The doorknob turned an inch to the right, then slipped back in place. The thin metal scraping of keys around, above and against the lock ended with the sound of a key ring falling to the floor, then muffled voices in the hall.
“Can you hurry the fuck up? I’m dying here.”
The door opened. Darren led the way in, rubbing his hands and moving fast with nervous energy, the keys left dangling in the front door lock. Brian followed, his right hand clutching his left and squeezing hard as he tried to stop the bleeding. He angled against the wall and flicked a light switch with his elbow, grimacing in pain as he did.
“Seriously,” Brian said. “Were you trying to kill me?”
“I said I was sorry.” Darren paced. His lips moved quickly as he dictated the visions in his head back to himself, trying to make sense of what he’d just been through.
“You gonna fucking help me or what?” Brian held up his left hand, palm out like he was waving to a neighbor – after his hand had been caught in a lawnmower. Blood stained his palm an even red with streaks running down into his sleeve and under his jacket as if they were hiding from the light that shone through a conspicuous gap where his ring finger should have been.
Darren rocked back and forth on his heels, staring at the wound on his partner and friend, confused and slightly nauseous.
“What am I . . . what do you want me to do?”
Brian clenched his teeth, biting back another wave of pain like a woman in labor. Each pump of his heart sent new messages of pain in morse code, blasting tiny electric shocks to the open nerves in his hand. The wave crested and he spat out his words, “I don’t fucking know!”
Brian turned his hand gently to examine the damage. Darren watched as the ruined digit swung from a thin strip of skin, dangling down the back of Brian’s hand like a broken antenna on an old TV set. The bone had been obliterated by the bullet. The skin that held the finger on was no wider or sturdier than a strip of scotch tape.
The idea of reattaching the finger was long gone. Neither Brian nor Darren held any illusions about that.
“Should I . . . ?” Darren pointed at the swinging finger.
Brian forced himself to look at it, but quickly shut his eyes and turned away, choking down a heave in his gut.
“Yeah. Do it. Just do it.”
Darren reached out, but drew his hand back, reached again, drew back again, acting like he was being asked to grab a tarantula bare-handed.
“You shot me, man. Now fucking help me!”
Darren pinched the finger between his index and thumb and, same as drawing a cigarette out of the pack, pulled on it until it came off in his hand.
Brian screamed through his closed mouth. Darren dropped the completely severed finger to the carpet and started shaking out his hands trying to get the tarantula feeling off of them.
Brian dropped to his knees and screamed until his lungs were empty. As if that were all the indulgence he was going to give himself, he stood again and went to the kitchen of their two bedroom flat and picked a dishtowel off the counter.
A few new bloodstains on the carpet would go largely unnoticed. Screams in this building, especially muffled screams, would go unreported.
Brian wrapped the dishtowel around the open wound and the bacteria immediately settled on the warm gore, exchanging microbes with Brian’s bloodstream. He leaned over the sink and closed his eyes, questioning whether he needed to throw up.
“I can’t believe you fucking shot me, man.”
“You know I didn’t mean it. The whole thing went to shit.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. I just can’t believe you hit that small of a target. You couldn’t do that again if you tried a hundred times.”
“I wasn’t trying to do it.”
“Great. I get the fruits of your one-in-a-million shot.”
“I hit, like, three guys in there.”
Brian slitted his eyes and gave Darren a menacing look. “I shot four guys in there. You shot my hand, that’s it.”
“Okay, whatever you say.”
Brian exhaled, closed his eyes again. “God damn, I wish we’d taken some of that heroin and not just the money. I could use a little numbing up about now.”
“I didn’t think you used.”
“I don’t, I’m just saying. Jesus Christ, Darren. Give me a minute here, I’m in a lot of pain. Why don’t you start counting the money?”
Darren stopped his shuffling. He looked around the kitchen.
Brian noticed the blankness on his face. He watched Darren’s eyes scanning the room, busy, but not focusing on anything as if trying to recall a lost phone number.
“You have the money, right?”
Darren’s stillness said it all.
“This partnership is over, man.”
