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Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Drink with an Old Friend

     "Whew! I made it. I know I'm a little late for this, but better late than never, right? It's your own fault, anyway. I had to track down your vodka. Found it, though. Sobieski, straight from Poland, just the way you like it." I gestured with the insulated bag.
     "So, I guess we should get to it. I brought my own chair this time. Thought it would be better than sitting on the grass." I kicked the folding chair I had been lugging into position, and sat down with a heavy sigh.
     "Man, I went to half a dozen liquor stores to find this stuff. I don't know how you kept the stuff in stock at your place. Must've had a deal with a liquor store or something." I pulled out the twin shot glasses, those tall cylinders instead of the regular tapers, then slid the bottle of vodka out, too. It was a pretty simple bottle, not super expensive like some of those I had found. I unscrewed the lid, then poured twin shots.
     "Well, buddy, here's to you. Happy Birthday." I lifted my glass up, then promptly drained it in one slug. My eyes burst open as the burn took over and I coughed. Tears started to form in my eyes, and I had to blink them rapidly while trying not to cough out a lung.
     "Lord, how can you deal with this stuff? I think you just enjoy watching me deal with it. You got something against a smooth scotch or something? Oh, man. Not sure if I can keep doing this every year you get older, you know?" I filled my glass again. "Yeah, I know, you don't even have to say it. 'Rookie, you keep drinking that wussified drink, and no one will take you seriously. You need to be able to slug down the hard stuff once in awhile to roll with the big boys.' Yeah, well, I still like my scotch, and it's not like either one of us drinks much. We see enough weird stuff around." I sipped my second one instead of slugging it back, but it didn't seem to help much. There was a slight fruity taste somewhere in there, but I couldn't tell what as the slow burn became worse than the first burn.
     "Whoo! Man, that really lets you know you're alive. Okay. Yeah, I know you're itching to hear about what's recent in the life of Matt Allen, but this is your day. We should be going over old times. I can fill you in about the other stuff another time. It's pretty good stuff, too. Mostly dealing with women. A new secretary, a witch, and some stuff with a vampire you introduced me to."
     I took another slug from the shooter.
     "You took me out into the field, though, and I watched how you dealt with things more than sticking my nose in a book. Besides, this whole internet thing has really exploded, and most things come from there, now. You taught me to just move on when you didn't have the info. 'Rookie, you need your gut. Most of this job is in your gut. If you don't have good instincts, then you're dead. That's all there is to it.' Yep, you got that one right, buddy."
     I saluted with the shot, and slugged it back in one gulp, minimizing the burn. I started to feel the buzz start, though, and looked at the bottle to find that the stuff was still eighty proof. It seemed stronger than what I remembered.
     "Yeah, I know, I can't hold my liquor. Anyway, you're right about the instinct, but having someone who can dig through those computers quick makes life easier, too. Course that means there's all the more garbage to sort through. You wouldn't believe the number of things people make up and just throw out there. Most things are easy to spot as ridiculous, but others are actually pretty good fakes. Those are the ones that tick me off, but I think it pans out in the end, though. I trust my gut when it comes to figuring these things out."
     I slugged another one back, feeling more burn, not a hint of fruit, and sweat pop out on my forehead. "Man this stuff is potent," I gasped, pulling my hat from my head and fanning my face briefly before replacing it.
     "You know, we could've done coffee. Coffee is always good, and you're the one that got me addicted to it. It was that shop, The Caffeine Café, where we first started talking to one another. They had some good coffee. That's where you started filling my head with this stuff. 'Kid,' you told me," I dropped my voice low to get the right tone.
     " 'I know you're not going to believe this, but there's weird things out there. Now, it's fine if you don't believe me, I just need someone to talk this out with. This case that we both happen to be on, here's the thing. The guy was cursed. I didn't know exactly how until the end, ain't that always the case? but it panned out for him. Turns out he offended some sort of nature spirit by chopping down the tree in his backyard. Yeah, I know, it seems weird, but the guy broke out in rashes and itched like he had poison ivy all the time, but it wasn't poison ivy. didn't even really show up like a rash. Just itched in places. The only way to know where it itched was by seeing what he had scratched raw. The doctors said it was all in his head and that he was making it up in order to get some sort of drugs out of it. That didn't make much sense to me, but I'm not a doctor. Anyway, at the end of his rope he hires me to find out what's going on just as the insurance company hires you to see if he's faking it. Guy must have racked up thousands in anti-itch creams and had even been hospitalized for scratching his skin off. It was so pathetic when he hired me. He was trying to scratch through his bandages. Anyway, I thought he was nuts until I see this mark on him when he's scratching. That's when I run into you and ask where you've seen him go to since you had tailed him for awhile. Turned out some dame at the nursery had a bit of witch in her, and unleashed the nature spirit on the guy.' "
     I replaced my hat, and poured myself another. "I thought you were nuts, but then I was sure everyone did."
