McCants, laughed so hard he nearly fell off his chair. The reason being, the toy gun fired and I spilled microwave popcorn in a buttery avalanche. I’ll admit the slick television re-enactment had worked its magic.
The make-believe thief, standing over his pretend victims, jerked his shrouded head. “Anyone else?” he bleated at the camera, “Anyone at all?” After waiting a scripted beat, the actor pivoted. “When I say drop, do it, or die.”
One of my favorite shows, Bad Guys Backlog, had been slipping when it came to small details. The real thief, the Four-Corners Bandit, masked his commands with the weirdness of a voice synthesizer. When the bank video first broadcast, I noticed it peeking from the collar of his dark jumpsuit.
Tonight’s lead thespian chewed what little scenery the director allowed. Why not? This may have been the poor guy’s first starring role and he was forced to emote behind a mask.
He shook as he yelled once more. “Kiss the floor, slim!”
As in the actual heist, his sarcastic threat was drilled at a three-hundred pound farmer in overalls. It wasn’t until the Bandit lunged that the holdout relented.
The lean robber now strutted over his six captives while swinging his gun at the teller window. That’s where an ancient actress I recognized from a laxative ad stood, hamming up her bit part as a distressed bank manager. That included the same phony gasp she used when All-Clear StoolSoft kicked in.
He roared at her. “Pick up the pace!”
She did and the Bandit wrestled a stuffed bag over the counter, then flew out a rear exit. The voice-over reminded us the take was ninety-six grand. Backlog’s host closed in his grave baritone. “The Reno Heist will be solved. Count on it!”
The re-cap filled the lounge room’s fuzzy screen. “Be on the lookout for Maureen Elizabeth Lockhart and her partner and believed lover, Wilson Anders Kite. The disgraced Special Agents continue to be at large. The pair are considered armed and dangerous.” I turned away as the mug shots came up.
Sergeant Gabriel McCants was now asleep in his chair. I perched the popcorn bag on his gray flat-top and stared down at him. Who was worse off? McCants? Doomed to toil here for his natural existence? Or, me...guy about to be tossed outside as a free man? I pondered the evidence as I slogged off to my cell.
After my release, I worked my way down the coast, winding up in L.A. at Ray’s Motors. Eight months came and went and I never noticed the size of Ray Santiago’s nose until now, when he stood mere inches away. At the moment, though, it was his crazy eyes drawing full attention.
“Mr. Likes-her-on-top...” he said. “What’s your version?”
I was catching hell for the third time since being hired. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the sales chart. No, this was personal. I knew it the moment I walked into that chromed office. I knew it when I caught Ezmarelda Santiago’s scent, and knew I was about to receive Ray’s handmade brogue up against my tailbone.
You couldn’t blame Ray for grabbing everything in sight. He had worked damned hard transforming a two-pump garage into the valley’s third largest car dealership.
“Talking to you, lover-boy!”
His shout was interrupted by a practiced giggle from the file cabinets that floated directly to the boss. The giggle ended its journey at Ray’s bulging knuckles.
“Shut up,” he commanded. “You’re next!”
Ezmarelda shot back. “Not in front of the help, Raymond.”
Just that quickly, I had become ‘the help.’ Ray ignored her and turned to the sprawling lot outside his expansive window, sensing a mark. The pause broke his rage, but only temporarily.
“I hire you, Gleason, in spite of a criminal record...”
An old familiar speech about employer generosity was making its way up to the podium. I moved to cut it off.
“Ray, I never got near your woman.”
But, Ezmarelda was ultimately responsible for this drama. Not Ray, and not me. She wrapped her Latin purr around his ego. It worked in the past. Why should today be any different?
“Charlie’s like the rest, honey. They want bites at your apple. Then, they think twice when you walk in. ‘Course, I’m not telling you anything what you don’t already know.”
Even clumsily phrased, it was exactly what Ray Santiago needed to hear. He relaxed his knotted fists, while past him on the lot, stood the mark. I saw him plain as day.
He was a short-legged little gent in a worn blue suit, ducking in and out between the full-size cars. The man’s forehead creased as he glanced down the street right, then left. And once more, up at the window.
“Honey?” asked Ezmarelda.
Ray came around the diving board he called a desk. I stiffened, but he marched straight past to his spouse. Wisely, I stepped aside.
Ezmarelda was her usual stunning self. An orange dress snugly wrapped her eye-popping goods. The long neck adorned with flashy gems narrowed to an angular face with high cheekbones she’d never regret. Eyebrows vaulted in an ambitious arch and framed large, violet eyes. Her silken black hair was piled left because it was Friday.
Ray kissed her warmly, lovingly, and I dropped my guard. It took me that long to realize that was the purpose of the kiss.
Ray spun. He short-armed a savage uppercut at me that connected. Six years ago, I’d have ducked and cleared his swing... six years and two painful knee operations ago.
My head exploded as I fell on my ass. Ray would have a story of bravado to tell at the club all weekend long.
He said to her, “See what happens when you push and push?”
Between the pounding thumps inside my skull, I devised a plan simple in its conception. Like an idiot, I would try to reason. Instead, I chucked it and dove straight into groveling.
