Friday, April 17, 2009

March's Contest Second Place Winner: Eric Beetner

PAST DUE - ERIC BEETNER

“That’s it. Fuck this. I’m outta here.”

Carlos reached for the handle on the passenger door but I grabbed his arm and held him in place on the front seat of the car.

“You can’t just ditch me, man,” I pleaded.

“You didn’t say nothing about it being Charlie Briggs. He’s a psycho, all his guys are psychos. I don’t want to be on his bad side. Not even for you.”

Carlos jerked his arm from my grip and punched open the door. A blast of cold air from outside swept through the front seat like a nor’easter. I shivered but I wasn’t quite sure it was from the cold. If Carlos was abandoning me at this stage in the game I was fast running out of options.

“Pay the money, man. That’s all you can do,” was his parting advice.

He slammed the door and the cold was trapped inside, left to fight it out with the heater which was already fighting a losing battle with the aging battery in the even older engine of the positively ancient Oldsmobile.

Carlos was supposed to be my muscle. Years ago I faced the fact that I don’t have any so if it wasn’t Carlos it was any number of other guys who have more muscle than they can use so they rent it out to weaklings like me. Guys who owe money. Money they don’t have.

It was ten thousand. Not too bad. I’d been down in deeper holes than that, but when I couldn’t get that up in time it turned to twenty. Then forty and now eighty.

Eighty grand in the hole to Charlie Briggs wasn’t a place that even the most seasoned spelunker wanted to be.

Last week on the due date, which came and went with no payment from me, two thick-necked types in black suits and turtlenecks paid a visit to my Mom. An eighty-two year-old woman who has nothing to do with this now uses a walker and takes more Vicodin than a woman half her age should be on. That just ain’t right.

They made some threats to her but she didn’t know what the hell they were on about. She thinks some gang of toughs broke in for fun just to beat up an old lady. Originally she had said rape but she was still just worked up from the invasion. I love my Mom to death but even I know that no one wants to rape her. C’mon.

Another week has passed and none of my contacts panned out. I’m looking at $160,000 next week. Things are starting to look a little....bleak. That’s why Carlos.

Hell, it was worth a shot.

Midnight was approaching. The next meet-up. Briggs himself never shows. He’s got an army of Carloses and they all know my face and carry a balance sheet in their pockets. God damn turtlenecks look ridiculous.

*

My plan B - or E, F, G, H at this point - was to make some sort of down payment. That meant going by Gina’s. That meant getting a tongue lashing, and not the good kind.

Gina was the woman scorned and she had a hot enough temper when we were together. Now though....sheesh.

I knocked on her door and I knew as soon as I had done it - I banged too loud. She was already pissed off before she even got to the peep hole. I saw the shadow over the tiny lens and I heard her mutter something foul.

The door opened but the chain stayed in place. I started right in with contrition.

“I know it’s late, I know you told me not to come and I know you don’t want to see me.”

“You know a lot. Do you know that if you don’t get your ass out of here in about ten seconds I’m calling the police?”

“You wouldn’t call the police.” I gave her the eyes. She used to give me whatever I wanted with the eyes. Not anymore.

“You’re right. But I will call Maurice.”

I shivered again. My old partner, now with my old girl. Things ended badly between all three of us. I wasn’t anxious to have to explain myself to him right now. I was having a hard enough time trying to negotiate my way past this border to what used to be our apartment. I always told Gina that she should work for homeland security and stop terrorists from coming into our country. She don’t give an inch for nobody.

“I swear this is the last time I’ll ever come here again but this is life or death.”

“Can I get that in writing?”

“I’ll put it in blood.”

The door closed and a few seconds later it opened again but the chain was still in place. Gina was holding a small knife through the opening. She stared me down and although I couldn’t see it behind the half-closed door I knew she was jutting that hip out to one side the way she did.

I took the knife and didn’t think twice. I sliced my finger and showed her the blood that bubbled to the surface. She knew I was serious. It was our thing. Long story.

The door opened fully and I stepped in.

Maurice had been treating her right. The couch was new and the TV was one of those big plasma flat screens. It still played shitty reality shows and Gossip Girl but it was big and loud.

“I just need to get something I left here.” I peeked over her shoulder and spotted the clock on the wall. 10:37. Still time but midnight would be here soon. I could start to feel the sweat rise in dots on my forehead the way it does when I get stressed. Gina used to give me shit for how much I sweat. Said when I came home from a job I smelled like a locker room hamper full of jockstraps. Crime can be stressful. What can I say?

“You don’t have a damn thing here any more.” There went that hip. She was still beautiful. Sicilian and Puerto Rican. A deadly combination. Black hair, blacker heart. I loved them both. Why the hell did I ever cheat on her?

