The Beautiful: Chapter 2 & 3
Posted in: Words
Thank you all for the vote of confidence. This time I am sharing two chapters at once. If you haven’t read it or want to jog your memory a bit, here’s the first chapter.
I found myself trapped in a small town called Rockwell, a tiny speck in the Arizona desert, out in the middle of nowhere. I was supposed to keep moving. But a Latina named Maria had compelled me to stay. That sweet heavenly face with a smile that could light up the entire room. Her coffee-cream skin seemed to glow in the sun, as did her long dark hair, curled into a bun, exposing her long slender neck.
I first saw Maria at the Sunrise Inn Motel lobby, working the receptionist’s desk, next to a cleaner named Eduardo. I caught her staring at the log book as I signed in. She flashed me a smile. For some reason she took a great interest in my name, marking the spot where I had jotted it down in the log book with her thumb. Perhaps because it was so uncommon. Maria, like everybody else, must have assumed it was a typo. Dillen Stephens. She scrutinized my name further. ‘Deeyen Stephens?’ she asked. I should have told her it was pronounced the same as Dylan. But I liked the way she said my name, so I didn’t bother to correct her.
Maria was too pretty to be a motel receptionist. With glowing light brown eyes, set beneath well-groomed eyebrows and adorned with thick, long lashes, she was tall and slender, her skin emitting the sweet smell of citrus and lavender. She would have looked good in a suit and heels. I wanted to know more about Maria. I had a feeling she might want to know more about me too. I wanted to talk, just be in her company, get lost in those mesmerizing eyes.
Part of me said I shouldn’t. I was a man on the run from the law. I wasn’t convinced if Maria was to be trusted. Maria, the paranoid side of me believed, was not who I thought she was. Another part of me believed it would have been unfair to allow Maria into my world. I was a man with a dark secret and a dark past. My future, I suspected, was darker still. To let her enter my world would be to deny her the chance to find true love.
I could see the air of disappointment in Maria’s face when I chose to retreat to my room. But knowing that she was right there at the lobby left me feeling restless. ‘Stay here. She is not to be trusted,’ one of the voices in my head said. ‘It’s a trap,’ another voice in me said. ‘Maria knows who I am and she’ll have me arrested,’ the last voice said.
I decided to ignore the voices and risk it all. Not because I was in the mood for a real connection, nor was it because I was in search of love. But because I wanted to do the one thing I did best: Snap pictures of Maria secretly with my cellphone. Hundreds of them. So I could edit the pictures on Photoshop, paste her head on top of some nude pictures, and satisfy my lust and imagination.
It was a disgusting addiction, one that had cost me my freedom and peace. One that made me ashamed of myself, riddled with guilt. But I couldn’t resist the thrill of successfully taking pictures without getting caught. The joy of reviewing my prized collection. The excitement of starting a new Photoshop project. Marveling at my own creation – how smooth and realistic they turned out to be. Rejoicing at the chance to let my imagination run wild. The buzz running down my spine. The weakening of the knees. The feeling of breathlessness. The smell of freshly ejaculated sperm. So full of life. So full of excitement.
Afterward, I would feel hollow. Embarrassed at what I’d just done. Like any addiction, there is a sense of guilt that follows. But I kept on doing it again and again, like a smoker who swears his recently lit cigarette will be his absolute last. I was addicted to the power of turning women like Maria into whoever I chose her to be, make them do whatever I pleased, even when it was nothing but lies, even if it was all in my imagination.
I peered down the hallway to find Maria still sitting at the lobby. My legs grew heavy as I inched closer. Occasionally I stopped, like a part of me just wanted to be back in my room. ‘Is this a good idea?’ I asked myself. ‘What if she finds out what my real intention is?’ She would be disgusted. She might even call the cops and they’d find out that I was wanted by the Feds.
But Maria looked so pretty in that red baby-doll T-shirt. Sitting on a couch with her back arched forward. That pose, that expression on her face would have been perfect with this one particular nude photo I’d just downloaded. I was so desperate to snap pictures of her. If I could have my way, I would have taken one of every pose, angle and expression.
Maria looked at me and smiled, stealing every last molecule of oxygen from my lungs. I tried to keep my cool and walked towards her. She must have been really dying to talk to me.
I took a seat in front of her. The way the lobby was lit was not to my liking. I could already imagine how fuzzy the pictures I planned to take of Maria would eventually end up.
