Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chapter Twenty

Death had left Hep and Scroat camped out in front of Steve the Naughty Gnostic’s family home with the strict instructions that nothing was to happen to the family sleeping peacefully inside.
They had been standing outside for roughly two hours, making idle conversation, when Hep noticed that something smelled like it was burning.
“Hey, do you smell that?” Hep said to Scroat.
Scroat took a deep breath, and said, “Yeah, smells like something is on fire.”
“I think it might be a good time to take a stroll around the house and yard,” Hep said.
There was no indication of anything out of the ordinary in the front of the house.  Around back, however, they were able to clearly see the drapes in one of the rooms were on fire.  There didn’t seem to be a smoke detector going off inside.
“Shit!” Hep said. “We’ve got to get them out of there!”
He and Scroat hustled to the back door of the house, and found it locked. Hep never went far from home without his favorite hammer, however, and it was a matter of seconds before they’d broken in to the house.  It wasn’t too smokey inside, yet, but that would be just a matter of seconds.
They quickly found the bedroom Steve’s widow was sleeping in. 
“Hey, wake up!  Fire!” Hep yelled.  Steve’s wife woke up, and had a gun pointed at Hep within seconds.
“Who the fuck are you?” she screamed.  “Get the fuck out of my house!”
“I’m Hep.  Your house is on fire.  You need to get out!  Is there anyone else in here?”
Steve’s widow could smell the smoke, and lowered the gun a bit.  
“My son is sleeping in the other bedroom,” She said.
Scroat ran down the hall to the only other closed door and opened it.  Smoke poured out in to the hall.  
Of course the kid would be in the room that’s on fire, he thought.
Scroat ducked down and yelled, “Hey, kid! Wake up.  You gotta get out of here!”
“Huh?” said the sleeping teenager. “Who’s that?  What’s going on?”
“Your fucking room is on fire.  You gotta get out of here,” Scroat said.
“Uh, OK,” the kid said. 
The smoke was thick enough that he had to crawl out of his room.  Hep and the kid’s mom were in the hallway.
“Outside, now!” Hep said.  The four of them didn’t waste any time getting out of the house.
Within minutes, they could see flames in the windows in the front of the house.  Steve’s widow was at a neighbor’s house, pounding on the front door.  Hep, Scroat and Steve’s son stood watching as the fire grew in intensity.
“You know,” Steve’s son said.  “It might now be the worst idea to cross the street.  I’ve heard the windows can blow out once the fire gets hot enough.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Scroat said.
The three of them narrowly avoided getting hit by a speeding car on their way across the street.
“Man, some night you’re having,” Hep said to the kid.
One of the neighbors whose front door Steve’s wife was pounding on finally turned on some lights and came to the door.
“Our house is on fire!  Call the fire department!” Steve’s wife said as soon as the door was open.
The neighbor, who was barely awake, had looked annoyed as he’d opened the door, but now looked worried.  He said, “OK!” and left the door open as he hustled away to call 911.  Steve’s wife left the neighbor’s house and went to regroup with her son and the two strangers who’d apparently saved their lives.
She gave her son a hug, and the four of them stood and watched the house as it burned.
“So, who, exactly, are you guys, and how did you notice our house was on fire?”
Hep glanced at Scroat, then looked at Steve’s widow and said, “I’m called Hep, and this is Scroat.  We smelled the smoke and saw some of your curtains on fire.”
“OK.  What were you doing outside my house at this time of the night?”
“A friend of your late husband asked us to keep an eye on you.  She thought you might be in some danger.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” 
“Well, you know your husband was mixed up with some unsavory characters.  Turns out one of them might have bad intentions.  We’re here to see that she doesn’t act on them.”
“She?  Who’s this she?  And who is the other she?  Was that son of a bitch fooling around on me?”
“No.  Well, not that I know about.  Not with the woman in question, anyhow.  And I can guarantee you just don’t even want to know who it is.  You’re going to have to trust me on this.”
Steve’s widow looked at him, suspicious, and said, “uh huh.”
Hep shrugged.  “So, have you two got names?”
“I’m Sandy, this is Junior.”
“I’m pleased to meet you,” Hep said.
One of the front windows of Sandy’s house blew out, and flames roared out and licked at the eaves.  They could hear sirens in the distance.
