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Last Friday I had to say goodbye to my best friend.  Those of you who have read my blog know him as Muttboy, but his real name was Seamus.  He was the best dog I have ever known.  He was charming, loving, and sweet, and everyone who met him loved him.  I used to joke that people who did not really care for dogs made an exception for Seamus; people who liked dogs loved him; people who loved dogs wanted him to be their dog.  It wasn’t really a joke, though: he was truly an exceptional creature.

Last year when I started writing on this blog again, I had hoped to get back into the rhythm of writing and keep the posts flowing.  Soon, though, I noticed that something was wrong with Seamus, and the worry from this overshadowed any minor plans I had.

It actually started a little earlier, when we visited some friends in Vermont for Thanksgiving.  It had snowed shortly before our visit, and Seamus was reluctant to wade through the drifts. He seemed more wary and careful than I was used to seeing him.  At first I thought it was just age starting to catch up with him, but then he recovered by Christmas and I thought I had been imagining things.  In January, I noticed again that he seemed not quite right.  I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was sick.  Part of me thought it was just my paranoia–when it came to Seamus’s health, I tended to be a little hyper-vigilant.  Then, one night, he was clearly in distress.  He spent the night panting and couldn’t seem to settle down.  He even let out a whimper or two.

The next day I took him to the vet and we did a few tests.  His regular doctor noticed that the muscles on the top of his head looked as if they had atrophied slightly–the little point at the back of his skull was very slightly more prominent.  She worried that this might be a sign of cancer, so we focused on that.  Initial blood tests were ambiguous, so we tested again.  The second tests were normal.  We decided to take an x-ray of his chest and abdomen to see if there were any problems.  The films were also ambiguous.  It was possible that his intestines looked slightly askew, which could mean something else was in there taking up space.  After a few more weeks of tests and second-guessing, we decided to take Seamus to the big veterinary clinic down in Norwalk for a surgical consult.

The big vet is housed in an impressive building, and there are many doctors working there.  The staff is large and friendly, with vet techs, surgical liaisons, and specialists.  Our first step was to have an ultrasound done of his belly.  After shaving the hair off his belly, the doctors scanned him and found that he did, as we suspected, have a tumor on his spleen.  The doctor examining the images said she thought it looked like the less serious (that is, not cancer) form of tumor, partly because it was still relatively small.  After talking to the surgeon, we decided to operate.

Seamus came through the surgery very well, and he managed, despite being doped up, to charm everyone working at the clinic.  “He is the best dog,” said one.  “Everyone loves him,” the surgical liaison told me.

His surgeon, who is exactly the type of person you want to have cutting into you or someone you love–exuding a perfectly capable and confident air–said the tumor was about the size of a tennis ball.  Since splenic tumors are usually not discovered until they are really big–more like the size of a volleyball–this one was small.  He also said that there was no visible metastasis, another good sign.

Then, at the end of the week, we got the call from the lab.  The tumor was a hemangiosarcoma.

The hemangiosarcoma is the worst type of splenic tumor, and, as I knew all too well from my Google searches, the prognosis was not good.  Most dogs don’t live longer than three months after this diagnosis.  A few live six months.  Almost none make it a year.

I put a good face on it, though, and decided that I would enjoy my time with my dog and see that he lived the best life he could.  We started walking in the woods again even before the doctors had cleared him.  He was too happy and eager to walk for us to stay in the house, and the winter and spring of 2012 was unusually warm and free of snow.  The woods were calling.

At the end of April, Seamus seemed great until one day he was limping, holding his head down, and whimpering in pain.  We sped down to the vet to see what was wrong.  I was sure this was the end.  It wasn’t, though.  The day before, we had run into a big dog in the park where we walk and Seamus had forgotten his age and romped.  His old shoulders were not up to that kind of roughousing, and he had hurt himself.  Some painkillers and advice to take it a little easier seemed like a good ending.

In her examination of Seamus, though, the doctor had discovered that he had the beginning of a tumor in his anal gland.  These tumors are slow-growing, the doctor assured us, so we could decide later if we wanted to have another surgery.  Because of his dire prognosis, we decided against surgery.

Spring passed and summer came.  Seamus spent hours walking in the woods with me, and he always grumbled when I took the trails that would get us back to the car sooner.  He wanted to walk longer.  He wanted to spend hours bushwhacking and exploring all the interesting scents.  He trotted happily for miles.

We hit the six month mark.  No sign of slowing down.

Eight months.  He still seemed to be perfectly happy and healthy.  We took him to his local vet to talk about his anal gland tumor.  By this point it had grown large enough that it was starting to cause him some discomfort, and he was having trouble relieving himself.  His doctor was not sure surgery was an option: the tumor might have grown too much.  Nevertheless, we scheduled a consult.

The surgeon, in his cocky/confident way, assured us that surgery was possible.  “I could do it in my sleep,” he told us.  However, he wouldn’t want to operate until he knew there was no metastasis.  First an x-ray to rule out metastasis from the original cancer.  This came back clean, and the surgeon just shook his head.  “I guess there are always exceptions,” he said.  Next up: another ultrasound to make sure the new cancer had not metastasized.  This also came back clean.  Seamus was cleared for another surgery.

He came through this very well and within two days he was like a new dog.  His appetite was great.  He was energetic.  He was happy.  Most importantly, he was comfortable again.  We went back to the woods for more long hikes.  We celebrated Christmas with a long walk and extra treats.  In January we welcomed his new little human brother into the world.

In April he started to have trouble relieving himself again.  Remembering what the doctor had said almost a year earlier about how slowly this kind of tumor grows, I thought we had some time.  This time, however, the tumor was seriously vicious.  By early May he was starting to get very uncomfortable, and the tumor was visibly larger than I had expected it to be.

In the middle of the month, he started drinking a lot more.  He went through four or five bowls of water a day and was peeing almost non-stop on our walks.  A quick Google search revealed that kidney disease was the most likely culprit.  Two weeks ago I took him back to his doctor to talk about his condition.  I knew he did not have a lot of time left, but I wanted to make whatever time he did have more comfortable.  His doctor agreed with my diagnosis: his kidneys were going.  She prescribed palliative painkillers and some high fiber food to help make things easier.

Last week the tumor had grown so much it had almost completely closed off his colon.  He would strain but couldn’t produce anything.  He had stopped eating unless I made the most tempting thing imaginable.

On Thursday I called his doctor.  It’s time, I told her.  I knew he was not going to get better, and I couldn’t bear to see him suffer any more.  He lived more than a year longer than he was supposed to, and I was very grateful for that time with him, but I knew it was over.

On Friday morning I got up early and cooked Seamus breakfast.  I made him scrambled eggs with bacon and cheese.  He looked at the dish with surprise but could not manage to eat more than a bite or two, and very small bites at that.  I grabbed his leash and led him to the car.  We were going to make one last hike in his beloved woods.

I parked in the lower parking lot, near the trails on the north side of the park.  These trails were more rugged, less traveled, and most interesting for a dog.  We started walking and Seamus trotted happily along in front of me, his tail held high and waving.  I wondered if I had made the wrong decision–he looked so good.  Then, after about half a mile, he slowed down.  He still looked happy to be walking, but he was not going to run and leap around like a puppy.

We came to a fork in the trail.  Seamus always wanted to go left, where the trail looped into even more wild territory. This day was no exception and I followed his bushy tail to the left.  After the trail starts to loop back to the main trail, we often used to go off the trail and bushwhack into the woods, following game trails or no trail at all.  Seamus wanted to do this, so once again I followed him.  We wandered through the woods, up and down, over rocks and downed trees.  He sniffed everything and walked slowly but happily.  Every so often he would look back at me with his lovely, sweet doggy grin, just to check in and make sure I was there and everything was okay.  When he needed to stop at a brook and get a drink, I waited patiently for him.  I talked to him, told him he was a good dog, scratched his ears.

