ray hartman


Tonight we board the Savannah Limited . This much I remember of the dream: kissing Fila goodby at the iron gate. She tasted of wet apricot, her lips, and brine sweat ran from her cheeks and chin. Nothing else matters. Her salt sting taste fills me - skrill thrown up by waves crashing ... harbor waves, you wouldn't think them much, but rocks on Charleston Battery hunch stiffly as swells roll and curl and pound away ... Fila thinks of me as a rock .

Goodby, I wave ... she restless at the gate watching me shank along our gardens mossy brick walls to the Checker. A yellow rust-box, the Checker, cabbie the same - elbow hanging into the fog. Edisto reefer burning dully under his tam. Him and the engine grumbling ... I flopped a leather carry and my own fat azz into the back seat. 'Bout the only time I rode a cab ... 'bouts this time Nicky and Jerry and Ben gonna be doin' the same someplace, somehow HA! hope da pervo gags on a sand-crab coming in from The Island. When Fila left him he had moved to godforsaken Isle of Palms, and neither were better for it. Ben shouldn't a' left ... his tough luck, huh pal? Whose better off not no traveler. Who's gonna anyway, like me? Nick, Jerry, Ben ... and Tepy ...

Checker lurched, frog-skins squealed beating fat black rubber into East Bay cobblestone before I got the door slammed shut. Ain't that the truth opening a door comes easy - but shutting it behind ... who knows what's shut behind?

Cabbies fat hand hovered over the fare-flag. "'Bouts time ..." He pushed his tam over an earlobe mostly gold-plate. "I been waitin', boss, since seven-fifty."

"You and me, Chief."

His eye went to the outside mirror. "Maybe ya need a new alarm-clock."

"Stow it, chief. You gotta deliver babies or something?"

"Babes? I got regular clientele, this time of the evenin' ... most evenings." Cabbie hacked black lung, " ... people got business back-and-forth know what I mean and ... and dispatch said youse gotta make the nine-0-five ..."

Out the window and across Charleston Harbor fog wuz rolling in fast behind a mist-blue scatter of lights from night-sailor mainmasts. Fog thick as she-crab soup, and sharp as a flounder-gig if it caught up to you ... Maybe cabbie felt its grip on his throat ... maybe he knew more, or felt more ... What I know - Savannah Limited wouldn't wait for me. Or anyone.

Not the nine-0-five. Maybe the second-hand on a Rolex shares the last minute, but after -0-five the Limited has its own ideas about time. Least that's what the perv Ben Hricko sez ... second hand on my Rolex ticked the half-hour and Checker dove into Battery Park, then jived West along the Ashley River. Cabbies Zippo roasted the end of my Partagas. I sucked a lungfull - the Zippo clipped shut not the cabbies jaw.

He stuck a fat lip into the rearview and chewed it. "Yas sur ... most nights thirty minutes, boss if I shake booty from Charleston Battery to the Amtrak Terminal."

Clock on the dash read eight-thirty. A worn 'twenty' found its way from my wallet into cabbies fat paw. Vanished. My Partagas fumed. "How comes I don't feel no shake?"

Cabbies paw drifted away from the fare-flag to the radio. Clamshell tuner knob snapped on. A DRIFTERS tune snapped out bass heavy and sweet in the midrange ... a man ust'a get laid ta sweet sounds like that, when a man had more time ... Zippo fired again, at the end of city-rolled reefer, and cabbies eyeball red-veined and stained green from the console lights glowed in the rearview. "Don't need a date, do ya boss? Something ta pass time ... some street corners got fine brown-sugar frostin' - young 'nuff still got baby-fat dem ass."

"I got a date ..."

Checker engine growled. "Cher payin' the bill, boss ..." Rear springs flattened out, brick townhouses and palms flew by smeared. We hit the Crosstown at 90 snaking between two semis and hammered onto I-86 north minutes later at 110. Cabbie had said nothing.

Then he said. "Not many fares take the nine-0-five ... not on Monday, boss ..." He hung on the silence like Drifters harmony, windows open, air sucked passed me smells full a' sweet Habanos leaf and Edisto ganja and fog spice on our tail. "No sur! Honest businessmen already in the hotel, nose fulla blow gettin' blow-N-go from local talent."

