Ted Melk's call came into the office at a quarter to nine, just as the Cardinals’ third-string fullback punched over from the one, giving Arizona an eight-point lead over the Bolts.  Pissed off, Louie summoned Walt back from the frypit... Lev, who had apparently gone into the black market cigarette vector with some friends from the old country, had been explaining to Walt how their counterfeit Cohibas came in a perfectly simulated box, even had a band, that only a true connoisseur (like, perhaps, the former Governor of California) could distinguish from the real thing.  Several tired dogs reposed, gasping and wheezing, like sidelined athletes on injured reserve, on the sides of the grill while the night manager repeated Mister Z's injunctions against receiving personal calls from friends, at work.

          "Who is it?" Walt finally snarled.

          "Says his name is Melk"

          "He ain't a friend, but I have to talk to him."

          "Pick up the extension under the counter," Louie gave in, "but don't tie up the phone too long.  Barry..."

          "Barry can kiss my ass," Walter said.  In fact, he even entertained faint, glimmering hope that the G-man had finally called him to confess that their case was junk, that Bill Braxton, and Braxton alone, had been the culprit all along, and that he was finally free to live out the rest of what remained of his damaged, abject life without the further goadings of the law.

          But that wasn't the case.

          "Fales... you've really been making a spectacle of yourself," sighed the man from the State Attorney's office.  "Your case is so toxic that even Curry thinks maybe we better just bring you in and charge you with something... anything... just to get you off the street."

          Because he didn't know what they knew, or didn't know, and because nothing they might not know would redound to his credit, Walt merely said, "I told you, I ain't supposed to take calls at work.  You have something to tell me?"

          "Someone monitoring the line, Fales?" the prosecutor suggested, with a jaunty mien of insinuation that birthed another chimera in Walter's seething furrows of paranoia... Mister C., not Mister Z, was keeping them au courant on his progress and pitfalls.  "There isn't time enough, nor bandwidth enough, for John and I to recapitulate the instances wherein you have proven a vast, fat disappointment..."

          "I ain't fat," Walt shouted back, even the beaner who'd pulled in with a pickup truck full of pumpkins and watermelons, and was mournfully sifting a Slushie through his teeth in an otherwise empty windowbooth, looked up, then away.  "You wanna provoke me into something?  I might've gained a couple pounds on a fast food diet, but that ain't a crime... yet... am I right?"

          "Touchy, my friend, very touchy."

          There was a silence on the other end of the line, and Walt finally said, "You there?  I mean it... you got anything better to do than fuck with people's lives.  I mean... are you human, do you even care about football?"

          "It's time we took you along on a little roadtrip.  Now, since tomorrow's your day off, but you've been working nights, let's make this easy... you just be in our office ten hundred hours, tomorrow, wide awake and dressed for success.  You really don't want to screw with us, this time, Mister Fales."

          "What the hell have I done... other than lose everything I ever had... to get you people so goddam happy to be on my case?" Walt shouted back, but he was talking to dead air.  The rest of the Dog Pounders had turned aside, embarrassed, the pumpkin-man burying his brushy mustache into the Slushie, and when he lifted his face, it was blue, like some weird, punk-rock artifact two decades old.  And Vampire Mickey swayed ominously in freshening gusts from the east, one of those Santa Ana winds that, this time of year, could bring either rain or a firestorm.

          Something quick and brown... and not a fox... darted across the floor and disappeared under a crate of wilting lettuce.

          "We make you our bitch," Melk finally said, "because we can.  Ten o'clock, Wendy, don't keep us waiting.  Toodle-ooh!"




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          Tuesday morning, Walter started from another hideous dream... Mister C. having ordered him to crawl up the greasepipe with a brush and chemicals; a stinking, wretched ooze enveloped him and then, below, he heard Barry order grillman Ed Musgrove to fire up the gasjets.  As his legs began to burn, things began falling out of the wallslime - bits of hair, bone, corpse-things, the grime that had been coating the windows of his soul for so many years.  Trapped, he thrashed and moaned and woke... under the blanket with Christmas bells and teddy bears, Elle's arms wrapped around his chest as she repeated, "'s only a dream, a fuckin' dream!"

