ONE

Decker Jones checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror. Noticing a bit of shine on her nose, she pulled out her compact and applied a dusting of powder. Satisfied, she stuffed the cosmetics back into her purse and got out of the car. Kevin Brewer, her boyfriend for the past three years, had called that afternoon and asked to meet her at Madeline’s in Pasadena for an early dinner. She was a little annoyed because Madeline’s was hardly the sort of place she wanted to go dressed in her work clothes. The eatery was upscale and called for more than her slacks and sweater. Not that she’d be asked to leave, but the ambiance would be a bit tarnished without the proper wardrobe. A shower, freshly washed hair and a dab of fragrance would have made a difference as well. And who wanted to have dinner at five thirty? She felt like she was on her way to a senior citizens early bird special.

Kevin had been adamant, though, so here she was. He said he had something important to say to her and it couldn’t wait and he wanted to be in the right setting. Was he finally going to propose? She smiled. It would be like him to do something so oddball, so unexpected. They’d been living together for the past two years and had dated a year before that. Never the conventionally romantic type, Kevin was always unpredictable, but sweet, and that was part of the attraction. So if he wanted to propose to her in the late afternoon without all the fanfare of roses and dressing up, she’d accept in a heartbeat and be happy he wasn’t some ordinary man who would bore her to death after a few years of marriage.

The restaurant was nearly empty. There was, however, an elderly couple seated at the only other occupied table and Decker stifled a laugh as she made her way towards Kevin.

“Hi Sweetie!” She gave him a peck on the cheek and sat down. “How was your day?”

“Good. It was good. You want a drink?”

“Oh yeah. I don’t just want one; I need one. Gail was up my butt again. God, that woman gets on my last nerve. “

“You shouldn’t let her get to you.”

“Easy for you to say. You don’t have to deal with her on a daily basis.”

Kevin waved the waiter to the table. “I’ll have a Maker’s Mark, neat.”

The waiter nodded and turned to Decker.

“Make mine an Absolut Martini, up. Three olives, please.”

“Would you like to see a menu now?”

Decker was about to answer when Kevin spoke first. “Not just yet.”

“Yes, Sir.” The waiter nodded and went to get the drinks.

“So, what’s the big rush? The big important thing that couldn’t wait?”

Kevin scanned the room, his gaze rested on the old couple for a moment, then slid back to Decker. He let out a sound between a grunt and a sigh.

“What?” Decker laughed. “What’s up with you? Some big, deep, dark secret? Maybe a surprise?”

“No. No secrets. I just, ah, well, I have to go out of town. Tonight actually, and I thought it’d be nice to tell you over dinner instead of rushing out the door with my suitcase as soon as you got home from work.”

“Where? This is pretty sudden. Is something wrong?”

The waiter returned and set their drinks down in front of them. Kevin picked his up and downed half of it in one gulp.

“Kevin? What is it? Is your dad okay? ”

The senior Brewer was recovering from heart surgery and lately it had been the topic of many telephone conversations with Kevin’s mother and siblings.

He shook his head. “It’s just business.”

Relieved, Decker picked up the Martini and sipped it, savoring the icy coldness.

Kevin scanned the room again.

“Kevin, what’s with you? You keep looking around as if you’re expecting something.”

Maybe he was waiting for someone to deliver a singing marriage proposal? Or perhaps he’d given instructions to the waiter before she arrived. Quickly, she looked into her drink to see if there was an engagement ring beneath the olives. Seeing nothing, she twirled the olive skewered toothpick to make certain.

He took another drink, finishing off the glass and waved to the waiter for another, then turned to Decker. “There’s just not very many people in here.”

“What did you expect, Kevin? It’s not even six o’clock. Some people are still eating lunch.”

“I just, ah…” his voice trailed off and he looked almost pained.

“You just what?”

“I just thought there would be more.”

“Kevin, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Where are you going with this? What difference does it make?”

The waiter arrived with the encore and Kevin grabbed it as soon as it hit the table, finishing most of it.

“Kevin, what’s the matter with you? You’re going to get drunk and then you’ll have to travel. You’ll have a hangover in the morning and be in a strange room in a strange city. Where are you going, anyway?”