"That's what I hear ..."

"Honest businessmen take the plane - I hears that too, boss ... man gotta fly ta make time."

"People don't fly - planes fly ... sometimes they don't." Traffic blurred around us. I leaned over the seat. Speedometer read 140. "Nice ride, cabbie."

"No problemo, boss. Man's gotta make time any-ways he can." Cabbies back settled heavy against the front seat. "Any-ways ... any place. Know what I means, boss?"

"Crappola - two men know the same thing one goes broke. Chew on that some 'stead-of-a jaw-full'a philosophy."

Cabbie grunted and laughed. "Okey, alright boss, this ain't a war zone ..." Went silent. "What kinda war zone ya goin' to?"

"When I see it I'll know."

"That's too late, for mos' men. If it's a woman ... one lef' behind I've seen dat bitch shoot a man 'tween the eyes ..."

Beach music drifted from the radio. I settled back, and let speed press me into the seat. Speed and time and the rich, grey Habanos smoke. Gold Rolex read 8:35 ... Fila would be putting on her lipstick. Again. Steel pressed cold, against my spine. She was smiling in the bedroom mirror, as if I was still beside her. Like distance didn't mean so much.

"More crapolla ..." I looked up ... into cabbies eye in the rearview and said. "But I'll give ya this. After the alarm-clock rings, what times a man gotta make ain't nothin' like the time he left behind."


"You're giving me the jumps, Tony," Fila said with her careless, airy drawl musta been thinkin' it ten minutes ... " wavin' that piece around, and the oil - it smells like a diesel."

What a snooper, the dame had - I could hear it wrinkle. Fresh oil ... I wiped a hank over the barrel. Old nickel-plate can't find the type no more hardly. Can't find neither the copper once packed it he's long dead ... I stuffed the hank into a back pocket crappola it smelled ... loading the pistol middle of our bedroom what wuz I thinkin'? I pawed brass, snugged tight a sixth hollow-point and snapped the cylinder shut. 'End-a-the-line, scum-ball ...' End of the message, far as I knew, but Fila ... she has a way of padding her toes on the oak floor when she's nervous.

She was tapping like a telegraph. "C'mon, baby, spill it to momma if you expect trouble."

"Troubles on the Limited no way doll ...," I buttoned third jacket button over my 38-special snugging the money belt ... "what creep gonna mess up with Nicky around ...," rolling my voice cross the room. The Jappo silk screen shook - behind which Fila always dressed when she dressed serious like she wuz a teen virgin ... "Da famous Lieutenant DeLeon, Jerry too and that Corsican thug he carries around like a hammer, but ... "

"Well I'm glad you boys get together, every blue moon ... something beside buy-and sell; even new business wear thin ..."

She let her voice run off someplace, like dames do thinkin' too much. How long we been together 6-8 months? Serious like we are now?

I could hear her wink. " ... any business 'cept monkey-business . I know how Benjamin acts without a women - he's a sweat sponge for the closest female."

"I seen no blue moon, no monkey ..."

"A man like most with selective vision."

"... and Hricko got Peachys chrome lock on his Levis."

"Locked tight, and made in America, huh like all sly dogs." From behind the screen came a faint drumbeat - a string of pearls slipping on the maple-top dresser. "How long did Benjamin keep the last one?"

"Peachy's different."

"So you say, and I say men stick together like bad figs. Now that got you quiet, Tony ... quiet as a guilty conscience ... you boys have never asked a woman along for the ride , have you ... on the Limited ...?”

At the window sill fog fingers clawed at brass fittings, made them shine, ate at them like a marsh-cat chews ... and a foghorn wailed softly somewhere north of Folly Point lighthouse. "If somebody shows up - an extra somebody heh it's a public train." Yes, I think a public train, but not too public ... "Jerry sez the Calif his brother gonna fly in a harum some night make the Limited shake booty and run off the tracks."

"Oinker ... bastard ... gawd sakes Tony will you please put away that gun?"

"Sure, sweetheart, but I got a roll tonight make a preacher into a pickpocket."

"You keep worrin' mamma like this I'm gonna get wrinkles." Her voice edges off. "... overnight is packed bottom of the stairs. Gawd sakes Tony have a clean chin when you meet the man. You DID remember ..."

