The One T Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By K. A. Liedel

The One T: Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By K. A. Liedel

K. A. Liedel is an emerging author based in Delaware and a former staff writer for Slant Magazine whose short fiction has appeared in several journals and magazines, as well as the dark literature anthology, Coffin Bell One.

*****

Someone once told me that all murderers eventually end up in Florida. I’ve ascribed it, for some reason, to my father, despite the fact that he never once traveled east of the Mississippi, nor had any wisdom to share outside of cattle hauling.

Whether it was dad’s or not, I’ve chewed on that nugget on and off for years. Between clean jobs and brutal ones it came and went, until like all ruminations it faded for a time, stuck to that nebulous fly paper that lines the back of the brain.

When it came unstuck again I was heading down 95 towards the Sunshine State. Long drives mean long stretches of thinking, and as I was passing all those nicotine-yellow smoke shops and truck farm booths, I reckoned that, more likely than not, I wouldn’t be heading north again until I’d killed someone myself.

What a goddamn laugh.

Per the usual, Rory was in the passenger seat. The fact that he was barely a teen and had already seen enough death for ten lifetimes wasn’t lost on me. I kept telling myself I’d gotten him away from worse things—whatever one defined as worse than a never-ending road trip of blood contracts and odd jobs. My ward he was not.

“Long ride,” he said, looking out at the scraggle of palm trees that lined the freeway. “We gonna be able to get to the beach at all?”

“If there’s time,” I lied.

He made a puzzled sound. “They don’t look as nice as they do on TV.”

“What don’t?”

“The trees.”

Evergreen wisdom, that. We’d soon learn all of Florida had that quality. Our destination was a nameless pawn shop in Fort Pierce, a lifeless, flat runt of land that went on for a few miles before mercifully drowning itself in the sea.

More of a desert wasteland than a tourist trap. Took us five straight hours of driving south to get there, and even then, there was too much of a tangible descriptor to be used for such a place. I could practically smell the dread baked into the town, something old and hopeless and fetid that ran under each broken stretch of road, each slumping trailer park, each strip of dirty, oil-stained beach. It wasn’t clear to me anymore whether Florida was a lodestone for murderers, or just the place people came to die.

The pawn shop glinted red in the morning sun. Every other storefront in the shoebox-sized strip mall lay dark or vacant. I wondered what sort of profit a shop with no foot traffic could make and then immediately filed that question away. No doubt there’d be more of these strange inconsistencies waiting in the near future.

Took us five straight hours of driving south to get there, and even then, there was too much of a tangible descriptor to be used for such a place.

“You know the drill,” I told Rory, gliding the Malibu into the lot.

He repeated the rules as robotic as always. “Keep my distance. Get back to the car if it at all goes pear-shaped. Drive off if someone pulls a gun—”

“Or if you hear shots.”

“You didn’t let me finish!”

Inside, the owner sat behind the glass counter in an electric-blue golf shirt. He was the picture of a Floridian pawnshopper, facial hair growing in blotches across his jowls, eyes as flat and brown as a stinkbug. Brewing with a false ease, he shot a bottomless look at me and maneuvered onto his stool.

“So you’re Harriet Mitchum,” he said in a phlegm-slicked cough.

“For the last forty-two years, sure. Most people call me Hatty.”

“I remember when most people called you the Black Arca.”

A bad penny, that old handle. Followed me everywhere, even here to the withered dick-tip of America. If I’d chosen to go totally clean, it’d have been a nuisance. But for a fixer-for-hire like me, it was just another item in the tool bag.

“Don’t know what that means,” he added. “Never did.”

Arca is Latin for box,” I said helpfully, looking over the cut-rate watches and necklaces he was hocking. Behind him hung all varieties of clocks and mantlepieces, some in such poor shape that I knew they’d been separated from their previous owners with something other than monetary offerings.

“What about old Zel? Is it true you took him out when you were down in Scarboro?”

I sucked in some of that thick Florida air, smiling to myself. Behind me, Rory flinched.

“Man was a designated marksman,” he added. “Medaled.”

