Free Fiction: Bystanders

Copyright © 2015 Brad J. Boucher

 

PART ONE

 

             

             Stan wanted to dump the body right there, but the tide was out, and all he could do was stand around like an idiot at the side of the road and stare across the marshes and try to figure out what to do next.

            Shit.

            Thinking on his feet had never been a favorite for him.  It wasn’t something Nunzio and the rest of them expected from him, and so he’d never developed a taste for it.  He knew he couldn’t stand there all night with his thumb up his ass, waiting for the tide to come in.  The sun would be up by then.  The sun meant daylight and daylight meant traffic, and traffic meant witnesses, and witnesses meant trouble.

            Shit.                

He checked his watch.

            2:40 AM.

            Nunzio had told him to bring the body somewhere out of town, to get rid of it sometime during the dead hours of the morning.  And while a couple of the guys had suggested the marshes just outside of Hampton, across the border and up into New Hampshire, none of them had bothered to mention the problem with the tides.

            “Just toss him off the bridge into the water,” Angelo had told him earlier.  “Easy as anything.  Right there where 101 lets off into the marsh.  Can’t miss it.”

            That much was true at least.  He was at that same bridge now, right across from the nuke plant, but there wasn’t much more than a foot or two of water underneath it now at low tide.

            Now what?

            He turned and studied the road.  Empty, as far as he could see in either direction.  A double yellow line stretching east and west.  Good solid asphalt, too, probably resurfaced just a year or two earlier.  This time of the morning, in the late fall or early spring, he could most likely spend a half hour in this spot without another car coming by.  But now, just a week before the Fourth of July?

            Jesus, he’d be lucky if he wasn’t spotted out here in another five minutes.

            Not that it automatically meant trouble if he was.

            He’d learned long ago that about a third of the people you saw every single day of your life didn’t notice you at all.  Another third noticed you but didn’t give a shit what you were up to one way or another.

            That left one third that would see you and feel curious.  They’d drive by and watch you receding in their rearview mirror and wonder what you were doing there by the side of the road at two goddamn forty in the morning.  Some of them might even think to call the cops.

            Stan couldn’t have that.

            He liked cops even less than he liked witnesses, which was to say not at all.

            All this was going through his mind while he stood there at the edge of the bridge, his stolen Ford idling in the breakdown lane behind him.  He stared out over the marshes and breathed in the damp and humid air, trying to figure out what Nunzio would want him to do next.

            That was when he heard the other car and looked to his right.

            A pair of headlights was coming on, and fast.

            Shit.

 

PART TWO

 

            Great.

            Just what he needed.

            Stan moved back around his car and climbed in behind the wheel.  The other car was still a half mile off, maybe a little more.  There was no way they’d be able to get a good look at him in the dark, but there was nothing he could do about the Ford.  It was a popular model, tons of them on the road these days, and it had been a stroke of luck that he’d boosted one in silver.  The same color as more than half the cars he saw up and down the highways.

            He pulled the door closed and was just reaching for the knob to kill the lights when he realized how suspicious that would look.  Better to leave them on, to just sit here and pretend nothing was going on.

            Sure.  With a dead guy in the trunk with four bullets in him, and a gun under the seat.  Nothing going on at all.

            His eyes flicked to the driver’s side mirror and he watched the headlights getting closer.  About fifty yards away now.  Close enough that whoever was driving would be able to make out the make and model of the car.  Not the license plate yet, and even that probably didn’t mean much.  The odds were in his favor that the guy behind the wheel wouldn’t even think to look twice at him, let alone have the presence of mind to try to get a plate number.

            At about thirty yards, the car began to slow, and Stan felt a twinge of concern.  What, was the guy planning on pulling in behind him?  Hoping for a friendly little chat by the side of the road at 2:45 in the morning?

            He leaned back in the seat, deeper into the shadows.

            When the car was thirty feet away, he turned his face towards the passenger seat, cocking his head to the side, hoping to strike the pose of someone catching a few winks in the front seat after some kind of long all-night drive.

            He heard the other car’s engine growling past, caught a blast of some of that shitty rap music the kids were so hot and bothered over these days.  He let his eyes come up just after the car passed him by, saw its brake lights flash briefly, and then that was it.  The other driver continued onward toward the beach, towards the Hampton strip and whatever was waiting for him there.

            Probably just some guy coming home late from a party, feeling lucky to have made it all the way with a buzz on, happy there hadn’t been any sort of rolling road blocks or sobriety checkpoints.

            Stan watched the taillights dwindling away into tiny red spots in the distance and then dropped the car into drive and pulled back onto the road.

            He couldn’t stay there, parked at the edge of the bridge.

            He had to come up with a plan.

 

PART THREE

             

              The heat was going to be a problem.

            Stan could tell that already.  He’d spent the last hour and a half cruising up and down the coastline, down through and Seabrook and Salisbury and into Newburyport and back, and in just that short amount of time, the outside temperature had climbed to 79 degrees.  If it was that hot before the sun even started to come up, the day was sure to be a damn scorcher by ten in the morning.

            Not exactly the kind of weather you wanted to be driving around in when you had a dead guy in the trunk of your car.  A dead guy wrapped in plastic sheeting, with two bullets in his chest and two more in the back of his head.  The kind of guy who couldn’t have ended up there by accident, if you were pulled over and had to talk your way out of things.

            The heat made Stan think of how bad the smell was probably going to get, and that made him wish he’d just driven up to Georgetown or over to Lynn and just torched the whole car in a vacant lot somewhere.  It would have drawn a lot of attention, sure, but at least he would have been done with it.  Done and gone, and probably back in his bed by now.

            But Nunzio hadn’t wanted that, had he?  No, he’d specifically told Stan to drive out of Boston and find someplace to dump the body.  Fact was, he probably wanted it found.  A guy who died like the one in the trunk was meant to be found; it was a good way to send a message to all the other punks in town who might be feeling wise.

            And that was all well and good, except that now it was giving Stan problems he didn’t need.  He’d driven along the coast, hoping to find some discreet spot by the water to drop the guy off.  A boat launch of a fishing hole or something.  But every spot he did find like that was either too well lit, too close to somebody’s house, or had the same low-tide issue as the marshes.

            So now he was heading back to Hampton, still driving along, and no closer to a solution than he’d been a half hour ago.

            He couldn’t go back to Boston, not in a stolen car, and certainly not with the dead guy still in the trunk.  He couldn’t wait for the tide to help him out, because by then the sun would be up and shining and so would half the goddamn coastal population.  And the longer he drove around the Seacoast, the better chance he’d have of looking suspicious.

            Stan supposed he could just abandon the car somewhere.  He could pull in behind some convenience store or gas station, and wipe away his prints and find some other way back into Boston, but that was risky too.  There were security cameras everywhere these days.

            And besides, it wasn’t what Nunzio wanted.

            People more important than him had turned up dead for not doing what the big guy wanted.

Just like the guy in the trunk.

 

 

 

PART FOUR

             

            The sun was just cracking the horizon when Stan realized he kind of needed to take a leak.  Up until then, he’d been too distracted to feel the need, but now, stopped at the Hampton Harbor drawbridge and watching the charter boats head through the channel and out to sea for the day, his bladder felt about as full as a ballerina at a hot-dog eating contest.

            It wasn’t like he could just drop the Ford into park and hang it over the side of the bridge to relieve himself.  There was already a line of cars behind him, chock full of early risers hoping to claim their spots on the beach before the crowds moved in on them.

            Ten minutes earlier, he’d thought his problem with the body was solved.  He’d found a dead-end street facing the harbor, and an old boat-launch where it emptied out along the water.  The launch was no good—barricaded by a length of rusty chain and a faded sign warning boaters to stay away, something to do with wetlands conservation—but there was an old fishing dock there that stuck out over water deep enough to serve his purpose.

            He’d driven down as close to the water as he could get, and had even killed the engine and popped the trunk, when he’d seen some old guy limping along towards the dock with a fishing pole jutting out in front of him.  Stan had briefly considered wasting the old guy as well, just to get things over with; hell, the guy looked like he was pushing eighty anyway.

            In the end, he’d pulled his cap down low, climbed awkwardly out of his car to close the trunk, and then got the hell out of there.

            Now, waiting for the bridge to come back down and the traffic to move along, he started to have what he thought might be a pretty good idea.  He just had the bones of it for now, but given time, he thought he might be able to flesh it out into something that could work.

            It involved ditching the car in a place where it was likely to get stolen again.  Some shitty neighborhood somewhere, maybe with the motor running and the keys still in it.  And the dead guy still in the trunk, of course.  Let some other sucker have the car, body and all; let some new guy pick up the bad smell from the trunk and figure out what to do with it.  There was a great sort of humorous poetic justice to the whole plan.

            Stan liked the idea so much he started to smile over it, sitting there behind the wheel of the car, still feeling the need to pee and grinning like an idiot.

            The bridge was just coming down now, the line of cars ahead of him starting to lighten up and go across, and he picked up his phone to search out parts of the Seacoast area where the car insurance rates were the highest.  Those would be the neighborhoods where cars had the best chance of disappearing.

            Christ, even Nunzio would get a chuckle out of his clever solution to the problem, and chuckling wasn’t something the big guy did very often.

            The traffic was thinning out now and he was just coming off the bridge and back onto the strip when he spotted the cop by the side of the road.

            The cop who was standing beside his cruiser, the blue lights flashing on his roof.

            The cop who was staring at him through the windshield and gesturing for him to pull over.

 

 

PART FIVE

             

            Stan didn’t have what anyone would even remotely describe as a vivid imagination, but watching that cop waving him over to the shoulder of the road, just about a million different scenarios unfolded in his mind, and none of them were any good.

            He thought maybe the cop recognized the car and knew it was stolen.  He thought maybe someone might have reported his suspicious behavior at the boat ramp earlier.  He even thought that maybe the cop had recognized him from one of his old mug shots.

            But there was really no way to know for sure until he’d pulled over onto the shoulder and rolled the window down, and even then, the cop still seemed to want to make a game out of it.

            “Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asked.  He was a big guy, maybe six feet, maybe a little taller, and pushing probably 280 pounds.  There was a sheen of sweat covering his face and dark spots under his arms.

            Jesus, who could like a job like that?

            “I was kind of wondering myself,” Stan told him.  “I don’t think I was speeding.”

            “No, you weren’t.  But do you hear about the new Hand’s Free law?”

            Stan shook his head.

            “You didn’t see the signs up and down the highway?”

            “I just said I didn’t hear about it.  What is it?”  Stan knew better than to argue with a cop; he’d learned long ago that the best course of action was to give them the old yes sir, no sir routine.  But he didn’t like this guy, and wasn’t particularly fond of the way he was talking to him.

            The cop reached out and laid his palms flat against the window frame of Stan’s car.  “It’s going into effect in a few days.  It means you can’t be fiddling with any electronic devices while operating a vehicle.  No cell phones, no texting, no checking your messages.”

