An excerpt from Scoundrels, an anthology edited by Gary Phillips (available March 18, 2012).
In this arresting anthology you’ll read stories of gabbing grifters, brokers hedging big bets for the big take, schemers working the long con for the sure money, used car salesmen with golden dreams and dashed hopes, bent lawyers and their more bent clients, one-percenters hustling for that last half-percent, kind-hearted killers and the lonely-hearted who tell themselves any lie as they double down for the long count.
The anthology includes fourteen new tales from SJ Rozan, David Corbett, Reed Farrel Coleman, Brendan DuBois, Kelli Stanley, Tyler Dilts, Travis Richardson, Eric Stone, Bob Truluck, Pamela Samuels Young, Darrell James, Lono Waiwaiole, Seth Harwood, and Gary Phillips.
“Survivor” is an exclusive short story by Kelli Stanley from Scoundrels: Tales of Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes, edited by Gary Phillips.
Gordon Grazier shoved aside the large platter of untouched Eggs Benedict. He caught eyes with a willowy blonde holding three orders of pancakes and crooked his finger, eyebrows lowered. She distributed the dishes, smiling weakly at a family of tourists, and slouched toward Gordon’s booth.
“Yes sir? What can I do for you?”
She sounded Russian or Polish . . . some Slavic intonation. Gordon looked her up and down. Tits weren’t big enough to bother with.
“These eggs aren’t cooked.”
“I’m so sorry, sir, I’ll tell your waitress—”
“My shit-faced waitress disappeared. You fix the fucking eggs.”
“Sir, there’s no need to use profanity, I’d be happy—”
“You want profanity? These eggs are the fucking profanity. You know who I am?”
She nodded, already tired of the fight, scanning the room for the brunette who belonged to the section, the one who’d suffered the misfortune of taking his order. Gordon dug his back against the seat, pointing a long, hairy finger at his empty coffee cup.
“This over-priced dump’s got the worst service in New York. Get me some cooked eggs and coffee if you want to keep your miserable fucking job.”
The blonde woman stared at him, pale blue eyes unemotional. She lifted up the platter, walked back to the kitchen. A middle-aged Latino, thick around the middle, appeared at the booth and refilled the coffee, steam rising from the white stoneware mug.
Gordon licked the dry skin on his lips, tasting salt. Pulled out his BlackBerry.
8:18. The fucker said he’d be here at 8:00.
He glanced at the brown leather briefcase beside him. His practiced fingers ran over the phone. Email, voice mail, market ticker.
A whiny text from his ex-wife about the fucking Swiss boarding school. News from Roger on another interest rate hike. Sylvia, she of the tits worth bothering about, though the bitch wouldn’t give him the time of day—Sylvia and the report on the grace period lobby effort in California. Fucking Barbara Boxer and her fucking consumer protection shit. And then there were those unwashed moron losers dogging his path to work in the morning . . . he closed his eyes, envisioning himself holding an assault rifle and mowing them down in front of the bank. Occupy dirt, assholes.
Gordon sighed and sipped the coffee, ran a hand over the monogrammed briefcase as if to make sure it was still there.
In this world lived morons and smart people, the leaders and the led, those who ate and those who starved. Science, simple science, Darwin in action, just like those Darwin awards they gave every year. Did the deer get fucking protection from the wolves? Did anyone hold a gun to the morons in middle America to open up a credit card account with 30% interest?
He pocketed the smart phone, picked up the mug again. Opened his briefcase, shook out a Vicodin and an Ativan, popped the pills with another swig of coffee. The blonde waitress was finally threading through the crowded floor with a new order of eggs.
He grunted at her, picked up a fork.
“Get the spic back over here with coffee.”
She straightened her back, marched away like a Russian soldier-woman.
Gordon mopped the pieces of poached egg and English muffin in the Hollandaise sauce and shoved them in his mouth, eyes on the door, endless stream of midtown Manhattan traffic pouring from Grand Central Terminal.
So he was nervous. So he’d never been blackmailed before. But fuck, he’d worked his way up from the fucking mail room, passing Series 7 and his first job on the floor, earning his M.B.A. at night school, then finally his J.D. and the move to the top floor, the center of the bank.
Center of the fucking world.
He’d taken them down, one by one. Bill, Andy, Margot, Taylor—whoever stood in his way, until his way was clear, and he was where he was born to be.
Top floor center.
A skinny man in a faded blue jean jacket and Lee jeans slid into the seat across from Gordon. He was wearing sunglasses, even though the early morning autumn light was pale and weak, filtered through glass canyons and the red-orange shadows of ancient brick. His hair was dark gray, skin a deep, almost yellow tan, gray stubble carpeting his chin and neck. He smiled like a Sunday School teacher.
