A Smelly Surprise

How many times in my life have I done something like interrogate someone in an abandoned building? And this one and only time, it’s got to be interrupted by some kids…at least, I hope that it’s kids…and not Captain Richie…

As it turned it out, it was neither. Two disheveled men, one fair-haired and tall and another shorter with a darker complexion, stumbled into the room with makeshift weapons of old pipes and sticks. Even though they wore clothes that didn’t fit well and though they were somewhat tattered and stained, they didn’t appear to be homeless. Indeed, despite the obvious age due to wear and tear, their clothes appeared to be maintained well, and the battle-ready brothers sported well-groomed profiles. The fair-haired one took a step forward, and when the window’s light struck his pale face, I recognized him as a local townie who lived in the streets and was likely a remnant of the European population who had abandoned these homes long ago. The various scars on his hands and neck indicated a harsh life that likely would have inspired another depressing tale from Hans Christian Andersen.

“Hey, what the fuck are you guys doing here?” bellowed the Tall Matchstick Boy, waving his pipe. “This is our place! And you can take whatever gay shit you’re doing in here and do it elsewhere!”

“Gay shit?” shot back Octavio. “You come over here, and I’ll show you some gay shit!”

The smaller, darker companion still stood in the shadows, and I couldn’t make out his visage…but for some reason, he seemed oddly familiar from just his general outline. However, when the overpowering odor of Five Hour Energy reached my nostrils, I was finally able to conclude the identity of our fubsy fellow.

I shouted past the menacing gringo. “Hey, Billy…is that you?!?”

In response, the hostile stance of the darker fellow gave way, and he lowered his stick to his side as he took a few steps into the light. When the sun’s rays illuminated his features, it confirmed what I had already known in an olfactory sense.

The friendly, dimpled mouth hidden in a thin dark beard became a welcoming beacon of upturned radiance under dark hair and eyes. “Peter?!? Hey! What are you doing here?”

And it’s here that I should probably explain a few things. Rhonda, being a more charitable person than me, had dragged my curmudgeonly vessel to one of her kind-hearted activities a few months ago, one of working in a nearby soup kitchen for the homeless. Even though I had been reluctant at first, it was due solely to the slovenly desire to sit on the couch, not due to the clientele. During the late 1980s, the issue of homelessness (along with hunger in Africa) had been part of the zeitgeist of that time, and being an ardent fan of exposing myself to the unmitigated truth, I wanted to find out the true story for myself. So, as opposed to the majority of my inbred peers who wanted nothing more than to drink and burn cars in the pits around Marshall University, I convinced my friends to embark on a fact-finding mission in Pittsburgh. In this social experiment of the summer, we lived for three days among the homeless denizens of the Steel City, and in that short time, I learned a great deal. The young homeless were usually disenfranchised, drug-addicted, or runaways; they either died or eventually learned a life lesson (that became a secret when they finally matured and got a job). The older homeless, on the other hand, were usually mentally or physically ill with no illusions of hope, and they resigned themselves to an early death, drinking themselves into a cavalier bliss or a bitter stupor. Of course, there were many other variations, but those are too many to simply list here. However, it’s safe to say that I had developed a certain comfort level when present in their company, especially when engaged in mischief that required all of us to run quickly in one direction.

However, after my initial foray of working at the kitchen, I found myself less and less resistant upon subsequent trips. It seems, much like the Grinch, that a benevolent spark had caused some sort of catalytic reaction among my chemical ones, and it had expanded and stretched the meager heart inside my frame. Accompanying the travails of serving this food (which was of surprisingly decent quality), I had met and conversed with our clientele, many of whom turned out to be the hillside nomads who lived in the tented cities of the crevice under the Palisades. It would be an understatement to claim that these Hillsiders were among the most congenial and independent homeless to be found anywhere; in truth, they thought of themselves as a proud, noble tribe. I had even witnessed them shouting out to young overweight female joggers, not with cat calls but with benevolent shouts of genuine encouragement. And it was at the soup kitchen where I had met and befriended the Hillsider known as Billy, a lover of aromatic therapy who had developed an affinity for Five Hour Energy (since Aqua Di Gio was a little out of his price range). Necessity or desperation is the mother of invention, and stranger adaptations have been known to occur. It’s said that isolated Siberian towns, bereft of vodka in harsh winters, had resorted to drinking their cheap perfumes, and to this very day, they still prefer them as evening apéritifs. So, I suppose that wearing an energy drink as a cologne is only slightly bizarre in comparison.

“What are you doing here, Billy?” I questioned.

“Oh, nothing, man,” said Billy suspiciously, having much less confidence than when talking about his dubious tastes. He looked over at his fair-haired friend. “Matt, put down the pipe. I know this guy. He’s cool.”

Matt, on the other hand, was not allayed by the prospect of Billy’s familiarity. “Hey, they’re your friends, not mine! So, tell me…what the fuck are you assholes doing in here?!?”

At this point, I could have attempted to devise some sort of elaborate lie, hoping that my compatriots would assist me. I could have hoped to scare them off somehow…or maybe I could have told them that we were, in fact, in the middle of a gay porn shoot. However, since the surreal absurdity of the given situation was almost insurmountable, I yielded to the buckling weight of the present, and I went with the more insane but easy option: I decided to tell the truth.

“Well,” I began, taking a deep breath and pointing towards Joe, “this guy here is Joe, and it’s quite possible that he’s part of a black market ring which chops up the illegal immigrants who live here in Little Peru, and we’re trying to get more info out of him.” I grimaced as I said the words, knowing how ridiculous it sounded…but I kept going anyway. “Supposedly he and Captain Richie have a bunch of guys in little red suits that go around, promising to help the sick ones and then actually killing them…taking their organs in the process.”

With the precision of a gear in a tourbillon watch, Matt calmly turned to Joe but threw his trill voice towards me. “What did you say?!?”

“I know,” I said, shrugging in defeat. “It sounds ridiculous…”

Matt raised his pipe, brandishing his weapon like a MLB slugger at the plate. His crimson eyes had that certain look of one who yearns for vanquishing vengeance. “You helped Captain Richie take my sweet Maria? No lyin’? For real?!? ‘Cause if that’s true, I’m about to bash your fucking brains out…”

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: Time to Roll the Dice

And what exactly do I know? That’s a damn good question…More importantly, how the hell did I fall into this mess?