‘How long have you worked here?’ I asked her. She was taken aback by my question. Her smile vanished completely. Had I asked the wrong question? Was the answer too painful to divulge? I had no idea. She stayed silent. What followed was a long and awkward pause.
She responded with a question of her own. ‘Are you OK, Mr. Stephens?’ she asked. She leaned over, looking for subtle changes in my expression.
‘I’m fine,’ I told her. Why wouldn’t I be? I asked myself. She looked deep into my eyes, trying to guess what was going on in my head. I interrupted her musing.
‘Call me…’ I really should have told her how my name was supposed to be pronounced. ‘Deeyen…’
Maria smiled once more. Put on the widest of grins. I saw her lips start to move. But I wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. My eyes were glued to her cleavage. The black bra tucked beneath that baby-doll T-shirt. ‘T-shirt?’ I asked myself. I’d swear she was wearing something else. Maria would have looked stunning in a suit and heels.
I pulled my phone from the pocket of my jeans. Swiped the screen, entered my password and opened the camera app, ensuring that the sound was off. I started to take pictures of Maria with subtle and inconspicuous movements of my thumb. Maria didn’t seem to know what I was doing. She just continued on and on with whatever she was saying, like she was somehow reading off a thick pile of documents.
I looked over to see Eduardo sitting in the background, his gaze glued to the television. On the screen was a male reporter pointing his microphone at a hulking police captain. The reporter was skinny, about my age, in a suit so big he appeared to be drowning. The officer was tall and muscular, with droopy mad eyes and a well-groomed mustache. The cop was so tall the reporter had to stretch out his arm and the officer had to bend over every time he answered a question. I knew that cop. The text on the screen read ‘Capt. Borowitz, LVPD.’
The two were standing in front of the scene of a murder, lit by streaks of red and blue lights from the ambulance and police cruisers.
The footage cut to the anchor in the studio speaking in Spanish to the reporter on the ground. The station then cut to a picture of the victim, taken straight from her social media page. She was beautiful. Her hair well-groomed, dyed to reveal shades of golden brown alternating with her natural dark hair. The news report cut to a crude animation of what happened. Two men on a motorcycle, helmets concealing their faces; one pulling the woman by the hair while the other accelerated the motorbike, dragging her body across the asphalt.
Then the anchor uttered a familiar name: ‘Vivian Tan.’ The victim’s name was also flashed on the screen. I was stunned, like a ghost from the past had returned to haunt me. I rushed to the join Eduardo, leaving Maria dazed and confused.
‘Can you turn up the volume?’ I asked Eduardo politely.
‘Vivian Tan… La prostituta,’ he said.
‘What?’ I yelled. My breathing grew heavy from the shock. Vivian, a prostitute? Eduardo became nervous, aware that what he’d said had displeased me.
‘Si, Señor Deeyen. TV say… woman… prostituta.’
I got up and left Eduardo and Maria behind without so much as a goodbye. I was sick to my stomach. I tried to process all the information. Vivian? My long-lost love? A prostitute? Murdered? Could it be? My Vivian?
I couldn’t stay any longer. I needed to find out if it was really true.
Rockwell only existed because back during the Gold Rush they discovered a well, hidden beneath a rock formation, like its name sake, providing a lifeline for would-be prospectors and later during The Depression, pilgrims who flocked to the West to find jobs. Now, it was frequented only by people who were hiding from the law, from summonses and subpoenas, from child support, from tax and debt collectors, from immigration authorities, from whatever lives they left behind. Nothing but a small transit town out in the middle of nowhere.
The town had only one internet cafe just right across the desolate road from the Sunrise Inn. A thriving business in a remote town where connectivity to the outside world is a luxury. The shopkeeper looked at me as I entered, waving his two fingers as a kind of salute while at the same time pointing to the general directions of where the computers were. There were only a handful of kids in the cafe, all ignoring me being there. Opening multiple tabs, social media and porn sites. Some were playing online games, striking their keyboards with fierce aggression.
I sat. Trying to compose myself as I opened the browser. I typed in a familiar address in the URL bar: ‘Vultures Club’, a members only online forum where leaked and stolen pictures were dumped. Vultures Club was started by two photographers covering the aftermath of the War on Afghanistan as the country slowly descended into chaos from a power grab between terror cells and war lords. The photographers were upset that magazines and newspapers in the West wouldn’t publish what they considered as ‘the true face of war’, children crushed beneath the rubles of their homes after an American fighter jet carpet-bombed their villages. The two photographers later invited all of their journalist friends. Using the site as a form of protest against media which deemed their photos as too graphic and too violent, all in the name of free speech.
