When a job seems to be easy money, maybe what you were hired for isn’t exactly why you’re there.
I was sitting at a bar, drinking another Black Label, when the man came up to me. I should have known he was bad news, a fellow like that with his nice suit, in a low-rent bar like the one I was in that day. Maybe it was the beer, maybe it was that I was still basically a kid, only twenty years old, but I didn’t twig to it.
“I hear you’re looking for work, Lawrence,” he said, lowering himself gently onto the stool next to mine.
I took another swallow, cool-like, before answering. “If the pay’s right, sure.”
The suit nodded and pulled an envelope from his pocket. “I’ve got a problem, see. Girl trouble.”
He grinned at me like we understood each other. I would have just as soon punched that smarmy grin off his face, but I needed money and there wasn’t no use biting the hand. I grinned back at him.
“My secretary’s threatening to tell my wife about… about our affair. If I don’t pay her off. And I can get the money but, you know, not all at once.”
It wasn’t hot in the bar, but the man in the suit pulled out a handkerchief and wiped some sweat from his forehead.
“I need to get her out of town. My secretary, I mean. Somewhere that she can’t go to my wife until I pull everything together to pay her off.”
I rolled the bottle of beer between my hands, letting the beads of water soak into my skin. “And she’s not interested in clearing out, right?”
He nodded. “But I’ve got a vacation place, way out of town. Just a cabin, really, but if someone could take her there and make sure she stayed put for, oh, a week I suppose. Then it would all be right as rain.”
A week of sitting around keeping an eye on a girl didn’t sound like tough work. I asked him what he was paying and the figure he threw out got my attention.
“I’m just watchin’ this girl, right? Not getting rid of her or nothing?”
The handkerchief again, dabbing at his hairline. “Right, just watching her and, for God’s sake, making sure she doesn’t get to a telephone.”
He handed me the envelope and I peeled it open. Leopards stared up at me from a bunch of 200 rand notes. There was also a small photo of a woman, maybe in her thirties, blonde hair. Not particularly attractive, or at least not my type. She looked hard, and I wondered what a doughy suit had that would interest her.
“That’s half,” he said. “You’ll get the other three thousand at the end of the job. There’s also a map to the cabin.”
The man glanced around the room. His expression gave me the sense that he was just now really getting a feel for the place he’d strolled into with three thousand rand.
“You do have access to a car, don’t you?”
I flashed the man another grin and tucked away the envelope he’d given me. “As long as folks are still out there driving on the streets of Durban, I’ll have access to all the cars I need.”
Marvin, an old school buddy, was behind the wheel of the car I’d boosted overnight. He drove slowly through a neighbourhood with tree-lined streets.
“She comes through here every day, the man said. Early-like, running.” I was jabbering, adrenaline pumping through my veins, eyes checking out every angle looking for the girl, looking for signs of the police, too.
Marvin grunted and just kept driving.
A few minutes later, I caught sight of the woman through the dawn haze. I pointed her out to Marvin. He pulled up to a stop alongside her and before she knew what was happening, I’d thrown the door open and gotten my arms around her waist. I felt the soles of her running shoes bash my shins. She drew breath for one loud yell as we tumbled into the back seat of the car.
Marvin took off but not so fast that we peeled out or revved the engine. I crawled over the woman and got the door slammed shut. We were off.
She was thrashing around and yelling and though I hadn’t intended to hurt her, I reached out and smacked her hard across the face. The hit silenced her for a moment and by the time she was thinking about starting up a new ruckus, I had my gun out and pointed in her direction.
Sweat gathered at my temples and I felt my stomach flipping around. Stealing cars and a bit of petty theft doesn’t usually require gunplay and though there was no chance I’d have let this girl know that — or Marvin, for that matter — I’d never actually aimed a gun at a person before that moment.
“Best for us all,” I told her, “if you stay quiet.”
She looked at the muzzle of the gun, looked up in my eyes, and I’d swear that she knew. But she licked her lips, nodded, and fell silent. The three of us stayed that way on the road out of town, west through the Drakensberg Mountains, and on out to the cabin tucked back on a dirt road, north of Ladysmith.
Several hours later, Marvin turned off onto that narrow road, the last turn on our map. For the first time since leaving home that morning, I started to relax. There wouldn’t be any police back here. The hard work was over; now we just had to sit tight and keep our eye on the lady until the suit had her money and then everyone could go off their own ways.
“This place looks familiar, I bet,” I said to the woman.
Her brow furrowed and she didn’t answer me, except by shaking her head.
“What, lover boy never brought you out here for holiday? Told his wife that he had a business meeting?”
The woman’s tongue flicked out, licked her lower lip. She took in a deep breath, let it out, and then spoke. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
I laughed, but it pissed me off that the first thing she said to me proper was a lie. “Sure you don’t, love. And we’re all just chums out here for a drive.”