“You didn’t know about it. Take me ten seconds then I’m gone for good.”

Something terribly dramatic happened on her reality show and she was distracted for a split second; in which I moved to the bathroom. I shut the door behind me and ignored her banging once I had the lock set.

I moved quickly to the medicine cabinet, one of those cheap contractor grade tin ones with the flip out mirror door. What I wanted was behind it. I tugged at it and got a little bit of movement then found a hairbrush with a wooden handle that I wedged into the gap to pry it the rest of the way off the wall.

It came down with a crash and the contents spilled out into the sink and the mirror cracked but didn’t shatter glass everywhere. At least that was good.

Gina went nuts, banging and screaming. She said she was off to call Maurice.

I was going nuts myself. Taped to the back was a gun. Fine. I’d put that there. The ten grand I’d also put there was missing. Just a remnant of duct tape outlining where it used to be.

I flipped over the cheap cabinet to see if it had fallen off and ended up mixed in with the toothpaste and - what was that? Valtrex? Fucking Maurice.

It hadn’t. Now I was pissed.

I spotted some band-aids in the jumble of junk and wrapped one around my finger where I had sliced myself. Now it seemed that it was an unnecessary sacrifice, what with the money gone. I got pissed for what I let myself do for Gina.

I pocketed the gun and burst out into the apartment.

“Where the hell is it?” I demanded, trying on my best tough-guy voice. My best, not the best.

Gina was just hanging up the phone. Not good.

“Where is what?” She still had the knife in her hand.

“You know what!”

“No, I don’t!”

“The money. My emergency fund. On back of the medicine cabinet!”

“I don’t fucking know! Maurice was in there a few weeks ago. Did the same shit, breaking everything. He must have it. You can ask him when he gets here.”

I brought the gun back in a striking position, ready to pistol whip the girl I used to love. She flinched and I rushed forward. It was the first time I actually saw her scared of me. Not as scared as I was of myself. I didn’t want to beat Gina. I just wanted the money and for Briggs to stop hurting my Mom.

A run-in with Maurice wasn’t going to help the situation so I lowered my arm, satisfied that I got her to cower, and left my old home.


*

I stopped at the S&M Dinette. Sal and Mario died never knowing what was so funny about the name.

An ex-con named Qualls ran the place now and he was the only one behind the counter at 10:53 when I entered. He knew me well enough to not like me. Seems like it’s only a matter of time for most everyone.

“Coffee.”

He nodded and turned his back on me to get it. I drummed my fingers like Buddy Rich on the counter. When Qualls came by to pour he looked down at them and waited for me to stop before he filled my cup. I felt like a school boy scolded by a history professor. One that could kill me as soon as put me in detention.

Maybe with the speed of the caffeine I could think.

I couldn’t.

I drummed more. Spun on my stool. Ran my fingers through my hair, felt it thinning as I did and turned to tapping my foot. Qualls kept shooting me looks like I was jerking off in church. It was his joint, though.

“Can I use the phone?”

“No.” Qualls was a lifelong smoker. All it took was that two-letter word to tell.

“C’mon, Qualls. I’ll leave you a quarter.”

“Said no.”

He sipped at his own cup of coffee. Maybe it was decaf but he moved slow as a stretch in jail and twice as quiet.

“It’s really important,” I whined. He’d said his peace and now just looked right past me. “It’s about my Mom. She’s eighty something and in poor health.” Not a thing registered on his face.

“Jesus Qualls even a single-cell organism like you had to have a Mother.”

He set his cup down and let me know silently that I should shut up.

Behind me, a voice joined the conversation.

“If you’re planning on calling Mr. Briggs, just tell me and I can take a message to him.”

I spun my stool around and saw one of the goons whose name I didn’t know or care to. He stood - a tower of black from the high sheen of his shoes up to the turtleneck and back down to the leather gloves on his hands.

This wasn’t Manny, the guy I was supposed to meet.

“You’re early.” I tried to swallow but my throat tightened up and I couldn’t quite get it down.

“I’m not here to collect. Just passing by. Keeping an eye on you.”

An eye on me? He had spies?

“I got another hour.”

“So you do.”

He waited for me to continue. I had nothing. He flexed the leather gloves with a squeak.

“So....,” I tried to shoo him away, “at midnight then.” Like I was confirming a dinner reservation.

“Until then.” If he had a hat he would have tipped it. He moved to the door. “By the way,” he said with a smug smile. “If you need me to get a message to your Mother. I can do that too. I’ll be seeing her.”

He waved and left. The bell over the door tinkled like a cat’s collar.

I was seething at the implied threat and scared shitless at my lack of anything to do about it.

