The sun glowed red through my eyelids, and registered about the same time as the knocking on the door and the woman’s voice. She called again, but not loudly, and I said, “Okay, give me a minute,” and went into the bathroom, pissed and threw water on my face. I got my pants on and opened the front door. “I’ll be out of your way.” I could smell myself as I tugged my shirt on over my head.
She nodded and moved past me with a brush and cleanser. She was squat and dark, probably some Indian blood in her. My hands shook a little as I tied my shoes and pulled out my wallet to leave her a couple bucks. The bills were gone, and I recalled I’d had company. The credit cards were missing too, but they were overdrawn. She’d left my ID. I grabbed my guitar and bag and walked outside, past the housekeeper’s cart, past Ronny’s and the other guys’ empty rooms, down the stairs, past the empty space where the van had been and into the office.
The desk clerk nodded when I motioned toward the urn, and I filled a Styrofoam cup. He was watching a revival show on the TV. I begged a couple aspirin from him, washed them down with the scorched brew and thumbed up Ronny’s number.
He answered on the third ring. “You’re fired.”
“Ronny, calm down.” I looked toward the waffle joint across the highway. I didn’t see the van in the parking lot. “Where are you?”
“Route Seventeen, somewhere in North Carolina.”
“What the fuck?’
The clerk said, “Hey, now.” He was frowning, and I noticed the tiny cross he wore over his white shirt.
I pushed through the door and repeated, “What the fuck?” I turned away from the sun.
Ronny didn’t answer for a moment. I could hear road noise, from the highway fifty feet away, along with bad music playing over his radio. He said, “I’m a professional. I’m not gonna work with guys – ”
“Come on, Ron.”
“ – guys that show up high, play like shit and disappear when it’s time to load out at the end of the night.”
“Hey, I got lucky.”
“Good for you. I hope she was fun.”
“Look, I’ll catch up with you in Rehoboth and we’ll talk.”
“I’m tired of talking. In fact – ”
“Don’t hang up. Come on, who you gonna get to play?”
“Pete, I got a lot of phone numbers, and as you’ve pointed out, my songbook ain’t that challenging. Philadelphia alone, there’s probably ten thousand high school boys sitting on the edge of their beds, playing the guitar every bit as good as you. Most of them would jump at the opportunity.”
“Yeah, everybody wants to play with a legend.” I forked a cigarette out of my shirt pocket and lit up. “What year was that song?”
“Laugh all you want. I had a hit record.”
“What about the money for last night’s gig? What about my amp?”
“That’s forfeit, for last night and a lot of other last nights. You don’t like it, take me to court.” He hung up.
I finished the cigarette and went into the office. The clerk frowned when I asked him to hold my bag for a few hours but put it behind the counter. I picked up my guitar case and walked out, down the sandy shoulder of the highway toward what passed for a business district. There were strip malls and burger chains and gas stations on either side of the road.
Beyond that was the club we’d played the night before, The Seaside. That was rich – the sea was a mile away. A shop in the middle of it all had a sign painted across the plate glass that read Big Hearted Billy’s over a valentine the size of a keg of beer. Beneath that, in smaller script was Money to Loan. I went inside. There were rifles and shotguns hung along the back wall, wrist watches and jewelry on display under the glass counter top, shelves full of cameras, TV’s, tools and construction equipment, and even a riding mower on the floor. Musical instruments were hung from the ceiling – mostly guitars and basses, and some horns.
The guy behind the counter looked me over and skipped the small talk. He folded the paper he was reading and said, “Let’s see what you’re packing, Hoss,” and patted the counter twice.
I hefted the case and opened the lid. He picked up the guitar by its neck and looked it over, front and back. “What do you want to do? Sell or pawn?
“I only need a loan.”
He continued to inspect the instrument, and sighted down the neck. “Action looks okay. I’ll give you thirty-five dollars and hold it in the back for thirty days.”
“That wouldn’t even get me out of town. What if I sold it?”
“Best I could do is let you have a hundred and a quarter for this.”
“What are you talking about? This is a Fender.”
“The neck might be, yeah. The body ain’t.” He tapped it with a knuckle. “Neither are them pickups.”
“Those are Duncans. They’re worth twice that all by themselves”
“Don’t matter.” He stroked the strings, letting them ring. “This instrument has seen a whole lot of use.”
“It’s vintage. It sounds great.”
“I’m sure it does, when you play it. That’s not the point. It don’t matter what it’s worth to you, it’s how much I can sell it for. Kids buy guitars, and kids want shiny, not worn.” He put it away and shut the case. “I’d be doing well if I could get much more than one and a half for it.”