            “Huh,” Stan said.  “That’s good.  That’s a good law.  It’ll probably save a bunch of lives.”

            Except for the guy in the trunk, he thought.  There was nothing anybody could do for that poor bastard.

            “It is a good law.  But when I saw you coming off the bridge, I could see you were messing with your phone.”

            “Was I?”

            The cop pointed into the car, at the phone still in Stan’s right hand.  “Yeah.  That phone right there.”

            Stan looked down at it, as if he’d never seen it before.  “Will you look at that?  Well, I gotta say, officer, I’m awfully sorry.  I really had no idea.  About the new law, I mean.”

            “For now, we’re just letting people off with a warning—”

            “Hey, thanks.  It’s like I said, I really had no idea.”

            “—but in a couple days we start handing out fines.”

            “No, hey, thank you.  I’ll be real careful about it.”

            “Glad to hear it.”  The top tapped on the roof of the car and started to lean backwards, and Stan knew he was in the clear.

            But then the guy leaned forward again, closer to the open window, and wrinkled his nose.

            “What’s that smell?”

 

PART SIX

             

           

           Stan stared at him. 

           “What’s what?”

           “That smell.”

           “What smell?”

           The cop leaned in again.  “Can’t you smell that smell?”         

           Stan tried to play it cool, but he couldn’t be sure he was really selling it.  The truth was, he was starting to smell the dead guy for himself.  It was just a small odor for now; noticeable, sure, but nowhere as thick as it was bound to get.  All this driving around in the heat, the sun blazing down on the car?  Jesus, he was lucky they couldn’t smell the guy back in Boston.  “I don’t smell a thing.”

            “You don’t smell that?”

            “That’s what I’m saying.”

            The cop leaned further forward, his face practically in the car now.  “It’s like . . . I don’t know . . . like food going bad or something.”

            Stan shrugged.  “Must be an old fast food bag in here or something, I don’t know.”

            For a moment the cop didn’t say another word.  He turned his face to stare into the back seat, and Stan started to watch him very carefully.  The guy’s shoulders tensed, and his hands seemed to tighten on the car’s door.  Slowly, very slowly—man, too slowly—he turned his eyes back to look at Stan.

            Any second now he was going to ask him to please step out of the car; Stan could feel it, he knew it was about to happen.  There was no probable cause, not really, but the guy had him pulled over, what was he going to do, say no thank you and drive away?  In court it would all come down to how well the cop could make his case.

            The driver was acting suspiciously, he’d say.  There was a bad odor—possibly toxic—coming from the vehicle.  And the name on the registration—

            Stan stopped himself, reigned in his paranoia.

            Because he’d just realized the guy had never even asked him for his license and registration.  And if he hadn’t done that . . . hey, he really wasn’t planning on making a big deal about this, was he?  No, he was just giving out warnings; he’d made that clear.  So if Stan could just play it cool for another few minutes, he’d be off the hook.

            “Probably I should take it down to the car wash,” he said.  “Run it through a couple three times, you know?  Maybe get one of those interior service deals.”

            The cop nodded but didn’t say anything right away.  His instincts were probably buzzing.  That gut-feeling thing all the cops claimed to have was probably hammering away at him, making him want to make an issue out of that smell.  But in the end, he leaned back and stepped away from the car. 

            “Not a bad idea,” he said.  “It’s a nice car.  You wouldn’t want to kill the resale value with one of those lingering odors.”

            “You got that right,” Stan said, offering the cop the best smile he could muster.  “Nothing worse than a lingering odor, is there?”

 

PART SEVEN

                    

           

           The cop waved him on and Stan pulled back into the morning beach traffic, thinking how close everything had just come to unraveling completely.  Christ.  A body in the trunk, going funky so fast now that you could smell it, a gun under the seat, a stolen car . . .

            Nunzio would have a shit fit if he knew what a close call that had been.

            Half a mile up the road, cars on every side of him, people crossing everywhere, Stan let out a long, deep breath, trying to calm his nerves.  He was normally pretty cool under pressure.  Hell, he’d been in worse situations than this.  So what was the problem?  Why was he feeling sick inside?  Why were his palms so clammy?

            And what the hell . . . his hands were shaking.

            Too much coffee?

            Not enough?

            Or was it something deeper than that?

            Stan remembered the first time he’d capped a guy.  That had been more than thirty-five years ago, right out in an alleyway behind a porno shop in what used to the Combat Zone.  He hadn’t hesitated, he’d done it quick and without thinking too much, just like he’d been told to.  But Jesus, his hands had started shaking up a storm a few minutes later and hadn’t stopped all goddamned night.

            That’s what this felt like to him now, a bad case of the shakes that just wasn’t going to go away.

            But why?

            He hadn’t been the one to ice the guy in the trunk; he was just the transport guy, the guy brought in to get the body out of the city and into a nice little hole somewhere.  It was no big deal, the kind of job he’d done dozens of times.

            So what was up with the quaking hands and the shortness of breath?

            He sat there in the stop-and-go traffic and felt the heat pouring in from outside, and wondered again if he was getting too old for this shit.

            And it was then, in that quiet moment, that he heard a metallic bang coming from somewhere under the hood.

            He sat bolt upright in the seat.

            Jesus, what now?

            Was he looking at car trouble on top of everything else?

            He dropped his eyes to the temperature gauge, expecting to see the needle resting in the red zone, sure that the heat and the traffic were causing the car to overheat.  That would be exactly what he needed.

            But the gauge was fine; the engine was running a bit hot, sure, but nowhere near—

            The banging sound came again, and this time Stan heard it more clearly and realized it wasn’t coming from the engine at all.

            It was coming from the back of the car.

            It was coming from the trunk.

 

PART EIGHT

                    

           

            He wished he didn’t need to pee so badly.

            Because when the second metallic bang came from the trunk of the car, Stan’s bladder almost emptied itself down the front of his pants.  It took everything he had to hold it back, and even then, he wouldn’t want to put money on keeping himself dry if that sound came again.

            The guy in the trunk couldn’t be alive.  Couldn’t be, there was just no way.

            He hadn’t been the triggerman, that was true, but he’d seen the blood when he’d picked up the body.  Lots of blood.  A shitload of blood.  But when you had a guy who’d been shot twice in the chest and twice in the head, that was to be expected.  Four bullets caused a lot of damage, and a head wound . . . man, nothing could bleed out like a head wound. 

            So yeah, he’d seen all that blood, and he’d felt the stiffness in the body when Angelo had helped him toss it into the Ford’s trunk.  Stiff as a goddamned board.

            But . . .

            The guy had already been wrapped in plastic sheeting, hadn’t he?

            Wrapped up and taped off, covered up so good that Stan hadn’t even seen his face.

            Was it possible he hadn’t been dead yet?

            He thought about calling in.  It’d be easy.  He could pull over up ahead and call Angelo and ask him what the hell was up with the guy in the trunk, was he still breathing?  Was he supposed to be?

            But it didn’t work that way; Nunzio didn’t want anybody calling in while they were out on a job.  Even if nobody was listening in, even if the call wasn’t traced, those records could all be checked out later.  There was no way Stan could do it now.

            He held his breath, waiting to hear the sound again.

            It could have been anything.  A bag spring, a broken shock absorber.  Just because he’d heard a sound and it had come from the back of the car, that didn’t mean it had anything to do with the dead guy. 

            Except that he knew what a bad spring sounded like, knew how it banged around but for the most part sounded like it was coming from outside the car.  The sounds he’d heard—twice now—yeah, there was no doubt they’d come from the trunk.

            The traffic lightened up a bit ahead of him as a delivery van finally managed to turn off onto a side street, and Stan found an opening into the right hand lane and took it.  He could still only manage about twenty miles an hour, but he was happy to be moving again.

            He reached down and swept his hand around under the seat, feeling for the gun.  His fingers brushed its grip, but he didn’t pick it up; he felt better just knowing it was there. 

             Just in case.

             Just in case he needed to pull over somewhere up ahead and kill the guy in the trunk who was already supposed to be dead.

 

PART NINE

                    

   

            In another twenty minutes, he’d finally cleared the Hampton Beach traffic and was moving up the coastline at a steady clip.  With the windows down, and the fresh air rushing in, he could barely smell the body anymore. 

             But the banging sound from the trunk hadn’t stopped.  He’d heard it four more times, and although it might have just been his mind playing tricks on him, each time sounded louder than before.

             Somewhere further up the road—he couldn’t be sure if he was still in Rye or of he’d crossed the town line into Portsmouth—Stan found a small dirt lot and pulled over.  There were two other cars parked there, both of them empty; their owners were probably walking the shoreline beyond the wall of rocks that lined the beach.  It didn’t mean he’d be able to climb out of the car and have a picnic without being seen, but he felt confident he had enough time to at least check out the guy in the trunk.

             If he was dead, then everything was fine and he could keep looking for a discreet spot to dump the body.  If the guy was still alive, though . . .

            Well, then what?

           Cap him right there, and take a chance of someone hearing the shot?  Or of some jogger coming along at exactly the wrong time?

           Stan thought about that for a minute and understood he really didn’t have a choice in the matter.  If the guy really was alive, who was to say he couldn’t find some way to attract attention to himself, banging on the inside of the trunk or maybe even calling out for help?

           He pushed open the door and stepped out into the heat.

           Now that he was stopped, standing around in the still summer air, the smell from the back of the car was obvious.  Jesus.  How could it be so bad already?

           He moved to the trunk, fumbling with the keys in his left hand, the gun clutched firmly in his right and close to his side, out of sight—he hoped—from anyone who might drive by back on the road.  He flicked the safety off and pushed the key into the lock, and it was just before he turned it and heard the lock click open that a new question occurred to him.

           How could the smell be so bad—so strong—if the guy in the trunk wasn’t dead?

           If the question had come to him just a few seconds earlier, he might have had a chance to stop himself.  He might have been able to keep the trunk latch from disengaging, might have kept his hand from pulling upwards on the lid.  But the thick, greasy reek of decay struck him at just about the same time the question did, and the trunk popped open and he got a good look inside.

           And by then, it was too late to do anything about it.

           That was too bad, because otherwise just everything that followed might have been avoided.                                           

 

 

 

PART TEN                    

   

           

            The guy in the trunk was dead.

            Shit, there was no doubt about that; he was as dead as somebody could get.

            The smell alone made it obvious.

            But there was also the blood everywhere; that was a pretty good sign of the guy’s condition too.  There was a lot of it, obscuring the guy’s face and head through the thick plastic he’d been wrapped in.  Angelo had done a half-assed job sealing off the edges of the clear plastic with duct tape, and it had come loose in a few places, and blood had soaked through and found its way onto the floor of the trunk.  It pooled up underneath the body, soaking deep into the carpeting.

