BY CASEY DEANE
Copyright is held by the author.
AT PRECISELY midnight gunshots clapped out from a shop in a suburban strip mall and several seconds later two shadows slipped through a pool of icy white light beneath a mercury-vapour street lamp and scampered over a chain link fence at the far end of a plaza parking lot.
On the other side of the fence, in the darkness of the night, the same shadows sifted through a dense row of towering trees then trampled over tall grass. From behind a scalloped sky a full moon spied on them with untrusting scrutiny and they emerged as silhouettes on the stony slope of a railway line. Twin track rails, two silver lines in the moonlight, extended out then disappeared in the distance around a gentle bend. Beyond that a visible aura of dull urban amber glowed above a black horizon.
The collective circumambient chirp of a million concealed crickets all but masked the near breathless panting and the sound of footfalls slapping feverishly along railway ties.
After only a brief spell the silhouette in the rear, the shorter one, began to slow and spoke out in a voice only a little bit louder than a whisper.
The taller silhouette in front maintained his silence as well as his pace.
“Hold up man, I’m getting a cramp,” the Short One repeated.
The Tall One came to a stop and turned around to face his accomplice.
“You said not to stop.”
“Then at least hold up for me,” the Short One laboured to say, “And keep your damn voice down.”
The Tall One waited while the Short One, hand pressed against his ribcage, caught up and came alongside and the two of them walked hurriedly side by side along the tracks. The Short One, breathing heavily, asked, “What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know. It was fate. He moved.”
“Yeah,” he answered with an insolent tone. “So what’s the take?”
“Hold on.” The Short One lifted a wad of recently reaped paper money into the moonlight and began to thumb through it. “One seventy,” he lied.
The Short One feigned counting the money again and reiterated, “Yeah, one seventy.”
“So what’s that each?”
“Okay give it to me.”
“Wait. We need to get out of here first.”
“Give me my cut. Now.” The Tall One raised an arm and the contours of a pistol glinted in his hand.
The Short One peeled off two 20s, a 10, and three fives. “There. And we’ll need to give my man a small cut too. Each of us.” He passed the bills over to the waiting hand of the other who said nothing. “And that thing’s still cocked. You should un-cock it.”
The Tall One stuffed the money into a pocket then began to fumble with the pistol.
“Wait,” the Short One exclaimed with a certain nervous urgency. “You have to hold the hammer back with your thumb and then when you pull the trigger you slowly lower the hammer down. Use both hands. Here, give it to me.”
“Give it to me, you don’t know how to handle it.”
“I handled it just fine.”
“I should have had it from the beginning.”
“It was your plan,” the Tall One responded petulantly.
“My plan was for you to have it, not actually use it.”
“He moved! In case you weren’t listening I said don’t move. What was the point of having it if I couldn’t use it?” There was a soft click as he seated the hammer.
They were walking much slower now and neither spoke. There was only the sound of their feet crunching on the railway stones and the ubiquitous song of the cricket. Then from somewhere distant they could hear the faint whine of a siren and without saying anything they broke into a jog.
Soon they had proceeded around the bend and before them the railway tracks ran beneath an overpass that was illuminated by a string of streetlights arching across the sky like the back of a sickle blade. The moon glowed white through the thin cloud high behind their backs and in front of them the orange streetlights of the road passed over the tracks like pinpoints on a celestial map marking the curve of a constellation.
When they reached the overpass they stepped off from the railway tracks and ascended the damp grassy embankment that led to the road. The Short One slipped once on the steep grade and fell to his knees, sliding down several feet. “Dammit.”
“Nothing,” he said as he regained his footing and scrambled to reach the top where the Tall One was waiting.
The Tall One was standing on the near side of a guardrail. He had tucked the pistol under his belt in the small of his back and stood with his hands on his hips looking back and forth in both directions along the road.
The Short One emerged from the darkness of the embankment and stood next to the other. Before them the road was wide and black, a flat strip of asphalt under an orange streetlamp. It was entirely void of vehicle traffic. In one direction it ran down and away from the overpass through a series of empty intersections, stretching through a sprawl of low concrete-block industrial buildings with flat tar roofs. In the other direction the road inclined over the pass and then disappeared from view past the crest.
“Where is he?” the Short One asked in an exasperated voice.
“Don’t know. Not here.”
The Short One slapped a palm to his forehead, “Oh my god — where the hell is he?”
The Tall One shrugged, tugged at his crotch and reached behind his back to adjust the position of the pistol under his belt.
The Short One, hand braced against his ribs, ran several paces in one direction, paused and ran several in the other, “That son of a bitch! Where is he?”
“Your man . . . ,” the Tall One answered in a voice saturated with sarcasm, “. . . is not here and I’m not cutting him in.”
“So what do we do?”
The Short One screwed his face into frantic thought and stared at the other who looked at him questioningly with hands back on his hips. The Short One shook his head rapidly in disgust, “That son of a bitch. We’re going to have to walk I guess. We should ditch the hoodies.”
Just then a police cruiser approached one of the intersections from a crossroad and turned the corner toward them.
They dove away from the road into the absence of light. The Tall One slid back down the slick grass of the embankment on the soles of his shoes and the Short One tumbled and rolled with a series of grunts and moans until they had both reached the bottom.
“Quick, under the pass!” the Short One issued the order as he rose awkwardly to his feet.
They climbed the cement slope that led away from the tracks until at the top they were able to wedge themselves between the floor and the road overhead.
“Do you think—” The Tall One began.
