Cigarettes and Roses, by Ben Peek
The Desertion of Corporal Perkins, by Bill Congreve
The Hours Before Sunrise, by Bill Congreve
The Mullet that Screwed John West, by Bill Congreve
2005 short fiction (pdf)
2006 short fiction (pdf)
Cigarettes and Roses
by Ben Peek
First appeared in Passing Strange
Copyright © Ben Peek, 2002, all rights reserved
For Lindsay Craig.
Midnight: Samuel DeVenes and Catherine Hallow were in a '92 metallic grey Falcon, sitting comfortably at one hundred and thirty along the Hume Highway. Grey anti-rust paint covered the front driver's side, and the windows rattled with the speed, the air and the volume of the Doors' Strange Days album. Samuel, a dark haired twenty-five year old whose parents had been Italian and English, hummed along to Jim Morrison as he sped around an Australia Post truck. Ahead, the road was empty and dark. In the back of the Falcon, Catherine (sometimes known as Cat), a twenty-three year old Aboriginal girl, lay curled asleep in his trench coat, staining it with her smell of cigarettes and perfume.
In the boot of the car and wrapped in a painter's drop cloth, lay the body of a saint: one hundred years old and without a touch of decay.
Samuel DeVenes didn't have one problem with that.
At the end of the tape, Samuel pulled over at a poorly lit service station. It was three past one in the morning. His eyes ached, and he needed to use the toilet. Turning, he reached over and shook Catherine awake.
"Time to swap," he told her. "I'm going to the toilet."
Opening the door, he looked out: dark clouds scudded above, the moon half hidden behind them. The air was cold and weaved through his wine-coloured shirt as he stood, stretched and yawned. Across the parking lot, behind the pumps and buckets of water, was the service station, where an old man stared out over the chained doors. Samuel ignored him. He wanted the toilet. It was down the darkest side of the service station: a single light that blinked the male figure like a beacon.
The door was open, the lock broken. Once inside, the toilet proved itself to be the natural extension of the door and sign: dying, blinking lights, dirty tiles, a broken mirror, toilet paper from one end to the other, with half a dozen used syringes scattered across the floor of the first cubicle. Samuel used the second. He urinated over the dirty paper that clogged it, zipped up, didn't flush and walked over to the sink.
The soap dispenser was also clogged but after a few pushes Samuel managed to pump out enough to lather his hands and rinse them. He didn't know why he bothered. The broken mirror reflected his goatee and sideburns -- beginning to get unruly -- and the three-day growth around his cheeks. His hair was a mess and his shirt was rumpled, as were his pants. It was not hard to imagine that this job had come suddenly, and that to adhere to the timetable they had been given, both he and Cat had left immediately, with no clothes but the ones they wore, and very little else. Unable to stop, they driven in shifts to the Victorian border for the Falcon, then in shifts again to the Queensland border for the body.
The money made it all worth it.
Shaking his hands, Samuel turned and hit the drier ... nothing. Great, he thought. Just great. He could hardly wait until they arrived in Melbourne and delivered the corpse: fresh clothes, a week in bed, some female company, and the injection of that cash into his bank account -- that was all he needed to be refreshed. Shaking his hands dry, he left the toilet and made his way back to the car.
Catherine stood with the boot open, staring into it with a trail of smoke drifting out from her right hand.
"Again?" he asked.
"Can you smell the roses?"
"Not through that thing," he said and pointed. "Did you put any gas in the car? I didn't check the gauge, but we're going to need some sooner or later."
"Good. Now stop looking at that thing, will you? It's not the first one you've seen." He climbed into the back seat of the car. It smelt of Catherine's cigarettes and perfume -- what was it called again? He lay across the seat, pillowed his head and closed his eyes.
Outside, the boot slammed shut.
The front door closed with a fresh burst of cigarette smoke, the Falcon's engine kicked over a moment later. Samuel heard Catherine murmur something, but he was too tired, his eyes wouldn't open; and then he was sleeping, drifting away on cigarette flavoured dreams.
Half an hour later, Catherine Hallowed sucked on her fifth cigarette and still tasted roses.
