SOULMATES

 

By Simon Marshland

 

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I stepped out of the cool air conditioned gun shop into a moist cauldron that posters call Midsummer Florida. The sun blazed molten gold through a haze hidden sky, causing the drooping palms to dance in the shimmering air above the tarmac. The evening breeze that made the place bearable at this time of year was still snoozing somewhere offshore over the horizon, leaving the beach egg frying hot and deserted. I crossed the empty street to the shade of the palms, sat on my haunches and lit a cigarette. The smoke tasted of burnt straw. I wished I had headed downtown instead to cool little bar I knew owned by a huge Cuban known as Castro. Castro could gauge his customers moods with a fine tuned antennae some put down to Voodoo, leaving them to brood over their beer in solitude or listen to their problems with a Latin sympathy that lasted as long as their drinking rate remained steady. Considered unsavoury by tourists, the bar had become a kind of club that offered a second home for people who didn't have a first one. For a moment I felt tempted, I had to get myself down there later on anyway, but right now it was just too hot to go anywhere. Even Castro and his iced beer would have to wait until things cooled down a shade. I flicked the offending butt into the sand, stared out at the oily sea and tried to think.

 

The jacket lay heavy on my shoulder. I slipped it off, sliding my hand into the side pocket to caress the cool steel of the snub nosed thirty-eight. A quiver of elation swept through me, tightening my throat, throttling the cry of excitement I could feel welling up inside as it was born. It was a strange feeling. At forty three I had never even fired a gun let alone owned one, yet each time I held the snub nosed little beauty in my hand or fingered its deadly cargo of shiny squat brass bullets, it was like welcoming an old friend I hadn't seen in a while. Perhaps being lonely had something to do with it. Not that I regretted leaving Frieda, that was the best move I had made in years. The idea had crystallised without warning in middle of my lunch hour. Suddenly I knew if I had to live with that mewling screwed up complaining excuse for a face one day longer I would do something really terrible. So instead of going back to the shop that afternoon I told her good-bye and went to the bank instead, cashed in the savings account and bought a ticket on the first train out of town. I didn't even ask where it was going. I didn't care. Provided it was a long long way from Frieda that was fine by me. As it turned out the train was scheduled for Miami. Even I didn't need to go that far, so I bought a ticket to Smyrna Beach which is about halfway and finished up by getting off at Lutonville because I liked the look of the station.

 

Our marriage had been a farce for years, though just when it mutated to an ugly hatred I'm not sure. I was used to her drinking and sluttish way she kept house, so it was probably that day I first noticed her legs had turned puffy, with ugly fat ankles that rolled into little creases when she moved her feet. I hate fat dimpling ankles. Most of my adult life had been spent in the drudgery at Hayman's Shoe Store. Spending my days spread eagled like a stretched out monkey on the mobile stairs or down on my knees before large fat women with fatter ankles that always creased and dimpled every time I tried to shoehorn their swollen feet into a size too small. I never got a chance to serve the pretty girls with slim legs and dainty feet. They tried on their own shoes, slipping in and out of them like greased butter, leaving me to heave and struggle with the soft pudgy oldies, fighting the urge to look up their skirts for a glimpse of mottled flesh. I hated that too. But in the same way you can't help peeking through your fingers at a horror movie, I couldn't help taking a quick squint at those lardy thighs whenever I got the chance. But all that and Frieda were behind me now thank God.

 

I was staring out at the ocean, letting my mind drift and ripple with the waves, when I saw him. One moment there was nothing out there but sea, then suddenly there he was just standing in the middle of everything. At first I put him down to a mirage like the dancing palm trees. Nobody wells up out of the sea like that, particularly dressed in a snazzy three-piece suit. He was even wearing a tie which was ridiculous in this heat and a broad brimmed white fedora hat like the ones they wore back in the nineteen twenties. He didn't seem to walk exactly, but glided up the beach without moving his legs, like he was riding one of those walkways you find at airports. He stopped about six feet away and just stood there staring at me, a quizzical smile on his face and I noticed his clothes were dry. The irritating thing was I knew him. Not as a some passing acquaintance or movie star, not even as a friend, it was much closer than that. I knew this man as well as I knew myself, but try as I might I just couldn't place from where.

