It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers! As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.
This particular story was written in 2001, less than a month after the September 11 attacks. I don’t know if that has any significance.
The Voice of the City
I knew I was fucked when I saw the cream-colored Cadillac coming down the street towards me. I immediately turned and ran the other way. With a roar, though, the car charged forward, swerved across the other lane of traffic, and cut me off, knocking over a newspaper vending machine in the process. Albert Dell’s goons, big, tree trunk looking guys, lurched out of the passenger side of the car and rushed me. I tried to punch and kick my way away from them, but it was like trying to fight a pair of refrigerators. The two goons grabbed me and, with little ceremony or pomp, stuffed me in the back seat of the Cadillac between them. Once the door closed, the car juddered back off the curb, and down the street we went.
There had, of course, been other people on the street that witnessed all of this commotion. It was late in the day, and the sun was setting, but the lanes were still filled with the usual weeknight urban traffic. Nobody bothered to try and help me, though, or to call for help. This was the sort of neighborhood in the city where it was safer to mind your business.
Albert Dell was driving the Cadillac, and he grinned at me through the rearview mirror. He had plenty of cronies who could do the driving for him, but somehow I think he felt he wouldn’t be a man if he didn’t do it himself.
“Shouldn’t you be out earning some money somewhere, Matt?” he asked me.
“I was just getting some air, planning my next move,” I told him, more or less honestly.
“The way you ran, maybe you should get a job in the Olympics,” Albert said. One of his goons grunted agreement. “You looked like you were in a hurry to get away.”
Albert leaned on the horn, swearing at a car ahead that hadn’t moved fast enough when the traffic light turned green. Albert was a road rager, all right.
“People in this town,” he said with a hiss. “No manners or sense. I haven’t seen a payment from you for quite some time, Matt.”
Albert was referring to the loan payment I owed him. I had, in fact, been making regular deposits over the past year to him, as often as I could. The interest was accumulating as fast as I could pay him, though, so I had opted to hold off for a payment or two to try and save some money to make a big score. It takes a while to save good money working at Burger King.
“I’m just trying to scrabble it all together,” I answered him. “Times are tough.”
One of his goons suddenly grabbed me by the back of my head and slammed it into the rear of the passenger seat. It didn’t hurt, much, but it did get my attention.
“You don’t think I haven’t heard your story before, Matt? You think you’re the first man I ever loaned money to before? Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“No, I think you’re a stereotype,” I answered, stupidly. My head met the back of the seat again, and then a thick meaty hand was around my throat, and a knife against my belly.
“Any other witty comments, college boy?” Albert asked. I apologized, as well as I could with my windpipe being crushed.
“I’ve had enough of you, Matt,” Albert said. “You have one week to pay me back in full — that’s fifty thousand dollars — and then that’s it for you. Get him out.”
At the next traffic light, one of the goons opened the door and they escorted me out of the car. Only by an amazing athletic feat did I prevent myself from landing on my head. Then the goons got back in the car and without another word they sped off down the road.
Albert was not completely stupid, of course: though he was definitely a moron, even he knew that I couldn’t possibly pay him the amount of money I owed in a week’s time. Then why, you might ask, was he insisting on me doing so? Two reasons: One, I would make a good example for his other clients, to help keep them in line. Two, and I think this was more important, he simply didn’t like me. It would be his pleasure to put a bullet in my head or a knife in my gut.
How long I sat there, where they had dumped me from the car, I’m not quite sure. Certainly hours passed. I had been dropped at a lonely intersection that separated the city from the lakefront park; my only contant companions were the green metal box that held the traffic light controls, a lone flickering streetlight, and the fumes of cars passing on the lake drive nearby. The only other illumination came from a block away, from one of those dying little business districts where half the shops were burned out and all of them, open or not, were gated up. One or two homeless people wandered by, muttering curses, though whether at me or themselves I couldn’t say. I was distantly surprised that no police pulled over to give me a hard time; a few went by as I sat there, but none stopped. Maybe they figured I was waiting for a bus, or maybe they just didn’t give a damn what I was doing. Anyway, I just sat there, amidst the trash on the sidewalk and the fumes in the air, and wondered how the hell I had gotten in this fix.