“Shhh.” The Short One lay with his finger over his lips. Together they listened for long tedious moments but there was only the resounding cacophony of crickets.
“We shouldn’t be hiding here. We should have ran.” The Tall One finally broke their silence.
The Short One grimaced and pressed on his ribcage again. “No. I don’t think they saw us. If we ran they might have seen us. We’ll wait here for a bit.”
The Tall One stared at the Short One with a grave expression while the latter fished in his pocket and retrieved a short glass tube and a tightly folded square of foil.
“This whole plan is shit. Hiding here. We should have ran.” The Tall one sullenly spat with contempt. “They wouldn’t have seen us.”
But the Short One had placed one end of the glass tube between his lips and was focused on setting a tiny white, waxy pebble into the other end so he did not answer. He struck a match, touched it to the tip of the tube and inhaled a stream of smoke from the burning pebble. His eyes were shut tight in the glow of the match light still pinched between his fingers, his mouth a thin line trapping and holding the smoke inside his inflated chest. Then he released, blowing a thick grey cloud. His body stiffened in a euphoric rush and the line of his lips curled into a satisfied smile. “We’ll just wait here for a bit.”
He offered the glass tube out at arms length to the Tall One. After a moment with the tube untaken and his arm still out he peeled open one eye and peered over questioningly.
The Tall One was pointing the pistol square at the Short One’s head. The burning match sputtered and died.
The Tall One’s face was warped and his eyes were narrow and focused with a malevolence that penetrated right through the cloaking shadow. His lips were peeled back and his front teeth were exposed, crooked and clenched. He spoke slowly and deliberately through those clenched teeth, “You shorted me.”
“What?” The Short One was wide-eyed now and frowned morosely when he noticed the money clenched in the Tall One’s other hand.
“You said 75. I’m 10 dollars short.”
“Keep your voice down. You probably dropped it on the tracks.”
The Tall One pushed the pistol closer to the Short One’s face. “You probably dropped it! I didn’t drop nothing.”
“Shut up man.” The Short One hissed while indicating to the road that ran over their heads and added emphatically, “They might be up there and you’ll get us pinched.”
“So thanks to you we’re looking at hard time.”
“No, not me. Now give me the money. Yours too. All of it.” He had stood and he brandished the pistol inches from the Short One’s forehead. “Give it to me!” He shouted.
The Short One shrank back but the Tall One leaned in and pressed the muzzle of the pistol tight against the Short One’s temple.
“Okay. Okay. Take it.” The Short One retrieved his wad of bills and the Tall One snatched them away. Then with pistol still aimed he slowly backed down the slope.
During the brief and bitter exchange the all encompassing and ever-present chorus of crickets had gone mute. Having been entangled within the net of their dispute the two had not recognized the ill portent that this silence held.
At exactly the moment the Tall One set foot on level ground an abrupt and calamitous commotion of sound erupted from under both sides of the overpass. Flashlights. Shouting voices. A swarm of police officers stormed into sight. From the explosive, expeditious blur of bodies in motion a dozen spherical flashlight beams pancaked over the Short One, capturing him paralyzed by surprise. With guns drawn a pack of police in a mass of black uniforms descended on the fear-frozen man, pinning him against the cement amid his muffled and feeble protests. Closed fists were raised and dropped and a pair of handcuffs flashed open and then snapped shut.
The Tall One however had immediately bolted, absconding into the obscurity of night’s surrounding curtain like a magician’s assistant vanishing beneath a dropped cape.
Several of the police took off chasing after him with their flashlight beams crisscrossing and bouncing ahead of them. He had broken through a low hedge and was sprinting across a small fallow field under the dull gleam of the partially hidden moon, pistol in one hand, money in the other. The crickets had resumed their call and the sound enveloped him as he ran. Dried and long dead corn stalks abandoned from harvests of yesteryear littered the ground like unearthed bones and crumbled under his passing feet.
He managed to cross the field unmolested by his pursuers and at the far side he attempted to hurdle a mangled wire fence. His toe caught the top wire and he crashed into a stack of wooden shipping pallets. He landed sprawling on pavement in a heap of toppled pallets, pieces of broken timber and scattered paper currency. The pistol, in addition to the cash, had slipped from his grip and it skidded to a stop several feet away. He was in the back lot of one of the industrial properties, a concrete block building low and wide in front of him. Rising to a knee he briefly examined a torn pant leg and a long bleeding gash that ran down his shin. He cursed, stood, scooped up the pistol and began to hobble toward a ramp that sloped into a pitch black shipping and receiving dock.
A police cruiser careened around the corner of the building and with its engine roaring it raced toward him while at the same time the officers pursuing on foot reached the edge of the paved lot. Blinding white light leapt out from the cruiser and flooded the lot as the car screamed to a stop and both doors swung open.
“We got you, it’s over,” barked a commanding voice from behind the cruiser’s driver-side door. “Drop it! And DON’T MOVE!
The Tall One froze in place.
With their sidearms raised and pointed menacingly forward the police suspended their breathing, index fingers snug against triggers.
Each of the million hidden crickets chirped in sequence from the depths of the shadows and high in the sky alto stratus shimmered beneath the watching lunar eye.
The Tall One, bathed in the brilliant glare of the cruiser spotlight, drew in a lungful of the still night air. A hush descended, one by one the crickets again fell silent. With his thumb the Tall One drew back the pistol hammer. Then with a sudden flash of movement he lifted the weight of the weapon in his hand and spun on his heels to face his fate in the cold, unforgiving wash of radiant light.