“Brian, come on. It was really confusing in there.”
“I’ve had it. We’ve had a good run. Not great, but decent. But now? Fuck it. I’m out.”
Brian fumbled in his pocket for car keys with his right hand, the bloody dish rag clinging to his left only by the viscosity of the half-coagulated blood.
Darren held up the keys. “You can’t drive like that.”
Brian stared down his friend, his thick eyebrows lifting and betraying the soft spot inside. Plus, he really couldn’t drive in his condition.
“It better still fucking be there.”
Darren retraced the escape route, wishing he’d replaced that burned out headlight. Twice he had to pull a U-turn to get back in the right direction. Nothing looked familiar, but then again he hadn’t been paying close attention the first time through. On their flight from the mayhem of Queen Lupe’s pad self-preservation took precedence over lefts or rights.
“It’s a minor set back, that’s all,” Darren said.
“Minor for you. You can still count to ten.”
Brian’s pain had leveled off to a dull throb. He had the odd sensation of the finger still being attached. He felt the wet of the dishtowel on the skin, felt shocks of pain run up the length to the tip of a finger that was no longer there.
“You know what they say, man. You fall off that horse you gotta get right back on.”
“Yeah? Well, fuck you and the horse you rode in on, okay?”
The cops weren’t there yet. A good sign.
The door stood open and the porch light still burned but no light penetrated beyond the threshold. Darren parked his mid-90s Impala across the street and reached under the seat for the pistol he’d stashed there as they left this exact spot less than a half hour ago.
Queen Lupe’s house was unassuming to look at but had a reputation in the neighborhood like any good haunted house. It’s where the Heroin Queen did her business. A distribution center, shooting gallery and manufacturing plant all framed by a brown lawn on a generic slice of urban sprawl.
Rusty chain link did little to keep anyone out. Rumors of what happened inside kept everyone well away, unless the pull of a needle full of H brought you bravely to the door.
“Get in and get out. That’s it,” Brian said.
“What’s that they say? Second time’s a charmer.”
“Third time, jackass. And if I have to come back here a third time, one of us is leaving in a body bag.”
Brian leveled a serious eye at Darren and held it as the engine knocked and clicked on the otherwise soundless street.
“Yeah well, finger’s crossed anyway.”
Darren shrank as soon as he realized what he said. Brian tried to ignore him.
Robbing the Queen had been an act of pure brass balls. Brian and Darren had planned for the worst, but their imagination hadn’t been up to the reality of what lay inside. Escaping minus only one finger? A miracle.
Brian gripped his gun with his right hand, keeping his left elevated so it looked like he was waving a red flag overhead.
The house still smelled of spent shells and broken butane lighters. Darren spotted a short blue flame from a torch lighter on a low coffee table as it overcooked a spoon of heroin. The flame had been charring the spoon since the boys had been there last and all that remained was a black stain that smelled like an open grave. Mix that with the smell of fresh blood strong enough to make a vampire weak in the knees.
The two moved slowly, imitating extras in a horror film waiting for the boogeyman to leap from a dark corner. Two crumpled bodies lay to the left of the couch, empty sawed-off shotguns by their sides. Brian felt a touch of pride at having taken out such formidable foes. He hadn’t been able to appreciate it during the gunfight.
Darren’s eyes followed a blood trail out the door. The junkie squatter who’d been waiting for his spoon to cook. Guess he got away, although he left missing more than just a place to put a wedding ring.
Brian whispered, “Where’d you leave the bag?”
“I’m not sure. I guess I must have left it in the back.”
The Queen’s lair. A master bedroom to you and me. It’s where Darren was when the shooting started.
Two more bodies blocked the hallway in frozen face-down contortions like a break dancing accident caught in a photographer’s flash. Brian led the way and stepped over the crumpled men listening for movement in the far away rooms but hearing only the soft squish of his All Stars on the bloodstained carpet.
How had he escaped this and the only bullet he took was from his partner?
The Queen was still in her bed. All three hundred and eighty pounds of her resting comfortably while her brain was allowed to air out through the two holes in her skull.