The thin man kept both hands in the pockets of the jacket. He murmured: “You’ve got the cash, Mr. Grazier?”
Gordon stared at him. It excited him in a way, excited him more than the sex he’d been buying. Even the underage whores lasted only a few seconds, novelty fading along with his hard-on. But this . . . this was danger, the kind he hadn’t felt in a long time. A challenge.
The Latino with the coffee appeared and refilled his mug. Gordon glanced up at him.
“Get me my check.”
The man with the glasses moved one of the hands in his pockets. His voice was soft.
“Couple of things, Mr. Grazier. My finger is resting on the trigger of a gun. I know how to use it. If you do or say anything I haven’t told you to do or say, I’ll kill you. I don’t care if I die. I fully expect to go violently, in fact, most likely at the hands of law enforcement.” He bent forward over the table, elbows akimbo, hands in his pocket, right hand moving slightly.
“Please remember, Mr. Grazier. I’m not bluffing.”
Gordon shivered, the thick hair on his arms standing up and rubbing against the pale pink cotton blend of his Tom Ford shirt. Life in high-definition, slow motion action, that sensation of excitement he hadn’t felt since his first big killing on the market, the insider tip he never told Bill about, the killing he made and Bill’s face when the securities commission agents knocked on his door.
He’d bought his first Porsche with the money. He remembered the smell of Bill’s old office, cigarettes and aftershave, putting his feet up on the desk. He remembered how the blonde with big tits sucked his cock like a lollipop, until he tired of her and palmed her off on Tony on the 15th floor.
Life was good then.
He tried to find the eyes behind the glasses. Too dark. The thin blonde arrived with the check. He ignored it. Opened his wallet, threw a twenty on the table, stood up.
The man with the glasses stood up, too, and said in a low voice: “Walk out with me, just a little ahead. Turn left toward 40th.”
Gordon stretched, smirked at the man in glasses. Some bozo with a complex, one of the morons he’d spent a lifetime taking down. For now, he’d play along, enjoy the thrill. And when the time was right, he’d trip the fucker or even get his knuckles dirty and punch him in the face. Then he’d grab the gun and get the evidence, and then he’d make a couple of phone calls and make the prick disappear.
Too bad he couldn’t get his own reality TV show.
Sometimes he really resented his anonymity.
He pushed past the other patrons in the crowded restaurant, swinging the briefcase, the man in the sunglasses on his elbow. Shoved open the thick door and hit the wall of New York noise, a man from the Ivory Coast trying to sell tour tickets, an Indian hawking the Times. Shoeshine stand full of middle-aged men smoking cigars, sidewalk cigarette smoke thicker than Chanel No. Five.
Gordon turned left. The man in the jean jacket was taller but not in the kind of shape he was in. He’d kept himself fit, plenty of racquetball and tennis and golf. Some of his best tips came through the racquetball courts at the club.
The man in the jacket nudged him. “Go inside the QuikPark. Seventh floor.”
They entered the low, dark building, following the faded “pedestrians only” lines on the cement floor. Gordon punched the elevator button, waiting beside a redhead drenched in gold and a 60ish businessman in Brooks Brothers. Everyone stepped into the elevator, smell of piss rising up like steam from the grates outside.
The blackmailer nudged him again, and his finger snaked out and hit seven. Gordon was glad he’d taken the Ativan. No panic attacks, not for him. He didn’t need a fucking pill to control any situation, but he liked how it helped drown out nagging voices. Too bad it couldn’t drown Jill and her fucking whiney-ass pleas for more money. Swiss fucking Boarding School . . .
He shook his head. First things first. Get the moron monkey off his back.
The brunette and the businessman got out on four. Gordon tried not to breathe in the acrid smell of piss, mulling over which mafia connection he’d call to dispose of the nuisance at his elbow. The smell was making the thrill wear off.
They stepped out. The taller man pressed behind him.
“White commercial truck, five rows to the left, fifteen cars down the middle.”
Gordon walked slowly, pulse racing, body tensed, sound of their footsteps echoing around the cement pillars and quietly waiting cars. He ran a hand over his thinning brown hair. Jumped slightly when the lights flickered on in a truck ahead and the horn made a ‘beep-beep’ sound. It was a cutaway van cab, commercial class. Green graffiti scrawled over the white container.
The man behind him said: “Go to the back and open it.”
