Bourbon Penn 5


by Jeffrey Wooten

Jonny-Boy doesn't know it, but the gun he's pressing to my head isn't loaded…not that I would care if it was.

I've got what they call a death wish. Suicidal tendencies and all. But don't go feeling sorry for me just yet. If you knew me, if you really knew me, you might think I had the right idea.

Jonny-Boy's behind me. One meaty arm holds me close. His voice is thin and high, "What'd you…? That…that…" He cracks me over the head with the gun. "What'd you…what you…he was…so high."

He's babbling, and it's too bad the gun's empty, because now he's got the barrel pressed hard to my temple, he's cursing and shaking me, and he's pulling the trigger over and over…and over.

• • •

I've got scars.

Burn scars on my chest and back. I don't exactly remember getting them, but I do have a vague memory of…something. I remember bright light and pain. I remember a sterile room and people in blue masks. I remember questions asked and my father's anger. I remember, when we were finally alone, my mother sobbing, telling me I'd been bad. I remember her tears and the way she looked at me, the way my father scowled, crossed himself, and talked about angels and demons. And even at such a young age — I couldn't have been more than four — I remember that things changed after that. How exactly I couldn't say, but I remember wanting back what was lost and wishing I wasn't what I was.

But mostly, I remember the fire. The way it danced for me at night. The way I learned to hide it and call it only when I knew I was alone. I remember that I wasn't always successful and paid for my mistakes in blood and pain.

I've got scars alright, deep and to the bone.

• • •

Fire blossoms from my hands, and Jonny-Boy screams and lets me go. As I turn to face him, my knees buckle and I almost fall. I steady myself as I watch Jonny-Boy back up pointing the empty gun at me. He's pulling the trigger as the empty cylinder rotates, and he's babbling still. "No…no…no, man, man, man, that ain't…that…ain't…"

The world is swirling, and black spots are forming in my vision. Jonny-Boy's backed up now so that he stands about in the middle of the warehouse. Outside I hear the whistle of some tug or cruise ship, and I see Janie in my mind's eye, seventeen, in a bikini, coming out of the water. She's smiling at me, telling me to come on in. Then she's gone, and Jonny-Boy's there. He's got the gun to his own head now pulling the trigger. He's babbling still.

And suddenly my vision is clear, and my legs don't feel so rubbery.

I extend my arm to him, and the fire swirls up toward my face. It twists and rolls, turning blue and red. Jonny-Boy screams and pulls the trigger faster.

A jet of color and heat shoots from my hand enveloping him in a sea of flame. He twists and screams, tries to run, but doesn't get far.

I watch the flames slowly burn out, then I walk over and stare at the smoldering corpse. I watch the pale streams of smoke rise and wonder why I bothered.

But I already know.

• • •

Eight hours ago…


They trashed my place looking for the money but, of course, didn't find it. They slapped me around a little, threatened me with guns, but it seemed a little insincere, like they were just going through the motions. That worries me.

We're sitting at my kitchen table. One of Jacky's goons is behind me; the barrel of a little matte black auto is pressed in my ear.

Jacky sits in front of me smiling, talking calmly, "Do you know the odds of getting every game right in a year?" He spreads his hands, "Taking into account a sixteen game season, beatin' the spread, and," he holds up a crooked finger, "now here's the rub, letting it ride game to game to game?" He shakes his head, "I smell a rat, my friend."

I look at him and shrug, "Lucky."

Jacky frowns and nods at the goon behind me. The gun raps me on top of the head, and pain shoots down my spine.

"Two possibilities," Jacky says. "One. Somehow you beat odds that gotta be so astronomical I'd need a Ph.D. to calculate 'em. Or two. One of my guys hooked you up after the fact." He leans back and smiles.

I smile back.

"I already think I know the guy. Had my eye on that gumba a while now."

He's watching me.

"Tony," he says.

I don't react.