Both feelings got turned up a notch when I felt the cold metal against my ear. The long chambers of the double barrels amplified the cocking of the hammer, the sound ricocheting against the inside of my skull. I shifted my eyes enough to see the mirror behind the counter and saw Qualls with the shotgun pressed to my head.

“Get out,” he said so quiet I almost had to ask him to repeat it. I got the drift, though.

I eased down from the stool and moved slowly towards the door wondering if I should stop long enough to fish out a dollar for the coffee.

I didn’t.

*

I found a phone booth that smelled like a urinal next to a Greyhound station. When I stepped in and closed the door it smelled even stronger like I was suddenly inside a bum’s bladder. The floor was sticky. This is what cell phones have done to phone booths in this country - turned them into bathrooms.

I called Little Willie. No, his name is not William and yes his dick is that small.

“Who’s this?” was how he answered. Not one for etiquette.

“Little Willie I need a favor.”

“Aw shit. Call someone else. Your favors are all used up in this town.”

“It’s not money.”

“Seriously. Try another city, another state. For Pete’s sake try Canada.”

“I need an address.”

I explained my idea for an insurance policy.

“I don’t know....”

That was better than a flat-out no. If there was room to weasel in there I was just the weasel to do it.

“Little Willie, do I need to remind you of why you owe me a favor?”

I assumed not. He paused, though. “A little someone, slightly underage...” I could hear him swallow hard. “...delivered to your back door. How long has it been since he was last seen?”

“You sure you want that address?”

“I’m sure. It’s all I got at this point.”

“Well, you didn’t get it from me.”

“Of course not.” I hung up and left the phone booth and bumped into a guy in a soiled overcoat, ripped pants and three layers of socks instead of shoes. I think he was waiting to use the urinal that I had been occupying with a phone call. I shuddered at the thought of how close I held that receiver to my mouth.

Out on the street I spat a few times on my way to Little Willie’s place.

*

He owned the whole three-story building. I only had inklings of what went on there and I didn’t really want to know the truth of what happened on the top floor or, God forbid, the basement.

I rang the buzzer. The lights were off. I waited and rang again.

The mail slot opened and a slip of paper poked out. On it was an address.

"Willie?”

“Take it and go. Fast. I don’t want anyone to see you here.”

I snatched the paper.

“We’re even,” he said behind the closed door.

“Let me say a proper thanks, Little Willie. I hope I don’t need to use this but if I do it’s a life saver.”

“Fuck off and don’t come back.” The mail slot snapped shut.

I pocketed the slip of paper and felt the cold bite into me. It had to be 11:30 by now so I had just enough time to get to Manny and try to song and dance him one more time about why I didn’t have eighty grand.

The street was empty. I thought I could hear vague sounds coming from inside Little Willlie’s building but nothing that sounded inviting.

I started walking uptown. No cabs drove by. With the cold there were no windows open to spill out the sounds of late-night TV or drunken arguments like usual.

I guess money was tight all over so people weren’t really taking to the streets looking for fun. Even the dope dealers had stayed in.

A cat hustled by in the gutter on the opposite side of the street. It was black with white ears and it stayed low and moved fast. Just about when it got even with me a large rat moved out from a storm drain and frightened the cat. It jumped up and yowled like a Halloween sound effects record and the fight was on. The cat and rat tumbled and tussled in the gutter rolling up into one big fur ball before somersaulting backwards into the storm drain. I figured the cat for a goner once they were on the rat’s home turf.

*

I made it to the meeting place with five minutes to spare. I assumed that Briggs had more than just Manny there but damned if I could see anyone else.

An elevated train rolled by a block away and that broke the silence for a beat. Not that I could hear anything from the scramble of ideas and plans that were firing off in my brain like the finale of a New Year’s fireworks show.

Carlos had dumped me, I’d sworn in blood not to see Gina again, I played my card with Little Willie and I still didn’t have eighty-thousand to show for it.

Manny’s black Cadillac rolled to a stop. It was a vintage job and big as a parade float and all eight cylinders rumbled like an earthquake until he cut the engine. He got out alone.

We met on the corner. I didn’t see or hear another soul but I knew Manny had friends close by, which was more than I could say.

“We meet again,” he said with a smile.

“Third time’s the charm,” I added, trying to match his jovial mood.

“Last time I hope.”

I just shrugged.

“I don’t see a bag or anything,” Manny said peeking around my back to make sure I wasn’t hiding anything. “You fit the eighty large in you pocket? Maybe you got it in thousand dollar bills.”

Manny’s way was not one of intentional intimidation. He went the reverse psychology route. Kill them with kindness. Killed is killed in my book.

“Look, Manny...”

“Same as last week. Spare me the speech.”

“If you could just knock it back down to the original ten...”

He arched an eyebrow my way.

“...okay, the twenty. For a small fish like me that’s a message sent. And recieved. Loud and clear as glass. Like the front windshield of that fine car you got there.”

