Half-Life, fiction by Kurt Taylor

The dented front fender of Danny Mather’s gold ’89 Cadillac Eldorado and the dead armadillo cracked and steaming along the roadside a half mile back were not unrelated. Danny was tapping the steering wheel, saying the issue was premeditation.

“I see a ‘dillo crossing the road, I don’t try and hit ‘em. If you’re tryin’ to do something, that’s premeditation.” The gas gauge was slipping under a half tank, the air conditioner screaming against triple digit heat shimmering on the asphalt running out in front of us straight as an arrow.

“Old man Stryker,” Danny said, “now there’s a pre-historic animal. Another matter altogether.” Danny swerved the Eldorado back and forth, tires squealing, beer cans rattling in the back seat.

“He knew what he was doing. He planned it. Hard to figure what’s inside a man’s head. That’s what courts are for, right?” Danny slapped the steering wheel and let out a whoop, re-adjusted his cap.

“Get me another beer, pard.” I handed him a warm can of Turbo. Popped one for myself.

“Stryker?” I said. That old dude’s done, man.”

“Ain’t old when he owes me four hundred large.”

“From what, that union picnic fund? Your little scam?”

“You can’t even count to four hundred.”

Four hundred sounded big, and my mind started to drift. It was the heat, the long ride and the creaky leaf springs in the Caddy’s chassis. Made me think sometimes about weird stuff, strange smells and things, trying to be funny. My way of passing time. The warm Turbo made me think of one.

“This beer tastes like warm goat piss,” I said. I wanted Danny to laugh.

“How do you know what warm goat piss tastes like?” he said.

“I thought it was kind of funny. The beer, it’s warm, that’s all.” I took another swallow.

“Seriously, four hundred grand?” I said.

“I ain’t waitin’ twenty years for him to get out and shovel some old rock pile and pull up a suitcase full of cash. He ain’t gonna last twenty years, neither, and ain’t no one else talkin.”

Danny brought me along for the ride, he said, keep him company while he had some business to tend to. I was the navigator, the map reader, and a bit of a mind reader too.

I unfolded the map of Texas, a criss-cross of colored lines and a big patch of blue, the Gulf of Mexico and a bunch of border towns hanging on the Rio Grande. Boyd State Prison was a click west of Fairfield, halfway between Houston and Dallas if you were coming up that way. Four hundred miles southwest of Shreveport, by way of Dallas, the way we were coming, and we still had to fight through Big D, almost a hundred miles away. My thumb was on Fairfield, or close enough, my middle finger planted on where I thought we were.

I looked up. Into the fat barrel of Danny’s .45 Colt 1911. He ain’t going to try driving and shooting driving seventy five miles an hour with an armadillo feet up two miles back.

“Just seein’ if you were awake there.” Danny laughing, his teeth yellow, lips cracking. “No big ideas now, hear?” he said.

Ideas, I had plenty. Ideas of what to do with the money. Ideas that Danny Mather knew nothing about.

“I know a car wash in Dallas,” I said. “Bikini Girls rub your car nice and smooth and you drive off smelling all good. Stop and get some beer, clean this trap.”

“Clean car’s a sign of a sick mind,” Danny said.

God conjured up ‘sick mind’ when he took a look at us, I thought. We were created long after God thought it all up. I knew that.

“Dallas coming up soon?”

“Uh huh.”

“You ever shoot a guy in the back?” Danny pulled his cap down low when he said it.

“In the back? You mean, like when he’s walking away from you?”

“No, shit face, in the fuckin’ back yard. The back room. Jesus Christ.”

“No. Not anything alive.” Danny started a rant that lasted all the way around Dallas on I-635 north, around the tip of town through Mesquite, outskirts of Garland and University Park and Richardson and Carrollton where we stopped for gas and filled up with leaded high octane. When we got back in the car Danny weighed in again, shifting gears.

“Not counting road kill, name your best shot, ever. Number one, dead to rights kill.”

