I crunched up a meandering path through the forest, the same one Dani had materialized from earlier that morning, as the night soaked through the last orange cinders burning on the outskirts of the sky. With the darkness came a chill air, breathing silently down the hillside through vascular networks of leafless branches, and I could see my breath in the jigging light of my phone flashlight. I shivered, my bare forearms studded with goosepimples, suddenly feeling as though I was intruding upon the misty domain of ghosts and killers. I quickened my step, cursing myself for leaving the .38 behind, until the twinkling lights of Milkwood’s beckoned up ahead where the trees parted. It was such a heartening sight, I virtually ran the rest of way and burst through the front doors like a man who had been lost in the woods for days.
“Paul!” called Dani from behind the bar, waving me over.
I slid into a plush barstool with a felt back and sighed gratefully. “Aren’t you a little young to be slinging drinks?”
“Can’t drink the stuff for 3 more years,” she said, even as I smelled beer on her breath. “But serving it is A-Okay with The Man.”
“The Man is an ass. I’ll take a Jack. Double. Neat.”
“You’re just in time. Storm’s coming.” I looked at her skeptically. There had been nothing but crisp autumn sunshine all day but no sooner had the words come out, the glasses hanging over the bar trembled and chimed against each as a thunder clap boomed overhead and rumbled slowly away with all the heaviness of a freight train. “Told you.”
“I’m not going anywhere until it’s over,” I said, and that was a fact. As short of a walk back to the cabin as it was, the thought of being in the haunted forest in a storm brought a lunatic’s twitch to my face as I lifted my glass. Draining half of it, the warm glow spreading through my stomach, my spirits were further buoyed as I swiveled around and took in my surroundings.
This was no dimly lit dive bar for the down-and-out and brokenhearted to come and nurse $1 shots at 11 o’clock in the morning. A freshly stoked log fire snapped and spat sparks from the mouth of a hearth you could park a small car in, a goofy looking mutt blissfully passed out on its back on the stone floor, oversized paws in the air, in front of it. Its human patrons also appeared relaxed, clinking glasses in the flickering light, and as oblivious as the dog to the rain thrashing the windows and the wind whistling atop the chimney with increasing determination. Also unperturbed were the faces of the long dead in the grainy 19thCentury portrait photographs competing for space on the timber wood walls with old nautical and logging paraphernalia which, perhaps a little suspicious of the newfangled camera technology before them, stared out earnestly into the future.
Through the kitchen’s open door, a cauldron-sized pot of chili simmered upon a blue ring of gaslit flame, its vapors lacing the air with a meaty garlicy aroma which, almost in sync with the thunder outside, provoked a long, staggered grumble in my belly. I realized I hadn’t eaten a thing all day and was about to flag over Dani when a cheer went up from the end of the bar where a TV was broadcasting, through sheets of rain, a heap of black and gold uniforms celebrating on a football field muddier than a battlefield. The game was over and as I watched the high-fives going around, I felt like this was the kind of place I could stay in forever and part of me hoped the storm might never end.
“You’re in luck, then,” said Dani. “We stay open until the last man – or woman – is standing.”
“You probably didn’t want to tell me that.”
“There are spare rooms upstairs too. But no renting by the hour,” she said, wagging a finger at a corner table where a man and woman, both crowding 40, had pushed their chairs together and were draped over each other like a pair of gooey eyed teenagers.
“They’re married,” I said with unwelcome certainty. “Only to other people.”
“Daddy would have a coronary.”
“Turn that up!” called a woman three stools down, pointing at the TV where the local news had come on. Dani’s face darkened and it occurred to me she might have the shotgun within reach somewhere behind the bar. But the breathless 9-1-1 urgency of the women’s voice had a commanding effect and Dani produced the remote instead.