     I smiled and eyed the shot warily. They were really starting to stack up and I had a really good buzz going. I had eaten a nice big meal to get ready for this but I wasn't good at doing straight shots. I was going to have to slow down.
     "Of course that was the first rule wasn't it? 'If they don't think you're crazy you're doing something wrong.' Words to live by that's for sure. Course it makes other things a little more difficult. Yeah I'm lamenting my love life again."
     I finally downed my shot, sucking in breath for a good while after I did so, rocking back and forth in my chair to distract from the burn.
     "Whoa. Yeah, okay, I'm getting back to the story. Cut me some slack, will ya? Where was I? Right."
     I poured another, and didn't have any reservations about slugging this one back, not until it burned in my throat, but it seemed somehow appropriate.
     "You know, I don't want to talk anymore about Nikki, now. Let's change the subject. It's time to embarrass you, some. How about that gremlin the gypsy woman set loose on your car? That was a riot. You never knew what was going to go out next. I remember the seat adjustor getting stuck all the way back. You had to stretch to reach the pedals for two weeks. And what about the aftermarket CD player you had in it that wouldn't eject the disc and only play that one polka over and over again. After one ride I couldn't take that anymore. I was surprised you didn't smash that player to bits. How did you get rid of that gremlin? Oh, that's right. You bribed the sucker. You bought a fancy new gadget, and he took to it like a duck to water, then you left the thing on the side of the road with a sign 'Beware of gremlin'. I'm surprised I haven't gotten a case off that one. Not sure I would take it, either. Gremlins are really annoying to get rid of, at least permanently."
     I poured and sipped at another slug, grimacing as it went down. Apparently I didn't take vodka's burn as well as I took Scotch's smoothness.
     "So, get this, I got a postcard from Don Iverson. In Hawaii. Ain't that a kick in the pants? He's got a picture of some beach bunnies on it, with the old 'wish you were here'. I'm not sure if he's trying to make me jealous or serious about inviting me out. The lucky stiff wins the lottery and takes off. I think he stuck around for a month after winning, and that was just to make sure everything was wrapped up tight. He's off to Hawaii, and opens his own place right there on the beach. Buys a guy out from what I heard. Now he's making those drinks with little umbrellas while talking up the girls. Sun most of the day, and not a vampire around. Not much work for our type, but I think that was the point. Something, huh?"
     I raised the shooter, and put it to my lips, but didn't drink.
     "The thing is, it's started me thinking. We never came up with any kind of plan, you know? Exit strategy I guess they call it now. Living from case to case I don't have any kind of retirement built up. Sure I get tossed a case by a rich guy now and again, and usually those pay pretty well, but . . . well, I guess most of those are just so slimy that I won't take their money. Like the mob. Those Russian guys gave me quite a bit of dough just as a deposit, even, and I felt greasy for it. What I had left I set up in a fund for my clients. They lost people, and it didn't feel right for me to hold onto that money. Sure wasn't going to give it back to them, either.
     "Anyway, here I am looking out at life wondering how I'm going to keep living, and what I'm working for. We just did the job, you know. That was all there was to it, but I'm sure not going to be doing this job when I'm in my sixties. Even now I'm slower than I was. The dots are a little harder to connect at times."
     I slugged back the vodka this time, and got dizzy. It was a good thing I was sitting in my chair instead of standing. I would have fallen over.
     "Whoa. Maybe I better slow down. Not sure I should be taking shots this fast any more. It's kind of sad, really. You and me, well, we've made a difference in this city. That's something we can be proud of."
     I refilled, then gingerly clinked his glass and slowly sipped the shooter down. It was a longer burn that way, but less of a head rush.
