I haven’t posted fiction in a long time, partly because I spent most of last semester moonlighting as a Mandarin student. I’ve been writing more lately, however. Finally, I have a draft I wouldn’t mind sharing . . ..
The Cook, Vault, and Chess
Finley J. MacDonald
House’s navy boots gouge deep as he pushes among weeds. From naked bluffs, branching, glossy highways follow a black apron like a wide tar pit swallowing heaps of scrap metal, abandoned boats, armor. A blasted concrete pillbox lifts a warped, metal net. A warehouse like a patched coffin lurks behind mortars with barrels rusted, tires crumpled. Closer, in a river of debris, a cabin squats, smoke twisting over the window and flattish roof. House follows a path though the debris, passing the sheep carcass missing one front quarter and dangling from a tilting, concrete pole. The hide lies lumpy and glistening over a pile of split, stacked, wood, in front of which tilts the handle of a double-bitted axe, head in a stump. House lays a hand on the handle, pops it out, and sits down on the stump, drawing off his hood. While he scrapes the mud from his boots with the axe blade, gulls above yelp and churn against gray clouds. At his foot, the sheep’s head, mud-caked, bites its tongue. House rises and whacks the axe back into its spot.
House pushes in through the doorway of the cabin, the tarp dropping down behind to close out the drizzle. The grungy darkness stinks of rats, mutton, and pepper, and upon walls shedding newsprint hang rusty shearing blades. Buckets of sheep paint are stacked in the corners, and in several spots on the floor, empties have been set catching drips. Beyond a doorway to a back room, bedrolls are heaped on a single cot, and next to the window, a lantern whispers smoky light over a dented, unclean bread box, canisters, a can sprouting cutlery handles, a blood-stained chopping knife on a slab of wood, a ladle with its head in a saucer, and a timer with stilled hands. In the center of the table, a chess board rests in mid-game, pieces alongside. A number of stumps and stools have been placed around the table. Beyond the table, a coffee urn, upon two bricks, spews weakly, while a scorched cooking pot shakes its lid. In a nest of rotten clothing between towers of sheep-paint cans, a tan dog thumps his tail. He gathers himself and shambles, tail flopping, across sinking, broken planks. He runs his muzzle up House’s leg.
The stove shakes. Squatting in front, a black man is whopping a too-large chunk of firewood, driving it into the stove with his fist. The wood breaks through, thumps into the fire bed, and sparks flood out the door, the firelight reddening the dewlaps under the man’s eyes, the nose wide and flat under hair like grey lichen. Without closing the stove door, he pushes up, and he tips the damper slightly. He places his hands on his hips. The stove pipe whooshes with flame moving within, clicking as the metal expands. The old man turns. His shoulders give a jump, and he places a hand upon his chest.
“Slip up like that! Stop a man’s heart.”
“You got a heart, Cook? Nothing left of you but dried-up leather and sea salt, is there?”
“Why—I am all heart. How goes that drilling? Tell me we rich.”
House strips the coat from his shoulders and lifts it to a rusty spike.
“We may be. Ayway, we drilled through the lock.”
“You don’t say!”
“Used up every last one of fifty bits.”
“But the vault—it ain’t open?”
“No it ain’t.”
“We just sit awhile. Left the smith there, dribbling in some acid. We just let her soak awhile. When she spins, you shine a light in there and line it all up. Then she opens.”
“I’ll be! Hope it pops before we all hanging from poles like the sheep out there.”
“We got time. Junior Childes won’t risk his boats in this. It ain’t propitious.”
“Pro-what? What the hell’s that mean?”
“Means it ain’t good.”
The cook slams the stove door.
“Then say good, for heaven’s sake.”
“Nothing wrong with putting a little lawyer-man’s point on it. I’m going to need them kinda words when I’m wearing a suit every day, smoking store-rolleds at the end of an ivory holder.”
House steps around a bucket catching drips and sits down on the stool closest to the stove. He draws a firearm from the waistband of his trousers and lays it on the table.
“Got a rag? Got to wipe down my piece.”
“You gunslingers. Think cloth grows out on them island bushes.”
The cook sidles along a wire strung with socks and looped from the stove pipe to a low beam.
“I got but a couple left for my dishes.”
He shuffles to the table and lays the cloth in front of House.
“What is that rude-looking piece?”
House ejects the clip from a three-screwed hunk of stamped metal. He pushes out the brass cartridges onto the table, lining them up, six in a row.