“Give me another chance. I’ll work nights, weekends...”
Ezmarelda took a step and for the second time placed her warm hand on the back of my neck. The first was in a Volvo I took in trade. Ray was shopping for cars in Florida and I assured him I’d hold down the fort. I failed to mention I also held down young Mrs. Santiago.
The character out in the lot hit his horn. I don’t remember which came first, the honk or her caress. But, Ezmarelda’s gesture to help me didn’t sit well with Ray. He took to punting me in the ribs.
“Raymond...” she pled, “Don’t.”
He stopped his attack long enough to dart behind his desk and rip open one of the drawers. Ray withdrew a gaudy, plated handgun and shook it in anger over me. “Get off my lot.”
I slid to my feet against the wall. My mouth felt hot, wet, bitter. Ezmarelda closed the gap between us.
“Ooh, you got blood on your shirt, Charlie.”
“Skip it,” I said.
She smoothed her hand on my mouth. “Such an animal...”
That was frosting on the gravy.
Ray sunk his claw into her bronze shoulder and spun her to him. He slapped her with vicious delight. He was about to do it again, but my self-respect returned from exile. I shoved Ezmarelda aside with my left, then, socked Ray’s brow with a right uppercut.
He staggered backwards and I followed up with a palm under his offered jaw. He bit his tongue and fell. Drops of red sprinkled the love of his life.
Ezmarelda howled at our tumbling scrum, “Stop it!”
“Agreed,” I said, stepping over his crumpled suit and out to the tasteless showroom. I neared the double doors that led to the south lot when I heard her three-inch heels chattering across the glazed floor.
“Charlie, baby! Wait!”
I skipped down the stairs. Any chance of getting back commission had just disappeared. I wanted out and, apparently, so did Ezmarelda.
“Take me with you, Charlie. Ray’ll beat me—”
She paused at that and gave me a queer look. “What am I saying? He’ll kill me, then beat me. Charlie, take me away.”
Outside, the impatient squirt was getting back in his big beater when he saw me. He exited the wreck and waddled between the minivans. He poked a stubby white finger at my chest.
“Am I interrupting, or do you work here?”
But Ezmarelda didn’t see or hear him. She wasn’t finished pushing her case. “Raymond gives me a decent allowance. I’ve been saving to get away,” she said with strange pride.
Talk about secrets poorly kept. Hell, everyone down to the janitor knew how she had had it with Ray’s mood swings.
The little guy didn’t look as old as he did from inside, but he looked plenty worried. He closed the gap between us and spoke precisely with a sour breath.
“Look, I need wheels and fast,” he said, motioning to a hulking four-door Caprice. It was a two-ton wreck, leaking anti-freeze. This was a rarity. One of the few times the customer was right. I dug my fist into my pocket.
The little man sized up my swollen face and issued a verdict, “Anyone mention you lost a war?”
I was pissed enough to flip him the keys to my loaner. “And my tank to boot. Here you go.”
When his smile dissipated, he asked, “What’s it about?”
“Eight months wasted.”
“I’ve no patience for sales gimmicks.”
“Your lucky day, friend. We’re fresh out.” I pointed to the flagpole in front. “Over there, the red pickup. Take it.”
I turned to dry Ezmarelda’s real tears, when I heard my truck grind into gear. In a flash, it breezed past us.
The little man roared down Cahuenga Boulevard. He had the map from the glove compartment spread flat across the wheel. I didn’t think he’d do it... take the truck, I mean. You get a read on someone and they throw you change-ups.
Emotionally spent, Ezmarelda leaned on a Range Rover for support. I just walked away, confident that at some point, my feet would steer me to the bus depot.
* * *
The mirror in the bus restroom vibrated while I wiped water from my chin. The face I took stock of belonged to a decent looking twenty-seven year old. But, for the first time, I noted a burned-out pigskin phenom without any prospects. I swung myself back out to Row Five, Seat B.
In time, we neared a black Ford pitched on the shoulder, parked behind a truck crunched in a dry wash. The truck’s rear wheels hung motionless in the air. Across the road, I sighted an immense woman in a trench coat kneeling before a boulder. Bountiful waves of silver hair cascaded over wide shoulders and blocked her face. Her hands were busy working at something.
Back on my side, a thin man with hay for hair studied the wreck. His worn black duster flapped in the breeze. As we got closer, the woman bolted in front of the bus to join him. Her trench coat inflated, resembling a ship’s billowing sails. The silver mane still hid her features.
It had rained and my window was specked with orange clay. The view, though, was clear enough. I could make out the image of a man bent at the waist sitting in a truck - my truck.
His breath would never sour again, his brow never crease.
The pick-up was folded into a cherry red accordion, its windshield having spidered into a billion interlocking prisms. A fear of airbags caused me to disconnect the pickup’s system last month. Today, someone else had paid the price.
What to do? The foul mood I was nursing said to forget it. All right, I was pissed when I gave him the keys, but he was the one who stole the truck.
Bad things happen to bad people. Or, so I’m told.
My body ached. I slouched to grab a few winks. Visions of that big silver doll stomping across my daydream made me shiver. I didn’t envy whoever shared sun-ups with her.
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