Wheels of Death: Part 3
Dear expats and readers,
This is the third installment of Wheels of Death — an adventure crime novel that follows Jimmy Stout from the deserts of Texas, to Mexico, Thailand, and beyond. I am releasing it in a serialized fashion. You can find the first installment here and the second installment here.
The story left with Jimmy finding himself in the middle of nowhere by a town called Pittsburg, Kansas, by a gas station ran by a guy who called himself Big Cory.
Cory’s nephew, Ace, picked Jimmy up and got him a place to lay down his head and freshen up, before taking him to a strip joint at the edge of town. That’s where things took an unexpected turn, and the cartel that Jimmy knew was after him showed up to settle scores.
Special Note: If you missed it, I put out the first dispatch on the New Lords of Asia series, which looks at the rise of crime bosses in modern Asia. The first dispatch concerns itself with Zhao Wei. You can find that first installment here, and you can expect the meaty follow-up installment later this week.
Lilly landed safe, her feet planted in the mud. She huddled down and took cover beside the barn. That’s what I wanted to see.
Now my situation wasn’t as easy. Ace was on the ground and the guy dipped in black was on top of him. They wrestled for control of the shotgun. Ace’s revolver was kicked over to the corner of the room closest to me. This was my chance.
I ran to the revolver, scooped it up, and kicked out the cylinder: fully-loaded, six in the chambers. Before the guy dipped in black knew it, I had the cold steel trained to the back of his head, which was covered with a black knit cap. He froze for a second, long enough for Ace to roll out from beneath him. The guy dropped face-first to the ground, his arms stretched out flat above him, his two hands gripping the 12 gauge impotently.
The guy sputtered out some Spanish, all I could make out were the words Dios and muerte — God and death. I let him make his peace, then I steadied the revolver with tight fists and pulled the trigger. The cylinder turned, the hammer fell back, and the round fired true into his skull.
The scene was messy. I didn’t want to look at what I’d done. There was no honor in this, but whoever this guy was would’ve killed me if I didn’t drop him first.
I kept my hands wrapped tight on the grip. I turned around and saw Ace sitting on the ground, his back to the wall. He lit up a cigarette and looked down and away from me.
“I’m keeping this,” I said.
“Yeah, go ahead, partner,” Ace said. “It’s all yours.”
Gunshots rang out from downstairs. There were others. At least two more, one with a shotgun, the other with a semi-auto rifle.
I didn’t have time to grill Ace about what this was all about, or why he came up here, and what his deal with me was. It was a lot more than what I could process right now. I just smoked a guy dead, there were others downstairs, and if I didn’t get out, I’d be next.
I kept one hand on the revolver and steadied the aim on Ace. I spotted Lilly’s purse on the nightstand beside the bed. Everything in there like you’d expect, I rifled through it: three different lipsticks, a makeup mirror, car keys, a Zippo, a bundle of cash, an iPhone.
I zipped up the purse and tucked it under my arm.
“Call me later on Lilly’s line,” I said. “It seems we have a lot to discuss.”
Ace blew out a stream of smoke then took another drag. “You got it, Jimmy.”
“How did you know my name?”
Ace just laughed. “Get downstairs. There’s a back exit if you take a left down the hall. I think they’re all in the main stage room.”
I stooped down and picked up the 12 gauge from the dead guy dipped in black. Then I checked the chamber. “Three slugs. Enough to get you out of here.”
“Reckon you want one of these.” Ace kicked out another smoke from his pack and flicked it my way.
I dropped the smoke into the purse, I’d wait until I was free and clear of this situation before enjoying it.
I left the room and shut the door behind me. The chaos downstairs rumbled on. An orchestra of screams, gunshots, broken glass. I stepped down the stairs like a ghost, slow and quiet, until I got to the ground floor. I looked to the left and spotted the red glow of the exit sign.
My legs wanted to dash to the light, but my brain had second thoughts. There could be a guy posted up by the door. These guys struck me as pros, and if they were who I thought they were, they’d be prepared for anybody with the idea to run out the back.