“They’re not going to get here in time to save a damned thing, are they?” Sandy said, mostly to herself.
No one answered.
A fire truck came rushing down the street towards them, and came to an abrupt halt in front of Sandy’s house.  Firefighters streamed out of the truck, and hustled to get out the house and other equipment.  
One of them ran over to Hep, Scroat, Sandy and Junior, and asked, “Is there anyone still inside the house?”
“No, every one is out,” Sandy said.
“OK,” the firefighter said.  He ran back to the truck and assisted with getting the gear set up.  One of the firefighters was working on attaching the firehose to a nearby fire hydrant.
“I just can’t believe this,” Sandy said.  She sounded close to tears.  “Our whole life was in there.  The only things I had left of Steve’s were in there, and now they’re gone.”
Hep didn’t know what to say.  The best he could come up with was, “I’m sorry.”
Everyone, including the firefighters, jumped back when something in the attached garage exploded.  Whatever it was blew a gaping hole in the garage door.  Within seconds, flames were shooting out of that hole as well.  The firefighters shouted orders to one another.  Little by little, the neighbors began to come out of their houses to watch what was happening.
Suddenly, the ground began to shake under their feet.
“What the fuck is this shit?” Scroat said, rather loudly.
“It’s an earthquake!” Hep said.
Sandy’s house began to fall in to itself, but there wasn’t time to watch that.  The shaking became more violent, and streetlights starting to fall.  Hep and Scroat were just able to pull Sandy and Junior out of the way of one of them.  The firefighters yelling became a lot more anxious.  
The ground continued to shake, and once more the four of them barely got out of the way in time as a nearby tree toppled over.  Soon after that, the earthquake stopped, as suddenly as it had started.  The firefighters manning the fire hose lost their grip on the hose during the quake, and it flipped and flopped wildly around, spraying water in every direction.
“Shut it off, shut it off!” one of the firefighters yelled.  
Another firefighter was able to shut off the water before anything was damaged.  The firefighters who were supposed to be manning the hose grabbed on to it again, and gave the OK to start the water back up.
“This is just madness,” Sandy said as she regained her footing.
Hep was about to say, “I know what you mean,” when another car came tearing down the street, seemingly out of nowhere, and slammed in to the back of the firetruck.  The firetruck sustained little damage, but the car was utterly destroy.  
A few of the firefighters had diverted their attention away from the burning house to the smashed up car, and were running over to see if they could help anyone trapped inside when the car’s gas tank exploded into flames as well.
“Holy fucking balls!” Scroat yelled, as he shielded his face from the heat of the burning car.
“You know,” Hep said, “this seems like a really good time to get the hell out of here.”
“I think you might be on to something,” Sandy said.
The four of them started to walk down the street, even as the neighbors got closer and closer to get a better view of what was going on.  The firefighter’s shouts were getting more urgent by the second, it seemed.
“Man, this has been an unlucky sort of night,” Junior said.  
“You’ve got that right,” Hep said.  “Unluckiest night you’ll probably ever have.”
Scroat’s ears perked up a bit at a strange sound in the distance.
“Hey,” he said to Sandy, “are there train tracks nearby?”
“No, why?” Sandy asked.
“Listen,” Scroat said.
“What do you hear?” Hep said.
“Shut the fuck up and listen, man,” Scroat said, urgently.
Sure enough, something sounded like a train roaring by.  But it was getting louder.  And it seemed like the wind was starting to pick up.
Hep strained to see where the sound was coming from, but all he could see was darkness in the distance.  Until he saw stray pieces of lumber, mailboxes and a tree go flying by further down the street.
“Oh my god it’s a tornado,” Hep said.  “Hit the ditch!”
The four of them scrambled in to the ditch, which was the best protection available right then.  
Hep said, “Sorry to get personal,” and laid down on top of Sandy.
“You’re on your own, bud,” Scroat said to Junior.
The roaring got louder and louder, and they could hear things cracking and crashing about them.  The wind grew and grew in intensity, and Hep began to worry that they might actually get sucked up by the tornado and thrown to who knows where.