“Seems you know an awful lot about me, don’t you?”

“I like to read up on those I hire.”

“Black Arca means black box,” I said, making sure every word was a slow, jutting thorn.

He rubbed his chin. “Still don’t make sense.”

“What escapes a black box, sir?”

“I dunno.”

“Nothing. Nothing escapes.”

He eyed me again, sniffing. He thought he’d pegged me when I waltzed into his shop: middle-aged woman in a blouse and skirt that was a little-too—that is, a little too zaftig for his taste. Hair a little too dark. Gawking teenage “son” behind her a little too indicative of my maternal impulses. I recognized that scathing once-over.

But now—now a different color had now come into his eyes. The Black Arca had arrived in his little corner of hell.

“My guy told me your body count was in the dozens before you left Baldwin’s crew. That true?”

It was much higher than that. But I wasn’t here to brag.

“Time is ticking,” I said, as exasperated as I’d been all day. “Any other questions you want to get out of the way before we talk business?”

He tossed a thumb towards Rory. “Yeah. This your kid?”

I’d learned from experience that a twist point could be useful, depending on the situation. Sometimes a truth could be leveraged. But that was rare. A lie, on the other hand, could always be leveraged.

“He is. There a problem with that?”

“Nah. Just never seen a mom do this kind of work. Never seen a kid involved, either.”

“I’ll be fifteen in three months,” Rory pointed out.

“He’s not involved in the jobs,” I lied again, shoving him back a bit with a gentle hand. “Hard to get a babysitter in this business. You get me?”

“Say no more.”

“I won’t. You called me, remember?”

He swallowed. “It’s about a guy.”

“It always is. This personal?”

“Business. Guy is a scraper.”

“Which is?”

He ran a palm over his wispy head, patting back the stray hairs as if it mattered. He had more hair on his neck than his head. “Professional the police call in after they’re done with a crime scene. Once all the evidence’s been bagged.”

“Cops don’t do it themselves?”

“Not around here. They use a service. One or two-man teams come in and steam clean all the blood and guts out or whatever else. It’s a good gig.”

That conjured the beginning of an honest smile out of me. “If you’re stomach’s hard enough. So what’d this scraper do to you?”

The client was silent for a few moments, each one strung up awkwardly alongside the other. I could hear a damp wheezing under his sweaty polo.

“It’s important you tell me,” I reminded him. “Can’t do my job otherwise.”

He swallowed again. “We got a deal with this guy. After the cops clear out, he gets sticky fingers. Understand?”

I couldn’t help but respect the hustle, base as it was. A grown man robbing a corpse—or its roommates—was absolutely the pinnacle of shamelessness. A pyramid unmatched.

I let that nascent smirk on my lips spread into a full grin. “I’d imagine his fingers get even stickier in the ritzier joints.”

“Why you grinning like that? We pay him fair price for whatever he brings us. It’s a clean business. Victimless.”

Sure—about as victimless as mine. I had to laugh. The whole exchange reminded me of why I struck out on my own: flimsy notions of fairness and rules that kept getting thrown over the dirty parts like chewed-up sofa covers. Always seemed strange to me. The most dependable way to survive this business is eyes open. No apologia, no skirting by on someone else’s malice. If you’re going to hell, best be on your own two feet. Not some piggyback ride.

“So I’ll ask again,” I said, still laughing to myself, “what’d he do to you?”

“Last week, cops went in on the second-in-line bid. Sort of thing our scraper usually signs up for.” The pawnshopper leaned back, crossing his arms. “He just up and disappeared. Swear to God. Day later, I’m suspicious enough to check the inventory, see if there was something weird about the shit he brought in on the last job. Never know, this business.” He smacked the counter. “Sure enough, there was a piece missing.”

“Something he picked up on his last scrape?”

He nodded. “Just a little ring.”

No apologia, no skirting by on someone else’s malice. If you’re going to hell, best be on your own two feet. Not some piggyback ride.

I threw my chin towards the murky parking lot. The new sun had yet to light it up. “I’m sure you get some theft round these parts?”

