Friday, May 17, 2013
Second Coming -- A Man Named Trax
His boots barely made a sound as they fell lightly on the uneven board sidewalks that ran past store fronts, taverns and hotels. He moved like a shadow, gliding smoothly along, blending into other shadows. Those alert enough to see him would have thought he had spent his entire life learning stealth- and they would have been right.
He turned down a black alley. Most of the town lay dark but the alley was entirely devoid of light, as though it had fled fearing the dark, though the darkness meant little to Trax. He stopped before a wide, heavily built metal door. He placed his ear to it and listened. Satisfied that it was the correct door he knocked - once, twice then paused and knocked again. A metal panel slid open just below eye level and someone peered out. The eyes regarded the stranger. The panel slid back as quickly as it opened. Trax waited. After a minute he heard no less than five bolts being pulled back, then a heavy board was lifted. The door swung in slowly.
In the aperture stood a little man as thin as a rail and as bald as a stone. His scowling features showed utter suspicion and he held aloft a tallow lamp to see who had disturbed him. The light of the lamp fell upon the stranger's features. He was a tall man, lean and lanky but well- muscled. He was dressed like an outlaw in a long dark slicker, broad brimmed hat, tight fitting denims and worn boots. His angular face and sharp features reflected that of a predator- a hunter rather than the hunted. Above a pointed chin lay an almost lipless mouth, and above that a long thin straight nose. Peering out from under a broad brimmed hat were two thin slits for eyes. His gaze was stern and penetrating. A five day growth of beard lightly masked a strong jaw.
The bald man turned his head to look at the stranger from a different angle. Certain he had never laid eyes on him before he asked gruffly, "What do you want?"
"I've heard tell a man seeking comfort might find it here." Trax spoke softly and hoarsely but his voice carried well enough.
"Who sent you?" the bald man demanded.
"Old Toothless Tom."
"Haven't seen Tom for quite some time. Promised to buy me a drink next time we met."
"Tom wouldn't buy a drink to save his life."
The bald man scowled.
"Don't know you mister. I ain't letting you in. Try your luck elsewheres."
The small man attempted to close the door but the stranger blocked it with a straight arm.
"Listen - " Trax said but stopped short when a figure appeared out of the darkness behind the bald man. The figure loomed large and threatening. Taller than Trax himself the hulk stood bare chested and heavily muscled. The bald man smiled smugly as if challenging the stranger to make a move.
"Listen," Trax began again, friendlier this time. "I'm looking for comfort and I heard this was a place where I could be left alone. I can pay." He brought out a handful of bills crumpled up into a ball.
The bald man looked at the money and scoffed. He tried to close the door again but Trax persisted. The large creature moved forward threateningly and emitted what sounded like a low growl.
Trax released the door and brought up his hands peaceably, palms facing out. With exaggerated movements he reached into his slicker and pulled out a small book. He held it up in front of the bald man whose eyes opened wide and greedy. The bald man brought the light over to see the title: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
The bald man licked his lips hungrily and motioned for the stranger to enter the room.
Trax moved forward cautiously. Once inside, he handed the book over to the bald man who immediately opened it to appraise its authenticity. Twice before he had been fooled by feigns- leather covers with blank pages in between. But this was no phoney. It was an honest-to-god Steinbeck. Better than gold. Filled with thoughts of how much the book might bring, he motioned the stranger down a flight of rickety steps with an even wobblier railing.
Trax descended the stairs. He stopped three steps before the bottom and assessed the place. It was a large room with a rough hewn bar near the stairs. Scattered about the room were some twenty-odd tables occupied by half as many patrons. Hanging heavy in the air was a thick pungent smoke from a dozen different kinds of tobacco and plant leaves. Lining the walls hung lamps whose partly refined oil had blackened the chimneys long ago. Two paintings adorned the walls. One hung behind the bar, displaying a rather full figured naked woman lounging on a sofa and looking up rather sadly as she dangled a bunch of grapes above her half-opened sensuous mouth. The other picture hung on the opposite wall and showed a group of dogs of different breeds sitting around a table playing cards. Two of the dogs smoked cigars, another laughed hysterically, another was cheating.
One the patrons at the bar turned to stare at the stranger briefly before turning away. Trax in turn eyed each customer carefully checking to see if any of them openly carried weapons and appraising which one would be most dangerous in a fight. Trax decided he must be most wary of the large, bearded man sitting alone in the far corner, not counting the monster guarding the ally door. Aside from the way he came in, the room had three other doors, all closed and in a row along the back wall.
Trax walked up to the bar and laid his hands on the edge. The barkeep, a burly man with a drooping mustache, moved toward him keeping one hand under the bar. Wordlessly, he asked the stranger his comfort.
The barkeep produced a spotted glass and an unmarked bottle and poured some of the contents into the glass. Trax picked up the glass, looked intently into the filmy liquid, sniffed it once then swallowed a small mouthful.
"Do you have any pipes?" he asked.
From beneath the bar, the burly man produced a clay pipe whose bowl was black and chipped with the stem partially broken off.
"Makings?" the barkeep wanted to know while proffering a small bowl.
