by Sonny James Traylor
John Finnerty was sinking to the bottom of the ocean. He could see the light at the surface grow dimmer as the fathoms swallowed him. The face of God stared down through the water, and God’s lips were moving. It took a long time for the sound to get to him.
“…three …four …five,” the voice spoke. Eons passed between each number. The counting was horrible.
Then God sounded like a woman.
“Get up and fight you lazy, Irish bum!” she screamed.
That’s when Finnerty remembered he wasn’t in the ocean―he was in a boxing ring. More accurately, he was on the canvas in a boxing ring. Carl Steadman put him there with a savage right hook.
“You must have walked into that one, Johnny,” he said to himself. At first, his legs didn’t want to move, so he grabbed the ropes and pulled himself up with his arms. His knees didn’t buckle and he could see vague shapes through the blood that spilled into his eyes―shadows and blurs.
“Just keep punchin,‘” he thought as he charged back in with his chin tucked and his nostrils flared.
Johnny landed a solid jab and then another. He dug hard to the body and rocked Steadman with a vicious uppercut that dropped the big man to a knee. The standing eight count was in effect, and Steadman tried to shake the stars out of his head, but you could tell there was nothing behind his eyes anymore. Johnny came in for the kill, and Steadman tied up his arms. The referee broke the clench, and Johnny came right back with a hard left to the body and then leveled Steadman with a textbook right cross.
Anything seemed possible as he stood and watched the ref count the big man out. If he could stay away from the bars and string together a few more wins, maybe he could be a contender again. Maybe he could straighten up his whole act, and his wife and kids would come back to him. Anything seemed possible.
After the fight, the ringside doctor advised Johnny to go to the hospital for observation. The doc suspected he had suffered a concussion, but Johnny didn’t want to hear about it. That was his night, and he was right in the middle of Las Vegas. All he wanted was just one night out to celebrate, and, afterwards, he’d get back in the gym to take care of business.
Then it was dark. Johnny wondered if his head was in a vice. An image appeared out of the darkness. It was an empty bottle of gin. That image dissolved and another replaced it. This one was of a busty blond in a negligee. The images started to move faster through his mind. A pile of coke in a crystal dish, a busted hand of black jack, a canary yellow Corvette ruined in a ditch, a red head, a brunette, snake eyes staring up from the green felt, tequila slammers lined up on the bar, the ringside doctor, big Carl Steadman sprawled out on the canvas, an old man in a black suit. No other images came to him after the man in the black suit. That one just stuck in his head, wavering in and out of focus. Who is this guy? Then he remembered.
“Oh shit,” he said out loud.
“That’s the understatement of the year, Johnny,” a voice said from the other side of the darkness. Johnny opened his eyes. The old man in the black suit was sitting in a leather chair across from him. There were two big guys on either side of the old man.
“Mr. Adrianni, I don’t know what happened. I walked into the punch just like we talked about,” Johnny said.
“But you didn’t stay down just like we talked about, did you?” Adrianni asked.
“I forgot. I got knocked down and I forgot everything.”
“Let me refresh your memory, Johnny. You owed me one hundred and twelve thousand dollars. You couldn’t come up with the money, but I’m a reasonable man. A business man, Johnny.”
“Mr. Adrianni, if you just let me explain. . . ”
“Don’t talk, Johnny. We had an arrangement. I cancel the debt if you take the dive. Do you know how much money you cost me?”
“I can make it right. I swear on my mother’s grave I can make it right.”
“You already had your chance to make it right.”
“Mr. Adrianni, you’re a reasonable man. You said it yourself―you’re a business man. I can’t pay the hundred and twelve large if I’m in a hole in the ground.”
“That figure is somewhat outdated now,” Adrianni informed him. “There’s the additional loss of the wager I placed on Steadman. Then you have to consider that he was a two to one underdog, so there’s also the profit I never made that would have paid double. That’s a lot of money, Johnny. More than you’ll ever see in a life time. And what about the other bosses who were in on it? The Kansas City guys, and the Pittsburgh guys, and the New York guys were all in on this thing. I‘m gonna have to answer to them, Johnny.”
“Mr. Adrianni, I wasn’t thinkin’ right. That big son of a bitch almost took my head off my shoulders. I thought I was drowning, for Christ’s sake. Then all I remembered was I was in a boxing match. I just thought to get up and fight.”
“I believe you, I really do. But business is business. I can‘t change the way things are.”
That was it. John Finnerty was as good as dead.
“Are you gonna go peacefully, Johnny? Because if we have to, we’ll do this right here in the hotel and cut you up and carry you out in suitcases,” Adrianni said.
