Showing posts with label jm taylor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jm taylor. Show all posts

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Bar Bet, fiction by JM Taylor

That early in the day, not many drinkers slunk into the dark of the Drinking Hole. In the far corner, cheap-ass Larry Stover nursed his beer so fiercely it was more likely to evaporate than get drunk. At the far end of the bar, Ced surrounded his beer like a fortress. Brown as the walnut bar top, he had a brilliant white scar splashed across his face like he was the missing member of KISS. Molly Finnegan leaned spread-legged with her elbows on the bar, so she’d be the first thing anyone saw coming in. Not that the pose enticed any paying customers for her or for me. It wasn’t worth my while to fill the peanut bowls yet.

I dropped a cricket from the jar into the terrarium and turned to slicing limes, not that many of my patrons got so fancy. I stopped buying maraschino cherries a decade ago.

By lunch time, the place had started to fill up. The only food I sold was bags of chips and pickled eggs, but it wasn’t the cuisine folks came in for. With a television that showed only sports with no audio and a juke last updated when John and June visited Folsom, the Hole is a place for quiet contemplation. Couple years ago, I had to put up a sign in the window, saying “no colors.” At first, it was for the different bikers who come in. Club members got too loud for the rest of the drinkers to stew in peace. But really it turned out to be the young punks in town, the ones who buy into that crap on cable and on-line “news” who think “free speech” means you can say what you want without repercussion.

After the second one got bounced off the floor, I put that sign up. But no sign is going to stop a rising tide. Try it yourself.

So the place was getting busy, but Molly had left for greener pastures and no one noticed when the door opened, shining a spotlight on nothing in particular. I looked up and saw two kids come in. With the light behind them, all I saw was the high and tight hair cuts and squared shoulders like they owned the place. When the door closed behind them, the darkness revealed that one had dark hair and a face covered with acne he should have grown out of five years ago. The other, slightly taller, wore a smirk that begged you to punch it. They both wore white shirts with some triangle logo I’d never seen. But after carding them, I had no real reason to deny them the cheap beers they ordered. But I never lost track of them.

Ced lifted his finger at the same time the kids called for another round. Some say you should prioritize the new faces, try to build your customer base, but I believe in loyalty first. Ced, Larry, even Molly the whore, would always get served before a line of newcomers. I walked past them to deliver Ced’s beer. I should’ve known something would come of it, and maybe I did.

The pimply one spoke up first. He was almost polite, just saying, “Hey, we were first!”

I ignored him. The complaint made me want to ask Ced how his day was. “Not as bad as yesterday,” he said. “Probably better than tomorrow, though.”

Then the other got more forceful. “I thought your sign said no coloreds.”

I locked eyes with Ced, but he didn’t give me any other indication of how he felt about that. I gritted my teeth, took the three steps to their spot deliberately. Along the way, I decided not to discuss spelling with them.

“You’re cut off,” I said. “First round’s on me, so hoof it.”

It’s never that easy to scrape shit from your shoe, though.

“I get it’s not the fifties anymore, we can’t have segregated counters no more, but damned if I’m going to let you serve him before me. I’m an American, for God’s sake.”

“And he’s a veteran, for country’s sake. I don’t deal with your bullshit in my bar. Beat it, fashy.”

I glanced at Ced, who hadn’t moved, except to sip his beer. But he had the beginnings of his own smirk, and I wondered why. The rest of the place was watching me, and I didn’t like it.

Pock-face said, “I just want to know why you think that one’s better than me. I love my country, that’s why we need to keep the undesirables out. We built this country, we fought and died for it, and we don’t need outsiders and illegals sucking off America’s tit.”

“That’s a sick image,” Ced mumbled. I felt the weight of everyone’s eyes shift off me onto him, like at a tennis match. Still, he didn’t move, his elbows gripped by the varnish of the wood.