            Man, what a mess.  Forget about a lingering odor; this was exactly the kind of thing that would really kill a car’s resale value.  And if Nunzio ever saw it, sloppy work like this . . . well, Angelo might just find himself wrapped in plastic and stuffed into the trunk of a car someday. 

            Stan leaned forward, holding his breath against the smell.  Christ, it was bad.  Not just dead-guy bad.  This was backed-up-sewers-during-a-heatwave bad.  But why?  From what he’d been told, they’d only done this guy just around midnight.

            He tried to get a closer look at the guy’s face, or what was left of it.  It was distorted through the blood and the layers of plastic, but the one eye he could see was definitely open.  Had it been that way when they’d tossed him in the trunk?  Stan couldn’t be sure but he thought it may have been.

            He was just reaching in to adjust the plastic when two things happened at once.  Both of them were exactly the kinds of things he would have preferred to avoid, and although one of them was far worse than the other, both of them left Stan momentarily speechless.

            The first thing was that while he was standing there that way, reaching into the open trunk with his left hand and still holding his gun close to his side in his right, some young woman in a lime green tank top and running shorts came up over the rocks from the beach and stopped short when she saw what he was up to.  The girl was maybe twenty, probably no older than that, and she was no more than ten feet away; there was no way she couldn’t see the gun.  And standing up on top of the rocks the way she was, Stan was quite sure she had a perfect view of the inside of the trunk.

            Shit.

            That was bad.  Really, really bad. 

            It was the kind of thing that was going to make Stan have to do something awful. 

            But it wasn’t nearly as bad as the second thing that happened. 

            Because that was the kind of thing he couldn’t plan for, that he couldn’t deal with on the fly.

            And all it was, really, was a tiny little movement, the kind of thing any guy with a gun in his hand and his finger on the trigger just couldn’t ignore.  Just a simple moment of motion, except that it was coming from inside the trunk.

            From the dead guy.

            The guy wrapped in plastic and bleeding all over the place.

 

 

 

 

 

PART ELEVEN                    

   

           

 

          Stan lifted his gun and pointed it at the young woman up on the rocks.  He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, not yet, but one thing he knew for sure was that holding the gun on the girl was going to keep her quiet and still, at least for a few seconds while he tried to come up with a plan.  Most likely he was going to have to shoot her, though he really didn’t want to.  At the very least he’d maybe have to knock her out cold and leave her off somewhere far from home.

          It would depend on how much she’d seen.

In the meantime, though, this guy in the trunk, this moving dead guy . . . he was the real problem.  He was the thing that needed to be dealt with right away.

          Stan took a second to glance down into the open trunk, but wished he hadn’t.

          Jesus.

          The dead guy was squirming around in there, his hands moving underneath the plastic, pushing at it from inside.  It was starting to unravel from around his body, the duct tape—already wet in places from all the blood he’d lost—giving way and coming loose.  His right hand came free, his left still trapped under the layers of plastic but starting to come through.

          And all the while, the stench of decay got worse and worse.

          There was no way he could be alive, and yet . . .

          Well, shit, there was no way he could be dead, was there?  Not moving around the way he was.

          The way Stan saw it, he had two choices: slam the trunk closed, or pump a couple more rounds into the dead guy and then slam the trunk closed.  Doing the first meant letting the guy move around in there until God knew when, and Stan couldn’t see much logic in letting that happen.  But doing the second thing meant taking his gun off the girl up on the rocks, the unlucky jogger.

          Stan looked toward the girl again, making sure she wasn’t getting any stupid ideas.  She was standing perfectly still, her eyes bulging and her face as white as the belly of a fish.  She’d raised her hands too, up to shoulder height, like a bank teller being robbed in an old western movie.

          “Put your fucking hands down,” Stan told her.  “Somebody drives by and sees you there like that . . .”

          The girl obeyed, but very slowly, and her eyes sifted from Stan to the body in the trunk.

          Stan looked too.

          The body wasn’t just moving now.  It was just about goddamn convulsing.  Shivering and shaking, and even its legs were starting to come free of the plastic.

          Shit.

          “You,” Stan said to the jogger.  “Get down here.”

          The girl shook her head.  “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

          “Want me to shoot you?  Is that it?”

          “No, I don’t want you to shoot me.  But I really don’t want to get any closer to whatever the hell it is you got going on in that trunk.”

 

 

 

 

PART TWELVE                    

   

           

 

            Shoot her, Stan thought. 

             Hell, shoot them both, just like everybody had always told him he should. 

             First the jogger, then the body in the trunk.  Four quick shots, a double-tap for each, it’d be over in a few seconds.  Then all he’d have to do is stuff the jogger in with the dead guy and he’d be off.

            Simple.

            Except that someone might hear the shots, or drive by just as he was doing it.  Or when he was dragging the jogger’s body across the parking lot and over to the car.  Yeah, that would look good, wouldn’t it?  Not to mention the trail of blood he’d leave behind, and all the blood he’d get all over himself . . .

            Wow.  This was going so bad so fast.

            And he really didn’t want to shoot the chick if he didn’t have to.

            “I really need you to come down here,” he said.  He shook the gun, like that would make any sort of difference to the girl in the jogging shorts.

            “Nope.  No way.”

            “Then I’m gonna have to shoot you.  Shit, you know that, don’t you?”

            “You’ll shoot me even if I do come down there.”

            “No.  I won’t.”

            “You think I’m stupid?”

            “I don’t know you well enough.”

            “I know how this works.  I’ll come down there and you’ll—”

“Look, do you have a lot of experience with shit like this?  You get a lot of guns pointed at you?”

            “Well, no, but—”

            “Well, I do, and I’m telling you, this is how it’s gonna go.  You’re coming down here, or I’m gonna shoot you right there where you’re standing.”

            “How do I know you won’t shoot me anyway?”

            “You’re just going to have to take my word for it, all right?”

            She stood there thinking about it, her hands starting to rise up to her chest again.  In the trunk, the body was almost completely free of the plastic now and starting to really thrash around.

            “You need me to count down for you?” Stan asked the girl.  “Is that it?  I can give you a time limit, if that’s what you need.”

            “How long?”

            “One second,” Stan told her.  “Ready?  One.  There.  Now get your ass down here.”

            The stench from the trunk was ridiculous now, the smell of rotting tuna at a rubbish dump on an August afternoon.  Stan leaned away from the car as much as he could, keeping his gun on the jogger but trying to be aware of everything at once.  He listened for the approach of any car or truck that might be coming along the road, and he tried to gauge the amount of time it would take the dead guy to shiver and shake his way out of the trunk against how long the jogger was taking to climb down off the rocks.

            “Come on, come on,” Stan said.  “What, do you have lead in those fancy little shoes of yours?  Let’s go.”

            “Well, I’m tired.  I’ve been jogging all morning.”

            “A lot of good it did you.  My grandma moves faster than you.”

            When the jogger finally reached him, wrinkling her nose at the stench rising off the dead guy, Stan stuck the barrel of his gun up against her belly.

            “Get in the trunk,” he said.

 

PART THIRTEEN                 

   

                     

            The girl laughed at him. 

Actually laughed, with a gun pressed up against her belly.

            “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”

            “Listen, honey, I’m not messing around.  Either you—”

            “If you’re going to shoot me, then do it.  Because I’ll tell you right now, there’s no way I’m getting in that trunk.”  She turned her head and looked at the dead guy, and all the blood, and the plastic wrapping falling away.  “No way.”

            “You ever been shot before?  It’s not pleasant.  You’re not going to enjoy it.”

            “I don’t care.”

            “It’s not an instant thing, you know, like in the cop shows.  You don’t fall down and everything goes dark, just like that.  You get shot in the gut, it could take an hour for you to die.”

            “I’m not getting in there.”

            “You’re gonna have holes in your pretty little jogging clothes, too.  You know that?  Your little color-coordinated spandex suit will be ruined.”

            “It’s Lycra, okay?  Jesus.  Nobody wears spandex anymore.”

            “All right, then,” Stan said.  “I’ve heard enough.  Have it your way.”  He felt a little better now, because he probably would have had to shoot her anyway.  At least now he wouldn’t have to feel like he was going back on his word in some way.

            He tightened his fist around the gun and shoved it a little deeper into the girl’s gut, thinking it could muffle the sound of the shot just a tiny bit more, and he got ready to pull the trigger and be done with it.  And at the very edge of his hearing, he made out the slightest sound of an approaching engine.

            “You gotta be kidding me,” he said.  “Seriously?”

            He swiveled the gun away from the jogger and pumped two quick shots into the head of the writhing body in the trunk.  The sound of the gunfire was like sudden thunder, so much louder than he’d wanted it to be, but there was nothing he could do about it now.  The guy in the trunk didn’t stop moving, but his head came apart a bit more, and pieces of his scalp and his skull scattered themselves around. 

            Stan thought about shooting him again and again and then some more, but decided it probably wouldn’t do much good.  In the end, he slammed the trunk lid down onto the guy and turned his gun back toward the jogger.

            “Jesus,” the girl said.  “Were you really going to shoot me?”  Her eyes were wide and she looked like she might double over and puke all over her expensive running shoes.

            “I told you I was going to shoot you.”

            “Yeah, but I didn’t think—”

            “You told me to shoot you.  You said I’d have to, because you weren’t going to get into the trunk.  You remember that, sweetheart?”

            “Yeah, I know, but—” 

            “I don’t have time for this,” Stan said.  “Get in the car.”

            “Listen, if I wasn’t going to get in the trunk, I’m sure as hell not getting in the car.”

            “One way or another I’m leaving here in two seconds.  When I leave, you’re either lying on the ground and bleeding out, or you’re in the car and still breathing.  I personally don’t give a shit which it is, but you decide.”

            The girl got in the car.

            And, damn it, he still needed to take a leak.

 

PART FOURTEEN                 

   

                     

           

            First thing she said when she got into the car—before he even turned the key—was, “You shot that guy.”

            “Oh.  Yeah.  I didn’t think you’d notice.”

            “Right in the head.”

            “Yeah, well, I didn’t want to ruin his Lycra.”

            “I mean . . . you just . . . you pointed the gun right at his head and you—” 

She didn’t go on, she just mimed firing a gun with her thumb and forefinger.

            He got the motor going and dropped the Ford into drive, and then he pulled to the edge of the road at an angle and waited for whoever was coming to drive on by.  It turned out to be a delivery truck, some furniture company with a giant cartoon face of some idiot on the back of the truck, and Stan pulled onto the road behind it.

            The girl took a deep breath beside him, and he had the feeling she was going to start babbling again, so he jumped in before she could.  “Listen, I don’t need the commentary.  I know what I did, you don’t have to tell me about it.”

            “But, what I’m saying . . . like . . . why didn’t he die?”  She cocked one thumb towards the back of the car.   From the trunk, Stan could still hear the dead guy crashing around.  “Why is he still doing that?”

