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It’s never too late to catch a dream.
The judge was banging down hard on his gavel, but the angry hammering was lost in the babble of furious voices—shouting, swearing, screaming, howling. Someone stole a purse, busted into a store, scored some drugs, turned some tricks, fell down drunk—who knew? Who cared? The scum of the earth came here for their five minutes of assembly-line justice: step forward, plead your case, get sentenced. Next! Keep it moving! Too many criminals, too little justice. The gavel would bang all night long. And the next night, and the next night.
Leonard Easton was supposed to be taking notes, taking pictures, taking sides, taking time off the clock. He was supposed to be packaging something together for his uncredited newspaper column: Court Beat. Dish out the muck from the courthouse—order up! So the readers could shove some more breakfast toast in their mouths and laugh at others more pathetic than themselves. It didn’t come any lower than night court, and Leonard’s job was to scrape something interesting off the bottom and write it up as news.
But not right now. Right now, Leonard Easton was having none of it. He was drifting; drifting back to the day fifteen years ago when he sold his first song. That was a time, he thought. You and your buddies had just graduated from high school, and the summer stretched ahead like a sun-baked highway to infinity. You hung around the used record stores, the second-hand instrument stores, the all-night coffee shops, and the dingy nightclubs – where anyone with a tune rattling around in his head and a piece to blow it through could get up on stage and sprinkle some notes over a drunken audience. You were going to be singers, songwriters, musicians—good ones; the kind people remembered long after you slept with a tombstone for a pillow. It was only a matter of time, and time was taking your side. All you had to do was follow the rhythm of your dream—the music would take you to the top. Money, food, clothing – they weren’t important. They were the prey of the soulless hunters who scrounged around their entire lives for material trophies, while their hearts rotted from the inside out. The music was the thing. The music was important. It was everything and the only thing; you ate it, slept it, drank it, and, most importantly, listened to and played it. You were on a quest for the perfect melody—something you could string across the stars and make the heavens take notice.
The bailiffs cleared away some of the drunks and the judge called a recess. Red bumped Leonard’s arm. “Sorry, Len, didn’t see you there.”
“Sure, no problem.” Leonard glanced down at the blank pad of paper, fallen on the dirty tile floor. He tried to think what he was going to write; what combination of truth and fiction he was going to scrawl on that blank, white tablet, and spoon-feed to the readers. Bang out some point-blank prose long on hyperbole and short on thoughtfulness—newspaper-style. Something that would get them jawing with their cronies as they chugged coffee in the lunchroom, or sat crammed together on a bus, desperately trying to slow down the time until they had to return to work.
But you weren’t writing down a damn thing, were you?, Leonard thought. No, you were drifting away again – to the days after graduation. Fall had come, the air had grown cold and grey, and all around you things had started to die. Larry took off for college, to become a pharmacist like his old man—the path most taken. Heather got married. Crystal started full-time at the department store. But that was okay, not everyone could follow their dream—that’s what made the dream so special. There was you and Jerry and April and Pete. You’d sold your first song just a few months ago and—
Leonard’s watch buzzed shrilly in the temporary quiet.
“Deadline comin’, eh news-hawk,” Red said, laughing.
Leonard pushed himself off the hard wooden bench, stretched, walked stiffly down the aisle, and yanked open the heavy courtroom doors. He would phone it in tonight, he decided. Dream something up in the dingy basement cafeteria and phone it in. No need to go back to the office. There was nothing for him there, anyway. There weren’t many jobs lower than the court beat reporter at the newspaper, and he had heard all their jokes a thousand times before. Phone it in. He could do without their contempt, or, worse yet, their sympathy.
He grabbed a table and a coffee in the smoke-filled dungeon which masqueraded as a cafeteria and jotted down the highlights of the night in point-form. He shoved a quarter in a pay phone and dictated the story to the girl at the end of the line—some bright-eyed, bright-voiced, recent journalism grad who would be leapfrogging over Leonard Easton’s tired thirty-three year-old body in the time it took to hammer out an obituary. His dusty memories were the only thing keeping him on the rails. That, and the booze.