Two options. Test the back exit, or make my way through the carnage unfolding in the main stage room. I could hear two distinct guns firing off in the main room. The advantage there was the chaos. More people trying to get out alive meant more moving targets, which decreased my odds of being one of them.
Unless they were after me. And there was a good chance that was why these guys were here.
The guy dipped in black upstairs spoke his last words in Spanish. I’d bet anything this was a cartel job.
The back door it was then. I’d take my chances there.
I shuffled backwards to the electric red light of the exit sign, with the revolver trained on the door to the main stage room just in case I had a visitor.
I made it to the door and put my ear up to it. Silence outside. I stooped down into a crouching position and pulled the door handle. My strategy was to shove the door open while crouched down so that if anybody fired on me without a line of sight, they’d miss high.
“Here goes nothing,” I said.
I counted down to three and shoved the door. It flung open and I drew in my breath, holding my finger steady on the trigger of the revolver, not knowing what I’d find out there.
All I could see was the corn field next to the barn. I peaked around the door. Nobody.
I was out and free.
I took a moment to catch my breath, then I dug in Lilly’s purse for the Zippo and the smoke Ace bummed me. I sparked the cigarette and took a deep drag.
I closed my eyes and a million thoughts raced through my mind.
How did they find me here?
What did Ace want with me and Lilly?
Where do I go next?
The nicotine slowed the barrage of questions. I killed the cigarette and flicked it off into the night.
Then I took a closer peak at what was inside Lilly’s purse. I looked at the car keys first. They belonged to a Toyota, older model. Something small, I reckoned.
Next I pulled out the wad of cash. About $500 in small bills wrapped up by a red rubber band. That’d get me far enough away from this place until I could gather my bearings and make my next move.
“You going through my bag?”
It was Lilly. I turned to the right and there she stood, swaddled in that white bed sheet.
“I’m taking the cash and the keys,” I said.
“And you’re taking me.”
I rubbed my forehead and thought about it. This broad was in on something. I had questions for her. Mainly about Ace and why he came up to the room and asked us to make it right in front of him. I couldn’t trust her, but I didn’t have a choice. I needed answers.
“You can tag along,” I said. “Just for awhile, until I can figure out where to drop you. Now where’s the Toyota. We need to split.”
“I parked in the back.”
The gunshots were sporadic now. They must have cleaned up the entire club. There were twenty people inside when I arrived. No way any of them lived through what just went down.
I peaked around the corner of the barn. It was clear.
I grabbed hold of Lilly’s arm and dragged her with me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the bouncer, his body laid in a quiet heap.
Lilly pulled away from my grip and darted ahead to her Toyota. It was a rusted out, two-tone, late 90’s model Corolla. I caught up to her and dug around her purse to find the keys.
There was no more time to waste. I unlocked the driver’s door and told Lilly to get in. She cozied up in the shotgun seat. The starter sounded sick and when the engine turned over it wheezed like a fatso who just ran a mile.
I pulled the rust bucket around the lot and headed to the road. As I drove past the entrance to the club, a man stepped outside.
He moved like white marble in the night. More handsome than Adonis under the flashing neon lights. He was tall and dressed sharp in all black. I caught a glint in his eye right before he laughed. It was a howling laughter, like a monster who bottled up all the pain and horror from the souls he just departed and spewed it back out.
I could see in his eyes that he knew who I was. There was a knowing between us. Whoever this was, he was my enemy, and I knew deep down that our paths would cross again.
I pressed my foot down on the gas and pulled out onto the country road. Without looking back we disappeared into the pitch black.
The Kansas countryside was flat as a slice of white bread. The road was long and didn’t have an end. The two of us sat together in radio silence. We both had questions, neither of us had good answers for the obvious: everybody at that club was dead.
I didn’t want to say it. And by the look on Lilly’s face, she knew it, but couldn’t bring herself to say those words either.
