Condo Chronicles: False Alarm

Rhonda’s words didn’t register immediately. “You saw who?” I stammered. “Wait…you mean…”

YES. That one,” she said in predetermination, gesturing with one hand to depart posthaste. “And we better go before she disappears like last time…”

“Somebody texted me about a loud party on the second floor, so I went to check it out,” interjected Miguel. “Turns out someone’s made a mess in the hallway, along with the chamaca. We might need to call the cops…”

“Okay, okay, I’m coming,” I replied, applying restraint to stop myself from running down the stairwell. I knew that I wasn’t crazy! I turned to Donna. “Sorry, Miss Wei. This meeting seems to have come to an end, for more than one reason. You, me, and Pete will continue this conversation another day soon.” And with a slow nod of consent from our saturnine femme fatale, I fled the scene of seemingly lost potential with my new posse. We descended the stairwell in a flurry of stomping shoes: Kenneth Cole, Timberlands, and Cole Haan. In the lead of my investigatory excursion, I flung open the doorway for the second floor’s hallway, and wondering if Mickey Spillane had ever experienced seminal moments like this one, I started to run down the corridor when I noticed my prospect: a nude figure lying on its back in the distance, with its legs pointed in our direction and with its torso trembling slightly. I stopped for a moment, partly in shock and somewhat in disbelief.

I could feel Rhonda’s warm breath on the back of my ear. “There! That’s her!”

It was all the catalyst necessary in order to propel me along, in tandem with my sudden concern for the discordant movements of this supine form. As I jogged down the hallway with my entourage in tow and as we got closer to my coalesced apparition, I started to scrutinize its apparent female figure. Hmmm…she’s much younger than I remember…and though it seems more natural, that blonde hair looks to be more of the dirty kind. Having gotten close enough to note the hot pink color of her toenails, I experienced a sudden sense of relief when I observed that her gyrations were due to an uncontrollable fit of susurrous laughter, likely due to being out of breath. I couldn’t help, though, from suffering pangs of ambivalence: this wasn’t the naked girl who had preoccupied my mind for the past few months, to my disappointment.

“Hmmm…it’s not her. It’s not the girl from the stairwell,” I concluded out loud upon final inspection. In her early twenties, this wheezing girl had a slight emaciation about her. Unlike the contemporary preference for a hardbody from CrossFit training (which, aside from the presence of breasts, always made me question the gender), she appeared to possess no muscular framework at all. Damn, she’s all skin and bone…Well, look at that! After a long hiatus, it seems that the bush is finally making a comeback. Good thing, too…Porn hasn’t been the same since then. Truly, you never know that you miss something until it’s gone. In the midst of laughter and with her eyes closed, she was completely oblivious to the presence of three mystified people who were now standing over her. Her profound exhalations provided us with a clue, though: there’s always a particular bouquet of breath spawning from lungs that are makeshift casks of wine.

“Well, she’s definitely higher than a kite,” Rhonda commented, concurring with my internal assessment of the situation. “What should we do about her?”

“We should call an ambulance for her,” nominated Miguel. “And then we should call the cops on her friends who left her here. And who made this mess.”

At Miguel’s behest and having solved the mystery of the inebriated girl in the hallway, I snapped out of my trance and became aware of my physical surroundings once again, taking note of the new interior design for our second floor. Now, despite appearing to be a cantankerous curmudgeon who must surely be surly from being covered in carbuncles, I have a softer side that appreciates beauty in all its aesthetic variations. For example, I’ve been driven to awe by an outside mural along a bricked wall in Montreal, and on a corner in Manhattan, I’ve experienced a renascent sensation when stumbling upon another thoughtful work by Banksy. Graffiti, in fact, can be a wonderful rendition of art. With a French kind of patronage, I would even endorse the possibility of distributing municipal licenses to graffiti’s avant garde, so that they could attack our mundane streets and sidewalks with their creativity and surround us with their two-dimensional souvenirs of hope. However, after viewing the scrawled mess of spray and paint that now covered the walls and ceiling of our residential tunnel, I could safely say that its creators should never be entrusted with such artistic liberties or be thrown a well-deserved vernissage. Not in a million fuckin’ years. In fact, it might be better to deprive them of eyes and hands, along with other basic human privileges. Cave renderings by Neanderthals had more depth to the inane doodles that now besieged us. Though certain its creator was innocent of plagiarizing ancient bisj poles, only a stick figure with an enormous penis (in the shape of another stick figure) provided me with a momentary chuckle. It was then that I paid attention to the loud howls and ambient music coming from the door marked A6 just a few feet away.

