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Stray

(Author's note: Here it is—the story that got me into the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop back in 1990, which in turn started my writing career. Stray has a lot of issues inherent to many young writers—pacing, word selection, too many adjectives/adverbs (and a horrible sense of forecasting the future—Detroit as a communist-run city?!?)  to name a few. But I think it’s worth reading, especially to those who are starting their own writing journey, to see where I came from compared to where I’m at today. So without further ramblings, I present to you another free story of the month. Enjoy!)

 

The early morning air smelled of smoldering ozone and rotting garbage as Danny Pomerez drove his battered 2014 Hyundai Centurion through refuse- laden streets on the westside of Detroit. His hard-edged high of norepy poppers had worn off, courtesy of five double shots of Jack Daniels.

All in all, a pretty profitable way to spend a homecoming, Danny thought, pulling the car to a stop under the one unbroken streetlight on the block, conveniently located in front of his bedroom flat. He rolled down the window, lit his last hand- rolled Cuban cigar, savored it's rich taste and watched the thick blue smoke pirouette into the murky sky.

He chuckled, remembered the look on Johnboy's face earlier in the evening. The plasticine docs in Managua had done a decent job giving Danny a new face, but his eyes still shone with their deep blue hue, still glowed in their hungry power.   

Johnboy had remembered that.

Danny walked to the front door, almost forgetting to check the tiny piece of tape in the corner. You’re getting sloppy, old man. Get away from the front and it all goes to hell. Seeing the tape still intact, Danny quickly unlocked the 3 heavy deadbolts and entered his temporary abode.

Very temporary, for although he had secured the house for 6 months, he would be out by the end of the week. A small price to pay, he reminded himself, for the rewards Johnboy promised.

Guaranteed. For only a half-percent cut.

Danny locked the door, then walked through his the living room furnished with a couch, chair, and end table, into a short hallway which lead into his bedroom, kicking aside empty cans of insect fogger. The hollow pop of dead roaches echoing under his heavy leather boots reminded him of popcorn in a hot-oiled skillet.

Throwing his sweat-stained shirt upon a perfectly made bed (some habits from the army are so hard to break), Danny gazed at the mirror which hung on his door. What reflected back was an image of a lean, muscular 1.9 meter-tall body chiseled in hard curves of a 21st century predator. He ran one hand through his tousled thick brown hair, tracing a faint scar from his right temple down past his earlobe; blackmarket medics could do the job but sometimes weren't real picky in the end. No problem though, he'd finish his deal in Detroit then head to Havana and get all nice and prettied up.

An almost intangible perception invaded his consciousness before a feral musky odor wafted through the redolent haze of the roach bombs. Something very incongruous, wrong, lifted the hairs on the back of his neck into tiny steel pins, subliminal waves of alarm racing down his spine.

There was something in his living room.

In a single sweeping motion he dropped to one knee, tearing up a loose piece of musty carpeting at the foot of his bed and threw aside two floorboards which concealed his weapon. As he brought his gun out, the laser sight on the .41 magnum automatic machine pistol clicked on, its red beam arcing across the empty bedroom wall.

Danny rolled quietly on his stomach into the hallway, then cautiously stood up and moved slowly into the living rroom. His first glance across the room missed the dog, its hunched shape blending innocuously into the drab interior of the house.

It was the growl that gave it away. A low-throated guttural sound, flanks of the animal rolling with hard muscle, face graying, lips slightly curled back revealing sun-bleached canines. A fucking dog, a damned fucking dog.

It was a half-meter in height, 40 kilograms in weight, covered in brown and grey hair, looking like a mix of Husky and Shepard and maybe a splash of lab. The dog looked at Danny with piercing blue eyes then slowly laid down.

Danny felt unreal, almost as if he was in a dream, like a thick syrup causing his synapses to fire in slow motion. The insanity of a dog in his house, the total absurdity of the situation caused swells of laughter to build in Danny's chest. Now let's see here, it's 3 A.M. and I'm standing here with my trusty little .41 magnum  and one of man's best friends has just happened to materialize in the corner of my living room. Ain’t that a kicker!

He stopped, forced himself to focus on the hard reality of the situation. He wasn't dreaming or hallucinating; there had to be some rational explanation. Maybe he came in when I opened the door or maybe he was in here yesterday before I got here but damn I should have heard it or at least smelled the thing or-

"Or maybe it doesn't matter," he whispered to himself, using his own voice to grab onto reality. “It’s just a fucking dog.” The dog got in somehow, some way; the facts said it was here and that was unchanging. All that needed to be done was to assess the situation and take appropriate measures.

Focusing the rarefied sighter-beam on the dogs' right shoulder, Danny considered sending a bullet to end its life. Of course Detroit's finest might just be doing one of their rare nocturnal rounds, and a gunshot just might get their lazy asses out to assess the situation. Danny Dropped the gun to his side and leaned against the wall, he watching the dog until it closed its eyes and began to sleep.

"Stay if you want," he said toward the animal before shutting off the lights. He had no worries about any diseases the animal might be carrying, although strays were now routinely shot on sight due to vicious new strains of plague and distemper. The Army had made sure its front line boys were 100% bug-proof, inside and out.