He shucked on a faded, green parka and pushed through the front doors of the courthouse and out into the night. A raw wind blew off the river and knifed through his body as he trudged down Front Street. Beads of frozen rain battered his face. A block of pawnshops and Chinese restaurants gave way to a three-storey dilapidated apartment building. Home.
“Shut the door! You’re lettin’ the heat out!”
“And don’t track any dirt on the floor! Take your shoes off!”
His wife looked up from the TV briefly, and then back down. “Supper’s in the fridge,” she said tonelessly. She took a drag from her cigarette. The room was packed with smoke.
Paulette Easton was a fat, sour-faced woman a year older than Leonard. She had bottle-blonde hair cut very short, blue, red-rimmed eyes, and a double chin. She smoked constantly. She worked as a parking lot attendant and made more money than Leonard.
Leonard dragged himself across the living room and into the kitchen. Paulette waved a pudgy hand impatiently when his body blocked her view of the TV for a split-second. Leonard grimly tugged the fridge door open. The bulb was burnt out, so he picked up the cracked plate inside and examined it under the kitchen light. Meatloaf. He tossed the plate back into the fridge.
Paulette yelled: “If you ain’t goin’ to eat it, I will!”
“I’m going out,” he said softly.
The couch springs groaned as Paulette shoved herself up. She stomped into the kitchen. “You’re goin’ out!?” She brushed some ash off her faded sweatshirt. She pulled the cigarette out of her mouth. “You’re goin’ boozin’ is more like it!” Her mashed-potato face flushed red. She looked him up and down and let loose with a horse laugh. “You ain’t nothin’ but skin and bones, for Christ’s sake!”
“And where the hell you gettin’ the money for booze!?” She waddled closer, stuck her face in his. “Huh!?”
Leonard sucked in a ragged breath. He coughed as acrid smoke filled his nose. Easy, he thought. Take it easy. She’s looking for a fight. Itching for one. A real knockdown, drag ‘em out brawl. She’s been waiting up all night for it; looking forward to it. And you know who’s coming out on the short end, win or lose. That’s what landed you in this mess in the first place – you were tanked to the gills and a broad got lippy and you smacked her around a bit. She ended up in a hospital for three months and you ended up in a jail for three years. And that was when you were riding high. You ain’t riding so high now. You got paroled and ended up here, where you belonged all along. You started with nothing and you’ll end it with nothing. Sure, you had it good once, but you couldn’t hold it. You cracked up and broke into little pieces—pieces so small that they could never be fitted together again. But don’t cry too hard.
“I’ve got some money.”
“You got money!?” Paulette stabbed out her cigarette in the ashtray she always carried around—an empty coffee can half-filled with sand. She fired up another one immediately. “You ain’t gettin’ paid ’til the end of the week, chum!” She positioned her bulk squarely in the doorway. “I know when you get paid.”
“Okay. Let’s watch some TV,” Leonard suggested quietly. “Okay?”
“That’s better!” She turned back into the living room and hunkered down on the ratty couch.
He walked quickly through the apartment and out the front door. The building exploded with profanity as he shoved his way back into the cold night air.
Sarah was sitting in a corner booth. She was nursing a Long Island iced tea. Leonard slid in across from her. She looked up, smiled. He told the waitress: “Double scotch, no rocks.”
“Do you have any money, Leonard?” Sarah asked softly.
He stared at her. “Yeah, I’ve got money.”
“She giving you trouble, again,” she stated sympathetically. She patted his pale hand.
He jerked his hand away. He nodded. “Sorry. I’m kind of jumpy, I guess.” He studied her face briefly, then looked down at the scarred table separating them.