“Which dickfaces live in there?” growled Rhonda.

After being on the board for a few months (and with the assumption that I would remain, depending on the lawsuit’s outcome), I had become more than familiar with this building’s occupants. I had become familiar with the idiosyncrasies of each tenant: their current state of finances, their incessant complaints, their unusual requests, their relations to other units, etc. After a short time of sporting such a mantle, you’re inclined to repeat Dante and develop your own levels of sin for your fellow neighbors, and I was no exception. The owners who feel entitled to more than other owners are terrible people, but worse are the hypocritical owners who feel entitled and don’t pay maintenance fees, the lifeblood of every building’s finances. Below these entitled aristocrats, there are those who bought property on an ARM loan (in the hopes of living their “flip-and-profit” dreams found on the shows of HGTV) and who eventually fall into foreclosure, letting their homes sell cheaply at an auction and lowering the collective value of others’ homes. However, these financially irresponsible dunces do not compare with the absolute worst: the spoiled brat whose home was purchased on their behalf by parents. These parasites and beneficiaries of nepotism treat their home much like their other abused toys. They have obnoxious parties and encourage neighbors to flee, selling at lower prices; they lease out their units through AirBnB without discretion, inviting immature acquaintances to lease while absent and elsewhere around the globe; and everyone in their social circle is given a complete set of keys to the building. Lance, who was a male model by trade and occupied the domicile of A6, fit perfectly on this last level in Pete’s Rings of Hell. As far as I knew, he spent his maintenance fees on obnoxious parties like this one.

“His name is Lance. I know this spoiled little shit all too well,” I grumbled to the other two. “Let me talk to him…”

As luck would have it, he came to me instead, opening the door with an idiotic smile on his face and stepping out into the hallway. Much like his emaciated friend on the floor without clothes, he was a gaunt fellow that towered well over six feet but with a darker tone to his skin. “Aaaammmmmyyyyyyy, where are you?” said Lance, somewhat in the style of sprechgesang. “Where are…”

It was then that he noticed the three angry people in the hallway who were now glaring at him.

Far from sober, his lips comically pursed as if tasting a ripe lemon. “Uhhhhh…uh-oh…”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.

Condo Chronicles: Foregone Conclusion

A primal sound consequently erupted from Joe, a repeated series of whoops that was more than likely being repeated “word-for-word” by a silverback somewhere in the far reaches of the Congo. Also, much like his genetic cousin on the other continent, my hairy Armenian friend with coiffed hair began pumping his arms in the air, and if he had traded his suit for a loincloth and a club, he could have easily been mistaken for the second incarnation of Tarzan. Not counting his bitter tirade in that derelict building amongst our new rupestrine friends, I had never seen him so vividly emotive. His wide eyes and open mouth said it all: Me right! Donna two-timing slut! Donna bad! Donna, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more of an antipode to Joe’s reaction. Ignoring him for the time being, she calmly smiled at me while leaning forward to cradle her head on a supporting arm.

“It is true that I work for the Dun Group…and it is true that we are trying to clear out a few blocks in West New York for reconstruction. And even though I do not participate in all those deals being made, I am not ashamed of that. And I am not ashamed of trying to send dirty cops to jail, especially if they get in the way of making money. How’s it called? One stone, two birds?” She shrugged, taking another slug from her bottle. “And I am dating a top guy at the Dun Group.” She smirked again, with that same mischievous appearance that bordered on being diabolical. “But I date a few men. I am dating a retired Princeton professor who is from a rich family and almost double my age, plus we have a fun time with toys in the bedroom…all while his wife is dying from cancer. I am not ashamed of that, either…because life is about having options. I make my choices without shame, and I choose to help get rid of Captain O’Bannon, to both get rid of bad cops and to make money. To be honest, that actually makes me proud.”