Gordon hesitated, stepped to the rear of the truck, balancing the briefcase in his hand. No fucking way was he going to get in the back of a truck with some fucking nutcase. Blackmail was one thing, kidnapping something else. He turned around.
“Take the fucking money.”
The man with the sunglasses shook his head. “We’ve got to get someplace safe, Mr. Grazier. You need to get inside. Don’t worry, there’s water in there.”
Gordon tried to see the eyes again, see past the straight-lipped, stoic line on the other man’s face. He grimaced, the words hissing between his teeth.
“I’m not getting in the fucking truck. Take your money now or forget it.”
They were on a row with a wall to their backs and empty cars to the right. Women’s voices raised in greeting from the other side of the floor, no one nearby. The blackmailer sighed and withdrew a Glock 17 and showed it to Gordon, holding it in his right hand. His left hand stayed inside the pocket.
“Don’t make me use this on you, Mr. Grazier. You’ll be sorry later.”
Gordon looked back and forth between the pistol and his adversary.
“Go ahead and shoot—somebody’ll hear and call the cops. You already said you want to take me to some safe place which means you won’t kill me. Your game’s over. You’re fucked, bozo. Fucked.”
The man with the sunglasses nodded. His left hand jerked suddenly, and a loud siren shrieked from the truck, echo exploding through the garage.
Gordon grabbed at his ears and dropped the briefcase, mouth open, dizzy from the sound and shock. The gray haired man in blue jeans lowered the pistol and pulled the trigger. Gordon felt himself flopping backwards, spine hitting the steel bumper of the truck. He crumpled to the floor, clutching at his leg, blood between his fingers, mouth still open and mewing, saliva dripping from the corners.
The siren hit the walls of his brain, around and around, and he thought he heard sobbing and the sound of a truck door scraping open.
The last thing he remembered was being hoisted up and shoved inside a dark, warm place. Then the scraping again and finally the siren stopped, and it was dark and warm and he fell asleep.
Daniel pulled off I-80 at 153, heading for the Moshannon State Forest. He could circle back down and refill in DuBois, white truck and green graffiti invisible in the east and west bound traffic rushing through Pennsylvania, searching for a job, a home, a safe place to raise kids.
Like the Joads, he thought.
Rebecca would have quoted from the book. All he could remember was the movie with Henry Fonda.
He hit the accelerator, careful to keep just under the speed limit, and rolled down the car windows a few inches, enough to catch the smell of sun on hickory and beech. Dappled green, warm, mild day for October.
Cherry trees, birch trees, chestnuts, all rushing past the window, small byways winding toward Parker Dam State Park, white-tailed deer and wild turkey, beavers gnawing the conifers. Fresh cool scent of water from Parker Lake, kids digging in the beach, chasing each other while the blonde lady watched, smiling, her husband at the grill.
Daniel turned off on Mud Run Road. Exactly three cars had passed him going south, and one car was behind him. It continued on 153, and he breathed out, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. He eased the truck into a pull-out and sat staring out the window, hands still on the wheel.
A year’s worth of work, finally over. The execution took nearly a month by itself.
Last one, last one.
Rebecca would be mad at him, he knew, for going underground, for disappearing, for stopping the treatments, for doing what he did. But he had no choice. They’d never had kids, and this was his legacy. To her. To America.
Daniel took off his sunglasses and stared ahead, eyes unfocused, windshield dusty and stained with the crushed bodies of insects. He sat unblinking in the sharp light of the autumn sun, his skin creased and wrinkled, his cheeks sunken and prematurely old.
Her face shimmered with the light in the trees, blonde hair sun-yellow, blue dress sky-blue.
“Soon,” he whispered. “Soon.”
Gordon woke to the smell of a Big Mac and an intense, throbbing ache in his right thigh. He opened an eye.
A dim fluorescent light from the ceiling made him blink rapidly. He was still in the back of the truck, a brown sleeping bag beside him along with a paper bag from McDonald’s. He twisted his neck to the left. The man in the jean jacket was shooting him up with something.
Gordon watched, eyes wide, as the blackmailer slid the hypo into his arm. He tried to scream, to shout, but the gag in his mouth choked him, and his legs and wrists were bound with nylon rope.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Grazier. This is just a painkiller and a sedative. I gave you a flesh wound.”
Gordon tried to yell, to call him names, to shout, but the white cotton handkerchief in his mouth made him sound like the fucking Elephant Man, he, Gordon Grazier, King of the Put-down, Count of Profanity.
Top floor center . . . survivor.
