UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
JASON COOK

In The Hooker's Bedroom

         "Shoulda shot that bitch," Stone repeated, again, beneath his breath. His mutterings rang hollower with every repetition, like rosary beads with too

much mileage. "Can't talk to me like that," he said, knowing it was a stupid thing to say, that no matter how many times he swore at the playback looping through his head, the scene would end the same. But his train of thought was a ball of yarn, plaything of a King Kong tabby. He said it again, over and over, crystallising his helplessness, his shame, the sensation of a roomful of snickering eyes digging into his back.

         Sweating, he swore again and tried to fade innocuously into the scarred Formica table-tops, cracked red pleather, tiles stained by a million feet, and brackish light filtered through filthy frosted glass light fixtures. No one had looked at him twice when he'd trudged in from the cold; no one looked at him now. Eventually, they would. There were always witnesses and, before too long, every waiter, regular, dealer, busboy, and sentient low-life here would know that J. Stone Prince had pulled a gun on a broad, then let her walk off, nose in the air, talking on the cell phone she wouldn't hand over, free hand stuffed into the pocket of her goddamn chichi fur coat. He clutched the purse, all he'd made off with, beneath the table and looked around the room. At the grill, Ronnie kept cooking, basting the long room with oily aromas of frying burgers and French fries. Stone's stomach awoke, rubbed its eyes, and grumbled loudly in recognition.

         He'd meant it when he'd whipped out the piece and relished how the thing had weighed mighty and omnipotent in his hand. It was only a mugging, just a collection for burger money, but he'd anticipated, imagined, really, a rush of power, fear lighting up the woman's eyes, and sudden obsequiousness as she handed over whatever he demanded. But when she had looked at him down her long, rhinoplastied nose with the kind of disdain people like her reserve for dead flies floating in expensive soup at four-star French restaurants, he'd mutely accepted the purse. And even that she did contemptuously, as though he were a Dominican bellhop at the Mayflower Hotel.

         "Be careful with this mother," Tommy had said when Stone picked it up for the first time, "this thing kicks like Jackie Chan." For all it mattered. Stone could have pulled a bazooka or a stick of licorice out of his pocket, the way she'd sneered when he waved the weapon, demanding her coat, the acidic way she'd said, "it's 40 degrees out here."

         He shook the purse, hesitant still to open it. The intricate pewter clasp glinted coldly. It wasn't the first time he'd sought refuge in a diner, this diner, with a lapful of stolen goods, but the first time the haul didn't feel like his. Change jingled inside and what had better have been a well-stuffed wallet. "Really shoulda shot that bitch," Stone grumbled again. Humiliated, yes, but at least he wouldn't go hungry.

         He waved at the little gaggle of waitresses, in their faded uniforms looking like dilapidated pastel swans, but inadvertently caught Norm's attention. Norm, the owner, with a face like a brick and a personality to match. Arms crossed, he towered over Stone's table.

         "What the hell do you want, Johnny?" he said.

         "A cuppa," Stone mumbled, squeezing back into the well-beaten booth. "And a burger."

         Norm chuckled, low and mirthful as a cement mixer. "Big spender today, huh?" he said. "Musta knocked over a pawn shop or something."

         "Maybe I did." Stone tried to inject some bass into his voice.

         "Show me the money first," Norm said. "I'm tired of bringing you shit you can't pay for." Stone swallowed, shook the purse still hidden under the table. He hadn't stopped to take inventory, didn't know what his take was. Childhood instincts had taken over and he'd run, hit the bricks like he hadn't since his father had caught him breaking into his liquor stash in high school and chased him all the way to the bridge.

         "Just the coffee first," he said, finally. "I'll tell you what I want in a minute."

         As soon as Norm's back was turned, Stone hunched over the purse and began ferretting through its innards. Lipstick, notes, receipts, the usual woman junk. A thin, elegant wallet, eelskin or some exotic shit like that. Stone relaxed, a smile blooming on his lips. He pulled the tiny clasp, lily-shaped, and sighed. No cash. Nothing green. A checkbook with only deposit slips. Keys to a Lexus he'd never find and a driver's license naming the bitch Deidre Marx. Credit cards she'd certainly already canceled. And a handful, a small handful, of change, a pinch, really, jingling like little imprisoned Tinkerbells.

         Norm returned with the coffee. "Bettie wants to know what's the matter with you," he said. "Says you look wrought."

         "Wrought?" Stone frowned. "What, like iron?"

