Brett heard the fight next door even over the airplane-drone of the air conditioner. That woman on the second floor didn’t have a/c herself, so her windows were always open. Over the past few weeks, since the new boyfriend showed up, Brett and his wife had been unwilling witnesses to the whole gamut—the change from her usual 70s soft rock station to the boyfriend’s 80s hair bands, the sex, the fights, the make-up sex. Mornings, it was the clinking of bottles tipped into the recycle bin before she walked to the subway station. It got so as soon as Brett’s wife Emily saw the boyfriend’s car pull into the driveway, she’d immediately blast the window unit. She pulled the shades ostensibly to keep out the sun, though the windows faced north.
Tonight the pair started going at it almost from the time the boyfriend walked in the door. Brett watched him careen into the driveway so fast he thought the car would burst through the fence into the yard. But the thing had good breaks, and though the body rocked for several seconds after he killed the ignition, the boyfriend didn’t hit a thing.
Well, nothing outside. His huge arms seemed equal parts muscle and fat, and his belly strained against the sweat-stained T-shirt. With his shaved head, Brett considered him a walking stereotype. He stalked into the house, fury rolling off him in waves.
Brett punched 9-1-1 into his phone, ready to hit “send” if things got out of hand. She was the only tenant in the two-family house, so it was only the mice who could hear anything in the bottom unit. He wondered how the woman—who seemed to have a regular office job, generally kept to herself, and usually stayed in nights—had ended up with this loser. Brett had never spoken to her himself, though, and given the fleeting embarrassed looks he got if they ever passed each other, he didn’t think now was a good time to strike up a conversation.
It didn’t take long to discover the topic of tonight’s melee. Ten minutes after the car blew into the driveway, a police cruiser and tow truck rolled into view. The cruiser parked while the truck angled into the driveway. Brett noticed that nobody bothered to knock on the door. In fact, the cop stayed in the car, likely blasting his own a/c, until the boyfriend stormed out of the house.
“Here’s some excitement,” Brett called over his shoulder. Emily joined him at the window and handed him a glass of white. The cop blocked the boyfriend while the truck driver did his thing, apparently oblivious to the threats and insults hurled at his back. The woman watched forlornly from the front door.
“He probably gets that a dozen times a day,” Emily said. As if the comment had reached the dispute outside, the woman suddenly looked up and glared at them, but Brett only took a sip of his wine. This was public, and everyone was entitled to the show.
It was all over in five minutes. The cop put up a warning finger, then reached in the car for a hard hat and handed it to the boyfriend. As if nothing were going on around him, the tow truck driver climbed back in the cab and drove off. The boyfriend’s front bumper clunked once on the curb, and was gone. The cop spoke a minute more, then he, too, left.
“Now things are going to get bad,” Emily predicted.
“Could go either way,” Brett countered. “It could be screaming, or screwing.”
“Not with that look on her face.”
But they were both wrong. With a curt shout to the woman, the boyfriend tossed the hard hat on the grass and took to the sidewalk, in the direction of the subway.
“Looks like that’s that,” Brett said. The show over, they refilled their wine glasses, watched some Netflix, and went to bed. They both had work the next day.
But that wasn’t that.
As Brett started to pull out of the driveway the next morning, he spotted the boyfriend standing on the sidewalk. Lunch in one hand, hard hat hard hat in the other, he had clearly been waiting for Brett. He gave a friendly wave, like an old friend, and jogged to the passenger door. Brett considered locking it, but had never been so aggressively rude before. He had no immediate reason to snub the guy, and besides, what might happen later if he did? Gritting his teeth, he opened the window and said, “Can I help you?”
“Sure can,” the boyfriend said, opening the door from the inside and taking a seat. “Don’t know if you saw that bullshit yesterday, but the cops impounded my car. Said I had too many parking tickets. Like there’s ever enough parking at a construction site.”
“Sounds pretty lousy.” Brett kept his foot on the brake. The passenger door was closed, but the guy hadn’t put on his seatbelt. Maybe he just wanted to talk.
“You can say that again. And Laura doesn’t have a car, of course. You heard all about how her ex took off for Cali in it. She reported the theft, but they didn’t do a damn thing.”
“Anyhow, Laura told me how you work at that school and it’s only like five blocks from my job, so I figured we’d be doing each other a favor if I rode with you, instead of me ordering an Uber every day.”
Brett had no idea how the woman—he never knew her name was Laura—knew he was a guidance counselor, or how giving this guy a ride would be a favor to himself, but there was nothing to be done.
“Sure thing,” he said, mustering a friendly tone he didn’t feel. Almost immediately an alarm went off.
“What’s that?” the boyfriend said.
“Seatbelt,” Brett said, nodding at the empty socket.