 

How long we stayed there eyeballing each other I'm not sure, long enough to remind me of the old he who blinks first game we played as kids, but then since neither of us blinked before he spoke I suppose it wasn't that long after all.

 

"Don't be a bloody fool Joe." He shook his head sadly, though his expression remained friendly enough. "Not again. It's so wasteful and upsets things so."

 

"Just who and what the hell are you..." I began heatedly, but I was talking to the ocean. Whatever it was that I'd been listening to was gone without trace, not even a footprint in the sand. If it hadn't been for that face I still might have put it down to a mirage or a touch too much sun. But I knew that face so well, knew it better than my own and it scared me.

 

Heat or no I needed a beer. I headed downtown to Castro's, keeping to the shady side of the streets while I mulled over that face, racking my brains to put a tag to it. As I neared the bar I could see the front door and windows were wide open, a sure sign the air conditioning was on the blink again. Not that the regulars cared overmuch, the old system was so ineffectual whatever doubtful fall in temperature it managed was hardly worth the rattle of the machine. Occasionally a customer complained and Castro would listen with sympathetic courtesy, but he had long since noted the resulting increase in beer sales and had no intention of splashing out on any new equipment. Castro was a businessman and not about to destroy a windfall profit. But as a goodwill gesture he had installed a second hand ceiling fan that vaguely moved the turgid air around and kept the clientele happy while he continued to undercut his competitors prices.

 

The big man appeared totally engrossed in conversation with a prime customer who was knocking back imported Heineken larger with whisky chasers, but nothing escaped his notice. As I walked through the door one huge arm snaked beneath the bar and came up with a frosted glass matched by an iced cold can of Slitz. One of the things I admired about Castro was the man had class. Most people drank their beer direct from the can and if that bothered him he never let it show. But with every beer he always produced the glass, though whether to raise the tone of the place or as an added token on the house I wasn't sure, except the phrase on the house and Castro didn't sit too well together. I popped the can and gave the room a once over while pouring the cold foaming liquid into my glass.

 

The usual Poker game was in progress at the round table by the far window. Normally I wouldn't have hesitated; I knew most of the players and could hold my own with the best of them. But these weren't normal times, the savings account was running dry and I owed money to people who considered delay offensive. Right now I had to deal in certainties. There was no time or place for chance. At the far end of the bar a bunch of regulars were putting the World to rights with hoots of alcoholic good humour and a couple of them waved me over. But I smiled and shook my head, it was still on the early side for The Chicken, but like a shadow at sunset he never stayed anywhere long and I couldn't risk missing him. Then suddenly I saw him, leaning forward in his chair, whispering urgently to a man I didn't recognise. They were sitting at what was known as the recess table in a dark corner as far from the bar as anyone could get. The recess table was where Castro usually put difficult customers who demanded lunch. Unable to refuse a sale though convinced that eating lowered the tone of good drinking establishments, the recess table was Castro's compromise. I topped up my glass with the rest of the beer and headed over to join them.

 

The Chicken saw me first and motioning his companion to silence, stared lizard eyed as I made my way towards him. He owed his name to a stupid teenage game where a player stands in the middle of the road in front of an approaching car, daring it to stop or jumping clear at the last moment. The Chicken had been the best, but to stay ahead of the gang he had honed his timing to the very last second. Inevitably the day came when he left things that fraction too late, and the hit and run driver left most of his leg mashed to a pulpy mess on the tarmac. That was the day his adoring fans left him as well.

 

The Chicken stayed in hospital for just on a year and came out changed. The feckless youth was gone. In his place a deeply embittered and crippled man viewed the world with a profound and vengeful hatred from a wheel chair. Unable to lead a normal life himself he had found a perverse gratification in turning the innocence of others to corruption while making a profit at the same time. His dubious business affairs were diverse and rumoured to run from prostitution to drugs, protection to white slaving, and even the occasional hit if the money was right. Word had it that no fast cash transaction of any size went down on the coast without The Chicken's knowledge, which was why I needed his help. With a couple of tons of muscle snapping at my heels he was the only man who could.

