By William D. Higgs III
Some people called me a “private detective,” but I thought of myself as a fixer. People came to me with problems, and I fixed them. Someone thought their husband was screwing around, so I’d follow the bastard, take a few pictures of him going into a seedy motel, and get $200. Maybe a friend of a friend needed a “package” dropped off to some nondescript, vacant house, a task I would accept for $50 or so. Other times I would just take the package myself and run. Friends come and go, but money lasts a while.
I moved around from city to city fixing problems for people. The job lent itself to a mobile lifestyle. I’d land a job through a friend of a friend, or just dumb word of mouth. I’d settle into a motel until the job was over and skip town after I got paid.
One summer, I landed in a small town in southern Illinois. I had been in Chicago for a job when I got a call from a kid who went by Merlin. He was throwing a party.
“You almost done with that job you took up north?”
“Leave town tonight,” I said. “Why? Got a job for me?”
“Nah, this is a personal call. I heard you might be on the train and figured you’d ride it all the way down south and come see your buddy, Merlin!
Always amicable, that guy. Merlin wasn’t his real name. His parents weren’t druids screwing between the rocks at Stonehenge. He wasn’t a wise, ancient wizard, however much he tried to grow that sickly cat of a beard. He was an MFA dropout from the university in town who sold dope. Smack, coke, ket, meth, anything that made someone feel good and put them on the wrong side of the DEA, Merlin had in abundance. He was a wizard in that sense- he could get anybody anything, just like magic. No one buying from him ever questioned the moniker.
Normally I would have passed, but I couldn’t think of a reason not to see him. Merlin was an alright kid. He never got me into anything too serious. What could be the harm in crashing on his couch and blowing through a bit of the money I made in the city? It turned out there was more harm in it than I could stand.
Merlin met me at the train station when I got to town. He had a chemical grin plastered on his face. His eyes were low. I never figured out what he was on that evening, but it was working wonders for him.
“How was the ride down?”
“Shitty. I paid to get off two towns earlier before you called me up. Had to spend the last leg of the trip hiding in the bathroom and dodging the conductor.”
That cracked him up. He laughed as we walked back to his beat-up Camry.
“This is my friend,” he said, pointing to an acne-ridden tweaker clawing at what I imagined to be gnats beneath his skin. He ground his teeth.
“Is he okay?”
“Better than that!” Merlin went off into another peal of laughter. We drove off.
I learned that the tweaker in the backseat was an Italian Rhodes scholarship recipient named Dino. He came to town looking for trouble and Merlin turned him on to all the spots you could find it at. Dino was a speed head through and through. Merlin exploited this fact to sell him copious amounts of amphetamines.
“You can thank him for the couch you’re gonna be crashing on. I don’t think I could have paid the rent without his habit,” Merlin said. He turned to Dino and gave him a thumbs up. “Grazie!”
“Ah, yes, grazie! Grazie!” Dino trailed off, repeating the word before stuttering each syllable in repeated triads. “Gr-gr-gr, ah-ah-ah, ts-ts-ts, ee-ee-ee.”
I looked at the house our friend had so generously paid the rent for by selling his soul to the devil of speed. It was a ranch style rambler with a wide front porch. The yard would have been nice if the bushes weren’t littered with empties and 750 ml plastic bottles.
The inside of the house was a similar story. Merlin ushered us into a living room that would have been comfortable if there weren’t old takeout boxes and garbage everywhere, which led to a wood paneled hallway that would have had a vintage, 70s nostalgia thing going for it if 21st century garbage wasn’t piled against the walls. Attached to the living room was a kitchen in which Merlin fished beers from the refrigerator.
Dino began to pace around in circles, dodging the trash that crowded the living room. He needed a fix. Merlin, tapping into his extradimensional wizard senses, tossed him a baggy full of glass without looking up from the fridge.
“On the house, Dino!” Then, turning to me, “hell, he could have a dozen baggies like that on the house and I’d still come out ahead with him.”
Without missing a beat, the speed demon emptied the contents of the bag onto a coffee table in front of the couch I sat on. He inhaled a line straight into his nostril. He jumped upright like a meerkat alerting its colony to a predatory bird. I thought to myself, he’s probably seeing predatory birds flying all along the ceiling. Raptors, vultures, buzzards, eagles, a few falcons, all of them circled over his head preparing to swoop onto him. They’d tear his intestines from his stomach like Prometheus. His pupils dilated to fill his eyes, like a shark that just caught the scent of a bleeding seal. He was strung out.
