UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION

SEAN CLEMMONS

The Devil Was An Angel Too

         Bent Hadley picked himself up off the floor and rubbed his wrist with his left hand, pausing to take in his surroundings. Wood floors and tasteful furniture, but the big man had not been rich, he thought, not a gangster of new school or old.

Definitely Slavic or Polish, the big man. Hadley couldn’t identify how he knew, but the man was either first generation or arrived young from some parts distant.

         The big man wheezed something, a tune almost. Hadley toed him in the ribs, upsetting the odd cadence, but the man didn’t otherwise stir.

         The floor plan was open, overly modern, and he went across the wood and then the tile and washed his hands thoroughly in the kitchen sink. In the background hung some kind of Latin music. Cuban? Just realizing now how loud it was, pounding out. Fast and good whatever it was. There were stacks of CDs by the stereo, hundreds. Hadley bent over them for a closer look and saw they were all the same disc, and he was tempted to take one before leaving—the horns were something he hadn’t heard before, and the language he couldn’t quite understand still carried meaning.

         And the music beat on. There was a magic in it, and he let himself be entranced.

         It was a song without words or, rather, a song with foreign words Hadley felt he understood. A song made of first kisses and lost loves. A song of the before and after.

         There were cars moving outside and he told himself he was waiting them out. He stepped from the window to the brick of a man on the floor and took out his wallet: Jozef Sawicki. He’d heard the name. Sawicki was a known character, he had a cast of cheap men who trolled the old folk homes for silent auctions necessitated by timely ends. The big man was still alive and suddenly gave a flushed crooked smile. It looked like the smile of someone just learning how. Hadley bent at the hips, twisted his blade over once, then pulled it clear the ribs and wiped it clean on those big lapels.

         The song was interminable it seemed, and beautiful. The horns rung out metallic and clear, and made him remember that the end of that horn was called a bell. It was a ballad, a love song, a song of mourning.

         When the street was clear he stepped out, walked a slow ten blocks, and took a cab the rest of the way. It was stupid, but somehow he’d found himself leaving with one of the CDs. Something for his daughter maybe. A little something from the old man. And sure, behind him the house began to catch. It rarely took long.

_____

        And there was Clara, a little slip of a girl, a quiet terror of a woman. They said her child’s hands moved knives in and out of bodies faster than blink, they said she killed Mickey who no one thought could be killed, and maybe, Jozef thought, there could be some truth to what they said. Or maybe there was little. What he himself knew was this: Clara was preternaturally fast, one third his weight, and a woman—and he was afraid of her and she was not afraid of him.

         Hell with her, he thought. Strip off her clothes, put her through a wall. Watch her bleed.

         He stood just inside the room and watched her work her fingers in a perfect absentminded blur and only when she paused did he see she was holding anything at all. A cigarette. She seemed not to notice him. She moved with an effortlessness he had come to recognize from semi-professional athletes.

         “Ah, my music man is here!”

         Clara smiled at Malcolm and Jozef shifted his bulk to follow the turn of her face.

         “Leave me waiting here so long, Malcolm. I was about to go.”

         Malcolm clucked his tongue. “That’s a lie Jozef, and not even a very good one. You would wait until Clara made you leave.”

         Jozef bristled. He hated Malcolm and he hated this neighborhood and he was afraid of Clara. “You’re despicable, a nothing. A glorified ghetto chef. I remember when you used to cook meth in whatever scraps of the city you could find.”

         Clara Kay moved her unlit cigarette behind an ear, leaving her hands free. Malcolm laughed and it was not forced.

         “That was a long time ago, and we’re all despicable creatures now,” he said. “But you and I, Jozef, we do not pretend to anyone to be other than we are. It’s what makes us friends.”

         “Hah! Friends!” and Jozef waved a hand through the air, dispersing the notion and his own anger. Malcolm’s dirty flop of hair fell down over his forehead and obscured his eyes, which Jozef did not care for. Blinds for the soul window, Jozef thought. He suddenly wanted what he’d come for.

         “When I was your age—” Jozef began, but Malcolm cut him off.

         “When you were my age, there was no internet, no cell phones. No terrorism even. A sad, boring time for your hobby, I’m guessing.”

         And Malcolm watched Jozef get distracted, could actually see the shift in gears wherein he stopped and considered the question put to him. Malcolm waited, winked at Clara Kay who only lifted an eyebrow in response before taking the cigarette from behind her ear and lighting it. The room was spare, was in fact used as an office only for meetings with Jozef Sawicki. Malcolm had a broad client list, the very rich and the very poor, and there were meeting places for each set. But Jozef was an anomaly, neither rich nor poor, and a zealot. He couldn’t be trusted to act in his own interest, Malcolm reminded himself while he waited, and therefore could not be trusted at all. Jozef was reasonably moneyed now, but never on the guest list, never a VIP. Still, maybe he should find more clients with middle-money lives like Jozef? Put this office to use.