After almost two hours, we made it back to the car.  It was a long walk but it was too short.  We drove home and waited for it to be time to go to the vet.  I laid on the floor with him and held him.  Seamus pressed himself back into me, snuggling closer.  Every so often I could feel him tense up in pain.  He never cried or let out any other sign of distress, but I could tell he was not feeling well.  I rubbed his ears, scratched his belly.  I kissed him on his forehead the way he liked it and dug my hands into the thick fur around his neck.  He licked me on the face and gazed at me.

Finally it was time.  A friend had agreed to watch the baby while we took Seamus away.  The vet’s office was ready for us.  I signed some papers and paid.  Then it was time to go into the room.

His doctor came in with a vet tech.  She explained the procedure and said we did not have to stay.  She said that as if she knew what my response would be.  I had to be there for my boy.  It was not right to leave him then.  It was my responsibility as his best friend, as someone who has loved him immensely for almost twelve years, to stay with him and comfort him on his way.

Watching him die was the hardest thing I have ever done.  I will always love that silly, smart, lovely dog.  I will always miss him.

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The Black Kitten, Part 7

And that was our grand opening.  I was worried that Mr. Rich would be pissed off that I had manhandled one of his cutomers even though that customer was manhandling one of Mr. Rich’s employees, but I didn’t need to worry at all.  Instead of firing me or reading me the riot act, he was actually happy to see me the next day.  He said the best part was that none of the other customers knew what was going on because I took care of things quickly and quietly.  As a sign of trust, he said, he would give me what he called dossiers on customers in the future, and I soon got used to finding a file folder waiting for me at work.  The folders had a page or two on each customer, with a photo, the guy’s name, his occupation, and anything else that Mr. Rich–or whoever put the dossiers togther–thought would be important.

This got me thinking.  What kind of club knew who its customers were before they arrived?  I don’t know much about fancy country clubs, so I guess they must have some information on their clients, but the type of dirt Mr. Rich’s dossiers had was a lot dirtier than anything I suspected the country club might have.  Arrest records, for example.  Or sexual kinks.

Which brings me to my realization about just what kind of business I was now in.  The models, or hostesses, or whatever you wanted to call them who arrived in the black Lincoln from somewhere in New York were clearly high priced call girls.  I’m not sure where Mr. Rich found them, but it’s not likely he just went down to Whores R us and picked up a couple.  Some nights the girls were the same, but there was some sort of rotation, and I only saw repeats a few times.  Also, as the month progressed, Mr. Rich must have decided that this part of the business was going okay, because he started bringing in more girls, sometimes as many as eight.  Instead, he must have connections, and a guy with connections like that, who could fill out a file on his customers and then find women who were into whatever kinks those customers had, was either a great guy to have on your side or a great guy to avoid.  Maybe both.

Anyway, the business didn’t really bother me at all.  If the women wanted to make a living that way, who was I to stop them.  It’s not like the work I was doing before Mr. Rich hired me was any more dignified.  We were all just doing the shit work for rich guys.  I also noticed that not all of them were taking the guys upstairs.  For some of the customers, just spending the evening with beautiful young women who pretended to think everything they said was great was enough.

I don’t know what these rich guys were paying because I never saw any money change hands, at least not officially.  One night, I saw an older guy–he must have been in his seventies–spend all evening with one of the girls.  He talked all night long, about what I don’t know.  Telling war stories, for all I know.  At the end of the night, he tried to be all discreet and hand her a thick roll of cash.  Suddenly, everyone in the room seemed to go totally blind.  No one would look at the guy or the money.  The girl–the pale strawberry blonde from the first night–laughed an embarrassed little laugh and gently pushed his hand away.  When she did that I could see the outer bill was a hundred.  If all of the bills in the roll were the same, that had to be at least two grand.  If that was the going rate for talk, I wondered what it was to go upstairs with one of the girls.

I guess at this point I should tell you what the layout of the place was, not that it was all that complicated.  The Victorian mansion had a wide porch that ran around three sides, so you entered by climbing three steps to the porch and then going in the wide double doors.  Immediately to the left was a large closet and a small desk where Arianna sat to greet guests and take their heavy coats and gloves On the opposite side was another closet that had been left open to form my little alcove.  A broad staircase ran upstairs to six bedrooms on the second floor.  Mr. Rich’s office and a restroom flanked the stairs.  On the left side of the ground floor was the gathering room where guests could play cards, talk, or have semi-private meetings.  To the right was the lounge, with heavy overstuffed chairs and couches.  In the back was the kitchen, and the chef kept himself busy making fancy fingerfoods and sometimes a real meal.  And that was about it.  The third floor was private, and that’s where the girls stayed when they weren’t entertaining guests.

The rest of the first weekend was quiet.  I didn’t have to dig out my kubotan, didn’t even have to think about doing it.  More guests arrived the next night, and they all behaved themselves.  Sunday night came and was even more calm and quiet.  I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.

Monday was one of my days off since Mr. Rich wanted to keep this a weekend and holidays sort of operation.  I was sitting at my kitchen table, drinking coffee and wondering what to do with my day when I heard a big truck pull up in the driveway.  I got up to investigate and saw it was a delivery truck from a big sporting goods store.  A beefy guy got out and started pulling things out of the back and stacking them in my driveway.

“What’s going on?” I asked him as I came out the side door.

“Delivery,” he siad.  No shit, I wanted to say back, but I held my tongue.

“What are you delivering?  I didn’t order anything.”

He pulled an invoice out of his pocket.  “Says here a Paul Rich ordered this stuff and wanted it delivered here.”  He looked at the invoice again.  “Oh, yeah, and I’m supposed to tell you ‘thanks for doing a good job.'”

“What the hell does that mean?”  I asked, but the delivery guy just rolled his eyes and gave me a “how the hell should I know look.”

I signed for the delivery and looked at the boxes and teh truck disappeared down the road.  One box had a big punching bag, one of those bags the size of a fifty-five gallon drum.  The other boxes had a weight bench and set of free weights.  I laughed when I saw that.  I guess Mr. Rich didn’t want me to get soft in my cushy new job.  I dragged the stuff into my garage and started setting up.  I could see he had a point, since I only had to wander around a high-class brothel a couple of nights a week, nothing to keep me in fighting trim.

It turned out to be a good thing, too.  As I said, the rest of the weekend went by so quietly I started to worry about getting too bored, and the rest of the month was almost as bad.  The last Friday of the night was different, though.  To start, Mr. Rich looked nervous or excited when I got to work that afternoon.  this threw me off a little, because he is alsways so cool you have to wonder if he’s really alive or if he just a corpse with an electric cable stuck up his ass to make him look lifelike.  He kept pacing around and licking his lips and checking on things he had already checked a hundred times.  Finally, I took my file folder with the dossiers of the night’s customers and went off to my little alcove to look them over.

The first one caught my eye, and I knew that Mr. Rich wanted it to catch my eye because he, or the someone who put together the dossiers, had marked the top with a red star.  The picture of the guy caught my eye first, because it was not the usual studio portrait type of thing.  Instead, it was a publicity shot from a bodybuildign competition.  The guy was posing in one of those tiny ball pouches in neon green.  His oiled muscles gleamed in the stage lights, and his skin had that weird orange tone that comes form tanning booths.  There was another picture of him in a white dress shirt unbuttoned to show off his steroid-enhanced chest.  His collar was popped, and his short hair was gelled into dumbass little spikes.  A real guido asshole, in other words.  I looked at his name finally and whistled low, under my breath.  If I told you his name, you might recognize him as the son of a local “businessman,” who had let’s just call them real good connections.  Junior here was now almost thirty and ran a chain of bodybuilding studios in the Boston-Providence metro area.  If popular opinion and gossip had any truth, then Junior’s business was just a convenient way for Big Daddy to dispose of some inconvenient income.  A vanity project and money laundering scheme all in one.

I set the dossier aside and thought.  Clearly Mr. Rich knew the guy from somewhere, or maybe knew his dad.  That would help explain some of the things about him that made me nervous.  To get this place up and runnign so quickly, and to have access to the kinds of girls he was importing every week meant he had some connections of some sort.  His nervousness, though, didn’t seem like he wanted to impress a business associate by sucking up to his son.  There was something else going on, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it yet.  Plus, as far as I could tell, this was a strictly invitation-only establishment.  Why had Mr. Rich invited this guy?

