appropriate, "is this your way of saying you want me to perform your eulogy? Because the last time I set foot in a church…"

That was a long time ago. He fails to smile or even acknowledge my stalling for time. I'm in a pinch and I've got to make a decision fast. A lot of bad images are floating through my head as I try to survey the situation. The kind of bad images that involve me being dealt spoonfuls of pain and discomfort, the kind I dread the most, those are the ones bombarding what little is left of my common sense.

"Things are coming to a head. Make a decision," he says, leaning over and pressing his lips to my ear, close enough that I can smell the mingled scents of blood, sweat and smoke. "This town has always belonged in Hell, and I'm just going to make sure it gets there. With or without your help…"

I pride myself, usually, in being indecisive and stubborn. Still…

"I've been saying to myself, Johnny, you really ought to think about relocating, but the cats just look at me like I'm insane. Tell you what, you escort me back to my place and I'll give you a present before I make my graceful exit. Sound fair?"

The Dead Man's face contorts slightly, either in pain or relief, and he turns and walks out of the diner nodding his head. I look down at a plate of something that was billed as ravioli and throw down a few gold pieces before taking my ball-cap and leaving this place for what will most likely be the last time. As I step through the door I notice a guy in his early twenties on a ladder fiddling with a neon sign that has been dead since before I ever found myself stuck here in the first place. Suddenly, and it must have been some surprise because the guy nearly falls off his ladder, the sign is sizzling and for the first time the name of the cheapest restaurant in the entire red light district seers itself into my brain.

"Who in the fuck is Molly?"

Oh well, whoever she is I doubt she ever thought her little diner would end up like this. I turn around just in time to catch a small ear-piece from the Dead Man before watching him cross the street. I put the little sucker in my ear and tell him he's pretty paranoid.

"Rightfully so, let's get a move on, shall we?"

"I won't miss this place."

"You shouldn't."

"What's going to happen after I leave?"

I notice in the corner of my eye that the Dead Man has vanished and for the second time tonight I am confronted with a truly bad sign.

"Don't make a sound!" I'm told by my attacker as he pulls me roughly into an alleyway and throws me down to the ground. Trash seems to scatter as I struggle to face the man whose gun barrel is staring me down.

"Whoa! Cowboy, calm down, let's just take this easy now."

"Shut the fuck up. Where is he?"

"Where is who?"

His finger is twitching, I wonder why I never found religion and how my senses are now extraordinarily in tune with my environment. I don't necessarily see the Dead Man, but my heart constricts one more time to let me know I'm still alive.

The funny thing is, Dead Man's not really that intimidating normally, and you'd have to know him to realize just how scared you should be in his presence. He's kind of short, just below average height, athletic, but he doesn't come off as a health freak…and yet to watch him work is like seeing some terrifying mythic warrior emerge out of the very concrete and somehow focus all the rage in the world into some sort of solid horrible matter. For instance, the speed he uses to bend my attacker's arm at the elbow backward, can only be called violent. Violent speed is what Dead Man is all about. I watch, not in horror but in awe, as bone emerges fractured through skin and is then used as a make-shift pike to puncture its owner's throat just underneath the chin.

His body drops to the ground and I try to count how many different ways this man was killed.

"We need to move fast. Where is the gun?"

"It's at my apartment…I have to get my cats out of here."

"John," I hate it when he calls me that, "are you telling me you have the gun I need in your apartment?"

"You have no clue what you're in for," I warn him. Of course, I don't have much of one either.

He dashes off again and I shake the dust off before emerging from the alley and making my way, this time more conscious of my surroundings, back home.

"So who are you going to kill, Dead Man?"

"Who?"

"Yeah, who exactly are you going to be aiming that vengeance at?"

"John, are you a religious man? I mean, do you believe in anything?"

"I suppose at one time in my life, yes."

"Think of this as a reckoning. For every man, every woman…for all of them, it's judgment day. I'm taking this city off the map or I will die in the effort."

My thoughts turn to the Polaris rifle stowed beneath the floor of my bed inside a lead casket. Dead Man has really come to the right man it seems.

