by Steven Francis Murphy
Taylor opened the steaming beef stew pack and added some salt before stirring the concoction up. “Nearly get killed every day depending on what I do,” Taylor took his first spoonful and closed his eyes, his worn lips tight on the meaty saltiness. “Got tore up pretty bad in Iraq when an RPG climbed into the front seat of my Hemmet. Blew my sergeant into hamburger and out the door. My ex-wife tried to brain me with a tire iron. Had a crawler explode on me a few years back out by Armstrong. Breathing is dangerous business. No reason I should work too hard at it.”
Taylor took another spoonful and put it into his mouth. “That is not even counting the times I nearly slipped and fell in the shower, or the kids who beat me up, or the assholes in the shelter who sniff EVA sealant and make home brew out of Lysol and lighter fluid.”
“Things will be better when you hit Earthside, Taylor. You can get a government job since you are a veteran.” I got a government job here. See, Taylor. They’ll give a job to anyone.
“Had a government job. May as well still be in the Army. The bastards sit there with a stop watch and time how long you are in the john,” Taylor shook his head. “Boy, that is good stew. Lot better than it used to be. Sure you don’t got any beer?”
Hey, don’t let your brother Timmy down, dog. Get me some beer. “You’ve got to get yourself dried out, Taylor.”
Taylor stood up and handed McAllister his bread pack, “Help me eat this.”
McAllister smacked the bread away, “I don’t want to sit here and eat with you. I want you to get out of here. Don’t waste the rest of your life on the Moon.”
The vagrant straightened up, his back ramrod straight, the clouds parting behind his brown eyes. He hobbled over to pick up the bread. “Let me tell you something, Officer McAllister. You don’t know just how good it is up here. It is dry and clean, no gangbangers with grenade launchers and nine mils. No crack hoes up here and there aren’t any rats, either.
“I get fed pretty regular up here. Sully up at the Mudclod Coffee Shop lets me empty the trash for a bowl of chicken gumbo and a bagel. Harry the barber gives me some money to clean out his vac unit, though he doesn’t really give me enough for the job. That hair gets everywhere.”
“Why don’t you get a real...” Say it. Go on, tell him. Tell him to get a real job, just like you did with Timmy. Oh, that worked out real well, didn’t it?
“What? Go ahead, say it,” Taylor opened the bread pack and smiled. “Ooo, it’s wheat too. Oh boy. Lot easier to chew than a bagel. A real job is what your talking about, right?”
McAllister felt numb, powerless, cold.
“There are plenty of part-time jobs with no benefits. The kind of burger-flipping job that makes politicians feel good and crush your soul. The two you showed me on the slate are part-time jobs. Do you know how much rent is back on Earth? It is not like you were trying to send me back to Mexico or Argentina, or even Korea. It was Stateside that you had in mind. May as well have sent me to Beverly Hills.”
“You can’t stay up here.” He’s going to stay and I can’t stop him.
“You know what the best part about living here is?”
He’s going to die up here and I can’t stop him, McAllister thought, “No, what?”
“No snow, no winter. I don’t have to worry about freezing to death.”
Timmy froze to death. There is no guarantee that we won’t freeze to death up here.
Where is that laughing sound coming from? Damned if it doesn’t sound like Timmy when he was playing Red Baron Snoopy on the dog house. Can’t be the fountain. “You can’t stay here. This place won’t last forever.”
“Hell I can’t. It’s paradise up here, even without the beer. Crap, kid. Why do you care anyway? I didn’t ask for any of this.” He tossed the data slate aside. “Considering how much a ticket Earthside costs, it would pay for a year’s rent up here in a private cubicle over in Sector One.”
Cut bait with this asshole. He’s using you. He’s using you just like Timmy did. Let him take his chances without your help.
McAllister got up, but instead of anger, he felt apathy. “Stay out of Mutawaland, and don’t let me catch up you in the spaceport, either.”
“Where are you going? I can’t eat all of this. Stay here and talk to me. This bread’s pretty good.”
* * *
McAllister shuffled into Hammer’s Place nodding to the cops of third shift leaving for duty. Most of them went ten-forty-one straight from their last beer. Some of them dug wads of chew out of their cheeks and flicked the sour, acidic smelling flaky wads into brass spittoons. The wads that missed the mark splattered on the brown-stained floor. Laughing at their lack of ability, no one said anything to them as they trailed the scent of stale beer and sweat out into the colony.
“Hey Greg,” Wei nodded, picking up a hammer and banging it against the titanium bar top, causing McAllister to wince. “Hey, get my friend a drink.”
McAllister nodded to the harried, Korean bartender. “A Heinie.”
