And hopefully, buy it and read it.
Salt of the Earth
by Jesse V Coffey
It's a Beautiful Day
This had been an incredibly stupid idea. He’d even said as much. Once again overruled by his partner, here he was.
“Can I tell you what a balls up thing this is, Monkey?”
“Yeah, yeah,” came the terse reply. “You already did, Rip. A few dozen times.” Monkey turned around to face him. “I was supposed to know this would happen . . . how?”
From outside, he heard the sound of a bullhorn broadcasting the ultimate joke. “Alright, you . . . in the house . . . throw out the guns and come out with your hands in the air. You got no choice.”
He shook his head and pointed the gun at Monkey. “You know, if I’d listened to my Mama, I’d be watching TV Land or Discovery or something about now.”
Monk shrugged. “If you’d listened to your mommy, you’d be entertaining the bitches at those social teas and wishing you were like me. Geez, what a crybaby.”
He chuckled. “Monk, you’re an ugly gorilla! You even got the breath to match.”
“Wrong again, oh fair haired one. Gorillas are part of the ape family! Along with orangutans, et cetera and all that jazz.” Monk grinned broadly. “I, on the other hand, date the gorilla my dreams. Get it right.”
“Ha-ha,” he answered. “Funny like a heart attack.”
“Look, bro, we’re in it, okay? We need an exit and fast. That’s supposed to be your specialty. Ripping the seams and fabrics of the entrances and exits? Rip it, man, rip it.”
“Rrrrrrrip,” he answered. “Right!”
He crawled away from the window, careful to stay out of the spotlight the cops were shining in. He chided himself for ever thinking this was going to be the easiest job he’d ever pulled. As soon as he’d cleared the door leading into the hallway, he stood up and began to retrace his steps to the second floor.
The two had managed to bypass the security system on the first floor by climbing the elm tree to the second. From there, Rip had managed to pry a window open and the two men had gotten inside. The only problem was, that tree was in the front yard, where the police were now waiting. He had to find another exit that wouldn’t get them nabbed by the pigs, would be in a dark part of the house and the yard, and still be easy to get out through. Just exactly his specialty—ripping an easy defeat and turning it into an easy escape.
Christ, this place is like Fort Knox with the security and . . . hello! What have we here?
The old man was standing with his back against the wall, leaning against the heavy oak credenza. He was dressed in a loose sweater, one of those kinds that buttoned in the front. The baggy pants came down to cover the tops of the worn penny loafers. Rip’s eyes followed down, then back up to the horn rimmed glasses and "gimme" cap on the old man’s head. With a faint amusement, he saw there was a fish of some kind on the front.
The old man grinned, applauding softly. “Hello, there,” was all the old fart had to say.
“Old man, whatever you think you’re doing, don’t get any grand ideas.” Rip smiled. “I think we just got ourselves a hostage.”
“Well,” the old man smiled, “I won’t be one for telling you your business, sonny. But, uh, well, hostage situations always turn out bad. Of course, I’m just your guardian angel.”
Rip snorted. “Right. Guardian angel? What’s that supposed to be? A ‘get out of jail free’ card?”
The old man shook his head. “That’ll depend, son.”
“On me?” Rip cocked his head to one side, still staring at the hold man. What the hell was he talking about?
The old man waved his hand, the long fingers making a sweeping gesture at the room. “This is your choice, son. And you can choose to get out of it, too.” The hand stopped, one finger raised. “You’ll pay the price for it, but you’ll be able to walk away.”
“I ain’t going to jail, you old coot.”
“Coot? Such an ugly word for such a simple thing as aging. Old man, I like being an old man. Such knowing, such wisdom comes with age.”
“Yeah, right . . . whatever,” Rip muttered. He began looking around the room for something to tie the guy up with. “Look, this ain’t personal, okay? We just need you so’s we can get out of here. Got it? Then, you go free, and me and the Monk split.”
“Of course,” the old man cheerfully answered. “You know, while we’re here, a little pudding would be nice.”