Gathering his courage, Kevin looked across the table at her. “Decker, this is really hard. I wanted more people around because…” he faltered, searching for the words.

Decker’s heart was beating fast. This was it! He was going to propose and he wanted to do it in front a whole room full of people, just like in Moonstruck. Decker looked at him, waiting to see him slide from his chair and get down on his knee.

“It doesn’t matter,” she reassured him. “We don’t need a room full of people.” She glanced over at the old couple. “We’ve got Grandma and Grandpa over there—and our waiter. Just say it, Kevin.”

“You’re right. You’re a good person and I don’t need a room full of people to protect me.”

“What?”

“Decker, this is hard but…I’m leaving you.”

“What?”

“I didn’t want to have some big discussion about it. Didn’t want to have an argument. I thought if we had a nice dinner in a nice place…”

“A nice crowded place so I wouldn’t make a scene?”

“Well, yes.”

“But why, Kevin? Is it something I did? Is there someone else?”

He didn’t answer, just looked into the depths of his glass and that was all the answer Decker needed but she had to hear it, had to hear the words coming out of his mouth.

“Do I know her?” Wanting him to deny it, wanting him to say it was all a stupid joke and present her with the engagement ring she had so foolishly envisioned.

“No. She’s someone I met on the job. She doesn’t live here. She’s in Chicago.”

“I see.” She felt tears beginning to form but she willed them to stop. “Is that where you’re going now?”

He nodded and took another slug of his drink. “I requested a transfer to the Chicago office and it came through.”

“You requested a transfer? When?”

He took a deep breath. “Last month. It was approved a few days ago and I start on Monday, so…”

“So you’ve been lying to me all this time. For how long, Kevin? I know at least for a month but how long?”

“Decker, calm down. We’ve had a good run but now it’s over and I’ve got to move on.”

All the air went out of her. Decker sat speechless and stared at the stranger she’d been living with for the past two years. She was vaguely aware of her mouth opening and closing but with no sound emanating from within.

“Decker, I…”

She wasn’t listening. His words echoed in her head as she gathered up her purse, picked up the nearly full Martini and threw it in his face. Blindly, she stood and rushed for the exit, heedless of Kevin’s sputtering shout, the shocked expressions from the old couple and the waiter, who hurried over to clean up the mess.

The late afternoon sun was like a punch in the face. Decker ran to her car, wrenched open the door and threw herself into the driver’s seat. Taking a moment to compose herself, she glanced in the rearview mirror, half hoping she’d see Kevin rushing to her to tell her it had all been a terrible mistake. Then his words echoed in her brain once again and she thought he was the last person she wanted to see ever again. Choking back tears of sadness mixed with those of rage, she jabbed her key into the ignition, started the car and headed for home.

Emptiness greeted her when she opened the door to the apartment in the Los Feliz neighborhood where she and Kevin had shared a life. Numb, Decker threw the mail on the end table and walked to the bedroom. The closet door was open, revealing the gap where Kevin’s clothes had hung. Decker went through the dresser drawers one by one, torturing herself anew when she eyed the vacant spaces.

Flopping on the bed, she let out a sob and finally allowed herself to cry.

“Why?” she wailed, at the room, at fate, at God. “Why? What did I do to deserve that?”

Try as she might, she couldn’t shut out the sound of his words reverberating in her brain. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. She thought of all the business trips he’d taken in the past two years and wondered when he’d met Miss Right. And then came home and pretended everything was fine, made love to her in their bed while he had that other woman in Chicago! Did that other woman know Kevin was in a relationship? Or had Kevin kept her in the dark as well?

“I hate you, Kevin Brewer! I hope you rot in hell surrounded by big, ugly, mean women who point at your pencil dick and laugh for all eternity!”

Darkness shrouded the room when Decker finally emerged, face red and puffy. She stubbed her toe on the doorjamb and cursed. She felt for the light switch and turned on the overhead lamp. Ugly yellow light filled the room and she quickly turned on the table lamps and shut off the offending glare.