 

He waited until I had pulled out a chair and started to sit down before jerking his head at the menís room he growled. "I ain't finished yet. Gimme me five." He watched impassively as I stood up again, waiting until I was out of earshot before leaning forward to continue his whispered conversation.

 

The menís room was empty. I ran a comb through my hair, washed my hands, then crossed over and stood in front of one of the urinals. After that hot sweaty walk from the beach and only a mouthful of beer the gesture was empty and automatic, but I had to pass the time somehow and what else can you do in a menís room. I wondered what sort of job The Chicken had found for me and hoped it wasn't too risky. Not that it mattered. The kind of men looking for me always found the people who owed them money, in their line of business they couldn't afford not to. Anything was preferable to that.

 

Suddenly someone was standing at the urinal beside me. In normal circumstances I would have ignored him, men make a point of not noticing each other at such times, but I was too edgy to bother with the niceties and turned to check him out. Standing there impeccably dressed and still wearing that ridiculous hat, was the same guy who had walked out of the sea earlier on. With a shake of his head he treated me to another of those sickeningly familiar smiles. Then his expression changed and I could see he was running scared too.

 

"For Christ's sakes leave the Chicken alone! He'll only makes things worse, people like him always do. Their whole lives revolve round misery; it's the only currency they understand. For God's sake man, we're only one step from the big one as it is. We can't afford such risks; not now, not when thereís so much at stake. Make a run for it or face the goons, they're ministering angels compared to the alternative. You're on a tightrope Joe, it only needs one false move and we're both lost!"

 

"Oh yeah! Just what makes you such a fucking expert on my life all of a sudden? What the hell business has it got to do with you? Just who the fuck do you think you are Mr Out Of Bloody Nowhere? What right do you have to tell me to sit around like some dumb rabbit and wait for those creeps to turn up with their arm crackers and razors? Are you nuts or something? Were the loaves left out of your bread basket this morning?"

 

But I was yelling at some poor ineffectual little guy in a blue shirt with a bad case of the shakes. The face with the white fedora was gone. But by now I was badly scared and had to take it out on someone. "OK, OK. Go on, tell me you didn't see him." I hollered, eyeballing the little squirt."Well just maybe I didn't see him either. Maybe we're both fucking crazy!" I shouldered the poor guy roughly aside and slammed the door behind me. But it was all show. No matter how big and tough I acted, I could sense everything was falling apart and my legs were jelly.

 

The Chicken jerked his head at the chair across the table. "Sitdown, shuddup, listen. You got two minutes," he rasped round his cigar butt. "You say you need a job. OK, well that guy I was talking to needs someone for a bag run. I told him about you, and now he's looked you over the jobs yours if you want it." His mouth twisted in malicious humour. "It pays ten percent, ten big ones less my cut." His blank little eyes stared at me without expression, like dead squid's from a marble slab in a fish market.

 

"Seems a lot of cash, just to carry a bag." Something was wrong here, I could feel it, and anyway The Chicken wasn't famed for generosity.

 

"Oh you'll earn it all right. I ain't no charity." He sucked and chewed on the dead cigar butt, sliding it slowly across his mouth like a spider digesting a fly." For a start it's life if the cops catch you, and death or something worse if other guys do. So you'll have get in and out fast. But if you play it right you might get home free, then you can call off those nightmares before they find you." He made a slobbering sound I took for laughter, checked his watch and released the brakes of his chair. "Well? I ain't hanging around all day. You want the job or not?"

 

I took a deep breath. What the hell, the way things were what choice had I got. "OK, count me in." I hoped the tremble in my voice didn't show. "Where do I make the drop?"

 

"Right now the less details you know the better. Just stay sober for fuck's sake and make damn sure you're ready and waiting in that rat hole you call a home at ten tonight. The Hump here will bring the merchandise and give you instructions then. And remember, once the job's done, we never met till I tell you different. "The Chicken signalled to the skinny dwarf with a hunchback and anthropoid arms who had materialised from the shadows. Then ignoring me sat back in his chair as The Hump, deftly flexing his arms every other step to sight the way, propelled him swiftly through the tables to the exit.

