Royce Mullins and The Case of Virtue's Burn, A Novel: The Final Chapter

by Jeff Hart

God cradled me in one burly arm, my cheek pressed to His nipple. It was the size of a satellite dish. Blown by a gentle breeze, the downy blonde hair on his forearm tickled me. Endless blue sky stretched out around us. Fluffy oblong clouds gently bobbed upward, inevitably drawn by some divine magnetism into formation around God’s face, preventing me from gazing directly upon Him.

“THERE THERE, ROYCE MULLINS” said God, and though His voice exploded in my ears like fireworks, I still found it soothing. “YOUR TROUBLES ARE AT AN END.”

“Ok,” I replied, gazing out into the infinite. I reclined into the pliant flesh of God’s forearm.




I shrugged.

“Sure,” I said. “Lay it on me.”

A vibration rumbled through God’s body, jostling me. From below came the blaring of coronets. God reached his free hand downward, into his diaper, and produced a Blackberry. The red light of an incoming message turned the sky around us pink, like a sunset, flashing on and off every two seconds.

“SORRY,” said God. “BBM.”

I looked up to find the clouds parted. Self-help guru Wayne Maker’s face stared down at me, smug understanding etched across his chiseled features, his bleached teeth a terrifying stand-in for the pearly gates.

“THIS IS IMPORTANT,” said Wayne, indicating the Blackberry with a jerk of his square, dimpled chin. I could feel myself slip off his forearm as he turned his wrists to operate the device, thumbs pounding against keys like thunder.

I fell.


I careened downward toward New York City, surrounded on all sides by pieces of Chinese garbage. Half-eaten noodles slapped against my face. Burning comets of banned capitalist literature sailed past me, ashes from their tails searing my eyelids, their final destination perhaps a beach on Coney Island. The city raced up to meet me.

I landed in Long Island City, fell to my knees in the parking lot of a seedy motel. A distant red light blinked its way across the night sky, perhaps another incoming message to the colossal Wayne Maker. More likely, an airplane.

Paul Fennel lay on the ground next to me, half propped up by the motel room door frame, his poorly fitting white shirt ruined by a widening bloodstain. Yossarian had shot him right through the heart, as if the Virtue’s burn had been more than just a rash left by a hustling new-age hooker, a bull’s-eye. I held Paul’s hand, I think. It is hard to remember for sure.

“Thanks for keeping up your end of our arrangement,” Yossarian was saying.

He stood over Paul and I, bemusedly gazing down at his handiwork. Meanwhile, his precise hands made quick work of the gun he’d stolen from my office, opening it up and emptying it of bullets. Yossarian pocketed the rounds and dropped the gun in front of me. He put his hands on his hips. Yawned.

“You’ll want to be getting out of here, Mr. Detective,” he said. Gone from his voice was the undercurrent of malice. We were old buddies now. “Law’s likely on the way.”

I searched the sky for justice, for a flaming ball of trash. It didn’t come.

“I don’t suspect we’ll see each other again,” said Yossarian, stepping back. “Be bad for you if we did.”

I knelt there as Yossarian disappeared into the night. In the distance, there were sirens. The denizens of these kinds of motels are savvy enough to count to one-hundred after a gunshot before calling the cops. They’d given me a head start. I picked up the gun, my gun, and staggered to my car. I did not look back at Paul Fennel.

I drove.

Eventually, I slept.

I woke in the early morning on the steps of The McCarren Trump. Behind the glass doors of the tower, a doorman not paid enough to roust layabouts kept a sullen eye on me as I shook feeling back into my sleepy limbs. I spotted my car double-parked a half block away, sharing a scraped paintjob with an adjacent hybrid. The trunk was open, the latch likely broken when Yossarian had forced his way in. Patting down my pockets, I realized that I’d left the keys dangling in the ignition. I figured that here was as good a place as any to abandon the car, unfettered of another responsibility.

Although I hadn’t had a drink, my head swam with that fuzzy hangover feeling. There were chunks of the night I couldn’t remember. For instance, I wasn’t sure why I’d decided it was a good idea to curl up in the lap of The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. Instead, I remembered snatches of a fevered dream where a colossal Wayne Maker clutched me to his breast, a gunshot Paul Fennel floating nearby, empty-eyed Chinese cherubs dancing through the blood red sky around us. It’d been a bad night, of that I was sure.

