The problem had to do with a pair of Japanese samurai swords from the 17th century. Jacob’s brother Henry explained the issue as they drank espressos at a plastic table in front of Java Corner on Young Avenue. They’d spent the morning dropping off several duffel bags of stolen firearms to a gun dealer in Jackson, Tennessee, and they were back in Memphis now, their home, taking their afternoon coffee break. “You remember how I gave Shelby two katanas I’d gotten in a kind of under-the-table deal?” Henry asked. “It was back when I was fucking up a lot, and she had something like three or four swords of that type already, so I thought it’d make a nice gift.”
Jacob said he remembered, inhaling from his cigarette. Shelby was Henry’s ex-wife, a tall, muscular woman who’d gone on two tours in Afghanistan. Jacob thought she was attractive, but a little scary. She had dark, intense eyes, and seemed to regard most things in this world as not living up to her standards. She worked out two hours every morning. She’d run the Boston marathon four years in a row, ever since her return to the States. She was near forty but looked only a year or two past thirty.
“Well, she took them with her, of course, when we went our separate ways,” Henry continued, “and then she got together with Bobby.”
“And now they’re broken up,” said Jacob. “What do you want me to help you with, man? Just tell me.”
“I want the swords back. They cost me four grand.”
“From him. He has them now. When they were breaking up, he kept whining about all this money she owed him, telling her how he was paying the bills and the mortgage on his place and pretty much letting her live there for free. And Shelby told me he was right, he did pay for most everything. Not because she wanted him to but because he thought it was his duty as a man and all that shit.”
Jacob asked, “So she gave him the swords as a pay-off?”
“Yeah. She got fed up during one of their fights and told him he could keep the fucking things. But there’s something she didn’t realize. Not until I told her on the phone a few days ago.”
“That you paid four grand for them.”
“Yeah. She was figuring more like two, tops.” Henry placed his empty cup on the table. “But my main point is, those swords were a gift from me to her. If they aren’t going be with her, then I think I have a rightful claim to them.”
“I don’t really know about that logic,” Jacob told Henry. “But I’ll help you, long as all you need is a lookout.”
“That’s pretty much all I need, brother. Just a little help with this thing.”
They’d become partners in crime in their mid-teens, when they stole a Buick in downtown Memphis and took it joyriding through West Memphis, Arkansas. They left it three days later where they’d originally picked it up. The thrill of that crime was so great they did it again a few months afterwards, this time with a Porsche they’d seen in one of the fancy shopping centers in Germantown. Doing shit you could be thrown in jail for but getting away with it anyway was a huge kick. Soon they were selling drugs at school, breaking into a bungalow or two during the summer. They lived with their mother, a waitress at a steak house near the river who spent many of her nights out with guys she’d pick up at Beale Street bars. Jacob and Henry were free to run as wild as they wanted, and they did.
Jacob was thirty-two now, and Henry thirty-four. Jacob thought one filled out what the other lacked. Henry was a little over six feet, with a meaty face and meaty arms, and he went to the shooting range three times a week for practice. Jacob had been born the scrawny one, and remained so. With his black-frame glasses and thick blond hair and beard he looked more like a folk singer in Nashville or Austin than a drug and firearms seller in Memphis. He was good at making friends with young lawyers who might offer free advice and convincing young pharmacists to make some extra money with him by selling pills on the side.
And it wasn’t unusual for Jacob to help Henry out, or vice versa. Only two years prior Henry had beat up a guy who’d slept with Jacob’s then girlfriend, knocking out a few teeth and stealing his wallet so as to make it look like a random mugging.
So they made a plan, regarding Bobby and the swords. They talked it over in Jacob’s apartment on Cleveland Avenue, drinking cans of Miller Lite on his balcony. Bobby lived way out in the middle of Bumfuck, Mississippi, or more accurately, in a farmhouse outside of Como. Henry had driven by, snapped a few pictures. He had gotten a sense of the roads and where the nearby houses stood. For his part, Jacob constructed a fake Facebook page, posting a picture of a beautiful woman on it, and befriending Bobby. Jacob read through Bobby’s near daily posts about how much he hated his job at Cracker Barrel and what black metal bands he was listening to. Eventually Bobby posted a few words about being grateful to the AA group he met with every Wednesday night in the basement of an Episcopalian church. “Looks like we have ourselves the day and the hour,” Jacob told Henry.