         “It’s true,” Jozef said thoughtfully. “None of the music is from the late eighties, early nineties. No recording devices near the incidents. Poor death, or foreign death only, which is the same.”

         “You’re a sick fuck, Jozef,” Malcolm said lazily.

         Jozef shivered his bulk, a maneuver Malcolm had become used to. It meant: soon I’ll be moving. But in itself it was not exactly a movement. It reminded Malcolm of fluffing a pot of cooked rice.

         “Here’s the tape,” Malcolm said, and handed it down to the table between them. The table was bare but for a yellow portable stereo, cheap, and of the kind one once could find at children’s toy stores.

         “A tape?” Jozef said. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands. “How old?”

         Malcolm gestured at the stereo, in part to see Jozef move. And he did, he glided his rice from the chair to the stereo in an even flowing movement, a certain grace that Malcolm couldn’t help but be fascinated by, and slid the tape top first into the player.

         “This is the original, yes?”

         Malcolm nodded. He waited. He watched carefully. It was a special tape.

         “Near Key West,” Malcolm said. “Just a few years back, I’m not even sure it made the papers, true? Thirteen people on a homemade boat, single sail and rudder. Combination fiber-glass, tin and wood,” he said.

         But Malcolm knew more. He’d held this tape for two weeks. The boat had been made of scraps, mostly of old doors with the knobs still in them facing outward on the hull. The ship had made incredible speed, considering. Eight to twelve knots by Coast Guard estimates, which should have been impossible given the sail-to-drag ratio.

         “The passengers?”

         “All hands lost,” Malcolm said.

         “Yes, yes, but who were they?”

         It was of course the question Malcolm had had, and he knew that Jozef would ask this selfsame question of him once he too had heard the tape.

         “They were nobody. A set of brothers. A few kids. An old man. Only two women, girls I think. Immigrants like you, Jozef. Their loss didn’t merit much investigation.”

         The tape had begun, some Spanish up front, hard to make out. Jozef listened with a rare concentration and Malcolm watched his face to see how it would move. “They took on water slowly. Maybe it took them time to realize what was happening or maybe for awhile they thought they could make it, make repairs. But they were wrong of course, and eventually knew it.”

         These days, when Malcolm closed his eyes to sleep, Clara Kay already far gone, curled into a ball, a child again, what he saw first was a knob turning, a door opening. And behind it was a wall of warm Gulf, the sea.

         The Spanish stopped and the music began. A horn here and there, shaky, and then the full quartet. Or were there more of them? Jozef, he knew, no longer heard him. It was lost music, a new music, music designed to be heard only once yet somehow here recorded. Like the perfect clean symphony played by that infamous band as the Titanic slipped below the berg and sea. Disaster music, powerful magic music. Jozef had come to him years ago with this request for this queer music, the sound of last rites or first passage, and in that time Malcolm had found him things here and there. From the second tower there’d been a list of goodbyes spoken into an expensive cell phone followed by a hymn sung by three who chose, finally, to jump rather than burn. The Quecreek mining accident in 2002 produced a dirge from an old miner, a baritone prayer said over his charges (most of whom, it turned out, were later rescued). But still the music carried that magic.

         He watched Jozef, 300lbs and on his knees which must hurt something on this cement factory floor. Jozef took the tiny children’s radio—which looked even smaller in his full meat-stuffed hands—and pressed its tinny sound against his ear. A crease in his brow. For this music, even Clara Kay had stilled her hands.

         And what was Jozef Sawicki listening for? It was this question that had had Malcolm himself listening to the tapes, CDs, or cracked vinyls. There was the music, or the voices, or the guttural sounds of one who knows these are to be their last sounds. But there was a subtext, was there not? A canvas for passing. A hum in the background of an unidentifiable nature. What was he listening for? What had interested Malcolm initially, what had kept him awake after that first meeting, was Jozef’s ability to immediately discern a faked recording. And after just a little practice, Malcolm found, so could he. He couldn’t help himself, he grew genuinely interested in Jozef’s work, this assembling of the perfect music, music that was maybe not intended for the ears of the living.

         Malcolm looked at Jozef—this masochist, this thin hearted man, a beater of women and a user of peoples weaker than him—Malcolm looked at him, and believed finally that Jozef was listening for the demons or the devils, the brief bit of wind created by escaped souls, souls in evacuation. Why else? A man like Jozef could be looking for nothing else in that silent hum of their shared music. Still, he wondered to what end Jozef pursued this work.