Darren had shot someone. The main one. He remained a little too preoccupied to take credit for it at the moment. Brian regarded the twin head shots and nodded his approval.
And then, among the thick death, was life.
Brian jolted and raised his gun. He hadn’t seen the person at first since the man was sitting so still. He sat perched atop an olive green army duffle bag and slumped down so his chin nearly touched his chest. A duffle bag lumpy and bulging with the hard fought earnings of the night, though the junkie didn’t seem to know that.
When the junkie looked up, Darren raised his gun too. Like an old pro, the man continued the action he was engaged in before he nodded out. He removed the empty syringe and needle from the back of his hand.
“Get up partner,” Brian said.
The junkie tilted his head up but the gears only lifted him so far. A fog hung thick between him and understanding.
“I said get up.”
“Free hits, man. Free junk.” A sleepy smile played over his chapped lips. Must have needed a fix pretty bad to wander through the battlefield to make it this far. When he realized no one was around to take his payment, or to stop him filling as many needles as he could, it must have been like watching Christmas morning fucking the lottery while a unicorn craps a rainbow in your skull.
“That’s the bag,” Darren said.
“I know that,” Brian said. “Move him.”
Darren stepped around Brian and tucked his pistol in the waistband of his pants. He put his hand under the armpits of the junkie and lifted. The guy was light. A longtime user. He moved with Darren easily, a marionette being put away after a performance.
Darren guided the smack-head onto the bed and lay him next to the Queen and her open skull. The junkie’s long stringy hair soaked up some of the blood and gray matter. The smile never left his lips.
Darren lifted the bag and hefted the weight. If that smack-head had any idea what he was sitting on it could have kept him on the horse for years. They still had to count it, but over a million was the best guess from the pre-score planning.
The cheap bed frame gave way and the two legs at the foot of the bed collapsed. The junkie slid off the bed like butter off a hot roll and the Queen came rolling after like a bowling ball off a rooftop. The dead weight of the Queen flattened out on top of the junkie until he was obliterated from sight. The dark plum color of the exit wounds in the back of the Queen’s head stared out the same as two sunken eyes on a scared child.
Darren looked at Brian. Brian stared back. It would take both of them to lift her off and even then it was no guarantee. The junkie must have been passed out under there. From the angle and spread of her body he most likely had a mouth full of her neck fat and undoubtedly a few cracked ribs and some seriously flattened lungs that were incapable of refilling.
“Go. Just go,” Brian said.
Brian shut off the porch light and they waited in the shadows for a minute while they scanned the street outside. After dark, life stopped around Queen Lupe’s house so she could open up for business. No children playing, no dogs barking. The house was a meeting place for the walking dead and, now, the laying-on-the-floor type.
Back at the Impala Darren took three attempts to fit the key into the trunk lock. He swung the duffle bag inside and let loose a smile of relief.
Brian leaned against the car, putting a hand down on the open trunk to brace himself from a lightheaded feeling. Blood loss. He needed to lie down, stop his heart pumping so damn fast. Maybe eat a steak. Something to fortify his iron.
“There you go, man. No worse for the wear,” Darren said.
Brian gave him a tired look from between severely pinched eyebrows.
Darren tossed the keys on top of the duffle bag and went for the zipper.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
“What the fuck are you doing?” Brian’s words came out slightly slurred like a teenage girl after a beer and two shots of peach schnapps.
“Counting the money.” Darren seemed to think it was quite obvious and didn’t know what the problem was.
“Not here you jackass.”
“God, you really are the fucking stupidest, aren’t you?”
Darren couldn’t help but show his feelings had been hurt. He pouted worse than a kid picked last for dodgeball. Brian was too busy slowing his heart rate to notice. Plus, he didn’t care.
“We got the money anyway,” Darren said, making the best of it, and pushed hard on the trunk lid.
Brian bit down on his teeth so hard he cracked a molar with a filling he’d had since he was sixteen. The trunk latch caught, but Brian’s formerly good hand was pinched between the frame and the lid, his index and middle finger caught between sheets of metal.
