After midnight again. Christian Blake locked the big glass door behind him and glanced up at the night sky. Stars sprinkled thick as salt on an Einstein bagel and a moon like a big round hole punched in the sky. No rain for a change. Every night this week he’d had to work late.
He ran his hand over his light beard— no five o’clock shadow after work anymore. He’d grown that to compensate for the thinning on top, but the best part was not needing to shave every morning. Fifteen minutes extra sleep.
Cheryl would be in bed by the time he got home and he hadn’t seen his son for two days. Maybe he’d get a chance at breakfast. He hadn’t eaten yet, either. Should have called in a pizza or something, but he’d kept putting it off, thinking he was almost finished. All these damn changes.
He zipped up his jacket and headed for the parking lot. This time of night, he was alone on the street. The signs in the store windows had gone dark and the city was a landscape of black and gray. Dark corners and shadows appeared that weren’t there in the daylight and bins of sour smelling trash at the storefronts sat collecting flies and waiting for pickup in few hours. Only the traffic lights, still winking blindly through their cycle of red, green and yellow, offered any color.
The account exec had diddled with the job for weeks and left him three days to produce it. Just a few brochures for a trade show, but they had some tricky illustrations to create. He’d finished by five tonight, but then this flood of picky little changes and he’s chained to his computer for another six hours. Maybe it was time to start looking. A bigger agency with lots of bodies to throw at a project. Maybe even more money. He could use that.
The downtown was nearly silent. He could hear the click and hum as the ‘walk’ and ‘don’t walk’ signals rotated. A siren wailed away in the distance and a few scraps of paper blew down the street with a soft flutter like dry leaves. Somewhere west a car passed among the tall buildings playing a faint rap song, pounding an almost subliminal rhythm into the night.
Late nights and solitary walks to the car were just the facts of life in an ad agency. It was part of the culture, and everybody did it. It always made him nervous, though, hitting the street this late with nobody around. Not that anything ever happened. Downtown Dayton, even the perimeter where Chris worked, was usually pretty safe.
His lot was two blocks from the office, a dark gap between two ancient brick warehouses with an alley behind, striped for about twenty cars. It was ratty, but cheaper than the parking tower and closer to the office. He turned in at the lot and started back toward his Honda. The only other vehicle in the lot at this hour was the familiar red Jeep up front. Who the hell was this guy who always worked later than he did? Night watchman, maybe? Crap! The security light back in his corner was off again. He’d have to wrestle with unlocking the car in the dark. The battery in the remote had gone dead weeks ago and of course he couldn’t just replace the battery—he had to get a whole new key. Almost three hundred bucks. Screw that. Maybe he’d get one of those mini flashlights for his key ring. Cheaper than a new key.
He pulled out his keys and felt around for the keyhole.
He was definitely going to have it out with Lezniewicz in the morning. He needed some help with this client. What was that? Had he heard somebody? He looked up toward the sound.
“Your wallet, bitch.”
There were two of them. About six feet away. A little one and a big one, standing in the dark. A really big one, over six feet, and wide. And a knife. With a serrated edge. He could see that in the bright moonlight. A fucking big knife with a serrated edge, maybe one of those ceramic jobs that could cut your hand off at the wrist. It was the little one who spoke. The big one would have a deeper voice, Chris was sure. Cold sweat dripped down his sides under his shirt and he felt a little lightheaded. He was actually being robbed. Wallet. They wanted his wallet. A big knife with a serrated edge was all he could see. Bitch. He didn’t like that. What did that mean? That they thought he was weak? No, they just wanted the wallet. That was to scare him. To diss him. Set him up. But he wouldn’t do that, No he couldn’t.
The little one stepped closer and waved the knife. “Now, bitch,” he whispered, “or I’ll cut your fuckin cock off.” He flicked at Chris’ crotch with the knife. Chris took a step back. His mouth had gone dry and his knees went soft and he leaned against the car. He felt the key in his right hand. What could he do with that? Nothing, not against a knife and two men. But he wasn’t going to give up his wallet. They might stab him, of course they would. Kill him even. He knew himself, though. He’d never give it up. Why the hell not? It was just a fucking wallet. A little money, a few credit cards. He thought for a second about running, but he could hardly stand, let alone run. Maybe when they saw he wasn’t going to give, they’d leave. Maybe it wasn’t worth the grief of stabbing him. He waited for whatever would happen next.
