Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 486 - Michael Fontana


West took a call from his boss to pick up a package. He dressed in anonymous drag. A bulky brown winter coat covered up his lean frame. A black stocking cap hid his receding hairline. Nothing could hide the lines around his eyes.

He made a series of turns in his VW. The pick up was a brown box left outside a Chinese restaurant door in a part of town where hobos made their homes in dumpsters. The box was sealed in luminous tape to stand out. No one would touch it because it had stickers pasted all over it indicating that it was radioactive waste.

West figured himself a waste. He was errand boy to Jimmy Claxton, a fat man with a glass eye that followed you around the room. Jimmy was partial to sweaters and silk slacks. His gray hair grew long and was tied back with rubber bands. He had the complexion of raw steak. But he was also calculating, licking his fingers as he made calls that resulted in the extermination of his enemies.

West had edged into the job by dumb luck. One day he was getting a shoeshine at the airport, one of the last outposts in America where shoe shines were available and a public sight. The kid whacking the rag against West’s alligator shoes had fingers permanently black with polish.

Claxton had crossed the concourse with a big black bag on wheels. One of the wheels broke off and the bag hit the floor. It opened up and out spilled countless dolls.

West had failed to recognize these as expensive Japanese dolls: samurai Gosho dolls and Mitsuore dolls from the Meiji period; Ichimatsu ningyo dolls from the Taisho period; and dozens of others. Later, he would learn about them from catalogues that Claxton had kept on his coffee table. They were worth thousands of dollars on the legit market, much more on the black market.

While he had failed to recognize the value of the dolls in the airport, West had recognized the fluster on Claxton’s face. To see this fat man, on the floor, trying to scoop up little girls’ dolls, his already-red face beeting further, seemed too much denigration to West for anyone to endure. So he left his seat at the shoe shine stand and helped the man out. Since West was more compact, it was easier for him to slide to the floor, gather up some dolls, and put the wheel back into place. This kind gesture had impressed Claxton, since no one in his line of work put much stock in kindness. He offered West a job.

West at that point had been working at the gas company, filing customer complaints that he wished he could burn to a crisp. He had no trouble taking the offer, figuring nothing could be worse. Errand boy was not worse. It simply involved him leaving the comfort of his home at a call from Claxton, no matter what hour or day or whatever else he might be doing.

The faux radioactive box was destined for a house in the suburbs, one that seemed empty except that the garage door rose as soon as he approached. He walked inside the garage. There sat a green recycling bin with a cardboard sign taped to it:  BOX HERE!

West took the message to be directed toward him, so he made the drop and headed back out to the car. He situated himself back behind the wheel, turned the ignition, and prepared to drive away. That’s when he felt the cold nose of a pistol just behind his left earlobe.

“Off with that,” the gunman said.

West reached over with jittery fingers and turned the key the other way.

“Now you walk with me?”

Even though the gunman’s voice added a question mark at the end, there clearly wasn’t any doubt as to the answer. Following commands, West left the car, put his hands together on top of his head, and stepped slowly forward toward the garage. He felt the pressure of the gun on his back even through the coat.

Once inside the garage, the gunman closed the door. Immediately the space turned pitch dark. West breathed slowly, trying to keep calm. The gunman kicked him in the back, sending him to the concrete floor. The garage smelled of ancient car exhaust, motor oil, and rainwater. The gunman put a foot on West’s head, pinning it on one side to the slab. “So now you’re going to call your boss, right? Tell him there’s been a little mix-up in the delivery. Get him out here in person, or else you’ll be Swiss cheese.”

The gunman eased off the foot and picked West up by the hood of his coat. The pressure of the gun returned to West’s back. They marched together inside the house. It was a ratty affair, with rusted and open cans of split pea soup on the perimeter of a rickety table. The sink was full of marijuana plants and an insect-killing light hung over them as if to make them grow. The place smelled of bourbon, Camels unfiltered, and a bit of homegrown Hawaiian bud.

“Dial,” the gunman said. He forced West into a circa 1970s plastic chair at the rickety table. At the center of the table sat an equally 1970s era black Bakelite phone, complete with a rotary dial. West dialed the numbers read off to him, letting his finger stay in the slot as the dial moved back and forth.