Trax shook his head and from his coat pulled out a small leather pouch. He unwrapped the pouch and filled the pipe with his own blend. The barkeep lit a thin stick from a lamp and touched it to the pipe bowl. Trax drew on the flame in long, steady breaths until the tobacco glowed a soft yellow then red. Smoke rose up from the pipe to mingle with the smoke of the room, but one whiff told the barkeep these were no ordinary makings and this was no ordinary man. The stranger threw open his coat and the barkeep took in the man's lean, hard appearance. He carried not an ounce of fat to slow him down. He seemed like a man of little talk and all action. A Trouble-shooter perhaps. The barkeep had never seen one but he'd heard stories. Better to kill him now.
Trax seemed to read the barkeep's thoughts. He glared at the barkeep who lowered his eyes and moved to the far end of the bar.
Trax inhaled the smoke from the pipe and held it down in his lungs before releasing it through his nostrils. He finished the whisky and motioned to the barkeep for a refill.
"I'm looking for a man," Trax said. "He's an older man. His name's Riscofftison."
The barkeep topped up his drink but ignored his question and walked away to wipe down some unoccupied tables. Trax turned to face the room and judged the patrons again calculating his odds if things turned sour. He drew on the pipe and chased it down with the whisky. He put down the pipe and glass and spoke in a voice loud enough for the room to hear. "I'm looking for a man." His voice was calm and controlled but impossible to ignore. "An older man named Riscofftison."
He saw the men of the room become still but none looked up. Trax waited for some sign of acknowledgment. No one moved. Why should they? These were men who, half-forgotten by a dying world, wished to die in anonymity. They had come to this hole in some unnamed town (it wasn't the edge of the world but close enough) to find a last bit of comfort before fading away. Their lives held nothing for them anymore. They had given up and came in search of some last fragment of peace. They had come to the wrong place.
Trax picked up his glass and hurled it across the room like a missile. The glass struck the picture of the poker-playing dogs and it fell from the wall.
Trax heard one chair leg scutter across the floor. This was it.
The barkeep moved back behind the bar. One by one the men stood up and faced the stranger. Slowly they closed in on him in a wide semi-circle around the bar. Trax could have drawn his gun but he didn't. He liked the odds. He had lived for this at one time and old habits, like the world, die hard. His pulse rate and breath quickened. He could feel adrenalin releasing into his system and the slightest smile touched his lips. Even outnumbered he would not make the first move. If they rushed him he was done for. He was betting they wouldn't. Cowardly curs never do.
A short, feisty man on his left moved in close. Trax heard wood whistling through the air behind him and he ducked. The barkeep swung an old Louisville Slugger. It grazed Trax's head, knocking off his hat, and caught the feisty man square on the nose, driving a bone fragment into his brain and killing him instantly. Another man moved in, arms outstretched. Trax rose up suddenly and kicked the man in the balls with a pointed boot. That man would not get up again that night.
Someone grabbed him from behind and was foolish enough to swing him around to punch him in the face. Trax used the force of the swing to plant a stiff finger in the fool's eye. That fool would never use that eye again.
Two men grabbed him from behind, one on each arm and a third faced him and drove a fist under his chin. It struck with enough force to knock him and his two dancing partners back a step. The man could hit, and he knew it. He smiled wickedly and planted his feet for another blow. One or two more like the first one could turn the tide, that much was painfully clear. As iron fist swung his jaw-buster Trax pivoted and brought the man holding his left arm around. Iron fist caught the man fully on the head and he went down. Trax brought up his boot and kicked iron fist in the temple rendering him unconscious. The man on Trax's right arm proved to be a veritable bulldog, and would not relinquish his grip. Trax tried shaking him off and the pair resembled deranged dancing partners. They fell against the bar and the Louisville Slugger crashed next to Trax. He picked up the whisky bottle on the bar and smashed it into the bat-wielding barkeep's face. The bulldog lost his footing and the two fell to the ground as one. Trax landed on his left shoulder with the bulldog on top of him. The fall numbed his shoulder but at least it shook the bulldog loose. Trax gained his feet in time for a chair to be broken across his back. Partially stunned, he felt himself being picked up and thrown across the room and he crashed into a mess of chairs and tables. He lay in a heap and heard the heavy tramp of footsteps coming closer. He was lifted literally into the air and came face to face with the large, bearded man he had noticed previously. The man had him by the collar and shook him like a cat might shake a mouse in its jaws. The man tossed Trax, who hit the wall and slid down to the floor. This man's fighting style was only too evident -- he liked to bounce his opponents around the room like a rubber ball.
Through half-dazed eyes Trax saw the brute coming for him again. Trax reached into his coat and pulled out what looked like a club about half the length of his arm. He gripped the rubber handle with his hand resting a thumb on a small button. With one push of the button, the club telescopically elongated three times it normal length and as the bearded man approached, Trax raised the staff and touched the end of it to the man's barrel chest. A brief but powerful electric jolt passed through the big man's body and left him lying unconscious on the floor.
This proved to be the turning point. All those left standing fled the bar. All but one. He was a middle-age miner down from the hills. His hair and beard grew wild and his clothes were dusty and dirty. He remained more or less out of curiosity than fear. In fact, the man's entire demeanour exuded defiance.
Trax stood up and turned to the miner. "Where's Riscofftison?"
Second Coming now available on Kindle!