While I considered my choices, he opened the register and said, “If you got to think about it, you don’t really want to sell. I’ll give you forty dollars and hold it for you. Fifty-five gets it back.”
“No, give me the one twenty-five. I’ll buy it back off you, if I make it down this way.”
He wrote up a slip and counted out the bills. “Might be here, might not.”
The bus station was back in the direction I’d come, on the far side of the motel. The fare was more than I’d counted on, and only left ten dollars. The next bus wasn’t leaving for three hours. There was no real hurry; my landlord was close to putting me on the street.
I crossed the highway to the waffle house and took a chance on their coffee. It smelled better than what they had at the motel, and the waitress smiled at me as she filled my cup. “Dolly” was stitched over the pocket of her blouse. “The special’s an open faced turkey sandwich, with mashed sweets and cranberry jelly – sort of like Thanksgiving in May. But you take your time.” The menu was printed on the paper placemat. I could afford the BLT.
She set it in front of me, and looked around and said, “It’s been awful slow. We usually get a better lunch crowd on a Saturday.” She had a heavy hand with the makeup and was chunky, but she wasn’t bad. I took a bite, and nodded while I chewed the tasteless sandwich. She squinted at me and said, “Weren’t you in the band up the road there last night?” I admitted that I was.
“Y’all were good. I was sorry I had to leave early. I have to get here in time to open up in the morning.”
“How about tonight? Y’all still there? I’m off on Sundays.” She stretched, and added, “I like to dance.”
“The band’s playing a show in Delaware tonight.”
She chuckled and said, “Ain’t that just too bad for me?” She looked at the clock on the wall behind her and added, “Delaware’s a long ways from here. You’re cutting it close.”
“I had a falling out with the boss and we parted ways.”
“Well, that’s a shame.” She smiled at me and said, “Will you be sticking around, then?”
She had a couple of gaudy rings on her right hand but none on her left. I said, “I’m not sure. What is there to do around here?” I smiled.
“There’s just a few I know about. Do you have a car?”
I shook my head.
“Why don’t you wait right here.” She touched the back of my hand. “I get done real soon, and I’ll show you the sights.”
I said okay, and went across the highway for my bag and back, and drank coffee until she said, “Come on, handsome.” I made to pay the check but she took it from me and giggled.
— — —
I hung her towel on the curtain rod, stepped out of the shower, and through the trailer to her bedroom. Dolly was on the phone, saying “I’ll see you in a while, then,” and hung up, propped herself up on her elbows and said to me, “Stop. Just stand there for a second.” Her eyes went up and down my body, and she added, “You look delicious.”
I laughed, conscious of myself, and opened my bag for a change of clothes.
She hopped out of bed. “My turn.” She grabbed a handful of her hair and inhaled. “God, I don’t know how you could stand to be near me. I still smell hash browns.” She grabbed a clean towel from the closet and said, “Oh, yeah, my little brother is coming over in a few. He’s a lot of fun.”
I put on a pair of pants, went into her kitchenette and lit the stubbed-out joint. The radio was on, some hillbilly station, and I tried to think beyond the next few hours, when the trailer door opened and a cop walked in. He was tall and thin, and the patch on his sleeve read Georgetown County Sheriff’s. I started, and tried to be subtle, placing a magazine on top of the ashtray and bag of weed. He watched what I was doing but only said, “Where’s Dolly?”
I swallowed and pointed behind me with my thumb. He heard the shower going, and said, “You fuck her?”
I sat there, mute, and he chuckled and sat, lifted the magazine and said, “Let’s not set fire to the place just yet.” He sniffed the air. “I could get a contact high, just being around you two.” He chuckled some more and brought a short, blackened glass tube, some foil and some opaque, grayish rocks inside a plastic baggie. He gestured with it all and said, “Have one?”
“Is that crack?”
“Uh-uh. Crank. Took it off a couple boys this morning.”
I waved it off. “No thanks.”
“Mind if I do?”
“Not at all.”
He put a small rock on the foil, sparked the lighter and drew a hit.
I said, “It’s kind of funny to see a cop on the pipe.”
He blew it out slowly. It looked like jet exhaust. “I’m a funny kind of cop.” He winked and added, “I’m not ‘on the pipe,’ I just like a little kick start every now and then.”
“Don’t you get tested?”
“Yes, we do. You sure? Nothing like it.” He held out the glass and foil to me again. I waved it off. He put it on the table and continued, “The county subs out testing to a private contractor. I know this lady, works for them, does the scheduling. She keeps me apprised.” He pronounced this last word slowly, drawing it out. Static sounded over his radio, then a call; he listened for a few moments, turned down the volume and pointed at the pipe, “This here ain’t like marijuana. It don’t stay in your system but a few days.” He stood, took a tumbler from the dish rack and a pitcher out of the refrigerator. “I drink lots of water.” He winked at me again and drank
“Dolly didn’t tell me her brother was with the sheriff’s.”
