Richard Lee Byers

Blind God's Bluff


It wasn’t weird that I was running away. It was weird that I met a man with no eyes running in the opposite direction.

A few minutes earlier, I’d come out of the Columbia Restaurant with a stomach full of swordfish and wine. I had no business eating there, but I was so deep in debt that paying for an expensive supper hardly seemed to matter.

Blowing the rest of my cash at Bobbi’s, my favorite cigar bar, didn’t feel like it would matter, either. So, a little buzzed, I ambled down Seventh Avenue, past other Cuban and Italian restaurants, vintage clothing shops, botanicas, and candy cane-shaped wrought-iron lampposts. Since it was a weeknight, there weren’t too many people on the sidewalk. But some of the bars had live music even so. Death metal pounded through a closed door. Jump blues strutted out an open one.

I stopped to listen to some of the latter. The guy on trumpet was good. And as I loitered there, I happened to look on down the street to the spot where my ’57 Thunderbird was parked. What I saw gave me a jolt that sobered me right up.

Pablo and Raul, the Martinez brothers, were waiting by the car. Worse, Raul spotted me at the same moment I spotted them. Big as a dumpster and just as charming, he gestured for me to come on. When I didn’t, he spoke to Pablo, who then lumbered toward me.

Pablo was even bigger than his brother, his bowling ball-size muscles, receding hairline, and the hair-trigger viciousness in his piggy eyes proof of the life-changing power of steroids. Could I handle him, and the tire iron he carried around in a gym bag, too?

It wasn’t absolutely impossible. Hell, I’d seen combat in Afghanistan and come out of it in one piece. But even if I managed to get in touch with my inner Extreme Cagefighter, it wouldn’t solve anything. It would only escalate the situation. I turned and walked back the way I’d come.

Pablo followed.

I considered ducking into one of the bars. But I had a hunch that if Pablo caught up with me, he’d likely try to beat my ass no matter how many witnesses were watching, and I wanted to avoid getting cornered. I scurried down the narrow alleyway between two brick buildings.

At the other end was the branch campus of Hillsborough Community College, the boxy cinder-block classroom buildings a clunky contrast to the old Latin architecture in the rest of Ybor City. I jogged across a parking lot to the nearest one and started trying doors.

Locked. Locked. Unlocked, but because a class was in session. The professor, a chunky, middle-aged ex- hippie chick with gold-rimmed glasses and long gray hair, broke off her lecture to frown at me.

“Sorry,” I said, closing the door. I glanced around. Pablo was stalking across the parking lot.

Shit! I’d hoped I’d lengthened my lead by more than that. It wasn’t fair that someone so humongous could move fast.

But I was pretty fast myself, and now that we were away from Seventh Avenue, and its cops and security cameras watching over the tourists, it was time to prove it. I ran flat out.

Which took me into a tangle of streets lined with small, shabby one-story houses and duplexes-shacks, really-some built just a couple steps from the curb. It was what’s left of the Tampa of our grandparents, or great- grandparents, assuming they were working-class.

I figured I could lose Pablo in that dark little slum. Then I’d just have to pray that he and Raul wouldn’t deliver their message by trashing the T-bird.

My father had loved that car, I did, too, and visions of shattered headlights, battered Raven Black tailfins, and slashed Flame Red upholstery were almost enough to make me turn around and go back. But only almost. I kept moving ahead, and that was when I met the man with no eyes.

I spotted a shadow moving in the patch of murk under the spreading branches of an oak. Thinking that Pablo had somehow gotten ahead of me, or that Raul had joined the chase, I faltered. Then the shadow stumbled out into the moonlight, and I saw that it wasn’t either of the thugs, or anybody else who could hurt me. The guy was old, skinny as a praying mantis, and wore grubby, badly fitting clothes like one of the homeless, not that I’m sure I noticed them immediately. It was hard to pay attention to much of anything except the empty sockets weeping blood where his eyeballs should have been.

I wasn’t the kind of guy who volunteers at the Salvation Army or sends money to African orphans, and I had my own problems. But the old man had just had his eyes poked out! Hoping that I’d already shaken Pablo off my tail, I headed toward him.

He heard me coming, cringed, lost his balance, and fell on his butt. “Easy,” I said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to get you to a hospital.”

At first, he didn’t answer. I realized he was sizing me up as best he could. He sniffed twice, like he could smell me from fifteen feet away.

“You’re not part of it,” he said.

“If you mean, I’m not whoever hurt you, you’re right. I’ve got my phone.” I reached into my pocket. “I’ll call 911.”

I hadn’t done it to get Pablo off my ass, because that, too, would only have made my situation worse. But I could do it to get the old man an ambulance.

Except that he said, “No! No police!”

“No,” I said, “not the police. Doctors.” Meanwhile, I moved closer, into the butcher-shop smell of his blood mixed with his natural eye-watering funk. Closer in, I could see little wounds all over the top half of his face. They made his skin look like a sponge, and made me think it hadn’t been two big jabs that destroyed his eyes, but rather, dozens of little ones.

“No authorities,” he said. He tried to get up. I took him by the arm and helped him, and then I could feel him shaking.

“You need a doctor,” I said. “You could keep bleeding, or go into shock. You could get an infection.”

But he wasn’t listening. He swiveled his head and sniffed. “Are they coming?” he asked.

I looked around, saw nobody, and told him, “No, it’s fine.” I took out my phone, opened it, and punched in the numbers.

The old guy grabbed for me, and, even though he had to grope, managed to get hold of my forearm. I tried to pull free without being too rough about it.

Something zapped me. The sensation sizzled through my body, from the spot where he was gripping me, through my shoulders, and on up the arm that was holding the phone. Which broke apart in a flash of heat and a crackle.

Reflex made me throw the pieces to the ground. “Shit!” I shouted.

The man with no eyes let go of me. “I told you,” he said.

I wasn’t really paying attention. I was busy looking at my hand, then using it to feel around my ear. I might end up with some blisters, but I didn’t think the little explosion-if that was the right word for it-had really hurt me.

I wondered what the hell had just happened. It had certainly seemed like the old guy had done something to the phone, except that I knew it was impossible. The phone must have been defective, and caught fire on its own.

“Get me under cover,” the old man said. “Inside somewhere.”

“Good idea,” I said. I could call 911 on the phone in some helpful person’s home. I looked around for someplace that looked occupied, and didn’t look like a crack house. I spotted the blue glow of a TV shining through some curtains.

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