          He was rank with dreamsweat and, in the mobile home bathroom, realized he'd forgotten to shave Monday.  Consequently, his face was beginning to acquire the stubble of the chronically underemployed (or a Hollywood actor affecting proletarianism)... it did have a salt and pepper quality that might not look so bad if he let the beard grow out (which, of course, he had no intention of doing).  He needed a haircut, too, he needed a lot of things that required money, but they would have to wait.  Fortunately, he hadn't removed the other suitcase from the trunk that contained his dirty clothes from the Inyo trip, and, also, a bag with the blue suit he preferred for dealing with casinos... unfortunately he'd forgotten to take it in for cleaning and pressing while he'd still had a bank account, and now he'd lacked the money.  It was rank... but, maybe, if he walked around awhile, outside, the worst of the smell would go away.  It was also too bad that he'd been unable to replace the lost shoe from Desert Decadence, but everybody wore sneakers... athletic shoes, they were called... and, if Melk and Curry got on his case about it, what the hell else could they do to him. 

          Elle had burned something, probably more toast, so, shaven, and with his hair slicked back into a sort of 50's pompadour, the smell of the suit wasn't immediately at issue and Walt, street-elegant in his red tie and Reebok knockoffs, cut a debonair figure at the breakfast table.  It made the lies spread easily, like margarine.  The new love of his life had a morning class, and a three-to-seven Dog Pound shift, Fran would be heading off to the nursing home around the same time.  "Rotating shifts suck if you're trying to live any kind of normal life," she sighed, "but once you stop caring, there's something to be said for variety."  Her forearm was bandaged.  One of the residents... ninety-two years old and mad at the world... had sunk his unnaturally sharpened choppers into her wrist when she'd tried to remove his uneaten prunes a couple of nights ago, and the arm was turning red, all the way up to elbow.  "Damn company says it's not a covered job-related injury, so I can't afford to go to the clinic.  They say human bites are worse than dog bites, almost as bad as snakes," she frowned.  "All that crap in our mouths, them germs!  Die of the China virus, like our real President calls it – I can understand the position of the working girl who'll let a payin' customer do it up the backdoor without protection, for a few dollars more, but who wouldn't let him kiss her for a C-note..."

          "Ma!" Elle protested, but Walt was reminded of something...

          "I don't go lookin' in other people's medicine cabinets, let alone purses," he said, "but would either one of you have some Binaca, or maybe a stick of gum?"

          "Big morning?" Fran suggested, taking her purse off the kitchen counter and digging her fingers through its multifarious contents... her nails were more like claws, long and hard and painted white, with green highlighting... perhaps a throwback to her punk rocker days.  "I used to know all the boys in the bands," she'd told Walt on Sunday night, "...little more luck and I coulda been collecting child support, still, if Elle's father was a Sex Pistol or Black Sabba... what do you call em, Black Sabattoirs, you know, guy on television who eats bats..."

          "You did the nasty with Ozzy?  I'm impressed," Walt had said.

          "Not him... some other guy in his band.  Or maybe a manager, or roadie... I mean, who can remember shit like that?  Coulda wound up rich an' famous, coulda wound up dead... coulda, woulda, shoulda…"

          She found something off-brand that had the word mint in it; it wasn't that bad, nor were the questions that came at him.  "Goin' to a job interview?"

          "Maybe," Walt said, chewing intensely, letting the gum slide around in his mouth to get between all of the teeth...

          "Guys I know dress like that," Fran said, "they're either going out to look for a job, or to have their day in court."

          "One way or the other," Walt agreed.



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          He arrived at the Federal Building offices early, but waited in the parking lot until five past ten before leaving the Town Car, just to prove to Melk and Curry, and to himself, that he was still a man, however broke, not just their bitch.  DA Ted looked at him crosseyed on the way in, but didn't say anything... John Wexford Curry was shuffling papers with another, new member of the team, a mousy girl in her twenties with short, dark hair, a white shirt, long blue skirt and sensible shoes.  Both wore light jackets and loud ties... they looked like a couple of TV cops from the 70s, and Walt took a seat, lay one sneakered foot across the other knee and waited for illumination.

          "Think fast!" Melk said, tossing him a briefcase.  Walt caught it, lifted and shook it, started to rest his thumbs on the locks, then looked up...

