The Link Boy A Free World Novel
by Michael J. Martineck
Copyright © 2017 by Michael J. Martineck
Edwin McCallum held a roller over a canvas laid out on his kitchen table. It dripped white gesso. The oil painting showed a woman standing atop a stone wall, back to the viewer. All grays and blues, he had decided five minutes after finishing it that canvases were too expensive to burn or slash. He’d cover the piss-poor attempt at art in a thick layer of primer and move on with his life.
A chime went off in his ear and his cuff vibrated. The device, wrapped around his wrist, was double-strapped black carbon fiber and it pulsed purple-white from a screen curved to fit tight to his forearm. The machine knew this was an entitled period of time off. Not a lot of people called this late, but he had ordered the machine not to disturb him, just in case. Which meant this call came from someone with power. A lower order.
"We’ve got an alert two blocks from your location," a dispatcher sent into his ear.
"We out of uniform operatives?" McCallum’s lips felt gummy. How long had it been since he spoke?
"This guy’s a 360," the dispatcher continued. "Full bill."
"Oh good." McCallum set the roller down on a tray. "Thought I’d been demoted."
"Sorry, Detective. You are the closest op by four minutes."
"No data. Just a general alarm."
He jammed his feet into some boots and took the time to tie them. "So this could be a raccoon in the trash?"
"The customer is not answering calls."
McCallum glanced at his wrist. Dispatch had sent his cuff a map, showing the exact location of the alarm’s origin. He knew the neighborhood. He’d make it in two minutes by cutting through an alley across the street and hopping a fence. Did he remember CPR? First aid class was a long, long time ago.
"You call in an ambulance?" McCallum asked as he hopped down the stairs of his apartment, four at a time.
"Yes sir. Prepaid."
"Shit. This guy worried about something?"
"Says here," the dispatcher said, "he thought someone might want him dead."
McCallum plowed through the doors and ran.
Father Demiana DeFalco sat in the Bishop’s chambers, twisted in her chair so she could get her arm up on the back and rest her head on her shoulder. She re-crossed her legs. She turned to try a different angle, then huffed and turned back, propping her head on her fist. She’d been waiting for forty minutes, silently praying for strength. The Bishop needed to show his power and authority. She needed to show humility and compliance even though this display of arrogance by the Bishop diminished her, the Office of the Bishop, the dioceses of the Buffalo Catchment and, in fact, all of the Catholic Church. Who, in God’s name, did this pompous—
Please, Lord, give me peace, she said to herself. She exhaled and let the wave of calm pass across her. It washed away her angry clutter and smoothed the prickly, pointy spikes she could feel sprouting through her skin — the ones that popped out when she got riled. The ones that made her say things that got one called up to the Bishop’s chambers on a Thursday night.
Demiana changed the order of her legs, fluffed out her long black skirt, and flipped her long black hair. She probably should’ve had it up in a bun. She checked her cuff. 11:55. Nearly midnight? Why did the Bishop believe her time to be worth so much less than his? Were they not both devoted to God’s work? Wasn’t this, then, the Lord’s time he squandered? Not that she was going to be doing the Lord’s work this late — now who was being pompous — still, she was going to—
The door opened behind her. She popped up straight, smoothed her skirt, and folded her hands in her lap. The Bishop rounded the desk. He could have chosen to sit in the red velvet chair next to her. But, no. He needed his place to be behind the vast expanse of walnut and brass, with a 500 pound cross over his head, and tomes of leather and paper framing his shoulders. The books were ancient and wise, and probably, she bet, unseen by human eyes since this guy was a toddler.
"Dinner ran late," he said in his century-old voice. He took his wide chair quickly, hands covering the curls of the arms. He pressed his white, hairless head back into the red leather, closed his eyes, and opened them in what Demiana knew to be the slowest blink ever. The darkness of the room and the blackness of his shirt and jacket made his round pillow of a head seem to float, disembodied.
"I am reassigning you."
Her mouth opened. She tried to close it but, "Sir, while I wish I would have crafted my homily with more care, I do truly believe—"
The Bishop raised his hand as if stopping traffic. "It is a special assignment. A tragedy-of-the-commons mediation."
"Mediation? You want me to run a mediation?"
"I’ve never… I’ve trained, but I’ve never been sent out."
"So you feel you might fail?"
Her mouth opened again. This time the words weren’t ready. "Yes. I guess I could fail."
The Bishop grinned with only the right side of his mouth. "There is no failure," he said. "There is learning about limitations. Oh yes. There is that. You will learn about your limitations. What you should be doing. What you should not be doing."
The Bishop flicked his fingers. "Dismissed."
Neelesh Fhor walked out of school into the steamy midsummer midnight air. He slogged across the parking lot, arms and head feeling like they’d gained mass by 50 percent during the course of the day. They don’t teach you in school that teaching is a physical job. The kids get to sit most of the time. Teaching, at least the way Neelesh did it, burned more calories than roofing.
Moisture clung to everything, so his blue teardrop car sat covered in teardrops. A Saab Sonnet with a single door on the front. He twisted the handle and used it to slide the door over the roof. The front window became a second back window. It harvested dew along the way. Some would drip onto him as he drove since he could, technically, drive with the front door covering the back. Which was kind of cool, despite the sprinkling. Cool until you started spitting bugs.
He walked into the car, stood between the two bucket seats, and drew his finger through the condensation on the hood. He noticed a girl in stripes bending back a piece of chain-link fence. May. May Podlowski, third grade. She wasn’t in any of his classes, but he knew the name because he tried so hard to learn them all. He might have her in his class in a few years. If he stayed at the school. If she stayed alive.
"Ms. Podlowski, what are you doing?"
"This way’s faster."
"Where are your friends?"
"No one’s around tonight." She let the fence bounce back. Tiny, with blond pigtails. Neelesh was impressed she bent it back in the first place.
"There’s no one to walk home with tonight?"
"Caddy is sick. Lisa ditched me. I couldn’t find Moira or Latasha. And—"
"And the boys?"
"I don’t walk with the boys."
"You’d rather walk home alone at midnight than walk with the boys?"
May nodded her head.
Midnight, second shift. Ambyr Consolidated, keeping families together. Or, at least, keeping kids off the streets. Which Neelesh always found to be a laudable practice, until it ran up hard against other practices. Like now. School 64 — the whole education profession, really — proffered hundreds of rules. Some you kept in spirit, some you ignored, and some you took so seriously you didn’t even have to think about them. They became reactions like arms wheeling for balance at the edge of a manhole or hands leaping back from a flame. Or driving away before a little girl gets in your car.
Unfortunately for Neelesh, ‘never be alone with a student’ contrasted with ‘leaving a youngster alone in a parking lot.’
Neelesh scanned the area. No one. The other teachers left faster than him or lingered for reasons he couldn’t imagine. All the other kids scooted like mice. He thought about drafting some other, older kid to escort May. But there was no one. Then he thought about letting her go on her way. She did this all the time, right? Cut across the practice field, through the alley, and into her neighborhood.
"You live close?" he asked.
"Four streets over. I count them."
He closed his eyes and motioned for May to come over. She ran towards his car, orange and white school bag flapping behind her.
"Just this once. Tell no one. You’re supposed to walk with friends."