"Yeah-yeah I stashed a razor cut through alligator hide."

"But I saw your electric in the bathroom. You aren't taking that old straight razor?"

"Ain't no worry cause a thunderstorm got better electricity than Amtrack - sometimes ... "

"And the gun, Tony ..."

"What overnight punk makes a play for spare change who knows ..." and walking cross from the mirror I glance out our frost-edge bedroom window ... "cause crossing South Reach the fog's gonna cost us an hour."

Fila shot back. "If your squeeze was a PI ... she might ask when hasn't the Limited run in fog, when hasn't it been late to Savannah and when did you start listing pals?"

My neck itched, where I'd scrapped away two day's beard. Premonition? Who believes in that crappola ... But damn the woman!"Figured all the whens right this minute huh ... while the lipstick gotta dry? When's a guy so lucky he got squeeze like that?"

Silence. "I'm gonna smack you, Tony ..."

"Only da smack? Shake me any way ya want, sweetheart."” Five-inch barrel felt dead cold nasty against my waist. “Who can't use one more pal?"

"And I thought I was more-than enough ... huhhuh what a woman learns ... oh damn will you get over here,” Filas sing-song softened "... and clip this pushup."

"What a proposition ...” I thought how comes a woman never needed it or much help anywhere got ta have two? How come I'm the lucky mug?"Ha! How 'bouts barenekked?"

A giggle breaks through the silence catches me staring out the window. It's where fog starts ... Wispy fingers snatched at the walnut frame. White billows roll in from Charleston Harbor - a ghosty fuzzy reef curling and dancing like windy cotton fields on the march. It eddies and curls already breaking over walkways on Charleston Battery. Enough! Ya lived with the riff-raff got a nice place now I think. And a woman. Staring ... if ya looked close figures wooshed outa nowhere, from the Battery fog human figures most if ya watched the greystone walks too close. Arms and legs Jeeez they're creepers ... like marsh-cats they vanish into fog tumblers flowing up the Ashley River on rushing tide. It made creeps feel cold and made ya think of what got hid. Yeah - this night wuz gonna cost, and where now the fog got a stealthy, grey creep it ain't nothin' like it's gonna be ... grey , quiet creep ain't nothin' like the howling black it's gonna be ..., nothin' ...

I turned away ... toward the screen where Fila stood in long white silk one cinnamon shoulder bare a strap like the pearl strand at her throat hung dangling.

"Only pals so you say ..." She was dropping her pearl handle Derringer into a damey purse size of two potato sacks. "Clip me, baby ..."

"Ya look gorgeous, sweetheart if you wuz a bonbon I'd shake up da whip-cream."

"Whip-creame oh ... Tony dear better not let ME get to it first - what a woman can do with a spray can ..." .

Still ... I checked my watch. "What time Eve DeLeon gonna pick ya up?"

"Not before ten ... Eve simply d-i-e-s being seen at Sauls casino before 10-PM and ... and she first must drive to the Island and rescue Ben Hrickos new gal ... what's her name ..."

"Peachy - grows on da tree-top ya believe everything the pervo sez about her.” I grunted thinking she grew outa the air, since my Chi-Town pals couldn't get no line her ... "And after? Same deal youse three camp out with Eve?"

It's Chippendale, Tony, and lace that Eves Miss Martha fits out in the guest-rooms. Works all week, to set them up Eve says ... is Bens new broad really a peach?"

"Sure got arsenic in the pit and blue-sky upstairs ... tree-tops fer the new dame ...” I snatched a glance out the window, as a fog-roller slammed into the glass spattering the room yellow-speckled light from the garden gate. A brass plate hung their whining in wind the high pitch brassy whines of a marsh-cat stalking. "Good ta know nothing ain't gonna change - Nicky and Hricko ... they're gonna hate each-other like usual every mile from Charleston ta Savannah while you and the other dames ..."

Just turning round, in a swirl her spikes hammering the oak floor. "Oh really ... the dames ... what a little piggy you are my dear - such an oinker ..." She floated across and had paws all over my neck, straightening the tie, smoothing my shirt. She giggled, and slipped her lip between pearly-whites. "About the worry ... maybe me too, Tony. Sammy called."

