the ugly writers

Code Breaker

PK hadn’t slept much in the past few days. Might even be longer, but he wasn’t sure. Not that he cared. No, sir, this pill stuff had to be solved right soon so he could get on with the mission.


“Dawson? Get your ass over here. Now.”
“PK? Jeezus old man, it’s 330 in the effin’ morning.”
“So what? You’re young. You don’t need a shit load of sleep anyways. Besides, got somethin’ here you’re gonna wanna see. In thirty, boy. Out.”
PK hung up.

This was just too important to wait until the kid rolled out of bed at 10, maybe even noon. It could be all over by then. He couldn’t tell for sure. But the kid would know what to do. Dawson was young, but he had the smarts for this sort of thing. Kinda reminds me of when I was younger and in the squad. Hernandez thought I was the best damn code breaker he’d ever worked with.

Phillipe Kayson. 71 years old and looking way worse for wear than he rightly deserved. Fondly known as PK to all his Armed Forces buddies and a couple of close, non-military friends.

PK hadn’t slept much in the past few days. Might even be longer, but he wasn’t sure. Not that he cared. No, sir, this pill stuff had to be solved right soon so he could get on with the mission. Yes, sir, he was convinced there would be another mission for him once he could break this damn code. As good as he was with making and breaking codes, this one here had whipped him for the past couple of days. Maybe it was more than just a few days. Who the hell knows? He’d lost track of time.

But the kid would look at it fresh. Have some ideas about what the god damned pills were telling him to do. PK trusted very few people these days, but Dawson was one of the good ones.
___________ ¯ ___________

Dawson took a cab downtown to PK’s high rise just off of Strachan Avenue, a short stroll south of Dundas. At this time of the morning, not much was happening on the streets, so he made it door to door in just under twenty minutes.
PK’s building had seen better days. Truth be told, the better days were long gone. Mostly old folks lived here now. Some on their own, others with a flea-bitten, scrawny cat that never went out. Or a spouse who, just like the cats, also never went out. It was just that kind of building.

The lobby smelled of stale piss. Over in the corner, someone had vomited all over the front window. It had dribbled thickly down onto the cracked blue tiles that hadn’t seen a wet mop in months. No need to press the buzzer. The front door lock was busted. Great for the local dealers, pimps and hookers but not so great for the frail, vulnerable older folks that lived here.

Dawson noticed there was more graffiti in the elevator than there had been a week ago. That surprised him. Very little free space was available for the taking. Lots of gang tags scrawled with fat Sharpies.

Here’s a new one – ‘Mess with PK, you done 4ever’.

That’s odd, thought Dawson. I wonder what PK’s done so that tag’s right up by the floor buttons. You’d have to be some real dumb shit not to notice it. But he agreed. You get PK as an enemy, and you got yourself a hurting relationship with a nasty dude indeed.

As long as Dawson had known PK, the old man always tried to blend in. ‘Urban cammo’ he called it. ‘Wear the colours of what’s around you. Just like we did in the Service.’ It was one of PK’s favourite sayings.

At the eighteenth floor, the elevator doors jerked reluctantly open onto a poorly lit, musty smelling hall. The carpet, probably blue once, now looked somewhere in between rat’s ass purple and dog crap brown. Ripped patches were torn up or missing altogether. As if Tiger had been practicing his short game and hadn’t bothered fixing the divots. Dawson knew from coming here often that the eighteenth was like a mini-United Nations. All races, colors and lifestyles. Even at 4am, the air smelled like the Oxford Square Mall food court during the lunch hour.
Eighteen ought two. For as long as Dawson could remember, the left side screw of the apartment door plate had been missing. In stubborn defiance of gravity, it still refused to slide down to the right. Dawson liked that.

No need to knock. PK was expecting him. But lately, PK was jumpy and unpredictable. Perhaps a quick rap wouldn’t hurt just to let him know I’m here.
So three quick taps on the dented metal clad door.

“What the fuck? Get your pimply white ass in here kid. This ain’t the Royal York, yuh know.”

