Dead Man's Job
by Brian Haycock
Crain pulled into a burger joint outside Flatiron a little after midnight. The burger joint wasn't much, just a shortbed cabin trailer by the side of the highway with sections of the walls cut away to let the wind blow through. West Texas air conditioning. There was a counter mounted on the sill, a fat man draped over the counter smoking a cigarette, flicking the ashes out into the lot. Crain sat in his truck for a minute, then got out, thinking, how bad can it be?
The man stood as he walked up and gave him a little nod. "Help you?" he said.
"I guess I'll have a burger, onion, lettuce, tomato. Whatever you've got. Some fries. You have beer?"
"Not here. The county won't let me sell it." He reached around, dropped a patty on the grill, watched it sizzle.
"No, they just won't let me sell it."
"Okay. Soda then. Grape, if you've got it."
"Comin' right up." The fat man looked at Crain, gave him a little smile. "You look like a man who enjoys a friendly little game now and then."
"What kind of game?"
"That big old steel shed yonder? They've got eight-liners going in there. Video slots. They play all night long. All day, too."
Crain looked across the highway. There was a long windowless storage shed with two men sitting in lawn chairs by the door. Work trucks and old cars were parked on the dirt around it. It didn't look like there'd be a friendly game of anything going on inside. And even an honest eight-liner would be a bad bet. If there were honest eight-liners. Crain hadn't heard of any.
"I'll pass. I'm down to pretty much burger money as it is. I'm out here trying to get work on the oil wells. You know if there's anyone hiring?"
"Not really. This part of the oil field's pretty much played out. Wells are closing down all the time, not many new ones going in. The jobs that do come up mostly go to the Mexicans. You ought to try Midland , Odessa , places like that."
Crain nodded. He'd tried places like that. They weren't hiring, either.
The fat man flipped the burger, sliced a bun with a two-foot knife. He dipped the fries, poured them into a paper sack, built the burger on a square of foil, wrapped it and dropped it into the sack. He pushed it across the counter with a can of generic grape. "Four-sixty," he said.
Crain handed him the money and took the food and the can of soda over to his pickup. He pulled down the tailgate and sat looking out over the flat dark land at the methane fires on the oil rigs in the distance. He wondered what he'd do if he didn't find work in the next week. He knew he'd have to go back to Houston before he ran out of gas money. Well, he'd think of something. He'd been saying that for a while now, and he hadn't thought of anything yet.
Two men came out of the eight-liner arcade. It was over a hundred feet away and there wasn't much light, but even from that distance, they didn't look happy. They got into an old Bronco and wheeled out, raising dust all around.
One of the men got up from his lawn chair and walked across the highway. He was Mexican, heavyset, with a limp. He was wearing a creased straw cowboy hat with a snakeskin band. There was a twenty-two in a homemade holster on his belt. When he got to where Crain was sitting he nodded, said, "Hey, how you doing?"
"Hey, we got some of those eight-liners over there, you know, the video slot machines? You ought to come over, check it out."
"I don't think so. I'm a little short right now as it is."
"Well, the thing is, I think the guys that set up the machines messed up. All week we've had guys coming in, hitting it real good. The way it looks, they set the payouts way too high. You ought to check it out, you don't want to miss out."
"I'll pass," Crain said, a little harder this time, not wanting to talk to the man about slots. He took a long sip of the soda, just to have something to do with his mouth.
"Your loss, bro." The man walked over to the trailer, came back a minute later with a bag of fries. "Have a good, one, man," he said, touching his fingers to his brim. He walked back across the highway.
Crain finished the last of the fries, washed that down with the soda, and carried his trash over to the can. He nodded at the fat man and walked back to his truck. He thought he'd pull out into the desert and sleep in the back of the truck under the camper top, then drive around the town in the morning, see if there was a job somewhere he could talk his way into. It was a longshot, but it was the only shot he could think of right then.
As he got back to the truck an SUV pulled up across the road. A big one, a black Suburban with tinted windows. Crain watched two men get out and talk to the door guards. Then one of the guards went inside and a minute later people started filing out. There were about a dozen of them. They stood in the lot, lighting cigarettes, kicking at the dust. A couple of them got in their cars and drove off, another came across the road, staring at the hand-painted picture of a burger on the sandwich sign by the road in front of the trailer. The two men who'd driven up stood around for a while, talking to the men on the door. Then they went inside. Crain assumed that the men were there to collect the money from the machines.
Crain waited, standing by his truck, not getting in. He was curious, thinking about how they went about this. The way he understood it, the machines took bills, maybe up to twenties, and paid out in scrip if they paid out at all, so they'd have to be emptied regularly. He liked that they made the customers leave while they worked. The suckers might not like to watch their money being loaded into sacks.