“A big Buck. Up in Montana. 30-06 cartridge ripped the gut, put him down on the spot.”

“Yeah? How far out?”

“Two hundred, two hundred fifty yards.”

“Verified?”

“I hunt alone.”

“You hunt alone.”

“Used to think no one wanted to go with me ‘cause I get up around 2:00 AM, long before I’m up in the short grass hills and into the woods. I figured no one wanted to go with me because I’m always taking the shots, getting there first and stuff.”

“You figure Stryker’s got anybody on the inside?”

“I told you.”

“Tell me again.” The Caddy had a little shake in the passenger door panel down where the window was rattling.

“The way I remember it, he’s got a couple lifers in his circle. They know guys on the outside who know guys, that kind of stuff. He’s got enough to pay off anyone he thinks a threat.”

“And you heard that from who?”

“You know, I’m not real good with names.”

“You’re not real good at a whole lot, are you?”

“Crack a bull’s hide at two hundred yards.”

“Yeah, you be good at that. Might be good at drinkin’ beer. Screwin’ low life Mexican chicks. Good things come in small packages and you most definitely might probably have a very small package.”

“Texas Hold ‘Em, I walked away with thirty seven hundred after an hour and half. I flopped a pair of kings, best hand I had and that was that. And don’t talk that way about Mexican girls.”

“Squeal and deal.”

About that time we were ten miles from Boyd State. Barbecue joints and body shops lined the highway off the Interstate and when I asked Danny if we wanted to stop for some ribs he said ‘We?’ like some kind of sarcasm was in order. He gave the Caddy more gas and my stomach growled, my blood sugar low. The smell of mesquite and roasting pork lingered and I popped some chewing gum but didn’t offer any to Danny. Stryker. That dude was legendary in these parts. Former minor league pitcher and an original investor in the poultry packing plant that employed close to seven hundred folks, when it was going full steam, and then, somehow, the story went, the money vanished. Stryker was found laid up in a motel with a couple of guys he said were his accountants and when police checked, they weren’t on anybody’s payroll. Stryker went down on three counts of embezzlement, and I never could figure how you could be caught for embezzling money from your own company. The money is yours in the first place, no? Stryker plead not guilty, six million in company funds disappeared, and Stryker was in for twenty. He was seventy three years old now. That gave him another 18 years to go and he’d be an even 90 years old. (My math’s not too good) That left a couple of still unanswered questions, in my mind. We were three miles from the prison.

“How come you’re the only one who thinks Stryker owes you money?” I said. “I mean, the company 401k stock I know went south, but what about the other workers?”

Danny looked at me for a moment, and turned back to the road. A billboard flew by advertised the upcoming Texas Rangers season ticket plan if you liked baseball in the baking oven of Texas summer. I didn’t.

“Because,” Danny said, “technically, Stryker never declared bankruptcy. Which means he stills has liabilities. They don’t go away. The union negotiated a fixed amount of the contribution, and just because he’s in prison, he’s not absolved of those debts.”

Absolved meant something I wasn’t really up on. But I knew money laundering. Done a little myself, when I had transactions needing to be hidden. Small time stuff. Phony autographed baseballs. Counterfeit football jerseys signed by me, ‘Emmit Smith’, ‘Troy Aikman’, swap-meet shit guys hung in their game rooms, sold out of the back of a pickup.

“Like the Swiss bank account thing?” I said.

“Or laundered through a big ranch in Montana with one of his fat-cat cattle baron buddies. Throw a few million at a fictitious ranch nobody checks on, you got yourself a safe haven. Banking, dude. It’s how the rich get richer.”

The sign into the prison looked as nondescript as an announcement for a bake sale or a company Christmas party, only a lot more fine print. A low painted white brick border and chaparral bushes marked the entrance.

