Tag Archives: Short Fiction

Underbelly

THE VISTA CLAIMS my attention until suddenly I feel something wrong with my steering. I top the last rise going up the mountain on a left hand curve. It’s there that I feel a jiggle that shouldn’t be. For a time, while enjoying the beauty of my new Porsche, I let some business problems distract me. I’ve been driving on automatic pilot.

I step on the brake. Soft. WTF? I push harder and they sink to the floor. I didn’t need brakes going up but I would soon.

I’d smooth powered up to the seven thousand foot mountain pass in my new Cayenne going faster than I should. I always go too fast, but I believe speed limit signs reflect outdated 1950’s thinking. As I look for a place to stop, my active brain derails and I ruminate about speed in the 21st century.

Cars are better these days, better rubber, better brake linings, better steering, more safety gadgets and most highways are super good out west. They can handle speeds in excess of the posted limits every day of the week. And I love big, powerful engines. I seldom see a driver doesn’t agree with me.

I know the Man could kick those limit signs up to meet today’s conditions, but they wouldn’t. Lower speed limits slows drivers down, not for reasonability, but for fear of being stopped by Enforcement. More important, they represent a steady source of revenue for the town or State and a good revenue stream means a fat surplus; the golden grail of government. It demands of governors and legislators to spend it for the people and I expect it lines a few pockets for the clever ones.

I oughta know.

Okay. I’m thinking all this extraneous shit while I reach for the emergency brake with my fingers crossed. It works. Up ahead, a dirt and stone vista pull-off. I yank it up and veer onto this outlook built to handle half a dozen cars. The emergency brake stops me easy. I don’t think about it that second, but I do later on. I leave the brake on, shift into Park and shut the engine down. That’s ‘cause I’m reacting.

Then I think about it. I sit very still. I draw a few deep breaths. Okay, it scares me some because I’m already analyzing the whys and wherefores. When nothing happens and my heart gets back where it belongs I open the door. I leave it open.

First thing I gotta do, check under the car. The slight angle of the gravel parking area is okay. Just to be safe, I’ll kick up stone against the downside of each wheel.

I look around. Great view, mountains and valleys and the best fresh air in the world. Boulder sized rocks line the perimeter of the parking area. A sign at one end, vandalized by teens looking for a statement to make against the status quo says, “Danger – Drop Off.” Maybe that takes care of the Stupid Factor…I dunno. Lot of stupids out there.

For me, I wouldn’t blame the Man if I did something dumb like fall off a cliff, but then I think of that woman who spilt hot coffee in her lap and sued the restaurant. Then I think about the jury from another planet that gave her the big reward. What, she didn’t order hot coffee? She didn’t know it would be hot? She didn’t cause her own problem?

I shake my head. Back to now. No one in sight. I study the terrain. Could anybody be parked out of sight? A couple hundred yards or so are clear. I listen carefully. No mountain echo from cars laboring up the pass. Okay, nobody close. A fluke? I shake my head again. No fluke. You don’t get to run a gaming empire by believing in the Goodness of Man.

Something’s going on and I gotta find out. I got enemies who do bad things to people. Before I get out, I unlock my glove box and take my friend Mr. Badass Glock Nine in hand. I grab an extra hollow point magazine and pocket it.

Now on the ground, I take off my Armani jacket and walk it to one of the distant boulders, fold it carefully and set it down. Back at the car I lower myself to the ground and crawl under. Yeah, what I thought. Steering bolts loosened and the bottom of one lateral brake line same. Nice job. Fluid all over the place, but it wouldn’t be evident to the driver, especially one heading into the mountains. This Pro wanted me to be far away from anything before symptoms began and knew I’d be on my Reno run today.

I check for wires I don’t think belong. Yeah, right there. I trace them up into the engine and under the dash beside the cable bundle. My mind is working overtime. I want to kill a rival and send a message, what would I do? Blow him up’s a good way. Get rid of him somewhere far away with minimum collateral damage. Send a strong message to his loyal few.

It’s cool at seven thousand feet. I dust off and put my jacket back on. From what I can guess, I figure the Pro packed the engine with explosives. I reach in my pocket and finger my key, thankful that I never, ever leave my car with the key in it. In Las Vegas it’s a great habit to have.

I stand and listen again. Still clear. I walk across the road and lie down in a deep runoff ditch. I click my remote start.