As he watched another vehicle pulled off the highway into the lot. A cargo van, dark-colored, dented and caked with mud. Suddenly the men who'd been standing around the lot faded into the darkness. The men in the lawn chairs stood, put their hands at their belts as if they were going to draw. They seemed to be speaking to the men in the van. Then the van doors opened and three men came out, moving fast. There were shots, soft pops and muzzle flashes, and the two men on the door went down.
Then it was quiet. Crain backed away from his truck. He looked around. The fat man was gone from the trailer. So was the other man. Crain edged away into the desert, away from the lot, from the highway lights. When he'd traveled about a hundred feet he stopped and crouched down to watch.
The shooters were standing by the door. They looked like they were talking to the men inside, but Crain was too far away to hear what was said. A couple cars went by on the highway and everyone froze until they were gone. Then one of the men raised his hand and brought it down, counting, three, two, one...
The men went into the shed, moving fast, running and firing. The inside of the building lit up with the flashes. Crain could hear the shots, fifteen or twenty of them at least. Then the shooting stopped. It was so quiet he could hear the breeze riffling the mesquite around him.
A few minutes went by. Then two men came out of the arcade. One was carrying a canvas sack. The other was moving slowly, dragging another sack. He went to his knees, then worked his way back up, pulled the sack a little farther through the dirt. The first man got his sack into the van, went back and got the second sack. When he had that stowed in the van he went back a third time. The second man had gone down again. He was on his hands and knees, swaying. For a second Crain thought the one man would shoot the other, just leave him there, but instead he crouched down, got his shoulder under the man's arm, stood him up and walked him over to the van, got him in the side door and slammed it. In a few seconds he had the van running. It backed out onto the highway and headed off southeast, moving fast.
Three men had gone inside. One of them wasn't coming out. And the two who had been in there weren't, either. And the door guards. That made five, six if the other man in the van was as seriously wounded as he looked. That was a lot of bodies, even for West Texas .
Crain started moving toward his truck. He wanted to get out of there before the police showed up, but he wanted to be careful. There were people around, some of them with guns. The men who'd been gambling were still around, staying out of the light. Someone could start shooting at any time, maybe just for the hell of it. Finally he got to his pickup and climbed in, being quiet. He started the engine and drove out to the highway, watching the lot ahead for movement. There wasn't any. He stopped at the edge of the road and turned his headlights on. There were two bodies sprawled in the dirt by the door, a third folded up in the doorway. There was movement around the lot, the gamblers coming back now for their cars. Crain gunned it, going north, away from the route the van had taken. He didn't want to see that van again.
Two hundred feet up the road there was a movement in the brush to his left and a figure ran out onto the road. It was a man, bent over, limping, holding one arm stiff by his side. He stopped in front of Crain and waved his good arm. Crain saw a twisted face under a blue ball cap before he swerved violently to the left. He went by, overcorrected, felt the rear end start to slide. He fought for control. He slid off the pavement and threw up a plume as the wheels dug into the soft dirt. The truck stopped cold. He was stuck.
He tried reverse, tried rocking it. It was hopeless. He looked back at the shed with the eight-liners, at the trucks in the lot coming to life, pulling out. He killed the lights. He got out and stared at his rear wheels in disgust. They were dug down about a foot into the dry soil. Story of my life, he thought. Wheels spinning in the dirt while the shit comes down. Story of my life.
Crain crouched down and watched a couple of trucks from the lot go by. He looked back down the road. The lot was emptying out, everyone getting away fast while they could. A couple more work trucks went by, an old Caprice with cab markings scratched part way out. The man who'd run in front of him was folded up by the side of the highway. No one stopped to help him. Another pickup went by and the driver waved a shotgun out the window.
Crain knew he had to get out of there, and fast. It was only a matter of time before someone showed up and started asking questions. Or just started shooting. He didn't want to be involved in this. He got moving.
He needed to jack the truck up, then fill in the holes the wheels had made and set a couple of boards under the wheels for traction. He had a jack but there was nowhere to set it in the soft soil. If he tried it the jack would just sink into the dirt. And he didn't have any boards to set under the tires. He wished to god he'd sprung for four-wheel drive when he'd bought the truck.
He looked back at the burger joint. There could be something back there he could use to get the truck back on the road. Either there or the eight-liner arcade. He didn't want to think about going in there. He started walking. Fast.