Soon, the site attracted coroners and bystanders, secretly uploading photos of murder victims. People of different backgrounds use the site. Like vultures, they are united by blood and death and despair. Feeding off the taboo and the things others wished to remain hidden from view. Striving for no more than likes and street creds.
Sure enough, pictures from the murder were there. There was bloody imprint on the asphalt sitting next to a trail of rubber. The victim’s body lying lifeless, filled with skid marks and deep and gaping wounds, revealing a pink flesh underneath, her collar bone exposed. The victim’s gray cardigan torn apart from the friction, smudged in black by the dirt, drenched in red. She was wearing a white cotton shirt underneath, unbuttoned and ripped. A tattoo of a flower peeped from her left bra.
Another picture revealed a closer look at her face, covered in blood. Then I saw it, a confirmation to my worst fear: two small moles sitting clustered together, a thumb’s width apart, halfway along her jawline. I remembered those moles. I too have twin moles on my wrist. We were so young at the time. Heads filled with superstitions and childish imagination. Our moles, so we believed back then, were signs from the divine that we were destined for one another. I used to caress Vivian’s jaw with my wrist, letting our twin moles touched, like they were gateways into our souls.
I tried to search for images of when Vivian was still alive. Vivian Tan was unrecognizable. A completely different person. As I scanned through recent pictures of her, I tried to conjure all my memories of her younger self. Vivian was perfect the way she was. Her straight, long, dark hair gleaming against the sun. Her smile comforting and infectious. Her laugh so filled with joy, so easy to trigger. A laughter so intoxicating you couldn’t wait to try another joke, like it was some treat you wanted to keep consuming. I smiled just thinking about that laugh. But that joy was soon erased by the realization that my long lost love was gone for good.
My legs grew heavy, my joints weak, like the weight of the world was pressing down on me. How can the same sweet girl I dated in middle school ended up butchered on the streets in such an unspeakably heinous way? What kind of a monster would do such a thing? Why? What happened to her after she was gone? Why did she vanish in the first place? Was I, in one way or another, responsible for her tragic life and death?
The question lingered on as I walked aimlessly across this small town of a few thousand people. I imagined the sort of people whom Vivian must have encountered. The people who made her sell her body. The people paying for her service. The people who changed the way she looked. The people responsible for her murder.
I was torn between the wish to stay in hiding and the desire to indulge my curiosity. I should really stay away but the image of Vivian’s body, laying lifeless in the gutter kept haunting me.
A vibration is felt from the pocket of my jeans. A call. It was Jimmy.
‘Dillen… Hayya doin’ man? Where you at? Keepin low? Staying off the radar?’ Jimmy asked. I felt weak and reluctantly responded.
‘I’m out in the middle of nowhere. They can’t find me,’ I told Jimmy.
‘Good… good… Listen. I heard the Feds are transferring our case to some fuckin’ cyber crimes task force and shit. You better stay off the grid, man. These guys will find you. Don’t fuckin’ use the internet. Use the dumbest phone you can find. No GPS, no internet connection, no nothin’. Just keep it old school. You hear?’
‘Way ahead of ya Jimmy.’
‘Now, don’t ask me how I know this. But they got enough to pin us down. I mean lock us away for years. Especially you man. They were able to extract all those Photoshop work you did and run it through some fuckin’ software to pinpoint where the raw images come from. If they can identify enough women from all the Facebook photos you stole and get them to press charges, we’re fucked man. I mean really fucked.’
I said nothing. Just exhaling heavily. Caught between trying to come to terms with Vivian’s death while at the same time comprehend the shitty mess I was in.
‘Alright. Listen! I’m sure this thing will blow over. Lay low for a while. In the meantime, I want you to hide your computer. Keep it somewhere safe. Don’t use it. Especially don’t use it to go online. They’ll be able to trace your IP address and track you down. You still have the files right?’ Jimmy asked
‘I do.’ I replied
‘Great. We’ll need it to start from scratch once this whole thing blows over.’
Maria was at the lobby as she always was as I returned to the Sunrise Inn. She invited me to sit down next to her. Said she still wanted to talk to me. Old habit kicked in. I stared at Maria. Marveling at her body. My eyes scanning her every curve. I imagined the skin underneath those pants. The bosoms beneath that t-shirt.
