Sacrificial GroundThomas H. Cook
Thomas H. Cook
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
For Roux Sorden-Martin
Still crazy after all these years
After the first death, there is no other.
He drained the last of the bourbon from the glass, then glanced over his shoulder toward the dance floor. The music had slowed, and the dancers were swaying languidly to the country drone of Waylon Jennings. Strings of yellow lights hung like a web above them, bathing them in a hard light. At other places, pink and blue coils of neon formed themselves into longhorn steers and cowboy hats.
Frank turned back to the bar and tapped his empty glass.
The bartender stepped up. He was dressed in a bright red western shirt with pearl-handled six-guns embroidered on the shoulders. “Another bourbon?” he asked.
The bartender filled the glass, and stepped away.
Frank took a drink, then swiveled around on the stool. The place was called The Bottom Rail, and it was not his favorite spot on earth, but the drinks were cheap, the music loud, and the smoke thick and engulfing. Across the dance floor, he could see a large bearded man in bib overalls smoking a Mississippi Crook. It was a zigzag-shaped, whiskey-soaked cigar, and he had not seen one since he’d left the piney woods of the Alabama north country eighteen years ago to come to Atlanta. He remembered a game he’d played with a few friends, something they called “smoke-out,” which was nothing more than six people in a car in the summer and all of them smoking Mississippi Crooks until someone finally broke and ran gasping from the car. Summer had not seemed so terrible then. He’d had the high, cool streams and the shady pine breaks of the mountains. He shook his head slightly, remembering them. But in Atlanta, summer became a nightmare of thick, motionless heat which everything made worse, the steaming pavement and sweltering sidewalks, the glass towers baking in the sun.
They had found her in the summer, three years ago, his daughter, Sarah, just sixteen, her body blackened and bloated after only a few days in the woods. From the distance she had looked almost twice her size, a huge black doll in his daughter’s dress. She’d parked her car by the river and wandered off for miles into the surrounding forest in search of the right place to die. Suicide. “You shouldn’t see her,” Alvin had said as they moved nearer to the spot. “You know what it’s like.” But he’d rushed ahead and found her there, a swollen mass decaying in the heat. Dropping to his knees, he’d noticed that some animal had already made a feast of her hands.
Frank stood up slowly, and felt the room shift around him, grabbed the barstool and steadied himself for a moment, then began to walk toward the tables at the other end of the bar. He could feel the whiskey sloshing onto his hand as he walked. He could almost feel its heavy warmth soaking up his blood. His legs were going. He knew that instantly. They weren’t exactly numb, but they were getting there. Everything was getting there. Even the country-rock on the jukebox was slow and muffled, as if the needle were grinding to a halt.
He sat down and continued his surveillance. He could tell that they were the usual mixed group, everything from country boys washed in from La Grange, to junior stockbrokers who routinely reached for credit cards in places where everybody else reached for a knife. All the faces were familiar. There was a factory worker looking for a night’s entertainment from some old lush who couldn’t make it home alone, a skinny, blond-haired type who’d probably just taken it up the arm in a Cabbagetown flat, and across the room, sunk into a shadowy corner, a silent, sleepless drifter with an edge.
Frank shook his head groggily. “The Animal Kingdom,” he muttered. His three-word phrase for life.
Still, though it wasn’t the top of the world, it wasn’t the bottom either. He still preferred hazy nights and honky-tonk bars to the milky squash of his brother Alvin’s life, its flat, suburban stupor. For a moment he saw Alvin in his mind, balding, overweight, saddled with a dull, imperishable goodness. He had grown up a perfect flower in the garden of his father’s righteousness. He had sat through those endless, screeching Holiness services without so much as a blink of disbelief. Frank could remember how sternly his own dissolution had been compared to Alvin’s flawless rectitude, how all his life he had been made to play Cain to his brother’s Abel. Alvin Jesus-jumped among the pews like a Shawnee brave, whooping and crying out in holy tongues while the congregation reeled in frenzy or slithered about on the church floor. The old man had renamed him Abednego, after one of the prophets who had walked unharmed through fire. Then he had turned to Frank and said, “You are Daniel, who tamed the lions.” Daniel had been able to do that, Frank knew, but as for himself, he had never been able to tame anything, not one hungry lion, not the one in his belly, or the one in his heart.
He felt his head grow suddenly very heavy, and he allowed it to droop forward toward the table. The scrawled writing which had been carved into its scarred wooden surface swam into his view: names and initials, obscenities and crude limericks, the poetry of the pocketknife. Then he closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, he could tell almost instantly that the mood of the bar had changed. Only the rogues were left. People with homes were in them; people with lovers were with them. The rest were all around him, grim and sullen, their moods darkening with each passing second.
He wanted to leave, but he could tell that his legs had not quite returned to life. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them sharply. He did not want to pass out and get dragged out onto the sidewalk like a sack of empty bottles. That was the fate Alvin expected for him, and Sheila, his ex-wife, and countless other righteous souls.
Slowly, groggily, he raised himself to his feet and made his way to the bar. The bartender moved over to him. “We’re closing,” he said. “You want a cab?”