He heard a car door slam somewhere. A car started up, close, behind him, and headlights popped on. Suddenly the back of the lot was flooded with light, exposing the two men. He spun toward the light. The Jeep. The guy in the Jeep. He waved at him, then turned back to the two men, but they were gone.
The jeep pulled calmly out of the slot and turned out into the street. The guy hadn’t seen what was happening, had no reason to hang around and help him. Chris fumbled for the lock but his hands were shaking and it was pitch black again and he couldn’t find the slot. He looked up to the space where the two men had stood. Were they still there? Back in the alley? Would they be back now that the Jeep was gone? The keys slipped out of his sweaty hand and he heard them hit the ground. He knelt and felt around the concrete in the dark. There. He stood and fumbled again with the lock. Then it was in. He yanked the door open and fell into the seat. He slammed the door and locked it. Was that movement in front of the car? He fumbled again trying to find the ignition slot, it was down under the steering wheel where he couldn’t see it and sweat was running into his eyes, stinging. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve and felt with his hand for the round metal collar. There. He had it. The key was in and he fired up the engine. Where were they now? He threw the stick into drive, yanked the wheel all the way around and punched the gas, curling out toward the street with a squeal of rubber. He hit the brake just as he bounced out into the street, throwing himself into the steering wheel. He yanked the wheel to the right before he ran over the median, and took his foot off the gas, coasting down the boulevard. He flipped the lights on and checked the rearview mirror. Nothing. Would they have a car? Would they follow him? No. They were just a couple of street hoods, not highwaymen. He was safe. He drove for a few blocks, his trembling hands jerking the little Honda back and forth along the street. A lighted service station appeared on his right and he pulled in close to the door of the tiny carryout. His heart was hammering and his breath coming in short gasps. And his body was shaking now, all the way down to his toes—the adrenalin rush. He nudged the stick into park, leaned his head back against the rest and closed his eyes, concentrated on breathing. In, slow. Out, slow. They’d surprised him. Hit him when he wasn’t prepared, that’s all. Bastards. He wouldn’t let that happen again.
He put his hand to his phone. Should he call the cops? What could they do? Nothing really happened. All he saw was two shadows and a knife. A big fucking knife. No way that would help anybody else. Just waste a few hours filling out forms when he could be sleeping.
In a few minutes his breathing had returned to normal and the shaking wasn’t so bad. Bastards. There was a rap on his window and he jumped, his heart spiking again.
“Hey buddy, come buy something or move out of doorway! Got customers use this door!”
Some middle eastern guy. Or Indian. The manager. He’d seen him before when he stopped to get gas on his way home. The guy must work around the clock. Chris raised his hand in acknowledgement. There were so many of them around, now. Foreigners, immigrants, running carryouts or small restaurants. Left their homelands with their families for a better life. Most of them working their asses off in the states to make it. Worked harder than most Americans did these days. How did they end up here in Dayton, so far inland?
Chris had done the same. Talked his wife into moving from the cornfields to the city where the jobs were. He was no farmer. He was an artist, a designer. He needed an ad agency, not a barn and a Grange membership.
Okay. He was okay, now. To drive. Home. He should go home, now. He shifted into gear again, pulled back onto the street and headed south.
* * *
The shape he was in, there was no way he’d get to sleep tonight. He popped his beer with shaking fingers and flipped through the Netflix offerings. Death Wish. Perfect. A good revenge flick. He needed something to purge his humiliation. That’s what it was—humiliation. They dominated him. Two street pricks had dominated him. Nothing really happened, but it felt like they’d raped him. It was that one word that did it: bitch. It wasn’t enough just to rip him off. That word had been incredibly threatening. He’d lost his cool. But he wasn’t going to be anybody’s bitch. He knew himself. Years of being the littlest kid in the neighborhood had taught him you couldn’t give in, not ever. Not if you wanted to survive. And if that ever happened again he knew he wouldn’t give it up. On the other hand, if he didn’t, they’d stab him and take it anyway. That wasn’t a formula for success. He was a peaceful guy, just minding his own business. He didn’t want to hurt anybody. But he had to do something. Next time he’d be prepared. Although he had no idea how. He laid his head back and let Charles Bronson wreak his vengeance.
* * *
He felt a touch on his chest. “No! Don’t…” He jumped up, then suddenly was rolling in the air, landing with a hard thump.
