The Avenger of Love

 

Norman Helmcke, aging pit bull, pounded away at his keyboard in the law offices of Cohen, Helmcke & Melko. After another sleepless night his eyes were burning. Then it happened again. Norman stopped typing. He slumped, pulled off his glasses. The Wakita brief went blurry. Norman himself felt blurry, contingent, as yet another hole opened within him.

This one was big.

Though sixty-two and divorced three times, Norman had always remembered his first love. He recalled her by the scent she had worn in high school: Bon Nuit. Associational memory. Like a sensory switch in his mind, lighting up secret chambers, illuminating innocent preoccupations he hadn’t experienced in decades. But now it was as if someone had crept into his memory vault and stolen the bottle of amber-gold perfume. And with the scent gone, so was the girl. Oh, he could remember Connie; but her vital presence was faded—a departing shadow.

It wasn’t early on-set Alzheimer’s; it was thievery.

And he could sense the other holes without knowing exactly what had caused them. More and more gaps occurring over the last few weeks, undermining his identity. Killing off what he was to himself. He squeezed his eyes shut and rode out an intense, drilling pain in his head. When it was over Norman called forth his rage. His rage had never failed him, and it didn’t fail him now. Instantly his attention sharpened. He flung himself out of the leather office chair, grabbed his hat and overcoat, ran through the rain to Macy’s and demanded a bottle of Bon Nuit. The saleslady, a dishwater blonde half his age, passed it to him as if she feared he might bite her finger (that cornered look he’d seen so many times in the eyes of witness-stand victims of his cross-examinations). He snatched the bottle, twisted the cap off and sniffed. Pale attar of roses. His frown deepened.

“It’s just perfume,” he said.

“Sir?”

“It’s nothing to me.” The memory association was dead. She was gone. First love.

Stolen.

Norman and his rage and his Swiss cheese psyche strode up Fifth Avenue in the cold rain. The wind flapped his unbuttoned London Fog out behind him. Head down, fists balled, he shouldered people out of his way, spoiling for a fight. The quadruple bypass was eighteen months old. They had taken twenty-seven and a half inches of vein out of his left leg. He had been on the table for nine hours and almost died. After the operation, he had been required to give up many things that he was disinclined to give up. His rage, for instance. Right now Norman didn’t care; all he wanted was the thief. He was his rage.

A whispery voice that might not have been a voice at all but an instinct cut through. This way, then. And Norman turned aside into the little urban park he passed every day on his way to the firm.

The park became . . . wrong.

He stopped and looked up. The rain, now warm and needling, rattled waxy leaves the size of elephant ears. Vines, thick and black and braided like chains, hung from shaggy monsters of trees. Steam rose from the ground. It was like something out of Tarzan. For a moment Norman was transported back to an almost pre-conscious state, and he was a little boy snuggled under his father’s arm, that lost voice speaking Burroughs’s words, and Norm doubly cozy occupying two worlds, the safe, comforting place beside his father’s breathing presence and the wild, unpredictable jungle.

Three worlds, now.

Directly before him stood a storefront. A sign over the door proclaimed: NORM'S JUNK.

“What the hell?” Norman said.

He looked over his shoulder. Fifth Avenue traffic crawled behind a gray veil, almost invisible. The cement walkway blended seamlessly into brown earth.

Norm approached the store. Another sign, this one taped crookedly in the window: BIG GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE!!! He used his hand to shade his reflection in the glass. The shop was empty—except for a comic book in the window display. The Shadow, 1940s vintage, with a great Charles Cole cover and a dead fly beside it on the dusty drop cloth. Vol. 5, issue 6: The Death Master’s Vengeance.

He knew that comic.

It had been part of his father’s collection. Something about the pulp hero especially appealed to Norm’s sense of injustice avenged. Two years after Norman’s father disappeared in Korea, Norman’s mother remarried. His stepfather, Steve, had soldiered with Bernie Helmcke. He came, ostensibly, to console the widow. Steve was hell on defining his territory. He showed Norm a picture of Norm’s mother, a wallet-sized studio shot that Bernie used to keep tucked behind his driver’s license. When I was over there, Steve said, this picture kinda kept me going.

