AND MILES TO GO - J.R. CHABOT
Originally published in 2002 at Plots With Guns and is available at the audio magazine Sniplits
A man bundled in overcoat and gloves came into the diner. He was a little man, middle-aged, balding, with slow, deliberate movements. Coming in from the cold, his wire-rimmed glasses fogged up. He stopped, unbuttoned his coat took out a handkerchief and wiped the lenses carefully. He held the glasses up to the overhead neon, then put them back on and walked to the counter.
Except for him and the waitress, the diner was empty. She was a big girl, young, with a round face and glasses much like his own. “That always happens to me, too,” she said. “What can I get you?”
“Coffee, please, black.”
When she put the cup in front of him, he said, “Not much business this time of night.”
“Oh, it’ll pick up.” She glanced back at the clock on the wall. One-thirty AM. “It’s dead right now, but we’ll have truckers on and off all night. And after six, it’ll be a zoo when everyone wants breakfast. Besides, it’s just Dad and I. It’s not like we’re paying help. Except for Vivian and the day cook. They’ll be in at six.” She stopped and smiled again. “I’m babbling, huh?”
“I don’t mind. It’s lonely driving in these mountains this time of year, this time of night. The road’s practically deserted.”
“You’re not from around here, are you? I mean, you don’t look like you’re from around here.”
“And how should I look?” He grinned at her confusion, then said, “No, I’m on my way to somewhere else.”
“I thought so. Could I get you some pie or a sandwich to go with the coffee?”
“No thanks. I need to stay awake. I have a long way to go by morning.”
She topped off his coffee, then said, “And miles to go before I sleep.”
“It’s from a poem we studied in high school. I don’t remember the name, but I always liked that line. ‘And miles to go before I sleep.’ It makes me think of someone with a job to do who’s professional about it.”
“Yes, I remember. It’s by Robert Frost.”
She was about to answer when the door opened again and two men came in. They were young, wore blue jeans and heavy boots and kapok jackets. One had enough reddish-blond hair to hide his ears and a blond mustache that seemed to fade out against his face. The other was bigger, darker, but seemed to take his cues from the blond.
“Hi, Fats. Your old man back in the kitchen?” The blond grinned at the sharp look that got him.
“Where do you think he’d be, Mickey?”
“Don’t wise off, Fats. It ain’t becoming.”
Mickey led the way around the counter and through the swinging doors to the kitchen. The girl stayed where she was, standing rigidly, straining to hear the muffled voices from the back.
A deep, rumbling voice asked, “What do you two want?”
Mickey’s voice said, “Honest work.”
“Hah. You two?”
This was followed by an exchange that was jumbled with kitchen noise. Then the deep voice said, “What? You two punks trying to shake me down?”
“Hey, get smart, old man. You never know what might happen way out here. Some joker could throw a brick through the window, maybe even start a fire. You never know.”
There was a loud banging sound, and then, “You get the hell out of here, now!”
Mickey came back through the swinging doors, followed closely by his big friend and an older, barrel-chested man carrying a very large chef’s knife. As he came by the counter, Mickey turned and said, “Don’t be dumb. It’s not like we’re asking for much. We’re your security. We could keep bad things from happening.”
“Go on, move it!”
Mickey spotted the man in the overcoat, and stopped for a moment, sizing him up. Then he grinned and said, “Hey, it’s your choice. Like I say, you never know what might happen.”
After the door had closed behind them, the man with the knife said something under his breath and went back to the kitchen. The waitress, who had been standing very still, let out a long breath and tried to smile.
The customer said, “Some people have no manners at all.”
“Oh, they’re not that bad. Times have been hard here.”
“They just got laid off at the sawmill. They’ve had trouble before, so it’s hard for them to get work.”
“I’m not surprised.” He stood up, laid a bill on the counter, and began buttoning his overcoat. “I hope you don’t have any trouble from them.”
“They’re just talk.”
He had parked his car at one end of the diner, out of the light coming from the windows in front. As he got near, he noticed an empty pickup truck backed in on the driver’s side. He slipped between them and was unlocking his car when Mickey appeared to his right. He turned to face him and heard the other one coming up behind him.
“Good evening, sir,” said Mickey. “Could we interest you in a business proposition?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Perfectly legitimate. Just a loan. And we’re good for it, aren’t we, Bryan?”
The voice behind him just grunted.
“I can vouch for Bryan; he can vouch for me. What more can you ask?”
“How much do you need?”
“Now that’s being sensible. It depends. How much you got?”
Mickey grabbed the man’s lapels and said, “Check him, Bryan.”
Bryan pulled up the back of the man’s coat, almost lifting him off the ground, and took his wallet. He passed it to Mickey, who went through it carefully.
“Damn,” he said, “there’s nearly five-hundred in here.” He stuffed the money and several credit cards in his jacket pocket. He started to turn away, then swung back and hit the man, viciously, low in the stomach, dropping him to his knees. Leaning close, he grabbed what was left of the man’s hair, pulling his face upward. “Listen to me, old man. Don’t you even think about talking to the cops. You understand? ’Cause we know who you are and we know where you live. You do something stupid and, sooner or later, we come for you. And your wife, too. What do you think, Bryan? You think he’s married?”