“I’ve got something for you too, buddy,” Merlin said. He sat down beside me on the couch and took a foil wrapped mass that I recognized as hash before he even had a chance to unwrap it. “This one is saturated in pure, Afghani opium. Some real ‘knowledge of the elders, ancient times’ shit.”
“That seems like it’d be something you’d say.”
He packed the black tar coated hash into a pipe. Wisps of blue smoke rose as he lit it. He took a long drag from the pipe and blew smoke at Dino, who had resumed pacing at breakneck speed.
He handed me the pipe. I took a slow draw. My body filled with a wave of warm, comfortable pleasure. I felt myself pulling inwards. At this point, I had only tried opium twice before. Both instances left me feeling couchlocked, as if I had been sucked into a black hole that had opened inside my chest. This time was no exception
“Hey, Dino! Buddy! You got to stop scratching yourself like that!”
The wonderkid had begun digging his nails into his arm. This was a tic of tweakers peaking on a good high. His skin gave way. Red blood oozed from the scratches.
“Take some of this,” Merlin said.
Dino took the pipe in his shaking hands. He breathed it in, gasping like a fish left to die on a dock by some evil fisherman. The hash mellowed him out.
“So, Merlin, when is this party going to be?”
“Tomorrow night. You can crash here, of course.”
“Appreciate the generosity.”
That was the last thing I remembered before the hash overtook me. I sank into a dreamless opium sleep. Dino buzzed around, dodging predatory, wrathful falcons, while Merlin laughed through the night.
I woke up on the floor. The smell of Fabuloso and bleach came from the kitchen. I rolled over to see Merlin picking up bits of trash and mopping. He had mopped around me, painting the hardwood floors with a glossy reflection of the world around us. I looked at the dim double of a Chinese takeout box.
“‘Though we see now through a mirror…’” I muttered. Images of St. Paul, who I always pictured looking like a burned out acid head, with a tattered, tie-dyed shirt and all, languishing in prison flashed through my head. Prison, comedown, same thing.
“You’re up!” Merlin exclaimed. He was happy. The party was tonight. He cleaned his house, knowing full well that it was going to be trashed by the crowd tonight.
“You know,” he continued, “in ancient Germanic tribes where human sacrifice was practiced, the person getting iced to bring rain or plunder or whatever would purify themselves. Even though they knew they were about to die, they made sure their bodies were in perfect condition. You know, so the gods would be pleased.”
Merlin smiled. Had he heard my thoughts? Did he know how futile I thought it was to clean a drug house the day before a huge party was going to come in and tear the walls down and burn the roof as the mob of indolents chanted, “let the motherfucker burn”? Shit. This kid is a wizard, I thought to myself.
It took us almost a full hour to realize that Dino disappeared. Once we had this grand revelation, we quickly discovered that the speeder stole Merlin’s car.
“Fuck!” he screamed.
“Hey, man, don’t get that worked up. It’s a shitty Camry. As much speed as you sell him, you should be able to buy another one in a week. So, what if he takes it for a spin and wraps it around a telephone pole?”
“It’s not the car, dude. It’s what’s in the car.”
“And what would that be?”
“What do you mean?”
“I got a shipment of speed two weeks ago. You know, to sell at the party. I couldn’t keep it in the house because Dino, well, he’ll tear the place apart when he’s coming down. If he found a stash that big, he’d OD. I’d be out the speed and have to deal with a dead guy in my house.”
“Merlin. Surely you weren’t keeping a bunch of speed in that piece of shit Camry.”
“Where else would it go!”
“Jesus, Merlin. How much is in the trunk?”
His silence answered my question. Merlin had pounds and pounds of uncut amphetamine in that trunk. All of it was now in the hands of a deranged tweaker flying down the roads of a picturesque college town in a beat-up Toyota Camry. There was enough glass in there for the shards to assemble themselves into a sentient, anthropomorphic creature. It would crawl into the passenger seat beside Dino and scream, “respirare!” He would oblige, “grazie,” and inhale its whole body in one single, gasping breath, crashing the car into some poor pedestrian in the process.
