|Moon Children, Part 3|
By J.S. Kierland
"We got absolutely nowhere," Eli said.
"I feel sorry for her," Stella said.
"You can't trust her. She's not responsible."
"She reminded me of myself."
"That's ridiculous. She's nothing but a drunk."
"I'm just younger than she is, that's all."
They walked down the path in silence. The early winter sky had darkened and they didn't notice Jason standing out in the street waiting for them.
H U M P - B A C K E D M O O N
The tenement stood frozen in a thin wash of moonlight. A pale flicker edged across an upper window where a shopping-cart reflected in the dim light from a low fire. Above the cart a pear-shaped sack swung from an exposed girder throwing its odd-shaped shadow across the back wall. The sharp crack of a bark broke the quiet just before Hector and Bee appeared at the door. They began tossing more wood into the fire, sending a spray of sparks towards the hanging sack in the corner.
Hector checked the other rooms while Bee stoked the new fire. "I don't like it," she said.
"We got no choice. You gotta have connections."
"You call that prick a connection? Whenever we go over there we get fucked. I hate Juicer."
"He came through with another job, didn't he?"
"A couple of jobs. Don't forget the freebee he wants," she said, pulling a hypodermic needle out of her pocket.
"At least we got a deposit out of him," Hector said, letting her see the roll of money he had in his coat.
"The prick's already made plenty off us. And you know he's gonna take his cut when we settle with that kid's asshole father," she said. "Juicer squeezes hard. And where's Toozey? Why ain't he doing this shit?" She shook her head.
Hector moved across the room to untie the rope holding up the sack in the corner. He felt the weight of it drop, braced himself against the wall, and lowered it to the floor. A low groan came out of the bag when he opened the top. Charley crawled out like a large bug.
"Hey, man, you didn't have to hang my ass in the air like that. Where's my stash? I'm starting to shake."
"You hungry? We're gonna eat soon," Bee said.
"Let me get straight first. Where you been?"
"Here's your boots," Hector said, throwing them on the floor. Charley pulled the rubber tubing out of the boot and tied it around his arm. Bee took out the hypodermic needle.
"Here," she said handing it to Charley. "Shadow mixed the shit for you."
"I bet he stole some of it too, didn't he?"
"Shadow's clean," she said.
"Hey, whatever," Charley said, brushing the needle across his arm before sticking the brownish fluid into his bulging vein. Hector watched him push the needle's plunger downward. The moment seemed endless.
"What's for dinner?" Charley asked, and fell over with the needlestill dangling in his arm. A trickle of blood ran just below it and the smell of urine hit the room.
Bee leaned down to look at him. "What do you think?"
"Let's drag him into the other room," Hector said. "Don't forget his boots. Juicer doesn't fuck around when it comes to being dead. Charley just drowned in his own private river."
* * *
The moon had dropped so low that Stella thought it was going to crash through the window. She remembered her mother telling her that all the children in the world belonged to the moon and that Stella was her own private moonchild. Born on the fifth of July. The moon had become their link but her mother could never overcome the loneliness. The constant need to talk with someone. Stella remembered hermother's incoherent prayers pouring into the night like some crazed monastic monk's. She sat alone in the silence now, watching the odd white shape move across the sky, waitingfor the phone to ring.
There had been a few calls with no one on the other end. She'd shouted pathetic hellos into its uncompromising void. Christmas had arrived, and left. Jason finally believed her and gave in. If they didn't hear anything by noon she was going to the police. Whatever else happened didn't mean a thing. All she could think about was Michael and the moon.
* * *
Hector heard the bark, put the grates across the fire, signaled to Bee, then edged toward the door to wait for the footsteps. Bee glanced over at him then moved back to the fire. He could see them coming up the stairs. Close together. Laughing at something. He stepped back in the doorway. "What's so funny?" he asked.
"Him," Shadow said. "He's crazy."
"I am not," Michael said, throwing a loaf of bread at him. "You're the one that's crazy."
"They were on us every minute," Shadow said, as he tumbled into the room. "They would've caught us if we hadn't bought the bread. Good thing I had money on me."
"It took you long enough," Bee said. Shadow held his coat open so she could take out the frozen food packages stuffed in his pockets. "You got hamburger again?" she said.
"It was on sale."
"You stole it! Anyway, we can't keep eating hamburger."
"What did you get, kid?" she asked.
Michael started taking packages out of his pockets. "I like macaroni and cheese," he said.