          "It's empty?"

          Not answering, Ted glanced at his partner, head inclined.  "Shoes don't work but, he does look the part, otherwise?"

          "He'll do just fine," Curry nodded, returning to his task of paper sorting, leaving Walt to wait on the government chair until Melk deigned to let him in on the game.

          "Yeah... you look like dope dealer, or a bent banker.  You'll do just fine... keep that haircut, by the way.  Corcoran's full of do's like that..."

          "Sorry, Mister Fales, you won't rate Pelican Bay," Curry added, without looking up from the timid woman's bustline.  “But Corcoran did have Charlie Manson, before the kicked…”

          "Here's the deal," Melk said, sitting on the edge of his desk and wriggling, as if he'd developed hemorrhoids over the past week.  "The touchie-feelies in Washington and Sacramento don't think we should be on the street, tossing shit like you into jails, they think we should be... not parenting, John, what's that term they use..."

          "Serving as role models to the community."

          "Yeah.  Role models!  Every year, we got to drop everything, go out to so many public gatherings as some clown in an office keeps track of and tell the sheep how crime doesn't pay - which it does, unless you're a stupid fuck who trusts the likes of Bill Braxton.  All that crap!  Everybody has to, and nobody starts doin' it until the end of the year, or else it goes into their performance reviews that they didn't..."

          "So, we're gonna spread a little of the pain around," Curry said, with that mean, little smile and his shirt unbuttoned... it wasn't a tie he was wearing but that other thing, blue, an ascot or scarf.  He looked like some Englishman with a bug, or worse, up his ass, Walt decided and, also, decided that nothing that was going to happen would be congenial or pleasant in any way, shape or form... he lifted his leg and planted the sneakered foot on government linoleum to steady himself.

          "Today, we're doin' schools.  Camarillo Middle at eleven, Cesar Chavez Elementary over the hill at one... fuckin' incoherent zoo, that'll be, half an hour lunch, then we hit a Catholic high school.  Confessed your sins, recently?"

          "What sins?" Walt scoffed.

          "Think of it as an acting gig, then," Curry turned away from the dowdy lady and tapped his forehead with a finger.  "Everybody wants to be onstage, well... that's not true, people want to be in movies, the money's better.  It's a 911 thing, see... a lot of money pushed across the table for this, we give a little crime and terrorism vaudeville and then we bring out the geek..."


          "You," Melk smiled.  "You're a real live criminal, in the flesh... maybe a terrorist, he looks like he might be at terrorist, don't he... put one of those headbands around him, like Yasser Arafat wears, hey, maybe we could find him a fake beard..."

          "Get real, Ted," Curry scowled.

          "Alright, just a criminal, then.  One of those who ratted out his brother criminals, so he gets to walk around, not free but on the outside, doin' the right thing in warning all the li'l citizens who are America's future an' all that crap... what do we want him to be this time, John?  Financial crimes are so goddam complicated, you tell the truth about BCM and it sails over the stupid ones' heads, and the smart ones, they get ideas.  Drugs?  Or maybe one of those guys who downloads movies off the Internet..."

          "He's too old for that.  Kids can understand white-collar crime... they see Martha Stewart taken off to jail, those Enron guys.  Just tell the truth, Fales, you collaborated with crooked union goons to rip off widows and orphans, cheat senior citizens out of their pensions and then the guy behind curtain ran off with all of your money..."

          "I didn't do a damn thing wrong, I get so fuckin' tired of telling you... I'm a victim in this whole damn mess..."

          "Leaving you broke, in hock to the law and working at a hotdog stand," Melk grinned.  "Sometimes, there's no better example than the truth.  And, sometimes, the appearance of truth may be more effective, even, than truth itself.  Those kids might look up to you if you were a real criminal, yeah, goin' to jail but a man.  They see us jerkin' you around like some puppet on a chain and having to do the sort of shitwork they do... well, maybe one or two might think second thoughts about the life of crime.  Or not.  Thing is, Fales, it looks damn good in our performance summaries, and you really don't have much choice in the matter..."

          "Too bad about your wife," Agent Curry goaded.

