Rico is back and caught up in another dilemma.
|Day Laborer III and IV
"There's a weed in my garden. I need help getting rid of it. You'll do."
She said this with a gravelly voice, full lips painted unconscionable ruby red and while pointing a matching manicured nail directly at him. There was no question in her voice. Rico almost snorted when she said this, but he knew this was not a woman to be laughed at, even if she wore too much make-up, used metaphors haphazardly, and wore clothing a generation or two below her chronological age. Likely that weed was a grey hair in an area not comfortably plucked without a mirror and a sharp pair of tweezers.
"Sure," he'd help her pluck her weed and plant a tree or two in her backyard, but could he bring his dog? He didn't travel anywhere without him. It wasn't really a question.
The alley where she picked him up was strewn with men's bodies; many thrown away like empty wine bottles of cheap rotgut closed with bottle caps, not corks. He had to admit this alley was a far cry from the small splendor he had just left, but beggars couldn't be choosy about where they hung their pail.
It was hard to imagine this big blond drag queen driving a truck, but there she was, scooting in behind the steering wheel of a brand spanking new truck without a speck of dirt or mud clinging to its ruby red paintjob. The truck didn't bear a single dint or smudge to its shiny chrome bumpers. How was this possible? It was almost ethereal. As he watched her squeeze her ample gelatinous butt behind the wheel, he took a second and thought, "Maybe the dust is as afraid of her truck as I should be of her." His dog agreed with him and let out a low suspicious growl as they both climbed into the back.
She drove the few miles out of their makeshift skid row with grace, impeccable speed and efficiency, never slowing her pace or altering her direction. She didn't stop for a single light and if he hadn't known better, he would have said it was rigged, but no one would bother rigging the three or four lights in this little town to anything but red.
This was the closest he had been to his hometown in a while and he recognized the air, the smells, and the lack of purpose. It was effortless or relentless to live there and this place was no different. That's the way it was in all small towns living in the shadow of more populous, more popular, big cities that sucked all the good out and left only the bad behind, interspersed with a few scattered souls seeking reverse refuge, even if in the back alley of the only bar in town that let a stranger suck down a wet one or sneak a sip of their own private stash. The air made him homesick and nauseated all at the same time.
"I know it's a tad early, but I need a little something in my coffee, just to take the edge off, how about you?"
She yelled this out the back screen door while holding up a half-empty bottle of something only recognizable by its shape and color. Rico deferred. He hadn't even drunk the coffee she offered earlier. She hid it pretty well, but he could see the disappointment in her eyes. She'd have to work on hiding that a little better or wear more mascara.
Every Tuesday morning for the last six weeks, like clockwork, she'd drive up in a different outfit, point at a different guy who managed to stand upright without support, and drive away with him. Each Tuesday evening, she would bring him back, deposit him at the same corner near the alley and then disappear. The guy would wave at his compadres, exchange raised brows and knowing glances, pull the cash out of his pocket and proceed to tell an outlandish story of daylong sexual escapades visiting with a lonely redhead whose husband was away on business. Conspicuously to the trained ear, each man sounded the same story; codified, rehearsed, and not the least bit true. It was odd. Then, they'd all go into the bar and spend every penny of the guy's new money. The guy seemed aching to be rid of it, like it was tainted or something.
Rico stood around and waited his turn. He was sure it was coming and now here it was. He knew it was coming because, though the guys talked of unbelievable sex, and he saw the cash she gave them, none of them stood panting and waiting for her the next Tuesday morning. Curiously, each made himself scarce the following Tuesday and even several Tuesdays after that. He figured no one was supposed to notice, but he did. He always did.
He reached over and petted his mutt. He wondered how long it would take for her to point out the weeds she needed pulled. It was beginning to get hot outside, and though he relished a good hard day's work, he preferred to be halfway into it when the heat hit. It was less noticeable that way.
In due course, as if summoned, she came out and directed him to her garden. A quarter-acre of different types of vegetables, more closely resembling a small farm, but he wasn't one to quibble on size. By the looks of her, she wasn't either. There were a lot of weeds, though. She obviously hadn't been keeping up, and the guys she hired hadn't been of much use, at least not in this garden.