         "I look like a fucking dictionary?" Norm grunted as he set the coffee on the table. "You still want that burger?"

         "Yeah," Stone said. "I'm starving."

         "Got the money?"

         "I'll get it to you," Stone said meekly, hanging his head, avoiding the eyes of anything at all, and spooned a pile of sugar into his coffee.

         "No tabs, little shit," Norm said, turning back to the counter. "Iron you definitely ain't."

         87 cents. He'd made off with 87 cents and a leather purse full of stuff useless even to the woman who owned it. A cup of coffee was 75, so Stone could keep the bright, glistening dime and those pennies. "Lucky I don't shoot his ass," Stone said. But there was no fire, not even the heat of self-deception, and there was no denying Norm was right. Stone sighed and reached for the cream. He was tired of waking up and watching a loser shave. Now he'd have to buy socks for a guy who couldn't scare a woman out of a fur coat, buy food for the sonofabitch, and his take-home was a cup of coffee and 12 cents.

         Sugar, Sweet 'n Low, Splenda, that non-dairy junk like powdered, packaged hell. No cream.

         "Bettie!" Stone called. "Get some cream?"

         "We're out, hon," she called. "Gonna have to use the powder."

         "Shit." What else could he say? What else could he expect, really, on a night like this? He sighed and pushed the coffee away as Bettie came up to the table.

         "Sorry, Johnny," she said, flashing a smile that evinced a grandmotherly warmth, although she was only in her 30's, slathering on a school-teacher kindness for which Stone could have throttled her. "Wow, and a tip for a change." Bettie scooped his change in her apron pouch. "A dime's an hour's shoemaker's pay in China, you know."

         "Well, that’s fantastic,” Stone mumbled, but Bettie was already gone. “Now I fucking feel better.”

***

         Stone walked home through mostly deserted streets, populated only by the ghostly growl of distant traffic and the occasional pedestrian who may as well have passed right through him. Blank windows impassively watched him; rectangles of yellow light winking derision. He toyed with the idea of pulling his gun and blowing holes in them, shattering the tranquility of those lit windows. Smiling, he stuffed stiffening fingers into his pockets and kicked a pebble down the sidewalk, imagining the roar of his gun, the falling glass, maybe a woman's shriek as some guy jumped up from his sofa in alarm. Or just diving to the floor. More realistically, he considered throwing the gun away, chucking the whole night and himself along with it into the dumpster behind the Chinese take-out place. He'd already left the purse where it had fallen, contents splayed, mockingly worthless, across the diner seat and a thin, silver tube of Revlon mascara on the floor.

         Stone arrived at his building and stopped. A black Beamer crouched at the curb, streamlined and gleaming black in a center-stage circle of streetlamp spotlight. The car was out of character for this ragged neighbourhood. Stone hated it. He stood next to it, breath fogging in the cold. Stone bit his lip and looked around, reaching into his pocket. The cones of light illuminating the sidewalk in both directions were empty. He drew his keys. The longest one, for the basement storage unit, bit easily into the paint, drawing little screeches like a braking subway. No stranger to vandalism, Stone worked quickly, and stepped back, smiling as he admired his contribution to some jackass' Ultimate Driving Machine. On the hood, above the suave, rectangular headlights, the word "bitch" glared in angry, angular letters. Stone began the four-story climb up the fire escape with a smile still on his face.

         Keying the car was a childish gesture, really, and just that - a gesture. But the act of retribution was just what he needed and, at least, he might be able to look his mirror in the eye before going to bed. That heavy hand of humiliation had lifted and, although he could feel it hovering over his shoulder, feel its warmth and sense its weight, fantasies of further retaliation took flight. He could return to the diner and retrieve the wallet. The license had an address. He could pay her a little visit, no doubt at some posh 5th fucking Ave address with an awning and a doorman and all that shit. He could carve up that pricey Lexus she scooted her lipo-suctioned ass around in, maybe slap some respect into her. He'd been nervous, of course, and her boldness had just thrown him off his game. Maybe he'd show her a thing or two and just fucking shoot her.

         "Bang, bang," Stone said under his breath.

         He paused. The whisper faded quickly, but the low, hollow echo of his heavy feet on the fire escape reverberated into the stillness. From the landing, he looked down over the rail. The street below was empty. Upwards, the quiet persisted. Still, he'd heard something, something sharper than the constant background noise of television sets and honking cars, muted conversations and howling cats. A muffled shout, maybe, closer at hand, and he cringed, imagining some racquetball-hardened stock-broker, BMW keychain dangling from his fist, charging through the alley, ready to drag Stone back down the steel staircase and pound a new hole in the sidewalk with his face.