I was in college when I got the idea for the business. Of course every idiot on campus owned a computer, and almost every one of them had some problem or another with them. It all made perfect sense to me — I was good with computers, nobody else there was, I could make a killing selling and repairing them. I dropped out of school my senior year — all we did was read a bunch of pretentious philosophical crap, anyway — and I went out to raise the funds for a computer shop. I got some money from my stepdad, and managed to take out a loan from a local bank. Within a year, Matt’s Macs was open for business, right within walking distance of the campus.
All this happened, of course, before it became cheaper to buy a new computer than repair an old one. My business was just starting to come around and really turn a profit when things went south. Suddenly nobody needed repairs anymore, and if they were going to buy a new computer they were going to go to one of those generic chain stores. If only I had gotten things started a year or two earlier!
I would’ve jumped to a new job in computers, but I had big bills and the store was my only hope of paying them. Then, when my debt was almost unbearable and my stock was just sitting on the shelves, a friend of mine suggested I take a temporary loan from this guy he knew. Albert Dell. As you can guess, I did it. Fifty thousand. That turned out to be enough to keep the business afloat for five more months.
“Five fucking months,” I said aloud. I must have been sitting on that sidewalk, thinking, for hours. It’s amazing how time flies when you’re fucked. The traffic lights above me changed colors, red, green, yellow, red, green, yellow. At times like those, just about anything will make you angry, and those lights were really pissing me off.
It didn’t seem fair how life had screwed me. My store had been a good idea, a damned good idea. It was perfect. What was wrong were those idiots at Macintosh, and those dumbass college students who didn’t know how to buy a good computer.
The switching of the circuits in the traffic box as the lights changed was really grating on my nerves.
And now? Now I had to shovel burgers at pissed off poor people and belligerent businessmen. And I was indebted to a guy who thought being in the Olympics was a ‘job’. A guy who was going to cut me up like I was some sort of lower class junkie. I would be left in an alley somewhere like so much shit. My life was for shit. I was for shit.
And those damned traffic lights kept on flashing! There was a heavy piece of wood discarded on the ground beside me, Lord knows what from. I picked it up, wrapped my hands around it tightly, and with a curse I smashed it into the traffic switchbox, several times.
And suddenly, they were all around me. I hadn’t heard them coming, hadn’t seen them approach. They just suddenly appeared, like they had boiled off the edge of the night. There were far more than a score of them. Their faces were dark, indistinct, though their eyes were wide and bright.
I know what you think I’m going to say next, but they weren’t black. Not all of them anyway. The crowd was a mix of races, black, white, Asian, Hispanic. All of their faces were dark, though, maybe covered with the grime of the city, maybe something else. And all of them had weapons of some sort: clubs, lead pipes, baseball bats, shovels, two-by-fours. And they were surrounding me.
As I took all of this in, the throng silently closed in towards me. I unconsciously dropped the piece of wood I was holding and stumbled backwards, away from some of the agressors but towards others.
It didn’t matter. Those closest to me brushed past me, and the entire crowd encircled the green traffic box. Without a word, or even a sound, they began to attack it. They smashed it, beat it, struck it. When some of them seemed to get tired, those backed off and let fresh abusers take their place. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but within minutes, the traffic box had been cracked open, its insides smashed, its base ripped from the sidewalk. The traffic lights above began to flash red, then went out entirely.
I had simply stood there, outside the encircled horde, stupefied. But once the box had fallen, flattened, to the ground, the entire mass of figures turned towards me as one, their eyes shining even in the newly dimmed light. I started backing up, away from them, towards the lights of the nearby businesses. The crowd followed me, watching me, keeping pace.
My back slammed up against a streetlight, and I fell to the pavement. Suddenly the figures surged forward again, and I rolled out of the way as they set upon the offending lamp. They struck it, tore at it, climbed upon it and shook it. Within minutes, again, the streetlight came crashing down into the street, spitting sparks, and the mob turned again towards me.
We regarded each other in silence for what seemed to me a long time. Then, I turned. There was a garbage can behind me, one of those fashioned of metal grating. I walked over to it and kicked it. I had to step aside as the horde descended upon it and demolished it utterly.
I moved on. A newspaper vending machine was on the corner at the beginning of the business district, and I slapped the top of it with my hand. The figures following me rushed forward to attack, and the night was filled with the sounds of their carnage. I didn’t wait to see the result. There was a piece of broken pavement on the street, and I threw it into the window of the first of the shops along the line. The glass shattered, and my new followers moved towards the sound. They smashed the rest of the glass, struck the metal gate behind it, shook it, pulled it. They took the remains of the newspaper machine and used it as a battering ram to force it open, and then they were spilling into the shop, destroying all that was inside.
