by Nigel Bird
John Campion was always going to do well for himself. Everyone knew it.
Day he packed up and left for college we didn’t reckon on seeing him ever again, not if them tutors could get him to tell stories the way he did down at the tavern. Like he’d swallowed the blarney stone and digested the whole darned thing. Couldn’t burp without embellishing facts and when he puked he threw up a thesaurus.
“Truth be stranger than fiction,” he’d say before he started. The words “I ever tell you about…” always got us in a huddle.
Never had to pay for a beer his whole life far as I know.
Turned out we was wrong about never seeing him again.
It was Easter.
He showed up on the mountain without sending word to man nor beast. Carried the rucksack he left with and a bag of books to give to everyone. Signed the copies. JC’s very own novel.
Wasn’t alone neither. Had a woman with him. Film director. Wore her hair long and her smile wide, just as I like them.
Word got round about the movie they was planning to make. Based on that novel of his it was. Had the place buzzing like a saw. Biggest news in the hills since McGregor turned on his wife and kids and swallowed the barrels of his gun.
JC and Eve stayed for a couple of weeks. Chatted to just about everyone.
Eve was nice. Kind of lady you’d like to get into the sack. A little modern maybe, a head full of crazy notions, but it didn’t stop me or nobody else taking a crack at her.
We was all spraying the wrong tree anyhow. Only had eyes for the female variety, so JC said.
They came back six months later, heading up a party of caravans and trucks that carried an army of crew.
Had everything a man could want right there with them, down to the kitchens and the food.
Right off they set to auditioning folk.
My brother Paul got him a part. All he had to do was pretend to fill cars at the gas station. Could have trained a chimp to do that. Wasn’t even going to get to say nothing which was probably for the best.
Meant I had to stay home and look after the birds, set them flying for anyone who’d pay to watch.
First thing Paul did with his dough was to head on in to town. Came back with a brand new pair of jeans and a mobile phone. Looked mighty fine, I told him, but wouldn’t be no good to a hungry man.
Had a fancy camera in it.
Ask me a phone’s a phone. No need to go putting things together that don’t fit.
Lead actor was Johnny ‘Cupcake’ Owens.
Night he showed up, pretty much all of the females in the county got themselves hysterical.
Even old Mamma Creek left the house for a look – first time she’d left her porch since Jacob passed away the year before. He was got by the cancer. A seven year old girl managed to lift him from his bed when the tumour was through with him.
Almost as light as one of my birds he must have been.
Biggest I’ve got is Philly.
10 pounds is all she weighs. Sits on my glove like she weren’t nothing.
Finest monkey eating, ball sucking eagle in the country, that’s for sure.
I drove Marlene and the kids down to see ‘Cupcake’. She’d have broken my nose if I hadn’t. Queued for an hour to get his autograph and shit.
Hardly recognised him up there on the platform. Didn’t look anything like Commander Scott in that ‘Warzone’ movie. Like someone had taken his ass and shaved off a few inches here and there. Felt good knowing I could take him without breaking sweat.
That wife of his looked pissed off by it all.
Three months gone she was. Got the feeling she wasn’t going to like being out of the city, not one bit.
For the next couple of months you couldn’t move for bumping into one of them actors or key-grips or whoever.
Not that I was complaining.
Got so I was wearing them birds out. Flew the falcons three times a day. Almost killed them.
Kept the bank happy with all the trade we was doing.
Paul was having a ball. Couldn’t get enough of being under the lights.
Got so he didn’t take off the make-up after his shots. Wore it like a badge. He’d a been better off in a dress, you ask me, even with a beard longer than Santa’s. But it was nice to see him happy. Like he’d found something to be proud of.
Maybe his taste for the high-life was what did for him.
Even if it was, doesn’t make it right.
A few weeks before the end-of-filming, Paul came back like he’d won the Oscar for best pumper of gas.
Pulled out his phone and showed me.