How did you get it? Norman wanted to know.

Steve just smiled. He burned all the comics, Norm’s and his father’s. With the ashes cooling in the fireplace (the flames had turned colors, fed by the alchemical ink of glossy covers), Norman had lain awake staring at the ceiling. It was The Shadow he remembered, the bold avenging hero.

A figure moved out of the gloom at the back of the shop, reached into the display, and snatched the comic book.

“Hey—”

Norman slapped the plate glass with the flat of his hand. The figure retreated to the rear of the shop. Norm ran inside. His head immediately began to throb. He rubbed his eyes, squinted at the man standing at the back of the shop. The man was holding up the comic book.

“Doesn’t feel so good in here, does it, kid?”

Norman pointed at the comic.

“That’s mine. Give it to me.”

“Naw. You want it, you’ll have to come and get it.”

Norman lurched across the empty shop, the pain in his head growing more intense, almost blinding him. He stopped, pressing the heels of his hands against his temples.

The man, now a vague, pulsating shape, reached back and opened a door.

“You have a choice,” the pulsating shape said. “It’s fair I tell you that. You can stay here, or try to go back, or follow me. You know what’s back. Stay here and you’re finished. If you follow me, there’s another story. I don’t guarantee you’ll like it.”

Norman lurched toward the shape, and found himself plunging over the threshold into darkness . . .

                                                                                   *

. . . to land on a broken tongue of pavement, wet after a recent rain.

It was night.

The yellow moon warped into black puddles. He heard the hissing of rolling wheels on wet paving. His heart was pounding. Norman pushed himself up on his knees and waited, catching his breath. After a while, he turned his head and looked back. The sidewalk ended a couple of feet behind him in jagged vacancy. The shop was gone, the jungle was gone. It was as if the sidewalk—maybe the whole world—had been bitten off by some unimaginable thing that had then recoiled into space, stranding Norman and whatever else remained to drift in a void.

Norman stood up and faced—the dark city.

Neon blinked and shifted, making paint-splash patterns on the wet street. Towers twisted into the sky, their points tearing at scudding carbon-paper clouds. Norman tilted his head, trying to get his mind around the architecture.

A dog appeared. It stood at the mouth of an alley between a diner straight out of Hopper and a pawnshop. It was an undersized, scruffy thing, a Puli. There was a red scarf tied around its neck.

The dog started walking in his direction. Norman watched it. The dog halted before him.

“Good boy,” Norman said.

“I’m good,” the dog said in a female voice, “but I’m not a boy.”

“I don’t believe it,” Norman said.

“Check under the hood, if you want.”

“I don’t believe you can talk.”

“I can’t. It’s telepathy. I’m projecting the words inside your head. Try not to look so stupefied. I’m thinking about getting a bite to eat. Let’s sit down, and I’ll give you the big picture. I’m Scout, by the way.”

The dog turned and started toward the diner. Norman stood where he was.

“Come on,” Scout said. “I can’t open doors by myself.”

After a moment he followed the dog to the diner and opened the door. The inside was long and narrow, like the inside of a rail car, and bright with fluorescent tube lighting. The counterman was Norman’s age, beefy and balding, a blue tattoo of a Marine anchor-and-world like a stain on his hairy forearm.

“They let dogs in here?” Norman said.

“Please. The rules aren’t the same as what you’re used to.”

Scout jumped onto the red leather bench seat of a booth. Norman hesitated then sat opposite the dog.

“Just where is ‘here’?” Norman asked.

“You wanted to catch a thief,” Scout said. “This is where the thief currently dwells.”

“Yes, but where are we?”

“The best diner in town. You want to read the Night Owl Specials to me? I can’t quite manage the menu. Old war wound, you know.”

“What?”

“That was a joke.”

“Hilarious,” Norman said. He was looking at Scout’s scarf. It bothered him. “Who tied that thing around your neck?”

“A former companion.”