“What?” Rip turned back. The geezer was just flat out nuts. “Pudding?”
“I love pudding, nothing like a good bowl of butterscotch to make the day complete.”
“Pudding, yeah . . . uh huh. Pudding.” Rip chuckled to himself, finding what he was looking for. “Well, you dream of pudding, codger, and I’m gonna just tie your hands back, okay?”
“Hmm, no, I don’t think so,” the old man said. “Watch where you walk, son.”
In the blink of an eye—and later, Rip would think it was as if a finger had flicked the carpet below him—his foot got caught in a fold of the runner. He grabbed for a lamp on the way down, which pulled the table, unsettling the fishbowl of marbles that spilled on the floor. In a moment that closely resembled the old fashioned cartoons he’d watched as a child, Rip began to slip across the marbles with his arms wildly waving in the air. His feet skated over the tops of the rolling glass until he finally came down hard on his back, starbursts blooming before his eyes. It was a moment or two before he realized he was now lying at the old man’s feet, the latter standing with tears of laughter streaming down his cheeks.
Rip grumbled, gingerly making sure all his body parts were in working order. The back of his head was splitting from the hard whack. “Shut up, you old bastard.”
The old man clapped his hands together again. “I’m sorry, son, but that was classic! You a Stooges fan? Keystone cops, perhaps?”
Sitting up, he grabbed a handful of the marbles and tossed them at the old coot. “Got no idea who you’re talking about and I don’t care. Damn, that hurts.”
The man suddenly got serious again, kneeling beside Rip. Reaching out, he patted Rip’s cheek with a look of sorrow in his eyes.
“Yes, it hurts, son. And it will hurt worse. Only you can stop this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Cause and effect, son. Cause and effect.”
“Look, old man,” Rip growled, “I’ve had enough of this. Just shut up, you hear me? Just shut up.”
“This is your only chance,” the old man advised, standing up again. He adjusted the cap on his head and clasped his hands together. “I don’t give many chances as it is, but this is your last.”
“For what?” Rip gingerly got to his feet. “Why don’t you just shut off and come along like the good little hostage I want you to be. No one gets hurt; me and my partner make a break for it.”
“It doesn’t work that way, son, and you know it.”
“Stop calling me 'son'!” His hands flew out to grab the old fart and stopped halfway there. With a heavy sigh, he dropped them again. “Look, I ain’t your son and you don’t know squat about me. Now, just play along and no one gets hurt.”
“Nothing to play, young man,” he said, smiling again at Rip. “I guess I can’t turn you from this, so all I can do is be ready to welcome you to the neighborhood. I can’t wait for the folks to meet you.”
Rip stopped casing the room and turned back around to the other man. “What? What are you talking about?”
“You’ll be coming to stay with us,” the old man answered. There was something elfin about him—besides the fact that he was really short. “In the neighborhood. If I can’t turn you from this, I can welcome you to your new home.”
“I ain’t going to your crib, you old bastard, if that’s what you’re talkin’ about. Me and my mate are gonna get out of this, you’ll see.”
Then, squinting in the darkness, Rip found what he was looking for; a small window in the farthest corner of the room. So far, so good. For a moment, he forgot about the duffer standing in his stupid fishing outfit and focused on the window. Sure enough, the window led out into a corner of the back yard by the garbage cans. It was out in the open, but, as far he could see in any direction, there were no cops, no dogs; there was nothing that could get in the way. A quick ladder from the sheets and they could be on their way with the pickings. Rip tossed a quick glance over his shoulder at the old man. Hell, they could leave the hostage tied up in a chair downstairs and be long gone before anyone was the wiser. Let the screwball talk to the fuzz about pudding and karma, whatever the freak that was.
“Look, Gramps, I ain’t got time to screw around.” Rip snagged the silk cord that held the drapes neatly tied and yanked it free with a single pull. The fabric fell unfettered as he twisted the rope in his hands.
The old man simply smiled at him. “This is your last chance, son. Take it or leave it.”
