In the halogen lit shopfront, Itkenze lingered on the many rows of guns displayed behind the iron bars and plexiglass. He’d seen many of the handguns before, pulled in front of him on the streets in his days as a garbageman. Never had one been pointed at him, a fact for which he’d been thankful. They’d always been at a distance, further than the guns in the store were as he recollected. But those weapons on the street didn’t raise his heartbeat as much as deciding which one to buy.
In his early days he’d never needed a weapon and felt the other common people around him thought they didn’t either. But after a war in “some country” across the sea finally cooled off, he felt the effects sweep over the island. Soon there were small bands of foreign men patrolling the neighborhoods along his route. They visited the shops and restaurants and bars and every once in a while an owner, whom he knew well, was thrown into the street, pistol pressed to their heads with an empty click. Itkenze simply took their cries of short payments with care and assured them they could pay him the total next week.
Then in a short time the small bands of armed men disappeared and in their place were larger groups of foreign men who approached the same storeowners with different tact and manners. There were stacks of bills for some, handshakes and smiles for others. They’d either sold their businesses and inventory to the new arrivals or were offered protection from the roaming bands of thugs that’d extorted their own tributes via much harsher methods just the week prior. They said the compensation was their new “business partners” brought in additional customers and cheap labor from the ranks of those washing up on their shores.
Itkenze welcomed the additional amount of trash he could charge for and secretly hoped his truck and route would be bought out by one of the gangs. It took a year and many sights of bloodshed before some semblance of stability afforded the gangs time to think about garbage removal as an arm to their businesses. The offer was worth fourteen months profit and Itkenze jumped at it.
That night when his wife returned home he showered her with the money. He’d always promised her they’d have something more than a single room flat in the rotting heart of Wax City. It would have meant living atop one another in a shoebox apartment on the big island but through the sight of fluttering green and purple bills before his wife’s face he saw her standing in her own shoe store teaching him the trade. He’d make his first a flat bottom pair and she’d kiss him – finally kiss him – without curling her nose. At last, she didn’t have to love him regardless of how he smelt after a day of moving garbage. They could both rid themselves of Wax City’s irreligious stench and live wholesome lives.
Then there came the loud crunch of plaster. The warm wetness on his face. The bullet had come down through the ceiling and stuck his wife in the head as she lay across from him after they’d made love. Even in death she was content.
In the morning Itkenze barked at the police officer for his late arrival and demanded to know what was going to happen. But the officer, a bit fat and happy about it, leaned back on his car nodding along to the pace of Itkenze’s tirade. Soon he broke his own line of reasoning to state bluntly, “You’re going to find out who did this?” He didn’t mean for it to come off as a question, but his long-standing respect for those with guns (and authority) led him to say it such. But the officer simply scoffed and looked down the road.
Itkenze followed his cue and outside of the next apartment building was a town car he’d previously associated with a gang leader, though he’d never seen their face. They’d just picked someone up and were speeding away. Itkenze then looked back upon the officer and understood the grim reality he’d ignored for so long.
Everyone was like him. Everyone had a hand out for the gangsters. Protection from other gangs, recommendations and promotion of their businesses, complete buyouts, and in the face of the cop before him, payment to merely stand aside.
After his wife was taken away he sat at the kitchen table with two cups awaiting their morning tea. A practice so long taken to heart now seemed disrespectfully foolish waiting on her to serve him.
He looked to the stack of money buried under the mattress.
‘I still have my hands. I have blood in my veins. I can make it right.’
Before him in the gun store was the tool to help him make it right. A weapon that’d help him settle the score against the one who shot into the air at night without concern for those people below. But which weapon would let him take that vengeance?
He asked the shopkeeper, “What would you recommend for hunting one of these demons through the streets?”
The shopkeeper, a grizzled, dark skinned washup offered the advice, “If you know who you’re killing and where then just about any weapon would do. You going after a rank and file grunt then they’ll probably be packing a medium caliber automatic pistol. Anyone higher than them and you’ll need as many men behind you as they have behind them. Even more would be better.”
“I just need my hands and blood in my veins.” The mantra sounded better to him when he could see its impact in the face of someone afraid by the will behind it. The gun store owner’s face twisted at the remark which warmed Itkenze’s blood.
“You looking to be a vigilante? I wouldn’t recommend that occupation in a city like this.”
Vigilante. The word sounded right in Itkenze’s mind. When the system failed it became the righteous duty of the noble man to march into the muck. Many perils would avail him but in his true convictions he’d set the scales right before all witnesses under daylight. The history of vigilantes in Wax City wasn’t extensive but they were revered for their acts and after he was done there’d be one shining example that’d live throughout all time. He’d act, then some inspired individual would codify and carry on the morals.