“What happened to him?”

“Nothing good. Night Owl Special?”

Norman glanced at the menu. “Hobo Scramble . . .”

“Say no more.”

“I know that scarf.”

“Do you.”

Norman stared over the top of the dog’s head at nothing in particular. “I’ve had a stroke or something.”

“Welcome to non-sequitur theater,” Scout said.

“My neurons are misfiring. This is some kind of hallucination.”

“I can’t decide on a beverage,” Scout said. “I’m thinking cranberry juice.”

Norman stood up. “It isn’t real,” he said.

“Do you want the Hobo Scramble, too?” Scout said.

“You can’t die in dreams, and that probably goes for hallucinations, too. I’ll walk off the edge, and that’ll wake me up.”

Scout yawned and when she shut her mouth her teeth clicked like billiard balls.

“I wish you could keep your mind on breakfast.”

The voice was centered in Norman’s head, even though he was already at the other end of the diner stiff-arming the door. Thought projection. Once outside he headed straight for the edge. He didn’t slow down when he reached the jagged, broken-off place. His vision hazed over briefly, and his stride carried him forward—in the opposite direction, back toward the diner. He stopped, looked over his shoulder, turned and tried again, attaining the same result.

When he returned to the diner a plate of steaming hot scrambled eggs and a cup of coffee was waiting for him. A second plate was set before Scout. There were chopped onions, crumbled bacon, and cheddar cheese mixed in with the eggs, all of it heavily peppered.

“Have a nice walk? I waited for you.”

Norman picked up his fork. He didn’t want to be, but he was starving. The Hobo Scramble smelled almost orgasmically delicious. Naturally he wasn’t allowed to eat anything like it, not since his surgery.

“You don’t get to go back,” Scout projected. “You made the choice, remember that.”

Norman slipped a bite of scrambled eggs into his mouth, washed it down with coffee, and said, “I know who you are. And your name isn’t Scout.”

“Isn’t it?”

The dog started lapping and chewing at her plate of food, making wet-slurping sounds.

“That’s disgusting,” Norman said, though he didn’t really care; the Hobo Scramble was igniting his pleasure centers.

Scout looked up. “Maybe the way you eat disgusts me, ever think of that?”

“No. Why’d you change your name, anyway? Your name was Mona when I was a kid.”

“Scout,” the dog said, “was your private name for me. “You don’t remember, do you.”

“Everybody called you Mona, including me.”

“Sure, while I was alive. I’m talking about after I died.”

Norman put his fork down.

“You used to pretend I was still around,” Scout said. “I was like your imaginary friend. And you called me Scout, after the girl in that movie. Really, you wanted a father like Gregory Peck. Instead you got Steve.”

Norman rubbed his forehead. All his life he’d had a picture in his mind of Mona dying. He had watched from the front yard, paralyzed. His mother sat in the middle of the street in her green housedress, the little dog cradled in her lap, Mona coughing up blood in thick gouts, as if she were expelling whole organs. And, of course, Norman had forgotten the rest. The way he used to imagine Mona still existed as an invisible dog that only he could see. And in her new state of being she had been named Scout. Norman had been smarter than the other kids, and he made sure they knew it. So Mona had been his only friend, and the same situation obtained with Scout.

“The thing is,” the dog in the diner said, “I wasn’t an imaginary friend. I was really there, and I was really invisible. Life is strange, huh? It’s whatever you believe it is, even if you stop believing later on.”

                                                                                    *

They caught a yellow cab in front of the diner. It looked pre-World War II vintage, a Hudson or something. But it wasn’t that normal. The windshield was so narrow that it was barely more than a slot. Climbing in, Norman noticed the driver’s side wing mirror looked like a big human ear cast in silver. The driver wore a visored cap pulled snug over his eyebrows. He stared at his lap while he drove.

“So, you know who the thief is,” Norman said to the dog. They were sitting together in the back seat.

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“It’s one man.”

“Who is he?”

“You’ll know him when you see him.”

“When I see him I plan to knock his teeth down his throat. That is, after he gives me back my property, my memories.”