     "Hey, you remember those twins? Yeah, the ones we found in Sibley Park. Man were they strange. And a handful. What was it they thought they had? Something really complicated. Oh, yeah, 'Proximity transference synergy'. The guy and the girl. Man was that weird. Any time they were apart the two of them would begin to get sick, but when together the one's memory would slowly be replaced with the other's. That was one depressed girl, I'll say. She remembering her brother's childhood instead of her own. The science guys had no clue what was going on, and we found 'em just by accident. We're with them for a couple of hours when you see the pendants around their necks. Turned out that the metal and the stones in it were from Chinese mystical tradition, and that they were the whole problem. Got rid of the pendants and problem solved. They had never gotten rid of them because they were gifts from their dead parents. Once they were gone and destroyed, they got to live their own lives and the girl got to have her own memories. A shame her childhood memories were still that of her brother, though. That'll make life tough, still."
     I contemplated the empty shooter, wondering how much more I could take. The bottle was most of the way gone, now, and it had been hours, but it still felt like a massive amount left in there, so I stalled for a little time by just turning the glass around, pretending to study.
     "You know something, buddy, I think Don got the right idea. Selling out and moving on . . . well, it just seems like the right thing to do. The smart thing, anyway. It always seems like there's a gruesome end out there for me, and we've both seen too many of those, me more than you—Yeah, I'll make an issue of it—and what is there for it, you know?"
     I slowly poured myself another, though some of it spilled as I slopped some out by missing. "Yeah, I know we help some people, but that's not why we do this. I know that. You even told me that if there were things you were better at doing you'd do that instead. This is just what we're good at. That and once we know . . . well, we can't go back. I looked real hard at that picture of Don's place, and I'd bet dollars to doorknockers . . . " that didn't seem right, but I pressed on, anyway ". . . that the guy has his place consecrated against the nasties, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had a special button on his spritzer doodad to pipe in holy water. Least, that's what I would do, and you too."
     I looked at the bottle with its flag of Poland, and traced it with my finger. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Well my point is that how do we forget this stuff? Don's got to be looking over his shoulder, though maybe not as much, and I know I still get scared of a dark house at night, and you even told me you had to check the closet and under the bed, just in case, before you called it a night. How do we go back to not knowing, huh? That's what I want, and the answer sure as heck isn't in this," I held up the bottle, but fumbled it, and it landed sideways on the grass. Fortunately I had capped it, so nothing had gotten out.
     "Sorry about that, but no harm, no foul. Whoa. I need to take it slow sitting up. Another bout of head spinning like that and I'm going to lose it." I stared at the bottle. It wasn't as fancy as some of the others, but it was pretty, in a simple sort of way.
     "What was I saying? Oh well, guess it wasn't that important. But you an' me, we really tore it up, didn't we? You remember that gremlin . . . wait, we already talked about that. Dames, buddy. The dames. I tell you about Nikki? No? Man. She is . . . well, I don't have to tell you, do I? I mean, we were together when we met her. Wow. Were we ever scared. We're tracking that goth guy, you remember, the one who swiped stuff from Ray's New Age? Don tossed the case our way after he twisted his ankle. We were going to get the stuff off the guy when he ducked into the Blackthorn.
     "So we bust in there, to that sea of goth, and ask around, and then those muscle-bound freaks got in our way for hassling the customers, and took us to her. Lord, what a woman! I thought my eyes were going to fall out of my head. And I swear yours did as soon as you shook her hand. You gave me this look, and it's not like I know what a look like that means, so I'm clueless even as I'm shaking her hand. Yeah, I was a rookie still. I didn't pick up on it that she was cold, pale, and ran a goth club where kids wore vials of blood around their necks.
     "What can I say? she's hot. She's charming, and she's savvy. Oh, yeah, you don't have any ground to criticize me. You looked at every gal on two legs. Heck, I think you looked at Nikki more than I did. Still, we skedaddled without the stuff for Ray.
     "And then the stakeout. You know, I think that was our first stakeout. Not much call for stakeouts like the old buddy cop movies in our line of work. Chips, pretzels, lots of coffee, and taking turns napping. You know, that's the kind of thing I always wanted to do. I most definitely did not want a vampire suddenly appearing at the window questioning us as to why we're eyeballing her place. Ha ha! I thought you were going to have a heart attack when she popped her head in at you. I almost did, too, especially when she grabbed your arm as you reached inside your jacket. Man that was tense. I thought we were both dead, you know? And then she just let it go when we told her we were after a punk kid who stole. Even wished us luck in finding the guy.
