Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Tortoise Shell Code by V Frank Asaro (Excerpt)

They pulled into the restaurant parking lot at midnight. As usual Oscar’s Drive-In shimmered, all lit up and jumping with its neon signs and car-hop waitresses dressed in short shorts and bobby socks. Radios blared Do You Love Me? from cars jammed three and four deep in a semicircular pattern facing the garishly-lighted exterior. With the windows of his shiny black ’56 Chevy Bel Air hardtop rolled down, Anthony circled around looking for a parking spot, passing through aromas of hamburgers and French fries, and dodging and greeting knots of people he knew. Perhaps seventy-five customers moved about, hobnobbing in and out of their cars. Finally he parked and turned off his headlights.

“Look,” Cheryl said in a low voice.

Anthony’s gaze followed hers. Egan James stood on the other side of the lot, horsing around with three other guys who were drinking beer and leaning against someone’s hotrod. “I see him.”

She clutched his arm. “Let’s leave.”

“What are you talking about? We just got here. I want something to eat.”

“But he’s got it in for you, Anthony. Just the other day he told Mary Wills he thinks you’re the one who blackballed him from your club in high school.”

Anthony shook his head. “I can’t believe this guy. I doubt that’s what’s bothering him; that was over four years ago! And I wasn’t even the one.” Anthony narrowed his eyes. “Look how he walks around with that sneer on his face. It’s there even when he tries to act nice. Remember when he went around telling people you’re his girl? They said, ‘That will be a surprise to Cheryl. She says you’re only a date.’”

“He didn’t like that at all,” Cheryl said. “He thought everyone was laughing at him. Anthony, he makes me nervous.”

“I need to talk to him,” Anthony said. “That’s the main reason I wanted to come here tonight.”

Cheryl put both hands to her cheeks. “Oh no! Don’t talk to him, not tonight. Can’t you see he’s drinking?”

“I thought he gave that up.” Anthony slid back the car’s bench seat, giving them more room. “Something about that church he joined.”

“Well, he’s obviously off the wagon now.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure what I ever saw in him.”

“The guy’s an enigma. Back in high school he did pretty well with grades; he could have gone on to college if he wanted to. And he did things like drive the truck for Christmas toy collection. Heard he’d even done a few years of military, But on the other hand he was always picking arguments and looking for fights. No one remembers him ever losing one. He liked to fight in the street and he fought dirty. I saw him once.”

“You did?”

“Hang on a second.” The car hop was approaching. Anthony gave her their order, then turned back to Cheryl. “It happened at a party at John Perkin’s house. Egan had some words with ‘Mr. Clean’ Gleason; remember him? Then invited him to step outside. Clean never even got out the door before Egan spun around and dropped him with a roundhouse right.”

Cheryl winced—then her eyes went wide.

Anthony felt fingers close roughly on his shoulder, then heard the familiar snarl of Egan James: “You here to see me, asshole? Then get out of the car. I have something to say to you, too.”

Anthony jerked his shoulder free. “Bug off, Egan. I’d like to talk to you, sure—after you lighten up. Let’s not start off on the wrong foot.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.” Ridges formed on Egan’s brow. Three of his friends stood behind him, smirking. Anthony could smell alcohol. “What are you afraid of? I thought you were a hot-shot wrestler.”

“He ain’t wrong-footed, man,” one of his friends sing-songed.

“Please don’t get out of the car,” Cheryl whispered.

Anthony noticed some of Cheryl’s friends and some of his sitting in their cars, regarding him expectantly. “Look, Egan,” he said. “I’m not interested in fighting, okay? But I’d like to talk to you, man to man. Can you do that? A civilized discussion? ”

Egan’s scowl broadened into a smile. “Oh, collegiate style? Sure, Tony. I’m ready for that. I’d like to hear you out. Seriously, let’s talk.” He took a few steps back and relaxed his hands, then motioned his friends away.

Anthony turned to Cheryl. “Everything’s okay. We won’t fight. Don’t worry.”

Avoiding her restraining hand, he opened the door, swung out his knees and rose from the seat. Just as he was straightening his legs, a burning pain ripped through the center of his face with a deafening “crack.” His vision flashed red, then black. He realized Egan’s fist had caught him full on the nose. And now he was kneeling on the pavement, blood trickling down. That would not do. He got up unsteadily.

“Go around back,” Egan’s friends were saying. “Go around back. The cops will get you here.”

“He doesn’t want to fight me,” Egan jeered. “He only wants to crawl back in his car with his little whore.”

Anthony blinked his eyes and tried to find his balance. Now the blood dripped heavily onto his shirt. How could he have been so stupid? Hadn’t he just told Cheryl about watching Egan sucker-punch Mr. Clean? Hadn’t Joe warned him that Egan fought dirty?

Then what Egan had just said exploded in his brain. Cheryl, with her hands to her cheeks, was slowly shaking her head no, at the same time sinking low in her seat. He turned and stalked toward the dark alley behind the Drive-In. Twenty or thirty people followed. Young men, a few girls; some friends of his, others obviously siding with Egan. Cheryl remained in his car. He knew Cheryl would not want to witness this. He saw John in the group, but not Joe. Things were about to get ugly.

In the shadows behind the restaurant’s corrugated iron wall a silent circle formed around Anthony and Egan. A light fog hung in the air. Anthony faced Egan and half-crouched. His little whore? He wanted to get the guy, to hurt him, dismember him, break all his bones. The blood trickling from Anthony’s nose and soaking into his shirt and chest felt like hot molten lead.