He watches me for a while more and shrugs. "Don't matter, because you're going to go get my money and bring it to me. Three-hundred K, and it all better be there."

The goon behind me gives me a little tap with the gun to let me know I should speak. So I do, "Why would I give you the money back? The money you gave me yesterday."

Jacky pulls a cigar from his coat pocket and sniffs it. "Can we be frank?"


"The thing is Henry, I like you."

"That so?"

"Sure. You can't believe the kind of action your little stunt has moved my way." He bites the end of the cigar off and spits it onto my floor.

"Think about it," Jacky says. "A guy, you, that has never been known to bet on football in his life. What are you, twenty? Never mind. A guy like you all of a sudden makes the run you did." He lights the cigar with a Zippo he produces from his coat pocket, takes a few puffs. "Your story is a bookie's wet dream. I've had so much action lately, it's unreal."

I smile, "No problem."

Jacky doesn't smile back, but he does nod at the goon behind me, and I get thumped again.

"Thing is," he continues, "what you did, well, it's as close to impossible as it can get. I mean, you bet every Bears' game, beat the spread, and hit the over-under too, and you did it sixteen weeks in a row. I'm not stupid, my young friend. No one can do that. The only reason I gave you the money in the first place was for all the civilians to see what the possibilities are — what dreams may come, if you will — if they place a wager with me." He shrugs, takes a drag, and expels smoke. "But anybody that really matters — anybody with any sense — knows you cheated, somehow, some way. So, you're gonna give me my money back."

"And if I don't?"

The goon pushed the gun harder against my ear.

Jacky takes another slow drag off his cigar and blows smoke, in no hurry to answer. "I've heard you're a real hard-ass little kid. Got beat on by your folks, ran away, raised over at St. Luke's. Hear bad-ass Father Paul took you under his wing before he died." Jacky nods his approval. "Smart too, I hear. Heard that maybe beatin' on you, threatening your life, won't do me any good. Thing is, I heard all that and more."

He smiles at me, "Like I heard you got a real sweet girl across the river. On the good side of the river. Father's a lawyer or something, mom's a surgeon." He sighs, "Young love," he leans forward and stares right into my eyes. "Thing is, we got your girl."

• • •

Nostradamus was full of shit. I mean, the guy made all these predictions about the future. Like, this guy was going to invade here, and pestilence and famine would strike here. It's not like anything he said was exactly clear or precise, either.

In all, the asshole made six thousand three hundred and thirty-eight written predictions. Is it really a miracle that a few seemed to have come true?

But what if you could see the future? I mean, it hurt like hell and probably didn't do your brain any good, because every time you opened up that third eye, the eye that sees the future, you bled from your nose like a stuck pig and were comatose for most of the next twenty-four hours.

But now suppose you did that sixteen times. Sixteen times, and each one almost killed you. But each time you glimpsed the future, you took one step closer to escaping the past. And then you finally had enough money to get out, to maybe take someone special with you. Only at the last minute, things went south, and you had to make a choice: The girl or the money?

If you hesitated, if you paused to consider the question…well…you're a real sonofabitch.

• • •

I get the money and head to the warehouse. I know the place. It's just off the harbor. It's a nice, isolated spot and I know I'm going to get messed-up.

Maybe worse.

There was this guy once, a mechanic down on 42nd, Barry Mendelssohn. He was a crazy gambler. Started placing bets with Jacky and won big for a while, kept betting, and eventually, like the degenerate gambler he was, lost his ass. Then he lost more. And more. It got so bad he couldn't pay the vig. So Jacky sent some of his "associates" to Barry's garage to straighten him out. Only Jacky didn't send enough "associates". Most say it was ugly. Barry was a big man, and he beat Jacky's guys with a monkey wrench, sent three to the hospital and broke Jonny-Boy Palatino's front teeth out.

