Three of Swords
Two days until full moon. Like always, we're already running out of time.
Your truck's exactly where you said it would be. The doors are unlocked and there's half a Marlboro on the driver's seat, a burn in the fabric you'll be pissed about later. You were right: it’s an easy job. I'm hidden from the casino’s main entrance and employee lots, tucked safely away from the security cameras or valets. A snatch and grab, so to speak. If I'm efficient, I'll be fine.
On one hand, it's the first true thing I've heard from you in months. On the other, you have a corpse and a key of cocaine where normal people keep their kid’s car seat.
Some things never change.
I'd say the dead guy doesn't look familiar, but what's left of his face could be one of a dozen guys in your crew. Beneath the vests and profanity, the majority of your lost boys are just rosy-cheeked runaways with low hats, low pants, their scars hidden by cheap tattoos. Guys who still care enough to call their mothers and lie about where they spend their nights. Kids, for God's sake.
At least, they are before you get your hands on them.
I used to think it was romantic, protecting your little family of outlaws against the world. You check them into treatment centers, pay their court fines, cover their rent. After what they’ve been through, any kindness seems like salvation.
But now, sometimes, I wonder.
I wonder if you mentored this one.
I wonder if you killed him.
He's wrapped - more or less - in what I assume is one of your daughter's blankets, a collage of cartoon cats with their faces masked in dried blood. His shoes are gone, his shirt expensive. His remaining eye (brown) stares patiently past me from its broken socket while I make my assessments. I'm not curious enough to check his wounds too closely – dead is dead - but it's hard to ignore the ruin of his cheeks. What’s left is clean shaven. However broad his shoulders seem, I’m sure his hands are soft.
Behind the swollen shadow of his tongue I glimpse a filling. It’s the cheap silver kind state insurance pays for, not porcelain: but it tells a more important story. Silver anything means he isn’t one of your dogs. Cause of death is still anyone's guess.
Your instructions were vague at best, but then, I hardly need them. Out of practice doesn’t mean out of shape. I pat down the body and find a plastic lighter and a miscellaneous set of keys: apartment, maybe, but no car. There's no jewelry, no phone, no sign of a wallet. No change in his pockets. For that matter, hell, not even his fingers add up: he’s missing two from his left hand. The ones on the right are still attached, but they’re swollen purple and the knuckles are raw. He didn’t go quietly or easily. He tried to survive. He was alive when he lost the fingers.
I wonder where they are.
The kid’s worth more questions than answers on his own, so I wipe my hands on my jeans and settle for lighting the stale Marlboro. The first inhale nearly chokes me, leaves my mouth dry and stale. No surprise there. If you asked, I'd say I don't smoke anymore.
Not that you'd ask. Six months of silence, eight since I thought you loved me, and – like always – you only called when you needed someone to clean up your mess.
I tap ash onto your floorboards.
I need you, you said. And what you meant was pack business, but what's the difference? It didn’t matter that I’d changed my number. That I’d changed everything. You called, and here I am, chasing your tail.
It’s always messy with you – messy enough that before the cab arrived I backed up my phone contacts to the almighty Cloud, peeled away the protective rubber case, and dropped the device into traffic. I could always pick up a burner later, but in the meantime I didn’t have to worry about being tracked from the office.
I paid the cab driver in crumpled dollar bills and walked the last three blocks, chin tucked to my chest, arms crossed. Unremarkable. Unapproachable. At least I hadn’t worn heels.
Still – it isn't too late for me to turn around. There’s no proof I was here. The kid isn’t going to tell anybody. Despite the dim lights and gaudy decor, the casino has a decent restaurant, a good bar. With a splash of ninety proof on the rocks and an attentive bartender I could wake up hungover in a room upstairs, half-convinced this was all a dream. Spend tomorrow replacing my phone and let someone else worry about mopping up the blood for once. The hangover can’t be worse than the headache I’m nursing now.
I don’t have time to daydream. I drop the cigarette butt out the window.
“What do you say, kid?”
Not a damn thing, that's what the kid says. No surprise there. Even if he weren't dead as dinner, his jaw droops impressively to one side, like a drawer off its tracks. His nose veers sharply to the left. There's no question that somebody did a number on him. I wonder if he did something to deserve the violence his body describes.
Whatever that means.
I’m already wishing for another cigarette – one old habit deserves another, I suppose – but I draw the line at digging through your ashtray.
“I don't owe him this,” I say. Just to hear myself. Just to see if I mean it. “I don't owe him shit, actually. But this kind of shit? This is what gets you put in prison.”
So don’t get caught, I hear you say. I’m wasting time, acting like there’s a chance I’ll change my mind. Fact is, it’s always been this way between us. I never question where you've been when you turn up on my doorstep. I don't fault you the days – or the nights – you’ve spent elsewhere. I know I should. My debts are long since paid and whatever we were that summer, we've left it a lifetime behind us. Like God, I exist only when you need me.
Except you don’t even have the decency to pray from your knees. And here I am anyway, performing another miracle.
That isn’t what’s bothering me. Not really. It’s that you didn’t call with any urgency, didn’t try to catch me before I left my apartment this morning. You let the clock run out. You waited until I had to walk out of my new life entirely so you could watch me pledge allegiance, and all the while, this time bomb was parked out where any run of bad luck might have stumbled across him.
I've seen you lose your temper a hundred times. Pushed you to, even. What I haven't seen you lose is control. Not over the pack, at least. Your personal life might be in shambles, but where the pack is concerned even your safeguards have safeguards. Gambling is for card games. I don’t know what you call valet parking a corpse at a casino.
Which you aren’t.
If I try hard enough, I can pretend that's reason enough to put my seat belt on.
I stuff the coke under the seat where your pistol should be – should be, but isn't, although I check twice – and start the truck. Its exhaust coughs and then clears. That's something, at least. The air conditioning blows hot but your plates are good and your turn signals work; it’s as much as I could hope for today.
I adjust the rear view until the kid's not looking at me anymore. The tree-shaped foam air freshener bumps my knuckles, its bubblegum aroma fresh and suffocatingly sweet in the heat. Your idea of a good joke. Always the gentleman. I wonder if you hung it – hell, if you bought it – before or after you called. Before or after you wrapped a corpse with your kid’s kitty-cat blanket.
Or maybe I’m overthinking things. Maybe you called me first thing and whoever you have doing my job these days just isn’t very fucking good at it.
Pretty to think so, at least.
My palms are sweating. It makes me feel paranoid and short on patience. He’s not the first – or, hell, the worst – corpse you’ve left for me to find, but usually you have the common decency to at least offer an explanation.
That’s what happens when you come out of retirement, I suppose. You appreciate the little things you used to take for granted.
The only thing left here is the ever-increasing risk of getting caught. I pull down one of the service driveways and out onto the back roads. If I stay off the expressway I have an hour's drive ahead of me, and that's just to get to you. God knows where your next idea leads.
Only two days till full moon. Like always, we're already running out of time.
About the Creator
Laura Presley is a firm believer that magic is real and birds are not. She lives and works in Ohio with her husband, their brood of wildlings, and their excessive number of rescue animals.
There are no comments for this story
Be the first to respond and start the conversation.