M U S C L E   A R M O R I N G

by Miracle Jones

Leo stared at the “lost cat” poster in the clubhouse bathroom at the Kellycombe pool. The cat’s name was Crisco.

 Crisco was a fat calico kitten with a fun little face. The cack-handed toddler anguish of the poster (every word misspelled, demented kerning) broke his fucking heart.

 “Crisco, stop stunting and go home to that poor girl,” Leo muttered soberly while waiting for his pisshole to align with his bladder.

He spread out his thighs in front of the urinal, tenting his swim trunks with his knees as the gasket untwisted inside his ureter. He put his hands behind his head. It was weird to be barefoot in a public bathroom. This was not really a thing that ever happened back in NYC. The floor here was made of talcum-colored slate so smooth that it would be hard to strike a match. This same smooth stone roasted the soles of his feet wherever there was even a glint of Texas summer sun.

It was just him and the lifeguard at the pool this early in the morning, before the moms came out with their visors, their babies, and their cream-colored beach towels wrapped around their glorious mom asses.  He gave himself a brief thrill, imagining what it would be like to entice one of these moms into the bathroom with him–some hardbodied rage-filled liberal who wanted it so rough that her husband would finally notice the marks on her body but who was only willing to tolerate such degradation from somebody with excellent politics…

The fantasy evaporated when he saw more posters for Crisco stapled to the wall at waist-high level on the corkboard by the snack bar, hung up at a child’s eyeline. Leo ripped one down and folded it up to use as a bookmark, just in case he encountered any loose cats in the wild and wanted to compare. He sat down on his own towel in a chair in the shade.


 He grew up going to pools like this. It was weird how much he’d taken them for granted. Would a pool like this ever be empty in NYC?

 He should swim. It would be good for him. Good for him mentally. And he wasn’t depressed. He was just sad. And it felt good to be sad. And it wasn’t an empty feeling: he was overflowing. Any time he wanted he could touch his pain like tonguing a canker and the healthy tears would well up and spill. Maybe they would even spill out all over someone who eagerly wanted to lap up his therapeutically-processed cataract of golden feelings.
The suburbs were a safe place for despair. You could walk around here late at night if you wanted. Someone might call the cops on you, but even the cops would leave you alone once they found out who you were. Maybe they’d even want to tell you stories about your dad.

 “I feel like I’ve seen this cat before,” Leo said to the lifeguard, a surly junior college kid who never smiled and who never made small talk, no matter how charming Leo was or how many mornings in a row it was just the two of them all alone together here. Leo showed him the poster.

 The lifeguard double-tapped his airpods.

 “Used to be a different cat that came around here too, but I don’t think he belonged to anybody,” said the lifeguard. “I’m talking about a stringy black cat with a kinked-up tail. Haven’t seen him in like a month. I guess he’s missing, too.”

 The lifeguard double-tapped his airpods again, returning to his private world.


 Leo was walking to his job interview, minding his own business, when an extremely familiar limited-edition burnt orange Ford F150 pulled up alongside him. Leo left the perfect sidewalk (no rats, no trash, no feces) and walked over to the window of the truck where Cowboy Romeo Lucchese was leaning out and grinning, a strawberry vape between the gnarled knuckles of his gearshift hand. Cowboy Romeo had a genuine college degree from UT, just the same as Leo. He was the most trusted and reliable employee of the Melissa organization. In fact, he’d been working for the Melissa family since before Leo was even born. He’d even worked for Leo’s grandfather.

 “So what’s the deal?” asked Leo. “You just gonna follow me around like a total creep?”

 “Why you want to walk around in this heat, baby boy?” Cowboy Romeo asked. “Get in the car. I’ll give you a ride.”

 “I’m only going down to the Goodwill,” Leo said, pointing.

 “So I’ll give you a ride down to the Goodwill!”

 Leo reluctantly got in the passenger side of the giant truck, knowing it would make Cowboy Romeo ecstatic to help him.

 “You look just like your daddy when he took over,” said Cowboy Romeo. “He was right around your age. You act like him, too. All magnanimous and aloof. Your dad’s a good man, you know that? You should be nicer to him. He loves you.”

 “We got no hard feelings between us. I write him letters. I’m here in town, aren’t I?”

 “I’m supposed to be watching out for you while he’s locked up. We’re all so fucking pumped you’re back home. We all thought you were going to stay up in New York forever. Find yourself a nice Italian girl. Or some gentle, jacked-up older fellow such as myself.”

 “You wish,” said Leo.

 “Just so you don’t get any ideas about local drama, it was out-of-town Russians that got your dad personally involved and then put him away, not anybody here that we know. Your mom probably told you all about it. The Russians don’t do things honorably. They got a lot of territory on the coast these days and they got it uncontested on account of that fucking illiterate Yankee Kraut traitor president. But not for long. That war in Ukraine has been terrible for them. And we’ll always have Houston and New Orleans. The Russians can’t handle the heat! They had their president and now we’ve got ours. A real Catholic.”

 “You talk about this shit like it’s a game,” said Leo. “Like it’s Risk and they went for Australia.”

 “It is a game sometimes,” Cowboy Romeo insisted. “But this new war is slow poison for them. The Ukrainians still want to rape Russia’s tight little asshole and Russia realistically just wants to be done with it. You can’t win a war unless you want to fuck the people you’re fighting. That’s why we never had a chance in Afghanistan or Iraq. That’s why horny old France and rapy old Rome were always so good at killing all their neighbors for two thousand years. That’s why England was so good at colonialism. You ever see British bitches not in a movie?  I’m obviously not an expert, but who wouldn’t want to get on a leaky boat and go fuck literally anyone else on planet earth?”

 “Hey, I got a degree in English,” said Leo.

 “Don’t tell anybody that if you ever want to join the family business,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Say you majored in something respectable, like testicle science. So why you even going down to the Goodwill? You need to buy a dead man’s shoes?”

 “Got a job interview,” said Leo.

 “A job interview!” said Cowboy Romeo. “I’m up to my medulla oblongata in shit-encrusted actual problems and you’re out here trying to work for someone else? Come work for me! I’ll teach you everything! Or better yet, let me work for you! You cooking up some big caper that requires you to sort through greasy used underwear?”

 “Come on, man.”

 “Your dad was the exact same way,” said Cowboy Romeo. “He didn’t want to do things easy. He didn’t want any meddling or help.”

 “I know the story already,” said Leo. “Anyway, you can drop me off here.”
Cowboy Romeo parked the truck but he kept the doors locked.

 “I get it: you got no illusions because of how you got raised. You know how all the pieces fit together. Born wise! But the real pazzo scumbags are out there walking around relieved they don’t gotta square up against guys like you.”

 “You flatter me,” said Leo. “You flatter me deeply.”

 “I see real talent here. Are you rich?  No. Your dad’s got money, but your dad is now a justice-impacted individual. Are you a cop? No, you’re too smart and good-natured for that. So if you aren’t rich or and you aren’t a cop in civilized society, then you’re already some kind of criminal. The only real question is: are you a slick criminal or are you a shit criminal?”