          "Yeah, not only are you a rat and a criminal, mopping up at a Dog Pound, now you been dumped and kicked out of the house and... what the hell are you doin', sleepin' in your car?  You are supposed to notify us of any change of address, and that's another mark against you... but hey, anyway, the kids will eat that up.  Might even toss you a dime!  What you gotta do is show 'em a picture of your wife and start crying... that might turn some of 'em off on the life of crime, seein' a big guy like you bawlin' like a faggot.  But John, we gotta get him a better photograph to flash around... no offense, Fales, but your wife's a cow.  Get a picture of some model so you can say look what I had, and I lost it all... boo hoo hoo!"

          "We still got a lot of open files.  That ol' fart Dodge... we give him an offer like yours and he jumps through hoops to co-operate, mit enthusiasmo.  Guy like him wouldn't survive a dime, even in Federal prison." 

"That kid... Baker?  He did the right thing, runnin' off to Iraq.  He's the Taliban's problem, now, not ours," said Melk.

"There ain't no Taliban in Iraq, and it's one of those other places, Ted.  Can you please get your facts straight before you open your mouth?"

"Well all those fuckin' places sound the same... q's and z's, twistin' your tongue around..."

"Stick to the script... when we get to school, Ted, just stick to the fuckin' script.  Don't improvise.  And you," he told Walt, "you stick to the script, too.  Think of it like this, you don't want to be here, but we don't want to be here, either.  The sooner the job gets done right, the sooner we're done, and we can go home or, in your case, whatever gutter you crawl back into when you ain't needed anymore.  Fuck up and we all have to do this again, and again until we get it right.  We're a team, Walter, did Mr. Zweiss explain, to you, the concept of teamwork.  We know Barry Cullery did, it's all right down in black and white in his report."

"Really?"  And, because Walt knew that Curry and Melk were just waiting for him to ask, what else was in Mister C's report on him, he didn't ask.  He might not be a man anymore, he might sell hotdogs and mop floors for money that most Americans wouldn't look at even if the only alternative was welfare... but he could deny them this one, small satisfaction.

It was going to be a very, very long day and, considering that… once the law was through with him… there would be eight hours more at the Dog Pound (even under Louie, mostly, instead of Mr. C), a long night stretching on and on and outwards into hopeless eternity.



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          The mousy trainee, who sat with Walt in the back seat of Curry's Federal-issue Crown Victoria, was introduced as Violet Pfamm... silent 'p'... she was a graduate student in criminology who was pursuing an elective independent study course, which internship would certainly have the effect of burnishing an otherwise-workless resume when she ventured out into the real world.  Halfway to Camarillo she became extremely agitated and, finally, gasped... "couldn't one of you please open a window?"

          "Why?" Melk, riding shotgun, smirked.  "If you're gonna fight crime, Vi, best know what it smells like, Walter threw a few dead rats into his pockets for the kids, that what you did, big guy?  Oh wait... it's Walt!  Sleepin' in cars does that to you..."

          Violet kept pleading for someone to open a window, so Melk finally gave in, but turned on the radio, too, the volume way up, some crap about death and cold and angst that, to Walt, sounded like muzak on a free-range feedlot where beasts were allowed to eat and wander until they grew fat enough for slaughter.  "They had two Columbine-type shootings in six years at Camarillo, just for your information," the DA turned and said, plainly.

          "That's awful," Violet cowered.

          "Don't remember either," Walter said.  "Did they ever make the papers, TV?"

          "Hardly.  Wrong color... perps and vics.  Stay on script, Mister Fales, and we've got your back, maybe..."

          Camarillo was the worst, by far, so it made the rest of the day easier going down.  The Catholic boys were too well disciplined, and the little kids at Chavez too young and too awed by the format of presentation... the real cops and real criminal were only one installment in a day-long "Safety and Character" assembly.  The four visitors were taken through the back door of the auditorium/gymnasium and, from the wings, Walt could see several of the 'Character Counts' banners, balloons with faces of missing and kidnapped children while, onstage, an impossibly creepy puppetmaster standing on a wooden chair, in plain view of his audience, manipulated the strings of a woodenly handsome vato with a gun and painted-on sneer, screaming multi-voiced dialog in Spanish, the last two words of which were "Muerto!  Muerto!"  His assistant, a fey young homeboy, let the strings of his puppet fall, then stomped on a blown-up paper bag to simulate the gunshots and the children applauded dutifully while teachers circulated pledge-sheets against guns or drugs or, for all Walter knew, the impending invasion of caravanning cousins from the old country or unwanted fast-food franchises.