PK’s place was messier than usual. Actually, it was a whole lot messier than Dawson had ever seen it. Clothes scattered here and there. Old newspapers piled up almost to the ceiling in all four corners of what passed poorly for the living room.

A 42” Sony flat screen, PK’s only visible luxury item, flickered silently on top of a slightly tilting faux walnut Ikea credenza. CNN on the screen with a Wolf Blitzer look-alike talking to someone in a black flack jacket standing in front of a burned out, still smoking tank. Ukraine, maybe? Closed captions streamed across the bottom of the screen, not quite getting the syntax right. Dawson knew that for some unknown reason, PK preferred seeing the words rather than hearing them.
Beer smells and cigarette smoke mixed with mouldy pizza on the counter. Or maybe it was the half-eaten dim sum on several plates piled near the sink. It all just seemed to blend right in with the odours in the hallway. Large, dirty half-windows along one wall. Dawson was sure no blinds had ever covered them.
Easily visible about a half block away, the crisp profile of a newish office tower. Its randomly lit floors faintly pierced the night. Cleaning staff moved through it like ghostly ants, getting things ready for the white shirts and smart pantsuits that would arrive in a few hours. Just better-dressed ants, thought Dawson.

“Get yourself a mug o’ Joe from the hotplate. Bring me a mug too. We’ve got a shit load of work to do here, kid.”

PK nodded to some stuff laid out on the card table in front of him.
He was wearing what he always did in his apartment – a traditional Vietnamese pyjama pants and top made of silk or satin. It was simple, versatile and best of all for PK, it required little to no care. PK preferred black silk.

This morning he also wore a thin, red silk scarf twisted tightly around his head, just above slightly too large ears. The scarf was trying none too successfully to keep long crinkly strands of pepper gray hair out of his eyes. His feet were bare, the toes oddly blunt and gnarly as if PK’d been kicking the shit out of wooden planks most of his life. Given his specialized training in the Service, that was likely a true fact.
Dawson settled in on a short, somewhat rickety stool PK had roughly pulled up beside him at the table. A sharp whiff of sour body odour caught Dawson unaware. He realized his friend likely hadn’t showered for quite a while.
PK looked him square in the face. His eyes were grey-blue with light flecks of brown. Almost a stare, those eyes never turned away. Dawson felt a cold tingle dance up his spine. Right then he knew this thing with PK wasn’t going to be good.
“I need your help kid. Can’t figure this out myself.”

The old man never asked anyone for help. So whatever was going on with him, Dawson knew it must be some serious shit.
PK waved a burn-scarred right hand over the stuff spread out in broken lines on the table.

“What ya see, kid?”

“A bunch of pills. Couple of capsules. Different shapes, colours. Pill bottles, tops off. Arranged neatly by size over there in the corner. A well-used spiral notebook lying open. Pages seem to have lots of writing. Some letters, a few numbers. Wait -actually a lot of numbers. Two packs of Gauloises Vertes cigarettes. Your favourite. One deck almost empty. An over-full ashtray. It stinks, should be emptied. A large magnifying glass with a cracked lens.”
Dawson paused, pleased with his quick inventory.
“Fuck, kid. I not taught yuh anything last couple o’ years?”
PK’s eyes flashed at Dawson. A mixture of frustration and annoyance.
“Never, ever take anything at face value. Nothin’s as it first appears. It’s all in the fucking details, kid. The fucking details.”

Feeling the sting from PK’s words, Dawson took a few moments to re-examine everything on the table. There had to be a clue here. Something he was missing. Something that was pissing off PK.

He glanced at the pencil scribbles on the notebook page closest to him. Groupings of alpha letters and numerics. Some random words like orange, green, blue.
That’s when he saw the connection.

He picked up one of the small white tablets, slowly turning it in his fingers.
‘CFZ 300’ was stamped on both sides. He picked up a plastic capsule, half pink, half a combo of green/blue. ‘APO L15’ was white-stamped faint on each half. He squinted with renewed interest at the many other pills lying scattered around the table top.

“All these pills have numbers and letters stamped on them. Some shaped smooth round. Some elliptical. A few with squared edges. Different colours. But each pill has a different alpha-numeric stamp.”
Dawson set down the pill and capsule. He looked over at his friend. PK was smiling like the family cat that had finally caught the god-damned canary.
“Effin’ right, kid. Letters and numbers.”