 “I’m a civilian,” said Leo. “I’m not a soldier like dad. Or a big gay idiot like you.”

 “Yeah, you’re plenty smart. You just never had to use your brains before.”

 Leo jiggled the truck handle and looked at Cowboy Romeo with blank imperiousness, like a cat pawing at a closed bathroom door.

 “Alright, you’re free to go,” Cowboy Romeo said, sighing. “Kidnapping is a Federal charge.”

 Cowboy Romeo unlocked the door.

 “Thanks for the ride,” said Leo.

 “Thanks for the intelligent conversation,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Hard to find in this town.”


The Goodwill was in the shopping center directly across from the main Kellycombe entrance. There was also a Randalls, a nail salon, a Bass Pro Shop, and a Taco Cabana. A harried older woman in paint-spattered double denim took him to a windowless office behind boxes of uncategorized paperbacks that were stacked up in pyramids, waiting their turn on the dusty shelves.

 “You’re Melissa?” she said to him.

 “Yeah, that’s me.”

 “Oh, I see. Melissa is your last name. Elio Melissa? Did I pronounce that correctly?”

 “I go by Leo most of the time.”

 “Why does that name seem familiar?” she said.

 She stared at his resume hard. She sighed and handed it back to him, as if it were too puzzling for her to even hold.

 “Most people who apply for a job here are on parole or in a halfway house. Do you have a record? It’s okay if you do. Have you worked retail before?”

 “Of course,” Leo said. “I live in the neighborhood, actually. That’s how I saw the ‘help wanted’ ad. I just want a little job where I can walk to work. I’ve never been in trouble with the law and I don’t abuse drugs or alcohol.”

 “We don’t have to talk about it,” she said, obviously not believing him. “Listen, this job is easy as hell: if people come in with a bunch of stuff to sell, you tell them to come back on the weekend, which is the only time we take donations. But we still need someone on the register during the day, even when it’s slow, so that would be you. Just so you know, this gig doesn’t pay hardly anything, which is usually why we only hire people who can’t get a job anywhere else on account of red flags.”

 “Yes, that’s exactly what I want.”

 “Because of red flags?”

 “Because of ‘easy as hell’” he said.

 She smiled. He imagined her on her knees with her mouth open and her eyes as bright and clean as a bleached toilet bowl. She would be happy for him to take his time.

 “And you understand this is a nonprofit? There’s no real career here for you. But you can work here and do your art on the side. You were in New York before?”

 “Yeah, but I’m a local,” said Leo. “I’m from this town. I went to high school here.”

 “For real? Any family?”

 “Too much family,” Leo said. She laughed. This did the trick. He was hired. There was ten minutes of training where she watched him scan barcodes and make hypothetical change and then she pronounced him fit to serve.

 “Honestly it’s all tap and pay now,” she said. “So why’d you come back? Aren’t you bored here?”

 “Everything is so difficult in New York that just surviving takes up most of your time. If you ever get sad, it’s like your legs go stiff on a treadmill. You fall and bust your head.”

 “Oh, I just remembered why I recognized your name!” the woman said. She went to her office and then returned triumphantly with a three-ring binder with a legal form pasted in the front pocket beneath a plastic sheet. “Somebody named Melissa is one of the owners of this whole strip center. I see his name every day! It’s all Italians on the lease.”

 “Very common Italian name,” Leo said.


 He did an eight-hour shift three days a week. He was allowed to sit in a chair. He got to pick from several different pre-approved Spotify playlists while he was working: Get the Led Out, Beatles Covers (Spanish Guitar), and Taylor v. Beyoncé. He could look at his phone as long as there weren’t any customers in the store.

 There were never any customers in the store.

 The entire purpose of the Goodwill was to give people inflated tax receipts for their diseased donated goods. Most of the shit that people donated was piled up in the warehouse space behind the store: unsorted, unneeded, unnecessary.


 Cowboy Romeo was idling in his truck at the curb, waiting for him just as he was leaving his house for work one fine summer morning.

 “What are you doing here?” asked Leo. “Did someone die?”

 Of course Romeo was never actually far away. He had been shadowing Leo non-stop since Leo had returned and rented this house. But Leo had been pretending not to notice.

 “It’s fucking 100 degrees out there today, baby boy,” Cowboy Romeo said. “I’m not gonna let you get heat stroke just because you got some weird pride about going your own way. I’m supposed to look out for you, like I promised your dad.”

 “I don’t have a driver’s license anymore, which is extremely embarrassing,” said Leo. “That’s my weird pride.”

 “So let me drive you to work,” said Cowboy Romeo.

 Leo didn’t fight. He got in the truck, honestly grateful for the A/C. They sat together for as long as it took for the silence to build up like rain on a windshield that needed to be wiped off.

 “So I gotta know something,” said Cowboy Romeo eventually. “You tell everyone you came back because you failed as a writer, but that’s gotta be bullshit. All writers are failures.”

 Leo agreed. But he didn’t say anything. Instead, he rolled down the window and stuck his hand out to catch the wind.

 “So it was because of some girl, right?”

 Leo balled his hand into a fist. Now he was punching the wind. He made it go flat. Now he was slicing it.

 “Silence means yes in Texas,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Baby boy, you gotta move on. You Melissas never know what you’re doing when it comes to romantic partnerships. You’re all such stupid enigmatic assholes, every one of you.”

 Leo let Cowboy Romeo talk. It was soothing.

 “You’ll find someone new,” said Cowboy Romeo. “It’s not like there’s any competition. Pretty much all the other men here are dirty fanooks like me. You see how much they like watching football? They can’t get enough dudes with muffin pan abs and cast iron asses destroying each other. And all the women around here are bored shitless, waiting for a real man to knock them down. The men here prefer Trump and their Bibles to authentic wet snatch.”

 “You’re really going to lecture me about the folkways of straight people? You?”

 “Hey now,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Just because I’m one of baby Jesus’s special invert rainbow boys doesn’t mean I don’t understand Texas.”

 Leo sighed. It was all just so hard to talk about.

 “I returned to Texas because I ended a relationship with a woman,” Leo admitted.

“Sounds chill,” Cowboy Romeo said. “Sounds totally casual.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” said Leo.

 “Well, I’m here to help!” said Cowboy Romeo. “So you just tell me what you need. I know girls. I know places where smart chicks hang out and drink coffee while they frown at books.”

 “Look at the road when you talk!” said Leo.

 “I can’t talk and drive?” said Cowboy Romeo.

 “Okay, I came back for a lot of reasons,” said Leo. “There’s not just one simple reason.”

 Cowboy Romeo vaped as he drove, thinking about all those possible reasons.

 “You know what would make you feel better?”

 “Not dying in a car crash?”

 “Intrigue! Il piccolo mistero! You aren’t a normal person, you know?  Your enigmatic Melissa ossatura cries out for hard problems to solve. You want to be a writer? All the real stories are right here!”