She had been stealing bodies for about four years now -- yes, four when it hit August 13th -- and in the entire time she had worked with Sam, who had introduced her to it when they had both been failing their Arts course in University. She had been out of work, looking for rent, and he said, 'Look, I know how to make good money ...' which was how she supposed everyone got involved with this sort of thing. But not once, in all their thefts -- which involved more bribery than actually digging up graves or breaking into mortuaries -- not in all that time, had she ever been this freaked out.
She sucked back on the cigarette: pure, unfiltered tobacco.
She breathed out: roses.
Sam's coat reeked of it, as did her hands and hair: fresh roses, exactly the same as the body in the boot.
Except it wasn't just a corpse, was it?
Catherine reached for the radio dial, trying to find a station. She desperately wanted something, anything, just one noise that wasn't the Doors. But no. There was a saint in the boot of the car and a man waiting for it in Melbourne and all she could smell was roses roses roses roses roses. The knob continued to turn, frantic beneath her fingers. It spun to the end of the dial, then back, then back again until she stopped.
Her hand shook. She placed it back on the steering wheel.
Catherine pulled the car over to the broken edge of the road, turned the engine off, and stepped out.
Sam didn't wake, but he could sleep through anything if he was tired enough, and he was sleeping through this. His pants still had mud stains from where they had stopped to collect the body. The operation had been another bribe: as the body was being shipped between the homes of its wealthy owner, the courier had pulled over at a truck stop just past the Queensland border, as had been arranged. The stop had been empty and the driver had driven into the muddy car park, stopped his truck and gone into the diner for a meal. Sam had pulled the Falcon up next to the truck. The pair of them had opened the back of the trailer and, as Sam lifted the body from the plain coffin, Catherine had wrapped a cloth around it. They jumped off the trailer, opened the boot to the Falcon, wedged the body in there and drove off. It took no more than five minutes: simple, routine, and the courier was still eating his dinner as they pulled away.
Catherine shook her head, continued around to the back of the car, where she opened the boot with her eyes closed.
Roses flooded over her.
No, not roses. Just the smell. There was no feel of petals brushing past her skin, and so Catherine took a shallow, testing breath before she opened her eyes: a body-shaped lump lay wrapped in a paint-stained drop cloth, next to the jack.
She reached into Sam's coat pocket, pulled out a cigarette, then her lighter.
How had this happened?
She didn't know. Money and Sam had gotten her to agree to it, but then she had never had a problem agreeing to it before. She had never had any problems before. She had stolen deformed babies, the right hand of Princess Diana, jars packed with lungs and hearts, and there had never been a problem. But this job? Catherine didn't know when it had changed, and didn't know why. She wasn't religious. Oh sure, she believed in God, but did she go to church? Had she ever read the Bible? Did it affect her daily life?
Not before today.
Cigarette hanging from her mouth, she tugged open the top of the cloth.
It unravelled easily: the face was that of a young Asian man, smiling up at her.
"I've got a real problem with this job, Sam, a real problem."
Samuel DeVenes lifted the top of his Fish Fillet and murmured, "You'd think they'd have vegetarian burgers, wouldn't you?"
"Right, right," he picked off the square piece of fish, dropped it to the side, and lay fries across the bread. He peered over it and watched Catherine slump in the corner of the booth, tearing chunks from her Big Mac, leaving them strewn across her tray. "So what's the problem?"
"The ..." she paused, looked around the McDonalds, empty at three in the morning, and then said, "The saint."
"Cat," he said, "it's not a real saint."
Catherine fiddled with her burger, shrunk into his coat and muttered, "I ... I dunno ... maybe ..."
"Look, that old bastard down in Melbourne showed us the tape, showed us the paper: it is not real. It's a freak. Like the two-headed kid we nicked from Hobart. And better yet: it's not a real freak. It's a fake freak."
"Yeah ... but ..."
He took a bite, asked, "But what?"
"I can't smell anything."
Catherine didn't say anything. Samuel took another bite from his burger, tried not to taste the salt and sauce, and watched her: head down, hair in front of her eyes, shoulders slumped, coat like a weight, her left hand rubbing a piece of bun between two fingers.
He took his third bite.
Catherine began shredding the lettuce.
A McDonalds employee, in his green and white uniform, walked past them pushing a yellow bucket. It rattled, the water slopping and the wheels squeaking, slap, squeak, slap until he shoved the toilet door open and disappeared.