PK paused. His expression turned grim.

“But it all ain’t random, kid. No sir. Somebody’s sending ol’ PK a message. It’s code. They want me to do one more mission. My last hurrah.”

PK slumped back in his chair and laughed loudly.
He pulled out the last Gauloises from the open crinkled green paper pack. Lit it with a quick, long yellow flame from a steel sided flint lighter embossed with the words ‘We Dare.’ He inhaled deeply, held it for what seemed like forever to Dawson. Then PK exhaled, slowly blowing a stream of tight, perfect smoke rings into the already stale, sticky air of the apartment.
“What the…?” said Dawson, trying unsuccessfully to keep the amazement out of his voice.
“Someone’s sending you an effin’ coded message on those pills? They want you to go one last mission?”
Dawson laughed at the sheer craziness of it all.
But PK wasn’t laughing. Far from it.

Once again those grey-blue eyes bore into him, causing Dawson to blink with anxiety. The Gauloises hung loosely from the corner of PK’s tightly clenched lips. The ash was threatening to drop and burn a hole in the pajama pants, maybe the thigh too.

“Yeah, kid. We got some very serious shit going here.”
PK waved at the pills and capsules.
The ash fell off, landing beside a blue-black plastic capsule that quickly sizzled and shrivelled from the heat. Only the letters ‘MYLAN’ remained readable.
PK swore. He angrily snubbed out the cigarette into the tray filled with many other partially smoked butts.
“You believe me, right, kid?”
His undertone was menacing, begging for a negative reply.
“I guess anything’s possible, PK. Tell me how you figured this out. Then we can go from there.”

Dawson was desperately buying time, trying to collect his thoughts. To figure out why he was suddenly feeling very frightened for the old warrior beside him.
“A few effin’ days ago…well maybe it was longer than that, I was taking my morning pills. You know, like I do every morning with my cuppa Joe.”
Dawson didn’t know but nodded encouragingly.

“That’s when I noticed one of the pills had some writing on it. I have never seen that before. I went to the window over there. Held it to the sunlight. Effin’ eyes aren’t quite what they used to be, so I went over to the kitchen drawer. Got my magnifying lens. Sure enough, someone had printed ‘CFZ 300’ on the pill. Bloody hell, I’d never noticed that before. So I went back to the table and put each effin’ pill under the glass. Every effin’ one had somethin’ written on it. Different letters with different numbers. Sons of bitches, they were all telling me something. Just like the codes we used back in the day.”

PK’s breath was coming in noticeable, raspy gasps. His eyes seemed darker, more distant. The black pupils, unusually large.

Dawson wondered if his friend might be having a stroke.
PK was murmuring as if he was the only one in the room.
“Charlie. Foxtrot. Zulu.”

He picked up the shrivelled capsule and held it under the glass. He slowly read off the stamped letters but translated them into military talk.
“Mike. Yankee. Lima. Alpha. November.”
“It’s effin’ code, right? Don’t you see it, Dawson? Somebody snuck in while I was out messing with the punks down on the street. The fuckers switched out my usual meds for these ones with the code letters and numbers.”
His voice was getting stronger now, gaining confidence with every breath.
“So I did what we’d do in the Service. I wrote every effin’ letter and number down in this notebook.”
With his free hand, PK riffed through several pages.
“As well as the shape and colour of each pill or capsule I got it from.”
PK seemed proud of his efforts. He handed the scribbler to Dawson for his inspection.
Dawson read the list.
APO L15 – plastic capsule, pink + green green/blue
CRFZ 300 – white tab, longish
RXP 500 – white round tab with a cut groove
APO-AML 5 – white pill, six eight-sided
APO-R0S 20 – pink pill, small and rounded
ZS 223 – white pill, elliptical
MYLAN 345 – pale orange pill, round with a cut groove
MYLAN 1101 – green/brown bronze capsule
APO = Alpha Papa Oscar
CRFZ = Charlie Romeo Foxtrot Zulu
RXP = Romeo X-Ray Papa
APO-AML = Alpha Papa Oscar + Alpha Mike Lima
APO-ROS = Alpha Papa Oscar + Romeo Oscar Sierra
ZS = Zulu Sierra
MYLAN = Mike Yankee Lima Alpha November
In the remaining pages, PK had been working various combinations of the letters and numbers to unlock the code. Some entries looked promising but were scratched out with a dark, heavy pencil swipe. Occasionally there were margin notes that PK had apparently written to remind him of ideas or old tricks for code breaking.
Dawson knew it must have taken PK days to assemble and work over everything on the pages.
“You’re a hotshot. Right? Got an easy way with numbers and letters. Like me when I was your age. What effin’ sense do you make of it? Jeezus H. Christ, this is a real ball buster, eh Dawson?”

