St. Petersburg, Florida. Friday, October 5th, 1979—3:39 p.m.

Inside Gary’s Custom Machine Shop. Doors shut and locked. Oilcloth spread on an iron workbench. Twenty guns laid out: Smith .38s and .357 Mags; Remington .44 Mags; Beretta 9mms Mossberg .12 gauge tactical pumps. All prime hardware straight from police station gun lockers. No metal from Tampa Bay locals—all from long culled sources in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami metro departments.

Deacon ‘King’ Simms sitting on the trunk of his hunter green ’69 Firebird 400 ready and waiting to finalize a sale.

Simms is road weary. Simms runs a shade under six feet. Simms runs stout but not big. Simms’s hands run huge. The sub-tropical heat keeps Simms’s white t-shirt pasted to his back. He’s listening to Gary Hall talk a greased up blue streak. The lack of ventilation has him sucking in viscous cutting oil fumes and Gary’s chronic fog of cigarette smoke. Simms blinks watery eyes against the cancerous smog.

Gary yammers on in his three-pack a day croak.

“—a goddamn mess. Blood splattered all over the place. One of Mick Randa’s greasers pumped a round of double-aught into Suzy’s chest, right there in the living room while Cleve was in the john taking a squirt. Fucked him up, too, but they didn’t pop him. Funny, huh? Anyhow, Cleve went after ‘em but the fuzz got to Randa first, only Cleve didn’t care—started taking pot shots at Randa with half the goddamn St. Petersburg police force standing around in the Rose of Sharon’s parking lot. Last I heard, Cleve took twelve slugs—really shredded the kid up. Blew his throat out. We both saw that kind of thing in the war and it ain’t good.”

Simms said, “Cleve should’ve stuck with hardware. No business running blow. Nevertheless for the likes of Mick Randa. Cleve knew better.”

Gary cut in. “Ain’t right doing that to a woman, though. That Suzy—she was a real nice gal. Men, sure. Cleve broke the rules and had to pay. But what kind of man does that to a woman? Just ain’t right. And you know what the hell I’m talking about. I mean, a few years ago you ripped this town apart over—shit, man…I’m sorry ‘bout that.”

A pretty, plain faced girl blurred in Simms’s memory. Simms held up a hand to Gary’s rambling.

“Listen, Gary—we good? You want the hardware or what? Been humping it for a week. I need to know if we’re good before I’m embalmed in this…tomb. Man, don’t you have an exhaust fan? Something you could turn on, get some of this outta here?”

Gary chained a cigarette butt to tip. Gary flipped a switch on the wall. A fan whirred. “Yeah, sure, I’ll take it. It’s good stuff. Those .38s look brand fucking new.” Gary crushed out the spent butt on the shop’s concrete floor. Smoke curled from under his foot. He ran a lusty finger along the side of Simms’s dirty car. “Buddy, I sure do love your car. Always have. She a runner? I bet she’s a fuckin’ runner when you really get on her.”

 Simms plucked the sweaty t-shirt from his back. “She’ll pick ‘em up and put ‘em down.”

Gary shook his head. “I knew it. Lucky bastard. She’s bored out, too, isn’t she? No way she’s stock. No-fucking-way. Okay, okay. So what are we talkin’ here, price-wise for the metal?”

Simms stretched. Simms’s shoulders popped. Simms spoke mid-yawn. “You’re talking twenty guns. And those .38 Smiths are brand spanking new. Let’s call it an even deuce.”

Gary threw up his hands. “Two large? Jesus…how the hell am I supposed to make a profit on that kind of overhead? Jesus, Deac, you’re really bending me over a barrel here and puttin’ it in deep. How’s about a little fuckin’ lubrication, buddy?”

Simms rubbed burning eyes. “Two, my friend. And you know it’s a good deal—it’s a seller’s market.” Simms gave him a nudge. "'Sides, you make your money off builds and mods anyhow. Hey, let me use your phone real quick while I’m here, huh?”

Gary jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Yeah, sure. You know where—fuckin’ shyster.”

Simms yukked. Simms stepped around Gary and picked up the shop phone’s tan, grease smudged receiver. He punched numbers. Seven rings before Jonesy’s reticent voice came over the line.

“Yeah?”

Gary muttered in the background. Simms palmed his left ear. “Any word on my boy?”

A sniff. “Hey, man, I was wondering when you’s gonna call. Yeah, he be down the street at his old lady’s house.”

Simms ran a hand through brown hair cut prep school short. “No shit?”

Jonesy coughed—Jonesy smoked a lot of weed. Jonesy said, “No shit. Brotha’s snow blind going on three long days. Paranoid as fuck and chasing any nigga’ comes through door with a samurai sword. Not a knife, brotha', but a fuckin’ sword—believe that shit?”

