Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interlude Stories: Joe Clifford

A MATTER OF TRUST - JOE CLIFFORD

“Drive!” I scream as I drop the bag and reach across my battered, bleeding body to slam the door shut. My right arm dangles at my side, useless.

“Where?” she asks.

“Just drive. And take it easy. These roads are icy deathtraps, and I don’t want to end up in a culvert.”

I try to brush the snow and ice from my hair but I’m having hard time moving, breathing, and wince with every motion. I’m pretty sure I broke some ribs when I slid down the embankment and flopped on the drainpipe. But at least the bullet went through. I think. I bonked my head pretty good, too. My brain feels like a blender on frappe.

I don’t know how I managed to even get up, or make it into the middle of the old access road on two feet, let alone aim my gun into the only pair of headlights I saw in a middle of a goddamn blizzard. And considering the motel where we’d been holed up, the Candlelight, is in the sticks, it’s a goddamn miracle anyone was out this time of night at all.

But I think I’ll hold off thanking God just yet.

“I’m not sure where you want me to drive—”

“Listen, honey,” I say, “I’ll let you know when to turn, OK?” I give her the once over. It’s hard to see in the dark. There are no lights out here. She’s got something covering her head, but blonde tendrils poke out. I can’t tell how old. Pretty young, though. She looks put together, everything where it should be, pert little nose. Something about her feels vaguely familiar, probably because I grew up around here and the women are all the same.

I should tell her that if she does what I say, she’ll be OK, but I don’t particularly care about pleasantries right now. My brother is missing. The kid is dead. I’ve been shot and the cops are after me.

How did it all turn to such shit?

*

I didn’t like the job from the start. Too many deviations, wrinkles outside the norm. The reason I’ve been successful this long is I never stray from what works. You can’t do this alone; you need guys you can trust, and the only person I felt safe working with was my brother, Ash. We’d been in this business since we were kids, from liquor stores to armored cars; and while other guys have done long stretches, neither one of us had so much as seen a jail cell overnight. And it hadn’t been a matter of luck.

The first problem was the job itself. The pros have two tiers, the guys who arrange the job, and the ones who pull it off. Peter Prince did the arranging, and Ash and I did the stealing. Prince was a hairy beast of man from the islands who always smelled like cinnamon. But he was rock solid as they come, a stand-up guy. It was a partnership that had been lucrative for both sides for a long time.

Ash and I had rules we lived by, one of the biggest being never work close to home. And this job was practically in our backyard.

The game this time was stones. These days, diamonds were usually too much of a headache to even bother. Security systems, armed escorts, a royal pain in the ass. Not like in the old days, when a couple salesmen carried them in trays in the trunk, driving town to town to show prospective buyers the new cuts just shipped in. It was a simpler time then. But Prince had gotten a line on a couple boys doing it old school.

Word was Edmund Herschlin was getting out of the business, too old to give a fuck about joining the high-tech parade. Ol’ Ed was the last independent jeweler in the North and he’d be liquidating in our neighborhood. Most of his boys were old farts left over from the Truman administration. They rarely carried guns, and if they did, they wouldn’t know how to fire the damn things.

Ash and I were coming off a shaky job over in Chicago, payroll deposit on the Gray Line, probably the closest we’d come to getting caught. In fact, when Ash didn’t show up at the rendezvous, I was certain our streak was over. Or at least his was. I should’ve known better than to doubt him.

But it scared me. It’s a criminal cliché, I know, one last job, but after Chicago, I really was thinking of hanging it up. At least for a while. A good long while.

Then this fell in our lap. Ash convinced me, if I were serious about quitting, to take the easy money. Hard to argue. I wouldn’t be getting a 9-to-5 anytime soon.

Except that when it looks too good to be true, it usually is. And it’s never just a matter of money.

*

The winter wind lashes along the old country posts, wobbling the tin sign that reads Old State Road 23. Or maybe it’s my brain that’s wobbling. It’s all coming down now, snow, sleet, ice, the heavens pitching a violent fit. With the weather, she takes it slow. I keep my eyes peeled, front and in back. No cars, either direction.

“Expecting someone?” she asks.

“Just drive.” I kick the medicine bag with the stones at my feet, pull the cigarettes from my inside pocket with my good arm, slide one up. I jab in the dash’s lighter. My right side throbs. I’m pretty sure it went through. Why won’t it stop bleeding?

The lighter pops. She reaches over. “Here, let me.” She holds the cherry-red tip steady as I lean forward for a big inhale.