“Oh, right.” The boyfriend reached up for the buckle, passed it behind himself and clicked it in. That’s one way to shut the alarm, Brett thought.
“Name’s Josh, by the way. Laura said you’re a good guy. I wasn’t sure, but I guess you’re all right. Even better than an Uber, huh?”
“No worries,” Brett said. They passed the rest of the drive in an uncomfortable—at least for Brett—silence. Josh only spoke again when they got close to the job site. He directed Brett around a line of pick-ups and cars along the curb and on traffic islands near the gate.
“See what I mean? And how the hell do they expect a guy to pay a ticket if he can’t get to work?” Shaking his head, he took his lunch and hat and got out of the car. As he slammed the door shut, a buddy walked by. They bumped fists and headed in to work. He never even looked back at Brett.
Despite a quiet night that led Brett and Emily to think the misbegotten relationship got towed away with the car, Josh was there on the sidewalk again the next morning. And the morning after that. Each time, Brett reminded himself that no good deed goes unpunished. They never spoke about what Brett might have heard or seen the previous night, no matter how loud the screaming and screwing got. Sometimes Brett even wondered if he was crazy and imagining those scenes, since Josh, for all his size and brusqueness, always had a smile and a wave, and if not a thank you, at least never said anything rude. Their rides turned into a cordial kind of limo service, without the pay and tip. And though Josh clearly felt entitled to the ride, Brett lost the sense he was being taken advantage of. At least it broke up the monotony.
After about a week, Josh climbed into his seat as usual. The seatbelt remained ever connected, but never around him. He checked a text, then reached to floor in front of him and adjusted the seat. Brett thought he’d seen something in his hand, but it came back empty after the seat moved up and back a couple of times, ending up in pretty much the same place.
“All set there?” he ventured.
“Hunky dory,” Josh told him. And then they were at the job site, and he was gone.
At school a few minutes later, Brett reached under the seat. Sure enough he found a baggie, similar to ones he’d pulled from more than a couple of kids’ bags. Oxy.
What the hell? Was he a mule now? Unsure of what to do, he stuffed it back under the seat.
The knowledge that he had contraband of his own hovered over Brett all day. He considered bringing it over to Laura when he got home, but again, it didn’t seem the right way to start a conversation: “Hey, I’ve been driving the guy that shouts at you. Thought you’d want to give this back to him.” Right.
Instead, Brett told Josh the next morning, “I think you dropped something.”
“Yeah, thanks for watching over it. If you were an app driver, I’d give you a great rating. See, I got the call while we were on the road yesterday that inspectors were coming by. Can’t chance getting caught with that stuff.” He reached for the baggie and put it in his pocket.
“Wait, that’s drugs?” As if he didn’t know. “What if I got caught?”
Josh looked at him and laughed. “When was the last time you got pulled over?”
“Listen,” Brett said. “I don’t mind giving you a lift, but please don’t store that shit in my car. What if they brought the dogs to my school? They do that, you know.”
“Jesus, calm down, bro. No more leaving shit in your car, all right?”
“Thank you.” He’d won that round.
“How much longer are you going to be his mule?” Emily asked a couple days later. The fights were raging next door.
“I’m not his mule. He stored the stuff in my car for a day, and he won’t anymore.”
“But even the rides. Every single morning. He owes you for gas. Look how much he’s saved on Ubers. Ask for a contribution.”
Brett shook his head. “No way. The building’s nearly done. And school’s out soon. One way or the other, it’s almost over.”
“How does he get home? Maybe he should do whatever he does in the afternoon in the morning, too.”
“I don’t see how I can get out of it now,” Brett said into his beer glass.
A plate shattered next door.
“Find one,” Emily told him.
But a week later, the morning rides were in full swing. On Tuesday, Josh climbed in, but he didn’t have his lunch or hard hat.
“Forget something?” Brett asked.
“No, I banged in sick.”
Does he like my company that much?
“You need to take me somewhere else,” Josh continued. “I’ll show you where.”
“I need to get to school,” Brett said. But the car was moving.
“Relax. You won’t be late. Go down here… and turn left there…”
In the end, Josh had led him to an industrial park. Half a dozen anonymous three-story buildings faced each other across roads that sprouted weeds and chunks of broken masonry. Brett didn’t see any cars except a moving van by the building on the far left.
“Here’s good. See, you’ll still get to school on time. Adios.” He sauntered in the direction of the distant van. When Brett had turned the car around, he was still sauntering.
There was no immediate reason to connect Josh to the news later that day. Hundreds of moving vans plowed the streets every day, so really why should the particular one he saw that morning be the one that ran an armored car off the road? Anyhow, the three thieves had jumped out of the box with shotguns and loaded the money back into it. One of the guards survived, but with a concussion that would leave him permanently impaired. No witness descriptions of the perps, and besides, a thousand guys looked like Brett’s daily pax. But if it was him, then surely he’d be paying off those parking tickets.