Damn…that is one woman it’d be a mistake to mess with. For the second time in so many days, I watched the balloon that was Joe’s elation suddenly deflate, popped by the indignant stab of Donna’s stern conviction. Though his posture hadn’t lost any of its righteousness, his slumped shoulders and countenance showed an inability to reconcile the unabashed candidness and the actual words from our pragmatic ally. His lips flapped silently as they formed various shapes in confusion, emitting sounds that fell flat due to having no volume. As for me, I experienced a doomed sense of certainty. I had a sinking feeling, knowing that we were farther than ever from our initial goal and steadily plunging into a Mariana’s Trench that sepulchers all hope. Taking Joe’s sensibilities into account, I was well aware that such a revelation could be the very undoing of this shaky alliance.

“Well,” I stated flatly, failing to resist the temptations of witzelsucht, “Nobody here cares about your sex life, Donna. Unless, of course, there are pictures that you’re willing to share.” When no laughter came my way, I took the hint and plodded onward. “Anyway…I think that I speak for both Joe and myself, when I say that we don’t ultimately care about your personal conquests. What we do care about is whether or not you’re actually being up front and telling the truth about Richie. You are…right? And you have the proof to back it up?”

Donna’s face reverted back to her previous stoicism. “Yes.”

“Okay…well…I can work with that. And I’m sure that Joe might not agree with all of your life choices, but he’ll get past them.” At the very least, I sure hope so… “Out of curiosity, though…do you think that any of your more powerful boyfriends might help us out? You know, a favorite among them who’d be more inclined to lend a hand?”

She stared into the space behind my head in a pensive trance. “Hmmm…maybe one of them could help.” She paused again, not wearing hesitation well since it didn’t really suit her. “And I don’t have a favorite among them…since I do not love any of them. All of them are useful to me in some way, but it is hard to measure it…maybe the professor? He’s older, and he might leave his estate to me in his will.”

Observing her dark eyes as having a resemblance to a starless vacuum, I realized that this situation bore striking similarities to the awkward moment with her cousin: sometimes there’s really nothing to say, since it just is what it is. Who knows where it all started for Donna. It could have had something to do with that grandfather who yearned for a son and had incessantly reminded her of it. Perhaps it had been a father who never paid any attention to a young girl looking for some kind of approval. Maybe it was a seminal uncle who had betrayed her trust when she had discovered him looking through a drilled peephole in the bathroom or when he had a case of wandering hands. Whatever and whenever didn’t matter anymore. Somewhere along the line, she had made a critical choice about the rest of her life and about the men who would be in it. In that denouement, the decision had been made: she would never be a victim again. She would use them like they had used her before and like they intended to do again. Similar to the décor of her minimalist apartment, her very soul would be functional yet uninviting. She would bear a thousand pounds on her shoulders but would never hang a few grains on sand from her fragile heart. Like so many other young girls who experience disappointment or horror, some aspect of her had departed permanently, for which there would never be a return of that native. No dialogue of any length could stretch across the vast distances to bring it back, and her very essence would be forever sealed by an encircled wall of steel and crowning razor wire. It is what it is.

An exasperated Joe leaned back, reeling as if struck by a metaphysical lightning bolt. “Jesus Christ, Donna! Messed up doesn’t even come close to describing you…I’ve had enough for one day! Ridiculous! Sorry, Pete…I gotta leave and take a break in order to process all of this.”

“Come on,” I said, attempting in vain to recover this disastrous situation, “We can’t call it a night on this note…”

To which, in response, the universe disputed my assessment by triggering a knock on Donna’s front door. When Donna invited into her home those who beckoned, our building super Miguel and Rhonda entered and were greeted by all.

Joe waved, picking up his coat from the sofa. “Good to see you, Rhonda and Miguel. You came at just the right time. I was just leaving this madhouse.”

I focused on Rhonda. “What’s going on? Everything okay?”