Holy shit! What the hell did they put in the engine! The car goes up like an IED. I’d be in pieces Humpty-Dumpty with a map couldn’t put back together again.

Back to work. I get up and dust again from habit. Time to find a place to hide. I have an idea. The Porsche burns fiercely, but enough shattered bulk remains to hide behind if it cools before I get company. That will be my first line of offense. Now I walk back to the edge where the sign warns idiots not to get too close.

Drop-off, all right, but to the side of it where the slope graduates to a sensible angle, I see a possible hiding place safe enough so they can’t see me and close enough to get off a few good rounds. Glad I have no fear of heights. Below my second choice the mountain drops away about a thousand feet.

That gives me another idea. Very few patrols come over the mountains in summer. That I interpret to mean that the next car or truck to appear will be my “friends.” I want to welcome them in some fitting way.

I settle into the little declivity and put my ear to the ground. Nothing yet. I visualize probably two assassins seeing the cloud of black smoke rise above the foothills. I picture them smiling and cracking each other on the back and imagine a conversation.

“Let’s go,” one would say. He’d finger his gun.

“Boss wants me to bring back a piece,” the other one might say. He’d laugh.

I had it. Aaron Brustein, he’d be the one. Sneaky bastard. He would be elsewhere preserving his alibi. I wait a minute. His goons can’t be far away now. I put my ear down again. I hear a sound, faint but growing. I take the safety off the Glock. The car has stopped burning, but heat radiates at me. They’d be coming up the hill soon.  Do I dare chance it?

I’m not a coward and I don’t like people trying to kill me, so the whole thing really pisses me off. I move from my hiding place to a spot behind the tail of the Porsche. Smoke and heat rise straight up. It’s hot, but I can take it.

Perfect. I wait, gun in hand. I feel the fifteen shot magazine in my jacket pocket. Not likely I’ll need that. One chance, that’s all I’ll get. My lip curls in part of a smile. It’s all I’ll need.

My guess, the one who wants a piece of me will be riding shotgun. He’ll get out, gun in hand while the other looks front and checks his mirrors. Driver will have a gun, probably stashed on the center console, but convinced I’m dead, he’ll leave it there. Even in his hand, he’d be so close I couldn’t miss. I’ll plug “shotgun,” and then empty the magazine at the driver. It’ll be a cake walk.

I hear it plain now. A black Suburban crawls over the last rise. It pulls in and stops twenty feet from the smoking remnant. I sit on my haunches waiting. The car sits there for a long time. My legs start to cramp. Not now, I tell my body. Through a tiny window created by torn metal, I see the door open slowly. Figured. Brustein’s boys all right, Alonzo and Skippie. Alonzo gets out. He’s arguing with his partner.

I catch Skippie saying, “He’s dead. C’mon Alonzo, get back in.”

Asshole never had balls.

“Uh-uh,” Alonzo says back, “You know what the boss said. I gotta check. Some part of him is here. Make sure, he says.”

“Christ! Check then. I want to get out of here.”

Did I guess it! Alonzo gives him a look of contempt and moves away from the SUV, his eyes searching. Ten feet from the Porsche, I stand from behind my cover and shoot him, chest and head. Without waiting to see what damage I did, I turn to the Suburban and empty my Glock at the front seat, all thirteen remaining shots. I try to miss the front windshield. I do. Practice pays.

I hear a pitying cry and the big car starts to move. Idiot kept it in gear and his foot on the brake. What a rabbit! That’s my ride! I bolt from behind my cover and run at the big car. The passenger’s door is swinging shut and the Suburban is heading for the drop-off.

I grab for the door and catch the handle. I’m running sideways trying to keep my feet while yanking the door. It opens and I stumble but I’ve still got the door. I swing onto the high step and plunge onto the seat. Skippie is slumped with his head out the driver’s window. He’s covered in blood. He’s not my problem anymore.

With a hand I kick the shifter into neutral and yank on the emergency brake. The SUV crashes against the boulder but stops. I jump back out onto gravel and stand there transfixed, lungs heaving from unaccustomed effort. The boulder, dislodged from its place, moves out into space. It tumbles and disappears. I listen for several seconds until I hear it hit and the sound gets back to me with an echo not far behind.

I listen again. Dead silence. Much better. I check out the front damage on the big vehicle. It’s drivable. I finally get out my cell and call Captain John Levine, my contact with LVPD. I outline what happened.