She opened her mouth to say something else. The car hit a bump just as she did and jolted us around in the back seat. Something flashed in her eyes and I could tell she was thinking about going for my piece. I braced myself against the door and lifted the gun up, pointed it at her again, holding it with both hands.
For a half-second, she still looked like she was going to try for it. But she shook her head a tiny bit and slumped back against her own side of the car. Slowly, my heart went back to its normal pace.
We went over a few more bumps in the road and I was about to ask Marvin if he could maybe try to not shake the car apart before we got to the cabin when we came around a bend and there it was. The car jerked to a halt several metres from the front door.
“Right. Home again, home again.” I opened my door, grabbed our captive’s arm, and led her and Marvin inside.
“How much are you taking him for?” I asked the girl as I shuffled a deck of cards. The light coming in through the windows was fading fast as the late-June sun sank in the sky. I offered Marvin a cut. He waved his hand at the cards and I dealt them out.
The girl didn’t say anything. I glanced over her way before picking up my hand.
“I asked you a question, you know. Answering is polite.”
“So is letting people go about their morning exercise without plucking them off the road.”
I ran a hand through my hair and gave her a little grin. “I guess that’s fair.” I turned back to the game. I had a pair of aces and crap besides. Marvin threw away two cards, so I dealt him a couple and took three for myself. I didn’t get any help from the deck.
Marvin tossed a fiver on the table. I thought about it for a second, shrugged, and tossed my cards down.
While he picked up the deck and began to shuffle I stood up and walked over to where the girl sat in a big overstuffed chair.
“Look, we’re all just trying to get paid here, right? And since your boss man may be a few days coming through with the money, what’s the harm in being at least halfway friendly?”
She looked up at me. “I wasn’t kidding, you know. In the car. I don’t have the first bloody clue what you’re going on about. I’ve got no boyfriend and my boss is a woman. And no, I’m not having an affair with her, either.”
I took her in. If she was feeding me a line, then she was good at it. I ran my hand over my scruffy beard and thought for a moment. Then I dug out the photo I’d been given and tossed it over to her.
She glanced at it, frowned, and looked up at me.
“That is you, right?”
“Of course it is.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “Good. It would’ve been embarrassing if I’d snatched the wrong person.”
I saw the sneer flit across her face before she could suppress it. “Who gave this to you?” she asked quickly, flicking a corner of the picture with a fingernail.
I laughed, a sharp little sound. “Well, now that’s a good question. Fellow said he was your boyfriend. Told me that you were sticking it to him, threatening to go to his wife if he didn’t pay you off.”
“And, what, he hired you to bring me out here and…?”
“Keep an eye on you until he had your money.”
A little glimmer of fear showed up in her eyes. “This man. What did he look like?”
I described the fellow. Bald head, nervous eyes, glasses, suit.
“Shit!” She jumped up from the chair. “Look, I think it would be a really good idea if we got out of here. Right now.”
Marvin had set the deck of cards down on the table and he was eyeing us intently. “Why’s that?” he asked.
“That man your buddy described? He is my boss, sort of. Not directly, I mean. But he’s the president of our company.”
She swallowed hard. “And if he’s gone to the trouble of getting me out here, he must know that I’ve found out about his embezzling and that I was going to go to the cops.” She darted around the room, shaking her head. “I’d thought I would dig up a bit more from the accounts, make sure the case was rock-solid, that no one could turn it back and say that I’d been involved or something, you know? Shit.”
I felt a lump form in my guts. If she was telling the truth, then the suit wasn’t going to be looking to get her paid off and out of town. He’d be looking for something much more permanent.
Marvin turned toward me. “This on the level?”
How the fuck should I know? I ran my hand over my face, thought hard. I didn’t have a name for the person who’d hired me, didn’t even have a name for the woman we’d grabbed. It had seemed like an easy job. Maybe too damned easy.
I went to the window and glanced out. It was already so dark that I couldn’t see more than a dozen metres from the cabin. I didn’t hear anything, but what did that mean? Anyone could’ve been out there.
I turned back and saw that Marvin was standing up, getting his gear together.
“I’m with her,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
I walked over by him and lowered my voice. “What if she’s playing us?”
He glanced at her, looked back at me. “I don’t think so, Lawrence.”
“So what, then?”
Marvin scratched his head and sighed. “We’ll figure that out, right?”
I crossed the room and took the woman by her arm. Marvin got to the door first and pulled it open. A bang greeted him and a bullet zinged through the room.
He swore and slammed the door shut.
“Give me the girl!” he yelled.
I hesitated briefly. “Look,” he said. “We give her to them and they’ve got no reason to worry about us, right? I ain’t got no evidence of anything.”
