Sam Harkins’ breath punctuated his steps with misty clouds as he power-walked past boarded storefronts in downtown Seattle. The bank sign nagged “Jan. 15, 2016, 7:36 a.m.”
Late and still ten blocks to go. His pace quickened to a jog as he jammed his hands into his Vietnam-era flight jacket. He knew he shouldn’t have stayed up to watch The Sting again for the twentieth time—but he loved it so: the music, the thirties and the great actors—Redford and Newman and his favorite, Robert Shaw. Dodging a bike messenger, Sam crossed against the light, his mind occupied with grandiose plans that would all fall into place like the orchestrated steps of an elaborate sting if he got the job. Right now, that was a capital “IF.”
A cold chill ran down Sam’s spine when he spotted, Penalso, a wiry Tex-Mex boldly selling shit through car windows like a drive-up espresso stand. Sam ducked behind a Metro bus and waited, but just for a moment. He didn’t have time to deal with that asshole, not this morning. How the fuck did he find me? He must have followed me from Austin. But why?
Sam felt like an idiot believing he could catch a break, but he was not all that surprised at Penalso’s pit-bull tenacity. When Sam lost his job as a computer tech, he understood it wouldn’t be long before he would be pulled back to rejoin the gang’s sullen ranks—like a hungry dog follows along behind a pack of strays. His job interview in California might be his last chance to keep from getting entangled. Sam kept his head down and headed for the diner at the end of the block.
“Sammie boy!” Penalso shouted.
Shit. Sam didn’t turn to look or change his pace. He jaywalked across 6th Avenue, breaking into a full run once he was out of sight. Dealing with someone like Penalso was like stumbling upon a rabid Doberman. Unless you were packing a 9 mm with a full clip and one in the chamber, you walked away slowly until you had a chance to run like hell. While Penalso himself was not that dangerous, he had a tendency to cut his way out of tough situations with a hooked carpet knife. Sam had only his wits to defend himself. Sure, he had a few moves, learned the hard way—behind bars back in Texas, but he usually tried to avoid the rough stuff. As for his wits, he had twice as many as Penalso: most folks did.
When Sam reached the diner, he looked through the window at the clock—his breath fogging the glass. 7:40. He wasn’t sure if he had time to go in. At least I’ve got to say good-bye.
Inside, he was greeted by the usual breakfast smells of coffee, bacon and burnt toast. He took one of the red-topped seats, and only Doris, his mom, looked up. Wiping wet hands on her apron, she looked like she’d had a tough morning.
“Morning, Sam. You’re a bit late. You’d better watch the time.” She poured him a cup of coffee.
“Hey, Mom.” He put his pack down at his feet. “I know. The concierge didn’t wake me and draw my bath.” She doesn’t need to know about Penalso.
“Don’t be smart with me, Samuel,” Doris chided with a thin smile and a raised eyebrow.
“I just came to say good-bye. I don’t have time—”
“Sit. You have time for a hot meal…the bus station’s just around the corner.”
He rechecked the clock. For a moment, it looked like the hands were moving in double-time. Nearly 7:42.
“Your usual, Sam? I can ask José to rush it.”
Sam glanced up again. 7:43 “Yeah. I guess . . . if it’s fast—make it to go.”
“Sure, hon,” she said, turning to the order window and placing the order in gringo Spanish.
An unintelligible reply came from the kitchen.
“I’ll make sure your eggs are done this time,” she said with a wink.
Sam was impressed with her Spanish. Ironically, it was getting better since they had come up from Texas, thanks to the undocumented cook.
“Gracias.” Sam dug in his jacket pocket and pulled out a month-old breath mint (he ate it), a red USB memory stick, his bus ticket and a crumpled schedule. Asking casually, “Have you seen Francine this morning?” he pushed the stick deep into his pocket and scanned the booths in the mirrored wall.
“It’s a bit early for her.”
Sam returned his attention to the schedule. For motives Sam didn’t understand, his absentee dad had arranged an interview with his new company in California. He suspected it was just another attempt to screw with his mom. Yes, it was a long way, but Sam looked forward to getting out of this cold, damp city that seemed to be dragging him down into the sewers, along with the brown leaves and endless rain. And now that Penalso had found him, he had another reason to skip.