Turning away from the disheveled figure in the chair, I glanced through the skeleton of a nearby window bereft of frame, at the city’s skyline. The November dusk was approaching, coming faster every day now that autumn had started packing its bag for departure. The alpenglow radiated from the peaks of those man-made mountains of towering glass and steel, and the lofty cranes atop their crowns could be seen slowly furling, as flowers might do in preparation for a cold night. When the light hits them just right, those living landscapes create a surreal set of sharp contours that almost become three-dimensional temporarily, and their vividness can take your breath away, especially under the influence of a powerful drug (including adrenaline). As with times of great pleasure or distress, when you’ve gained or lost something of immense value (or when you’re interrogating a bleeding collaborator in trafficking human organs), time seems to slow down, and for just a moment, this different perspective can make you more acutely aware of the rapid traversal that is your speeding life. The comforting fabric of your everyday life is pulled away to expose that ensconced feeling of vulnerability, and you can feel the threaded broom of the Fates as they are slowly pushing the dust of all us living mortals under the rug, so that we may be reunited with the pile that is the rest of the past. It’s easy then to forget everything else with such overstimulation and pensive meandering…

And, yes, “meandering” is the right word, since it gets you nowhere. Wake up, dummy! Stop this intellectual masturbation that you call “writing poetry” and deal with the present situation! Jesus Christ…it’s not like your life is at risk or anything…

Even though I was reluctant to admit it, the admonishing voice and fierce buzzkill had a point. I wasn’t exactly a salesman by trade, but in this case, I had to deliver a convincing pitch in order to pull this one off. My theory could be nothing more than conjecture, but if I was going to turn this situation around, I had to believe it….otherwise, Joe wouldn’t. I might not be a general practitioner of deception, but I had lived under the same roof as one of its most fierce advocates: my father. His true medium had been forgery (and had possessed enough skill to gain a slight nod from Frank Abagnale), but he did regularly attempt to scam and hustle the general populace with the old-fashioned way of charming lies and tall tales. I wasn’t exactly proud of being the spawn of such a delinquent (especially when he would con a child out of their favorite baseball cards), but I had learned quite a bit about human nature by being present during the execution of his nefarious hobbies. If my father had taught me anything regarding the basics of fraud, you had to weave your web of lies with room to spare, so that you had enough space to wiggle around upon confrontation or any other vicissitude. So, I had a rudimentary game plan…I just hoped that it was enough.

“It’s over, Joe. I know about you and Captain Richie, how you’re good friends that go way back, how you’re working together to get some dirt on Mayor Dwek. I know all of it…”

Even though Joe was still a bit groggy from the sucker punch delivered by Octavio, he began to stir and become more aware with each accusation. He stiffened his back, regaining his usual good posture. Ever the actor, he always delivered his lines with poise. “Well, okay…that’s all true. I won’t deny it.” He shot a striking glance at Octavio before hitting a more acerbic tone. “You didn’t have to hit me to learn that, dummies!”

Octavio stared back without blinking. “Esso! Look at the balls on this guy!”

“…and I know about your operation,” I continued, regaining Joe’s attention. “How you and Captain Richie are looking to frame Mayor Dwek, so she can take the fall. Because the real people on top of this black market are you and Captain Richie.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” shouted Joe tersely, shifting nervously in the chair. “Are you serious? You’re accusing us? Me…and Richie?!? Who is a police captain? Are you out of your flippin’ mind?”

Well, he told us that he didn’t believe in cursing, that it was the mark of someone who wasn’t professional…and even in a situation like now, he holds to it. Who would have thought, a kid from northern New Jersey who’s actually forsaken swearing?

“No, I’m not crazy. For a minute, though, I thought that I might be…but then I played the footage from my building’s DVR again…and again. Captain Richie and some of his boys in red suits, pulling dead bodies out of our locked boiler room. I made a few copies of it. Want me to share the one on Google Drive with you?”

Only accuse Captain Richie and claim that you got evidence on him, since he’s not here to say shit to the contrary. Leave Joe out of it, and now you’ve got plenty of wiggle room. Thanks, Dad.

On cue and proving that he had recollected his wits, Octavio contributed to my ruse by corroborating my claim. “Yep. Pete ain’t lyin’. I was there to see it for myself. You got some shitty friends, Joe…and then you try to get me to help you, knowing what you and your boy did to my aunt! You sick fuck…you’re lucky that I just punched you…that I don’t kill you right now!”

“Hold on a second!” roared Joe, pointing his finger at me (or one of me in his vision, judging by his eyes’ inability to focus just yet). “I would never do anything like that. And never would Ritchie…I think…But it definitely wasn’t me! And I want to see this proof for myself! For all I know, you’re working with Mayor Dwek to cut up these people!” He pointed at Octavio. “And you better not lay another hand on me, kid, or you’ll be in deep shit!”

Gotta stick with the lie. No going back now… I nodded. “Sure thing…we’ll go back together to the building so that you can see it for yourself…”

Our collective attention turned suddenly towards the open door of the musty room, from which broadcasted the low volume of two voices that were down the hall, angrily goading each other to move more quickly.

Shit…looks like we’re no longer alone…

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: Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

Pulling on Octavio’s shoulder, I spun him around to face me. “What the hell are you doing? We were supposed to scare him. Not knock him out!”

With the sophomoric defiance that springs eternal from teenage souls, emotion won over reason , and the street side of my young Cuban companion emerged as he stood over Joe’s unconscious body, with the obvious intention of making me balk. He spoke to me in the same menacing tone as a coffee cart proprietor would address a ‘dirty Bengali’ cabbie trying to pass off fake $100 bills. “Hey…fuck him! He lied to us, and he got what he deserved, especially for what they did to my aunt. So, what? You gonna be a little bitch about it now?”

These Little Peru kids might have seen a few things on these dilapidated streets, and when they see white skin, they confuse the lack of pigment for a lack of spine, which is common in this part of the country…but they forget that there’s a whole other world of crazy that walks upon American ground, where dirtnecks hide razor blades in their cheeks and run through the woods without shoes. And just like this microcosm of Hispanic culture, they also love fried food, banal music, Jesus with a side of xenophobia, and the occasional fist fight spurred by the cerveza known as Bud. It’s called West Virginia.

“You lissun here, boy,” I said through gritted teeth, as a seeping rage began to slide my voice into the dialect of my youth. It had taken quite a bit of effort to get rid of that accent before arriving in my new homeland, knowing that Yankees deem condescension of rednecks as the one acceptable form of bigotry…but it has a way of unfurling its tongue under the influence of booze, fatigue, or (in this case) anger. “Doan run ye mouth on me, and gitcha head outta ye ass.” I collected myself and snapped back to the present, along with the remembrance that this boy could snap me like a pretzel. “Listen…you don’t know if Joe is even really guilty. Instead, you decided to become El Comandante and declare him guilty without any proof. Which you don’t know for sure…And, if, if this guy knows something, then you get information, reliable information, only by carefully drawing it out…by not tipping him off that we might know something about him! What about that whole plan that we talked about? What the fuck just happened to that? I’ll tell you what happened to that…you totally shit all over it! So now what the fuck are we supposed to do?!? Other than face the fact that you’re now going to jail?”

For a few moments, we stood eye to eye, with neither speaking a word. Slowly, though, I saw how my words were digging through the layers of hormones and emotional insecurities, and at last, they found their way into his heart to deliver an icy grip of something new: fear. His recalcitrance abated as he came to understand me, and a look of panic gripped him as he turned his gaze down to look upon the unmoving, groaning figure of Joe.

