This time, they were looking for a house. Rick sat in the passenger seat of their station wagon and looked over at his friend, King, who drove the car around sharp turns in the road. The squealing wheels penetrated Rick's mind, reminded him that he was tired of all this anger.
“Where is this place?” King asked through gritted teeth. Rick released his grip on the door handle and watched as the hills north of Nice blurred by. It was night, and the land lay under a blanket of dim star light and dark shadows; the car’s high beams brought the only coherence to his world. High brush, trees and occasional gated fences gave way to a view of the valley twinkling below before turning back into a blackened blur. The car smelled of cigarette smoke and unwashed clothes. He was hit by the need to sleep.
“Easy, King, we can’t be peeling out of every curve,” he glanced over at his friend, a man too large for the modern world. “You get it?” Rick waved his hand in the air. King peeled out of one more bend before easing up on the accelerator.
“You see any numbers on these houses?” King looked at Rick.
Rick took a deep breath and chewed on his tongue, releasing a sweet saliva. He swallowed. It was four o’clock in the morning. The moon peeked out from behind a cloud, outlining the treetops; it somehow added to the weight he felt on his head. Through a break in the trees he noticed the outline of a town below, most of its lights out. He could picture those homes with people asleep, pulling the covers over their heads to keep out the cold. He should have been with them. Instead he was here, trying to save a girl.
He would rather have been with his own woman. Soft lips, soft curves, soft words; right now he couldn't think of a single thing he didn't appreciate about her.
“Well?” King's voice had lost some of its ferocity.
“What does the odometer say?”
King leaned his large body in to read the numbers.
“It’s two miles since we turned,” King said.
“There it is!” Rick jabbed out his finger.
King pulled on the hand brake, and switched off the headlights as he guided their vehicle into the bushes by the side of the road. Rick’s doubts flowed faster and faster. He reminded himself that this was no time for second thoughts. He repeated this line as branch tips scraped at the windshield.
He slid on a pair of gloves over the scars on his hands, pulled a ski mask over his face. He checked his gun, making certain he could see the shiny ass-end of a bullet in the chamber. His synapses flashed to his past, the sight of twisted bodies, men, women and children. The clear image of blood at his feet, a small girl stared at spilled brains. He exhaled. His fingers ran over the car's upholstery, the material world taking the edge off his mental anguish. Slowly, he pushed out the idea that this time it was his turn to catch a projectile with his brain. Better to think he had luck, God, Allah, Brahma, inherent goodness, or training on his side.
King had already taken the keys out of the ignition and was checking his handgun. Rick stared at the road. All was quiet. Too quiet.
“Uh huh,” said Rick as he stepped out of the car and stretched his skinny legs. They walked toward the house, through the open gate, and darted into the shadows. He couldn’t see any movement in the whitewashed house, its tiles glowing like dull blood in the moonlight. They walked past the cars parked in the driveway, checking inside and in-between for people. They came up to the front door. Rick glanced at King before he turned the knob and burst inside, switching his flashlight on and scanning his side of the room. There were passed-out bodies everywhere, none stirred to their intrusion.
They examined each person with a flashlight, as they tiptoed past empty bottles, cigarette butts and limbs. With a hand signal they moved to the stairs, littered with more containers, joints and needles.
“Fucking degenerates,” muttered Rick. He could smell the stale beer and weed, the pussy and perfume. It calmed him down.
At the top of the stairs there was a narrow hallway with two doors. Only one leaked light from the edges. Rick walked towards it and watched as King moved to the other one. With a nod he twisted his door’s knob but it did not yield, so he stepped back and kicked it open. He was struck by a familiar organic smell. He took a look inside and froze.
“All clear… What is it Rick?” King shuffled behind him.
“Rick?” King brushed past him and stumbled past the dead man on the ground toward the dead girl on the bed. He fell to his knees and softly touched the girl’s face, as if he were trying to awaken a child from a nap.
“Beth?” It was barely a murmur that broke into sobs.
Rick walked up to King and placed a hand on his shoulder. He recognized the dead man sitting on the ground as Beth’s boyfriend. Brain, blood and skull, had splattered across the white wall and streaked down, forming a puddle on the floor.
Rick thought it was a horrible place to die. He didn’t know where he would want to be killed, perhaps somewhere under the open sky. He looked back at Beth who had each limb tied to a bedpost, cigarette burns all over her body, and a word carved into her belly. His attention was captured by a butterfly tattoo on her stomach. He felt overwhelmed and fingered his front sight post for solace.
