New Pulp Press

"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample story from Crime Factory: The First Shift edited by Keith Rawson, Cameron Ashley, and Jimmy Callaway

Stinger by Dennis Tafoya

They met in Arraignment, and she knew he was the one. Sandra and another woman were in the second row of benches of Courtroom 13B, cuffed and waiting for their hearings. The other woman was broad across the shoulders, her belly pressing against the orange jumpsuit. The woman asked if Sandra had a cigarette, and Sandra had just asked when she was due. The woman put one hand on her belly and opened her mouth to speak when the men came in and they both turned to look and the woman went quiet.

There were four men, all handcuffed, wearing the same orange jumpsuits the women wore. The guard leading them stopped and looked around and then at a clipboard he carried. The man on the bench, who Sandra assumed was the judge, began firing questions at the bailiff looking at his clipboard, and she knew the men weren’t supposed to be there. The men and the women weren’t supposed to be together, Sandra knew. She’d been in the system enough to know that. The bailiff started arguing with the judge, and another guard, a man with gray hair and tired eyes, led the chained men over to sit in the first row of benches and told them not to bother nobody.

Wade was first in line, and taller, bigger across the shoulders, the fabric of his jumpsuit taut around his biceps. He looked right at her, and when he sat, he turned and kept looking at her over his shoulder like he was waiting for her to say something, as if they knew each other, as if they had planned to meet there in 13B on a Thursday morning at ten-thirty. Like a date.

Before the pregnant woman asked for a cigarette, Sandra had been thinking about her mother, about the things they’d said to each other when they’d gotten home from the hospital. She remembered going to her room, her face hot, her body feeling emptied out, hollow and ringing inside, looking in the mirror at the bruises on her face and arms. She’d gone to the door and looked down the hall at her sister’s room, and her sister’s doorway was filled with light, almost glowing, and it meant something, not just in the moment but something, something, Sandra’s room on the dark side of the house, her sister’s on the side that got the sun all day.

“Why you here?” he said, and waited. The man next to him was nodding, his eyelids heavy and the whites of his eyes a frank yellow, like the yellow of an egg. She could smell them, the men, their smell a heavy tang of sweat that left a metallic taste on her tongue. She looked down at her shoes. He said, “You don’t look like anyone who ever fucked up before.” He closed one eye. “Shoplifting.”

The bailiff with the gray hair said, Shut up, Wade, so then she knew his name. Wade, I ain’t fooling, he said, but the big man didn’t turn his head or respond. He kept looking at her. “You were at the Galleria with your girlfriends and somebody dared you to put something in your purse.” She looked at the pregnant girl, who had a tattoo of a devil’s horns on the hand she kept protectively on her belly.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay, you got stopped holding a little weed for your boyfriend.” He was intent, dipping his head to catch her lowered eyes. One of the other men, a young Latino with a shaved head started talking to the girls, and Sandra caught the word bolillo, something the Spanish boys said that meant like a cracker, a dumb white guy, and Wade turned and looked at the boy and the boy stopped talking and dropped his head. When she glanced up, Wade was looking at her again and the pupils of his eyes were black, like painted dots, and she could see his teeth. He thinks he’s smiling, she thought. He thinks that’s what a smile is. So then she knew. Knew he was the one she needed.

Now he said, “A DUI,” so she shook her head.

“Dirty urine,” she said. “Two weeks left on my parole.”

He nodded. “So you’re up for a Gagnon, right?” She lifted a shoulder, let it drop. “Gagnon One hearing, right? For the violation,” he said. He looked up at the bench. “Okay, that’s why Macklin’s here. Not the judge, just a whatever, a Trial Commissioner. Where’s your lawyer?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

He leaned in, his mouth tucked into his swollen bicep and his voice low. “Macklin’s easy. Tell him your mom is waiting for you, you got family looking after you. Point to the back of the room, like they’re all just waiting outside the door.” He pointed with one discreet hand and nodded toward the back of the room and she wanted to look, to see if maybe they were really there, outside. Her mother, her sister in the wheelchair, maybe a lawyer. “Look all helpless and innocent and he’ll put you on the street.” She couldn’t help herself, she turned her head to see the door swing on the empty hall. Nobody.

He nodded. “Right. That’s the look. Just like that.”

Three days later they were in Atlantic City. It was night and they sat in a Ford pickup Wade had taken from the lot of a theater in Marlton. Those were the things he knew. Where to take cars, how to unload stolen jewelry. And the system, he knew that. Appeals and prison rules. What they had to give you. Outside, he was hesitant, relied on her to handle money, count change, order their food. Negotiate for crack from a man in Hunting Park. Get the room at the motel on Roosevelt Avenue up in the Northeast.

They’d head back there after this. They were going to take somebody’s money, Wade said, as they were watching people come out of the casino into the parking tower. She’d look like she needed help and Wade would put a knife against his side and they’d get him and his car and that would keep them for a few days. Wade knew a guy who would take the car, he said. She didn’t listen, just watched the smoke trail from his mouth. The pipe was a death’s head.