“Fuck…” he breathed out quietly. “Shit…I fucked up…what are we…”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Listen, kid…maybe you should just get out of here. Maybe I can talk to him after he wakes up…you know, somehow get him to forgive you and forget this whole thing. Maybe we should forget this whole thing, since we’re obviously not off to a good start…”

“No!” he said, focusing his attention on me once more. “Please! We can’t quit now…we need to do something! Come on, man…you’re smart! You’ve got an idea, right?”

I narrowed my eyes much like an annoyed cat. “You want an idea? How about we strap him into a chair and dance around him like Vic Vega? Maybe cut off both ears instead of one?” In response, Octavio only looked back at me, dumbfounded.

I keep forgetting…I gotta lay off the Tarantino references when talking to these kids and focus more on allusions to something else asinine like iCarly or Shake It Up… But that was something to worry about later. Now, though, I needed to think quick and come up with something for the both of us. Even though Octavio stood to face the worst of any possible repercussions, my simple association with him meant that I was also in the path of danger. If Joe was a friend of Captain Richie, then I was bound to be on the receiving end of something not entirely benevolent. Maybe something akin to what befell Abner Louima, if I was lucky? I didn’t want to find out.

“Okay, okay…maybe I got something,” I muttered, only somewhat coherently. “Okay…help me get him up so that I can put him on the chair. Come on! Get his other arm!”

With each person grabbing an arm, we lifted and then dragged Joe’s limp form into the metal chair, in which he had been in a much better mood only moments before. Where’d that smug grin run off to, buddy? Did you lose it? We pressed him against the back of the chair in order to keep him on the seat, and his head rolled forward to lie on his chest. His eyes fluttered as more gibberish and a slight drool escaped his lips.

Octavio leaned close in order to whisper in my ear. “So…what are you doing to do? You’re not going to cut off his ears, right?”

I shook my head. “Uhhh…no. I’ve got a theory about this whole thing, and trust me, it’s kind of crazy…to the point where I don’t even really believe it. But…it’s all that I got to work with. So, when I start talking, just nod and go with whatever I say. Because if I don’t pull this off, we’re both in trouble. Okay?”

Octavio nodded apprehensively. “Okay…okay.”

Taking one last deep breath, much as a stage actor might do before taking the stage on opening night, I then knelt down besides our slumbering prince, and I placed my hand under his chin, lifting his head with care.

“Hey, Joe! Buddy…buddy! Come back to us! You awake?”

Joe lifted his head of his own volition, and opening his eyes, I noticed the pupillary response of someone who was awake but still uncertain about whether the present situation was a lucid dream. His lips slowly started to move, themselves uncertain of the language in this dimension.

“Wha…huh?” questioned Joe. “What happened?”

I placed a comforting hand on Joe’s shoulder, motioning with my other hand towards Octavio. “I’m sorry…but that was Octavio who knocked you out. You know, though, I can’t blame him…after all, who wouldn’t be mad after all of the bad things that you’ve done?”

“What things? What are you talking about?” blurted out Joe, looking both confused and scared.

“You want to play dumb? Okay, then…let me tell you what I know.”

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: X Marks the Spot

“So, this the place?”

I looked at Octavio with astonishment. “You’re gonna ask me? I’m the new guy on the block. You’re the kid who grew up here…if anybody should know, it’d be you.”

Octavio shrugged his shoulders, raising them defensively like the hackles of a cornered cat. “Come on…all these monsters along the cliff look the same to me…”

Starting from my place and walking along the rim of the Palisades’ edge, we had passed by a number of the large sentinels that were abandoned factories and warehouses of decades past, and after each one, Octavio had asked his version of “Are we there yet?” at the doorstep of each. As opposed to his Millennial lack of awareness, I had been taught urban exploring by my mentor Rhonda, and with her help, I had developed an amateur’s attention to detail for these haunted vessels. Aside from simply being eerie and deserted as Cape May in November, they were each unique in the scars that time had carved into them. When you looked, there were stories in the facades, and in the hallways, the lurid details bled from the walls. Sometimes, as with a place like Letchworth Village, the tales are literally told in the journal pages abandoned in its offices among decaying desks, much like the disabled children who were dumped in its midst during the dead of night. 12:00 is time to bath Little Johnny. Be sure to not dunk his head like last time… My eyes converted into tactile sensors, running their metaphorical fingers around the structure in front of us.

“Yep,” I said, nodding, “This is the place.”

“How can you tell?” questioned Octavio doubtfully.

I pointed at the top of the door entrance with a slightly condescending smile. “Because that’s the address. That, and he said look for a red-tagged place, where the sign has a black frame. And there it is.”

A few feet to the right of the front door’s top, there rested the ubiquitous membership badge of the cliff’s sentinels: the white X on a red background. (In this case, it had a black frame, which was definitely unusual.) It was the indication that the building could be hazardous to any who entered…which, to people like Rhonda and me, had the opposite effect that was intended. It was telling that there were more of these abandoned structures on this side of the river; it was yet more testimony that these cliffs were situated in some sort of temporal rift when compared to the metropolis next door. Every day, Manhattan awakes and takes breath of people, with a matutinal inhale of its racing millions and then blowing out its temporary commuters as the sun falls. Time seems to move faster in that community of bipedal cogs, and in defiance of thermal dynamics, even snow seems to melt more quickly. Those who walk within it learn to become ambidextrously multithreaded, so that they may traverse the streets and perform tasks (like switching the contents of bags) simultaneously…all in the hope of catching up with Chronos’ robes and gaining a few more precious lost seconds. How many thoughts and experiences are lost and never truly recorded in detail on this mad island (for an Instagram shot has as much emotional depth as a pixel), nobody will ever truly know. It’s a tumultuous whirlwind swimming with imps of inspiration and muses for misery, and it can be more ridiculous than even a Sharknado. Here, though, in this narrow stretch between the ultimate urban setting of greased rails and the nearby soporific suburbs to the west, life fluctuated between these two temporal planes. This structure (which, from its adjoining brick smokestack, appeared to be a dilapidated factory) and its brethren, however, were evidence of those moments of deceleration. Progress had not yet caught up for whatever reason, and these buildings were monuments to lost potential. Well, it’s not a total loss…these things are fun to explore. That, and they make good places to clandestinely meet someone.

“Okay…so what know?” Octavio asked.

I motioned towards the alley to the building’s side. “Through there, on that side. There’s a door open over there.”

We moved quickly through the barren alley, and finding the door, we walked inside into its musty interior. As always in these cases, there were the impressive displays of cobwebs, and the various instances of graffiti left on the walls. On occasion, Rhonda and I had run into more eccentric artifacts left behind by mischievous pranksters, like miniature clowns just around a corner and dangling at eye level. That’ll stop your heart for a moment…or, in Rhonda’s case, make her pee her pants. In this case, though, there were no stylistic signatures to behold. However, a puzzling enigma had been sprayed onto the wall. Tern bak or die. Swadagah.

