“Friendlies”

by Mona Leigh Rose

Cooper taps on the glass. The blaze orange fighting fish cuts an edge in its circle and faces him. Its mouth opens and closes, opens and closes, in a scream only Cooper can hear. Not hear. Feel vibrate in his skull. Carve nicks in his brain. He stares into unblinking eyes, wonders if the fish feels the same raw-edged fire that rings his own throat when he wakes clawing at the air in sweat-soaked sheets.

He dangles a frozen blood worm into the water. Tiny teeth tear into the red flesh. Damned fish doesn’t talk, fetch or purr. Doesn’t even have a name. But hey, it’s still alive nearly three months after he brought it home, and that’s something. Baby steps, Dr. Ampura says. Like when he started wearing polo shirts to his weekly appointments. She doesn’t need to know he changes in the parking lot outside her office then strips it off again when their fifty minutes is up.  How to explain the press of a stiff collar and tie knotted against his neck offer proof of life? His own life? No, if he needs progress along some clinical chart to stay on the job, then progress he delivers.

His cell phone vibrates. A text from from dispatch to him and Johnson. Possible homicide, One Thousand Old Mohawk Road. He blinks, reads the address again. Powers the phone off, then back on. Stares at the screen.

Streaks of light bleed through the closed slats in the kitchen blinds, make a grid on the floor. The lines cross and spin. He fumbles in his pants pocket till he finds the chip. His thumb traces the triangle, the letters worn smooth by heat and callus. The weight of the thing – so slight he might hold a carnival token, so heavy he must hold his measure. Deep breath in, slow exhale.  The lines resume their orderly pattern.

The fish screams.

“I’m fine,” Cooper says. He drops two more blood worms in the bowl. “Don’t wait up.”

He slips on his suit jacket, grips the front door knob. Three, two, one. Go.

***

“What d’ya got for me?” Cooper asks the patrolman.

“The victim’s a fifteen year old male. He presented with a single bullet to the right temple. Private security called it in.” He points his chin toward the white pop-up tent just inside the wall. “That’s all I know. The Medical Examiner kicked everyone off the scene.”

Cooper can’t see much. Only the vic’s black high tops jut out from under the tarp. M.E. hates to be interrupted, won’t even look at a detective for a good hour after he clears a scene and transports the body to the morgue.

“Detective Johnson around?”

“He was here about ten minutes ago, maybe? He took the victim’s wallet and left. Oh, and he said to tell you he’ll meet you at the station.”

So he has time and opportunity. That settles it. “Anyone talk to the property owner?”

“Nah. Her goons won’t let us near her.”

Cooper’s gaze snaps from the white tent to the chubby, unlined face in front of him.  “Those ‘goons’ are highly trained ex-military. Some former Israel Defense Force. They’ve seen action that’d send your Xbox into convulsions.”

“I’m sorry, Sir.” His melon head lowers. No point learning his name.  He won’t last.

“I’ll be up at the house. No one leaves the property without my say so.”

Cooper legs it up the steep drive. What’s left of his right thigh muscles soften with each step, first halting then something close to normal. Keeps to the middle of the drive, away from the sheer drop that called to them as kids. Dare you, he’d say. Double dare you, Jake would shoot back. Degrees of manliness determined by who could hold a handstand closest to where the asphalt meets oblivion.

Heat waves rise off the desert floor, warp the landing strips at the airbase below into odd angles. Angles that threaten to cross. He reaches for the chip, finds only lint. Shoves his hands in each pocket. He had it in the kitchen. Drove straight here. The car. Must have dropped it in–

“You, there.” Two men dressed in black stand at the crest, suit jackets pulled back to show weapons bigger than his own. Cooper holds his badge overhead and finishes the climb.  Don’t know how they do it, dressed like ninjas in this heat and not a drop of perspiration between them. He wipes sweat off his own neck while the men scrutinize his ID, relay his name and badge number into a radio. The radio squawks back and they let him pass.

Landscaping hasn’t changed, if you call gray gravel over hard crust landscaping. House looks the same too, all white stucco, grey slate, sharp angles. The cluster of satellite dishes to the left of the garage hum like always. He trudges up the steps. A man dressed in black about his size and height opens the door before he knocks.

“Detective Cooper. Yuma County Sheriff’s Office. Need to speak to Mrs. DiPrima.”

The man steps aside, watches him cross the threshold into the cool tomb of a home.  Cooper sees the bulge under his jacket, too.

“I’m in here.” He follows the graveled voice into the kitchen. She looks the same, like maybe her security keeps time behind the walls along with disgruntled customers. Short red hair. Quick green eyes. Palest skin in Arizona. Could be eighteen. Until you hear the voice. “Let’s make this quick,” she says. “I’ve had a busy night.”