          "Ivor Simmons' Creations," said Mister Huck, the administrator who'd welcomed the G-men backstage by confessing, "Look, I know that someone called you and said that I'm a liberal, and that might be true, but I am not an old hippie!"

          "Sure, man," replied Melk, and then asked for directions to a restroom...

          "Are you sure it'll be safe, leaving... him..." the administrator pointed, "with only one man and, and..."

          "Violet knows how to handle herself.  Already racked up two kills on the job... this felon tries taking one of your kids hostage and he'll get his head blown off before he gets offstage..."

          "Then... then everything's kosher," gulped Mr. Huck and, when the lunatic puppetmaster with his filthy, flowing Santa Claus beard, deadly dolls and young, male companion had been duly thanked and escorted offstage, he personally introduced "Agents Curry and Melk, and the convicted racketeer, Walter Fales."

          (Violet, left behind with a small videorecorder to record the proceedings began checking the lights and battery.)

          "Where do you get off telling them that I've been convicted, let alone charged with anything?" Walt said in a whisper that was, almost, not a whisper.  "Racketeer!"

          "My bad," Melk laughed it off.  "You can't get through these dog an' pony shows without a little… well, not exactly exaggeration, call it enhancement... like I said, maybe some of those kids grow up an' remember your face when deciding whether or not to knock over a gas station..."

          "They'll remember his smell," the SEC agent wisecracked, " least in the first dozen rows..."

          But that had been one of the easy jobs... Camarillo had been different, the kids were older and street-smart, and there were only about forty of them in a classroom, not an auditorium.  It was a sort of career day, and John Curry had kicked it off by explaining that it was his job to monitor, prevent and prosecute fraud as it related to banking and financial management, stocks and securities, and the literally thousands of quick-buck investment scams that had proliferated since American jobs had started disappearing.  "It's the serious money," he said, "we don't get into quite as many shootouts on the street with the bad guys but, when it's all said and done, we're the ones who get our hands on the money so they can't just go out and hire these thieving attorneys and buy their way out of jail..."

          "How do you get to be a rich attorney?" asked one of the few girls in the room... there was supposed to be a format, but the inmates, at Camarillo, had been running the asylum, and for generations...

          "First you call up the Devil," said Melk, "then you sign the paper he gives you that trades away your immortal soul."  (One of the kids at the Catholic school also asked much the same question, but, there, he gave the conventional answer.)

          "Did you have a lawyer?" the insistent moppet asked Walt but, again, the State's attorney stepped in.

          "He had one, but, once you don't have money, the lawyers run away from you like you been infected with AIDS, or something.  And the thing about bad guys is... after they finish their robbing and cheating society, they turn on each other.  So all of the money Walt here stole... Mr. Braxton took that from him, and left the country.  And the little bit that was left, we put a hold on it... that's what can happen if you do something wrong, like using drugs or downloading music, the government can freeze everything that you own, even take your clothes and Nintendo.  Mr. Fales has to beg a quarter to call legal aid.  He works at a Dog Pound, sellin' hotdogs.  His wife kicked him out of the house, and his lawyer went to work for her in the divorce proceedings, 'cause she, at least, has relatives who'll loan her money..."

          "Sorry you had to learn this way," Curry leaned over, pretending sympathy, "but when we tried to reach you at home, your wife was only too happy to let fly with the details... that kid of yours, he'd better straighten out too, or he'll wind up like you..."

          "So, to answer your question," Melk continued, "...yeah, everyone's entitled to a lawyer, but if one of your partners has run off with the money, or the government's put a hold on it, you gotta go to Legal Aid, and that's just the kids comin' out of the cheap law schools.  The slow ones that can't get jobs with the government or with one of the big firms downtown.  You know how when you're just startin' out in anything... sports, fixin' a car, maybe you're hired to do a job, you're gonna make mistakes.  Legal Aid, they make a lot of mistakes, but they don't go to jail, he does..." Ted jerked a thumb at Walt, who was staring down at the sneaker peeking from his cuff.  "Which brings me to another thing you oughta remember, write it down, in fact, in the book o'life... you get what you pay for."