We went on like this, the silent crowd and me, down the street. I led the way, striking those objects which I wished ruined, and my followers destroyed them. Shop after shop was forced open, broken into, and destroyed. Neither they nor I took anything from the stores; everything was annihilated.
Noone else had been on the streets during all this besides me and my horde. However, when we had laid waste to almost an entire block, the sounds of distant sirens started to echo through the city streets. I turned to my legion, but they were already scattering, fading into the shadows of alleys and running down the streets. None of them had ever said a word to me. Very quickly, I was alone. Behind me, the street looked like it had been the site of a war.
The sirens were growing louder and, not being completely stupid myself, I fled into the night, towards home.
I slept well that night, for the first time in a long time. I didn’t dream. I work up well refreshed, and oddly at ease for once.
Had any of the previous night’s experiences even happened? I turned on my small, ratty television and found the news. The third story of the morning involved the unexplained destruction of a city block on 47th street. Police had no motive, or leads, they said. I shut off the television.
How did I feel? Well, satisfied. And a little pissed off that my story didn’t rate a lead story. Still, I went into work that morning feeling pretty good. Even the morning rush of idiots hungering for breakfast croissants didn’t dampen my mood. I had achieved a zen-like state of calm. Working one of the front registers, I blankly lied to customers, telling them we were out of this or that, whatever came to mind at that moment. One guy left without orange juice, another without a chicken sandwich.
“This sandwich isn’t cooked enough,” one man said irritably to me later in the day. He was dressed immaculately in a neatly pressed suit, and carrying a briefcase. I wondered, if he’s so sharp, what’s he doing in this part of town?
“I’ll get you a fresh one, sir,” I told him. There weren’t any up at the front counter, so I went into the back to heat up another. It took a few minutes, and as I stood there, I imagined the dapper fellow standing at the counter, getting more and more pissed off. I smiled. When the sandwich was ready, I assembled it and, carefully looking around to make certain no one was watching, spit right in its center.
I was strong, I was powerful. I felt this way almost through the entire lunch hour, until I looked up from my register and saw Albert Dell standing at the back of the line. He smirked faintly when he saw me, and with a calm deliberateness, looked down at his watch. Then he turned and left the building. His message was clear, though.
Your time is almost up.
I left my post and barely made it to the bathroom before being sick. That bastard, that unbelievable bastard! He was savoring my fear, enjoying it. My life, or end of it, was just entertainment to him.
I stayed in the bathroom, hugging the basin, for some time. When I returned to work, I didn’t bother to wash my hands.
Near the end of my shift, I robbed the drive-thru register and snuck out. I had been put in charge of taking orders and collecting the money. I had just been sitting there, wondering what the hell I was going to do, and then that money before me seemed to rustle for my attention. No employee with a brain in his head would normally think of pilfering from the store, because he would certainly be caught. I, of course, wasn’t in a normal situation, though. What could they do if they caught me that would be worse than what Albert would do? So I quickly emptied the contents of the register into my pockets, ignoring the guy waiting to pay at the drive-thru window, and beat a hasty exit out the back door of the restaurant.
It would take the manager some time to figure out what I had done. He didn’t have my current home address, though, so he couldn’t put the police on me right away. In the meantime, maybe, just maybe, I could parlay the finances into my salvation.
I stopped at my bank and withdrew almost all my remaining money. That five hundred, together with the roughly five hundred from the register, gave me a thousand dollars to work with. Not nearly enough to satisfy Albert Dell, but enough to get me away.
I didn’t really know what I was going to do next. I headed towards home, figuring I could pack the few things I still owned and beat it to the train station. I stopped short, though, outside a different sort of establishment, and just stared at the sign for a while.
Off-track betting, the sign read.
I had never really been a gambler before, but this seemed like a perfect time to start. Of course it wasn’t exactly a smart thing to do, but at this point, what did I have to lose?
I went inside and found a sporting event playing that evening to bet on. Baseball. Night game. Cubs versus Mets. The odds against the Cubs winning were 5 to 1. Five thousand dollars would get me farther than one thousand. I bet almost everything I had, spilling the bills out on the counter at the betting booth, then I found myself a seat near a television where I could hear and watch the game.