“Jesus, Chris! You all right?”
He felt his chest. No knife there. No blood, no wound. A dream. He opened his eyes and looked up. He was lying on the floor beside the sofa, with Cheryl leaning over him. His heart was banging away in his chest. What the hell? Last night. After work. The holdup. He must have fallen asleep on the sofa. Shit. He never got to see Bronson cap those bastards. “Yeah.”
“Sorry, babe, I didn’t mean to startle you like that. Why are you sleeping down here? What time did you get home last night?” She sat on the sofa, her eyes still wide. She was dressed for work—the red V-neck sweater and dark skirt.
Chris pushed himself off the carpet and flopped onto the sofa beside her. “Late. Wasn’t sleepy, so I thought I’d watch Charlie Bronson kick some ass. Where’s DJ?”
“On the bus. We decided not to wake you. You were really zonked out.”
“Damn. I haven’t seen him for three days, now.”
“Don’t worry about it, you haven’t missed anything. He’s pretty much the same kid he was three days ago. He wanted to get a feather and tickle your nose while you were out. Want breakfast?”
Chris smiled and checked his watch. “You’ll be late. I’ll get it.”
“What’s the big rush this time?”
“Nothing important. A handful of brochures for a trade show next week. A shitstorm of last second changes. Same old story—the client and the AE have to justify all that time they spend boozing down at the club. Printer needed the job first thing this morning, of course.”
“Isn’t there anybody else down there to do this? Why is it always you? Can’t you talk to Lesniewicz?”
“Luck of the draw. Lately it’s all been my accounts. Yeah, I’ll have a talk with Lesniewicz. I’m getting too old for this.” At thirty-five, he was too old for almost anything in the ad business, but he wasn’t going to remind anybody. He was building a bit of a paunch, getting some gray in the beard, too, although it was hard to tell with his blond hair. He could try the account side, he supposed. Wine and dine the clients all day and let some other poor bozo rack up the unpaid overtime. But he was a designer, not a salesman. The job wouldn’t fit him.
Was this the time to tell Cheryl about last night? He didn’t want to upset her just before class. But was there ever a good time? She’d freak out, he knew it, start talking about moving back to hicksville. Lord knows he didn’t want to fight that battle again. Maybe he’d let this one slide. Get this straightened out and no damage done. He looked at his hands. They were still trembling.
* * *
“A piece?” asked Chris. “You mean a gun? Are you kidding? I was thinking of something like a whistle. Or an air horn.”
Chris and Tony Pinciotti, a social media specialist from the agency, were wedged into a tiny table at The Chuckwagon, leaning into bowls of five-way chili. Their heads were practically touching, but they had to shout to be heard over the lunchtime zoo. The tables were tiny and crowded and all filled. Waiting customers shoved their way through the narrow aisles like running backs searching for a seam, trying to bully some weakling into clearing his space. The place smelled like chili peppers and cumin and onions. If you breathed too deep, you’d burn out the hairs in your nose.
Tony had wild black hair and an equally wild beard and a voice like the Cookie Monster. His wardrobe consisted of three Ohio State sweatsuits, one pair of jeans and one gray T-shirt that said “Free Mustache Rides,” for summer. They never let him get close to clients, but he was hell on wheels as a programmer.
“Hey, Chris, two dicks and a fucking knife. And you wanna what, call a dog?”
“I sure don’t want to shoot anybody.”
“Wait for somebody else to walk with,” said Tony. “Chick or Hamilton or somebody. They’re always down there late.”
“But they all park in the tower. Pepper spray, maybe.”
“Maybe in the daylight, but at night? You don’t hit him in the eyes, it’s just gonna piss him off. Then he really might stick you. And there’s two of ‘em, remember.”
Lots of people carried now, didn’t they? It wasn’t really such a big deal. But where would he keep it at home with DJ running around? “A gun. I don’t know.”
“You wanna give up the wallet?”
“Of course not. You can’t be an easy mark. Don’t wanna be their personal money machine they can tap whenever they’re light.” Tony tore open another little cellophane package of oyster crackers and dumped them into his chili. “After all, they know where you live.”
“What?” Chris’ head jerked up.
Tony giggled. “Figure of speech. They know your parking slot. Besides, you won’t hafta shoot anybody. If they’re showin’ blade, they’re not packin’ heat. Just show it, they’ll split. Maybe just at their feet. A little flash bang.”