We parked behind the basketball court in a fenced tarmac pen guarded by three barbed wire fences and a tower with a bull in a wide-brim hat holding a scatter gun. Inmates were shooting hoops, wearing dark blue pants and lighter blue long sleeved shirts, sleeves rolled up to expose massive iron-pumped arms and prison tats with a fresh shine from the lotion they applied to keep the skin moist and lubed. The iron hoop clanked, the boink-boink of the ball bouncing off rough asphalt. A couple of men were smoking and watching. They all saw us getting out of the Caddy and straightening our shirts that were wrinkled and sweat-soaked and messy. I wondered if twenty years in the joint was worth it to get out at 90, or 80 for good behavior or whatever they call it when you wash dishes real good or swab the men’s room floor like you mean it.

Going through security—first a questionnaire asking for names, addresses and that kind of thing, two brief interviews with burly guards with fat automatic pistols strapped to Sam Browne belts and cuffs, pepper spray and batons poking down across their butts like tails—I considered the trade-off again. Twenty years in a medium security state facility for the possibility of getting out with a few million. Better than working as a grave yard shift poultry packer wearing plastic gloves and a shower cap for a few years like I did. Danny was a lead, not doing much on that midnight-to-eight shift except flirt with Mexican girls and order take-out from an all night Thai place. I was in charge of disposing scrap. That’s what they called the head and feet and the entrails. Scrap. Crap with an ‘S’. They went in a bin that cooked in a broth of vegetable juices and went out in a truck that emptied the contents at a couple of cat food plants up the road. Grocery shopping one day, I was examining the contents of can of Kitty Pride, trying to find out if maybe this particular can had anything I’d had a hand in.

I ended up losing almost $6000.00 in my 401k program and I didn’t qualify for the matching grant, they’d said, even for a supposed valuable employee like me. That was what they called the guys who went a year without an accident. A valuable employee. If you chopped your finger off or got a nose bleed in the vat you were somewhat less valuable. But the six grand was gone. And Danny said we’d get it all back. And it was about to start, right now.

The visiting room was empty, the glass partition smudged with fingerprints where people put their hands up and imagine they’re touching their loved ones and reading forlorn messages through a six inch Plexiglas plate that distorted the light and made the person on the other side look pale. I waited, sitting in the folding metal chair next to Danny Wade, wondering how this was going to play. Stryker, I’d remembered, had a daughter, who must be in her sixties now, and a deceased wife. He was tall and thin with gray hair, not much though. That’s what I remembered.

The door opened on the other side of the glass partition and an arm motioned through the opening. The belly protruding on the hugest black man I’d ever seen was the first thing I noticed. Then his tattoos, fading blue and black against his dark smooth skin that stretched over a pair of thick hardened arms. He sat. Looking at us. Then he spoke.

“You the guy who sends the letters?”

Danny nodded. He motioned to me. “My friend, Mack Gant. I’m Fred Solomon. You’re the Bat Boy, right?”

The huge man nodded his head and light glinted off his forehead and dome, shaved smooth and shiny as a bowling ball.

“We passed on all those rib joints coming in here, didn’t we Mack?” Danny. Acting like he was some guy named Fred, calling me Mack, a name of a guy I knew who stole a crate of Dallas Cowboys jerseys and got busted not a mile from the stadium and didn’t even know who Michael Irvin was.

Danny went on. “See, we real sensitive to coming in here dripping with sauce and licking our fingers. Wouldn’t be right. How’s the food in the joint? You said you worked in the commisary.”

Pete frowned with his eyes, ran thick fingers over his dome, brought his hands together on the formica counter.

“Since you ain’t kin,” Bat Boy said, “you got about five minutes. Cinco minutos. Food prep talk ain’t gonna cut it, you know what I mean.”

“Christmas comes once a year.” Danny sounded like he had come kind of code going, something I couldn’t fully appreciate. “This holiday season, you all set to do your shopping? And how ‘bout them Cowboys?”

“Fuckin’ Cowboys. Give me those old boys, Dandy Don, Staubach. Men. Know what I’m sayin’?”