The boys pushed away from the bar and sauntered over to Ced, one at each shoulder. If he was worried about a two-on-one match, he didn’t show it.

“We didn’t ask for your literary analysis,” the tall one said. “Like he said, we want to know why you think you’re better than us.”

“You serve? All that building and fighting and dying? What branch?”

The pimply one balled his fists. “I’ll show—”

But his friend cut him off. It was only from this angle that he saw Ced’s scars. “What’d you do? Try to bleach yourself like Michael Jackson?”

The two of them laughed like a pair of rabid hyenas, but the air went out the room. I said my customers like quiet contemplation, but I didn’t say they don’t know and respect each other.

“IED,” Ced told him. “Fallujah. Bet you can’t even spell it.” Then he looked at me and grinned. “I can see that you won’t back off, and I don’t want to fight, so maybe we should leave this to Oliver!.”

“Who’s Oliver?” the tall one said.

“No, it’s ‘Oliver!’,” I said. “With the exclamation point.” I showed him the terrarium. The heat lamp burned beneath the liquor bottles, giving them a hellish glow.

“Why’s he called that?” zit-face asked. As if he knew who “he” was.

I checked with Ced, to make sure he was serious. Ced nodded, so I shrugged, unclipped the lamp and moved the glass case to the bar. Except for the sand-colored rocks, a bowl of water, and the grinning human skull, it looked empty. The glass was warm in my hands.

The two punks leaned in close, and a few others looked over their shoulders, but Oliver! was nowhere to be seen. I knew he was hiding in the skull, working on the cricket I’d given him for lunch. I unlocked the lid and folded it back. Then I lifted the skull.

Oliver!’s tail curled up over his head. “Lookit this,” I said, and reached under the bar for the blacklight I kept for checking IDs. I shined it on Oliver! and he changed from black to blue. He held the cricket in his pincers the way Larry held his evaporating beer.

“What the fuck is that?” the tall one said.

“That is Androctonus bicolor,” I said, putting the black light away. “Fat-tailed scorpion. Also known as Oliver!. You want to get technical, he’s an illegal, smuggled over in Ced’s gear. As his name implies, a mixture of colors. He also has a hell of a sting.”

The two boys stepped back. “You’re out of your mind,” the tall one breathed.

“Watch,” Ced told them. He pushed away his beer and reached his right hand into the tank. He hovered over Oliver!, then, in one quick movement nabbed him by the end of his tail. The cricket dropped to the gravel and he arched and snapped in anger.

The circle around Ced and Oliver grew by three feet.

Oliver! writhed beneath Ced’s hand. The arachnid wasn’t pleased at all, and reached in vain towards the fingers that imprisoned him from above.

“What were you saying about who’s better? Ced asked, smooth as silk. “Let’s make a bet. We’ll let Oliver! vent his anger on each of us. Whoever gives up first has to admit the other is the best.”

The smirk came back to the face of the one with the triangle logo. “If that…” I glared at him. “One can take it, so can I.”

“Fuck no,” said pimple boy. “That’ll kill us.”

I shook my head. “Oliver! don’t kill, at least not if you’re as healthy as you look.” I put a rubber-topped glass vial on the bar. “And this is antivenin if either of you passes out. It’ll keep your heart pumping, more or less. This is my place, so I make the rules: if you win, I’ll declare you’re the master race and banish Ced from my establishment. If he wins, you hand over that piece of shit shirt you’re wearing so I can wipe the john with it.”

“Not me,” the first one said.

“No one’s getting this shirt,” smirky said. But he took a seat next to Ced. I gotta give it to him, even as Oliver! dangled near his face, he held his ground.

Ced was whispering something to the scorpion, like he was putting some kind of spell on him. I thought of snake charmers and horse whisperers. He locked eyes with his opponent. Then, without breaking the stare, he tucked Oliver!’s pincers beneath his left hand, held them there tight, and let his tail go. Oliver! nailed him on the thumb.