Simms watching Gary. Gary eavesdropping while pushing around flattened cigarette butts and spring-like metal shavings with a shop broom. Back to Jonesy. “He alone?”

“Nah, man.” Jonesy cleared his throat. Jonesy hacked and spit. “His old lady been hangin’ around. Some other nigga’s been in and out. Funky shit going on in there, my white brotha'.”

Simms said, “Hot fun in the summertime. I’ll be there in thirty. Let me know if anything changes—three yards waiting for you.”

Jonesy let out a breath. “I’ll be out front. Watch your ass, man. Things could be tight in there ‘cause you knows how they get on that shit. And don’t forget who the mothafucka’s brotha' is.”

“Right,” Simms said, before hanging up.

“What the hell was that all about?” Gary asked.

Simms cracked his neck side to side. “Ray Brighton. Owes ten from fifteen. Thirteen with the juice. Disappeared a month ago and now he turns up,” Simms snapped his fingers, “just like that.”

Gary rested his hands on top of the broom handle. “Jesus, he’s an idiot and his militant brother Maurice is bad fucking news. Baaaad fucking news. And what’d you sell him for fifteen large? Uzis? Macs? Gang shit? Gotta be gang for that kind of cash and/or if Maurice is in the picture. Didn’t I tell you to deal strictly with top end customers? Guys you can trust and money always up front?” Punctuation—Gary held up the two he owed Simms.

Simms folded the cash into his jeans pocket. “You did, but it was a big sale with five in hand. And you’ve bought more than a few Macs and Uzis yourself. Gotta deal with it—too late to contemplate now, papa san. Gotta get my scratch together. I’ll take care of Ray.”

Gary gave him the stink eye. “You’re really gonna do it. Get out of the game and run away with that little colored gal—that’s why you’re selling like there’s no tomorrow and taking these chances. What are you, twenty-eight? Twenty-nine? You’re still young. And you’re my top source. What the fuck am I gonna do?”

 Simms eyeballed Gary. The toughest SOB he knew. Maybe five foot six. No fatter ‘n a dime, lean as hard times. Jet black hair slicked back with Brylcreem. Gun seller. Gun builder. Gun modifier. Chain smoker. Ex-jungle fighter with three tours of duty under his belt. The war pumped up his nicotine habit—days spent in the bush with nothing to do. A twelve inch scar running from his chest to his bellybutton—days in the bush with plenty to do.

“Thirty-one and I haven’t forgotten you, Gary. I’m leaving you all my contacts from here to Jacksonville to Atlanta to New Orleans. You’re golden. We’ve had this discussion.”

Gary lit a fresh Marlboro. “Well, what about your ‘bird? You umm…leavin’ it here? That thing can’t get good gas mileage. Get yourself one of those Datsuns. Those rice burners go forever on a tank.”

Simms shook his head. “Ixnay—the four hundred goes wherever I go.”

Gary shrugged. Gary pulled on a heavy chain to open the overhead door. Simms hopped in his car, backed out of the shop.

Gary Hall stuck his hands in his pockets. He watched Simms leave. He toed the pile of butts and metal shavings on the floor.

He’d really wanted that car.

——————

October in Florida. Azure sky. Black leather car seats sizzled in the early fall heat. Mind fixed on Ray Brighton. Simms ignored the sweat forming in his jeans and trickling down his legs. Rearview check. A police cruiser on his tail. Coming up fast, cherries off. Simms checked his speed. Rolling. A steady forty-five in a thirty-five. Relaxed. One hand on the wheel, other on the shifter knob. The cruiser passed by.

Simms shifted from third to fourth, pumped it up to fifty. He hit 1st Avenue South and then took 16th Street South over to 22nd Avenue and finally, the desolation of a washed out, mid-afternoon Queen Street.

Motoring along. Checking out abodes. Half naked kids wrestling around in a yard of sandy dirt, the brown soil mixing with sweat and coating them with a thin layer of mud. Mean fucking Pits and Rots on log chains tethered to live oaks and jacarandas. Moldy, plastic playhouse laying on its side with headless, armless dolls scattered about. A red Plymouth Fury on blocks. This big cat wearing a porkpie hat, basketball shorts and tennis shoes bench pressing a shit-ton in his driveway. Not a goddamn lot was tended to. Not a goddamn sliver of hope existed.

Eyes peeled. Halfway up the block a group of black thirty-something males, shirtless with dripping Jeri curled hair, sitting on and standing around the front stoop of Jonesy’s gray, masonite-sided shack he called a house. Trash barrel cut in half for a makeshift bar-b-que pit—ribs and pork shoulders smelling gooood. The talk is all about pussy and scratch and sleds. They’re drinking cherry Kool-Aid spiked with Everclear and passing around reefers. They’re getting plumb bombed. Chatter stopped cold as Simms’s ride breezed by.

