This is the second in a series of previously unpublished short fiction, so no cover but a story some of you will enjoy.
A Long Way Down
A Dark Scenarios Short Story by Harvey Stanbrough
I parked my pickup in the last slot at the end of Denny’s. There were other slots closer to the door, but during a previous circle around the restaurant, I’d identified an area with several empty booths. It was perfect. And you can’t get much more anonymous than eating breakfast in Denny’s.
Plus my pickup would be just outside the window from my booth so I could watch for police and other vagabonds, and I wouldn’t be disturbed as I ate, except occasionally by the waitress, whom I hoped would at least be cute.
There’d been a hard rain the night before. As I got out of my pickup, the morning was clear, a little cool with crisp air, and not a cloud in sight. No breeze to speak of either. I hoped it would remain so. Witnesses tend to see less clearly in bright weather than when the sunlight is muted by clouds. The parking lot smelled of asphalt and old food mixed with the left-over ozone from the storm.
With what the day held, I needed a good carb and protein breakfast. So as I stepped up on the sidewalk and made my way along the low hedge leading to the front corner, I already knew what I was going to order. My mouth wasn’t quite watering — it was Denny’s, after all — but almost. I was hungry, my body craving energy. That’s what eating has become for me, especially at breakfast: the result of a thoughtful consideration of what my body needs to operate at maximum efficiency for the task at hand.
As I walked toward the door, a skinny, lanky guy in heavy boots, jeans, a black leather jacket and a red bandanna pulled up on a white and chrome Harley-Davidson Softail. He had a look on his face like he knew something nobody else knew and enjoyed the knowledge. As he stepped off the saddle, the guy was shaking a little, like maybe he was still feeling the vibrations from the bike.
The seat and the pad of the bike itself were black leather, the engine and pipes chrome, and the tank and fenders a dingy, greasy white. It looked like he’d come a good distance. A green tightly wrapped blanket roll was strapped across the pad where a girl should be. It was secured with a pair of black and yellow bungee cords to the low-rise chrome backrest behind it.
I was just about to look away when he caught my gaze. “How’s it goin’?” he said. His tone matched the smug look on his face, one that made me expect him to add “dude” to the end of the question. But he didn’t.
I try not to talk with locals when I’m on an assignment. Talking with locals is talking with potential witnesses before or after the fact. Not a good business move. But neither is appearing to be unfriendly. Either one can get you more closely noticed and eventually caught. And I don’t want to be caught.
So I smiled. “I’m good. Yourself?”
He looked to be about 35, maybe 40 years old at the outside. The bike had kept the midlife bulge away. He laughed lightly and nodded toward the Softail. “I’m good now.”
“Thanks. It is today. Yesterday, not so much.” He laughed again.
“Ah,” I said. “Come far?”
“Nah, just down from Ruidoso this morning. But yesterday all the way from Littleton, Colorado.”
So probably he hadn’t absorbed excess vibrations from the bike, at least not this morning. The road from Ruidoso was smooth as glass—it was my business to know—except in Tularosa where it was a little rough in places.
More than likely the guy was just a little chilled. It was around 45 degrees in Alamogordo, our current location, so probably it was closer to 25 or 30 when he’d left Ruidoso. That’s cold, especially on a bike and especially when you’re wearing only jeans and a lightweight black leather jacket.
And a dark-blue t-shirt, I saw as he unzipped the jacket. And the jacket wasn’t padded. The bandanna would keep the cold air off his forehead and keep his also-dingy shoulder-length blond hair from whipping into his eyes as he rode, but it wouldn’t hold in the heat like a helmet would have.
As we walked toward the front door of Denny’s, I thought about my alternate escape route through Ruidoso. After my assignment, I’d take South White Sands Boulevard out of town. If nobody was following, that was it. I’d be gone. If I saw anything suspicious though, I’d catch the Relief Route back to the north, hook up with North White Sands Boulevard and head for Ruidoso and the mountains.
If someone appeared to be following me, I had places in Ruidoso Downs where I could ditch the pickup. If not, I’d hook a right at Apache Summit and head over to Cloudcroft, then back to Alamo and on west. It was a long way to go, but I was willing. That’s one reason I’m still around.
He added, “That’s a long way down.”
Pulled from my thoughts, I only looked at him. “What?”
“From Littleton to here, I mean.”
I nodded as I opened the door and held it for him. “Oh. Yeah it is.”
As he moved through the door, he grinned. “Gonna visit my girl for a few days up on Meadow Drive — you know — an’ then I’m off to a rally in Arizona.”
“She’s not going with you?”
The door eased closed behind me.
“Nah, her ol’ man’s a trucker. He’ll be back the day after I cut out. How about you?”
