Pete felt like there was sand between his femurs and tibias, like there were ice-picks, many of them, stabbed into his knee-caps. But he had to keep climbing. Death was nipping at his heels. A death he’d earned through inaction and weakness. A death he deserved. But he wasn’t ready for it yet.
“Please,” he said, climbing step after step. He was speaking to himself, he thought. Who else would he be talking to? God maybe? He hoped not.
The door opened in front of him. He turned the knob. The sunlight seared his eyes. He’d made it to the roof. That meant there was nowhere else to run.
“Hello,” a boy said. He stood on the black tar rooftop wearing a pair of very white briefs and nothing else. His underwear was as far from his skin-tone as it could possibly be.
“Peter,” Pete said, “Peter Simon Caiazzo.” He wasn’t sure why he’d given his full name.
“Dumuzid,” the boy said. He looked to be five or six and, even so, was scrawny for his age. “My mothers named me for the Shepherd and for the Fisherman and for the consort of the queens of heaven.”
“That sounds complicated,” Pete said. “You should probably hide someplace.”
Pete looked around; except for the door he’d come through, and the stairwell box around it, the roof was a roof. His eyes locked on to the one odd feature.
He checked his inner calender. It was July. Halloween was a long way off but there were a pair of skeletons laid out bone by bone, in perfect order so far as his high-school anatomy had stuck with him. They were laid out on the tar and gravel next to a tiny suit.
“My mothers,” Dumuzid said. “I am allowing the sun to bleach their bones as it dries my clothing.”
“Oh,” Pete said. “…There’s a guy after me. You should probably… run.”
“Will you sell it to me?”
“What?” Pete said.
Dumuzid walked forward. He held out his closed hand. Pete held out his open palm.
Dumuzid opened his fist, and a buffalo nickle dropped into Pete’s hand.
“Okay,” Pete said.
Dumuzid smiled. It wasn’t a normal smile for a little kid, more like the smile you’d find on a sixty-year-old woman at a wake for her grandson.
“You should come here,” Dumuzid said. “Crouch behind me and my mothers.”
“What?” Pete said as he heard footsteps coming from the stairs behind him.
“Here,” Dumuzid said, pointing at the tar behind him. “Crouch here, and pray.”
“…I don’t know how.”
“My mothers are here in front of you. Kneel. Pray. And I will save you.”
The footsteps were louder in Pete’s ears. He walked around the little kid, and dropped down to his knees.
“Good,” the boy said, placing a hand on Pete’s shoulder. “Close your eyes.”
Pete did as he was told. He didn’t want to see death coming anyway.
“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai…” a man said. It was Shani. The man who was hunting him.
“…Eloheinu Adonai Ehad,” Dumuzid said.
Pete was Itai. What he figured was probably Hebe might as well have been Greek.
Pete opened his eyes a crack.
Dumuzid knelt down and dragged his finger tip across the asphalt roof. “I draw a line you will not cross.”
The dark pits of Shani’s eyes stared at him. His arms seemed to relax, and the Uzis he held dropped down to his sides.
“I need to talk with your father,” Dumuzid said. “But first I need to get dressed and pack up my mothers.”
Heading downstairs was less tiring than the trek up had been, but Pete’s knees still hurt.
Dumuzid was now clad in the Sunday-suit he’d been drying on the roof and carrying a worn duffel packed with bones.
As they hit the sidewalk, Pete considered pressing the kid further on the skeletons, but then Shani opened the door of his big black Olds.
Dumuzid waited for Pete to climb in, and Pete did, reluctantly. Dumuzid climbed in after him, followed by Shani.
They rode through the busy city streets in silence.
“What’s this?” Levi said, as Dumuzid opened the big oak door to his office.
Levi was an old man now, with a lot of gray in his beard, but when his beard had been as midnight black as his son Shani’s, he’d been a heavy-hitter, a man even Pete’s dad had been shy to piss off.
“Hello, Mr. Siskin,” Dumuzid said.
Pete followed Dumuzid through the door, and Shani closed it behind them.
“Shani,” Levi said. “Did I ask you to bring him here? Cuz I was sure I asked you to aerate his liver.”
Shani stared at him.
“That’s what I thought,” Levi said. He turned to Dumuzid, casting him a toothy smile. “Who might you be, young man?”
“Dumuzid,” he said. And then he just stood there, smiling with his mouth. He didn’t seem to be blinking.
“Do you have candies you’d like for me to buy?” Levi asked. “Or possibly there’s a charity, or a school fundraiser. I like lookin’ the soft touch to the urban youths.”
“I have come about a debt,” Dumuzid said.
“…Even if it feels like the world owes you one, it doesn’t mean I’ve gotta pay it.”
“No, the debt is mine,” Dumuzid said. His cold eyes and carved smile turned to Pete. “How much is it?”
“Seventy-two grand,” Pete said, “I mean….” That was how much he owed, but he had no idea what number the kid was looking for.
“Seventy-two thousand,” Dumuzid said, “and I would assume a few weeks of juice.”
“Peter,” Levi said. Pete shivered. “Peter. Do you plan to sell me this child? He might be cute, I guess, but even a blue-eyed little aryan wouldn’t be worth seventy-two and change.”
“I didn’t,” Pete said.
“You misunderstand, Sir,” Dumuzid said. “I have purchased this man’s debt.”
“…I don’t think you get how that works,” Levi said.
“I have purchased Pete’s debt. Now it’s me who owes you.”
Dumuzid stared into Levi’s eyes, and Levi stared back.
“I’m sorry,” Pete said.
“You apologize now?” Levi said. “I told you I couldn’t play favorites. I told you you can’t buy loyalty. Your father would have killed those shits–”
“I’m sorry for running. I thought I’d be ready. I wasn’t.”
“Nobody’s ever ready, Peter.”
“I’m ready now. You’ll let the kid go, right?”
“Of course,” Levi said.
Dumuzid held up his hand.
“What is it, kid?” Levi said.
“This man is under my protection. I will even protect him from himself.”
“So,” Levi said, looking at Pete again. “Is this the product of you and that sweetheart in Fordam?”
“We broke up,” Pete said.
“Well, if you have a son…” Levi said. “I don’t like making orphans, neither do you, right, Shani?”
Shani stared at him, mumbling words under his breath.
“Can you make the vig next week?” Levi asked.
“I….” Pete really wasn’t sure.
“How much do I need to pay?” Dumuzid said.
“…We agreed on five,” Levi said.
“You will have it,” Dumuzid said.
Shani took a seat, turning his dead eyes toward the window, and Levi swatted his hand at the door.
Pete seized the opportunity. He grabbed Dumuzid’s tiny little hand and dragged him out of the office, down a narrow staircase, and out through the back door of the Double Quick Laundry.
“You hungry?” Pete asked.
“I don’t eat meat,” Dumuzid said.
“Of course you don’t.”
A week was a long time. Pete started to imagine the schemes, the capers, the business ventures he might get up to with all those hours. He was smiling.
“Joy and sadness are similar in multiple ways,” Dumuzid said. “First, they are both internal. Esoteric in that they may only be described as similar to things but may not be understood without experience. Second, they are both harmful, as action taken while under the influence of kleshas is unpredictable. Lastly, both joy and sadness are stones laid in the road to heaven.”
His smile softened for a moment as he glanced up at something over his shoulder. He nodded before returning his unblinking stare to Pete.
“…You ever eat at Tino’s?” Pete asked. “They make a sauce with no meat, for people with diabetes. That sound okay?”
“That sounds nice,” Dumuzid said.