“I’ll go peacefully,” Johnny said.
The two big guys walked Johnny out through the back, and a black Cadillac pulled up immediately. It was night. They quickly bound his hands and feet with zip ties and duct taped his mouth.
One of the goons picked him up off of his feet and threw him in the trunk of the car like luggage. Darkness enveloped him and the sounds from the Vegas strip were reduced to whispers. The engine started, and the car began to move, and he could hear the tires hum on the pavement. Whenever the big Caddy stopped for a light, inertia would paw him forward and back again like a sadistic cat toying with a mouse. After a while the stops became less frequent until there were no stops at all―just the steady hum of the tires.
Johnny wondered if they had a hole dug for him out in the desert. Then he remembered a conversation he overheard between a couple of low level wise guys in a Brooklyn after-hours joint a few years earlier. They were both drunk, and they were chopping up big lines and snorting them right off the bar.
“You never want to bury anyone in the desert,” one of the wise guys lectured. “It’s too dry there. Preserves the body like a fuckin’ mummy. The best thing to do is to get in good with a guy who owns a funeral home. You just cremate the body and dump the ashes in Central Park.”
“And what if you don’t know someone who runs a funeral home?” the other one asked.
“Then it gets a whole lot messier. Burning is good, but you still have to crush up the big bones with a sledge hammer. And you have to remember to pull the teeth and dispose of those too.”
“What the fuck you gotta pull out his teeth for?”
“They can identify a body by the teeth, fuckhead.”
“Water works good, too,” the wiser of the two wise guys continued. “Deep lakes, or way out in the ocean is best. Weight that son of a bitch down real good, and the fishes will take care of the rest.”
“Yeah. They’ll eat that mother fucker’s eyes right out of his skull.”
Johnny tried not to think about it, but the thoughts rushed into his mind like cold sea water through a cracked hull. A broken marriage, twin boys with no father, and a promising boxing career squandered. He pissed it all away, and there was only Hell to look forward to.
A memory of his third grade teacher, Sister Mary, bubbled up to the surface. She was standing in front of the class, hunched over and frail, holding a yard stick with her claw hand. She called young Johnny up to the front of the class. He clutched a piece of paper in his right hand, trying to squeeze it out of existence.
“Open your hand,” Sister Mary said. Johnny opened his hand and she snatched the crumpled piece of paper with seemingly inhuman speed. She smoothed out the paper and took a moment to consider the image. It was a childish drawing of a naked woman with large circles for tits and a shaded-in triangle for a bush.
“Did you draw this picture, Mr. Finnerty?”
“Yes, Sister,” Johnny lied. Frank Terreta was the actual artist, but he was three years older and thirty pounds heavier than Johnny. It was better to keep Frank out of it.
“Drop your pants, Mr. Finnerty. Hands up against the chalkboard.”
Sister Mary doled out ten lashes with the yard stick. Her arm swung mechanically, indifferently like a metronome, and her eyes seemed not to see, as if they were dead. But there was something burning behind those eyes―something demonic, and the other boys in the class saw this and they were afraid to even snicker.
“Does it burn, Mr. Finnerty?” Sister Mary asked when the beating was over.
“Imagine your whole body burning like that. Imagine enduring that for all of eternity because, if you don’t start being a good boy, that is what Hell will feel like as your immortal soul burns in flames.” Johnny didn’t say anything. He was trembling.
“Pull your pants up, and go stand in the corner facing the wall. I don’t suppose you feel much like sitting anyway, do you Mr. Finnerty?”
Johnny left two sweaty palm prints on the chalkboard, and Sister Mary was careful not to disturb them as she wrote out the rest of the lesson’s long division problems.
In the dark trunk of the big Caddy, Johnny thought long and hard about Hell. Was it a real place? Was there really a guy with a pitchfork and horns? He thought he could feel the sting of the yard stick just like he had felt it twenty-some years earlier, except this time it was spreading down his legs and up his back. For a moment, Johnny really believed he was in Hell and flames were consuming him.
“You’re imaging this, Johnny,” he said to himself. “Maybe you took some bad acid, or maybe you took one too many punches to the head, but this isn’t real.”
After what seemed like a long time, the burning subsided. During the terrible hallucination, a layer of slime-sweat oozed out of his pores and coated his body. It smelled like cheap gin. All the sweating caused the duct tape to slip away from his mouth, and Johnny gulped in big breaths of air. He felt better then, like he could think.