"Oh yeah that ain't no lebowski! The Mole? Same ol' rathole, and he sweats blood twice if a flint breaks on his lighter."

"Not this time, Daddy-o. Sammy recorded the call - I listened. Our client seemed edgy, ready to pull out or push back. They think we missed Mr Big in the car-nap ring."

"Don't talk, like that client wuz Mother Teresa 'steda one big-ass insurance company. They wanna push, so maybe ya mention you can go both ways ... Mr Big gotta wallet too ... shake their ass!"

"And they sue - breach of contract?"

"They can sue, but they can't break yer arm or even give ya a good shake."

"And they win?"

"Heh, it's back ta DUI and AOA cases. Gives da bums a break."

"You don't care?"

"I care ... I wants ya happy ..."

Sudden like she had cocoa-butter skin melting into mine. "Alienated affections ... happens to every mug, but not you, huh ...?" Her forehead wrinkles, and smooths eyes glancing over her watch wrists against my cheek she was a fire burning through smoky light middle of the room a second strap coming loose ... "Better clip me up, baby cause we don't have all night ... or shake me fast any way you want ..."


Nothin' like that Freudian crappola, what happens to ya before one way gets remembered another when ya dream. Nothing like that ... Eight-forty the Checker shook me out, front a' the Amtrak terminal into a hot, breezy fog that made halogen lights shine grey and sent water-beads racing along seams of my trench-coat. Water-drops splat down, onto concrete from the Palmettos high overhead sponging that thick air. It was air that sat in my lungs like boiling concrete. It was an invitation ta stick-around ... talk friendly like I heard from the Chi-Town mob once-or-twice. What I earned I took that's business ... I took no more the old man respected that. They got a sense-a-humor bust balls on an alligator - lucky I got pals ...

That's you, pal number uno. Shadow fell on the stations south side and I made straight for it. Look around. Most insurance costs real money not this. I lit a Straight and X-rayed the scene: dark empty parking lot and a sweaty, concrete box with two sweat-stained blinking doorways and somewhere north of the Station a train whistle howled - to the south bridge lights wink numbly over the first finger of South Reach. Nothing shook and I butted the Straight. Went for the carrousel front door.

Reserved tickets were waiting at the counter. More traffic I seen at the morgue. Nicky stood back-a-da-room behind a postcard carrousel - he seen nothin' me neither, punching up a Joe hold-da-Coffee-Mate and hustling through glass doors to the terminal platform.

Shadows stretch from the terminals third floor across concrete to the water tower cross the tracks. Fog whips around it, in-and-out like ghosts hiding. Train whistle sounds like a dame ain't had it good for months. Short train, anyway - four coaches, sleeper, lounge and Caboose ... and slow the nine-0-five third Monday each month from Charleston ta Savannah. I got drivers make a K-Whopper run faster 'course who makes a 16-wheeler slow down not nobody - but us? Every freight fulla chickens makes the Savannah Limited pull over like we got no rights-a-way. We got plenty a' who-doesn't care. Passengers goin' ta Florida already got there for the week. Too early for weekend tourists. Pimps and dealers from DC stop at Richmond.

A train whistle north a' town and wailing through the hot, sour night - it draws me to the concrete platform edge a metal sound hums - steel guitar-strings 20 miles long it ain't there sudden. Like me ... us ... nothin' special just a train ride once a quarter like I pay my taxes what goes to the crooks they gonna spend ... me rocking around an old sleeper-car makes it a joke. A funny joke I appreciate ... if the union ain't squeezing my balls too hard, gas prices ain't through-the-roof again and it don't frost in Guatemala. Any businessman will tell ya that - everybody bites the pie before you ...

No big deal if I miss a trip; I find out what shakes ... if anything happens usually nothing does. Just coupl'a guys got business happening the same time ... I gotta laugh! Noises kick around the train station beating a concrete drum. Hricko too, since he joined me on the Station platform coup'la minutes ago. If Ben Hricko wuz gettin' any funnier I'd gag and hit him too hard so I say. “Yeah, the crumb had my balls in a vice.”

"Thumb-on-the-scale, eh ... but negotiation fixed it up?"

"Fixed crappola." I yank around. "He still tried ta weasel six pallets short. I stepped - like a meat-grinder steps on old cow he'll breath better ... month or two." I spit. "Since I'm checkin' the Savannah load personal, he ain't gonna forget nothin'!"