PK just sat there, sucking on his pencil as if it were the last Gauloises in the world, looking expectantly at the kid, waiting for words of wisdom to roll easily off his lips.

The kid’s a wizard with numbers and letters, PK thought. Lucky I met him in Trinity Park a couple summers ago.
Dawson was stumped.
He hadn’t a clue what was going on with the pills. Or the code. Or PK’s supposedly secret mission.
But right at this moment, he was more concerned about figuring out what was really going on with the old man.
He bought himself more time.
“You able to make any sense out of it, PK?”
PK slowly shook his head. A couple more wisps of grey hair fell out of the red headband. He brushed them away.
“Not an effin’ word of it. Best god damned code I’ve ever come across in all my years in the Service.”

Absentmindedly, he pulled up the pajama sleeve on his left arm and scratched an aging tattoo. Dawson had never seen it before – a skull head cockily wearing a green beret with a distinctive diagonal gold slash patch. The mouth held a menacing looking dagger, the sharp edge facing inward.
Involuntarily, Dawson shivered at the image.
Instinctively, he knew his friend Phillipe Kayson, aka PK or Papa Kilo, must have been one dangerous mother fucker back in the day. But maybe, in spite of his age and given the fresh warning Sharpie’d on the elevator wall, there was a good possibility PK was still a kick-ass, take no prisoners kind of guy.
Dawson was close to deciding what was really going on with his friend.
But he went through the motions anyway. He made a show of carefully studying all of PK’s code-breaking attempts recorded in the scribbler.
Twice he asked PK to explain some complex looking, alpha-numeric combinations.
Several times, Dawson took the glass and carefully examined some of the pills, obviously cross-checking with the jotted notations on the pages.
But it was all nonsensical jibber-jabber to Dawson.
Dawson decided he should just stop screwing around and put it right out there for his friend. But first, he would slowly slide into it.

“You got any idea why some guy would sneak into your apartment and switch the pills to give you this shit-kicker of a code? I mean, you’re a decorated Special Service war vet. You can be trusted. You’ve proved your loyalty many times over.”
He nodded to the burn scars on PK’s right hand.
“You got the scars to prove it, old man.”

“So why the hell would this mystery dude drop you the code the way he did? Why didn’t he just knock on your door? Hand you the effin’ code written in invisible ink or whatever shit you secret code guys use. And say some crap like ‘For God and Country. Honour and Fidelity.’ And then just effin’ walk away?”

PK had to think about that for a bit. The kid was asking a tough question. It deserved a proper answer.
But try as he might, he didn’t have one.
“So what are those pills telling me to do?”

He put an edge to his voice just so the kid would know he wasn’t going to waste any more time messing around with questions that had no effin’ answers.
Dawson could see the ‘don’t screw me around no more’ message in PK’s eyes.
So he decided to change plans and go all in with his friend’s secret code fantasy and see what happens.

