Zero Sum Game by Doug J. Black

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He’d do anything for her. No, really. Anything.

Barstow was my paradise.

Not something you hear very often about a Mojave town with triple the violent crime of the average U.S. city.

Barstow, the idiot offspring of the gold rush and the continental railroad, is surrounded by registered sex offenders living in plywood shacks and one of the Wal-Mart greeters is a leathery two-dollar whore named Bamby.

Slanders aside, my knack for forgery and Sally’s uncanny expertise in growing the finest strains of bud, left alone and barely noticed out there in San Bernardino County, made this my own empire nestled within Desert Town, U.S.A. Neat packaging, like the occasional welding gig and regular donations to Toys for Tots, kept me below IRS radar.

The only thing missing was a cure for Sally.

Then, some guy named Joe Franco descended into my life and hooked me up with that sick son-of-a-bitch in Vegas. Son-of-a-bitch being Homer Skelton.

So my first meeting with Homer culminated with poor Joe Franco’s heels hanging over the edge of a crater of fire the size of an indoor swimming pool. All duct tape and tears.

And me on the hot seat.

The local desert vagrants called that place the “Gates of Hell.”

Don’t I know it.

Not sure I would have done it any different, though.

Twenty years ago Sally was the hottest stripper in Los Angeles, working the classiest joints. Heart-shaped ass and copper-colored hair. Slinking like a big, sexy cat across that stage. Five hundred dollar lap dances. She gave it up to wander the desert southwest with me, a broken-down veteran, after Uncle Sam bent me over, fucked me with no lube, and sent me away with a minuscule disability check.

Then inflammatory breast cancer struck like a viper and reduced her physique to concentration camp levels. IBC usually struck woman over fifty—Sally hadn’t even hit forty yet. Purple chemo sores covered her once-smooth skin—and the treatment wasn’t working. Next step was invasive surgery or a trip to a special treatment center.

That morning, she wore the same flowing red scarf she always wore to hide her baldness, even when staying in. Even when she’d taken down all the mirrors in the place.

She sat at the kitchen table in front of the candle infuser, filling in the blanks of a page of Mad Libs. A minty cloud of eucalyptus floated off the dish and wafted through the trailer. Some kind of eastern music flowed from her iPod speaker, something like a wind chime and ocean waves.

The percolating dark roast beans in the kitchen beat out the pine aromatherapy scent. I walked around her to the cabinets and rummaged for my favorite chipped mug, stolen from an IHOP in Toluca Lake.

“Good morning,” she said. Her soft voice had gained a rough tinge through sickness and exhaustion.

“Mornin’. You turned my alarm off.” I poured my coffee and walked over to her, smiling. I’d forecasted the attempted sabotage. “I’m about to roll out.”

She continued filling in the nouns, verbs, and adjectives of a puzzle called “Moving to a New Town.” Since her diagnosis, she’d been picking the most bland, obvious words to complete the story. For a noun, she’d pick “sofa” instead of “douchebag” or “platypus.” For verbs, she’d use “drive” or “love” instead of “jerk off” or “freebase.”

Alternative medicine, I figured.

As for the silence, two decades with that fiery angel and I knew what was coming—she was priming one last salvo of an idea to keep me from going to Vegas and meeting Homer.

“That warehouse downtown is still for sale. Nice place for a fabrication shop.” She didn’t look up from her scribbling. Halfway through a word, she dropped the pen and winced, squeezing the fingers of her hand tight with the other.

Peripheral neuropathy from the chemo. She’d say it felt like she was holding her fingertips on top of a red-hot stovetop.

A few seconds and it’d subside. She continued writing.

I stood behind her and rubbed her neck. Her collarbone and shoulder were hard edges and lumps threatening to break through her dry skin. “Can you pass me my smokes?”

“This’ll be hilarious when we both have cancer, huh?” She looked up and handed me the opened soft-pack of Camels. Her eyes, sensual orbs of bright blue, were the only features left untouched by the scourge. “Look, this Joe character just rubbed me the wrong way and I’ve got a bad feeling, Danny.” She laid her thin hand on top of mine. “Like it’s time to cash in and disappear.”

“I know.” I leaned down and kissed her forehead. “I gotta go. Long drive.”

The screen door screeched and slapped shut behind me like a giant mousetrap. Through the sheer white curtains, I took one more look back at Sally. Her shoulders quivered and she covered her face with her hands.

According to Joe Franco, I’d be coming back through the door with some hope for her. It’ll be easy, he said.

Joe Franco was a cousin of a friend’s roommate. Or something like that. I think.