“Something to make peasants run hollering across a field. Makes a big boom but won’t hit nothing unless you’re right up on it. I fired on some massive birds down there. Just cocked their heads and flapped up slow. Reminds me. I got some eggs in my coat. If they ain’t broke. You can fry me up a couple in the morning.”
House lays the clip beside the line of cartridges, and the dog follows him as he steps to his coat. He holds out the bottom of his shirt and sets in five brownish eggs from his coat pocket. At the table, he lays them one by one in a bowl, and he hands it to the cook.
“You want them eggs scrambled or fried?”
“Fried. Nice and greasy, along with some toast and mutton chops.”
“We got no bread.”
“All right. Eggs and steak, no bread.”
House sits down and takes up the firearm. He wipes and turns it, checking the exterior plate, hammer, and tab-style trigger.
“Now,” says the cook, gimping for the stove. “When I was on the Ellie Mae, we all toted sawed-off shotguns. Loaded up with buckshot. You can knock over anything with those, boy. But like you say, you gotta be right up on ‘em. A heap a them’s what we need for that Junior Childes.”
“Wouldn’t do no good. You ever waste a man, Cook?”
“Just one time.”
“What time was that?”
“Probably before you was even born. How I got this limp. Aboard the Ocean Pig. In harbor, about to offload our Chinese sugar, rum, cloth, guns, whatever else. It was like this, rain coming down a little. I’m sleeping one off in the cook shack when I hear pah-pah, poppety. I stuff my legs in my drawers, git my piece, and go busting out. I can hear men galloping every which way, but I can’t see a thing. I come creeping around a corner and there he is, out in the light, wearing a hood. I just stand there—don’t know if he’s one of us or not—and blam, I feel a little slap here on my knee. And he’s a-backing up, fiddling with his piece, dropping shells. I raise up. Blam, blam! He’s still backing off, eyes like teacups. And then the piece drops, and the knees go. I come up, keeping the piece on him. He’s laying there on his back.”
The cook holds an imaginary gun in both hands and takes a step, staring at the planks.
“Now, I shoot him, I put a hole in the deck. So I just look at them pretty, blue eyes. Yellow-haired kid. Ain’t no more shooting now, just my mates hollering back and forth. My knee is leaking a little, but I don’t feel nothing. And then pretty soon, them blue eyes ain’t seeing me no more. But for years I see them. Still do sometimes, before I drift off.”
House lifts the piece up toward the steamed window, where the mutton carcass hangs blurred in thick glass robbed from the corpse of a military transport. He squeezes off an imaginary round.
“That’s why they hood a guy before they stand him against the wall. Cover up them eyes. You never want to look at the eyes.”
The cook takes up a ladle from where it sits on the table, draining into a saucer. He pulls the lid off the cooking pot, and his fist winds through the steam.
“Now you tell me. Thondup and the rest of you all right behind?”
“They’ll be here. They got something to take care of first.”
“Not that there’s any hurry. This mutton stew gonna be like a chopped tire less it simmers near an hour more. And you git no bread. I set out the last loaf on the table, go out to fetch some wood. When I come back in, two rats as big as house cats going at it, chewing that bread down to a nub. They just set up there on their haunches a minute sizing me up, and then they haul off for the back room, one of ‘em with chunk under his chin. Never even knocked over a chess piece.”
The cook lifts up the full ladle and sniffs the stew. He blows on the broth and sips. He dunks the ladle back into the pot and lifts a tin pepper shaker over the stew.
“This here is some rough mutton. A whether lamb, I tell that French. Comes dragging back a nine-year-old ewe with her teeth all gone. Not that I complained. That French fierce like a mink.”
House lifts the coffee cup by the rim for another sip and shakes his head.
“French is a hassle. In fact, he is a detriment. Always got to make everything ugly. Chewed on the smith’s ear the whole time. Not the smith’s fault we couldn’t get at those tumblers. They can’t make bits that hard nowadays, not like back when they made that vault door. You go so far in, and then it’s black metal dust and no progress.”
House folds the cloth around the firearm and sets it on the table before the chess board.
“Cup me some of that coffee, Cook.”