“Good morning Mrs. DiPrima. I’m Detective– ”

“I know who you are.” She points to a chair across the kitchen table. Sleek white modern, like the rest of the room, the house. All but Jake’s bedroom, his walls covered with rock posters, shelves lined with model tanks. Looked like a riot in the middle of a monastery.

“You may know that a young man’s body was found on your property.”

She spins her wrist, a drum major telling the horns to hurry the fuck up and join the parade.

“Right, I’ll be brief. Do you know the victim, ma’am?”

“I don’t make a habit of spending time with teenage boys.” She takes a long drag on her cigarette and exhales a missile into the air between them.

“Any idea how he ended up on your property?”

“Only the obvious answer: someone dumped him.”

“On your property.”

“Not a lot out this way that isn’t my property, Detective.”

“Who found him?”

“A member of my security detail came across the body during a routine perimeter check. Here’s his written statement.” She pushes a sheet of paper across the table.

Cooper skims the typed paragraph. Looks more like a POW statement than a witness account. “This Salazar. I need to talk to him.”

“My head of security will arrange for an interview.” A black matte business card follows the paper across the table.

“I’ll talk to him now. While the events are fresh.” He ducks to avoid the smoky missile she directs at his head.

“His shift ended an hour ago,” she says. “Call the number on the card. An interview will be arranged. We’ll also give you last night’s security footage from that sector. Not much to see, though. There wasn’t a moon last night. But you’ll notice a shadow around Three AM.  Hence, the obvious answer.”

“Sounds like you and your men have done my job for me.”

“I’ve nothing to hide, Detective.” She taps her cigarette on the edge of the marble ashtray but her gaze stays rooted to his.

“You’ve read the statement, seen the footage. Any theories, Mrs. DiPrima?”

“My people and I have no information on the body or the crime. If there even was a crime.”

“If? Dead fifteen-year-old. Bullet in the brain. Inside your wall,”

Her crossed leg swings like the tail of a pissed off cat. “I’m in the dark here. Someone chose to dump a body–”

“A kid.”

“ – a stranger’s body over my wall. I can’t account for that. You need to do your own investigation, Detective.”

“Fair enough.”

“Are we done here?”

Cooper taps the card against the table. “I like what you did with the patio.”

Her leg stops mid-swing. “Pardon?”

“The patio,” he says, nods at the wall of glass behind her. “New stone pavers. Changed the layout since I was last here. Looks good.”

“Since you were last…”

Cooper feels the floor shudder under him. He pretends to straighten his tie, presses the knot into his neck.  “Me and Jake were in Scouts together, then JROTC. He’d invite me over sometimes after school while you were asleep.”

Her eyes narrow. Whether at this information or against the smoke, he can’t tell.

“We were all real proud of him, all of his friends, when he was accepted into the SEALs.”

“Plenty to be proud of. He was a good Sailor. A good kid.”

The tremor climbs up Cooper’s legs and back, tics his shoulders. He squeezes his hands together under the table. “I was Marine Aviation myself. Two tours in the Gulf. Flew troop transport.”

“Which bird?” she asks.

“CH-46 Sea Knight.”

“Ah, the Phrog. I sold a few dozen of them to the Saudis last month,” she says. “Solid machine. Real work horse.”

“Usually.” The throttle seizes in his hand, gauges flop left then right. Tail whips above nose. Ground hurtles at him. His hands strangle each other under the table. “You still in the trade, Mrs. DiPrima?”

“Everyone knows what I do, Detective. It’s perfectly legal to sell decommissioned military equipment. No teenagers harmed in the process.”

“Not here, anyway.”

Her fingers tighten around the cigarette, like maybe she wishes it was his neck.

“I remember, once, we were watching TV, me and Jake, and an old episode of The A-Team came on. He said, that’s what my mom does, deals arms to friendlies.”

“He was confused. I don’t deal arms. I sell–”

“–decommissioned military equipment,” he finishes.

“Correct.”

“To friendlies.”

“Correct.”

“This other time, we got bored, wanted to steal a smoke. Searched the house high and low, but we couldn’t find your cigs. Finally went into your office,” he says, nods at the closed door at the far end of the kitchen. The door pulses like a heartbeat. He looks away, digs his knuckles into his thigh. “We found a carton next to your computer. The screen was on.”

She crushes her cigarette into the marble. “Like I said, I’ve had a busy night.”

“Surprised you don’t recognize me, Mrs. DiPrima.”

“How could I? You apparently waited until I was asleep to ransack my home.”