He looked back over his shoulder at his prize vehicle. Any chance to talk about his baby. “I stopped at a red light down by the bridge. Homeless guy did the windows. Did a decent job too. I gave him a fifty.”

I nodded and smiled. What else could I do?

“Look, I figured you didn’t have the dough so I brought you a present. I hope you don’t think it was too presumptuous of me to do this before I made sure you didn’t have it but you don’t, right?”

I nodded again.

“Right, so, I got you this.”

He held out a small box like what you’d give a girl a bracelet in. It even had a bow on it. Nice touch.

I took it and slid the bow off without untying it. I opened the lid on the box and my face got hot, even in the cold breeze. It was a finger. Mom’s finger. An eighty-two year-old woman was now trying to use a walker with a missing finger on her left hand. I knew that because it still had her wedding ring on it. That ring she hadn’t taken off even in the thirty-one years since Dad died.

When I looked up Manny had moved right in front of me. He grabbed my lapel and pulled me up nose to nose with him. His breath only heated my face more.

“The rest of her is stuffed into a drain pipe someplace you’ll never know. Unless I put you there beside her.” The cold, my grief and the onions on his breath made my eyes start to water. “Now, I don’t like doing that to an old woman and I don’t have a whole lot of other people on your list. Seems you don’t have too many people close to you that I can hurt so’s that you feel it. Next time I come for you. And if that happens...”

He left it at that. We both knew. Death would be a luxury at that point. The breaking of bones, pulling of finger nails, smashing of testicles - it was all part of the repertoire.

I reached into my pocket and pulled the gun I had gotten from Gina’s apartment. I shoved it into Manny’s gut and pulled the trigger three times fast before he could react.

The gun clicked three times. Empty. Fucking Maurice.

Manny hopped back like he just stepped on the third rail but when no shots came he stared at the gun for a beat and then up to me.

“Did you just try to shoot me?”

That’s when I saw four other black-clad turtleneck types step out of shadows that were obscured by other shadows. They stopped on the sidewalk and waited for Manny to signal something.

I exhaled a breath and it might as well have been my last. The steam cloud rose and dissipated just like my hope.

“What a mistake,” Manny said. I couldn’t disagree.

He took the gun from my hand and I didn’t resist. He turned the butt in his hand and brought it down on my nose. It cracked and filled the empty streets with sound. Manny raised the gun again and proceeded to pistol-whip me for a good five minutes.

I never raised a hand in defense or cried out in pain. I just dropped to my knees and waited for the end.

When Manny had finished, more from his being out of breath than from any sense of completion to the task, he pocketed the gun for himself. From my perspective down in the gutter I saw him smooth his hair back into place through my one open eye.

“A hundred sixty-thousand,” was all he said before getting back in his car and sparking the earthquake engine again.

*

About twenty minutes later I saw a man walking the street. He turned the corner and took a few steps before noticing me half on and half off the curb, my head down near the storm drain and my arm reaching out for help. He turned and walked back the way he came.

I knew no one was going to do it for me so I struggled to a crouch and felt around my face for signs of landmarks I might still recognize.

I hadn’t wanted to use it but it was time now. The slip of paper in my pocket was my last resort. An address.

Briggs’ mother. Eighty-three years old. Time to pay her a visit. Nothing left to lose. No money to wait for. If I couldn’t get ten I sure as hell wasn’t going to get a hundred sixty.

Manny had taken my gun but I didn’t need that to cut off a finger. Any old kitchen knife would do. Glad I saved the little box. Since I didn’t undo it, I could even reuse the ribbon.

I doubt I have the energy to stuff her in a drain pipe but killed is killed in my book.

BIO: Eric Beetner is an Editor, Producer, Director and Screenwriter in Los Angeles. He has sold several scripts but none have made it to the screen, like most writers in Hollywood. He wrote and directed his own film 'Taking Your Life', which played well on the festival circuit and can be found on Indieflix.com. Some of his music videos and short films can be found at ericbeetner.com.

7 comments:

Corey Wilde said...

Oh, yeah, this guy is alienated all right. Great story.

Paul Brazill said...

Eric, I'll chack this out later today!

beauvallet said...

I've come to expect this kind of quality in your work, Eric. Outstanding story. Congratulations.

Joyce said...

What a superior story, Eric. The only thing I didn't like about it was that it ended! You get so caught up, you just have to know where it goes from there. I'm going to just tell myself he gets it all straightened out on his own, because there's not a lot of support out there for him. Love this one.

Paul Brazill said...

Fantastic. Damned tense.

Jake Hinkson said...

Excellent job, sir.

Mystery Dawg said...

Eric, real nice.....I loved this tale of woe. No moral thought in his mind...