Rico had been working for about two hours when he had the feeling he was being watched. It wasn't Red; she was sitting on the porch nodding-out from her last several pick-me-ups. His dog, always close at hand, began to growl in the direction of the wooden tool shed where the door stood partially ajar. He hadn't noticed it before, so he figured it must have been closed. Either that or he was losing his edge. He suspected the former. The next time he looked, the door was partially blocked as Red, rapidly for a woman of her size, approached it. He quickly dropped his gaze. The next time he looked up, she had turned and was quizzically staring at him. The door was closed. She readjusted her face, motioned the bottle at him, but again he deferred. This time he smiled as he did so.
As the afternoon wore on, he noted that Red might have had too many pick-me-ups. There was something about the way her head hung off the back of the rocker. That was good, because Rico's curiosity was getting the best of him. He had to see what was in the tool shed. If asked what he was doing, he'd simply say he was looking for another hoe or rake, or something like that.
His dog came with him and knowingly kept quiet as they neared the door. Rather than act suspiciously, he simply opened the door and walked in. There was a small girl sitting on the floor. She looked up at him with no fear or surprise.
"What are you doing in this hot shed?" Rico asked.
She said she was waiting for him to be brought in so they could pose for pictures.
"Pictures? What pictures?"
"I take pictures with all the workers. Usually they're asleep or acting weird. Other times, I don't remember because I'm asleep. Do you know when we'll start? I'm really getting hot."
As Rico listened and then looked more closely, he realized it wasn't a little girl, but a little boy with long curly red hair. He was a little effeminate looking, but a haircut would help clear up any confusion. Rico was beginning to feel a bit confused. He backed his way out and motioned for the little kid to follow.
"Let's get some water for you."
The kid reluctantly followed him out, keeping his eye on Red the whole time. Rico couldn't tell if the kid was afraid, but if he was, he kept it in check. He drank from the hose and immediately turned to head back towards the shed.
"Where you going, squirt? Stay out here where it's cool. She won't be waking up anytime soon. I think she had more of those pick-me-ups than she planned. I didn't drink any, so you know, rather than have it go to waste, she must have drunk it all."
He could see the thoughts cross the child's mind as he pulled it all together and it started to make sense. He visibly relaxed. It was through his relaxation that Rico finally could make out just how tense the boy had been.
Rico went back to the garden and began pulling more weeds. He asked the boy if he wanted to help, then noting the cleanliness of the kid's clothes, recommended that he just sit there under the tree and keep him company.
"The kid must have been put in there before Red came to town," Rico thought.
Otherwise, he would have seen him go in there. Rico was bothered. He couldn't precisely say what he was concerned about, but he was concerned. Something was not right out here in the garden. He tried to put together a wholesome scenario of picture-taking out here in the garden, with a little boy, who looked like a little girl, being modeled by an over-the-top drag queen, and a bunch of dirty, probably drunk, field hands, but he couldn't. As he watched the kid playing quietly under the tree, Rico tried to figure out how he was supposed to fit in this odd little play.
He leaned over to pick some more weeds. Suddenly, Rico stopped. He sensed, rather than saw, that Red would be roused soon. He motioned the little boy over and told him to go back in the shed. At least, he had a couple hours out of the heat. The kid smiled, looked over his shoulder at Red, and obediently ran back in, silently closing the door. Hopefully, some of the heat had also been let out. Rico had a flash of Hansel and Gretel, but quickly brushed the thought from his mind. He couldn't imagine one child playing both parts, but then again, the end was the same. Some witch would be trying to feed on his bones.
Red reached up and yawned. Rico smiled as pleasantly as he could, wondering if he would ever return and help pull weeds.
As he got out of the truck later that evening, Rico grasped the bills she gave him and thrust them into his pocket. He considered saying something or doing something, but he did neither. He simply climbed out, grabbed his dog and turned to walk away. He realized he couldn't say anything. He didn't know anything. All he had was the strange story from the kid and a sick feeling in his stomach. Now he understood why the guys made themselves scarce the next Tuesday. It was a simple matter of survival.