 “Right here?” asked Leo, gesturing to the Bass Pro Shop.

 “In the guts of this place,” said Cowboy Romeo. “I could tell you so many stories!”

 “Please don’t,” Leo said.

Cowboy Romeo parked the car.

Leo looked at the Randalls, and he remembered something he actually did wanted to ask Cowboy Romeo about. Something that had truly been bothering him. Leo opened his wallet and took out the lost cat poster (“Weres Crisco???”). He handed it to Cowboy Romeo who uncrumpled it and smoothed it out on the dashboard.

 “Here’s a real il piccolo mistero,” Leo said. “Have there always been so many lost cats in this town? I don’t remember seeing all these posters everywhere. It’s not just Crisco: there’s like ten other posters like this in Randalls. All different cats. I can get copies for you.”

 “You want me to find this cat?” said Cowboy Romeo. “I’ll fucking do it. You want us to find this cat together, swinging our dicks like two good-time wop privati in a motion picture?”

 “The city is paralyzed with fear,” said Leo. “The police don’t know where to turn.”

 “You know this cat got carried away by a hawk like in that YouTube video,” Cowboy Romeo said. “You know this cat got creamed by someone’s Tesla while going 100 miles an hour on autopilot. Johnny California paninoed this cat, bumped some ket, and tweeted about Bitcoin.”

 “Shit like this is at the root of my despair,” Leo said. “The simple banal horror of this missing cat.”

 “I get it,” Cowboy Romeo said. “You don’t gotta tell me, baby boy. I totally understand that part, Little Don Leo.”

 Cowboy Romeo folded up the poster reverently and put it in his pocket.

 “Gotta go to work now,” said Leo.

 “Me too,” said Cowboy Romeo.


 And now Leo was barefoot on thick carpet, the most luxurious feeling in the whole fucking world. People in the suburbs lived gilded lives of consequence-free total hedonism. This place he was renting had a dishwasher, a washing machine, and a little vacuum cleaner robot. There was central air conditioning and you could make it so chilly that you might as well be in one of those ice rooms where you paid $200 to drink shots with some unbreakable Russian sex worker.

There was central heating too, a wasted luxury that made no sense here. What apartment in actually cold NYC had central heating? And then there was all this carpet!  You could fuck on every floor of this rental property. The only room here without carpet was the kitchen, which was bigger than his entire apartment in Bushwick. And the whole place was four times cheaper. There was even carpet in the bathroom. The only little square of tile was by the tub where you were supposed to stand and dry off.

 But he wasn’t here for the opulence of elite suburban luxury. He was here to process failure. To find a real job. To be a useless and law-abiding member of society. To be hopeless and unmoored–revealed to the world as yet another boring coward who couldn’t handle urban life.

 And what did boring cowards do?  They masturbated. Relentlessly. Before work and after.

 These days, the only porn that did anything for him were videos of young men pissing in the mouths of middle-aged women. This wasn’t particularly hard to find. The algorithm made it so that there were always provocative new links at the top of the Xvideos page for him. Unfortunately, these selections were also usually hacky incest porn. All porn was hacky incest porn these days.

 The doorbell rang.

 “Goddammit,” he said.

 He peeked his head into the living room, hiding his erection behind the bend in the hallway. He could see Cowboy Romeo through the beveled glass meurtrière. He zipped up. He retrieved the stack of “lost cat” posters from the side table by the door, posters he’d been dutifully collecting from the corkboard at Randalls.

 “All these already?” said Cowboy Romeo.

 “It’s a fucking plague,” said Leo. “Something enigmatic is definitely happening here.”

 Cowboy Romeo frowned and shuffled through the sheaf of posters. “You’d think we’d see some of these lost cats wandering around,” he said. “I’ve been driving around for days and….psssssh….merda fortuna, Little Don Leo.”

 “Is this a good use of your time and resources?” asked Leo. “Do you do stuff like this for dad?”

 “The same but different in certain fundamental ways,” said Cowboy Romeo.

 “The good news is that a higher density of lost cats means that your chances of finding at least one of them are increasing,” said Leo.

 “Hey, that’s great news,” said Cowboy Romeo.
Leo didn’t want to let on, but it actually felt great to be so closely watched and cared for. Was this what he’d been missing in NYC?  The power and attention that came from having his own goons to boss around? He didn’t want to think of himself as so vacant and meretricious.

After Romeo left, Leo returned to the tab that he’d left open. He thought about how you rarely ever learned about the porn habits of main characters in films. It would honestly be very illuminating to know what John Wick was jacking off to between murders. Maybe that was the difference between movies and books: in books, you had a pretty good idea of your main character’s precise sexual psychodynamic. This intimacy made you trust them more instead of creating distance. In movies, seeing someone have any sexuality at all was distracting and horrible. You needed the proof of an actually hard dick to believe they were legitimately aroused, and the only men with the balls to actually show their dicks on film were porn stars. And if you were already a porn star who was fucking anyone you wanted for a living, what incentive was there to learn to act?


 Cowboy Romeo burst into the Goodwill and walked right up to the register.

 “Okay, so I didn’t find any actual cats YET. But I got big news!”

 Leo put his phone away and looked around. No customers.

 “I’m at work,” Leo said. “I’m working like a maniac here.”

 “Okay, but I’ve been driving around all night long so you gotta listen to me or I will fucking strangle you. You’re right: it’s spooky how few cats there are in this town, especially strays. Stray cats used to be everywhere. Okay, so I will admit that you have stumbled upon something queer in the Houston suburbs. And you don’t know this about me, but I love little kitties. So I started thinking: you know how there are all these construction sites in Kellycombe? You know how there’s always some giant ugly house getting built at the edge of some hideous cul-de-sac?”

 “Yeah,” said Leo, struggling with his Italian. “Brutto!”

 “So I started thinking: hey, those vacant lots are perfect places for lost little kitties to be hiding. So I started poking around. I started staking them out. I’ve actually been making a loop all week, driving around to all of them, hoping to get lucky. And you know what I saw yesterday, baby boy?”

 “I have no fucking clue, Romeo.”

 “I saw an empty bag of cat food!  Somebody crumpled it up and tried to hide it under some boards and sawdust and shit. But it was Meow Mix. I’d know it from anywhere. That bright purple and bright yellow are so lurid that I saw it from the street. So I’m thinking: what the fuck are these construction workers doing with Meow Mix? So I parked and I went up into that construction site like a sneaky peeper, and do you know what I found there?”

 “You found a cat?”

 “I found a bowl of cat food! It was weird, because I actually had to look for it. The bowl was on the second story of the pressboard shitbox in progress, hidden behind a beam. The bowl was not really visible from the street and this seemed intentional. There were a bunch of bent nails all around the dish.”

 “But no cats,” Leo verified, intrigued now.

