Sunday, July 25th, 2010 | Posted by: R.J. Keller
MARCH 10, 2007 3:58 A.M.
Rick rubbed his eyes wearily and reached for the Marlboro reds, soft pack, on the kitchen table beside him. He ran his thumb along the cellophane wrapper. He liked to feel them in there before he lit up. It was comforting. His own band of silent soldiers, ready for battle. Stephanie’s pack of menthols sat neatly on the small, battered table beside the sofa bed where she lay sleeping. She preferred her cigarettes in a box. They looked, to him, like a coffin.
He set his lighter down hard, hoping the noise would wake her up. It did. She sat up quickly and croaked, “What time is it?”
“Four,” he said, then took a long drag from his cigarette. He blew it out with, “A.M.”
She nodded and lit a cigarette of her own. She was only twenty-three and still looked it, but he gave her another five years, tops, before the smoking and booze caught up with her face. The almost-white blonde she used to color her hair wouldn’t improve matters any. Not that it mattered to him. In five years she’d be long gone, probably with a couple of snotty noses to wipe. And none of the noses would look like his.
“Rick…you’re sure you’re ready for this?”
“Yeah. Everything’s packed.”
“That’s not what I meant.” She regarded him for a moment, but didn’t give voice to her fears. She didn’t need to. Instead she chuckled and pointed to his head. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”
He ran his hand over the stubbles where his hair had been. She’d shaved it off for him the afternoon before. “You won’t have to get used to it.” He crushed his cigarette out, half-smoked, then noticed her hurt expression. He managed a kind smile. “I mean, it’s gonna grow back.”
She smiled back, relieved. “Oh.”
He waited until she finished her smoke before he walked over, flopped down beside her and pulled her on top of him.
“Rick, you know we don’t have time for that.”
“Sure we do,” he said, slipping off her night shirt.
“Steph, just…come on. I need it this morning.”
He really did. He was already starting to hear Wendy’s voice, as early as it was, as relatively sober as he was. He had a feeling she was going to be with him all day and he wasn’t sure, yet, if that was a good thing.
She gave in, of course, just like she always did. Just like they all had. But even as she took him inside of her, he knew. They were marking time. He gave her a month, probably less than that, before she was gone. And he didn’t care. She was just another body, just another face, just another cunt. Just like all of them had been. All except for one.
So he held her close, buried his head between her breasts, and dreamt of dark, soft, chocolate-colored eyes.
Rick shivered, then flipped the collar of his jacket up against the biting wind as he stepped outside. He didn’t look around him, just followed Steph’s boots. The high wooden heels clink-clonked against the cold asphalt as they crossed the street toward the liquor store. Neither of them spoke until they reached the door. He tilted his head down, away from the security camera, as he asked, “Are you ready?”
She didn’t sound it. “It’ll be fine, Steph. Just like we talked about.”
He pulled the door open and followed her inside.
The place was empty—it was a Saturday morning and most of the regular customers were still sleeping off last night’s revels—except for the store’s owner, Shannon Kinney. She was standing behind the counter, arms crossed, scowling, waiting for them. She was lean and tough, in her early-forties. Her hair reminded Rick of old pennies. She studied his face for a long moment. Then she moved on to Stephanie’s and shook her head.
“Look, doll,” she said. “My cameras don’t pick up any sound, and they aren’t exactly state-of-the-art. But if you look scared—like you do right now—instead of pissed, they’re sure as hell gonna pick up on that.”
Steph sputtered something unintelligible, then looked to Rick for reassurance. She was always looking to him for reassurance, for approval. It’s what he was counting on. He nodded and said, “She’s right.”
Shannon snickered. “Come on. Don’t tell me you’ve never been pissed off at him before. You can play off that.”
The truth was, she’d never been more than mildly irritated with him. Or at least not that she’d ever shown. He sighed and put his hand on the back of her neck, rubbed it gently. It was something he knew she hated. She shuddered at his touch and flung it off.
“That’s more like it,” he said. He replaced his hand, squeezed a little harder this time, and turned his attention back to Shannon. “I need a pint of Senator’s Club. And a pint of Allen’s for my girl here.”
Steph’s shoulders tensed up at his words, and his stomach gave a brief, sickening roll, but he kept his eyes focused firmly on Shannon’s. He noticed, not for the first time, that they were more grey than green. He wondered if there had ever been a time when they’d been happy. He couldn’t imagine it.
She bagged up the whiskey and coffee brandy, then turned her attention once more to Steph. “When you run out of here—hey! Don’t look at me. Look at him. Remember? You’re mad at him right now. Okay, that’s better. You’ll be on camera until you’re about halfway across the street. But keep acting like you’re pissed anyway. Even after you get to your car.”
She nodded up at him almost imperceptibly. “And remember,” he told her, “when you drive off, you need to keep on going until you hit the apartment house two doors down from the intersection. The empty yellow one. Pull over there and wait for me.”