Day Laborer IV
Rico had been practicing on the dummy for the last half-hour, practically since the moment he had gotten out of the truck. His dark wet hair hung plastered across his face and down his back. It was an amazingly unfulfilling exercise. Usually, he loved kicking and clubbing the wooden arms and legs, or cascading an open palm into the block of wood representing the chin. A slice to the neck was usually a pleasantly gratifying last gesture as he imagined the man grasping his throat and slumping to the floor. People thought it was the spasm of the larynx and the sudden loss of air, but he knew it was the thyroid hormone rush to the brain that really caused them to slump.
He knew that by choking the person tightly enough, he could rapidly render them unconscious, not from lack of oxygen, which a light choking would cause, but from lack of blood to the noggin. Unfortunately, you would have to get uncomfortably close to the person to do that. He preferred a little distance, getting too close put him at risk. Then he hit upon it. That was what bothered him; the kid had somehow gotten too close. He realized, "He could be part of the solution or part of the pain." The kid needed help. That was obvious. What Rico loved most was that the kid hadn't asked for it.
Now, he could relax. He continued to beat the dummy into submission as he plotted out his course of action. The more he pounded, the clearer he became. A half-hour later he was taking his dummy apart and squirreling the pieces, far away under his cot. An untrained eye would have no idea what it was, and the trained eye wouldn't bother looking. They would know by looking at Rico. The trained eye could not be pulled away. The trained eye wouldn't blink. The trained eye would recognize Rico for the dangerous man that he was.
He pulled off his sweaty clothes and in complete nudity, commenced his cool-down. He knew relaxation would allow the rest of the kid's story to form. The kid really hadn't said much, but what he didn't say would have to be pieced together. The kid hadn't called Red his mother. He hadn't used any terms compatible with anything maternal. He also hadn't mentioned his father being around or absent. Curiously, the kid was either holding back, or hadn't been in normal enough surroundings to know what was expected. Rico suspected the latter. He could feel that thought bring tension to his mid-section. That tension usually signaled the correct answer. He had to relieve that tension. It would require some thought. He drew his bath in the center of the room and readied himself for a long, hot, soak.
Rico realized he had dozed off, but now something or someone had awakened him. He stayed perfectly still and listened. It was quiet, almost too quiet, and then he heard it, a soft creak of the floorboard outside in the hall. Someone was approaching the door outside his rented room. As he tensed up to spring, he recognized the pacing and heard a soft rap at the door, and then a soft voice, "Rico! Open the door, man. It's me, Paco."
Rico had spotted Paco soon after he arrived. He was impossible not to spot, at least, not to the trained eye. Rico recognized Paco as one of his own. They rarely spoke other than to say hello. They never hung out together, but they knew they knew one another. No words were necessary. No hanging out was required.
Rico didn't even bother dressing as he answered the door to let Paco in. He flung the door open fully and turned around to climb back into the tub. He paused quietly waiting for the door to close. He planned on soaking while Paco spoke. He knew it would take Paco a while to get to the point. He was a little slow that way.
He closed his eyes as Paco sat in the chair behind him and spoke. He spoke in a voice slightly louder than a whisper, so Rico was required to lie relatively still or risk missing a word. As expected, Paco circled around before eventually coming to the point, "Somebody is out to get me, Rico."
Rico came directly to the point. "Why, did you go out to Red's place?" Yes was the answer, last week. And yes, Paco did have some coffee and did remember taking a nap. No he hadn't thought it strange. He knew not to touch the old broad and he didn't tell anything resembling any of those stupid stories he'd heard.
Rico had to lead Paco down the path and tell him what he had learned. He recounted the little boy's story about pictures being taken. Paco sat wide-eyed and still. He was visibly shaken. He told Rico that he remembered seeing a little girl who looked just like his own little girl, but no little boy. Rico explained that the little girl was, in actuality, a little boy. Rico then asked Paco if he realized that many of the guys had gone missing. He soaked comfortably in the cooling water as he waited for his story to soak in.
"I was planning a little recon tonight. Interested?"
"Sure Rico, if it will keep me alive. I've got to earn a little more money, and then I can head back home and see my wife and kids. Besides, this sounds like some sick crap, man."