“It isn’t memories that he’s stolen. Look inward. There are no gaps in your memory.”

It was true. Norman remembered everything about his first love, for instance. Nevertheless she was gone.

“Well he took something. A lot of somethings. And I want them back. My mind is full of holes.”

“I know. But really there’s only one thing missing, trust me.” Scout barked twice, and the driver tucked the cab into the curb. “This is the place,” Scout said in Norman’s head.

Norman leaned over and looked out the passenger window on the dog’s side of the cab. A brick hotel, six stories high, loomed over the sidewalk. A sign above the lobby entrance said: THE MIDTOWN. Norman threw the door open, and Scout hopped out ahead of him. They stood together on the sidewalk. THE MIDTOWN leaned so much it appeared in danger of tumbling its bricks into the street.

“Top floor,” Scout said. “Room 606. Lots of luck.”

“You’re not coming?”

“Confrontations give me a runny stool. Also, I’m a pacifist at heart.”

Norman looked up the cock-eyed face of the hotel. A raft of clouds drifted under the moon.

“I won’t really hurt him,” Norman said, “not if he returns what’s mine.”

“I’m not worried about you hurting him. Watch yourself, Norm. This is a rough town.”

Scout started walking away, nails clicking on the paving.

“Hey, where are you going?”

“Lady’s Room, sugar. I’ll be here when you get back.”

“You mean if I get back, is that it?”

“Fiddle-de-de.”

                                                                                 *

The lobby smelled like boiled cabbage. The desk clerk had a Poe forehead and dirty cuffs. He leaned on his elbows, reading a newspaper, and never looked up. A ficus drooped on the brink of death in a cracked terracotta pot. Dry, crumbled soil littered the carpet. An out of service sign hung on the elevator cage. The door to the stairwell bent noticeably to the right. Norman regarded it, head tilted. He entered the stairwell. It appeared to corkscrew into infinity. He started up, counting floors as he went. On the sixth he stopped, even though the stairwell continued.

Standing outside Room 606, Norman hesitated, then knocked.

Nothing.

He knocked again, harder. Waited. He could hear movement on the other side. A minute passed, then the door opened. A man in a sleeveless white undershirt and suspenders stood before him. The man’s huge gut stretched his undershirt out like a beach ball.

“What?” he said around the dead stub of a cigar. Behind him a ratty easy chair angled toward a television set with a screen that bubbled out like a fish bowl. The current program was a distorted test pattern.

“You have something of mine,” Norman said.

“What is this, a gag?” the man said.

And that’s when Norman noticed the comic book rolled up in his fist. Norman couldn’t see the cover, but he knew it was The Death Master’s Vengeance.

“Let me see that,” Norman said, pointing.

The man acquired a cagy look. “Who says I got to?”

“I’m a lawyer,” Norman said. “You can be charged with receiving stolen goods. Did you know that?”

“This ain’t stolen goods, shyster!”

Norman, who stood several inches taller than the man and besides was now in full possession of his most reliable rage, grabbed the comic book and unrolled it with a snap. It wasn’t The Shadow; it was Betty and Veronica. The issue was titled The Sirens of Riverdale and featured a cover illustration of a nude, dog-collared Veronica Lodge reclining on a golden throne reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

The fat man snatched the comic back.

“I told you I ain’t got your Shadow,” he said, and slammed the door in Norman’s face.

Or tried to. Norman blocked it with his foot, then shoved it open with both hands, sending the fat man reeling into the room.

“Who said anything about The Shadow?” Norman said.

“You got nerve busting in here!”

The room smelled of ancient farts. A fly-specked fixture dimly illuminated the mess of beer bottles, dirty clothes, newspapers—and comic books. The comics were the only neatly arranged objects visible, stacked in orderly piles on a gate leg table in the dining alcove. Norman strode over. On the top of the first stack was The Shadow, vol. 5, issue 6: The Death Master’s Vengeance. Norman’s fingers trembled over the cover.

“Not so fast!”

