FICTION: Lamb Selfie by Preston Lang

“He’s not a cop. I saw him do cocaine off a baby,” Bruce said.

“So what?” Himani said, opening her eyes so she could look at Bruce like he was stupid.

“Police can’t break the law — not like that.”

“Of course they can. Undercover cop can do anything: shoot up, freebase, steal a car. Whatever he thinks will get the job done — full immunity. I knew a guy who hosted cock fights at his place. Animal fucking combat. People thought he must be all right — you know, if he was tying razors to chickens and letting them shred each other. But he ended up busting the whole neighborhood.”

She drew a tiny circle in the air with her finger indicating the whole neighborhood. Her eyes were closed again, and she lay back deep into the couch, feet up on the coffee table — mouth active, body inert.

“Where was this, the cockfighting cop?”

“Back in San Diego. You can ask Bernice about him.”

Bernice was a friend of Himani’s. She’d been a serious party girl in California, but now she was a nervous paralegal living in Brooklyn.

“I don’t want to ask Bernice,” Bruce said.

“Then listen to my mouth: don’t deal with PJ. Feels like a cop to me.”

“You’re saying PJ feels like a cop to you because he did cocaine off a baby?”

“Cops do cocaine off babies all the time. That should be the cliché, rather than the thing about eating donuts.”

“Do you think I’m kidding? This really happened. The party got strange. Juliet was stoned out of her mind, passing that fat little kid around.”

The kid wasn’t fat so much as it was bunchy — full of meaty folds. People were pleasantly mellow, and everyone got a chance to hold it. When the baby came Bruce’s way, he rocked it awkwardly for the sake of appearances then passed it along to PJ, who put a small, white line right on the kid’s bare back, and took it down in three sniffs—snort, snort . . . snip.

Bruce hadn’t wanted to go to Juliet’s party. He’d ended up selling about $150 worth of oxycodone for forty-five bucks and some vague promises. He was getting sick of parties. Soon after passing along the baby, PJ had approached Bruce and asked about pills.

“What do you have?”

“I’m pretty much tapped out right now,” Bruce said.

“No, you don’t get it, man, I’m not trying to get high for free; I’m trying to make us both some money.”

The pills had come into Bruce’s life unexpectedly. He had volunteered at a nursing home, playing piano three times a week. The old people had zero musical taste, and more than once a senior had shut the cover of the keyboard on top of his hands while he was in the middle of a song. But Bruce kept at it because they were very sloppy with their in house pharmacy. Taking drugs from the elderly is usually a bad move, a desperate and sweaty crime, but Bruce couldn’t look away when it came up as big and easy as it did — bigger than he and Himani knew what to do with exactly. They’d been selling in small quantities to friends, but that wasn’t the best way to get rid of more than fifteen hundred pills.

That’s why he was at a party talking to PJ about opiates. PJ was one of those skinny guys with ropy muscles and long scuffed up hands and enough freaky energy to put some scare into much bigger men.

“What do you need?” Bruce asked.

“I go home for Thanksgiving and I have so many people, and they’ll pay a lot.”

Did he have an accent, a bit of a twang? It was hard to tell what was authentic with this quick-smiling man high on cocaine and infant flesh.

“Where are you from?” asked Bruce.

“It’s like selling turkeys: everyone has to get one. I’ll take as much as you can give me.”

“You can take . . . a thousand?”

“Sweetie, I could take twenty-thousand if you had it.”

Originally there had been nearly seventeen-hundred pills. Bruce had repackaged them into large multivitamin bottles and stored them in the cabinet above the refrigerator. Of course, he’d kept some for personal use. Bruce would chew up three of the little devils on a Friday night, chase them down with a forty ounce, and feel like he had a pretty special perspective on the world. Himani, though, was on her way to a more serious habit.

***

“He’s a cop. I can prove it,” she said the morning before the meet. She’d found something online — Arkansas corrections officers graduating class picture. It was taken six years earlier. Second from the left in the back row was a man who maybe looked like PJ.

“I don’t know,” Bruce said.

“He let his hair grow, and he’s lost some weight, but that’s him.”

“I don’t think it is. I really don’t.

“Look at that face.”

No, thought Bruce, this wasn’t the same guy. She’d just surfed through law enforcement group photos all over the country until she found one guy standing in bad lighting who looked something like PJ.

“Why don’t you want me to sell?” he asked.

“I do want you to sell. I don’t want you to get busted, okay? I want you to stay out of jail.”