He checked the burger joint first. It was deserted, the cars gone, thick plywood flaps covering the openings. There was a sandwich board by the trailer with a painting of a hamburger and the words "Burley's Burgers" in red paint, but it was too heavy to lug all the way back to the truck. If he had the tools and a little time he could pry it apart, but he didn't have any tools. There was a pry bar in the truck. If he had to he could come back with that. He walked across the highway.
There was a Jeep Cherokee parked in the lot outside the hall. Crain guessed that had belonged to one of the door guards. The Suburban he'd seen drive up was next to it with the passenger door open. An old coupe, maybe a Taurus, was farther back in the lot. There were two men lying in the dirt near the door, another one sprawled in the doorway, as if he'd been shot inside and had crawled that far before he died. One of the guards had a black long-barrel pistol in his hand. Crain thought to pick it up, just in case, but decided he didn't want to touch anything unless he had to. There were a couple of lawn chairs, a beer cooler, a plastic pail for the empties. Crain walked around the back, hoping to see some boards leaning up against the steel walls. Nothing.
He went inside. He smelled blood and gunsmoke. The roof was filled with an eerie red glow from the eight-liners and a couple beer signs on the walls. It was enough light to see by, enough to shoot by. Enough to see the bodies. There were three bodies inside, one more than he'd expected. They looked like they'd gone down fighting. The machines were lined up along the walls, glowing in garish reds and yellows with decals promising instant riches, easy money. A few of them were dark, shot out. A couple had their fronts pulled open.
What interested him were the homemade tables set up down the length of the room for the gamblers to rest their beers on while they played. They were crude, patched together from mismatched pieces of plywood and scrap lumber. In a back corner he saw a couple of half-finished tables. He stepped over one of the bodies and went back. Sure enough, the tables were slapped together with thin nails. He touched one and it wobbled, threatened to fall. He set to work. He tugged on the legs, kicked at it, slammed it into the floor, letting his anger work for him. In minutes he had the table in pieces. He had three short solid boards and some scraps of two-by-four that he thought would work.
He heard a sound from the doorway. He crouched down and watched the opening. A minute went by. Nothing. The wind, he thought.
He wondered if the police would be able to take fingerprints off the rough wood. He didn't know. He wiped a few of the cleaner surfaces with the front of his shirt, but gave up. It was taking too long. On top of that, the smell of blood was getting to him. He was taking shallow breaths, trying not to think about it. He had to get out of there. He picked up the boards and headed for the door.
There were some bills lying on the floor by one of the machines. He bent down and picked up a twenty, two fives and some ones, stuffed them in his side pocket. He thought there was blood on one of the fives, but he didn't care. He thought about checking the bodies for wallets, but he just wanted to be gone.
The man in the doorway moved as he stepped over him. At first he thought it was just the body settling, but then he heard the man wheeze. He stopped outside and looked around, then crouched down. The man's shirt was soaked in blood. He had been gut-shot. Crain could smell it.
"Is there anything I can do?" he asked, knowing the answer.
The man grunted, no.
Crain stared at him. He knew he had to go, but it was hard to leave the man to die alone. He listened for sirens, heard nothing.
The man took a breath, made a gurgling sound down in his chest, then seemed to focus for a second. "Tell Pendler... it was... the Zaps..." Then his eyes emptied out and his body seemed to shrink where it lay. He was dead.
Tell Pendler. It was the Zaps.
Crain stood up and backed away. He didn't plan to tell anyone anything. All he wanted to do was get on the road and get as far from this mess as he could. He picked up the scrap wood and headed out to the highway.
When he got to his truck he set to work. He got the jack set up on one board, got a wheel up out of its hole, filled the dirt in under the wheel. Then he let the truck down and put some more wood under the jack and lifted it again. This time he could fill in the hole and put a board under the tire for traction. Then he did the same on the other side. He only had to duck down out of sight twice while he worked. Finally he was done. He had boards under both rear wheels, the holes filled in. He threw the other boards deeper into the desert and started the truck, drove it carefully out onto the highway.
He stopped for a moment, wondering where the man who'd run out in front of him had gone. He decided that someone must have stopped for him, someone a lot more generous. He hoped the man was all right.
It didn't matter. Crain wasn't going to be hanging around for updates. He was going to get out of this county and he wasn't going to come back. With any luck he'd read about it in the Houston paper.
He hit the gas and started driving toward Flatiron. It was about three miles. Crain covered two of them in a minute and a half, then slowed down to duck the speed traps. Town like this, a trap or two was a given.
As he approached the town he passed a sign that read, "Welcome to Flatiron, Garden Spot of the Southwest." He almost laughed when he read it, but he wasn't in the mood. Even at night it looked dirty. The town was just a line of beat-up old buildings on the highway, urban sprawl without a city to give it an illusion of class. Maybe it had seen better days.
The first cruiser went past as Crain drove by the Union Pacific depot on the edge of town. Its light bar was strobing, the siren blasting out through the empty streets. In seconds another cruiser appeared, followed by an ambulance. Crain felt like telling them slow down, they're all dead and the shooters are long gone. A third cruiser came hard out of a side street and shot down the highway, burning rubber.
The third cruiser U-turned a few hundred yards behind Crain and came up behind him, siren still going. Crain felt his heart slam down into his guts. He squeezed the wheel, slowed down, eased a little to the right, willing the cruiser to go on by. It didn't. It pulled up behind him, matching speed, right on his bumper. He heard a speaker voice telling him to pull over. It didn't look like he had much choice.
He tapped the brakes, then coasted, looking for a place to pull over. After about a block he pulled into the front lot of something called the Petro-Motel. Weekly rates. Vacancy. There were two cars and an old work truck in the lot, everything dark. The cruiser pulled in behind him. They sat there for a minute, then the cop got out and walked up. Crain noticed the cop had his hand on his holster. He put his hands on the top of the steering wheel and waited.
"Sir, I'm going to need to see your license and registration, proof of insurance."
"Sure thing." Crain started to reach over to the glove box for the papers, saw the cop stiffen. He looked like a young guy, edgy. Pudgy for a young cop. Maybe new on the job. Maybe he'd heard something about the killings. That would get his nerves going, his gun hand burning. "My license is in my back pocket, the rest is in there. Is that all right?"
"Sir, I think you should get out of the vehicle now, if you don't mind."
Crain eased the door open and got out, moving slow and easy, barely breathing. He stood in front of the cop and waited. It was the only way he knew to deal with cops. Shut up, go along and try to stay out of jail. Sometimes it worked.
"Sir, I want you to lean forward and put your hands there on the fender for me. That's right, just like that."
Crain felt a hand patting him down. He was wearing a tee shirt and jeans, so it seemed like a waste of time. Then he felt his wallet coming out of his back pocket. The cop took a step back. Crain stayed where he was, waited for the cop tell him what to do next.
"Paul Cedar Crain, out of Houston. That's you?"
"You can turn around and face me, Mr. Crain. Keep your hands where I can see them. Can you tell me what you're doing in Flatiron, Mr. Crain?"
"I'm just passing through on the highway. Say the word I'll be gone in minutes."
"We had a report of a vehicle striking a pedestrian, driving away. Vehicle was an F-150, dark color, ten years old, with a long dent down the passenger side. Vehicle matching this description. Tell me, Mr. Crain, does your truck here have a dent down the other side?"
"It's more like a bad scratch, but yeah. I didn't hit anyone, though. There was a guy a few miles back ran out in front of me, waving like he wanted me to stop. I had to swerve to miss him, went off the road. He was fine when I drove away."
"You're sure you didn't hit him?"
"Positive. You can take a look at my bumper, see for yourself."
"I don't really do that, sir. I'm mostly on traffic duty. Time comes, we'll have someone take a real good look. For now, I think we're going to have to ride over to the sheriff's office, get this straightened out."
The cop's shoulder radio crackled to life. He twisted his head, said, "Say again." He listened, then told Crain to stand where he was for a minute. He walked back partway to his cruiser and talked for a minute. Then he pulled out his gun and put it on Crain.
Crain thought, now he knows about the bodies.
The cop came back, told Crain to turn around, put his hands behind his head. He went through the routine, not talking to him now, not calling him sir, put the cuffs on him. Then he took Crain by the collar and marched him back to the cruiser.
Crain said, "Hold on, we can't just leave my truck out here. About everything I own is in there. At least let me lock it up."
"You get your ass in the cruiser or I swear I will shoot you dead where you stand."
Crain got in the cruiser.
A pickup went by on the highway, a new longbed with fancy rims and a rifle rack, and a voice called out, "Welcome to Flatiron, pindejo ."
The cop turned the cruiser around and headed back in the direction of the eight-liner arcade and the bodies. He ran the siren and enough flashers to light the desert. Crain stared out the window and tried to think of a story. He wanted to say he'd just driven past the crime scene and hadn't seen anything, but there were a few holes in that story. Like the guy from the burger joint, who'd remember him. He decided to admit to having seen the shootings, then swerved off the road to avoid hitting someone running from the arcade. He wasn't going to admit that he'd gone back to the arcade. He'd deny that to the end.