“I talked to Lesniewicz. He felt pretty bad about the whole thing. No more heavy overtime, at least until the DCR program hits next month.”
“And then what? Everybody in production will be pullin’ midnight specials for two weeks.”
Somebody behind him dropped a cup on the floor and Chris jumped in his seat.
“A little nervous are we?” asked Tony.
Chris poked halfheartedly at his chili. “I was thinking about getting a space in the tower. It’s three blocks longer to walk, but there’s lighting and security.”
“What, some minimum wage grunt in a tiny office at the ticket window three floors down? How’s that gonna help? Shiny jacket and a rent-a-cop badge won’t mean shit to these dicks anyway. Plus another hundred a month…”
That was the other problem. They were maxed out on the house. Not critical—the bills got paid and the kid got fed, but there was zilch left over. No margin for an extra hundred a month. They’d followed the agent’s advice and went for the biggest place they could afford. She’d said the way prices were skyrocketing, they could refinance and bring down the payment in a year or two, but it hadn’t happened yet.
“I don’t know, man. I’m not exactly your typical NRA member. I really don’t think one more gun on the street is the answer.”
Tony tossed the last of his beer and waved his glass at the waitress for a refill. “So what was it like?”
“Getting rolled? What the hell do you think? Why you think I’m even having this conversation? It scared the shit out of me. Everyplace I go I’m looking over my shoulder. My heart starts riffing every time I get near the lot, even in broad daylight. I jump every time somebody fires up the printer. Thirty seconds of shit three nights ago and my whole life is fucked up.”
Tony tapped Chris’ arm. “See, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. The way you feel after. Helpless. Defeated. Scared all the time. A gun in your pocket, the feel of it in your hand, that helpless feeling disappears. You own the place.”
Yeah. That helpless feeling. The humiliation. That’s what was really eating him. He didn’t know how to fight, he wasn’t slick enough to talk his way out of it and he was too old to run. It felt like he was their bitch anyway—two shadows in the night. But more guns wasn’t the answer. That’s what he believed, what he told everybody else. Until three nights ago, anyway. “You got a gun?”
“You ever carry yours?”
“Yeah, sometimes. I got a permit.”
“Ever shoot anybody?”
“You think because I’m Italian I’m a wiseguy? I’m just a twitterhead at an ad agency, a peaceable guy like you. Hell, no. Never even pulled it. Tell your wife yet?”
“Cheryl would go bananas.”
“Cheryl’s not gonna find out.”
* * *
If he had a gun, what would his options be? Shoot the knife out of the guy’s hand? Fat chance in the dark. Even in the daylight—that was the stunt of a movie cowboy, not a graphic designer. Could he just shoot just to wound him? Take out a kneecap or something. Shooting blind at two shadows in the dark, right. And if he hit one of them, would the other keep coming at him? Or even if they did back off, would they come back some other day for revenge? He didn’t want to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his career. The best he could hope for would be to land a body shot—that would stop him. But it also might kill him. And he couldn’t find any moral justification for that. What if he was one of those immigrants like the guy at the carryout—just looking for a better life but down on his luck? Picking up twenty or thirty bucks here and there trying to support a family. Was thirty bucks so much to give up?
Maybe they’d run when he showed the gun or fired a warning shot. But what if they didn’t? Common wisdom was run from a knife and charge a gun. What if they charged? He had two choices: give it up or seriously hurt somebody for the sake of a few bucks. He didn’t want to hurt anybody. But he kept hearing that voice in the back of his mind: “bitch.”
* * *
“Jesus, man, I never should have let you talk me into this. Look at these guys. All the red hats.” The Armory was full of down vests and camo jackets waving assault rifles, a couple already toting holstered pistols. The testosterone level in the room was high enough to scare the shit out of anybody with half a brain. This wasn’t Chris’ kind of place and these were the kind of people who shouldn’t have guns anyway. And neither was he.
“I’m out of here.”
Chris turned and headed out the door, but Tony grabbed him by the jacket and yanked him back in. “Jeez, you’re such a snowflake! A piece don’t care what color your damn hat is. All you have to worry about is those two assholes.”
Yeah. There was that. Chris let himself be dragged over to the counter.