"Damn ... can't remember a thing when I breath ..." Ben's rubbing his chin like bare bones wuz too much tonight, and sez. "I passed Nick inside the Station. He was reading a travelogue."

"What's that got ta do with ... crappola ... makes him look undercover ... like white fog that's what HE thinks even when the Feds pay for tickets." Ben's a head taller I look up. "He ain't got another grift tonight? I seen different before, how he works ..."

"Another grift? Beside yours?" Hricko folded a bony paw, over his face thin as a hawks face can't find a mouse all week and if da pervo ever laughed he did then the smile bending his mouth cracked and cross-ways. "Much as we ... stretch, cajole, refine the covenant and as much as we ignore - for as long as I have ridden the Savannah Limited we have never done that."

Covenant. Damn pervo ... he coulda been monks lighting a torch, ready ta burn witches way Hricko said covenant . I ain't never thought about it that way. The train and pals. It's how ya do business, with pals that's what I think. I hear leather scrape on the concrete and realize we ain't alone. All of a sudden. How long they been here?"

Like each one got a shadow. Stepping out of shadow all four. Nicky DeLeon, Jerry and his Corsican right fist. They don't say much, not nothin', but they got ears - I got a story, tell it ta Hricko like I say pals got ears ... gonna listen.

"Okey, Ben it's like this. Mugs name is Loui-da-Loop. Original out'a Cleveland, but moved ta Savannah cause he ran out'a piano wire. Lost four pieces a' wire round necks of Rasta crack dealers up from New Orleans ... that makes piano wire hot fer a mug. Even a spade mug. Savannah got lot'sa hot pianos must be they got more rhythm ... Anyrate Loui got the Ol' Mans permission set up shop so he's dealin' up and down the coast not the Mississippi. Whatever floats he's steppin' on my legitimate business, but he got permission for that too. Competition scares me none I don't mind ta share. Miami, Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk whatever floats sudden-like Loui thinks he don't like competition. Loui sends a hooker up ta Chi-Town convince one a' the Old mans sons he don't like competition neither. She musta been good - no blo-N-go cause a contract goes out, 2-bit-punk comes down from Detroit I send him back don't walk so good never again contract goes out again - comes back no takers cause like I say I got permission too."

"The Ol' Man seems to remember not so well."

"Hricko you some kinda commie? This is Amerika - you got rights ... right ta kill some-body maybe ya make a buck. It's Okey then ... so Loui and the Ol' Mans kid ... nickname Geronimo cause he likes ta use an ax figures they do me themselves. Loui starts fucking with the loads we share. Trucks break down ... my drivers get bad memory ... fuckin' state inspectors start to inspect! I spread some money things ease off for a while. Back and forth - I think we got an understanding, right, but Loui wants ta talk. Sez we need negotiation. Maybe he got a new psychic advisor maybe the whore works weekends I don't know ... Loui wants ta talk, and that's where I'm headed. Tonight. Loui and Geronimo figure ta negotiate when I get ta Savannah. Or before I get there."

Hricko sticks out his beak. "Before ... Do you mean before Savannah - an attack on the train?"

"No Hricko ya damned perv like after - like a Gawd-damned turkey after Thanksgivin'!"

The Savannah Limited . It climbed toward us down foggy track-line , outa night like a kids one-eye red streamer and wuz steaming grey diesel billows from a fitting ... front a' the Station. Who fixed it last time must a' been a New Jersey union man ... Passengers stumble down from coaches and out to the platform.

"Chas'ton ... ladies and gentlemen. Chas'ton Sou' Carolin' fifteen minutes layover." So bellows our coachman Mr Betters. He has out his watch, scratching eyeballs distainful over the silver case hell's ta pay once he finds the engineer ... late again he could set a coachman's watch by, while handing dame passengers down the steps. He ain't never let a heel get broke or a dames hat lost not that I've seen. Baggage handlers brush by him, pushing wooden carts - he checks the tags, moves them on - his black wizened face smiles and shakes easy. I wave he breaks a white tooth smile 'you been expected' the smile sez and he nods back respectful. Then sudden like he darts across the platform faster than any old Negro ought ta move.