“I think somebody’s deliberately messing with you PK. They switched your pills to the ones with the numbers and letters on them. You being a Special Service guy, they knew you’d be hyper-vigilant to your surroundings and would pick up on the pill switch. Somehow they knew you’ve a knack for code-breaking, so they wanted to mess with your head. They knew you’d knock yourself out trying to break out code string from the pills.”
Dawson paused for a breath. Suddenly he had another thought definitely worth sharing.
“Any chance you might have recently pissed off any of the neighbours or the gang bangers out on the street? You know, done so much harm to someone, they’d go to all this trouble just to royally mess you up?”
Dawson was winging it here, trying to explain away the unexplainable to an old man, his good friend, who truly believed the pills spread out on the table held secret instructions for one final mission. Semper Fi and all that rah-rah military shit. Some sick dude, who wanted badly to take a hard stick to the old man, was playing off of that old band of brothers Army bullshit.
PK smiled. Now the kid was finally talkin’ his language.
“The other day, I tuned up a couple bangers from down the block. They’d kicked the shit out of Miss Adele from 1807. She was coming home just after dark from getting bread and milk at Mister Lee’s down at the corner. Fuckers grabbed the purse and broke her cane over the hydrant. First, they gave her a beatin’. Pretty bad. Left poor Miss Adele bleeding on the sidewalk. The cops came but did nothin’. Asked Miss Adele if she recognized the punks who beat her up. Said she didn’t. But she told me later who they were. I told her I’d take care of it. It’ll take a few weeks for everything to heal up, but I guarantee you those dudes won’t be messing with any of the old folks around here again.”
PK laughed at the memory. “For God and Country,” he said with a smile.
PK got up slowly from the table and walked over to the windows. The first feeble rays of the early morning sun were trying desperately to peek through the grime. He was lost in thought, turning over the kid’s words.
Dawson sat and waited, slowly sipping on his now cold coffee, wondering what he could possibly do to help his friend. He’d have to think carefully about that one before suggesting anything solid.
PK turned from the window, a big grin on his face. Obviously, he’d made a decision.
“I think you’re right, Dawson. Only thing makes some sense is that somebody’s screwin’ with me. There ain’t no code to break. Ain’t gonna be no mission to go on. Damned if I know who it is, but give me some time, and I’ll figure it out. And when I do, I promise you, kid, there will be one last mission. But it won’t make the evening news.”

PK turned away from the window and smiled at Dawson.
“Look, kid. Thanks for comin’ out and workin’ it with me.”
“What say I buy you breakfast down at McCreadie’s? You still into wheat cakes with all that syrup shit?”
___________ ¯ ___________
After breakfast, PK returned home. He heated up the remaining Joe on the hot plate then went over to the card table with all the pills and paper spread out on it.

He hadn’t wanted to embarrass Dawson when the kid had tried so hard to sell him on the bullshit tale of there being no code, no mission and just some guy messin’ with his head.

No sir, the code is as real as I’m standing here.
I just have to spend a bit more time with the numbers and letters. No code has ever stopped me and this here one is not going to be the …
A rapid movement on the balcony caught his eye. He smiled.
“Where you been, my friend? You hungry? Come by for your pigeon?”
A Peregrine falcon had landed on the balcony railing and was making low, soft clucking sounds.

PK went to the fridge and took out a large ziplock bag. Inside was a dead pigeon.
He’d caught it a few days ago. Maybe it was longer than that, but not too long. He’d perfected his bird catching in the Service while he and the squad were secretly working black, deep in the jungles of Nicaragua. So, naturally, he just transferred it to the benches, grass and shrubbery of Trinity Park. The fun wasn’t in catching the pigeon but watching the Peregrine rip it apart, and chunk swallow it in pieces.

The Peregrine was a sleek male. A few months ago, PK had watched him and his mate come and go from their nest box atop the office tower down the road. PK had bought the most expensive pair of service issue binoculars he could get at the Army Surplus over on Richmond. He started watching the falcons roosting and hunting. Both birds loved to soar on the thermals between the tall buildings.
PK thought they were magnificently regal birds and very skilled hunters.

The male in particular rarely missed a pigeon, either one sitting on the top ledge around the Old Fire Hall or one in the air. The ferocity of his hunting never ceased to amaze PK. It stirred something deep within that he hadn’t felt in a very long time.