         He was prepared to shrug it off and go home, chalk it up to a case of nerves, when he heard it again, louder this time, and only then noticed the open window beside him. "Strange," he thought, "it's fuckin' 40 degrees out here." From within, faintly, came groans, moans, a light, girlish giggle like falling glass. The apartment was two floors below his, the haven of a working girl Stone had seen once or twice, clean and pretty enough in a delicate sorta way.

         The sliver of open space above the sill winked suggestively like a flirtatious bartender. Stone had never been one to look a gift window in the mouth; slowly, he eased the window open and crept inside. Maybe he could redeem the night, after all. Nobody in the building had much worth taking, but maybe he could swipe a couple of bucks and pull something more than a complete loser out of bed in the morning.

         The apartment's layout mirrored his own, Stone saw when his eyes adapted to the darkness. To his right, a bedroom door framed by needles of yellow light. A sofa lay to his left and, ahead, next to the front door, was the little kitchen area with the Nixon-era appliances and plumbing installed sometime during the Depression. Stone crouched in the well of shadow beside the couch and touched the gun in his pocket. He would have traded the thing for his old switchblade, something he was comfortable with. Actually, he would have given it up for a butterknife, for all the good the gun had brought. He didn't even know what kind it was.

         Carefully, although the continuous stream of noise from the bedroom drowned his footsteps on the faded carpet, Stone slunk towards the couch. In the light streaming faintly through the open window, he found a woman’s coat. Beneath it hid her purse – this one imitation leather, probably picked up somewhere in Chinatown, with a department store wallet stuffed down among the receipts and makeup and spare tampons. Stone opened it and ran his thumb across the edge of the bills, which rustled like a woman’s pants sliding to the floor. This girl was loaded. Forgetting stealth, Stone dropped the purse and made his way toward the window.

         An asphyxiated shout, a sharp, rusted-nails kind of sound, froze him. Stone dropped to the floor behind an easy chair and held his breath. Surely the John wouldn't give a shit and the girl couldn't do much, but being caught would certainly make for tense situations if he ran into her at the trash compactor. “Damn,” he whispered, and peeked towards the bedroom door. It remained closed, but the sounds from the other side had changed, changed or he’d misjudged them from the beginning. These staccato, stifled cries weren’t lust, but protest, pain, and, he heard now, sobbing desperation. Stone understood the difference between trouble-making and trouble.

         Another step towards the door and he paused. Another sound emerged, a solid thump, a rhythmic packing. He recognized that sound too, had heard it before his trips to the emergency room as a kid, or when that dyke bouncer had left him bruised in an alley behind that bar, groaning pathetically through a mouth full of blood.

         Curiousity pulled him closer, another in what was suddenly clear to Stone as a night full of stupid things. For working girls, the occasional roughing up was part of the business, he knew, but this sounded like real pain, panic. She was really getting fucked up in there.

         Like most people, Stone drove slowly past accidents on the West Side Highway, gawking at the crumpled metal and shrouded bodies lying in the road. It was sick, he knew, but like everyone else he knew it was almost irresistible. He could check, see what was going on, and then leave. He could still take the cash and run, but his curiousity wouldn’t let him sleep without taking a peek first. Stone swallowed the watermelon in his throat and nudged open the door.

         “What the hell?” he mumbled. He could see a slice of a small, tidy room, carefully arranged and prepared in girlish frills. Pink pillowcases, makeup in a neat row on the vanity table. He saw a bed, a space heater with coils glowing that orange-red, an end-table holding pill bottles and a wallet, and a tall man with well-defined muscles boxing in his underwear.

         He circled around the bag he’d somehow hung from the ceiling, lips pressed together, chin tucked, guard always up, bobbing like a dinghy in a hurricane. Two quick jabs, a roundhouse, followed by another jab and an uppercut, which tore from the target a thin, ragged shriek.

         Stone’s jaw fell open as his hand fell to the gun in his pocket. The bag, which Stone realized was a blanket, twisted and convulsed, arching away from the blows as the girl struggled, kind of in a fucked-up utero. A curve, the back of her head, her back's long convexity, the jut of her hand stabbing desperately out of the blanket.