Claxton answered after seven rings. He seemed to recognize West’s voice immediately, and didn’t seem to like it. “You lost the package?”

“I didn’t quite lose it. I...I’m sure some hobo has it in his custody.”

“So why are you out in the suburbs?”

“I went to the delivery site.”

“Get back into town and find the pick up, pronto.”

“I need your help. I didn’t see it, remember? Some hobo has it.” West cringed at lying like that but he cringed even more at the cold tickle of the gun’s nose at the now exposed back of his neck.

“We’d best find that parcel or you’re stretched out on the rack, dig?”

West knew at the sound of the click on the other end that Claxton was on his way.

The gunman finally sat down, his weapon remaining poised on West. The man’s skin was jet black and he had chiseled figures, with light gray eyes and a salt and pepper afro. He wore a blue worker’s jumpsuit with a red scarf around his neck.
West looked the man square on. “So you’ll kill me now?”

The gunman laughed. “Why should I? You’ve been cooperative so far. I suspect that’s why you have the job you do. You’re so compliant.”

After a silence that hung briefly between them like a cobweb, the gunman spoke up again. “Why you in this line of work anyway?”

“Same as you, I guess.”

“Yeah, but I was born into it. Grew up in the projects and all. Bet you weren’t. So why you want so much hate in your life? You ought to check out the Buddha instead, man.” The gunman used his free hand to pull out a yin-yang symbol on a string from around his neck. “I meditate every day. Yoga, too. Kicks the stress, you know?”

They fell silent again after that until Claxton’s car approached. The gunman placed the nose of the pistol against the back of West’s head and marched him back out into the garage. The gunman took position in the shadows. West stood out in the daylight. He might have broken and run, but a bullet would have caught him. The same if he had yelled. He didn’t want to die but he didn’t want Claxton to die, either.

Claxton seemed to smell a ruse. “Why don’t you come out here to the car, since I already got it up and running?”

“Maybe we should go inside for a minute,” West said, his mouth going dry.

“There’s nobody here, lame brain. That’s the set-up. You were going to drop the package and scoot. No faces, no names, no complications. You never messed up this bad before. Why are you doing it today, I wonder?”

West tried rolling his eyes to one side, in hopes that Claxton would catch the meaning. He didn’t. “What, you’re having a seizure now?”

At this juncture, Claxton removed a pistol from inside his jacket pocket. He aimed it at West’s head. “I don’t trust you or this set-up. You’re history.”

West did what no self-respecting criminal would ever do: He fell to his knees. This startled both Claxton and the gunman. Claxton caught the figure in the shadows. The gunman knew his cover was blown. They trained their weapons on each other.

“Menafee,” Claxton said. “Long time no see.”

“Zip it, Claxton. Your time’s up. I’m running your industry from today on.”

“You were a lousy errand boy, Menafee, and you’re not much better at rip-offs.”

“I was a better errand boy than this goof.”

Menafee made the mistake of pointing at West with his pistol instead of a finger of his free hand. As soon as the nose of the gun went down, Claxton opened fire. Menafee fell with a thud. His gun clattered on the concrete.

Claxton aimed his weapon at West. “You have anything to do with this arrangement?”

“He had a gun to my head. I had to make the call.”

Claxton’s face turned obscenely red and his voice turned harsh. “You didn’t have to do a thing. You could have been loyal and taken a shot for me. You’re no better an errand boy than this stiff here.”

“Sorry, boss.”

“Sorry doesn’t cut the mustard.” Suddenly Claxton turned earnest, which West would have thought alien to the man. “Self-acceptance is key. You think I give a toot what other people think? I don’t. You shouldn’t, either. Nothing wrong with you the way you are. Now take some time off and reflect.”

“What about the package?”

“Bring it back to me when you come back to work. The recipient’s post mortem.”

Claxton tucked the pistol back inside his jacket pocket, started his car up and drove off.

West remained on the ground as if he were just another corpse.

BIO: Michael Fontana does have a bio this time. His writing has appeared in a variety of and electronic journals. His first novel, Sleeping with Gods, has recently been published. He lives in beautiful Bella Vista, Arkansas.

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