The Graveyard Shift: Must-Read Noir Short Fiction By Matthew Wilson
Matthew Wilson, author of The Graveyard Shift, has previously been shortlisted in Best American Mystery Stories 2019 with “Burg’s Hobby Case”. His work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
In The Graveyard Shift, Rita dreams of killing men, although she has never pulled the trigger. She works the night shift with a drone unit at Creech Air Force base as a sensors operator, tracking targets 8,000 miles away. When her husband Dave is shot down in a bungled robbery, Rita tracks a new target…
Before he was shot, Dave used to listen to Rita’s dreams. She would talk in her sleep about work and her work was secret, so she could never tell him about it the way other couples did, over dinners of pasta or chicken. Dave still wanted to know what she couldn’t tell him, so when she started mumbling there on the pillow with her eyes closed, he imagined those were the secrets she couldn’t share. He felt sneaky about eavesdropping on her dreams, but if he wanted to know anything, it was the only way.
The night Dave was shot was one of Rita’s nights off. They had gotten into a routine that worked like this: Rita would come home to their empty house around nine in the morning. While Dave worked the day shift, Rita would stay awake and maybe do some laundry or go out to the Vons for groceries. Then she’d sleep till six. Dave was home by five and he’d have a big breakfast ready for Rita when she woke up—bacon, scrambled eggs, throw in some muffins Rita had picked up at the Vons. Dave would make a pot of coffee and drink extra so he could keep up with Rita, whose day was just starting. It was a strange equilibrium, Rita the natural night owl because of her graveyard shift, and Dave amped up on caffeine to keep up with her.
That night, the night Dave was shot, they had discount tickets to see Penn and Teller at the Rio. They drove down Route 95 in Dave’s Charger and pulled up to the Rio, the hotel a tower of shimmering blue glass with wings of red neon stripes.
This was their second magic show in Vegas. They’d seen David Copperfield at the MGM. Copperfield was all “now you see, now you don’t,” but Penn and Teller were different. Part magic, part comedy. Dave and Rita had expected that, having seen the act on TV. Penn yammered on like a carnival barker, but it was Teller Dave couldn’t take his eyes off, Teller in all his silence reminding him of something Rita had once said in her sleep.
It was one of those times when he’d get home from work and Rita was at the end of her sleep cycle. He could hear her mumbling in the bedroom. Single words, sometimes little phrases. It was her work she was talking about, and he wanted to know some of all she’d kept hidden, all she wasn’t allowed to share with him.
He could hear her mumbling in the bedroom. Single words, sometimes little phrases.
That night, the one he was remembering as he sat there in the Rio, that night Rita said, “quiet.” She said it a couple of times—“quiet, quiet”—and then she said a whole sentence, and that was special, because it was rare for her to say so much, to reveal that job of hers with all its secrets. A whole sentence. And that sentence was in Dave’s head now as he sat there, Rita’s hand in his, date night, Dave wondering what Rita was thinking, with Teller up there so silent, so quiet.
And this was what Dave remembered of Rita talking in her sleep: “Quiet,” she said. “You’d think they’d scream. But they’re always so quiet when I kill them.”
Rita’s name was short for Henrietta. Her father wanted a son, a soldier like him. But on the fourth girl her mother said “no more children,” so he called the fourth girl Henry. That child would be Henry junior. He said “put it on the birth certificate.” Rita’s mother had to beg the hospital people to change it to Henrietta before they discharged her with that little red-haired baby girl, the one they all started calling Rita right off the bat because Henrietta was too much to say.
Growing up, Rita was a whiz at throwing a softball. She was a pitcher. She would rotate her shoulder like a crankshaft on a Ford 150, some kind of V8 power in her throwing arm. Come down on the last stroke, release, and watch the ball fly, placing it in a perfect box over the plate, snap, right into the catcher’s leather.
It didn’t always work that way. Sometimes girls on the other teams got big hits on her. Rita would throw it hard and fast enough for most girls to miss, but the good ones made contact, and then that ball was gone. It was the flaw in Rita’s game. She only knew that one way to throw, hard and fast and right down the middle. Still, she liked to play. Her father, he liked baseball. Since he didn’t have a son to play it, his girls were out there with the softball, and he made do.
Growing up, Rita was a whiz at throwing a softball. She was a pitcher. She would rotate her shoulder like a crankshaft on a Ford 150, some kind of V8 power in her throwing arm.
After high school, Rita joined the Air Force. She thought it would make her old man happy. Another warrior in the family. But it was the Air Force. And airmen—or whatever you called girls in the Air Force—weren’t soldiers, weren’t grunts like him, old Sergeant Percy.
