BETWEEN FRIENDS - J. R. LINDERMUTH
“Martin wouldn’t do that,” Les said. “He’s always been straight.”
“Maybe. Maybe before. But not now. The boss says he’s gotta go.”
“So we got no choice,” Les said.
So much for friendship.
He was no snitch. They should know that. But Martin also knew they intended to kill him.
Like a cockroach trying to hide under a rug, Martin burrowed into the crowd thronging the boardwalk. If they didn’t find him in the next few hours he might be able to get away. He might have been dead already if he hadn’t overheard Harry giving Les the order. One ear pressed to the office door, he’d heard his pal Les stick up for him—at least for a little while.
The hot sun bouncing off the sea and the sugar-sand beach below, the press of bodies around him and the fear produced by what he’d heard squeezed perspiration like juice from a crushed orange from the frightened button man as he scurried along. Where could he go? What could he do? If they found him there’d be no arguing with Harry and Les. He couldn’t really blame them. It was nothing personal. They had their orders. He’d do the same in their place, wouldn’t he?
To a friend? Could he really kill a friend like Les? Harry was a different matter. They’d never been close like him and Les.
Well, no use considering it. He was the target. Not Les. If it came down to it, Les might kill. Or he might not. It wasn’t something Martin wanted to bet on. He had to get away. But how? They’d be watching the bus station. Martin didn’t have a car. Could he, maybe, steal one? Should he go look in the parking lots behind the casinos? Probably most of the cars would be locked. Nobody was stupid enough to leave their keys behind these days. Even if he found one open, he didn’t know how to hot wire a car. Les would. But he wasn’t Les. Shit. Even if he found a car with keys it would do no good. Martin had never learned to drive.
He could go to Stella’s place. If she was there she’d probably hide him. He’d given her enough money, hadn’t he? But going there was no good either. Les knew about her. They’d be sure to look for him there, too.
Martin scanned the faces of the people coming toward him on the promenade. The sun glinting off the water made him squint. With the glare he could barely distinguish the difference between men and women, let alone friend from foe. Who was he kidding? He had no friends at this point. Besides, Harry and Les would be coming from behind, not down the walk toward him. He hurried along, anxious to put more distance between himself and them.
The chatter of the gaudily clad tourists, the hawking of the vendors of the souvenir stands, the amusement booths and the food stands, the white flash and swoop of predatory gulls, the stinking crush of people, the blazing sun, it all bore in on him like the jaws of a gigantic vise. And he could hardly bear it.
He had to get away.
Martin darted off the boardwalk, clattered down a flight of iron stairs and entered a comfort station. It was a small facility. Urinals along one wall, sinks along the opposite side and a single stall. A man and boy (father and son?) were at the urinals. Martin scooted past and sought shelter in the stall. Breathing a sigh of relief, he sat, closed his eyes and inhaled again. The harsh reek of urine and detergents stung his nostrils. Martin leaned back and opened his eyes. His gaze drifted over the graffiti scratched on the door and walls without registering words or meaning.
How long he sat he wasn’t sure. Then someone was pounding on the door. “Hey, man. You done in there? I gotta shit.”
Martin flushed the toilet he hadn’t used, opened the door and slid out past a skinny Latino. He ran water, washed his hands, passed them under the dryer unit and went out, shaking water from his still wet fingers.
He stood a moment, looking around him. He didn’t want to go back up on the boardwalk and risk running into Harry and Les. A descending sun painted the sky mauve off to the west. Soon it would be dark. There were already fewer people on the beach. Down there where the old pier had been the waves gushed in and swept around the pillars supporting the boardwalk. It was already dark in the cavern beneath the boardwalk. He’d go down there and wait. After dark it would be safer for him to move.
Martin found a broken beach chair under the remains of the old pier. He dragged it back into the dark and gratefully sank down on it. His feet hurt. He had bunions and wasn’t used to so much walking. The water was closer than he liked, the frothy green waves sloshing up the shingle almost to his feet, then receding to wrap themselves wetly round the black piers. Cigarette butts, empty bottles and cans littered the stretch of damp sand around him. Now and again, a sweep of breeze brought down the aroma of greasy fries or pizza and made his stomach grumble. He fought it, not wanting to think about food in this dirty hole.