The bar top was actually drum-like square segments of dented, scratched titanium with a carpenter’s hammer attached to each drum. Down the bar, a woman hammered away at her section until the Korean ran over. He squeezed her a shot of clear liquid from a bottle that was home to a gutted lizard. She downed the shot, damned the bartender, then demanded another one, “Pronto.” Phil Collins’ crooned about Another Day in Paradise, bouncing off the wine-red, epoxy-coated walls.
Don’t like these hammers, McAllister thought. Never been an incident, but there is always a first time, even if it is a cop bar.
The bartender evaded the angry, shot-downing woman, bringing a green bulb sporting a vacuum-lock straw shrouded in a sheath of condensation.
“Kamsamnida,” ‘Thank you’ in Hangul to the Korean.
“Tamenayo,” ‘You’re welcome’.
“That stuff gives me the shits,” Wei took a pull from his own Budweiser bulb. “I hate drinking beer from a straw.”
“I hear you. I hate drinking from a plastic baby bottle. How did your audit with Chief Sullivan go?”
Wei shrugged. “I slid by. Seems there are some things that the Chief of Aldrin Security can’t live without.”
“What kind of things?”
“Embarrassing things that don’t normally come through the supply line. Recreational items.”
“Not illegal are they?”
Wei smiled. “No, but they’d cause a bit of a stir.”
“She’s still sleeping with Dexheimer, then?” he asked, pointing at the lizard-gut drinking angry one as she damned the bartender for yet another shot. A collection of vacuum-lock shot glasses grew into the base of a pyramid that she seemed intent on finishing.
Wei shook his head. “No, dumped her last week. I guess she is with that cute coffee shop girl now.”
McAllister let his wind out, slumping in the stool. Don’t like Chief Sullivan and she don’t like me. Don’t see why she is still worried about being seen as a dyke? Everyone knows.
“Greg, this is where you are supposed to jump up and scream about what’s wrong with the world. What is wrong with you?”
“Oh, don’t you clam up on me. Not after what I just told you. You’ve had the hots for that girl since she got here. So do I for that matter.”
“So?” Who? What was her name? What coffee girl? She another lesbian, or just curious? Well, more power to her. Somebody’s getting some at least.
“Come on, out with it,” Wei said.
McAllister took a pull from his Heineken, “He won’t go back to Earth. Says it’s paradise up here.”
“He’s definitely mental.”
“Hell, we’re all mental, or we wouldn’t be here,” McAllister said.
“Can’t argue with you there. So what is it with you and these dirtbags?”
McAllister pulled out his wallet and produced a picture of two boys smiling for the camera. “That one on the left is me.”
“You’re still pretty ugly,” Wei said. “The lump on your forehead doesn’t improve things.”
“Like you’ve got room to talk?”
“Point taken,” Wei said, running his hand across his lumpen skull.
McAllister pointed at the younger boy, “That is my brother, Timothy. Before he went and got cornrows.”
“Dad was tied up trying to keep a roof over our heads, not easy in Missouri City back in the day. He worked part-time construction when that was available. The rest of the time he worked as a cook down the street. Did deep-fried turkeys during the holidays. That sort of thing. Never went hungry,” McAllister handed the picture to Wei.
“So, what about your mom?” Wei asked, taking the picture.
“Ran off. Good riddance.” Too much like Timmy, all grin and no sense.
“That left you and your brother?”
“Right. I should have kept a better eye on him but I was trying to get a good education. Dad said it was important to at least get a diploma and work your way into college.”
Wei handed the picture back to McAllister, “What happened?”
“Well, he got tied up in gangs and spent a lot of time selling drugs out on the corner of Truman and Pendergast. Then he started using.” McAllister looked at the photo for a long moment before putting it back into his wallet.
“Yeah, Timmy’s supplier found out and tried to whack him. Got himself a couple of rounds of buckshot and a closty bag for his trouble. He was never the same after that. Pain didn’t seem to affect him. Dad used to beat him senseless and that didn’t do any good either,” McAllister polished off his beer and stared at the bar for a moment.
“May as well let him slip away then. It would have been better,” McAllister said.
“Shit, Greg. This is your brother we are talking about.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So, what happened next?”
“Well, Dad kicked him out after he healed up. Said he didn’t want no gangbanger living in his home. Didn’t want to wake up dead from a deal gone bad. I agreed with him, for a while.”
“Timmy slipped off into the alleyways downtown, drinking and high most of the time. Ever so often I’d try to pull him out of the shit. Get him into detox or rehab.”
“No.” Damned if I can’t hear Timmy laughing again. Hell, I’m going mental. Can’t be the coffee machine. “No. The idiot froze to death before I joined the Air Force. Got a call from the police that they found him behind a dumpster curled up into a ball. Solid as a rock.”
McAllister beat his section of the bar, trying his best to put a dent in it. He found himself growing to like the banging, metallic sound and the way the hammer bounced against the titanium. It drowned out Phil, who was crying about how he couldn’t dance. The angry frustration flowed into the hammer beats until the Korean arrived with the second beer.