She should eat. She wasn’t hungry. Maybe a stiff drink. God knew she could use one. Then she thought, no, she’d only get drunk on an empty stomach and then she’d have that to deal with on top of being dumped. Not worth it. Flopping on the sofa, she reached for the remote and turned on the television. A reality show was in progress, the people in it wading through bug infested waters in some tropical jungle, the lot of them plotting against each other in order to be the big winner. Decker turned it off. She reached for the stack of mail on the end table and listlessly flipped through it. Ads and bills and a self-addressed stamped envelope. She stared at it, afraid to open it. Another rejection would just be too much to take at this point.

Decker was a writer, trying to become a successful published author. The number of rejections she’d received in identical self-addressed stamped envelopes numbered enough to wallpaper a small room. She turned the envelope in her hands, warring with herself about taking the plunge or waiting and deluding herself that maybe this time the answer she was seeking was emblazoned on the page nestled inside. Finally, she grunted and tore open the envelope, giving herself a vicious paper cut in the process.

“Shit!” she exclaimed and sucked the wound on her index finger.

Closing her eyes, she unfolded the paper with her free hand and spread it out on her lap. Mentally counting to three, she opened her eyes on the last count, prepared to once again be told in so many words that she wasn’t good enough, her story didn’t grab whoever had passed judgment but to keep on trying.

Instead she was treated to the answer she had been seeking for ten long years.

Dear Mr. Jones: (a common mistake)

    Thank you for sending your manuscript WITCH HUNT. I found the story to be well paced, interesting and timely. I am happy to offer you a contract with my agency. Upon your acceptance of my offer, I will overnight the necessary paperwork. Please feel free to have an attorney of your choice look over the contract with you.

    I am available to answer any questions.

Sincerely yours,
Lillian Cardone
President, Cardone Literary Agency
(212) 555-0891

The room tilted and Decker slapped herself to be sure she wasn’t in the throes of a dream. But no, the slap hurt and yes, she was wide awake and the words on the page hadn’t changed. A whoop of joy surged through her lips before she even knew she was making a sound.

She raced to the phone and called Stephanie, her best friend, and had to physically restrain her self from screaming her joy into the telephone receiver, thus blowing Steph’s eardrums for all eternity.

“Oh my god, Decker! You’re serious? This isn’t a joke?”

“So help me god, Steph, I’m holding the letter in my hand right now and she didn’t write it in disappearing ink! I’ve got an agent and what an agent! Lillian Cardone! She’s one of the biggest in the business. If she takes you on, then you’re pretty much a done deal!”

“I’m so happy for you! What did Kevin say?”

Dead silence.

“Decker? Are you there?”

It was as if she were a balloon and someone had stuck a pin in her. Her euphoria was instantly transmuted to tears and the next half hour was spent with Stephanie telling her what a loser Kevin was and how she was better off without him and what an idiot he’d feel like when he found out the woman he’d just dumped was poised on the brink of literary stardom.

“If you hear from him, just tell him to go shit in his hat!”

“Advice I will definitely heed,” Decker said and managed a small laugh. “Thanks, Steph, I really needed a friend. Both to celebrate and commiserate.”

“I’m always here! But I gotta go. It’s late and I’ve got an early meeting tomorrow.”

Decker walked through the apartment, turning off lights and softly spoke the words Steph had proposed. “Go shit on your hat, Kevin Brewer. Fame and fortune is coming my way and you won’t be along for the ride!”

She felt good. She felt strong. Her world had just expanded and great things were coming her way. Even so, when she finally climbed into bed and turned off the light, she cried herself to sleep.

 

TWO

Albert Crawford had a face that looked as if it had been pressed upon glass. His nose, larger than most, had been broken in a bar fight some years back and it spread across his face like silly putty left too long in the sun. Thick, protruding lips opened in a perpetual pout exposing teeth that looked more like they belonged to some feral animal than to a human being. His smile, an infrequent thing, was literally wolfish and had the tendency to scare people; except for Ruby Wheeler, his biker girlfriend, who seemed to thrive on danger and what she referred to as Albert’s “edge.” At one time, his mother had purported to love that face and she’d promised the boy she would get the money to have his teeth fixed. The promise, like so much of what she said, was a lie. Empty words uttered by an empty woman. She was dead now, at the hands of her loving son, although this was a fact known only to him and Ruby. His eyes, his best feature, were a shade of blue that bordered on turquoise. They would have been beautiful, were it not for the hardness in them that chilled the soul of anyone unlucky enough to become the object of their scrutiny. To compensate for his lack of physical beauty, Albert worked out like a demon and had a physique that could easily have been the envy of Conan the Barbarian.

