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by Ennis Willie




He woke up with the old derelict shoving a wine bottle at him and the smell of something foul in his nostrils.

“Go on,” the old man was saying, “—got another when this one is busted.”

And somewhere close a disharmonized gathering was singing hymns. . . .

His name was Sand, a tall man with dark hair just beginning to gray and eyes that held no expression. There was a growth of beard on his face and a pain in his middle. He shook his head to clear some of the fuzziness away and tried to figure out where he was and what he was doing here.

It was an alley, long and narrow, with a light fog hugging its floor and barrels overflowing with bottles and trash. He was stretched out with a brick wall to his back. The singing was coming from a Mission behind the wall. The sour smell belonged to uncollected garbage and the many unwashed bodies of drunks and derelicts that had occupied this space before him. Everything, all of it, held down close to the ground by the oppressive pressure of the night.

He knew where he was, not the number of the building or the name of the street, but the place where the low and forgotten gather. Skid Row.

The old bum gulped from his bottle and offered it again. “You look like you need it, mister, you really do. Muscatel. Ain’t got no wallop like hard booze, but it kinda saturates.”

Sand took it, more to keep him quiet for a few minutes than anything else. The sweet wine made him gag, and the pain in his gut flared with the effort. Cold sweat peppered his forehead.

The old man’s eyes showed genuine concern. “You don’t look so good, mister, you sure don’t. I was fixing to slip in the side and join the congre­gation. After the singing and preaching they serve soup and maybe sandwiches. Could be what you need is something in your stomach.”

What he needed was time to think. But the soup might not be a bad idea. He climbed to his feet and the pain hit him again.

Leaning against the wall, he pushed his hand inside his shirt and found the bandage. Not a professional patch job. He had probably done it himself. He also felt for the gun he knew instinc­tively should be under his arm. It wasn’t. No wallet either. No nothing.

“What’s your name?” Sand asked the old man.

“They call me Sticky—on account of I got sticky fingers. Whatever you’re missing though I didn’t take. I wouldn’t of hung around if I did. Besides, I already made one good score today. I ain’t greedy.”

“They got a place to wash up inside the Mission?”

“Sure. Ain’t you never been in there before?”

“I don’t think so. Lead the way.”

That was when the two men stepped into the mouth of the alley. Sticky recognized them and stiffened. One of them was wearing several layers of clothing without regard to the temperature. Down here, whatever you owned you kept close to you.

“We been looking for you, Sticky,” Layers said. “We heard you made it big today, real big.”

“Yeah.” The other one. His voice sounded like it crawled over jagged glass to get out his thick throat. “We hear you walked off with a whole suitcase just packed full of fancy stuff to hock. Maybe even some cash, uh, Sticky?”

The little guy was scared. He had suddenly de­veloped a bad case of shakes. “It . . . it wasn’t like that, Crow. It wasn’t even a suitcase, just a satchel sort of, and it didn’t have nothing in it but some little bottles. The stuff wasn’t even hooch. I tasted one of them and it wasn’t nothing. The only thing worth pawning was the case and Gruber didn’t give me but five bucks for it.”

Crow looked at the one in the jacket. “We gonna believe that shit?”

The other one shook his head. “Hell no, we ain’t gonna believe that shit—not till we turn him upside down and shake him a little. Whatever we find, I guess that’s what Sticky has been saving for our cut. We know he wouldn’t want us to believe he ain’t willing to share the wealth.”

From the darkness the tall man named Sand spoke softly. “Believe it. Save yourself some grief.”

Maybe they hadn’t noticed him before. Or may­be they simply hadn’t expected interference. They were used to people minding their own business. Now they noticed him. They didn’t scare. He was big, but so were they and they had him outnumbered.

Crow said, “Butt out, mister,” his voice crawling over that jagged glass again.

“I’m in.”

It was their move then and they made it. They moved in fast, going after Sticky. Whatever money he had would be on him and they wanted it.

Sticky scrambled back with a little yell and Sand cut the first one down like a tree, his fist connecting with a jawbone hard enough to tear it loose. But it also brought his own pain back in a major surge. He forgot it and concentrated on Crow.

As Layers hit the concrete Crow forgot about the little man and took a swing at Sand. The huge fist sailed through the air like a shot put, then staggered to a halt as the tall man’s foot lifted, hard. A scream tore out Crow’s throat as he tried to double over.

“Mother, mother . . .” he cried.

