Down To The River
By David White
David White is the Derringer Award winning author of the Jackson Donne stories. His works have appeared in The Thrilling Detective, Hardluck Stories, and Handheldcrime.
Maria watched the windshield fog up. It had to be below freezing outside, and even with the motor running and the heat pumping at full blast, her old Toyota Corolla wasn’t able to keep the glass clear. Especially not with her husband Larry singing the Jayhawks at the top of his lungs. She watched his legs bounce up and down out of rhythm with the song, and knew he was only loud because he was nervous.
Hell, she was nervous, too.
The Passaic River flowed by the hood of their car. The parking lot was dark and empty, adjacent to a park with a few benches. You could sit outside and watch the river go by. Except there wasn’t anything scenic about the Passaic. Maria had read somewhere that it was one of the most polluted rivers in the country. But during the day seniors probably came by and fed the ducks, and in the summer kids made out at night. Not at one in the morning, in the middle of January, in the freezing cold.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Larry said, stopping mid-lyric.
She turned away from the windshield, toward him. His shaved head reflected the distorted dome light on over the car. She used to like the shaved look, the scar on his chin that wouldn’t ever grow stubble, the thin lips, cold blue eyes set too close to the bridge of his nose. Like a grizzled warrior. Now, she was indifferent to all of that. Larry was an unemployed screw up. And now they had to take a risk to salvage what was left of their pitiful lives.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Come on, hon, let’s go home. We’ll find a way through this.”
He leaned across the gearshift and kissed her throat. She closed her eyes and remembered when that meant something to her.
“I love you, baby. We don’t have to be here. You and me, we’ll go get a hotel room. Come on. I want to just lie in bed with you, stare at your eyes, your dimples when you laugh. You’re beautiful, Maria. Let’s get out of here.”
She pulled back. “We can’t afford a hotel room, Larry. We don’t even have the money to pay our rent, anymore. Not since the club fired you.”
“I’ll find something. I promise. We’ll be okay.”
She leaned in, kissed him on the mouth. He reciprocated, and just as he started to part her lips with his tongue, she pulled away.
“I want to go to Spain for a while. We can find our way there. Get the hell out of this hellhole. This is the quick fix. It’ll work.”
“It’s dangerous, Maria.”
She knew that.
“These men don’t play games like that. It’s not good business.” That was something she was also sure of. Two days ago, her phone rang, and it was a voice she hadn’t heard in years. He identified himself as John Marshall. She hadn’t talked to him since she was still going to high school. He had to be in his sixties now.
“Maria, I’ve been looking for Christine,” he said, not mincing words.
“What?” She hadn’t spoken to Christine in years.
“Yes. She’s gone missing and I’m worried about her. I was hoping you might have heard from her.”
She wasn’t naïve. Christine always used to tell Maria what her uncle did for a living. And if John was looking for her, it was worth money to him. Maria had been buying lottery tickets for years. An idea popped into her head and it was as good as having the winning ticket.
“How important is it to you?”
“Ah, Maria.” She could almost sense John’s sneer through the Irish accent over the phone. “You know more about me than I thought.”
“Yeah. For years. Christine and I, remember when she invited me for Thanksgiving dinner? My parents had a fight, my mom ran off, my dad let the turkey burn?”
John sighed. “Yes, I think I recall it.”
“Christine told me about you. Told me that she overheard you talking about killing some guy.”
“You knew all along?”
“And you never said anything to anyone?”
A pause on the other end. Maria thought maybe he was impressed. Finally, he asked, “How about one hundred thousand?”
“She called me the other day,” Maria lied.
John told her to meet a messenger of his in the parking lot where she and Larry now sat. The messenger would bring the money, and she would bring the information.
One hundred thousand dollars. Enough to put all this behind them. She loved Larry, she really did. But ever since she met him, her senior year, only shit had happened to them. Two weeks after graduation, she found out she was pregnant. They rushed into marriage out of respect for her Spanish mother’s traditional attitudes.
Her mother. She would have left Larry years ago if it weren’t for her mother‘s attitude towards life, sex, and marriage.
Then the miscarriage. Her now barren uterus. The pain she lived with every day. Years sitting in a dirty apartment alone while Larry worked days in the office and nights kicking drunks out of a club. When Larry told her he lost his job, she thought about taking 15 sleeping pills and just ending it. But John’s phone call changed all that.
They would be free of it all. Hop on a plane and go to Spain. Find her roots. Live free and easy. One little lie, she didn’t care where Christine was. She’d be free.
She felt Larry’s eyes on her and she wondered what he was thinking. When she told him about the deal, in the kitchen of their tiny Newark apartment, he flipped.
“There are no quick fixes, Maria!” he yelled.
She threw a plate at his head. It flew over his shoulder, shattering against the peeling floral wallpaper. Dinner was cold, and he’d come in bombed off his ass. The way he dealt with his problems, run to a bar and run a tab he’d never pay. She’d sit at home and cry.
“This money’s the only way to make it work, Larry!”
“He’s a mob boss! The only reason he’s out of prison, is because your friend never showed at the trial. They put away three of his top men, but he got off on some technicality. A tape recording that wasn’t allowed in court. It was in all the papers. He’s pissed off. He’s not a nice guy.”
“I don’t care. I’m tired of living like this. Nothing has gone right for me for ten years! The baby, your job, everything.”
“The baby. Get over it! I’m sick and tired of hearing about it.”
