There's always a way out of problems.
“Six, nine, four—“
Benny’s hand froze above the keypad. How in the world couldn’t he remember that number? What was it? Three? Nine? Or maybe a zero.
He opened the cell phone’s book and read the long list of names and numbers in threes. The wrecker, that physician who could prescribe you anything from oxycontin to strychnine without even the decency of looking his soon-to-be-victim in the face, or the divorce lawyer who could probably teach the doc a thing or two in matters of blood-sucking critters. And then the therapist. Probably the most decent of the bunch. At least he kept siphoning money out of his pocket without pretending he was still a finely shaped cog of society. But no trace of that damn number.
He held his head in his hands. His veins throbbed on the brink of bursting out of his forehead, like little aliens hammering to get out of his skin. He was feeling like shit. Maybe too much booze, or maybe too little to bribe his memory into remembering that number. He pulled out a pack of cigs and opened it. Just three left. Three.
"Three!" He snapped his fingers and typed the number. Everybody always telling him he should quit smoking, yet how little did the suckers know about the alchemical wonders nicotine could operate on the brain's chemistry.
"I know you're there. Answer the phone." Eight-time zones between him and the East Coast. He could only hope her heart was not already light years away.
"He-hello? Who the hell is this?"
"Honey, it's me"
He rolled his eyes. Was there a nation-wide amnesia outbreak? "You know who's me. Benjamin, Benny. Your husband."
"Oh, it's— you. What the hell do you want? It's five a.m here."
"I know. That's why I called before you went out for your run."
"I was going—now. Before you wake me up, genius."
"Then why in the world do you sound out of breath already?"
Silence. If it truly spoke volumes, as they say, then he was damn sure she was reading him an entire encyclopedia. He pressed a hand on his forehead. The throbbing was turning into an earthquake. "Look, I know things are not going well between us—"
"Oh, now you notice? Did you already forget the things you said to me yesterday? I should slam down this fucking phone, call the Feds and denounce you!"
Then something really had happened the day before. "What do you mean, I don't remember—"
"How convenient and— hey stop it! Not now!"
The phone's plastic case creaked under his fingers. "Who's with you?"
"Nobody's here. Except for your fucking dog."
And from when was his fucking dog allowed on their bed? “Of course it’s my fucking dog. You always forget to feed him.”
“Oh—go fuck yourself!”
Yeah, she could have taught him a thing or two about it. “Look, honey. I don’t want to make you mad—“
“Then stop calling me! Don’t you have an appointment or something tomorrow? Get some fucking z’s and leave me alone!”
“Wait—how do you know about my appoint—“
“I don’t know! I’m not your secretary!”
“But you’re my wife!”
“We’ll see about that next month in tribunal! Good night, bastard.”
The phone went silent. He tried to dial the number again. Busy. A recorded voice asked whether he wanted to leave a message. He took a deep breath. “Honey, at least— remember to feed the poor dog the next morning. Show some love, at least to him.”
He collapsed on the bed. That was it. He knew the day would come. He expected it, waited for it, like the poor sods being told for years their homes built on a seismic fault would one day be their graves. But knowing the shit would hit the fan did not make it less catastrophic, nor less stinky.
The car’s headlights coming through the windows melted into pools on the ceiling, taking shape again into spears, swords, arrows— He really had to remember to stop watching fantasy movies. Maybe if he had watched more romance he would have known how, when and where he fucked up things with her. But when did he have control of the remote? She was always the one choosing the channel.
The phone came to life with that bloody anime opening she had chosen for him. He sighed. No way of explaining to her how having a Japanese lolita shrieking in the middle of a meeting was not the best way of making the best of impressions on a customer.
“Mister Totman? It’s Sunny from Fairfax Industries.”
There she was, the second woman he knew the most in his life. “Hello there, Sunny. What can I do for you?”
“Forgive me for asking but, are you feeling well? You sound— distressed.”
“No, no I’m fine. I was just— Well, I’ve just come back from a walk.”
“I see. I am afraid I have to remind you that you have to be well rested for your appointment with Mr. Harwood, tomorrow. The boss really wants him to sign the deal, and he’s a sneaky one.”
“Yes, he doesn’t need to worry. He can trust me. I know sneaky types. By the way, could I speak to the boss? He should be already at the office by now“
“I will patch you through.”
He looked at his wristwatch. “One second, two seconds, three seconds, five seconds—”
The phone beeped. “I’m sorry Mr. Totman. It would seem the boss isn’t in his office. Which is strange, considering how early he always is at the office.”
“No problem, Sunny. He’s always so stressed. Maybe he’s decided to stay in bed longer this morning. I’m sure he will come to work much more— relaxed today.” His mother’s sheets worked miracles at lulling you into a deep sleep. Sarah had always loved them.
“Do you wish to leave him a message?”
“Yes. Please tell him good ol’ Bailey only eats branded dog food. I bet he can afford it.”
“What does it—“
He cut the call and rose from the bed. It was a very good time for a walk.
“There you go, buddy. You need some ammo with it?”
Benny looked at the gun on the counter. A six gun, like one of cowboys and detectives. He’d always wanted one, but his father told him good boys had no use for them. “Yes, thank you. Three packs should do. Or at least I think. Cowboys always take down the baddies with just six shots.”
The owner laughed. “Yeah, right. But trust me, when you’re panicking you can burn through an entire armory in the blink of an eye.”
“I bet you’re talking from experience.”
“Yes, you can bet about that. I went down so many holes with one of those in my hand. And it was pitch black and packed with snakes and Charlie’s traps. No way you could indulge in all that fancy aiming you see in movies. No sir. Reality’s always more complicated.”
“You have that right.”
The owner bent under the counter and emerged with a stack of papers. “So, you need anything else?”
“Nope. That’ll be all.”
“All right then. Just a bit of paperwork and we’ll be done. At least not until the cops don’t knock at my door asking me why I supplied the next school shooter. Those are real losers.”
“No, I mean those who kill dozens of innocent people because of their problems. Why? Just because your boss doesn’t pay you enough or your girlfriend’s fucked by some alpha male you don’t have the right to make others pay the price of your own failures.”
Benny stiffened his jaw. “Was the government paying you enough to kill communists back in ‘Nam? Did you make them pay the price of the president’s failures?”
The owner squinted. Was he going to take a shotgun and blow open his ribcage? That would do. He did not have much more use for his heart anyway.
“If you wanted to provoke me you’d better try something else, buddy. I’ve learned my lesson, crawling for months into snake’s dens and getting back to hear hippy shirkers shriek at me. A valuable lesson—“
“And what is it?”
A complacent smile widened on the man’s mouth. “That failures are much like those damn caves. When you get stuck into them you see only darkness and all your instincts scream panic. But if you stay cool and are prepared you can get out of it. You just need to keep sure you’ve always got a way out.”
“So, what name should I write on the receipt?”
“Benjamin Totman. Fairfax Industries.”
“Six, Nine, Four, Three.” Benny dialed the number on the phone in the hotel hall and looked around. He could take his time. There were no customers left in sight and he doubted the SWAT team would care to check in. “Busy. Figures.”
He put down the receiver and moved towards the small table where Mr. Harwood was waiting for him, staring at the crimson stains dotting the contract. “I guess you won’t be able to sneak out of this contract, Mr. Harwood. You can falsify a sign, but blood is blood.”
He sat on the couch and opened the gun. It was time for a refill.
“One, Two, Three, Four, Five—“ His fingers froze over the cylinder. He looked at the bullet and let it fall on the ground. “Make sure you’ve always got a way out.” He spun the cylinder and put the gun at his head.
He closed his eyes, looking at the darkness before him.