It was the recruiter who did it. At the high school they came in and set up their tables during lunch time. Army one week, Air Force the next, and then there were the Marines followed by the Navy. The Air Force man, he knew how to talk to girls. The Army and Marine recruiters wasted all their time on the jocks, feeding them macho stories—hand to hand combat, boots on the ground, wounds and kills. By the time the Navy man came through, it was too late. A half dozen jocks with mediocre grades had already signed the two-year contract with the Army and Marines, practically on their way to Benning or Pendleton. Two girls, one of them Rita, had signed the same contract, only it was for the Air Force.
The Air Force, that’s what brought Rita out to Nevada, and the job she couldn’t tell Dave about.
On the night Dave was shot, after the magic show let out, they headed over to Bellagio’s and played video poker for an hour. Back when friends from home heard of Rita’s new duty station just north of Vegas, they sent her congratulatory messages. The fun she and Dave would have. But whatever charm was there, it was starting to wear off. Once, Dave said, “Imagine if you were a kid living next to Disneyland, free passes year-round… after a while even Space Mountain would get boring.”
At midnight Rita’s graveyard shift clock told her it was lunchtime. They walked the skybridge over the Strip and found a chain pizza place on the other side of the bridge where they couldn’t finish a deep-dish pie, so they boxed the remains, threw the box on the back seat of Dave’s Charger, and called it a night.
Back on the 95, Dave opened up the Charger. It was a newer car, a couple years off the lot, but it looked like an old car, a throwback to the muscle car style from decades before either Dave or Rita were born. He was racing that car past the airport when Rita reached over and touched his arm and said, “95 on 95 will get you jail for the night.” Dave let up on the peddle and smiled a mischievous kid grin.
Rita said, “We got any beer at home?”
Dave said no, and then Rita said, “Stop by that 7-Eleven. You know the one around the corner, off of Durango?”
Dave nodded. He knew the one. This time of night, everything on Durango was closed—the Quiznos, the Philly Steak—except for that 7-Eleven.
Rita said, “We could chill at home, drink a few beers, binge watch some new episodes…I’ll get a twelve pack.”
Before long Dave was at the light making a U-turn on Durango, pulling into the lot, rolling the Charger into an oil-stained slot, a splash of grease between white stripes. His was the only car in the lot except for the Cadillac CTS three spaces down, the motor running, headlights on, driver at the wheel, rims shiny with the glare coming off florescent light poles hanging above.
Rita clicked the seat belt, the belt rolling up off of her. Dave said, “Wait here, I’ll get it.” Rita’s day off, and Dave was always doing this—gallant, chivalrous—old-fashioned special treatment he thought women deserved. Nothing wrong with being a gentleman—it’s what his grandfather had taught him. Rita rolled her eyes but let him do it. She pulled the seatbelt back over herself as Dave stepped out of the Charger. Rita watched him go through the doors, watched him enter the store’s bright bubble of light. The desert sky above was nothing but dark except for the few stars up there. Not even the wash of city lights coming up from the ground could spoil the brightest ones. There, she saw it—one of those stars was moving. It was a slow-tracking satellite. She watched it drift across the sky.
For Rita it was the middle of the day. Dave had to be tired, she though, but he was like this from the start—always thinking about her. He’d stay up all night against the desire to sleep, just to give her a normal day off, make it like other couples would do it.
There were two bangs in the store, one right after the other, so quick the shooting was over before Rita could drop her eyes off the sky, sit up and look at what was right in front of her. A man bolting out of the 7-Eleven, something black in his hand… a phone?… no, a gun. An instinct kicked in and she ducked down—take cover—it was what any smart warrior would do. She’d learned cover and concealment in Texas, in the fifth week of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. What a gunman can’t see he can’t take aim at. It was real basic.
By the time she stuck her head up, the Cadillac was gone and it was quiet as hell. Quiet—she knew something about quiet. She snapped the seatbelt off, climbed out of the Charger, and with a few steps she was inside the 7-Eleven. Dave was on the floor, a 12 pack of Coors Light next to him and cracked open, bottles scattered, some broken and leaking. Rita could see the wound in his chest. She recalled more of the Texas training—the combat life-saving portion of the course.