Danny secured his bedroom door before he lay down, placing the magnum within easy reach on the nightstand beside his bed. No reason to take any chances, I'm too damn close now. Just too damn close.

It was a long time before he drifted off into a shallow, dreamless sleep.

Morning quietly turned into afternoon before Danny was awakened by a flurry of hard knocks on the front door. His gun was in motion before Johnboy's  high-pitched nasal yell cut thru Danny's clouded brain: "C'mon Pennrunner, open the damn door!"

Pennrunner. Not too many people called him that anymore. In fact, no one. Save for Johnboy.

Danny got up, trying to shake off the chemical residues of the night. Just like Paradise . Roaches and Johnboy and me with one helluva hangover.

Danny had meet Johnboy at Paradise I, a sprawling Army camp just outside the battered remains of Cancun in the Mexican Yucatan peninsula. Danny was still the best in the body-armor platoon. At 10 million taxpayer dollar's a pop, each soldier in the platoon was a magnified version of the 4 horsemen.

Overlying a titanium mesh exoskeleton was two centimeters of Keevar-7 body armor. Weaponry, including two forearm-mounted 10 mm automatic recoilless cannons processed thru a 50Mhz macro-processor and guided with full Hel-neon all-weather optics. Pound for pound, the Army touted the body armor soldiers as the "finest killing machines money can buy."

For once, the army was right.

Yet even the most formidable machines break down; they needed mechanics and technicians to keep them alive so they could keep killing. People like Johnboy were the body-armors suckerfish, keeping clean the sleek deadly sharks.

Rapid knocking again on the door brought Danny back from his memories in Mexico to his squalid Detroit surroundings. His bloodshot eyes winced against the bright slivers of light which worked their way through jagged cracks in the rusted steel-louvers covering the windows. Light which illuminated a dog lying in the corner, it's eyes watching Danny with an unyielding gaze.

He stopped in mid-stride,  headache building quickly to a throbbing crescendo. "Damnit," he swore under his breath. "Damnit to hell."

For one instant, one hopeful quanta of time, he imagined the dog was dead, but then a slight rustling of fur, a blink of tired eyes destroyed Danny’s hope. Yet with the realization that the dog was still there came another thought, a strength, a clarity of mind: I can kill it now. I can. Maybe , yeah maybe just pick up a chair an' spill it's brain onto the ragged carpet.  He stood perfectly still, letting the thought hold in his mind as his gaze and the dogs became almost a contest, neither blinking, neither moving.

He watched as the dog breathed, as its muscled chest rose slowly, in and out, in rhythm with his own.

He watched.

Waited a little bit more.

And then the moment passed. "C'mon Danny, open up the fucking door!"

Johnboy quickly scampered in as Danny acquiesced to his friend’s demands. Smells of cheap perfume and pot  hung in a grey cloud over Johnboy's tall gaunt form, his deep brown eyes darting around the surroundings. "Man, this is a pit.”

Same ol' Johnboy, Danny walked to the stove to make some coffee. Same greasy long black hair, same sunk-in face, acting as if the whole damn world was out to get 'em.

In Paradise, Johnboy was afraid of everything; of snakes, of bugs, of Cubans. And he had introduced Danny to Maria.

Even after 3 years her finely chiseled dark face, her flowing black hair, her sensuous pouting lips,  the undefinable things which makes a woman something special to a man, all still tugged on Danny's soul. He had met her in a wretched camp lining the perimeters of Paradise, filled with women trying to wretch a living out of a hell.

She had been working as a prostitute for one month and was leaving in another, earning money for her 12 member family to buy needed medical supplies for the crazy strains of bacteria which had arisen in the defoliant-soaked jungles of the area. Danny was young, arrogant in his armor, and after two weeks, totally in love.

He had set her up in a small house a few klicks away, promising to keep the medical supplies flowing to her family. "Pennrunner" was his new identity, dealing with the thriving black market the multinational pharmaceuticals had set up to keep their markets plump. But Danny was good at their duplicitous games, playing the field to the hilt and keeping Maria away from the camps.

Three months before he was due for discharge, his platoon was sent on a 3-week mission 50 klicks away to dislodge some stubborn insurgents. Maria was returning to her village wearing a small but real diamond ring and Danny's word of honor to spend his last months after the mission with her and her family.

After the mission turned from three weeks to six, Danny was crazy with fear and love. Bribing a 'Huey pilot to fly him straight to Maria’s village, he passed over the desert-like area twice before his heart collapsed like a dying star. Scars of Thermite and Napalm cut an angry path through the surrounding green, a silent scream of Gaia the only reminders of Maria. He searched the surrounding camps in vain for any hope, any chance she was still alive.

He found her father and brother in an Army mobile ICU near the Xanutan ruins, Maria already a 2-byte memory in the casualty count.

"Hey, looks like there's two strays here now" Johnboy nervously laughed as he pointed at the dog. "Where'd you get him?"

"The Russian’s sent him over from Windsor as a spy. When do I get to meet Fatman?"