“I’ll cover this end,” he says. “What are you going to do now?”

“Me? I’m going hunting.”

Lannie Mae

Lannie Mae Richards for many years had embodied the rock upon which her family stood. Raised in a God-fearing household, she carried those lessons through her life and taught them to her children. She broached no compromise with the laxity she saw in “moderns,” as she called them. Now, for the first time in her life it appeared she would have to let others help her do what in her mind anyone could do with ease.

She’d fallen again, not to the floor, but against a filing cabinet. No one would have noticed except, curse it, she yelped. Stella, the Office Manager, heard her from the other side of the room and called to her.

“Mrs. Richards, you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she’d said, but by then Stella had crossed the room and Lannie Mae couldn’t pretend. Hurt like the dickens. So did her ankle. She wondered idly what she’d managed to do to that.

Stella helped her to sit on a nearby swivel-chair, and turning, said over her shoulder, “I’ll get your son,” and ran out of the room.

“No, no need,” but by then the lady had disappeared toward the president’s office. In thirty seconds, Lance appeared, assessed his mother’s situation and said, “We need to talk.”

All conversing done, today she sat in a wheelchair with a drab brown, careworn shawl around her shoulders; her favorite shawl and she didn’t care who knew it. With her head bowed, she waited for her son Lance to finish registering her for a suite of rooms at Brandywine, an upscale assisted living facility not far from the factory.

Tired in body and spirit, she didn’t want to come here. Nonetheless, she alone made the decision to apply. She gave Lance no voice in her decision. Her oldest son argued and even pleaded, suggested they would keep her at home, but in her mind being out of sight would take pressure off her family; the right thing to do. They would not have to live daily with a fear that at a wrong moment, she would miss a step and perhaps break something serious and permanent.

The wheelchair in which she sat spoke silent volumes about her pronouncement. She’d volunteered for a placement, insisted on it. She’d sprained her ankle, hence the wheelchair.  The bruise on her shoulder, black and ugly, meant nothing. Now the facility doctor had her records and silently studied them.

A hairline fracture of the hip, mended, but fragile in the extreme with extensive osteoporosis the doctor mentioned briefly as he reviewed her x-rays convinced her. She asked the doctor when that happened and he looked at her curiously.

“You don’t know when it happened?” he asked.

“Would I ask if I knew?”

“You’ve forgotten.”

“Doctor, I’m in this world eighty-seven years and I forget nothing.”

“That’s astounding.” He didn’t believe her, so he waited.

“Life is filled with pain, doctor. I take it as it comes. Sometimes it hurts. I can think of a dozen times I could have broken something and sometimes I did, but the exact event that caused what you just told me is mixed up with some labor or other and therefore meaningless. I don’t have time to rest on my laurels. Work waits for no man. Doesn’t wait for me, either.”

The doctor looked quizzical, but had nothing more to say so he gazed at Lannie Mae’s son and Lance nodded.

“Well,” the doctor said, “I can do nothing for you, except to caution you about doing too much. I’d like you to remember that your body won’t take the strain you’re determined to give it and if you don’t ease up, it’ll be worse next time. Our Administrator will arrange for all the assistance you require.”

A couple of days before, at home, she had him make the calls that brought her here, she’d told Lance how she felt.

“I’m tired of the looks I’m getting. Stella follows me around like a pup and I know what she’s doing tailing me. You take me to Brandywine now,” she said. “You and your siblings can visit as often as you want or not, Lance. The business is more important than I am.”

“That’s not true, mother.”

“Thank you for that, but you know well enough it’s true. The town will disappear if the mill stops producing. You don’t want that, do you?”

“No, mother,” Lance sighed.

The mill earned millions and it was the family’s fortune – and burden – to have begun operation in the mists of the past and through good stewardship, caring managers and contented workers that it continued.

The brass plaque affixed to a large boulder at the side of the long drive to the facility proclaimed Milltown Textiles – 1740, mutely but proudly. It started on a shoestring like all ventures had back then. Men carved a place out of forested woods. They knocked down trees, moved rocks and blasted when the terrain wouldn’t give up to Man’s design. They built dams and waterwheels and other things with hands that sometimes bled. Their blood washed away in each rain, but their monuments of civilization stood and grew.

The clever and driven worked long hours and paid attention to business and they succeeded. Their survival took many forms two hundred and fifty years ago, but they never compromised the drive to better themselves.

