Chapters 15A and 15B

Chapter 15A: Looking For Touch

 

Having a taste of another action area, the following week, other than a couple of calls from Lucinda and three emails from my editor, I talked to no one nor did I see anyone. Other than checking Lucinda’s mail and making the rounds of her house, I spent my time on the Internet searching for other battlefields. I finally identified two that were still in operation: Little Asia and Ball Room. Wasn’t sure what I’d find at either.

Thursday’s recon told me Little Asia had a scattered parking area in a section of town bordering the warehouse district. Street lights that may or may not have worked, were few and far between. I’d wear my ankle holster on Friday night. If the sentries objected, I could take it back to the car. But if they didn’t find it, better for me all around. Recon also told me Ball Room used a large space available for rent at the American Legion Hall.

Little Asia’s on Friday night and Ball Room on Saturday. My weekend set, I drank two glasses of wine Thursday evening and went to bed early. The next two days would involve heavy activity in the field. Lots of prep was needed to make sure I could keep alert.

The street at night near Little Asia’s was nothing like the street during the day. During the day the vibe on the street — abandonment by the gentility followed by the inner city default of street people sleeping in doorways — at 22:00 hours no street people to be seen. Instead, funded by the money of their hardworking Asian parents, came a parade of partying kids  — Chinese, Japanese, Indo-Chin, and Malay with the occasional Eastern European — trying to outdo each other in costuming.

Ubiquitous to all were their phones. Phones at the ear listening intently. Phones waved in the air searching for a signal. Phones punched madly with thumbs sending coded messages. I bet winky face got huge play in this place. Phones beeping, ringing, vibrating, singing, banging. Phones shoved in and out of pockets and purses, in lieu of which bras and panties sometimes served as stowage compartments.

Kabuki theatre held nothing on this battalion of warriors. Some women with painted faces outfitted as fantasy characters, others in shimmy-shimmy dresses, bare legs, high heels, but all with You-Should-Die expressions, watched as members of the other side made their first sorties. Some men, whose eyes belied their studied ennui, attempted to engage the enemy in intimate hand-to-hand contact. Others waited from positions of cover to see how their emissaries fared at the enemy’s gates.

On first glance, a search for a good time was the only thing this crowd had in common with other fronts I had seen. Clearly not fitting in as a regular, I chose a seat in a dark corner, nursed a couple of beers through the evening, and watched as the driving techno beat mixed with industrial funk punctuated by jazz-tune breaks in the action, kept bodies writhing on the dance floor for hours. There I saw another similarity between the other fronts I had been to.

The rules of engagement may be different between cultures and countries, but the needs remained the same. Sadness of loss drive some to quickly seek replacement and they storm every fortified hill they see, at all costs to their ego and safety. Fear of betrayal drives others to meanness in a desperate attempt to prove they are worthy — of what only they can answer. Some simply lose themselves in the heat of the battle and, at evening’s end, wonder at how they came through unscathed. These, I am sure, say prayers of thanks.

Yet, universally and to a person, everybody is looking for touch.

Skin on skin; or at least the promise of skin. Palm to palm. A light brush of lips against a cheek. The warmth of bodies felt through battle gear as they slowly grapple their way through a ballad or love song. Bodies randomly slammed against each other as they jump, bounce, and jerk.

Touch me! Touch me, please. I don’t care how, just touch me.

Ah, Lucinda! I left sadder than ever before in my life because of the want of Lucinda’s touch.

Saturday I slept late. Sitting on my back porch, sipping coffee, listening to birds sing, the quiet of the lull between battles ringing in my ears, I gave serious consideration to skipping the evening’s skirmish at Ball Room. What would I learn I hadn’t already seen? Nothing, my growing cynicism told me. I determined I was finished with this story; time to write it up, send it in, and move on.

But years of chasing stories had honed my ability to listen when instinct piped up. Call it a gut feeling if you like, but mine hounded me all day, and by the time eight o’clock rolled around I was turned out, front door locked, and car rolling. Fellow journalists used to laugh at me when I told them about the persistent whispers. They stopped laughing, though, when time after time I brought in the meaningful stories, made the contact that broke a story wide open – and all because I was willing to listen.