            Stan shrugged.  “Honey, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

            “Who is he?”

            “He’s nobody.  Don’t worry about it.”           

            “Don’t worry about it?  Are you kidding me?”

            The road narrowed ahead, woods closing in on either side.  Stan peered through the undergrowth; he could see a paved bike path on the right, marshlands on the left.  No good.

            He tried to look cool for the girl, like he had all his shit together and could work everything out, no problem.  But inside . . . man, inside he could feel panic coming on.  Because he was really in it now, he was in the really deep shit here, and there was so much of it piled on top of him now that he couldn’t see a way out.

            There was the stolen car; there was the fact that Nunzio would have expected him back hours ago; there was the girl now, why the hell had he forced her into the car?  What was he thinking?  And behind it all, hanging over everything and painting it black, there was the dead guy in the trunk, the dead guy who wouldn’t lie down and die.

            Six bullets in him now, four from Angelo, and two from his own gun, and he was still flopping around.  Four headshots.  Stan had heard of guys once in awhile who’d survived a single bullet to the head—guys who’d spent the rest of their lives in diapers and wheelchairs—but nobody lived through four.  Nobody.

            The girl’s question came back to him.

            Who is this guy?     

            Stan kept right on driving, sifting through everything he knew about the guy in the trunk.

 

PART FIFTEEN

 

             He hadn’t been lying when he’d told the girl that the guy in the trunk was nobody.

            He was, really. 

            Just a two-bit dealer from the backstreets of Boston.  The kind of guy you could pass in the street a thousand times and never notice.  And he might have stayed that way except that he’d been stupid enough to take a plea deal on a charge of possession with intent to sell, and he’d dropped the wrong name into the ear of a cop.  The name hadn’t been Nunzio’s, but it had been close enough within the organization to piss the big guy off.

            And if Nunzio was pissed off enough at you . . . well, you had a very good chance of ending up with two bullets in your gut and two in your head, wrapped in plastic and stuffed into the trunk of a stolen car.

            Stan tried to remember the guy’s name, but it wasn’t coming to him.  It wasn’t anything spectacular; not a Nick or a Vince or even a Burt.  Something more common.  Mike or Bill, but neither of those felt right either.

            It was Angelo who’d told him the story, he would know.  It was Angelo who’d plugged him, too.  Angelo and Cyril, they’d been the two Nunzio had ordered to go take care of the guy, and they didn’t have to look very hard for him, either.

            He sold drugs out of a shitty basement apartment over on Freemont, the kind of place where the lights were always turned down low and his friends sat around nodding out on moth-eaten couches all day long.  A regular shooting gallery down there.  And he’d been stupid enough to go straight back there from the police station.  All Angelo and Cyril had to do was ask around and then pick him up.

            Well, and then they’d had to drag him out into an alley and shoot him twice in the belly and twice in the head and wait for Stan to show up with the car.  Yeah, there’d been that, too.

            The guy’s name came to him then, finally. 

“Johnny,” he said.  “His name’s Johnny . . . Something.”

Not that the last name mattered anyway; he still couldn’t put a face to the guy, but at least now he had a name.

            Just about the only other thing he could remember about him, the only other thing Angelo had told him, was that the guy hadn’t even put up a fight.  He hadn’t struggled, he hadn’t begged for his life, and he hadn’t tried to make a deal, the three things that everyone did when they ended up in an alley with Angelo and Cyril.  And when Cyril had pulled his gun and kicked the guy down onto the ground—at least according to Angelo—the bastard had started laughing at them.

            But why would he do that?  Why would he laugh?  By that point, he had to have known he was about to die.

            Stan thought about that.

            He listened to the racket coming from the trunk, the kicking and thumping.

            And he began to wonder what Johnny Something had known that Angelo and Cyril hadn’t, and what it was that had been so damn funny.

   

                   

             

 

PART SIXTEEN

 

           

            “What’s so funny?”

            It was the girl again, staring at him from the passenger seat.

            “What?”

            “You’re smiling.”

            “Am I?”  He leaned over the wheel and looked at himself in the mirror, but if he’d really been smiling—and he didn’t believe he had been—it must have slipped away by then.  “No, I’m not.  See?”

            “You were.”

            “Whatever.  Just . . . be quiet, okay?  Let me think.”

            “You’ve been thinking for ten minutes.”  She was treading carefully, he could hear it in her voice.  She didn’t want to rile him; he was the guy with the gun.  But she clearly didn’t want to be in the car with him anymore, and there was an edge to her voice because of it.  “Tell me something.”  She jerked her head towards the trunk.  “Am I going to end up like him?”

            “Jesus, I sure hope not.”

            “You know what I mean.”

            “I don’t know,” Stan said.  “Right now, I really don’t.”

            “Were you the one who did it?”

            “Did what?”

            She rolled her eyes, like he was some dumb kid she was talking to, and Christ, did he hate it when people did that to him.  “Were you the one who put him in the trunk?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Were you the one who shot him?”

            He shook his head.  “That was somebody else.  My job was to drive him out of town, that’s all.”

            “You really have separate jobs like that?”

            “Sometimes.  Not always.”  He glanced at her, trying to decide what she was up to.  “It’s the way it worked out this time.”

            “You’ve done both, before?”

            “Listen, lady . . . what, do I know you or something?  Did I agree to some kind of interview when you got in the car?”

            “Well, no, but—”

            “But nothing.  It ends at no, okay?  If you really want to know my immediate plans, I can’t help you, cause I don’t have any.  I don’t think you’re going to end up like Johnny back there, because to be honest, I have no idea why he is the way he is right now.  If you’re asking me if I’m planning on shooting you . . . again, I can’t answer that.  I don’t know.  I don’t know shit.”

            “Then why did you make me get in the car with you?”

            “To buy myself a little time to think things through.  But I gotta say, you haven’t made it very easy, babbling the way you are.”

            “Sorry.”

            From the trunk, there was another heavy slam, the loudest one yet.

            Stan looked in the mirror.  “He ain’t making it easy, either.”

            In the passenger seat, the woman finally stopped talking.  Instead, she turned and stared out at the passing trees, and Stan took the opportunity to try to get things sorted out in his head.

            Something the woman had just asked him was bothering him now, that bit about all of Nunzio’s guys having different jobs.  Because now that he thought about it, it did seem a bit unusual that Angelo and Cyril would have needed a driver.  More often than not, whoever capped the guy would have been the one to drive him off somewhere and make him disappear.  That was just the way it worked.  And even then, they’d usually wait to get where they were going before doing any shooting.        

            That was nagging at Stan now too. 

            Why would they shoot the guy in Boston, when it would have been smarter to get him out to the boonies first?

            And worse, why the hell had they decided to call Stan to have him clean up their mess?

            What the hell was going on here?

             

 

PART SEVENTEEN

           

             Stan and Angelo went way back.  They’d grown up together in the same crappy suburb of Boston, not friends, not exactly, but holding a kind of grudging mutual respect for each other as neighborhood bullies.  It was no surprise they’d both ended up working for Nunzio.  Coming out of Charlestown at their age, crime or unemployment were the only real choices.

            He tried to think back, tried to remember if Angelo had ever screwed up this big before.

            Probably not.  He was one of those careful guys, the kind that thought everything through before doing it.  Even as a kid, stealing a bottle of Crown Royal from the liquor store one hot Saturday night, he’d been like that.

            So it didn’t seem likely to Stan that Angelo would have been dumb enough to shoot the guy in town and then have to get a driver in to get the body out of the city.  It just wasn’t his style.

            Cyril, on the other hand . . .

            Well, Stan didn’t know shit about him.  He’d heard his name around town a few times, and seen him here and there, but he’d never worked with him.  Could it have been Cyril that had messed up?

            Maybe.  But if he was that big of a screw-up, Nunzio probably wouldn’t have him around, especially working on a job like this.

            And so Stan was back at square one.  Because the only thing that made sense to him was that one of the two—Angelo or Cyril—hadn’t been thinking straight.  There was really no other explanation that he could think of.  Either one or the other had pulled his gun too fast, or been too heavy on the trigger, or was maybe trying to prove himself to somebody.  Maybe that could be it, though what Angelo could have to prove, after working for Nunzio all these years, Stan couldn’t imagine.

            He’d earned his place in the organization, he’d worked his way up through the ranks, and if he had anything to prove, then it wasn’t to Nunzio.

            Unless . . .

            Stan chewed his lip, a new idea coming to him now.

            He didn’t like it, and didn’t want to think about it, but there it was, right out in plain sight.

            What if Angelo or Cyril had given the screaming dead guy to Stan on purpose?  What if they’d intended for him to have the trouble he was having?

            He thought about that.

            He could see the logic in it, he could see how effective it could be in terms of getting rid of someone you wanted gone.  Because even if Stan did manage to dump the body in a way that wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass, even if he could find some way to kill a guy who didn’t seem to want to lie down and die, word was still bound to get back to Nunzio about how long the job had taken him, and how close things had come to going bad.

            It added up perfectly, on every level but one: what did Angelo have against him that he’d want to set him up this way?            It was a question he really couldn’t answer; again, they weren’t exactly friends, but they’d never really made an enemy of each other either.  Through all the years of knowing each other, their paths crossing again and again on jobs or at meetings, he couldn’t think of a single time that they’d banged heads.  And only one job they’d ever done together had gone sour, and that wasn’t either of their faults.              And that’s when it hit him.  The job brought back a name, and the name pulled everything together in his thoughts.  And not one single piece of it was good.

            “Oh, shit,” he said out loud.  “It’s because of Eddie.”

            The woman turned to him, bored, he guessed, with staring out the window.  “Who’s Eddie?”

            “Eddie Tragin,” he said.  “Eddie the Mope.”

             

 

PART EIGHTEEN

           

             She stared at him.  “Who’s Eddie the Mope?”

            He started talking because he thought it might help him think.  And besides, anything he told her now . . . well, at this point, he didn’t think it’d make any difference how much she knew and how much she didn’t.  It was very unlikely she’d ever get the chance to tell anybody about it.

            “Eddie was a guy out of Chelmsford.  A friend of a friend of a friend type of deal, you know?  Nobody liked him very much, but he knew a lot of people.”

            “But what’s a Mope?  I mean—”

            “A mope.  A sad sack, you know?  Like a . . . like the kind of guy who’s a lowlife.  He thinks he’s cool, but he’s not.  He thinks he’d under the radar, but . . . you know, the way he dresses, the way he acts . . . he attracts all the wrong kind of attention.”

            “And you call them mopes?”

            He shook his head.  “The cops call them mopes.  That’s the kind of attention he attracted.  And so it was us who called him Eddie the Mope.”

            “So what did he do?”

