Blues from a Gun, Chapter Nine: How It Ends

By Bryan Pedersen

I’m afraid of my phone.

It’s been ringing all morning. First my cell went off at some ridiculously early hour, then my landline. The landline one, that’s particularly troubling. I can only think of two people that know the number for it, Jenya and Bobby. And Jenya’s never called me that early before. It’s Bobby.

My stomach’s a knot. Last night I killed a co-worker and suddenly Bobby’s in a rush to talk to me. Doesn’t necessarily mean he knows what happened. Could be about something else. Could be.

I try, but can’t fall back asleep so I walk softly to my kitchen, leaving lights off, trying not to make too much noise, because I’ve got a guest.

I open the fridge and drink OJ from the carton. The cold feels great, but right now it’s too acidic for my churning stomach so I put it back and head back to bed. When I get there I see my cell phone, flashing. Another missed call. Bobby’s name on the screen. Yeah, he’s gonna be pissed.

A short time later I’m dressed and standing at my bedroom door, looking out into the living room. Another frozen sunrise is cracking the horizon, spraying pale light up through the windows, scattering long shadows across my apartment, and sparing a couple of rays for the girl curled up on my couch. She’s huddled up tightly beneath the blankets I lent her, wedged into the back of the cushions like she’s still trying to hide. I can’t help but weigh the sight of her against the image of Bobby on the other end of my phone, fuming. I can’t decide which way the scales tip.

“Fuck me,” I say, but softly so as to not wake her. But I do say it, and I do mean it, because I did fuck up.

“Are you leaving?”

Almost out the door.

“Yeah, I’ve got some things to do. I left a note. There are some leftovers in the fridge if you’re hungry.”

“Is it safe?” She sits up on the couch.

I think about it before saying. “The food is.”

I know it’s not what she wanted to hear, but I don’t have a better answer for her. Not one she’ll like.

“Go back to sleep. I’ll be back later,” I tell her with more confidence than I possess, then step into the elevator and let the doors close between us.

On the street my phone beeps and this time it’s Bobby trying out a text. In very certain vulgar terms he’s telling me to get in touch with him. And I will. There’s no way around that. But I’ve got some things to do first.

When I pull open the door sunlight streams in with me, and I realize this is the first time I’ve gone to The Ellipses in the daytime. I immediately notice the differences. First off, there really aren’t many. It’s still fairly quiet; the radio is still playing local KXYZ; the usual array of hard-lucks are scattered in booths and along the bar. They look just like the ones I’m used to seeing here at night, weary and sore after their shifts at work, the only difference being that these appear to be about twenty years older, some retired, all unemployed.

Apart from them, the extra bit of light filtering in through the dirty windows only serves to highlight the clouds of dust and trails of smoke snaking through the air, revealing what I breathe down into my lungs every minute I spend in this place.

I take a seat at the bar and Elton eventually notices me. His smile is forced, but he comes right over.

“Early morning Wex,” Elton says. “You need a drink already?”

“Milk will be fine,” I tell him.

“That all? Want some vodka with that? A little Kahlua, maybe?” He bends down to the fridge.

“Straight, please.”

It’s not the early hour that stops me; it’s the anxiety. Whenever I’ve got something bothering me it’s impossible for me to want to get drunk.

I pull a thick envelope from my coat pocket. “I brought you something.” Its sides are near bursting and I set it on the counter beside my drink.

Elton’s smart enough to be discreet. He moves the envelope below the bar, keeping it out of sight, but if someone were watching his eyes would give it away. The cash looking back at him when he peeks inside melts the stiffness in his smile, and when he looks up again it’s with a mixture of relief and gratitude.

“Wow, man… I mean, it’s… just … wow.”

“Put it somewhere safe,” I whisper and take a drink.

Elton goes off for a few minutes, hopefully to find a secure spot for his windfall, and then returns and sticks out his hand.

“I owe you, Wex. I don’t know how I can ever repay you for this, but I owe you.”

I shake his hand and he continues.

“I knew something wasn’t right with that guy, but I had no idea it was this much. No idea. Not even one. This is amazing. I’m just… you can’t understand what it’s been like. The bills… Man, I totally owe you.”

“Have you heard from him lately?” I know the answer, but for appearance sake it’s best to ask.

“From Fong? No man, not a word. Should I call him?”

“Probably not.”

“Cool, Wex, I won’t. That’s what I figured, anyway, you know, let you do your thing. And man, you sure did it. How did you…?” He’s beaming until he hits that question. “Or maybe I shouldn’t know?”

“Just be happy with the money.” I’m not about to tell him about the rooftop, or about Myron Gibbs or Morris Hoffman. “And you’re going to need a new bookkeeper. Make sure it’s someone with a solid reputation this time.”

He’s back to singing my praises as the bell on the front door jangles. More light and a trickle of winter cold slip in. I don’t turn to look, but from following Elton’s eyes I know the new arrival is pulling up beside me. I already know who it is.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” Frank says. “A priest walks into a bar…”

Know who it is because I called him.

“Can I get you something?” Elton asks.

Frank orders a tonic water and we leave Elton alone, moving to an isolated booth in the back.