Miguel, still in the car repairman uniform of his other job, began to explain. “On the second floor. There’s a situation…”

“You should come right away,” Rhonda interrupted urgently. “It’s your naked girl. She’s back.”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.

Condo Chronicles: Nobody Is Innocent

“Well, I thought that we were eventually going to start talking about your buddy Richie again…but I guess that can wait, so you guys can go at each other’s throat some more. Honestly, yeah, Joe,” I commented, laden with irritated sarcasm, “I can’t wait to hear it.”

Joe held a finger pointed at me, defiant in his moment of being un soldat de la vérité. “Oh, you should be, my friend! Because this woman, the one who said that she’s a big fan of helping people, Miss Goody Two Shoes…turns out that she’s got some other reasons for wanting to go after Richie. Why don’t you tell him, Wei? About the Dun Group?”

I tilted my head to one side, trying to let gravity slide my brain onto one side and pool any resources available in my mind. “Wait a minute…the Dun Group…they sound familiar…yeah, wait, I got it! That’s the construction group who pays for the fireworks on the Hudson during the Lunar New Year, right?”

Joe shook the phone affirmatively at my guess. “Exactly! And our lovely Donna here works for them on the side!”

I looked at Wei, who had walked back into the kitchen and was now standing again behind the counter that bifurcated the room. Facing us, her poker face revealed nothing, though she was paying close attention to Joe’s continuing accusations.

“Okay…so she works for some construction group on the side. And?”

Joe held an open palm midair, in that universal gesture of both an apology and a request for patience. “Okay, I got ahead of myself…I need to explain. I forget that you’re not in the real estate game, Pete.” He put away his phone in his back pocket, so that his hands were now freed in order to form something akin to a Buddhist prayer. Seemingly done by rote and appearing to begin a round of transcendental meditation, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Namaste?” I inquired with a smile, not being able to stop myself from being a smartass whenever possible. For some reason, Joe always brought out the best in me. At this point, though, Joe had experienced enough to develop a thick skin, being now able to ignore any ridicule with ease.

“So,” began the contemplative purveyor of abodes, “the gentrification of neighborhoods east of Manhattan are starting to wind down…there’s only so far east that people are still willing to pay a premium price on a condo. So, they’re all starting to look this way, across the river to the west. The big firms been looking at various alternatives: the Heights in Jersey City, some spots in Bayonne…and a good stretch in West New York.” On referring to that that last location, he turned his head slightly in Donna’s direction. Am I imagining things…or did she just slightly twitch just then? “Any of that sound familiar, Wei?”

I scrutinized Donna for some indication of acknowledgement or denial of Joe’s accusations. In response, she simply turned her back and opened her fridge, looking inside its vault for something.

“You don’t have to say anything, sweetheart. I’ll handle it!” taunted Joe.

“Stop being such a dick. At this point, I’d ignore you, too. You still haven’t made any sense…so what? I get it: they want to start putting hipster coffee shops and vintage bicycle stores in West New York. And then they’re gonna create a new show called WestNewYorkia….so what? Who gives a shit?”

“You don’t get it, Pete,” said Joe, shaking his head. “It’s dog-eat-dog in real estate. What’s going on here in Little Peru, with a building like yours? Me, Richie, and the gang were trying to spruce up this neighborhood. It took a little while, but after years, we finally started the ball rolling. We had big plans for this town decades back, when we watched Hoboken get the makeover…and when we started to finally make some progress, it seems that the Dun Group saw their chance to do something similar a few blocks away. There’s only one problem: you can’t have two ‘hoods next to each other competing simultaneously….”

Donna returned to the counter, opening a Tsingdao for herself and facing us once again. She said nothing, though she watched Joe with what appeared to be a distant disdain.

“…and in that case, you gotta try to bury the competition, in whatever way possible. You try to interfere in the politics of the area, by putting money in the right pockets. You try to slow down any progress by planting stories in local media. You might even go to some pretty crazy lengths, like dragging a cop’s name in the mud. Maybe even by making up some twisted shit about gutting some poor illegals! Oh…and if that weren’t bad enough, she’s sleeping with two of the VPs in the Dun Group.”