Time passed and it grew darker. Once he started as a can rolled back in the darkness, A scruffy cat came out, looked at him with unblinking green eyes and stalked off again. Later he heard movement again back in the depths. Stealthier this time. Larger, two-legged scavengers. Martin stared into the dark, trying to find them. Scared. It wouldn’t be Harry and Les. Not down here. But there were other dangers here. Violent men who might slit a throat for an unwary person’s change. “Who’s there?” he asked, his voice squeaking.
No reply. But he heard them come closer. At least two of them. “I got a gun,” he warned them. The light came on up on the promenade. It sparkled off the waves and cast shadows across the sand. Pebbles crunched underfoot behind him.
“We don’t want no trouble, man,” a husky voice told him. “You got a light? We haint got no matches.”
Martin rose and moved quickly back toward the comfort station. The sand was deep and it slowed him down but he made it to the stairs and didn’t think they were following him. He kept looking back over his shoulder as he climbed the stairs.
The boardwalk still teemed with people. He dashed between them and went up an alley and into town, away from the hotels and casinos and the bright lights along the boardwalk where he figured Harry and Les would be stalking him. Would there be any others looking for him? He didn’t think so. It was only the three of them had come down here after the job. So, if they were looking for him on the boardwalk he might have a chance to get to the bus station and get out of town. Could he chance it? They might have split up. But that wasn’t likely. He didn’t think Harry would trust Les, even though Les had said he’d do what they’d been told. Martin figured he had no choice. He had to chance it.
He struck out, down another narrow alley, two streets over, around the corner and there it was, lights beckoning like a beacon.
Martin pulled out his wallet as he pushed through the double doors. Did he have enough money? A thick wad assured him he had sufficient for a variety of destinations. It was up to him to decide where he wanted to go. New York was out of the question. Philly was closer. And he had friends there. Yes. That’s where he’d go.
He was nearly to the ticket window when a familiar voice stopped him.
He turned and saw Les and Harry rising from the plastic seats facing the door. Harry smiled at him, tossing a cigarette into a metal ashtray next to the chairs. Les’s expression was blank as he walked toward Martin.
Martin’s throat went dry and a chill shook him.
“We figured you’d come here eventually,” Harry told him.
So they’d been here the whole time. Martin glanced toward the door. It was too far. He’d never outrun the two of them. Les had bad feet like him. But Harry was young and slim and fast. “I didn’t do nothing,” he said.
“We been told different,” Harry said.
“It hain’t personal,” Les told him.
“Come on, man. We been pals a long time.”
Les took his arm. “I got no choice. You know that.”
One on each side, they walked him back out to the street. “Where’ll we take him?” Harry asked.
Les gawked around, then nodded toward an alley across the street. “Over there.” He started across, pulling Martin with him. “You packing?” he asked.
“In my jacket pocket.”
Les took Martin’s pistol and stuck it in his waistband.
The narrow alley was like a dark and damp cave. A drainpipe dripped somewhere in its depths. Rats scurried in trash along the walls. There was a stench to the very air. “Shit,” Harry said, stopping.
“Stepped in something.” He scraped his heel on the paving. “How much further you think?”
Les halted. “This is probably far enough.”
“You want I should do it, you two being pals and all?”
“No. It’s my responsibility.”
“I don’t want to die,” Martin said, his voice barely audible.
“We all gotta sometime,” Harry said. And he chuckled.
Martin shut his eyes. He didn’t want to see it coming. He heard the metallic click of a hammer being pulled back. His own pistol! Holy… A pop. A groan. The rustle of cloth as a figure crumpled.
Martin opened his eyes. Les stood over Harry. He glanced at Martin. His gold tooth glinted in the dull light as he smiled. Martin exhaled and staggered. Les caught him and patted his back. “Thanks,” Martin said.
Les handed back his pistol. “Friendship’s gotta count for something, don’t it?”
“You’re gonna be in trouble now.”
“Nah. That’s why I used your gun. We caught up to you but you shot Harry and got away.”
Les walked with him back to the mouth of the alley. He gestured toward the bus station. “Go get a ticket. I don’t want to know where you’re going. Go far, though, ’cause they’ll be looking for you.”
Martin started to cross the street. He turned and came back, laid a hand on Les’s arm. “Thanks again. I didn’t snitch, you know. I wouldn’t do that.”
Les smiled. “I know that. Geez, how long we been friends anyway?”
BIO: J. R. Lindermuth lives and writes in Pennsylvania. He’s published nine novels, including four in the Sticks Hetrick mystery series. His short stories have appeared in a variety of magazines, including A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-E, Crime and Suspense and Mouth Full of Bullets.
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