Samuel said, "The money."
Catherine said nothing, her fingers shredding the lettuce faster.
"It's a side show freak --"
"I -- I don't --"
"It's not a saint. Saints are not real."
"There is a God, Sam."
"Since when did you decide that? And God, or no God, that's not the point here."
It was convincing for him, but Samuel didn't need convincing. He would happily hand over the body and take the money. He didn't believe in any God, didn't believe in anything that he couldn't touch or feel or see. But Catherine did believe, and that was the problem. "Are you sure you're not ... not ..."
"Not what, Sam?" She looked at him for the first time: her brown eyes were bloodshot, with dark circles underneath, and her lips were pressed tightly against each other.
"I don't know."
"I'm not sleeping well, yeah, I'm smoking all the time. But I haven't had a drink or anything else. I'm telling you that all I can smell is roses and I think that guy in our boot is a saint."
"I need to be convinced, Cat."
Samuel bit into his burger, said nothing.
He watched as Catherine looked down at her discarded Big Mac: the shredded lettuce, the little balls of bun, the torn meat. The sauces sat in globs on the wrapper.
Without looking up, she said, "Have you ever wondered what's done with ... with it? With any of them?"
"No," mouth full, he swallowed, "not really."
"Well ..." her voice trailed for a bit. "I have."
"I don't know. I've only been thinking recently, and what I can't ... can't understand is why any old rich guy would want the body of a fake saint. A fake saint, Sam, a fake. It just doesn't make any sense. But ... but a real saint, that makes sense to me."
Samuel was silent, staring at his burger.
"I mean, look at all the stuff we've got recently," Catherine continued. "Some holy water from the Pope, skin sampling from Mother Theresa. I've heard some of the others talk about the things they've picked up, and it gets me thinking. You've seen this guy, and he's old. Old and chained to a respirator."
"So naturally you think he thinks the body of a fake saint will make him young?"
"Not fake. Real. That's what it is to him and to ...well, to ... but yes, that's what I think he thinks."
Samuel forced half a smile, though it was painful for him to hear her talk like this. "This guy just collects things, Cat. Like comics and football cards. The difference is that this guy has more money than we do, so he can collect odder, more esoteric things. Anything else is just ridiculous."
"But what ... what if?"
Samuel was silent, staring at his burger. He really did hate this stuff, but he didn't want to look back up at her. There was something in her face, a look, a want, and when he did look up, it was still there. She was waiting for an answer he would not be able to give. "Maybe we should find a place for the night."
"A place -- you know, a motel."
"But -- but why?"
"To think," Samuel told her, dropping the remains of his burger. "And to get some sleep. I think that's what both of us need."
"And what ... what about --"
"There's no easy answer for that, Cat."
For the next half an hour, Samuel drove in silence. He hadn't known what to do then and still didn't know what to do now, as he turned into the squat, run-down motel. A sign read V C NCIES. The only light came from the front of the building. Still without knowing if it was the right thing to be doing, Samuel parked the Falcon outside and walked up to the door. It opened slightly, but was chained by three chains on the inside.
Samuel rattled on it loudly until a short, stocky man in a blue tracksuit appeared. With one eye and half of his mouth pressed against the opening, he said, "Yeah?"
"I'd like a room," Samuel said.
"Double or single?"
The man grunted, quoted him a price and waited. Samuel pulled out his wallet and counted the money, then paused and said, "There's a telephone in this room, right?"
"You want a telephone?"
"Yeah, I do."
"That'll be twenty dollars extra."
"Can I get bottle of Jack Daniels from you?"
The man sniffed, then nodded. "Thirty."
Samuel handed over the money, then waited for the man to return. He passed a key through the door and a half bottle of Jack Daniels, the kind that did not cost thirty dollars. Samuel made to say something, but the door had already been pushed shut.
He sighed, then walked back to the car and Cat, and drove around to the back of the parking lot, where the pair of them made their way to the room. Despite the fact that they had not spoken since leaving the McDonalds, Samuel was prepared for the conversation to resume when they entered the room. But when he closed the door, he turned around to find Catherine crawling into one of the beds, murmuring to herself so softly that he couldn't understand her. She put her head on the pillow and fell asleep.