I come home one night, about a week earlier, after working a project down in Victorville, and there’s some Italian guy with slick, black hair sipping Chai tea with Sally at the kitchen bar. He was just a fresh-faced kid in a form-fitting suit, looking like he should be modeling underwear on a Rodeo Drive billboard instead of hanging out with middle-aged folk in a doublewide.

Sally had that look on her face like her bullshit detector had gone off the scale, yet was trying to be a polite hostess. She’d opened her mouth to make the introduction, but Joe popped up from the stool and grabbed my hand in a firm, sweaty shake.

Joe rattled off a list of names of people he’d gone through to get referred to me, while he pumped away, cheesy grin showing fine car-salesman teeth.

I looked over his shoulder to Sally. She was doing that thing where she rubbed the back of her neck, hard, with her eyes closed.

“I need some help,” he said. “Everyone in the county says you’re the man.” He finally let go of my hand. “Could be a win-win for both of us.” He jerked his head back toward Sally. “Is there anywhere we can chat? I’ve got a business opportunity for you.”

“We’re fine out here,” I told him.

We sat back at the bar and he outlined a plan to oust some up-and-comer in Vegas, a guy named Homer Skelton. Said Homer had hurt some people he was close to and that he was working to bring him down, off the clock from his day job at the ATF.

He flashed his laminated ID card. If it was a fake, it was done by one of the best. I was impressed—it was either the best fake credentials I’d ever seen, or there really was a fed sitting at my bar, drinking tea.

“Homer’s looking to expand across SoCal and eventually wedge Ramon Juarez out of LA,” said Joe. He took a sip of tea. He actually stuck a pinkie out while he lifted the cup. “He’s amassing as much talent as he can for his grand push.”

“And this has what to do with me?” I asked.

“I just want you to meet him and offer your services. You’ll have a tiny, hand-made recorder with you.” He put his thumb and forefinger together with a gap about the size of a dime. “All I need is for you to confirm his plans. He won’t know it was you that helped me out.” He looked at me and stopped his goofy smile. “One meeting with Homer, and anything you get in the process is yours to keep. It’ll be easy.”

He stood and thanked Sally for the tea.

She returned the pleasantries without looking at him or standing.

Joe didn’t wait for an answer. He just said he’d be back in a day or two to talk details and logistics. “You’ve got a fine lady there, too. You’re a lucky man.” He leaned forward and spoke lower. “Too bad about the…well, you know.”

He was good.

Joe let himself out of the trailer and we sat in silence until the sound of his car had faded.

“He smells like shit,” said Sally.

“Probably just spilled his bottle of Hugo Boss on himself this morning. My eyes were watering.”

We didn’t laugh.

I lay awake that night, thinking about the fresh, papery smell and crisp feel of the stacks of cash that would bring Sally back from the edge of death.

A string of brass bells jingled when I opened the door to Homer’s custom chopper workshop. The familiar metallic ozone scent of arc welding filled the air inside the steel Quonset hut.

Two men played cards at a desk, both wearing light jackets that revealed the butts of automatic pistols. One of them, tipped back in his chair with his boots kicked up, said, “Have a seat, Mister Hendricks.”

The gunman across from him, a younger kid with acne and a cowboy hat, slapped his cards on the table. “Eat shit!” he yelled, smiling, and then shuffled the cards.

I sat down behind a worn coffee table layered with issues of People Magazine and Guns & Ammo. Led Zeppelin II had just started blaring through the speakers placed around the workshop, angry guitar riffs of “Whole Lotta Love” buzzing through the workspace and rattling my brain into the seismic beginnings of a small headache.

In the back corner, three men knelt over a motorcycle frame, wearing welding shields and working over a sparking area. The sound of the welding was like frying bacon broadcast over a megaphone.

A scream ripped through the workspace from another corner. More sparks and the orange licks of an oxyfuel torch flame shone through a brick-enclosed welding station. Through the dingy rubber flaps that covered the entry, I could see the shapes of at least three men.

There would be a few minutes of quiet in that corner and then the torch would light up again, accompanied by the agonized screaming.

I couldn’t focus on who the Kardashians were screwing or the performance statistics of the Remington Versa Max.

The gunmen continued their card game, never once looking toward the shrieking and crying taking place within spitting distance of where they sat.

I rubbed my sweaty palms on my thighs and wondered what Sally was doing.

By the end of the flip side of Led Zeppelin II my bad back was tightening like an invisible fist clenched my spine. The two goons playing cards had been trading insults as hands were won and lost.

