Miles felt exiled at the end of the bar. Sandy’s had become too upscale for him, but there wasn’t no place else to drink since Paddy’s shut down, turned into a fucking yogurt studio. All those housewives wearing Speedo pants and drinking five-dollar coffees.
Sandy’s used to be a decent bar with good hooch, but now it was one of those “taverns” with a fireplace, spiral-bound menu, and twenty different martinis. Bright-eyed families filled the tables and guys with lumberjack beards and form-fitting flannel congratulated each other for sipping bright green drinks. Miles couldn’t even tell if they liked women. What would happen if one of those housewives in tight pants came in? Normally, Miles’ buddy Chris would be here with him, to balance out the karma, so to speak, but Chris was doing thirty on a drunk and disorderly. Tough luck.
Putting down his bottle, he accidentally-on-purpose knocked over an empty shot glass. It rolled in an arc, threatening to bowl over a lumberfag’s glass. Sandy, quick on the uptake, caught it and slipped the shot into a rack beneath the bar. But he produced a new one, full to the brim with rye. Miles nodded his thanks, knocked it back, chased it with another mouthful of beer.
“Gettin’ late,” Sandy said. “Work night, ain’t it?”
“Fuck you,” Miles said, not without humor. “How the hell you think I stand that shithole, ’cept hungover?”
Sandy shrugged, put the second shot glass with the first. “Saw online you won’t have to worry much longer. True they’re moving the operation to New Orleans and turning the plant into luxury condos?”
Miles sneered. “Bought up a bunch of land after the damned hurricane. Putting in robots, too, so even the spades down there won’t get the jobs. Gonna have fucking drones flying through the place. Only like two goddamned human beings watching a screen in the whole plant. The accounting office they’re sending to Pakistan or Zimbabwe.”
“For that, I’ll give you a Bud on the house,” Sandy said. He took it out of the case, popped off the cap and stood it next to Miles’ empty.
It was one of those summer bottles that said “America” on the label. Miles grinned. “Least I’ll always have good ole American beer, brewed and owned in the U. S. fuckin’ A.”
Sandy looked like he was going to say something, thought better of it, and turned to ring up the tab on the register.
Miles kept talking. “Been in that plant going on eleven years now. Started when my boy was born. Should be foreman by now, except someone else went to some weak-ass community college and got his pussy degree. I learned every inch of that place the hard way, but no one gives a rat’s ass when you don’t have the paper. If I wanted to, I could steal the place blind.”
“You could fix it so they’d never even know,” Sandy said tiredly. He’d been hearing the same line for a couple of years.
“Damn right. Know where the cameras are, know how to sneak a case out off the line before inventory. Shit, I could sell them filters out of my trunk by the dozen at every garage and gas station from here to the state line. Get my boy back from his mother.”
“Might even get your car off the impound lot. You’d have have to find the scratch first.”
Miles nodded sourly and drank his beer. “Every great plan has a hitch. Need someone to stake me is all. I got the know-how, I got the skills.” He shook his head. “Someone’s letting a great opportunity go to waste.”
Sandy rolled his eyes, and moved down the bar to re-up other customers. The guy next to Miles, whose beard might have looked like an Arab’s if it weren’t for the waxed handlebar stache, turned to wave him down. Miles eyed his lime-green drink, noticed nobody was eying him back, and took a slug to find out what the commotion was about. He gagged on brine. The son of a bitch was drinking goddamn pickle juice. He slid the drink back in front of the idiot, who finished it off without noticing a thing. Miles tried to rinse his mouth with the dregs of his “America”, but the pickle taste lay on his tongue like a soiled rug.
He was about to make an escape when a hand dropped on his shoulder. He looked up to see who it was, but then a cool voice echoed in his other ear. “Sandy says you’re looking for a business partner. That right?”
Miles twisted to look the newcomer in the face, but he was pressed so close to him that he couldn’t move. “I…I might have a line on some oil filters fell off a truck.”
“Really, now. Funny how only pissants like you ever see those boxes tumble to the ground.”
“You a cop?” Miles said. “I don’t know nothin’ for sure.” He strained to get up, but the hand was heavy as death.
The voice caressed his ear. “Better than that,” it told him. “I’m your dream come true. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I think I’ve had enough,” Miles whispered. “I gotta go to work in the morning.”
“You can go to your shit job in the morning, and mark time before they steal it out from under you. Or you can listen to a proposition that will make you as rich as you deserve. You know those fuckers in the front office are jerking you around. But I think your plan to screw them over is a good one, and I want to stake you. All I ask is that you take me along for the ride.” He waved for Sandy’s attention.
“You mean you want a cut. Guys like you, I bet that means most of it.”
“You got me all wrong.” Miles still couldn’t get a good view of who was talking to him, but the voice sounded genuinely hurt. “I just want to make sure you get what you deserve. I hear you got a kid you don’t see as much as you like. Deal?”
Another Bud, one with a regular label, appeared. “Drink up, Miles,” his new best friend said. “I’ll see you at the end of your shift tomorrow. I’ve got work to do in the meantime.”
Miles took a long, shaking pull from the bottle. It must have been a bad batch, gone skunky. He pushed it away and watched the man glide toward the front of the bar. His long black coat billowed behind him as he opened the door and disappeared into the night.
“Screw it,” he said, emptying the bottle. “You don’t shit on free beer.” He threw the last of his greenbacks on the bar and followed the man outside.
The cold air braced him, and Miles felt halfway to sober. Hunched up in his thin windbreaker, he shoved his hands in his pockets and quick-marched home, avoiding some road construction. The old intersection had been named after his grandfather, but now, thanks to all the McMansions going up, it needed to expand, and the town decided to rename it after the principal investor. No one had bothered to ask Miles what he thought.