"So do I. But it's bad for you. What else you got?" she asked. Michael pulled a frozen pound cake out of his pants.
"That's more like it," Hector said, taking it from him.
"That shit's bad for you too."
"Everything's bad for you," Shadow said.
"Shut up and listen," she told him, putting the frozen packages on the grating over the fire.
"You did good," Hector said, rubbing Michael's head.
"Does it mean I can go home now?"
"Still asking dumb questions," he said, placing the package of pound cake next to the warm cement blocks to defrost.
"I just wanted to know if you talked to my father about the money he owes you. That's why you brought me here, isn't it?"
"Your father keeps saying he doesn't have any money."
Michael looked back at him in surprise. "What about my mother? She'll get you the money."
"All they care about are themselves."
"Not my mother."
"Your mother's got nothing to do with it," Hector said. "It's between me and your old man."
They listened to the crackle of the fire. Bee looked down into it and repositioned the trays of food on the grating.
"You could become a homeboy," Hector said.
"What's that?" Michael asked.
"Once you're in a place like this...with us...you've got connections. You're somebody. You belong."
"How do you become a homeboy?"
"You're doing it."
"Yeah. Just do what we do. Follow the rules."
"We don't do drugs or lie to each other. If someone needs clothes, we get it for them. Need food, we find it. We do it together. Somehow. We take care of each other."
"That makes me a homeboy?"
"You still got a ways to go," Hector said. "But so far you're doing great."
"We definitely need you if we're gonna get the money from your old man," Bee said.
"If you let me talk to my Uncle Eli I can get the money for you right away. He gives me anything I want."
"The kid's into the action. He loves it," Shadow said.
"I want to help," Michael said.
"What do we have to lose?" Shadow said. "Let the kid talk to his Uncle."
"How much do you need?" Michael asked.
"Your old man owes us five grand. He's paying late, so we figure it's up to six...maybe even seven by now," Shadow said.
"You've got to be exact," he told them. "If you keep changing the amount it mixes them up."
Shadow moved in closer to the fire. "Maybe that's what we're doing wrong," he said.
"You've got to know how much you need. Exactly!" Michael said. "Then go get it!"
"We already got some money hid away," Bee said.
"Don't tell him about that," Shadow said.
"I ain't telling him where. I'm telling him what!"
Bee gave a quick glance at Hector standing at the fire. When he didn't look back she went to get the papers from her blanket and spread them across the floor. "This's what we want to do with our money," she said.
Michael sat down next to her and stared at the worn pieces of paper on the floor. "An RV," he said. "They're neat."
"It's got water and faucets," Bee said. "There's even a toilet and a little kitchen where you can cook."
"My Dad rented one of them once. They're great. Got everything. We went on vacation."
"You can sleep in it too. Right?" Shadow asked.
"You can do anything."
"It's got TV. Right?" Shadow asked.
"Few more burns and we're home free," Bee said.
"We'll almost have enough if we close this deal with your old man," Shadow said.
"Sounds great," Michael said.
"Hear that, Hector?" Shadow said.
"I heard," Hector said, poking at the fire.
"I still think we ought to steal one and get out of here now," Shadow said.
"We're gonna do it right. Legal," Hector said.
"Yeah, they can trace RVs real easy," Michael said. "Where you taking it?" No one answered.
Hector nodded to Bee and she said, "Arizona. I think I got a cousin out there." The three of them stared at Michael waiting for his reaction to their plan. When he finally looked up from the brochure he nodded at their expectant faces.
"How much more money do you need?" Michael asked.
"We're pretty close," Bee said.
"Don't forget you're gonna need a lot of gas. It's a long way to Arizona. And insurance. You also need food."
"We can always steal that," Shadow said.
"And we don't need any insurance," Hector said. There was another long silence as Bee refolded the brochure and slid it back into her blanket.
"Why don't we let the kid call his Uncle?" Shadow asked.
"I'll give the kid back when I want to," Hector said.
"You want to keep him, don't you?" Shadow asked. They stared at Hector over the fire, waiting for his answer.
* * *
The long night slipped into a thin gray morning. Stella turned to look for the hump-backed moon, but it was gone. When her feet touched the floor she heard the door chime. It stopped when she snapped on the porch lights and opened it. Eli edged in past her. "Michael called," he said. She pressed her hand against her mouth to keep from screaming. He took a cassette out of his pocket. "You can hear it for yourself," he said.