Sandra nodded and looked out through a gap in the concrete wall at the city, the yellow glow of the streets. There were insects swarming at the lights on the side of the building, with big, gauzy-looking wings bleached white by the bright floodlights. Banging against the glass, the walls with ominous clicks and taps.

There had been something, she had tried to tell her mother, a distraction, a flash at the edge of her vision that might have been a fly or a bee. You were drinking, her mother said, as if that was all there was to know. Yes, but, Sandra said. Yes, but, there was something in the car, a bee, a wasp, I don’t know. She was terrified of wasps, their folded legs and obscene, curled bodies dangling. I’m a good driver. She’s your sister, her mother said with her red, wet eyes staring.

Wade stood over the man, the dead man, his eyes rolling in his head. He offered nothing, no excuses, just pointed with the knife and shook his head.

“There you go,” he said. “There you go.” Like stabbing the man was an argument settled. They were by the side of a road somewhere out in the Barrens, one of those razor-straight cuts laid through the pine woods north of the Atlantic City Expressway. She had followed Wade and the man driving his car, a long old sedan of a type Sandra didn’t recognize. They had made random turns in the dark, heading vaguely north and east, and then the car had stopped and she had pulled in behind them. The man had gotten out, standing near the rear so that he was lit red by the taillights.

Sandra had watched from the pickup, watched Wade take the man from the parking lot. She had stood between two parked cars looking lost, searching the ground with her eyes and fishing in her purse. The first man who came up had a little girl with him, so Sandra waved him off. After a few minutes another man came to talk to her, a small brown man like maybe he was South American or Indian or something, and he had a smile on his face. Wade stepped out from behind a pillar and she turned away and got in the pickup truck to watch.

She watched Wade get the man to open the door and let him in, somehow talk him into driving away from the lights of the casinos. She never saw Wade pull the knife, just saw his mouth moving, his lips forming words with a manic intensity, and she wondered what he was saying. Touching the man’s arms, his collar, the sleeves of his jacket. The man rigid, afraid. A small man next to Wade with his wide neck and shoulders, the man’s eyes flat and dry while Wade’s glittered like black metal.

When the car stopped in the woods, Wade had gotten out and the man had done something. Made a move, taken a nervous step toward the dark, and Wade had been on him. They went down, the big man covering the small one, his elbow pumping, pumping, and then they both lay still. She watched. For a moment she thought they were both dead and she reached up and touched the gear shift, ready to pull away. Then Wade got up slowly, the knife pointed out and dripping so that she thought of something sharp that was part of him, a spur of bone. A horn, something that grew out of him.

She went to stand beside him, the two of them in the headlights, the sounds of the insects a roaring metallic droning in the black trees. Wade siphoned gas from the man’s car, choking and spitting, then poured it over the man and in through the open windows. She thought to ask what the plan was, but she knew watching Wade’s eyes that there was no plan, had never been any plan but to kill the man and run. He moved in quick jerks, looking over his shoulder. He wanted to go back to jail, she saw. He was frightened of the dark, the insect noise, the immensity of the black night and the swirl of stars. For a moment they clung to each other like children. She watched him splash the gas heedlessly and then fumble for a lighter.

They were arrested two days later at the motel, the pickup parked at the curb, Wade’s arm covered in grease where he had burned himself in the woods. She had thought he’d kill her, but she couldn’t make it happen. Meeting in the courtroom had made that impossible somehow. He saw her like he saw himself, as a victim of the system. Manipulated and betrayed. She called him stupid and he just laughed and nodded; she slapped his face and he hung his head. So she went finally to the lobby and made a call while he was sleeping off the last of the base.

In court she turned to look at the crowd of reporters, the curious. The family of the dead man, their faces distorted with rage, the detectives who had asked her why it had to happen. And there was her mother, standing next to her sister’s wheelchair. She hadn’t been expecting it and her eyes burned to see them there, a physical sensation like something chemical poured into her sockets. Her mother’s hair with its streaks of yellow and black, her look of endless, bottomless disappointment. Her sister, head bobbing arrhythmically, eyes unfocused, long fingers tapping the arms of the chair.

Her mother stepped forward to grab the arm of Sandra’s lawyer, her mouth moving fast to explain or excuse or damn or curse her daughter. Tell everyone about the car turning over and over and Sandra drunk at the wheel. Sandra didn’t know and couldn’t hear it. She clapped her hands over her ears and turned to face the judge. The bailiffs moved, the judge lifted his gavel, the courtroom retreated from her and she raced forward in her mind to the end. The gurney, the last silent moments, the straps they wouldn’t need as she beckoned to them to bring the needle. Her teeth clenched against the sting, the final sting, the pumping venom and the rush into darkness.