She was twenty-two, willowy thin, with big, brown eyes, and long, black hair. She was cheerful, enthusiastic, and blissfully idealistic. She cradled a lot of the old dreams Leonard used to cherish, about music and life; before he had snuffed out the fire of a promising career with gallons and gallons of booze. The three year stretch in the government hotel was his final curtain.
Sarah had a good singing voice, if slightly untrained. She sang in lounges and clubs, and the local bars that littered the streets of the Richland section of town. Sometimes she would take one of her more ardent fans into a back room or an empty parking lot. Male or female. She was a part-time student and it helped pay the rent. Come summer, she jumped on the folkie bandwagon, picking up a few bucks on the road, drifting from festival to festival. A lot of the time, she only got paid in weed. She met a lot of washed-up bums like Leonard, and a lot of starry-eyed hopefuls like herself—kids who weren’t old enough yet to be strewn on the rocky shores of obscurity.
“I was hoping that you’d show up tonight.” She sounded sort of breathless.
“Yeah. I’m a regular. A fixture. Like that bar stool over there.” He pointed. “The old joint wouldn’t be the same without me.” He tossed back his drink and banged his glass on the table for a refill. “You going to sing?”
She smiled gently. “Maybe later.” She sucked some air into her lungs and held it. “I’ve got some great news, Leonard.”
He looked up at her for a couple of beats, then glanced nervously around the near-empty bar. Her face was lit up like the cherry on a cop car. “Huh?”
“I took some of your songs to a music agent friend of one of my instructors. He liked them! He liked the way I sang them, too!” She grabbed hold of his cold, twitching fingers, rubbed them with her warm hands. “So he helped me cut a CD in his studio and he’s going to shop it around – see if he can get anyone interested!”
Leonard pulled his hands free. The waitress dropped his refill on the table and he downed it. He felt something start to crawl to life inside of him, and he wanted to drown it. He had been down this wreck-strewn stretch of broken road before—getting excited about something big happening, and then never getting so much as a phone call or a letter back. Or, if they did have the courtesy to let you know, all they said was that your stuff didn’t fit their needs. And that was it. “I didn’t mean for anyone else to hear those songs.”
“They’re too good for just you and me!” Her excitement spilled all over the place; out of place in the dusky bar. “The agent recognized your name!”
Leonard shrugged indifferently. “Yeah?”
“Yeah! You better believe, yeah, mister!” She leaned across the table and kissed him. “Try to cheer up, will you?”
Leonard smiled wearily. “‘Nother drink?” he asked.
The judge hammered the court into silence and then declared a half-hour break. Leonard pushed his way through the crowd of angry miscreants and went outside. He bummed a cigarette from Red. They flattened themselves against the grimy brick wall, sheltered from the howling north wind.
“Another blue ball special, eh?” Red chuckled. He shivered in his government-issue jacket.
Leonard huddled deeper into his parka. Snow was falling sideways, smacking him in the face. Another cold day in hell, he thought.
“We got a good one comin’ up,” Red said, blowing smoke back into his own face. He spat on the butt-strewn concrete. “Somethin’ for you to write about, maybe.”
“Yeah. Biker case. Some righteous citizen filed a complaint against a guy who rides with one of those outlaw motorcycle gangs.” Red pressed down on his right nostril and sent a stream of hot snot out of his left. “They all drive four-wheel drives this time of the year, I bet. Anyway, this citizen says that this biker stole his snow-blower. Can you believe that? Citizen lives right across the street from the gang’s clubhouse, no less.” Red shook his head. “That guy’s got bowlin’ balls between his legs. Or rocks in his head. We got three extra bailiffs on tonight to make sure there’s no trouble. The bikers are righteously pissed-”
Leonard heard someone call his name, before the wind tore it apart. He glanced down the street and saw Sarah running towards him, trying not to slip on the icy sidewalk.
Red whistled, nudged Leonard with his elbow. “I’ll leave you two alone,” he said, grinning. He threw down his cigarette and slipped back inside the building.