I was looking out the window when I saw Junior the guido asshole drive up.  It had to be him.  No one else would drive a pimped out black Hummer like that with a vanity plate that read BODY1.  What a fucking asshole.  He got out of the car with his entourage of three ugly fucks who all seemed to be competing to catch his attention.  They were also all a lot smaller than him both in height and build.  This told me something.  Junior liked to surround himself with guys who were inferior to him, guys who couldn’t threaten his picture of himself.  If his dad really did have some shady connections, he might have been better off with a couple of ugly mugs with guns, guys who could cover his ass if things started to get dicey.  Instead, he went with a trio of ass-kissers.  My already low opinion of this posing musclehead went down even lower.

Then there was the way the four of them dressed.  All of the customers so far had dressed quietly and conservatively, in business suits or at least sober weekend country club gear.  These guys, though, were loud.  Junior had on baggy but obviously expensive jeans and a glaring white shirt unbuttoned almost to his navel, showing off his fake bake.  He had a huge leather and fur coat draped carelessly over his shoulders and sunglasses with rhinestones at the temples.  To top it all off he had a thick gold chain around his beefy neck.  His boys were dressed in the same way, but a little less flashy.

They came in, making much more noise than the usual customers, but Arianna, to her credit, greeted them in the same warm and polite way she greeted everyone.  I gave them my usual unsmiling nod, but I tensed up when it looked like they thought Arianna might be one of the girls and not the hostess.  She was used to getting hit on by experts, though (she had previously worked at a very posh restaurant in Salisbury where drunk Hollywood types liked to hang out), and she easily herded them into the lounge.

For most of the evening, things looked okay, though a little louder than usual.  The meatheads were not causing any real trouble that I could see, and I was watching them especially carefully.  They all huddled in one corner of the lounge and soon got one of the girls to hang out with them.  She was a new one, and I remembered thinking when she arrived that she didn’t look quite like the usual girls Mr. Rich hired.  She was a very pretty and well-built blonde, but she had a certain trashy air that the other girls didn’t have despite what they were doing.  I realized now that Mr. Rich had hired her just for Junior and his crew.  They guy knew what he was doing, I guess.

As I made the rounds, I could hear Junior and his crew laughing at some joke he had told.  Judging by the way the girls was trying not to look hurt, the joke was probably at her expense.  I knew Mr. Rich didn’t like this type of disresepct, but since they hadn’t done anything too outrageous, I left them alone.  I was back in my alcove about fifteen minutes later when I heard a scream and then Junior’s voice cutting through it as he shouted, “You fucking skank!”

I was in the lounge bfore the echo from his shout died away, but Mr. Rich was there ahead of me.  He looked completely different.  Instead of his usual commanding presence, he was playing the bowing and scraping nobody.  “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to keep your voice down,” he was saying as I walked in.

“Fuck that shit,” Junior spit in his face.  “This place sucks!  What kind of skanks you have working here anyway?”

Mr. Rich smiled apologetically and held his hands up as if to say, “What can I do?”

I moved forward to stand right behind Mr. Rich.  I kept my eye fixed on Junior, and this apparently bugged him.  I was happy to bug him.  He had been bugging me all evening.

“The fuck are you looking at, you fucking monkey?” he yelled at me.  “I’ma kick your pucking ass!”

He walked over to me and stood right up against me.  I glanced over at Mr. Rich, and the change in his face almsot knocked me over.  The suck-up was gone, and the hardass was back.  He gave me a tiny smile and an even tinier nod.  I turned my attention back to Junior and looked him right in the eye.  Then I took a step back and took off my suit coat.  Arianna was right there to take it from me.

“ALL RIGHT!” Junior screamed and ripped–yes, literally ripped–his shirt off.  He stood there in front of me, flexing his juiced up muscles as if he were in one of his pansy competitions.

I didn’t take the time to admire his physique but punched him hard in the nose.  The entire room could hear the bone breaking, and the blood flew.  Junior screamed again and swung at me.  He was semi-blinded by the tears and blood in his eyes, so I didn’t really have to do much to avoid his wild punch.  I turned to the side and let his fist bounce off my shoulder.

I moved in again and fired two quick hits at his side.  He oofed out his breath and took a half step back.  I hit again and heard a rib break.  He screamed again and tried to bring his knee up to crush in my crotch, but I easily deflect it with my leg.  As he was off-balance on one leg, I kicked at his standing leg and hit his knee hard.  He went down in a screaming, bloody heap.

Mr. Rich came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.  “That’s enough,” he said.  I shrugged his hand away and knelt by Junior’s side, taking his face in my hand.  I squeezed his cheeks together and shook his face lightly.

“Look at me,” I said quietly.  “Look at me.”  His eyes met mine.  “Remember this face.  If you ever see it again, you’re a dead man.”  I let go of his face, wiped his blood off my hands on his expensive jeans, got up, and left.

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The Black Kitten, Part 6.5

I should have written this last night, but the headache intervened.

When the first day arrived, I showed up early, all dressed up in one of my new suits, one of my ridiculously expensive shirts, and a dark blue tie.  I had the cell phone bluetooth headset stuck in my ear, and my wicked little ninja tool in my pocket.  I felt ready for whatever the hell this job was going to be.  My spot next to the door was waiting, and the hostess, a girl named Arianna, looked very good in a littl black dress.  Mr. Rich was waiting for us, and he immediately pulled me aside.

“I have some more employees arriving this evening.  They will be staying here for the weekend before going back home.  You’ll need to meet their car and unload their baggage,” he told me.  I nodded but wondered what sort of club hired employees who came in on the weekends and then went back to wherever they came from.

I figured that out soon enough as my headset buzzed in my ear.  The car had arrived, so I had to get to work.  The car, a huge Lincoln Continental with New York plates, was waiting by the back door, and three women got out.  They were all wearing form-fitting dresses that showed off their assets, and they all looked like models.  Hell, for all I knew, they were models.  The driver, a tough looking black dude in a black suit, black shirt, and black tie, opened the trunk for me and then stood aside.  “Have a nice drive up?” I asked him.

He lowered his dark sunglasses and looked at me over the tops.  “Man, I don’t get paid to have a nice time driving them.  And if I want to keep, you know, everything”–he made a brief gesture at his crotch–“I don’t notice anything, know what I’m saying?”

“Gotcha,” I said and pulled the three small suitcases out of the trunk and carried them inside and up to the third floor rooms that Mr. Rich had indicated.  The job was off to a good start.  I knew what I was supposed to do: I was hired labor.  It wasn’t much different than what I was used to doing, except this was a lot cleaner than hauling rocks and I was getting paid a lot more.

Soon, as dusk fell, a few cars drove up, rich-looking guys got out, and the cars drove on.  Several guys, usually driving expensive sports cars, drove themselves and parked in teh lot behind the place.  They were all a lot like Mr. Rich–fiftyish, wearing expensive suits, and looking like they knew how to handle themselves in almost any social situation.  Some of them gathered in the main downstairs room, where waitresses–not the women who had arrvied in the Lincoln, by the way–circled with trays of fancy finger foods and glasses filled with high-powered liquor, definitely not the kind of stuff you would get at the tavern.  A few more sat around a table in one of the smaller rooms, and I could hear the banter and laughter of a card game coming from that room shortly afterward.

The women didn’t make an appearance until later in the evening.  They came downstairs and made themselves at home in the overstuffed chairs.  I was circulating through the downstairs rooms at this point just to make sure everything looked quiet and sophisticated as Mr. Rich wanted, and I got a good look at the floor show.  One of the women, a beauty with long, flowing chestnut hair and a deep blue dress that revealed a lot of the smoothest cleavage a man could ever hope to see, leaned forward to laugh at the lame joke of one of the guys.  Another woman, this one a strawberry blond in dark green and skin so pale and translucent it looked like something only an angel could get away with having, seemed to be hanging on every word one of the suits was saying.  I caught a snatch of the conversation, and he seemed to be entertaining her with some tale of his business exploits.  I only heard a few words but I could tell teh story was boring as hell.  If nothing else, these women were damned good actresses.