         Jozef played the tape to its end, then they waited unspeaking while it rewound and then he listened again. It was long, almost as if the sinking took longer than the musicians had expected. Finally Jozef rose, his eyes closed and took the tape. He left the money next to the plastic stereo and walked out the door.

         And that night, Malcolm held new, more expensive headphones tight against his ears and listened to his own copy. He fiddled with the digital equalizer on his MP3 software, running the music yet again through a laptop he’d bought specifically for this purpose. And the horns rung out metallic and clear. They made him remember that the end of that horn was called a bell. It was a love song, a ballad, a song for the dead.

_____

        Clara Kay ate a poppy seed muffin, half wrapped still to keep her tiny hands clean. Malcolm’s office was upstairs and silent. For weeks he’d been listening to that same recording, even after passing it along to Sawicki, and she was grateful for the quiet—the recording made her uncomfortable in a way she’d not been able to articulate even to herself.

         But the music had touched her sleep, that one castle she’d kept impenetrable to the world up until now. Never, she thought, had there been a nightmare of murder or death or rape. Always her dreams were invisible to her, and she woke restored. She needed her rest, was fastidious in sleeping, as it was necessary for her role. But suddenly she’d begun waking deep in the night, eyes sprung clear from images she declined to believe were wrought by her. Waves and seabirds such as she didn’t know. Impossible hues of light cast by a moon such as it might look from just underwater.

         She climbed the metal stairs to Malcolm’s office, the semi-converted warehouse cold this early in the morning. Halfway up, she identified an acrid scent that had begun to trouble her with each step. Burnt plastic.

         “Mal, do you smell smoke?”

         The door opened before her and a puff of black smoke snuck out above her and was gone. At Clara’s feet, just inside the door, lay Malcolm. She went to a knee on the cold flooring and touched his still warm cheek. She looked about and saw the metal garbage can full of lingering smoke. Next to it sat the shell of the computer, crushed with a nearby sledge that she recognized as their own, usually kept downstairs with some other tools they’d inherited with the building.

         Malcolm’s nose was bent at an angle. Look what they’d done to his face. She touched his cheek lightly, then felt down his chest with gentle fingers and found the knife wound, three ribs up. She probed into the wound to test it—too deep—and stopped when she saw Malcolm’s eyes flutter open.

         “Mal?”

         Her face was above him, Clara as he had never seen her before. Funny, he thought, how old friends can still surprise. But just as quickly he remembered where he was and what had happened. Before he had passed out there was one thing only he wanted, and Malcolm tried now to remember what it was. He began to hear an echo from Clara’s moving mouth. He moved a hand to touch her lips and believed he was succeeding, but his hand was not there, above him, as he believed it would be.

         “Who did this?” Clara asked again.

         Malcolm smelled the smoke. This came from the burnt CDs, he thought absently. Then he remembered what he wanted. Malcolm’s eyes opened wide and Clara paid attention. He cast a meaningful glance at the computer, the garbage can, then back to Clara. Malcolm did this three times and then waited while she put together his request.

         Save him, he thought to her. Please.

         He watched her face hopefully, but when her expression changed he knew that she had misunderstood. He willed at her, Save the music. Protect Jozef. But instead, she bent over him and promised to put a knife in Jozef’s neck. He felt the track of a tear sliding down his cheek. Clara reached to him and wiped it away with the pad of her thumb and he listened to her promise once more.

         “Him, Mal, and everyone he loves. I promise.”

         Malcolm tried to shake his head, tried to work his voice. He saw, finally, that this disgusting man—Jozef, with his petty heart and narrow mind—was not collecting this music for the evil of it, could not be, could not possibly hear past what Malcolm had finally heard in the recordings. A song, perhaps the one beautiful song. He thought of this song as Jozef’s redemption, of his only discernable value on the planet, and he realized what he most wanted to know was not why his employer had killed him over this, but instead whether or not Jozef thought of the music in this way, as his one good deed. Jozef’s Redemption.

         Malcolm again tried to move his head, tried again to find his voice, but neither happened and instead he felt himself die, a sort of repetitious halving of himself that maybe never ended as ever he became smaller.

         Clara cleared her face of tears. Jozef would’ve already gone into hiding but, still, she would start at his shop. Malcolm had a small piece which she took, her knife she had already, had always. She took his car keys too, and found Jozef’s store in less than fifteen minutes.