But all I could see was a rotting flesh filled with blood. She looked up. Her face was not her own. It was Vivian’s.
I see blood on the faces of the beautiful. Trickling down their foreheads and cheeks drip by drip. Running to every curve and bump and miniscule pore. Leaving trails of red before they coagulate, emulsify and harden. Their pupils narrow, turning many shades lighter, like life itself escapes them. Their bodies stiffen, radiating a bluish hue before their skins begin to peel, with ghastly wounds appearing, larger and larger as milliseconds pass by. Revealing the flesh beneath which eats itself away, rotting from the inside. I can even smell it. The air fouler and fouler, suffocating. Like a noose wrapping tightly around my neck. Like drowning into a bottomless sea.
The blood would soon gush more and more. Drenching their body whole. The blood would start to drip down the floor. Forming a pool at first. And in a blink of an eye, an ocean of thick red ooze rushes towards my feet. My heart would beat fast. So fast, I could hear it thumping inside my ear drums. The blood inching closer like an infectious disease. Like slithering snakes out to strike their prey. Like ghosts trying to drag me to the underworld and send me to hell where I belong.
I see blood on the faces of the beautiful. It is not long that they are beautiful no more.
But old habit dies hard. I found myself staring at the pretty faces around me as the bus ferried us all across this concrete jungle dotting the vast empty wasteland. I tried hard not to, but the blond young girl in front of me was so appetizing. Wearing a pink tank-top which loosely wrapped her soft, freckled skin. Her eyes against the sun, like the cosmic clouds of a dying star dancing around a deep, dark black hole. I couldn’t keep my eyes off those pearl-shaped, tender breasts, bouncing up and down as the bus moved further into the city center, along a road riddled with burnt rubbers of muscle cars, testing the vigilance of the local traffic cops. Oh how I’d love to be that pendant dangling down her necklace, gently caressing her skin. I wanted to smell them and run my fingers down and feel their every curve. She was so youthful, no older than twenty one. Why was she here? There’s nothing but gluttony and greed and lust and pain in this city of sinners.
Careful not to raise suspicion, I looked for clues which might betray her identity. Anything. A varsity jacket, a pin or a key chain from where she worked. Memorabilia and nick-nacks which reminded her of home. Something which I could use to run a Facebook search on her. Perhaps I should secretly snap a photo of her while pretending to play with my phone.
But before I could, the vision of the blood attacked. Tiny little droplets at first, forming out of her pores. Wounds slowly appearing around her neck, spreading down to her chest. The wounds were so large and so deep I could see parts of her bones sticking out, starting to gray. Her face started to deform. Lips and jaws drooping down. Her scalps exposed, layer by layer. Eyes gouging like they were ready to pop, sending an endless stream of germ-infested pus mixed with blood.
This was only my imagination, that I know. But the vision was so haunting it raised the hair on the back of my neck. I started to sweat. Any longer I would smell the blood. The foul stench of rotting flesh. This was only my imagination, I tried to reassure myself. Then her face changed into one which was very familiar. The ghost from my dark past came back to haunt me.
I tried to break my stare and shifted my focus somewhere else, gazing at the setting sun, an orange disk slowly sinking behind the lines of towering hotels and casinos. Silhouettes of the world’s famous landmarks recreated for tourists and gamblers to inspire awe and introduce a false sense of joy and amusement before their whole life savings were robbed. I shifted my attention to the dusty streets, lined with half-built homes and empty shops. Beggars pushing their carts filled with mementos of a broken dream. Kids in baggy jeans shaking their spray-paint cans ready to create their arts. Couples in love sharing a bench and a kiss.
My old habit kicked in again. I looked across the bus, scanning the faces of each passenger. People who called the Sin City home. Where vice, greed and lust are nurtured and encouraged. Waiters, janitors, room boys and cooks. Culprits and conspirators of this grand deception. I left this city of lies once, escaped its pretentious inhabitants and visitors. And now I’m back. For what I ponder. A chance of redemption? Perhaps. The risks too high and familiar, the reward unclear and uncertain. But I felt compelled to try.
Old habit kicked in again. I mused at the redhead wearing a white shirt underneath her jacket, tucked into her tight, black skirt, sitting just behind the driver. Her lips plump, as if they were romantically kissing the air in front of her. I started to see blood once more, seeping through from beneath her sunglasses, snaking down her cheeks.
