First published in the Pulp Ink anthology
Walter rested his forehead against the steering wheel while he waited for Malcolm to return. He'd warned the fool about drinking so much water. At the sound of a voice, Walter looked up as Malcolm emerged from the woods talking on his cell phone.
"What the . . .?" Walter pounded his fist on the dash and exited the truck. He adjusted his cap against the sun, stomped to his partner, grabbed the phone, and hurled it into the mix of budding trees and rotted trunks.
"Hey, that phone's expensive."
"We agreed," Walter said between gasps for air, his hands on his knees. "No phone calls until we crossed the state line."
"I know, but I had to tell Suze. Smashing those glass tops and grabbing all that jewelry. Man, what a high." Malcolm raised his hand for a high five, a thin-lipped smile exposed a row of crooked teeth missing an incisor. "I see a new career in my future, Walter."
Walter ignored his partner's hand. Instead, he hiked up his jeans and marched back to the pea green Malibu. "Dumb shit."
"What'd you say?" Malcolm asked.
"Nothing," Walter replied, waving like he was flying with one arm. "Just get back in the car." He glanced up and down the zigzaggy dirt road, glad he'd decided to avoid the paved routes. He usually worked alone, but this time his sister had insisted he let his brother-in-law help. Since Malcolm'd lost his job, he'd been a pest, she'd said.
"And leave the damn phone," he said when Malcolm turned toward the woods. "I'll buy you a new one when we get to where we're going."
Walter massaged his left bicep. His mind wouldn't let go of how stupid he'd been to agree to work with Malcolm. Shaking his head, Walter turned the key. The car's corroded muffler roared its disgust. He reached for the gear shift at the same time Malcolm removed a pearl and ruby necklace from the black garbage bag and held it at eye level.
"What the hell are you doing now?" Walter asked. He glared into the rearview mirror and pushed Malcolm's hand below the dash. "Someone might see."
"Ain't no one here," Malcolm said. He twisted around and squinted through the dirty rear window.
"You didn't know that when you put that doodad on display. We're on a back road, but that doesn't mean nobody else might come along." Walter rolled his shoulders in an attempt to ease the tension in his neck.
"I guess, but still. . ." Malcolm raised the necklace again and stared at it like it was a stripper taking off her g-string, not that Walter imagined Malcolm had ever been to a strip joint. Suzie wouldn't stand for that.
"That's it," Walter said. "Get out of the car."
Walter turned off the engine.
"I said get out." When Malcolm didn't move, Walter opened the center console and grabbed the gun.
"What're you going to do with that six-shooter?"
"Ease my stress. Now get out of the damn car and get down on the ground."
Malcolm did as he was told. Walter slid out of the driver's seat keeping his eyes on Malcolm.
"What about Suze?" Malcolm asked.
"She and I haven't spoken to each other in years. I don't know why I listened to her now."
Walter looked around to see if anyone was coming. When he turned back, Malcolm was on his feet, racing forward. He rammed his shoulder into Walter's stomach, and they fell to the ground. Walter groaned at the same time the gun went off. Malcolm collapsed on Walter's chest.
Having trouble breathing, Walter rolled his dead partner onto the ground. "Stupid son of a bitch. I only wanted to scare him." Walter got to his feet and grabbed Malcolm by the ankles. He dragged the body behind the Malibu, opened the trunk, and struggled to get the corpse inside. He removed his bloodied work shirt, placed it over Malcolm's face, and slammed the lid shut. Looking around, Walter climbed in the driver's seat and restarted the engine. He gripped the wheel tightly as the car fishtailed down the road, the tach's needle edging into the red.
He eased up on the gas as he approached the road that would take him back to his sister's house. The pain in his back had gotten worse. Before he reached the stop sign, he saw steam coming from the engine compartment. He pulled over, opened the hood, and spotted the hole in the radiator right away. Old age had done it in. He grabbed the bag from the front seat and headed toward town. He needed a new plan.
It wasn't long before a pickup spewing diesel fumes pulled up alongside.
"Need some help?" An old man sat inside hunched over the wheel. A stained cap, the brim cocked to one side, rested on his bald head. A young woman sat in the passenger seat. Dark roots supported blonde hair. Hard nipples poked through a white tube top decorated with daisies.
"Car broke down." Walter shook his head and contorted his face into a look of helplessness. "I'd appreciate a ride to town."
"Hop in." The girl--Walter assumed her to be the man's granddaughter--moved over, and Walter climbed in. The smell of cigarettes filled the air, even with the windows open.
"What'cha got in the bag?" the driver asked.
"Just some family heirlooms. I'm taking them to my sister."
