The Law Enforcer of Eagle Town
Standing up for what's right is never without risks.
burnt angels, soaring home
That day the sun was hiding behind the clouds like a wounded child, but it took me more than a few seconds to adjust my eyes to the dark interior of the store. First the flour sacks came into focus, then the glass candy cases, the shelves of baked beans in their silvery cans, the saddle bags, the harnesses and the flatboards against the far wall. He was sitting with two Papal agents, his cane chair creaking against the flatboards under all that weight. What I remember was a small card table between them, some papers laid out so they could all read whatever was printed. Then there was a bird, a small blue-beaked thing with thin wings and sad eyes, his stick-like foot chained to the table with a tiny lock. The creature would struggle, flap madly into the air, turning into a propeller swirl of feathers and squawks, then flop back down onto the card table, defeated, abandon freedom for a passing moment, then renew its frenzy with another mad flapping of wings. It flew up, clopped down, over and over.
I was twelve and was coming in from the station wagon with my father and sister that first time and he took us by surprise, otherwise we wouldn't have gone into the store that afternoon. His three hundred pounds fell in bags down the side of his seat, the cushion under him obliterated. His thin white shirt was folded under him; large pools of sweat were about his arms and gut, streamers of it coming down from under the yellow straw hat into the folds of his warty neck. His bug eyes turned toward my father, scanning his prey before the attack.
My father's hand went limp and cold as he held me about the neck, then withdrew and fell to his side, now powerless and obsolete. His hand remembered as well as he did that Shingle had invisible eyes that crept out into the night, over the onion fields and locust groves, probing into the bedroom windows and basement workshops. My father, who in his day had been a backyard wrestler, was a small mite in the presence of the law enforcer.
"Even'n, Yardley." The bug eyes were now locked, hypnotizing, suddenly darker around the rims as if a mist of evil had just descended over Shingle. His voice was laconic and level, emotionless without a hint of intention.
"Officer Shingle," my father said, the crack in his voice betraying fear. "I just came to get some paint for the cottage."
"I didn't ask what you were here for, Yardley. I just "Just one minute, Yardley." His damned bug eyes cut across the room to my father standing by the oak counter. "I got a couple of questions for you, you mind this time of afternoon?'
"Then pull up a handful of those nuts and let's have a conversation, you and me." He gestured toward the cane seat next to him. Hesitantly, my father took a bag of walnuts from Whinstanley's counter and slid over to the cane seat, sitting down with the slow measure of a man getting into his final electric chair. Shingle grinned and slapped my father's thigh. My father shuddered and then slumped, his head bowed more out of fright than respect, and his hands cupped before his belly.
Shingle let loose his word horde: "We got some trouble over in Harvestville again with a couple of Clays. You know them, no? Well, I was checking up in these here county courthouse records and it seems you bought some land off one of them. Not one of them but a Eustace Gamble who married a Clay a few months before you came to him with those bank notes, remember? Good, its good to see your memory improving, Yardley. So this Gamble went and spilled some of his liquor into the river trying to keep the snarks from getting it and by accident he took a tumble and cracked his skull on a log, rushed to a hospital, and made some weird death bed confession about a railroad in some of the basements around here. You know anything you ain't letting on, Yard?"
"Mr. Shingle, if I had a story line to tell I'd tell it right quick, you know that."
"Yeah, I know. We go back a ways, back to when you boxed in the Sand League and I was going to be your manager. But times change. I aim to keep to the letter of the law around here, and these folks from Cedar Crest Division want me to check out some of the basements around here. I suppose I can start with yours, now right?"
"You know a man named Brown?"
My father's silence betrayed his fear. It was as if a bullet had struck him in the knee and he was damned if he was going to let on about it. His eyes closed tight as if the lowering of the lids would help avoid detection.
"No need to answer," Shingle sighed. "I know you're scared of that man. He beat you in mud wrestling back in the Plains and when you whipped him back he swore to cut your throat and feed your apple to the hounds. Well, don't worry, we got him up at the Point and he's behind five rows of steel wasting away and he'll never come out to beat you or anybody. Caught him sneaking across the line with a trunk full of clowns from the coast. Oh, he talked all right--talked about what you and him were doing in the Plain and how you got that chain saw motor, remember?"
