WILLIAM J. GRABOWSKI
Copyright © 2014 by William J. Grabowski
All rights reserved.
"God's away, God's away, God's away on business..."—Tom Waits
Johnny Flash stood slicing tofu for Korean barbecue when Palmer burst into the kitchen. “Johnny—oh Christ! Man—where's Moody, huh? Where?”
Johnny dropped his vanadium Global, glared at the other. “Fuckin-A, man—almost amputated my fuckin hand. Calm the fuck down.”
Gray Palmer hugged himself as if freezing, despite the kitchen's predawn heat. “Sorry, sorry, it's just...I need Moody.”
Johnny ripped a paper towel from the roll above the sink, dried his hands. God. Was Palmer crying? “Okay, I'll get him. He's in the back on inventory, so—”
“Good, good, that's good.”
Palmer looked as if he'd just dodged al Qaeda.
“Yeah, Gray. Relax, willya? What's up? Wait—I probably don't wanna know. I got tofu to marinate.”
Johnny trotted past the other and his wide, shifty eyes. Jeez! Rehab—table for one....
Passing the restrooms Johnny could see Just Moody's lanky silhouette beside the walk-in cooler. He held a Spanish onion inches from his nose. “Johnny, you think these reds are better than Pittsburgh's? Hey. What's wrong?”
“Hell if I know. Your favorite ufological author is haunting my kitchen and shitting nail-guns. Needs to see you like last year, apparently.” He flicked a tofu shred from his shirt, became abruptly aware of two aromas: bacon, and musky rot...old mushrooms?
Goddamn Billy would hear about that when he clocked in at seven!
“Great,” Moody said, “like I have time. Take this”—Johnny plucked the onion from empty space—“and check out the others. All of it, actually. Don't forget to marinate the tofu.”
“You got it.”
Moody shambled down the dim hall toward his best friend.
When Moody saw his twitchy pal Gray, complicated feelings tweaked his 67-year-old nerves. He'd seen Gray angry, depressed, drunk, stoned, stressed over poor sales, but never like this.
“The hell, buddy,” Moody said, stepping toward the coffee-maker, “Johnny says you're sort of—”
“He's right! Can we talk in your office?”
“Good question—hahaha. Sure, sure we can. How bout a cup?”
Palmer twitched. "Coffee? God, no. Last thing I need. This is bad...we have to consider this, please.”
“No problem. Let's head on back.”
Moody snatched a Monster from the employee fridge, and led Palmer down the hall toward Johnny's thumping, cursing review of the week's produce delivery.
Moody's joke of an office (until recently a "prep kitchen" he couldn't afford), 14 feet left of the humming walk-in and “lounge,” bled out odors of a neglected bacon sandwich and decades of cooking.
“Take a load off,” he said, waving at a folding chair leaning against the desk.
Palmer did this. “Thanks. Whew...” Found sudden interest in his wet shoes.
Moody eyed the aging sandwich warily, eased back in his leather chair, creaky as his spine. “Sooo...what time did you start drinking—or, more likely, smoking?”
Palmer sat abruptly straight, clenched jaw pulsing. “Hey, pal, I'm as sober as the Pope.”
“I doubt it.”
“That I'm sober?”
“No, that the Pope is.”
They both laughed. Two guys sharing a joke.
Moody popped his energy-drink, took an extended, deliberate taste. Clunked down the can beside his breakfast. “Okay, out with it. Why are you like this? I'm milking my own damned clock here."
The other hugely sighed, gazed at the abstract Tabasco poster behind Moody. “Yeah...see, you're gonna have to suspend the old disbelief, okay?”
“You know it. Don't forget, I've read your books—even the good ones.”
Palmer nodded. “Ha-fucking-ha. Thank you, sir. Well, I was threatened not one hour ago by someone who either is one of the Men in Black, or someone trying—and succeeding—to mimic one.”
Moody's mouth dropped open—he couldn't help it. “Jesus Christ. What're you talking about? Use short sentences.” His poker-face and its hard angles hid unspeakable dread. No one, not even Palmer, must see this.
Palmer tried a brave smile, which made him look even more desperate. “Knew I could count on you to be objective.”
Moody huffed. “And observant. What happened to your neck? And why aren't you wearing a coat? It's November in southwest Pennsylvania. Don't tell me you walked here.”
“Ran. Talk about long sentences. Moody, look, I...I had to get out of the house. No gun, no nothing. That freak threatened me, man!”