Ced blinked, as if he’d gotten a mild shock. “Your turn,” he said.

He daintily nabbed the scorpion’s tail and held it out for the other to take. The son of a bitch had turned whiter than even he might have wanted the country to be, and sweat covered his forehead.

“Go ahead,” Ced urged him, with the same conjuring tone he’d used on Oliver!. “He can’t hurt you if you hold him by the tail.”

“Don’t do it, Mitch. Let’s just leave.”

But that seemed only to egg him on. “Lemme have that,” he said. To be honest, he seemed more worried about touching Ced than he did the scorpion.

Once he had the tail, he put the body under his hand, just like Ced had done.

“Don’t hurt him,” I said.

He glowered at me. “Shut up. I won’t kill your pet.”

I shook my head and stepped back. “I was talking to Oliver!”

He held that pose another few seconds. Deciding, I guess, whether he was really going to go through with it. Finally, he let loose.

It looked like he’d been shocked with a live wire. His whole body went rigid and I swear he levitated off the stool. Ced’s hand flashed out and caught Oliver! before he could scuttle away. Mitch’s red-faced friend was crying, the twerp. Within seconds, a bruise the size and color of a football had spread across Mitch’s wrist and arm. Snot poured out of his nose.

“That’s round one,” I said.

“How many rounds?” the friend gasped.

“Until one of them gives in,” I said.

Ced mumbled another spell.

“What’s he shaying?” Mitch said with a husky voice.

“‘Please sir, I want some more,’” Ced told him more loudly. Then he lodged Oliver! under his right hand, took another stab. This time, his nose twitched, but nothing else. Gingerly, he took Oliver by the tail and offered him to Mitch.

He didn’t look too good. The tendons stood out on his neck, and drool streamed out of the corners of his mouth. “I get ish,” he said. “You got shtung so often you’re immune.”

Ced nodded. “Something like that. Let’s see what you got, white boy.”

It took Mitch two or three tries to take Oliver! by the tail, and he grimaced as he put the pincers beneath his swollen hand. But he didn’t hesitate and this time kept his seat, though he howled loud and long enough to drown out half of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” I did the honors and caught up Oliver! once he’d done his thing.

“Another round?” I asked, as if I were offering beer.

“Hit me,” Ced told me, and he let Oliver! zap him.

Mitch was slumped in his chair. I think his partner was keeping him from hitting the floor. But he managed to say, “Pleashe zhur,” with something approaching humor. But it was the humor of the defeated. He swiped at Oliver! twice, three times, then collapsed on the bar.

Ced dropped Oliver! back in his terrarium. The scorpion darted back under the skull to eat his cricket in peace. I replaced the tank on its shelf and reattached the heat lamp.

By the time I turned around, Mitch was half awake again, scrabbling at his shirt. He was honest enough about that. But he needed help just to get his arms over his head. Larry took it and disappeared into the closet we called the men’s room. Meanwhile, I loaded a syringe with the antivenin. I can’t lie, it felt good to stab him with the needle, though less good to hit the plunger.

“Is he gonna die?” the other kid said. He’d lost his shirt, too. I could now cite the “No shirt, no service” rule if I needed to.

“We all do, eventually,” I replied. “So make the best of it.”

Larry came out zipping up his pants. “I left ’em in the urinal,” he said.

Suddenly, there was a line, and not just men: Molly had come back and charmed her way to the front.

Mitch fought to keep his feet. “Thash a lot to shtink abou’,” he said. “You got shum balls.”

“I’d give my right arm to know how you did that,” his friend said as they limped out the door.

Ced shrugged and drank his beer. He took a napkin to the dripping venom on the smooth area along his plastic wrist and thumb, careful not to let it touch his skin.

“I did,” he said, in his snake charmer’s voice.