"Yes, sir." My father spoke from behind those trembling eyelids.
"So, let's take a look at that basement and we'll spin out to the Point to identify some faces. Sorry to ruin your little afternoon painting the cottage, but Yard, we got to get to the letter of the law. Stuff ain't right if the letter's tampered with, now."
"Yes, sir. I deserve it, sir."
"That's what I'd like to hear. There's strength in that, Yard. You know there is."
It took three men--the two Papal agents and Whinstanley--to move Shingle out of the cane seat he was stuck in. As he puffed and heaved, I paid mind to my sister who was terrified, her little knees shaking, her eyes tearing like someone had just died. I put my arms around her and she backed off, not wanting to be touched.
We all piled into Shingle's rambling brown sedan, the man stuffing himself behind the wheel with a fluid plop, and were soon cutting down the mill roads past the pump stations and the irrigation ditches, across the deserted lot behind our neighborhood, and the thin dirt path we had taken just an hour earlier to get to the store in the first place. Then, we emptied out in the front of the wooden screened porch where Mother sat in a large wicker chair. When she saw us emerge from the Shingle car, along with the fat man himself and two city folk she couldn't identify, she got up, her gingham dress falling shapeless about her, and withdrew into the house, slamming the door tight.
The car almost overturned with getting the Enforcer out and this time even my father helped, ironic since he was the one who was just about to lose everything to this man. I couldn't watch.
"Your woman got a nice welcome for folks," Shingle growled. "So open the hatch and let's have a look see."
The city folk went to the metal door over the stairs down and started to fumble with the lock. Mother came out like a raging fury and threw herself against the red rusted bar with her solid foot. "No," she said. "You open that door, my life is killed forever."
Shingle wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his fat hand. "Look, Lois, you ain't got a pot to piss in here. You think because you tell me to go away, I'm going to go away and forget it? It's over already. Just accept that, is all."
"I have children," she said.
"Yeah, and they're going to be just fine. But we got Yardley here who broke the letter of the law. We don't tolerate the breaking of the letter. It says even in the scriptures to change not a letter one jot, or something like that, is all. See, I'm the Enforcer and I have to come when a rule's been bent or something's been spelled out wrong."
"You're just an evil man!" she hissed. "With rotting meat in your belly and a head full of fat lies!"
Shingle lowered his lids for a pause with a sort of lost boy sadness, then came up again with an angry fist that hit my mother across the mouth. She fell to the side like a collapsing house of cards. "Open it," he said to the city folk while Mother pounded the ground with the force of impotent rage.
The city folk cracked the bar with some special instrument they kept hidden behind their bodies, but it came apart as if it were tissue paper, the bar falling to the side and clattering on the path. They went down into the hole and there was a tense moment while flickering light danced against the sides of the descent.
"What you got?" Shingle said, lifting a large leg onto the concrete step leading to the stairs.
"Yep, A.J." came a nasal voice. "We got a stash."
My father heard the voices from down in his workshop and leaned against the picket post, faint and pale, beads of sweat dripping onto his flannel collar. "Jesus in Heaven," he said. "Lois, this is the end."
The snarks removed fourteen clown suits from the basement and six boxes of orange pom-poms, all of which were faded and obviously well worn. Some of the polka dotted pants were grease stained and worn through with many holes, patched together sloppy and veined with stitching from various rips and tears. Shingle cornered my father against the slats of the house and held a pom-pom to his nose like he was trying to stuff it.
"You know where the shit inside these clothes went?"
"I ain't saying," my father said, summoning a bit of courage that had been absent for the past hour of his ordeal.
"You got a railroad, Yard boy. You don't have no bargaining power is how I see it. Now I want this thing: why you keep the threads after the shits were gone? You walking around the house in your Bozo nose? You want to be a shit clown chromo just like them?"
My father maintained a stoic silence.
"How many you running for? You paint their faces and fix them up in dungarees? You can't do that around here, Mister! You know that from back in the Point! I just don't believe you'd be so stupid to let all this stuff get moldy down there, guy. The real slick operators burn the stuff in trash cans and bury the ashes deep in Rahoon and the Winneskeag. Tell me, Yardley, how many you running for?"