Her eyes did a quick search of the first aisle. She spotted packages of diapers. Soon she had one broken open and was pressing a diaper into the wound. A glance over at the clerk, and she could see the phone in his hand. He was calling out the address, making the 9-1-1 call. His other hand was busy too, shoving a pistol into a hip holster poking out from under his red 7-Eleven smock. It was only later Rita found out Dave was hit in the crossfire, the one between the clerk there on the phone, and the man she saw dash in front of her in the lot. The one who disappeared, along with that Cadillac CTS with the bright and polished rims.
They saved Dave’s life in the ER that night. Kept him from bleeding out. The round passed through the right side of his chest, far enough away from his heart to not kill him right away. Rita’s instinct with the diaper, pressure on the wound, that helped. Diapers, actually. Her head was cool enough to check for an exit wound. She turned Dave over, spotted the splash of blood on his back and pressed a second diaper there. When both were soaked through, she piled more on, the way she had learned in basic with the battle dressings.
After the ER, there was surgery, and after surgery, intensive care. There, Dave slept. Tubes came out of his mouth and others went into his arms. The color of his skin changed. The EKG beeped along, and Rita noticed how much it sounded like her alarm clock at home, piercing rhythmic dots of noise just before she rolled over to tap the snooze button. That was good, though, wasn’t it? The regular rhythm a sign of health… at least she hoped so.
A detective came in at some point. He asked her questions about what she saw, which wasn’t much. After a while, he gave Rita his card and left. She stayed in Dave’s room, three, four days… she lost track. She would stay awake until exhaustion took over and then sleep in a vinyl chair that folded out a footrest and reclined.
She would fall asleep and dream she was right there in that same chair and waking up. In the dream, she wakes up and the tube in Dave’s mouth is gone. He still has his eyes closed, but his mouth is mumbling something, talking in his sleep. Rita’s leaning in, trying to make out what he’s saying… it’s a clue or something, about what happened in that 7-Eleven. She’s eavesdropping on his dreams now. But when she wakes up, she’s still reclining in the chair, and looking over, she sees Dave still with the tubes running out of his mouth.
And then somewhere in the blur of those days, Dave died.
Airman Henrietta Percy. Rita’s father eventually found out what you called a girl in the Air Force. When she came home from basic, and he asked her what they called her in that Air Force of hers, where they let girls do the same work that men do, not just medical and clerical, she said, “Dad, things have changed since you got out. Even the Army’s changed. You know, a woman can sign up for infantry now? Last year, they even had two women graduate from Ranger School.” Her father shook his head at a world he couldn’t understand. Girl rangers—what was next?
Get married and have babies—that was the world of Rita’s mother, and her sisters too. It was something her father understood, not girl rangers. Rita did get married, but she was in no hurry moving to the babies part. She met Dave, a fellow airman. He was on his way out of the Air Force, declining the reenlistment bonus, when Rita was just getting started on her first hitch. After Dave’s discharge, they planned it like this: She would stay in, earning the money, while he went to school, cashing in the GI Bill. So Dave followed Rita to her next duty station, while he took the General Ed courses at whatever community college was nearby.
They wound up in Las Vegas, and Dave earned credits in History 101 and English 223 at the college of Southern Nevada. After a year he dropped out—only temporary, he said—and took a day job that stretched into two semesters, earning the money to make payments on the Charger.
Rita drove a Toyota up route 95 in the dark six days a week, up to Creech Air Force Base. There was nothing out there in that desert but Creech and a town called Indian Springs, which seemed to Rita like not much more than a gas station and a trailer park. Creech was where Rita did the job she wasn’t supposed to talk about. Dave had to know what she did, or least have a vague idea. It was something you couldn’t keep from someone you shared your life with, and besides, he had done his own hitch in the Air Force, so he knew. But Rita never talked about the details, just like she had sworn to do, so Dave was left with just the general idea. The general idea was that the Air Force ran its drones out of Creech.
Rita was a sensors operator. Every night she climbed into a trailer and sat in front of video monitors, the monitors pouring out data and images. Four screens of digits and decimal points, maps and coordinates. Another screen—the one right at eye level—that was a near real-time eyeball looking down onto a mountain or into valley on the other side of the world. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Waziristan. The eyeball lingering up there in the sky, watching four men at a crossroads, long loose tunics, rifles slung over shoulders. Watching a pick-up truck turning up dust across a piece of desert, in the bed of the truck a dark mass—guns, bombs… or maybe fertilizer.
Watching a sand colored block of a house, on a street of sand colored houses, men arriving and departing for hours on end, the entrance vigilantly guarded by two teenagers with guns. Watching a funeral in a green valley, the valley resting in the shadow of a mountain, watching mourners—women and old men—and some young men too, fighters burying one of their own.