The cook draws his hand into a soiled sleeve to lift the pot off the stove. With one hand on the table, he leans to fill one of the tin cups. He slides the steaming cup in front on House, shuffles back for the stove, and sets the coffee pot on the brick seat. House reaches across the table, pulls a spoon from a can of cutlery, screws the lid off a canister, and dumps three spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee. He stirs, and then sets the spoon on the table. He lifts the cup by the rim, blows, and sips, and sets down the cup. He raises his leg, and drops a boot on the edge of the kindling box next to the stove. From beside the chessboard, he picks up the captured, black knight and raises it under the lantern.
“You play, cook?”
“Not so much.”
“When I was inside, used to have these chess tournaments, prison-wide. Every man in that prison would have something riding on the winners. Took months. You’d write your move on bit of paper and roll it, send out the bars on a string. That was the system. Might have to make its way clear over to the on death row, but it would get there. This old escape artist in solitary, Spandarian, was a legend. Best not to bet against Spandarian, aye? Played a real defensive game. Get your forces mobilized and then you’d find youself twisted up, short a piece or two, and then, checkmate, game over. We all reckoned he was unbeatable. But you never know. A politico named Pepper landed in screwland and took the crown.”
“Chess ain’t much of a game for boats. Pieces fall over. Me, I like cards.”
“Chess beats cards to hell. It’s like a fight. Just you and your will to win across from your enemy. Choice of weapons: chess pieces. More I think about it, the more it reminds me of life. Right now, Childes and Felix Silver are the kings here on these islands. You and me, damn sure pawns. Now, if you’re a pawn, you most likely come to a bad end. Like that yellow-haired kid with them baby-blue eyes. Shit, you never ended that kid. He wound up dead because he was somebody’s pawn.”
House sets the knight beside the chess board, picked up a pawn, and holds it in two fingers.
“But once in a while, a pawn, he makes it all the way across, and he gets to be something different. That’s what’s about to happen to you and me, cook. We are going to be the pawns that made it across the board.”
“Better late than never,” says the cook.
He places the lid on the stew and lays aside the ladle. House sets the pawn beside the board.
“What are you going to do with your haul, Cook?”
The cook pulls a stool in front of the stove and sit down. He gouges a pocket knife into the bowl of his pipe.
“I’m going to buy me a boat.”
“Not me,” says House. “I seen all I want to see of boats. Boats mean work.”
The cook taps the pipe on the edge of the kindling box.
“I never been afraid of work. Slung hash on everything that floats since I was twelve years old. Fishing boats, merchant vessels, cruise ships. Bandit rigs. How I got hooked up with Thondup. Cooked on a sub during the war. Been to China and back I don’t know how many times. The only kinda boat I never worked on was a slaver. Man, I’m tired of all that. Mostly of saying yessir, nosir. That and listening to men gripe about food. I just want a little trolling rig, something small enough I can handle. That gonna be my home. Sell me just enough fish for fuel. Eat what I catch. Cook it up on the boat. Fresh, batter-fried haddock. Shark steak. When I don’t have nothing to do, going to do nothing. I don’t want to hear a sound except waves and birds. I don’t want to see a thing but sun and sea. That is the best life in the world.”
“Not for me. I was reared up in a village. I like a pig feast with a lot of wine and women. If I never ate haddock or shark again in my life, I’d be just fine. I’m gonna get in a boat long enough to make my way to a South China island. You can buy a cottage by the sea for nothing like the price of your boat. Women there got black eyes and hair down to their asses.”
“Hope you make it there. Me, I’m too old for women with hair down to their asses.”
The cook draws a tattered, paper bag from his shirt pocket, unrolls it in his lap, and drops two pinches of dry, powdery matter into the bowl. He rolls up the bag and pushes it back into his shirt pocket. He pokes the stuff down in the bowl with his thumb. He strikes a match, and the flame jumps as he puffs at the stem. The dog is sniffing House’s thigh. House drinks his coffee and ruffles the matted forelock. Out the window, beyond the sheep carcass, the ocean comes furrowing from under a bank of fog. The rain is coming harder now against the darkened window, runnels working their way down the glass. In the room, droplets plop into the paint cans, the stove pipe sizzles, and rats scratch and thump in the walls. Not far away, two quick reports are followed by a third, delayed shot.
The cook lifts his pipe.
“You boys sure like to waste your shells firing away on them poor birds.”
“Naw,” says House.
He dumps the dregs from his coffee cup onto the floor planks.
“That would one less mouth for you to feed, Cook. Old Frenchy going to shake hands with the devil. Slide me over some of that that smoke, Cook. I’m gonna roll me one with some of that newspaper.”