 

Now that I was committed everything felt different somehow and didn't know how to occupy myself. I checked my watch. Five long hours to wait. Force of habit walked me to the bar and another Slitz, but though ice cold, this time the beer tasted metallic and I left most of it untouched. As I headed for the door I could feel Castro's eyes on my back following me out. It wasn't often I left a drink so I guess he was curious. But then knowing him he would have noted my talk with The Chicken and realise something was up. Probably knew what it was too, which was more than I did. For no reason a cold shiver ran down my back.

 

I walked aimlessly through the streets making the most of the cooling breeze. Each evening it came without fail, quitting the ocean just long enough to wipe the heat from the sidewalks before dying away without warning to leave the city sweating and sweltering again under another hot airless night. Thunder rumbled far out at sea. With luck we were in for one of those flash storms that hit without warning in mid summer. They didn't last long either, a few hours at most, but long enough to kill the dust and bring the desert flowers into bloom for a couple of days like it was spring. I found myself standing by the hot dog stall on the corner of my apartment block. Strange how we head for home when our minds are preoccupied, maybe we still have a little racing pigeon in our genes. I ordered a dog with all the trimmings and carried it up to the one room apartment. But my stomach was knotted with fear of things to come and the smell of the onions made me sick. I dropped the dog down the wall trash and lay down on the bed, staring out of the window, watching the gathering dusk turn to night and wondering what dawn would bring.

 

I must have dozed off for when I opened my eyes the room was dark barring a pool of neon from the eatery across the street flickering on the only armchair. It was him of course; dapper as ever and still wearing that silly hat perched on his head. But this time he wasn't smiling. This time as he leaned forward the face was white and puckered. This time he looked really scared.

 

"You can't go through with this Joe, call it off for pity's sake, get away from here. Leave right away, don't bother to pack, just go, go this minute. Get down to the train or bus station and buy a ticket on anything that's going anywhere, but get yourself out of here and do it fast. There's no more time Joe, please for both our sakes don't let it happen. Whatever you do don't let this happen."

 

There was a knock on the door and the thin reedy voice of The Hump shrilled."Let me in boy, it's time. Open the door and let me in."

 

The fear was alive now, a dark nightmare squirming in my guts, draining whatever powers of decision I had left. Desperately I turned back to the face for help, but he was fading fast. For the first time I actually felt his despair as he made one last attempt to communicate. "Don't do it." He mouthed. "Please Joe, I beg you, don't do this to us."

 

The Hump was banging on the door."Open up damn you. Open up or I'll leave the stuff right here and tell The Chicken I handed it over as planned."

 

For a moment I froze. Confused, torn, uncertain what to do. Then logic took over and I moved to the door. After all, in the spot I was in there wasn't much else I could do. Even if I ran the hoods would catch up with me by morning and anyway you need money to run. No, better to do the job or die trying, those guys had habits that turned my bones to jelly. What the hell were a few doom filled prophecies from a doubtful ghost compared to that? Anyway, maybe the guy was pure hallucination; there was a lot of dope around town and people with a weird sense of humour. It wouldn't be the first time some joker had slipped a snort into somebody's beer for fun.

 

I opened the door and the creepy little dwarf scuttled inside, his grotesque arms wrapped like tentacles round a suitcase. "What took you so long, entertaining guests in the dining room?" Cackling at his joke, he eased the case on to the bed and hopped up to sit beside it.

 

"Now listen good to what I tell you. It ain't complicated so don't expect me to say it more than once. You're to deliver this case to the Blue Ranch Motel; it's about fifteen miles out of town on route 39. If everything's OK they'll have the No Vacancy sign switched on and blinking, but don't let that fool you, the place has been closed down for months. Take the case to reception and put it on the desk, a guy behind the desk will put an identical case next to yours. Pick up the swap, put it in the trunk and drive straight to the Everglades Hotel. Park the car at the back of the hotel, lock it and go home. That's all there is to it. The Chicken says he'll arrange for your pals to be called off and get your share to the apartment in a couple of days." He fished in his pocket and tossed some keys on the case. "There's a black Chevy outside. It's hot, but the owner's away for a week, so just ditch it somewhere after the job and you won't have no problems."