“Look, if you could get my car back…”
“Don’t even start with me, kid! I’m not working this weekend. I just made it out of that god forsaken city, and I have enough money to hold me over. Sorry about your car but forget it!”
“Please! I don’t think you get just how deep the shit I’m in is, man”
I was just about to head out when Merlin screamed in a way that made my skin itch.
“Look,” Merlin said, “I’m in deep with some bad fucking people. I can’t get out of town, I can’t stay in town, I can’t wipe my goddamn ass without these freaks knowing my every move.”
“The ones who run this town. Please. I wouldn’t ask for your help if I didn’t really need it. That speed was how I was going to repay them. These psychopaths were going to tear my house to pieces and take whatever didn’t go up their nostrils with them tonight, along with the proceeds of whatever I sold. But now that Dino took the car… Fuck!”
Sympathy got me into a lot of trouble during my life. When I was a kid, I got expelled for fracturing another boy’s skull. He was smashing frogs with a rock. I saw the creatures explode into Picasso style murals of skin and ruptured organs on the playground concrete.
“Knock it off!” I screamed.
“Who’s gonna make me?”
I made him, by cracking him upside the head with a rock of my own. Word was that the punk got back into the school. Bet he never hit another frog again. He probably shat his pants every time he heard a frog croak.
Maybe Merlin reminded me of a frog. He had slimy, green eyes like one. They even teared up. I had no idea who this kid was up against or what dirt they had on him. But my better angels took over and I agreed to help him get his car back from Dino.
“If these guys are as dangerous as you say, and if you really owe them, I guess I can help you catch Dino. It’ll cost you, though.”
“I’m giving you the friends and family rate. Don’t expect me to be so generous again.”
Merlin could have hugged me. That wasn’t his style, though. Instead, he pulled out another nugget of opium hash and lit up.
“Let’s get fired up,” Merlin said, “and get this show on the road!”
Merlin lived in an alright neighborhood. We walked past gorgeous houses sitting on green, manicured lawns. Trees lined the sidewalks. Before we started passing big houses with Greek letters on the fronts, there wasn’t a single yard that even began to match the minefield qualities of Merlin’s litter filled wasteland. The grass was a rich, dark green. The smell of soil was pregnant with the possibility of rain, testified to by a billow of storm clouds rolling in on the horizon.
After a while we came across a fraternity house that looked ragged enough to rival Merlin’s disgrace of a yard. A few fraternity brothers sat out front, nursing their hangovers with the hair of the dog that bit the hell out of them the night before. We approached to see if they had seen Dino.
“Wait, you’re going to have to slow down for me, bro. You said he was driving a Toyota what?” one of them asked through a headache.
“Camry!” Merlin yelled. “He was probably driving like a bat out of hell. He… Fucking…”
Merlin must have taken some of Dino’s medicine, because he started scratching at his arms like he could feel maggots tunneling through his veins. He started getting attention from the other frat brothers, who walked outside with a keen eye for trouble and eyes trained on the erratic, bearded freak having a fit on their front porch. I intervened.
“You’ll have to forgive my friend. His car just got stolen, see? He’s understandably pissed off.”
“It wasn’t any of us, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“Not at all. He-”
Before I could finish, a talking boar donning short, gelled hair and a letterman jacket howled for us to get lost before he kicked our asses. I nodded to Merlin. It was safe to assume they hadn’t seen Dino, although I advised Merlin to keep the doors on his Camry locked if they were that touchy about being accused of car theft.
We kept walking until we came to the strip downtown. Like a lot of small towns in Illinois, the strip was empty. There were a few people coming out of a diner.
“We should drop in for breakfast,” Merlin said. “I’m starving.”
I ordered huevos con ranchero. Merlin ordered pancakes, bacon, sourdough toast, two bean fritters, and a milkshake. The stress made the bastard hungry.
“So, Merlin, you never told me exactly who was after you.” “Keep your voice down!” He looked around with a tweaker’s paranoid, wild eyed stare. Crumbs of bacon and bean fritter littered his beard. His eyes were bloodshot. For the first time since getting to town, I noticed just how hollow his eyes were. He was a habitual violator of the golden rule- “don’t get high on your own supply.” Granted, the recent theft of his car didn’t help his nerves either. “They might have people here. There’s a group down here that owns a few businesses.”