“So, you found her?” he asks after we sit down.

“I did.”

“And how is our little friend?”

“Screwed.”

“Don’t be like that.”

“Are you kidding me?” I’m angry, but I keep my voice down. “Are you new here? You know how this ends. Seriously, what the hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that she needed help.”

“And then you thought you’d call me? That’s great, now she’s fucked and I’m fucked.”

“Charlie.”

“Not just us, probably you, too.”

“Charlie.”

“Bobby’s been calling me all morning.”

“You work for him. I’m sure he calls you—“

“Not like this. He’s called twenty times already.”

“It could be anything. Maybe he has a job for you.”

“Or maybe,” I glance around the room for eavesdroppers. Frank arches his eyebrows. “Maybe it’s because I killed Fin last night.”

He lets out a soft, low whistle. Finally, an expression out of him that’s not bemused detachment. “Well, now we’re getting somewhere.”

I tell him how it happened. About showing up late and following the chase. Tell him about coming up behind Fin and caving his head in with a tire iron. “And a few hours later Bobby’s freaking out, trying to reach me? Where I’m from, two plus two still equals four.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Like there’s a choice?” I take a sip of milk. “I’m going to go see him.”

“When?”

“Right after I get done here. There’s no use in hiding, you know that.”

“But you don’t really know that’s why he wants to see you. Think about it, if he was that upset with you he wouldn’t be calling to ask you to come in.”

I take another sip and glare at him.

“But if it is related to something you did, what are you going to say?” Frank picks up the lime wedge from the rim of his glass, squeezes it into the tonic water, and stirs it around with a straw. “If he asks you about Allie, what will you tell him?”

“Why? Worried your name might come up?”

“I’m just trying to help you prepare, Charlie.”

“Then how about you tell me why she’s running. Why would Bobby Hoynes care about her?”

“Haven’t you talked to her?”

“You know, there really hasn’t been much time for that, what with all of her running around to stay alive, and me wasting my time by being stupid, killing coworkers, ruining my life.”

“Is that what you think you did last night?”

“Isn’t it?”

He takes a slow drink, far too calm for my liking. “We’ll see.”

I watch him. For a minute we’re the only two people left in the bar, maybe even the city. The expression on his face is calm and placid and I wonder, not for the first time, if it’s truly a manifestation of the Zen-like state he likes to project, or if it’s simpler than that. Maybe he’s simply secure in something, in the knowledge that he can’t be touched. And I can’t figure it out, but I wonder once again how he was able to walk away from the job.

“So why are they after her?” I ask.

“I honestly can’t help you with that, and I can’t promise she’ll feel like sharing. But if you had taken the time to talk to her, at the very least you would know what I know. You would know that she’s a person in need of help. That she’s lost hope and is filled with fear. She needs help, Charlie. That is what I know. That’s all I know.”

Beautiful. “Fuck this. I gotta go. Thanks again.” I stand and he grabs my wrist. His grip is solid.

“I know something else, Charlie.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“She’s not the only one here who needs help.”

He lets go of my arm and I stand there, staring at the door. Silence. After a minute people start looking at me so I sit back down. “Weren’t you the one telling me that our work always ends badly?”

“The Orson Welles quote?”

“Yes.”

“I remember it.”

“So what the hell?”

“Think about last night, you going up against Fin; think about today, sheltering that lost soul in your empty home, shielding her from the very people you work for. From people so similar to you. Think about—“

“This isn’t going to work.”

“It might.”

“Pain and death, Frank, that’s how this ends. Pain and death. Maybe for you, probably for me, definitely for her. That is how it ends.”

And I don’t know what it is about him today because he knows all this. He’s seen it so many times before, more times than I have. But even as I remind him of all this his placid demeanor never wavers. Instead he takes another drink, nods and says, “Alright, Charlie, okay. But let’s give it try anyway.”

Amazingly enough, when I arrived, Bobby wasn’t ready for me. His secretary told me to have a seat and wait. Said there was already someone with him. Assured me it wouldn’t be long. So I picked up a magazine and pretended that the words on the page mattered to me and I waited, resigning myself to whatever fate awaited on the other side of that heavy door.

Eventually the door opens and the hulking mass that is Myron Gibbs ducks his head on his way out of Bobby’s office. I expect him to say something, at least grunt a hello, but he lumbers by me as if I’m not here.

The girl at the desk puts a finger to the piece of plastic clipped to her ear, says something deferential and polite, then looks to me. “Mr. Hoynes will see you now.”

Inside, Bobby’s standing behind his desk, throwing his suit jacket on. He sees me and grins, not the warm grin, the menacing one.

“Got a problem with your fuckin’ phone, son?”

I hesitate and he swats the air with a big, dismissive paw, batting away whatever lie I might be thinking about tossing out.

“How about a walk.” The way he says, there’s no question mark at the end of the sentence.

There’s a door at the end of the wall behind his desk, and he opens it. He waits for me, lets me pass in front of him into the small, private hall beyond. I’ve only gone out this way once before.

We wait for the elevator at the end of the hall. It doesn’t take long before it opens to us. I’m sure it’s restricted access; the wall on the inside has plenty of buttons but no numbers. Bobby presses one and the doors close.