Cruising at an idle. Simms stayed pat. Simms keeping in mind a lesson learned while locked away in cement and razor wire encased war zone: never, ever let the other guy sense fear in you. Go overboard with confidence. Own respect and do it now. Roll down that window. Hang that arm out. Push the tension—turn up that hillbilly music another notch. Nod that head— just listen to that fucking Waylon Jennings wail!

Faces he knew from days gone by offered restrained acknowledgement. Jonesy with a subtle chin nod—call everything good to go. Jackie with the waist high, one finger wave. Marshal and the quick wink. Body language of the others gave tribal warning signs through hard muscled chests and arms: Keep on driving, Buster Brown. You just keep that ofay ass of yours movin’ down the motherfuckin’ road.

 Simms looking through a sun beaten and bug splattered windshield. Simms said, “Hold up, now.”

Four houses down. A dilapidated Craftsman bungalow, white with peeling paint and faded red trim turning pink. The deteriorating foundation giving the building an off-kilter lean as if it were too tired to stand up straight anymore. A tall and shirtless sinewy black guy shuffling out the front door and onto the porch landing in orange pajama bottoms and flip-flops. His eyes strained against the sun’s harsh, landscape bleaching glare. Sunlight glimmered off a long and slender metallic object in his left hand.

The hair on Simms’s neck stood up.

Hello, Ray.

Ray glanced down the street mid-stretch. Ray saw Simms’s car. Ray flat hit the bricks. Ray checked around the side of the bungalow. Moving sloooow—a steady diet of narcotics and malt liquor taking their toll.

A memory spark. The corner of Simms’s mouth ticced up—super cool Billy Dee Williams in a Colt .45 commercial. Billy Dee dripping with gorgeous women. Billy Dee brandishing an ivory white player’s smile.

“The Power of Colt .45. It works every time.”

A-fucking-men to that, brotha'.

Pedal to floor. Tires burned. Simms clutched hard. Simms grabbed gears.

A full city block eaten up in seconds.

Antsy. Far side of the street—Simms shifted into neutral. He slammed on the parking brake. He left the motor running. His feet hit the pavement.

Around the house. Sprinting down a sand and gravel alley, foot tall weeds splitting the middle. Trampling trash and squishy dog turds. Closing fast. Ray swiping willy-nilly with the blade. Simms reached out, caught Ray by the back of his saggy PJs. Simms dug in his heels and yanked back hard. He jerked his right knee up. Bone cracked. Ray’s falsetto cry split the heavy air. Ray’s sword flew out of his hand. The sword went skitting across the ground like a rock across water.

Face down on the abrasive ground. Ray went “ooooohhhhh." Simms grabbed Ray’s arm, flipped him over. Like hamburger—dig that face and torso. Simms jumped on his chest. Simms delivered a short, fast elbow to the mouth. Two. Three. Blood from Ray’s mouth sprayed red onto Simms shirt and face.

Simms said, “You been watching Kung Fu theater again, Ray? You back there flying white powder airlines, waiting to spring a leak in me samurai style? Where’s my money, Ray? Brother do the crime, brother do the time.”

No reply. Slap that fool. Still nothing. Simms lifted an eyelid. A Rat Fink peeper stared back: bulging, glazed, rolling. Gagging—Ray choking on sand and stumps of broken off teeth. Fucked up—Ray didn’t know where he was or what the hell was happening to him.

Simms stood. Simms kicked Ray in the nuts. Ray spewed bile and molars.

Simms said, “My money by tomorrow, Ray. And I got my boys on your heels, so don’t even try running. I’m not fucking around, man—your time is up.”

Ray’s breath came in puffs. Ray’s breath smelled like rotten fruit. Ray spoke mush-mouthed through a nauseous mask.

“I’ll get it! I’ll get it!  Simms, man—”

 Simms baby kicked him in the head. “Uh-huh. I’ll remember you said that, Dip-shit.”

A saline river flowed from his pores. Simms picked up the sword. Simms walked up the alley toward the bungalow. Simms wiped blood off his mouth and onto his shirtsleeve—the smear on his shoulder like a bloody epaulet.

Coming to the decrepit bungalow. Sword held high—Simms as some pseudo urban Ninja.

 Simms entered the house through an open side door. Hot City—a fan shoved in a kitchen window to move a houseful of stale air. Flies and gnats swarmed around month-old trash heaped in a corner. Monster mosquitos zig-zagged. Simms swatted. Simms bobbed and weaved. Simms breathed through his mouth to avoid the stench.

Snorting sounds. She wore corn rows—a naked, emaciated and pimply faced woman pulling a line of blow off a filthy kitchen counter with a cut off piece of a red-striped twisty straw.

She looked up at Simms. She had long gone eyes. She said, “Hey baby.”