            “He was in and out all the time.  You’d see him for three weeks in a row and then he’d be gone for five months.  You’d start to forget about him and he’d pop up a few days later.  Creepy as shit.  He had this . . . way about him, I don’t know.  He’d look at you like he never met you before, and then, ten minutes later, he’d wanna be your best friend.”

            The woman turned towards the back seat, as if she could see through to the guy trying to kick through the sides of the car.  “And the man back there—Johnny—he’s there because of this Eddie guy?”

            “I’m starting to think so, yeah.”

            “I don’t think I understand.”

            Stan came to a traffic circle, four or five roads leading into it.  He watched the furniture truck with the goon painted on the back move into it and pull around to take the second turn, so he took the first, choosing an empty road again.  More woods, but broken up here and there by condos now.

            “It’s like this,” he said.  “Eddie was into some pretty weird shit—”

             “Weirder than this?”

             “How do you mean?”

             "Weirder than shooting a guy in the head and sticking him in the trunk of a car?”

             Stan bristled at that.  “Look, lady.  That ain’t weird.  That’s weekly.  That’s life in the big city,okay?”

            “Okay, okay.  All I meant was, how is this Eddie person responsible for what’s happening right now?”

             “Because one of the things he was into, one of the weird things he liked to talk about, it was this crazy voodoo stuff.”

            “Voodoo?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Voodoo as in . . . what, like, raising the dead?”

            “Yeah, and I really kind of forgot about it, you know.”  He glanced at her.  “This guy in the trunk, though, he’s got me thinking about it again.”

            “You’re saying Eddie the Mope told you he wanted to raise the dead?  And you forgot about it?”

             “If you knew some of the shit that guy used to talk about, you wouldn’t remember it either, all right?  But that’s the thing, too, he wasn’t just talk about doing it with anybody else, not just anyone.  He was talking about being able to come back himself.  Some Haiti voodoo crap, I don’t know.  Jesus, I don’t even know what I’m talking about here—”

            “But that’s not even him in the trunk.  You said that guy’s name was Johnny Something.”

            The road widened, and Stan took another right, passing an ice cream stand and some sort of seafood place, all docks and gangplanks.  He gripped the wheel, looking ahead for someplace he could pull off the road again.  Somewhere he could just reach across the woman and push open her door and tell her to get the hell out of his stolen car.  Or just shoot her in the face and tell her he didn’t feel like talking anymore, but probably not necessarily in that order.  But there were too many driveways now, too many houses and, Christ, even a golf course now.  And deep inside, he really didn’t think he would be able to pull the trigger on her.

            Hell, he was getting soft in his old age.

            “No,” he said, “you’re not getting this.  The guy in the trunk, I think he’s the guy that Eddie the Mope went to for help.  I can’t be sure, but I think he’s the guy who was supposed to hook him up with the voodoo thing in the first place.”

             

 

PART NINETEEN

           

            “How can you not be sure about something like that?  Listen, you’re saying you’re actually confused about whether the dead man punching the shit out of the trunk right now might be the same person who was supposed to be involved in this voodoo resurrection thing?”

            “Who said resurrection?”

            “You did.  What do you think raising the dead means?”

            “I know what it means, I just don’t know if we can say it applies.  It’s like—”

            “Do you even hear yourself right now?”

            “I hear you, that’s for damn sure.”

            A monstrous white hotel loomed up on the right, but a half mile beyond it, he could see some sort of side-road, narrow and shrouded by trees.  Wild Rose Lane, perfect.  He checked his mirror and slowed down.  It would have been the ideal spot at night; now, in broad daylight, it was the kind of turn that looked suspicious.  But the road was empty behind him, and he took the chance that it would stay that way and he made the turn.

            The woman looked around.  “Where are we going?”

            “I don’t know.  What’s down here?”

            “How would I know?”

            “You’re from around here, aren’t you?”

            “And so I’m supposed to know where every little road leads to?”

            “It’d be nice.”

            There were houses on either side, but not many.  Big houses, rich people’s house, and that meant they’d be spread out from each other, and that was good.  That was promising.  And another hundred yards down the road, he found just what he was looking for: another turn-off.

            It was barely there, some sort of old dirt road, a logging trail or something; the kind of land an out-of-state millionaire would buy as an investment and then forget about.

            Stan pulled into the opening.  Branches and undergrowth scratched along the sides of the Ford.  About twenty or thirty feet in, the road they’d left was barely visible in the mirror, and just ahead of them, blocking the way, a length of rusty chain hung from two wooden pillars.  It was suspended about three feet off the road, secured in the middle with a rusted padlock.

            Good.  Very good.

            Rust meant neglect, and that meant no one had been here in a while.  Even better, it meant no one was likely to come along any time soon.

            He dropped the Ford into park and started to climb out of the car, but the woman stopped him.  “What are you doing?”

            “Just sit tight for a minute.  And don’t do anything stupid, okay?”

            “Listen, I’m just . . . I want to know: are you going to kill me?”

            Stan thought about it.  “No,” he finally said.  “I really don’t want to do that.”

            It was the first thing he’d told her all morning that was completely true, and something in his voice must have reassured her, because she seemed to buy it.

He killed the engine and pocketed the keys, just in case, and then he pushed through the underbrush until he reached the length of chain.  The lock was an expensive one, but nothing he couldn’t handle.  He slipped his lock-kit from his back pocket, selected a couple of picks, and went to work.  It took longer than he thought it would, but it was still only a couple of minutes later that the chain was lying on the ground and he was walking back to the car.

            The woman was still in the passenger seat, but there was a look on her face that said he’d come back just as she’d been on the verge of bolting.  One of her hands was even on her door handle.

            “You did good,” he told her.

            She stared through the windshield at what could barely be described as a road ahead.  “Where are we going?”

            “I think I know a way for us to get out of this.”

             

 

PART TWENTY

           

            He inched the car forward, the suspension groaning and banging over the rutted ground.  They’d barely made it over the chain and between the posts than the woman was on him.  She swung at his face as hard as she could, and he saw a flash of metal just in time to turn his head away.  But something solid connected with his right ear, and for a moment the world flashed white behind his eyelids.

            He reached out blindly and batted her hand away, feeling a hot stream of blood down the side of his face.  She tried to hit him again, but this time he saw it coming and caught her hand in mid-swing.  The car lurched to the right, one tire sliding off of the path and into a ditch and he fought the steering wheel with his free hand.

            “Are you kidding me?” he shouted.  “Are you fucking kidding me right now?”

            She made one more attempt to hit him, and this time he jammed his foot down on the brake and stopped the car, shoving her against the passenger seat.

            He turned toward her and saw she was about to scream, she was sucking in a deep breath and her mouth was gaping open, and all he could do was pull his gun again and shove it towards her face.

            “Don’t,” he said.  Maybe it was his tone, but more likely it was the gun, and she froze, her mouth still hanging open.  “Just don’t.”

            The woman stared at him, tears sliding down her cheeks.  From the back of the car, Johnny Something took his efforts to destroy the inside of the trunk up a notch.

            “Now why the hell would you do that?” Stan asked her.  “Why would you try something stupid when I told you not to try something stupid?  I mean, I said that specifically: don’t do anything stupid.”

            “I . . . you . . .”  It was all she could manage and then she was crying too much to get any further words out. 

            “You thought I was going to kill you?”

            She nodded, wiping at her eyes.

            “And I told you I wasn’t going to.  Do you remember that?  Christ, it was like, three minutes ago.  You asked me, and I said no.”

            “Of course . . .”  She sobbed and then drew a deep breath and tried again.  “Of course you’d say you’re not going to kill me.  And then you’d kill me.”

            He shook his head.  “It’s like I said, you watch too many movies.  Me, if I say I’m not going to do something, I don’t do it.”

            “But I know what you look like.  I know what you do.  And if I went to the police—”

            “Lady, at this point, the police are the least of my worries.  In the trunk, I got a guy who won’t stay dead.  He should stay dead, God knows he’s got enough lead in him, but he’s not.  And what it looks like to me is that the guy who put him there did it because he wanted to get rid of me.  Because he wants me dead.  That makes me worry about the cops a little less right now, you know what I’m saying?”

             

 

PART TWENTY-ONE

           

            When she calmed down, and when he was sure she wasn’t going to take a swing at him again, he held out his hand.  “What was it you hit me with?”

            She only hesitated for a second or two, and then she handed over a flashlight.  Ten inches long, silver and heavy.

            “You found this, where, under the seat or something?”

            “In the glove box.”

            He nodded.  “Very impressive.”  He raised his head and looked in the mirror.   Blood was caked in his hair, dripping on his neck.  “Did a number on my ear, too.  Jesus, look at that.”

            “Sorry.”

            “Don’t be.  That took guts.”

            “Really?”

            “Really.  Try it again and we’re gonna have a problem, me and you.  But . . . yeah, you made a real good effort.”

            She said nothing for a moment and he put the car back in gear and managed to wrestle the front wheel out of the ditch.  The road narrowed again ahead of them and then took a short sharp turn to the left, but then it widened out into a gravel lot that had been clear cut but was starting to grow in again, and all at once Stan remembered what it felt like to be a kid on Christmas morning.

            There was the shell of a house in the middle of the lot.  The lower level was enclosed in plywood, but the second floor was little more than framework, really; studs and joists and rafters but nothing else.  And it looked like it had been put up more than a year before and then abandoned.

            “Thank God for rich people,” he said.

            “What do you mean?”

            “They got a lot of money to throw around, right?  And if they don’t invest some of it, keep it moving, then they’re looking at paying a lot of taxes they don’t want to pay.  So they buy up little pieces of land in places like this, start building a house.  And then . . . oops, oh no.  The builder craps out on them, or the permits get misplaced.  Before you know it, you got something like this.  A perfect tax shelter.” 

            He pointed through the windshield.  “And look, they even started a garage.”

            “How does that help us?”

            “Could you think of a better place to leave the car than in the garage of a house that nobody’s ever going to come home to?”

            “But that means—”

            “It means our problems are over.  We find a way to open that door, we pull the car inside, close the door, and we’re done.  I wipe down the inside, you go your way and I go mine, and nobody knows nothing.”

            She turned to him and he could see by her face that she was going to have issue with this. 

            “Now what’s wrong?”

            “What about the man in the trunk?  Johnny Something.  What happens to him?”

            “Who gives a shit what happens to him?  Maybe he’ll finally give it up and die, I don’t know.”

            “That’s right, we don’t know.  You’re saying we leave him here and you go your way and I go mine—”

            “Exactly, and it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?”

            “—but what if someone comes along in a few days or a week or whatever and opens the trunk and he’s still there?”

            “Then who cares?  We’re gone and it’s not our problem.”

            She sighed and shook her head and gave him that look again, like he was some slack-jawed idiot in second grade and still couldn’t read.  “What if he . . . I don’t know . . . bites somebody or something?”