A short man walked out of the curtained area, flipped his mask up and poked his head back into the enclosure. “Patch him up and send him back up to Reno.” He took off his gloves and shield and walked toward me. “Danny, right? C’mon back,” he said. He put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses from his breast pocket, at least half a century out of vogue, and wrapped in medical tape across the bridge.

Two men walked out of the curtained workspace, dragging a fat, sweaty man with a towel wrapped around his hand. He sobbed and muttered to himself with his eyes closed. “I’m sorry, Mister Skelton. It won’t happen again!”

“I know, Bobby.” Homer watched his goons drag the fat man out a back door.

I walked behind the card players, my back stiff twisting with each step. The man in the glasses held his hand out. “Homer Skelton. Nice to meetcha.”

A barrage of screeching chairs, thumps, and insults erupted behind me. The two goons stood locked in a Greco-Roman wrestling pose, the taller, balding man swinging the kid around like an empty suit of clothes. Homer peered around my shoulder, a full head shorter than me. “Shut the fuck up! We’ve got a guest.”

“Sure thing, Mister Skelton,” said the older guy. They continued their argument in a whisper.

A pinch from one of my lumbar nerves shot up through my back and I winced.

“Ouch. You got a bad back, too, huh?” said Homer. “How’d ya get yours?”

“A helicopter accident in Desert Storm,” I said.

“Oh, yeah? Who were you with?” He beckoned for me to follow him and he walked to the water cooler.

“Second Marine Division.”

He poured water into a cone shaped paper cup. “Is that right?” He downed the water, crumpled the cup, and tossed it over his shoulder. “I was with the 82nd Airborne over there. I guess a jarhead like you probably thinks us Army dogs were all fucked up, huh, Danny?” He stared up at me, his thin lips just a slash across his face, dark eyes waiting on my answer.

I had nothing. My heart just pounded while I tried to think of something neutral to say to extricate myself from the topic.

He lunged forward and punched me in the shoulder. “Lighten up, man. I’m just fucking with you!” He pushed the glasses up his nose and loosed a braying laugh, like he was hyperventilating. “Oh, man. You should’ve seen your face.”

One of the card players, the one in the cowboy hat, piped up behind me. “I heard him shit his pants from here, Mister Skelton.”

Homer’s smile disappeared. “I didn’t ask you, dipshit.” He directed his gaze back to me. “I hear we both have welding in common, Danny.” He stepped closer. “You know what I love about it?” Glasses pushed back up his nose and he stared straight ahead, eyes glazed. “Holding six thousand degrees in the palm of your hand, almost as much heat and power as the surface of the sun. Molding something as solid and unyielding as steel into anything you want.” His eyes focused back into mine. “Ya know?”

Welding for me was just a paycheck, but I nodded.

“I like to think of myself as a modern day Hephaestus. Armorer of the gods.” He chuckled and clapped me on the shoulder. “I started off in arms. Anyway, enough banter. Look, with me in Vegas and you in Southern California, I wanna punch a hole across southern California and pry old Ramon Juarez right out of LA.” He highlighted the punch with a jab from his sweaty fist. “I could use a man with talents as diverse as yours. An equal partnership once we drive those wetbacks out.” He put his hand on my shoulder and walked alongside as he led me to the front door. “We just have one loose end I want to tie up before we can begin.” He stopped next to the desk and looked over at the card-playing cronies. “Tony, call up Mort and tell him we’re on the way. And you, dipshit…” Homer slapped the younger kid in the back of the head, knocking the cowboy hat into his eyes. “Bring the truck around.” He looked back at me. “I got something to show you. You’re gonna get a kick out of this, my man.”

The same dread that slithered through me on the way to Vegas that morning squeezed tight.

A gunmetal Suburban pulled up to the door. I sat between Homer and Dipshit in the back seat. Tony, the older, balding gunman, drove. A Hispanic tough in a leather jacket rode shotgun.

I patted my pack of smokes in my breast pocket, wanting to assure myself it was still there. Or maybe I wished it wasn’t. I already had what I needed for Joe. Homer was quick and to the point. I’d hoped to leave with a generous sum of cash by then—not driving off to an unknown destination.

I hate surprises.

Homer leaned his head back and was snoring before we’d pulled out of the gravel parking lot of the fabrication shop. Tony pulled an old cassette tape out of the center console and popped it in.

Michael Jackson.


Volume up to the max, pop synth crackling through the worn speakers. Not a peep from Homer.

Fuck me.

Dipshit sang the entire time we drove through Death Valley. Every word.