Rita’s work was mostly all this—surveillance, reconnaissance. It was long, tedious work. But it wasn’t all watching. There were days when her crew joined the fight. Something they’d been watching for hours or days—maybe the four men at the crossroads, maybe that sand-colored house—became a target, not just something to watch anymore. Orders would come down and Rita’s crew sent a Hellfire missile to the face of the Earth 8,000 miles away.
Watching a sand colored block of a house, on a street of sand colored houses, men arriving and departing for hours on end, the entrance vigilantly guarded by two teenagers with guns.
Rita never pulled the trigger. That was the pilot’s job—he was the mission commander. Rita operated the laser that pointed the missile to its target. For Rita, it was underhand fast pitch all over again—hard and fast, and right down the middle. The difference was she couldn’t hear the contact, the way the ball smacked into the leather of the catcher’s mitt. When the Hellfire hit, it was nothing but a quiet flash, a cloud of chaos erupting on the screen. Then a wait. This was no hit and run. The eyeball would linger until the dust cleared, and then Rita could see what was no longer there—the men at the crossroads, the sand-colored house, the fighters mourning at the funeral. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Except it wasn’t quite David Copperfield. He could make a man disappear without a trace. But on Rita’s screen the slain left parts of themselves, coming through the satellite feed as pixels of dark smudges. In the gallows humor of the trailer, some called it bug splatter. All this was in Rita’s job description, surveillance for the “after action report.” Counting the dead, assessing damage. Sometimes she watched neighbors and relatives gather up remains, as if they were on a medieval battlefield collecting the limbs hewn by swords and axes.
These were the pictures in Rita’s head as she murmured on the pillow in the bed she shared with Dave. Pictures of soldiers and funerals, of bleak landscapes and burning pick-up trucks, of crumbled houses and slaughtered mourners.
The crossfire killed Dave. A man by the name of Darian Peaks went in to rob that 7-Eleven and didn’t expect the clerk to have a gun. The driver of the Cadillac, a skinny guy who went by Slim, had told Darian it would be a piece of cake. No 7-Eleven clerk packed a gun, Slim said, and he knew because he’d been a clerk himself, and he had been trained to just give up the money. Easy. And that’s what Darian and Slim wanted, in and out and a handful of cash to score more Oxy. Except the clerk had a concealed carry, and even though he’d been through the same 7-Eleven training, had been told to give up the money, he just couldn’t stand there with one gun in his face and another on his hip and do nothing.
A sitting duck, nothing but a passive target. No, he pulled his concealed carry and got the first shot off. Darian Peaks fired back and then bolted out to the Caddy. It was terrible luck that Dave walked into that store on that night, stood in that spot in that aisle, when the round coming out of the clerk’s concealed carry passed through. That’s how it was all explained to Rita. A Las Vegas detective told it to her like that, plain and simple. His name was Calpin.
He said it was too bad that they were having a hard time booking Darian Peaks. They couldn’t do anything about the clerk—his shooting was legal, but they could put something on Mr. Peaks because his crime caused the death of Rita’s husband. The only problem—evidence. The 7-Eleven footage caught an average figure in a hoodie, and that wasn’t much to go on. There was the slug from Mr. Peaks’s gun, pealed out of the wall back there behind the Slurpee machine.
But the gun itself was long gone and no record of Mr. Peaks owning a gun. Probably something he picked up on the street. They had Rita’s description of the Caddy—gold-colored CTS with shiny rims—and that helped. But Peaks had alibis, a girlfriend and two roommates, and all of them as worse for wear as him. Without more evidence of Peaks pulling the trigger, Detective Calpin said, the D.A. was disinclined to pursue the case. Calpin didn’t say his apology out loud, but Rita could see it on his face.
Ten days after Dave’s funeral, Rita went back to work. The men on her crew were quiet. There were condolences and vague offers of help. You need anything, just ask. Rita preferred not to ask. She got the sense they were relieved she was back. Another body for another 12-hour shift—with her gone the war kept going and other sensors operators had pitched in to cover for her, and now they could get a day off. It was a relief for Rita too. What she heard was true, that going back to work after a loss took your mind off of the loss—you kept busy, and only when you came home to an empty house did your mind drift back to your grief.
But the job turned different after Dave was killed. Her eye would be drawn to the domestic scenes on the periphery of the mission. While her crew was stalking some warlord or bomb maker, Rita would notice the mundane routines orbiting around the target. A woman drawing water from a well in Afghanistan, a boy herding sheep in northwest Iraq. Mothers at a creek beating laundry on rocks. Children wandering through trees gathering firewood.
