Hey-o! You thought we were done talking about Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing? Nope. We have one more, secret rule to discuss.
And now, this week’s read-along section of the Problematic Virtue
Alex entered the hospital, his first time at any hospital since his Aunt Clara had become sick. He hated that antiseptic smell. The muted-yet-cheery colors. The pastel scrubs of the hospital workers. All of it promoted a fallacy that light would ward off the gloom and made everyone forget that in these places, the corporate health machine ruled because the insurance companies and doctors profited from sickness and death.
What a joke.
The room was at the far end of the patient wing on the first floor. When Alex reached it, he half-expected to see Brian in a full-body cast with body parts suspended from strings like a puppet. However, he had only a bandage covering half of his face, and something wrapped around his waist.
Brian opened his eyes when Alex entered the room. “What are you… how did you…”
“I told them I was your little brother. Security is totally lax around here. Terrorists could shut this place down in minutes.”
“I don’t think the terrorists are going to attack Boulder Community Hospital,” Brian said in a lazy, raspy voice, gurgling invisible rocks in the back of his throat. He tried to sit upright in his bed and moaned in pain. “Did you see Maria? She’s around here somewhere.”
“Did I see who?” Alex said.
“Then how did you know… what are you doing here?”
“Graham called me. He told me some guys from the gym found you next to a dumpster. What in the fuck are you doing here?”
“You don’t know,” Brian said, surprised. “I figured you must have been in on it, what, with Wiles’ sad sob story about keeping you away from meth and all.”
Brian must be wasted from all his pain meds, because that sentence made no sense. “Stop speaking in goddamn riddles and just tell me who the fuck beat you up.”
“Some kids. I got one of them, though.”
“You did? Got him how?”
“I sure did. Slashed the bastard with my box cutter. Didn’t end up making much difference. Baseball bat wins versus box cutter.” He coughed, and his face contorted with the pain.
Seemed unlike Brian to take up arms against another human being. “Did you get a good look at them?”
Brian raised his hand to his ear to demonstrate the next point. “Big stretched ear piercings. One of them had a mohawk. Real upstanding citizens, you know. Salt of the earth.”
Larry, Ben, and Mitchell. Had to be. “Why did they beat you up?”
Brian pressed a button attached to a cable and sighed as his eyes rolled back into his head. Self-administered pain meds. “How should I know? Wiles sent me there with a bunch of cash to meet them and get some dope, and they jumped me.”
Brian said the last sentence loud enough that Alex whipped his head around to make sure no one was within earshot. “This doesn’t make any sense. Why would Mitchell and them jump you?”
“So you did know about it.”
“No, I just… I think I know who those guys are. But I don’t know why they would jump you. Those are Wiles’ guys. They may be crackheads, but they’re solid guys.”
“I got beat up by a couple of crackheads?” Brian asked with a delirious smile. “Man, that’s embarrassing. But you’re not listening to me, Alex; they beat me up because they’re Wiles’ guys.”
“That’s not possible,” Alex spat back, but he knew that was entirely possible.
“Is that right? Wiles was teaching me a lesson. He likes to do that, you know; be a Sunday School teacher. Got to make sure all the little kids mind their P’s and Q’s and all that. He didn’t like the fact that I told him I didn’t want to sell his shit anymore, so…” Brian mimed a slow-motion fist punching through the air. Brian gazed at the ceiling as if trying to form a thought, and then his eyes widened and he returned to Alex. “Unless…” he said, “unless you told him about Megan.”
Alex reflexively shook his head. “No, I didn’t say anything,” he said. Always lie if the truth will get you in trouble. Lie first, then regroup.
“Hmm,” Brian said. “He must have found out somehow then. Those guys were his hit squad.”
Now it all made sense to Alex. This might get kinda messy, Wiles had said. Part of Alex hated to see Brian here in the hospital, doped up because of broken ribs and whatever was wrong with his face, but part of Alex thought that Brian had received what he deserved. Basketball goes down, basketball comes back up. Maybe he had even gotten off light.
This is what happens when you put your dick in another man’s wife, especially when that man happens to be the brother of Crazy Derek Fucking Wiles.
“Why did you have to do it, Brian? Of all the good-looking women in this town, why her?”
Brian had no answer. “Alex, you gotta listen to me because this is important,” he eventually said. “If you keep running with Wiles, this is what you’re going to get. This, and much worse. You have to believe me. I’ve known him for longer than you and I’ve seen what he’s capable of.”
Like beat a guy senseless with his own mountain bike?
Alex tried to ignore that memory because he had made up his mind. Brian ended up here because of his own actions. No one’s fault but his. Whatever happened as a result, Brian had orchestrated the whole thing.
“You brought this on yourself,” Alex said.
“You think Wiles is some decent guy? He’s just another thug; only everybody’s afraid of him, so it looks like he’s got respect. I put up with his junk for years just because I was scared of him and now you’re mixed up in all this way over your head and I don’t think you can see that.” Alex had no comment for that bit of advice, so Brian continued. “I’m leaving, Alex.”
“What do you mean?”
“After graduation, I’m leaving. Maybe sooner, if I have to. I’ve got some money saved, and I’m just going to move. Not going to tell Wiles, I’m just going to pack up one day and go. You should come with me. You need to get away from Wiles.”
Alex scoffed. “That’s a lot of gratitude you got there, after all he did for you.”
“Why don’t you ask him about what happened to Kevin Werner?”
“I don’t know who in the hell that is.”
“He used to own that recording studio on 28th. Now he doesn’t walk anymore. Ask Wiles about that.”
Alex had zero desire to ask Wiles about anything. Especially something as accusatory as Brian’s last statement had implied. He no longer wanted to hear Brian’s opinions on the subject, or any subject. “I’m not the one in over his head. Whenever you pull yours out of your ass, you let me know,” Alex said, and then vacated the room.