“What kind of group?”
“I’m not sure how best to describe them. Religious order? Fraternal society? They have a ‘community center’ down the road. I got wrapped up with them when I tried to find a cheaper supplier for DMT.”
“Religious order, huh? Are they nuns or something? Seems weird for church ladies to be slinging tryptamines.”
“They’re not church ladies, man. They have a real weird operation. Out in public they look like everyone else. Maybe a bit like burnt out hippies, which most of them are, but otherwise normal. But if you go in the back offices at that community center, they’re all in robes with symbols and shit all over them. Even saw a few of them standing around catatonic, muttering to stuff I couldn’t see. Leads me to think the DMT is primarily for religious purposes and they just sell it on the side to bankroll their operations.”
“Sounds like a drug cult, man.”
“That’s a good term for it. They’re a fucking cult. But they own half the town. And beneath that love and peace shit they’re goddamn killers. They fronted me a shit ton of DMT and some powder 5-MEO. I couldn’t find a buyer for most of it, but they refused to take it back. Said I was on the hook and could either pay up or deal with them.”
“Shit, kid. A murderous hippy drug cult?”
“To be honest, I wasn’t scared. All I had to do was throw this party tonight and sell some speed. A few of their people with a taste for glass were even slated to come out and get some up front, even the score, you know? But now that goddamn speed demon ran off with my entire stash.”
“We’ll find him, Merlin. In time for the party. As long as he doesn’t know what’s in the trunk, we’ll just walk around until we see the car, kick Dino’s teeth in, and call it a day.”
He nodded. I talked people off some wild cliffs in my day but calming down a drug dealer pursued by a hippy death cult was a first. I think I did alright.
After we paid for our food, we took a bus to Walmart. Merlin knew Dino’s habits and predilections better than me. He figured that Dino would be coming down now and looking for an inconspicuous place to park the Camry and crash after a week-long speed bender. A Walmart bathroom, with its large, lockable handicap stalls, would be a perfect place to pass out.
It only took about two minutes of perusing the lot before we found the car. It was parked lopsided in a handicap spot. Merlin breathed an audible sigh of relief. Dino was nowhere to be found, but every single door was locked, and the keys were squarely in the ignition.
“Do you have money to spring for a locksmith?” I asked.
“Yeah, but that can take a couple of hours.”
“Not the worst outcome, Merlin.”
No sooner had I uttered the words from my mouth did we see anyone but Dino walking out of the automatic doors. He stopped like a pedestrian animal in the lights of an 18 wheeler truck. His eyes widened. Before he could make a run for it, I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to a bench near the entrance.
“Don’t make a scene, Dino. We’re not gonna hurt you.”
“The hell we aren’t!” Merlin exclaimed.
“No,” I shot over to the enraged burnout, “we aren’t. At least not yet.”
“Sorry, spiacente, mi dispiace!”
The speeder cried. In my experience, stimulants gave one over to all sorts of theatrics. Even veteran users could be swept up in a passing moment of rage or repentance, left to the overwhelming force of whatever it was they happened to feel in that instant. You just had to let them sob it out when they got like this.
Merlin was less willing to play therapist. He muttered barely coherent accusations and questions about his stash.
“No, no,” Dino answered, “non lo sapevo, I didn’t touch anything.”
“Ok, ok. Fuck.” Merlin calmed himself down. “I just need to get in the car, get my keys, and bring her home.”
That would have been straight forward enough. But what’s a moment of relief in a lifetime of disappointment? Jack shit. That’s what. When has a job never had a setback, or a plane had no turbulence to knock me off the can when I’m taking a shit? Never. Not a single goddamn time.
That day was no different. No sooner had our caravan of misfits turned back towards the car than did we see it being towed off by a flatbed rig. Merlin began swearing profusely to the point of drawing much undue attention.
“Fuck! That’s Barnard’s Towing! No, no, no!”
“Easy, kid,” I calmed him down. “It’s just a tow place. We can swing by, pay the $75 or $90, and get your piece of shit back.”