It looked like Danny did know what he was sayin’. They stared at each other, Danny working his hands into a knot, Bat Boy moving his lips around teeth that needed work, and when Danny leaned towards the Plexiglas his breath fogged it a little bit and he drew a circle in the frost with his finger and put an X through it and wiped it off with his sleeve.

Pushing his folding metal chair away from the counter, the huge black man stood up, signaling that the visit was concluded. The door swung open, he walked out and the door clanked shut. The light on the other side of the Plexiglas shut off, leaving us looking at a darkened slot of well-guarded prison space as if the huge presence of the Bat Boy, now gone, left a void of matter, a black hole of no specific gravity at all.

“Dude, you got me in the mood for some of that road barbecue,” I said.

“Did I?” In the thin fluorescent light there were little hairs sticking out every which way on his eyebrows. “Let’s get out of here.”

On the way out the guards were grim faced, nobody saying ‘Have a nice day’, or ‘Y’all come back and see us’, the phony, folksy sayings people in the south laid on you when you were leaving. They looked at their watches, checking the time, counting minutes and hours until their shifts were over and they could go home. We were in the Cadillac on our way out through the entrance with the white painted brick border, Danny mentioned that Bat Boy had a thirty year sentence for armed robbery, his fourth conviction, and he wasn’t going home anytime soon.

 

Ten miles outside of town, there weren’t any freeways or major state highways, and Danny stopped at a one story motel that eased back about a hundred yards from the road in two long rows of pale green rooms separated by a lawn and a pool, a neon sign out front saying the place was called the Loco Road and we checked in. Two rooms. Danny wanted to take a shower so I went out to the pool and counted dead crickets floating on the water.

An hour later it was still over 95 F and we sat outside at picnic tables behind a take-out stand and ate combo plates of pork spare ribs and brisket and wiped up the sweet brown sauce with white bread that came wrapped in foil, piled up the plastic forks and knives over the bones and covered it all with paper napkins to keep the flies off. Our paper cups were half-full of Lone Star beer and we stared at the sun setting out over the Texas plain in a nice soft, orange glow, that meant heat would hold up until midnight, at least. Danny started talking.

“It’s the myth of the American west,” he said, taking a swallow of beer and putting the cup down. “White men settling this country, cowboys and Indians, that John Wayne thing, guns going off and shoot-outs. Not so much told about the people getting robbed, towns getting looted, what happens to folks in those towns who get left behind with no money.”

I just listened.

Danny said “So Stryker goes to prison, but what happens to the people he ripped off?”

“The Bat Boy. You corresponded with him?”

“If I tell you, then you know something, right?”

“The circle on the window with the X. Your signal?”

He nodded out towards the empty Texas plain.

“When that big elk went down I was talking about,” I said, “no one saw it but me. That was it, the last one I ever took.” I pointed to the front of the take-out shack. “You want some cobbler or something?” Danny shook his head, so I kept talking. “Big old Buck probably had good years out there on his land. Fight off a few stags, a Buck gets his way with his herd.”

“I love it when you try to make sense.”

“That feeling I had to do it again? It never happened like I thought it would. One time, that was all.”

“One for you, one for the boogie man.”

“No. Not like that. I don’t believe there’s a big scoreboard up there, keeping track of what’s going on down here. Don’t believe it happens like that.”

“That’s why you’re a Baptist and not Catholic. Everything matters. Everything you do. Why’d they invent confession? ‘Father I shot an elk but I won’t do it again. Say five Hail Mary’s and don’t let the door hit you in the ass’.” Danny laughed. He finished his Lone Star and spit out of the corner of his mouth. “I’m going to turn in. Pick up a paper in the morning. Tell me the headlines.” Danny got up.

“Everything matters?” I said

Danny’s hands were on his hips, his back to me.

“When you were shop steward.” I said. “Did that matter?”

“They voted me in for that.”

“But did it matter. What you did, or what you didn’t do, did it matter? To you? To anybody?”