JM Taylor lives in Boston with his wife and son. His work has appeared in such mags and zines as Thuglit, Crime Factory, Crime Syndicate, Tough Crime, and Out of the Gutter. His novel *Night of the Furies*, was listed in Spinetingler's Best of 2013. He's currently working on a young adult spy thriller. When he's not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Night Drive, by JM Taylor

It was the first time Charlie had driven alone at night, and of course he got lost. In high school, he’d never needed to drive—he had a bus or his mom or dad had driven him to practice. Now, he had to get to the college pool on his own. It was the same one he’d swum in for years, following the same coach from one level to another. But he’d never paid attention to when they turned onto which streets. In the dark, he missed first one turn, then tried to make up for it by making another one at random. Within minutes, he was in a canyon of looming triple-deckers. Cars clogged both sides of the street, and every time he slowed to see about making another turn, the line of drivers behind him honked their horns and flashed their lights.

Charlie’s eyes darted frantically from the windshield to the rear-view to the side mirror. His hands were frozen at 10 and 2, and he couldn’t even pull over to look at his phone. He had no choice but to barrel on blindly, dodging double-parked cars and glaring pedestrians. He prayed for a traffic light, or a parking lot, anywhere he could stop, but it was like he’d been dumped into a bobsled track, and he couldn’t stop until he reached the end.

Finally, he came to an intersection he vaguely remembered. A voice—his mother’s, his conscience, Jiminy Cricket—told him that turning left was the right answer, so he flicked on the blinker and banged around the corner. He hoped none of the cars behind him was a police officer, ready to nab him for signaling at least 100 feet before his maneuver.

He found himself on a wide road, brightly lit, but no less crowded. He wove with the traffic, realizing this wasn’t the road he thought it was. So much for the smart college freshman. The buildings grew seedier and seedier. The blue lights of a cop car appeared in his rear-view, and he had just enough time to clear out of the lane before it flew by him. A pair of creepy looking thugs stared at him from the dark recessed doorway of an apartment building. He locked the doors. He waited like an idiot while three cars took advantage of his getting sidelined before he got back on the road.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. That would be his mom, whose book club was meeting tonight. The clock on the dash said it was 9:30, and he was over an hour late getting home.

Finally, he approached an intersection he knew, where one corner of the zoo intruded into the wasteland. Back in familiar territory, he was fifteen minutes from home. He still had to contend with the crazy drivers—didn’t anyone in this neighborhood take driving lessons?—and with the panhandler stalking the lines of stopped cars, but at last he was safe.

He idled ten cars back from the light, his blinker flashing dutifully. The panhandler made his way from car to car, shaking a large Dunkin’ Donuts cup. Once he leaned into a window and took a bill. No, Charlie realized, it wasn’t a guy, but a girl covered with a long ratty coat too heavy for this time of year. It flashed through his mind that begging at cars was safe enough for winos and homeless men, but a girl could get into so much more trouble.

Her hair fell from under a filthy Yankees cap that covered most of her face, except for the hardened frown and an incongruously delicate chin. His horror grew when she got closer to his car and his headlights illuminated her face. Along with the pretty chin, a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose gave her something of a cute raccoon’s face. Despite the rags and dirt, she was beautiful.

And familiar. It took him a second, but then he realized that she’d once been in his English class. Last year, or eleventh grade? She’d been there only a short time, and the teacher hadn’t even commented when she’d disappeared, as if she’d never been there. But her seat had been left vacant, and his eyes had often traveled to it, like a tongue poking into the socket of a lost tooth.

The sad-eyed girl got to his window. Charlie wondered what to do. Give her something? Shake his head the way his father did, and pretend otherwise not to see her? That voice was giving him nothing. Before he could decide, she’d spotted him. Worse, she remembered his name.

“Charlie!” she called. The light changed, and he had a brief window to take off. But then she was standing in front of him, and he was immobilized. Drivers behind him started honking, and he panicked. His foot slipped off the brake, and he almost hit her. “Wait!” the girl screamed, and she dashed to the passenger door, trying to climb in. Charlie bit his lip, realized he couldn’t ignore her, and unlocked the door. In a second, she was in, and he was pulling away before she shut the door. He saw too late that he’d run a red light.