“Kamsahnida,” he said, taking the bulb from the bartender, letting the hammer fall to the bar top. “I got to go down to the Morgue to identify him. Dad wouldn’t go.” He played the bulb’s straw, “I guess I have issues.”
“Jesus, Greg. Who wouldn’t have issues? How did your father take it?”
McAllister shrugged. “Didn’t say a word, Alex Not even at the funeral. I know he was mad about paying for the burial, but he didn’t say a word.”
“Still talk to your father?”
“Ever talk to him about your brother?”
“Hell no. Why?”
“Just wondering. What about a...?”
“Don’t even go there.” Frag shrinks, may as well talk to the wall. The result is the same.
“Okay,” Wei said, tapping the bar with his hammer for another Bud. “So, I suppose you try to help out homeless people because you feel guilty about your brother?”
“That is part of our job, isn’t it? Try to help people? Who is there around here that we can help? The civilians hate our guts, Alex. Always bitching about the security procedures. Whining about liberties this, and inconveniences that,” McAllister stopped.
“I always figured we were just here to pick up a paycheck,” Wei said, taking a pull from his Bud. “Retire to Las Vegas on a Federal pension. Spend my retirement at the Bunny Ranch.”
“Maybe I want a little more than that.”
“More than the Bunny Ranch?” Wei asked. “Okay, what about that coffee girl up at Mudclods?”
McAllister sat there, staring at the bar, feeling a good buzz roll over him. His back muscles relaxed. His spine felt like someone had pulled a metal rod out of it. Timmy’s laughing faded away.
Fiona, the coffee girl’s name is Fiona, “Yeah. She is pretty hot, isn’t she?”
* * *
McAllister rolled out of his coffin feeling refreshed, in spite of having more than two and less than twelve beers with Wei the night before. He stretched, popping his joints and started to get dressed. Trousers, shirt, polished boots, equipment belt, holstered Glock.
No backpack full of charity and absolution for anyone today. Footloose and fancy free. He signaled Dispatch, “Delta Two-forty, McAllister, Ten-forty-one.”
“Ten-Four Delta 240. Ten-twenty-two Aldrin Medical as soon as possible,” Dispatch replied.
“Concerning what?” I don’t want to go down there. I hate going to Medical.
“Sergeant Wei will explain when you get there,” Dispatch said.
When McAllister arrived, Sergeant Wei was standing by the Nurse’s station. “What’s going on, Wei? Why call me down here?”
“Because I didn’t want to tell you at headquarters. They found your, umm, friend, last night.”
Oh shit, McAllister thought. “Where is he?”
“They brought him in a couple of hours ago. I don’t understand why they don’t seal off Sector Four,” Wei said.
“Where did they take him?” McAllister asked.
Wei stood there, looking at the floor, speechless.
McAllister turned to the orderly behind the Nurse’s station. “Where is Mr. Taylor?”
“He’s down in the Morgue.”
“Where is that?” Never, ever had a need to go down there. Always managed to avoid it. Always conned some other officer into dealing with the stiffs.
“I can’t...” the orderly started.
McAllister brought his height, all six feet of it, to bear on the small man. He clenched his fist so tight, the knuckles popped like walnuts. “You don’t want to have this discussion with me. Morgue. Now. Understand?”
“Yes,” the orderly shrank and told him where to go.
“Greg? Don’t go down there,” Wei said. McAllister ignored him.
McAllister found Taylor on a metal autopsy table, surrounded by vacuum lines pulling the fluids down toward the drains. His chest was still open, with a number of organs in containers on the table next to the doctor.
McAllister stood there, staring at Taylor’s grinning face.
He could have sworn Taylor winked at him.
“Great,” the doctor said to McAllister. “Glad someone from security is here. This man appears to have died from oxygen starvation. I’m getting tired of seeing this in my morgue. He’s got more alcohol flowing through him than blood, too.”
McAllister grabbed the table with his left, bracing himself.
“Bloody drunk. I don’t understand why we don’t space these worthless shits. Disgrace to even have them on...”
The doctor was interrupted by a solid right upper cut, launching him across the room. He bounced off the lime green, epoxy coated wall before one-six pulled him to the floor.
“What was that for?” he asked, rubbing his jaw.
“For being a heartless fuck,” he felt a numb, empty, electric coldness fall over him, as if he were the one on the table instead of Taylor. The vacuum tubes sucking his life down the drain to the recycling plant.
The doctor shuffled out of the morgue, watching McAllister and rubbing his jaw.
After a while, McAllister found a sheet and pulled it over the corpse.
“Tough love didn’t work for you, either,” McAllister said half to himself and half to his friend. As he stood by the table, his tears floated gently to the sheet in the one-sixth gravity.
Copyright © 2004 by Steven Francis Murphy