Although the seconds seemed like hours, the tornado passed by relatively quickly.  Hep peeked up from the ditch, and saw that Sandy’s neighborhood was pretty well destroyed.  Her house, in particular, was utterly ruined.  There was a wet, smoking husk where the burning house had been a few minutes ago.  
The firefighters shouting had now reached a full panic, as they tried to account for everyone and make sure no one had been injured.
“I didn’t know we even got tornados in Los Angeles,” Junior said.
“Everywhere gets tornados eventually kid,” Hep said.  Especially if you piss off the wrong deity, he thought, but did not say.
The four of them clambered out of the ditch and surveyed the damage.  There was really very little left of Sandy and Junior’s house.  The neighboring houses were also damaged, but not nearly to the same extent.  The firefighters were still hosing down what was left of their house, along with the car that had rear-ended the firetruck.
“What a crazy night,” Sandy said.
“Yeah, I bet you won’t forget this one for a while,” Hep said.
“I hope it doesn’t get any more interesting,” Scroat said.  
Scroat had no sooner finished speaking than it started to hail. Ping pong ball sized chunks of ice pelted the four of them, as they ran for cover.  They wound up standing underneath the roof over someone’s porch, watching as it hailed ever harder.
“This is the craziest weather!”
Hep thought, Keep telling yourself that. I’m not going to be the one to tell you a goddess of chaos is out for your blood.
Eventually, the hail stopped.  The four of them tentatively stepped out from under their shelter, and looked up at the sky to see if anything else was about to go wrong.
“OK, we need to find you two a place to stay for the night,” Hep said. “Have you got any friends we can call?”
“No one that will be able to answer the phone,” Sandy said.  “It’s three in the morning.  They’re all going to be either passed out, or just sleeping so hard a nuclear war wouldn’t wake them up.”
“OK,” Hep said.  “So let’s try to find you two a motel to stay in until you can figure out something better.” 
They had been walking down the sidewalk for about twenty minutes when a bus came rolling by.  Hep could see a bus stop sign just a half a block ahead.
“Run for it,” Hep said.  “Let’s get on that bus!”
Scroat, Sandy and Junior all ran as fast as they could to catch the bus.  Hep also hustled, but wasn’t able to keep up due to his bad legs.  Scroat reached the bus stop first, and waved frantically to get the bus driver’s attention.  He pulled the bus over and stopped to pick them up.
Hep reached them just as Scroat had dug out enough change to pay the fare for himself, Sandy and Junior.  The bus driver eyed Sandy and Junior, who were still in their pajamas, and Scroat, who was wearing his leather jacket and black jeans.
“Is everything OK?” the bus driver asked Sandy.  “Do you need help?”
“Nothing is OK,” Sandy said, “But I don’t need help right now, thanks.”
Hep scrounged in his pockets for the change he needed to pay his bus fare, and joined the other three where they were sitting.  For the time being, it seemed they had the bus to themselves.
The four of them rode in silence.  Junior started to nod off.  Hep and Sandy were both watching intently for signs of a reasonably OK motel to spend the rest of the night in.
A few blocks later, a car slammed in to the bus.  The bus driver slammed on the brakes, and called back to the four of them, “Are you all OK?”
“Yep!” Hep called back.
“God damned drunk drivers,” the bus driver said, as he got off the bus to see who had run in to him. On his way out of the bus, he hit the switch to open the back door.
“You can get off if you want to,” the bus driver said.  “I’m not going to be able to drive this bus any further until we get this all sorted out.  Do you want me to radio for another bus?”
Hep, Scroat, Sandy and Junior all looked at each other. 
“Seems like we’re not much safer in a bus,” Sandy said, quietly, to Hep.
“I hear you,” Hep said.  He turned and called to the driver, “Nah, it’s OK.  We’ll walk from here.”
The four of them got off the bus, and started walking.  They could hear the bus driver and the driver of the car that had hit the bus yelling at each other about whose fault it was.  The driver of the car was certain that the bus driver had run a red light, while the bus driver was certain the other driver had been the one to run the light.
They didn’t seem to be in the best neighborhood.  The buildings were run down, and the street was in rough shape.
“I’m not sure we want to be walking here,” Scroat said.
“Aw come on, who’s going to mess with us?” Hep said.  “I don’t even see anyone around.”
“Yeah, no one around, so if someone decides to send another trick after us, we’ll be hosed.”