I squinted my eyes in perplexion. “Swadagah…?”

Swear to God”, translated Octavio. “I’ve seen the same thing in the stalls at my school.”

“Really?!? Wow…and knowing humanity’s luck, they’re probably going to reproduce. Well, never mind that. We’re late.”

Aside from the barely literate text emblazoned in hot pink, there were footprints in the dust that led the way to further inside, inviting us to follow them. In turn, we accepted, and we soon found ourselves in an old office that still possessed a wooden desk slowly turning into dust. As with places like Letchworth, it always amazed me how much was left behind when a business closed up shop. In front of the desk, sitting backward in a metal chair, Joe Vasgersian sat with his elbows on the chair’s back and his head propped in hands that cradled his handsomely clefted chin. Man, does that guy appear to be the very epitome of smug or what?

“Finally! I thought that you guys were at the wrong building,” smirked Joe, rising to his feet and pushing the chair away. “So, you guys finally did some digging, huh? And you used that relationship with the mayor to get some real stuff?”

Octavio nodded as he approached the chair, shifting his body in order to show a long duffel bag at his side. “Yep…I got it right here. Wanna see it?”

Joe clapped his hands. “Absolutely! Let me take a look…”

What the hell is that little punk doing?

Standing in front of Joe, Octavio opened the bag and pulled to widen its maw. Not satisfied with simply peeking, Joe eagerly beckoned the lad, so that Octavio simply handed over the bag. Not paying any attention to the youth before him, he began to scrutinize the contents of the dark green nylon satchel.

“So, yeah,” Octavio spoke, adjusting one shoulder in an all too familiar way…well, at least, to me. “Tell me if you’ve seen one of these…”

With the same speed of a coiled snake, Octavio twisted his body and threw a left hook that connected to the chin of the late actor. For a split second, the image of that punch and the strength visibly planted into Joe’s jaw inspired my mind to project the onomatopoeia across the scene, much like a comic book. Kerpow! I would have laughed if not for the immediate sense of panic. What the fuck just happened?!?

As Joe’s face slackened and his body fell due to his buckling legs, Octavio stood triumphantly before his surprised victim and answered his own question. “Guess not.”

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: The Fire of Thine Eyes

Now, when it comes to physical appearance, by no means do I think of myself as a ghastly troglodyte; I believe that I have a few appealing features. For example, my face is symmetrical (for the most part), and my skin hasn’t molted in decades. However, I’ve always been aware of my limitations, and when it comes to purely physical appeal, I know that my qualifications fall short of the designation “desirable”. And, having spent a few observant years on this planet, I have become acutely aware that an intelligent woman with decent looks can open many doors and enchant suitors with the twirl of a skirt, wielding such power with the finesse of a magician. Hence, in those rare situations where I have received attention from a lovely creature of feminine wiles, I immediately sense the sort of danger that a prairie dog must feel at the scent of a badger, and I assume the worst of her intentions. So, finding myself in the web of this supposed predator and sensing the tug of its skein, my own spidey-sense found its way to the forefront and drove my sense of alertness into overdrive. Lady, you’re not the only one who has the cunning to weave schemes… Of course, such paranoia was a key factor why my lovelife had been a barren wasteland before Rhonda, but that was an unfortunate byproduct of steadfast vigilance. I will show you an abstinent loneliness in a handful of dust…

“Oh yeah?” I asked, following it with a quick swig of the Tsingtao. Even though I would never tatter the banner of my fidelity to Rhonda, I couldn’t help but wonder if Donna had the same penchant for squeaking that seemed to be ubiquitous in Asian porn. I never would have believed it to be nonfiction…until I was informed by galavanting rakes (and who, to my shame, I call friends) that such carnal eruptions are true to form for those born on the Ring of Fire’s western rim. Damn, though…that would have been fun to find out. “And what would that be?”

“I…”, Donna said, pointing the open end of the bottle towards her for emphasis, “might have some information that you would like to have. Wouldn’t you like to know more about your friend Joe Vasgersian?”

Now I was catapulted to DEFCON 5. For a moment, I thought about playing dumb…but I could tell from the look in her eyes that it would be pointless. “Huh…you know Joe, huh? So, what’s this all about, really? Who are you?”

She put her beer down on the counter and grabbed my hand. “Don’t worry…I’m on your side. I’m a friend of the mayor. Well…I’m a friend of her friends…And I like to look out for her, too. You’re worried about the hóng gwai, right? The red devils?”

I simply stared back at her, saying nothing but yet saying everything.

“I know…but Mayor Dwek isn’t the problem. Your friend Joe is lying to you, especially since he probably works for the people who are behind it.”

Again, I remained reticent. When you’re playing poker or in the midst of boxing or in any match where an opponent’s endurance needs to be gauged, it’s important to keep them guessing, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable…just as I was now. I didn’t know who to trust at this point, but I felt like I was being led around, much like Flukeman would be when obsessively chasing our laser pointer to no avail. Now I know how he feels.

She gripped my hand a bit tighter. “So, you don’t trust me…I can tell. But I am telling the truth when I say that I hate people who treat others like cattle.” She paused, looking for any sign of acknowledgment from me. I offered none. “Have you ever heard of Harry Wu?”

I shook my head.

“His family and ours are friends from Shanghai,” she explained. “He was a political dissident in China decades ago, and he was sent to the laogai camps. Awful places where people churned chemicals with their own bodies and where they were worked to death. When they died, the camps would harvest what they could from their bodies. When Harry escaped from the camps, he dedicated his life to making sure that everyone knew about it, with the hope that it would then end. I always looked up to him for doing something like that…how could you not? How could you not do something about it…just like what the red devils are doing here in Little Peru?”

Finally, I broke my silence. “So, how did you found out about them? And how do you know about Joe?”

“I’ve made friends in high places,” she confided. “And they wouldn’t want me talking about them. They let me know about the black market here in Little Peru…but not too much. Everyone knows about Joe and his past, though…”

“How he used to work in porn with Willow, right?” She looked somewhat befuddled, exhibiting a resemblance to her cousin when I had suggested to him the existence of law and morality. “Never mind…you had to be there. What about Joe’s past…?”

She let go of my hand and grabbed her beer again. “That he and Captain O’Bannon are friends.”

Captain O’Bannon…that name sounds familiar…wait a minute…

“Captain Richie?!? The same one who is one of our builders?” I blurted out, with the same ridiculous enthusiasm as a game show contestant. And, having guessed the correct answer, I rewarded myself by retaking my previous seat on her couch. That, and my mind was now swimming. Wouldn’t it be great if life were like a video game, where the simplest and most mundane victories would be disproportionately compensated with a crate full of treasure? Oh well…I suppose that this beer and couch will do.