At the same time Decker Jones was nursing her wounded heart and celebrating her success, Albert Crawford was waiting in line to hold up a bank. It wasn’t the first time he’d done something like this. It was how he made his living. Knowing his features were quite memorable, he chose to disguise himself by wearing a large slouch hat, oversized sunglasses and baggy clothing. A shirt with a collar turned up helped to obscure his neck and the lower portion of his face. He made a special effort to keep his lips closed, this being a difficult task because of the bow shape of his mouth. To further hide his full lips, he kept his head at a downward angle, so that anyone looking at him would have to tilt their head to get a good look. He wore lifts in his shoes to make him appear taller than he actually was.

He was third in line.

The light in the middle of the teller counter lit up, instructing the next person in line to proceed to Window 3.

Albert shifted on his feet, his pulse quickening. It was always like this. The excitement, the fear of being caught, the thrill of knowing he most likely wouldn’t be caught, because this was something he’d done a lot of times before and it had always come off without a hitch. But there was always that chance….

This was going to be his last job. At least his last job here in the States. He knew it was stupid, knew if any of his friends found out he’d actually consulted a psychic after a series of bad dreams, they’d laugh him out of town and possibly jump him in a back alley for being a wuss. But those dreams had freaked him out. In them he’d been caught and sent to prison. It wasn’t a good sign that somebody in his line of work would have nightmares like that. There wasn’t anyone he could talk to about it, so he’d gone to a psychic. Of course, he didn’t mention those fears but the psychic, a crazy looking old woman with wild gray hair and globs of makeup fashioned to make her look like a gypsy, had chilled his soul when she said that she saw him in chains. Her brow had furrowed and she’d looked at him, asked him what he thought it might mean. Albert had shrugged, as if to say he had no idea.

“These premonitions,” she said in a voice with an accent of indeterminate origin, “you must heed them. It is not necessary for you to bare your soul to me but you must know that something is talking to you and telling you that you are in great danger.”

The light came on again directing the person in front of him to Window 7.

He’d asked the old woman if she knew when this would happen and she said that these things were hidden from her. All she knew was that something was coming and it was bad and he should make provision for it. Then she’d held out her hand for the fifty-dollar fee.

Up until that time, Albert had spent the money he’d taken as fast as he could. He didn’t have anything to show for it. It had all gone for booze, drugs, fun and trips down to Mexico. He had purchased a new Harley and that machine was his baby, along with another, older one. Harleys were his addiction and he’d spent hours imagining owning a fleet of them. But he didn’t have a dime in savings and he knew he couldn’t just stop robbing banks and go get himself a regular job. The thought of taking orders from some know-it-all boss made him almost physically ill. So he’d decided he would choose his jobs carefully and sock as much money away as he could. When he had enough, he’d take off for Mexico. Go down there and live the good life. Figure out a scam or two to pull on those stupid wetbacks. They were all so lazy and ignorant that it wouldn’t be that hard to do. He’d had some pretty good hauls and his cuts had been sizeable. Instead of spending them like he had in the past, he kept only what he needed and stashed the money. Nobody knew where it was. Not his girlfriend Ruby, not his cousin Buck.

That was the one fly in the ointment today. Buck was his partner and they had always worked together. Split everything fifty-fifty and laughed all the way to the bank. Albert smiled to himself at the pun. But Buck had gone and broken his damned foot the other day when he’d been drunk and horsing around. So he wasn’t here today. Instead, Albert was alone inside the bank with Bobby Kelly waiting outside in the getaway car. Bobby had come recommended by a friend but Albert was still nervous about him. So instead of having him come into the bank as backup, he’d relegated him to waiting outside. Besides, his cut would be less, only being a driver, and that was fine with Albert.