So, I didn’t doubt instinct this time, either.

Truthfully, I had grown tired of my gut always speaking to me, but how could I ignore something so powerful – especially when it led to greater truths and a better story? My livelihood and reputation depended upon listening to my gut.

Other than the level of execution in the styles of dancing, there were no new stories to be had. The Reed waved a pleasant hello from across the room. A few others I had seen at Lucinda’s favorite spot also nodded. Here, no woman approached me to partner because they all knew I wasn’t proficient in anything even closely resembling the formal implementation of these stylized dances. Still, the watchfulness continued. At one point I visited the men’s room, and on my return was jostled in the hallway by a little man in a cowboy hat. I had seen him through the evening, yet he had never danced that I had observed. To keep from falling, he grabbed my arms, apologized profusely as he checked for anything on me he may have hurt, and said over and over Sorry, it’s my fault, my fault.

I left soon after and, as had become my habit in the last couple of weeks or so, kept on the lookout for a tail. I saw none, though I drove circuitously, and eventually made it home. Emptying my pockets, I laid the change and bills on the dresser top only to see a folded slip of paper. Thinking it a receipt, I didn’t give it much thought and went to bed. Two hours later I woke from a dead sleep, jumped out of bed, turned on a light, and unfolded the paper. In faint pencil, as if he didn’t want to leave an impression on the padded sheet below it, was handwritten:

Meet me at 1:30 AM at Diner 33. You know it? Ask around if you don’t. If you cannot make this appointment, I’ll be there tomorrow night at the same time. After that, I’ll get word to you for another location if you still cannot make it.

Do not tell anyone of this meeting. I’ll be in grave danger if I should be discovered. Please. Tell no one. My life is in your hands.

T—

 

Chapter 15B: Strange Bedfellows

 

It was too late to rendezvous tonight as I had slept too long, and Diner 33 was ninety minutes away according to an Internet search. I folded the paper, put it in my wallet buried among receipts from credit cards, and immediately fell back to sleep. It was going to be a long, long day as I waited. I spent it wondering what the little man in the cowboy hat would tell me. It could only be he who put the paper in my pocket because I had had no other close contact of any sort until he bumped into me.

To make the hours pass more quickly, I fleshed out my notes into semblances of stories, and sent some of them to my editor with notes as to where and how these things could be finished. Stroking his ego, I took two paragraphs asking if he agreed and told him I eagerly awaited his input and suggestions on these most important questions I had asked. His wisdom and blah, blah, blah.

What a load of horseshit I fed him, but that’s why I made the big bucks. He’d believe every word I wrote, spend two days giving thought to his weighty and wise reply that would bring me redemption in the eyes of our handlers and save my career, yet he’d wait reading it until the end of the day on Monday because he’d want to put off as long as possible any negative interaction. I wouldn’t hear from him until Wednesday evening earliest. Good. I needed the time to handle T—’s situation.

Would it be best to arrive early, say, by an hour, and watch T— arrive thus communicating my distrust? Or should I simply walk in, on the dot, punctual and trusting? I split the difference, strapped on my ankle holster, and opened the diner door at exactly one in the morning.

Taking a corner booth, back to the wall, no windows close by, I ordered coffee and a brownie, ala mode. While waiting, I perused the interior. At the far corner, a group of college students, four males and one female, discussed some obscure point their professor had made. Two males thought him brilliant, two males thought him an idiot, and the female simply wanted to bang him because he was cute as hell, even if he was old. The males gave her grief about it. The outbursts coming from their corner were entertaining, so I listened in.

The female tried to shut them up with, “You’re all jealous because I won’t fuck you.”

One of the males said, “But why him? He’s old. He probably can’t even get it up.”

She leaned over, breasts pushing up from leaning onto the tabletop. I know because all the males looked down at the same time and had a difficult time pulling their eyes up to her face until she spoke confidently. “Oh, yes, he can.”