Until the mission would go active and she would laser guide the Hellfire missile to its deadly conclusion. Making graves on the graveyard shift. More of the gallows humor she’d grown accustomed to before Dave died. But now when the scene cleared of its smoke, she found herself assessing not the damage and the dead, but the living. Where were those children with arms full of sticks for the cooking fire? Or the boy with the sheep, or the woman at the well?
Not collateral damage, she hoped. People shouldn’t be killed by accident, by the wrong place at the wrong time. Not like Dave. After hours or days of stalking, Rita would point her laser to the Hellfire’s intention, to make sure the right person was killed. It didn’t always turn out that way, but that was how it was supposed to work.
When Rita’s was back home after Dave’s funeral, her father pulled her aside one evening. He took her out to his garage and gave her his Colt .380. For protection, he said. Big cities and crime, and now Dave was gone and she was alone and you never know. He had a bench where he cleaned his guns, and right there he pulled the slide on the .380 back and forth, showing Rita the pistol’s action.
“This one,” he said, “I got it in a trade.” Her father had often made such trades. A motorbike for some home electronics. A ’78 Trans Am for a’65 Mustang. “No paperwork on it. But you’ll be okay.” He picked up another pistol on the bench, the .45 he loved. He said it was too much for Rita. Those big, fat rounds would rock the .45 right out of her little hands. No, the .380 was for her—it was a girl’s gun.
Back in Las Vegas, the nights off were hard. With Dave not around to pretend it was date night, Rita felt trapped at home. No more magic shows or 3 a.m. buffets on the Strip. She’d stay at home with no one to share her favorite TV shows with, to watch episodes one after the other. She counted the hours until she could get back to Creech, back into the trailer with something to do.
In the counting of those hours, she began to think about Darian Peaks and the hole he’d put in her life. She would turn off the TV and open up her laptop and begin typing his name into boxes—Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram. It wasn’t that hard to find him.
There was nothing on LinkedIn. The man wasn’t the kind to nurture a career. But on the other sites she found plenty. There he was all over Instagram and Facebook, living his life in digital pictures. Darian Peaks at the tattoo parlor, getting his latest ink, the UNLV rebel mascot. There he was on Lake Mead, a jet ski under him, the bright desert glare on his sunburnt face. At a blackjack table in a casino, on a barstool at Hooters, in the arms of a girlfriend. She scrolled and scrolled into his past, watching Darian Peaks age backwards in pictures by ten years. In earlier posts she saw a softer man, less abrasive, not so worn down by a never-ending Las Vegas party scene.
Google took her to whitepages.com and a listing of men all over the country going by Darian Peaks. It wasn’t a common name, so the list was short, and only one had an address in Nevada.
Her next night off, Rita drove Dave’s Charger out to the address she found. In the glove box, she had .380.
It was an apartment off the I-15, in a drab horseshoe complex curling around a parking lot. Small windows dotted beige stucco walls faded by the desert sun. The lot was filled with clean, late model trucks and sedans—someone’s pride and joy—and third-hand vehicles, Chevys and Hondas with dings in the doors and pushing 200 K on their odometers.
Rita parked the Charger on the street that fed into the lot. She watched the comings and goings. People returning from shifts at restaurants and casinos, and on their way to them. A woman in a brown smock with a name-plate pinned on her chest got into a Hyundai Sonata and pulled away. Another drove a Dodge Neon into space 13. She stepped out and collected plastic bags of groceries from the trunk, all the while swiping her thumb at a phone held up to her face. When a man came out or went in, Rita perked up from her seat, hoping for a glimpse of Darian Peaks. That first night she sat for three hours.
She went back a week later and it was the same routine. The same woman pulling into space 13, the same brown smock on her way to a chain restaurant on the Strip. But around ten a gold-colored Cadillac CTS pulled into the lot. The rims shined a bright chrome.
Rita watched Darian Peaks climb down one of the stairways. He was the man from the digital pictures, only now animated with movement, and Rita watched him walk up to the Cadillac, his gait uneven, as if he had twisted an ankle or strained a muscle. Rita let them pull out into the street and get a short distance ahead before she switched on the Charger and rolled it into the center of the road. She found a spot in the Cadillac’s wake and lingered in the light evening traffic, a car or two in between.