King and Rick woke up three young men downstairs with swift kicks. They dragged the teenagers upstairs to the room across from Beth. The kids, with faces of baby-fat innocence, were paralyzed with fear. They did the interrogations one at a time, leaving the other two facedown in a corner of the room.
Rick held down the first kid as King grabbed his neck and asked him if he had seen the murder.
Rick could smell the shit from the room next doors and was hit with thoughts of Beth. He ground his teeth and inside him a beast arose. He grabbed the kid and pushed his gun into the kid's mouth. The teenager's eyes widened and Rick grew more infuriated.
King tugged on Rick's shirt.
“Let me at 'im,” growled King.
Rick looked at his friend and pulled his weapon out. He picked up and shoved the kid to King. The kid started to stutter. King pulled out a knife from his pocket and pressed it against the kid’s throat.
Rick felt a pang of regret as the kid's helplessness reminded him of Iraqi men corralled inside barbed wire with their hands tied behind their backs, staring on as their women were searched, tanks rumbling by and helicopters blaring bagpipe music.
The teenager tried to stifle his cries. Rick suppressed the urge to tell King to stop. Instead, he pulled his friend’s knife from the young man’s neck. The kid poured forth with all he knew.
After the questioning, King took each kid:
“Are you going to tell anyone?”
King picked the kids’ pockets and took their identification cards from their wallets.
Outside the sky’s darkness was slowly losing out to the purple shards of dawn. Rick inhaled some of the cold air, fresh relief after the stuffy house. The kids’ eyes still ran through Rick’s mind as he thought of what they had done, what he had become and how to change.
He got into the driver’s seat. The last thing that Rick needed to see was his friend trying to ram another car off the highway because of some small violation of road etiquette. The useful information they had gotten from the three kids had been minimal. Russians in suits. Now they would have to go back to Nice and figure out whom exactly they had to kill.
“You ready?” Rick asked King, who stared forward at some unknown image and just grunted. The engine sputtered to life. They had left the bodies as they found them. Rick knew about King’s aversion to burials.
“You gonna to help me get this bastard?” King spoke without his usual gruff tone.
Rick knew the more time he spent thinking and not answering, the more it would reflect his uncertainty. He was, at the bottom of all these doubts, a soldier. A being that should never hesitate or waver when answering a friend like King, who had never hesitated or wavered when answering him.
“Of course King,” he spoke the words that he didn't mean, that stagnated in the car. He saw King flinch and he wished he could swallow those words and spit them out like fire.
“You don't sound certain Rick. If you don't want to, then don't. I understand about you and your woman.”
Rick appreciated his friend using the softer noun for a female when mentioning his woman, Coralie. Usually King referred to her as a split-tail, cum-rag, bitch, cunt or whore. Never out of malice, just out of habit and the fact that he saw all women as split-tails, cum-rags, bitches, cunts, and whores.
Rick swiveled his head to meet King's eyes. “Certain? What am I supposed to sound like?” he controlled his voice, making it sound as low as he could. “I said I would do it. So now we're going to get it done. We're going back to Nice and we'll start looking for whoever did this,” he held King's stare before looking back at the road.
Now he had to explain to Coralie why he cared more about a man—who saved him from death in the past—than the promise he made her.
He was lying with her after an especially breathless bout of sex, and in the moments where the animal gave way to the intellectual, he scraped his mind for something new to tell her.
When he told her that they were traveling around Europe robbing people, she had gone silent. He felt a distance growing between them.
Babe, it's just for a short while. Her back was to him and the roundness of her ass made him think of sex.
I thought when you had got kicked out of the Army you were done with violence. I thought you were traveling around Europe to gather your mind. I thought it was spiritual. Instead you were robbing people? She pulled away from his arm that was resting on her shoulder.
Rick didn't know what to say, he did not want to lose her.
No babe, it's not like they're innocent. We're robbing drug dealers, and no one gets hurt. He was floundering and grasping at the lines of reasoning he had used on himself to start the ambitious robbing.
Stroking her spinal column, he kissed her hips and could smell the flesh from between her legs. He was lying, especially about the last one.
Baby, please talk to me.
Coralie got up and looked him in the eye. You can't do this Rick. It's not something I want to be around. This sort of violence is worse. It's not for a reason like the Army. You need to stop it, promise.