It was a hot July evening as they drove south to Mississippi. The air conditioner in Henry’s Toyota was broken and they rode with the windows down. The pawnshops and car washes and discount stores and dingy hotels and liquor stores of Memphis slowly gave way to pines and dogwoods and mimosas and hillsides covered with kudzu so thick it looked like a single, breathing entity. A full moon shone in the sky, as huge as a planet. “One more thing,” said Henry as he lit one of his clove cigarettes. “Dude has a dog. Two in fact. Two real big, fat Rottweilers.”
“Jesus Christ. You wait until now to tell me? You know how I feel about dogs.”
“You loathe and fear them,” Henry replied. “That’s why I’m telling you now, with you already in the car with me.”
“Shit. You’re handling that side of things. You know that, right?”
“I know. I know. I got some pills from a vet friend of mine. It should knock them out cold for an hour or two.”
“What happens if they wake up?”
“Push comes to shove, we’ll handle them the other way. But unlike your cowardly ass, I like dogs, and it’d break my heart to have to put one down.”
They reached Como. Bobby’s farmhouse stood on the outskirts. The place had a peeling white façade and in the dusk looked like a cube of sugar about to dissolve in the oncoming night air. They drove past it slowly, Jacob eyeing the structure through binoculars. The windows were dark. All kinds of junk rested on the long front porch: cans of paint, broken-looking furniture. Just before the house fell from sight he saw the Rottweilers. “Those dogs looks like something from a fucking horror movie, man,” Jacob said. “You are so taking care of that part of the situation.”
“I will,” said Henry. “I have it, bro.”
They parked the car in town. Jacob and Henry both had snub-nosed pistols in holsters under their shirts. They made their way through the side streets of Como until they reached a small graveyard. They looked behind their backs before walking through the tombstones. No one was around.
“Eerie, how quiet is,” Jacob said.
“Small town on a summer night,” Henry said. “What were you expecting?”
They came to the crumbling stonewall that marked the edge of the cemetery. They jumped the wall and were soon moving in the dark through trees and undergrowth. The branches above them were so thick, little of the moonlight filtered down around their feet. After a few minutes of walking, the trees abruptly ended. In front of them stretched a weedy field of about forty meters, and past the field stood the farmhouse. The windows remained dark.
“I think we’re good to go,” Jacob told his brother, and they took off, running fast through the bright moonlight until they reached the chainlink fence surrounding Bobby’s place. Jacob looked ahead and saw the two dogs running at them as they were running towards the dogs. The fence alone kept them from each other.
The Rottweilers jumped into the chainlink over and over again. They hurled their bodies with a vicious energy. Henry removed a plastic bag from one of the pockets in his cargo pants and took out two patties of raw meat. He whispered, “Good doggies. There ain’t nothing to be upset about. Come here. Come here and lick a little of this.”
The dogs sniffed. They licked at the balls of meat through the links of the fence. Jacob said, “You better have some powerful fucking sleeping powder in those things.”
“I’ve been well assured,” Henry told him. “The stuff in this meat wouldn’t have a hard time knocking out a horse, much less two dogs this size.”
As Henry pushed the patties through the links of the fence, Jacob took a step back, eyed the house again. He looked around carefully to make sure no one was about. He turned back to the dogs to see them trotting slowly around in circles on uncertain legs. They looked like old, drunken men. Then they collapsed, as if they’d been shot.
“You kill them?” Jacob asked.
Henry rose, tucked the plastic bag into his pocket, and jumped over the fence. He squatted down next to the larger of the two Rottweilers and placed his hand on the creature’s belly.
“Nope,” he answered. “They’re alive. This one’s breathing and still has a heart beat.”
Soon they were climbing the back porch steps. Henry took his Swiss Army knife from his black cowboy boot, cut through the screen, wiggled his arm through the cut, and unlatched the door. From his other boot he withdrew a small crowbar. He worked the edge of it between the wood door and the frame.
Inside, the air was dark and cool, and Jacob could hear the air conditioner unit blowing downstairs. Using their penlights, they maneuvered forward, Jacob hurrying to the front windows in order to look out for any cars coming up the driveway, and Henry searching for the swords. Shelby had told him they were hanging above the sofa in the den, in an X. Jacob reached the curtains and peered through them. He could only see the southern end of the yard through the glass. He walked up to the next window, held back the curtain. His chest and entrails tightened. A Ford truck set near the porch. It had not been there when he and Henry had driven by, spying on the place. He turned to tell Henry. An overhead light flicked on.
Two men in black jeans and black T-shirts stood in the doorway of the living room, the one with red hair holding one of the Japanese swords and the bald one holding a shotgun. The gun was pointed at Henry, who stood near a wood mantle. Henry raised his hands, turned to Jacob, winked. Jacob brought his hand back to grab the pistol in his holster but the man with the sword, the bony-faced redhead Jacob thought was probably Bobby, ran so fast he seemed to materialize instantly in front of him. He held the blade against Jacob’s throat. Jacob held himself so still only the slightest amount of breath passed through his nose.