At first, he’d thought of scuttling the whole thing. Then he’d had another of those damnable dreams and the pressure of those premonitions wore on him like a heavy weight, all but screaming at him to get out of town as soon as possible. Just one more job. That’s all he needed. Just one more to reach his goal of a hundred thousand bucks and then he would be gone. Today should put him over the top. That kind of money would take him a long way down south of the border. He would live like a king.

Albert stood still in the line, didn’t lift his head, kept it down, while at the same time keeping his eyes glued to the light that would next direct him to the window that would pay him his day’s wages. His last day as a bank robber. At least for a while.

And there it was. Window 2. Good. It was close to the back door of the bank.

The teller was a young man, no more than nineteen or twenty. Skinny, with dyed black hair. There was a tiny hole in the side of his nose that spoke of accouterments not allowed in the bank but which were donned off the job to alert his contemporaries that he was chill.

The teller gave Albert a fake smile. “Good afternoon, Sir. How may I help you?”

Albert said nothing, only shoved a note written on a paper bag across the counter. At first the young man didn’t realize what was happening but then realization dawned as he looked down and read the note.

Don’t be the hero. Don’t press any buttons to call the police. Empty out your cash drawer and smile at me. Put the money in the bag and slide it across the counter to me. If you don’t do what I want I will kill you and everyone else in this bank.

It was amusing to see how the kid nearly swallowed his tongue when he read the note. Albert wondered if the kid was afraid he’d shit himself. Now that would be funny, except, of course, it would alert everyone to the fact that something was terribly wrong at Window 2.

“Let’s get a move on,” Albert whispered when the kid took too long for his liking.

The kid moved faster. His eyes began to stray to the next window.

“Don’t do that,” commanded Albert in a low voice. “Don’t look at anyone except me and don’t try to look at me too damned hard. Hurry up!”

The kid’s eyes snapped back to the task at hand.

The drawer was empty. The bag was nearly full.

“Now the bottom drawer,” Albert said. “I know you keep the big bills in there. Just nice and easy. It’s almost over.”

The kid was sweating now but he followed instructions, unlocked the bottom cash drawer with the key that was tethered to the upper drawer, grabbed the stacks of bills that were inside and inserted them into the bag. Then he shoved the drawer closed and relocked it.

“Okay, you’re doing fine,” Albert whispered. “Just like an old pro. Now slide the bag over to me and say ‘thank you!'”

The kid did as instructed and somehow managed to croak out a thank you, his voice cracking on the word you.

“You’re welcome,” Albert responded and couldn’t help but smile. “Great doing business with you. Now you just keep quiet for a few minutes and then everything will be just fine. Understand?”

The kid nodded. The ability to speak had temporarily deserted him.

Albert turned and walked towards the door. The security guard, an overweight guy who probably couldn’t get a job as a dogcatcher, was busy inspecting the wall for who knew what.

Almost there.

Three more steps and Albert’s hand was on the door, pushing it open, escaping outside.

The kid found his voice, perhaps because now that Albert was out of the bank, the threat to his personal safety was removed.

“Phil! That guy just robbed the bank!”

Phil, the security guard, was taken by surprise for a moment, then fumbled and reached for his gun. It came clumsily from the holster. He shoved open the door, pointed the weapon, and called “Halt!”

Albert, who was preparing to enter the getaway car waiting in the alley near the rear entrance to the bank, stopped in his tracks, dropped the bag of money on the front seat and said, “Don’t you go anywhere,” to Bobby Kelly, a small-time hood who had a penchant for demolition derbies. “I’ll take care of this right now.”

In one fluid motion, he whipped out the gun from the shoulder holster he wore beneath the baggy jacket, turned and shot the security guard before the man had a chance to even register what was happening. As Phil fell to the floor, wedging open the door, the screams of the customers inside the bank filtered out to the alley.

Albert jumped into the car. “Hit it!” he commanded Bobby.

At that moment a garbage truck drove up and blocked the only exit from the alley.