“People don’t go from corrections in Arkansas to undercover in New York. That doesn’t happen.”

“How do you know?”

“So he’s a prison guard in Arkansas, and then the NYPD puts in a call, says send us that guy to go undercover in narcotics in Queens? We need him?”

“I’m trying to protect you.”

She was trying to protect something, but it wasn’t Bruce. She saw hundreds of pills as a good way to make it through the winter. If he didn’t get it all out of their apartment, she’d be a junky by January.

“PJ’s coming over at ten,” he said. “You can be here or not. That’s up to you.”

***

A little before nine-thirty, while Bruce was deciding whether or not to set out snacks, a knock came on the door. It was Dax. Dax was an enormous network administrator who worked with Bernice. Himani had met him one day when she’d had lunch with Bernice, and since then he’d started doing her favors. He found her temp jobs when she felt like working, and he helped her move into Bruce’s place when she’d suddenly gotten evicted. And then he started coming over every week to watch a TV show about sexy hobgoblins who turned back into humans during the day. Himani was obsessed with it and had a blog where she discussed hidden theories and debated other bloggers about who was really the sexiest hobgoblin. Bruce found it all silly — scaly creatures running around at night then going to philosophy class in the morning.

“Himani’s not here,” Bruce said.

“Yeah, that’s all right. I’ll wait.”

“And there’s no hobgoblins tonight. That’s on Sunday, isn’t it?”

“We have to watch the last episode again. We missed something big.”

“All right, but I’ve got a guy coming over in a few minutes. You can just watch TV. We’ll be in the kitchen.”

“Oh, a guy?” asked Dax in a comic high voice.

“Yeah. You can watch TV, have a beer.”

“And you’ll just have a chat with your guy?” Dax smirked, but then didn’t see anywhere else to go with the joke, so he accepted the offer and settled into the couch to watch college football.

Bruce tried to reach Himani, but it went right to voicemail. Maybe it was a good idea to have Dax sitting there, drinking a beer while Bruce did his business in the kitchen — just an unpleasant colossus on the couch. The only other option was to call off the deal.

“Himani’s getting skinny,” Dax called across the room.

“She’s fine.”

“I’m not one of those guys who needs ghetto booty, but I need to be seeing something back there, you understand?”

Himani wasn’t too skinny, not yet anyway. Bruce decided not to set out snacks, and PJ showed up about half an hour later with Juliet and her baby. She nodded to Bruce and sat near the fridge, fussing with her child seriously like a responsible mom. Dax turned around on the couch to watch.

“Who is that?” PJ asked.

“That’s Dax. He’s just hanging out tonight. Don’t worry.”

“I don’t like him.”

“Don’t like me? That’s what you said?” Dax stood up and came over to the kitchen then sat on the counter so that he loomed about a foot higher than everyone at the table

“What’s going on here?” Dax said.

“I’m not speaking to him. He shouldn’t be here. You know that, don’t you?”

“He’s just hanging out. Don’t worry about it,” Bruce said.

“No. I don’t like that he’s here.”

“Who the hell are you?” Dax said. “Show up with a pregnant hippie? Start telling me I’m not wanted?”

“I’m not pregnant,” Juliet said. “Baby on the inside means pregnant. You learn a little science, maybe.”

“How about we just do our thing,” Bruce said. “You want to see what I’ve got?”

“No, I want this guy out of the apartment,” PJ said. “Send him out for Scotch; give him tickets to an ice show. Whatever you got to do, but I don’t want to look at him.”

Bruce glanced at Dax. He considered putting a hand on his shoulder or some other physical gesture, but he settled on a soothing tone.

“It’ll be okay, man. Just give us a moment.”

“So what’s actually going on here?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just step out for a second.”

“It’s Himani who asked me over here. She can tell me to go. Otherwise, I’m staying. Senor Smooth here and his crack whore — they’re the ones who got to go.”

PJ hit him over the head with the wooden cutting board –a solid thud — but Dax didn’t go out right away. He made a run at PJ but got popped in the face with the board again. Then PJ shoved him back towards the couch. Dax stood for a second and then crumpled, and PJ got him one more time in the head with the board on the way down. Dax still wasn’t out cold, but he couldn’t have been seeing the world straight. PJ put the boots to his rib cage twice and then once back to the face.

“I don’t have to deal with this nonsense,” PJ said as he ushered Juliet out the door.