     "Sure enough, we waited around, and bam, there's the kid with his friends, and we pinch him with the goods. You know, I never told you this, but I could swear that she was still watching us from somewhere. I don't know where, but I could swear she was. Guess she wanted to check out our story. I've never asked her about it, though."
     I took another shot. It was a little easier after waiting so long. My throat was a little dry, so I naturally drank. I guess part of me was expecting water, though, so when the burn hit, I gasped, and my eyes bulged.
     "Wow! Okay, need to remember not to do that much more. Anyway, Nikki. See, here's the thing. I really don't know what's going on between us. You know, I tried the whole informant thing. Quip do proq . . . wait, that's not right. Squid prod . . . no, that's not it either. You know, the legal thing. The Shyster's say it all the time. Quid pro quo! Yeah. I scratch your back you scratch mine. Anyway, that worked out pretty well when she had more to ask me than I did her. Heck, you even asked to use up some of that credit for a case you had in Shadow Valley, so why am I telling this to you? Anyway, the credit's run out, but something else is going on. No, you know what, I don't want to talk about her anymore, she's complicated.
     "Now you, you dog, I remember that thing, the nature spirit. You know what I'm talking about. Not a dryad, 'cause those are trees. This one was water . . . a nereid! Yeah, I remember you and her. We got hired by a company, and then we find out that they're dumping some pretty nasty stuff in the Rush, which happened to be a spot that a nereid had set up shop. At first she wanted us to go down, but when we got the company shut down, she was grateful. Very grateful. At least to you. Me, I was the rookie filing paperwork on that one while you spend a few days skinny dipping with a watery gal. And, no, I don't want to hear about it again. I've still got a thing about doing, well, you know, with things that aren't exactly human. Heck, I have a thing about doing it with things that used to be and still look human. Gives me the willies."
     I shuddered, and then drained the shooter, the liquor chasing off the chill I felt, but I shuddered from the burn this time around.
     "Huh? Nikki? You on about that again? Listen, maybe I am old-fashioned about this, but I just think that something, someone, whatever, that can't tolerate holy water or cross over a consecrated threshold is not someone I should get together with. Yeah, no matter how well she fills out a dress, or how smart and savvy she is. It's just not a good idea, right?"
     I took another slug, but only half. "That's all I'm saying. Yeah, I know you were all for living life to the fullest, and pretty accepting of the other things out there. I don't know, I guess I'm just hung up."
     "Oh, don't give me that. Yeah, I know I'm not exactly the most open-minded person out there, but humanity is a pretty basic requirement. This isn't some sci-fi show with alien species, these are the dark and scary monsters under the bed. I don't think I can just shake it off and say that everyone is entitled to be treated fairly, especially ones that can't go out into the sunlight and can lift cars. I guess that makes me prejudiced after all.
     "Still, I'm a lot more open-minded than most people. At least I can accept that the supernatural exists, and that not all of it is necessarily evil. What was that story you told me? About how you decided that 'live and let live' was a pretty good way to go about treating the supernatural? I remember it was in Shadow Valley. Wasn't it early on in your career when it happened?"
     "Right, right. I remember now. You were hired by that Chinese family to find their family totems. Something to do with their ancestors, right? You went tracking down the thieves, some Yakuza wannabes who thought they could use that to actually get into the Yakuzas by hitting a Chinese family. When you got there, you staked 'em out, and then this thing shows up, a dog, right? But it wasn't really a dog, but a construct. An animated stone statue, Chinese style of dog, obviously, breaks in and starts chasing down the four toughs. It gets shot up, but being stone it just chips away until they're out of ammo. Meanwhile, you slip in and take the totems. On the way out, the dog is in front of you, but then it turns aside, and walks with you, even rides back in your car with its tongue lolling out the window on the way back to the Chinese family.
     "But, and this is the part I love, the part that just is so typical of this job, before you can show the dog off to the family, it disappears into their backyard. So you can't even show the family that the stone dog in the backyard just helped you get the totems back.
     "They thank you, pay you, and that's it. And you come tell me not long after I sign up, you tell me," I dropped my voice again, " 'Rookie, just because these things are out there, because they exist, doesn't make 'em all bad. More than that, it doesn't give us the right to wipe 'em out. There's nothing that says they don't have a right to exist, so you let 'em be unless they step wrong. Most of the time, they only come after people because we screwed up somehow. Don't screw up, and you won't have to worry about most of 'em. Course, the ones that don't care about that, you bring the fight to them with everything you have, but only as a last resort. Remember these things outclass us, so keep your head and don't think that a full clip is an equalizer.'