She walked over, standing in front of me. “Yes, Captain Richie…what is it?”

“I saw a few things on the security camera months back, and now things are starting to make sense,” I said. I imbibed the last of my beverage with one last gulp. “Looks like Joe and I need to talk…’cause he’s got a whole lot of explaining to do.”

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: Thy Fearful Symmetry

Okay…if what Brian says is true, I get it. I don’t dabble in that world of flesh for fantasy… but I recognize quality when I see it.

Though she was a pretty woman who probably came from somewhere around Beijing, she appeared to have a hint of Mongolian ancestry in her cheekbones. That’s also probably where some of those curves come from…Assuming that she had just changed out of her office clothes (since work clothes was somewhat ambiguous at this point), she chose to wore jeans and a blouse that accentuated her frame. I would have complimented her choice of clothing, but since the general consensus regards such remarks as creepy, I elected to keep those opinions to myself for the moment.

“Hi, Donna,” I said, now on my feet. “It’s good to finally meet you. I was just talking to…your friend…”

“My cousin, Huiwen,” she said, finishing my sentence for me. Even though there was a modicum of an accent, it was so slight to be almost completely gone. “He’s also my accountant, and he helps me with keeping my finances in order.” She turned to her bloodline, throwing a few choice words in Mandarin his way. Immediately, he closed his laptop and started to pack his bags. “But he’s leaving now, so that we can be alone.”

Well, she certainly acts like a girl from northern China…

My partner in crime abruptly threw me a quick nod as he left the apartment, leaving just Donna and myself. She smiled at me. “I heard him try to talk to you…what were you talking about?”

I shrugged. “Oh, just something about wanting to find a place to party with his friends…and then getting the evidence to blackmail them for favors…you know, guy talk.”

“Yes,” she affirmed without any hint of surprise, “That sounds like Huiwen. He has many ambitions, but he’s not as smart as he thinks. But still…he tries. Again, I apologize for not getting out here sooner, but I just got home: I was working late at my law firm. Can I get you anything to drink? Water?”

“Got any Tsingtao in the fridge?” I asked half-joking.

“Yes, I always keep some around for Huiwen. I’ll get one for you.”

“Thanks! I actually didn’t expect you to have any…” As she made her way to the kitchen, I couldn’t help but ask. “So, Donna…do you prefer that name? If you want to use your real name, that’s cool, too. My pronunciation is good enough, though you’ll probably still laugh…”

Even though I don’t mind being addressed as Peter, I have certainly envied the names of my Chinese friends. Stacked against my mine, a moniker like Jin Lung (i.e., Golden Dragon) wins without breaking a sweat, and I would have accepted an offered trade without a second thought. Of course, it’d be more appropriate if the name was ported to a more American version, like “Machine Gun Monster Truck” (with the implied yet optional bumper sticker that says “Nuke a gay whale for Jesus”)…but despite the element of honky attached to it, I would still don such a title with childlike zest. In the case of my current host, I was expecting something equally impressive, like Xiùlán (i.e., beautiful orchid) or Jin NǎiNǎi (i.e., golden boobies). It was probably something akin to the former, but I was hoping for the latter (which would probably be apropos in her case, based on the contours of her blouse).

“I prefer my American name,” she replied, surprising me with her candidness. When I asked for her Chinese name, she quickly said something that sounded like Mèng jiàn erzi, though I could have been wrong. “It basically means dream son. It’s common for grandfathers to name children, and my grandfather really wanted a grandson…And so, out of spite, he gave me the name of his lost hopes.”

Though I know that it’s usually for the best to not comment on family matters, I couldn’t resist the temptation in that moment. “Jesus…what a dick move…Well, I certainly understand why you would want to go with your new name instead,” I commented, graciously accepting the opened bottle of Tsingtao from her. “Thanks, Donna.”

As I took a generous gulp of the rice-laden lager, she opened one for herself. “So…”, she began, “Aren’t you curious why I asked you here?”

I nodded politely. “Well…yeah. And I figured that you would eventually get around to it. Does it have something to do with the pending case in the building? Are you now their legal counsel, since you’re a lawyer?”

She took a small sip from her opened bottle. “No, I’m not involved in that…I would not want to mix my professional life with building issues. There are plenty of other things to worry about…Instead, I have various business interests, and I’m hopeful that you can help me. Especially since you now seem to be good friends with the mayor.”

Hmmm…business interests…like opening up your own practice in Little Peru…or selling your used underwear on Reddit and/or opening a nearby “massage” parlor? Though it was true that I now exchanged emails with the mayor on an infrequent basis (especially to check on Flukeman’s health), I was a little startled how such a casual relationship had become the stuff of tabloids.

Apparently, the egg of my surprise now covered my face. “Do not be alarmed,” she commented, “I am not stalking you. But I do have friends around town, and they tell me about those things that are interesting…and someone who is a friend of Mayor Dwek is interesting. Maybe, then, you can help me.”

I didn’t like being in this position again, much as I had been at White Mana…but there was nothing to be done about it. “And why would I do that?”

She leaned closer towards me, with a seductive smile. “Because…I have something that you want me to give you.”

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: Into the Tiger’s Den

“So, you like to party, right?” he inquired with his heavy Chinese accent nearly encrypting his question, beyond even the reach of the NSA.

My entrancing session with Evernote was broken, forcing my concentration to be diverted from my smartphone. Trying to make sense of what was just asked and failing to do so, I could only blurt out a simple reply of confusion. “Huh?!?”

Shortly after my session with Yanis nearly a week ago, I had called our building super Miguel, consenting to meet with this lawyer who supposedly moonlit as an escort. (Though, since Brian was the sole witness to such activity and was outdone in paranoia by only Babbu, the accuracy of his testimony was obviously suspect.) According to Miguel, her name was Donna Wei, and after a few emails of correspondence between her and myself, we had agreed to meet at her apartment after work one weekday, which was only a few feet downstairs from mine. Apparently, she was only comfortable talking about something particular in person, and in anticipation of such a scenario, I expected our discreet conversation to be held in secrecy. So, upon our rendezvous at her residence a couple weeks later, I was somewhat surprised when a tall but chunky Chinese gentleman opened the door by only an inch, tersely greeting me through the chained narrow gap.

“What you want from here?” he demanded, waiting only for the wrong word to rescind his wonderfully charming demeanor.

I provided my share of a greeting, though it was clear that I would be the only hospitable party present. “Hey, good evening. I’m here to see Donna. She invited me over a little while back…is she home right now?”