These tiny towns spread out up here, but I know Rochester can’t be more than forty, fifty miles straight ahead. There, I can make calls, find out what the fuck happened. But in this weather, who knows how long that’s going to take, and I’m not feeling so hot.

Then the pain hits, a long lasting wave that I can feel through every nerve cell, all the way to the back of my teeth, which start to chatter, before involuntarily clamping down.

“What am I supposed to do if you die in my car?”

I try to sit up, gritting my teeth. “I’m not going to die. A bullet went in and out. I’m going to be fine. Now you do what I tell you, you’ll be fine, too.”

“I’m not a nurse, but—” Icy rain continues to pelt through the snow, thrumming the windshield “—maybe we should pull off.”

“Where do you think we can pull off, lady? We’re in the middle of a goddamn blizzard, in the middle of goddamn nowhere. There’s a roadside motel back up that hill where you picked me up. And if you think we’re going back there, you’re nuts. Just drive.” I pause. I’m feeling funny, starting to get a little paranoid.

I bring the gun up to her head. “What are you even out for on a night like this?”

She keeps her cool, eyes locked on the road. “I’m leaving my husband, if you must know.”

I lower the gun. “You might’ve picked a better night. Not that I don’t appreciate the ride.”

“The night sort of picked me, if you know what I mean.”

Yeah. I guess I do.

She reaches into the center console, pulls out a bottle of water. “At least drink this.”

I twist the cap off with my teeth. Take a slug, then rinse the blood from my mouth, pour it on my wound.

“Sorry about your car,” I say.

She smiles. “Don’t worry about it. It belongs to my husband.”

*

Being right in our backyard bothered me. How neat it all seemed bothered me. Usually either one of those things should’ve been enough for me to pull up.

Then Prince made a last minute addition. Said we needed a wheelman, just in case, and that he had the perfect guy.

The kid’s name was Danny Bunyan. Neither Ash nor I had ever heard of him, and we got in a big fight over it.

“How long we known Prince?” Ash said.

He didn’t need me to answer.

“Prince says you’re good people, you’re good people.”

Ash was right. I owed it to him to at least meet the kid.

The meet and greet was set up at Waylon’s, a truck stop in Zumbrota. We were told this Danny was young and that he would be wearing a blue ball cap. He was wearing a blue ball cap, all right. And he was young. Really young.

We had beers, talked particulars, and right away Danny put me at ease. He talked a good game. Mostly, he’d worked as a wheelman, but he’d been a bagman plenty. He told some stories. I listened for holes in his stories, anything out of place, but my bullshit meter didn’t twitch. And the longer we sat in the roadside, the more I really started liking the kid. He reminded me of me when I was just starting out.

A car horn beeped, and I tensed.

“Relax,” Danny said, “that’s just my sister.”

“What the fuck?”

“My brother’s right,” Ash said. “You can’t have your sister coming around.”

“She thinks I’m filling out an application to tend bar. I’m not stupid, guys. I’m not as young as I look.”

I was just starting to relax, when he took off his ball cap.

Flaming red hair.

You make your living perfecting your craft, developing technique and approaching everything with a cold, critical eye. But you still need to trust your gut, and you don’t fuck with superstition. Everyone knows: red hair is bad juju.

We watched as Danny got in the car with his sister, who best I could tell was a redhead, too. Terrific. A family of goddamn redheads.

The red hair should’ve been a deal breaker. But my brother can be pretty damn convincing when he wants to be, and in the end, I guess I was too focused on the finish line.

*

“You’re bleeding badly,” the woman says. “You need a hospital.”

“Just drive,” I repeat, although I’m not sure that’s what comes out, the words sort of slithering, slurring. My brain feels like it’s bobbing on a bog of molasses, the rest of me being sucked down. I look over at her, try to focus. Her face is changing color, sharp shadows dancing like devils on a grave in the moonlight...

*

I was pissing out the backdoor of the motel into the brush, when they showed up. Growing up here in the northern wilds, I’ve always liking pissing outdoors. It’s...comforting. The medicine bag, where I’d transferred the stones, sat an arm’s length away on the bathroom sink. Danny sat on the bed, his head in his hands, his flaming red hair falling over his face.

Everything started out fine. We caught up with the diamond men around midnight, just past Riesling, at a desolate rest stop, a swoop and grab. Danny was as skilled a wheelman as Prince had said he would be, pinning them in their car while Ash and I hopped out and took care of the rest. The salesmen were about a hundred years old, and they gave up the trays, no problem, like we knew they would.

