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once upon a time in virginia
So we're shaking down this Dickie Mullen guy, and the guy's your usual suburban shoot-shop owner, talks the talk about home defense and hunting season, spreads out copies of Guns & Ammo and Soldier of Fortune, sells crappy .38s to concerned hubbies and housewives, and all the while he's dressed up in the red, the white, the blue, it's the grand old fucking flag. They're taking away our constitutional rights comes out of this Dickie Mullen guy's mouth about as often as those fine patriotic words We take VISA and MasterCard. This guy couldn't defend a house against cockroaches and he wouldn't know a ten-point buck from a heifer, and right about now he's talking his talk at the lee side of the counter, an overfed gnome with capped teeth and a lame smile, and I really don't want to be here but the numbers didn't add up for the third time in as many months, and this upsets Jules, and the shop's on my beat so this upsets me. But what upsets me more is that this Dickie Mullen guy is talking a Hefty Bag worth of trash about this and about that, he is talking about anything but the numbers and why the numbers didn't add up, and I wish he'd come out and say it. Just look up out of the lies and say:
Hey, all right, okay, I've been skimming here and scamming there, but I need the money, owe the money, got to have the money. I got a wife, I got kids, I got a mortgage, and a little from a lot don't matter, can't matter, just should not matter.
Then he ought to say, and say very loud:
And after all, you are reasonable men.
I look at Trey Costa, who's leaning into a hardwood trophy case at the back of thestoreroom, right under the deer mounts and a rack of lever-action center-fires. Trey slips the sawed-off from under his raincoat, tips the barrel back over his shoulder, and starts cat-scratching its snout against the glass of the trophy case. Screech, screech, boom.
I look at Renny Two Hand, who just told this Dickie Mullen guy, owner and operator of Safari Guns in the Triland Mall in this bright little suburb of Dirty City, that there's no time for new lies. That's when Two Hand shoved the really meaningful part of that wicked Colt Python .357, a nasty handgun if I say so myself, to a spot two inches below the guy's belly button.
And while I'm taking the time to look, I check out myself, courtesy of the mirror behind this Dickie Mullen guy's head: solemn-faced and empty-handed. I do not draw down unless I'm going to shoot, but if looks could kill, dear Safari Guns, with its wondrous selection of overpriced foreign product, Taiwanese knockoffs, and well-oiled calendar girls in camouflage and string bikinis, would be redecorated in red right now.
The look I'm giving this Dickie Mullen guy, the stone-cold thing that looks back at me from the mirror, takes years of practice. If you can fake the sincerity, you're halfway home. So when I try on the face, now and again, I do want to laugh. But today it's there on its own, and I'm not laughing, this is not a laughing matter. Because, after all, there should be no doubt:
We are reasonable men.
Which is why I hit the spineless fuck in the face.
His head snaps back and red spit leaks out from between those too-real teeth. On cue, Renny hoists his pistol from gut level and points it down on this Dickie Mullen guy's dome.
Now that we have his attention, it's time to talk.
Hey, pal, I tell him. I say this one time. So listen up and listen good.
Here's what I tell this Dickie Mullen guy.
I tell him:
You have the right to remain silent.
I tell him:
If you choose to speak, anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.
I tell him:
You have the right to talk to a lawyer before we ask you any questions.
I tell him:
You have the right to have a lawyer with you during questioning.
I tell him:
If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish.
You have all these rights, I tell him. And, if some cop says so, maybe even a few more. But what you don't have, pal, is the right to fuck around with me.
That's when I hit him again. And then I nod, and then Renny cocks the hammer, and then I happen to believe that Dickie's little dickie just pissed his pants.
You got a nice business here, I tell him. And you ought to keep it that way. But hey, you've been selling off the books.
I look down into the display case of pistols and I cannot believe the crap this Dickie Mullen guy is peddling. Just like I cannot believe that Jules Berenger and I are selling it to him.
You want to keep out of trouble, pal. You don't need this shit. If the state cops or the ATF come sniffing round here, then my friend with the gun comes sniffing round here, and sooner or later I have to come and pay you a visit. Not that I don't like a friendly chat now and then, but I'm about done with the talking. So you keep things in order, pal. You sell your stock over the counter and you send in those little forms to Treasury. You know why?
