Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 020 - Jake Hinkson

THE LAST HOUR - JAKE HINKSON

I got off the bus at the corner of Carol Ave and Sale Boulevard, shifted my book bag to my right shoulder, and started walking home. The streetlights along Carol were blinking to life even though the sun still clung to the sky above the trees. I dug out my iPod and scrolled down to find the podcast I'd been listening to earlier, a lecture by a London philosopher about the worldwide financial crisis. I wanted to talk to my students about this guy. Maybe I'd play the lecture for them and have them write a short essay about it. I was still considering the utility of the assignment as I crossed in front of the big Baptist church at the corner of Carol and Boyd and saw a black limousine idling in front of the baseball field on the opposite side of the street.

I stopped. I couldn't make out the driver, but the back door opened and Ray got out and leaned against the side. The back door on the other side opened, and Ugo got out and walked around the back. He stood next to Ray.

Ray motioned me over. I put my iPod away, but otherwise I didn't move. Ugo and Ray both stood up straighter, each tilted in an opposite direction, each ready to break into a sprint if I made a run for it. Behind me, a car turned off Sale and passed us. None of us looked at it. Ugo glared at me. Ray grinned.

"Well?" he said in a normal tone of voice. On my right the Baptist church was dark and empty. Across the street, a large parking lot full of cars separated us from a small hospital up a short hill.

I nodded and walked over to them.

Ugo was black and Ray was white, but they looked like a couple of thick-necked brothers. They each wore a dark blue suit, and each had his suit coat unbuttoned, ready to pull his gun.

Ugo opened the door of the limo and slid in. I got in behind him and Ray slid in beside me. I set my bag down at my feet.

Sitting across from me was Keesling. He didn't say a word, and that didn't surprise me. He didn't look any different than he had nearly four years ago. He was balding, but he had been balding since he was nineteen. His long, smooth forehead seemed to crash down into his face. I could barely see his close-set gray eyes hammered deep into their sockets. His small, lipless mouth scrunched up to a nose grown fat with scar tissue.

"How have you been?" I asked.

His mouth curled up at one side.

"Fine. You?"

I nodded. "I've been okay."

He smoothed the creases along his slacks. "You've been better than okay, Hayes."

"Have I?"

"Sure. First things first, though. Ugo, why don't you go through that bag there? Ray, you pat him down for me."

Ugo picked up my bag and combed through it. Ray made me sit up while he patted me down, felt my armpits, the small of my back, my crotch and my ankles.

He shook his head at Keesling.

Ugo said, "He doesn't have anything but papers and books."

Keesling's lip curled again. "What's he reading these days?"

"Religion, looks like."

"Religion," Keesling said to me.

"I guess."

"You always were a funny guy, you know that? I always liked you because you were smart, but I remember—do you remember me telling you a long time ago that those books were going to make you weird?"

"I do remember that."

"Where were we?"

"We were driving down to New Orleans just before Katrina."

"That's right. Driving down there right as that fucking storm hit." He looked at Ugo. "I ever tell you about that?"

"No," Ugo said placing the bag on the floor in front of me.

I could only see the back of the driver's head, but I didn't think I knew him.

Keesling said, "We were going down there to talk to that fucking Herb. Remember that asshole? We had to talk to him about some fucking Russian business. I hated dealing with the Russians, and I hated dealing with Herb, so I took Hayes down there with me."

"Good times," I said.

"Cut his nuts off with a pair of his wife's garden shears that night. Didn't want to, but the bastard didn't give us much of a choice, did he?"

"He was tough," I said.

"Still is."

"He still around?"

"Oh sure. Nutless freak." Keesling drummed his fingers against his plush seat. "But I don't want to talk about him. I want to talk about you."

I nodded and laced my fingers together on my lap.

He said, "You don't seem too scared, Hayes."

"I'm scared," I said.

"But not too much."

I didn't answer him.

"Why do you think we're here?"

"Not to relive old memories of castrating guys for information?"

He shook his head.

I looked at him. I knew he wanted me to say it. If they had wanted to kill me, they could have done it anytime. They clearly knew where I lived. I'm sure they knew about Gabby. They knew who I was married to, where I worked, where I went running every morning. Keesling would know everything before he braced me. Now he wanted to watch me squirm.

I said, "You want me to tell you why I left."

"I was kind of wondering. I mean, one day, I looked up and you were gone. Your shit was still sitting in your apartment, but you were AWOL. Made us all worry."