Norman spun around in time to block the fat man’s attempt to brain him with a beer bottle. He knocked the bottle away and grabbed the man’s undershirt in his fists and gave him a hard shake. The man’s face bunched up, red cheeks popping out like cherry apples all webbed with an alcoholic’s burst capillaries.

“I don’t know from lawyers, mister, but I’d say you’re a thief, for sure.”

Norman pulled him close, nose to nose. “We’ll see who the thief is.”

He released the man and picked up the comic. “My father wrote his initials in every book he ever owned.”

“So?”

Norman peeled back the cover of The Death Master’s Vengeance. On the first page, in the upper right hand corner, in blue ink faded into the ancient paper: B.H.: Bernie Helmcke.

And Norman felt . . . nothing.

Holding the impossible artifact in his hand, a comic book from his father’s lost collection, burned by his stepfather more than forty years ago, Norman felt absolutely nothing. Whatever hole its absence had made in his psyche remained unfilled. Norman rolled the mag up in his fist and started for the door.

The fat man grabbed his arm. “Hold on—”

Norm jerked his arm loose and shoved the man over the back of his chair. His legs stuck up in a “V” capturing the fish bowl picture tube, where a blurry Indian Chief’s head wobbled.

                                                                                     *

Scout was sitting in front of the hotel licking her butt when Norman came out. She stopped, and stood up on all fours.

“I see you survived.”

“Yes.”

“And you got your Shadow.”

“Right.”

“But you don’t feel any better, do you?”

“Look, Mona—”

“Scout.”

“Look, Scout. Do you know something I don’t know? And besides that, what made you think that fat nitwit was going to hurt me?”

“I just like to keep you on your toes, Norm. Also I didn’t know he was going to be a fat nitwit; this is a very dangerous place, generally. And yes: I know something you don’t know.”

“Would you like to share that information?”

“Perhaps.”

“Has anybody ever told you how annoying you can be?”

“Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Perhaps.”

Scout put her nose up in the air. “Well. I’m glad to see your sense of humor is showing at least feeble signs of recovery.”

“There’s never been anything wrong with my sense of humor.”

“On the contrary, it’s been dead as a crate of door nails, as Dickens might have said. What you refer to as your sense of humor has really been bottled vitriol. Would you like me to tell you why the retrieval of your dad’s comic book failed to fill in any of the gaps in your windy head?”

“You talk too much.”

“I’m not talking at all, if you want to get technical. Anyway the reason you can’t fill gaps with comic books, or anything else, is that there is only one absolutely essential element, and without it all you are is a gap. Everybody has a portion of the essential element. In your case you decided to bury it deep. Hey, nobody’s blaming you; you got a rough shake. It was this element that the Thief had been after from the very beginning. He only took all that other stuff because he couldn’t find the damn thing.”

“Are you going to get to the point one of these days?”

Scout started walking. She tossed her head and thought-projected: “Love.”

Norman caught up with her. “What about love?”

“Without it, nothing is vitalized—that’s what about it.”

Bon Nuit,” Norman said. The comic book crackled in his fist.

“The perfume doesn’t matter. It’s about your ability to experience love at all.”

Norman halted at a bus stop, inspected the bench for filth, sat down. He unrolled the comic book and opened it again to the first page. His father’s initials were barely visible in the cold glow of the street lamp. The Shadow. His dad had been a collector, but not like the fat man in the Midtown Hotel. As a small child, Norman had longed to be a hero. A mysterious one, of course. Striking down Evil and injustice wherever he encountered it. Instead Evil struck down his own father. MIA. No one knew how he died. In Norman’s mind the death wasn’t real, not like Mona’s bloody end. He had seen Mona die. Years later Norman read a Life Magazine article about American G.I.s who had defected to the North. He knew his father hadn’t done that, he knew it. But the idea grew bitter roots in him, from a seed planted by Steve.

Plenty of guys defected, kid. They were scared, and they loved their chicken asses more than they loved their country. I’m not sayin’ that’s your old man for certain. Hell, Bernie seemed like a decent guy. But there’s plenty of guys living up there north of the dmz with gook wives that left more than their country behind. All I’m saying is, I never saw Bernie go down. All I saw was him running.