Ah, okay. So the guy’s a scavenger.
But I smiled. “Me? No story there. In Alamo today and maybe tomorrow.” I shrugged. “Gotta put a guy in the ground.”
“Oh man, I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “A friend?”
Still, he shook his head. “Sad thing when you gotta bury somebody. I don’t like funerals.”
He’d missed the point. Good. I like walking on the edge, maybe a little more than I should. I laughed. “Me either, but when you get to be my age, it seems there are more and more of them.”
My age is late 60s. Most people in my line of work retire in their 40s or 50s, but I like money.
The hostess appeared from somewhere and said, “Two?”
The biker, slightly ahead of me, shook his head and held up an index finger.
Good. That saved me from having to do it.
An older waitress put one hand on the other one’s shoulder. “You take that one over there,” and she gestured with her chin, “and I’ll seat this one.”
The biker glanced around and jutted his chin in my direction. “Take it easy, dude.”
There it was. Dude. I only smiled and nodded.
Then he and the waitress were headed off to the left. He didn’t look around again, so it was all good. He hadn’t paid enough attention to remember anything about me. Just a chance encounter between two friendly enough guys and no big deal.
As I followed the hostess, she stopped alongside a booth just past the cash register. “Is this all right? And your server will be—”
I pointed toward the back corner of the restaurant. “No ma’am, I’d rather sit back there if it’s all right.”
She grinned and held the menu to her chest. “Pick your spot.”
I stopped at the third booth from the back corner and slid into the bench seat on the near side. I had a full view of the pickup and of the area to the left and right of it for some distance.
She put the menu and a paper napkin rolled around silverware on the table. “Your server will be Miranda this morning. You want coffee?”
I smiled up at her. “Please. And a glass of water.”
She turned, spotted the girl who would be my waitress, pointed to me and repeated my drink order.
I never touched the menu, and when Miranda brought my coffee and water a moment later I was ready to order. “Three eggs over medium, hash browns, wheat toast, ham and bacon.”
She nodded as she started scribbling on a ticket book. “Home fries okay?”
“That’ll do.” I sipped the coffee, then set it down and smiled up at her. “And a fresh cup of coffee. This is lukewarm at best.”
She finished jotting my order, then smiled and picked up the cup. “It was the last of a pot.”
To her credit, she was back in only a few seconds with the coffee in a fresh cup. It didn’t have the little dribble marks I tend to leave on Denny’s cups. She set it down. “Your breakfast will be out in a minute.”
And I said, “Thanks” and she disappeared.
As I fished a couple of small ice cubes from the water glass and let them slip off the spoon and plop into the coffee, I thought about the assignment. This one was odd. I usually know the target well in advance: pictures, routine, and all of that. And my usual rate is thirty grand.
For this job, I knew only the stipulations. In my line of work, there are always stipulations.
For this one, I was not to know the name of the target in advance, or maybe at all. Nor the name of my employer—that’s normal—or my contact, whom I assumed would be a messenger. That’s also normal.
I knew only that the contact would find me. He or she would approach me when I wasn’t expecting it, hand me a folder and walk away. For our mutual security, neither of us were to say or notice anything. I would be watched until the job was done just to make sure I didn’t skip out with the money. Those were my employer’s stipulations. That part about being watched was a little amateurish and probably bullshit. But either way, I wasn’t worried about it.
In the folder, in addition to photos and other necessary information, would be a bank draft for twice my usual fee. My price for doing a blind job with no prep time. And if anything felt “off” — anything at all — I would tear the bank draft in half, drop the folder and walk away. Those were my stipulations, and the woman who initially contacted me didn’t blink an eye when I made her aware of them.
When the waitress approached with my food a few minutes later, she was carrying two plates and a bottle of syrup. One plate held a few pancakes. Only I hadn’t ordered pancakes. I asked her to take them away.
She frowned. “But they’re part of the Slam. It’s cheaper.”
I grinned. “Then you eat them and tell everyone else I did. I don’t want them.”
She nodded, picked up that plate and the syrup and left.
I took my time eating, and while I was there a few customers — two men, three women and a smattering of children — walked past my booth and turned left down the short hallway to the bathroom.
Nobody stopped on the way in or out. Nobody handed me a folder.
Eventually I pushed my plate back, got up and wandered toward the cash register. As I paid my bill, I glanced around for the biker, but I didn’t see him. Nobody met my gaze.
Outside, I moved along the side of the building toward my pickup. Three people passed me going the opposite direction, but none was carrying a folder.
I got in my pickup and headed back to my motel. I’d decided to check out. If I had to stay another night, I could always find a different room.
There was no folder in my room.
There was no folder or envelope waiting for me at the front desk.