“She was Mexican, man. In a fucking poultry plant.”

I looked at Danny, waiting as long as I could before I was going to have to ask him again. He raised his eyes. He had his chin up like he was striking a pose.

“You like Mexican girls,” he said. “Don’t you? No big deal, a one night stand’s as good as another.”

“You were the shop steward, voted in as shop steward to look after things. Someone people depend on. It was the graveyard shift.”

He was right in front of me now, close enough I could smell Lone Star and see sticky sauce holding on his lip. I stood right up to him.

“Why do you think we’re here?” he said. “Why do you think we’re doing this?”

“You’re doing it. And I think you’re doing it for yourself.”

“Yeah, you got what they call great visionary perspective.”

 

Later, he’d turned the lights off in his room and I went outside to the dark pool reflecting headlight glare from a car crunching into the gravel lot. Light from the ‘Loco Road’ sign flickered and buzzed with the crickets and mosquitoes with a nervous hovering energy. I tried to think.

Whatever Danny’s plan was, it was going on in a prison, and that, I knew, made it subject to all kinds of unknown elements and forces. And to me, Danny had a $400,000 problem with his mythic view and his heroic place in the history.

I went to my room and pulled out the portable police scanner radio, closed the door and went back to the metal lawn chair by the pool. I put it on low, plugged in an earphone and listened to a dispatcher and a couple of officers in squad cars in the parking lot of an all night donut shop. I put the radio on my stomach and leaned back in the chair and watched the reflection of the Loco Road sign in the pool. Danny had insisted on paying for one only night. The scanner was quiet, the air settling, and then a siren sounded in the distance, a low wailing horn for ten seconds, followed by coyotes yipping and screaming. The scanner crackled and the dispatcher was calling all units, probably a half dozen patrol cars on the all-night shift and they were being summoned, called, told to report one-by-one and get over to the prison fast and wait for further instructions. The night world was in motion.

The top drawer of the nightstand in my room slid open and I turned the night light on at the same time, feeling the Glock 19, checking the magazine and slipping the gun inside my waistband, went out and closed the door.

Danny answered after a half minute of knocking and calling out his name as low as I could. He stood in the dark doorway, nothing but his underwear.

“What the fuck do you want?” His hair was all over the place and when he saw I had a gun he pulled back from the door. I went in, closed the door and clicked on the ceiling light from the switch next to the door. I set the chain.

“Danny, sit down.

“The fuck you doin, man?

“Give me your cell phone.”

“I asked you a question.” He had his hands spread out halfway like maybe he was thinking he could make a move and stop what was happening.

“I said give me the phone.”

“Use the desk phone.”

“And the keys to the Caddy.”

“Oh, you’re not serious, dude. This ain’t going down like this. You think I don’t have backup?”

“Not here you don’t. You give me the phone and the keys or it gets messy, right now. I’m just along for the ride, right? Couple of days in Texas, doing a little job? That’s what you said. Little job with an accomplice you can pin the whole thing on if it goes down wrong.”

“I’m representing the union’s money that was stolen. It gets paid back this way, that’s what this is. Put the gun down. We’ll go over the details again, you dumb shit.” He started to move his hands a bit. The Colt was most likely pretty near him, like he was some kind of real pro with righteous plans to save people’s money, something that would sound good in a statement if we’d get caught. Two dumb rednecks trying to do the right thing. If he’d just laughed once, twice, instead of saying things to me that made me think he thought I was a cracker along for a joy ride with nothing to offer except handing him beer. Sit there while he drew foggy Xs on Plexiglas and talking in pre-arranged code so I wouldn’t know the whole deal, enough to sound like it might have been my idea.

“Put your hands down,” I said. “Lace your fingers together and put your hands in your lap where I can see them. My fingers moved along the trigger. NOW . . .DO IT NOW.” He did, his hands folded on his navy blue boxers like he was praying, shoulders slumped and his chin fell a bit, his eyes still on mine.