"Everyone, eh? Why am I allowed to live then?"

"I said I needed a gun."

That shuts me up. The rest of this trip is traveled in silence as I mull over the possibility that I'll be the first victim of a weapon that was dubbed "God's ever-loving hand of pure unadulterated vengeance" by the military scientists who constructed the first model. How it came into my possession is a story all to itself, one I'll tell if I survive this day.

The door to my apartment has been kicked in. I'm not worried though all things considered. I doubt I'd have time to get my rent check back anyhow. With any luck Dead Man will blow this building up first.

Speaking of which, he darts in fast with that violent speed, and calls for me to enter. For the first time in our entire relationship with each other I see something akin to fear in his eyes.

"Not to worry…they wouldn't have found the Polaris rifle."

"The what?" he asks in disbelief. Or maybe it's just that he's tired, it's hard to tell with someone as hard to read as the Dead Man. Hell, that's the reason we call him the Dead Man to begin with.

"Polaris Rifle, seventy pounds of God's good will towards all men, and let's not forget women, they burn just as well. You said you wanted to kill everyone. You said you wanted to bring down everything this city has become, well you just happen to have met the right gun-runner. It's almost fate if you think about it…

"I really have been looking for an excuse to leave. I haven't hated any place as I have this one. The violence, the decadence, the apathy, this city is a haven for sociopaths and gutter-trash. My neighbors, three registered child molesters, convicted of child rape and the endangerment of a minor, sick fucks are allowed to walk the streets because a goddamned judge said it was okay. A judge Dead Man, it's pretty bad when a crook like me can look down on a respected authority figure, is it not?

"I've been here for ten years, ten years selling hardware to men I wouldn't piss on if they were on fire. It figures…it figures that the one man I've never had business with, the one honest man in this place, is the man this baby was meant for. It's fate Dead Man, fucking fate."

My bed has already been torn apart by whoever was here in the first place, but I open the hidden compartment beneath it thinking vaguely of the location of my cats. There it is, in a tiny lead coffin, the Polaris rifle. I lift the lid off the container and heave the heavy piece of technology out of the darkness and into the good hand of my would-be savior.

It's going to be now or never, I guess. Either he kills me or he delivers his sweet salvation while I make my escape from a city that has been nothing if not a long disgusting rape of my sorry soul.

"Get your cats and get out of here."

Salvation. His need for a weapon trumps any urge he might feel to start his housecleaning with me.

"Good luck."

He's out the door before I can even let out a sigh of relief. Without thinking I fall into automatic. I hear one of my cats, I think it's Oscar, whining softly inside one of the torn out cabinets inside my kitchen. I gather my essentials, not much, and stuff Oscar into a pet carrier that has been left lying in what had once been my living room.

"Janie! Get your kitty ass out here now!" I holler. Just as I'm about to give up, the little furball makes her dramatic little entrance from the hallway and I toss her in the carrier, not caring much about comfort. I'm saving their fucking lives, no doubt, so they can deal with a little discomfort.

The fastest way out of town is the train station and so it is the train station where I find myself sprinting with only a change of clothes, ID and two very disgruntled cats. I make it just in time to find a few dozen unhappy looking denizens of the city boarding the long unpolished silver canister they're passing off as a train these days. The ticket taker looks at me like I'm crazy and he may be right, but crazy or not I'm going to live and that's really all that matters in the end.

I fling gold at the man and almost forget to grab my ticket before spastically hopping inside the nearest car. The video-screen is lit up with celebrity stories and political smears. I zone it out and pray for the train to start moving. I'm thinking this is as good a time as any to give up on being a good little atheist. What I need is something to numb my soul to all the evil this place has brought me. Just this moment the train doors shut and suddenly we're making our exit at high speed. I think of Dead Man as I watch the cold grey of the city blur by then vanish, replace the grey with green and suddenly I feel like I'm moving forward. Maybe for the first time in my life I am moving forward.

The ear-piece gives me a little jolt to remind me that I haven't left everything behind. I touch it after a moment's hesitation.