The steady hum of the tires droned on and Johnny said to himself, “They’re not gonna serve you milk and cookies when we get to wherever it is we’re goin’, so you better think of somethin.’” And then it occurred to him that he had his gold plated Zippo in his back pocket. He fished for the lighter for a long time before he finally secured it between his thumb and index finger. It was awkward, but he was able to flip open the lid and strike the wheel mechanism that sparked the flint. Johnny couldn’t see what he was doing, and he smoldered flesh as well as plastic, and his thoughts returned to Hell. Finally, the zip tie burned free. He melted the tie that bound his ankles, and then he held the lighter up and searched around the confines of the trunk.
It didn’t take Johnny long to find what he was looking for. Tucked neatly away behind the spare was a hefty tire iron. He held it in his hands and it felt good, like it meant business. He lay on his back and clutched the tire iron close to his chest. He lay very still and waited. After an hour or so, the Caddy came to a stop and the engine shut off. Johnny listened as the gas tank drank up gallons of fuel. He guessed they were at a safe house rather than a regular gas station, maybe in somebody’s garage, or barn. A few minutes went by, and the engine was stoked back to life, and the steady hum of the tires filled his ears.
When the big Caddy finally stopped again, Johnny figured they had driven a total of six or seven hours on an open road. His math wasn’t good, but he knew that was a lot of miles. He could very well be in Utah, or California, or Arizona by now. The car started to move again, but there were several more stops and a series of turns, and Johnny knew it was almost time. Finally, the Caddy came to a halt and the engine shut off. He thought he could hear seagulls. The car shifted as the goons filed out, and the shocks sighed as if relieved to be free of their ponderous bulk. Johnny heard the key turn in the lock mechanism on the trunk, and he thrust his feet upward, kicking the lid open like a cork rocketing out of a champagne bottle on New Year’s Eve.
It caught one of the goons right under the chin, and the concussive force rattled his brain hard enough to knock him out before he even hit the ground. Johnny sprung out of the trunk like a rabid, life size jack-in-the box and caught another goon on the temple with the heavy end of the tire iron. He turned quickly and snapped a straight left jab into the driver’s nose, but the guy had already drawn his .38, and he emptied the cylinder as he fell backwards on his fat ass.
One of the rounds hit Johnny in the gut, and he crumpled to the ground. Getting gut-shot doesn’t happen the way it does in one of those Spaghetti Westerns. The lead turns your insides to ground chuck, and there’s no hopping on your horse and riding off into the sunset.
When Johnny came to, he was looking up into the bluest sky he’d ever seen. There were angels circling above him in that vast expanse, and he could hear them calling out to him in their strange and beautiful song, welcoming him into Heaven.
“I made it,” Johnny spoke in a whisper. “See, Sister Mary, I’m a good boy.”
“Fuckin’ guy is still alive,” one goon spoke through his bleeding mouth. He spit out a tooth and put it in his pocket.
“He’s a tough son of a bitch, that’s for sure,” the other one said. He had a handkerchief packed into one of his nostrils. “Come on, give me a hand with him.”
One goon grabbed him by the feet and the other got him by the hair. Johnny was wrapped in heavy chains and they strained to pick him up off the deck of the boat. They counted to three and heaved him over the rail. There was a splash, and Johnny saw that the angels were receding. He rolled gently, and then he was facing down into the dark fathoms―pressure building in his ears.
Johnny could make out something vague and sinister moving in the depths beneath him. The thing moved closer and he saw that it had a fishlike head that grew out of a human body―a mermaid in reverse. The body was naked, emaciated, and covered in barnacles.
Suddenly the thing closed in on him with tremendous speed and wrapped its bony arms and legs around Johnny with crushing force. The remaining air in his lungs escaped in a frenzy of bubbles.
The thing gazed at Johnny’s face the way a passionate lover might, and he saw into its eyes. They seemed almost dead, but there was something smoldering behind them―something primitive and evil. Something familiar.
The horrible fish head opened its mouth and a sustained, guttural tone resonated through the cold water. The sound began to vary in pitch before fragmenting into a series of strange syllables. Johnny realized it was trying to speak.
“I thought I told you to be a good boy, Mister Finnerty,” the thing hissed and gurgled. “I did my best for you, but you’re a bad boy. A very bad boy.”
SONNY JAMES TRAYLOR has recently appeared on The Drabblecast (episode 116), and in Robot Melon (ninth edition). He has also dabbled in journalism and poetry. Irvine Welsh and Charles Bukowski are his literary heroes. Louise Erdrich and Eric Hoffer are also major influences. He likes to ride motorcycles and write short stories in his spare time. When he needs money, he works as a longshoreman on the Lake Erie Port of Cleveland.