The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.
Welcome to Halfway, AZ Pop. 336
Please Drive Careful
I glanced at the worn metal sign, shimmering in the desert heat, as it flashed by at a shade over eighty. For the first time, I found myself thinking about the name. Where I come from, the place names are generally obscure, antique, hard to pronounce... but usually interesting. What the hell kind of a name for a town was Halfway? I mean, you could see how it had gotten the name, planted as it was almost exactly halfway between Phoenix - which we had just left in a hurry - and Lukeville, at the Mexican border. But Halfway? Might as well just call it Nowhere. A town with a name like that had no identity.
Still, that's what made it such a good place for a quiet rendezvous.
Wiping a small waterfall of sweat from my brow, I glanced at my two passengers, neither of whom I had known twenty four hours before, and neither of whom would be alive twenty four hours from now, although neither they nor I knew it at the time.
Tony was a tall black guy, built like a bad dream. He seemed to avoid speaking when at all possible. Travis, in contrast, was a skinny white prick who seemed to avoid silence when at all possible. He was in the back seat of the convertible, and I glanced over my shoulder at him.
“How you holding up, Trav?”
Travis clutched his wounded shoulder and winced. “How the hell do you think? I'm gettin' lead poisoning here.”
I grinned at Tony, who was riding shotgun. “What did I tell you about staying out of the way of those things?”
“Go to hell,” barked the voice from the back. I decided to change the subject. Travis’s gun, as far as I knew, was still loaded.
“Tony, whereabouts in this armpit do we meet Frank and… what was that guy's name again?”
“Stan,” he replied. “Frank said they'd find us.”
“Don’t suppose there are many places to get lost in a town this size. We'll check into a motel and wait for them.”
Tony nodded in agreement. Not wasting a breath, or unnecessary words. Not a problem that Travis shared.
“He better ‘find’ us. That sonofabitch has got most of the take.”
“Don't worry,” I said, in the futile hope of calming Travis down. “I've worked with Frank before, he's a pro.”
As a matter of fact, Frank was the only member of this team I had worked with before. Usually I prefer to operate solo. It widens the profit margin and besides, I know I can count on myself. On this occasion, however, Frank had twisted my arm; something he's good at. He'd recruited me for a breakdown job outside Phoenix. It involved a good payoff for minimum effort: almost three hundred grand in cash and diamonds.
A breakdown job involves a mix of careful planning and brute force. Frank needed me for the planning. Tony and Stan brought the brute force. I’m not sure what Travis’s role was. Comic relief, maybe.
I had done all the prep on our mark; a jewelry salesman from back East. I had made it my business to know everything about him: how old he was, his company’s annual turnover, where he’d gone to high school, who he was cheating on his wife with. Three weeks of intensive surveillance and one pinprick hole in a gas tank later, I got his car to break down at the exact right time on exactly the right deserted section of highway.
We’d known he’d be armed, of course, but Travis showed his hand a little too soon and his shoulder had paid the price. I got the gun away from the salesman after that and put him under anaesthetic with the butt of my gun. He’d probably have woken up by now with nothing to give the police but descriptions of five black ski-masks. All I can say is the guy was lucky I was nearer to him than Frank.
After the job, we had split up to make pursuit more difficult. Frank and Stan took the ice, we took the cash. We arranged to meet here in Halfway, where we were going to hook up with a flying fence of Frank's acquaintance named Mitch, or Rich, or something. Mitch or Rich would give us forty percent of retail for the diamonds, hop on the first flight back to Florida, and make them disappear like teardrops in a rain storm. Aside from Travis getting winged, things had gone okay so far. We had all got out with exactly what we expected to, and didn't have to kill anyone, which is the way I prefer it. Travis's wound wasn't too bad either; the bullet appeared to have passed through his shoulder cleanly.
I eased off the gas and slowed to a crawl as we reached the edge of town, if you could call it that. The place looked as if somebody had started to build a set for a western, then not bothered to finish. Barely more than a main street with a few houses built around it. There was no one on the street, but in the ninety degree heat that didn't exactly surprise me. We passed some quiet-looking stores and a hotel and pulled into the town's gas station. I was actually surprised that a place this insignificant had a gas station. Then again it was, as the sign outside proudly proclaimed ‘The last gas for 120 miles!’
I got out of the car, gratefully stretching my legs after the drive. It had been a long day, one way and another, and this was the first time I'd stopped. I was looking forward to checking into the hotel and getting some shuteye. I yawned and asked Tony if he wanted anything from the store.
“Like I hadn't thought of that.” I turned to Travis: “Trav, you need anything?”
“Well let me think... oh yeah, how about some more goddamn bandages?”
“No problem, Trav.”
“I told you, it's Travis!” he spat out the last syllable like it someone had just told him he’d taken a bite out of an arsenic donut.
“Whatever you say.” I was starting to hate this guy, however you said his name. Tony got out and started filling the tank. I headed to the store, removing my sunglasses as I got to the door.
My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the gloom after the unrelenting sun I’d squinted into for the last few hours, and I was utterly unsurprised by the lack of air conditioning within. The only relief from the heat was a small fan pointing at the acne-afflicted teenage clerk at the other side of the store. The fan had obviously been working overtime; the motor let out a soft but persistent screech every few seconds. I wandered around the store, collecting a case of beer and a few snacks, then walked up to the counter. The clerk was wearing a turquoise T-shirt and a nametag identifying him as Pete.
“Got any bandages?”
Pete looked up from a Spider-Man comic book, plucking one earphone out of the side of his head. A tinny mix of drums and guitar accompanied the fan screech now. “Huh?”
“Bandages,” I repeated. I realized I was unconsciously tapping my shoulder as if this was universal sign language. Pete nodded at a section of shelves. I picked up a couple of packs and paid for them together with the beer and the snacks and the tank of gas.
I stepped out of the store and started as I spotted a police car parked across the street from us. I reminded myself that we were perfectly safe here. We'd dumped the getaway cars right after we cleared Phoenix. But still, in my line of work it becomes a habit to be cautious of any police presence. I walked back to the convertible. Tony was sitting against the passenger door, arms folded across his chest like intertwined branches, and Travis was still in the back. It didn't look like his mood had improved any. I waved the bandages at him, hoping they might cheer him up.
“We'll change that dressing as soon as we get a room...” I tailed off as I noticed the state of the upholstery in the back. Luckily it was black leather, so the wet, tacky patches wouldn’t be visible from, say, across the main street of a small Arizona town. “Shit, I hope you're going to clean that blood off Trav.” I guess it was a rhetorical hope, and that's exactly how Travis treated it. I turned to Tony, nodded discreetly in the direction of the patrol car: “How long have they been there?”
“Showed up while you were in the store. They're in there right now,” he said, indicating the barbers across the road. “Didn't look twice at us though.”
I put my sunglasses back on, got back in the car and didn't pull out onto the road too fast. In my experience, some cops only need to look at you once to get suspicious.