Phonecall From Heaven-Chapter Six

This is a serial novel. To view Chapter Five visit: https://abdallahalalfy.medium.com/phonecall-from-heaven-chapter-five-b3ab35a2cd53

By the time Joshua had arrived Laura had already gotten a table and was sitting with a mug in front of her. She smiled as she spotted Lake rolling up to the table looking left and right about him slowly with a barely perceptible shade of concern around his brows and the corner of his mouth; holding himself just a little on guard. For anyone who had never met him and was unacquainted with the confidence that bordered on arrogance, with which he normally carried himself, he would not have seemed uneasy. She could not bring herself to call him uneasy now, but it was a practiced ease with which he carried himself. Nothing like what she had seen earlier today in the morning.

“Hey there.” She said as he sat down, “you alright?”

“Yeah. Just taking the place in again. It’s a long time since I’ve bin here.”

“How long?”

“As long as I haven’t had a drink. Like two years..? Give or take.”

“That long huh? Must have really grown out of it.”

“I guess you could say that. What are you having?”

“Irish coffee. In fact, I was just about to go get another one. Can I get you anything while I’m fetching it?”

“Yeah. Club soda please.”

“Wait what? Are you really not gonna have a drink? I thought you said you weren’t a recovering alcoholic.”

“I’m not. But now’s not the time to get into why I stopped drinking. I don’t really drink kiddo, let’s leave it at that. We won’t dig this up now.”

“Why not?”

Joshua sighed “You ask way too many questions kiddo.” He went quiet for a second. Then continued “When I was a kid I had an uncle. That uncle drank too much. Now I don’t have that particular uncle.”

“Oh. Was he an alcoholic?”

“Bingo.”

“There’s no need to be so sarcastic” she said defensively. “How could I be sure that was it? What if he was driving that night or something?”

“He wasn’t.”

“Well alright then. But still. One alcoholic uncle is no reason to act like you’re some sort of monk.”

“True. Except that’s not all there is to it.”

“Oh?”

“See back when HE was a kid, my uncle had an uncle too. And HIS uncle drank too much as well. By the time he’d done primary school, my uncle didn’t have that particular uncle anymore either.”

“So you’re worried it runs in the family?”

“Well ain’t you the brightest pea in the pod?”

“Alright alright. Enough with the sarcasm. I’ll get you the club soda.”

“It’s fine, I can go get us the drinks.”

“No, stay put.” She said as she got up. “I’m YOUR intern remember? Not the other way round. Or as you so expressively put it this morning, you ‘own me’. Wouldn’t want me to think you’re going soft now, would you?”

Joshua met her look squarely and replied.

“Patience my princess. Your suffering on behalf of my work has not yet begun.”

“Oooh. That sounds very grown up and eloquent. Hold that frame of mind while I come back.”

As she left, Lake took another look around the place that he used to know so well. Thinking. Remembering. The place was old, renovated a few times, but around since his dad had bought the apartment, before Josh was born. Joshua knew the place in the sense that everyone in the neighbourhood knew it, but he had never been a regular. Up until a little more than 2 years ago. For almost six months he’d be here almost every day, sometimes even twice a day, if only to pick something up from a friend, drop something off with the barman for someone else to pick up later, go a few rounds of pool, or even throw just one dart before he got going. For six months, it was a rare day in which Joshua Lake did not put in an appearance at the old Irish place. Then all that had stopped.

His thinking and reminiscing were cut short by Laura’s return with their drinks.

“Here you go. Top of the mornin’ to ya!” She said, taking a big sip of her Irish Coffee

“And to you me darlin’. An’ to you.”

“So, what was so important that you forgot you couldn’t wait to get rid of me?”

“Well…Let’s try to start from the beginning. You know what Osteoporosis is?”

Laura nodded.

“I don’t know the details or how it works, but I know it’s a condition in which bones are fragile and more susceptible to breaking.”

“Yeah, well, a bunch of dead junkies have been showing up with broken bones. Plus some guy tried to mug me pretty recently, and he was a junkie too. And his bones shattered pretty easy as well. Only he was alive”.

“Oh. That’s odd.”

“I know right? It’s gotten me thinking that maybe it’s something worth looking into.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Maybe there’s something new on the market? Something worse?”

“Wait. How do you know all this?”

“Know all…?”

“The dead junkies. The broken bones. Everything. How do you come across this stuff?”

“I’ve been doing this for seven years kid. Eight or nine if you count my internships and student work. Give me some credit. I have feelers out all over this city.”