On West Sahara she crossed Sammy Davis Jr. Boulevard, and almost lost them on a left turn at South Las Vegas Boulevard. The Caddy moved under a pink banner announcing “Downtown Las Vegas.” It rolled past an indoor shooting range called The Strip Gun Club, past two wedding chapels and the Fun City Motel, before U-turning right where the Stratosphere Tower sliced into the sky. Rita stopped at the light and watched in her rearview as they pulled into an IHOP.
When the light changed, she made a left, circled around for a block, and entered the IHOP from the other direction. She parked and opened up the glove box, looked at the .380 and then snapped the box closed. Inside the IHOP a woman in a blue apron seated her at the counter. Rita took coffee and made a show of scanning the menu. She glanced over her shoulders until she spotted Darian Peaks three booths down. He faced her direction, with the Caddy driver sitting opposite and hidden behind a high-backed bench seat. That had to be Slim.
A violent impulse ran through Rita. The .380, go get it now… get it over with. Peaks in the chest, Slim through the high-backed seat. But that’s not how it was done.
She took out her phone, switched the camera on, and turned it around as if she wanted to take a selfie. She pretended she was browsing some feed, Facebook or Twitter. Instead she was angling her phone in the direction of Darian Peaks. It was like the drone, 10,000 feet above some compound in Waziristan, and the people on the ground none the wiser.
She did what she’d been trained for—she watched. The two men and their coffee, filling their cups up with the steel carafe left there on the table. Another man approaching, coming out of the kitchen. He’s talking up Peaks and Slim. They are friendly, and after a few minutes the man walks down the way, back into the corner of the IHOP where the men’s room is. Peaks gets up and goes the same way. All this playing out in the pixels of Rita’s phone.
When both come out, the IHOP man goes back to his kitchen. Then Peaks and Slim are throwing small bills on the table and making for the door. Rita is certain she’s witnessed Peaks scoring some Oxy, the same thing he was after the night he robbed the 7-Eleven and got Dave killed.
Back on the street, Rita kept the Cadillac in front of her again. She guessed their destination, back to the apartment. She swung the Charger into the left lane, passed the Cadillac and ran through a yellow light. When she got to the apartment, she rolled past it, hooked the Charger around the next corner, and tucked it there out of sight behind a motorhome parked curbside.
Rita could see the last of the day’s light shrinking behind rooflines. She reached over, pulled the handle and let the glovebox fall open. There was .380. She took it out and worked the slide. She stepped out of the car and thought she would tuck the pistol somewhere like she’d seen in the movies, in her waistband against her belly, or at the small of her back. But that was silly, she thought. Instead, she held the gun down and walked around the motorhome, keeping the big boxy thing as cover.
She moved through the parking lot and into some grass. She took a position under a pair of trees and leaned against one. From where she stood she had an eye on the lot all the way to the street in one direction. In the other she had the stairs she’d seen Peaks climb down not even an hour ago.
She stood there thinking any minute now, with no sign of the Caddy. But she was patient. She had waited out targets before, long hours in the trailer for the moment the right guy on a wrong day showed up, and Rita could point her laser and guide the Hellfire down to the earth.
By the time the Cadillac turned into the lot it was dark. Rita watched the headlights sweep across the line of parked cars. The men climbed out and Rita pulled up the .380 and held it out two-handed, the way her father had taught her, the way the Air Force had taught her again at Lackland, at boot camp with the Beretta M9.
From the tree to the lot they were too far, the .380 no good at that range. Peaks had something in his hand, a box, a twelve pack of beer. By the time he was close enough for her to read the label—Busch Light—Rita thought she could hit him. She saw their faces as they stepped from the lot onto the path leading to the stairs. Shoot them now, Rita thought, turn them into smudges. She could see how the corner of Peaks’ mouth turned up on one side, crooked, as he talked to Slim.
She could see Slim better now, not like in the IHOP hidden behind the tall bench seat. His arm was inked all the way down to the wrist. Peaks had a ring on his finger with a stone in it, like a high school class ring. And the way he walked as if he had turned ankle—Rita could see that even better now. The frame of each man’s chest, growing the way a lens worked, the images enlarging as you zoomed in tighter. Center mass. That was the way to shoot a man. Chunks of meat, hearts and lungs and a jumble of organs, and Rita had that in her sights.
Then their shoulders turned and made an angle as they shifted their direction toward the stairs, and Rita’s easy shot was altered into something less sure. She followed their movement up the stairs. She moved her finger inside the trigger guard… but by then, it was too late. They had made it up the flight of stairs, opened the door, and entered the apartment.
Rita heard the door snap shut, the latch bolt smacking up against the strike plate. She pulled her finger out of the trigger guard and put the .380 away.