The game started against me. The Mets claimed an early lead, by five runs, and held it for the first six innings. I was petrified. I didn’t move at all during that time; if I hadn’t still been living, I would have thought that I wasn’t breathing, either. Then, in the seventh inning, the Cubs got four runs off the tired Mets pitcher, bringing the game within one.
I think I was talking to the television at this point, but I’m not sure. People around me were looking at me strangely, which is something in a place like that. The Mets brought out a relief pitcher, stopping the Cubs effectively, and the eighth inning went by without a run, or even a hit, by either team.
The top of the ninth started with the Mets, and I swore under my breath as they put two men on base. The Cubs pitcher rallied, though, and picked off the one on second. A double play followed, putting the Cubs at bat.
Two of them got on base. One pop fly was caught out, but the two men on managed to get to second and third. My eyes focused so tightly on the screen that I could see the individual pixels on it. A good hitter came up to bat. All I needed was one good, long, pop fly, and the game would be tied, at least, maybe even won. The pitch came. The bat connected with the ball. It went high and long. The left-fielder went back, back towards the wall. The runners on base waited expectantly. The ball approached the rear wall, very, very close. The fielder went back, and then leapt up, up to catch the ball. And then the ball bounced to the side, as a spectator, leaning far over the wall, touched it with his hand.
I fell back into my chair. The interference with the ball meant the hit didn’t count; it would be redone. I stared blankly at the screen, stunned, as the next two batters struck out. I had lost it. The close-up image of the spectator who had reached out was burned into my mind, his white, staring eyes, and strangely dark skin.
There was nothing left to do at that point but leave. I still had enough money in my pocket — hey, I wasn’t stupid enough to bet it all — that I could put some distance between me and the downtown. I went back to my apartment to throw a few things in a bag to take with me.
It was late by the time I was ready to leave. I had dawdled over my posessions, trying to decide what to take, what not to. The difficult part wasn’t deciding what not to take, but really deciding what I owned, if anything, was worth it. I finally had a shoulder bag filled with some clothes, and a few old college memorabilia, and I headed out the front door of my building.
Albert was there. His car was parked across the street, and Albert himself was leaning against it, smiling at me. He had assigned one of his thugs to watch my place, of course, and that thug had called Albert when I arrived home. There I was, standing on my front steps, packed bag slung over my shoulder, busted.
I dropped the bag and fled back into my building. I only caught a glimpse over my shoulder of Albert starting to move as the door closed. I ran through the first floor corridor past the laundry room to the back door, and out it to the back alley.
The alley was dark. And dirty. Some distance away, to my left and right, it opened up again on the main roads. I was planning to flee down the alley and try to lose myself amongst the city streets. My options were limited, however. One of Albert’s goons, no doubt the one who had called him over to my place, was walking purposefully towards me from the left exit, a burly, menacing silhouette. I ran to the right, and was totally unprepared for the two-by-four smashed into my stomach by Albert’s other goon, who had been waiting for me in the shadows behind a dumpster.
I fell to the ground, the wind knocked out of me. My attacker dropped the board and flipped me over to my stomach, leaning a knee into my back to keep me against the ground. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it hurt. Albert’s other crony came over and looked down at me, and then Albert himself casually walked into the alley from the left end. His face was in shadow so I couldn’t see it, but I was sure that he was grinning.
He strolled over to me slowly and stood before me. Because of the knee in my back, I couldn’t look up at him; all I could see were his neatly polished shoes.
“I figured you for a runner, Matt,” he said softly.
I tried to say something, but my breath hadn’t returned. The weight on me wasn’t helping, either.
“Get him up,” Albert said, and the two goons lifted me up and held my arms.
“I wasn’t running,” I said, which was totally a lie, but a person like Albert didn’t deserve the truth. Besides, my life was now measured in minutes; anything I could say to prolong it was justified in my eyes.
“Of course you were,” Albert said, disappointed. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know a runner when I see one.”
He reached into his coat and pulled out a small object. It made a metallic click as he unfolded it.
“Oh, come on, Albert,” I said, seeing the blade.
“No complaining,” he chided me. “You had a good run, had some good times with my money. You knew the price of not paying me back.”
“I can still do it,” I said, as he walked close to me.
“No, you can’t,” Albert said. “Your kind never can. I’ve seen losers like you for years, people who act, but don’t think. You’ll never get ahead, because you don’t even know who you are. No, I’m doing you — and this city — a favor.”
Albert lifted up the front of my shirt, exposing my belly. He held the knife before it, and he pressed his face close to mine.