“So networking? This is how you found out?”

“Maybe.”

“Come on Lake! How am I supposed to learn if you keep stonewalling me?”

Joshua relented with one of his smiles that come out of nowhere and disappear like they never happened.

“Alright. No. I wasn’t exactly listening for something like this. I stumbled across it because I was going to see a friend about something else.”

“So this is how an investigative journalist decides on a topic? They investigate whatever they stumble across? You don’t really have a ‘grapevine’ ?” She said, making air quotes with her fingers.

“No you dumbo. Of course I have a grapevine. And of course I hear stuff from it. And sure, that’s one of the ways you get on a topic. But not every investigative journalist is in my position. More often than not, the topics you get you’re assigned by your bosses. Which is why they’re boring. And sure, your sources will send you the odd lead or two for something new and juicy. But if you come across something worth looking into in your own city and you don’t take the trouble of looking into it then you’re not worth your own salt!”

“Alright. So you have a friend. I’m guessing someone who works for the M.E. ?”

“More like works closely WITH the M.E.”

“And that’s the only reason this caught your attention?”

“Well…No. Like I said, on my way to see that friend, a junkie tried to mug me.”
“Say what now?!”

“What? I just told you about that!”
“You said recently! I assumed you meant like a couple of weeks back!”
“Well, you assumed wrong. A junkie tried to mug me. And his cheekbone shattered way too easily. I mean, it’s not like I don’t throw a mean right hand punch but I could feel it shatter way before the contact had delivered all of my payload.”

“Payload?”

“Kinetic energy”

“From what?”

“I PUNCHED HIM. In the face.”

“Aaaaah. Oh ok. Are you alright? You don’t seem very shaken for someone who almost got mugged.”

“Nah, the poor guy was an amateur. He never had a chance. Probably his first time. Besides, it was hours ago. What? Am I supposed to get worked up about it all day? What am I, a woman?”

“Now that’s just being sexist. Any normal guy would be just as shaken up as any normal woman about getting mugged.”

“Sure. If they actually get his wallet!”

“You’re being a jerk again you know.”

“If I ‘KNOW’ then why are you pointing it out? Redundant much?”

“Ugh. I’m not doing this again.”

“Fine. Don’t.”

“Why is that woman staring at you like that?”

“She’s probably checking me out.” Joshua replied with comically exaggerated confidence. “I’m a pretty good looking guy.”

“No. It’s not that kind of staring. Look!”

Joshua turned his head to meet the eyes of the woman looking directly and unblinkingly at him. Much the way Laura had been looking at him earlier today on the subway.

“Shit.” He said, turning his head back around.

“You know her? Who is it?”

“Well…” He said in a quiet, slightly less colourful tone.

“Well?”

“I used to date her best friend.”

“I’m guessing it didn’t end well.”

Joshua said nothing.

“What? Are you ok?”

“No. You’re right. It didn’t…It didn’t end well. I suppose that’s one way to say it.”

“What happened?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Dude! Seriously. We’re gonna be spending a lot of time together. And we’re bound to meet with quite a few of the people you know. You wanna tell me what your deal is with women?!”

“My deal with women?” Joshua raised his eyebrows quizzically. “What makes you think I have a ‘deal’ with women?”

“I sense it. This morning on the subway, then this…Plus I have intuition you know. Women’s intuition.”

Lake snorted

“It’s true!” Lee said indignantly. “Now tell me about your issues with women! Or at least tell me about this one!”

Joshua sighed.

“How do I put this, Lee…Alright, listen up. I’m going to tell you something about me that not a lot of people know.”

“Oooh! Exciting! That’s better! Spill! Tell me something interesting about you! The more personal the better!”

“How do I put this…eloquently? I have experienced the most elevated heights of joy. There were moments when finding a happier man would have been impossible. And it was because of a woman that I experienced such priceless moments. And I have known the very lowest instances of misery. I was lost in the abyss. And it was that very same woman who put me there.”

“Hmm. Scar tissue?”

“In a sense, I suppose you could say that. So no, I’m not very keen on exposing some of the most vulnerable parts of my life to you just yet. I don’t even know you that well. You started the day by hitting on me for God’s sake. You can’t just switch from that to friend and confidante in less than half a day just because we’re working together now. Give it time.”

“Now who sounds like the woman? What a buzz kill. You’re so broody and unhappy it’s almost emo.”