          "He smells bad," pointed a fat kid who, behind heavy glasses, had the round, baffled face of a chronic slow learner. 

          "The outer man," John Curry solemnly informed his young charges, "merely reflects that monster which abides within."



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          There was plenty more, like that, at Camarillo, but less at Chavez and... after the G-men bought Walt a small burger, small fries and a coke to eat in the car while Violet gagged and made waving motions with her hands and they feasted inside, comparing strategies... things at the Catholic school went almost wholly according to the script.  Except, of course, for that one crack Ted made about the bishop in Boston... it sort of cheered Walt up, just a little, in that way the kids regarded Melk (and Curry, too) as a couple of condescending bullies.  Maybe he wasn't so wretched, after all, even though they'd repeated the rites of how Braxton had pulled one over on his criminal pals, and how Walt was working a Dog Pound... Melk had even specified, the San Cris DP, all but inciting the little mackerel-snappers to drop by and heckle the shlub on his job.

          "Surprised you left me alone if I'm supposed to be such a dangerous character," he'd said when the trio returned from their cholesterol feast.

          "Oh, we were praying, just praying that you'd find a way to hotwire this piece of crap and drive off," Curry answered.

          "It would just prove what we've been saying all along... not only are Crown Vics losers when it comes to chases, they're easy to steal.  Lose enough of 'em and maybe Kahli-fornya will switch over to something better... German, maybe, Beemers or Audis."

          "That's why I ain't signing no petition to repeal the 22nd Amendment," Curry said, and then, since Violet, the intern, had gone from merely dazed to wholly blank in the face, the Fed launched into a convoluted explanation of the balance of trade, the dollar and the euro... things that resonated, to Walter, of Fermeley and her little bottle of Turkish olive oil (another luxury she'd probably have to forego so long as they were trying to take her kids away)...

          "At least I didn't swat any of the little bastards," he told Melk, "...didn't even try..."

          "That was the other thing Johnny was praying for, that you'd lose your temper and we'd have to shoot you to save the lives of a bunch of kids... hell, careers get made that way."

          "Guess I can't help but fuck up," Walt commiserated and the DA nodded, while his partner in fighting crime continued showing off to his intern.

          "We'll fix it next time," Melk promised... "tomorrow morning, same time, same Federal station and oh yeah, same... don't clean that suit, it suits you," he chuckled.



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          But another surprise awaited Walter Fales late on Wednesday afternoon after another clockpunching night at the Dog Pound and Elle Slater’s narrow bed… mixed but leaning positive was the way he’d finally judge his situation, since he’d been handed an unscheduled day off due to the three new trainees Mr. Z. had assigned to Barry and Louie, stroking them with hours so as to create an impression that one could survive on a Dog Pound salary… the G-Men drove him back to the Federal Building from another pair of Catholic Schools after he’d done their dog again, making him wait in a musty corridor, fishing through the old morning's papers for clues to the meaning of the rest of his life.

          He waited, then, and watched the hands on the government clock crawl clockwise at their authorized pace, breathed in lungfuls of mold and government asbestos, probably. Curry, that sick bastard, had offered him pistachios in the governmental sedan, nuts he hadn’t touched, himself… not one… probably confiscated from some Afghan warehouse where the deformed and diseased were warehoused…

          “Trust me!” Curry had grinned.

          And what was Walter Fales to do – insult the puppetmasters?  He was down at least six hours which, less the taxes and check cashing fee… pro-rated… came out to around thirty bucks not in his pocket that would have to be made up somehow… Joe had promised he’d be called up for the next cougar… or wetback… hunt, but it had been awhile; Sybco muttered something about el Padrón’s other enterprises and he’d answered that, if he could shoot stray dogs and mountain lions, it really wasn’t much of a step up to plugging mojados in the desert… fuckinMexes who were all probably hauling something wrong over the border; guns, drugs, tamales.  He could ask Melk or Curry (the Fed, probably) for a job; it happened that way, the government was always dragooning ordinary citizens off the street if they had something overhead, spiriting these ordinary joes and joanies their jobs and families and making them reside in compounds (from which they’d emerge, now and again, to conduct dangerous but patriotic missions).  Those agencies were all over TV, they had strange names or none at all, but some… at least… had to be real.  Well, Walt’s job sucked and his family had disowned him… there was that French hottie Scottie used to watch, or was it the blonde one?  Naturally, the Feds would zero in on the young, female and obviously desperate felons, force them to fuck any greasy terrorist with a say-so over life or death… but… they might have a bunk in their compound for him?  Maybe?

