The following is excerpted from Disintegration by Richard Thomas from Random House Alibi, coming May 26th, and which Chuck Wendig describes as: “Sweet hot hell, Richard Thomas writes like a man possessed, a man on fire, a guy with a gun to his head. And you’ll read Disintegration like there’s a gun to yours, too. A twisted masterpiece.”
I can see the 21 coming from across the tiny plaza where Division, Milwaukee, and Ashland meet. Happy is kicking in, tracers flying off the back of the bus, and I realize I’m not moving. I thud down the sidewalk, eastbound toward the corner. I have to beat it to the stop. It catches the red light at Ashland, and I’m going to make it. Slowing down I glance down the street toward my apartment, and two white cop cars are sitting out front. Nobody is looking this way, nobody on the street.
The bus eases up to me, hissing like a long white snake, its belly filled with mice and lizards, hot air whooshing out as the doors spread open. I stare at the driver and start to giggle. He’s a huge guy, oozing over the seat, his tan uniform bursting at the seams. For a moment when he opens his mouth, I think he’s Jabba the Hutt.
“There will be no bargain, young Jedi. I shall enjoy watching you die.”
“Before I die? Come on, son.”
I step on board and slide my pass into the slot. The bus passes show up too. Different-colored envelope. Definitely not yellow, like the ones bearing messages from Vlad—with client names on them.
I head to the back, the way back, and sit down in the middle of the very last row. We cruise south on Milwaukee, right past my building. Just in time to see Vlad walk outside, shrugging his shoulders, his hands in the air. I can’t look away, though I know that I should. The two cops stand there, with their thumbs in their belt loops, looking around with long, sour faces. I catch Vlad’s eyes for a second, and a smile creeps across his face. He sees me. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy. For a gunrunning, drug-dealing, slave-trading Ruskie.
The streetlights are too much for me, a black hole imploding, a sunspot on my brain. Every long black coat is a nest of vipers, squirming under their woolen topcoats, alligator faces under tight knit caps.
I close my eyes for a second. I have fourteen stops until I get to Fulton. At ten seconds per stop that’s almost two minutes. I’m hedging my bets on the conservative side, so I can find some peace for the count to 140. I close my eyes knowing I won’t miss it. I start counting.
One Mississippi . . . two Mississippi . . . three Mississippi . . .
I have my suspicions, what these clients have done, but I never ask. Let God sort them out. They creep into my head at every quiet moment, clawing their way into my skull whenever I let down my guard. The brakes hiss and I am gently jostled, but I keep my eyes closed tight, gripping my knees as if dangling off the edge of a bridge. In many ways, I am.
Eighteen Mississippi . . . nineteen Mississippi . . . twenty Mississippi . . .
Wherever I find them, they reveal themselves. At home, sitting in a dark kitchen, a solitary glow from over the brushed metal sink. A glass of clear liquid in their hands with a lime wedge floating listlessly amongst fractured cubes of ice. The hangdog face and dark circles under the eyes. The tie loosened, alone in the night, welcoming me as I come to take them away.
Thirty-five Mississippi . . . thirty-six Mississippi . . . thirty-seven Mississippi . . .
Sometimes they run. Those are the ones I find out in the dive bars, the sex clubs, the dark reflections in the night. They are always looking over their shoulders, because the evil of their acts is like a black halo ringing their heads, neon flashing vacancy, broken burnt-out letters, incomplete. They feel exposed at all times so they try to hide in plain sight, hoping that when the lightning strikes they are not the tallest mangled oak, not the only fence post standing in a field of broken cornstalks. Amidst other sinners and pederasts they pray they are not the worst.
Fifty-four Mississippi . . . fifty-five Mississippi . . . fifty-six Mississippi . . .
A bump at my shoulder and mumbled apologies, but I still wallow in the chase, the hunt, the capture, and the swift retribution that I dole out without pause. Every client has been a man so far, and for that I am grateful. But the day will come when my assignment is a woman. It already scratches on the windowpane, its claws extended, this beast I run with, that I cannot tame or ignore. It will be soon, too soon, but not tonight. Tonight it will be erasure, one less murderer, the irony never lost on me, one less rapist or pedophile. They are all deserving and equally void.
Seventy-two Mississippi . . . seventy-three Mississippi . . . seventy-four Mississippi . . .
It’s surprisingly easy to get up close to them. But I don’t work in public, I don’t give them that quiet exit. It’s personal to me, and because of that I need time alone with them. I need to look them in the eyes, to make sure that they know they have been revealed. That this isn’t chance or bad luck or coincidence. This is a planned action, the exact result of their animal urges, and while I’m a kindred spirit in many ways, I have come for them specifically, and they will not escape. I could slide an ice pick in between the sixth and seventh rib, and pierce their heart while they still laughed at the joke they just told, dying in the night air, cackles and chortles all around. I could place the tip of a gun in their ear and pull the trigger while their eyes shine in the rearview mirror, words still forming in their throat, disbelieving. But I don’t. This is my choice.
Ninety-two Mississippi . . . ninety-three Mississippi . . . ninety-four Mississippi . . .
I never speak to them. Not one single word. I don’t dignify their existence with any sort of palaver. They do not deserve my ear, or one minute more. But they speak anyway. They beg for forgiveness, they search for an explanation, a past as sordid as the one they created for others, broken homes and repressed memories, their reasoning nothing more than an annoying screech of chalk on a blackboard, and when it turns to fingernails, scraping the surface in a high-pitched whine, the world disappears and my hands find their neck. With every flexed muscle and knot of tension, the screams of my children fill my ears.
One hundred nine . . . one hundred ten . . . one hundred eleven . . .
Tonight will be no different. His face swims into focus, the pale skin, wild white hair shooting out in all directions, the mask on his face filled with teeth and laughter, a drink in his hand as if the party just started and it will never end. He looks like a pedophile to me, possibly little boys, stopping at his door in a soccer uniform, or maybe in full Boy Scout regalia, badges earned, displayed proudly. No mother behind them, watching out for this wolf in sheep’s clothing, because they’re big boys now, and embarrassed by such nonsense. Just stepping inside for a glass of iced tea in the summer, the tall thin man no immediate threat. The offer of hot chocolate, declarations of freezing weather received by rosy-cheeked nodding little faces in the wintertime.
One thirty-eight . . . one thirty-nine . . . one forty.
Eyes still closed, my hand reaches out and grabs the line, yanking hard. A bell chimes across the horizontal cavity of the bus and it lurches to the right. My eyes shoot open and for one moment I am encased in white, the brightness blinding me, echoes on the wind.
In the span of one hundred and forty seconds I have transformed once again. I spill out of the seat, and to the back door of the hissing white beast, the crisp night air filling my lungs as I disappear down the street. The metal spits out exhaust, hardly pausing, not a single head raised or any eyes to my back as I slip down the concrete sidewalk, a ghost in the night. A dog barks in the distance. Back on Milwaukee Avenue cars roll by, streams of light, red carcasses sliding away from me, out of sight but movement at the edge of my periphery. There is plenty of life out here. Hands shoved into my coat pockets, my eyes are filled with rage, the laughter of a circus clown echoing in the alleyways between the tiny houses, the brick apartment buildings, the long warehouses that extend away from me. And I can already feel my hands on his neck.