“Man, you just don’t get it, do you,” Rip answered, an exasperated sigh escaping at the same time.
“I get it,” the man said, smiling so benignly. “I don’t think you do. But you will. See you soon. And, uh, watch out for the banana peel.”
Whatever would have been the answer, he never got it. At that moment, an explosion tore through the downstairs and Rip was thrown to the floor again. This time the stars were brighter than before and he shook his head to clear his vision. He rolled over to push himself up when a sharp, grinding pain rose up from his wrist to his shoulder.
“Shit!” He curled up on his knees, cradling his broken wrist against his belly, screaming every cuss word he knew. Another explosion, followed by a scream, convinced him that lying there wasn’t going to get him out of there. He pushed up with his good arm, and staggered out of the room.
He clumped down the stairs, headed to the front room where he’d left Monkey. But there was a lot of rubble where his friend used to be. Only Monk would be stupid enough to set off the firecrackers early. Stupid jackass never did know a thing about blasting caps; he’d managed to trip the whole dozen. Rip found his former partner hanging from the chandelier, a large piece of wood shoved into the man’s chest.
Gotta get out of here, I gotta split this scene and fast. Rip the seams; yeah, that’s what I do, rip the seams.
Suddenly the loot meant nothing. Rip wheeled around as the first gas canister crashed through the plate glass window. It rolled across the floor to the sofa, hissing its white smoke all the way. He quickly unbuttoned his shirt at the waist and stuck his wrist in the hole. It would have to do for now.
He knew where he had to go—the back of the house, to that corner under the room he’d been in. He remembered; there was no one back there. He followed his nose—until he broke it by running blindly into the door frame. Blood streaming down his upper lip, he ducked into the kitchen. He was in the back of the building; the escape route was right there. This was the room. He made for the back door.
Rip, being a semi-intelligent man, knew when he was outnumbered and outclassed. That is, until he looked in the reflection of the window to his right and saw the lone policeman standing, gun drawn.
“I said, freeze, turkey. You’re going down.”
It was a risk, but one he could take. Rip just wanted to get the hell out of there in one piece. Killing this guy wasn’t an option; he wasn’t a cop killer. Maybe if he pulled the gun and fired randomly, the porker would drop to the ground, hide behind that counter. He could fire a couple more shots to keep the guy there, then bust out through the back door. He could be swallowed up in the darkness—
“Put the gun down and turn around slowly.”
It’s a pipe dream, Rip, old buddy pal o’ mine, he heard Monk say in his head. You ain’t going nowhere. Give it up! Do the time and get out with your ass intact.
“I said, put the gun down, asshole. And turn around. Slow!”
With a sigh, Rip started to do just that. What the hell, he was nailed either way he went. There was no way he could get to the door. There was no way he was gonna blow this guy away. There was just no way. He started the turn, his gun hand drawn to show that he was not going to use it; he only intended to lay it on the counter and step away, nice and easy.
But his foot turned traitor, stepping on something slick and unstable. Rip turned alright, but the graceful move turned into a stupid gesture of futility, the gun going straight out before him. His broken wrist ground until the growl escaped his throat, his finger involuntarily squeezed on the trigger. The shot rang out, followed by four more. Four ripping, burning stabs pierced his chest and threw him backward against the wall. Rip dropped to his knees, then hit the floor. The last thing he saw was the banana peel that he’d slipped on.
* * *
Everything disappeared into a haze of white fog. The funny thing was, it wasn’t burning his eyes and nose, wasn’t making him want to puke his guts out. He felt like he was floating in it, weightless and part of the mist. He heard words that meant nothing; voices raised in song, then sobs. Then, he was moving. It was like he was still just floating, but this time he could see. Now, there was darkness instead of fog and he was moving. Then, the light ahead and he was still moving. And the light wanted him, the light called to him.
“What is he doing here?”
“His time was up.”
“Yes, I know. But what is he doing here?”
“And where should he go?”
“He has to pay his debt, attend the karma. Then, he may come.”
“And he should go where to do this?”