 “No cats. But listen! Okay, so then I thought, alright, maybe these construction workers are feeding strays that come nosing around. So my next step was to falsify my thesis and then verify it. So I went around to Old Trails and started checking sites there. I didn’t see any crumpled bags of cat food this time, but guess what? I went sneaky peeping around on foot and I found another dish. And it was the exact same style and same brand of dish. And this other dish of cat food was also full of Meow Mix. The whole setup looked exactly the same. And it’s exactly the food you would use as bait: the cheap shit that cats love. Taco Bell for cats. So now I’m thinking: this can’t be a coincidence. These are two different property developers in two different neighborhoods, right? These are two different construction sites going up at the same time, which means two different sets of workers.”

 “But no Crisco? No Raven?”

 “I kept going, baby boy. I visited every single construction site in Kellycombe, in Old Trails, and in Morning Oak. There was a little bowl of cat food at exactly one site in each neighborhood, so three sites in all. Okay, so this proves it: somebody is leaving out cat food at these construction sites. You were right. Something ugly as hell is going on here. And that’s all the news. Now you know everything.”

Cowboy Romeo hit his strawberry vape, leaning against the counter, flexing his giant hands. Leo thought about what this meant. He could sense Cowboy Romeo’s tension. As if Cowboy Romeo were waiting for Leo to correctly determine the next step they should take together.

 “Could we test the bag for fingerprints?” Leo asked. “Could we analyze the cat food for poison or whatever?”

 “You want me to call the cops?” said Cowboy Romeo. “Me?”

 “Alright, but like, you probably know somebody. What do you think is happening here?”

 “Listen, I’ve been poking around on the Facebook forums. People in this town are complaining all over the place about their missing cats. They blame packs of wild dogs. And it’s true that Texas is a dog place. It’s true that there are packs of wild dogs here. But that’s not what’s happening, otherwise there would be carcasses. And those little kids in those Facebook forums care. Those old sad grannies care. This is a real situation.”

 “So what do we do about it? I don’t know what to do next.”

 “Well, I’m not a fucking crime lab. But if you want my opinion I can already tell that somebody sprayed some tranquilizer on that food. I bought some Meow Mix myself and I looked at it and compared it and it just looks different. There’s an oily sheen on that bait food! There’s also a residue on the shit in the bowls.”

 “If that food is laced with tranquilizer, he must check those bowls every night. If he’s collecting cats, he must hit every site at least once a day.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking, baby boy. Now I know you get off work here in like ten minutes. So why don’t we drive around this evening and see if anybody comes around? What the hell else do you have to do?”

 “We’ll need coffee,” said Leo. “Lots of coffee.”

 “And barbecue sandwiches,” said Cowboy Romeo. “I got brisket and I got crispy chicken. I got two pints each of potato salad, mashed potatoes, and mac and cheese. You like podcasts?”

 “I love podcasts,” said Leo.

 “Clock out and get in the truck, baby boy,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Play me your favorite podcast. We gotta move quick, though. We don’t know his routine yet. We can assume he waits for the construction workers to leave and for the cats to go out on the prowl when the sun sets. But we don’t want to miss him, mi leoncino.”


 “Okay, so we struck out tonight, but we had fun, right? And we both learned a lot about Cleveland’s crooked justice system, holy shit.”

 “Wait, wait, wait, wait . . . who’s that?”

 “No, that’s the same car as before,” said Cowboy Romeo. “He’s just in a different place.”

 “Exactly,” said Leo. “EXACTLY. Isn’t that weird? He’s scoping us out. That’s the guy. That’s gotta be the guy.”

 “You think we’re the ones getting scoped out now? Oh baby boy, you give other people too much credit. Sei paranoico! Just like your papa.”

 “No, we fucked up before. He saw us before. Who hangs out by a construction site just eating sandwiches all night long? But we’re good now. He doesn’t see us this time. He thinks we left and now he’s going to go check his bait.”

 “Okay, so what if you’re right? What should we do?”

 “Nothing, nothing. He can’t see us this far away. This is good. Keep your head down, though. You’ve got a huge head.”

 “He’s driving so slow,” said Cowboy Romeo. “I will admit that this is weird. He’s being as weird as us.”

 The sedan inched along the street before finally coming to a stop several houses away from the construction site. Whoever was in the car sat there for quite awhile, thinking. Eventually, a tall, lanky white man in khaki pants and a plaid flannel shirt got out and walked across three lawns to enter the construction site.

 “That’s him,” said Leo. “That’s gotta be him.”

 Leo took a picture with his phone.

“Okay, so we’re in a bit of a bind here,” Cowboy Romeo said. “This truck is way too big and ugly to follow him around. But luckily I am literally a professional . . . ”

 Cowboy Romeo rummaged around in the glove compartment and retrieved something that looked like a garage door opener.

 “Alright, baby boy, I’m going to drive by his car and then you’re going to hop out, duck down, and attach this to his undercarriage. It’s magnetic. I’m going to keep driving and then you run and catch up with me. Hurry, because I gotta go at a steady speed so as not to spook him if he’s listening for cars pulling up. Okay, you ready? We’re moving! Go ahead and open the door and get ready to leap out when I say so.”

 Leo didn’t have time to say yes or no.

 “Do I have to turn this on or anything?” Leo said, frantically searching for a button on the device.

 “Nah, nah, nah! It’s old as hell, though. They make much smaller ones these days. Okay, this is it! Go! Go!”

 Leo leaped out of the car, which was going fast enough that this ejection was awkward but not dangerous. He landed flat footed and nearly toppled over. As soon as he regained his balance, he crouched low and duck-walked to the man’s sedan. He panicked, unsure of where exactly to attach the tracker, but he quickly found a sticky metal place beneath the front wheel-well. The tracker leaped out of his hands like a startled bird.

Now he couldn’t help himself. He peered into the car and saw several giant sacks of cat food (Meow Mix) and a large carrying cage. The cage was empty. He wasn’t sure what he would have done if there’d actually been cats in there. Would he have busted the window open (with what? with his elbow?) and freed the hostages?

Leo looked down the street. Cowboy Romeo was already at the next corner.

“Fuck,” whispered Leo. Leo hunched over and pumped his legs, failing to catch up. Cowboy Romeo pushed open the door and Leo got inside the car and slammed the door shut just in time for Cowboy Romeo to turn.

 They drove back to Leo’s place. Cowboy Romeo showed him the tracking device app on his phone when they parked and sat together in his driveway.

 “He isn’t moving yet,” said Cowboy Romeo. “He’s taking his time. Maybe there was a cat up there and he’s putting her in a cage. Tomorrow I’ll rent a new car just in case you’re right and he clocked us. And then we’ll go see what’s up.”

 “What if he found the tracker?” said Leo.

 The red dot on the screen started to move.

“Nah, he didn’t find shit,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Hope he doesn’t live too far. The range on this thing isn’t great.”

 They watched the dot drive out of Kellycombe and down the main highway, turning into a nicer subdivision up the parkway where the houses were older and where the houses had full yards between them.

 “Hopespring Terrace,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Of course he lives in Hopespring Terrace. Only assholes live in Hopespring Terrace. Now we just wait for him to leave again.”


