Monday, February 12, 2024

Val Has a Math Problem, fiction by Casey Stegman

 It’s 10:58 p.m., and the way Val figures it, she has a math problem.

The biggest variable is time. She’s got less than two minutes before the block of C4 stuffed into the air duct down in the basement of this beat-to-shit farmhouse in the middle of ass-crack nowhere goes boom. And although she has her lucky rabbit’s foot clutched in her left hand, she doubts it’s gonna affect the clock any.

Then she’s got this wide motherfucker standing in front of her in the hallway, blocking the front door, and wearing a big toothy grin on his pockmarked face. He’s smiling because he’s got not one but two Glock 19s pointed at her. And from how Val’s interpreting that smile, he knows he’s got her number.

Fortunately or unfortunately — depending on who you’re rooting for here — this sack of shit doesn’t know about the basement air duct, let alone what’s in it.

Next up is what’s outside that front door.

Val’s guesstimate is four of Cantrell’s guys. There’s no telling how many guns they got. But if she does a statistical average of 1.5 per man, that’s still potentially another six firearms.

Then there’s the fifty yards she’s gotta sprint beyond these assholes to get to the treeline where she’s got her motorcycle hidden.

Following this, there’s the sixty-two miles of highway she’s gotta haul ass down to get back to the city and, more importantly, the lawyer responsible for sending her out into this mess in the first place. He’s the only one who can get her out of it. At least, that’s what she’s hoping. But only if she gets to him before midnight.

And lastly there’s this one scratched and weathered knock-off Transformers lunchbox a lot of people have already been killed over that she’s got gripped tight in her right hand.

So yeah… that’s the math problem:

One wide, grinning pockmarked motherfucker blocking the door PLUS two Glock 19s PLUS four assholes outside (multiplied by 1.5 firearms) PLUS fifty yards and sixty-two miles of the hardest road imaginable PLUS one lunchbox DIVIDED by a hundred and twenty seconds.

No, make that a hundred and nineteen seconds.

Er, well, a hundred and eighteen now….

And maybe Val could come up with some solution for this goddamn equation if she hadn’t of gotten all C’s in every single math class she ever took including that Physics for English Majors elective she audited at Oakdale Community College the semester before she dropped out and officially joined her Uncle Rumper’s crew ten years back.

RIP, Uncle Rump.

As it stands, Val’s fresh out of ideas.

So when the wide, toothy-grinned motherfucker in front of her says, “Put the lunchbox on the floor,” Val thinks maybe she should, given everything. At least for three of the remaining hundred and eleven seconds she has left.

Then she thinks, No fuckin’ way.

Val squeezes the lucky rabbit’s foot tighter as she turns on her heels and runs back toward the basement. She zig-zags the whole way at top speed, while the motherfucker’s two Glock 19s make loud noises and their bullets hit, blast, pop, and shatter wood, paint, plaster, and drywall all around her.

She makes it to the end of the hall with just scratches from the debris flying every which way, throws open the door, shielding her from the motherfucker who continues unloading — now into the door itself.

Val races to the bottom of the basement stairs, hits the light, and goes for the air duct on the far wall, thinking that, with less than eighty-five seconds left, dismantling this bomb is the smartest play.

And as she’s halfway across the barren and musty concrete space, she hears the house’s front above crash open and several cacophonous voices boom out. Some Where is shes, a few Did you get hers, and at least two What the fuck’s happenings.

As she’s looking back down from the basement’s ceiling to the duct in front of her, she spots something outta the right corner of her eye that she didn’t see before.

Maybe because way back then — less than three minutes ago — she figured she had enough time to get the lunchbox, go back out the front, and motorcycle off before Cantrell’s guys arrived to find a pile of rubble instead of a farmhouse.

That’s when she gets a new idea.

It’s desperate, sure. And it’s a little stupid. But as Uncle Rump used to say, when he was the one who relied on that rabbit’s foot for luck, “Maybe a little stupidity is just what this logic-bound world needs.

