“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.