Gordon closed his eyes and thought about surviving. About what he’d do to the fuckwad that shot him. About the pain the fucker would feel, and the pleasure, the intense pleasure, inflicting such would give him.
The thin man in the jacket spoke again. His eyes were watery blue.
“I’m going to slide the gag off so you can eat. I’ll also untie the knot on your right arm. Your phone is back in the parking garage in New York, Mr. Grazier, so please don’t try anything and make me shoot you again. It’ll spoil everything.”
Gordon twisted his neck around, checking his surroundings. His briefcase wasn’t in the truck either. The bastard had both him and the money. He’d better act now, before the sedative kicked back in. He’d probably been doped since this morning, which was . . . how long ago?
The blackmailer crouched over him to untie the gag. Gordon eyed him, timing it, then suddenly shot upright with as much force as he could muster, his head slamming the thinner man in the lower jaw. A pair of false teeth and spit sprayed out, and the man in blue jeans fell backward, blood spewing from his mouth and nose.
Adrenalin kicked in for Gordon now, and he inched his way down the bed of the truck toward his kidnapper, thigh and buttocks muscles tensing despite the pain, heels digging into the truck floor and propelling him forward. The shoe rubber made a repetitious, high-pitched squeal against the truck bed.
The crazy fucker was dazed, blood drenching half his face, eyeglasses dangling off one ear. Gordon was sweating. He wriggled toward the pocket with the gun and heaved himself into a sitting position with a groan. His long fingers inched closer toward the goal.
Then the other man groaned and slid away from him, the soft cotton fibers just out of his grasp along with the Glock. Gordon froze. The other man was breathing hard, coughing.
“Why—why’d you have to do that, Mr. Grazier? Now we’re going to be late, and that’s not fair to the others.”
Gordon’s pulse pounded against his skull, still throbbing from the head-butt. What the fuck kind of crazy was he dealing with?
The kidnapper sighed, breath rattling. Small groans peppered his movements as he groped for the false teeth and found them, inserting them with a couple of clacks.
“All right, Mr. Grazier. I’ll still take off the gag, because the truck is soundproofed. But you’ll have to eat the hamburger off the floor, because I obviously can’t trust you to follow my instructions.”
Gordon felt the man’s warm breath on the back of his head. The gag loosened, and he started to spit it out. The kidnapper reached an arm around to the front of Gordon’s face and pulled down the rolled up white cotton to his neck. Gordon gulped the stale air, still humid with sweat and blood.
“I’ll leave this Big Mac unwrapped. You’ll have to scoot yourself backward and eat it on the floor. There’s blood on it, but that can’t be helped.”
Gordon started to hunch himself backward like a worm. Maybe if he ate something, he’d figure out what to do. Figure out how to kill the motherfucker and get out.
The blackmailer pulled himself up to his feet.
“I can’t give you water, either. You really messed things up.”
Gordon blinked repeatedly, licking his paper-dry lips. His voice was a croak.
“You got the money. Why’re you doing this? You want more?”
There was blood on the bastard’s boots. Maybe he’d overlook it, and someone would ask questions. Fuck, Gordon thought, I’m depending on other people. Strangers. His body was starting to shut down, the sedative kicking in. He struggled to keep his eyes open.
The blackmailer’s voice sounded like sandpaper rubbing wood, far away on a carpenter’s bench.
“You wouldn’t understand, Mr. Grazier. You didn’t know Rebecca.”
He bent down to pick up a first aid kit. Gordon tried again, the truck dimensions bending and curling around him.
“Maybe I did. Maybe I did know her. Maybe I know you. What’s your name?”
The blackmailer stared down at him in silence. His voice, when he finally used it, heavy and sad.
“My name is Daniel. Go to sleep, Mr. Grazier. We have another few hours ahead.”
Daniel pulled over after Ann Arbor, gas tank full from a fill-up at a Phillips 66. Took the 9 Mile Road off 23 and drove around Whitmore Lake, finally coming to a rest at Lakeview Cemetery. It was dark, and the moths danced hysterically in the truck beams until he felt sorry for them and shut off the headlights.
Frogs from the water, a couple of dogs barking in the distance.
Too late for fireflies.
He opened another McDonald’s bag and bit into a cold Big Mac. Twisted the cap off the bottle of water and washed down the meat and bread. Leaned over Gordon’s briefcase to reach the glove compartment and flopped down the lid, plucking out an orange prescription bottle. Straightened up with a wince, read the label under the cab light.
His hands shook as he pushed and twisted the cap, pouring out two of the pills. He threw both of them to the back of his throat, washing them down with the rest of the Dasani water.