Simms said, “Hey, Crystal, you got any friends chillin’? You cool?”

Crystal thumbed powder from her nose. Crystal sucked off the residue. Crystal ran her bubblegum tongue over snakeskin lips.

“Naw, baby, ain’t nobody here. Just you and me now.” She put a hand to her breast, ran it down across her belly and beyond. She tried lusty. Her nose ran with snot. She coughed, said, “But we can party, baby. You got the dime, I got the time.”

Simms could smell hot musk. Simms could see sharp hip bones jutting through paper-thin skin. Simms kept moving, heard, “Where you goin’, sugar?” behind him.

Through the pad looking for cash or trouble.

Zilch, nada, nyet—on both accounts.

Nothing but take-out boxes of decaying food swarming with black sugar ants and green bottle flies. Yellow stained mattresses heaped with body odor infused laundry piled to the ceiling. Stiff paged skin magazines and malt liquor bottles littering every table top in the house. Ashtrays and tin cans full of butts. Cigarette ashes everywhere. His sneakers made sticking sounds on the grubby wood floor.

Simms pushed open a creaky front screen door, walked out onto the porch.

Murmurs coming from the south side of the house. A small crowd of onlookers milling around. Mouths sucking on foaming bottles of Olde English. Elbows nudging bodies when they spotted Simms. Sopping bangs hung across his forehead. Emergency room scenarios circulated. Simms’s pulse jumped.

Scanning for friendly faces. There, on the edge of the throng—Jonesy with a “What the fuck?” look in his eyes. Simms reciprocated. Jonesy played it off the cuff.  Jonesy gestured big—ghetto Shakespeare in top form.

“Man, forget dis shit—that horse ridin’ nigga’ Ray ain’t worth the mothafuckin’ trouble of bringin’ the pigs down here or gettin’ my got-damn head chopped off! Nigga’ still owe me a solid two-fifty goin’ on who knows when! What I owe him? Not a got-damn thing, that’s what!” Jonesy waved them off with a flourish. Jonesy stepped away from the hubbub and back to his shack.

Mumbles floated: “You know, nigga' be right. That mothafucka'    owe me some do-re-me, too—shiiiiit.”

Shoulders shrugged. Bodies dispersed. The dregs went around back—a little unfriendly chit-chat with Ray.

Simms breathed. Simms said, “Christ.” Simms walked down the steps.

He heard the throaty idle of his car. Gas down to a quarter tank by now. No money collected. A wasted tank of fuel. Good money after bad.

Simms broke the sword over his knee, threw it on the ground. Kids clamored after the sharp, discarded pieces. Kids thinking, shit beats Lincoln Logs six ways from Sunday.

She’s sitting in the driver’s side seat. Hair frizzy as ever. Wearing white clam diggers with a hot pink halter top—bright clothing contrasting her smooth mahogany skin. One leg in the car and the other leg out—casual to Simms’s situation. She’d changed the station. She’s moving her head to the music. She’s mouthing the words to ‘Got To Give it Up’.

She saw Simms. She pointed to the blood on his shirt. She said, “You okay, baby?”

Simms stopped short of the car. Simms smelled baby powder and salt on her skin. He took Cindy Washington in. Ten years younger than him. She looked good. Damn good and heading in a straight line toward beautiful.

Simms looked at the sprinkling of blood on his t-shirt. “Yeah—it’s not mine.”

Cindy, eyes on his. She pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The engine revved. “Love that sound, baby.”

She bit her lower lip. Pearl white teeth scraped over crimson lips. Simms leaned into the open car window. She met him halfway. Her hard look yielded as their lips touched.

She pulled away mid-kiss. “Miss me?”

“Come on, scootch over to the other seat,” Simms said.

She hopped over into the passenger seat. She turned the a/c to high and settled in. Simms slid inside, rolled up the window and turned to Cindy.

“How ‘bout one more time without all the gum flapping?”

Hooking a thin arm around his neck. Cindy smiled. Cindy kissed him long and slow. Her teeth tugged on his lower lip as she released. She said, “I was over at Bryah’s when Janet called and said your car went flying by and then slammed to a stop. Bryah gave me a lift but split when she saw the crowd. She thought your ass was grass.”

“Makes two of us. I was hoping to take care of this quick-like before picking you up. Things got out of hand. Sorry, babe.”

Cindy pouted. “You owe me, then.”

Simms rolled his eyes. “I could of got my ass kicked back there.”

She puckered her lips. She teased him in a coochie coo voice. “I’ve seen my baby do his thing. Those chumps know better. They know Deacon Simms is the baddest man in Tampa Bay.”

Simms said, “Uh huh. So, what’s it gonna be—beach? We could hit Pass-A-Grille.”

That smile. “You know what I like, baby.”