"Evenin' Mista Vitalle. Right good seein' ya'll"

"Same here. How wuz the ride down from Richmond, Mr Betters?"

"Most pleasurable. We scatter some ducks north a' Georgetown, but ... engine problems, Mr Vitalle we'll needs make a change right here."

"I seen the oil smoke."

His smile breaks wide. "Yas sur ... like you knows we always keep a spare in Chas'ton. Be loading on track seven." He points off the platform cross lines of tracks to a wooden repair shed, where in the foggy half-light a steel engine starts billowing steam. "She's an ol' one, Mista Vitalle, but she ain't never fail ..."

"Gonna make it to Savannah? I can't remember exactly - seems to me we had ..."

"Man woman bor' he be a problem, but the 9-0-5 she honest as this ol' silver watch."

"Just like a good pal ... better ..." An old fear is creeping ... "Has the nine-0-five ever not made Savannah?"

Mr Betters winks. "Make it fo' sho' with room for elbows ... we got no extra passenger not been ask ..." Then he turns sudden like some-one called his name from inside the coach and hurries away up the steps disappearing.

"Men always hurry ...". A womans arm in copper stretch fleshy, strong and hot as electric wires come round me from behind, and her shoulder and thighs press up close. "Miss me baby," she sez?

"Yeah, Erlyne like aids in an azzhole."

"Oh baby what I got you've never had before ..."

I turn - push her away. "How comes they ain't found ya yet Erlyne sprayed on disinfectant?"

Her eyes blink. "Only for you, baby ... I was just relaxing with Ibn Ali ..."

The whore Erlyne Tepy has dark, searching, deep-set eyes so deep ya can fall in. Her dress is red, dark red and tight in the azz. Those eyes - if she wuz pretty they would be bitter. Erlyne has let go Jerry's arm. They came from the dark end of Charleston Station platform where a door opens it does not say VIP lounge ya got ta know it. Invites only. I been maybe twice, since we started riding the Savannah Limited .

The high-culture baritone voice resonates. "Relaxing, Anthony? What a woman you have ... she's a liar of course, Anthony, but as superb a liar as she is a women."

"She ain't mine Jerry you keep the rattlesnake, or maybe Ben he's got two already."

"But Anthony, the story is yours tonight. We heard the beginning oh yes. An adventure, a sleuth, a mystery and hardboiled as the docks themselves. Yes ... hard as the woman, and the woman must be yours, also. Has it ever been different?"

Jerry ain't never relaxed. Who calls me Anthony maybe my godfather, and old men in Chicago who gives permission I do business on the Charleston docks. But Jerry don't need permission not the Arab ... He's wearing a black wool cape, white turban. His Corsican muscle a short dark man stands squat to the side like a third fist. Jerry laughs.

"Oh I believe tonight, as always on the Limited we'll all have one more than usual."

"Mr Betters seemed ta think so too. Whatever is usual ... but not tonight, pal. Not while I'm telling the story.”

"You are not the first man to believe the nights story belongs to him, not the telling.” Erlyne touched the feather-tip on her fandango hat. and cackled. “But trust me baby, only the men get old not the telling."

Jerrys face crinkled. "A you see, Anthony, Erlyne thinks otherwise, and you know what arrangers women are."

A layer of fog rolls in, from Palmetto marsh just over the tracks. And with the fog rolls a sickening sweet queasy smell, a slaughterhouse smell of stalking and fear ... my stomach turns. I say. "Oh yeah - how come ya know these things?" I pat my waist and cold steel. "And how comes this 38-caliber ain't gonna solve da problem?"

"No doubt, Anthony you are a man of action.” Tip of Jerry's Camel Straight glows smoked down near the end red tip glowing on his beard. “But don't you remember?" R ed flames dance in his dark eyes. S "She's worried, Anthony ... thuggies jumping you in the dark. Erlyne thinks you will foolishly blow off your foot with an impossible weapon."

"That's a dames way a thinkin' - any weapon got a barrel longer than 4 inches is impossible ...”

Erlynes laugh slides out. "Men always ..."

"ABOARD. ALL ABOARD" Mr Betters voice boomed from across the tracks. He is standing in a pile of steam from the engine, and it wreaths him. A gaslight shines over his head and just behind him iron wheels are grinding. "SAVANNAH LIMITED. ALL ABOARD."