For a while, nothing happened, Barry went on fixing Buicks and people started whispering that maybe Jacky had gone soft. Then one day, some of Barry's employees come to work and find their boss in pieces. Well, two pieces anyway. It was ruled an accident by the cops. Seems Barry stayed late at work one night, got drunk, and somehow managed to cut himself in two with a hydraulic lift.


Jacky had him killed and bought off the cops.

You decide.

Jacky sent four men after Barry Mendelssohn, but there are only two waiting for me. Jonny-Boy Palatino smiles at me, showing his silver front teeth, "Nice of ya to show up. Hope that's money in the bag."

I toss the gym bag at his feet. I'm feeling a little reckless, "It's all there. Count it."

Jonny-Boy's smile doesn't waver, "We'll count it." He motions the other guy to the bag. The other guy is huge. He's at least 6'5", and his blonde hair is cut military short. He's wearing wrap-around shades and an Adidas jogging suit that is baggy but doesn't hide the muscle beneath.

The guy frowns, "Why do I have to be counting the monies?" His accent is Slavic, Russian maybe, and he takes one look at Jonny-Boy, sighs, kneels by the bag and unzips it. There are loose bills in the bag; tens, twenties, hundreds. "This money, it's all jumbled." He looks up at me as if nothing would make him happier than crushing my face, then he looks at Jonny-Boy.

Jonny-Boy just stares.

The Russian grumbles something under his breath, throws a malicious glance my way, and starts counting, places the bills in stacks according to denomination. Jonny-Boy and I watch him silently for a while.

"So, how'd ya do it?" Jonny-Boy finally asks.

I shrug, "Lucky."

Jonny-Boy laughs, it sounds ugly, threatening. "Go ahead and keep lyin'. That sweet thing of yours will pay."

I don't take the bait, "Where's Janie anyway?"

Jonny-Boy's about to tell me to go to Hell, then something dark crosses his face, and he smiles, "She's at Jacky's place over on thirteenth."

"That right?"

"Yeah, know why I'm telling ya?"

I shrug.

"You're gonna to tell me how you ripped us off."

"I just did."

Jonny-Boy nods, ignoring me. "Yeah, ya are, and after that, me and Lexi here are gonna cut your cheatin' throat, wrap you in chains, and throw ya in the bay."

I feel a cold chill. Not sure I expected such honesty.

After a few seconds I find my voice, "And Janie?"

The Russian laughs. "How did an ugly like him get such a plum anyway?" He looks at me, kneeling by the bag, surrounded by uneven stacks of money. "I think maybe I'll show his woman how a real man treats a lady." He stands, a wad of cash in his right hand, and starts thrusting his hips.

Jonny-Boy watches the big Russian and chuckles.

Lexi gets more animated. His hands are out in front of him and he's thrusting his hips hard, "This is a real man, my plum, a real man pleasing you."

"Stop," I say.

The Russian laughs, "She will thank me, I think. For I will teach her." He thrusts in time with his words.

"Stop," I say. The word comes out clipped and hard.

Jonny-Boy glares at me, "You're gonna to tell us what we wanna know." He nods to himself, "Only question is, do ya wanna die hard or easy?" He pauses, "And the girl? How 'bout her, tough guy? What's her life worth?"

The Russian stops thrusting and looks at me. He shakes his head sadly, "Look at him. You give him hope." He shakes his head slower as if to say, The things you crazy Americans do. "The truth," the Russian says, "we will kill the girl too." He spreads his hands, What other possibility could there be?

• • •

The first time I levitated Gus I was maybe five. Gus was my cat, and he seemed to like it well enough. Indoors, he'd ball up, close his eyes, and purr. But he liked outside the best. I'd get him up high, eye level with the birds.

Weird cat, no doubt about it, but man I loved that damn animal.

The last time I levitated Gus I was about seven. We were outside, and I had him up maybe seventy-five or eighty feet. My dad came out, saw what I was doing, and started wailing on me, screaming at me, asking me what would happen if the neighbors saw. I lost concentration, and Gus fell.