“This is my fault for treating you like a human being. Enough with the chitchat. Tonight you have one task. I want you to reach out to your rich high society friends. The ones who are using. Don’t bother denying you know some. I don’t care if they’re not really your friends. See if anything new came out or anyone’s been having problems with their bones recently.”

“Ok. Anyone I should focus on in particular?”

“Heroin users. But don’t limit your search to that. Just give them priority on your call list.”

“What about you? What are you gonna do?”

“How is that any of your business?”

“I’m learning the ropes remember?”

“Fine. I’m gonna go talk to the cops and drop the charges on that junkie who tried to mug me. Then I’ll go for a jog, hit the gym, and spend some time on the heavy bag.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know. Why do you wear big coats in nice weather?”

“Oh come on!”

“Because I do it every night like religion. I eat way too much junk and working out every night keeps me healthy.”

“No you idiot. You know that’s not what I meant. Why get the cops to drop the charges on that junkie?”

“Because I wanna get him to talk. And it’s easier than torturing it out of him. Besides I can’t get him to crack since he’s in police custody. I could try and see if any of the cops are willing to do it but that’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

“But if he gets out he can do it again! To someone a lot more helpless than you are!”

“Boohoo, cry me a river.”

“It’s true!”

“No it’s not.” Joshua said with a final note. “I’ll make sure it never happens again to anyone. So why DO you do it?”

“What?”

“The trench-coat thing.”

Laura paused for a moment and fiddled with the handle of her mug before meeting Joshua’s eyes.

“Body image issues.”

“Oh?”

“Oh.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“No.”

“You remember our deal? I own you. I can make you tell me.”

“You think I wanna work with you that badly?”

“I KNOW you wanna work with me that badly.” Josh laughed.

“And are you? Gonna make me?” She asked a little tensely. Joshua paused. She was showing a little bit of worry for the first time since he’d agreed to take her on. But Joshua had a hunch that she was a lot more worried than she was letting on. It was like she was evaluating what kind of person he is. He considered her. Sitting a little stiffly, a slightly tense expression on her face, he even fancied he could tell she wasn’t breathing as easy as she usually does. Sitting there, awaiting some kind of judgement. His own face softened a little and he felt little tug of guilt inside of him.

“No.” He finally replied. “I’m not gonna make you. Not while it’s unnecessary.”

“I appreciate that.”

“I know. Tell me something else instead. This morning on the subway. Was that really a come on? Were you really putting the moves on me or were you just messing with my head because you knew you’d be seeing me in the office in a few minutes? Like a prank?”

A mischievous smile lit up Laura’s face “Why? Do you want it to have been a real come on?”

“Answer the question.”

Lee shrugged. “I don’t really think about these things Lake. Real… Prank… I dunno to be honest. It just seemed like the fun thing to do at the time. Don’t you ever cut loose?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Where did you learn to do that anyway?”

“Do what?”

“You know. Take on muggers like you’re taking out the trash Mr. Hotshot.”

“I went to Merc school.”

“What the hell is that?”

“Mercenary school. It’s like a private security bootcamp kind of thing. Only instead of having to kill people after you’re done, you just pay them for your training.”

“Huh? Why the hell would you do that?”

“My dad worked for Defence. Working for them a lot of things happened to him but two things really stuck out. One, he grew disillusioned with taking orders as a lifestyle. Two, he learned the world was a very bad place in which it pays to be able to defend yourself. He wanted me to be able to take care of business and handle myself without spending my life taking orders from some meathead or fighting for causes I don’t believe in. So he taught me what he could and then paid for my more advanced training.”

“Do they teach that kind of hand-to-hand combat in the military too?”

“Very few divisions. They all learn a little of course. For whatever comes up. But very few divisions have any utility for those kinds of skills at advanced levels. Most military operations, if you’re close enough to get punched in the face, the op has already gone to shit. When it’s not one of those times, the basics are usually enough.”

“But mercenaries get punched in the face all the time?”

“Mercenaries are less specialized. When a government doesn’t wanna get mud on its sheets it pays big bucks for fewer people. Those fewer people need to be more well-rounded than some guy on a submarine. Or flying a helicopter. Or jumping out a plane. Same with other clients. When a warlord hires outside guys, he needs them to handle it all.”

“Don’t shit me Lake. No way you people can do all that.”

“Who the fuck is ‘you people’? I look like I kill for money to you? I’ve never taken a mercenary contract. Ever.”

“You know what I mean.”