Johnboy timidly took a cup of coffee offered from Danny before sitting back into the folds of the sofa. "What's the big hurry? Seeing as how we didn't get to do much talking last night with all those beautiful women shakin' in our faces at the “Bare Essence", I figured we'd get some catching up on old times. Hey, you hear the Army has brought out new armor, got a 48 parallel processed automatic firing system wired with indirect cerebral hookups to some nasty .35 caliber-"

"I don't walk to talk about old times and I don't give a shit about Uncle Sam’s new killing toys." Danny's stainless-steel tone stopped Johnboy in mid-sentence. "I want to meet Fatman and sell some dope and head my ass to Havana and that's it."

"Havana? Man, why ya wanna go there?" Johnboy asked incredulously. "Hell, you might as well go back to Paradise, just as many bugs and snakes and heat and all that other nasty shit."

Danny had the maddening urge to grab Johnbody by the skinny shoulders, jam his head through the rusted steel drapes and scream Can't you see it you idiot, can't you taste it, the defeat, the death, the rot of this city, this whole fucking country? I'm sick of it man, tired of the whole damn shooting match. Just plain exhausted!

Instead he looked into the dirty wall and blew into his coffee. "For the chicks, man. The women."

"Oh yeah, I hear you there, those bitches are supposed to be fantastic!"

"Right." God, he was tired. "Listen man, can we talk business now?"

"Sure thing, Dan. The meet is all set for tonight at the New Center Circus, and in fact your's truly is gonna be the main attraction in the arena. Hey, maybe you could bring your dog and we could..."

"Not this time, John." Danny wanted him to leave. Too many memories oozed from his mere presence, too many pasts long since dead.

After Maria's death Danny had gone mercenary, killing for money, killing to forget. Johnboy had warned him (at the hefty price of my pharmaceutical connections)  that the government had put a small fortune in NewAmerican gold dollars on his head. A quick tour at a plasticine shop, new cards and then a 6 month layover in a squalid colonia  outside El Paso kept him alive for reasons even now he did not understand.

And now back to Detroit.

Home.

"Well maybe next time eh?" Johnboy got up from the couch. "Listen man, don't worry 'bout nuthin. I got all the bases covered for you, just tell one of the fetch-boys that Pennrunner wants to see Fatman." As he opened the door, he turned and stuck out his hand. "It's really good to see you, hope we can get together a time or two before you head down. Hell, who knows, maybe I'll even decide to tag along."

Danny stood up and half-heartedly shook Johnboy’s hand, looking for the first times into his friend’s eyes and seeing an mirror of emptiness.

"We'll do that man," Danny lied. “After your performance tonight.”

He almost could see the pleading in Johnboy's eyes, a lowering of his macho veil for an instant to reveal a 10 year old boy who was never invited to any parties, who was always picked last for the neighborhood baseball team. "Sure, right after I'm done in the arena,"  he said, the false cockiness in his voice automatically covering any hint of weakness. "Stay cool, Pennrunner."

"You too, man." Danny felt a wave of pity for Johnboy then angrily brushed it aside as he re-bolted the door.  "Maybe I should take you tonight to the games," he said to the dog, now up and watching Johnboy through the window cracks, "see if you got what it takes to be a star." The dog ignored him and continued to look outside.

Danny leaned against the wall, finally feeling that it was all coming together. Snapping open a tiny plastic ball from his pocket and deeply inhaling,  he let the sweet cool rush of the norendorph popper instantly fill his body with ease and serenity.

"Yes my ugly friend," he said again to the dog, "another 2 days and I can kiss you and this city goodbye forever." Oh yeah, those poppers sure do help erase those nasty hard edges!  He slowly and carefully walked over to the dog, again lying down, his head held sphinx-like toward Danny. "Not in the mood for a conversation then I take it." The dog lowered his head and closed its eyes.

And what would ya do if the damn thing did talk to ya?  Danny walked to the kitchen to mix himself a pack of generic instant breakfast in some half-sour milk. Talking to a dog in a city you swore you'd never set foot in again doesn't bid well for your mental stability  "but who needs it when you're rich which I soon will be?" he said aloud, trying to convince the dog and himself of his convictions.

* * *

The sun was a dull orange ball hanging low in a gritty sky when Danny finished placing the last of the small shinny vials into the inner folds of his jacket. My tickets to the land of plenty, a sweet 100K of the finest  high north of San Antonio. The shoulder strap strained under the weight of the .41 magnum; Danny methodically adjusted the gun for quick removal.

Lying in the corner, the dog watched as Danny opened the door, the thick city air rolling into the room in stagnant waves.

"C'mon boy, lets go for a nice little walk," Danny said mockingly. To his amazement, the dog stood up and slowly moved toward him.

A ball of panic grew in Danny's throat as the animal moved past him, it's lean hard body brushing tight up against his own. The dog looked up and for a second, Danny thought the dog was going to stop, to pin him against the door.

Instead the dog looked up once again, yawned twice, then moved out into the streets.

Good riddance. Danny watched the dog disappear into the early evening. He pulled a endorph popper from his jacket, considered it, then pushed the vial back in his front pocket. Too damn easy to get caught up in that merry-go-round, and besides, he wanted to be up for tonight, not laid back. Tonight was the night for hard edges and good money and everything the combination could buy.