Bruce didn’t know what to do with Dax. He propped him up, leaning him back against the couch, but if Bruce didn’t support the neck, blood ran into Dax’s eyes and mouth and his head rolled around listlessly. When Bruce got the head resting still against a cushion, he felt like this was the best they could hope for. Dax was breathing; his eyes were dull but alive. Bruce’s inclination was to let him sleep it off. When Himani came back and saw the mess, she looked horrified.

“What happened?”

“He took a swing at PJ, and PJ beat him up.”

“We have to take him to the hospital.”

“He can just sleep it—”

“No, call a cab.”

She acted like Bruce was being inconsiderate when he changed clothes and washed the blood off his hands before calling for the ride. It took much longer to get Dax into the cab than it took to drive to Mount Sinai Queens. Once they got there, they had to wait until after midnight before anyone would look at them. When they finally got a chance to talk to a nurse, she didn’t seem to find Dax’s condition alarming.

“What happened?”

“He was doing that thing where you run into a wall. To prove that you’re tough. You know what I mean?”

“Sure. That’s real common.”

She was too busy to be concerned about the narrative. The doctor didn’t care either, but they kept Dax in the hospital overnight for observation. Bruce and Himani were the only ones in the elevator on the way out.

“You told him to come over tonight?” he asked.

“You didn’t even clean off his face,” she said.

“He said you had to watch the last episode again, together.”

“You know what—”

“I told you I had the deal with PJ tonight. I told you that. When did you invite him over?”

“Sometimes I wonder whether you’re a decent human being.”

That was an open question, sure.

Himani stayed behind shaking her head while Bruce walked through the lobby and out the automatic doors. He turned on Crescent Street, looking for a restaurant still open at three in the morning, and then he heard steps following him, closing fast. He spun, hands out in front of him, and saw PJ.

“How’s your friend?”

“He’s . . . okay. He had a concussion. Some other problems.”

“Yeah. Sure. Naturally. Do you still want to deal?”

“. . . Yes, I do. But, if we—”

“Just you and me, right? I won’t bring my flame. Tell you the truth — Juliet is getting to be a bit of a boulder, you know? You can’t do anything loud while that baby is sleeping.”

They arranged to meet at a Greek place in Manhattan the next evening. Then they shook hands and said goodnight, and Bruce went home without eating. He cleaned the blood off the floor in the living room, but there was nothing he could do about the couch. Himani didn’t come back until late morning while Bruce was still asleep. She got in bed but kept her distance, and she didn’t wake up until just before the sun went down.

“I’ve got a job tonight,” he said. “A real paying gig. It’s a party for a law firm. Darrel’s regular keyboard player cancelled on him last minute.”

“Okay,” she said sleepily swinging her legs over the side of the bed. It was hard to tell whether or not she was still upset.

“How’s Dax doing?”

“Hard to say. I should probably head back over there.”

“I didn’t want him to get hurt, but he just got salty with PJ. You know how Dax likes to bully.”

“Yeah, I’m not blaming you.”

She kissed him lightly at first, then deeper, the kind of kiss you can’t get from a real junky. He started to get back into bed, but then she seemed to change her mind. She kissed him on the head and stood up to get dressed. He went to make pancakes, but she wasn’t interested in eating, and she left the house before he did. When Bruce looked in the cupboard above the fridge, he only saw thirteen bottles instead of fifteen. He searched the place, through all Himani’s stuff, and finally found the missing bottles in the pockets of her rain jacket in the back of the closet. Bruce took his keyboard out of the case and put it in the closet; then he put all the vitamin bottles in his case and headed into Manhattan.

***

The restaurant was dimly lit with a large slab of rotating lamb at the counter. Clearly it was not a single cut of meat; it was made up of strips melded together and put on a rotating pole. It had been shaped to look a little like a Christmas tree. Bruce found this distasteful, but everyone who came in took a moment to look at it and say something clever. The counterman pressed a button and it stopped turning. Bruce bought a doctor pepper and sat at a table towards the back. Himani texted him three times while he sat there: call me; call me, it’s important; you there? Bruce was about to give her a call when PJ walked in, looking neat and honest in just a polo shirt and khakis. Bruce sat down across from him and nodded at his case.

“What’s that, a guitar?” PJ said. “You’re going to do a song?”

“Not tonight.”

“That’s cool. Give it to me.”

“Can I see yours?”

“Product first. Always.”

PJ smiled indulgently, and Bruce passed the case under the table. PJ opened it up on his lap with no particular stealth. He took out all fifteen bottles and lined them up in front of him.

“There’s a hundred pills in every bottle?” he asked, giving each bottle a quick heft.

“Yes.”