"I didn't have no railroad, Shingle."
"You like to dress up then? You put these buttons on and make your little kids laugh?"
My sister who was crying and pulling at her red ponytails, now spat out, "Leave daddy alone!"
The fat man turned his predatory eyes toward the freckled girl who receded from him as if she were staring into the face of an evil spirit that arose from the darkness of her bathroom mirror. The muscles of her face, already tense, withdrew into a rictus of terror.
To my dying day, I will not forgive that fat shit for doing that to her. He didn't have to. He could have ignored her and gone about his damned business with my father. But he turned to her and forged into her mind some image that will make her not well for the rest of her life--an act that could have been avoided so easily. But he did it just to spite, just to spread a bit of his evil about, because he was the man with the badge, sanctioned by the state, capable of anything including murder, a man who has beaten children until they bled, who has broken up more families than death itself. He turned to her with red furious anger in his demon-haunted face and said with a snarl:
"Your daddy, little girl, is about to get the Point!"
And that's all I have to say about that day. The rest I don't care to remember.
on this parched earth, in flesh
The month after my father was taken, we had a locust sweep over the fields and most of the farmers were out with their guns firing the poison pellets into the air and running in relays back to the gas pumps. Old Man Snaggle had a rusty old flamethrower he used over the empty lots and got many of them single-handedly, but at the last moment his fuel pump backfired and he got a face full of fire. His hair was burned right off and his eyebrows melted till he looked like a shaven cancerous egg. He sat in his bed and stared at the walls until he died from fever two weeks later. Old Man Snaggle is considered a bit of hero around here because of how he went out and gave his life to fight the locusts.
The crops were tainted with residue and the farmers got scared. The next winter a fever killed most of the animals and we were trying to make do but there was no manure left in reserve. Collections were taken up to order the pesticides through a mail-order catalog.
And we, the Yardleys, just gave up. Father was gone. Our land went to rot, our shed collapsed, we sold our cows in town. There was nothing left for us.
in the basements, buried dreams
Like fools rushing madly in paradise, we took in one more clown, a dirty little fellow who showed up one night in a rainstorm breathing asthmatically and coughing blood from his thick red lips. We carried him half-dead and bleeding to the upstairs guest room and laid him out on the floor over a large tarp that stained quickly with his drippings. In his dirty white glove we found a card with our father's code name on it. This was how the Chromo found us, a tiny strip of paper thrust into his spastic hand by some sympathetic ear with a frightened but kind heart who decided to take the mentally deranged creature, so pitiful and loveless, and drop into his fingers a tiny bit of hope. The Chromo had followed, God knows how, and was now safe in our house.
Mom was cautious. "I think he has a fever and something broke up in there. Look, the blood has these white flakes in it like his throat was coming apart in bits."
The clown gasped and opened his dropping eyes. "You folks don't need no Klappo to worry about. Just put him outside in the dog pit and let him go to sleep."
"Nonsense," Mom said maternally, wiping more blood from around his mouth. "We ain't going to let some living thing die like this. And if you have to go it's going to be in a decent folks' home, not in a pile of dung in the road."
"But zooks, if you ain't kind to Klappo!"
He stayed with us a few days, shivering on a straw pallet in the basement, until the bleeding stopped and his eyesight was restored; then we sent him on his way. We stood at the edge of the wood and watched his slow haunted form slink into the mysterious depths of the trees. In his pantaloons he had a series of coded instructions to the next safe house in Plainsfield. This time, we were careful to fully burn the clothes to ash and then to scatter the ashes in a nearby cornfield. I accomplished this by filling my pockets with the soot and then strolling through the weeds with streamers pouring down my leg from a carefully placed hole in one pocket.
Just as I was heading home, I found Jack Webster, the retarded son of an iron worker, rummaging through some garbage by the landfill. Under the gray sky he looked sick, his slack mouth was thick with drool. His eyes buzzed around a bit but he found me walking through the weeds, my hands pushed hard into my pockets.
"Your daddy was a clown lover!" he screamed, spewing tracers of spittle. "A clown lover and he liked to put his thing in a jar of bugs!"