He realized right then how big an issue the body was for her. The knowledge slowly seeped into him as he stood at the foot of her bed, holding the Jack Daniels tightly in his hand.
"Nothing's ever easy," he muttered, then pulled the blanket off his bed, dropping it over her.
Setting the bottle down, Samuel began searching the small room for a telephone. He found it on the bedside table and, when he picked up the receiver, found it dead. Following the cord, he discovered that the socket had been ripped out. Holding it in his hands, Samuel sank against the wall and tried to think.
He tried. He thought about the saint, about Catherine, about the money, but the thoughts slipped through his fingers.
Dropping the cord, he reached up to the table, searching with his hand to find the Jack Daniels. He was at a complete loss now. At the door, he had decided on a simple plan: call the boss, get him to send someone up for the corpse, then take Cat back to her apartment and to Nathan, who could look after her better than he ever could. It had been a good plan. It was still a good plan. All he had to do was open the door and ask for a new room, or to use the telephone. He could even head out across the road to the pay phone he had seen when they had driven in. It might work. All he had to do was stand.
He cracked the seal on the Jack Daniels.
There was always a but. He had been ignoring it, but it had always been there. That annoying, nagging but. But what if Catherine didn't want to hand over the body?
It was a terrible thought. They had a contract to honour, and not doing so would mean that their days in the profession would be over; and while that wasn't such a great loss -- there was no glamour in body snatching -- Samuel didn't relish the idea of turning to a nine-to-five job to support himself. He not only had no work experience for anything besides body snatching (a dubious resume listing at best), he also doubted that he would ever see as much money as he was currently making.
Then there was the boss. Samuel rather doubted they would be allowed to just walk away after not delivering his body. Or saint. Whatever.
He took a shot from the Jack Daniels.
There was no flash of inspiration, no surge of answers.
He took a second shot and continued to think about it.
Around five in the morning, Samuel stumbled out of the motel room, down the stairs, then across the motel parking lot. He paused at the corner of the road with his almost empty bottle of Jack Daniels clutched tightly in his hand. He stared down the road with his blinking, blurring eyes: a pair of headlights funneled into view, a car following by in a shunt of cold wind. Nothing followed and Samuel jogged across to the other side.
The public phone was lit brightly through the kicked out glass panels. Samuel slipped in, put his Jack Daniels on the floor next to his feet, pulled out a handful of loose change and inserted it.
The number he had was private, to be used only in emergencies.
It rang once, then was picked up.
"Huh? Oh, sorry, no, not the boss ... Katz ...
"Yeah, it's me, Samuel ...
"Drunk ...? Well, no. Just. Slightly. It's the whisky ... no, no ...
"Well maybe. Yeah, there's a problem. I can admit to it ...
"No. No. We have the body. It's ... it's ... look, is that thing for real? I mean, I know the boss said it isn't, and I know this sounds weird and all -- and bear in mind that I don't think it's a saint because there ain't no such thing -- but this shit is happening and I --
"You explained it to us, yeah. Yeah ... yeah, yeah, no Asian saints. I remember ... the Pope doesn't ordain ... Channel Nine and A Current Affair ... oh, no, sorry, I'm not making fun of you, it's just ...
"Cat thinks it's real.
"I won't ditch her, no way! No! Why? Look ...
"... send someone?
"I still get paid, right?
"Forty percent ... I'm like thirty minutes from Albury.
"No. I suppose I can't go on ...
"Yeah, yeah. Motel ... no, it's got no name. Can't miss it...
The phone was hung up from the other end.
Samuel hummed to himself as he dropped the receiver. He wasn't sure if he had made the right decision, but the problem wasn't his now. He was casting away all his problems. Someone else was coming for the body, and when they took it, then it wouldn't be his problem. And Catherine would be okay, he told himself over and over again. Cat would be fine. Right? Cat would be dandy. Yes? Cat would be not be hurt.
Picking up his Jack Daniels, Samuel crossed back over the road.
On the horizon the morning ate away at the night, a dull, flat orange light falling across the parking lot. The railings outside the motel rooms had a damp sheen to them, as did the four cars parked outside. Gravel crunching beneath his feet, Samuel took another drink and made his way up the stairs to his room.
The bottle was almost empty. Almost -- one mouthful and that was it.