The first time I was on this elevator was only the second or third time I had met with Bobby. He was still in the process of breaking me into my new responsibilities so he was doing that gentle, fatherly thing. I believe that day we went for ice cream.

It had been warm outside, hot for the fall season, and we took the elevator down to the street. A small city park sits about a block or so away from the building; a little snack shop rests beside it.

I remember a kid’s rubber ball bounced past us on the sidewalk, shooting out into the street. Some young boy ran after, probably only four or five, but Bobby bent down and stuck out an arm, scooped him up as the ball bounced off the grill of a passing car. Bobby grinned, the warm grin, not the menacing one, and swatted the little tike on the rump as he hurried back to his mom.

That feels like a long time ago now. No ice cream today. Today, Bobby’s pissed. Today, the elevator’s going up.

When the doors part there’s another narrow hall, identical to the one we were just in. Bobby pulls out a key and opens one of the doors, steps aside, waves me in.

It’s dark. A few dimmed bulbs in the ceiling cast a faint glow, not that there appears to be much to see. A sturdy looking metal chair sits in the middle of the tile floor. Other than that, the room is empty.

The door closes and everything goes a little darker, then he says, “Have a seat.”

I’ve seen enough movies to know that this is where the hero usually says something tough like, no thanks, I’ll stand. But that’s not me so I do like I’m told and sit down.

The chair faces what I first thought was another wall, then mistook for a mirror. Turns out I was wrong twice, it’s a window. But with nothing lit behind it all I see is myself, looking nervous.

“I go through great pains, kid, tremendous pains to make certain that I treat my employees well.” Bobby stands in front of me, in the corner where the glass meets the side wall. Along the wall is a row of buttons. They’re round, innocuous, unmarked, reminding me of the buttons in the elevator. “You’ve been trained well, paid well, given an important role in our daily operations. Surely you can attest to all of that.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Shut up,” he says, pointing a finger at me. He lets out a long, overwrought sigh and presses one of the middle buttons. It lights up for a few seconds, bright white that sends a pallid glow across his lined face, then it fades out. “If you wanted to talk so badly you should’ve answered your phone.”

So I stay silent, waiting for him to go on, to tell me what all this is going to cost me. Bobby remains quiet awhile longer, doing nothing but pressing that same button on the wall. It lights up bright, after a few seconds fades once more, and shortly after it goes completely dark he taps it again.

Across from me, on the other side of the glass, I think I catch a shadow stirring in the darkness. A dark ripple. Almost a spasm.

“A man in my position comes to expect a little loyalty in return. That’s not too much to expect, is it?” Bobby waits for me, and when he realizes I’m not going to say anything he grins. “Good. You always were a fast learner, Charlie.”

It’s of some small comfort that, at this point, I’m still alive. But Bobby talking to me rather than killing me isn’t a sure sign of safety. This sort of monologue is rooted to his core, born of a life emulating James Bond villains.

“I’ve noticed something’s a matter with you lately, son. Don’t think I haven’t. You’ve turned, gone soft and sour, like a bad banana. Everything with you smells rotten. Hell, why do you think I had to lie to you about the husband and wife up at Huston’s Fjord? I saw you losing your stomach for this. And that’s too bad. It really is. Man is meant to embrace his talents.”

Again, the button lights up as he taps it. This time he makes a big show of looking at me, then the button, drops his jaw and says, “Oh, hell son, this? I hope this isn’t distracting you. I just figured I could get a little extra work done while we had our chat.”

With that, Bobby presses the top button on the panel and the room on the other side of the reflecting glass lights up. Bright fluorescents reveal a space identical to ours, again giving me that twinning, mirror-like effect. Except over there are a couple of small, wheeled, metal tables, and the man in the chair directly opposite me is bound and naked.

A blindfold and gag have been wrapped tightly around his head and a dozen plastic white dots speckle his skin. Once more, Bobby presses the button he had been tapping all this time, only now I see the effects. The man across from me seizes up in agony, his muscles tensing as those plastic electrodes send a pulse racing through him. When the button beside Bobby dims again the man falls limp, then starts shaking, then crying.

“Oh, don’t worry, Charlie, he’s no one you know. In fact, his name’s not really important. Let’s just call him, oh, Lex. See, Lex here had a good job, a position of some responsibility, and, well, ol’ Lex here just sorta went and shit the bed last night. Now, you see, Lex and I are going to have a good long talk about it later, I just wanted to loosen him up a little first.”

“Anyway, on to more important things. I called you here today because I’ve got a job for you,” he says. “And, if you do it well enough, it may be your last one.”

I’m not sure how I looked when I heard that, but whatever expression I made causes Bobby to laugh.

“Damn, son, lighten up.” And of course he reaches over and presses the button again. “I figured news of a last job would make you happy! Smile, Charlie. I’m talking about a chance to walk away.”

“What do I have to do?”

He reaches back to the panel, hits the top button once more, killing the lights in the other room and casting us back into near darkness.

“You know what I said about loyalty, about trustworthy coworkers?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good, good that you understand, because what I need you to do is bring me the head of Morris fucking Hoffman.”


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