Johnny Cupcake’s white ass shining like the moon. Nothing wrong with that. Except it was framed between the legs of one of the Creek twins.
Couldn’t be sure if it was Amy or Mary he was screwing from the angle, not that it mattered much either way. Certainly wasn’t Mrs Cupcake and she definitely wasn’t old enough for a knee-wobbler behind an oak tree with an older guy.
Plan made sense, pretty much.
Send the photo on to Johnny, make sure he knew it was real. Ask for a bag of cash to keep it from the press and give him the phone in return.
Didn’t want to be greedy, neither. Not so much to make him think too hard, not so little to leave us short.
$20 thousand we decided, a fart in a warehouse to a star like Cake.
Enough for us to set up a little concern of our own. A hunting and fishing shop to go alongside the ‘Birds Of Prey Experience’.
I dropped Paul off just down from the pond where they was to meet.
Pulled off nice and smooth and never looked back.
Cake might be rich, but he was also careful. Didn’t want no one getting wind of any of it.
Smoked near a half pack of tobacco waiting for that brother of mine to show.
Ruby closed the diner and came and sat for a while. Told me how she was going to change the menu soon as the film came out. Name the burgers after the stars. Was even thinking of changing the name of the establishment.
I said she should hold her horses. Wait till the film was really a film before she did any such thing. Besides, ‘Skin and Bone’ didn’t seem the right kind of handle for a place you go and eat, but what the fuck did I know?
We changed the subject and climbed into the back seat for a little hot-loving. Sure does know how to please a man does Rosy Ford.
After we was done, I drove her home and circled back.
Still no sign of Paul.
Got it into my head that he’d run off on me, him holding all the cards like he did.
Did my best to find the bastard. Fumed over it for days. Practically had a heart attack just thinking about it.
By the time they found him the film crew were long gone, leaving nothing behind but a couple of broken hearts and a whole load of dreams for folk to cling to.
Paul didn’t even look human after two weeks in the water. Only knew it was him on account of what was left of the tattoos he wore on his arms.
Something had been taking bites out of him. Nibbled away his privates. Had to bury him that way, like he weren’t even a man no more, just a sexless slab of fish-food.
How the hell was I going to let the scum away with that?
I followed the news of Johnny Cupcake for months. Weren’t difficult. What with him being a star and his wife giving birth to a baby girl and all. They were in every magazine on the stand.
Spent my time training the birds. Put them through their paces.
Spent most of my time working Philly. Getting her to do a few new tricks to keep her mind off losing her favourite owner.
When it was time, I packed everything I needed and headed over to California to get me some of that revenge I was owed.
Johnny, Betty and baby Oregon lived on a huge chunk of land, in a house bigger than my school.
Found myself a vantage point. Weren’t difficult on account of the land being in a valley. Trees on the slopes made hiding easy.
Philly was glad to get out the back of the van. I gave her a little fly when the sun went down then tethered her up for the night.
Me, I didn’t sleep much. Too many things rattling in my head. I’d tried to work a way to keep the bird safe, but I guessed that was something I had to leave in the hands of the gods.
Guess Betty hadn’t slept too well either. Her and Oregon were up at the crack of dawn and out on the lawn by mid-morning.
Cupcake wasn’t quite so eager. Didn’t see him till past noon. Idle sloth was still in his dressing gown. Way he looked I didn’t reckon there was even enough going on to get Mamma Creek excited.
I watched it all through my binoculars.
Soon as they set the baby in the pram, I took Philly from her stump.
Felt the strength of her claws on the back of my hand through the leather of the glove.
Gave her back a stroke, the feathers soft and smooth. Like I was saying goodbye.
She wasn’t going to budge an inch till I took off her hood, like she was royalty perched there on my arm.
I thought about it. Considered putting her back in the cage and heading home.
Didn’t though. Instead I pulled off the hood and threw her into the air.
She was straight up there feeling for currents, waiting to ride the air so’s she could save on her energy. A thing of beauty, she was, circling above me like she expected me to get out a chunk of meat and the lure.