Without any further indication, the door suddenly closed upon me. Through the fabricated layers of wood designed to appear as one, I heard a roaring conversation in Mandarin being exchanged between here and a feminine voice from afar, probably from one of the attached bedrooms. (It was definitely Mandarin, since it lacked those Cantonese tones that can make my skin crawl.) Finally, after a few more salvos that were hurtled at each other, my greeter (if you could call him that) opened the gate, and the animated version of a terracotta guardian motioned for me to come inside. Before even having the opportunity to ask any questions, he motioned towards a nearby couch and then walked straight to a nearby table with a laptop (which I assume was his original location before my rap upon their numbered portal). I realized that my taciturn companion was done with me, so I took up residence on the couch and waited patiently for my appointment. After a few minutes of biding my time with my phone, I became so engrossed in my virtual world that upon lifting my head, I briefly forgot where I was and how I had gotten here.

“You like to party, right?” he asked again.

“Uhh…yeah,” I said, slowly coming back to reality. “Sure. Why? Do you like to party?”

He ignored my returning salvo and instead probed further. “Errr…you have fun with drugs?”

“Well, sure, when I was younger,” I said, smiling at the reminiscence of warm memories and a desperation to postpone the night’s end indefinitely.

“Where’s good place to party?”

I shrugged, finding this surreal conversation oddly fascinating. “Uhhh…I don’t know…what kind of party are we talking about?”

“Ex-treme party…you know…girls, drugs…errr…top-shelf liquor. Where someplace like that?”

I didn’t know whether to feel honored or insulted at the insinuation that I would be the ideal person to ask such a question. In the end, I didn’t care. I had plunged down the rabbit hole, and I was too curious how deep it went. “Well, I knew of a few places that might fit the bill, but that was many years ago. Places like Filter 14 and The Tunnel are long gone now, since they eventually burn out on their own or by the powers that be…are you looking for a good time with some of your friends? Does one of them have a birthday? Bachelor party? ‘Cause you should just take him to Hustler’s…or just skip town and head to Montreal for a really wild time…”

“No,” retorted Sammo Jr., shaking his head. “I’m looking to take business friends somewhere. Somewhere where they can have fun and then be very drunk…” He paused pensively, searching for the right words. “So when they are busy having fun with girls and drugs, I can take pictures of them…errrr…so, later, when I need a favor from them, I can show them the pictures that I own. And then…errr…they feel like they have to help me.”

On more than one occasion, I have found that it’s necessary to recalibrate your mindset when conversing with natives from mainland China. As a way of adjusting oneself in such an event, it helps to imagine an alternate version of Europe where the Renaissance never took place (instead being enlightened only by Machiavelli) and where a good many mystical ideas from the Middle Ages have endured. Even though China’s zeitgeist does continually change by small increments, every longstanding culture has a momentum that prevents it from making quick turns, and the Chinese societal norm seems to be the paragon of this rule. Incidentally, when memes like joie de vivre are absent from the biomass of a country, things like morality and etiquette are considered more unnecessary than stinky tofu. If you ever have the chance to walk through the streets of Hong Kong, consider it an exercise in edutainment and ludology to discern those natives of Kowloon from those who have recently crossed the border in the north. Simple solecisms like unapologetic staring and cavalier spitting are dead giveaways, making for an quick but hollow victory. The best players, though, can detect them through a simple conversation with the help of a translator. I like to employ a Blade Runner technique by succinctly describing and then relaying the idea of an honor system; if my prospect stares back with the same puzzled look of a stunned Replicant, I just won with flying colors. I was about to do the same with my conniving confidant when he impatiently inquired yet again.

“You know club for all that?”

I held up a solitary finger to the living antithesis of discretion. “Woah, woah, woah, stop the clock. Let’s go back one moment to why you’re doing it…First, I appreciate that you’ve entrusted me with such sensitive information…” Which is a lie, since he doesn’t even regard his proposal as questionable in the least… “…Second, I think that what you’re describing is a federal crime called blackmail. Ever heard of it?”

The enterprising exploiter paused for a few moments, looking a tad flustered as he struggled to understand me. Finally, he said, “Errrr…I think that you are not understanding me. This has nothing to do with any sons of Obama…”

I did my best to suppress a smile, but more than likely, I failed miserably. Ah, the racist angle…it’s almost as much of a guarantee as the lack of manners. What other gems can I extract from this fine specimen… I was just about to ask him his personal ranking on the ugliest races when I was interrupted by a firm but feminine voice from across the room.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting…Good to see you made it, Peter. I’m Donna.”

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: The Recap

“…Well, that’s one hell of a story,” commented Yanis while trimming my sideburns. “If that’s not a lawsuit worth some money, then you can call me a monkey’s uncle. Shame about the cat, though…From what you told me, he seemed like a good one.”

“Oh, no, he’s still alive,” I spoke in correction. “Turns out that his blood clots like a champ, and he made it to the vet, where he got patched up. He’s getting better every day, but it’ll be a while before he cozies up to anyone’s leg…”

Yanis patted me on the back. “Hey, that’s good news, my friend! So, it all worked out. Flukeman lives, and with the help of a lawyer, you can still get a little piece of that mayor’s money in your pocket. Though, since she’s Jewish, you’re going to need a good one, since she’s bound to have a few talented ones as cousins…”

“You know, I wasn’t really looking for a pay day, you thieving Greek racist…” I began, wiggling my nose in order to purge a few irritating strands from my nostrils.

“Now you’re just repeating yourself. The word Greek means thief in Latin, because those damn Romans hated us! You didn’t know that, did you?”

“Hmmm…I’m not so sure about that. If anything, it probably means elderly compulsive liar…in any case, I’m not looking for any legal action. I think Mayor Dwek is a good person at heart…In fact, this entire mess produced some positive results. The mayor said that she owes me a big favor, and as it turns out, Bertha and Helga are both big animal people. When they saw me holding Flukeman, it flipped a switch in them, and now all the major players on the defendants’ side want to end the suit. I never would have guessed it, especially since Bertha seems as affectionate as a double-barreled shotgun. So, all in all, there was some good fallout from this whole ordeal…”

Yanis shrugged his shoulders. “That’s true…could’ve ended worse, right?”

I sighed. “Yeah, I suppose so…It’s funny, though. A few blocks down in Union City, there’s an Islamic school for kids. And only several blocks away, there’s a synagogue surrounded by the homes of several Jewish families. From what I know, it’s been that way for decades at least, and in that time, not one person has died from being stabbed or blown up by bombs. In my building, though, people haven’t lived together for more than a year, and already, someone’s been shot! You know there’s no hope when Muslims and Jews get along better than we do…”

“And now, all that’s left is the business with Octavio and the other fellow,” bombinated Yanis, instead spending his concentration on perfecting the symmetry of my remaining hair.

I nodded ever so slightly, not wanting to give Yanis an excuse to cut me. “You mean Joe…and yeah, I’m still not sure what to do about that one…who knows. On a side note, I did get an email from our building super Miguel the day before yesterday, saying that he had some new information for me.”

Yanis raised both his eyebrows and a few locks of my hair, with the intention of cutting the latter. “Oh yeah? About what?”

“I don’t know…maybe someone else is stealing packages from the lobby. Maybe it’s got something to do with the crying girl that I mentioned to him…you know, the ghost. Remember?”