_____

        In front of the antique shop, the sun reflected off the store windows and warmed her face. A brief, habitual brush assured her that her knife was where it should be. She reached for the door at the same time as a man coming from the other direction. They both stuttered, reaching, then he laughed politely and pulled the door open for her. Clara Kay stared at him. The man’s smile turned puzzled and she became aware briefly how fierce she must look, how the rage might be fashioned on her face.

         Bent Hadley watched the woman a second more through the glass before stepping down the sidewalk. The way she moved was familiar to him, indicated a trajectory which he knew had a simple and identifiable terminus. Work done sooner is done better, he thought, but there’s a right time for each task. Hadley’d been given another address for the fat man and would find him there if need be.

         Inside, Clara found the shop empty. She strode past the vacant counter and toward the backroom she’d seen once before. And it took only a few strides into the hall before she heard the whisper of that fucking music. Only then did Clara think Jozef might actually be here instead of on the run. Clara Kay grabbed for the door, her knife in hand, then remembered herself. The knife went back where it belonged, a movement quick enough that it generated a whisper of sound. Jozef Sawicki was an enormous man, Clara reminded herself. She stilled her face, tested a smile. He would expect her coming, Clara thought, but a smile always bought the necessary moment. And she would burn his precious music, an abomination that had killed Mal on top of whatever fucking Mexicans or Cubans on the boat. The Spanish on the tape had been broken, but in it Clara believed she heard fragments of prayers unanswered, prayers against death instead of for life, and it was this, in part, which woke her at night.

         Clara rapped at the door and turned the knob without waiting for a reply.

         On the other side of the door, the music was deafening. The horns rung out metallic and clear, and made her remember that the end of that horn was called a bell. It was a song of mourning, a ballad, a love song.

         The room was as cluttered as the shop had been austere, and immediately she felt that this was Jozef’s natural state, nearly a nest for his overly large person. There were three desks, each buried under the detritus of his vocation. One covered in leaded glass lampshades in various forms of decay, another of rolled material that might be old canvas, or maps, or blueprints. The east wall was covered entirely by disparate instruments: a tiny harp, flutes, a guitar, an oboe, pipes that were wooden and appeared old and made by hand. A vast blank space full of hangers was explained by the center desk which was covered in brass horns. Alto and baritone saxaphones, a French horn, several different trumpets, a tuba, the long slide instrument she never remembered the name to, and a handful of brass she’d never before seen. Jozef inhabited that space so thoroughly that she didn’t see him for overly long.

         He was alone, leaning into the music as if he might better hear it. And it took him a moment to see Clara, and she registered his surprise. As if he hadn’t expected her to put him down. She closed the distance and watched his expression shift from surprise to anger.

         “What are you doing here?” he demanded, and the question seemed a strange one to her.

         And Clara felt it as she made her mistake, the one she had warned herself she could never make. Her pupils wide with rage, the knife too early in her hand. The wood flooring creaked when he rose from the chair. Clara noted the moment when he saw the knife, and his dexterity of movement once he knew what was at stake astonished her.

         Clara knew who she was. She was quick and could be cold when it was necessary. She’d learned that the first person to escalate any fight, the person willing to be the most brutal first, always won, and always when needed she’d been that person. She cut him twice, quick as she could. The mark at his belly was shallow and he hadn’t yet noted it, but Jozef drew back his bleeding hand and turned his anger into a scream.

         He shifted his weight and moved at her sudden. She put the blade in his forearm between the radius and ulna, but Jozef pressed forward screaming. Clara was pushed backwards and couldn’t withdraw the knife for another swipe and, with an ease she hadn’t expected, he grabbed her by the throat and flung her into a filing cabinet. She slunk to the floor and felt the slick of blood she left behind on the gray metal. Clara watched in that impossible slow motion as Jozef ran across the floor and stomped on her chest. She felt it give like a balloon, heard the sick pop it made. There was no pain, only the sick feeling of wrong that broken bones communicate.

         Jozef looked down on Clara and stomped the life from her body. When he was sure, he sat heavily on the floor and caught his wind. Dead and broken, she looked to him like an unloaded gun, he thought. Useless. Safe. So, Malcolm had sent her to steal back the music. And now that he had killed Clara Kay, Malcolm would send others until the music was his alone.

         There was little time. He took the CD he’d mastered from its cradle and put it carefully into the case. They didn’t deserve this music anymore than he did, Jozef knew, but nonetheless he would give his music to them, to whoever would hear it. What money there was he took, then sped from the place. At home he could make the copies, send them to the people who might recognize its value well enough to distribute it further, probably without even knowing why it struck them so.

         He took the corners at speed, and checked his mirrors often.

_____

        Jozef entered through the back door, puffing, his car parked three blocks away. The kitchen was full of light from the noon sun and the house smelled of the purple wisteria which clung outside the garden window above the sink. Sweet and heavy in the sun.