“It’s warm tonight,” Lilly said. “Summer air in Kansas. It reminds me of home.”
The conversation tapered off back into the nothingness, the dead quiet that sat between us, the silence that reckoned with the death that we just drove away from.
I drove on for another good five or six miles before Lilly broke the silence.
“What happened back there?”
“I’m asking myself the same thing,” I said. “That deal with you and me and Bambi up in the room, was that a set up? It sure seemed like it.”
Lilly turned away and stared out the window.
“Then all of a sudden things go tits up,” I said. “And there’s a whole other crew on the scene. You see that guy standing by the door when we left? You don’t know him, huh?”
“No, I don’t.”
“That’s right, I know you don’t. That must have been a surprise for you, huh? Didn’t expect those boys to show up like that.”
“Who were they.” She said it more as a statement than a question.
“Well, I’ve got ideas, but you haven’t answered my question yet. What’s your deal with Ace? You knew I was coming tonight, didn’t you?”
“I’m not a good girl,” Lilly said. “But I didn’t think he would do it like that.”
“Go on. Tell me what that was all about.”
“You’re going to hate me.”
I leaned over to Lilly and grabbed her by the chin, then turned her face to me. “I don’t even know you. What I want are answers. I don’t care about you either way.”
Lilly huffed in defiance and pulled away. Her chin drooped down and I could see the waterworks about to turn on. “You’re like the rest of them. You don’t care. You don’t care about anything.”
My patience at this point was thin as a cage of paper walls holding an enraged ape. “Cut the shit, now you tell me what the hell was going —”
“Ok, relax please.” Lilly’s demeanor flipped. She wasn’t sulking anymore, her tone was cheery now. “I will tell you everything. You know Ace, yeah?”
“I know him as much as you can get to know a man in a day.”
“I never wanted to work here, but I had to. It’s a long story. I don’t understand him, too. I try, but I cannot. He builds a wall between us.”
“What’s this got to do with me?”
“It’s a long story,” Lilly said. “I don’t know where to start.”
“I want to know everything.”
Lilly fidgeted and grew uncomfortable. She had a hard time saying anything else. We drove for another couple miles. I didn’t press her to talk, I gave her time and space. The best way to get a woman to talk, to tell the whole truth, was to let her relax enough to do so.
“I have a husband,” Lilly said. “Is it OK that we see him? I think me and you are leaving Pittsburg forever and I won’t see him again. Can I see him to say goodbye?”
That wasn’t what I was expecting. And it threw a wrench into things. I thought it’d be alright if she tagged along until I figured out my next move, then we could both go our separate ways. But she was hitched and now she wanted to say goodbye.
It’d be too risky to bring her along. If we were out on the road and she rang up her old man she could give away our location and blow any chance I’d have of getting away.
“Tell me the way.”
“Thank you so much.”
“Yeah, no problem. Now go on, tell me everything.”
“I’ll start from the beginning,” she said. “My husband is an old man. He’s seventy years old. And not healthy. I take care of him at his home. He’s a good man, but I don’t love him like you think.”
Another twist. Way older than I thought. That could change things. There was a slim chance that this dime piece was head over heels in love with an old geezer. I mean, stranger things have happened, sure. But she didn’t love him.
“So how’d you meet?”
“That’s a long story,” Lilly said. “Maybe boring for you.”
“If you’re gonna tag along with me, I want to know everything.”
I wanted to hear the whole spiel. For one, it’d take my mind off the bigger problems that I had. And for two, it’d help me decide whether to ditch her or not.
“OK, if you want,” she said. “I worked at a hotel in Chiang Mai. It’s a city in the north of Thailand. He would visit every few months and stay with us every time. I didn’t like him at first. He made me feel weird because he brought me gifts. Small things, like food from the market, crafty things. He knew I like to crochet, so he’d bring me yarn. This went on for a couple years, every three or four months he would visit, and bring me gifts when he stayed.”
“Slow and steady,” I said.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “And I warmed up to him over time. You know, he’s older than my father. I thought of him like an uncle. One day he asked me to dinner. I thought it would be rude to say no. He took me to a restaurant on the river. It was beautiful that night, I remember, it was during Loi Krathong, a festival in Thailand. In the north, we call it Yi Peng. The night sky is filled with lanterns and floating candles are put in the river. I felt romantic. My feelings changed that night. I went to his room. He won a piece of me.”
“That’s what you call it, huh?”
“It’s what happened,” she said. “He had a piece of me, and wouldn’t let go. The next morning, he told me he loved me. He said he would go back to America, but the next time he came to Thailand, he wanted me to be his wife. He told me I had three months to think about it. I was only 23 years old. I thought any place would be better than Thailand. And, well, here I am. Six years later and life brought me to The Kitties. He’s sick, you know. Bad health. He lost all his money to the hospitals. That’s when I had to get this job.”
“Ace got you the job.”
“Yes, he did.”
“You and Ace a thing?”
Lilly clammed up with this question. I hit a nerve, and it was raw.
“Did you hear me? Are you and Ace a thing?”
Lilly turned to face me. “I never loved Ace. I swear, I never did.”
“How can I trust you?”
“You can’t trust me,” she said. “Not any more than I can trust you.”
“Alright, fair. So you don’t love him, but he loves you?”
“If you can call that love,” Lilly said. “He controls me, that’s what he wants. I do what he says. Sometimes to keep him happy, sometimes to stay safe. If I knew what he was like before, I never would have took the job at the club. I never would have asked for his help. I hate Kansas. I want to go back home. I want to go back to Thailand. I made a mistake to come here.”
She was almost there. A little push in the right direction and she’d give up the info I was looking for.
“We’ll get you back to Thailand babe,” I said. “We’ll get you back home. But to do that, I need to know one thing. What does all of this have to do with me?”
Lilly looked up at me with eyes full of tears. They stayed in place, pooling up in the white corners of her eyes. Not a single one fell down her cheek. She kept it together for what she had to say next.
“Two days ago he told me about you,” she said. “He told me you were a very bad guy, and that he had you drugged up and asleep at his uncle’s gas station.”
“Yes, his Uncle Cory. Ace wouldn’t tell me why he had you there, or where you came from, or even who you were. He only told me you were very bad.”
Her words came out like a thousand puzzle pieces. My brain scrambled to put them together.
Ace had me drugged up at Big Cory’s station two days ago. He must’ve been the one that picked me up down by the road in Texas. But how did he know to find me there? Who sent him? And how did the cartel find me here?
“Is that all you know?”
She took a deep breath. “There’s more. If you hate me for this, I understand. Please, just don’t hurt me. I only did what I was told.”
“You’re fine,” I said. “Go on, just tell me what you know.”
“I heard them,” she said. “They were talking about you this afternoon before the club opened. There’s normally nobody there at that time, but I got there an hour early. I was putting on my make-up and that’s when I heard them. They were in the back office. Ace, the cop, and those guys at the table drinking the bottle of Jack Daniels. You know who I’m talking about.”
“I do. The peckerwoods.”
“Yes, they are bad guys. I think they know Ace from prison. Anyway, so I snuck back to listen. They argued about what to do with you. One of the guys wanted to keep you alive, I don’t know why. But the others wanted you finished. Ace said you were sleeping and that you’d be here tonight and that’s when they’d finish you.”
“Finish, that’s the word he used.”
“Alright, so now tell me straight. Your job was to lure me up to the room upstairs?”
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “Ace found me putting on makeup. He told me the plan. Me and Bambi were supposed to get you upstairs. Then he’d come up and finish you. He told me that you deserved it, that you killed a friend of his, and this was payback.”
I had no reason to doubt Lilly’s story. But one thing didn’t add up.
“So why did he want to watch me and you, well, screw?”
Lilly’s head hung in shame. “I don’t know.”
“He wanted you dead, too. That’s what he said when he came upstairs. He wanted to watch us do it, then he was gonna kill us both.”
“I don’t know,” Lilly said. “I don’t know.”
She kept muttering “I don’t know” under her breath.
We pulled into town. The streets were empty. Nobody in this sleepy burg was out past midnight. The car idled at a red light that took forever to turn. My patience was gone. I ran the light.
“Tell me where to turn,” I said. “I’m bringing you to your home.”
The town was all but dead. The quiet put me on edge. It felt like I was in the eye of a storm. I knew that I had to keep going, and when I did, I’d end up battling forces much stronger than I’d ever faced before. But for now, it was quiet.
Lilly played navigator, telling me where to turn. Pittsburg was a small town, so it didn’t take long to arrive.
I idled the rusty Toyota out front of the house. “Now get on,” I said. “This is the end of the road for us.”
“I don’t understand,” Lilly said.
“I’m leaving you here and I’m taking your car.”
“What do you mean?” she said. “I wanted to say goodbye to my husband. I want to go with you.”
“No you don’t,” I said. “You’re weak. If we’re out there on the road and things go sour the first person you’ll call is your old man. Then I’m screwed.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Of course you’d say that now,” I said. “Things haven’t gone tits up yet. So right now I want you out of the car.”
“No, please, I want to go with you. I will do anything. Anything you want. I’ll be your eyes when you’re sleeping, I’ll get us anywhere we need to go. I’ll do anything for you.” Lilly lowered her eyes down to the front of my jeans. “Anything.”
A taste of this broad would be nice, but it was the last thing on my mind. Fighting to stay alive took priority and she was dead weight.
“You gotta stay here,” I said.
She shook her head no. “You ever get the feeling that you’ve met somebody for a reason,” she said. “Well, I’ve got that feeling with you. I had a dream with you in it. Three nights ago.”
“It’s true. You were laying on a road with handcuffs. There were two cops. Bad cops. You couldn’t move. It was so hot on the road. There was a dog. A small dog, he was hurt. And when the two cops were about to kill you, you flew away like a bird. You were safe.”
“You just made that up,” I said. “Probably something Ace told you.”
“It’s the truth.”
“You didn’t tell me this before.” She was getting desperate, and desperate people could get crafty. I looked at her to see if there were any tells of a lie on her face. “And that was it? The dream just ended?”
“No, it didn’t end there,” she said. “You flew to me and picked me up and carried me far away to the desert. You pointed at a snake hole in the sand and we both crawled down inside of it. When we were deep inside the ground, a snake bit you. You almost died but I saved you.”
“That sounds crazy,” I said.
“It does. But I trust my dreams. I have a sixth sense. I have had it since I was a kid.”
I looked ahead through the windshield on the sleepy, empty road. Everything she rattled off about the two troopers, the chihuahua, and me being cuffed on the asphalt could be explained.
Between what Ace could have told her, or what was published by The Main Streeter, she could’ve easily pieced it all together. I even talked about the chihuahua with Big Cory.
“Nice try babe,” I said. “But get out of the car. Now.” I tapped the revolver, which I had sitting on my lap. She got the point.
“You’re making a mistake,” she said. “You’re gonna die if I don’t go with you.”
“Alright, humor me,” I said. “Tell me one thing about me that nobody else in the world would know.”
Lilly turned away and looked out the window. She rested her chin on her hand. “I know you have a daughter,” she said. “I know that you have big debts. I know that before you came here, something scared you. Not a human. A spirit, a dark spirit. You know what I’m talking about, I know you do. It’s following you now.”
My mind flashed back to San Malverde, the narco-saint figurine that Gomez had stuck to his rig’s dash. I could see its face as clear as day. For a split-second I thought I saw the figurine again, this time on the dash of this beat up Toyota Corolla.
He was following me.
“I think this is crazy,” I said. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“Just say yes. I need to leave with you. Please, take me.”
I grabbed onto her chin and turned her face to me. I wanted her to look me in the eyes for what I had to say next.
“I’ll take you, but I’ll tell you this. If you contact your old man when we’re gone, I’ll kill you, and I won’t even ask questions. I’ll just do it.”
Lilly nodded her head without saying a word. She was frightened but my threat wasn’t enough to stop her from wanting to leave with me.
“I want to say goodbye to my husband. Then we leave. Together.”
She had me convinced. At least for now. I didn’t know how the hell she knew about my daughter or anything else. Maybe it was a mentalist trick she was playing. Even so, she played it so damn well that I wanted to see what else she could do.
Maybe she could turn out to be useful after all.
“I want to talk to him, too.”
“OK, come inside. I need to pack my stuff. And I need a change of clothes. I can’t go anywhere in this.”
She was still swaddled up in that white bed sheet from the room at the club.
I parked the rusted Corolla in the driveway. The two of us got out of the car and Lilly unlocked the front door.
The house was built in the old Midwestern farmhouse style. Cramped, two stories, and ornate in a humble way. The old man had it decorated with photos from his travels, which took him through the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe. He was an army man, and he kept mementos of his time served. He presented them neatly above a stone mantle.
Her husband was zonked out on the living room recliner. A machine pumped oxygen through a gray tube to a CPAP mask that hung sloppy off his mug. His legs were bloated and splotchy with diabetes. He looked half-dead and I wasted no time in raising him.
“Yeah, yeah, who the hell is it?”
The old man sat up and looked around the room. He was blurry-eyed and disoriented from sleep. His eyes found me standing next to the recliner. The old man gasped in shock and put up his dukes as if he expected a fist fight.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” I said. “If I wanted that, you’d already be dead, old man.”
“Just like Charlie,” the old man said. “Sneak up on you in the night when you’re asleep. Cowards, man.”
I grabbed a chair from the dining room and pulled up a seat next to the old man.
“I won’t tell you my name,” I said. “And I don’t care about yours.”
“Lilly brought you here.”
“Well, it was my idea,” I said. “I’ll level with you. Me being here puts both you and I in a fair amount of danger. But I thought it’d be fair and you’d respect me more if I came.”
Lilly hid away in the kitchen. She perked her ears and listened to us two men talk.
The old man adjusted his recliner so his swollen feet could rest on the carpeted floor. His skin was cracked and ashen. Splotches of red covered his neck, arms, and legs. He had a sour, sweaty smell that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Not quite like death, but close.
“You want my Lilly,” the old man said. “I saw this coming. I knew I’d lose her one of these days. I mean, she’s a real flower, ain’t she?”
“That she is,” I said. “You’ve been a lucky man.”
The old man sat up and pushed himself up from the recliner. His hands caught hold of his walker and he took a couple steps towards the kitchen.
“Lilly, Lilly, you in the kitchen?” the old man said. “Make me a brandy amaretto, just how I like it.”
Lilly didn’t respond but I heard the clanking of glass and the cupboard open. The old man turned back with his walker and paced around the living room. He ended up at the sofa, which is where he sat down to rest. Lilly brought the cocktail from the kitchen. She walked by me with her eyes cast down in shame. She set the drink down on the coffee table so her husband could reach it.
“Thank you, babe,” the old man said.
Lilly fawned a smile, but it was nothing like the one I saw before at the strip joint. This one was certified fake. She disappeared back to the kitchen.
The old man sipped the brandy amaretto. The amber liquid dribbled down his chin and stained his white undershirt.
“Oh, I’m a rude son of a gun,” the old man said. “I didn’t have her make you one. You want one?”
“No, I’m alright,” I said. “I don’t drink.”
“Water, soda, milk?”
“Well, let’s have a chat then,” the old man said. “I’ll be honest, I don't have much time left on this green earth, and every minute I have is precious. I have no desire to hide the truth. You can see my condition. I wasn’t thinking straight when I brought Lilly over here to live this way. I don’t have the money to support her like she needs now, since my health went to shit, so she does it herself. On top of it, she takes care of me every which way she can. She gets my breakfast ready, my lunch, my dinner. She cooks my eggs just how I like them. Over easy with a lot of salt and pepper. A real good woman, they don’t make them like that anymore, you know?”
“I can tell that you love her a lot,” I said. “Hell, if I make it to your age, I’ll be looking for one like her, too.”
The old man’s face lit up with a big smile. Most of his teeth were missing. His dentures soaked in a cloudy solution by the TV.
“You know, I never got jealous with Lilly,” the old man said. “I know her line of business. Men go wild for her. She can have her pick of the crop, darn it. I never pried into her work, that was always her business. But I knew one day she’d find a good one and she’d be gone. I just didn’t see him looking like you, and I didn’t think he’d come by for a conversation. So tell me son, why are you here?”
I never was a guy who had trouble with words. Hell, I’d talked my way out of sure death plenty of times. But the old man’s candor disarmed me. I ran some words through my head, to make sure they would mean what I intended, before I spoke them. These words were meant for the old man’s ears. So I checked to see if Lilly was still eavesdropping.
“Hey Lilly, you there?”
She didn’t answer.
“I think she went back to the bedroom,” the old man said. “I heard the door shut.”
“Alright then, I want you to listen close,” I said. “And take everything I have to say seriously. After I leave, and yes, I will take Lilly with me, it’s very likely that somebody will come here to your home looking for me. Even if I did not stop here tonight, they would be here, so I thought it would be fair to you that we met and I gave you this warning. The men after me are no ordinary men. They are killers.”
“You’re talking about Ace,” the old man said. “He ain’t got nothing on me.”
“Ace? Well, he’s the least of your worries old man,” I said. “But yes, he will probably be by, too. And there are others who will be after me. Real killers. I can’t tell you where I am going, or where Lilly will go. I don’t want you to know anything, because if they torture you, I want you to die with a clean conscience. You’re an honest man and I don’t want to change that.”
The old man pursed his lips and nodded as he listened to my warning. He gripped his brandy amaretto the whole time. He leaned his head back on the sofa and took a sip from his cocktail.
“You know I was in ‘Nam,” the old man said. “I know what trained killers can do. I was never captured, but my brothers were. What they went through, those young men, hell, we were just boys. Listen son, I’ve got a 12 gauge that sleeps with me. I’m not afraid to use it. And I’ll die before anybody gets a word out of me.”
“You’re a good man,” I said. “They don’t make them like you anymore.”
“I’m a nobody,” the old man said. “Come here, son. I’ve got something to tell you.”
The old man motioned for me to lean in closer than I already was. When I did, it hit me. I knew what that smell on him was. It was an infection. It clung on the old man’s breath like a leech on the skin.
“You gave me a fair warning,” the old man said. “And I wanna give you one, too. Just be careful about her. She’s not what she seems.”
With that, the old man nudged my shoulder for me to get back up. He gave me a silent nod and finished off the rest of his cocktail.
I’d seen plenty of guys before they met their end. They get a certain look about them. There’s always a tell, something hard to even describe but it’s real and you might have seen it yourself before. You could snap a photo and show it to somebody, and without them even knowing the guy, they could say, “Yeah, he must have died, right?”
This old man had it now. Death seemed more real than life with this look. Like death was the sculpture and life was just its shadow.
The old man and I shook hands and I stepped away into the kitchen. Lilly was ready to go. She had a shining smile and a duffel bag packed full. She had changed into a pair of jean shorts and a white t-shirt.
“I need to say goodbye to him.”
“Go ahead,” I said. “Because after this, Pittsburg is in the rear view mirror.”
I watched as Lilly stooped down and hugged her husband. The old man didn’t look sad. It was almost like he was happy to let her go, like a bird ready to fly from its nest. She pet his head and gave him a kiss on the cheek and that was that.
The two of us left the old man’s home and didn’t look back.