So, the trip to Reno was lovely, thank you. We ate a very expensive meal (but we actually brought the leftovers home on the train and had them for dinner, so maybe it was only a mildly expensive pair of meals ;-) and enjoyed the snow. As I posted on Twitter, I was highly amused when, as the train passed over Donner Lake, the conductor told us over the intercom that the settlers of the Donner Party experienced "great tribulations" over a rough winter. Anyone who's been raised in California or Nevada is aware that "great tribulations" is code for "ate each other"-- understatement is our friend.
Anyway--- so, speaking of understatement, I revisit one of my favorite laconic heroes today: Jasper Anderson Atchison. People call him Ace.
* * *
-- Racing for the Sun Ficlet
There's things you have to remember about living with a ticking time bomb.
Thing the first-- just cause you can't hear it ticking doesn't mean the mechanism ain't a "go".
Thing the second-- just cause the bomb will probably not go off when you're in the room don't mean you won't get hurt.
Thing the third-- it's possible to control the blast.
Or so I hoped. Cause the kid holding the gun at Alma's head was looking scared and shaky--and Sonny was looking like a dirty bomb.
The day had started out okay-- since them doings in Bakersfield a year ago, Sonny and I been laying' low. As soon as he got out of the hospital, we came back to our little gas station in Victoriana and continued doing what we'd been doing before--making a life. I still drove the souped up Ford, but we only topped 150 out in the dessert, Sonny by my side, as the purple shadows lowered. No more racing, like I promised him, and the money from my last... adventure... had kept us going until we made enough business to keep us in the black.
It also provided enough money for a college fund for Alma, our part time help. Since she'd stopped wearing tight titty blouses and a truckload of makeup, she'd decided she was gonna be a good girl. I was looking for words to tell her that someday, right time, right people, she could wear whatever she goddammed pleased, but for right now, "good girl" meant schooling, and Sonny and me were all for that. So was Jai, our giant gay Russian enforcer who would have stayed with us for minimum wage, but was now fiercely loyal since we paid him enough to drive to Vegas once in a while to get laid.
Jai was very protective of Sonny and Alma. Once he figured out that I killed the guy that hurt Sonny, I had the feeling he would have blown me every day and polished my rim to boot, except that would have meant me cheating on Sonny, and, well, that left him in something of a quandary. Let's just say Jai woulda done unspeakable things for the three of us and leave it at that.
Well, I wished I coulda left it at that.
Sonny and Jai were under a Ford F150 in the auto bay, dicking around with a transmission that should have been shot, burned, and buried about ten years before, and I was going over the ordering with Alma.
She squinted through the small service window at their feet sticking out under the truck and listened to their bickering. Sonny spoke redneck and Jai spoke redneck with a thick Russian accent and they were both talking about car parts using pet names developed over nearly a year and a half of working together.
"That don't sound like English," Alma said after a moment or two of us just staring at them and listening.
"They're gonna ship one of those guys who invent space languages out here to figure out what the fuck that is," I agreed. "Think they'll give us money?"
Alma rolled her eyes. "They don't pay dumbshits for being stupid," she said. "But I need my mommy not to come hear them. She'll think that stuff I do at school, I'm doing it wrong."
At that moment a dying Kia Sportage came chugging into the lot, blowing black smoke and rattling loud enough to echo off the distant mountains. As Alma and I stared--and Sonny and Jai shoved out from under the truck in the bay, a thin kid got out wearing a black hoodie, black track pants, and black tennishoes in the 110 degree heat.
I stared. The last time I'd worn an outfit like that, I'd killed a man.
The kid was holding a hand to his side and blood was dripping down to the white foam tread of his trainer, and I figured this kid was not that far off from that level of desperate.
"Get down," I said to Alma.
"Just get down under the counter, I don't want him seeing you!" Because she was a girl, and desperate men preyed on the weak. She wasn't weak, but he didn't know that.
"I need someone out here!" the kid shouted. "Someone get out here and fix my fuckin' car!"
I shot a look behind me to the auto bay and shook my head at Jai and Sonny to let me take care of this. Sad, yes, but true--I really am their best bet in a crisis. My hands at my sides, palms out, my eyes level, movements steady, I took a few steps out of the cashier's cubicle and then out into the searing desert sun.
"I see you," I said calmly. "And I see your car. And you're both banged up some. Honestly, I think some bandages and antiseptic, you got a better chance than the car."
The kid swallowed and looked desperately behind him, like he was expecting retribution to be riding down his ass with cherry lights on top. "I... I can't do hospitals," he said, voice weepy. "And... and I gotta get this money to a friend..." His voice cracked. "She's..." He reached behind him and pulled out the gun I'd just known had been tucked in the back of his pants. "It doesn't matter, man. Just fix the goddamned car!"