"Where is he?" Jason asked, rushing in from the other room.
"He wouldn't tell me."
"Does he have warm clothes?" Stella asked.
"He didn't have much time," Eli said, putting the cassette into the machine.
The burr of a ringing telephone sounded.
"Hello," a little boy's voice said. "Uncle Eli?"
"Michael? Where are you?"
"I can't tell you that."
"You all right?"
"Yeah. Just don't trace this. OK?"
"Here's the deal. They want twenty-five thousand in small bills. Fifties, hundreds, and a lot of used twenties.
"Tell my father to bring it tonight. He has to come alone. If he brings anyone with him...the deal's off."
"They with you now?"
"Yeah. But it's OK," he said.
"Where's your Dad supposed to bring the money?"
"4368 Brook Avenue. Got that?"
"Got it. That's in the Bronx."
"The front door will be open. Tell him to go up the stairs to the fourth floor at midnight. Apartment 4C. All he has to do is put the money in the shopping cart that will be there. After that he goes out the same way he came in. That's important. If he does anything else you'll never see me again. I gotta go now--"
"Wait a minute--"
The phone clicked into a dead silence. Michael was gone. Jason took in a deep breath. "Where the hell am I going to get that kind of money by tonight?" he asked numbly.
"We'll get it," Stella said. "We've got to get it."
"I don't know! We'll just get it!" she said.
"That's probably why he called my number," Eli said. "He figured it'd be a lot easier for me to get the money than you."
"How much do you think you can raise?" Jason asked.
"I don't know," Eli said.
"Do you have that much?" Stella asked.
"I can get half immediately."
"Is that all?" Jason asked.
"There must be someone you can go to, Jason."
"The banks shut me off. And who knows when that insurance check will arrive?"
"We've got to get it somewhere," Stella said.
"I could probably come up with the rest," Eli said. "But we'd have to pay a high interest."
"How high?" Jason asked.
"That could bankrupt the business."
"We don't have any choice," Stella said.
"Where would you get it?"
"Friends," Eli said.
"If they charge thirty percent they're not friends."
"That's what their money's for, Jason. It makes more money. They know that. They also know that if you have to go to them then you can't get it from the banks. They trust you to pay it back. That's what friendship's all about with them."
"Michael is depending on us! My God...he's out there all alone," Stella said. "Get the money anyway you can."
"Do you want me to make the phone calls?" Eli asked.
"We don't have any choice," Stella said.
"You'll have to vouch for the money. Sign papers."
"I'll pay it back when the insurance check comes in," Jason said. "But that could be months from now."
P E R I G E E
A full moon slid across the sky and its satin glow covered the streets. A burned out Christmas tree, silver foil still clinging to its blackened branches, rocked back and forth in the cold breeze. Hector leaned against a corner of the building waiting for Bee to climb down the fire escape behind him. At the cry of a distant siren they paled back into the shadows. When the siren faded, Bee jumped down and helped Hector pull a shopping cart out of the doorway. At the end of the building, Michael and Shadow joined them, and guided the heavy load down an alley that led out to the avenue.
Hector raised his hand and the shopping cart came to a stop. They were in a well, facing the street, and Shadow crept up the stairs to peek through the iron grating. He took in a deep breath, waved a signal, and Hector ripped the paint-stained plastic off the top of the cart where Charley's body had been stuffed in an old army blanket with his feet sticking out of one end. A strong fetid smell hit them when they lifted the body up over the top of the cart.
"I broke the lock on the front door," Hector said. "All we gotta do is get him into the building. Bee and Mikey can get the cans. We'll come back for the shopping cart. Better check the street again." Shadow peeked out at the avenue all the way to the end of the block. His eyes lingered on the intersection before he signaled, and Hector said, "Let's get this shit inside."
They edged Charley up the metal stairs one at a time and had almost reached the top when a pair of headlights hit the building on the corner. They ducked behind the grating. Charley's body slid back down the stairs in a heap. "It's the cops," Shadow said in a whispered panic.
"Watch them," Hector said, hunching over Charley's body.
The car's lights widened as it moved down the street. "Shiiit, it's just some dude," Shadow said.
Hector climbed up to peek out over the edge as the car picked up speed. "It's a fancy foreign job," he said.
"Is it red?" Michael asked.
"Yeah, I think so," Hector said.
"Oh, shiiiiit. It's you're old man. What time is it?"