“Not this thing. It’s just some fake-gold band we thought we could flip for a few bucks.”

I straightened a bit, clicking my nails on the counter. This run-of-the-mill contract had gotten a little more interesting. “You’re telling me he stole something completely worthless?”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Far as we know, thing is rubbish. Like I said, fake gold. Fake quartz stone, too. Lil’ Suzie’s first jewelry. Something you’d buy at a mall kiosk. We were probably gonna pawn it off at a farmer’s market or something, if not just throw the fucking thing away.”

“Who’s we?”

“Three of us are on the deal. Me, Hash—that’s the scraper guy—and my partner, Davey.” He stopped, the name drifting like a hangman.

I stared at him. “You gotta tell me, remember? Everything.”

He licked his lips. “Davey’s dead. Found him shot in his car.”

That word I used before—interesting, was it? Might’ve been too mild a choice.

Rory and I were back in the Malibu before we exchanged any words. The day had finally arrived, revealing a deep blue sky striped with wispy, gill-shaped clouds. The interior of the car smelled like a sweaty tourist, but we didn’t mind. The Malibu had become a second home.

It was already a goddamn fortress. I’d had the Classic since Harold’s retirement. So a decade, at least, and still a gorgeous piece of metal. Harold had taken the time to outfit it with all sorts of goodies, most hidden beneath that candy-red chassis he’d always insisted on calling by its official color, firethorn: about a dozen or so pistols and rifles, ammo for days, plus some Vietnam-era M26A1s, a kit case of plastique, enough cyanide capsules to kill a royal family and their pets, a set of never-used throwing knives, and a few other tightly-sealed vials of nasty shit that I hadn’t the faintest clue how to use but knew for sure had no known antidotes, all nestled gently into dozens of hand-sewn pockets that padded the upholstery from cab to trunk.

And jerky. Harold had insisted on jerky. A whole duffel bag of vacuum-packed buffalo fastened to the upper tailgate, just in case I’d have to do some bushcraft. I was younger then, so I forgave him for thinking I’d ever let myself sleep shoeless in a lean-to. Just because I can clean viscera off a P938 barrel doesn’t mean I’m going to wipe my ass with a plant.

“Alright,” I said to Rory, pulling back onto the highway, “you’re young still. Gray matter still springy. Tell a middle-aged woman why a guy with a nice gig would kill a fixer and then make off with a worthless ring?”

Rory had already kicked his sneakers off, propping his naked feet up on the dash. “We don’t know that Hash killed Davey.”

“True.”

“Also—maybe the ring isn’t worthless.”

“Think they appraised it wrong?” I waved the air out of my face and quickly cranked down the driver side window. “Jesus, you ever wash your feet, kid?”

“Possibly.” He smiled. “That was about the appraisal, not my feet. I never wash my feet.”

“Never?”

“Why bother? Soap hits them on the way down the drain.”

I laughed and found myself quickly forgiving the smell. “Not likely they messed up the estimate. It’s something they do for a living. They think it’s fake, it’s probably fake.”

“I hear a but coming.”

Kid was smart. Always had been. Another sign I was getting older was me taking so long to recognize it.

“There’s more here than just a disappearance,” I reminded him. “The value of the ring might be the inflection point. There’s a lie somewhere. We just don’t know what it is yet.”

“Or who’s telling it,” he added.

I gave him a wink.

“He knew about Zel.”

“These guys share stories,” I told him, brushing it off.

“You’re saying every crook in America knows each other?”

“As one of those crooks, I’m absolutely saying that, yes.”

“You also told him I was your son.”

Suddenly it felt like the pit of a stone fruit had lodged itself into my stomach. “Yeah?”

“And that I don’t get my hands dirty.”

“Say what you’re gonna say, Rory.”

“I dunno what I’m trying to say,” he confessed. “Just—the way you said it, makes me think you want it to be true. Much as it ain’t.”

“Kid…you’re thinking about it too much.”

Wasn’t the time or the place. Maybe not even the decade or the planet. Not for this talk. I was nobody’s mom, least of all some charity case I’d picked up while the adrenaline from a contract kill was still messing with my judgment.

