By Phil Beloin, Jr.
The bus ride to Missouri was a mishmash of beautiful scenery and cheery passengers that left me with a dull headache and a surly disposition. As we crossed the mud stained Mississippi, I thought of the man who was already dead, his head bashed by the tip of a ball peen hammer. Eyeing my fellow travelers, I wanted to kill again.
I got off the hell-bound express in a middling city expanding with new construction. I had to walk from the bus station back to the outskirts, off the main roads until I found the site for the new industrial park. I asked the foreman if he needed any day labor.
He pushed his eyeglasses up to get a better look at me. "What can you do?"
"I can operate a dozer, backhoe."
"Prove it. Dig me a drainage ditch, south side of those stakes."
"You got it, boss."
"I ain't your boss. He is."
He pointed at a suited fellow bounding down the steps of the office trailer. His threads were pricey and so was the weight machine he used to stay fit. He looked forty, which was a stitch younger than the Corvette he took off in, shooting dust and gravel at his peons. What kind of guy brings a vintage sports car to a construction site?
"Mr. Clark's an arrogant jerk," the foreman said, "but he's got so much money he don't give a shit."
So what I had read about Brendan Clark was true.
At the end of the day, I filled out some paperwork. It meant they were keeping me.
"You left your address blank," the foreman said.
"I just rolled into town today."
"Come on. I'll show you a place to stay."
He dropped me off at the only motel that had weekly rates and mini-kitchens. He said he'd pick me up at quarter to seven the next morning.
I grabbed my duffle bag out of the truck's bed. "Thanks, man."
"Vinny," I said, shaking his hand, "I'm Bud."
At least, that was the name I had put on the job application.
I don't know of any cheap motel that doesn't have a watering hole nearby. Heck, I could see a dive right across the street, a neon sign flashing my name: BUD, BUD, BUD!
I was sipping my tasty beverage and playing with the cellophane of my cigarette pack when Babs strolled in. I hadn't even thought about scouring the bars for her scent that night. Bumping into her was gonna save some me serious time and liver strain.
She looked just like the photographs I had seen. Her figure wasn't stunning, but what she had, she showed, wearing a tight halter top and a skimpy little skirt that had whole bunch of necks cracking. Her hair was short and bouncy and the different textures of brown matched the freckles covering her like sprinkles on a sweet cake. She scoped the joint out before deciding on a stool near me. A surge of energy coursed through my system when she sat down.
"Buy you a drink, honey?" I said.
She swiveled toward her inquisitor. Her eyes grew when she saw my pecs, or maybe she dug the spider and skull tattoos hacked into my upper arms.
"You don't waste any time, do you?" she said.
"Hey, no sweat if I'm bothering you."
She took out a cigarette. "I never said you were."
That first night we tore the bed and each other apart. Babs left after midnight while I was in the can. I felt used and cheap and fell asleep smiling.
The next evening she knocked on my room door.
"I never told you my name," she said.
"It's the inner you that really counts, honey," I replied.
I wanted to say, I know that, you dummy, but I kept my yap shut.
Babs wanted her loving slower, and I feigned intimacy better than I thought I could. Afterwards, she started talking about her hubby.
"You're married?" I feigned shock.
What a lowdown bastard he turned out to be! He fornicated outside of marriage, and after a few too many cocktails, he liked to slap Babs around. Golly, what terrible news. I was glad when she left so I could get some shuteye.
Vinny had me clearing deadwood from the site and digging more ditches around the stakes marking out the factory's location. We'd have to wait for the drainage stone to be delivered before I could fill all those trenches in.
During my lunch breaks, I'd snooze. A week of late nights with Babs was taking its toll, but also relieving the pressures a working man faced. I was dreaming of my delicious honey when Vinny tapped on the window of my bulldozer, sunlight bouncing off his big eyeglasses and blinding me for a sec.
"Boss wants to see you," he said. "In the trailer."
"Did I do something wrong, Vinny?"
"Not that I know of, Bud."
I checked out the boss man's fancy wheels heading over. Probably a '63, shiny silver, a sweet interior, topless on that fine summer day. I could see myself tooling around in the sucker.
When I walked into the trailer, a voice said, "Over here."
The boss stood at the far end of the rectangular room. I admired the perfect cut of his suit, and the light pin stripes, which showed off his physique and tan. His eyes were sunken and hidden behind thick brows. Never play poker with this dude.
"We haven't been properly introduced," he said. "I'm Brendan Clark."
His grip was firm, and I let him have the harder squeeze. "Bud Carson."
"Sit down, Bud."
