Watch out for people who always have a plan .... and a 'tell.' Short Shots May '09
Van Payton stole more money yesterday than all the other heists combined. Pushing harder on the Studebaker’s accelerator, he relished the idea that his alley cat existence was behind him. He hadn’t stopped grinning, nor glanced in the rearview mirror, since the getaway. He’d abandoned his roach-infested apartment above the bar just as his deadbeat father had deserted him when Van was fifteen – without a backward glance. Despite scars both bodily and emotional, Van believed a better life was within his grasp, and he had Liza to thank.
He looked over at her riding shotgun. She beamed back, and he thought what a gorgeous portrait she made framed by the lake rushing in a blur behind her. When they started sleeping together a few months back, he hadn’t known she was in the “business.” He marveled at the asset she turned out to be.
Liza insisted they be prepared. She was a natural planner, real detail-oriented, approaching a job like a stage director organizing opening night. She’d envisioned every possible scenario-gone-wrong and coached Van on what recourses to take. She called them stopgaps. But so far, nothing had gone wrong.
They pulled off the bank job yesterday unarmed. Had their bluff been called, they had a stopgap. But Liza had convinced the teller she was packing without showing a weapon. She just stood there, casually running an index finger along the edge of her temple where her ebony hair hung close to her eyes and demanded the cash. One stony glance down where her hand hid in her coat was enough to intimidate the bankers. She'd been brilliant.
They ditched the getaway car the next town over where the Studebaker waited in a busy parking garage. The cavernous interior afforded numerous ways to discreetly stow two bulging duffle bags of cash amid their suitcases and cooler. They’d driven through the night.
Van glanced down at the instrument panel. He dug the classic look of analog readings. He felt good in this car, like he’d gone back in time, gotten a do-over. From now on he’d make better choices.
He noticed the gas gauge needle was in the red zone.
“Babe,” he said, “time to gas up. Last chance before the mountains.” His grin faltered, replaced by a rigid jaw. While the cash was still on them, they were vulnerable. Every stop presented a chance for something to go wrong.
As Van pulled up to a service station pump, he watched the attendant through the plate glass front. The middle-aged man’s back was turned behind the counter.
“Ok, nice and cool, remember?” he said as Liza reached for the handle. “No talking to anyone including each other. We do our business separately and nobody notices us.”
“Remember our stopgaps: “Going My Way?”; “Tip and Split…” She extended a finger as she rattled each one off.
Van filled the tank, then wandered to a vending machine next to the shop entrance. Keeping the car in his peripheral vision, he spotted Liza inside. A minute later she exited without glancing his way. She reached the car and he went in to pay
He fell in line behind a man speaking low and heatedly into a cell phone. At the man’s side a small boy Van guessed was about four years old shuffled his feet. Every few seconds he announced, “Daddy, I want candy.” Apart from a scowl, the man ignored the boy until the fourth time Van heard him say it. Without warning he spun on the child, wrapping his hand around the boy’s upper arm, and shook him violently.
“Shut the fuck up, don’t you see I’m on the phone?” he hissed.
Shocked, Van glared but the man turned away. Looking down at the small, brave face, Van saw his own reflection. He saw proud eyes disciplined to not betray his pain, perceived veiled hatred for a man he must respect. Van understood that boy, had been that boy, and anger rose swiftly and absolutely like geyser steam. His fists clenched. The man slapped money on the counter, snatched the receipt from the cashier’s hand, and shoved the boy toward the door. Van glowered.
Liza had pulled the car up to the store front. As he yanked open the passenger door he saw the cashier watching him. Van managed a smile as he folded into the car; the clerk didn’t smile back.
“I thought I’d drive. Hope you don’t mind.”
Van grunted, his attention on a black SUV where the man stood shouting into his phone. Van’s father used to say, “Get your ass in the car and wait.” Silent or spoken, the threats had been fierce. Eventually, when he was about that kid’s age, the threats had evolved. He’d known, even at that innocent age, that his father liked smacking him around. It got the tension out; made life easier to deal with. If Van’s mother had lived, things would’ve been different. She’d have protected him. Isn’t that what mothers do? Where was that kid’s mom, he wondered. Liza’s voice broke into his thoughts.
“Alright, we made it, babe! We’re home free: me, you, and all that cash!” She slapped a manicured hand on the steering wheel. “Damn, we make a great team!” She glanced over, her smile faltering. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” he grumbled as the filling station disappeared from sight in his side view mirror. “How about some music?”
Van turned on the radio. He cranked the large, grooved knob and the red needle moved across the FM dial with jerky motion. Elvis’ voice issued suddenly from the scratchy speakers. Van noticed Liza’s fleeting grimace but the nostalgic strains lightened his mood. He turned it up.
Liza lifted the hair back from her temple and hooked it behind an ear. “Yeah. Perfect.”
Two songs later, Van’s smile had returned. The conversation focused on how they’d spend the money. The Studebaker’s underpowered engine showed signs of complaint as they began the climb into higher elevation.