“You don’t understand, man. Remember when I said that goddamn cult owned half the town?”
“Yeah. You don’t mean…”
“They own that tow place. They have my ticket out of debt, man.”
We watched the tow truck drive off. Merlin stood up, punched the air like a coked-up boxer, and then, like the storm blowing over the miles of fields stretching just beyond the edge of town, was calm.
“Well, guys, we might as well wait here for the bus and ride it over towards my place. It stops a block away.” He took out a sandwich bag of white powder, dipped his finger inside, and rubbed a little cocaine on his gums. “Might as well indulge. Party tonight is going to be fucking killer! Get it? Killer? Because I’m gonna fucking die, guys!”
“No, buddy! I don’t like this!” Dino began to scream. People stared. I tried to calm him down, but I just couldn’t get a handle on him this time. He glowed with righteous, self-assured anger. Dino pulled away from me and ran across the parking lot.
“Do you want me to go after him?” I asked Merlin.
“Fuck it, man. None of it matters anymore. You should probably split town. This party’s going to be a bloodbath when those psychos roll up.”
I should have left like Merlin suggested. The way Merlin kept hitting that pipe, it looked like the night really was going to be a bloodbath. I don’t know why I stuck around. Part of me was curious what these freaks looked like. People who spent all day huffing crystalized toad venom, only taking periodic breaks to terrorize local drug dealers, had to be a sight to behold. The other part of me wondered just how out of hand things were going to get. Merlin hit the drugs almost as hard as Dino. I was certain that his faculties of judgment worked a little shy of full capacity. I wanted to make sure he didn’t fly off the handles at someone and make a bad situation turn into what he was afraid of.
Despite believing that he was going to end the night on the other side of eternity, Merlin went ahead with the party. The house was full of a variety of dope fiends, freaks, misfits, and townies. Merlin brought out a few speakers earlier that day. An eclectic mix of music blared at an ear-splitting decibel.
After inhaling a line of one or another dissociative substance, I found one half of my brain in heated discussion with a hype while the other half soared into the stratosphere to meet Dino’s raptors. I heard the front door open. Merlin looked up from a table he was cutting lines on. I was either in my mind enough, or my body was reflexive enough, to walk over towards Merlin.
The cultists looked about how Merlin described them. Four of them came through the door. One of them, a short, older man with a beard, that stank the way you’d expect a toad licker’s facial hair to, and a tie dye Blue Ӧyster Cult shirt, leaned up against the bar. The other three were younger guys with sunk in eyes and stringy, unwashed hair. Merlin said they exposed inductees to all sorts of abuse at the community center and judging by their vacant expressions and the formaldehyde odor seeping from their pores, I’d have to say the accusations were fair.
“Merlin!” the old man exclaimed. “How are you, buddy?”
“I’ve been better.”
“Some party, man! I’m sure you’ve made some decent cash tonight. Am I wrong?”
He wasn’t. Despite the loss of his speed, Merlin had managed to turn a decent profit shilling ketamine and benzos to a gaggle of pill popping students and hypes that meandered inside looking to score. He laid the money on the table for the old man to inspect.
“That’s not bad,” he said, lazily counting the bills as he crammed them in his pockets. “But I think you’re missing something still. Where’s that glass you promised us?”
“I don’t have the speed, man. Your people towed my car.”
“I heard about that! Fucking shame, really. But what does that have to do with the speed?”
Merlin looked down. The old man’s eyes lit up. He had Merlin by the balls with a rusty set of vice clamps. He pulled them tighter.
“So we have the speed? And you have jack fucking shit.”
“Let’s step outside,” one of the hollow-eyed goons chimed in.
“Great idea,” the old man said.
Merlin followed them through the kitchen door to the back yard like a dog knowing it was about to get put down. I gave them a second and then stepped outside like I was taking a smoke. They were about to execute the kid on the spot.
They didn’t seem to mind the small crowd that had congregated on the back porch. A buzzing mob of the living dead, minds numb from opiates and smelling of whiskey, pushed elbow to elbow to see the scene playing out in the overgrown backyard. It was raining, like an execution scene from a snuff film I’d seen on a bad, bad trip in Connecticut.