Simms waggled his eyebrows. Simms put the car in first gear, let out the clutch. Four hundred cubic inches screamed. He ran through the gears. He pulled off a third gear chirp as he tore down Queen.

The g-force pulled Cindy back into her seat. Simms watched as she held her breath. Eyes closed, a grin on her face for a full quarter mile. Simms wondered what she was thinking about, hoped it was him.

Waiting for traffic at the 26th Avenue South intersection. Eyes shut against the engine’s rumble, Cindy let out a breathy, “M'aimerez-vous toujours? ”

“Je vous aimerai toujours,” Simms replied.

A gap in traffic. Simms pulled out, easing his foot down on the pedal. Anticipation and priapism going on three days straight. The coolness of her skin. Breathing the same air. The sound of her voice.

Just plain being with her.

Motoring. Left hand on the wheel, right hand resting on the shifter. A glance her way. Cindy smiling. Cindy looking out the window. Cindy easy with the world.

Her hand resting on his.

 

The ceiling fan made a soft thump-thump-thump sound.

“Baaaaby,” Cindy said, resting her head back on a pillow.

Simms smiled. Simms ran his hand up and down the heavily scarred regions of her upper thighs and buttocks.

Cindy pulled the sheet up over them. “Don’t look at ‘em. You know I don’t like ‘em.”

Simms tugged the sheet away, traced the scars with his fingers. “It ain’t nothin’ to worry about, babe. Not with me anyhow.”

 Her eyes welled. “You finish this thing with Ray and we’re leaving…right? Just like you said?”

Simms lay on her stomach. He closed his eyes. “That’s right, babe. I’m gonna sell this apartment, pull our dough together. Then we’ll hit Montreal. We’ll chill awhile and then it’s on to France. Nobody cares there. We’ll be fine.” He gave her a glance. “You got your passport, right?”

“Yeah, I got it. Listen, forget Ray, baby. Let’s just…”

“No.”

She turned away. “Fine. Your money anyhow. I ain’t contributed a dime.”

He opened his eyes. He sat up. “Cut it out. It’s our money. Ours.”

She smiled. She ran a playful finger down his cheek. “Is it really that cold up there in Canada?”

Simms looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Colder’n a well digger’s ass.”

Cindy laughed. “You’re crazy.”

Simms closed his eyes, moved his hand back to her leg. “Uh-uh, babe, you’re crazy.”

Cindy closed her eyes. Cindy held his head to her breast. Cindy whispered, “We’re crazy.”

 

Saturday, October 16th—12:14 p.m.

The room was boiling via an a/c unit gone kaput. Dough to fix it—nonexistent. Simms offered to pay for the repairs. Mrs. Washington stone refused.

Simms sat at a kitchen table stacked sky high with old Evening Independents, Jet magazines and a wooden bowel filled with dusty plastic fruit and last year’s Halloween candy. Cindy’s mom called him. Aurelia Washington wanted to talk. She wouldn’t elaborate. She’d never called him before and Simms was curious. She cleaned.

Simms sat with these thoughts pinging around in his head.

Ray Brighton was a problem he needed to solve. He told Cindy that Ray owed him money. They needed every dime they could lay their hands on. He said their future depended on it.

Cindy. He was planning on leaving Tampa anyhow. Falling ass over tea kettle with Cindy cinched the deal. She put his plans into overdrive. She gave him a reason to make things right. For her. For him.

For his murky past and a dead girl named Millie.

Aurelia Washington stopped, leaned against the refrigerator. She was as big as Cindy was small. She laid it out straight.

“What’re your plans with my baby?”

Simms with this vanilla answer. “I’m gonna take care of her. I’m going to give her a better life.”

Mrs. Washington turned away. She wiped off a kitchen counter which would never be clean.

“Am I going to see her again?” She asked.

Simms said, “Sure, Mrs. Washington.”

“You’re lying.”

“She’ll have a better chance at—”

Aurelia Washington turned to face him. She cut him off with a yell. “Better chance at what?”

“Everything,” Simms replied.

“She’s the only girl I got and you’re trying to take her away from me! How in God’s world does that give her a better chance?”

Simms kept his chill. “Your only girl. Think about it and do what’s best for her. Let me get her out of here. Out of…Christ—this.”

Aurelia wrung the towel in her hands. “Boy, that girl ain’t never had a damn thing and I ain’t trusted a man since her daddy. And I sure as hell ain’t gonna start with no smooth talkin’ white boy with a full head of hair. You leave with her and I swear to God almighty…”

Simms smiled. Simms shook his head. “There’s no ‘if’ involved. We’re leaving, Mrs. Washington. We’re going away. I’m gonna to give her a good life. I’m gonna make her forget those scars on her legs. I’m gonna make her forget this whole goddamn place.”

Aurelia Washington wiped sweat off her forehead with the dishtowel. She didn’t respond. She didn’t smile back.

 

Two hours earlier.

Cindy’s best friend Bryah Hall was a non-stop chatterbox.

“And, girl, he told me he had something to give me and I said ‘uh-uh’ and he said ‘come on now’ and I said ‘you better check yo’self and he said ‘girl, least look at it if you ain’t gonna touch it’ and I said ‘uh-uh’ and he said…”

Listening for a grinding twenty minutes. Bryah was yet to take a breath. Through lipstick application and hair primping, her lips never stopped moving. Cindy watched her mouth and the pink tongue flapping inside. She heard only a buzzing tone coming from the gaping hole.

“Girl, are you hearin’ me? That boy wanted to show me his ‘thang right there in his living room with his own momma in the next room—told me it’d be groovy! Child, ever since you started steppin’ out with that slick talkin’ white boy you been in another world—listen to me!”

“That’s because I’m leaving with him,” Cindy blurted. “We’re gettin’ out of here. Together. We’re gonna pack up one night and watch the lights of this city disappear behind us.”

Bryah’s eyes popped wide. “Jump back!” she replied.

“It’s true, Bryah. Listen. He’s gonna take care of me—he’s been taking care of me. We’re going somewhere better. Soon.”

Bryah let out a stream of breath, mumbled inaudible, “Well, jump back.”

 

Sunday, October 7th—4:00 p.m.

Cindy asked him once about the picture of the thin, mousy haired and timid looking girl on his nightstand. Simms told her she’d paid a price with a bad check that was still bouncing in the hereafter. Simms told her his hanging on to the picture wasn’t about hanging on to the past. It was something else. Simms needed the picture to remind him about the mistakes people make.

Her head was resting on his chest when he’d said it. Cindy only said, “Okay.” The picture stayed.

Four months later. Cindy’s still looking at the picture. Simms said, “Pull it, read the back.”

Cindy hesitated. Simms said, “Go ahead.” Cindy pulled and read.

“I hope they’re treating you well in there. I hear so many bad things…this here picture ain’t so good, but, well…I just miss you so much, Deac, and I thought it might help you get by. I feel so alone without you around. I pray every day that you’re okay.”

It was signed “Millie” and had the faint imprint of lipstick below the name.

Her note didn’t say where ‘in there’ was. Cindy didn’t ask him. Simms didn’t offer up the information on his own.

Cindy also never told him she’d read it a hundred times.

Cindy really didn’t care either way. She’d read those words so many times and she just didn’t care. If anything, she commiserated with how the attractive and shy looking girl felt.

Cindy put the picture back in its frame, sat it on the nightstand. She kissed Simms. She said, “I’m sorry and I don’t know why.”

Simms smiled. Simms said, “It’s you and me, now, babe.”

Simms watched her walk to the apartment’s front window. She was watching the cars on the street below. She was watching the people inside them going nowhere.

She smiled.

She was going somewhere.

 

Monday, October 8th 1:52 p.m.

Working on sleds—a diversion from the other life he was walking away from, the life he was stone running from.

He’d tell Cindy about the glory days of Deacon ‘King’ Simms one day. About the Marines. About the men he killed. About the money from dope and guns and blackmailing and muscle jobs. About his deuce and a half in the state farm. About what it took to stay alive. Killers. Psychopaths. Rapists. Pedophiles—he’d always heard the pedophiles got it worst in the pen. That was a lie. The weak of any category fared much worse.

He’d also tell her about Millie. About the girl so lost without him while he did his jolt that she’d turned to junk to ease the pain. Millie ran with a rough crowd. Millie got beat up bad. Somebody dropped a hot shot on her and Millie was gone.

All of it, one day.

Millie would still be alive if it wasn’t for him. Cindy would not be a casualty. Those scars from her delinquent old man were enough. Maybe moving Cindy away from this hell was payback for Millie, too.

He could be a grease monkey anywhere, even France. Black, white—hell, those Frogs didn’t give a damn.

Simms and Cindy were learning the language. Simms had a plan already in motion: his own repair shop specializing in American cars—Simms could make a crate flat hum. He’d ship his ‘bird over; costly, but a huge draw. They’d live in a cheap quarter of Paris until business got going. She could find a job or stay home. They’d have children. They’d take long walks along narrow cobblestone streets. They’d eat dinner out every night at rustic cafes.

Life, on their terms.

His wrench slipped. Simms busted his knuckles on the Shelby’s alternator. He was sucking on his wound when the telephone rang. He checked his watch. Not quite two o'clock. Maybe Cindy—she’d been off work since noon.

He grabbed the phone. “Yeah?”

A hurried voice. “Deacon, I just…I don’t…I didn’t think he’d do it but her momma wasn’t home and he musta' known she wasn’t home and he…”

“Jesus…Bryah? You gotta slow down, you’re talkin’ way too fast."