Liza’s eyes flicked to the rearview mirror. Van checked over his shoulder and scowled as if he smelled something rancid. The black SUV came up fast behind them. It swerved across double lines and edged alongside the Studebaker.
The driver’s attention was fixed forward. What an asshole, Van thought with a sneer. As the SUV pushed past them, the small face in the backseat window came into view. For a suspended moment Van stared at the boy whose eyes appeared pleading to Van for liberation. A knot of remorse choked him as the truck shot forward and around a bend.
They heard the screeching brakes and sickening metallic crunch before the Studebaker hauled itself around the curve. Liza clapped a hand over her mouth and gasped as the scene came into view. The SUV lay on its side across the highway, its front end rumpled like sheets of an unkempt bed. Smoke hung in the air and angry splatters of blood wet the road between the vehicle and the dismembered deer whose eyes stared into nothingness. Van had the door open before Liza slowed to a stop. He ran around the top-side of the car.
The driver hung out the front; the jagged windshield embedded in his torso as if the car had tried to bite him in half. Van blinked hard and shouted, “Liza, don’t come over here! It’s bad.” The cell phone lay on the pavement. Snatching it up, he moved around the nose of the SUV, peering through the windshield. Seeing nothing, he clambered up onto the passenger side. The window was cracked so he was careful to place his knees on the door frame as he looked down into the back seat. He spotted the boy, lying in a ball on the window now flat against the road. The doors were locked. Van tapped the glass, and the youngster stirred. Van straightened and located Liza pacing in circles next to the Studebaker.
“Liza, the boy’s alive! I’m calling 911!” He placed the call then jumped down and ran to her.
“An ambulance is on the way,” he said.
“Good. Let’s get out of here.” She moved toward the car.
Van grabbed her elbow. “We can’t leave! That little boy may be hurt. He’s trapped in that car and his dad’s dead.”
Liza glanced at the wreck with tear-filled eyes. “Van, are you crazy? The cops will be here any minute. We have stolen money in our car! We need to get away from here!” Her voice raised an octave.
Van shook his head. “No. I’m not leaving that kid alone. I won’t do it.” His tone was even, determined.
“Well, I’m not staying!”
Van lowered his eyes, thoughts racing. “Ok, you go.” He put up a hand to silence her. “Listen to me. You take the car; keep going to the motel in Lake Freed like planned. I’ll stay with the kid and when the cops get here, I’ll say I was hitching and found the wreck.” He paused, the pieces to the plan falling into place in his mind. “That gas station clerk saw me get in the car you were driving, so anyone checks, that’ll back my story.”
Liza protested but Van interrupted. “Look, we’ll meet up later. Nothing will change.”
She glared but her tears softened the look. “Jesus, Van. It’s just some kid, I don’t get…”
“It’s not just some kid.” She narrowed her eyes so he shifted tactics. “Look, Liza, there’s no time. I’ll keep this phone and leave you a message with the motel office where to pick me up.” He paused. “You won’t take off with the money, right?” He meant it jokingly to lighten the moment, but deep down he wondered.
Liza ran her finger along the edge of her hair. “Don’t be stupid.”
Van kissed her hard on the mouth then opened the driver’s side door. The echo of a siren rose in the distance. “I love you, babe,” he said as she started the engine.
Her hand rose again to her hair. “Me, too,” she mumbled, smoothing the lock at her temple.
He watched her disappear around the bend before scaling back up the fallen car. The boy was still curled up, but his body shook with sobs. Van tapped the window. “Hey little guy, it’s going to be all right…”
Van sat on the curb waiting for Liza. His body felt like it was carved from stone but his heart was buoyant. The boy was okay, and Van knew it was in part because he’d done the right thing. He’d protected the kid, made him feel safe. The kid’s life would be different now; maybe both their lives would be.
He dragged a dirty hand down his stubbly chin. What if Liza wasn’t coming? He glanced at his watch again. She was late, or…
Headlights bathed him and he shielded his eyes with a heavy arm. The engine cut and he blinked in the sudden darkness at the Studebaker. He smiled and rose. Liza stepped out of the car and Van watched her push a strand of hair away from her eyes with a finger. He stopped.
A moment before the sirens erupted, he knew. He narrowed his eyes, feeling fifteen again.
“Where’d they get you?” he called across the distance between them.
She lowered her head as a swarm of cop cars raced toward them, flashing lights illuminating the night. “Your stupid car broke down in Richland,” she said.
Richland? Forty minutes past Lake Freed... “You bitch,” Van growled. “So, they promise to go easy on you for turning my ass in?”
Officers with side arms aimed advanced from three sides. Van slowly raised his hands. As he was led past, Van mumbled, “What’s this stopgap called?”
Liza reached out and grabbed his arm. “I’m so sorry,” she whimpered.
Its headlights washed over him as he wrenched free from her grasp, and he watched stone-faced as a cop drove the Studebaker away.
(WC according to Word [not including the title] = 2000)
Written for May 2009