The third woman was seated in another cluster of chairs near the fireplace.  She had long, straight, shiny hair as black as satan’s sin, and a blood red dress of some clingy material.  It was clingy enough that I could tell that she wasn’t wearing a bra, and I remembered the driver’s warning and quickly looked away.  I glanced back, though, becasue I could tell something was wrong.  She was not laughing and playing up to the guy the way the other women were.  Instead, she seemed to be trying not to show the shock on her face as her companion leaned in and leered.  He had a grip on her forearm and his fingers seeme to be digging into her flesh.  I backed into a dark alcove where I could be unobtrusive but still see what was going on.

The leering ape was one of the guys who had driven himself, I recalled, and it was a car that I was not likely to forget.  We see a lot of fancy sports cars up here–we’re not all that far from the Lime Rock race course, and most of the second home businessmen up here seem to own stock in Porsche–but this car stood out.  It was a low-slung Lamborghini in what one of my friends down at the tavern would have called “pussy magnet yellow.”  In other words, it was a huge, fast, very bright sign saying the guy driving it was an asshole.  I hadn’t like him when he came in, and now, seeing the way he was acting, I liked him even less.  I reached into my pocket and felt the reassurance of my ninja tool.

The ape had released her forearm but grabbed her other hand when she made a move to stand up.  He pulled her back into the cozy loveseat they were sharing.  I could see, even from across the room, the tendons in his hand stand out as he squeezed her hand.  She seemed to let out a little whimper, but I couldn’t hear it over the low rumble of conversation and tastefully piped-in classical music.  He reached into his pocket with his other hand and pulled out something I couldnt’ see, though I did catch a glint of light on something shiny.  He held whatever it was on the back of her hand and made a small, quick gesture and the woman flinched and bit her lip.  He grinned and leaned back so I could see a small trickle of blood flowing down her hand.  The next thing he did turned my stomach.  He pulled her hand to his mouth and sucked up the blood, still grinning.

The woman turned her head to the side and looked like she might be sick.  His hand shot out–the hand with what must have been some sort of small blade–and caressed her cheek.  His fingers did some sort of twinkling trick and the blade flashed again.  A thin line of red appeared along that perfect jaw.  The woman got up quietly and strode out of the room.  the other women glanced up, but they were paying too much attention to their customers to see much.  The ape got up and walked quickly after her.  I stepped in behind him, very quietly.

He caught her just as she was about to go up the stairs and grabbed her by the wrist.  Now that they were out of earshot of the others, the woman felt more bold and she hissed, “Let me go!”

“What’s the matter?  Don’t you knwo I’m paing for whatever I want, you stupid cunt?”  He flourished the blade and looked like he was aiming for her face again.

He never made the cut.  I grabbed his wrist with my left hand and pulled him around som he was facing me.  His eyes were startled, but that lasted only a second.  I popped him in the solar plexus with my wicked little tool, and his eyes lost their look of surprise and rolled back in his head.  I caught him before he could hit the floor and dragged him into the little control room with the video displays and dropped him into a chair.

In a few minutes, he sputtered back into consciousness.  “What the fuck–?” he managed to say before groaning in pain and pulling up his shirt to reveal two little puncture marks from the prongs of my ninja weapon.  I was also happy to see a huge, spreading bruise forming.  He looked up at me.  “Are you the mother fucker who did this to me?”

I stepped closer and showed him what was in my fist.  “That’s right.  If you give me any more trouble, I’ll pop you in the throat next time, got it?”  The cheap bravado left his eyes and his lip trembled.  Behind me, I heard the door open.

“Thank you, Calvin, I’ll handle it from here,” Mr. Rich said, patting me on the shoulder.  “Please see if you can get some bandages and antiseptic for Miss Lucas.”

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The Black Kitten, Part 6

Bad headache, but if I don’t work on this stupid thing, I worry that it’ll die of neglect.  I promised one reader that this installment would be bloody, but I’ve rethought the timeline, so I don’t know how bloody it’ll get until I get there.  And without further whining, The Black Kitten, Part 6:

Mr. Rich’s grand opening was a month later.  It wasn’t much of a grand opening, and that was fine with me.  For some reason, the whole enterprise was giving me the creeps.  Part of it was the new suit.  Correction: new suits.  Greenaway made me three, and I don’t even want to think about what they cost.  Part of it was the pay.  Mr. Rich was paying me regularly, once a week, even though nothing had started yet.  I basically just wandered around for a month and tried not to think about things, but mental discipline was never my strong point, so I thought a lot of bad thoughts.

The opening, like I just said, was not very grand.  Mr. Rich seemed to think that being quiet and low-key was the way to go, “understated elegance” he called it.  For being such a hard ass, he sure had a soft way with words.  At any rate, the opening was scheduled for a Friday at the end of the month, and I had to be there, ready to do my thing, whatever that was going to be, by late in the afternoon so I could see to any last minute things before the doors opened at six o’clock.

During the month leading up to the opening, I had done more than just sit on my ass.  I did have to go back down to Greenwich to pick up my suits, along with a ridiculous pile of shirts, a couple of ties, enough socks for a week and a half, and a pair of fancy shoes.  This trip was mostly uneventful, except for one little thing that I’ll tell you about later.  It was really tiny, but it turned out to help me in a big way later.

Mr. Rich did give me some idea about the kind of work I would be doing.  He gave me a cell phone with one of those bluetooth headsets that clips to your ear.  The headset was tiny, so I guessed that, like everythign else in this little game, it was expensive.  Nothing but the best for Mr. Rich.  He told me that I should keep the headset on while I was at work.  He didn’t think I’d necessarily need to call him (I had to program the phone to respond to voice commands–if I said “boss” it would dial Mr. Rich), but the headset alone would be enought to warn off most trouble.

And that was my game.  I was the guy to keep trouble at bay, or, better yet, crush it underfoot before it could run crazy.  When the doors opened, I would sit at a small desk in a small alcove to the right of the door, where the guests wouldn’t see me right away (they would see the greeter first) but would soon get the idea that I was the establishment’s hardass.  Every so often, I was to cruise the premises, inside and out, to make sure things were going well.  I wondered about the surveillance cameras I saw earlier, and a couple of days before we opened, I saw a bank of small tv screens inside Mr. Rich’s office.  He told me that he might need me to man the screens from time to time, and he showed me a little joystick thing that I could use to move the cameras and zoom in if I wanted.

All of this was fine, but more than a little boring.  I wasn’t really looking forward to any fights, but the month before we opened was just so deadly dull I thought about starting something down at the tavern just for the hell of it.  Then, a week before opening, Mr. Rich gave me a little gift that made it all real, and I felt a mix of nervousness and excitement that made the sweat break out all over my body.  He gave me a little tool, a rod made out of some sort of machined metal–stainless steel ot titanium–with a chekcerboard texture cut into it, for grip, I guess.  It was about six inches long and had two prongs about an inch long sticking out towards one end.  It looked a little like the letter F.  I could hold it in my fist so no one would see it, with the two prongs sticking out between my fingers.  It was more versatile and more dangerous than brass knuckles, and I found out from a guy at the tavern that it’s called a ninja kubotan, and that made me feel even more badass.

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The next day I saw two black Ford vans with New York plates pull up in front of the Victorian mansion.  They had no logos or anything on them, but the guys who got out were wearing gray coveralls and carrying toolboxes.  At first I thought they must be electricians–their hands were too clean for them to be any other kind of contractor–but then I saw them pull several small boxes out of the back.  My guess would be surveillance gear, cameras and whatnot.  It pissed me off a little.  If Mr. Rich wanted me to be his security guy, how come I wasn’t in on this?  I was about to go say something to Mr. Rich and maybe get my ass handed to me again when he walked up behind where I was standing on the town green.