“No. Not all of them can do all that. A lot of them are ex-military themselves. But the ones that get the bigger contracts usually have upgraded skill sets. At least one or two more major skills than your regular specialized soldier. I knew a guy who could jump out of a plane, Kick the shit out of an MMA pro, fly a helicopter, handle anything in a tank, and who once sniped a guy at 750 yards. He was better at the hand-to-hand stuff than all the rest but still, pretty well-rounded.”

“Can you fly a helicopter?”

“I know the basics. Not a pilot you wanna hire though. Probably get blown out of the sky in combat. Can’t impromptu land for shit either.”

“Tank?”

“Nope. Off shore training facility. Not the bootcamp I went to. Wasn’t worth paying for. I never intended to go to war.”

“What CAN you do?”

“I’m a very good shot. Every type of firearm, no exceptions. I can use most kinds of personal weapons pretty decently, some really well. I know a lot of hand-to-hand stuff. I can crawl through most parameters without getting caught. That came in handy. Once had to crawl through a swamp along the edges for five hours from daybreak to get a picture of rebel armaments in a warzone. Smelled like a skunk for a week.”

“Doesn’t everybody crawl?”

“In boot camp? Sure. But they only do the bare minimum required in their training contracts. Nobody likes to crawl. Nobody took the time to practice it to the point where it’s an art form.”

“And you did?”

“Not even a little bit, Lee. But I did more of it anyway. Dad made me when I was a kid. Then I recognised the value.”

“Is that why you always bark orders at me? Boot camp life in your bones?”

“No. I bark orders at you because you’re an annoying little rich brat with an attitude who could use a bit of bossing around to improve her personality.”

“Um, Lake?”

“Yeah?”

“Look.” She said, pointing. As Joshua looked to where she was pointing he realised that the woman who had been staring aggressively towards them the whole time was making her way over to their table. Moreover, she was making her way very decidedly towards the spot in which Joshua was sitting.

“Oh shit” Josh muttered.

In a second she was at their table, and almost before she’d stopped walking her mouth was open and she was screaming at the top of her lungs.

“YOU HAVE SOME NERVE COMING IN HERE AGAIN, LAKE!!”

Laura noticed that Joshua was doing the opposite of what she’d seen him do all day. Instead of making maximum eye contact during confrontation, he was making minimum eye contact with this woman in particular. She wondered if he was afraid of her for some reason but there was nothing especially unique about her. Just another angry woman. Another angry, drunk woman.

“Do you really want to do this right now Zoey?” Joshua asked quietly, looking at his club soda. It was an emotionless tone but there didn’t seem to be any menace in his bearing or his expression. For those who knew him, though Laura was not one of them, it was a genuine question.

“DO WHAT HUH??!!! DO WHAT??!!! TELL YOU WHAT A DISGUSTING EXCUSE OF A HUMAN BEING YOU ARE??!! DO WHAT YOU FUCKING LOW-LIFE SCUM?!!”

At this point, the chatter in the bar was dying down. Everyone was stopping what they were doing and turning to stare at what was happening. Most people had actually stopped mid-motion, with pool-players stopping mid shot, dart players stopping mid throw, and a lot of those drinking pausing, with their glasses and bottles suspended in mid-air between their tables and their mouths. The scene seemed so surreal that if smoking were still allowed in that bar and the smoke had frozen in suspended animation it wouldn’t have looked out of place.

“Do THIS”, Joshua said, gesturing around. “Make a scene, here, in this bar, where you come every day?”

“Damn right I do you piece of shit! I’ve been bottling this shit up for two years and I’ll be fucking damned if I don’t say it now that I finally have the chance!” Zoey screamed.

Joshua sighed resignedly, assumed a stoical expression on his face, and turned in his seat to face Zoey.

“Alright”, he said. “Go for it.”

“Go for it? GO FOR IT??!! She DIES because of you, you disappear for two years, and this is what you have to say for yourself???!! GO FOR IT?”

Laura thought she saw a brief expression of something dark flicker across Joshua’s face. A flash of pain or guilt, or something like grief. Maybe something of all of them. But she couldn’t be sure. Because whatever it is she thought she saw was gone very quickly. And there again was his stoical, seemingly immovable expression. Then he spoke again. This time his voice was hard and contemptuous.

“Because of me? Your logic is as broken as she was.”

A shrill scream pierced the air as she smacked him with the back of her hand across the face, with the full force of her body, screaming hysterically as she did it. Apart from a slight redness across his cheek, Lake seemed unaffected by her blow. His stoical expression didn’t change. He didn’t even move his head. He merely watched her calmly as she launched into the beginning of a tirade.