 

As I bent forward to pick up the keys a clap of thunder split the sky, shaking the old building to its foundations. "That does it!" The Hump leapt nimbly to the floor and sidled crablike to the door. "It's OK for some lucky bastards, you've got a ride. But if I don't find a cab in the next two minutes I'll be stuck in this no good neighbourhood for the night" He reached up, opened the door then paused a moment. "Oh, one more thing, The Chicken thinks you oughta know the swap case has a million dollars inside it. He wanted you to know that he knows what's in it too. Just in case you get any smart ideas." The door slammed behind him as the first drops of heavy rain slapped into the window. It looked like I was in for a stormy night.

 

It was like driving through a river. The windshield wipers did their best but they weren't designed for these kinds of conditions. The only machine truly at home in this weather was a submarine. I crept along route 39 keeping my speed around twenty, even then I could hardly see where I was going. I just hoped no one else was mad enough to be out practising water sports on a night like this. Now and then I felt in my pocket to stroke the snub nosed 38. I had bought it in a moment of senseless desperation to protect myself from the hoods, but now all that was left of my self confidence was centred in that shiny piece of metal and I knew I wouldn't have the guts to go on without it. Before leaving I had cleaned and loaded the little beauty and though I didn't intend to use it, a part of me longed to give it a try.

 

A pinprick of light appeared in the gloom quickly swelling to reveal the blinking No Vacancy sign dancing wildly in the storm. I turned the car into a short driveway and headed towards a thin strip of green neon that flickered Reception. Switching off the ignition I slid the lever into park and sat there for a while listening to my heart beating loud enough to call an ambulance. How long I sat there I'm not sure, long enough to know if I didn't get the business over and done with I might as well make a run for it after all. I could taste the fear growing with every breath.

 

I forced myself out of the car, unloaded the case, and with one hand holding the gun in my pocket barged through the swing doors of reception and banged the case on the counter. I stood there for what seemed forever waiting for the other case to be put down next to mine, but nothing happened. The cold feeling that had been plaguing my guts all day turned to a block of ice. Something was very wrong. Reluctantly I raised my head to face the drug dealer and looked into the watery eyes of a scared old man. An equally scared old woman who looked like was his wife stared fixedly at me from the office desk behind him.

 

No harm had been done. If I could only stop my heart jumping around like a demented frog and say something casual to ease the tension in the air, I could still walk out and no one would be any the wiser. That was when the old woman made a funny noise in her throat and dived for the desk drawer. She thrust her hand inside and pulled out something black that looked like a gun. Then everything turned into a slow motion dream sequence in which time played no part.

 

I raised the gun and fired at the desk. A small hole appeared above the old woman's eyes and the back of her head exploded in a mist of blood and brains. For a second she remained sitting bolt upright a look of great surprise on her face, then as though dissolving from within she slipped into a shapeless bundle on the floor, the dark bottle of pills still grasped in her hand.

 

Stunned by the sudden turn of events I only became aware of the old man's attack at the last moment. It must have been the shadow of his hand as he raised the paper knife across the wall light that broke the spell. I turned my head to find his hate filled eyes mere inches from my own. He was so close the white hairs of an early beard stood out in sharp relief on his chin while his breath blew flecks of spittle in my face. Sweeping the gun up to his throat I fired again as the paper knife began a lethal downward stroke. The old man sank slowly to his knees, bright arterial blood spewed from his throat, hosing my face and clothes in a hot familiar steaming soup. Then suddenly the room was bathed in a blinding white light and a distorted voice yelled instructions through a bullhorn.

 

"This is the police. We have you in vision through the window. Stay exactly where you are. Do not move. Put your hands on your head and wait for the arresting officer. Any move will be taken as a direct threat and we will shoot to kill without further warning".

 

I followed their instructions to the letter, freezing like a statue. Whoever had tipped off the law I neither knew nor cared. At least I was safe from the hoods for a while, the rest could be sorted out later. I could still feel the old man's blood dripping down my face and the sensation stirred a distant memory that stayed tauntingly out of reach. Outside gravel crunched under booted feet and I heard the swing door creak as it opened behind me.

 

"OK fellah. Take your gun hand from your head and slowly put the weapon on the counter. Do it slowly now, then put your hand back on your head and turn around. Take it very easy pal, one sudden move and you're a dead man."