“I know. You told me a hundred times already and—”
“Steph, come on. You gotta do better than that.”
She gave him a good scowl. “Well you shouldn’t have woke me up so early. I’m still a little hung over from last night and now I’m tired, too, and—”
Shannon laughed loudly. “He got you up early to fuck you, didn’t he?”
Steph started to turn toward her, but Rick grabbed her by the arms and said, “No! Look at me. At me.”
“You know he wasn’t thinking about you when he was doing it, don’t you? He was thinking about her. About his wife. At least that’s who he was always thinking about when he was fucking me.”
She was enjoying this, he could tell. Even without looking over at her he knew it. “Shannon,” he said, without turning away from Steph. She was staring up at him with pale, hurt eyes. “I think that’s enough.”
“You fucked her?”
“Steph, no, I—”
But Shannon wasn’t going to let him get away with the lie. “He ever call Wendy’s name out loud while he’s coming?”
She’d pushed the right button. Because, of course, he had. Steph wriggled away from him and let out something that was almost a screech. Then she slapped him hard across the face.
“Jesus Christ!” He rubbed his cheek, surprised. That hadn’t been part of the plan.
“That’s a good girl,” Shannon said. “Now get the hell out of here.”
She did, without another word. Rick watched out the window as she ran across the street and fell into her car. The tires squealed as she took off down the road. It was possible, he knew, that she’d just keep on going, and then what would he do?
“You know something, Shannon? You’re a real bitch.”
“Yes I am. But I’m gonna keep your ass out of jail, aren’t I?”
“Yes. You are.”
“And she wasn’t doing her job. She needed to cause a scene for the camera, and I got her to do it. A girlfriend who’s pissed at you is a much more reliable alibi witness than one who isn’t.”
“And a girlfriend who’s too pissed off to lie for me won’t do me any good at all.”
“She’ll be fine, Rick. She isn’t going anywhere. Right now she’s sitting right where you told her to go and she’s gonna tell the cops exactly what you tell her to say. She’s got it for you too bad, poor thing.”
He sighed and handed her a twenty, then grabbed another ten from his wallet. “Throw in two packs of cigarettes while you’re at it. One of mine and one of hers.”
“Already taken care of. There’s a bag in the back seat of her car. Cigarettes, a fifth of cinnamon whiskey and a couple packs of cinnamon gum.” He stared at her blankly, so she continued. “I put it in there last night.”
“You know won’t be able to make it there and back without something strong inside you. The cinnamon will hide the smell of the whiskey if you get pulled over. Just pop a few pieces of the gum in your mouth and—”
“How did you—”
“This stuff—” she slid the bag across the counter at him “—needs to make it back your apartment if this alibi is gonna work. They’ll need to find the empty bottles. So don’t forget to drink it or dump it by tomorrow morning. And for God’s sake, don’t forget about it and leave it in her car. Or in that other woman’s truck.”
“Fuck off. I’m not an idiot. Now, how did you get into her car?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re kidding…right?”
That got a quiet chuckle out of him. She gave him a hint of a smile. It had been awhile since he’d been with her. Maybe a year? More than that? He could only remember that it was a week after her daughter died. She just showed up at his door, unannounced. They spent the weekend drinking and fucking. Then she left. She didn’t talk about it the next time he came into the store, which was just fine with him. And she hadn’t been back. That was good, too. But he could tell she was thinking about it. And he wondered if there was a chance…
“Don’t even think about it,” she said. “Especially not now. You know you have to stay with that girl after this is over. At least until she decides to bail. You can’t be the one to send her packing. Not this time.”
He only nodded. He knew that much. And he didn’t think it would take her long to leave. She was already getting weary of him. There was a guy at the diner where she worked who wanted her. If he could start gently pushing her in that direction in another month or so, he might not have anything to worry about. Her guilt for leaving him could keep her quiet about what was going to happen today.
“And you’ve got the gun.”
“Just drop it in the—”
“I know where to drop it, Shannon. It’s my goddamn plan. Remember?”
“Yeah. I just want to make sure you do.”
“Well, I do. And I really gotta go. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday. Can’t open till nine.”
“But I’ll show up at six. Just for the camera.”
She nodded and watched him silently as he picked the bag up off the counter. She waited till he was almost to the door before saying, “Rick…”
He had to clench his jaw to keep the irritation out of the “What is it?” he threw back at her.
“Make sure you get this asshole. Okay? And I mean get him good. None of this shooting-him-in-the-head bullshit. ”
He nearly dropped the bag at the words, but managed to grab hold of the bottom in time. He didn’t turn back to look at her, though. He couldn’t. The queasiness was back. Even his head was swimming with it. And for the first time he wondered if he’d actually be able to go through with it.
“I want him to suffer, Rick. I want him to suffer. Do you hear me?”
But he said nothing. He just walked out the door. Out into the cold. Out to face the day.
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