"I didn't turn state's," I said.

"I know."

He stared at me.

"I had to go," I said.

"Because you…what? Had a burst of conscience?"

I shook my head.

Keesling spread his hands out. "What then? You can't just fucking leave. You know that. I know you know that. It's not even a matter of wanting to. It's impossible, physically impossible to leave. You'd have to go to the fucking moon to get away, and even then it's not for sure. Leaving is like asking to be found. It's like begging me to come find you. So I did, and it was easy. You knew it would be easy, too. You didn't go that far, only a couple of states over. And you had that asshole Platt work up fake credentials and shit for you so you could get this stupid job teaching religion and philosophy at a community college to a bunch of fucking middle-age nursing students. You got married. Gabrielle Kahane. She teaches yoga. That's it. You fucking left and ran off, and I find you two states over married to a yoga teacher."

I stared at him. "What do you want me to say?"

"I want you to tell me why."

I sighed and looked down at my hands. It was odd. I talked for a living now, talking to a room full of attentive students who wrote down the things I said and came to my office to ask me questions about them. Now, I had an audience of four people and I couldn't find the words.

I shook my head. "What could I say that would explain it?"

"Give it a shot."

Outside, the world had gone dark, punctuated here and there by streetlamps trailing off into the distance. Ugo and Ray sat on either side of me without looking at me. Their shoulders pressed into me, but they stared straight ahead, waiting to be told what to do. The driver stared at me in the rearview mirror. He had heavy eyebrows and dumb green eyes. Like everyone else, he was waiting for my answer.

"I didn't want to do it anymore," I said. "That's all. I couldn't do it any longer. I thought this world was a cold, godless place, but I couldn't continue to…hurt and kill people. I don't know if you can understand that. It just wore me down. It wasn't a sudden realization. It was a slow accumulation over time, mixed with what I had read and thought about. I just couldn't torture and kill people anymore.

"So I left. Yes, I knew you'd come find me. I knew I couldn't run away, so I walked away instead. I got a job. I started a life. I knew you'd find me, but I thought it would be sooner. I waited. A year. Two years. In that second year I met a woman. She fell in love with me. That was the first time that had ever happened. I fell in love with her, but I held off for a long time. I even broke it off for a while. I broke her heart and told her to leave me alone, but she…didn't."

He smiled. "You thought we'd gone away."

"I don't know. I don't know what I thought. Maybe I didn't think."

"Women do that to your brain. Confuse your thinking. I could have told you that."

"I waited for you, but when you didn't show, I stopped waiting."

He turned his head to the driver. "Let's go."

The limousine pulled away from the curb.

Keesling stared at me.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"To the Hilton over by the airport," he said.

"Why?"

"Why do you think we came out here, Hayes? To hear your fucking sob story?"

"No," I said.

"No, we did not. We didn't wait to track you down, either. Ugo and Ray tracked down your dumb ass two years ago. I could have sent them out here to get you, but I wanted to wait until the time was right."

We'd left my neighborhood and we merged onto the interstate heading for the airport. I wondered if they were taking me back to DC. There was also the possibility, of course, that despite what they had said they were taking me out in the woods to kill me.

"What do you want?" I asked.

"What did you think was going to happen when you walked away?"

"What do you mean?"

"You said you wanted us to find you. What'd you think was going to happen when we did?"

For some reason, at that moment I thought of Gabby. She was probably home by now.

Sometimes she made it home first; sometimes I did. She'd be looking through the refrigerator about now, murmuring about the possibility of ordering pizza. Sometime in the next few minutes the cell phone in my pocket would vibrate because my wife would be wondering where I was.

"I thought you would kill me," I said.

"You want to die?" Keesling asked.

"No."

"I know you don't want to die now, but did you back then?"

"No. But I didn't care much about not dying, either. I didn't care much either way."

He nodded and settled back into the seat. "So you ran away. You knew that we were going to come find you and chop your fucking head off, but you still ran anyway."

"Wasn't a matter of what you were going to do," I said. "It was a matter of what I was going to do. I was through killing people for money. I was sick of breaking women's legs and cutting guys' balls off. I wasn't going to do that anymore. If that meant you were going to come after me, then that's what was going to happen. All I could control was what I was going to do. So I walked."

The driver took the exit for the airport.

"You know, it's funny," Keesling said. "It's funny you mention Herb, old ball-less Herb. He's in town. On business. Staying, as it just so happens, at the Hilton over here."

