by Tamara Sheehan
Table of Contents|
appeared in issue 212.
[Tenth Man has been withdrawn at the author’s request.]
Toven was curled in the crook of the couch, his eyes flicking from surface to surface in the little living room, his chest heaving. Howie, quivering, repeatedly wicking away the blood that ran like a trickle of tar from his nose, crouched by the coffee table, watching Toven with a very sour expression.
“What the hell are you playing at? Why don’t you just give the ring up? So you don’t like your old man, so who does? It’s not going to give you grief to get rid of the ring, why not get him off your back?”
Toven’s gaze flicked to Howie, took him in with the same sort of latent panic that he seemed to see all things. He shook his head and Howie swelled with rage.
“What the is the matter with you?”
“Howie, calm down.” Saul was shocked by the hoarseness of his voice. Speaking flecked his tongue with phlegm and blood.
Howie shook his head. “No, you’re too goddamned soft.” He said, his chin suddenly jutting out. “Audel’s got a roughneck coming to check up on you and now he’s seen this boy it looks like he wants all of us dead!”
Saul held up his hand, pleading, but Howie plunged on. “What about Bridget, what do you think they’d do to her? She weighs a hundred pounds, Saul, you think she could take Mbeki?” He gulped in air. “Someone followed her home last night. Some jackass stalked her from her office. She had to climb of the window in the ladies’ at the cafe to get away from him.”
Saul’s stomach plummeted. “Jesus. You didn’t tell me that.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Howie’s body shook. “And what do you think Audel will do if you really piss him off?” he didn’t wait for Saul’s reply, plunged on, “You think he’ll be happy running around playing hide and seek with you next time you try to disappear? No, he’ll go after your friends.”
But Howie was staring at Saul, hard eyed, his mouth set in a grim pale line. “If anything happens to Bridget because of this, Saul, I’ll mess you up.”
Silence stretched out between them.
“Then help me out here.” What Saul meant to say softly came out as a growl. “If you think Audel is going to have me do this job and then walk away, you’re deluding yourself. We need to get him off our backs. For good.”
“And how do you propose we do that?”
Saul smiled, looked at Toven who watched them from over his knees. “Call him. Tell him to leave us alone.”
Toven raised his head slightly, staring at him.
“Call him, tell him to leave us alone and if he doesn’t we’ll come after him. Tell him we’ll bomb the plant. Tell him whatever you want. Tell him to go screw himself.”
Toven shook his head. “I can’t do that,” he whispered.
Howie made a noise of disgust, got to his feet and went into the kitchen. Saul squatted down by the couch.
“You don’t have to see him and he’s not close enough to hurt you.”
“How... how is this going to help?”
“When I looked at your memory, remember, in the sewers, I saw him chasing after you again and again.” He spoke as quietly as he could, but his throat was scratchy, raw. “I don’t think it’s the ring he really wants, Toven, I think he wants his son back.”
Toven cringed. “I’m not going back.”
“Then you’ve got to tell him.”
A long silence stretched out between them. “I think your wrong.” Toven said at last.
Saul shrugged. “Prove it.” He folded his arms. “Go on, if you’re sure. Prove it.”
Toven licked his lips. “Pass me the phone.”
Saul handed the receiver to him. Toven waited a moment, eyes closed, then dialed the number slowly. Howie came back from the kitchen with the frozen cranberries over his bruised eye. He sneered at both of them.
“Kitten’s going to do it, huh?’
Toven glared at him.
Saul moved close enough to hear the pattering of the ring tone, the clattering sound of someone fumbling to pick up the receiver.
“Thank you for calling Audel Corp. What extension please?”
Toven spoke briskly. “Seven nine nine.”
“Password please sir?”
“Thank you sir.”
The faint sound of generic music whispered out of the phone. Saul glanced up at Toven’s face. His lips were twisted and tight across his teeth, his eyes stared at a spot in the wall as if it had insulted him. Saul looked over and saw Howie watching too, a curious, satisfied expression on his face.
“Mister Audel’s office.” A female voice interrupted the music.
“Marilyn, is my dad there?”
A long, startled silence followed this. “He’s out at the moment. Shall I transfer you to his cell?”
“Just a moment, Mister Audel.”
More silence, more terrible music. Ringing.
“Toven.” The voice that came through the lines was impassive. “Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
Toven swallowed noisily. “I’m calling from Saul’s place.”
Saul mouthed the words at him. “Screw himself. He can go screw himself.” Howie, behind him, nodded. Toven’s eyes flickered from face to face, then back to the spot on the wall.
“I want you to leave Saul alone. You can’t have the ring. It’s mine, mom gave it to me. Don’t bother him for it because he hasn’t got it.”
“That doesn’t follow, Toven,” the voice on the far end of the line was cold and amused. “I want the ring and Saul will do as I tell him if he wants to breathe free air. He’ll take it from you as soon as I ask.”
“You can’t have it. He won’t take it.” He forced each word out, sought out Saul with his eyes. Saul nodded at him. “And you can’t have me either.”
“Have you...” There was a pause. “Is this one of your off days? Who told you I wanted you?” He began to laugh. “If I wanted you I’d have come down there and gotten you. I don’t care about you any more, Toven, I never did. You’re too big a bloody headache to worry about.”
The air came out of Toven’s lungs as if he had been punched. His hand whitened on the receiver. Audel’s laughter redoubled.
“Oh Toven, you’re a sad little wretch. Did Saul convince you parents always love their children?” In a stage whisper he said, “It’s not true.”