Samuel fumbled at the door, then shouldered it open. Catherine was still asleep. Everything looked good. He found the other bed -- it had moved slightly -- and lay on his back. Everything was good. He would close his eyes for just one moment, just one, before whoever was coming arrived for the body and took it out of his life, along with all of his problems.
Catherine woke up to the sound of Sam snoring in the bed next to her, a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor beside him. It wasn't an unfamiliar sight. When Sam had something that bothered him, and which he needed to sit down and think about, he would drink. More often than not, any decision made was changed when he woke up, but the process seemed to help him, so Catherine had never seen it as a problem. It also showed that she wasn't the only one affected by the body in the boot, and the relief she felt from that was enough to lift her out of her depressed state, enough for her to think that she should get out of the bed and have a shower.
She took a deep breath and got out of bed.
Roses. She could still smell roses, like faded air freshener.
On a scale of bad to worse, this wasn't as bad as before. In the McDonalds she had smelt roses and tasted soggy petals as she had tried to eat. It had been so bad that at one stage she had thought that the flowers must have been hidden somewhere inside the burger and fries. But they hadn't. She had pulled the burger apart in a quiet, yet frantic search and, with each piece she ripped off, Catherine could almost feel her mind unravel like silken cloth, slipping smoothly through her fingers to collect on the floor.
This morning -- around ten -- the smell wasn't nearly as bad as that.
She went into the small bathroom. There was scum around the edges of the shower, mould on the white tiles, and the soap still had the previous owner's hair on it. Catherine had never seen a shower quite as bad, but the water was warm and cut through her filth.
It was beautiful.
It was refreshing.
It felt so --
The water smelt.
Catherine took a deep breath: soggy, wet, the smell was definitely roses. Coming down the spray, in the soap ... she took another breath and it clung to the back of her throat ... her fingers ... the towel as she frantically jumped from the stall and grabbed it. Her clothes as she pulled them on, the door knob as she grabbed it, Sam's coat, her cigarette packet, her lighter --
Sucking deep into the back of her throat: the barest hint of nicotine.
Tears seeped from the corners of her closed eyes. Would it never go away? Would she never be free of the smell and the saint? She was taking the body to the old man and, sitting in his wicker chair with his respirator in easy reach, he would gladly take it. He would smile and pay them. He would make small talk, asking how Nathan was, and if she was investing her money wisely. Then he would be wheeled back into his mansion and Catherine would be left outside with the taste of roses in the back of her throat.
Oh, God ... Catherine shuddered, sucked on her cigarette furiously. She had never realized how much different smells meant to her. Never had she thought of just how important they were. Never had she ever considered that she might be left with one and only one smell for the rest of her life.
She wanted to pray, but did she have the right? Would it help?
Catherine dumped Sam's coat on his bed, then reached over and shook him. Her hand was shaking, and was still shaking when he grunted and rolled over, his eyes cracking open.
She said, "We've got to ditch the body."
Sam lay on the bed in silence, staring up at her.
"I heard," he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut.
"Well?" Catherine looked around the room for the car keys, spotted them on the dressing table. "Are you coming?"
"We don't need to."
She stopped. Please Sam, no ... "What did you do?"
"I called the boss last night," He pushed himself into a sitting position. "Got his assistant. Man, my head hurts."
"Calm down, Cat. She said she was going to send someone to pick up the body, all we had to do was wait --"
Catherine ran over to the window, yanked back the blinds: an off white coloured van was pulling into the parking lot. Catherine knew that van, had seen it countless times when she had been delivering goods to the old man's place.
She turned and, in a run, grabbed the car keys and threw open the door. Did Sam call to her? She ignored him, ignored everything but the steps that she took and the railing that she vaulted when she was half way down.
The gravel scattered beneath her sneakers as she landed, and she fell, grazing her left arm. Her cigarette lay in the gravel next to her, smoldering.
The van was reversing six or seven slots down from the Falcon, where there were no other cars. The perfect place, she guessed, to swap a body.
The driver -- a big Indian man wearing a white turban, whose name was Hussien -- paused in his reversing for a moment to wave at her, then pointed to the spot next to him, indicating that she should move the Falcon there. Catherine pulled herself up, managed to smile and wave back as she ground out her cigarette. Slowly, she made her way to the car.