I went to an IGA grocery to buy some soft drinks, then to Walmart — a popular and busy and anonymous gathering place — to show my face.
From there I went to the mall and wandered around awhile.
No one approached. No one brought me a folder.
The contact finally happened while I was filling the gas tank of my pickup at a crowded small Conoco Stripes station.
A pretty, petite Mexican woman walked up as I was putting the fuel nozzle back in the pump. She handed me a manila folder, which I took with my left hand.
I opened my mouth like I was gonna say something, but I didn’t.
The woman turned and walked away. She never made eye contact, and she said nothing.
And her hand was calm, as in not trembling, when she handed me the folder. So she was a pro at some level.
I put the gas cap back on the fill tube, closed the cover, and shot a quick glance at the receding woman just as she opened the passenger door on a late-model white Corolla and slipped into the seat. The car had a Hertz sticker on the back window. It pulled out before the door was fully closed and disappeared up a side street.
I got back in my pickup and drove to the large parking lot of a CVS Pharmacy on White Sands Boulevard. There I parked and looked around. It was the corner of a major intersection, and both streets were filled with cars going in all four directions. The lot itself was busy too. A few people were coming and going from other cars in the lot, both to and from CVS and other nearby businesses. But they all looked like normal citizens. Mostly women, some with children in tow, a few men. If anyone was watching me, they were very good.
I opened the folder.
An 8 x 10 glossy lay on top of some other papers. I studied it for a long moment, barely able to believe what I was seeing. A beautiful, forest green Kenworth diesel tractor parked in a residential neighborhood. No trailer. I could just make out the house number over the hood of the truck. It was on the side of an adobe-looking house next to the door in decorated square ceramic tiles, one number per tile: 426.
I looked at the truck again. The door of the truck was hanging open, and a man was turned sideways to face the camera from behind the steering wheel. His heavy black boots dangled below the floorboard but not quite to the step down to the running board and they were crossed at the ankles. He was a normal looking man on the younger side of middle-aged, maybe 40 to 45.
A tipped-back green ball cap revealed conservatively cut brown hair in what looked like a flat top. Either that or his hair was combed straight back. Aside from the boots, he wore jeans, a white t-shirt stretched over a large belly for his size, and wide suspenders stretched over the t-shirt. His right forearm lay on the steering wheel, the fingers curled naturally as they dangled. He was looking straight into the camera, a broad smile on his face. It was easy to see that he knew and trusted whomever was taking the picture.
For a moment, I thought he must be my target. He and his truck dominated the picture, and he was in sharp focus. The guy was obviously a truck driver, and for a second my mind flashed back to my biker acquaintance. His girlfriend was married to a truck driver. In this town.
But it had to be a coincidence, didn’t it? The biker couldn’t be my client, could he?
Nah, no way.
I looked away for a moment, checking around the area.
Traffic was still flowing by. People were still coming and going in the parking lot. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing close to my pickup. The sun coming through the side window was beginning to get hot on my jeans-clad legs. I rolled my window down, but there was still no breeze.
When I returned my attention to the photo, my gaze was drawn to another man below the first one. This one was turned slightly to his right and sitting on the running board of the Kenworth. His right leg was drawn up beside him, his right arm propped on his right knee. He was wearing a dark-blue t-shirt like the one I’d seen earlier today on the biker. And a red bandanna was stretched across his forehead.
But this guy’s hair wasn’t long. It was cut conservatively, but it wasn’t shorn like that of the man in the cab. And this guy was trim but not skinny. But he had the same facial expression, like he knew something nobody else knew. And he too was looking straight at the camera. He too was smiling, like he also knew and trusted whomever was taking the picture.
And someone — my client, I assume — had drawn a red circle around the head of the guy on the running board. He was plainly my target.
And he was also the guy I’d met by chance at Denny’s.
I’ll be damned.
My gaze drifted down to what I’d thought was a smudge on the lower left corner of the picture.
But it wasn’t a smudge. It was a shadow. The obviously curvaceous shadow of a woman.
The woman behind the camera.
The woman taking the picture.
Maybe the biker did trust her, but he didn’t know her. At all.
I flipped the glossy over and looked at the next sheet of paper.
In the center, in block letters, it read 426 Meadow Drive. Below that, Today after 11 a.m.
I shifted that sheet of paper aside with my thumb.
Beneath it, stapled at the edge to the folder, was a bank draft for $60,000.00.
I felt bad for the guy, sort of. I really did. But hey, a job’s a job.
I closed the folder, started my pickup, and glanced at the clock in the dashboard. It was 11:37.
I put the truck in gear and pulled out of the parking lot.
He’d said Alamo was a long way down from Littleton, Colorado.
A lot farther down than he knew.