I caught fire, angry at the misfortune my father's operation had suffered: losing his partners, having his home invaded and being thrown into a Papal jail, his family humiliated. Years later, when I was traveling up north near the Point, working on my history books, I worked hard to convince myself that my father was good, and although he broke the laws he was justified in the eyes of the Lord for what he did. But back in those Eagle Town days, I knew only red anger at having suffered. I wanted my father home again, sitting by the fire and talking with Judge Leaton or the anarchist Frencke, fixing trap doors in the basement and painting the wooden shingles on the roof of the cottage. Thinking all these scenes and how distant they were, I stood on the edge of that mountainous landfill, facing that drooling idiot son of Kent Webster and felt blood-red anger.
I pulled my fists out of my pockets, noticing in the chaos of the moment that the knuckles were stained deep in the ash, and dove for his sweaty white neck. I remember a creepy face, pushing its squat nose toward me, mucous dripping onto the upper lip, and those cracked teeth yellow stained gnashing up and down. What I can't remember is the knife wheeling up in an arc and catching me in the left nostril, ripping out a piece of nose. I pushed my palms into my spurting wound and held them there, listening to my own screams.
"Stop saying those filthy things!" I cried. "I'm a good boy raised by a good daddy. Take those things back!"
In my mind, I pummeled Jack Webster several times in the stomach with one fist, knocking him flat. He fell unconscious and spitting blood from lips. His skin was pale white, the lips darkening to a thick red and the nose glowing with that hideous malformation of the Chromos in the basement. But, of course, I never laid a finger on the retard, it was all a fantasy caused by the stinging pain being driven straight into my skull. For a moment, before I lost it all, I saw a grinning clown skull with a party hat and tasted the grimy texture of leather in my mouth, the sides of my face smothered in the cascading folds of fat slithering down the edges of a bar stool.
"Ha!" Billy shouted. "Now you got a red nose! Just like them!" and his leather boots fled across the crunching landfill and rotting dog bones. He danced at a distance, a dark shadow against the fading light, then came back laughing. He took out these three little bamboo shoots that were tied together and started pressing it to his lips, coming out with these strangely musical passages that spoke of something beyond reason. It actually lulled me, despite my pain.
I lay on the garbage heap, a piece of my nose flapping to the side like the door to some forgotten basement that wouldn't shut. Billy Webster stood by all that time playing dreamily on that crazy wooden flute, piping to the mountains of garbage. When I realized the full force of what had happened to me, I asked him politely, "Don't your daddy want you home or something?"
"No, he's all right alone. Ever since Mom died he just sits there, goes to work, comes home, sits there. He ain't no clown lover like your daddy!"
He held up the blade, stained a dull red with my blood. "I got to cut you one if you touch me. I already cut your nose something gruesome. Now you're red, like them."
"All right," I said, lifting my weakened head to the air above. "You win this round. What do you know about my daddy?"
The retard smiled and jumped up and down, his knife and flute clutched in the same tight fist. "He had those clown women and he went to them like Mom and Daddy used to do after taking dickweed!"
"Where, when? What are you talking about?"
"That guy who used to pick his head, what was it? The guy, the one who, he came down with those trucks and gave your daddy a hard rap about--the guy who used to make those movies with the clowns--what's his name?"
"I'm tired of this. I'm going home to stanch my nose."
I got only a few yards before he called out to me, a thick slobbering voice lost in its wetness and knotted tongue. "I seen them, those clown bitches sucking on the roots, getting all light headed."
He fell to his knees and scrawled ciphers in the dirt, little squiggles and worms, trying to explain something, some design from out of the recesses of his damaged mind. Spittle fell from his lips onto his sketches, obliterating some of the details, but his wet dirt encrusted fingers would retrace the lines exactly as they had been, obsessive and definite.
"Say Jack," I said loud over the garbage piles. "What you doing?"
He giggled, kicked the dirt out with his heels, wiping out all traces of his work, and then skipped down the path toward the cyclone fencing, wrapping around the landfill mountain and disappearing into the brambles and cedar trees of Old Mill Road.
I put a soothing palm to my wounded nose, placing the flap back as carefully as pulling up my pants in public. Off in the distance, the low moans of the foghorn blasted from the factory gates, the evening signal for the workers.