“Calvin,” he said.  “I have a small job of sorts for you.”  He handed me one of his cards.  As far as a business card goes, it was weird.  I had some cards that I got from Kinko’s with my name and phone number and the great slogan, “Maintenance, landscaping, plowing.”  I got a thousand of them for ten bucks and I used to leave them posted on the bulletin board outside the yuppie organic food shop down route 41.  Mr. Rich’s were different, though.  His said, simply, Paul W. Rich in a fancy script with his cell phone number below that.  The paper was different, too.  Mine were the cheapest white card stock, but Mr. Rich’s felt rich, a creamy off-white that probably had some stupid faggot fancy name like eskimo vanilla creme or something.  They also had a texture that made them look like they were made out of stiff cloth.

“I want you to take this down to Greenaway’s Tailors down in Greenwich,” he said.  “Your clothing needs to be, shall we say, more appropriate to your position.”  I turned the card over and saw “Take good care of Calvin, per our phone conv.” written on the back.

“What?  A tailor?  I–”

“Yes, Calvin, a tailor.  Tailors make clothes, you know.  I’ll tell you how to get there.”  I decided to give no resistance.  Resistance wouldn’t do me any good, anyhow.

I hate to drive down to Fairfield county, especially the part right along the coast. You might as well be driving in New York fucking City, and I would rather get kicked in the crotch than do that.  But when Mr. Rich says go, I had to go.  I drove down route 7, which isn’t so bad until you hit just north of Danbury, and then it’s stoplights and idiots from New York shopping in Connecticut’s lower sales tax.  It gets worse the closer to Long Island sound you get, and by the time I finally found the stupid place, I was ready to hit someone, anyone in the face.

Greenaway’s Tailors is on a side road just off the main commercial drag, which is just as well.  I felt conspicuous as hell driving my old pickup with the plow attachment on the front and fifteen years’ worth of rust framing the wheels.  There were a few other trucks like mine around, and I noticed that every single one was filled with Guatemalans looking scared and out of place.  I didn’t blame them.  These fuckers wanted their yards looking perfect–a single dead leaf would probably send them to the hospital with heart palpitations–and they wanted the little dark men to keep them perfect and tehn fade out of sight immediately, if not sooner.

Anyway, I parked out front, hoping some asshole would give me grief for uglifying the neighborhood, but the street was quiet.  The tailor shop was in a large stone building with expensive-looking twelve over twelve windows.  I had installed some just like that in a big house, and they are a bitch to put in.  The doorway leading in was likewise, real French doors with brass handles, and I noticed that my hands were sweating as I pulled the door open.

An icy-looking blonde in a tight but severe-looking gray suit, with a short skirt and white stockings imeediately clicked up to me, her cold blue eyes giving me the up and down.  I looked down at myself and saw what she saw: a short, wide, tough looking guy with faded Levi’s, a frayed plaid shirt, and wolverine workboots.  At least I had brushed the dirt off my boots when I put them on this morning.

“Can I help you?” she asked, and I could hear the other, unspoken part of her question: “Or should I call and have someone toss your sorry ass out the door?”

“Uh, yes.  I, uh, that is, I have–”  What did I have?  I had a stupid business card, but I had no fucking idea what I was supposed to do once I got here.  I started to plan ways to hurt Mr. Rich when I saw him again.

“Yes?”  There was an edge in her voice as she reached up and touched the back of her neck.  This must have been a signal, because I saw two guys in the back get up out of the overstuffed chairs they were sitting in and start to move to the front of the store.

“I have this,” I said and handed her Mr. Rich’s card.  She wrinkled her little WASP nose and took it delicately, as if she thought it might be coated with cow shit.  When she saw the name on the card, though, her face lit up.

“Ah, yes!  You must be Calvin.  Please, come back here.  Could we get you some coffee?  A cappucino?”

I figured a cappucino would be the most trouble, so I said yes, I would have one of those.  The blonde led me to a curtained alcove, thrust the curtain aside with a dramatic flair that made her ass wiggle inside that tight gray skirt, and I thought she almost looked pretty, almost as if she wouldn’t give your dick frostbite.  “Mr. Greenaway will be in immediately.  I’ll get you your cappucino.”  She flashed another smile, raising her temperature to something almost human and strode off.

Mr. Greenaway was there immediately, and I wondered just what Mr. Rich had told these people on the phone to make them practically fight each other to be able to kiss my ass.  Mr. Greenaway was tall and slender, and even a jerk like me could see that the suit he was wearing was top notch.  You just wanted to take his jacket and curl up with it and take a nap.  I had never been to a tailor before, and I was a little weirded out by all of the measurements Greenaway took, and I was about to ask if he needed to measure my dick, too, but I remembered that I was representing Mr. Rich here.  He noted down all of the measurements in a little black leather notebook and disappeared into a back room.

Blondie reappeared with my cappucino in a real china cup on a saucer, and I sat down in the chair she pointed me to.  It was good coffee, and I managed to get past my earlier reation to her well enough to thank her for it.  Greenaway came back for a moment and said something like “eighteen and thirty-two” and Blondie jumped and trotted off to another part of the store.  I sat back and savored the cappucino, thinking how much nicer it was to be the waited on rather than the waiter.

Blondie came back with a pile of shirts, folded up and wrapped in cellophane.  “Mr. Rich specified that you would like several white shirts, and he also asked me to choose some colors as well.”  I glanced at them and nearly ruined the top one when I saw a tag that said it cost $250.  It took all my control to keep from spitting coffee and milk foam all over it.

“Um, that will be great.  Good.  Fine.”  How the hell do these people talk?  I felt like everything I said was bordering on the obscene.  I might as well say, “Sure, I’ll take all of these motherfucking shirts, and do you have one in fucking purple, you high-toned bitch?”  I didn’t, though, and I wondered if my short acquaintance with Mr. Rich was rubbing off on me.

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The Black Kitten, Part 4

Later that day, I was sitting at my kitchen table, wondering just what the hell had happened to me when I heard a car pull into the gravel drive.  The muffler sounded shot, so I made a bet with myself that it was my old man.  Never make a bet with yourself–even when you win you lose.  It was my old man, and, since he didn’t come around all that often, I was curious about what he wanted.

I went to the side door and stood there to watch him come up.  He slid painfully out of the pickup cab and slammed the door, probably harder than he needed to, but then that always was his way.  He turned and limped slowly to the door, letting me get a good look at him, not that I needed one.  Although he was only, what? sixty-five?  Not any older than that, for sure.  Anyway, he wasn’t all that old, but he had that battered face that comes from spending days outside during humid New England summers and frigid New England winters.  He was short and wide, like me, but the big muscles were slack and ropy now, and his thick hair was now almost completely white.

“Calvin,” he said as I stepped aside and let him come in.  He sat down with a big sigh and I got him a bottle of Coors from the fridge.  He drank down half without pause, set it down in front of him and looked sharply up at me.  “Heard you were talking to that new guy that blew into town earlier this week.”

“That a fact?”

“Oh, yeah.  That’s what I hear.”  He stared at me and I could see some of his old challenge still there, the kind of challenge that caused many a fight in the long years past.  Once, when I was sixteen, we went at it, and he hit me across the back with a two by four.  I pulled it out of his hands and broke it over his forehead, and since then our fights have been mostly shouting.

“Your sources are good, then,” I told him.  I knew he wanted me to say more, to tell him the whole story, and it was driving him crazy that I wasn’t spilling.  He needed to ask for it, though, was what I decided.

“What’s your business with him?”  There.

“Business.”  I paused, wondering if I should make him ask again, but I took pity on the poor old fool.  “He gave me a job.”

“Oh, yeah?”  His eyes lit up.  “Is he buying a place here, then?  Need some help renovating?”

“Yeah.  No.”  I wasn’t quite sure how to describe what I was going to do, so I paused again.

“Well, tell the goddamn story.  What kind of work is it?  Anything for an old guy like me?”

“No, it’s…complicated.”

“What, like electrical work?  You know I can do that shit.”

“No, not complicated that way.  The job…it’s not the usual kind of thing.”

He leaned back in the chair and made the motions of settling in to hear a story.  “Go on.”