That brought their eyes up. One whined, “How do you know?”

She leaned into the back of the banquette and smiled openly. “Because I’ve done him, rather, he’s done me. And, just so you know, he’s not ancient. He’s forty-eight but he ain’t dead. I heard someone say, or maybe I read it, I don’t know, anyway Just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there isn’t flame in the stove.

Another whined. “What does that mean? Snow on the roof? Fire in the what?”

Another hit him on the head and said, “It’s called an analogy, stupid. Professor D— has gray hair, ergo roof. Flame in the stove? He can get it up.”

The female continued. “And boys…so you know for future reference…”

“Yeah?” they all said in unison as they leaned toward her.

“He knows how to use it. Damn.” She slapped the table on damn.

“Hello,” I heard as the males at the table groaned in unison. I looked up to see the little man. “May I sit down?”

I nodded. “Of course. Coffee?”

“No. Too late for me.” Water, he said to the waitress as she arrived with my coffee, brownie, and ice cream, his eyes never leaving my face.

I held out a hand. “I’m Gordon…”

“Yeah. I know. Hey, listen. I’m not the one you will be talking to. I’m simply here to make sure you haven’t done something stupid like…bringing a camera or a recording device. You won’t mind if I check for those things, will you?”

“I’m carrying a gun on my ankle. Don’t touch it.”

“Never. A smart man carries a weapon and I’d never deny you that in this circumstance. But we have to be smart, too.”

He moved over to sit by me; within thirty seconds he had effectively patted me down and moved back to the other side. It’s his meeting. I let him conduct it at his own pace. Leisurely picking at my food and sipping coffee, I acted as if I had all the time in the world.

This lasted for five minutes. We listened to the students in the corner. We watched as a couple came in for a late dinner. Finally he spoke.

“I’ve been reading your columns for years. Superb reporting, I must say. Though sometimes you seem to insert the silliest political comments. They seem to come out of left field.”

“Editors having their fun,” I explained.

“They can do that? Blatantly change your words?”

I laughed out loud. “Yeah. Well…”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Talk about a left-field question,” I said. “Does it matter?”

“No. Not as far as I am concerned. Of late, these religious leaders seem to be sticking their noses into the Dance Floor Wars and condemning…people for simply trying…to live as best they can.”

I waited. He continued. “I don’t believe in God myself.”

“Okay.” Where was this headed?

He clapped his hands together, sat up straight, smiled big, and said, “Okay, then. Back to the business at hand. My friend needs to talk to you. She has information that she overheard.”

“Where did she overhear it? Who said it?”

“I’ll let her answer those questions. Horse’s mouth and all that, doncha know.”

Of course. I nodded for him to continue.

“When she heard it, she was shocked, to say the least, and felt as if this should be exposed. You know…light in a dark corner. That sort of thing?”

Again I nodded.

“Personally, I think she’s overreacting. These are the vagaries of war, I told her. But she is insistent. So?” He shrugged what-can-I-do. “She’s my friend. I’ll help her.”

“Where might I find your friend?”

“She’s in my car.”

“Tell her to come in.”

He pulled out his phone and sent her a text. A moment later, his phone chimed. He read the message.

Grinning as if this were all such big fun, he read it. “Will he protect my identity?”

“Of course. If she doesn’t believe otherwise, she should not come in.”

He sent another text. His phone chimed again. “She’s walking in.”

She came in from the door nearest us. Hair hung in face. Denim hat, ragged, pulled low to cover her face even more than her hair could. Low-riser shorts, red thong strap showing above; belly exposed by a midi top, army boots and thigh-high hose competed for attention with her tats. Surprisingly she had no piercings — that I could see.

The group of college students still being loud and boisterous meant we did not need to worry about anyone overhearing our conversation. The girl slipped into the seat next to her friend. She said, “I am going to tell you something…” She searched for the word. “Horrifying?”

“You’re not sure?”

“Not sure what?” she asked.