“HOW DARE YOU?!” She screeched. “HOW DARE YOU SIT THERE AND SNEER AT HER! HOW DARE YOU COME IN HERE LIKE NOTHING EVER HAPPENED WHEN IT WAS BECAUSE OF YOU THAT SHE’S GONE??!! SHE DIED BECAUSE YOU LEFT HER YOU PIECE OF SHIT! SHE DIED BECAUSE YOU MADE HER FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU THEN DROPPED HER LIKE A STONE! SHE DIED BECAUSE YOU WALKED OUT ON HER! THREW HER IN THE GARBAGE BEHIND YOUR BACK LIKE YESTERDAY’S NEWSPAPER AND MOVED ON WITH YOUR LIFE! SHE DIED BECAUSE — “ zoey gasped as she choked on a shout with her sob. Then she kept on sobbing.

Suddenly the wind seemed to go out of Joshua. His “will to be stiff” seemed to abandon him. The stoical expression left his face and Laura could read lifetimes of anguish, guilt, and sorrow in his eyes. Despair, and rage too. It was a moment of exposure. Here he was, only 27 and already a legendary tough guy in the media-circuit, never one to let emotion ride the front seat and now she was seeing him for who he really was, all on her first day with him. He was sorrowful, he was angry and he was in pain. And all the world’s sorrow, anger and pain sounded in Lake’s voice when he spoke next.

“She died,” He said slowly, through gritted teeth. “Because she was an addict. An addict who didn’t want to get better. There was nothing I could have done for her…” He trailed off for a few seconds. “Nothing.” He whispered again, almost inaudibly.

Zoey seemed to pick-up again at this. “DON’T YOU DARE SAY THAT!” She screamed. She made as if to slap him again, but before she could get to him Laura had grabbed her by the forearm.

“Not that I don’t sympathize,” she smiled, “but I really think you’ve smacked my boss around enough for one day.”

Zoey seemed to pull herself together at this intervention and regain some measure of control. “I’d forgotten about you.” She said, looking Laura up and down. “Who are you? His new piece of ass? I’d be careful if I were you honey. This one here will treat you like a princess, make you feel like you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Then one day, without warning, he’ll toss you out of his life like some chewed up and used out, nameless back alley whore that barely deserves the drink she charged.”

“Now you listen to me you drunk little bitch,” Laura said in a different tone. “I tried to be nice, but if you don’t back off our table right about now this night is going to get a whole lot worse for you.”

“Let her go Lee”. Joshua said decisively.

Laura looked at him uncertainly.

“Let her go and sit down. She’s said her piece, had her fun. Now she’s gonna go be about her business.”

Laura let her almost-opponent’s arm go and sat down again, staring at her all the while. Zoey on the other hand looked at Lake with a smirk and said, “be about my business? How will you pull that off without your little bodyguard over here? Or have you finally added smacking women around to the list of scummy things that you do?”

“I’m not going to pull anything off, I just imagine you’re missing your bottle right about now. I mean, you always loved it back in the day, and you’re just as drunk, and loud and obnoxious now as I remember you always being. Hasn’t all that shouting worn out your buzz? Wouldn’t you like another drink? Or twenty?”

Joshua’s unexpected verbal assault threw Zoey off balance and stunned her into silence. He hadn’t intended to lose control like this but he hadn’t discussed the death of his previous paramour so directly in a very long time and she’d managed to make him lose his cool. Now all those things he’d kept unsaid about the days when he knew her were going to come out. Lake pressed his advantage,

“In fact, I seem to remember your invariable, boring one liner every time I’d bring up rehab and she’d discuss it with you. What was it you said exactly? Oh yeah. ‘Rehab? Is that a new bar?’”

“I never..” Zoey started weakly.

“You never what you little bitch?” Joshua snarled viciously, displaying a 180 degree flip in personality. “You never told her that addiction is only a “Poor People” problem? You never told her that a girl with her kind of money would never fall apart because of drugs because she could always afford them??!! Where the HELL do you get off on blaming ME for her overdoses HUH??!!! WHERE??!!! You never helped her lie to me every time I tried to get her to stop? You never hid her stash when things got so bad for her at home that her stupid, upper class parents were too ashamed to ship their daughter to rehab and instead bought narc dogs to sniff out her room??!! You never HELPED her get high at EVERY TURN whenever me, or her idiot folks, or anyone, ANYONE tried to make it just a LITTLE BIT MORE DIFFICULT FOR HER??!!! YOU NEVER WHAT YOU DRUNKEN, GOOD FOR NOTHING BITCH??!!! WHAT IS IT EXACTLY THAT YOU’VE NEVER DONE??!!!”