What could I say?  It was all perfectly normal, but at the same time it felt all wrong, like a bit of carpentry that’s just a little off plumb and skews just enough that the level shows it but not enough to cause any serious problems.  I guess I should quit bullshitting around like this and just try to explain what happened.

After Mr. Rich told me I was his hired hand, whether I wanted to be or not, we walked down the road from The White Lily to the old Victorian mansion on the other corner of the green.  The Avon mansion is one of those big, rambling houses with lots of little rooms with odd, unusable dimensions–octagonal rooms and strange things like that.  The outside looks like it was built by a damnably talented carpenter who was maybe high on whatever passed for crack back in the 1890s.  To say that it had gingerbread molding is to say that New England soil has some rocks.  Every curlicue, deranged flower shape, and zigzag pattern you could imagine showed up on the outside of that house.  Not only that, with all of that fancy-work, there were lots of layers, nooks, and crannies, and each one was carefully painted in some bright color—emerald green, ruby red, amber, you name it.  People driving through town like to stop and take pictures of the place, which is one giant pain in the ass if you get caught behind them.  Up until a month or so ago, it had been a bed and breakfast, but the owners had enough of the cold winters and moved everything to Florida.

Mr. Rich strode right up the front steps to the large wrap-around porch as if he owned the place, and, before he told me, I knew that he did, in fact, own the place.  That figures, I thought.  This building had the same sort of prissy, fussy exterior that showed on the man, but, like Mr. Rich, the building was solid and toughly built inside.  He stopped at the front door and looked at me.

“This, Calvin, is going to be my new business venture,” he said.

“And I’m going to be your bouncer, right?”  I made a show of looking around, even though I knew the place well already.  I had replaced the furnace just two years ago.  “Don’t know how to tell you this, but it doesn’t exactly look like a place that needs a bouncer.  I mean, it doesn’t look like the velvet rope kind of place, now, does it?”

“Bouncer is your word, Calvin,” he told me in a schoolteacher sort of voice.  It wasn’t my word but his, but never mind that.  “This is going to be an elite little gathering spot.”  He pronounced elite “ayleet,” and I started to worry again about how I was going to fit in this “ayleet” establishment.

“It will be a private club, with a very select patronage.  Men who may need things done for them, who might feel more comfortable with the knowledge that this is a discreet, secure place, with a tough, no-nonsense security man on the premises.  That would be you.”

I turned and walked along the porch railing to the side of the house away from the street.  It could work, I thought.  Maybe.  But wasn’t there already a country club?  I know there are a lot of wealthy types up here, but I wasn’t so sure that this town needed another rich hideout.  As I was standing there I saw a young girl of come around from the back of the house holding something close to her thin chest.  She saw me standing there and she started like a young deer, but then she saw Mr. Rich behind me, and she looked reassured.  She had to be his daughter, then, since only blood kin could find him reassuring.

“Daddy,” she said in a small voice.  Now that she was closer, I could see that she was a little older than I had thought, maybe thirteen, and my heart broke a little bit more.  “Look what I found.”  She held up a small black kitten.  It made a tiny mewling sound and she stroked its ears softly.  “Can I keep it?”

I glanced back at Mr. Rich to see what he would say.  He didn’t strike me as the animal-lover type, and I couldn’t imagine his heart getting soft at the sight of a kitten.  His daughter, though, was another story.  His face softened and he said, “Yes, but you will have to take care of it.  This is not a joke.  Taking care of an animal is a real responsibility, and I expect you to do it well.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she said.  She smiled into the kitten’s fur and ran softly back around the house.

Mr. Rich’s face had returned to its usual state and he eyed me with that same sort of amusement–like he was watching a dog perform some sort of unusually civilized trick–that he normally used with me.  The smile he gave his daughter was real enough, but the one he gave me was cold, hard, and calculated.  “So, Calvin.”  He stopped and seemed to be at a loss.  He couldn’t very well ask me if I would take the job, since he had already told me I was taking it, so what was there to say?

“This fancy ‘ayleet’ club–what’s it called?” I asked, giving “ayleet” just a hint of a sarcastic twist.

Mr. Rich laughed, a large, honest laugh for a change.  “Oh, Calvin, there is more to you than meets the eye, isn’t there?”  He looked around as if sizing up the place.  “A name.  Yes.  I was going to call it simply ‘The Club.'”

“That sounds pretty stupid, if you ask me.”

“You may have noticed, Calvin, that I did not ask you.”  That quick glimpse of honest good cheer I thought I had seen a moment ago was gone, and the cold, hard son of a bitch was back with a vengeance.  He looked like he might like to hit me again.  “What, if I may deign to ask, would call my fine establishment?”

“The Black Kitten,” I said.

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The Black Kitten, Part 3

I got in my truck and drove into town, found a parking space, and walked up to the front entrance of The White Lily.  I looked at my watch as I started up the stairs and saw that it was just about nineteen minutes after I had hung up, or, really, after Mr. Rich had hung up on me.  That made me feel uneasy, I hate to admit.  He knew just how long it would take me to get there, which meant he also knew where I lived.  This guy just knew too much to make me feel comfortable–anyone who knows this much about anyone is either an IRS asshole or a crook.  And Mr. Rich didn’t have that g-man look.

The White Lily is a big colonial clapboard building, painted white of course.  It has all of the crap that the rich New Yorkers like to see when they get away to the wilderness of Connecticut.  There’s an old-timey sign hanging out front with a picture of a white lily painted on–very original, right?  The front has a big porch with several wooden rocking chairs big enough for the over-padded ass of the rich New Yorkers.  When you go inside, it keeps screaming “money” until you feel like you’re going to go deaf.  It’s all dark wood and thick carpets and heavy glass vases filled with more of those stupid white lilies.  Just to the right is a wide doorway leading to a big living room, or what would be a living room in a house.  Here I guess it’s a lounge or something like that.  Anyway, the back side of the room is almost completely filled with a huge fieldstone fireplace with a bunch of overstuffed armchairs and dainty little tables arranged around in front of it.  Hanging on the walls way up high near the ceiling are old rusty farm tools–saws, hoes, crap like that–and that always really pisses me off.  Real people used those tools, guys who did real work with their nads, and now they’re hanging up so some asshole with a hundred dollar haircut can pretend he’s some gentleman farmer.

Mr. Rich was sitting in one of the big armchairs off to the side, where he could keep an eye on the doorway.  He glanced at his watch and smiled, like he had known exactly what was going to happen.  I didn’t like that look, but I was starting to get the sick feeling that I was trapped in that famous maze with the bull monster at the center.  Mr. Rich was the bull monster, without a doubt.

I decided that I should take this bull monster by the horns, so I went up and sat down in the armchair opposite Mr. Rich without waiting for him to ask me.  He smiled again, and I felt another twist in my gut that told me he knew exactly why I was doing what I was doing.  I hate it when people think they have me figured out, especially when they think they are moving me just the way they want.

“So what’s all this about?” I demanded.

“Your employment, of course,” said Mr. Rich.  “Just as I told you on the phone.  You are not currently employed, am I right?”

I just looked at him for a minute, trying to make him feel uneasy, but it didn’t work.  I hate to say this: I was the one who blinked, dammit.  “I’m between jobs right now,” I finally said.  Then, for some stupid reason, I had to go on.  “My work is seasonal, so we’re in between summer jobs and winter jobs.  Once the cold sets in, things’ll pick up.”

“Indeed,” he said, and I got the feeling he was not really listening.  “How much did you earn last year, Calvin?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your earnings, Calvin.  How much money did you make last year?  Gross or net, it does not matter.”


“Indeed,” he said again.  I was beginning to hate his stupid little “indeeds.”  He reached into the pocket of his gray blazer and pulled out a pair of those prissy little reading glasses and slipped them on.  He looked at me over the tops of the glasses, which I thought made him look like an even bigger asshole.  He produced a piece of paper from somewhere and looked down at it.  I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but from what I could see, it looked like it had those blurry lines you see on photocopies.