A quarter of the population of Milltown owed its existence to the mill and the rest of the town relied in some measure on the people who produced products everyone needed. Food, clothing and shelter were the basics of life after which all other things followed. Milltown Textiles provided one of the three. Stores sold merchandise that flowed daily from the big warehouse doors and trucks rumbled through the town to distant destinations. Milltown Textiles made life good.

Lance Richards ran the multi-million dollar business, making decisions all day long, but he couldn’t get a thought in edgewise where it concerned his mother. Up to now, she’d been a constant presence that hung over everything. With the gut feeling that his mother’s life and that of everyone she had touched for the past seventy years must now change by her simple act, he completed the paperwork and held a clipboard for her signature.

She looked the documents over carefully, her half glasses low on her nose. Pointing at a place, she asked a question and another, reviewing thoroughly. Finally satisfied, she signed with her unique scrawl. Lance handed the clipboard back to the doctor.

“Mother, the nurse will take you to your rooms. I have to get back to the mill.”

“Of course,” she said, and patted his hand.

Lance kissed her on a proffered cheek. Always in control, he thought. Brandywine, you are all about a new experience with Lannie Mae Richards.

“I’ll check on you tomorrow. That special shipment has to get out and I have some paperwork the shipping supervisor needs on my desk.”

His mother waved at him dismissively. The corner of Lance’s mouth turned up in a quirky grin. Just like her.

As he left the building, he made it a point not to look back, an inbred and now involuntary habit of life. Outside the door, he lost the grin and allowed his brain to be assailed with the multitude of problems command generated. He focused briefly on his mother. Mother knew the score. She knew he could handle it. In fact, Lannie Mae had passed the mantle seconds ago. She’d never say it, but by taking herself out of the loop, she’d ratified his position as de facto president. He now truly ran the company.

At Brandywine, Lannie Mae looked up at her nurse’s aide.

“Show me my rooms, Margaret,” she said. “You play poker?”

Turning Point

“What’s in a year?” she asks me.

Strange question coming from nowhere. I look up. She’s young, not that young, but younger. And pretty. I’m not dead.

Everybody’s younger than me, seems. She’s wearing jeans; designer, naturally; and a tight tee shirt accentuates her jut points. She’s a bottle blond. Oh well.

I think all you need to become common is do what everybody else in your crowd does. Wonder if she knows that.

It’s late in the day, the sun about to set, and you can look at it through the clouds. I’d been trying hard not to think and succeeding, up to now.

This young woman sits down on the park bench a few inches from my butt. She looks at the ducks a few feet away and then at me. I give up trying to be alone.

She’s probably bored, and me, I’m staring out at ducks waddling toward the pond. Nothing is moving fast. Nothing has to. There’s me, there’s nature. There’s the end of another nothing day. Now there’s her.

I sit with hands in my pockets, stretched out, slouching like I do. Thinking of how I am makes me smile. I do stick my hands in my pockets. Thinking about it makes me wonder why, and of course I have the answer. I take my hands out of my pockets and they flop around, turn over, get cold, stuff like that. Besides, I’m obsessive-compulsive.

I do this interruption in my semi-existence a favor.

“Depends,” I say.

“C’mon, it’s a good question.”

“Really good,” I say. She’s pulling me up. Don’t get annoyed, Donnie.

“How old are you?”

“Seventy-five.”

“You’re shitting me…”

“Nope.”

“You don’t look it.”

“That’s what they all say.”

She grimaces.

“Last time somebody asked me that they thought I was thirty-eight.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Twenty-five years.” I cup my hands around the sides of my face and grin. “What you think?”

“You already told me, so it’s not fair.”

“So what would you think?”

“Fifty-five?”

“Youthful?”

“Until I look close.”

“They say that, too.”

“So I won’t look close.”

“That’d be good.” I don’t want to like her, but I might.

“What’s your name… Levi?”

I laugh. It’s light. I’m getting into it.

“Nope.”

“What?”

“Donnie.”

“I’m Mary.”

“Did I want to know?”

“We’ll find out. Why are you here? No, wait…tell me a story,” she says.

“Sure. You want a Once Upon a Time…?”

“No, not that. Tell me about you.”

“Classified. If I tell you, I have to kill you.”

“You’re so dangerous looking…” Her eyes grow wide. She’s torking me. I do like her.

“You see these hands?”

“Sure.”

“Me, too.”

“Funny man.”