Daniel breathed in and out, in and out, while the tears pooled under his eyes and ran in rivulets down his cheek. He curled forward, prying out the wallet in his back pocket. Caressed the worn, faded leather, and opened it to the center.
Photo of a blonde woman in her fifties, plump but fit, wearing fishing gear.
The thought came in a stuttered sob, washing him in tears that never subsided, a misery never broken, and they dripped down the jean jacket and blue work shirt while his narrow shoulders hunched and he cried and he cried.
Remembered when she told him the news, remembered the shock and despair and anger, then the determination to fight.
Remembered the insurance letter cutting off her coverage, and the doctor with kind eyes who helped them apply for Medicare.
But it wasn’t enough. It was never enough. And he remembered how the jobs had been sent to China and Korea and India, and how everyone was leaving home, and he’d had faith, then, he’d believed in America, believed in the American Dream. He was a good man, Daniel, and a good worker, his wife was the smart one, fifth grade teacher, thank God for their union coverage.
He remembered how they fought and how it wasn’t enough. Because then he got sick and ran out of benefits.
That’s when they turned to the credit cards.
How proud they’d been of their credit. Gold American Express cards and Platinum Visas and Rebecca was smart, she never fell into the game of big screen televisions and new lawnmowers.
No. The credit was saved, and they used it for him. And still it wasn’t enough, but she was hanging on, Rebecca was, a tough Michigan lady. He’d sing “Saginaw, Michigan” for her and make her laugh, even when she wasn’t strong enough.
But then the downturn happened, what all the news people called a recession. Hell, they’d lived with recession for years in Freeland, Michigan.
This was different, though. The interest rates went way up, and all the grace periods were gone.
They changed the rules.
It was their game.
He traced the lines of his wife’s face with a bent finger.
The medicine was starting to work now, and he felt strong enough to go on, to finish the job.
He hoped she wouldn’t be too angry with him.
The light hurt Gordon’s eyes. He blinked rapidly, tried to speak but felt the gag in his mouth again. The crazy fucker was standing over him with a flashlight.
“Try to stand up, Mr. Grazier. I’ve cut the rope around your ankles and feet. I warn you again, and please believe me: if you try anything, I’ll shoot you, and this time I will kill you.”
The dope made Gordon too sluggish for fear, but he believed the man in the thick eyeglasses and jeans. He rolled over on his face and grunted, pulled himself up slowly, his right leg stiff and painful and swollen. Beads of sweat poured from his forehead, neck and scalp.
The blackmailer’s voice sounded encouraging. “You need to get your circulation going. Stand up when you can. There’s a ladder down the back. I want you to climb it and wait.”
The words were muffled and strange, but Gordon managed to stand, and he tottered toward the open darkness. The light from the bed carried to the edge of the bumper, and he saw a two-step ladder propped against the edge.
A dark, wet smell blew into the truck, like fresh-churned soil. The cool air hit the sweat on his skin, and Gordon shivered, shaking off some of the drug. He opened his eyes wide and craned his stiff neck back toward his assailant. As if in reply, the kidnapper said: “We’re by Skidway Lake, in Michigan.”
Michigan? No fucking wonder. Yankee fucking hillbillies, crying over the car companies and the layoffs. Bile rose in Gordon’s throat. Shot or not, no assembly line moron sobbing about the fucking rust belt was going to take him out.
No Occupy Wall Street hippie, no fucking moron from Middle America.
He was a survivor.
He stretched, the pain helping him focus, and he hobbled down the ladder until his feet touched soil, securely under him. The kidnapper climbed down facing Gordon, the Glock in his right hand, the flashlight in his left.
Gordon made guttural noises through the gag. The thin man spoke quietly. “I’ll remove your gag in a few minutes.”
He pointed the flashlight ahead to a small cabin. Gordon could hear the sound of lapping water, the croak and hum of frogs and insects. Daniel spoke again, voice soft.
“Walk up to the door of the cabin.”
Gordon’s deerskin Prada loafers slid on the damp soil, but he righted himself, making a strangled noise in his chest. He groped in the thick, humid air for support, his hands finally hitting the rough wood of building.
Daniel gestured with the light. “Go ahead. I already unlocked it.”
Gotta play for time, Gordon thought. Crazy fucking bastard. His head was on fire, and he stopped to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. Daniel waited patiently. Gordon finally turned the old steel knob.
Daniel pushed him forward a few more feet, Gordon almost falling, and pulled the door shut behind him.