“Eighteen thousand, two hundred and fifty-six dollars,” he said.  I felt my back go up at the mocking tone in his voice.  “Oh, yes.  And twenty-three cents.  That was what you earned last year.  Gross.”

He let the paper droop a little and I could see it was a photocopy of my tax form, and that was going just too fucking far.  I stood up and said, “Go to hell, you cheap fuck.” I got ready to make a dramatic exit.

Mr. Rich didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t do anything.  He just said, in a real quiet voice, “Sit.  Down.  Now.”

I sat.  What would you have done?  You know you would have sat down, too.

“I am beginning a new business venture here in town.  I am in need of someone local, someone I can trust, who can offer security to my guests.  The job will not be overly strenuous, and it will pay you three thousand dollars per month.”  He smiled, and, let me tell you, if anyone ever smiled at you like that, you’d piss your pants.  “That’s gross, of course.  We will make sure all federal, state, and local taxes are properly paid.”

“Security?” I asked.  I must have had a stupid look on my face, because Mr. Rich looked impatient for the first time.

“Yes, security.  You will provide the security at my new establishment.  Or, if you prefer, you will be my bouncer.”

“Three thousand a month to be a bouncer?”  I asked.  “What’s the catch?”

Mr. Rich laughed, and it sounded like a genuine laugh to me.  “No catch, Calvin.  Unless you consider working for me to be a catch.”

“You said earlier that you already interviewed me.  What if I don’t want to be interviewed or don’t want a job?”  I really wanted this job–the money sounded too good–but my pride pushed me to fight this at least a little.

“Oh, Calvin,” he said, “don’t let your good sense take a back seat to your pride.”  I must have jumped a little when he said that, a little shocked that he had seen through me so easily because he laughed again.  “Shall we go inspect the premises and discuss your duties?”  He stood up and started to walk towards the doorway.

“Don’t you want to know if I’m going to take the job?”

He stopped and half-turned to look back at me.  “And why would I need to hear that?”

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The Black Kitten, Part 2

Blah, blah, blah.  Same disclaimer as last time.  This is going to get ugly the deeper you get in the story, so if ugly bothers you, don’t even think about reading this.

I had no trouble waking up in time to call Mr. Rich the next morning.  What I did have trouble with was actually falling aslepp that night.  All I could think about was how he had knoecked me on my ass.  I didn’t even see the punch coming, so how had he done it?  The idea that this rich bastard, thin and weak as he looked, could knock me flat pissed me off.  Strangley, though, I didn’t have the urge to take him on again.  The guy was scary fast.

Partly because I thought he might get mad enough to track me down and punch me in the face again, and partly out of curiosity, I decided to call him.  If I have to tell the truth, though, the curiosity was the biggest part of it.  What the hell reason did he have to pick me?  And what kind of a job was he offering?

I dialed the number on the card he had thrown at me the night before.  “Calvin,” he said when he answered.  Not a question–he just knew it was me, which worried me a little, I have to admit.

“Yeah, it’s Calvin,” I said, “I’m calling like you asked me to.”

“And you’re punctual.  That’s a good thing.  I require my employees to be punctual.”

“I didn’t know I was your employee,” I said.  “There wasn’t any interview or anything else like that.”

“On the contrary,” he said.  Somehow he managed to make a prissy line like “on the contrary” sound less prissy and more…I don’t know.  Tough?  Mean?  Bad ass?  Whatever, he sounded like a guy who could say “on the contrary,” drink some fruity drink with an umbrella in it, and then shoot you in the teeth.  And then laugh about it.

“We interviewed last night.  I’d like you to come down to the White Lily, where I will fill you in on your new job duties.”

“I sure as hell don’t remember the interview.  All I remember is you sucker-punching me and knocking me on my ass.”

“Precisely,” he said, again in that not-prissy tone.  “That was the interview.  I’ll expect you here in twenty minutes.”  There was a click and the phone went dead.

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The Black Kitten, Part 1

But first, a warning.  Last night at my mystery book club, we discussed Cornell Woolrich’s novel The Black Angel, and we started riffing on the title and the noir genre.  We came up with a lot of goofy titles for noir novels, including, the horribly un-noir “The Black Kitten.”  I kept thinking about this, and by the time we had arrived home late last night, I had more or less written the first chapter in my head.  So, what follows is some trashy neo-noir.  Though the title is silly, I am taking the genre seriously, and it will be sordid, disgusting, and offensive.  If that sort of thing makes you feel uncomfortable, move your cursor up to the browser and click to go to another page.  If, on the other hand, you like noir, feel comfortable with its conventions, and don’t mind a story filled with characters you would not invite home, then read on.

I knew he was a gold-plated bastard even before he offered me the job, although it’s closer to the truth to say he just flat-out told me I was working for him.  Up here in northern Connecticut we see his type often enough, and you might say I’m just writing down a bunch of cliches right now, but even cliches have some truth.  This is the land of the second home, the big horse ranch for some financial type who wants to pretend to be a lord of the manor or play farmer for a weekend and then go back to doing whatever these rich assholes do during the work week.  The guy usually shows up in his big Mercedes, with his shellacked silver hair and a much younger trophy wife, a slim blonde bitch goddess with designer tits.

The only damned thing I remember my high school history teacher telling us as we sat in his overheated classroom, bored out of our skulls, was that the named of our town was the same name given to the promised land in the Bible.  I don’t know why god promised our town to these rich guys from New York City, but he apparently did, leaving us locals to wade knee-deep in horse shit, mucking out the fancy stalls–nicer places than some of us lived, actually–or plant a huge crop of blisters on our hands, heaving rocks to make sure the stone walls around the Lord’s Manor had the right ye olde New England look to it.  I’ve done all that and more.  I’ll plow your goddamn driveway, trim your goddamn trees, or fish a ton of soggy maple leaves out of your goddamn swimming pool.  Lately, though, I’ve had indoor work, courtesy–I guess that’s the right word–courtesy of this gold-plated bastard to beat all gold-plated bastards.

But Mr. Rich–yes, that’s his name, Mr. Paul Rich, and god have mercy on your soul if you ever forget that “Mr.”  Mr. Rich didn’t show up the usual way, or with the usual female company.  Instead, one day in the middle of the week he just appeared at The White Lily, the hoity-toity inn in front of the green in the center of town, with a pile of expensive luggage and his little wisp of a daughter in tow.  She was about thirteen, looked eight, and had a shy quiet smile that made you wonder just what kind of woman her mother was, because she sure as hell didn’t get that from her bastard of a father.  My own daughter would have been her age, so I took a liking to this little one despite, or probably because her old man was such a louse.  And her name?  I remember reading in my ex-wife’s People magazine some of the ridiculous names celebrities and other rich assholes load on their poor kids, things like Apple.  Seriously, Apple.  What kind of parent names her kid Apple?  Anyway, Mr. Rich’s little wisp of a daughter was called Tempest, and if ever a name didn’t fit a kid, this was the time.  When I heard her name, I went home and looked it up.  Turns out a tempest is a storm, and this little girl was definitely not a storm, unless..but I’m getting ahead of my story here.

A couple days after Mr. Rich showed up in our fair town, I was in Will’s Tavern, out on Route 42 south of the green.  It’s definitely a locals kind of place, a big red barn with a wide gravel parking lot and neon beer signs in the windows.  The rich bastards don’t much like the place because it spoils their lord of the manor fantasies, but as far as the locals are concerned, these guys can just pound sand.  It must have been about 7 o’clock or so when Mr. Rich walked in to the bar.  The place didn’t go quiet like in the movies, but you could feel a little shiver go through the room when people looked up and noticed him standing there.  He looked like he didn’t belong, and I got the feeling that Mr. Rich doesn’t like to look that way.  he belongs wherever he is, and that’s that.

Mr. Rich is a tall man, with short-cropped silver hair and a short, neat beared.  He is very slim, with sharp, jutting cheekbones and eyebrows and thin lip.  He was wearing a suit that night, which may have been part of the reason he looked like he didn’t belong, but there was more to it than that.  The suit was neatly tailored–even I could tell that–with sharp creases that hung gracefully on his frame.  The man looked like a walking knife–all silver and sharp.