"Quarter after eleven," Bee said.
"Sonofabitch won't do what we tell him," Hector moaned.
They dragged Charley up the stairs again. Lugging the dead weight through the front doorand into the cold darkness.
Headlights hit the building on the corner again. The car almost stopped when it reached them and Hector could see someone looking out from the passenger seat. He'd brought someone with him. "When he makes the turn, take the kid and bring in the rest of the stuff," Hector ordered. Bee nodded, put her arm around Michael, and headed for the door.
Hector and Shadow dragged Charley to the staircase. The body bounced across the floor as they dragged and pushed it into the blackness under the stairs. Halfway in it hit something. Hector grunted as he tried forcing it the rest of the way and Shadow reached in to see what was blocking it.
"Something's there," he said.
Hector reached in and pulled out a pair of hands tied with shoelaces. When they rolled it over, Toozey stared blankly back at them through a clear plastic bag tied over his head.
"Shiiit," Shadow said, tearing open the plastic covering.
"You never saw him," Hector said. "We're just gonna walk away. Forget it. We got a building to burn. What's inside ain't our business."
"The Juicer jobbed this burn to get rid of Toozey and Charley at the same time. We're doing the prick's dirty work."
"It's also a warning. One more body around here don't make much difference," Hector said, pushing the body back under the stairs. "If you got a problem with a guy like Juicer you better do whatever you're going to do fast," Hector said, and they rolled Charley's body into the darkness on top of Toozey.
"I ain't forgetting this shit," Shadow said.
A cold draft hit them as Bee and Michael came in the front door carrying piles of rags and sloshing cans of gasoline.
"Did he drive by again?" Hector asked.
"No," she said, piling the rags and cans near the door.
"Make sure we got enough of that shit left for under the stairs," Hector said.
Bee nodded and took Michael to the back of the building. Hector looked out through the crack in the door at the empty street. "Don't say anything to Bee about Toozey. Just concentrate on the job," he whispered.
"We better get the shopping cart in," Shadow replied.
"Yeah, and watch out for the tourist. He's dangerous."
* * *
Jason drove past the building for a third time. Stella could see pieces of the full moon floating between the alleys as they went by. She'd insisted on coming and was the one that had found the building with the number 4368 chalked across its front. There was also a lot of graffiti over the door in a rainbow of balloon letters that read,MOON CHILDREN '86.
"I'll park the car away from the building so it'll be out of the way," Jason told her.
"Just make sure I can see the door," she said.
He turned and parked across the street. They sat quietly staring at the building. On either side of it were empty lots. A stained yellow sofa lay overturned on the sidewalk with its stuffing ripped out.
"You got Eli's number?" Jason asked.
The sound of his voice startled her. She squeezed the cell in her lap. "I'll call him when you go inside," she said.
Jason looked across the street at the empty building and opened the car door. The interior light jumped on. "God damn it," he said in surprise.
He turned off the light and Stella took in a breath of the cold air. "You've still got twenty minutes," she said.
"I'm going in now," he said, reaching behind the front seat for the overnight bag.
"Don't forget the flashlight."
"I put it in the bag with the money," he said, starting across the street.
"Be careful," she said, watching him go.
* * *
Hector had been standing at the second floor window when the Beemer's interior light popped on. He watched Jason try to put it out before anyone noticed Stella in the car with him. All they could do now was finish the game. Slipping the stocking mask on he watched Jason cross the street with the satchel twenty minutes early.
The front door creaked open and Jason's flashlight roamed the walls, playing along the empty staircase. Hector watched the beam of light move up the stairs and he trailed after it. When they got to the third floor Shadow took over and Hector felt Bee's hand on his arm. "Where's the kid?" he asked.
"Next to me," she said.
Hector stood frozen until Jason's beam of light disappeared somewhere on the upper floors.
"Looks like he's headed for the roof," Hector said.
"Should we make our move?"
"Let's make sure he's gone first."
"I'll check out the fourth floor," Bee said, and disappeared into the darkness along the stairs.
"It'll all be over soon," Hector said.
"It's exciting," Michael whispered.
* * *
Stella's hand shook as she dialed the cell phone. "Eli?"
"Inside the building."
"What's going on?"
"I'm not sure," she said. The clock on the dashboard clicked midnight. She glanced over at the building but Jason was nowhere in sight.
"All he has to do is drop the goddamn money in a shopping cart and come out," Eli said.