“Does that bother you?”
I heard the shower stop, and Dolly called out, “Is that you, TJ?”
“Yes it is, big sister.”
She came into the kitchen with a towel around her middle and one around her hair, like a turban and said, “How you doing, baby,” and kissed him on the cheek. She looked different without her makeup – better. TJ watched me the whole time, as though he expected me to say something.
Dolly said, “This here’s my friend, Pete.”
“Me and Pete are already well acquainted.”
“That’s nice. So you told him about it, then?”
“No. I ain’t been here but a minute or so.”
“Told me what?”
They looked at me and then back at each other, as though deciding who should speak. TJ said, “Dolly told me on the phone that you’re kinda low on funds.”
“TJ, you don’t have to embarrass the man. God, you can be such an asshole.”
I said, “I’m not embarrassed.”
TJ made a pistol with his finger and pointed at me. “I knew you wouldn’t be.” He looked at Dolly and said, “Girls just don’t understand men,” he turned to me and continued. “Do they?”
“What do you want to tell me?”
TJ sat down again and said, “That’s what I like about Yankee boys – they get to the point.” He tapped the table. “Lot of rich fellas like to come down here on vacation to hit golf balls. Some of them like to play cards at night. There’s a game in an apartment house over by Myrtle. Every Saturday night. Lot of money in them pots.”
I stood up, went to the bedroom and put on a clean shirt. I was zipping closed my bag when Dolly came in and said, “Baby, what’s wrong?”
“You two want somebody to throw under the bus.”
I sat on the bed to put on my shoes. I’d wanted to leave tonight, or at least tomorrow morning. Now if I did, I’d be the prime suspect in this heist these two had planned. I needed to stick around, and make sure someone saw me the whole time I was here. I’d have to be able to account for every second. That meant hanging out in the bar down the road, and when that closed, staying up drinking bad coffee and listening to radio preachers with the motel clerk until it was time for him to teach Sunday school.
TJ walked in and said, “You were right about him, Dolly.”
She said to me, “I told TJ you were smart.”
TJ said, “This only works with a smart boy. Those she usually cozies up to couldn’t handle this.” She swatted at him. He continued, “We been waiting a while now to find the right man for this.”
I got up to leave but TJ blocked the doorway. “Just listen, okay? You don’t like the deal, I’ll give you a ride to the station, and you’re gone.” I hesitated, and he added, “Shit, man, I’ll pay your fare.”
I sat back down. He said, “Two fellas run this game. Like I said, the players are all rich boys, most of them Yankees, like you. They won’t be any trouble.”
“But the two fellas will be. They’re mob, right?”
“Yeah. Not like y’all got up north, but yeah, these are wide boys. But that’s good. They sure won’t call the police. Even if this was a straight gig, these two wouldn’t call on the authorities for help.”
Dolly said, “Ain’t their style.”
“Goes against their nature.”
I said, “But that means once there’s trouble, it’s not two guys, it’s an army.”
Dolly said, “Right. But y’all be in and out, and gone before anybody else gets involved, and they won’t never know who we are.”
“Truth is,” TJ said, “truth is, it’s more than two, though. There’s always another, a man outside, on the door. Dolly can handle him, then she’ll wait for us in the car. She’s a good driver.”
I said, “How big is this game?”
TJ smiled. “Sometimes, just four or five players. Most times more than that. Seldom more than ten.” He turned to Dolly. “I believe he’s gonna do this, don’t you?”
I ignored that and said, “What happens to the players?”
“Once we get inside, we put everybody on the floor and zip tie them – wrists and ankles. Same with the guy outside – we’ll leave him in the weeds alongside the building. Nobody gets hurt.”
Dolly said, “Maybe just their feelings.”
“How do you know about all this – the game, the players?”
TJ said, “I used to be the outside guy.” He saw my next question and added, “It’s been more than a year – closer to two. Nobody’s gonna tie me into this.”
I wasn’t sure about that but let it go for the time being. “Won’t one of these guys recognize you? Or Dolly”
“You and me are gonna pull stockings over our heads. Dolly’s bought a pair for us that’s kinda dark. She’s gonna wear a wig, and this dress she got for the occasion that shows off her titties. That boy on the door ain’t gonna be looking at her face.”
“What about your voice?”
He pointed at me. “That’s where you come in, brother. You’re gonna do all the talking. I’ll tell you what to say.”
“Why should I trust you two?”
“Because you ain’t getting paid near as much as us.”
He saw my expression and was about to continue but Dolly said, “No, TJ, he’ll work it out.”