Michael Jackson was finishing up side B when we approached a fence that curved away on both sides into the tan and sienna landscape. Rusted, twisted links about the height of a basketball hoop. A white sign in bold red letters informed us of the penalties for trespassing on government property. A gaping hole had been pulled back in the chain-link barrier, big enough for the vehicle to drive through. Homer stirred, murmured, and wiped a line of drool from the corner of his mouth. “Ah, here we are.”

Ahead was another Suburban, parked with a group of people standing outside. As the distance closed, the outlines solidified into the forms of men puffing on cigarettes. Just past where they mingled appeared to be a crater or depression.

Homer was watching me lean forward to look ahead at our destination. “What’ll you see this shit, Danny.”

We pulled up next to the identical SUV and parked. Upon stepping out, I could feel heat emanating from the enormous hole in the desert floor, a prickly blast on my cheeks and forehead. Homer walked over to the men who had already arrived. I walked to the edge of the crater, wary, like a kid, afraid I’d get sucked in or something.

What I looked down into was a seething lake of burning ash and slag. Small flames littered the surface, about six feet down from where I stood. Twisted steel beams jutted like broken bones tearing through skin. Parts of the crater seemed to crawl, like some type of lava. Standing that close it felt like being too close to enormous bonfire—my face was burning and itching from the immense, drying heat.

Homer’s two gunmen stood further down from me along the edge. Tony grabbed Dipshit’s jacket like he was gonna shove him in and laughed when the kid jumped back and cussed.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Homer had walked up behind me. “Back in the seventies, an oil rig inadvertently hit a deposit of natural gas here, causing the structure to collapse into a toxic sinkhole. In order to avert a major environmental catastrophe, they had to burn the rig. They thought the fire would be out in a matter of days. But it’s been burnin’ ever since.” His smile grew. “The local white trash call it the Gates of Hell.” He looked back at the group who’d arrived before us. “Bring him!” He looked back at me and rubbed his hands together. “I tossed and turned all night, waiting for this. Like a kid before Christmas.”

The SUV door opened and two goons pulled out a man, mouth duct taped. I knew the fancy suit and curly black hair.

Joe Franco.

They dragged him to the edge of the crater next to Homer.

Joe was crying through the gray tape. His eyes darted. His sobs gained a frantic pitch when he saw the lake of fire.

Homer’s smile was gone, replaced by a cold slab. “He’s one of Ramon’s.” He slapped Joe’s cheek and squeezed his face like he was a long lost nephew. “Joe’s ambitious. Been trying to gather up intel for his boss.” He slapped Joe again, harder. “Probably wanted this piece of the pie once he got rid of me.”

Joe shook his head and sobbed through the gagged mouth.

Homer walked up and stood shoulder to shoulder with me. “Push him in.”

“Into there?” I said, pointing in to the burning hole.

He nodded.

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

Homer took off his leather welding jacket and threw it to Tony. He held up his forearms. They were completely covered, from shirtsleeve to wrist, in tattoos of skulls, each about the size of a silver dollar. “You know what each of these means?” He pointed into the crater. Homer smirked. “I like to hold tryouts before I start a new partnership.”

“No way, man.”

He kicked at a rock on the ground. “Gee, that sucks. Especially with Sally and all.” His eyes darted up at me to catch my reaction.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, a guy with connections like Homer’s, knowing about my life. It still sent a freezing bolt up my spine when he said her name, though.

Homer laughed, loud, head tilted back and looking up at the sky. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “But if you say no, I’m not gonna tell you you’re both gonna get tossed in, like some TV bad guy.”

Dipshit and Tony both chuckled, low, like it was some private joke.

“What’ll happen is you’ll walk back to Barstow empty-handed. You see,” he pointed at Joe. “This guy’s goin’ in, either way.”

Joe fell to his knees and shook his head, mumbling through the gray strips of tape.

My stomach clenched and bile rose, but not for Joe. It wasn’t my fault Joe got pinched. It was that moment of selfish clarity, where I blamed everything in my life for that situation I found myself in. From shitty parents to the helicopter accident that got me booted from the Marines.

And everything in between.

Even Sally. It makes me sick to even think badly about her, but I was mad at the world that the most important thing in my life needed six figures of cash to even have a shot of getting better.

“It doesn’t make good business sense to toss you in there.” Homer walked up to the edge of the crater and looked in. “I may need a man of your talents soon. Your cuts will be just be substantially reduced.” He turned back toward me. “And if you do say no to me now, if I find out you’re working for those spics in LA, both you and Sally are gonna barbecue together.”