Take it easy.
Easy. They think you're moving the car next to their van.
Easy. Don't run. Open the door. Careful now, careful ...
Catherine slid into the driver's seat, put the key in, closed the door, locked it, then started the engine. Taking a deep breath -- roses roses roses roses roses roses -- she put the car into reverse ... then spun out of her spot, dropped it into first, then second as she tore out of the motel lot, spraying gravel as she went past the shocked face of the second man getting out of the van: a skinny black man by the name of Norman.
Samuel called out to Cat as she left the room, keys in hand, but she didn't answer. His head swam as he tried to get up: the lamp and telephone lurched with his stomach and he fell back onto the bed, where he remained. What had he done? He had rung the boss, well, the boss's assistant. People were coming for the body, yes, that was right. They would still get paid. It seemed good to him. But. And there was that 'but' again. But but but but but but.
Then: You fuckwit, Samuel DeVenes, you've just sold out your friend.
Out in the parking lot, he heard the car tear away.
Catherine pushed the Falcon up to a hundred and twenty and let it sit there as she drove along the Hume Highway, retracing the stretches she had covered last night with Sam. Not that she could remember driving them. Everything had been roses, roses everywhere, just like now. She reached into her pocket for a cigarette ... only to find that they weren't there.
They had been in the coat.
She had left the coat with Sam.
Catherine took a breath: roses.
The first chance I get, I'm pulling over to get some smokes.
It was a ridiculous idea: Norman and Hussien would be following. She didn't have time to stop. But driving for any prolonged time without cigarettes, with only the smell of roses to keep her company, that was a terrible prospect. She had to have cigarettes. She had to.
Then? Catherine shook her head. She didn't know. Perhaps she should take the body back to where they had stolen it? No. But if that wasn't the answer, then what? Where could she hide a saint and make sure that no one found it?
Samuel continued to lie on the bed as people entered the room. He didn't see them, as he was staring up at the ceiling feeling sorry for himself, but he heard them as they moved things around before creaking across the room to him. He didn't care. It was all his fault. Why had he called the boss? It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, but when he thought about it now, he couldn't find one reason why. Sober, he would have known Cat wouldn't go for it.
But he had been drunk.
On his right, Norman's skinny, acne-scarred face appeared above him; on the left, Hussien's fat bearded one appeared. Samuel managed a weak, hungover smile. "Hi, guys. Nice to see you."
"Where has your partner gone?" Norman asked.
"I don't know."
"That's a problem."
"So it is."
"I gather the body is still in the car?"
"Unless you see it in here."
Norman shook his head, angry and disgusted, then disappeared from his view. Hussien tilted his face in Norman's direction. "What are we going to do with him?"
"We'll chase the girl, and we'll take him with us."
"He's been drinking. I can smell it."
"He better not puke."
Norman grunted. "Come on, Sammy, get up."
Hussien's face tilted down. "You better not puke."
Samuel pushed himself into a sitting position, forcing Hussien to step away. His head spun again, tilting things. How could he have been so stupid? How? Money? Had money made him this stupid? Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid --
"Get up," Norman ordered, kicking the bed.
Something strange was happening to Catherine: with the windows rolled down to give her gusts of fresh air that she drank from, she realized that the odour of roses was fading. It had clung to the back of her throat at first, but after ten minutes of fresh air and driving away from Melbourne, she could smell the stale reek of her cigarettes: in the car and on her clothes. She was amazed. It had been years since she had been able to smell her own cigarettes on her, but there it was: wonderful, delightful, beautiful.
She was doing the right thing. She was certain of that now. But where was she going? It was like Sam said, there was always a 'but', and her but was that she did not know where she was going. Or what she should do. Should she burn it? Bury it? Sell it? What? She had no idea, but there was, she realized suddenly, no need for her to pull over ...
Except at that moment, Catherine Hallow noticed the needle was resting on E.
Samuel slumped miserably in the back of the van, wrapped in his trenchcoat and with a horrible knot of guilt forming in his stomach. In the passenger seat, Norman sat with a pistol in his lap, freshly loaded and with the safety off. Samuel had already been threatened by it -- "One wrong word, one wrong move ..." -- and he was certain that if Catherine didn't hand over the body -- saint -- straight away, Norman wouldn't hesitate to take it from her, using whatever force he thought necessary.
