You do this job long enough, and you get so you want an audience; it’s not vanity, but a vague notion that you’re not appreciated. If a little old wife watches you smash her husband’s hand to pieces with a sledgehammer, then you know it happened—her screams and tears and vomit make the whole thing real. Oh, there’s always the money. But I reached a point along about my forties when I stopped caring for the cash. I need enough for a steak dinner and a night’s worth of Rolling Rock; simple tastes keep me happy; I never did latch onto fancy pleasures.
When I got the final call from corporate, I was laying in a lopsided motel bed on the outskirts of Blythe. That’s a little old California town halfway between Los Angeles and Phoenix; I still had dirt beneath my fingernails from the night before, and fresh blisters shone plump on my palms. The temperature was 110 degrees—faulty air conditioner in the room—and my cellphone stuck to my ear when I answered it. “It’s Fiend here, you got me on a day off.”
“You already finished that other job, huh?”
The voice—I knew this one—had a whistle to it, like when a guy gets a few teeth knocked out and has to tell the story before he’s ready.
I said, “Finished late last night. Already called it in.” What you do is leave a message when you finish a job. They send you the rest of the money in the post, or you can pick it up when you’re back in town.
“I just got here,” the voice said. “Hadn’t heard, but—”
“Is Fairman in?”
“No, not today. You want to leave a message?”
“Tell him he owes me four hundred from the Monday night game. I’ll go double or nothing if he wants.”
“You can’t call him?”
“I don’t have his number, in case.”
“Right,” the voice said. “Right. I’ll tell him when I see him. Look, I’m sorry about getting you so soon after another job. It’s just, there’s a thing that came up and you’re closest.”
I switched the cellphone to my other ear and let sweat build up on that side. I thought about the blue pool outside, how it was surrounded by sun-bleached lawn chairs and a few rainbow-colored umbrellas. A couple beers and a swim, that was next for me. “Something in Phoenix?’
“No, Blythe—that’s where you stayed, right?”
“Outside of there, but I’m close.”
The voice explained that there was a lady who ran a dry cleaning service in the business district. This lady needed help with a meeting, something about a delivery from little old Mexico. I imagined it was cartel business, had the drug trade written all over it, but I guessed I could stand there and look pretty (and tough) for twenty minutes.
“What time’s she need me?”
“If you could get over there around six, I bet she’d be happy. She’ll pay you as soon as it’s done. You want me to put the pay from yesterday in the mail, send it to the PO Box?”
Part of me wanted to run up to Laughlin and spend a few days in one of those river casinos; I liked the blackjack tables. “Tell you what: Split it in half and send that. Keep the rest in the bank for me. I may run up to Laughlin for a day or two.”
The voice said, “Right, save some cash for when you get back. I’ll get it in the mail, should get to you day after tomorrow.”
“You don’t mind the wait?”
“Fine with me. I like the heat.”
You drive more than anything in this profession. That, or you sit in a car and wait for something to happen, or you wait for somebody to call you, or you wait for so-and-so or whoever to walk out of this or that place. What it meant was a pinched nerve in my lower back; that evening, after my swim, I did some full hamstring stretches and a few deep squats before I climbed into the Buick. I didn’t have a long drive—ten minutes or so—but over the decades I learned that discipline kept a habit fresh, and that’s about as much as you can control in this life. Unless you have a gun in your hand; I carried a gun myself, but it wasn’t something I used often. Like anyone, I waved it around when I had to, but I never used a gun when my sledgehammer would do. My grandfather—may God rest his eternal soul—taught me to use the least of tools for any job; that helps you make sure to put your own grit into it. After all, there’s very little a bullet can do that a hammer and a few nails can’t. You just have to get closer, that’s all.
As I drove, the sun glared eyelike over the highway, a scalpel-thin strip that ran into knuckled desert-scape. I’d run that stretch from Blythe to Phoenix more times than I wanted to count. The way to get through it is simple: You put your sunglasses over your eyes and latch one hand onto the steering wheel. I thanked God the voice didn’t ask me to run to Phoenix.
It wasn’t far from my motel to the Blythe business district. I got off at the second exit, turned right, and found parking along the street near a billiards hall. Out the dusty windshield, I marked the dry cleaning service at the next intersection. It sat on the street corner, a faded blue building with a Native American mural on one side; the mural showed a warrior crouched against a slit of moon. In one hand, he held a long willow stick that curved at the end. I noticed he was scratching a line in the desert sand and, behind the line, a blue cloud came after it like water. Wrought-iron covered the building’s windows like prison bars. I watched for fifteen minutes. That was another thing all the years taught me: Watch before you run into something, even if the corporation sets the job up for you.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t suspect something odd with this job. I was getting up there; mid-fifties put me on the outside edge of productive, and I knew that Scrubber Joe had been put town before Christmas. Nobody knew why, but I had this itch inside me that said it was age.
Maybe it was time for me? No—I was still granite when it came to difficult jobs, and I always came back with what the corporation wanted. Here though, the chance for a drug angle made me uneasy. Most times, my gigs had to do with gamblers. As a heavy gambler myself, I knew when a man was lying, when he had the money, and when he didn’t. I also knew—call it instinct—when a person could get the money. I carved out my niche, as they say.
Careful, Fiend, I reminded myself, careful with this one.
I left the car unlocked and crossed the street toward the blue building. Traffic was light and the sun began its low sweep into the mountains. Shadows ran from the buildings behind me. I stopped and scanned the street; I was pretty sure nobody was watching the building. Maybe the meet was somewhere else.