New rule: no meaningful conversations for the first forty-eight after a job. That goes double for conversations with kids.

I handed him the little bit of envelope the pawnshopper had given us. Hash’s address.

“Focus. We need to find this street.”

As was expected, the perp’s trailer was a mess. It had all the markings of a quick exit—or at least made to look that way. The front door was swinging on its hinges, not a mark on it. Dishes sat on the ratty, lime-green carpet, arranged like proximity mines. Some dirty, some still wearing a crisp, clean barcode sticker. Fridge door propped open by a half-spent bottle of Pernod.

Rory waited on the step. He knew the protocol. Keep out. Keep watch. Come only if called. I’d nail it into his head with a forging hammer, if I could.

“Car’s still here,” he said offhand through the open door.

I ignored the ping of annoyance I felt at him sticking his nose in again. “Where?”

“Out back. If it’s his, looks like he tried to park it in the bushes.” He paused. “Didn’t do a very good job of it.”

A hellish breeze rolled in from the open kitchen window, whistling across the necks of the old beer bottles lounging in the sink. I unclicked the Sig Sauer from my jacket. Questions or no questions, if I had to shoot first, I’d shoot first. Especially if it was only a two-dollar ring at the other end of the inquiry line.

Fortunately, it wouldn’t come to that. Not this time, anyway. I heard the breathing before I even left the kitchen. It was coming somewhere from the squat hallway at the back of the trailer. The only hiding place between me and the bedroom at the other end was a narrow closet. Short, gulping breaths escaped from under the bottom gap.

No time like the present. I pulled the gun, aimed, and slid open the door.

He wasn’t at all what I expected. The perp was standing straight as a board, his shoulders yanked back by his dread. He was thin enough to disappear between the hanging clothes, neck so drawn you could see every swallow rippling down. And then there were his eyes. Despite the sodden, stinking darkness that permeated the inside of the trailer, they glowed like high beams.

Not the eyes of a killer, that was for sure.

I clawed the row of hangers towards me, airing him out. “Lotta people looking for you, Hash.”

He just stared, bottom teeth jutting.

“Why don’t you step out of the closet so we can talk?”

“I can’t do that.”

“Sure you can. Talking is easy.”

He tried to shrink further back, flattening himself against the closet’s laminate. “I don’t have the ring on me,” he squeaked.

“Get out, Hash. If not, I’ll help you.”

He stared some more.

“You don’t want me to do that,” I added.

To his credit, he did get out. I walked him out of the hallway and over to the couch, a rough-threaded, marigold-shaded thing that looked every bit like something he pinched from his grandma. He collapsed onto it in a woosh of breath and whimpers. I decided to stay standing, get a real look at him.

Wasn’t sure what I was gonna do yet. Depended on how it played out. Depended on that lie me and Rory talked about in the car. How thick it was.

“Why don’t you tell me what this is really all about?” I asked.

Hash didn’t answer. He was chewing his fists, both balled up and squirming together, kneading themselves into bone.

“Now.”

He gawked up at me. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“Think of me as the girl who’s gonna help you get out of a fix. Whether that means dead or alive is up to you.”

He blinked and sucked in a shivering lungful of air.

I nudged him some more. “Your business partner wants the ring back. He tells me it’s worthless. He also told me your other amigo is dead and you’re the reason why. Thing is, none of it passes the sniff test. And bad smells bring out my worst instincts. So why don’t you fill in the blanks for me?”

“Tom did it,” he said, rushing to get his words out. “He’s the one who got to Davey.”

I don’t usually do names…unless they’re for targets. Names do nothing but complicate.

“Tom—that the pawnshop boss?”

“Yeah. Tommy. I swear to God, he’s the guy you want.”

“And why’s that?”

“He found out, is why. Davey wanted the ring for himself. Told me he’d slip me extra if I lifted it from Tom’s shop.”

I couldn’t help but let a dog-tired sigh escape my lips. “Why does everyone want this fucking ring?”