Moody took another fizzy sip, wished for a shnoot of Billy McKee's absinthe. Too bad he wasn't here yet. “Okay. Now I'm really worried. Tell me about this guy. Everything.”
Gray Palmer had been at it since two in the afternoon: answering emails sparked by the recent publication of his latest book, Cold War UFOs Over America. In truth, he feared publishing the slick trade paperback ($12.95, Gray Sky Press, 277 pages). For this, unlike his 11 previous, chronicled the “ultra-covert” machinations behind the great UFO flap that besieged Seven Pines and Westmoreland County from 1967 to 1968, events still seething with controversy, ruin, and even death. Gray had been 12; a real wise-ass, nosy as hell, and crazy-smart. Pretty much like he was now.
A few ticks short of four-thirty ayem, he stood, backed away from his work-station and stretched—vertebrae popped. Man, he needed to brew another pot of Tanzanian peaberry. This was no beer night—too bad. His brain felt as if strapped to a rocket-sled. Ah hell, maybe a few later to take the edge off.
Stepping across the study (actually, a long book-walled living-room) toward the kitchen, Palmer heard something odd. “You gotta be kidding me.”
Halting, he listened.
Someone knocked on the front door.
“No...” He turned, squinted and—with a rush of fear—could see a blurred shadow at the door's glass inset. Who could it be? At this hour, no one Palmer wanted here.
Get a grip, he told himself. Center.
He swallowed hard, clenched his teeth, and stepped toward the door. Goddamned coffee!
Whoever stood on the porch knocked once more—aggressively.
“All right,” Palmer managed, “all right for crap-sake, I'm on my way. Christ...”
Best to get it over with.
He gazed at the floor; would not look at the door's inset. He feared to see something there, glaring in at him.
Palmer gripped the knob, turned it and opened the door.
A grinning man in a dark suit stood there, green eyes cunning and cold. “Greetings Gray Palmer, we have much to talk about.”
Palmer cried out, immediately regretting it. But something—everything—was wrong here. “No we don't,” he muttered as if through a ball of phlegm. “Who are you and what the hell do you want?” He stepped backward into the living-room, stomach roiling.
The stupidly weak porch-light tinted the stranger's dark hair blue. “I am crazy-big fan of Cold War UFO book you write, yes.”
He grinned and grinned.
Palmer's heart hammered his ribs. “Sure—sure you are, pal. It's four in the morning...”
“Thank you Gray Palmer, yes.”
Palmer had to say something, anything, distracting enough to get the door shut and bolted. "What is that?" he said. “The accent. You Russian, or just trying to sound like one? Don't get too many around here. Mostly Polacks, and in fact—"
The other rushed in, clutched Palmer's throat with a hand like iced iron. “Yes, I am here for facts.”
Hot breath foul with cigarettes fogged Palmer's face. He was going to die. Freezing air gushed through the room.
All at once Palmer was released—fell gasping into a bookshelf, sending reference tomes crashing to the floor.
Paralyzed with fright, he said, “What the fuck? Huh? What the fuck? What was that for?”
The other grinned. “Oh, just because.”
Palmer somehow got to his feet. Moody...goddammit Moody set this up. Unbelievable. What a superb gag!
Now Palmer grinned. “Okay, comrade. You've earned your twenty or however-many bucks Moody paid you. He did pay you, right? Or is this pro bono work for some acting class in Pittsburgh?”
The other smirked. “Who is Moody, yes?”
“Uhhh, yeah. Friend of mine. Say, how bout a cup of the ol cafferoony?”
Something smashed into Palmer's chest—knocked him into his computer chair. After a few numb seconds, he realized the stranger had shoved him there, and now stood glaring down. “Tell me Gray Palmer, where is document?”
Countless visions flashed through Palmer's mind. Shit. He means it. “Document? I don't understand, you—”
The grin returned, and the maniac aimed a black handgun at Palmer's groin. “Oh, I understand, just not enough. It's all on the Google. Someone leaked, yes. All about UFOs here in sixties. Rumors of spies, industrial and science secrets of pussy-head Americans like you, blame on us.”
Palmer felt a desperate urge to urinate. “You, you saw this on the Net?”
The gun held still, as if clamped in a laser-sighted vise. “Of course. With link to your book. Nice. The one-stop-shopping, yes. In ten seconds you will die.”
Palmer's mouth dropped open and he shifted his gaze over the other's shoulder. “Johnny! What're you doing here?”
The gun whipped toward the door, long enough for Palmer to fast-ball his steel pyramid paperweight at the uninvited visitor's close-cropped skull.