     "Unless when we go after them, they actually set aside their differences." The last was too much for me, and I knocked back the shooter again. I welcomed the burn this time. I felt light headed at throwing my head back, though, and knew I better take it easy when it came to that. My eyes felt the world spinning. They were perfectly still. The whole world moved.      "Yeah, I needed a stiff drink after that. Yeah, I won't talk about that again. No sense beating a dead horse."
     I didn't bother with the glass this time, and just took a swig from the bottle.
     "The clock is funny, huh? I wonder how much time is left for me. Feels like those hands are moving pretty fast, especially when the job seems to get harder. Not the thinking part. That doesn't bother me. It's the running around and stuff. I'm not much of a sprinter. The old wind is not what it used to be. And don't you even think of cracking anything. Every morning you had one of those pastries, what the heck were they, like a donut, but a lot more expensive? Right, a beignet. No reason you couldn't just settle for a donut and cup of joe, but you had to have that and an espresso. No, no, we're not going to talk about my coffee habits, which were kind of started by you. This is you, and I don't know how you could make due with those things. A tiny bit of almost burnt coffee is no way to start the morning.
     "Not like either of us got much exercise. Guess I should start doing something. Maybe I can convince Jen to go running with me. Oh, right. I got a new girl Friday. Ira went to finish his degree off. I had a couple of months dealing with the crazies myself, but then Jen walks in and takes the job, and she's great. Straight out of Spade, you know. Sure, she was green at first, but she's learned the ropes pretty quick, and is as sharp as Effie Perine. Yeah, I know, 'Effie who?' I guess I'll always be the rookie for looking up to Spade and Marlowe. Since I was a kid I wanted to be that kind of a PI. Use your eyes and wits, put things together. Know people and how they act. That was being a detective, not these fancy lab and science gigs. I always thought being a detective was more art than science, you know. Sure you have to be logical and methodical, but the way of putting things together that's the art.
     "But you. Man, you came from the other direction. You always knew that there was something more out there, and you went looking for it, and found your grandpa's old journals. The old tough guy, a gangster! had run into some of the supernatural, and had the smarts to take note of it when others laughed at him. He didn't start the detective thing, and you just kind of fell into it. What was it you were doing again? Oh, right. The tattoo curse. That made the news. People were getting sick. The cops all thought it was some sort of drugs, especially when they tracked it back to a tattoo parlor, and they showed the tattoo on the TV. You knew it was a curse, something to be put on condemned people. You talked to the owner of the shop, who confirmed that he had gotten the design from a tribe in Southeast Asia. You tell him to modify the design, add to it since things like that are always specific. As soon as he does, the people start getting better. He was so grateful he paid, what, three grand, and you found yourself a new business instead of a hobby."
     I chuckled. "And then you go and pull me into it, too. 'I just want someone to talk this out with' you told me. Yeah, right. You knew all along what you were doing. But, you know, it makes mew wonder how Don Iverson got into all this. He just showed up on his own. I should talk to him, sometime, even if it's just on the phone, and to talk about old times."
     I waited, pondering the glass and the vodka. I was definitely drunk. Thinking was . . . interesting. I just contemplated the curve of the bottom of the shooter. Why did they make it curved like that. I mean, what was the point? Shot glasses were like that, too? Why? I cut off the line of thought, and downed the vodka.
     My head swam again, and my stomach protested. I had to take some long, steady breaths in order to avoid . . . well, I wasn't even going to think it. If I thought it, it would happen. I hunched forward, trying to keep cool. I wasn't a hard drinking guy. I didn't have the tolerance of those other private eyes. Spade, Marlowe, and Hammer would have finished the bottle without blinking. Here I was about to. . . . Oh, I felt it on the rise. Easy. Breathe easy, Matt. Think about something else. Keep cool. Keep cool.
     Finally the urge started to subside. Slowly, I sat back up.
     "Whoa. I'm gonna have to go slower from now on. Huh? Yeah, I figured you didn't have anything constructive to say." I thought back on how I said constructive. It was barely intelligible. I played around, trying to get the word out right, then gave up. "You know what I'm trying to say? Damn. How the hell did I end up in this mess? I mean, it's not like I love her, do I? Yeah, you got nothing. I got nothing. Nobody's got nothing.