We sat, and he tapped his fingers on an open file folder.
"What's this about, Mr. Clark?" I said.
"Vinny says you're working out."
"I grew up working on my granddad's heavy equipment," I said.
"Still, I like to know who I got working on my crew," he said. "I took a look at your paperwork here." He lifted up my job application and the W-2 from the folder.
"So Bud you never told me you were an ex-con."
"How'd you find..."
He held up his hand, and I shushed. It was his play, and he had the home field.
"I could fire you for lying on your application. I mean, Bud, you did five years for manslaughter, and only got out four months ago."
"I'll be quitting now, Mr. Clark." I stood and turned.
"Hold on there, Bud. Sit back down."
"I'll get to it. Just park it, son."
This guy was good; he'd knock you to the canvas and then help you up.
"You want to know how I found out?" he said.
Smart guys liked their ego stroked. "Uh-huh."
"Those tattoos, the spider web and skull, mean you spent time in prison. The poor ink work suggests they were done there, too."
"You hit the weights inside, Bud?"
"Yeah. What about you?"
"Got a complete gym set in my hacienda."
"Looks like you use it," I said.
"Every day," he replied, then looked at my paperwork. "Says here, Bud, your last employment was putting together prefab horse stables in New York, around Syracuse. I went to school there, University of Syracuse."
"Small world," I mumbled.
"That's right. So I made some calls, still got all sorts of friends back there."
Do you really?
"And you know what my old buddies tell me?"
Please tell me, you conceited prick.
"They say Bud Carson is still on probation for that manslaughter conviction, and he isn't supposed to leave New York State unless he asks for permission. You ask for permission, Bud?"
I squirmed in my chair. "I forgot, Mr. Clark."
"You forgot. Well, what am I suppose to do with you, Bud?"
I grinned big. This was working out better than I thought. "You're about to tell me or the lawmen would have been here already."
Clark laughed. "I picked right. You're a wise-ass, but that keeps it interesting."
"And what's so interesting, Brendan?"
"Bud, I got a problem. And I believe you're the man that's going to help me."
That night I was so distraught by my encounter with Brendan Clark, I could only make love to my honey three times. She asked me what was wrong.
"Oh, nothing, baby," I said.
"You love me, don't you?"
"Oh, baby, I do."
"Can I tell you a secret?"
I sat up in bed. "You said you were taking something."
"It's not that."
"Bud, I got a problem."
That was the first time Babs asked me to kill her husband. I said no of course, but you know how women are. They get some silly idea in their little noggin, and it don't leave no matter what you say.
Brendan believed his wife was cheating on him. Hey, who was I to disagree? He wanted her out of his life, but without losing fifty percent of his stuff. I was to eliminate his problem. The way Brendan saw it, I could skedaddle, and he'd sick the dogs on me, or I could make some green and then catch the first plane to Mexico. The idiot actually gave me a day to mull it over.
"You ever done that before?" I said.
"My husband does it to hurt me." Babs already had one of my cigarettes in her mouth. So much for cuddling. "Will you kill him for me?"
"Gee, I don't know," I said.
She had a tender bruise under her eye where her hubby had struck. "You're a drifter."
"True, but I kinda like the spot I'm in," I said, squeezing her close. "Thought about settling down."
"Bud, that's sweet and all, but let's be practical. I'm married to an abusive alcoholic."
"I heard that part before, baby."
"You've been in the big house, haven't you?"
"No, I grew up poor, darling."
"I meant prison, Bud."
"How'd you figure that?"
She touched the jailhouse tattoos gouged into my arms. "Those are a dead giveaway."
"You people sure are smart around here."
"So what are you drifting from, Bud?"
"You can't tell a soul, baby cakes."
"I promise, Bud."
"I kinda' had some trouble back east."
I told her Bud Carson was a convicted killer and had violated his parole.
"You didn't take off, Bud." This from my newest chum Brendan Clark, classic car enthusiast, real estate developer, and now accomplished blackmailer. He was swallowing bourbon in enormous gulps, but didn't look a bit stinko.
"Not yet," I said.
"You'll kill my wife?"
"I'll need a few things first."
"I want twenty-five thousand dollars."
"Whoa, that's more than I offered, Bud."
"Sell them styling wheels."
Brendan chuckled. "My 'Vette? Not a chance, sport."
"I'll need a gun that can't be traced to me or you. That's gonna cost some major sawbucks. I'm gonna have to hit the road again and that costs money too."
He crunched on a booze saturated ice cube while reaching for the phone. "I think I'll be calling the sheriff's department now."