“Wow, am I glad you happened by. It isn’t really your neighborhood, is it?”

“It’s your lucky night,” he giggled nervously. He wondered how he could ask her what her name was without offending. “What were you doing there anyhow?”

“Just getting some spare change,” she said. “I’m saving up.” He couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. After a second she said, “I can tell you don’t remember me. No worries. I’m Leah.”

“Right! Did you switch schools?”

“Something like that.”

They were almost at Charlie’s house, the journey through the ghetto fading like a bad dream. “What were you really doing in that neighborhood?” he asked. “My dad says when he was a kid, you couldn’t walk a block without getting jumped. Gangs and shit.”

“Visiting a friend. Listen, Charlie, can you do me a favor? I have something I need to take care of. Could you give me a ride home?”

“Well, it’s late. I need to get the car to my mom.”

“It’s on the way. We’re almost there. Please?”

“Yeah, sure. Of course.”

She smiled and settled back in her seat. “I knew I could depend on you, Charlie.”

She guided him through a section of town he’d never been in. Unlike his own spacious neighborhood, here the houses were tiny cardboard boxes shoved up against each other, or long blocks of old apartment buildings. She led him deeper into the warren of crowded blocks until she said, “Stop here.”

“That’s your house?” he looked at a grim little cottage with a rusted chain link fence and a car older than either of them in the driveway.

“No, I’m over there.” She pointed down the block to a house that might have been the first one’s twin. “Just don’t want anyone to know I’m here. Wait for me.”

“I really need to go. . .”

“Two minutes. I’ll be right back.”

She got out, and Charlie watched her skulk through the shadows. She scanned the block to make sure no one was watching. Satisfied, she edged up the driveway to a darkened window. She stood on a water spigot for a boost, slid the window up, and swung her leg into the opening. She did it so smoothly, Charlie imagined she must have had a lot of practice.

But then it occurred to him, this might not be her house at all. Was she a burglar, hiring him as her getaway driver? He flushed, and it seemed as though all his pores opened at once, soaking through his shirt. Would anybody be able to identify his car? He turned on the radio to drown out the noise in his head.

Five minutes later, she was sliding into the seat next to him. “Thanks,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“That really your house?” he said, starting the car.

“You think I’d break into someone else’s?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“I didn’t even really break in, anyhow. My little sister leaves the window in her room unlocked. This time of night, my father’s plastered in the living room, but he keeps a Glock on the table right next to his glass. If I went in the front door, I’d be dead.”

“Seriously?” But when she didn’t answer, he said more calmly. “So why’d you make me wait?”

She looked down guiltily. Charlie thought she was lovely, despite the grime. “I need you to take me one more place.”

“Leah, I can’t.”

“OK, then just let me ride with you a little way. For company.”

He pulled away from the curb and started home. It was already after ten. They passed through a wooded area, where the road slalomed and Charlie could imagine he was driving in Le Mans. If only he could go faster. “I’m going to have to let you out soon. How are you going to get home from here?” he asked.

“Oh, my God! Pull over!” Leah shouted. In a panic, Charlie heaved to the side of the road, forgetting entirely to signal. The front wheel dipped into a drainage ditch.

Panting, he looked at her. “What? What is it?”

“It’s really important,” she said, leaning close. Her breath tickled his ear. “Do you have a rubber?”


“Never mind,” she smirked. She pulled a glove from an inside pocket of her coat and snapped it on. Still breathing in his ear, she reached down and popped the button on his jeans and wriggled her fingers into his Y-front. “I always liked you,” she cooed. Terrified and excited, he was instantly hard, but it took only a few seconds for him to come. He flushed with shame, but her giggle was encouraging, and she lightly kissed his cheek. “You taste like chlorine,” she whispered. “Fresh and clean.”