One day, to PK’s delight, the male Peregrine had unexpectedly landed on the balcony railing. He gripped a plump, feral pigeon firmly in its talons. PK slowly moved to the window and watched in fascination as the Peregrine casually ripped apart the pigeon, swallowing entire chunks of feathers and flesh in rapid succession. PK named the bird Ezra. After his father who was the god damned best hunter in the Ottawa Valley until he passed away from throat cancer twenty years ago.
Soon Ezra was making PK’s balcony railing a regular feeding stop, carrying dead or still struggling squirrels and pigeons there to be eaten. Ezra seemed to have no fear of PK, sensing no danger from this curious creature just a few feet away.
PK began to catch the pigeons in Trinity. He’d twist their necks and bring home the warm bodies in a plastic shopping bag. No one saw him trap and kill the birds, but if someone did, they didn’t report him. Every other day, PK would take a carcass from the fridge and loosely tie one leg to the railing. It didn’t take Ezra long to figure out that a pigeon on that balcony was a sure meal for him.
The bird and the old man had an understanding. It was the most natural thing in the world. With some satisfaction, PK knew that it takes a predator to recognize a predator.
Recently, PK began studying Ezra. In particular, how Ezra launched himself so smoothly from the balcony railing or his nest box atop the building just down the block.
The air currents caught in his wings and lifted him quickly at least a hundred yards above the office tower, circling and gliding effortlessly. Ezra would call to his mate with a distinctive, harsh sounding ‘kak-kak. kak-kak’. Quickly PK learned to perfectly imitate Ezra’s call. Not too long after, he was able to get Ezra to answer when the bird came to sit on the railing to take the pigeon.
PK had always regretted that he didn’t learn to fly jets as a young man. The Service had eagerly offered aviator school when they recognized his quick intelligence and exceptional skills with his hands. Still in the early days of his assignment to a special ops team, he much preferred the high-risk adventure and personal toughness of a grunt soldier who did hard stuff that almost no one else dared to do.
So he stayed with Special Forces. The hunting and killing had seemed second nature to him. He loved the camaraderie of the other men and the shared danger of their work. The prospect of sudden, violent death in the jungles or deserts of some godforsaken country just fuelled his passions. Oddly, the constant threat of death was a nourishing life force to him. Actually killing a bad guy face to face, well that was just an expected prize of the hunt.
For several weeks now, PK had been making detailed notes of the mechanics of the Peregrine’s flight. He studied Ezra’s wing beat patterns and rhythms. How he used his tail feathers in guiding and adjusting within the soaring columns of air.
PK soon came to believe that he could do it too.
But common sense told him a human couldn’t fly like a bird.
However, when PK suddenly stopped taking the two daily pills marked MYLAN 1101 green-orange and MYLAN 351 soft orange, within days all doubt left him.
He began to plan for his first solo flight. He knew that Ezra would look after him. They would soar and hunt together.
PK knew he’d have time to fly once he caught the banger who was messing with his head. He’d been thinking a lot about who this guy could be.
He’d decided it must be that tall, skinny pimp and dealer everyone called Critch. This dude sometimes hung out in the lobby of PK’s building, doing business while his girls turned quick tricks in the stairwell. Critch supplied them with just enough free dope to dull the thinking but keep the body moving.
Three months ago, PK’d tuned up Critch real good for no reason other than he just didn’t like gutter scum like him. Sure as shit, that stopped the whoring for a couple of months or so. But in the last few days, Critch and his girls were back, dealing and turning tricks down in the lobby.
PK decided that just before 12 tonight, he’d have a private chat with Critch about why he shouldn’t have messed with ol’ PK using those marked pills. Then, with a grin on his face, he would take certain steps to ensure that Critch and other gang bangers in the neighbourhood got an obvious message they shouldn’t mess with PK ever again.
Once that little matter was taken care of, then PK would have more time to think about hunting with Ezra.
But first, he’d have to break the code. It was a pride thing now. No code in the Service ever’d beat him and sure as shit, this one wouldn’t. He’d damn sure crack it on his own.

Dawson would understand. PK was sure of that.

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Don Herald
Don Herald's fictional characters are often quirky, flawed personalities that come into conflict with loved ones and their community. His memoir pieces frequently describe transition events in his life that most readers have also experienced and may be struggling to understand better. His stories are published in Canada, the United States and the UK
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