"Every single one…" and then the familiar ominous static buzz fills my ear. Just as I try to imagine what exactly has happened the video-screen is alert with "this just in" and "emergency warnings". I'm confronted with a live video-feed of the red light district and there in the street dealing out death in droves is Dead Man. His movements are a blur on the screen, his shots are precise and calculated and with every shot a building starts to crumble before, like a child losing it's footing, collapsing onto the street. I watch as Dead Man, via live video, makes his frightening promise a reality. Men and women…there is no discrimination, every color, every walk of life. They all burn the same.

I place my hand inside the carrier and stroke one of the cats, maybe Oscar, not so much for his comfort but for mine. I feel sick inside at the insanity that I have unleashed upon the world.

No. Not the world. Just one very bad part of the world, the place deserved nothing better. What was it Dead Man told me? He said this was the reckoning. Every single one…

Cold hands grip my neck firmly and it is in this instant that I realize with certainty that I was followed. Out of the calm of utter disbelief I am thrown into chaos. Suddenly my world is a mirror reflection of the destruction that is filling the video-screen. I whirl around on the second person to attack me in less than an hour and see a woman I recognize as the waitress from "Molly's Diner", her demeanor now significantly more threatening than when arguing over a tip with a two-bit drug dealer.

"Hold on now, Miss," I start, but she's not having any of it.

I duck a kick and retreat towards the wall the video-screen is attached to and look around for something to defend myself with. How odd that a gun dealer would find himself in need of a weapon at a time like this. Poor planning on my part, I admit it.

"Miss, just be reasonable. Let's be reasonable. There is no reason in the world why we can't be reasonable."

On the third utterance of "reasonable" I watch as the bitch pulls off a metal bar from the window and wields it like a club. Chances for survival have just plummeted it seems and even with this realization I still manage to notice a single well-aimed shot with the Polaris Rifle that lets loose a highly destructive round directly into the camera. The screen goes blank and as if it were a cue I try to sprint past her only to find myself crashing down hard onto the cold plastic floor of the train staring into the eyes of my cats while the waitress-assassin places her metal bar against my neck trying her damnedest to choke me to death.

While the oxygen is slowly being cut off to my brain I notice that the video-screen remains blank. Dead Man must've taken out the satellite feed, maybe even the news station. Good for him.

"Stop struggling, it'll only make it take longer," the bitch tells me.

With my free hand, I slap at the carrier and release the hook letting the cage door open. The effort is enough to make my vision go dim around the edges, but I can guess what happens next. Oscar is the first out followed immediately by Janie. I hear the waitress-assassin scream out in pain and feel the hot splatter of blood on the back of my neck at the same time that the pressure on my throat ceases.

I see Oscar flung several feet away, he lands on his feet brightly. Then the bitch takes a hold of Janie, her face is pouring with the red stuff now and her eyes are crazed as she stares at my favorite of the two cats. Without a second thought she slams the cat down on the floor and I hear the unmistakable crunch of bone.

How I have the metal bar in my hands is a mystery. Why I am lying on top of what used to be a woman, a living breathing woman, and now is a mass of flesh and broken bones is beyond me. I pick pieces of what I think are brain matter off my coat and crawl away wondering how things got like this in the first place. Oscar comes up and starts licking blood off my hand and for some strange reason I don't stop him.

"You are going to be a man-eater?" I ask him, and then turn my eyes to Janie.

The first and only good sign of the day and possibly of the days to come is the fact that Janie seems all right. It's a miracle of sorts. She hobbles over to her attacker and begins to chow down on a piece of flesh I had brushed off my sleeve. I can tell that this will be a very long train ride…

THE END


© 2007 Robert W. Bertrand

Bio: Robert W. Bertrand currently lives in Kingsland, GA with his wife Sarah and his son Graham Riley. When not writing he spends a considerable amount of time keeping his cats from enjoying the taste of human flesh. (Hence, while the cats still eat human flesh, they don't enjoy the taste.)

E-mail: Robert W. Bertrand

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