Rico lent Paco some clothes, since neither thought it a good idea for Paco to go back to his place. They went out the side entrance of the boarding house, just in case Paco hadn't actually shaken whoever was following him. They wore running shoes since they'd planned to jog out to Red's place. Rico missed his nine and one-half inch western spurs with a quarter-inch heel, but figured a good jog at a decent clip would be worth it. He hoped he wouldn't need the stopping powers of those boots, but if he played his cards right, maybe he would live to use them later.
They'd barely arrived at the house when they observed a dark truck pull up in the driveway. There was no sign of the red truck or of Red. The man climbed out of the truck and walked around the back to pull out a large package. He easily tossed it on his shoulder and walked over to the shed where the little kid had been earlier in the day.
Rico and Paco sat quietly and watched. A few minutes later the guy came out and walked over to the garden with the package on his shoulder and a shovel in his hand. Clearly, he meant to bury something. To the untrained eye it looked like garbage, but to Rico and Paco, it was a body.
They watched quietly as the man finished burying his load, in of all places, the garden where Rico had toiled earlier in the day. He had barely completed his task and entered the house when they saw headlights coming down the long empty street. It was the red pickup. Red climbed out and walked around to the other side of the truck, and then she too, emerged carrying a load. It was much smaller, and as they both held their breaths, she approached the porch where suddenly the light flicked on; revealing a small child with ringlets of curly hair tussled about his head. It was the little boy from earlier. Both visibly breathed when they saw him squirm in Red's arms. He was alive. They hadn't even had time to realize they thought he was dead. The screen door opened and Red carried her bundle inside.
No more than ten minutes later, they began to hear raised voices from inside. Soon enough, the voices paused, as Red and the man burst out the screen door and crossed the porch. Red headed directly for the garden with the man in hot pursuit. She walked quickly and due to her large size soon covered the few yards. The man, though smaller, easily kept up, but then he veered off and headed for the shed before joining her out in the garden. He stood holding the shovel. She stood with crossed arms.
At this point, Paco started to leave the cover of the woods to head over towards the garden trying to hear. Rico pulled him back. He motioned over towards the house. There in the doorway was the little kid. He was dressed in his pajamas, but he was clearly wide-awake. He quietly opened and closed the door, and he too headed toward the garden. The couple was in for a little surprise. Rico and Paco watched as the kid crouched down and hid amongst the cornstalks. It was the exact place they planned on hiding. The kid was smart.
They moved and were standing less than six feet from the kid, and now they could hear the two loudly whispering over the open black bag. There were accusations of child-endangerment tossed back and forth succeeded by threats of divorce and "you're only worried about what your friends would say about me having a little fun and how stupid you would look at work." He told her she would be just as dead as these migrant child molesters and her body would never be found. "Nobody would even look. If you don't believe me, just ask yourself where your sister is."
Red turned and stormed back towards the house. She was fuming as her heels loudly crushed the gravel. The little boy was frozen in place. It was obvious he was confused and didn't know what to make of what he had heard. When Red went by, he started to follow her, but Rico grabbed him and cupped his mouth. He turned the boy around to see who he was. This relaxed him immediately, but then he started to well up and cry as he hugged Rico's leg.
It was clear to Rico that Red wasn't the kid's mother. He later found out she was the kid's aunt. It was also clear something had to be done to stop the man who turned out to be the boy's father. Rico considered just calling the police, but he'd have to wait until he was out of town to do it. He couldn't risk being questioned himself. But if he waited until he was out of town, what would happen to the kid? He couldn't leave him with these two wackos.
As he pondered what to do, the father approached their side of the garden. Rico pushed the kid back into Paco and boldly walked out into the yard. He caught the guy off-guard and immobilized him before he could grab the gun from his waist. Before Rico could consider regretting his decision, he simply squeezed the guy's neck until he passed out. He laid him down prone on the grass. Then he picked up the dropped shovel and looked over towards Paco and the little boy. Paco grabbed the kid and turned him around towards him. The kid was still crying and didn't hear the surgically precise rendering by Rico. His father would never walk again and Red no longer had anything to fear by her stupid games, nor did anybody else. She and the kid's father would have a lot of explaining to do in a few hours when the police showed up.
Rico walked back towards the cornstalks. He suddenly felt tired. Maybe it was time for him to go home. Maybe it was time for an addition to the family. He looked over at the kid. What would his wife say? "First, we'll have to cut your hair, maybe just a little," he said.