…back in 1975, decorated Vietnam veteran, Tom Manson, and his wife Nicole Manson were killed in a horrific collision after their car was struck by a large rock dropped by an unidentified youth from the Tightrope overpass. The random senselessness of the deaths sent shockwaves through the Hillsborough community and no arrests were made in the case. But earlier today, in a statement released by his lawyer, convicted serial killer, Carrick Mayweather, scheduled to die by lethal injection later next week for the murders of 11 women throughout the Midwest in the 1980s, has admitted – more than four decades later – to being the culprit and, in a bizarre twist, issued an apology to the Manson’s only adopted son, disgraced pilot Paul Manson who was convicted earlier this week of flying a loaded passenger jet while intoxicated. “It’s too little too late to apologize to Captain Manson, I know,” reads the statement, “but if it means anything at all, I never intended for anyone to get hurt. I was a young and stupid boy acting impulsively and I wish I’d never done what I did. It changed me. I was never the same after. I never stopped hating myself after that…”
I stared at the screen through the same stars and false colors produced by a head rush after sitting too long, the rest of the story only coming through my ears in snippets.
…swift condemnation from family members…
…all brutally raped and scalped…
…no confession, no remorse for intentional crimes…
…extreme sexual sadism…
…only a drunk pilot…
…said the teary father of Katherine Stafford, Mayweather’s final victim…
“Final victim,” snorted the woman three stools down, the last of my hallucinations banished by the loud crack the gothic ring on her fuck-you finger made as she slapped the bar. We turned to face each other, and there was a feral look in her eyes. “I,” she said in a husky voice, emphatically pointing at her belly as though she had ingested her own identity, “am the final victim.” There was something familiar about her, the way she re-crossed her legs, the loud lipstick and plumed hair, and I realized it was the woman from the train who I’d been too weak-kneed to flirt with.
“I’m Paul Manson,” I blurted. Did I actually just say that or someone else?
“I see,” she said, in the exact same neutral, I-will-reserve-judgement-on-this-for-now, tone that Ally always deployed when she said, “I see.”
Every night, hundreds of passenger aircraft take off from airports all over North America and surf the Jetstream over to Europe on only a handful of “tracks”, virtual aerial highways established by the North Atlantic Organized Track System (OTS). Once out over the ocean, bored pilots flying the congested OTS frequently chat with each other on a common radio frequency, akin to a plane-to-plane party line, until the morning sun eats the black horizon line bent over the continent and they fan out to their destination airports.
Exhibit 14-B (12-09-2012): Transcript of mid-Atlantic OTS chat between the accused, the accused’s copilot Gary Filmon, and Lufthansa captain, Maximillian Fischer
The Accused: …and not just the World Trade Center. Half of New York’s skyscrapers were built by Mohawks come down from Canada. Some bars even stocked Montreal beers, so they didn’t get too homesick.
Maximillian Fischer: I think you’re the one whose been drinking Paul.
Gary Filmon: He’s drinking right now.
The Accused: Shut up, Gary. Seriously, Mohawks are the ultimate ironworkers. It’s genetic. Zero fear of heights – none – and perfect balance. They can walk up and down steel beams sticking out 60 stories up as if they’re strolling down Fifth Avenue. And when the wind gets up, they lean right out into it, with nothing but ant people and toy cars down below. It’s incredible. They’re like cats.
Maximillian Fischer: Even if I believe you, they must wear safety belts.
The Accused: They’re supposed to, but they don’t bother. Slows them down and time is money.
Maximillian Fischer: What if the wind angle suddenly changes?
The Accused: They have to compensate just like we do. Otherwise they’re done for. I guess that’s where the cat analogy ends. I doubt even a Mohawk blown off a beam 60 stories up would land on his feet and head over to the saloon for a Canadian beer to get over it.
Maximillian Fischer: The analogy still works. A cat wouldn’t either.
The Accused: Fair enough. But then again, I did start teaching my daughter’s cat to drink beer until my wife found out and blew a gasket.
Maximillian Fischer: You’re crazier than usual tonight, Paul.
Gary Filmon: Just… [inaudible]… needs another drink.
Maximillian Fischer: Was war das? [tr.What was that?]
The Accused: Gary’s just kidding, aren’t you Gary?
Gary Filmon: Whatever.
The Accused: Now, if cats were bigger and had opposable thumbs…
The prosecutor, Frank Hill, abruptly shut off the recording and studied the ceiling, as if some undiscovered elemental truth of the world were housed in its unreachable emptiness, feet apart, hands gripping his hips in a sheriff’s stance. He was a contrast in dimensions to Holden, thin in his suit which hung from him like scarecrow’s clothing on sticks, fleshless face and black hair cropped short to deemphasize it’s retreat to the top of his narrow head. His age was indiscernible but when he frowned, which was often, a wilderness of exhaustion lines broke around his hawkish eyes. He was frowning now, exasperated by the bemused expressions on the faces of the jurors as they continued reading the transcript.