He stumbled along for two miles, past overgrown, abandoned apple orchards. A sign claimed a mall would sprout there next summer. Once he saw the glowing red eyes of something—he hoped a deer—watching him from the trees. He pulled his jacket tighter and steamed toward his room, at the top back of a converted two-family. Only when he made the turn up the wooden fire-escape to his door did he notice his car sitting in the paved backyard. He scrambled down the steps to make sure.
It was his, all right. No mistaking the old Cougar’s crumpled left fender. He fished in his pockets for the keys and let himself in. The tank was full, for Christ’s sake. Miles checked under the seat, and smiled when he found the hunting knife he kept between the springs. The guy was true to his word, and then some.
The excitement of getting his car back dissipated when he got to work on time the next morning. Now he’d have to spend the whole goddamned day on the line without an excuse. The crush of machinery deafened him as it pressed resined paper into circular accordion folds, stamped out springs, stacked them into oil filters and eventually packed them into boxes. Half a dozen workers in smocks and goggles shepherded the process. Even Miles understood there was only a short hop between them and the robots, and then what? He took his own gear from his locker and joined the breathing drones one more time.
By lunch, he had squirreled away five cases of filters in strategic points across the plant. He’d have to wait until quitting time before he could maneuver them to his car, which he’d parked ass-out at the end of the lot, so he could get it all in the trunk out of view of the exterior cameras. He got the feeling the foreman had an eye on him from the window that overlooked the operating floor, but no one said anything. Then, the prick left at the stroke of five. Miles hung back so he could slide the boxes closer to the delivery bay door.
They were stacked neatly, ready to go. Nearly three bills’ worth of uninventoried merch to unload at his leisure, now that he had wheels. He turned for the locker room, where he could hang up his filthy smock. Before he took a single step, though, the steel door echoed beneath a pounding fist. As if someone knew he would be standing there at that precise moment. Except it wasn’t just “someone.” He didn’t know why he hesitated. After all, if it weren’t for the guy’s help, Miles would be getting ready for a hour-long stroll along the highway. He punched the button and the door rattled up.
The man loomed larger than Miles had remembered him. He still wore the same flowing black coat, and from this angle, he seemed to fill the entire door. His face was warped in a permanent scowl. His eyes, yellow like an eagle’s, smoldered with hatred. “Surprised?” he asked curtly. None of last night’s friendliness.
“Of course not.” Miles stepped aside to let him pass. “Thanks for the car, by the way.”
The man brushed him aside. He strode through the plastic strips that separated the loading bay from the main area of the factory floor. “Foreman’s office?” he said, pointing to the second-floor windows.
“Yeah, right up there. I don’t have the key or nothing, though.” Miles screwed up his face. “You never said what you were going to do.”
The man in the black coat looked at him and smiled. “Didn’t think I had to. Go load up your car, then come back. Still have that knife under the seat?” Miles nodded. “We might need that, too.”
It took three trips to get the cases in his trunk, and Miles was glad to do it alone. When he was finished, he slid the knife from the driver’s seat, tucking it in his belt. It was getting dark, and orange light shone from the office window like a beacon. The shadow of his partner—or at least his benefactor—fluttered from the desk to the file cabinets. Something inside of Miles relaxed. White collar crime might bring in more dough for his partner than the scam Miles was pulling, but so what? They both got what they wanted, and Miles wouldn’t be able to spend more than a few hundred at a time anyhow. And he had his car back. The mark of a good partnership was that everyone made out.
He hopped up on the loading dock and ducked inside the door. He hovered awkwardly, unsure of his role. Should he go up and ask if the guy needed anything? Or just wait? Maybe he just needed Miles to set the alarm as they left.
The sharp smell of oily smoke burned at his nose. What Miles had thought was just the dim glow of light bulbs turned out to be a fire. The line machinery danced in the flickering light. Why hadn’t the alarms gone off, or the sprinklers? Why hadn’t the man come out of the office? He ran for the metal steps and took them two at a time. Smoke rolled out of the office now. He crouched against the heat, inching toward the door. The flames had engulfed the room, but he heard the man calling feebly for help.
Miles hesitated. The filters were in his car, and no one would know he’d been here if he just took off now. He might even be able to get another case or two on his way. If the place burned down, it wouldn’t matter, and they’d find this guy’s body and it wouldn’t have anything to do with Miles. On the other hand, the man must have friends, and what if he’d told them he was working a score with Miles? Another cry cut through the crackle of the fire. He put his hand on the door frame, but pulled it back when it burned his palm.
“Please,” the man groaned. “It hurts so bad. Help me.”
Miles steeled himself, then jumped into the burning room. He dropped to his knees. “Where are you?” he said, choking on the fumes. A flaming ceiling panel fell on his back and burned through his shirt. His hair and eyebrows were singed. “Where are you?”
Miles never felt the knife leave his belt, but he did feel it cut through his ribs, the serrated blades hacking through bone. “Right here, partner,” the man whispered in his ear. “A couple key strokes, and three bank accounts transferred to my offshore account. No one will ever find it. Instead, they’ll find you here, and your car loaded with stolen goods, and figure, ‘the lousy bastard just had to go back for one more thing, the stupid shit.’ ”
The realization hit him that the guy had never actually said Miles would make a dime out of this. Never even promised he’d get to see his son one more time. The heat and the blood loss were overcoming Miles, but he choked out, “They’ll see I was stabbed. And Sandy will remember you from the bar.”
“Doubt it,” the man said. He tore a strip of aluminum runner from the ceiling. The hot metal seared Miles’ guts as it impaled him, fixing him to the floor. He was still conscious when the factory roof caved in on him, and his last thought was that maybe he should have negotiated a better deal.