When they got to the arcade there were three cruisers marked County Sheriff and an ambulance. The EMTs were leaning against the ambulance looking shaken. There wasn't much for them to do. The cops were all standing in the lot watching an older man in a black Stetson as he walked around and looked at the bodies. He was in his fifties, putting on the weight. The sheriff. He walked with his thumbs hooked in his web belt. He didn't look happy. He stared at each of the bodies with the look of a man who'd seen too much of this. The cop turned around and said to Crain, "The sheriff will want to talk to you. You just sit here and wait."
Crain said, "I ain't going anywhere."
The cop got out and walked over to where the sheriff was leaning over the dead man in the doorway. They talked for a while. Then the sheriff nodded and walked over to the cruiser with Crain in the back.
This would be good.
The cop who'd brought him in came over and got Crain out of the cruiser, stood him up against the fender. The sheriff looked him up and down. He didn't smile. "Tell me your name," he said.
"I'm Paul Crain. You can call me Crain."
"Crain. All right. I'm Sheriff John Liveoak. You can call me sir. Did you kill these men, Crain?"
"All right. Tell me what you know about this. And don't bother lying about it. I'm not in the mood."
Crain told him everything that had happened except for his trip back to the arcade to collect the wood. Listening to himself, he thought the story sounded good. Convincing. Maybe he could walk away from this. Then again, life didn't usually go that way. Not his life, anyway.
A deputy walked up just as he was finishing. "We found another body," he said to the sheriff. "Down there a few hundred feet, just off the highway."
"Can you tell what happened to him?"
"It looks like he was snakebit. He's swelled up bad. There's no blood on him or anything like that. There's some bites down on his legs, like he walked in on a bunch of rattlers. It doesn't look like this man hit him after all. I mean, it ain't up to me, but that's how it looks."
The sheriff said to Crain, "Turn around." When he did, he felt the cuffs coming off. It was a good feeling. "Now you just stand there. We might have something else to talk about."
An SUV had pulled in while they were talking. A black Silverado, like the one in the lot. A thin man in black cowboy clothes was walking around the site, taking a look at everything. The sheriff walked over to him and they started talking. "Who's that," Crain asked the deputy who was standing with him.
"That's Norbert Pendler. He runs the eight-liners in this county. Has, I don't know, six or eight of these arcades. This is his place, those were his men."
Pendler. Crain wondered if he wanted to talk to him. He thought he'd wait and find out. "He seems to get along pretty well with the sheriff. I'm guessing these arcades aren't exactly legal."
"Well, they go back a ways. And you know, way things are going, no one cares about the eight-liners. We got meth labs, drug smugglers, people smugglers and what-all else going on. Around here, crime is the new oil."
"Until the bodies start to pile up."
"Well, there is that. Usually, people get killed, they get buried out in the desert and we don't have to worry too much about them. So this is some bad news for us here."
A half hour went by and the sheriff came up to Crain, told him he could take off as soon as he had a deputy free to take him into town. Crain thanked him. He looked around, saw Pendler standing by his truck. He was staring out across the flat land, looking empty and tired. Tell Pendler it was the Zaps. Crain just wanted to leave, but he thought, maybe he should tell Pendler. After all, the man had died telling him that.
Crain walked up to Pendler, said hello. "My name's Crain," he said. "I was here when this all happened. There's something I need to tell you."
Pendler said, "What's that?"
"This is between us. Something I didn't tell the sheriff."
"I went back to the arcade to get some scrap wood so I could jack my truck out of the dirt. I was stuck over there, down the road. The man in the doorway there, he was still alive. I sat with him for a minute. He said tell Pendler it was the Zaps. Then, right after he said that, he died. I'd never heard of you, or the Zaps, whoever they are, but I said I would. Really, I just wanted to get out of here. But there it is."
Pendler nodded. "I appreciate that. The Zaps are a drug gang, up from Mexico . They work the border south of here. They're bad news, real bad. I guess they're looking to branch out. That's good to know. I suppose that's something I'll have to deal with. And that man, his name was Jo Jo Reyes. He was a good man. They all were. They deserved better. I'm real sorry to lose them."
Crain nodded. A moment passed, then he said, "There's something else. I'm out here looking for work on the rigs and it's not going too well. I can handle myself and I can handle a gun. If you've got some work for me I'd like to know about it."
Pendler looked at him and nodded. "I guess I do have a few jobs open at that. And if you're man enough to ask for one after seeing these men die, you just might be able to do me some good." He reached in his pocket and brought out a business card. "Come by in the afternoon, I'll get you started on something."
Crain walked away smiling. He had a dead man's job, but the way things were it was better than no job at all.