His threat to Sally caused me to calculate that about ten running paces separated me and Homer, who stood at the lip of the crater with his back to it.

Seven gunmen. All armed, but relaxed and far from vigilant.

He should fry just for bringing her name up.

But then I saw Sally and her sad blue eyes, telling me all the ways I could have avoided this.

And I pictured her sitting in that trailer, alone, wasting away. Me, shot up and tossed into that hole, turning into a charred piece of charcoal.

Sally’s really why I came to Vegas. Every time she pukes from the chemo or cries herself to sleep from pain, it chips off another piece of my heart.

I walked toward Joe. His eyes widened and he tried to talk, reasoning through his gagged mouth, like he wanted me to remember we were supposed to be on the same team.

Joe’s last mumbles under that tape were what made up my mind.

ahn-ne. ahn-ne. Like he was trying to say my name.

Homer leaned toward his mouth, interested at the muffled syllables Joe mumbled.

I had to write off Joe as a sunk cost.

So I pushed him.

It’s better to rip the band-aid off quick, then to take all day peeling it back.

Right when he passed that point where gravity took over, I already wished I could reach out and pull him back.

But then, to do what? Beg Homer to be a humanitarian?

Joe tumbled back and landed with a dull splat onto the lava. There was a second of shocked silence, where his body registered the intense pain eating away at him, and then he thrashed like he was having a grand mal seizure. His screams grew higher in pitch. Smoke rose from his back and flames licked at his coat and jeans. The molten surface slowly covered him, like burning quicksand. The stink of scorched flesh wafted up to us. The whole time, Joe shook and twisted and flopped.

Homer watched with his hands clasped behind his back.

Someone retched behind me.

Dipshit was peeking down at Joe, giggling.

Joe had flipped over and red-hot slag sizzled the skin on his face.

“Look, Tony, he’s doin’ The Worm,” said the kid.

Joe’s clothes burst into a full flame. Smoke obscured the spectacle and burned my eyes.

Homer put his arm around my shoulders. “Come on.” He led me away from the crater and his goons.

He looked back and gestured to one of his men in the van. The man brought a briefcase and handed it to Homer. He snapped his fingers in my face. “Hey? Danny?”

For a minute I thought the whole thing was a daydream. But then I could smell the scorched flesh.

“Here’s a retainer for future services.” He laid the briefcase flat in his arms and lifted the lid. Stacks of Ben Franklin, about ten disapproving glances staring up at me. “Fifty thousand. And more once we hammer out the details of our new enterprise.”

He slammed the case shut and handed it to me. He yelled at his men to get ready to depart. “Hey, Danny, how ‘bout a smoke?” He patted his trouser pockets. “I’m all out.”

My stomach dropped into my feet. “Huh?”

“Yeah, a smoke. What’s the matter, you that squeamish?” He snatched the pack of Camels out of my pocket. “Got a light?”

I snapped open my zippo and held it under the cigarette while it dangled from the corner of his mouth. He took a monster drag that killed a third of the cigarette.

Homer pulled out a slip of paper. “Call this guy when you get home and he’ll start putting things in motion.” The trucks started up behind us. “Now let’s get out of here, huh?”

He got in the back seat and I told him I just needed a minute.

“Sure thing, Danny.”

I walked to the edge of the crater. The only sign that a human had been there minutes earlier was the patch of fresh ash in the rough shape of a person.

I placed a cigarette in the corner of my mouth and looked at the pack of smokes. Joe had hidden the small voice recorder inside the package. No bigger than a dime.

My half of the deal with Joe.

I threw the whole pack into the lava, still half full of smokes and the damning piece of surveillance equipment. It popped and then melted. I tossed in the cigarette in my mouth, too. The thing tasted like cat shit.

“What’d you do that for?” yelled Homer from the truck.

I told him it was time to quit.

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” He flicked his cigarette butt out the window and pulled his head back into the truck.

I walked over to the SUV. The suitcase felt like it was full of bricks, pulling me down to the ground so the desert could swallow me up. The cash would go straight to an account that wouldn’t raise any red flags when I used it to pay the first instalment of Sally’s treatment. I told myself I wouldn’t even go home first—that way she wouldn’t be able to argue with me, because it’ll be a done deal.

It didn’t really matter if Joe was ATF or enterprising criminal, or both. Driving away from there that day, I figured, better Joe than Sally.

But that was the wrong equation. It was my soul I’d traded.

Doug Black is serving in the United States Marines and recently completed his second deployment to Afghanistan. His fiction can be read in Blue Lake Review, Literary Orphans, The Quotable, and Smokebox.

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