“Not sure if it’s horrifying.”

She nodded her head emphatically. “Oh. It’s horrifying?”

That’s when I realized this girl spoke in question marks. It was her way of asking me to nod my head that I heard her. I nodded. We all need affirmation, I suppose. She continued.

“I work in a restaurant? Downtown?”

She paused expectantly. I nodded. She continued.

“Every week they have this rock and roll band that plays?” Nod.

“So, one day, I was, like, serving them their drinks and shit?” Nod.

“And they, like, didn’t stop talking when I was there?” Nod.

She leaned forward and whispered. “And that’s, like, when I heard it?”

“What did you hear, honey?”

“What they said?”

Like pulling teeth sometimes. But that’s why I make the big bucks. Patiently, I replied. “Yeah. I know. What did they say?”

She whispered again. “They said…they…they…” She paused to get herself under control before she could continue. “They said they were gonna play plenty of panty peeler songs that night? And somebody was gonna get lucky for sure?”

Panty peeler songs? That’s what you heard?” So overwrought was she, the girl could only nod confirmation. I looked at the little man beside her. Embarrassed for his friend, he acted as if he wasn’t there.

Finding her voice, she uttered the dreaded words again. “Yes? Panty? Peelers? I asked them what that meant?”

“What did they say?”

“First of all, they told me not to tell anyone their secret? I swore I wouldn’t because I was so afraid? But I had to tell someone?”

“How,” I continued patiently, “did they explain this to you?”

“They said they played certain songs that got women in the mood? Ready to take their panties off and do it?”

I stared at the girl. Then I turned my head to the man. He didn’t want to look at me. I said, “You dragged me out here in the middle of the night for this?”

The girl didn’t understand what was going on. “Hey? Now you just wait a minute? That’s my friend? You can’t talk to him like that?”

At this, I turned to the girl and said, “Do you realize panty peeler songs is not a secret?”

The girl was struck dumb. Her mouth gawped open and shut like a fish laying on a dock.

“Listen, girl.” I had to get this as straight as I could. “Since the first guy started singing nigh on nearly six thousand years ago, women have been taking their panties off for dudes. Has no one ever told you this stuff?”

“You mean…you mean…” And the girl cried.

“Yes, I mean panty peeler songs are an open secret with the entertainment industry. If you read the newspaper, you’d have seen my in-depth report on this weapon of war a few years ago. Maybe you should google it on that smart phone of yours. Why do you think there are so many ugly dudes playing guitar? Singing lead? Hell, explains drummers. Because they can be ugly and still get all the girls. Let them try to work as a clerk in a convenience store looking like that, they wouldn’t get a second glance, only a bunch of eeewwwwws. There’s something goes cockeyed in the brains of certain women when they see a guy strumming a guitar or singing, though banging on drums I understand. Still it turns them into groupies willing to drop their drawers. And God forbid when he’s stroking a microphone.”

The girl ran out of the diner to the car, bawling loudly. The group in the corner watched as she ran and then gave me dirty looks like somehow I had done something. I stared until they turned around and minded their own business. I looked at the little man and said, “Don’t do this again.”

He grinned, shrugged like what could I do, nodded, saluted, and walked out.

I pushed away the plate holding melted ice cream soaked into brownie. Waved a ten at the waitress, laid it on the table, put the coffee cup on top of it, and walked out. At first I felt used and angry at the girl and the old man. The long drive back the way I came with windows rolled down letting in the cool, very early morning air — oh, yeah, just what the doctor ordered. I hadn’t gone fifteen miles when I started chuckling. Then I was full out laughing.

How could I be mad at an old man so taken by such pure innocence he’d make a fool of himself in her naïve drama? The girl was simply unschooled in the ways of war. That such innocence could still exist was, to this reporter at least, astonishing. Angry at her? No. I felt sorry for her. I did not want to be there when she became a casualty in the Dance Floor Wars.

I didn’t know it then, but I would see the old man and Tattoo Ingénue again, on the downtown drag of a city too busy to hate.

 

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