Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Old Man Smith"

Note: The following piece was written as part of the Reginald Marsh flash fiction challenge hosted by Patti Abbott. Patti has published numerous short stories in various literary journals and crime zines, and she has recently released Monkey Justice, a collection of short stories. She blogs about writing, books, movies, politics, life and music at pattinase.

The score sounded simple when Rufus explained it. Every other week, an armored car came in the pre-dawn darkness to ferry away cash from The Schooner's Keel, money old man Smith had fished from folk with beer and bottom-shelf whiskey. They could get into Smith's office while he was tallying the take, crack the safe and disappear before the driver arrived. Old man Smith wouldn't want to spill the combo, of course. That was why Rufus carried the dusters. And if somebody stumbled upon their persuasion mid-scene, well, that was why Johnny carried the gun.

"But things won't go that far," Rufus had assured him. "See, Smith, he'll do the math, realize how little he has to lose by cooperating and distribute the dough. Simple. After all, he's just one man."

Johnny hoped it would unfold that way. He didn't want to hurt anyone, not even old man Smith, with his creped skin and Brylcreemed hair and ever-present cloud of cologne. But he wanted his kid sister to have at least one new dress. He wanted ma to only take in their own laundry. He wanted pa to not have to work day jobs.

"Lookee," Rufus had said, "Smith, he isn't doing anyone but his banker any good by holding the dough, we're just helping him distribute it, it's a service to society, really."

Rufus' monologues tended to plow ahead like a half-ton Ford with a stuck accelerator. Johnny hoped his mind moved as fast as his mouth, because if it did he couldn't see how things would go south. Not when they were dealing with just one man.

On the night of the job, they swam through the 3 a.m. darkness, avoiding wells of brightness plunging down from streetlights. The tracks for the elevated rail sealed off the streets from the night sky. Johnny was thankful for the emptiness of the block as they approached the bar, that there didn't seem to be even one man within earshot.

When the evening's final train roared by overhead, they kicked in The Schooner's front door.

Johnny squeezed his eyes as splinters flew into his face, and when he opened them he found himself looking at a very shocked and very young individual who most certainly wasn't old man Smith.

"What the --" the boy began.

In a blink, Rufus laid the dusters twice across his cheek.

"Awfully loud there, junior," he hissed, "wouldn't want to wake the neighborhood, now follow us into the back real quiet now."

The boy clutched his face, blood welling between his fingers. He looked at the hand Johnny had slipped within his coat. "Okay," he said very softly.

"Nothing tricky, nothing at all, got it?"

They swept aside a curtain behind the bar, revealing a dim passage that smelled of stale cigarette smoke, a hall streaked at its end with a light-lined, half-cracked portal.

"I think we should check, Adam," came a female voice, prim and slightly nasal.

Rufus' eyebrows rose. Johnny felt sweat prickle across his neck.

An indistinct reply floated down the corridor.

"I thought I heard voices." The female voice sounded as though it was accustomed to arguing fine points at length. "Perhaps Archie can handle it, but it would hardly take a moment for us to --"

The complaint of unoiled hinges squealed in Johnny's ear, and he whirled to see a door opening on a recessed staircase, an undershirt-clad man with a face like the flat of a sliced ham emerging.

"Hey," the man said. "I know this ain't the Waldorf Astoria, but I expect a little ..." He trailed off, his gaze going first to the boy's bloody visage and then to the nickel-plated .38 that Johnny didn't remember drawing.

Light flooded the hallway. A squat, matronly figure appeared, framed in the glow. She gasped.

"Hell-ooo, everyone," Rufus cried, "please follow me into the back, we have some business to transact, it'll only take a moment." He herded Archie and Mr. Undershirt in with the squat woman and old man Smith himself, Johnny following. Rufus' eyes shone fever-bright. "Seems we were having a little party, shame my associate and I weren't invited."

Old man Smith said nothing. Even at this hour, his hair still held its Brylcreemed sheen, but his skin looked yellowed and tired, worn by ceaseless labor.

Finally, he nodded. "If this is your idea of a party, you're easily entertained. Archibald was cataloguing inventory. Walden --" He motioned at Mr. Undershirt. "-- rents my flat. Miss Dodson and I were reconciling the books before our transfer. Which is why I assume you're here."

"Yessir, and I think you'll need to some more reconciliations, no question, why don't you open up that safe."

Old man Smith smiled wearily. "You aren't the first to try this. Some, like you, come in off the street. Some wear uniforms. Some have official writs. But even if I open the safe, what makes you think that they --" He motioned to the others in the room. "-- will let you leave?"

Rufus cocked his head. "This ain't about them, why would they care, this is about one man, you and you alone."

Old man Smith sighed. "I don't think so."

And then Johnny saw it as the hardness settled into the others' features. Saw that tired old Smith could never have had all of his increase. Saw that the overflow of it coursed to the others in the room, and not to them alone, but also to everyone caught in its current. Saw how he could have positioned himself to partake in some of the stream, still could, if he wanted.

But he also saw that he and Rufus could simply try to take it, the others be damned.

The gun felt very heavy in his hand.

A hiss of brakes came from outside The Schooner's Keel.

"Game time, Johnny," Rufus said.

They hung there, frozen in the moment of decision.


Katherine Tomlinson said...

People will never learn, will they? The plans always sound so simple. Good story.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think the thirties has spawned a lot of great stories and dialog here. This is a dandy. Thanks, Loren.

Rob Kitchin said...

Theory and practice, two different things. Nice job

Loren Eaton said...

Thank you all for your kind words! It was fun to write something in a setting and era that I don't normally visit.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Love the personality, love the dialog. Some of the early details--flinching as the door splinters hit his face, &c., are brilliant.

The ending felt a bit ... preachy ... for some reason:

"Saw that the overflow of it coursed to the others in the room, and not to them alone, but also to everyone caught in its current. Saw how he could have positioned himself to partake in some of the stream, still could, if he wanted."

That said, I am completely confident that, had the story taken a more violent turn, and had the protagonist been wondering why these people had all "forced him" to murder them by defending the money...I probably wouldn't have objected to pretty much those same words. I dunno, people's mileage varies, but the thing that fascinates me is that my artistic sense doesn't object to the sermon so much as its placement. Food for thought.

Loren Eaton said...

Preachy? Ouch.

Actually, it kind of is, I guess. I was struggling against some time pressure and just kind of plopped the big thematic point in there. That's some of the fun of these flash fiction pieces: I can experiment and figure out what doesn't quite work.

Then again, how else would I explain economic principles in a narrative? I'm a bit stumped on that one.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I guess the problem is that there seemed insufficient psychological impetus for the character to make that observation. Maybe after the fact, especially if he saw people willing to die to protect others' property, but not in the moment.

But of course, readers' mileage varies. There is no golden standard of preachiness by which all texts can be judged.

Loren Eaton said...

Interestingly, I'm not sure that anyone else even noticed the theme. At least no one but you brought it up.

I'm not sure what that tells me.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

That I am working on a PhD in literature, and earn my living teaching students about the ways stories reflect and form politics?

Loren Eaton said...

Actually, I didn't intend this piece to be the least bit political. It's supposed to be more of a moral fable, with equal emphasis on both words.