I closed my eyes, turned my head the other way and another blood-filled face greeted me. A young girl, barely a teenager. Playing with her curl. Biting her lower lips as she rocked her head to the music playing in her head.
I looked up and blood once more appeared from the female model of a toothpaste commercial printed on the lower half of the bus’s roof. Her pearly white smile started to decay. Her face deformed.
I was gasping for air, my hands started to shake involuntarily. The second the bus stopped, I ran for the door. My gut seemed to want to spill all of its contents. My shirt drenched in sweat.
It became apparent the real cause of my return. I was in search for a cure.
I got off the bus a good five stops from my destination. I was looking to get away from the blood I saw on board, only to realize that there would be more blood inducing sights on the streets.
I don’t have a clue where I am. All the landmarks and hangout places I knew growing up are gone, replaced by endless rows of strip clubs, themed restaurants and sports bars. The streets are packed with tourists, flocking to Sin City for a chance to misbehave, donning costumes, tacky t-shirts and raunchy clothes, beer in hand, wobbling their way around before occasionally get into an altercation, vomiting their overpriced meals or passing out completely.
I am bombarded with beautiful faces. On the streets, on the billboards, on the posters, the mannequins standing behind some display windows, the strippers on a balcony looking down, dancing their way to lure their prey. They soon turn into walking corpses.
I have got to stay away from the main street. I find refuge in a quiet alleyway, infested by roaches and rats, smoke trails on the dirty walls go up to the roof. I struggle to catch my breath. Try my darnest not to puke.
‘Yo! Find somewhere else to barf, you drunk!’ a large man in a dirty apron yells, banging the dumpster hard and loud, telling me to leave. I’m immediately on my way as he watches me to make sure I’m gone.
I drift further and further from the crowded street. I have no idea where I am or where I’m going. Going block after block for hours trying hard not to look at anyone’s faces. My legs grew weary. I can feel my feet starting to blister, my every step an agony.
Ahead of me is a billboard for a toothpaste. The model had a beautiful face. Her smile so perfect. I try hard not to stare at the billboard too long.
But then it hits me. I recognize that billboard. I’ve seen it just before I hopped on a bus to Vegas. I look around and saw a familiar road. Filled with abandoned auto repair shops, foreclosed and ready to be demolished to make way for some boutique hotels or parking lot or whatever the dotcom billionaires who own them had in mind. This is it. This is where Vivian was murdered.
The police line has just been taken out. It is clear the cops are not really committed to solving the murder as they promised to do. To them it was a case of another dead prostitute. No matter how gruesome.
There are stains still at one end of the road, close to the gutter. Where pool of blood turned the asphalt into rusty brown, orange and bronze. There are skid marks leading to the where her body would lay.
Oh I wish my old friend is here. He would know what to do.
I follow the tire track with my eyes and at the end of it a photographer is snapping pictures of me with his professional DSLR. He lowers his camera.
‘Dillen?’ the photographer shouts.
I take a good look at him. ‘Joey? Joey O’ Callaghan Jr.?’
‘What the fuck? Dillen Stephens? Where you been man?’
We hug, like childhood buddies who haven’t seen each other for ages should. It has been more than twenty five years since we last met just before our last year in elementary.
Joey looked great for a thirty eight-year-old. He looked just like the reporter I saw on the television screen back in Rockwell. A skinny five foot eight with balding head, shaved close to his scalp. His skin is pale but not a wrinkle on his face. We have both aged, but you can never forget your childhood buddy. Features and gestures which evoke memories of a more innocent time.
‘You’re still in Vegas?’ Joey asks.
‘No… no… no… I’m just stopping by,’ I tell Joe Junior.
‘Here for your father?’ he asks again. Suddenly my childhood memories are not so innocent anymore. I fight to keep my bitter relationship with my father from rushing in. I quickly change the conversation.
‘Umm… What are you doing here?’
‘I’m a reporter now. This is my story. I work for the Chronicle.’
‘The newspaper. So you… umm… reporting this murder I see all over the news.’
‘Yeah… It’s messed up isn’t it.’
‘So what can you tell me about it?’
‘What…? You don’t wanna read it in the morning paper like everyone else?’ His question startles me. I am not quite sure how to respond. He could see my discomfort. ‘Aaahhh… I’m just messin witcha. Hey… I’m supposed to meet Borowitz at this diner across the street from the LVMPD. He says he’s questioning the woman’s aunt or somethin’ and might give me some scoop after. Wanna come?’