She rolled the glove off, catching most of the come, and tied it up. He stuffed himself back inside, horrified to think what would happen when his mother climbed into the car tomorrow. Would she see the stain he’d surely left?

“Now about that other stop” Leah said, dropping the glove out the window.

“Uh, sure. Of course.” His throat was dry and he was afraid he’d hyperventilate. He hit the gas a little too hard, and they bounced out of the gully. Finally, he eased off and was able to keep a steady speed.

Before she could tell him where they were headed, his phone was ringing again. “You gonna answer that?” Leah asked.

Charlie gripped the wheel with one hand and put the other in his pocket. Just the thought that her hand had been there only a minute ago made him stiffen again. He slid the phone out and answered it. “Hi, mom.”

“Charlie! Where the hell are you? I’ve been trying to call you for an hour. Are you OK? What happened? Why aren’t you home yet?”

In the seat next to him, Leah giggled again, and he glared at her to shut up.

“I, uh, got a little lost. I had to give a ride to one of my friends, and he didn’t know how to direct me. I should be home in…” He looked at Leah for a number.

“An hour,” she mouthed, finishing it with a silent kiss.

“Uh, just a few minutes. I think I know where I am right now.”

“Do you see any landmarks?”

“Ma, I have to go. I shouldn’t talk and drive. I’ll be home soon.” He dropped the phone, and Leah helpfully hung it up for him.

“Didn’t realize I was corrupting you,” she said.

“Listen, it’s really late, and she’s never going to let me use the car again. Where are we going? Where’s this errand?”

“Turn here,” she said. Her voice sounded choked, so he complied, and they left the woods for one of the main roads. They drove past darkened stores and empty lots. After a few blocks, he said, “What did you get at your house, anyway?”

“Nothing much. Some of my mother’s jewelry.”

“So you were stealing?”

“Just keep driving.” She gave him directions to an address in the next town. When they got there, Charlie wasn’t too surprised to find an abandoned strip mall. One window had a sign that promised “Coming Soon!”, but it had faded and half fallen. Charlie pulled into a space, still careful to stay inside the lines.

“OK, wait here,” Leah said.

“Now what? Where are you going?”

“Around back. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” She opened her coat, and he saw the hilt of a hunting knife in her belt.

“What the fuck!” he cried.

“I said don’t worry. Just don’t leave without me. Be right back.” And again, she was gone, disappearing behind a dumpster.

He spent an anxious five minutes ignoring the ringing of his phone. How long ago had he told his mother “a few minutes”? It was nearly midnight. Then he heard shouting, and a short scream. He hesitated, then jumped out of the car.

Two snarling voices echoed in the dark. He rushed towards the shadows behind the dumpster, just as he heard the thump of a fist hitting bone. He rounded the corner, and saw Leah dazed, slumping against the wall. The orange glow of a useless security light illuminated a nasty cut oozing on her cheek. Her eyes flew open and flicked to one side, trying to get him to leave, but it was too late.

Across from her, a guy in a worn leather coat bent half over, guttural moans of pain, or anger, cascading from his maw. Leah must have kicked him in the balls, Charlie thought. But that wasn’t going to hold him at bay long. He stood up, ready to attack again. Charlie shouted clumsily, “Get the fuck away from her!” It wasn’t much of a threat, but it distracted the guy long enough to turn him away from Leah and face Charlie. A drug-ravaged skeleton stared back at him. Hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, missing half an ear: every nightmare Charlie’s mother had planted in his brain since he learned the phrase “stranger danger.” Charlie wished he hadn’t said anything at all. The monster turned heavily, clearly still hurting from the blow Leah had landed. But when he saw Charlie, the weight seemed to vanish, and he lunged. Charlie had just enough time to deflect the blow, but the second followed faster than he thought, and connected with his eye. A light burst in his head, but somehow he managed to keep his feet, even blocked the third blow, and pushed forward into the onslaught, swinging blindly, scraping his knuckles on flesh and bone and rock.