Sand held one arm tight around his own middle to hold back the pain and kicked out again. The kick caught him in the chest. The force of the kick set the bum’s butt down hard on the concrete like he was sitting in a very low chair. His eyes were open but staring at nothing. After a second or two his upper body just leaned backward and made a thump on the floor of the alley. His eyes stayed open and now looked up at the sky.

Layers looked up soon enough to see his buddy take his final fall. He jumped up and scrambled down the alley, stumbling and falling every few steps until he reached the street and disappeared around a corner. He never looked back. There was nothing behind him he wanted to see.

Then nothing. Just Sticky’s heavy breathing.

And the burning pain in his gut.

“Son of a bitch,” the little man said, awed. “Slap, bam, boom! Mister, you’re mean.”

“Yeah,” Sand said. “Let’s go find that can.”

On the other side of the door were a dozen paint‑cracked pews half‑filled with unwashed derelicts, here and there a woman thrown in. They were singing for their supper the way they did every night of the week. Some of them were putting everything they had into it; maybe they were really seeking salvation. Most of them just dragged along a word or two behind because it was the way to the soup. Like the old man who called himself Sticky, they needed the free eats so any money they had panhandled or pinched during the day could be used for cheap wine to fill the void of the night.

“That’s Reverend Garfield,” Sticky whispered, pointing his nose at a dumpy white‑haired man leading the singing from the pulpit in a hoarse but vigorous baritone. “He watches the front door pretty close to see who comes in late. That’s why I had to come in the side. That’s the door to the can over on the other side. We can sort of ease our way over without disturbing anybody.”

When they got to the end of the row Sticky hung back and Sand went on alone.

The place could have been cleaner, but at least it was empty. Except for a gallon jug sitting on the flush tank that had once held some kind of liquid detergent.

Above the lavatory there was a mirror. He looked into it. The man who looked back belonged here, in the can of a charity mission for drunks and deadbeats who had only their souls left to bargain with. He had a week-old stubble of black beard and a thin streak of long‑dried blood close to his hairline. His clothes had been expensive, but that was before they had been ripped and dragged and rolled and slept in. Now they looked like the clothes any bum would wear, stuff bought for nickels at some second or third hand store or pulled from a dumpster when he happened to be at the right place at the right time. He looked lousy.

He unbuttoned his shirt to get at the makeshift bandage underneath and lifted it. He found what he knew he would. The ugly pucker of a bullet wound.

He was remembering it all now. For at least a week and maybe even longer he hadn’t been remembering anything. He touched the dried blood from the slug that had glazed his head. He must have been walking around in a daze.

He took another long look at himself in the mirror.

Sand. The great Sand. Hard. Tough. The fair-haired boy of the underworld elite until the day you decided you’d had enough, that you couldn’t stand the stink of corruption any longer. So you decided to get out. They said you would never make it, that nobody gets out of the organization alive, not even you with your reputation of being too damn tough to kill. They said a lot of things, but you quit anyway. Sure they came after you. You knew they would. In Frisco they planted a bomb and the next day the guy who planted it was floating face down in the bay. In Detroit they made their play with a machine gun in a speeding car and ended up roasting in­side a mass of flames while blood ran out of the flames into the street. That was when you started becoming a legend, the man the organization couldn’t kill. But it was a lie. You know it and the organization knows it. One day they’ll catch you off guard, or you’ll be too slow. The bullet hole in your gut shows it can happen.

The syndicate sniper had been laying for him on the roof of a building across the street from his apartment hotel. There was the sudden pain of the slug biting at the side of his head and the spat it made flattening against the stone building; then he was reaching automatically for the gun riding in a shoulder holster under his arm. The second slug hit him with the force of a sledgehammer. Then nothing. Nothing until waking up in the alley outside with his wallet and gun gone and an old man pushing a bottle at him.

He splashed cold water on his face.

By now the organization would be sure of two things. One, that he was still alive. Two, that he had at least one hole in him. They would have their boys scouring the town for him. Their sniper missed, but he had given them an opportunity they had been after for years. They had him on the run—limping.

The face in the mirror told him why they hadn’t found him yet. They were looking for the legend­ary Sand, not some bum in the gutter. The beard and the street had been his camouflage.

The words of a hymn came through the door to him.

He checked the wound again, thoroughly this time. It was bad enough, but it was clean. The high‑powered slug had ripped its way all the way through. By some freak chance it hadn’t gotten infected, and as long as it didn’t it was just a matter of time before it would heal. He was a man who knew bullet wounds.

He buttoned the shirt back, opened the door and stepped outside.

He nearly collided with a woman as beautiful as they come.



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