Laura’s jaw dropped as she stared at Lake in awe, taking in his gradual but quick-paced transition from Bruce Banner to the fucking Hulk as he went on full bellow. She was taking in his story as much as his personality at this point. She’d asked what his problem was with women, and it seemed fate had provided her with an answer. Meanwhile, Joshua was raging on.

“MAYBE INSTEAD OF POINTING FINGERS AND LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO SHOULDER YOUR SHARE OF THE GUILT YOU CAN ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU NEVER HELPED HER TO QUIT??!!! MAYBE INSTEAD OF TRYING TO LAY THE BLAME ON ME YOU SHOULD ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU NEVER TRIED TO BE A GOOD INFLUENCE ON HER??!! I’LL TELL YOU WHY!! BECAUSE YOU COULD NEVER BE A GOOD INFLUENCE ON ANYBODY IF YOU TRIED!! DRINKING AND TWO TIMING WHATEVER POOR BASTARD YOU’RE SEEING IN PUBLIC TOILETS! THAT’S ALL YOU WERE EVER GOOD FOR! THAT’S ALL YOU EVER WILL BE GOOD FOR YOU CHEAP, BOTTLE-FOR-A-BLOWJOB SLUT! THAT’S THE ONLY GIFT YOUR BOYFRIENDS EVER BROUGHT YOU RIGHT? BOTTLES! BOTTLES! BOTTLES BOTTLES BOTTLES BOTTLES AND MORE BOTTLES! AND YOU’D STILL BANG THEIR COUSINS IN THE FIRST PUBLIC BATHROOM YOU FIND! I MEAN, DID YOU SHARE THAT BOTTLE OF CHIVAS WITH HIS COUSIN BEFORE YOU FUCKED HIM ON THE TOILET OR DID HE TALK YOU INTO DOING IT SOBER? HAH! WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT? YOU?! SOBER?! MAYBE ON JUDGEMENT DAY YOU USELESS PIECE OF HUMAN TRASH! I’LL TELL YOU WHAT! I’LL BUY YOU ANOTHER DRINK. GO DROWN YOUR SORROWS IN ANOTHER SHOT AND STOP TORTURING YOURSELF ABOUT WHAT YOU COULD HAVE DONE FOR HER! BECAUSE AN ALCOHOLIC TWO-TIMING BITCH LIKE YOU SURE COULDN’T HAVE HELPED HER FOR JACKSHIT!”

Zoey’s head was hanging as Joshua hurled two years of pent up aggression in her face. When she looked up there were tears flowing freely down her face and her chest was heaving like she was about to collapse. “Y-you’re ra-right.” She managed to croak out, “Ih c-could….never be a..g..good…good influence on her. Never could h-h-have…Done something for h-her.” Then she looked him straight into his cold, angry, contemptuous gaze with a supreme force of will and spoke four words that cut him like a knife. “But…You could have.”

With that she ran out of the bar, tripping over no less than three chairs and two tables, hardly seeing where she’s going after the humiliating experience he’d just put on her. The one she’d brought onto herself. By the time she was out the door, Joshua came to his senses again. He noticed the deathly quiet in the bar, with all the eyes on him. For a moment he had the urge, this odd impulse to drop a penny just to see what kind of noise it would make. Then, suddenly, as though he were a marionette with its strings come undone, He felt the strength drain from his arms and his grip on the sides of the table slacken. He let himself collapse on the table as the wind was involuntarily knocked from his lungs. It had been a long day, and coupled with Zoey’s emotional attack, that had taken its toll on him. He didn’t need any kind of doctor to know his blood sugar was a little low right now. 5 deep breaths and then he felt he could sit up. He was tired. Everyone was still looking at him. He looked across the table to his young protégé and smiled wryly.

“I’m sorry you had to see that.” He said with the very slightest hint of dry humour to his voice. “I promise you, I didn’t see that coming either.”

Before she could answer, one of the bar staff had made his way over to their table. A little on the short side, red beard, red hair and olive green eyes, you couldn’t have come up with a more stereotypical Irishman if you’d pulled him out of a joke book. Except for the freckles maybe. He didn’t have those. The Leprechaun cleared his throat.