"Something's wrong. I can feel it," she said, noticing a movement in the shadows along the front windows. She hung up, got out of the car and started cross the street. She could hear the phone ringing where she'd left it in the car.
* * *
Hector had picked the apartment because none of its back windows could be seen from the street. A thin wash of moonlight poured in from the two windows that faced the alley. He set the shopping cart in the middle of the room and slipped Jason's tennis trophy into the wired mesh. Its gold veneer gleamed in the dull moonlight.
Midnight passed. The Beemer hadn't moved. Hector took Michael to the back stairs to cover the alley. They kept each other in sight and used hand signals to report anything. Hector heard a scuffling sound and slipped back into the apartment to check it out.
"Jason?" Stella called. "Where are you?"
Hector squeezed himself against the wall and held his breath as she went by. When she saw the empty shopping cart she reached down and touched the trophy. "Michael?" she whispered. A sudden noise made her jump. She started for the door then stopped when she saw a light moving up the stairs. It went out and someone grabbed her arm and led her back into the apartment. "Did you lock the car?" Jason asked.
"Yes," she lied in a short, frightened breath. "You were gone for so long I thought--"
"I've been all over this goddamn building. There's not a soul in it."
"Michael said it'd be empty."
"You'd be amazed at what goes on in these buildings."
"I found the shopping cart," she said. "Right where he said it'd be. It even has your tennis trophy in it."
Jason saw it and ran back to check the hallway. "That cart wasn't there a few minutes ago," he said.
"Maybe you didn't see it."
"How the hell can you miss something like that? They've been here. They're here right now."
Stella stared across the room at him in the moonlight. "Put the bag in the shopping cart like he told you," she said.
"The smell's gotten stronger. Something's going on."
"Just leave the money and let's get out of here."
"When do we get Michael?"
"You've got to trust them, Jason."
"They're ripping me off for thousands with all the guarantees on their side. You want me to trust them?"
"Michael told you to go out the same way you came in."
"I just want to make sure everything's in order," he said, staring into the empty darkness.
* * *
The moon slipped out over the river, turning the shifting currents into a cold milky web. A shadowy blur moved through the building on The Heights, disappeared for a moment, than headed for the shopping cart.
"Where is he, you sonofabitch?" Jason hissed, clicking on his flashlight.
The figure lifted his arms to block the glaring light, and said, "You're supposed to leave the money and go."
"Michael...is that you?"
"Why do you keep changing what I told you?"
"Are you alone?" Jason asked, swinging the flashlight. "You're one smart kid," he said, unzipping the bag and taking out the stacks of money. "All that stuff on the phone threw me, but now I see what you're doing. We'll leave the empty bag. They won't know the difference," he said, cramming the packets of money into his pockets.
"Keep it," Hector's voice said from the darkness. "You need it more than we do. Take it and get out."
"I want my son."
"You earn that," Hector said, coming into the room.
"Michael...please don't," Stella's voice trembled.
Hector and Shadow came out of the darkness and put their arms around Michael. His whole body seemed to disappear into the smell of the gasoline on their clothes. Hector whispered something and they all disappeared into the darkness again. Stella looked over at Michael in a quick, frightened way.
"You have to go now," Michael said.
"Help me get this money back into the bag," Jason whispered from the shadows.
"There isn't time," Michael said, just before a flash of light bounced off the walls. A dull roar rushed up the stairs, smoke drifted into the room, and the popping sounds grew louder when the sudden heat poured out of the walls.
A piercing bark bit the smoky haze and echoed up the metal stairs. A mournful wail followed. Michael answered it with three sharp staccato barks. Then a sad look came into his eyes as he raised his head and let out a long, primal howl.
"My God," Stella mumbled, as the high-pitched sound of Michael's voice broke the darkness and ran through the burning building like the cry of a wild animal. Its lonely wail echoed down the halls, up the stairs, and faded into the barking below.
A trail of loose bills fell from Jason's pockets and Stella's fur coat caught fire and she beat at it with her hands. Michael opened a door and the night air rushed in like a cold tongue. The cry of sirens and a pale searchlight followed them. Long shadows racing over alley walls, stumbling on broken cement, and dodging through narrow alleys. When they got to the street Stella realized it had only been the moon chasing them. The car started and when she looked back for Michael he was gone. She listened to the yips and howls fade into the wail of oncoming fire engines, and then they were gone too.