Was there an answer?
* * *
Rip opened his eyes and sat up. He reached up and wiped the sleep from his eyes.
“Damn, talk about a lousy dream. Geez.”
But when he removed his hands from his face, he noticed two things right away.
The first was that he wasn’t in his apartment. This place wasn’t even decorated in his garbage can chic that the girlfriend laughed at. It was one room, he could see that much. But it was all in white. The walls were painted a pristine white. The chair by the corner, the curtains that just hung on a wall without windows—white. The floor, white tiles. The table that sat by the bed he was on, white. He jumped up, staring at where he’d just been. It was an old fashioned four poster with a canopy over it. Coverlet, sheets, pillow cases, canopy—all were white. The materials were all of wood or lace or silk or cotton, but they were all white.
The second thing was that he wasn’t asleep or dreaming. There as no hazy quality to the room, to his vision. And he had no way of knowing how he had gotten here. That alone convinced him.
If this ain’t a dream . . . .
The memories flooded back and he began to touch the places on his body. He flexed his hand, the fingers closing into a tight ball. His fist rotated on his wrist with no pain, no stiffness. He raised that same hand to his face, felt the smooth surface of his nasal bone as it began to protrude from between his eyes, stopping above his lips. His fingertips sought his chest; below the left nipple, the left shoulder. Did it really happen? Had he been shot? Maybe it was a dream, maybe . . . maybe . . . .
He found the stairway, leading up and out of the windowless room. It was a seamless thing; one moment, his feet were walking up the steps and then he was standing outside again. But this was weird. He wasn’t home; he wasn’t at the place they were going to burgle. He wasn’t at a hospital or the police station. He was standing in the middle of a graveyard, all the marble and granite slabs around him.
“What the frig?”
“Ah, good, you’re up.”
The sound of the scratchy voice was way too familiar. The old man was standing by the side of the walkway. He calmly pulled a cigar out of his breast pocket, neatly clipped the end, and stuck it in his mouth.
Rip was still staring around, his head rotating wildly. “Where am I?”
The old man puffed until he had the cigar going well enough, producing small billows of smoke. “Oh, I expect you know well enough.”
“Yeah,” Rip agreed. “I guess I do.” He turned his gaze back to the old man, hoping against hope. After all, appearances were usually deceiving. “And how the hell did I get here?”
“Oh, the usual way, same as everyone,” the old man answered with a cloud of smoke and a grin. “Probably a little less gory than most, but for a mensch, not too bad.”
“Ha, ha,” Rip answered, the sarcasm dripping, and then stopped himself. He reached up to scratch his chest. “Hey, what’s a mensch?”
“You’re a man with questions, I see,” the old man said. “Good, I like that. Shows you can still think.”
“What do you— Look, you old coot,” Rip growled. “I don’t know what your bag is, but I ain’t sticking around to find out. I don’t know what you did to get the pigs off me, but I figure I owe you for that.”
“Didn’t do anything, son.”
“Sure you did. I don’t see the fuzz here, so you got ‘em off me somehow.” Rip clapped the man on the shoulder. “Thanks, Pops, you’re aces in my book. Now, I’m beating a hasty retreat and headin’ back to my crib.”
“Crib?” He watched the old man put the stogie in the corner of his mouth and pull out a small notebook. “Crib,” he muttered, thumbing the pages until he’d made a quick perusal of them all.
“Yeah, my crib,” Rip tried to explain. “My pad? My home? My apartment?”
“Ah,” the old man said with a certain amount of satisfaction. He stuck the notepad back in his pocket, adding, “You scared me there, son. I couldn’t figure an early arrive like you would take the A train that fast.”
“Uh huh,” Rip answered, pretending to understand what the hell this coot was talking about. “Well, it’s been a real trip, old boy, but I’m outa here.”
“Hmm. Well, no, I don’t think so.”
It was enough to stop Rip in his tracks. “What do you mean?”
“Well, that’s what I do,” the codger answered, more smoke puffed as he spoke. “See, being your guardian angel, it’s my job to explain the rules before you get welcomed, meet the folks.”