Bobby brought his free hand around Jacob and pushed Jacob’s shirt up. He withdrew the gun from the holster and stood back tucking it into the back of his pants. He stood several feet from Jacob with the sword at the ready, as if he were holding on to a baseball bat. “You are two dumb fuck son of a bitches,” he said. “You think you can come here and just break into this house and take what you want and that’s the end of the story?” He glanced over at Henry. “And don’t think I don’t know who you are, either.”
“I want those swords back, Bobby,” Henry said, his hands still raised.
“Well, it’s nice to want something, isn’t it?” Bobby said. As the bald man kept his shotgun on Henry’s head, Bobby walked over to Henry. Keeping the sword aimed at Henry’s chest, he took the gun from Henry’s holster and quickly patted him down. Once he was done he stepped backwards toward Jacob. He said to Henry, “Shelby used to have a few pictures of you in her wallet. So I knew what your face looked like. And when I saw you driving around town a few days ago I knew you weren’t here just to take in the sights or some shit like that.”
Henry quietly muttered, “Fuck.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Fuck.” Bobby grinned. “On top of seeing you, this real pretty young lady started flirting with me on Facebook. That got me thinking too. How many pretty young ladies have just appeared out of nowhere on Facebook and started flirting with you, Henry?”
“A few dozen at least,” Henry said.
“You fucking liar. That shit doesn’t happen in real life. And when this girl appeared, I thought, no, no way, this is not some pretty girl with dark hair flirting with me. This is some jackass from Memphis who thinks he can outsmart a dumb country hick like myself.” He turned to the bald man and asked, “Ain’t that right, Leon?”
“Right as rain, man,” Leon answered. He spoke with a high voice, and Jacob wondered if the gigantic muscles on his arms had been given a boost with steroids.
“You got us, all right?” Jacob told Bobby. “You really showed us. So how about you let us go and we run off with our tail in between our legs and promise to leave you alone from here on out? You can keep the guns too. Consider them a reward for all the shit we’ve put you and this dude through.” He nodded towards Leon.
Leon nodded no. He looked at Jacob as he took several steps towards Henry. He asked, “You think you two are going to get off that easy?’ With the swiftness of a mousetrap spring he rammed the butt of the shotgun into Henry’s head, and Henry collapsed loudly on the hardwood floor. The hit had been so hard, blood had splattered against the white bricks under the mantle. Jacob was staring at Henry’s fallen body when he felt Bobby’s fist in his face.
Jacob could feel Bobby kick him in the ribs and legs, and he could hear Leon doing the same to Henry across the room. Jacob gritted his teeth, tried not to cry out or plead for mercy. He heard Henry yelp at each kick but otherwise his brother said nothing. Then Bobby handcuffed Jacob and walked him down into the basement with Leon walking Henry down the staircase in front of them.
Busted lawnmowers and car parts set along one wall. Jacob and Henry were led to the opposite wall and Bobby told them to sit down, which they did very slowly. Leon removed his shotgun from the holster on his back and aimed it at them. Bobby knelt down. He uncuffed Henry’s wrists, brought the chain around a rusted pipe attached to the wall and cuffed him again. He turned to Jacob and repeated the process. Jacob watched Bobby’s amused, intent expression through a haze of pain. Bobby stood in front of them in the weak fluorescent basement lights. “There’s one thing I guess I wasn’t quite smart enough to anticipate, though,” he said. “And that is what you assholes did to my dogs.”
“I didn’t kill them,” Henry blurted out. “I didn’t mean to, at least.”
“They’re alive,” Leon told him. “They’ve woken up. But who the hell are you to give them pills like that anyway?”
“My dogs are my boys,” Bobby explained. “I raised them from little bitty pups. They mean as much to me as my own kids would, if I had any. And can you imagine what a dad might feel if you came around and knocked his kid out with a bunch of sleeping pills? I mean, just sit there and think about that for a minute, okay? I reckon you two don’t have kids.”
Jacob shook his head no. Henry did nothing, said nothing.
“You hurt my boys, by feeding them that shit,” Bobby went on. “They’re all right now, but putting them to sleep like that is as good as hurting them in my book. And hurting my boys, shit, that’s worse than hurting me.” Bobby stepped over to Henry, placed the tip of his sword to the tip of Henry’s nose. When he spoke again his voice was soft, almost a whisper. “We’re going to bring Frankie and Johnny, my two boys, down here to meet y’all. We’re going to throw some raw meat on you two and get my boys riled up and let them introduce themselves to you. And after a few minutes of them introducing themselves to your arms and legs and whatever, we’ll call them off. And whatever remains of you, you can keep that and go home.”