“We’ll be hosed anyway.  If we’d waited for another bus, we would have just been stationary targets.”
“You know,” Sandy said, “You’re not really doing much for my confidence levels here guys.”
“That’s because we seem to be completely fucked. OW!” Scroat said.  Hep had elbowed him in the ribs.
“Can you try not to panic the two people we’re supposed to be protecting?”
“Hey, I’m just telling the truth and you know it.”
“Well, why don’t you keep the truth to yourself for awhile,” Hep said.
The two of them stopped arguing just in time to look ahead and see a man in a tattered jean jacket approaching them.
“Hey, guys, you got any spare change?” the stranger said.
“Sorry, freah out,” Hep said as they kept walking.
The stranger kept pace with them.  “How about a light then?”
“Sorry, buddy, I don’t smoke,” Hep said.
“That’s just a crying shame,” the stranger said.  He pulled a beat up looking revolver out of the pocket of his jacket.  “I guess I’m going to have to ask for your wallets then.”
“Son of a bitch,” Scroat mumbled.
“I think you need to find someone else to bother,” Hep said, quietly, to the stranger with the gun.
“And I think you need to stop talking and give me your wallet before I introduce you to my good friend Remington.”
“OK, man, just trying to be reasonable,” Hep said, and reached behind himself.  Just over his back pocket, his favorite hammer was tucked in to his belt.
“You’re sure you want this, then?” Hep said.
“Are you crazy man? I’ve got a gun.  Make with the fucking wallet already.”
“OK, then,” Hep said.  Almost too fast to see, he swung the hammer around at arm’s length, and slammed it into the would be robber’s head.  The stranger dropped like a bag of sand.  His gun skittered across the sidewalk.
Scroat picked it up, unloaded it, and dropped in his pocket.  He dropped the ammo in another pocket.
“Is... uh, is he going to be OK?” Junior asked as he looked at the unconscious man on the ground.
“I dunno.  Maybe,” Hep said. “But you know, he should have known better than to stick a gun in a mug this ugly.  Nothing good was going to come from it.”
“Should we call him an ambulance or something?”
“Nah, we’ll let someone else deal with that.  I was just defending myself, after all.  He’ll probably just wake up with a really bad headache.”
Hep was reasonably certain this was the case only because he hadn’t seen Death around, and if he’d killed the guy, she would have been along to collect his soul.
After a couple miles, they found a Motel Six.  Maybe not the nicest accommodations, but better than sleeping on the sidewalk.
Inside, the clerk looked like he was supremely annoyed to have to deal with clients at this hour when he could have been watching pay-per-view porn on his boss’s dime.
“Yeah?” the clerk said.
“We’d like a room for these two,” Hep said, and gestured towards Sandy and Junior.
“Where are you two going to be then?” the clerk said, while looking at Hep and Scroat.
“What business is that of yours?” Hep asked.
“It’s my business in the ‘do I need to call the police about a couple of pimps or other kind of lowlifes’ kind of way,” the clerk said.  He sounded extremely bored.
“We’re going to go back home,” Hep lied.  “These two are having a bit of a crisis, and we’re just helping out some friends in need.”
“OK then,” the clerk said.  “It’ll be thirty six dollars for the rest of the night.  Are they going to need more than one night?” 
“Man, I hope not,” Hep said.
“OK then.  Thirty six bucks please.”
Hep pulled out his wallet and found he only had a twenty dollar bill.  
“Hey, man, have you got sixteen bucks on you?” he asked Scroat.
“Fuck,” Scroat said.  He dug out his wallet, and discovered, by coincidence, that he had exactly sixteen dollars.  He took the cash out and handed it to Hep.
“Here you go,” he said.
Hep handed the cash to the clerk.  The clerk gave him a key, and explained how to get to the room.
Hep and Scroat walked with Sandy and Junior to the room they were assigned, and stopped outside the door.
“OK, you should be alright here for the rest of the night.  We’ll be close by.  If something weird happens, just start screaming, we’ll be there in no time.”
“OK.  Thanks, I think.  Good night,” Sandy said.  She and Junior went inside.
Hep and Scroat picked out a nice spot on the curb to sit and keep watch for the rest of the night.

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