                                                                               *

                                                                           

When Steve kissed Norman’s mother he liked to squeeze her ass. The first time Norman witnessed this he almost started crying. Almost. Even then, at age eight, he was past crying about anything. It stuck in his head, though. Steve’s big ape’s paw grabbing a handful of his mother’s ass, the way her housedress bunched up. And Steve looked right at Norman, letting the kid know who owned what in that house. Who was boss. It was the comic burning thing all over again, but worse.

                                                                                *

Norman wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands. The buildings leaned and twisted over the sidewalk. Brassy jazz issued from nightclub doorways. Mutated simulacrums of vintage Detroit steel rounded city blocks, headlights aimed at unaligned angles, as if searching for something. A girl screamed his name, and Norman stopped. He squinted, listening. Scout looked up at him.

“Was that real?” Norman asked.

“The girl? Absolutely.”

“Where—”

“What am I, your guide dog?”

Where?

“Okay, okay. Sheesh. Follow me.”

Scout turned and trotted back to the last nightclub they’d passed, Norman stepping quickly after her. Red neon tubing pretzeled into a symbol unrecognizable to Norman. A black man of sumo proportions lounged in the doorway with his arms crossed. He wore a leather vest and small, round, perfectly black sunglasses.

“Yeah?” he said.

The girl screamed again. She screamed, and Norman knew who she was.

First love.

He started to go inside, but the bouncer or whatever he was stepped in front of him.

“You aren’t on the list.”

“What the hell’s going on in there?”

“Nothing of interest to you.” The bouncer dropped a huge hand on Norman’s shoulder and squeezed, not too hard, but hard enough to indicate it wasn’t a friendly gesture.

Norman slugged him.

It was a reflex, and his rage was behind it, and it surprised him as much as it surprised the bouncer, who fell back clutching at his gut. His face clenched in an ugly knot. He started to reach out, and Norman side-kicked his knee. The bouncer hit the ground and did not bounce. Norman stepped over him. Scout followed at his heels, thought-projecting: 

 

“Nice work.”

The interior of the club was dark. Smoke layered the air in noxious strata. It wasn’t all cigarette smoke, either. The trio on stage were smoldering, the trumpet player in particular. Or was it a quartet? The chanteuse in a black dress lay sprawled at the front of the stage, and she was the smokiest of them all, like a thing burned out of the sky by lasers. Norman pushed forward between the crowded tables. When he got closer he saw that the chanteuse was just a kid, a teenager. In fact she was the girl he used to hold hands with in high school. Connie.

Somebody grabbed his arm and yanked him around.

“You’re not on the list.” It was a different guy, but he shared dimensions similar to those of the toppled sumo, not to mention the same one-track mind. Before Norman’s new-found reflexes could assert themselves, sumo number two slapped him hard across the jaw with an open hand that felt like a mahogany plank. Norman staggered back, upsetting one of the dinner plate-sized tables. A glass tumbler broke on the floor. A man sitting at the table yanked on Norman’s lapel and snarled an obscenity. Scout bit the man’s ankle. The man yelped, and Norman pulled free.

“That dog’s not on the list, neither,” the new bouncer said. He was now holding an automatic.

Norman hit him squarely on the nose. The bouncer dropped the gun and spun away, spraying blood through fingers cupped over his face. Norman retrieved the automatic and tucked it in his belt.

The trio kept playing.

Norman approached the stage. It was Connie, all right. Around the girl’s neck there hung on a fine gold chain a vial of amber liquid. Norman glanced up at the trumpet player, who continued to blow, his round face streaming sweat, whiffs of smoke lifting from his hair, his shirt collar, even the bell of his trumpet. His eyes, rolled down to meet Norman’s, seemed to be mostly egg-white sclera. Norman looked away, back to the fallen chanteuse, his lost first love, from whom he now derived only righteous anger. He closed his hand around the vial and tugged it once, breaking the delicate chain.