You know that saying about cats always landing on their feet? Well I think it's true, but if they land on concrete from eighty feet…it doesn't do them any good.

That was the first time my parents locked me in the basement. They didn't chain me to the radiator like they would eventually, and they didn't send Father Jacobs in to pray over me. They just left me, and except for the occasional meal or can of soda, I never saw them.

Time can be a real bitch when you're that young. Minutes seem like hours, hours like days. Looking back, I couldn't have been down there more than a week, but I don't really know. What I do remember, what made that first time so hard, was my complete inability to sleep. When I closed my eyes all I could see was my cat hitting the driveway and crunching like an egg. His legs twisting and snapping, blood leaking from his mouth and nose, my father hitting me as he cried and called me names I didn't understand.

I tried not to call the fire, to levitate things with my mind or use any of the "unnatural, ungodly abominations" that to me seemed so natural and right. But I was seven, scared, and bored off my ass.

I called the fire and played with it, careful not to burn the house down around me. I levitated things, flung old lamps and boxes of pictures around the room like a pissed-off poltergeist. I spun an old TV set like a top and made marbles flow across the floor like ants. And all the while I was careful, carful to be quiet, careful not to break anything, careful not to let mom or dad find out.

• • •

I lift Lexi up. His eyes go wide, and he starts jabbering in a language I can't understand. Jonny-Boy's eyes bug, and his mouth half opens. He's looking from me to Lexi, his expression almost comical.

Lexi pulls a stainless revolver from a shoulder holster under his track suit and starts yelling at me, pointing the gun at me. I can feel his weight like a pressure inside my mind. I've never lifted anything this heavy and I don't know if I can get him high enough. Lexi fires at me. I hear the bullet zip past my ear. And I shake him like a rag doll, each time I slide him to the side, the pressure in my head doubles. I feel like I might vomit but I push him up, shaking him so he can't get a good shot at me. He's firing at me again; once, twice. I hear the bullets ricochet off the concrete at my feet. A third and fourth bullet whiz by.

Jonny-Boy's just staring at me. There's sweat bubbling off his forehead and his eyes are wide.

I've got my hand raised up shaking it side to side, lifting it. Lexi is moving up higher, shaking in time with my hand. I fall to a knee against the strain; my head feels like it's going to explode.

Jonny-Boy's freaking. "Mother of God. That ain't…no…"

Lexi has emptied his revolver, and somehow I'm not dead. He swings open the revolver's cylinder and drops the empty casings. They fall through the air, shiny and glinting, like spent metal rain. He's searching for something in his pockets, and I shake him.

Jonny-Boy's completely lost it; he's mumbling something under his breath looking at me, looking up at Lexi.

The big Russian is high enough now. The warehouse's sky-light is just above him, and he's actually reaching up, one hand still holding the empty revolver, trying to grab something, anything, and I've got no more strength. I let him go. He falls — fast — arms swirling uselessly through the air. He hits the concrete, and…it's a lot like Gus, only there's more blood, and the impact is so heavy it sounds like a meaty explosion. Blood splatters Jonny-Boy, and he screams like a little girl and starts crying.

I'm drained physically and emotionally. I slump to the floor, and I feel like I might pass out. I'm all out of strength. All out of hope.

Jonny-Boy's thick arm wraps around me, and he pushes the Russian's empty revolver in my ear.

And I think I just want to die.

And Jonny-Boy babbles incoherently.

And I think about Janie.


I roast Jonny-Boy Palatino alive.

• • •

The money is in the gym bag in the passenger seat, Lexi's revolver, loaded with shells I found on his bloody corpse, is tucked in the back of my pants.

Jacky's place is on thirteenth.

I'm going to get my girl.

• • •

I don't just drive right up and go knock on the front door. But my plan isn't a whole lot better.