‘Yeah… Borowitz. He’s questioning her right now as we speak.’
We took a ride in Joey’s beat up Mustang. You can feel that the car is on the verge of a complete break down, limping its way across the city with two of its cylinders misfiring. We have to shout to make ourselves heard as we drive past empty, desolate and nameless roads onto busy streets packed with tourists armed with their fanny packs and digital cameras.
Along the way, I can’t help but feeling that I heard about Borowitz’s intention to question Vivian’s aunt. But I’m not sure where or when. It all seems like deja vu.
‘You remember Borowitz right?’ Joey asks. ‘Big guy, six seven. Super nice. C’mon. You gotta remember Borowitz. Thanksgiving dinner at the HQ, 1987? No? Easter ‘88? Christmas ‘89? He was Santa for God’s sake.’
There is an awkward silence as we both take a trip down memory lane. Joey and I were best friends. We were inseparable at school. We live next to each other growing up. But somehow my father didn’t like me hanging out with Joey O’ Callaghan Jr. The son of a low ranking police officer with no future because he was not on the take, as competent and loyal he is to his colleagues. My father would rather have me hanging out with the sheriff’s kid. Treating me like a ticket to a better career.
It has taken us a good two hours before we get to the diner. Time seems to compress and expand as it pleases for it seems like mere moments ago that I ran into Joey at the crime scene. Unless my mind is playing tricks on me, I could swear we were just traveling in circles.
There were two cops at the diner. Joey had the idea of sitting just behind them so we could eavesdrop.
The waitress comes up to us to take our orders. She looks at me and asks what I want. Coffee and some pancakes. I ask Joey what he wants and the waitress looks over to Joey looking perplexed. She leaves without taking Joe Junior’s order. I could see that Joey, a reporter, is not exactly welcomed here. Joey assures me that it’s OK. That he isn’t that hungry anyway.
‘So what are you doing at the scene?’ Joey asks, shifting the topic of the conversation.
‘Nothing. I’m just curious to know what happened.’
‘Well. Let me tell you. I’ve been covering crimes and murders for fifteen years and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s messed up man. It’s brutal. It’s like whoever did this to her was trying to leave a message. It’s got the mob written all over it. Which mob are we talking about here? I don’t know. But here’s my take. Maybe… this Vivian lady got some dirt on someone higher up. Makes perfect sense. She’s a high end prostitute. The kind only high rollers can afford. Not the kind that works on a casino floor haggling prices with would-be customers. Not some call girl you book online.’ Joey says.
I look over to the cops sitting just behind Joey. I could swear one of them was telling the other cop exactly what Joey just told me. Another deja vu? My mind is playing tricks on me again?
‘Or how about this. The missus ain’t having some whore screwing around with her husband and had her whacked. Or maybe, it’s a turf war. Maybe… whoever owned her don’t pay up and they whack the guy’s most valuable asset.’
‘Asset? What d’ya mean asset?’ I ask Joey. Joey leans over, telling me to lower down my voice.
‘From what I hear… she worked at this club called the Black Lotus. Which is like a front for a prostitution den. And she’s like the top, top girl at that establishment. I mean, look at me. I’m thirty eight and balding. Can you believe she’s in our age? I mean… whoever her doctor was, the guy’s so good he can shave twenty years off of her. Doctors like that, they don’t come cheap.’ Joey says.
Again, I swear the cops in front of us were talking about the exact same thing. My mind is indeed playing tricks on me.
With our voices reduce to no more than a whisper, Joe Junior and I talk about our childhood. The neighborhood where we grew up has been demolished to make way for a shopping mall. As was that empty part of the desert where we used to play baseball, catch crickets and shoot BB guns.
A lot of our friends are now in prison for theft and armed robbery to fuel their gambling and drug addiction. Most have died as early as eighteen years back, just as we turned twenty from chronic alcoholism and drug overdose. Those of us left chose to move elsewhere and never to be heard from again.
As a kid, I always thought Joey would end up as a cop like O’Callaghan Sr. He even said so himself when he was a kid over and over again. Joe Junior really looked up to his old man. With a father so nice and loving how could he not. Joe Senior was a standup guy. All he really cared about was doing his job and getting kids like us out of trouble.
Joe Senior was such a role model of a cop, I think they even made him do a television show for a local station. I think Joey was in it as well. Which makes me wonder why Joey ended up as a print reporter instead of television.