“Do you mind?” he asked, reaching for Bruce’s doctor pepper. He took a pill from three different containers and tossed them in his mouth, chasing them with a small sip of Doctor Pepper.

“Let’s just hang out a few minutes and see,” PJ said, putting the bottles into his backpack. “No disrespect.”

“Can I see the money?” Bruce asked.

“Sure, hang on to it while we wait.”

PJ pushed his bag straight across the table — plastic over paper from Gristedes supermarket. Bruce put it down on the seat towards the wall and peeked inside. The money was rolled up in thick wads of twenty-dollar bills. It was still sitting there next to him when two cops walked into the diner. Bruce tensed, but if they’d been waiting just to arrest him, they wouldn’t be taking pictures of lamb with their phones. They got a few different angles of themselves with the meat behind them. Then they asked the counterman if he could get the meat spinning again. It was clear the guy didn’t really want to, but he had to stay on the good side of police. He pressed the button and the lamb started to move. The cops clapped and laughed.

“Good to know where my tax money is going,” PJ said, loud enough for the room.

“Excuse me, sir?” asked the taller cop.

“You guys on duty? Spend your time giggling and taking pictures of meat?”

“This isn’t your concern.”

“No? I pay your salary. You work for me, right? And here you are carrying on, wasting time on lamb selfies. Maybe I have a bit of a problem with that. Yes, maybe I do.”

“How about you keep your comments to yourself.”

“At least you’re not out shooting some kid for putting his hands in his pocket.”

“I would advise you to stop it. Right now,” said the shorter cop.

“Anything I said illegal?”

“You know what obstruction of justice is?”

“Obstruction of you taking pictures of rotating meat?”

“Get up. Put your hands on the wall.”

“Am I standing in between the camera and the lamb—”

The tall cop walked over and put a hand on PJ’s back.

“Get up. Stand against the wall.”

“Mick, let’s go,” said the other cop.

“No, this prick thinks he can—”

“Let’s go. Mick, we’re going now.”

The shorter cop was in control. Mick, the taller one, gave his partner an angry look, but he walked out of the diner without another word. The short one followed close behind.

“I almost became a cop. I ever tell you that?” PJ said.

“You never did.”

“No clue what I was thinking. Taking classes with these rednecks. They were all about, give me a baton and let me go put some monkeys in their cages. Did a week and a half of the program and they booted me out. They didn’t think I fit in with the culture.”

And then PJ’s smile widened with physical pleasure.

“Yeah, this is okay. Go ahead and put the money in your case.”

Bruce reached under the table, pulled the case back to himself, and dumped the cash inside. It looked about right, but he couldn’t know for sure. What’s a few thousand dollars fleetingly glimpsed under a table?

“Can you do this again?” PJ asked.

“I doubt it.”

“A man with ingenuity can accomplish wonderful things. You got my number, right?”

“Yeah.”

PJ left the restaurant first, bag slung over one shoulder. Bruce watched him through the window, as he strode confidently across the street, short sleeves in the cold, tapping the hood of a taxi cab that had nosed out into the crosswalk.

Bruce gave it two minutes, glancing at himself in the napkin dispenser: he was blurry and thick-faced and a lot richer than he’d been when he woke up that morning. Then he rose and walked out of the restaurant, heading west along Seventh Street, back to the subway, then home. His case was bulky but not heavy. He looked behind himself once and then called Himani.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“East village. The gig is done; it was just an early evening office thing, so they told—“

“Yeah okay, I need to come and pick you up.”

“You have a car?”

“Yeah, I borrowed one. I talked to Bernice. She says you need to go see police voluntarily, as soon as possible. Otherwise it looks really bad.”

“What’s happening?”

“Didn’t you hear? Dax is . . . worse.”

“How would I have heard?”

“Just tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you.”

Bruce gave her the cross street he was coming to and walked into the Rite Aid on the corner. He looked at shampoo and body lotions, before making it to the pills — Bayer, Tylenol, Advil. If Himani had any pain, those were her options now. She called him about ten minutes later.

“I’m here. Where are you?”

She sat in front of a hydrant across the street from the Rite Aid in a car Bruce had never seen before. He started to slide into the backseat, but she stopped him.

“What, am I your chauffeur?”

“The case doesn’t fit in the front.”

“Then leave it back there and come up next to me.”

Bruce checked the clasps on the case and moved into the passenger seat.

“Dax is in a coma. And when the cops came and looked things over, they were not happy with the ran-into-a-wall explanation.”

“Okay, but I didn’t do it.”