My mind was on fire with thoughts about my father: what exactly had he been involved with? Who were the men in blue suits who came to take away the sick and dying clowns from the basement? Who were those men that Shingle had talked about and why had my father been so terrified by the name Brown?
The back of my skull knew the answers, saw faces and smelled liquor on the breath of strangers peering through holes in wooden planks. When I was just an infant, there were comings and goings, men in blue, well-tailored folk with just a hint of red lipstick and white puffs around the eyes, straw hair dyed a deep purple but carefully combed and tucked under wide-brimmed hats. They carried suitcases which were never opened, and smoked a thick root that I haven't seen since childhood. Father seemed afraid of them, but he never failed to look them in the eyes. These men were not friendly, but they were in alliance.
That night there was a meteor shower and my mother nursed my nose on the porch so we could watch the tracers of light cutting lines through the sky. Sarah was fixing her little tails and she poked a finger at the stars over and over saying, "I wanna go there... and I wanna go there... and there... and there... and I wanna go there."
There was a deep sadness on that porch, three lonely people in wicker chairs staring at the dome of the sky. It had been made very clear, all too clear, that we would not get to see daddy again until his release, a date that was never revealed to us but promised ("within a reasonable time for such an offense," was the official wording that came in the mail). But even if that reasonable time ever came and my father's body came walking, somehow, up that garden path, it really wouldn't be father anymore. There would be no more father inside those hollow eyes. The Point was known to do that to a man, remove him from himself until there was nothing left.
We were now alone with our memories and unanswered questions.
across the troubled worlds
Six years later, I saw A.J. Shingle again. He had just unleashed a wave of terror against Eagle Town, the worst since the wars, spreading his thick but long fingers throughout the townships, along the dirt roads, into the basements, along the cellar pits, down the chimneys, into people's private spaces and minds, through the hatches, and blowing lids off with the fury of tornadoes. The man rolled down Highway 31 in his convertible, stuffed behind the wheel with a huge cigar stuck in his flabby face. The tip glowed red and announced his coming like a homing beacon crying to the night sea. Seventeen special agents drove in fifteen shiny government sedans, a bizarre funeral procession jumping the gun and arriving before the death of the soon-to-be-deceased.
By that time, I was acquainted with Charlie Papp, the kid from the other side of the Mill who came down in to the fields to play by the railroad yards. Charlie's family was better off than most in Eagle Town, well employed by the government for managing the import of rare foodstuffs like onions and yams. Old Man Papp used a home computer, the only one in the township, and communicated with the administration over a long thick cable that sprouted from the top of the white slated Papp home and snaked along the otherwise empty telephone poles down the interstate, off into the dusty distance.
Charlie was white handed and didn't know the first thing about digging for roots, but he learned quick in the fields by the landfill. He even helped me get revenge on Jack Webster one autumn when we stuffed toads down the retard's pants and watched him hop off down the path screaming that his thing was being eaten. I felt I was giving Charlie an education in self-defense he had missed living in his insulated government regulation house.
When Shingle blew down the interstate, Charlie and I were digging up roots by the underpass, our hands firm in the dirt. But we went running when the siren blasted and the cars went over the rickety wooden bridge dividing the steel mill from the fields. A lazy seagull, in fifty miles from the coast, careened and glided over the train of vehicles, the animal familiar guide to weird caravans, and came to rest on the bridge's head post, a knotted black eye screaming the scene.
"Shingle," I muttered to Charlie.
We ditched the tuber baskets and fled, pounding the dirt by the bridge and heading down the road into town. I had tears in my eyes and started to feel that tense knot in my throat reserved for moments of terror, visions of nightmarish creatures with large predatory fangs. I reached down and held Charlie by the neck, stopping him and pulling him by the side stone marker, a granite block with a single white arrow pointing toward Eagle Town.
"We'd better stay here. When I was your age, my father walked right into the room with that man and I ain't seen him since that day."
He looked up at me with sad drooping eyes. "I hate him," he said.
His words cut through me. They were lacking hope, trailing into thin whispered left unrecognized. They reminded me of Sarah's pathetic attempt to drive fat Shingle off our father.