“I need something that’ll let people know I mean business. The entire city should shake upon sight of it.”
The shopkeeper observed the abandon in his customer’s eyes.
“For what you’re talking about, you need something dependable, loud, something that can punch through an overturned table. A lot of times these things go down in public in restaurants and the like. Chance meetings where everything at hand gets thrown into the fight. When that happens you gotta be sure you have the proper tool at hand.” He pointed left. “Right here is a Dokatosh. The purest breed of assault rifle ever distributed by our friendly number one world superpower. Military grade metal and plastics. Heavy 7.45 caliber rounds. Walk in with this and people will notice. Fire it and people down the block will flee. I could give you that and two thirty round urban clips for five thousand.”
‘Now please tell me you’re not stupid enough to pay for this gun.’
Eagerly taken by the beauty of the weapon, Itkenze threw five thousand dollars into the shallow recess underneath the window. The shopkeeper was quick to take the money and by instinct checked for counterfeits away from his line of sight even though it was doubtful the man would have the gull to pass off big bills at a gun store.
With the money in the strongbox, the shopkeeper picked the gun off the wall and loaded up four magazines. After taping them together side by side, he looked one last time at his customer’s frenzied eyes.
‘Like a deer with his first horns.’
Itkenze jolted when a non-descript section of the wall popped open and his gun and munitions sat at the bottom of an iron bucket. His fingers glided across the barrel when he first held it against his chest.
That night at home he took great care to ensure his gun was ready for his crusade. The trigger clicked back, the magazines fitted snug into the gun, the bolt slid with ease. He manufactured a shoulder sling from old clothing and taped up the grip. Looking at his weapon arrayed as the sum of its parts, he knew it was the tool that’d bring him his justice and his erection agreed.
The morning was its common clear, humid day where the air above the streets wavered. The sea to the east blew in its salty, sharp smell. There’d once been two prosperous salt making operations in Wax City. They’d evaporate seawater in open pits and collect the more rounded flavor given by the sea. For a time, the businesses were very successful, their products consumed all over the island and over the causeway. The difference in flavor between the two operations was a common debate between Itkenze and his wife when making dinner.
Then the washups washed up. Dirty Shigs, dirty Mudmen, the Tekets smelling of burnt flour. Barn animals they were, they threw their waste into the sea—polluted it with feces and spent motor oil and chemical dyes and solvents. The salt turned green and both operations cleared out. The special salt that’d once graced his meals tainted and replaced by imported ionized salt after a half dozen greased, hairy washup palms rapaciously raised the price.
‘How much less would each grain cost if I removed half of those palms? Remove them all and you could bring back the salt operations, clean the seas.’
He squeezed the pistol grip of his rifle, enjoying the resistance of hollow plastic shifting slightly. When he let go the plastic retook its original shape. By that time it was already slung back over his shoulder and he was trekking into the city’s putrid liver.
Itkenze knew there was no longer a heart to the city. It’d once been the monastery on the hill before the washups brought their lukewarm beliefs in their false idols. Gods of secrecy, of blindness, of shadows, and crime. They’d brought gold necklaces baring Saints of drug traffickers and pimps. One pimp proudly displayed his wiry gold necklace as he took money from the woman who took inhouse calls for the security guard living below him. The woman would show up and every knock of the bedposts against the wall reverberated up to him in his bed. Then the woman would stumble outside after being smothered by a two-hundred sixty pound beast and lite a cigarette and wait for her pimp in his open shirt to give her another beating and take her money and shove her into his car threatening to slam the door on her one good ankle if she took too long.
‘But I could get that pimp from my kitchen window the next time he rears his head. I could bring the monastery on the hill back to its rightful glory. People would burn incense in my name.’
In the city’s liver were all the washup frequented bars. Those hopping over the causeway never strayed past the first line of neon signs for bars and whorehouses. Deeper in the city were all the toxic organs which fueled the voyeuristic fantasies of the tourists. The entire island hanging onto a justified belief that tucked away in it were the basest desires men could exhibit on one another and themselves. That was the pull drawing the “just curious” tourist in and syphoning their money for a peek behind the curtain.
‘But I’m not coming for a peek. I’m going to throw the curtain aside with my gun blazing. The tourists will be surprised at first, wondering if this is part of some show. But once I turn around and they see the fire in my eyes, the fire of a true man of Wax City, they will run back across the causeway. The washups picking their teeth with dirt embedded fingernails will flee. A new breed of garbageman to return these streets to their old luster. Yes!’