Darren backed up a few steps when he realized what he had done.
“Jesus, Brian, I’m sorry.”
“Unlock the fucking lid!”
Darren froze again. The same lost phone number look from the kitchen. The keys were inside the trunk.
Brian watched his partner’s eyes and did the math. “You idiot.”
Darren faced his fight or flight moment. He was an animal of prey on the Serengeti facing down a hungry mother lion.
“Help me, you bitch,” growled Brian.
Darren turned and ran.
For the first time, a dog barked in the distance.
Brian remembered stories of coyotes in traps chewing off their own legs. He tried to shut it out of his mind but every thought that replaced it was equally as bloody.
He pulled on his hand. He could feel blood ooze between his fingers and he knew there wasn’t much more he could spare. The trunk lid had a grip on the flesh of his fingers, but they weren’t severed. He could even wiggle them a tiny bit.
He tugged. Nothing. He pulled with a slow and sustained pressure. Yelling through gritted teeth wasn’t cutting it anymore. He put a foot on the bumper and pulled back, howling at the moon loud as a mid-transformation werewolf.
Brian remembered his gun. He slid the dishrag off his four-fingered left hand and let it flop on the trunk with the wet smack of a used beach towel on a hot summer’s day. It took considerable effort to lift the gun from his waistband and not continually violate the open wound.
The gun felt awkward in his left hand. He couldn’t fully wrap his palm around the grip without sending alarm calls of pain running up his arm to an already fatigued brain stem.
Shaky and slippery from the plasma, he slid his finger into the trigger and fired at the lock. A neat hole opened up an inch to the left of the mechanism.
Brian adjusted his aim, squinted one eye and squeezed the trigger again. Nothing. Out of bullets. The melee from earlier had left him spent.
A long way away came a sound. Like an alarm clock when you’re still asleep.
He didn’t have much time.
He took three deep breaths, braced his foot on the bumper again and pulled. He pulled down sharply and felt something give.
His hand tore free, a light splash of blood greased the Impala nameplate. His index finger was nearly stripped of skin, a shredded fleshy mess. His middle finger was gone.
Brian stood and stared down at his hand in disbelief. He’d torn off his own finger. No geysers of blood spat to the pavement. There wasn’t that much blood pressure left in his body.
His slowing brain skidded over the facts. The money was inside the trunk. So was his finger. The police were on the way. As vaguely satisfying as it would have been to have him be long gone and only his middle finger left as a souvenir for the cops, that finger carried his ID attached to it. One dip in the inkwell and they’d have him.
Two busted paws and no way out.
He could run like that pussy Darren. He’d have to run regardless, but his mind struggled to come up with some solution. Some way to keep the cops at bay so he could run far enough and hope that he didn’t bleed out in the process.
Brian hit on an idea and didn’t have time for plan B.
Getting the gas cap off was hard enough. Packing the dishrag into the hole wasn’t easy either. Flicking the wheel on a Bic he’d rescued from the Queen house was hardest of all. Tiny sparks flew in the dark and reminded him of fireflies when he was a kid. Always right there when they blink, teasing, but by the time you close your hand around the spot, the little fuckers have already moved on.
Sirens grew louder, undeniable now that they were headed for him.
A tiny flame. The same fire that burned a hundred heroin highs. Brian held the orange glow against the rag but nothing caught. Too wet. Too bloody.
He could hear the diverging sounds of two separate sirens coming.
He tore the wet rag out of the gas line. He pinched the tail of his shirt with his left index and thumb and brought it to his mouth. He bit down and tore at the fabric, ripping a strip below the last button all the way to the seam. He pulled hard and swooned from the pain in his hand.
He leaned against the car and took three deep breaths.
He forced the cloth down as deep as he could push into the pipe that ran to the gas tank. He sparked the lighter again and this time the cotton caught fire.
Brian began backing away, watching the flame, seeing it grow.
As he turned and started running across dead lawns and past rusty fences he didn’t even think of the money. All he could think of was that finger. At least it was his middle. It said it all for him.
Fuck you, world. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.