“No,” Frank said.
“Okay.” The bartender pulled him forward quickly, then guided him to the back door. “Take care of yourself,” he said. Then he stepped back into the bar and closed the door.
Frank stood motionlessly at the center of the alley. In the distance, a single streetlamp threw a circle of graying light toward him, but its hard glare hurt his eyes, and so he turned in the opposite direction and stumbled forward down the darkening alleyway. He could hear the scuff of his shoes against the gravelly earth, and for what seemed many hours, this was all he heard.
But after that, a voice.
“Where you headed, buddy?”
Suddenly, he saw a face, very near to his own, and then another beside it, dark and bearded.
“I said, where you headed?”
Frank said nothing, and the voice, when he heard it again, seemed harder than before.
“Now, you didn’t spend all your money on whiskey, did you, son?”
“Home,” Frank said softly, answering the first question.
He started to repeat it, but then he felt himself thrown backward with tremendous force, his body lifted first with one blow, then another, until he felt his back plunge against a wall. They were hitting him hard in the chest and belly, and he could hear the sounds of their fists as they rocked him left and right.
“Stand him up!”
He felt the grip of two enormous hands on his coat as they wrenched him up and slammed him once again against the wall.
“Check his pockets.”
The fists released him, and his head fell forward as his body began slowly to slide down the wall toward the ground.
Another voice said, “Six fucking bucks.”
“Pull him up.”
He was sliding up the wall, his back scraping against the rough brick
He knew that he was standing again, and that the fist was coming toward his face like a hard, white light. Beyond the lights, he could hear the whirr of the fist as it plunged through the air toward him, and the voices around, and the helpless, broken groan that came from inside him. He heard them over and over until something hit the ground as he slumped forward again, a piece of metal which clattered onto the street.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” someone said.
And instantly, he knew that they had gone, had left him sprawled out in the alley. He opened one eye, then another, and he could see what had frightened them, what had dropped from his pocket, and now shined toward him from the gutterwash. He squinted fiercely to keep it in his view, and realized that he could make out the details, but no longer the design: POLICE ATLANTA.
It was four in the morning when the phone rang, and Alvin Clemons did not move to answer it. It rang a second time, then a third, and finally his wife, Mildred, shifted over to the nightstand, flipped on the lamp and answered it herself.
“For you,” she said, tapping the receiver lightly on her husband’s shoulder.
Alvin turned over onto his back and took the phone. “Yeah?”
The voice on the other end belonged to Fred Pitman, a homicide lieutenant who was manning the graveyard shift at the headquarters on Somerset Terrace.
“It’s Frank,” Pitman said. “Again. Only this time somebody gave him a pretty bad beating.”
Alvin sat up quickly. “Beating?”
“That’s right,” Pitman said. “Outside that place over on Glenwood, the Bottom Rail.”
“Dear God,” Alvin whispered. He glanced knowingly at Mildred, who shook her head despairingly.
“Two patrolmen are with him,” Pitman continued, “rookies, more or less, but they know how to keep their mouths shut.”
“Good,” Alvin said, “you make sure they do. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”
He hung up and rolled himself out of the bed.
“Somebody beat him up, Alvin?” Mildred asked.
Alvin pulled a shirt from the doorknob of his closet. “Yeah.”
“Sheila did the right thing letting him go,” Mildred said.
“I guess,” Alvin said. He buttoned the first button, then the second, hoping Mildred would just shut up about it.
“Someday you’ll have to, Alvin,” she said. “Let him go, I mean.”
He buttoned the last button, then grabbed for his pants. “He’s my brother, Mildred.”
“And you’ve done everything you can for him,” Mildred said. “Brought him to Atlanta, got him on the force. What else is expected? Huh? What else?”
“His daughter killed herself,” Alvin said, suddenly looking his wife straight in the eye. “Who knows what I might do if Maryann did that.”
“He was on his way already,” Mildred said, almost disgustedly.
Alvin tightened his belt, grabbed his pistol from the top shelf of the closet and fled the room. “Get some sleep,” he said as he closed the door. “I’ll call you when I know the details.”
Mildred waved her hand. “Don’t bother.”
The drive in from Decatur took longer than he expected, but the two patrolmen were still waiting when he got there. They were both standing idly in the alley, one of them smoking a cigarette, the other sipping at a can of Pepsi. They straightened themselves quickly as Alvin got out of the car and began walking toward them.
“How bad is he?” Alvin asked.
“He took a pounding,” one of the officers said. “We’ve got him in the back of the car here.”
Alvin bent over and peered into the rear of the patrol car. He could see Frank balled up in the seat, his arms folded around his midsection, his knees pulled up toward his chest.
“Dear God,” Alvin said.
“He didn’t want to be taken anywhere,” one of the patrolmen said.
Alvin glanced at the identification tag on his uniform: Billings. “You been on the force long?” he asked him.
“No, sir,” Billings said.
Alvin nodded. “Well, you did the right thing calling Homicide. We’ll keep this an in-house operation.”