Somewhere, he heard Leah shouting for someone to stop. Him? The other guy? He couldn’t tell. Then she was joining the fight, wrapping her arm around the guy’s throat while Charlie beat his face and gut. Grunting, but refusing to drop, he twisted and turned, trying to fling the girl off his back. Somehow, Charlie ended up side to side with Leah, and he felt the bulge of the knife in her belt. Why hadn’t she used it?

He reached inside her coat and grabbed the knife. It slid out faster than he expected, and he almost cut her. But she knew what was happening, and let go. She dodged out of the way while Charlie drove the blade into the attacker’s side. It slid smoothly, catching once on something that popped and gave way. Charlie couldn’t tell how deep it went, but pushed harder just in case. He felt warm spurts of blood coating his hand, drenching his shirt. He heaved one more time, and the guy staggered away from them, dumbfounded, and slumped to the ground. He stared into the darkness, and Charlie stared back. There was no mistaking the eternity in his eyes. Charlie held the knife like a live thing, barely aware of what he’d done.

Finally, Leah slapped his face and grabbed him by the shoulder, “Let’s go, she said. “Now!” She took the knife and they scrambled back into the car. Charlie was putting it into gear before their doors were shut, and he bounced over the curb into the street.

After they’d gone two or three blocks, she told him, “Slow down. We don’t want to be stopped for speeding.”

“He could be after us. He knows who you are.”

“He doesn’t know anything anymore, Charlie.”

“What happened?” He let his foot up off the gas, but he still felt they were flying at a thousand miles an hour.

“The son of a whore got greedy,” she said. “Pull up over there.” She pointed at an apartment complex. Behind it, they found a dumpster, and she buried her coat in the garbage. Then she dropped the knife down a sewer grate. Back on the road, Charlie felt a little safer, but his hands were still sticky with blood.

“What’ll your mother say about the jewelry?”

“Nothing. She’s gone.”

“Like. . . dead?”

Leah laughed. “Yeah, like dead. Except she’s alive and well and ignoring the three of us. That’s why my father sits there with the gun. I think he’ll kill her if she ever decides to come back.”

“So you use the money to. . .”

“Not to get high. I figure she left me a nest egg. By the way, you’re speeding again. Turn into those woods there.”

Automatically, Charlie followed her instructions. He drove as far as the trees would let him and killed the engine. The sudden darkness was complete.

“Open the trunk. Let’s see what we got,” Leah said.

He popped the trunk and they rummaged through it until Leah found a plastic tool case and a length of hose.

“This will have to do.” She dumped the tool kit and left it open on the ground. Then she lifted the fuel tank door and unscrewed the cap. Charlie watched uncomprehending until she stuck the hose in and started sucking. When the flow started, she let the gas pour into the tool case until it was full, and then crimped the hose. “Splash it inside. Leave your phone, too.”

The voice spoke up to tell him no, don’t listen to that crazy girl, but then it fell into irrelevant silence. He sloshed the gas along the back seat and came back for more. After two more trips, Leah took a lighter from her pocket. “Your shirt, too,” she told him.

He pulled it over his head, glad he still wore a ratty T under it. Shivering, he threw the bloody shirt inside. The smell of gas hovered like a toxic fog everywhere, while the last of it dripped to the ground from the hose in the tank.

“Stand back.” She clicked the lighter, and threw it flaming into the front seat. It landed on the shirt, and instantly the interior was blazing with sooty heat. The last thing Charlie saw was his swim bag melting into a pool of nylon gunk.

The heat pushed them back, but they stood watching the inferno. His mind briefly registered her hand in his.

“It’s long walk home,” Charlie said finally. “We better get started.”

The flames threw their shadows toward the road ahead of them, flickering and alive.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Mark of a Good Deal, by JM Taylor

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.