Driving past the periphery of the New Center Gambling Circus, Danny felt the first cold waves of deja-vu pass over him. Dark living tsunami's still flowed in the city, currents of despair fed by duplicitous promises and stunted dreams. Even as a child he had felt it, when he and his brother had come down to the decaying streets, looking for easy scores. It had scared him then, not a childhood fear of monsters and ghosts and all things unseen but a dark, gut-wrenching fear which still lived in the deep recesses of his mind.

God, what is wrong with these people.  Danny drove further into the city, traffic filling the freeway. And I thought San Marino was in piss-poor shape; at least those dumb bastards tried to salvage what little they had, while these fools pour gas onto the fire.  He found it amusing that many of the people in cars around him were the epitome of "high society", nice and safe in their stainless steel vinyl wombs, yet ready to scream like lunatics for blood and gore at the circus attractions.

The traffic slowed to a crawl, four lanes merging into one entrance thru a five meter high electrified fence which surrounded the pulsating viscera of the New Center area. Yeah, the ol' African National Army brothers did okay after their nasty split with the ANC, what few made it out of South Africa after Pretoria nuked two of their self-proclaimed homelands following the Mansasu rebellion of '07'. Danny had heard some 900 billion dollars in gold was pilfered from the coffers before the last ANA chiefs made it out and had no reason to doubt the figures.

Many of the ANA members had come to Detroit then, the only city in the U.S. having the dubious distinction of electing  the country's first communist mayor. Six months after the arrival of the ANA, the mayor and council were murdered (which drew congress into assigning a special investigative team to check on the "suspicious events in the proud city of Detroit") and a new homeland was ruthlessly and efficiently set up.

It bothered Danny not one bit. In fact he gave the ANA credit: Detroit, with it's unique entertainment complex, had economically boomed, at least for a chosen few. He had come to the conclusion many years ago that politicians were all basically the same, no matter if they happened to carry the labels of republican or democrat, communist or capitalist. The power-brokers of the world all worshipped the same universal vision of greed.

He was two cars back now, the glowing fence doing little to hide the opulent splendor which lay behind its cover. Two and three story pre- cast concrete buildings stood amid throngs of people, each a sanctuary of a dozen perversities. In the center on the banks of the Detroit River stood the Renaissance Center, once hailed as the corner-piece of Downtown. It now only served as a telecommunications link for the city, gaunt and silent in its hollow darkness.

Four massive guards dressed in the one-piece black and gold attire of the old ANA guards  motioned Danny forward with waves of their Snelling machine pistols. Gliding his car to a halt, he rolled down his window and spoke to the nearest guard: "I'm Danny Pom...Pennrunner to meet with the Fatman."

The guard stood silent, making no move or sound.

"Listen, a friend of mine was supposed to..."

"To make sure we get together." The voice which finished Danny's sentence did come out the guards slightly open (although non-moving) mouth was a voice that could resonate in a closed room for hours.

A voice which carried a very hard edge.

Danny guessed a simple aud/vocal transceiver implant. "My men will take care of your car and bring us together."

Then it was the Fatman. Danny wasn't sure he liked it but he knew at the moment his choices were very limited. He got out of his car and followed the guard through thick chromium steel gates, into the menagerie that was called the circus.

If there was any plan to the layout, Danny could not see it. Squat buildings dotted the area like balls of mud dropped from God's hand. Streaming in and out of the structures were the denizens of the night, the decadent, the rich, the players who could afford to satisfy all passions.

Danny followed his large companion, the crowd magically parting before his huge stature and very visible machine pistol. They entered a multi-story circular building, its entrance engulfed by a holo-image of a grotesque rat's head, huge jaws rhythmically opening and closing on the stream of people moving through.

Pushing their way past the crowd which jammed into the tight hallway smelling of sweat and expensive perfume, Danny and the guard entered a  well-concealed elevator. It deposited both occupants into a small room, its interior spartan and uncluttered, with only a wooden chair and oversized bench facing darkened windows. The guard relieved Danny of his gun and walked back to the elevator in silence.

Walking over to a chair, Danny sat down and stared at the empty window, drawing a cigarette out of his pocket. He drew the hot smoke deep, letting it sear the inside of his lungs before exhaling slowly.

Attracted by the dull roar of a crowd outside the windows, Danny pressed his face up against the glass but could see only black. And although he couldn't see a single thing, he sensed something. Something nebulous and untouchable, yet very real. So real that neolithic instincts of survival crawled out through his layers of civilization and made him fearful, made him suspicious, made him walk toward the elevator door, made him reach for the down button-

"Not intending to leave just when the fun is about to start, are you, Pennrunner?"

The voice boomed out behind Danny; he whirled around to face possibly the biggest man he had ever seen coming through a concealed doorway on the other side of the room. The man, wearing a waxy off- grey suit, stood a good two and a half meters tall and weighed at least 300 kilos. Thick rolls of synflesh fat pulled his checks down to his neck, while his massive thighs moved the body with almost delicate tenderness.

His real name was one which Danny could not even pronounce, one that was lost when he started to direct his power. The Fatman controlled the main political structure of the ANA, which meant he controlled a large part of the city, legal and otherwise. He motioned Danny over to the chair with a heavy wave, then moved his bulk onto the larger bench. Danny watched in awe as the almost invisible hydraulics of the fatman's exoskeleton strained against his sweat-stained clothes to move his weight.

"So you're the man who wants to deal."

Yeah. That's right." All thoughts of escape vanished as he could almost taste the money this man could offer.

The Fatman shook his head a few times up and down, jowls flopping like dark gelatinous bags. "Good. First we watch the show, then do some business."

The windows went clear. Danny could see they were in a huge arena complex, holding 20,000 spectators sitting in rows of off-white styrene seats, overlooking a circular dirt pit 10 meters in diameter. High plexisheen walls surrounded the area; off-center stood a slightly raised wooden platform with a thick three meter high copper-colored arch next to it.

The Fatman slapped his thighs, giving off a sickly dead sound. Danny could tell he was enjoying himself. "Know what we're gonna see here, Pennrunner?"

"No."

That answer served to animate his bulky host. "Oh, you're in for a mighty fine time then. A mighty fine time."

He turned then and grinned at Danny with perfectly shaped rows of straight bonded teeth, shining from a melanin-enriched face that was a deep vacuous black. "Pennrunner, you don't know it right now, but you're the man I've been waiting to show up for a long time.”

Danny's warrior instincts could feel the mental paring of the man, could feel him trying to crawl inside his brain, searching for any nicks to squeeze through, to pin Danny in an unescapable corner. “You mind explaining that?"

"Later. After the show."

"Listen, no disrespect, but I did come hear to deal, not to watch some damn-"

"AND HERE WE GO!" the Fatman yelled, thick billows of smoke filling the air of the arena which danced with multi-hued laser lights. Danny sat back, stunned; this was not going right. He wanted to deal and leave. Now.

"Yes, my people surely love this game. They surely do. You gonna bet anything on your man Johnboy?"

"Johnboy?"

"Oh, forgive me," the Fatman said in an amused tone, "I thought you were just being polite when you said you didn't know what was going on. Here's the full scoop then: Your boy will be on the mound with his dog; when the lights converge on any point in the circle the gates will open and of rats will flood into the arena. The dog will then toss them back to Johnboy who will toss them into the phase-boosted heliarc behind him"(Danny had remembered seeing a cruder version of them in the Mexican Army interrogation corrals), "generating a 300,000 volt electric mist which will disintegrate them. Bets are taken on how many rats the dog gets, how many Johnboy tosses into the arc, and how long both can last."

Danny had no desire to stay and see the show. None at all. "Listen, if ya' really don't mind I rather we'd deal now, so I...ah, we can enjoy the show."

"Two kilos of E. coli-produced 15% hexaprin derivative will get you 300K. Best offer, take it or leave it." The Fatman's voice was flat and straight.

Danny stared at him incredulously. "300K? Hell, it's the best around, the pharms won't being producing it for the legal market for a least eight months and then selling at double the price."

"Perhaps Johnboy failed to mention to you that I've had a mule rollin' 12% hexaprin up from Houston for the last three months at 25 a kilo. "

Danny sat stunned; that lousy sonofabitch. But then-

"Then why?" The Fatman finished his thought for him, which didn't bring Danny any ease. "Because he needed the money, Pennrunner, more then you could offer. Because as I said before, I wanted to meet you. We're gonna make a lot of money my man, a LOT."

Danny shakily sat back into the chair as a myriad of laser lights filled the arena air, dancing across the crowd in a frenzy of power. This is not turning out right, not at all, 300k is good but it's worth at least five times that on a solid line.

A heavy jab on the arm brought Danny back to the arena. "Now it's gonna get real good," the fatman crooned. "Real good."

Through the thick bullet-proof glass Danny could hear the collective roar of the patrons as mute-colored beams of light converged into one solid white line at the opposite end of the area in which Johnboy stood. Billows of thick chalky smoke emerged the opposite end, and as the smoke cleared Danny could see the rapacious bodies of rats moving out from the convergence point, sluggish from the effects of the dazzling lights and smoke.

At least two dozen had moved onto the dirt floor as Johnboy let his dog go, which expertly began to attack the rats from all sides, picking them up in one quick thrust and throwing them back to Johnboy. The arc began glowing a brilliant red as Johnboy frantically threw the rats through the coils, sending up plumes of ionized air and seared animal flesh.

"Great, huh Pennrunner?"

Danny held down the rising column of vomit in his esophogus. "No. Not great. " He felt just sick enough to play it hard. "I want to know why I'm here."

The Fatman continued to watch the macabre play in the arena. "Miguel Castena."

It was a name that Danny had almost forgotten. Had tried to forget.

Miguel Castena. Maria's father. He didn't want those memories now. Not here. "What about him?"

"He's gearing up to start running 90 percent purified redrock. The man who gets the northern connection is gonna be rich. Real rich."

Redrock. Slang for a adrenergic-opiate mix that even the pharms wouldn't touch. Danny had heard stories of men having their hearts blown out of their chests and still running on the stuff.

And now Miguel was in it. His mind raced to find some reason, some explanation. And just as quickly, realized he had no time for such ponderings. Trying to maintain his composure, he turned toward the Fatman, who was still enthralled with the show. "Listen, dealing redrock is little different then running a few kilos of hexaprin; you're talking some really nasty shit."

The Fatman forced his shoulders to shrug. "Caveat emptor." He turned, huge puffed-out face slick with greasy sweat. "Here is your chance to be more then just another punk from Detroit. I need a man who I can trust, who knows Miguel and can deal with him. Word is that man is you. We'll be the first up here, Danny. And with my muscle, the only."

Danny stared back at the Fatman, back at the greed and duplicity that all the kilo's of synflesh couldn't hide. Danny knew he could supply the drug, knew  that Miguel would deal with him. And knew how many people he would help to kill.

He could see Maria's face, the only face he had ever known that could bring more then lust from his soul. The look in her deep eyes as he told her he would be back, to take her to the states, to a chance for life.

Life which was brutally ended in a hellish fireball that was ordered from some half-wit lieutenant sitting in his little stateside command box.

Life that had evaded Danny for as long as he could remember.

Almost without conscious action he felt his mouth move. "65 percent cut off the top."

"30 percent.”

"50 percent or I walk now." Danny knew he was pressing it very close. Very close.

He thought the Fatman was going to strike him, at least scream at him. Instead he sat calm, his face a stainless steel mask. "50 percent. Done. You're gonna be a rich man, Pennrunner. Very rich."

"I know partner. I know." He took the fatman's hand as they shook, their white-wolf grins shining in the glaze of the show.

The Fatman sat back with a satiated look on his face. "And now let's watch the surprise I have in store for your friend Johnboy. He thought he was smart a couple months ago and ripped me for ten grand. Now you'll see what happens to people who are too smart around here."

Danny's attention was directed back to the arena, littered with burnt chunks of animal flesh and  slick with blood. The dog was still in the middle of the carnage, bleeding from multiple cuts. Johnboy stood on the pedestal and waved toward the control booth which was next to the fatmans.

"Looks like your friend wants to quit playing.," the Fatman said as he nodded his head three times toward the control booth. "I say he'll play some more."

An almost orgasmic scream from the crowd brought Danny to his feet as  one end of the pit raised a meter into the air, letting at least 50 rats into the floor. Johnboy stood transfixed, staring up at the control booth, then slowly to Danny. Thru the  haze of smoke Danny knew he couldn't see him, couldn't recognize him, yet he almost could see Johnboy asking "why" in a soundless accusation.

The dog gallantly stood, unaware of  the human politics that decided his simple life. But the rats were fresh, new, and as the dog turned to one it expertly leaped and hooked itself vigorously to the dog's throat. The dog fought gallantly, but it was too tired, to hurt to fight any longer. As another half-dozen rats attacked the dog, Johnboy grabbed the writhing mass of dog and rats and threw it into the arc. Only to realize that is was turned off.

Danny turned to the Fatman, who sat with a sheen of ecstasy covering his face. "I'll run your damn drugs for you but I don't have to watch this bullshit. I'm leaving. Now."

"Ah Pennrunner, you still don't know how to enjoy the sweet things in life," the fatman chuckled, still watching the scene below. "But you'll learn." He tapped on the throat mike and motioned Danny toward the elevator. "My men will pay you for the hexaprin, give ya back your little nasty toy and a plane ticket leaving for Dallas at 10 tomorrow morn."

"How did you know I was going to say yes to your offer?"

Only then did the Fatman turn to face Danny. "That question was answered a long time ago, now wasn't it, Danny?”

* * *

Placing the vinyl sachel of money and his airline ticket onto the kitchen table at his house, Danny stared at the soft glow of the clock, reading 1:59 A.M. Another eight hours and it's southward bound again.  He reached for the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, then thought better of it. “Hell, might as well just stay up for the next 24 hours,”  he said to himself, popping with one finger a norepy ampule and breathing deeply the bitter fumes.

Almost instantaneously he was up again, feeling the edge, feeling alive. Yeah, ya finally did it my man, finally made the connection to the big time while people like Johnboy...

"Johnboy," he said involuntarily, still seeing his eyes as the rats streamed toward him, still hearing his screams over the howling of the crowd. Danny decided maybe the Jack Daniels was a good idea after all.

The knock on the door sounded as loud as thunder in Danny's mind; he drew his gun and cautiously moved to the door and looked out the peephole. A women stood on the doorstep, her long thick blond hair falling casually onto a one-piece emos-dress shimmering in tune with her emotions, her full lips slightly open in a sensuous pout. He opened the door.

"Hi Danny." She looked past him into the house. "Ya gettin' packed to move yet?"

Danny searched his mind for some memory, some bit of information telling him who this was.

"You don't remember me, do ya?" she asked in a half-mocking, half- annoyed tone. "Mona, remember?"

Nothing.

    Mona from the Bare Essence?"

The light clicked on; the chick from the nude bar in Windsor a couple nights ago.  He had tipped her a hundred and drunkenly told her to visit one night. Damn, I sure am playin' a hot hand tonight. "Sure, I remember Mona, just havin' a little fun. C'mon in."

"Thanks. Hey, ya want your dog in too?"

Danny took two quick steps back; he could feel his face flush, feel the norepy mix in with his own adrenergic system, feel the tiny sharp fingers of insanity reach inside his racing mind. Against all instinctual responses, he looked outside.

The dog was laying quietly on the corner of the porch, it's eyes alert to every move, a one-sided lunatic grin shaping it's muzzle. Danny stood mute, unable to make even the slightest of decisions; I know he wasn't there when I came in and so what if he's here 'cause he sure as hell isn't gettin' in and it's OK!

"No, it's a nice night, let 'em stay out." He quickly closed the door behind the girl. "You want a drink?"

"Sure." Danny watched her sleek form move onto the couch, her dress flashing a rainbow of colors to her body heat. The norepy only increased his need as he sat next to her, finishing his drink in one quick gulp.

"Thanks. So where'd you get the dog? I mean, I thought it was hard to get them for pets in the states anymore." She moved a bit on the couch, her dress revealing even more of her perfectly tanned legs. "He doesn't look like a husky but I don't know of any other dogs that have blue eyes."

He couldn't believe this; a fuckin' stripper comes over and she wants to talk about dogs?  "Ah, he's just a stray; I guess I felt sorry for him."

She moved a little closer to him now, her dress glowing in a hundred different hues of red. "That was really sweet."

Danny could feel himself growing, feel the norepy feed his primeval lust. "Yeah, well you know what a nice guy I am."

"Why don't you move closer and show me?"

He was on top of her in an instant, roughly tearing at her dress, fumbling with his own pants. "Hey!"

Danny froze for an instant, allowing the girl to slide out from under him to the far end of the couch. "What the hell’s wrong?"

She looked at him with a mixture of surprise and fear. "Listen, we have the whole night, there's no reason to..."

Danny again moved on top of her. He had surprised himself with his fury, yet felt safe in its dark grasp, alive in its might. Should have learned tonight, only the ones with enough guts are gonna make it.

"I don't need reason's baby, I just need!" He threw her off the couch onto the dirty carpet. Mona curled up in a half-fetal postion, her dress now a pale white.

Standing, Danny dragged her up by her hair and pushed her toward his room. He could feel the power now over anothers life, feel the full-bodied evil spread inside him. And he welcomed it.

* * *

Ah, nothin' like a couple endorph poppers to calm someone right down, Danny happily thought to himself two hours later as he gazed at the still form of Mona on his his bed; She won't be comin' too till I'm long in the friendly skies.

He was satiated now, a hollow feeling that seemed to make all his thoughts crystal clear. He'd take the girl, dump her, come back, then wait the few hours until he could leave. Until he could start the life he'd been paying for.

Danny wrapped her nude form up in a sheet and easily threw her over his shoulder. He had almost opened the door when the image of the dog lying on the porch seared into his conciousness.

He thought momentarily of leaving her in the house; c’mon Danny, you're gonna be running with the big boys now, a lousy stray can't stand in your way.  On impulse he inhaled another norepy popper, felt it's razor tongue lick his brain, felt the indecisiveness melt away.

With a quick pull he opened the door. The porch was empty.

* * *

Tired orange fingers of sunlight were crawling from beneath the eastern horizon as Danny tiredly unlocked the deadbolts and walked to his bedroom. He had dumped the girl a few miles away in an abandoned junkyard, not caring if she lived or died.

Lying across his bed, his stared at his watch. Five-forty in the A.M., still over 4 hours to go. The surge of the norepy poppers was over, the brilliant rush now followed by a deep empty trough. He set his watch-alarm for 8:45, plenty time to pack a few things and get to Metro for the ten flight.  Reaching over, he activated his radio and sank back into his pillow.

He could feel sleep start to gain momentum, feel himself floating, free-falling in his own timeless void, and then the sound of a howling dog filled his entire world.

“What the hell?" Danny screamed, the damned howling sounds outside my door and OMIGOD the dog is back.

Without conscious effort he was at the door, slamming tight the locks. Outside, the dog continued it's wailing for a few more seconds, then stopped.

Danny walked shakily over his dresser, searching for norepy poppers. Finding two he inhaled deeply, his mind racing with the question HOW? burning into his sharpened senses.

And as he traced an image of the dog with the laser sight of his .41 magnum on the door, Danny found he really didn't care. A tiny primeval voice buried deep in his cortex pleaded with him to leave, to run as far as he could. The norepys helped to keep that voice quiet.

He looked down at the gun in his hand and smiled. Its uranium- core 210-grain bullets would punch a hole the size of a six-pack in an elephant; Danny figured it should just about cut the dog in half. It was then that the frantic gyrations of sirens ignited into the already volatile night. Looking out the window above his bed, Danny watched as one, then two more State Police cars raced down the street.

"Damnit!" Danny swore loudly. Of all the nights the idiots have to come around, it's now.  He carefully placed the gun on his bed and listened to the dog, now pacing in the livingroom. One shot and it's goodbye doggie but I can't risk the pigs hearing the report  and then his eyes caught sight of the meter long 2-by-4 loosely hanging over his closet door.

With a savage lunge he tore it off, its long rusted nails sticking out of one end like blood-caked fangs. Walking over to the door, his heart beating fast and hard, his breathing quick and deep, he opened it and stepped out.

Standing in the hallway, he could see the dogs shape facing him. Danny thought for a second it was a different animal; in the shadows it seemed twice as large, a magnified version of the first night. The dog let out a low deep-throated growl but made no move.

Danny advanced slowly, the board cocked high over his right shoulder. Two meters away from the dog, he stopped. Even in the darkness he could see the dog's eyes, deep blue that held a very old hate. It was like looking into a bottomless ocean with the water holding tiny luminecent creatures which swam quietly about and...the dog lept.

The swiftness, the sureness of the attack almost caught Danny off guard. Swinging the board with all his strength, he caught the dog in the ribs, sending off a hollow thump as the nails bit deeply into flesh as both Danny and the dog smashed into the wall. Danny swung again and again with one arm, using the other to ward off the dogs attacks, yellowed fangs racking across his arm and chest, its fetid breath washing him in a cloud of rotted meat and steaming feces.

In a desperate move, Danny managed to jam the board under the dog’s throat, getting just enough leverage to force him off. With his last bit of strength, Danny threw himself back into his room and slammed the door shut, jamming the deadbolt home with a bloodied fist.

Crawling up to his bed, the pain of the attack started to gain focus. His left arm was torn and bleeding from a dozen punctures, his chest ripped with ragged tears. Danny listened for the sound of the dog dying, but could hear nothing over his own rapid breath. Hell, he's probably dead, I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did.

His thoughts were suddenly unraveled as the dog started smashing against the door with his body, the sound echoing heavy in Danny’s room, even heavier in his mind.

He painfully stood up to retrieve his gun, then sat against the wall facing the door, which moaned and bulged against the dog’s repeated attacks. Danny didn't care now about the cops, about anyone. Don't know how you're still alive and don't care 'cause as tough as you are ya can't do much when you're blown in half.  Danny started timing the attacks on the door, carefully figured the height of the dog outside, and focused the sight on the spintering wood. It was then that the lock gave and door blew open, coming off its hinges and falling to the floor.

The dog stood on the splintered remains of the door, long shards of saliva hanging from its lower jaw. A grizzled hump of muscle and fur stood straight on it's upper back as blood bubbled out of wounds in its side.

Danny held his breath and steadily brought the gun down, the red dot of the sight quivering on the thick knotted fur of the dogs' heaving chest . "Bye bye fucker," Danny whispered as he pulled the trigger.

The blast rang through his head as his eyes refocused. The dog still stood, a few hairs on his face smoldering from the muzzle blast while he blinked his deep blues eyes once.

Twice.

 Then laughed.

Not a loud laugh, not a mad laugh. Just a plain, all-too-human laugh which cut through all the layers of Danny's embittered soul.

As the dog slowly advanced, Danny realized he had heard that laughter long ago in his darkest childhood nightmares.

He had time to squeeze the trigger twice more before the animal was upon him.

* * *

The tall lanky police officer stepped over the remains of the bedroom door out into the living room, where his partner stood leafing through piles of money. "Hell, I suppose just another dealer getting wacked."

"So where's the body?" she again questioned.

"Don't know," he said, taking the stacks of money and putting them in a bag with the .41 magnum, "and I don't care. Let the boys and girls in narcotics add another to their little list."

"Hey, lookie there", the woman said as she walked outside into the early morning haze, pointing to the front lawn. "A dog."

Her partner moved the front door and eyed the dog somewhat suspiciously, then relaxed. "Ah, just another stray."

"Should we call the pound?"

The man thought for a second, then shook his head. "Nah, they probably wouldn't be up anyway. Besides, I heard one of his breathern helped us find a girl that had gotten beat up pretty bad earlier this morning. Apparently went over to a all-night gaser and damn near dragged the attendant over to her."

"I'm sure that'll be covered ad nauseam on todays newsies."

"You got that right, " her partner replied as his eyes caught the sight of a smallish rectangular piece of shiny plastic just inside the front door. "Hey partner, looks like we have our first lead."

"And what might that be?"

The man stepped onto the front porch and waved the object in the air. "What we have here is one airline voucher to Dallas/Fort Worth for a Mr. Daniel A. Pomerez-"

Down half a block, the dog, who had grown weary of the innane chatter of the two police officers, stopped and looked back. His deep blue eyes, which  were already watering from the thick soup of pollutants which drifted like ethereal Spanish moss over the city streets, seemed to glow in recognition for an instant.

An instant the animal felt that if it could speak, it would tell the officers of the intricacies of human destiny, would inform them that even down to the world of quantum mechanics choices are made, dreams are lost, and solitude is never a true reality.

But then the instant passed, and of course the dog said nothing.

For he was just a stray.

Stray copyright 2022 by Edward R. Rosick. All rights reserved.