Rick stared into those big brown eyes and knew—even though she was an amazing woman who had been around the world—she had no clue what she was talking about. His experience had showed him that as long as he had a reason, or could explain the violence, he'd be fine.
Yes Coralie, I promise, we're done. He didn’t know whether he meant what he said, or whether he was speaking as a spasm to stem the bleeding from her coldness slicing his heart. They tried to make love afterwards. He failed to get hard and they lay in each other's arms.
A car passed by, precariously close to the dividing line, and Rick half-swerved to avoid it. It was almost dawn and he could see the twinkling lights of Nice ahead. He normally loved this drive from the mountains to the city of Nice; it was like a cliff jump into a soft abyss of sun, waves, bare females and kisses. In the back of his head a dark thought whispered that they were actually going to plan and kill someone, that this was unlike what they had done before. He pushed the thought away.
King was sleeping, grinding his teeth. His pug nose, light brown hair, and grimaced face looked pleasant to Rick. In his sleep, King, didn't seem so large and barbaric. This was for his friend, Rick reminded himself. He remembered the thrill of facing off with someone in a fight. Pursuing was something he was good at and that fact filled him with pride. Now, the thought of chasing prey excited Rick; like a fat woman who had finally aroused him. He no longer wanted to lie down.
He reached over to King, who was snoring, and held his nose.
“Huh?” King gasped for air, as Rick laughed out loud.
“Wake up princess, we’re near the city,” Rick could see King’s confused look on his blue eyes.
“You’re nuts. You know that right?” King shook his head in disgust.
“You love me and you know it you redneck bastard,” he glanced over and grinned.
King sputtered out a laugh while shaking his head.
“Come on bro,” he punched King in the shoulder. Let's get some sleep then we can start looking for this asshole and blow his balls off,” Rick let out a yelp.
King smiled, his teeth tinged with yellow from the countless dips he placed in his mouth. He had only recently switched to cigarettes. “Jesus Christ, good to see you're back, I thought that French cunt had softened you beyond repair.”
Rick swallowed his pride and continued smiling.
Rick woke up in the hotel and realized that he was alone. It was dark outside and he could feel the buzz of the pedestrian sidewalk outside. He took in the smell of the sea and felt rejuvenated. He put on a sweater and peeked out at the walkway four floors below their window. The fact that someone had just died, and he was going to have to commit murder to avenge it, seemed a distant detail.
He lit a cigarette and watched the people pass by. Most of them seemed to be tourists enjoying the act of walking and taking in a new environment. Some, who had a more direct air about them, looked like locals. Coyotes and dogs: he remembered an old Blackfoot in Montana telling him that tracks of a dog were never straight, they stopped at every curious object while tracks of a coyote went straight to whatever goal the coyote had in mind. Rick had felt like a coyote since he joined the Army, always charging forward towards some goal. If he gave up that way of life for his woman, would he be a dog?
Rick ceased to think as a curvy slight woman walked by. He loved this town from the moment he saw it, six months ago, when Nice was in the middle of an orgasm at the hands of summer.
They had driven on the avenue by the Promenade de Anglais as night was falling and people grazed on each other’s energy outside. The warmth of summer infiltrated Rick’s skin as palm trees moaned to the wind blowing off the Mediterranean.
Good choice Rick. King muttered as they waited at a red light. Rick watched some pretty girls walk by; thighs shining in the artificial street lights, hair blowing like the palm leaves, and smiles that personified the lust that oozed out of this city and every girl that he could see.
Well, Rimbaud, nothing to say? King smirked.
Surprised a redneck like yourself knows who the fuck Rimbaud is.
We'll surprise you enough. These women are ridiculous, Jesus! Let's find a hotel and try to bang some.
Rick, feeling mischievous, looked over at his friend and made sure he was paying attention.
There’s nothing like a passionate woman who reacts like we want them to. And when they eagerly take that first lick of our manhood, as if that is what they have been waiting for since they were first spanked by their fathers, we know, we know my friend that we have arrived at the Promised Land.
King looked around with his forehead furrowed then glanced at Rick shaking his head.
You’re nuts Rick, I’m just letting you know that, where do you come up with this shit?
They both laughed.
Rick saw her in a bar that night, in a yellow summer dress. He hadn't had much to drink and until that moment he had been enjoying the visual moan that was every other woman in Nice. He liked seeing how they walked—as if they did it just for him.
With her, however, he knew something was different. Her movements had a subtle confidence and shyness that filled him with such a strong desire it frightened him, as if she knew everything about him. He got up to talk to her.