I did. “How much is my end?”
“Ten per cent. That should come out to at least five, six thousand dollars. Not enough for me or Dolly to get all riled up about, but more money than you seen for a while. Set you back on your feet.”
He was right, and it must have shown on my face. I said, “What’s to keep you two from leaving me in the weeds somewhere?”
“Cause after, you’re gonna ride all the way to Charleston Airport in the back seat with a loaded gun in your hand. We’ll drop you off out front, you hand me the pistol, and we drive away. You get on the first plane to anywhere you want, and you’re gone.” He raised his eyebrows and held out the glass pipe.
Dolly said, “You in, darling?”
TJ sparked up a flame under the foil. I took the pipe in my lips and inhaled. He’d been right; there was nothing like it, and any reservations I’d had faded away.
— — —
“This here’s gonna be a good summer.” TJ was sorting the bills in his lap by denomination. “I believe we made out a little better than I hoped for.”
Dolly said, “That’s nice, baby boy.” She giggled and looked between him and the road, “You should have seen that asshole when I walked up to him – he licked his lips.”
“He did not.”
“I swear.” She laughed, and looked at me in the mirror. “He probably thought I was gonna take his pecker right out of his pants and suck on it.” She pulled off the red wig and shook out her hair.
TJ looked up from counting and said, “Watch the road, darling.” He turned around in the seat and said, “You done real good, Yankee Boy.” He went back to counting and said, “You should have seen him, Dolly. Cool? I ain’t never seen a boy so cool. Like he’s been doing this every day of his life.” He spoke over his shoulder, “You sure this is your first time?” He chuckled and said, “Pete says ‘hands up,’ they put their hands up. ‘Down on the floor,’ down they go. I believe if he’d said, ‘hold your breath and count to a thousand,’ they’d have all turned blue.”
TJ and Dolly went on like that, as the city disappeared behind us. I was charged up too, but kept in mind that for me, it wasn’t over until I was airborne. I looked at the revolver in my hand, an old Smith & Wesson thirty-two. “Ain’t but a five shot,” TJ had said, as he’d handed it to me, “but it’s more than enough. They only need to see it.” The bullets were visible in the cylinder ends.
TJ finished the count. “We got eighty-seven thousand and change here. I’m gonna make Pete’s share an even eighty-eight hundred – round it off in his favor.”
“My god, TJ, you need to quit being such an asshole all the time.”
“Give him ten thousand. You said yourself he done good,” she smiled at my reflection and added, “and we want him to come back and visit, don’t we?”
“Well – well all right, then. You’re right, he deserves the little extra.” He put together a wad and handed it to me. “You come back, soon. Maybe we can do this again, some time.”
Dolly said, “I’d like that.”
I put the bills in my bag and said, “You never know.” We were in the sticks now. There weren’t any lights visible, save the other cars on the road. Traffic was thin.
TJ said, “Pull over when you can, Dolly. I got to make a pit stop.”
My hand tightened on the pistol. I felt the cross-hatching on the grip dig into my palm. “I don’t like this. Piss at the airport.”
“Whoa, Festus, simmer down. Airport’s a ways away yet and my back teeth are floating.”
Dolly said to me, “Oh, sugar, don’t get nervous. TJ’s got a bladder on him like an old lady’s. Nothing bad’s gonna happen.”
“Except I piss my britches, maybe.”
Dolly giggled and turned off the road, onto a path, and drifted about fifty feet. “TJ’s a shy pisser.”
He got out of the car. The dome light stayed off. He walked about twenty feet away, and pissed with his back to us; I heard it splashing. Dolly turned in the driver’s seat and said, “See? What I tell you?” She stroked the side of my neck. “It’s the adrenaline.” In the moonlight she looked gorgeous.
The door to my right opened, and TJ said, “Come on out, now.” I hadn’t heard him finish. He was pointing his gun at me. Dolly got out of the car.
I aimed and pulled the trigger. There was only a click. TJ said, “I took out the firing pin.” I pulled it two more times. “You can yank on that thing all night long, it ain’t gonna do nothing. Come on, now. I don’t want to mess up the seats.”
There was a gunshot, and TJ folded up and fell. I turned. Dolly was smiling at me through the window. “You didn’t really think he was my brother, did you?”
Philadelphia Fire Department Lieutenant Tony Knighton’s novella and story collection “Happy Hour and Other Philadelphia Cruelties” was published in 2015 (Crime Wave Press). His story “The Scavengers” appeared in “Shocklines: Fresh Voices in Terror” (Cemetery Dance) and appeared in “Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume One” (Comet Press) and his story “Sunrise” appeared in “Equilibrium Overturned” (Grey Matter Press).