“Joshua. Always nice to see you.”

“Likewise Mike.” Joshua said evenly.

“That was quite a show you put on there.”

“You here to kick us out?”

“Och. As if I, and all the brave men of Derry, Cork and Dublin could manage that.”

“A united Ireland?”

“Always, lad!”

“Do you WANT to kick us out?”

The Irishman shook his head. “This place has seen worse. Besides, I’m not blind, man. Or deaf for that matter. I saw what happened. You sat there and took more’n any man I know coulda taken. N I know all that happened all that while ago. She had no business goin at you like that and it’s all on me not coming by my wits fast enough to pull her off you.”

He then raised his voice to the bar at large. “ALRIGHT FOLKS! THE SHOW’S OVER! THERE’S NOTHING TO SEE HERE. THIS IS JOSHUA LAKE, BEST DAMNED REPORTER ON THIS SIDE OF THE OCEAN AND HE’S BACK AFTER A SABATACLE OF TWO FOCKING YEARS! TOAST THE MAN HIS DUE WELCOME AND GO BACK TO YOUR WELL-DESERVED DRINKING!”

There was a momentary silence, then a cheer, the clinking of two glasses, followed by louder more collective cheers and the clinking of many glasses, and just like that, in less than a few seconds, it was as though that scene that had hushed the entire bar into silence had never been. The barman took a look around to make sure everybody was minding their own business again then spoke to Joshua again.

“It’s good to have you back, Lake.”

“It’s good to be back, Seamus.”

“Are you going to introduce your friend?”

“Sure. Laura, this here’s Seamus Michael. Mikey, this here’s Laura. My intern.”

The Irishman whistled appreciatively. “Intern huh? You getting all fancy now? I wonder if ye’ll be getting an assistant soon? Well it’s nice to meet you Laura. I don’t envy you, working for this one!”

“Nice to meet you too Mike.” She said.

“Alright Seamus. You’ve said your piece. Now go on, get back to work! I’ll talk to you after.” Joshua said.

“I’ll hold you to that Lake! I’ll hold you to that! Good night!”

With that he walked back to the bar and Joshua was left alone with his young protégé again.

“Again” he said, “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“It’s cool Lake. Believe me, I’ve seen worse.” She lied.

“Have you?” Joshua asked bemusedly as a disbelieving smile hovered at the corners of his mouth.

“Well…No.” She admitted. “But you said I’d need to develop a stronger stomach and a stiffer spine in this line of work. And I guess you weren’t lying. Even if it IS my boss getting into it with some random woman he met at a bar, not something newsworthy. But still.”

“She’s not a random woman.” Joshua said in a hollow voice, his face going blank and cold again.

“Listen. I know you’re not exactly crazy about telling me stuff, but after what just happened, I think it would be better if I got the full story.”

Joshua looked at his intern with intent and seemed to ponder his options as closely as could be observed. Finally he sighed in resignation.

“Alright,” he said “I’m gonna tell you what I like to call the short version.”

Joshua’s eyes glazed over and took on that far away expression they seemed to take whenever he remembered days gone by. Then they locked eyes. And he started telling her his story.

“There was a girl. Two years ago, give or take. She was…She was something else. She was important to me. Very important. But she was an addict.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”

Something flashed over Joshua’s face. Then it was gone.

“So am I. Her particular poison was heroin. And boy did she have the means to indulge her habits. She was a rich kid, like you. She wasn’t like those other junkies who lost everything to pay for ‘The Deep Itch.’ She was so rich she could have stayed high a hundred years and never come down…If her body would have let her. It wouldn’t, of course, but that didn’t stop her from trying. That’s when things fell apart between us.

When I first met her she was your typical fun-loving, free spirited spoilt brat. Spent her life partying and travelling, daddy’s lawyers always getting her out of trouble. Unsurprisingly I was unhappy from…Other, issues that were ongoing in my life at the time. You’ve probably guessed that’s how it always is with me. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. She drew me out of my shell. Helped me come alive again after so much time spent in the darkness of my own head. Broke me out of my own prison. I began to appreciate little things I’d stopped thinking about a long time ago. I began to appreciate spending time on the beach, with the view of the sea and the wind in my hair. I began to remember how good it is to spend some time outdoors and feel the grass on your bare feet. The loud, wild parties I’d lost interest in for so long suddenly made me high on the potential of the unknown again, and all at once, just like that, bonfires were beautiful again. Then of course, there was her. She was everything that could make the head of a guy like me spin. And she did. She made my head spin. Again, and again and again. I suppose I’d be lying if I said she renewed my interest in women again. I had eyes only for her.”