The pegboard behind the counter was filled edge to edge with handguns. “Damn.” said Chris. “Look at all those guns. Must be a hundred of them.” And they were all different. Who bought all these different designs, and why? He kept forgetting how big the world was. He remembered reading somewhere that Canon made a thousand different models of printer and a thousand different models of camera. How many factories did it take to do that? Already Chris was feeling sensory overload. “How the hell would I ever pick one out of this mess?”
“By the numbers,” said Tony. “No sweat, just wait.”
In a minute an old geezer with a short white beard wearing a maroon vest and black bow tie waved his customer out the door and walked over. His yellow name tag read “George.” “Help you boys?”
“Full house today.” Said Tony.
“Never better,” said George. “Can’t keep anything in stock. It’s politics these days.”
“Politics?” asked Chris.
George waved his arm around the room. “The right wingnuts are looking to buy rifles before the administration cuts off their supply. The libbies are buying pistols to protect themselves from the wingnuts. The perfect storm. Just wish I was on commission!”
“My friend here needs a piece,” said Tony. “For self-protection.”
George grinned. “What’d I tell you? So I reckon you’d want something small. Concealed carry?”
“Yeah,” said Chris. “Is that a problem? Anything special I’d have to do?”
“You’d have to take the concealed carry course. It’s just one day. We give training sessions here.”
“What kinda piece you recommend here?” asked Tony.
“Well, a sub-compact would be the best profile. Don’t give much of a bulge. And about a medium pull, I’d think.”
“What the hell’s a medium pull?” asked Chris.
“Pull’s the weight it takes to pull the trigger,” said George. “Don’t want it too stiff—you might need to get a shot off quick and you don’t want to be struggling with it. But too soft and you might shoot your toe off before you get it out of the holster. I’m assuming you’ll holster it?” He looked back and forth at Chris and Tony.
“I don’t think I want to just stick it in my pocket,” said Chris.
The old guy nodded sagely. “Nine millimeter. The most common ammunition. Decent stopping power. Semi-automatic—better pull than a revolver. More rounds. You only get five or six rounds with most revolvers.” George messed around under the counter and came up with a small black pistol, which he laid on the counter. “Springfield XD3 Defender. Thirteen rounds. Very popular, very reliable. One of the top U.S. manufacturers. Just look at your history books—Springfield rifles conquered the wild, wild west!”
Chris and Tony stared at it for a moment. “How much?” asked Chris.
“Five hundred bucks!” said Chris. “Jesus Christ. I didn’t think they’d be that expensive.”
Tony laughed. “Dude, they don’t come cheap, ‘cept maybe a Saturday Night Special.”
“What’s a Saturday Night Special?” asked Chris. “That sounds more my speed.”
“That’s a pistol that may or may not fire when you pull the trigger,” said George. “Or it could even blow up in your face.”
Chris sobered up. “Well, maybe not.”
“Self-protection means reliability,” said George. “If it’s not reliable, it’s not going to give you much protection, is it? So what’s the point?” He reached under the counter again and brought out a little silver-plated revolver. “I could sell you this one for half that price, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it for self-protection. One misfire and maybe you’re dead.”
Shit. Five hundred was a big chunk. Chris would have to find a way to avoid leaving a paperwork trail if he did this. He’d have to get a loan—he couldn’t drain that much cash without Cheryl knowing. She liked to putter around in the checkbook now and then, just to see what was what. Already this was getting complicated. It was a bad idea, with too many ways to go wrong.
“Want to try it out?” asked George.
“You mean shoot it?” said Chris. “Here?” That was a surprise. He’d thought he’d just give it a look, price it and hear the spiel. But as long as he was here…
“Got a range downstairs. Always try your weapon out before you buy. Fit and comfort are important. If it don’t feel right, we try another.”
Tony grinned and punched Chris in the shoulder. “Okay, cowboy—time to show us whatcha got!”
They followed George across the floor and down a staircase in the back of the room. George flicked on the lights. The room was white concrete block, long and low and narrow, like a bowling alley. There were four little booths at this end padded with thick gray foam, and big bales of straw against the wall at the other. They stepped into the first booth. George pulled a paper target off a pad, a big red and white bullseye, and clipped it to a line overhead attached to a pulley. He pulled on the line until the target was at the opposite end. Just like in the movies.
“Here.” George held out the pistol. Chris took it and turned it over in his hand. It felt comfortable. It didn’t feel like a plastic toy, but it didn’t feel like it would weigh him down too much in a holster. Comfortable. Yes.