 Cowboy Romeo arrived bright and early the next morning, carrying a damp sack of kolaches.

 “I got blueberry, I got lemon, I got spicy jalapeno cheese, I got regular sausage. I probably got too many.”

 “I took the day off,” said Leo. “You were right. This really is fun as hell.”

 “I just want you to know: stealing cats is a crime, but so is breaking and entering. Breaking and entering is a worse crime. You do real jail time for this. It’s a felony.”

“If we get proof or whatever, then we can tip off the cops and they’ll do all the hard work.”

“If the cops in this town were capable of hard work, your dad and I wouldn’t have such an effective operation here. But I admire your optimism. Let me ask you something though: what are you prepared to do if calling the cops on this man isn’t a realistic option?”

 “I don’t know,” said Leo. “What kind of question is that?”

 “Just think about it,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Think about your own limits with respect to satisfying the contours of your rage. It’s good to visualize this sort of thing before you go into it, like doing sports.”


The man took off. They watched him drive off the map and into Houston. He went so far away that he wasn’t even pinging on Cowboy Romeo’s app any more. The sun was going down, which meant that now was a good time to go for it. They would have plenty of time to get away once he reentered the app’s domain where they would be able to see him coming. And their alibi was secure. They had the same alibi that Cowboy Romeo always used: they were at church, attending evening mass down at St. John Vianney. The priest would swear to it, no problem. He and Cowboy Romeo watched Drag Race together every Tuesday. They went on a secret two week cruise together to Thailand every spring. Cowboy Romeo had lots of pictures of all their fun times together.

They parked two streets over. Cowboy Romeo had a leather fanny pack around his waist that Leo knew was full of tools for both ingress and protection.

 “I’ll go first,” said Cowboy Romeo. “Give me about ten minutes to get the back door open and then I’ll let you in through the front. Don’t wear your gloves while walking around. Put your gloves on last thing before you go in. It’s too hot in Texas to be wearing gloves. People remember that shit.”

 Cowboy Romeo slipped away. It was amazing how invisible he was in the cicada-shrieking early evening summer gloom. He was so quiet and graceful, despite his size and the wattage of his personality.
Leo waited ten minutes and then he followed Cowboy Romeo. He didn’t see a single person as he meandered from the car to the man’s house, coming around the block from the absolute other direction. He stared at his phone the whole time so that he would have an excuse to be looking down–not making eye contact, not showing his face.

The man’s house was boring and dark. Leo put on his gloves. It was a sprawling one story ranch house with a perfect manicured front lawn and a home security sign in the yard. There was no sign of Cowboy Romeo, which meant that he had been able to disable any alarms and get inside without any trouble.

There was a small stack of Chinese food and Domino’s fliers on the porch and a few hanging plants that looked sick. There was a small porch swing and there was a scarecrow made of real straw sitting on the damp cushions. This wasn’t quite a Halloween decoration (more like an “autumn” decoration), but it was still out of place in the heat of the summer.

There was a brief moment of panic when Leo rang the doorbell and no one answered. But then Cowboy Romeo was standing in the foyer waiting for him with a grim expression, his blue-gloved hands interlaced in front of him like the fangs of a demon.

 “It reeks in here,” Leo said, closing the door.

“It’s mainly coming from one of the back bedrooms where there is something that I don’t think you should see, but there is also a smell coming from the garage,” said Cowboy Romeo. I know I told you this would be fun, but I’m currently regretting my insistence that you join me here today in this house, Little Don Leo. I know you’re still curious, but the best thing to do at this point would be for you to go home and I’ll tell you what I found here later after I do a little more exploring.”

 Leo ignored him. He’d never broken into a house before. He walked into the living room that was adjacent to the foyer. It was a sizeable sunken space with shelves going all the way up to the ceiling. The shelves were full of videocassette tapes. All of them were marked with a spiral design and a number. There was a small couch. There was a coffee table. There was a water pipe and a brick of weed.

“Those are called videotapes, baby boy,” Cowboy Romeo sadly. “It’s how you watch TikToks and YouTubes without the Chinese government knowing.”

“I know what videotapes are,” said Leo. “I work at Goodwill, remember?”

“Listen, I know you’re invested in this project but I also know you’ve always been a sensitive kid. I like that about you. I’m a sensitive kid, too. And it was a really good thing that we did this today. But I think you need to go ahead and leave. We’ll call the cops and then I’ll tell you later about what we’ve accomplished here.”

 Leo pushed past him. Cowboy Romeo followed, not standing in his way, not using his substantial bulk to keep Leo from going further into the house. Much later, Leo would wonder if Romeo had actually wanted him to see. If this had all been some kind of a test.

There were three rooms leading off the hallway from the living room. The first one was spartan: just a full-size bed, a recliner with some laundry draped over it, and a big screen television. There were three VCRs on the floor and framed pictures of Capuchin monkeys dressed up in church clothes on the walls. One picture featured prominently: two monkeys in dresses seated together on a tiny couch with their legs crossed, looking mad and slightly to the right. The pictures were grainy, like video stills.

The second room was a storage area and office. Dry cat food (Meow Mix). Cat litter. Cat cages and cat toys. Stacks of pet dishes. Cases of wet food. Empty videotape cases. There were three card tables set up in a staggered row with large monitors on each of them, running from custom-built boxes whirring on the ground. There was a Costco bottle of hand sanitizer. There was a poster-sized print of Hope Hicks and Ivanka Trump. They were seated together on one of the White House couches, both of them wearing Easter dresses that showed off their shiny ankles. They looked irritable, both looking slightly to the right.

 “It’s the last room where there’s all the trouble,” Cowboy Romeo muttered.

 The door was shut. The smell was strong here. An animal smell. Shit, musk, meat, pain, and piss.

 Leo opened the door. He looked.

 There were blue tarps all over the floor that were folded so that they came up to waist-high level against every white wall. In the center of the room was a video camera set up on a tripod looming over an industrial-sized Blendtec blender.

 There was a handwritten sign beside the blender: “WILL IT BLEND???”

Inside the blender (and all over the tarps) were the hot-soup-setting remnants of the lost cat Crisco. Leo assumed it was Crisco because the only thing it was possible to formally ascertain about the former cat was that he had been a calico on account of the shades of shredded fur.

It was clear that the camera was set up because someone had made a video of this kitten being milkshaked. There was a cinder block on the floor by the blender and Leo assumed that the cinder block had been placed on top of the blender to keep the kitten from escaping.

 “What’s in the garage?” Leo asked quietly. He was shocked that he could look at this and not feel anything but icy calculus. He didn’t feel nauseous. He didn’t feel like weeping. He felt empty and analytical. He looked at Cowboy Romeo and saw that the enormous dapper man was looking at him with soulful and concerned eyes.

 “I don’t know what’s in the garage,” said Cowboy Romeo. “I haven’t been in there yet.”

 “So he makes videos of murdering cats,” said Leo.

“I know all about stuff like this,” said Cowboy Romeo. “I’ve seen shit like this before in this town. People pay lots of money for special videos. They make requests, mostly from other countries. It’s a shit way to make cash, though. The smell alone. You really gotta love it.”