Sarah ran up and hugged Leonard. He shrugged her off. “What are you doing here?” he asked angrily. “This isn’t any place for you.”
“Yeah, yeah! Try not to look too disappointed.” She kissed him on the mouth. She quickly pulled her head back. “Yuck! I thought you hated cigarette smoke?”
“You can get used to anything after a while, I guess.” He smiled at her.
She grinned back at him. She was wearing bright red earmuffs, a red coat with a fur collar, a short skirt, and long, black boots. She looked eighteen years old. “I come bearing glad tidings, oh worried one.”
“Yeah. Are you ready?”
Leonard grimaced. “It isn’t going to get any warmer.”
“That agent I was telling you about wants to meet with you and me tomorrow afternoon.” She paused dramatically, eyes sparkling. “He’s got a recording label interested in our CD!” She did a little jig on the sidewalk, splashing around in the grey slush.
Leonard stared at her, numb with disbelief. A tiny flame burst to life inside of him—a flame he thought he had extinguished years ago.
A man walked up to them. “Excuse me,” he said politely. He was trying to get into the courthouse and they were blocking the entrance. He was thin and wiry, with horn-rimmed glasses and a determined look on his grim, grey face.
“Hey, asshole!” someone shouted from across the street. A group of men were standing at the corner, waiting for the traffic to thin out so they could cross. They were dressed in leather jackets and blue jeans, and they were huge.
The man with the glasses turned and looked at the men; looked scared.
One of the big men pulled something out of his pocket.
“No, Darryl!” someone yelled.
The night exploded with gunfire.
“I told you before, and I’ll tell you again: he ain’t here! Quit phonin’!” Paulette slammed the phone down and waddled into the kitchen. She slumped into a chair, spilling over the sides. She stared at Leonard across the small table, a cigarette burning in her right fist. She banged the coffee can on the stained table face.
“Easy,” Leonard said softly. Take it easy, he thought to himself. She’s really cruising for trouble this time—burning for it. And if she knew the half of it, there really would be trouble. Big trouble. The kind of trouble that gets people hurt. So everyone just take it easy. Let it ride. There’s no point in fighting; never was. Just sail along and enjoy the ride; no need to worry about the destination. And remember, there’s a bottle of scotch waiting for you at a bar somewhere—just the thing to send you sailing.
“Don’t tell me to take it easy, mister! Why the hell is that Jew phoning all the time!?”
Leonard shrugged. “What Jew?”
“You know damn well what Jew! That Morley Thorstein, or Thorsteinson, or somethin’! Says he’s a talent agent and he wants to talk to you about some songs!” She angrily mashed out her cigarette, set fire to a new one. “Talent agent! And he wants to talk to you! Ha!”
Paulette eyed Leonard suspiciously. “What’d you know about writing songs, anyway?” Her fat face was red, slathered with a sticky sheen of sweat.
Leonard gently set down his coffee cup. “Must be a gag,” he said. “Trying to sell me some records or something.”
She nodded. “Good,” she said, resolving the matter to her satisfaction. She grinned sadistically as another thought struck her dull mind. “So you gotta testify in court about that girl who got herself killed outside the courthouse a couple of weeks ago, eh?” She blew a cloud of blue smoke in his face. “That’ll be a switch, I bet.”
Leonard closed his eyes. He was desperately trying to listen to a sweet, young voice softly singing a corny love song; but it was already starting to fade from his memory.
Laird Long pounds out fiction in all genres. Big guy, sense of humor. Writing credits include: Blue Murder Magazine, Plots With Guns, Hardboiled, Thriller UK, Bullet, Robot, Eternal Night, Another Realm, The Dark Krypt, Albedo One, Baen’s Universe, Woman’s World, Plan B, and stories in the anthologies Amazing Heroes, The Mammoth Book of New Comic Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Jacobean Whodunits, and The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries.