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An ancient radio was scratching out a Sousa march when Fern Smith unlocked the door of the seedy hotel room and found Donald posing in front of the cracked mirror with an AK-47 held at a military angle across his chest and a bandanna knotted around his mostly bald head. His long, thin neck merged into plump jowls, making his head an uncertain rectangle, with the wispy remains of his hair trailing around three sides. A hang-dog expression adorned the fourth side. His puny shoulders were jaunty and self-satisfaction gleamed from close-set eyes as he regarded the speckled image in the substandard mirror. Donald was neither tall nor short -- though he could appear either, depending on where he belted his pants across his beer belly -- so his attempt at Rambo fell sadly short of the mark.
Fern pushed the door closed with her shoulder and dumped the sacks she carried onto the lumpy surface of the slightly-less-than-double bed. When she snapped off the radio, her voice broke flatly into the sudden silence. "I still think we should have bought the Uzi."
Donald froze like a deer in headlights, then spun to face her. He quickly grabbed the bandanna and stuffed it in his back pocket, then produced a wide, hopeful smile as he peered up at her, exposing the gap where his plates didn't meet his gums.
Fern was a tall woman, narrow everywhere but the hips, with stooped shoulders and long arms that made her look like a caricatured bird of prey. Her muddy gray hair, as wispy as Donald's, was drawn up in an off-center bun. Her narrow mouth, having long ago given in to the force of gravity, sagged on either side of her pointed chin.
"I'm sure what Teddy said had nothing to do with the price." Fern's expression gave no quarter. "If you hadn't let Artie lay out the hit--"
Donald tenderly deposited the AK-47 on the dresser top, retrieved the bandanna from his pocket and used it to return the AK's surface to a high gloss. "His tab, his call."
Fern's sigh was silent, but it ruffled the back of what was left of Donald's hair as she reached around him to pick up the photograph of the target. She studied the face, and a shiver ran down her spine when she made contact with the woman's green gaze. There was something about her eyes, something deep in the mysterious green slits barely visible beneath drooping lids, that made Fern nervous. She tossed the picture down beside the gun.
"His way overdue tab, don't you mean?"
With a triumphant look, Donald pointed at something behind her. She turned and examined the beat up shoebox sitting on the table, its mailing label directing it to Reggie Seymour at a New Orleans address. With some reluctance she lifted the lid and found neat rows of envelopes also addressed to this Reggie. Inside one envelope was--
"A dollar bill?" She picked up the box, checked out other envelopes and found each contained a single dollar bill. "This is his down payment? A shoebox full of ones?"
Donald shifted his feet uneasily. "Ones or twenties, what does it matter as long as it's real?"
"No way there's half here--"
"He's good for it," Donald cut in, adding quickly, "He's lucked into the perfect scam this time, Fernie. You should see him. Dressed to the nines, even has a Rolex watch. Said he'd cut us in on it. We pull this off and we can go to Disneyland in Japan if we want to! And that's just for starters."
"I thought marriage was his scam?" Fern tossed down the box with a snort of disgust. She'd never been able to see what all those women saw in Artie. "If he's willing to cut us in, there's more at stake than his new wife finding out about his other wives."
She wasn't surprised when Donald's gaze slid away from hers, though he tried to cover it by using his bandanna to rub an invisible smudge from the stock of the AK-47.
"He's just had a spot of bad luck, that's all. He needs to move something before the wedding, but won't be able to if she comes -- I don't know. It's complicated."
"With Artie it always is." Fern frowned. "Let's just forget the cut and take our fee--"
Donald twitched. Only once, but it told the rest of the story.
"He doesn't have it, does he?"
"He will. If we do the job." She raised a skeptical brow. He tried to trump her raise with a whined, "He's good for it," but his voice lacked the conviction. They'd both known Arthur Maxwell for too long. Of course, only an idiot stiffed a bopper. The fact that Artie was the biggest idiot she'd ever known, she firmly suppressed.