"Thought I heard something like pebbles banging together when you got in," the old man said.
Walter gazed out the side window and held his breath, hoping there wouldn't be any more questions. There weren't.
The old man spent the three-mile ride to town going on about his grandchildren, while the girl, Elsie, smiled, played footsie with Walter, and rubbed her thigh against his. Walter didn't mind the old man's banter. It meant he didn't have to answer questions about what he'd been doing. He wasn't as comfortable with the girl. Neither one noticed the specks of blood on Walter's t-shirt. Or, at least, they didn't say anything.
Walter exited the truck at Frank's Garage, tapped the bill of his cap to the old man and gave the girl an uneasy smile. "Thanks for the ride," he said. "Appreciate it."
Walter waved as the truck pulled away, then walked the four blocks to his sister's house. He was glad she was at work and wouldn't be home for another two hours. It'd give him time to think.
Inside her dining room, he inched open the curtain with the tip of his finger and checked outside. The street was empty for now, but the cops'd be around once they found the Malibu. Walter had planned to drive to New York where he knew a fence and then to Canada to have the operation the doctor said he needed. He wasn't sure how he would do that now.
He slid down the wall to a sitting position and used his shirt to wipe the beads of sweat from his face. His back still hurt and now his jaw ached from the tension he felt. "You're too old for this, Walter," he said, massaging his cheeks. "You should have run off last year after you got out of prison." He tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling. "Nobody would've cared."
He heard the siren in the distance, and a few minutes later, tires squealed to a stop in front of the house. Within seconds, three other cars joined the first.
"This is Sheriff Jacobs," the bull-horned voice said. "We know you're in there, Walter. We found the car and Malcolm. We need you to come out so we can talk."
Walter took a deep breath and placed his hand on the gun lying next to his right leg. "Sure you want to talk." Walter felt his chest tighten. "You think I'm stupid, Harvey?" Walter and Harvey Jacobs had been in school together. Neither one was a star student, but Walter wasn't the one with an IQ slightly higher than dirt. Everyone knew Harvey got his job because his father was once the mayor and still controlled what happened in town.
"You're the one who killed Malcolm, Walter. I'd say that was pretty stupid."
"It was an accident. The fool jumped me." Walter picked up the gun, undecided as to whether he'd use it. He'd been somebody's bitch once before. He wasn't going to be again.
"It looked like he'd been shot, Walter. You know you can't have a gun, having been in prison and all."
Walter massaged his arm again. He needed to think, but he was out of time.
"Come on out, Walter. Let's not make this any harder than it has to be."
"Hard for who, you jackass?"
Walter heard the boots climb the porch steps. He stood up, took off his shirt and placed it over his mouth and nose, waiting for the tear gas canister to come through the window.
"I've got a kid in here. Tell your men to back off." Walter looked around the empty room and wondered how long it would take before the police realized he was lying. A table, six chairs, and a hutch full of chipped dishes didn't make good hostages.
"You need to let the kid go, Walter. He ain't got nothing to do with this."
"I don't have to do anything, Harv. You, on the other hand, need to tell your men to back off and let me think."
Walter leaned against the wall and waited for a response.
"Okay, Walter. We'll do it your way for now."
Walter heard the sheriff tell his men to move off the porch, and the sounds of boots descending the steps.
"Hey, Walter. What's the kid's name?"
"Hell if I know."
"Can you describe him?"
Shit. Walter took a deep breath. Somewhere Harvey'd borrowed some brains.
"Skinny. Nine or ten. Brown hair. You want to know the color of his socks?" Walter peeked out the window. The sheriff stood behind the driver's side door of a blue on white police car. Two deputies in helmets and vests, one holding a shotgun, the other a short rifle of some kind, waited behind an old oak. A female officer stood next to a barrier keeping curious neighbors from getting too close.
"You mean the Richards boy?"
"Yeah, that's him." Walter wondered if maybe there was a way out.
"Can't be, Walt. He and his mom are standing behind the barricade down the block. I can see him clear as day."
Seconds later the dining room window shattered, and the front door sprung open. Tear gas filled the room. Walter raised the pistol, but a boulder of pain struck him in the chest before he could pull the trigger. He fell to his knees, then collapsed ear first to the floor. One hand pressed against his chest. That stupid Malcolm. If only he'd followed the plan.
A lone officer entered the house wearing a gas mask and holding a rifle to his shoulder. He hollered through the mask. Walter could only groan in response. He watched the officer inch toward him. Walter tried to reach for the deputy, but a sharp pain stopped him. He grinned and let his hand fall to the floor. He wouldn't need the operation after all. It was just as well. He hated hospitals.