He hesitates, shakes his head: No.
I cannot believe this guy.
Because it's the law, dumb shit. It is the fucking law.
I pass him a handkerchief.
Now wipe your face off.
He looks at the hankie like it's an alien life form. Then he gets the idea and starts mopping down. First the split lip, then the forehead, then he starts on his pants. Guess he gets to keep this one.
You got a wife, right?
Yeah, he says, but when I give him the look he locks eyes with me and says it right: Yes.
You got kids?
And a mortgage?
He looks at me funny but not for long. Then: Yes.
I point to the front door. So, I tell him. You don't open up today. You leave that closed sign hanging there, and you take the rest of the day off and you go home. You tell them all -- the wife, the kids, the mortgage -- that you love them. And then tomorrow -- well, tomorrow you come in here and you turn that sign over to open, and, hey, it's like they say: Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life. You got me?
Yes, he says.
I fucking hope so, I tell him.
But worms like this one never learn. Never. Guy probably cheats on his tax returns, cheats on his wife, maybe even cheats on his poker buddies. Next time this happens, and sooner or later there's gonna be a next time, he's gonna skim a little bit less, he's gonna hide a little bit more, the guy's gonna think he's getting away with something, and you know what?
That's when I'm gonna have to kill him.
Renny Two Hand's in the hot seat, drinking Bud Light out of a bottle and snaking a new cigarette from the battered pack on the bar. Some achy-voiced rock-and-roller, a dead guy, is droning on and on and he's not even in tune with these dentist-drill guitars. Five one-dollar bills are tented on top of the bar, and Two Hand is looking point-blank into the dancer's snatch like there's no tomorrow.
You ever pray? he says.
For what? I ask him, and he just looks right through me and says:
You ever pray?
Shawnee, that's this dancer's name, ha-ha, she lets down that witchy-woman hair, and she works her way over to me, and she wants me. I know she wants me because she smiles, a little sly smile, and then the little wink as she strides on past, high heels clicking in time to the beat. So she wants me. Yeah, right. She wants me to lay a little more green on the bar, and when I do, I get some good old hippy-hippy-shake, and then it's walk on down the line to the next guy, and then the next and the next, still smiling, still winking, still shaking, still wanting. Sweet kid, probably studies psych or sociology at George Mason University and dates a fraternity boy when she isn't giving blow jobs in the alleyway out back.
I'm leaning my head toward Renny Two Hand, trying to imagine what he's really saying to me through a night's worth of cigarette smoke, drugstore aftershave, gutter rock guitar, and the cheap talk of the Dauphine Steak House, and that is when I hear the cough. It's a nasty cough, the kind of cough that sort of stands right up and says: I'm a Glock.
Sitting on my cozy stool, nodding away to the music from the band with the dead guy, minding my own business and a lot of the naked lady who's strutting her stuff atop the bar, trying to think real hard about Bud Light instead of tomorrow, and with that cough in my ear, I realize there's no escaping a simple fact:
Guns are my life.
So I grind out Renny's Chesterfield and take a spin on the bar stool and there's this damn fool backpedaling away from one of the tables out on the dance floor. His chair's tipped over, and he's pushing a Spandex-bursting waitress out of the way with one hand and waving a Glock 19 with the other. Asshole.
Not that I don't like the Glock 19. It's my weapon of choice. Right about now I'm carrying two of them: one out in the glove compartment of my Mustang, the other one tight to the flat of my back, snug in a Bianchi holster.
Nice construction on the Glock. It's the original polymer pistol; some folks, the dumb ones, thought you could walk it through airport security. The G19 is compact, weighs thirty ounces loaded with a fifteen-round magazine, and the trigger pulls as smooth as taffy. Maybe it's just the cough that bothers me. Hearing it when it's not my own. That annoys me. Like shooting one of the Beretta 80s, those little .22s that sort of spit when you squeeze them. Or the MAC-10: On full auto, sounds like a cat pissing.
I used to like my weapons loud. Let's face it, when the shit goes down, so deep that it's time to shoot -- well then, you ought to make a statement. The old Springfield 1911A1, standard-issue Army .45, spoke up with a bull roar, scared the shit out of anybody, anything. Which was helpful, since it's a bitch for anyone but a pro to score hits with old Slab Sides from more than about twenty feet. But that four-five talks like it looks: big and mean. I keep mine in a footlocker, way up in the attic, with a pair of my old fatigues, a picture of my high school sweetheart -- that bitch -- and a map of the provinces. That's where it belongs: put to rest, another buried dream.