“Ohhh, yes, I remember,” replied Yanis, with the enthusiasm of one who has placed that very scenario within the Favorites folder of his ‘spank tank’. “Did you get another chance lately to take a second look? How are her tits?”

“Sorry, my perverted friend. I haven’t seen her in quite a while. Anyway, he mentioned something about how a lawyer might have some important info to give me…but I don’t know who the hell he’s talking about…”

“Maybe he’s talking about that Chinese lawyer lady, who lives a double life as a prostitute?” posed Yanis, as he brushed away the cut hair from my shoulders and prepared the electric razor for edging the back of my head.

Slowly, faint twilight memories of Brian mentioning such a person began to percolate through the unctuous sludge that served as my brain. “Hmmm…you just might be right, Yanis…tell me, how the hell did you remember something so unimportant from so many moons ago? I couldn’t have said more than a sentence about that months ago, six at least.”

“Hey,” crooned Yanis, tapping the back of the electric razor against the white chest hair and gold chain that were protruding from his open shirt, “When it comes to pussy, I never forget a thing.”

“So maybe pussy is a cure for Alzheimer’s?” I suggested.

Yanis shook his head. “No, my friend, you’ve got it all wrong…pussy is a cure for everything.”

I attempted to laugh without moving my head too much. “Sometimes I forget who I’m talking to…Tell you what, I’ll pass along her number if I happen to get it.”

“That’s all I need,” bragged Yanis, finished with edging and now showing me the back of my head with a mirror. “And in the end, she’ll be paying me.”

“Oh, yeah…I bet.”

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: Everything Catches on Fire

Fate and fortune are mischievous incarnations. Yes, hard work and intelligence are essential for any individual’s progress on the road of life…but timing and serendipity are the benevolent gifts of those demigods that can pave the way. Even though the ancient adage Audaces fortunate iuvat may hold true, what truth it does not hint is that they also have a wonderfully bizarre sense of humor. Consult any classical piece (especially those that employ deus ex machina), and you’ll find such a sentiment to be nearly old as time. As known by Sir Francis Bacon or any helmsman of a J24 boat on a windy day, such natural forces are not to be directly challenged; you must endure their torment at your own expense and begrudgingly collaborate with them. On more than one occasion, they have had their way with me, where their machinations have placed me within the context of one of their elaborate pranks. For example, if you even asked me to, I could never intentionally catch a fold of my jacket on the corner of a dumpster, lose my balance to the sudden clash of momentums between torso and legs, and then lacerate my palm upon a broken bottle protruding from the dumpster’s maw. However, such vicissitudes are the punchlines for their capricious whims. Though, do not mistake their amusement for condescension. These apparitions only briefly chuckle while you lie in your shame…but upon the very second that you rise to your feet, their laughter ceases and becomes a smile of avuncular approval. Nevertheless, you can’t escape the inevitability of their plans, and in that particular place and time, all present in my home during this epic battle were unbeknownst to play the victims of such a scheme.

Mayor Dwek, for the moment, became the prime mover for this act as she focused on Bertha with the intensity of a cutting laser. “Against you? I’m actually here in an impartial capacity,” began Her Honor, raising her finger as if to duel with the one wielded by the rambling radical. It was an impressive digit to say the least, one which would have impressed even Arsenio Hall. “But, I’m unclear about something, and maybe you can clarify…what if I were against you? What exactly would that mean for me?”

Having been silent for the last few minutes, Helga and her husband had stood quietly next to my dining room table and its towering cache of plastic-wrapped mediocre edibles. However, I had noticed that her demeanor and posture had become increasingly hostile, and a bellicose tone preempted the answer to the mayor’s question. “Ve vould defy you as one! Her…me…and everyone else! And ve’ll get enough support to oust you vrom office!” Yes, yes…and then you’ll take the White House next, Howard Dean. I’ve never heard more ridiculous political rhetoric with a German accent, except for Hitler and Schwarzenegger…Good luck, Dwek. Man, I’d hate to be the lone voice against this howling mob…

“Shut up, you Nazi bitch! Nobody wants to hear from you or your stupid dogs!” screamed Babbu with a raised middle finger, stepping between the mayor and the frail princess from northern Europe.

Along the wall and opposite Babbu, one of Mayor Dwek’s bodyguards suddenly tensed as he scrutinized the Sikh’s form. “Sir, I’m going to ask that you approach me with your arms raised,” the guard flatly stated while beckoning with his hands. “Is that a holstered knife under your coat? Open the jacket, sir!”

Officer Linares, closest and directly behind his matriarchal client, withdrew his gun and instinctively moved forward to Mayor Dwek, protectively hovering over her like a hawk over a nest full of young. As if that were a cue commonly understood by all, the fellow members of his flock slowly started to glide towards Babbu. “Sir, I’d ask you to comply with the officer’s orders,” commanded Officer Linares. “Please slowly open your jacket…”

Oh no…you might as well have asked him to eat his magic underwear. Now things are gonna get crazy…

“You assholes! This is my kirpan…how many times do I have to go through this shit with you racist bastards?!?” berated a flummoxed Babbu, opening his jacket with the gusto of a flasher in a moonlit park.

Under the door to our closed bedroom, I was temporarily distracted from the surrounding raucous escalation when I noticed a shadow cross its space. Is there someone inside our bedroom? Did one of Bertha’s people sneak into there when nobody was looking? Naked crying lady ghost, that better not be you. This isn’t a good time… My observation was interrupted when reality severed my trance with the sharp edge of Brian’s booming voice.

“…Goddamn it, Helga! You and Bertha have done enough damage! You’re a miserable, indecent person. If your dogs were children, they would be ashamed of having such a terrible mother!”

The miniscule shadow returned to the space under the doorway, staying in place this time. Slowly, a small protrusion found its way through the space, and it curled around the bottom edge in order to find a firm grip. I was reminded suddenly of the movie “Signs”, both due to this frightening image and to the unexpectedly disappointing ending for my meeting. However, my fright swung away upon recognition of the extraterrestial’s alternate identity. Hey, I recognize you… And as if responding in affirmation, the door shook ever so slightly within its frame, gaining the attention of most people near it.

With trained reflexes, Officer Linares pointed his gun in the general direction of the oscillating door. “Who’s in there?!?”

Brian and Helga, though, were not privy to these moments, caught in the Thunderdome of their own enmity towards each other. While Babbu received the attention of the other officers, the boisterous pair were now combatants caught in the grip of their battle, like gladiators in the pit of Rome’s Colosseum. However, they lived for no crowds; they only wanted each other’s blood. Though judging by their respective hues, Brian had an ample amount to wastefully shed, and Helga didn’t seem to need any in order to stay alive (or whatever could be called the physiological state of her being).