         He saw his house then as if it belonged to someone else. The furniture newly placed, just bought or salvaged from some dead old woman whose kids were too stupid or indifferent to collect it themselves. The carpets old, honestly worn to a state of antique that even now, he thought, people were still struggling to artificially perpetrate on newly minted dressers and tables steeply marked at Ethan Allen. He wiped a jewel of sweat off the CD case. All this would be left behind, but it would be worth it. It would be worth a life.

         In the den Jozef pressed the button on his laptop and waited for it to boot. Around him were two walls of CDs and a third split between records and tapes. Custom shelves he had built himself. Jozef felt the weight of those recordings and copies of recordings. When he thought of himself, who he was, he never imagined the antique shop or the junk shops, he didn’t see the house. What he envisioned always was this room, the physical space these recordings took up. These were less than a hundredth of what came his way, he thought with pride. Every good decision he had made was reflected here.

         Jozef went to the closet and slid open the door. The Fusion CD Duplicator weighed nearly a hundred pounds and he rolled it out alongside the computer. Six drives, 900 CD capacity. It would run for almost eight hours without intervention and had cost more than even he could honestly afford. Jozef butted it against the desk and connected the necessary cable.

         The closet’s shelves were packed with identical boxes, each of which held two hundred pre-addressed, postage paid envelopes. These he had made over the course of ten years, updating the postage as necessary now and again. He took down the boxes and pulled a handful out at random. This batch was addressed to various music stores around Europe, some of which he knew would no longer be in business. In the boxes were envelopes to his sister and her children, music artists he’d known or heard of. There was a retired producer in Portland who had written an article on the weight of the soul which he’d argued was a musical weight. Many of the envelopes he’d addressed at random from a half dozen phone books. One headed to “Director of IT” at a mid-sized aerospace company in New Mexico he’d seen an advert for in Business Week.

         None carried return addresses, his gifts. Jozef most liked to dream about who those might go to. Since discovering this recording, he dreamt of that virginal moment when these lucky people, who expected nothing, got more than they had a right to hope was possible: something with meaning.

         Jozef tucked the envelopes back in the box and loaded his CD into the machine.

         By early afternoon he finished the first box of envelopes. Jozef squeezed his hands a few times, trying to force the pain out of them. In the living room he took a bottle of bourbon from atop the quarter sawn liquor cabinet and poured a drought before remembering he would be leaving in a few hours. Instead he tugged open the cabinet door and took out the bottles he would save: a Baron de St Feux, two Glenmorangie, and a Beaujolais that he’d been saving since before he had his first shop. Jozef opened the younger of the two Glenmorangies and drank off a measure from the bottle.

         Jozef heard nothing, but he saw the thin man reflected in the glass of the open liquor cabinet. When he turned to face him, the man’s knife slipped passed him and he suddenly found the smaller man in his arms. Jozef smelled coffee on his breath and tobacco on his skin. The thin man had brown eyes and sandy hair and was easily four inches shorter than him.

         “No,” Jozef said plainly.

         This seemed to wake the thin man who brought a knee up and put it against Jozef’s chest. Jozef held tight, his anger building at this wrongness. After he killed this man he would post the CDs he had, then come back for more, and post them every hour until he could run. He imagined this man’s dead body as it would be once he destroyed it. Jozef felt himself blush with rage. Then he raged.

         He screamed and hit the smaller man with his meaty forehead. He screamed again, louder, and hit him again. His screams continued and he throttled the thin man with all force, breaking his own nose as well as the other man’s. Then, with a quickness Jozef couldn’t follow, the thin man did something with his right hand. First it was trapped between Jozef’s arm and body, then suddenly it was free. Jozef gripped the man’s hand before he could thrust it, and only once he had the hand did he realize it was already in his chest. A small handled blade. Jozef threw the man who landed mostly on his feet, and stood watching. Three steps toward him was all he made.

         Jozef lay horizontal on the floor. When he tried to move his head he fully expected something to happen but nothing happened. The thin man wore argyle socks, blue with yellow, and tennis shoes. Strange, Jozef thought. He watched the man’s shoes near the stereo and there he stood still for three and a half minutes—Jozef imagined the time pass with the perfect accuracy derived from having lived this music for the last many weeks. Then, with a suddenness that surprised him, the thin man came to him and took his wallet.

         And Jozef smiled—his life moving to flush his face with its remains, a sort of haunting—as when the thin man leaned down, he saw the CD gripped in his opposite hand.

         The horns rung out metallic and clear, and made him remember that the end of that horn was called a bell. It was a ballad, a love song, a song for the living.








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