“Is this thing loaded?”
“Nope.” George took the pistol back and brought out a thin metal cartridge with bullets stacked in it. “This is the clip. Thirteen rounds. You slip it up the butt like this, you’ll hear the click when it’s in. Then hold it like you’re going to fire it. Pull the slide back like this. That kicks a round up into the chamber. See the round? Now it’s ready to fire. The safety is this little lever. Push it forward, the safety’s off.” He took the clip out. “Now you do it.”
“Do I have to do this for every shot?”
“Nope. It’s a semi-automatic. After the first round goes, it automatically loads another in the chamber, ready to fire.”
Chris repeated the process.
“Just keep it pointed at the floor and your finger away from the trigger until you’re looking at the target and ready to fire.” George pulled three sets of heavy earmuffs out of a box on the floor and handed a pair to Chris and Tony. “Go ahead. See how it feels. This thing will have a little kick to it—it’ll pull up toward the ceiling when you fire. Concentrate on keeping the barrel down and just fire one round at a time for now. Don’t want you punching any more holes in the ceiling than we’ve already got.”
Chris brought the pistol up and pointed at the target.
“Use your left hand to hold your right, yeah, that’s the way. And hold the pistol all the way out in front of you. Gives you a more accurate sighting and triangulation—two shoulders and your locked hands. Makes it steadier.”
Tony was right. There was something about the weight of a gun in your hand that gave you a feeling of power. Of confidence. Dirty Chris. A gun was danger. It was potential death, held in check only by the power of your will. Suddenly you were a hardass nobody wanted to fuck with. Okay, call it macho if you had to, but it was what it was.
“Squeeze it off slow, don’t jerk it.”
He felt the kick, but it wasn’t all that much. It felt good. Two dark shadows appeared at the far end of the room. He looked along the sight at the target and squeezed the trigger again. Pop. One for the little one. Pop. One for the big one. He could get to like this.
* * *
Chris sat in his car in the dark garage with the gun in his hand, turning it over and over, feeling the weight of it, the warmth after he’d been holding it a minute. It was reassuring. But he’d drifted into dangerous waters, and he knew it.
Who were those guys? The two shadows. The strangers who wanted to make Chris their bitch. Maybe they needed a meal, sleeping on the street. So what? There were places to go—shelters, food banks. Chris did his share. United Way, a half dozen charities. Did being hard up give anybody the right to fuck up his life?
Chances were they were just looking to score their next high. But face it, this whole thing could get out of hand. Did they deserve to die for that? What had their lives been like, what brought them to this point? And what was he willing to do? What was he willing to carry on his conscience for the rest of his life? On the other hand, he had to look out for himself. Grand philosophies were grand, all right, but they wouldn’t impress a couple of nervous junkies in the parking lot at midnight. Like it or not, it would be him or them.
He threw the gun and holster into the glove box, slammed it shut and locked it.
* * *
Chris checked his watch. Two in the morning. He was the last one left in the studio. He couldn’t put it off any longer. He had to go home.
The NCR program had landed in their laps with a fury and everybody was pulling extra duty. It was good to have company in the wee hours. He turned off the computer and unlocked his desk drawer. He pulled out the gun and holster. Immediately the two shadows came to mind and he started getting the shakes. He’d decided on the holster under his left arm with a cross draw—easier to get to than the one at the back of his waistband. He strapped it on and slipped the gun into place.
God, he’d been dreading this. The first late night alone since the incident. He flipped out the lights one by one as he walked down the hall to the big glass front door. He locked the door behind him and leaned back against it. It had rained at some point during the evening and water lay in dark pools along the sidewalk and in the street. The wet surfaces looked sharper and clearer and seemed to carry sound better. Or maybe it was just him—he was wired.
Come on, Chris, you’re putting it off. He shoved himself away from the door. He walked toward the lot, his eyes scanning left and right for movement. Every few steps he turned and looked behind him, but the street was empty. At the corner of the lot his heart started rapping and he stopped and slipped his hand inside his jacket to grip the gun. Why the hell hadn’t he moved to the tower? What was so hard about that? Just a few bucks more. He shouldn’t worry, the chances they’d be here were practically zero. Please, God. He knew nobody was listening, but it was comforting just to think the words. After a minute his heart slowed, and he turned quickly past the red Jeep, striding toward his car at the back of the lot. The security light was working, that was good. He reached the car. He unlocked it, opened the door and fell into the seat, sweating. He slammed the door closed and locked it. He waited a few minutes to let his heart settle, then started the engine and pulled out of the lot.