So it was a little surprising that Josh was on the sidewalk Wednesday morning, again without his work gear.
“Still sick?” Brett asked, his mouth a little dry.
“You remember the way to the park, right?”
He did. This time, Josh told him to park out of view of the street, and to wait.
“I need to get to school,” he argued, hating the feebleness in his whining. He was part of this now, and knew it.
When Josh got back to the car, he carried two heavy-looking duffle bags. One of them looked like a baseball equipment bag, without a bat. “Pop the trunk, will ya?” he said.
“Do I want to know what’s in them?” he asked when Josh was settled next him.
Josh directed him to a coffee shop downtown, where he got out. “You won’t need to open the trunk before you get home, will you, buddy? I got something for your wife, and what it is depends on your answer.”
“Nope,” Brett answered promptly. “I could drive on a flat if I had to.”
“Good boy.” He slapped the car roof, and Brett took off like the consummate hired driver.
He was already late for school. Sasha Brady would have to reschedule her appointment to go over those failing grades. But instead of heading to work, he parked at a hiking trail. His was the only car in the lot.
He popped the trunk. The two duffels were battered and dirty, as if they’d spent a lot of time on the diamond. After a quick scan of the surrounding woods, he took a rag and unzipped the smaller one, and found the stacks of bills he’d expected. He was pretty sure what would be in the equipment bag, too. Sure enough, the outside compartment, which should have held a glove and balls, instead contained a pair of pistols. Brett knew nothing about guns, but they were big and mean and told him everything he needed to know—which was not to look in the longer section.
He drove back to school with the exaggerated care of a student driver, or a drunk. He didn’t stick around after the dismissal bell.
One advantage to working 7 to 3 instead of 9 to 5 was that he avoided the rush hour traffic, and beat everyone home. Today, though, he pulled up just as Laura was emptying the latest supply of bottles into the recycling. She wasn’t dressed for work, and he briefly wondered if she and Josh were preparing to jet off to the Caribbean or wherever armored car robbers absconded to these days.
There was no way to avoid each other, so he said hello. It was the first time he’d spoken to her in the two years they’d been neighbors.
“Hi,” she said, avoiding his eyes. He could see, now that he was up close, that it was more than plates that got smashed in her house. Her high collar and long sleeves didn’t quite cover all the bruises, and she moved stiffly.
“I’ve been driving Josh to work,” he said. “I wanted to ask you, should I…”
“Well, he needs the ride,” she said with a shrug.
“No,” he said, the guidance counselor in him finally asserting itself. “I mean, if you were a student I’d be required to make a 51A report to the state, but since you’re over 18…”
“Don’t,” she said. “I know you’ve heard shit over here. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. And if the police came to the door now, he told me, just a single bullet would kill us both.”
“Is he here?”
She shook her head. “Of course not. He’s getting himself a car. We’ll be leaving tonight. Then your neighborhood will be quiet again.”
He didn’t bother asking her why she didn’t leave him, or made an anonymous call. He’d seen it too many times.
The apartment windows were closed, and the shades drawn. In just a few minutes, the air grew stale, then fetid. He moved to the bathroom and ran the shower. The cold water provided some relief, but not much.
He sat on the edge of the tub until he heard the front door open, then positioned himself where the open door would hide him.
“Hey, Laura!” Josh called out. “Get out here!”
Josh tried the door, but it was locked. “Laura, come on out! Or you want me in there?” The knob rattled some more. It wasn’t a strong lock, and a single kick popped it open.
Brett expected that, and blocked his face as the door bounced off him.
Josh stepped into the room, stood perplexed at the empty shower.
Brett rushed him from behind, tripping him face down into the tub. Josh twisted onto his back, but Brett was ready for him. As soon as Josh was in a sitting position, he saw the barrel of the shotgun in his face.
“No more ride sharing. I’m deactivating my account,” Brett told him. He pulled the trigger.
It looked a lot like a suicide. There was some question about why he would have done it with the shower running, and with his share of the loot in the next room, but Laura had been out with her good friend and neighbor Emily, and no one had seen anyone leave the house.
Not even that nosy guidance counselor watching from from next door, who couldn’t hear anything over the air conditioner.
J.M. Taylor cooks up his sinister fantasies in Boston where he lives with his wife and son. He has appeared in Tough, Wildside Black Cat, and AHMM, among others. His first novel, Night of the Furies, was published by New Pulp Press and his second, Dark Heat, by Genretarium. When he’s not writing, he teaches under an assumed name. You can find him at jmtaylorcrimewriter.com and on Facebook at Night of the Furies.