“Fuck!” The word came simultaneously from both Albert’s and Bobby’s mouths.

“Drive out on the sidewalk,” Albert yelled and Bobby took off, wheels screaming against the concrete, leaving black trails of rubber in the wake of the vehicle.

Bobby was a good driver. In fact, he was a great driver, but the space between the garbage truck and the wall of the bank was just too small to make the turn in one motion. The car became stuck.

“Goddamn! Why’d ya have to steal a fucking Crown Victoria, Bobby? Why couldn’t you have boosted a smaller car? Shit!”

Bobby didn’t bother to answer. He was too busy trying to dislodge the vehicle, but it was stuck tight.

All of a sudden every damned cop in the world was there. Three, four, then five squad cars screeched to a halt in the street and disgorged ten officers, guns drawn and aimed squarely at the inhabitants of the doomed Crown Victoria.

“Put your hands outside of the vehicle where we can see them,” came a command on a bullhorn.

Typical fucking cops, thought Albert as he did what he knew he had to do or be killed. They were what?—ten feet away?— and still felt compelled to use a voice amplifier.

“Keep your hands where I can see them,” commanded the officer nearest them. He was backed up by three other cops and the rest of them fanned out and surrounded the Crown Vic.

Escape was out of the question.

The cop came slowly towards the car.

“Don’t move a muscle. Just stay still. I’m going to open the door to the vehicle. Stay put when I do. If you try anything, you’re dead meat, assholes, understand?”

Bobby started blubbering. “I didn’t shoot the guy. It was Albert! It wasn’t me!”

“Shut the fuck up, Bobby,” Albert hissed.

“No, you shut the fuck up, asshole,” said the cop as he neared the door on Albert’s side.

The cop took a few more steps, then put his hand on the door handle, the gun in his other hand aimed straight at Albert’s head. He opened the door and backed away from the car.

“All right. Now slowly exit the vehicle and lie face down on the sidewalk, legs spread apart and your arms spread out over your head. You, Bobby is it? You stay put until you’re told what to do.”

Bobby was sniveling and it made Albert sick. What a fucking wuss! Steals a goddamned fucking ocean liner and he’s crying because he got caught. Oh woe is fucking him. Albert vowed to himself that he’d kill that little motherfucker the first chance he got. This was all his fault. All his fucking fault and now, since Albert was a three-time loser and this was California, he was screwed. Not to mention that fat security guard bleeding all over the bank steps. With his luck, Albert thought, the guy would fucking die and then he’d be up for murder and armed robbery and who cared about that stupid three strikes law when you were looking at something like that. And face it, he’d been caught red handed. The fucking money was in the car, the gun was on the seat right next to him, with his fingerprints all over it, he’d have gunpowder residue all over him and Christ on horseback! He was gonna do some hard time. Fuck! Maybe they’d even kill him. Shit!

“I said get out of the car and down on the ground! You deaf, asshole?” The cop’s sharp command interrupted Albert’s panicked train of thought.

He fixed the cop with a look that would have frozen the blood of anyone else but the cop had a gun and nine other cops with him, so the look was just that: a look on the face of a perp who was caught, nothing more, and Albert damn well knew it and he hated it. He hated Bobby and he hated the cop and he hated his fucking bad luck but he had no choice except to do as he was told. He slowly slid out of the car and flattened himself on the ground. He didn’t want to give them any excuse to shoot him. They would, he knew, if he gave them the tiniest opening and he wasn’t about to do that.

Once he was down, three of the cops came over, guns pointed at his head. One leaned over and grabbed his arms, twisting them for maximum pain effect behind his back and put the cuffs on.

“Stay down, asshole!”

Then they got Bobby out of the car. That stupid little creep Bobby, who had probably pissed himself. He wouldn’t last a minute in lockup. He was still blubbering as they cuffed him.

Rough hands pulled Albert to his feet and trotted him to a waiting squad car while he was being read his rights. Bobby was taken to a different car and then they were speeding downtown to the jail and Albert knew that it would be a long time before he saw the outside of a cell again.

But he would, he vowed. Oh, you bet your ass, he would.

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