He eyed the gun, slowly inching towards the other end of the couch. “I don’t know what it’s worth, alright? I don’t even care. I just move the stuff. I don’t keep it.”

“He’s telling the truth,” Rory’s voice chimed in coolly from the open window.

“Zip it,” I said, keeping my eyes down the sight. “Lying to me would definitely be stupid, Hash.  Problem for you is, I’m not sure where you fit in the hierarchy of smarts yet.”

Hash was poking his eyes outside, wondering who the hell my little helper was. “Listen—it’s sitting in an old reservoir. Same place I keep all the other shit. I’ll take you right to it. Long as you don’t knock me off like Tom did Davey.” He looked at me. “I’ve got no fucking clue why they were fighting over this stupid thing. Just let me go and you can have it.”

Sounded like a plan to me.

I made Hash drive. It’s good to keep a stooge’s hands busy, not have him twiddling his thumbs in the backseat, thinking up new and bothersome machinations. From the passenger side, I had my Sauer trained on him, the snout poking out from a quarter-thick hole in my jacket’s breast pocket. Not the kind of getup I’d choose for a drive in Florida, but sometimes work has a strict dress code.

“Drive like you’re trying to pass a test,” I told him. “You try anything, even just telling a joke, and I’ll put a bullet through your ear.”

“Absolutely, Miss Mitchum. Don’t have to tell me twice.”

We reached the place none too soon: the sun was sinking fast, even as the air kept boiling. With the three of us stuck in that old car, it was an oven on wheels. I was almost glad to see the reservoir. It stuck up out of the flush Florida earth like a bald head, thin patches of straw-yellow grass covering its mud scalp. A few people were milling around—mostly runners, some old folk. Nothing too shady. I could see the grotty little pump house leering at me from the summit.

Hash wasn’t much of a flight risk. I’ve seen the body language before. He wanted me to cut the tether for him. So I told him to step out of the car and close the door. He did. Then I turned to Rory.

“You know the drill,” I said to him for the hundredth time.

He glowered at me from the backseat. “That’s all you say to me anymore.”

“You gonna play around or be serious?”

Don’t leave the car,” he mumbled.

“And?”

“Pear shaped, yadda yadda, same old, same old.”

“You unhappy with our arrangement?”

“No,” he lied. It wasn’t anger strung through his voice. Something else. Sounded like worry.

“Just be patient, kid. Worst this guy’s gonna give me is a chase. Sounds like old Tom is the real danger ‘round these parts.”

I started sidling out of the passenger side.

“Hatty…”

“Yeah?”

“Still doesn’t smell right.”

I laughed through my nose. “Yeah, I know, kid.”

“Don’t let him get behind you.”

Door shut and locked, I tipped my head up to the pump house. Hash looked like he was chattering. The Sig Sauer in my hand felt as hot and heavy as a baking stone. Couldn’t wait ‘til I could get out of this damn state.

“You lead, Hash.”

He smoothed his hair back and led me up the hill, cutting directly across the walking path. It was steep going, particularly in heels. But a kink in the foot is no different than any other pain. You just file it away with a little bit of adrenaline.

I assumed we’d be going into the pump house. But the gate was chained up thick, the windows boarded with one or two punch-outs from a past hurricane. Hash just rounded it, walking straight towards the access bridge. I hoofed up a little. To my surprise, the entire reservoir was empty. Its bottom was hollow, a concrete grave with tar-black water stains lining its separation joints.

I don’t like being surprised like that. Especially in places I’ve never been.

Hash didn’t say anything. He made his way down the utility ladder and into the dried-out guts, waiting patiently for me to follow. The sides of the reservoir were sheer. No way out except back up the ladder. If this was a trap, the snare was just as much around his neck as it was mine.

I clacked my way down the ladder. Goddamn heels.

“No funny business, Hash.”

“You kidding me? I want this over with.”

“Just take me to ring.”

There was quite a bit of gungy scrap on the bottom, all twisted together, intestine-like and rutted. Corrugated metal, stray wire, rotted pallets, abandoned carts. Plenty of hiding spots.