“Fuck you,” Henry mumbled. He spat blood on the grit-covered floor, “Fuck you. You ain’t doing shit.”
“Really?” asked Bobby. “Just watch me.”
The two men walked up the basement stairs. Jacob looked over to Henry. Tears fell along Henry’s nose. Jacob said, “This is your shit you’ve gotten us in. You better come up with a way of getting us the hell out.”
Henry didn’t look at him. He looked at the spot where Bobby had been standing. Soon Jacob could hear human steps and dog steps on the basement stairs and then he saw the Rottweilers straining against their leashes and Leon rounding the steps behind them. Following Leon was Bobby, the sword in one hand and a patty of raw meat in the other. He looked like an angel in some perverse, Gothic retelling of the Michael and Lucifer narrative.
Bobby rested the sword against the wall. He tore chunks of meat from the patty and threw them on Jacob and Henry. Behind him Leon pushed at the dog’s torsos, his hand encased in a huge leather pad, and with each shove the dogs growled and showed their teeth.
“My boys, they’ve been trained,” Bobby explained as he threw the meat. “Me and Leon here, we take them into the woods on the weekends, we show them how to fight. We’ve shown them what they’re capable of and they love it.”
The meat was almost gone: Bobby threw the last few chunks. Jacob pleaded, “Man, please, just stop this. We’ll pay you. We’ve got a shitload of money at different banks. You can have it. Whatever we have, we’ll give it to you.”
Henry threw him a fierce glance. “Jacob, you shut the fuck up. You really think that’s going to help? This asshole has made up his mind.”
“The least you can do is try to face this like a man,” said Leon, straining to keep the two dogs from rushing at Jacob and Henry.
Bobby wiped the blood from the meat on his jeans and looked over at Leon. Then he looked up, at the ceiling. Jacob looked up too and listened. Through the barking and growling he could hear steps creaking on the floor above them, moving towards the basement door. Then they were on the staircase. In the flickering fluorescent light Shelby appeared. She was as tall as Leon, six-four or so. Every time Jacob saw her, he was surprised at her height. “This is enough,” she said to Bobby and Leon, and they nodded, and Leon took Frankie and Johnny back up the steps. Bobby took keys from his pocket and unlocked the cuffs around Jacob and Henry’s wrists.
Shelby said to Henry, “You going to leave me alone now?”
Henry wiped the tears and blood from his cheeks with the back of his hands and mumbled, “Yes.”
“Because this scenario that played out, it will be for fucking real if you don’t stop trailing after me. I’m giving you your life back, and you better take it and run, you hear?”
Jacob stood, rubbing his sore wrists. “What the fuck,” he said.
“I’m sorry this sack of shit got you involved in this,” Shelby said. “But that’s on him, not me. Your brother, he’s been following me around ever since I broke up with Bobby here. He calls me at all hours of the night. He sits outside of the bar when I go on dates. A few weeks back he went up to this guy I went out with. Pushed him around a little. That was the last straw. I told him to leave me alone, but it’s like he doesn’t know the meaning of those words.”
“You did all this shit for that?” Jacob asked her. “Why not get a restraining order? I mean, goddamn. That’s what most people would’ve done.”
“Like some slip of paper would make a difference to Henry,” she answered.
“I’m sorry, Shelby,” Henry told her, his voice weak. “I’m in a bad way. I’m all confused these days, and you know how I feel about you.”
“You can feel whatever,” Shelby said. “You just can’t act on it anymore.” She turned to Bobby. “Thank you. Thank you for all this.” She gave him a brief hug.
“My pleasure, darling.” Bobby smiled and gave Henry the finger and turned to leave the basement.
“You two can go now,” Shelby told Jacob and Henry. “Fun’s over.”
She started following Bobby up the stairs. Jacob rose and rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the feet vanishing up the steps. He stood with his back to Henry. “Why the fuck are you such an asshole?”
“You really going to blame all this on me?”
“I’m blaming it on everyone except for myself. My only mistake was following you out here in the first place.” He started walking up the steps. He stopped midway up and added, “I’m taking the car. You find your own goddamn way home.”
Henry said, “That’s my car, Jacob. Bought with my own money.”
“When you get back to Memphis, you can have it back.”
Henry stood and walked to the bottom of the staircase. “You don’t want to leave me stranded. That’s a deal breaker there, brother.”
Jacob ignored him, stepping up toward the sound of laughter and cans opening and yelping dogs.