Gordon lowered his head and charged the other man, knocking him down on the dirty wooden floor, felt his bladder empty at the rush, urine running down his leg. The flashlight fell out of Daniel’s hands and rolled away with a grinding sound. Gordon grunted and grappled with his kidnapper, his forty pounds of extra fat and muscle finally paying off against the older, thinner, kidnapper.
Fucking Michigan fucking hillbilly, thought Gordon, he’s gonna pay, he’s gonna pay, ’cause I’ll do him myself . . .
Daniel couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, the heavier man on top of him, groping for the gun.
Then Rebecca’s face, and a soft breeze caressed his cheek, a soft touch guiding his hand to the wound in Gordon’s leg.
Daniel reached up with three extended fingers and dug them in as far as he could.
Gordon screamed through the gag, grabbing for his leg with his right hand, lifting weight off Daniel and allowing him to slide away and pull out the Glock.
He heard Daniel ready the pistol, breath coming in gasps. Gordon rolled over on his back, rocking back and forth, wound bleeding again, sweat pouring down his face, the piss cold and wet and sticky against his skin.
The flashlight fell on his contorted face. Daniel stood in front of him, blood flowing again from his mouth. He reached toward the back of Gordon’s head and untied the gag.
On the floor, and quieter now, Gordon felt thumping through the wood, heard a dim, distant noise. He yanked the gag down, still breathing hard. Looked up at Daniel, voice a rasp and for the first time . . . fearful.
“What the fuck do you want from me?”
“Justice, Mr. Grazier.”
Gordon shook his head. “You one of those bank haters blocking traffic? You think Wall Street’s fucked you in the ass? What have I ever done to you?”
The flashlight shone steadily on Gordon’s face, until he had to raise an arm to shield his eyes.
Daniel’s voice was low and resonant. “You killed my wife.”
Gordon tried to stand up, tried to reason. He wasn’t used to reasoning with people.
“Listen, uh, whatever you said your name was—”
“Yeah, OK, whatever. Daniel. I don’t know who you are and I never met your wife, but whatever your, uh, your problem is, I’m sure we can work it out, you know what I mean? I mean I got a lot more money, got some in Swiss accounts. Name your price, OK? I just want to walk away. That’s all I want, to walk away—”
“It’s time, Mr. Grazier. I told you we were going to be late.”
“Late for what? Listen, maybe you got me mixed up with somebody else, and I don’t know anything about your wife and I sure as hell don’t know how you found out about that hooker, but I mean it—I’ll give you the numbers, you let me walk. OK?”
Daniel waved the gun in the air. “That was an underage girl, a runaway. And it was easy to find out about her, Mr. Grazier. You don’t feel guilty, so you didn’t try to hide anything. But it’s time, like I said. Walk toward the middle of the floor.” This time he waved the flashlight.
The room felt large, a little dusty, and as close and shut tight as a tank. Gordon limped into the dark space, caught glimpses of windows boarded up from the inside, two by fours and sheet metal.
“Go sit against the wall—over there. Face me and keep your hands up.” The flashlight illuminated one of the boarded up casements.
Gordon slowly turned toward Daniel, who stood in the middle of the floor. He grimaced, a moan escaping his lips, as he slid down into a sitting position.
“Hands up, Mr. Grazier.”
Gordon raised his hands above his head.
Daniel knelt down by the edge of a thick, dirty rug, the gray industrial type. He flipped up the mat to reveal a thin open line in the scarred wood, with a padlock and bolt in place on a trap door. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a set of keys on a Ford keychain, then placed the flashlight on the floor, aiming it at Gordon’s legs. With two hands, he jerked open the padlock. Gordon didn’t move.
Daniel lifted the door up with a handle, and walked it backwards, lowering it to the rug. His eyes flicked toward Gordon every other second.
Finally, he picked up the flashlight and gestured with it toward the dark hole in the middle of the floor.
“Climb down, Mr. Grazier.”
Gordon was getting dizzy. Sweat dripped in his eyes, and he blinked. Fever from the fucking bullet in his leg. He’d have to see where the crazy one was going. Fight him one more time, last stand.
“You got any water?”
Daniel shook his head. “I told you, we’re late. There’s water downstairs.”
Gordon limped toward the trap door as Daniel backed away. “I can’t see anything.”
“A light will come on automatically.”
Gordon started to walk down the ladder, facing the room and Daniel. He led with his left leg, but once his right leg slipped and he yelped until he steadied himself with his arms. As if in response, he heard the same muffled noise from earlier, a little louder. He descended five more steps and a light clicked on from below.