He walked up to the bar and took the stool next to me.  The bartender, a good guy named Marlowe, was there immediately and asked him what he wanted.  Marlowe looked nervous, though, and you could tell he was wondering what the hell this guy wanted in his bar.  He was worried that this obviously rich guy would want something he didn’t have, some fancy brand of scotch or something like that.  Mr. Rich didn’t, though.  He ordered a Sam Adams on tap and drank down half of it right away before setting the glass down on the bar.  He turned around on his stool so he could look out at the crowd, which was a little thin for a Friday night.

He turned to me and looked me up and down.  It was a creepy look that made me feel like he had undressed me, looked me over, and found me wanting.  It wasn’t a sexual thing, though.  It felt more like a butcher looking over a hog he’s about to bleed out.

Now, I’m not your shrinking violet type.  My ex used to call me her tough little caveman back when she still had some nice things to say to me.  I’m not tall, but I’m broad and muscular.  Not muscular in the pansy body builder way, but filled out with honest muscle from hauling rocks and digging ditches and doing real work. Still, having this guy look me over like that made me nervous, and I must have sat up a little straighter on the stool and puffed myself out to make my muscles look bigger.

“You’re a tough, hairy little fuck, aren’t you?”  Mr. Rich said in my general direction.

It wasn’t quite clear that he was talking to me, so I thought about letting it slide.  SInce I was really the only tough, hairy little guy there, though, I figured it wouldn’t do to let it slide, so I said, “What’s it to you?”  Not the most clever line in the woerld, I’ll admit, but those guys in movies with the snappy comebacks all have some asshole write out their lines for them in advance.

“I’m looking for a tough customer,” Mr. Rich went on.

“Sorry, guy.  I don’t swing that way.”  I knew he wasn’t coming on to me, and I also knew that making such an accusation could get me a punch in the face, but I was frankly looking for some sort of dust-up.  It had been a bad week.

He didn’t get mad, though.  He laughed and said, “You always talk to strangers that way?”

“You always call strangers hairy little fucks?” I shot back.  I thought that was pretty clever, considering.

He turned and looked me right in the eye for the first time, and I got my first glimpse of what kind of guy I was dealing with.  Not just a gold-plated bastard, but solid, all the way through.  I felt a little uneasy, and my gut started to churn.

“I call it as I see it.”  He leaned in closer and spoke in a low, menacing voice.  “You need to learn your place, Mr. Little Hairy Fuck.  You need to know when you’re talking to someone who can make a difference in that miserable pile of shit you call your life.”

I had had enough of this rich bastard coming into my bar, my place, the place where all of us locals go to get away from teh rich bastards, and calling me names.  “All right,” I said, “let’s take this outside.”  I got up and walked to the door, not even looking back to see if he was following.  I pushed the door open, hard, and stomped out into the dusty parking lot.

When I turned around, he was right there, which I have to admit did surprise me a little.  Not that much, though, because I had started to see that this guy was someone used to kicking people around.

I took one step closer to him, my hands balled into fists.  For the past two months, I had been rebuilding a stone wall along one of the estates, so my hands were as strong and tough as they could get, with calluses on top of calluses.  I knew that all I need to do was connect once, and this guy, tough or not, was going to wake up in the emergency room.

The next thing I knew, I was staring at the sky, which was spinning around in a crazy way, making me feel sick to my stomach.  I could feel something trickling down my face, and I guessed it was probably blood.  I closed my eyes and when I opened them that bastard was standing over me, smiling.  It was not a friendly smile, but it was not really menacing, either.  It seemed to say, “All right, then.  I’ve put you in your place, so now let’s talk.”

“You’re working for me now,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card, which he dropped on my chest.  “This is my cell phone number.  Call me tomorrow morning at eight.”  He leaned closer and looked into my eyes.  “Better make that eight-thirty.  Don’t make me wait.”  He turned and walked away.

And that is how I became employed by Mr. Paul Rich, solid gold bastard.

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I have never really taken to the Hartford Crit.  It is not a horrible course, though the road is rough, especially on the back stretch, and the corners can be a little tricky (more on this in a bit).  However, it never felt like a fun race.  The first time I did it, I struggled to hang on to the back of the pack, and that set the tone for all subsequent performances.  It felt too hard for what it was.  One year was marred by one horrible crash and one smaller crash; I got caught behind the second crash two laps to go and decided to pull myself out of the race.

This year was my first time to race with the Cat 3 group in Hartford, and I found it to be a much better experience.  Largely because of my less than happy memories of the crit, my goals were modest.  Goal #1 was to keep from crashing.  Goal #2 was to finish with the pack.  Goal #3 was to learn about racing techniques in the higher categories.  Happily, I achieved each of these goals, although they may have kept me from placing any higher than I finally did.

This year also saw a lot of crashes in the earlier races, and one racer, a teammate of SOC, went down hard and broke his femur.  Because of this, the whole race scene felt somewhat skittish as the 50-something riders lined up at the start of my race.  Nevertheless, I went to the line with a strange sort of confidence in myself, knowing that I would either not crash, or that I would try my hardest to crash well.  (Crashing well, by the way, means trying to take the fall in such a way to minimize injury.)  As I already said, I achieved that goal and finished unscathed.  In fact, there were no crashes in the race despite some close calls.

In the days leading up to the race, I kept envisioning the course and thinking about where I should be placed and what lines would be the safest to take through the corners.  With this pre-race mental preparation in mind, I lined up closer to the outside (left) edge of the course, with the idea that I couldn’t get squeezed against the curb as easily that way.  When the whistle started the race, I tucked in behind SDC for the first lap before moving up a little.  I wanted to stay with the pack and not get lost off the back.  One problem I have always had at Hartford is cornering well.  For many reasons, I always got pushed to the curb or let myself get pinched in an uncomfortable way, causing me to slwo down and back off in the corners, forcing me to accelerate hard to catch back up with the pack.  This time, though, with my mental imaging helping out, I took pretty good lines through the corners and managed to keep my speed fairly well.  As a result, I achieved Goal #2 and finished withe the pack, somewhere near the middle.

Goal #3 was more amorphous.  I wanted to get a better feel for the race and not just pedal fast around the course.  To this end, I relaxed at times, and did not worry too much when I found myself at the very back of the pack.  I used these times to practice moving through the riders to get closer to the front, and on a couple of laps I crossed the start/finish line in the top five or ten.  I did not aggressively defend a top spot, though.  This may not have been the best strategy for winning the race, however.  When I moved up in the back stretch, I hit a very hard and blustery headwind at corner 3, which ended up taking a lot out of my legs.  As it gave me practice finding a good spot to line up for corner #4, I’m satisfied.

Looking back on this race, I see many places where I could have raced more conservatively or more aggressively and done better.  I could have timed my moves through the pack better and been in a better place to launch a sprint; as it was, I was sitting too far back at the end of the bell lap to contest the final sprint.  However, by treating this almost like a training race or even a series of drills, I think I have made myself a stronger racer.  I am getting a better feel for how the race can and should play out, and, more to the point, I have more confidence in my own pack riding and racing skills.  Here is one example of what I mean.  Somewhere about the middle of the race, we were approaching the start/finish line when the pack squeezed together for some reason.  A guy coming up behind me got pinched so much that he came up inside my elbow, his handlebars brushing my hip and pushing against my right hand.  Instead of swerving or overreacting in any way, I simply held my handlebars tightly and worked to maintain my poise.  If either of us had had any weaker bike handling skills, there would have been a dozen bikes scraping the pavement at 25 mph.

In the end, it was a decent race.  It certainly will not rate terribly high on my favorite races list, but it was not as bad as the anxiety in the days leading up to the event might have foretold.  We were fast, with an average speed of almost 27 mph, and a last lap speed of almost 29 mph.  Despite the higher speed (the Cat 4 races I’ve done here in the past were a couple of miles an hour slower), this Cat 3 race seemed easier and smoother.

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