I park a few blocks from the house and walk down the block. I circle around back and find a twelve foot wall with decorative spikes sprouting from the top that look like they could eviscerate a wooly mammoth. I don't have time to think about it I just push. My feet leave the ground, and I wobble a few inches off the sidewalk.

Lifting objects, say a three hundred pound Russian, is hard. Lifting myself is bordering on impossible. I don't know why. No one ever gave me a manual. That's just the way it is. Like I said, my plan pretty much sucks.

So I push and immediately feel nauseous. I set it aside, as best I can, and push harder. I move up and grab the lip of the wall. I pull myself up, but the spikes make it impossible to scramble over. So I grit my teeth and push and at the same time pull with my arms. I fly over the wall, a metal spike striking my shin, and pain flares up my leg. And then I'm falling. The ground rushes up, and I land hard. I feel something in my chest crack, and all the air in me rushes out my mouth and nose in an agonizing whoosh.

I can't breathe, and worse, as I turn over on my back, making wheezing noises deep in my chest, there is a man with gun staring at me. "That," he says, pointing the gun at me, "was awesome."

There's a flower bed behind the guy, hugging the wall I just cleared, it's ringed with smooth river stones. The guy keeps talking, "How did you do that? You some kind of gymnast?"

I can barely breathe, but I lift a stone and quickly hover it over his head. He's still talking, "You don't look so good. No man, you look far from okay." He snorts a laugh and I drop the stone.

There's a sick crack, and the guy folds and slumps to the ground. I can't do anything but lay there for a while catching my breath. If someone catches me now, I'm finished.

Eventually, I stand. The pain in my leg is a dull ache and the pain in my chest is a piecing agony. I try not to take deep breaths as I check the unconscious guy's pulse. It's strong and steady, and I feel good about that.

I take his gun, a mostly plastic-looking auto, and stick it in the front of my jeans. I reach around and pull Lexi's revolver from my back waistband. A thin stream of blood trickles from my nose, and I know I'm all out of tricks. If I try and do anything "unnatural" again, I'm likely to pass out.

I limp to a backdoor, knowing it's going to be locked.

It's not.

I go inside.

The first thing I hear is shouts, and I freeze, but the sound is coming from up the hall, and there's laughter mixed in with it. I walk to the noise and peer into an archway. There are four men standing in front of a huge flat-screen TV with their backs to me, two wear shoulder holsters with guns, and I have no doubt the other two have guns somewhere.

On the screen, men in army fatigues run through a hail of cartoonish gunfire and die in sprays of animated blood. The real men, with Playstation controllers in their hands, curse and laugh alternately.

Henchmen geeks. Who would've known?

I slip past the doorway and head down the hall. I look for a basement, but the house doesn't seem to have one. I go up a flight of stairs to the second floor and walk around, opening doors. I find nothing and head to the top floor.

The first door I come to on the top floor I open, expecting to find it empty like all the rest. Instead, I nearly knock Jacky down. He's wearing a bathrobe and slippers. For a second neither of us moves, then he opens his mouth to scream, and I punch him hard. He falls, and the bathrobe parts, revealing more of him than I care to see. I point Lexi's gun at him, "Say a word, and you're dead." I try and sound tough but I'm sure I don't pull it off.

Jacky looks at me. He doesn't look scared; he looks like he's weighing me on some mental scale and finding me lacking. "You ever kill anyone, kid."

Now there's something I can answer honestly, "Besides Jonny-Boy and Lexi? Well, no."

Jacky's eyes give just a hint of surprise, but then it's gone. "Makes sense, otherwise…"

"Yeah," I say, 'otherwise.'" I motion for him to stand. "Where's Janie?"

"I've got five guys — "

I step forward and pistol-whip him in the temple as he's getting off the floor. He goes down on a knee, holding his head. "Where's? Janie?"