          So he looked down at his shoes awhile – and up at the clock awhile – and then picked up an old issue of People from the bench across the corridor and regarded the deceased Hugh Hefner’s new girlfriend for awhile… consoling himself with the probability that Melk and Curry were probably keeping him here, late, so that he’d get in trouble on the job.  They hadn’t known that he’d already been furloughed, so the joke was on them – he’d won, hadn’t he?  Damn straight, Walt decided, thinking about what a lucky fucker Hugh Hefner had been, and why couldn’t some of that luck rub off on him.

          Finally, when the governmental clock had whirled around awhile and the day outside the Governmental Center window was receding into twilight, John Curry strode down the hall from the other direction than that towards which he’d gone, the wrong direction (of course, all these governmental offices would have secret doors and stairwells and egresses connecting and interlocking them, they had to, in case the bankers or the terrorists struck back).

          He stood in front of Walter, crossed his arms and said, “Alright, Fales, game over.”

          Visions of penitentiary rape knotted Walter’s insides as he looked up, pretending disinterest or, at least, dumb incomprehension.  Curry uncrossed his arms and stepped back, making a pushing motion, as if distancing himself from an unsavoury smell or small, bothersome animal.

          “You can… just go.  We’re finished with you.”

          Walter frowned.  “Does that mean I can go go, or am I supposed to go… somewhere else…

          Go go, daddy – back to your lovely wife and charming sons.  Just go.  It’s obvious that you don’t know jack about Braxton and he couldn’t care less about you and, frankly, it’s stopped being fun watching you shit your pants every time Ted and I haul in your sorry ass for another session.  You’re just not worth the government’s time and money and, frankly, the sort of prison space that you deserve is at a premium now, so we’re sending you back to your hot dog emporium… or, if you’d rather quit your job and run away to Brazil, or become a wino or sell crap on E-bay like all the other useless businessmen in this fuckin’ neighborhood, we don’t care.  You just don’t rate…”

          Walter stood up, and started to press his hand forward, as if some sort of deal was being transacted between them, then stopped, muttering “I… I…”

          “Come to think of it, you’re already practically a wino.  The kid, Violet, she flat out refused to get in the car with you again, the way you smell.  Said she’d rather go back to working at the mall.”  Curry smiled.  “Just between us, ol’ pal, she’s had a rather sheltered upbringing… never had much to do with mopes crashing in alleys or in their cars, you know, unless they’re in the back, wearing handcuffs…”

Walter sat back down again.  The thought crossed his mind that he should give this public servant, living off the taxpayers’ money, a piece of his mind – he wasn’t just a bum, sleeping in his car, he was sojourning in a trailer park with a lady half… no, more like a third his age.  But he figured it would piss off Curry, maybe make the G-man jealous, so he bit his tongue and nodded like the simpleton that everybody wanted him to be, until a dreadful thought sneaked across his mind, a tricky thought, the sort as might be plotted by a pair of sneaky bureaucrats.  Curry might be absolving him from Federal strictures, but what about the State?

“Where’s Melk?” Fales yelped.  “What about Ted, does he…”

“Went home,” Curry cut him off.  “California doesn’t want you either.  Nobody does.  Now I can’t say anything about the I.R.S. – they have their own agenda and priorities.”  And his hand snaked under the fabric of his black suitcoat, removing something from an inner pocket…

“Here it comes,” Walter thought, figuring that he was going to be slapped with an I.R.S. subpoena, the way they got Al Capone.

Instead, however, Curry produced a check, drawn on the treasury of the United States.  “I sort of fudged the schedule a little, got you a per diem for three trips, instead of two.  Just between us… I hate to see a guy so down on his luck…

So Walter took the check, but waited until the G-man was gone before turning it over.  It was made out to him, alright, even spelled his name correctly, and it was for seventy-five dollars.