 

Fedora hat was back, but this time he seemed more resigned than scared. He must have been standing behind me when I shot the old man for he was covered in blood like me. I did exactly as I was told, making no protest when they cuffed me and put me in the back of the car, and sat quietly as with sirens wailing we fought our way back through the storm.

 

"Don't say I didn't warn you pal," Fedora hat looked at me sadly out of the back of the driving seat, " this time you'll get the chair."

 

"Why don't you shut up and go away, no one asked you to ride along," I snapped, " and while you're at it, go clean yourself up, rinse all that blood off your suit."

 

"What the hell's going on back there?" The driver called back to the cops sitting on either side of me.

 

"Beats me! He's talking to the back of your seat, seems to think itís covered in blood or something."

 

"Probably sees the stuff everywhere. The cops in his hometown said by the time he had finished slicing up his old lady she looked like an old can of leftover cat meat. Even dolled himself up in his best suit to do it. I tell you pal, the sooner this kook's safely behind bars the better I'll feel." The driver shook his head. "If those guys he owes money to hadn't set him up for us, I hate to think what sort of blood bath we would have had round here."

 

"How do you know it was them?"

 

"The Chief recognised the stool pigeonís voice. Seems they often turn in guys they know can't pay providing they're facing a long stretch. Saves them the expense of the bone breakers."

 

"Hear that Joe? The Chicken set you up, they wanted you to fry." Fedora hat sniggered.

 

"At least it'll keep you out of my face."

 

"No way Joe, you and me are stuck with each other for the duration. Blood brothers you might say."

 

"Let's get one thing straight pal, I'm no fucking brother of yours, blood or any other kind."

 

"For Christ's Harry, sake stick a gag in the kook's mouth," the driver called over his shoulder," We can do without this crap. Itís still got a good half hour to the station." One of the troopers rammed a handkerchief in my mouth.

 

"Sure we are," Fedora hat snickered, " you knocked off the old guy and his wife in the Motel, and I sliced up your old lady back home. We're not only blood brothers, you and I are Soul Mates you might say, we belong together."

 

He reached out from the seat and put his arms round my neck. Somehow the blood hadn't dried and was still treacle thick and sticky all over him. He pressed a wet gory mouth to my ear.

 

"Just you and me Joe, Soul Mates," he whispered, and started to climb inside me. I screamed for help just like she had screamed, but the gag was in the way, and like it had been for her nobody heard.

 

 

or something."

 

"Probably sees the stuff everywhere. The cops in his hometown said by the time he had finished slicing up his old lady she looked like an old can of leftover cat meat. Even dolled himself up in his best suit to do it. I tell you pal, the sooner this kook's safely behind bars the better I'll feel." The driver shook his head. "If those guys he owes money to hadn't set him up for us, I hate to think what sort of blood bath we would have had round here."

 

"How do you know it was them?"

 

"The Chief recognised the stool pigeonís voice. Seems they often turn in guys they know can't pay if they're facing a long stretch. Saves them the expense of the bone breakers."

 

"Hear that Joe? The Chicken set you up, they just wanted you to fry." Fedora hat sniggered.

 

"At least it'll keep you out of my face."

 

"No way Joe, you and me are stuck with each other for the duration. Blood brothers you might say."

 

"Let's get one thing straight pal, I'm no fucking brother of yours, blood or any other kind."

 

"For Christ's sake stick a gag in the kook's mouth," the driver called over his shoulder," I can do without this crap. We've still got a good half hour to the station." One of the troopers rammed a handkerchief in my mouth.

 

"Sure we are," Fedora hat snickered, " you knocked off the old guy and his wife in the Motel, and I sliced up your old lady back home. We're not only blood brothers, we're Soul Mates you might say, we belong together."

 

He reached out from the seat and put his arms round my neck. Somehow the blood hadn't dried and was still thick and sticky all over him. He pressed a wet gory mouth to my ear.

 

"Just you and me Joe, Soul Mates," he whispered, and climbed inside me. I screamed for help just like she had screamed, but the gag was in the way, and like it had been for her nobody heard.

 

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