“Not too,” I say.

“I’m fifty-five,” she says and now I look at her. Well preserved.

“Why are you hanging around with an old guy?”

“You’re my pigeon.”

Alarm bells? No, I’m sitting on my wallet. “Okay, I give. What?”

“Tell me that story?”

“Uh uh, you first.” Okay, I’m interested. My wife dies three years ago from the cancer. The news has been bellyaching about a big ozone hole over southern Australia and how you got to protect yourself all the time or you’re going to get the cancer. Shouldn’t have happened to Abby. She was only sixty-two. Too young, but cancer doesn’t care.

Yeah, I’m over it, but life isn’t the same. There is something to say about being your own person, looking out for no one but you, but not much.

“I was just released from the Capehart Psychiatric Institute in Sydney.”

That changes things. I look at her with fresh eyes. She does not exude any signal I can catch and I’m trained to it. If I do tell her my story, the real one, I mean, I think it’ll blow her socks off.

I’m thinking that whatever her reason for being incarcerated in that famous place, it must have taken well enough. Like I say, I pick up vibes very quickly.

She has my attention.

“Ten months,” she says, “and out I go. No drugs, no insanity in the family, no thoughts of suicide, no closet skeletons. Clean bill of health.”

Like I say, she’s got me. “Okay, why that approach? It takes some getting used to.”

“Dr. Ryder said it would.”

“Ryder, huh.” Steve Ryder. I went to lower and middle schools with him. Then his parents decide that City College isn’t good enough for their extremely awesome son and send him to Cambridge. I stay in Adelaide and get mine in Psychology. I am retired comfortably enough until Abby passes, then I get my tough time.

So that’s where he ended up. “Did he sic you on me?”

“What do you mean?”

“This Dr. Ryder.” She doesn’t understand and I’m not talking until I figure out what’s going on.

She looks troubled. She glances around like she’d said something wrong. I wait for the other shoe to drop.

“Maybe I should tell you then.”

“What?”

“The real reason I stopped by you.”

“I think you should.”

Just then I hear a sound behind me and I turn in time to see Steve Ryder walking toward me, white hair, unwrinkled gray suit, white striped shirt and subdued tie, spit-shined leather shoes, looking fit, although leaning ever so slightly on a cane.

My feet come under me and I vault from the bench.

“Steve, you old son of a bitch, what are you up to?” We shake hands and hug and Mary looks on. She doesn’t know what to think.

“Mary, would you step away for a moment. I’d like to explain something to this man.”

Yes, doctor.” Mary moves off to the water and stands gazing at the last blush of day. She doesn’t seem offended.

Ryder turns to me. “Donnie, I heard about Abby and I’m sorry. I was conducting an experiment. I still have friends in Adelaide and I knew you came down here to sit every few evenings. I wanted to test out Mary’s readmission to society skills on a stranger, but one where I thought I could talk my way out of a situation if one arose, if you know what I mean.”

I remain silent, withholding judgment.

“I want to ask you, in particular, if you noticed anything abnormal about Mary’s presentation, any vibes.

“No.”

“That’s great. Mary has a new implant that helps keep her balances in check. I watched from a distance and I was more than pleased with what I saw. You being in a position to discern deeply only made the experiment more spectacular and convinced me that it’s going to work.”

“Thanks…friend.”

“Don’t be mad. It’s for science.”

I sigh. He has me there. I wasn’t being taken for a fool and I’d found Mary quite interesting and attractive. I hadn’t felt a need to do anything but grow old and die in my time. Tonight I met someone who might reverse my thinking. Selfish? Sure. I only half lived at this point. Maybe there’s more to come.

“Okay, I’m good. I will get you back some day.”

Steve laughs good-naturedly.

“Mary,” Dr. Ryder calls. Mary walks over.

“Mary, meet Dr. Don Brownson. He and I went to grammar and high school together. I used him as a test subject relating to the social reprogramming work I’ve done with you. He had no knowledge of what I was doing, so you can both claim innocence.”
Mary’s brow un-crinkles. She looks me in the eye and smiles. She has a beautiful smile and her eyes are clear and untroubled. I make an unusually quick decision.

“Mary, after we get rid of this interloper, what say you and I get a spot of tea? I know a nice café. I want to hear the rest of your story, and I’ve got one for you.”

Mary’s smile increases and she almost glows.

“I would love to, doctor,” she says.

“Donnie, please.”