“Maybe. Some ugly bitches’ll marry anyone.”
“True. How about kids? You think he ever got it up long enough to have kids?”
“Nah. ’Course, she coulda screwed someone else.”
“Yeah, that’s probably it.” He put his face close. “Is that how it was?”
The man didn’t answer, but his face was pleading.
“You understand us? One wrong word and we come for your family, whatever it is. Understand?”
“Yes, I understand.” His voice shook. “Look, you can take the stuff. It’s in the car. Just don’t hurt me.”
Mickey straightened up, looking at Bryan, then back to the man on his knees. “What stuff?”
“The coke. It’s only a few kilos.”
“Where in the car?”
“In the glove compartment. I’ll get it for you.”
“The hell you will. Bryan, check it out.”
Bryan climbed in and opened the little door. He pulled out a few loose papers, then put his hand inside and felt around. “Nothing in here, Mickey.”
Mickey pulled the little man upright. “What the hell are you trying to pull?”
“It’s there,” said the man. “It’s hidden. I can get it.”
As Bryan got out, Mickey pushed the man against the side of the car. “You better get it. And listen, you try to pull anything, I’ll show you what hurt means.” He pushed the man inside and gave him a shove.
The man fell across the seats, his left hand on the floor. He righted himself and looked into the empty glove compartment. “Well, damn,” he said, “it was here. Maybe the other guy took it.”
Mickey looked at Bryan. Bryan looked shocked.
“All right,” said Mickey, “I told you what was going to happen it you got smart, didn’t I?” He reached in and grabbed the man by the back of the collar and hauled him out. The man came out loose and out of control, his arms swinging. His right hand slapped against the side of Mickey’s head. Mickey yelled, jumped back, almost fell. The man stepped around him so that both Bryan and Mickey were now in front of him. Bryan started forward, then stopped as he saw the gun.
Mickey had his hand to his head. When he saw what had hit him, he said, “Damn, what’d you do that for? You didn’t have to do that.”
The man had suddenly changed. He stood nonchalantly, the gun pointed just between the two men, his voice quiet, relaxed. “You’re right. That probably wasn’t necessary. I’m sorry about that.”
“Yeah, well, look, we didn’t mean anything. I mean–”
“I know, Mickey. The young lady in the diner said you’d lost your jobs.”
“That wasn’t our fault, either.”
“I’m sure. However, I’m going to need the things you took.”
“Sure, no problem.” Mickey pulled out a wad of money and the credit cards and held them out.
“Just put them on the car.”
“Hey, whatever you say.” He took his hand from his head and examined it for blood. “Damn, that hurt. What kind of gun is that? That’s a weird-looking barrel.”
“It has a silencer.”
“Really? I thought those were illegal.”
“Yes. I take it this is your truck.”
“Then you’d better get in.”
Bryan went around to the passenger side. Mickey got in behind the wheel. He started to close the door, but the man held it open.
“Roll the window down, Mickey. I want to talk to you.”
“Okay. Look, pal, we didn’t mean to get on you like that.”
“That’s all right. No hard feelings. I think you’d better put on your seat belts.”
“What for? They’re for wimps.”
“I think it would be better. You never know.”
They both had to search for the buckles, but finally got hooked up. The man pointed the gun at Bryan and said, “Lock your door.”
Bryan looked a question at Mickey, who nodded quickly and said, “Just do it.” Bryan pushed down the locking pin and, as he was turning back, the gun jerked and made a loud popping sound. Bryan’s head slammed against the window. Blood spurted from his temple, then slowed and made a thick stream down to his neck.
“Oh Jesus!” Mickey turned and found the gun pointing at his eye. “Oh Jesus, no!”
“It’s all right, Mickey.” The voice was low, calm, reassuring. “Don’t worry.” The man took a step backward. Mickey tried to start the car, but the gun popped again. Mickey jerked to the right, made a small moaning sound, then slumped against Bryan.
The man checked himself to be sure no blood was on him, then stepped up close and watched a moment for any sign of life. He opened the door and rolled up the window. Despite the seat belt, Mickey was leaning well over, so he pulled him upright. Then he locked and closed the door.
Twenty minutes later, the man pulled to the side of the road. He removed the silencer and disassembled the gun. From a box hidden under the dashboard, he took a new gun barrel, and used it in putting the gun back together. With the silencer back on, he replaced the gun in its holster under the passenger seat. He picked up the old barrel, opened the door, and stepped out into the crisp night.
The road was empty, lined on each side by dark woods. Here and there, moonlight filtered through the trees, brightening small patches of snow. The only sound was a soft sigh of breeze through the leaves. He stood there for a full minute, his breath misting before him, taking in the cold, quiet beauty, not wanting to leave.
Then he sighed, looked at the gun barrel in his hand, and threw it as far as he could into the trees. It was too bad about those two, but as Mickey had said, they knew his name and where he lived, and he couldn’t have that. He still had a contract to fulfill, tomorrow, over the mountains.
As he drove, other lines to the Robert Frost poem came back to him. He had never known it all, but remembered the last verse.
‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.’
BIO: John Chabot is retired and writes to keep his brain from failing completely.