Beneath the yellow, unlit neon sign for the Settled Shepard, Itkenze thought over his plan to gleam information from the patrons. He needed to present a strong front so everyone would know he was there for a reason. The news of his purchasing the rifle and his palpable rage caught in the eyes of those connected to his pain. Not due to guilt, which the washups were incapable of feeling, but of fear that they were on the list. But Itkenze would be kind to them, letting the minnows lead him to the sharks by inadvertent confession asserting they had nothing to do with their boss’s decision and would’ve stopped it if they could’ve. But Itkenze would assure them their boss wasn’t his target and mislead them with an intense interrogation about the status of the monastery on the hill. Passionately recounting his visits as a youth and how for a few coins he could pour a candle and lite it and pray and how now it’d lost its glory and demanding to know who was responsible. They might even think he’d gone into a mild psychotic episode chasing some ghosts. They would never suspect enough to warn their bosses. They’d be open for a well-aimed shot.
Confident in his plan and his abilities, Itkenze threw open the door and walked into the Settled Shepard. The establishment’s name was evident from the Yurr barkeeper. Sloped face, a natural liar’s squint hiding the obvious tells. A man trying to replant some of his homeland in foreign soil. Wicked, corrupting weeds. The Yurr are bottom feeding opportunist. Once the supply of product in the whorehouses dried up, the barkeep would flee the island. He could be let go.
The Yurr barkeep looked at Itkenze’s rifle and then Itkenze. With a muted huff of a breath, he returned to his rag and counter.
Confident his commando equipment had struck the barkeep and by extension all his cliental into a humbled mood, Itkenze sat at the far corner next to the single bathroom. The vantage point was optimum, lines of fire clear for automatic bursts.
After some time, the barkeep came over and grumbled at the request for hot tea.
‘Liquor is for when your kind go back to where you came from,’ Itkenze internally grumbled back.
Seeing the barkeep head towards other customers before fulfilling his order, Itkenze thought to scope out the bathroom. The confined space the single open toilet had been flushed but a small mound of brown iron deposits lingered at the base of the porcelain most likely due to a loose-fitting wax seal. He didn’t trust regular water that hadn’t been externally treated, filtered, or boiled. He left without using the toilet or sink.
Back in the bar he took up his corner seat and regarded it well that the tea wasn’t ready yet for no water could be boiled that quickly. He didn’t put it behind the Yurr barkeep to not properly treat the water regardless and expected his tea to go unused except for his excuse to sit around and gather information.
After a time spent reading the faces of the bar patrons; the pimps troubling themselves with how they’d keep their whores under wraps when the whorehouses provided more reliable access to drugs, the fixers wondering why whiskey no longer held their worst inhumanities to man at bay in their minds, the barkeep brought over the tea. Pipping hot, spindly green against the white porcelain cup. A dented metal kennel with a goose neck spout placed down.
“The dents actually give it a distinct flavor.”
Itkenze looked up at a younger man standing at the end of his table.
“May I sit with you?”
The attempt at courtesy was so novel to Itkenze he found himself immediately agreeing to the young man’s request. However, in a return to conscious clarity he shifted his hand under the table to rest on the grip of his rifle. The man kept his approving gaze upon the softly swaying barrel.
“That’s a pretty big gun for a bar like this. Bored of the darts scene or what?”
“I mean you, you know, target practice, upping the ante…” The man waited a few seconds without a visible response and dropped the point. “So what, if I may ask, brings you around here in the middle of the day?”
Itkenze kept to his reservations. “I could ask you the same.” To which the young man seemed personally injured.
“Darts,” he replied honestly. “I’d just finished up my last game when I saw you coming in. Lookie at the scoreboard, I pulled a runner on Kamu.” Itkenze looked past his shoulder but the small green chalkboard was difficult to make out with his aging eyes. One side had far more markings and the other had a few scribbles which could make out “Kamu” or some close approximation adjusting for spelling. The other name was written in a different hand and too difficult to discern.
“Unfortunately he up and left talking up how it’s not fun to play when you can’t win. But I disagree, how else are you supposed to get better if not playing? I say, at first you play to learn and then you play to win. Right?”
Itkenze nodded along, enjoying the young man’s sense of logic.
“Want to play a game?”
Elated with his quick establishment of a contact in the underbelly, Itkenze agreed and left his booth forgetting about his tea. As they walked over to the darts board, Itkenze gained an underlaying sense of pride in the wide berth the few drunkard patrons gave him. He was offered the first round at the board and the less beaten-up set of darts, more aligned wings and sharper noses. With great concentration he let his first three darts go and managed a fourty-six hitting the outer bullseye on his last throw.
“You play often?” asked the young man collecting Itkenze’s darts for him.