I reached the building and entered. I kept one hand close to my right leg; I had a small pistol strapped to my ankle, a professional obligation—I said before, I didn’t plan on using the gun. It was cool inside the building. There was a counter and cash machine in front, a spot to hang garments off to one side and, behind that, a snake-looking machine that rotated the clothes when you pushed a button. I called to the silence: “Anybody here?”
“Back here.” A woman’s voice—not old—with a smoker’s edge.
I moved through colored dresses hanging in plastic bags and walked past the snake-machine. It was full with clothes, all kinds of colors: Coats, dresses, button-downs, slacks, women’s blouses. “Where are you?”
I followed the voice into a dingy office with an old desk. Receipts were pinned to the wall in bunches and a square-top computer sat on the desk. A wet soap smell filled the building, but it was strongest in the office. There was a small woman with long dark hair in a chair. She stood and held out her hand.
I shook it. “They call me Fiend.”
“Fiend is pretty close to friend,” she said. “I’m Rosa.”
“Hey, Rosa.” She was quite beautiful with soft brown eyes—man, those eyes!—and a coffee complexion. A memory slipped into my head: I saw a young girl with those same eyes hunched in a dark closet; I saw my own hands reach for her—I pushed the memory back where it belonged. “We doing this here, or somewhere else?” I leaned against the doorway and studied my dirty fingernails.
She cleared her throat and sank into the chair. She swiveled to a beige file cabinet and opened a bottom drawer; there was an upended lockbox in the drawer and she dialed in the combination. “Across the street,” she said, “in the pool hall. Did you see it?”
“Sure, I saw it when I came in.”
The lockbox opened and Rosa scooped fifteen fat bundles of cash into a canvas shopping bag. The bills were well-worn twenties; I knew it must be street money. Okay, so she’s paying somebody for something. A debt, maybe.
Rosa turned to me and scratched one cheek. “Thanks for coming, Friend.”
“Is there anything I should know before we go in there?”
She lifted her eyebrows and I had that same feeling as before; those eyes are familiar, I thought. Could I have seen her before, on another job? No, there’s no way in hell. I’d remember a woman like her. I remembered most people. That was part of the job.
“Do you have a gun?”
“A pistol,” I said. “I hope not to use it.”
“You won’t. It’s just good to have. They may say angry things to you, but don’t take it as a threat—it’s just the way they are.”
Her shoulders bobbed and she lifted the money bag from the desk. “It’s not drugs. I promise. A money exchange, that’s all.”
I bit a fingernail, hesitated, turned away from her. “Let’s get this over with. I got a medium rare steak waiting for me.”
Standard billiards hall: Dim light glaring over three rows of off-kilter, well-worn pool tables. A bar on the east side of the room, and a broken mirror behind a row of cheap liquor bottles. Rosa nodded at the bartender and sauntered through the tables. Against the far wall, I spotted a large shadow of a man—he’s bigger than you, Fiend—and a small man with a lopsided mustache and reading glasses. I lingered a few feet behind as Rosa approached. Closer, I recognized the shadow; he leaned into a shard of light and his gap-toothed grin surprised me.
“Fairman?” I grew conscious of the pistol strapped to my ankle. How long for me to reach it? A second? Less? “What are you doing here?”
Rosa tossed the money bag onto a pool table; it dropped like cement mix.
The little man said, “Is it all there?”
“All fifteen thousand, like we agreed.” Rosa tilted one hip. “You want to count it?’
“What’s Fairman doing here?” I moved my hand toward my ankle.
Fairman said, “Don’t pull a gun, Fiend. You’ve made it this far.”
I hesitated, looked to Rosa. Those eyes again; she stared at me like a child. And then I had it. A child. I recognized those eyes and a memory grabbed at my throat: That tiny girl in little old Gila. It had to be, what, twenty years ago? I remembered how I pulled her from a closet down there; it was in a safe house run by a coyote who called himself Dagger, a hard-eyed son-of-a-gun from El Centro. He held people he brought over hostage, kept them locked in the safe house until their families sent him more money. Every so often, in this job, a person gets what they deserve. Dagger got it, and I gave it to him. Nails in the kitchen table and—I’ll admit it—a bullet for the road. But I found the girl there. I took her to the police station, dropped her off and, before she turned to look for me, I was doing ninety miles-per-hour on I-8.
Sometimes they come back, I thought. Rosa did.
The little man’s voice broke into my thoughts. “You’re out, Fiend.”
I looked at Fairman. “Double or nothing next week?”
“Nope,” he said. “I won’t be seeing you anymore. Not unless you talk.”
“He won’t.” Rosa stared at me, her brown eyes unwavering. “Let’s go, Friend. It’s my turn to buy you a steak dinner—I know a place.”
I’m out, I thought. Rosa bought me my retirement. Little old Rosa. “But I got no money, no savings. Not besides what I have on me, and from the job last night. How am I going to live when—”
“Push it if you want to, Fiend.” Fairman stepped toward me, dipped a hand into his pocket. “You’re an old man and there are two ways out. This,” he nodded at Rosa, “and the other way.”
The hard way, I thought, and the worse way.
Little old Rosa. My, oh my.
Outside the billiards hall, beside my car, Rosa studied me with her brown eyes. “What are you doing, friend?”
I popped the Buick’s trunk. “Fairman owes me money.” I lifted my sledgehammer, propped it on a shoulder, and slammed the trunk lid. The clang sounded against the boulevard’s light traffic. I squinted at Rosa and motioned to the billiards hall. “I need to go in there and take it from him.” And then, with a half-smile, I said: “I sure could use an audience.”
Matt Phillips lives in San Diego. His books are REDBONE, BAD LUCK CITY, and THREE KINDS OF FOOL ( August 2016, from All Due Respect Books). More information at: www.mattphillipswriter.com