The driver pulled onto the service road, rode down a while and turned into the empty parking lot of a some chain restaurant still under construction. He parked at the edge of the parking lot where, through the clear plastic tarps shrouding the skeleton of the restaurant, I could see the front door of the Hilton across the street.

I stared at Keesling for a moment. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying Herb is in that hotel over there. Room 3118. Just sitting there watching television, waiting for a knock on the door. Maybe he's watching television, I don't know for sure. I'll tell you one thing, he's smoking. Smokes all the time now, four or five packs a day. He was always a twitchy fucker, but these days he's like one of those things at the hardware store that shakes the paint cans. Non-stop shaking. Man needs his balls, I guess."

Ray chuckled at that. Ugo chuckled a little, too.

I said, "And you want me to go knock on his door."

Keesling flipped down the seat cushion next to him and removed something wrapped in a white handkerchief. He pulled the edges of the handkerchief back, and I could see he was holding a Glock 19 with a silencer.

"Is that my old gun?"

"You should know. It's been my only memento of you all these years."

"You waited until Herb came into my town to come find me."

"Herb's not here by accident, Hayes." Keesling wrapped the handkerchief around the grip and handed me the gun, barrel-first. I took it and placed it on my lap.

"Why?" I said. "Why do I need to do this for you?"

"Ain't got a choice. I waited for the pieces to fall into place, and then I brought Herb and you together again. You're going to go in there and kill his twitchy ass for me and you know why? Because I told you to. Ugo and Ray could do it. Hell, I could do it. But I'm telling you to do it. So you will. That wife of yours is alive and well right now. She doesn't have to be alive and well, though. You know that. You know because you've been the guy who beats up the other guy's wife. You've killed the odd wife or two in your time, so you know precisely what I'm talking about."

I closed my eyes. I thought of Gabby glancing at the clock on the stove, turning her head to the door, digging her cell phone out of her jeans pocket.

Keesling said. "We're all expendable. You know that. If it wasn't me and Ugo and Ray, it would have been one of the other guys. Someone would have found you and your little wife living in the suburbs. Someone would have found you and reminded you that you ain't Jonathan Woodson. Not anymore. He was born three years ago, but he died tonight, right here in this car."

I opened my eyes and looked at Keesling. His face was as tight as a fist.

I looked down at the gun. I looked at the hotel. I looked back at the gun and pulled the clip out. It felt full. Fifteen rounds. I loaded a cartridge into the chamber and put my hand and the gun over my heart like I was going to say the pledge of allegiance. I closed my eyes for a second.

"Sometimes you ain't got nothing but bad choices," Keesling said.

"I know," I said.

I shot Ugo under the chin and blew his brains over the backseat. Ray tried to pivot on his hip, and Keesling lunged for me. I shot Ray through the chin and blew half his jaw out the window. I kicked Keesling in the chest, and when he flopped back against the seat cushion trying to unholster his own gun, I shot him once in the forearm and once in the chest. Ray howled and clutched his mangled face while the driver threw open his own door and scrambled to unbuckle his seatbelt. I shot the driver once in the back of the head, leaned against Ugo and shot Ray in the ear.

Blood dripped from the ceiling. My hands, the gun, my clothes, hair and face were all red with blood. Keesling, bloody and lying against the cushion staring at the ceiling, was still alive.

He coughed and wheezed and clutched his chest with his good arm. He squeezed his eyes shut. He coughed again. "Jonathan…"

"Don't try to talk," I said.

He shook his head, gulped for breath and said, "Jonathan…Woods…on is still dead."

He died smiling at me.

I dropped the gun and leaned against the seat, and from my bag I could hear my phone begin to vibrate.

I stared at the bag, listening to her call me, until it stopped.

Finally, I went through the pockets of the dead men, dug out their wallets and flopped them on the hood of the car. In the trunk, I found suitcases. I stripped down naked in the moonlight and cleaned myself off the best I could with some water from a cooler on the construction site. I found some clothes that fit me, jeans, tennis shoes that were too small, and a dress shirt. I went through the wallets and pulled out five thousand dollars in cash.

Jonathan Woodson's phone vibrated again from inside the car. His wife, calling earlier just to see where he was on his journey home, was now beginning to get worried. She didn't know he had died.

The phone vibrated, and I wandered away from the car, not knowing where I was going, still thinking about that other man's wife.

BIO: Visit Jake Hinkson's website The Night Editor for more about himself and his projects.