“Anything to say before we begin?” he asked.
I looked at him, grinning at me, happy as can be, and I knew then there was only one statement I wanted to make to this prick, this waste, this piece of trash. I snapped my head forward, smashing my forehead into Albert’s nose.
He stumbled backwards, swearing, bringing his free hand up to his face. It hadn’t been a hard hit, but I was satisfied to see that it had made him bleed.
“Hold him,” Albert said evenly, coming towards me.
And suddenly, there they all were again, around us. Whether they had snuck up on us silently or had been waiting for us in the dark all along, I couldn’t say. The mob, my mob, had cut off both ends of the alleyway. In the darkness, all I could see clearly about them were their eyes — and the weapons in their hands.
“All of you just fuck off, now, you hear?” Albert said, immediately sensing the danger around him. He drew a gun from his coat with his free hand.
The crowd closed in, silently. One of the goons holding my arms released me, the other held on, transfixed by the advance.
“Back up, I’m fucking serious, goddammit!” Albert said, waving the pistol. The crowd seemed not to hear, or to care. They moved in on him, for he was the one I had struck.
Albert fired. A figure fell to the ground, without crying out, but others were there to replace him. Were there dozens? Hundreds? Or more? I couldn’t tell. The alley seemed filled with them.
The goon that had released me struck a few of the figures approaching Albert, knocking them down. Albert shot a few more. Still they came, though. At last one of them struck out, with a nail-studded bat, and Albert screamed out in a voice I couldn’t imagine him making. Others rushed in, striking, and Albert was on the ground, out of my sight in the circle of attackers.
I swung out and struck the goon who was still holding me. It wasn’t a strong punch, but it drew the attention of some of the crowd, and those that noticed came forward and struck the thug down, making him release me. The other goon, who had been trying futilely to reach his employer, gave up suddenly and, backing up, stumbled out of the alley. I never saw him again.
The alley was filled with wet crunching sounds. I stood there patiently while the two groups finished off their respective targets. When they finally backed away, looking at me, they left behind two flattened, spattered stains on the pavement. Albert Dell had been pulverised; his body reminded me of a cartoon animal, run over by a steamroller. His clothes encased something that vaguely still had a human outline.
The sound of sirens came to my ears, as they had the night before. Someone had no doubt heard Albert’s gunshots. I turned to the crowd. They were slowly backing away down one end of the alley, into the darkness, but their eyes were still on me.
They wanted me to go with them.
They had done what I had wished them to do, indeed, what I had essentially summoned them to do, and now they were inviting me to join them. I remembered that feeling of power, of freedom, I had felt being with them, leading their destruction. But I would need a weapon.
The two-by-four that the goon had used to ambush me was still lying on the ground, and I picked it up. Its weight felt good in my hands. I started to walk towards them, to join them, and stopped short.
Maybe it was the body of Albert Dell that made me finally understand, or maybe those whiny college classes had done some good for me after all. In any case, I then knew what these people, these creatures before me were. They were the voice of the city, the expression of the rage, the impotence, and the fear of all those who dwelled within it. They were the embodiment of all the pain that resided in the cracks between the skyscrapers, in the burrows of the projects, in the shadows of the train stations. They were blind, unreasoning hatred, the need to destroy simply to feel strong, to feel power. They were a mindless, soulless, expression of an emotion that had been born a long time ago and would never die.
This wasn’t for me; it wasn’t what I had aspired to do with my life. The crowd was almost gone, vanishing into the darkness, but they were still waiting for me. I did not go to them. Instead, I turned away slowly, and walked with deliberation towards the other end of the alley, towards the lights and the busy streets. I looked back only once, and all I could see were dim shadows.
I walked out of that alley, and down the street. I kept walking, and I didn’t stop until the grey pavement of the urban areas under my feet had been replaced with the green grass of the suburbs.
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, a good school in a not-so-good neighborhood on the South Side of the city. Late at night, off of the major thoroughfares, the streets are eerily silent — I swear I could hear my heartbeat while out walking at night.
My Dad would often drive me back to the university after bringing me home to the suburbs for the weekend. On the ride home one evening, he accidentally got off at the “wrong” exit on 47th street. The traffic light at the exit was much like I described it at the story, and the only notable feature in the vicinity was the electrical box for the light. Waiting there, somewhat nervously, for the light to change, I stared at that electrical box and somehow this story came to mind.