He reached the bottom and turned around. The basement was damp and larger than the shack on top, about 1,000 square feet. It was divided in half by a wall with a scratched metal door in the middle. It looked like some kind of building, riveted together with layers of sheet metal and thick pieces of wood over a concrete foundation. An odor of excrement and urine rose on damp air.
There were sounds coming from behind the wall.
Gordon turned wide eyes toward Daniel, who was stepping down the stair-ladder facing him. The portable flashlight was upstairs, and Daniel gripped the back of the ladder with his left hand, the Glock in his right.
“Move aside, Mr. Grazier. Toward the door. That’s it.”
Gordon felt a growing, crawling horror as he limped toward the metal door and heavy wall, the basement spinning, sweat drip-drop, drip-drop in his eyes.
“That’s it, Mr. Grazier. Stand in place. You can brace yourself if you’re too dizzy. I told you I didn’t want to shoot you, that it wouldn’t be fair, but you left me with no choice.”
Blood was still dripping above Daniel’s right eyebrow. He wiped it away with the arm of his jacket and pulled out his keys again. The metal door was scratched and orange with rust, covered with two heavy padlocks and a chain.
Daniel unlocked each one, checking afterward to make sure that Gordon was resting against the sheet metal of the wall and not tensed and ready. He’d been hurt far too much collecting him, but Gordon was the last, the final piece. The jewel in the crown, Rebecca would say. She always liked the British stuff.
Daniel slid off the locks and the door open. A fetid smell, wet earth mixed with algae, sweat, piss and excrement, rushed into the basement, nearly gagging Gordon. He coughed.
Daniel flicked a light switch and a blurry, pale yellow slice cut into the darkness. There was a scurrying sound, then a shout and a hoarse yell.
“It’s not the police. They’d have identified themselves.”
The answering voice was low and thick, the rumble of a fat man.
Daniel stepped back and hurriedly gestured toward Gordon to step through the opening. Gordon’s feet obeyed, his fever playing mind tricks. That’s what this is, he thought, Bill finally getting even, the stupid fuck. Gordon blinked, stumbled over concrete, choking on the bile in his throat. He was in.
Daniel pulled the door shut and leaned against it. The room was long, rectangular, with two bulbs hung on an electrical cord at each end of the room. A wooden barrel stood in one corner next to a nearly empty plastic gallon water jug, and torn McDonald’s bags littered the concrete floor. On the opposite end was a portable toilet, spilling over with human waste, a couple of half-dead flies buzzing around the seat.
Gordon rubbed the sweat out of his eyes, still getting used to the dim light, and looked around. The sheet metal walls were covered with that gray eggshell soundproofing stuff he’d seen in recording studios . . . all except one side. On it hung a large board, with a framed photo of a fat blonde and newspapers and other paperwork tacked up beside it. All the tacks were yellow.
He turned toward his left. Two men were staring at him. A forty-odd year old blond with matted hair, wearing a torn Dolce and Gabbana suit, and a fat silver-haired man around sixty in dirty golfing clothes. They were sitting on the cement floor.
Daniel spoke to the two men on the floor, nodded toward Gordon.
“This is Mr. Gordon Grazier.”
The blond wrinkled his forehead. “The banker? Used to be a big-time stock broker, right? I read about you in Forbes.”
Gordon felt oddly gratified. If only the world would fucking stop spinning.
“Who are you?”
“His name is Scott Towson. He canceled our health insurance.”
The blond was thin, twitchy, pale, scratches on his hands, fingernails bloody. Gordon became conscious of the piss on his legs again, blinked and tried to wake himself up.
Towson was pleading, voice raised to a scratch high-pitch. “I told you, Daniel, that was not my doing, I’m really, really sorry about your wife, but it’s not my fault—”
The fat silver haired man wheezed, spoke tiredly. “Save your breath, Towson. Won’t do you any good. I’ve been here longer than you have.”
Daniel turned toward Gordon, spoke conversationally. Gestured with the gun at the fat man.
“Robert Wheedleton. He moved my job to China. Lots of jobs.”
Wheedleton ignored Gordon, peered up at Daniel.
“What’s this one supposed to have done to you?”
Daniel was silent for a moment. Then his voice cracked, and he met the eyes of the fat man on the floor.
“He killed Rebecca.”
Towson glanced at Wheedleton, his fingers and hands twitching and shaking. He hoisted himself up using the wall behind him. Wheedleton remained sprawled on the concrete, the mass of his body spread out like soft cheese.
The blond man bit his lip, tried again. “We’ve been reading about her, Daniel, while you were gone, until we ran out of matches and lighter fluid. I can help you. I know I can’t bring her back, but if this man murdered her, why not just deal with him? Why not let us go? I told you I can get you all the money . . .”