 “And all those videotapes in the living room?”

 “I don’t know,” said Cowboy Romeo. “We can’t assume anything.”

 “Let’s do the garage now.”

 “You don’t think we’ve seen enough already to make a decision here?” Cowboy Romeo said.

 Leo pushed past him and went the other way down the hallway into the kitchen. The kitchen was clean and empty. He opened the refrigerator just to do something that violated this man. Inside there was a jar of mayonnaise, a squirt bottle of spicy brown mustard, several prepackaged bags of spinach, a half-empty case of Amstel light, and leftovers in a Burger King bag. He left the door open.

The door to the garage was right here next to the dishwasher. It was only when he was this close to this side door that he could hear the meowing. He opened the door and walked into the summer heat of the garage. Not just heat, but the smell of warm laundry mixed with animal fear hormones. As soon as he opened the door, the meowing became a cacophonous feline polyscream. It was the roar of little lions crying out for jungle vengeance.

The garage was cat hell.

There were cages along the far side across from the garage door next to the washer and dryer. There was a plastic trash can for the bodies. There was a giant perforated metal plate next to the door where tools were hanging: hammers, saws, screwdrivers, knives, clippers, loppers, wrenches, clamps. There was an industrial sink and a shitload of cleaning chemicals. There were five weight benches that had been repurposed as operating tables. Each one had a plastic cabinet beside it that contained zip ties and other restraints in translucent plastic drawers. Each one had a different tripod and camera set up to film whatever happened at each bench.

Lost cat posters had been taped to these exercise benches, almost like film production slates showing the scene, showing the role, showing the take.

Leo took all this information in as he walked straight to the cages with the cats. He was counting them: five, six, seven. There was only one cat per cage. The cages were stacked on top of each other and there was room for three more cats in the full array. He recognized Raven. He did not see Crisco, which confirmed his suspicion about the liquiform calico in the back bedroom. Leo closed his eyes and he knew how it must have gone: one moment the kitten was pawing at the side of the blender. The next moment this anxious animal was nothing but a bloody static of organs, fur, and claws. The astonishing speed of this transition must have been what was so satisfying to the person who had requested the recording. But at least the death was quick. Crisco had not suffered to the end like the cats who would be taken apart at these weight benches. Even still, Leo was sure there had been time for Crisco to make one last screech of pain and surprise. Leo couldn’t stop hearing this shriek morphing into the high-pitched whir of the blender even though he had never actually heard it happen.

“Seen enough?” asked Cowboy Romeo.

Leo nodded. Cowboy Romeo put his arm around him and steered him back into the house. Leo leaned against the wall of the hallway to steady himself.

“I’m going to see what I can dig up on his computer,” said Cowboy Romeo. “If you’re up for it, why don’t you search his room?”

Leo nodded again. Leo didn’t know anything about computers, but he was sure that Cowboy Romeo had some kind of solution for the man’s security architecture in his fanny pack full of tools. It was computer science that Cowboy Romeo had studied at UT, a degree financed by the Melissa organization in order to help bring the family into the 21st century.

“I can help,” said Leo. “Just give me a second.”

 “Take all the time you need. ”

When he stopped being dizzy, Leo entered the bedroom. There weren’t many places to hide anything in here. The first thing Leo did was look at the top shelf of the man’s closet. There were Nike and New Balance shoeboxes stacked here. He took them down one at a time. They were each full to the brim with crisp fifty dollar bills. One of the boxes immediately became unbalanced as soon as he picked it up. The box tumbled out of his hands, disgorging a Disney “Beauty and the Beast” clamshell. Leo snapped the clamshell open. Instead of a tape, the plastic case contained a small snub-nosed pistol and a tiny twist baggie of pills. Leo put the gun and the baggie back in the box. He retrieved a trashbag from the kitchen under the sink just as Cowboy Romeo was finishing up with the man’s computer.

 “What’s the trashbag for?” asked Cowboy Romeo.

 “Come look,” said Leo.

 He showed Cowboy Romeo all the cash in the shoeboxes and he showed Cowboy Romeo the gun. Cowboy Romeo checked to see if the gun was loaded. He sighed.

 “So you want to steal all this money?” Cowboy Romeo asked him. “Better double bag it. It’s a good haul, but you should think about this situation the way your old man would. If this dude made all this money, then he could make even more.”

 “What did you find?” asked Leo, not interested in the slightest in thinking like his old man.

 “He trades cats for monkeys,” said Cowboy Romeo. “There’s no monkeys here in the states for him, so he has to cut deals. It’s all pretty sordid. I was able to get information about most of the people involved just from his emails. He does a little blackmail on the side. But yeah, he does the cats and then he gets monkeys in return. It’s a sex thing for him. I couldn’t watch any of the actual videos. The thumbnails were disgusting enough for me. He likes the monkeys to be dressed up like ladies, like the pictures in his room.”

 “I really don’t want to know about it,” said Leo.

“His clients want the cats to belong to rich Americans. His clients like it when there’s proof that someone loved them.”

 “We need to call the cops on him immediately and then get out of here,” said Leo.  “The longer we stay here, the more I want to do something to him that I think I would regret.”

 “The best thing to do would be to leave the door open and turn that blender on in the back bedroom so that the cops can hear it going. That will give them absolute probable cause to come into the house without a warrant. When we call, we’ll also say we’ve been kidnapped and he won’t let us leave. We want to make sure they barge in and do a thorough search. We’ll use his computer to make the call.”

 “I didn’t even know you could do that,” said Leo.

 “I just want you to be prepared for the fact that they’ll only be able to charge him with theft,” said Cowboy Romeo.  “Animal cruelty is not really a crime here in Texas, otherwise they’d have to shut down every fucking rodeo.”

 “What are you talking about?” Leo said. “Theft?

“And I want you to know that it is very unlikely that he’ll do time for this. He’ll plead out. He’ll pay some big ass fine. You can already see that he has the scratch. Even on a federal charge, he’ll maybe do five years. If we steal his money, we’ll actually be in more trouble than he will be. Honestly, they’ll probably just rope him into helping them take down the bigger network. He’ll get some therapy or something for his kinks.”

 “You’re telling me that stealing and murdering cats is not a crime?” said Leo.

“He’s not rustling cattle. These cats aren’t worth very much on the open market, which makes their value merely misdemeanor territory. I don’t think you can prove that he is stealing cats here in order to terrorize the people of his own neighborhood. The cats here are being used for other purposes. That actually exonerates him. The fact that it isn’t personal.”

 “I don’t believe you,” said Leo. “What are you trying to tell me here?”

 “I’ve seen it much worse,” said Cowboy Romeo. “A million times worse. Any time there’s a war, there’s always videos circulating of this kind of shit. It’s nice to see your enemies get tortured to death when you’ve spent all day being terrified of them. People used to do this kind of blender thing for money with actual human babies in Southeast Asia. The monkeys are a step up. Maybe they’re even a step in the right direction. A step toward robots or something. Maybe this guy is actually trying to get better. Maybe he’s actually trying to heal up from some kind of obsession and avoid hurting real women.”