“Today’s the big day.” Doris refreshed his coffee.
Sam heard the worry in her voice. She had been supportive ever since he was laid off—but he knew she was afraid he would never find another job and end up with the likes of Penalso. She might be right on both counts.
He looked up. 7:45. “Yeah, if I make the eight o’clock bus.” Is that clock right?
“Then we need to get you fed. ¿José, los huveos?”
All Sam could do was wait, and worry, and watch out the window for Penalso—and Francine. And now, the erratic hands on the old clock made it seem like time was moving at half-normal speed. He swallowed another slug of Doris’s simply awful coffee, the cup rattling against the saucer.
Watching people come and go in the mirror, Sam admired a young redhead taking one of the stools. Cute. Have I seen her before? She ignored him, like most of the women his age. A couple of strangers came in and went to the back table where Mr. Zeitnehmer had set up his office. The couple quickly exchanged cash for something handed back in an envelope and settled into a booth. Whatever he’s selling seems to be popular. Some kind of stock deal? Discount tour tickets? Exotic drugs? Mom sure didn’t care. Mr. Zeitnehmer brought in a lot of hungry breakfast customers, and Sam knew the diner sure needed the money.
The cop sitting further down the counter didn’t seem to notice or care. Sam turned briefly toward the windows to see if Penalso was hanging around outside. There was no sign of him, but he noticed that the cop was studying him—he probably knew about Sam’s run-in with the for-profit judicial system back in Texas. Maybe everyone did, as if he were wearing a “Convicted Felon” tattoo on his forehead.
Doris refilled his cup. “You weren’t up all night again watching TCM, were you?”
“No choice. I had stuff to finish.” Like “The Sting” and “The Untouchables.”
“Did you finally get Mrs. Carpintero’s computer fixed?”
“Yeah…yes, ma’am. She had a blown memory stick. I told her she needed a UPS.”
“A UPS package?”
“An uninterruptible power supply, Mom—UPS, a power line conditioner.” He slowly shook his head.
“Oh. What about the other stuff?”
“You mean the malware? That’s her own fault. She and her son wade through the Internet as if it were an elementary schoolyard. The websites she browses are more like gator swamps in Cambodian minefields.”
Sam heard the clock hands snap forward as cold air pushed up his pants legs. 7:44. Geez.
Glancing up, Sam saw a striking brunette come in wearing a short wrap dress over black tights. Francine. Finally. Sam swiveled around and tried to catch her eye. As usual, she didn’t look up. Eyes down with thumbs tapping away at her fancy phone, she found her way toward the booths near the window. Sam’s stomach tightened. Lately, his nocturnal fantasies had featured her in long moonlight walks followed by intimate snuggling and slow, passionate sex. But he hadn’t mustered enough courage to ask her out. And now he was leaving. It was too late. Say something!
“Hiya, Fanny.” The smartass in the back had beat Sam to the punch. “Care to join me?” He offered his table with a flourishing gesture and a leer.
The look she gave him would freeze a Hawaiian volcano in full eruption. “It’s Miss Dancing, to the likes of you.” She took her seat with her back to the boor—but facing Sam.
“You’ll succumb eventually to my charms, darlin’” The interloper slumped back into hiding.
“He must have learned a new word,” Sam mused under his breath. This sleazeball reminded him of the owner of the down-and-out bar in Flashdance, who constantly hit on the pretty, topless dancers. Sam dreaded Francine having to settle for the likes of that creep, and he regretted the way his life was playing out. Perhaps when I get back. If I come back.
Sam knew he wasn’t leaving much behind—just his mom and a tiny two-room apartment. They both really needed and wanted each other to succeed on their own—even though they had been living on their combined incomes for some time—not to mention the symbiotic moral support. Of course, there was the remote prospect of Francine, but he knew no girl would even consider going out with a boy still living with his mom. He caught Francine giving him a passing glance over her menu.
“Here ya go, hon. Eat it while it’s hot.” Doris handed Sam a brown paper bag with spots of grease bleeding through the sides.
“Thanks, Mom.” He checked the clock. 7:52 Shit.