A stray bit of sun found its way through a spot on the dirty window and fell across the lovingly polished AK-47. Fern gave another soundless sigh. A pity he'd fallen so hard for it. There was no persuading him to take the cute little Uzi once he'd made up his mind. He was the hit man, so he got to choose the gun. It was even possible he knew what he was doing. It hadn't been that long since their retirement.
She watched him hitch his pants up over his sagging belly, then swagger to the bruised cooler stashed in the corner of the room, his knee joints popping with each step.
"And when we're doing time--" she began.
"We done time before." He extracted a cold one, popped the top and took a noisy swig. At least he hadn't used his teeth. With their financial hopes riding on an AK-47, they couldn't afford to replace his lousy plates.
Fern crossed her arms. "Not in this state."
He had to think about that for a moment as he mentally ran down the list of places where they had done time. "Do you good to make new friends."
He sank into a sagging armchair and gave her a hopeful look.
"We got enough trouble with your old friends."
Donald scowled. "Don't start on Artie again--"
"I ain't stopped--" She shook her head. "You shoulda popped him the first time he poked his face in the door."
Why did Donald put up with him? What was the deal with men and their crib mates? Just because they pissed in the same pot, they had to be friends for life? Only bright spot, Artie didn't pop up that often because he was usually in stir making new friends. She'd feel more comfortable about the whole hit if she could just figure out why Artie wanted the Seymour woman out of the way so bad that he was willing to pay them to do it. Artie had made not paying his own way his life's work.
"I don't like it. Too much that can go wrong."
"It's not what I'd choose," Donald admitted. "But there's logic to it. Really," he insisted when she arched her brows again. "Drive-by isn't what I'd choose myself. But then, I've always liked the high ground." He took another noisy drink before adding, "I've had time to think and it's not as bad as it seems. First place, there's your element of surprise. Look how good the St. Valentine's Day massacre worked." He directed a triumphant look at Fern. "Taking someone out with a bang is a fine, old tradition."
He had to be joking, but a cursory examination proved her wrong.
"Come on, Fern. We can do this. You drive the car. I'll point the gun. It's what we do--"
"It's what we did--"
"When it's over, we're rolling in scratch."
She was sadly familiar with the look in his eyes. A mixture of calculated entreaty and seedy charm, liberally mixed with greed. She was too old to stop giving in to him -- or to stop trusting his well-honed survival instinct. She sighed, trailing her finger the length of the AK-47. It was cool and smooth -- like she used to be.
Hadn't she always done everything she could to avoid the dreary anonymity of her parents lives? Their walk-up apartment in Dayton wasn't a mirror of her parents' suburban hell in Jersey, but there were similarities when she let herself see them. Bingo at McDonald's instead of bridge at the country club. The occasional bus tour with other down-and-out senior citizens instead of summers at the seaside. Her parents had never lived wild or gone somewhere exotic. They had always been smugly content with the mainland U.S.
"Enough to go to Disneyland."
Her parents had never been to Disneyland. Damn the boy, he knew she wanted to go to Disneyland more than anything. She wanted her picture taken with Mickey Mouse in front of that castle more than she wanted to quit taking stupid hormones.
"Ain't she a beauty, Fernie?" Donald asked.
She sighed. If they had to shoot the hell out of some woman to do it--
"It's not an Uzi, but I suppose it'll get the job done," she conceded reluctantly.
"And then some." He mimed rapid firing.
She turned, pushing her worries to the back burner. From one of the sacks she'd dumped on the bed, she extracted two pairs of joke glasses -- the Groucho Marx kind with dark frames, large noses, and mustaches attached. One pair she handed to Donald, the other she put on, adjusting the fit. Then she took a large muffelatta out of another sack.
"Get me a beer, will you?" she asked.
Donald put his glasses on, also adjusted their fit, and bent over the cooler, his pants sliding down to display his hairy butt crack.
Fern did a quick right turn from the sight and spread their lunch out on the rickety table. Donald sat down in front of his half of the sandwich.