First, I looked beside me at the slack-jawed Huiwen, who had probably never seen any real-life drama before. For him, I imagine that this performance was vastly better than anything watched in the comfort of his own living room. Also caught in the moment of suspense, I sharply snapped my head in Donna’s direction, looking again for some body language that betrayed her innermost thoughts. Again, though, I could find nothing that was even slightly suggestive. Shes’ a character, that Donna Wei. In the novel Dead Souls, Gogol’s Chichikov remarks how many young women begin their lives as curious, intelligent prodigies…only to become erased as their mothers and superiors fill their heads with ‘female stuff’ and wipe out the essence of their individual vitality. Almost two hundred years later, I could say that such an unfortunate pattern has not yet abated. As I kept a close watch on Donna, though, I got the impression that no parental figure had even come close to dismantling the framework that permeated the frame of Miss Wei. In fact, based on her posture, I would say that it’d take an atomic explosion to even make her move an inch.

“Got anything to say, Donna?” questioned Joe. “How close am I to the truth?”

As she imbibed from her cool beverage, she swept the room with a glance and sported a slight smirk. When she was done, she put the bottle down gently in front of her. “Close…you’re pretty close.”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.

Condo Chronicles: Tell Me If You’ve Heard This One

“So, you like to party, right?”

Why do I suddenly have the sense of déjà vu?

Though battling exasperation, I suddenly found myself in need of a change in conversation, considering that the last hour had been spent bearing witness to a sisyphean effort at diplomacy. “How so? Haven’t we already talked about this subject?”

“No,” Huiwen responding, waving me off. “Not like last time. This time, it different. Drugs? You like to do them? Errr…how is that?”

I felt an immediate pang of guilt over any mental transgressions made in the past towards him. Have I misjudged this poor lad? Am I such a bigot that I couldn’t imagine a Chinese mainlander would have the same thirst of most youth, to desire a taste of all the experiences that the wide world can offer? Be ashamed, Peter, for having a jaded heart that would automatically dismiss this traveler from lands of jaded statues.

In a respectful tone, I offered some advice to my pupil, though I was but a novice myself. “Well, that depends…Which ones are we talking about? Much like food, it depends on the occasion. There are ones for just hanging out on a Wednesday night, and there are ones that mark an occasion. Some are meant for relaxation, while others can give you the wildest night of your life. Sometimes they can even help you to learn something about yourself…”

“What about…errr…mef…errr…meth?” He said the ‘th’ part with a heavy emphasis. “Done that before?”

I frowned at the mention. “No…I can’t say that I have. It didn’t look like fun, and I wasn’t a big fan of the smell or the people who did it. I wasn’t around it that much, since it didn’t become big until well past my teenage years. I wouldn’t recommend that one, if you’re looking to try anything for the first time…”

“You know how to make it?” interrupted Huiwen, stopping my train of thought.

I shook my head. “Nope…can’t say that I do. But like I said, you should probably start somewhere else. Ever smoked pot before?”

Again, Huiwen waved me off with one of his chubby paws. “But if I make it, it would be easy for me to sell it, right?”

“Wait…I thought that you wanted to try drugs. You want to make them?”

“Yes,” he affirmed, smiling at the prospects of his future fame and glory. “Do you watch TV? Ever watch show called Breaking Bad?”

During my teenage years, when I had made the mistake of thinking myself in the house alone, both my mother and I were surprised when she caught me playing with my joystick one evening. As all mothers do, she implored my father to say something to me, to impart some form of paternal wisdom regarding the art of ‘jerking it’. It would be much to expect any father to expound on such a subject with his son, and considering that mine wasn’t suited to the role in general, he was even less inclined. However, he decided to appease his nagging wife, and awkwardly, he joined me in the kitchen several days later, taking a seat beside me. He then looked into my eyes and opened his soul when he spoke: Boy, you’re gonna want to keep that door closed when you’re getting down to business. And in that moment, I realized that there are moments when no words befit the occasion. Sometimes there’s really nothing to say, since the subject doesn’t require discussion : it just is what it is. And sometimes, that subject is a person. Similarly to that awkward moment at the kitchen table decades ago, I realized that there was nothing to be said here. If a naive opportunist wanted to model his life after a fictional character and become a tragically flawed drug lord, so be it. My cynical side, which had been grumbling in defeat only a few minutes ago, now rejoiced in victory as it danced about with a witch’s cackle.