Clean towels were piled up on the chrome rack outside the bathroom and I walked backwards with the gun on Danny, pulled some towels down. I slid them with my feet until they were next to the bed. I grabbed the chair at the small desk into position where I could sit, pull the towels up and still hold the gun. The television was behind me too and I punched on the power until a channel came on with an infomercial for liquid cleaner that worked on your car and even your dog and the guy was laughing and the girl gave an 800 number. Order Now!

The towel knot tightened up okay, I cinched it real well and told Danny to hold his hands above his head. Danny protested and the girl on the television was asking the fella if he’d actually washed a dog and he said ‘He loved it! You’ll love it too!, sounding like he and the girl had that television banter just on the edge of late night good taste. I tied Danny’s his hands with the towels and used the long leftover cloth to wrap around his mouth. The towel didn’t really have any way to tie over his eyes so I left it dangling behind his head. I started with the bedside drawers, both sides, looking for the Colt. I searched his overnight bag and I was thinking I was going to have to turn my back on him, and it was there, in the dresser, under a pair of socks that he’d taken off that had that dampness that stays until you wash them. I checked the receiver and there was a bullet in the chamber. The magazine was full, eight rounds of .45 caliber.

“Cell phone’s in the car.” He had a smirk on his face.

The Colt was well-balanced and I put it in my front right pocket.

“Get up slow,” I said, “and stand right there.”

It was after midnight, sirens wailing all over town and it was a chance, sure, but the car was only thirty yards away. All we needed to do was get to the car. The phone was the only way I figured he’d have to get any information, and if I was right, it would make a lot of my wasted years kind of fade to the background.

“Wait there,” I said. I cut off the plug from the floor lamp, then I cut the cord at the base of the lamp. It wrapped tight around his wrists, partially hidden by the towels.

We made it to the car without anyone seeing us that I noticed. I told him to get in the car and he did. The Glock pressed to his ear, Danny pointed his chin at the glove box and I thought at first, why would he keep the phone there? If he’d be getting a message from someone, he’d want the phone close to him. I never checked the glove box. I closed the Caddy door and went to his room and gave myself five minutes to search for the phone. Then I had an idea. The desk phone. Danny’s phone would ring if I called the number from the desk phone and then I’d know where it was if it rang in the room. But desk phones keep records of numbers that are called.

Five minutes. I didn’t have the phone. Outside, the Loco Road sign was off and the pool was smooth like a black slab of Onyx. The Caddy door was open, and Danny was gone. The keys were in my pocket. The sirens were still wailing and I put the scanner ear piece in and heard the dispatchers chattering with the patrol cars, voices chirping in, Ten Four, Ten Eight, Ten Seven, snapping off radio codes, checking in and out of the police frequency.

Officers in route. . .SWAT team engaged. . . ETA—— ten minutes!

Another voice checked in, right behind me.

“Give me that gun.” Danny’s voice. Before I turned around, there was a thought of whether he’d been able to get the towel untied, make it look like he’d just gotten out of the pool, or maybe he was standing with his hands tied behind his back with white towels dragging behind his ass like a fucking Sheikh looking for his camel. And then it came to me, where the phone was, before I turned around and played right into his hands. Because he had the phone. He had to.

“Think I didn’t bring a backup gun?” he said. “The laser dot’s on your skull.”

With an earful of 10-7 10-8 dispatch-speak radio tension building on what had to be a prison riot to get money from a convicted man who never said Damn, I’m really sorry y’all, I fucked up, here’s all your money back, Danny’s phone rang. No fancy ring tone, Danny’s phone tinkled with a tonal quality that belied coyotes and ten codes and the wailing honking siren. The phone continued to jingle and I didn’t move.

His voice was soft. “Yeah?”