Hash paced over to a coiled mound of blankets and folding chairs and started digging through the pile. Even from a distance, I could see the sweat slicking him head to toe. He was scared out of his gourd.

“Just hand it over,” I told him. “Then you can walk.”

When he turned, he had his hands cupped. I marched over, fingers slipping off the grip panel of my Sauer. Too much heat. Too much sun. This damned place.

“Cough it up, Hash.”

His hands fell as I reached him. Nothing there. Nothing in his eyes, either, as he stared down at his feet. Just two vacant holes burning white. He mumbled something.

“What?” I said, reaching in to double-check his hands.

“They made me do it. Not my fault.”

I heard the shot before I saw it. A razor-edged whistle. The spark bounced off the cement, not three inches from my feet. Somewhere from above. The shooter reloaded.

I dove before they could get another chance, angling straight for the chairs. There was no other cover. Hash stood still as a scarecrow.

Another shot. Missing my head by a foot at the most. Gasps came sprinting over the lip of the reservoir. People had noticed. If the shooter was smart, he’d close in, knowing his time was short. Witnesses and panic always get the most stoic trigger fingers itching.

“Not my fault,” Hash whispered, covering his head.

I swore I was going to shoot him right in the fucking face.

I squinted up at the walkway, trying to get a read at the triggerman. Nothing but the sun stared back. Even now, it blazed orange and awful, blinding me every which way. I wouldn’t even be able to hit a mountain. Good as dead.

I’d fucked up. Too eager to prove myself without the old crew. Too many corners cut in trying to reach the finish line. In my line of work, it’s the one T you don’t cross that gets you made. This was the T. The slip-up that would make this empty, rusty pit my grave.

Rory would be left alone again, too. Not sure that was a bad thing, considering the alternative.

A third shot hummed across the sky. Different this time. A sharper bullet. Faster. And way off. Not aimed at me. Hash let his arms dangle as his head snapped up towards the ladder.

Another shot, same as the last. Something fell. I looked up into the sun again.

I saw a body hanging over the railing of the pump house. Wasn’t there before. Then I saw Rory. It was the latter image that sent a pang of guilt screaming through my heart. He was standing behind the shooter’s bloodied frame, almost casual, holding one of the Malibu’s many secrets, a Micro Desert Eagle he no doubt fished out from its hiding place above the passenger visor. The Eagle was still coughing up gun smoke. I felt bad. Honestly, I did.

Granted, I would’ve felt worse about him shooting a man in the head if that man wasn’t aiming at my own. But I still felt bad, in either case.

“I think we found Davey,” he called, unflustered. He even cracked a smile. “Never seen a man die twice before.”

The words didn’t come. The shape of him, gun-toting like he was born with it in his hand, had plugged my breath up. I spent a moment wondering whether I’d been wrong this whole time. Maybe I wasn’t foisting anything on him. Maybe he was just marinating it in on his own.

Luckily, it passed. I had work to do to, and it shook the notion from my mind. I needed to squeeze Hash before the cops arrived.

I took a step towards him. He pleaded something unintelligible. Never bothered to run.

“You better explain yourself while you still can.” I pointed up at the oozing body. “That Davey?”

He followed my hand with his sallow eyes. I didn’t need to see anything more to know that the answer was yes.

“Time to come clean, Hash.”

He nearly sobbed. “We just wanted the car, alright?”

I haven’t been struck dumb much in my life. This was one of those rare instances.

“The Malibu?”

Hash provided an eager puppy nod. “All sorts of stories about what’s in your car. All those goodies. They’d sell high, if you were out of the picture.”

My reputation preceded me. As did Harold’s old treasure trove.

“So,” I said. “Reel me in. Clean up the mess. Strip the car.”

“Please…”

I just looked at him. “You stupid fucking idiots.”

Such a senseless thing. Even with the cache, the Malibu was just a hunk of metal and rubber and cloth. It wasn’t worth killing a fly over, let alone me.

Rory called down again from atop the ladder. “Hatty? We should get outta here.”

“Get in the car—and you better damn well put the Eagle back, too.”