He and Egan circled one another. Staring at Egan’s smirk, Anthony unleashed what felt like a lion from his soul. Charging forward, he wrapped his arms around the bigger man, lifted him and flipped him onto his back. A heavy-winded grunt vented the air. Anthony sprang instantly onto Egan’s chest, straddled him with his knees, then jackhammered one, two, three, four steel-hard punches to Egan’s face. Then Egan smashed an open hand into Anthony’s mouth, pushing his head back and trying to dig his fingertips into Anthony’s eyes. Anthony cried out in rage and rolled away.

Eyes burning and nose clotting with blood, he circled Egan again. Their breaths steamed from mouths and nostrils. The crowd stood silent. Egan threw a fast left jab, then brought his right fist, hard and violent, into Anthony’s ribs. The impact lifted Anthony to his toes but without pain; Anthony felt anesthetized. Egan’s left hook came in and Anthony caught it, whipped Egan’s arm over his shoulder and stooped beneath him. Strength exploded through Anthony’s body. With a gut-deep growl he lifted Egan into a fireman’s carry—then slammed him onto the ground as hard as he could. Dropping to his knees, he clutched Egan’s head between his hands. Egan’s crew-cut scalp slid against the skull beneath as Anthony, out of control, raised Egan’s head, then flung it back against the dirt. Grabbed it, lifted it, threw it down—again—as if to kill a sneering giant cockroach. But he found himself easing up from a full slam. Through the red blur he knew he did not want to kill the man.

He felt punches glancing off his face; ignored them. Like him, a disintegrating Egan was now bleeding from both nose and eyes—or maybe some of that blood was Anthony’s.

Egan finally stopped moving, although the sneer remained stuck on his mouth. Anthony heard blurred voices: “That’s enough.” “Let him go, Anthony.” “He’s out. He’s hurt bad. Let him go!”

But Anthony wasn’t ready to stop. He wanted Egan to fight back. He wanted Egan to take back what he had said about Cheryl. He wanted…

“The cops are coming. Let him go, Anthony!”

Headlights flooded the alley. What am I doing? Anthony let his friends pull him up and hustle him away.

Energy still charging through his veins, he squeezed his nose as he walked back toward his car. His once-white T-shirt looked as though he’d spent the night slaughtering chickens. The older restaurant patrons stared at him through their windshields while the younger ones made way for him between parked cars.

As he reached his Chevy the strength seemed to leave his legs, and he collapsed into the front seat. Without a word he started the engine. Cheryl pressed her face to his blood-soaked shoulder. “Anthony, are you going to be okay? When you walked around back you scared me. You looked…you looked like you wanted to…”

“I could have. But I didn’t. He will feel it for a while, though.”

She said nothing.

He felt his hands shaking; gripped the wheel harder as he pulled out of the lot. “One day I was happy I could help someone, the next I was trying to hurt someone.”

“Just because of what Egan said? His words have no meaning. I erased them as soon as I heard them… He hit you first.”

Anthony said nothing all the way to her street. In his hands the steering wheel felt simultaneously slippery and tacky with blood. Finally he said, “I should have had it out with him a year ago; stopped all this before it started.”

“You couldn’t have known how far it would go.” Then, as he pulled into her driveway, “Come in and let me get you cleaned up.”

“Thanks. But all I want to do is go home and hit the sack. I’m kind of feeling it now.”

“Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”

He managed a smile. “It’s just a mile up the hill.”

“Well, be careful.” She looked intently at his face, and kissed him ignoring the dirt and dried blood. “Call me in the morning, first thing?”

“I will.”

He watched her go into her house, then backed onto the street. He started up the hill, very slowly, in deep contemplation. His house was about a third of the way up the slope. The houses even higher up were larger. Many were a lot larger. Above him a pair of red taillights disappeared into a gated driveway. Probably John.

Anthony parked in his own driveway, climbed out and pressed the car door shut behind him as silently as he could. Hoping his mother was asleep, he unlocked the front door of the house and stepped into a world of warmth and hominess. Mom had managed to keep things together since losing Dad two years before, and with Sis now working in England, she was Anthony’s only family living at home. She appeared to be dozing in front of the TV, but as he crept down the hall he heard her call out: “Anthony?”

He stopped with one foot on the staircase. “It’s me, Mom. Go back to sleep.”

“Are you okay? You sound like you’ve got a cold.”

“Guess the sea air stuffed me up. I’m fine.”

“Well…maybe you shouldn’t stay out so late.”

He had to smile. Once a mom, always a mom. “We were celebrating. Graduation time, remember?”

“How could I forget…?”

Anthony waited a minute or two then finished stealing upstairs.

In the bathroom he splashed water on the stinging at the bridge of his nose and watched the crimson swirl down the drain. In the mirror his nose looked swollen and slightly bent. No amount of pushing, grimacing or forced smiling straightened it.

He stepped into the relaxing heat of the shower and rinsed the chaos of the fight off himself. After toweling dry, he crossed the hall to his bedroom and crawled between the sheets. He wished he had Cheryl lying next to him after all. An unaccountable heaviness rose in his chest. His nose hurt. His knuckles hurt. The darkness of the room pressed down on him, filling him with foreboding, yet the reasons for his feelings seemed murky and unclear.

Off the coast of Southern California, the Sea Diva, a tuna boat, sinks. Members of the crew are missing and what happened remains a mystery. Anthony Darren, a renowned and wealthy lawyer at the top of his game, knows the boat’s owner and soon becomes involved in the case. As the case goes to trial, a missing crew member is believed to be at fault, but new evidence comes to light and the finger of guilt points in a completely unanticipated direction.

Now Anthony must pull together all his resources to find the truth in what has happened and free a wrongly accused man—as well as untangle himself. Fighting despair, he finds that the recent events have called much larger issues into question. As he struggles to right this terrible wrong, Anthony makes new and enlightening discoveries in his own life-long battle for personal and global justice.

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Genre – Legal Drama

Rating – PG13

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