         Framed by the doorway, the scene was like something out of TV, one of those graphic and hyper-gritty new cable shows. Stone watched as he more or less expertly flailed away at the girl, suddenly sure it was this man's Ultimate Driving Machine he'd defaced down by the curb. Climbing into that car, the girl must have floated on a cloud of dollar signs, maybe relieved at spending some time with a gentleman for a change. Stone couldn't have stood there for long, but time stretched amorphously, the silent flicking of the digital clock's numbers slowing to an irrelevant crawl. Stone was horrified, but mostly fascinated, kind of like the episode of American Idol he'd watched, wanting to be angry at himself for waiting through the commercials, knowing he'd do it anyway. He tried to turn down the volume up, to hear what the girl was saying, pushed the button several times before he looked down and saw the gun in his hand. He'd flicked the safety on, then off, then on again.

         The gun. He'd forgotten it, didn't even remember taking it out of his pocket. A slow, crooked smile spread over his face. He had a gun. More importantly, he'd had a bad fucking night. He'd planned on going home and hating himself, but taking it out on this asshole suddenly seemed much more therapeutic. He checked the safety, made sure it was on, and held the gun in the air beside his head. He wouldn't hurt the guy, maybe slap him around, but it'd be fun to watch him cry a little. Maybe piss his pants like a little girl on the Cyclone.

         Stone took a deep breath and watched the show while he prepared himself. The guy was still going at it strong, while the girl's strength, and Stone kept remembering what a frail little thing she was, faded, her anger blanching into a long series of broken moans. Another long breath and Stone kicked open the door, which slammed as it bounced off the wall, knocking a framed photo from its hook, and then stepped out into the set.

         The guy stopped, stepped back, zeroed in on the gun, fireworks of surprise going off all over his face.

         "What the fuck?" he cried.

         "Hey, fuck you!" Stone responded, and pistol-whipped the guy across the jaw. It wasn't as easy as it looked; the impact rattled up his arm and vibrated in his elbow, but the guy did fall. Stone leveled the gun at the guy's chest as he skittered backward across the floor like a white crab in Underoos. The girl stopped struggling and just hung there like an uncomfortable question as the guy bounced to his feet and jumped behind her, holding his hands out to one side.

         "What's your fucking problem, man?" the guy cried.

         "You're an asshole, that's my fucking problem," Stone said. "What the fuck are you doing?"

         "Just a misunderstanding, man," the guy said. He peeked out, a hopeful smile faltering on lips. "This was part of my package, you know? It's what I fucking paid for."

         The bagged-up girl shrieked, struggled with renewed ferocity, her hands and feet pressed against the cloth.

         "Shut up," Stone growled. "This is between me and your little boyfriend here." The guy cowered behind his homemade punching bag, staring at Stone around her edges with stupidly surprised, guppy-like eyes. Stone hated him. Hated that pathetic cringe, hated that fucking Beamer outside, hated the kind of asshole who'd spend five bucks on a cup of coffee and only drink half, hated the fucker's face, the kind of chiseled, pampered good looks from GQ Ray-Bans ad.

         "Who are you, man?" the guy said, voice shaking like a sidewalk over the A train. "If you're her pimp, I'm sorry. I'll pay you -"

         "Yeah, I'm her pimp," Stone snorted. "My purple coat and leopard-print hat are at the cleaners. What kinda idiot are you, anyway" This was fun, Stone smiled, like Duck Hunt. He kept his gun trained on the shifting figure of Beamerman, who attempted to scrunch his bulk into the space behind the girl. As soon as his head was concealed, his butt emerged from the other side like a white cotton-clad half-moon. As he tracked the vulnerable points of GQ's body, Stone experimented with postures, poses - holding the gun sideways like a skinny white Tupac, menacing, nonchalant, coiled, homicidal, classic marksman, ballerina-smooth Matrix style.

         He settled on a competently bored Bruce Willis and waved the gun.

         "Come out here," he said. "Or I'll put another hole in your ass." Of course he wouldn't, but the asshole didn't know that and Stone noticed, with satisfaction, panic's unsteady lips and cold sweat rivulets. Maybe he actually could get this guy to piss himself. He certainly seemed ready, standing there in his tighty-whiteys with his palms in the air beside his head.

         "Look, buddy," he said in that carefully friendly voice used for selling Exxon stock or instructing mentally damaged children, “I don't know what your problem is, but there's nothing to get worked up about. She's just a whore."

         "And you're just an asshole." Stone grinned. "Is that your ride outside?"

         "Yeah," the guy said. "Yeah, the BMW's mine. The keys are on the dresser. Take it, take whatever you want."