"Okay," I said, hands still out. "But I'm going to have to drive it into the bay. Do you want to sit next to me while I do that or--"
"Wait--who was that?"
I didn't look. "Who was what?"
"That girl-- yeah, you go ahead and drive the car into the bay, I'll be right there with the gun pointed at that girl!"
"There is no girl," I said in my strongest voice, because maybe Alma would get the fuck back down and I could have driven the car to San Diego and crashed it into the police station which was my plan.
The shot went wide--as he'd meant it to--but still. The weapon discharged into the desert to my left, and it doesn't matter how many times you hear them or how many times you fire them, a gun report should do something to a man, or he's forgotten why he's alive.
"Move the fuckin' car!" he yelled, and then, never turning his back to me with that gun, he edged himself alongside the cashier's cubicle and into the door I'd just come out of. Alma was standing by that time, her hands up, mouthing, "I'm sorry, Ace" at me like that was gonna help if she got her brains blown to kingdom come.
I moved the car, making the assessment as it rattled into the bay. Blown gasket, blown pistons, hole in the radiator, transmission fluid a fuckin' memory. This thing should not have been running.
It gave it's last gasp as I pulled up to the bay and I coasted it in next to the truck and waited for Sonny and Jai to poke themselves back from under the truck. Smart boys.
"He's got a gun," Sonny muttered. "In there with Alma!"
"Jai, go fetch Sonny's car, okay?"
"What in the--"
I held up my hand. "He's hurt and he's desperate," I said levelly. "We're going to give him transportation and let him get the fuck out of here. Odds are good, he's going to pass out in twenty minutes anyway, and if he's not here, he can't hurt us."
"But someone on the road--" Sonny said, and my heart warmed. These last two years, he'd grown a little. Part of that growing meant he didn't just look at me, or even just Alma and Jai. He looked a little bigger now.
But we couldn't.
"Look-- just get him the car. Maybe I can get rid of the gun and we can get him to the hospital or something, but first, let's get him out of there with Alma!"
If I hadn't just taken my morning constitutional, I swear it would have been in my shorts. But I saw the sun shining through the hole in the auto bay, and realized he'd fired over our heads.
"What're you doing'!" he screamed, and I glared at Jai to go do what I said, then turned and approached the cashier's cubicle, palms out.
"You're car's done for," I told him. "We're getting you one that runs."
"What?" I took a few more steps so I could see them. He had his arm around Alma's shoulders, and she was holding onto his wrist and glaring at him. I suspected that if he pointed the gun anywhere but her one more time, he was going to be bleeding a damned sight more than he already was.
"Your car--last time I saw something like that, it took us a month and special parts flown in. It's fuckin' toast. We're getting you my boyfriend's car, so you can get the fuck out of our lives."
His face crumpled. "But that would be stealing," he said nakedly. "I'm no thief."
"What in the fuck did he just say?"
Oh God-- Sonny was right behind me, and I stepped to the right in an attempt to block him.
"Who's that?" the kid asked in tears. "What does he want?"
"You're not a thief? You come in here and hold a gun to a sixteen year old kid, and you think you're some kind of a hero?"
"That," I said distinctly, "is my boyfriend, who's about to give up his car so you can get your gun away from our friend."
"I just need a fuckin' car!" the kid cried. "Man, they got my sister, and I had to run the drugs to Vegas and then get back with the money, but the guys in Vegas had guns, and they started shooting and the guys in Chula Vista got my sister and--" He let out a little whimper then, and the arm with the gun fell.
Alma put one fist in the other and elbowed him right in the chest and that was when the gun went off. I felt a ripping pain through my leg but that didn't stop me from grabbing Sonny as he went hauling into the tiny cubicle with nothing but a tire iron in his hand. He caught me in the head with his upward swing and that did it. I went down and didn't wake up for twenty minutes.
I was lying on my back in our little house, with a familiar weight on my chest and a small tongue licking my cheek. "Duke?" I said, confused. The Chihuahua didn't usually talk.
"No, dammit, it's me."
I looked up at Sonny who was sitting, red eyed and repentant, on the floor next to the couch.
"She's fine. We closed up shop and her mom came and got her. She'll be back in tomorrow."
My head ached fiercely and I stared at him. "She'll be what?"
"Was really sweet. Kept thanking us for trying to save her. Said it was real nice how we gave up my car to make sure she was okay."
I was not tracking. "The kid...?" God. Poor kid. Desperation did not make people do nice things--but he'd appalled by the realization that he was holding a gun to a young girl. Probably hadn't thought of her as a person before that. Of course, if he'd hurt Alma, or Sonny, I would have beaten his brains to powder and not given a shit.
"Jai wrapped his side--through and through, so, he should be fine if he gets antibiotics. Then he put the kid and the drugs into my car and took off."
I tried to process this. "Took... off? In your car?"