And so she double-times it to the duct; gets on her tippy-toes; with the hand still gripping the rabbit’s foot, pulls off the vent; and yanks out the wires going from the rectangular block of explosive to the digital clock which is down to forty-six seconds.


Samuels is last through the farmhouse’s front door.

Gibson, who had the girl pinned in the hall but managed to let her get away despite having two fucking guns on her, says she went down to the basement.

With the lunchbox,” he adds.

Samuels wants to chew this dumb motherfucker out. But he doesn’t.

There’s no time.

They need that god damned lunchbox. Before midnight. Before the money in that secret account in New York no one is supposed to know about is wired to that other secret account in São Paulo.

Well then go after her, idiot,” Samuels says to Gibson.

But he means all of them.

And so all four of the men — including the good-for-nothing Gibson — do.

Samuels brings up the rear the whole way.

When they get down to the basement, the light is on, giving them enough illumination to see the space clearly.

Gibson is the first to spot the crawl space door along the far right wall. It’s unlocked and hanging ajar.

There,” he says, pointing and simultaneously moving toward it.

The three other men follow.

Stop!” Samuels says.

They do. And all turn to Samuels at roughly the same time.

She wants us to follow her,” he says.

He turns and points at the air vent, which is slightly crooked.

Because of what’s in there.”

He moves toward it.


Val emerges from under the back porch crawl space covered in mud and bits of old leaves. She’s looking behind her constantly as she bolts for the backwoods.

But there are no voices and no clattering of men making their way through the crawl space after her.

It’s quiet enough to hear the toads from the nearby swamp.

She gets behind a large hickory tree and watches the house, worried that her plan was even more stupid than she thought at the moment.

But at least you didn’t get yourself blown up.

Which is the only visible upside at this particular moment.

After a few beats, she turns and runs the long way around the property.


Samuels smiles as he pulls the lunchbox out of the air duct. He holds it up for all to see.

Tried to lead us away so she could double back for it,” he says.

All of them nod. Including Gibson.

Samuels looks at his watch. “It’s eleven. We need to get this to Cantrell ASAP.”

He orders them to have their guns at the ready and to keep their eyes peeled as they come out of the house.

“She could be laying in wait with a rifle for all we know.”


Val makes it to her motorcycle when she sees them exit the front door.

Four men, including that wide motherfucker from the hall, flanking that Samuels asshole like they’re Secret Service and he’s the goddamn President or something. They make their way to the Lincoln Navigator parked ten feet from the front steps.

She sees Samuels has the fucking lunchbox.

She closes her eyes. Sighs.


Samuels gets in the middle of the backseat with Harold and Fisher at his sides. Gibson hops into the front passenger seat. And Reynolds gets behind the wheel.

As the engine starts, Samuels calls Cantrell.

We have the lunchbox,” he tells his boss.

“Did you check the item?” Cantrell says.

Samuels rolls his eyes at Cantrell’s cheesy-ass-James-Bond-villain description of the flash drive with the supposedly smart-as-shit algorithm that can snatch money out of the ether as it's being digitally transferred.

“Doing that now,” he says.

Samuels pops open the lunchbox and manages to catch a glimpse of a rabbit’s foot inside for a millisecond before the Navigator explodes.


The fireball is bigger than Val anticipated, even after she stuck the newly-timed C4 under the gas tank and figured it’d give the whole thing a bigger kick. She watches it mushroom nearly twenty feet into the air from the smoking and burning wreckage.

“Thanks again, Uncle Rump,” she says, lifting the motorcycle. “Sorry about the foot, though.”

She pats the flash drive in her right pants’ pocket and checks her watch before starting the engine.

It’s 11:03 p.m., and the way Val figures it, she has more than enough time now to get back to the city.

Casey Stegman
lives in North Carolina. His work has also appeared in
Mystery Tribune, Shotgun Honey, Punk Noir Magazine, and Dark Yonder. When he’s not typing up stories about miscreants and malefactors, he rescues and rehabilitates dogs with his wife. So, if you’re looking to adopt, hit him up. He can be found posting about his love of fiction and obscure movies from the 1980s and ’90s on Twitter/X: @cstegman

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