Fiend's Last Job, fiction by Matt Phillips

One

You do this job long enough, and you get so you want an audi­ence; its not van­i­ty, but a vague notion that youre not appre­ci­at­ed. If a lit­tle old wife watch­es you smash her hus­bands hand to pieces with a sledge­ham­mer, then you know it happened—her screams and tears and vom­it make the whole thing real. Oh, theres 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 nights 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. Thats 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. Its 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 hes 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 youre 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. Ill go dou­ble or noth­ing if he wants.

You cant call him?

I dont have his num­ber, in case.

Right,the voice said. Right. Ill tell him when I see him. Look, Im sor­ry about get­ting you so soon after anoth­er job. Its just, theres a thing that came up and youre 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—thats where you stayed, right?

Out­side of there, but Im 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 times she need me?

If you could get over there around six, I bet shed be hap­py. Shell 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. Ill get it in the mail, should get to you day after tomor­row.

Thats fine.

You dont mind the wait?

Fine with me. I like the heat.

Two

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 didnt have a long drive—ten min­utes or so—but over the decades I learned that dis­ci­pline kept a habit fresh, and thats 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 wasnt 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, theres 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 didnt ask me to run to Phoenix.

It wasnt 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 build­ings 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 didnt 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 didnt. 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 didnt 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 smok­ers 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, womens blous­es. Where are you?

Back here.

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 shes 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, theres no way in hell. Id 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 dont take it as a threat—it’s just the way they are.

A car­tel?

Her shoul­ders bobbed and she lift­ed the mon­ey bag from the desk. Its 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.

Three

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—hes 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?

Whats Fair­man doing here?I moved my hand toward my ankle.

Fair­man said, “Dont pull a gun, Fiend. Youve 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 mans voice broke into my thoughts. Youre out, Fiend.

I looked at Fair­man. Dou­ble or noth­ing next week?

Nope,he said. I wont 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. Youre 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.

Four

Out­side the bil­liards hall, beside my car, Rosa stud­ied me with her brown eyes. What are you doing, friend?

I popped the Buicks trunk. Fair­man owes me mon­ey.I lift­ed my sledge­ham­mer, propped it on a shoul­der, and slammed the trunk lid. The clang sound­ed against the boule­vards 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.

mattphillipsMatt 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​.mattphillip​swriter​.com

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *