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Health Hazards by Ray Printer Friendly

"So this is how it's gonna go?" She asks. "This is how you're going to end it?"

Keep talking, just keep talking, you’re making it that much easier with every stupid word I don’t want to hear. He wants a drink, hell, he needs a drink, if he was being honest about things. But the sun’s too high and the whiskey’s too low, and he can’t risk taking his eyes off of her, not now.

She’s iceberg cold and rattlesnake quick, and on top of that, she’s a lot smarter than he is, so if he loses the upper hand, it won’t be the only thing he loses.

“Well? Say something!” She’s starting to yell, and given the hangover headache he’s already got, he’s guessing things are going to get ugly pretty soon now. His eyelids droop, and he realizes he’s about to nod off. He jerks himself alert and fear pumps through his body as if it were blood.

She smiles an evil smile. “What was that, Charlie? Feeling a little sleepy?”

Drugged me, the bitch drugged me, how did she know, stupid question, she always knows. He sees her glance down at her pistol—a custom-made .45, silver so shiny it looks like it could be made out of a star. Pink ivory handle with a black onyx skull embedded in the grip. He cocks his own six-shooter, and then—just to be safe—cocks his other one. Drugged-sleepy, but not stupid. The fear keeps him awake, on edge. Not quite alert, but enough so that he can still plug her before she gets to her heat.

“You’d shoot an unarmed woman, Charlie?”

He doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t want to get distracted. He has seen her work, and that’s how she does it—keeps talking, gets the other guy talking, and then BANG! It’s over before you know what’s going on, and then she’s walking away, and the other guy’s a corpse. He’d like to think he’s a little too careful to be fooled by her banter, but he also thought he’d be a little too careful to get drugged. I wonder when she did it. I wonder if it’ll just knock me out or if it’s killing me.

He feels his eyelids droop again, and brings up one of his pistols: rakes the sight down his cheek, and the skin makes an audible sound as it tears. The pain jolts him awake again. As much as he’d love to look at the clock or at his watch—the boss said he’d be here in ten minutes, and it seems like that was hours ago—he doesn’t dare.

She smiles her smile again. Even knowing how dangerous she is, he finds that smile more beautiful than anything else he has ever seen. He pushes the thought from his mind.

“Do you even know why he’s doing this?” She asks.

“You know I don’t give a shit,” He tells her before he realizes he’s speaking.

She laughs her angel laugh, and he focuses on her hands. Too much movement, and I’m blasting her, I don’t care how pissed the boss will be. She’s too dangerous. I should have thrown her gun across the room, but at the time, just pulling it to my side of the table seemed like it was safe enough. Stupid. Cocky. Showing her that I wasn’t afraid. Like I said: stupid.

Because he should be afraid of her. Anyone with an ounce of sense would be afraid of her. He tilts his head to the left and then to the right, popping his neck. Using the small amount of movement to check the clock behind the bar. Twenty-six minutes and the bastard still hasn’t shown up. He should let her go on general principle.

Except he’d kill me for that. If she didn’t kill me first. Which she would. Damn, I’ve really dug myself a hole this time, so sleepy, I really should just plug her and then off myself and call it a day.

“You’re lookin’ a little spent there, Charlie. Maybe some conversation would help, huh?”

He stares at her, doesn’t say anything. Focus. The air’s too heavy, dank and thick with old cigarette smoke. The only lights are the ones behind the bar, hanging above the smoke-stained, finger-smudged mirror. Lit up signs advertising rum and beer and cigarettes, and they fill the bar with a twisted gradient, like an inverted rainbow. Pools of warm condensate shine on the tabletops, and they remind him of badly-healed scars. The bar closed hours ago, and the boss arranged for the employees to take off shortly thereafter. So it is only them. Him and her. Them.

He puts one of the pistols down on his leg and removes a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket. He never takes his eyes off her as he removes a cigarette and lights it.

She’s still wearing that same smile, like she knows something he doesn’t. That smile, so pretty, starting to freak my shit out, though. Be cool, man, you start tweaking about that smile, she’ll mop the floor with you, just relax.

He takes a drag and lifts the pack up, offering her a cigarette—not getting close enough for her to reach him, but offering nonetheless.

“No thanks,” She says, and he knows. He crushes the cigarette out and stares at it. Then he realizes that he isn’t watching her, and he stops staring at it. She hasn’t moved, which answers the question from earlier—this isn’t going to be a pass-out kind of thing. This is going to be a death kind of thing.

She had plenty of time to make her move while he was staring at the crushed-out cigarette. Why didn’t she? Because she didn’t have to, because I’m already dead, I’m already fucking dead, that’s why.

“You figure it out, big guy?”

“I’m poisoned,” He tells her.

“Yep.”

“I’m the mark.”

“You’re on fire.”

“The boss hired you to kill me?”

“Nope. Getting cold, Charlie.”

“Then…what?”

He replays the past twenty-four hours in his head. The boss calling him in, telling him he had a job. Charlie’s no softie—if the boss calls him in for a job, it’s going to be a tough one. Still, though, he had no idea it would be her. Wouldn’t have mattered—the boss isn’t the type of guy you say no to.

So he listened to the specifics of the job and agreed to do what needed to be done, and tried to ignore the feeling of unease in his belly. At the time, he thought the unease was fear. Which would have been perfectly understandable. She is many things to many people, but to most, she is death. She is vengeance.

Probably why the boss fell for her in the first place, ‘cause they’re both so bugfuck crazy and horse-spooked dangerous. He has to admit, there is an appeal there, especially for people who walk in the shadows of the seedy underbelly.

“You figure it out, yet?”

“You know me—always been kinda slow.”

She laughs. “That’s one thing you aren’t, Charlie. A heartless bastard, sure. A stubborn idiot, without a doubt. An above-average lay, I’ll even give you that. But dumb? No sir.”

And then it hits him. Meeting with the boss, he’s going over the job, and I reach for my smokes, and he hands me a pack. He’s always doin’ stuff like that, the boss is, giving you smokes or buying you dinner, and you don’t think anything of it, which is why it’d be so easy for him to…shit. Shit shit shit shit shit.

The hole he has dug for himself, it's even deeper than he had originally realized. There is no walking away from this one. He briefly considers chomping down on the end of his six-shooter and blasting out the back of his gourd. Things’d probably be easier that way. But like she said—he’s a stubborn idiot, without a doubt.

The cigarettes the boss gave him, poisoned. But why was it just now hitting him? The bar. The air in the bar, mixing with the shit in the cigarettes.

“The air, something in the air.”

She nods. “I’ve seen him do it before. Pipes it in through the air ducts, and it’s perfectly harmless unless it’s mixed with the other shit. Whatever it was he put in your cigarettes.”

“You smelled it this entire time?”

She smiles her smile and nods. “I could have warned you, but I figured since you were here to kill me, I might as well return the favor.”

He laughs, and puts his pistols down on the table.

“So I’m the mark here,” He tells her. “This was all a big set-up?”

“Oh no—I’m supposed to die, too. But I think we know how I feel about that.”

They’ve worked together several times before, the two of them. Aside from being the boss’s girl, she’s also a magnificent killer. Second best, just after him. On one of their earlier jobs, he had asked her how she managed to get out of so many tight squeezes. “Dying isn’t really my thing,” she had told him.

We’ve learned a lot about each other over the years, a little too much, I guess, which is why I’m in this mess, I guess. He looks across the table at her, and decides that if he has to die for screwing a dame, she’s better than he ever could have hoped for.

“You got a smoke?” He asks her.

“You trust me to reach in my pockets?”

“I’m already dead, right?”

She reaches into her pocket and tosses him a pack of cigarettes. He plucks them out of the air—more reflex than conscious effort—and she raises an eyebrow.

“Pretty nice snag. You playing opossum with me, Charlie?”

He lights a cigarette and shakes his head. “Reflex. So when’s he showing up?”

“Not sure—I thought he’d be here by now. He must know you’re fading, and I can’t imagine he wants to walk in here and deal with me on my terms.”

His phone rings and he clears his throat before flipping it open. “Yeah.”

“Charlie?”

“Hey, boss.”

“I got stuck in traffic, can you believe this shit?”

“I believe most anything, in this city.”

“You still at the bar?”

He laughs. “Yeah, boss. I thought I might take her to a movie, but I wasn’t sure that’d sit too well with you.”

The boss laughs along with him. “Okay, we should be there in a couple of minutes.”

“We’ll be here.”

Charlie flips the phone closed and drops it onto the floor.

“So what now, big guy?” She asks.

So tired, need some air, just need some fuckin’ air, I can’t think, and I gotta figure something out, and it looks like I have about two minutes to do it.

“Not sure. As much as I’d like to just get up and walk out of here and let you deal with him, I can’t. You let me breathe the air in here, you helped him kill me, and that’s not the kind of thing I take lightly.”

“Oh, come on, Charlie—I could have killed you five times in the last ten minutes.”

“Yeah, but you only did it once. You want to give it a try right now, you go right ahead. But even drugged and dying, I’m still faster than you, and you know it.”

“No way.”

“Try it.”

Just need a second, I should, I should let her go, the boss is the one who killed me, I should just walk out the back door and let them deal with each other, but that doesn’t seem right, or maybe it does, so tired, I’m so tired, I just need a minute to think.

The door opens and light pours in, stabbing through the bar-darkness like a knife, and she’s moving then, scooping her weapon from the table, firing as she dives to the floor, and he doesn’t think about it, it’s just reflex, he’s up, firing his own pistols, and there’s nothing but smoke and bursts of light and then the door slams and there’s darkness.

The cordite smoke is like a blue mist rolling through the bar, and the only sound is her harsh panting.

“You get him?”

“I got him. Got his two bodyguards, too, Charlie—you’re getting slow in your old age.”

He laughs and it sounds like gravel shaking in a paper cup. He tries to breathe, but things inside of him are locking up, shutting down.

“You’re lucky I was so distracted with dying, or I would have had you before you made it to your piece.”

She laughs a bubbly laugh. He knows that sound, that wet breathing, that bubbling noise. She’s a goner.

“So was I worth it?” She asks.

Yeah, you were worth it, hell, dying over a hot dame is probably one of the most noble things I’ve ever done with my life, and if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it just the same.

That’s what he wants to tell her, but that’s when everything inside rusts over, and freezes up, and he can’t tell her anything, can’t catch his breath, and his vision fades.


posted 3/29/09


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