“No, you’d just be a witness to murder.”
He shook his head. “Do you have a better plan?”
Marvin yanked the girl out of my grasp. She bucked against his hold but he dragged her up to the front door.
He slid it open just a crack. “I’ve got the woman and I’m sending her out. My buddy and me will stay in here until you’re gone.”
No voice answered him and after several heartbeats he opened the door a bit wider. As he did so, the woman kicked her heel up, catching him between the legs. Marvin’s gun clattered to the ground and both he and the woman fell, knocking the door wide open. From outside came a second shot and then a third. Marvin cried out and the woman scuttled away from the door.
I headed for the back of the cabin, where it butted up against a bunch of trees. The girl was alongside me and stopped my hand when I went to grab for the handle of the back door. I saw she held Marvin’s pistol in her other hand. Right, then.
She indicated the open window off to one side of the room. A quick glance outside confirmed what she suspected. There was a man waiting on the other side of the back door, ready to shoot whoever came through it. Meanwhile, voices were growing louder at the front.
I took a deep breath, said a little prayer, leaned out the window and took two shots. The man at the back door crumpled to the ground. For a fraction of a second, I thought about what I had just done, but the girl hissed “Come on!” and I put everything out of my mind except survival.
She burst through the door and I followed. We went around a corner, keeping low, listening for the other people. I heard at least two inside the cabin.
At the front of the cabin I scanned the area. If there was anyone out there, the darkness had them well-covered.
“Make a run for the car?” I asked the woman in a whisper.
She nodded. I counted three with my fingers and then we both sprinted across the open ground. She got to the car first. A shot rang out just as her fingers touched the door handle. She screamed and dropped to the ground, Marvin’s gun bouncing beneath the car. Bright red blood stood out against the car door’s beige paint.
I turned, saw the shooter, and pulled my trigger. The bullet caught him in the shoulder. He fell in the grassy lawn and my second shot stilled him forever.
In the echoes of the gunshots, nearly everything went still. Only whimpers from the woman I’d kidnapped that morning reached my ears. I knew there was another person out there looking for me. But now I was the one who could camp outside, watching for someone to come through the door.
I crouched down behind the car, letting its bulk shield most of my body. The stillness dragged out long enough that I began to wonder if maybe I’d been mistaken. If everyone but me and the woman was dead or gone.
Then, from inside, a voice: “Don’t shoot, Lawrence. You and I can still get out of this with what we want.”
The suit from the Durban bar stepped slowly into the frame made by the open doorway. He held his hands up, his gun loose in his right hand. I kept my own weapon steady on him.
“You don’t really want any part of this, do you, Lawrence?” He took a couple of slow steps forward, toward the cabin’s porch. “I checked up on you, after all. You’re not a violent fellow.”
My heart thudded and it felt like I could sense my pulse in my neck, in my arms, in every inch of my body. I thought about the man at the back door, the man sprawled out here in the front yard. Not a violent fellow?
The suit had gotten to the front of the porch and was about to lower his foot onto the first step when I fired. My bullet caught him square and he tumbled down the front stairs. I waited, holding my breath, watching to see if he moved again. His left arm moved once and I got ready to take another shot. But then he got still and stayed that way.
A breeze I hadn’t noticed rustled the leaves of the trees around us. In the distance an animal howled. The wounded woman sobbed.
I stayed crouched there, three times a killer. From somewhere a few tears gathered in the corners of my eyes. I didn’t bother to wipe them away.
I stood at last, tucked my gun into my pants, and went around to where the woman leaned against one of the car’s rear tires.
“They’re all dead,” I told her.
She nodded, her face pale in the dim early evening moonlight.
I bent down and inspected her wound. The bullet had passed through her left hand; it was a bloody mess and I figured she was in shock.
“Come on,” I told her. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll drop you off at a hospital, they can get that patched up for you.”
She didn’t answer me. I reached out for her good hand with one of mine and after a brief hesitation, she took it and pulled herself up.
I got in the car, turned the engine over, and circled the car around the lawn. We went down the bumpy dirt road at a crawl in the dark; when I got to the main road I wanted to floor it, to burn off some of the nervous energy in a burst of speed. But I kept it to the limit.
The girl dozed off and on during the drive.
At one point, she woke and in a painfully clear voice asked, “What happens now?”
I waited a few seconds, hoping she’d drop back off to sleep. But I felt her eyes on me and couldn’t avoid the question.
“Like I said back there, I’ll drop you off at a hospital. Then I’ll be on my way.” I shrugged. “And we can both pretend like this never happened.”
I chanced a peek over at her. She nodded drowsily. “Never happened…”
“Exactly right,” I lied.
Michael Haynes has recently sold stories to Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and Otto Penzler’s upcoming anthology Kwik Krimes.