“Yep,” I said with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. I always wondered if certain facial expressions crossed cultural divides, but I had my doubts in this context. “Yep…one of the best shows out there. And that Walter White…he did make a lot of money, didn’t he?”

Huiwen nodded eagerly. “Yes! You and me, we think the same!”

“Yes, we do, my friend. Yes, we do…”

The toilet in Donna’s bathroom shattered the relative quiet as its flush roared with hydraulic implosion, and Joe emerged from the bathroom with his phone in his hand. “Wait until I show you this one about her. My buddy just texted some dirt that you’re not gonna believe!”

When I had planned on making introductions between Donna and Joe, I had known that seeds of distrust had already been planted in the ground between them, and I had no doubts that blooms of accusation would surely follow in their initial conversations. In fact, it had taken a great deal of convincing on my part to get both of them to agree on a rendezvous. However, I had no idea of the clash of personalities that would erupt upon their meeting. Almost immediately upon his arrival to her apartment, the fighting had begun and had only increased in veracity with every subsequent minute. When Donna had decided to go downstairs and outside in order to smoke a cigarette, it had given all three of us a chance at respite after nearly an hour of heated debate (though Huiwen had gotten in the way of my chance of peace and quiet, despite being entertaining). Even now, I was still confused why Huiwen was present for our meeting. (At times, I wondered if Huiwen needed to be present on our very planet and how we’d all be better if his amino acids were best used elsewhere, perhaps in a steak sandwich.) Maybe she had felt safer with him around? Or perhaps she thought of him as decorative, like a borrowed piece from MoMa that represents the absurdity and pointlessness of life? Or maybe she had forgotten that he was there, since he had the personality and presence of a chair? Any were possible.

“Joe,” I said, using the same voice of frustrated parents who try to counsel heart-broken teenagers, “Can’t you just let this animosity go? The both of you are acting like children. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with the both of you, but it’s amazing how you two can get under each other’s skins. Let’s just focus on the task at hand. Okay?”

“No way! Seriously, you’ve got to read this one…”

The front door opened, and Donna walked into the room, wearing the same cross expression with which she had left only minutes ago. Upon entry, Joe pounced upon his prey.

“Hold it there, Wei! Wait until I tell Peter what you’ve been hiding from us all along!”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.

Condo Chronicles: When Fiction Becomes Truth

“Over my dead body!” challenged Octavio, pulling out a chain from the duffel bag and moving between Joe and his executioner. “Nobody touches him!”

Joe’s horrified face almost became a combination of surprise and relief…before Octavio completed his train of thought. “If anybody is gonna kill this cabron, it’s gonna be me!”

I’m sure that Joe wanted to hear that…Man, is he having a bad day.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I shouted, attempting to bring these bloodthirsty animals back in line. I pointed at the more unhealthy version of Midnight Oil with fair hair. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Maria. Maria was his girl,” Billy explained on Matt’s behalf, with a calming cadence that washed over us like the lapping waves of a busy Hudson with aquatic traffic. “She lived in our tent city with him. When she got sick, and we didn’t know what to do, we took her to the clinic. They said that they were going to help her…but then a van pulled up with some dudes in red suits, and they took her away. And that was the last we saw of her.”

Though I was possibly throwing a handful of salt into an open wound, I couldn’t help myself but dig into it more. My heart started to beat faster at the dreaded prospect of actually being right. “And O’Bannon…was O’Bannon there?”

Billy nodded. “Yeah. He’s hassled us from time to time on the streets, so we recognized him right away. He was in one of those…you know…unmarked cars that drove just behind the van.”

“You didn’t say anything to anybody?” I questioned.

“I mean, we thought about it,” Billy lamented. “But, in the end, we thought: who’d believe us?”