Drop and roll, that’s what they teach you for a reason. The grass was dry and soft to absorb my body when I hit and when I turned with the Glock pointed, Danny was running away and I knew he didn’t have any backup gun. The phone was my only chance. Danny would rat me out the moment any heat came his way and talking my way out of things wasn’t my specialty. With sirens wailing and the prison going into lockdown, the phone would be his only way of getting information. Text, a code, a voice message, something on that smart phone had the location of what Danny was looking for. Stryker’s money. Crouching behind a line of shrubs alongside the cement pool apron in the darkness, I swung the Glock on a low arc. A man wearing underwear and his hands tied couldn’t get far, but if he’d gotten his hands free or thrown on a shirt, he might move around the motel grounds without attracting much attention. I had the key to his room, so he couldn’t go back there. So I waited, and listened, tracking the motel lot with the gun at full arm’s length, thinking Danny had to make a physical move, sometime. The air had hit bottom, the temperature at its low point and the dawning day would heat up soon. I got comfortable in a crouch tracking the gun in a 180 degree arc, turning to check my back. No other movement, no sounds, sirens off. With the earpiece stuck in my ear I listened to a dispatcher squawking officers locations, barking messages and codes to squad cars and backup teams, a SWAT team standing by for a ‘Go’ command and I imagined automatic rifles trained on unknown targets, squinting through night vision scopes for shimmering pulsing ghosts, greenish and grainy. The infrared glare of human body heat.

My memory drifted, back to grim graveyard shifts packing poultry.

Stryker took a tour of the plant at night one time just after midnight. His hair grey and jelled, he kept looking at his watch, and I’d thought he wanted to get home and catch a late movie or wake up his wife, but I hated to attribute that quality to the old man, that he might be like the rest of us and want a quickie before turning in. He was on parade that night, smiling at the Latinas on the conveyer belt—Stryker prided himself on the fact that it was a clean, sanitary place for chickens to come to rest—and in the canning department, where steam guns went full blast during break and cleansed the place like a germ warfare laboratory, he found, the story went, a dead rat under a young woman’s purse. What he was doing looking under a woman’s purse? He’s said his assistant spotted it, but I hadn’t seen anyone with him. A sanitation violation, Stryker claimed. He took the woman into his office and offered her a simple solution. A blow job was the only sensible thing, he’d been said to say, or she’d not only be fired, he’d have her removed from the union. She’d never work in the industry again. A ‘rules violation’. Cannery Workers Local 62 shop steward Danny Mather stood by and said nothing. That’s what the woman had told some co-workers, that Danny had a smile on his face when she went to her knees and did what she was told to keep her damn job. She filed a grievance. It was dismissed before it even got to the union grievance committee. I’d mentioned it to Danny once. I asked him if what was being said was true, that he stood by and watched the woman lick Styker’s balls in order to feed her children. Danny said I had some awakening to go through. An awakening, he said, to better understand the way the world worked, in all its manifestations, and a bunch of gobbledy-bullshit that I told him I was ashamed to hear him say. After lunch break, I was out on the parking lot when the woman came out who’d been summoned to Stryker’s office, going out to her car, her shift half done, but her career finished, and I tried to talk to her. She kept on walking, and I heard her crying and talking quietly on her cell phone. I felt so bad for her I tried to call her later that day but her phone never picked up and she was gone. Danny won another vote for shop steward the next month or so and the issue never got discussed. I felt like I was carrying some kind of burden I couldn’t shake.

Purple bloomed on the horizon now and twenty yards away on the grass, I saw something. It was the white towel, and I flexed and stretched my legs, dispatch quiet near five minutes by then. The light switched on at the motel office. Two figures, one at the counter, the clerk wiping his eyes and pointing to the hallway. Danny walked out under the shadows of the overhang towards the room. In his boxer shorts, holding something in his hand. He passed the red white and blue light of the Pepsi machine, stopping further down the walk way at the door. He turned a key, went into the room.

I made it to the machine and had a Pepsi clunking down the chute into my hands in under thirty seconds. I cut a hole about an inch square on the bottom with my knife and poured a little bit out, and held the can so it wouldn’t leak any more Pepsi. I needed what was left.