When she ran out of patience, she headed out over the valley.
I watched her all the way.
That span of hers, bigger than a man, threw a shadow onto the ground like she was a bomber plane ready to drop.
Over the fence she went, right by the security hut and the man at the gate. I watched her shadow pass over the roof and saw her closing in.
By the time she swooped, there was nothing anyone could do.
She was going straight for the baby just like she’d been trained.
Cost me plenty replacing them plastic dolls we’d practiced on, but I didn’t mind.
Only thing I didn’t know was how good a grip she was going to get. Could take her real high with a good connect, might not even get her off the ground if her claws didn’t stick.
I held my breath as Philly closed in. Right between the parents she went and hit the target. Bull’s eye.
I could see them throwing their arms about and screaming, running about like headless chickens, but Philly was too high to notice.
Must have been a hundred feet in the air when the grip gave.
Oregon accelerated downwards like she was in a hurry to get back to her folks.
Philly took off with the blanket dangling like a flag, not that it was going to be much use to her out in the wilds.
I’d seen enough. Didn’t even wait for the kid to hit the ground.
Got behind the wheel and drove off with my eyes pointing straight ahead.
Sure, I didn’t feel good about what I’d done. No mother should have to grieve the way she was going to and no kid taken before their time. But there was nothing I could do. I needed paying back. My ma and pa and Paul needed paying back.
I guess after what happened we was just about even.
Ma only cries if she’s peeling onions. Didn’t so much as sniffle even when we discovered those McGregor kids all blown to pieces, but that night, when Paul appeared on the screen, I could feel her body sobbing like she was a car doing kangaroos.
Her hand looked like a glove of bones shaking at the end of her arm.
I tried to take hold.
She slapped me hard.
Didn’t hurt none, at least not on the outside, but it was enough to let me know that she was ashamed of herself.
All those days of filming and he was only in a couple of scenes.
Give him his due though. He served those customers like he’d been doing it all his life.
He stood tall. Like he might just walk out of the screen at any moment. Was worth all the dressing up and fancy talk we had to sit through before the movie.
Johnny Cupcake sat on the front row. Didn’t move a muscle the entire show. Not even when Paul stared right into the fucker’s eyes.
When the lights came up and we were waiting on the speeches, he passed a note over to one of them Creek twins. Reckon it were Mary, but couldn’t be sure.
Eve stood up on stage and called Johnny up.
The whole crowd stood and whooped and clapped like they was dying seals. Couldn’t blame them neither. Folk from the mountain don’t get out much, not like that.
He thanked everyone and said a few things about how we’d changed his life for ever. Then he winked down at someone near the front.
To see him, aged twenty years in only two, you had to wonder what had been going on in the man’s life. I confess I was glowing inside.
One thing for sure, he weren’t going to be getting any of those action parts no more.
Soon as it was over I got myself ready to leave.
Ma though, she weren’t having any. She was off down those steps waving her stick, making sure she got to him first.
Couldn’t remember the last time she’d moved so quick.
Mounted the stage like an athlete.
Straight over to him she went, pointing and shouting.
Might have been easier to understand if she’d been wearing her teeth.
She jabbed her arm out suddenly, real impolite.
Johnny Cupcake didn’t even flinch.
Took the pen she waved.
Signed everything she put in front of him.
Nigel Bird has given up just about everything since hitting 40, everything except his job, his family and his writing. You'll be able to see his work at A Beat To A Pulp. He'll also have work out in a holiday-themed anthology at Untreed Reads, at the Dark Valentine Christmas special, as number 667 at A Twist Of Noir and in MiCrow Magazine. 'He recently released a collection of stories called Dirty Old Town as an ebook. His Dancing With Myself series is scorching the earth. In 2011 he'll have a story in 'The Best British Crime Stories' anthology by Maxim Jakubowski and he's also hoping to finally nail that novel of his. He's very grateful to all those who've helped and supported him along the way (thanks).