“You look like hell,” she said, but there was a very real note of concern in her voice. I looked up at her, staring into those corn flower eyes sunk within their dark sockets, and I offered her a wan smile.

“You should talk.”

Just a week ago she would have made some cutting remark and stalked off, perhaps to find another needle, but today she just grinned and shook her head.

“That was pretty stupid, getting in that guy’s face like that, ‘specially with Black Eye hangin’ around.”

It had been a long night, and we were just heading back to our flat when a carload of drunken teenagers pulled up. We ignored them, but they became angry and one of them got out of the car and actually grabbed Dalene by the arm. She was going to give in, but I could see the hot anger she bit back and without hesitation I slipped my switch blade from my belt and stepped up, stomping down the boy’s shin with my four inch heel. He howled and his friends boiled out of the car, but then he was on his knees and I had the knife hard against the side of his neck.

“We’re done fucking for the night, asshole!”

Before he could react Johnnie “Black Eye” Gillie stepped in and gave one of the other kids a hard fist in the gut, folding him over.

“You punks get the hell outta here, NOW!”

Black Eye was one of Jacques’ largest, ugliest, and least intelligent ‘doormen’ and nobody could match him at being loud and menacing. The kids practically threw their two friends into the back seat of the car which was already rolling as they all piled in. Five seconds later all that remained was the sound of squealing tires as they rounded the corner.

And then all I saw were stars, pavement and blood.

“Stupid cunt!” Black Eye roared, punctuating that last with a savage kick to my ribs that lifted me into the air and dumped me onto my back. He said more, but I couldn’t hear it through the ringing in my ears. He let fly again as I curled around the pain in my chest, driving his pointed toe into the small of my back. After that I do not remember anything until I awoke in the apartment and found her sitting by the couch where I lay.

“Hey! Still with me?”

Her voice shook me from the memory of the previous night and I focused on her again. Her concern was now writ deep upon her face and I realized things might have been more drastic than I recalled.

“Still awake,” I mumbled and then I tried to sit up. The pain in my side was not so terrible, but my back convulsed into a scalding knot of agony, forcing me to bite back a cry. Then I felt her hands on me, easing me down onto my side again. I finally took in my surroundings, saw the blood-stains on the couch and the pillows. Black Eye Gillie had done a pretty thorough job, from all appearances. Once everything fell into place I realized I was ravenous.

“I’ll be okay,” I whispered as she touched my face. “I’m hungry.”

She turned her gaze and I saw both Neff and Aiko standing in the doorway between the kitchenette and the large room that formed the remainder of our flat.

“Maybe some soup?” She asked.

Neff shook her head, her bright green eyes staring out from her finely chiseled coal-black face.

“Not until she stops throwing up. Nothing but water.”

I watched her talk, the way her full lips worked to reveal flashes of dazzling white teeth almost mesmerizing to behold.

“Water… water’s fine. I’m thirsty. I won’t throw up anymore… I promise.”

The water was good on my throat, but my stomach was growling loudly and I could feel myself fading out again. I had not been eating very well the past several weeks and now all the injuries sapped my strength. I was in no danger, but how could I convince them?

I heard the word hospital and forced myself to stay awake, lifting my head again.

“No!” I shouted, trying to be forceful, but sounding more desperate than anything else. They ignored me, Aiko suggesting the landlord might be willing to take me in for little favor or two.

There was a firm knock at the door, just two raps, and then the door opened framing a broad shouldered man with no neck whose bald scalp gleamed as if it had been polished to mirror brightness. Thick arms hung from his shoulders, seemingly relaxed yet at the same time poised to strike out at the least provocation. His hands seemed permanently curled into fists the size of melons. None of us knew his real name. We all just called him Ham.

“It’s after four,” he said in a voice that was always surprisingly calm and pleasant no matter how many times you heard it, “Jacques wants to know where you are… Damn, girl, what the hell happened to you?”

Ham was deceptively quick for a man of his size and suddenly he was standing over me and I swear I may have seen a brief flash of anger cross his face. He was not a man quick to rage. Unlike Black Eye, Ham did not seem to take any pleasure in hurting people. It was strictly business with him, he did what Jacques told him to do and his personal feelings did not enter into the equation. When Jacques wanted somebody beaten up he sent Black Eye Gillie. When somebody was in real trouble, he sent Ham.