Billings reached into the pocket of his uniform and pulled out a badge. “We found this on the street. That’s what tipped us off.”
Alvin took the badge and dropped it into his pants pocket. “Thanks. I’m much obliged to both of you.” He opened the back door of the patrol car and pulled Frank out, bringing him ponderously to his feet. “Come on, little brother,” he whispered. “Let’s get you home.”
It was almost dawn by the time Alvin finally managed to drag Frank up the stairs and deposit him on the stained green sofa that sat in the middle of the living room.
It was a dingy room, with unpainted walls and a linoleum-covered floor. There were no pictures on the walls, no curtains on the windows, just a set of Venetian blinds which drooped to the left and rattled softly when the wind blew through the blades.
“You ought to dump this place, Frank,” Alvin said as he brought a wet dishcloth in from the small kitchen and began gently daubing the bruises on his brother’s face.
Frank brushed his hand away. “No more Good Samaritan shit, Alvin.” He nodded toward the chair opposite the sofa. “Sit down. Relax. I’m all right.”
“No, you’re not,” Alvin said. He dropped the cloth into Frank’s lap. “Do it yourself, then.”
Frank picked up the cloth and held it against one swollen eye. “Thanks for coming to get me,” he said quietly.
Alvin nodded quickly. “What happened?”
Frank shrugged. “There were a few of them. I’ll settle up.”
Alvin leaned forward in his seat. “No, you won’t, Frank. You either file a formal complaint and let the department handle it—I mean a formal complaint, the paperwork, everything—you either do that, or you forget it.” He shook his head exasperatedly. “You can come into headquarters in the morning looking like you just got hit by a bus. That’s fine, no questions asked. It’s all been handled. But you go after those guys, that’s it, Frank. You’re hanging by a thread anyway, and I can tell you, the department’ll slam-dunk you for the smallest thing. You might say, they’re looking for a reason.”
Frank glanced away wearily, his eyes staring at the naked bulb which hung in the small kitchen.
“You’re a good man, Frank,” Alvin said, with a sudden gentleness, “but you got bad weaknesses. Remember what Daddy used to say: ‘The weakest thing in the world is a strong man who can’t control himself.’”
Frank shifted his eyes over toward his brother, but said nothing.
“I mean, you got to pull it all back together somehow, Frank,” Alvin continued. “You got to learn to finish things. You know what I mean? You went to college for three years, busted your butt in night school, then, after all that, dropped out.” He shook his head. “Then you married Sheila.” He squinted slightly. “How long you married to her, eighteen, nineteen years?”
“Twenty,” Frank said.
“Then divorce, after all that time.”
“I married her when I was nineteen and she was seventeen, Alvin,” Frank said.
“So what? It’s still the same problem,” Alvin said. “You don’t finish things.”
Frank swabbed his neck with the dishcloth. It felt very cool against the morning heat that was beginning to rise all around him.
Alvin looked at Frank pointedly. “Sheila wasn’t so bad,” he said. “Okay, maybe you two weren’t made for each other. Who is, Frank? Grow up.” He glanced around the room, taking in its dishevelment. “At least she kept a clean house, had a hot meal on the table for you when you came home.”
“That’s not a marriage, Alvin.”
“And this, the way you’re living, you call this a life?”
“It’ll do,” Frank said quietly. He stood up, walked to the window and parted the blinds. “I’m on duty today at eight.”
“I got the afternoon tour,” Alvin said wearily.
Frank released the blinds and returned to the sofa. “How’s Mildred these days?” he asked.
“She’ll do,” Alvin said. “Says maybe I should let you go, just like Sheila did.”
Frank shrugged. “Well, maybe you should, Alvin. I mean, what the hell, right?” He cleared his throat roughly, then changed the subject. “How’s Maryann?”
“Fine,” Alvin said. “Dating a quarterback.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out the badge and tossed it to Frank. “Patrolmen found this in the alley.”
Frank placed the badge on the small table in front of the sofa. “I’ll thank them.”
“Where was your service revolver?” Alvin asked pointedly.
“I left it home.”
“You’re supposed to have it with you all the time.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea for me.”
“Could have saved you a beating.”
“Or got me something worse, like a manslaughter rap if I’d smoked one of those guys.”
“Still regulations, Frank,” Alvin said. “Next time, take it with you.” He stood up. “I’m heading home now.” He glanced at his watch. “Might be able to grab an hour of shut-eye.”
The phone rang as Frank stood up to walk his brother to the door. He answered it immediately. It was Pitman at headquarters, making a last call before leaving duty.
“You fit for a tour?” Pitman asked.
“We’ve got a body off Glenwood. Feel like checking it out?”
“Okay,” Frank said. He reached for the small pad beside the phone and copied down the address as Pitman gave it to him.
“Sure you’re up for it, Frank?” Pitman asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Frank said, trying to bring some lightness into his voice. “Just a little tussle.”
He hung up and glanced at Alvin, who was poised, waiting, at the door.
“What is it?” Alvin asked.
Alvin smiled wearily. “Oh,” he said, “one of those.”