“I didn’t know what happened to her,” seethed Matt, his knuckles turning white as his grip tightened around the pipe and his lips curled to reveal his broken, stained teeth. “But now I think that I do.” His unblinking gaze never left its lock on Joe’s widened eyes. “And someone is gonna finally pay for it!”

Amid the insanity of the situation, I couldn’t help but be amazed that my mere conjecture had actually turned out to be spot on. Much like Patton, now I couldn’t help but think that I must be the reincarnation of greatness. I’m a goddamn modern-day Eugene Vidocq! Once this whole mess is behind us, I’m going to open my own private investigation firm and become the motherfuckin’ caesar of sleuths.

“Hold on a fucking minute!” roared a voice behind me that sounded oddly similar to Joe, if it weren’t for its challenging assertiveness and the use of more colorful language. When I turned to address its owner, Joe was standing pugnaciously, despite his dizzying head and the lack of being sure-footed. His wrinkled brow was now a horizontally pleated faceguard, shaped into the helmet of a vociferous dragon. So unlike his usually pleasant candor and his amiable features that resembled those of ancient Hellenic statues, I almost jumped back in frightful surprise.

Octavio was also obviously caught off guard before finally finding the courage to speak. “Hey, yo, I thought that you didn’t curse?”

“Not today, asshole! Not today…not on a day that people talk about me as if I’m the most evil of all assholes! Of me! Of me, the goddamn Buddhist who doesn’t even kill bugs in his apartment, who puts them in tissues and then throws them out the window! Listen, you can call me all sorts of things, you can say that I’m a slimeball real estate guy…or that I used to be in porn with little people…” He threw an acerbic glance in my direction. Okay…guilty as charged. “But don’t ever dare say that I ever hurt anybody as long as I’ve lived. That’s fucking ridiculous! And if Richie has anything to do with this, and if what all of you’re saying to me right here and now is true…” He paused pensively, obviously measuring the weight of his next words to be said out loud. “Then I want to help put a stop to it. Even if he is one of my oldest friends…it doesn’t matter. My real friends don’t do things like that, and if he’s guilty, he’s no brother of mine. Especially if he was stringing me along and using me to frame Dwek! That’s a whole new kind of low…”

The room stayed quiet as his audience took the time to evaluate his speech. Personally, I wasn’t quite sure whether to trust him or not…he had been a thespian in another lifetime. Let’s be honest, though…if he had been capable of performing an act as he had just now, he wouldn’t have needed to abandon his career. He would have won a goddamn Oscar by now. Taking a quick visual survey across the room at the others, we silently concurred with one another in that type of quick, wordless exchange which almost defies explanation.

“Okay,” I said, volunteering as the spokesman for this spontaneous assembly. “So maybe you’re not involved in this mess. And you actually want to help?”

Joe wiped the corners of spittle and blood from the corners of his mouth, staring at me with an unwavering gaze. “Abso-fucking-lutely.”

I nodded, looking around the room. “Okay…Welcome aboard, I guess.” I bellowed a great sigh of relief. “I still don’t exactly understand what happened just now, but I’m glad that it ended like it did.”

Having the benefit of MMA training to keep a cool head in the face of rushing adrenaline (though emotions obviously were another matter), Octavio was able to focus on the present and address the near future. “So, we got a whole lot to talk about it, right? Maybe we should talk a little now and then make a plan to meet up later? At the very least, I gotta get home soon, or it’s Bad News Bears for me.”

“The kid’s right,” said Joe smoothly, his volcanic pulse obviously beginning to lose some of its indignant steam. “We should probably talk a bit now, mainly planning for the future.”

“Sounds good…how about you two?” I turned toward our two new compatriots that would have been perfectly cast in a show about post-apocalyptic wastelands. “Are you in?”

They both nodded solemnly.

“Well, then, that settles it,” I concluded, turning back to Joe. “There’s only one last thing, then.”

“What’s that?” inquired Joe suspiciously.

“When we’re done here, you gotta come with me and Octavio. There’s one last person that you got to meet.”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.