“She sounds very special.” Laura said quietly.

Joshua looked away

“She was.” He said, his voice hardening again. “She’s not anymore. She’s dead now.”

“And on some level, you blame yourself.”

“Not rationally, no. I know that there was nothing I could have done for her, in my head. But in my heart…Part of me believes every word Zoey said today.”

“That’s why you let her go at you for so long before saying a word?”

Joshua said nothing.

“Lake, I can’t imagine how hard this is for you. We can stop if you want but if you can keep going, I’m listening.”

“It’s like I told you, Lee. Her habit broke us apart. At first she’d just take a little at the odd party or so. I tried to talk her out of it but she insisted it was fine. Then it became a habit. Then it got to a point, this one particular week, every time I saw her she was high. Our problems were never what she was like without the drugs because like I told you, she was high enough to never feel the itch that badly. Our problems were that when she was high, she wasn’t lucid. She wasn’t with me. And the damage she was doing to her system, I could just feel her slipping away. I rolled with it a couple of times. I tolerated it for another couple of times. Then we fought. Because feeling high felt so good she couldn’t internalise the logic of what I was saying. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t have me and the drugs at the same time. I told her to call me when she was functional again.

When she did, I told her I couldn’t go on like this. That if she couldn’t quit, we couldn’t go on. We fought about it for a few days. Then she agreed to try to quit, but she didn’t want to go to rehab. It was a classic junkie move, negotiating for all of her options. But then again, I was neither her guardian, nor an expert at dealing with junkies. I loved her. For me, that was a step for her to get better. I was an idiot, of course. But deep down, we both knew she had no real intention of quitting. Every time we’d fight she’d pretend to think a little about rehab and talk to her friends about it but she didn’t wanna go. And she wasn’t getting much encouragement at home either. When her dad found out he tried some stay-at-home grade school methods like finding her stash and what not. He brought in the best doctors to help her. He even bought narc dogs.

But he wouldn’t send her to rehab. He didn’t want to sully his ‘good name’, or have a ‘scandal’ associated with his investments and his yacht club and whatever the fuck else. When none of the other bullshit worked, he tried using his juice with the cops to scare all the dealers in town into giving her barely enough to keep from going crazy. It took some doing but eventually she found a way around that and got so very high that she came to my place and told me she can’t quit. When she came down from her high, I told her we were done. I severed all contact for six weeks. That’s when I took a job with The Daily Radical. Then one day she calls me and for some reason, that was the only time I picked up. It would also be my last. She had ODed. She said she was sorry, she said she should have listened but she was just so unhappy after I left…

There’s a story about what I did that night. How I found and rushed her to one particular doctor from the bunch her father had hired, what I did to make sure he did his job, how I reacted when in the end, despite his best efforts, he couldn’t save her. There’s a story to all of that. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to keep it to myself. At least for tonight. All you need to know right now is that nothing could have brought her back. And now… Now we’re here. And she’s not.”

Laura swallowed tensely as she said very quietly

“I’m sorry you had to go through all that Josh.”

Joshua buried his face in his palms and rubbed his eye lids and forehead exhaustedly.

“I told you all this for a reason.”

“And what’s that?”

“In this city”, he told her, “We all have what I like to call ‘The Deep Itch.’ Everyone you meet has a particular and distinct need that’s so deep inside his body, or inside his soul, that he can’t reach it. A void that will never be fulfilled. And we’re drowning in the vices engendered into our natures by our unrequited ambitions. And knowing that, above anything else, is what will make you an ace reporter in this town.”

“So what now?”

“Now, we do what I told you I’d do before that crazy bitch interrupted us like that. I’ll go get the cops to drop the charges, and you go see what you can find out from your high society jackasses.”

“Is that why you have such a chip on your shoulder? You don’t like me because I’m a rich kid and she was a rich kid?”

“No. I don’t like you because one, I don’t like rich kids in general. Never did until I met her, and two, you’re not just any rich kid. You’re Simon Lee’s rich kid. Good night, rookie.”

“Good night!” She called after him as he was already half out the door.

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Writer, Commentator, Pharmacist, Some-time poet. Love me. I command it.

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Abdallah Al Alfy

Abdallah Al Alfy

Writer, Commentator, Pharmacist, Some-time poet. Love me. I command it.

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