"What for?" I reached into my pocket and pulled out a tape recorder, its spindles still turning. "So they can listen to this here recording?"
Brendan looked like he wanted to throw his bottle of bourbon my way, but considering his thirst, he decided against it. "You're a bastard, Bud."
"I ain't the one who wants my honey bee killed," I said.
He sat down, pouring more amber liquid into his glass. "I pay after I see her body."
I started to go.
"And, Bud, I'll want that tape back."
"That'll cost ya another five large, sport."
"He keeps hurting me," Babs said. She now had a black and blue mark below her shoulder blade courtesy of her spouse. "You've killed before, Bud."
"If I do this, sweetie-pie," I said, "I'm gonna need something from you."
"Like twenty-five thousand."
"That much, Bud?"
"I'm sorry 'bout that, sugar."
"How am I gonna scrape that together without my husband noticing its missing?"
"I got something for you, baby."
"Not again, Bud. I'm sore."
I showed her my revolving tape recorder.
I got to the construction site just after sunset and re-dug a drainage ditch that I had filled in earlier in the day. I took out my gun and waited. I watched the clouds floating by a half-moon, the light falling on the trailer. Something twinkled in one of Brendan's office windows.
You can't ever trust a blackmailer, especially one that's getting blackmailed. Brendan figured I would be bleeding him dry with that tape and had planted someone to take me out.
I waited for the clouds to obscure the dull bulb in the sky and then got down off the dozer. I worked my way to the back side of the trailer and crawled underneath it. Heavy feet walked on the floor above me. I rolled out by the front stairs. Whoever was in there kept moving around, and I listened until he was away from the door. I took a deep breath and burst inside.
He was crunched down, peering out a window, looking for me, but now I was behind him. He jumped around, getting his weapon up. I fired first. He didn't even groan—he just collapsed like a detonated building.
I was surprised that Brendan's foreman worked for him in more than one capacity. If the moonlight hadn''t caught Vinny's eyeglasses, I never would have caught him.
Babs was next to stop by. She got out of her car, holding a briefcase.
"Bud, are you here?"
"Yeah," I said.
I came around the bulldozer. Her figure was a shadow coming forward and when we were side by side, she didn't even give me a smooch.
"Where's Brendan?" she said.
"In the bottom of that hole."
"I want to see him."
"Is that my money?"
"Yeah. You'll bury him after I leave?"
"You have the tape?"
"Honey bunny, you got trust issues."
I followed her up the mound of earth surrounding the hole. She was out of breath and off-balance when we reached the summit.
She looked down. "That doesn't look like Brendan."
"It's Vinny, actually."
"You're about to meet him, baby-doll."
Brendan wasn't on time. Guys like him never are. He showed up in the 'Vette while I waited by the dozer, its engine idling. He came over to the machine, peering at the trailer once. Like his dearly departed wife, he held a briefcase by his side.
"Is it done?" he said, his breath reeking of hooch.
"She's in the hole," I said. "Let's see my dough."
"Let's see the tape."
He looked over his shoulder again as he opened the briefcase. It was filled with stacked bills.
I handed him the tape. "There you go, Brendan. Now go take a look at your wife, then I'll cover her up."
"Yeah, all right."
He climbed up the pile while I climbed into the dozer. When he made it to the top, he looked back at the trailer.
"Now, Vinny!" he said.
I moved the dozer forward, the blade catching the mound just below Brendan's legs. He fell backwards into the hole, and I pushed some more dirt on top of him.
I wanted to keep his Corvette, but it would have been too easy to spot. I put that classic automobile on top of Brendan, Babs, and Vinny, and finished covering the hole. When I was done, the ground looked exactly like it had that afternoon. I drove Babs' car to the bus station where I opened my two briefcases and counted to an even sixty thousand.
Bud Carson was my cellmate at Attica, and we were paroled within the same week. He was in for killing a man during a bar fight, and I had been nabbed for a money-laundering scam. Bud and I had a similar philosophy: there were suckers everywhere.
Bud and I had settled on the Clarks, a dysfunctional couple that we had heard about in the joint. We spent our first months on the outside browsing alumni newsletters at Syracuse, and reading online issues of the Clark's hometown paper. Every scrap of info we needed was available: Brendan's narcissism, the new construction project, rumors of Babs' barhopping and infidelity. Those two were ripe for a guy like me.
I had always felt this was a solo job, and to make it work, I would need Bud's identification. He had an unfortunate accident with my hammer on some lonely road near Utica. After I had buried him, I jumped on the first bus going west.