He looks up at me, and I have never seen malice like I see in Jacky's eyes. "You're both de — "

I cock the revolver, "Say it, asshole. Say it, and it's your last words." Jacky's face goes still, and he must see something in my face.

"She's down the hall."

"If she's hurt, if you've hurt her…"

Jacky shakes his head angrily, "I'm no rapist."

"Just a murdering sack of shit."

Jacky's nostrils flare, and he growls, "You cheated me."

I don't respond to that. "Take me to her."

He gets up, and I get behind him with the gun. He walks down the hallway, and I follow. At the end of the hall, he reaches above the last closed door and pulls a key from the frame. He uses it to open the door. I push him in.

Something hits him in the head and he crumples to the floor. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse someone standing on an end table and a pipe coming for my head. I duck, falling awkwardly as the pipe cuts the air inches from my left ear.

"Henry?" Janie says.

I look up at her. She's standing over me, the pipe raised.


The pipe sags to her side. "Hey."

She starts crying.

• • •

I hold her and tell her it's alright. She holds me and tells me the same. I tell her about the guys playing Playstation. She insists on a gun, so I give her the plastic auto. I'm not sure if she's ever shot a gun, but by the way she holds it and flips off the safety with a quick flip of her thumb, I think there might be a lot I don't know.

We're careful to be quiet as we quickly make our way downstairs.

We make it to the first floor without a hitch, and I'm thinking how easy we're getting away, how finally something is going right, when Jacky starts yelling. He's still on the top floor, but he's loud, and his voice carries through the whole house, "Ahhhhhhhh! Paulie! Richie!" He sounds half crazy, half delirious.

Almost instantly, four guys with guns are at the end of the hallway. They don't yell "stop"; they don't say "freeze". They raise their guns and start firing, because Jacky's coming down the stairs now and he's screaming for blood.

I knock Janie into a room that turns out to be a bathroom as bullets splinter wood and punch through sheetrock and slam into bathroom tile. One of the men must have some type of full-auto, because something is buzzing like a buzz saw, and an unreal amount of bullets are coming down the hall.

Janie's beneath me as plaster and bits of debris rain down on us, and I can still hear Jacky yelling, "Killllllll theeeeeeem!"

I scream.

And scream.

I feel something deep within me, something primordial and raw. I roll off Janie and she reaches for me but I push her away. Fire envelopes my hands. I hear Janie gasp and say something, but it sounds far away. I stand and bullets whiz by me, and bits of wall and tile pepper me, and I can see Jacky standing on the stairs looking at me. His eyes are wide and staring.

I send fire to him but he dodges and rolls down the stairs, sliding into the hallway, where his men's bullets tear him apart. The gunfire stops, and an ominous silence fills the house.

I step into the hall and send a wall of flame down it. All four men try and run but don't make it two steps. Their burning bodies ignite the walls.

• • •

I used to hope that one day somebody would find me, let me know what's up, give me some lessons or pointers…tell me that I wasn't alone. I wanted it to be just like in the movies. I wanted someone to take me away; away from my parents, away from myself, away from my pain.

Eventually, I got over it.

Truth is I've never met anyone like me. And I'm pretty sure I never will. And when people in the real world see what I can do, see what I am, they don't smile; they don't nod knowingly and wink. They sometimes just look at me. Eyes wide and staring. And I know in that look is the end to whatever humanity they ever saw in me. Whatever love they ever had for me. Whatever it was that at one time connected me to their world, it's gone. Gone forever.

• • •

Janie stares at me.

Smoke's swirling in the hall as the fire behind me gains a hold. Janie walks over to me, her eyes never leaving mine. She rises up on her tip-toes and kisses me. She taste like sweat and fear, and I kiss her back, and we hold each other. Hold each other tight. And the world seems to stand still for a while and it's a long time before it moves again. When it does, we leave together by the front door.

Jeffrey Wooten lives in Arkansas with his wife and children. He has been published in both print and that mysterious place between computers known as cyberspace.