He did as he was told. Hash would do the same, if he knew what was good for him. He was kneeling before me now, head down, looking ready for an execution. Or maybe a baptism.

I wasn’t in the mood for either.

“You owe me a favor, Hash,” I smiled. “Two, actually.”

I emptied the bag onto Tom’s counter, waiting for him to say something. He hadn’t looked at what I’d brought him yet. It was well past midnight and near to a hundred degrees on the mercury. Tom wiped his face with his collar, trying to pretend he was happy to be getting the nonexistent ring back. Trying to hide the fact that his brain was probably scrambling, shellshocked at how I could still be alive.

He sidled up to me at the counter. He was getting much more than a ring.

“Glad to see how relieved you are,” I said.

He shot a glance at my low-cut blouse and then finally let his eyes drift onto the glass. They were greeted by a finger—Hash’s, severed completely from its hand and marinating in a slick of dark blood. I have a predilection for spectacle, at times.

Tom nearly choked on his own tongue. When he found the courage to look up at my face again, his throat bulged in pure, naked fear. I was glad I made Rory stay in the car this time.

“I should’ve known when you dropped all those little bits of trivia about me,” I said. “All your questions. Wanting to know it was really the Black Arca who’d come down to your shop. You get credit for doing your homework.”

“Hatty, listen—”

“Props for the imaginary ring idea, too.” I revealed my Sauer from its place in my jacket, swirling Hash’s finger around with the muzzle. The hacked-up pinky glided about like an ice cube on a pool of jam. “You pulled it out like a magician’s trick. Sleight of hand shit. Kept me guessing about something that didn’t deserve it. A tiny lie to mask the big one. Sort of like how you guys pretended Davey was dead, so I wouldn’t think to account for him cornering me…”

His hands inched up. “Whatever you w—”

“Shut up. Davey is dead—for real this time. Hash, on the other hand…well, I’ve got a special ask for him, long as his hand holds up. He’s already put those scraping skills to good use getting rid of Davey’s body. And in about an hour, he’s gonna do the same for yours.”

A streak of hot, wild lightning zipped through Tom’s face. “Fucking piece of…”

“Don’t worry, Tom. I’m being fair about it. He gets to keep half your stuff after he’s done cleaning up.”

He tried to scramble for whatever shotty he’d taped below the counter, dribbling something else out. Whatever was left of his rage, I suppose. I put two bullets through his heart to save him the trouble.

“Tom—I said no worries. Shop’s in good hands.”

I took Rory to see the ocean. Early morning, so probably not what he’d envisioned. Moon was still high and bright as a button, the waves purple and flat as they rolled in, whispering when they caromed across the sand. The kid dipped his feet and stared out at the void.

Sitting there, watching him, it was hard to shake the feeling I was growing soft. I shouldn’t have let Hash live. I shouldn’t have brought Rory here, either. I wasn’t his mom. Hardly even his guardian. He was more useful to me as a wingman than anything else, as he ably proved at the reservoir.

And yet thinking about his utility still gave me a little start, a guilty wrench of the nerves. Seemed like he almost enjoyed shooting that man down. Was it too late? Maybe on the next job I’d drop him off at a police station or a child welfare office and drive off towards oblivion. Maybe.

“How’d you know?” I asked him, not knowing exactly what I meant.

He knew. “What, that it was a trap? Well…that Hash guy. He said he didn’t know who you were, but he called you by your name when he was driving us to the reservoir.”

“So?”

“So how would he know it? Was the other guy who hired you. Had to mean they all talked about you at some point.”

Evil as it was, all I could manage was big, dumb smile. I beamed it at him.

Rory smiled back as he strolled along the water’s edge. “Guess it’s too much to ask for some ice cream, huh?”

He kicked at the sand and ran his fingers through the soapy breakers. Shot a man in the head not a day earlier and hadn’t said a word about it. Shot a man to protect me.

My smile faded.

“What’s your favorite flavor?” I asked him.

He had no less than nine favorites, which he at once began to list. The Malibu waited for us, gleaming in the last of the moonlight.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed The One T, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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