“It’s just that…”

Simms said. “Bryah!”

“You gotta get over here. I had to bring her to my place ‘cause she scared her momma see her like this…this be your fault for getting those ideas in her head and just because I told her momma and Jonesy about you leavin’ don’t mean it’s my fault ‘cause you shouldn’t of done that to his brother and now he can’t walk or eat right…”

His brother.

Ray Brighton.

Maurice.

Simms didn’t wait for her to stop talking.

A fever surpassing the sultry heat of day crept up his neck.

 

The sheets on Bryah's bed were soaked with blood. Cindy lay on her side, rolled into a tiny ball and covered with a threadbare lemon yellow blanket. Cindy bled from her mouth. Cindy bled from her nose. Cindy bled from her entire face. Cindy’s left eye hurt baaaaad. Front and back—the pain down there was excruciating.

Humiliating.

Cindy couldn’t stop crying.

Maurice said it was payback. Reciprocation for what Simms did to his brother. Maurice raped her. Maurice sodomized her. Maurice cut her face up. Maurice’s burning sour voice in her ear said, “See if your ofay boy still wants his little nigga’ trophy, now.”

Laying there. Cindy could only feel the pain from what he did to her, radiating up through her womb and right to her soul. God only knew what she looked like.

God only knew he would never want her again after this.

 

Hate juice flowed pell mell in his veins. He didn’t run cliché—he didn’t go directly to Bryah’s house.

Bryah’s words: “And just because I told her momma and Jonesy”.

Jonesy. Always cash poor. Always wanting a little more action.

He went straight to Jonesy’s pad. Jonesy answered the door with, “Simms, I…”

Simms poked his eyes. Simms heel-smashed Jonesy’s instep. Simms punched Jonesy in the heart. Jonesy buckled. Simms grabbed Jonesy by the ears. Simms said, “You’re coming with me, Jonesy. You’re coming with me and if you don’t lead me straight to him I’ll cut off your goddamn thumbs.”

Blurry eyes. Jonesy looked up at Simms’s cface. Simms wasn’t shaking. Simms was ice fucking calm.

Jonesy said, “Okay.”

——————

They were half a block down from the duplex on Union Street in less than five minutes.

“He’s in there, man—I swear to God, Simms, I didn’t think he would do something like this…I…I made a cool G, bro—I needed that shit, man! I thought he’d go after you and you could handle him and—”

Eyes on the duplex. Simms said, “Is that right, now?”

Simms shut off his car. He got out, walked to the passenger door, opened it. Jonesy opened his mouth to speak—Simms shoved his fist in it. Teeth scraped his knuckles. Teeth broke off. Simms grabbed him. Simms yanked him to the sidewalk. Jonesy went down grating his ear on the curb.

Simms threw three yards on the ground. Simms said: “Disappear.”

Jonesy rolled onto his back. He shielded his eyes from the sun. Simms was already at the duplex. Jonesy watched him kick in one of the duplex’s front doors. Heard BOOM! as the door imploded. Jonesy said, “What the fuck?” A few seconds later he heard screaming and then nothing.

Jonesy’s breath was gone. Jonesy was scared. Jonesy took the money. Unsteady, he managed to get to his feet. Jonesy tested his foot under his five-ten, hundred-seventy pound frame. Jonesy didn’t think he could walk. He saw Simms marching out of the duplex back his way, eyes straight ahead.

Like nothing happened.

Jonesy couldn’t walk.

But Jonesy could damn sure hobble.

 

 Cindy heard Bryah talking, followed by footsteps. She felt the covers flung from her body. She hid her face in her hands.

“Please…” she said.

She felt his hands forcefully pulling hers away. She waited for his gasp. She waited for his “Oh, my God!” at the sight of her.

He did neither. He wiped blood from her eyes with his thumbs. Simms said, “We’re leaving. Now.”

“I…”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“He…”

Simms put his hand over her mouth. Simms looked over his shoulder at Bryah. “You keep a first aid kit around here? Anything?”

“I got some Witch Hazel and some kind of ointment in the bathroom, but I ain’t got no bandages big enough for that girl’s mess.”

“I’ll be right back,” he said.

He returned with the Witch Hazel, antibiotic ointment and a box of maxi pads.

“All she has in this dump. We’ll fix you up, babe. I’ll fix you up.”

Simms took time dressing her wounds. Cindy’s good eye stayed glued to him–even as she felt the cooling burn of Witch Hazel and ointment being smeared on her skin, the maxi pads laid over the cuts. Holding her eye on him would keep him there. It would make him stay.

Finished. Simms said, “Okay. You ready to roll?”

Cindy didn’t speak. Eye unwavering. Simms didn’t wait for a reply. Fatigue hit her like a wave. Cindy closed her eyes. She felt him lift her up off the bed and then nothing. The world went black. Her memory stopped. She didn’t recall him putting her in his car and driving her out of town.