         "Thanks," Stone said. Greed might have brought him in here, but he was having a good time now and he couldn't imagine how sitting in traffic in a stolen German sports car could be more fun than this.

         "How about we all just go our separate ways and pretend this never happened?”

         "How about maybe you piss yourself and I'll let you go." Stone was kidding, but as soon as the words left his mouth, he liked the idea.

         "You want me to piss myself?" The guy was actually starting to cry, little trickles of fear dropped from his eyes and disappeared into the grease-slick of sweat coating the guy's face.

         "Yeah, sure," Stone said, encouragingly, kindly even. "How about you piss yourself?"

         "I'm sorry, man." The guy was losing it. "I just wanted to do it and didn't think anyone would care. I mean, she's just a fucking whore!"

         "Get me the fuck out of here!" the girl yelled, hysteria fraying the edges of her voice.

         Stone waved the gun at the bag. "I told you to calm the-"

         Suddenly, the guy launched his powerful body through the space between them, hands outstretched, knocking past Stone as he bolted for the door. He must have been edging closer, waiting for the gun's gaze to shift. Stone flinched and squeezed his eyes shut, his own startled yelp lost in Lacrosse Man’s whimper, in the girl’s whine rising in a cresting wave, and the overriding echo of the gun barking in his hand.

         Stone stood very still while the abrupt chaos lapsed into silence and the acrid bite of burnt powder blended with the wax of vanilla and cinnamon scented candles.

         “What’s going on?” the girl shrieked.

         Stone didn’t answer. He opened his eyes wide enough to catch a glimpse of the dead man prone, face planted firmly in the carpet, and closed them again. Every instinct told him to run. He could be upstairs, puking up his panic, long before the cops arrived and, when they knocked on his door to canvass the building, no officer, he hadn’t seen a fucking thing. He could go home, turn on the TV, break into that bottle of Scotch he'd been saving for a special occasion, let the pigs cut this girl down and sort this shit out. The place had to be covered with prints. He could mail the gun to his cousin in Fresno and just pretend, like the freshly dead asshole at his feet had said, that this had never happened.

         A pained grunt, a scrape of flesh on cheap carpet, and fingers trailing limply over his shoe. Stone's stupor snapped and reality returned, all hard edges and urgency. He screamed and jumped back, imagination suddenly flooded with decaying zombies shuffling out of Tales from the Crypt reruns. He opened his eyes and looked down at Polo Boy, who sat on the carpet, cradling his arm. Disbelief shacked up with fear in the guy’s eyes.

         “You shot me,” he cried. “You fucking shot me! Are you fucking crazy?”

         “You're not de-” Stone stammered, then stopped, buried his surprise, and grinned. "You’re damn right I fucking shot you.” Although he tried to hide the relief in finding he’d only given the guy a flesh wound, he couldn’t mask the pride lifting his voice. “Yeah,” he said. “I fucking shot your ass."

         “What the fuck are you fucking doing?” the girl screamed. “Fucking get me down!”

         Let all the snotty uptown bitches in the world sneer at him now. He was officially a Bad Motherfucker. Maybe he could start a club.

         “You could have fucking killed me!” The guy was orienting himself, anger replacing fear as he realized Stone wasn’t about to kill him.

         “Then you should feel like one lucky asshole,” Stone reasoned. “It’s just your arm. Stop being such a pussy.” He gestured to the bag. “Now get her down.”

         “I would,” the guy snarled. “Only someone just fucking shot me in the arm.”

         “Wah wah,” Stone shook his head and skipped over the sonofabitch, making his way to the center of the room. A faint but growing elation pushed that hand of humiliation away and his heart beat syncopated jazz rhythms in his chest. In the distance, real or imagined, sirens ululated like desert widows in mourning. "Please get me out of this fucking thing," the girl sobbed.

         “Please calm the fuck down.” The guy on the floor was starting to cry, almost as good as pissing himself. Stone smiled as he fumbled with the bag the prick had hung somehow from the ceiling, imagining Norm’s face when he heard that J. Stone Prince had actually shot someone. Of course, he wouldn’t boast, but someone would. There were always witnesses and, somehow, someone always found out. Next time he’d get that fucking burger.

Jason Cook regrets his decision to become a student at USF St. Petersburg. He'd rather be writing and drinking fine wine in a villa on the Blue Coast. Instead, he gets by chasing Jamaican girls on the beach in Central Florida, smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too often. He has been published in Keyhole, Facets of Literature, and is the editor of The Ampersand Review.







© 2008 Underground Voices