The skeptical doorman opened the door a crack when I approached. I asked to see Dot and, after a quick call upstairs, he waved me into an elevator.

It’d been a couple years since Dot was more than just a voice on the phone for me. She hadn’t changed much, just the color of the streaks in her cropped black hair. She was Japanese, a distinction I find important to make. Short, lithe but broad-shouldered. She appraised me with nonchalant brevity in keeping with our phone conversations. I could tell she’d never quite grasped the yawning age difference between us until now.

“Wondered how long you’d sleep out there,” she said.

Dot kept her place dark to cut down on the glare. It was a labyrinth of technology, a couple dozen monitors illegally patched into various feeds from around the city. One streamed the front car of The Rudy, the rollercoaster up and running again, looping round and round Times Square. Another tapped into Trump’s security feed, aimed at the front entrance, where the doorman now stood staring down the block at my abandoned car. She’d been watching me sleep.

In the corner, neglected in the web of cords, was a single potted plant, the kind that didn’t require much light.

I tossed open the curtains and looked out at the concrete expanse of The Trump McCarren Plaza. The franchises were opening up, slump-shouldered Brooklynites unlocking metal gates.

“You know, I remember when this used to be a park.”

“I bet you do,” she replied.

Dot closed the curtains and stood in front of me.

“You’ve got blood on you,” she observed.

“Not mine.”

“How bad?” she asked.

I handed her my gun.

“I need that to disappear.”

Dot wrapped the sleeve of her sweater around her hand and took it. She used the weapon to point down a hallway.

“Go take a shower,” she ordered. “Leave your clothes outside the door.”

I did as I was told. Afterward, Dot outfitted me in a suit finer than anything I’d owned. It was a little small. I didn’t question the origin. She made coffee and we drank it in the glow of her monitors, now filled with movement as the city came to life.

“Tell me about it,” she said.

I started at the beginning with John the Bulldog and ended with Yossarian crawling out of the trunk of my car. I told her about Paul Fennel, explaining the boy as best I could, describing the adjustable strings of God’s plan, and my role as the knot.

“I should tell you something,” she said, when I finished, “but it won’t make you feel any better.”

“Is it about man’s search for meaning?”

“The kid,” she began, “Paul, he came to me about a week ago. Found me on the internet. Told me a similar story to what he told you, that he needed help reuniting with his girl, this Virtue. Had a couple hundred bucks squirreled away. Seemed like a loser, not the kid, although yes him too, but the case.”

Dot looked away, searching her monitors for something.

“So, I referred him to you,” she continued.

I nodded, dumb.

“I figured it was something you could handle.”

“I guess you were wrong.”

“I didn’t think about it until after, when you had me run him. I found some of the reports, from the military, about his discharge. He was a mess. I tried to get you to drop it, Royce.”

Dot reached into her desk. She handed me a bus ticket.

“On the phone last night, you sounded so,” she trailed off. “I haven’t heard you like that in awhile.”

“I made a mess of it,” I said.

“Yes,” she answered.

I stood up. I handed Dot back the bus ticket.

“You should get out of the city,” she protested. “Let the heat on this die down.”

“Come on,” I replied. “Where else would have me?”

I picked up the ignored plant from the corner of Dot’s room, leaving an empty circle of dust on the floor. The edges of its leaves had started to turn brown.

“I’m going to take this,” I told her.

Outside, I walked down the clean sidewalks of McCarren Plaza, kept on east until I picked up a trail of Chinese garbage. I followed that trail as it grew, overwhelming curbs that Mayor Kelly’s emergency sanitizers hadn’t yet seen fit to clean. I found a neighborhood where the brownstones had begun to crumble, where there wouldn’t be a camera-feed worth the trouble for Dot to patch into. Despite the loaner suit, too nice for this part of Brooklyn, nobody on the streets looked at me funny.

I stopped into a bodega. I purchased a fresh pack of cigarettes for myself and a bottle of water for the plant. There was an old lawn chair outside and I settled into it. I started to work my way through the cigarettes. I sat there, letting the neighborhood know I was open for business, not thinking about Paul Fennel or what it meant to be unfettered.

I figured it best not to dwell on things.

Jeff Hart lives in Brooklyn. His other writing can be found over at Culture Blues.

Photo by Fabio, from Flickr.