It's a raw, young, demanding voice - I don't think Mr betters has ever been young or his voice a tired old mans voice. Jerrys Corsican leads down the walkway and across the tracks. Ben and Jerry beside me - Tepy has my arm. Nicky drags tail. Mr Betters stands half way up the rot scarred, low wooden platform. It's a short train, behind the brass belted engine that comes up in the fog. Five cars: a sleeper, diner and lounge, between the red caboose and the coaler ... Mr Betters nods, and fidgets impatiently with his watch ... "ALL ABOARD ..."

BLAM ... the gunshot sound slaps air behind the train. And leather footsteps come rapping fast and hard up the platform. I grab Erlyne and slam her against wood frame of the lounge-car.

CZAK ... the 40-caliber cop-shot rings metallic echo.

Jerry and the Corsican have crouched back-to-back pieces out heads bobbing. Nicky running down the platform flies right passed them Panama pulled over left side of his face grey trench wrapped tight around the white linen suit ... He slows not much, slaps me on the shoulder.

He sez "Those new shoes too expensive or just pinching your toe ?"

I catch the square chin-set, and skin stretched tight over his cheekbones, and the steel eyes before Nicky jumps off the platform into light-blaze round the front of the engine into dark I'm one step behind. I ain't bought new shoes five years maybe. Jerry too he's got my left shoulder the Corsican I'm figuring got Erlyne nailed to the lounge

We're beating leather on wooden tyes - steel rails. Breathing hard like locomotives pounding a steep grade ain't nothin' flatter than Carolina Low Country, flat till yer eyeballs bleed looking for direction, but a man lives here goes up-and-down.

"What da ya know ...?"

"A grifter ..."

"Two guys don't like each other ..."

"Two guys don't like me. One had an ax - the other ..."

"Crappola ... two guys, and ya got off one cap?"

"And lucky to do that! In this fog one cap means nothing. Scared 'em, maybe."

"How comes ya got so many enemies, Nicky ya got too sharp pencils on your desk?"

"Not my enemies, Tony. Not tonight. Tonight you have the story. You have the enemy. One, not two. Has it ever been different?"

I look at him uncomprehending. We run. Up the rails ... then back far as the bridge. We cross two sets of tracks weedy and disused, and a grass divide to gravel top of the concrete wall that separates Charleston Station from swampy, brine marsh.

BLAM ... a shot whips over overhead, and then just beyond the wall splash sounds of a body diving into green suck. And legs churning at suck. And lungs wild sucking at dead air ...

It stopped us ... Jerry, Ben Hricko, Nicky and me. We edge forward. Somewhere behind train sounds rattle, and station lights flicker dim yellow fingers groping in thick, yellow, stinking haze. In front of us - over the concrete wall brown-tipped edges of salt-grass hover and vague images of live oak hung with moss then nothing. Nothing, if you try looking too far. Bay fog has swirled in making the night air alive, swirling grey rollers of the fog.

A long, high-pitch scream claws from the dark. The shot muffles ... BLAM ... with a second human wail covering the echo ... thrashing, clawing sounds they appear so close they could sit on our fingertips, and in the fog so distant ... a century away. Screams and wails ... so it seems they will never stop till the last, marsh-cat scream.

Pals find small things to say. Mr Betters waits beside the engine. A waterspout slowly lifts away, and he nods approvingly. Steam swirls about his outstretched arm and silver watch. If he smiles, that ageless, white-teeth smile does not approve or chasten. Never has. He nods to each of us, and we make small of things remembered poorly that do not change.

"Just the fog, Nicky, huh?"


"Then we still got business to attend."

"The covenant."

"Yeah - the ax man."

"His hate runs green to the banks. It shrieks, baby - attend to it, because nothing else matters, not now, does it baby?";

"Attend I should say ... as needs be." Ibn Ali is stuffing a pearl handle 32-caliber under his cloak. Marsh sweat has covered his beard and the white turban glistens. "Has it ever been otherwise? Nine-0-four gentlemen ... Anthony, Benjamin, Lieutenant ... we have arrived not a minute early. Surely our story awaits."


What I remember, as fog closed in black and howling, like a dream that wuz all ...