             

 

PART TWENTY-TWO

           

            Stan sat back, his foot on the brake now, and he dropped it back into PARK, the car standing still in front of the shell of the house.

            “What are you talking about?  Who’s he gonna bite?”

            “I don’t know.  Whoever.  Some kid or something?”

            “What kid is gonna be opening the trunk of the car?”

            “Whatever kid might come along and want to check out the house.  You know how kids are, they always want to poke around.”

            “Lady, look, here’s what—”

            “And it doesn’t even have to be a kid.  It could be anyone.  But sooner or later, somebody is going to come here, and if it’s sooner, and if he’s still moving around back there . . .”

            She didn’t go on, but then again, she really need to.  He was kind of getting the idea now.

            But still . . .

            Shit, there were just so many things she didn’t understand.  She might have managed to hold her shit together so far this morning—he’d seen a lot of people fold up and turn to jelly in far less stressful circumstances—but really, she was so ridiculously naïve about the way the world worked—really worked—that he couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.

            It didn’t mean he had to hurt her for it, physically or otherwise.  And probably the old Stan might have done just that.  The old Stan; the guy he’d been early on, who’d come up out of the tough streets of Charlestown with Angelo.  But over the years—and Jesus, especially today—he’d learned that maybe everything wasn’t as simple as black or white or right or wrong.  The world was a gray place, and who could blame her, as young as she was, if she couldn’t see that?

            He turned to face her, leaning against the driver’s side door.  The engine was running hot, but still idling along fairly well, not making much noise.  He wished he could say the same thing for Johnny Something in the trunk, but he couldn’t.  Back there, the guy was raising holy hell now, punching and kicking, and probably even slamming his head into the underside of the trunk’s lid.  Stan couldn’t be sure, but every now and then he thought he could hear the guy screaming or shouting, or trying to form some sort of words out of his ruined face.

            “Can I tell you something?” he asked the woman. 

            “Is it something bad?”

            He nodded.  “Yeah, it is.  But I think it’s something you really need to hear.”

            “Okay.”

            He could see her stiffening, preparing herself.  Funny, but he thought she was prettiest when she was a little scared.  Not crying or freaking out, but just a little nervous and worried.  Man, if she was ten years older and he was twenty years younger?  Chances were she’d still want nothing to do with him.

            “I wasn’t always a driver, you know?  Early on, I was just a bag man.  You take a bag from point A to point B, and you bring another bag back with you.  You never ask what’s in the bag, and you don’t look.”

            “How do you not look?”

            He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  You just don’t.  They tell you not to and so you don’t.  But the point is, when I first started out, I thought I knew it all, but really, I didn’t know shit.  Didn’t know what I was getting into, and looking back, I have no idea what I would have done if I ended up in a tight spot like this.  But then some people started giving me advice here and there, and I started to learn the ropes.”

            Stan chewed his lip, thinking hard how he should say the next part.

            “Here’s the thing, though: not all of that advice was right, and some of it was downright piss poor, but do you want to know the one piece that just about everybody I talked to seemed to agree on?”

            She nodded, but there was no real curiosity in her expression.

            “Every last one of those people I talked to, they all said there was only one thing less valuable than a snitch.  There was only one truly expendable type of person.”

            She swallowed.  “And who was that?”  She asked the question, but he was pretty sure she already knew the answer.

            But he told her anyway.  “The bystander.”

             

 

PART TWENTY-THREE

           

            She cringed in the seat.  “But you said—”

            He held up a hand.  “Hear me out.”

            She didn’t exactly relax, but at least now he could tell she was listening, that his words would get through.

            “The bystander,” he said, “according to everybody who wanted to tell me about it, is an unavoidable occupational hazard.  They will very likely be there, one way or another, and will almost always get in the way.  And because of that, they’re expendable.”  He shrugged.  “I’m not saying it’s true, necessarily.  I’m just telling you: that’s the general consensus.”

            The woman crossed her arms and hugged herself, despite the heat.  “My God.  What kind of people do you deal with?”  

            “You really need to ask me that?  How long we been in this car together?”

            “Too long.”             

            “I can’t say I disagree, honey.  You’re pretty ripe, you know, after you go jogging.”

            It was a bad joke and kind of a cheap shot and he felt bad about it as soon as he said it.  But she didn’t seem to notice and so he pressed on.

            “So that was the thought process, out there on the streets.  Some gang does a drive-by on some other gang and some kid shooting hoops at the park catches a stray bullet?  Sorry.  You’re a bystander.  Shouldn’t have been there when you were there.  You’re taking care of some guy who you’re told to take care of in a back alley downtown and a homeless guy wakes up behind a dumpster and you see him watching?  Guess what?  There’s two bodies in the alley tonight.”

            “You’ve done these things?  You’ve shot innocent people because—”

            He stopped her there.  He’d only be offended if he let her go on.  “No.  Never.  See that’s the thing with me.  Maybe I’ve been lucky, I don’t know, or maybe I just managed to pick my moments a little better all these years, but before today?  Before this job?  I’ve never come into a situation where I had to make a choice about a bystander.”

            “But you just said . . .  You said it happened all the time, that it was unavoidable.”  She uncrossed her arms long enough to make air quotes around the word, another thing he hated.  Christ, for someone who wanted to stay alive, she sure was pushing every button she could.

            “No, no.  What I said was, everybody I talked to told me it was unavoidable.  Me, somehow, all this time I been working, I managed to avoid it.  Until today.”

            “Until me.”

            He nodded.  “Until you.  That’s right.  Until you.”

            “And you already told me you weren’t going to kill me.”

            “I know.”

            “You swore to it.”

            Stan frowned.  “I don’t think I swore to anything.  I mean, if you want to get technical about it—” 

He stopped.  Closed his eyes.  “Okay.  Okay.  More or less, yes, okay, I swore to it.”

            “Then why are you telling me this?”

            “Because I’m trying to get us both off the hook here.  If we don’t end this pretty soon, if you don’t let me pull this car in that half-ass garage and walk away, then I’m probably going to get caught.  By the cops, by some stupid neighborhood watch—which, by the way, is even a bigger pain in the ass than the cops—but yeah, it won’t be good.  And if I’m caught and you’re with me and I go away for a while but your name is in the papers?  Guess what?”

            She guessed correctly.  “Then I’m a bystander again.  To your friends.”

            “Exactly.  Only they’re not going to think twice about what they want to do.  So what’s it gonna be?”

             

 

PART TWENTY-FOUR

           

            He couldn’t believe it but she took a minute to think about it.  Like it was really her decision to make, when you got right down to it.

            “Are you kidding me?” he asked.  “Are you messing with me right now?”

            “What?”

            “You really need to go over this in your head or something?”

            “No, I just . . .  This is a big decision and—”

            “Do you remember when you went at me, with the flashlight?”

            She made funny eyes at him.  “Yeah, well, it was like three minutes ago, so yes.  Do you remember it?”

            He liked the way she was giving it back to him now, making a joke out of it, but he didn’t have time for it.  “What I’m saying, that took guts, that took action and not planning.  You either had to make yourself do it—at that moment—or not do it.  There was no time to think.”

            “I know.”

            “So.  This garage idea . . .”               

            And she thought about it.

            Shit.

            And it wasn’t like he needed her permission.  He could just do it and get it done and walk away.  Why the hell was he asking her opinion anyway?  He wanted to do exactly what he’d said he wanted to do and who gave a shit what she thought about it one way or another?

            He reached out past the wheel, ready to put the car into drive and just get this over with.

            But then she opened her mouth again.

            This woman.  The jogger in her expensive sneakers and her matching lime-green Lycra running clothes, for Christ’s sake.

            Why, oh why, had he ever told her to get in the goddamned car?

            “You said something,” she said.  “Earlier.”

            “Honey, I said a lot of things earlier.  You’re going to have to be more specific.”

            “About these guys who had you come out here.  You said something about how you thought one of them might have set you up on this on purpose.”

            He nodded.  Cyril.  He remembered thinking it, but not saying it. 

             “You said you thought maybe this guy wanted you dead, and that’s why they called you for this job.”

             “Yeah, yeah.  I got that.  But what’s your point?”

             “Well, where are they in all of this?”

             “All of what?”

             “Your plan.  You park the car and we both go our separate ways, and then . . . well, I go home and take about a hundred showers, and I assume you go back to your boss and complain—”

             “It’s not that kind of thing.  I really can’t—”

             “—or you don’t complain, I’m not sure how it works.  But either way, this guy you talked about?  The one who set you up like this?”

            She was using the jargon now, talking like she knew what she was talking about, and more than anything else, that was what made Stan sit up and start to pay attention.  “What about him?”

             “Exactly.  What happens to him?”

             He thought about that.  Thought really hard about it.  And then she put his thoughts into words.

             “Does he get to walk away too?  After what he tried to do to you?  I mean, if you think about it, that just about makes you one of those people too.”

             “What people?”

             “Bystanders.”

             And just like that, an idea was born.

             Only, when her told her about it, she didn’t like it.

             Big surprise.

             He didn’t care.  He dialed the number and handed her the cell phone anyway.

             

 

PART TWENTY-FIVE

           

            She sat in the car for another four minutes, refusing to get out.  It might as well have been four hours, because by the end of it, by the time he finally convinced her that his plan was the only way that the two of them could walk away—really and truly walk away—he’d just about reached the end of his rope.

            She’d done her part.  She’d said what he’d told her to say into his phone.  But now she somehow felt the need to debate about it.

            “How do you know it’s even going to work?” she asked him, as if anybody anywhere in the history of plans could ever really say they knew for sure something was going to work.  If plans were always sure to work, they wouldn’t be called plans.  They’d be called results.  “How do you know this guy will go for it?”

            “Because I know, okay?  I just know.”

            “But you said you really didn’t know him well.”

            “Yeah, it doesn’t matter.  I know his type.  I see them all day.  Day in and day out, his type, I see them across the board.”

            She squinted at him.  “It’s Eddie, isn’t it?  Eddie the Mope, the guy you talked about.”

            “No, it’s not Eddie.”

            “How could it not be?  You talked about him.”

            “It’s not Eddie the Mope because he’s dead, okay?  Eddie the Mope is dead.  He’s been dead a good while now.”

            “Oh.”  She turned to look again at the back of the car, where Johnny Something, the dead guy who was supposed to hook Eddie the Mope up with all the answers, was going top-of-the-bill, one-step-beyond ape-shit, kicking dents in the fenders from inside the car now.  “Then I guess the voodoo thing didn’t work out for him very well.”

            “No, I guess it didn’t.”

            “How did it happen?”

            Stan closed his eyes.  “I’ll tell you what.  We meet up again someday, I’ll tell you what little of it I know.  Until then, you don’t need to worry about it.” 