Daniel’s voice was quiet, the gun trembling but aimed at the man.
“Shut up, Mr. Towson.”
The thin man sank down to sit next to Wheedleton. Their eyes followed Gordon, who was reading the cork board on the wall.
Obituary in newspaper. “Rebecca Atkins, 56, was found dead of a self-inflicted wound on October 7th. Mrs. Atkins was suffering from breast cancer, and it is believed that depression over this and the financial strain caused by her illness were responsible for her suicide. She is survived by her husband Daniel, who is currently undergoing treatments for prostate cancer . . .”
Letter. “We regret to inform you that your coverage will not extend to the drug recommended . . .”
Photograph. A man in a hard hat, smiling, rows of sheet metal behind him . . .
A small form, small type, barely legible, lots and lots of words. Something about Notice of Rate Change and Payment Information.
Gordon took a few halting steps toward Daniel. His mind felt surprisingly clear.
“You’re going to kill us, aren’t you?”
Daniel shook his head. “I’m not a killer. You three are, that’s a fact. You killed my job, you killed my wife. You, Mr. Grazier, were the last hope we had. You’re a bank. You’re supposed to be like Jimmy Stewart at Bailey’s Savings and Loan, you’re supposed to help people get on their feet. You hold the money and you make a fair profit. But after the bailout, you kept changing the rules. You took the money and didn’t pass it on. You just wanted more.”
His voice broke, but the gun was steady in his hand.
“Rebecca couldn’t handle it. Couldn’t keep fighting.”
He gestured toward the barrel in the corner, addressed it to Wheedleton.
“You still got water?”
Towson spoke eagerly. “We’ve got water, yes, thank you, Daniel, but we need food, we ran out of the hamburgers about two days ago, and I’m sure you don’t really want to kill us, so if you just tell me how much money you need—”
“I don’t want money, Mr. Towson. I told you that already.”
Daniel began backing toward the ladder. He spoke to Gordon but didn’t look at him.
“Join the others, Mr. Grazier. Sorry about the gunshot, I told you it wouldn’t be as fair as I wanted it.”
The metal room was spinning again, lines of motion blending with the photo of the blonde woman and the two men huddled in the corner. Sweat poured down Gordon’s cheeks, and he stumbled into the wall.
“What’s your game, Atkins?” Wheedleton’s voice was slow and furred. “Starve us to death?”
Daniel reached the edge of the door and turned to look at the men, at the photographs and paper and letters and pamphlets and promises on the wall.
His tone was soft and measured.
“You know, I got to thinking about what you’ve been doing. To me, to Rebecca. To a lot of people. You all believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and top dog wins the race. Top dog lives. So you devour people like me and Rebecca.”
The blond Towson, breathing heavily, chattered again, desperation making his voice higher. “Anything you want, Daniel, anything at all, just please remember, I tried to help your wife, I tried—”
Wheedleton smacked him with a heavy arm. “Shut up.” The silver-haired man looked up at Daniel, asked again: “What’s your game?”
Daniel studied each of them in turn, the fat Wheedleton in golf shoes and dirty Polo shirt, the thin, red-nosed Towson, the feverish, balding Grazier.
“I figure I’ll leave the lights on, should make it easier for you. You got plenty of water, and somewhere in this room is a hunting knife. You could last, maybe, until somebody catches up with me. At least one of you could last that long.”
He glanced at Gordon. “Sorry again, Mr. Grazier. I thought you’d have the best chance of anybody.”
Daniel’s hand was on the door. He crossed himself and said: “Let justice be done.” Then he swung it shut.
The others heard the sounds of the locks clicking into place.
Gordon felt the others’ eyes fall upon his leg.
Him, top center, top dog.
Daniel burned the jean jacket in an outdoor campground off I-80. He’d wiped off the boots, no sense in getting rid of them.
Daniel wiped the sweat off his head, and turned on the FM music station. “Take Me Home, Country Road” was playing. He’d always liked John Denver. Rebecca used to love him.
He smiled at the photo in his wallet, laying open on the seat beside him, and picked up the map. The money in Gordon’s suitcase would last awhile. Long enough to find another place, maybe, build another bunker.
Washington, D.C. was only ten hours away.
Take Me Home, Country Road . . .
Copyright ©2012 Kelli Stanley
Kelli Stanley is an award-winning author of crime fiction (novels and short stories, including “Memory Book.”). She makes her home in Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco, a city she loves to write about.
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