It was his fault.
He was so stupid, so fucking, asshole stupid. His head thudded against the seat. If he could just ...
Just what? Just nothing. There was not one thing he could do, not now.
"There! Hussien, to your left! She's stopped at that service station!"
Samuel's stomach knotted as Hussien flipped the blinker, then turned into the station. He heard Norman check his pistol again, then heard him say, "We don't want to kill her."
"No. We want to keep this quiet."
"There's no one around."
"Inside the station there will be. Besides which, we haven't been paid to kill her."
"I don't think she's just going to hand it over."
"Yeah." Norman grunted, was silent for a moment, then said, "You got your gun?"
"Of course. How are you going to handle this?"
In the back, Samuel let out a slow breath, tried to loosen the knot of tension in his stomach, and said, "Why -- why don't you guys let me speak to her?"
The seat squeaked. Samuel didn't look up. He stared at the back doors of the van and held his breath, breaking it as something struck him sharply on his skull. Looking up, he saw Norman leaning over the seat, his pistol held in his right hand. "I'm not letting you out of the van, you got that?"
Samuel nodded slowly.
Norman turned away as the van hit a bump.
"She's at the register," Samuel heard Hussien point out as the van slowed down, then stopped. "Maybe we should make a grab for the body now, while she's busy?"
"Good idea," Norman replied. A moment later, one of the doors opened.
Samuel eased himself up, twisted around to lean on the back of the seat. Hussien glanced at him, almost said something, then changed his mind and went back to watching Norman walk across to the Falcon. Samuel could see Catherine at the register, surrounded by cartons of food and magazines. The attendant was reaching up for cigarettes and matches. He saw the two packages come down. Catherine was the only customer in the station -- the only car, the only patron -- and neither she nor the attendant looked at the skinny black man opening the Falcon's driver door, popping the boot, then making his way around to it.
"This is going to be simple," Hussien muttered.
He was right. Norman was at the boot, hands dug inside. When Cat returned to the Falcon, she would find the boot empty, and see the van driving away. Even if she did think of following, she would realize that she would not be able to take the body back from Norman and Hussien. Samuel felt something close to relief.
Over at the car, Norman straightened, rubbing his back.
What now? The thing isn't heavy. I lifted it out of that casket by myself.
Bending back over, Samuel watched Norman strain, heaving at the cloth-bound figure before letting go and turning around -- straight into the angry face of Catherine Hallow. Samuel swore under his breath. Hussien did the same. So intent were they on watching Norman try to pull the body out, that neither of them had seen her emerge from the service station. Now all they could do was watch: Catherine pushed Norman away; Norman stepped back, put his hand into his belt, stepped forward, and snapped his hand up; pistol whip; Samuel's hands dug into the back of the leather seat, wanting to help her, wanting to jump out; Catherine clutched at her face, stumbled back; Norman stepped forward again, slashed across her face with the gun; no no no; Samuel's body tensed, guilt-knotted, he was going to be sick; Norman slammed his fist into her stomach, and Catherine slumped to the ground as Norman turned to the van, waving over Hussien.
"Don't you move," muttered Hussien, holding his gun in his left hand and pointed at Sam as he opened the door. "What's the problem?"
"The thing is wedged in tight. Come give me a hand!"
"Yeah," Hussien turned his head to Samuel. "Remember what I --"
Samuel dived over the back of the leather seat, plowing straight into Hussien. The pistol clattered to the pavement and both men followed, hitting hard. Samuel started hitting the other man, his punches only half connecting. Hussien struggled beneath him, then Samuel felt his shirt grabbed. His head reeled backwards, caught in a sudden burst of pain as Hussien's own head impacted once, then twice against him. He tumbled, falling to his back on the ground.
Next to Hussien's pistol.
He didn't pause, didn't think.
The pistol came up in Samuel's right hand, and he fired: the back of Hussien's head burst open and he crumpled to the ground.
Silence, long and drawn out. Samuel took a deep breath --
A shot came across the pavement, biting into the meaty part of his left calf. "Fuck -- fuck -- fuck --" he scrambled up as Norman stalked across the service station, pistol extended and bullets cracking into the door and windshield. Samuel turned and dived into the front of the van where, among the broken glass, he flattened himself.
