Rain sputtered like grease on asphalt still hot from the July Texas day. The black ribbon with the double-yellow line wound out, a miasma of blinks and blurs from the downpour.
It was five till midnight.
He drove, the wipers doing their clack-squeak-clack, saying Oh, I know. Oh, I know, over and over. The last digit on the clock changing from “5” to “6” caught his eye. He pressed hard on the gas.
Oh, I know.
The tires hit a puddle deep and wide enough to drown a horse. Water striking the undercarriage sounded like the car had vomited, and for a moment he lost control of the wheel. Then the rubber bit shallow tar, and the big Buick shuddered back into line.
They were dead, in three minutes.
Oh, I know.
He wished he’d never brought them to Texas, never went to work for that company. He should have listened to his gut.
The road bent, headlights glaring off a guardrail he clipped with the front fender, metal wet and screeching like a dying hawk as he wrestled the old Buick around the sodden curve. One headlight lost, making him feel he’d gone half-blind, the glares off the asphalt even more confusing as the rain pounded harder.
Oh, I know.
The road straightened. The yellow of the lone headlight pinned the building like a spotlight center stage.
He did not let off the gas till he was almost on top of the parking lot, then he slammed the brakes like he was trying to stop the car with his foot through the floor. The Buick rattled and fishtailed, brakes shrieking as the tires chomped over the gravel in the lot.
The car still rocked as he flung open the door and leaped out, then stood in the pelting storm, staring at the green building that had once been some kind of shop. The structure’s color in the car’s headlight was key lime, if the pie had been left out to rot. All the windows showed broken jags like teeth never tended. Spray-painted sentiments like “Fuck Lanie” and “I eat at Josies thighs” covered the structure. Fragments of broken bottles—Lone Star beer and Wild Turkey whisky, mostly—outnumbered the chunks of gravel in the lot.
“Well, there he is.”
A man with a mullet came from behind the building. Another man, shaped and sized like Lennie Small, followed behind. Their hair was plastered to their heads from the unrelenting deluge.
Mullet had spoken.
“Just made it, din’cha?” Mullet said now, spitting tobacco at the gravel like it had insulted him. He grinned. His teeth were yellow, except for his left central incisor, which was black.
“Where are they?”
Mullet held out a hand. “Now, now, don’cha worry—the wife and kiddies are jus’ fine.” He held up his arm and looked at his watch with a dramatic sweep, as if he were acting in an old silent film. “Cause you made it.”
“Let me see them.” He started forward.
Mullet frowned, and Lennie behind him hulked forward a couple of steps. Mullet reached behind his back and pulled forth a Glock 17, waved it.
He stopped. The rain soaked through his overcoat, suit, shirt, undershirt. Thunder cracked, and lightning lit his severe face a moment.
“Pretty uppity for a whistle-blower, ain’cha?” Mullet inquired. “You’re a’ready in enough trouble, so stay put ‘fore I lose my friendly mood.” He glanced to his side. “Barky, get ‘em.”
Barky—Lennie—turned and lumbered towards the rear of the falling-down building and was lost from sight.
He stared at Mullet. Mullet stared back. Water dripped from their brows.
“Look, cuz,” Mullet said, “I ain’t got nothin’ against you.” He flicked the barrel of the Glock around. “But the bosses say you gonna spill the beans, well, that’s when they call me and Barky ta fix a problem.”
“You took my family from me.”
Mullet scrunched his lips in a twisted grin and laughed. “What’d’ya think was gonna happen? You threaten ta let loose papers I unnerstan’ could make the bosses unhappy, they gonna do somethin’ about it.”
He opened his mouth to speak, then felt his face heat.
“Someone had to speak up. They are poisoning the water table.”
Mullet shrugged. “Drink Dasani.”
Barky shambled back into view, dragging a woman in one big paw, the wrists of a young boy and a girl gathered in the other. The children were crying. The woman saw him.
“Oh!” she cried, and tried to rush to him.
Barky’s tree-limb brows frowned into each other. He shoved her to the ground.
“Leave her alone.” The heat spread downward to his neck. Not now. Oh, not now.
Mullet ignored him, grinned at Barky.
“Don’cha move,” Barky ordered the woman.
She ignored him and tried to gain her feet, reached for her children with one arm—“My babies!”—and her husband with the other.
Lightning fizzed the air, spotlighting to center stage Barky’s hard slap to the woman’s face.
“Stop!” he yelled, starting forward.
The heat flowed down his torso like quicksilver on glass.
Mullet raised the Glock and fired.
The gravel at his feet spat where the round struck.
“Now, din’t I tell you ta stay put?” Mullet said. “We want all of us out of this, you gotta stay put, ‘fore the next one goes higher, like your gut.” He smiled his yellow-and-black smile. “Now where’d’ya put the papers?”
He looked back to the car. “Briefcase.”
“Keep an eye, Barky,” Mullet muttered. Barky nodded and Mullet went to the car, opened the passenger door, pulled out a slim fake-leather attaché. He pulled the zipper, peered inside.
“This don’t mean nothin’ ta me,” he said, coming back into the headlight, a sheaf of papers in his fist.
“It’s what you asked for.”
“Hell, we told you, no askin’ about it,” Mullet cackled. “But this’s it?”
“Give it to your bosses. And now, hold up your end of the deal and give me my family.”
Mullet pursed his lips and scratched his cheek with the Glock’s barrel as the rain sizzled around them. He looked back at the woman.
“Well now, we can do that,” Mullet said. He leered at the woman. “Or we can have a little fun first.” He leaned an inch towards the man in the overcoat, as if to tell a secret. “Your wife, she’s a piece, she is.”
The heat tingled in his arms and legs.
“So I tell you what,” Mullet went on. “Me and Barky, we gonna have some fun with the missus ‘fore we give her back. And guess what? You get ta watch.”
Mullet unzipped his pants. Barky laughed, high-pitched, like a five-year-old girl, and undid his as well. Both men were hard. Barky reached down for the woman, took a fistful of her hair.
The heat exploded in his belly and flashed outward to every part of his body. The rain did not soak any longer; the droplets hissed and crackled on his skin like water splashed onto a hot skillet.
“No,” he said.
An instant later both Mullet and Barky lay on the ground. The looks on their faces suggested they had been asked to solve a complex mathematical formula, and could not.
A hole had appeared in their torsos where their hearts had been, front to back. The edges of the holes were blackened like Texas barbeque left on the grill. Rain hissed and steam rose. He could see the gravel of the parking lot through the holes.
His children gaped, then crawled forward and began feeding on the corpses.
His wife rushed to him, and he took her in his arms.
The heat cooled. The rain soaked once more.
But she was safe. They were safe.
“We have to move again,” he said.
“Oh, I know,” she murmured, her head against his chest.
* * *