Cindy never got to see those fading lights of Tampa Bay in the rearview.

 

A quick, out-of-the-way stop at Gary’s house before leaving.

Gary saw Cindy and looked at his petite wife. Her name was Tien. Tien said something in  Vietnamese and left. She brought back a jar of rancid smelling paste and fresh bandages. She removed the blood soaked maxi pads. She cleaned Cindy’s wounds. She stitched up Cindy’s torn eyelid and the slashes on her cheeks. She smeared the smelly paste all over her face and covered the wounds with gauze. Tien looked at Simms, made an X across her own left eye. Gary pulled him aside.

“She might never see out of that eye again, buddy. And she’s, um, well, down there...”

“Jesus.”

“He ain’t here right now, partner,” Gary said.

Tien gave Simms the paste and some pills. She told him what to do with them in chopped English. She told him to keep the eye covered. She pointed down below her midsection both front and back. Simms nodded—no explanation needed. Simms looked at both of them. Simms said, “Thanks.” Tien gave a short bow. Gary shook his hand, said something about wooden nickels.

A furniture store parking lot two hours north of St. Pete. Simms stopped, cleaned Cindy’s seeping wounds and applied more paste. Simms saw the bruises all over her body. Simms saw the blood emanating from down there. Simms didn’t try and wake her. He kissed Cindy’s forehead, left her to sleep in the back seat of his car.

Then he drove, piling up the miles between them and St. Pete.

First Millie and now Cindy—he would live the rest of his life with regrets welled from The Sunshine City.

Killing Maurice Brighton wouldn’t be one of them.

Ray and Maurice were laying on separate couches watching an after-school episode of ‘Police Story’ when Simms busted in—David Cassidy in a boss metallic gold Corvette on the screen. Ray was scabbed and bandaged. Ray looked up first. Simms kicked him in the face. His jaw went sideways. Maurice reached for a MAC-10 sitting next to an enormous pile of blow on the coffee table. Simms kicked his elbow. Simms heard it break. Maurice screamed. Simms rolled up an issue of Blue Velvet magazine. Simms stuffed it into Maurice’s mouth. Shoved it right down his throat until blood gushed out around it. Maurice struggled. Maurice tried chewing through the magazine. Simms kneed him in the ribs. Simms kneed him in the chin. Simms pinched his nose shut. Simms put all his weight on the magazine until Maurice quit breathing.

Simms sped to his own pad afterward. He grabbed what little he needed—clothes and cash money. He left Millie’s picture on the nightstand. He went to the bank and pulled out fifty-seven large. With the forty Simms kept in cash, Ray’s due would have made his goal of a hundred large and then some.

Best laid plans never work out.

Gary would arrange the sale of his apartment. They could work out specifics long-distance. Gary would also take care of Ray. Ray wouldn’t talk. The fuzz would bury the case of Maurice’s death. Simms trusted Gary.

Then he went to Cindy.

Her face was bad. The scars would be worse than those on her legs. Then there was the eye. Cindy paid the price for the thirteen grand Ray owed him. Thirteen lousy grand.

Simms drove.

Simms wondered.

What did she think of her white boy now?

 

Tuesday, October 9th—2:21 a.m.

His fourth stop for gas outside Ridgeland, South Carolina. Cold—no jacket. Watching the numbers as they flipped on the gas pump put him into a trance. Simms didn’t give a damn about the price of fuel. Simms was tired. Simms felt weak.

He paid for the gas, got in the car.

Cindy was sitting up front. She was huddled against the passenger door, the blanket flung over her head. Simms didn’t ask Cindy how she was feeling. Didn’t know if there was anything worth saying at all.

The car’s interior smelled like a nightmare. The cohering sensory assault of rotten paste and blood and dirty bandages brought the day’s events all the way back.

Simms puked out his car door.

Simms cranked up his 400 and drove.

He jacked up the heater and switched lanes to take the overpass onto the interstate. He turned the radio to a country station. Simms hit the interstate and kept it at eighty. The oncoming car headlights seemed to move so slow. Simms’s body and eyes fought off sleep. He heard the radio go to static just before it was turned off.

“M'aimerez-vous toujours?”—a voice light as air cut through the darkness.

Released—this breath he’d been holding since Florida.

“Je vous aimerai toujours,” Simms replied. “Je vous aimerai toujours.”

Motoring. Left hand on the wheel, right hand resting on the shifter. Simms dropped a glance her way. The lemon colored blanket around Cindy’s shoulders. Cindy facing the dark window. Cindy unsmiling. Cindy with a swaddled face hiding dripping red gashes—a dozen enduring reminders of Simms’s transgressions.

Cindy steady with her pain.

Her hand resting on his.

The End

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