Connie wavered, like a body seen through disturbed water, and then she vanished.

The music stopped. For a moment the musicians looked confused, directionless. The horn player wiped his mouthpiece on the sleeve of his white jacket. “That kid was good,” he said, then caught a new tempo with his snapping fingers, brought the horn to his lips, and resumed something bluesy, sans smoke.

“What have you got there?” Scout said.

Norman twisted the stopper out and sniffed. “Bon Nuit.

“Naturally.”

Norman replaced the stopper. He slipped the vial into the inside pocket of his overcoat next to the comic.

“You!” someone shouted.

He turned, his London Fog sweeping over the crowded tables like a cape but never upsetting a glass. The bouncer with the squirty nose had found some friends. One looked like a stick figure in black tie. The stick figure was smoking a cigarette in a long, onyx holder. He gestured, briefly, and one of the big boys next to him pointed a gun at Norman. The music halted for the second time, and patrons evacuated tables. Norman grinned. He snatched the automatic from his waistband and triggered it rapidly. The big man’s gun sparked and spun out of his hand. A second slug struck his gun arm. Norman glided across the room. The unwounded bouncer made a grab for him, and Norman chopped at his windpipe, sending him gasping to the floor.

The stick figure casually removed the cigarette holder from his thin lips. “I could use a man like you.”

“I bet.”

“I assume there is some purpose in your chaotic visit to my establishment.”

Norman produced the vial of perfume. “This. Don’t lie. I can see you recognize it.”

“I do indeed.”

“Well?”

“A trifle purchased from a military gentleman. I thought it might improve the band. It did.”

Scout lunged past Norman and latched onto the throat-chopped bouncer’s arm. At the end of the arm the recovered automatic went off, sending a slug into the ceiling. Norman twisted the gun out of the man’s hand, tucked it away next to the other gun, then moved in on the stick figure, lifting him up and throwing him back against the wall. He knocked the cigarette holder away then pulled one of the automatics and pressed the barrel against the little man’s very pale forehead.

“This military gentleman. Where can I find him?”

“I wouldn’t—”

Where?” Norman pressed harder with the barrel. The manager grimaced.

“He used to run a shop on the outskirts. Now he does business out of the Bijou on 52nd Street. That’s what I understand. Now please leave.”

Norman put his gun away. There was a red circle third eye in the middle of the manager’s forehead.

“Come on, Scout.”

                                                                            *

“We shot that place up pretty good, and I still don’t hear any sirens. You’ve got lazy cops around here.”

“They aren’t lazy,” Scout thought-projected. “They don’t even exist. This is a lawless place. No attorneys, either, by the way. Except in comic books. There’s the theater.”

At the end of the block, golf ball-sized light bulbs raced each other around a marquee: RONALD COLEMAN in LOST HORIZON. Smaller letters crawling along the bottom of the marquee spelled out: Open All Night, Continuous Shows Plus News Reels.

“They’re a little behind around here,” Norman said.

“Progress is relative.”

“Let’s get this over with,” he said, striding toward the Bijou. “I want to go home.”

                                                                                   *

The ticket window was unmanned but the doors stood open. Norman and Scout entered the lobby and discovered it empty and redolent of hot buttered popcorn.

“Will you kill him?” Scout said.

Norman gave the dog a dirty look. “Hell no.”

“Because you could get away with it here.”

“I said no.”

“Why not?”

“Because.” Norman swallowed. “Because I’m the good guy.”

“I’m sorry,” Scout said. “I just thought you should say it out loud.”

It was easy to spot the thief. There was only one head visible in the sea of theater seats.

“Wait here,” Norman said.

“Check.”

Norman walked down the center aisle and stopped at the end of the thief’s row. On the big screen Ronald Coleman desperately searched a frozen wasteland for signs of Shangri-La.

“Do you even know who I am?” the thief said, without looking at Norman.

“Yes.”