Danny would be getting some clothes, wondering how he’d get the Caddy going, but I had a moment, a moment of surprise, and a mostly full can of Pepsi. The door to his room unlocked and I held the door closed, listening, and when I heard the shower, it was time to move in. He was humming, something bluesy, and then the shower went off and the sliding door opened, and I moved on him, holding the Pepsi can so I could plug the end with the Colt and when he saw me he smirked and dropped the towel like I was supposed to get horrified that a wet man would be standing naked in front of me with a wicked grin.

“You remember her name?” I said.

“You talkin’ shit, man. Way over your head.”

“Keep your hands in front of you.”

“I’ll cut you in. You think I’m not gonna take care of you?”

“There’s two questions. Do you remember her name?”

“This about you and the Mexican girl?”

“These are my questions. I’m along for the ride, remember?”

“Who’s name?”

“Wrong answer. Next question. You can say you’re sorry. Say you have some regrets, remorse.”

“That’s not even a question.”

“It’s close enough for you to suck your last chicken wing.”

“I don’t look back man, never have. How much are we talking about here? Ten grand? Make it twenty.”

“Her name was Juanita Benitez.”

“She don’t mean nothin.”

“Yes, she does. She means this.” The .45 burped through the Pepsi with a wet pop, not much more than a truck dropping a downshift on the highway. Danny had a hole in his forehead and a silly grin on his face, cherry-colored mist and a whole bunch of cordite-blasted Pepsi sliding down the glass shower door and after I wiped the gun down I laid the Colt on the bathroom tile, turned and went out the door and clicked it shut with the ‘Do Not Disturb’ placard swinging on the knob. The cell phone had an orange glow, like a palm-sized night light.

Wiping down my room didn’t take much time, and the Caddy let out a groan at first when I fired it up, but its power fed off high octane and ran like hell out onto the pavement and out past the prison where blinking lights and beacons and spotlights were dancing around the grounds like a fire-dance luau on Waikiki. Danny’s cell phone was winking again. The first message I’d picked up just after I turned on the Caddy was the one I’d expected. Something about ‘the to-go order ready for pickup. . .need delivery instructions’, something to that affect, and I’d keyed in my phone number, clicked a happy face on the text menu and this was the reply. The open road was flat, smooth and empty, a rosy dawn rising behind me, and I flipped open the cell phone to read the text.

‘Update account status; ready for delivery. It’s hot in the kitchen.’ An overpass was coming up and I pulled under the concrete and stopped the Caddy so I could punch in a response. Link him up with a website I used sometimes for transactions I didn’t need people nosing around in. Pay-Pal, Visa, off the books stuff. Collectibles, a passport photo, things that could be done without a problem, if you could get the money.

Bat Boy had to have a position in this whole thing, a kickback, a payoff, something that had to be pre-arranged. Best place to get up on all that was about a hundred miles from where I was, so I drove out and up onto an old county two-lane road past grazing Angus cattle and hay bales like stacks of pink gold in early morning light. The country radio station was playing Waylon Jennings, and then real sudden the DJ broke in and said there was more breaking news coming in, sent it over to a reporter on a phone saying he was live at the prison with an update.

The Cadillac had adjustable power seats with a bunch of switches on the driver’s side so I angled the seat back and turned off the radio. Into the marvelous Texas prairie I drove, where I wasn’t going to see another town for at least an hour.

A great day to drive. It was going to be a hot one.

 

Kurt’s first novel, Split Decision, details a desperate hunt for an injured and missing professional boxer, and is currently in agent-query mode. He’s a student in the University of California Riverside MFA program in creative writing.

His work has appeared in NoHo>LA, Urban Living Magazine, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and SaddoBox.com.

Kurt worked on-air as co-host for Inside Dodgers Baseball seen on television outlets throughout Southern California and Nevada.

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