"What's this?" He handed her the beer and, with a suspicious look, examined the offering: a huge half-round of crusty bread layered with spicy meats and cheeses, and topped with a tangy olive dressing.
"Muffelatta." Her mouth formed the unfamiliar words with the satisfaction of knowing this was another thing her parents had probably never done.
"Smells good." He took a huge bite, chewed a couple of times, then said thickly through the remains of the bite, "Is good."
Fern studied her sandwich with satisfaction.
"What about wheels?" she asked before biting down.
"We'll pick a car up right before we head for the airport."
It was a peculiarity of Donald's, this waiting for the last minute to pick up a car. The three times he'd secured wheels early, he'd done jail time. He also had a pair of black thong underwear he wore, but Fern tried not to think about that. There were some parts of her middle-class upbringing she couldn't shed, no matter how far she got from it.
She watched him chew for a moment, then asked, "Do you think we could steal something, well, foreign this time?"
Donald had strong feelings about driving American cars, but he got to pick the gun. Time for turn-about.
He looked up. She looked at the AK-47. It lay on the dresser, still gleaming dully in that stray bit of sun.
His struggle at the thought of even a minor adjustment in his MO was written on his face in large block letters. With timing honed through long years together, she raised one brow. He grinned.
"Sure, Fernie, whatever you want." He bit deeply into his almost decimated sandwich. His gaze strayed longingly to her half of the sandwich.
With only a moment's hesitation, she shoved it towards him. His appetite was always keen before a kill.
Arthur Maxwell studied the new shoes in the mirror. The shine was satisfactory, though it could be a touch brighter. The fit -- he wiggled his toes -- was good, excellent really, though he wouldn't know for sure until he walked in them for a while. He backed up, then walked toward the mirror. No pressure points rubbing in a way that could turn into blisters. He backed up again to get the whole picture. Did the shoes fit with his suit? He stroked the fabric, enjoying the feel of expensive fabric. Silk was still too new for him to take for granted.
Prosperity suited him, he decided, smoothing an errant bit of hair back into the smooth line of his expensive hair cut. It suited him down to his toes.
"I'll take them," he said, turning abruptly to the sales clerk who was giving him a look with which he was all too familiar. Awe, admiration, a touch of lust. Women of a... certain age... had been reacting to him the same way since his hormones kicked in. It hadn't taken him long to realize there were benefits to be had from reacting back. Now it was second nature to smile with just a hint of shy to temper the charm. His eyes twinkled on schedule and her jaw went slightly slack. She'd have been his, he knew, if he bumped up the stakes a bit, but he didn't need to anymore. He had money and he had Helen. "Let's box up my old ones, shall we?"
Well, he'd have money if Artie and Fern took care of Luci Seymour before she could get to her aunts. Which they would. He'd dangled a lot of money in front of his old cellmate, enough to get him to defy his ball and chain. Fern was probably the only woman alive, of a certain age, who was immune to Artie's particular brand of charm. Odd, unexpected, but overcome with cash, like most of life's problems. He might even actually pay them like he'd promised. He didn't have many friends and, well, Artie was a bopper. One didn't stiff a killer for hire unless...
It was a dangerous business and accidents did happen.
He smiled at the clerk, who slackened her jaw again, as he counted out the exact number of bills needed to make the shoes his.
Outside, he unlocked his car and slid in. It didn't go with his suit, but it didn't matter. He had a nicer one waiting at home with Helen. He pulled his old shoes out, pausing long enough to sadly rub the scratch on the glowing surface before tossing them in the back seat with his other rejected shoes.
When he pulled out into traffic, he was only vaguely aware of the flurry of irritated honks and screeching tires. With any luck, it would be finished tonight. He could get his money and go home to Helen a free man. He should stop off and check his post office box. He made the turn without signaling and got another flurry of honked objections. He patted the shoebox on the seat next to him.
"You won't be empty long."
Copyright © 2001 by Pauline Baird Jones