I was too high at this point to reflect on my options. I tended to get this way on dissociatives. My body moved independent of my mind, which was soaring over me and watching the scene play out like a free-moving camera. I pulled a snub-nosed .38 revolver from my pocket. Aiming through the darkness that clouded my vision, I fired a shot at the cultists.
It hit one of the younger guys in his gut. He fell to the ground. The old man whipped around like a rabid dog. I swore his eyes glowed red as he took a buck knife from his belt and charged. A tangled, reeking mass of beard, hair, and spit flew around his face. Fucker was fast. I pulled off two shots center mass when he got close. He stumbled. The red light went out of his eyes.
“Fuck… you…” He toppled over like a grizzly bear felled by a muzzleloader. I stood over his corpse; a frontiersman shaken but not broken by the ordeal of fending off attacking beasts. The remaining two cultists hopped the fence and fled.
By this point, I could see the red and blue lights of patrol cars in the distance. I stepped down to the yard to check on Merlin.
“Thank you,” was all he could get out.
“Don’t worry about it. Put $500 on my books, okay?”
“Shit. If someone puts it on mine.”
He smiled. He was a good kid. I wouldn’t regret doing 25 for this. It beat going away for a lot of shit I should have done time for.
I always thought that if there was a god, he would be a prankster. His sense of humor seemed warped sometimes, but sometimes he used the weak to humiliate the strong. The night I gunned down the tryptamine smoking hippy cult killers, that prankster deity used Dino as his ex machina to save my ass.
Right as the patrol cars were rounding the corner, a loud, sudden crash drew our attention. Dino drove the Camry, with a busted-out driver side window, through Merlin’s fence.
“Get in! Pronto! Rapidemente!”
Who could argue with that? Merlin and I hightailed our stoned-out asses to the Camry. Dino backed up, turned the opposite way of the oncoming cars, and floored it. Although the Camry puttered and groaned, we managed to lose the cops on a back road way out in the boonies outside of town. Merlin knew the back roads well and, despite the haze of opium hash on his mind and the furious amphetamine demons clawing at the tattered remains of Dino’s brain, he was able to shout directions well enough for our driver to outmaneuver the patrol cars.
Soon, we were in the bootheel of Missouri. Merlin took the wheel and got the now badly beaten Camry into a gas station to fill up. What a sight the three of us must have been. My vision was too darkened by the comedown of whatever the hell I was on to make out much, but I can only imagine the look on the attendant’s face seeing Merlin pump gas while Dino slapped whatever spare change he had on the counter before returning to the pump with three cans of iced coffee.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the cool can in hand. I needed it too. My head was pounding.
The weekend ended with Merlin and Dino dropping me off near a Greyhound station in Joplin. In lieu of the full $500 payment, Merlin gave me $200 in bus fare and two sandwich bags full of grade A, all-American speed.
“If you take the bus to Tulsa, I know a guy who’ll give you $300 for that stuff. It’s a lot.”
“It’s fucking Tulsa, man. There’s lots of people who’d give me $300 for it.”
We laughed. I shook his hand and bid him well. The duo rode off as I made my way to the ticket guy.
“One way for Tulsa, please.” Maybe it was how close I came to getting put away, maybe it was the depression of having one hell of a come down on a stinking Greyhound going 80 miles an hour to the panhandle, but I was more reflective than normal. I only came out the other side of that weekend in one piece by the skin of my teeth. I stayed at a motel in Tulsa and did nothing riskier than sell amphetamine to business types for the next week. After that, I kept going West for a year. This wasn’t the first time I had to lay low after shooting someone. But something shook me up about this one.
I never heard from Merlin again, at least not directly. Through mutual acquaintances in Oakland, I heard that Dino overdosed, and Merlin relocated to Montreal. He got involved with an outfit of Quebecois militants who funded their operations through the territory’s thriving dope scene. They needed a runner, Merlin needed a gig, and the rest was history. Regardless, I was glad the kid got out of that town and away from those cultist freaks. Hell. I was glad that I got away.
Bio: William D. Higgs III is an environmentalist, radio personality, and writer from the rural Midwest. He likes to write the kinds of stories he reads- seedy noir crime fiction, surrealist tales, and reality bending works of magical realism. When he’s not writing fiction, William contributes articles on environmental policy freelances as a copywriter.