     "Only in this job, though. On top of how hard it is for people to normally hook up, we have to go and throw the supernatural into the mix. So then people think we're crazy to boot. That or they're the kind of freaks who always called in. I still get people who want me to hook them up with a vampire. Since when did occult detective turn into a dating service?
     "Anyway, so, should I just resign myself to not looking? I guess I can kind of live with that. I mean, you did, so, why not? And Paul got married, so I guess that'll work. You know, live vicariously through him, Connie, and Cassie. I got to see them again for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving in Florida, but still. Ma made the turkey and everything, and we all just enjoyed an old-fashioned Thanksgiving. Eighty degrees and palm trees, but it was still Thanksgiving. Guess it kind of beats the rain we always get, but it still didn't seem like the season. The people, though, and watching the Macy's parade, that was Thanksgiving. I hadn't caught up with Paul and Connie in a long time. And Cassie! She went from toddler to pre-teen in nothing.
     "It's almost weird, sitting around the table with people for a meal, anymore, you know? Most days it's just me, and I make a bachelor's meal at night, when I've had a big client I treat myself, or even open up whatever Mrs. Rombova gives me. They make some good food up there in Shadow Valley? Is that why you wanted that part of the city so much? I've been thinking about taking on more clients from there. Guess that means I'm muscling in on your territory. Too bad.
     "Anyway, it just felt weird eating with the family, right out of my childhood. Not what I'm used to, anymore. We talked, caught up, laughed about things. Paul got a big grant for some teaching research. It was kind of hard to be excited for him since I can never really follow what he's saying. Me and Paul, kind of oil and water when it comes to that. I've always liked stories and history, but never was much into science and math. That's Paul, though. The guy just, well, I really don't know how to describe what he does because I got no real clue. He's excited about it, though, so I guess it's okay. I have to pass myself off as a regular PI. I've told them before what I do, but they don't get it, so I'm just a regular dick. I'm sure Cassie would like it; she wouldn't believe, but she would like it.
     "She's kind of a little chatterbox, now. She kept going on about some boys. What can I say? That really didn't interest me much, but I did have fun giving her a hard time. It was just one of those things that uncles get to do. You missed out being an only child, you know that? My niece is awesome. I wish I could spend more time with her but Boston and Belport ain't exactly a quick commute. She's gonna be through high school before I know it. Then she'll really be dating boys. Not sure how Paul and Connie are going handle that. I guess they've got a few years to figure it out, though.
     "I guess I should try and keep in touch with Paul and his family more often. You know how it is, though. With this job there's long days of nothing or menial stuff, and then you get something really big, and thinking of anything else is not going to happen. If I hadn't wrapped up the case with Ben and Phillip when I did, I probably wouldn't have called Paul for his birthday. I'll work on it, though. I don't want more years to go by without keeping in touch with them. They're the only family I got, right? Since I'm not going to have one of my own so long as I've got a vampire chasing me. Even then, right?"
     I tried to pour myself another, but only a trickle came out. I had been slowly sipping from my shooter and refilling after almost losing it, but now I was done. I put the bottle and shooter back in my bag, then reached over and grabbed the other shooter that had been untouched the whole time. I really didn't want another drink, but I had made a promise. It was tradition. One full bottle.
     I slowly stood up, and the world tilted on me for a moment, but I gripped the chair, and it was okay. "Well, here it is, buddy. I'm sorry that I'm all of you've got in the world. Makes me wonder who is going to be around to do this for me. Anyway, that's for another day.
     "Just like last year and the years before. We always get together and share a bottle, one full bottle of vodka. It took a lot of hours to get it all down this time, but tradition is tradition. It was a lot easier, years ago, but I guess that's the way it is with all things. Everything we do seems to get harder, especially the job. It's really not the same without you. I miss ya." I felt a bit weepy, and even sniffed and wiped at my eyes, stopping the tears that tried to come out. After a minute I tamed them, and I lifted the shooter up. "Here's to you, Max. Happy Birthday." I drained the shooter, and didn't pay attention to the burn or my stomach. I was still a little choked up.
     I pulled out my handkerchief and dusted the marker. It wasn't one of those little ones flat on the ground. This was an actual stone like the old tombstones, and I made sure to dust out all the letters, even the Hebrew letters in the incised Star of David. Under that it read: Maxwell Stein. 5722-5766. Friend, Mentor, Partner. Went with God.
     "Happy Birthday, Max. I'll see you next year."
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