“…und how dare you bring up my dogz?!? Zey love me, arschloch!” Helga screamed in the same pitch and bloodlust of her Visigoth ancestors, choosing a hefty Cuban sandwich as her javelin from the pile and pitching it towards Brian’s face. With deft skills unexpected of a such gargantuan centurion, he managed to escape its path, as smoothly as the garlic butter infused within its stack. Bypassing its intended mark, the missile sought something even more opportune, and fate directed it into the trigger guard of Officer Linares’ gun. The gun fired one single shot into our bedroom’s door, and a primal shriek could be heard from just beyond its frame, triggering yet more screams within the living room. Instantly, people began to run for the front door as the panic began to drown all reason in the room, and among the bustling cries, I rushed to our bedroom door with its brand new peephole near the bottom, free of any obstructing decorations for the moment. I carefully opened it, finding a crouched figure that seemed to be submerging itself in its own blood.

“What happened?” cried Rhonda, yelling as she came forward. “Who’s in there?”

Holding the feline member of our small family with tender care, I tried to keep my emotions in check as I shouted back to her. “It’s Flukeman…and he’s been shot!”

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

The Condo Chronicles: A Bitch in Heat

Until this point, my reservations against the spindly frame known as Bertha had merely been somewhat antagonistic…but that mild resentment had grown considerably in the last few seconds. I rose from my chair, blocking the first impulse in my life to defenestrate a woman…well, a woman who wasn’t my mother. Though she has all the corresponding traits in order to fit the same psychological profile: strong feelings of entitlement, a penchant for playing victim, unable to engage in civil dialogue…almost a carbon copy in that sense. A bad parent is an exercise in geometry: you learn to be a good person merely by counterexample. It’s a more difficult form of learning in order to be a better individual, but in doing so, you get to know the subject material infinitely better, with the complimentary gifts of pain and a lost childhood. I felt sympathy for any of Bertha’s children, if any existed; I knew exactly what they must have gone through.

“Bertha,” I growled through grating incisors, pointing my finger at the door, “Get out of my house right now. Just so you know, all of these men in suits are cops, and they will throw your ass in jail for trespassing. Now get out!”

Undeterred by my warning, she instead hurried and placed herself before me, with one slender finger poking me in the chest. “I’m not going anywhere, oppressor! I know something sneaky is happening in here. You didn’t think that you could get away with it, did you? With stealing all of the flyers and notices about this building’s meeting from the hallways? We see all, Mr. Bolton. You can’t hide your crimes from us! Your plan to hide this meeting and gain favor with the mayor is now over!”

Aw, shit…who the hell saw me take them? Well, that plan definitely backfired on me. And now I can’t really kick her out without implicating myself…still, I don’t regret it, though : this lunatical display just proves that it was the better decision, worthy of such a gamble. But what the hell do I do now?

I shrugged emphatically, feigning ignorance. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, Bertha…your imagination must have been playing tricks on you.”

“Sure, Peter,” Bertha replied, with sarcasm that was too thick to spread even with a pavement roller. “I must have been imagining the injustice happening around us. Just like the people who imagined the Holocaust!”

It’s been less than a minute into this crazy conversation, and there’s already a Hitler reference? Man, they’re going to need to refine Godwin’s Law after this one…did we just beat a world record?

Immediately following her theatrical entrance, more people began to enter my abode. Some of them were clearly Bertha’s supporters like Helga, while others were more familiar faces like Officer Linares and Raymond. Active arguments were now dispersed among the living room. In the doorway, Babbu and Brian were yelling out curses, indistinguishable amongst the cacophony that had built its nest around my assembly of chairs. Mayor Dwek was now obviously a little uncomfortable at the spontaneous arrival of insanity, and in turn, her protection detail had become a bit restless. However, you could tell that this wasn’t her first rodeo, as the mayor addressed the wrinkled renegade in a civil tone that was as alien to the hexagenarian as a rational thought.

“Madam, what exactly is the problem? I assume that you’re one of Peter’s neighbors…and correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that you’re one of the defendants. Am I correct? Are you here for the building meeting?” asked Mayor Dwek, in her most official and respectful voice.

Possessed by a vengeful spirit (or cozened by senility and by a nostalgia for the 60s), the living portrait of paranoia focused her gaze on the esteemed ruler of our municipal domain. “Here for the building meeting? Lady, I am the building meeting!” she exclaimed, raising her finger above her head. In her mind, I was sure that she envisioned light shooting from her fingertips, as she was obviously a beacon of justice for all the world. Bathed in her imaginary light, her supporters in my living room raucously cheered and clapped at her poignant retort to the mayor, brilliant as it was. The elevated noise caused the mayor’s bodyguards to become yet even more tense, moving their hands ever closer to their sidearms.

One of Bertha’s protection detail stood a few feet from me, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “No mames guey…” he said, speaking under his breath.

Tell me about it, buddy…Well, I can see that you’ve channeled your inner ghetto bitch, Bertha. What a shame if you ended up getting shot like one. Please, please, please pull out a knife or something…Of course, I suppose that would suit you just fine, dying as a martyr. For the cause, of course. Better to burn out than to fade away…

“I see,” replied Mayor Dwek, masking her condescension with an extra layer of formality. “Well, I was just here to see if I could be of service in some way to my fellow residents of Little Peru. Is there anything that I can help you with? I would welcome you to sit down and join our discussion. Peter was just beginning to explain the situation here…”

“Whatever he has told you,” Bertha interrupted, “I promise you that it’s all lies. You should listen to nothing from his forked tongue. In fact, I think that you should have him arrested right now! Him and his conniving buddies on the board! In fact, I put them under citizen’s arrest!”

In the midst of their conversation, Babbu and Brian had made their way to me and Rhonda, finally standing behind me. “Hey, man,” Brian whispered to me, “Ray told us about this meeting at the last minute. Why didn’t you tell us?”

I shook my head, whispering back to the both of them. “Oh, sorry guys…I forgot to tell you.” Yep, I definitely forgot to tell you…just like I definitely didn’t steal the flyers and notices from the hallways. Just like I recognize Bertha as our queen and savior.

Even though her posture presented the very essence of calm, the true queen of this town shifted in her chair, with the body language of one who has need to either purge or consume some form of matter. However, in this case, though, I sensed that it was her impatience beginning to itemize demands of its own. I crossed my fingers behind my back, hoping that Bertha’s head might make the list.

“Madam, I would ask that you and your fellow defendants please sit down,” said Mayor Dwek, in a more assertive tone. “So that we can talk about this subject in a more civil manner. So that we can have a more productive dialogue than this…”

“We will do no such thing! We will not negotiate with these criminals…and I’ll give you one warning, Dwek.” Bertha lowered her finger of smite, pointing the dangerous end of its barrel directly at Her Honor. “Just know that if you’re not with us…you’re against us!”

Despite my best efforts, a fugacious smirk burst from my lips. Good girl, Bertha…thank you for threatening the mayor and saving me the trouble of proving you wrong. Now this is gonna be good.

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