It was a busy week in the trailer up at Creech. They flew over a training camp in the Kunar Valley for days, watching and waiting as the camp filled with fighters arriving for what must have been a week’s worth of education on roadside bombs, ambushes, and suicide vests. Only when it seemed clear every prospective student was present, like a tree ripe with fruit, did the order come to direct the Hellfires down into the valley below.
When Rita wasn’t at Creech, she was home wrapped in a bathrobe and eating cold cereal, or in bed asleep. Once, she woke from a dream she was sure wasn’t good, but which she couldn’t remember. She rolled over expecting to see Dave, the way he used to sit on the edge of the bed right there, as if he could predict the moment a nightmare would raise her from her slumber. These dreams woke her too early, stealing rest from her.
When this occurred, she opened her laptop, and more often than not found herself stalking Darian Peaks again on social media. That Thursday, Peaks posted a throwback photo. In the photo he’s sitting in a Humvee, he’s wearing the tan and brown desert cammies, a K-pot on his head, an M4 carbine resting across his chest. The caption reads “Iraq, 2006, back in the day!” A soldier, Rita thought, he had been a soldier.
A day later Rita was on the phone with her father. Rita’s mother had called, checking up on her in the regular pattern she practiced ever since her daughters had left home. Lately, she didn’t quite know how to continue this routine with Rita. How could she chat about the weather or the holidays when her daughter was a widow with that big hole in her life? She had handed the phone off to Rita’s father, and that’s how the two of them found themselves in a conversation neither had initiated.
“You sell that Toyota yet?”
“No. I’ll get around to it.”
“Keeping the Charger? Gonna be a bigger gas bill, but that’s a hell of a fast car.”
“You always did like fast cars.”
“Had a Mustang once with a 289 V8 in it. Passed up a nice Buick Skylark once. That thing had a 350 in it. Collector’s item now. Boy, did I blow that deal.”
There was a long silence on the line, both of them wondering why they were talking about cars. Rita knew it was an old habit, something to pass the time with her father. They could talk about baseball and cars, or sometimes the service, although that always seemed to end with her father shaking his head at where the world was headed… girls in the infantry.
Finally, Rita broke the silence. “Dad, I found him.”
“… I see.”
“Well, I just wanted to let you know.”
There was a long stretch of silence again before her father spoke.
“Rita,” he said, “when you’re done with it, you throw that little gun away.”
Her next day off came and she parked the Charger across the street again and watched the comings and goings. This time the wait was longer. Evening turned to night. Around eleven the Cadillac pulled into the lot. Peaks climbed down those same stairs, entered the Caddy, and they rolled away.
Rita followed them to Charleston Boulevard, way out east of the Strip. On Charleston they stepped into a red brick tavern with a marquee promoting 24-hour video poker and paycheck cashing. Rita took a seat at the bar and watched Peaks chalk a cue while Slim racked balls at a pool table. They didn’t talk much. They knocked the balls around without much success. Passing time, that’s what it looked like, not serious play. By the time the eight ball finally dropped for Slim, Darian Peaks approached the bar and Rita got the best look she could of the man she was ready to kill.
He threw a smile at the woman behind the bar. He was close now and Rita could see a mouthful of imperfect teeth. Where his close-cropped hair showed small lines of scars—she could see that too.
The woman slid a beer at Peaks and said, “How’s your leg feeling today?”
Peaks shook his head and gripped the bottle. “This’ll make it feel better.” He took a long slug, pulled the bottle away from his mouth, and grinned. “But I could use something stronger, you know what I mean?” Peaks turned and hobbled back over to the pool table. Rita watched him walk away and saw how the leg didn’t work right, the one she thought was only a pulled muscle or twisted ankle.
Rita leaned over the bar to ask the question. “What happened to him?”
“Army,” the woman said. “Can you believe he got home safe from Iraq, and then goes and breaks his leg in four places jumping out of airplanes in Georgia… hasn’t been the same since. I feel sorry for him, I really do.”
Rita felt her own impulse of sympathy rise up, but she knew from experience how to make it go away.
Soon, a third man joined the two at the pool table. It took a moment of doubt, but then Rita recognized the IHOP man. Quicker than she expected, all three were going through the door, stray balls on the table and the game abandoned.
In the Charger she pulled the .380 out of the glove box, her eyes on the Caddy’s tail lights moving down Charleston Boulevard, east toward the Strip. At Mojave Road they turned into a 7-Eleven. Rita watched as they sat in the lot with the engine running. Casing the place—that’s what Rita guessed. After a long minute, the Caddy pulled back onto Charleston. Rita passed the 7-Eleven and saw four cars in the lot, and she imagined this had stopped the men from robbing the place.