* * *
Chris carried the gun and his CC license in his briefcase when he didn’t have to work late. When he did, he carried it in the shoulder holster until he got home, then locked it in the glove box. At first, it just created more anxiety. He worried that he’d be afraid to use it when he needed it. Then he worried that he wouldn’t. He wasn’t going to be anybody’s bitch. But he really didn’t want to shoot anybody. Although in general it would be a good thing if those bastards were off the street permanently. And then it became routine and he stopped worrying. The gun had done its job—he’d lost the fear he’d carried night and day and the dreams had stopped. He thought about returning it and getting his money back, if he could do that.
This was one of those late nights. The whole crew had been in prepping for a new client presentation in the morning. A big account. It would mean staffing up and a jostling of positions in the agency. Maybe a new job for him, a fatter paycheck. It was past one o’clock and he was beat, but the dog and pony show was ready to roll in the morning. He turned into the lot. The red Jeep hadn’t been there for weeks. Maybe the guy found a better job. The security light was on in his corner. He was careful to keep an eye on that and give the manager a shout when there was a problem. He got to the Honda and hauled out his keys.
“Let’s see your wallet, bitch.”
Jesus Christ! His heart spiked and his mouth went dry. The same guys, even. He stared dumbly at the two thugs, not thinking about the gun.
“Give it up, you stupid fuck!” The knife was out, the serrated job.
Then he remembered. He unzipped his jacket and slipped his hand toward his wallet but past that and around the grip of the pistol. It was solid and warm in his hand, and he felt the anxiety recede. Thugs? These two were just kids. The last time the light was out and he hadn’t gotten a good look. He stared at the blade. Fuck, it was a kitchen knife! A big one, but just a kitchen knife with a cheap plastic handle. That’s what his nightmares had been about? The smaller one was Hispanic. Fifteen, maybe, skinny as an Aldi’s chicken. Christ, maybe even younger. Twelve, thirteen. And the big kid—there was something wrong with him. His face was misshapen, his eyes dull. A little like hydrocephaly. There wasn’t anybody home. Their clothes were ragged, sneakers beat to shit. These were the hard cases he was planning to put holes in?
“Your mama know you’re out tonight?”
The kid froze. It wasn’t what he expected.
Chris motioned to the big kid. Fat, not muscular. Fat like he had some medical condition. “What about you? Can you talk?”
The little kid screamed. “Just shut the fuck up! The wallet or I’m fuckin’ gonna cut you!” He took an aggressive step forward.
Chris slipped his hand off the butt of the gun and felt for his wallet. Slowly, he pulled it out of his jacket. He held it out for them to see. He took a deep breath to steady his voice.
“Tell you what I’m going to do.” He opened it and pulled out all the cash, letting them see the empty wallet. “I’m taking all the cash out. Probably forty, fifty bucks. And I’m throwing in a couple of American Express gift cards. Don’t know how much is still on them, but there’s something.” Christmas presents from Cheryl’s mom he kept forgetting to use. “The credit cards won’t do you any good—five minutes and a couple phone calls and they’ll be cancelled. You’ll never have a chance to use them.”
The little one had lost his bravado. He didn’t know what to do. The two kids kept looking at each other.
Chris stepped forward and laid the cash and cards on the hood of the car, then stepped back. “It’s your lucky night. You’re home free. I’m not even going to call this in. Now take this and beat it. I don’t want to see you again for at least another year. Deal?”
The little one hesitated, then reached forward and took the stack of bills and cards on the hood. “Motherfucker!” He backed rapidly toward the alley. When the big kid turned to follow, they both took off running.
Chris’ legs were trembling and his heart was still doing the mambo. He slipped his hand back into his jacket and gripped the handle of the pistol. The comfortable weight was reassuring, and he started to breathe a little easier.
What were they thinking now? Or the little one, at least—the big one probably didn’t think much at all. Did the kid think he was crazy? Would he come back every night thinking he had an easy score? Or would he back off? Chris would find out soon enough. He decided he’d keep the gun, though. He unlocked the car and slid into the seat, waiting for the shaking to subside.