“Explain . . . rules?”
“Rules, son. We have to have a few rules, an image to maintain. You’re in one of the best haunted cemeteries in New England.”
For a brief moment, Rip felt as if his eyes were going to bug out of his head. It was really funny, in a way – he’d always heard the expression, but couldn’t quite picture it. He didn’t have to anymore. He could feel it.
“Haunted . . . ceme— ceme—”
“Cemetery.” The old fart had the nerve to grin at him, the cigar still billowing the smoke clouds.
There it was. No denying it any longer. The reason he had no wounds, the white room. If he’d still been breathing, he’d have heaved a huge sigh of annoyance. As it was, he only uttered the epithet.
“No, just a certain amount of compost for the flowers,” the old fart answered with another blinking grin. “You know, I don’t like to brag, but we have the best gardens of any bone yard in the whole state.”
Rip shook his head. “You gotta be kiddin’ me. Please say you’re kiddin’ me.”
“About the gardens? I never kid about gardens. Or flowers. I love flowers. Beautiful things, lovely smells.”
Rip rolled his eyes. “Look, I ain’t dead. Okay? It ain’t happenin’.”
“Oh, you’re dead all right,” the old man answered cheerfully. “Hell of an end, too. Blam-blam-blam-blam-in the chest. Four slugs, a bit messy. Lovely funeral. Nice family you got.”
“Shit,” Rip answered.
“And this lovely girl sang that Ave Maria. Shubert, not the Gounod. Not a big fan of the Gounod. Now Shubert, he knew how to make an Ave Maria.”
“Loved that movie. That nice young John Denver person. God, what a character!”
Rip could only nod. For a dead man, he was working up a hell of a nauseous state—
“It’s not nauseous, son. You’re dead. You don’t get nauseous.”
Rip tossed a dirty look to the coot. “Stop diggin’ in my head, old fart!”
The old man waggled his cigar and took a few more puffs, a mischievous look on his face. “Rules . . . .”
Rip looked into the brown, mirthful eyes. “Wait; wait! Who the hell are you?”
“Rule number one, that’s your home. When you’re not out in the neighborhood, you’re in your home. Simple. That’s where you stay dead. We try to give a little of the comforts of home, but you’ll be able to decorate however you want.”
“Wait; how do I—?”
“Rule number two, remember that we are a haunted cemetery. You’ll be expected to spook the odd make out artist and gravestone rubber. The tourists expect that and we don’t like to disappoint the little darlings. Remember, they are our bread and butter. So to speak.”
“Rule number three, you’re expected to do a little community service while you’re here. You’ll want to move on eventually, but for now, this is where you lay your bones and you need to give a little back to the community.” The self-styled guardian angel tipped a wink, adding, “We’ll discuss how you can do that after you’ve settled in, met your neighbors.”
Rip stared openly, managing a weak nod.
“Rule number four, your counselor will be by to set up your therapy.” The aged face turned grave. “Seriously, son – and I cannot stress this enough – for you to move on to your final reward, you need to go to counseling.” He gave a friendly wink. “You’ll thank me later.”
Rip nodded again. “What . . . when . . . how . . . who . . . ?”
Suddenly, there came the sounds of voices from every direction. Rip watched as diaphanous bodies rose up from the stones and crypts, each one talking or laughing. He heard voices calling out names of friends, who answered with cheery hellos. There came an “Oh, Trudy,” from one corner, and a “quick, Marvin, guess what I heard,” from another.
“Holy Mother of God,” Rip muttered, staring wildly around him.
His eyes came back to rest on the old man, who seemed to be waiting patiently. When he had Rip’s full attention, he took the cigar out of his mouth. With a grin, he doffed the fishing hat from his head and gave a deep bow. When he stood again, he walked over and put an arm around Rip’s shoulders. With hat in hand, he gestured to the crowd beginning to walk their way.
Look for Salt of the Earth to be released in Amazon's Kindle bookstore in September.