Don't even think about it, I tell myself, and then I say it aloud to Renny Two Hand, who's finally fallen out of the beer-and-babe fugue and noticed that something's going down. He looks from the asshole on the dance floor to me and then down to the cuff of his right pants leg, which no doubt hides a heavy something with a barrel and a trigger and, if I know Two Hand, a high-capacity magazine. I snag his jacket, ready to hustle our happy asses to the fire exit and out of this nonsense. Trouble is something you just never need.
So through the huddle comes this well-armed asshole from the outland, Manassas maybe, wearing torn jeans, standard-issue black Metallica T-shirt, a flannel overshirt, and about five too many beers. He shakes his sloppy blond head and slow-dances back into the jukebox. That band with the dead guy -- now I remember, it's called Nirvana -- starts singing in double time. Little wrestling around, then cue the scream. So the asshole's got a Glock. Full magazine, maybe, and he's shot one time. Could be lots of bodies rolled out of the place by Springfield EMS, but that one's beyond Vegas odds; no way he's serious. Drunks are rarely serious about anything but fighting or fucking, and like most drunks this asshole isn't much capable of either.
By now the piece is pointed at the linoleum. The first of the bouncers, a skull-shaven Marine probably moonlighting out of Quantico, makes his appearance, gives him the old okeydokey take-it-easy routine. Hands up, smile and a nod, smile and a nod, one step closer, one step more.
The jarhead gestures to the ceiling and when the asshole looks up -- told you he was an asshole -- the Marine whales him with what the boxing announcers like to call a solid right to the jaw. Down and out for the count. Stick a fork in him, this one's done.
I look over at the table where the commotion started and there's another spud there, another black T-shirt, another flannel shirt, another pair of jeans, and he's looking at his left thigh like it just sprouted an eye and winked at him. He's saying oh momma oh momma and wiping blood back and forth in his hands like it's grease.
I look at my watch, which reads nigh on one in the morning. Last call for blood and alcohol. A black-and-white ought to be wheeling around any minute now. So:
Th-th-that's all, folks.
Ren, I say, let's call it a night.
Yeah, he says. A night.
He pulls back the last of his Bud Light and shrugs himself up off the bar stool. It's hard to believe he can walk.
I drop a fiver on the bar for dearest Shawnee, she shakes her tits at me, and we're gone.
Sucking cold air on the blacktop parking lot, shaking out the smell of cigarettes, I'm taken with one of those Twilight Zone thoughts, and this time it's the idea that, while we were being entertained, the mighty suburb of Springfield, Virginia, slid into a deep black hole. Then I realize the power is out along Backlick Road and its rat maze of mini-malls. And how much I hate the dark.
I steer Renny toward the Mustang. A couple beers, that's all. The age-old promise, man-to-man. So we had a couple beers, did our business, traded the keys, and seven p.m. rolled into nine, and we had a couple beers again, and round about eleven the bottles and the dollar bills formed up ranks on the counter. A nice drunk, until the coughing fit.
I try to remind Renny about Thursday, about why we traded the keys, but he's giving me the Ren routine, hands waving out at nothing in particular, clearing the cobwebs, no doubt searching for the clever exit line. An unshaven and gimp-kneed Shakespearean. All the world's barrooms and parking lots are a stage.
Ah, the smell of blood after midnight, he finally tells me and the parking lot and the black, black sky and the red-and-blue lights of the police car whirlybirding down Franconia Road toward us. It's the smell of --
There isn't a pause; it's a gap. His face goes loose, and he takes a long look back at the Dauphine Steak House like he's left his best friend, which is me, inside. The silence doesn't stop. I stand there until it's just too much.
The smell of . . . what? I ask him.
His face comes back at me, a full moon that shines on with nothingness. Then:
You drive, he tells me. He hooks his fingers into his belt, hoists his jeans, and wobbles on to the car.
That's my partner, Reynolds James -- aka Renny, aka Two Hand, aka The Wrap -- for you: Always starting something but never getting it done.