“That’s why you really need to come in and tell the police your side. Bernice told me that in homicide cases, witnesses who voluntarily gave testimony were virtually never arrested, let alone convicted. And that’s even if they had some tangible culpability. ”

Tangible culpability? That definitely sounded like Bernice, the paralegal.

“Did you talk to police?” he asked.

“I had to. They were there when I got to the hospital.”

“Did you give them my name?”

“Your name was already down on the forms we filled out when they checked Dax in.”

“I never put my name on any form.”

“Well, I did, and they know where I live and that it was me and some guy who brought Dax in. How long do you think it would’ve taken for them to figure out who you were?”

“Whose car is this? Is it Dax’s car?”

He reached for the glove compartment, but it wouldn’t open.

“Bruce, can you please listen to me on this?” she said, giving him a quick imploring look, before putting her eyes back on the road. “It is my fault — partly. I get that. I shouldn’t have invited him over. I wasn’t thinking. And I know that you didn’t hurt him. And I don’t want you to go to jail. So can you just listen to me on this?”

She gave him that face again — please don’t be an idiot because I love you. She looked clear, determined, and caring, rather than cynical and sedated the way she’d been almost fulltime for the past few weeks.

“So what do I tell the cops? That I was trying to deal drugs and my buyer beat Dax senseless?”

“Try to stay as close to the truth as you can.”

“Okay. But I’m not giving them PJ’s name, and I’m leaving the drug deal out, if that’s okay with you. I met this guy at a party named Something-other-than-PJ. He was interested in buying our couch. When he came over Dax got in his face, and Something-other-than-PJ beat his head in with the cutting board.”

“Okay. I guess that sounds all right.”

“But we have to go home first.”

“Probably it’s better not to go back to the apartment.”

“Why?”

“The cops might be waiting outside to see if you show up. Then when we go in, maybe they think they have reason enough to poke around. The couch is all bloody, we’ve got all those pills. So we should go right to the station — it’s on Astoria Boulevard.”

“Can we go somewhere else first?”

Bruce wasn’t in love with the idea of showing up to talk to the cops about a serious crime while bundles of bills rattled around in his keyboard case.

“What do you need to do, and where would you need to do it?”

These were both good questions, and Bruce only knew the answer to one of them, so he was glad when Himani was distracted by an incoming text as they crossed over the Williamsburg Bridge. She shot back a quick reply.

“We’re going to pick up Bernice. She can give you some better advice than I can: what to tell them; what to shut up about. Because homicide cops can be pretty sneaky.”

“He’s not dead, right? You said he was in a coma.”

Bruce had no problem with the idea of Dax as a vegetable, but he didn’t want Dax dead. It seemed excessive punishment for being a low-grade bastard with no taste in TV, and it would certainly turn up the temperature on Bruce. As long as Dax didn’t die, the police wouldn’t push too hard; and Bruce was smart enough to keep himself out of jail without turning them onto PJ. Then things would get better: they’d pay off a few bills; Himani would stop using; he’d find some real gigs around Christmastime. There was no need to panic.

When they got to Brooklyn, Himani turned up a residential street near the water and double parked opposite a big brick building that had once been some kind of factory.

“Go buzz her. Bernice is Apartment 13,” Himani said.

“Just text and say we’re downstairs.”

“Her phone was dying. Can you just go buzz her, please?”

Bruce got out of the car and walked across the street. As soon as he reached the top of the metal steps he heard the engine start. Himani drove away quickly. Bruce took off after her. There was an intersection about eighty yards down the street. If the light was red, he’d catch her. And then what? Jump on the hood? Pound on the windows? He didn’t have a plan, but he ran anyway: it was a lot of money. The light was red, but Himani blew right through it.

When he got home the bulk of her stuff was gone, but the bedroom was messy with old clothes and shoes, hairclips, cold medicine, and books that hadn’t made the cut. Bruce’s keyboard sat there, naked on the stained couch. It was a good reminder of what his skills were: he was a musician — but not a very talented one. He was best suited to play for those who couldn’t hear very well at the kind of place where it’s not strange to have a man playing bad jazz quietly in an overheated rec room. The kind of place where once you figure out how they store their opiates, it just becomes a matter of waiting for a careless day.

#

Preston Lang is a writer from New York City. His first crime novel, The Carrier was published in March 2014 by 280 Steps, and his second, The Blind Rooster came out October 2014 from Crime Wave Press. He writes a monthly column for WebMD.com, teaches a little math and works for a moving company.

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