            And then he told her again to get the hell out of the car and to walk out to the road and start jogging home, and he’d take care of the rest.  And he tried to imply a threat in there somewhere, just to get through to her, but once again, it didn’t do a whole lot of good.  She wasn’t buying it and he knew she wasn’t.

            He even pulled his gun again, when he was tired of talking in circles.  He pulled it and pointed it at her face and this time, yeah, this time he even went so far as to click off the safety, and he told her in his best back-alley voice to get the fuck away from him and disappear.

            And she didn’t quite laugh it off, but there was no real fear in her eyes.

            “You’ll be okay?” she asked.

            “Lady, I’ve been in worse jams than this.”

            She stared at him long enough and he finally looked away.  “Okay,” he said.  “Maybe none this bad.”

            And then she reached out and tugged on her door handle and started to get out of the car, which surprised Stan more than anything else she’d done so far that morning.  Halfway out, she looked back at him over the shoulder of her lime-green Lycra running outfit and said, “By the way, my name is—”

            He cut her off.  “I don’t need to know,” he said.  “You know?  I really shouldn’t.”

            “Janice,” she said, like that was going to be the end of it.

            Huh.  Go figure.  In his mind, somehow, he’d really had her pegged as a Becky.  “Okay.  Janice.  Goodbye.”

            She stepped out of the car and then leaned in again before closing the door.  “What can I call you?”

            “Nothing.”

            “No, really.  It’s not like I’m ever going to repeat it.  I just want to know the name of the guy who was ready to shoot me in the belly— ”  She looked at her watch.  “—forty minutes ago.  But now he’s letting me go.”

            And so he dropped his tough guy routine, and took a few seconds to look away, because it wasn’t an easy thing to do, and then he looked back at her for the last time. 

            “Steve,” he said.

            And she nodded and closed the door and walked away, and disappeared into the trees.

             

 

PART TWENTY-SIX

           

            After that, all he could do was sit around and wait.

            He got out of the car and stepped into the heat of the morning and fought with the garage door until he found a way to open it, and then he pulled the car in and killed the engine and decided shortly afterwards that it might have been a mistake.

            The heat was stifling and the humidity climbed up onto his back and made him feel like the summer season was angry and wanted to hurt him.  Wanted to gnaw at his bones or something.

            Jesus, it was hot.

            He thought about opening the garage door again and starting the engine so he could fire up the air conditioning for a while and cool things down, but he really didn’t know when Cyril would show up—or if he’d even show up at all—and couldn’t take the risk.  There was the element of surprise to consider, after all.

            Deep inside, he knew Cyril would go for it.  Shit, how could he resist?  It was a chance to see his stupid plan come to a head, to be sure about it.

            Stan laid it out in his head, each piece end to end, just to be sure it fit together.

            One bad job with Angelo.  The job when Eddie the Mope’s loyalties had been called into question.  The one job that had gone south, but they’d all still managed to walk away.  And who had put it together?

            Cyril.

            Stan had been the one to call it off, to say things were getting too bad too fast and it was time to get the hell out.

            And Eddie had died anyway.  Jesus, did he ever.  He’d died big.  The major leagues of dying.

             But Cyril . . .

            Well, it had been Cyril’s job, Nunzio had picked him for it, and so of course he’d taken the fall.

            Stan couldn’t imagine how Cyril had figured out how to use Johnny Something in his rosy little plan, or why Johnny was the way he was, but that wasn’t the kind of thing he was used to dealing with.

            He dealt with numbers and names and faces, and guys who couldn’t wait to get back at you if they saw the chance.

And so it all made sense.

            Or at least it did in Stan’s world.

            Janice would have never understood.

            But she’d been helpful.  Easy, too, to have her call Cyril’s phone in a panic, maybe a misdial, screaming something about a man she’d seen by the side of the road out on the Seacoast. Screaming, bleeding, hurt bad and asking for help.  Asking her to call Angelo on speed dial before the police and ambulance could get there.  Shouting something about how maybe Cyril couldn’t be trusted.

            Heh.            

            That last bit was a nice touch.

            And then hitting that MAPS button to show him where she was.  That had been her idea; he didn’t even know his phone could do that.

            The fucker would come running.

            Why wouldn’t he?

            Stan would be a fish in a barrel at that point, and Cyril could say he’d been there to clean up the mess.

            And if Angelo showed up with him? 

             What then?

            Hell, that would tell an entirely different story, wouldn’t it?

 

PART TWENTY-SEVEN

           

            He sat there in the blazing heat and listened to Johnny Something going off the deep end in the trunk, out of control now.  Pounding and kicking and hammering and screaming—yeah, SCREAMING now, though not in any kind of words Stan could understand—and he thought maybe Johnny Ballistic might be a better name for that bullet-filled son of a bitch, and then he decided it was time.

            Time to get out of the car and fade back out of sight and keep his eyes open.  He didn’t know how he knew it was time to do that; it was just a gut feeling, a reaction to his surroundings and the passage of time.  It made no sense to him—and it wouldn’t to anyone who’d spent a lot of years in his line of work, for that matter—but it was there and he trusted it.

            So he crept out of the shell of the garage and into the wide spread of undergrowth to the right of the property and he crouched there in the merciful shade and drew his gun.  And remembered he’d never taken the leak he’d needed to take all that time ago—what had it been, a hundred hours earlier, on the bridge, with the fishing boats going out? 

             God.                    

             It was a miracle he hadn’t ruptured something deep inside, just holding it off so long.  That could happen to guys, couldn’t it?                Yeah, he was sure he’d heard about it.

             And so against his better judgment and ignoring his instincts and his gut feelings, he pushed the gun into the back of his pants and he stood up and found a tree—because trees were always best when it came to moments likes this.  He faced the tree and tugged down his zipper and he held his breath and looked up at the sky and—

             And it took a few seconds more to make it happen, but then the release was huge and glorious.  It was angels singing and playing harps and it was all that he’d ever prayed it could be and more.  But in the middle of it, at the point where the finest shiver he’d ever experienced was just starting to trace a line up the center of his back, he heard it.

             Tires on gravel, moving along good and slow, but definitely getting closer.

            Cyril.  It had to be.

             He looked down at himself, tried to force it out faster.  But nature was nature, and it stuck to a schedule that would not be influenced by man, and what seemed like a weekend passed before true relief started to overwhelm him.  He looked to the sky again and made an attempt to count off the seconds, trying to piece together how long he had before the car reached the clearing and the bones of the house.

            But man.

            Oh, man.

             This was brutal.

            This was more than taking a good leak.  This was some sort of cleansing.  After this, he thought maybe he’d never have to do it again.  He thought he might even be setting some sort of world record or something.

            And at just about the same moment that he was starting to feel like it might eventually come to an end, as he gazed up into the heavens in appreciation and relief, a gun was pushed up tight against the base of his skull.

            From behind him, he heard Cyril’s voice.  “Might as well get it all out now, mate.  You won’t need it where you’re going to.”  Then he reached into the back on Stan’s pants and took his gun away, tossing it deep into the woods.  “Won’t be needing that, either.”

            Stan turned to his right to follow the path of his spiraling gun and saw that Cyril wasn’t on his own.

            Angelo was there too.

            Shit.

 

PART TWENTY-EIGHT

           

            Well, it had been worth a try.

            He’d had worse plans, but then again, none of them had ever gotten him killed, and that was the way this one was shaping up.

            When nature’s call was finally done with him, Cyril let him zip up and then led Stan—with his fingers laced together and his hands pressed against his head—out of the bushes and into what would have been the driveway of this swank rich man’s property.  All the way along, he kept poking Stan in the back with the barrel of his gun, knowing he had the upper hand, confidence bordering on cockiness, and there was a very short list of things Stan hated more than that.

            But Stan kept his mouth shut and moved when he was told to move.

            What else was he going to do?

            The self-defense moves people saw on TV and in the movies, those Chuck Norris kicks and flips?  Fiction.  Come on.  The fastest guy on earth couldn’t spin around and kick a gun out of your hand before you moved your finger an eighth of an inch and put a bullet in him.

            So he kept right on walking, and pretty soon all three of them were standing there in front of the garage door.  Stan, with his hands on his head, and Cyril with the gun, and Angelo, smiling out of his pudgy, alcoholic’s face, flushed from the heat but still obviously pleased with the way things were turning out.

            “Is this the way you wanted it?” Stan asked him.  “Sending a dead guy to do your dirty work?”

            Angelo’s smile faded.  “What’s that you’re saying?”

            “This guy in the trunk.  Your dead little buddy.  You gave him to me because, what, you’re too scared to come at me yourself?”

            It wasn’t much of a challenge, but really, it was all Stan had at the moment. 

            These guys, with their codes and their pride . . . sometimes all it took was the right arrangement of words and they’d go into a fury so thick they’d forget anything they’d ever been taught about caution and self-control.

            From the look on his face, Angelo wasn’t going for it.  His stare didn’t change; there were still daggers and hollow-points in it.  Chances were, he was on the verge of ordering Stan into the garage and down onto his knees for a couple of shots to the base of the skull.  He sure as hell wouldn’t have Cyril shoot him right out here in the open, would he?

            Stan sensed some sort of advantage in that strategy, something he might be able to use, but it skittered away before he could get a grip on it.  Christ, it was hard to think straight looking into the barrel of a gun.  You could see your whole future in it, but really, you couldn’t see a thing.

            “Which dead guy?” Angelo asked.

            “I’m taking about the guy in the trunk,” Stan said.  “Can’t you hear him?”

            Angelo rolled his eyes.  “What do you think?  I’m gonna go in there because you got me all curious, and I’m gonna open the trunk so this guy can jump out at me?  You really believe that’s the way it’s gonna go?”

            Cyril laughed at that; he seemed to be having fun with this.  The gun was still turned towards Stan, but his stance was a bit more relaxed.

            “I don’t know,” Stan said.  “I wouldn’t mind very much if that’s the way it went.”

            “Well, don’t get your hopes up, cause it ain’t happening.  If anyone’s opening that trunk, it’s gonna be you.  And that’s only if I decide you should climb in there with him.”

            “It’s Johnny in there, isn’t it?  The kid from Freemont Street.”

            “Yeah, that’s him.”

            “And you gave him to me because of what happened with Eddie the Mope.”

            “That’s right.  Very good.  Look at that, Cyril, he’s smarter than he looks.  Figured that out all by himself.”

            Cyril grinned.  “Not smart enough, though, am I right?”  He stepped closer.  Not close enough that Stan could try something, but close enough to see the smile was leaving his face in a hurry.  “That job on Eddie?  That was a mess, mate, and that was your fault.  You pulled us out of there, but it was me Nunzio was mad at.”

            “That has nothing to do with me.  You know Nunzio, he gets mad when he wants to get mad.  You never know who he’s going to pick.”

            “Yeah, well, this time he picked you, okay?”

            Stan frowned.  “What do you mean?”