 “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Leo said.

 “I’ve seen a lot of horrible shit in my life,” said Cowboy Romeo. “I just want you to be prepared for when this guy goes free.”

“No fucking way,” said Leo. “No way can we let that happen.”

“So then what do you want to happen here? You’ve got all the power in this situation, baby boy. Let me tell you something, Little Don Leo: I find myself in situations where I get to decide about shit like this all the time. And thank heaven it’s me doing the deciding and not someone else. Someone worse. It could be you, too. You’re a good kid. You deserve to be making important decisions. But no one is ever going to put you in a place where you get to do that thanks to your merits. Not in the real world. But here?  In this world?  In this house? You are royalty already.”

 “I don’t know what you’re asking me,” said Leo.

 “The smart play would be to turn this motherfucker out,” Cowboy Rome said. “He comes home and we stick his own gun in his face and we tell him that he works for us now.”

 “Works for us? Killing kittens as porn for America’s enemies?”

 “We’ll tell him that he doesn’t get to do that anymore,” said Cowboy Romeo. “But he clearly has some skills with a computer. He knows how to use illicit distribution systems in order to reach secret markets. We’ll make him put together a new business plan and give him targets to hit. He’s talented. We’ll motivate him, we’ll monitor him, and we’ll take our cut forever. And if he gets out of line, we’ll chop him up. And we’ll feel good about it because we’ll know he didn’t deserve the second chance we gave him.”

 “No,” said Leo. “No second chance. No. We’re not doing that. What are our other options?”

 “I could break his arms permanently so he has to type with his chin,” Cowboy Romeo said. “We strap him into one of these benches and saw something off. But he’s a local. It’s not a smart play. For something like that, we’d want to do a swap. Out of towners should do it. You don’t want to be running into this guy at the Bass Pro Shop if he doesn’t get the message and doesn’t move away.”

 “What if we just blow his brains out with that pistol?” Leo said quietly.

Cowboy Romeo nodded. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Leo and Cowboy Romeo assessed each other.

“I’m not kidding,” said Leo.

“I know, baby boy,” chuckled Cowboy Romeo. “But you think we can make a gunshot look like a suicide? You want to be reading about this man in all the newspapers? You want to get HPD up our asses, doing ballistics, looking for the angle of incidence or whatever on the powder burns?”

 “They’ll take one look in his garage and assume he had a crisis of conscience,” said Leo.

 “Brains on a wall are messy and unpredictable. There are much more effective ways to get rid of a bug, if that’s what you really want.”

“I don’t know what I really want.”

 Cowboy Romeo unzipped the leather satchel around his waist. He rummaged around until he found a small canister of Raid bug spray. He put it down between them on the kitchen table.

 “What’s that?” asked Leo. “What’s in the can?”

 “Bug spray,” said Cowboy Romeo. “For bugs.”

 Leo sort of knew what Cowboy Romeo meant but he didn’t want to ask. Then he’d have to know. He felt queasy.

“That’s all it takes? Just like that?”

“Done it enough times at this point that I even have a little system,” said Cowboy Romeo.

“He won’t suffer or anything?”

“You don’t think he deserves to suffer?”

“Right now I just want this to be over.”

“He won’t suffer,” Cowboy Romeo said. “You ever put a cat down at the vet?  It’s like that. You can hold him in your arms and listen to his last heartbeat if you want. But this cat’s got rabies. He’s got to go, just like you said. That’s what you want, right?”

Leo hung his head, thinking hard. He didn’t say no. He picked up the can of Raid and read the warning information about the bug spray in small print on the side. Silence means yes in Texas.

“It’s not actually Raid,” said Cowboy Romeo.

“I never told you why I had to leave New York,” Leo said, putting the bug spray back down.

“You never did,” said Cowboy Romeo.

“I guess it’s kind of a funny story. I was dating an older woman. Much older. She was in her fifties.”

“Dating or just fucking?” said Cowboy Romeo.

“We went on dates for real. She was a famous social media manager for bands but not any good ones you’ve heard of. I met her at a bad rockabilly show. We rubbed up against each other accidentally and then on purpose. She started whispering things to me. We left together without even learning each other’s names. She was really kinky like that.”

“She must have had a feeling about you,” Cowboy Romeo said. “She must have sensed how dangerous you are.”

“Yeah right,” said Leo. “I think I was just a pushover. She liked normal sex, but she liked it even more when we did extreme things together in public. I was usually willing to do what she wanted.”

“So what happened?” asked Cowboy Romeo.

“One time we were drinking pretty hard together at this bar in Manhattan. We weren’t in our own neighborhood so it felt like we were in a completely different town. She got demanding the same way she usually did. She started taunting me. She wanted me to take her in the alley and soak her brand new party dress in whiskey urine. That’s how she put it. We’d done that kind of thing at home before, in her bathtub. But this was totally different. What she wanted was so ludicrous and she was so drunk that it was hard to judge whether she was even serious or not. I told her I wouldn’t do it. That’s when she started berating me. She went out in the street and started calling me names. Pussy, faggot, cuck whatever. She got down on her knees in the street right in front of the bar and stuck her tongue out at me, pointing at her tongue. Your piss goes here, she said. She started asking strangers if I was a real man. People were watching. People were embarrassed for her. They were embarrassed for me. They thought she was on drugs. They thought she was some sex worker having a breakdown. I got scared. Someone said the cops were coming. I ran away. I just left her there. She was yelling at me. I could hear her yelling all the way to the subway.”

“That sounds rough,” said Cowboy Romeo. “That sounds rough as hell.”

“I don’t think she ever actually liked me very much, which made me wonder how we even ended up together. But the thing is: I did want to do those things to her. Even in the street. She knew that. But maybe I wasn’t ready. Maybe she was just the wrong person. Maybe it was just the wrong time. Anyway, I can’t stop thinking about what happened. I can’t stop thinking about her. I can’t stop thinking about the way sex can just control you.”

“You can’t ever change what you like or who you dig,” said Cowboy Romeo. “There’s no way to rewire your own brain. All you can do is make sure you’re pointed in the right direction once your engine starts going.”

“And what if somebody is sexually turned on by shit like watching kittens get killed in a blender?  What if the only thing that gets someone off is monkeys in party dresses getting tortured to death?”

“It’s better than little kids,” said Cowboy Romeo. “It’s all some kind of a spectrum. You think the only way babies get made is when two people love each other very much and they kiss so hard they get pregnant? It almost seems better to make babies in a lab these days, where two people have the explicit intention to breed. At least you know your parents weren’t doing some double penetration at an orgy and some semen leaked off a ball gag into some throbbing but fertile crack.”

“You really don’t like women very much, do you?” asked Leo.

Cowboy Romeo winked. Cowboy Romeo’s phone started beeping. He swiped the alert away and he held the phone up to Leo to show him.