There was silence.
Samuel squirmed around, slithered to the other door, paused by it.
Which way is he coming? Which way? Surely he won't come in the way I came? He'll go to another door, not this door that I'm at--pausing, Samuel strained to hear a sound: a footstep, the crunch of glass: but all he could hear was the quiet squeak of the door he had come through, not quite closed, swaying swaying swaying ...
Norman stood there, his gun pointed straight.
They both fired.
From her position by the Falcon, Catherine heard the gunfire. Groggy, confused, she pushed herself up to watch Norman crumple silently to the ground. More silence followed.
Quietly, carefully, Catherine began walking over to the van. The windows and windshield were shot out, and bullet holes riddled the driver's door; both Hussien's and Norman's bodies lay on the ground, blood pooling around them. One step, two --she made herself keep walking towards the van. Her face hurt, her stomach ached, and she was afraid. So afraid.
God. God. God. Please God no.
Her hand caught the driver's door by the edge and, stepping over Norman's body, she eased her head around: Sam lay on his back in the van's front seat, pressed up against the passenger door, glass around him. A gun lay on the floor amidst more glass, the grip bloodied. She couldn't tell if he was breathing or not, and he looked so still ...
Catherine felt her breath catch as she said, "Sam?"
"Cat," he muttered from across the van, "I've been shot."
"Are ... are you ..."
"I've been shot. It hurts, Cat. It hurts."
"I've been shot. It hurts. My arm. My leg. Help me out." He pushed himself up with his left arm, holding the other tightly to his chest.
Catherine ran around the van, opening the passenger door. "You're an idiot," she said, helping him out, watching as he winced. "You're in shock, you know that? You shouldn't be walking around like this. Why'd you go and do that?"
"I shouldn't have. I know that."
She didn't smile. She was relieved that he was still alive, more relieved than she thought possible, but ... always a 'but', even now. "We still have to get rid of the saint."
"Before or after the police arrive?" Sam began limping over to the car. After two steps, he fell.
Catherine rushed to him.
With his face pressed on the ground, he whispered, "Why can't I walk? Why am I on the ground?"
Pulling him up, dragging him for most of the way, Catherine slumped him against the front of the van. Looking into his face, she said, "You're going into shock."
He blinked. "That body ..."
"I'm going to burn it," she said.
Sam didn't say anything, just nodded. Catherine straightened, took two steps backwards, then, knowing that she didn't have a choice, ran over to the Falcon. At the boot, she paused and looked around: inside the station, a blond head was poking out, but otherwise it was still empty. But for how long?
Inside the boot, the saint lay with its head unwrapped, smiling up at her.
Reaching over to the gas pump, she started pouring: petrol sloshed over his face, over the jack, pooled in the corners.
Putting the pump back, Catherine took a deep breath and fingered the box of matches in her pocket. The decision had come so suddenly. Was it the right one? Had the fact that she bought the matches been a sign that the idea was in the back of her mind? Had she known? Had something known that this was going to happen? The answers were too big for her right now, and she returned to the immediate one: burning the saint. Was it right? Sam needed a doctor and she wasn't in the best of shape ... but was burning it the right thing? Would it rid her of that final taint of roses?
Looking over her shoulder, she saw Sam.
There was no choice. She grabbed a match, struck it, then dropped it on the gasoline-covered saint.
Nothing. The flame flickered once in the fluid, then went out.
Catherine felt all her fears suddenly rush back. It wasn't the right thing! It should have caught alight! Why didn't it? It had to. She couldn't smell roses, but how long until that changed? What if she never got rid of the saint? What if she was stuck with it forever ...? What if?
Fumbling another match out, she scrapped it against the matchbox and held it for a moment about the boot. "Please," she whispered at the saint, desperate, down to her last hope, "Please, just ... just ..."
She dropped the match.
It flickered, fluttered, and slowly, carefully, as if guided, the gasoline caught fire.
In the background, sirens sounded. Not one, not two, but a whole storm of flash and sound. It didn't matter. Flames leapt from inside the boot, the fire contained entirely to the body of the saint.
And slowly, feeling more tired than she had ever felt, Catherine made her way back to where Sam sat. Without a word, she sat down next to him and, taking his good hand into hers, she waited.
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