“I mean from the funeral. I spoke. Told a story about the last time I saw Jake. The night before he shipped .”

Her pupils widen and she seems to see him, really see him, for the first time since he sat down. “You boys camped near the caves.”

“Right, that was me. We took flashlights. Looked for bullfrogs in the stream. Same as when we were kids.”

“He loved camping,” she says, swivels her chair toward the large windows. He sees the years now, the furrows lining her forehead visible in the direct light. “His father and I would take him out to Painted Desert, go off-grid. We could go an entire week without seeing another living soul. Jake loved to play war games. We’d let him be the General.”

“He told me,” Cooper says. “He told me how you would tuck him into his sleeping bag at night, tell him sleep tight, don’t let the Communists bite.”

She gnaws on what’s left of her thumbnail. “He wanted to fight the Commies. Just like his father.”

“I asked him if he was scared, that last night.”

“I remember,” she says, still looking out over the desert parch. “He told you he wasn’t afraid.”

“I didn’t say his whole answer at the funeral.”

“Hmm?” she mumbles. Looks to be still at the campsite, tucking in the son who wanted to play war.

His knuckles grind deeper into his thigh. “He said, I’m not afraid, because my mom sells quality merch, and she only sells to friendlies.”

Silence settles over the kitchen. The kind of silence where you can swear you hear the dead speak.

He doesn’t remember if either of them said anything after that. Doesn’t remember standing up or walking to the door or driving to the station. He probably talked to Johnson and ate lunch.  Maybe ran down some leads. Could have run naked through the middle of the station house for all he knows. Jake’s voice, the certainty with which he said those words:  I’m not afraid. Jake’s voice is all he remembers from that moment in the kitchen until he found himself on his knees at sunset sobbing in the desert scrub.

***

The elevator doors slide open and he shuffles inside. Mrs. Valasquez rushes in after him, her arms weighted down by three full grocery bags. He knows from the hallway smells that Mr. Velasquez is partial to habaneros. One of those people who think the best way to cool off is to eat food so spicy your brain sweats.

Cooper leans into the button for the fifth floor. He can see in the metal doors that she’s watching him. She must hear the morning screams. Hell, everyone on the floor must hear.  Probably think he tortures small animals. Or likes kinky sex. Can’t decide which lie he likes best.

His gaze moves to his own reflection. His hands wring the neck of the brown bag he shouldn’t have. The bag that holds a map to a dark place he shouldn’t know. He holds his shit together long enough to get out of the metal tomb and through his apartment door.

The bottle stands about as tall as the fishbowl. He turns the label, studies the cursive script, the sloped shoulders, the amber promise. Imagines the burn sliding from his lips to his throat, then the slow melt into his brain.

The fish screams at him.

“Fuck you.”

Another scream. And another.

Cooper leans in. “You don’t know,” he says, his breath fogging the glass. “You swim in circles. Build your goddamn bubble forts all day. You don’t know what I see out there.”  Smacks the side of his head. “What I see in here.” He can’t remember the dreams that wake him every morning at zero-four-hundred. No matter, he knows the upshot:  He should be dead.

The fish ruffles its fins, snakes toward him until they’re nose to teeth. The mouth opens and closes, opens and closes. Orange bastard.

Cooper flings the freezer door aside. Digs his fist into the plastic bag and dumps a mass of frozen worms into the bowl. The fish attacks. Fins thrash, teeth gnash. It gorges into the center of the fleshy ball.

Through the churning water he spots the green circle. Plucks the chip off the counter, closes his eyes. His pulse slows. Deep breath in, slow exhale. When his eyes open he sees a knot in the fish’s gut. The orange body contorts, eyes bulge. But the teeth don’t slow their orgy.

“Shit.” Cooper scoops the uneaten tangle and pitches it in the sink. Unscrews the bottle cap and tips it over the red clump. The heat scalds his eyes. Their twin compulsions slide down the drain.

“Sorry,” he tells the fish. The glassy eyes stare through the now murky water, the mouth blessedly silent. “I’ll buy you a real tank this weekend. Get you one of those little diver things.  Maybe a castle. You’ll like that.” Dr. Ampura will, too. Another baby step, another check mark in his chart.

He limps to the bathroom, his thigh muscles seized up again. Strips with his back to the mirror. Better than whiskey, a shower. The smiling actors with mounds of suds on their heads should say that, they’d sell more soap. Wash away the past twelve hours. Clear the decks for new sins to collect, fester, eat their way into your brain.

The cool water pours over his head, cascades down his body. He stands there a long while, eyes closed, head bent forward against the tile. Takes longer than usual for his sins to wash down the drain tonight. But they will.