He coughed and said, “As you can see, this transcript is dated from 7 years ago and supports testimony you’ve heard that the accused regularly flew while inebriated.”
“Objection, your honor!” bellowed Holden, laboring to his feet. “There is nothing in the transcript indicating my client was inebriated. In fact…”
I tuned out. Seven years ago. I was at the height of my powers then, ageless and brimming with confidence, my life on a steady upward trajectory like the 777s I flew out of JFK on clear windless nights. No matter what I did I somehow remained prophylactically shielded from the natural consequences of reckless behavior, inoculated from the retaliatory karmic wheel Ally so firmly believed in. But with each bullet that whizzed harmlessly by, I counted on Jack to arrest and drown the latent knowledge that would stir in the pit of my stomach and make my skin cold: this can’t last, and the wheel will turn.
Juror #7 giggled loudly into her hand and, reprimanded by another furious frown from Frank Hill, a crimson flush spread up from where an extra button on her blouse had been either deliberately left open or had given out under bust strain to her jawline where unnecessarily heavy makeup hid its advance. She let go of the transcript, which was carried to the center of the courtroom floor by a rogue current of air, and sat on her hands like a recently quit smoker in the throes of a craving. When Frank Hill resumed trying to convince the judge of the transcript’s relevance, she glanced over at me through a stray curl of yellow hair and pulled on the side of her lower lip with her two front teeth. Holden noticed this and a bronchial chuckle rolled through his cavernous chest. “I think Marilyn Monroe is in love. This couldn’t have backfired worse for Frank,” he whispered gleefully in my ear. “By the way, is this Fischer guy a friend of yours you haven’t told me about?”
“What about friends,” said Shannon, opening her mouth wide and, as usual, tapping away at a tooth with the end of her pen.I was equally divided on whether this habit of hers was intensely erotic or, like now, maddening enough to snatch away the pen and holster it in her eye.
“Friends?” I said taken aback as if she had switched from English to a foreign language I was supposed to know but didn’t.
“Yes, you know – friends.”
defn. friend noun: a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.
Harold fit the definition, but I hadn’t seen him since I was 16. Bob Calloway was a sibling relationship in all but genetic makeup. Max Fischer, even though we had roamed Berlin’s dark arteries on the couple of occasions we were there at the same time, he was an OTS acquaintance who popped up occasionally on the radio in accordance with the vagaries of the wind. Most of the guys in my JAL 123 simulator pool I hadn’t even met. And then it struck me all at once: throughout my entire adult life, I had relied almost solely on Ally for mutual affection. She was all I had ever needed but being both a sexual and family relation, she was doubly disqualified.
“Paul?” said Shannon, setting down the pen. She wore the expression of a parent confronted with the dreaded quiver chin of a baby.
“I don’t have any friends!” I wailed.
The sodden woodchips carpeting Milkwood’s tiny parking lot squelched underfoot as we walked out to her car, an anemic dawn light nudging through the last of the storm clouds still wringing themselves out as they retreated over the hills. “Sure I can’t give you a lift?” she said, shaking a bent cigarette out of a half crushed pack of Marlboros.
“I’m just a few minutes down there,” I said waving at a ragged black hole in the dripping trees that could have passed for the gates to the underworld.
“I can’t believe we’ve been sitting in there all night.” I couldn’t either. As if in answer to my wishes, the storm had raged on and off, mostly on, until the small hours of the morning. And we just stayed and stayed, talking and talking, and it seemed not to matter which version of myself I was projecting. At 10 pm, I scowled away Dani when she slipped me a note that read Remember no renting by the hour! At midnight she was offering me a room for free for the night. By 2 am, with everyone gone and me stoking the fire myself, Dani handed me the keys to the bar and said, “Just lock up whenever you guys leave. I’ll get them from you tomorrow.”
“I can’t either.”
“You still have my card, right?” she said in a rainy voice through a great cloud of smoke and condensation. “Don’t forget to put me in your phone.”
“I could sure use a friend right now, Paul.”
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 10), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.