Toven stammered. “You can’t-”
“Enough.” Audel cut off the broken sounds Toven was making. “This phone call is outrageous. I’ll have Marylyn strike you off the list. What gave you the idea I would want to talk to you?”
Toven sucked in a breath. “Outrageous? Me calling you is outrageous?” His voice rose, color was coming back into his cheeks. “You blackmailing Saul is outrageous. Your threatening Bridget is outrageous. You sending Mbeki to kill us is outrageous.”
“You don’t have any conception of outrage.”
“Actually, I think I do.” He sat forward. “I think I’m pretty outraged right now.”
“You can’t have it!”
“Like hell I can’t.” A pause followed by a grunt of discontent. “This conversation is over. You are pathetic. You’re a filthy little shit. Don’t call me again.”
“Screw you!” Toven shouted into the receiver, but the other line had already gone dead. He gripped the phone in both hands, staring at it, his eyes wet with anger and grief, breath coming in and out of his nose.
Howie let out a pent up breath and pushed the frozen cranberries against his eye. “Shit, man,” he said, as if that was consolation.
Embarrassment and wretched helplessness filled up Saul’s gut, made his stomach twist. Toven’s brow furrowed, he blinked hard and turned quickly aside. Saul wanted to offer comfort and pity as much as he wished he had not seen the transformation before him. He hunched over his knees, looked helplessly at Howie who shook his head as if to say, there’s nothing to be done.
* * *
Years ago Howie had stayed late at Saul’s, leafing through the weathered pages of the palmistry book, examining the lines in his own hand by the light of a desk lamp. What does the future have in store for me? the first chapter asked.
“What’s in my future?” he asked, showing Saul his palm.
Day had passed into night as they turned the book over, examining, comparing. When Howie had seen the glowing clock face in the kitchen, he’d gone white, been too afraid to go home.
He stayed while Saul dozed with his head on the book. Each hour heightening fear, increased hope. Sometime near dawn, Howie let himself out of Saul’s silent place. Perhaps he reasoned the lateness of the hour, the regimen of drink, the vigorous violence would have spent itself, knowing as all teenagers do, that they must face their parents eventually.
Vicarious regret and impotence and fear had woken Saul from vivid dreams that night. Pulling on a pair of jeans, a heavy shirt, Saul took himself walking. He carried a flashlight, searching with the beam of a flashlight cutting through the darkness. In his pocket he brought the palmistry book.
He found Howie on the steps at the front door. Smashed and huddled to half his size, sweatshirt pulled over his head and stretched to cover his knees of his jeans, Saul found him muttering and sobbing and cursing. His nose was bloody, one eye swollen almost shut. Saul squatted down beside him for a long while, then collected his friend, drew him to his feet by pulling on his bloodied hands.
“What’s in my future, eh?” Howie laughed like a barking dog as they went through the steel-grey streets. He bared palms skinned and pitted by gravel. “I don’t need your book to see what’s in my future.”
It hadn’t been long after that Howie had run. He’d stayed with Saul and his dad, helped Saul arrange the funeral, crept with him down the long sewer to the Audel plant, bought the fertilizer for the bombs. He’d helped Saul start over, vouched for him in his refugee papers. What Saul had witnessed had been so intensely personal, so explosive, so terrible, that neither he nor Howie could shake a feeling of duty to one another.
* * *
Saul sat back on his heels, silent while Toven rubbed his face. He knew it as well as Howie. Then, as now, there was nothing to be said.
Saul took the phone from Toven’s hand, set the receiver down on the table and sighed. Toven rubbed his face with his hands. “No good.”
Saul sighed and spread his hands. “We tried.”
“I told you it wouldn’t work. It’s the kitten, he’s too soft.” Toven’s shoulders stiffened. “My old man, he’s an asshole. You got to be mean with him. Mean. And then he listens.”
“Not now, Howie.” Saul pleaded.
“It’s true. He’s got to get mean. He let his old man run right over him.”
Toven said, “Screw you.” in a clear, quiet voice.
Howie frowned down at Toven. “See that nasty streak you’ve got? That’s what you needed to give him.”
Saul made a placating gesture. “Howie-”
“You should have told him straight off you weren’t going to take shit from him. Tell him to shut up and listen.”
“It’s a bit late for advice, don’t you think?”
“You need as much as you can get.” Howie dropped the cranberries on the table and folded his arms across his chest. “It was a stupid plan anyway.”
“I don’t see you offering any goddamed suggestions.” Toven snarled.
“I don’t see this being my goddamned problem!”
Saul climbed to his feet. “Guys-”
The phone rang. Saul turned and looked at it, a strange, sinking feeling in his stomach. It rang again. Toven reached for it.
“No.” Saul told him. It rang a third time. The answering machine clicked, whirred into life.
“Hello, you’ve reached Saul Hornsby. I can’t come to the phone right now, please leave a message.”
“Saul! Saul come to the phone!”
It was Bridget, screaming, her voice pierced the room, rocketed off the walls. He stood frozen, unable to answer her.
He could hear disjointed clattering, voices, something thumping. She was screaming into the phone. “Answer the... answer your phone! He’s killed Saiid! He’d dead, he’s dead, Saul! He’s-”
Saul looked up from whirring, clicking machine, from the winking red eye. Howie was rigid, eyes on the little black box, white in the face.
“Looks like it’s your problem now.” Saul said quietly.
Copyright © 2006 by Tamara Sheehan