“Somebody roughs you up, you’re supposed to let us know,” he said, his voice a quiet sigh, “Who did this?”

“Gillie,” Aiko said before I could even answer. He looked at Neff and she nodded, then he returned his gaze to me. His only visible reaction was to slowly open his right hand, cracking his knuckles, and then close it again. When next they met it would not be a good time for Johnnie Black Eye Gillie.

“Fine. Angie stays, the rest of you get your butts out there.”

“Ham,” Dalene objected, “just an hour ago she was still throwing up blood. We can’t leave her alone.”

“I’ll be okay,” I protested, but Ham cut me off.

“You three go. I’ll stay for a bit and make sure she doesn’t go dying on us. Now move it.”

That last was delivered as gently as anything he ever said, but it was emphatic nonetheless. All three looked at me and I just nodded as they gathered their things and then they were gone. Ham closed the door and went to the fridge where he found a bottle of Budweiser and popped off the cap with his thumb, then returned to the room and settled down into a creaking easy chair barely sufficient to hold his muscular bulk.

He sipped at his beer, his eyes locked on me, unblinking. There was no menace there, just a feeling he was trying to make sense of something.

“Gillie told me you pulled a knife on a guy so he slapped you around. That true?”

“The knife? Yeah. Slapped around? I think he was too kind to himself.”

“Yeah, I’ll be talking to him about that. No point in damaging the merchandise… no offense.”

“Why are you here, Ham?” I asked because it was clear to me he had something on his mind.

“That’s just what I was going to ask you. Your friends? I know why they’re here. Nefertiri’s family tried to kill her, some weird African thing about family honor. Aiko’s plain lost- been on the streets since she was twelve. And Day, she just hates life and everything in it. But you? I don’t know why you’re here. You’re not broken, you’re not desperate and I don’t think you ever do anything you don’t choose to. So, why are you here Angie? What are you doing?”

I watched his eyes as he spoke, gaging just how serious he was. Was he thinking I was dangerous, or was he just curious? It seemed to be a little of both and in a situation like that nothing serves quite so well as a smidgen of truth.

“Dalene. Dalene is why I’m here.”

Ham took another sip from his beer, but his eyes never left me and he remained silent for an uncomfortably long time. Finally, he nodded.

“She’s a screaming dyke and I know you’re not, so why?”

“Some people deserve to be saved. When I met her I knew she was one of those people, I knew I couldn’t just walk away and leave her here to die.”

I had not intended to say that, but as the words passed my lips I knew I was telling him the absolute truth: something about her, about the way she and Neff and Aiko clung to each other had driven me to do something I had never done, not in more than three thousand years: I chose to act, to deliberately intervene and attempt to change someone’s life for the better. It was such an arrogant thing to do, even more so than taking the life of a monster. Killing is easy; it is living that is hard.

Perhaps Ham discerned some of the thoughts coursing through me at that moment because he simply nodded at me and said, “You’ve got one hell of a job ahead of you.”

“I know,” I replied. “I’m hungry- Neff wouldn’t let me eat anything.”

“Hungry? What, I’m your cook now?”

“If you’ll help me up…”

“Naw, stay there,” he said, standing as he drained his beer, then set it on the table next to the chair. “I know a place you can get some real Gumbo, not the crap they serve on Bourbon Street. I’ll have one of the girls bring it up. Just don’t choke on it and die or Jacques will have my head for losing one of his top girls.”

“Thanks, Ham. You’re a prince.”

“Don’t let it get around, okay?”

“Tell Black Eye I said hello,” I called after him as he closed the door. I heard him laughing as he went down the stairs.

Be my bride
Let them scoff and cry
Be my bride
This world’s too sick and I’m too tired
We play these parts, scream and weep
Deny our souls, seek the free ride
But you are mine, I am yours
Just ask, take my hand
Be brave, we’ll make our stand
Be my bride
Let them cry
Be my bride
Watch them die

Die For Love
Hera- 1964

One Response to “Ham”

  1. Where are you? It has been more than a month.