The young man smirked, took up his stance and let loose three darts into the triple twenty bar. A moment’s confusion in his face prompted the young man to explain the point totals of board and that the bullseye was only worth fifty and not a hundred. As Itkenze examined the board and did his mental math, the young man swiftly wiped the green chalkboard clear and wrote down their scores.
“Games are played to a set score. Around here it’s to five-hundred and one. The one to make it interesting.”
The joke came across as a stock observation the young man picked up in his early darts career and repeated till the specific inflections became the source of laughter over the phrase itself. Then it was clear to Itkenze he’d stumbled across a shark, a hustler. He’d start throwing bad in a bit, take a few beers to the head, and then switch the game to one more accessible to new players. Surely, the move would come with a few dollars on the line at the start, just a few and then the trap would be set. But he could indulge the hustler for a bit, extract some worthwhile information under the pretense that he wanted to “just talk” before starting the next game.
When the young man leaned in to demonstrate the proper alignment of the elbow and forearm and the arc of the throw, he also turned to expose his interior shirt pocket with a small, visible wad of bills.
There was a whisper of intense concentration. “You live in the Ap’ta apartment building on Old King’s Street?” Itkenze was stunned silent which made him look interested in what he was being taught about darts. “I live in the Ap’da building across the street. I heard about what happened to you. I saw you argue with that prick cop. Assholes only care about how much they can make off a blatant travesty.” He then threw the dart and hit the triple twenty. Loading up the next shot he continued to whisper, “The thing is I work in the warehouse district. I was working there that night and saw a confrontation between two gangs. One of them was Skol’s Scorpions. At some point in it, Skol went mad and let a few shots off in the air. Thinking back on it… He was pointing in the direction of Old King’s Street. I don’t know if it was the wind or something, but I think he’s the guy you’ve brought yourself here for.”
He threw the next two darts in succession and waited for Itkenze to throw his next set. It flew out hasty, scattered, totaling twenty-three points. An attempt was made to collect them without repeating the rushed behavior. Taking the cue, the young man marked his score at his regular pace, then stepped into position for another false lesson.
“Skol’s a hothead, does terrible things like this all the time. He’s worried about the security of the ground beneath him. Wax City can’t stay a warzone for glorified street punks forever and he feels it. But the beast has become too acclimated to this environment and can’t morph with it anymore. Pride, he doesn’t want to admit his inevitable loss so he fires a few shots in the air like a spoiled brat. You think you can take down a man like that?”
Itkenze salivated. “Yes.”
“Then let’s finish this game and talk outside. Too many ears, even an innocent joke about our discussion could get carried on and drive Skol into a bunker.”
The young man finished up a perfect run and quickly cheered, celebrating with an exuberant chug of his beer. After the patrons’ brief attention faded, he threw a bill down on the counter and left. Confused for a second, Itkenze decided the least suspicious act was to throw his last handful of darts on the board and stare at it for a few seconds of befuddlement over the clear difference in skill present in the six darts’ placements. After placing his own bill on the counter, he exited through the front door.
The sun had moved to strike his unacclimated eyes. Hearing a shoe scrape crush out a cigarette, he turned left and thought he recognized the muted red shoes of the young man. His conspirator’s beckon confirmed it and he moved into a shaded alleyway.
“You know, in a big way this island needs someone to clean it up,” said the young man as he continued to walk down the alley with his back to Itkenze. “Too many pimps walk with loud shirts. Tankers of prescription drugs shipping out in the back of shipping containers. Fifteen-year-old girls shipped in… At some point some government or somebody’s gonna have enough of this. Question is, are they gonna know what to do to fix it?”
At that final piece, the young man turned around in a smooth, dancer’s pivot. He was grinning. Finally able to see under the light, Itkenze noticed the deep blue and black mask-like discoloration around the young man’s glib, sleepless eyes.
From behind Itkenze’s chin was lifted into the air. The sky was a pretty pale blue. Suddenly, all the warmth in his body drove to his neck. His head dropped back down without tactful control. The young man had leapt towards him with both arms out, a hair’s breath from his rifle. Clutching it close to his chest, he summoned all his fading strength and resisted the young man’s attempt to wrestle the rifle away.
‘No! I need this!’ screamed in Itkenze’s head, pulsing weaker and weaker.
Thrown on his back, the rifle was torn from his hands which made a final feeble grasp at it before falling in his lap. Hands rummaged through his pockets; his plain band was pulled from his finger.
Staring at the pretty pale blue sky, he thought about his wife and tried to picture her face again. The memory came back that he’d forgotten to travel to the island’s morgue that morning, his wife to be treated to a lonely cremation.
‘I’m sorry Kiari.’
But his plea reverberated shallow in his mind.