The man standing there was a study in blunt. His hairless head was big and meaty. The dark features might not have been naturally ugly, but they had been battered by a lifetime of hard knocks: broken nose, a rash that had raged and then scarred over the lower left side of his face. His eyebrows seemed to be different sizes, but that might just have been the product of a permanent scowl.
"Wherethegurl?" he said in a tone so guttural that for a moment I couldn't make out the words. "Wherethegurl?"
He was about six feet tall (I'm only five eight), but he had the chest and shoulders of someone who should have been much taller. He was a volcano crushed down into just about man size. His clothes were festive, a red Hawaiian shirt and light blue pants. The outfit was ridiculous, like a calico bow on an English bulldog.
"I don't--" I said.
"Wherethegurl, muthahfuckah!" He had the build of a fire-plug but moved like a cat. He had me by the arm and in the air before I could invent a lie.
"Where is she?" He looked around the room and saw that the burlap curtain was the only exit besides the front door. He threw me at the curtain, and I tore it down falling into the back room. He came in right behind me, looking at all the corners and then at the bed.
My eyes were on him.
"This your last chance," he said, threat heavy in each word. I dared a glance at the bed and saw that it was empty.
"I don't know, man," I said as bravely as I could. "She come an' asked about a church used to be around here. I told her that they were gone. So then she said she had to go to the bathroom." I gestured with my hand. He saw the door and flung it open with so much force that one of the hinges ripped loose from the wall. All that was revealed was a lidless commode and tin sink.
"Where is she?" He dragged me to my feet with one hand.
"She must'a gone out the back, man. I don't know."
I think he slapped me, but I've been hit by blackjacks that had more give than his fingers. The taste of salt came into my mouth and the lightbulb on the desk multiplied into a thousand stars.
"Wherethegurl?" a parrot somewhere said.
"She must'a gone out the back," I repeated.
"I'll kill you, niggah, no lie."
He slapped me again and I tried to think of what I could say to save my life. But I didn't know anything, not even the frightened woman's name. I decided that, since he was going to kill me anyway, I would go out bravely. For once I would be as brave as my friend Fearless. I had never stood up to a bully in my life. So at least this one last time, in a back room in Watts, Paris Minton would show some backbone. Fuck you, asshole, was on the tip of my tongue.
"Please don't, brother." My trembling words betrayed me. "I don't know nuthin'."
He slapped me again. My head turned around so far that I was sure my neck had broken.
"You a dead man," my attacker said.
A child's voice squeaked, "Mr. Minton, you okay?"
"Who's that man?" another child screamed.
I fell to the floor, noticing as I hit that my killer wore leather sandals on bare feet. As I lost consciousness I thought that if a man was going to kill me, he should at least wear grown-up men's shoes.
Copyright © 2001 by Walter Mosley
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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