Sonny nodded soberly. "I think... Ace, I think as long as the kid and his sister are okay, we'd better not ask too much about what happens after that, okay?"
Oh Lord. This wrong side of the law thing got murky. "The kid's going to be okay?"
"Yeah. You went down and he thought he'd shot you, and he just fell apart. Dropped the gun, cried. I got you into the house and checked your leg--it was a graze, by the way." As he said it, I could feel the stinging pain of it. Hurt-- like a sumbitch too--but not as much as my head.
"Jesus, you really clocked me," I mumbled.
Sonny nodded. "I did." He put a bag of ice on my temple where the tire-iron had caught me hardest, and the cold woke me up. "You need to stay awake, now that you're up. I looked shit up on the computer--we've got some Tylenol with Codeine, and you can have that as soon as you sit up."
I struggled up, holding the ice compress to my head with one hand and moving Duke to my lap with the other. "Oh dear God," I muttered. "This hurts. I remember this--this is no good."
"Yeah." Sonny let out a breath and thrust two tablets into my hand and followed it up with water. I felt better after I drank the water, even, and figured once the pain killers kicked in, I might be okay. For a moment, I was quiet, and the only sounds in our little house were my breathing and Duke's little dog whimpers as he relocated.
"I'm sorry," Sonny said quietly. He'd climbed up on the couch when I hadn't been paying attention, and I lifted my arm so he could put his head on my shoulder. His blond hair had grown shaggy in recent months, and I liked it that way. He didn't look vulnerable or naked like he had when it had been shaved down to his scalp.
"Was an accident," I said.
"Yeah, but the coming unglued part wasn't. That was me just being me," he said bitterly. "You had that kid calming down, and I just... you and Alma and the fucking gun and I lost it."
I laughed a little. "Yeah, but you've lost it worse." He had. He wasn't great with people--never would be. "And you were afraid for Alma, and you didn't used to give a shit."
"But not for a long time," he reminded me soberly.
"Yeah. I know. But makes me proud still. You were doing what I was doing, Sonny. Your best for your people."
He sighed again. "I... I just gotta think better, you know?"
"Well, I put myself in the damned booth. I just thought... you know..."
"If we gave him the car he'd go the fuck away?"
"Well, yeah." Because cause and effect, right?
"Well it worked. He went the fuck away." And right before I was going to ask about Jai, his phone buzzed. He reached into his pocket and pulled it out and grunted. "Jai's fine," he said. "Took the kid to the hospital." The phone pinged. "And I need to call the police and report my car stolen."
My eyes widened, sore head or not. "Here," I said, flailing for my coveralls on the floor next to the couch. "Let me use my phone."
I spun a story, oh yes I did. How the thief shot at me and missed then whacked me on the head, and how we'd had the keys in Sonny's little beater Corolla so we could move it around easy, and Sonny found me after he got back from the AM/PM across the street with sodas and took me inside to treat me.
The cops took it down, every word, the wound on my head and my leg to verify, and the car was registered all legal like. The local cops took down the info and grunted, and asked me if I wanted to go to the doctors, but I wasn't excited about that, so they left me alone.
As soon as they were gone I collapsed on the couch and called Alma.
"You didn't work today."
"I'll tell mommy. Do I work tomorrow?"
"Do you still want to?" Because Jesus.
"You gave up your car for me. I think Jai's killing people. I'm safe there. It's good."
She hung up and I had to give the girl credit for practicality. I was a two term veteran and I didn't think I could have been so casual.
Sonny had kicked up the air conditioning in the house, and the sun was starting to go down by the time it was all done, and I was fine with sitting around in my boxers and letting television wash over me like the sea. Sonny was fine with feeding me and making sure I didn't puke and petting me every now and then too.
Into that quiet, Sonny said, "So, where do you think Jai's gonna hide the bodies?"
I grunted. "Sonny, that has got to be a question we never, ever ask him, okay?"
Sonny nodded soberly, but his lips were twisted up. "He said he got the girl away from the bad guys. Think he's like a super hero?"
"Dead Pool or the Punisher?" Because hadn't those guys been sort of dark and below the law?
"Yeah!" Sonny said, eyes big. "We know Dead Pool!"
I didn't remind him that I'd been the Punisher a year and a half ago and that it wasn't that glamorous. Then he said, "But I don't care how many bodies he's buried, he's still not half the hero you are, for trying not to let things go south." He kissed my cheek then and I closed my eyes tiredly. So, okay. There was still blood and still crime, and still shit we did not plan on, but at least Sonny appreciated trying not to kill people. And hey--I'd been out for twenty minutes, and he'd apparently kept his cool.
I was calling it a win.
But I was going to have to be really careful about not dying until I was sure he'd take that as well as he'd take knocking me on my ass for twenty minutes. You just never knew.