The thief turned away from the screen. Bernie Helmcke’s face was young and smooth, the face of a man in the last blush of youth. Movie light shifted over his features. Norman collapsed a little inside but fought not to show it. At that moment he realized he had been fighting his whole life not to show it.

“Why’d you do it, Dad?”

“I was compelled. Do you know what the most valuable commodity in the universe is? The greatest binding force? The Universal Integument? Do you know what it is?”

Bernie had to raise his voice to be heard over the swelling musical score as the end credits began to roll. Norman stared at him.

“Love,” the thief said.

                                                                                     *

They walked up the aisle together. Bernie was wearing an olive drab infantryman’s uniform. Norman was taller than his father, but he felt reduced, a child. He tried to make his hands into fists, but his rage had deserted him at last.

“Come on,” Bernie said, patting his back, “I’ll buy you breakfast.”

“No, thanks. I already ate with the dog.”

                                                                                     *

Norman, his dead father, and his imaginary dog walked toward the edge of the world.

“What time is it?” Norman asked.

“There isn’t any time here.”

“What about the dawn? When—”

“There is no dawn. Don’t ask me how that’s possible. All I know is this. We’re here to serve the ultimate proliferation of love, which vitalizes the universe. There are beings who see to this. I don’t know what they are. I wouldn’t call them angels. They look inside us, and they spin out these worlds. They tell stories, give us roles, harvest the vital end product; I believe they must be insane. I mean, look around. You see, son, death isn’t what we thought it was.”

They arrived at the edge of the world. Beyond the jagged paving, stars suggested themselves out of the void.

“I’m going home,” Norman said.

“Son—”

“Look, I don’t believe it. I can’t. And if this is a dream I want out. I want to feel normal again.”

Norman stepped off the edge, blurred briefly, and found himself walking toward his dad and his dog. He stopped.

“Bottom line, Norm,” Scout projected, “the way you feel is normal.”

“True,” his father said. “This is the place that hurts, son. The place where love resumes.”

A car that looked like a De Soto with great, oval headlights on flexible stalks screeched around the corner and braked sideways in the middle of the street. The doors flung open, and men with guns piled out.

“Dat’s him,” the biggest one said, pointing at Norman. Norman’s reactions were unconscious and lightning quick. He filled his hands with the twin automatics and brought down two of the armed men before either of them could get a shot off. Unfortunately the third man was fast enough to fire a Tommy gun burst before Norman could drill him.

The Tommy burst stitched across Bernie Helmcke’s chest.

The De Soto squealed away, leaving bodies behind like bales of newspapers.

Norman dropped his guns. He sank to his knees at his father’s side.

“I’m finished,” Bernie said. “Again.”

Norman felt it coming—the flood he’d dammed a lifetime ago.

“In my right pocket,” Bernie said. “Keys for my apartment. Scout knows where it is.” He coughed, misting the air with blood.

“You’ll need a place.”

“Dad—”

“I’m sorry, son. I love you.”

A savage coughing fit took him, and when it was over, so was the thief.

The world contracted into a throbbing locus of pain under Norman’s heart.

“The apartment,” Scout said. “—it isn’t much. Deli on the ground floor. A noisy Deli. Two flights up to a hot plate and a smelly carpet. Of course, I have a sensitive nose.”

Norman sat down in the street.

“At least you don’t have to worry about anybody finding you there,” Scout said. “But you’ll need some kind of disguise when you go out. You could use my scarf, if you want.”

Norman closed his eyes, the flood all through him now. The terrible thing. The love.

Scout bit his ear.

“Ow!

The dog backed away. “You better get off your dead ass. This is a tough world. And as of today you’re the only lawman in it. Norman, there are innocent people here. You can do something.”

Norman fingered his lobe, which was not bleeding. “You’re a real son of a bitch, you know that?”

“You’re half right, sweetheart.”

Norman found the key in his father’s pocket. He lifted the body in his arms and carried it to the edge of the world and held it a moment longer before letting it roll away into the star twinkle. He waited, but it did not roll back. After a while, compelled, The Avenger of Love turned toward the City of Endless Night.

 

 

For Harlan

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