The old farts crawled into the trunk like little boys going down for an overdue nap.

As Ash and I started to get in the car, Danny got out.

“What are you doing?” I said. “Get back inside.”

“We can’t leave their car here,” Danny said.

“What are you talking about?”

“I just saw a truck up on the highway flip a bitch and make for this exit.”

“I didn’t see any truck,” I said. “Ash?”

“I wasn’t looking at the highway.”

“We don’t have time,” Danny said. “Trust me. We’ve got to move—now.” He handed me the keys. “You drive. I’ll get rid of the car, get a hold of you at the Candlelight.”

“Fuck that,” Ash said.

“You’re holding the diamonds,” Danny said. “What’s the problem?”

“That’s just not how we do it,” I said.

“I don’t know how you two do it,” Danny said, “but I’m telling you, I saw a truck up there get off this exit—”

“Who gives a shit?” Ash said. “Maybe they forgot some milk at the store—”

“What store? We’re in the middle of fucksake nowhere—”

I reached inside the salesman’s car, yanked the key from the ignition, a single one on a giant ring with a diamond-encrusted logo and the words “Let It Shine.” I passed the key to my brother. “I’ll go with Danny north to the Candlelight. You head south, leave the car at Lyman’s.” Lyman’s was the old junkyard off 73, about half an hour from Prince’s. It’s where we left a lot of things we didn’t want being found for a while. “Call Prince when you get there. Get a hold of us at the motel.”

We’d been at the Candlelight for over three hours. No Ash. Prince wasn’t picking up either. And out of nowhere, a brutal winter storm had rolled in.

A freak blizzard. A goddamn redhead. It’s not a matter of signs. You just know when the chips are stacked against you.

I heard the sirens coming up the drive just as I was zipping up, and grabbed the bag. “Let’s go!”

But that redheaded bastard just sat there, on the bed, looking at me like a lost puppy dog.

I wasn’t waiting. I pulled my gun and ran. I heard the door splinter, the shots. I looked back to catch the kid flopped facedown on the floor.

I ran through the brush and snow, and one good thing about the storm, if they were behind me, they sure as shit couldn’t see me.

I got to the ledge overlooking Old State Road 23, and grabbed a branch to navigate down the icy embankment. I felt a stinging beneath my ribs. I looked down and saw the blood. Then the branch broke and I rolled down the hill.

*

“You don’t look so good.”

I’ll be OK. Don’t worry about me, I say, holding up the gun, only I realize I’m not holding up the gun. It lies there, limp in my lap. And no words are coming out of my mouth, either. I’m paralyzed.

She reaches over and grabs the gun, peeling it effortlessly from my flaccid fingers. She pulls off to the side of the road, pets my head. I can’t move a muscle, can’t even blink.

A car approaches from the other direction, slows down, and stops in front of us, and as the light spreads, I see the peroxide box on the floor, the giant key ring with the diamond logo, shining, dangling in the ignition. I think I detect the faint scent of cinnamon...

She reaches over, grabs the bag at my feet.

She lifts the pack of cigarettes off my lap, fires two up, and sticks one in my mouth. She laughs when it falls right back out.

How...

“I know what you’re asking yourself,” she says. “Who was it? Danny? Your brother? Prince? Maybe all of them?” She lifts my head, squares it up out the windshield. “What did you really see?”

Through swishing wipers into the icy night, I see a silhouette in the headlights, a faceless black shadow cast back over me.

“And what I’m telling you,” she says in a whisper as she lets go of my head and it falls with a lifeless thud on the dash, “at this point, what does it matter?”

BIO: My work has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Darkest Before The Dawn, Thrillers, Chillers 'n' Killers, Thundadome, and a lot of the high-minded literary ones too (Connecticut Review, et al).

5 comments:

Justine said...

Wow! Great story!

ajhayes2 said...

Cold as the storm outside. Pretty damn existential last line too. I was thinking I was busy today, but decided to give this one a quick once through -- and the trap sprang. Held me tight all the way. Yeah, it's good. It is. Cool.

tom pitts said...

Sucked me in again, Joe. One of my favorites ... so far.

Jim Harrington said...

Starts strong and builds from there. Well done, Joe.

Joe Clifford said...

Thanks, all. Glad to be included among so many great writers on this site. Every story, like a punch to the gut.