I guess Joey’s dad realized that a clean cop like him was a minority in a city overrun with drugs and prostitution. Everyone was on the take. My father, Henry Stephens especially. Which is why I despised him. Joe Senior didn’t want his son to enter the same world as he once did.
My father wasn’t always like that. He was a good cop once, respected by his colleagues. That all changed when his partner was killed in an armed robbery. He took the loss personally and assembled a rogue crew bent on vengeance.
Using force to extract information and confessions, my father led an unsanctioned raid on one of the killers’ house. I must have been seven or eight at the time. It would be much later that I learned, five people were killed in that raid, some were presumably unarmed. It was a massacre.
His captain turned a blind eye on the act of vigilantism as was the internal affairs. Police were under pressure from inside the force to catch the murderers at all cost. There was an investigation of course. A mere formality. They decided they couldn’t handle the PR nightmare if they admitted that a detective named Henry Stephens led a crew of rouge officers, without warrant, with the fire power of a small army platoon to kill largely unarmed people.
At the end of the day they decided to label the five people killed as armed and dangerous fugitives responsible for many murders and heists. They promoted my father to the rank of lieutenant. Treated him like a hero he never was.
In his mind he was doing something good. Something just. He knew the people he killed was responsible for his partner’s death. He just couldn’t prove it.
The impunity he gained gave him a blank check to repeat the same method. Extracting confessions after confessions through violence. He felt invincible. He was feared and respected both at the headquarters and on the streets.
Everyday, there were always people coming to our house looking for favors from my father. At first they were people looking for protection from the mob and gradually they were people looking for protection from the law itself. It made my father felt important. Henry Stephens was suddenly a man of power capable of deciding another man’s fate. The guy people turned to when they want their problems to go away.
My father loved it. A feeling he had never felt before. My father embraced it and eventually became addicted. Like blood to a vampire, his thirst for that feeling of invincibility became unquenchable.
When the mafia’s grip on Sin City started to wane. When people stopped turning to him for help. He reminded them why they needed him. Instilling fear among the people he swore to protect. He turned to extortion, destruction of private property, physical assault, arson. He became worse than the people he was supposed to bring to justice.
I never knew what he did, but I remember as a boy waking up to the sound of a grown man crying in our living room. The man pleaded again and again, for what exactly I have no idea. I sat on the staircase, careful not to make a sound, making sure I stayed in the shadows, hiding behind the railings. The man wasn’t some big fearsome criminal who grew up on the streets. He wasn’t someone who made a fortune running some scams, clad in suits, drove expensive cars, flaunting gold rings and necklace. Just an average guy with dirty old shoes and faded grey shirt. A man who couldn’t stand up for himself.
I saw the man down on his knees as my father stood in front of him. He begged and begged. Crying like he was fearing for his dear life or those of his loved ones. My father agreed to help but wanted one thing in return. That the man bow down and kiss my father’s shiny Italian leather shoes.
The sight scarred me. It was that moment that I realized my father was not a hero I always thought he was. Henry Stephens was a villain.
‘So you’re here for the campaign?’ Joey asks.
‘Sorry what?’ I ask him back.
‘Your father’s campaign… You think he has a shot at becoming mayor? It’s tough. I tell ya… The current mayor is a lovable guy. But you know… your father got all the casinos and businesses rooting for him. Not to mention the brothels.’
I swear the cops at the next table are also talking about the election.
I look out the window and see an old woman walking out of the police headquarters. I recognize that woman. She’s Vivian’s aunt.
‘Whoa… whoa… whoa… Where you going man?’ Joey says. I run towards her. Ignoring Joey’s request for me to stop.
‘Aunt Suzie,’ I call out to her. The woman turns her head my way, takes a good look at me from toe to head. ‘It’s me… Dillen.’ Aunt Suzie’s look turns to that of resentment and disgust. She spits at my face before bursting out all of her emotion and goes hysterical. ‘You did this… You did this to her…’
I just stand motionless. I feel like I deserve it. So much I don’t bother wiping off her saliva from my face, just letting it trickle down my cheek, filling my nostrils with its rotten smell. My body freezes from the guilt and shame as she pounds her fists into my chest. Joey comes up and pulls me away from her. Her legs buckle, dropping all of her weight to the ground and continues to wail.
Joey continues to pull me away, asking me to go back to the diner, leaving Aunt Suzie alone. Joey turns my body around, still shaking from the guilt. He grabs my arm tight and whispers: ‘What the hell was that all about?’