Another 7-Eleven came up a half-mile later, this one sitting on a strip mall next to a Dollar Loan Center. The Caddy rolled at a slow cruise past the shop but didn’t stop. Two miles more of shuttered pawn shops, darkened fast food joints, flood-lit auto lots, and just past a Tatoo-Body Peircing-Smoke Shop, the Cadillac found its mark. A third 7-Eleven, with a right angle of a desolate parking lot bent around it.
Rita pulled to the curb, got out, and carried the .380 to a spot behind a thick palm tree. She watched the Caddy’s lights dim as it parked near a white bin marked ICE. She could hear the motor running. Peaks got out and limped his way to the door.
Rita crossed the lot and came up to the rear of the Caddy. She could see Slim at the wheel, the IHOP man in the back seat. She moved around the Caddy, took a position near the ice bin, concealing the .380 down by her hip.
Slim swung his door open and called out to her. “Hey sweetheart… kind of late to be out… listen, you don’t want to go in that store right now… why don’t you wait a few minutes…”
He stepped out, hands grabbing the opened door, pulling his weight up out of the seat. The rear door opened too, and the IHOP man was coming out.
Slim said, “Hey lady… did you hear me?” Hands resting now on the top of the door.
Rita didn’t respond.
The IHOP man said, “I don’t know, Slim, maybe she’s mental.” He’d come around his door, taking a step in Rita’s direction.
Slim’s voice rose, but now it was directed at the IHOP man. “You idiot… don’t use my name.”
He stepped around his door and Rita pulled the .380 up.
Slim said, “Whoa… take it easy.” Hands out, passive, surrendering.
A bolt of electric noise rang out from the store entrance. The 7-Eleven door chime. Bing-bong.
Darian Peaks appeared with a paper sack in his hand, a pistol tucked in his waistband.
Rita turned the .380. Under the florescent light she could see the confused expression on his face. He looked stuck, lost, tentative. His bad leg seemed to first shuffle and then buckle, forcing him to shift his weight to the good leg. Rita watched his eyes dart over to the Caddy. A schoolboy ball player lost without direction, waiting for a coach to bark at him.
Slim said, “The gun, Darian, the gun.”
Rita watched him look down, watched his eyes come up to meet hers, watched them go back down. It was when his hand finally made the move to his waist that Rita shot him. Darian Peaks fell backwards, the sack in his hand tumbled to the ground, and small bills—fives and tens—fluttered out. Rita stepped in closer, pointing the .380 down now… up close he looked stunned and sorrowful, sprawled as he was on the warm Las Vegas concrete.
Her father would have liked the way she drove that night. Dave too. The V8 on the Charger giving it 370 horsepower as she tore up the wide six-lane asphalt strip, nothing but black desert sky above her and beyond. The Charger, it was her getaway car.
Shooting Darian Peaks, it wasn’t like the job. No time to linger up in the sky and assess the damage. Still, she could see plenty standing two feet away, and that was enough. It was a man there on the ground, not a smudge of pixels, not a digital transmission of an image of a man 8,000 miles away. But feeling sorry for him, that was something Rita would try to push down. She could tell herself he had a chance, the way he reached for his gun there in his waistband, a better chance than Dave had, a better chance than those fighters had, the ones she had killed down there in the Kunar Valley.
Part of her wanted Darian Peaks to not be dead. To rise up off the desert floor like sometimes happened on the screen in the trailer up at Creech. A dazed smudge would twinkle with movement and crawl away from the splash of the Hellfire. Part of her hoped the .380, what her father called a girl’s gun, wasn’t powerful enough to kill a man. Not like the .45 her father kept for himself. In a way, she wished Darian Peaks had not reached for his gun. Maybe she wouldn’t have shot him. It might just as well have been the other man, the driver, Slim was his name. Shooting him might have been easier. And later that Detective Calpin would come by to tell her, wouldn’t you know it, Darian Peaks was shot while robbing another 7-Eleven. Knowing it was her written on his face, but he would let it go. No witnesses, little evidence, no gun. It sounded familiar.
At home that night she looked at the clock on the stove and saw that it was only midnight. She had hours more before her body would tell her to sleep against the day. There was time to pick a place in the desert to bury the .380, make a little grave for it. And still more time beyond that to find herself alone in the night, without Dave, and then hours of dreams that disturbed her, before rising the next evening for another shift up at Creech.
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