“Good luck. Do you have everything? Clean underwea—”
“Mom! I’ve got it covered.” His cheeks turned pink as he tucked the sack under his arm like a football. Sam wished she would stop treating him as if he were five and off to his first day of kindergarten.
“You know, I love you.” She smiled—her eyes, brimming with tears, said she would miss him.
“I love you too.” He reached over the counter and gave her a one-armed hug, kissing her on the cheek. “It’s only for a week or so. I’ll call you.” He lied on both counts.
Sam turned to steal one last longing glance at Francine. She looked up, as he made a break for the door. Her lips said nothing, but her eyes told him everything his imagination wanted to believe.
“Bye,” Sam said as he bolted out into the cold. He scouted up and down the block, but didn’t see Penalso. He hadn’t gone five steps before he heard Francine’s voice calling after him.
“Sam, you forgot your pack.”
Sam ran back and took the rucksack, gazing into her big, melting chocolate eyes. “Thanks. I would be lost without…” You.
“Have a safe trip, and good luck with the interview. That job has your name on it.” For the briefest instant, their hands touched; hers were strangely cold, but her smile seemed warm.
“I…sure. Thanks again. I…need to run,” he said, walking backwards. As the distance increased, he smiled again and turned, only to run into someone. Penalso.
“Didn’t hear me back there, Sammieboy?”
“Fuck off, Penalso; I have a bus to catch.” Sam pushed the tough away.
“That ain’t no way to treat an old amigo from home.”
“You’re no pal. Now get out of the way.”
“Trying to vamoose again? I’ll bet you figured I wouldn’t find you up—”
“What do you want?” Sam edged toward the street, but Penalso blocked his path again.
“Folks ‘round here tell me you’re flush—carrying a couple of C-notes, at least.” Penalso twirled his knife on a leather lanyard. “Is that all you have left from the heist?”
Sam turned to Francine. “Get back inside.” He didn’t want her to see him gutted or what he was going to do to Penalso. Fewer witnesses.
Francine just stood there, perhaps too frightened to move—but she didn’t look frightened—she looked angry.
“Let’s have it. Yo creo, you owe me.” Penalso pulled in his knife and wrapped his bony fingers around the handle.
Judging by the look in his jaundiced eyes, Sam figured Penalso was probably high on his own dope. Stupid and high—a bad combination. “How do you figure?” Sam kept his distance, but Penalso soon had him cornered, and he didn’t have time to go around the block.
“Start with my fare to follow you up here. Y compadre, you still owe la mordida por Waco,” Penalso swept his blade in a wide arc to cut off Sam’s attempt to dart past him.
“You’re full of shit as usual, you jackass. I was nowhere near Waco; I was still in Austin—entiendes?” Sam had seen Penalso fight before—he usually won, so Sam made it a point to keep the pack between his body and Penalso’s blade.
“Sí, entiendo, but I heard it was you, Sammie. You owe me.” Penalso charged again, but Sam danced out of the way.
Sam knew he was out of time. “Then come and get it,” Sam wrapped the pack’s strap around his fist.
Penalso charged again, but he slipped, leaving the back of his head open for a roundhouse blow from Sam’s pack. Penalso ended up facedown on the pavement, but unhurt. As he scrambled to his feet, his blade slashed out, slicing through Sam’s jeans at the knee.
Sam managed to parry with a soccer penalty-kick to Penalso’s jaw. Sam heard a sickening crack, and Penalso fell like a rag doll. Fixing sick computers was not the only thing he had learned in juvie.
Inexplicably, Francine ran to Penalso and knelt beside him, cradling his head—it didn’t seem to be connected to his neck.
“You bastard—you killed him!” She started to scream and wail as if she had lost her first true love.
Sam couldn’t believe his eyes; his mind swirled with what had just happened. He had never killed anyone before. With a single impulsive blow, he had slid headlong into the morass he had been trying so hard to escape. Francine’s accusing screams tore through his soul like Penalso’s knife was going to. Why did she care about this creep? Nothing made sense.
A heartbeat later, it was almost as if Sam could hear the bus’ brakes squeal “Run! Run!” Sam broke into a limping jog and didn’t look back.
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