            “I mean he’s the one who told us to get you out here with Johnny.  He wanted him out of the city, and he wanted you out of the way.”

 

PART TWENTY-NINE

           

            “Why would Nunzio want me out of the way?” Stan asked.  “It doesn’t make sense.”

            Angelo shrugged.  “I’m sure he had his reasons.”

            Jesus, this was going nowhere.  Well, no, it was going somewhere, but not the kind of place Stan wanted it to. 

            He had to think, had to keep them talking, to buy some time.

            “And what about Johnny?  Why is he the way he is?”

            Another shrug, but this one felt less sincere.  “You’d have to ask Eddie the Mope that question.  It’s whatever they went through together out in Lowell, I’m guessing.”

            “Yeah, well, he ain’t around to ask, is he?”

            “No, he’s not.  Not anymore.”

            From the right, out in the bushes, they heard a rustle of dead leaves.  The snap of a branch.

            Cyril turned with the gun, peering into the undergrowth.

            Angelo stared at Stan.  “Where’s the girl?”

            “What girl?”

            “The one that called Cyril’s phone.  The one who said you looked like you were in trouble.”

            Stan cocked his head toward the road.  “About a half mile back that way.  In a ditch.  I couldn’t have her telling anybody what she saw.  I may be stupid, Angelo, but I’m not stupid.”

            “Then who’s out there?”

            “What am I, the groundskeeper?  Could be a coyote, for all I know.  Maybe a snapping turtle.”

            Cyril crouched down, the gun held straight out in front of him.  “Nobody else was with you?”

            “Only Johnny,” Stan told him, “but he never left the trunk.  Though I sure would like to let him loose, right about now.”

            “Yeah, I bet you would.  Let me tell you—”

            “Will the two of you please shut the hell up,” Angelo said, “long enough so we can tell what’s going on here?”  He reached inside his jacket, and Stan knew he was armed too, but he didn’t pull his gun.  If it was the cops out there in the brush, he wasn’t going to be caught with a weapon in his hand.  It was a damn good way to get shot.

            They stared into the trees, the three of them standing around in the punishing heat.  From the garage, Johnny Something continued to scream, muffled shouts growing louder and louder.

            And from the brush at the edge of the gravel drive, Janice emerged.  She was flushed and sweating, and shaking almost uncontrollably, but she had Stan’s gun in her hands, pointed straight at Cyril.  There were scratches on her face and along her arms and shoulders, probably from searching through the undergrowth for the gun, and Stan could tell immediately that she was scared shitless.

            Cyril could too, and he forced out one of his stupid fake laughs.  “Oh, you have to be kidding me.” 

            He lifted his gun towards her, still laughing, and Stan knew the girl was as good as dead.  Christ, after all she’d been through, this lowlife was going to blow her away, all because she’d been dumb enough to try to come to Stan’s rescue.  What was she thinking?

            He wanted to leap forward, to launch himself at Cyril, but he knew it would make no difference.  He’d ever reach him in time.  Even Chuck Norris couldn’t reach him in time.  From the corner of his eye he could see Angelo struggling to pull his gun out of his jacket, and so he made a dive towards him instead.  Because if he could get his hands on Angelo’s gun, by the time Cyril had finished off the girl, then at least Stan might have a chance.

            But just as he started scrambling towards Angelo across the dusty gravel, he heard the girl let out a scream, and he heard his gun go off, and saw part of Cyril’s face leaving his head.  It all happened too fast to see clearly, and by the time Cyril’s body was folding up and falling, he was busy crashing into Angelo with all his momentum behind him.

            Angelo’s hand finally came free of his jacket—another jackass move, carrying his gun in there that way—but too late.  By then Stan was on top of him, hitting him again and again, until Angelo wasn’t even putting up a fight anymore.  He only managed to get off one shot; Stan felt the gun kicking back between them, and then a searing, shattering pain in his left foot as the bullet found him.  He screamed and swung at Angelo a few more times, and after that, it was easy for him to just reach out and take the weapon for himself.  

            When he looked up, the girl was still standing there with the gun stuck out in front of her.  Still pointed at Cyril.  There were tears streaming down her face, and her legs were beginning to wobble, looking like they might go completely slack any minute now and dump her on the ground.

            She looked toward Stan.  “I . . . I . . .”

            He nodded.  “Yeah, you sure did.”

            And then she doubled over and did exactly what Stan had thought she was going to do when he’d first met her, just about an hour earlier.

            She puked all over her expensive running shoes.

 

PART THIRTY

           

            It took a while for him to talk her down from it; longer than he would have preferred.

            Part of it was the sound of the gunshots.  It made him think the chances were good that somebody might have heard them and reported the sound.  Or, in the neighborhood, more likely, had one of their servants call it in for them.

            But the girl was a wreck, crying and shivering, every few minutes going white and hyperventilating when she turned enough to get a glimpse of Cyril’s body.  He really couldn’t blame her; the chances were good that when her alarm had gone off that morning and she’d shimmied into her little Lycra jogging suit, she’d probably had no idea she’d be killing a guy in cold blood before most of her neighbors were finished with their morning paper. 

             When he finally got the gun away from her and she managed to sit down in a shady spot with her back to the house, Stan ordered Angelo to strip off his jacket, and he laid it down over what was left of Cyril’s face and head.

            Not that there was much.

            Man, for a girl who’d never handled a gun before, her wild shot had been damned good.  She’d dropped Cyril before he’d even managed to get a shot off himself.  And she’d left behind a body that nobody would ever be able to identify by its face, that was for damn sure.

            Stan thought about telling her so, but realized it would only get the waterworks going again, and he didn’t want that.  By this point, he was sure she didn’t want that, either.

            So instead, he just limped around on his bleeding, shot-up foot and thanked her again.  For saving his life.  For having the balls to come at these two guys who’d come here to kill him.  For not even knowing what the hell she was doing but somehow pulling it off.

            Angelo laughed when he said that.  “That’s right,” he said.  His face was bruised and bloody, his left eye swollen shut.  Looking at him now, Stan could understand why his hands hurt almost as bad as his foot.  “You bring in this little miss to help you fight your battles.” 

            “I wouldn’t talk.  You brought in a dead guy to fight yours.”

            That shut Angelo up for a few minutes, which was good, because Stan really did have to figure out what to do next.

            There was a lot to deal with.

            Cyril, lying there dead, half his head gone, his body already starting to stiffen up.

            Angelo, his hands tied with his own belt, but without a doubt already trying to come up with a plan of his own.

            Johnny Something . . .

            Well, it was a strange thing, but he’d gone oddly quiet in the trunk of the car, still in the unfinished garage.  At just about the time everything had gone down out in the driveway.  He was still knocking around in there, sure, but with a lot less vigor now.  Almost as though . . .

            Stan tried to shake off the thought, knowing there was no way it made sense, but it came anyway.

            Almost as though the violence that had gone on outside the garage had managed to reach Johnny somehow, and quench his anger.  Stan had no idea how that could be true, but it sure seemed like that was the way it happened.

            “Steve?”             

            He almost didn’t look up, almost forgetting it was the name he’d given the girl.

            “Yeah?”

            “I can’t go to jail, I can’t be mixed up in something like this.”

            Stan shook his head.  “Nobody’s going to jail, don’t worry.”

            “Amen to that,” Angelo said.

            “Shut up.  None of us would be in this shithole of a mess, if it wasn’t for you.”

            “It was Cyril’s idea.  Don’t you—”

            “Cyril wasn’t smart enough to come up with all of this on his own.”

            “Yeah, that’s true.  But don’t forget Nunzio.”

            Stan looked up.  “I won’t.  Don’t worry.”

 

PART THIRTY-ONE

           

            “What we really need to do,” the girl said, “is get you to a hospital.”

            Angelo shrugged.  “Hey, thanks.  That’s sweet of you.  But I been beat up worse than this before.”

            “Not you, dumb ass,” Stan told him.  “She’s talking about my foot.  Jesus.”  He turned to her.  “Listen, I go to a hospital with a bullet in my foot, then it’s all over.  I’ll never see the outside again.”

            “So what are you supposed to do?”

            “There’s a guy we know in Boston, he does a really nice job of patching up things like this.”

            “You’re not going to be able to drive.  Not like that.”

            “I know.  That’s why I’m going to need your help for a little bit longer.  I’ll make sure it’s worth your while, don’t worry.”

            And then he sat her in the driver’s seat of the car and told her what he had in mind, and this time, to his surprise, she really didn’t object to it.  Well, not all of it.

            She wasn’t wild about putting Angelo in the trunk with Johnny Something.

            Angelo wasn’t happy about it either.  In fact, when Stan dragged him into the garage and told him what he was going to do, Angelo said exactly the same thing Janice had said earlier in the day.

            “You can shoot me if you want, but I’m not getting in that trunk.”

            But when Stan shrugged and said okay and pressed his gun up against Angelo’s forehead, he changed his tune pretty fast.

            And he ended up getting in the trunk.

            Johnny was lying in there towards the back, perfectly still.  But his eyes were wide open in his bloody face, and they seemed to light up when Angelo climbed in beside him.

            Stan slammed the trunk closed on both of them and shook his head, thinking Angelo must have balls of steel.  Stan wouldn’t have climbed into that trunk for all the money in the world.  He’d have taken the bullet.

            He opened the garage door and limped out into the sunlight and dragged Cyril’s body inside. 

            There was an old piece of tarp in the far corner by the stairs that would have eventually led up into the house, and that was where Stan left him, under that tarp.  It was good enough for a bastard like him.  Too good, really.

            After that, they were out of there, reversing their original course and then headed south onto the highway.

            Back towards Boston.

            Back towards Nunzio.

            For a while neither of them said anything, but then a thrashing sound came from the trunk, and Angelo started to scream.  Stan was fine with it until the girl looked like she was going to cry again, so he turned on the radio and found a local station he thought she might like and he turned it up good and loud.

            He put up with it as long as he could, but once the music was too much for him to stand, he switched it off and lay back in his seat.  He knew he was losing a lot of blood—hell, between the trunk and what he was doing to the floor on the passenger side, he really was beating the shit out of the Ford’s resale value—but he knew he’d be okay.  He knew he’d make it.

            He wasn’t so sure about the girl.

            Each time the screams or the pounding from the trunk got louder, he could see her tensing up behind the wheel, her back straightening and her knuckles going white.

            And so he started to talk, filling the silence with his voice, hoping the things he had to say would distract her from the noises in the trunk.

            He told her about his perfect record with bystanders, a record he could still say was intact, even after today.  He told the few things he knew about Johnny Something, and how he’d ended up in the trunk in the first place.

            And then, running out of things to talk about, he started filling her in about Eddie the Mope, and what had gone wrong when they’d been sent to deal with him.

            Later on, many miles later, things finally went quiet in the trunk again, but Stan really didn’t want to think too much about why that might be.

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