"Don't worry, Charlie," I said. "It's like a raid, checking the basements for clowns. The railroad, like my daddy was doing. They'll do it and we'll stay here. When their cars came back over that bridge, we'll go help the others, okay? I promise, Charlie. I won't let him near you."
Charlie nuzzled his head into my hips and clung to my thighs. He cried and then sat down on the granite block.
But Shingle and his men never came back over the bridge. The raid went on well into the night and from our embankment we could see the lines of white robed citizens being marched off down the road.
Charlie was shaking. "I don't like this." Red-veined fear was popping in his eyes.
I put my arm around him and held tight while sounds of people wailing came drifting over the embankment and highway underpasses, echoing the lamentations of my people through the tunnels of Eagle Town.
"Let's go in--they may need some help." I pulled him along and felt his shoulder struggling. He didn't want to go, but I forced him, pulling his little body by the arms, locking my hands under his armpits. We moved down the highway until we got to Old Mill Road and then turned into the center of town, which was strangely deserted, just a few abandoned cars sweltering in the night heat.
"They all gone, Ben," Charlie was running from store to store looking in through the windows. "He done something bad to them."
Just then a bright spotlight flashed through the night, came down on us squarely as we stood in the clearing. It was burning like the landing lights of some air ship coming down from the clouds.
"Duck, Charlie!" I pushed him to the ground and buried his head beneath my chest and entwined arms. Riddles of bullets coughed up the dust about us, little firecrackers in a mad dance about our crumpled limbs.
A loud voice announced over a P.A. system, "Just keep still and lay there 'til we can come in and get you!"
I lifted up my head, keeping Charlie crushed against my chest and saw, through the dust, the huge shape of Aronius Jay Shingle, Law Enforcer of Eagle County, moving slowly toward us. My heart sank and I felt something lift from my body. It no longer mattered whether I fought or died, or dissolved into the dust. My only concern was for Charlie's safety, so I hurled myself from the ground and dove head on right into the wall of flesh, ramming straight into that stretched white suit with the vest and watch fob.
"Run Charlie! Run!" And Charlie ran, straight off into the night, the crack of insects in the air about him, his screams piercing the blackness. Little kid screams, more horrifying than anything an adult could make.
Huge arms seized me and I felt a brute strength I would have put past Shingle. His grip was viselike and I could barely move, Within seconds I was inert, weeping, muttering my father's name.
"God damn you Yardleys!" came his gruff and disgusting voice. "I never seen such a determined strain."
And I knew what he meant. He saw most of the human race as a virus that proliferated whether they were helpful or harmful to the propagation of the race as a whole. His contempt for humanity was appalling, and caused him to commit heinous acts, atrocities without limits.
He chuckled and turned his angry hold on me into a warm, almost paternal comfort. "You go about your business, Benjamin Yardley. I already wrecked you, right? That's the way I see it. No use belaboring the point, is there?" One hand reached up for his still smoking cigar.
So that was it. The spotlight, the spattering of bullets. He was playing with us, like he played with my sister eight years back. He could have let us go, chuckling at two frightened boys scampering across a town square, but he was determined to dig as many wounds into our memory as he could, chuckling as he spattered bullets and then reached for his megaphone. He was an unopposed wall of irrational power who came to crush families and land with indiscriminate force. And now he was offering to let me go, his mission accomplished.
As I shivered in his arms I allowed myself one moment of imaging he was my father. I dug my chin into his belly and tried to feel warm love. It was fleeting, barely there, more in my imagination than in flesh, and hardly sufficient to satisfy my enormous craving. But it was all I had. For one tiny second, I thought I could almost see his tender face calling across the lonely years, telling that he loved me. Then I let myself go and took off into the night, running faster than time could follow.
Richard Behrens (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a fiction writer and a native New Yorker posing as a computer programmer and Web site developer. Over the last ten years his short stories, poems and essays have appeared in literary magazines, including Chakra, Blue Light Red Light, Bogus Books, Artitude, Cinemaphobia, Forbidden Lines and Web-based magazines including Planet Magazine and Dark Planet. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Sandrea and son Kristopher.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 Richard Behrens.