She picked up another plate to through, but he stepped inside her, caught her wrist. She saw compassion and sadness in his eyes.
“How dare you! Don’t you fucking touch me! Don’t touch-“
He kissed her hard, the only thing ever on his mind, keeping his ass out of a fight. Lately, she’d turned away. Tonight, she returned the kiss. She knew how to get him to agree. They made love that night with reckless abandon for the first time since he’d been fired.
Afterward, as they spooned on the dirty sheets, she told him. He ran his hands up and down her breasts as she said, “Just one little lie. I’ll tell them Vegas. Christine said she always wanted to visit. We’ll get the money, and we’ll get the hell out of here. We’ll start over.”
He nuzzled the nape of her neck. “I don’t know.”
“Twenty minutes. That’s all it’ll take. You check the money, I tell the guy where, we get in the car and drive to the airport.”
“You sure about this?”
“It’s the only thing I’m sure of.”
“What does that mean?”
She turned toward him. Kissed him full. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m not sure about anything, but I have to do this. We have to try.”
She shivered in the car, the windows completely fogged in now. Ambient light from the streetlights forced its way through the fog, the only remaining glow now that Larry had flicked off the interior lamp. She was worried her battery was going to die, and she turned off the car. Whoever was meeting them should show up any moment.
Spain was never cold like this. She was sure of it. She was able to smile for a moment. By ten a.m. tomorrow, they’d be in the air. Leave it all behind. There wasn’t anything to take with them.
“What if they actually find Christine in Vegas?” Larry tried.
The thought prickled her neck. As impossible as it seemed, Christine always talked about Vegas.
She was going to betray a friend. It didn’t matter she was lying, it was betrayal. She didn’t care. Maria needed to get out. Christine and Maria hadn’t spoken in nearly a year.
“What are the odds of that?” She turned back to him. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t care about her. I only care about us. About our future.”
Behind her two headlights flashed into the lot. A car parked next to them, car door opening and shutting. Footsteps. A knock on the driver’s side window.
She gave Larry a reassuring smile. “Here we go. To our new life.”
He kissed her on the cheek. Maria opened her door and stepped out. She faced a tall man in an unbuttoned pea coat, khaki pants, sweater, gloves holding a duffel bag. Her money.
Behind Maria, she heard the passenger door open and shut. More footsteps and Larry was beside her.
“Did John Marshall send you?” Maria asked.
“Yeah.” The guy’s face was partially hidden in shadow. She could see he had a brown beard, and some pudgy jowls. He was heavyset to go with his height. He looked like some football players she’d seen on TV. The kind of guys who look fat and out of shape, but can spend sixty minutes of game time pushing other fat guys around, barely getting winded.
“Where’s Christine?” the guy asked.
“Do you have my money?” With the end so close, Maria wasn’t going to let this fail.
He dropped the duffel bag at her feet. It was black vinyl, with a long strap. Larry reached down and picked the bag up, placing it on the trunk. She didn’t turn around to watch.
God, she thought, it’s so cold.
The air made every sound sharper, the zipper opening was what she tried to focus on. But instead she heard the tree branches rustle in the icy breeze. She heard the sound of the river’s rapid movement.
The smell of the river cut through the air. She could smell raw sewage and rotten fish. Other smells that made her nose crinkle, but she couldn’t identify. Whoever wrote the article on the river was right: it smelt awful. And it probably didn’t look much better.
“It’s there,” Larry said.
He came back next to her. Took her hand. She tried to suppress a smile.
The bearded guy smiled as well, his lips tight together. “Where is she?”
“Vegas,” she said. The word was sharp against the breeze.
Everything in the cold felt clearer, more real. She couldn’t put her finger on it, just a sense she got. Like it was over, she was now moving on in her life, the cold air freezing all the bad things, and shattering them, pulling them away. One lie about a woman she hadn’t spoken with, hadn’t even thought about until the phone rang two days ago.
The sound of the flowing river made her think of seeing the Sella River, where her mother had been born. She dreamed of seeing that river once, its clear blue water a stark contrast to the murky black of the Passaic.
“Thank you.” The bearded man said. He reached under his coat and pulled a revolver, aimed and fired.
The gunshot echoed off the trees, over the sound of the flowing river. Maria screamed along with it, turning to see Larry’s bloody chest and he slipped to the pavement. His hand jerked away from hers. Larry didn’t say word, didn’t move, lay still. Steam rose from the gunshot wound, but not his mouth or nose. For a moment, Maria’s mind was blank. Then, like a jumpstarted motor, everything focused again. She realized Larry was dead.
It was over. There wasn’t anything she could do. Every muscle in her body tensed. Ready to flee.
She turned back to the bearded man, wanting to charge past him, just in time to see the muzzle flash in her direction. She didn’t hear anything, no sounds, but she saw the world spin around her, pain shooting through her chest.
She was on the floor, the world felt even colder. Maria saw a two boots step over her. She struggled to breathe, trying to say something as the man picked up the duffel bag and went back to his car.
“No,” she wheezed.
Whatever warmth remained in her body felt like it was draining through the hole in her chest. She clutched at it, tried to push it back inside.
The bearded man’s car pulled away.
Her hands were numb; the heat flowed freely from her body. She couldn’t move and she was vaguely aware she was coughing.
The world went black and all that was left was the cold.
Then, nothing at all.
David White ©2004
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