“Our boy is in the picture,” Cowboy Romeo said. “He’s coming this way fast. You should get out of here and let me do my thing. I’ll handle all of this. Thank you for telling me why you came back here. You’re a good kid. You’re what we call in the business a ‘sweetheart.’ You’re gonna go far. But right now you need to leave.”

“No,” said Leo. “I want to be here for this. I want to help. I got you into this. You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for me.”

Cowboy Romeo’s eyes softened. Leo could tell that he approved. Cowboy Romeo genuinely appreciated the shared guilt and the shared responsibility. Leo wondered if his father had ever gone with Cowboy Romeo on jobs like this.

Cowboy Romeo didn’t argue. They waited together in silence.

“Don’t breathe any in,” Cowboy Romeo said suddenly. “When it happens.”

“What?” Leo said.

“Don’t breathe any in when I spray it,” he said again. “Cover your mouth and nose. Even all the way here in the kitchen, cover your face with your shirt.”

Cowboy Romeo stared at his phone.

“It’s time,” he said.

He turned off all the lights and then he crouched in the foyer. He put his shoulders against the wall of the hallway. He didn’t move. Leo watched him from the darkness of the kitchen, his shirt up over his mouth and nose.

They heard a car turn into the driveway. They heard a door open and shut.  They heard a man clear his throat and spit. They heard someone walking up the porch past the porch swing. They heard the jingle of keys. They heard a key slide into the lock. They heard the scrape of the bolt turning.

The man set a bag of groceries down first and then he came into his house backwards, texting someone on his phone.

Cowboy Romeo cleared his throat to get the man’s attention. The man looked up, shocked. Cowboy Romeo sprayed the man full on in the face with the Raid. The man staggered. He opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. Whatever was in the can definitely wasn’t bug spray. Leo knew the smell of bug spray and this substance had no smell at all. Cowboy Romeo got behind the man, caught him as he fell, and shut the door.

“Help me,” Cowboy Romeo said. “We need to get him onto the toilet as fast as possible. He’s going to shit himself here in one minute. Hurry. Help me! We’ve got like one minute tops.”

They hustled him into his own bathroom and got his pants down around his waist. Cowboy Romeo was very dainty and precise.

“Is it always like this?” Leo asked.

“Junkies die on the shitter all the time,” said Cowboy Romeo. “They pump too much fennel and they start to squeeze one out and the strain on their buttholes lowers their blood pressure. It kills you to strain if you’re already halfway there. Just like Elvis.”

“He’s going to die?” asked Leo.

“That’s what happens when you honk down a face full of fetty,” said Cowboy Romeo.

They watched him on the toilet, keeled back, his mouth bubbling, his eyes vacant. Leo was surprised by how normal he looked. How ordinary.

“I don’t want to do this,” said Leo.

“It’s too late now,” said Cowboy Romeo. “But it’s going to be okay. The hard part is over.”

“I don’t want to kill anyone.”

“It’s all on me, baby boy. Not you.”

“Call someone,” said Leo. “Call an ambulance. Call the cops.”

“They won’t get here fast enough,” said Cowboy Romeo. “It’s gonna be okay. We’re doing the right thing. We can’t put him to work for us. I agree about that. But he doesn’t deserve to live. He isn’t a good person, Leo. Your instincts are right. This is mercy.”

“What’s happening to him? His heart?”

“Yeah,” said Cowboy Romeo.

“What about narcan or something like that?”

“You got any narcan?” asked Cowboy Romeo.

“You have bug spray full of fentanyl but no narcan?”

“Slipped my mind,” said Cowboy Romeo.

The man was fading fast. He was blue and stiff. He wasn’t breathing at all anymore.

Leo could hear the woman he had left behind in New York yelling at him to be a man. He had done things to her in bathrooms like this that she had liked so much that she had almost passed out. He saw his mom on the toilet, her eyes shut, her big fake breasts exposed, her life seeping away. He saw cats being flushed down toilets, their puffy tails spinning down the drain. He couldn’t think of anything worse than killing cats for sex. It was the worst thing. Even if the man had been a mercenary punching women to death in Ukrainian basements, Leo would have considered mercy. But cats? Cute, innocent, trusting housecats? 

Killing him was the right thing to do. Right?


Leo groaned. He pushed past Cowboy Romeo and ripped the lid off the toilet tank. He hefted the lid like a tactical entry door ram, taking precise aim.

“What are you doing?” asked Cowboy Romeo. “Don’t do that!”

He aimed at the man’s kneecap. He hit him as hard as he could with the toilet tank lid.

“Stop stop, stop!” shouted Cowboy Romeo. “You’re making evidence!  What are you doing?”

He bashed his other knee. The man’s eyes popped open. He screamed. He bent down. He clutched his legs. He puked onto the carpet. He started to sob. He passed out. Leo dropped the toilet tank lid and put his fingers on the man’s neck. He found a pulse. The man was breathing again. He was unconscious but he was breathing.

Leo ran out of the bathroom into the garage. He opened the clattering garage door that opened to the driveway. He grabbed a pair of loppers from the pegboard and walked to the cages. He cut the shank of every lock in half methodically, grunting as he operated the heavy loppers. He was trembling. He couldn’t stop shaking.

He slipped to the ground. He sat there. He waited for something to happen. He waited for consequences.

It felt like a long time before Cowboy Romeo joined him but it couldn’t have been that long. Cowboy Romeo was holding the man’s phone, tinkering with it.

“I’m proud of you,” Cowboy Romeo said, watching Leo coldly from a distance. “I’m proud of everything you’ve done here. But that was extremely stupid. That was so fucking stupid that I don’t actually know what we’re going to do now.”

“He’s alive?” asked Leo.

“You’re going to have to leave town, first thing,” said Cowboy Romeo. “You’re going to have to go back to New York. Maybe even leave the country altogether. Do you have any idea how much trouble I’m going to be in with your dad? You’re going to have to really help me out here if you care about it.”

Raven leaped out of the cage. He landed on the ground and he shook himself. He walked to the edge of the garage and he shook himself even harder right at the perimeter between the garage and driveway. It was like he was trying to get water off his fur but he wasn’t wet. Raven crept to the very edge of the open garage door and he peered out into the night as if there was a moth there that he was hunting.

“You know why they shake like that?” said Cowboy Romeo carefully. “It’s a trauma thing. The shaking tells your brain that you don’t have to fight anymore. An animal can die if it doesn’t shake out the adrenalin. It will go into shock if it keeps that trauma locked in its brains. But if they can shake it out, they can reset themselves, like an etch-a-sketch. They don’t have any deep memories that haunt them. Humans can’t do it. You can shake all you want but it won’t do nothing for you. Our brains hold onto everything.”

“I didn’t kill him,” said Leo, crying.

“No, he’s still alive,” said Cowboy Romeo, watching the cats from the cages slip away into the night one by one. Leo covered his hands with his face, sobbing, ashamed at what he had done, ashamed at how he had panicked. “We’re all still alive here for some reason.”

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